Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Pitch In The Dark

Fred has opened the door to pitches for a book of Don’t Rest Your Head hacks, which is a fantastic idea. You can find out more details, you can check out his post, and if the idea appeals to you, I strongly encourage you to consider writing a pitch.

I’ve had an idea for a DRYH hack for years, and this seemed like a good opportunity, so I crafted a pitch[1]. After passing it along to Fred and Ryan, I asked if they would be cool with me putting it out there in public, both as example an encouragement. They gave the thumbs up, so I’m going to share it here in hopes it helps someone considering their own pitch.

Proposal #1: Don’t Turn Your Back
~2000 Words
Rob Donoghue – [redacted]
I’ve Written for Evil Hat, MWP, WOTC and White Wolf.

Don’t Turn Your Back: A game of action, espionage, and the prices to be paid for both.

This is, for all intents and purposes, a hack for using DRYH to run stories in the style of Casino Royale – superspy stories with all the trappings of gadgetry and badassery, but with nightmares and madness being replaced with the growing threat of compromise and moral decay. Characters are Agents, badass masters of espionage, assigned to stop The Opposition from carrying out their Sinister Master Plan.

While this was conceived in the vein of Daniel Craig’s James Bond, the idea is flexible enough to handle much of the “action-espionage” genre. This is not suited to games of quiet intrigue – it is for a game where intrigue is shaken (not stirred) with excitement, violence and sex.

Mechanical Tweaks:

  • Exhaustion is now moral exhaustion, the toll of taking lives and trying to live in the strange limbo of a spy’s life. Go to far, and you’re In the Wind.
  • Madness is Support (sounds nice, doesn’t it) – you can draw on it for resources and gadgets, but doing so runs the risk of Blowing Your Cover.
  • Talents – Two Statements, one “I Always” and one “I Never”, both with a qualifying conjunction from the GM(A la Mortal Coil)
  • Despair is The Master Plan, and serve as a clock for the game.

    New Elements:

  • Asset Dice – A single blue die to represent that NPC helping you out. Useful, but expendable. Works like extra discipline, and can be sacrificed to recover from being In The Wind or a Blown Cover, but the Asset goes to the GM.
  • Help and Trust – Loan another agent your discipline dice for a roll, but he may choose to put any bad outcome on you.
  • Secret Agendas – In multi-agent games, everyone has their own agenda over and above stopping the opposition.

    [back] 1 – My wife’s comment was ‘only you would apply for a job at your own company’

  • About Those Elves

    Today, I want to talk about elves.

    When you sit down to make your own fantasy setting, whether for publication or just for your own game, the simple reality is that you stand under the twin shadows of Tolkien and D&D. They set an expectation for what a fantasy world looks like and, more importantly, they establish the baseline you will be judged against. Even if you had never read either, nor any of the bajillion books influenced by them, your fantasy setting would be described in terms of the way it’s _not_ Tolkien.

    One of the classic decisions to make in a setting is how to handle race – not in the nuanced sense of modern conversation, but rather the seemingly simpler question of the inclusion of non-human races. There are a few ways to approach this, and there are good and bad angles to each approach.

    The first is to just roll with it. You shrug your shoulders, accept that a fantasy setting has humans, elves, dwarves and maybe some kind of hobbit analog. Elves are long lives, magica, beautiful, blah blah blah. Dwarves dig holes, grow beards, drink and fight. Hobbits do…well, something other than just farm in pastoral-england-equivalent. Probably steal.

    This can be done well, as illustrated by most published D&D settings. Just accepting it and moving on to more interesting things tends to work out pretty well, provided those other things are actually interesting. It’s also fairly hard to do this too badly, since there are clear guidelines to follow. You’d need to really take steps to make it worse.

    The best such setting find ways to make the dwarves and elves interesting within the bounds of these ideas. Dragon Age, for example, has very standard-seeming dwarves, but enough thought has gone into their culture that they feel much more interesting than the standard. The worst settings tend to accentuate the stereotypes even further, though thankfully, it is rare to see that in a finished product.

    The next option is to yank them out. There are two approaches to this – the first is to simply embrace a human-only fantasy setting. This is a powerful, workable idea, but I’m not going to dwell on it much because that’s a hole other kettle of fish. The other approach is to remove one race or another.

