Monthly Archives: February 2011


John Harper made a point on twitter the other day that speaks directly to something that bothers me in a lot of game designs, especially ones I’ve had a hand in. The problems is that a lot of games pick up inertia with quick rules and a strong premise, then grind to a halt when it comes time to pick stunts, powers or whatever other specific fiddly bits provide the exceptions the the baseline rules. Things grind to a halt as players flip through the book, reading and reviewing their options before making decisions that they’re really worried will be the wrong ones.

This is a problematic way to start a game, and a number of strategies have been established to address it, such as setting up quick-picks and packages, or simply preparing characters in advance of the game. These can work, but they’re ultimately duct tape and a band aid sort of solutions.

Video games handle this much better, especially more modern video games, since they are designed with an assumption that the manual will barely be glanced at. Players learn how to play by doing it. There are numerous strategies that support this, including familiar control schemes, but the most basic is to start the player with a smaller set of capabilities and options than they will eventually have in play. Historically, this was the domain of “tutorial levels”, segments of play that were outside of the regular scope of play, where you’d be walked through the various details of rules and interface.

More modern games have made that tutorial a part of play design. The initial situation of play is usually constrained in some way: you might have only one weapon, one spell, or control only one type of unit. You will play a level under that constraint, and then the next level (or after soem other benchmark) you will expand your capabilities. You’ll pick up another weapon, learn a new spell, add more units and so on. If situations require special rules, you’ll get the chance to discover that as it comes up (rather than going back to the book). The net result is that you learn to play the game by playing the game, which is pretty slick.

Obviously, different games handle this to differing degrees. For many first person shooters, the ramp up is very small, while some real time strategy games use the entirety of their single player campaign as a ramp up. From an RPG perspective, the most interesting is probably MMOs.

World of Warcraft, for example, starts a character off in a fairly limited environment (a “newbie zone”) with clear direction (The guy standing in from to you has your first quest) and well-concealed safety bumpers (there are lots of enemies, but they’re the kind who won’t attack you unless you attack them first, so they look more dangerous than they are). Beyond that characters start with the ability to make a basic attack (swing a sword, knife, staff or whatever) and perform one special ability (cast a fire bolt, make a power attack, something like that).

For the first 10-20 levels, new abilities come rapidly, but not so rapidly that you don’t have time to try them out and get the hang of them in play. The speed of advancement levels off at higher levels (especially in terms of new abilities gained), but those early levels give you a chance to get a grasp on the class. But the thing is, while you’re getting that grasp, you’re still doing the same sorts of things that you’ll be doing later on – getting quests and killing stuff. The fact that you are learning does not sacrifice the play experience.

The fact that video games do this well is not, I think, an indication that this is something that ONLY video games can do well. It would be very easy to conceive of a game like, say, 4e being tweaked into a model like this, so players enter play with perhaps a single at will ability, but gain other abilities quickly, perhaps between sessions when the time required to make choices does not detract from play (MMOs address this by offering very few choices – you get X power at Y level, and that’s that. There will be some elements of choice, like WoW’s talent trees, but even those will be fairly constrained).

The main thing this requires is a bit of rethinking of how we handle advancement, particularly that we might want to think about shifting some of the things we think about as normally part of character creation to advancement. Coming back to those stunt/power choices that really bog things down, there might be some real benefit in giving fewer of them at the outset, but make the first ones easier to gain.

There are adjustments that would have to be made. One thing you’d want are strong defaults that reinforce character concepts. For example, if you wanted to do this for Leverage, the GM might just pick on talent for each role and just give it to the player at the end of chargen, then let them add another talent at the end of the next two or three sessions. This constrains things slightly (so that, for example, all Hitters are ass kickers and all Hackers have “DO you have that thing I gave you?”) but the trade off of quickly entering play really seems to more than make up for it to my mind.

Anyway, something on my mind.

Friday Roundup

Ok, so I’ve been violating the 500 word rule pretty hard this past week. Need to think about that some.

For Friday, I just want to point out a couple of pretty cool or interesting things floating around the web at large.

  • Chuck Wendig’s Irregular Creatures was a steal at $2.99, but he’s got a sale going to sell it for 99 cents for the next few days. This is a fantastic book – Chuck has a deft hand, and a bucket of talent that runs crazily deep. If you’re unfamiliar with Chuck, he’s the brain behind a lot of great World of Darkness stuff, and he maintains a blog over at Terrible Minds which is somethign that deserves to be on every writer’s reading list (provided they do not mind salty language. When I say Chuck’s blog is kosher, I mean the salt comes in huge chunks but makes everything better).
  • Couple other gaming blogs have shown up on my radar and I’d like to give them a hat tip. Transneptune Games crossed my radar on one of my rare trips to Story Games, and I think they’ve got a lot of promise. As I understand it they’re a three man team, and they’re rotating through a lot of interesting stuff. Plus, they dig Leverage, so big thumbs up. Also, I was drawn to the d20pro blog by an interesting post on running a city campaign. Reminded me a little bit of one of the weird things I’d written about skill challenges
  • This week we added Jess Hartley and Sean Nittner to the Evil Hat family, working on our current project. If you do not know why this is awesome then a) you should and b) you will!
  • You Are Not So Smart is one of my favorite long form blogs on the internet, writing about all the ways in which we delude ourselves. Posts have been less frequent lately (boo!) because there is apparently a book coming (yay!), but the latest post on Deindividuation is something that is useful to anyone who spends time on the Internet and is looking for a deeper explanation of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

