Diegesis in TTRPGs, (OR why I don’t oppose meta-gaming or table-talk – any more!)

Between the various Facebook groups and gaming forums I engage with, the topics of meta-gaming and table talk come up almost weekly and are often initiated by relatively new GMs looking for suggestions of how to control or even ‘punish’ players who engage in these practices. I understand how they feel, because once I was in that position, but over the years I have ultimately have come to the understanding that not only are such strategies in contradiction to the nature and spirit of roleplaying games, but that the very opposition to metagaming and table-talk is an opposition to essential elements of the game experience.

The primary reason for complaint by GMs about players engaging in meta-gaming or table-talk is that it ruins any suspense, surprise or tension that the GM is trying to create by withholding information from the players, which they do in order to allow for a dramatic reveal or an unexpected occurrence at some point in the game. I believe that while the intent of the GMs in this instance is positive, they are reaching for the wrong tools in order to create the desired tension, suspense or drama, and that a primary reason they are reaching for the wrong tools is due to the way they view the gaming experience.

By exploring the concept of Diegesis in RPGs I aim to explain why table-talk and meta-gaming are not actually the problems many people feel them to be, and in fact, should be embraced as essential parts of the gaming experience that can make the whole thing more enjoyable for everyone involved.

First, some quick definitions:

  • Table-talk – when players talk about things that are not specific contributions to the in-game/in-character events taking place at that moment.
  • Meta-gaming – when a player uses knowledge of the game/rules/setting that their character would not know as the basis of in-character decisions and actions.

The phrase table-talk has it’s origins in card games, particularly Bridge, where non-game related talk might be used to send signals to your partner about the cards in your hand; this effectively constitutes cheating in a competitive game.  In discussions about RPGs, table-talk is often similarly framed as a form of cheating. I disagree with the idea that it’s cheating, but insist rather that it’s an essential element of playing an RPG.

Meta-gaming is similarly derided by many as a form of cheating. It needs to be noted here that the term metagaming is used to describe a whole range of behaviours that all hang upon the common element of ‘players using game knowledge the character shouldn’t have’, but varying in extremity based, again, on how GM and player view the nature of the gaming experience. Later in this article I’ll explain how metagaming can be viewed as either an intrinsic necessity of the game or as the result of a person actually refusing to play the role playing game, depending on whether or not they engage with the diegesis of the game.

Before expanding on those points further, I need to outline some key points:

  1. The inevitability of collaborative plot and narrative.

All RPGS, from the most board-game-like dungeon-hack to the systemless LARP, contain the basic elements of a story; one or more characters (characters), doing stuff (action), in one or more places (setting). And every such story is comprised of two elements, Plot and Narrative.

‘Plot’ means the relevant events of the story in the order that they happened, and ‘Narrative’ broadly refers to the way the events are presented.

In an RPG, everything that a GM and player do is a contribution to a collaborative plot and narrative and it is this process of collaboration that ultimately defines the experience of playing an RPG.

When a player says that their character chooses to open the door on the right, followed by the GM  telling them that the sound of the door opening wakes the sleeping ogre on the other side, they are jointly constructing the plot of their collaborative story.

When the player details their character action in any way they are creating narrative, from the simple “I/my character opens the door on the right” to the more elaborate “creeping through the dancing shadows cast by flickering torchlight, stout Grunthold approaches the rightmost door and, after placing the torch in the rusty holder mounted on the wall, grips the handle of his warhammer in one hand and with the other pushes hard to open the door…”

My proposition is that for the vast majority of RPG groups and games out there, the co-creation of a collaborative story is an unavoidable, and in fact defining, aspect of the way the game is played . What tends to vary instead is the degree to which participants in each game think of their game experience in this way.

While some have likened this to the classic trope of Olympian gods seated around a table playing a divine chess game with mortals, I feel that image invites too many expectations of competition, between the players and their characters.

Rather, I prefer to think of an RPG in a similar fashion to the production team of a movie, TV show or theatrical production – the players are the collaborative producers of the story being played, but are simultaneously the audience for whose entertainment the story is being produced.

Once you view your RPG as a being inherently an exercise in collaborative storytelling, then you also are engaging in two other intrinsic elements of such an experience…

  1. Diegetic and Nondiegetic gameplay

Diegesis refers to anything told by a narrator in a story, usually comprising character actions and thoughts. The term was first detailed by Plato, however in more contemporary parlance, particularly inspired by filmmaking, a Diegetic story element is one which exists within the world of the story, while Non-Diegetic elements are those that exist outside the world of the story but that are included for the sake of the audience.

A common example is that of music. If the character in a film is listening to the radio, then the music they can hear would be diegetic music. But if the audience can hear music that the character cannot (which describes the majority of music in movies) then that is non-diegetic music.

When it comes to RPGs, the act of playing the game also has diegetic and nondiegetic elements, and both are intrinsic parts of the game that are, ultimately, inseparable from each other.

First of all, a player’s knowledge and application of the rules, the act of rolling dice, moving miniatures on a map, questioning or clarifying rules, or otherwise discussing elements of the game are all examples of non-diegetic gameplay. The act of creating a character is a non-diegetic part of playing the game, establishing and adhering to rules is non-diegetic gameplay, and, essentially, any conversation between participants that is not specifically part of the game being played out in a given moment is non-diegetic gameplay.

These elements of non-diegetic gameplay all exist to inform the diegetic gameplay, which is the construction of the collaborative story taking place within the fictional world of your game. Without having created a character or knowing the rules that govern their possible actions, a player cannot effectively decide upon their character’s actions without some knowledge of the rules, or opportunity to clarify their understanding as it relates to the game.

The way in which you play your game may sit anywhere on a sliding scale between the diegetic and nondiegetic elements of gameplay, preferencing one over the other, or trying to strike a balance somewhere in the middle. There’s no right or wrong amount of focus to put on each element except as suits the preferences of the participants of a particular game – but both are, intrinsically, unavoidably, present in your game to some degree.

