Thursday, September 30, 2010

Transparent Outcomes

Apocalypse World brought another bit of game design tot he to of my mind, one that I've always instinctively liked but never given much though to - transparent outcomes.

Games with transparent outcomes are one where the player can roll the dice, look at them, and know roughly what happened. At it's most obvious, success of failure can be read off the dice, but often it's a bit more nuanced than that. But before we get to that, let's step back a bit.

What makes transparent outcomes different is that there is no element of secret information in the exchange. In D&D, you roll a d20 and if you rolled high you probably hit, but you don't actually know for sure. The GM knows the number you need to hit, and that is revealed to you after the fact. If, as is sometimes the case, you knew the number you needed to hit before you rolled, then you would be able to immediately proceed, either mechanically (with rolling damage) or descriptively.

That would be a transparent outcome, and some game straddle the line on this with the assumption that the GM will always communicate the target that needs to be hit. However, in practice I have seen that to more often be a function of table best practices, and it is usually subject to specific vagaries. For example, a GM who usually shares target numbers might obscure them for perception checks.

For a game with truly transparent outcomes, the resolution is apparent in the dice. For example, in the Storytelling system, you only need one success to succeed at a task. This gets muddled somewhat with contested rolls, but as a baseline it's pretty spiffy and rewarding to players. For me, it's probably the single biggest mechanical improvement from oWoD (which often required a variable number of successes) to nWoD.

But where this gets interesting is nuance. Apocalypse world, for example, adds a third tier. Roll 2d6+stat (usually a value form -1 to +3) - on a 6 or less you fail and the GM gets up in your grill. On a 10+ you succeed. But on a 7-9 you get a complicated success. You might succeed with a cost or consequence, or you might manage only a partial success. This is nice, but only the beginning. Talislanta had Mishap, Failure, Partial success, Full Success, and Critical success.[1]

I think the finest grain probably came from the Dying Earth system (now in generic form as Skulduggery) where the range was:
1 - Total failure
2 - Failure
3 - Partial Failure
4 - Partial Success
5 - Success
6 - Exceptional success

Corresponding to a single d6 roll

Now, the fact that these outcomes are transparent does not mean that they do not require interpretation. Some of these may have specific mechanical meaning (Such as doing a certain amount of damage or offering certain choices) but even beyond that, the GM still has a role in spinning forward the outcome.

Yet despite that, what this does is remove a step in the player/GM communication. THe dice hit the table and there is a shared understanding regarding the outcome which allows play to proceed more smoothly. If you're very interested in the back and forth between players and GMs to proceed without a hitch, then transparent outcomes are probably something you should consider.

But they're not suitable for every game. While "secret information" may sound sinister, in reality it is a way to increase uncertainty, which is important in games where the sense of risk is important. When dealing with smart, math-oriented players, secret information is what keeps everything from degrading into a pure statistical exercise. As a rule of thumb, if the actual play of the game is part of the fun (rather than just the necessary vehicle to move back to the play you consider important) then transparent outcomes are less useful. To use a concrete example, much of the fun of D&D is in the actual engagement with the fighting mechanics. Lots of rolling, lots of uncertainty. Secret information makes things more exciting.

In contrast, in a lighter game where the mechanics are engaged for just moment, to answer a question as it were, there's a lot to be said for transparent outcomes.

Now, there are more variables than this. Margin of Success, for example, throws a whole other wrench into this thinking, so don't go thinking that the choice is black and white. But when the time comes to design your own system, take a minute to think about whether or not transparent outcomes are for you.

1 - Many games actually have 4 outcomes - Critical failure, failure, success and critical success - even if they don't actively view it that way.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Sufficiently sick that I have only just woken up and, as soon as this posts, am going back to bed. Thankfully, Fred is on fire, and you should do two things:

1. Go read him asking "Your Game is Indie, So What?"

2. See if you can squeeze into Total Transparency Tuesday, where Fred is answering all questions thrown his way.

Wish me luck and powerful medication.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Switches and Levers - Fighting Groups

Whether you intend it or not, when you create rules for a game, you are also creating the setting. Sure, you're not naming NPCs or populating dungeons, but you are establishing tone and the underlying logic of the setting. By creating a rule, you are saying "things work roughly this way" and player expectations are going to be set by this. If the rules say one thing but the world works another way, the seams show in your game and it suffers as a result.

While you can sidestep this with very meta rules (which have their own benefits and drawbacks) if you're rules are supposed to represent what happens in the game[1] then you're stuck with this reality. And that's ok. You just don't want to accidentally design a rule that says something very different about your game than you intend.

There is a small rules decision which is often overlooked as incidental, but which has a HUGE impact on the implied setting of a game, and that is the effectiveness of ganging up. Why is this important? Because the power of groups is an important part of power dynamics. It is what makes things like gangs, guards, soldiers, policemen and mobs very dangerous. An individual might or might not be badass, but five or twenty of them is something to worry about.

Now, I'm not attempting to speak to "realism" here. In the real world, ganging up on someone is effective, but attempting to measure how effective is just begging for a nerdfight. Instead, I just want to discuss it in terms of the impact on the game.

The number of people one person can fight in a game is, of course, a function of their respective capability. An action movie star fighting schlubs shoudl be able tot ake on more of them than he would highly trained adversaries, and he'd presumably be hard pressed to fight someone in his own "weight class" as it were. This relative advantage points to an important mechanical point - how big is the range, mechanically, between the most badass guy and the least? That range is the spread ganging up[2] needs to be able to cross.

This is, for example, why ganging up doesn't work in 4e, at least in the abstract. If I have a 30th level fighter, it really doesn't matter how many level 1 guys you run at me. Even if by some brilliant combination of luck and tactics you start to actually hurt me, I can pretty much just walk away and come back with an atomic bomb, If we're within a given level range than ganging up works fine, but while that may be a fair assumption for an adventure, it's a poor one for the world. It also introduces weird incongruities, where the level 7 sheriff of a town is more dangerous than everyone else in town put together.

Practically speaking, you've got four rough ways to handle ganging up.

Strong groups - Just adding one or two new opponents is very dangerous. Mechanically, this is usually represented by an active defense or the like, where you get your "good" defense against the first attack, but then either no defense (or a rapidly degrading defense) against subsequent attacks. In a system like this, numbers are more important than range of power, and this is probably the grittiest way to run it because in this situation fights are going to be dangerous.

Dramatic Groups - This is probably the default of adventure fiction. A small number of less skilled opponents needs to be taken seriously but is not too dangerous. Think Indiana Jones for a yardstick. Usually this is mechanically represented by granting bonuses for outnumber, flanking, surrounding or the like. The advantage of numbers is real, but its comparable to other advantages like weapons or position.

Decorative Groups - This is where you start seeing rules for mooks or extras - large numbers of foes easily cut down by the badassness of the heroes. In fact, part of that badassness is the ease with which they dispose of these throngs of enemies. Named and noteworthy enemies may still be a challenge, and they may derive some benefit from being surrounded by minions, but not a lot.

Meaningless Groups - Curiously, this is roughly similar to Decorative groups in terms of potency, but in the absence of rules to handle the groups gracefully. An example of this would be a D&D game where I run a lot of low level monsters at you rather than minions (which have 1 hit point). The low level monsters aren't a real threat, but now I need to track their hit points and otherwise do fairly dull bookkeeping for no real reward.[3]

It is possible to mix and match these, even within the same system, if players are comfortable with the idea. 4e, for example, is mostly a middling groups game (within level range) but has minion rules to bring in decorative groups, and striking a balance between those two approaches is a bit of an art.

