Category Archives: Pending


Long time back I met a guy with a talent. He was smart, charming and engaging, the kind of person who lights up a conversation, but that alone was not enough to really merit mention. No, what struck me was that he was able to take the spotlight that he created around him and direct it at others in the conversation without any apparent thought or effort. He could easily dominate conversations, but instead he brought others in, others who might not be as casually fluent as him, but who had something to say if you could get them comfortable enough to speak. He was subtle enough at it that it took me a while to notice he was doing it at all, but once I noticed, I could only marvel at it.

I decided that this was a skill I wanted to have. Not only was it something I considered genuinely admirable, I’m really interested in people, and helping smart, interesting people get comfortable enough to talk is something that I’m very selfishly happy to make happen. Over the course of several years, I’ve become decent at it. I doubt I will ever have that kind of fluid grace, but who’s to say?

This came back to me the other day in the context of discussion of what to do when a player freezes up at the table. This is a rough issue for gamers to address because it’s much more of a social issue than one of game mechanics or setting mastery. We often adopt a survival of the fittest approach to speaking and decision-making – if someone is not able to speak up for their position, then they obviously don’t care as much about it as the guy who’s chomping at the bit to shoot his mouth off.

This is infuriating crap. I like to hope that we’re playing games with either friends (who we would treat better than that) or strangers with a shared interest (to whom we have hopefully been taught to be polite), but I worry that we don’t always act that way. Not necessarily out of malice or jerkishness, but rather because we’re not always aware of what we’re communicating. So with that in mind, I want to talk a little bit about players freezing up, and what can be done at the table.

The freeze up itself usually occurs at one of two points – either the player is in a position to make a choice (such as what move to make) or they’ve been put on the spot. There are some similarities between these freeze ups, but they are slightly different beasts, and that’s going to come up in the response. For now, let’s look at the common ground:

The important thing to remember is that these are social games, and as in any social setting, people don’t like to look stupid. When someone freezes up on a choice, they are looking around the table at people who, to their mind, could easily make the right call if they were faced with this the same decision. The last thing they want to do is make a wrong call and look like a fool in front of their friends.

There’s an instinct that kicks in here for a lot of folks to try to solve the problem by offering advice. Sometimes its as blatant as declaring the right answer, but usually it’s couched a little bit more ‘subtly’ with reminders about rules or options. This is usually well intentioned, but it just makes the problem worse. Not only does it cheapen whatever decision gets made (because even if successful, the freezing player will attribute the success to the help) but it also reinforces the player’s sense that they’re the dunce at the table full of people who ‘get it’.[1]

And that leads to the first rule of dealing with a freeze: Shut your pie hole.

Yes, I know, you just want to help, but just sit on that instinct for a while. If they have questions, then you can help out by answering them (briefly, please – don’t use a question as an opportunity to squeeze in your own advice) but keep it limited to that. And that leads to the second rule: A little patience won’t kill you.

I hate that I even have to say this one, but if your response to someone freezing up is to sigh, tap your feet or fingers or stare pointedly at them, you need to learn to not do that. Yes, you could do whatever they’re doing faster and better. That’s great. But you don’t need to convince anyone of that. Take the moment to check your character sheet or just chill. A game takes several hours to play; you can spare a minute or two.

Now, for all that it can be rough to be put on the spot for a tactical or game decision, that is at least a (hopefully) constrained set of options. Freezing up when presented with a roleplaying event or a broader decision introduces a new set of complications. Not only is there the existing stress about doing it right, there’s also an element of performance anxiety. They want to be interesting or funny or fun, and they don’t want to be the reason the game falls flat. When this happens, the advice for a tactical decision applies, but there’s also one more thing you can do, and this is the third piece of advice: Back their play.

Yes, they will probably make a decision different than you might, they might not quite nail the scene, but whatever. What’s important is how you respond to it. If you respond with nitpicking, or with workarounds to nullify or undermine that they’ve done, it’s going to be obvious. Instead, respond like it was the right idea, and you’ll find it usually works out to be.[2] This may seem overly touchy-feely, but there’s actually a very cynical benefit from it – these decisions can take a game in genuinely unexpected directions, forcing you to play a little harder and better to make it work. That is to say, by helping the other player, you’re also creating the opportunity to raise your game.

I’ve made a lot of generalizations so far, and the last important thing to realize is that some of them are going to be wrong. People might freeze up for totally unrelated reasons, or respond well to different kinds of responses. And this leads to the last and possibly most important point: Don’t assume. Ask.

I don’t mean ask when they freeze – that’s just more pressure – but be willing to broach the topic in post-mortem discussion. Make it clear you saw the behavior, that you aren’t upset by it, but that you just want to talk about what happened and what can be done next time. Maybe it’ll be fruitful, maybe it won’t. People are quirky that way. But you will never know unless you ask.

So, those are the four quick and dirty rules for helping with a player freeze:

  1. Shut Your Pie Hole.
  2. A Little Patience Won’t Kill You.
  3. Back Their Play.
  4. Don’t Assume. Ask.

These won’t help with every problem at the table, but you’d be amazed how far they go.

1 – And that’s the generous interpretation. If this happens a few times, it is also possible for the player to conclude they’re at the table with a bunch of condescending jackasses. I hate to generalize, but this is a problem that female gamers run into a _lot_, with male players a little bit too eager to help. It’s usually well intentioned (though sometimes it is genuinely condescending assholery) but I’ve seen his behavior destroy games for many smart, awesome women because (shockingly) they would rather lose honestly than win because someone has told them what moves to make.

