Category Archives: Techniques

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.

Lateral Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Villainy Done

So, I’m a (slightly lax) practitioner of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, which is a fancy way to say that I use a certain set of tricks for keeping useful to do lists. GTD has been incredibly useful for me in a number of ways. I’ve mentioned before how well it applies to player actions, and recently I’ve been thinking about how one lesson in particular translates very well into adventure design.

See, the trick I learned from GTD, and which is good all around advice, is that when you put an item on your todo list, it should be a physical action, not just an idea. Too often, people write down something general like “Set up New Desk” and it sits idle because they haven’t thought about the actual actions they need to take, which might be “Clear off the current desk, haul away current desk, bring new desk to office, bring tools to office, assemble new desk”. Each of those actions is something that can be envisioned, accomplished and checked off, and if you have a concrete list like that, you’re much more likely to actually do something rather than put it off.

As useful as this idea is for getting chores done, it’s even more useful for villainy. Just as physical actions can bridge the gap between needing to do something and actually doing it, they can bridge the gap between a villains abstract goals and motives and actual play. Which is to say, take a few minutes to look at your villain’s (or other prominent NPC’s) to do list. After all, every good NPC has some sort of goal they need to accomplish, and that should always demand some sort of action.

For example, let’s say we have a small crime boss in the city of our game. We’ll call him Mart, and he’s looking to expand his holdings. That’s a great one sentence blurb, comparable to what you’d see in a published product, and it makes a good seed. To create some play from it, let’s drill down a little bit. He can’t get up in the morning and just expand his holdings – he needs to do things to do so – so what can he do? Well, he’ll need more men, more territory, or more business. So let’s make that his todo list:

  • Get more men
  • Get more territory
  • Get more business

So, we’ve gone from a goal to a broad list (in GTD terms, these would be projects) , but now we need to break it down into actions, and in doing so, we’ll see these are more complicated than it seems. Again, let’s pick one: Getting more men.

Getting more men is not just a function of putting up flyers for thugs. Men need to come from somewhere, and they need a reason to work for him. He needs to find a source of men and get the resources to bring them on board. Now, if this were a real-life project, we’d have steps for gathering information and analyzing options, but in fiction, we can skip that (I say this casually, but it’s a very powerful and creative capability). Let’s say, for example, Mart sees three opportunities. First, recent bad weather has left a lot of out-of-work sailors. Second, it’s always good to recruit early from neighborhood kids. Last, there are always mercenaries available in a pinch. Mercenaries are easy, and kids are complicated, so let’s use the sailors to illustrate further.

The sailors are a good starting point, but he can’t just walk into a bar and ask the room “Any out of work sailors want to do some crime?” I mean, he could, but it’s not a good strategy. He could put up a posting, which might get some (if they can read) but it might get too many, too few, or unpredictable quality. Plus, it is fairly public, which may be problematic. A better plan might be to make contact with a reliable agent and use them as a go between to bring on the sailors to…what?

Here we hit the rub, and the benefit of the system. He’s not just hiring sailors to hire sailors. He’s hiring them for a purpose, to expand his holdings. He needs a plan of action for them. So, these are sailors, not necessarily reliable, but available. Maybe he gives them a little extra coin for drink to go to a bar outside his territory he want s to annex and be on hand when he sets up a dice game and basically lays claim. That’s a plan. So, his task list looks like:

  • Speak to bartender in the docks to identify a smart, hireable sailors.
  • Interview said sailor.
  • Offer him employment.
  • Get said sailor to spread around drinking money with strings attached.
  • After sailors gather, start dice game.
  • When confronted, escalate to violence.
  • In conflict, overwhelm opposition with superior reinforcements (sailors).

All very tidy, but the trick of it is that each of those steps is concrete enough that it can either be a hook or a problem. A specific action might impact players (forcing reaction) or it might go wrong (forcing the NPC to improvise and call in help, which is to say, the PCs) . Finding the hooks is a simple matter of running through the list and asking

  1. How might this impact PCs if this happens to them or someone they know?
  2. What happens if the PCs find out about it?
  3. How can this go wrong?

