Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Pitch In The Dark

Fred has opened the door to pitches for a book of Don't Rest Your Head hacks, which is a fantastic idea. You can find out more details, you can check out his post, and if the idea appeals to you, I strongly encourage you to consider writing a pitch.

I've had an idea for a DRYH hack for years, and this seemed like a good opportunity, so I crafted a pitch[1]. After passing it along to Fred and Ryan, I asked if they would be cool with me putting it out there in public, both as example an encouragement. They gave the thumbs up, so I'm going to share it here in hopes it helps someone considering their own pitch.

Proposal #1: Don't Turn Your Back
~2000 Words
Rob Donoghue - [redacted]
I've Written for Evil Hat, MWP, WOTC and White Wolf.

Don't Turn Your Back: A game of action, espionage, and the prices to be paid for both.

This is, for all intents and purposes, a hack for using DRYH to run stories in the style of Casino Royale - superspy stories with all the trappings of gadgetry and badassery, but with nightmares and madness being replaced with the growing threat of compromise and moral decay. Characters are Agents, badass masters of espionage, assigned to stop The Opposition from carrying out their Sinister Master Plan.

While this was conceived in the vein of Daniel Craig's James Bond, the idea is flexible enough to handle much of the "action-espionage" genre. This is not suited to games of quiet intrigue - it is for a game where intrigue is shaken (not stirred) with excitement, violence and sex.

Mechanical Tweaks:
  • Exhaustion is now moral exhaustion, the toll of taking lives and trying to live in the strange limbo of a spy's life. Go to far, and you're In the Wind.
  • Madness is Support (sounds nice, doesn't it) - you can draw on it for resources and gadgets, but doing so runs the risk of Blowing Your Cover.
  • Talents - Two Statements, one "I Always" and one "I Never", both with a qualifying conjunction from the GM(A la Mortal Coil)
  • Despair is The Master Plan, and serve as a clock for the game.

    New Elements:
  • Asset Dice - A single blue die to represent that NPC helping you out. Useful, but expendable. Works like extra discipline, and can be sacrificed to recover from being In The Wind or a Blown Cover, but the Asset goes to the GM.
  • Help and Trust - Loan another agent your discipline dice for a roll, but he may choose to put any bad outcome on you.
  • Secret Agendas - In multi-agent games, everyone has their own agenda over and above stopping the opposition.

    [back] 1 - My wife's comment was 'only you would apply for a job at your own company'
  • Tuesday, December 27, 2011

    About Those Elves

    Today, I want to talk about elves.

    When you sit down to make your own fantasy setting, whether for publication or just for your own game, the simple reality is that you stand under the twin shadows of Tolkien and D&D. They set an expectation for what a fantasy world looks like and, more importantly, they establish the baseline you will be judged against. Even if you had never read either, nor any of the bajillion books influenced by them, your fantasy setting would be described in terms of the way it's _not_ Tolkien.

    One of the classic decisions to make in a setting is how to handle race - not in the nuanced sense of modern conversation, but rather the seemingly simpler question of the inclusion of non-human races. There are a few ways to approach this, and there are good and bad angles to each approach.

    The first is to just roll with it. You shrug your shoulders, accept that a fantasy setting has humans, elves, dwarves and maybe some kind of hobbit analog. Elves are long lives, magica, beautiful, blah blah blah. Dwarves dig holes, grow beards, drink and fight. Hobbits do...well, something other than just farm in pastoral-england-equivalent. Probably steal.

    This can be done well, as illustrated by most published D&D settings. Just accepting it and moving on to more interesting things tends to work out pretty well, provided those other things are actually interesting. It's also fairly hard to do this too badly, since there are clear guidelines to follow. You'd need to really take steps to make it worse.

    The best such setting find ways to make the dwarves and elves interesting within the bounds of these ideas. Dragon Age, for example, has very standard-seeming dwarves, but enough thought has gone into their culture that they feel much more interesting than the standard. The worst settings tend to accentuate the stereotypes even further, though thankfully, it is rare to see that in a finished product.

    The next option is to yank them out. There are two approaches to this - the first is to simply embrace a human-only fantasy setting. This is a powerful, workable idea, but I'm not going to dwell on it much because that's a hole other kettle of fish. The other approach is to remove one race or another.

    Skyrim does this very well - the setting very clearly had dwarves(effectively) at one point, but they all vanished at some point in the past. Adds a mystery to the setting, provides an excuse for interesting ruins, but removes the need of dealing with them in play.

    The famous bad example is from a brilliant game called Talislanta, which famously advertised "NO ELVES" as a means of setting itself apart from D&D. And it was true, as far as it went. Tal actually had dozens and dozens of races, many with fascinatingly fleshed out cultures. But if you looked at the art, there sure were a lot of slim, graceful, pointy-eared races as part of the mix. It looks and feels like they got rid of the word elves to prove a point more than to serve a purpose.

    Supplemental to this is the possibility of inserting your own. I feel really torn on this because on one hand I'm always a fan of celebrating creativity and encouraging people to do new and interesting things, but in practice, it follows certain predictable patterns.

    Most such races are ones that are cool to some specific segment of the readership. There's always someone who wants to play a cat-man or a minotaur or whatever, and it's usually pretty clear when such an inclusion is the author's race of choice. That's not intrinsically bad, but when the author thinks the race is awesome, he's less likely to actually make the case for why the race is awesome to anyone else.

    The real rub is that introducing a new race takes work. Elves and Dwarves have decades of assumptions and imagery to build on and your new race does not. If you give them equal time, you give the new race short shrift, but if you give the new race more space, you're showing favoritism. It's hard to balance.

    Games that have done it well have gone full bore from the ground up. Earthdawn used the hell out of its art assets to make sure the T'skrang were as strongly present in the images of the game as any other race, and it paid off (at least for me, since they're one of the few non-core races from a game I can remember off the top of my head).

    Games that have dropped the ball are legion, and mostly forgettable.

    The last and often most interesting approach is to put your own spin on it. Let the races remain recognizable, but change them enough. I turn back to Dragon Age for a great example of this - it's elves were very clearly once "classic" elves, but they've fallen from that and are now under the boot of history. Sovereign Stone did something more drastic, but interesting, and overlayed the races with a _different_ stereotypical model, so you had Samurai elves and Mongol Horsemen Dwarves and so on. It had problems, but the underlying idea was interesting enough to keep in mind.

    Terrible examples of this include kender. Worse examples of this include reskinning kender.[1]

    Now, the point of calling out these different approaches is not to say one of them is best, but rather to simply suggest that when you sit down to make your fantasy opus, this is something to consciously think about. Don't make a decision by default or out of a knee-jerk reaction. Know what you want, and make the choice that serves that.

    [back] 1 - Ok, why the kender hate? Because they're terrible. They are designed to enable the worse sort of screw-the-other-players play while allowing the all purpose what-my-character-would-do-defense. They are an idea that barely work in fiction, where there are checks on their behavior and on response, but which utterly fail in a real social context.

    Monday, December 26, 2011

    Jazz Rules

    I made a reference to something in comments on Friday which I realized is not an actual colloquialism, so I want to unpack it a little bit, since I think it's a powerful, useful idea.

    I am not a huge jazz fan. There's some stuff I like, but it's never been that big a thing for me. I attribute a lot of that to early exposure to improvisational jazz and the fact that it was utterly terrible.

    See, improvisational jazz is one of those things (like writing, and gaming) which is not hard to do, but is very hard to do well. When a novice discards form, technique and rules, he does so without the understanding of why those rules were there in the first place. The result tends to suffer greatly, and the novice is often left baffled as to why. He's not doing anything different than the old hand, so why is the outcome so different?

    If you're really good at something, almost anything, you're probably nodding right now. You can encounter this phenomena in almost any field. There are a couple reasons for this. As humans, the less we know about something, the more highly we rate our own abilities[1], so that's working against us, but there's also an issue with the nature of mastery. Many, many skills follow a similar trajectory where you start out learning what to do and then, after hitting a kind f tipping point, starting to learn what not to do.

    All of this is relevant anytime you want to write about how to do something, because the advice you need going up the slope is not the advice you need when you start going down it. This can lead to a lot of confusion, especially when the advice you might want to give is apparently contradictory.

    A lot of what I write is for folks who are climbing up the curve. I hope to be helpful to those on the far side of it, but I also trust them to be more capable to find what they need in my stuff without me hanging a sign on it. But it does mean that I occasionally give advice that might be really good in some situation, but REALLY BAD in your situation.

    I'm not happy about that, but I'm not terribly worked up about it either. It's just one of those things that's going to happen. The best I can do is be aware of it, and hope that others recognize the same.

    Anyway, to wrap this all up, when I refer to something as "Jazz Rules", I mean something that you need to learn to do before you can stop doing it.

