Sunday, September 6, 2009

For the Story's Sake

There's this pernicious misconception that's been around for a while and which has always kind of bugged me. A few threads on Story Games recently have brought that misconception out into the open, and crystallised my thoughts on the issue.

The misconception I'm talking about is the idea that Story Now play is about doing "what's best for the story". The idea goes something like this:

Simulationists are all about "what's realistic?" or "what fits with the genre"
and Gamists are all "what will make me win?", Narrativists are always asking
"what's best for the story?"

Now aside from the stupid idea that creative agendas are a label you can stick on people, what's dumb about this is the fact that asking "what's best for the story?" is completely, directly, and unambiguously the opposite of Story Now play. Play in which the players are focused on creating a "good story" as the point of play is directly incompatible with Story Now play.

That seems kind of counter intuitive.

But it's not! The whole deal with Story Now play is that no one, not the GM, not the players, not anyone, knows what the story you're creating is going to be about, how it will eventually resolve the premise (if it does), and whether the story will eventually have a happy ending or a sad one. All this shit is up in the air. We don't even really know much about the genre of the story we're telling (There's a whole digression here about how genres are things that are retroactively applied to creative works, rather than a formula to be emulated, unless you're doing pastiche).

In Story Now play, it's impossible to know what will make the story "good".

So no one gets to say what the story is about, until it's done, until it comes out in play. If we knew what would make the story "good" we wouldn't be exploring a premise, we'd be emulating a genre. And yeah, sometimes that means that the story is going to suck a little. There'll be times when everyone will wish that the NPC hadn't got his head shot off, or that the dice had come down some other way, but we stick with how it happened in the fiction, because that's the contract we all made with each other when we started playing. We agreed that we'd see this thing through to the end, play by the rules, and live with it.

A "good story" is a shield for players to hide behind when they don't want the responsibility of making a statement in play. My character in Dogs doesn't slap a young woman NPC because I've decided that would titillate the other players. He does it because I'm saying right now that that's how he rolls. He's a guy who will slap a woman right in the face, and you have to deal with that. I'm judging him in my own mind, thinking "Fuck me, this guy is an ass", but I'm also thinking "I can't be honest to who this character is and not have this come out in play". And when the other players' characters judge mine, and find that he's not good enough to be a Dog, I agree with them. But it's not just something I thought would be "cool" in the moment. It was me saying "Here's a guy who, given this power over other people, thinks he's got the right to slap a woman in the face". And the other players are saying "Here are some people, given the same power, who won't cross that line."

It's us, the players, having a conversation about morality and power and the right to judge, and we're doing it through the medium of the game, and it's only possible because we stand behind our portrayals of the characters, and we don't let some idea about what's "good for the story" get in the way of that.

My character in Dogs, Michael, decided to stop being a Dog in our game last Thursday. It was tough, surprising for a lot of players, and the first real sign of the wear that the job is having on the Dogs' faith. Michael struggled to overcome his weakness, but he couldn't do it, and he knew it. He asked another Dog for help, and she told him she didn't think he was good enough either. It was harsh, and awesome. And none of us ever caved to what was "best for the story". There were panicked looks about the table as we discovered what was at stake in the conflict. I think Malcolm and Steve were worried that we'd somehow gone too far, that we should pull it back somehow. But we stayed on course. We saw it through to the end. And it was good.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dogs Interview

I don't normally listen to podcasts, mostly because I don't have time, but I've been home sick with the Bacon Fever the last few days, so I gave a few a listen.

Since we're playing Dogs at the moment, I checked out this interview by "ninjas vs pirates" with Vincent regarding Dogs.

I was impressed with the interview. They'd clearly done their homework, because they asked a bunch of questions that had popped up in Story Games threads from the previous couple of weeks. Vincent was cogent as always (is it just my New Zealand ear, or does he sound just like Adam from Mythbusters?). I think what I found most interesting was how they asked about specific mechanics, and how that contributed to the way the game plays. That was interesting from the perspective of playing Dogs, and from the perspective of designing games.

For my own play of Dogs, the question about "what's at stake" in conflicts was the most relevant. In our last game, we'd had a conflict where it took us a long time to figure out exactly what was at stake. I think we came to the right conclusion in the end, but some of the advice in the interview would have helped.

I'm definitely going to check out part two of the interview.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Roleplaying" in RPGs

I've been having a frustrating couple of weeks with Story Games. It seems like the interesting threads with good topics get ignored, while bickering and inane banter just piles up the comments. I guess I'm mostly frustrated because I feel like I've made some interesting comments which haven't had any kind of useful response. So in other words, I'm feeling whiny because I haven't been getting enough attention.

Rob Bohl started an interesting thread about encountering players for whom "roleplaying" was an undesirable impediment to the process of playing roleplaying games. The thread (and my comments in it) didn't get the attention I think it deserved, so I'm blogging about it here.

This is largely a semantic issue, which usually means it's boring and pointless, but I thought it was a good opportunity to expand on a thought that had been percolating in the back of my mind for a while.

I think that "roleplaying", in the sense that the gamer Rob is talking about means it, is best described as a set of techniques. An (incomplete) list of these techniques would look something like this:
  • Saying aloud what your character says
  • Thinking about and describing "what your character would do"
  • Having your character interact socially with other characters in the fiction
  • Describing non-essential information about what your character does
These techniques are often very important to people's experience of roleplaying games, to the point that games that don't support these techniques are often described as "not roleplaying games".

