Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Bitter Taste of Victory

There’s an idea in fiction that any given scene[1] moves in a particular emotional direction, usually either from low to high (good to bad) or high to low (bad to good). Occasionally the movement may be from high to higher (good to great) or low to lower (bad to worse) but usually it’s just good to bad or vice versa. Thus, for example, if a scene starts with a kids birthday party (high) it may end with the delivery of bad news (low).

While this might seem a bit contrived on the surface of it, this is really just a reflection of the fact that something happened in the scene, and thus whatever the situation was at the beginning of the scene has changed by the end. Changes which do not change emotional state aren’t that interesting. If we get good news at a birthday party, then the scene can just feel like so much noise.

This is a pretty well established idea. Mckee talks about it a lot, and Snyder came up with some clever notation to use to illustrate it and Robin Laws has a forthcoming book of beat analysis[2] called “Hamlet’s Hit Points” (that I’m really looking forward to) which gets into it. So it was with that inmind I started thinking about fight scenes.

The default fight scene, and particularly the default D&D fight scene, has a predictable emotional direction, from adversity (low) to victory (high). Setting aside fair defeats (as contrasted with forced defeats to move aplot along, which don’t have an emotional charge so much as an emotional extended middle finger), this is the model for the vast majority of fights. This lead to me asking myself what a fight looks like if you reverse the emotional charge. That is to say, what does a fight look like that ends on a lower emotional note than it starts?

Answering this question has proven surprising fruitful for me, in that it ends up very quickly crossing into the territory of “what makes an interesting fight scene?”. See, once you assume victory[3], then you need to start asking what else is going on in a fight that makes it interesting, and the answer that presents itself is secondary objectives. That is to say, if orcs attack the princess, the players may defeat all the orcs, but still fail (and by extension, end on a bad note) if the princess dies or is hurt.

See, the classic way to achieve a victory that hurt is to make the fight very expensive. Players get to the far end and realize how many resources (potions, spells, hit points and so on) they used up and the feel much worse for wear. When it happens, this can be a pretty satisfying thing, but its hard to plan for. Vagaries of dice or a given fight tend to make this overwhelmingly unpredictable, and the line between resource depletion and emotionally resonant resource depletion is very hard to pin down. External elements (like the princess) are much easier to manage.

Easier, but still not trivial. If the princess is just an interchangeable part (which is to say, the scenario would be the same if they were protecting the duchess or a box or rocks) then the lack of personal investment tends to mean that it lacks emotional punch, and the satisfaction of winning (killing all the arcs) overwhelms the sense of losing (that the princess was hurt/killed)[4]. For it to really work, the players need to be invested. Maybe they know and lke the princess, maybe they’re invested in the reason why the princess needs to go where she’s going, maybe (and this is most crude) there’s a concrete and substantial XP reward for the princess’s safe arrival[5].

All of which comes back to one key idea: fights work better when there’s a reason for them that is more involved and personal than “Because the enemy is there”. Yes, that takes more work than filling rooms with monsters, but the payoff? Huge.

1 – Perhaps more precisely, any interesting scene.
2 – Where I say “Scene” here you can potentially also say beat, but the discussion of that distinction is its own thing.
3 – I feel this is a safe assumption. It does ignore the old school idea that you can always run away, adding another outcome, but even so I think its fair. There will be more victories (even if expensive) than not in most fighty games.
4 – This ignores the fact that the princess’s death may have consequences for one simple reason: that something will make their lives worse is almost meaningless to adventurers, at least in the abstract. The players WANT fights and conflict, and if they get them because the vengeful king is sendign assassins after them, then that’s just as cool as finding them in a dungeon.

5 – If the XP reward for safe delivery is lower than it would be to just get in every fight along the route, players will seek out the fights, or at least not avoid them.

Still Recovering

Origins was fantastic, and I still need to catalog my haul. The games were good, but it was mostly an amazing time for the kind of conversations that you always hope you’re going to have a a convention, but don’t always manage to pull off. Too much metal for one hand.

So for the moment, check out the cool things other people saw at Origins.

The First Crime is Murder

The first crime is murder. There are other crimes that may call for solution, but murder is the real staple of detective fiction. This, in and of itself produces an interesting challenge for gaming. Murder should be shocking. Death is never without consequence, or at least shouldn’t be, and the severity of the crime alone should be an impetus to action for some.

It’s implicit that a murder will have impact on those around the victim, and that there is an existing web of relationships that this murder exists in the context of. In contrast, a theft or similar crime often exists in a web of value and price, where the interests are usually more measurable (as in the value of the thing stolen).[1]

The problem is, a lot of games are very cavalier about life and death. Many games encourage either an enthusiasm for slaughter by creating hordes of faceless monsters, or embrace a sort of indifference, as murder is just one more facet of a dark, dark world. If your game incorporates either of these views, it’s going to change what sort of crimes you can use. If your group understands that someone might commit a crime for gain, but balks at one for less concrete reasons, you may want to stick to theft, extortion, bribery and other crimes of that stripe. In that case, some of this may not be as useful to you, but the bulk of the principals still apply.

Which brings us back to murder, the most basic, primal of crimes. What do you need to make a murder mystery, for purposes of the game?

Laying the Foundation

Obviously, you need a killer, a victim and a crime. Any of these is a solid place to start, and each allows you to develop a certain sort of mystery. Once you’ve worked out your starting point, you’re still going to want to work out the details of the other two, but you’ll be able to use your core idea as a foundation.