    [back] 1 - There used to be a great post about this at You Are Not So Smart, but it seems to have vanished. This sucks. Anyway, it's called the dunnin-kruger effect, and it's kind of interesting.

    Thursday, December 22, 2011

    Counting Noses

    Want a quick litmus test for the health of your game? Ask one of your players how many NPCs they can name. If that number can be counted on one hand, that's a red flag.

    This may seem counterintuitive at first - after all, games are about the characters, and we all know the dangers of the GM falling in love with her NPCs - but it's never quite so simple as that. NPCs are a necessary part of the landscape for a healthy game for a number of reasons.

    First, and perhaps most simply, if you only have one or two NPCs, then they're more likely to be the worst kind of NPCs: Elminster style blunt instruments used to beat the players down the path chosen by the GM.

    Beyond that though, NPCs are important because they are the anchor points for motivations. Consider almost any motivation powerful enough to drive a character in play, and try to imagine how that works without other characters. Even seemingly internal goals, like growing stronger, need people to be tested against. Enemies provide competition and anger. Allies provide opportunity to prove yourself and sympathy. More complicated relationships spawn more complicated inspiration.

    NPCs also provide handles for players to grab onto when they are looking for direction. It's not uncommon for players to find themselves at loose ends, either between adventures or at a point of frustration, and having NPCs on top of mind give an easy way to address that. Enemies can be pursued, allies can be consulted - for players, a known NPC is like a door in a dungeon room. They can open it at their leisure.

    They also provide a point of comparison. NPCs can give a sense of how the world works, and give the players a sense of how they're doing. Fighting someone once doesn't tell you much, but fight them twice, and you have a story. Admittedly, this is a dangerous point, since this element of NPCs also contains the "Drizzt will always kick your ass" school of thought, but it's an unfortunate possibility, not a necessity.

    So, here's the thing. I just spend some number of words defending the necessity of NPCs[1], which seems like it should be utterly necessary. Every GM knows this, after all - NPCs are one of the key building blocks of the world. Your game is, I do not doubt, utterly teaming with NPCs. You could probably name a dozen without even checking your notes.

    But that's why the litmus test isn't about you. The number of NPCs you _have_ in the game is almost irrelevant. What matters is how many NPCs in your game have registered on your player's radar as anything more than "That guy from that one thing that time." No matter how crystal clear your NPCs are to you, if they're not in your players' minds, they're not helping the game.[2]

    [back] 1 - I'm leaving out the very important question of how many of these roles can be filled by other PCs for the simple reason that it's a bit of a doozy. Short answer, yes, other PCs can fill a lot of these roles, but it creates a very different feel for play. Whether that's a good or bad thing is uterly a function of taste.

    [back] 2 - This is, of course, also true of almost every other plot element. I've known far too many GMs to gnash their teeth at their players 'not wanting to role-play' because they don't realize that they haven't actually provided anything to role-play *with*.

    Feats and Faces

    I've always found the idea of feats more compelling than the reality. As I conceive them, I expect them to have a strong signature. That is, I expect them to really be strong differentiators, something that really calls out a clear distinction between characters who might otherwise be fairly similar. In 4e, this is one of the key things in determining a character's style, something I've touched upon before.

    Now, a few feats actually are this interesting, or at least point that way (something like a two-weapon fighting feat is usually a gateway) but the vast majority of them are small nudges, things that might be interesting in aggregate, but which are rarely worth getting excited about it. That would not be too bad a thing, except that a flat feat can mean advancement feels flat. That's no fun.

    The catch is, there are exceptions. There are a handful of feats floating around out there which are both interesting and mechanically potent. Some of the classics (like racial weapon feats) have just been seen as gimmies, feats you should always take if you can use them. I've always been drawn to those, and have always wanted more feats like them. Yes, this technically makes for more powerful characters, but usually in a way that makes them more thematic and interesting as well.

    But the twist is this - I want to guarantee that. I want a player to be able to pick a feat and have it carry a lot of weight, but at the same time, I don't want to just be making more powerful feats, so here's the extra element I want.

    At the end of every feat, I want to include a question.

    The default question is simple: "Who did you learn this from?" or some variant on that. Maybe that's the only question. The purpose of asking is simple: to introduce a new character into the world, one with a baked in connection to the characters. The lack of that is the death of many a game, something I will probably get into tomorrow.

    Wednesday, December 21, 2011

    A Bag Full Of Cats

    One of the jokes about older versions of D&D is that there was nothing more deadly to a wizard than a bag full of housecats. It's a double edged joke (made utterly unfunny in explaining) that highlighted both the fragility of wizards, who had trivially small numbers of hit points, and the problems with assigning even a small damage value (1-2 points) to something like a housecat.

    It also interestingly showcases some of the dangers you need to be aware of if you want to have more fragile characters in your D&D or D&D-like game. This is a popular trick for changing the pacing and level of tension in a game - by making the heroes (and their opponents) more fragile, you greatly speed up fights, but also make them feel more intense because of the intense sense of threat. It can also have unintended consequences as players become more risk averse, which can really bog down play.

    My own experience with this is deeply rooted in Rolemaster, which took a more complicated approach to resolving the same issue. Characters had plenty of hit points, sure, but the damage tables were full of bleeding wounds, broken bones and no shortage of gruesome, instant death. The net result was a strong sense that any fight could kill you if things just happened to go the wrong way.

    While this might have been paralyzing, we actually treated it as very motivating for two very specific reasons. First, it forced us to pay a lot more attention to the situations we were in to try to leverage them to our advantage. This meant that being sneaky and smart paid off.[1]

    Second, and more important, it forced us to really think about our characters and how they tied into play. As players, we faced two apparently contradictory facts: adventuring was genuinely dangerous, but we wants our characters to adventure. Forcing ourselves to resolve that contradiction made for MUCH more interesting characters, since they needed to have motivations capable of overcoming the potential risks. By itself that was sufficient to keep the game from slowing down, but it had another benefit.

    See, when you have a character whose motivations are clear and strong enough to you that they overcome a risk (which is also clear to you) then you have a character who is more likely to start engaging the game more fully. That is to say, when your motive is to adventure, then you will adventure. But when adventuring is a means to an end, you will start looking for other ways to pursue that end. If your real goal is revenge against your uncle, then you might delve dungeons for power and wealth to use against him, but you might also look to disrupt his mercantile arrangements or harm his allies. This is pure RP gold.

    None of which is to say that high-lethality is the only way to get that kind of investment. It absolutely is not. But if you find yourself in a game where players seem locked in a kind of dungeon-centric tunnel vision, seeing no reason to engage outside of that context, then perhaps a little extra risk is exactly what you need.

    [back] 1 - I want to contrast this with 1e D&D, specifically a game I'm currently involved in. In that game, we also spend a lot of time planning, but that planning primarily engages the system. That is, we think about what spells to cast and gear to use, because those can provide substantial bonuses. Terrain and situation are helpful, but secondary concerns. Which is to say, being smart pays off, but it doesn't make things much more fun.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011

    The Sports Paradox

    Every now and again someone gets it in their head that they want to do a sport-based RPG. It's a logical instinct - there's lots of great, classic sports stories out there, and they hit a lot of the same notes that make an RPG fun. I have nothing but admiration for anyone who wants to try, and I'm sure that someone will crack this nut someday, but in the meantime I want to call out the one big obstacle in the road that has been the doom of many of us, something I call the sports paradox.

    The RPG Sports Paradox: The only way to make an RPG about a sport is to make an RPG that's not about that sport.

    What does this mean? To understand it, take a minute to imagine a sports RPG. It doesn't matter much what the sport is, but the expectation would be that you would need rules for playing that sport. Seems obvious, but that's the trick - sports stories are not really about playing any particular game, they're about a destination. There are a couple of possible types of destinations, but they're mostly some variant of needing to win "The Big Game". The exact form of the Big Game is less important than the fact that it provides meaning to all the games along the way - they're the road to the destination.

    And that's where the problem arises. Such a game will fall apart if the players lose a game. Oh, sure, there are some tricks you can pull to smooth over things ("The Maplewood team got food poisoning! We're in the finals!") but they have the clear stink of Deus Ex Machina about them. So you're left with two choices: You can either allow the players to lose their games (and hope they won't) or you can guarantee that they won't.

    Allowing them to lose may be a viable option for a GM _running_ a game, but it's a bad decision for a designer unless you're very comfortable putting a warning label on your game that it could really end up sucking. It's an easy solution, and it produces unsatisfying games.

    The alternative, guaranteeing victory, can be approached in a huge number of different ways, but they all have something in common - they shift to making play (and the challenges and fun in play) about things other than the game, like achieving personal goals, overcoming personal challenges, building the team dynamic and so on[1]. These are good things, and they're the actual bread and butter of sport stories, and that's awesome.


    You've just made play about something other than the sport. Play is no longer about the game on the field, as would be envisioned when you describe "A sports RPG".

