Category Archives: Design

Who Would Win

As a result of my niece’s interest, I am now playing the first Danganronpa game. I admit, I had not been previously aware of this series (It’s a video game, and there have been several), and while I’m only a little bit in, I’m hooked. It’s sort of a character-driven-visual-story-puzzler-mystery full of anime tropes with a layer of weirdness. Which is to say, it’s very much to my taste.

I may talk more about the game itself later, but a thing that’s fascinating me about it is that part of the premise is that each character is the “ultimate” something (ultimate pop star, ultimate martial artist, ultimate programmer and so on). It’s a key part of the fiction, but it’s an idea that kind of intrigues me from a game perspective.

One of the key truths of comic books is that the fans love the question of which character would win a fight. Old hands and writers roll their eyes and explain that it depends on who is writing. And that’s true, as far as it goes, but that overlooks a lot of assumptions about the characters and writing.

Yes, it is entirely possible for a writer to insert a Squirrel Girl beats Thanos victory and it’s a thing that happens, but that is not an answer to the instinct that drives the question, it’s an active snub. This is fine if you’re paid to write comics, but works less well for GMs.

What people asking that question are looking for (besides validation of their favs) is a satisfying answer, which is to say one which is consistent with the characters and the stories as they understand them (and their opinions on the “right” answer are usually expressions of their understanding.

To make that concrete, if Batman beats Superman because he had a clever plan that leveraged Superman’s weaknesses, then that’s satisfying because it’s true to both characters, and tells us something about them both. If Batman beats Superman because he’s been bitten by a kryptonian werewolf and temporarily is more powerful than Supes, then that’s a valid story but a deeply unsatisfying answer because it isn’t about the characters.

These may seem like disconnected threads, so let me pull them back together – that idea of a satisfying resolution is an essential part of almost any GM decision about character capability, because that is what the player is looking for when we talk about respecting a character’s capability.

Which brings me back to those “Ultimates” from Danganronpa. In simplest game terms, each of them has an arena where they are guaranteed to win any conflict, and a penumbra of related things where they are likely very capable.

Resolving their ultimates is easy to resolve, but the penumbra is where things get interesting. To come back to Batman & Superman, there is a reason the question is “who would win?”, not “Who can lift more?”. The easy question introduces no tension. I look at two characters in this show and I wonder how a conflict (social, physical, mental, whatever) between them would resolve and how I’d model that in a game.

And the thing that it reveals to me is that the winner is the uninteresting part of the question, and that the key is what this shows about the character.

Sorry for the rambling nature of this one – I’m wrestling with some thoughts about what dice are FOR, and this all feeds into it.

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.

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.

The Role of GM

Saw another thing about the magic of GMless play the other day, and my response is largely what it always is: I think it’s nice, but it doesn’t really excite me.

To be clear, that’s not a criticism, it’s just a statement of taste. Games like Microscope and Fiasco are great, and can absolutely be fun to play. But they don’t scratch any particular itch for me. I enjoy them when I play them, but don’t necessarily seek them out. And there’s no harm in that – our tastes are not uniform, and it would kind of suck if they were.

But this is on my mind because a comment on my Santorini post cut right to the heart of one of the biggest challenges to a “pick up and play” RPG – the GM. There are decent tricks and tools for getting players ramped up very quickly, but the idea of going from zero to GM seems much more daunting.

One of the solutions to this is, of course, GMless play.

It seems like a no brainer. Cut the Gordian knot and remove the problem entirely. I have to respect a solution like that. And more, I acknowledge that for certain games (particularly those that unfold in a procedural manner) it can probably work really well. For these games, there is probably a lot to be said for looking at the kinds of things that companies like Stronghold Games are doing with making games with no rulebook, but which instead make teaching the game and emergent part of the gameplay.[1]

But it’s also a bit of a cheat, depending on the job you think the GM has. Critically, the GM is often the subject matter expert on the game in question. Obviously, this may not be the case for established tables, but we’re talking new players and new games here. In this case, the problem we encounter is that the GM’s lack of expertise is the thing we need to replace. That may not seem like a big deal until you consider that many GMless games skirt this problem by including a “facilitator” role.

