Wednesday, January 01, 2014

In which Silverway finally reaches its heroic tier finale

The heroic tier finale of Silverway has finally come and gone, after much delay and party-winnowing.  I was pretty happy with it.  Unusually for me, this encounter had been in the planning for several months, and its final iteration was quite different from the original conception.  Instead of fighting through a giant map of a ruined university quad, the entire finale ended up being nothing but talking.  I thought this was fitting, since we’ve had a lot of combat set pieces in Silverway lately.  This has been driven by the fact that the D&D rules continue to be better at making a combat game than making any other kind of game - I figured that since I was running a D&D game (and I actually like the D&D 4e combat game), I might as well embrace it.  This is also a significant departure from my other current game, Skyfall (which follows a more traditional Natalian mix of lots of character work occasionally punctuated by very short, very sharp combat), so it offers me personally a nice balance.

But at the end of the day, I don’t think that roleplaying is about fighting.  It’s about storytelling.  As a DM, that means manipulating the emotions of your audience (the players) while they are at the table in order to guide the production of a desired experience.  As a player, that means inhabiting the headspace of the game in order to experience the collectively shaped experience.  So much of the essence of the game takes place in the players’ heads (which is one reason I like to talk to my players about their experience - even as the DM, there is much of the game that I am not directly privy to).  Sitting at a roleplaying table merely as an observer, even for an entire session, is like hearing about a Broadway play from your friend who just got back from New York.  Hearing about a roleplaying session after the fact is like hearing about that play from your friend’s friend.

While the D&D combat game is fun, it is not particularly good at facilitating different emotions (in fact, I would highlight this as the key difference in design philosophy between Silverway/D&D and Skyfall/PhE combat).  Indeed, one reason I’ve had so many set pieces in Silverway is that I’ve been experimenting with different ways to make the D&D combat game an emotionally resonant experience.  For the finale, though, I ultimately decided to go with something more purely in the players’ heads.

Ironically, this meant throwing out months of half-baked encounter plans, so virtually the entire session was improvised.  This too was a throwback to my usual style of DMing, which I think was a nice touchstone for me.  For me, improvised sessions and well-planned sessions are like the difference between social dance and choreography.  The one feels natural and spontaneous, and there is the thrill of touching and adapting to something vital and alive and instant.  The other can be technically impressive and may be artistically affecting for the audience, but feels dead to perform.  So it was nice to gin up ten ghosts’ worth of plot-critical conversation on the spot (including two new ghosts whose presence had not been foreseen until literally seconds before they appeared in the narrative).  Then I had to gin up an audience/interrogation with the pantheon, which harkened back to an experience in my very first D&D game with Twilight, and was even more improvised than the university encounter.

This conversation with the gods was probably the biggest moment of player choice I have ever managed to pull off.  The party was presented with two stark options, and they actually pretty much stuck to those two instead of trying to find a hidden third, this-was-not-actually-hidden-and-it-destroys-all-the-plans option (I held pretty much all the cards in the scenario, but then again, the DM never holds all the cards).  I have had lots of player choice in my campaigns by now, but I have never before had a single choice that so defined so much of the game.  This choice determined not only the goal/narrative arc but also the setting for the next ten levels.  And then I all but told the party they would have to give up their classes.

Whenever I need help planning Silverway I turn to Twilight, Ayudaren, and The DM, and I had a lot of conversations with them leading up to this moment.  Class is fundamental to the D&D game.  The challenge of the game is built around a proper mix of classes.  It’s baked into the way players design a character, and is often the most important decision a player makes when designing a character (even dominating such seemingly non-mechanical choices such as personality and motivations).  In fact, many character concepts in a D&D game begin with class: “I want to play a paladin,” or even just, “I want to play a character who casts spells.”  If the party made one choice - the choice they made, as it happens - they would find themselves cut off from all magic (I wouldn’t even have let Neani become a psion, except that I really could find no way to make a martial incarnation of her character that felt right).  This would invalidate virtually all of the class choices my players had made, and force them to play new versions of their characters as interpreted through the lens of a brand new class.  It gave mechanical bite to a momentous roleplaying decision, and clearly marked a major transition in the mechanical progression of the game with an emotionally memorable event.  It was the right decision.  But would they go for it?

I guess you never really know what’s going on in your players’ minds, but I think they really did.  It was angsty, but it was supposed to be.  These moments are among the most satisfying for me as a DM - when you do something that requires you to trust your players, and they go with it.

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