Archive for the Theory Category

Porting Dungeon World’s GMing Rules, Part 4

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs, Theory with tags , , , on November 14, 2012 by Jeff Russell

So, for this post I’m taking a bit of a departure from the campaign and domain play rules that I’ve been kitbashing from Dungeon World and An Echo, Resounding. This is mostly because it’s been awhile, and I’m having to reconstruct all the stuff I had figured out from what are now opaque notes, and instead of figuring all that out tonight, I went instead for a simpler problem and decided to tackle some planning/layout issues, and then to address equipment tags.

Equipment tags are one of my very favorite nitty-gritty details from the Apocalypse World family of games. I’m a sucker for broadly modular systems that have a framework for incorporating very flexible input (now that I’ve figured them out, I’m a big fan of tags for blog posts as well). Perhaps best of all, incorporating DW style tags does not require a lot of work on other rules. For all of the “fictional cue” tags, it’s really just a matter of systematizing and highlighting what’s already there in OD&D. OD&D referees are already supposed to account for the fact that a Glaive isn’t something you’re going to use in a wrestling match and that daggers might have trouble getting around a determined shield wall. The trouble is, as I’m discovering actually running an OD&D game, is that when the ref gets caught up in keeping track of exploration rounds and combat rounds, tracking monster hit points and special attacks, remembering to check morale, and so forth, it’s way too easy to succumb to “Roll to hit. Roll damage. Next guy.” Equipment tags are a fantastic way to remind refs about the cool stuff to pay attention to.

Probably the most significant mechanical alterations are in terms of range and encumbrance. I really rather like DW’s method of handling weight and encumbrance, and so I’m converting the pound weights of S&W WhiteBox into “Weight” tags. I’m going to go ahead and reexamine the movement and encumbrance rules to square them with the changed weight method. Range is pretty straight forward. I’m straight up converting ranges in feet into the broad categories of “near” and “far”.

The biggest challenge is coming from converting prices for things not included in the WhiteBox rules, but overall I’m really excited about including equipment tags going forward.

Porting Dungeon World’s GM Rules, Part 3

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, Projects, RPGs, Theory with tags , , , , on October 15, 2012 by Jeff Russell

Though the title of this post shortchanges the role An Echo, Resounding is playing in my development of the referee rules in my campaign, I figured it was best to stay consistent.

As an example of the role AER is playing, though I’m working my way up to the domain rules, rather than down, I am broadly using the categories and concepts from AER’s domain play, so that most of the framework for reconciling Dungeon World style GMing tools with the AER domain play should already be there. So, last night I figured out how I want to work steadings (which include cities, towns, and keeps), ruins, resources, and assets.

The inspiration I stumbled upon was that Gangs in Apocalypse world already provide an example of the intersection of statted out groups with the GM organization tool of Fronts and Threats. Dremmer’s biker gang is a “threat” when it comes to figuring out what things are happening off stage and how they will react to player actions and/or threaten things the players care about, but when they throw down in a shoot out, they are a “gang”.

So, by way of comparison, in Fellhold, there might be a bandit group that is written up as a threat to help me keep track of them as elements of the world, but if that bandit group starts threatening a domain’s trade in a significant way, they’ll be statted up as an asset that can move around and interact with other assets at a domain level. If it comes to personal combat, the existing D&D rules (well, Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, as modified) will come into play as per usual.

I intend for assets to be able to exist for all three domain values: military, social, and wealth. Assets of different types will have different explanatory tags (for example, a social asset like a town council, won’t likely have a damage/harm value, nor will it be mobile). But all assets will have a type tag (military, social, or wealth) and a size tag (the amount it adds to the listed value for the steading that owns it, or the amount it possesses on its own).

Assets are basically a way to enable increased granularity than the DW steading rules. They don’t supersede them, they just supplement them. So, a Defense value of “Militia (1)” implies that the citizens of the village can be organize somewhat effectively with some real weapons, and it’s given as a characteristic of the Village. On the other hand, let’s say that we have a big city that wants to detach a small unit to go attack a neighboring town. Its overall Defenses might be “Legion (6)”, but the referee decides that its important to keep track of how that military might is dispersed, and so creates an asset to represent the detachment sent away and gives it a value of “Watch (2)” and then assigns it various descriptive tags. At this point it become an asset of type Military with a size of 2. The city’s defenses go down to “Garrison (4)” until the asset returns or enough time passes to replace it.

By default, assets should only be prepared for things that have enough of an independent existence to matter (like a powerful merchant guild) or are likely to be dealt with separately from the town as a whole (so, for a big city, you don’t need to make an asset for the watch, the garrison, and every unit of the standing army unless and until they become important to game play).

Likewise, groups of monsters can be statted up as assets that live in Ruins or Resources, but this is only necessary if Domains take Domain level action against them, or if you want them to take domain level actions. So, that tribe of Trollkin squatting in the abandoned gold mine can just be written up as a threat as usual if the players are coming to root them out personally with sword and torch, but if a player owns a small domain and sends his troops to deal with the matter, then the goblins will need to be statted up as an asset so they can interact with the domain level troops action.

While I toyed with the idea that Ruin and Resource locations would have monstery/wild versions of population, wealth, and military, I decided that it was a bit forced and hindered the flexibility of threats and fronts. Instead, Ruins will mostly be collections of descriptive tags and associated assets. All Ruins will have a Treasure tag which is like wealth, but finite. So, if adventurers recover 1 Wealth worth of treasure from a Ruin that started with 3 treasure, it now only has 2 unless more is brought in. I probably need to figure out a good conversion from actual gold amounts to treasure, but that’s difficult since 1 wealth is supposed to be enough for a small village to get by on. There may be some scaling issues involved, but we’ll see.

