Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Tableau

Hooking players into an encounter is a little bit of an art, and I had an interesting discussion about just that today on Twitter. The idea that started it was an image: A little girl in tight braids and well-kept but not fancy clothes calling out for her mommy and daddy in a crowded marketplace. Described well, it's a heartbreaking little tableau, the kind to tug at the heartstrings ofan audience and quickly draw the players in.

Unfortunately, it doesn't actually work that way.

The rub of a tableau like that is that it's equally likely to invite snarky comments, especially from players who either are playing their characters a certain way or are, to be frank, the kind of players who are inclined to be a little snarky. Given that this describes much of the gaming populace falls under this description, what's going to happen when they come upon this tableau?

Unless your players are feeling difficult, then they'll eventually engage the little girl because heroic logic dictates that they must. Heroic logic is, of course, the player's awareness that the GM is shining a light on this particular character, and clearly that is where they must go to get the ball rolling. It is not quite a glowing exclamation mark over the character's head, but it's close.

But the problem is, GMs are not always aware that they're doing this. When they craft very descriptive tableaus, it's very easy to get attached to their own prose and think that the players are responding to the quality of the writing and the emotional engagement of the situation. The reality is, they probably aren't. They're responding to the direction you're pointing.

This is harmless enough on its own, but it can be problematic over time. First and foremost, your players are aware of the use of heroic logic, even if you aren't, and every time they have to use it, their patience frays just a little bit more. This may never really reach a crisis point, but if it does, that's no fun for anyone.

Of more immediate concern is the possibility that the day may come that your player's miss the point. You expect them to engage with something, but they've picked up the cue that they're supposed to be observing. This will be frustrating, but you can deal with it. You just need to pull out the stops, and make the tableau MORE compelling, rich and heartwrenching! And when that doesn't work (because that isn't what they were responding to in the first place) and you redouble your efforts all the more, you're going to get frustrated. There's no way, you will think, that your players could be MISSING this. They're just being a bunch of jerks.

At which point you flip open the Monster Manual to find something disproportionately ugly with which you will wipe the imagines smirks off their faces. And it just goes downhill from there.

Bottom Line: Friends don't let friends depend on tableaus.

But then, if you can't depend on the tableau to spark action, what _can_ you do? Sounds like a job for….Tomorrow![1]

1- Dirty pool, I know, but I'm intentionally experimenting with terser posts. I've tried this before, and it never sticks, but it buys me more time to read the new Dark Sun guide, so it seems like a good cause.

Monday, August 30, 2010

More Fungibility

So, the concept of fungibility is also something that's useful in looking at adventure design, though once again it's a useful tool, not an automatic indicator of quality or a lack of quality.

First and foremost, it's an important element when looking at the objective of an adventure. A lot of times the easy hook is a giant sack of cash (in some form or another) , but that can end up raising questions. If the goal is money, is this really the best way to get it? A lot of classic games raised this question, where the rewards of an adventure could easily be overwhelmed by the cost of potions, repairing equipment and so on. If you've got a fungible reward, it invites that sort of comparison thinking, and that's a good way to end up with heros who act more like accountants. Taking a little time to make sure the MacGuffin is non fungible is probably a good investment of time.

That's a small thing, but it does provide a pointer to a bigger one - Heroism is Fungible.

Not the concept of heroism, of course, just heroism as it exists in games. Menace rises, heroes arrive, fighting ensues, heroes win. The problem is that in many cases it does not matter which heroes arrive to save the day, and this is especially problematic in hero-rich environments (like the many published RPG settings). This is a common problem with published adventures because they need to work with whatever group happens to have bought them. By working equally well with all groups, it's unlikely to have any kind of personal tie in to your particular group.

It's hardly news that published adventures are a little generic, but it's useful to frame it in these terms because it gives a concrete yardstick for any changes you make to personalize it. Does the change you're introducing make the adventure one which only your group could handle it or does it just make it more complicated?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fun with Fungibility

So, a fungible[1] resource is one that can be easily replaced with another resource of the same kind. If you have a cup of water, and pour it into a bucket of water, then scoop out a cup, you're pretty much where you started. Ditto something like a twenty dollar bill or a couple volts of electricity. There are all sorts of interesting economic implications to resources like this (in contrast to distinct one) but they're also useful to think about in game terms.

A lot of the numeric values you see on a character sheet are fungible. Things like attack bonus or hit points are made up of an aggregate of other numbers (Stat bonuses, equipment bonuses, level and so on) and while those elements may matter a great deal when you're building the character they all run together once the dice hit the table. If you hit that enemy, there's nothing in the flat bonus that tells you whether you hit him because you're strong, because your weapon is particularly accurate or because of the advantage you got from flanking the guy.

This means that, in practice, bonuses are interchangeable. There are few places this is more evident than in 4e, where different stats often end up being used for the same thing (such as making attack rolls). here are a lot of benefits to this approach. It's incredibly flexible. Adding new elements requires only that they fit into the current economy, so swapping out parts is easy. It all comes out in the wash when it comes time to calculate the final total. It also makes (as 4e illustrates) reskinning of elements entirely trivial.

But all of this gets interesting when you contrast it with elements of the game which are very clearly not fungible. To stick with the D&D example, if you miss an attack, but then use an ability that grants you a reroll and hit, your sense is that you hit because of the reroll. If the power had given you an extra bonus before you rolled, you probably would not think "I hit because of this power" because it's just one of many factors in your total bonus, but since the reroll is a change of type (from a fungible resource to a distinct one[2]) then that's where the cool thing happened.

You get similar reactions when you look at the results of attacks. More damage is nice, but since damage is fungible, it's not particularly cool if your damage came from hurling daggers of pure ice and my damage came from hitting the guy with a very big stick. Things get more interesting when there is differentiation in the form of non-fungible elements like extra effects. If my ice daggers slow a guy down and your big stick knocks him back then our attacks now feel different in a way that pure damage didn't allow.

This is an incredibly important point to understand when you start thinking about the role of color in an RPG. Some systems are almost entirely fungible, with the understanding that all distinctions in effect are part of the color. Other games have very limited fungible elements and lots and lots of unique elements. But it's not a simple split. On one level, everything in Hero is fungible - the underlying idea of what a point is worth is the currency everything can be broken down into, but the complexity in doing so creates a barrier to treating it as truly liquid.[3] And more, there's no 'right' way to handle it. More or less fungibility does not make a system better or worse.

But it can make a system more or less in keeping with your vision, and suggest where you need to put in levers. To use the previous combat example, you need to decide if pure damage is enough to handle things in your system or if you need points of distinction. You can decide if general bonuses get you what you want, or if you need make things a little more specific.[4]

Again, do with it what you will, but if you stop and look at a part of your system and ask what this looks like if you swap in something else, and if that's what you want to see. 4e shows us how useful it can be, but also demonstrates that doing it well requires really committing to the idea. If you're not willing to go that far, then make sure you're getting what you're hoping to find.

1 - I am using this word in a way that will make strict economists cry, but it's a useful concept, so if you are enough of an economist to get where I'm taking artistic license, please accept it as that.

2 - yeah, theoretically rerolls could be fungible too, but at least in 4e. In fact, by standardizing things, most of the element sin 4e are fungible - a "stunned" status works the same whether it's from a blow to the head or from a painting of the 8th dimension. This is intentional, since it allows for easy swapping of color without disrupting mechanics. That said, rerolls are player-controlled and serial, so they're different enough to be a useful example.

3 - And this one's for the nerds - Liquidity is NOT fungibility. Liquidity is the ability to turn something into something's intrinsic value into actual value. A golden statue may be worth a lot, but it's hard to spend, so it's illiquid. Sell it for cash ('liquidate' it) and now you've got some money to burn, but while that money may be fungible, that doesn't mean the statue itself is. Fungible and Liquid often get conflated if only because liquidating something usually means exchanging it for a fungible asset (since they're more easily exchanged).

4 - The Ironclaw/Jadeclaw system does something interesting with this. You roll several dice when you act, one for stat, one for skill and so on, with each bonus expressed as a die. You pick the high roll and based on which die it is, you know why you succeeded (and can infer color about other things from the roll too). Cortex could also support this too, but it does require some curious bookkeeping when rolling more than one die of the same type - you'd need different color dice and some clear way of distinguishing them. Kind of a pain, but very neat in theory.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Is there such a thing as a good metaplot?

Tough question, and to answer it, let’s first figure out what we’re talking about. In the broadest possible terms, metaplot encompasses all elements of a setting which are important to the setting, yet not known (or knowable) to people who buy the products, but which may or may not be revealed with the purchase of additional products.

