Friday, January 29, 2010

Color And Skill

Still in the last stages of sick. Spent another day playing Mass Effect 2 and it still holds up as magnificent. Don't want to drill into it yet, as it's new enough to be very spoiler sensitive, so instead i want to talk a little about skill challenges and color.

If you're unfamiliar with the term, color is how things are described in a non mechanical sense. it is separate from mechanical effect but, ideally, closely related. When I make an attack, the mechanical description is "I roll to hit, if successful, I roll damage and apply the number rolled with appropriate modifiers". The color may be "I make a heavy overhand swing, smashing through his defenses" or "I make a number of feints to the left, then strike a blow the to the opening in his guard on the right."

The difference between those two elements of color is quite broad, and that points to the heart of the issue. Depending upon the game you're playing, the mechanical description may have a similar level of variance - for example, if the game has rules for "all out" attacks or feints, then there will also be some mechanical differentiation. There are also implicit mechanical differentiations from things like the weapon used, stats, skill and such.

Ideally the mechanical and color descriptions fit together like hand in glove, perfectly matched for one another. In reality, that is very hard to accomplish, and it tends to depend on one or the other being primary, and then expecting the other to match. To illustrate, consider that all out overhand smash.

If I am playing a game which is "color first", I describe what I'm doing and the GM interprets it to express it mechanically. In this case, for example, the GM might decide to increase the opponents defense slightly (representing the inaccuracy of my attacks) but increase my damage if I succeed. Or he might consider how the other guy fights and, based on whether this is a good or bad tactic against him, grant me some bonus or penalty. This has a lot of benefits for player seamlessness of experience, but it also puts a lot of onus on the GM, and is only as fair as the GM herself. Also, this is hard to do well: the GM needs to have mastered the system and be able to think quickly. Some systems are better suited to this than others.

If I'm playing "mechanics first" then I make the decision of which mechanic I intend to use, such as the Power Attack feat, and I then describe my action in a fashion defined by which mechanics I'm using. If I'm not engaging a mechanic then I might embellish the description with "pure color", but that color still needs to fit within the general framework of action[1]. The exact boundaries of that framework tend to be social ones, laid down by the genre sense and general sensibilities of the table.

Most games waver back and forth along this line in play[2], but the most common default is "mechanics first, if there's no appropaite mechanic, try color first." Mechanics really drive action, often in ways we're not even consciously aware of. And this is where we come back to 4e.

4e D&D is very much mechanics first. Admirably, it supports color first play with page 42, but that's very far from its focus - most of the time you are applying a specific mechanic, usually in the form of an action or power.[3] This works very well for it, and it is supported well on the small scale (in combat) as well as on the larger scale (rituals and such). But not for skill challenges.

The mechanics of a skill challenge are very flat. Roll, add, accrue a success or failure. Nothing distinguishes between a Survival roll and an Arcana roll excepting the GMs say-so. It is because of this that it is absolutely essential that the color of a skill challenge be vibrant enough to make these rolls make sense - the players should be picking the skills they'll use because they're obvious, not because the GM has to explicitly ask for them.[4]

But that's a pretty serious gearshift from the standard mode of play for 4e, and not every GM will have an easy time shifting gears like that, but thankfully 4e provides some easy examples for how to address this.

You need to treat every action in a skill challenge as a power use.

That may sound weird on the face of it, but the logic is simple. Rolling the dice for an action should be as interesting and have as much impact as it would in a fight, and the reason actions in a fight work so well is because something happens. If you call for a player to make a skill roll where nothing is going to happen (except perhaps an offscreen checkmark) then that calls into question why they should roll in the first place. The challenge to the GM who wants to create an engaging skill challenge is to offer lots of explicit actions to be taken, ideally with specific mechanical and color impacts, as if each action was a well designed power.[5]

The prospect of coming up with that many "powers" for a skill challenge may seem daunting at first. It can be overwhelming unless you take it as an opportunity to think about what makes this skill challenge awesome and fun (rather than just a placeholder). If you can't think of ways this skill challenge can be exciting, then maybe you should consider skipping it.

1 - A good example of this is jumping 30 feet in the air and then smashing down on your foe with a mighty blow, like something out of anime. In some games that's entirely appropriate (such as Exalted, where you might even get rewarded for that) but not in others. Especially not in games where you later come across a 20 foot high wall and wonder why you can't just jump over it.

2 - Stunt systems, like Exalted or 4E's page 42 are an interesting way to blur the line, though in different ways. Exalted's stunt dice are rewarded for providing better color to your mechanical decisions, whereas page 42 is basically "the rules" for color-first 4E play. Needless to say, I love this stuff.

3 - 4e Powers actually make the application of color much harder. Their own baked in color (the descriptive text) is often only tangentially related to the mechanical effect. This is intentional, and it is a double edged sword: on one hand it has made the actual play experience much smoother, but it has explicitly also removed much of the "logic" from the setting. Fireball doesn't light things on fire, Lightning can't be grounded etc. The GM can set up exceptions, of course, but if they work all the time, it's a change to mechanics that can throw things for a loop. The GM might be able throw around a few +2 bonuses for doing something clever, but that's ultimately bland[6]

4 - Skill challenges work great as "color first" activities, especially if the GM never mentions that there's a skill challenge going on, rather just tracks players actions and successes towards an end.

5 - It's far from perfect, but I'll point to
The Siege of Fallcrest has some good example of making skill use explicit and impactful.

6 - This is a problem for 4e, but it's even more of a problem for more freeform games like SOTC. If there is only one currency for dealing with all responses to a problem then there is no difference between having exactly the right tool for the job and just being kind of prepared. On one hand, this rewards players without them having them obsess over inventory management and tracking minutiae, but on the other hand it can feel disappointing to players who really have lined things up.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sick Effect

I am sicker than a dog, and this is mostly miserable, excepting that I'm getting lots of time to play Mass Effect 2. Holy crap it's good. The Ars Technica review lays down most of the key points, and I'll let that stand. Sometime after I'm done, I really want to get into looking at it next to Dragon Age to compare the respective strengths of these two really fantastic games.

But all that said I want to call out one thing that ME2 does fantastically well: It knows when not to use the system. It's a shooter, but it resists the temptation to turn every possible scenario into a firefight, even obvious ones. Every now and again, you just win, and you do so awesomely (and in a way that really supports who your character is).

This idea of when to throttle back seems to permeate the system, from the barely-there-bones of the RPG system to the new ability to interrupt dialog with action. The net result is something contradictory and pure. The fight sequences are fighty, but the non-fight stuff is engaging storytelling with very little system beyond walking around and talking to things.

All of which is to say, if you GM D&D or some other game where the line between "Fighting" and "Not Fighting" is clear and bright, then you can learn a lot from Mass Effect 2 in terms of how to structure those very seperate things into a strongly functioning whole.

And now, more theraflu.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Open Game Table

I meant to mention this last week but it kind of got trumped by the Haiti bundle ($137k and counting!) and I forgot about it until now. The nominations for the 2009 Open Game Table anthology got posted over at The Core Mechanic, and its a substantial list - 375 entries in all.

For those unfamiliar with the Open Game Table, the idea is more or less a collection of the best writings (which is to say, blog posts) on gaming of the past year. This started last year, and given that they apparently have twice as many nominations this year, it sounds like it's getting some traction.

Now, this is not any kind of suggestion to go vote - the actual voting is now in the hands of a secret panel - rather it's an urging to go look at the list. If you want to see one concentrated collection of really fantastic game writing all in one place, you would be hard pressed to do better. Take some time and look through the list, and if you see a blog you don't recognize, take a minute to click through and give it a read. This is how you find treasures.

Now, I know that reading 375 posts is probably a bit to much to ask of anyone (and a reason to sympathize with the judges) so let me offer one other tip: look for the blogs that only got nominated once. There are several blogs (mine included[1]) which received multiple nominations. While this is by no means any kind of bad reflection on those blogs, it also suggests they've got an existing fanbase who were willing to advocate for them. If a blog got only a single nomination, then odds are that article is something really special (as is the case with my favorite of the batch, Fred Hicks' "No Silent Fan".