Resources will also be pretty minimal. All resources will have a “Type” tag that describes what they are, and a “Size” tag that represents the amount of wealth that resource adds to a steading that owns it. A size of 1 will be typical, whereas 2 represents a truly noteworthy reserve, and 3 would be a once in a world source of a resource (something like South Africa is for diamonds). Like Ruins, Resources can have threat and other descriptive tags to make them more than just a place on the map that makes other steadings richer, and they can “house” assets.

At this point, I’m pretty happy with the structure of how tags will work with the categories I got from AER, but I need to dive into AER’s methods of generating Ruins, Lairs, Cities, and Towns in order to write more tags and new threat types with new instincts and moves. After that I’ll look at Domain Actions in more detail and and combine it with DW’s “Updating the Campaign Map” to finalize the domain level rules.


Into the Wilderness (Porting Dungeon World’s GM Rules, part 2)

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs, Theory with tags , , on October 9, 2012 by Jeff Russell

As the party is about to venture forth to Mickleheim, I’ve started giving some thought to wilderness/sandbox adventure, which I’ve intended from the start to be a facet of the Fellhold campaign. I cheated a little bit up front by asking my players to do me the courtesy of agreeing that their characters had come together with the intent to explore Fellhold, at least initially, and we’d go from there. This let me devote my initial focus to having mapped and stocked dungeon locations (as it turns out, far more than I’ve needed so far – before play, I overestimated the speed with which the party would explore). Now they’re heading to the big city to sell off some of their more specialized loot, and hopefully get some better prices on fancy things. I was prepared to let them make this trip safely, and only get into the difficulties of wilderness travel later, but they assumed that the journey would involve some play, so who am I to stop them?

So, I’m giving some thought as to how best to handle this. As mentioned in previous posts, I thoroughly like An Echo, Resounding‘s philosophy of building in later domain level threats and interactions into early play, both because it makes the setting seem more “alive”, but also so that when the players start concerning themselves with higher goings on, it won’t have come out of nowhere. However, as also mentioned above, I find Dungeon World‘s fronts (as modified from Apocalypse World) to be a fantastic tool, and so I want to modify them to work here. As such, I’m going to do a bit of thinking out loud about their value and how that will fit into an Old School approach.

First off, for those not familiar with fronts and threats from either AW or DW, they are a fantastic bit of gaming technology thought up by Vincent Baker that quite elegantly reconcile GM prep and vision with wide open player action. The way they manage this is to have a general characterization of the threat (say, a Cult of Demon worshippers) which may be part of a larger “Front” (like eastern front or western front) such as the Incursion of Chaos, or whatever. The GM decides what these things want, and what they will do if left to their own devices, and then figures out some specifics and when/under what circumstances they will happen. So far, nothing that different from what GMs have been doing since ever. Here’s the paired techniques that make these something special: first, the GM is specifically charged with making sure these things the baddies are doing will in some way threaten or intrude upon the player characters, and secondly, that these things only happen if the players don’t do anything about it. That’s where the key difference with pre-planned story lines comes – the GM does not under any circumstances pre-plan a guaranteed outcome about anything that involves player action.

So, examples are more useful than vague descriptions. Under a post Ravenloft/Dragonlance idea of “story” in an adventure, I would probably decide that there’s a Demon worshipping cult, and that they are gonna kidnap the mayor’s daughter, and then the players are expected to go rescue her, and the climactic sacrifice will be about to happen whenever the players show up. On the other hand, with the fronts and threats system, I’d create a threat about the Cultists, describe what they’re like, and what they’re prone to do, and come up with a few special things they might do differently than other folks (call upon their Demon lord, make strange pronouncements, whatever) as cues for play. Then I’d decide that if left to their own devices, they’d kidnap and eventually sacrifice the Mayor’s daughter. Here’s the key thing, though: the timing of those things will be based on the internal logic of the Cultists, not on what seems appropriate to a preplanned idea of the adventure.

So, if the players are astute and figure out the cultists plan and wait to ambush them before they even kidnap the mayor’s daughter, that’s what happens. If the players don’t particularly care about the mayor’s daughter for a month or two, well, she got sacrificed while they weren’t paying attention. At their most basic, fronts and threats are simply ways of organizing what happens outside of the players’ immediate influence, and how to react when they shift their attention to them. For this Old School game, a further difference will be that I’m not particularly interested in pushing on issues of character (“man, this really threatens his core beliefs, let’s see how they hold up!”) and more interested in pushing on resources, strategic and tactical decisions, and exploration (“man, this really threatens that keep they’re building as their new headquarters, let’s see how they deal with it!”).

What I’m running into in applying these ideas now is that they tend to treat maps as things that should be flexible and vague, whereas there is a lot of Old School value in the map being a key part of the game, with locations just as if not more important than whoever happens to be there right now. Tying threats to locations limits some of their flexibility in responding to player actions, but I feel like without developing theme as a goal, location may provide the answer to “when to push this thing instead of that other thing.” And it is because of this desire to link place strongly to play that I put forward last time the idea of “nega-steadings” for dangerous places like lairs and ruins. I didn’t have much time last week to sit down and actually put those ideas to use, but I’m hopeful that I’ll the time this week, and so hopefully I’ll have something more like a finished idea in a few days.

A Point of Similarity

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs, Theory with tags , , on September 14, 2012 by Jeff Russell

So, all of my recent posts have been about the Old School Renaissance, and my old school D&D game. If you look to the posts that started this blog, you’ll see that I was quite enamored of indie RPGs and forge theory and the like. At first glance this seems like something of a flip-flop, but it was actually from the indie “scene” that I discovered the OSR and became fired up to run a D&D game. And one game design specific thing I think can be found in both camps is a distrust of “skill systems”. Now, plenty of old school games use and love skill systems, and some indie games use them to great effect, but it’s one of the things taken for granted in late 80’s – mid 90’s game design that is significantly absent from the earliest D&D or the indiest of indie games.