    So, that's the paradox and the trap. It doesn't just apply to sports, but rather to anything with a sports-like structure (Battle of the bands, Mortal Kombat, Shootouts at High Noon, Poker and so on) . If the narrative depends on a progression of wins to reach climax, then you're looking down the barrel of the paradox. And may god have mercy on your soul.

    Now, I'll toss in my two bits here for anyone looking to crack this particular nut. It's not my white whale, but I'm sure it's someone.

    The underlying system problem with this model is that it's fault intolerant. The fragility of the system is such that a single failure breaks it[2], so the trick to getting it to work may revolve around figuring out ways allow for failure in your particular narrative without being cheesy. There are a few possible models for it, some better than others. A hidden points system can kind of work, but the hand of the GM is pretty obvious in play. Similarly, you can put the players in a context like, say, college football, where the decisions on the final bowls have no relationship to previous play.

    One system that I haven't seen done, but which might actually be fun, is to treat it as generational play, with each "Generation" being a season. If the players lose in a given season, you advance the clock and pick up at the next season. Obviously, this only works for certain structures - it might suit a game about high school soccer, but not one of underground martial arts battles to the death.

    Whatever structure you settle upon, don't be lazy. The ultimate goal is not to be able to make a game that makes playing the sport matter without worrying about all that narrative crap. You want a solution that let's you bring those two elements together, so the dramatic and personal elements provide fuel for why your time on the field matters.

    1 - One trick is to give the characters access to currency (plot points or the like) that can give bonuses in play, and allow an unlimited amount of them (effectively guaranteeing play) but then use the number or type of points used to fuel between-game problems. At first glance this seems like a great solution because the sport-play is still "real" but that veneer is very thin indeed, and doesn't hold up under heavy use.

    2 - This is, BTW, the subtle distinction from a dungeon crawl. A single failure _could_ be a game ender, but the dungeon is more fault tolerant. There are many potential failure outcomes, including things like running away, getting captured or otherwise allowing the game to continue through a failure.

    Friday, December 2, 2011

    Something Awesome

    I was going to talk about what not to do today, but some awesome things happened, and I think I'll talk about them first.

    First, Ryan Macklin and Elizabeth Sampat put together the Random Kindness Bundle, a bundle of games to raise money for a friend who needs to field the bills that come from fighting cancer. This is a really, really sweet bundle of game pdfs, and it includes:
    • Elizabeth's "Blowback", which is basically the Burn Notice RPG. I have this in print form, so the PDF is a welcome addition to my library. This is a clever, badass game and worth putting in your brain.
    • Vincent Baker's "Murderous Ghosts". I know _nothing_ about this game, except that A) some people on twitter really dig it and B) It's Vincent Freaking Baker - how is that not a win?
    • David Hill and Filamena Young's "Maschine Zeit" which is a fantastic sci-fi/Horror game. I've still got a cool ass USB stick from when it came out.
    • Joshua A.C. Newman's Shock and Human Contact. If you know these games, you know why they're awesome. If you don't, you're in for a treat - Shock is a brilliant game that I don't play, but I steal from shamelessly. It's core engine is an awesome implementation of Heuristic Ideation Technique (the fancy name for 5x5 grid design) which should be in every designer's toolbox.
    • Adam & Sage's Dungeon World Compendium - This is new for the bundle, and I haven't even looked at it yet, but I'm excited. Dungeon World is a Hack for Apocalypse World for playing D&D kind of games, and that's cool and all, but what has impressed me more is that it's been (in many ways) a clearer presentation of the things that make AW awesome, which is no mean feat. Anything these guys want to add to that body of work is welcome indeed.
    • A collection of Josh Roby's "Rooksbridge" fiction. Josh is cool and all, but unrelated to that, the mofo can _write_.
    • Ben Lehman's "Clover". I have no idea at all what this is, but I know Ben (the brain behind Polaris and Misery Bubblegum) so my prediction is that it's totally weird, breaks all sorts of preconceptions of how a game should, and provides a host of new tools for looking at games. That's pattern recognition.
    • Jason Blair's "Little Fears" nightmare edition, a game that is on my list of "this game is brilliant, but I will never run it, because I like having friends" games, which is where the really, really good horror games go.
    • Plus, if they get $4000 in donations, then Macklin will pony up and release his white whale, Mythender, into the world.
    This is, needless to say, a great bundle, and well worth picking up at whatever price you're comfortable with.

    But that's only half the story.

    See, they launched this yesterday, round about noon eastern. And then proceeded to totally blow the doors off it. It's been less than 24 hours, and the $10,000 mark has already been crossed.

    I am so damn proud of this hobby, sometimes.

    Thursday, December 1, 2011

    What Shall We Do With This

    A lot of people will go to great lengths to publish an RPG. This used to be a much bigger problem in the past, when the singular vision for an RPG might require taking out a second mortgage on your house to pay for a giant print run that wouldn't even faintly sell through. Nowadays, various POD and similar options mean the bar is much lower, but the cachet (and, to be frank, the satisfaction) of producing a "real" book is still very strong.

    That's cool, but it's also double edged, because there is a difference between a creation of art and a product.

    I am firmly in the camp that believes in celebrating creation. If you put in a lot of work into making something and are brave enough to put it out there for the world to see, that effort merits praise, even if the creation itself is flawed. It's a kind of touchy-feely (and somewhat condescending) position, and I acknowledge that, but the hope is that the creation of a "safe harbor" is worth that. Ideally, it opens the door for deeper conversations than simple praise for creation.

    However, once you put that product out for sale, and claim the honor of being "published", then you have sailed out beyond that harbor. Once I can exchange money for your product, it's on an even playing field with any other product I can buy. That is to say, if your creation is a giant MS-Word file dumped into a PDF, that might be praise-worthy as an act of creation, but it's not much of a product.

    Now, obviously, this isn't an invitation to be unfair. One needs to be cognizant of the realities of creation - to expect that a one-man-shop can produce something with the polish of a WOTC product is unfair and unreasonable (though it makes it all the more praise-worthy when someone like Daniel Solis does). At the same time, however, this does not absolve a creator of responsibility for covering his or her bases.

    When I look at one of these games, I find it important to think about it in terms of the three main ingredients that make a product - money, knowledge and work. Most every element in a game is made of some combination of these things, though some elements skew strongly one way or another (for example, unless you're also an artist, art is a function of money).

    Now, this is important because if you're publishing your first game, you probably don't have a lot of money. The reality is also that you probably have less knowledge than you think you do. I don't mean this as a knock, it's just something that I think every creator is familiar with. Nothing teaches you more than your first product. That only leaves work, and work is a tricky one. It's admirable, but in the absence of the other factors, it can be like hitting the gas on a car stuck in first that's out of oil - lots of noise and heat, but little speed.

    All this comes together when you judge a product. Even if you can set aside the things which cannot be done because of money, you have to wonder if failure are a result of a lack of knowledge or a lack of effort. This is a key difference because the first inspires some sympathy (we all have been in a similar position) while the second inspires disdain (because the one thing we demand is that you do the work). Of course, that it's not always clear where the failing occurs, but whatever the source, there will be failings, and they're fair fodder for discussion.

    Anyway, this is on mind because I've been chewing on the failings of a particular product have run the entire course of this line of thinking, and I've found myself torn between two instincts. The first is to cede the ground to the "Don't be mean" line of thinking and just not discuss it at all. The second is to use it as the basis for illustration of how not to make the same mistakes. That chewing has lead to this post, which has really been me thinking it through.

    In the end, I think illustration wins.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011

    What's in the Box?

    While I have specific demands for maps in games, the issue if more muddled in pure-setting products, most famously defined by the boxed sets for things like Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms. These are well-loved products, and their design sensibilities have influenced many setting products that followed, but they merit some examination. The questions that intrigues me is what the purpose of these products really is - are they designed to be played in, or are they just bookshelves, waiting to be filled?

    To understand the distinction, let’s look at Greyhawk vs. the Realms. Greyhawk was designed to be played in if only because there wasn’t much choice otherwise. It was such an early product that it’s design as almost pure map plus gazetteer made a lot of sense. You could take it, pick a spot, and play your game. Yet even bearing that in mind, one of the interesting things about Greyhawk was that it provided a context for the locations of published adventures. I know that sent a little thrill down my spine the first time I discovered a note indicating which hex a particular adventure was taking place in. That was, I think, an inidcation of things to come.
    The Forgotten Realms was subtly different. Not so much in content; there were some changes, but not enough to really change the type of product. It was, however, a different beast from a commercial perspective. The Realms were a container, one able to hold any number of smaller supplements, novels, video-games and lord-knows what else. In that sense, the initial boxed set was a skeleton to be steadily fleshed out, and TSR delivered on that promise. The realms might have been thin and disconnected at the outset, but they filled it in admirably.

