Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

The Size of Success

Action result table from Talislantia 4e

It is impossible to overstate how much modern game design rests on ripping off John Harper, Clinton Dreisbach and Jared Sorensen

The most basic resolution is binary: Success/Failure.

Ok, that may be a lie. The most basic resolution is NULL/Success, which is to say either it succeeds or it never happens in the first place. Consider how conflicts are “resolved” in chess – it just happens. The only way for it not to happen is for the move to not be made.1 For the moment though, let’s start with the binary.

Now, we play games of the imagination, so binary outcomes are a bit of a ham-fisted tool. There is a natural gravity towards some larger number of options, but also a limiter imposed by complexity. It is fairly trivial to generate an arbitrary number of outcomes (a d20 can have 20 outcomes, after all) but it is much harder for them to be genuinely meaningful.

So game designs seek to thread that needle, and pick a path between those options. Or in some cases, outside of them. The first expansion on this was a 4 step model – Critical Failure, Failure, Success and Critical Success. This covers a decent range of options, but its assumption that critical are outliers makes it less flexible than it might otherwise be. That is, if critical happen enough to be part of regular usage, then they don’t feel like criticals.

The next step is to unpack that space between success and critical success, and the most common tool for that is some sort of margin of success system, where the amount that the effort succeeds by has a mechanical effect. This is nicely elegant – better rolls yield better results, which feels very intuitive. Unfortunately, it also tends to make scale a bit difficult to explain, since it often ends up a bit open ended (especially if the system has something like exploding dice). Saying 7 successes is what it takes to shoot a horsefly in a hurricane is great, but only if your system genuinely makes 7 successes that uncommon.

I note here that Green Robin’s AGE system struck a very nice balance here with a kind of light critical system where a better than average success gives currency to do cool things, but the effect is bounded.

The other possible approach is to expand the space between success and failure with a marginal or modified success. The idea is old, but I first encountered this in it’s explicit form in Talislantia 4e (coughJohnHarpercough) but nowadays it’s most easily recognized as the 7-9 result in Powered by the Apocalypse games. Of course, that can even be expanded to produce qualified successes and mitigated failures.

The thing is, we’re now up to a pretty wide spread of possible results on the dice:

  • Critical Failure
  • Failure
  • Mitigated Failure
  • Qualified Success
  • Success
  • Better success
  • Critical Success

There’s a pretty obvious linguistic spread here

  • Critical Failure (No, AND)
  • Failure (No)
  • Mitigated Failure (No, BUT)
  • Qualified Success (Yes, BUT)
  • Success (Yes)
  • Better success (Yes, AND)
  • Critical Success (WOO HOO!!!)

I’ll admit here, this would be more symmetrical without better success, or if I added a “worse failure” option, but I’m not sure how much fun there is in that. Critical failures can be fun as turns of dumb luck, and make for good stories, but worse-than-normal failures seem like they would be a punitive addition. On the flip side, having some space between success and critical success tends to allow a little more mechanical breathing room for cool tricks in system. As such, I’m ok with a little asymmetry.

But here comes the key question – the one I’m not 100% sure of the answer of. Is that too many outcomes? What is the right number of outcomes?

I don’t think there’s an answer for this, but I think there’s an interesting pointer to be found in thinking about it, because it reveals the question of how you’re going to use the outcomes.

That is, if you are providing these outcomes as guidelines for GM interpretation, then it’s probably close to the right number. It provides prompts that allow for most of the kinds of outcomes that make sense in fiction, so it’s just a matter of wrapping some guidelines around those tiers.

But if I was developing a more explicit system, one where the meaning of those outcomes all needed to be expressed as rules (think PBTA Moves), then this many result tiers could be cumbersome. I don’t want to have to write up that long a list for every single possible situation.

If I’m doing something in between – a system that MOSTLY resolves things one way, but has some explicit outcomes, then it gets a bit more subjective. For example, I might have a system that uses the same rules most of the time, but each skill has a different rule for critical success. In that case, it’s going to be much more of a judgement call.

So, there’s a perfectly reasonable case for fewer outcomes, but is there a case for more?

I admit, I used to think so. Ideally, I imagined outcomes as a subtle gradient between extremes, rich in nuance and interpretation. In practice, I have found that I simply do not have the creative juice to distinguish between every 7 and 8 on a d20 roll, and that I fall into roughly the distribution I outline above.

