Super Mario STing
(or why White Wolf STs should go read a DMG)
“Thank you, Mario,
But our princess is in another castle…”
~Super Mario Brothers, NES
I have a confession to make: I play on online White Wolf chats.
As I am a fan of the Old World of Darkness, it’s tough to find players anymore. Online chats were a natural interest as you could find players, even if physically they were hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. And while I have found some terrific players and stories on those chats, I have also suffered through some of the worst games of my life online. Recently I have been hit in the face with something that has become a massive pet peeve, something I call the ‘Super Mario Syndrome.’
How does that work in roleplaying? Easy. The ST schedules a scene (or a game session if you’re playing tabletop) and everyone gets together to solve problem A or seek out Badguy X. And the PCs sally forth to the someplace (hideout 1) where they have a clue that Badguy X will be, encountering a big group of his goons or traps or what have you. The PCs fight a valiant and (because it’s old White Wolf) exceedingly long battle with the goons, only to find that Badguy X is not there and they cannot get much useful information from the defeated goons. Only “Sorry, PCs but the Badguy is in another hideout.” So the session ends, you may or may not get XP, and you schedule to play again. Next time you go to hideout 2, to find more of Badguy X’s goons, have another long fight, and find out once again that ‘Oh yeah, Badguy X is in another hideout…” and so on.
I can stomach the idea of having to defeat multiple villains to collect multiple MacGuffins (to continue the classic video game references: The Zelda Plotline) as long as every chunk of the game offers a tangible reward. It is too easy to forget the ‘reward’ part of a poorly thought out, ongoing storyline. This problem is complicated tenfold in White Wolf style games because the game does not offer inherent rewards for combat, unlike Dungeons and Dragons. You might get a few XP, which in turn you can use to raise your physical stats, and fight more things. But unless your players are completely content with fighting endless hoardes of baddies, rinse, repeat the game quickly becomes tiresome if they can never accomplish story goals.
I have a negative gut reaction against running a scene with no purpose. Both as a player and as an ST I dislike the convention of fighting for no reason, or questing without reward. Some STs use this to build up tension or to make the players ‘work’ for something in order to earn it, but I find all too often that it only builds frustration in the players and stretches out a watery plotline for longer than it is worth. Having been victim of the Super Mario Syndrome in several games, in my experience it always ends the same way: sooner or later the players get frustrated without getting anywhere. They get up the gumption, complain to the ST, and the ST in return gets angry because he or she feels like their hard work STing isn’t being appreciated. In rare cases I have seen STs learn from their mistakes and reform their plots – but more often I see an ST go ‘well, if you want and ending, then fine! I’ll end it!’ and they make up a sudden and unsatisfying ending to the plot. Players and ST go home unhappy and the game starts to fall apart, which just isn’t fun in any sense of the word.
So, let’s dissect the possible reasons for the Super Mario Syndrome:
1. The storyteller seeks to build tension.
Tension is an integral part of a dramatic plot. However tension at the expense of the group’s enjoyment is a waste. I find it far better to build tension with scene settings, good descriptions, and by making the villains connected to the PCs in some way. By giving them a reason to give a rat’s ass about a villain (whether that means they have some positive connection to them or they have a deep and personal hatred of them) your players create tension for you through their PCs own personal struggles.
2. The Storyteller seeks to challenge the players.
Oftentimes as an ST I worry about ‘is this challenge difficult enough for my players?’ Unlike 3.X DnD and beyond there are no ‘challenge levels’ in White Wolf. There are no clear guidelines as to when something is challenging enough, too easy or too hard. So, in order to get a proper sense of challenge, some STs like to drag things out to make sure the game is properly difficult. But it is all too easy to drag things out too long.
My suggestion? Make individual encounters more difficult. Swallow your fear of killing your PCs and make each scene potentially deadly, and if they succeed, “Let it Ride.” That’s a term pulled directly from Burning Wheel – which I highly suggest any ST should go pick up because reading the concepts in that system is well worth the $25 even if you never play it. Anyways, let it ride is a mechanic that says you cannot call for re-rolls and you cannot reneg on success or failure. If the PCs succeed on a roll (or working from there, succeed in a task) they succeed. You cannot try to go back on your word and suddenly make the task again more difficult. If need be pre-define the conditions for success and let the players know them. If they succeed, they succeed and you move on. And honestly, the game isn’t about the ST versus the PCs. The ST doesn’t ever need to ‘win.’ The PCs do because the players play the game for success. So if they succeed, let them win. There is nothing wrong with that.
3. The Storyteller wants to ‘hang on’ to a great recurring villain
Oh, the curse of the awesome NPC. You created them in a burst of inspiration and now you can’t let them go. The PCs love them – or at least you thought they did. But now they can never reach their goals because he is standing in the way. You can deal with this in a few different ways, and one of the simplest and best is sit down and talk to your players OOC. Do they love the recurring villain as much as you do? If the answer is yes, they all love to continually hate him, then structure your game with a smattering of other, defeatable villains and you know you will always have your ‘Lex Luthor’ around to show back up. Or perhaps the PCs could confront their favorite recurring villain and cause him or her to convert to being a good guy.
The hardest part to this is when you find that no, in fact your players don’t share the same love of a particular NPC that you do. Then there is really only one thing to do, and that is to go back to the above point, suck it up and let them have the chance of defeating him. And if they do, you let the NPC go. You’re an ST. You should be able to create an equally awesome villain for the next plot – or save this one and reuse him in a different game with different players.
4. The Storyteller hasn’t planned his or her story to the end.
This is the monster that destroys games: lack of follow-through on the part of the ST. Sometimes it manifests in a wandering lack of plot while the ST searches for inspiration on how to draw it all into a conclusion and sometimes it manifests in the ST being wholly unable to tie all of his or her complex threads together. Super Mario tends to show up while the ST is trying to stall for time. Now, I do not believe that planning a game should feel like a chore, but that a good ST should put a reasonable amount of time and effort into planning. Many good STs enjoy that planning. But at base, your game needs a plan for what the problem is, what the resolution will be and what the reward for success is. How the players get from problem to resolution is up to them and it can comprise the bulk of your game, but the ST needs to know what the eventual conclusion is. If the game is long-term and/or epic there needs to be clear ‘chapters’ of play, allowing minor successes to add up to a final success in the overarching goal.
The difficulty with flexible story-based games is that you need to start with an interesting story. Part of the job of the ST is to decide how long a planned story (or game) will last. Some stories are far better suited for short campaigns, while others more able to sustain long-term play; and a smart ST can separate the two. If you have a short-term story run it as a one-shot or a few-shot and don’t try to drag it out past its prime. But most importantly: figure out what plot you are running before everyone sits down to play. Not a railroad, but a general idea that “The PCs want X. When they get X, they will get Y reward” or something that gives a sense of conclusion to the basic structure.
Getting over the roadblocks allows the players to feel like they are a contributing part of the game and that their actions have meaning because they advance the story somewhere else. No one wants to play a game where they feel like they are at the whims of an ST. If we wanted that we’d all go get cubicle jobs and get pushed around by our bosses all day and call it ‘fun.’ An ST needs to step back and let his or her players affect the game or story with their actions as much as the ST shapes them.
Then Super Mario will be the one in another castle.