The King of a troubled land and his weakling allies face a troubled future. In a distant land, two dark Princes ally with the aim of overthrowing the King and his forces. Slowly, both sides build up their forces, making moves and countermoves in secret. One by one, each recruits secret allies, seemingly headed for a major confrontation. The King scores a major coup when a neighboring ruler joins his army.

Both experience reversals, as forces they expected to recruit gather in opposition camps or unite with independent groups. Ultimately, the Princes’ plans fall apart on them, and they retire to plot and plan another day. But in the meantime, an Evil Queen has been making secret alliances, out of sight of anyone else, emerging at the last possible minute to challenge the alliance of Kings, a threat which is only defeated when a third King, a secret ally, is revealed – but the exercise causes ill-will amongst the three, who disband their alliance. So outraged are the citizens that the King is forced into exile.

Doesn’t this sound like an awesome campaign background – not history, but ongoing developments in the background of the game?

Revealing the Metaphor Engine

Here’s what it really is: Player 1 is dealt a King and a three face-up and a seven, four, and nine facedown. Another player has two Jacks showing – Clubs and Spades. The player with the King showing opens the betting and is matched by the player with the jacks and by a third player; most of the others at the table fold. The player with the Kings discards two of his facedown cards and the three, drawing a ten face-up and a jack and five face-down to accompany his nine. The player with the jacks discards only his facedown cards and draws a third jack, an ace, and a four. The third player, who has a two and a four showing, discards one of his three face-down cards and both the visible cards, drawing the queen of spaces and the King of Diamonds face-up, and an ace which is face-down and hidden from the other players.

After a second round of betting, discarding, and drawing, the player with the King now has two of them face-up and one facedown. The Player with the two jacks showing has three facedown cards that are valueless to his hand. The third player now has a Queen and King showing, and has a Queen and two Aces facedown. A fourth player has received a jack face up, but folds his hand as the player with two Kings again opens the betting hard. The player with the jacks considers a bluff, but with one of the jacks known to be in someone else’s hand, decides against it, and folds; the player with the two Kings showing expects the remaining player to do the same, but that player chooses to see the bet. Both players reveal, but two pairs is beaten by the presence of the hidden third King. All the cards are then shuffled, ready for the next hand.

If each player represents a faction or government in the game world, and their winnings represents their relative power levels, then each hand of a poker game becomes a tale of intrigue and high drama within the game background. Slowly, one faction will gain dominance, while others will weaken or even collapse completely. The results can form a compelling narrative tool for your campaign, needing only a conversion via metaphor to translate the play – according to whatever rules you are playing by – be it Texas Hold-em or Stud or whatever – to render it into in-game terms. This page might help: list of poker variants as a starting point.

The Horsepower of the Metaphor Engine

I’ve seen a number of GMs use die rolls to determine the rise and fall of NPC nations in their games, but Poker is a far superior choice. This technique takes advantage of two of the primary principles of one game and states an equivalence with two of the primary principles in another: the building up of sets of matching cards represents the forming of alliances, or the gathering of servants, or the acquisition of tools to further the overall ambitions of the faction; and the ignorance of what the other players hold, and betting mechanism that is possible as a result, represents ignorance on the part of each faction about everything that the other factions are up to – though some activities might be obvious, which is the equivalent of inferring hand strengths from betting patterns.

I don’t know of any actual rules of poker that quite match the two-face-up-and-three-face-down that I used in my opening example, but there are many variants within the overall game that can be used.

Harnessing The Metaphor Engine

It’s easy to actually take this principle one step further, to truly harness the power of the Metaphor Engine that is a poker game. By designating the faction belonging to the player who eventually wins the entire game as the PCs, and the player who comes second as their major enemy, the conduct of the entire game can become a campaign planning tool that ensures a final confrontation between the forces of good and evil. Initially, the real enemy might even be anonymous, or weakened, while others loom large as an immediate threat. All that needs to be done to complete the transformation matrix of card game to RPG plot is to associate the key developments in the game with PC actions or failures to act, by regarding the next hand, or series of hands, as metaphors for the experiences to take place in the lives of the characters.

