Friday, July 30, 2010

Play the Board

I'm pretty bad at chess.

It's weird, because I love games. Give me a little luck or some hidden information and I'm good to go, but the total transparency of chess is just at odds with how I think. I'm one of those terrible players who initiates lots of piece exchanges just to simplify the board, and it still doesn't help. I used to take a certain amount of perverse pride in this, especially because I excel at Knightmare Chess, but nowadays I just acknowledge it with a bit of a sad shrug, and file it behind "Drawing" and "Playing the Guitar" as things I might try to get better at someday.

But I still try to know chess. There is no other game out there I can think of that is so rich in metaphor and private language. Every game of chess feels like it holds the promise of a story or a war. And that richness is part of why we casually use it as a metaphor for almost anything complicated, indirect and adversarial. Usually, this is a pretty lazy metaphor, but if you drill into it, you can often find some useful insights. Specifically, Chess provides an excellent insight on how to run open-ended plots.

One important idea in chess is the threat, because it controls the cadence of play. When one piece is in a position to capture another piece, it is threatening that piece. In many ways this is more important than the capture itself because the threat can be used to (crudely) try to control the other player's moves. Suppose I have a cunning plan for my rook over there, but you move a piece and threaten my bishop. Rather than go forward with my cunning plan, I now need to react to your move. If you're very cunning, you've got another move that will force another reaction. Keep me on the defensive and you control the cadence of the game. Unless I can break this pattern, you've got me on the ropes.[1]

This move and countermove offers an incredibly useful structure for RPGs and their conflicts, in part because what looks very simple on the surface but is actually made out of several smaller parts that can all be informative.[2]

The initial threat is easy to model in any RPG. It might be an actual threat, but it can really be considered a stand in for any kind of clear tension. Something bad that will happen, but has not yet. This sort of tension is the basis of most action. Someone's going to kill the duchess. A storm is coming in. Raiders will strike in the night. The Prince's secret will be revealed.

Whatever form it takes, the important thing is that something bad will happen if no action is taken, and that something is undesirable. Compared to a passive threat (The Duchess has enemies. Raiders have a base outside of town.) these are vastly more useful for games because they already have momentum. They transition directly to action, and provide a clear purpose. Without that clarity, it is easy to get hung up on the rocks of distraction and research.[3]

Having started with the metaphor of the threat, let's look to chess for how to handle this. When one piece threatens another in chess, there are several ways to respond: you can block, retreat, capture, threaten or cover.

You can block by putting another piece in the way of the threatening piece so it can no longer threaten the original. Unfortunately, the blocking piece is now threatened (and thus, a block may well be a sacrifice) and if the blocker is captured, the original piece is threatened again. Thankfully, there's a bit more to it - the blocker also changes the nature of the fight by changing where it happens. The new location may be more secure because it's covered or otherwise creates difficulties for the opposing piece. Of course, the whole thing may have been a gambit to move the blocking piece in the first place.

Retreating is more straightforward. If your piece is threatened, you move it so it's no longer threatened. Simple enough. But it leaves an opening where your piece used to be, and your piece needs to go *somewhere*, and a good adversary can limit your available options by threatening the empty available to you. A retreat is dangerous because it hands tempo (control of the back-and-forth cadence of the game) back to your opponent, unless you can hid some sort of other move in the retreat.

Capture may be the most viscerally satisfying option; capture the threatening piece with one of your own to remove the threat. The problem is its rarely that simple - unless you opponent simply overlooked that his own piece was threatened[4], then its almost certainly a trap. The only reason an opponent would knowingly threaten your piece with one that is itself threatened is to force you to capture his piece. This will presumably either puts your piece in a bad position, or removes it from a place where it was doing something useful to you.[5] Unfortunately, if capturing is the only way you can stop a bad move, then you may need to willingly step into the trap.

Threatening counters the move by making a move somewhere else entirely, and initiating your own threat, so that you now threaten one of their pieces. If they capture your piece, you will capture theirs. This is a tricky game to play because your opponent will make his decision based on whether or not the final position of pieces is to his advantage or not. This is partly tied to the value of the pieces, but is not limited to that. It's also important to look at how the pieces will be positioned when things shake out. Your opponent might let you take a pawn to capture a knight, but if capturing that pawn puts your attacking piece in position to threaten other pieces? He might hesitate.[6]

An even more subtle threatening response is one which does not necessarily threaten another piece, but rather is all about board position. If an opponent responds to a threat with an apparently nonsensical move, then think hard about what the board is going to look like after you make your capture. It's possible your opponent is clueless, but more likely he's taking advantage of the fact that he knows your next move (the capture) and is positioning pieces to be in a stronger position at the end of it. [EDIT: A suggestion in discussion may result in this being broken out from threaten as Flank or Maneuver]

Covering is the last option, and it's a dangerous game. It puts a piece in position so that if the capture is made, the capturing piece will then get captured in turn. This is a straight tradeup, and even more than a threat, it calls for an explicit cost-benefit analysis. This is often the easiest thing to arrange, but its also a sucker's bet, since it puts the decision in your opponent's hand, and if he says go, he knows your next move. This is the one response to a threat that can't be used to counter a Check, and that hopefully illustrates its weaknesses. However, it's not entirely useless. It is actually a strong counter against very strong pieces, because the cost of the exchange is almost never in the attackers favor. That is, this works well against queens because the cost of losing a queen is usually too high. But for a closer exchange, its tough. This invites quagmire, but for all that, you'll see it a lot because it is often on only apparent option.

Ok, so these are a bunch of chess abstractions, but what do they have to do with anything? To my mind, these map VERY easily to options that players should consider when faced with a threat in a game, and as a reverse, to ways for a GM to response to player actions in a game. If you can identify a threat (that is to say, the source of tension) then it's easy to ask "In this situation, what are my blocking options? Retreat? Capture? Counter-threat? Cover?" and as you look at it from each angle, it should suggest options.

This won't necessarily work for every game. In a dungeon, these options tend to be greatly curtailed, but in a more open game, one with more "pieces on the board" as it were, this can be powerfully effective. And, certainly, you can never expect things to map precisely to chess. While move and counter is certainly the most common cadence of play, every now and again it gets disrupted by events in play, but keeping the underlying structure in sight can also help things.

All of this also points to a very important point that Chess illustrates well: the power of tempo. When one side is forcing a response from the other (as with a threat) then that side is in a superior position, and this ends up mapping to a lot of ideas about proactive vs. reactive play. Since the GM is usually the initiator, classic gameplay tends to revolve around the GM making moves and the players making counters - that is to say the GM being proactive and the players being reactive - until the GM runs out of moves (so to speak) and the players win. This works ok, but you can also take a lesson from chess to realize that it is incredibly powerful to change the tempo. A strong countermove can force your opponent to become reactive, allowing you to become the proactive party. This hot seat can switch back and forth over the course of a game of chess, and there's no reason it should not be able to do the same over the course of an rpg session.

None of this thinking demands that you be good at chess (thank god for that), or that you even like chess. Chess is just a tool here to help frame the kinds of challenges and thinking that's going to come up in any kind of indirect, adversarial play, much like you will find in most RPGs.

1 - Of course, this cadence can change very quickly, especially if the reactive player has been careful about his reactions or if the proactive player is too focused on his own plan. More on that in a minute.

2 - This is one of those rare cases where this model is equally useful to players and GMs, since it's all about thinking about how to respond to things and try to claim the initiative.

3 - A lack of clarity has its place, but only when carefully planned for. If it just happens (as it often does) then its not a good thing.

4 - Or he was hoping you would overlook the threat. Either option may be reasonable for novice-level play, and in fact are good indicators for it, but stop being options as play gets more sophisticated.
However, in situations with muddled information (like RPGs), that is a more reasonable situation. However, don't just assume it's a muddle unless there's some real fog of war sort of problems afoot, and even in those situations, a threat may be a good way to flush out the opposition. If the enemy does something you can counter by punching him in the face, and you have a history of face punching, assume that if he shows his face for a punching, there's more to it than it seems.

5 - This is something of a recurring theme, and one of the most important things to keep in mind when you apply this model to stories and games. The apparent threat is not necessarily the real threat. What is often important is what you're
not doing when you're dealing with the threat. This is one of those things that looks incredibly cunning and manipulative at first glance (think Xanatos Gambit), but in reality is very simple problem solving. I want to get into the building, but it has guards. I will distract the guards, and go into the building. Easy peasy. Easy enough that it's not hard to nest two or three of these in a pinch.

