Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Revisions Part 2: The True Nature of Encounters (with another excerpt from be67)

Hello, friends and neighbors. How's life? Mine (thanks for asking) is good but busy. Still can't leave the blog hanging like that. I keep finishing be67 as of this writing, but I am making progress, if ever so slowly. We are now testing this with another GM having a go at it (the great Mark van Vlack is giving it a shot ...), and it has been a most illuminating experience so far (and a blast rolling dice with Jay and Eric ... first time I had the pleasure of playing with my good friend Eric from Methods & Madmen!). Turns out, you can write 140 pages of rules and still miss some of the more crucial aspects of the game unmentioned.

To give you an idea ...

Anyway. I'm on it. We are here to talk what works, which would be the Narrative Encounter Generator that game features. Lets have a look ... You could also check out part 1 first.

Lost Songs did something like it!

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is another game still happening that hasn't seen love in some time now. Things is, all the work I put into other games right now is (still) to make LSotN the best game I can make. One of the most crucial parts (no one seems to care about) is what encounters are and how they measure towards a gaming system. As most of you will be aware, it never translates fully. Not all non-player characters are fully statted or carry even a tenth of what your basic character sheet will hold.

Couldn't, to be honest, unless it'd be a game with very basic values and no real depth. A game needs to provide the necessary data as soon as it is needed, which can be tricky, of course, if it is a whole lot of information a GM needs fast. D&D is a bit more complex like that, but can take a huge amount of punishment before breaking down and (for instance) killing a party because a random encounter turned out to be too hard. That can be a boon (as gamemasters can wing it and get away with it), but it also comes with huge disadavantages when you actually try to emulate it properly in your gamedesigns.

Seems like lots of it had been guesswork ...

Now, what you can learn when designing it from the bottom up, is, that it needs a deep understanding of what encounters really are and how they need to connect the game with players and gamemaster in a meaningful way.

I think one of the bigger misconceptions early D&D let fester, was the reduction of encounters to only being entities to interact with. It codified the idea that the game is around encountering monsters and taking their treasure. That this is only partly true is easily obvious as soon as one takes a closer look at all the interactive elements those games offer: ability scores, skills, saves ... all tools to probe a fictive reality in several different ways. role-playing games are about interacting with everything imaginable in the narrated surrounded. Everything the players ENCOUNTER, that is.

First time I developed designs in that direction was when writing Lost Songs, where characters didn't encounter entities as much as "narrative concepts" associated with fairy tales that may manifest as some sort of entity, but could be something entirely different, like a storm or a landscape feature that offers ineraction of some sort.

You can take a close look at that Random Narrative Generator here (damn ... that was seven years ago!). It is thoroughly tested, and let me tell you: it writes fantastic D&D stories, even on the fly. A variant of this is used to generate cyberpunk stories to great effect in ORWELL, too.

Turns out, however, that be67 needed a somewhat different approach. What I ended up with is a tool where the same method is used (generating abstract and random narrative encounters), but with more individual encounters specifically designed for one scenario instead of a whole genre. It helps focusing on the movie part of the experience, while somewhat moving away from the sandbox approach (characters are still having freedom of choice, but not as much on a fictive map as what the action sequences and movie scenes are, in a sense).

I already shared this in Part 1, but here it is again in the new context presented here:

So instead of a barony in your fantasy setting that has specific problems and quests, the movie title is the "territory" the players are exploring, and everything is geared towards that specific experience. You have a Zombie movie, scenic encounters should be about humanity failing to push back against the undead: streets with abandoned cars, overrun military outposts, burning cities. An encounter like that should set the mood.

Landmark would additionally offer some form of orientation (you'll notice that the encounters are arranged hierarchically), and might offer left behind messages by other survivors, like "Newport is still free", or "We are meeting at the Hargrave military base", or something along those lines.

Benign NPCs, then, would be other survivors with no ill will towards the characters, most likely (given the genre) someone needing help one way or another. 