Even as I write that, I realize it’s not the definition I thought it would be. I was thinking about secret history and events unfolding, and while those are definitely types of metaplots, I really came to realize that the unifying factor is much simpler. There are three important elements that make that up:

First, it’s knowledge we don’t have but the developers (hopefully) do. Now, by the nature of fiction, this is something of a necessity. The author almost always knows more about the setting than the reader, and that’s entirely normal. It’s not unfair for game developers to be protected by the same umbrella. Hell, in many ways, this is desirable. Ed Greenwood may know what brand of tobacco Elminster likes, but I will be entirely comfortable never finding out. In large part, this lack of knowledge protects us from trivia, and that’s a good thing (except to the most enthusiastic of completists), so that seems a promising start, were it not for the second point.

Second, the knowledge is important and interesting. Now, both of these are a little subjective, so I’ll concede some fuzz around the edges, but by and large they’re easy to spot and agree on. Important information is information which changes the setting or game in an impactful way. If, for example, the metaplot is going to depower all wizards when the god of magic dies, that’s kind of important, especially if you have wizards in your game. Interesting is trickier. Interesting things are what capture our mind and make us want to know more. We’re given a set of events which are intriguing or exciting, but the last act is blacked out. This seems like an ungrateful complaint – interesting material is interesting because the writer has done his job well; does that really create an obligation to complete the story? But the reality is this interesting stuff is what makes sales. Money is changing hands, and I’ll say that yes, that does create an obligation. And that leads to the third point.

Third, you have to pay for the knowledge. Most often this means you need to buy more books, but it’s possible the knowledge may require jumping through different hoops[1]. Whatever the structure, the lack of knowledge is being intentionally exploited to entice you, the reader, to get more into it. That enticement is what separates most game splats from, say, novels where the interest in further information may be unanticipated, but admittedly most authors make use of the teaser effect to hook you into the next book. [2]

Looking at these three things, I don’’ think you can make a good metaplot. The tactics behind it are just too gamer unfriendly.

BUT, I suspect you can make something like a metaplot by knocking out elements that make it problematic.

The easiest and most obvious thing you can change is to stop making people dance for the reveal. Put the answers somewhere and let people see them, and be prepared. The reality is an explained metaplot is always lamer than an imagined one. People get excited about metaplots because filling in the gaps inspires them. The good news is that by offering the reveal up front, you don't have time for the reader to get invested in their version and thus more angry and disappointed. Rip off the band aid and just get it out there.

If you must have a release cycle, then make sure it's something inessential. A subplot or a story that might keep the reader's interest from book to book is ideal, especially if it deals with matters that are peripheral to the game, if it turns out people get very invested in the sidebar, then fine, roll with that, but treat it as the stroke of good luck it is.

Now, all that said, if you feel you Absolutely must have a metaplot, consider using the following guidelines:

  1. Remember Tone - the metaplot should have the same general tone and flavor of the rest of your game. That is, don't go adding Chthulhu in places he's not needed. [3]
  2. Wrap it up - stick to short arcs. A single metaplot puts all your eggs in one basket, and the longer it takes, the more likely it is to go horribly wrong.
  3. Don't Undercut the Reasons to Play - Look, if magic has been lost in your setting, but a prophecy says it will be found again, do not have it found again through your metaplot. That's a job for your players. Too much metaplot gets written as the campaign the designer _wishes_ he could play, thus depriving anyone else of ever getting the chance to do so.
  4. Clever Sucks - Very often, the need to introduce an idea because it is clever overrides the voice that suggests that it's not actually any fun at all. This includes hidden wordplay, shaggy dog jokes, and obscure cameo appearances.
They may not save you, but they may at least lessen the blow.

1 – At this point, “metaplot” may make the jump to becoming “transmedia” if the answers are out there and freely available, but scattered across multiple sources that you must engage with. This is less bad than charging money, but it’s still a tricky line to walk.

2- And I’m ok with that, which lead to me questioning my own perception. I’m opposed to the practice in RPGs but forgiving in novels and movies: why? I think it comes back to #2, importance. When an author teases us, it’s part of the implicit agreement. In contrast, when I buy an RPG, the implicit agreement is that I have what I need to play the game. By excluding things that are key to my playing (important) or which are part of the reason I’m excited about the game (interesting), it feels like the agreement has been broken.

3 - Like swashbuckling. But, really, anywhere. Chthulhu is pretty much the least interesting ingredient you can add to any game at this point. It's done to death. Exception made if, of course, you're actually playing Chthulhu.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Good Intentions in Design

Ok, so yesterday I talked up all the good things that can come out of building a game with a strong tie to the setting from the ground up. Legend of the Five Rings managed to pull this off in a way that has lead to the game going into a fourth edition, which is a pretty good sign of how robust the idea of it is.

The temptation, then, is to try to do something similar - to create a game that has that tight a tie into the setting from the getgo. And it's a good instinct - if you can pull it off, it would be pretty awesome. And Alderac clearly thought so too, since that's exactly what they tried to do with their swashbuckling game, 7th Sea and it's setting of Theah.

I have a pretty serious love/hate relationship with 7th Sea. The parts I like, I'm nuts for, but the parts that are bad are really and truly so bad that they make me angry and a little bit sad. I should also add that I think 7th Sea is past its expiration date on spoilers, so I'm not going to pull any punches there. If for some ungodly reason that's an issue, I apologize.

Ok, so 7th Sea pretty much did to Europe what L5R did to Japan, and in some ways this was spectacular, as it was more or less "European History: the Good Parts Version". England was Elizabethan + Arthurian. France was a mash up of the musketeers and Napoleon. The Dutch were also Vikings. You get the idea. It was shameless in its blatant coolhunting and that was a good thing. Yes, some history nerds might take offense at the abuse to history, but since there was no attempt to hide this, I'd call that kind of objection a party foul.

Yet despite this, 7th Sea has not had anywhere near the kind of robustness in the mind as L5R. So what went wrong?

First and foremost, there's a good chance that a big part of it was that it had a very deep metaplot which was, to put it bluntly, pretty stupid. There were a lot of crazy details to it, but the big thing is that Europe was surrounded by a giant forcefield designed to make geography utterly nonsensical. The whole world was ALSO surrounded by a giant forcefield. That was keeping out Cthulhu. Some sorcery weakened the latter forcefield. Other magics came from other Cthulhu Lite Guys who hate big Cthulhu.

I realize that in summing it up in this fashion, it is merely preposterous sounding, so bear in mind that you need to read a great many books to get all of this revealed in what I can only describe as a thoroughly 90's fashion.

So there's the first really painful bit: a terrible metaplot, complicated, fiddly and not particularly contributing to the tone of the game. This is another area where L5R's CCG roots ended up providing an unexpected benefit. It also had a metaplot, but there were a couple explicit limitations on it. They were using their tournaments to determine the direction events in the empire went, so they could not plan that too far ahead. Also, they needed to make sure that they could bring in new card sets, which meant new elements needed to follow some of the same rules that made the initial elements work (simple, understandable, but with potential depth). 7th Sea had a CCG but, like the RPG, it was never as big as L5R and it didn't provide as much of a set of constraints (or at least so it appears from the outside).

The second problem was that Theah was much closer to a kitchen sink design than L5R. Some corner of Theah probably had whatever you wanted out of a game, but that meant the rest of it probably doesn't work out so well. The obvious split was between pirates and musketeers, but there are dozens more thematic splits throughout the setting. Contrast that with the focus of L5R[1] and you find yourself facing one of the hardest questions in RPGs "Ok. But what do we do now?"

Now, yes, obviously, any specific campaign can answer that question, but that's not the same as having the setting answer it for you. It establishes a baseline which you can choose to deviate from, but which gives you what you need.

The third problem was one that you could also find in a lot of 90's designs - It was the NPCs game. At first glance it did not seem like this was the case. There was a lot of talk about how pivotal the PCs were in the rulebook, and the setting took the novel step of freezing the timeline, so that all the supplements that came out were from a single snapshot moment in time. In theory, this meant that there would be no unexpected metaplot events that changed the game.

In practice, it did not quite shake out that way. Rather than advance the timeline, the various books started changing the underpinnings of the game, initially with mild reveals but eventually with information that flew in the face of earlier material. The metaplot unfolded in a fashion that introduced a lot of tonal clash and made it clear the things that were important in the game are not the things the players were aware of when they made their characters.[2]

With all that in mind, I'm not looking to bust on 7th Sea so much as say that the lessons I would take from it are somewhat cautionary. As much as it might seem like reskinning history with extra awesome is an easy formula for success, there's clearly more to it than that.

If I want to follow this particular model (and I might) the trick will be (as it seems it so often is) all about embracing the limitations. Narrowing in on a specific slice of a setting that creates strong context for players is much better than something broad which might give me, as a creator, more leeway to do stuff I think is cool. It's a slightly brutal tradeoff, but probably a smart one.