6 - This also introduces some muddiness into the clarity of chess. The value of pieces is well documented, but board position is far harder to quantify. An exchange based purely on piece value is predictable. One based on piece plus board position is less clear.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Heartbreak Spoken Here

Opinion seems to favor the Fantasy Heartbreaker, so the other idea gets back burnered for the moment. So with that in mind, I need to think a little but about first principles, and that in turn means thinking about influences that I'll be keeping in mind.

The first is, of coursed, D&D. But that's a wide swath of material, and deserves some drilling down. Now, personally, I have fond memories of red book basic D&D for its readability and accessibility. I have a great deal of respect for the OSR's[2] desire for simplicity, but I have always differed from them in that I feel simplicity has been more successfully achieved by games which are not D&D and therefor not part of their discussion. So, while I have an eye towards the spirit of slim, simple books, the tools I may use to get there may be quite different.

This may be harsh to say, but I can't think of anything I'd steal from first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. There are maybe a few ideas which had strong underpinnings but poor expression[3] but there are other places I'll turn to for how those ideas eventually got expressed. I mean, I loved these books, and I'll try to keep the wahoo sensibilities of the DMG in my back pocket, but it's hard to separate what's truly useful from what is compelling due to the time and place I was when I read them.

That said, I want even less from 2e. I think it was an improvement on 1e in almost every way, and it was solidly playable, but it was also very bland. However, that blandness also meant it ended up supporting some of the best settings I've ever seen in RPGs, with Planescape, Birthright and Red Steel jumping right to top of mind. The mechanics may not have left much of a mark, but the settings absolutely did. Not sure what, if anything, I'll end up dong with them in a heartbreaker, but they're definitely on the table.

3e, and all the things born from it up to and including Pathfinder, Fantasycraft and other current incarnations, did a lot of things right. Most notably, the level of character customization was, when good, magnificent. If you look through older 1e and 2e products that represented fiction, like Conan or Lankhmar, the characters almost always broke the multiclass rules to try to capture the correct sense of them. In 3e, making those characters was now in bounds. The addition of Feats was also noteworthy and also emblematic of everything within the d20 sphere - potentially very useful, but potentially very cumbersome. There's so much stuff here that there's no useful way to narrow it down, but it would be foolish to go forward without it on hand. Almost anything you can think of in fantasy has at least been tried (not necessarily with any success) in d20, and it's always useful to see earlier efforts.

In contrast, 4e is much more focused, and that's nicely reflective of what it brings to the table. More structure, more clarity of action, and a much stronger metagame. It put different characters on better footing (explicitly pulling non-spellcasters out of the gutter and onto the table). I definitely want to draw heavily from here, but there are things I want to explicitly avoid, primary among them being the decoupling of color and mechanics. It is important to me that game effects be described in game terms, not created in game terms.[4] Really, in general, 4e is a smooth, well oiled machine for miniature combat, so taking out the parts i need to do something else with it will probably make for a lot of smoke and noise.

Beyond D&D, I first turn to Rolemaster. The brutality of the combat, the diversity of the characters supported and the range and potential of the magic system are all huge advantages. The one downside is bookkeeping - RM had a lot of it, and that doesn't fly well. Still, the ideas are mineable, and things like Run Out The Guns and 3E D&D have demonstrated that many Rolemaster ideas can be streamlined.

Earthdawn is also worth keeping in mind as a game that hangs together almost as well as 4e, but does it through setting elements. Fantastic setting design, the best magic item system can think of, coupled with the conceit that EVERYONE is using magic, just not necessarily to cast spells. In many ways, Earthdawn and 4E were made for each other, but those two trains will likely never meet.

Am I a bad gamer because I don't care much about Runequest? Or Harn? I'm ok if I am.

Another obvious influence, the one that got me thinking down this path in the first place, is Green Ronin's Dragon Age. It's a simple, elegant system that showcases many of the benefits of random character creation and has a really fun, expandable mechanic with its dragon die. By and large, I only wish there was more of this game to steal from, because man, it's awesome.

Exalted has a bit of a back of the mind presence, but it's so much its own thing that it's hard to even view it within this cloud. Still, 1st ed Dragon Blooded was so mind-bendingly good that I suspect it will be hard to totally shake myself of its shadow. Similarly, things like Everway, Amber or Pendragon are so much their own thing that it's hard to look at too closely, though they'll never be too far out of mind.

The big-setting games - Talislanta and Empire of the Petal Throne specifically - are in a similar boat. They are so much the expressions of a vision that they are brilliant to explore, but hard to use without feeling like a mooch.

I dig Warhammer Fantasy RPG, but I'm nto sure if there's anything I'd actually take from it except perhaps the Lifepath system, and in practice, Burning Wheel has already taken and improved that particular technology. Now, Burning Wheel is definitely something to steal parts from - the game as a whole has never quite been my bag, but it's made out of the highest quality parts, many of which deserve to be borrowed.

Obviously, there are games beyond the fantasy sphere I'll draw from, but since the starting point of a Fantasy Heartbreaker is it's D&Dness, I wanted to start from that base. I'll pull in other games later as needs arise. But that said, what baseline fantasy have I overlooked in my thinking?

1 - Erol Otus Cover, though the Choose Your Own Adventure part of the one with the Elmore cover was pretty sweet.

2 - Old School Revival, which changed its name from Old School Renaissance for what may be slightly silly reasons. It's a small but talkative movement of players who thrive on old versions of D&D.

3 - Like the Weapon vs. Armor table. In theory, this was an interesting way to differentiate weapons, in practice it was too complicated to use, and did not actually work in conjunction with the way the armor class system actually worked, since the actual number of your AC did not necessarily correlate to any type of armor, especially for monsters. Yes, it was base AC, but that was just extra fiddliness. It's easy to argue that ti made sense, but the simple reality is it saw little use, and even the streamlined version of it in 2e was left by the wayside. Rolemaster did it well by baking it into the system, but it's safe to say the RM comabat system was awash in tradeoffs.

4 - In previous editions, Fireball was a sphere of fire that exploded to a particular size. That's what it did. Rules existed to reflect what happens when a ball of fire explodes (though they were not necessarily consistent in this - each spell was it's own little packet of rules, and that could cause some muddle). In 4e, a fireball does fire damage to a specific size area on the grid. It matters not at all whether this is an exploding ball of fire, a rain of fire, fire leaping from the ground, or heat vision so long as the mechanical effect is the same. This works fantastically well within its sphere, but becomes a problem when you want to actually bow something up by, say, throwing a fireball into an enclosed space. In an older edition, it might blow a door off or the like, but in the current edition, it does no such thing.[5] And fireball is one of the EASY powers to model. Others are almost impossible to visualize.

5 - The tradeoff is that the new edition allows for easy reskinning of powers, monsters and everything else. If you turn the fireball into a rain of fire in old editions, it changed how people thought about using the power. In 4e, it just changes how they visualize it. This is powerful and useful.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I Play for the Story

Not RPGs, though that's part of it, but Video Games. I'll play almost anything, and I can enjoy a clever mechanic as much as the next guy, but the games that really stick in my mind do so through their storytelling. Importantly, that storytelling only rarely takes the form of reading blurbs of text on a screen - more often it is an implicit part of play. As you play the game, you piece together the fragments of information available to you, and you build a more complete image of what's going on. Sometimes there's a lot of connective tissue (most RPGs) and the experience is like reading a compelling, engaging book.[1] Other times there's so little there that you start creating images of what the story might be in your own mind (Limbo).

Story is tricky, though. Take Borderlands, an FPS with RPG elements. It's a post-apocalyptic first person shooter that absolutely oozes style. The characters and places feel consistently mad-max-ey, and the design is really top notch. But it's got very little story. Everything sort of stands around waiting for you to do things, and there's very little sense that there's a sweep of things you have stepped into. Net result is a game I enjoy playing when I play it, but which I very rarely think to go back to playing. Contrasted with Mass Effect II, an FPS with RPG elements which is all about the story, and I've played through it twice, and have almost finished a third playthrough. It's a game I go back to.

MMOs are interesting in this regard because I like to explore, and exploration can be a great way to build story if the game is designed well. World of Warcraft's geography tells stories about its zones and the world. They're usually fragments, more likely to raise a question than answer it, but that keeps it interesting to poke into the corners and out of the way places. I have yet to see anything comparable in another game, but it could be done. Such design is a function of thought and storytelling, not technology.

