So for today's #BlackMagicMonday, I'm going to talk about immersion.
Yesterday, I sat down and ran The Unloved Ones for a trio of gamers who have not yet played Pathfinder, and who played a lot of d20 Modern back in the day. I must say, the experience was pretty enjoyable, especially considering all three of the gamers focused on roleplaying, specifically focusing on their characters' various backstories, as well as cementing their social relationships early on in the game. In short, it wasn't what I expected yesterday; instead, it was an enjoyable surprise.
Today I'm going to talk about immersion in Bloodlines & Black Magic, specifically the elements that a game needs for a player to connect, as well as the things people generally like about RPGs. You see, I'm personally interested in what makes people tick; I often consider myself a student of the game. It's something Tim Hitchcock and I have been discussing on occasion, specifically looking at what makes games fun, how does the social interaction during games impact us, and at the end of the day, what brings us back time and time again. In short, why do we play games? And more to the point, why do we resonate with some games more than others.
(Pictured above - Caylon Gorell playing Javier, Liz Gorell playing Carolyn, and Chris playing Charles)
For a long time, I've been focusing on the connective tissue - what do gamers look for in games, and more importantly, what brings them back, time and time again. When you stop and think about it, you realize it's quite a few things, but mostly, it's the socialized fun. People like to sit around the table and tell stories about themselves (and each other), or in the case of the RPG, about their characters. Mind you, those characters are extensions of themselves, so that excited personal exposition on Joe's 5th level paladin isn't another "Let me tell you about my character" story, but rather a story about Joe socializing, and to some extent, about Joe's aspirations and values. Mind you, not everyone who plays invests the same when it comes to RPGs, so this isn't always evident - but when you spend enough time and look around, you'll see it. It's there.
So for nearly four hours yesterday, I watched this trio - a married couple and one of their relatives - take up the roles of Carolyn Harper (a medically retired combat veteran), Charles Christiansen (a street magician/conman), and Javier Rodriquez (a police detective), all of whom would share a common, discovered background. Mind you, I wrote in a common background for all the players in The Unloved Ones itself (notice how I'm avoiding spoilers here), but this group wanted to turn in up to eleven. So I sat back and they built their background.
It was pretty awesome.
So what do I want to talk about today?
Today, I want to talk about the elements we use for immersion. When writers, designers, and developers (or at least the ones I talk to regularly) are designing adventures, world books, class or race primers, and the like, we're often looking at ways to connect our idealized hero (or villain/antihero) to the unfolding story - we ask questions like, "Well, why would my heroine be here?" or "What's my character's motivation?" or "What are the PCs motivations for helping Ol' Lady Lemington?" So, what do I use? It's pretty simple, really.
I ask myself the basics:
Who does this concern? Well, this one is pretty easy. I know it's going to involve the PCs, but I'm not sure who they are, or what their level of interest or immersion. I need to create incentives for them to get involved. This often leads to the next question.
Why is this important? Everyone has their own aims and goals, so finding common ground is incredibly important. Often, people band together to overcome incredible odds, even when they might otherwise find themselves otherwise divided. When the Titanic is sinking, no one stops to ask your color or religion while escaping; survival becomes the main goal, and people cooperate. The same could be said for natural disasters, outside invasions (wars don't always work, however*) and other world changing events. People don't have time to internalize their divisions. It's the common "let's work together" trope. When coupled with a countdown, this becomes a pretty standard tool. Watch enough movies or read enough books and you'll run into this theme over and over and over. It's been burned into our collective consciousness. Why? Because it's what we do.
Where does this happen? This is really the nuts and bolts of adventure design, to be honest. When we ask where this happens, we're setting the stage for the players. Does the situation (the war, the car accident, the terrorist attack, the alien invasion, or the sinking ship) happen while we're on a cruise? Does the zombie outbreak happen while we're in a coma in Georgia? Does the Alien invasion happen while we're waiting for orders to NASA?
When does this need to be resolved? Every While every single action movie does resort to the classic bomb countdown, it's a common enough trope that we all recognize it. Hero accepts the risk, decides the greater good trumps his or her life, and the race to disarm the bomb begins. The clock counts down, the viewer/player wonders if the hero will make it on time... you know how this works. But why does it work? Outside of the obvious connective tissue (the fight vs. flight mechanism), it sets the pacing for the adventure. When the ship is sinking, your actions - racing to turn on the emergency transponder, saving the captain, getting the rescue boats in the water, and sealing the leak into the lower compartments - all of these actions have meaning and set the pace for the action. More to the point, they give PCs parameters for their course of action. It encourages them to ask, "What do we need to do to accomplish our collective goals?" Those goals, whether surviving the zombie apocalypse or retaking Airforce One, are going to involve their own, unique conditions. This, leads us to.....