I’m not sure how useful any of this is, but it does reveal something to me about my tastes. See, that ladder of outcomes I like is VERY CLOSE to the ladder I internalized for diceless play from the Amber DRPG, which gave guidance in terms of running fights where the character was:

  • Vastly Outclassed
  • Outclassed
  • Moderately Outclassed
  • On Par
  • Slightly Superior
  • Superior
  • Vastly Superior

And in my heart of hearts, I think that is what I’m striving for. For a host of reasons, not the least of which being how strongly it centers characters.

But where this gets interesting, for me, is that if this diceless distribution is what I’m really looking for, then what are dice really bringing to the table?

I have an answer, but at this point, that’s probably another post. 🙂

  1. Curiously, this mode is quite applicable to RPGs, and resonates with the argument against the addition of skills to old school games (“no one fell off a horse until we added a riding skill”). Functionally, every game with any amount of GM interpretation leans on this resolution model for almost every point where the system is not engaged (aka Common Sense). This is a pretty rich topic on its own, but also tangential to the topic on hand. ↩︎

Post Pax

I am back from Pax Unplugged 2018 and I am exhausted. I had a really good time, but my thoughts are a bit of a jumble, so I’m going to try to pin them down.

  • I intended to attend several panels, but missed every single one that I had scheduled, usually because I was playing something. This is a good reason to miss things, but was a bit of a bummer.
  • In fact, all of my time was spent either walking the floor or playing games. I discovered in retrospect that there were entire parts of the convention (including the RPG area) because I had no idea they were there, and there was nothing in particular pushing me in that direction.
  • Since I didn’t see the actual RPG focused area, I put a pin in my sense that this is not a great RPG con. It’s got G.O.D. and stuff, so it’s not like it’s not an RPG con, but my experience was generally so crowded and loud that while playing boardgames was fine, I suspect I would go insane trying to roleplay. But it’s possible there’s some secret sauce I missed out on.
  • This was a terrible con for seeing and talking to people. I imagine it’s better for the folks who have the leeway to do late night hanging out, but during the day there is such a press of humanity in constant motion that the prospect of stopping to talk is daunting. Meals offer no respite in this – while not as bad as last year, you need to go some distance (or be willing to pay more) to find a usable social space.
  • There were some obvious improvements from last year: the aisles in the dealer hall were numbered, for one thing, and there was even more space to play. It felt like they kept pace with the growth, which is good, but I’m not sure it made for an overall improvement. There’s still a lot of cattle call to it, though.
  • It remains a line culture con. I do not criticize that, but I do need to make my peace with it.
  • It took a while to find the boardgame library, because the play area was so large, and we never ended up using it because we had games and it was constantly swamped. That maybe sounds like a complaint, but it’s not – there was a HUGE play area which was constantly at capacity with a constantly churning game library. There was SO MUCH PLAY. It was beautiful.
  • This may seem weird, but I kind of feel like I could have skipped Saturday. Friday was busy, but there was some NEW STUFF energy that was fun. Sunday was also busy, but less so, and it meant that there was actually time and space to get demos and try things out that had not really been an option. But Saturday was all knife fight. Walking the floor was slow and overcrowded, and finding any workable space was a chore. Thinking towards the future, I may see what I can do to route around it.
  • This is the second year of the con and the second year I brought my son. I am pretty sure that some of my experience was skewed by this – I probably would have seen more people if I was solo, for example, because I would have had a little more flex (and have been out later). He had an awesome time, but at least part of that is because my wife took him to The Franklin Institute for a big chunk of Saturday, sparing him the worst of the overstimulation. I honestly am not sure how good an idea this is as a kids con – people are great and he had a great time, but the sheer press of people worries me a bit.
  • I was fairly restrained in my purchases until the final floor walk on Sunday, when the combination of “we don’t want to take this home” sales and my son making big eyes for robot-fighting games demolished my resolve.

It was a good time. No question. And I have every intention of going again next year. But I fully concede that a big part of the decision is the fact that it’s just over two hours from home, which makes travel inexpensive and easy. If it were farther away, I’m not sure it would be worth the trip. But it’s also possible that once I’m past this initial wave of exhaustion, I’ll feel much better about it.

