söndag 21 oktober 2018

How to spice up Milestone Rewards with Clocks.

Milestone rewards is controversial in tabletop roleplaying games - this is not a post about that. Instead of looking at the why-nots of Milestone rewards, lets instead work on making them gameable. 

Let's look at what milestone XP is, exactly. The following is the Milestone leveling system as explained in The Black Hack:
Adventurers learn through defeating and overcoming obstacles. Killing one boring Kobold won’t bring a revelation of learning to someone. Surviving a dungeon, completing a quest or simply living to tell the tale are the things that bring perspective and growth. The old experience system has been completelydiscarded. For every session/dungeon level/quest/ major event the character survives they gain a level.The GM will decide which, and it’s recommended that this decision remains more or less a constant throughout the campaign- and a GM should be clear and upfront with the players so they know where the ‘goalposts’are.
How do we be "clear and upfront" about where the goalposts are? Ignoring session XP, which I'm not particularly interested in, it should be in every good GM's interest to 1. communicate what is considered a milestone to the players 2. keep track of what those could possibly be in a complex sandbox without a fixed outcome.

The following technique is a way to keep track of milestones and help convert player goals into mechanical rewards. The main inspiration is how progress clocks are used in Blades in the Dark, but this leans more toward an OSR type of style.

A clock is a circle with (usually) an even amount of segments drawn into it. The clock-segments are filled when something in the game triggers it, and a segment is erased and made blank if something else in the game undoes it.

Clock graphics made by The Alexandrian - slight modification made to make the one-segment and two-segment clocks. 

When it comes to milestone-gaming, XP and Levels vary from system to system. Sometimes a milestone means getting a set amount of XP, sometimes it means gaining a full level. You can change the metrics of your clock to reflect this. In The Black Hack, most of these would just mean gaining a new level. For milestone XP-based systems, do it like this: if 1000 XP is enough for a character to level up, and a segment is divided into four, let every segment be worth 250 XP. That way, an entire filled clock is one level gained for your party. Adjust the math and value based on the scale and significance in your game system and setting.

Lets say your campaign as a quest that has you doing the bidding of a wizard, helping him recover mystical objects to gather his powers. Simple enough. What makes sense in this case is rewarding the act of recovering these objects, right? So lets say our party is rewarded when they successfully bring back a mystic artifact to the wizards castle. For sandboxing, this presents an obvious problem we'll touch on later, but for now, lets say it's good enough.

For the sake of this example, lets say the Wizard will require 6 artifacts before something else happens to spice up the result. There are of course a multitude of artifacts in your world and your players can choose to recover any of them in any order, but even so, the premise of "enable Wizard hoarding" can easily get stale. Simply put, after 6 recovered artifacts, something else will happen, they'll see the true nature of the artifacts, the wizard accidentally creates a world-destroying black hole because he read one of the ancient scrolls you recovered out loud, you discover the wizard is secretly evil, yada yada yada. Maybe he's just done at that point. The important thing is that you created an end-game for this particular milestone.

Clocks: The Basics

Lets say your players are into helping this weirdo wizard get his ancient groove on. Draw up a six-sided clock and name it, as below:

Show it to the players, an explain that every segment they've completed means milestone XP, or that you level up, depending on your system of choice. You've presumably already given the quest in character, and now you've made it obvious that this is something they can strive for. The formula is: decide what you want to do, and figure out how to reward doing it.

Any time they've recovered an artifact and brought it to the wizard, they level up, or get XP. The players now know that they could keep doing this if they want the reward.

But what about sandboxing? In the above example, player freedom is rather limited. The problem of all sandboxing is that the metric for if you are rewarded or not can run contrary to the players agency. Yeah, helping a wizard is all fine and good, but what if my character wants to be a hoarder of ancient rarities too? What if I want to spend my time on earth doing better things than running errands for needy wizards?

Multiple Clocks

The answer is simply to create a new clock. The players can go back to helping the wizard... or maybe not.... but we'll get back to that.

Lets say you have that one player that just wants to get that gold. Assuming your campaign world has lots of riches and that getting it is workable and fun, simply draw up a new clock. Call it "Rags to Riches" or whatever. Lets say that 500 gold is a lot in your world, and lets say the endgame of becoming wealthy is having 2000 gold, in coins or in loot, so make it a 4-segment clock. Whenever the player gets 500 gold, mark a segment. They get to level up/gain xp.

What if they spend all that gold on ale, or lose it in an encounter with some bandits? Obviously you don't rob the player of any of their player-level rewards, but you can remove a segment on the clock to represent that the character will have to do that cash-grabbing all over again in fiction.

