Monthly Archives: June 2011

Gah, Origins!

I only just looked at the Calendar and discovered that Origins has snuck up on me.

I love the summer conventions, but since the birth of my son, it’s been simply impractical to try to go to both Origins and Gencon. Each one represents a week away form my wife and kid, and what’s more, a week of extra parenting duty for my wife. So far as I’m concerned, she’s a saint to put up with it for one convention, and she already put up with it for PAX-East. So, given that, I face the annual decision of Gencon vs. Origins, and I almost always choose Origins.

This is a fairly idiosyncratic choice. Gencon is absolutely bigger and more important. If you’ve got a product to launch, Gencon is the place to sell it. If you need to professionally network or see things you’ll see nowhere else, Gencon is the place. Origins is simply not as big a deal (though it’s still a pretty big deal), but that’s part of the appeal for me, and that’s doubly true this year. This Origins, I’ve got nothing to sell. No new releases to promote, no booth to man – I’ll be going as a civilian.

Now, I could talk about a lot of fine differences in culture between the two conventions, or wax rhapsodic about the food available at Origins, but the reality is much simpler for me. At Gencon, I do a lot of stuff and see a lot of people, but at Origins, I actually get to talk to people. That’s huge. Other things like playing games or seminars are a lot of fun, and I’ll seek them out, but the heart of any convention for me is any time I get to sit down in a circle with a handful of people who are passionate about games and just shoot the breeze.

So, anyway, I’ll be there. I’d tell you to look or me, but I’m an overweight white guy with a beard and glasses, so I tend to blend in like a ninja in this highly specialized environment. But if you do happen to find me, say hi. I am not hard to get talking.

Anyway, that means I need to go into this weekend with thoughts of packing. I put an unreasonable amount of thought into my choice of bag for the convention floor, but dammit, a man must have priorities!

An Honor to Make the List

If you were to ask most gamers about RPG awards they would probably mention the Origin Awards or the Ennies. If they’re in a certain segment, they might mention the Indie awards or the Golden Geek awards. But if they mention the Diana Jones awards, then you can be sure that they’re a big freaking nerd.

The Diana Jones award may be the most mysterious of the RPG awards. A secretive council of gaming luminaries (no, I don’t know who they are) hash out a short list of nominees, then give the award to one of them at Gencon. There are no categories, and no particular limits on what might be nominated. Most of the nominations are for games, but they can be for stranger things – ideas, projects, podcasts, organizations, people – anything related to gaming is on the table. It’s not a popular award, or a structured award, and I’m not even sure whether it can be neatly summarized. In the way that some actor’s are “an actor’s actor”, the DJA feels like the deep geek’s deep geek’s award.

Every year, the Diana Jones shortlist seems like a summary of what has been great and interesting in the past year. Running back through the shortlists of years past provides a snapshot of each year in turn and a sense of what sort of fantastic things have been going on. This year, Evil Hat made it onto that list with The Dresden Files RPG.

As ever, the rest of the list is fantastic as well. Sorencrane’s Freemarket, Bully Pulpit’s Fiasco, Catacombs from Sands of Time and Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, from Cranio Creation. Now, coming clean, I don’t know Catacombs or Aliens, but their mere presence on the list is enough to encourage me to go correct that.

All of which is to say – wow. It’s amazing to be on that list. I am utterly blown away.

Stuffing the Underpants

Great comments on yesterday’s post, at least some of which speak to the subject of today’s post – what to do once you’ve got your underpants gnome plan in place. It’s all well and good for me to say “Come up with a plan, then fill in the gaps that present themselves” but it might be a little unfair to not provide at least a little guidance on how to do so, and what you can do once you’ve got the trick working.

First, one of the easiest and most powerful tricks you can do is run through the list of your characters and ask yourself “Where does this plan intersect with this character?”. Does it threaten someone or something they value? Does it use something they want? Is it taking place in their favorite restaurant? Would it just REALLY annoy them? Or perhaps does it have an element, such as an end, they might be inclined to support? If you don’t have a good answer for one character, that’s ok. If you don’t have a good answer for any of your characters, then perhaps you need to consider the plan.

Second: The underpants gnomes need not be villains. Underpants planning can apply equally well to heroic or even indifferent outcomes. The characters may even find themselves as the agents responsible for delivering someone else’s UG plan, which can get very interesting if they don’t have the whole picture. One of the most classic twists is to have the player’s handle step 2, not realizing that step 3 is something horrible.