The Mail Must Get Through

An envelope in motionOver on twitter, @ericvulgaris remarked that the next step in his D&D campaign was for the party to start delivering mail in Phlan, and I responded somewhat excitedly because this is a wonderful idea, and one that does not show up in nearly enough games. Consider: delivering mail requires:

  • A lot of open space, but a predictable core of destinations to return to over time.
  • A group that is capable of dealing with that hazards of travel, which are environmental but also may be more direct, like bandits or hazards.
  • An employer and a paycheck.

To me, that absolutely sounds like a formula for adventure. You have a unifying element (the job) that is strict enough to justify unity but which still leaves a ton of leeway within it. You have a steady source of challenges and threats, as well as an easy tool to introduce new ones (simply adding a new destination to their route) plus the variability that comes from travel.

What’s more, once you open the door to the mail, you can start thinking about the things that are mail-adjacent. The history of the mail is fascinating, but for those of us with a D&D bent, knights of the post could have a host of opportunities. You can look to historical examples like traveling doctors or horseback librarians for inspiration, and you can extend them to the fantastical. Consider how much it might matter to a town when the only spellcasting cleric they have access to is the one who comes through once a month or so with the mail? And, of course, these rough and ready souls can also be expected to handle the occasional monster.

The adventuring benefits of this model are obvious, so why don’t we see more of it?

Well, first, to give it’s due, there are games that do this. This is the default structure for Mouseguard and Dogs in the Vineyard, and it was one of the default modes of play in Legend of the Five Rings (doing a procession through your lord’s holdings). But for all that, it’s an outlier – a dungeon map is a normal thing, but a delivery route map would still be an anomaly in most written adventures.

Given that, there are three real challenges to implementing this model.

The first is progression: as characters level up, how do you deal with that? Having the stops on their delivery route JUST HAPPEN to have greater challenges each time they come back feels pretty fake, so are they just going to outgrow this?

The second is that it calls for a wider range of challenges, and some of those challenges aren’t challenges at all. That is, the things the characters may be called on will not be limited to fighting. Some of the challenges will be based on skills, so the system needs to support that, but other challenges are more simple. Consider the Cleric sanctifying a well – there’s no roll of the dice or challenge in that, but it’s very important to the fiction. It can be MADE challenging or interesting, but that takes a lot more work than creating a monster encounter1.

The third is that we tend to design settings to be disposable. Tensions are set up during creation, resolved during play, and then we generally move on2. I think we like the idea that we might come back later and see how things have changed, but there is almost no support for how to run such a thing, so the result often falls flat.

Now, I’ll admit, these are non-trivial challenges. If I were starting a D&D campaign tomorrow, I’d need to have solutions to all three, and I don’t think those solutions exist yet. But I also think they’re all solvable problems.

I might do a part 2 with some examples of solutions, but in the short term, let me offer some tips for how I would mitigate these things:

  • I would schedule out delivery in game in advance. Not in huge detail, but just enough to say that the next route will be A=>B=>C=A in about 1 month. It won’t matter a huge amount at first, but it will make life easier as we progress, because:
  • I would treat a single cycle through the route as an important design unit. When a route it completed, that’s when we would do any downtime-equivalent, and where I would make changes to the route.
  • That is also when I would hand out rewards, including XP. Leveling up happens BETWEEN route cycles, and the biggest XP driver is mission success, not monsters killed.
  • I would start with a small route and add in stops, but try to keep it to 5-6 stops top. That number is from my gut, so it might change, but it feels like there are only so many places they can keep in mind.
  • I would make other mail folk into named NPCs, partly to reinforce the larger setting, partly to create a pecking order because:
  • I would make changes to the routes and make those meaningful. As characters level, adding a more dangerous stop to their route makes sense, but so does dropping a boring one. And, critically, that stop now goes to someone else. Maybe they’re the rookie crew (who might need some help from the old hands sometime) or maybe they’re that asshole’s crew who totally snaked the village with the hot springs because it’s such a great place to stop.
  • I would enter with very flexible ideas about the group’s duties and try to tune those based on player choices and priorities. That said, if there are obvious gaps, I will happily have NPCs in other crews fill them and use that as a complicating factor.
  • The Patron NPC will be distant, but the logistics NPC will be always at hand and constantly annoyed.
  • I would re-read Going Postal before I start.

