Category Archives: Design

Combat is a Pain

Ok, back on track. Time to think about conflict. Now, the reality is that if you’re designing a game, conflict really means combat. Yes, absolutely, you might need to handle other types of conflict, but combat is the starting point. This is partly because it’s such a central part of the hobby, but it’s more because if your system is going to break, this is where it’s going to happen. That sounds negative, so let me put it a little bit differently – no other part of a game system requires you to think about what the game will actually be like and how that interacts with expectations than combat.

That’s a pretty loaded statement, so let me unpack it a bit into the four things that make combat a pain in the ass.

First, because combat tends to have explicit stakes (character well-being) that are measurable outside of the fiction (stats and information on the character sheet) its impact is directly observable in action. That is, while there may be some narrative interpretation applied to how 7 hit points got lost, it’s still 7 hit points getting lost. This is not necessarily true of every system out there, but it’s common enough to be a default.

Second, there’s a huge range in expectations regarding how combat should go, so much so that it’s one of the main yardsticks for judging genre. Games might have lethal, brutal combat, or they might have fast and loose, mostly harmless combat. Or they might have something in between. Whatever the case, the usual yardstick is that there is usually a specific look and feel the designer is going for, often epitomized by a particular book, movie or TV show though sometimes through their own personal lens of how fights work “in real life”.

Third, fiction (both on-screen and in-mind) has the benefit of narrative protection for heroes, allowing an author to tell a tale of brutal, unforgiving violence without accidentally losing characters. A designer who seeks to emulate that may quickly discover that brutal and unforgiving cuts both ways. This can be addressed by effectively having different rules for players and everyone else (4E and many video games do this well) but that introduces a lot extra overhead into the system.

Last, we’ve got decades of training from D&D that have totally shaped our perspective. This is not a sleight to D&D but rather an assertion of its huge mindshare, as can easily be seen in most RPGs and computer games. And not just CRPGs – there are precious few shooters out there that don’t have some form of hit points, and there’s a good reason for that. If play is fun, then dying (and thus not playing) probably isn’t. On the upside, this simple model has supported a lot of fun play, but it also means that the assumptions that might guide you in other parts of game design may fail you here. The blatant gamey-ness of combat does not stick out to people the same way it would in other parts of the game, and in fact if you move away from the established standards, people start reacting badly because they know how things should be.

Now, these are concerns, but not show-stoppers. But they’re important to keep in mind as we move into designing conflicts.

A Little Spin

Ok, so we now have a basic die mechanic (a tally system for dice pools ranging from 1d6 to maybe 5d6) and a basic method for establishing difficulties (numeric steps 4/7/13/19 based on expertise required to perform a task) and a methodology for handling success. That’s a good start, but for all the thinking that went into it, there’s not much there. In the absence of further details, this is just one more d6 system looking for an answer to the question of “Why not just use RISUS?”

First off, let me state that RISUS is a good answer to many questions, and if the sole purpose of this were to create a not-RISUS, that would be a little lame. There is a lot of desire in RPGS to differentiate purely for the sake of differentiation (or, more cynically, to make something different enough that you can put your name on it) so beware that particular lure.

Thankfully, I have enough things I want the system to accomplish that we still have some very organic work to do. Let’s start looking at the bells and whistles.

When looking to add fiddly bits to a system, its worth thinking about when in the process you want things to happen. Are you going to introduce choices before the dice roll or afterwards? Or both? This gets further complicated when you have more than one roll (such as D&D’s attack & damage) but let’s not borrow trouble. We’ll assume a single roll for the time being.

When making this decision it’s worth realizing that there’s more than just timing at work. Choices made before the roll have a very different texture than those made afterwards, and the difference revolves around the certainty of the outcome. Any choice made before the roll is, practically, a gamble. It’s a choice being made on the hope that the subsequent roll will succeed. This has the benefit of being more engaging and the drawback of risking paralysis – it’s easy to get hung up on what would be the “right” choice.

In contrast, choices made after the roll are very certain, and tend to be all about working with the outcome. In addition to being simpler, these choices usually are much easier to ingrate into the fiction of play. That is, characters don’t use their big attack to miss – they hit, then decide it’s going to be a big hit. For some people that logic is jarring, especially if the game has enough missing that it’s expected, but other players find the other disconnect jarring.

