RPGaDay 2021 #20: Foundation

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Foundation.” With rhe risk of falling into platitudes, for all beginnings a solid foundation is needed to build on. Tabletop RPGs are no different in this respect.

I prefer to start tabletop RPG campaigns or adventures with a solid “Session 0”, which is a meta-conversation about the game to be played. A good Session 0 should lay out the interests of the players and the GM, and outline some of the Dos and Donts during gameplay. At the end of my ideal Session 0, both players and GM have a pretty good idea of what the plot will revolve around, what style and genre of game will be played, and what the end state of the story will be. However, this is also a case of my personal preferences for how to play. I also know players who prefer simulation-style games with no end in sight (a “we’ll play until we’re no longer interested” style of game) or players who prefer to be surprised by whatever the host of the game will come up with (how can there be exciting plot twists if we know everything ahead of time?). I’ll gloss over improvisational games, though I could argue they would be a style of simulationiist game. Whatever the case, though, my preference is to have these elements clearly defined before the campaign proper even begins.

The game that really opened my eyes to defining plot points in advance was My Life With Master. The system itself already defines the plot that you will be playing: all players are Minions of the Master, and the game is the story about how the Master meets their demise and what happens to the Minions during that time. That main plot should be the plot of all games run in My Life With Master, and as such the entire system is quite narrowly focused on facilitating this story. Interestingly enough, even though the plot is tightly defined and structured, the story the group ends up with can vary wildly. All you really know at the start is that in a number of sessions, the Master will fall. This leads to interesting player behavior, as there is a built-in sense of urgency. Will some of the Minions desparately try to save the Master? The player knowledge that this cannot succeed can lead to great moments around the table. The key is that the story can be one of dramatic irony, where we see the sad doomed struggle of a Minion that will meet their end together with the Master, or just as easily it could be the hilarious slapstick comedy of a Minion oafishly trying to save the Master yet bringing about their doom by their very actions. Despite having this narrowly focused plot, the stories told can be wildly different.

To be fair, the game is intended to be played seriously: the subtitle of the RPG is “a roleplaying game of villainy, self-loathing, and unrequired love.” The Minion attributes are REASON, WEARINESS, SELF-LOATHING, and LOVE, which also gives a good insight into the feeling of the game. The game also prescribes five possible epilogues, of which four are negative. Once a minion has a LOVE attribute higher than their FEAR plus their WEARINESS, endgame is triggered and that Minion will cause the Master’s downfall. Then, depending on the individual attributes, each Minion may either wander off into nothingness, the Minion may be killed, or end their own existence, or become so awful that they themselves grow into a Master. Alternatively, if a Minion’s story goes just right, they may find themselves integrated into the society of the Townspeople.

On first reading, this did seem odd to me. The game seems to prescribe the full story: from a group of Minions, one Minion will accrue enough love to find self-worth, and then by their hand they will end the Master. Afterwards, based on a set of numbers, each Minion will get a prescribed ending. So, why play at all? We can just have a PC generate the numbers, crunch out the math, have an AI write the text, and be done with it. If that was the case, though, we could just close down all theatres now. After all, Shakespeare’s plays have all been written down, right? We know the plot and story, so why bother? Clearly, the point isn’t the plot, or even the story in the case of theatre, but it’s the performance that matters. My Life With Master really solidified the thought in my mind that tabletop RPGs are no different in this respect. The way in which individual players approach this single plotline has varied wildly and interestingly in play.

In my experience, instead of limiting choice and hampering experience, such a solid foundation for a game helped to focus gameplay, support players in their decisions, and create a much more cohesive experience for all at the table. The key, of course, is that this isn’t a railroad enforced by the host of a game, but a shared agreement around the table for what the foundation of the story is and what the group wants to achieve.

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