Building From the Victim
The victim is the usual place to start. If the victim is your core, then the mystery should be about the web of people who surrounded him. One of the people connected to the victim is the criminal, and the crime was committed because of their relationship. Other relationships may muddy things, and there will still be clues and red herrings to deal with, but when the victim is the foundation, the suspect list is usually very easily derived. Most mysteries, especially books and television, follow this model because it is so strongly character driven. You have a stable of potential characters, each with a strong incentive for interaction (proving their innocence, or someone else’s guilt).[2] Most of the truisms of the genre, like seeking motive, means and opportunity, are most strongly present here, and it’s usually the most controlled of mysteries. It is also the kind that can potentially call for the least conflict, since most of what can be determined is done by investigation and conversation. How good or bad that is can depend a lot upon the group.

One of the characters connected to the victim is usually the client, who we’ll get to shortly.

Victim driven mysteries include the mystery of the boardgame Clue and most episodes of Murder, She Wrote.

Building from the Crime
When you start from the crime, there are usually two reasons to do so – the crime is either a loose thread or a novelty.

Loose threads are crimes that, upon investigation, lead to other crimes. The first thread gets pulled on, and something much larger unravels. This model does a very interesting job of turning the traditional mystery on its ear because the mystery is usually not very hard to solve. There’s a strong sense of progress (rather than frustration) as the layers are peeled back. Characters are rolled in to deliver a piece of evidence, and rolled back out just as quickly, and the process culminates in the final, true crime being revealed. Because it moves so quickly, there’s not a lot of room for interaction between the characters, which is why this is the ideal model for the police procedural, where the bulk of the story focus is on the team of investigators more than the crime. At first glance, this may seem the most game-able of models. The focus on the investigators and the steady progress are both very compelling. The problem is that the lack of real interaction outside of the investigators makes for a very isolated sort of game. Most notably, this is a tricky model to GM, since it requires setting up tiers of mysteries, which is a lot of work, but is also (because it is so highly structured) the closest thing to a dungeon-style mystery available. This one really merits a full blown sidebar, bit for the moment, let me simply say that this can easily be the best and worst of models at the same time.

The vast pantheon of modern crime drama, tends to fall into this model, with Law & Order: SVU as perhaps the best example.

The novelty crime, on the other hand, is often less about who committed the crime as much as how they did it. Once the how is determined, it usually points quite directly at the who. What’s more, the identity of the victim and killer tend to be secondary to the novelty of the crime. The classic “locked room” mystery, where a victim is found dead in a locked room, which has no apparent entrance or exit, is probably the most famous example of this.

The problem with this approach is that it’s very difficult to make a novelty crime something that you can really keep focus on. They tend to be Gordian knot’s – once a solution is found, everything else falls into place. Because of this, they tend to be ideal mysteries for broader, more adventurous stories, where the mystery is only a component of the whole.

In Dresden, adding magic to the mix can complicate novelty crimes even further. Magic can easily be the explanation for all manner of “impossible” crimes, but it becomes easy to get lazy and just feel that magic can do everything. The rules and limits of magic need to be kept firmly in mind for any magical crime. Without those limits, then player will look at a situation and just assume someone was powerful enough to do it. That kind of assumption can be great for the occasional hook, but if there are to many mysterious figures flaunting the rules of magic, then detective work becomes almost moot.

Many pulps use the novelty crime, as does Scooby Doo. The murders in Storm Front, Summer Knight and Death Masks as well as many of the other issues Harry runs into are also novelty crimes. And lest we seem critical, many of the tales of one Sherlock Holmes are novelty crimes.

Building from the Killer
Focusing on the killer is usually only appropriate when he is a continuing threat (he may kill again or whatever). This is more of a model for thrillers and horror stories than pure mysteries. Thankfully, the Dresden files have more than their share of horror and thrills, so that’s just fine. Serial Killers, Man-eating monsters and spiteful Spirits are all possibilities of foundation villains.

If the killer is your foundation, the relationship to the victim can be much more tenuous. Victims may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or they may have been chosen for non-obvious reasons. Because of this, a suspect list can be far more tenuous to create or maintain. Additionally, a common complication is that the killer is just an agent of a true villain, and that villain must be stopped.

The agenda of the killer (or the villain) is also usually quite different than in other mysteries. The crime was not his end, but rather a stepping stone leading to his end. It is usually this end which is what really needs to be stopped, and by extension, the true mystery is determine what the agenda (and potentially who the villain) is. This can have a lot in common with loose-thread mysteries, in that there’s often a progression of issues to solve.

Killer-based mysteries are the easiest to make into adventures because the Killer/villain is usually a worthy antagonist who must be confronted and defeated. This allows for a whole lot of exciting conflict. The price for this is that they’re often less intricate as mysteries, but the tradeoff can be more than worthwhile.

Building the Frame

Once you’ve picked your foundation, you need to frame it with the other two elements. Often, the details of the foundation will suggest the nature of the frame, but it’s usually worth thinking of at least one or two complications to throw in here, if only to serve as a red herring.

If your foundation is the victim, a novel method of murder can be an excellent way to muddy the waters or add color to the proceedings. Often, a novelty can be a component of the larger mystery, so that when it’s resolved, some component, like the falseness of an alibi, is revealed. Similarly, if the villain is still at large and willing to kill again, more bodies may show up, ratcheting up tension.

If your foundation is the crime, you’re going to need to put some more structural work into the frame to help keep everything together. You want to flesh out the victim and the killer’s relationship enough that it’s easy to see motive. Remember that in most novelty killings, the killer may be obvious, but it’s impossible to prove unless someone can figure out _how_ he did it.

If your foundation is the killer, the victim is a great place to hide a clue. The apparently random victim may later be revealed to have an unexpected connection to what’s really going on. Additionally, the killer may kill in some distinctive way, so that the crime originally looks like a novelty crime and the real problem is only revealed with the second victim.

