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Trinity RPG - Creating A Character Motivation- Centered Game World


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<H1>Everybody Wants Something</H1>

<H2>Creating A Character Motivation- Centered Game World</H2><H3><A HREF="mailto:watchman@iki.fi">By Mikko Rautalahti</A></H3>
<HR>My style of running a game tends to differ somewhat from the way most other people run games -- or, at least, so it seems, judging by a number of conversations I've had with people about the subject.

My way of running games isn't really very complicated; basically, what I do is create a world, and the drop the characters into it, and then let them interact with what goes on in the world. In many ways, games with intricate, specific plotlines that need to be followed in order to "complete" a story tend to be more complicated, as they require a lot of work from the GM to steer the story to its eventual conclusion, at least if the GM wishes to do that without being far too obvious with the railroading process. It also often requires keeping the characters involved with the events regardless of whether or not they really want to do that, in order to get to the end.

I rarely have storylines as such; I do, of course, have chains of events, plenty of NPCs with plans, motivations, ambitions and -- most importantly -- personalities. Therefore, it should be said right up front that the way I do things may not please those who prefer a more linear way of running a game.

My games have no conclusions, or solutions, or "right" or "wrong" decisions.I don't reward players for "right" decisions, nor do I punish them for the "wrong" ones. I don't reward the characters, either. When the characters interact with the game world, it responds -- or fails to respond, and those responses may either be good or bad for the character, but there are no guarantees for anything. Which is not to say that you can't get rewarded for a good thing and punished for a bad thing, of course -- do someone good, and they're likely to remember that. Hurt someone, and they're guaranteed to remember that. Still, good may get stomped upon, and evil does not always get punished -- of course, the concepts of "good" and "evil" are being used here in the most basic sense; I tend to stray away from one-dimensional stereotypes who are good or evil just for the sake of being good or evil.Everyone has motivations, and while people may be selfish and unfair, it's very rare indeed to run into someone who actually hurts people for the sake of hurting them. (That, of course, makes running into someone like that all the more scary, as it should.)

It should also be pointed out that I'm a wannabe writer, and as such tend to devote a lot of time and energy into writing up material. Not everyone can do so.

And, finally, it should be made absolutely clear that this is the way I do things. That's all. Not the right way, not the wrong way, not necessarily the best way for you, but the best way for me. If you want to do things differently, that's great.

This, then, is a story of how I constructed my Trinity campaign. I won't go into too many details beyond the clearly visible about the actual events and background of the game world -- this is for practical reasons, mostly, as my players are likely to read this article, and I have no wish to compromise the game world unless I have to. Generally, I'm talking more about the theory than practice of running a game here, and most of these things could really apply to any game world you would care to come upwith.

<H3>World Construction</H3>First of all, it should be said that running this Trinity campaign has not been the first time I have ever run games in this fashion; quite the contrary. However, this is the first time that I have ever run a game like this in an environment so complex. My version of the Trinity world seems to have more layers than a wedding cake. In many ways, this is an experiment that is still in the works, although this far the results have been very good.

Of course, I didn't have to construct an entire game world. Andrew Bates and his cronies did a good job of that already, so I had a rather solid base to build on. I had the political powers, I had the Trinity, I had the Orders, I had the Aberrants, I had all the aliens -- I had all of these pieces, construction blocks, if you will -- and more, but they were still more or less just pieces floating around. It was up to me to figure outexactly what was going on with all of these factions. While their motivations and methods were explained (at least up to a point) in the source material, actual details were left out -- intentionally, I'm sure, and for that I'm thankful.I don't like source material that spells out every single detail, forming an intricate web where everything is connected. While that is certainly impressive and fun to read, and will undoubtedly give a GM a lot of very good ideas, it also has the bad habit of forcing the GM into a tight mold that's almost impossible to get out of without changing most of the things in the game world; after all, if everything is tightly connected, you cannot change things without affecting everything else.

So, one of the first things I did was figure out exactly who the players on the global stage were, what they wanted, what kind of resources they had, and how they interacted with the rest of the factions. Sounds simple?

Far from it.

Just figuring out exactly who was in charge of what and where took me ages. I'm still not finished with the process, but now I've got a model that's complete enough for me to work with -- or to run a game with. I also discovered pretty soon that if I went too much into the details, it became harder to see the big picture -- and vice versa. I've adopted something of a middle path here, paying as much attention to the details as I can and still trying to hold it all together. I doubt I ever get the chance to truly figure out what's going on - after all, I'm only one man, and there's an entire universe in there. Luckily, I don't have to know all of that stuff; I only need to know enough. Still, for practical reasons, I have to concentrate on certain things and give others less attention.

The sheer scope of things is enough to make a man want to go for an easier route. I'm not ashamed to confess that I've had to make a couple of compromises here and there. It's simply too much for me to be able to run a world where everything is interconnected, even though that would be the most realistic way of going about it. I don't have the time... hell, let's face it, I doubt I have the brains to keep track of every major organization in the world. So I chose some organizations over others -- inmy game world, I concentrated far more on the Orgotek, Norca and the Aesculapian Order, than I did on the Legions and the ISRA, for example, and far more on the FSA, Sudamerica, Europe and Africa than I did on Russia, Japan, and Alaska... and far more on the Triton Division than I did on the other two divisions of the Aeon Trinity. There are always decisions like this to be made, and I can -- thankfully -- always return to what I had to skip if need arises.

After I had figured out what was going on, I started to think about who was making it all happen, or, rather, who were the people who were making all the decisions. Done correctly, that would have meant writing up hundreds of NPCs, and while that would certainly been an interesting challenge, common sense took hold and I abandoned that idea. Still, I started to come up with NPCs all over the world, in different factions, not necessarily even major figures in the grand scheme of things, but interesting characters that intrigued me. While they weren't necessarily the people responsible for the decisions, they helped me to define the way the world worked. Looking at things from their perspective made the entire mess seem more simple, if only because they saw so little of the big picture. That also made it easier for me to define some policies and methods for the different factions.

I have discovered that my writing technique tends to be rather similar to that described by Quentin Tarantino -- basically, I don't really have a conclusion, or an idea; I just have characters, and after a certain point they start to do things in my head. I just write down what happens, I don't make it up. Of course, I DO make it all up, but when I do it right, it doesn't feel like it's me pulling the strings, it's just me writing it down.

In "Reservoir Dogs," Tarantino has Mr. Blonde mutilate a police officer with a razor. He mentions writing the scene, and suddenly Mr. Blonde pulls out the razor, and Tarantino goes, "Whoa, where the fuck did THAT come from?!" I can relate to that. I do that with my NPC's, and I do that with just about everything in the world. I've found that with practice, it becomes far more simple than it sounds, taking up rather little processing time. Apparently my subconscious is quite capable of handling these things in the background while I deal with more urgent matters.

The downside of this is that running a game world as complicated as this in this fashion is still very expensive in terms of time and brain power.Nothing in my world is set in stone; there are certain things that will most likely happen if nothing else intervenes, but there are also many random factors that will most likely be decided when the time comes for them to be decided. Most things are run by people, and people get emotional, people get sloppy, and people get just plain emotional. People do things for strange reasons.

In my game world, there is, for example -- and this is a rather random example -- an FSA frigate called the Iron Tear, which has a captain who may or may not be forced to bomb a civilian target. Whether or not he does, I don't know yet. It basically comes down to a conflict between his sense of duty and his conscience. The reason I don't know what will happen is that in my campaign, at the time of this writing, the date is now 10th of January, 2120, and the Iron Tear won't even be in place until the 11th or so.

There are dozens of other such events, and more popping up every day. Others pop up, others are forgotten, but it all forms a huge patchwork that seems -- at least at the time of this writing -- to hold together surprisingly well. It does take a great load of work, of course. Frustratingly much at times;there's all this stuff going on that my players know nothing about, stuff that I can't really ever reveal to them because the chances that their characters ever stumble on any of it are rather small. At times it even feels like such a waste to spend an evening thinking of complicated things that go on somewhere far away from the characters, a complicated chain of events that fascinates me, one that I would love to see disrupted by the characters... but it just doesn't work like that. On the other hand, when the characters DO stumble upon something, that can be very rewarding indeed, and it's great to give them just a little bit of the big picture, even if it doesn't do them much good.

So, why do I go through all this trouble? Mostly because it gives me a complete world, or as complete a world as I can manage. It should also give the players a feeling of being part of a bigger world, where things happen regardless of what they do. News break, people die, accidents happen -- and good things happen, too. It's a big world.

Of course, some might say that this is just my way of making a big deal out of nothing, glorifying my own inability to write decent storylines and sticking to them, always ending up improvising a game session after another, or whatever. Be that as it may, it doesn't feel like that to me.

<H3>Character Creation</H3>It's all very fine and well to talk about the game world, but in the end, from the players' point of view, the characters they play define the game world for them. After all, they see everything through the character's eyes, hear everything through the character's ears, and, in a way, filter everything that happens through the character's essence. In other words, they react to the game world differently than they would if they were just themselves.

Keeping this in mind, I took a somewhat unorthodox approach to character creation. Instead of letting the players take up the rulebook and telling me what they played, I outlined certain parameters -- namely, that all of the characters were a part of the íon Trinity's Triton division's investigative team, had to get along with each other at least relatively well (in order to avoid the good old "I'm an elf, you're a dwarf, we hate each other but for some unknown reason we're still going to be a part of the same team despite the fact that it's painfully obvious that we are about as compatible as a garden snail and a packet of salt" syndrome), and have at least a certain degree of professionalism. Then I sat down and talked about character concepts with them, taking note of any and all wishes they might have. I also let them work out the statistics for the characters. Then I sat down and wrote the characters myself.

I ended up writing 75 pages' worth of text for six players, in 10-point type. The end result was that instead of having "uh, well, this guy is sorta like this soldier dude, see, and he's got this really nasty stuff in his past," I had solid characters with backgrounds that were firmly integrated with the game world. Contacts, mentors, allies and such had personalities, and were as much a part of the game world as any other NPC.

I wanted to get rid of the "well, this guy is like my contact in the media, see, and he's, uh, working for this major news agency" syndrome where contacts were vague and their authority and personalities were left largely undefined. Now the players knew exactly where they stood with their contacts -- or if they didn't, that was rather intentional. Sometimes it's hard to tell how to deal with people, after all. This also meant that instead of telling the GM that you asked your contact about this or that, you actually had to roleplay out calling up a friend or an associate, talking to him, and most likely answering a couple of questions if the request was strange or out of place -- and instead of treating people like resources, you actually had to think of those contacts as human beings.

This also meant more work for me; since a lot of this interaction was conducted via e-mail, I was more or less forced to write up the NPC's side of the conversations between game sessions. Still, I think that this far it's been well worth the trouble.

The downside of all this is, of course, that I will never ever have enough time to do enough of all of the writing that this requires -- a fact my players will never let me forget. The persistent, disappointed cries of "What, no handouts? But I was supposed to get e-mail from someone!" will most likely haunt me to my grave.

<H3>The Players</H3>I require a lot from my players. First of all, they have to have the right mindset; players interested in running all over the place, kicking major ass and looking cool will loathe my games. Which is all very fine and well by me, because those players aren't the ones I want to be involved with.

Mostly, what I look for in a player is the will and the ability to get into character and live that character's life for a while. I need players who are imaginative, intelligent, and outgoing enough to participate in the game instead of just sitting there and never doing anything, regardless of the character they play. In a nutshell, I need players with the necessary skills.

I also need patient players. If nothing happens in my game world, then nothing happens, and that means that the characters will most likely get bored. While I have no problems with fast-forwarding to the interesting bits -- after all, role-playing a group of six people sitting in a room and watching "Gilligan's Island" reruns for sixteen hours is going to get old after a certain point -- I still prefer to maintain a certain level of realism, and also require my players to provide their share in order to maintain that.

Finally, a certain social aptitude is a must. Basically, if no one likes someone, there isn't much point in having that someone in the game.

I'm very careful with the players I pick. I don't claim to always be right about the choices I make, and I realize that being so picky about them may seem like a somewhat elitist way of doing things... but I believe that in the long run, that pays off, and in any case I very much doubt that my game would benefit from having players that aren't capable of pulling off what is required of them, for whatever reason.

<H3>Running With It All</H3>In the end, it's comparatively easy to construct all this; all it takes is imagination and the time to write it all down. But when it comes to actually dropping those completely unpredictable, totally random chaos machines -- also known as the players -- into the mix, things get hairy. You have this intricate web that you try to maintain to the best of your ability, pulling a string here and there, and watching the whole slowly respond. Despite all the claims I make about not really knowing where it is all going, in the end it IS my own mind making it all up, and therefore I tend to be prepared for what happens, even if it is only on some kind of a strange subconscious level.

Now, with players, you don't have that luxury. Players tend to see things differently. They see them from a single view point, that of their character. And what makes perfect sense to them makes no sense to you, and vice versa, and then all of a sudden they do something that completely changes the way you thought things were going to go.

In my games, this doesn't really present a problem as such; I am not taking the game anywhere, it's just going somewhere, so a sudden change of tracks doesn't pose a threat to my plotlines -- the game world just adapts accordingly, just like the characters who are forced to adapt to the game world. Still, I get surprised. Often pleasantly so; it's one of the rewards of game mastering, at least for me, to have the players challenge me, to have them give me something totally unexpected that I just have to respond to. This is where doing your homework comes in; if you know where the players are, and why, and what's going on in that particular area, it doesn't really matter if their characters suddenly duck into a dark cave and demand to know what they see (figuratively speaking, of course). If you haven't done your homework and are just winging the entire session, things can get hairy pretty quickly, especially if you're trying to simulate an entire game world and keep all the ever-changing factors in your head without preparing for it.

The trick, then, seems to be to keep it all in your head as well as you can, and to prepare for things the best you can, but not from a game master's point of view -- rather, look at things from the NPC's point of view. Don't think of it as a story to tell, don't think of it as a world to control, but rather think of it as a network of motivations, goals, and methods. When something happens, you don't have to think about how it affects the story, all you need to do is figure out how the game world reacts to what happens.It sounds like a mess, I know, but at least for me, it seems to work surprisingly well. Which is not to say that I don't run into problems every once in a while, but that's mostly a question of tuning to the right wavelength, so to speak, and thinking about the situation hard.

In my games, no player can win, except perhaps by having a good time. No one can lose, except perhaps by having an attitude problem -- which, of course, is a rather subjective concept. In my games, I require my players to understand the difference between "I am having a good time" and "my character is having a good time." I rarely give challenges; the game world may well present the characters with a problem, and that may be an easy problem or a hard problem. If the characters get by easily, then they get by easily, and that doesn't pose a problem for me or my players. Also, I'mnot at all interested in keeping things "on track." If the characters decide that they don't want to pursue something any longer, for whatever reason, fine, that's okay by me. As far as I'm concerned, if my players decide that their characters want to move to a lone island in the Caribbean and eat coconuts for the rest of their life and never doanything exciting, that's perfectly fine with me. Of course, players tend to go for a bit more challenging characters than that, which is somewhat fortunate as it does make things a bit more interesting from a GM's point of view.

In many ways, I'm an unfair GM; I don't cut the player characters much slack. In other ways, I'm a very fair GM; I don't cut anyone else in the game world extra slack, even if they are "just" NPCs. They all deal with the world in the same terms; if the player characters manage to get themselves an edge, they can milk that for all it's worth and rock the world, if they can make it work. (Which, of course, tends to be rather hard, but this is a hypothetical situation.) On the other hand, if the player characters end up in trouble badly enough, I don't really throw out ropes and pull them to safety.

<H3>What's All This Supposed To Mean In Practice?</H3>That's a good question. A couple of examples from the Trinity game I run, and how I solved a couple of things that perhaps weren't problems as such;rather, they were simply situations where I had to figure out how to deal with the world at large, and nicely illustrate how much trouble this method of running a game can get you into -- and how simple the solutions seem to be, once you figure them out.

<H4>Example 1: "Seriously -- it's a love tap."</H4>The situation: One of the characters, a veteran Legion sergeant by name of Kurg, was talking to a Dr. Pierce, who was proving to be most cooperative.Kurg had a hangover and a strong dislike of Dr. Pierce, who was telling him all the wrong things, resulting in Kurg getting more and more angry with the man. Finally, Kurg grabbed Dr. Pierce by the lapels in order to sit him down and shut him up. Dr. Pierce starts to scream bloody murder, and Kurg shakes him around a bit in order to shut him up -- when suddenly an old case of combat psychosis suddenly comes up, and Kurg ends up beating the good doctor unconscious.

What really went down: Pretty much as above, except Dr. Pierce was actually a member of a rather nasty group of people, and somewhat afraid of Kurg's snooping around. When Kurg got physical, he panicked and an even nastier ex- Ministry telepath close by tried to stop Kurg, triggering instead a dose of combat psychosis. A nasty place to botch a Psi roll, certainly, but he managed to do that. The rest was history, as Kurg lost it for a while there.

What happened next: This was a hairy one, and easily one of the most puzzling events I've ever had the pleasure to GM. It just so happened that Dr. Pierce was a rather important person in that particular location, and these incidents compromised his position in more ways than one. Suffice to say that this changed some major, major plans in the game world, and resulted in the death of Dr. Pierce, the almost sinking of a rather large artificial island, the deaths of a dozen police officers, and got the PCs into a whole new world of trouble. Mostly, it was a case of several NPCs scrambling around without a very good plan or organization, trying to cover their own asses to the best of their abilities. The end result was that the PCs ended up suspecting far more than I ever thought they would -- in fact, they now knew enough to be a threat, but not enough to do much with that information. A nasty situation, as they would soon find out.

Amusingly enough, this all happened in the very first Trinity session I ever ran, and changed the entire nature of the game. The funny thing is, Dr.Pierce was something of a random "victim", of the thousands of inhabitants on the island; it might as well been someone else... which only goes to show, once again, that no matter how well you think you are prepared, the players will always think of something you never thought of.

<H4>Example 2: The Grassy Knoll</H4>The situation: A rogue Norca agent gets into a serious disagreement with his fellow conspirators in the Trinity, mostly caused by his own stupid actions, resulting from lack of thinking, and is forced to run for his life. He has nowhere to turn to, what with him having betrayd his own order. He can't contact the Trinity either, because he doesn't know for sure which people over there he can trust, and which people he can't -- but he has to go somewhere, and soon. He realizes that the only people he knows aren't connected with the guys who are after him are the people he himself tried to kill earlier -- the player characters. So he runs to them, but gets caught by Orgotek's security forces after some rather complicated running around.

What happened next: I thought of this quite a bit, trying to see what would happen to this person. He was totally alone, with practically no one he could trust or turn to, and he wasn't especially smart -- in fact, he tended to do stupid things on a regular basis, what with his tendency to reach with his fists to most things. The thing was, I knew that, and more importantly, the NPCs he was running from knew that. They had to get rid of him, but right now he was more or less beyond reach, surrounded by heavy-duty photokinetics from Orgotek's security division. Then it suddenly occurred to me that the last thing the powerful rogue telepath responsible for plugging this gaping security hole would do would be to attempt to assasinate the man, when it would be so much easier for everyone to make him do it himself.He simply used his telepathy to make the high-powered Norca freak out in a frenzy of terror, and attack those around him, resulting in the photokinetics slicing him into itty bitty pieces with their lasers -- in self-defense, too. The end result? The security problem got solved, nothing too important got compromised, and best of all, no one could prove a thing.Nasty, effective, and simple.

<H4>Example 3: Jungle Boogie</H4>The situation: The player characters have gotten themselves into something of a mess, having discovered something very secret and very spooky going on inside the Triton division (this being a somewhat direct result of their earlier exploits with Dr. Pierce). As a result, they have fled to Africa, attempting to lose themselves somewhere in the jungle. As it is, they don't make a very good job of it, and as a result, a very professional, very nasty hit team is following them.

What really went down: As written above, really. It was a bit more complex affair, but going into details wouldn't really accomplish much here. What I had to figure out here what would happen, as there were people out there who were willing to do things to keep the PCs from getting killed; the problem was that the PCs had covered their tracks well enough to keep them hidden for a while, but not well enough to keep them hidden forever -- and the potential allies didn't have the resources to find the PCs in time.

What happened next: Then, all of a sudden it occurred to me that the "good guys" didn't really have to know how to reach the PCs; all they had to do was follow the "bad guys," who would either lead them to the PCs (in which case they could be protected), or they wouldn't (in which case the PCs would still be safe). This sounds very simple, yes, but this entire idea changed things quite a bit -- suddenly, there were far more people hunting the PCs, and the PCs weren't really able to tell the difference between those who tried to help and those who tried to snuff them out. In the end, it came down to a bit of a fight, of which the PCs saw next to nothing. Again, this wasn't really a major thing, but the realization that there was indeed a sensible, simple way for the "good guys" to follow the PCs, or at least to keep them safe, changed things quite a bit.

Conclusion? In most of these cases, it all came down to taking a good look at the situation from the characters' point of view, and the rest came relatively easily. Looking at things from a more traditional "I wonder how the PCs are going to get out of this" type of a point of view wouldn't have yielded all these results. This is far more complicated, yes, which may or may not be a good thing... but it does make for a more complex game, and for a more complex game world, with internal consistency and a feeling of activity and life beyond the tiny portion of what the players see.

And that's really the way I want to run my games.
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