  1. Separation of Player from Character

It should seem a fairly obvious statement at this point that while the character is primarily a diegetic element of the game, the player and their engagement with the game constitute non-diegetic gameplay actions.

It is utterly impossible for a player to be part of the diegetic gameplay. Even the most committed of LARPers are still players depicting fictional events constrained by rules of play that are not present inside the fiction (e.g. using boffers or safe combat rules to govern play). So while the barrier between diegetic and nondiegetic gameplay may vary, it is always there to some degree.

The important thing for all GMs and players to be clear on is the delineation of diegetic  and nondiegetic elements in their game. 

As stated previously, all player activity ultimately manifests in the diegetic frame of the game; characters take certain actions, and succeed or fail in their efforts based on the non-diegetic gameplay actions of the players as they contribute to the collective story.

While the challenges that exist within those stories are primarily diegetic challenges for the characters, that does not preclude the GM from incorporating non-diegetic challenges that are intended for the player to engage with and solve.

Common examples include logic or language puzzles that characters encounter, but the players have a chance  to solve as part of the nondiegetic gameplay. They will then either succeed or not, at which point the player might use their character’s stats and related game mechanics to achieve a diegetic solution to the puzzle. 

What’s important to remember is that regardless of whether the challenges of a game are approached as part of the diegetic or nondiegetic, the final result is ultimately part of the diegetic game, contributing towards the construction of the collaborative plot and narrative. 

Table-talk, therefore, should be viewed as part of non-diegetic gameplay, and an intrinsic part of the game.

In order for characters to take the most appropriate diegetic action, a player may need to clarify their understanding of a situation, or specific rules, etc.

By embracing non-diegetic conversation – even in the middle of combat actions – you’re giving the players a chance to make their diegetic actions richer and more relevant to the story. Managing time and the pace of play is something that needs to be considered, but again, this is an element of non-diegetic gameplay to be worked out within the group, rather than enforced by the GM.

I also find that this conversation is an essential part of helping people who are new to the group, game or even the hobby itself feel supported in their involvement.

(Note – table-talk is a bit different than ‘off-topic conversation’. If you’re trying to run/play a game and someone at the table won’t shut up about last night’s sportsball game, or brings out their craft kit to make costumes for their cats, that’s not non-diegetic action, that’s a different issue altogether.)

Metagaming – the scale between nondiegetic play, and not playing the game.

The definition of metagaming is problematic, but, at least from the GMs perspective, when you view the RPG experience as engaging in nondiegetic gameplay in order to create the diegetic plot and narrative, and prepare game challenges appropriately, most forms of metagaming instead become part of the nondiegetic gameplay and can quickly cease to be a problem.

Ultimately, when the GM and players view playing an RPG as a collaborative exercise in co-constructing plot and narrative within the confines of a specific game, setting or system, player knowledge is not something that risks interfering with the GMs plans, but instead has the potential to enhance the story that grows out of the collaboration.

When the player knows something important about the game world that their character does not, that could inform the players decision to direct their character to take actions that might result in them learning that information, and that search – the player’s contribution to both the plot and narrative of the game – gives the GM a stimulus from which to build new sub-plots and story arcs.

At the more extreme end of the metagaming scale, however, you can encounter problematic behaviours such as players who ignore the diegetic scenario almost entirely, and either set off to pursue their own goals regardless of the collective story, or they insist on using purely nondiegetic solutions to diegetic challenges. Such individuals seem to often have a competitive view of what it means to play a game, and they’re playing to win according to their own definition of what that means.

I argue that such individuals are not actually playing the game. If the game consists of the rules, setting and specific fiction of any given session, then refusing to appropriately engage with all elements is to be, at best, engaging in a close approximation of the game. It’s like having someone turning up to a hockey field with a pink flamingo lawn ornament instead of a hockey stick, while still expecting to be taken seriously.

In such circumstances, the issue is likely to be one of social dynamics and personal relationships, and is not specifically about the game itself, and in the long run, such individuals either need to be brought around to a more collaborative understanding of the activity they are participating in, or in the worst cases, excluded.

So what’s a GM to do?

So if you’re using previously unknown information to create a ‘twist’ in your story, or as a way to introduce drama and tension into a game, then what can a GM do to make the game an interesting experience for the players?

For most games, the random outcomes of dice rolls provide much of the tension, provided that the mechanics of encounters and challenges are at an appropriate level to that of the player characters – the challenge is to treat the outcome of dice rolls not just as ‘wins’ or ‘losses’ but as the prompts for the next action in the plot, or the style of the next piece of the narrative.

The GM can provide additional challenge to the players by incorporating nondiegetic challenges for them to solve, but in RPGs the final outcome of any challenge must be played out diegetically, because if you as a GM make the success or failure dependent purely on the knowledge and skills of the players without at least allowing an option for utilising the rules that govern the diegetic world, then like the Pink Flamingo Player, you’re possibly not playing the same game as your group, either.

However as a GM what you can do is define what is at stake, depending on the characters’ actions. Every campaign, session, story or even action can have clear stakes that give the player and character a reason for the things they do in game.

In combat the stakes are already clearly defined. Win, and your character survives and usually obtain new things. Lose, and they’ll likely die or suffer some other set back.

But why are they fighting in the first place? What is at stake on a broader level if they win, lose or draw?

When you view RPGs as a collaborative experience, these questions quickly provide vehicles for drama, tension, and unexpected outcomes that cannot be duplicated in any other way.

But that’s a topic for a future post.

 

 

NOTE: This post has been heavily revised after a number of discussions with other gamers on Reddit and the Onyx Path Forums. Thanks to everyone who challenged some of the initial ideas and helped provide clarity.

Night brings the sun (a tale of heroic sacrifice)

[Image: ‘Night brings the sun’ by Jen]

I’ve been running an Exalted 2E game for about 2 years, in which time we’ve managed 14 sessions.