1 - And especially the fact that this focus gave characters an implicit role. In L5R, you start with a duty of some stripe - it's a necessity.

2 - Not that it mattered much because the NPCs were all statted out to make it clear that there was a tier of awesome that you could simply never aspire too

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cultural Game Design

Someone, and I feel like a heel for not remembering who, just did a very nice review of Legend of the Five Rings, 4th edition. I have a lot of conceptual love for L5R, though most of that love was fiercely beaten out of me by Second edition. Third edition looked very pretty, but was sufficiently errata-laden that I never made the leap to picking it up. 4e sounds a lot like a cleanup of 3e, and that's an admirable thing, but I genuinely don't know if the spark is still there.

But it might be. L5R has left a fairly profound footprint in my mind despite the fact that I never really considered myself a fan.[1] At first blush it might seem like it's all about the Samurai. After all, while there have been a few other Samurai games, none of them have been nearly as successful (in large part because L5R is _not_ a historical game) so it clearly stands out in that light. But really? Not so much. I mean, I enjoy getting my Yojimbo on as much as the next guy but it's not a genre that grabs me the way that some others do.

No, what sticks with me is the fact that L5R is such a fantastically structured cultural game.

That's a big and somewhat unclear statement, so let me zero in on the pieces that make it up.
First and foremost, the system is strongly integrated into the setting yet still robust. You can re-use parts of it for other games if you want. You could even use if for another samurai game and it would work ok. But it works at its absolute best in Rokugan. This shows up in many places, from the application of specific skills for things like the Rokugan Tea Ceremony to character creation, where the character's house (with the specific social contexts that implies) serves where other fantasy games would use race, and is much better designed.

That leads to the next point: when you finish chargen, your character has a place in the world, even if it's as a context. You have a lord, You have family. You have the relationships between the clans to serve as a baseline which you may then personally proceed to deviate from.[2] It's a small thing, but it goes a long way. In other games like FATE or Smallville, entire sessions are dedicated to creating that sense of connection, but in L5R, it came baked right in.

That was possible because of the third (and possibly most contentious) points. The setting really carries weight.

Setting in RPGs is a serious business, and by no means am I asserting that L5R had the best (or even most gameable[3]) setting of any game ever. Many games had vastly richer settings, from Tekumel to Talislantia to Stafford's Shamanic babies. Some of those settings are deep, crazy deep, with the kind of cultural consistency that can only come of a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

But they take some work to get into. And by some, I may actually mean "A Lot". The very things that makes them such compelling and rich setting also demand such an investment in lore that they're not necessarily friendly to step into. In contrast, Rokugan shamelessly steals from bad history to create enough identifiable elements that it's very easy to grasp.[4]

Rokugan managed to strike an interesting balance between various directions of setting design. As noted, it did not have so much depth that it created a barrier of entry, but neither was it a simple disposable shell of "just enough setting to get you started" (like the default setting of 4e). In shamelessly treating history as something to abuse and plunder, it kept itself from being bogged down in details (Something which, I think, kept Sengoku from getting the love it deserved) while still being recognizable. It also had a fairly narrow focus, so there was no danger of it being a Kitchen Sink setting like the Forgotten Realms.[5]

All of which combines to explain my initial assertion - it was probably the strongest example I've seen of a cultural game. A game where setting and system (and, to be honest, some of the elements of physical design) combined to create a complete cultural game.
This is on my mind as I think about the heartbreaker. Having that kind of context as a part of setup is pretty powerful. But that's easier said than done. There are ways for it to go impressively wrong, something I'll chew on tomorrow.

1 - And, despite investing a little in the cards, never got into the CCG either.

2 - Now, this may not seem like a big deal as virtually every 90's game had organizations with strong opinions of one another, and that's a fair cop, but L5R lifted itself above the pack by the fact that those relationships did not feel tacked on. To pick on Vampire, each clan was geographically and culturally diverse, and the idea that its membership could agree on what to have for breakfast was a stretch, to say nothing of having a unified view of another equally diverse group. The sterotypes made a nice shorthand, but they didn't have a lot of power to them. In contrast, the houses were an important part of the setting, with concrete locations and people of importance, and the perceptions of the other clans were an extension of the clan's dealings with one another. That is to say, they had real weight within the setting.

3 - That prize goes to Feng Shui

4 - Some of this is a function of good design, but some of it is - I suspect - a pleasant side effect of having a CCG as a foundation. A CCG needs clear, iconic, easily expressed ideas and groups which can be revealed to have depth over time. The clans work so well because they're designed to work well in a CCG, and they're really the foundation of the setting as a whole. Tellingly, I can remember exactly one piece of geography in Rokugan (the Wall) but I can easily recall the clans.

5 - Is that an unfair comparison? After all, the Forgotten Realms (and Eberron) are both quite successful and popular. Why not emulate that?

There are a couple answers, but the first is that it's a hard way to sell a game. D&D is a fairly open-ended game, and as a result it needs settings that can encompass the range of possibilities it suggests. This results in setting which are on one hand wonderfully diverse but lacking in focus. Most fans of these settings are actually fans of narrow slices of them. For example, I really dig Waterdeep, and I have a legacy fondness for Phlan, but I am mostly uninterested in other parts of the setting, except out of a sort of academic curiosity. When you're trying to cast a wide net over an existing group of players, you want the net to cover as wide a range as possible so that every prospective customer (and novel/tie-in buyer) can see something they like and get excited about.

If you don't already have an audience, that's a less compelling practice because you have no initial buy in. Even if you put something for everyone in your setting, you have no guarantee that they'll look to try to find it in the first place. To create an audience, you need to wear your selling point on your sleeve, so to speak. You want a setting that's about something that you can quickly and easily express. L5R was absolutely that.

Monday, August 23, 2010

SIgnature Coolness

So, back when the Star Wars Galaxies first rolled out it had many problems, more than I could go into in any sort of constrained space. But one decision in particular stood out to me: playing a Jedi was not really an option. I mean, there was a way to do it, but it was convoluted and required a lot of luck and commitment, probably most comparable to building a full set of high tier gear in World of Warcraft.

Now, the first thing I want to emphasize is that this was a design decision, not an oversight or mistake. The thinking was quite clear: in the canon of the Star Wars universe, Jedi are rare and few and fare between. If every player could play a Jedi, it would undercut that sensibility and make the game feel less like Star Wars. The image of thousands of players running around public areas waving lightsabers would break suspension of disbelief and ruin the game.
It is easy to appreciate this logic, but it overlooks one simple truth: When someone buys a Star Wars MMO, they want to play some Star Wars, and that basically means you want one of three things: 1) Cool Boba Fett style armor, 2) The Millennium Falcon or a reasonable facsimile thereof or 3) A freaking lightsaber. Explaining to them that you're keeping it from them so that it stays special is a great way to come across sounding like a jerk.[1]

This is on my mind because a recent interview about the forthcoming Warhammer 40k MMO suggested you could not be a Space Marine right out the gate. Now, my generous reading of this is that you'll just need to jump through some hoops - get out of the newbie zone and get to some reasonable point in play to be able to become a Space Marine.[2] An alternate reading suggests that it may be another Jedi situation which inspires a bit of bile.

Whichever way it settles out, it got me thinking about to reflect rare coolness in a large scale game, such as a MUSH or MMO.

Now, one option is just to not worry about it. If you take a few seconds to think about the heroes of World of Warcraft and the things the do, it becomes clear that there's no shortage of suspension of disbelief. Given what gamers tolerate, there's a good case to be made that ubiquitous lightsabers would hardly raise an eyebrow.

Alternately, you could just make the coolness more common (as I suspect the new Star Wars MMO does by placing it in the days of the Old Republic, so there's an in-setting excuse for lots of Jedi). There's a bit of a trick of scaling to this: in a LARP, it is reasonable that everyone be a vampire or the like, but that might not scale to an MMO, especially if there is such an idea as the Masquerade. A lot of White Wolf MUSHs have had to wrestle with this issue over the years, with the most common answer being "Ah, too hell with it."

This factor is one reason I've always felt that Exalted, especially the Dragon Blooded component of it, would make a fantastic MUSH or MMO. In setting, there are a LOT of Dragon Blooded Exalts, enough to support a very large game without it breaking the setting since that's rather the point.

The last solution is probably the hardest, but possibly the most rewarding. To be totally frank, it probably would not work on an MMO, both due to scaling and due to different play priorities. The idea is to have enough different ways to be cool that every player can take one and be one of a fairly select few. To illustrate, on Road to Amber, there is a group called "Custos" who are basically bodyguards for the wizards of their culture.[3] On paper, they're very distinctive, with elementally themed weapons and a very clear role. The rules support the sort of things that they can do, but that's about as far as it goes. The net result being that the fact that you've bought this power does not actually reveal much of anything about how it relates to your character. The player whose concept is that they're a hardcore Custos is, mechanically, no better off than someone who has dabbled in it.[4]

I have to ask if perhaps there might be a way to distinguish those two characters, so that for one, ''Custos" is their signature - it's what they're known for and, mechanically, it creates specific bounds within which they excel. The dabbler has a non-signature version of the power and while his color may be similar, it only carries so much weight.