So, let’s say we want a before-the-roll mechanic. We probably want to embrace the gambling element of it, allowing the player to take on some risk before the roll in return for a potential reward. The easiest way to do this with the system so far is to play around with the trickle-down nature of success. Under normal circumstances, even if you don’t hit the target you’re going for, you still succeed to a lesser extent. You could offer a bonus on the outcome provided that failure will be absolute.

That feels a little awkward, and there are simpler alternatives. Bonus Dice, for example, are a common trick for rounding out dice pool systems. That is to say, you may get to roll extra dice, but only count the best ones. These might be true bonuses (Like in PDQ# or Over the Edge), fixed result pools (like Cortex+ always keeping the best two dice) or roll & keep systems (like L5R).

This is a pretty robust system, and has the advantage of keeping the results within the bounds of the original die pool. It’s worth keeping in mind, but it’s also well worn territory. I’ll keep it in mind, but I’m not particularly inspired. With that in mind, I’m switching the focus to an idea for an after-the-roll bonus.

A while back, a very clever game called Secret of Zir’an failed as a result of a terrible printing failure. One of the more fun ideas it included was a very robust system for using the Margin of Success on a roll for mechanical purposes. That is, if you needed a 20 and rolled a 25, you might spend 2 points to do extra damage and 3 points to knock your opponent over. Neat little mechanic, and one I’d love to capture it.

The problem is that margin of success math is a pain in the ass. Adding up a bunch of dice is enough of a barrier – adding a second equation to the mix is just a bad idea, so the trick is to find a way to make that simple.

With that in mind, we’ll try a trick that steals a page from the idea of bonus dice, but keeps the focus on the margin of success. The player may “keep” however many dice he needs to make the roll – if there are dice left over, then those can be spent as currency. It doesn’t matter what the values on the extra dice are – the dice themselves are currency.

For example – let’s say you’re rolling 4d6 trying to hit a 7. You roll 2, 2, 3, 4. You can build the 7 out of the 3 and 4, with 2 dice leftover. Those two extra dice can be spent for extra effects (akin to Dragon Age’s stunt points). I don’t yet know what the points will be spent _on_, but I think that gives enough of a starting point to start hanging some bits off of.

Now, it’s important to remember that these bonuses need to be tangential, not additive. That is, no number of bonuses should be able to turn a 4 result into a 7, which means the bonuses don’t make the result _better_, they add additional elements to it. In the most broadly narrative sense, each bonus might be used to declare a fact of some sort. This is a fuzzy distinction, but it gets concrete when you start building specific rules – it’s easy to look at any specific bonus and compare it to what a higher roll would have done, and see if there’s any overlap.

Curiously, this little test also sheds a lot of light on what needs to be thought about in a conflict system, so we’ll probably head that way next.

Failing Failure

Looking at last weeks post, math-oriented folks have probably noticed the diminishing likelihood of failure as die pools increase. Since the absolute worst you can roll is all 1s, once you have 4 dice, you’re guaranteed success. Some people might look at this as a bug and propose an easy fix, like “All 1’s is a fumble”, but I think understanding it requires looking at how the system handles failure.

In this case, I’m against it. Failure, that is.

This is not just a competence-porn issue, it’s part of how things stay fun and interesting. This is not to say failure can’t be interesting – it absolutely can – but it’s rarely interesting all by itself. Failure is interesting because of the complications it introduces into the situation, and I’m all for skipping the middleman and jumping right to the complications. That is to say, if the dice come up short of the target, then it becomes a choice – would the player prefer to fail, or would he like to succeed with some complication or consequence offered by the GM.

This is easy to apply to basic difficulties (4), but how does it apply to higher levels of difficulty. Can a character take on enough consequences to successfully perform brain surgery?

Obviously, that’s pretty nonsensical, so the rule of thumb is that consequences can improve the outcome by a single step, and only if there’s a reasonable narrative for it (the player can male proposals if he likes). Depending on the scope of the activity, the task might be resolved in some way other than the initial skill rolled if that makes sense to the consequence. For example, if you need a computer program(7) but only roll a 5, then you might get a success by:

  • Having someone else do it, in return for incurring a substantial (and immediate) debt to them. The program might even be held hostage for you holding up your end.
  • You spend all night copy and pasting scripts from websites and you get you program, but your computer is now totally compromised by the various viruses to downloaded in the process.