So what do these things say about the world? Well, for example, what happens when you try to arrest a character? In a strong groups setting, a handful of patrolmen can probably do the job. With strong groups you probably want to send the equivalent of a SWAT team. With decorative or meaningless groups, there's a good chance you just can't send enough men to do it.

That's simple enough, but what does that imply about the setting. Can powerful characters and NPCs run amok? Are there other powerful characters waiting in the wings to deal with those people, and if so, who watches the watchmen? How do kings stay in power? Are they high level badasses? What about their kids?

Now, it's important to note that the fact that these points raise questions does NOT mean that you can't come up with answers for them (and, in fact, you should). As I said before, we're not talking about realism here, so don't knock yourself out trying to determine the impact on global power dynamics of a 24th level wizard. Just look at things in broad strokes and tune your game to suit.

For example, while I hold up 4e as an example of a problem (because of the level range) there's an implicit assumption in the game that as you move into higher levels (or tiers) you are changing your context, moving from mundane matters to the otherworldly and eventually the cosmic. The town guards in your hometown may be people you can defeat with a sneeze now, but in the City of Brass, the streets are patrolled by fire elementals, and they're tough enough to take seriously. This is a bit of a combination of a treadmill and "you must be at least this tall to enjoy this part of the setting" and is probably very familiar to MMO players

Anyway, there's no correct way to handle ganging up, but I wanted to unpack it a little bit just to illustrate how one simple rule can say so much about a game.

1 - As opposed to rules that represent how players should act, such as who is telling a story at any given moment. When I talk about very meta rules, means ones which are more about the act of creating the fiction of the game. Despite a great deal of hyperbole, this is not always a clear-cut distnction, and games played as well as game designs exist on a it of a sliding scale in this regard. This is too big a topic to be just a footnote, but a good yardstick for distinction is this: does it matter, mechanically, whether you brought a dagger or a flamethower? For purposes of this post, I'm assuming the answer is "yes".

2 - And other modifiers too. If you ever watched the hold Highlander show a gimmick they would use a lot to maintain the protaganist's badass status was to introduce enemies who were super badass under some specific circumstance, like fighting in the dark or because they gassed their enemies before fighting. represented in game terms, that allowed a lower skill opponent to close the gap with bonuses and penalties.

3 - That awkwardness is why a lot of broad power range game eventually ended up adding mook rules. Decorative groups may be a bit of a narrative convenience (though they are brilliantly described as a setting element in Scion) but they are so much smoother in play that people are willing to be forgiving.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ipad Extravaganza

Another friend is getting an iPad (to which I say, "woo hoo!") and I started doing a writeup of all the things that one should get when I realized that I do this often enough that I should put it in one place, so my plan is this - I'm writing and posting this blog entry and after it's gone live, I'll set up a page based on it that I'll try to keep updated.

A Note on Usage
There's no one way to use an ipad. It's greatest strength is the sheer number o usage profiles it supports. I, for example, could not live without an external keyboard and have gotten just about every writing app I can get my hands on. My wife pretty much uses it for the web, twitter, reading books and watching videos. Other people use it in other ways. I try to keep this in mind as I discuss apps, and you should also keep it in mind as you read. Just because an app doesn't work for me doesn't mean it's not going to be useful for you.


Cases serve several purposes for an ipad. Protection, certainly, but it's also got an important role in how you use your ipad. Generally, you're going to use it in one of 4 ways - you'll hold it in your hand, you'll have it laid flat with a slight incline (for typing on the screen), upright horizontally (for viewing video or possibly typing) or upright vertically (for typing or web browsing). It is hard for a case to do all these things, and if you find one that does there are probably other tradeoffs. Which functions matter to you are going to depend a lot on how you intend to use the Ipad.

The Apple Case - I started out with this case and, were it not for a gift from a friend, I would still be using it. It's slim and light, and it's excellent in the hand and at an incline, and it's good in an upright horizontal position (just need to be careful not to knock it over). Upright vertical is pretty ad hoc. The incline is especially worth noting as this case is exceptionally well suited to typing on the screen in large part because the slope is comfortably elevated. A lot of the nicer looking cases have a very shallow incline, which is less good for typing. Given the quality and the price point, this is the case I would strongly suggest anyone get unless they have a specific reason to get a different one.

The Quirky Cloak - This is my current case, a gift from a friend for whom it was a poor fit. It's got an ok incline and is notably good for horizontal and vertical upright, but it's pretty bad in the hand. The slipcase fits loosely enough to feel awkward, and while the cover is admirably solid, it's also pretty heavy. Despite this, I'm very happy with it because the upright positions are most important to the things I use the ipad for (which is to say, writing)

One thing I will say about this one - I had a part break, and that was somewhat frustrating since I was not doing anything that should have caused a break. However, this frustration was turned into satisfaction by dint of excellent customer service, as I was provided with a replacement with a minimum of hassle.

Apple Bluetooth Keyboard - Yeah, I live with mine. It's an actual keyboard, but it's slim and light enough that carrying it around in addition to the ipad is still smaller and lighter than carrying around a netbook. The onscreen keyboard is perfectly functional for day to day stuff, but so long as I'm writing things as long as, well, this, a real keyboard is incredibly useful. In addition, the extra function buttons for things like controlling music and brightness are pretty handy.

Apple Keyboard Dock- I admit that I dig the fact that this will hold the ipad upright on its own, but I did not end up getting one of these for two reasons. One, the shape of it makes it a little rough to slip into the kind of bag I use. Two, it doesn't play nicely with cases, and I like having a case. (I'm sure it works with some, but I'm unwilling to invest in the trial and error necessary to find out.)

Folding Bluetooth keyboard - I have an old one of these from my days with a Nokia n800, and while it works just fine with the ipad, it's also a little unnecessary - if you're carrying something as big as an ipad, you can afford to carry an actual keyboard.

Keyboard Cases - I haven't seen any of these yet, but they're the next thing to be hitting the market. I'm intrigued, but I worry that such keyboard will be a little too cramped to be worthwhile. For reference, the apple keyboard is about 2 inches wider than my ipad case.

Wall Mount - Ok, you probably don't need this, but for three bucks? It makes me want to find ways to use it.

So, this is the main thing I use the ipad for, and I've put a lot of time and effort into trying different options, and in doing so I've discovered a few generalizations. First, nothing is more important than how you get your writing out of the ipad and on to something else. At the very least, the app should be able to email the document to you, but the better ones will usually allow you to sync through a service (usually either dropbox or simplenote, though Pages uses Apple's mobileMe service or WebDAV). Second, fonts and screen use are both a big deal, especially if you're going to spend a lot of time writing. The ability to choose a pleasing font (or, barring that, the use of a decent default font) and the ability to write in full screen mode are both very handy.

As an addendum, Google Docs has recently announced a dramatic change which will probably make it much more app friendly, so the whole game may end up changing in the near future.

Notably - This is probably the prettiest writing app I have, and while it's only moderately functional (no syncing, just email, no full screen) it simply looks so nice that it remains enjoyable to use. Lots of fonts, nice faux-wood look to it. The limits mean I don't use it for actual writing, but it's my go-to app for taking notes.

Simplenote - Simplenote is also the name of the service this app uses. It's an interface for a free (or very cheap) online notebook that syncs whenever possible. No custom fonts (but at least it uses Helvetica) but it does have fullscreen mode and tagging (like in gmail). It's not necessarily my favorite app, but I find myself using it a lot (including to write this). I admit I prefer Dropbox as a service, but the fact that Scrivener is going to use Simplenote for syncing is enough to draw me towards it as well.