So go, read. I've kept it short today, so use the time to read something awesome. And if you find a post that particularly stands out, feel free to call attention to it in the comments![2]

1 - Though all from my LiveJournal before I swapped to here. I feel...obscure.

2 - And in keeping with Fred's advice, comment on the post too - tell them how you found it and what you liked!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Reluctant Hero

The idea of the Adventurer is a slightly silly one. That's not necessarily a bad thing - silly can be a lot of fun - but the idea of a bunch of heavily armed ass-kickers wandering around and leaping into life-threatening situations for fun is a bit odd. It's hard to fit that in the context of any kind of logical world.[1] Most justifications (such as the idle rich, one of the few careers that lets you run around swinging a sword like a fool) end up flying in the face of other adventuring traditions (the idle rich don't need much loot, after all).

Because of this, most games (like most fiction) has at least some motive that necessitates the heroes take action. This is most often in the form of a threat which the heroes must face, but it can take other forms, like a quest. Curiously, the thinner the character is (say, an orphaned loner), the less work needs to go into this motive, because in a vacuum, all you need is a small push.

Players usually recognize the necessity of this motivation, and are often willing to put a little work at the outset establishing a pretense, and then just rolling with it from then on. The priority, after all,is to get onto the adventuring, and a thin veneer of justification is enough to speed that process.

Now, here's where you hit something that interests me. Most such heroes are reactive (or if they're proactive, it's in a very straight line). The threat rises, and they face it. If there's no threat, there's not a lot for them to do. Now, villains are proactive, and that's a good reason to play not-quite-heroes, but that solution doesn't always work. So I end up looking for another alternative for an easy way to construct a proactive hero.

Paradoxically, one of the best solutions I've thought of is the reluctant hero, a staple of fiction. This is the guy who, if he had a choice in the matter, wouldn't be adventuring, he'd be off doing something else; probably something normal.

Traditionally, this guy is a pain in the ass. A GM sees this sheet or hears this background, and red flags go up. If the character doesn't have a good reason to adventure, then odds are good that play will be unsatisfactory for everyone. If you have to spend your time fighting the player in order to get him to play, then something is deeply wrong.

This is one of the clearest possible examples of why the relationship between the GM and player is not truly an adversarial one. The GM is responsible for providing opposition, yes, but he does this as a partner to the player, not an enemy. If it were a truly adversarial relationship, it would end in mutually assured destruction as the GM drops infinite elephants on the character's head and the player decides he'd rather be doing something else.

But once the player realizes that this only works when he *wants* the GM to throw hard things at him, the dynamic shifts drastically, and a lot of things that had been roadblocks can make the game better.

Taking the specific example of reluctance - from a player who understands that what he really wants to do is play, not find excuses not to play, reluctance is an invitation. It says to the GM "Let's make sure my reasons to engage have some teeth. I'm not looking for an excuse to adventure, I'm looking for a reason". Now, this is absolutely a challenge, demanding that the GM step up as well, but GMs need that to keep themselves from getting flabby.[2]

So if you can end up with a character like this, consider what you now have: a strongly motivated, well fleshed out character with reason's to act beyond the immediate plot. Whatever is motivating the character to act is an obvious character hook for other events and conflicts. You have a character who has an understanding of what he wants, understands why he's doing what he's doing, and who will - if left alone - step up and start getting proactive in pursuit of his larger goal. All without needing to be a lovable rogue or dashing scoundrel.[3]

Anyway, this isn't a step I would suggest for every game or for every player, but next time you sit down to do character creation, consider arguing for why a character shouldn't be adventuring. Putting the player is the position of arguing his case helps him think about it in ways he might not have, and gets him more invested in the arguments he puts forward. This could be as informal as a conversation or as formal as a phase in FATE committed to "Reasons to Stay Home" but simply having the conversation can tell you a lot about the player, and can really lay a solid foundation for your game.

1 - Not that a logical world is a necessity.

2 - The player also, implicitly, needs to step up. it's a partnership.

3 - And, seriously, I love me some Han Solo action, but other archetypes deserve the chance to be cool.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Horizontal and Vertical

(Bah. I may have screwed up the scheduling of this one, so if it double posts or something, my apologies)

I've been chewing on games with more potent characters with the issues that that entails. One of the real issues is that once characters are at a certain level of effectiveness, advancement becomes a secondary. Characters are more about what they do than what they might be able to do someday.

Now, this is not a tirade against advancement. It's a fun part of games, and the classic D&D model of advancement makes for a fun minigame while the setting are designed to work with the logic of the level spread. The problem is that it's something that people expect from a game, and it's not always a good fit.

Some games absolutely support a model where characters get more powerful over time, sometimes drastically so. Level based advancement is the best example of this, but it can apply just as strongly to point based systems like GURPS or the nWoD.[1] I consider this to be "vertical" advancement - the character's power goes up.

This is an idea that is probably better supported in gaming than it is in fiction. There are examples in the Luke Skywalker mode, but ironically those examples are often too fast for the taste of games[2] since they tend to hinge on broad, universal insights or enough power to create temptation.

But the point to that all is that there are plenty of genres where drastic improvement seems inappropriate. Some might support a small amount of improvement over time, but compare, say, a western with D&D and the difference between a novice and an expert illustrates the point well[3]. But people expect advancement, whether its appropriate or not, and that's a reality that it's worth paying attention to. They're not sheep or fools - they know what's fun and they have every reason to expect how to go about it.

So the challenge is how to come up with a system of "horizontal" advancement - one that can model characters growing and changing without them necessarily getting more powerful.

Spirit of the Century uses a model that allows for rearrangement within the existing framework. There's a little verticality in that you might gain a few more stunts, but your core list of skills and aspects doesn't get any longer. You can just swap things out within them. This made a lot of sense in intellectual terms: SOTC characters are already on top of their game, and since there's no guarantee that ever player will be at every session, the desire was to keep there form being any kind of power disparity. But this was not ultimately satisfying to players, and advancement is a popular tack-on. As much as this made sense for us, it's not a tack I would suggest anyone take.

For the Road to Amber MUSH, we added a currency to the game called "Focus" - it accrued much more quickly than XP, but it capped out at 10 points, so it was a "use it or lose it resource". In game, it represented time offscreen and how it was spent, so it could be use to do things like learn lores, make items, do research, pursue agendas and so on. It couldn't be used to improve skills directly, but learning lores or solving puzzled often opened opportunities to spend advancement on skills that would not normally be available.

It was a gigantic success, and by my understanding the idea has been adapted to a number of other MUSHes, with the details changed appropriately from game to game. My conclusion from this is startlingly banal: people love to spend points[4] and by giving them more points to spend, they got more excited about spending them.[5] It would not take much tweaking to adapt this to the tabletop, simply handing out points at downtime rather than counting on a timed distribution.

The trick, however, is what you can spend them on. Training is a good option, if your system supports that idea. Ritual magic and crafting absolutely. Research and Lores[6] if your system has those, though few do in any kind of useful ways.

Personally, I like the idea of using these points for building and maintaining relationships. NPCs are a subject that can be handled more effectively on the tabletop than in a large scale game, and it would not be hard to marry some currency to a relationship map. This idea that relationships can be maintained or strengthened can also apply to things like resources and contacts. Certainly, there's a bit of a balancing act: you want there to be enough cost of maintenance to encourage re-investment, but not so much to just feel like a treadmill.

Now, there are other ways to approach this too, and I encourage thinking about the other ways you can provide your players rewards they can spend. The alternative is that you end up with painful treadmills, like the Amber DRPG advancement model (which was ultimately just a joke on the players)

1 - Point based systems have the advantage of allowing the game to have all the advancement "baked in" by simply starting the characters with a healthy dose of XP/points and then giving very little (or no) further advancement. WHile you can technically do this with a level based system, it tends to only work well for short games, since advancement is such an essential part of play in a level-baed game.