  • Peter Bregman may be my favorite business writer out there, primarily because most ofhis business writing is applicable outside of business. His latest piece, Arguing is Pointless, is a great example of this. This is a point that it really took Influencers to drive home for me, but it’s an important one: talking to people is almost useless in changing their existing opinions, and trying to do so ends up pretty much missing the point, as we end up fightng over real estate in each other’s heads rather than the real territory we care about.
  • If you follow tumblr, I must put in a plug for I Love Charts. Provided you love charts. Which I do.
  • Dave Gray, the guy behind Gamestorming and all around clever thinker wrote a long piece on the connected company that I’m still digesting. Really interesting, thoughtful stuff about how companies (and by extension groups) really work.

A Defense of Mediocrity

So, my good friend Ryan Macklin had a great interview over at the Jennisodes about establishing an Internet presence. It’s well worth a listen if you’re curious about such things, and as my first exposure to the Jennisodes, it left me curious to go check out the archives.

What inspired today’s post is a bit towards the end, where Ryan was given free reign to voice a concern, and he spoke about his hatred for the rewarding of mediocrity. His thesis, in my words, is that too many products which might excel in one category but utterly half-ass it in others are given a free pass and even praised as if only the excelling category mattered. An example might include an RPG with excellent rules, but which has not been edited and has been very poorly laid out, but his objection is not limited to RPGS.

So, before I lay down some disagreeing beats, let me make some key statements about what I am pretty sure he’s _not_ saying.

First, he is not saying you need to break the bank on these things. Yes, in an ideal world you have the budget to pay for top notch illustrations, editing and layout for your game, but the reality is that it’s expensive enough to just get a game printed in the first place, and people are under no obligation to put themselves in debt for a labor of love. Rather, he is just asking that each of the elements of production be given your thoughtful attention and genuine effort. To use layout as an example: the difference between a bad layout and a good layout is profound, but it is very rarely a difference of cost. It is, however, a difference in time and effort. It takes more time to read a few good websites on layout and fonts or to really go through your file to check how it looks than it is to dump it all into word and apply a few headings. Yes, great layout is something else entirely, but a good, solid, readable layout is something that is within everyone’s grasp if they want it to be. Other design elements are similar – professional editors are nice, but just being willing to have your game be read by a non-gamer and, most importantly, being willing to fix it based on the feedback, can work wonders[1]. Printing can be expensive, but there are less expensive options. The point is, it’s not about cost, it’s about how invested the creator is in every element of his creation.

Second, he is not discounting learning experiences. He comes out and says as much, but I want to re-underscore it because it’s such a critical point. There is a difference between not doing something well because you don’t know any better and because you half-assed it. Ultimately, the only one who can truly judge how sincerely you tried is you, but that truth won’t keep people from drawing conclusions.

And that, there, is where I shift gears into objection.

See, first and foremost, a lot of this is very easy for Ryan Macklin to say. He’s blessed with the gift of hindsight and a range of experience that gives him a very clear understanding of how a committed creator could address any or all of the mediocrity concerns. And more, were you to ask him, he would be more than happy to share these insights, because he’s a generous spirit. But that also means he suffers from the curse of perceived difficulty. The solutions to these issues are so clear and obvious to him that it’s difficult to differentiate between the person who didn’t try and the person who saw this as insurmountable, and just did what they could.

Now, I call Ryan out for this, but the reality is that I know of literally no one (myself included) who does not fall into this trap. Once we perceive things as easy, it is really, really hard for us to understand the perspective that it seems impossible. This is not an argument in favor of mediocrity so much as an assertion that it’s not always as easy to spot as you might like.

Now, this, here, is the actual defense of mediocrity.

Do you know what makes something mediocre? By and large, it’s a result of something that’s not good, but which is close enough to good that the viewer can clearly see how it could go from point a to point b. It’s the “Billy has so much _potential_” reaction, and it makes us crazy. When things are genuinely bad, we’re usually much more tolerant of it because the reasons are usually clear – the person just didn’t know how, but they tried, so we’re sympathetic. We’ve all been there. We get it.