Challenges could be anything from avoiding zombie infested areas to getting some form of energy (gas for a car, electricity, wood even) or ressource (ammunition might be a bg on here). A threat would be to get discovered, for instance, or overrun, while the main plot would hint towards the source of the zombie uprise, while the Main Evil is the source itself, and "showdown" would offer some form of solution to the get rid of the main evil. In this case, it might be a face-off with the zombie master (the difference between "just" encountering him as "Main Evil" would be that in a showdown, it is personal for some reason ... "You know my secret, therefore you must DIE!").

Now think about how those parameters might shift if it where, say, an alien invasion of body snatchers, or the plot of some Bond villain for world domination ... All get different NEG, but they might interact, even, like different locations would in a fantasy setting but as movie sets instead.

Throw some sixties weirdos into that (classes in be67 are Journalist, Outlaw, Activist, Spy, Flower Child, Saboteur, Veteran), and you got a game going!

How is all of that explained in the book, then?

The thoughts tying all of this together in be67, are formulated in the beginning of the GM chapter of the book (right after establishing the genre, as you may read here). Consider this (unedited, as it were):


But how to tell those stories? How to prepare for them? There is more to a story than having some maps and the numbers and information for monsters or Non-Player Characters on hand. It all needs to come together, at best gearing towards a very specific experience: bloody grindhouse cinema in the Weird Sixties.

As we just established, we are already half way there. The system carries a lot just by setting up specific player goals and resolving all of it geared towards that experience. It does not tell a story, however.

All the sources of inspiration we offered so far will also go a long way, giving GMs ideas what elements they might want to see in their games. And while that might lead to some satisfying adventures, it’d be difficult to make that a campaign to last over the course of 30 levels. It needs more than that.

The following segment will give some basic information how to prepare and tell stories as well as connecting all of that within a be67 campaign.

The Rule of Cool!

The first bit of structure every game needs is an understanding between the participants what “fun” constitutes for their gaming. They need to be on the same page about what be67 can be at their table. The Weird Sixties can provide a wide array of possibilities beyond what the hard rules the game already provides are able to convey.

You can have dog fights with dragons over New York, hunt werewolf Nazis lurking in the deep snow of Antarctica, or head expeditions into the Hollow Earth to fight dinosaurs and King Kong. All with a good dose of splatter and psychedelics … A GM’s imagination is the limit and a group’s willingness to suspend their disbelief directly correlates with the fun that can be had in be67.

The Rule of Cool, then, is basically a sleight of hand allowing “Suspension of Disbelief” by explaining what can happen as “movie magic” as long as it does not contradict the rules presented here.

A Character loses an arm? Why not let them have a prostheses with a shotgun because they “know a guy”? It is easy enough to see the advantages and disadvantages of something like that (even how to express and expand on it within the rules!). The blunt weapon of choice a Character is using is a frying pan? Why not have them do just as much damage as a mace would? The damage would be the same since Weapon Mastery doesn’t make that distinction. They could use a spoon, for that matter.

In a sense it is the logical consequence of how weird the setting is combined with how flexible the rules are. There is a “wiggle room” in between, and exploring that is part of the fun. In that spirit, The Rule of Cool proposes to let the imagination go wild for the fun of it. Not as a hard rule, but as something to keep in mind and everybody has an understanding of.

The easiest way to build tension?

The smallest narrative unit relevant in a role-playing game is an ENCOUNTER with an interactive element of the game. Those elements are interactive as soon as they enter the narrative, which could be as benign as a passer-by on the street or even just the entrance into a cave. For there to be tension, however, it needs to signal that there is either something to gain or something to lose. In raw game terms, gaining could simply mean xp while losing might simply mean losing Hit Points. In more general terms it might mean information that somehow brings the narrative forward.

By asking lots of questions about their surroundings, players will actually fish for interactive elements that can be salvaged for in-game currency most of the time without further initiative necessary from the GM. The art of gamemastering, however, is in shaping the dynamics of that fishing. There’s a couple of simple rules to follow when working Encounters into the game:

  • No Encounters Without Purpose – Encounters should always at least manifest one element of the setting, the mission or the scene. Even if totally random, the benefit must be either for meaningfully enhancing the atmosphere, enriching the world or advancing the game.

  • Always A Tease – No Encounter should occur without being hinted towards first at least once. It does not matter if the players are looking for the Encounter or the other way around.