2 - WEGs Star Wars posited that the "Skywalker gene" allowed a character to advance in force skills for half the normal cost, which is why your jedi was never going to be as awesome as Luke. This was, to put it bluntly, kind of crappy.[7]

3 - Drastic advancement tends to go hand in hand with fantastic elements. This is partly genre habit, but it's also because it is easier to model drastic, concrete differences between magics/psi/superpowers and so on than it is within the realm of normal human endeavor. Not that drastic differences don't exist in the mundane world, but learning enough to grasp them is a lot harder than learning to read a spell block.

4 - It may seem silly to couch it in those terms, but don't laugh it off entirely. There's a reason that white wolf keeps using dots to represent what are ultimately numeric values: it's just fun to fill in little circles. Never underestimate the awesome power of trivial joys.

5 - Curiously, this abstraction also addressed a lot of the problems of more structured "downtime" mechanics. If we had put in rules for training and research and other subsystems, people would have never touched them, but by giving them points to spend, they motivated _themselves_.

6 - Oh Weapons of the Gods, you beautiful, beautiful, intensely-painful to replicate thing.

7. But not as stupid as the Immaculate Conception of Darth Vader.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Tribes, Brands and Swimming Pools

So, as of this morning, the RPGNow Haiti contribution level is up around eighty five thousand dollars. For some context, Wells Fargo gave $100k[1], which is to say, we're awesome.

But this is the internet, and some people can't see a beautiful pool without wanting to drop a turd in it. Then point at the turd. Then touch themselves inappropriately. Intellectually, this isn't much of a shock, but it still ends up bothering me a lot.

See, for me, the reason I chose to contribute through RPGNow rather than some other venue was partly influenced by the awesome bundle of free games[2] but it was more a matter of my sense of identity. I'm a gamer, and this was the action that my tribe was taking, and I wanted to back that play. As a tribe, we tend to be pretty bad at organizing for this sort of stuff, so when the opportunity arose, it was amazing to see just how profound the outpouring of support from creators and players has been. [3]

And that's why the crazy people bug me more than they should. They're part of my tribe too. Sure, some of them try to self-select out of it by associating themselves with some narrow slice of the tribe or try to expel some groups from the tribe by force of will, but neither of those approaches affect me much - it's my tribe, and I'm proud to be a member. And by extension, I am ashamed when a member of my tribe goes off the deep end. I might be able to handle it if it was just the Timecube style conspiracy theorists, but the petty stuff gets to me too, so let me just lay down this shout to the void. I invite the Internet to share this when needed.

Even if you are a crazy person, you need to manage your brand.

ESPECIALLY if you're a crazy person.

Look, I know that you don't think you're crazy, and that this obviously doesn't apply to you, but just think about how people respond to what you say. It's not about whether you are crazy, it's about whether people think you're crazy. And if they think you're crazy, they're not going to listen to the incredibly important truths that you have seen which need to be shared. In this, truth is like craziness - it doesn't matter if it's so, it just matters what people think.

So, if you have some Powerful Truths to share, you owe it to yourself and the world to stop and think about how you present them. If you can't present them in a way that people will listen to, then you have failed. No one will see the truth because you were too proud to learn how to communicate. You will get dismissed as "crazy" by the people who don't understand the truth. This may not bother you personally because you understand that you are above their petty assessments, but the problem is not a personal one. If you are perceived as a "Crazy Guy," that creates a barrier to you getting your message out.

The key is that your unique insight comes with a responsibility to learn to communicate in a way that gets people to listen. That might mean less profanity or laying a foundation for you argument before presenting a conclusion or making sure the sources you cite are held in equal esteem by your audience. This may be frustrating: most of the people you're talking to are clearly not smart enough to understand what you're telling them, but if you cannot communicate your idea to lesser minds, you've just written off most of the world.

If you don't take that responsibility, they will never understand.

So man up. Communication skills are trivial to learn compared to the things you already grasp. It may feel like you're hobbling yourself at first, but just remember that most people aren't ready to handle the full weight of understanding all at once - it would be like trying to drink from a fire hose. But if you can regulate the flow, then you can bring them around to comprehension by offering them truth a sip at a time, until they discover a thirst they didn't know was there, and start -asking- you for more.

1 - Totally anecdotal.

2 - Things I Can't believe I Have To Say: OF COURSE you're not going to find every game in the bundle useful. There are a lot of different games there. Shock. But if your decision-making process is "Well, I would contribute, but the free prize is just not good enough" then you may not want to publicize that fact.

3 - More things I can't believe I have to say: Publishers are not getting any kickbacks or hidden benefits for their contribution to the bundle. Every publisher makes their own decision regarding what to contribute, and most of them (including Evil Hat) have included supplemental material, but there are no shortage of publishers with a single flagship game that have slapped that down on the counter. But whatever the publishers put up, they did it because they wanted to, not for any other reason. In fact, the bundle is hurting most of the creators who contributed (and rpgnow too, I am quite certain[4]): the combination of the draw of the bundle and the impact on the site as a whole has really cut down all other sales.

4 - Another thing I can't believe I have to say: As much as this might boggle some people, the invisible magic that makes computers go is not actually free, even if it looks it to you. Bandwidth, storage, invoicing, administration, support and money-handling all cost money, even for a company which sells entirely electronic products like RPGnow. Even setting aside lost revenue from other products, and even setting aside the cost of the matching they're doing, this bundle is costing them money, and very nearly nuking their site. And they do it anyway because these are the tools they have, and you make a difference with what you've got.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

3 Things to Not Do with a Skill Challenge

My brother came to me yesterday concerned that he'd totally screwed up a skill challenge. He'd been in a hurry, and had pulled down some WOTC content to run as is. He didn't comment on the rest of it, but the Skill Challenge had really bugged him because it just didn't work. We talked a little in general terms, but then he mailed me a copy of the challenge in question.

It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a dog. I'm not going to drill into the details because I don't want to bust on someone else's work, but I'm going to extract a couple general guidelines of things NOT to do.

1. Treat Complexity as Complexity
This is an easy mistake to make. After all, it's called complexity, right? But the problem is it's not. It's just a measure of how often your players are going to need to roll the dice, which means what it should really be considered is a measure of how interesting a skill challenge is going to be. A skill challenge that uses few skills and is basically just doing the same task over and over again should be a low complexity challenge, especially if it's really just a transition between other scenes where you have the group go "Gosh, I'm glad we have a ranger/rogue/druid/whatever".[1]

2. Make Heavy Use of Aid Another
While the Aid Another action (make a roll against a target of 10 to give an ally a +2) is technically a combat action, it is so commonly applied to skill checks that I'd be shocked if it has not gotten the official nod somewhere by now. This is a good fallback for making sure everyone can participate in a Skill challenge: even if you don't have the appropriate skill, you can usually Aid Another. The problem is that Aid another is duck tape[2] not mortar.

If most of the players at the table are performing Aid Another actions, that is pretty much a hallmark of a very boring skill challenge. Not only is Aid Another very much like doing nothing, once the characters are past level 5 or so, that DC of 10 starts getting trivial on stats and level bonus alone. But worse than that, every Aid Another roll is needlessly extending the challenge because it's not going to get counted as a success or a failure. If you have, for example, a complexity 3 challenge with only one character with the appropriate skill and everyone else forced to Aid Another, your best case scenario is that you'll have to have 8 rounds of rolling to succeed. How exciting does that sound?

It's also worth noting that Aid Another can wreak holy havoc with the difficulties of your challenge, especially once the AA actions are pretty much a guaranteed success. It is entirely possible to get bonuses so high that rolling is pointless, and in doing so you've managed to make a boring event even more boring.

