While writing a single session scenario for playtesting Violence Spells Gods and Politics, I have come to suspect that I need to rethink my implementation of player "Goals".
"Goals" in VSGP are similar to the "Treasure for XP" mechanic of Original D&D. I took the idea of "Treasure for XP" and abstracted it into "achieve goal for XP", objectives achieved by player characters for experience points. This means that the Goal need not be treasure, or "overcoming challenges" as with 3rd ed. D&D. The goal can be anything, can be specific to the adventure, and there can be multiple goals at once. I brainstormed a list of possible goals and this grew into two categories of goals, group goals, and individual goals. Most of this work was done with campaign play in mind. The initial motivation for doing this work however was my assumption that "goals" benefited single session games.
For single session games, my thinking is that explicit goals established at the start of the session emphasize the "game" half of role-playing game. I assume that explicit group goals benefit single-session play because these define the endpoint for the session even though you are playing a game that is naturally open-ended. This is obviously artificial and forced, but single-session adventures are artificial and forced. Single-session play suggests to me a casual game rather than consuming and immersive role-playing. In a single-session game, players do not develop the same attachment to their characters as they do during a campaign, and so the characters are often used more like play pieces than the extension of self they become over multiple sessions. Since single-session games do not lend themselves to deep role-playing, we have an opportunity to emphasize session objectives as the focus of play. I think this is fine and I think it is fun which is why I am trying to assemble a system for it.1
One way to implement this is as follows: after the players make or choose characters, the Referee describes the starting conditions that the characters find themselves in; then with initial scene established, the Referee presents a list of Group Goals for the players to choose from; when chosen the goal is written down clearly for all to see and refer to later if needed; then everyone gets in character and the adventure begins in pursuit of the goal.
I think that is well defined enough to test in play, and so I have begun writing a scenario for others to playtest. While writing, more questions and potential problems have occurred to me. I am in the middle of working these out. Some of the first issues that occurred to me are:
- Goals naturally evolve during play when players discover new information. This would seem to be a problem if we are establishing fixed goals at the start.
- A referee that is winging a single session game is not going to have a carefully planned scenario with a list of carefully chosen goals to present to players.
- Experience point rewards for achieving goals are meaningless in a single session game because players will not be playing these characters again.
- What is all this for? Why have I invested time in it? People don't play RPGs for points. They play for fun.
Thoughts about these follow in reverse order.
4. The reality check: "Why bother?"
There are a few parts to this. The first part is that this question is just naysaying. I am not going to heed naysaying. My take on projects is to do your thing regardless of what others say, and find out for yourself. If your endeavor is a failure, you might be able to determine exactly why it failed. Trying allows you the opportunity to learn by experience and maybe discover something new.
The second is that goals for XP serve multiple purposes in an RPG. There is achievement of the goal as reward in itself. And there is the XP reward as motivator for particular outcomes. Each of these influences the design of scenarios for the game, how players play, and the general perception of how the game is "supposed to be played". Original and 3rd edition D&D each have very different styles of play, and the different styles of play reflect the stated intentions behind the design of their XP systems.2
I am far more interested in exploring the implications of this than defending my decision to naysayers or arguing over whether rules for XP acquisition influence how a game is played. Instead I am exploring what happens when you allow each group to set their own goals. I want to see how it plays out in groups other than my own group of friends.
3. XP is meaningless in a single session game.
True. I don't have a solution for this, but I don't think this is a problem. Trying to achieve a goal is motivation enough for most players. In addition the experience point award can be a secondary goal to see how many points you can rack up as a group before the night is out.
This also suggests to me that I should explore ways of implementing multiple goals for a session. Consider that additional goals could raise the stakes for the session. For example, let us say that the primary goal of a session is to rescue captives from bandits. An additional goal could be to also take out the bandit leadership. Given that the game ends when the first goal is achieved, taking on the second goal at the same time as the first risks total failure. It is unlikely that the party will escape with the captives if they lose a combat with the bandit boss, but success at both goals is far more glorious than just the first.
