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Tales from the Tomb: Tables, Emergent Play, and Antagonism

I'll begin this post with a quote that is so good it deserved to lead off the post...

The rules shouldn't be the game -- playing the game should be the game. (Ben Lathrop) 

Ben's comment to my last post was well said.

It resonated with a couple of questions that have come up over the past few weeks:

Why are there so many tables in Transylvanian Adventures? 100 pages???
Why Ruin?

It may not be clear at first. But the answer to both of those questions is Ben's quote right up there. Playing the game should be the game.

Why So Many Tables?

I thought there was a good chance that Transylvanian Adventures would fail to find an audience. There was a possibility that this would be the only book. Ever.

That sobering realization forced my hand to put the items that I felt were necessary to play these types of games (Gothic Ass-Kicking Horror) into the first (and possibly only) book.

Some of the best playtests we had were from the In-Between Adventures chapters and Investigation phase. The "mad-libs" section was initially intended as an optional section for the second book. But it, too, was too much fun to leave out.

I also noticed that players never asked for more monsters (we had books and books full of them) or more magic (there was plenty in DCC RPG that we used). They instead echoed the same question: "What's next?"

It was clear to me that the In-Between Adventures and Investigation chapters had to go into the first book. They were the answer to that ubiquitous question.

But there's more to it than that. That's where Ben's quote comes in.

Emergent Play

I'm a big fan of emergent play in table-top roleplaying games. According to wikipedia, emergent play is:
"complex situations that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics"
I view emergent play as things being introduced into the roleplaying game (often randomly) that take the story in unexpected directions. For me, it's story emerging in a non-directed fashion from the result of play.

Transylvanian Adventures tackles this in three ways.
  1. Shared Authorial Role. Some of the character classes in Transylvanian Adventures have abilities that change the game intentionally. Luck (and even Ruin) can also be used by players to affect the game in unexpected ways.
  2. Tables. More about these in a bit.
  3. Gambling. Ruin makes a gambling mechanic out of other games' "death spiral". Gambling mechanics introduce risk and surprising results. More on this in a bit too.

What's So Great About Emergent Play?

Emergent play breaks us out of routines. If left to our own devices, we may find ourselves playing similar characters and similar adventures featuring all-too-familiar plotlines. Emergent play drives us in new directions. Transylvanian Adventures does this from the moment a character is created, not just with the 3d6 down-the-line attributes, but also with the tables associated with character generation.

The character in that linked blog post enjoys sculpting and is driven to "always get things done especially when patience is the best course of action". I wouldn't have chosen either of those out of thin air. 

I've played many, many games where the tools for introducing emergent play are readily available, yet time and again I've seen inspiration either come up short or take us down repetitive paths.

This is one of the reasons I chose tables as a tool for emergent play.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Antagonism is the other reason I was heavy on emergent play and, especially, on tables. On many rpg blogs, we read about "protagonism" -- empowering the players to do what they want in the game world. But what about antagonism?

That's right. I'm advocating that the Judge actively oppose the players.

Common wisdom among roleplaying game circles advise Judges to empower players, give them just enough resistance to make them care about their goals, and generally not be a jerk.

This is because most games rely on intentional emergent play. Meaning that they only introduce elements into play that players and the Judge want to be there. Someone owns that big pile of crap that was just dropped on that player. And this makes whoever dropped that big pile of crap on the player a big jerk.

Some games make "being the jerk" part of the game mechanics. I never found this satisfactory. I felt these types of mechanics fomented a player-versus-player mentality. I didn't find that fun. It was the kind of antagonism that ruined games, in my opinion.

But I didn't enjoy games with faux-antagonism either -- where the Judge was complicit in our success as players. The challenge, it was clear, was an illusion. Yet I had no desire to revisit the old days of authoritarian and slightly unhinged "Dungeon Masters" who, at times, really were just jerks.

Here's something true and slightly awesome. In DCC RPG, a Wizard can cast a spell and wind up with the head of a chicken. In what other spawn of the WMPFRPG would that be possible by any other means besides the Judge being a complete bastard?

Yet this can happen in a game of DCC RPG and everyone is okay with it because it is the result of a table, not an arbitrary invention of the Judge. 

The table is the bastard, not the Judge.

In Transylvanian Adventures, the tables help Judges introduce real antagonism to oppose the players. It does so within boundaries that help insure players are not de-protagonized. But it does not pull any punches either. 

Likewise with Ruin. It's a bit like rolling dice out in the open. If you roll a "20", everyone sees it. It's no one's fault that a character just got critted. It just is. The dice fall as they may, for good or ill. 

In other games, I (as the Judge) would be a cad if I announced a character was dead in the first encounter. There are all sorts of mechanics that have been introduced of late to bring characters back from the dead or to insure they won't ever die -- to protect players from evil DMs.

But that's not necessary in Transylvanian Adventures. If a character gets dropped with 1 Ruin or 8 Ruin and doesn't make the roll, the character is dead. But there are times where a character might have 5 or more Ruin and still makes the roll. And when this happens, it's memorable. Moreso because the players are (often rightly) assuming I'm actively trying to kill the characters -- within the scope of the rules, mind you.

In summary, Transylvanian Adventures was designed to play. I like it because I can throw the kitchen sink at players and they can give it back to me just as much. I also like it because terrible things can happen to the characters without me being a completely evil bastard.

The class abilities, tables, and mechanics are what help make this possible. It's what fuels the engine that allows a Judge to be a "nice guy Judge" and brutal antagonist.

And I haven't even mentioned the Adversary Die.


  1. Man -- lots of pressure to come up with something good to post now...

    I definitely agree with your stance on players, judges and rules with regard to "emergent play" -- but I wonder what you think about "Adventures." That is to say, historically most RPGs have assumed that somebody (probably the "judge") will follow a script of some kind for the basic outline of the adventure that the players get involved in. A lot of classic adventure modules usually had some element of flexibility, but they tend to be pretty linear.

    Any ideas on mixing that up?

  2. Have you seen this?

    Got my wheels spinning about how to do an expedition to Castle Dracula...

    1. That's pretty awesome. I've read Play Dirty and appreciate Wick's take on things for sure.

      It would be pretty easy to take his advice on allowing players to create the dungeon using the TA Investigation tables. There would also be built in endpoints (instead of just a timer) where the Judge/GM would take complication points.


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