    (At this point there’s a requirement for an obligatory nod to the GMs of old whose insane notes provided the basis for these settings, and I hereby provide it, but only grudgingly. I applaud their creativity while I bemoan the fact that they convinced generations that binders full of data no one gives a crap about were going to be the next big thing.)

    This kitchen-sink model has had a huge impact on setting design, but it’s fascinating to me because it’s so much at odds with the realities of play as I’ve seen them. By and large, I have seen games either drill down into a specific are or, if covering a broad area, touch upon the setting very lightly. That is to say, real games tend to be narrow and deep or broad and shallow, but the average boxed set aims to be broad and medium-deep, thereby serving neither need.

    Now, product do exist to support these actual approaches. Many settings have “Gazeteers” or similar books - very slim (maybe 32 pages) volumes providing a very high level view of the setting, and almost all setting that produce subsequent books produce more detailed region books, those that zoom in on a specific area. Those products are much closer to the actual usage patterns of play, but they are secondary products.

    This suggests a fairly cynical purpose for the main boxed set, which I alluded to above. It’s the stake in the ground that allows a publisher to tether those more-useful document to. The big setting with its big map is not necessarily there to be used on its own, rather, it’s a menu of sorts. It’s a resource that lets you find the glittering object that catches your eye and choose which area you want to zoom in on. At that point, perhaps you will flesh it out yourself, but ideally (from the publisher’s POV, at least) you’ll buy the book that deals with the part that caught your eye. Better still, you’ll be curious about a few areas, and pick up several books!

    Does this sound like I’m asserting that the default model of presenting a setting is tooled more towards selling books than use in play? Well, yes, I suppose I am. Not to say that you can’t do both - I can think of several great examples where those two ideas have dovetailed awesomely (Birthright being the absolute best, in this regard). Plus, the people writing these things are almost always doing it out of genuine love, and that tends to muck with more cynical goals.

    In some ways, it’s been very fortunate for the hobby that we’re so bad at business.

    Monday, November 21, 2011

    Double Edged Maps

    I love maps in RPG products. There’s something utterly compelling to me about detailed maps of things and places that don’t exist. They’re a joy to look at, and they’re fantastically information-dense. You can derive a lot of meaning about relationships and tensions in a setting just by studying a map and considering how people get form point A to Point B, or wondering how people in that mountain kingdom get crops, and how that impacts their relationship with the folks on those rolling plains next door. To this day, I have a huge fondness for Sunndi (a section of Greyhawk), despite never having actually played in it, because I really spent a lot of time zoomed in on that section of the map, thinking about it.

    I want to make that love very clear, because I’m about to say something that seems to contradict it. When I see an RPG product with a huge map of the world, I immediately flinch and worry about the quality of the game. It is, to me, a red flag.

    See, to me, a map is a promise. It shows me what’s going to be important to the game, and if you give me a world map, then I’m going to think that the game operates at a global level, and this is a problem when it does not. If the game has a narrower focus (as most do - truly global games are rare) then not only have I been handed a bait and switch, but I have also been handed a great deal of extraneous data. That might be annoying, but not merit a red flag, except for one other issue: It makes me wonder what the designer was thinking. That is, if they don’t understand what their game is about well enough to scale the map appropriately, what else is off base? It’s a brown M&M.

    This is not to say that all large maps are bad. A large, detailed map is entirely appropriate for games of a certain scale, and I don’t begrudge them it. In fact, I think it’s pretty easy to spot the game/map mismatches if you look closely. And it’s fun to look for, since it also helps you see the games that really, really understand what their map was for. To that end, I want to call out a fantastic post by John Harper about what makes maps really fly in Apocalypse World, and add a big thumbs up to it. This is what a map should do for your game, and if it doesn’t, ask yourself why not.

    Monday, November 14, 2011

    D&D Media

    I do not drink often, but one of the occasions when I made an exception was the watch the Dungeons & Dragons movie with Fred. In retrospect, this was a very good idea. It was a terrible, terrible movie, primarily made tolerable by how much Jeremy Irons very clearly did not want to be there.

    Now, I’ve seen a lot of really terrible movies, and I have to admit that the majority of the most terrible ones have been ones written to pander to me as a nerd - think Max “I’m the Smartest Cop In The World” Payne, Doom or the entire Uwe Boll oeuvre. These tend to have a common thread between them (which they share with the D&D movie) in that they tend to fall into two camps. The first are so interested in celebrating the subject of the movie that enthusiasm is used as spackle where stronger structural material might be in order. The second aren’t even interested - they just feel like they’re transcribing someone else’s interest, and the net result is something that by some miracle of suck manages to be both bloodless and putrescent.

    Superhero movies have been pulling themselves out of this nosedive, and to my eyes it’s pretty clear this has been a result of a decision that these movies should not just rest on their subject material, and should in fact be good movies that happen to be superhero movies. This is not something that’s a function of any one element - writing, direction and performances have all played a part in this change - but there is an ineffable and critical change that happens when you decide the license is not enough (and, as a corollary, a sickening thud when you decide that it is).

    All of which comes back to D&D. Like super heroes and video games, D&D has a long history of sucking pretty bad (if you remember the cartoon fondly, do yourself the favor of never watching it again), but like those other properties, the problems are not rooted in the material. There is nothing that keeps there from being a good D&D movie or cartoon, it’s just a function of making sure it’s good first, and D&D second.

    If you doubt this, look to comic books. This is a really interesting time for D&D comics because of two things, both coming out of IDW. First, they’ve released collections of the old Dungeons & Dragons and Forgotten Realms comics. Second, they’ve released a new series of D&D comics, and the first collection is magnificent.

    Now, I read the old comics back in the day, and I enjoyed them a lot, but in retrospect I feel safe describing them as inside baseball. They were fun, but they were mostly fun because I was already a D&D guy. I doubt they’d have moved my needle if they’d been “Generic Fantasy Comics”. In contrast, the new books (penned by the tremendously talented John Rogers) are a lot of fun in their own right. Zippy dialog, great art - all the things that would make it fun even if it weren’t called D&D.

    That gives me hope. It’s a concrete illustration of what can be done with this thing I love (totally separate from these games I love). Why is this important? Well, it’s business. This could probably merit its own post, but you’d be better served listening to the latest episode of That’s How We Roll - it’s an interview with Peter Adkinson, and you will learn more about the business of D&D from that podcast than you will from anything else I can think of.

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011

    Notes from my talk

    I gave a talk at Metatopia on Sunday on talking to the talent and promised to post my notes, so here they are in all their semi-comprehensible glory. That said, on a lark, I recorded the bit of advice I got from Fred, so I'm throwing that up here as a bonus (warning - hugely amateur sound - this was me in 15 minutes between calls on my laptop).


    • This will be hard because you are probably also a writer
    • Giving people work that you could do yourself requires you to conciously let go and trust


    • Tips From Fred

      Make sure that when you say something like a quarter page, define that in inches
      discuss resolution (300dpi minimum)
      Size weenies
      If you’re working in print, you want CMYK, not RGB
      Have some expectations for the image, communicate them clearly, but don’t be married to your vision. You’re paying them for their expertise.
      Do the reference image research for them if you can.
      If possible, do an art reference of These characters in these places, esp if you’ve got strongly recurring characters or places.
      If you don’t have the images, you may want to do a round of references images first.
      Make it clear to the artist what stages of the process you want to be involved in
      Maybe even roughs/concept sketches
      Try to get ONE intermediary step, just for course corrections

    • Blog: The Art OrderDifferent process, but informativeWOTC Guy


    • Editor Blogs
    • You don’t need to communicate a lot with editors once you get going BUT
    • You need to communicate your vision to them to help them help you achieve it
    • When in doubt, blame the editor.


    • Go read Robin Williams “Non-Designers Design Book”
    • Very solid crash course in understanding what the layout guy is talking about.


    • Yes, it’s marketing, even if you don’t call it that
    • Social Media
    • Evangelizers and engagement
    • Demo Teams
    • Demo Kits
    • Benefits and dangers of empowerment

    Business Partners

    • Distributors
    • Shop Owners
    • Printers


    • Benefits and drawbacks of transparency
    • No bad reviews
    • Don’t be a dick - let the other guy do it

    Collaboration Tools
    • Dropbox
    • Wikis
    • Basecamp
    • You WILL use MS word
    • Update schedule

    Also, A hat tip to John, the editor who came up and helped me out at the talk byt talking about, well, talking to editors. You can check him out on twitter at @awesome_john or at his blog.

    Monday, November 7, 2011

    This Metatopia Thing

    A while back, Vinnie had an idea.

    Vinnie, for those that don't know, is the robot brain behind Dreamation, Dexcon and a host of other nerd events in northern New Jersey. I've talked in the past about how good Dreamation and Dexcon are, and a lot of that is a reflection on how hard Vinnie works.

    These conventions have historically been hotbeds of game design activity - a place to run playtests and to talk with designers of small press games. The problem is, the streams don't always mix well, and this came to a head at a previous convention, when confusions between what was play testing and what was actually a game to play interfered with some people's experience.