A recent session included the culmination of several plot lines and resulted in a large battle between the PCs, who were leading a militia of a few hundred hastily trained refugees, and a force of spider-like beastmen created by a sorcerous second-circle demon. The beastment were led by terrestrial exalted who were bound to love and serve the demon by mind-bending sorcery. However, the beastmen were only distraction from the army of war ghosts marching up from a nearby shadowland to overrun the refugee township the PCs were defending.

The fight with the beastmen took a hard toll on the PCs, with most of them drained of essence and suffering a few injuries, but one PC (a night caste martial artist) was crippled in the fight. As they were assessing the outcome of their narrow victory over the beastmen, the PCs became aware of the army of ghosts marching from another direction.

As the army of ghosts approached, the PCs – having recently gained access to a salt mine – tried to build a salt line around the village, but realised they wouldn’t have enough to do so, so instead they built a defensive salt line between the village and the army, planning to use some of their various travel charms and magic to encircle the army of ghosts with salt once they drew closer, and then just wait for the sun to rise.

They didn’t consider that the demon would be leading the ghostly army, and one casting of Magma Kraken (a powerful spell that summons tentacles of molten rock from the ground to fight) was able to disrupt their defensive salt line and gave the PCs the problem of dealing with the tentacles before they did any real damage.

This was when the crippled night caste decided to act.

Previously, the night caste had been having troubled dreams, which had led to learning the first few charms of the Quicksilver Hand of Dreaming martial arts style.

For those unfamiliar, the first couple of charms of this style include the ability to give people specific visions or dreams, and then another charm lets you pull those dreams out of people’s heads and manifest them in the real world. The night caste had not, up to this point, really explored the possibilities of this combo.

Realising the likelihood of defeat at the hand of the ghosts, which would mean a terrible end for the village and its 5000 occupants, the Night Caste PC gave a stirring speech in which he called for a volunteer willing to give their life in defence of their home and family.

Then, using an ancient artifact (Wings of the Raptor… a magic cloak turns into giant wings), the night caste flew high into the midnight sky, and with their last remaining essence used a combo of Martial Arts charms charms to give the person a waking dream of the rising sun that burns away the undead.

Then, knowing full well what it would mean to touch the surface of the sun, he plucked out that dream, letting the sun shine brightly for a fraction of a second before it incinerated both the character and his volunteer, but also destroying the entire army of ghosts in a blinding flash.

Between the player first proposing the idea and the final execution, we had a bit of discussion about the implications of the action and the ultimate finality of attempting to hold the sun in the palm of your hand. After considering some alternatives, the player decided to commit to it and we played out the final moment which brought a quick end end to the character and the battle. To background this event, we used the soundtrack from Sunshine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_b6C0PHXkQ

The final serendipity of the moment was the fact that the group had only just recently learned of the fate of the character’s first age incarnation, who had similarly died when a solar circle spell he had been casting to slay a horde of demons had been disrupted, and he similarly exploded, taking many of the demons with him, but ultimately killing himself and a circle-mate.

Heroic sacrifices are rare moments in roleplaying games – and need to be rare moments in order to maintain the weight and impact of the decision by the character/player – but when they come up in an appropriate moment it can be a real highlight to a game session, and even a whole campaign.

This moment was a great example of the collaborative storytelling of roleplaying, and one of many examples of why I love this hobby.

7 Principles of Good GMing

This blog post began with a joke which, to understand, needs a bit of context.

When I’m not gaming I’m a teacher in Australia, and one of my regular gaming groups includes several other teachers.

In Australia we have a set of professional standards for teachers that inform accreditation, professional learning, evaluations and basically all aspects of a teachers practice.

The first of these is “Know your students and how they learn”. In a conversation about the our recent game, for which I am the GM, one of the players asked about my approach to running games and in response I rephrased the first teaching standard as “Know your players and how they play.”

Great joke, right? You had to be there.

While the comment was flippant, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me, and when I thought about the other professional standards, they also translated quite effectively into a gaming context. There seemed to be a lot of overlap between my perception of a good GM and those practices considered ‘best practice’ for teachers.

I wondered; could these inform a set of Principles of Good GM-ing?

While I’ve read many excellent books and blogs about GMing, and while some talk about the qualities or techniques of a good GM, they don’t always succeed in identifying the behaviours and practices that a person might engage in to be a good GM, or to become a better one.

So, with that thought bubble expanding inside my brain, I set about adapting the Australian Professional Teaching Standards into a gaming context to see if they all could be applied to the practice of being a good GM.

So here is my first attempt at coopting the Australian Professional Teaching Standards into the Principles of Good GM-ing

1. Know your players and how they play

A good GM understands the kinds of games, stories, and events that their players find interesting and engaging, and uses those elements to craft plots and narratives that till be fun to play. This does not mean a GM should capitulate to every whimsical desire of every player, but rather a good GM seeks to find an equilibrium in the game that offers something to everyone, rather than forcing a particular style of play on to their group without consideration of players’ preferences.

A common strategy toward this goal is to start the game with a ‘Session 0’ where players and GM can talk about their preferences and expectations and find common ground before commencing play. For the GM, however, it is an ongoing process of observation and adjustment as the game progresses.

2. Know the game and how to run it

The GM should be fairly familiar with the setting and rules of the game being played. While many GMs and gaming groups introduce homebrewed rules and settings, these should be discussed and agreed upon outside of play (when delivering the death blow to one of your players’ characters is never the time to introduce your new house rule that allows certain attacks to bypass or otherwise ignore armour).

The published rules of a game define people’s understanding and expectations of the gaming experience, and the shorter the distance between someone’s expectations and experience, the happier and more satisfied they will be with the experience.

Adhering to the rules faithfully – or flagging variations to the rules ahead of time – is an essential element of trust between GM and players, and that trust is essential to players feeling safe and free to take risks either mechanically, or with their roleplaying.

3. Plan for and implement appropriate  gaming experiences

Every group has it’s own preferred playing style, from the rigidly mechanistic board-game-like dungeon-hack to nearly mechanics-free LARPs to the completely improvised collaborative story-telling.

Whatever your group’s approach, as a GM, you need to ensure you plan appropriately for each session, as even effective improvisation takes some planning and practice.