What does this involve? This is the heart of your adventure or story. It's Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, the actions the PCs need to take to avert fate, to save the innocent civilians, to topple the evil cultist, and to save the sinking ship. To avert crisis, the heroes need to learn the aliens' weakness. Or the hero needs to defy the odds by partnering up with his nemesis to achieve a greater victory. Strangely enough, this is often the first and the last question I find myself asking of each adventure; what do I need to do to involve the PCs? How do I get them to invest their time when I don't know who they are or what their motivations are.
In most instances, we're designing around generic connections; we have no idea what sort of character you - the player - are going to make. So we don't know how, where, or when we're making those genuine connections unless we develop them (often as "hooks"). We have to invite the player to join us, hoping for actual investment in place of the often reviled alternative - the railroad. So, we only get to see how those connections play out when we run adventures. Truly, it's only as a GM we really get to enjoy watching the show unfold.
When we started designing and writing Bloodlines & Black Magic, we made it clear to ourselves and each other that we wanted story to drive our setting. To focus on that story, we built a mechanic that celebrated the weird and strange, enveloping them both as a single event. This became each character's arcana - the card/event/sign (sort of like a horoscope) that rules an individual character's "birth" into the new, darker reality. The idea was simple. Give players a common theme to rally around and they'll do the rest. So, how does that work?
Let's take a peak at that, shall we? A Rude Awakening - The Arcana
When a player creates a new character in Bloodlines & Black Magic, that character’s third eye opens under a specific condition. While this condition is often described as part of the character’s back-story, it is reflected by specific arcana of the Tarot. In some ways, your arcana represents the birth of your secret (occult) self – acting in many ways like your horoscope sign, but otherwise representing the specific conditions under which you finally woke to the world around you. Players may either choose the arcana which best reflects their vision for their character or they can draw a card from a tarot or playing card deck.
Additionally, players are welcome to us Tommie Kelly's 40 Servants deck if it is available.
You were on a journey when you first encountered the supernatural. This may have been a personal journey, a vacation gone wrong, or a business trip where the unexpected found you and you survived.
You gain a +2 trait bonus to Fortitude saves against supernatural effects and spells.
Two of Spades
By concept here, of course, is pretty simple. We wanted to give PCs a series of 30+ generic conditions under which they might discover the "real world" and let them tell their own stories to some extent, which would naturally encourage immersion; people have an easier time connecting to a story if they can see themselves as the hero. In short, we wanted to build on traits, which were originally designed to give players more robust options to tell their own stories, develop their own motivations, and in general, tie their specific character concepts into a pre-written adventure or story (Paizo's campaign traits are a perfect example of this). Traits in Pathfinder we designed not to give you just an additional mechanical advantage (although they certainly do that), but also a story seed - a reason to be involved.
In play, this is handled at two distinct points of play: first, it's handled during character creation. Here, it reinforces the story elements and initially encourages immersion by drawing common connections. "Oh, well this happened to my character...". Secondly, this is handled in play when the conditions of an encounter (when the card drawn for the encounter matches the arcana of the PC) by building on that overall story/character alignment. This is designed to encourage the cinematic while giving PCs and option for additional ownership. The spotlight shifts from the encounter to the character's place in the story; motivations, needs, love interests, fears and desires - all of it shaped by one or more events in your character's unique background - return to center stage.
So what happens (mechanically speaking) when a PC matches their arcana to the encounter? That's pretty simple - that PC gets a pool of seven points they can spend on any d20 roll during that encounter, spent however they see fit. If a PC wants to add a single +7 bonus to an attack roll, they could. Or, they could spend seven +1 bonuses, or two +3 bonuses and a +1; really, the combination of bonuses is up to the player. This gives them a cool mechanic to play with, while not focusing on any single element specific to the character. If they want to dump all the points into skills, they could. Or combat. Ideally, it's up to them.
And speaking of immersion and inclusion, this is also why we're developing episodes to support Bloodlines & Black Magic. Sure, while telling modern tales may be a little more challenging for designers, it also means we're building a more robust world to explore. One of our goals for Bloodlines & Black Magic has been to give players a world they're remember.
So trust me; when I say we're building a whole new world to explore, I mean exactly that.