    So, Vinnie pitched the idea of peeling off some of this and creating a designer-centric convention, one explicitly for playtests, discussion groups, seminars and roundtables. There was a lot of support for the idea, but a lot of uncertainty regarding what such a thing would look like. I admit, I shared in that uncertainty.

    This past weekend was that convention: Metatopia. We got to see how the idea translated into reality, and from my perspective, it was very nearly miraculous.

    I drove up very early Saturday morning, so I missed some of the fun on Friday night (including a panel of Ken Hite and Fred Hicks talkign about how to steal from other games) but I got two full days of goodness in. I didn't know quite what to expect, but I jumped in enthusiastically.

    There were three major activities at the convention: Seminars, Playtests and Focus Groups.

    Seminars are what you would expect: one or more people talking about some subject or other. This doesn't sound like much, but it's worth noting that the sister conventions have historically had a fairly anemic seminiar track. The reasons for that get a bit chicken and egg, but the bottom line is that it was really nice to see good seminars with enthusiastic attendees. It was good enough that I want to see what I can do to help with seminar tracks at Dexcon & Dreamation. It also provides a double excuse to try to drag Chuck Wendig back - we totally need to get him to talk about writing.

    Playtests are also reasonably self-explanatory. Designer shows up with a game, runs it, and gets feedback. These are interesting because their value really depends on the GM's attitude. For GM's who came into it looking to really tear into their own game to find what made it work, it was a godsend, and you could spot those GMs because they were the ones making changes in response to play experience. For GM's who felt they had a finished game, I think it was a lot less useful - fine tuning is something you do over time. The feedback you could get at this convention was more suited to the guts of your game than the chrome.

    This actually kind of hurts as a designer, because I'm not sure how to provide feedback on it, especially when it's clear there are problems with the game. Even moreso when it's clear the problems maybe things the designer is already married to. I don't want to discourage people from playtesting their game in this context, but if you're not ready to be told your game doesn't work, it's probably not helpful.

    The last (and most interesting to me) were the focus groups. These were for people who had an idea for a game, but not necessarily much more than that. You sit down in a room and talk about your game and your ideas, and you proceed to brainstorm. For folks who've attended the Indie Roundtables, it's rather like that, but more focused. I LOVED these, and I wish I had done more of them - something to make a note for next year.

    Anyway, there's a lot more to talk about, but for everyone who has wondered, I just wanted to make sure you had a sense of what this Metatopia thing is.

    (I should also add, enough people at the con had nice things to say about the blog that I'm now feeling guilty about my half-assed writing schedule, so we'll see if that can be fixed. Also, if you attended my seminar (thank you!) I'll be posting my notes soon, probably as tomorrow's post.)

    Friday, October 28, 2011

    What We Want

    What we want in a game is a lot like what we want in life. I’m gonna riff a bit here on David McClelland via Peter Bregman with the list of desires that drive us:

    1. Achievement (To compete against increasingly challenging goals)
    2. Affiliation (To be liked/loved)
    3. Personalized power (influence and respect for yourself)
    4. Socialized Power (to offer others Personalized power, which is to say, influence and respect)

    This list speaks a lot to how much our jobs and lives are going to satisfy us, and it’s no coincidence that the list also reads like a checklist of things that players want in play in an RPG (both in game and out of game).

    Now, there’s no one point I want to make from this, mostly because I think there are dozens of points to be made from it, so it’s important to me to lay this out as a foundation, because it makes subsequent points easier to discuss, so with that in mind, let’s run through these.


    Achievement is probably the most obvious, since it lies at the heart of the game part of most games, and it’s intimately tied to things like advancement, encounter design and so on. It’s important to call out that there’s a reason this is achievement, not challenge, because challenge is only a part of it - it’s the increase that is truly critical. Our brains thrive on mastery - we get a buzz from learning things and overcoming difficulty, but only the first time. If we’re faced with the same problem again, it quickly bores us. If we’re faced with an utterly different problem, that might be fun, but the sense of progress is not there. It’s counter-intuitive, but the best reward for success is a greater challenge.

    This is one reason we’re so attached to character advancement in games, because it’s the easiest way for a GM to ramp up challenge. Without advancement, the GM needs to either push harder every time (as you would in a non-RPG as you progress in competitive ranks) or get very creative.

    Now, I should note that there’s a lot of leeway in terms of what the challenge is, and that interacts pretty strongly with what Achievement needs. Fight scenes are challenges, and they’re the sort of challenges that advancement speaks to, but if the challenge the player seeks is creative, that requires a very different sort of ratcheting effect to keep increasing challenge.


    Hopefully, this is largely obvious - it’s a big reason we play these games rather than write fiction to similar effect. The social element of play is huge, and not to be underestimated.

    However, in my experience this is also a big part of satisfaction in play. One of the rules of design behind a lot of Evil hat decisions is that everything should have a face. Settings are made most interesting by the imaginary people in them, because the fact that they’re imaginary doesn’t really keep us from forming strong attachments to them (as can be evinced by the message boards of any fandom). Play that provides opportunities to scratch the affiliation itch is going to be satisfying play.

    Personalized Power

    Well, duh.

    Ok, maybe it’s a little more complicated than that - step back a minute and consider what power means. It means the capability to accomplish things, to make things happen. It’s the ability for your action to have a measurable, noticeable outcome. It’s the ability to shape the world through your actions. When we have this power, it is a great feeling, and when we are denied it, it can be frustrating beyond measure.

    Now, the first instinct is to look at RPG characters and drawl a line to their obvious power. Throwing lightning bolts, lifting cars and cutting through hordes of monsters are such clear expressions of power that they’re the first thing the mind goes to, but in doing so, it misses the mark. Certainly, that sort of blatant power is fun, but it is not in and of itself satisfying.

    The real power of an RPG character is the ability to act. Part of this is implicit in the structure of rules (you roll the dice and something is going to happen) and some of it is implicit in adventure design (it’s a poor adventure where there’s not much to do) but taken as a whole, it’s an ability to simply do things which we often lack in our day to day lives. In real life, there are complication. Doing things is slow and boring, or our situation may not allow us to impact things that matter to us. In games, we can act. We may not always succeed, but just being able to try is empowering.

    Lightning bolts and flaming swords just make that ability to act more colorful. It’s the action that is power.

    Socialized Power

    This one is probably the most interesting because while it’s probably the most poorly served by games in general, it’s possibly the most powerful when a game makes it go, because in play it’s most often reflected by as making other people awesome, which is (to my mind) one of the best things that can happen at a table.

    The real meaning of this is something that could take up multiple posts of its own, but one interesting thing about socialized power is that it is hard to do without affiliation and personalized power, since it’s the fruitful combination of the two (it’s possible, but doing so tends to be more like martyrdom than a healthy dynamic). As a result, it can take more work to achieve, and it’s benefits are probably the least obvious until you have tasted them.

    There’s more to say, but at this point it starts turning to how these points interact with games at the table, and that’s fodder for future posts.

    Monday, October 24, 2011

    Playability in Settings

    Setting is, to my mind, utterly essential to RPGs, and has also been the poor cousin to rules design in a lot of the deeper discussions of RPGs. I’m not entirely sure how to address that, but I think a good start involves looking at setting design with the same eye we’ve applied to rules, and see what we find.

    On my mind at the moment is the question of what makes a setting particularly playable. This is not the same thing as what makes a setting good or compelling, and in fact, a good, compelling setting can end up making a very good game even if it has no elements that make it more explicitly gameable.

    While this is far from a comprehensive list, these are the elements that float to top of mind for me.


    Unless the setting implicitly keeps the entire group of characters within shouting distance (something dungeons do) then they need some means of staying in touch. In the absence of this, you can end up with difficult pacing problems if the game starts going one particular direction without one or more players participating. Communication (and its companion, ease of travel) is the solution for this. Modern games have an easy solution to this with cell phones, but things like Amber’s trumps can fill this purpose as well.

    As a paradoxical bonus, the presence of a communication element is necessary to make the absence of communication into a plot element. Running from zombies and trying to find cell signal is something you can’t do in 1974.


    If your game is going to have any amount of violence, then you need some way to keep long hospital trips from bogging down the game, you need some logic to address this. It might be a genre thing (as in cinematic or supers games), or it might be an element intrinsic to characters (like Vampires and Amberites) or some easy means of healing (like spells or some magical substance); whatever the form it takes, the real purpose is to keep play moving.

    The exact means of recovery may also be a plot element in its own right, so its worth considering that this doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

    Social Context

    This can take a lot of different forms, but it is best described as characters having a role in the setting, something that has a context beyond themselves, but still of an understandable scale. A family or secret society might fill this roll, but a nationality won’t because it’s simply too big.

