Category Archives: Design

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. 🙂

The Hard Questions

Ok, the remaining questions:

  1. How many dice should it take to offset a status?
  2. Who gets to say what form the status/result takes in the fiction?
  3. What order do things happen in?
  4. How big an advantage is 1 die?
  5. How does this map over to multiple combatants?

These are some of the hard ones.

How many dice should it take to offset a status?
I touched on this earlier, and one commenter gave some useful breakdown, and the short form is that this is a surprisingly tricky question. If this number is fairly low (say, 1 die per) then it makes dice differences more potent because it makes it easier to smooth out any short term advantage that a smaller die pool might have achieved. Not sure if that’s good or bad, but it’s important to know.

This also plays interestingly into the question of how target numbers are rolled for, because there is some question as to whether and how players can -try- to recover. This is not totally black and white, since I think it might not be unreasonable to say that if you really want to focus on recovering, pick something other than attacking (with a target of 4) and do that.

Lastly, we get some interesting effects if the pricing is inconsistent. Damage could become “stickier” if it becomes more costly to remove (or reduce) a status.

But in that, I think we might have our answer – reduction. If the “cost” is 1 die per 1 step reduction (rather than total removal) then it has two interesting effects. First, it makes it harder to clear the board – totally removing a severe effect – so the more severe the effect, the more implicitly costly it has become. Second, it means that even with mitigation, the accumulation of statuses is dangerous. That is, if you are already inconveniences and harmed (or whatever) then you can’t just bump a taken out result down 1 to save yourself – you need to remove it entirely.

There’s also some asymmetry to deal with. The steps for inflicting a status are big, so leftover dice are going to be more common than statuses, and that’s a problem, since it invites fights that never end except at the very high and very low skill ranges. Some of that will hopefully be mitigated by other things you want to spend overage dice on, but that’s a weak prop.

So with all that in mind, I think the right answer is to make the price consistent, but slightly higher – Allow 2 overage dice to reduce (but not remove) a status.

Who gets to say what form the status/result takes in the fiction?
Touched on this yesterday, and for the moment, I’ll stick with the target defining things (with the possible optional rule of allowing the attacker to define things with a higher roll).

What order do things happen in?
Ah, now there’s a bit of a bear. Initiative.

I cannot think of an initiative system I’ve ever actually liked. Round robin works ok, so it’s all the way up to tolerable. Speedy action based ones (Shadowrun, Deadlands) make me crazily stabby. Shot Clock ones (Feng Shui, Exalted 2nd) always seem promising in theory but always prove more work than they’re worth in practice. I could totally cheat the whole issue and go for scene based resolution or some other abstraction to escape the question entirely, but I don’t actually enjoy things like that (with the exception of how The Shadow of Yesterday handles it, which I’ll probably steal).

The reality is that I’m probably going to be forced to go with some sort of round robin/turn taking model out of brutal necessity, but I don’t have to like it, and I can work to avoid things like “Declare up, resolve down” because part of what I’m trying to avoid is the big pow-wow between each round of combat. If action isn’t fluid then it’s less fun for everyone.

Honestly, initiative is one of those areas where I really prefer GM instinct and dicelessness. That is to say, while numeric initiative totally makes sense when everyone is part of the big picture (as in the case of, say, a tactical minis skirmish) that’s not how fights work in fiction or perception. They are lots of miniature stages within the large picture, and we (as audience) move from one to another according to the cadence of the fight. A good GM can use “initiative” as that audience, moving from place to place according to the logic of the fights, not according to some numeric counter. Doing so covers a multitude of sins, allows for characters with different levels of combat focus to get different levels of attention while still keeping the spotlight from lingering too long in one place.

But that’s not something you can really write a rule for. That’s a problem.

So, honestly, my take on it is to make the official rule very simple – literally just go around the table rather than do any weird rolling or anything – but provide guidelines for initiative as cameraman. Mechanically, we might allow some rules for speed tricks using unused dice or the like, but those are for exceptions – character for whom speed is a schtick. In the absence of that the role of initiative is to keep everyone playing and engaged, not to reward the guy who found the best mechanical abuse of the system.

How big an advantage is 1 die?
Pretty big. In the end, if a 1d advantage means an 80% chance of success, I’ll be happy. Obviously, there’s a sliding scale to this – 3d should beat 2d more reliably than 5d will beat 4d, but that’s my ballpark starting point, with a roughly 10% margin of error. However, I expect abilities (ways to spend dice) will throw this off when I get to them, which is fine.

How does this map over to multiple combatants?
This is the most important question to apply to any combat system. It is not hard to come up with a brilliant, clever, intricate system for handling 1-on-1 fights which utterly fails to account for multiple actors. Some of them try to apply duct tape solutions, like trying to make everything into chained sets of duels or aggregating opposition, but you can see the seams when that happens.

