Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Dan Harmon's RPG

He looks like the kind of person who would play D&D
D&D is a really solid combat engine.

However, it lacks in a lot of other areas. After all, by its own admission, social interaction and exploration are the other two pillars of an RPG. So where is the Player's Exploration Handbook? Why does combat statistics get 90% of the book? Where are concrete rules for social encounters and exploring the wilderness?

Modern D&D (and tabletop RPGs in general) tries to focus more on the character-driven interactions and worldbuilding-based exploration, but it falls short in its rules. Sure there are rules for exploration, but there's no system for assigning experience points based on interaction or exploration. It's assumed that killing things gives you EXP. But for the other "two pillars", the DMG just tells the DM that they should assign arbitrary EXP per event.

Now, there's certainly enough of a backbone in D&D to create a system for rewarding exploration and interaction. But doing so goes against the core mechanic of D&D. I'm not talking about the d20, I'm talking about resource management.

In each combat, a player has a pool of HP, Spell Slots, and single-use features to use. Some of those refresh each day, others after a short rest. The point of a combat (and the challenge of it) is using those resources effectively over the course of the day so you can survive each of the 5-8 combat encounters you should be having in that day.

Do you see where I'm going with this? Interaction and Exploration don't work on the same resource management scale. The only cost of interaction is time, as a combat usually takes less time than a conversation. But unless you're tracking time down to the minute, there's no point in not trying to talk your way out of a situation. Exploration is slightly better, with rations as a type of resource, but the low cost of food means your players can stock up on supplies and never worry about going hungry. And then you have to track encumbrance, which has its own challenges.

So if you want to reward story and character development, you need a new TTRPG. Or... you need a resource in D&D that the player can manage, which links to their character and can be "leveled up" in the same way their combat stats can be.

You're my Inspiration

Which is exactly what the newest Inspiration article from the Angry GM does. If you haven't read it, here's a quick summary.

  1. A character gets Inspiration at the start of their campaign.
  2. When the character does something related to one of their character traits, they can spend their inspiration to roll with advantage, or reroll.
  3. A character can choose to take disadvantage on a roll related to their flaw in order to regain inspiration
  4. When the character is victorious in some significant way, they can gain inspiration if they don't have it already (at the DM's discretion)
  5. If the character overcomes their flaw and has a transformative experience, they now regain inspiration on every Short or Long Rest
  6. If the character wishes to start a new campaign, they must update their sheet and add a new flaw to overcome

I already use a simpler version of this system, and am planning to adopt this new system once I start some new campaigns (hopefully soon?). But I wanted to talk about how you can create those "transformative moments" in your plots. In the article, Angry brushes over it a bit.

I like to think of character development in terms of Dan Harmon's Story Circle. A story is essentially about the actions of its characters, after all.

  1. Character is in a zone of comfort
  2. But they want something
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
  4. And adapt to it
  5. Get what they wanted
  6. But pay a price
  7. Then return to their familiar situation
  8. Having changed

Looking at these from a D&D perspective, we get the following:

  1. Character backstory
  2. Character creation, including traits and flaws
  3. Initiating the adventure, or the adventure hook
  4. Killing monsters, mapping the wilderness, finding the killer, etc.
  5. The adventure's victory!
  6. How did the world change? Where does the story go from here? What's the next hook?
  7. Epilogue, returning to town
  8. Leveling up, new gear, new problems, etc.

Notice how the even numbers tend to be changes enacted on the character or the world, while the odd numbers are events that arise naturally from those changes. This means that the even numbers are more likely to be long stretched of time. In fact, I'd say about 90% of D&D is played at point number 4.

But the genius of the story circle is that each of these points can be expanded out into another story circle. Here's how you could map a single combat to the circle:

  1. Safety
  2. Looking out for monsters, to remain safe
  3. Notice a monster
  4. Fight the monster
  5. Kill the monster
  6. Lost some hit points
  7. Back in safety
  8. Spent some healing potions

Here's an entire campaign:
  1. Normal swords-for-hire
  2. Hear rumors of dark dealings
  3. Expose a plot to destroy the world
  4. Fight to the top of an apocalypse cult
  5. Stop the world-ending ritual
  6. But a friend died in the process
  7. Return to a life of mercenary work
  8. But missing friend, and now famous

The point is, you could map these "transformative moments" to everyday occurrences in the game, if you wanted to. And there will be players who demand inspiration after every miniboss battle.

So, how can we establish those moments better, so the players know when they can start getting perma-inspired?

Or you could just forget inspiration and go for soul-crushing lonliness
First off, you need to make sure the first three steps of the story circle are established. This can actually take a bit of time in the campaign, because not every character's personal goals will tie into the main plot right away. This is something the DM and the player need to work on.

The character needs to be in a familiar situation, want something, and enter an unfamiliar situation. Let's go through each of these requirements.

First off, we need to establish what the PC finds familiar. It could be their non-adventuring life, it could be the idea of doing good in the world, it could be using their adventuring skills to make easy money. This greatly defines the character, but also says something about the world that character exists in. If a character wants to be a former sailor, the adventure will probably start near a port or body of water. The DM should be flexible in this regard.

Next, the player has to want something. Gold, fame, justice, and earthly pleasures are usually what newcomers to D&D want. The job of the DM is to (over the course of a few sessions) show the player why what they want aligns with the main plot of the story. If the PC wants gold, they should be getting paid. If the PC wants justice, the quest should be just. But it's the PC's responsibility to want something. If they don't, the story isn't going to go anywhere.

A great way to make the PC wants something is to work it into their Ideal or Bond.

Finally, the PC has to enter an unfamiliar situation. This doesn't necessarily mean the opposite of their familiar situation, but it has to be different. For example, a PC who is familiar doing good doesn't have to be forced to do evil deeds, but a difficult moral choice would be unfamiliar to them, even if they end up choosing the "good" decision in the end.

The key here is that this unfamiliar situation has to do two things. First, it has to relate to the character's desire. Otherwise, why would they go into the unfamiliar? Second, it has to appropriately challenge the PC, forcing them to make a sacrifice to achieve that desire. That's steps 5 and 6 of the story circle!

Now, what sort of change should they make? And what should they sacrifice? Well, the character has a flaw they want to work on, and an ideal or bond they would hate to lose. But beyond that, we need to see the character truly pay a price. And in D&D, the most concrete thing to lose is something related to the combat engine.

That's the real "transformative moment" you are looking for: when a PC willingly gives up some part of their power to obtain their goal. They need to sacrifice. If D&D is a game of gaining power and managing resources, a PC must give up that power or permanently lose some of those resources.

The character has to change. They have to suffer and find redemption. And only then can they be transformed, and overcome their flaw.

The wink of someone who knows what he's doing
I'm a firm believer that by the end of a character's arc, they should have their own style and story that is completely unique to that character. No two Paladins should look the same at level 20, even if they chose the same subclass, fighting style, and spells.

What that means is they need to be willing to make their characters unique. Give up things. Take on burdens. In the most popular D&D shows, such as Critical Role and Dice Camera Action, the characters are constantly giving things up in order to enhance their stories.

And if you truly want to play a Mercer/Perkins-style game, instead of awarding inspiration you could let the PCs level up. But I still prefer traditional milestone level-ups.

The last part of the story is returning to the familiar, having changed. This means you have to include an epilogue, or even a game where the party returns to town and relaxes between adventures. You have to show them that they have changed, and the world around them hasn't.

And that's how I want to do experience.

By the way, you should watch Harmonquest too, I guess.

Thanks for reading!

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