Your planning may involve a flexible plot outline which is altered by your players’ decisions in game, rehearsing the voice or mannerisms of a major NPCs, you may like to prepare pictures or maps, or maybe you prepare 3D printed dungeons with carefully painted miniatures.

In effect, this standard speaks to the implementation of the first principle, and says that whatever your group’s agreed style of play, make sure you are prepared to deliver on that style.

4. Create and maintain supportive and safe gaming environments

Like any collaborative activity, roleplaying depends on a certain amount of trust between players and GM. That trust depends on all participants feeling safe and supported within the gaming environment in order to take risks and engage in the game in new and interesting ways.

While roleplaying is usually a collaborative activity among friends or peers, and as such everyone has some responsibility towards a positive gaming environment, the GM holds at least symbolic significance within the group and has a larger-than-average role to play in establishing the tone and nature of gaming group interactions.

Consider particularly the way in which you handle queries or disagreements over rules, or the distinct separation of dialogue directed at characters compared to players, but also how effectively you implement the first 3 principles will contribute significantly to players’ feeling safe enough to take risks within the game.

5. Acknowledge and respond to player contributions to the game.

(This one is the most modified from the original language of the Teaching Standard)

Almost all games contain a mechanism for character advancement through the earning of Experience Points (XP), Karma, or other abstract representations of growth-through-experience that can be used to advance a character’s ability. In the first instance, this principle is about the appropriate use of such systems to acknowledge and reward desired behaviours within the game.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this principle is about player agency. Agency – being the perception or belief that ones actions result in a meaningful effect – is a key part of enjoyment within a roleplaying game, as well as a significant contributor to a person’s overall sense of wellbeing. Few things are more demotivating than the belief that one’s own actions are pointless and this is as true in roleplaying games as it is in the workplace or more generally in life.

As such, the good GM considers the actions of players and their characters and allows them to have an effect on the game, to influence the setting, the outcome of a scene, or even the direction of future stories.

This is part of the collaborative storytelling process that exists to varying degrees within all roleplaying games.

6. Engage in ongoing learning

At its core, this principle is an acknowledgement of the fact that being a good GM is ultimately a process of ongoing effort, rather than a fixed state of being. A good GM is not something you are, but rather Good GMing is something you do.

As an extension of the second principle, to be a good GM, be prepared to continually revise aspects of your game, your story, the published rules, your session notes, etc. It is a rare human who could have an encyclopedic knowledge of all the rules within a single gaming system, or the nuances of the setting that might be relevant to an upcoming session. For the majority of us, it requires an ongoing process of revising rules, adjusting ideas, seeking inspiration form other sources, or even just reflecting on what went well or could have been improved from previous session.

7. Engage with other GMs, players, writers and the gaming community

Roleplaying is a collaborative, community-based activity. As such, your practices as a GM can only be improved or enriched by engaging with the game from a community perspective. Whether it comes in the form of ongoing discussion with your group, participating in online forums, contributing to Q&As about particular topics relevant to your game, any broader engagement will ultimately provide you with opportunities to test and expand your ideas and understanding of your game.

 

So that’s it. A model of Good GMing derived from the Australian Professional teaching Standards. This is still very much in draft form, however I feel there’s enough here to be worthy of refining over time.

What do you think? Is there any aspect of being a Good Gm that you think isn’t covered in these 7 principles? Or is there something here that you don’t agree is necessary in order to be a Good GM? Let me know in the comments below.

The GM & the Tarot: 5 – long-term plots and event timelines

<<<Previously: Cytherea’s Civil War (Part 1)

Arising out of the request that led to Cytherea’s Civil War was the need to create a way to use the cards to create significant plot events that could define a campaign. In order to provide enough complexity and variety, and ensure it was a sustainable system that could be used repeatedly without too much chance of repetition if used repeatedly in the same game.

In devising this particular use of cards, I drew on a couple of assumptions:

  1. These plot events were primarily to involve the Player Characters (PCs), rather than define a timeline of events that would occur no matter what.
  2. That every plot event should have some point of conflict at the core. Conflict is what drives stories and either forces the PCs to react or is the result of the PCs actions.

I maintained the rules for interpreting cards that any Major Arcana meant there was some relation to one of the major NPCs (and if it was an actual NPCs card then it related to that characters) and that the court cards (Page, Knight, King, Queen) meant a significant NPC, even if only in the context of that story arc or event.

I also retained the idea of using inverted cards to indicated that something was hidden or secretive, though in this case I would not be drawing an additional card to ‘mask’ the hidden action or intent.

With those ideas in place, I settled on the following approach:

Draw 3 cards

  • First card – defines the main plot event
  • Second card – modifies the main event
  • Third card – identifies the point of conflict

It is up to you whether you interpret the cards in sequence or together, through my preference in this instance is to take them all together and consider the interactions between cards rather than adhere to any strict sequence of events.

As an example, here’s the first plot event from Cytherea’s Civil War:

First, draw 3 cards:

  1. Princess of Pentacles (inverted); explore and seek new things, but in secret.
  2. 2 of Pentacles; balance, equilibrium
  3. 6 of Pentacles; generosity of spirit

An interesting twist of coincidence (or poor shuffling) that three Pentacles cards came out together. Pentacles, despite the often mystical associations of the 5 pointed star, is most commonly associated with the material world and physical aspects of life. Money, property, business, etc.

That the key event is to revolve around a significant individual provides a sound introduction to a new story, and given the plot ideas already set in play by the draw of NPCs and their relationships to the characters, the element of secrecy is also quite fitting.

As it’s the opening of a campaign involving characters in a foreign land, there are some elements that seem unavoidable. Arriving, establishment, meeting locals. However the nature and style of these events are shaped by the cards.