2 – This is, I know, an open door to “My guy wouldn’t do that” kind of responses, to which I can only shrug. If you aren’t creative enough to figure out a reason why your guy would, and if your purity of vision is so important that you don’t mind treating someone else badly, then I acknowledge this advice is not for you.

Some Number of Palaces

Someday, I’ll review a book immediately after I actually, y’know, read it.

Anyway, back when I was waiting for Changes to come out, I decided to poke around and try out some other books in the genre. I enjoy the Dresden Files, so no doubt there’s other stuff that would appeal to me. With this in mind, I hit Amazon.

On a mission like this, I am intensely happy with the Kindle’s preview feature. I grabbed the sample chapters for several books and series that Amazon recommended, and man oh man did that save me a fair amount of money. The books I grabbed tended to fall into two categories – stories about someone’s White Wolf character, or somebody’s personal version of John Constantine. Almost all of them began with a first chapter that was very clearly IN THIS CHAPTER I AM INTRODUCING CHARACTERS AND ELEMENTS, and that was a turnoff. If nothing else, the kindle really underscores how important it is for the first chapter to be a grabber, because if it’s not, I have other samples I can try.[1]

In this pile was Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire, which I’d added on the recommendation of a friend. It hooked me immediately. Not only did it open with a strong sense of forward momentum, Connolly has a talent for how not to explain things. He introduced plenty of elements that were baffling, but he struck a balance (much as Vandermeer did in Finch) between “Enough to keep me curious” and “So much weird stuff I’ve stopped caring”. Better yet, the protagonist gave an excellent sense of being in over his head while still being a clear Man of Action. That the other character introduced with him was a tiny woman who could A) punch through his head and B) very much wanted to brought it all together enough to get me invested in whatever was going on between the two of them in addition to the greater mystery.

What followed was supernatural investigation & action with liberal doses of pretty compelling horror. The basic framework is straightforward: The protagonist is pretty much the lowest man possible on the totem pole of the secret society of magic-using folks who are committed to protecting the world from invasion from otherdimensional predators. We see very little of this conspiracy (the Twenty Palaces society, from which the series gets its name) but the hints we do get make it clear that they’re not really good people, but the threat they protect against is much, much worse.[2] It’s a nice framework, and the bits we see are tantalizing. Even setting aside plot and such, I look forward to Connolly unspooling the cosmology some solely because this seems awesomely gameable[3].

At a high level, there’s some standard stuff afoot, bad guys to be fought, secrets to be sussed out, mysteries to be solved, and that’s a fun ride. Connolly does a good job of populating the setting in a convincing fashion, and at least one review I’ve seen explicitly calls out his putting normal folks, including older women, in heroic roles as a standout point. To that, I would say only that I did not notice it because they are portrayed as *people* convincingly enough that the other elements didn’t even strike me as odd.

If this was all there was to it, I’d still recommend the book. It reads well, is fun, and has a promising premise. But there’s still one thing that pushes it past that mark, into the realm of a book I would enthusiastically endorse, and that is the monster.

Extradimensional threats are almost ubiquitous in fiction these days. Horrible things exist beyond the realms of our understanding, waiting to come in from the cracks and destroy everything. Gibber gibber gibber. It’s a tired idea, and one that makes authors lazy. Lovecraft may have called things indescribable, but at least he put in the effort of writing a whole hell of a lot of words to say so. Now, tentacles, ooze and transitive behavior have become a lazy shortcut for these things.

Connolly deftly escapes that trap, presenting an extra dimensional menace which is unquestionably alien, but not lazily so. For those who have read Flatland (or any of the books it inspired), there is a moment when the two dimensional being meets the three dimensional being and it’s mentally jarring to wrap your head around how it looks from the 2d perspective. It’s weird, but there’s a logic to it which, even if you can’t grasp firmly, you can see the shape of. Connolly captures that sense of things being wrong, but still making sense in a disturbing way.[4]

He also effectively sells the outsiders as predators first and foremost – that they may be otherwise incomprehensible is kept in check by this single, solid touchpoint. It makes them interesting, and it speaks to their behavior in concrete, practical ways. Heck, for all the outsider we see in the book is interesting, I’m even more curious about the one hinted at in the protagonists past. Is that kind of a concrete anchor a big deal? I think so – it means there’s enough substance for there to be something for me to be curious about, not just “oooh, tentacles and madness”.

Now, I’m not going to pretend this is a great book, but it’s fun. The pacing is solid, the fights are mostly well done, and it keeps the reader’s attention from beginning to end while painting an interesting picture of the world. The threat is to children, but in a way that felt more truly horrible than simple button pushing (and as a new dad, I’d be happy to call the guy a douche if I thought he was jerking me around with easy emotional trick-taking). It was horrible enough that I’d definitely underscore the horror element in any recommendation, and there are a few people I explicitly won’t suggest it to[5].

And recommend it I would for anyone looking for a fast, fun and dark ride. Really, my only complaint is that it’s only the first book in a series, and I’m already chomping at the bit for the second.

1 – If you MUST use the first chapter to introduce things, do it in a way that is its own self-contained and entertaining story. One of the best first chapters in all of fiction, for my money, is in Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand. It has almost nothing to do with the rest of the book (and, in fact, is really better than the rest of the book) but it establishes the protagonist in a fun, compelling way with the right mix of show, and tell, with a conflict introduced, escalated and resolved, all in one chapter.

