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!