So here’s how I defined the opening event…

Plot event outline:

The Vermillion legion (PC faction) arrive in An-teng and are welcomed by the matriarch of a village (the Princess card) in the outer regions where they set up camp. The PCs faction have been sent in support of House Ledaal’s legion who are there to help quiet tensions in the area after a minor uprising in one of the outer provinces (restore balance/equilibrium). Their true mission, however, is to seek out the location of a rumoured first age weapon that would give house Tepet a significant advantage, but the leadership of the legion are under orders to keep the true nature of their quest strictly need-to-know (seek new things, but in secret). Therefore, only a few of the legion’s ranking officers know the true objective. A conflict arises early between the two generals when the Ledaal general takes a very forceful approach to engaging with the local populace and the Tepet general intervenes at the behest of the Matriarch (the general’s generosity of spirit provoking conflict).

This approach seemed to work fairly well for its intended purpose, so the next step in finalising the Civil War plotline is to generate a series of events to provide the opening structure of the campaign.

<<<Previously: Cytherea’s Civil War (Part 1)

Coming soon: Cytherea’s Civil War (part 2)

Cytherea’s Civil War (Part 1)

<<<Previously: 4 – A sample session outline

Next: 5 – Long term plots and event timelines>>>

NOTE: This post assumes some knowledge of the setting and characters of Exalted.

One of the main gaming forums I inhabit is Onyx Path Publishing’s Exalted forum, and after I published the first 4 GM & the Tarot articles, I posted links here for some feedback from forum users, and offered to apply the process on behalf of anyone else’s campaign starters to see what emerged.

Forum user Cytherea took up that offer, providing the following idea:

“If you’re still up for it, I’d love to hear what your system can come up with for the game I’m currently planning.

It’s going to be a campaign about the Realm civil war beginning in An-Teng with a conflict between Tepet Ejava’s Vermillion Legion (the PC faction), the satrap and their local Ragara interests, and General Shuri the Scarlet representing House Ledaal. Of course, other factions like the Tengese Princes, the Lintha, and the First and Forsaken Lion will be causing trouble as well. I’m in the middle of trying to come up with a rough timeline of events for this mini civil war, sort of like the guide in Return of the Scarlet Empress. Could this system handle something like that?”

Can it handle something like that? Well, I was certainly willing to find out.

This request has two distinct parts. The first, and the subject of this post, is developing a campaign landscape using the method of drawing and interpreting tarot cards described primarily in post two of this series.

The second part, to come in a future post, was to come up with a method of determining large-scale timeline events to drive a campaign.

Choosing the deck

I have a number of different decks that have different images and themes to depict the common characters, events and ideas of the tarot. For Exalted games, I usually use the Manga Tarot. I like this one for a couple of reasons; primarily it uses images of characters, creatures and objects inspired by Japanese history, culture and mythology that has a strong resonance with the setting and style of Exalted, but it also inverts the typical gender associations of the major arcana and other characters depicted in the deck.

One of the ideas I’ve always found attractive about the setting of Exalted is that because people of all genders exalt (awaken to/be granted demi-god like powers) in roughly equal numbers, there is not an underlying culture of sexism informing most of the societies in the setting. For this reason, I like the greater number of prominent female figures in the manga tarot deck, partly as a reminder to constantly question my own assumptions about issues of gender and identity when creating key NPCs and plot elements for the game.

The Campaign Landscape

The first series of card draws involves drawing only major arcana to inform a series of 8 NPCs, followed by a second draw, again of only major arcana, to inform NPC motivations. The second draw allows inverted cards as an indicator of hidden motives, and which usually prompt subsequent draws to identify the public face of the character’s intentions.

So for this campaign that intends to lead up to a civil war between major houses of the Empire, I drew the following:

NPC Card Motivations
02 – The Priest 16 – The Tower (inverted) + The Hanged Woman (inverted)
08 – Justice 19 – The Sun
11 – Strength 13 – Death
12 – The Hanged Woman 14 – Temperance (inverted) + 20 – Judgement
16 – The Tower 8 – Justice
18 – The Moon 15 – The Devil
19 – The Sun 0 – The Fool (inverted) + 11 – Strength
21 – The World 21 – The World

Devising NPCs

Here’s how I interpreted the NPC cards in light of Cytherea’s overall campaign outline:

Card Meaning/s NPC
02 – The Priest Spirituality. Advice, non-materialistic vision, teaching. “The spirit is a garden to be cultivated with love”. Respected elder of An-Teng, mortal necromancer, ‘keeper of the pact’ who negotiates with the denizens of a local shadowland.
08 – Justice Equity. Do right, objectivity, perspective. “Doing the right thing is the most difficult thing.” Imperial general – Tepet, believes in service to the empire but values immaculate philosophy principles of caring for those beneath one’s station, and so questions orders that seem to serve personal, over broader, goals.
11 – Strength Energy. Self-control, perseverance, resistance. “All know how to be weak, all know how to be strong.” Imperial general – Ledaal, devotee of military strategy, master martial artist, values victory above all.
12 – The Hanged Woman Equilibrium, sacrifice, training. “equilibrium comes from the inside” An-teng political leader who serves as a local advisor to the satrap, is privy to various factional plots that seek the leader’s endorsement and resources.
16 – The Tower Ashes. Ruin, destruction, things going up in smoke. “The storm breaks only what does not bend”. Tengese prince who is the figurehead for an army preparing to reclaim an-teng from the empire.
18 – The Moon Going beyond appearances, dreams, thoughts, ‘Harmony in giving and receiving’. A sidereal of the Silver faction, believes a compromise is necessary between the ruling order of solars and lunars, due to the solars reduced numbers.
19 – The Sun Truth, light, decision, ‘Live in the light’ A sidereal of the Gold faction, seeks to return creation ‘to the light’.
21 – The World Soul, Completeness, understanding, perfection, achievement, ‘Everything in the right place’ Pirate captain, serves their demonic patron (soul) in their mission to return things to the right place. Believes they have established a life of balance and perfection walking between worlds (land and sea, creation and malfeas)

This collection of NPCs primarily served to represent the primary factions already identified as part of the campaign, with only the addition of two sidereal characters, manipulating matters from behind the scenes.

Determining Motivations

Next came their motivations, which offered the chance to develop these NPCs and open up the possibilities of their involvement in the story.