Defining what a roleplaying game is is a notoriously difficult subject, because, I think, there's no clear consensus on which techniques are essential to defining a game as such. For example, there are a large number of techniques that are employed in "traditional" RPGs but not in some newer games, leading some people to lable those new games "not RPGs". Some of these techniques include:
  • Each player controlling one in-game "piece"
  • Increasing in-game effectiveness
  • Mechanics for simulating violence
  • A "GM" or similar
I think most people likely to be reading this would agree that none of those techniques are essential to a roleplaying game. I'd like to argue, therefore, that the techniques from the first list are not essential either. They're all techniques that are commonly associated with RPGs, but none of them alone make or break the definition.

So are there any techniques that are essential to something being an RPG or not? The best I can come up with is the idea of a shared imagined space.

"Shared Imagined Space" is the idea that the players all contribute to a shared understanding of what is happening in a fictional space. In short, it's players describing fictional stuff about what's happening in the game, and the other players all agreeing that yes, that is happening.

But Shared Imagined Space itself doesn't make an RPG, right? Otherwise you could describe stuff happening in your game of Monopoly, like "oh, the hat and the iron are getting married" or whatever, and make it an RPG. Some people play a lot of games like this (especially games like "Bang!" and "Lunch Money"), but I don't think that makes them RPGs.

Or maybe it does. I don't know, but it doesn't sit easy with me, mostly because I hate playing games like this.

So another way to think about it, that gets around that problem, is to define RPGs by the use of the technique of Shared Imagined Space with impact on the mechanics of the game.

In other words, you describe stuff, and what you describe has an impact on how the rules of the game work. Purely based on judgements about the fictional content of the game, you make decisions about how to impliment the rules of the game.

That's a pretty controversial definition though. It excludes some indie favourites like "Contenders", and nearly excludes "My Life With Master", and I would argue (based on my previous post) that it comes close to excluding D&D4E as well.

So it's close, but not quite right. It's floating around in there though. It's something about how the Shared Imagined Space impacts on the game, or on the decisions that the players make.

In the end though, I don't think it's a very useful thing to have a definition of what is, or is not, an RPG. I think it's more useful to look at the whole list of techniques I described above, and look at a game as having more or less "RPG qualities". That's a useful definition I think, because it frees up thinking about designing and playing games. There is no technique that is "essential" to an RPG, and there is no technique that is forbidden. Not all RPGs use the same techniques, and when you play an RPG, it is useful to be aware of the techniques it supports.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Gaming and Hierarchy

This post on Chris's blog that links to this post about sexism and violence as "stress release" in RPGs got me thinking about hierarchy in gaming groups and how there are some issues that are kind of "third rails" in discussion of gaming. They're sure to produce sparks when you bring them up.

One of them is the issue of "wish fulfilment" in gaming, how people play these games so they can do things they can't do in day-to-day life. That's an interesting subject, but I think it's being covered in the discussion on Chris's post.

What I've been thinking about though is hierarchy in games, how RPGs sometimes act as a way for groups to reinforce the power structure of the group, how "in character" actions can be a substitute for real life actions, and how sometimes real life issues come out "in game" in ways that we don't expect. I think sometimes players use "in character" actions as a way of keeping others in line socially. I know that looking back at even some quite recent play, there were times when people's in-character actions were clearly about punishing a player for not playing "right", and for not fitting in with the group.

I think "the party" is a pretty clear metaphor for the out-of-play social group.

This is most obvious in adolescent play, where there's a lot of tension and one-up-man-ship in play, where the players are all struggling to define themselves against each other. A lot of interpersonal aggression comes out as in character bickering, fighting, and so on. I don't think it's an accident that GMs tend to be the more socially competent and respected members of their groups. I think the amount of power that traditional games give GMs over the players in the game is directly related to the ways that the people who habitually take the GM role dominate their social groups. I know this was a feature of my early play, and from listening to others, I don't think that's an unusual experience.

I want to take a moment to say that I'm not at all bagging on the concept of GMs in games, or saying that roleplaying is an inherently damaging activity for young people. I'm saying that the format of gaming which has a GM position with considerable power over a group of players naturally facilitates and reinforces the existing social structure of a lot of social groups, and that in-game actions are not exempt from the interpersonal relationships that exist in those groups.
Groups reproduce in play the power structure that exists outside of play. So groups with a strong leader type are going to gravitate towards games that facilitate that role.

I talked about some of this stuff in my post grad thesis, which was about the local gaming club in my town. I didn't really have the roleplaying experience or theoretical grounding to explore the idea fully at the time, but I was very aware of the way that the GM position worked in social groups, and how in-game actions reflected out-of-game social structures. I wrote about how the breakdown in a game I observed was directly related to the power struggle between two players in the group.

Of course, none of this made me very popular in the club. Talking about this stuff was implicitly forbidden. The "It's just a game" mantra was strongly invoked to dispel any analysis of power in gaming.

I think it's pretty clear that it's not "just a game", and that social structures do influence the way people play with each other. What I'm interested in is not the really obviously dysfunctional ways that adolescent players interact with each other in play, but rather the way that all in-game actions are really interpersonal interactions.

I think as a hobby we've got this really strong cognitive divide between "in character" and "out of character" as two totally distinct things. It's an article of faith that what happens in play is totally distinct from our real-life social interactions, and I think that's a mistaken idea.

Not that that is a particularly original observation, but I think it's an important consideration to keep in mind during play, and in design. All interactions between characters are interpersonal interactions between players in the game. They are all "real life" interactions. I think that's one of the strong differences between rpgs and other mediums, and it's both a strength and a weakness of the hobby.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Review of "Radiance" by M.J.Graham

Here's Vincent from his blog:

"Let's say that you're playing a character who the rest of us really like a lot. We like him a whole lot. We think he's a nice guy who's had a rough time of it. The problem is, there's something you're trying to get at with him, and if he stops having a rough time, you won't get to say what you're trying to say.