All this is on my mind because Starcraft 2 came out yesterday[2]. The original is one of the all time great games, and its expansion, Brood War, turned the awesome up to 11. SC2 is pretty as hell, and the gameplay seems spiffy, but they seem to have done something with the story, as if Brood War never happened. I guess it might take place between the two games, but there are little oddities that seem to suggest otherwise. Now, I know a lot of people do Starcraft for the multiplayer experience, but for me it's all about the campaign. As I say, I'm in it for the story. So I find myself at a bit of a loss. The emotional investment I've carried for over a decade seems to have been cast aside, and the replacement is...ok.

Now, I haven't played for long. Maybe it will get better after the "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal" part of things, but all the same, I am finding myself able to walk away from the game, something I would never have expected.

Story is, I suppose, a double edged knife. It is good to get me invested and interested, but play with that at your risk.[3]

1 - Or, statistically, a really long, boring book. There are cRPGs I love beyond measure, but finding those has meant navigating some stinkers.

2 - Which is, not coincidentally, why this is a short, flaky posts. :)

3 - I've stopped watching NCIS, a dumb show I've enjoyed a lot. It's not like I now hate it or refuse to watch it, but it no longer catches my attention when I'm reviewing options. This wasn't intentional - I just realized it was the case one day. Upon realizing this, I thought about it, and it struck me I'd stopped after they ran an episode that profoundly gutted one of the characters (the Tony is a Creepy Stalker episode, for fans). They'd broken the contract. And that, I have to say, kind of sucks. I could ignore it, I suppose, but ignoring it would mean I didn't really care about the show, which I do. Why else would I have spent hours of my life on it?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Some Notes and a Question

Another session of the Cold War game last night. Went interestingly, as the bit I'd expected to be the framing conflict ended up expanding to fill the session. I could probably have manhandled things back on track, but since this was primarily driven by player action/reaction it was more fun to run with it, and it will just mean that I have more notes prepped for next session.

Took my own advice at a few points, When planning this session, I was uncertain how to keep things dynamic, so I asked myself how I'd do it, and told myself to put another ball in the air. That very much did the trick. I also needed to actively stop myself at one point when a player's plan didn't make sense to me. There was a temptation to just force a quicker resolution, but I stopped, asked for clarification, and let the dice fall where they may.

I continue to have the "problem" that I am successfully engaging the players, but only rarely hitting their aspects directly. In large part this is because the aspects in the game are a little bit abstract, and that lead to a thought experiment - what would a game look like if all aspects were external? That is to say, what if all aspects were other people, places and things and none of them were internal or descriptive?[1] I certainly like the thought as a GM, since it helps me with using aspects as plot hooks, and I think I like how it would make players think. They can still have aspects that are effectively internal, but they need to have an external expression.[2] That is, if you want to be a Ninja, rather than take the ninja aspect,you take an aspect for your ninja teacher, ninja clan, or even sworn ninja enemy. That you are a ninja is implicit in the arrangement.

That said, this might be a bit weird (and definitely not useful for my current game) so I wonder if it might be more practical to allow players to "anchor" their aspects. Sort of flip the idea on its head. After they've picked the aspect, allow them to add a parenthetical note of the external thing which symbolizes that aspect to them, so it would be "Ninja (Enemy Ninja Clan)". That may be the best of both worlds, since it allows the full range of aspects, but it still allows for hooks.

As I think about it, this also does a nice job of enriching the aspects as well, associating them with a character, a set or a prop[3]. For example, if Harry Dresden has an aspect like "Connected to Paranormal Chicago" then the anchor might be "Mac's Pub". On his "Wizard" aspect, "The White Council" makes an excellent anchor. Does the cause an aspect to do double duty? Yes, it kind of does. Is that a bad thing? My hunch says not. For players, it better defines the scope of when an aspect will come up, and that's always useful. Also, as i thin about it, this ends up being a great shorthand for worldbuilding, especially for games that didn't do a whole session of setting creation. There's a lot of setting potential tied up in Anchors, especially if you can get your players to pick related anchors. [4] I think I'll have to see if my players are up for adding some anchors.


Ok, this one has nothing to do with Fate or Aspects. I am pondering doing a little bit of light game design in this blog, at least in part because it seems like a good way to illustrate a few thoughts. To this end, I am pondering between a "Fantasy Heartbreaker" (a somewhat snotty[5] name for a D&D knockoff) and something in the Storytelling/Unisystem/L5R Stat+Skill spectrum. So that leads to two questions: 1) would that be worth reading and 2) which system approach should I take?

Genuinely waffling on this one, folks, so input is welcome.

1 - For DFRPG, make exceptions for the one essential aspect like "Wizard". Heck, maybe even make the idea of one exception universal. Force players to think about what that one defining thing is.

2- Sort of like how in Over the Edge, each trait must be reflected in your character description, or how every setting element should have a face.

3 - Yes, that's a bit of an explicit TV bit of thinking, but having known sets and props in play is pretty useful in my experience.

4 - As an example, suppose Harry Dresden picked "Wizard (White Council) " as an aspect and anchor pair. What happens when someone else in the group picks the pair "Duty (White Council)". To me, that suggests some instant mojo.

5 - Enough so that I am using it tongue in cheek.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Something to Steal From Story

When people talk about the difference between games and stories, one of the most important points of distinction takes the form of the characters. When you create a character for a game, you are[1] focusing primarily on capabilities, those things the character can do. When challenges come up in play, tension is created by raising the question of whether or not those capabilities, modified by a randomizer and optimized by player choices. That uncertainty means every part (especially capability and choice) is meaningful. A talented GM or well-designed scenario will put the whole event in context, giving it some meaning and resonance, but that's not a necessary step. Things work (in a well designed game) without it.

On the other hand, when an author creates a character for a story, he has entirely different considerations. The capabilities of the character are never in question, and when faced with a challenge, he will overcome it or not as based on the author's needs.[2] But at the same time, the author must provide context, because that is what matters to telling a good story. That is to say, the author does not care if the character can climb that wall, he cares about why it matters whether or not he climbs that wall.[3]

These are very different goals, and at their core, they're contradictory ones, but that doesn't mean that there's not room for stealing between them. The more a player likes context for his actions, the more he might want to look at the things that make a good character in fiction (Connections, motivations and so on), and a fiction author would be well served to construct characters with their capabilities in mind so it doesn't look like they're cheating when the character proves capable of something.[4]

But there is an interesting point of overlap between the two in that both depend on convincing challenges - that is to say, challenges where the outcome is in doubt. Even if the author and the game master have different means of resolution, both are poorly served when the player/reader looks at a situation that should be important and feels there's only one way it could possibly play out (unless someone cheats).

The most obvious place this comes up is in capability-centric fiction, which a lot of adventure fiction is[5], most notably comic books. I talked a little bit about Batman last week, but let's flip the camera and talk about Superman. Superman is a tough character to handle because he is so capable that it's difficult to convincingly challenge him. Because he's so powerful, just throwing more powerful guys at him is a poor solution, because they have to come from somewhere and because too many such guys and Superman's role in the setting starts getting called into question.

This puts the author and the GM in the curiously difficult position of needing to really work to find a good challenge for the character, and they likely turn to the same place - challenges that strike at the place where his power is not going to be quite so overwhelming. Hit his friends and family, bring in tough moral choices and generally proceed from the assumption that yes, he's crazily capable, so we'll work with that.

Now, this is where we start getting the weird divide between gaming and writing. For a writer, we're doing ok, albeit working very hard to stay fresh and interesting since we're trodding over ground that has been trod many times before. There's a temptation to change things up by perhaps introducing a new weakness or a change to capabilities that gives him new material to work with. In contrast, in gaming, Superman's player's been stockpiling his XP so that he can buy off those annoying "Weakness: Kryptonite" and "Dependant: Lois Lane" disadvantages so that his character will eventually be perfect.

And that, right there, might be a problem. Proceeding from the assumption that playing the game is fun, Superman's player's goal is to be so successful that he will never be challenged, which means he'll have nothing to play, which fun.

It's an extreme example, but a lot of people play with that underling perspective. In attempting to address their own flaws or weaknesses, they forget that the purpose of the game is to provide challenges for the player and that even if you resolve one set of challenges, there are always others. And this is where there's a little something to be learned from the author. See, the author knows that things need to be kept interesting, and the first place he'll look for interesting things is the character. He see's Superman and see's things like Kryptonite and Lois Lane and he views them as opportunities to tell a story, not as things that weaken the character. That's a useful perspective for a gamer too.