I think it would be pretty doable at the table, so now I find myself dwelling on how I’d make it a product. Thoughts, comments and suggestions welcome.

  1. Not that I’m suggesting that good monster encounter design doesn’t require skill, but the simple truth is – with D&D and it’s family especially – they’re just a LOT easier to create. This is especially true for a written product because fights are largely one-size-fits-all, whereas non-fights often rely on things like personalities of and relationships with NPCs, which are more emergent in play. ↩︎
  2. An exception to this can be found in city games, where there size of the city allows us to mask this pattern, and there are lessons on re-use to be taken from there, but that is also a fairly neglected model. ↩︎

Swap Space and You

I have another topic that is growing as I write it, but I wanted to dip into a sidebar that struck me while I worked. I am writing this on an iPad. That is not very important, nor is the fact that I am a big fan of the device, but it did get me thinking. If you’re unfamiliar, one of the things about current generation iPads is that they are way more powerful than they have any business being. Some of this is due to hardware advances, but a fair amount is because the iPhone/iPad is a newer platform than the PC, so certain things were baked in from the ground up.

Specifically, iOS software has been historically designed for a very resource constrained environment. This makes sense. Early phones were not very powerful, so you had to be very careful in what you let them do (especially if you’re Apple and very invested in customer experience). One specific area where this comes up is memory.

You’re probably familiar with the idea of RAM – the memory that your computer keeps the things it’s actively working on. This memory is faster than the memory you use for storage, and the more RAM you have, the more stuff your computer can do. Simple enough.

Now, the thing is your computer only has so much RAM (and it used to have much less!), so some long ago nerds came up with the idea of swap space. In short, when your RAM gets too full, your computer will try to find parts of it you’re not using at the moment and move those across to storage (like your disk) to free up space. When you need them again, it moves them back. You lose a little bit of performance (this moving takes time) but your computer is able to run things that it otherwise would not have enough RAM for. Yay!

The thing is, iOS doesn’t do this. Lots of reasons why, but the long and the short of it is that if something uses too much RAM, it gets dumped. The app crashes. End of story.

In practice, this is not too much of a problem. Originally, iOS couldn’t even multi-task, so there was very little competition for RAM. Even after multitasking was introduced, the system remains outright draconian about reclaiming resources. The result is that if you want your app to run well on iOS, you need to create a tighter package. The extra overhead on a computer allows for a certain amount to slop that iOS just won’t tolerate.

So what does that have to do with anything?

Well, it has a lot to do with you, and it has a lot to do with games (and with almost anything we want to share with people).

Most of us, most of the time, act like iOS. We have a certain amount of capacity, and if a message is communicated in a way that will fit within that capacity, then we can potentially absorb it. But if it exceeds that capacity, there’s a good chance we’ll “crash” – reclaim the resources, discard the message and move onto the next thing.

But – and this is the trick – that’s not always what we do.

Sometimes we’re perfectly willing to sit down and read 300 pages of content or watch 10 hours of videos or otherwise dramatically exceed our capacity in order to learn something. This leads to an apparent paradox where people want both more and less content.

This is where the metaphor kicks in – when we care, we create swap space.

Which matters because it’s the answer (or not-quite answer) to a common question in game design – what is the right size for my game. It would be awesome if there was one answer, but the real answer seems to be “the more people care, the bigger it can get”. This is borne out by numerous examples, but perhaps most tellingly by the very idea of the “supplement treadmill” – if people are bought into your game, they want more.

Which means the question to ask is not “how big?” but rather “how can I convince people to care if they don’t already?” Thankfully, the answer suggests itself in the problem – the case for why people should care is something you need to fit in their current capacity.

At this point, we get into familiar territory – elevator pitches, quickstarts, promo pages – there are a lot of ways to present the small part of your game that will excite people, and a lot of practices that surround them. But the important thing about designing this for other people’s capacity is that you are designing it for other people.

That maybe seems obvious, but consider. Often, when we craft a quickstart, a demo, a pitch or the like, our goal is to create something small that is true to the larger product. This is not a bad instinct – we want to be honest and give a clear reflection of the bigger product. But when we do this, we are designing to the product, not the people.