There’s also an important genre consideration to how numbers work. I hate to invoke realism, but I’ll do so in this very broad context – being outnumbered sucks. One man can absolutely fight a larger number of opponents, but doing so is dependent on a lot of factors, most of them involving finding a way to keep them all from coming at him at the same time. This is important, not because of how you model tactics, but because it’s very important to _society_. It’s what makes armies and police and many other things work. It also matters to style. The number of people one guy can fight speaks directly to the genre of things. In a gritty setting, even badass will run from groups of lesser adversaries, but in very cinematic settings, those adversaries are probably mooks, and can be easily dispensed with.

I’m definitely looking to avoid mook rules, though that’s a whole other discussion of it’s own. They’re easy to add if a specific genre demands it, but I don’t want them as a baseline. I like ganging up to be dangerous because of the aforementioned social element (and, in fact, this sentiment is all over the Fate 2 combat rules) but I think I may have implicitly handled that already. Since status mitigation depends on excess dice, the simple reality is that multiple opponents are going to burn through your dice in no time at all, even if they’re not hugely dangerous individually. That’s just a gut answer for now, but I think it will do.

Fighting Questions

Ok, getting into some of the nitty gritty here, so let’s review.

The idea so far is that combatants will have die pools of D6’s. When they go after someone in a fight, they are trying to hit a fixed target number, with a result as follows:

4 – Inconvenienced
7 – Harmed (possibly handicapped. Maybe another term)
13 – Taken Out

These are statuses which map to in-fiction effects, and they also accumulate, so an inconvenienced character who is inconvenienced again becomes harmed.

Statuses can be changed by spending unused dice. Unused dice are dice which have been rolled, but which were not necessary to hit the target number. If, for example, you rolled 4,3,3 then you can hit a 7 with 1 unused die (or a 4 with 2 unused dice) which you can use for stuff. Much of the stuff is currently undefined (and is expected to be a place for mechanical hooks) but specifically, they can be spent to “downgrade” statuses.

With that in mind, I’m looking down the barrel of the following questions:

  1. Does the attacker choose the target number he’s going for, or does he simply take the result?
  2. When a status “rolls up” does the previous status remain? That is, if a second inconvenience becomes harm, is the target now inconvenienced and harmed, or just harmed?
  3. Is there an option to respond to a Taken Out result?
  4. Are statuses the only possible outcome, or are they simply the non-specific outcome? That is, is a disarm a _form_ of harm, or something with a difficulty equivalent to harm (because it has a similar impact but with player-directed outcome)
  5. Are 3 statuses enough? Do we need 4?
  6. How many dice should it take to offset a status?
  7. Who gets to say what form the status/result takes in the fiction?
  8. What order to things happen in?
  9. How big an advantage is 1 die?
  10. How does this map over to multiple combatants?

That’s a lot. Enough to tempt me to just accept a standard injury model and move on, but I’m kind of dumb that way, so let’s press on and work through these, though it may take a while.

1. Does the attacker choose the target number he’s going for, or does he simply take the result?

Ok, two options: decide before you roll (declare intent) or declare after you roll ( describe outcome). The argument for post-roll is that the assumption is that every attack is an attempt to finish the fight. It also opens up an interesting decision-point of allowing the attack to choose to get a lesser outcome in order to keep more unused dice. That is, if you rolled 4,1,1,1 then you might feel better off taking the 4 and three unused dice (which probably need a cool name) than taking the 7 with no remaining budget.

The argument for a pre-roll decision is that it adds a little more strategy to the mix. It makes risk-taking a bit more of a calculated gamble, and it does _not_ require any post-roll decisionmaking. That’s kind of a big deal, since post-roll decisions are a big source of friction – you totally don’t want a player sitting there deciding if he really wants that 7 or those unused dice on a borderline case.

So, there’s a clear priority conflict here with no clear answer. I think either option could work well, so it’s really a matter of taste, style and (of course) subsequent testing to see which works. It’s one of those situatiosn where you make a decision, but put a pin in it to come back to. With that in mind, I’m going to go with decision before the roll because I think it will be easier to test whether that feels frustrating than it will be to test if it’s what people want.

2. When a status “rolls up” does the previous status remain? That is, if a second inconvenience becomes harm, is the target now inconvenienced and harmed, or just harmed?
The default assumption in most systems would be that the effects stack – that is, that you would now be inconvenienced and harmed. I’m inclined to buck that trend, at least while we have such a short list of statues, because it effectively lengthens the “damage track”. This might prove to be too much bookkeeping in the end, but it’s what I want to try for now.

3. Is there an option to respond to a Taken Out result?
I feel like there should be, but the real answer to this can be found in the question of sequencing. If all action is simultaneous, then this is easy to implement – just let overage dice be used immediately to mitigate an effect. Unfortunately, simultaneous action has its own drawbacks, so this question needs to be set aside until we answer the question of order of events.