Building The Doors

After the victim and killer, the next important character is the client. This is the character who is responsible for drawing the PCs into the mystery. In a classical detective story, this is the client who hires the detective to solve the crime, but it could be almost anyone: a friend of the characters, or someone who is owed a favor, or even someone seeming wretched enough to inspire their pity and willingness to help. The client is most often tied to the victim in some way, and may themselves be suspects

There doesn’t always need to be a client – coincidences can occurs, but usually those coincidences will be chance encounters with a potential client. Television programming is the best example of how this is handled – you have a character who is involved in a crime every week and you need to keep it looking rational. The easiest solution is to have characters who solve mysteries for a living, like P.I.’s or cops. In the absence of that, characters should have enough social ties that there are reasons friends or family would turn to them.

It’s also possible to draw players in directly, by making them suspects or witnesses. By giving them a direct stake, they become their own client. However, drawing the characters directly into the mystery is a trick to be used sparingly, as it quickly stretches credulity.

Building the Walls

The next question is what the bounds of the mystery will be: the big three to look at are

  • Authority
  • Location
  • Accountability

    1 – Most of the best capers exist at an intersection between these models, where there is one web of value, based on what is being stolen, and one web of personal interest, usually tied to why the thing is important. These can make great crimes to investigate, but it’s actually a model that sees it’s greatest reward when the characters are the criminals. Good examples include Ocean’s 11 and Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels.

    2 – In a theft, while the person being stolen from maybe the victim, it’s also possible that the thing stolen can be considered the victim, especially if the thing stolen is of specific value beyond pure money. If many characters have relationships to, say, the stolen Maltese falcon, it serves the same purpose the victim did. In these cases, the item stolen must have some value beyond pure money.

    I’m off at Origins, so I’ve dusted off some old articles for this week. This is an old one, from 2005, that I had entirely forgotten about. You can find the original here.

  • Gaming Technology

    Gaming has technology. Our games are full of interesting moving parts that we use to a variety of effects. Sometimes a given part doesn’t work that well, or two parts don’t work that well together, but that’s where the joy of pulling out a part, polishing it off, tweaking it a bit, and plugging it back in can really live.

    These are ideas which are expressed as rules more than the rules themselves. The idea of mook rules is easily recognizable between Feng Shui and D&D 4e despite the differences in implementation, and it’s a great little piece of technology (#6 on the list in fact).

    This is a list of 10 pretty cool pieces of gaming technology that I’m calling out because while each one may be familiar, they also still have untapped swaths of potential. These aren’t the only 10 technologies, or the 10 best – any such list would be nonsensical. Instead, the purpose of the list is to maybe make you think about technologies that you think need a little more airtime.

    As a last caveat, this list is in no particular order. It’s a collection, not a ranking.

    1. Character Creation as Play
    2. Generators
    3. Fruitful Downtime
    4. Narrative Currency
    5. Buying Your Pain
    6. Tiered Opposition
    7. Paired Stats
    8. Rich Dice
    9. Weighted Skill Pricing
    10. Lists

    1. Character Creation as Play
    I think this idea was made most palpable to me in the Amber DRPG with the idea of the stat auction. In retrospect it was a bit crude and metagamey, but that level of player engagement was pretty exciting. Coupled with ideas like lifepaths (more on those below) this has steadily grown into a great way to really get the foundation under a game before the dice hti the table, both in terms of getting players synced up with the setting and with each other, and for revealing the player priorities to the GM. This idea had big traction in Fate (and in turn in SOTC).

    2. Generators
    Roll a die, draw a card, and use the element that comes up on the appropriate list. This is old school tech, from Traveller’s lifepath, to the old Dungeon Master’s Design Kit (man I loved that) to more modern incarnations like the fantastic one roll chargen in Reign or the situation generators from In a Wicked Age to all the magnificent toys at Abulafia. Add in some of their more abstract cousins like Story Cards and you have this fantastic set of ideas, literally. This is one of those ideas that seems like it’s played out, but constantly surprises and amazes.

    3. Fruitful Downtime
    Your characters are not always adventuring, so what do you do with the time in between sessions? I trace this one back to first edition AD&D, and the idea of building and maintaining your own castle. I spent way too much time planning castles, drawing and pricing them out, making cunning plans if they were ever attacked (they weren’t). Unlike the rules for training or research, this was a change I could make to the world, and that was pretty intoxicating. Later on games like Ars Magica and Birthright came along and really filled out this idea for me.
    On one level, this can be a lot like playing a boardgame and an RPG simultaneously, with the boardgame turns happening between RPG sessions, and that’s pretty cool. However, in the broader sense it’s a way to let player take a bigger hand in the game than just moving their guy around, and that may be even cooler.

    4. Narrative Currency
    Fate points, Action points, Karma, Fan mail. Whatever it’s called, there’s a core idea of a spendable currency which can be used to add a bonus when players _really_ need it. By itself, this helps characters excel when it is most dramatically appropriate, and if it was just that then this currency would be quite useful, but the reality far exceeds that. What the currency can be spent on and how it is earned makes for a powerful one-two punch that can really bring a game to life though a cycle of rewards and reinforcement. If you reward behaviors that support the way the game should go, then allow currency to be spent in a way that emphasizes that, you set up a virtuous cycle.
    As an example, if I was creating a game that was going to play like Die Hard, I want things to go wrong for the protagonist but I also want him to be able to keep fighting on. I could capture this by rewarding currency whenever things go wrong and allow the player to spend currency to heal or remain standing. Without even looking at the other rules for the game, that sets up a cycle of things getting worse, but the hero fighting on – perfect!
    As a bonus, currency is also a great way to handle metagame concerns, like GM authority, by allowing currency to blur that line. A common example is “Spend a point to introduce an NPC”.