Our hearts want to give him a break. For the game to mean something, we have to make things worse for him instead.

I'm the GM. What I want more than anything in that circumstance - we're friends, my heart breaks for your poor character, you're counting on me to give him more and more grief - what I want is rules that won't let me compromise.

I don't want to hurt your character and then point to the rules and say "they, they made me hurt your character!" That's not what I'm getting at.

I want, if I don't hurt your character, I want you to point to the rules and say, "hey, why didn't you follow the rules? Why did you cheat and let my guy off the hook? That sucked." I want the rules to create a powerful expectation between us - part of our unity of interest - that I will hurt your character. Often and hard."

So what I think Vincent's saying here is that the point of game rules is to make things happen at the table that no one wants to see happen, but players are invested enough in the rules of the game that they go with it anyway.

It's that bit in the game where a character is on the brink, hanging off the edge of the cliff, and everyone's cheering for him to drag himself back up, but they know that if that die comes up a 1, he's going over.

It's that bit where the couple is fighting and hurting each other, and everyone's hoping that they'll stop it and get back together, but the dice go the other way, and everyone's heart breaks but they go with it.

That (Vincent argues, and I agree), is what conflict resolution is for.

"Radiance", (link is to pdf) a free game by M.J.Graham, is designed with a different philosophy, I think.

What the game's rules do basically is apportion out narration rights to various players. One player describes some stuff happening, other players suggest complications or "redirections" that may occur, and you draw beads from a bag to see if the redirection is relevant or not. If it is, the player who introduced it gets to narrate what happens next. There's no direction as to how the "redirection" affects the story, just a change in narrator.

So the game doesn't introduce anything into the fiction that the players don't want to be there.

But that's good, right? It means the only stuff that happens is stuff that the players want to happen!

I don't agree. Vincent again (from the same essay):
"The only worthwhile use for rules I know of is to sustain in-game conflict of interest, in the face of the overwhelming unity of interest of the players. "

In other words, if your game rules aren't providing some tension in play, if they're not "pushing back" against the unity of interest of the players, they don't achieve anything. I think what "Radiance" boils down to is M.J.Graham giving you permission to tell a story with your friends.

Let me expand on that. What the rules of "Radiance" do is apportion out narration to various players. They tell you who gets to speak at what time. But there's no rationale for why this particular configuration is better than any other. What does distributing narration around the table add to a story? Why do you need a bag of beads and some candles to do that? If you're going to tell a story with your friends, why would you bother with this, rather than any other way of telling a story?

The author reenforces this impression at the end of the document in a "Q&A" section:

"Why don't you give more tips or instructions on how to make a story?

Because I don't think I know more than you do about creating good stories. I certainly don't know more than you do about creating the kind of stories that you enjoy. Besides, there's nothing I can tell you that you won't pick up faster and more completely than by creating your own stories. "

So what's the game for?

Friday, July 31, 2009

List of Free Games for Designers

I wrote this post for the Forge, in a thread about getting the most out of a First Thoughts thread. There are a lot of new people posting games over there, and one of the recurring things I notice is that they're often not very aware of what's out there in terms of design, often even inside their own paradigm.

Since this took a long time to put together, I thought it could do double-service as a blog post.

Disclaimer: I can hardly claim to be an expert at game design. I've published a couple of things (to very little acclaim), and I've played a heck of a lot, but I don't have the kind of experience or expertise that you'll find from other people on this forum. I have, however, read a LOT of First Thoughts posts, and participated in a number of them. When I say this stuff, it comes from having seen which posts go on to become published games (virtually none of them), and which get recycled back into the designer's pot of ideas. I think that posting in First Thoughts is as much about learning game design as it is about producing a game, and with that in mind, I think reading other games is a great thing you can do to help yourself.

What this list is for:

This is not a manual for how to design an RPG. Don't look at these games as examples of "how to do it right" or "what works". In my view, this list has only one purpose: To challenge assumptions.

I think the number one enemy to good game design is assumption. People come in with an idea of "how an RPG is made" or the "right" way to play an RPG. These assumptions don't add anything to a design, they just cause trouble, and lead to sucky, derivative games. So challenge those assumptions. There are no objectively "good" rules. Reading games that are similar to, or wildly different from your own design will help you realise what possibilities are out there, and what's been done to death.

A note
A common reaction when reading games that challenge your assumptions is to think "that doesn't work" or "I don't like games like that". I really strongly urge you not to give in to those thoughts. How do you know it doesn't work? How do you know you don't like games like that? What don't you like about them? Thinking about the answers to those questions will help you work out what you want in your own design.

First of all, there's a huge list of free games here:

It's listed by keywords, so there's good milage in just browsing what looks interesting. Be aware that any game can be listed here, so there are a lot of games that have never been playtested, or even finished.

"Hippy" games

"Hippy" is a jokey name for games that do some really different things with the mechanics of RPGs, often changing, distributing, or removing the GM's authority, or otherwise challenging the "traditional" game structure. These are good games to read if you're considering making a game like this yourself, of if you've never encountered games like this before.

The Shadow of Yesterday
This is a full length, complete, and very well-loved game, that contains some very interesting ideas. As "hippy" games go, it's pretty traditional, but you'll especially want to check out "Keys" ( and "Bringing Down the Pain" ( as stand-out aspects of the system that mark it as a "hippy" game.

The Pool
( - Link is to rtf file
The Pool is an interesting game that really breaks down roleplaying to some basic ingredients. It's very focused on the narrative of a game, over simulating an in-game reality. Particularly look at the "monologue of victory" rules, for a mechanic that puts some GM power in the hands of players.