    Skyrim does this very well – the setting very clearly had dwarves(effectively) at one point, but they all vanished at some point in the past. Adds a mystery to the setting, provides an excuse for interesting ruins, but removes the need of dealing with them in play.

    The famous bad example is from a brilliant game called Talislanta, which famously advertised “NO ELVES” as a means of setting itself apart from D&D. And it was true, as far as it went. Tal actually had dozens and dozens of races, many with fascinatingly fleshed out cultures. But if you looked at the art, there sure were a lot of slim, graceful, pointy-eared races as part of the mix. It looks and feels like they got rid of the word elves to prove a point more than to serve a purpose.

    Supplemental to this is the possibility of inserting your own. I feel really torn on this because on one hand I’m always a fan of celebrating creativity and encouraging people to do new and interesting things, but in practice, it follows certain predictable patterns.

    Most such races are ones that are cool to some specific segment of the readership. There’s always someone who wants to play a cat-man or a minotaur or whatever, and it’s usually pretty clear when such an inclusion is the author’s race of choice. That’s not intrinsically bad, but when the author thinks the race is awesome, he’s less likely to actually make the case for why the race is awesome to anyone else.

    The real rub is that introducing a new race takes work. Elves and Dwarves have decades of assumptions and imagery to build on and your new race does not. If you give them equal time, you give the new race short shrift, but if you give the new race more space, you’re showing favoritism. It’s hard to balance.

    Games that have done it well have gone full bore from the ground up. Earthdawn used the hell out of its art assets to make sure the T’skrang were as strongly present in the images of the game as any other race, and it paid off (at least for me, since they’re one of the few non-core races from a game I can remember off the top of my head).

    Games that have dropped the ball are legion, and mostly forgettable.

    The last and often most interesting approach is to put your own spin on it. Let the races remain recognizable, but change them enough. I turn back to Dragon Age for a great example of this – it’s elves were very clearly once “classic” elves, but they’ve fallen from that and are now under the boot of history. Sovereign Stone did something more drastic, but interesting, and overlayed the races with a _different_ stereotypical model, so you had Samurai elves and Mongol Horsemen Dwarves and so on. It had problems, but the underlying idea was interesting enough to keep in mind.

    Terrible examples of this include kender. Worse examples of this include reskinning kender.[1]

    Now, the point of calling out these different approaches is not to say one of them is best, but rather to simply suggest that when you sit down to make your fantasy opus, this is something to consciously think about. Don’t make a decision by default or out of a knee-jerk reaction. Know what you want, and make the choice that serves that.

    [back] 1 – Ok, why the kender hate? Because they’re terrible. They are designed to enable the worse sort of screw-the-other-players play while allowing the all purpose what-my-character-would-do-defense. They are an idea that barely work in fiction, where there are checks on their behavior and on response, but which utterly fail in a real social context.

    Jazz Rules

    I made a reference to something in comments on Friday which I realized is not an actual colloquialism, so I want to unpack it a little bit, since I think it’s a powerful, useful idea.

    I am not a huge jazz fan. There’s some stuff I like, but it’s never been that big a thing for me. I attribute a lot of that to early exposure to improvisational jazz and the fact that it was utterly terrible.

    See, improvisational jazz is one of those things (like writing, and gaming) which is not hard to do, but is very hard to do well. When a novice discards form, technique and rules, he does so without the understanding of why those rules were there in the first place. The result tends to suffer greatly, and the novice is often left baffled as to why. He’s not doing anything different than the old hand, so why is the outcome so different?

    If you’re really good at something, almost anything, you’re probably nodding right now. You can encounter this phenomena in almost any field. There are a couple reasons for this. As humans, the less we know about something, the more highly we rate our own abilities[1], so that’s working against us, but there’s also an issue with the nature of mastery. Many, many skills follow a similar trajectory where you start out learning what to do and then, after hitting a kind f tipping point, starting to learn what not to do.

    All of this is relevant anytime you want to write about how to do something, because the advice you need going up the slope is not the advice you need when you start going down it. This can lead to a lot of confusion, especially when the advice you might want to give is apparently contradictory.

    A lot of what I write is for folks who are climbing up the curve. I hope to be helpful to those on the far side of it, but I also trust them to be more capable to find what they need in my stuff without me hanging a sign on it. But it does mean that I occasionally give advice that might be really good in some situation, but REALLY BAD in your situation.