None of that would help if your goal had been to design a circuit board(13), because that’s a 2 step jump.

Having decided when and how failure happens, it’s important to also talk a little bit about what failure means. Specifically, some thought needs to go into how re-trying works, and what the impact of failure is. In situations where the situation provides clear context for failure then that’s easy, but the situation is not always clear. Looking at the circuit board example, that seems like a task with a very soft failure scenario. If you don’t successfully design the circuit board, then why not just try again?

My thought is that if the task is one where the character can keep rolling til it works, then you’re not rolling to see if ti works, you’re just rolling to see how long it’s going to take. That’s reasonable, but only if time matters in the context of the game, which it often does not. But if everyone’s cool with that being the case, then no problem.

However, some rolls don’t invite that. There are situation where you want failure to stick, in which case failure is a demand for following a different course of action, mechanically handled by trying a different skill or by changing (perhaps improving) the situation enough to merit a re-roll.

With that in mind, the trick will be to communicate clearly to players whether they’re facing a soft or hard failure. In the case of a soft failure, success is inevitable, and the roll is a shorthand for how many rolls its going to take (see the note on duration, above). In the case of a hard failure, there will be consequences of failure, and either the effort cannot be simply re-retried (or if it can, consequences stack).

So, with that in mind we know how to roll, how to judge difficulty and how to handle failure. That covers the basics. Now it’s time to put some spin on it.

Difficulty with Difficulties

Ok, so yesterday we established that we’d be looking at a d6 tally system with a baseline difficulty of 4. We want to expand on that so as to better handle a die pool of up to ~5d6. Given that, there are two different vectors of approach here. The first is the purely mechanical, while the second is conceptual, speaking to the role of numbers. They weave together, so let’s five in from one direction and see what comes of it.

First, we’ll start with numbers. Now, one great thing about d6 systems is that the numbers are pretty well known, and there are decades of games trying to come up with interesting fixes to smooth out the progression of the average roll, since that troublesome 0.5 makes life complicated. These decades are part of why, as I noted yesterday, 4 is such a magical number. And the good news is, there are a few other magical numbers.

The first candidate is 7. 7 is a great number for two reasons. First, it’s the likeliest outcome of a 2d6 roll, and second, it’s the first roll that’s outside of the possible scope of a 1d6 roll. That latter is handy because it provides a fantastic model for something that may not be hugely difficult, but which requires training to be able to accomplish. For example, even if you know how to use a computer (1d6) you don’t necessarily know how to write even a simple program. That requires specific knowledge and training – you’re not just going to “get lucky” if you keep trying. That’s exactly the kind of scenario where a difficulty of 7 is a handy tool.

After that, the next magic number depends on how you look at things. 13 has many of the same benefits of a 7, except that you need at least 3d6 to hope to hit it. The difference is that it’s a bit less likely to succeed – 13 on a 3d6 is harder to hit than a 7 on 2d6. Now, this might suggest a compromise middle step of 10, since that’s a midpoint on 3d6, and it’s +3 from 7 and -3 from 13, and given that 7 is 4+3, and 4 is 1+3 (1 being guaranteed success), there’s some numerical elegance in making the progression 4,7,10,13 (especially because it can be expressed as “base difficulty of 4, with quality of success increasing by one ‘step’ for every extra 3”, something similar to what’s done in a few other dice pool systems).

The problem is there’s some conceptual roughness to it. I mean, yes, I could easily say:
4 – Mundane
7 – Difficult
10 – Complex
13 – Boggling
or something equally pithy and it would still be better than a lot of games (which set their baseline too high) but really it would be utter bullshit. Those terms are crazily subjective, and while I don’t object to the GM interpreting situations, they provide the GM no practical guidelines for how those things are actually set, which would be irresponsible of me.

But if we drop the 10 we get something that’s not quite as intuitive a progression, but is one that gives us a real, concrete basis for the progression: the numbers are such that if you are not at least operating at a certain skill level, you can’t hit them. That means 4,7,13 (and 19, if we really feel it’s necessary).