See, when you take drawbacks (whether they're mechanical, or just something you write into the character), you are steering the game. Provided you have a GM who takes any authorship of her games[6] then you are telling her about the kind of problems you want to have. And since you're going to have problems anyway, wouldn't you rather like to have some say in what they are?

The bottom line is that you do not need to be "creating a story" or taking an author role to appreciate that your characters problems and limitations can be as essential to your fun as their capabilities. Even if you never care about the context of the challenges you face, and the story elements implicit in that, it's a simple matter of combinative math. The problems you bring along with you will make the challenges you face more interesting and personalized, and that personalization also means you'll have had time to think about solutions. Which means you're more prepared, and who wouldn't want that?

1 - In most games. There are, of course, exceptions.

2 - If taken into play, the logical extension of this idea is to have character success or failure depend upon "the needs of the story". This is one of those ideas that people suspect story-driven gamers are proposing, but I don't think anyone is actually a big proponent of it. If that's really how you want to resolve things, there's a reasonable question as to why you're playing a game.

3 - If you ever want to see how much meaning can be squeezed into the simple act of climbing over a wall, then pick up Lois McMaster Bujold's "The Warrior's Apprentice" and read the first chapter.

4 - That is to say, an author can decide his character can fly a helicopter at the moment it comes up, but the character will be more consistent if that fact exists on his "sheet" from the getgo, so it doesn't come out of left field.

5 - If the protagonists main assets are his gadgets or martial arts skill, then capability is a big part of the fiction.

6 - You might not. You might have a GM who uses only published adventures, though realistically that's only on option for D&D and is variants, which don't offer much mechanical support for drawbacks anyway. If that's the case, then keep your head down, bring a 10 foot pole and keep checking for traps. I mean, yes, you can try to convince the GM to use your personal enemies rather than the generic ones from the adventure, but let's be frank - if she's only using published adventures to be begin with, then she may not be comfortable with changing things up like that.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bring On The Batman

I love Batman[1]. Lots of people do. But he's hard to talk about because there are, like, thirty seven different Batmen[2] depending upon which media you're absorbing, which writer is at the helm, the needs of that particular story and so many other things. Elements of character (Anger, calculation, paternal instincts, striving for human contact) and capability (Detective, martial artist, gadgeteer, icon of fear, iron will, long term planner) shift around based on the specific vision, and the particulars of the title that he's in. The Batman who patrols the streets of Gotham and the Batman who fights alongside Superman in the JLA[3] are so different as to be almost unrecognizable. Almost. Somehow, they're all still Batman, and that's a testimony to the power of the character.

This introduces an interesting and long-established challenge in gaming - how to mechanically represent Batman. Part of the interest of this problem is that it's very easy to model any particular Batman, even the JLA one, but very difficult to model all of them. If JLA batman were unleashed on the streets of Gotham, those would make for some very boring stories because he'd outclass the challenges so quickly as to perhaps be funny, at least for a little while. Similarly, Gotham Batman isn't going to last long on Apokolips.

The easiest solution is to fragment up the "levels" of play, so that street-level Batman simply has a different set of stats than JLA level Batman. Unfortunately, people seem uncomfortable with this sort of approach, because it's a bit too meta for taste.

Another option is to try to point balance things so that Batman really is as tough as other JLA'ers, at least on paper. The old DC Heroes game did this and, to be frank, it was pretty crazily broken since it managed it through what can only be described as an arbitrary and capricious pricing structure.[4] The net result was a Batman who was technically "balanced" (ish) with Superman by using a build you would never, ever see in play.

If you want a really fiddly solution, you can make it all about resource management. Batman has a ton of 2 point tokens, Superman has a dozen 10 point ones. When faced with almost any problem, Superman can overcome it by spending a token, but that's maybe not smart if it's a small problem. In contrast, batman needs to spend a LOT of tokens (like 16 of them) to get a 10 point effect, so it's not cost effective for him to do the big whammies. So Batman uses his tokens to deal with small menaces (though he can combine them when he must) and makes sure Superman has the "budget" to deal with the real problems. [5]

The last simple option is to make up the difference in narrative control. If it costs 20 "points" to make Batman in your system, but 100 to make Superman, then you hand Batman's player 80 points worth of narrative control, usually in the form of something like Fate Points. Now Batman has the ability to make declarations and manipulate events with the explanation being that he "planned for it". When he's not playing at that level, his Fate Point supply falls down to the appropriate budget (so maybe it's a 40 point gap when he's with the Outsiders, and no gap at all at the street level).

This actually works pretty well on paper, but in practice it depends a lot on how the Fate Point economy works. If Batman has only a few more Fate Points than Superman, or Superman can earn them just as easily as Batman, then they stop being a unique point of distinction for Batman.

Thankfully, this a solvable problem. I mean, I can't tell you what the solution is because it depends on the game. For example, the Refresh mechanic in the Dresden Files RPG[6] addresses a similar problem to this, but it does it on an abbreviated scale. The difference between a 10 refresh character and a 1 refresh character is noticeable, but it's no Batman vs. Superman. But even it can break down depending on how the game is played. In a game with stingy rewards, high refresh is very potent. In one with generous awards or lots of free tag opportunities, then a difference in refresh doesn't represent much of a handicap.[7] This is one of those things that's going to be determined from table to table, from session to session, and it's very hard to come up with hard and fast rules for how to handle it.

The solution I find myself toying with is also allowing those "normal" characters more bang for their buck, so that Batman not only gets more Fate Points, he can do more with them. This might be generic (like the list of effects or bonuses gets bigger and longer) or they could be bought (like superpowers) to do specific, schtick supporting things.

The former approach is, I think, pretty self explanatory; the latter is trickier. It runs the risk of looking a lot like Batman has a different character sheet at "JLA Tier", so that needs to be accounted for. While a bit ham-fisted, they could be explicitly called out as functions of the tier, not the character, but that's not terribly satisfying.

More effective, I think, would be some way to build these things so they scale up while supporting the same schtick, so the type of effect remains the same, but the scope of it changes with the scope of the game. Take, for example, Batman being the greatest detective in the world. At the street level that lets him do all kinds of Sherlock Holmes stuff, but at the JLA level, that Sherlock Holmes stuff scales up to things like outsmarting alien god minds, and making plans that unfold over millennia. . At street level, his icy glare can make a gangster back down. At the JLA level, it can cow the warlord of a thousand worlds. All because he's just that awesome

What I like about this approach is that it allows you to support the other human-but-awesome characters. If you go with a generic system (where they all just get more fate points, or generically more useful fate points) then the difference between Batman and Green Arrow becomes one of schtick, not mechanics, because when you're operating at Superman's level, it really doesn't matter if that attack came from a bow or a batarang,

With unique "narrative powers"[8], you can call out Green Arrow's schtick so that he can, for example, spend a fate point to create a situation where there's a tiny target that needs to be hit to great effect. "Great effect" might mean blowing up a car (at street level) but it might mean killing a sun (at JLA level).[9] As I think about it, this works incredibly well for gadgets. Street gadgets might include a mini blowtorch and some flash bombs. Super Or higher level gadget start getting much sillier (though one of the nice things about not-superfriends Batman is they keep the gadgets toned down these days. I dig that.)

It'll be worth thinking some about what these things-to-be-named later look like. It's easy to come up without he first dozen or so, but it may take some kicking around before I'm convinced this is a sustainable idea.

As a final nod, twitter shout out to @semiocity, @boymonster, @ThadeousC , @johnoghue and others whose discussion drove me to this post, which was quite different in its intent when it started.

1 - I love Superman too, but this is not the time for that particular geek dialectic.

2- And about 6 different Bruce Waynes, just for good measure.

3 - For those only passingly familiar, here's the issue in a nutshell. The JLA has guys like Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and The Flash. Batman is smart and tough and fast, but he's still a normal guy, so those really only go so far. So given that, how does Batman keep from being utterly useless when fighting villains who are dangerous enough to threaten the whole Justice League? Historically (think Superfriends, if that means anything to you) it was by making him a gadget guy, to the point where his utility belt probably outclassed Green Lantern's ring as an item of power. Modern writers have concentrated more on the tactical and planning advantages of havign the World's Greatest Detective on the team, and Grant Morrison's JLA run cemented Batman as a chessmaster, the guy who wins because he's always several moves ahead of any opposition.

4 - Pricing skills in a supers game is tricky, but it gets really crazy when they're treated like they're on par with powers. If Martial Arts are more expensive than Heat Vision, you may have a problem.

5- Entirely impractical, I know, but it's an interesting thought experiment. Consider, for examine, that many other JLA-ers may have 8 point tokens.