    I’m not happy about that, but I’m not terribly worked up about it either. It’s just one of those things that’s going to happen. The best I can do is be aware of it, and hope that others recognize the same.

    Anyway, to wrap this all up, when I refer to something as “Jazz Rules”, I mean something that you need to learn to do before you can stop doing it.

    [back] 1 – There used to be a great post about this at You Are Not So Smart, but it seems to have vanished. This sucks. Anyway, it’s called the dunnin-kruger effect, and it’s kind of interesting.

    Feats and Faces

    I’ve always found the idea of feats more compelling than the reality. As I conceive them, I expect them to have a strong signature. That is, I expect them to really be strong differentiators, something that really calls out a clear distinction between characters who might otherwise be fairly similar. In 4e, this is one of the key things in determining a character’s style, something I’ve touched upon before.

    Now, a few feats actually are this interesting, or at least point that way (something like a two-weapon fighting feat is usually a gateway) but the vast majority of them are small nudges, things that might be interesting in aggregate, but which are rarely worth getting excited about it. That would not be too bad a thing, except that a flat feat can mean advancement feels flat. That’s no fun.

    The catch is, there are exceptions. There are a handful of feats floating around out there which are both interesting and mechanically potent. Some of the classics (like racial weapon feats) have just been seen as gimmies, feats you should always take if you can use them. I’ve always been drawn to those, and have always wanted more feats like them. Yes, this technically makes for more powerful characters, but usually in a way that makes them more thematic and interesting as well.

    But the twist is this – I want to guarantee that. I want a player to be able to pick a feat and have it carry a lot of weight, but at the same time, I don’t want to just be making more powerful feats, so here’s the extra element I want.

    At the end of every feat, I want to include a question.

    The default question is simple: “Who did you learn this from?” or some variant on that. Maybe that’s the only question. The purpose of asking is simple: to introduce a new character into the world, one with a baked in connection to the characters. The lack of that is the death of many a game, something I will probably get into tomorrow.

    Counting Noses

    Want a quick litmus test for the health of your game? Ask one of your players how many NPCs they can name. If that number can be counted on one hand, that’s a red flag.

    This may seem counterintuitive at first – after all, games are about the characters, and we all know the dangers of the GM falling in love with her NPCs – but it’s never quite so simple as that. NPCs are a necessary part of the landscape for a healthy game for a number of reasons.

    First, and perhaps most simply, if you only have one or two NPCs, then they’re more likely to be the worst kind of NPCs: Elminster style blunt instruments used to beat the players down the path chosen by the GM.

    Beyond that though, NPCs are important because they are the anchor points for motivations. Consider almost any motivation powerful enough to drive a character in play, and try to imagine how that works without other characters. Even seemingly internal goals, like growing stronger, need people to be tested against. Enemies provide competition and anger. Allies provide opportunity to prove yourself and sympathy. More complicated relationships spawn more complicated inspiration.

    NPCs also provide handles for players to grab onto when they are looking for direction. It’s not uncommon for players to find themselves at loose ends, either between adventures or at a point of frustration, and having NPCs on top of mind give an easy way to address that. Enemies can be pursued, allies can be consulted – for players, a known NPC is like a door in a dungeon room. They can open it at their leisure.

    They also provide a point of comparison. NPCs can give a sense of how the world works, and give the players a sense of how they’re doing. Fighting someone once doesn’t tell you much, but fight them twice, and you have a story. Admittedly, this is a dangerous point, since this element of NPCs also contains the “Drizzt will always kick your ass” school of thought, but it’s an unfortunate possibility, not a necessity.

    So, here’s the thing. I just spend some number of words defending the necessity of NPCs[1], which seems like it should be utterly necessary. Every GM knows this, after all – NPCs are one of the key building blocks of the world. Your game is, I do not doubt, utterly teaming with NPCs. You could probably name a dozen without even checking your notes.

    But that’s why the litmus test isn’t about you. The number of NPCs you _have_ in the game is almost irrelevant. What matters is how many NPCs in your game have registered on your player’s radar as anything more than “That guy from that one thing that time.” No matter how crystal clear your NPCs are to you, if they’re not in your players’ minds, they’re not helping the game.[2]

    [back] 1 – I’m leaving out the very important question of how many of these roles can be filled by other PCs for the simple reason that it’s a bit of a doozy. Short answer, yes, other PCs can fill a lot of these roles, but it creates a very different feel for play. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is uterly a function of taste.

