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The Interactive Toolkit

In this four-part series, Christopher Kubasik examines what roleplaying games are and they work, and presents a new approach to playing RPGs.

Note: This article was originally published in issue #53 of White Wolf Inphobia magazine.

Part Four: Running Story Entertainments

by Christopher Kubasik

Fifth Business

The definition of Fifth Business was given in the second part of this series. In brief, in a story entertainment there is someone known as Fifth Business who handles plot. Like a gamemaster, you, as Fifth Business, play the roles of everyone but the Lead characters. Like a gamemaster, you prepare notes ahead of time.

Unlike a gamemaster, you are not the master of the game. You are on equal footing with the Leads. Everyone is there to make a story that night, and you're just one of the gang.

Also unlike a gamemaster, you does not come up with "adventures."' You don't arrive with a scenario to "run" because the Leads have created goals for their characters. What you do is provide opportunities for the Lead characters to achieve those Goals and obstacles to prevent the attainment of those goals. Of course, as discussed last issue, the other members of the group will help you in creating opportunities and obstacles.

Let's say your group has decided to make up stories set in Arthurian Britain. Furthermore, it's decided that the stories will focus on Knights alone, like the stories in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (and Greg Stafford's excellent roleplaying game Pendragon). But we don't want a bunch of knights who simply bump into each other one day and sally forth. We want narrative ties, as discussed last issue.

Someone suggests that the four knights are all brothers; a kind of Arthurian Bonanza. An excellent idea, for the ties of family are vitally important in Arthurian literature. Now the characters are linked, are going help each other out in a variety of jams, but can still dearly pursue their own interests. This idea is broadened out after a bit of discussion to make sure the characters are different: some of the Lead characters will be squires who want to become knights (a fine Goal for such a campaign). Perhaps the knights are not all brothers, but an descend from the same grandfather, giving a greater range of family background, but still tying them together.

Excellent. But what is Fifth Business supposed to do now?

Well, I can tell you what I did last week. I arrived at my first session of my Pendragon campaign with nothing but the outline I've given above and the ready use of Saxons as punching bags if I couldn't think of anything better for the characters to do for the hours of game time we'd scheduled. Let me make this clear: I really didn't have any idea what was going to happen, but I trusted that the players would provide what was needed and everything would work out fine.

I helped the two players make their characters. I had decided that neither character would begin the game as a knight, this was too sweet an Objective for the characters and not one I wanted to give away easily. They'd have to get knighted during game play. After giving the briefest of a cultural and political background for the campaign I asked the Leads what Goal their characters had.

Mike said he wanted land. Fine, a good Objective for someone in this sort of setting. But not specific enough. "Whose land?" I asked. 'Do you want to get it from some Saxons, or conquer a fertile manor from a noble knight?"

"From a knight," Mike replied.

"Excellent, that'll be hard. Are you gunning for the Earl, or just a knight."

He said his character wasn't ready to take on an Earl, so he'd go after a knight.

"Why are you doing this? Is there something about the land, or do you hate the knight?"

After discussing this back and forth a bit, Mike decided both. He said, "The land is especially valuable, and I hate the family. The knight has a son, and the son and I have a rivalry. We fight constantly."

"Now, your father, does he hate them too?"

Mike smiled, getting into the groove of being a problem magnet. "No. My folks and this family are really good friends. They get along great."

"Anything else?"

"Yes. Is there some woman I could be courting, to marry her and get her father's land as well ...?"

We set this up as well. By the time we were done we were able to define the knight's Goal: he wanted to be a major political and military power in Britain. My job was simply to give him opportunities to attain this, and obstacles that thwarted these efforts or prevented him from advancing.

The younger brother of this knight was played by Chris, who was somewhat vaguer, but eventually provided a terrific Goal.

"I show off for the women. You know."

"That's an activity, but what's your goal?" As Fifth Business, part of my job is to make the suggestions of the players concrete and useable.

"To impress them."