As an aside, because it’s a classic, it’s kind of overdone and ham-fisted. If you must do a twist, have step 3 be something reasonably value neutral (like getting the bad guy a resource or removing an obstacle) but which will then be used in the unstated step 4. Also, if you do this, plan for your players figuring it out, and see if you can give them the tools to screw the guy who’s trying to screw them. Few payoffs are as satisfying.

Third, though related to the second: The steps need not be uniformly bad or good. As Joe pointed out in the comments, having a REALLY ADMIRABLE step 3 paired with an UTTERLY ABHORRENT step 2 can make for a powerful mix. Similarly, a benign step 2 with a bad step 3 can be a great play driver. Not just for the twist scenario, as above, but even when played straight by an NPC willing to say “Yes, this bad thing will come of it, but compare that to all the good you’ll do!”. Fun stuff!

Fourth, and this one definitely got tipped in the comments, the true secret of the Underpants Gnomes is that you really only need to be concrete about step 1 and 3. When someone has a premise and a goal, things can go wrong in the middle, but they can regroup and keep trying to pursue the goal. As a GM, this means that so long as you keep your eye on step 3, you can be flexible about the shape that step 2 takes, possibly even requiring multiple attempts at step 2. Goals make much better planning aids than processes in this regard.

Fifth and last – once you have the trick of it, start juggling. Underpants Gnome Plans are surprisingly easy to maintain once you have them in play, so start introducing a few more. Where one such plan can blossom into a decently fleshed out arc, several of them can turn into the kind of tapestry that keeps a world feeling alive and in motion while giving the GM a bottomless bucket of resources to draw on to keep things moving.

Underpants Adventures

Very interesting post about what went wrong with the Star Wars prequels that’s worth a read for writers and GMs. It boils down to a pretty simple point – if you start with a simple plot, it allows for the characters and story to grow more complex in the telling, but if you start with an overly complex plot, then you’ve pretty much put a block on those things.

I’ve always subscribed to the idea that your players should be the most interesting characters in your game, and this advice applies to them as well. Starting from a simple plot creates an opportunity for your game to grow in directions that reflect you and your players.

If you want a practical way to go about this, consider the Underpants Gnome school of adventure design.

Satire aside, the 3 step plan is useful for almost any plot. Start with a villain, whoever it is, and give them a plan that really is as simple as:

  1. Do something simple
  2. Do something complicated
  3. Achieve goal

This is usually easiest if you start from the goal, since that tends to suggest the previous steps. With that in mind, I strongly suggest a concrete goal – “power” (or even “profit”) tend to be so amorphous as goals that they don’t really suggest a course of action. If a goal of that sort is what you’re looking for, then try to pick some manner of specific implementation of it, like leveling up or stealing a particular treasure.

This process is made much simpler if you embrace the cheese. There is a natural inclination to try to make the plots smart, coherent or clever, but realize that a lot of great plots have almost embarrassingly simple underpants structure. Y’know – Take Ring, Throw it in a Volcano, Free Middle Earth. Look at that example and consider how far short of the true complexity of the story that falls – the good parts lie in that difference.

Thus, start with something like:

  1. Kidnap Orphans
  2. Sacrifice them to Orcus
  3. Gain Undead Army

On paper, this looks like the basis of something pretty cheesy, but it need not be. Challenge yourself and consider how this framework might make for a good story. The villain might be interesting, the orphans in question might have compelling stories, the sacrifice might require all sorts of logistics to pull off, maybe the use the army will be put to is interesting. Whatever. The point is it can be done.

The trick is that you don’t need to solve all of the problems up front. The underpants plan should seem unworkable on the face of it because it leaves unanswered questions. Answering those questions is a driver of play.

All About the Glasses

If you haven’t yet, it’s pretty interesting to check out people’s answers to Friday’s question, where I asked: If you were to play a game set in the DC comics universe, how quickly would you figure out that Clark Kent is Superman?

When I initially asked the question, I was just thinking of it as a simple example of how to apply narrative logic to play (not recognizing them is, in most circumstances, narrative appropriate) without needing to stress yourself out. However, the answers I’ve gotten to this question have really suggested to me that this may be an incredibly informative question to ask at the beginning of a campaign. It’s a question with no wrong answer, but each right answer reveals a very different relationship with the fiction of the game.

Some of the big groupings I saw break down like this.

For some people (including myself), the answer is “never” (with minor qualifications, such as if he reveals himself). This is full trope buy in – treating the narrative logic of the setting as something as concrete as the logic of physics.