It is, perhaps, easier to illustrate with something simple, like strength. One character, Jerry, is the paragon of strength of the campaign, renown for his might. The next character, Chuck, is pretty strong. I mean, he's a big guy, look at him, not someone you want to meet in a dark alley. But no one is writing stories about how he knocked out a giant with one blow. In a given scene, they might both a feat of strength to give them an advantage, but Chuck's use will be more prosaic, and Jerry can probably perform more feats, more potently. If Chuck and Jerry throw down in a contest of pure strength, Chuck can put up a fight (unlike Mike, who isn't particularly strong at all) but it's ultimately one-sided. Strength is Jerry's thing.

I once had a system for Amber that produced something like this at the tabletop. It allowed for freeform attributes (So Ranger, Pattern, Soldier, Con Man and such were all on the table rather than the usual power options) with the rule that if you bought one, it cost you 5, 15 or 50 points. At five points it was a minor detail in your character's history. At 15, it was an important part of your character. At 50, it was THE important part of your character's history. It holds up well in a fast and loose way, but it gets a little weird with magic.

This also might be a good use for Big aspects and Little aspects, as I was discussing a while back. As I think about it, I'm already doing this a little bit with my Cold War game, with the characters effectively having 4 little aspects and 1 big aspect, the one that controls their superpower, but that's slightly different. Their superpowers are necessarily reflective of their essential nature.

On a MUSH, it might be possible to designate "Signature Level" powers and allow only one of them per character, with a non-signature version of most such powers available for others who buy into it at a lesser level of intensity. Thus, you can have two characters of the same noble bloodline but with very different relationships to it. There are a lot of interesting things you can hang off this. Suppose, for example, in game items or changes of a certain level of significance were only available at the signature level. That is to say, in an open system, it's not hard to find someone to create a magic sword. But if doing so was limited to people who specifically chose Mystical Weaponsmith as their signature, then suddenly you've introduced scarcity. If you want to fight a war, you need a *General*. If you want to throw a really big party, you need a socialite and so on. This is a mixed bag, certainly - some people hate being force to interact outside their circle, and when everything's available, closed circles are more viable, but I'm kind of ok with forcing people o acknowledge other people's cool, especially when it's merely rare rather than unique.

Of course, now I'm thinking about Signatures for tabletop, if only as flags for "This is how I intend to change the world." Hmmmm.

1 - This is one of the areas where tabletop play can end run around MMO's - making a table full of people special is far less hard to handle than making thousands.
2 - Perhaps comparable to getting a mount in WoW. Many MMO's have a secret (or not so secret) internal sense that there's a point where the "real game" begins, usually in the higher levels, with the idea that the earlier levels are an extended training opportunity.

3 - Yes, the idea is ripped off from, like, 4 different sources. I'm ok with that.

4 - This is complicated somewhat by the fact that many such powers are several powers deep, and there's an implicit suggestion of extra investment in buying more powers from that tree, but the reality is that those decisions are oten made based purely on the utility of the particular powers.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Ok, so much as I enjoyed the WE ROCK (formerly KWORC) posts, those were a heck of a lot of work. I mean, I'm totally pleased with them, and I may at some point go back for another swim but after all that thinking I'm really all for spending some time thinking about how to smash monsters or cool dice tricks. So for the moment, let's just focus on some cool stuff.

Will Hindmarch has done a fantastic playset for Fiasco which reminds me of The Man Who Folded Himself pushed through the lens of the Coen Brothers and Quantum Leap. This is not a bad combination at all.

Fiasco playsets are, by the way, one of the most fantastic pieces of gaming technology of the past few years. The game rules themselves are quite simple, but each game uses a playset to create the relationships, locations, objects and needs that drive the particular game. Playsets are modular tools that can be swapped out to totally change the nature of the game, yet they're simple enough that anyone can make one with a little time and effort. Simply brilliant. Brennan Taylor has been working on something similar with Campaign Frames for Mortal Coil, though his approach is a little different (and he's selling them, so slightly different distro too).

On one hand, some part of me wonders if it's possible to do a game for free but supplements like this for charge and try that as a model. Another part of me says that's not workable because you really want to encourage players to make their own because doing so improves the game as a whole. There's a lot of merit to either approach, and it's totally something to watch.

Rob Schwalb, the man I like to think of as "The guy who wrote half the cool RPG material published in the past year or two" has started blogging and its well worth checking out.

I occasionally bump up against things I need words for. In this case i was thinking of things which are eye-opening and useful when you first discover them, but eventually get set aside as old hat or foundational, so that when - some time later - someone else finds it for the first time and is full of bright eyed enthusiasm about how this is the most amazing thing ever and you can either nod and smile knowingly or roll your eyes and wonder what kind of idiot they are. As I explain it, it is perhaps weird that it comes up often enough o demand a word, but it really does. But unlike my usual quests, someone actually found one. My friend Shai suggested Liminary, which means something introductory or preparatory, but implies a gateway of sorts (from limen). Its wordplay also suggests liminal and luminary, and that seems just about right. So, thank you Shai.

New theory to explain the Bermuda Triangle. Methane Gas. Not sure I buy it, but it is a great set up for MASTER BLASTER RUNS BERMUDA TRIANGLE!

On a different note, Daniel Perez has written a pretty serious post about balancing love of gaming with life. Lots of stuff that will sound familiar to anyone who has realized their passion is not a practical choice as a way to make a living.

Lastly, I think I'm going to dip my toe in trying to run some tabletop games online, so I'm looking for recommendations for tools. I've put out the call on twitter and already have some great answers, but I always welcome more. I have no idea what we'll actually end up playing, and we'll likely have a mix of computer types, but since this is a experiment, I'm willing to try most anything.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

KWORC: Endgame

By and large, I've been talking about the big picture for KWORC so far, with occasional forays into fine details for purposes of illustration. This is because for the most part, the model works equally well for a campaign as it does for a single session, but the small points of divergence can be a problem. And the most noticeable of those is the endgame. It is easy for a campaign to have a high-level, slightly abstract core goal, but a given mission tends to be very specific in its needs.

See, if your goal is something simple, like killing the bad guy, then there's really nothing to worry about. You work your way through the problems, get to the end and grab the golden ring. Victory! However, the goal is not always simple. A nuanced goal like "bring the villain to justice" may actually have multiple components including "Stop his scheme" "Provide compensation for his victims" and "Keep him from ever doing it again" and those are not necessarily resolved in the same way. Similarly, a mission like "Steal the Golden Egg and swap in this duplicate without anyone realizing it" actually splits into two or three subgoals right there on the surface of it.

Now, the good news is that structurally, this is not that different from a normal KWORC construct. Let's use our 'Justice' example to illustrate - in practice, if we accomplish all three of the subgoals (Stop him, provide compensation and keep him from doing it again) then we have reasonably accomplished our core goal of bringing him to justice. Structurally, those three goals are similar to problems that must be overcome to achieve the goal, so we can just branch out from them, figure out the KWORC needed for each and we're good to go.

Now, as much as I can point to these subgoals all falling under the same umbrella and being part of a larger whole, that's not always true. Sometimes these goals have differing levels of priority, or only some goals are important to some characters. And once you've opened this door, then you also invite in other goals entirely. And this is where it gets scary. One goal with lots of branching, interesting problems looks like a beautiful, complex jellyfish with long, spiny tentacles. It's a little tricky to handle, but manageable. But multiple goals? Holy crap, how are you going to manage the complexity of a pool full of those spiny critters!?!?

It may seem like a contradiction, but the solution is simplicity. See, it's entirely possible to build a very long, complex KWORC construct around a single goal if you're so inclined. Doing so is desirable if you want to build an entire campaign around that goal, but if you want something less grandiose, the simple reality is you rarely need to go more than two layers[1] deep around any goal, and often a single layer of problems is all you need.

This may sound like simplification makes for less boring play, but that overlooks the power of multiple goals. Goals are much more interesting drivers of play than problems are. In a broad sense, when measuring interest, adding a problem adds to interest, but adding a goal multiplies it. To illustrate this, look at show that have complex, multi-problem/goal plots. The path to any particular goal is usually fairly short, but enough things need to get done to keep busy.

Now, once you've opened up the floor to the idea of multiple goals, your bag of tricks[2] gets much bigger. In addition to the aforementioned introduction of secondary goals, you are now armed to handle things like changing goals midstream. And because you stick close to the obstacles surrounding the goals, you're not making any more work for yourself. Players may create interesting threads as they work their way to those core problems, and that's awesome, but you don't need to stress the bookeeping because you still know where the endgame is.