Here’s the thing: skill systems make a *whole lot* of sense. Once you’ve accepted the premise of deciding things about a fictional world by rolling dice, it’s a very short jump to decide such things should be made regular and to hang together. Especially if any of your justification for your rules is in “modeling” the real world (even if it’s as simple as stats like strength, intelligence, et cetera). So, it’s no surprise that skill systems were introduced to the hobby in its very first few years.

There’s a few potential problems with them, though. The worst is probably the fact that the implicit assumption of a skill system is that if you don’t have the skill you can’t do it, and that if you do have the skill, you must use the skill system to resolve something. This puts you in a position where your master driver character both has to roll to do routine driving and face the chance of failing and is prohibited from cooking, because there’s a cooking skill in the big list of skills and you didn’t take it. Now, of course, I’ve picked some especially heinous examples, and plenty of GMs and rules systems have work arounds to prevent such annoying instances, but the that is one of the logical directions for skill system-based play to go in.

So, if you look at pre-supplement OD&D or at lots of cutting-edge modern indie games, you do not see any sort of regularized universal skill mechanic, and I’ve come to believe that this is a beautiful thing. Don’t get me wrong, my anal-retentive, simulation-loving side gets giddy discussing intricately nested area of expertise-skill-focus-specialty type systems that are elegantly executed. But I’ve come to appreciate the complete opposite as well: replacing any attempt at yoking every possible situation to a rule system with faith in the judgement of one or more players at the table. That’s the whole reason the GM/referee role was invented in the first place: a disinterested 3rd party’s judgement is one of the most flexible tools you can have for providing open-ended excitement.

Have advances in game design reduced the necessity for relying on unaided referee judgement? Certainly. Is properly guided referee judgement obsolete and useless? Not on your life. I’d argue that Original D&D, at its best, stumbled upon some of the best stuff that is designed into modern systems through its default fallback position of “let the ref decide”.

As such, I have made the conscious decision to *not* include any skill systems, proficiencies, or what have you into my D&D game, but I’ve taken ideas from Apocalypse World and others to heart when it comes to constraining and directing what my actual role as ref is, and I hope the result is a fun game.

Smash it up, Smash it up!

Posted in Projects, RPGs, Theory on June 1, 2010 by Jeff Russell

So, a recent trend I’ve been reading about at the cool kid forums is a sort of game where you say “need book X to play”. Basically people put out more or less detailed conversion notes for using one set of rules with material from another game (whether just the fluff or some of the actual rules). Shadowrun is a popular target, as it’s a pretty universally loved world, with a pretty poorly regarded system. Another popular thing is to take Old Skool D&D and mash it up with a more modern rulesset, like the upcoming Apocalypse World (that one dubbed “Apocalypse D&D”). Basically, this notion excites me, as I’ve been discovering recently that a) a lot of the rules I’ve “grown up with” are pretty dumb, but b) I still love the worlds that they’re made for.

So, right now I’ve got two main ideas for my own approach to this trend. The first one involves an old favorite and a new discovery: Ninja Burger and InSpectres. For those that don’t know, Ninja Burger is a wacky little game available as an RPG or a card game by Steve Jackson games that revolves around, well, Ninjas delivering hamburgers. Anywhere. Anytime. In 30 minutes or less, or we commit suppuku! Inspectres is a Ghostbusters flavored game that uses both wacky paranormal activity and start up company stereotypes to good and humorous effect.

I picked up the Ninja Burger RPG rules and gave them a read through, and, well, I was less than thrilled. I haven’t had a chance to play them, so maybe they’re more fun than they look, or maybe right now I just have too much of a bug up my ass about hippy-dippy new fangled games, but reading through them they seemed to be rules for serious simulation of fighting and infiltration and such for a supremely silly game. They don’t seem to fit!

On the other hand, Inspectres has a franchise and mission based structure, good but flexible rules that support humor, and very little ‘overhead’ or prep for running it. So I was struck by the idea of running Ninja Burger with the Inspectres rules. I’m going to make sure it’s okay to post such a conversion from the publishers before I pursue it too far, though. But it’s something I’d love to play sometime.

The other idea I have is to run a dark horror/madness type game (like Call of Cthulhu or Dark Heresy) using the Otherkind Dice rules I posted below. Dark Heresy has loads of evocative source material, and I think does an excellent job of expanding the 40k universe into its dark corners and really playing up the madness and horror of confronting Chaos and demons and aliens and what not. But the rules do a few things I don’t like.

For one, percentile systems rub me the wrong way for some reason. Sure, they’re imminently logical, and easy to tune, but they just seem so dry and boring. Secondly, your goal is to roll under your score (which makes sense), and rolling low to do well just strikes me as counter-intuitive. That’s mostly silly, but still real.

More seriously, the game is, well, super crunchy. It has very detailed stats and combat systems and you keep track of your rounds of ammunition and take a half action to reload and yadda yadda yadda. If I want tactical combat in the 40k universe with characters I care about, I’ll play Necromunda! (or the alternate rules I’m working on that allow more ‘roleplaying’ like elements). I feel like all of that stuff will tend to detract from the focus on investigation and horror and madness.

So right now I’m debating between two ways to make the Otherkind system work with such a setting. I have some reservations, fearing that perhaps the inherent control of the narrative that this system gives players will take away from some of the horror, but I do like how *very* story focused it is.