    The litmus test for this is whether or not it helps answer questions about what the character does and has done “off camera” and how well armed they are to answer questions and make decisions without a full GM briefing. That may not seem intuitive, but consider that the social context provides resources with faces - people who you can talk to and turn to in complicated situations. Not only is that play generating, it creates a virtuous cycle where that play reinforces social ties, which in turn allow fodder for more play.

    However, one needs to be careful to keep contexts playable. It is structurally better to have everyone within the same context, or at least within one context, otherwise the context draw away from play. Consider the problem when every player is an agent of a different group - you can construct something artificial to tie them together, but it’s tricky to maintain. Easier to either use different groups or subgroups. Consider these examples:

    • In Vampire, characters were members of their clan, but they were also part of the political structure of their city. The latter could help bring a group together without the former completely pulling them apart.
    • In Eberron, the Great Houses were really interesting and colorful, but they were potent enough ideas that they wanted to pull the game in their own direction. Unfortunately, because it was paired to the power system, it was easy to end up with things pulling apart.
    • Amber has the family has an overarching group, but it has numerous shifting factions and alliances within that group.

    Mobility or Position

    This is not literal mobility (though that has a place, as noted under communication) but rather social (or social-ish) mobility. Characters need to have the opportunity to change their situation through their own efforts. Partly this is something that helps buy into the context of the setting, but it’s also a big avenue for player-generated plots - if they have something they want that they can get, then sooner or later they’re going to get motivated to go after it. It’s also worth noting that while this may interact with character advancement, there’s no guarantee that it will.

    The alternative for this is to give the players position (and with it, responsibility). It’s a similar play motivator, just from the other end. People like being important, and important people have things to do.

    There’s no reason a setting can’t have both of these, but one or the other will suffice.

    I am by no means asserting that a game can’t be fun without these, or that a setting can’t work without them, but I know that when I sit down to scratch out a setting (or even a sub-part of a setting) for a game, these are the things I try to make sure are present.

    Friday, October 21, 2011

    Play is an Argument

    There's a lot of discussion about what a game is, in the context of RPGs, and even when I propose an answer, I never imagine it to be the only answer. Still, it's interesting to think about.

    I was chewing on that today and considered a slightly different approach - a game (or rather, the act of play at any given moment) is an *argument* about how things should turn out. I suppose it might be nice to call it a negotiation, but I think argument is a better word since positions tend to be put forward forcefully and while there may be movement towards compromise, that is far from a necessity.

    The important and potentially powerful point to this perspective is that it suggests that individual perspectives on what a game is become arguments within that context. To illustrate this idea consider that "Because it makes the best story" is a powerful argument, but it's not the only argument.

    More familiar arguments include the sort of things that might be described as crunchy minutiae, like how many inches of plywood a desert eagle can shoot through. You get similar issues with strongly held opinions about setting or character elements - "My Guy" syndrome falls under this, but all manner of setting and genre expertise matters fall under it as well. Turning to an external arbiter (like dice) is another kind of argument.

    These arguments are almost certainly familiar to every gamer out there, and while some might characterize them as problematic arguments, but I am pretty confident that the real confusion stems from another source. It's not the arguments themselves that create a problem, it's the certainty associated with them. As in civil discussion, certainty creates all manner of problems in coming to resolution.

    Now, every group has their own biases regarding what makes a good argument, and so long as the group is in agreement regarding what arguments are and aren't fair game, then things will probably go well, provided those expectations are looked at, thought about, and communicated well.

    I admit my own bias is to bring as many arguments as possible to the table, though I obviously fall victim to my own tastes, often without realizing it. I admit it can make things more complicated, but I find a lot of benefit in apparent contradictions. And more, it can become habit - looking at every argument, every time can seem like a lot of work, but the more time you spend looking at different arguments, the more arrows you have in your quiver when it comes time to resolve things (either as a player or a GM).

    Everway had a great method for this, explicitly calling out three arguments out as Karma (stats), Drama (needs of the plot/story) and Fortune (draw of the cards). It was a fantastic muscle-builder for me as a GM, and I absolutely encourage a GM to try something similar, if only to see how it helps thing think about things differently.

    Thursday, October 20, 2011

    I Woke Up With This In My Head

    OK, what this means to me:

    The assumption is a 4 stat set in the spirit of Amber. The 4 stats are Endurance, Discipline, Power and Expression, with 4 derived stats, Willpower (Discipline & Endurance), Precision (Discipline & Power), Force (Power & Expression) and Presence (Expression & Endurance).

    The core model is a double-paired idea of internal/external and Active/Passive.

    Power is external/active - it covers action. Action tempered by discipline is precision (a lot of stuff traditionally thought of as Dexterity) while Force is the expression of action (think Strength).

    Endurance is External/Passive, though that's hopefully obvious. Presence is patient, long term interaction with others, while willpower is the combination of Endurance and Discipline. I am attached to willpower being derived because it tends to be a giant pain in the ass in play, though that's a whole other topic.

    Discipline is Internal/Passive, and it's a whole topic in and of itself.

    Expression is Internal/Active, which is a little weird on the surface of it, but works if you view Internal as including personality, then it becomes a nice middle-place for Charisma.

    Anyway, that's the bones of it. Still chewing on it.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    I Want To Borrow 4e's Foundation

    Ok, here's an important thing about 4e that I would suggest that even die hard fans of other editions consider: it's foundation is excellent. In my opinion, it's a better foundation than any previous edition of D&D, though I leave that comparison up to the reader. But what does that mean?

    I mean that if you took some characters and stripped them of classes, powers and almost everything else, you have a very solid little set of skirmish rules that strike a very strong balance between speed and depth. Boiled down to that level, it's easy to see that there are just a handful of refinements from 3e, and the line from the original dungeon skirmishing is very easy to see.

    I've steadily come to realize that the thing that keeps drawing me back to 4e is the simple power of that foundation. You could build entirely different games on top of it which could be entirely awesome. Different stats? Different classes? No classes? No Powers? Totally different power models? it would be easy to build such a thing on top of that chassis to capture almost any flavor or style of play that you want.

    See, that's the thing about the classes and powers as they exist: they represent a decision about how the game should look and feel. This is not a bad thing - the designer's vision is a large part of the reason you buy a published game - but because this look and feel is so striking, it creates a sense that it's the foundation. That is, it's easy to look at 4e and think that if you want to change it, you should change powers and classes. 4e makes it feel like those are low-level changes while they're actually quite high-level.

    I don't think this is good or bad in and of itself, but it mingles interestingly with the other realities surrounding 4e, specifically it's semi-openness (which encourages high level tinkering) and it's model of game-as-web-service (which discourages many types of tinkering). Altogether, it reveals my frustration - I want to take that foundation out and play with it. Doing so is how you can get awesome things like the (very much not open content) awesome of Gamma World.

    But that's not an option, at least not for anything public. I suppose it might be possible to build it forward from pathfinder or to create something similar from scratch, but both of those feel like inelegant solutions. But I want to find a solution, and I can tell you why:

    I want the game I can _make_ with 4e.

    Stop for a moment and consider what happens when you start looking at all those powers in 4e as building blocks for a simpler game. If you're starting from scratch, unbound by what's at-will, encounter or daily, then you can build almost anything using these parts and a little duck tape. Like spell points and spell lists? Make a list out of a set of thematically similar powers, and give them mana costs. Don't like encounter and dailies for non-magical characters? Adopt a system where lower level encounter powers become higher level at-wills. Want to make power sources more important? Maybe come up with new ways to recharge dailies? It all opens up.

    Obviously, I can already do this at home, but I'm a social guy. I like sharing. And that - the game I can make with the 4e parts - is the game I wish I could be sharing.

    Friday, October 7, 2011

    Uniquely Qualified

    Nothing breaks my heart more than when I hear a GM complain that he wishes there were more roleplaying in his game. It's tragic because it's always so heartfelt and sincere and is almost always followed by said GM then introducing his new combat showpiece, hardcore dungeon crawl, or puppet show on rails. It hurts because the problem is so self-evident yet apparently completely unseen.

    The solutions can also be painful, as the GM attempts to introduce "roleplaying encounters" into a game which neither wants nor needs them, but that attempt at a solution is emblematic of the problem. The idea that these other elements of gaming are somehow contradictory to roleplaying is pretty much entirely false. It's a case where there's plenty of correlation, but the cause is something else entirely.

    Now, certainly there are some challenges - system mastery takes time and effort, and during the learning period, it's hard to focus on anything but the game. Sometimes a GM extends this period by following the path of the hard core - by constantly upping the challenge through increased mechanical complexity, he can extend the learning period indefinitely. That's a problem, yes, but not a problem with the games. Even the most complicated of games can reach mastery equilibrium in a reasonable timeframe with the right group or GM (or both).

    But the real problem is the idea that the crunchy, fighty dungeon crawl is at odds with RP. It's nonsense, but it's deeply rooted nonsense that owes a lot to the history of the hobby and especially the history of published adventures. After all, books and movies can be full of high adventure and still support banter, character development, drama and so on - why is it a problem for games?