Looking over that list and Mart’s list, my two guy with swords might

  • Overhear the conversation, find out about the plan, and…
    …realize a fight would be a great time to rob the dice game.
    …realize they could make money selling out this plan to the competitor
    …beat up the trustworthy sailor and take the money
  • Get approached by Mart after the trustworthy sailor runs off with the money
  • Get brought in by the tavern owner, afraid someone’s going to muscle in on his territory
  • Get drawn into the fight as it breaks out around or near them

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Anyway, what’s important is that all of this built from a sentence: Mart is a criminal who wants to expand his holdings. Published material is full of similar information, but it often lacks guidelines for moving from those motives into things that generate play (unless the motives directly apply to the PCs to begin with). Going to specific actions is a great tool for bridging that gap, and it’s a fun one. Remember, there’s no need to do this with EVERY element in a game. Doing so would be way too much to keep track of. Instead, it’s just a tool to go from “huh, I’d like to use this NPC” to “I have a plot involving this NPC” in a very natural feeling way.

One other thing: I realize that for some people, thinking about NPCs in this fashion gives them too much agency. Some feel that NPCs should only have an existence in the context of the PCs, and that this sort of thinking is inappropriate. To that, I suggest that this idea is not contradictory to that, it is merely tangential to it. The ultimate purpose here is to inspire intersections with your players that feel dynamic and like they’re a natural extension of play. Whether or not this exercise produces any “offscreen” impact is totally a matter of GM taste.

The Challenge is Challenge

I used to run out of inventory space on my D&D character sheets. I was utterly fascinated with packing just the right tool for every sort of situation, and I spent an unreasonable amount of time figuring out the lightest, most useful kit I could pack. As a player, it’s a lot of fun to come into a situation and have just the right tool to short-circuit the challenge and move on (especially because the challenge is almost certainly unfair in a substantial and gygaxian way). There’s sort of a double satisfaction to this because, outside of fiction, it’s what good problem solving looks like: finding the easiest, most effective solution with the tools on hand.

Unfortunately, that can make for a very boring game (and a frustrated GM).

A lot of adventure design gets committed to keeping things from being simple. The logic behind this is reasonable enough: simple challenges are quickly resolved with little sense of risk or engagement, and that is a recipe for boring play. Unfortunately, the obvious solution (making things arbitrarily more challenging) is workable but ultimately counterproductive.

To illustrate this, consider a dungeon. There might be some reason to go into the dungeon (rescue the hostage, let’s say), but how many of the challenges you’re going to run into have any bearing on that? In some adventures, they might all be, but I think we all have experience with the adventure where there’s a mandatory quota of fight scenes with random-seeming monsters. Those encounters “flesh out” the adventure and keep it from being too simple.

But that’s sloppy design. It’s LAZY. Look at it this way: if I have a bunch of cultists take a prisoner, there are lots of ways I can make the adventure more challenging. I can include an important NPC among the cultists backers, meaning I may face legal barriers keeping me from pursuing the cultists. I may face hard choices in terms of the price of stopping them. Maybe the cultists are not so morally black as I think, calling into question the righteousness of violence as a solution. I can introduce a second challenge (Burn Notice Style) and make the real difficulty in juggling both concerns.

Or I can just add a few more monsters/fight scenes.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love good fight scenes. If I want to add more of them, there are plenty of ways to do it that make more sense then “And behind this door lives a shambling mound!” Similarly, I’m sympathetic that for any published adventure, the lack of hooks into the specifics of the campaign being played limits options, but I must add that it doesn’t remove them entirely. There are too many examples of good adventures to pretend it can’t be done.

The specific solutions for this are going to depend a lot on your game, but the question it raises is always going to be the same. When looking at a challenge you’re going to throw at your players, ask yourself how it’s going to make the game better as well as harder. There are lots of good answers, including “It will be an awesomely fun fight”, “I need to give this player some spotlight time” or even “Holy god, I need to fill an hour – Fight time!”. Just make sure you have an answer.

Fiction, Fairness and 4e

In my discussion of the role of skills in spotlighting character awesomeness in 4e (or more precisely, the lack of this) the counterpoint of solving the problem in the fiction of the game was raised and I think this merited some attention. There are a lot of issues with games – not just 4e but any other games – that can be addressed in the fiction of the game rather than with rule changes. This is especially true of things that relate to the role of the players in the context of the game. How important and respected the characters are is only sometimes a function of rules. However, there’s a point where this breaks down. When you need to solve a problem for the group, then look to the fiction, but when you need to solve a problem for a character, it’s less reliable.