My Writing - This was my go-to app before simplenote. It has most of the same features, and a nice full screen mode, but it uses its own service for syncing. I've never had a problem with the service, but its web interface is not as elegant as simplenote or dropbox, so it's seen less and less use.

Elements - I got this because the icon looks like a composition notebook and the app description sounded like it would have a very clever interface. I was disappointed. It's perfectly functional, even decent, but there's nothing exceptional about it either.

Droptext - A text editor that syncs to dropbox the same way simple note does to simple note. In theory it was everything I wanted. In practice, you need to reconnect to dropbox every time you start it up (rather than it keeping a local copy and keeping it in sync). Annoying enough to see no use.

IA Writing - Just got this one, and it's nice. Excellent interface, dropbox syncing (albeit manually). It has a weird feature that allows you to only highlight the lines you're working on as you write. That seems like a very extreme approach to zero distraction writing, but I'm sure it's good for some people. Thankfully, it's optional. My sole complaint is that it doesn't have a word count, opting instead for a much less useful character count. I anticipate using this one for writing in the future, but probably using something else for organization.

Pages - No one but Apple could get away with charging $10 for this. It is profoundly ok, but it does very little of what you would need it to and it's a bear to get your data anywhere useful. If you MUST format documents for pages, it's necessary, but otherwise either do your formatting on a computer or get one of the vastly more functional apps that is designed for Word docs. (That said, the latest update did at least add word count).

Office HD - Speaking of which, this is my app for handling the .doc format, which I almost never need to do on my iPad. I think I've used it twice. No complaints, but also not something I have a use for, since the functionality I need from word (tracking changes) does crazy things when bounced between versions.

Scripts Pro - I got this with the intent of using it as a bare bones text editor, as it looks quite nice with a typewriter font on a plain background. It actually works decently well for that, but other apps have overshadowed it. However, if you want to write actual scripts, this is pretty spiffy.

Index Card - Not a writing app per se, but useful for writers. It's basically a cork board that can display about 16 small virtual index cards on a cork board at a time (scroll for more), allowing you to edit and rearrange them. You can type more data into a card than it shows, but the real advantage is for anything you'd want to spread and rearrange index cards for.

My Writing Nook - This is a cautionary tale. I loved this app - it had all the functionality I wanted from a writing app until the day it started randomly deleting my files. The loss of several thousand words of effort was enough to lead to a quick deletion.

Ok, I'm not going to break this down app by app. For books there's the Kindle, the Nook and Stanza (oh, right, and Ibooks). Magazines have interesting things like Zinio (which needs to be seen to be believed). They're all good, and the specific features are constantly changing. I mostly use Kindle because I also have an actual kindle, and I still use it for reading, because it's smaller, lighter, has even more battery than the ipad and has no glare. In the interest of fairness, however, my wife vastly prefers reading on the ipad, especially at night since it requires no external illumination.

This is still a pretty wild frontier and there's no telling how things are going to shake out in the marketplace. I feel comfortable betting on Amazon in the long run, even if I'm not entirely happy with all their policies, but the fact that the ipad can support all these readers and more means there's no reason to choose. Pick your favorite and go with it, but know you have other options.

That said, I am going to single out one app as absolutely fantastic: Goodreader. It's a PDF reader that can sync with almost anything (including dropbox). I have a great many RPG texts on my ipad, and good reader is what allows me to organize and read them all.

The exception to goodreader is very nerdy - I sometimes turn my game notes into pdf so I can read them in dicebook, a combination pdf-reader and dice roller. If you don't know why someone would combine those things, it's probably for the best.

Comics also deserve their own mention. The bulk of comic readers (Comics, Marvel, DC, Image) all seem to use the same technology, but have haphazardly different stores. I mostly just use Comics, but I have all the readers because each offer their own free stuff.

Get netflix and hulu plus. If you don't have either service then don't sweat it (though both are FANTASTIC deals and you should consider Netflix) but if you do, then just get them. Also, the VLC player just came out for the Ipad and you want that too - like the desktop version, it pretty much plays everything, and by everything it may well mean "DVDs you ripped rather than rebuying in digital format"

Internet Foo
So, the built in browser is pretty serviceable for me, enough so that I haven't swapped it out. The mail client has made my yahoo mailbox into something useful, but it's less useful than the gmail web interface. But for specific web material (social media and whatnot) specific apps tend to be useful.

Twitter is, of course, the big one, but this just took a left turn. There are lots of good apps out there like Osfoora or Twitterffic pro, but Twitter just released a free client which is, to be honest, pretty fantastic. It kind of sucks at handling direct messages and is weak on spam blocking, but it's free and backed by the service, and that makes it the 800 pound gorilla. If you have strong opinions about twitter clients then absolutely shop around, but if you don't must get Twitter and call it a day.

RSS is almost as important to me, and there are two ways to go about it. NetNewsWire is pretty solid if you want to work purely through an app, and I'm fond of them. However, I swapped over to doing all my RSS through Google Reader and I love it. The web interface for it is fine, but on the ipad I use Reeder which is just lovely. It has become my morning newspaper on most days. Times for Ipad seems equally pretty, but I haven't shelled out $8 for it when I;m already quite happy with what I have,

Facebook and Tumblr only have iphone apps, which you can use scaled up in a pinch, but that kind of stinks. Sorry, no love there.

Instapaper is the software front end to what I can best describe as a web clipping service. You set up an account, set up a bookmarklet and then when you find a long article on the web that you might historically have printed out to read later, it clips the article (and just the article) and presents it in a very readable format. It's one of those things which you will either use never or all the time.

There's no Skype client for the ipad yet, but the iphone one works fantastically well. Between the quality of the speakers and quality of the microphone, the Ipad is pretty much a perfect appliance for skyping (though I still want an actual Ipad app).

The thing that is most noteworthy about ipad games is their support of asynchronous play. That is, rather than all players needing to be on line at the same time, you take your turn when it comes up and you'll get notified when you have another turn. This allows people to play lots of games with lots of people at their convenience rather than need to be available all the time.

I probably play more Carcasonne than anything else. It's technically I iphone game, but it scales up _beautifully_. Great game. Great app. Can't say enough nice things.

Words with Friends is another great one, albeit one that I've totally slacked off on lately. It is not scrabble, but close enough.

Plants vs. Zombies is a classic for a reason. I'd beaten it on my desktop but still enjoyed it on the ipad. The interface is wonderfully suited to it. Popcap hasn't put out an Ipad version of Bejeweled yet, but the iphone version scales up pretty well.

I have Galcon Fusion only because Galcon was probably my single favorite game on my ipod touch. However, I haven't had a chance to play it yet.

Someone mentioned to me a game that was basically like playing solo EVE but I've totally forgotten what it was, so a reminder would rock. Edit: Eric kindly pointed out the game, it's Warpgate HD, and I look forward to trying it.

Angry Birds is frustrating fun.

Days of Wonder's Small World is fantastic and, I hope, indicative of the kind sof apps they'll be producing. If they come out with a Ticket to Ride app, I'm all over it. My one concern with Small World is that if you haven't played the board game, I'm not sure how easy it is to get an understanding from the app.

Lots of cool art apps for the Ipad - it so clearly gives itself to drawing that it's unsurprising that there are zillions of them.