I interpreted the cards this way:

NPC Motivation Cards NPC motivation
The Necromancer 16 – The Tower (inverted) + The Hanged Woman (inverted) The necromancer is secretly providing intelligence to ancestor spirits about the workings of politics and imperial happenings in An-teng. They believe the ghosts will help to free the region of Imperial forces, but are unaware that a Deathlord is direction the actions and inquiries of the ghostly forces who plan instead to wipe out all of creation. Many other factional leaders seeks wisdom form the dead via this NPC, but they are genuinely unsure of who, if any, deserves their help.
General of the Vermillion Legion (PC starting faction) 19 – The Sun The Tepet leader of the Vermillion legion believes that something is amiss about the current state of their orders and, while fulfilling their duty, seeks the truth of their orders, and the actions of the other imperial legion in the area.
General of the Ledaal legion 13 – Death The Ledaal general seeks glory through greater challenges, grows tired of suppressing rebellions and fighting off beastmen on the fringes of civilization and wants to test their mettle against legendary enemies of creation.
The Satrap’s Advisor 14 – Temperance (inverted) + 20 – Judgement The Satrap’s advisor hides beneath a veneer of judicious leadership, balancing the various interests and factions that threaten to upset the peace of the region, however they secretly want to purify and heal their homeland.
Prince of An-Teng 8 – Justice This Tengese prince is the local mirror of the Ledaal general. They believe they are fighting a righteous war and are dedicated to their cause.
Silver Faction Sidereal 15 – The Devil This Sidereal, while pursuing a return to power of the celestial exalted in creation, also wishes to be celebrated for their achievements. They hunger for recognition and reward, and feel frustration at the effects of their arcane fate.
Gold Faction Sidereal 0 – The Fool (inverted) + 11 – Strength This Sidereal presents an image of dedication to the protection of creation, claiming that the celestial exalted are the strongest defence against chaos, however they secretly get a thrill out of upsetting the status quo. After a life dedicated to order and fate, this individual has found perverse pleasure in impulsiveness and unpredictability, and part of their motivation is to cause chaos and see what emerges.
Lintha Pirate Captain 21 – The World The Lintha pirate capatin is pure in their service to the malfean ideal. They want to help bring down the masters of creation so that their demonic parents can rise again. Everything they do has an angle connected to a plot to set people against each other, cause strife, and encourage others to further fray the fabric of creation. In time, this NPC may be a prime candidate for Infernal Exaltation as a reward for their service.

NPC-PC Relations

The final part of determining the overall landscape is randomly determining the overall relationship these major NPCs will have with the PCs. This determines who their allies, enemies, and associates will be over the course of the game.

I shuffled the cards and ended up with this result:

(strongest allies/supporters at the top, down to direct antagonists at the bottom)

  • The Moon – Silver Faction Sidereal
  • The Tower – Tengese Prince
  • Hanged Woman – Local Advisor to Satrap
  • The World – Lintha Pirate
  • The Priest – Mortal necromancer
  • The Sun – Gold faction Sidereal
  • Strength – Ledaal General
  • Justice – Tepet General

Now this was a fascinating outcome! The leader of the PC starting faction was to ultimately become their greatest adversary, with local political figures and revolutionaries as their closest allies.

That the gold faction sidereal was to be in a more antagonistic position made sense, seeing as the Terrestrial Exalts overthrew and murdered the solars all those centuries ago.

Ultimately, it seems the characters will start the game as members of an Imperial legion on a mission from powerful royal luminaries, and eventually find themselves in conflict with their initial allies and in stronger alignment with local interests, perhaps becoming sympathetic to their plight or even joining or helping lead their rebellion.

And that sounds like the beginning of an epic civil war story about loyalty, values and conflict!

Coming soon: Cytherea’s Civil War (part 2) – Countdown to war!

<<<Previously: 4 – A sample session outline

Next: 5 – Long term plots and event timelines>>>

 

Image title/artist unknown. Sourced here.

The GM & the Tarot: 4 – A sample session outline

<<<Previous: 3 – Devising a session

The purpose of this post is to provide a sample of a session outline developed using the processes outlined in Part 3 – Devising a session. This example will be for a Shadowrun game session and will build on the campaign frame and sample NPCs developed in Part 2 – framing a campaign. If you haven’t read the previous posts detailing the use of cards, this post may be a little hard to follow, though the scenario outline at the end should still be of use.

First, in order to kick off the story a begin building plots involving my major NPCs, I’ve opted to incorporate two of the Major Arcana/NPCs into my session draw. After a bit of shuffling, The Chariot was mixed into the 7 card draw, and The Hierophant is a secondary factor in the story.

Session outline draw

The initial 7 card draw comes out as follows:

Story Element Card Suggested meaning
Inciting Incident 9 of Swords Failure, death, delay
Story Goal The Chariot (Major NPC – Smuggler)- also, war, triumph, providence
Primary Obstacle 10 of Cups Contentment, perfection
Assistance 9 of Cups (inverted) Concord, victory, success
Opposition 6 of Swords (inverted) Journey, route, way
Consequences / Stakes Judgement (inverted) Accounting for past actions
Rewards 4 of Pentacles Resisting change

Interpreting the cards

Because The Chariot emerged as the Story Goal, the objective of the story is for the characters to help the Major NPC of the Smuggler achieve a significant goal. As another Major Arcana emerged under Consequences / Stakes, that aspect of the story will be related to the second NPC in this story, the corporate military R&D agent (The Hierophant). Because the Judgement card is inverted, the Hierophant’s involvement in the story will be indirect and possibly not something the player characters are aware of.

Now onto the rest of the cards:

While the common conceit to start a story in Shadowrun games is that the PCs are hired to do a job or ‘run’, and not wanting to over complicate things for the first session in a new campaign I will stick with that arrangement. The reasons for the job, however, can be coloured by the card that is drawn and influence the circumstances of the rest of the session.