6 - Short form: The more magic you have, the fewer fate points you begin a session with.

7 - Which is why we don't depend on refresh as the *sole* balancing mechanic.

8 - Oh, god, as soon as I said that, I broke out in hives. That's a horrible, fight-picking name. It desperately needs to be called something else. I mean, in FATE terms they're a particular flavor of stunts, but that's not an answer. Aspect stunts? Might make sense in Fate terms that these stunts need to be tied to a specific aspect, like "Greatest detective in the world" or "Master Archer"

9 - Yeah, as an aside, the Archer power is not to be more accurate, but rather to create situations where being accurate matters.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Puttering Along

I seem to have blown past 200 posts. This is nice, but somewhat aggravating, since I did the same that at 100 - I figured I'd use the 100th/200th post for some meta commentary, but completely spaced. I could probably get away with lying about it - it's not like anyone else is actually counting posts - but that seems like poor sportsmanship.

given all that and the fact that I am wiped out and in a weird mood, I think we're going to get a less grandiose version of things.[1]

So, back in 2008 I went to Gencon in what was probably my most "professional" mode to date. I put that in quotes because even as I say it, I'm not entirely sure what I mean by that, but I met new people and got to be "in the industry" mostly by acting like I was. Many cool things came as a result of this, including some freelance gigs. A few more followed, and while it was no huge amount of assignments, it was kind of fun to write for someone else. It was also intensely educational.

Writing game books is just one more type of project, and all the good and bad realities of project management come to bear just as strongly. Communication, feedback and clarity are all going to be functions of how the person running the show handles things, and since they are usually juggling deadlines and multiple contributors, it can be a crapshoot to see how things shake out. Previous to that, writing I had done had either been in a straight professional context (which is to say, people I was doing it for/with were in the same office, and thus freely available) or for myself or Evil Hat (where I was pretty much accountable to me) so this was a very different experience and one which I think would have been pretty daunting if it had been my first time out.

And, even so, it was a little bit daunting. Some of it was process - different companies and different developers made for different atmospheres. WOD:Mirrors was made notably fantastic by Chuck Wendig keeping all the writers in the loop, kicking things around, rather than totally siloed off. It was a great experience, but there was an edge to it: It was fun and informative, but but it also left me less certain of my own writing.

Anyway, this ended up stretching writing muscles I didn't know I had, and I wasn't entirely satisfied with the result. I mean, the stuff I wrote was OK, but the one thing I ended up walking away with was the sense that it could have been better. Not just the writing, but how I wrote. My usual method was long dry spells punctuated by bursts of productivity. When I was writing for myself, this was no problem at all since I set my timeline[2] but on a contract job, that's an issue.

I had actually set this blog[3] up a while ago, as a hedge against the day I moved off Livejournal, but hadn't used it much,and I decided it was the tool for the job[4]. I would write something every weekday, with the intent that this effectively be a workout for my writing muscles. Having a clear purpose was somewhat liberating. It is an absolute joy when people read and comment on your blog, but it's a hard thing to come to expect it. Writing a blog for other people is a good way to end up depressed. Hell, even knowing that this blog is first and foremost for me, there have definitely been days where I get all "This was a really good post! Why has no one[5] commented!" Thankfully, I can usually just shake it off.

In any case, I mark this as a definite success. I think the blog's been good and occasionally useful, and my writing has gotten notably stronger. It's still full of holes and weak spots, but my ability to just do the work and produce words has increased measurably, as I discovered in a recent freelancing gig. I had to do a bit of a writing sprint for it and discovered that 2-3000 words per day is now my cruising speed, and I can push much higher. That's a good number. It's not amazing (the words per day rates of some folks I know put it to shame) and it's only so meaningful a yardstick (3000 words of crap is still crap)but at the same time it's something concrete that I can point to, and that's a big deal. 3000 words used to be work, and it isn't anymore. That's progress, and progress feels great.

Anyway, I don't mention all this as a preamble to any change. I'm still enjoying the blog, and there are still many problems with my writing that I'm hoping it will help with. But for everyone out there reading this, I just want to say "thank you". It's easy to say that I just do this for myself, and that I'd do it even if no one was reading, but in the real world, I would hate to test that theory. I treasure every comment and every eyeball, and consider myself lucky for every one.

1 - While Inception was totally worth seeing, seeing it on a weeknight has totally blown my sleep schedule.

2 - And in a professional context it doesn't come up because technical writing uses a different part of my brain, so far as I can tell.

3 - I have Wordpress set up as well, but in Wordpress I am infinitely tempted to fiddle with the settings, plugins, tools and such. I went with Blogger in large part to curtail those instincts so I would just write.

4 - This was also accelerated by my getting very badly burned out on RPG forums, but still wanting a place to discuss gaming.

5 - What's really dangerous is "No one" can end up meaning "No one in the past 3 hours"

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bad Habits of Good GMing

We are not perfect people. But sometimes that's useful.

Have you ever tapped out the notes of a song on a tabletop, perhaps with a pencil or your finger? There's been some study of this, where one group tapped out songs and the other side tried to guess what they were tapping. The listeners had a horrible success rate, which is no great surprise if you actually listen to someone tap without already having the song on your head. But what was interesting was that the tappers were convinced that the listeners were a bunch of morons because it was SO OBVIOUS what they were tapping.

The internet makes me think about this a lot.

Anyway, this is also the basis of one of my favorite GM tricks, and that is this: your impressions suck. I know you think you're totally *nailing* Walken there, but really? Terrible. We're humoring you, but if you didn't use catchphrases like "more cowbell!" we'd have no idea who you're pretending to be.

That truth might be a little embarrassing, but its also very useful to a GM, because when you try to play an NPC like a particular actor, that means you will be _consistent_ in your performance, but you don't need to worry about being to obvious because, as noted, you suck at this.

Ok, on the off chance that you don't suck, then just step outside of the usual media. Use your fantastic skills to imitate a character from books or comics. Your interpretation will, again, be consistent, but it should be virtually unrecognizable. All in all, it's a good trick for keeping characters straight. Especially if you suck.[1]

Harsh truths, I know, but we've got more coming. See, I'm not sure how to ask this, but, just between you and me, are you a bit of a dork?

Not you? Too cool for that? Well SOMEBODY is watching that anime, buying those Batman comics and keeping Syfy on the air, and it's not me.[2] So it must be you.

I mean, you can see it in the characters you create. You finish creating a character, and you start thinking about all the cool things this guy or gal might be able to do someday. That cool power combo. That dramatic last-minute escape. That heroic facedown with your nemesis. The sacrifice in your moment of understanding. And the awesome swords. Don't forget the awesome swords.

But it never really goes that way, does it? Sure, games are fun, but they're never quite those perfect moments that the fresh character sheet promises you. So you tuck those hopes away in a dark place where they rot and become bitter, driving you to a life of posting on and telling people how they're gaming wrong.

Yes, it's a sad story. But that's not the only ending for it. The thing is you need to take all those shameless, delighted moments of hope that you've tucked away and stop thinking about them as things you'll never get to play. Instead, think of them as gifts. Gifts you can give your players. Next time you're going to run a game, make a character first. Make an AWESOME character first. Release all the restraints that have been put in place by years of lowered expectations and discussions of balance. Make that character you've always wanted to play that you know you're never going to get a chance to. Think about him and all the things you could do with him with the perfect GM running your game.

Then take that character sheet and rip it into very small pieces. Now is your time to be that GM. All that cheesy, cool fun stuff you really want? Hold onto it, but start thinking about how to give it to your players.[3] Certainly their tastes may not exactly match yours, but if a lot of exciting ideas are universal, and it is far better to make them happen for someone else than to never have them happen at all.

Lastly, that bit if laziness that tells you that when you've only got a little time to prep for a game so you're totally going to steal the plot from that TV show you saw last week, only with some ninjas instead of accountants, and maybe on the moon?

Listen to it. It's smart.

Good luck. You may need it.

1- Just to restate, this is about consistency more than quality. In reality if you pick someone particularly obvious, like Walken or DeNiro then you might tip your hand, but if you step it back just a little, but keep with people you know well (tv actors, especially dramatic rather than comic ones, tend to be good for this) so that you maintain the same tone whenever you imitate them. The imitation may not accurately capture the actor in question, but it will come to capture the *character*.

2 - Except it totally is.