2 – Dresden Files fans, consider it through this lens: Imagine if there was only one law of magic, and it was “Don’t truck with things beyond the outer gates because they will eat the goddamned planet”.

3 – Mechanically, everything presented in the book can be handled with the Dresden Files RPG, but I’m not sure there’s quite enough in the book to really do it justice. There are ideas about magic, like the price and nature of spells, that probably merit some more exploration before giving them a try. Additionally, since it seems to be a model of few spells with great power and great cost, some of the ideas of Spells as Merits from WOD:Mirrors might also prove a good match.

4 – Perhaps not coincidentally, since certain elements of the specific weirdness are effectively fourth dimensional.

5 – Basically, if a threat to kids hits your buttons, this book will probably freak you out. The threat is pretty disturbing, without being the wrong kind of disturbing. That is to say, there’s no sexual element to it, or fetishization of it, just a genuine and horrible threat to children which is made all the more horrible because it’s kids (a fact the text and characters acknowledge). It genuinely disturbed me in a way that splatterpunk torture porn and other horror trends do not, but I feel that in doing so it made for a genuinely stronger book, if only for making it clear what was at stake.

A Thought Experiment

This is a little thought experiment that I like to apply to games I’m playing or running. It’s just a simple question, but it ends up highlighting a lot of useful things, at least for me. It consists of asking one thing:

If the players could resolve every fight quickly and trivially (such as with a single roll), what would the game look like?

The purpose of this is not to theorize what your players would do if they were the worlds foremost ass kickers,[1] rather it is to ask how much your game depends on fight scenes to hang together. It reveals whether fight scenes are a complementary component of your game, or if they’re really the only reason you play.

There’s not a wrong answer to this. If you’re running a 4e game that is basically all fight scenes with a little connective tissue, then that’s fine so long as you’re aware that you’re doing it. It’s very easy to get sucked into a nicely produced adventure or a meticulously handcrafted dungeon and think that the framework of walls and doors is actually creating something satisfying.

It also makes a good reality check for your pacing. Stopping and thinking about what happens if fights are much shorter forces you to think about how many fights you get in a session and how much time they take up. When I stopped and looked at this in my D&D 3e game it was clear that sessions were falling into a “plot sandwich” model, which is to say that I’d get in 1 or two fight scenes, with a clear pattern of plot-fight-plot or fight-plot-fight. Knowing this, in turn, helped me plan more satisfying sessions for everyone because I had a realistic sense of how much ground we could actually cover in a session.

Now, some games have an easy answer to this, because hey, no fight scenes at all. That’s all well and good, but the question is worth considering if only to alter to suit your game. If fights aren’t a cornerstone of your game, think of something else that is, and ask what happens if it’s abbreviated. Doing so is not a proposal that you actually remove the element, rather, it’s to see what thoughts and ideas its absence (and possibly the horrible mess it creates) suggests.

1 – Though that is also a fantastic question.


Choice is an incredibly important part of RPGs, and how its handled can tell you a lot about the game and its priorities. But choice is also a tricky widget, one of those things that looks simple on the surface, but offers great complexity as you delve in deeper.

For example, there are different kinds of choices. One model I’m fond of it to look at the bulk of choices as existing on two axes.

The first is whether or not the choice is real. A real choice can be a little bit difficult to define in the context of an RPG because, on some level, it’s all fiction. Still, the idea is this: a choice which has an impact on the fiction (that is to say, it causes a change). Now, for this to make sense you need to buy into the idea that the idea of the game has some concrete reality, and not everyone is on board with this idea, but let’s just roll with it for the time being.

This question comes up a lot in discussion of stories in games. In a game where the plot finds the players, you can often end up with false choices. For example, the players may be presented with a map with numerous destinations and may apparently choose from any of them in their hunt for the MacGuffin. In some games, the next clue the players need will be in whichever destination they choose.[2] This works out nicely for the ebb and flow of play, but it also means the player’s choice didn’t actually have any impact on the game.

The counterpoint is pretty obvious – player choices that direct play or impact the setting. These are the bread and butter of solid tactical and resource management play – action is taken, it has consequences, those consequences are responded to with further action.

This is a good division, but to really give it context, how to make it so hinges on the second axis, meaning.

Meaningful choices are ones where the players have a personal investment in the outcome. Ideally, this is derived from their investment in the game and its elements, but the source is of secondary importance. Players may make any number of choices for their character, but some of them are simply trivial, like what they had for breakfast. They might be colorful or entertaining but, the player doesn’t have an emotional investment in the outcome. A choice that affects things that are important to the player is going to carry more weight, but pinnign that down can me rough.

This is where the axes start helping. The easy assumption is that meaningful choices just needs to be about something important, but that overlooks something critical. See, no matter how high the stakes are, they only matter if the choice is not obvious (which is to say, that there’s a real choice). If the choice is between saving 100 and 1000 lives, it has no weight because, however important those lives may be, the choice is obvious. Even when you sweeten the pot and, say, put loved ones in the 100 that can still fall flat in the kind of game that rewards “right” decisions.

Because of this, meaningful choices can’t be strictly utilitarian, cost-benefit analysis stuff. If everything important in the equation can be boiled down to math[3] then the choice is not made, it’s discovered via calculation. This can be a satisfying process, but it scratches a very different itch.