1 - In this context, a "layer" is how many iterations of problems you need to reach the goal. A goal that requires knowledge (as password) and Opportunity (access to a computer) has only one layer provided you can get that knowledge and opportunity. If you need to steal the password and keycard from a guy to get those things, that's a second layer.

2 - Another, unrelated trick. Capability obstacles are a fantastic basis for a hiring montage. Consider the beginning of Ocean's 11 or any Mission: Impossible through a KWORC lens. The core goal has been identified, the problems have been branched, and several of them are capability ones. At this point we know we need someone who can crack a safe, someone who can pass as a Ukrainian housekeeper and someone who can take down 3 security guards without giving them a chance to raise an alarm. BAM. Recruitment montage follows.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

KWORC Part 4: Stuff to Watch For

Now, at this point you've got enough tools to build an adventure - start with a goal, isolate the problem, figure out what needs to be done to overcome that problem and state that as another set of problems. Repeat as many times as necessary to feel like you've filled things out. It's fairly simple, but there are a few loose bits that are worth nailing down to help bring the whole thing together.


As you plan these potentially long sequences of problems and resolution, it's easy to feel like you're leading your players around by the nose. If you view this all as a a series of tasks the characters need to perform it can become precisely that. The trick, of course, is that's not the way to view it.

See, there's a tendency to look at the specific problems and solutions as hard points that need to be stepped through to reach the end point, but that's backwards. The important thing is the core problem, not the path to it. Players will surprise you, but if you keep the core problem in mind, that won't take things off course. Instead, it will just prove to be a different route to the same end.

Consider for a moment how liberating that is. There's no right or wrong direction for play to go - there's a direction that may result from events, but no direction things MUST go. As an extension of that, so long as you keep the goal clear, there's no need to push players towards specific action - the goal provides a point of reference that gives context for all actions.

Clarity and Urgency

Sure, it's all pretty much cupcakes and puppies if you can keep it working, but there are two things which can grind everything to a halt - if the players lose their sense of clarity or urgency, things go badly.

Clarity is the most dangerous thing to lose. The whole KWORC model depends on the characters having a sense that they can do _something_, and it will matter. There needs to be a sense of a thread connecting where the players are to where they want to be, and if they lose that thread they can get frustrated.[1]

It's usually pretty obvious when players have lost that sense of clarity. They argue about what to do next without any real passion - they're casting the net out and hoping to catch something, anything, and starting to get annoyed.

When this happens, you need to ask yourself what you're seeing that they're not.[2] You know what the core goal is, and you know where the player's stand, so you should still have a clear view of the options and problems facing them. The disconnect between what you can see and your player's seeing is usually pretty small, and once you spot it, the means of correcting it usually suggests itself.

Urgency is, strangely enough, not necessarily as urgent provided the game is going well. Sometimes the big goal can take care of itself for a while, especially if the players are enjoying an engaging distraction. But when things start to slow down, it's important that players _want_ to get back to the main goal. If they don't, you may need to go back to whatever initiated the game, and possibly dial things up a notch or two. The villain takes an action. The problem gets worse. The clock starts ticking.

Why Opportunity Matters Most

I've mentioned a few times that opportunity problems are the most important for solving the big problem, but that's not necessarily obvious. Opportunity problems don't require anything else but character action to resolve. Why is that important?

See, every other kind of problem[3] is going to require _something_ to resolve - a source of knowledge, rare or hard to get items, consequences and so on. Opportunity tends to just require the one thing players have in excess - pure cussedness. Opportunity problems can often be solved by pounding you head against the wall long and hard enough, and if there's one thing players will do, it's that. Players are almost always willing to try a little harder or push a little harder. This is actually something of a problem in many cases[4] but this is one situation where that can get rewarded.

To Sum Up

Ok, you hopefully now have the problem areas nailed down, so tomorrow we can tie it all together.

1 - Now, that said, a little frustration can have its place, but only very little. It's a reasonable follow up to things going badly wrong, but it can't stay in that rut for too long.

2 - Unless you have also lost the thread, in which case it's time to seriously review the situation.

3 - Ok, Capability problems can be overcome in this fashion too, but that tends to be all or nothing. Either they can, and they do, or they can't and they don't.

4 - It's the anime fighting thing, where fights are resolved by "I FIGHT HARDER!" Players are always willing to fight harder, so that translates pretty badly into play.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

KWORC Part 3: The Anti KWORC

So far this has been primarily for GMs but hopefully useful for players. Now it's time to turn that on is ear and shoot for something primarily useful to players which may also be of use to GMs.[1] KWORC is all about the problems that characters may encounter as a result of Knowledge, Will, Opportunity, Resources or Capability. The anti-KWORC is all about how to tackle those problems.[2]

The first thing you need to do with any problem is to state it as clearly as possible. I want to do X, but cannot because of Y. If there's some muddiness to it, then break it down a little further - if one problem is really four different problems, you need to know that because otherwise you're just going to frustrate yourself with solutions that address only part of the problem. Use KWORC to break things down as needed, and keep your eye open for problems of opportunity. Those are usually the most straightforward to resolve, and if you can break a problem down to nothing but necessary opportunities then problem solving is purely a function of good timing.

Once you've got a got a problem identified, the question is how to get past it. That may seem like an odd choice of words - you would expect to solve a problem after all - but that's the kind of thinking that will get you stuck.

See, while the first option is to overcome the problem directly (that is, to solve it), that's not the only possibility. You also want to consider how you could circumvent, subvert, neutralize or destroy the problem.

a problem is the first thing we tend to think of when faced with one. We look at the problem, look at the tools we have, and apply them. If the problem is a locked vault door, we blow up the lock. It's kind of easy to write this off as "thinking inside the box", because you're implicitly buying into the challenge, but sometimes it really is the right solution, especially if you have the tools and talent to do the job.

To circumvent a problem, you look at the problem, and just go around. If the problem is a vault door, you cut through the wall to get in. By finding another approach, you render the original problem moot. This is, to be frank, some of the flashiest brainwork you can do when you pull it off. Most really cool smart-guy tricks in movies are of this type because when its done right, it cuts through the problem like a hot knife through lukewarm butter. The trick of doing this is spotting disconnects between the problem and the goal. In the case of the vault door, the problem is not really the door, it's that you can't access the room.[3] This also takes advantage of a GM blind spot too - if the GM has focused on the specific problem (like the door), she's usually got nothing in place to prevent you solving a different problem.[4]

To subvert a problem, you turn it into an asset. In the case of the vault door, you get the key or combination, allowing you to use it legitimately. This may simply allow the problem to be overcome, but it may actually turn an obstacle into an asset (as in the case of hacking into a security system - not only can the characters now avoid detection, they can also use it to track the guards). The best way to think about how to subvert a problem is to ask what you would do if you were the legitimate owner of the obstacle, then see what you can do to act as if that were so.

Neutralizing a problem can be similar to subverting a problem at times, but the net result is that the problem is now irrelevant. In the case of the locked vault, you arrange for the owner to take the object you need for you. This is the classic misdirect, and it can be almost as flashy as circumventing the problem when done right. Effectively, you are opting to replace one problem with another, but presumably the new problem is one you are more capable of solving. At its most dramatic, this can involve getting someone else to solve the problem for you, such as when you convince a mark that the widget he's holding will get him killed so he begs you to take it off his hands.

Finally destroying a problem is often the most straightforward solution, and the one adventures often gravitate towards - why sneak past guards when you can kick their asses? In the case of the vault door, you simply blow up the door. The problem with this approach is usually less about its effectiveness and more about its consequences. Destruction is rarely subtle, and it often attracts a lot of attention. Still, if you're fast enough (or if attention is exactly what you want) then it can be the right tool for the job.

Now, there is one other option, but it's of a different type[5] - sometimes you need to change goals. This is tricky because if it's just a matter of "This is hard, I quit" then it's going to be a pretty lame game. Rather, it is possible that goals might escalate as a result of opposition. You see this a lot in crime movies, where the criminal is above the law, and our unstoppable hero changes his goals by escalating from "Arrest the Bad Guy" to "Stop the Bad Guy" (Or perhaps more bluntly "Kill the Bad Guy"). This sort of escalation might be powerful and dramatic or it might be a simple excuse to bring in bigger guns. Either way, remember that the change can be a big deal.

Ok, now that you're armed with the tools for overcoming the problems of the next step will be threading it all together.

1- Off the record, this is effectively my "How to Think Like Nate Ford/Danny Ocean" piece for people who find themselves thrust into leadership and problem solving roles and are feeling a little overwhelmed.