    5. Buying Your Pain
    If you allow them to, players who trust the game will do far meaner things to themselves than any GM will ever think of. That fact is a little closer to technique than technology, but it informs upon a counterintuitive piece of technology that I first encountered in 7th Sea. Rather than rewarding players for their characters’ drawbacks, players had to pay for those drawbacks, with the promise of a greater reward when that drawback came up in play. This seemed nonsensical to me until I realized that bad things are always going to happen to characters; that’s the very basis of adventure gaming! What you are buying is some control over which bad things are going to happen to you, and that’s practically very potent in play. This idea strongly informed the nature of aspects, but all in all I think it’s only barely been tapped.

    6. Tiers
    Consistency is the bugbear of small minds. Sometimes it is also actually a bugbear.
    As with many things, Feng Shui was my first exposure to this idea, where enemies were divided into “mooks” and “named enemies” with very different capabilities. 7th Sea expanded on it by introducing a middle tier, and the idea’s been pretty firmly written into D&D 4e with minions, elites and bosses.
    This is a great idea, especially if you want to capture a very adventurous or cinematic feel, since it enables a lot of things we’re used to in fiction, like the hero easily overcoming the guards (Mooks/Minions) but then having an extended duel with the evil cardinal (a named character).
    Eden Studios turned this on its head with the Buffy and Angel RPGs. Since they were using setting which included a wide disparity in character power, it differentiated mechanically between heroes and “White Hats”, the good guys with less power, by giving the white hats more things they could do with the narrative currency. I admit I await the day someone does this with supers – it totally makes sense to me that Batman has less power but much more narrative authority than the rest of the justice league.

    7. Paired Scores
    Mechanically, this is a pretty simple idea: two values are in opposition, and as one gets higher the other gets lower. At its simplest, the two stats will always total up to a specific value, so it acts as a sort of slider. So, for example, the Blue and Yellow stats always total up to 10: If I increase my Blue from 2 to 3, I decrease my Yellow from 8 to 7.
    A refinement on this creates a bit more play in the middle. I first encounters this in Fading Suns and recently A Dirty World has used it to good effect. The change is that at low values, the two scores may be equal and independent, but there is some threshold beyond which they move into contention. For example, in Fading Suns, your Human and Alien stat were in opposition, and could not total more than 10. However, since both stats started at 0 or 1, they would not come into conflict until you had substantially bought up one or the other. A Dirty World expresses this idea very elegantly with little dots that you fill in.
    So why would you do this? Simple: It puts big thematic conflicts right there on the character sheet.

    8. Rich Dice
    I do not think there’s a greater proponent for this idea than my friend and partner and a great many of his game design ideas have explored ways to expand this idea.
    The basic principle is simple: when the dice hit the table, that’s a whole lot of data. Traditionally we extract a single value from the roll (such as a number, or the number of successes) and use that, but depending on what dice are rolled and how they are counted, there might be more data to extract. This can be done by making some dice stand out, such as with the colored dice of Don’t Rest Your Head or the ‘Wild Die’ from some iterations of the D6 system, so that the outcome can change based upon how certain dice fall.
    This is a mostly untapped field, but at the very simplest this adds nuance and depth to what might otherwise be a very binary exercise. A word of caution, though: The line between rich dice and an overly complicated dice game can be razor thin, so be wary of it.

    9. Weighted Skill Pricing
    This is something I first saw in Big Eyes, Small Mouth and the idea is really very simple – the less important a skill is to a game, the cheaper it should be. Thsi means that if you’re playing a game of kung fu fighting, it is reasonably inexpensive for one of the characters to be a Nobel prize winning botanist because – for the purposes of the game – that’s more of an interesting piece of color than anything else. In a “fairly” priced game, such a character would have to really sacrifice their other skills to do this, which can be a lot less fun.
    BESM remains the only game I’ve seen this explicitly addressed in, but you’ll find that it is subtly worked into a lot of games with fixed skill lists by keeping costs the same but changing the scope of skills. If “Handguns” and “Science” cost the same amount, it’s pretty clear there’s a little weighting going on there.

    10. Lists
    Lists are great way to communicate simple pieces of information in a way that is easily digestible and even more easily referenced. A few games have found ways to use this to a mechanical advantage, by putting some of the essential elements of the game in list form. This helps insure that everyone is on the same page about these elements and also keeps them fresh in mind. My favorite examples of this include the handling of gods in Questers of the Middle Realms, who are listed in terms of their relationships to the PCs, something that captures a wonderfully Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser sort of vibe. Mortal Coil goes even further and explicitly uses lists for its setting building and for creating the tenets of magic. There’s still a lot of interesting stuff to be done with this particular gizmo.

    Again, this list is far from comprehensive. Even as I finish, I regret the exclusion of things like “Punch me in the Girlfiend!”, “Quirks are Cheating” or “Drawing Stuff” but I think it’s best to leave it incomplete, especially because that let’s me ask folks for any additions they’d like to make to the list.

    I’m off at Origins this week, so I’m dusting off some old posts while I’m gone. This one is from 2009, and you can see the original (along with extensive discussion) here.

    What I Want in a Setting

    So, Chad made a comment in my post about Secrets of Zir’an and as I started to respond further, I realized this was going to be a big one, so I’m breaking it out a bit to chew on.

    So, for those who want to skip the length of it, one of my issues with Secrets of Zir’an is that the setting, despite great promise, never quite gels. That and the discussion that follows lead to me giving a bit of thought to what I want out of a setting, and how that’s changed over time.

    If you were to ask me a few years ago what I wanted in a setting, I would have said that I want enough coherence to not show the seams and enough richness to give me plenty of campaign ideas. Implicit in this was a very D&D-inspired mode of thinking that the setting would be the backdrop for many adventures, so variety was essential so that I could keep the setting fresh, interesting and dynamic. I still think these are admirable goals, and when a setting can hit them, it can be an enjoyable and interesting read, but this is no longer what I want from a setting.