But when they get close, we can’t explain it so easily. We see that they got 75% of the way, we cannot so easily dismiss it. If they could get that far, we ask, why couldn’t they have just tried a little bit harder and gone all the way? It’s not rational, but it’s a strong, instinctive response.

And that’s the problem. The very fact that we’re more tolerant of the actively bad than we are of the mediocre is totally illogical while still being very emotionally true, and that’s a problem because we want people to suck more.

Ok, that’s not technically true. We want people to be awesome all the time. But in the absence of that, we want them to be willing to take risks – to be willing to suck – in pursuit of their passion. And by and large, we’re pretty good at it, especially when these brave individuals truly do suck. But for them, the danger is that they’ll work hard, do better than merely sucking, but not do well enough to excel, and end up in that band of mediocrity.

That would not be so bad in its own right. If you end up in the zone of mediocrity then yes, you want to get out of it, but that depends on two things: first, you need to recognize it (which is hard, especially if you really put 100% into it) and second, you may well need as much support (or more!) as you could hope for if you had totally sucked out. So the danger of our emotional response to mediocrity is that we might end up shooting down these projects at just the point when we, as a community, are in the best position to help.

Anyway, all that said, I should add that, like many of Ryan’s broad statements, there’s a core to it that I agree with. There _are_ people out there who decide that these other things (layout, editing, production values, whatever) are unimportant, and commit less effort to them. In and of itself, this is totally reasonable – it is entirely normal to prioritize things and put more effort into the things you think are important. But for all that, I do agree there’s some baseline good-faith effort that one can expect from the products we’re expected to buy and play. Where the line for that effort can be drawn is, I fully admit, almost entirely a matter of personal taste. This makes it hard to really draw any broader generalizations from it beyond “I know it when I see it” (which, as I’ve noted, is a pretty bad metric because we suck at seeing it).

So I think the takeaway from this should be one of encouragement, not criticism. If you love your game (or whatever) and you want everyone else to love it too, then turn that love into effort. Figure out how to make it work. Push yourself to mediocrity, then find a way to pull yourself up past that. Whether that pull comes from other people, more research or just hard work doesn’t really matter. If you can get to the end and know that there is no part of your work that you let slide because it wasn’t as exciting or interesting to you, then you can rest on a rare but powerful confidence.

1 – So, I put great value on editors, and I know how talented many of them are, but over and above their keen eyes and steady hands, they bring something else to the equation – an implicit willingness to change. When you write something you love, and part of it doesn’t work for a test reader, there’s an instinct to blame the reader. We’re all guilty of this to one extent or another, and the real reason you want an editor is because you need someone who won’t let you get away with that.

A Framework of Faces

We played another round of the cold war game on Monday. It was a slightly compressed session, but it ended up going pretty well. It also ended up cementing my understanding of what had been the stumbling block for me with espionage, and it reinforced some baseline realities of how I look at games, things that it’s important for me to remember.

I’m a pretty good GM, but I’m at my best when I have a fairly rich tableau populated with well-motivated NPCs who feel as alive as possible to the players. This is difficult to establish instantly – it requires introducing the NPCs, letting the players develop opinions and relationships, then allowing the NPCs to “settle in” to the setting in sch a way that they feel like a natural part of it. Once this has been accomplished with enough NPCs (what I think of as critical mass), then the game will round a corner for me where things get both easier and better.

With this critical mass of NPCs, I can worry far less about plots and sessions and approach things far more improvisationally. By keeping the NPCs in mind and in play, their interests and actions (and their intersection with PCs interests and actions) combined with a decent sense of the dramatic can very easily maintain a near-constant stream of interesting, meaningful play. Meaningful is kind of a key word here, as the meaning in question hinges upon the “reality” of the setting – for the NPCs (who in many ways really _are_ the setting) dynamics to be a driving force, then players need to be invested in them for this to work.

This means that this approach works much better for certain games than others. Specifically, games that abstract the process, or lay bare the NPCs as constructs, tend to be a mismatch for this approach. They can still be great games, but I definitely approach them differently. But mechanics are only part of the equation – setting and tone can both have a huge impact on how well this model works and how quickly critical mass is achieved.

Without realizing it, this was exactly problem I’d been encountering with my Cold War game, the problem that was creating a vague sense of frustration that I couldn’t pin down. The problem is that because I was trying to enforce the “Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side” theme of the game, I tended to use NPCs very shallowly rather than allow them to form relationships. At this point in the game I have perhaps six or eight NPCs established that i can work with, and that’s pretty anemic. And tellingly, the past two sessions (both of which have been fantastic) were basically a result of me cheating and putting five of them in play and letting the ball roll.

