"Oh cool... So you're STILL working on this?" -- A guy at GenCon

"If I see Drah-koo-lah, I will. kick. him. in. the eye!!!" -- My 4 (almost 5) year old daughter. She GETS it!

"Meatpie Forever!" -- A playtester at GenCon 2013

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Through the Looking Glass Darkly

In response to some suggestions from Liu Jen Hao over on the Goodman Games TA/TG forum, I posted a lengthy response detailing how to work with disruptive players in a game of Transylvanian Adventures. In short, TA/TG is much like any other roleplaying game. I don't know of a single game where the nightmarish nihilism of Chaotic Stoopid couldn't derail an evening of play.

A lot is covered over on that lengthy response. And I suppose a lot can be gleaned from it that's completely unrelated to the matter of disruptive playing styles. I'll try to summarize here:

  • Transylvanian Adventures does not have any "genre enforcing" mechanic outside of the default awarding and penalizing of Luck as described in the Dungeon Crawl Classics rulebook.
  • Alignment is expressed (usually) by a character's position in relation to ruling elite of the time period. Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic can have different applications to each of the classes with the chief concerns of a Lawful Hunter being different from those of a Lawful Redeemable or a Lawful Charger.
  • There is a Gypsy Curse chart.
  • There is a type of monster/encounter known as a Haunting, which is different from the usual Ghost found in fantasy roleplaying games.
  • There are Adversaries and Rivals. They work against the characters throughout a campaign.
  • There are charts that players roll on to determine what happens to the characters in between adventures. These charts can award XP. They can also do things like help your character find "true love", which can benefit the character mechanically. I'd also like to add that it happens almost entirely "off camera". The In-Between Adventures stuff is like a mini-game in itself, featuring a number of charts.
  • Research is how characters get a leg up on the monsters. Without Research, characters are flying blind and at a significant disadvantage.
  • Becoming a monster isn't a goal in Transylvanian Adventures. Monsters are not super-powered PCs. They are PCs that are not entirely under the control of a player. Sure, a monster PC might get some benefits from her special abilities (and the option for a Werewolf PC or Vampire PC is under consideration for TA/TG). But the Judge/DM would take over and drive quite a bit. Most players don't like this at all. So the simple answer is: Don't become a monster. Or re-roll a character that does.
  • Dracula is a bad ass. As he should be.
  • There are guns in TA/TG.
  • There is no armor in TA/TG.
  • There is no magical healing in TA/TG.
  • TA/TG draws a line between the forces of darkness and, well, everything else. But doesn't moralize or force a group to be on either side. Players should understand, however, that actions have consequences. And it is through consequences to their actions that characters will be confronted with the fruits of sociopathic behavior.

Now the Why, There's Always a Why

I can't take full credit for what I would consider a fairly enlightened approach to Grimdark Roleplaying. Much like Liu Jen Hao, there was a time when I wanted (even demanded) that a System (Capital "S") police player choice. But then I entered a long and eye-opening discussion with a guy named Mike Holmes who has helped many would-be roleplaying authors and game masters improve their games, their play and their philosophy on roleplaying.

I've long since lost those notes, which pertained to a version of the Heroquest system to be used in Fantasy Flight Games' Midnight setting. I've also lost contact with Mike over the years. But the crux of his message remains with me today. Memory is imperfect but, as I recall, it went something like this: "If roleplaying is all about making meaningful choices, why write something into a game that takes those choices off the table?"

That was pretty heavy, especially 6-7 years ago when I would've written something verbatim to Liu Jen Hao's post.

But instead of forcing a mechanic on players that they'll most likely resent, circumvent or avoid entirely (ala "Humanity" in Vampire), Mike showed me what I consider the better way. Give the players what they want -- a story arc for anti-heroism. Joseph Campbell gave us the Hero's Journey. Well, Mike Holmes gave me the "Villain's Journey". And it's pretty much what the Grimdark Nihilist could expect at my table.

The first act is a misstep. And Mike cautioned (and I agree) on penalizing players too harshly for it. This time, maybe they get away with it. Or fly under the radar enough to avoid immediate consequences.

