Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Brown M&Ms

Atul Gawande is well on his way to cementing his place as a man who I will read with no prompting at all. His previous book, "Better" was one of my favorites of the past few years, and his recent writings on health care have been fantastic. I recently started his most recent book, "The Checklist Manifesto" and it's fantastic so far. I'll probably talk more about it at some point, but right now I want to steal an anecdote from it.

So, back in the day, when Van Halen was touring, David Lee Roth put a line in the contract for every venue that there be a bowl of M&Ms in his dressing room with all the brown ones removed. If he found any brown ones, they could nix the show at no cost to themselves. On one occasion, the clause was actually used to cancel a show. Typical rock & roller nonsense, right?
Not so much. Turns out David Lee Roth is a canny fellow, and there was a deeper purpose to this request. See, this was early in the era of really big tours. Van Halen rolled in with a dozen trucks and busses where the norm had previously been three, and the sheer number of things that had to be done to make sure everything was set up functionally and safely was absolutely daunting. There were so many variables that there was no effective way to check everything, so a lot had to be taken on faith.

The M&Ms were something of a barometer. If Roth came in and there wasn't a brown M&M in sight, then he could feel confident that everything had been done by the numbers, with the right level of attention to detail. But if there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, that was a signal that perhaps this venue wasn't as on the ball as they needed to be, and that was the cue to trigger and intense review (and if that review came up short, the M&Ms provided a concrete, inarguable escape clause.

I admit I was absolutely delighted by this story. Some of the joy came from the idea of a cunning David Lee Roth, but it is also a great example of how we deal with complex systems that we're not necessarily in a position to totally review. Brown M&Ms work like personal red flags, things you look for to tell you where to look next.

We all have these brown M&Ms when we look at an RPG. Whether its an extensive weapon list, reference to Rule Zero, excess boobage or bad design, I think we all have certain things that we check for (consciously or unconsciously) when we pick up a book and flip through it. I know I do, but now I find myself thinking about them more explicitly in an attempt to pin them down. It's proving surprisingly slippery.

How about you? Any brown M&Ms to share with the world?

(My wife, when I mentioned this, already knew this story. Apparently it was on This American Life - one more reason I need to catch up on that.)


  1. Mine would have to be the character sheet. As a player it is something you will spend a lot of time looking at. If it is not organized and doesn't look well made, I think it says a lot for the game.

  2. @michael Oh, excellent thought, esp since the sheet tends to be a microcosm of the game as a whole.

  3. I have been reading with avid interest the comments of Buckeye Surgeon on the writings of Atul Gawande. When I first read the NYT stuff of Gawande's I was like "oh, wow, this all makes total sense" but it's nice to get a dissenting analysis! Check out his blog, it's so good.

  4. @kim yeah, the health care writings have been interesting, but I think they got seized on a little bit too strongly as political PROOF of something.

    But I should also note that stuff was weak sauce compared to his books (or at least compared to "Better").

  5. Great article. I had known about the M&M's but not the real meaning behind them.

    For me there are two things that I look for in a game book as my Brown M&M's.

    First-- the conflict resolution system. I like a conflict resolution system that is simple, and is carried throughout the mechanics of the game. For instance: d20's skill check, attribute check, and combat roll are all the same kind of check.

    Second-- In the GM's section, I like to see if the designers have written a section about what the players do in this world. A good game is one that has a purpose, and a good designer is not afraid to share that purpose with you.

    You may play the game differently than how they describe it, but their description of how they would play it, gives great insight into the philosophy of the mechanics of the game.

  6. These are all some really good "deal-breakers." I totally check the character sheet of every book I pull off the FLGS's shelves.

    Stemming from the amount of dialog I've read at Brad Murray's blog, I've begun to notice and size-up the typography and layout of the books I consider (and own!). I really dig that Dogs In The Vineyard and Burning Wheel include a little note at the end telling the programs and fonts used. I wish more books did that.


  7. I have some "brown M&M's" orders that I use in restaurants. I find that they are reliable indicators of the overall quality of the place. The Club sandwich and the Caesar salad, seem to give the best snapshot of a restaurant's quality.

    If the club is traditional and well-done, the restaurant will be decent. If the club is non-traditional, the quality of the restaurant is pretty much equal to the quality of the sandwich.

    The Caesar salad is a brown m$m for freshness. If the salad dressing has seeped into the lettuce, causing it to be wilted and soft - the restaurant makes stuff too far in advance and things will not be fresh. Same thing if the croutons are soggy.

    For RPG's, I tend to use the character creation process and the complexity of monster stat blocks as brown m&m's

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. If I'm honest, I use the thickness of the book.

    If it's too thick, it might be well-written, but it's not for me. I like games I can read through relatively quickly and play. Thickness implies there's stuff I need to read, which I don't really want to do.

    The other one is fantasy artwork. If, on the cover, there's a fighter fighting a dragon, it's probably not for me. This put me off the Dying Earth RPG for a long time, until I played it.

    That's me with the deleted comment above, by the way. I hadn't thought it through before. You're welcome.


  10. One for me is how many pages before the book starts talking about how to play the game. This is pretty personal, though -- I really cannot get into game books with heavy fiction content. I'm here for a game.

    Another is forward references. A couple of forward references early tells me this game is unlikely to be well organized, and will be hard to use in real life.

  11. I tend to use setting as a brown M&M. I'm probably going to mostly roll my own background, so I don't care about specific characters or specific conflicts or what have you. What I need is a general setting framework that will let the rules sing. If setting is more than half of the book, that's a pretty big indication that the energy of the game design has gone in a direction that's at odds with my preferred play style.

    In licensed games, I look to see how much system is devoted to the combat system. If those are the big crunchy bits, I know the game isn't going to deliver anything particularly special in reference to the fiction it's modeling.

  12. A few things I check to see if I should dig deeper into a game:
    1) Static TNs. Thanks to nWoD, Lacuna, and HotB, I am strongly biased against games that require the GM to pull a TN out of thin air.
    2) Character sheet. As you mentioned above, often a microcosm of the game.
    3) Skill list. If the games is of the kind that uses skills and there are more than 20, it's not for me.
    4) Unified Mechanic. I am strongly biased toward games that have me making the same basic check no matter what I'm doing.

    None of these alone are deal-breakers, but are certainly red flags.

  13. When it comes to movies, my wife and I have running joke about helicopters. Our brown M&M is the number of helicopters. Although we have a broad taste in movies, it seems to hold true that a movie's quality is inversely proportional to the number of helicopters.

  14. Great post Rob. And great follow-up comments.

    I haven't got much to add. Just showing the love.

  15. I've found a new Brown M&M I didn't know I had: grammar and writing style.

    I'm reading Diaspora and loving the idea of the game, but the writing style (which I would describe as a math book with poor grammar) is making it really tough to get through the book, let alone understand the concepts and how to apply them at the game table.

    I am also finding that this frustration is inhibiting my ability to "sell" the game to my gaming buddies, and so the likelihood of getting to play it is shrinking.

    @Rob: I know you've been a fan of Diaspora - any advice on how to read it? Any chance I could recruit you to write a "Guide to Diaspora RPG: in plain English"?

  16. An index.

    Usually, I'll look up a few common keywords (combat, skills, etc) in the index as well as some stuff I might pull out of the book (like conditions in 4e). Then I'll generally browse the index.

    If there's no frakkin' index, it goes right back on the shelf.


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