The Hand-In-Ignorance Technique

It might be tempting to map out an entire campaign using a single hand, or series of hands, but a far better choice is to play only one or two hands in advance, maintaining GM ignorance as to what will become significant and what will not. By avoiding the pitfalls of too much GM knowledge, the GM is forced to develop a number of separate plot threads, each rife with the potential for adventure, leaving the PCs to determine which one they will focus on next. The result is a virtual sandboxing, in which ‘factions’ are defined not as static entities at the start of a series of poker hands but by a combination of the outcome of a single hand or set of hands and the relative amount of attention being focused on a particular plot thread by the PCs.

Interpreting the progress and outcome of the card game in this way permits outcomes in which the PCs can be deceived into strengthening the position of their true enemies, or can focus attention on a seemingly more-urgent situation (or even an actually more-urgent situation), leaving their true enemy to strengthen his own position. The pattern of play may even be a metaphor for their enemy making a temporary alliance with them against a third party, or the PCs coming to the aid of their real enemy to deal with a mutual threat. Any sort of plot twist is possible.

Because the outcome is both held in ignorance by the GM, and yet has a continuity within the card game, any possible permutation of plot developments is possible, and the effects of the outcome of any individual plotline can be both surprising and yet leading to the inevitable. There is a chaos and unpredictability to events viewed in the finer scale of one game session or adventure, while there is an overall pattern to events that result from knowing who the ultimate winners and who their ultimate opponents are going to be.

The Compaction of Prep

One final benefit that is worth mentioning here is the implication for game prep. Activities that will spawn more untapped plot threads are encouraged, but detailed game prep is restricted to one specific element or plot thread. Game prep thus assumes a ‘fuzzy boundary’ in which the need for work outside the ‘virtual sandbox’ is minimized. The GM has less work to do, and operated with greater focus and efficiency, because only those elements that are needed will receive game prep.

In many ways, this parallels the approach taken by television series such as Stargate SG-1. The episode under development at the moment might focus on one particular Gou’uld enemy or one particular ally, whose circumstances and plotline are advanced; while all sorts of other plot threads are simply left dangling and undeveloped until they become the focus of a future episode.

This website may be useful, dealing as it does with real episodic television scripts, as does this site. I found this website to be very interesting, and the list of resources on the right-hand side looks extremely valuable in the context of writing episodic material of any sort – including RPG adventures! But, to get back to the discussion at hand:

Game prep thus becomes defined dynamically with changing and developing circumstances within the card game. The rules of the interpretational framework are such that no other plot threads can come to a conclusion, and yet have to be developed in response to events within the game, as each faction – unless they fold with the initial cards dealt, and simply mark time – at least attempts to advance their cause. So every subplot advances in the background, but only in such a way that the game itself yields more potential for future plotlines; only the primary plotline on which attention is currently focused has the potential of advancing significantly. Balances of power are constantly shifting, as factions jockey for position. The campaign plotline itself becomes more dynamic as a result.

Games to exclude

Not every series of poker hands results in a game with multiple changes of fortune. A sufficiently big confrontation in the early hands, as each player thinks they have a winning hand, can leave the overall winner with so big an advantage that the ultimate victory is inevitable. When used as a metaphor for the events which will occur in-game, the result is inevitably just as obvious and foregone a conclusion.

It may be necessary to play multiple series of hands, have multiple sessions of play, before an appropriately interesting and compelling narrative metaphor presents itself. This is something that GMs considering this technique should bear in mind.

The need for detailed records

Professional poker players analyze their performance, and the developments of each hand of the game, zealously. They seek to improve their games, to learn from their mistakes and from the mistakes of others. To this end, they keep detailed records of each hand played, whether they drop out early in the hand or not.

Since the GM cannot predict who will win each hand, or the total series of hands, in advance, it should be obvious that the GM needs to be just as assiduous in analyzing the events of each hand of the poker game being used as a metaphor engine for the plot.

Choosing the right poker client/site

Since the intention is to do things with the ongoing gameplay that are not really ‘intended’ to happen, it will be important to choose the right poker client and website. Fortunately, sites such as offer detailed reviews to help you.

At first, you might be tempted to employ such sites in tutorial mode (if they have one) or against ‘virtual’ (i.e. machine) opponents, but these are inherently more limited than playing against a human opponent, capable of flashes of instinct or insight, of bluffing, and of knowing when to bluff. The results will be better when they derive from a real game, with real opponents. What you want will be a way to log the progress of the game for later study – either using software functions or services provided by the website, or using some approach of your own – whether that’s some sort of video capture technique or hand-written notepad, or something else.

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