"For any particular reason? Sometimes when a person shows off his or her sexuality to a group, he or she does it actually to engage the attention of one person. Is there one person you're trying to get the attention of?"

"Yeah. How about the wife of the knight my brother wants to kill?"

I smiled. Of course. "All right. Now, how strongly do you want her? Christopher Kubasik's rule of thumb is always make the strongest choice possible."

"I love her more than I love my own family."

"All-Righty!"

But what about the session? All I had was Saxons, and neither Mike nor Chris had shown much interest in them. I put just blind faith in everyone and went to work.

I sent the Lead characters, Arakien and Galan out on patrol for Saxons.

Travelling with them were two knights: Sir Graid, whose daughter Arakien was wooing, and Sir Merin, Arakien's nemesis and son of the woman Galan loved more than he loved his own family. I still had no idea what was going to happen, but I followed the Fifth Business's first rule of thumb, put volatile characters and objects together in the same scene.

Soon Saxons attacked. The Lead characters sent Sir Merin back for reinforcements. This surprised and concerned me. I had assumed the two Lead characters would work together and kill Merin. Now what would they do? just beat up on Saxons all night? But instead of panicking, instead of trying to force the "story" the way I thought it should go and having Merin insist Graid go back for help, I let Merin go.

During the course of the struggle with the Saxons, a Saxon, Berserker cut down Sir Graid with a mortal blow. None of us knew this would happen, the dice did it. As the reinforcements rode up' Arakien did the most despicable thing: he leaned down as if listening to the dying words of Sir Graid. Later, after the Saxons were defeated, he claimed that the knight told him Graid wanted him to marry his eldest daughter. I was wildly amused, and decided the plan might work. The Earl believed him. Things were going well for Arakien. He needed land to accomplish his Goal, and he was on his way....

But it was going too easily for him. There needed to be another obstacle, and since I was Fifth Business, it was my job to provide it.

Of course, it had been provided to me by Mike himself. Sir Merin had already been promised the daughter's hand, I decided. His nemesis would of course be another obstacle. Upon the announcement of the marriage Merin stood up and called Arakien a liar, right in the middle of the Earl's court. Arakien tried at first to put things right, but a contest of insults ensued, that led to a challenge of a duel. If Arakien wanted the daughter and the land, he'd have to go one on one with a well trained knight. Would he choose to do it? Yes, he would. His Goal drove him forward into potential disaster. They met that night with swords drawn, a large crowd around them.

Merin lost the duel, slain, in fact. So Arakien gained the land....

But now Merin's mother bears great hatred for his family, and Dalan's Goal of wooing her is met with the obstacle of her hatred....

No scenario prepared. No plot to follow. But a story is growing anyway.

Listen to the players, keep in mind the idea of obstacles, mix up volatile characters and objects, and remember you don't have to know where you're going. No roleplaying game ever follows the "path" of the story anyway, so a story entertainment just dismisses the whole notion of adventure. Rather than become frustrated when the characters don't do what they're supposed to, let them lead the story with their Characters' Goals.

Rules

I started this series by talking about the rules of roleplaying games. But what about rules for story entertainments? Well, I'm squeezing them in at the very end because they just don't matter much in a story entertainment.

The key thing rules do is resolve actions. Primarily, they allow the slow and complicated resolution of physical conflict. They also create an element of uncertainty when resolving actions and combat. However, as noted three issues ago, they're also random. Stories should be uncertain, but not random. So what to do?

I suggest we turn to Mike Pondsmith's wonderful Castle Falkenstein. It's wonderful for many reasons but for now, we have only time to talk about the resolution system.

In Castle Falkenstein all Attributes are rated from Poor to Extraordinary, with numerical values of 2 through 12. Everyone has an Average rating in all Abilities, unless otherwise noted during character creation. To resolve any action, you use the character's Abilities and a deck of regular playing cards. At any time, a player holds four cards in his hands. Cards are "played" by adding their total to the value of a character's Attributes.

