Contrivance in story dynamics

@pointofyou

I'm still not quite sure what sort of list you have in mind, and how you see it being operationalised.

I'm not quite sure I'd use "operationalize" to describe my approaches but I'll try to explain more clearly or at least more verbosely.

By "unbounded list" I mean a list that in principle includes more or less all things possible and allowed in the game being played. There might be some selection for environment or biome or whatever but there need not be and the list is put together without any consideration for who the PCs are or why they are doing PC things.

By "curated list" I mean a list where some or most or all the items on it have been chosen to engage the PCs or at least with consideration for who they are and why they are doing PC things. In principle the items on the list could be pulling on old threads or weaving in new ones.

Seems to me the lists would be pretty similar in use. The system calls for a roll on the table and the GM rolls on the table and what the GM rolls on the table comes into play. Seems pretty obvious to me the latter list would engage the PCs' interests and motivations more or at least it'd be much more likely to.

In my OP I mentioned Event rolls in Torchbearer. These are triggered at definite moments of play - when the PCs make camp, when the PCs arrive at a settlement so as to enter it, when the PCs tell tales in a tavern, etc. Some of the entries on the tables make reference to particular categories of relationship - eg a PC's parents, or a PC's enemy - while others do not; but there is a general instruction given to the GM to treat the written event results as a starting point for tailoring to the characters and situations in the ongoing game.

As an example:

In a recent Torchbearer session I rolled a tavern rumour for Golin, the Dwarven Outcast. The rumour result was to the effect of you learn about a bad thing happening to people who fit the description of your parents. But Golin is an orphan! (Established as part of his PC build - you can either choose to have parents, and get +1 Circles and somewhere to stay for free when you're in your hometown; or you can choose to be an orphan and start with an heirloom worth 1D of cash). Golin does, however have a friend, Vaccin the alchemist, in the town where the tavern rumour was heard (another PC build option) - but that town is not Golin's hometown.

So I thought for a minute or so, and then checked with Golin's player about two things - one, that Vaccin was old (yep, he agreed with that) and two, if he knew how Golin had been orphaned (nope, he didn't know how). I also checked Golin's age on his PC sheet - 43 years old.

And then I narrated that Golin got talking to one of the old-timers in the tavern, and that old-timer commented that Vaccin seems to have a thing for Dwarven friends, because about 40 years ago, he (Vaccin) was friendly with a Dwarven couple who had visited the town with their young bairn. But the old-timer had only ever seen them that one time . . .

So that's an example of how I took a relatively generic event description, and adapted it to fit the situation and the character, and thereby established some new bit of backstory that connects Golin and his friend Vaccin, and opens up the possibility of a new adventure, namely, learning what happened to Golin's parents.

Another couple of examples:

In the session before the one I just wrote about, the PCs haggled with an alchemist/taxidermist (not Vaccin, but one he put them in touch with), over the price he would pay for a couple of captured stirges. That all went fine, and then the PCs left town for a bit, and dickered with some bandits, and then came back to town. And so I rolled for the town event, and the result was:

A funeral celebration. Some old bastard is dead, and folks are celebrating in the streets. Someone offers you a cup of strange wine. Remove hungry and thirsty or if not hungry and thirsty, you wake up hungry and thirsty and hung over the next morning. In the latter case, you may remove angry or afraid if you have them.​

I told the players that while the PCs were journeying, the alchemist/taxidermist had died from an unexpected stirge poisoning. They laughed. And Golin (as played by his player) immediately started plotting: in their dickering with the bandits, the PCs had persuaded the Dwarven bandit Gerda to leave the gang and join them; and now Golin saw a chance to insert her into the alchemical hierarchy in the town, a vacancy having just been created.

And in our most recent session, the PCs irritated a cinder imp who was living happily in an enemy Dreamwalker's home, and then drove the imp off. When they re-entered town I again rolled an event roll, and it indicated a fire at the premises of the Hedge Witch, rendering that town facility no longer available (the event has 6 possible locations/facilities listed, and calls for a die roll, and that's what I rolled). Golin had already interacted with the Hedge Witch in an earlier session, trying to buy explosives, and so this was something that stung a bit. And the cause of the fire was taken to be obvious - ie the angry and recently-set-at-large cinder imp. This sets up the possibility of the hedge witch becoming an enemy of the PCs as a future consequence for a failed check in this town.