3 - In addition to inspiration, this can be a mechanically useful exercise. Setting aside that a GM should go through chargen at least once for ANY game she's going to run (if only to catch the pitfalls) this can be a very good way to understand expectations. If you make a character and realize all the cool stuff has to wait until he's accrued an absolutely stupid amount of XP, then maybe you need to consider handing out more XP in your game, or starting with more of it. Finding out firsthand what the system can and can't support is much better done before play begins than after.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thank You Burn Notice

So, the first real session of the light supers Cold War game happened last night after a long interruption after chargen finished. It was short, as will be its fate as a weeknight game, but I think it went well. Small number of dice rolls - everyone at the table is experienced with diceless play and the character sheets very clearly communicated what the characters were strong enough at that rolling wasn't really necessary. That alone was an interesting experience: All the things system is there to help with happened - skills and issues were engaged, and important elements were brought to the forefront - but the system itself barely raised its head at all.

I'm not the sort to just treat it as a "What a great session, we hardly rolled dice at all!" sort of event without examination, and the examination is an interesting reinforcement of an idea I hold close to my heart. To my mind, there's sort of an idealized level of play where important things just happen because that's the natural sensibility of the table. Because this is something we don't necessarily know, we come up with rules and systems to help us reach that, and depending upon what that ideal is for us, we gravitate towards rules and systems that help support that ideal. But because rules serve that end, they are ultimately disposable if you ever reach a point where you can get the things you need without them. It's roughly akin to a writer following instructions and answering questions until something clicks and he can start writing. He doesn't discard the rules, he just internalizes them, or proceeds from an understanding of why they're there.

The specific table I'm playing the cold war game with is one with whom system does not really contribute a lot We know each other well, as the players seek out their own pain instinctively. Hell, we barely touch aspects because everyone falls into effectively self-compelling without a second thought. I could be running this game with almost any system under the sun, and we'd have used very little of it.

Which is not to say I'm considering going systemless. Last night was, in large part, a framing session. There were threats, but they were sufficiently within scope that there was little tension in the actual conflicts (though there was plenty in the build-up and in the less overt conflicts). When it comes time to ratchet up the threat level, system will become more important if only because abstract numbers are perceived as meaner than I am. But even that is an excellent illustration, at least to me, of how important it is to understand the role of system.

Anyway, that's all a bit tangential to what I was originally going to write about which is, of course, Burn Notice. See, I'm a big fan of rules that make for easy scenario design, such as Robin Laws' "Three Fight Scenes" rule for designing Feng Shui scenarios. Another one that I've become fond of, and which really helped in designing last nights game, is the Burn Notice Rule.

See, the show Burn Notice revolves around Michael Westen, a blacklisted spy and his badass friends. Michael is super-competent, and much of the joy of the show is watching him end up somewhere between James Bond and MaCgyver. He is so competent, that most of the challenges he is given are well within his capabilities, but that would make for boring TV, so the average episode of Burn Notice presents him with two challenges[1] which, while not in conflict with one another, force him to split his effort and allocate his resources to try to manage both, something that is more challenging and thus more interesting to watch.

This model is incredibly applicable to other games and stories where the hero is very capable. Rather than presenting additive challenges (which is to say, more powerful opponents, demanding steady escalation of foes), the addition of an extra thread can provide a serious challenge without undercutting the character's competence[2]. Creating a bad guy who's more powerful than Superman is a disruptive thing. Creating two bad guys who are less powerful than Superman, but able to create a problem isn't. All of which is to say, that you can often get more mileage by widening the problem than you can by deepening it.

So as I looked at my notes for the game last night, I felt like the thread I had was good, but it fell a little short, and so I turned to the Burn Notice Rule - If things seem to simple or easy, add another plot. And wham - suddenly what had been a too-clear, too-linear set of ideas became a properly Cold-War-Esque muddle, full of interesting points of engagement. Worked like a charm.

So thank you, Burn Notice. You really do make everything better.

1 - In normal parlance this second thread is a B plot, and the B plot is a hugely important thing in making useful stories. But I single out Burn Notice in this regard because the B plot tends to be really big and robust, more like a plot in parallel than a true subplot. Contrast this with a show like White Collar - there's usually a B plot (Neal working on solving his mystery) and it might create a complication or two in the main plot, but the main plot is still clearly on center stage (until the episode where the B plot moves onto center stage, but that's a whole other thing).

2 - Which is one of the real problems with additive opposition. By the time you reach the fourth or fifth iteration, you've transformed the character from being a badass to being the bottom rung of some unending ladder. This is, by the way, the plot of about 90% of the fighting anime I've seen.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Long time back I met a guy with a talent. He was smart, charming and engaging, the kind of person who lights up a conversation, but that alone was not enough to really merit mention. No, what struck me was that he was able to take the spotlight that he created around him and direct it at others in the conversation without any apparent thought or effort. He could easily dominate conversations, but instead he brought others in, others who might not be as casually fluent as him, but who had something to say if you could get them comfortable enough to speak. He was subtle enough at it that it took me a while to notice he was doing it at all, but once I noticed, I could only marvel at it.

I decided that this was a skill I wanted to have. Not only was it something I considered genuinely admirable, I'm really interested in people, and helping smart, interesting people get comfortable enough to talk is something that I'm very selfishly happy to make happen. Over the course of several years, I've become decent at it. I doubt I will ever have that kind of fluid grace, but who's to say?

This came back to me the other day in the context of discussion of what to do when a player freezes up at the table. This is a rough issue for gamers to address because it's much more of a social issue than one of game mechanics or setting mastery. We often adopt a survival of the fittest approach to speaking and decision-making - if someone is not able to speak up for their position, then they obviously don't care as much about it as the guy who's chomping at the bit to shoot his mouth off.

This is infuriating crap. I like to hope that we're playing games with either friends (who we would treat better than that) or strangers with a shared interest (to whom we have hopefully been taught to be polite), but I worry that we don't always act that way. Not necessarily out of malice or jerkishness, but rather because we're not always aware of what we're communicating. So with that in mind, I want to talk a little bit about players freezing up, and what can be done at the table.

The freeze up itself usually occurs at one of two points - either the player is in a position to make a choice (such as what move to make) or they've been put on the spot. There are some similarities between these freeze ups, but they are slightly different beasts, and that's going to come up in the response. For now, let's look at the common ground:

The important thing to remember is that these are social games, and as in any social setting, people don't like to look stupid. When someone freezes up on a choice, they are looking around the table at people who, to their mind, could easily make the right call if they were faced with this the same decision. The last thing they want to do is make a wrong call and look like a fool in front of their friends.

There's an instinct that kicks in here for a lot of folks to try to solve the problem by offering advice. Sometimes its as blatant as declaring the right answer, but usually it's couched a little bit more 'subtly' with reminders about rules or options. This is usually well intentioned, but it just makes the problem worse. Not only does it cheapen whatever decision gets made (because even if successful, the freezing player will attribute the success to the help) but it also reinforces the player's sense that they're the dunce at the table full of people who 'get it'.[1]

And that leads to the first rule of dealing with a freeze: Shut your pie hole.

Yes, I know, you just want to help, but just sit on that instinct for a while. If they have questions, then you can help out by answering them (briefly, please - don't use a question as an opportunity to squeeze in your own advice) but keep it limited to that. And that leads to the second rule: A little patience won't kill you.

I hate that I even have to say this one, but if your response to someone freezing up is to sigh, tap your feet or fingers or stare pointedly at them, you need to learn to not do that. Yes, you could do whatever they're doing faster and better. That's great. But you don't need to convince anyone of that. Take the moment to check your character sheet or just chill. A game takes several hours to play; you can spare a minute or two.

Now, for all that it can be rough to be put on the spot for a tactical or game decision, that is at least a (hopefully) constrained set of options. Freezing up when presented with a roleplaying event or a broader decision introduces a new set of complications. Not only is there the existing stress about doing it right, there's also an element of performance anxiety. They want to be interesting or funny or fun, and they don't want to be the reason the game falls flat. When this happens, the advice for a tactical decision applies, but there's also one more thing you can do, and this is the third piece of advice: Back their play.

Yes, they will probably make a decision different than you might, they might not quite nail the scene, but whatever. What's important is how you respond to it. If you respond with nitpicking, or with workarounds to nullify or undermine that they've done, it's going to be obvious. Instead, respond like it was the right idea, and you'll find it usually works out to be.[2] This may seem overly touchy-feely, but there's actually a very cynical benefit from it - these decisions can take a game in genuinely unexpected directions, forcing you to play a little harder and better to make it work. That is to say, by helping the other player, you're also creating the opportunity to raise your game.

