The Battle of Everway, part 3: Conflict as Plot Structure (or Kill, Punish, Let Them Win?)

This blog is mainly my stream of conscious, albeit edited (yes, I do actually have an internal censor) and that’s a convenient method of breaking up ideas – such as how to run Everway – into bite-sized chunks. At some point I’ll compile all of my Everway notes into a digest. I had intended this to be the last instalment but I kind of got side-tracked with the ideas below.

In part 1 I talked about player preference in receiving information, and in part 2 I talked (at great length) about different scenarios and how the elemental strengths of characters and antagonists will fit to them.

The topic I’d like to cover is why a GM would want to run a fight, or indeed any conflict (“social combat” systems have been around since before Vampire started serving its delicious buttery angst).

Planned vs Unplanned

Planned events are the mainstay of D&D, which is a game about killing monsters and nicking their treasure. Planned conflicts provide the best kind of Climax to a game – and these don’t need to be physical combats, of course, but they should be a showdown with the sentient force behind the character’s trials (otherwise, what’s the point?). Up until that point you might get away with just trials and inanimate obstacles, though conflicts (with henchmen, etc) provide important Milestones.

What then are unplanned events?  You could argue that no event is truly unplanned, since the GM controls the environment. On the other hand there are a couple of reasons to run unscripted combat – either because the player action has a penalty (alert the guards!) or because of player inaction that must be challenged. Let’s call them Penalties and Motivators respectively.

The nice thing about Everway is how you can short-cut the decision process when it’s needed: unplanned events can be single-card draws whereas the big climactic battle will be a blow-by-blow narration.

Penalty Spectrum: Kill, Punish or Let Them Win

In our enlightened post-TPK gaming utopia there are still reasons to kill the PCs, but ideally you want to be challenging players rather than taking their PCs away permanently.

But there are also times you want to let them win – usually when they outclass their opponents. At that stage winning is secondary to decisions such as whether to grant clemency. Becky proposes allowing the players narrative control at this stage.

Crucially these are consequences rather than the conflict itself. You may encourage narrative description by the players during the fight, but until they have been told that they’ve actually won, they shouldn’t be narrating the outcome. But assuming your players “get” your GM style, that shouldn’t be a problem.

K/P/LtW consequences are intrinsically tied to “what’s at stake?” If KPL (hey, an acronym) is a straight line, then arguably the planned events should fall towards the K end and unplanned towards the L end. There are exceptions of course – having Unplanned events with Kill consequences can make for surprise twists. One GM told me how he killed a PC in an unplanned encounter in a sewer – providing a direct contrast with the high-fantasy heroic theme of the campaign and the PC. (But since they were resurrected later they were only nearly dead, not really dead).

By the same token, planned events should not fall at the L end of the spectrum, since that would be anticlimactic. It sounds obvious, but I’ve run and played in games where the boss fight just ends with the GM narrating victory.

Comment

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p>This is kind of an aide memoir to myself to say don’t get bogged down with unscripted fights. I’ve tied this to Everway because that system allows the GM to put as much or as little time into each conflict as necessary. Of course any GM can bring a fight to a quick conclusion based on relative strengths of participants – but D&D and other OSR games were never intended to be fudged that way.

The games’ Climax is a Planned event, and it should be heavily weighted towards the Kill end of the KPL spectrum. In other words, there is a risk that some PCs will be taken out or otherwise rendered unplayable, at least in the short term. Climax events should tend to be Blow by Blow. If a Climax event appears to be weighted towards Let Them Win then it could be a false climax. (“This is too easy!”)

The Milestones are Planned much like the Climax, but not so far biased towards Kill. In fact through investigation, planning and resource gathering on the PCs part, a Milestone could become Let Them Win. (“You’re finished, Lord Crane. The hostages are safe and we have all the evidence we need to prove your allegiance to the Dark One! You’re going to tell us what we need to storm his castle and end his reign of terror!”). Let Them Win consequences should be short to narrate – and could even be an opportunity to let the players take narrative control. Otherwise a Blow by Blow account is appropriate for a Milestone.

Of the Unplanned events, Penalties are the results of plans being derailed. You don’t want to Kill the party but it’s meaningless to just Let Them Win. It’s going to be quite tough to balance an appropriate Punishment with the party progress. Those are the kind of events that threaten to change the direction of (or worse, stall) the whole campaign. Thinking up front on what would make a setback vs what would completely kill the campaign is useful here. Since these events are actual Penalties they should be dealt with quickly, e.g. with a one-card narration (unless you want to drag them out to give the PCs a chance of recovering the situation).

The other Unplanned event is the Motivator. This should not be a killer; it could be a Let Them Win because its purpose is not to punish but provide a plot lead. Short Fight or Blow by Blow depends on the circumstance. If the action is flagging then the latter may be a good diversion; on the other hand if you really want to signpost the PCs towards the plot, a short fight may be what you want.

So…

  • A Climax should have K/P consequences and be a blow by blow
  • A Milestone can be K/P and blow by blow, or LtW and be short fight
  • A Penalty should be neither K not LtW, and is probably better short fight
  • A Motivator should not be K but may be better as LtW, and could be either blow by blow or short fight depending on the needs of the plot.
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  • Sorry I am late to the party in responding to this.

    I think that this is definitely one analysis of running games but I have recently starting experimenting with a lot of GMless or prepless (or both games) where the emphasis is on letting the story organically emerge through play.

    So far there has been mixed results (but most of the hiccups have been down to some very particular learned behaviors I and other traditional players have not a fault of the game). But there have also been some golden moments.

    I am play testing a game where the story emerges entirely through play on Friday where there is no GM but there is a Facilitator. I’ll discuss it with you when I next see you but it is a prepless game with no mechanics at all in the form of a group therapy session.

    You might find Apolocalypse World an interesting read. It is written by the same guy who wrote Dogs in the Vineyard and (to my mind) is much better than Dogs. He certainly deal neatly with some of the problems I see in Dogs and his section on creating “fronts” for GMing your game is very interesting indeed and provides a different approach to your K/P/LtW analysis.