Importantly, the clock can be filled in using multiple different actions. Sure, the endgame is having a set amount of gold, but you could get this by dungeon delving, highway robbery, doing quests for wealthy patrons, getting a dayjob, or whatever else they can think off. A clock should never be something that can be completed in only one way. This limits both your players and you.

Bad Clocks

Lets look at a bad clock - a one-segment (or empty) clock called "steal the Lamp of Doom from the Dragon Dunkir." Do the thing and get the XP - simple, right? Well, yeah. The problem is that you'll have to show these to your players, and you have to be honest. Remember, good GM's don't dupe their players out of rewards that they've worked towards and that you've promised them, even if not doing so makes sense in the fiction.

What if the players think they can try to get the Lamp of Doom through negotiation? What if they can buy it? The word "steal" implies too much. So does the fact that it mentions a Lamp of Doom, or a Dragon named Dunkir - things that might not necessarily be true. What if the PCs have been fed false information or misleading rumour? That kind of misdirection is commonplace in gaming, and figuring out whether or not you've received the right info is part of the challenge. Sure, you can be a good GM and give them that XP anyways once they figured it out - but it's bad design to start off with.

Here's how to fix it: We know two things about our broken clock to begin with. It mentions a Lamp of Doom, and a Dragon named Dunkir. Those are two things that need verification. So instead, lets make a two-piece clock about investigating the place where Dunkir is.

This is nice and vague. If the rumours are false, you've still succeeded in investigating them. Also, we've established that only two things are needed to complete this clock, and those might be more than just Dunkir and the Lamp.

Remember - this is a tool to determine what players are going to be rewarded for, and how much time they are allowed to spend getting rewarded for merely one thing. You could make this clock 24 segments and have the them do the same type of quest or task every session, but this betrays the sandbox nature of the tool. When a clock is full - shift focus. If the players can do anything they want, you must incentivize doing other stuff as well. They've investigated the rumours - they are absolutely true. The Lamp of Doom is in the possession of Dunkir the Dragon. Do they want to steal his lamp? Do they let him keep the Lamp? What happens? That is up to the players, and you'll make clocks accordingly.

Hidden Clocks

Lets go back to our first example, because it illustrates another problem with sandboxing. What if your player had accepted the quest to retrieve the magical artifacts for the Wizard, but spends the next 5 sessions on their other quest to get rich? You could keep the Mystical Artifacts Recovered-clock around, sure, but is the Wizard just going to accept that you abandoned your quest for a couple of days, even months? 

This is a problem with any open world, sandbox game, TTRPG or otherwise - the world can seem static and unchanging. The general logic is that the player needs to have all options available to them at every time, and that quests you've heard about 4 months ago will still need the same help.

You can use clocks to simulate change in the world in a different way. The Wizard is not going to take this insulting disobedience. He's going to DO something! Create a clock, this time not shown to the players, that is going to fill up any time they fill in a segment in another quest clock.  Maybe he'll send out spies, or confront the player. Either way, the Quest to retrieve the mystical artifacts is either going to be abandoned or changed completely. If the Wrath of the Wizard clock is filled, it the Mystical Artifacts Recovered clock is changed or completely removed from play. 

Now, that sucks, doesn't it? Not necessarily! This just means a different set of quests can be unlocked. Lets say the confrontation with the Wizard went.. badly. Now he has sworn to make their lives miserable. Create a new clock - "Thwart the Wizards Plots".  This time, show them the clock. They're in trouble now. While they were equally rewarded for freely adventuring for their own gain, that freedom came with consequences - just like sandboxes are supposed to work. Now, this is a pretty extreme example - the consequences should be adjusted. Those artifacts were important and interesting, but the side-quest to help the local theater company find a missing actor could literally end with someone else finding him or the actor showing up dead if the players ignore it. Punishing players for not being too hype about literally every quest you throw at them isn't really helping anyone feel like their freedom and agency are respected. Your goal is to make the world feel real, first and foremost, and that's where you should start.
A last note - the amount of segments on a clock could and should change during a campaign. If the PCs do something that changes the nature of the task performed, so should the mechanical tools you use change to reflect this. Maybe the PCs solution to thwarting the wizard is simply killing him with the 12th level spells they got from doing all the other quests. The 8th-segment clock simply gets turned into a one-segment clock. 

A good craftsperson is not ruled by their tools. 