Harlekin-Maus Games

This isn't one game, but a whole lot of games. I don't know why Zak Arnston isn't better known in the gaming scene. He's produced a whole host of interesting, funny, challenging games. Some of these games seem almost designed to challenge assumptions. I'd particularly check out Shadows ( and Metal Opera ( as games that get a lot of play, and have some interesting ideas.

"Generic" games

"Generic" is, I think, a total misnomer. The system inevitably puts some slant on the kind of play that you'll get out of it. A game where guns kill you nine times out of ten is going to give you a different feel to one where you can take a number of hits and still keep fighting. A game with half a book worth of detailed combat rules gives a different feel to a game where all conflicts are treated the same. Check out some of the different feels you get from these different games.

I have a confession to make: I've never played GURPS. I made a character once, but that's as far as I got. I've heard a lot about it though. It seems GURPS is the game with a supplement for everything. The rules are extensible, reasonably detailed, and to some people's tastes "realistic". This is a stripped-down, free version of the rules.

Fate is an increasingly popular, free "generic" system, that you're free to adapt to your own game. My sense is it's got a more freewheeling, action-oriented take than GURPS, and a few mechanics that play with the normal GM/Player divide.

Savage Worlds (Test Drive)
( - Link is to pdf file
Savage Worlds is a game I enjoyed for a very long time. It has a bit of a "pulp" flair to it, but it's adaptable to a lot of different genres. It's a very fast and easy system, with some tactical depth and an emphasis on combat. This set of rules is a "test drive" which means you're only getting the very basics of the system, but it's enough to play the game with, and get a feel for the system.

Old Games

I think there are still lessons in design to be learnt from some older games. I think a lot of younger players (and even some older ones) have assumptions about what "old school" play was like, which are pretty misguided. Taking a look at some of these games, you'll see that a lot of the things that are often considered essential aspects of an RPG are actually not present, and that the games promote quite a different style of play to many current games.

Labyrinth Lord
Labyrinth Lord is a "retro clone" of the Moldvay edition of Dungeons and Dragons, published in 1981. That means that it is almost an exact copy of that set of rules, with some editorial changes, and incorporation of rules from supplements. I've had a lot of fun with this game. Pay attention to how almost everything in the world is instantly lethal to first level PCs. The only way to survive is to take advantage of minute details of the fiction.

Warrior and Wizard
I actually know very little about this game. It's a clone of "The Fantasy Trip" a game that came out very soon after D&D, and contains some things that, at the time, were completely innovative. It also has some board game aspects, which are interesting given the current trend in D&D.

( - Link is to an online store, but the game is free
GORE is a clone of the percentile-based "Basic Roleplaying" system used in both Call of Cthulhu and Runequest. Honestly, I'm not sure what design lessons there are here, but these are still very influential and popular games, so maybe it's worth a look?


Ron described these games as "truly impressive in terms of the drive, commitment, and personal joy that's evident in both their existence and in their details - yet they are also teeth-grindingly frustrating, in that, like their counterparts from the late 70s, they represent but a single creative step from their source: old-style D&D. And unlike those other games, as such, they were doomed from the start." in his essay, here:

Heartbreakers get a lot of criticism, but I think there's a lot to learn from them as well. When I read these games, I find myself marveling at the truly interesting and original ideas, while being frustrated with the baggage they carry from the author's influences.

By definition, none of the games linked here are truly heartbreakers, as they're published after the 90's, they're often influenced by different sources, and some of them are very innovative. I'm playing very loose with the concept. These are fantasy games that retain a lot of the trappings of traditional play, but also have some new ideas. A lot of these are genuinely good games as well.

Barbarians of Lemuria
I've not played this game, so I can't comment too much. Its most recent (and no longer free) version has gotten some good reviews. It's probably an example of some of the better design in this field, a game that has one or two new ideas to offer, in a package that is largely very familiar.

Red Box Hack
Calling this a heartbreaker is going to get me some mean looks over the internet, so let me explain. It started as an attempt to "fix" D&D (though in a direction different to most heartbreakers), it was driven by the enthusiasm and drive of its creator, and it had some interesting and innovative ideas. It's definitely worth a look.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

On Mighty Thews 1.2

On Mighty Thews is a player-empowered pulp fantasy game I wrote last year. It's a combination of Jason Morningstar's "Dungeon Squad" with Clinton Nixon's "Donjon", and a few other elements stolen from various places. It's great for creating pulp fantasy short stories, in the vein of Howard, Leiber, and especially Moorcock.

Since I published the game, I've had heaps of great feedback on it. Which parts work, which parts don't, what's easy to understand and what isn't. I've compiled all that playtest feedback into a new "1.2" edition of the game. The system is largely unchanged, but I've clarified a lot of rules, refined the expression of some others, and added more advice on how to make the game fun in play.

You can download a pdf of the game here, or view it online here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bad Ass

(Found here) These guys look rough. When they're not fighting off Cossaks on their borders, they're riding reindeer around the tundra. They're Koryaks, indigenous inhabitants of the Kamchatka peninsular. This photo is from an anthropologist around 1900, photographing them posing with traditional armour and weapons, at the time being passed down as family hierlooms. More information here, or at Wikipedia, of course.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Dungeons and Debacles

I played another game of Labyrinth Lord the other day, in what has been a very successful campaign (details here). This game was... less successful. Three characters dead and a group of very frustrated players. It was a downer. We all left feeling a bit down on the whole experience, feeling like there was a lot of risk for very little reward. I'm following the dungeon stocking guidelines pretty scrupulously, so I'm a bit frustrated with the game.