At any rate, the two ways. One would be to allow “dangers” that you risk with a roll to be discrete things like a phobia or “going insane” or whatever. Unfortunately, this would take away the “death spiral” that you get with lowering insanity making your more likely to lose sanity, and it might take away the gradual erosion of sanity.

The other way would be to just import the sanity/corruption tracks from those games and their effects, and make it a ‘danger’ associated with rolls to lose X number of points. The main downside here is that you lose the feedback from the sanity/corruption points into the main rules, since the resolution mechanic would still function separately from these things. One of the cool things in Call of Cthulhu is that the more “Cthulhu Mythos” you know, the less sane you are, but the more effective at battling monsters. So there’s an incentive to do stuff that drives your character mad. One feature/issue of Otherkind dice is that “character effectiveness” can’t really be reflected manually, at least not with any degree of precision (basically you either get to roll an extra die or you don’t).

At any rate, my goal with any sort of mash up like this is to find a set of rules that not only don’t get in the way of the world you’re playing in, but actually expose new things about it and make it more fun to play. I’m pretty confident InSpectres will do that for Ninja Burger, less so for Otherkind dice playing CoC or Dark Heresy.

Otherkind Dice

Posted in Theory on May 10, 2010 by Jeff Russell

Okay, all my thinking about conflict resolution in the prior post is, as I said, tied into reading about really cool conflict resolution systems that do require addressing the fiction and do push the players into directions they wouldn’t necessarily have taken their character themselves, but in a satisfying way. One dirt simple but totally awesome way of doing that is Otherkind Dice.

The link above is really short, it takes like 2 minutes to read, and if you don’t check them out, the rest of this entry will be pretty vague and possibly confusing. Just a caveat.

So anyhow, these rules are really cool. I dig them a lot, and I’d love to use them at some point. But I don’t think they’re necessarily right for “The Book of Threes” for a couple reasons. First of all, they don’t emphasize teamwork or leaders/allies at all, which is a huge part of TBoT, obviously. Secondly, I want the game rules to reflect somewhat the ‘sort’ of character you have. I didn’t go for an out and out description of everything your character is or can attempt to accomplish, as with more traditional games like D&D, because, frankly, if it makes sense at all and would be cool, I want you to be able to give it a shot. But I did want the rules to reflect whether you have a smart guy, a buff guy, or a spirited guy (or whatever) to a degree, not for that to be only decided moment to moment during play.

Now, let’s talk about what makes them awesome, with an eye towards how that can influence my designs (“The Book of Threes” and whatever else). First off, they’re wicked simple. You can play an exciting and engaging RPG with 3d6, some friends, and some imagination. Next, they give the player a lot of control over what shape the narrative takes, but without just being ‘say what you want to happen’. Within that control are some interesting decisions to make. This gets right to my pet concept of ‘opportunity cost’. Sure, you have the chance to just out and out get what you want the way you want (as you should have a chance of doing), but when the dice don’t come up perfect, you have to make tough choices about what’s really important to you (and your character). This is the joy of tactical decision making married to character/story-focused play! Hurrah! Also, by separating accomplishment of the action and suffering negative consequences for it, you get a much more interesting range of accomplishment than just success/failure. You get everything from ‘you fail and it sucks a lot’ to ‘you succeed and its awesome’, but most importantly, you get the in-between stuff of ‘you fail but don’t get messed up’ or ‘you succeed but pay for it’ with some degrees of separation there too.

This is an awesome example of elegance in design. You have a simple, easy mechanic that produces complex, fun results. I would love to bring this quality to my designs. I’m currently pondering how this and some other resolution mechanics can color my ideas for the rules I’ve written. There might be some big changes coming, but I’m at a wall right now. Play would probably suggest some good ways to go.

Return of Conflict Resolution

Posted in Projects, RPGs, The Book of Threes, Theory on May 10, 2010 by Jeff Russell

So, in an earlier post I talked about some sticking points with conflict resolution as it currently stands in “The Book of Threes”. Right now, I’m having some more fundamental questions about the system than just the number of dice that should be put forward by participants in a round. I’m wondering how much the current conflict resolution rules contribute to what I want the game to be and how players will actually, you know, play the game.

I have a couple concerns in this area, which I want to discuss, and then I’m going to outline what I do like about the rules as they stand. I would love to get comments both on the rules as written, and any suggestions for ways to better achieve my aims.

So, first off, “The Book of Threes” is supposed to be about creating story. That is the main goal of the rules. I don’t want a tactical game that might happen to produce story, or a simulation of fictional physics that also might happen to come up with stories. If you play the rules as written, you should get fun, compelling stories that hit issues the players are interested in and put their characters into situations that provoke thought and emotional response from the players.

A word about what I mean when I say “story” since it is a marvelously vague word. I don’t just mean “a sequence of events logically connected”, nor do I mean something that can or necessarily should be transcribed into fiction. There’s no point in trying to out-fiction fiction with a game. Any player could just write a short story or a novel to scratch that particular itch.

I discuss what I mean by “story” in the “Running the Game” chapter (which I’m afraid might be a horrible mess right now). I’m using a theory of story from Lajos Egri via various game designers, primarily Ron Edwards (Sorceror, Trollbabe, and more) and Vincent Baker (Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age, Poison’d, et cetera). As defined by these guys, story has three elements: fit characters, dynamic situations, and premise.

Fit characters are characters that can and will cope with the situations they come into in ways that address the premise. It’s not much of a story to have a peasant wander around and get stomped on by a dragon. A peasant trying to fight a dragon, discovering he’s in no way fit to do that, then pursuing various goals to become able to fight that dragon, though, would be a story.