This is not a bad thing: Every game is more easily learned and played when someone at the table is a familiar with it, so making space for that person is good design. But since we’re explicitly talking about picking up a game quickly, that option isn’t available to us. This doesn’t remove GMless games as a solution, but it means they’re in the same boat with everything else – looking at the question of how to convey what’s necessary in a playable fashion.

So, we’ve lost the silver bullet, but it’s highlighted something very useful. If we’re not going GMless, what does that mean?

People have a lot of answers to that question. I could fill pages with the differing interpretations of what a GM can and should be[2]. Hell, half the reason I shrug at the argument for GMless play is that they often rest on definitions of GM driven play which are very different than my experience or taste.

I can’t pretend to offer a comprehensive list of GM roles, but I do want to focus on what I consider the big 3, authority, entertainer and enabler.

The GM as authority is the expert on and boss of the game. She makes the choices about the game, enforces and interprets the rules, implements rule zero(or doesn’t) and is generally in charge. There is a lot of potential nuance around where that authority comes from, but the role is pretty simple. The advantages of this role is that it keeps things going and provides clarity for everyone at the table. The disadvantages are that this is a SUPER abusable dynamic, and a lot of game horror stories come from it going awry.[3]

The GM as entertainer is one that we tend to both ignore and take for granted. Classically, the idea is that the GM is generating (or using existing) content for the players to bounce off of and have a fun time. For many GMs, this is the best part. It’s an outlet for their creativity which they delight in sharing. They delight in it so much that we tend to overlook that this is work. This becomes relevant when we talk about new players – this is a hard role to step into from zero.

The GM as enabler (which sounds less weird than “servant”, the term I actually use in my head) is there to help the players along to the thing they want. I think of this as the most important role, since it is most closely tied to the table’s fun, but it’s also a tricky one. To do it successfully requires understanding what the table wants enabled, which is sometimes murky. Classically, we also have a problem with this role because it is the least well supported in our games and history.

EDIT:  in comments, Fred suggests celebrant as a better name for this, and he is 100% right.  Not only is it less weird, it also allows all three roles to be nouns (authority, entertainment and celebration) much more easily.  As such, that’s the term I’ll be using form now on. 

Now, these roles can be complimentary or contradictory from game to game and table to table. A GM might have strong authority and great entertainer skills while ignoring enabler responsibilities entirely, and her table might have an amazing time. Another GM might not entertain at all, but run a tight (authority), player-focused(enabler) game that everyone enjoys. There are many paths to a great game, and no one right route.

But I mention them in this context because it occurs to me that perhaps the trick may be to stop short of going GMless, and instead opt to explicitly narrow the GM’s role to something smaller and more specific.

The raw form this took when it popped into my head was “hey, what if the GM wasn’t tasked with coming up with content, but instead was just expected to learn some tools for helping players do cool things?”. I’d now restate that as “ok, can we teach the enabler role out of a box?”, and the thing is, i think we can.

In fact, I think we could teach any of those roles out of the box. The problem only becomes daunting when you try to teach more than one of them.

So now I find myself thinking about the differences in how i would teach those roles, and it highlights one more key point: you are under no obligation to stop at one role. I mean, feel free to do so – if you want to design your game so the GM’s role is pure enabler, then feel free. Just make sure you figure out how to make it fun for the GM.

But you can just as easily start from one role as the one to learn out of the box. And just as players will gain mastery and depth, so too can the GM. Other roles and responsibilities can be layer on after that first session of play has hooked them and left them hungry for more. THAT is when you can start laying it on thick.

Not sure if this helps anyone but me, but I am definitely feeling a step closer to a workable model here.

1 – Though this sounds great on paper, the one downside I’ve found to this approach is that I’ve only seen it work for fairly simple games. The idea is a good one, but I am not yet sure how it scales.

2 – But here’s one crazy one: it is pretty dumb that we treat the role of GM as the same from game to game rather than a function of each game-as written and game-as-played.