I think I'm going to have to rethink the way I design my dungeons, but the whole "planning for the party's level" is one of the things I got sick of in 3.5. I want to just stock a dungeon with what I think is cool and interesting, and have the players interact with that. On the other hand, I don't want to promote the kind of "take three hours to traverse a 30 foor corridor" paranoia either.


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

4E and Fictional Causes

When 4E came out I had total nerdgasms over all the funky powers, the interactions of abilities and the wonderful crunchyness of it all. I thought it was a really revolutionary step for D&D, kind of the culmination of a direction D&D had been heading for a while. I read the books pretty obsessively, gleaning every nuance from the powers, working out optimal builds, designing adventures, and getting right into the game, all before actually playing it. It was a time when my opportunities for gaming were pretty limited, so I had a bunch of anticipation before I could actually play the game.

When I played it, I had a pretty good time. The combats were, as advertised, interesting tactical excercises, with nice emergent properties as players discovered interactions between powers and began utilising them in combat. In fact, the most fun we had with the game was just fighting a series of random combats in a dungeon. Nothing but a series of fights. So I enjoyed the game, but as time went on, I began to find it a little unsatisfying. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it just felt like the game was not for me. There was something about the combats that just felt a little empty to me. The whole game had a slightly removed-from-reality feel, that I couldn't quite place. It felt like an abstraction of a roleplaying game.

I think Vincent's essay on fictional causes has finally given me the language to describe what I think the problem was. To my mind, the most accessible of Vincent's essays on this is this one, but to go to the root of the discussion, you could start here. I'm not going to bother to restate what was said there.

Someone started a pretty abortive thread at Story Games about this, but the thread got swamped by bickering as if it was on the internet or something, so I wanted to try again here. 4E doesn't have enough fictional causes during combat, which means that the details of the fiction ceases to matter in play, especially in combat, and gets less and less important. People still care that you're saving the villagers or stealing some loot or whatever, but the small details fade into the background. Then people end up playing it like a tactical board game. Which is fine, but not what I want in a roleplaying game, y'know?

Here's why:

In 4E, when you want to know what's going on in a fight, what all the relevant factors are in your decision making, and what rules are going to apply to your actions in your turn, you look at the board. Every relevant fact about the situation is conveyed in information in the "real world" of play. The position of enemies is indicated by tokens or miniatures on a grid. The conditions affecting them have concrete rules that you can look at in a book. "Prone" means -2 to AC and attacks, or whatever, not "lying on the ground, with whatever effects make sense based on that".

When I play Labyrinth Lord (which I'm doing a bit at the moment), the details of the fiction are intensely important. That's because when you want to make a decision about what your character is going to do, you have to look at the fiction. Do you get an advantage when a monster is knocked down? What kind of monster is it? What knocked it down? What did it fall onto? How are you attacking it? The DM makes a judgement call, based on the details of the fiction.

In D&D, the details don't matter. You don't need to refer to the fiction at all. Everything you need to know is in the "real world". You can refer to the fiction if you want to, and you can add as much fictional content to your action as you like. The game doesn't stop you from adding to the fiction as you play. But the fiction never gives anything back.

"Page 42" is the argument I hear most often against the "4E as board game" approach. Page 42 of the DMG has rules for "Actions the Rules Don't Cover", that give guidelines for adjudicating actions that draw on the fiction to have concrete, real world affecting effects (like hit point damage). In essence, it's true that Page 42 is all about fictional causes. My sense though, is that in play the rule doesn't often play out like that. I think that elements of the fiction that are able to inflict real-world effects quickly become "game tokens", represented in the real world, with their effects on the game carefully adjudicated and deliniated. The example in the text of the DMG, and the examples I hear about in discussion are very much pre-determined, well defined game effects introduced by the GM, with an expected and defined method of interaction from the players based on the rules in the book. The opposite of fictional causes.

I'm not saying that 4E is bad game. My Life With Master, for example, is in my opinion pretty similar in this regard, and I had a good time playing that. I'm just saying that I'd rather play HeroQuest

Monday, June 29, 2009

Burning Wheel

Just finished a six-session Burning Wheel game, which was pretty successful. None of us had played the game before, and we were all keen to try it out. I was excited to scratch that fantasy itch finally, and it's also a game I've been curious about for a while.

I talked about the game a little bit in this post, so I won't go over the details again. I'd like to talk a little bit about how the game worked out in terms of my GMing, and the development of a theme and a kind of premise through play.

The first lesson I learnt was about how to GM this kind of game. We were playing a very politics-heavy game, with lots of intrigue and scheming. There was a secret plot I'd planned, which the PCs would discover through play. In the first few sessions of the game, as GM I was much too concerned with getting the information out "right", rather than just responding to the characters' actions in a sensible fashion, and letting them drive the game. This led to dumb, blocking play from me, which really held up the first two sessions. Eventually I worked out what was making the game suck, and I remedied the problem. I started just prepping each NPC's plans for the session, and played them according to their motives, letting the PCs interfere with those plans as they wished. Once the PCs had uncovered enough of my secret plot, the game really ran itself. They had goals they wanted to accomplish, and as GM my only role was to judge the reaction of my NPCs to those actions, and to set difficulties for rolls.

The other thing I found interesting in the game was the development of thematic play that happend during the game. The players were a pretty broad mix of backgrounds, from a guy who is heavily into hippy story-games, to an old friend of mine who is more focused on tactical simulation and playing his character to win (whatever winning means for that character). I was a bit worried about how this combination of players would work out, in terms of conflicting play styles. I think this started out not working quite right. We had to look closely at some beliefs after the second session to target them more appropriately, but once we did this, things started to fire.