And that leads to the other end of the axis – sometimes you don’t want to be getting squishy stuff all over your wargame. Tactical decisions and resource management are routes to fun, and if you’re looking to capture that particular kind of play, adding in emotional meaning to the game is going to undercut things. Even if one doesn’t want to be in this mode all the time, there are times when you don’t want to have emotional investment in the soldiers in your wargame.[4]

Given all that, I like to view the upper right hand corner as a goal, even if its not always practical. Sure, every choice should be real and meaningful, but every now and again I’m going to want to step towards something real but uncompelling (like a good fight scene for its own sake) or meaningful but perhaps a bit less real (that is to say, something fuzzy and muddled like most human interactionis). Hell, sometimes I want to dip back into the trivial just for the sheer joy of playing through eating my breakfast. But what’s important is that I know my target square. Someone else might have a different target square but still dip into the others based on their own needs.

1 – I uploaded a diagram here, but Google is being weird, so it may never show up, so in its absence, let’s illustrate with a dungeon room with two doors.
In a game with fake, meaningless choices, there’s a monster behind each door which you will fight solely because its a monster. In some cases, one door will be locked in a totally unopenable fashion.

In a game with real, meaningless choices, one door has a monster and the other may have four hours of boredom (or a bathroom, or some other non-monster option) behind it. Whichever door the players choose is the one they’re stuck with.

In a game with fake, meaningful choices, the bad guy that the players REALLY want to fight is behind whichever door they open first.

In a game with real, meaningful choices, the guy they hate is behind one door, but Aunt May’s medicine is behind the other one.

2 – One alternate version of this is that whatever choice the players make, they will still end up in the same place due to events the GM brings to bear. Net result is pretty much the same.

3 – Obscuring information is the common way to address this, so that there’s math, but you don’t know what it is, so you have to guess, and in guessing you theoretically make it a softer decision.

4 – Much the same way that you don’t necessarily want to bust out a social combat system every time you have a scene with a loved one.

One Man’s Cheating

I have old AD&D character sheets where my character’s inventory list rolls over onto an extra sheet of paper. I delighted in packing everything I could think of to be prepared for every contingency that might ever possibly come up. I devoured articles in dragon magazine about tricks like casting continual light or darkness on marbles or sling-stones, then covering them with clay until you needed them. I kept careful inventory of caltrops. I was seriously overprepared.

That became less fun over time. Part of it was that the bookkeeping was kind of a pain, but most of it was that the situations I imagined, where we’d be in serious trouble but I could pull out just the right thing to save our bacon and thus illustrate my cleverness never really materialized, at least in part because such situations would, by their nature, be horribly contrived. Some of the credit also had to go to adventure designs which, to my young mind, cheated by attempting to circumvent just such ‘cleverness’.

I once got in a long argument about whether or not I could get XP for diverting a creek so it flooded a dungeon and drowned a bunch of monsters. At the time, I thought I totally deserved it because it was a clever solution to the problem, and the game was all about rewarding that, right?

I don’t view RPGs as so much of an outlet for problem solving anymore, or rather, I do, but in a different way. Being prepared is not much fun for me anymore, though I’ll still delight in solving problems with limited resources. As with many things in life, it’s those limitations that make it satisfying.

I don’t remember which game I rounded the corner on this with, but one day I found myself playing a game where your inventory primarily consisted of the things you would likely be carrying. That is to say, as an adventurer you probably had rope, rations, torches and all the other things that you’d be an idiot not to have brought. If you wanted something special over and beyond that you could acquire it, or if there was a question regarding whether you’d packed a thing, the GM would rule (if it was stupid) or you could roll the dice (if it was reasonable, but uncertain), but mostly we just trusted everyone to be cool about it. This was huge. This idea that there might be things in my backpack without my explicitly noting them turned a lot of my assumptions on their ear, and I liked it.

This was probably the narrow point of the wedge of player empowerment for me. It was a very small thing, but having the right to say “There’s a torch in my backpack” created the possibility that I, as a player, might be able to say other things and have them be true. This got accelerated by playing Amber, which among other things has the dirty trick of allowing huge player empowerment by making it all work through in-game powers, and lead to my fairly open stance that I hold today.

All of which makes it very hard for me to remember that for someone else, my ephemeral backpack may be cheating. I can intellectually wrap my head around it, but I have to stop and think to do so. For me, turning that corner was so liberating, and opened so many doors that I can’t understand why everyone else hasn’t done the same. Such is the arrogance of enthusiasm – there are plenty of people for whom the things I have found fun in are worth little.

But for all that, here is what I consider the great irony. It is because of all those lessons and the discarding of those ideas that I think the me of today could make the game that the me of then never got to enjoy. It’s all a trick of perspective, you see – I may not have been doing it consciously, but younger-me was making declarations about the game too, jut in a way he (and anyone he played with) was not wired to hear. That inventory list was not just an approach to problem solving, it was a laundry list of the kind of problems he wanted to encounter. If someone were to look at it that way and use it to build adventures, younger me would be on cloud nine.

Of course, even that would be cheating in some corners of the hobby. Building the adventures according to player input rather than as free-standing edifices is unrealistic! But at that point, I admit that my generous spirit frays. People are welcome to their fun, but if there is an expectation that I need to apologize for mine, or that mine is somehow threatening theirs, then I am willing to quietly wait for them to be quiet and grow up.

It may take a while, but I’m a patient guy.