    Nowadays, I am much less attached to persistence in a setting because I look at every element of the setting in terms of how my game will change it. Now, it’s always been assumed that players could change elements of a setting, but the pace – at least in the realm of D&D – was that making a profound change was something that could be a suitable outcome of an entire campaign. I no longer have that patience.

    What led me here
    To illustrate why my expectations have changed, I would really point to three products: Console RPGs (Final Fantasy, Suikoden etc), Exalted and 50 Fathoms.

    In Console RPGs, there are certain discontinuities that are just the way things work. When you come to a new town there is something cool and meaningful to do, and you do it, and something changes. After that if you go back, things have changed but there’s not much (except bonus secret content!) to do there. That’s a programmatic limitation, and I accept it like I do three inch high grass that stops my movement, as something suitable for the game but which i go to the tabletop to overcome. When I go to a place in tabletop, I want that same engagement and change, and in tabletop I can hope to come back to it and see the _extrapolation_ from that change.

    Exalted has one of the best fantasy settings any RPG has ever produced, and I like it very much for that, but what I like even more is its sensibility that it is a snapshot of a moment in time. All of these beautiful and interesting things are being set up with the assumption that you are going to smash the heck out of them as you pass through. It is assumed that you will break the setting, so the setting is designed to just have as much cool stuff as possible so you can keep breaking it for as long as possible.

    50 Fathoms is perhaps the purest example of this idea. It is a campaign setting and a campaign rolled into one. Every part of the setting is designed with the idea that you may pass through it on your adventures, and it is incredibly open ended, but at the same time offers up the big central heroic plotline if that’s where your players decide to go. It is not without warts, but it is a fantastic example of really putting a setting to use rather than creating it for its own sake.

    These three ideas combined with some very successful campaigns I played in or ran which really tore up the landscape, notably Fred’s Born to be Kings and my own Deus ex Magica. The success of those campaigns really highlighted a role for setting as servant to the game (rather than framework for it) that I enjoyed a lot.

    These and other factors have really changed my sense of ownership of settings to the point where I pretty much view them as disposable. I will take a setting and I will play the _hell_ out of it, and then I’ll be done. If I want to return to the setting, then I can start again from scratch (as we tend to do with Amber) or I can move the timeline forward or back a ways and pick up from there. I used to be afraid of “using up” a setting, but nowadays I view that as a goal to strive _for_.

    So What Do I Need?
    All of which means that the things I need out of a setting have changed a lot. What I need are things that I can turn into play as quickly and as interestingly as possible. I accept a certain amount of foundational information about history and culture, just to create context, but not a lot. if it’s not something that can come up directly in my game in a way that makes for an interesting plot, then it’s not contributing much.

    More than anything, when an element is introduced, I am looking for its default narrative. That’s a kind of fancy way to say the story that this place was designed to tell. To put it simply, think about any episode of Star Trek. When they went to a planet, they always ran smack into the one story that planet existed to tell. Does the planet have unfair laws? Expect a member of the away team to violate them. Does the planet have some great social inequality? Expect it to come to a boil while the team is there. This is not realistic, but it is a function of fiction that things boil to the surface on screen, and that changes that can occur will occur when the heroes are there. I expect the same from my games.

    So, if there’s a city state that keeps gladiator slaves to fight at the whim of it’s mage princes, then the default narrative of that city is the inevitable rebellion of the gladiators and some awesome gladiator vs. mage fight scenes, with my players caught in the middle. Sometimes the person writing the setting gets this, and gives me the tools I need to make that happen. Sometimes the writer doesn’t, and I get annoyed. But worst of all, sometimes the writer totally gets it, but files it away as great material for an expansion down the line.

    I have no patience for the slow reveal. By the time you get around to releasing the guidebook for the Empire of Dulan, there is a good chance that Dulan is already a smoking hole in the ground in my game. That’s inconvenient, but if your guidebook has elements that are central to Dulan and its default narrative, then you have ripped me off.

    Two Brief Asides
    Now, in case it sounds like I’m railing against setting supplements in general, I am absolutely not. They are often an opportunity to drill into an area and find more potential narratives. Adding new narratives is a powerful and useful things, and when a supplement does that, I heartily welcome it. My concern is that when the story of a place is very clear, it is exasperating to have that story set up but unsupported until supplemental material comes out.

    Now, all of this is tempered by scale. While I’ve been talking about vast, world-changing play, that is far from the only way to go about it. The setting might be a town or a city or a nation, and the principle is still the same. It will be changed by my game. On a world-scale game, then the events in one city might be iconic for a whole nation, but they will be dramatic, and they will bring about change. On a city scale, the events of a single city block might can be similarly dramatic, and they will also bring about change.

    Three F’s
    When I pick up a setting, there are a few things I look for. I want focus, faces and flashpoints.

    Focus means that I want the setting to pick a level of focus that is in keeping with how much space it has to work with and what the game is about. I dig hypothetical currency systems as much as the next guy, but I can take them as a given without the history of banking, unless the history of banking is full of adventure hooks (and it should be, but it almost never is). Is the setting so big that you can’t do more than sketch in the elements? Is it so small that you’re drilling into the minutiae for no reason other than page count? Is this a gritty street game, but you’re dwelling extensively on the epic sweep of things? Or maybe the other way around? There is no one correct formula for writing setting, and when settings get formulaic, they get boring. Focus the setting on the way you envision it being played. Even if someone uses it differently, they will benefit from your greater clarity.

    Faces are what they sound like – NPCs. I am not proposing a need for stat blocks or detailed backgrounds, and most of my needs can be satisfied with a sentence or two of background. The NPCs I’m talking about are not important for who they are but rather for the purpose they serve. I cannot meaningfully interact with a government, nation, ideology or conspiracy, but I can meaningfully interact with a person who represents that group. Maybe they’re a person of authority for the group they represent, maybe they’re just an iconic member of that group, but that character _is_ that organization so far as my game is concerned. If I can put a face on the important ideas of the game, then they will mean more to my players.