For straight art, I use Sketchbook Pro. It does everything I want from a paint program and the price is decent. I've also gotten decent use out of Sketchpad, Doodle Buddy and iDraft.

I wish I could justify spending $50 on omnigraffle because I have it on my Mac, and it is so good that I don't doubt for an instant that the ipad version is worth it. But my need for powerful diagramming an illustration on the ipad is too small to justify the cost (though, man, when omnioutliner comes, I doubt I'll be quite so strong). In the meantime, the much less expensive (and less powerful) Dabble does what I need when I need an ad hoc diagram.

Business and Productivity
Numbers - Another one from apple that I would kind of dismiss as overpriced - the functionality that I like in Numbers on the desktop translates poorly to the ipad. However, they added one fairly neat function that jazzes things up. Spreadsheets can more or less automatically generate worksheets for filling them out. That is to say, if you do clipboard work, it can more or less automate it. That's pretty spiffy.

Keynote is probably the best of the iWork apps as it works pretty well on the iPad as an all-purpose display widget. You can use it to make presentations of course, but you can also keep your notes for speaking or the like. It's fun but probably not a necessity.

There are a large number of apps for tracking lists of todo items and most are good, but few are truly fantastic. Todo, Taskpaper, Things and Informat HD are all solid, and I imagine that Omnifocus is pretty good too. But the problem is, of course, that either they'll all do the job, or none of them will. If you're not picky, they're all great. If you're picky, each one will lack in some small way.

The one thing to note is that, like the writing programs. the more useful ones sync up with a remote service. Taskpaper uses simplenote, but most of the others either use Remember the Milk or Toodledoo (Which also have their own apps). It doesn't make a huge difference which service it is, but it's a nice feature to have as it allows you to sync across devices and be able to manage lists from a desktop

One slightly specialized but interesting app is iAnnotate, which is designed to annotate PDFs. it's one of those things you probably don't need to do, but if you do it's good to have the right tool for the job.

Showing Off
Some of these are useful apps, but mostly these are the apps you want to bust out if you want to show off (for others or yourself) the really cool things the ipad can do. By and large they're hard to do justice with an explanation, but they're well worth a look.

Flipboard is probably the best way to look at Facebook on the ipad. It's effectively a magazine interface for any kind of feed, from facebook to twitter to random RSS. It makes the internet read like an issue of the Economist.

Uzu and Gravilux - Both of these are cool particle effect widgets. They just look neet.

- Imagine an infinite cork board that you can tack all manner of things to, including other corkboards. It's the kind of physics-defying interface that only a tablet can provide.

Epic Citadel - This is a proof of concept of the Unreal FPS engine running on the Ipad. It looks unbelievably good.

Square - This, combined with a little free reader you can have mailed to you, will allow you to take credit card payments on you ipad with minimal setup. Again, this is one of those things which is either very exciting or utterly useless.

Starwalk - It's a window into the night sky, very nearly literally.

Stuff that didn't fall under any other category.
TED Mobile - An iphone app, but it scales up to the ipad fantastically. As an app it's just an app, but the TED talks are totally worth it.

Evernote - I don't really use Evernote, but I know some people swear by it. It's a note-taking and clipping app that syncs to an online service. It's a good all purpose repository of everything and the Ipad app is pretty good.

iThoughts - Solid mind-mapping software

Friday, September 24, 2010

Social Currency

I am a great believer in the idea that the best measure of game balance is not character power, points, stats or any such thing, but rather spotlight time. That is to say, how much time does each character (and by extension, their player) in the game get to spend doing things and having fun rather than watching other people do things and have fun. In fact, veterans of very high-power games may be familiar with a trend where the least powerful character in the game (as measured by character sheet) is the most important character in the game because their weaknesses and flaws drive play in a way that other character's awesomeness skips over it.

This behavior is something that is often taken advantage of by more sophisticated players in groups that aren't conscious of the nature of spotlight. The player creates a character that is so profoundly flawed that it ends up operating like the slowest member of a caravan - all travel must go at their pace. If it's too blatant, this can lead to grumbling, but a player who embraces this tactic tends to be adroit enough to skate the line or, if you're very lucky, use their weaknesses to draw in other players with opportunities to show off their awesome. This last is why I don't universally object to his behavior - in a bad arrangement it's toxic, but in a good arrangement it's akin to having a second GM.

Still, once a group becomes aware of the power of spotlight, it's impact is obvious, and groups often try to find ways to make sure it's shared appropriately, whether that's in the form of fair distribution, as in the case of 4e, or in the form of rotating the spotlight, as in the case of Primetime Adventures. The problem is, spotlight time is a little more fiddly than other concrete yardsticks (like XP or treasure) and figuring out how to handle it equitably usually requires some manner of artificial structure.

Most often, spotlight takes one of two forms - scenes a moments. A character can be considered to have spotlight in a scene where he has a meaningful role to play, not one where he is merely present. The wizard and thief may both be breaking into the vicar's office, but if the thief is the only one with the skills to do so, then it's a spotlight scene for him, but not the wizard. Scenes can be forcibly balanced through a variety of scene framing[1] rules, such as letting players frame scenes one at a time. That's a little imperfect, since there's no guarantee that the framing player's character will be the only one to get spotlight. Also, a lot of gamers are uncomfortable with players having that kind of authority. As an alternative, if the GM just keeps the idea of player spotlight in mind as he frames scene, you can often end up with a fairly equitable distribution. In practice, this is little different than the usual good-GMing habit of seeing who has been sitting on their hands and drawing them into things.

Moments, on the other hand, take place within scenes. They are chances for the a character to shine, doing what they do well or otherwise creating memorable moments in the game when they did something cool. In the breaking and entering example above, it might be the thief's scene, but the wizard may have a moment of awesome when he dispels the guardian spirit that the thief disturbed. It's a problem the thief could not have easily dealt with, so it's absolutely a moment for the wizard, even if he has little to do in the rest of the scene.

In practice, moments are usually tied to the mechanics of the game, since they are usually tied to mechanical things like power uses, sine the most common moment is when the player does something that is either big (usually controlled by power systems) , or which is very appropriate yet only doable by them (and thus under the purview of niche protection). There will be moments which are a result of roleplay or player cleverness, but those are hard to plan for, and better to just accept as they come. At least on paper, a game with well designed powers and niche protection, paired with well designed adventures which challenge the range of character abilities, will have a decent distribution of moments among the players.

Thus, it's not hard to balance scenes or moments provided you're willing to commit a little effort to it. The problem is that it's very hard to do both - specifically, there's no clear way to establish an exchange rate between them. In the example given, the thief has a scene and the wizard has a moment - how disproportionately balanced are the two character? Would giving the wizard another moment square things up?

Well, yes. It probably would. 2:1's not a bad take on this, but it also leaves out one other important thing - player preference. Some players don't want scenes, and some don't want moments.[2] A lot of times the lone wolf orphan badass is uninterested in scenes. He's willing to stand around like furniture until he's going to get a chance to kick someone's ass, at which point he will explode in fury, then go back into his box. By any abstract measure, he's getting less spotlight than anyone else, but he's REALLY happy with the spotlight he gets, and would be less happy with more.

The bottom line is that you need to pay attention to what the players at your table respond to when thinking about balancing spotlight. It's going to be a rough period of trial and error to distinguish between players who are merely unfamiliar with attention from those who actively avoid it. There's going to be a constant gravitational pull on the spotlight towards your star players because you like what they do with that, and you need to balance that impetus with the needs of the rest of the group. It can be hard, but worth it.