I'm not sure if this is anything like the sort of approach to a curated list that you have in mind. But those are examples of how Torchbearer does it; and so far I'm very happy with the dynamic it creates, with the world unfolding around the PCs but ample opportunity to connect it to their escapades, and provide springboards for future escapades, in a way that is closer to a genuine story and less like a police procedural's murder-of-the-week.

It seems as though those mechanics are working well for you and your group. This comes as no surprise to me as the Burning Wheel Family of Games are noted for their tightly-structured mechanics. I don't think I have denied that my idea of a "curated list" in this context puts more work or responsibility or something on the GM's plate and there are certainly good reasons to prefer this to be more baked-into the mechanics of the game. When I run games where the GM has the responsibility and authority to create or curate encounter lists I do so with the PCs I'm running for in mind. I have had no problem connecting encounters to past escapades or generating new ones and the stories have felt more than genuine enough around the tables.
 

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In my opinion, the point of the confluence of Torchbearer thematic PC build components (Belief, Creed, Goal, Nature, Mentor, Family, Friend, Enemy, Hometown) + Twists (advice for them and how they work) + Calamity/Event tables is kindred with a lot of similar games, just operationalized differently on a per game basis.

Apocalypse World's GM moves (generally) + specific Threat moves works within the framework of the thematic PC build components and advancement in the game not terribly far afield from how Torchbearer works; Relationships (hx), playbook triggers and highlighted stats. Same goes for the other games in this line (like Dungeon World et al).

D&D 4e complications/change-the-situation +Encounter Goals are related to Player Quests/objectives (which are in turn related to PC build choices like Race/Background/Class/Theme/Paragon Path/Epic Destiny and how those things + player decisions create the challenges before the players which creates the unfolding fiction and trajectory of play). The game twists and turns based on the confluence of all of these things.

Dogs in the Vineyard is similar where premise + PC build lead to "Adventure Design" (just like in TB) - Towns. Conflicts in Town lead to "Twists" (follow-on-conflict and Fallout in Dogs parlance) which ultimately leads to post-Town Reflection (which is like all of the advancement and end-of-session stuff in the games listed above).




The Event/Calamity Tables of Torchbearer are the outlier of all of these games and game attributes listed above, but that is only when looked at in isolation. When looked at through the lens of holistic/integrated system, GM's best practices handling of the results of Event/Calamity Tables is basically just a more deeply constrained menu of Twist-handling. You should be working to either (a) present PCs an opportunity or (b) create a threat/complication that (c) intersects with player-flagged interests (by way of PC thematic build aspects and decisions > outputs that have led to fiction-to-date) but (d) honors the result of the Event/Calamity Table.

Contrast this with a thematically neutral approach to Event/Calamity tables or Twist handling with a lot of other game approaches to Random Encounters handling or "Side Quests" which are informed mostly/wholly by GM naturalistic extrapolation of pre-generated, high resolution setting rather than the "game layer" + "theme/premise layer" approach listed above. The cognitive space the GM is managing and executing is very different when you're generating and mapping the results of NPC Reaction Rolls onto play in B/X than when handling Circles/Persuader Tests and Convince Conflict compromises and Parley/Diplomacy moves and putting forth Raises/Sees in a Just Talkin' conflict!
 

In my opinion, the point of the confluence of Torchbearer thematic PC build components (Belief, Creed, Goal, Nature, Mentor, Family, Friend, Enemy, Hometown) + Twists (advice for them and how they work) + Calamity/Event tables is kindred with a lot of similar games, just operationalized differently on a per game basis.

Apocalypse World's GM moves (generally) + specific Threat moves works within the framework of the thematic PC build components and advancement in the game not terribly far afield from how Torchbearer works; Relationships (hx), playbook triggers and highlighted stats. Same goes for the other games in this line (like Dungeon World et al).

D&D 4e complications/change-the-situation +Encounter Goals are related to Player Quests/objectives (which are in turn related to PC build choices like Race/Background/Class/Theme/Paragon Path/Epic Destiny and how those things + player decisions create the challenges before the players which creates the unfolding fiction and trajectory of play). The game twists and turns based on the confluence of all of these things.

Dogs in the Vineyard is similar where premise + PC build lead to "Adventure Design" (just like in TB) - Towns. Conflicts in Town lead to "Twists" (follow-on-conflict and Fallout in Dogs parlance) which ultimately leads to post-Town Reflection (which is like all of the advancement and end-of-session stuff in the games listed above).




The Event/Calamity Tables of Torchbearer are the outlier of all of these games and game attributes listed above, but that is only when looked at in isolation. When looked at through the lens of holistic/integrated system, GM's best practices handling of the results of Event/Calamity Tables is basically just a more deeply constrained menu of Twist-handling. You should be working to either (a) present PCs an opportunity or (b) create a threat/complication that (c) intersects with player-flagged interests (by way of PC thematic build aspects and decisions > outputs that have led to fiction-to-date) but (d) honors the result of the Event/Calamity Table.

Contrast this with a thematically neutral approach to Event/Calamity tables or Twist handling with a lot of other game approaches to Random Encounters handling or "Side Quests" which are informed mostly/wholly by GM naturalistic extrapolation of pre-generated, high resolution setting rather than the "game layer" + "theme/premise layer" approach listed above. The cognitive space the GM is managing and executing is very different when you're generating and mapping the results of NPC Reaction Rolls onto play in B/X than when handling Circles/Persuader Tests and Convince Conflict compromises and Parley/Diplomacy moves and putting forth Raises/Sees in a Just Talkin' conflict!
It sounds like you're saying different rules written to work differently will engage people's brains differently. I agree with that.
 

Right, I contrast @Manbearcat's 4e description with the EARLY play in my first 4e campaign in 2008. There was a big forest full of dangerous stuff where the PCs spent a bunch of time, and when I constructed it (and here we see one point, the layout of this place was entirely constructed by me, and I decided what was in it, mostly based on things that existed there in a previous campaign back in the 1990s). There was a 'twist' mechanic that I created, which was basically a wandering monster table, though each element on it was unique and would only appear once. Still, it was pretty old-school at that point. Player quests weren't really factored in, the 'stuff' that was present wasn't too tightly coupled to PC build/backstory/player input, etc. It worked OK, but I would definitely approach that rather differently today. The players, back then, attached themselves to things they found interesting, and eventually built on that pretty heavily, so one PC found an artifact that was tied to her family heritage, another found a different artifact that lead to a story arc the player had clearly signaled during character creation, etc.

I guess that might also hint at the existence of a continuum here. SOME of the play process drew from older and more 'trad' (or if you prefer maybe neo-trad) conceptions of D&D play, and some of it drew more heavily from a bit less traditional and closer to player-centered story play.
 

pemerton

Legend
@AbdulAlhazred

Early in my 4e play, I ran a "find the Goblin cave" skill challenge in which the framing events and consequences were adapted from the forest random encounter table in the B/X module Night's Dark Terror. A little like what you describe, I would regard it as intermediate between full player-driven and full GM-driven.
 

@AbdulAlhazred

Early in my 4e play, I ran a "find the Goblin cave" skill challenge in which the framing events and consequences were adapted from the forest random encounter table in the B/X module Night's Dark Terror. A little like what you describe, I would regard it as intermediate between full player-driven and full GM-driven.
Right. I would say that even 'back in the day' a lot of what I did was pretty heavily aimed at engaging what the players wanted to do, but there was also this heavy element of "the GM's story" in there. Like, the ORIGINAL campaign when I constructed all the locations and a lot of the NPCs and whatnot that my first 4e game used was back in the early 90's and used 2e. It was a 'grand meta-plot' setup. Honestly, it reminds me a bit painfully of Dragon Lance in a sense, except I was SLIGHTLY smarter, there were not some other group of super hero NPCs driving the 'real' plot and relegating the PCs to bit parts. Still, it featured a 'course of events' that was somewhat outside the PC's control and which I envisaged long before the players decided what they wanted to do.

In the end that 90's campaign got bent into a shape that suited what everyone wanted, and a lot of the meta-plot kind of just faded into irrelevance or was made obsolete by the stuff the PCs actually did. I certainly learned to stop wasting time on that level of prep! lol. But in any case, the 4e game just sort of picked up background and now and then I'd add in a plot thread that the original campaign had left dangling or something. At some point though, interestingly, the 4e Cleric character evolved and basically reinterpreted the whole backstory completely! That was, however, more surprising for me than those players, as only one of them had been involved in the older games. Her character was Eldar (Eledrin) though and was highly confused because she had of course been alive during the previous events, and kept saying "but that isn't the way it happened!" lol.

I guess, relating it to 'contrivance', I mean, all the PCs were contrivances! The '90s ones turned into big heroes, and the 4e '10s ones actually turned out to be legendary heroes and cultural icons reborn into a new age. That's pretty contrived! Lol.
 

Put another way, were I a player in such a game where things just kept "conicidentally" happening to occur just at the right and most convenient moments to keep a story going, I'd feel that setting logic and believability was being sacrificed on the altar of story, i.e. a different but still noticeable (and annoying) form of railroad. It's jarring, and often considerably more noticeable than the GM thinks it is.
That's the player's interpretation. The characters' interpretation can plausibly be that someone within the setting is manipulating events. That's the view I prefer as a player; the emergence of conspiracy theories in conversation between the characters is a way of signalling to the GM that the "story" is becoming a bit too obvious.

However, "too obvious" is definitely dependent on game assumptions. In the 20-year Pendragon campaign I played in, the knights were vaguely that they were part of great events that would become legends. A few strange "coincidences" weren't a problem.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
That's the player's interpretation. The characters' interpretation can plausibly be that someone within the setting is manipulating events. That's the view I prefer as a player; the emergence of conspiracy theories in conversation between the characters is a way of signalling to the GM that the "story" is becoming a bit too obvious.
Fair enough.
However, "too obvious" is definitely dependent on game assumptions. In the 20-year Pendragon campaign I played in, the knights were vaguely that they were part of great events that would become legends. A few strange "coincidences" weren't a problem.
With the sort of games I play in and run, I've learned the hard way not to tie prophecies or great events or suchlike to any one particular character for two reasons.

One - less common - is that other players might feel resentful that the one character/player is being singled out for special treatment.
Two - much more common - is that the key character will inevitably find a way to permanently die at the first available opportunity.

And now I'm learning not to even tie them to entire parties! See spoiler for details.
Just recently I've been running what's supposed to be a mini-AP baked into my larger campaign, involving the finding and reuniting of four Prophecy Crystals and then maybe having that party use them for something really big down the road.

When another DM ran a similar series many years ago, the second crystal they found got shattered by a lightning bolt; this almost destroyed the whole story arc. Lesson learned - I made these ones pretty much indestructible. The Bag of Holding my lot put their first Crystal into, however, didn't have such protection...and sure enough a few sessions later up it went* with all contents lost. I maintained my stoic DM face at the table but inside - as you might imagine - there was a pretty big facepalm.

This was just a couple of sessions ago. They don't even realize quite what they've lost yet, as they don't know anything about the significance of these Crystals or even what they are; all they know so far is that some adventurers were investigating them several decades ago. As DM I've no idea how they're ever going to get the lost one back or even if they can; but at least they've now found the second one.

* - as fate would have it, again by lightning.
 

With the sort of games I play in and run, I've learned the hard way not to tie prophecies or great events or suchlike to any one particular character for two reasons.

One - less common - is that other players might feel resentful that the one character/player is being singled out for special treatment.

Two - much more common - is that the key character will inevitably find a way to permanently die at the first available opportunity.

And now I'm learning not to even tie them to entire parties!
I find it easier to just have things happen that indicate trouble, or that something else is going to happen. This means every game has investigative elements, but that's fine.

In the source material I deal with most - actual history, ancient mythologies - prophecy is either absent, or indicates inescapable fate for someone. I'm not sure how "you are the chosen one" prophecy became a major source of stories; can anyone explain?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
I'm not sure how "you are the chosen one" prophecy became a major source of stories; can anyone explain?

Well, it goes back farther (probably the most clear are religous references, which I'll avoid), but how about...

"Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England. " - Thomas Mallory, King Arthur and his Knights.

 

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