2 - This could also probably be called SECOND if one really likes acronyms (Subvert, Escalate, Circumvent, Overcome, Neutralize or Destroy).

3 - The KWORC lens is useful here because in this case, you realize what looks like a problem of capability (can I pick the lock) is really a problem of opportunity (can I get in the room).

4 - Warning: If your GM is the kind who responds badly to being "outsmarted" then be careful about doing this, if only because she may improvise a deadly response. Also, consider changing GMs.

5 - There is no footnote # 5. I have no idea why I put that there.

Monday, August 16, 2010

KWORC Part 2 - What it actually means

After you've found a clear objective for your characters (or, more aptly, helped them find one for themselves), the next question you ask is the root of all adventure: Why haven't they already done it?

If the answer is simply "Because they haven't gotten around to it yet" then odds are good you're about to go on a very boring ride. Good stories and good games start with some barriers between the beginning and end. This is so easy to illustrate in games - Imagine a a game where you just win, with no challenges to players or characters - that it's almost uninformative. If a caper could be resolved by simply walking in and walking out with the MacGuffin, then Ocean's 11 would be the most boring movie ever. [1]

Stories have a few advantages in dealing with these obstacles that games don't - whatever actions the protagonists take will probably help solve the main problem. I've mention this before in the context of B-plots. The A-plot (the main goal) can't be resolved until the B-plot is resolved because the B plot gives the tools necessary to solve the A plot. This is a useful tool, and KWORC refines it a bit with a bit more structural focus.

When you ask why the heroes have not already achieved their goal (either in a sweeping campaign or a single session) then the answer is that they lack something essential to success, and that something is one of five things: Knowledge, Will, Opportunity, Resources or Capability.[2]

Let's look at a murder mystery to illustrate how these might come into play. In a classic closed mystery, where the detectives have arrived and all the suspects are in one place, the only thing the characters lack is knowledge. Once they know who did it, achieving the goal (arrest the murderer) is easily accomplished.

Suppose they figure out who did it, but the guilty party is powerful and dangerous. She's someone who can end the character's careers, kill their families or otherwise make terrible things happen to them. Alternately, she may offer them a rich reward to look the other way. In either case, characters are capable of achieving their goal, but the question is whether they have the will to do so.

Similarly, suppose that they identify the culprit, got to arrest him, and discover he's made a break for it. If they can catch him, they can arrest him, but they need to catch him first to have the opportunity to arrest him.[3]

What if the culprit has his own private army, and is fully capable of refusing the request of a few detectives to come along with them quietly? Or if he has friends in city hall that make an arrest impossible or pointless? The players may not have the resources to make the arrest

Lastly, while this rarely happens in detective fiction, it's pretty common in RPGs for the culprit to put up a fight, and for that fight to be pretty nasty. There may be some question regarding whether the characters have the capability to make the arrest.

Now, there may be only a single such barrier between the characters and their goal, or there might be several, related[4] or unrelated. Whatever the case, the utility of breaking them down like this is that you create a discrete set of obstacles. This is important because each obstacle creates an implicit goal - OVERCOME THE OBSTACLE. And with that in mind, go back and ask the first question, and you can produce another KWORC breakdown. Repeat this as many time as you need, and you have a picture of how an adventure is likely to unfold.

One more dirty trick: This is not just a GM technique. Players looking to find a way to make concrete progress on their goal can perform a similar breakdown of their situation to attempt to determine what concrete next steps they can take.

Right now this is a pretty rough model, but it's possible to polish each of the steps to really bring it to life. And that starts tomorrow with the anti-KWORC.

1- Curiously, the level of challenge is also often tied to the nuance of the goal. Using Leverage as an example, it's a show with hyper-capable characters pitting themselves against unsuspecting bad guys. If their goal was simply to _punish_ the bad guys, then episodes might be mildly cathartic, but they'd be ultimately hollow. All it would require would be that something terrible happen to the bad guy. Because their goal is _justice_ they put themselves in much more difficult situations than they have to. This in turn makes their level of capability feel appropriate (because it's challenges) rather than shooting ants with a howitzer. Does this mean your goal can actually be a basis for obstacles? You betcha.

2 - Thus, KWORC. It's not a great acronym, but I ended up using it because it was easier than checking my notes every time I needed to remember all 5. I'm sure that someone's going to suggests a really compelling 6th at some point an it will totally mess it up.

3 - Opportunity often pairs with other obstacles to be anything but a short-term obstacle. If the opportunity I lack is that I'm not in the same room with the guy, that's only a problem until I find him. For this to be a longer term problem I might not know where he is (knowledge) or have the means to reach him (resources). Despite this, this is an important category because this is what the Dungeon represents at its most basic level. You can beat the end boss and get his loot, you just need to _get_ there.

4 - For example, In the Lord of the Rings, destroying the ring requires opportunity (Getting it to Mount Doom) and Will (the will to get rid of it).

Friday, August 13, 2010

KWORC Part 1 - Clear Goals

Dynamic adventures are a bit different from encounter based ones. This is not to say they don't include encounters - they do - but the priority is less about a specific set of encounters and more on the encounters that will emerge organically from the events of play.

The primary thing that defines a dynamic adventure is that the characters are usually proactive in pursuit of a larger goal. In an encounter game, players may be proactive in the short term (that is, they may proactive seek to get to the bottom of a dungeon) but in the broader sense their actions are directed by external forces (like employers) or simple motives (profit).

This line can be a little fuzzy. An encounter based game may have character with personal motives providing subplots, but in a dynamic game, the entire direction of play is shaped by what's important to the players. To illustrate, consider the case of the Lord of the Rings - it would be entirely possible to play it either way. As an encounter based game, the players would have a goal (DROP RING IN VOLCANO) and the GM would seed the map with encounters that the characters would encounter as they go. In a dynamic game, players would have a subtly different goal (DEFEAT SAURON) and they will find a way to accomplish this. Maybe they drop the ring in the volcano, but maybe they do something the council rejected, like take up the ring themselves or sail across the sea with it.

Some GMs are nodding here, and others are wincing, because this is an invitation to completely break a campaign. In an encounter based game, this is a problem. In a dynamic game, it's an *expectation*.

Still, it's not just a matter of waving a wand and saying to your players "Go nuts, dudes!" You can do that, certainly, and that's very nearly the definition of empowered sandbox play[1], but that's another topic entirely. For dynamic play to work, the characters need a clear but open ended goal to drive play.[2] That seems like a simple enough thing, and in cases like DEFEAT SAURON it pretty much is, but it can be rough to come up with something that works.

Of the two criteria for a good goal[3], clarity is probably the more straightforward. It needs to have a little specificity to it - notice that DEFEAT SAURON is a specific verb and noun combo, while DEFEAT EVIL would be pretty vague unless there's actually a guy named EVIL in the campaign.[4] In a pinch, the VERB NOUN model works pretty well, though. I mean, you can make it longer with fancier language, like EXACT REVENGE ON SIX FINGERED MAN WHO KILLED MY FATHER, but practically that's PUNISH 6-FINGERED MAN. Specific, actionable verb, and a specific target. Perfect.

Notice the frequency of the use of the word "specific" there? That's the trick of it. A goal is clear when it is specific, both in its outcome and in its call to action.

The second criteria, that it be an open ended goal, takes a little bit more thought. The goal should not be immediately achievable[5] and it should not have an obvious course of action. "Rescue the Princess from the cultists" is a good goal for an adventure (because, hey, find the cultists, attack the cultists, rescue the princess, done!) but it's not going to invite much variety of play or drive a campaign.

In contrast, if the players had a goal of DEFEAT THE CULT, and the cult captures a princess, then the short term goal grows naturally from the big goal. One of the signs that you have a good goal is that it's easy to imagine secondary goals that spin off it for the sake of a session or even a few scenes.

Once you have a goal, play has a direction. Players with a clear, open-eneded goal are usually readily to launch out of the gate, so you need to be ready for them, and that's what the next part of this will address.[6]

1 - Sandbox Play is a term for a playstyle where you can go anywhere and do anything you can get away with. The idea is that there's no game per se, just something to explore, akin to the difference between a toy or a game. In some sandbox games the players are observers, changing the world very little. In others, the world is utterly transformed by their play. This style is fantastic for exploration games, but it can be a little unfocused (for better or for worse).

2 - Maybe more than one. How many goals a game can tolerate depends a lot on the specifics of the group.

3 - There's also a third secret criterea - that it be a goal which engages the players. It is often quite reasonable to start a game without a goal and to instead find it in play. A goal found in play, especially if it involved someone really angering the players, can get you more excitement and engagement than the most planning.

4 - If there is, that may suggest you're actually playing a Japanese video game.

5 - Unless you are specifically limiting the scope of the game. In that case a goal which can be resolved in one session is totally in bounds.