To be clear, this is not an invitation to lie or deceive. Rather, it is a rule of thumb to help prioritize which truths you want to bring to the fore. The simple reality is that any abbreviation is going to be incomplete, and you must make prioritization decisions. You absolutely can prioritize accuracy, but you will be better served prioritizing the things that make your game exciting, interesting or attention grabbing. Your summary – whatever its form – is an argument for your game, and it is allowed to be biased in favor of your game. It is, I’m afraid to tell you, marketing.

(And if you find yourself wanting to make a pitch for something that’s not in your game but you think is exciting and awesome? Well, maybe you need to think about putting it in your game. )

Navigating the Table

I love maps. Especially big outdoor maps. I don’t think that love is mandatory for this hobby, but I think it definitely helps.

The thing is, I have always struggled with how to convey the map into play at the table. A map is so open and flexible that it feels like narrowing it down to something I can convey at the table is an effort doomed to blandness.

The root of this is in my own mind. When players are in a place and want to go to another place, my process has always been “Imagine the line of their travel, Indiana Jones style, making note of each thing they pass through, and then provide some amount of travel activity for each thing.” This is very intuitive to me, because that’s how traveling in actual space works, and that’s what I want it to feel like, right? The problem is that it makes for fairly uninteresting descriptions at the table because they’re unfocused. They might offer a little bit of color, but there’s nothing to hook into the minds of the players to spark interest or action.

Video games solve this problem in a number of ways. A lot of RPGs just embrace the map and use line and node travel. That is, you hit a button to see a map that looks like this:

Then select a node that you want to travel to, and bam, you’re there. Nine times out of ten, the transition just happens, but if the game feels like it, it’s possible that an encounter or discovery happens during transition (which often adds a new node, temporarily or permanently, or otherwise alters the map).

This model works REALLY well, but I struggle with it a bit because I am expecting something more akin to an open-world game, like World of Warcraft, where I’m actually moving between space.

But I recently started paying attention to how these games handle their geography and realizing how much of it is sleight of hand. Most video game maps are functionally node based, and the “connective” elements are surprisingly small and thin. The geography introduces some constraints (adjacency) and opportunities (exploration) but practically it’s still a matter of moving from node to node.

All of which is to say, I think it may be time to make my peace with a line and node map at the tabletop, even if it’s just a functional overlay on a much prettier map.

Lessons From The Young

Musical score with the text "Don't mess with the Bard"The roles seem well received so, at some point, I may need to write those up a little more. I suspect there’s also a player version to be had, but that seems like a daunting task, so we’ll see how that shakes up.

But I’m still chewing on the underlying Santorini issue, and have ended up looping back to it from a strange vector. My son is 9 years old, and we had the opportunity to play some RPGs this weekend. This is not new, but we got to do more than we usually do, and it was somewhat illuminating to me because on many levels he is looking at the same issues as our Santorini player – he is enthusiastic and engaged, but disinterested in work getting in the way of play.

The first two sessions we played were back to back 5e D&D and Fate Accelerated, with the additional twist that it was the same character between the two. Neither game was a perfect match, but the things that worked and didn’t were very interesting to me.

For starters, his primary motivation in making a character was to get a pseudo-dragon familiar, something he had discovered existed in an enthusiastic read-through of the Monster Manual. I 100% cannot fault this and wanted to support it, so we did charge and talked about what it would mean for various classes and races, and he ended up making a human bard (with a 20 Charisma and the Actor feat, no less). He loved some of the explicit bits – the skills he was exceptionally good at, the specific spells, stuff like that. He really enjoyed looking through the backgrounds and considering the RP hooks, but he also ended up reading ALL of them in order to find ones he liked. He groaned at some of the bookkeeping and largely wanted me to write stuff down. All in all, there were a LOT of choices to be made, and he cared a lot about maybe half of them.

Actual play was decent. I stuck primarily to things involving skill rolls because – as the one fight reminded me – a lone level 1 character can be killed by a stiff breeze. That actually made it a little hard to GM, because I had to be VERY CAREFUL about potential threats, but he had fun.