A great point of contrast for this is the Amber DRPG, which more or less starts play at or near critical mass. It’s setting is really a list of about 20+ characters with strong and weak ties to the PCs who are an excellent mix of familiar (from the books and other games) and mysterious (since the loose framework leaves the question of GM interpretation of character specifics on the table) which allow for dynamic play to begin very quickly. This is, in many ways, one of the reasons Amber remains such a potent touchpoint for me.

What’s more interesting is that this distinction, between my cold war game and Amber, has nothing to do with mechanics. I could very easily run either game in the other system (quite seriously) and the problems and benefits would remain Identical.

This is not to say mechanics can’t help with this. Aspects and similar mechanics can help provide pointers to NPCs to help build to critical mass faster. Heck, one of my favorite things about Leverage is that is quickly builds a similar dynamic for a given job – it’s not as deep as a full NPC mesh, but it’s usable in a lot of the same ways. But for me, the thing I need to remember is my own advice: everything in the game has faces. Bring those faces to life, and the game takes care of itself.

What Games Do What Well?

I’m about halfway through Reality is Broken, a book about applying the principles of (video) game design to improving real life. It’s interesting enough that it will almost certainly merit a full writeup when I finish. So far it is both brilliant and profoundly flawed, and I’m not yet sure what the ultimate ratio will be.

One part that’s been much more good than bad has been talking about the things that video games do well. This is something that’s very useful to think about from a tabletop game perspective because the simple reality is that computer games have eaten a fair amount of our lunch (though don’t feel too bad, they’ve done it to movies and TV too). While a lot of the diminishment of individual product sales can be attributed to the diversification of the market (which is mostly a good thing), the scale of the hobby at large has definitely been impacted by the success of video games. As an example, there are plenty of people who might be a market for, say, D&D, but who have that itch scratched more successfully by World of Warcraft.
Accepting that premise and the paired premise that growing the hobby is a good thing (you’re not obliged to, but I do), there are two obvious responses.

First, you can design games that are more like video games, hoping to capture the interest of that segment of the audience, or even just a portion of it. This has the advantage of catering to a known market (we know the WoW players are out there, and they’re enjoying killing dragons) and of being concretely actionable (there are video game successes and failures that provide clear models). The problem is that there’s no real way to tell how sticky that market is (that is, how likely they are to stick with computers) and, more broadly, there are things that computers can simply do better than people (casually juggling huge numbers, obviously, but there are more subtle things as well).

The other option is to design games towards the things that video games do poorly or not at all. The obvious advantage of this approach is that is plays to the strengths of tabletop play (whatever you may think those are), and it is potentially a blue ocean strategy, pursuing untapped markets where there’s no real competition. However the drawbacks are daunting. First, there’s no real measure of how much of a market exists for such games, and the fear is that what market there is may already be saturated – the blue ocean may simply be a puddle. Second, there’s no clear course of action for design. Without a clear goal (like emulating video games) the overall process is one of throwing things at the market and seeing what sticks.

(There is a third approach which is worth mentioning primarily because of how it impacts discussion, not because I think it’s very valid. That is the idea that further game design is not the solution at all; the best of games already exist and, in many arguments, have existed for a long time and growth can be found in leveraging those existing assets in new ways.)

Obviously, there is a lot of room between these points, and most efforts will come down somewhere between them. For example, I don’t think it’s too outrageous to suggest that 4e was built with a healthy helping of the “more like video games” approach. That is not the same thing as saying that 4e is identical to a video game, but the influences are fairly clear. Now, I don’t mention this as criticism or praise, but rather to point out that someone has already made a very big bet on one approach. However you judge their success or failure in that, this changes the picture somewhat. If the 800 pound gorilla has already headed to the video game buffet, then you’re going to be competing with him for the shrimp cocktail, and unless you have a really compelling idea, then prepare to settle for very little shrimp.

Put most cynically, if 4e’s bet pays off, then you compete directly with WOTC in that space. If it doesn’t, then there’s a good chance it was the wrong bet. That is to say, under most outcomes, pursuing that same strategy of video game emulation is a lose-lose proposition.

Now, assuming you didn’t pack a lunch (taking the traditionalist posture), that leaves you looking at the covered buffet over where games do things computers don’t. There might be a hearty meal under those lids, or there might be spiders and dust. I dunno. But if you want to find out, it will be worth your while to think about what computers can and can’t do, and what tabletop play can and can’t do. Seeing that difference requires admitting that each approach has strengths and weaknesses, and that can be a hard thing to admit, but it’s the starting point of figuring out something really interesting.

More on this later, almost certainly.

The Sacred Cow Job

I pulled together a gone on pretty short notice today, with no real sense of what I was going to do with it. I ended up pulling up something together pretty much whole cloth, and it ended up weird but pretty cool.

Premise was a city of gods, where one god (the Lamplighter) had forcibly assumed prominence and taxing the prayers of other gods (prayers and offerings take a physical form), so the players are champions of various bound gods, hijacking prayers and doing dramatic things in the names of their patrons.

System-wise, I started from a Leverage template (predictably). For stats, I used the amber set of _how_ you do things (Force, Wits, Grace or Resolve) and for roles, I followed the model I used for Supernatural and focus on what you use to do it (Sword, Tool, Knowledge, Tongue or Self). Rounded it out with three distinctions. The weirdness came with the patron deity who gave each character the “Gift Of…” – some power reflective of a domain. The examples below will make it clearer. Players also had the option of adding extra gifts by acquiring additional obligations to other gods. Mechanically, that took the form of an additional distinction chosen by the GM. If I’d had a little more time I might have made it more involved (such as calling for specific behaviors) but this worked out well enough.

One change I ended up making was something I’d misremembered as a Leverage rule, but which ended up working out really well in practice. After dice are rolled, if the players need a reroll, they can get it, but only if they find some way to change their die pool, such as introducing a new asset or using another distinction. This has the interesting effect of rewarding keeping a few dice in reserve, and can also end up forcing a player to hurt himself with a distinction out of necessity..

This ended up with some seriously messed up characters. I’m going to transcribe their sheets here because I actually think the gifts are kind of mechanically interesting, and might be useful fodder for anyone looking to supernatural up their Leverage variant.

Warren, Agent of Visha
Force: d10
Wits: d8
Grace: d6
Resolve: d4
Sword: d10
Word: d8
Tool: d8
Knowledge: d6
Self: d4

To Owe is to Understand
It Is Only Temporary
Everyone Pays Their Debts
Everything Must Burn (Master Charr)
Always Give A Sucker An Even Break (Alerian Empress)

Gift of Fleeting Wealth
* When gaining benefits from Distinctions, roll d10 rather than d8
* When you roll a 1, generate 2 complications
* When creating an asset, it starts at d8, but there’s almost certainly a catch to it.

Gift of Fire (From Master Charr)
* Immune to Fire
* Spend a plot point to self immolate. For the duration of the scene, if an enemy wins a physical conflict where they’ve engaged hand-to-hand, they take d4 fire damage. Plus, looks awesome.

Gift of Redemption (From the Alerian Empress)
* Take on an injury from another player.
* Spend a plot point to turn any of your dice into d4s. Each die so transformed increases damage done by one step.

Mary, Agent of Efficiency
Force: d12
Wits: d6
Grace: d4
Resolve: d6

Sword: D12
Word: d6
Tool: d8
Knowledge: d4
Self: d6

Promises First
How Hard Can It Be
99% Inspiration
Unnecessary Casualties (From the Executioner)

Gift of Improvisation
* Spend a plot point to duplicate another player’s ability. May require another plot point expenditure if the power in question requires it.

Gift of Delivery (From the Executioner)
* Perfect timing: Show up in any scene when you feel like it.
* Non shall halt the messenger: Spend a PP to dramatically open any door

Orvik, Agent of Fenris the Flayed
Force: d6
Wits: d4
Grace: d8
Resolve: d10

Sword: d8
Word: d4
Tool: d10
Knowledge: d6
Self: d8

It Doesn’t Hurt Yet
The God Guides My Lash
Repulsive (The Patchwork Man)
Hungy (Gulb, God of Gluttony)

Gift of Pain
* When you inflict Hurt, also inflict d4 Upset
* Your hurt threshold is d12
* Spend a PP to add your Hurt value to all rolls for the scene.

Gift of Beggars (From The Patchwork Man)
* Pathetic: When enemies have multiple opponents and have no pressing need to go after you, you’re always targeted last.
* Melt into a Crowd: Spend a PP to vanish into any crowd

Gift of Meat (From Gulb, God of Gluttony)
* Smell of Blood. Always aware of living beings around you, even if you can’t see them
* Rending Teeth: Spend a PP to make an attack using Self rather than Sword. On a hit, +1 step of damage, and you recover one step of hurt.

Beryl, Agent of the Down One
Force: d10
Wits: d4
Grace: d4
Resolve: d10

Sword: d10
Word: d6
Tool: d8
Knowledge: d4
Self: d8

Giant Hammer
Drunk (Gift of Tipsel)

Gift of Gravity
* Fall Safely from any height
* Spend a plot point to drastically reduce or increase your weight. If it’s relevant to the action at hand, you may keep an extra die.

Gift of Drink (Gift of Tipsel)
* You are always confused d4 but you never take further confused damage unless it’s self inflicted by drinking.
* You can Add your confused level to any roll, thus reducing it by one step (minimum d4). If you spend a PP, that extra die is kept.

Konur Tagg, Agent of Mardaug The Thunderer
Force: d10
Wits: d4
Grace: d6
Resolve: d8

Sword: d10
Word: d6
Tool: d6
Knowledge: d4
Self: d10

If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Loudly
I Must Not Have Hit It Hard Enough
I Can’t Talk Around Women
Can’t Ignore Tears (Gift of Kaela, Mardaug’s consort)

Gift of Thunder
* You can be heard anywhere and have no problem hearing in the noisiest of environments
* Spend 1PP when making an attack. Minimum damage is d8, and inflicts d4 confused while making a lot of noise.

Gift of The Tender Heart
* You have armor d4 vs Upset
* Inflict -1 step damage less Upset damage
* Spend 1pp to remove Upset damage from an ally, and roll and keep that die.

Diversifying Your Character Portfolio

Different games teach different skills to different degrees. This is not because some games are bad and others are good, it’s because games are different. They reward certain things and make little use of others. And more, they do this in a very obvious way. When you go to a convention, it is REALLY easy to spot the person at the table who has never left the nest, and has only ever played variants on D&D or Storyteller.

The heartbreaking part is that you most often encounter these folks when they’ve decided to stray off the reservation and try some new game. Sometimes this goes well, but most often, it just ends up reaffirming their suspicion that other games suck. This is not necessarily because the new game is bad, but rather because the new game is, at least in part, effectively in a different language of play than the player is used to, and they find themselves put on the spot. Unless the GM is very sensitive to these blind spots in new players (something that’s rarer than it should be), the players will end up frustrated and feeling foolish, even if they’re perfectly capable.

To put it more concretely, if you’ve only ever played D&D and you’re dropped into a game with, say, strong scene framing, you may not be ready to frame a scene. Not because you’re not smart or not creative, but because this is a new idea. Your frustration will be roughly akin to trying to cook a microwave meal where all the instructions are in Russian, all in front of an audience. Even if you manage it, you’ll be self-conscious and feeling foolish the whole time. This is not the kind of fun experience that bring someone back to a game.

That is a problem, because the simple reality is that after a certain point, nothing is going to be as useful at improving the games you love as learning other games. Even games you don’t like.

I don’t like Burning Wheel much, but despite this I own every damn book that Luke & company put out. This may seem contradictory, or like some kind of reflexive indie purchasing streak, but there’s something more to it, something that I consider very important.

See, not liking Burning Wheel as a matter of taste – I play it, and it doesn’t really get my motor going – but at the same time it is a really good game. Just a small amount of time spent reviewing the products (especially self-contained marvels like Mouseguard) makes the quality of the work obvious. What’s more, even if you can’t see that, Luke’s passion is clear both in and out of the game, and I can point to no shortage of people who have had really excellent experiences with the game. Any one of those things would speak well for Burning Wheel – all three of them together more or less shout.

There are two reasons this is important. By decoupling my dislike from my judgement of the game, I’m able to appreciate it’s strengths and discuss it with people without pissing all over it. This is such an obvious benefit that I would not even feel it worth mentioning in any context but the internet. Second, it leaves me in a position to learn from Burning Wheel. This last is the reason I consider my position to be something other than hippie or zen – it’s _greedy_. The world is full of games, and even the ones I wouldn’t want to play are full of things I can learn.

Now, I can learn a lot just by reading the text, but there’s a bit of chicken and egg to this because the more different games you play, the better able you will be to create a picture of a new game from its text. So I guess that means I’ve had to play a lot of games to not need to play some games.

But as nice as that is, it’s still not a substitute for playing these games, or at least giving them a go. This means that it’s worth your time to spend some time playing games you can see the virtues in but which may not be to your taste. By doing so with open ears and an open mind, you can learn a lot of things that can make the games you like better. You don’t need to keep playing them – just take what you like and see if it an work back in the game you know you like.

That’s a pretty simple proposition, isn’t it? Playing other RPGs than the ones your comfortable with can teach you new things. You wouldn’t think it would invite as much opposition as it does, but there it is.

I’m not proposing that you rush out and grab a copy of Everway or Posion’d just because they’re obscure or indie. Look at the books. Read the backs. Find something that makes you think “Oh, hey, that sounds cool”, then give it a try.

I Play Monsters

As I write this, I have Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” on repeat. I am, for the record, not much of an Eminem fan, and as a whole I have a very tenuous relationship with rap. But this song grabs me with a combination of raw power and horror (and musicality) that I find utterly compelling.

Art that depicts terrible things is powerful and dangerous. Depending on the viewer, the terrible thing may be so terrible that the very prospect of any art about it, even art that lays the horror bare, is something they will simply refuse. This reaction allows for the kind of easy snobbery that reveals a true shallowness of understanding in the snob, but it’s a necessary risk in genuinely exposing anything terrible.

There are many terrible things, from the profound to the merely shocking. To me, the most powerful are those that force us to acknowledge that there are real people behind these horrors. That is, to put it bluntly, such a profoundly uncomfortable idea that we instinctively rebel against it. Bad things are done by bad people. They’re sick. Or evil. We don’t like to think of them having parents or children Anything that forces us to see ourselves in these monsters is frightening.

I have played monsters in my day, and it speaks to the real power of this hobby that I can say this with no small amount of discomfort. It is a rare game that allows for that possibility – when choice and context is bounded by the logic of adventure, then choices may get dark, but they rarely end up carrying the weight that forces you to internalize them. At the same time, playing the monsters as we see them teaches us little. Mustache twirling evil and stylish sociopathy can be shocking, certainly, but they are shallow things, little worse than putting on a monster mask and growling.

What a game, a good, deep game, can do is push you to the point where the choices you make are the only choices you can, and make them terrible. You can step through every door, feeling you have no other choice, and find yourself in a place you could not (and would not) have imagined when your journey started. There’s terrible power there, but also the promise of great and frightening insight.

I have played heroes. I have played villains. Both have been fun and rewarding, but few of them stay with me like the monster. I say monster, singular, since for all that I have to say about this, there is only one, and he’s never going to leave my head. This was a great character, fun to play, rewarding in every possible way, but when the time came he made the terrible choices because everything demanded it.

Every hobby has literature about how many valuable lessons you can learn from it. Baseball. Knitting. Checkers. RPGs are strangely short on this, and in fact if you try to talk about the positive things people can get out of RPGs, the strongest criticism you will get will come from within the community. This is a terrible pity. I can literally think of no other hobby that can better arm you to see things through the eyes of others, to understand another viewpoint without letting it become your own.

That understanding can be scary. Really scary and unwelcome at times. It’s a lot easier to live in a world of good and bad people. It’s easier to be able to look on the failings of others and say with all sincerity “I would _never_ do that!” But I sincerely believe that it’s an understanding worth having. Seeing the humanity in someone else’s horror is terribly enlightening, but seeing the monster in yourself, in a real, practical, non-angsty, non-dramatic fashion can blow the doors off. And in seeing it, and understanding it, you can become better.

I don’t write thousands of words about this hobby because I think it’s going to make me rich, or because I have some bizarre dice fetish.

I think better games can make us better people.

Disagree if you like. I’ll understand

The Fiction of 4e

An interesting discussion the other day got me thinking about the fiction of 4e. Not in terms of novels and the like (though I’m sure those would be an interesting subject) but rather in the fiction implicit in the game. This is not, to my mind, about the little map in the back of the DMG, or even about the idea of Points of Light. Both are good, interesting things, but what I dwell upon is the fiction as implied by the rules. That is to say, what does it mean that these classes, races, items and spells exist in the world, and how does that shape things.

Possibly the most profound change to D&D that 4e brought about was the introduction of symmetry. Characters are all roughly on par with one another in terms of capabilities. There are plenty of differences in the small details and between roles, but by and larger, two characters of the same level are in roughly the same weight class in almost every measure (combat ability, skills, stats, gear and so on).

This was not true of previous editions. The most obvious discrepancy was between spell-casters (especially magic users) and everyone else. At very low levels, the wizard might be a one-use wand, but at higher levels, he could reshape mountains with a single spell. Later editions worked to close this gap some, but it was always a baseline part of the game. If nothing else, the spellcaster was going to be more effective on the round he cast a potent spell than the round he didn’t, while the fighter would be pretty consistent in his damage. A similar problem existed for specialist classes (which is to say, thieves), and broadly speaking different classes peaked at different times (all to say nothing of potentially tragically drastic problems of gear disparity).

4e smoothed that all out. Everything’s on pretty much equal footing. And that’s great for gameplay, but a little rough for fiction. It’s a lot easier to build a story (or a world) out of a messy system full of odd discrepancies than it is from one where everything fits together neatly.

This is not to say it can’t be done. In fact, I think it’s possible to build a great many very interesting fictions around 4e, but the secret of doing so is to recognize that even if the mechanics push things to equity, the setting need not do the same.

The rub is that, as rules material, all races and classes (and to a lesser extent, monsters) are presented on fairly equal footing. When your group sits down to make characters, there is nothing that dictates that Dragonborn Paladins are rare or that Human Fighters are common. Some pairings might be suggested by the mechanics, but all options are equally available and equally valid.

For chargen, this is a great thing, but for fiction, it’s problematic. If you infer a setting that is simply a big melting pot of these classes and races, you are inferring a fairly boring, sloppy setting, and in turn, a dull fiction. Fiction depends on tension, which in turn depends on discrepancies. Some races need to be rarer or more common than others. Some classes need to have strong cultural roles, with baggage that varies from place to place.

Consider the Warden. I really dig this class, but there’s a strong implicit story to it – if there are Wardens, then there are things they protect. So what happens when you ask how many Wardens there are in a setting? If there are only a few, it might be a secret, elite order, or the remnants of an old tradition, clinging to the past. If there are lots, then there might be a warden for every place of importance in the setting. Those answers and all the answers in between mean a lot to any player who wants to play a Warden and to the game as a whole. And that’s just one axis – we haven’t even touched upon the role of race in the process.

By making these kinds of decisions, the DM is capable of determining what is anomalous or rare in a game. Perhaps there are only Seven Paladins in all the world at any given time. Perhaps Sword Mages are only trained in one tower off on this mysterious island. Maybe Shardminds exist only in a hidden valley where their worldship crashed. Maybe the Dragonborn have a vast mercantile empire, and can be found everywhere. Maybe there are no Dwarves.

But this does come back to the strength of 4e’s level playing field. Historically, if there were only 7 Paladins in the setting, that usually meant that no one could play a Paladin, because those slots were reserved for cool NPCs. By shunting the rarity of things over to the fiction, you can open the door to any character the players want to play, and allow it, with an understanding of how it fits into the world. While not every player looks to embrace the unique or anomalous, many do. Playing the oddball, outcast or outsider is a lot of fun, but it requires that there be something to be outside of in the first place.

It’s important to note that none of this is what one might normally think of as world building. It’s not about writing histories or developing factions. Rather, it’s about arranging the pieces you’ve been given in a way you (and your table) find satisfying. This means making the world less fair than the game, but that’s the only way you’re going to make a world worth playing in.

End of a Saga

Lately, I’ve been reading the Star Wars Saga RPG books, the square, d20 ones with a system that felt a little bit like a field test for 4e. These are, I have to say, really good books. I got on this kick because I discovered the line had gone out of print, and I wondered if there were any treasures I wanted to pull from it. I was most in curious about the “Galaxy of Intrigue” sourcebook because a book about an intrigue campaign is ambitious and right up my alley.

So, through gifting, used purchases and trading, I got may hands on a handful of the books and started going through them. By and large, they surprised me with how good they were. The rules are actually pretty good, surprisingly so. The layout was clean and stylish, the square format worked far better than I expected it to. The content was fascinating. Where the authors had leeway to talk about the setting and the game, it was this great balance between a love of the source material and a focus on actual games.

Sadly, there’s plenty of gamer detritus as well. It’s clear there was a standard format the books needed to adhere to, which meant that one way or another you could expect to spend a lot of pages on new races (most of whom were uninteresting) new droids, new ships and new gear. In many of the books, Galaxy of Intrigue in particular, I felt cheated of the good content by what I perceived as filler.

Now, the reality is that I’m sure that there were plenty of gamers who viewed things exactly opposite way, and who looked at each new book as a collection of crunchy bits first, with this unnecessary wrapper. Hell, for the completists, much of the information I found interesting was old hat to them. And that’s the sad reality of trying to manage Star Wars as a product – who is your audience and how do you serve them. Hardcore fans? Gearheads? Ignorant enthusiasts? In my mind, they struck this balance as well as it could be managed.

Now, I should note I played the hell out of the old West End Games Star Wars back in the day, starting from the first edition and reacting skeptically to improvements as they came along and cheerfully abusing loopholes. To this day, it’s one of my favorite RPGs of all time (such wonderful character creation!), and I’ve kind of historically flinched at the idea of playing it withs something crunchier, but man, I have to admit that I would play this Star Wars Saga version, and probably enjoy the heck out of it.

Now, there’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison here. One of the great things about the new system is the expanded universe. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that Star Wars canon has gotten so big and cumbersome that trying to absorb it all is a recipe for self-destruction. But there’s enough of it to allow for cherry picking, especially if you’re not too worried about violating canon as laid out in some out-of-print paperback. You can really just do a “good parts version” and really rock out.

This is especially true of the _history_ of the setting. I’m really indifferent to the fates of the kids of the heroes, but the fact that they did sourcebooks for Knights of the Old Republic and The Force Unleashed was awesome. A cynic might just point to it as grabbing onto some current (at the time) hotness, but the reality is that the video games were set up beautifully with the ability to play in the sandbox without stepping on the parts worn thin by overexposure. That translates fantastically to tabletop play.

Anyway, as I’ve noted, the books have gone out of print. Some of the rarer ones already go for stupid amounts on the used market, and for all that I think they were a fantastic handling of a very difficult-to-handle property, I’m spacing over the game’s grave, so to speak.

Rumor has it that someone else has picked up the license. I don’t know who they are, and I wish them all the luck in the world with it, but I don’t really know if I’m excited for it. SW Saga did the job really well, well enough that it’s going to be hard for the next comer to measure up.