Story is not a Four Letter Word

The relationship between story and RPGs is a complicated and often painful one. It’s been popping up on my radar lately since I’ve been hearing “story” used as if it means “Railroading” or “Fudging Dice Rolls” and that bothers me a little. Not that I have any objection to people having strong opinions about specific topics like that – it’s just jarring to me to see them lumped under story, a categorization which is almost nonsensical to me.

The thinking is something like this – there are players out there who view RPGs as a means to tell the story. In some cases it’s the GM telling a story to the players, in others it is everyone at the table collaborating to create the story. Whatever the model, telling a story is the priority, and unless the rules explicitly support the creation of a story, then the rules take a back seat to the needs of story creation. As such, behaviors like dice fudging, railroading and other tricks are fair game because everyone is on board with the priority of story.[1]

If this was the only role of story in games, I’d understand the confusion. While these “pure story” games are (in my experience) a small but vocal minority, it is easy to buy into their principals and try to treat story as something additive – that by taking one of these techniques like railroading, you can improve your game through the inclusion of story. The fact that numerous published adventures have bought into this idea has contributed to muddling the waters further, but I’ll state it as plainly as I can: that is not all that story is. And I’ll go a step further to add that’s not even the important part of story, at least with regards to games.

“Story” (as differentiated from a story) is a set of techniques used to tell, you guessed it, a story. They’re used in every media imaginable, and while some elements are specific to specific media (such as the act structure of television), others seem universal (such as rising tension and the necessity of conflict). This is a huge toolbox, and it can be used for everything from structuring an 27 book epic just as easily as it can a 55 word short story. There are more tools in this box than you will ever use, and no two people’s toolboxes are the same. You find things that work or sound interesting, even things which are contradictory, and you add them in over time. Some become well-worn form use, others never come out of the plastic wrap.

So, given this, let me look at RPGs. There is a school of thought that asserts that the GMs role is solely that of referee, which is to say that the GM should effectively just serve as an intelligent, dynamic rendering engine for the setting.[2] In this worldview, the fairness of the GM is the most critical issue – the GM has material (adventures, setting etc) which he needs to present and use as written to the best of his abilities. If there is a gap, he is expected to fill it, but he should hew as closely to the original material as possible, and his creative satisfaction should come from running antagonists[3] and playing existing NPCs.

Setting aside that I would go watch TV or read a book before I’d want to run a game under those sorts of strictures[4], that thinking simply doesn’t hold up outside of tournament play or other specialized environments. GM creativity and judgment calls are not fringe elements to an RPG and there is no way to open that door just a little. And I think that’s great, since the alternative is by-the-numbers play, which might make for a decent fight scene in 4e, but makes for an unsatisfying framework.

And this is where we come back to story. See, once the GM starts creating his own material (from a single encounter or NPC, to a huge mega-campaign), he is in a position to start using tools from the story toolbox. This does not mean he’s telling a story, rather that he’s using elements that make a story interesting to make play interesting. Making characters sympathetic or unsympathetic? Story. Having villains take things from bad to worse? Story. Menacing things that are important to the character? Story. Many of the important decisions and designs that will go into creating satisfying play can be improved by understanding the tools of story.

Now, it’s obviously going to be a personal decision on how much this shapes play. You might just use the tools of story to craft a satisfying encounter with a hateable villain, but draw the line at using “story logic” to impact play. For example – the decision regarding if and when the villain flees, and when any meta currency (such as fate or action points) might be spent on his behalf can be made for any number of criteria. The GM might use strict Morale rules, he might have a fixed number at which the bad guy flees, he might eyeball the situation and base it on which way the wind is blowing, or he might opt for a dramatically appropriate moment. Any or all of these can be used to make the decision, but personal taste might remove some of them from consideration.

And that’s fine. We all need to find our personal level of preference. But for all that, it is a very rare game indeed that cannot benefit from the toolbox story provides. Certainly, people may use different tools in different ways, or use more or fewer tools, but they’re the tools for drama, for making events personal and compelling. I genuinely can’t imagine someone wanting to play RPGs (as opposed to other games) and not wanting those things.

1 – All of the games I’m discussing here are going to assume full buy-in from the table. Every single model of gameplay can break down if the table doesn’t buy into it, and if things aren’t communicated clearly. So for argument, we’re going to assume people communicate and think a bit.
2 – A rendering engine is the part of a program that turns all the bits and bytes into pretty pictures, like the terrain of World of Warcraft.

3 – This is, BTW, a reason you end up with killer GMs. If this is the limit of your expression within the game, and that is frustrating, and adversarial relationship can jazz things ups.
4 – I’d play but solely on the understanding that we’re playing a boardgame, not an RPG. And I like boardgames fine.

Not Amber – Coincidence and Communication

In the realm of curious coincidence, my ramblings about not-amber coincide with someone else’s much more focused thoughts about the same. The ever talented Jason Durall made his contribution numbers to create Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, using the Erick Wujcik’s Diceless Roleplaying system. For amber fans, this is pretty fascinating in more than a few ways. So far as I understand, EWDRP is basically the system from the ADRPG with all references to Amber and Zelazny copyrights removed.[1] So bear that in mind and realize that if you know the ADRPG, you probably know Jason Durall’s name as a luminary strong associated with the previous game. The man is clever as hell, and the quality of his AmberCon Northwest games (which I never had the pleasure to play, but heard about unendingly from those who did) was one of the things that set the bar high for Evil Hat when we ran ours.

