“I’m bored. I love to play games but there’s no-one to play against.”

celestialtoymakerI don’t often get the chance to be the player in a roleplaying game but I was recently lucky enough to be able to do just that. It always interesting to get a different perspective and to experience adventure design from the players side.

Although the game wasn’t based on Doctor Who the adventure did share a lot in common with both ‘The Celestial Toymaker’ and ‘The Mind Robber’. I think there is a temptation for a games master to design similar scenarios as they allow crazy situations with little need to make sense.

I don’t think its any coincidence that I played in a Star Trek adventure where the first-time games master had Q create fantasy scenarios to test us. It does give a sense of freedom, with the ability to cover any lack of structure with the explanation that none of it is real.

There is a certainly a place for such stories when done well. ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ are all classic tales of protagonists finding themselves in strange lands with almost dream-like logic.

The danger is that the adventure is so illogical that the play experience suffers. This is by no means meant to be an attack on the games master who ran the game I played, it just helped identify what could be common problems or mistakes that are worth discussing.

In brief the adventure put the players in the roles of semi-famous actors travelling on a bus to make a public appearance. There was  a flash of light and the now driverless bus was travelling through an unfamiliar landscape.

After crashing the bus into a ditch we actors set out to discover where we were. It soon became apparent that we were surrounded by elements from our respective movies and had to escape from alien hordes, cyborgs and mutants.  Prop weapons now worked and our attackers could injure or kills (some NPC actors travelling with us died to prove this).

Movie logic applied with travel time being shortened due to editing, people falling in slow motion and exteriors changing if we went inside. Eventually we fought our way to the mastermind behind the whole thing, typing away at a typewriter.

After a confrontation the typewriter was destroyed and we found ourselves back in the real world, right where we were supposed to make our public appearance. A geeky teenager using super-advanced technology was responsible for putting us in a virtual prison.

In theory this is a fun plot, placing actors in the position of their onscreen personas and seeing if they can rise to the challenge. In practice it fell short for several reasons.

The major problem, and one that will plague any adventure based in an artificial environment, was that it wasn’t real. Sure, we could die, but everyone we met was just a fictional character with no relation to anyone around them.

This came to a head when we found a futuristic western saloon, filled with a mix of characters from a variety of films. While they remained in character they couldn’t recognise the absurdity of the situation or explain why NASA astronauts were drinking with aliens, killer robots and orcs.

The problem with this is that players rapidly stop caring. If the NPCs aren’t real people why should the player character interact with? They can’t provide information relevant to their situation, help push the plot forward or contribute to the plot. They are simply a distraction and the player character might as well ignore them.

This is something that many people miss about the Alice in Wonderland and Oz books. While strange the characters were able to interact with each other, had goals they wanted to achieve and were impacted by events.

In ‘The Celestial Toymaker’, ‘The Mind Robber’, ‘Conundrum’ and ‘Legend of the Cybermen’ all present fictional characters who can react to situations outside of their source material. It is the interaction of these characters and how they respond to the plot that is entertaining.

A related problem was the fluidity of the plot and location. NPCs would give us directions or goals (such as reaching a fortress to report to an army general) but everything would change in the next scene.

This effectively made any choice or decision we made pointless. It didn’t matter which way we went, the next location or NPC would appear regardless. Plot points were supposed to be ignored, merely fragments from their source material that had no bearing on our situation.

For a player there is nothing worse that having your role be meaningless. Why bother to keep track of what is happening if the games master will forget it once the scene changes? This shows the value of having clear goals for the player characters to achieve.

It can be frustrating to be asked what decision you want to make when there aren’t any options. In this particular case my character was driving in a car with two other player characters following on motorbikes. The games master informed me that I could see an airborne threat moving up behind the players behind me.

The problem was I was in no position to do anything about it. I didn’t have any ranged weapons, no means to communicate with the other player character (and in any case they were aware of the threat), nothing that would prevent them from being attacked.

The only viable option was to keep driving towards our goal but it made me feel guilty. Was I expected to do something? Would the other players resent me for my perceived inaction? It was not a nice situation to be in.

The lesson would be that just as you only ask the players to roll dice at important moments you only ask them what they’re doing when they have options. If these options aren’t obvious you can try giving them examples. This might even encourage them to come up with their own suggestions. If, as the games master, you can’t think of more than one sensible course of action it probably isn’t worth asking.

Adventures need variety. In a fantastical scenario you must present the players will something more than just another thing trying to kill them. ‘The Mind Robber’ is a great example of this, with a variety of puzzles to solve in addition to the threat posed by the white robots.

In this adventure it was relentless series of attacks. Worse still I was the only player character who didn’t have a weapon. This restricted me to running away and hiding (occasionally acting as a distraction).

All player characters should be able to contribute, the adventure designed around their particular skills. The flaw in this adventure was the premise that it was the actors that were placed in a movie scenario, rather than the characters we portrayed.

This meant that we were severely lacking in the basic skills needed for the adventure. We couldn’t fight, we weren’t marksman and we couldn’t drive. Which wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t required to do this repeatedly. This resulted in everyone of us crashing a vehicle during the course of the game because our driving skills were so low.

If none of the player characters have any technical skills don’t make the challenge of the adventure to reprogram a ships computer, if they don’t have medical skills don’t ask them to perform open heart surgery to save the life of planetary leader. Either they player will fail or refuse to act for fear of failure.

In a scenario where the mastermind isn’t revealed until the end the scene must be dramatic, acting as the climax of the plot. Since is the characters first and last encounter with the character it must be memorable.

Upon our encounter with the man behind the curtain he denied he was in any way responsible and asked us to go away. Even when we outlined our reasons for thinking he was responsible and we demanded answers he refused to admit anything.

This is more frustrating than climatic.  What were we supposed to do or say? If an NPC is being obstructive what purpose does he serve? If the player characters are forced to turn around hasn’t their journey been for nothing?

Even his promise that leaving his office would result in our return to the real world held no weight since we knew that even if it appeared that we’d been returned that it would just be an illusion.

Thought should be given to the conclusion and the consequences of what had gone before. Players should hopefully know how and why the events of the adventure happened. They shouldn’t be expected to ignore unanswered questions.

In our case we never learnt how the teenager had obtained his futuristic technology, how or why he’d kidnapped us on-route or what would happen to him now. NPCs and my fellow players seemed unconcerned that this young man had kidnapped us and killed our fellow actors (the games master confirmed they were still dead when we returned to the real world).

Galaxy Quest’ is a great example of actors being forced to play their persona in the real world, with an explanation given for why things correspond to their fictional source material.

As a player I feel I would have been happier if there had been some element of reality to what we’d experienced. Whether it been an alien race modelling themselves on our film work or a parallel dimension that just mirrored the movies.

I wonder if the games master appreciated what the experience would be like for not only the players but the player characters. What can be amusing for the games master would logically require players to role play their characters emotional response to the situation.

I’m reminded of a dungeons and dragons game in which our characters were kidnapped and forced through a series of traps and monsters. Barely surviving we made it to end only to discover our kidnapper wanted to make sure we were worthy of undertaking a quest for them.

The games master couldn’t understand why were so reluctant to work for someone who had abducted us and put our lives in danger. Amusingly the NPC responsible was supposed to be Lawful Good.

Which brings me to the biggest problem with scenarios which are basically challenges and tests. Without a clear antagonist it is all to easy to view the games master as the opponent. Especially when there is little effort to show the villain in a negative light.

A roleplaying game isn’t a competition. The games master  and players should be working together to create a story. Key to this is that not only must the players be able to differentiate between the games master and the villain but so must the games master.

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