Our characters were three brothers who had made their fortune in piracy, and were trying now to go legit. We did a neat thing with the lifepaths, and made a little timeline of the characters, working out what each was doing during the others' lives. We found some neat coincidences, and worked from those to generate some interesting situations. One of the younger brothers went into the "desperate killer" lifepath just as the elder brother started the "merchant" lifepath. We decided it made sense for the younger brother to have been killing on his older brother's orders, to further the business. This set up great conflicts for the game.

The theme that emerged was all about family loyalty. The brothers were feircely devoted to each other, but also had motives driving them apart. The eldest was driven by profit and greed, and the youngest was enraged by what he'd had to do to help his elder brother succeed. The action in the game continually tested their familial bonds.

I wasn't expecting great character portrayals or highly emotional scenes from this game, but we actually had some pretty powerful material. The final scene was a great reversal of our starting position, with the youngest brother arguing for killing the mastermind of the plot against them, while the eldest argued for working with him. Their argument got personal fast, and all their repressed issues came to light. It wasn't Shakespeare, but it was a good scene, and I think it surprised all of us.

I'm really interested in playing with this group again, to explore this territory more.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


(From here)

This map is crying out for an RPG. I really like how it isn't the same top-down perspective that pervades modern maps. I'm really interested in maps that show locations in relation to each other in terms of some abstract concept, rather than physical location. Like old maps of the silk road that showed landmarks along the way, rather than precise distances and relationships, or maps of the world that showed Christian nations ratiating out from Rome.

Monday, June 22, 2009


We finished our first Dogs town last week, and I'm pretty relieved to say that it was a really good experience for me. For a while, I was very worried that I wasn't going to be able to like my character, and that's reliably a game-killer for me.

I don't have to believe that the character is a good person (whatever that is), or think they'd make a good friend. I just have to find something sympathetic about them, some aspect of their situation that I can relate to, and that gives me a hook to play them in the game (all this goes only for Story Now type games, I don't care about this in other types of play). I think this is something most people know, but I actually have little experience as a player, and so it's taken until recently to figure this out.

It's a very alchemical process for me, whether I'm going to like a character or not. I throw some mechanical elements together, try to get a picture of the person in my head, and then try to bring that picture out in the game. Sometimes what results is a character that I really like, and which I'm happy to play, and sometimes it emerges that the character isn't someone I can relate to, and the game feels like very hard work. A recent game I played of "Its Complicated" fell down this way for me. Among other problems I had with the game, I didn't really relate to my character, and it made playing her a drag. Covenant was an edge case. I could barely relate to my character, but I struggled through the whole game. That actually worked for that game, which was all about painful moments and unforgivable actions.

In Dogs my character, Michael, is a sixteen-year-old boy who's been the golden boy of his village his whole life. He's very much a stereotypical male member of the faith, with one exception. He's got a propensity for falling in love, and a very active libido. He was shipped off to Bridal Falls to avoid an entanglement with a girl he impregnated.

Malcolm, running the first town, picked up on this issue and another player's character who is an ex-prostitute, and created a town with all kinds of issues about lust, marital fidelity, sexual manipulation, and so on. Michael, my character, was going to find this town pretty challenging. Which was perfect of course. I don't think you can play Dogs and not expect your characters' issues to be challenged. In play though, I found the town very challenging. One of Michael's first conflicts was with the Steward's middle-aged wife, Sister Abigail. She was tryting to make him lust after her. Some poor dice rolling meant that I had no chance of winning the conflict, and Michael failed. This felt like a huge blow to my image of the character. I struggled to reconcile that with how I'd imagined Michael's issue playing out. This was compunded at the end of the session when Sister Abigail succeeded in seducing Michael. This character who I'd imagined as a mostly innocent boy with an overactive sense of romance was sleeping with the Steward's wife under his own roof! I felt a little as though my control of the character had been taken from me, and very much as though Michael was being abused within the fiction. The session ended there, and if that had been the sum of my experience with Dogs, I think I would be very dubious about the game.

Michael's first scene in the next session opened with him running from the Steward's house in tears. Fleeing through the streets, his only real aim was to escape from the shame of what he'd done. We decided it would be interesting if he ended up at the house of Brother Edmund, a character who'd been seen in another character's scene last session. As players, we all liked Edmund, and wanted to see him in the game more. We ended up in a conflict with Michael trying to convince himself that he was unfit to be a Dog, and an irredeemable sinner, while Edmund tried to convince him that he could be forgiven. This was a nice coda to Edmund's previous scene, and for Michael's issue, it was perfect. Everything fell into place for me, and the events of the last session suddenly made sense to me in terms of Michael's story. I'd found the issue that was at the heart of his character - about whether he could live up to his own expectations, or if he would keep letting himself down. That was an issue I could really relate to, and it's something that I think will continue to be compelling in future games. Michael's 2d10 relationship to the sin of lust is going to make it very interesting next time.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Island Map

Here's the map of the islands we're using for our D&D game. I drew it a couple of years ago in Japan, following Tony Dowler's style.

What I like about the map is that it presents very discreet locations for adventure. It's easy to compartmentalise the environments, and to scale the threat level of each island.

Feel free to use the map for your own purposes.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

NPC Generator Update

So a while ago I wrote this idea for a way to randomly generate NPCs that would help to build rich cultures in games. I posted it at story games here, and it got some pretty good attention, and it even got turned into this thing.

I wrote up the whole idea here.

I was always a bit uneasy about the attention the idea got because even though I could see lots of potential for it, I'd never tried it in actual play and I've found a lot of great random generators actually end up sucking when you come to use them, or worse, they're never quite relevant to what you're doing, and they never get used. I was happy to get the chance to try it out then when I started prepping for the Burning Wheel game I'm running.