    (This is one of those areas where I am bothered by the tendency to make representative NPCs the way one would make a PC, since it tends to result in representatives who are not actually representative of their group. They are rebellious one offs or quirky exceptions, and they drive me nuts. Their purpose is to be useful for my game, not for the writer to show off, and that’s just half of it. Just as many of these groups have a default narrative, they tend to have default exceptions – roles for rebels and individualists that jump out as you read them. These exceptions are great niches for PCs, which is all the more reason that the writers should not be inserting their pet NPCs into them.)

    Lastly, flashpoints are clear pointers to stuff that’s begging to happen. Conflicts that are coming to the surface, changes that are about to happen. In short, things that make adventures happen. There is usually a flashpoint at the center of the default narrative, so I want at least one per setting element. However, the more potential flashpoints there are, the more plot hooks there are for me to pick up and run with, so when they’re thick on the ground, I’m a happy man.

    Writing setting is fun. It really, really is. It’s an almost purely creative process unhindered by a lot of the limitations of fiction like plot and characterization. It can pretty much be a non-stop stream of cool stuff, and that is liberating to write and can be an absolute joy to read. And if a setting is brilliant and creative, I will still enjoy it for reading and for inspiration, but unless that brilliant creativity is coupled with a focus on making this something I can actually play with, it’s not necessarily going to be a lot of use for me.

    Not every game needs to have a setting, and not every game needs to be about its setting. There are other potential purposes for setting than the ones I mention here. I am, for the most part, talking about big setting, where it’s a central element of the game.

    I’m off at Origins this week, os I’m auto-posting some old articles. This one is from 2008 and can be found, along with some discussion, here.

    Briar Patches

    Credit goes to my wife for this, for summing up an idea that I’d always thought of as incredibly important to play having teeth in four small words: IC Punishment, OOC Reward.

    (For those unfamiliar with the terms, IC means In Character and OOC mean Out of Character, a distinction that comes up enough online that it’s useful to have a shortcut for referencing them.)

    The idea is a pretty simple one. When you need to make bad things happen to another character – either as a GM or as another player in a large game like a LARp or MUSH – the responsible thing is to find a way for the thing which is bad for the character to be fun for the player. This comes up most commonly when the issue is punishment. One character has committed some sort of offense, and the decision regarding how to deal with it is in the hands of another player.

    In this situation, the common response tends to be a “What would this character do?” sort of approach, and that usually means something like tossing someone in prison, killing or maiming them or otherwise putting them in a position where they won’t be able to play.

    Now, in contrast, consider stories that begin with punishments. There have been plenty of them, and they follow a certain formula. Either the prison is someplace dramatic (and of course inescapable) or the punishment is a task which is impossible, and what follows is the adventure of overcoming these things.

    I like to call these “briar patches”, after the famed story, and they’re what to look for in these situations. Something undesirable to the character that will be lot of fun for the player. Characters are brought before the king for stealing, and they’re punished by being sent to rescue the king’s daughter. Sure, it’s dangerous, and IC, the characters are in a terrible, undesirable situation – get killed by this king or get killed on this fool mission. That just sucks for them. But for the players? That’s adventure right there. If that’s not what they’re looking for, then something else is wrong.

    They’re easy to spot because they have a clear course of action. If a prison’s story is that it’s inescapable, then obviously it’s there for the players to escape. If a task is impossible, then it’s clear it must be done – isn’t that rather the point? In contrast, tossing someone in a cell and walking away to play somewhere else means they go nowhere.

    The alternative, which is frankly more work, demands that the imprisoned character receive more attention. They’re being a good sport to play something that is not fun, so you need to step up an make it more fun. It works, sure, but isn’t it easier just to make the situation fun in the first place?

    This idea applies to more than just punishment. Really, it’s a backdrop for any game where you’re going to do things the players love but the which the characters would hate. And it’s not universal – some players will not enjoy any kind of bad thing happening to their characters, but I think those are few and far between. More often, you will have players whose experience suggests that bad things happening to the character means that they won’t have any fun. If you can demonstrate otherwise, you may be surprised how willing they are to engage.

    Give it some thought. Just keep an eye out for briar patches, and see how well they work for your game.

    I’m off at Origins this week, so I’m posting som old articles. This one’s from 2007, and the original and some discussion can be found here.

    On the Road Soon

    Last day before Origins really begins. Taking care of all sorts of odds and ends, making sure the car is ready for the trip and so on. If I can blog from the con, I may, but I don’t want to bet on it, so I’m going to use this window to dust off some old articles that I think merit the time in the sun.

    I’m pretty excited. Conventions tend to do a lot to remind me of how much there is to like about our community. It wasn’t always the case – cons I went to in college and even my first gencon were kind of messy blurs with high and low parts – but nowadays I know what I want out of a convention, and that improves things mightily.

    I think the first convention that really blew the top of my head off was AmberCon Northwest, and to this day I will say it’s the best convention in the country. It had a lot going for it, including a wonderful location, amazing food and drink, and an amazing staff, but those weren’t the things that really grabbed me. What struck me most is that this was a convention with lots of couples, even small children, and a genuinely mature air in dealing with these things. To put it bluntly, it was a gaming convention full of grown-ups.

    I admit this has colored my view on things since then. It’s not that I demand that I only interact with grown-ups; quite the contrary. But knowing that adult gaming (in a non-saucy sense) is a reasonable expectation has given me a firm point to take refuge in. I like getting my geek on, but I also like that I can discuss jobs, mortgages and now kids with other people I get my geek on with.