Clocks - a summary

So if it isn't obvious why you would implement clocks as a way of managing sandbox campaigns, lets do a quick summary. All of these assumes the system or table prefer milestone XP, so they aren't arguments against rewarding XP for say, getting gold or killing monsters.  
  • Clocks communicate to players what is considered a milestone at your particular table. 
  • They can string together larger plot treads into smaller quests with clear end goals. 
  • They limit the amount of time your supposed sandbox campaign is spent on doing one thing, and encourages exploration and dynamic play.
  • They provide a narrative signifier - once a clock is filled, something happens, the world becomes dynamic and changes because of player action.
  • They are flexible in that they can both be incorporated as a pre-existing quest created by the GM or a player-driven goal created by their actions and stated wishes. 
  • Beyond being the basis of how XP is rewarded, Clocks help GMs keep track of the game world in a holistic way.
Here's stuff to avoid:
  • Don't let the clocks describe a way of doing things, just the end-goal of doing them
  • Don't lie about the nature of the reward - avoid using information that the players aren't sure is true 

An example campaign

Now, lets create an entire sandbox campaign using this as a foundation. What do we want it to be about?

Lets say it is a standard fantasy RPG, but with themes of survival and horror. Lets also keep the amount of clocks to five - you're going to be able to create a bunch of player-driven clocks and side-quests down the line. Maybe it's set in a depressing winter landscape, with villagers facing starvation, dying cattle and forests that hide dark secrets. The PCs arrive there, cold and starving. This is already enough for us to create our first clock.

Clock 1. The PCs need to find warmth and food, or they'll starve. Since this is the first thing they'll do, lets go easy on them. I'll create a four-segment clock and title it "Gimmie Shelter". We don't need to think of how the PC might do that - that's up to them. 

Our campaign also needs an overarching problem or plot - we could have a big bad evil guy, or a more cosmic plot. Maybe the cold, long winter is a punishment by the Gods? That sounds good. Maybe one of the quests could be to appease the Gods, then? That would mean you could send the PCs out to slay creatures that offend the Gods, or recover ritual artifacts used in worship, or kill false preachers - who knows? This is a big one, and is going to take perhaps the entire campaign to complete. Clocks with more segments than 8 are a hassle, so lets instead make each segment real difficult or time-consuming to complete.

Clock 2

But what if actually, fuck the Gods? Lets drive out these assholes from this domain and protect these innocent people from these hateful, wrathful gods.

Clock 3.                                                         

But this divine tragedy might not interest you at all. Fuck the people here, they all deserve it and they don't need our players help, right? What else is there in this sandbox campaign? Let us turn our attention to the profane - cash. Two heirs of a wealthy landlord are fighting over their inheritance. Both of them promise great monetary gain if you could prove on side right - through legal means, forgery, murder, bribery or whatever else. Doing so unleashes a flood of drama, betrayal and intrigue - weird since the bit of land they are fighting over is barren and uninhabitable. Whenever a major change in the dispute occurs because of player action, mark a segment. 
Clock 4.

Only one left. Thus far, we've touched the divine and the profane - now lets do something for the bleeding heart heroes. The only son of a poor peasant woman has gone missing, kidnapped by the creatures of the night. Lets say the peasant boy is some kind of chosen Harry Potter-type kid, and that his significance to the game-world is world altering. Maybe he has some sort of magic power that could make the other Clocks change forever? For each piece of the puzzle uncovered, fill a segment. Save the boy, save the world. If you're into that sort of thing. 

Clock 5:

Bringing it all together

Now that we've got these various different things to do in our campaign world, we can think of ways to make them all fit into a unified whole. Does the kidnapped kid with the strange gift have the power to change how the Gods view this place? Does the quarreling siblings fight over the land because a strange artifact, desired by the Gods is hidden there? How do you go from having found shelter to discovering the fact that the Gods have punished this place? And can the money the siblings are giving you to solve their dispute grant you access to a secret cult dedicated to destroying the unjust rule of Gods? This is a cool way for you to string together all those adventure ideas you didn't know where to put into a cool larger setting. 

Of course, these clocks aren't good enough on their own to create a campaign. You need to flesh out the details, draw maps, create sidequests, or even another major quest or two. Besides, the players will have their own goals and agendas that need their own clocks. Heck, you should even be prepared to throw out all of these clocks if the party does something extraordinary to make each of them irrelevant. But I'm sure you see how this kinda thing becomes useful. As with all tools used in GMing, be flexible, adjust for your table and be ready to re-calibrate if what you've done hasn't proved successful.