Dynamic situations are situations that by their nature have to change. They’re not stable. When the characters are introduced to them, they will have to make choices and/or come into conflict. The peasant knowing there’s a dragon out there somewhere isn’t a dynamic situation, necessarily. Learning that the dragon is working his way from village to village towards the peasant’s home village probably would be, though.

Finally, you have premise, which ties the other two together and gives them their meaning. In the sense I’m using it here, premise is the parent of theme. Theme is what you get when premise is addressed. So, if a theme is a statement of some sort of judgement or value (like, say, “ordinary people will do extraordinary things in the face of great danger”), a premise is a pointed question that leads to such statements (“what will ordinary people do when faced with great danger?”). Theme is what you want to work with in a solo work, cos you make all the decisions that will illustrate that theme. In a collaborative work like an RPG, though, part of the fun is not knowing for sure what conclusions you will come to about the story your characters are involved in. But you can select a premise that forces you and your characters to drive towards some kind of answer. As an example, in “Dogs in the Vineyard” the premise encouraged by the rules is “when is violence an appropriate solution to moral issues?”, and the whole game is set up to put the characters in situations where they can do violence to try to sort out moral issues, but to throw up complications that make that question interesting.

So, I went through this little overview here to frame my current concerns about the game. I wrote the rules with the intention of pushing the characters (the creation of which should make them fit) to come up with difficult questions (premises) regarding loyalty, duty, and friendship, and to strongly encourage the GM and players to put them into difficult spots that require making tough choices (dynamic situation). I pulled a lot of what I’ve learned from reading some really impressive games together to try to arrive at these goals.

Right now, though, as I mentioned above, I’m afraid that the conflict resolution rules as such don’t push these goals specifically enough. I like the way that oaths, grudges, and loyalty points give incentives to work with other people, and how the personal interests, family interests, and clan interests create unstable situations that generate conflict, and how the acquisition of glory points is an incentive to get into trouble with other people. But as for the actual conflict resolution rules, do they do enough to force you to make difficult choices and to be used to address the kind of conflicts that the other rules encourage. The tension between getting what you want and risking injury is good, I think, but I worry that the conflict rules themselves are just something that are there because I felt like I should have them.

Ideally, I don’t want the rules just to be something that doesn’t get in the way of fun, exciting play, but rather something that *creates* fun, exciting play. I want them to push the players in directions they might not go on their own, because if they don’t, you might as well just be doing group improv.

Related to this is an issue that Vincent Baker talks about a lot on his blog anyway a lot, which is the rules meaningfully addressing the shared fiction of the game. The canonical example is “+1 bonus for height advantage”. The only way this rule makes any sense at all is if the players around the table have a clear picture in their head which characters could be said to be ‘on the high ground’, which you only really get when everybody is communicating and paying attention. In this instance, the fictional situation that everybody is imagining actually has bearing on the game rules, rather than it only going the other way (you rolled a 19, so that orc just got hit with your sword).

I worry that my rules as written don’t do enough to reinforce a connection with the in-game fiction. Sure, the traits are supposed to be used based on how your character is doing something, and abilities based on what specifically he’s doing, but if a player can just go “I’ll use D8s since I want to get glory vs his D12s, and my ability ‘Expert Swordsman’ because it has the highest rating” and then just roll the dice and not pay attention to what the actions in the fiction are, then I haven’t done my job. The rule that each rounds described events are decided and done at the end of the round is an attempt to force the players to have some idea of what’s going on fictionally before rolling into the next round, but a rule that just says “do this” without anything else depending on you doing it isn’t very helpful.

So, if you take a look at the rules, or already have done so, I would like to hear back two main points: do the conflict resolution rules as written (or with tweaks major or minor) a) contribute to addressing premise and otherwise creating an engaging story, and b) require the players to be paying attention to the fictional environment and actions of the characters? If not, please tell me why so I can fix them!

What has Come Before

Posted in Theory on April 10, 2010 by Jeff Russell

So, I’ve been a bit quiet this past week, but not because I haven’t been thinking about game design. Actually rather the opposite. Instead, as I linked in a past post, I’ve been checking out the design theory over at The Forge, specifically the articles (still trying to wade into the forum, which is daunting) and at anyway.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this shit has blown my mind. Seriously, though, some theory that I originally met with skepticism, on full read through has totally altered how I think about RPGs, what my design goals are, and how to achieve them. I look back at what I’ve posted over the last couple months, and I’m slightly embarrassed, as it seems to be hopelessly amateurish dilettante work at its worst, trying to address issues from what I now see as a constricted and unaware viewpoint.

That being said, I am currently at an awkward place. This new theory has made me look at what I was talking about and go “yuck” because it’s ground that has already been covered better and in more detail by people who’ve thought harder about it than me. On the other hand, I am not yet comfortable enough with said new theory to really address it as someone who “gets it”. I am still learning.

But, as I said, it has so fundamentally altered my perception of RPG theory and the notion of design that to try to continue without incorporating it would be stultifying and frustrating.

So, as a warning to anyone who’s been following along so far: from this point forward, I will be discussing RPG design theory using terms from “The Big Model” as presented in the essays by Ron Edwards on the Forge website (see especially, “GNS and other matters of RPG Theory”, Simulationism: The Right to Dream, Gamism: Step on Up, and Narrativism: Story Now. I’d recommend reading as many of the ‘articles‘ on that website as possible, but those four are what I consider the most essential, with the first as practically required reading).

I will be happy to clarify any terms I use or what have you, but please understand that it will be as someone still learning – this stuff isn’t mine, I just found it thoroughly convincing. Also, if you want to debate the conclusions drawn, that’s cool too, but bear in mind that gobs of people have done so to death on the Forge, like, 5 or 6 years ago. So, what you’re looking at when you read those articles is something that was pretty heartily discussed, challenged, and refined, and from what I can tell, has continued to be largely useful to designers since then.