A separate set of guidelines for goals and rewards could be applied to a single-session game. One thing to consider when writing these guidelines is whether or not the Referee will allow the players to use these characters again, and how XP is handled in that situation. I think this should be up to the group, but I could still outline recommendations for how to handle either situation. These guidelines could also include rules for tournament style play where different groups tackle the same scenario and try to complete the most goals within a fixed time frame. Lots of options here once you look at goals as more than just conditions for awarding XP to the characters.
2. Don't Goals as implemented require extra prep?
Yes, they do. Allowing players to choose their goals, requires the Referee to have a list of goals, and to adapt to which goal the players choose from that list. Then again a referee could just say "lets do the old stand by of a treasure hunt tonight" and let the players take or leave it. Still as a designer, I clearly need to put work into creating generic goals that could work for any session so as to help make this an easier task for Referees. I will list goals like Treasure, Rescue, and Kill the dragon. Then for each of these I should provide examples of how to structure an adventure for them. That is not a small task, but worth trying. At the very least, I need a large and well defined list of Party Goals which a Referee could select from as a starting place for an adventure. What I have so far is inadequate.
1. Fixed Goals are unnatural to the flow of a game
True. This requires the most thought, and raises more questions.
Is there a need for a method to replace one goal with another, or for adding more goals to the agenda in the middle of a game? Should I allow this? Forbid it? Just let it be? I definitely need to explore this, and can not really address this problem yet without more thought. Even after I have thought enough to write up an implementation, I will still need to test and revise a few times.
It is time that I wrapped this post up. Its just a long ramble as it is, and I clearly do not yet have all the answers to this. But at the least I have shown where I stand so far developing this aspect of the game, and where I am going with it.
When I was reintroduced to D&D, the game we played took a full hour to make characters and another getting into character, figuring out what to do, asking for rumors in town about dungeons and treasure or any adventure hook, and all the normal kicking about that kicks off a year long campaign. I had fun because it took me back to the summer before second grade when I learned to play with the same rules, but I don't think I have the patience to do that every time I just want to sit down for a "beer & pretzles" treasure hunt in a dungeon. I had originally considered buying a story game kind of thing, but upon looking into them did not find what I was looking for. Admittedly Swords without Master is awesome, but I didn't know about it when I committed to writing my own game, and have since committed to a different path. But I did purchase it because its awesome. And I also picked up a copy of Once Upon A Time too because I like that it plays like a classic card game with storytelling as the requirement for playing cards. We used to do this with a normal deck of cards. I recall a late night as a high school student in a UC Davis dorm with a bunch of other nerds playing an improvised card game called story speed in which, "...an evangelical with (king)ky hair screams 'Lies and (four)nication' on the television... ," became a long standing in joke. Neither of these games however are quite the experience that I am looking for. ↩
Original D&D had "Treasure value recovered on an adventure = XP". 3rd edition D&D had "Challenges overcome = XP". While the rules of OD&D are very loose and intended as guidelines, 3rd edition D&D is tightly bound to an intricate set of rules and intentions. The result is that OD&D is generally played as a game of exploration and treasure hunting, but with a lot of variation as each group bends the rules to their whims. 3rd edition and its derivatives on the other hand is notorious for its carefully designed challenges which are expected to be overcome at the cost of a particular percentage of character resources in exchange for a particular rate of character advancement so that characters are at the right level of strength at the end of the adventure, and ready for the next. I think it is noteworthy that 4th edition doubled down on tactical combat as the focus of play because it suggests that the design decisions made for 3rd edition strongly influenced the next. I think the many OSR clones sprang not only from the fact that the original rules were made public domain, but also because enthusiasts felt a need to get back to the roots of the hobby as a reaction against the direction taken by mainstream game studios since 3rd edition was released. ↩