3. Make Outcomes Universal
Ok, this one I'm a little more sympathetic to. The idea is simple: have triggered events that will occour at various points within the skill challenge, such as attacks or scenes with NPCs. That's pretty cool in the abstract, but it can get pretty lame when these event have no bearing on the skill challenge. That is to say, if the players are going to get attacked by a band of orcs after 2 failures or four successes, then that is intensely lame if that's all there is to it. If the event is going to be threaded into the skill challenge, then the events of the skill challenge should color the events. I'm a fan of having different outcomes on success or failure, but if you must have the same events (like the Orc Attack) then at the very least frame them differently based on whether they were triggered by a threshold of successes or failures. [3]

Bottom line, not only does this make the skill challenges more dynamic, it is more respectful of your players, and it feels less like they're just getting railroaded.

There are other points I could dwell on, like "Pay attention to your difficulty numbers" or "If you include one-off outcomes, be clear about how they could happen" but I would eventually run myself out of steam, so let's just leave it at a nice, tidy 3. Hopefully those will help next time you're going to use a skill challenge, or create your own.

1 - In a lot of these situations, I'm more inclined to just run what I call a "Table Check". Everyone at the table rolls once, total impact is shaped by the proportion of outcomes. It can be simple majority, or it can be that some number of successes (as low as one) are needed. This can be a much faster way to handle transitory skill challenges in a way that lets the experts strut their stuff without needing to pretend that every endurance roll on your journey across the steppes is actually a thrilling event.

2 - Random aside: I ended up discovering in the deep cable that it really is duck tape, but the misuse (duct tape) is so prevalent as to have supplanted it. If you doubt this, I suggest trying to use it on your ducts sometime.

3 - My favorite trick is "Winner gets to place his minis last".

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Checklists as Play

The element of the Checklist Manifesto that really grabbed my attention in regards to RPGs was what wasn't included in them. A well designed checklist assumes that you already know how to do your job (fly a plane, remove an appendix, whatever) and does not tell you how to do that. Instead it acts as a reminder for the little things that are more work to keep in mind than not.

That assumption of competence is an incredibly rich idea, and when applied to RPGs it raises and interesting question regarding rules. If rules were to provide the same sort of structure - assuming you know what you're doing and just providing some support fo rthe stuff that's a pain to keep in mind - then it really upends the cart in terms of how to judge certain games. It's an argument for why the parts left out of a design are more essential than may be assumed. We're not talking about a fruitful void here, we're talking about lots of little voids, about the very weave of the game being intentionally more there than not.

Compare two really excellent games: D&D 4e and Mouseguard. [1] Both of them have very cleanly established rules for what and how to do things, but there are profound differences in how those things are structured. D&D is designed to provide all the tools you need to handle a situation, but the framework that surrounds that situations (how it ends up intersecting with play). There are guidelines and advice, sure, but it's all a bit mushy until the fight starts. In contrast, Mouseguard is all structure, all the time - there's a framework that surrounds everything at every level of play.

Viewed as checklists, I would say that 4e's checkboxes are "further apart" than Mouseguard. That is to say, there are a lot more assumptions in 4e's structure than there are in Mouseguard. This is not to say Mouseguard leaves no room to color outside the lines - it absolutely does - but the differing level of structure can make it easy for a player to be more comfortable with one or the other depending upon how much structure they're looking for. Sometimes you want a lot of structure, because it gives you a solid architecture to build on. Sometimes you want just enough structure to give you more freedom than you'd have without it. Sometimes you'll fall somewhere else on this particular axis, but wherever it is that you fall, stop and think about how that structure is impacting you, and whether it's building walls to keep you safe or keep you trapped.

1 - Yes, they are excellent games.

Breaking the Pattern

On the off chance you haven't heard, RPGNow has a bundled of over $1400[1] games available for download if you make a $20 donation to Haiti relief. This is slamming them so be patient with any slowness, but you can order here, and and check the total progress on the front page. It's over $10k last I checked.

In addition to being a great cause, this is a fantastic deal. There are so many products in this bundle that they can't show them all, but Fred's got the whole list over on his blog. Even if you don't care about the humanitarian side of things, this list is full of games that are worth $20 all by themselves. If the idea of gaming pdfs makes you break out in bleeding hives then, ok, you can give some money (and maybe you can consider it, even if you also buy the bundle) but if you're even _faintly_ curious about small press publishing, electronic game distribution, or just plain awesome games, then you should pick this up for entirely selfish reasons. The bundle is that good. A few of the ones that jumped out at me include:

  • BASH! Basic Action Super Heroes (New and Improved)
  • Beast Hunters
  • Chronica Feudalis
  • Colonial Gothic: Secrets
  • Cortex System Role Playing Game
  • Counter Collection 4th Edition Paragon 1
  • Damnation Decade
  • Dork Covenant
  • Full Light, Full Steam
  • Hollow Earth Expedition Earth Drill
  • MARS: Savage Worlds Edition
  • Piledrivers and Powerbombs: Chokeslam of Darkness Edition
  • Portrait of a Villain – The Desire
  • QAGS Second Edition
  • Serenity Role Playing Game
  • Seven Leagues roleplaying game of Faerie
  • Shaolin Squirrels : Nuts of Fury
  • Spirit of the Season
  • Summerland Revised and Expanded Edition
  • The Kerberos Club
  • The Squared Circle:Wrestling RPG
  • Thousand Suns: Foundation Transmissions
  • Thousand Suns: Transmissions from Piper
  • Three Sixteen
  • Thrilling Tales 2nd Edition (Savage Worlds)
  • Trail of Cthulhu Player’s Guide
  • [Savage Worlds] Strike Force 7 – Savaged!

And those are just the ones I know are good. There are SO MANY MORE, and even if Sturgeons' law is in full force, you're still going to get a great deal.

1 - Not a typo. There are times I am damned proud to be part of this hobby.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Checklist Manifesto

I finished the previously mentioned Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande, a few days back. It's a short book, slim and copiously footnoted, and I suspect I've spent more time thinking about it than I actually spent reading it. It's a good book, a really good book, and well worth a read if you deal with complex activities (be they for work or gaming) but it's due for a rocky reception.

The book is pretty much what it says on the tin: an argument for using checklists. Gawande's own interest in them came out of their application in surgery, but he does research in places like construction and aviation where checklists are an essential part of maintaining safety and quality in situations that are simply too big to fit in any one person's head.

This is summarized particularly well in the chapter on construction, where checklists are used to manage the ocmplexities of building a real building that's not going to fall down on anyone. In the past, this complete vision was the job of the Master Builder, the one guy who knew enough about what was required that he could personally issue orders and review work to make sure everything was going as it should. As building got more complex, that model stopped being viable, and expertise got distributed, with checklist systems evolving as the means for keepig it all together.

Gawande saw a lot of similarities between the historical master builder and the modern day surgeon. Historically, the surgeon is the rock star, the all-knowing figure who has the rest of the room dance to his tune. But, Gawande argues, surgery has grown much more complex over time, and depends on more factors than any one person can reliably handle, no matter how skilled they are. To make sure that stupid details aren't missed, and to help the team in the OR work together, he made the case for using a surgical checklist.

But that was easier said than done. Construction checklists are huge affairs, concerned with minute details on projects that may take place over years. There's no time for that in the OR, so Gawande looked to examples in another complex, high pressure field where lives are on th eline every day: aviation. Like surgery, modern planes are incredibly complex, and pilots have developed a culture of using checklists to deal with this complexity. There are basic checklists for everyday tasks, but there are also checklists for a huge array of potential problem scenarios.

The research and methodology that goes into these lists is intense. Whenever there's a problem on one of the commercial airlines, part of the post mortem is to put together a checklist to help a future pilot deal with it if it should ever come up. Given that these may be life or death situations with little or no time, they have a lot of very specific guidelines and restraints on the designs of a checklist. It must be short enough to be easily referenced , but comprehensive enough to actually be useful. What's more, there also needs to be a culture of use - checklists save planes because pilots are trained to use them in every situation.

This brevity and clarity seemed to match Gawande's needs in the OR, but his attempts to create a model that will work (in his hospital and in others) demonstrates that it's much more complicated to make a good checklist than it appears. The process of how he builds it, an dhow it is deployed and tests it is pretty interesting in its own right, but it also highlights a lot of issues he's addressed along the way.