At first it may seem like annoying intellectualism or elitism or whatever, but it’s already doing wonders for my creative process, and I look forward to what the tools and methods of thought presented will help me come up with, and I hope everyone enjoys the ride.

Social Contract

Posted in Social Gaming, Theory on April 4, 2010 by Jeff Russell

Today I want to talk about something I touched upon in my review of the rules of “In a Wicked Age”, the “social contract” of roleplaying games. This is an idea that has come up a lot in my recent reading at anyway and the articles at The Forge. This is a topic that is so obvious that it is usually ignored or taken for granted, like the sky or the ground. Basically, what I mean by “social contract” is the understanding, usually implicit, that everyone participating in an RPG has regarding what it is they’re getting together to do. The trouble with it staying implicit and taken for granted is that different people may interpret it in very different ways, and that can lead to real-life conflict and hurt feelings and the dissolution of a game group. So, I thought I’d talk about the social contract in very vague terms, and then address some specific issues. As a side note, a lot of what I’m producing here may be going over ground others have covered, or amateurish, or what have you. I’m in the process of reading up on the field of RPG design, but I’m still stuck in the late 90’s/early 00’s in terms of what I’ve been covering recently (having decided to start with the start at the afore mentioned sites, so that I’m not lost when I get to the current stuff). So, basically, be aware that I may change my mind on stuff I post up here or look back at it and be embarrassed or such, and hopefully I’ll keep the same awareness and continue to improve.

So, this social contract business, what is it? It is something that exists regardless of the rules system you use, but can involve the rules system directly or indirectly. For example, if everyone you know who roleplays just loves (D&D/Call of Cthulhu/Fuzion/Whatevs), then it might be explicit that y’all are getting together to play that particular game. Or it could be more subtle, like you’re playing D&D, but everybody involves just kind of knows that D&D as is doesn’t address what they want out of a game, so they are okay with the game master changing rules or they suggest changes and so forth. But it’s relationship to the rules system is probably not it’s most significant feature. Like I said, a lot of time the social contract is entirely implicit, and everybody ends up with slightly different ideas of what it entails in their heads, and when this happens, problems can arise.

Let’s cut to an analogy for a moment, because I’m fond of analogies. In searching my imagination for an adequate analogy to the social contract of roleplaying, I realized that there’s no direct correspondence, which makes sense, I suppose, for such a specialized form of entertainment. But, being social in nature, and being associated with the use of rules, it does share similarities with some other, better known social situations. I think that roleplaying, socially speaking, is somewhere between a dance (as in, the event, like a prom, or a ball, or a hoe down, or whatever) and a sporting event. I actually think that the social contract of most RPGs differs quite markedly from board games or strategy games, despite the overlapping interest and sometimes overlapping methods. For one, most board games and strategy games of all sorts have much better defined rules that restrict what choices players can make, and everybody knows what they are going into the game. Usually, there’s very little notion that those rules can or should be bent to serve other ends, and also usually, the rules presented adequately address whatever can come up in such a game. So, let’s get back to my analogy. Like a sporting event (and like those board games and wargames mentioned), there is in fact a set of rules used to decide what can and can’t happen, and how to play and so forth. Unlike sporting events, however, it is usually less well defined what actions (by people, not characters. Remember, this whole essay is about the actual physical players participating in a game) explicitly violate what you all came there to do. In a soccer game, picking up the ball and running around knocking people over is very clearly not what everyone came there to do. That one guy may enjoy the attention, or being wild, or whatever, but everyone else will be pretty pissed off that he is preventing them from doing the activity they came together to do. In roleplaying games, there are definitely things people can do that have similar effects, but unfortunately, they’re usually less obvious, and a lot of times people put up with it thinking it’s the only way they can continue to roleplay. So if everyone is really digging on rescuing a princess from a dragon, but one dude says he hauls off and stabs the king  and runs around the court with his head knocking people over, that player, by deciding his character will do that, has made it impossible for the other players to do what they came there to do, forcing them to react to his actions or bicker about whether that ‘could’ happen or not, or stop playing. The trouble is, kingslayer there may not have realized that he was pissing in their porridge when he did that. He might have thought that going in an unexpected direction, or staying true to his wild, unpredictable character was what he was there to do, and assumed that everybody else felt like that was what he was there for too.

I think that hockey provides an interesting example of this gray area in sporting events. FIghting technically isn’t allowed in the rules, but it’s an accepted part of the game. Everyone participating in a professional hockey game expects some fighting and has some idea what amount will be allowed by the refs, what penalties it’s okay to take for doing it, and how to use it within the context of the game. The reason I stress this is to show that in other forms of social leisure activity, there is also a distinction between the ‘official rules’ and the socially understood guidelines for what the event will be. Now, I said that I didn’t think that sports were a perfect metaphor for roleplaying, and that’s because in sports, the relationship between what is socially agreed upon when you get together to play, and what is printed in the official rules, is usually very close. The baseline assumption for most sports is ‘we will show up and follow these exact rules. Not following them is cheating and will get you penalized.’ So, I want to bring the other half of my analogy, a dance. Like roleplaying, dances are social events with varying levels of formality, and even at the most formal of balls, there is usually a distinct difference between the ‘official’ purpose and guidelines for behavior and the socially understood aims and allowable behavior. Also like roleplaying games, there can be a wide range of variations in the stated aims of a dance, and different people will show up with different expectations of what’s socially acceptable (though, being more mainstream, the social contract of these events, though implicit, tends to be better understood by everyone involved). So, a prom is going to have different ‘rules’ than a military ball, just as a hoe down will have different rules from a cotillion event.