The game is set in a very ahistorical version of Constantinople, in which the Crusaders never left, and instead established their own monarchy, integrating slowly with the native Greeks and others, and only adding to the city's (by definition) Byzantine power structure. Especially important is the mixture of cultures, with Frankish nobles, a Greek middle class, and Arab and African underclasses. All these create a rich mix that I wanted to reflect in the NPCs in the game. A perfect opportunity to try out my idea.

And it worked out pretty well. The characters I was making were mostly members of the power structure of the city, and the generator gave them great hooks for the PCs to grab onto. It was good for generating powerful NPCs with weaknesses that felt credible and significant. For example, the head of the Glassblowers guild was an Arab with over twenty wives, far more than he could support personally. He angered other members of the guild by drawing on their help to support his huge family. It also worked well for making "Bad Guy" NPCs with understandable motives. Another of the NPCs was a Frankish noble who broke the cultural tradition of believing Peasants to be chattel. One of his motivations for trying to overthrow the monarchy was to establish a more egalitarian society.

So I'm pleased to report that the generator works, at least in that context, and I'll be using it more. I'm creating a Dogs town soon, and I thought it might be interesting for that, though in the end a mpore delibarate approach may be better. We'll see.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Other Game

Here are some things I've written in the past about this other game I'm writing. I'm just throwing these up rather than going into detail so that I can get the boring stuff over with and get to what I really want to talk about.

The game is an exploration of power and whether there is an ethical use of it, or, having power, whether one can ethically not use it. The game puts the player's characters in the position of being immensely powerful people in a world where the normal power structure is crumbling. The system is mostly freeform in the "you say what your character does, the GM says what happens" sense of the word. What stops that from being sucky is this system where players can choose to invoke their character's power to change the world, to basically have their say. The powers are tied to particular "flavours" I guess, so you never just get what you want, your character achieves what they want through the use of a particular power - guns, for example, or lies, or sex, or whatever. There's also a whole intricate system that makes the characters organically change as they use their power.

Each player has a little stck of coins that represent their character's powers. Each side of each coin can either be blank, or have a coloured sticker on it. You "cast" the coins before play starts, tossing them onto the table. During play, you can spend coins from the table to change the world, and to change what the GM has just narrated. If you spend a coin showing a blank face, then you're limited to what's humanly possible. If you spend a coin with a coloured sticker, then you use a power associated with the colour of that sticker - one of the four powers chosen at the start of the game. These powers are also associated with the compass points of the setting, so that the powers are integral to the world, and as you travel towards those compass points, the relevant power grows more influential to the people there. Once you've spent all your coins, you switch the GM around, and cast again. There's a whole economy of gaining and losing coins, and gaining stickers, which underpins the game, but I needn't go into that now. Basically, what the mechanics do is put you in situations where you're faced with a choice between using your godlike powers, or using more human means. Sometimes, the choice is to use your power or to accept what the GM has described.

Read that? Ok.

Where the game is at now: I've playtested it a bunch of times with a bunch of different people, and I've made minor tweaks here and there, and refined my understanding of how to play the game and what each player is doing in the game. The game works ok, in the sense that there aren't major problems with the economy of the powers, and they more-or-less have the effect in play that I want them to.

But, it's not quite fun yet. It's not quite at a point where it naturally drives you toward interesting situations. It's also kind of exhausting to play, partly because I've mostly played it with two people, and also because there are no dice so everything that happens at the table is the result of a choice you've made, and that's really intense and powerful, but also hard work. There's just something a little wrong with it, and I can't figure out what it is. The design is kind of an organic, closed system, which makes it very hard to tweak. Every part has a function that feeds into another part of the system. It's hard to change one part without changing others.

I think the problem is that I'm too close to the thing. I can't see the big changes that need to be made. I think it'd really benefit from some outside playtest, but I'm not sure I can communicate the issues I'm concerned about well enough to highlight that to playtesters, and I'm not sure that playtest would necessarily pick up these problems.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How I'm doing D&D

Vincent's posts about "fictional causes in games, combined with a hankering for dungeon exploration game me a strong yen to play some Basic D&D. I played a few times with friends, using Metzner Edition (because that's the box I've got), and Labyrinth Lord (I prefer Labyrinth Lord, for no other reason than its lack of explicit endoersement of cheating). I think I've finally settled on a way to play D&D that fulfills my needs.

D&D is a fun game, but I couldn't eat a whole one, y'know? It's fun to play a game now and then, but long-term it's a bit unsatisfying. What's great is just to be able to bust out the 3d6's now and then, roll up a character and explore a dungeon for a while. It's fun to prep some dungeons, but doing it on a weekly basis can be a drag. Casual D&D is where it's at. On the other hand, some of the stuff that's fun about exploration type games is only achieved through long-term play: Getting familiar with locations in the setting, sharing stories with friends, developing history with characters, and actually going up a level or two.

It started with reading about Ben Robbins' "West Marches" game, which was a big area of wilderness explored by various PC parties in 3E D&D. While I really liked the exploration and casual play nature of the game, some aspects of it seemed like too much work for me. I didn't want to prepare the whole environment ahead of time, and I was mostly interested in dungeons, rather than wilderness encounters.

What I wanted was a way to have casual D&D play, with a variety of groups, but have each instance of play contribute to a growing environment for play. I wanted the West Marches aspect of looking at a map and saying "I wonder what's over there?", but the ability for the GM to just run with whatever was prepped, rather than having to know exactly what was in each spot on the map. I wanted a way for each character to contribute to the game, even if they died in the first room of their first dungeon. I wanted a persistant and growing world to explore, that the GM could discover as the players played through it.