3 – This does not make it all bad. A table can knowingly grant someone authority because they trust them to make it worthwhile, and that combination of authority and trust can make for AMAZING play. But that takes a lot of work, and it not for everyone, which is fine. But I want to mention it because for many people, GM authority is automatically toxic, and I disagree with that notion pretty strongly.

The Santorini Experience

Picture of the boardgame box for Santorini I Was in the position of entertaining a tween the other day, so I busted out Santorini. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Santorini is a delightful boardgame of tower building and Greek gods. It’s a favorite around our household.

But what made it very useful in this context was something else. While it is a very deep, flexible and replayable game, its core is incredibly simple: move a builder, then place a tower piece, plus some win conditions. It literally took more time for us to open up the box and set up than it took for me to teach everything he needed to know to play.

Now, if this was all there was to the game, it would be fun but shallow(but, critically, it’s still fun in its simplest form), but the game has space for additional layers of complexity. Once you know the rules, each player can take on the role of one of the gods, which allows them to add one special move to the game (Hermes can move his units farther, for example). There are varying levels of complexity to the gods, and the game unfolds uniquely based on the interplay between the gods chosen (all to say nothing of other expansions, like heroes).

So the result is something that is trivial to learn, immediately rewarding to play, but scales up in complexity and depth with player interest. That’s pretty awesome.

Ok, so with that in mind, I want to bring up another conversation that threaded through Metatopia.

PAX unplugged is coming up in about two weeks, and a lot of people are going to be curious how it goes. Last year it was a whole new thing, and no one knew quite what to expect, and some of our guesses were just wrong.

Most tellingly, the reports from people in the dealer’s hall were wildly varied – some booths sold like mad, while others had very little traction at all. This is a little bit weird, but I have a theory about it based on my own observations. See, the PAX unplugged crowd was not the usual gaming convention crowd – they were the PAX crowd – and they brought in a different culture. This showed up in a lot of ways (they are WAY more line tolerant, for one thing) but was maybe most interesting in relation to games.

What I observed was that it was a crowd with a deep enthusiasm for games and play, but not necessarily a lot of patience. There’s a cynical interpretation of that, but I largely took it as a result of them not having bought into the various things we think about how games “should” be. Most specifically, this meant they wanted games that they could buy, walk over to a table, and play.

That makes sense when you say it out loud, but when I stop an think about most “gamer” games, especially RPGs, the disconnect becomes apparent. Most RPG purchases follow more of a pattern of “One person buys it, spends time reading it, then spends time prepping, then gathers a group to try this thing out”. I don’t tend to think much of it because that’s just how it’s done, but to a newcomer that has got to just seem stupid.

Presuming this is a market we want to reach out to (I know I do), it raises the question of what needs to change. “Quick Start” sets have been around in RPGs forever, but they are usually more like marketing promos or GM aids than anything to actually help play start quickly.[1]. Tech tricks like putting choose your own adventures in the game book have helped shorten the ramp-up for prospective GMs, but that only produces marginal results.

We’ve seen decent success with semi-RPG boardgames (Gloomhaven being the current hotness) that hit many RPG notes but use boardgame style setup. This is interesting and educational to me, but it’s not a line I wish to pursue because it solves different problems than the ones that intrigue me. That it, removing the parts that make RPGs hard also removes the parts that make them most interesting to me.

To this end I am intrigued by the rising “Larp in a Box” category, which you can see in Ghost Court and which I expect is going to EXPLODE on the scene when the new release of Fiasco comes out. Unsurprising, since the Bully Pulpit folks are crazy clever. There’s also some really neat emergent play tech happening in things like Alex Roberts’ For The Queen.

So I’m watching these things and taking notes, because the thing I realized while playing with that tween is that what I ultimately want is to be able to deliver that Santorini experience with an RPG. Get playing immediately and enjoyably, but be able to expand complexity with mastery and interest.

It should be doable. I can see the pieces of it in my head. But getting them to gel is going to be the trick.