Now, what those things will mean are going to vary depending a lot upon the specifics of the skills, and when this ends up in a system, some of that is going to have to be offloaded, but the basic progression is pretty simple.
4 – Normal. The difficulty for day to tay tasks that might be difficult, but require only familiarity with the action being accomplished. For example: Disinfect a cut, perform the Heimlich maneuver.
7 – Expert. Difficulty for a task which cannot be accomplished without at least some proper training and experience. For example: Perform more advanced first aid (proper splints & bandages) or give CPR.
13 – Master. Difficulty for a task which requires intense, specialized training. Example: Perform Surgery, prescribe drugs.
19 – Past-master. Perform a hyper-specialized task. For Example: some sort of specialized medicine, like brain surgery or the like.

All of which is to say, the difficulty levels are built on a clear understanding of “Do Not Try This At Home”. If this is something that anyone with a little familiarity could do with luck or hard work, then difficulty is 4.

Now, I should note that I view success as trickling down. If you hit a 7, you also implicitly hit a 4, which may suggest certain bonus or not, depending on the task. If you are doing neurosurgery (19) and roll a 17, then the failure is in the specialized part of the activity. In contrast, if you rolled a 12 (lower than needed for less complex surgery) then the problem was with the surgery as a whole. You get a lot of meaning trickling down through the tiers.

Also, doing this implicitly folds in duration of activity. Climbing a mountain is a task anyone could conceivably accomplish(4). Climbing a mountain in an afternoon probably requires training and experience(7). If you roll to climb the mountain and roll a 6, you still successfully climb the mountain (you beat a 4) but it’s going to take you longer than an afternoon (since you didn’t hit the 7).

Now, this is still just a starting point. We still haven’t added in fiddly bits, and we haven’t subjected it to the real test – a conflict system – but this seems like a solid start.


As I step into creating a die system, lets run through a few things I like and dislike, since these things will obviously impact the final product.

1. I want a reliable/predictable measure of the dice to be rolled. Anyone who has read this blog knows I love Cortex+, but my big complaint with it is that I need to pack _all_ my dice to play. Not because a given roll will use them all, but because I have no useful way to predict which dice I’m going to need in what numbers. This may be a small and petty thing, but there’s a practical underpinning to it.

2. Next, I want to use d6s. There are some practical underpinning to this – they’re ubiquitous and familiar – but it’s also strongly aesthetic. I own lots of cool looking d6s that beg to be used.

3. I want the difference between skill levels (or whatever they end up being) to feel substantial, and I do not need more than 5 or 6 tiers of capability. This is a cinematic/fiction driven sensibility based on the fact that such broad distinctions make for solid character shorthands and are easily recognizable.

Up til #3, all of the options were on the table, but that last step there is going to make a count system problematic. Count systems may have very coarsely grained outcomes (based on number of successes) but the actual die pools tend to progress smoothly, with only moderate differences between pool sizes, especially at high levels. I could work around this limitation with something too-clever, but that seems like a peg-hole problem.

A flat system is still technically in contention, though it would probably require stepped bonuses. For example, my cold was game handles this by making skill bonuses (on a 3d6 roll) +2, +4 and +6. Those are a little close (they work better for Fudge) but the idea of stepped bonuses is not entirely off the table.

The tally system seems like the best contender, something in the Risus/Over The Edge/WEG space, with 5 levels ranging from 1d6 to 5d6 or something similar. Historically I might try starting from a baseline of 2d6 so there’s a “step down” option and there’s at least a little curve in the default roll, but I’m less attached to that idea than I have been in the past.

Now, there’s still nothing concrete to make a decision on, and this can be pretty paralyzing. Almost any choice can be made to work, so what do you do?

Simple: You do -something-. I’m going to go with a tally system because as cognizant as I am of it’s flaws, I’m even more aware of the dangers of sitting here waffling. So with that in mind, let’s see what we can do with a stack of d6s.

The first thing to do is to consider difficulties. I immediately rule out contested rolls because the last thing a tally system needs is more math, so that means fixed difficulties. Since I’m starting from 1d6 I think that means I’m going to pick the classic baseline of 4.

You see 4 show up in a lot of games. It’s a pretty convenient number for a bunch of reasons. On a straight d6 roll, 4+ means a 50% chance of success, and on a 2d6 scale it’s close enough to 75% to be reliable. On a range of die sizes it’s a number that can potentially be hit by a die of any size. All of which is to say that if you’re thinking going with 4 is a ripoff of anything, realize there’s a reason for its ubiquity.

