Category Archives: Techniques

Uniquely Qualified

Nothing breaks my heart more than when I hear a GM complain that he wishes there were more roleplaying in his game. It’s tragic because it’s always so heartfelt and sincere and is almost always followed by said GM then introducing his new combat showpiece, hardcore dungeon crawl, or puppet show on rails. It hurts because the problem is so self-evident yet apparently completely unseen.
The solutions can also be painful, as the GM attempts to introduce “roleplaying encounters” into a game which neither wants nor needs them, but that attempt at a solution is emblematic of the problem. The idea that these other elements of gaming are somehow contradictory to roleplaying is pretty much entirely false. It’s a case where there’s plenty of correlation, but the cause is something else entirely.
Now, certainly there are some challenges – system mastery takes time and effort, and during the learning period, it’s hard to focus on anything but the game. Sometimes a GM extends this period by following the path of the hard core – by constantly upping the challenge through increased mechanical complexity, he can extend the learning period indefinitely. That’s a problem, yes, but not a problem with the games. Even the most complicated of games can reach mastery equilibrium in a reasonable timeframe with the right group or GM (or both).
But the real problem is the idea that the crunchy, fighty dungeon crawl is at odds with RP. It’s nonsense, but it’s deeply rooted nonsense that owes a lot to the history of the hobby and especially the history of published adventures. After all, books and movies can be full of high adventure and still support banter, character development, drama and so on – why is it a problem for games?
To understand the issue, let’s take a moment to look at the heroes of fiction, especially adventure fiction. Generally speaking, they’re presented with a challenge or challenges which they must overcome – not unlike adventurers. But the important part, often overlooked in gaming, is that part of the reason that the fiction is about these characters is because they are uniquely qualified to handle the challenge.
This idea of unique qualifications is a broad one because there are a lot of different things that make for UQ, and in fact in most fictions, the UQ is usually a result of a specific combination of non-unique qualifications. To illustrate that, consider that qualifications tend to fall into one of four loose categories – capability, knowledge, care, opportunity, and capability.
Capability is the first thing most gamers will think of. It means the hero is capable of tackling the problem either in the specific (he has the key to a specific lock) or in general (the problem is dangerous and he’s badass). In gaming terms, we tend to jump right to thinking about this in terms of powers, skills and levels, but it can be much more nuanced.
Knowledge means that the hero sees the problem, often where others don’t. Notably, it doesn’t mean the hero knows _how_ to solve the problem – that’s a form of capability – only that there’s a problem to be solved.
Care means that the hero has a personal investment in the problem, a stake in the outcome which they’re invested in. It might be because the problem affects them or those in their circle directly, or they might have a strong position on this particular type of problem. Care ends up being a kind of capability in certain types of fiction, especially noir detective stories – specifically, the protagonist has some moral backbone that allows them to pursue the problem rather than be consumed by the moral failings that surround him, like corruption.
Opportunity is, predictably, the opportunity to address the problem. It might be as simple as an issue of being in the right time and right place, but it might be part of a tangle of available time and conflicting responsibilities. Opportunity can muddle with capability very easily, especially when you start taking about authority or social position. A king can do a lot of things (capability and opportunity) but he may be bound by law (limit of capability) or unable to act due to other duties (lack of opportunity).
Look at any adventure fiction you like, and you’ll find some combination of these in the protagonists. Sometimes you’ll even find different combinations in different protagonists, and that can be pretty cool, but these unique qualifications provide implicit motivation and engagement for heroes in their own adventures.
Now, contrast this with the bog-standard dungeon crawl. At first blush, it looks like it demands several qualities – monsters must be fought (Capability), there’s treasure to be gained (a kind of care) and the dungeon is conveniently nearby (opportunity) but they fall apart when you start looking for uniqueness.
See, by design, a published adventure needs to be able to be run through by any group of adventurers of a certain size and level, which means that, by design , it will demand no unique qualifications of adventurers (except perhaps those which it creates within its own bubble of fiction). Any other group of adventurers could do this (so much for capability), the reward is probably quite fungible (not much care left) and that leaves only opportunity. But thanks to the nature of geography and gaming, odds are good the dungeon of your level is going to “just happen” to be where you can get to it, so that feels like a fairly hollow oportunity.
But the problem is not dungeons! Not even super hard core crunchy ones. The problem is bad habits of framing. If you’re a GM who wants to see more RP, then you need to start making the dungeons more engaging, and to do that, you need to figure out how to make the dungeon something that your specific group is uniquely qualified to address. Start from that foundation of generic threats and generic loot and start making it personal. Give your players a reason why _they_ are the ones going into this particular monster filled hole.
You’ll find that RP emerges very naturally from that engagement, whatever system or style of play you use.