1 – Eternal exception for the Exalted QuickStart, which was not much of a pointer for Exalted as written, but in its own terms was one of the best games I’ve ever read.

Playability in Settings

Setting is, to my mind, utterly essential to RPGs, and has also been the poor cousin to rules design in a lot of the deeper discussions of RPGs. I’m not entirely sure how to address that, but I think a good start involves looking at setting design with the same eye we’ve applied to rules, and see what we find.

On my mind at the moment is the question of what makes a setting particularly playable. This is not the same thing as what makes a setting good or compelling, and in fact, a good, compelling setting can end up making a very good game even if it has no elements that make it more explicitly gameable.

While this is far from a comprehensive list, these are the elements that float to top of mind for me.

Communication

Unless the setting implicitly keeps the entire group of characters within shouting distance (something dungeons do) then they need some means of staying in touch. In the absence of this, you can end up with difficult pacing problems if the game starts going one particular direction without one or more players participating. Communication (and its companion, ease of travel) is the solution for this. Modern games have an easy solution to this with cell phones, but things like Amber’s trumps can fill this purpose as well.

As a paradoxical bonus, the presence of a communication element is necessary to make the absence of communication into a plot element. Running from zombies and trying to find cell signal is something you can’t do in 1974.

Recovery

If your game is going to have any amount of violence, then you need some way to keep long hospital trips from bogging down the game, you need some logic to address this. It might be a genre thing (as in cinematic or supers games), or it might be an element intrinsic to characters (like Vampires and Amberites) or some easy means of healing (like spells or some magical substance); whatever the form it takes, the real purpose is to keep play moving.

The exact means of recovery may also be a plot element in its own right, so its worth considering that this doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Social Context

This can take a lot of different forms, but it is best described as characters having a role in the setting, something that has a context beyond themselves, but still of an understandable scale. A family or secret society might fill this roll, but a nationality won’t because it’s simply too big.

The litmus test for this is whether or not it helps answer questions about what the character does and has done “off camera” and how well armed they are to answer questions and make decisions without a full GM briefing. That may not seem intuitive, but consider that the social context provides resources with faces – people who you can talk to and turn to in complicated situations. Not only is that play generating, it creates a virtuous cycle where that play reinforces social ties, which in turn allow fodder for more play.

However, one needs to be careful to keep contexts playable. It is structurally better to have everyone within the same context, or at least within one context, otherwise the context draw away from play. Consider the problem when every player is an agent of a different group – you can construct something artificial to tie them together, but it’s tricky to maintain. Easier to either use different groups or subgroups. Consider these examples:

  • In Vampire, characters were members of their clan, but they were also part of the political structure of their city. The latter could help bring a group together without the former completely pulling them apart.
  • In Eberron, the Great Houses were really interesting and colorful, but they were potent enough ideas that they wanted to pull the game in their own direction. Unfortunately, because it was paired to the power system, it was easy to end up with things pulling apart.
  • Amber has the family has an overarching group, but it has numerous shifting factions and alliances within that group.

Mobility or Position

This is not literal mobility (though that has a place, as noted under communication) but rather social (or social-ish) mobility. Characters need to have the opportunity to change their situation through their own efforts. Partly this is something that helps buy into the context of the setting, but it’s also a big avenue for player-generated plots – if they have something they want that they can get, then sooner or later they’re going to get motivated to go after it. It’s also worth noting that while this may interact with character advancement, there’s no guarantee that it will.

The alternative for this is to give the players position (and with it, responsibility). It’s a similar play motivator, just from the other end. People like being important, and important people have things to do.

There’s no reason a setting can’t have both of these, but one or the other will suffice.


I am by no means asserting that a game can’t be fun without these, or that a setting can’t work without them, but I know that when I sit down to scratch out a setting (or even a sub-part of a setting) for a game, these are the things I try to make sure are present.