Now, this raises an interesting question: if I’m allowing 5d6 to be rolled, is a base difficulty of 4 even faintly scalable? Certainly, the apex die pools should be reasonably rare, but that’s not any kind of excuse – a known, rare problem is still a problem. Thankfully, I have an instinct that makes this a little less problematic: I’m looking for success to be the expectation. Someone with 1d6 might have some trouble, and 2d6 still has some risk, but by the time you hit 3d6 it’s very nearly a sure thing.

That said, no reason to just leave it at that. Binary success is a little dull because it offers little differentiation between activities. Teaching high school physics ends up on par with crafting the theory of relativity. So that suggests to me that adding additional tiers of difficulty is the best solution.

The problem is that difficulty steps tend to be applied very arbitrary in play. Climbing this hill is this hard, but climbing that hill is that hard and so on. I want them to mean something a little more self-evident. And that, I think, is where I’ll pick it up tomorrow.

Bread and Butter and Dice

Dice systems are, at their heart, kind of dull. This is probably a good thing, since most of the difference between systems can be built upon their framework, so you want them to be simple, reliable and dull. This is on my mind for reasons that are probably a different post, but I’ve been chewing on a core dice mechanic.

Right off the bat you have three big camps of dice mechanic. You have the flat roll, the tally, and the count. Flat roll is most famous in the various incarnations of D&D, which has used it as both roll vs. moving target (old D&D THAC0 tables) or roll + bonus vs target (4e). The “flat” roll may actually have a curve (as in the case of Dragon Age’s 3d6) but it’s always the same dice, and differentiations in skill are represented by changing the target number or changing the bonus. Fudge dice are another weird example of a flat roll that don’t necessarily look it because the range is wacky (-4 to 4) but it’s a fixed set of dice all the same.

Tally systems, such as those used in WEG’s Star Wars or AEG’s Roll & Keep system, are based on totaling up a variable number of dice. Variations in skill can change the size of the die pool, and while there may be some extra mechanical fiddliness in terms of how many dice are counted (as in the Case with Cortex+ or any game with bonus dice) , the core idea is that the pool of dice is the variable and as a subsidiary idea, the size of the dice may also be a variable.

Count systems are usually considered success counting systems, like Storytelling or Burning Wheel. You roll some pool of dice (of variable size, like a tally), but rather than add up the dice, you count the number of results that hit some particular criteria (such as 7+ on a d10, or 4+ on a d6). Left purely in that form, this is just a highly specialized tally system (effectively the dice have some number of 0’s and some number of 1’s) but it’s worth differentiation from the tally because the ways it establishes differentiation can include changing the rules of success counting. For example, successes might usually be on a 7+, but in this particular area in which you excel, they might happen on a 6+. Thus, while the size of the die pool may be one axis, another will often include the means of determining successes.

There’s a lot more fiddly in this. You can add bonuses to a Tally system to make it feel a little more flat-like. In any system, you can add variations in how you measure success and how you handle things like critical successes and failures (all to say nothing of rich rolling). You can get into wacky hybrids or edge cases (like set building), but those three models really cover the bulk of approaches, and they have different strengths and weaknesses.

Flat rolls are the simplest. Even when they require some math, it is usually quite simple, and perhaps more importantly it’s _perceived_ as simple. Reading the die results in a flat roll is easy, with almost no learning curve. Even if the “post-processing” of adding bonuses or the like takes soem effort, it is -after- the roll, a critical point of distinction.

Tally rolls are probably the most robust. If you want to hang a million different mechanics off a roll, or make the die rolling a bit of a game in its own right (like rolling lots of dice, then doing many mini-resolutions from the pool) then this is probably the approach to take, but it absolutely runs the risk of daunting players. Even if you don’t do a lot of fiddly stuff, the perception is that math is hard and slow, and tallying up the dice creates that sense of friction. This can be mitigated with small or familiar dice pools, but it’s always the specter over the system.

Counts are something of a compromise. They offer much of the same mechanical robustness of Tallies, but they promise greater simplicity than doing math, and in my mind they deliver on that, at least to an extent. There can be a little bit more of a curve in picking up a count game, but the act of reading the dice is an educational one, and most people get much faster at it with only a little practice. Unfortunately, there are some problems that come with that. First, that simplicity is based on the method of counting remaining the same, and if the system leans on changes to that, it slows things down. Also, you can only rely on the simplicity scaling so far – if the dice pools get huge (like, Exalted huge) then it will still bog down.