This is the kind of book that usually drives me nuts. The core argument is a pretty simple one; the sort that would make an excellent article in the New Yorker or The Atlantic, and when things like that turn into books they usually get puffy and diluted. This proves the odd exceptions for two reasons: first, as noted it's a pretty short book. Second, and perhaps more importantly, getting this simple message across is such a profoundly uphill battle that I don't begrudge him the space to make every argument he can.

This is a good, practical book with concretely useful advice, well presented and well argued, and I think it's going to be well received, but I also think it's primarily going to get treated as something that will be most useful for other people. The benefits are so clear and obvious that they can't be ignored, but it's very easy to say "oh, they don't apply to me" because, as we know, we are all special snowflakes.

If I sound a little cynical here, I admit my experience from talking with people about every other organizational discipline, from Getting Things Done to project management[1], has lead me to that perspective. The majority of smart people hate lists because they're either too smart to need them, or because they're a straightjacket, a limiter on creativity. Gawande addresses this much more politely by talking about our heroic ideal of the guy who carries it all on his back. We don't celebrate collaboration or procedure nearly as much as we do the heroic individual, and we treat things like checklists as a threat to ideal.

This is why I hope people will read the book, if only to realize that the checklists they envision are nto what we're talking about. Yes, there are absolutely production-line checklists out there which are used in place of any skill or knowledge. They have a place in business for things like building a Big Mac, and when you say "checklist" that's the first thing that people think of. But not only is that far form the case, that sort of checklist skips past the two biggest strengths of the idea.

The first is that the person reading the list knows what they're doing. A pilot's checklists does not tell them how to fly the plane. No checklist could. it takes years of training and experience to do so, and the checklists are written with the assumption that that's the case. The purpose of the list is not to tell the pilot (or surgeon or whatever) how to do his job, it is simply to run through the stupid, mundane stuff that it's easy to overlook because you know what you're doing too well.

The second is that the list is a social object (though Gawande is never a big enough dork to use that term) that gives the team working on things a common reference[2]. This is powerful ina number of ways. In situations of unequal authority, like an operating room or cockpit, the checklist gives the lower-status person the means to speak up because they're addressing the checklist, not challenging the alpha. The checklist also demands points to pause and review, if only for a minute, to get everyone on the same page.

It is only natural to focus on the idea of the checklist as automation, since it definitely has a role in that. That's the bogeyman of our time, and we all have incentive (both for our pride and our hopes of keeping a job) to consider our jobs to be things that cannot be automated. They depend on our talent, knowledge, skills and expertise, and that cannot be boiled down to a simple list.

But even so, the question is whether there is no part of your job that could benefit from this sort of review? Do your complex, brilliant plans not also need to be implemented? Do mistakes made on obvious things cost your company money? Are other people stupid? If you answer 'yes' to any of these, then this book is almost certainly worth a read.[3]

1 - 3o say this book has useful applications to project management is a vast understatement, but that's definitely not Gawande's perspective on things, so there's no handholding for PMs.
2 - Some lists also include explicit social elements. The big surprise for me was that the construction plans include explicit tasks for having people talk. The checklist does not dictate anything about the discussion besides that A and B need to talk about X. If that discussion produces more things to do, they go into the process. If not, then it's just checked off and moved on.

3 - And yes, gaming is a complex, social activity with lots of moving parts. There are a lot of lessons that translate interestingly to RPGs, but that's very much fodder for its own post.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The One Thing Not To Do In A Caper

Have the day off, so laziness provides the exscuse for me to do what I'm supposed to do and keep things short and sweet[1].

I love capers. I love cons too, but they're not quite the same thing - a can might be part of a caper, but a caper usually has more moving parts. I love capers because they're proactive stories - rather than have heroes respond to bad things and prevent them, the heroes have goals which they actively pursue. Of course, the fact that the heroes are usually also sort of villains goes a long way to help this, since it keeps from upsetting the traditional dynamic of proactive villains and reactive heroes.[2]

Capers make for fun, challenging play, but also make for challenging design. Because the players are proactive, their potential actions are much more unbounded than that of a traditional adventure. The GM can steer things a little, but the more she does that, the less caper-like the adventure gets, and that can be a real shame.

There are a few tricks for dealing with this. One common one that you see in Wilderness of Mirrors and some other hippie games is to give the players a lot of authorial control with the idea that if they create their own obstacles, then they're laying their own road and they won't go too far off it. There are a lot of virtues to this approach, but it definitely requires buying in to a particular approach.

For more traditional games, GMs ned to do things the hard way, and this is where to come to the warning. Capers are about smart problem solving, and a lot hinges on the players (or at least their characters) coming across as smart. This can be hard, and there's a trick that is often used in TV, movies and books to solve this problem. It's a clever solution, but it's one which is so obvious once you know to look for it that it can completely undermine a story, and by extension it can do the same to your game.

They make the antagonist stupid.

Sure, sometimes they're subtle about it, but it's crazily common because it's a lot easier to write the opposition as stupid than it is to have the heroes be smart. There are reasons for this: some writers suck, others can't convey smart without so many asides and footnotes that it breaks up the flow[3], others just don't know any better. As a GM, what's your excuse?

To give a little bit of context: do you know that idea of emotional play, where you want to relentlessly hammer the character's issues because that makes for a huge emotional payout? Where you don't want to throttle off because if it's not turned up to 11, it's not going to have the depth and punch it needs?[4]

For the problem solving player, the caper serves the same role. They want to be the intellectual equivalent of barefoot on broken class in Naktomi Plaza, with one bullet left. They want to have gon throug plans A through G and be desperately improvising plan H so it looks like they planned it all along, and when the GM pulls her punches, then it all falls flat.[5]

This is a tidbit that is helpful outside of capers. Tactics, politics, rally anything that calls for a brain. Using enemy stupidity to make players feel smart is condescending and sloppy sleight of hand. They will catch you at it, and they won't thank you.

1 - So the huge posts stand out as exceptions, not like I always talk that much. I mean, I do, but you don't need to know that.

2 - Obviously, the veneer of villainy tends to be very light so that you can still sympathize with these guys, either because they're likable and their target is much worse (Oceans 11, The Sting) or if they're really good guys using the methods and means of bad guys (Leverage, Robin Hood). Since atthis point were basically talking about Han Solo, the appeal to gamers is probably obvious.

3 - Wait....

4- If you don't...well, that's a whole other topic. It has its place and, in my experience, is magnificent when done right.

5 - Ok, not every problem solving player really wants to push it that far, but do you really know how far your players _do_ want to push it?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Owning Failure

So I've never played this song live and I don't know if it's gonna work, but I was at a friend's house last night in New York City and we were talking about great songs, and this is a great song. I'll try. Oh, if I fuck it up, it's cool. That's art.
Matt Nathanson, "Romeo and Juliet"

At one point I walked past a table at Dexcon where Chad Underkoffler was running a game of Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies. He had just called for a perception check, and folks had rolled and announced their outcomes. He said what was needed to succeed and then asked, as if it were the most natural thing in the world "Ok, how do you fail to notice the assassins sneaking into the room through the windows?"

Now, I had previous experience with the idea of player's describing their failures, and a great intellectual appreciation for the idea, but Chad laid it out so easily and organically that it's stuck in my head since then as a perfect example of how smoothly the technique could be deployed. At that point I pretty much converted from "this is a good idea" to "this is my default mode" and I haven't looked back. Obviously, there's some refinement that's required from game to game, but the one thing it does that keeps me coming back is that it maintains a level of respect for the character which disarms a lot of common problems.