The next session started with just porting the character to FAE and starting up. He was not too excited by the character. It had taken a long-but-specific list of cool things he could do and replaced it with a shorter-but-broader list that pushed more of the creative work onto him. Now, the Little Dude has no shortage of creativity, but he definitely felt this was less exciting than having explicit cool abilities. I could theorize a lot about this – the balance of prompts vs. creation, the dangers of the blank page, constraints breeding creativity and so on – but in practice lists of cool things are pretty fun and they are more what he wanted. I “cheated” and gave him 3 stunts to start out to try to mitigate this, but the reality is that it would really need to be longer. Also, aspects didn’t really grab him – I think they felt more like constraints than opportunities to his eyes, but it may also have been that because I ported quickly, his aspect list was a little uninspiring.

The actual play part went great. He did lots of cool stuff, I had less need of kid gloves, and he absolutely got to be a hero working towards his big plot (defeating the evil priest that had killed his noble parents and seized their lands, a hook that had come out of the 5e prompts). But in the end, he had liked D&D better.

All of which suggests a sweet spot somewhere between these two. A little bit less bookkeeping than D&D, but a bit more explicit than FAE. Curiously, those are probably also very good Santorini style goals. The “Less Bookkeeping” part is pretty obvious, but the “more explicit” bit might need a little unpacking because it is easy to think of FAE as a “light” game, one that’s easy to pick up and play. That’s largely true in terms of pure page count, but it absolutely pushes the burden of creative labor onto the reader and player.

That is not a bad thing in general, but it’s a problem for an introduction. Worse, it’s also a blind spot for our community as we think about these things. When things don’t work because of the level of creative labor they demand, we have a habit of (overtly or passive-aggressively) blaming the reader of the game for not being creative enough. This is…well, it’s lazy bullshit. The idea that “creative players” (carefully distinguished from “normal players”, of course) will solve these problems at the table is a tool of shame that spares the designer from needing to actually think about the human beings using their game. This problem is independent of whether you feel authority likes with the rules or the GM – this is about the utility of the rules, and authority is just a smokescreen to hide that. While I may personally lean towards the GM as authority in my play, holy crap do I appreciate how much clarity a system-centric approach brings to writing because there is less of an easy cop out (though it can still find its way in).

Anyway.

The game he ran is nominally a Fate game, but in practice, the only overlap is the use of the dice. The rest of it is all born out of his head in an amalgam of terms and visuals he’s encountered in other places (our character sheets look a LOT like something from the World of Warcraft UI). He has a lot of classic GM foibles – his insertion NPC can be a bit scene-stealing, and he sometimes narrates our response to events – but they’re normal learning stuff. What intrigues me most is that at some point he very strongly picked up the idea of mixed results (“You succeed but…”) to the point where he uses them ALL THE TIME, so that part may take a little practice.

But it also revealed another tidbit to me in his relationship with the dice. When he rolls, he is really looking at the dice for what happens. He will occasionally remember that there are modifiers and such, but he does not have any instinctive sense of there being some invisible target number which is translated too and from somewhere off the table. This was weird to me at first (since target numbers, difficulties, move tables and such are all second nature to me by now) but if I remove my own baggage, it makes all the sense in the world. Why would he want interstitial steps?

So assuming I want to build to that, there are a few options, and the double-edged part of it is that they lean towards die pool systems. That’s double-edged because die pools are incredibly robust in a mechanical sense, but also can quickly become cumbersome game delays.

Option 1 is Blades in the Dark or a variant (possibly Blades of Fate). The number of dice equates to the chance of success, the highest single result tells you what kind of outcome (good, mixed, bad) you get. Building the pool is pretty simple, so it’s speedy, but there’s room for a little mechanical tooth.

Option 2 is something in the Cortex family. The idea of the size of dice matching to effectiveness is very intuitive, and the trick is all in how pools are built and how rolls are used. More mechanical versatility here, but also greater risk of feature creep.

Option 3 is diceless fate dice. Use a simple diceless system to answer Yes/No, but then add in a fate die roll (I’d be partial to 2df, but whatever) to reflect the situation. Very easy to do, quite powerful and intuitive, but it would also take him on a path very far from “normal” RPGs, especially in terms of what dice mean. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something to keep in mind.

(Since someone will surely ask, no, PBTA is not option 4. It’s a table lookup system, and while I suspect he’d enjoy that exercise, it seems like a dead end. The parts of PBTA I think he’d respond well to – playbooks and stunt like things – are better represented with Blades in the Dark tech, at least for my needs).