Alternately, you can play 4e. I mention this option because I have never seen a game solve the spotlight problem so sneakily and elegantly.

Begin from the premise than most scenes in 4e are fights. This is not strictly true numerically, but it's overwhelmingly true in terms of time spent.[3] By making every character capable in combat, every combat scene is a spotlight scene for every character, and by making power distribution follow the same pattern between classes, moment distribution is roughly equal as well. Certainly, a given fight might throw more spotlight on one character than another, but over time, it's given to a very equitable distribution. This shared effectiveness and spotlight is a big part of why 4e, for all its faults, feels like a "fair" game.[4]

It it perhaps curious to think of a "crunchy" game like 4e having such a well tuned system for handling character spotlight, but that just underscores the point. More than any power or rule, it is the play experience that's going to make or break your game. Balancing powers is something to be done for characters[5] - balancing spotlight is something you do for players.

1 - A fancy way to say "Setting up a scene", including the who, what, where, when and sometimes why or how.

2 - And as extra fun, for some players, moments include things going HORRIBLY WRONG, while for others that's worse than not getting attention.

3 - and if it's not for your group, then a) Great! and b) Then you're in the same boat with the rest of us.

4 - And this, much more than any issues of nostalgia or change, is what intrigues me about the new rules in Essentials for fighters and rogues. They're upsetting this balance and trading off moments (in the form of dailies) for more general awesomeness, which will probably turn into more or fewer moments depending on player skill. That's a big risk. (Psionics, as an aside, were less of an issue for this since encounter powers were less likely to produce big moments. It happens, yes, but Dailies are still where the big money lies).

5 - Caveat - Mechanical balance is not entirely unrelated to spotlight balance. If one character is capable of doing everything and leaves other characters sitting on their thumbs, it's a problem with _both_ power and spotlight.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Another Short Day

Feeling better, but my computer is still on the fritz. Thankfully, the part I need should arrive today, and all should be well by tomorrow. So, today I'm just going to point at come cool things in other places.

The good folk over at the Podgecast declared me one of the 5 people to follow in the rpg-o-sphere and had some kind things to say. Worth a review, if only for the other four people. Even beyond my ego, the episode is well worth a listen for some very interesting insight into the role of instincts in Burning Wheel.

So, I had been excited enough when Literature & Latte announced the features for Scrivener 2.0 but they managed to top that with news of Scrivener coming to Windows in 2011. This is fantastic news.[1]

My friend over at Project Multiplexer has been noodling (twice) about the Dresden Files RPG. Good, interesting stuff.

Daniel Solis has another crazy idea.

Seth Godin wrote a short piece on the power of buttons which is worth keeping in mind for RPG power design. 4e powers-as-written are all buttons, so to speak. It's not that people _can't_ go beyond them, but there's a natural gravity towards them.[2]

Harry Connoly's new book, A Game of Cages is out. I had it preordered on the kindle and finished by the next day. I picked up the first book to scratch my Dresden itch while waiting for changes, and I loved it. It's darker and more street level stuff, and utterly compelling. The new book is even better than the first.

This post has me wondering about using video to capture techniques in play. Whole session recordings are too long to tolerate, but snippets to illustrate something? Thoughtworthy.

1 - If you do not know why this is fantastic news, you are in for a treat. Scrivener is a fantastic piece of writing (note, writing, not word-processing) software, one which has existed solely on the Mac for some time, causing much gnashing of teeth. I've written about my love of it before, and I'm hoping for massive success for them on Windows, which may be a blue ocean market for it.

2 - Which reminds me: Is there a page 42 in the Essentials Rules Compendium? I've been looking at the characters book mostly, so I've missed it if so.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sick Day

So, not only am I sick, my computer is currently offline, so this is not going to be a real writing day. Hopefully both of these issues will sort themselves out, but until then, here's a question which, while very simple, is the basis for a lot of very serious play: what do you need that neither power nor money can get you?

In some games this is easy, but it can be a bit tricky with high magic games like D&D, where very little is outside of the reach of a high level character. But it's worth it for one simple reason - it's the only way to bring your past along with you.

That may sound a little enigmatic, but consider the usual arc of a D&D campaign. How many NPCs that were important and relevant to your character at low levels can _possibly_ be relevant to them in the epic tier unless you find things that power and money can't address? Yes, a player can keep those elements in by brute force, choosing to make them stay relevant (with the fear that they may detonate the next time a godling sneezes) but that's unreliable unless there's something a character really needs.

Put another way, no matter how rich or powerful you get, there's always someone who can hurt you. Yes, I know, lone wolf orphans and all that, but that's the way people work. If you can get characters to work that way too, doors will open up, doors that probably merit their own non-sick post.

(One image that has stuck with me throughout this is the 27th level character coming back home for the holidays, and how that gets received. Every family is different, but I can't imagine a scenario where that's _not_ interesting.).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Essential Impressions

A small, heavy box arrived from Amazon today, containing the kind of distraction that guaranteed I would not be thinking about much of anything else. Inside were the two books for D&D essentials that I've been chomping at the bit to get my hands on.[1] I got the Rules Compendium and the character book, Heroes of the Fallen Lands.

Between these two books I theoretically have everything I need (less dice) to create characters and run adventures. Practically, the monster book would also be necessary to round things out, but I have that pre-ordered, so I won't hold that against them. I did _not_ order the dungeon tile set despite the fact that it's a great deal because I have enough tiles already, and because I ultimately hope to not need them. More on that in a bit.

So, right off the back, these books are a steal. $20, 6x9, 300ish pages, softcover, full color. This is not as flashy as the hardcovers of the 4e line, but it totally highlights the kind of production clout WOTC can bring to bear. If I wanted to produce a book in this format, it would be Black & White interior and I'd be hard pressed to get the cover price under $25. At scale I might be able to hit $20, but with color? Not a chance. Physically, the binding is very good, the paper is nicely dense and heavy, and the cover stock is ok. I will be curious to see how it weathers, but my fear is it's going to curl. One way or another, this is now also a size that can be sold in places that won't tolerate the big RPG book form factor, like department stores, and I doubt that's a coincidence.

Layout-wise it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect if the current 4e layout went one column. Utilitarian with some recycled art[2] - nothing to complain about, but nothing to get too excited about either. All in all, I'm pretty pleased with the physical books, with one caveat - given the density of the books it's a shame they did not take advantage of a full page bleed (which some of the art uses) to have chapter separators which can be seen edge-on, or thumbed through. Maybe a design oversight, maybe cost cutting - dunno which.

Either way, it is a little emblematic of my one worrisome impression of the books. The large size of the PHB may have made for a more expensive book, but it also made for a friendlier one. These books are dense. The data presented combines with the layout, size and weight of the book to be a little more intimidating than I'd expect. I would be intensely curious to find the opinion of someone whose first exposure to 4e is reading this end to end. My existing knowledge makes it too hard for me to truly judge, but it seems daunting.[3] That said, this is more of a concern with the Rules Compendium which, while it's nominally for all players, will probably end up being the de facto DM's book. The Heroes book has enough basic rules to probably be a decent point of entry.

All that said, I admit I was far more interested in the Heroes book, looking to examine the promised class changes. I did, and I was generally pleased, but I also came to a conclusion that utterly surprised me. See, this absolutely isn't 4.5...

But I kind of wish it was.