Let’s look at the specific case of rangers and tracking. If I want to respect the idea of tracing as a Ranger schtick despite 4e’s not doing so, there are a few fiction and technique options available to me. I can certainly have other people _react_ like he’s exceptional (fiction) and I can make his failures more reflective of his awesomeness (You didn’t fail because you sucked, you failed because it was SO HARD that only you even faintly had a chance of doing it! – fiction) but that’s a pretty meh solution. The reactions aren’t very compelling unless they hold water in play. The fiction of failure looks like a good idea on the surface of it, but it leads me to ask when you’re _not_ doing that? If respectful failures are only an exception in your game then I would consider that a red flag.

The last solution is, of course, to make the Ranger’s rolls inherently more potent, or increase the number of situations where I don’t call for a roll. I can certainly couch this in terms of fiction, but the reality is that at that point I’m making a mechanical distinction (whether I acknowledge it or not) and that’s where the ice gets thin. At that point, we have to deal with the reality that someone else in the party can make the roll too, and they (reasonably) expect that the outcomes of their rolls will be proportional. If the Ranger and I both roll a 17 but his outcome is much better than mine, I’m going to call foul.

Now here’s the important point about it being a rule that’s very easy to overlook. My objection is not going to be that Ranger’s shouldn’t be awesome at tracking. If you ask me, I’ll agree they probably should be. Rather, the root of my objection is that this idea has never been communicated clearly or usefully, and my expectations have been violated. I like to assume that most GMs are good enough to make smart, engaging, fun rulings on the fly, and that’s great, but it’s foolish to rely on that. Not because the GM is going to trip up or be a jerk, but because the players have no visibility into a ruling-based process. A rule is a means of communication, and in solving problems (especially problems between players) more communication is almost always better.

Now, obviously, some games call for more or less of this (The Amber DRPG is almost entirely ruling based, while 4e actively strives to minimize the need for such rulings) and more, some tables have radically different ideas regarding how this should be approached. Often, the “GM-As-God” approach has less to do with GM authority than with lack of GM accountability. And if people dig that, then awesome. Go forth and continue having fun.

But the bottom line is this: the fact that the GM can fix things in play does not excuse shoddy game design, and it doesn’t excuse shoddy GMing either.

Investment in Advancement

Haven’t done a random idea post in a while, so I figure I’m due.

Twitter discussion with @atminn gave me an interesting idea for how to handle player investment in the setting in a way that ties it directly into advancement. I’m going to present this in a fairly generic fashion, but the concept is pretty easily portable to whatever system you prefer to use.

The core idea is a basic one – tying character advancement to the investment in the setting by tying points earned to specific setting elements (usually people) and paying out advancement when those elements how up in play. The basic model pays out something like this:

1 point if the element shows up during the session.
2 points if the GM has to “take the reins” of the element and actively use it during the session.
3 points if the element is central to the session, seeing use in many scenes.
4 points if the element is put at risk
5 points if the element is lost or destroyed.

This can be tracked pretty easily with something like this on the character sheet – just mark the box as it happens, then pay out the highest value at the end of the session.

For Example, if Lord Chuzzleworth (Chaz to his friends) is your anchor, you might get the highest of the following in a given adventure:

  • Get 1 point if you say go see him, send him a letter or otherwise bring him up in play (it’s very easy for a player to get 1 point).
  • Get 2 points if the GM uses Chaz to hire the group to do something.
  • Get 3 points if that something is to escort Chaz to Castle Winterscap
  • Get 4 points if there are assassins after Chaz specifically (as opposed to generic road dangers)
  • Get 5 points if Chaz gets killed.

Now, by itself this is pretty abusable, since it basically encourages players to get their elements killed and replaced as quickly as possible, so there needs to be some check on that, allowing for investment in an NPC or other element to grow over time. To model this, I propose that at the end of every session (and chargen) the player gets a point. That point can be used to add a new element at “rank 1” (more on that in a second) or to increase the rank of a current element (I’d cap the maximum number of elements somewhere around 3).