    To understand the issue, let's take a moment to look at the heroes of fiction, especially adventure fiction. Generally speaking, they're presented with a challenge or challenges which they must overcome - not unlike adventurers. But the important part, often overlooked in gaming, is that part of the reason that the fiction is about these characters is because they are uniquely qualified to handle the challenge.

    This idea of unique qualifications is a broad one because there are a lot of different things that make for UQ, and in fact in most fictions, the UQ is usually a result of a specific combination of non-unique qualifications. To illustrate that, consider that qualifications tend to fall into one of four loose categories - capability, knowledge, care, opportunity, and capability.

    Capability is the first thing most gamers will think of. It means the hero is capable of tackling the problem either in the specific (he has the key to a specific lock) or in general (the problem is dangerous and he's badass). In gaming terms, we tend to jump right to thinking about this in terms of powers, skills and levels, but it can be much more nuanced.

    Knowledge means that the hero sees the problem, often where others don't. Notably, it doesn't mean the hero knows _how_ to solve the problem - that's a form of capability - only that there's a problem to be solved.

    Care means that the hero has a personal investment in the problem, a stake in the outcome which they're invested in. It might be because the problem affects them or those in their circle directly, or they might have a strong position on this particular type of problem. Care ends up being a kind of capability in certain types of fiction, especially noir detective stories - specifically, the protagonist has some moral backbone that allows them to pursue the problem rather than be consumed by the moral failings that surround him, like corruption.

    Opportunity is, predictably, the opportunity to address the problem. It might be as simple as an issue of being in the right time and right place, but it might be part of a tangle of available time and conflicting responsibilities. Opportunity can muddle with capability very easily, especially when you start taking about authority or social position. A king can do a lot of things (capability and opportunity) but he may be bound by law (limit of capability) or unable to act due to other duties (lack of opportunity).

    Look at any adventure fiction you like, and you'll find some combination of these in the protagonists. Sometimes you'll even find different combinations in different protagonists, and that can be pretty cool, but these unique qualifications provide implicit motivation and engagement for heroes in their own adventures.

    Now, contrast this with the bog-standard dungeon crawl. At first blush, it looks like it demands several qualities - monsters must be fought (Capability), there's treasure to be gained (a kind of care) and the dungeon is conveniently nearby (opportunity) but they fall apart when you start looking for uniqueness.

    See, by design, a published adventure needs to be able to be run through by any group of adventurers of a certain size and level, which means that, by design , it will demand no unique qualifications of adventurers (except perhaps those which it creates within its own bubble of fiction). Any other group of adventurers could do this (so much for capability), the reward is probably quite fungible (not much care left) and that leaves only opportunity. But thanks to the nature of geography and gaming, odds are good the dungeon of your level is going to "just happen" to be where you can get to it, so that feels like a fairly hollow oportunity.

    But the problem is not dungeons! Not even super hard core crunchy ones. The problem is bad habits of framing. If you're a GM who wants to see more RP, then you need to start making the dungeons more engaging, and to do that, you need to figure out how to make the dungeon something that your specific group is uniquely qualified to address. Start from that foundation of generic threats and generic loot and start making it personal. Give your players a reason why _they_ are the ones going into this particular monster filled hole.

    You'll find that RP emerges very naturally from that engagement, whatever system or style of play you use.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011

    Roleplay and Exploration Rewards

    I was struck by a tweet this morning regarding the difficulty with handing out XP awards for exploration and roleplaying, specifically, that such rewards are arbitrary and hard to rightsize. This immediately struck me as a very valid complaint, but also one that's very easily addressable - it's just a matter of identifying the behaviors and experiences to reward, then plugging them into the reward system. For illustration, I'll be using 4e to show how to do this (primarily because it's standard reward model is very robust) but the basic idea can be used for almost any XP-driven game, especially ones with the idea of an encounter.

    For purposes of awards, I'm going to provide a loose definition of both roleplaying (as a specific subset of play) and exploration. RP is, practically, engaging some element of the setting. This may seem like a strange definition if your first thought is that it's talking in a funny voice or getting very emotional at the table, but those are just ways to go about engaging the setting - that is, ways to meaningfully interact with the setting as if it matters. This can range from involved conversations with NPCs to hard choices about the fate of nations.

    Exploration is a little bit easier to quantify - it's the process of adding something to the mental (and sometimes physical) map of the campaign. When the players explore The Dungeon of Doom then they get certain rewards just for being there (assuming that there are fights and challenges in a place called The Dungeon of Doom) but they have also added TDoD to the landscape. In the future, new enemies might take it as a lair, or maybe people will try to reclaim it. It's now a thing, and that makes it part of the campaign. Exploration is the process by which these things (which might properly be people, places or things) get added to the game.

    These two elements may seem difficult to standardize for rewards, but they share a common idea which can tie this all together. Both rotate around the idea of campaign elements - either engaging them or adding them - and it's not difficult to systemize that. All it takes is a list.

    I'm going to call this list the Game Log for simplicity sake, but the name isn't important. What matters is that it's a list of the elements that come up over the course of a campaign. It will grow over time, and it provides a valuable resource for GMs, both to handle XP awards and to provide a little inspiration when designing adventures. The log looks like this:


    (You can download a PDF of the form here)

    Using the Form

    The Name column is for the name of the element. Elements might be anything that can recur in a game, limited only by the taste of the GM. This includes locations, NPCs and organizations, but it can also include character elements. Themes (as presented in the Neverwinter campaign setting) are another great example of a possible element.

    Just keeping a list like this is useful to an GM, and most of us already keep it in one form or another, if only to answer the "Ok, who was that guy with that thing that one time?" kind of questions that pop up during play.

    The level is a little bit less obvious. While it's tied to the idea of character level, it does not have exactly the same meaning. Practically, level is a measure of how important an element is, with the most important elements having a level equal to the current level of the characters. Mechanically, this is tied to XP rewards (we'll get to that in a second) but it also is a useful way to keep track of what is an isn't used in a campaign.

    Generally speaking, when an element is introduced, it will probably be at the character's current level. It may "level up" any time it is engaged (see below) but it shouldn't go beyond the character's current level unless it's something the GM really wants to emphasize. That's the default assumption, but there are a few tricks that can be played - GMs looking to experiment in allowing players to introduce elements in play may allow them to do so, but start those elements out at level 1, and force them to grow in importance through play.

    The checkboxes are for use in play, to indicate what's happened. "Explored" is the most straightforward - you check that box the same time you add something to the list (or, if you already had it on the list, when the players first encounter it). An element should only be explored once in its lifetime, so once this box is checked, it stays checked.

    The other boxes - Touched, Engaged and Critical, see a bit more action. When an element comes up in play, you check the box that corresponds to how it came up.

    If it was a memorable but unimportant part of play, then check "Touched". This is appropriate if an NPC was visited, a scene happened at a particular location, or the players talked about a thing.

    If it was a noteworthy part of play, then check "Engaged". The line between touched and engaged is a bit subjective, but that's an intentional nod to GM taste. In general, something should be considered engaged when it provided a strong motivation for play or created a cost or a choice. If the players had to have an extended negotiation with an NPC or their favorite bar burned down, that would be engaged.

    One trick that comes in handy is looking where else rewards are coming from. if the negotiation with the NPC is also a skill challenge, then the negotiation itself may not merit an Engaged tickmark (though it probably merits a "Touched") but if the skill challenge _also_ engages the players and characters, then yes, it totally merits a check.

    "Critical" is like engaged, but moreso. If the interaction is particularly central to play, or is a turning point in the campaign, then Critical gets checked. The GM will probably know when a Critical interaction is coming, since it's usually a result of the GM doing something awful to or with the element, but it's possible to be surprised, and this is what to check if your players really blow you away.

    The notes field is, as you might expect, where you keep notes. Hopefully self explanatory.

    The Form and Rewards

    At the end of a session, you should have a few checkmarks that indicate the things that your players found and engaged. Turning that into a reward is based on the idea of a standard award, and this is why I use 4e to illustrate.

    The standard award is an amount of XP equal to that given for a monster of a given level, in this case, the level of the element (I told you that would come in handy). The basic idea is that an "Explore" or "Engaged" checkmark gets the standard award, while a "Touched" checkmark awards a fractional reward, and a "Critical" result provides a bonus. In 4e terms, these line up roughly with a minion and an elite (so 1/4x and 2x respectively).

    Thus, for example, let's say that the players interact with a level 4 elements.
    For discovering the element, they gain 175 XP.
    If they touch on it, then the award is 44 XP.
    If they engage is, then the award if 175 XP.
    If engagement with it is critical to the game, then the award is 350 XP

    Note - Only give the highest award, though you may give an exploration and engagement award if both seem warranted.