    And, to be frank, that’s only a sliver of the goodness. For all that RPGs have poisonous people and groups, I have seen many more positive, enthusiastic communities who have decided to share their enthusiasm rather than prove they’re right. If you look nowhere but or story games, you’d think this community is nothing but a bunch of unpleasant shouting and self-aggrandizement. But when I look at the communities built around things; Fudge, Savage Worlds, Pathfinder, Amber and many others, I see that the reality is that the people who want to do something have mostly been avoiding the places where people just want to show off how smart they are.

    It’s weird to me that this is such an angry hobby. I have seen far too many people of passion and good intent become embittered because people don’t listen to them or acknowledge them. This worries me a lot because there are people I care about who spend a lot of time stressing about where and how they’re acknowledged in gaming, and I worry that they’re on the same path.

    And thus, I hold out hope for conventions. I know of no better cure for this than people, especially the kind of people you get to meet at something like Origins.

    Revenge of 1996

    So, I’m home sick today. Annoying, but it happens, and I’ve set up camp on the couch, TV, kleenex and meeds all in reach. But the funny thing is that I forgot to charge the Ipad yesterday or last night, so it’s down around 20%. While I charge it, I’m using my laptop and I must admit that while my laptop is fantastic, I would rather be using the ipad. This is definitely a little odd.

    This will seem like a tangent, but bear with me: if you were on the web or making web pages in the late 90s, there was a particular aesthetic you saw a lot of, one that revolved around trying to make pages look more like things, specifically classy paper things like libraries, fine stationery, pen and ink, notebooks and so on. Bear in mind this was a new frontier, and there was an enthusiasm to these efforts that was quite compelling. Because there were no standards to speak of, and everything worked kind of badly anyway (dial up, remember) the logic of the day was often to make something that looked nice, and more specifically which looked like the way something *should* work in an intuitive fashion.

    Unfortunately, this lead to some really terrible designs. The technology was really not in any shape for the things people were asking it to do, and in many ways this made things worse. Over time, the standards of design gravitated towards what the web could do well, which lead to something of a virtuous cycle and resulted in the current state of things, and this world of google and 43 folders.

    But the thing that has been grabbing me about the ipad is that it reminds me of the promise of those easily web sights, only with the technology to back it up. Consider the humble page curl – it was an abomination in web design, but it works wonderfully on things like the ipad map app. I admit this delights me.

    For all that there are a lot of apps I’m enjoying on the Ipad, there are a handful that have really blown me away in terms of how they really embrace the fact that this is something new, and the fact that this newness captures echoes of old promise is somehow all the more satisfying.

    I’ve talked about other apps that I’ve found useful and fun, but let me call out a handful that I think are noteworthy for their experience.

    Carcasonne – There’s some irony to the fact that the first app I mention isn’t an pad app at all, it’s an iphone app which happens to scale up very nicely to Ipad size. Carcasonne was the first game I thought of when I saw the Ipad. It’s a game of tile placement, and that tactile element seemed the perfect thing for the big, friendly screen. It’s delivered in the promise, and it’s a joy. Days of Wonder’s Smallworld is probably more technically impressive, but it lacks the tactile element.

    Reeder – I’ve tried several RSS readers, including NewsRack and NetNewsWire, and they’re all good, but Reeder is actually lovely. It’s basically just a shell for google reader, but it does a good job of conveying a document metaphor (Piles are, so far as I can tell, the current hotness in interface design).

    AlphaBaby – Fred showed me this one, and it’s basically designed to distract a child. It’s a blank screen which, when you touch, a letter, number or shape appears, with a voice announcing what it is, and the item can get pushed or bounced around the screen. Very dull, I know, unless your two years old, in which case this is the MOST AWESOME THING EVER.

    MyTexts – I love the ipad as a writing device, and I’ve tried everything I can get my hands on – Pages, Notify, MaxJournal, Sketchnotes, Paperdesk, Corkulous, My Writing, CourseNotes, Office2 HD and Docs2Go Premium – and Mytexts has taken the lead for the simple reason that it embraces the reasons I like the iPad for writing. The lack of multitasking and the lightweight interfaces makes it easy to focus on the writing part of things. MyTexts has all the tools I need (fullscreen mode, word count and such) and no unnecessary distractions. (That said, I want to give honorable mentions to Scripts Pro – I don’t write scripts, but if I did? Awesome).

    Starwalk – Hold up the ipad, and you can see the stars in that direction. It looks like magic. And it’s beautiful.

    It’s Made of People

    I can’t shake the idea that I had some other topic to write about in mind that I’ve totally forgotten. It’s a niggling certainty that I’ve forgotten something, and it’s maddening. But it’s inspiration of a sort.

    I’ve a great fondness for the genre of books that owe their existence to the success of books like “The Tipping Point” and “Freakonomics”, books that look into the study of human behavior in the lab and in real world environments, then apply some particular sort of English to the results (math, sales, storytelling, whatever) and present it as insight. There are a lot of these books, and after you’ve read a few of them, you start noticing the same stories and anecdotes showing up. It gives the sense that there’s this general body of knowledge that they’re all strip mining with varying degrees of insight. One of the nice benefits of this is that if one of the books is particularly crappily written (*cough*Black Swan*cough*) then you can discard it and feel confident the insights will show up somewhere else, ideally in a good, insightful book (Like, say, anything written by Dan & Chip Heath).

    One issue that comes up a lot is how we make decisions, and the simple fact that we’re much better at making decisions at a remove than we are in the moment. Anyone who’s struggled with a vice knows this well – from a safe remove, we are sure we won’t eat, drink, smoke or sleep with something inappropriate, but when the time comes, we make the bad decision. This is a pain in the ass, but it’s a very human thing, and that’s what bring sit back to gaming. Gaming, by and large, involves making decisions at a remove. Combat might be a dark, confusing chaos, but the player remains cool as a cucumber, making calls from his position of certainty. They may not be the right decisions – he can make mistakes – but they won’t be bad decisions, the way that snap judgments and in-the-moment thinking might be.