Roleplay and Exploration Rewards

I was struck by a tweet this morning regarding the difficulty with handing out XP awards for exploration and roleplaying, specifically, that such rewards are arbitrary and hard to rightsize. This immediately struck me as a very valid complaint, but also one that’s very easily addressable – it’s just a matter of identifying the behaviors and experiences to reward, then plugging them into the reward system. For illustration, I’ll be using 4e to show how to do this (primarily because it’s standard reward model is very robust) but the basic idea can be used for almost any XP-driven game, especially ones with the idea of an encounter.

For purposes of awards, I’m going to provide a loose definition of both roleplaying (as a specific subset of play) and exploration. RP is, practically, engaging some element of the setting. This may seem like a strange definition if your first thought is that it’s talking in a funny voice or getting very emotional at the table, but those are just ways to go about engaging the setting – that is, ways to meaningfully interact with the setting as if it matters. This can range from involved conversations with NPCs to hard choices about the fate of nations.

Exploration is a little bit easier to quantify – it’s the process of adding something to the mental (and sometimes physical) map of the campaign. When the players explore The Dungeon of Doom then they get certain rewards just for being there (assuming that there are fights and challenges in a place called The Dungeon of Doom) but they have also added TDoD to the landscape. In the future, new enemies might take it as a lair, or maybe people will try to reclaim it. It’s now a thing, and that makes it part of the campaign. Exploration is the process by which these things (which might properly be people, places or things) get added to the game.

These two elements may seem difficult to standardize for rewards, but they share a common idea which can tie this all together. Both rotate around the idea of campaign elements – either engaging them or adding them – and it’s not difficult to systemize that. All it takes is a list.

I’m going to call this list the Game Log for simplicity sake, but the name isn’t important. What matters is that it’s a list of the elements that come up over the course of a campaign. It will grow over time, and it provides a valuable resource for GMs, both to handle XP awards and to provide a little inspiration when designing adventures. The log looks like this:

sample.png

(You can download a PDF of the form here)

Using the Form

The Name column is for the name of the element. Elements might be anything that can recur in a game, limited only by the taste of the GM. This includes locations, NPCs and organizations, but it can also include character elements. Themes (as presented in the Neverwinter campaign setting) are another great example of a possible element.

Just keeping a list like this is useful to an GM, and most of us already keep it in one form or another, if only to answer the “Ok, who was that guy with that thing that one time?” kind of questions that pop up during play.

The level is a little bit less obvious. While it’s tied to the idea of character level, it does not have exactly the same meaning. Practically, level is a measure of how important an element is, with the most important elements having a level equal to the current level of the characters. Mechanically, this is tied to XP rewards (we’ll get to that in a second) but it also is a useful way to keep track of what is an isn’t used in a campaign.

Generally speaking, when an element is introduced, it will probably be at the character’s current level. It may “level up” any time it is engaged (see below) but it shouldn’t go beyond the character’s current level unless it’s something the GM really wants to emphasize. That’s the default assumption, but there are a few tricks that can be played – GMs looking to experiment in allowing players to introduce elements in play may allow them to do so, but start those elements out at level 1, and force them to grow in importance through play.

The checkboxes are for use in play, to indicate what’s happened. “Explored” is the most straightforward – you check that box the same time you add something to the list (or, if you already had it on the list, when the players first encounter it). An element should only be explored once in its lifetime, so once this box is checked, it stays checked.

The other boxes – Touched, Engaged and Critical, see a bit more action. When an element comes up in play, you check the box that corresponds to how it came up.

If it was a memorable but unimportant part of play, then check “Touched”. This is appropriate if an NPC was visited, a scene happened at a particular location, or the players talked about a thing.

If it was a noteworthy part of play, then check “Engaged”. The line between touched and engaged is a bit subjective, but that’s an intentional nod to GM taste. In general, something should be considered engaged when it provided a strong motivation for play or created a cost or a choice. If the players had to have an extended negotiation with an NPC or their favorite bar burned down, that would be engaged.

One trick that comes in handy is looking where else rewards are coming from. if the negotiation with the NPC is also a skill challenge, then the negotiation itself may not merit an Engaged tickmark (though it probably merits a “Touched”) but if the skill challenge _also_ engages the players and characters, then yes, it totally merits a check.