All of which is bubbling in my head. Practically, we’ll stick to D&D. Once he’s comfortable with 5e, that is a game that he can play with people who aren’t me, and that’s valuable. But also, there is nothing this kid wants more than a Magic: The Gathering tabletop experience and the Ravnica Books have only fueled the fire for this. I feel like that setting prompt, plus his system needs could dovetail very well.

The Social Roles

So, up til this point I’ve been talking about GM roles in terms of what responsibilities might be picked up by the game.  It is possible that the GM can do less heavy lifting as an authority, entertainer or celebrant if the game is designed to account for that.

But there are a couple of other roles that traditionally fall on the GM that are probably not something that the game can provide, the roles of host and facilitator. These are both roles that are outside of the game, but are all the same necessary for the game to happen.  The facilitator is responsible for the logistics of the game – scheduling it, making decisions about where it will be, who will be in it, making sure everyone has supplies and generally making the game possible.  The host role is complimentary (and sometimes synonymous with) the facilitator – providing space to play and all the things that come with that (parking, seating, lighting, a reasonable environment and so on).

As a young gamer, I developed a habit of considering these to be GM’s roles.  Sometimes someone else might take responsibility for hosting, but they tended to take on the minimum responsibility, otherwise deferring to the GM as facilitator.  Everything else was pretty much on the GM.

The roots of this were not great.  At least in my experience, the GM was the reason the game was happening, and if the GM didn’t make it all happen, then the group could just do something else with their evening.  Baked in that is an assumption that the group is kind of grudgingly playing, which is a very high school kind of take on it.   I grew older and grew out of those patterns of being embarrassed about my hobby and desperate for players, but that habit that the GM had to “make it go” stuck with me for a long time.

That was pretty dumb.

See, while these roles are ones the game can’t provide, that doesn’t mean that the GM is solely responsible for them.  Everyone at the table wants to be there, and this sort of load can be distributed. Hell, doing so will make your game better – not only does it give the GM more bandwidth to focus on what she’s there to do, it helps eliminate lingering ideas of GMs being “in charge” of the game in some creepy or unhealthy way[1].  When the work around a game is everyone’s job, it is easier to accept that it’s everyone’s game.

For some of you, this is all probably obvious.  It’s possible that you never fell into the bad patterns in the first place.  I genuinely envy you that.  But for the GMs out there who are running themselves ragged in service of their games, take a second and consider whether you are clinging to these roles out of genuine necessity, or if it’s just a function of habit.

EDIT: Other roles that have come up in discussion of online play and LARP


1 – Because if you see GMing as being about power, you want to claim as many roles as possible to assert that power, even if it’s a pain.  Sure, it may suck to schedule things, but if you get an emotional reward from being in charge, then this helps reinforce that.  It’s not automatically a bad thing, but it is a red flag – if your enjoyment of play is predicated on maintaining a power dynamic, there is a good chance you are using the wrong tool to find your happiness. 

Thanks to You All

Yeah, I have more stuff to write about roles, but this morning my focus is more on rolls as I run around cooking for American Thanksgiving. I am not a great cook, but I am an enthusiastic one, so it is always an interesting experience.

But for this brief window while several things need about 10 minutes before the next stage in cooking I’d like to thank anyone and everyone reading this. Y’all are awesome, and I’m immensely grateful.

Supporting GM Roles

Cards for the three GM roles discussed in this article: Celebrant, Authority and Entertainer.

These are not all the roles, just the 3 that I think the GM or system need to pick up. They aren’t exclusive to GMs of course, and there are other roles, but that’s probably another post.

After yesterday’s post about GM Roles, I had a fun discussion on G+ which proposed a model – given any set of GM roles (not just the bog three that I talk about – Authority, Entertainer & Celebrant) you can ask if a game ProvidesSupportsExpects, or Ignores that role.

If a game provides that role, then the game is designed to do the heavy lifting for that particular sort of work.  A very clear and strictly procedural game might provide authority.  A game with a lot of pre-generated content might provide entertainment.  A game with rituals and procedures for cross-engagement might provide celebration.

This is usually not absolute.  Computer games & RPGs need to fully provide these things, but in tabletop the players still have a role to play.  The GM still needs to do something for each role, but the game actively minimizes it.

A game that supports a role provides tools to help with the role, but those tools expect a higher level of GM engagement.  Any game with clear and comprehensive rules is supporting authority.  A game that provides prompts and seeds is supporting entertainment.  A game that has cross-table hooks is supporting celebration.

A game that ignores a role might provide incidental support for a role, but it’s not part of the design or intent.  This can be an oversight, but often it’s because the game has specific goals.  A very freeform game may ignore authority.  A small rules engine may ignore entertainment.  A lot of older games ignore celebration.

Obviously, it is something of a spectrum between providing, supporting and ignoring. There’s no precise metric to determine if a game strongly supports or weakly provides a role.  That’s fine – the utility of the model mostly relative anyway.

More tricky is the nuance of the difference between ignores and expects.

When a game expects a role, it may look a lot like it ignores it, but where ignoring a role happens because the designer doesn’t consider it important, expecting a role happened because the designer thinks it’s critical, and that it’s what the people at the table are bringing to the game.  A game that expects a role might still have a few rules to support that, but only a few – enough to nudge things.  Rules that nudge rather than push.

That is, a game might have very loose and simple rules because it expects authority to provide clarity and interpretation in flight.  A game might provide little in the way of content or inspiration because it expects entertainment to flow from the table.  A game might provide little in the way of celebration because it expects that people are already going to play in a  cooperative and supportive fashion.

As such, expectations contain a contradiction (one related to the “fruitful void”, of old) – their lack of tools is a reflection that they may be the *most important* thing in the designers mind.   They will also speak to the strengths and weaknesses of any given game.

I find this an interesting lens to turn to my game shelf.   It quickly becomes apparent that different games have prioritized differently. If there’s an example of a game that Provides all three roles, I haven’t found it.  A more common pattern is that a game provides one, supports another and expects a third.

For example, in my mind, Fate provides celebration, supports authority and expects entertainment. The whole aspect system is in place to make engaging with the content of people’s sheets a critical part of play – playing Fate without celebration requires ignoring a lot of the game.  It’s lighter on authority, partly because there’s room for interpretation, partly because it’s a semi-generic engine that expects there may be some assembly required. For entertainment, Fate largely stands back and expects the table to step up – the game is about YOUR characters and what you bring to the table.

This makes it a great game for people with authorial instincts but no desire to play games that feel like writing exercises (*cough*Me*cough) but it also highlights some of the weaknessesof Fate.  Expecting entertainment is very demanding, and can introduce blank page problems.  For a lot of players, Fate is a better game when it also supports entertainment (with setting material, prompts, sample aspects and so on), and tellingly that is the direction a lot of people have taken things.

Let’s compare that to Fiasco – I would say Fiasco supports authority, provides entertainment, and expects celebration.  Some of these are muddy – its authority support is on the strong side, and it has a few rules that might push celebration up to “support”, but I’m of with this general take on it.  Playset provide strong, driving prompts for entertainment, and there are enough rules to keep things moving, but lots of space for non-rules on the authority front.  Celebration is largely on the players, and is going to make or break the game.  This might seem like a gap, but phrased slightly differently, this is saying that the table is going to have as much fun as it wants to have.

On the other hand, there is a common Powered By The Apocalypse mode which provides authority, supports entertainment and expects celebration.  The rules are designed to strongly hold authority, but also provide prompts and suggestions as well as tools for structuring the entertainment portion of things, but celebration is expected to emerge from play.  Different PBTA games have tweaked this formula in different ways, so it’s far from cast in stone.

D&D is even more interesting to look at this way, because there have been enough D&D versions and derivations that you can see wildly different priorities between versions.  D&D that provides entertainment, expects authority and ignores celebration is a model that’s easy to recognize, but also interesting to contrast with 5e (which I would say takes the curious but appropriately middle-of-the-road position of supporting all three, but expecting or providing none).


Ok, so this is a fun toy. Categorization systems always are. But is it of any real use?

For me, at least a little.  The problem that is underlying all of this is my desire for a Santorini experience, and this model has emerged as I’ve looked for patterns to help with that.  I think explicitly examining what roles a game brings ot the table is going to make it a lot easier to intentionally design to cover for gaps.  So this is definitely going into my toolkit, and we’ll see what kind of nails it hammers.