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Thursday 26 January 2023

Chaos is your friend

If I had one roleplaying rule that I’d put on a Post-It, it would be: don’t get comfortable. You should always be pushing the game away from the status quo. And that applies to the players as well as the referee.

Campaigns can fall into a lazy story-of-the-week pattern. It’s especially a risk with campaigns built around a party of characters with one common goal – we’re superheroes who protect the world, we’re occult investigators in ‘30s New York, we’re legionaries guarding the frontiers of the empire. If any major event collides with that and breaks the party into pieces, the temptation can be to see it as a temporary aberration that needs to be fixed so that everything goes back to the way it was.

It’s how TV shows used to be before cable. Everything more or less reset so that you could watch episodes in any order. Even with their season arcs providing a loose developing narrative, early Buffy or X Files stories amounted to: “Here are our familiar friends doing their familiar things.” Cosy for fireside viewing, that.

What set me thinking about this was a session in a Last Fleet campaign I played in. The ragtag fleet (this is a Battlestar Galactica type deal) was in need of fuel so a ship was sent to scout out a nearby system with a gas giant and a colonized rocky planet with a refinery. The scout ship found trouble: the satellite network around the colony planet had been destroyed, there was no response from either the refinery or the mining station orbiting the gas giant, and the scout ship came under fire from a cloaked alien fighter. Oh, and they encountered a prison ship with about a hundred detainees in coldsleep.

The damage to the scout ship made it impossible to report back to the fleet, which jumped into the system only to be immediately hit by multiple cloaked attackers. The original scout ship tried to make an emergency landing on the planet. As they descended they saw an immense refugee camp, miles across, presumably housing the colonists who had survived whatever destroyed the satellite network. The scout ship broke up on crash-landing in the desert outside the camp. The pilot (Lt Lightshere) was injured and two other characters, the fleet’s chief scientist (Dr Corax) and a persuasive politician (Mr Coronov), were forced to bail out.

Immediately the characters went into reset-the-status-quo mode: “Get a recovery ship down there. Pick up Lightshere and take him to sick bay. Find Corax and get him to the bridge. We need to figure out a weakness in the enemy’s attack plan.”

By making stories all about solve-the-plot, games tend to steer us in this kind of track. In that context the Ace Pilot's injuries are just seen as an inconvenience, lost hit points that must be quickly fixed by autodoc so he can go back to doing what he usually does. The Brilliant Scientist back on the bridge would set up another by-the-numbers moment: “I’ve analyzed their attack and there is a weakness.” “Good, now that Lightshere is patched up he can lead the squadron. Coronov, you speak to the fleet and reassure everyone…”

But here’s another way to go. Maybe the Ace Pilot's injuries aren’t simple broken bones so much as loss of memory and/or internal injuries. So he wanders into the refugee city not knowing what’s happened, or alternatively is found unconscious by scavengers from the city and taken back there for treatment. The Brilliant Scientist and the Persuasive Politician might not even be with him – they bailed out before impact, so they could be a mile away on the far side of the camp, possibly not even together.

The party is already split. I’m saying you don’t have to fight that. When the story veers off course, keep upping the ante. Pour on the chaos. Let it find a new equilibrium.

This way the characters are thrown into a whole new scenario that could lead anywhere but the cosily familiar. The Brilliant Scientist and the Persuasive Politician might become involved in the refugees’ plight, or be struggling to survive out in the desert. The Ace Pilot might not even know who he is, or that he has internal bleeding that requires expert medical attention within a given time (a doom clock is a common feature of the Last Fleet).

Meanwhile, the away team sent down to the planet to search for them doesn’t have the near-magical tech of anything like tricorders, so they’d be faced with a ramshackle tent city and miles of desert. What are they going to do? Talk to the refugees? Threaten them? Round them up? They’d have to Seek Out the missing player-characters (that’s a move in the Last Fleet rules, hence it's in bold). There won’t even be a single refugee leadership, probably; rather a bunch of factions whose squabbling mirrors the fleet itself.

Imagine it in a TV show. The audience, thrust far outside their comfort zone and with all the characters facing unexpected jeopardy, would be biting their collective nails to the quick. You know this would be better than getting everybody back to the fleet without further mishaps.

This is not a point about railroading, incidentally. It has nothing to do with what the referee originally had planned. The whole principle behind Powered by the Apocalypse games is that everybody is "playing to find out what happens". So it's not particularly the referee's responsibility to decide how the narrative deals with those missing and injured characters. Whether to skip over those details or how to incorporate them is decided by the whole group. What I'm advocating is the notion that when circumstances veer off into the unknown, the players (including the referee) are missing an opportunity if they just struggle to bring everything back to the template they're used to.

If your players are willing to embrace the “interesting chaos” that emerges from a session and run with it, they’ll find the story spinning off in directions that nobody anticipated, and that will provide much more variety than if everyone struggles to block those emergent improvisations and pull the adventure back on course.

The example I’m giving here would entail a lot of scene-hopping. That doesn’t have to mean the players spending a lot of time as passive observers. The situation is tense enough that each group of players – Scientist and Politician in the desert, wounded Ace Pilot in the tent city, the other pilots in their fighters, the bridge crew on the battlestar – can be getting on with their own thing while the referee flits between them. It’s perfect for breakout rooms on Zoom or Discord, but even in real-life gaming there’s always the kitchen or the back yard.

I find there’s a lot to be learned from games like The Last Fleet even though I fight shy of metagaming and authored narratives. The fact is that nothing in Powered by the Apocalypse mechanics obliges you to consciously craft a story rather than let it happen, just as in drama you can write a script in advance but you can equally well wing it on the night. I have other gripes about PbtA mechanics (everything is a special case; making rules story-based rather than skills-based hampers in-the-moment improv; etc) but I can’t agree with one of my players who said of PbtA, “I think you’re working very hard to sell an only slightly dead parrot.” Let’s be more open-minded than that!

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