“Critical” is like engaged, but moreso. If the interaction is particularly central to play, or is a turning point in the campaign, then Critical gets checked. The GM will probably know when a Critical interaction is coming, since it’s usually a result of the GM doing something awful to or with the element, but it’s possible to be surprised, and this is what to check if your players really blow you away.

The notes field is, as you might expect, where you keep notes. Hopefully self explanatory.

The Form and Rewards

At the end of a session, you should have a few checkmarks that indicate the things that your players found and engaged. Turning that into a reward is based on the idea of a standard award, and this is why I use 4e to illustrate.

The standard award is an amount of XP equal to that given for a monster of a given level, in this case, the level of the element (I told you that would come in handy). The basic idea is that an “Explore” or “Engaged” checkmark gets the standard award, while a “Touched” checkmark awards a fractional reward, and a “Critical” result provides a bonus. In 4e terms, these line up roughly with a minion and an elite (so 1/4x and 2x respectively).

Thus, for example, let’s say that the players interact with a level 4 elements.
For discovering the element, they gain 175 XP.
If they touch on it, then the award is 44 XP.
If they engage is, then the award if 175 XP.
If engagement with it is critical to the game, then the award is 350 XP

Note – Only give the highest award, though you may give an exploration and engagement award if both seem warranted.

Run down the list, tally the awards, pool them, then divvy them among the players. Simple as that.

Notes and Thoughts

Exploration Games: You can change the proportions a bit if you want to emphasize or de-emphasize exploration. If exploration is critical to the game, then the reward for an explore tick might be as much as 5x a standard award.

Long List: So, what keeps the list from getting crazily long? While GM editorial oversight (especially the decision whether or not something goes on the list or not) plays a role, then I suggest the following trick: After an element gives its exploration award, drop its level to 1, and let it level back up in play. This means that players will get better rewards for working within a smaller list than they will by constantly having things get added, which nicely simulates the conservation of characters and locations you see in most fiction. It also provides the GM a handy tool that reveals which elements the players actually care about based on which ones get leveled up.

Personal Awards: Note that this model explicitly rewards the entire group equally for roleplaying, and I admit that’s something I very strongly endorse, but on the off chance that you want to reward star players, then it’s a fairly simple matter of noting the star performer in the notes column, then not adding the reward for that element to the pool, and give it directly to the player.

Slightly more complicated is the issue of personal character elements – that is, should everyone get rewarded when a given character’s theme becomes important to play. My answer is a profound “yes”, but if that is not to your taste, then you may consider some elements to be “owned” by a specific character, and have the reward go directly to that character rather than into the pool.

But I really suggest against it. Not only does it introduce the bookkeeping hassle of mismatched XP and the social hassle of rewarding the loudest players, it removes the incentive for players to celebrate each others awesome. If only you get rewarded for your character theme, then only you will look for ways to hook it in. If everyone is rewarded for it, then everyone’s looking to bring it into play. That’s a vastly preferable arrangement in my mind.

Other Systems: As noted, while it’s easiest to do this with 4e, if you can figure out the standard award for your game, the model translates easily enough. Heck, you can even do thematic versions. For example: for a white wolf game, I’d forgo levels in favor of rating things from 1-5 dots and just be a little more stingy about how they level up.

Tunnels and Trenches

Played more Deus Ex, though curiously that has not really been what’s been eating my time. I’ve really grown to appreciate it’s design of creating multiple paths to success, and what’s most interesting to me is that those paths remains mostly obscured unless you’re the kind of player who cheerfully spends time poking into every nook and cranny (which I am).

But the thing that’s impressed me is something that resonates very well with adventure design. There’s an old saying which I think I heard from S. John Ross, that a mystery should be like a maze – confusing if you’re in it, even if it’s obvious from up above. I’ve always liked that comparison because it speaks to one of the biggest challenges to the GM in designing coherent adventures – the GM is always looking at the maze from overhead, so it’s hard to really wrap your head around what it looks like from within.

A lot of bad habits come from this, and two of them in particular are a poor sense of difficulty (that is – “my players are such idiots, why can’t the see the obvious!”) and railroading (“There’s a path out of the maze, I just need to get them on it!”).