    [back] 2 – This is, of course, also true of almost every other plot element. I’ve known far too many GMs to gnash their teeth at their players ‘not wanting to role-play’ because they don’t realize that they haven’t actually provided anything to role-play *with*.

    A Bag Full Of Cats

    One of the jokes about older versions of D&D is that there was nothing more deadly to a wizard than a bag full of housecats. It’s a double edged joke (made utterly unfunny in explaining) that highlighted both the fragility of wizards, who had trivially small numbers of hit points, and the problems with assigning even a small damage value (1-2 points) to something like a housecat.

    It also interestingly showcases some of the dangers you need to be aware of if you want to have more fragile characters in your D&D or D&D-like game. This is a popular trick for changing the pacing and level of tension in a game – by making the heroes (and their opponents) more fragile, you greatly speed up fights, but also make them feel more intense because of the intense sense of threat. It can also have unintended consequences as players become more risk averse, which can really bog down play.

    My own experience with this is deeply rooted in Rolemaster, which took a more complicated approach to resolving the same issue. Characters had plenty of hit points, sure, but the damage tables were full of bleeding wounds, broken bones and no shortage of gruesome, instant death. The net result was a strong sense that any fight could kill you if things just happened to go the wrong way.

    While this might have been paralyzing, we actually treated it as very motivating for two very specific reasons. First, it forced us to pay a lot more attention to the situations we were in to try to leverage them to our advantage. This meant that being sneaky and smart paid off.[1]

    Second, and more important, it forced us to really think about our characters and how they tied into play. As players, we faced two apparently contradictory facts: adventuring was genuinely dangerous, but we wants our characters to adventure. Forcing ourselves to resolve that contradiction made for MUCH more interesting characters, since they needed to have motivations capable of overcoming the potential risks. By itself that was sufficient to keep the game from slowing down, but it had another benefit.

    See, when you have a character whose motivations are clear and strong enough to you that they overcome a risk (which is also clear to you) then you have a character who is more likely to start engaging the game more fully. That is to say, when your motive is to adventure, then you will adventure. But when adventuring is a means to an end, you will start looking for other ways to pursue that end. If your real goal is revenge against your uncle, then you might delve dungeons for power and wealth to use against him, but you might also look to disrupt his mercantile arrangements or harm his allies. This is pure RP gold.

    None of which is to say that high-lethality is the only way to get that kind of investment. It absolutely is not. But if you find yourself in a game where players seem locked in a kind of dungeon-centric tunnel vision, seeing no reason to engage outside of that context, then perhaps a little extra risk is exactly what you need.

    [back] 1 – I want to contrast this with 1e D&D, specifically a game I’m currently involved in. In that game, we also spend a lot of time planning, but that planning primarily engages the system. That is, we think about what spells to cast and gear to use, because those can provide substantial bonuses. Terrain and situation are helpful, but secondary concerns. Which is to say, being smart pays off, but it doesn’t make things much more fun.

    The Sports Paradox

    Every now and again someone gets it in their head that they want to do a sport-based RPG. It’s a logical instinct – there’s lots of great, classic sports stories out there, and they hit a lot of the same notes that make an RPG fun. I have nothing but admiration for anyone who wants to try, and I’m sure that someone will crack this nut someday, but in the meantime I want to call out the one big obstacle in the road that has been the doom of many of us, something I call the sports paradox.

    The RPG Sports Paradox: The only way to make an RPG about a sport is to make an RPG that’s not about that sport.

    What does this mean? To understand it, take a minute to imagine a sports RPG. It doesn’t matter much what the sport is, but the expectation would be that you would need rules for playing that sport. Seems obvious, but that’s the trick – sports stories are not really about playing any particular game, they’re about a destination. There are a couple of possible types of destinations, but they’re mostly some variant of needing to win “The Big Game”. The exact form of the Big Game is less important than the fact that it provides meaning to all the games along the way – they’re the road to the destination.

