Παρασκευή, 18 Ιανουαρίου 2013

Human Slaves of An Insect Nation, Part 6-The Illusion of power



“Here too it’s masquerade, I find:
As everywhere, the dance of mind.
I grasped a lovely masked procession,
And caught things from a horror show…
I’d gladly settle for a false impression,
If it would last a little longer, though.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 
Human Slaves of An Insect Nation, Part 6-The Illusion of Power 

In part 5 of this article series, I explained the importance of the appearance of power over actual power. In short, I was segwaying into handling higher levels without the hassle of number-juggling and advanced cock-fencing.

This approach in gaming is certainly unorthodox and seems, at first, downright lazy.

So you’re not willing to memorize 3 pages filled with shoddily written rules and parameters about aborted god-demon fetuses? For shame, sir! For shame!


Since it takes the idea of not having to follow the word of the rules as detailed by the game developers, choosing instead to go your own way and fiddle with numbers and narrative.

This means that, as you look at the huge statblocks and other unrelated magical horseshit the system burdens you with past a certain point

Numbers and horseshit that have been put in place by experienced professionals who made the very game you are currently scoffing at, mind you…
and decide that “ain’t the way you roll”, you are willingly (and knowingly) jumping into the shark-infested cesspool, thinking that you can breathe shit and beat the carnivores by virtue of your pitifully ineffective bare hands and teeth.

What I mean is that it’s hard. 11 on the Moh scale hard. But that doesn’t mean you can’t pull it off! It’s going to take a long time doing and it requires a cartload of thinking out of the box, but it’s going to turn an otherwise boring numbers-juggling marathon into a whole ‘nother can of wonders!

Or chest. Because google images produces no related results when you search for ‘can of wonders’

With that said, let’s move on to…

THE SHAPESCAPES GUIDE OF MANIPULATING MAYA or HOW TO MAKE STUFF SEEM MORE AWESOME THAN IT ACTUALLY IS

Pictured: applied instance of this guide in life.

STEP ONE: MARKET DAT SHIT PROPERLY

Like everything else in life, presenting something as more awe-inspiring than it actually is entails a certain knowledge of or affinity with marketing.

i.e: the science of manipulating shadow-men into building abstract multicolored altars in your name.

That means that, as always, you need to know your audience and what the hell they actually want. We covered this briefly in previous installments, but it’s important that we look into this in greater depth.
You see, in previous articles where I explained how you need to know your audience, I was automatically assuming an ideal situation where your audience is aware of what it needs to have a good time. This may sound ridiculous, but more often than not, they do not know what the fuck they’re looking for. I’m not the single most experienced Storyteller you’ll find in tabletop roleplaying, but I’ve met people and I’ve seen stuff that will make you lose hope in humanity.

Such things…wonderful, terrible things.

I’ve seen couples fight their little spats in-game, I’ve seen people play Jedi Knights in medieval settings, I’ve seen whole groups of people trying to kill their game-worlds just to spite their Storyteller, I’ve seen Storytellers make entire campaign setting centered round their girlfriends’ character and I’ve seen furries, man.

Good God, I’ve seen so many goddamn furries.

Want to know what all these poor bastards had in common? Each and every one of them was unhappy with the setting, tone and presentation of their game, but could not bring themselves to admit it, instead choosing to dick around, dragging the narrative down with them.

Now, you’re not an entertainment monkey, as I’ve stated before and therefore you can’t expect to keep everyone happy. But you need to make sure that you’ll weed out the detrimental bastards that will poison your story further on down the road before things reach a critical mass and will also help you set up your smoke and mirrors.

So besides presenting your players with your outline and weeding out the whiners, you need to come out with your opinion and familiarity with high-level rulesets. You need to look them in the eye and tell them that you can’t fucking handle huge numbers and equations and that you are going to set up a certain power cap. In the interest of avoiding system-specific characterizations, I will present a rough terminology, for your own sake:

Let’s say that low-level characters are heretofore referred to as mud-farmers. Mud-farmer resources, travel abilities and combat capabilities are severely limited and they mostly subsist on a steady diet of mud, rocks and roadkill, their own world defined by the borders of their homeland, at best.

Pictured: aspiring mudfarmers, following in the footsteps of their fathers.

The next stage in character abilities are hard-asses. A hard-ass can be a war veteran or an accomplished hero. He’s seen neighboring kingdoms or mapped unknown lands. He knows what he’s doing and what he’s doing isn’t very nice, but it’s not particularly world-shattering. Maybe kingdom-shattering, at best, but you can’t still glue the pieces together when he’s done with it.

For Sommerlund, motherfucker.
Moving up past the hard-ass, we find the glorious bawss characters. A character of this magnitude leaves legends in his wake. A flex of his pecks causes spontaneous orgasms in every fertile female in his vicinity and he’s rich and powerful beyond belief. He’s also had a couple kings weeping at his feet and may have had something to do with the Giant’s Pass massacre and that mountain of dead orcs, but you know what they say…

History is written by the victors.
It is here, past the bawss level, where most gaming systems either become overburdened and nearly unworkable, or simply break into a million pieces and start crying. This is a matter that has been plaguing game developers since, well…forever, as it is impossible to take into consideration every possible factor that every gaming group might bring into play, while at the same time maintaining their interest.

With this in mind, you need to consider that your players might not be so much into power and might, in fact, be bored with it. Sure, everyone likes the chance to stab Godzilla in the face or tear a planet asunder, but when you have already performed such a marvelous feat, it’s near impossible to top it.
What I’m trying to say is that power isn’t for everybody. If I may generalize, it is entirely possible that most experienced gaming groups are in fact, not interested in power itself, but in the process of acquiring it. 

The problem is that most players don’t know this and won’t admit to this until such an eventuality. The idea of growing from bawss level to demigods or even deities is endearing, sure, but how is it even remotely interesting? 

So first, ask yourself: how far am I willing to push this? Do I have a clue what I’m going to do with those sociopaths once they’ve become the most powerful beings on the planet? Is there anything left to stop them?

This article assumes that no, you do not know what to do afterwards. It also assumes that you have explained this to your party and you’ve also heard their war tales about their naked demigod players from days of old and discovered that they are bored with both the process and the taxation of handling these juggernauts.

“Trust me, boy: past the point of severing a god’s head and shoving it up his golden rectum, there’s naught but emptiness.”
Every gaming group has at least one member in their team who’s done demigod-level gaming before and they all agree to one thing: they’re not willing to do it again anytime soon. If they are, then they’re not for you and this article is not intended for them.

If, on the other hand, they decide to stay after you admit your management-handicap, you can move on to…

STEP TWO: FANNING THE FLAMES OF AWESOMENESS

The zombies, awed by his courage, proceeded to then give him a Viking burial.

So your bawss level characters are far from the upper limits of what your system of choice has to offer. So how can you work around the numbers and horseshit in order to turn the above image from the desperate swings of a single mud-farmer against a horde of enemies into a raging Italian power metal solo?

Widdidly-widdidly-wweeeeoooh nya-nya-nya-nayrararanyanyanyanya!

Well, first of all, a clear comparison needs to be given. You need to make your players see that their characters are the absolute best that the setting has to offer (either as champions or as villains) and that their antagonists, while superior at first, need to resort to either excesses of force or unorthodox approaches to beat them.

But that doesn’t mean that they are invincible by any chance. Remember: bawss level characters may have a few counts of genocide under their belt, but they sure as hell aren’t invincible. They may be far above the average citizen of the world, but numbers, superior magical ability or bad luck can take them down. This vulnerability and exploitation of their hubris only helps to cement the illusion of power, giving the characters limitations that they can work with and learn from.

A lot of great sword and sorcery heroes (like Elric of Melnibone) share this very trait: Unstoppable badasses though they may be, their power is not entirely their own.

Take away that horribly broken +10 sword and all you’re left with is a pansy with 12 levels in spellcasting that can tame dragons.

In fact, their power is further accentuated by the fact that, without their magical aid, they are pretty much ordinary. But they’ve grown used to the terror and threats that swallow and spit out lesser men as an afterthought and are thus better suited to wield them. In short, they’ve earned their might.
Which brings me to my next point…

STEP THREE: EARNING NEEDS A FLAVOR OF ITS OWN

World War 2-B propaganda poster.

Whether it’s thanks to magical prowess, personal skill, xeno-biological symbiotic enhancements


Or bullshit super kung fu taught by a crazy bug-man living in a cottage on a super-dense moon in the Afterlife,

 power is something that should not be granted willy-nilly. While that may come as no surprise to most of you and the idea of earning power and abilities through experience levels might be a given, it is not enough in and of itself. The acquisition of prowess in any field comes through risky trial, terrible error and the horrors of failure along with the tiny but sweet fruits borne from success.
 
In short, if you’re going to try to convince your players that this is as good as it’s going to get, you need to start them off with their faces planted firmly in the mud.

“Mud in our boots, shit in our pants and the constant threat of death hanging over our heads! Yes sir, only muthafucking way to adventure!”

The slow but steady pace of the party through a hostile world that can crush them into fine powder every step of the way and their victories over it will further help you fill their need to feel empowered, without once straying from your intended story or power cap.
 
Adding some flair to their powers and abilities is also necessary. I mean, what’s a +2 longbow compared to

Ghandiva, the Immaculate Piercer of the Heavens, its handle carved from the bones of the Roc-Father?

Answer: the exact same fucking thing, only with a lot more flair. The player is going to give much more of a shit if his enchanted bow that he pried from the fingers of his hated enemy is something that was either once the property of the gods or the single best fucking thing in the setting to date.
Want more mileage out of your powers and items? Then why not go all metamorphosis up in this bitch?



Anime and the superhero genre has been milking this ‘more but less than human, also explosions’ trope for years in order to get the most mileage out of its characters so why shouldn’t you? By presenting your characters as gradually more powerful (yet inhuman) machines of change and destruction, you set yourself up for life!

It is important however to note…

STEP FOUR: CHALLENGE NEEDS TO COMPLIMENT EARNING

“When you took the city, I took the kingdom. When you took the kingdom, I usurped the world.”

If your characters are the sole champions of this world by virtue of their alien symbiotic technology, then your space-criminals are the very force that can undo the world. If your players are the only ones who can stand against the tide of darkness enveloping the world, then their horrifying enemies need to gradually get as horrifying and intimidating as your players are hopeful.
 
So let’s say that you decide to crank the awesome all the way up to FUCK YEAH and go with the most powerful and intimidating being you can imagine. I’m sure you came up with something horrible, massive and unspeakable like, let’s say, a god. But how can you manage a god, anyway? 
What sort of challenge would a deity represent for your overwhelmed players? And, most of all, how would you present it in such a manner so it is 


  • Believable and, first and foremost, 
  •  Manageable.

In the interest of not boring you with further embellishment, here’s the point I’m about to present to you, compressed in 2 minutes and 40 seconds of balls-to-the-wall action:
 

This video shows a bawss-level character punching God and winning. How do I know that Asura isn’t a demigod-level character? Well, because I tried to look past the flashy images and the breackneck montage and saw that Asura, for all his power, isn’t a being of great power, complexity or unspeakable magic, gained by his experiences. If anything, he’s just a strongman with a fairly limited repertoire, who exists in an inconceivably flamboyant narrative.

During this video, Asura fights a titanic being who, if represented in a literal, stat-wise fashion, would have just creamed him. So Asura instead fought his finger and then did battle with his summoner, undoing the being (suffering grievous wounds in the process). He struck at the hands that held the sword and the mind that directed it, instead of the blade itself.

tl;dr the answer to your narrative conundrum
Same can be done for your game. Is the evil god invincible and macrocosmic in such a scale that he cannot be harmed? Then I bet the seven avatars that comprise his essence (thus, the key to his demise) are formidable, yet mortal. 

Is the antagonist commanding an army of invincible death-robots from beyond Time? Well I bet that there must be a chrono-synchlastic infundibulum handy!

Pull no punches. Your players came for a spectacle in exchange for numbers and by golly, you’ll give it to them and you’ll do every crazy and smart thing you ever wanted to run and they’ll thank you for it!

With all this in mind, the only thing left to do is…

STEP FIVE: KNOWING WHEN TO END IT

The end of history brought to you by…You! You horrible, genocidal bastard.

Posing a cap gives you a very clear goal that you need to reach during your narrative, as well as a very clear outline of when and where to end this. It also gives you a much clearer understanding of the kind of story you want to tell, as well as the goals that you wish for your players to achieve by the end of it.

Keep in mind however, that this is in no way a guideline or a railroad. As explained time and time again in previous parts, you will not have complete control over that story (and that’s a good thing). You will, however, have a better defined idea of what you wish to achieve.

When you reach the cap, then the campaign needs to come to a close. The final lines must be drawn and crossed and the war to end all wars needs to come to a close. Plans need to be unveiled, hands tipped and cards thrown on the table. The final battle, having loomed in the horizon for so long, must finally come and rock the world.

It is at this point that you, as a Storyteller, need to know one very important thing: that you fucking made it. That you set up a story that led to a conclusion which you had planned and outlined. It may not have ended the way you imagined, but you kept your system from going to pieces in your very hands and you very well goddamn did it.

You magnificent bastard, you…

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