Let's say you wanted your character to jump over a chasm. You'd take the value of his Athletics (let's say it's Average, which has a value of 4) and add a couple of cards to it. The higher the better.

The game's Host (the ubiquitous "gamemaster," once more in another guise) also plays cards. He sets a base Difficulty, which corresponds to your character's Attribute, and plays cards as well. It's a race to see who has the highest total.

You, of course, could play all your best cards. But then they're discarded. What if you draw replacement cards and they're not that good as the ones you just used. You might want to hold some of the good cards in reserve in case you run into more trouble on the other side of the chasm.

So, moment to moment you determine how important something is to you. If Dalan, from above, had to cross the chasm to rescue his lady love, he'd blow all his cards to get over there. She is his Goal! Who cares what his probability would be crossing the chasm. What matters is How Much Does He Want to Get Across?

And you still might not make it. That's the beauty of the system. Like any good fictional character, you can pour your heart out to do something, and still fail. You're not rolling a random number off a piece of plastic. You've invested something into the outcome because you chose how much it matters, you've perhaps used valuable cards you might need later.

What's especially intriguing about Castle Falkenstein is its easy to use graded success system. You can get a Fumble, a Failure, a Success, a Full Success, and a High Success. Fifth Business determines the results of each card play using this system. In the example above, if you get a Full Success you've cleared the chasm. A Success means you've made it across, but are holding on by your fingernails to the edge of the chasm. A High Success might mean you jump across and are not surprised by the werewolf ready to rip your lungs out; a Failure means you fail to clear the chasm and are trapped on a ledge some three hundred feet down. And a Fumble? Well, that one"s easy.

But what about combat? Jumping over a chasm is one thing. But what about the thrusts and parries of a sword fight? What about driving an opponent to the edge of the castle walls and nearly knocking him over? What about armor, and damage, and caliber....

Well, I have this idea....

Except for a few roleplaying games, Torg and MegaTraveller come to mind, most roleplaying games assume that the result of all actions with skills (but not combat skills) can be accomplished with a singe die roll. That is, you either jump the chasm or you don't. You either pick the lock or you don't. Roll some dice; find out what happens.

When it comes to fighting, however, we break the combat down into all these tiny little pieces. Why? As explained in the first article in this series, because of the heritage of wargames.

But what if we treated anything involved in combat the way we treated all other skills. Let's say your character was fighting Baron Von Zephran on the outer battlements of Castle Falkenstein and you wanted to push him back and drive him over the castle walls. Instead of using typical combat rules that breaks everything down into smaller bits, with details of hit points and modifiers for certain actions, lets say you handled the action like picking a lock. You say, "I want to drive the Baron toward the edge of the wall and push him off."

Fifth Business says, "'Play card with your Fencing skill." (I'm assuming you're using the Castle Falkenstein rule for this. I would be. However, I should note that for whatever bizarre reason, Pondsmith put hit points at the tail of end of his combat system. I say bizarre, because it's a game that dumped so much nonsense and then stuck it back in at the last moment. What I'm proposing here uses a combat resolutions system stuck onto his rules, but it's not the combat resolution system of Castle Falkenstein.)

You play your cards, Fifth Business plays his cards. Did you get a Full Success? You drove him over the edge. A Success? You drove him half way there, and for color Fifth Business describe how you slashed him across the cheek (No hit points or such, though.) A Failure? The two of you are still locked in combat.

Want to shoot somebody through the heart? Play your cards. Want to shoot out the light? Want to take out three guards using martial arts without making a sound? Play your cards. Using the Castle Falkenstein system, you might do it all in one attempt, you might get part of the job done, you might fail completely.

(A note: by using the system this way, it might seem advantageous to ask for the most outlandish results possible and then suffer the consequences of a Success. In other words, ask to blow his brains out with a pea shooter, and be content if you knock him out. But the way the system works, the higher the difficulty, the great greater the chance for a fumble. If you ask for too much, you'll probably get nothing. You're better off dividing your combat into discrete, cinematic-type actions.)

How does Fifth Business determine the value of the base difficulty? He guesses, just like he does when assigning difficulties for jumping a chasm or picking a lock in Shadowrun or Vampire and other games. Most of us know as little about gun fights as we do about jumping chasms or picking locks, but we're willing to make arbitrary difficulty values for those actions. I assume we can do the same for combat.

The trick is, as with all other skills used in roleplaying games, common sense. If you tried to pick a lock with a banana, your Storyteller/Host/Referee/Whatever would look at you and say no. If you wanted to blow up the Empire State Building with a .22 rifle, he'd do the same. If you used an A-Bomb, nobody would bother rolling dice. I offer that most of the adjudicating required for combat between these two extremes can be done off the top of our heads. Why we need all these rules to adjudicate combat I'll never know, because we just don't need them.

How does someone die in this system?

It depends on the circumstances. It depends on how you define our action.

Fifth Business says, "He draws his sword. What are you going to do?"

Having lost your sword when imprisoned in the dungeon, you say, '-Kick the chair up with my foot and try to knock him out." If you'd said you wanted to kill him with that chair, well that would have been really hard. Fifth Business might not let you even try. But you might knock him out.

Or, say you're armed. You reply, "'I draw my sword, and duel with him, attempting to find an opening and kill him."

Cards are played. You get a Success. You stab him. Blood his drawn. But he's still up. Why? Your action is to kill him so you need a Full Success to kill him. If you wanted to disarm him the cards you had played might have been enough, because that's easier to do than to kill someone. So, you could try to disarm him, and then kill him, breaking the combat down into easier bits. This also breaks a fight down into specific, cinematic-style actions, making it more interesting than "I swing, you swing."

Do you mark down the damage done for a Success? Hit points? Who cares? YOU'RE TRYING TO KILL HIM! I don't know how many of you have noticed this, but most fights in roleplaying games end in one side just dead, dead, dead. With this system you don't pretend all the half measures really matter. 'Cause they don't. All that matters his who kills who first. Or, really, who accomplishes his stated action first.

You and Fifth Business play your cards back and forth. Your companions are fighting more guards on the other side of the room. It doesn't matter. No rounds. No hit points. Is everybody doing something interesting? Fine, let's move on.

Fifth Business explains the swordsman has gotten some success on your character. While your character iswt dead yet, he's bleeding. The swordsman your character is fighting is good. You need a new plan, because he might kill you first. Not wear you done. Kill you. just like that. It's actually tense, unlike most roleplaying game fights.

A new plan comes to mind. You say, "Are there chandeliers in this room?" As a fellow storyteller, you're allowed to help build the circumstances, setting, and details of the story.

"Oh, yes," Fifth Business answers with a smile, because he knows you're about to try something entertaining.

"I lure him under one of them, then slash the cord tied to the wall that holds it UP, attempting to knock him unconscious.

(Wait a minute? How much damage does a chandelier do? It doesn't matter! It's a story entertainment! You want to knock the guy unconscious with a falling chandelier? Fine. Fifth Business sets the difficulty, not the difficulty of the sword stroke against the rope, nor difficulty of the chandelier knocking the guy out, but everything, combined into one tense play of the cards .... )

Cards are played. Since slashing the cord is easier than driving your blade through his heart, you slash the cord, Shhhhwoooomp! A Full Success! The chandelier falls on top of the swordsman! He's out! You run off to help your friends.

Story entertainments are a loose system that can only be adjudicated within the moment. There are no hard and fast rules, -only the substance of what is entertaining; interesting. What matters most is the interaction of Character Goals and Obstacles, whether the obstacles are swords, ignorance, or deep hatred by another character. If you really want to create something closer a story you can. But you'll be better off dumping most of what we consider necessary for roleplaying games; things we assume we need but just don't. Approach the games not as a simulation, but as an improvised story.

Copyright ©1995 Christopher Kubasik

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