So with that in mind, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow looks like his not-amber, and I am excited to see this product when it comes out, and regret I missed the window to contribute some money to the project (though I’m told they nailed their numbers early). I’m avoiding looking at it during development because I’ve got my own not-amber to work through, but rite publishing has forums where I suspect the curious can find out more.

So, back to my own not-Amber.

One of the most powerful things in Amber are trumps. I don’t speak in terms of in-game power (though in some games that’s true) but in terms of gameplay, they’re a perfect tool. When you have strongly empowered characters who are capable of haring off in different directions at a moment’s notice, you absolutely want them to have an easy way to communicate and get back together. In Amber, that role is filled by trumps; tarot-like cards with the images of people one them which, if focused on, allow you to communicate with, travel to, summon or attack the person depicted.[2] Zelazny had originally conceived them as portraits, but ended up liking the card idea better, which is good because it’s cooler and much more gameable.

The thing about this idea is it works best when it feels meaningful. Cards tap into tarot imagery, and while I want something that serves a similar role in my game, I don’t want to just lift trumps wholesale. The problem lies in finding something that could equally feasibly be used for communication that also carried a fair amount of meaning, in the way cards do. I found it in an unlikely corner.

When I was originally pondering this problem, I was listening to the audiobook of David Shenks’ The Immortal Game, a history of chess, and I was struck by an image of someone playing on half a board, and using that as a means of communication. Thus, in Argent, every member of the royal family has several king chess pieces (sometimes called keystones) which are identical, though each set is uniquely reflective of the subject[3]. They gift them to family members and they can be used to initiate communication over a chessboard, by setting up the board, using you and your target’s king pieces. The subject knows the game has started and can set up the pieces on their end, at which point they may see and speak to each other over their halves of the chessboard.

I love this image, and it opens up the setting to the use of chess imagery which is, I think, underused outside of Wonderland. I’m still undecided on movement. Stylistically the thing to do is say if both sides have both kingspieces, then the players may castle (switch spots) but that’s inconvenient for play, since you want to bring people together. Instead, I’m tempted to say loser gets pulled to the winner (“captured”) unless both opt to pause or end the game, since that adds back in a certain element of risk.

In the grand scheme of things it’s a very small matter, but I think it’s one of those small matters with large repercussions for playability.

1 – I could swear there had been a page with just the rules somewhere, but I can no longer find it.
2 – That last added an element of risk to trump use, which was nice, but it also opened the door to most of the really stupid mind-warfare stuff in the DRPG.

3 – While not quite as cool as describing your trump image, describing the design, style, color and material of your keystone is still kind of a fun thing.

Not Amber: Stats

I’m not attached to stats, and I think games can do just fine without them. Too often they’re taken for granted as a must-have without a lot of thought regarding what they actually mean within the system. As marginal bonuses in arbitrary categories, they can add unnecessary complication, and if they’re just really broad skills, that calls into question the need for them at all. There’s a reasonable case for them in truly combinative systems (white wolf, cortex) but even then they can just as easily be swapped out for almost anything else.

This is not to say stats are bad, just that they are an unexamined habit. The question should not be whether you exclude them from your game design, but rather why you feel you need to include them.

LUG’s Aria was a brilliant and nearly incomprehensible game that did something clever with it’s stats. There were something like 12 stats, but you only had ratings in 10 of them. the other two you were just assumed to be normal, neither good nor bad, and they didn’t come up. This struck a spark with me that ended up influencing the design of aspects. One thing they were going to replace was stats, with the idea being that your stats, whatever they were, were all normal unless you explicitly called them out with an aspect like “Strong” or “Slow”.[1] I admit this is about the sweet spot for me, but as with all things that are player defined, it has some complications.

Stats are incredibly important to the old Amber DRPG, in that they are really the heart of the character. There are 4 stats (Strength, Endurance, Warfare and Psyche) and each is effectively a super-skill, with all conceivable activities covered between them (unless those abilities are explicitly in the powers system). The ways in which this system was broken would probably make its own post, but that worked to the game’s advantage because it encouraged homebrewing, which is a robust part of the ADRPG culture.[2]

So while not-amber should absolutely not include those four stats, the four stat model itself works very nicely, so the questionis what the stats should be. There’s an instinct to fix the ADRPG list, but that seems overly derivative, and it fails to address the underlying issues. Thankfully, I already had to solve this problem for the Road to Amber MUSH and I am more than content to steal from myself.

The trick with the RTA stats is that they do not have any influence on what you can do, and only tangentially speak to how well you can do it. Characters in this context are assumed to be broadly competent and unless a particular task is constrained by system (like magic) or common sense (like flapping your arms to fly) then it’s assumed they can go about it competently. With that in mind, the RTA stats speak to how you do things.

The stats are Force, Grace, Wits and Resolve and it’s entirely possible to use any stat in any situation, depending upon how you describe doing it. Swordfighting, for example, is easy to break down. Do you go in swinging?(force). Do you dance around nimbly? (Grace). Do you wait for your opponent to tire or make a mistake? (resolve) Do you study your opponentes moves, lookign for an opening ?(wits)

Certainly, some actions gravitate more towards some stats than others. It’s hard to read a book with force, but then, it is rare that reading a book merits bringing in stats. If the book is so exceptional as to merit that, there’s a good chance the exceptional circumstances also invite broader stat uses.