Now, there are a lot of solutions to these problems, and I’ve talked a lot about flexible ones such as might be used in Leverage, but if you like your structured adventures, there’s still something interesting to do about it. Thats where Deus Ex comes in.

At first my GM’s instincts twitched in the face of Deus Ex mission design. Sure, it was great to have it be objective (rather than process) driven, but when you started looking around, you realize there are SO MANY ways to approach a problem that it seems unfair – it’s _too easy_. But at the same time, I was impressed at how tidily the various approaches knitted together to feel organic.

The piece I was missing was that the organic feel was a natural offshoot of their being too many options. Even if there are multiple paths of approach, the player will only experience one, and by virtue of doing so, it will feel right. There’s some interesting thinking there – if we figure out to do some clever jumping to get somewhere, we credit the designers for foreseeing that. And, heck, maybe they did, but more likely, they didn’t stop it.

See, that’s the real trick – though there are multiple paths to the goal, what really makes them work is that the player can change paths at will. You are not compelled to keep sneaking even if you have been sneaking up to this point.

This is the point that intersects with adventure design interestingly. There’s a tendency in structured designs to dig tunnels – single paths to the destination. A “flexible” design might have multiple discrete tunnels, but discrete is the operative word. Writers and GMs will regretfully accept the necessity of this approach because, without a tunnel, there’s no telling which way the characters will go.

A game like Deus Ex forgoes tunnels in favor of trenches. The trenches all flow towards the end point on various routes[1] which the player can easily follow, but they are also easy to step out of and into a different trench. The net effect is a sort of mesh design which has some fascinating emergent properties. Specifically, by making the process through them non-procedural, it feels more player driven and organic, and provides opportunities for meaningful out-of-combat choice and strategy. Yes, all trenches may get you where you’re going eventually, but you can still be smart about picking which ones to follow.

Anyway, I have more to play, and I expect it to continue to be fun, but I just want to plant that idea in your ear: Mesh Design. It’s worth a try.

1 – How do they do this? By being built _out_ from the goal. Building a maze from the outside in is a novice mistake.

A Noun is a Person Place or Thing

I love the Discworld novels. They’re fantastic, and I enjoy the heck out of them, but like many fans I am partial to a particular subset of them. In my case, I’m a huge fan of the City Watch books. Nothing else comes close (except perhaps the Moist von Lipwig stuff, which I’m willing to acknowledge as a fair second). Now, there are many reasons I love these books, but there’s a particular element about them which I think is very relevant to setting design.

See, I should also note that I’m a big fan of cities. I have purchased city books for games I will never play because I’m always fascinated to see how people present cities and urban adventures. I am, by and large, disappointed. The bulk of city products tend to be a handful of really interesting pages about the shape of the city, then piles and piles of pages that turn the city into some sort of above-ground dungeon.

Now, thankfully, this is less common with more modern products (and as noted, the recently released Neverwinter Campaign setting is not half bad) but what’s gotten me thinking is the difference in how Ankh-Morpork (the city of the City Watch novels) is presented. Certainly, there are a handful of places (The Unseen University, the Watch House, the Opera House, the river Ankh, Guildhouses and so on) but the city is primarily defined by trends and people.

Now, people are kind of an obvious part of things, albeit one that is often undeserved in setting design. It is possible to design a setting that is almost entirely characters, but it’s trickier to do it in a way that preserves player agency. That is, there is a strong tendency for a character-based setting to become about the NPCs rather than the PCs. This is where the Forgotten Realm soften go wrong, and it’s where Amber often (but not always) went right by firmly tying the characters to the setting NPCs.

Trends are a little more interesting, because they apply to people and to places equally. They’re the answer to broad, semi-specific question – where would a high class scribe work? How do people on the street respond to a mugging? Things like that. I can answer those questiosn about Ankh-Morpork because they’re the parts that get detailed in the books much more than the specific drilldown of street addresses.

The thing is, most good city books have this information, but they tend to present it in a very different manner. They provide raw data from which a savvy reader might be able to extract trends, but only rarely do they make that leap of abstraction themselves.

Now, I’m a firm believer that one of the most useful things a published setting can do is let the GM answer when a player wonders “What’s here?” It’s a good, often relevant question, and I’ve seen a few products that have sustained the level of detail to actually be able to answer it explicitly (The Birthright campaign setting for one, the old Thieves of Tharbad city book for MERP for another) without being ENTIRELY overwhelming, but it’s a lot of work.

The alternative would seem to be to arm the GM with the understanding to know the answer, or to create an answer that is consistent with the greater whole. But how do you convey that without a series of bestselling novels? The answer, I think, demands experimentation.

(Oh, and we will be getting back to prep in 4e, but let’s just say that one is a many-headed beast)

Skills

Ok, enough combat for now. We’ll need to come back to it after other things have evolved a bit more, but I feel like we’ve got enough of a foundation to work with. That brings us to something that’s potentially even stickier: Skills.

Broadly speaking, skills are going to be what distinguishes one dice pool from another. That may seem like a very pedestrian, gamey way to describe them, but in practice it’s the purpose they ultimately serve outside of the game space. Inside the game, in the fiction, there’s obviously a bit more to it than than, but to someoen watching your game, they’re the reason you rolled 5 dice instead of 3.

There are a lot of different ways to handle skills lists. There’s the traditional skill list, where you create an actual list of skills which – hopefully – covers everything a character might do and let players buy from it. There’s the broadly descriptive model, where players simply take descriptors (like Cop, Soldier or Pastry Chef) and use those values for anything that fall under the auspices of that descriptor. There are hybrid models that use a short list of broad descriptors to be all encompassing. And we’ve only scratched the surface – we haven’t yet considered, stats, pyramids, simple and advance skills, specialties, descriptive vs. narrative pricing, implicit skills and many many other things.

All of which is to say, there’s no right way to build a skill system. Use what you’re comfortable with and you’ll be fine, but if you try to present it as somehow inherently superior to other models, you mostly reveal your own ignorance. I think the skill model I’m going to pursue is clever, and I like it because it does some novel (and some less novel) things, but it’s no great apex of skill design.

The system starts from two datapoints: I like cultural skills and the system has been designed so a d6 is a valid value. For the unfamiliar, cultural skills are a bit of an idea riffed from Over the Edge, where you had a 2d6 in anything you should normally be able to do. It’s a super practical rule, but when you try to move the OtE system to another setting, you find yourself asking what “normal” is when you start comparing elves and dwarves. With that in mind, I want the starting point of every character to be “[Culture] d6”.

Now, it will probably be pretty easy to figure out what that means, and if that was the only skill then it wouldn’t really be much of an issue, but obviously we’re going to need to start slicing things thinner. And that’s where things are going to get a little bit fiddly, since I’m not going to let skills improve.

That sounds draconian on the surface of it, so let me explain a bit. The character’s [Culture] skill will never be higher than a d6, but he can learn more specific skills at a higher level. However, rather than making a fixed skill list and letting people buy up it (So one guy might be Swordsman 2d6 and another might be Swordsman 4d6), I’m going to make the scope of skills narrow as they go up. That is, 1d6 skills (of which [Culture] is the only example) are SUPER broad. Any skill at 2d6 is still going to be very broad, but not as broad as culture. As such, Merchant, Soldier, Noble and so on are all valid 2d6 skills.

Each tier narrows things further. At 3d6 might be Musketeer or Doctor. 4d6 might be Fencer and Neurologist. 5d6 narrows down to a specific specialty, like rapier or diseases of the brain.

Obviously, each of these must be built on a foundation. So you need to have Culture to get Soldier, Soldier to get Musketeer and so on. These higher level containers create natural limiters on the flow of skills, so you don’t just get “Rapier 5d6” out of the blue.

Now, this is a good start, but there’s one more twist to it that I haven’t touched yet, and this is the really crazy bit, but it’s going to have to wait until next week. 🙂