    Run down the list, tally the awards, pool them, then divvy them among the players. Simple as that.

    Notes and Thoughts

    Exploration Games: You can change the proportions a bit if you want to emphasize or de-emphasize exploration. If exploration is critical to the game, then the reward for an explore tick might be as much as 5x a standard award.

    Long List: So, what keeps the list from getting crazily long? While GM editorial oversight (especially the decision whether or not something goes on the list or not) plays a role, then I suggest the following trick: After an element gives its exploration award, drop its level to 1, and let it level back up in play. This means that players will get better rewards for working within a smaller list than they will by constantly having things get added, which nicely simulates the conservation of characters and locations you see in most fiction. It also provides the GM a handy tool that reveals which elements the players actually care about based on which ones get leveled up.

    Personal Awards: Note that this model explicitly rewards the entire group equally for roleplaying, and I admit that's something I very strongly endorse, but on the off chance that you want to reward star players, then it's a fairly simple matter of noting the star performer in the notes column, then not adding the reward for that element to the pool, and give it directly to the player.

    Slightly more complicated is the issue of personal character elements - that is, should everyone get rewarded when a given character's theme becomes important to play. My answer is a profound "yes", but if that is not to your taste, then you may consider some elements to be "owned" by a specific character, and have the reward go directly to that character rather than into the pool.

    But I really suggest against it. Not only does it introduce the bookkeeping hassle of mismatched XP and the social hassle of rewarding the loudest players, it removes the incentive for players to celebrate each others awesome. If only you get rewarded for your character theme, then only you will look for ways to hook it in. If everyone is rewarded for it, then everyone's looking to bring it into play. That's a vastly preferable arrangement in my mind.

    Other Systems: As noted, while it's easiest to do this with 4e, if you can figure out the standard award for your game, the model translates easily enough. Heck, you can even do thematic versions. For example: for a white wolf game, I'd forgo levels in favor of rating things from 1-5 dots and just be a little more stingy about how they level up.

    Monday, October 3, 2011

    The Instinct for Scenes

    One of the hallmarks of getting very good at something is that certain elements become habit. A musician doesn't really think about tuning his instrument or running through a few familiar tunes. An athlete just falls naturally into proper form. This is one of those things that's hard to measure because it's not what they do that distinguishes them - anyone can do that with a little effort - but how they go about doing so.

    For storytellers of various stripes, one of the ways this manifests is as an instinct for scenes. They see something - a person, an idea, whatever - and they are struck by ways in which you might do something neat with it. Like other instincts of expertise, this is something that anyone can do with a little thought, but with experience, the possibilities tend to jump up and smack the storyteller in the face.

    This, far more than any ideas about grand narratives, is the skill from storytelling that translates most strongly to GMing. The most consistent challenge that the GM faces is "How can I make this work?" and a lot of the worst habits of GMing emerge when no answer presents itself. Fiat rears its ugly head when the GM doesn't have a way to work with the current situation, and thus she forcefully changes it. Not only does that kind of stink on its own, it also usually means the GM is ignoring or dismissing an element that a player brings to bear, leaving the player that much more alienated.

    Now, here's an important note: this is not just a hippy-dippy narrative problem. When you deal with hard core game-playing, one of the big appeals of RPGs is that it supports opportunities to think outside the box. When presented with a challenge, you can engage the environment in unexpected ways to achieve clever solutions. These solutions are every bit as much a player-initiated game element as the more story-oriented player who uses a bit of narrative authority to talk about an old girlfriend they left in this town. We invest a lot if energy in differentiating these different types of player ideas, but in the end, they're all ideas, and how the GM handles them says much more about the game than any other division.

    The good news is that this instinct doesn't require that you be a writer or the like to practice. You get a little bit better at it every time you see things take a turn in a game and think, "Ok, how would this look if this were what this session were about?" Brainstorm ideas, kick them around, think what you would do with them. Steal plot twists and macguffins from TV, Movies and books and think about ways you could have handled them. In time, it becomes habit, and that does good things for your games, provided you commit to it. And that reveals the tricky part.

    While the obvious part of the equation is being creative, the less obvious (and perhaps even more critical) part is being attentive. Most of us know what to do when an opportunity is presented to us, but the danger is that we can easily overlook when opportunities arise. If we don't make an effort of listening to our players and paying attention to when things shift, we'll miss our chance.

    Practicing attentiveness is a little harder than practicing creativity, but it can be done. Every situation where you pay attention to people and what they want can help, not just games. It's not very different from being a good conversationalist (rather than merely dominating a conversation). And thankfully, it's one of the easiest things to talk to your players about after a game, because it's easy to couch the question in non-confrontational terms - "Are there any threads or events that came up in the game that you wish had been pursued?" is a pretty innocuous question, but it can reveal a lot.

    So, creativity and attention: make a habit of them.

    Editor's Note: I've changed my posting time from 10am eastern to 1pm eastern, just to be kinder to the west coast.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011

    Status Update

    So, the silent period ran longer than planned. New job has been great, but it's eaten a bit of my brain as I ramp up.

    Thankfully, that corner has been rounded. Regular posting will resume this coming Monday.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011

    Geek #2: Productivity

    This is my second Speak Out With Your Geek Out post.

    I am also a productivity geek. This has shown up in a few of my gaming posts like "Getting Things Dungeon" but it's something that runs pretty deep for me.

    Like a lot of people I know, I was a bright slacker growing up. I was smart and flexible enough to get by most of the time, and as I got out of college into the job market, this produced a generally relaxed attitude. There are plenty of situations where this was helpful, but there were others (most of which I was semi-willfully unaware of) where it hurt me. Sure, things might occasionally get chaotic enough to merit a big cleanup, but I was never going to "get organized", since that was something which uptight, type-A people did, and that was definitely not me. My desk (or room, or office) might be a mess, but I knew where everything was! I could do my work, and my natural method of handling things was much more organic and efficient than any system some anal retentive old dude might come up with!

    (While I did not actually add the slightly plaintive "Maaaaan" at the end of it, if you add it with your imagination, you will have captured the essence of the thing).

    Still, I was kept busy, and in one of my occasional efforts to get my stuff together, I stumbled across an article about Getting Things Done and I got pretty well sucked in. It spoke directly to my situation, and it flipped a simple, but really important switch. It asserted that the purpose of getting organized was not being organized, but rather to free up your mind, time and space so that you can actually focus on enjoying the things you love. I'd never considered it in that light before, but it nailed me pretty hard.

    Now, the problem is that getting organized can be very distracting. Getting Things Done is a methodology that teaches a few simple ideas, but then allows for any number of implementations. The kinds of people that GTD works for are often the kind of people likely to spend a lot of time fiddling around with their system of tasks and planners, which kind of misses the point.

    I've been guilty of that more than once myself, and I've tried almost every methodology I've come across at one point or another. I listened to Merlin Mann podcasts, got myself a hipster PDA, pursued inbox zero, tried autofocus and Franklin-Covey, sorted colored post-its. There was a lot of fun to be had in trying new systems. Even if they were ultimately a distraction, I often picked up a trick or two.

    Nowadays I have my personal organization pretty well under control. I very grudgingly made the transition from a pocket notebook to an iphone, but it's been worth it, as measured by the fact that my tasks are getting done.

    Anyway, I would not be a real geek unless I shared my workflow, so here it is.

    Email is gmail, which is kept at inbox zero. Mails that I need to come back to are flagged as @followup (The @ is a trick to put those flags at the top of the list). Emails that I can see a clear task in are entered in my task system, then archived. EMail used to be a weak link for me - the web interface was never more than ok for me - but the new Mail client in OSX Lion was good enough to become my central dashboard. I'll do a little email management from my devices (iphone & ipad) but real cleanup and processing happens at the desktop.

    For task handling, I use Omnifocus, which I have on all three machines, and which syncs automatically. The syncing is a big deal, since it lets me put things in my inbox quickly, then process them properly when I have more time. I love this solution, but it was really freaking expensive (and it has no web component) but it works very well with my process.

    I make much greater use of contexts than I do projects. It may just be how I think, but projects are something I only really need to do if the tasks are not self-explanatory. This is a bit of a GTD violation, and I suspect that I'll go more project-heavy over time, but for now, they're not a big part of the system.

    Notes, lists and data go into text files kept on Dropbox. I use Notational Velocity to access them on the desktop, and Elements from my iDevices. I chose Elements because it let's you customize your base directory in dropbox, and because while it's a good note app, I don't actually use it for writing, so it's a good dedicated notes tool.

    I'm still looking for a good solution to handling larger ideas (like email thread with Fred containing game ideas). I dump them into Notational velocity for the time being, but that feels like a poor fix.

    I do most of my straight writing on the iPad (usually in writeroom) synced to dropbox, then i just open it in the appropriate app for post-processing. Simple enough arrangement.

    And that's about the size of it. Any other productivity geeks out there?