I've made a lot of generalizations so far, and the last important thing to realize is that some of them are going to be wrong. People might freeze up for totally unrelated reasons, or respond well to different kinds of responses. And this leads to the last and possibly most important point: Don't assume. Ask.

I don't mean ask when they freeze - that's just more pressure - but be willing to broach the topic in post-mortem discussion. Make it clear you saw the behavior, that you aren't upset by it, but that you just want to talk about what happened and what can be done next time. Maybe it'll be fruitful, maybe it won't. People are quirky that way. But you will never know unless you ask.

So, those are the four quick and dirty rules for helping with a player freeze:
  1. Shut Your Pie Hole.
  2. A Little Patience Won't Kill You.
  3. Back Their Play.
  4. Don't Assume. Ask.

These won't help with every problem at the table, but you'd be amazed how far they go.

1 - And that's the generous interpretation. If this happens a few times, it is also possible for the player to conclude they're at the table with a bunch of condescending jackasses. I hate to generalize, but this is a problem that female gamers run into a _lot_, with male players a little bit too eager to help. It's usually well intentioned (though sometimes it is genuinely condescending assholery) but I've seen his behavior destroy games for many smart, awesome women because (shockingly) they would rather lose honestly than win because someone has told them what moves to make.

2 - This is, I know, an open door to "My guy wouldn't do that" kind of responses, to which I can only shrug. If you aren't creative enough to figure out a reason why your guy would, and if your purity of vision is so important that you don't mind treating someone else badly, then I acknowledge this advice is not for you.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Some Number of Palaces

Someday, I'll review a book immediately after I actually, y'know, read it.

Anyway, back when I was waiting for Changes to come out, I decided to poke around and try out some other books in the genre. I enjoy the Dresden Files, so no doubt there's other stuff that would appeal to me. With this in mind, I hit Amazon.

On a mission like this, I am intensely happy with the Kindle's preview feature. I grabbed the sample chapters for several books and series that Amazon recommended, and man oh man did that save me a fair amount of money. The books I grabbed tended to fall into two categories - stories about someone's White Wolf character, or somebody's personal version of John Constantine. Almost all of them began with a first chapter that was very clearly IN THIS CHAPTER I AM INTRODUCING CHARACTERS AND ELEMENTS, and that was a turnoff. If nothing else, the kindle really underscores how important it is for the first chapter to be a grabber, because if it's not, I have other samples I can try.[1]

In this pile was Harry Connolly's Child of Fire, which I'd added on the recommendation of a friend. It hooked me immediately. Not only did it open with a strong sense of forward momentum, Connolly has a talent for how not to explain things. He introduced plenty of elements that were baffling, but he struck a balance (much as Vandermeer did in Finch) between "Enough to keep me curious" and "So much weird stuff I've stopped caring". Better yet, the protagonist gave an excellent sense of being in over his head while still being a clear Man of Action. That the other character introduced with him was a tiny woman who could A) punch through his head and B) very much wanted to brought it all together enough to get me invested in whatever was going on between the two of them in addition to the greater mystery.

What followed was supernatural investigation & action with liberal doses of pretty compelling horror. The basic framework is straightforward: The protagonist is pretty much the lowest man possible on the totem pole of the secret society of magic-using folks who are committed to protecting the world from invasion from otherdimensional predators. We see very little of this conspiracy (the Twenty Palaces society, from which the series gets its name) but the hints we do get make it clear that they're not really good people, but the threat they protect against is much, much worse.[2] It's a nice framework, and the bits we see are tantalizing. Even setting aside plot and such, I look forward to Connolly unspooling the cosmology some solely because this seems awesomely gameable[3].

At a high level, there's some standard stuff afoot, bad guys to be fought, secrets to be sussed out, mysteries to be solved, and that's a fun ride. Connolly does a good job of populating the setting in a convincing fashion, and at least one review I've seen explicitly calls out his putting normal folks, including older women, in heroic roles as a standout point. To that, I would say only that I did not notice it because they are portrayed as *people* convincingly enough that the other elements didn't even strike me as odd.

If this was all there was to it, I'd still recommend the book. It reads well, is fun, and has a promising premise. But there's still one thing that pushes it past that mark, into the realm of a book I would enthusiastically endorse, and that is the monster.

Extradimensional threats are almost ubiquitous in fiction these days. Horrible things exist beyond the realms of our understanding, waiting to come in from the cracks and destroy everything. Gibber gibber gibber. It's a tired idea, and one that makes authors lazy. Lovecraft may have called things indescribable, but at least he put in the effort of writing a whole hell of a lot of words to say so. Now, tentacles, ooze and transitive behavior have become a lazy shortcut for these things.

Connolly deftly escapes that trap, presenting an extra dimensional menace which is unquestionably alien, but not lazily so. For those who have read Flatland (or any of the books it inspired), there is a moment when the two dimensional being meets the three dimensional being and it's mentally jarring to wrap your head around how it looks from the 2d perspective. It's weird, but there's a logic to it which, even if you can't grasp firmly, you can see the shape of. Connolly captures that sense of things being wrong, but still making sense in a disturbing way.[4]

He also effectively sells the outsiders as predators first and foremost - that they may be otherwise incomprehensible is kept in check by this single, solid touchpoint. It makes them interesting, and it speaks to their behavior in concrete, practical ways. Heck, for all the outsider we see in the book is interesting, I'm even more curious about the one hinted at in the protagonists past. Is that kind of a concrete anchor a big deal? I think so - it means there's enough substance for there to be something for me to be curious about, not just "oooh, tentacles and madness".

Now, I'm not going to pretend this is a great book, but it's fun. The pacing is solid, the fights are mostly well done, and it keeps the reader's attention from beginning to end while painting an interesting picture of the world. The threat is to children, but in a way that felt more truly horrible than simple button pushing (and as a new dad, I'd be happy to call the guy a douche if I thought he was jerking me around with easy emotional trick-taking). It was horrible enough that I'd definitely underscore the horror element in any recommendation, and there are a few people I explicitly won't suggest it to[5].

And recommend it I would for anyone looking for a fast, fun and dark ride. Really, my only complaint is that it's only the first book in a series, and I'm already chomping at the bit for the second.

1 - If you MUST use the first chapter to introduce things, do it in a way that is its own self-contained and entertaining story. One of the best first chapters in all of fiction, for my money, is in Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand. It has almost nothing to do with the rest of the book (and, in fact, is really better than the rest of the book) but it establishes the protagonist in a fun, compelling way with the right mix of show, and tell, with a conflict introduced, escalated and resolved, all in one chapter.

2 - Dresden Files fans, consider it through this lens: Imagine if there was only one law of magic, and it was "Don't truck with things beyond the outer gates because they will eat the goddamned planet".

3 - Mechanically, everything presented in the book can be handled with the Dresden Files RPG, but I'm not sure there's quite enough in the book to really do it justice. There are ideas about magic, like the price and nature of spells, that probably merit some more exploration before giving them a try. Additionally, since it seems to be a model of few spells with great power and great cost, some of the ideas of Spells as Merits from WOD:Mirrors might also prove a good match.

4 - Perhaps not coincidentally, since certain elements of the specific weirdness are effectively fourth dimensional.

5 - Basically, if a threat to kids hits your buttons, this book will probably freak you out. The threat is pretty disturbing, without being the wrong kind of disturbing. That is to say, there's no sexual element to it, or fetishization of it, just a genuine and horrible threat to children which is made all the more horrible because it's kids (a fact the text and characters acknowledge). It genuinely disturbed me in a way that splatterpunk torture porn and other horror trends do not, but I feel that in doing so it made for a genuinely stronger book, if only for making it clear what was at stake.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Thought Experiment

This is a little thought experiment that I like to apply to games I'm playing or running. It's just a simple question, but it ends up highlighting a lot of useful things, at least for me. It consists of asking one thing:

If the players could resolve every fight quickly and trivially (such as with a single roll), what would the game look like?

The purpose of this is not to theorize what your players would do if they were the worlds foremost ass kickers,[1] rather it is to ask how much your game depends on fight scenes to hang together. It reveals whether fight scenes are a complementary component of your game, or if they're really the only reason you play.

There's not a wrong answer to this. If you're running a 4e game that is basically all fight scenes with a little connective tissue, then that's fine so long as you're aware that you're doing it. It's very easy to get sucked into a nicely produced adventure or a meticulously handcrafted dungeon and think that the framework of walls and doors is actually creating something satisfying.