6 - I still haven't defined KWORC yet, have I? Man, I'm a stinker.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ipad Retraction

Posting out of sequence just to get this out there. I've previously suggested using myTexts for writing on your ipad, citing its excellent interface and features. Those benefits remain, but today I discovered an unfortunate downside - it also randomly deletes files. I encountered this bug twice today, and upon discussion, discovered that many people I know have encountered it as well.

If you have myTexts, consider just uninstalling it. For me, I've switched over to My Writing Nook, and am so far content. But I'm backing up more frequently too.

Adventure Foundations - Encounters

Adventure design is a tricky thing. Certain things can make it easier, most notably the buy-in from your players. Few things forgive a bad adventure design like players willing to go "Ok, the adventure is clearly over there. C'mon guys, let's head on over." And they'll do it, because your players are great and you're lucky to have them, but that might make you feel a little guilty about giving such great players such a half-assed setup.

So, sooner or later, you want to give them more head. Not that you were railroading them before, but rather you were giving them pretty linear adventures where their primary role was to react to bad things and eventually go in the dungeon. Clearly, they want something with a few more moving parts, and just making dungeons more complicated doesn't seem to be doing it, so what do you do?

This is the point where you might be looking to turn a corner from encounter-driven adventures to dynamic adventures, but don't turn it just yet. Let's make sure we choose the right tool for the job.

Encounter adventures are familiar to most of us, as they represent the bulk of dungeon games (however the dungeon is dressed up). The GM has prepared a number of scenes[1] which will be encountered then resolved through play. There are numerous ways these encounters might be sequenced from a strict dungeon map to a wild and loose random table to a sophisticated set of if-then statements, but the formula is pretty much the same.

While this approach is most familiar to us in dungeons, you can find it in every game system out there, with shadowruns and vampire parties constructed in this same fashion, as a sequence of encounters. Part of this is familiarity, but part of it that this model really _works_[2]. Scenes allow for focused events that are (hopefully) cool and specific. Their real strength (and weakness) is that they draw bright lines around the event and allow it to effectively be resolved in a vacuum. You're fight in a dungeon will usually have little bearing on your fight in the next room of a dungeon, and your trading of barbs with the duke will have little bearing on your tea with the chancellor.[3]

While this means that you can really drill down and focus on the scene in question, it also can really end up suspending disbelief if things get too clearly delineated. This is only so much of a problem with dungeons - we're trained to overlook how horribly fake those feel - but it's part of the double edged sword of trying to apply the dungeon model to things that don't have hard walls, like social situations.

One of the classic problems with trying to run a city campaign is the question of _how_ to do it without just treating is as a crowded space filled with small aboveground dungeons. The historical instinct has been to gravitate towards turning manors and sewers into interesting dungeons and treating the rest of the city like an oversized version of the town outside the dungeon[4].

For a GM trying to let go of the dungeon and loosen up play, there are a few tricks to easing the transition, but the most important one is to loosen your grip on the encounter model. That is not to say you need to stop using encounters entirely, but rather that you should focus on the encounters that will really rock, and put less work into building "tunnels" between them. Allowing players to meander a bit makes their arrival that much more satisfying.

It will also, somewhat paradoxically, make everything feel a lot more realistic. If you can find a module that uses someone's manor house as a dungeon, this will illustrate it very well, but if not, just consider it. People do not live in houses the way we imagine monsters living in dungeons. We do not sit in rooms and wait for things to happen - we move around, do things, read books, eat meals and so on. If someone were to break into our home or office, the response would be much more dynamic than it is in a dungeon.

With that in mind, when we describe a home or office in terms of a dungeon, we get something stilted that feels entirely off. If, in contrast, you just have a particular scene in mind for the whole house (rather than on a room-by-room basis) then you can usually play that in a way that seems reasonable. A fight breaks out in the ballroom and things will happen as a result of it, but if you do it as one scene, there's no need to them move on and clean out the kitchen.

Now, here's the dirty trick - you can take this thinking back to the dungeon to bring it to life.[5] No to say you need to do this with every dungeon and every encounter, but taking a part of the dungeon and thinking "Ok, here's how things work here, whose involved, and how things will play out" you can make a bigger, more freewheeling encounter which will probably be more interesting and more fun than usual. For a good example of what such an encounter might look like, listen to Mike Mearls talk about his lunchtime games sometime. As he describes them, they are basically giant, multi-element encounters, and there's a lot of juice in that model.

Now, all that said, you may eventually find yourself wanting to move onto another approach, possibly one where the PCs are more proactive than reactive. And when that happens, it's time for tomorrow's topic; KWORC.

1 - Though he may not think of them as scenes, that's what they really are.

2 - And is, even more than many indie games, a story technique. By breaking the adventure into discrete scenes, you make it flow better and make each scene better and more memorable. That is to say, if you've run a dungeon, and you don't details the hallways as much as the rooms, then you may be a story gamer. If the boss fight was in one of the last rooms, then you're definitely a story gamer.

3 - There are exceptions to this, but even they are fairly telling. Sometimes results from one encounter will have spillover results (like a guard triggering the alarm resulting in subsequent encounters not being surprised). It might even bring in monsters from the next encounter. But it is a rare adventure where the alarm seriously disrupts the structure of the dungeon.

4 - And intrigue, of course, which means "Going into dungeons for important people".

5 - Especially if you start wit a dungeon by someone like Owen KC Stephens, who does a great job of writing dungeons which are basically extensions of the villain.

* - This isn't a footnote on anything, but if you really want to learn how to run a good dungeon, read and play Dogs in the Vineyard. I know you may have heard all sorts of wild stuff about it, but it's worth getting to know if only to see how it structures adventures. Its towns are, for all intents and purposes, dungeons. They're constrained spaces with a problem to be solved. The big difference is that instead of being a dungeons of rooms, its a dungeon of people. That makes things both simpler and more complicated, and to a DM, it turns certain ideas on their ear while maintaining a very familiar framework. If you can absorb DitV, you will have a new and very powerful tool in your design toolbox

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fruitful Play

Malcolm Gladwell turned a lot of heads (as is his wont) in The Tipping Poing with the assertion/discovery that the main reason people become world class talents is not a result of inborn talent or expensive tools but rather on time spent. As a ballpark figure, it takes ten thousand hours of practice to really master something, and that level of investment takes a lot of work. Still, it's a kind of liberating statistic, since it suggests that the only thing separating you from Tiger Woods is time spent. Sadly, nothing is ever quite that simple.

One point that gets glossed over a lot is that they need to be 10,000 fruitful hours. That is to say, you need to spend those hours learning and improving. Receiving training from someone else, doing useful drills or exercises or even just paying attention to what you're doing in order to improve it are all fruitful ways to spend your time, and that's a lot of work. That's where things like talent, passion and resources start mattering - the guy who loves what he's doing, has a knack for it that makes him feel good about doing it, and has access to tools, teachers and time is going to rack up his 10k much faster than the one who is grudgingly grinding out the time. This is why simple mania doesn't result in talent.

For a GM or Game Designer, this raises an interesting set of questions like "How many hours have I logged?" or "When am I logging hours?" and it might be fun to dwell on them, but are really just proxies fro the more important questions of "how good am I, and how can I get better?"

Now, there are a lot of answers to this, but I thought I'd share a four of mine, specifically, what I try to do to make every session I play or run fruitful. It's never been an attempt to accrue hours, it's just been a useful approach. That Gladwell gives it a patina of legitimacy is just a bonus.

Check Your Tracks

There will come a time in almost any game when things go a little bit off the rails. Maybe it's just that you need to make an on the fly ruling but maybe you need to adjudicate something big and important that has no rules support. One that comes up a lot for me is making a decision to make an on-the-fly ruling rather than interrupt the flow of play with a rules lookup.

Be aware of the times you do this, and at the end of a game, look back and consider where your footprints wandered off the path. Then try to figure out why it happened and how well what you did worked. The situations you encountered will probably come up again, and giving this some thought will keep it from being an ad hoc solution every time.

This, by the way, is of particular interest when playtesting. When you're playtesting someone else's material, you really want to strive to stay on the path even more than usual because it's useful to the designer to know where you were inclined to (or forced to) deviate. You need to be even more aware of where your tracks would have gone so you can provide useful feedback. On the other hand, if you're playtesting your own material, you have a little bit more leeway. If a rule hits the table and you handle it somehow other than written, you really want to examine what you did because there's a good chance that that is what you really want in your game.

Question Success
When a game breaks down it's easy to spend some time studying it, trying to figure out what went wrong and what could have been differently. But when you finish a great session where everythign went well and everyone had a good time, there's very little incentive to analyze. You need to overcome that instinct because there is as much (maybe more) to be learned in games that worked than those that didn't. Failure is easy to identify, but identifying causes for success is much harder, but much more fruitful.