Imagine, if you will, someone who thought that all dances were proms. He would show up to a hoe down in a tux, expect to hear a mix of nostalgic music and modern dance music, and would want to focus on dancing alone with his date. When he encountered jeans and cowboy hats, country music and fiddle playing, and complicated group dances, he would think they were doing it wrong, not have a good time, and most likely spoil it for other people there. The shame of it is that he would have a great time at a prom, he would do it right, and everyone there would enjoy, or at least tolerate, his presence.

So, what in the hell does all this talk of hockey and hoe downs have to do with roleplaying? I think that since the idea of the social expectations of a roleplaying game are so rarely discussed or thought of explicitly, you end up with the equivalent of people showing up expecting one kind of dance and getting another. But it’s usually so subtle, and even worse, a lot of times, despite a game claiming to be one kind of dance, it might actually be another, that nobody realizes that’s the source of the dissatisfaction and bad feeling. Further, if you go to the prom and your best friend took the girl you wanted to bring, you and everybody else knows that’s why there’s tension between you two at the prom. But at a roleplaying game, the focus is so much on the rules and the imaginary world of the game, that people like to convince themselves that real-life interpersonal tensions don’t enter into it. So, when the two best friends go to play their weekly RPG a few days after that same prom, people might not realize, or at least not acknowledge, that the game is going poorly because there is still tension between them over a real-life social issue.

What do I make of all this? I think that it is a healthy and useful step for a roleplaying group to all explicitly lay out, before play, what they’re doing and what they want to accomplish. And I think this needs to go a little deeper than “we’re here to play D&D, and our goal is to have fun”. I think even the densest of socially challenged folks is going to get that you’re there to play the advertised game and the overall goal is to have fun. But what makes a game fun varies from group to group and person to person, and I think an enhanced awareness of what that is will help out a lot. I’m riffing pretty hard here off of things I’ve been reading in those Forge articles. In those articles, they go into different approaches to rpgs and what sort of abstract things different people pursue and enjoy in a game, but I’m not going to go into that here. But in general terms, I think the group should make a few things clear (as in, actually talk these things out and hear everyone out on them, then come to a decision. Maybe even write it down for reference later) before they start gaming, and here are some suggestions of mine:

How active does each player want to be in making deciding what dramatic things happen to their characters?
How much detail do you want to explore of the game’s setting?
How comfortable is each player with in-character conflict?
Are there any topics or issues that you are uncomfortable addressing in play?
How concerned are you with your character’s success as measured in some objective way (missions completed, xp earned, et cetera)?

If you’re playing with people new to roleplaying, they might not know the answers to some of these things, and I think a good solution is for the GM, or whoever is organizing the game (presumably with more gaming experience) to put forward as honestly and in as much detail as possible what his goals are and how he intends to address the game. So, if you are the GM, and you want your players to have a good deal of active narrative control, tell them! If you have a finely crafted world with lots of detail, and you are expecting them to want to explore it and work within it’s fictional parameters, be clear about that. If you think it’d be fun to have the players compete for who can kill the most kobolds, or gain the most levels the fastest, or survive the longest without going insane, let them know. But be prepared to listen to their reactions to these things. If everyone in your group says “whoah, I don’t care about levels and stuff, man, I want to do whatever would bring my character into the most dramatic situations for an exciting story”, then pay attention. If everyone has a different idea of what would be fun, or nobody much is interested in what you’re pushing, you might need to find a new game or a new group. Finally, an important point stressed in the essays I’ve been reading about different play styles and what different people want out of their games, is that no one way is “better” or “more fun” objectively. It’s largely a matter of personal taste. Some people will have the most fun ever cleverly avoiding traps and slaughtering monsters to steal their treasure with no real concern for dramatic tension or addressing ethical or moral issues. Other people will really get into accurately working within a detailed feudal system and maneuvering in a complex social network of lords and families and churches. But still others might have the most fun playing characters who do nothing but come up against agonizing conflict and make decisions to set up the next agonizing conflict. All of these approaches, and more, are great and can be fun. But they’re not necessarily all compatible in the same game. So, do your best to figure out what everyone is showing up for, and try to stick with it, and your games will be a lot more fun and more likely to work well.

A Matter of Taste

Posted in Projects, RPGs, Theory on February 5, 2010 by Jeff Russell

So, before we go into how to encourage a particular genre with the rules, there is the question of what genre to shoot for. If my whole contention is that the real draw of RPGs is the non-mechanical aspects, then a good starter RPG needs to have a genre with wide appeal and plenty of material to fire the imagination. I’ll run through a brief list of some popular settings/genres and my thoughts on them, but this is an area where personal taste could cloud my judgement extraordinarily easily, so I would very much appreciate comments on what flavors are good choices for players new to roleplaying.

Heroic Fantasy: By ‘Heroic Fantasy’, I basically mean Dungeons and Dragons. I’ll include the grittier Sword and Sorcery flavor under this umbrella to keep things brief. In a heroic fantasy game, the players take on the roles of gifted individuals in a fantastic world (usually pseudo-medieval) and fight monsters and villains with magic, blades, and bows (again, usually. Star Wars has a lot of ‘heroic fantasy’ elements, despite being in space). Settings frequently come from mythology, popular fantasy books (like Lord of the Rings), or historical/pseudo-historical sources (like ‘7th Sea’, which is roughly based on Age of Exploration Europe, but is a made up world with its own history). Benefits include that it is a familiar genre/setting to just about everyone, wide flexibility in the sorts of characters that are helpful, and just plain imagination firing fantastic elements. Negatives are that many folks have negative stereotypes associated with the genre (it’s nerdy, it’s for kids, it’s the work of Satan, et cetera), and that many of the things you can do (magic, sword fights, lots of monsters running around) lend themselves to more complex rules.

