Sunday, September 2, 2012

Party Coherence

I've been reflecting a lot on D&D lately (I partly blame Antagonist Relations), specifically on the history and rules. But the game is really in the playing. A ruleset is a tool, better for some tasks than others. But any rule set will generally get the job done. What we don't really see rules for in RPGs, however, is party coherence.

I'm not sure why that is, but I suspect it stems from the general lack of social rules and cooperative attitude that games like D&D engender. What is party coherence though? My ideas on this are colored by my old LARP experience.

See, I used to play LARPs at conventions. These weren't long-term things, just one four-hour game. But the social interaction there required a skeleton of player knowledge. This was generally done by a lengthy list of the characters in the game and a short description of your relationship to each one. So-and-so was your brother in the Mafia family, or in your delegation at the peace conference. So-and-so was your rival, the person you wanted to take down. Without this basic background info, you were lost in this type of political intrigue game.

Some of the people who ran those games also ran D&D games at convention I used to frequent. And you see the same sort of thing in a convention game. My favorite one had my friend JG as my daughter, and I suspected that this other guy that I knew was playing my son that I put up for adoption. Instantly I had connection to the rest of the party. It was awesome.

I've occasionally managed to bring this notion into some other games that I've played. One of the best in recent memory was a hobbit game we played. Now, we decided in advance that it would be a hobbit game, so things were a little silly. But not only did my friend pick an awesome adventure, but I had a great concept for a hobbit: the do-nothing hobit with a heart of gold. To do that, I knew I'd need allies though. Also, the concept was the "princess" or "lazy" warlord, so I really needed allies that I could use in combat, since I'd be giving them most of my actions.

So I contacted each of the other guys individually, and arranged for a family member, a business partner, and a (friendly?) rival. That's all I asked for, but I ended up with a hypochondriac uncle who used his unseen servant to float above the dirty dirty ground, a bardic rival, and a warlock for a business partner (selling sweet leaf). Frondo Maggins helped save the day, but most importantly we had a buttload of fun. A metric buttload even.

I really got this idea of formalizing relationships from Arkham Horror though. In one of the expansions, there are relationship cards, which sit between players. So you can reach left or right to use a power that you both share. And the benefit was generally related to the relationship, so between two rivals, the one with the fewest kills got a combat bonus. This would be awesome if it were formalized in D&D 4e as relationship powers. There are tribe/guild feats, but its not quite the same. Or rather, those are just boring bonuses, not dynamic reasons to interact and roleplay your character.

In the Giovanni LARP I used to play we had some similar aspects, but not quite the same. There was a rule that any challenge against another player cost you your XP for that evening. This meant that the family intrigues were much more subtle than in the neighboring OWBN games. Every April 4th, the Storyteller also looked at every one's sheets and hinted at every one's weaknesses. We're family, after all. When one of my friends joined the game playing my lacky, I outright told him my biggest flaw. If he ever wanted to, he could flatter me enough and obliterate me in any social challenge. As a lacky should be able to to do his vainglorious (x3) master.

These days though, I've become a bit of a minimalist in game design. I'm not that big on really simple, abstract mechanics, but simple is often better, despite my love for the baroque. So two games I've been thinking about recently would easily take some formalization of relationships. In Reign, you could easily adapt the passions mechanic for a relationship, either eliminating one of the three for a relation mechanic, or adding an extra. Something simple like "Protect my children" would net you one bonus die whenever you acted towards that goal. Fading Suns has the blessings/curses mechanic, which would also formalize this. A trait like "Mother: +2 strength when defending your children" or "Blind Devotion: -2 Calm when your true love is in danger" would help, though you'd want to specify that everyone could take one of these flaws and it should be related to a party member.

I've done games recently the traditional way. My recent Dark Sun game had all the PCs simply work for the Veiled Alliance. It was a good game, but lacked some of the inter-party dynamics that I've had other times.

The great thing is that some simple mechanic like this could easily be taken to another system. In D&D 4e, you could have a special action point that could only be used in the circumstance related to your relationship, or grant extra XP when you're doing your family duty.

When you think about it, fantasy fiction is also full of this sort of thing. Dragonlance had much more than just the Brothers Majere. All the characters had relationships there. Certainly Lord of the Rings had character relationships. So why not focus on them in an RPG? Even if the story is just a mercenary company, there's bound to be a rivalry in the group,

Wraith was one of my favorite games we rarely played.
A lot of the World of Darkness games touched on some of these aspects, but that's because they're generally focused on the (in)human relationships of the PCs. But even those didn't really enforce any sort of inter-party relationships.

Relationships can be hard to implement, because most of the time players create their characters in a vacuum. I think its definitely worth it, however. When you skip the character creation party, you miss out on some of these opportunities. Some of the stuff could be done over email, that's what I did for my hobbit. Of course, I wasn't attached to how the relationship turned out, just that there was one. But if I run another game anytime soon, you better believe that I'd like to include something like this.

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