4. Are statuses the only possible outcome, or are they simply the non-specific outcome? That is, is a disarm a _form_ of harm, or something with a difficulty equivalent to harm (because it has a similar impact but with player-directed outcome)
I’m strongly inclined to the latter, and as I think about it, I think the rubric may be simple. Outcomes are defined by the attacker, harm by the defender. That means that the fiction of being taken out stays firmly in the hands of the player, which is a plus. It also works nicely with the idea of hitting set difficulties, and it also supports players who are very descriptive as well as those who are not.

Curiously, this also suggests an interesting extension of the outcome ladder, which might be a little meta, but kind of resonates with me. To inflict harm AND describe it, you must hit the next target up. That is, the target for taking someone out in the way YOU want is 19. It means the “one shot kill” still exists as a possibility when dealing with very skilled opponents, but it’s rare. That has some weird interplay with things when the target is already hurt, so I’ll need ot think about it some more, but if nothing else it feels like a good optional rule.

5. Are 3 statuses enough? Do we need 4?
Dunno yet. But the answer to that previous question may prove a suitable compromise.

Ok, enough for today. We’ll run through 6-10 tomorrow.

Actual Fight Mechanics

OK, so the basic non-fight component of a conflict is this: take a swing, beat a 4, if successful, the other guy is taken out.

(I like “taken out” as a euphemism because it underscores that all ways of taking someone out of a fight are roughly equal – unconsciousness, death, getting tossed overboard and the like all fall into the same bucket, and it leaves the exact color and fiction flexible. It also leaves a hook in place later to allow players to offer their own taken out outcomes if you want to avoid death in interesting ways, but that’s a matter to think about later.)

Once we’re in an actual fight, we don’t want things to be quite so quick as all that, but we still want to respect the 4+ success rule. We could go for a numeric system (hit points or the like) but let’s think of this in terms of statuses – we have this idea that a good enough roll can result in being taken out, what else might happen as a result of a roll?

Suppose that there are two other results – inconvenienced and harmed. Inconvenienced means that the other side has gotten some transitory advantage – they’ve knocked you back, rung your bell, seized the high ground or whatever. Harm is more palpable – it’s a disarm, an injury or some other major setback. And, of course, the third result (taken out) has already been recovered.

So, at their baseline, let’s map these as follows:

4 – Inconvenience
7 – Harm
13 – Taken Out

Now, that maps to our difficulties, but it raises some immediate questions. Does it mean that you need at least a 3d pool to be able to win a fight? And what happens when two people of high skill go at each other? Do they both just die? Obviously, we need to address these issues.

Now, the first is pretty straightforward, and we’ll do something that has been done in many other systems and just have damage “roll up”. That is to say, if you inconvenience someone who is already inconvenienced, they are now harmed. If you inconvenience someone who is already harmed and inconvenienced, then they’re taken out. Pretty simple. It allows high skills to get decisive results while allowing unskilled combatants to have sloppy, ugly fights that end badly.

Still brutal, though, especially since there’s no idea of defense. Skill won’t keep you standing any longer, and that’s problematic.

The fix for this is tied into how I view the statuses. Note that it would be normal to put a checkbox next to each status an fill them in over the course of a fight, but that’s more static than I like. I actually don’t want them to be static, I want them to come and go – not just inconveniences (which are already often tenuous in games like Fate) but harm and maybe even taken out. This means that, at a high level, I want people to be able to improve their status as they play, so that’s another axis of action. Sometimes it will be a dull axis (shrugging off an injury) and sometimes it’ll be flashy (getting out of a tight corner) but the bottom line is that status can fluctuate over the course of a fight.

(Saying that, my gut is suggesting we need a 4th status, just so there’s more room for things to slide. That may be true, but I’ll sideline that concern for now. If I figure out a good mechanic for this, then one good test for it will be expanding the status list).

So how should we implement this? My first thought is to make it something you can spend extra dice on (that is, for those who don’t recall, dice that weren’t needed to hit the target number). This has an interesting upshot because it provides a double incentive to go for inconveniences and harm rather than KO’s, because you’re more likely to have extra dice left, at least in theory. Of course, the fact that hitting three “4s” may be easier than hitting one 13 may also play into that. This also provides an interesting tool for NPC behavior, since the target number an NPC aims for speaks directly to their tactics, and can be a solid part of an NPC writeup.

Anyway, at the simplest you could just say that 1 extra die can reduce things by one “step”, so a hurt can become an inconvenience for 1 die, or go away entirely for 2 dice. That’s a good baseline, but it might be too easy. This is something to test, but I’d absolutely want to fiddle with different costs, including a higher base (say, 2 dice per step), or a sliding scale (1 for inconvenience, 2 for harm, 3 for taken out if apt – or perhaps the reverse!) but the idea is solid. It just leaves two real questions – how it interacts with a taken out result, and how it sequences. Those are pretty fiddly bits, so they’re best left for tomorrow.