The “rank” of an element indicates it’s maximum payout. That is, if your character’s father is one of his elements, but only at rank 1, then the character only gets 1 point of XP when dad shows up, not matter how involved his role. This is not exactly speedy investment, but it makes the ideas of risk and loss carry a bit of a mechanical edge in addition to whatever they may mean in the fiction.

There’s a lot of implicit information for the GM to work with in this kind of setup, but most importantly, it can turn the player into an advocate for risk. Even the most mechanically-minded player has incentive to push things towards the more dangerous (and interesting) outcomes, and at the same time offers some small payback if things go horribly wrong. In some ways, it’s the flipside of the XP system from The Shadow of Yesterday. It’s not player directed, as TSOY is, but that sentiment of transparency and explicit xp hooks is definitely baked into the thinking.

The Princess Is In Another Castle

A couple of people asked in comments yesterday what I mean by unfairness. I started to reply, but it ran long enough to turn into today’s post. Now, while it would be easy to turn to fiction for examples, the simple truth is that most any good example of unfair from fiction would be a spoiler, so I must tread carefully.

At its heart, unfairness hinges on expectations, in this case player expectations. They did X, so they deserve Y. They Killed the dragon so they deserve the reward. They broke into the vault, so they deserve the treasure. When they don’t get it, it’s easy to be pissed or to feel the GM pulled a bait and switch. The players had a reasonable expectation of outcome (both mechanically and within the fiction) and the GM is explicitly defying that expectation, usually through simple expedience of the GM narrating the world (which someone will insist on calling fiat because, hey, what’s a good discussion without fighting words?)

A very bad example of unfairness would be the player’s rescuing the king from assassins, but he then dies falling down the stairs. That’s kind of random and capricious, and it makes a useful example because of the reasons it doesn’t work. It definitely violates the player’s expectations of outcome (they saved the king, he should damn well stay saved), so why is it a bad example? It’s because the reversal is too neutral. It’s bad, sure, but it’s not BAD. In contrast, consider the example of the heroes saving the king only to have him believe that THEY were the assassins, and call for their heads. That’s unfair, but it’s the right kind of unfair.

Good unfairness can be found throughout darker fiction (Martin, Morgan and Abercrombie spring to mind). Heroes are reviled and villains exalted. No good deed goes unpunished. You know the drill.

Dramatically speaking, it’s all about the emotional charge. Mckee and Snyder both talk about this, but I’ll sum up: in fiction, a good scene starts at one emotional state (positive or negative, + or -) and changes state over the course of the scene (or beat, depending). Sometimes those go to double positive (++) or double negative (–) for great victory or terribly defeat, but the general idea is pretty easy to grasp. In almost every interestingly unfair situation, the players are expecting a big payout (++) and the GM instead hands them a ticking time bomb (–). That’s a huge emotional jump, going from the high of the expectation to the abrupt low. This is why the king falling down the stairs is kind of lame. It’s bad (maybe – at worse) but it’s got no real punch for the players. The emotional level doesn’t make as big a jump, so it’s just kind of annoying.

But here’s the rub – the power of the event is all about that unexpected reversal. The bigger the gap, the more powerful the moment, and that’s what demands unfairness. Specifically, it must be unexpected, and under any kind of measure of fairness, that big a jump would simply not be possible. It requires disempowerment, opacity and surprise, all of which are INSANELY abusable things. But they do the job.

Now, I want to note that unfairness is not necessary for the _events_ to occur. A fair table populated by players with a good sense of drama are fully capable of inviting outcomes on themselves every bit as brutal as the dramatically unfair GM is going to do, perhaps even moreso. But I am saying that unfairness (or more aptly, the surprise and dramatic shift which only unfairness can allow) is the only way to deliver the real gut punch.

Obviously, this is only one sort of payout. I don’t expect every table to prioritize it the way that I do, nor would I want them to. Games offer a huge array of emotional rewards, and it’s well worth going towards those you value most. But it’s an important one for me, and I consider it a tricky one to do well, so I figure it was worth some air time.