There are great ideas in the book. The new at-will heavy martial classes is part of that, but other cleverness shows up in peculiar places, like more powers designed as free actions with a trigger of success. Stop and think about that for a moment, especially through the lens of missed dailies and similar frustrations - imagine using a power that you can pull the trigger on after you hit rather than before. And that's just one thing; there's more. Skill descriptions include ideas for improvising on the skills. Borderline effects that were previously just text have mostly become power descriptions.

It's clever and interesting. I see this and I kind of wish they really had the freedom to make something newer, to shake off the oddly lingering bits (Armor quality is sort of subtly worked in without mentioning it. The layout is not designed for the kind of level tables the new class presentation uses) and run free with the lessons learned.

Now, the fact that it's not 4.5 is a smart business move. the fact that you can treat all this stuff as optional rules for your 4E game (or vice versa) is actually quite brilliant, and perhaps necessary given the open questions regarding WOTC's future publishing plans. Keeping their options open is pretty sharp.[4]

All of this falls short of the real question: Will I run it?[5] and the real answer to that is; I don't know yet.

1 - I could technically have gotten them sooner if I'd gone to an actual store, but I cheaped out and went Amazon. Yes, I know, I could have chosen to support a local shop, and usually I try to, but I'm viewing this as more of an experiment than a real purpose, at least initially.

2 - While Essentials makes heavier use of recycled art, Heroes of the Fallen Lands seems to mostly be new stuff.

3 - The assumption may be that someone comes to this after they've played to read the Red Box. I'm sure that will often be the case, but it's daunting all the same.

4 - It'll be doubly interesting to see if they decide to expand the GSL to include this new stuff, of if that's just going to wither on the vine.

5 - Because of course I'd _play_ it if someone else were to run it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Going Easy On Them

I talk a lot about player hooks and ideas that can be used to draw them into play, such as in A Trick. It's one of the best things you can do to make a game personal. But it doesn't always work as smoothly as one might like. Players are often quite hesitant to come up with hooks for their character.

Now, there area lot of reasons why this might be so. Sometimes it's pure disinterest - as much as we rail against the game as the GM's story, sometimes that's exactly what people are looking for a chance to play in - but more often it's a result of bad experiences. A novice player tends to cheerfully create extraneous detail, but a player with moderate experience might shy away from doing so after a GM has ignored, quashed or profoundly abused the player's creativity.

In such a case, there's a temptation to try to force the player to try just one more time, but that exchange tends to be reminiscent of getting a child to eat vegetable. it might be funny if it weren't for the fact that we're all grown ups - rather than try to force the issue, step back, and consider a different approach.

If your players aren't inclined to produce hooks, then it's time to raise a discussion about a seemingly unrelated issue - group cohesion. As a GM, I spend a lot of time stressing about keeping the group together, but the reality is that this is a task that you can reasonably offload onto a responsible group. Making it explicitly clear to players that keeping the group together is their job is a useful thing to do. It not a matter of putting forward a threat, or framing ti in punitive terms, but rather one of getting player agreement that, as players, they're a team, and no one gets left behind. This may seem complicated, but if your group gets along, it's really just a matter of having the conversation in the first place.[1]

This becomes important once you can rely on the connections between your characters. if those connections are reliable, then it only takes one or two hook laden character as their hooks become, effectively, secondary hooks for the hookless characters. This can be very liberating for those players and allow them to focus on the kind of relationships they're looking for[2] in play.

Often these are straightforward things like friendship and camaraderie. It's very satisfying to have a friend's back or to help a buddy out in a pinch. Many players who are looking for more positive relationships than they trust the GM with can potentially find them within the group, with the "bad" GM stuff providing the fodder for reinforcing those relationships.

Now, I know you hardcore GMs are flinching about this kind of warm and fuzzy stuff, but step back for a second. You're still going to have all the opportunity in the world to throw in nasty stuff, but by putting pressure on the group in the parts that are expecting it, you draw in the other players without them feeling like they're getting yanked in directions they didn't sign up for.

This is one of those cases where a soft response can get you a lot more buy in than a hard one. Forcing players into something they're uncomfortable with "for their own good" is less likely to get the play that you all want then simply making sure the opportunity is there for them, in the form of their friends and companions.

1- If your group doesn't get along, this is probably the least of your problems, but this may at least help them find a way to get along better.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Red Box White Noise

So, the new Red Box is out in common distribution now, and D&D essentials is coming down the pike. I have the former and have pre-ordered the latter, and I've been holding off on talking about it too much until I've had a chance to really get my hands dirty with it, but a recent Escapist interview with Mike Mearls has created a bit of a furor.

The conventional wisdom is that Essentials is an acknowledgment that 4e was a mistake in direction for the game. This is usually declared with a smug sense of vindication and a plug for Paizo[1] but I find myself disagreeing with this interpretation. I've been equally willing to discuss the things I like and dislike about 4e, and I think that a lot of interpretations of Essentials are more about people's opinions of 4e than their opinion on Essentials.

Now, first and foremost I think Essentials will fall short of what I would hope for in one big way. I do not anticipate it resulting in any new opening of the 4e system, and that's a terrible shame. 4e is hard for a fan or small publisher to support. The rules for doing so are complicated, and any mechanical elements you may create will be relegated to the ghetto by the online tools. The quality of the tools, which is quite high, creates a barrier to anything that falls outside its bounds.

However, Essentials represents a potential crack in this facade. If essentials characters are sufficiently different from core characters, then the tools might need to be modified to allow for more flexibility. Realistically, I expect they're just make the character builder offer a branching choice (Create standard character or essentials character) but it's nice to hope.

This is important though because it speaks to the other problem I have with D&D - the disconnect between the rules and reality. That is to say, when a power does something mechanical like, say, stun two targets and damage and push a third, it's not always clear what has actually happened in the "reality" of the game to produce that sort of outcome.[2]

This is one of my biggest hurdles in dealing with D&D is this disconnect[3] but what's interesting about it is that it's not essential (if you pardon the pun) to the rules. There are plenty of powers that are easy to visualize, and there's nothing that mandates this confusion, it's just _easier_. If you think of mechanics first and describe a mechanically interesting outcome, it can be hard to reverse engineer a coherent explanation, and there's very little incentive to do so.[4] Easier to just add something vague and handwavey.

This also plays into why it's harder to write martial classes than anything else. The "everyone's a spell caster model" that is kind of implicit in the power system[5] gives other power sources more tools to fake this stuff. For a martial character, there are only so many ways to describe HIT BAD GUY WITH SWORD with the kind of simplicity that goes into other powers. It can be done with a lot more attention to detail (just listen to any fighting enthusiasts nerd out for a sense of how) but not easily.

The bottom line there is that if Essentials opens up the powers system to support more descriptive and "logical" powers, that's a very promising thing, something I'd be very excited to see. But doing it part way won't cut it. With an open system, you can put in most of a good idea and trust in the ecosystem to bring it to maturity. With a merely closed one, you can expect people to find a way around the weaknesses and patch things up. But with a strongly closed system, you're stuck with what you got, for good or ill. This fact has been far more of an anchor around 4e's neck than any failure to be "real D&D".

Because the reality is, 4e _is_ very well designed. It's a fantastic engine and a well thought out game. That doesn't make it perfect, or the best or only game out there, but just as people are complaining about the players 4e left behind, it's important to realize that a lot of people enjoy 4e. Trying to change 4e into something else that won't support them is a losing strategy. But making it into something bigger, something that can make room for old and new players.