In my experience, players don't mind the actual act of failing as much as they object to looking stupid (or breaking concept) when they fail. They understand that even very competent character fail in fiction, but they also understand that those failures don't make those heroes look like chumps. Giving the player the chance to describe their failure allows them to save face.[1]

There's a lot of synchronicity between this and the idea of rolling before describing an action (fortune-at-the-beginning, in jargon[2]). The ability to know the outcome lets your characters action sync with that outcome - contrast that with a social roll where the player's speech is excellent, his skill is high and the situation is in his favor, but the dice betray him. Even setting aside the problems that come with the failure, the narration needs to take a fast left turn to explain how Charisma McCharisma just dropped the ball.[3]

All this came up in the comments of a very interesting post about the dice and predictability over at It's worth a read, and it's prettymuch convinced me to try rolling the dice before making any social checks in the future[4] as well as for some other non-combattey rolls. Why? Because the flow of it totally appeals to me. Social rules tend to involve a lot of play and very little in the way of mechanics, even in systems that support social rules, because people like to talk. Talking can take on a life of its own, and can be enjoyable enough that you can reach the point and startle yourself with the reminder that you probably should roll some dice.[5] If the dice then fail to jibe with the direction play was going, it tends to demand something abrupt and drastic to disrupt the flow. That's great once or twice, but do it a few times and it can become a running theme. If the player knows at the outset how its going to end, he still has reason to engage (social contact has enough nuance that you can still benefit even if you don't get what you wanted) but he can also arrange to lose gracefully.[6] As a GM, this also makes my life alot easier, because the alternative is having every NPC be cagey all the time.

This is not a technique for everyone, and as such I would definitely be leery of any attempt to systemize it. You can write a game to work this way, but I'm not sure you benefit from doing so, versus letting the GM choose the style that suits her table. Of course, that level of division of technique from system gets us into Rule Zero very quickly, and that's dangerous ground, and I'm far enough into this as is, so let's call it a wrap there.

1 - The most common objection I've heard to this (or any technique that gives the players narration rights) is that the player may overreach and narrate things which are outside of the scope of the game, either in the form of technicalities (grabbing a torch from a wall when there are not torches) or in a large way ('I fail because I slip on the Million Dollars on the floor'). I have never actually seen the latter happen, but it's wasily enough dealt with by the all purpose, "Dude." The former's trickier, but honestly, it's on the GM's head anyway for failing to describe things as completely as is clearly important to her. My solution tends to be "Unless there's a good reason for there not to be a torch on the wall (or whatever) then sure, of course there is!" and if there is a good reason? A small nudge is usually all it requires.

2 - I have often resisted fortune in the beginning because most of the examples of it I've seen are on a scene level rather than on a task level. On a scene level i find it stifling, but I'm much more comfortable on a task level.

3 - People with MUSH training handle this with well placed ellipses, but that's some esoteric and crazy stuff.

4 - What my brother somewhat brilliantly called '"Roll before Role'"playing'.

5 - But if the conversation was so good, why bother with the dice? It's a good question, and some don't. Heck. sometimes I don't. But it's unfair - it favors the players who are personally engaging without respecting what abilities the characters may have.

6 - I somewhat suspect something like this could also help save the "I Fight Harder" problem that comes out of emulating fighting anime, specifically that they seem to center around protagonists who just need to grit their teeth a little more and spike their hair a little higher to be able to win a losing battle. Depending on players to give up is a losing proposition, unless they've _already lost_.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Nothing is perfect. That can be a kind of defeatist perspective if looked at the wrong way, but it's also a source of optimism. Everything provides an opportunity for improvement if you can just stop and learn the lessons of what went wrong.

This is often easier said than done. "What went wrong" is a terribly amorphous idea, especially when dealing with something that has lots and lots of moving parts but will still lurch forward instead. Some endeavors have outright failure conditions. If a car won't start or a house falls down, then there's clearly something wrong. But more often the car is making a strange noise or the house has intermittent electrical problems. These are much harder to address than a true failure, if only because failure demands action. Persistent, systemic problems that don't actually cause failure can be tolerated, often well past the point of reason.

This is why people in expensive suits talk a lot about "metrics". In the absence of a failure scenario, you need some way to improve upon things, and the only way to consistently do that is by measuring things, changing them, then measuring again to see if there's some improvement[1]. But what should you measure? This can be surprisingly hard to figure out, and it's valuable enough to explain why those guys can afford such expensive suits.

So, take all those problems and complicate them further with ideas of "fun" and "entertainment" and you have the problem of applying this thinking to RPGs, where I would argue it's desperately needed.

First and foremost, how can you even spot a failure scenario with an RPG? Is it the game that doesn't happen? That doesn't finish? That finishes badly? Who's to say those breakdowns came from the game and note from secondary failures (perhaps in transportation or coordination). As individuals, we may have some spectacular car crashes of games we can think of that we might be able to deconstruct, but those tend to be so intensely personal and specific that there's not much room for common language. That is to say, if you want to deconstruct one of your failures, then don't expect much help.[2]

And that's the big easy part. What about games that don't fail? What concrete things can you look at and say 'this didn't go so well' so that you can try something to fix it and see if it works? What kind of metrics can you even look for in an RPG?

I don't bring this up rhetorically. I genuinely don't know, and it frustrates me intensely. There are a few vague shapes - you can track resources in a resource management game and use that as a rough guideline, but that tends to be very rough indeed[3]. You can track concrete social elements like attendance and time played, but I'm not sure what those tell us.

Arguably, the best case is probably to just pick some things, assign some numbers and fake it. If I rate "Player enthusiasm" at the end of every session from 1-5 then there's lots of room for error, but over time I am likely to get some useful trending, even if the specific numbers themselves are only so reliable.[4]

But what to measure? What should the metrics for a successful (or failed) game be? I'm intensely curious to hear people's thoughts on this.

1 - This is contrasted with just going by gut. Some people can do this, and that is truth, but many many more people THINK they can do this than actually do. And, of course, determining whether or you can is probably best not judge by your gut.

2 - 'But I can discuss it on the Internet' says the hapless optimist. And technically, that's true, and there might even be some faint insight to be gained in that fashion, if you're willing to dig and sift through the noise, but at best you'll usually get the answer for how someone else (with perfect hindsight) *would* have done it. This is kind of poisonous because, like the TSA, we see clear trails into the past and think it should have been equally obvious in the other direction, and the problem is that clearly we just missed it. From that perspective, it is too easy for the guy giving advice to be taken as a guru. And we don't need any more gurus.

3 - For example in D&D, you an track damage taken, healing surges and powers used, and use that to gauge how well you've been balancing encounters. Unfortunately, there are so many other variables (such as changes form leveling up, different monster abilities and dumb luck) that it's only so useful.

4 - There's a dirty trick implicit in this, and that is this: you get what you measure for. As such, deciding what to measure for is also an implicit declaration of what you want to see more (or less) of in a system. There's some really fascinating stuff about this and the impact of the Apgar Score (a measure of the health of newborns) in Atul Gawande's Better.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yes, I liked Casino Royale

You know what I love about the Daniel Craig Casino Royale? There's this great moment in is where everything goes pear shaped - Bond gets suckered in the big poker game, and it looks like the whole mission is crashing down around him. Daniel Craig totally sold me with what happened next, as he grabs a steak knife from a passing tray and hides it behind his forearm, stalking towards the villain with a pure murderous intent born from the loss of all other options.

I barely remember large swaths of the movie, but that scene sticks with me. I think it's because, in its intensity, it really gets across something that makes these sort of spy-ish stories resonate with me, and with a certain kind of audience.

This isn't intended as a deconstruction of espionage thriller - I'm hardly one to provide that - but rather just a spotlight on issues of knowledge and control in fiction and, by extension, in gaming. As I see it, there's a specific itch that some spy stories scratch, and itch for a sort of smartness. We delight in seeing the hero make the right decisions because h knows what's going on. Because he's the man with the plan.[1]

It's the little thrill when the bad guy pulls his gun and it clicks because the hero has already found it and removed the bullets. We love this idea because it showcases the idea of information as control, and that's an idea that appeals a lot to the information-centric (which includes most nerds). We embrace a hero who's in control. Even if the situation goes out of control, he's on top of the situation and in control of himself. He understands the odds, and only plays the game after he's stacked the deck as far as he can in his favor.