So, don't necessarily dwell on it, but think about what worked really well, and ask yourself if you could do it again. Not every success will be something you can replicate, but over time you'll take lessons from what you find.

Value Feedback, Suspect Analysis
Nothing is more useful than talking to your players after the game . This is not just a good design thing, it's a good human being thing (that also happens to be a good design thing). You want them to tell you what excited and frustrated them, and you want to take that very seriously. This frustration and excitement is real - you cannot decide that one of you rplayers is wrong to have enjoyed part of the game or to have been bored during a part you thought was cool. That's how they felt, and you need to be ready to try to repeat or prevent that as appropriate.

The thing you should be skeptical of is the why. If your player was bored, take that at face value, but be a little more wary of any explanation of why they were bored or excited. As humans, we love to explain things, even if we're not very good at it. We'll create a narrative that makes things make sense to us out of whatever parts are lying around, and the truth of the matter may or may not have anything to do with it. This is not an attempt as deceit, rather a reaction to the fact that in complicated, subjective situation, the truth can be fuzzy, so we gravitate towards something that "makes sense".[1]

This is not to say you should ignore their explanation entirely, especially if you know the player has good insight into what makes a game work, but it is ultimately your interpretation that's going to matter, and you need to trust that.

Do The Work

This one's simple - if you as your players to do something (like create a character) make sure you have done it already. The last thing you want is for your players to hit an inobvious roadblock (like unclear rules in chargen) that you just glossed over because they 'don't apply to the GM'.

1 - This is a hard lesson to learn, but an important one. Not for game design, but for interacting with people. If Dave says the fight was boring because the enemy had too many hit points you need to be able to balance your response so that you respect Dave's boredom even though he's totally wrong about why the fight was boring. The instinct is often to respond to these two things as if they were the same and treat Dave like the fact that he's wrong about the hit points means he's also wrong about the boredom, and yielding to that instinct makes you kind of a jerk (or a news commentator). It's also impractical, since you are training Dave to not give you any useful feedback. So, remember, respect the genuine underlying emotion, even if you discount the analysis it engenders.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On the Mark

Third session of my Cold War game, and conclusion of the first plot arc, and I think things fell into place. Not going to do a full on recap, but I want to hit on a few points that I think are generally useful.

  • Found a solution to the Fate Point problem. First off, by generally raising the stakes and making thins harder, there were more rolls that were harder to make, so they saw more use. I also budgeted them based on which of the character's aspects I'd used to plan the adventure, in this case 2,2, and 3. I'm pretty happy with this because it also serves as an informal spotlight mechanism, and as a GM it makes me check that I've included everyone. If one player is starting with zero fate points, that's probably a bad sign.

  • Morgan got to demonstrate the power of a concession. His super-soldier was fighting a guy in an exo-suit who was slowly kicking his ass, and it was looking bad, he offered the concession that he lose, but that he dragged it out. I went with that, and his opponent eventually resorted to gassing the room because Bull just wouldn't go down. I think the net result was a loss that was also satisfying to Morgan. Bull did get a rematch later, which went somewhat better by opening the fight by hitting his opponent with a jeep.

  • It is good to plan, but sometimes unnecessary. The bad guys had an elaborate double cross planned, and had many contingencies in place to try to get Anne alone (she's the one who got 3 fate points because many bad things went here way this time) but sometimes your players will just do all the work for your.

  • I did have one badass NPC ally, which I always feel uncomfortable about, but I think I kept his contribution to a minimum, and I think people were ok with it because a) he's an important part of Anna's backstory and b) through a sequence of bad luck, Anna was the only person who didn't actually get to see him, which annoyed the player (in a good way).

  • One big trick I'm finding with espionage is that I need to quash my instinct to answer questions. I normally like to make sure things are tidily wrapped up, if only to show that I didn't cheat, but not for this. Every improbable coincidence or strange-seeming turn of events is fodder for play, and the answers need to be _earned_.

  • Similar, I'm happy that the cast of supporting character has grown. That this session ended with a still-breathing enemy inspiring profound hatred is a good sign.

  • I got anchors from people right before the game, so I haven't even looked at them yet, but I look forward to folding them into the next session.

  • I added a little bit more mechanic to the fight scening, enough that I feel it covered Bull's fight, but Grey ended up in a gunfight with some guards which ended up, mechanically, kind of flat. Next thing to fix, I think.

Monday, August 9, 2010

DonoCon 2010

To take the edge off Gencon jealously, we had another Donocon this year, with a bunch of people over at the house hanging out and playing games. There ended up being some unexpected logistical challenges and my wife deserves a huge amount of credit for making this all possible, but it worked and it was pretty fun.

Games that saw play: Attack of the Killer Bunnies, Forbidden Island, Thunderstone, Dixit and Fiasco. Forbidden Island and Thunderstone are standing favorites, so no real commentary on those, but the others were all interesting in their own way.

Attack of the Killer Bunnies was, to be frank, a stark reminder of why I no longer play a certain sort of game. By a certain sort of game I mean any game where you play for several hours while sitting on your hands for most of the game as the turn goes around the table, and only maybe being able to do anything on your turn. It's got clever cards and a clever mechanic, but clever only goes so far (especially with an outright malicious victory condition). For context, the games of Forbidden Island and Thunderstone were both set up and played while the Killer Bunnies game was still going.

Dixit, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. Fred brought it, and the sole context I had for it was "That game I'd never heard of that won the Spiel des Jahres" but the box itself made a good case for the game. It's loaded with picture cards which are beautiful in the way that good childrens art can be - lots of strong broad strokes and themes, but also lots of interesting details. Gameplay is simple, and very reminiscent of apple to apples. You look at the cards in you hand, pick one, and say a sentence it makes you think of like "Worst job ever." or "At last, we can begin!" Everyone else picks a card from their hand that matches that as best they can, and the cards are spread out for all to see. Players try to guess which is the right one, and points are handed on who guesses what.

One clever twist on the mechanic is that the storyteller (the person with the sentence) gets points if his card is guessed, but only so long as only SOME people guess it. If everyone or no one gets it, then everyone else scores except for him. So you want to be clear, but not _too_ clear. Also, the quality of the cards is a subtle, but powerful design element. The broad thematic strokes of the art make more cards more applicable toe sentences than you would expect. Many card also have some amount of action in them which might be interpreted in more than one way (such as one image of someone either about to be eaten or about to be rescued, depending which way you think things are going) which adds another layer of interpretation to things.

I definitely want to grab a copy of this game at some point. Setting aside that the cards are so beautiful as to demand other uses, I think this is the game that straddles the line between folk who like the creative, fantastic games and those who want to play the social balderdash/pictionary sort of game. That's a powerful straddle.

We did setup and a little play for Fiasco and while very enjoyable, it petered out. I think it went well enough that there'd be interest in trying it again, but I think it suffered from two things. First, we started it late in things, where it got interrupted by food and children getting put to bed, so the inertia got lost. Second, I think the Arctic playset was probably not the best first choice, if only because so much effort had to go into figuring out what the hell we were talking about setting-wise. Lack of context hurt. I think we also didn't quite end up with enough teeth in our setup, since the macguffin (antarctic Nazi Gold) ended up going up in play rather than directly from the cards on the table. I figure that's my fault for not guiding things helpfully enough, but so it goes. Net result was if nothing else, very educational, and I think the game got some new fans.[1]

Much discussion of Smallville and agreement we need to try chargen sometime, but also that we didn't have the juice to do so just then. Ths came up because Smallville is looking to be a go-to game for almost any game that has the bones of a soap opera, with the extra bnus of being able to handle weird elements. As an example, we discussed how well it could hand In Nomine: The way relationships are set up does a very good job of providing for intimate yet antagonistic relationships (so you could have angels and devils in the same game) and some nice ways to insure that the only way an NPC ends up mattering is if he matters to multiple players.[2]

Beyond that there was pizza and socializing and I hope everyone had as good a time as I did.

And now, I prep for tonight's Cold War game. Discussion with the players has, I think, clarified for me what I need to do. I have been letting them bask in being the best in the world at what they do, and that's been useful for establishing foundations. But now comes the time to turn up the heat, and demonstrate that when they're playing at this level, being the best in the world is just table stakes. Which is to say, it's on.

1 - and as a reminder to myself, I need to put the other playsets on my ipad.

2 - Mechanically, this is kind of clever. Chargen involves drawing relationship maps between the players, with squares for players, diamonds for locations and circles for other characters. If you add a character to the map, you add a circle, denoting them as an extra. It is only when another character draws a connection to that extra that the circle gets a double-line border and now denotes a "feature", which is to say a full on NPC, and switches from being a resource to being someone players have relationships with. This is, using the In Nomine example, an absolutely brilliant way to handle archangels.