Roleplay and Exploration Rewards

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

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

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

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

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

sample.png

(You can download a PDF of the form here)

Using the Form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Form and Rewards

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Better Instincts

I admit that I’m usually all about taking advantage of your instincts to hose your players to make things more fun for them, but I want to take a second to turn that around.

See, while I’ve gotten better, one of my real weaknesses as a GM is a tendency to be too nice. If things fall apart or go horribly wrong, my instinct is to step in with my GM authority and help save the day. This is a terrible habit – I just can’t stress it enough. Even if I’m not setting forth to show the players the story of my cool NPCs (which I’m not), having them step in to dramatically save the day has the same net result. My game’s no longer about the players, it’s now about whatever the stakes of this particular adventure are.

This is a sinister problem, in part because it comes from a well-intentioned place. Your players are maybe upset and disappointed with the way things have gone, and you want to mitigate that. It’s totally human and understandable, but it will suck the fun out of your game.

However, like all bad habits, advice to “Just stop doing it” is basically useless. There are reasons people have the patterns they do, no matter how “obvious” things may seem to people outside those patterns. So if you have this instinct and you want to change it, then the trick is not to stop, but rather to redirect it.

So, the net time you find yourself in this situation, stop for a second as you pull it all together. Things have gone badly, so you’ve got the cavalry ready to ride. This is the point when you should stop and think – _how_ is the cavalry going to save the day? You need to have a better answer for this than “With their sheer awesomeness” and you probably will have one, because hey, you’re a good, thoughtful, conscientious GM and even if you’re helping you’re not just going to pull an Elminster.

Once you’ve thought about that, think of it as a plot seed. Specifically, think of it as something that’s ready to go but is missing one key element. Then make that element the player’s responsibility.

This may sound tricky, but it’s surprisingly easy, and it’s something you see in fiction all the time. Consider the scenario where the cavalry literally shows up to help – they’ve got the men, they can win the battle, but they’re pinned down by the artillery up on that mesa. Clearly, someone needs to sneak up there and take out that artillery team! Really, look at almost any fiction where the backdrop involves huge, powerful forces (like a war) and you’ll find eamples of how the story narrows down to some lynchpin action on the part of the protagonists.

And now here’s the real dirty trick – once you’ve gotten the hang of doing this, it becomes a trick you can incorporate into all your adventures. This is especially true if you want games against a big backdrop, or ones with powerful NPCs calling the shots, like The Forgotten Realms or any of the older World of Darkness products. If it’s important to you that things and people be bigger than your PCs, then you can still keep things robust by getting the movers and shakers up to 90% but have them need help to get that last 10%.

This works in most play models, even classic mission-based play, but it has the advantage of giving the missions a reason that is somewhat more significant than “The Prince can’t be bothered. You go do it”. And more, by given the players even a small part in big events, you’ll find that it ties them into events more tightly over time. These events, after all, are the things that NPCs respond to, and if players have a tie to the event, that’s a one-step-removed tie to most of the interesting NPCs.

Plus as a bonus, it makes something that’s historically a drag into a real play booster. Normally, the more invested you are in what Khelben Blackstaff or the Malkavian Antediluvian are up to, the less invested you end up being in your players, but by looking for that 10%, that lynchpin, you turne that investment back onto the players, hopefully to a good end.

Anyway, I try not to be a nice GM these days, but the habits are still there. For me, it’s useful to have a practical way to channel them.