All three methods can work very well. Even more, all three are robust enough that if there’s some particular element you want to accentuate or avoid then you can easily tweak them to that end.

I’m dwelling on this because I have a dice system in mind for a project, and i want to step back and consider its weaknesses and strengths before I totally buy into it. More on that tomorrow.

Leveling Up To 1

There was a great discussion on twitter yesterday about what might go into a hypothetical RPG for new players based on changing 4e or Pathfinder. Lots of good ideas, but it also reminded me of another idea that I’ve been sitting on for a while, one that puts 4e through a lens of Harry Potter inspired school play.

The idea is based on a simple premise: first level 4e characters are pretty capable, enough so that it’s possible to create an arc from “zero level” to the place where a character starts play. This idea is that there’s some manner of academy for exceptional students who have the potential to “graduate” to being level 1 heroes. The exact details of the school are fodder for another post – maybe it’s a dungeon crawling academy, maybe it’s selecting future leaders of the land, maybe it’s a feeder to an even more elite school, maybe it’s something else. We’ll worry about it after the basics have been sorted out.

So how do you do this? First, start characters off with all their stats with one 8 and four 10’s and 1 12 (modified by race), 10 hit points and starting racial package of abilities.[1] All characters begin as trained in a single skill. This can be ANY skill, and this stands in lieu of a background bonus, and it is also the exceptional thing that drew the school’s attention to the kid.
Importantly, characters do NOT have all the capabilities of a first level character. Specifically, they cannot:

  • Flank
  • Aid Another
  • Bull Rush
  • Charge
  • Perform a Coup de Grace
  • Escape
  • Equip or Stow a Shield as an action
  • Grab
  • Second Wind
  • Total Defense
  • Perform any minor action (all require a move action)
  • Perform an Opportunity Attack

Characters are proficient in no armor or weapons, so even though the basic Attack action is available to them, they gain no proficiency bonuses. And, obviously, they have no class abilities, no powers, and just the one skill. Beyond that they’re basically a blank slate.

Play proceeds on that assumption, and the DC for pretty much everything the characters might do is 10, which means they’ll be really fantastic at their particular schtick, and capable at their racial ones

The model of play, then, is to follow a pattern of going to a class about some element of this (such as basic arms training) with a quirky and interesting teacher. After the class is done, they get the particular ability, and are then faced with a challenge (either an explicit school test, or some part of the plot) which makes use of that skill or set of skills. For example, after the characters have learned Aid Another, they may be faced with a challenge with an impossible difficulty (like a DC 21 for something none of them have any bonus towards) that they need to overcome.

Once the characters have gone through all the universally available things (like the actions above, as well as learning their initial feat) they may then choose a class as their academic focus, and the process will be similar, with characters learning class abilities, and eventually powers, in their classes. The goal is that, at graduation, the characters have all the abilities they would if they’d created the character at first level.

Now, exactly how many times you want to repeat this cycle is going to depend a lot on your group. Some groups might want to rip through this stuff, others might want to stretch it out. This can just as easily be a single night’s play as it can be an entire campaign, especially depending on how much you want to focus on challenges and play within the school. Whatever you decide, divide 20 points [2] among that many periods and let players spend them as they wish.

For example, a school with 4 years, two sememsters each, might do Basic combat training (Simple Weapon Prof, Equipping shields, minor actions ad flanking) semester one, Advanced training (Aid Another, Bull Rush, Charge, Grab & Escape) second semester, Focus exercises (Second WInd, Total Defense, Coup De grace, Opportunity Attack) third semester then Horizon broadening (First Feat and trained skill) fourth semester. Class is then “assigned” at the end of the second year (angst!) and we move onto more class-specific classes.

Now, part of the appeal of this is that school play is fun. It takes work to bring the school to life and bring in challenges that keep players engaged, but it’s a neat setting premise with a familiar literary base. But there is also some appeal in that you can make learning 4e a part of the process. Players can start with only a minimal understanding of the system, and with each successive challenge, they pick up a few more fiddly bits. Only after they’ve got a sense of the basics do they even need to start worrying about class abilities and powers, and at that point, they’ll probably look pretty darn awesome.

Anyway, this is obviously only half an idea. Without a solid pitch for what the school looks like, it’s got no wings. But I’ll be shocked if some of you are not already thinking “What does 4e Hogwarts look like?”