    And that’s where the problem arises. Such a game will fall apart if the players lose a game. Oh, sure, there are some tricks you can pull to smooth over things (“The Maplewood team got food poisoning! We’re in the finals!”) but they have the clear stink of Deus Ex Machina about them. So you’re left with two choices: You can either allow the players to lose their games (and hope they won’t) or you can guarantee that they won’t.

    Allowing them to lose may be a viable option for a GM _running_ a game, but it’s a bad decision for a designer unless you’re very comfortable putting a warning label on your game that it could really end up sucking. It’s an easy solution, and it produces unsatisfying games.

    The alternative, guaranteeing victory, can be approached in a huge number of different ways, but they all have something in common – they shift to making play (and the challenges and fun in play) about things other than the game, like achieving personal goals, overcoming personal challenges, building the team dynamic and so on[1]. These are good things, and they’re the actual bread and butter of sport stories, and that’s awesome.


    You’ve just made play about something other than the sport. Play is no longer about the game on the field, as would be envisioned when you describe “A sports RPG”.

    So, that’s the paradox and the trap. It doesn’t just apply to sports, but rather to anything with a sports-like structure (Battle of the bands, Mortal Kombat, Shootouts at High Noon, Poker and so on) . If the narrative depends on a progression of wins to reach climax, then you’re looking down the barrel of the paradox. And may god have mercy on your soul.

    Now, I’ll toss in my two bits here for anyone looking to crack this particular nut. It’s not my white whale, but I’m sure it’s someone.

    The underlying system problem with this model is that it’s fault intolerant. The fragility of the system is such that a single failure breaks it[2], so the trick to getting it to work may revolve around figuring out ways allow for failure in your particular narrative without being cheesy. There are a few possible models for it, some better than others. A hidden points system can kind of work, but the hand of the GM is pretty obvious in play. Similarly, you can put the players in a context like, say, college football, where the decisions on the final bowls have no relationship to previous play.

    One system that I haven’t seen done, but which might actually be fun, is to treat it as generational play, with each “Generation” being a season. If the players lose in a given season, you advance the clock and pick up at the next season. Obviously, this only works for certain structures – it might suit a game about high school soccer, but not one of underground martial arts battles to the death.

    Whatever structure you settle upon, don’t be lazy. The ultimate goal is not to be able to make a game that makes playing the sport matter without worrying about all that narrative crap. You want a solution that let’s you bring those two elements together, so the dramatic and personal elements provide fuel for why your time on the field matters.

    1 – One trick is to give the characters access to currency (plot points or the like) that can give bonuses in play, and allow an unlimited amount of them (effectively guaranteeing play) but then use the number or type of points used to fuel between-game problems. At first glance this seems like a great solution because the sport-play is still “real” but that veneer is very thin indeed, and doesn’t hold up under heavy use.

    2 – This is, BTW, the subtle distinction from a dungeon crawl. A single failure _could_ be a game ender, but the dungeon is more fault tolerant. There are many potential failure outcomes, including things like running away, getting captured or otherwise allowing the game to continue through a failure.

    Something Awesome

    I was going to talk about what not to do today, but some awesome things happened, and I think I’ll talk about them first.

    First, Ryan Macklin and Elizabeth Sampat put together the Random Kindness Bundle, a bundle of games to raise money for a friend who needs to field the bills that come from fighting cancer. This is a really, really sweet bundle of game pdfs, and it includes:

    • Elizabeth’s “Blowback”, which is basically the Burn Notice RPG. I have this in print form, so the PDF is a welcome addition to my library. This is a clever, badass game and worth putting in your brain.
    • Vincent Baker’s “Murderous Ghosts”. I know _nothing_ about this game, except that A) some people on twitter really dig it and B) It’s Vincent Freaking Baker – how is that not a win?
    • David Hill and Filamena Young’s “Maschine Zeit” which is a fantastic sci-fi/Horror game. I’ve still got a cool ass USB stick from when it came out.
    • Joshua A.C. Newman’s Shock and Human Contact. If you know these games, you know why they’re awesome. If you don’t, you’re in for a treat – Shock is a brilliant game that I don’t play, but I steal from shamelessly. It’s core engine is an awesome implementation of Heuristic Ideation Technique (the fancy name for 5×5 grid design) which should be in every designer’s toolbox.
    • Adam & Sage’s Dungeon World Compendium – This is new for the bundle, and I haven’t even looked at it yet, but I’m excited. Dungeon World is a Hack for Apocalypse World for playing D&D kind of games, and that’s cool and all, but what has impressed me more is that it’s been (in many ways) a clearer presentation of the things that make AW awesome, which is no mean feat. Anything these guys want to add to that body of work is welcome indeed.
    • A collection of Josh Roby’s “Rooksbridge” fiction. Josh is cool and all, but unrelated to that, the mofo can _write_.
    • Ben Lehman’s “Clover”. I have no idea at all what this is, but I know Ben (the brain behind Polaris and Misery Bubblegum) so my prediction is that it’s totally weird, breaks all sorts of preconceptions of how a game should, and provides a host of new tools for looking at games. That’s pattern recognition.
    • Jason Blair’s “Little Fears” nightmare edition, a game that is on my list of “this game is brilliant, but I will never run it, because I like having friends” games, which is where the really, really good horror games go.
    • Plus, if they get $4000 in donations, then Macklin will pony up and release his white whale, Mythender, into the world.