It also makes a good reality check for your pacing. Stopping and thinking about what happens if fights are much shorter forces you to think about how many fights you get in a session and how much time they take up. When I stopped and looked at this in my D&D 3e game it was clear that sessions were falling into a "plot sandwich" model, which is to say that I'd get in 1 or two fight scenes, with a clear pattern of plot-fight-plot or fight-plot-fight. Knowing this, in turn, helped me plan more satisfying sessions for everyone because I had a realistic sense of how much ground we could actually cover in a session.

Now, some games have an easy answer to this, because hey, no fight scenes at all. That's all well and good, but the question is worth considering if only to alter to suit your game. If fights aren't a cornerstone of your game, think of something else that is, and ask what happens if it's abbreviated. Doing so is not a proposal that you actually remove the element, rather, it's to see what thoughts and ideas its absence (and possibly the horrible mess it creates) suggests.

1 - Though that is also a fantastic question.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Choice is an incredibly important part of RPGs, and how its handled can tell you a lot about the game and its priorities. But choice is also a tricky widget, one of those things that looks simple on the surface, but offers great complexity as you delve in deeper.

For example, there are different kinds of choices. One model I'm fond of it to look at the bulk of choices as existing on two axes.

The first is whether or not the choice is real. A real choice can be a little bit difficult to define in the context of an RPG because, on some level, it's all fiction. Still, the idea is this: a choice which has an impact on the fiction (that is to say, it causes a change). Now, for this to make sense you need to buy into the idea that the idea of the game has some concrete reality, and not everyone is on board with this idea, but let's just roll with it for the time being.

This question comes up a lot in discussion of stories in games. In a game where the plot finds the players, you can often end up with false choices. For example, the players may be presented with a map with numerous destinations and may apparently choose from any of them in their hunt for the MacGuffin. In some games, the next clue the players need will be in whichever destination they choose.[2] This works out nicely for the ebb and flow of play, but it also means the player's choice didn't actually have any impact on the game.

The counterpoint is pretty obvious - player choices that direct play or impact the setting. These are the bread and butter of solid tactical and resource management play - action is taken, it has consequences, those consequences are responded to with further action.

This is a good division, but to really give it context, how to make it so hinges on the second axis, meaning.

Meaningful choices are ones where the players have a personal investment in the outcome. Ideally, this is derived from their investment in the game and its elements, but the source is of secondary importance. Players may make any number of choices for their character, but some of them are simply trivial, like what they had for breakfast. They might be colorful or entertaining but, the player doesn't have an emotional investment in the outcome. A choice that affects things that are important to the player is going to carry more weight, but pinnign that down can me rough.

This is where the axes start helping. The easy assumption is that meaningful choices just needs to be about something important, but that overlooks something critical. See, no matter how high the stakes are, they only matter if the choice is not obvious (which is to say, that there's a real choice). If the choice is between saving 100 and 1000 lives, it has no weight because, however important those lives may be, the choice is obvious. Even when you sweeten the pot and, say, put loved ones in the 100 that can still fall flat in the kind of game that rewards "right" decisions.

Because of this, meaningful choices can't be strictly utilitarian, cost-benefit analysis stuff. If everything important in the equation can be boiled down to math[3] then the choice is not made, it's discovered via calculation. This can be a satisfying process, but it scratches a very different itch.

And that leads to the other end of the axis - sometimes you don't want to be getting squishy stuff all over your wargame. Tactical decisions and resource management are routes to fun, and if you're looking to capture that particular kind of play, adding in emotional meaning to the game is going to undercut things. Even if one doesn't want to be in this mode all the time, there are times when you don't want to have emotional investment in the soldiers in your wargame.[4]

Given all that, I like to view the upper right hand corner as a goal, even if its not always practical. Sure, every choice should be real and meaningful, but every now and again I'm going to want to step towards something real but uncompelling (like a good fight scene for its own sake) or meaningful but perhaps a bit less real (that is to say, something fuzzy and muddled like most human interactionis). Hell, sometimes I want to dip back into the trivial just for the sheer joy of playing through eating my breakfast. But what's important is that I know my target square. Someone else might have a different target square but still dip into the others based on their own needs.

1 - I uploaded a diagram here, but Google is being weird, so it may never show up, so in its absence, let's illustrate with a dungeon room with two doors.
In a game with fake, meaningless choices, there's a monster behind each door which you will fight solely because its a monster. In some cases, one door will be locked in a totally unopenable fashion.

In a game with real, meaningless choices, one door has a monster and the other may have four hours of boredom (or a bathroom, or some other non-monster option) behind it. Whichever door the players choose is the one they're stuck with.

In a game with fake, meaningful choices, the bad guy that the players REALLY want to fight is behind whichever door they open first.

In a game with real, meaningful choices, the guy they hate is behind one door, but Aunt May's medicine is behind the other one.

2 - One alternate version of this is that whatever choice the players make, they will still end up in the same place due to events the GM brings to bear. Net result is pretty much the same.

3 - Obscuring information is the common way to address this, so that there's math, but you don't know what it is, so you have to guess, and in guessing you theoretically make it a softer decision.

4 - Much the same way that you don't necessarily want to bust out a social combat system every time you have a scene with a loved one.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

One Man's Cheating

I have old AD&D character sheets where my character's inventory list rolls over onto an extra sheet of paper. I delighted in packing everything I could think of to be prepared for every contingency that might ever possibly come up. I devoured articles in dragon magazine about tricks like casting continual light or darkness on marbles or sling-stones, then covering them with clay until you needed them. I kept careful inventory of caltrops. I was seriously overprepared.

That became less fun over time. Part of it was that the bookkeeping was kind of a pain, but most of it was that the situations I imagined, where we'd be in serious trouble but I could pull out just the right thing to save our bacon and thus illustrate my cleverness never really materialized, at least in part because such situations would, by their nature, be horribly contrived. Some of the credit also had to go to adventure designs which, to my young mind, cheated by attempting to circumvent just such 'cleverness'.

I once got in a long argument about whether or not I could get XP for diverting a creek so it flooded a dungeon and drowned a bunch of monsters. At the time, I thought I totally deserved it because it was a clever solution to the problem, and the game was all about rewarding that, right?

I don't view RPGs as so much of an outlet for problem solving anymore, or rather, I do, but in a different way. Being prepared is not much fun for me anymore, though I'll still delight in solving problems with limited resources. As with many things in life, it's those limitations that make it satisfying.

I don't remember which game I rounded the corner on this with, but one day I found myself playing a game where your inventory primarily consisted of the things you would likely be carrying. That is to say, as an adventurer you probably had rope, rations, torches and all the other things that you'd be an idiot not to have brought. If you wanted something special over and beyond that you could acquire it, or if there was a question regarding whether you'd packed a thing, the GM would rule (if it was stupid) or you could roll the dice (if it was reasonable, but uncertain), but mostly we just trusted everyone to be cool about it. This was huge. This idea that there might be things in my backpack without my explicitly noting them turned a lot of my assumptions on their ear, and I liked it.

This was probably the narrow point of the wedge of player empowerment for me. It was a very small thing, but having the right to say "There's a torch in my backpack" created the possibility that I, as a player, might be able to say other things and have them be true. This got accelerated by playing Amber, which among other things has the dirty trick of allowing huge player empowerment by making it all work through in-game powers, and lead to my fairly open stance that I hold today.

All of which makes it very hard for me to remember that for someone else, my ephemeral backpack may be cheating. I can intellectually wrap my head around it, but I have to stop and think to do so. For me, turning that corner was so liberating, and opened so many doors that I can't understand why everyone else hasn't done the same. Such is the arrogance of enthusiasm - there are plenty of people for whom the things I have found fun in are worth little.

But for all that, here is what I consider the great irony. It is because of all those lessons and the discarding of those ideas that I think the me of today could make the game that the me of then never got to enjoy. It's all a trick of perspective, you see - I may not have been doing it consciously, but younger-me was making declarations about the game too, jut in a way he (and anyone he played with) was not wired to hear. That inventory list was not just an approach to problem solving, it was a laundry list of the kind of problems he wanted to encounter. If someone were to look at it that way and use it to build adventures, younger me would be on cloud nine.

Of course, even that would be cheating in some corners of the hobby. Building the adventures according to player input rather than as free-standing edifices is unrealistic! But at that point, I admit that my generous spirit frays. People are welcome to their fun, but if there is an expectation that I need to apologize for mine, or that mine is somehow threatening theirs, then I am willing to quietly wait for them to be quiet and grow up.

It may take a while, but I'm a patient guy.