Pacing

The first post-holiday game of the Cold War game I’ve been running was last night. Coming back from a break is always rough, and there’s often a fear the game will have lost it’s inertia during the hiatus. Thankfully, things went off very well, and we had a great adventure chasing shadows and lightning in time-stopped Washington DC.

It was a great session, but I was not originally going to write about it. We’d had fun, but I’d had no particular mechanical insights as a result of it, and I’m not comfortable saying how awesome a session was without some sort of excuse. I have a skill challenge idea queued up that’s chomping at the bit to see daylight and I was ready to let the session go by with a nod until Fred noticed something: we had finished early.

This is strange enough that we went back through the usual range of possible explanations: had we started early? No, we actually started about 15 minutes late. Had the session felt skimpy on content? Nope, it had been pretty much stuffed from end to end.

We had no explanation, except that the pacing of this particular adventure had really just rocketed along. I was a bit surprised myself, since I hadn’t exactly planned for it to be a fast session, but in retrospect I saw many of the decisions that lead to it. Some of them were just good habits, but some of it seems to have been an upshot of running Leverage (and its variants) over the break. Leverage does a lot to support very tight pacing without calling it out explicitly, and I need to keep a few of those things in mind. Some of them are classics (like starting out with a bang) but a few more are up for consideration of a permanent place in the toolbox. Notably:

Niche Protection is Not Just For GMs – It helps things a lot when players have an understanding and respect for the strengths of other characters, measured by the simple rubric that if they encounter a problem of a certain kind, are they more likely to just try to tackle it or are they likely to call in the expert? This has a subtle impact on how effectively you can play with a divided group: if the group has that level of respect, then getting divided isn’t a big deal because they’ll naturally draw each other back into play. If they’re all rugged individualists or roughly equally capable, then things can remain unfocused. Mechanics play a role in this (as you often want the guy with the bigger bonus) but it really hinges on the players buying into the idea to work.

Small Details Carry Weight – In Leverage, these tend to take the form of post-its littering the table in front of me, which demands a certain brevity, but I came at it from a different angle last night. To underscore the oddness of the time stop, I made the decision to switch to the language of a horror game in my descriptions. That meant small, colorful details but not a lot of dwelling on minutiae. Draw attention to things that change. The net result may not have been hugely scary, but it was surprisingly focused. Horror, after all, depends a lot on pacing to maintain tension, so it’s no shock that what works for it can work well for other pacing.

This kind of terseness also goes a long way towards helping your players create strong visuals in play (since it gives them more freedom to play while providing simple building blocks to anchor from). Since those are the things they’re going to take home with them at the end, don’t underestimate how big a deal that is.

Maintain a Clear Course of Action – This is one that’s going to be easy to say, but maybe hard to explain, and I expect to chew on how to express it more effectively for a while, but the short of it is this: the clearer the course of action is (clear in terms of evident, not necessarily clear in terms of a lack of obstacles – obstacles are half the fun), the faster things will move, especially if there is some external pressure to keep things moving. On its face, this is dangerously close to a case for railroading, but that’s not the heart of it at all. For one thing, there will often be more than one useful course of action, and for another this is about action on the scene level, not the whole arc of the adventure.

This hinges on information management – it’s all about making sure the players have enough information to make decisions (at least most of the time) and that means that they need to feel confident in their knowledge of 1) What they would need to do, 2) Whether or not they’re capable of it and 3) the immediate consequences of doing so. Adversarial dungeoning encourages GMs to be be very cagey about these data points, especially #2 and #3, but that’s a bad instinct. Not only does it slow play, but keeping everything obscure utterly devalues the things you shroud for good reasons.

The Good Parts Version – This is an old one from the bottom of the bag that merits dusting off. The speed of a particular scene or action should not depend on its importance, but rather it should be inverse to the level of player engagement. The only long scenes are ones where all the players are engaging each other – everything else deserves to be brisk and keep the ball moving. If it’s something a player enjoys, it should take longer than something that’s clearly a plot necessity.

This technique is super-useful to GMs looking to weed their own garden. It makes you aware of things you’re stretching out because they’re cool to you but not your players, so you can decide what to do about that.

Anyway, it’s not a science yet, but I feel like I may have started getting my hands around really making pacing work. Which is one more reason I need to get working on that Skill Challenge thing.