Wednesday, 27 October 2010

OK Gandalf, sell me on this trip to Mordor? Is it like Butlins?

      God I have had this sat on my posterous ready to write for a while. Life - that meaty real thing we exist in - has gotten in the way of this blog to a certain degree. Mainly these articles.

      So what the hell am I going to rant about next? What seeds of inspiration can I give you? What insights into the games I have run? This time it is Gandalf and his ilk. And by this I mean the ever present old man/CEO/captain/commander who tells the party of players where high adventure (and more importantly plot and thus 'shit to do') lies. This is my love letter to those wise men and suits giving the orders.


      When you get your players together, you have to think, how the hell do I even get them to chase after the story of my game. Each person, hopefully, has a well developed background for their character and this is laden with plot hooks to use. The very hooks that when a player spots it in game will get distracted and announce 'Fuck you guys! Plot lies that a' way!', and then proceed to head of on their own quest. This is great. It means the game feels alive as each player character pursues their own goals and desires. But there are times when the plot needs a unified goal, something that all the players will work towards. This is hard. If you, like me, want to have the feeling of not rail roading the players to 'The plot!' then you may just have to deal with the fact the players may just not want to deal with the steaming pile of crap you have set up on the horizon. They are no fools and can smell a turd from a mile away. And this is where Gandalf and his cronies come in. Those vile NPCs who give the players good reason to go routing about in that cesspit.

      Back in the day of my first DnD game I ran, and stuff like Star Wars, my 'Gandalf' was pretty obvious. Some self important person who has a very good reason for the player troupe to go off and take the mission on. It may well be some monetary reason, or something the players are all fighting towards (saving the kingdom/galactic empire etc). But there comes a point when you desire the players to be more proactive. Soon every self important old guy is a 'Gandalf' festooned with plot. Or at least that is what the players come to expect. This was something I wanted to break out of. I wanted the players to figure out what was important and pursue these goals themselves, and not really on the 'Gandalf' and his cattle prod.

     It was while running Vampire: the Requiem (a chronicle I have now run twice and similar results were achieved) that I used the idea of the 'Gandalf' that would in fact back stab the players. Not because the 'Gandalf' was inherently evil, but just that he had his own plans. As up and coming neonates the players would learn that trust is a rare commodity, and this would be the ultimate lesson it trust. It would also show the importance of knowledge and being proactive (something my wife did well at, even going as far as double crossing the entire coterie and their boss and selling them out to the other side!). They even found other 'Gandalfs' that they didn't trust that in fact turned out to be good allies.

     In comparison, when running Fading Suns, the 'Gandalf' was light years away, having sent them on their mission across the stars. They had a mission, with a few caveats, but otherwise they were open to how they achieved it. This allowed me to introduce other more temporary 'Gandalf' like characters that they could choose to ignore if they wished. Again this allowed the players to pursue the main mission, their own goals, and even take up other jobs if it meant that they gain something form of extra leverage in their main missions.

     Now, in Changeling, things are quite different. Changeling: the Lost has very obvious player goals from the outset. They don't want to go back to Arcadia and the Fae. They want some form of their old life back (or perhaps something better). They may want revenge or to learn the secrets of the Fae. Either way this means the players come with a lot of their own goals and plot hook on which I can run the game. Now the 'Gandalf' types I have suffer from many shades of grey, so it has come down to the players to really determine what things they are pursuing plot wise, and who to trust. This of course lends itself well to the setting of Changeling where the society of the players revolves around pledges and contracts.

    Ultimately the use of the 'Gandalf' has to be done. You need to present plot. But there are ways to make this more interesting than the typical 'You go into the bar and a old man comes to you asking for your help'. Trust is the first thing to play with. Then there are the player movtivations and character goals. Lastly, a trick I look forward to using, is to make one of the characters the 'leader' and make them set the goals of the group. This may come into practice during my next part of my Vampire setting, where we do a sequel to the last chronicle and bring back one of the old player characters to be team leader.


    So Gandalf? Who do you deal with the pipe smoking old git?

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