    For a lot of players, this is desirable – it allows us to play characters who make the decisions we would like to think we would make rather than ones we might actually make. It’s the same satisfaction that comes from seeing someone screw up and proudly declaring how we would do it differently. Gaming lets us be right in a way that life rarely allows.

    And this is good, because it’s hard to do otherwise. While some players may consciously have their characters make bad decisions, it’s a lot of work to get a player so swept up in the game that the sense of remove is, for lack of a better term, removed. This sense of immediacy is something I find highly desirable if I can get into it, and a lot of players are on the lookout of ways to capture it. On some level, I think this is one of the great benefits of games that are less about objectives or characters and more about situations[1], they can capture this sense more easily. Hoeever, for me, those have their own tradeoffs.

    I dwell on this because while I think rules can help with this issue, I don’t think they can resolve it. Rules engagement strips immediacy, so rules can only take you so far before they get in the way. Aspects occasionally have this problem, when people are playing their aspects hard and abruptly stop and think “Oh, wait, shouldn’t that be a compel?” It totally sucks when that happens, but the only real solution to that is to keep the players engaged enough that it doesn’t come up, and that is all about GM skill.

    But that snark is a bojum. GM skill is a dangerous topic, even if you can come to some agreement about what it means, and I certainly won’t try here, since that’s not the point. The point is more this: this is an imperfect, human kind of hobby, and as much as it’s well constructed on a foundation of ideas, there are places you can walk to and find the ground falls away, leaving you staring into an abyss that can only be filled by people.

    And that’s pretty neat.

    1 – That is to say, games whose improv roots are clearly visible

    PS – I have a multi-hour car ride coming up next week en route to origins. What specific podcast episodes should I have with me for the ride?

    Go Epic or Go Home

    I have areally mixed responses to Epic Destinies in 4e. Some of them are genuinely fantastic, dripping with flavor and promise, while others are more disappointing. Sometimes it’s a mismatch between the flavor and the rules, sometimes it’s just a concept that falls a little flat. Whatever the cause, I find them interesting to look at.

    To my mind, you can spot the really good ones by their immortality blurb. A lot of the dull ones have some variant on “And then you vanish from the world” but the really exciting ones have something concrete and playable in that blurb. The War Master, for example, goes out in one, huge, impossible fight (win or lose). Eberron’s Mourning Saviour exits the game and lifts the curse on the Mournlands. These are the ways stories should end[1] and, perhaps more importantly, they feel genuinely epic.

    In contrast, mechanics don’t tell you much. Epic Destiny abilities tend to be pretty good, good enough to get excited about, but their scope is rarely any broader than the powers you got at first level. That is, to me, pretty jarring, but it’s a symptom of my recurring friction with 4e – a disconnect between the color and the rules. And knowing that, I’m actually pretty chill about it, but it does leave me pondering ways to mix it up a little.

    There’s a lovely game of postmodern urban fantasy, conspiracy and general grittiness called Unknown Armies which offers some inspiration. Part of its premise is that there is an “invisible choir”[2] composed of a set of archetypes (war, sex, the messenger, plague, greed and so on) which people can embrace to gain power. If you commit yourself fully to one of these archetypes, you can ascend and join the choir, becoming the archetype and taking that seat at the big cosmic table. But there’s only one seat per archetype, so people fight pretty hard to be the one to put dibs on it.

    But there’s one more catch. There are only so many seats at the table (or so they say) and once they all get filled, the universe is finished. Everything gets tidily wiped clean and something new begins, something whose qualities and nature are shaped by the collection of archetypes.

    So what would it do to your game if those archetypes and seats at the table corresponded to Epic Destinies? What if there could only ever be one Diamond Soul or Lorekeeper?[3] And if all the slots are ever filled, a new universe is born (with the role of the ascended folks an open question – are they the gods of this new universe?)

    Right off the bat, while you could make this incorporate every epic destiny, I don’t think you’d want to. Some epic destinies (like the Mournland Purifier) already have incredibly strong stories of their own, and others (like Demigods) draw their power from the current status quo, so would not necessarily be forces of disruption. The question of “which destinies” can make for an important part of the whole structure because, in addition to the people you’d fight with for ascension, there are plenty of folks with a vested interest in THIS universe who might object to things being redone.[4] Knowing which destinies are a threat to the universe means knowing which people to go after.

    In my mind, the list of actual archetype slots ends up looking something like the major arcana of a tarot deck (or a deck of many things). Hell, there might even be an actual deck, scattered across the cosmos, desperately hidden, cards traded in secret. It’s the kind of thing gods kill for.

    I’m going to keep this idea in my back pocket because I think it’s just about the right size. While you could make it the basis for an epic campaign, I think it becomes even more interesting as a background element of an epic campaign; one of the big truths of the universe that unfolds in play. One of those things that illustrates that Epic Destinies are not just about a few extra cool powers, they’re about everything.

    1- Even something moderately dull, like the Diamond Soul’s “Retreat into isolation and found a new psychic order” hands the player the opportunity to create something.

    2 – Someone with more UA lore than I will be aware of details I’m getting wrong, but the point here is the idea.

    3 – Or rather, only one at level 30 – there may be any number on the 21-29 slope.

    4- Though others might think that much that is wrong with this universe (like abberant invasions) comes from it not being “reset” properly, while others might feel they could survive a rewrite, especially if they have an ally among the archetypes. It makes for a lot of interesting axes of conflict that may have little or nothing to do with good/evil.

    5 – And, randomly, if you’ve ever read Will Shetterly’s “Cat’s Have No Lord“, there’s a setup like this which might suggest a plot or two. Also, it includes an acknowledged Princess Bride ripoff, and is the reason I love the term “Sword Dancer”.