  • Always A CatchThe more the players want something, the more they are willing to do for it, so the effort needed to have something happen is an easy regulator for a GM to motivate players into spending resources or have them drop an attempt by making the attempt too expensive. Teasing helps finding out how big of a catch an Encounter allows and which challenges are acceptable to engage with it.

  • Play With the Unknown – Signs of an Encounter about to happen should be as obscure as the narrative allows and might even be misleading as long as the reveal is able to explain what had happened.

  • (Let Them) Run With It – Encounters should never be changed while manifesting in order to accommodate the players’ intuitions about what’s happening or going to happen.

  • Allow Tension, Allow ReleaseThe interplay of teasing, little challenges and The Unknown will produce tension during Encounters, but tension always needs to be released as well. It is crucial to resolve all Encounters if the end of the Encounter is not obvious, even those that fail to manifest completely (due to a failed challenge, for instance) need to be resolved by signaling the Players that whatever was happening has come to some sort of end.

  • Never Stop Moving – Ideally, players will always look for something or have questions, which means there are enough encounters to explore around them. That said, it is always good to pile on what is existing to have something to engage them with as soon as the game stalls for some reason. A good rule of thump is to have at least three encounters manifesting at all times in some form or another, while being on the lookout to add even to that.

  • [ADVANCED] Little Puzzles Everywhere – What applies for Encounters in detail (as described above), does also apply for the sum of all Encounters over the course of a Session (or even several Sessions). Encounters map the gaming world for the players, and GMs should aspire to allow for meaningful patterns to appear on those maps for the Players to discover and play around with.

  • [ADVANCED] Encounters Triggering Encounters – While the above suggests an organic flow of the action manifesting from the interaction between narration, gamemaster and players, it is important to stress that encounters might escalate situations based on wrong decisions the players went for, making life more dangerous because of it. A natural consequence of bad decisions is, therefore, that additional encounters manifest immediately into the encounter that is playing out, making a bad situation worse. Gamemasters are encouraged to let that happen, but also signal that things are forced to escalate and the dangers associated with the escalation.

  • [ADVANCED] Time is a Construct – Not all encounters follow – or should follow – in a timely fashion. Sometimes it is, instead, advisable to have time pass without incidence, and without the attempt to fill the passing time with meaning. It just passes. The narration bridging the time gap sets up the next encounter instead, manifesting after the designated time has passed. Since there is an arbitrary element to this process, doing so deliberately between encounters will help shaping the narrative favorably while allowing for drastically shifting a group’s surroundings in a natural way, if need be.

Following the advice formulated above should lead to satisfying gaming loops in all Sessions when the challenges offered cover the range of systems that make be67, no matter the specific adventure. The next important step is to set the frame for those Encounters to happen in.

What kind of Encounters does the game need?

As already established: for the purposes of this game, an Encounter is basically EVERY element in the game the Characters can interact with. It needs to be distinguished, however, between NARRATIVE and STATIONARY Encounters. The first category is occurring in a (usually randomized) sequential manner as the story unfolds, the second comprises a set of necessary locations the Characters can (or need to) find over the course of a scenario or adventure.

Those two categories will interact with each other as the game progresses. Not only will the Stationary Encounters summon the “back cloth” for the run time of a specific movie scenario and keep that present, some locations will also be more dangerous than others and that will alter Narrative Encounters as well.


And that's how it's done in the book. Build on that follow tools to create challenges and monsters, going more and more into what the rules actually need (from most abstract, like shown above, to most crunchy).

This is where I'm at ...

At the moment I'm hammering down the finer details of this. It all needs to click in the end so that all those different ideas and designs come together into something coherent. Not easy (as it turns out), but fun nonetheless. Takes time, however (who'd have thought ...).

So this is what I'm doing when I'm doing something right now.

Artwork for the Spy in be67!
Well, what do you guys think about it? You think encounters should be EVERYTHING, to one degree or another, anyway, or is it too confusing for those used to the very specific way D&D established so many moons ago? Would you use it like I propose here? As always, your thoughts are very welcome.

And now back to work ...