Maybe it will be that. Maybe it won't. But I look forward to finding out.[6]

1 - And while I mean no sleight to Paizo - they're awesome - Pathfinder ends up being a blunt instrument that gets misused terribly in these conversations. Pathfinder really is that good, and quite big, but i point out that despite being open and fantastically well designed, it does not invite the same raft of d20 products surrounding it that D&D did. There are many ways in which this is a good thing, but as a yardstick for inspiration it is pretty short.

2 - This is also an issue with things like Daily powers, which I understand Essentials forgoes.(
EDIT: Some people have informed me that it's the martial classes -fighters and rogues - who forgo dailies. I actually kind of dig that).

3 - the boundary of which is really the Druid, as lead to some discussion.

4 - I very nearly killed myself with this on the Witch Doctor because I hadn't realized how loosely the color was tied to the mechanics in 4e. I designed those powers as color first, then expressed in mechanics, and in doing so I made much more work for myself than I needed to.

5 - Which is why 4e is really such a fantastic match for Earthdawn.

6 -
And if it's not? Well, I'll probably get back on the heartbreaker horse.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to Fail Well

As GMs, we fear failure. Not on our part - we're good with that - but when our players fail. We're well trained to handle success, to roll forward and turn it into play, but a failure can totally jam us up. It's unfun for the player and we're not always sure how to proceed. So with that in mind, here's another how to: How to handle failure.

First, the disclaimer.
So with that out of the way...

The rule of the dice is that when you roll the dice, something should happen. Ideally, you're already ready for both success and failure and you know what to do, but I'm assuming here that you don't. "Something Happens" shouldn't be too hard a test to past, but too often, a failure translates into nothing happens, and that's where things go wrong.

So first and foremost, if you can, make the failure active. Things break, disasters happen, and the manure hits the rotating blades[1]. Things don't just not work, they go wrong, and in going wrong they demand response. It may seem counterintuitive, but the bigger and bolder you get with with the failure, the more your players will embrace it because it will give them things to do.
Now, that's great if you can make it happen, but not every failure is going to offer itself to that sort of outcome. Sometimes the action doesn't suggest a good, fun failure, or sometimes you're just going to draw a blank on how to bring that failure to life. In that case, fall back on this model: A failure is a success with an additional cost.

That is, the character succeeds, but it's not an unalloyed success. The character jumps the chasm but twists his ankle on the landing.[2] The lock gets picked, but not before the guards see you. You search the room, but you damage the clue you find. You find the book you need, but it's in a language you don't know.

Between these two tricks you should have everything you need to handle a poorly timed failure.

1 - This is also an opportunity to respect your players by attributing flukey failure to things external to the character, If you character is good at something, you don't want the dice to tell you that you suck. Rather, if the failure has some external cause (missing information, a broken tool or the like) then the player's expertise is still respected, but things have gone wrong.

2 - This is also a great solution for situations which would traditionally be "Failure equals death" since those failures tend to really suck.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Action vs. Frustration

So, while I was pondering other “GM How To” ideas before yesterday’s massive post, one that stuck out was “How to piss off your players without pissing them off at you.” Curiously, this is a lot easier to explain than how to describe something.

The trick of it is simple: Your players don’t mind you doing terrible things to them. In fact, they expect it. They did not sign up for these games to play boring people doing boring things. Stuff going badly is an essential part of excitement and adventure. A lot of GM’s shy away from pulling out the nastiness because they think their players might be averse to it[1] but that’s a misunderstanding.

What players hate is when something bad happens and they can’t do anything about it.

This is not to say they need to be able to *stop* the badness (though that’s nice) but rather that they need to have some sort of reasonable response available to them. Being capable of responding actually breaks down into a two elements, and things tend to fail when one of these is overlooked.

First, the characters must be able to act effectively. In broad strokes this means that things like inescapable paralysis forcing players to be audience to the badness will be frustrating, but it can also be more subtle. If the players can act, but their actions will do nothing, as in the case of an invulnerable boss, then that’s equally frustrating.[2] One way that this can be gotten around is if the limitations on the players are already part of the scene. Characters will occasionally get captured and put in chains, and there’s a certain expectation of helplessness that comes with that, so if a bad things happens as _part_ of such a scene, it is less offensive than the idea of putting them in chains _solely_ to make them watch the badness. Needless to say, you also need to make sure the situation changes quickly so the players can start acting soon – if you show them the badness then just leave them in chains, that’s a little lame.

Second, the players need to be able to act intelligently. That is, there needs to be a clear line of action for them to pursue. If you create a villain and kick the characters’ teeth in to the point where they really hate him and set off to hunt him down, they need to know which way to go. Even if they don’t catch him (‘He was just here last week, but let in an awful hurry!’) they need to know how to keep going if they want to pursue. Give them enough information to feel they can make reasonable choices.

Enough information is a slightly tricky thing because you don’t want to give _no_ information, but at the same time you don’t want to give so many options that it becomes paralyzing. If the path branches, that’s fine, but when it turns into a starbust, you may have a problem[3]. Similarly, be very careful with trying to play the villain smart enough to try to trick the characters (and players) with false leads. If you do this more than very rarely, all information starts becoming suspect, and the game grinds to a paralytic halt.

So that’s the short of it. Do bad things to the characters, but do them in a way that produces action, not frustration.

1 – And some players will say they’re averse to it, but I’ve found that usually means they’re looking to avoid something more specific than trouble, but they can’t articulate it. Often, this is a result of bad experiences with other games. There’s no one solution to this problem (except, of course, to play respectfully) and it’s something you’ll have to explore with the player, re-establishing trust and finding tastes.

2 – This is a big reason why stealing magic items in D&D is such a hot button topic. It absolutely engages the players by pissing them off intensely, but because a character’s magic items are such a large part of their mechanical effectiveness that the characters end up feeling neutered.

3 – This is, by the way, dangerously close to railroading. The difference is in player motives – if they _want_ to hunt the villain, it’s reasonable to provide a road to him. The catch is that you don’t punish them when they decide to go off the road, or to pursue another road entirely.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

4 Elements of a Scene

Ok, so let me start with a a qualifier: there's no one way to describe a scene. I'm going to be providing instructions for _a_ way to do so in the hopes that they will be useful to anyone who is looking for some guidelines in stepping away from boxed text. The ultimate goal of such guidelines is to become unnecessary. The upshot of this is that if you have other tricks you want to suggest, please feel free to do so in the comments. This is NOT a comprehensive approach, and more tricks are always useful. Now, with that out of the way...

Let me start without he assumption that you need to describe a scene to your players, and that you need to create this description from whole cloth. You may have boxed text you don't want to read, or you may have a description that you need to paraphrase.[1] The goal is to turn that into a description that actually works for your game.

For your description, you need to provide four things, the FRAME, the THREATS, the OPPORTUNITIES and the DETAILS. If you can cover each of those points quickly and clearly, you'll have a solid description.

The Frame is the first part of any description, and in some ways the most important, as it establishes the baseline. Since you can't describe everything in detail, the frame helps set the tone for the details you don't provide, helping your players fill in the gaps. You should consider it a sketch, and you want to answer these question: What is the approximate size and shape of the space? Is there anything peculiar about the arrangement of the space? Where are the characters within the space?[2]

You should be able to answer those questions in one or two sentences. For example:

You are on a crowded city street that serves as an impromptu bazaar. It's easily forty feet wide, and goes fifty feet in each direction before hitting a cross street.

Old, squat trees press up against the right side of the trail, blocking sight and movement. To the left, the hillside falls away in a steep embankment that offers a lovely view and the potential for an unpleasant drop.