Now, if you stop there you end up with characters who are cool but ultimately shallow. The bit that pushes it over the top for me is that moment when it all goes to hell, but the hero must still act. What makes it so sublime for me is that at that point all of that understanding turns around and becomes a burden. Because the hero had such a profound understanding of the risks thathe has been carefully managing, he understands exactly how bad it is to go off plan.

This issue of understanding is where it really lights up for me. It underscores how important the issue and course of action may be. The emotional commitment that suggests is intensely powerful.

This, in turn, speaks to one of the things I love about crunchy games, like Rolemaster. There is a similar level of understanding (in the form of the mechanics of the system) of just how bad things can get, and a similar emphasis on stacking the deck in your favor before you want to enter into any conflict. And that knowledge sets up a great test of player engagement - at some point they will ask: are they going to be invested enough to go off plan? To face down a fight they have no reason to expect to walk away from?

One of the great conflicts in games is that the kind of capricious death I'm talking about risking here can be both intensely fun and intensely frustrating. Dying from a dumb turn of the dice can be dull, but so can any kind of plot immunity.

I sometimes suspect that the nature of this conflict is such that there is no real mechanical solution[2]. This requires a balancing of factors which falls cleanly within the domain of the skill and actions of the GM. It is this understanding that makes me very sympathetic on the topic of GM fudging as an implicit statement that an imperfect solution driven by a skilled hand is more powerful at any given moment than a more idealized solution.

Not to say that some games don't try, often admirably. But they do so by choosing certain priorities and running with them, or by leaving a large area open to GM interpretation. I don't really see a difference between "Fudging" and "Broad GM Interpretation" in any meaningful way, but I also know that others feel there is a very bright line between the two. The rub in this situation is that strong, explicit mechanical consequences (as opposed to interpretive ones) are what carry the player's ability to understand consequences before they happen, which is at the heart of them taking risks with both eyes open. That predictive element continue to exist with dice fudging (because the potential outcomes are still there to be seen, albeit with altered odds) while interpretive consequences remove that possibility entirely.[2]

1 - This is arguably a subset of competence porn.

2 - One other fix for this is to declare consequences in advance, through stake setting, but I always find that works better on paper than in practice, especially for nasty consequences. For whatever reason, I feel likt there's a lot more blood and fury as long as things happen with in the flow of play, and that's equally true for the purely mechanical (like Rolemaster) or if it strongly creative (as in Polaris with "But only if..."). Stopping to negotiate (or spend too much time looking things up) breaks that flow, and changes decisions that were colored by the rush of the emotion of the moment into a more bloodless sort of calculation.[3]

3 - I use bloodless as a condemnation, but that's unfair. Distance can often be used to create something that is more powerful and resonant as an
idea, especially one that can be expressed later. Distance can create better story than immediacy, and some players really jam on having gotten to the end and having something beautiful and fucked up to look back over. It's fun, and you can make for great play either way, but mixing them mostly just makes mud.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Brown M&Ms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 11, 2010

This Tumblr Thing

The topic of Tumblr came up in conversation the other day, and it lead to three types of responses.
  1. What's Tumblr?
  2. Tumblr's awesome!
  3. Sell me on Tumblr.

Twitter's not a great venue for real answers to 1 and 3, so I figured I'd take a swing at it here, starting with question 1.

Tumblr is a free blogging service, like blogger. You create an account, they host the blog, simple as that. It's very lightweight and easy to use, and it has some very nice bookmarklets available to make it easy to post rich content (embedded images, music, video and such). One of the guys behind it is also the guy[1] behind instapaper, one of my favorite services.

So, that's all well and good, but if that's all there is to it, who cares? And thus we get to response #3.

First off, Tumblr is probably the easiest of the blogging services to use. If you just want to capture your thoughts and the interesting things you've found on the Internet, then there's no easier platform. I had previously considered blogger to be the easiest one to use - the blog you'd set up for your mom - but tumblr is simpler still. So if you only want to maintain one blog, and you don't want to worry about things like versions and plugins, tumblr is probably the best choice.[2]

Second, that ease of use still floats on top of a layer of fairly robust system, allowing for an account to have numerous blogs. This offers a utility that might be familiar to Livejournal users - it's wonderfully set up for temporary, purposed accounts, such as a journal for a character in a game. As such, it's worth just having an account to be able to use it for specialized interests. Also, like Livejournal, it includes a view of all the other tumblr blogs you follow via your dashboard. it's not as sophisticated as LJ's friend management, but it does the job for basic friend & community stuff.

Third, it's an excellent clipping service. If you purely want to track images, articles and videos that catch your interest. Tumblr's a great bucket to dump those into.

The last advantage of Tumblr is one that's fairly specific to established bloggers. If you've got a blog that's committed to a particular topic (or even to a particular sort of tone) then you have a commitment to that mode. But sometimes, you just want to post a LOLcat, or a neat picture, or some snarky comment that particularly caught your interest. A second blog that's just for that sort for thing can be incredibly handy, if only for your sanity.

Anyway, Tumblr is far from an end-all-be-all, but it's pretty handy, and if you're curious it's probably worth checking out.

1 - His blog is also a great example of how good a blogging platform Tumblr can be. If you're wondering what a good tumblr can look like, check it out.
2 - I chose blogger for this blog for reasons of simplicity. In retrospect, Tumblr might have been an even better matc

Friday, January 8, 2010

Talent Borrows, Genius Steals

I didn't end up responding much to comments yesterday because one question has very much been sticking in my mind. Semiocity talked about licensed properties and pulling RPGs out of other mediums. The key question that got me thinking was this: [H]ow does looking at what unique experiences RPGs offer square with the media or properties they attempt to emulate? And why play Star Wars rather than watch one of the movies?

There are a couple of obvious answers to that last. There's a natural tendency to take stories we like and run with them: fanfiction provides eternal evidence of this. Even more, it's a simple assertion that the parts of the story you've liked are ones you think would be better told through play with the tools of RPGs (Reflection and collaboration[1]).

That's all well and good, and it's easy to say, but I don't think it answers the question as well as I'd like. I think this is because when you pull it up, there's a bigger question underneath it: Why Star Wars?

Not actually picking on Star Wars here so much as calling out an observation: some properties are more suited to RPGs than others, and the pattern among them is inobvious. The instinctive idea that a certain sort of fantastic/high action movie (like Star Wars) is the right mix ignores the simple fact that a lot of fantastic/high action material actually makes for fairly bad play.[2]

In most cases where the setting fails the RPG there's a common failing. However broad in scope the story itself might have been, the setting purely served telling that particular story. The issues in the setting have been resolved, and it is not obvious where a new team of heroes might fit in.

Sci Fi is chock full of good examples of this. Babylon 5 and the new BSG both were full of interesting material, but both also explored the hell out of it and left very little on the table. Heck, look at Avatar - it's got all sorts of great game elements, but now that the events in the movie have happened, what is still interesting to do?[3] Put another way: interesting things MUST happen someplace other than Arakis, but who cares?

There's much more to play when the heroes are only a small part of the larger picture (like early seasons of Supernatural) or if there is a sense that the setting is much larger than what we're seeing on screen. Lucas is really good at giving a sense of scope - of leaving enough loose ends lying around to give the sense that there's lots more to this setting, past and present, so Star Wars is pretty easy to play (even though it is rough to play at the same time as the movies).

And that dovetails back to reveal another answer to my original question. If your setting is particularly rich, then an RPG may be the best way to explore it. Not the only way, as I continue to qualify, but it plays to the particular strengths of the medium.

So there's one more. Thanks, Matt!

1 - Here's where I acknowledge several comments it this effect. Collaboration, and especially collaborative creativity, deserves mention too. While it's closer to a technique and not really a reason to tell a story in RPG form, it's an excellent reason to tell an *incomplete* story in RPG form, and that's good enough for me.

2 - I'm going to name some names here, but remember I'm not saying it's impossible to make a good game out of these settings - the right people could make a great game out of the setting material in a car ad - but rather that the setting as presented in its native medium is a poor contributor to the possibilities of play.

