RPG story complexity
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 April 2016, 6:26 am
I started playing pen & paper roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D 1st edition) in the early 80's. The target audience for the game was clearly teenagers and young adults, with the D&D box saying "for age 10 and up". As a consequence the stories told by the adventures frequently had rather simple plots, like "go into the Tomb of Horrors and defeat the lich Acererak". Players were encouraged to play characters of good or neutral alignment, with the story frequently featuring an arch-villain of evil alignment. Even at higher levels the enemies just got more powerful, without acquiring a more complex personality. The challenge of the game consisted of beating the dungeon with its traps and monsters, not figuring out who was the bad guy. Even more complicated adventures like the original Ravenloft left very doubt who the arch-villain to beat was.

Compared to that, the Zeitgeist Adventure Path is far, far more complex. We are in the middle of the second adventure, and the group has no idea yet who the arch-villain is. Adventure one had "a" villain in the form of Duchess Ethelyn, the king's sister, but she was killed at the end of that adventure. Instead the campaign features a whole panoply of conflicts: Adventure one was about the conflict between those in Risur who like the king want to modernize the nation with technology against the conservatives in Risur who prefer to stick to old ways of druidic magic. It also features the conflict between Danor and Risur. These two conflicts still feature large in adventure two, but the group already got into a battle between different criminal gangs, and came across a social conflict between workers and industrialists. And as the adventure and the campaign progresses, the group will come into contact with more and more different factions and power groups and individuals.

I completely removed alignment from my Zeitgeist campaign, as it isn't really needed for the 4E ruleset, and isn't really adequate for the setting. You can't simply label one side in a conflict between conservationists and technologists as "good" or "evil". I insisted from the start that every player character needs to have a fundamental loyalty to the king and kingdom of Risur, but that doesn't mean they don't have leeway to navigate between the different power groups. They are currently gaining a favor with a skyseer who offered to broker a negotiation between them and the "eco-terrorist" they are tasked to arrest, but I have no idea what they will actually do once they encounter her. The campaign is designed to give the players the freedom to choose sides in various conflicts, without any of those choices leading to a standstill.

While the complexity, the maturity, and the freedom of choice have many obvious advantages, there are also a number of disadvantages. One is to get the group act as a whole, without a single player spoiling the freedom of choice of the others. For example the discussion already started in the previous session, and will have to continue in a future session of how the group should react when they encounter the eco-terrorist: Will they attack on sight, or ally with her, or at least hear her out and then choose? It is situations like these where one player saying "I attack on sight" can negate the choice of everybody else.

The other problem with complexity is remembering everything you learned about who is who. I don't know if you have the experience when for example watching the first episode of the next season of Game of Thrones, having watched the end of the previous season months ago. It always takes some time to remember all the plot-lines going on and how all the characters are connected. Even for me as the DM it is quite a task to know everybody in the story, and for the players who just play no more than twice per month and don't get to read all of the background information the complexity is even more daunting. I am currently playing as a character in another D&D campaign and I am experiencing the problem of being in the middle of a story I don't understand first-hand.

So right now I am wondering how much complexity I need for my campaign. Of course many of the factions and characters in the story are necessary for the campaign to make sense at all. But there are also a bunch of characters and locations that are pure fluff, designed as filler for the role-playing enthusiasts: Two-page descriptions of various characters in a location that the players will only visit once and that will only give them a minor clue towards the main story. I am very much tempted to cut out some of the fluff, seeing how many players in my group are more interested in the tactical wargaming aspects of D&D than in elaborate role-playing. In the end I need to tailor the campaign towards what is fun for the players, and getting them completely confused and lost isn't really the way to go there.
Tobold's Blog

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