The alley is cramped, narrow enough that you can touch both sides with outstretched arms. The street is right behind you, and about 15 feet in the alley turns left and out of sight.

The door you came through opens into the center of one side of this rectangular room - the side you emerge from is fifty feet wide, and it is perhaps thirty feet across to the opposite wall.

By itself, the frame doesn't tell is much about the scene - specifically, it doesn't tell us why the scene is interesting, and why we're describing this particular scene rather than some other one. That's where THREATS and OPPORTUNITIES come up.

THREATS are usually pretty obvious, and while it might be easy to generalize them as creatures or traps, the real thing about threats is that they demand player action (even if that action is to sneak away quietly). Threats are not generic - simply saying there's a monster in a room doesn't convey the threat because it does not lead to action. Is the monster sleeping? Distracted? Charging at you? Loading a crossbow? What the creature is doing (and how) is as important as what it is. This is why certain information (such as what weapons an enemy has) is part of the threat - it suggests what action the enemy is going to take.

When the threats aren't creatures, the same rules apply - just describing the existence of the threat is not going to tell your players enough. If there's a pendulum blade scything across the room, it's very important to know whether it's scything _towards_ the characters.

Thus, with the threat, you must answer the following questions: What is the threat, what is it doing and (if it's not obvious) what are the consequences of it doing that?[3] For example:

A centaur on the far side of the room startles as you enter, instinctively drawing an arrow from the quiver on his back and scanning you for the optimal target.

The door slams itself shut behind you with a *click* and a small hole, the size of a mans fist appears in the center of the room, though after a few seconds, it has grown to the size of a dinner plater, and is continuing to grow.

Argale waves to you from across the plaza, seemingly oblivious to the men in crimson cloaks approaching him from the opposite side. They're closer to him than you are, and are holding their hands under their cloaks in a way that strongly suggests hidden weapons.

OPPORTUNITIES are the flip side of threats. They are things which players may use, exploit or take advantage of but which do not necessarily have any impetus of their own. They are the things which, if you were to see in a movie, you just _know_ are going to get jumped on, knocked over, blown up, swung from or otherwise used to liven up the scene. As a GM this requires a little bit of thought. Some elements (like neutral "traps") may be a mechanical part of the encounter, but other things may be a little more neutral. As a good rule of thumb, opportunities include anything which it has occurred to you the players might use or interact with in the scene and which you're ready to handle.[4]

Opportunities answer the question "What things might the players use?"

A great iron chandelier hangs from the ceiling, with the winch and chain holding it attached to the far wall.

Heavy tapestries hang from each of the balconies, almost down to the floor.

The ancient statue of Thor up against the wall has seen better days; it's a wonder it's still standing.

DETAILS are the elusive "everything else" and they're where you're most likely to trip up in providing a description by providing too many details. The temptation is to treat details as their own thing, and to launch into a thorough rundown of the contents of the scene in meticulous detail[5]. Don't.

The other temptations to use details as an outlet for your internal author, busting out vivid, moving descriptions of people and things which will totally suck your players into the moment. That doesn't work either, and in fact one reason so much boxed text is so bad is that it strives to do just that.

The trick is that all the details you need should be included in the FRAME, THREATS or OPPORTUNITIES. Look back at the examples I've given so far and imagine if I'd been even more terse: A tall crumbling statue is up against the wall. The street is an impromptu bazaar. A hole has appeared in the middle of the room and it's growing.

All of those would have conveyed the critical details, but nothing more than that. By including a tiny bit more information in the form of small details, like that it's a statue of Thor, or the merchant's blankets, I suggest a great deal more.

And that's the trick. A good detail says a lot about the scene without explicitly stating it outright. It is a shorthand for something that would take much longer to describe. Consider the following:

You are in an opulently furnished bedroom.

That gives us some information, but how do you fill in the details? How big is the bed? What shape is it? Other furnishings? Windows? Art? You need to give the description some sort of touchpoint. For example:

The bed is a giant four-poster monstrosity, carved from the same severe, dark wood as the rest of the furnishings.


The bed is a circular cushion on the floor directly under the skylight, covered with silken pillows and surrounded by a gauzy curtain.

Either one of those would be a valid way to provide some detail about the room but they suggest _drastically_ different bedrooms. And with only one element detailed (the bed), how many other things have been suggested about the room?[6]

The trick is that any time you feel you have a lot you need to say, pick one element of it that seems reasonably iconic. The art on the walls. The style of dress. The smell of the place.[7] It will not convey everything you might have in your mind, but it's a function of diminishing returns. That first detail captures ~75% of the flavor of a scene. The next one only brings it to ~80%, and each subsequent detail adds a little less. The number of details you need to add to get near 100% is enough to be cumbersome. If, instead, you embrace the approximate nature of key details, you can get onto playing more quickly.[8]

Ok, so now comes the time to tie it all together. While I would not suggest reading pre-written text, I might suggest it's worth writing down you description as you intend to provide it. The purpose of doing so is not to lock you into those specific words, but rather to plant the key points in your mind.

As a rule of thumb, try to keep the description under 100 words, which will end up being a little over 30 seconds of speaking time. That's short enough to keep your players focused, but long enough to include some details. If you're describing a whole new place for the first time then you might go a little longer, but err on the conservative side.

Try to shoot for 7 sentences, 2 sentences of frame, 2 sentence of opportunities and 2 sentences of threat, with one free-safety sentence to use as you see fit.

That is all a lot of verbiage for something that boils down to 7 sentences. But some of the simplest things are the hardest to explain.

1 - Part of the assumption is that the information you need to describe has not been presented to you in an immediately useful way. There are means (both hypothetical and real) of presenting that data more usefully, but we won't get into that here.

2 - Describing where things are, especially characters, can be complicated, especially in oddly shaped spaces. If you're using a battle mat, you're saved a lot of this hassle, but if you're not, consider a quick sketch as the solution to something too complicated to explain.

3 - The threat can most often be followed by the question "What do you do?" which is why it is usually the last part of any description.

4 - But be aware there's no guarantee they will ever use them. Also, consider how your opportunities and threats interact. If one of the opportunities in the scene is an awesome elevated nook where an archer can fire from cover, then there's a good chance the enemy has already places and archer up there.

5 - This is a bad habit left over format he early days of dungeon crawling when the description of a room was often a puzzle of its own. Players were expected to engage every detail listed because if they overlooked one, odds were good it was a polymorphed purple worm or the key to the incredibly important secret door opened by 1970's rock opera lyrics. This oversight would usually mean they got their faces eaten. If you're playing a game in that mode, then you're better off just sticking to the boxed text anyway because it's less likely that you'll "give something away" with your inflection.

6 - In this case the bed is part of the frame, unless you're playing the sort of game where it's the opportunity.

7 - This is where the basic creative writing teacher speaks up to remind you that you don't have to just use sight. Sound and smell are powerful descriptors, and you should use them, but sparingly. They are powerful because they're anomalous - our attention will be drawn to any scent or sound described unless they're _always_ described. So don't use them just to jazz things up, use them to draw attention to specific things.

8 - And if there's confusion, then your players can ask questions. Yes, answering questions is less efficient than describing everything up front, but it's more efficient then trying to answer every possible question before it's asked. Also, questions are useful. When a player asks a question, first ask yourself why you didn't mention that detail. If the answer is "Because it's a niggling thing" then you're ok. As an additional trick, when your player's ask a broad question that is full of stupid details like "What are the contents of the desk?" and you've already mentioned everything important, then it's reasonable to ask "What are you looking for?"