[back] 1 – You can actually start without Racial Abilities for all races and come up with progressions for them to learn them, but this requires that the GM work things out on a race by race basis, and requires some thought regarding what races are allowed in the school. This is easy to do, but it requires more bookkeeping than I can squeeze into an already long post. Humans are probably the easiest to do in this way – just delay their bonus stuff until after play has begun.

[back] 2 − 20, not 22 because 2 points bought the starting 12. And if you use some other method of stat generation, then just apply the idea rather than the specific mechanic. The improvements come steadily over the course of play.

Layout is More than Fonts

I raised a question on twitter the other day regarding summaries in RPG books. The question was, if you’re going to provide regular summaries (of rules or example), where should it go – at the beginning of the chapter, or at the end?

For context, the question came up in my mind as I was reading a game I like very much, and which looks quite nice, but has what I consider a dysfunctional layout. One of the things I found it particularly lacking in was any kind of summary of material, which is doubly a pain because the order that rules are presented in is a little peculiar. I found that I really wanted summaries, and found myself considering the best place to put them.

There were, of course, a few out of the box responses, including a small amount of dislike of summaries, but the divide in answers was interesting to me. The split came along a peculiar axis, one that should have been obvious in retrospect. Those who wanted summaries at the end of the chapter focused on readability and flow. Those who wanted them at the beginning of the chapter emphasized the importance of easy reference – finding the start of a chapter is easier than finding the start of the next chapter (assuming you remember the order) and flipping backwards, or so the thinking goes. The one or two compromise positions I encountered (such as calling out summaries in visually distinctive sidebars or boxes) were definitely trying to find a middle ground between reading and reference, but they tend to be situational at best.

This question – reading vs. reference – is one of those very sticky issues you end up wrangling with when you really get into designing a book. It’s a hard question to answer, and there’s no single formula for success, except to say that a game which does not consider both of these approaches often ends up feeling crappy in a way that it can be hard for a reader to put their finger on.

Now, personally, I am in the “Summaries at the beginning” camp, for three main reasons. The first is reference – I agree it’s much easier to find this material at the beginning off a chapter than the end, though wherever you put it, it’s definitely worth using layout to call it out so it’s easy to find on a flipthrough. The second reason is a bit more cynical – I have read enough RPGs that I no longer trust an author’s assessment of the novelty of his game. A summary skips the breathless prose and lets me make judgments for myself.

The last reason is, I think, the most essential: it’s a frame rather than a review, and that helps the reader while challenging the writer. As a reader, I can quickly scan the summary and, if it’s written well, with not get tripped up on terminology or basic concepts that follow. I may have some questions that the summary didn’t answer, and hopefully I will find those answers in the text. The flipside of this is that writing a good summary forces the author to write good text. If there’s a decent summary, then the hard question is “what else do you really need to say?” As a writer, this can be BRUTAL. Some ideas really can be conveyed very succinctly, and padding them out to 1000 words does a disservice to everyone. If the summary comes afterward, it’s just a restatement and refinement, so nobody really notices that you padded. If it comes first, it frames things, and it makes it easy to notice that you’re wasting words.

Now, what’s crazy is that this is only a very small thing. It’s a single decision among many that you need to make when you put together a book. But like many of these decisions, it has a HUGE impact on how good your book is going to be. To be unkind, even if your game is brilliant and your rules are fantastic, if you don’t consciously make this sort of decision, then it can kill your game dead. I’m not saying that there’s only one answer to these question – handle summaries however you think is best, for example – but if you don’t think about these things then you’re begging for trouble.

It can be hard for the writer to ask these questions because they have such a personal relationship with the text. A good editor will push these points, but that depends a lot on the editor’s role in the project. A good layout guy can make up for a lot of mistakes of this type, but it’s a shame when they have to. But the real danger is that these points pass without comment or thought.

With that in mind, it seems I might want to return to this, and run down a few other red flags and questions a designer might want to ask about how a game can and should present information. Seem like a worthy topic to folks?

Lateral Connections

One thing that has really been sticking with me about Dragon Age 2 has been (as is so often the case with Bioware titles) the relationships and personalities of your companions. Certainly, the arc of your hero is interesting, but it is the people around you that make it feel personal and compelling. DA2 does well enough in this that a few of your companions feel like they could be heroes (well, protagonists) of their own stories, yet this does not diminish your story in the least. Of course, the conceit that your story is being told by one of them does not hurt this perception.