There were also several “Never, except…” answers that broke into two categories, tropes and stories. For the first, they would see through it if it was their particular trope (that is, if they were Batman). I tend to consider this the same as the first group, just elaborating on their position. The second group was a bit more varied, but in general they would not notice unless their personal story took thing sin that direction. As a category it’s maddeningly fuzzy, but I seperate it out from the tropers because while it’s also narrative logic, it’s narrative logic based on a different priority stack. That is to say, it prioritizes the personal story over the setting story.

Some people nitpicked the question. You might think this does not reveal much about their play, but then you’d probably realize that yes, it probably does.

Another group viewed things through a very practical lens, and felt it really just depended on how much time and exposure they had, but given both, they would work it out because it’s just logical. These pragmatists are more or less the opposite pole from the tropers, and aren’t invested in the narrative logic of things.

Now, these groups were all more or less what I expected to hear from, but there were two other groups that surprised me as common responses, not just odd one-offs.

The first are the “immediately, unless…” crowd. At first blush they seem like the pragmatists, but they actually are totally willing to be “nevers” if they can can given an excuse, however thin. Super hynotism, superspeed, kryptonian muscle control or even really good acting – as long as some sort of explanation is in place, they’re willing to suspend disbelief and buy into it. That is to say, they’re willing to buy into comic book logic more than any abstract about narrative.

The second are what I consider “Immediately, because…”. For them it’s not about the logic, it’s that breaking the premise is a desirable outcome. They are using the setting specifically so they can move things around, shake them up, and even break things.

Now, I’m not going to bother with naming these groups in any systematic way – that would be kind of silly, but I want to highlight a thing or two. See, a lot of people were surprised at how others answered, and it seems like the kind of surprise you don’t want to have happen at your table. I can absolutely think of problems that have emerged in games I play that were a result of a single “Immediately, because…” player, not because that player was bad or problematic, but because his expectation differed so much from the rest of the table.

This is why I think it’s a great question to ask before a campaign, but I think it’s a question to re-ask, perhaps tuned to your specific campaign, every time you start something new. See, there’s an inclination to think that these are player types, but that’s just not the case. Some players might always pick the same things, but others will change choices dramatically as you move from genre to genre. Supers, for example, already calls for a certain level of suspension of disbelief from its enthusiastic fans, and someone who might willingly buy that glasses conceal Superman’s true identity would NEVER tolerate that kind of “Disguise” in their urban horror or sword & Sorcery game.

Anyway, it’s a question I encourage you to ask your players. Feel free to refine it as you see fit, but Clark Kent’s glasses are a sufficiently universal symbol that there aren’t many people who won’t “get” the question as asked (so long as they “get” playing an RPG).

A Quick Survery

Connectivity precludes a full post today, so I’m going to ask a question. I asked the same question on Twitter, and I intend to write about the answers I got, but I figured I’d ask here, both for those who don’t use twitter and for those who do but want more than 140 chars to explain their position. So here’s the question:

If you were to play a game set in the DC comics universe, how quickly would you figure out that Clark Kent is Superman? Presume that you are in a position to interact with both – You’re Metropolis PD, Daily Planet Staff or one of the other interesting citizens of Metropolis.

If the answer changes based on situation (such as depending on the character you’re playing) then feel free to say as much. Similarly, if there’s a reasonably simple “it depends” go ahead and let me know. That said, don’t worry about obvious exceptions like him directly revealing it to you.

The answers I’ve gotten so far have been incredibly informative to me, and I can only imagine that a little more room to speak will make them moreso.


PS – And because, as noted on twitter, I’m not looking to trick anybody, I’ll reveal my answer up front: Never.

A Tale of Two Metrics

I was originally thinking of knocking our to metrics (Energy and Responsiveness) today before I realized one of them didn’t work. Let me lay them out and maybe you can see why that happened.

Energy, which in my head I was kind of calling “Jazz” was a measure of how enthusiastic and engaged the table was at the end of the games.

0 – play has been flat or bad-tired.
1 – Play went ok
2 – Everyone’s totally jazzed!

Bad-tired, btw, is important to distinguish from good-tired, which can fall under Jazzed. Bad tired is just beat and unresponsive. Good tired is the end-of-a-marathon kind of tired, where you’re wiped but ecstatic.

Responsiveness is an idea that, like most of these, distilled from a number of other points and which might also be called flexibility. How well did the GM respond to player actions and incorporate player feedback and response?

0 – Everything went exactly as planned. Player diversions were brought back quickly into line.
1 – Player’s surprised the GM, but GM rolled with it.
2 – Unexpected Player decisions dramatically impacted play in a non-punitive fashion.

Note the emphasis on surprise and unexpected in that. If the GM offers the players a choice and he’s ready for the choice they make, that’s things going as planned – that is to say, 0 does not automatically equate to a railroad. The non-punitive qualifier on 2 is probably unnecessary, but is just there for the GM who’s “responsiveness” takes the form of punishing player choices (which is a total 0 move).

Ok, so given these two, energy and responsiveness, which one did I discard? Obviously, energy is something incredibly critical to judging how well a game went, while it’s entirely possible to have an awesome game with a low responsiveness score, especially if the GM prepares well. So given that, why is it energy I’m dropping on the floor?

The answer to this is something which, I think, casts a light on why a lot of the metrics may seem less important than the things which determine how well a game went. Specifically, it’s actionable. Consider: if your game has a low energy and the cause is not something obvious and external (like everyone being tired or hungover) then what steps do you do change that, to move a game from blah to jazzed? There’s no one answer to that, in part because energy is an _outcome_ not something the GM _does_. Energy maybe a good thing to check to ask yourself if a game went well, but it’s not useful to check if you’re trying to figure out what you did.

In contrast, if I’ve got a low responsiveness and I want to change that, it’s very easy to suggest a course of actions, even if it’s as simple as “Listen to your players, respect their choices, and be prepared for them to take things in unexpected directions”. Yes, those points can all be drilled into further – that’s actually part of the point – but they’re specific points with a specific goal. As such, they’re actionable, which important to the ultimate goal of this, which is to say to be able talk in terms of things a GM can actually do rather than in terms of things they want to have happen.

The downside of that approach is that we end up with intuitive disconnects like this. Energy feels more important – it _feels_ like something we should be measure, in part because it reflects the outcome of many other successes and failures, so it seems like it should be a rich datapoint. The problem is (and this gets even nerdier) that it’s actually a very lossy signal. Let’s take three ways a game might be awesome – The GM might be brilliantly engaging, the adventure might be incredibly well designed, or the group might just really click with one another. Any one of those things, or a combination of them, could result in everyone being jazzed at the end of a game. But the fact that people are jazzed does not tell me which of those things happened. I might be able to intuit the answer form my recollection of the game, but even if I’m right, knowing that everyone was jazzed doesn’t help me replicate it.

So energy is important, and in fact I think it’s probably a critical thing to check if we assess how well a game went – something we might want to do down the line, especially since it makes an interesting second data point to compare with GM metrics – but it’s not the answer to the question we’re asking.

Make sense?

Roland Has No Horse

I love Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. I also hate it at times. As a whole, it runs the entire emotional gamut for me, form some of the most powerful, evocative stuff I’ve ever read to some things which stand out in my head as bright, burnign examples of how to do something absolutely terribly. I’m glad to have it in my heart though, at least in part because it brings me a certain amount of zen with the fact that Martin will probably never finish A Song of Ice and Fire, because I have seen what happens when you sprint to finish something that big.

Obviously, take that Dark Tower love and frequently view it through the filer of games. It fascinates me because it’s something that is easy to capture the trappings of but difficult – maybe impossible – to capture the essence of. Maybe because it’s hard to identify exactly what that essence is. The sense of loss? The mashing of worlds? The dark sensibilities? The iconic nature of the gunslinger? The extended universe? The world that’s moved on? Maybe that last is the strongest in my mind, but it depends on so much that I can’t build something on it.

That combination of potency with ephemera invites me to mash it up with other things. The very first hack I added to Feng Shui when I got it was a “no time” juncture where the world had moved on, pretty much a straight Dark Tower ripoff. It mixes beautifully with certain flavors of Amber, but one needs to like the flavor, since it can change things up.

Lately, I’ve been pondering the combination of the Dark Tower with Harry Connolly‘s stuff, at least in part because Connolly’s vision of cosmic horror paired with human-level violence seems to capture so much of the spirit of things.

The weird thing is that sometimes these mashups give me new insight. I was considering some explicit genre mashup, sci-fi in this case, and wondered what it might be like if the Dark Tower were on a physical planet somewhere rather than somewhere cross-dimensional. A lot of the ideas transfer well, but it required the introduction of an additional element – a ship – for Roland to get around.

That’s a problem. Note that in the books Roland gets around by his own agency (walking) or is moved by others (Blaine) but he never has a horse in the sense that a true cowboy does, and there’s a good reason for this. For the literary cowboy, the horse is a companion, and a very close one at that. Roland can’t have a companion like that – it would be someone to share his journey with, which would undercut the point. It would be too close.

The ship illustrated this point because in science fiction, the ship is often a character (effectively). Firefly, Star Trek and Star Wars all illustrate this pretty well. It’s not inevitable – you can have boring space ships – but if Roland had a named ship, one he might care about, it would be problematic in the same way a horse would.

Anyway, it’s an itch I haven’t successfully scratched yet, but the process of trying continues to be pretty darn fruitful.

The Third Metric: Clarity

Chewing on the third metric, I’m looking at something that I’m going to call clarity but which I’m happy to find another name for if there are suggestions. it shows up in a few of the different points I mentioned, but the general idea of this: the GM is the stand in for the player’s senses. She is their window to the world around them, and a lot of the game is going to depend on how well or poorly she does that.

The problem is that this is something that’s best judged by the players. That’s not a bad thing in its own right, but it’s problematic for our purposes – we want the GM to be able to self-assess with at least a moderate sense of objectivity, so we need some metric to help the GM tell whether a given session has gone well or poorly, and I don’t immediately see a good option.

The solution is to widen the net a little bit, and think about what we’re looking at in general. We’re trying to get a sense of how well the GM conveys the world. What does it look like when that fails?

Thinking as a player, this is really easy to point to – it’s an undo situation. “Wait, what? I wouldn’t have done X if I knew Y!”, like “I wouldn’t have tried out the window if I knew the ogre was right in front of it!”

Now, GMs handle these situations with differing degrees of grace, and I admit there’s a danger that some GMs may not notice these situations, or may misattribute their cause, but calling it out like this hopefully helps any GM looking to rate herself. So let’s call this our zero scenario.

What does it look like when the GM rocks at this? That’s harder. Like a lot of good GMing, it’s success is pretty seamless. The players had all the information they need to engage things, so it all just worked from their perspective. That’s our 2 point scenario, but how do we spot it?

My suspicion is that you can tell the difference between a 1 and a 2 by the questions the players ask, specifically whether they ask for explanation versus clarification. Explanation (which usually sounds like “Hold on a second, [QUESTION]?”) indicates that your first pass did not create a clear image for the players. Clarification is a question built upon the description – sort of a “tell me more about [THING]”.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a cheat. We’re indirectly using the players to judge this metric without explicitly asking them for a rating, but as noted at the beginning, they’re the best source for this one. That part worries me less than the fact that this one may be a little bit harder for GMs to self-apply – it requires a decent recollection of the way the game went – and that may yet prove to be a real problem. Still, for the moment, I suggest.

0 – Player confusion regarding situation leads to complaints, retcons, arguments.
1 – Lack of clarity requires further explanations for players
2 – Sufficiently clear that questions focus on the situation as presented.

Honestly, this doesn’t feel quite as solid as the last two metrics, but I think it’s still in bounds. Still, I’m inclined to kick it a bit.

Day of Links

Got a lot of writing done this weekend, but none of it was for the blog, so today I’m goign to point to a few other interesting things out there.

  • I was interviewed over at, a Russian RPG site (scroll down to see the interview in english). I wish I could attribute it to my keen skills in Russian, but I have none. They went through the trouble of asking me some great questions and translating my crazily verbose responses, and it’s an interesting read.
  • Jeremy Keller’s Tech Noir Kickstarter went live and blew through its initial funding goal, and he’s now working on additional goals. This game is totally worth checking out, and since he’s designing in the open, you can read his beta stuff and see if it’s to your taste. One thing I will say: watch the kickstarter video. Just wow.
  • David Hill launched his project the same day, the Guestbook Kickstarter, a quick-playing collectible social game.. David’s project was one of the ones I was looking at when I started thinking about this new generation of collectibility in games. Worth a look, and doubly interesting for his open-ended model of success on Kickstarter.
  • Shockingly, things also happened in places other than Kickstarter. Adamant Entertainment launched their long-awaited western & wuxia mashup, Far West. They’ve been teasing this one for a while, so it’s need to see the doors open up a bit.
  • Edit: Crud! Totally forgot about the Fiasco Companion pre-order!

So, I’ve been in a cave all weekend. What else is new and awesome this week?