3 - The solution to this is to make stuff up, and since RPGs have a strong draw to creativity, that seems an obvious solution. You can introduce a new and mysterious race to B5 or an ancient threat from the Ascended Na'vi to Avatar, and that can be pretty cool, but it will call into question why you are using someone else's setting in the first place. By diverging, you are isolating yourself from the social element of using a familiar setting, and potentially invalidating further changes in the setting from the source material.[4] Perhaps more importantly, by creating, you are asking yourself why not just keep creating?

4 - This is the advantage of "dead" settings: Because the material won't me changing, it is more reasonable to take ownership of it. Once that happens, then the culture of the game shifts from a common setting to a common starting point. The best example of this is the Amber DRPG, but I'd be curious if there are any others that spring to mind.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Considering the Medium

So, this is where I answer my own question. I'm echoing a few sentiments that came mup in my comments, but also differing from some of them

The question is what stories RPGs tell, or more specifically, what story elements RPGs excel at. I'm not saying that these are limits on RPGs - it is a nearly unbounded form - but as with every medium, there are things that it excels at and things that it's less strong at. With that in mind, I'm not looking to provide an encyclopedic list of things RPGs can do well. Rather, I'm focusing on the things that an RPG would be the first choice for.[1]

The first and most obvious element is agency - players in an RPG may make choice to impact play. This is almost unique to RPGs - there is some overlap with elements of improv (a reason many RPGers look to improv for inspiration) but it is a different sort of animal if only in terms of the framework it exists within. This is kind of awesome, because agency leads to investment, but in and of itself it a hollow thing, like saying painting lets you use colors. It's true, but it's kind of dwelling on a unique tool, not a unique result.

There may be some fertile ground around the idea of investment, but I admit I haven't really found it yet. Like agency, it seems to be a tool, but there are some unique manifestations of it. It can take the form of shared knowledge of a truly staggering scope but I'm not sure how much of that is unique to RPGs. The shared knowledge of the Forgotten Realms is staggering, but the yardstick to compare it to is Middle Earth, something born of novels.

Creation? Perhaps one of the strengths of RPGs is the profound blurring of the line between author and actor. But if so, what can we do with that?

Maybe it's something more obvious: what about Play? After all, if RPGs are art, they're art you can win.[2] That feels closer, if only because it's definitely a unique reason you'd want to play an RPG rather than write or create in another medium. Heck, compare it to writing contests: novels may make for better stories, but RPGs make for better competitions! But again, I'm not sure that suggests anything unique about what they say.

The thing I keep bumping my head against is that I can think of a number of fairly unique techniques to RPGs, but those are useful only after I have decided to use RPGs as my medium. They don't suggest reasons why I'd choose to tell a particular story with an RPG rather than in some other way.

But there's one exception. The element that I think might actually be the most important is reflection - the events of play reflect back on the player. In other media, you may become invested in the characters, but in RPGs, the characters may become invested in you (or at least your character). The creation of a reality that looks back on the actor is huge, and it's often dismissed as mere sleight of hand since these people and places are not real, but I would counter that the fact that they are fiction does not rob this of its power. Most creative media rests on the idea that we may be powerfully and truly moved by fiction, and I see no reason to carve out an exemption here.

And that suggests that the reason I'd want to use an RPG, rather than a book or a movie or a play or a painting is if I want it to be your story.

That's some powerful mojo, but it has a few implications. First, it underscores the fringey-ness of the hobby. A game doesn't say much to the people who are not playing it (as any number of recorded sessions will tell you) but that's because it's not supposed to. The more it speaks to the world, the less it speaks to the table. That's awesome for play, but it also means we're unlikely to end up with our games hung up in some equivalent of the louvre.

Second, and perhaps of more immediate consequence, it demolishes most any sense of ownership or authority in the creation of play. A GM may do everything he can to make play awesome, but if he creates his story, he's misusing the medium[3]. It is only by surrendering that power to the players that he will really succeed. This can be a really, really hard thing to grasp, and it can come a s slap to the face to a GM who busts his hump making play rock, but there it is.

There are some further implications of this, but they enter into the realm of conventional wisdom. The insights that our hobby isn't scalable or that the GM shouldn't treat players as an audience are far from new.[4] But I wonder what happens if we embrace them as weaknesses of the medium and try to focus on the strengths. I imagine it looks weird, sure, but at the same time I sometimes suspect that we're trying to write novels with paintbrushes, and that we'd be a lot better served deciding what we're actually doing, and pursuing that with passion.[5]

1 - The great pain is that "Telling a Story" does not make this list (or at least telling a specific story). Books, movies and plays all do a better job of this for reasons I hope are self evident. Yes, you can tell a story with an RPG, but you need to jump through more hoops than you would if you were just writing it.

2 - Though speaking of which, you know what I'd buy a book on to see how it applied to RPGs? Editing reality TV. Those guys are really good at creating a narrative out of a bunch of stuff that happens and putting it all together like that's what's actually going on. It's masterful fiction, and it resonates a lot with the idea of stories being created as a result (not an intention) of games.

3- We've all seen the GM who should just be writing their book.

4- Though I amuse myself at least in the route that lead to those points this time.

5 - I feel like this is also dovetailing into my growing certainty that setting is king, but I do not trust that conclusion quite yet.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

James Cameron is my Master Now

So, Avatar has made a million zillion bucks (last I heard it's over a billion now) proving that James Cameron is welcome to go into a cave for years any damn time he likes. It's no flawless gem, but a lot of people are watching it, and that has lead to a lot of interesting theories about why this is so. Me, I've got a theory, and it's a pretty simple one.

It's a really, really good movie.

Now, before you jump to your feet and call out your favorite flaw, let me unpack that a little. I was listening to NPR last night as they were talking about the latest foreign film to catch the critical eye, a German film called The White Ribbon. Now, I don't mean to detract from this film - I'm sure it's great and I'll probably try to see it - so take this with a grain of salt. I was hearing about this movie, from the news and from the director, and as he described the things that seemed to grab them (the ending doesn't resolve the mystery, the narrator is unreliable, information is hidden from the viewer) I was struck by the thought "Why don't you just write a book?"

My thinking was pretty simple. However cleverly done in a film, these ideas are well used ones in literature, and when they're done in a book they're not messing with your audience. Using them in a movie is much more expensive, and is a bit of a slap to the face of the implicit contract.[1] And that got me thinking about what movies really are as compared to other media.

The big ones I zeroed in on are that movies are visual, auditory, and they are of limited scope. There's also a more subtle fourth in that movies anticipate having all of our attention, as they're designed for the theatre, and this makes for some subtle differences between made for TV Movies (which include commercial breaks in their pacing) and films.

And within those bounds, Avatar excels. Consider: If Avatar were a TV show, the flatness of the characters would wear things down over time. If it were a novel, the predictability of the story would kill it dead. If it were a comic book the blue chicks boobs would be WAY too small. If it were a play, the weakness of the dialog would be laid bare.

But its none of those things. It's a movie.

This is a hard thing for me to get my head around as a media saavy guy. I consume a lot of TV, books, comics and anything else I can find. One of the joy sof this is the ability to freely take lessons and ideas from one medium and transfer them over to another, so they're one great wash. But it makes me want the best of everything: I want the stories of literature and the characters of great TV combined with the visuals of film and the dialog of plays.

Usually, this is a good thing. It raises standards, challenges me and challenges the material I enjoy. Worse, this is complicated further by the fact that some of the bleed is legitimate. A movie should have a good story and good dialog. But are those things as important in a movie as they are in other media?

The money says otherwise. And I'm wondering if maybe the money knows what its talking about.

So even if you think Avatar's a shitburger served up to a populace of sheep, think about the question this raises: what are RPGs good at?

1 - Don't get me wrong, there is value in shaking up the contract, and it's been done well, but it steps outside of the area where film excels, and depends on the genius of the director or cast. To pull it off successfully requires enough brilliance that it guarantees the quality of the finished product, but pulling it off badly is really easy.