    This is, needless to say, a great bundle, and well worth picking up at whatever price you’re comfortable with.

    But that’s only half the story.

    See, they launched this yesterday, round about noon eastern. And then proceeded to totally blow the doors off it. It’s been less than 24 hours, and the $10,000 mark has already been crossed.

    I am so damn proud of this hobby, sometimes.

    What Shall We Do With This

    A lot of people will go to great lengths to publish an RPG. This used to be a much bigger problem in the past, when the singular vision for an RPG might require taking out a second mortgage on your house to pay for a giant print run that wouldn’t even faintly sell through. Nowadays, various POD and similar options mean the bar is much lower, but the cachet (and, to be frank, the satisfaction) of producing a “real” book is still very strong.

    That’s cool, but it’s also double edged, because there is a difference between a creation of art and a product.

    I am firmly in the camp that believes in celebrating creation. If you put in a lot of work into making something and are brave enough to put it out there for the world to see, that effort merits praise, even if the creation itself is flawed. It’s a kind of touchy-feely (and somewhat condescending) position, and I acknowledge that, but the hope is that the creation of a “safe harbor” is worth that. Ideally, it opens the door for deeper conversations than simple praise for creation.

    However, once you put that product out for sale, and claim the honor of being “published”, then you have sailed out beyond that harbor. Once I can exchange money for your product, it’s on an even playing field with any other product I can buy. That is to say, if your creation is a giant MS-Word file dumped into a PDF, that might be praise-worthy as an act of creation, but it’s not much of a product.

    Now, obviously, this isn’t an invitation to be unfair. One needs to be cognizant of the realities of creation – to expect that a one-man-shop can produce something with the polish of a WOTC product is unfair and unreasonable (though it makes it all the more praise-worthy when someone like Daniel Solis does). At the same time, however, this does not absolve a creator of responsibility for covering his or her bases.

    When I look at one of these games, I find it important to think about it in terms of the three main ingredients that make a product – money, knowledge and work. Most every element in a game is made of some combination of these things, though some elements skew strongly one way or another (for example, unless you’re also an artist, art is a function of money).

    Now, this is important because if you’re publishing your first game, you probably don’t have a lot of money. The reality is also that you probably have less knowledge than you think you do. I don’t mean this as a knock, it’s just something that I think every creator is familiar with. Nothing teaches you more than your first product. That only leaves work, and work is a tricky one. It’s admirable, but in the absence of the other factors, it can be like hitting the gas on a car stuck in first that’s out of oil – lots of noise and heat, but little speed.

    All this comes together when you judge a product. Even if you can set aside the things which cannot be done because of money, you have to wonder if failure are a result of a lack of knowledge or a lack of effort. This is a key difference because the first inspires some sympathy (we all have been in a similar position) while the second inspires disdain (because the one thing we demand is that you do the work). Of course, that it’s not always clear where the failing occurs, but whatever the source, there will be failings, and they’re fair fodder for discussion.

    Anyway, this is on mind because I’ve been chewing on the failings of a particular product have run the entire course of this line of thinking, and I’ve found myself torn between two instincts. The first is to cede the ground to the “Don’t be mean” line of thinking and just not discuss it at all. The second is to use it as the basis for illustration of how not to make the same mistakes. That chewing has lead to this post, which has really been me thinking it through.

    In the end, I think illustration wins.