The second act is the first step to villainy. Perhaps the characters are just powerful (or cruel) enough to get attention and a degree of infamy. But there's still a chance for redemption. Present the group with heroic adversaries that they themselves might have become. Or maybe some bounty hunters that make them look like Boy Scouts. But also give the players an opportunity to step in and fight something more cruel/evil/cynical than themselves. There's still the opportunity to turn it around here. But the choice remains with the players.

The third act is the final transformation into a true, unredeemable villain. Note that there are other villains out there too. And villains are a terribly selfish and egocentric lot. There's a lot of opportunity for betrayal and intrigue among a pack of power-hungry sociopaths. And the party may still not be the worst of the lot. Players should be able to witness how the world changes, inevitably for the worse.

They should also become the targets of "heroes" looking to stop them or overthrow them. There's nothing in TA/TG that says your Rivals need to be bad guys. A character on the wrong end of some bad decisions could easily find himself with a certified hero (or group of heroes) as a Rival.

The climactic end of the Villain's Journey is their defeat. They are stopped, slain or otherwise rendered powerless. The anti-climactic end is their victory. And that comes largely in two flavors: the villain accepts his position as a servant to a greater power or the villain assumes his role as The Greater Power. Neither of these ends are greatly satisfying. But I think it's worth noting that the endgame of the Villain's Journey in this regard is pretty similar to the Adventurer/Conqueror/King path of the traditional fantasy roleplaying hero.

Look, I'll be the first to admit that this type of game isn't the greatest fun for me. It's pretty banal and power-trippy until the second or third act when I can start throwing heroes at the party. And there's no doubt that a party like this is split between doing really vile and really heroic things -- which sometimes can make it fun and sometimes can make it excruciating.

But this sort of campaign really is gazing through the looking glass darkly. It's the mirror image of a story arc that players have gamed through for decades… and of which they may be tired.

So, I'm resolved to stick to my guns with the "no sledgehammer mechanics" in TA/TG. First off, the groups that could moralistically use them the most would ignore them. And the players who butted their heads up against them would resent them and steel their resolve to make the rest of the game suffer.

Ultimately, the game should be fun for everyone at the table. And sometimes that's a compromise. Hell, it is always a compromise. My games never turn out 100% the way I want them to. And players rarely pop out on the other end with the exact character they'd dreamt up in the beginning.

If a group wants to play a bunch of Dracula cultists, I'd say okay. There will be other cultists who rival them. There will groups from more heroic organizations who try to stop them. Maybe a few who will try to redeem them. And ultimately the villainous party may fail. It's not the kind of game I would envision from writing TA/TG but if we all work together I have no doubt we'd have a great time.

Alternately, if a group has that one guy (and it always seems to be a guy) who is set on being the most horrible pretend human being ever. Well, that character will be dropping Luck points left and right and most likely would not be long for the world anyway.

I remember a player of this mold in a group I ran at a comic shop. He was completely over the top. I mean he was like Gregor Clegane and Leona Helmsley's bastard child. If there was a way he could wield four katanae and wear two trench coats he would have. Half the time I think he was just trolling us. He did everything in his power to derail every session and sometimes he did. Obviously a disruptive player but I couldn't tell him goodbye because I was running an open game at a comic shop for a friend who had ask me to run an open game at the comic shop that he owned.

Inevitably, this player's decisions began to catch up with him. And believe it or not the rest of the party began rooting for (and helping) the heroes who would show up to stop him. It was funny, at times. And even the player got a hoot out of it. Finally he was slain in a climactic battle. The end was satisfying for him and cathartic for the other players too who had wanted his character dead more than any villain I had ever thrown in front of them.

I'll add, however, that this kind of intra-party tension is usually fatal for the one causing the disruption in TA/TG. The way Hit Points work and the way the party is inter-dependent during play tends to support party cohesion better. There aren't any "Clerics" but in their own way each class is as "important" as a "Cleric".

And with the In Between Adventures stuff, it's difficult-next-to-impossible to remain the loner-orphan-with-no-name-in-a-trenchcoat in TA/TG for long. That kind of character is Werewolf bait.

That said, he would make a good Charger.


  1. Could you post a short description of what TA/TG is exactly? I know it's set in transylvania and has guns, but what is the tone of the setting? Is there Christianity? Are the adventures as "over the top" as the standard DCC senarios? What is the setting and the campaign going to be like?

    1. That's a good suggestion. I'll put together a post answering those questions.

  2. Thank you. Your setting is very intriguing.