Space Opera: Yes, the Star Wars genre. As mentioned above, it has a lot in common with heroic fantasy, and considering both have ancestors in the late 19th and early 20th century pulp writers, this is unsurprising. Space Operas are characterized by, well, space, as well as a usually ‘fuzzy’ approach to science and technology, a wealth of alien species and cultures, and a generally swashbuckling approach to problems. Benefits include wide knowledge and acceptance of (at least for Star Wars) which gives you players who already have a ‘buy in’ to the setting, the excuse to come up with just about any situation you want for adventures (on this newly discovered planet. . .), and the fact that you get to use laser guns. Downsides could include many of those listed for heroic fantasy, as well as the potential to need to handle multiple scales of conflict – human scale as well as space ship scale, for example.

Hard Science Fiction: Hard science fiction is a setting where the technology all either exists or else is based on extrapolations from current knowledge that are all consistent with modern knowledge of physics and science. A frequent ‘freebie’ is to assume some newly discovered aspect of the physical world that allows faster than light travel, and then treat everything else more rigorously. The emphasis on gritty realism of technology usually spills over into other venues, with realistic politics and gritty challenges based on the hard realities of space being popular sources of drama. Babylon 5, Jovian Chronicles, and Starship Troopers (the book, not the movie) are all ‘hard’ sci-fi to some degree or another. While the grittier drama and more serious tone of the game might appeal to some players, in reality this is even more of a niche genre than Space Opera or Heroic Fantasy. I love it so, but I don’t think it’s a good choice as a default for a starter game.

Pulp!: As alluded to earlier, pulp writing covers a fairly large range of genres, from HP Lovecraft to H Rider Haggard to Edgar Rice Burroughs and beyond. Spirit of the Century does an excellent job of marking out a ‘default’ pulp setting that focuses on early 20th century adventure with hints of the weird creeping in (rather like Indiana Jones) and an emphasis on the saving power of Science! I like to think of pulp as a genre ‘overlay’. Since a huge variety of pulp magazines published a multitude of genres from historical fiction to weird horror, you can easily pick some other more general genre, and ‘pulp it’. In pulping a genre, expect to up the action, up the melodrama, make the main characters a little larger than life, make the extras a little more two dimensional, and to keep the pace frenetic. Benefits of the default roaring 20s pulp setting or the wider pulp genre umbrella include emphasis on action, a purposefully simple approach to the world, and a flexibility in what sort of elements to incorporate. Downsides are that a lot of the original pulp sources are, well, written for adolescent boys in the 20s and 30s (or even before), and so tend to be sexist and occasionally racist. That doesn’t mean your game needs to bring those elements in, but your players may have existing baggage about the setting. That being said, I’m leaning pretty strongly towards a pulp ‘flavor’ to whatever genre I pick, and Spirit of the Century is already an excellent quick to pick up game with a delightful roaring 20s pulp setting in the vein of Doc Savage or Johnny Quest.

Horror/Supernatural: For ease, I’m rolling together all the different flavors of horror and games about things that bump in the night. Vampire, Call of Cthulhu (pulp horror!), or whatever else, all of these games have a strong focus on either being scary, or at least on dark subject matter. As with the hard sci-fi, this darker subject matter may appeal to certain folks, especially those wishing their games to have a consciously more ‘mature’ theme. While I love this genre, I have a few issues with it as a starter game. For one, it’s really hard to establish genuine horror in an RPG, and I imagine struggling to remember new rules and how this whole roleplaying thing works can’t contribute to a feeling of dread. Likewise, by its nature, horror tends to touch on disturbing and unpleasant subject matter, and one of the ways RPGs make those themes especially immediate is to thrust the players into dealing with them directly via their characters. I think a starter game should be way more concerned with making players comfortable than with pushing their boundaries. So, with a heavy sigh, I’m going to put aside the sanity points and save them for when my novice roleplayers are hungry for more depth.

(a potential exception: a game on or around Halloween, when everybody’s in a spooky-stuff mood anyway)

Westerns: Here’s a genre with even wider appeal than the Space Opera or Heroic Fantasy settings. Not everybody loves westerns, but it’s pretty rare to find someone who is entirely opposed to the idea. You have plenty of opportunity for action, violence, heists, and otherwise living outside the comfortable reach of the law or social norms. Unfortunately, being based on a fairly recent and well-known historical period gives you less room to play with things. Alternate history is a good way to get around this, and “Dogs in the Vineyard” does an amazing job of keeping a rock-solid western feel while allowing plenty of flexibility in making the game world suit your group. Some problems that could come out of a totally historical western are things like gender roles, race relations, and the interference of actual historical personages. I would give Samurai settings their own entry, but if Kurosawa and his influence on latter-day westerns didn’t convince you, most of the issues and benefits apply equally to Samurai settings as they do to westerns, except that in America, it’s a narrower interest than westerns.

Action (the Ah-nahld genre): By ‘Action’, I here mean the genre of popcorn munching action movies. I don’t remember the name of it, but I played a pick up game based on action movies where the more ridiculous and cinematic your described action, the *easier* it was to succeed. Suffice to say, it was entertaining and people went over the top. This is a fun and easy to get into genre with loads of cultural context to fit it into. On the other hand, it doesn’t by nature focus very much on the roleplaying aspect of things, being defined instead by the aspects of the game most usually revolving around dice and mechanics. My personal take is that Action is a genre better mined for content to throw into other genres/settings than one to host a game all by itself.

Some other genres I have less experience with (Gaming-wise) and thus less to say, but thought I should throw out there are:

As I said at the get go, I’d love the hear your thoughts on various roleplaying genres and their utility for introducing new players.