Stuffing the Underpants

Great comments on yesterday’s post, at least some of which speak to the subject of today’s post – what to do once you’ve got your underpants gnome plan in place. It’s all well and good for me to say “Come up with a plan, then fill in the gaps that present themselves” but it might be a little unfair to not provide at least a little guidance on how to do so, and what you can do once you’ve got the trick working.

First, one of the easiest and most powerful tricks you can do is run through the list of your characters and ask yourself “Where does this plan intersect with this character?”. Does it threaten someone or something they value? Does it use something they want? Is it taking place in their favorite restaurant? Would it just REALLY annoy them? Or perhaps does it have an element, such as an end, they might be inclined to support? If you don’t have a good answer for one character, that’s ok. If you don’t have a good answer for any of your characters, then perhaps you need to consider the plan.

Second: The underpants gnomes need not be villains. Underpants planning can apply equally well to heroic or even indifferent outcomes. The characters may even find themselves as the agents responsible for delivering someone else’s UG plan, which can get very interesting if they don’t have the whole picture. One of the most classic twists is to have the player’s handle step 2, not realizing that step 3 is something horrible.

As an aside, because it’s a classic, it’s kind of overdone and ham-fisted. If you must do a twist, have step 3 be something reasonably value neutral (like getting the bad guy a resource or removing an obstacle) but which will then be used in the unstated step 4. Also, if you do this, plan for your players figuring it out, and see if you can give them the tools to screw the guy who’s trying to screw them. Few payoffs are as satisfying.

Third, though related to the second: The steps need not be uniformly bad or good. As Joe pointed out in the comments, having a REALLY ADMIRABLE step 3 paired with an UTTERLY ABHORRENT step 2 can make for a powerful mix. Similarly, a benign step 2 with a bad step 3 can be a great play driver. Not just for the twist scenario, as above, but even when played straight by an NPC willing to say “Yes, this bad thing will come of it, but compare that to all the good you’ll do!”. Fun stuff!

Fourth, and this one definitely got tipped in the comments, the true secret of the Underpants Gnomes is that you really only need to be concrete about step 1 and 3. When someone has a premise and a goal, things can go wrong in the middle, but they can regroup and keep trying to pursue the goal. As a GM, this means that so long as you keep your eye on step 3, you can be flexible about the shape that step 2 takes, possibly even requiring multiple attempts at step 2. Goals make much better planning aids than processes in this regard.

Fifth and last – once you have the trick of it, start juggling. Underpants Gnome Plans are surprisingly easy to maintain once you have them in play, so start introducing a few more. Where one such plan can blossom into a decently fleshed out arc, several of them can turn into the kind of tapestry that keeps a world feeling alive and in motion while giving the GM a bottomless bucket of resources to draw on to keep things moving.

Underpants Adventures

Very interesting post about what went wrong with the Star Wars prequels that’s worth a read for writers and GMs. It boils down to a pretty simple point – if you start with a simple plot, it allows for the characters and story to grow more complex in the telling, but if you start with an overly complex plot, then you’ve pretty much put a block on those things.

I’ve always subscribed to the idea that your players should be the most interesting characters in your game, and this advice applies to them as well. Starting from a simple plot creates an opportunity for your game to grow in directions that reflect you and your players.

If you want a practical way to go about this, consider the Underpants Gnome school of adventure design.

Satire aside, the 3 step plan is useful for almost any plot. Start with a villain, whoever it is, and give them a plan that really is as simple as:

  1. Do something simple
  2. Do something complicated
  3. Achieve goal

This is usually easiest if you start from the goal, since that tends to suggest the previous steps. With that in mind, I strongly suggest a concrete goal – “power” (or even “profit”) tend to be so amorphous as goals that they don’t really suggest a course of action. If a goal of that sort is what you’re looking for, then try to pick some manner of specific implementation of it, like leveling up or stealing a particular treasure.

