Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Slice of Life Elements in RPGs

Cover of Golden Sky Stories

A lot of times, RPGs have a strong focus on exploration and combat. Relationships and conflict which develop out of these tend to be a secondary element derived from the events which occur naturally from player character choices. Golden Sky Stories is one such RPG predicated on this, and Beyond the Wall's character generation and Hearth Fantasy-focused structure lend itself better towards strong bonds and characters your players will care about than yet another strange place with monsters and loot.

As time went on, I found myself to be more of a thespian Game Master. I still love dungeon-crawling and action-adventure and prefer combat-free sessions to be rare at best, but I found that some of the best campaigns I ran and participated in were the ones which were character-centric. Where I played with the PCs' backstories and peppered in moments of drama between the action scenes; ones with a large cast of recurring characters the PCs could develop a rapport with and play off of; ones set in a centralized location such as a city where locations became familiar features to visit and thus more incentive to fight for the home they grew to know and love.

The City-based Campaign

The Settlement of Cauldron from the Shackled City Adventure Path

I talked about this a bit in my previous blog post, but in addition to being an iconic element, cities are happening places full of thousands of individual stories and the people who live them. Entire neighborhoods with their own feel allow for a diversity of adventures, from crime-ridden slums to crowded bazaars. Another major feature of cities is that in addition for a place where adventurers retire and sell their hard-won treasure, it can plausibly hold all manner of entertainment. And most importantly, it allows the PCs to better connect with a realm and its people; having a favorite tavern or wizard's academy as a regular feature that carries from session to session instills a sense of familiarity with players.

When a dragon or invading army attacks, they will not be fighting on the mountaintops of some distant peak they never knew about until recently in the adventure. Nor will they be fighting in a featureless stretch of woodland whose flora and fauna is like to many others. It will be at the common crossing to that magic item shop whose owner's name and face is well-worn into the gaming table's minds. It will be in the residential wards of Old Kervara, where that sweet old lady lives who once helped out the PCs during that haunted house quest several sessions ago.

Lessens to be Learned: What this adds to slice of life moments in gaming is immense: the players are much more likely to care about the place, for it is in many ways their homes even if their PCs originated from far-flung lands. Everything, from local festivals to recurring faces, will take on a more personal touch when the streets, the faces in the crowd, and the local shops are familiar things with strong mental images in the player's minds and not just yet another new foreign location.

Festivals and Games

Millennial Fair from Chrono Trigger

From holidays to arena tournaments, fun and games are culturally universal. They have an in-built competitive spirit with a goal contestants strive for, and the promise of prizes and recognition can be an attractive quality.

Many video game RPGs have mini-games as a fun aside for variety beyond dungeon-crawling and monster-slaying. Some of the most well-known ones are collectible card games, such as Final Fantasy 8's Triple Triad or Witcher 3's Gwent. The joy of winning and collecting rare and powerful cards provides a sense of progression and accomplishment, keeping the game fresh as you visit new areas with new players. The Millennial Fair at the beginning of Chrono Trigger let you collect Silver Points for every game you won, trading them in for useful items.

There are so many different kind of competitive games that translating their rules into D&D format would be a blog post all its own. But I can recommend a certain sourcebook invaluable for this. ENWorld's Book of Tournaments, Fairs, and Taverns is filled to the brim with rules for everything from martial arts and magical competitions to the classics such as races (the competitive kind), card, dice, and drinking games. All of which are Open Game Content, for any of you self-publishers out there!

Example: Final Fantasy IX

It's not a table-top RPG, but there's a certain video near and dear to my heart which really shown me the benefits of slice of life elements. Although not as popular as 7 and 10, the ninth installment in the series is known for having some of the best writing and character development. At the beginning of Disc 3, the party headed back to the kingdom of Alexandria after a major battle at the Iifa Tree. Princess Garnet, one of the party members, is now queen after the passing of her mother in the conflict, and the main character Zidane feels depressed as he worries that this marks the end of their time together since she'll be too busy attending to matters of state.

The game's perspective changes to Vivi, a child mage, on the streets of Alexandria. While controlling him you can restock on new equipment and meet up with old friends to find out what's been happening since your departure for the Iifa Tree. The small events and scenarios around Alexandria also play important roles by having new party members such as Eiko and Amarant meet the ones who were left behind, such as Steiner and Freya, before the next big adventure. Even so, it's not all just dialogue and exposition; there are sidequests and minigames for one to do, such as a major card tournament in Treno which Zidane wishes to visit.

After the climax of the last Disc, Final Fantasy takes time to build back up, and after the Treno card tournament things go right back into the action when the dragon Bahamut attacks Alexandria. It does not linger too long on the slice of life aspects, and there's still a sense of player participation than just watching the plot flow.

As you can see, it packaged the above elements quite nicely: visiting familiar city locations along with a host of diversions and competitive games and tying character development into things. And when it comes time to pick things up, the good old-fashioned "dragon attacking the city" instills a sense of immediate danger to get back to the heroic action.

In Conclusion

I hope this blog post served a useful purpose to you, dear reader. Whether they be recurring elements or a fun one-off element, I hope that I gave folks both the interest in trying out slice of life tropes, as well as a useful springboard to how to best accomplish this.