Now, this is implicitly a combinative system, in that when you enter a contest, each side chooses the stat they’re using, and each sides’s effectiveness is determined by combining the two stats in question (So if I use force and you use grace, the winner is decided by the higher force+grace).[3] In MUSH, this makes for a nice guessing game, as you want to use your strong stat, but you might be incented to use a stat you think your opponent is weak in.

Translated to the tabletop, this changes a bit, at least in part because challenges will not be with other players (at least as often), but may be against the environment or NPCs, which is to say against challenges set by the GM. Provided that there’s some way to handle blind betting (so to speak) when appropriate, the system works just fine with inanimate challenges and NPCs by t GM simply assigning them stat equivilancy. That door might have a high Resolve and Force, but negligible grace and wits (it’s a door after all) and it always uses Resolve (because, again, door). That mean breaking it down (force & resolve) is harder than picking the lock (Wits & resolve) but either approach is doable.

Ok, don’t take this as cast in stone, but let me illustrate this with a sample system.
If I was inclined to express the stats as dice, I’ go with something influenced by the new designs in the Cortex system. Normal/Negiligble is d4, with values going up to d12. Fast and dirty chargen is to give 4 d8s (or d6s, depending) with the rule that you can drop a die one step to increase another die by one step. Minimum d2 (indicating an active problem with the stat), maximum d12.

Combine that with the Baselines from earlier in the week and you quickly get a character sheet that perhaps looks like:

Force: d6
Grace: d10

Resolve: d8

Wits: d8

Scion of Argent: d6

It’s still not quite there, but the bones are starting to emerge.

1 – From that point we realized th emechanic could just as easily handle “Drunk” and then we were off to the races
2 – It is genuinely a terrible game, but only in the same way that raw sirloin makes a terrible meal.
3 – There are other elements that enter into this in the actual game, but as an abstract, that will suffice.

More Not Amber – A Very Special Episode

I dig broad skills, whether freeform (like Over the Edge or Risus), structured (like the forthcoming Leverage RPG) or somewhere in between (like yesterday’s still-awkwardly-named baselines). Their benefits are obvious: you cover a lot of territory with very little in the way of rules or text. You get shorter character sheets that are usually easier to read since broad skills are usually written in plain language rather than expressed as arcane combinatiosn of skills, advantages and disadvantages. Plus, they tend to give themselves over to fast character creation. Compare the effort involved in creating a GURPS black op with just writing “Special Forces: 4d” and the benefit is obvious.

But that also speaks a little bit to the flaws of the approach. The most obvious is that you are sacrificing a certain amount of differentiation between characters if everyone on yous special forces squad has the same mechanical representation. This is less of a problem than it looks at first, though, since the creation of similarity usually serves to highlight differences more clearly. To use one of my favorite examples, all of the four musketeers have the common trait “Musketeer” but their differences (expressed in other traits like “Former Churchman,” “Disgraced Nobleman” or “Ambitious”) are all the more clear as a result.

More subtly, you can have problems with what PDQ calls the “penumbra” of these traits – the scope of actions and activities that fall under their auspices. To use the “Special Forces” example above, that probably covers a number of things, including fighting and sneaking, as well as knowledge of military procedure and protocol. But how does it differ from “Ninja”? There are color differences, certainly, but there is so much penumbra overlap that there’s a danger that the color will get overwhelmed. The trick for dealing with that is, of course, to make sure the color stays important – so long as the traits are also suggesting game elements (special forces draws the military into the game, ninja draws in ninja clans, and in both cases the relationships complicate things) then it works out.[1]

The last and perhaps most persistent problem is edge cases. Specific skills that MIGHT fall under the auspices of a trait, but also reasonably might not. For example, can our special forces guy fly a helicopter? It’s conceivable, sure, but that’s a pretty specialized skill, so it’s also perfectly reasonable that he cannot. Making decisions about things like that on the fly can end up hurting a game if the GM has no external yardstick to use to make these decisions.

To solve this, we can breath some life into a very tired old chestnut in game design, specialization. Historically, specialization rules have existed for one reason: to make combat characters more scary, by allowing them to specialize in their weapon of choice, and thus deal disproportionate death upon all who oppose them. This is sufficiently lame that it’s tainted the whole idea, but games with broad traits can benefit from the, but not in the usual way.

See, the first thing to do with specializations is to make sure the bonus they provide is small. They might make you a little better, but that bonus should be small enough that any min-maxer worth his salt would turn his nose up at it. And that’s good, because the real purpose of the specializations is not to add a bonus, but rather to explicitly say “When the issue comes up, this skill falls under the auspices of this trait”.

This becomes even more critical in a game with a fixed set of traits, like Leverage[2] because that introduces a second issue. While some skills (like helicopter piloting) might fall outside any of the roles (Hitter, Hacker, Thief, Grifter & Mastermind) unless explicitly called in, you also have certain skills which could fall under multiple auspices. Take demolitions for example: it could equally reasonably fall under the purview of the hitter (it’s military), the hacker (it’s gadgetry) or the thief (blowing up safes, duh). The GM may make decisions about which role is appropriate on a case by case basis, but if a player wants to be good at demolitions under all circumstances, then a specialization under his role of choice effectively locks it down. That is to say, if thief is your best trait/role/skill whatever, you might specialize in demolitions under thief, not because it gives you a big bonus (it doesn’t) but because it guarantees that when demolitions come up, you’ll get to use Thief rather than some other value.

This also ends up giving a spin on some of the other problems, since you can now differentiate between the same trait with specialization without it being terribly abusive. We might all be special Forces (4d), but if the specializations around the table are medic, ECM, artillery and so on, it starts getting a little more G.I. Joe, and that’s a good thing. That also speaks back to the cultural baselines from yesterday. This is still a half-idea, but if traits represent a broad culture, specializations can represent subcultures. That is to say, if you used earth as a baseline, a specific nationality might be a specialization, and in doing so would make the crazy Star Trek approach that earth equates to America a little bit less necessary. Yes, that introduces the idea that specialization might also be a limiter, (some cultures may not suggest the ability to drive a car, for example) but I doubt there’s any strict need to adhere to that since, almost my definition, we’re talking about interesting people. Such limits need be applied sparingly, if at all.

To bring it back around, I’m still very fond of broad traits, but using them definitely requires a firm grasp of their failings as well as their strengths. With the right tools, those failings can be smoothed over, and that in turn allows for a lot of power in very little space, which absolutely supports my particular flavor of GM laziness.

1 – More problematic is the difference between “Soldier” and “Special Forces” because the color difference is much smaller. The trick here is that the descriptors are implying a skill progression, much as if the traits had been “Warrior” and “Awesome Warrior”. Since the actual awesomeness is usually in the trait values, this is one of those points that merits a conversation with the player to see if the distinction between their trait and another one is clear to _them_, and if so, have them explain it to you.

2- *Whistles innocently*

Not Amber: Chargen Baseline

For the not-Amber game in my head (let’s call it Argent) i have been pondering the baseline element of character creation. For light systems (and it should be light) one of the most powerful things you can do is establish the baseline for what a character can do, specifically what they can do before they start training or specializing or pursuing other things. As an example, if I wanted to do a modern game with American protagonists, I would assume everyone can drive and read and has some familiarity with American history and culture. If the game was more specialized (college students or soldiers) I might assume basic computer skills or combat training. Establishing that baseline makes the rest of design much easier since you don’t need to come up with a skill system to represent each of those things. Instead you just assume basic competency (whatever that happens to be in the system) and make note of exceptions, so if a character is illiterate, you note that, not that everyone else is literate.

In a multi-world (and multi-genre) game like Argent, this gets a bit more interesting. Certainly, you have a local baseline, “Scion of Argent” or whatnot, and it probably covers all the basics of a courtly fantasy upbringing – swordplay, horsemanship, poetry, chess and so on – but that’s not the only case. Some characters grew up on other worlds, or have spent enough time in them to go native, and the baseline for such places is likely quite different. A child who has grown up on the neon-lit streets of a cyberpunk city probably knows very little about riding horses and has a very different idea about poetry, but he can also probably drive and operate a computer and a gun.[1]

This is not mechanically hard to represent. The creation of new baselines is a simple enough act of bookkeeping, and even games which don’t explicitly call this out mechanically can do it implicitly by simply respecting backgrounds. However, I think it’s underutilized for one simple reason – every single one of these new baselines is a powerful bit of worldbuilding.

One of the classic problems in Amber, which I anticipate also being true in Argent, is where the opposition comes from. If you establish a place as the center of the universe and give it maybe one comparable power, you’ve undercut some of the awesomeness of supporting every reality. In many games, powerful groups or individuals come from the infinite spread of worlds in order to liven up games. The problem is that usually those are born from the GM’s mind, and they don’t necessarily fit the game as the players envisioned it because they had no way to envision this element.

With that in mind, the GM should look to any new Baselines[2] as the places for this opposition to come from. The laws of drama and metaphysics both favor the idea that places become more important from visitation by scions/princes/whatever, so the trick is to extrapolate a power in shadow that uses that baseline.

A good example of this can be found in a comic I like, Invincible. Among its many features is a world-spanning government organization that deals with serious threats, something akin to S.H.I.E.L.D.. It’s role in the setting is interestingly gray, and if a character comes from this sort of setting, that organization might be a great element to bring into the game. They find out about other worlds (“dimensions”, as they see it) and their agenda of protection and info/power gathering starts extending on those lines.[3]

The bottom line is that whatever makes that world interesting to the character should also make it interesting to the game as a whole. Sure, it creates the possibility of direct ties to the problem, and that’s great, but it doesn’t necessitate them. The personal relationship to the problem can take any number of forms.

As a bonus, this can also be turned on its head by GMs who already have ideas they want to bring to bear. All the GM needs to do is write up the baselines for the appropriate world. It won’t do anything to necessarily warn them of the coming threat, except perhaps in the broadest of terms, but it puts the idea on the table early, turning it into a point of collaboration, not dictation. And players can always say no, but if the GM wants to sweeten the pot by making his baselines a little bit more appealing, mechanically speaking, well, that’s just good fun.

This is also a fuzzy idea, but it’s also not unreasonable to tie baselines to powers, especially if they’re based on a firm understanding of the underlying concepts. This is equally true if powers are mystical things as it is if they’re educational. Computer science is powerful magic if you can apply it to things outside of its normal sphere, for example.[4]

1 – This gets a little more hairy when the new baseline is “better” than the normal one, such as a world of courtly aristocrats AND computers.
2 – Need a better name

3 – It doesn’t hurt that Invincible, like most supers, already has the idea of multiple worlds, but the model could work just as well with the NSA.

4 – Curiously, this lens also makes the Merlin chronicles make more sense, if you view it as a means to make ideas from our earth (Computer Science) dangerous to the universe.