Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #41: Making Player's Decisions Matter

At Gencon Oz, I was reminded why I have a dislike of many traditional roleplaying games. I have to admit here that it's probably not the game that's at fault, it's probably badly written adventures or modules, and bad GMs.

I really enjoy the L5R setting. I've got a thing for Japanese culture after studying martial arts for a few years and over-indulging in manga/anime and other forms of Japanese culture. Last year (2008) we played in a game called Heroes of Rokugan twice, once as a tabletop and once as a freeform. Leah and I didn't get much of a say in how the adventures went, we were just two lowly ranked characters amongst a group who were all willing to take things as they came. We came to the table with no preconcieved notions, and were willing to take a back seat to enjoy the narrative developed by the group.

During a couple of occasions we knew that our characters had abilities that might have been useful to push the narrative in the direction that it wanted to flow. We gained a bit of table respect for succeeding in certain rolls, or assisting in others.

But toward the end of the session we decided to start pushing boundaries. There were rumours of a troll nearby, but the game was designed to allow players to chase down such a monster. I was playing a character naturally inclined to research, and a few of the players had more combat ready characters and wanted to get their teeth stuck into something that wasn't political.

This wasn't the way the story was meant to go, but the GM was willing to allow us to indulge this for a while as the game was running fauirly quickly and a nice detour might help pad things out a bit.

The GM had to look up a troll from the rulebooks, and while she didn't make it far tougher than it needed to be, the monster could have made a quick breakfast from us.

Some incredibly lucky rolls meant that we actually made mincemeat from the which point the GM panicked. That wasn't supposed to happen.

Quickly some "more influential characters" come by and claim the kill as their own. Under the L5R system, we hadn't followed the intended story, so we weren't awarded any experience for killing the Troll. Neither did we get any renown/glory/honour for disposing of a nasty creature because someone else took the credit for the kill.

It felt like half an hour wasted. Nice story, but it made no impact on the in-game world, and it didn't benefit our characters at all either.

We figured that this might just have been because we were low ranked characters, perhaps after a year of play, we might be able to show up with more experienced characters and might be able to claim a bit more of that glory for ourselves.

Alas we were wrong, 2009 was even worse.

We were playing the same characters under a new GM. This time the module/scenario required investigation and the use of specific skills that few people on the table seemed to possess. It was a game also involving some combat, but we were all magic-users bar one.

The spells of my character involved talking to animals, and while it might make logical sense to progress a story vioa any means available to the table, the story hadn't been written with this as an option. Only talking to specific people would get the story progressing, and those people often seemed to be connected to the criminal underworld (and thus we would lose honour for talking to them), or they were highly rabnked in society (and thus they would lose honour for talking to us).

A catch-22, and we while we exhausted all of our options to get the narrative moving forward, we were blocked with simple comments of "No, you can't do that", or target numbers that were ludicrously high. On the occasions when we actually managed to meet these ludicrous target numbers our successes were dismissive anyway..."Yeah, you succeeded in getting them to talk to you, but they don't tell you anything useful).

Blocked at every avenue because the module/scenario hadn't been written to allow experimentation or thinking outside the square.

Eventually, "hand of god" kicks in. An NPC shows up right before the climax to reveal everything necessary to get a battle scene happening.

Leah and I knew that battle commonly occurs in L5R games, so we've set ourselves up as archers. As magic users, the archery seemed a good way to keep us out of the thick of things.

At range we fire into the melee, I can't remember if either of us this stage, the game had run over time and I was late for starting my own game session. The next thing I know, an opponent in the thick of battle (on the other side of the conflict), has traversed the gap between us and gets his full actions dice to make an attack against me.

My decision to engage in ranged attacks beyond the immediately melee was rendered null and void because the GM simply said so.

I took it, because I didn't want to start an argument.

A player on the table had specifically cdesigned his character to make use of a vicious spell combination that would augment a single warrior to superhuman capacities. The final produict basically allowed this augmented warrior to wipe out a person with each strike, and take four or five complete actions during the turn (while others have to be content with taking two or three strikes over consecutive turns to take out a single opponent).

The GMs face was aghast. L5R is often about the choice between what is honourable and right, or what is acceptable to the status quo and easy. Running with our tails between our legs would have been easy, taking the fight was the right and honourable thing to do, but it could have gotten us killed. The GM thought that he'd be able to simply wipe us all out with this combat.

Out come the rulebooks, the errata sheets from the publisher, the errata sheets for the Heroes of Rokugan campaign...

...I walked off. I had a game to run and I was already running late for it, my players had actually abandoned me as a no show and were getting their refunds by this stage.

By the time I'd managed to track down my lost players and sorted out the mess, the conflict on the table between GM and players (and between sides within the story) was drawing to a close.

Since he was a "by the book" GM, he had to live by the sword and die by the sword. Nothing prevented the combo from going off and the super augmented warrior sliced and diced the corrupt samurai who were under investigation. Their deaths proved their dishonour according to the module.

Any previous investigation would have been rendered useless anyway, because life and death comes first, while the word of those bearing the highest status comes second.

While I love the setting, from the card games to the miniatures. This really didn't gel with the way the game made it's reputation.

L5R became big because it evolved according to the decisions made by the players. If a certain clan wins a whole heap of card tournaments, it gains an advantage in the global storyline. If a common tactic involves two clans working together, then this will be written into the setting. If a certain combination proves to be broken, then a storyline event will cause it to become unusable.

For over a decade, the players have helped to shape the L5R world of Rokugan.

It's be nice if the writers of Heroes of Rokugan modules took this into consideration. Or at least if the GMs allowed the spirit of experimentation and free thought that has helped make the game thrive.

I don't think I'll be playing again next year.


Zac in VA said…
This sounds like a rotten experience. So sorry to hear it!
This is a module, right? If so, I can safely say it's this kind of thing that embodies Railroading to the fullest. I have never had a good or fun experience with a module - to me, there's just no way that a set "path" like that can really roll with the x-factor of player decision-making.
That x-factor is what drives play, in better games ^_^
Vulpinoid said…
I've actually read something recent about a continuum between story and game. It can be found here. I noticed it a couple of times as being on the first page of a google search for the Story Games website, and actually decided to read it.

A few of the sentiments in that article reminded me of this experience and that's why I had to put it down for posterity.

But on the whole, I agree with you. I've never had a good experience from a module played straight from the book, and this recent example reinforced the notion.

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