This process is made much simpler if you embrace the cheese. There is a natural inclination to try to make the plots smart, coherent or clever, but realize that a lot of great plots have almost embarrassingly simple underpants structure. Y’know – Take Ring, Throw it in a Volcano, Free Middle Earth. Look at that example and consider how far short of the true complexity of the story that falls – the good parts lie in that difference.

Thus, start with something like:

  1. Kidnap Orphans
  2. Sacrifice them to Orcus
  3. Gain Undead Army

On paper, this looks like the basis of something pretty cheesy, but it need not be. Challenge yourself and consider how this framework might make for a good story. The villain might be interesting, the orphans in question might have compelling stories, the sacrifice might require all sorts of logistics to pull off, maybe the use the army will be put to is interesting. Whatever. The point is it can be done.

The trick is that you don’t need to solve all of the problems up front. The underpants plan should seem unworkable on the face of it because it leaves unanswered questions. Answering those questions is a driver of play.

Rating the Unratable

I think I’ve mentioned before that if you haven’t read it, Atul Gawande’s Better is a great book about how things can get systematically improved. It focuses on medicine, but it’s one of those all-purpose insightful books.

Anyway, one section that really stuck with me was the Apgar score (article version here, for the curious) . For the unfamiliar, this is a rating given to babies when they’re born and a minute afterwards. It rates five things (Complexion, Pulse, Movement, Breathing and Irritability) to quickly generate a score from 0-10. In and of itself it’s not a very detailed piece of information, but it’s simple, easy to asess, easy to communicate, and generally makes an excellent shorthand for the child’s health.

Now, the specifics of the Apgar score are pretty interesting in their own right, but what’s much more interesting is positive impact it had on successful births. In an illustration of the trusim that you must measure something in order to improve it, Apgar scores gave hospitals a yardstick to measure their performance by, so they had something concrete to improve and to judge results by.

What gets me, and what brings this across to gaming for me, is that part of the success lay in the somewhat arbitrary nature of the scoring system. There are a bazillion variables at play when a baby is born, and picking those 5 and saying their the ones to score is, from a certain perspective, almost capricious. But, as with a lot of things, it seems to be one of those cases where making a good decision is a much better path than indefinite delay in trying to find the perfect solution.

So, with that in mind, I’m busting out a list of things GMs do. It’s probably a bad list, but I want to start somewhere. Honestly, I doubt we can come to something nearly as useful as the Apgar score, and even if we come up with a list, there’s a whole question of how to use it, but dammit, you have to start somewhere.

When I started on thel ist I realized that the biggest muddle I encountered was between the GM’s “Solo fun” (that is, design work) and actual play at the table. Both are important, but since I’m trying to take a practical tack on this, I chose to think in terms of how play went at the table. That is, I’m looking to rate things that the GM does in play, perhaps as a list to run through at the end of a session and see how each of these things went.

Removing those non-table elements shortened the list dramatically, but I still don’t feel it’s as solid as it could be, but here it is:

  • Playing interesting NPCs (Strong character voice)
  • Setting Presentation (how well does the world hang together?)
  • Scene setting
  • Engaging challenges (Puzzles, fights)
  • Rules mastery
  • Humor
  • Creating Emotional engagement
  • EDIT BASED ON MANY COMMENTS – Maintaining Focus/Pacing.

So what on that sucks, and what is it missing? Or is the entire methodology flawed, and the list should be entirely different?

The Meek Shall Inherit The Tabletop

One of the most important lessons I learned from MUSHing (for the unfamiliar, think of it as LARPing online) is the power of weakness. People play games looking for chances to be awesome, but in a game where you’re interacting with other players, that creates few opportunities, because everyone else would like to be awesome too. In this environment, the weakest characters were the strongest.

Howso? In this case, I mean ‘weakest’ in terms of most likely to fail. Some tiny element of this was related to stats, but the vast majority of it was a function of player attitude. In a basically cooperative environment, there was not much you could do to FORCE someone to lose, so the person who was WILLING to lose was a treasure. Immature players who didn’t realize this abused it, and mysteriously found themselves unable to find play. For everyone else, the guy who was willing to lose became an incredibly valuable asset, especially if they could lose well. Someone who played a powerful character who was willing to lose? Solid gold.

Now, a cynic might deride this as metagaming. The player who is willing to lose is getting numerous rewards (social esteem and more play, most notably) in return for the willingness to lose in fiction. Personally, I think it’s a more than fair trade, but it’s worth noting that this does involve thinking about the game (and the satisfaction of play) on more than one level.

Now, that’s great for large-scale, multiplayer play, but what’s interesting are its implications for tabletop. While this lesson does not translate directly, the multi-level thinking behind it does translate very well, and provides a specific sort of incentive for weak characters.

Now, weakness translates a little differently on the tabletop. Some of it is character power, but there are also elements of making your own life harder. Whatever route it takes, the purpose is a character who easily gets in trouble and can’t get themselves out of it, thus providing play for the rest of the group. Again, the player is making a tradeoff – they’re sacrificing optimization for the ability to direct play, to be at the center of things and in some cases, for attention.

Now, this is not always a good thing. It can be obvious attention-getting behavior, and when that’s what’s going on, it can be very frustrating to the rest of the group for obvious reasons. But in small doses, it’s highly desirable behavior – it’s something you want from everyone in the group ideally. In many ways it’s the opposite of the stereotypical orphan-loner.

But here’s the rub. Once players understand that their weaknesses pay out like this, the very idea of game balance gets dragged out back and shot. Trying to balance a game on a single axis (like combat capability) becomes amazingly short sighted once players are thinking about play opportunity, spotlight time and game direction. This is not bad in its own right, but it becomes bad when you have mixed understandings at the table. If only one player understands this is what’s going on, then he’s going to play Tyrion Lannister and all those big strapping knights are going to have no idea how they keep getting overshadowed. If you’re lucky, your Tyrion is really trying to help the rest of the group, but if he’s not, then god help you. Every argument you’ve ever had about game balance will get turned on its ear and used against you if you protest.

All of which is to say, be careful, keep your eyes open, and try to make sure everyone at the table has the same idea of balance, at least in broad strokes. It’ll make for a better game all around.

The Gamer’s Choice

I’m on my second playthrough of Dragon Age 2, and I’m trying to make it end differently than it did my first time, because while I “won” the game, I was unhappy with many of the events surrounding the endgame, and I have a very strong sense that at least some of it is a result of choices made along the way. There’s a huge, spoiler-laden post coming as a result of this when I finish (whether I succeed or not, because the experience has been fascinating to me) but one curious thing struck me last night while playing.

One advantage of forcing conversations down trees in a video game is that it can force the player to make a choice. There are only so many options, and the game doesn’t proceed unless you pick one. This can be heavy handed or annoying, but if well constructed, it can work pretty well. The problem, of course, is that this doesn’t really work on the tabletop. You can’t narrow down choices that way, so the idea doesn’t really transfer.

Or does it?

Bioware did a very good job of constructing their menus, and they did something that was sufficiently subtle that I missed it the first time through. In almost every situation where they offer a hard choice (such as supporting one person over another), they almost always offer the Gamer’s Option, which is the non-answer that avoids locking you down and leaves you with the maximum range of options available. In a classic play sense, this is the “smart” choice, because by the logic of gameplay (as opposed to the logic of the game) it is most likely to optimize your outcome.

There’s a less subtle version of this that’s common in RPGs that is often shorthanded as “always choose 1”, in large part because of how Bioware has constructed these conversation trees in older games. Option 1 is usually the nice or good option, and you can usually successfully make it all the way through a game by rarely choosing anything else. It’s pretty clear in play that DA2 subverts that – all good choices all the time has consequences too, some of them quite bad – but what was less clear to me is that they also seem to have subverted the gamer’s choice. The optimal-seeming, low pain, don’t offend anyone path may be there, but it is not necessarily the path to victory. On this playthrough, I’m taking more risks and choosing more sides, and I’ve been seeing good results.

I’m hopeful that it may pay off in the end. Maybe it won’t, though kudos to Bioware for making me try. However it goes, I’m taking this lesson to heart.

In my experience at least, the problem with presenting players with choices has never been the lack of an explicit conversation tree. I don’t want that kind of ham-fisted force. For me, the question is usually what to do if they don’t engage. The instinct is to push the choice harder and harder, but that’s counterproductive.

If you value hard choices at the tabletop, then it’s worth explicitly planning for “none of the above.” Give it meaning, but allow things to proceed if players choose that course. The goal is to move away from pushing the choice hard and creating a “You didn’t choose and I will punish you!” response in favor of a “failing to step up does not go unnoticed, and your protections as a protagonist don’t mean that because you don’t choose, nothing happens” sort of approach. Just as it’s important to put effort into offering good, meaningful choices, it’s worth taking some time to give them good, meaningful context, so that a non-choice carries weight too.

Remember that a choice is also an opportunity. Maybe an opportunity for something good, maybe an opportunity to prevent something worse. Either way, forgoing the choice is also forgoing the opportunity.

A GM can absolutely use this as a carrot or a stick in her game, but I think it’s more important to use it as an element of setting continuity. The choice comes and goes, and things happen as a result of it – what those things are should be impacted by the choice (or lack thereof), but whatever the choice, things will happen.

With this in mind, it’s worth making sure there’s some pressure driving the choice (or non-choice). With a few exceptions, leaving choices available indefinitely to players is a pretty boring path, since the absence of pressure removes any need to do anything but push the decision off as long as possible until it is either irrelevant, or a truly optimal route is discovered.

This, by the way, is something you can do at the tabletop much more effectively than video games. The nature of electronic play means that it’s often easy to put off choices for a long time while you run around and do sidequests, unlock secrets and whatnot. You have many more tools available for pressure and consequence, and it would be a shame not to use them.

Pulling Teeth

More on lateral connections is coming, but I got sidetracked by a thought this weekend. Someone on twitter was talking about bringing “Roleplay” oriented mechanics, like Aspects, into 4e, but was worried that getting his players to RP would be like pulling teeth. I sympathize with this a great deal, so I just wanted to throw out a few observations about systems out there and what purposes they serve, in hopes of finding a toolset that might appeal to recalcitrant players.

First and foremost, if you’re going to do anything like this in 4e, you need to retool action points. As they currently exist, the limits on spending them make them poor rewards, so you want something that makes them easier to use more often. There are lots of cool ideas for this, but I favor using the model introduced in 3.x Eberron – each AP is a 1d6 that you can add to any roll after the fact. You can limit it to attack and skill rolls, or you can expand it to things like damage and saves – totally a function of taste. The only real limiter I would suggest is that they be a one shot thing – you can’t keep spending them 1 at a time until you succeed. Just spend however many as you like, roll them, and move forward (and if you really want, put a cap of, say, 5 rolled at once).

Making a change like that make it much easier to hand out AP rewards for whatever you want more of in your game. In this conversation it’s broadly “roleplaying” but it could be different or more specific. If you want to reward playing to alignment or engaging NPCs or even just following the plot, then you can do that. Just try to have a clear sense of what you’re rewarding.

(Plus, as a bonus, you can get some cool colored d6’s and physically hand them out as the action points, rather than using chips or tokens.)

Anyway, given that, I would strongly suggest against using Aspects in straight 4e, if only because they can cause too much whiplash. Invocations aren’t the problem, but compels can be a sticky wicket, especially since they can seem to be a tool for GM fiat or bullying. Some groups take to the idea easily, but don’t rely on that, since it’s very much a taste thing. You’re much better off with a less fuzzy mechanic.

This is one of the smart things about Leverage’s distinctions. For the unfamiliar, they either grant a d8 bonus or a d4 penalty and grant a plot point, which is structurally aspect-like. The big difference is that it is totally up to the player whether something helps or hurts. The GM might quibble about whether it applies (usually resolved by the player incorporating it into his narration more fully) but the player is choosing to take the penalty himself.

This is hard to map directly onto 4e as there’s no good standard model for penalties, but it’s still useful as an illustration – things that players might be uncomfortable with the GM imposing on them, they are often more than willing to do themselves if you give them the chance. To this end, it’s not unreasonable to put out _offers_ of plot points in return for bad or dramatic choices, nor is it unreasonable to reward players with PP when they do awesome things, but they will balk if you start telling them what they MUST do.

That said, some players still aren’t happy with the GM having his power, and one other option is to move the reward mechanism to the table at large. The most common model of this is “Fan Mail” (from Primetime Adventures) , where players give points to each other when they do awesome things. Generally, this requires some sort of method to keep the points straight, such as giving each player a budget, or putting a common bowl in the center and letting people pay out of that. That may sound simple on the surface of it, but since we’re assuming worst case here, you want to have some reason why players wouldn’t just optimally distribute points to each other (even though that’s pretty lame). One option, for example, is to have them grant them out of a common bowl, which the GM replenishes occasionally, with replenishment based on how many points remain, or how the points were distributed. In this case, you’re trying to incentivise using the points as intended, but if your players REALLY won’t, then you’re better off falling back on a simple reward model.

Alternately, you could use the trick that Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies uses. Players start the game with a small number of points, which they can use for bonuses, or they can give to other players when the other player does something awesome. If the GM agrees it was awesome (which he usually does) then the GM can match that gifted point with one of his own. That is the only way new point get added to the economy, so it creates a curious situation where generosity is the best way to reward the group.

Anyway, my general advice would be this: Get players used to the idea of d6 action points as rewards before you do anything weird with them. Give them out as reward for skill challenges or cool scenes. Get the idea that they’re rewards into people’s heads. Once you’ve done that, start being more explicit about what they’re rewards for. Tie them to specific things, like milestones or quests, but also give them out when a player makes the table laugh, or does something awesome. If they get comfortable with this, then things like fanmail or specific incentives using action points as rewards will not be much of a stretch. If they stay uncomfortable with this, then you know it’s not for your group. If they call it metagaming, then they need to spend less time on the Internet.

But the bottom line is that introducing in-game rewards (mechanical bonuses) for roleplay is, for many players, a non-intuitive leap. They’re different things, and the difference can be jarring. Far better to ease them into it and see if it works than it is to just throw them into the deep end and hope they swim.

What Not to Write

Thinking about other characters and how they can drive play lead me back to a thought that lives in the same orbit as the thinking in my Getting Villainy Done post. The hang up I’ve been running into is this: games are full of things that are _interesting_, but just because something is interesting as a fact does not automatically make it interesting to *play*.

If you look at a random setting, it is probably chock full of color, and much of it will be compelling and, as a reader, really help you bring things to life. Griffon-riding mailmen! Elemental Zeppelins! Randian Cults! Whatever they may be, most of this information will be presented in a way that makes an interesting read, but very rarely in a way that directly suggests _play_.

This is, I think, by and large unintentional, or perhaps to put it another way, well-intentioned. The idea is that if the written material is reasonably comprehensive, then the GM is capable of extrapolating interesting adventure hooks from it. Cynically, this also allows for material to cater to more tastes, as a certain category of buyers doesn’t want adventure hooks, since those go outside the bounds of “How the world works”, which is what really drives their need.

The problem with this approach is simply that it allows for unhelpful writing. I won’t call it lazy, because I know it’s not – these writers bust hump to make things interesting and fun to read. But if the author doesn’t need to think about how the setting material’s going to be used, then she may not, and the net result is really interesting color that does little to nothing to drive play.

This problem becomes more profound when you start talking about lateral play. Players who write back stories have even less interest in playable information than setting designers. They often have deep piles of self-reflective information or arbitrary (and usually lame) SEKRITS that they absolutely won’t tell any other player about.

That’s not a terrible problem in its own right. Lord knows that’s how it’s always been. But this becomes a more pressing issue when you start thinking in terms of what playable information characters are going to have in their background. That is to say, players are well served by mastering playable information too, if only to help come up with character backgrounds that will actually engage other players, rather than be just another failed special snowflake.