Translating this to the tabletop is an interesting challenge for unexpected reasons. Certainly, there are lots of ways for a GM to make NPCs more compelling, and I’m all for those, but I don’t think they apply. It is far more apt to consider the other characters to be comparable to the other characters played by your fellow players.

Through that lens, the challenge is obvious: How can you create and encourage that kind of lateral play?

For all the reams of advice about players dealing with GMs and GMs dealing with players, there’s precious little about how to drive play between players. I suspect a lot of that is a result of game books being primarily written for GMs, and thus assuming the GM-Player dynamic out of habit. A few games address this, at least indirectly. One of the most subtle and brilliant rules in The Shadow of Yesterday is that you refresh your pools with certain types of actions, but those actions MUST be social in nature. Since everyone has the same pools, there’s a mechanical incentive to go do player-initiated stuff together.

Smallville deserves mention in this regard because I cannot think of another game where lateral connections are so essential. Relationships with other characters are an essential part of your character sheet. This is mighty stuff, but in some ways its _more_ of a solution than I’m looking for. I don’t want things to be quite that explicit, but at the same time I want character issues to be drivers of play with each other, at least occasionally.

Specifically, I love the idea that character A’s issue creates play for Character B (and perhaps the whole group) rather than just being something that Character A deals with. Maybe this demands that issues come with an explicit “and here’s the reason I can’t deal with it myself”. That’s a good start, but I might go even further and find a way for character B to pursue the issue because it indirectly creates a problem for character A, if only because character B is distracted. Hard to do persuasively, though.

I am not entirely sure if this is possible, but it’s a problem I’m chewing on right now, and if nothing else, it’s producing some interesting flavors.

Action vs. Adventure

I realized yesterday that my genre expectations for 4e have been skewed. I think of it (and most RPGs) as being adventures, but I think it might be more accurate to describe 4e as part of the related-but-different action genre.

What’s the difference? Speaking in terms of films, think about adventure movies vs. action movies. In an adventure movie, the hero or heroes are taken out of their usual context, face an array of challenges. While many of the challenges may be dangerous, they are not necessarily fights. Eventually the hero finishes the job and returns home (or to his original context). Essential in this is the idea that the hero’s non-adventure existence is important to him. Indiana Jones teaches. Jack Burton drives a truck.

On the other hand, the action hero gets into a dangerous situation because that’s who they are – the guy who gets into danger. He might have the trappings of some other life, but usually that life is an avenue to action (soldier, cop, dangerous courier) or a forgettable façade (like whatever Schwarzenegger does for a living in his flicks). At best, it provides an excuse to put the character in the situation required by the story. The character will then overcome successive challenges with escalating violence. There will be elements external to the violence, but mostly they’re just there to move things on to the next fight.

Now, the lines here aren’t clean cut. Die Hard, for example, has elements of both, and most exciting moves pull a little bit from column A and a little bit from Column B. What’s more, the genre is not a measure of quality. Action may have interchangeable Van Damme flicks, but it also has Jackie Chan. Raiders might be an adventure film, but so are the vast array of direct-to-video Rutger Hauer masterpieces. They can be done badly or well, just as in the case of a game.

4e is designed for action. It’s characters are primarily defined by their relationship to action, and elements external to that are very thin at best. Their arc is one of progressive violence, and the mechanics of the game steer things that way. This is perhaps best exemplified by the primacy of fights and the shaky footing of skill challenges.

But so what?

It would be easy to stop here as some sort of sneering dismissal of 4e, but that would be a waste of effort. The important thing to me is that in understanding what 4e is skewed towards, it makes it easier to tweak it. It means that if I want to play is straight up, I might get a more satisfying experience if I am in the mental space where I recognize that these characters would be played by Jason Statham or Milla. That is to say, I would be well served proceeding under the assumption that they are not adventurers, but rather, awesome badasses.

On the flipside, if I feel that I want something other than the action movie formula, I can do it with an understanding of _why_ it is that anemic skill challenges and boring skills feel like they’re not working. Knowing why they don’t work (because they’re designed for action, not adventure) is incredibly useful if I want to change them since I can do so with better understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish.