Sunday, December 06, 2009

Episode Structure in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

Other than some organizational issues, and the lack of an index, I was really impressed with the core rules for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. As I get into the gamemaster book though, I'm running into some conceptual issues. Specifically the Episode/Act structure combined with Rally points. Now, there's nothing wrong with suggesting a structure for designing and running adventures, but by tying that structure into a game mechanic, the Rally Point, they make the whole thing a lot less flexible, and less usable with other structures a gamemaster might want to use.

The Episode structure is fairly straightforward on the surface. Adventures are divided into Episodes which are in turn divided into three Acts each. I'd explain what should go into an Episode and an Act, but frankly, I'm still a little unsure. The book gives plenty of examples, but I'm still having a hard time grasping just how those examples could be applied beyond the specific situations given in those examples. One example given is that each act could be a room in a building, but they're pretty firm on the three act structure, so what happens if I want a building with more than three rooms? Do I need to go through a three act episode every three rooms?

They even address this issue with suggestions that each room could be its own three act episode in some instances, but it really doesn't help in defining the nature of what should be considered an act and what should be considered an episode, and what should just be left as "story mode."

All this wouldn't matter if this was simply a set of guidelines that could be ignored or followed based on the GM's preference, but the problem is that the Rally Points are a game mechanic tied to the structure. At the end of every Act is a Rally Point, during which characters get a minor refresh to their abilities which prepares them for their next encounter. If you drop Rally Points you end up dropping abilities that only trigger during Rally Points, and potentially disrupt the balance of the game.

The whole thing seems to have been a poorly thought out system designed by someone who's taken too many drama classes. Drama and roleplaying have a great many things in common, but they also have a great many differences. Also, roleplaying has far more in common with the improv side of drama, whereas the rigid three act structure has more to do with the more traditional scripted side. There's a word for scripts in roleplaying, it's called railroading, and it's nearly universally considered to be a bad idea. No matter how much the book talks about the gamemaster being prepared to improvise, that advice just doesn't jibe with this Episode/Act structure.

Instead, it just comes across as something else that the GM has to worry about: is this and episode or isn't it? Should I end my act here or not? The GM already has a lot on his plate when running a game, and this just seems to be an extra bit of chore for him to have to deal with.

Fortunately, I see a way that I can adapt the Rally Point idea to my more improvisational style of gamemastering by ditching the drama model and replacing it with a model taken from computer games: the save point. Many of the examples of ending an act involve a change of scene, or the beginning of a confrontation with a major NPC. Whenever this happens in a computer game, the game often "autosaves" the game. By linking these autosave points to the Rally Point, I can more easily apply the concept to my own games, without having to deal with the rigid three act structure, and trying to figure out how it applies to the current situation.

Not that the three act structure is necessarily a bad idea, it's not, but it should be a guideline, not something tied to a game mechanic.


Scott said...

Sounds like the same Act/Scene system from Torg. Might want to poke around the Torg GM info if you still have any of that old system laying around. They had okay info on creating acts/scenes, though not perfect either.

Fulminata said...

Thanks for the suggestion. You may be right. I never ran it, so I don't recall exactly how it worked. I don't have TORG, but I do have the MasterBook Indiana Jones game around here somewhere that used the same basic system. I might see if I can find it later.

It comes down to it being a system that just doesn't match my GMing style, and doesn't appear to be very flexible.

They are very specific about the number "three." They talk about making substitutions on the fly in situations where the players do something instead of what you expected them to do, but there's no allowance for when the players do something in addition to what you expected them to do, or manage to find a shortcut around one of your acts. Either you end up with more than three acts, less than three acts, or really long or short acts.

The computer game analogy just works better for me, although I will try to find that Indiana Jones game later.

Jabbott said...

You know the things you are saying about that are reminding me of some issues I'm having as I read the Mouse Guard system. The GM turn/Player turn, and the earning/spending checks mechanics seem pretty limiting. I feel like, for instance, if we are in a town at the beginning of a session and one of my players is like "Hey I want to do this" I feel like the system is saying I have to be like "No you can't cause its not the player's turn and also you haven't earned any checks yet." Seems pretty limiting.

Fulminata said...

Don't get me wrong, I'm not inherently against structured games.

The difference between Mouse Guard and Burning Empires, two systems that use a very structured format, and Warhammer is that the former games are based around that structure. They more or less built the games around that structure (actually, many of the mechanics existed previously in Burning Wheel, but the end result appears as if they built it around the structure, and that's what matters).

Warhammer's structure feels like it was tacked on to the system almost as an afterthought, and doesn't really seem to add that much to the experience of the game.

The structure in Mouse Guard is limiting, but it's designed to be so. One of the game theories that I believe the designers adhere to is that limitations can breed creativity. I tend to agree, and in fact have a whole spiel I could bore you with on how limitations are what made Star Wars great and the lack of limitations are what ruined the prequels.

In fact, part of the reason I want to play Mouse Guard and Burning Empires is because of the structure built into the systems. You can't really run it like you would a 3.5 adventure. Accepting that structure is simply one of the ground rules of the game that everyone, GM and players alike, need to accept. It's like accepting that you have to roll dice to do something and not just say you did it.

Of course, you could experiment with dropping the structure, just don't tell Luke, because he might have an aneurysm ;-) (he seems somewhat adamant that his rules systems are an organic whole and not a toolkit from some of his posts that I've seen in the past).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not against structure in RPGs as long as they are well implemented, and I don't feel that the episode structure in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is well implemented.

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