So this story begins when the characters are hired to replace another team who have failed to do a job (‘failure’ as represented by the 9 of Swords). This immediately suggests that the job is particularly difficult. The reasons for their failure will be determined after more of the session outline is completed.

The goal of this story is to help the Smuggler deliver a package – they PCs are to meet the Smuggler somewhere just inside the national border and take possession of a package and then get it to its intended destination.

The primary obstacle of this session is defined by ‘contentment, or perfection’ – following on from the influence of the 9 of Swords as the Inciting Element, this card could be interpreted as a further absence of contentment, or even the opportunity for contentment, meaning that the pressure is really on for this task. The job has just become incredibly time-sensitive and so the PCs have far less than their usual time for preparation – effectively none – and will have to improvise more than usual to complete the task in time. To further expand on the idea of an absence of contentment, the primary setting for the story will be on unfamiliar and hostile territory. In the default Shadowrun setting of the Seattle city-state, there are plenty of hostile urban sprawls and slums in which such events can take place. In this case, the PCs have to meet the Smuggler in one of the abandoned regions of the city rendered uninhabitable by an erupting volcano, occupied now by urban predators, gangs and magical nasties that dwell in the dark places of the Shadowrun universe.

Whatever assistance is available to the characters at short notice is not immediately evident and would therefore require some exploration or creative thinking on behalf of the PCs to uncover. In the context of the story so far, and given a primary meaning of the 9 of Cups is ‘concord’, or agreement between groups of people, there will be a small community of homeless people living around the area who can help the PCs navigate through unfamiliar terrain. This help will not be offered freely, nor will their presence be immediately evident.

Opposition, defined by an inverted 6 of Swords, has to do with the route or journey the characters or their goal will take. A clear use for this card is not immediately evident, so I’ll wait to apply the remaining cards before deciding in this one.

The inverted Judgement card relates to the NPC of the Hierophant, or the military R&D agent, who themselves have a hidden motive. This character is behind some aspect of the story but their involvement is indirect, so I interpret that as meaning that the character will be acting through third party agents as well as further ciphers to protect their identity, should the PCs go looking. I also have to remember that this character is meant to be the primary antagonist of the campaign and so it can’t hurt for their relationship to the characters to get off on a bad foot.

Therefore, I choose to interpret this card and it’s position on the draw as referring to the ‘consequences of success’ in the style of ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. If the characters succeed in their task they will incur, at least, some ongoing bad favour from their hidden adversary.This means that the hidden NPC doesn’t want the characters to succeed. But why? The NPC has an investment in the characters failing in their task. This NPC wants to claim the item that the characters are helping to smuggle, which, given the secret motivation of the NPC suggests that the smuggled items have some value to the NPCs secret pursuit to ‘transcend humanity’ through cyber-technology.

The last card in the ‘rewards’ position  indicates that ‘resisting change’ will be a primary benefit of success in this story. Given the result of the card/story element above, this is going to mean that succeeding in this task will prevent something significantly worse from happening – it means a significant delay in the NPCs progress towards their goal, which, by extension, means that the NPCs goal is something worth stopping.

With these two final cards in place it helps to interpret the card in the ‘Opposition’ position. The characters will be opposed by others who want to get the smuggled package on a different route or journey than the direction the PCs will take it. The one element I will then add to the story that isn’t immediately suggested by the cards will be the agents that are trying to intercept the package and prevent the PCs from succeeding. Given that the major NPC has an allied NPC (or group) in the form of an elite squad of soldiers assisting in the research, some manifestation of that group will be the opposing agents in this session.

With all of those elements in place, it’s time to draft the final session outline…

Session outline

Backstory: The NPC R&D agent is involved in some less-than-ethical research into pushing the limits of cyberware and the human condition. While doing more mainstream research for their primary employer, a corp-run military outfit, they are also pushing their own agenda and subtly manipulating some experiments in order to test personal hypotheses alongside the corp-approved research goals.

One facility that operates in a location outside of the games setting was the subject of a successful run to capture a lot of research data, and then damage or destroy the facilities and any available data backups.

The perpetrators of this run did not know that the facility and research they were targeting were part of the NPC R&D agents personal agenda.

Upon learning of the heist, the NPC set a couple of members of their available allied soldiers to track down the perpetrators and reclaim the missing data. Because the true nature of the research was secretive and the NPC didn’t want to draw additional attention, they send only a small number of soldiers on this mission (perhaps the corporation that owned the facility considered it an acceptable loss, especially seeing as such espionage is a common part of doing business in the world of Shadowrun).

So the team of runners that were meant to receive the package were intercepted by the soldiers while the smuggler with the data was still in transit, leaving the person who initiated the job to arrange for a new crew to make the pickup with little preparation and deliver it to a third and final agent.

Gameplay outline: The PCs are hired by a generic agent to pick up a job after the previous team have dropped out of contact. They have to meet the smuggler in a remote and hostile part of town, collect a package, and get it to another destination back in the inhabited part of the city. They characters are offered an enticing bonus to their pay to make up for the lack of preparation time and the extra danger implied by the disappearance of the previous crew.

The location of the meeting is a particularly desolate and alien piece of terrain. Long-cold lava flows engulf the bottom stories of buildings, many of which are crumbling and unstable due to the damage to their lower floors – rubble and difficult terrain abounds. The Smuggler will be coming in an aerial vehicle to land on one of the few large, stable buildings in the area that has a still-serviceable landing pad on its roof, where the PCs will meet, collect the package and aim to get back out the way they came.

This will involve a bit of planning and improvising on the part of the GM to characterise the terrain and consider how it may present challenges to the characters. Being inaccessible to most conventional vehicles is a good starting point.

Once the PCs have the package, the soldiers tracking them will make their move and try to reclaim the data being smuggled. Because in the world of Shadowrun, data can be smuggled/transferred via the Matrix, this package will also include a physical element. A prototype device that is also being transported.

The major conflict of the session then will be the PCs trying to either fight or flee from a small group of elite soldiers who will be better equipped and trained to operate in this environment. If they succeed, they will be marked by the NPC as being part of an opposing conspiracy, and if they fail they will either be killed by the soldiers, or at least lose the package entrusted to them by the Smuggler.