What I came up with was this: A wiki documenting the adventures of the "Redrock Raiders". The Redrock Raiders are a fictional group of adventurers, mercenaries, thieves and tomb-robbers based in a small fishing village in a fantasy setting. Their village is fortuitously located near the ruins of an ancient civilisation, drowned in long-forgotten cataclysm.

Multiple groups, potentailly with rotating GMs, run adventures in a shared setting, and document their adventures on the site. Players and characters can migrate between groups, playing on a casual basis, and have their contributions recorded and added to the growing "story" of the Redrock Raiders. It is this fictional group that the story is really about. Individual characters come and go, but what matters is the gradual advancement of the Raiders, from disreputable misfits meeting in a Tavern, to (hopefully) respected heroes, operating out of their own fortress.

So far we've played three "adventures", each with a slightly different cast. I've GMed all of them so far, and it might stay that way, but I'd also like to play. What I'm enjoying is the sense of adventure, the importance of exploration and detail. The ever-present mortality of characters forces the players to interact with the fiction in a very detailed way. I wrote on Vincent's blog:
The vast majority of stuff in the world is WAY more dangerous than a first level player character is prepared for, and the only way to give yourself even a slight chance of survival is to avoid using the rules for fighting as much as possible. The result is lots of "Ok, we position by the door. I've got my spear out ready for if it charges, and the elf is gonna shoot it with his bow. If he misses, we're all ready to run."

If you play Basic D&D like a tactical boardgame, you'll lose, every time. The only way to survive is to engage with the fiction, to scramble for every slight advantage, to invest absolutely in the details of how your character moves, the way they're bracing their polearm, the way they carry their kit. It's all vitally important, because if you get it wrong, your character is dead. In play, this is starting to come through, with lots of very tense moments and near misses, as well as cheap deaths at the hands of fate, and lucky escapes.

Running the game, I'm realising that Basic D&D is as much a horror game as anything else, much as early pulp fantasy had a strong influence from horror. Death stalks the characters wherever they go, and dungeons are home to bizzare nightmare creatures who will murder a man without hesitation. You're in the dark, far from home, and surrounded by things that mean you harm. The ceiling wants to eat you.

Throwaway Setting Idea: Catholicspace

Sometimes setting ideas come at a time when you're not prepared to use them. Other times the ideas are compelling, but the actual gameability of the setting is questionable. It's a shame to waste that stuff though, so I'm going to blog it for posterity.


It's "A Canticle for Leibowitz" mixed with Vincent Ward's Alien 3, with a dash of Dune, and a sprinkling of WH40k.

The central conceit is FTL travel powered by starship drives that are fueled by consecrated communion wafers, a.k.a. the flesh of God. They fly around, still taking many years to complete their journeys, run like little flying monastaries. There are wooden planets, pykrete space stations, prison hulks, peasant farmers, and space-libraries. There are religious conflicts over the use of the communion. There are atheists dealing with incontrivertable proof of the existance of god - or of some kind of thing. There are the ruins of alien civilisations, vast and incomprehensible.

The issues are things like: "What if there is objective morality, and it goes against everything you believe?" "What if there was proof of the existance of a deity, but it wasn't what people expected?" "What if progress isn't always good?"

I think you could play this with Sorcerer (you'd have to add some stuff about Demons and humanity), or hacked Dogs, or a Solar System thing, maybe, if you were less intested in some of the themes, and more interested in the colour.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Cyberpunk Game

I've got a bit on the go at the moment, and there are a few gaming projects that I'm working on intermittantly. I tend to work in fits and starts on various things, getting really excited about one thing and doing some work, and then leaving it fallow for a while while I pursue other things.

The project that I'm spending the most time on at the moment is a Cyberpunk-styled game that uses otherkind dice, the bare bones of my "say yes or face the dungeon" concept, and an initiative system from an old wargame I wrote. The idea is trying to recreate the fun of an old cyberpunk styled game I used to play, that was constantly stymied by sucky rules. The main goals are "heist movie" storylines, Cyberpunk colour (and to some extent cyperpunk themes), "players versus environment", lots of player planning and scheming, and functional GM prep.

I haven't put anything up at my other site about this yet, because it still doesn't really have a playtestable shape. What I've got is a bunch of skills, and rules for using them, a bunch of equipstuff, and rules for shooting at people.

The playtest I ran was pretty painful, with lots of false starts and moments of disconnect, with a few really fun moments. Here's what's working:

Skills (kinda): It's reliably fun to roll the dice for your skills, assign them to some categories, and succeed or fail, usually with some complications. I'm pretty sure that the basic concept of the skill system works, but it may well see some major revision.

Aaaaand, that's about it. Here's what's not working:

Character Creation: I threw character creation togwther at the last minute, and it really doesn't work. Characters need a range of skills to achieve anything in the game, and it's too easy to create a character with no skills, or skills that don't compliment the group. The system's also pretty restrictive in terms of not giving you a lot of scope to create the character you want. I possibly need more skills, or skills with broader scope. I'm still at sea about this.

Missions: The idea is that you fit your mission around what the GM has prepped, so that if your mission is to take out some corporation, and the GM has prepped some anarchist gang, you work out how interacting with that gang will help your mission, and you do that. That little scrap of it is working, but the problem is that the missions seem arbitrary, and when a particular character isn't involved, there's nothing for them to do. The system falls apart a little when the action isn't intiated by the players, and that's a problem. Malcolm suggested I try importing something of the mission structure from Duty and Honour, and I think that's an awesome idea.

There's a lot more stuff that still needs work, but those are the two things I'll try to fix before playtesting the game again. I'll also try to make a few more skills, especially interesting skills, because I think seeing skills on the list that aren't in any other games will be part of the fun of the game. That's a bunch of work, but I think it's doable.

Getting Started

Hey so lets see where this goes eh? Blogging!