This will be played out in roughly three main scenes,

One – the hire. The PCs meet with the hiring agent who will impress upon them the urgency and potential dangers of the job (set the stakes high!)

Two – the meeting. The PCs enter the area of the ground, where the GM develops the alien nature of the surroundings and the challenges it presents. The PCs may have a little bit of time to explore and in which to potentially uncover the possibility of assistance from the local community (which might come in the form of a secret passageway out or helping transport the package so the characters can lead the soldiers away – this would be high risk and possibly result in achieving the story goal while still suffering significant personal consequences or death).

Three – Ambush! The soldiers spring their trap which, depending on the PC’s actions, could results in a deadly stand-up fight or a pursuit through difficult territory to freedom.

And that’s it! There’s an example of using tarot cards to develop a session outline and related story elements.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them below.

<<

The GM & the tarot: Part 3 – Devising a session

<<<Previously: 2 – Framing a campaign

Next: 4 – A sample session outline>>>

Having used the Major Arcana to develop the landscape of your campaign, it’s now time to bring the rest of the deck into play in order to devise an individual session.

While this post refers to generating a ‘session’, that is shorthand for ‘a single narrative arc of complication-action-resolution that might realistically be expected to be played in a single session’. This means a single complication that needs to be resolved through character action, with factors to add options, obstacles and assistances for the characters.

This use of cards can actually be a more complex process as it requires an even more abstract interpretation of the cards, and does not present quite as ‘neat’ a framework as just using the major arcana for the broad strokes of a campaign. As with all parts of this process, it is intended to prompt ideas that might be outside of your usual approach to generating story ideas, not to restrict or limit ideas. So go with interpretations of the cards that makes sense in the context of your game, rather than being concerned about finding the ‘right’ or ‘best’ use of a card in any given context.

Before beginning a draw of cards to outline a session, you have to decide what to do with the Major Arcana cards relating to your primary NPCs

How to use the Major Arcana

The way you incorporate the Major Arcana into a session outline card draw depends on whether you want your overarching campaign narrative to develop quickly, or to be a background part of a more open-world campaign with lots of subplots.

You can either keep the set of Major Arcana representing your primary NPCs separate from the deck, or you can mix them in with the other cards to see if and when they emerge. Whichever you choose, mix the remainder of the Major Arcana into the deck (including the ones used to identify NPC motivations).

  1. If you expect to be playing for an extended time and want any developing meta-narrative to emerge slowly, with NPC plots developing along in the background, then mix them into the deck. Should they turn up in a draw, then you interpret them in a way that directly relates to that NPC (which is an interesting way to have subplots and unexpected twists turn up in your game)
  2. If you want your game to quickly develop an overarching narrative that focuses on the machinations and conflicts of your major NPCs, leave them out of the deck. Before completing the draw below, draw two of the Major Arcana. Mix one of those 2 into the cards you’ll draw for the session outline (below) and place the other one to the side. The card mixed into the session outline draw will be the NPC who is primarily involved in the session / story, while the second card will be the one whose interests are invoked in the story, though maybe not by the NPC themselves being directly involved.

The session outline draw

After deciding what you want to do with the Major Arcana, shuffle the deck and draw 7 cards and lay them out in a row (or 6 + one Major Arcana as detailed above) . The cards inform the following elements of the story:

1 – Inciting Element

2 – Story Goal

3 – Primary Obstacle

4 – Assistance

5 – Opposition

6 – Consequences / Stakes

7 – Rewards

When shuffling the deck, you can introduce a swirl or reversal of some cards so that the orientation of the cards is also mixed up, as with the drawing of motivations in Part 2. Those cards that appear inverted indicate something hidden or secretive about the result, while those that are drawn upright indicate elements of the story that are available.

Interpreting the cards

When interpreting the cards, the abstract (vague?) meanings and imagery of many of the minor arcana can be interpreted to represent physical or abstract ideas within your story. If, for example, you drew the Four of Swords to represent the major obstacle in your session, you might interpret it as an actual person who is vigilant and ever watchful, or it might be that the scenario calls for the characters to be vigilant, and therefore you’ll throw lots of distractions and red-herrings at them. You have a lot of flexibility to shape the cards to suit the style and tone to the kinds of stories you like to tell.

However, the following guidelines can also help to make the abstract meanings and imagery of most tarot decks more relevant to a role-playing game:

  1. If any of the royal cards are drawn (page, knight, king, queen) then use those to represent a new NPC who is of significance to that particular session – and who may become a recurring secondary character in your game. Whether or not that secondary NPC has any direct relationship to your primary NPCs is up to you based on how you interpret the remainder of the cards.
  2. If an Ace is drawn at any point, then make that story element something of ‘greater-than-usual-significance’ to the setting of your game. This way, you occasionally introduce heightened stakes, or elements of drama in your stories.
  3. If any Major Arcana are drawn, then that element of the story/session must directly relate to the business of one of the primary NPCs defined earlier in the process.

a. If you chose the option to mix the Major Arcana relating to your major NPCs back into the deck, then you choose which NPC a card relates to.

b. If more than one Major Arcana appear, then connect each card to a different primary NPC – this is how new conflicts and subplots can develop within your game. If you have chosen to draw 2 Major Arcana as part of your session outline draw, the relate any further Major Arcana to those 2 first before reaching further into your NPC deck.

c. If you actually draw one of the Major Arcana that is the card used to define a major NPC then that element of the story directly relates, if not personally involves, that character (this will definitely happen if you chose to mix one of the Major Arcana cards into your session outline draw).

From there it is up to your interpretation of the cards to create story elements for your characters to engage in. Be flexible in your interpretation of the cards, and if something comes up that you just cannot make work in a story framework you’re otherwise happy with, then ignore it, replace it with another story element that makes sense to the rest of your story, or even consider drawing another card to replace it.

<<<Previously: 2 – Framing a campaign

Next: 4 – A sample session outline>>>