Category Archives: Techniques

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.


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.

Leverage Magic; What Not To Do

As noted, I’ve been thinking about ways to add magic to the Leverage system. It’s actually quite easy, especially if you’re going to be adding it from scratch. It’s a bit rougher when you are trying to emulate a specific magic system, but that’s always the way of it.

This has lead to a bit of mechanical experimentation, and one particular bit of sausage-making struck me as something useful to talk about. There’s a particular approach to fiddling around with Cortex Plus that is intellectually very appealing, but which produces the kind of results that look cool on paper, but end up leaden at the table.

Consider, if you would, Button Men. For the unfamiliar, button men is a simple dice fighting game from Cheapass games. The basic mechanics are very simple and easily adaptable to many situations (I’ve run entire wargames using them), and at their heart they boil down to “Each side rolls a bunch of dice. On your turn, you can remove another players dice if one of yours shows a higher value, or if you can add up dice to equal a value they show. After a ‘capture’, reroll any dice involved in the capture” Dice are scored based on their size, so you run the gamut from d4 to d30, and you can really throw down with almost any 5 dice. As time went on, special dice were introduced into the mix, with extra rules, and that’s where things get curious.

Button Men is interestingly informative for Cortex Plus design because the dice tricks it includes are designed for a range of die values rolling against a competing pool. It seems very natural to bring those ideas over into a Cortex Plus roll by introducing ideas like “Knock a die out of the opposing pool”, “Force an opponent to reroll a die” or “Reroll one of your dice”. You can build some pretty cool stuff with this, stuff that allows for some sophisticated interplay between opposing rolls.

But whatever you do, don’t.

This is one of those cases where the fact that you can do something doesn’t mean you should. At present, resolving Cortex rolls is pretty quick – determining success is very fast, and spotting any complications or opportunities is only slightly slower. There may be some delay _before_ the roll, as decisions get made regarding what dice get brought in, but by and large that is a fun kind of delay because, to sound a little wonky, players are usually engaging the fiction (which is in turn represented by dice). The inertia of play keeps moving (or can keep moving – it’s possible to bog down if people get too bonus-obsessed, but Leverage doesn’t particularly reward that).

In contrast, playing dice games after the roll is a total show stopper. Yes, some players can glance at the dice and near-instantly make all the decisions necessary to move forward, but they are very much the exception. Play is more likely to stop as players consider the smartest option. This speaks directly to Linneaus’s first principle of dice game design: Downtime is the enemy. No one want sot be left sitting there at the table while a player decides which of two options is marginally superior.

In broad game terms, this is something you avoid by making choices simple or obvious. This seems counter-intuitive, at least in part because we don’t want to neuter the player’s choices, so let me unpack this a bit. When we’re talking pure game decisions, we want to minimize uncertainty. To use 4e as an example, players have a lot of tactical choices, but the only real uncertainty is whether they’ll hit or not, and that applies equally to all options. A player may need to make a decision between burning a daily or encounter power in a given attack, and while this may lead to some indecision, that indecision is not rooted the player not understanding the outcome.

In contrast, let’s imagine a Leverage rule that let’s you force a reroll in an opposing die. If that die came up showing it’s max, then it’s no real choice, but what if it just rolled ok? What if forcing this reroll means you also reroll one of your dice? On a close roll (especially if there is other uncertainty, such as what tricks the GM might pull[1]) you can utterly freeze up.

Anyway, the bottom line here is that it is possible to introduce all sorts of dice tricks into Cortex Plus, specifically Leverage, but it’s not a good match.

1 – This, right here, is one reason I prefer GM transparency. When the GM has mystery powers to throw into the mix in response to player actions, it invites paralysis and paranoia.

But the Crack Came Back…

So, Cataclysm dropped yesterday. For those unaware, this is the latest expansion for World of Warcraft, and it has successfully drawn me back in. I lost interest a little while after the last expansion (Wrath of the Lich King) and turned my account off for a while, but I turned it back on just before Thanksgiving in anticipation of Cataclysm.

In fairness, most of what I wanted out of the game came in the pre-release patch they issued in November that updated the world and introduced everything but the new content (The ability to level up to 85, opening new zones and so on). That may not seem like much, but it was actually quite huge. Basically, they rewrote the whole setting from the ground up.

In game, they have effectively moved the clock forward. How much is a bit of a question, as I have so far seen indications of it being anything from five to twelve years, but the net result is that the world has changed in ways that are _intensely_ satisfying to someone who paid attention to the lore. Important NPCs have died, boundaries have shifted, and as a result of the eponymous cataclysm, geography has been drastically altered in places.

At the same time, Blizzard has taken the opportunity to fix…well…everything. Virtually every zone has been scrubbed and rebuilt according to the lessons they’ve learned from running the game for six years. They’ve made travel easier, clustered quests more intelligently and removed a lot of the busywork of play without removing all of it. That last is perhaps the most brilliant of them – some busywork is necessary to help maintain the addictive nature of play, but striking just the right balance with it is essential. As an example, I will point to mining.

In play, there are little nodes of metal deposits scattered throughout the world. If your character is a miner, you can click on one of these and, after a few seconds of animation, you’ll get some metal. Originally, you did this once, got one piece of metal, and the node disappeared. The result was that metal was fairly scarce, and at some point Blizzard patched it so you could do this several times per node (usually 3) before it disappeared. This was better, but you had to do the click and wait 3 times. Now, you click and wait, and you get several pieces of metal – the same reward as doing it several times, but without the extended wait. It’s a small fix to a small minigame element, but it’s the kind of attention to detail that makes a game work.

Even if you never play WoW, there are lesson in Cataclysm that you can probably take back to your game. To my mind, the big three are:

Make Fun Easier With the Right Kind of Challenge – Cataclysm does this by restructuring quests by putting the guy who gives you a quest much closer to where you need to do the quest. Similarly, the game makes it easy for you to find where you need to go to do it. Now, this is not to say that you should start saying that your game should start collecting 10 wolf ears to give to Hornswaggle Beltbuckle, but you should look at the structure of it. Challenges which are difficult, but which have a clear course of action are FAR more satisfying than challenges which are frustrating because the course of action is unclear.

For example, if you are given a quest to kill goblins until you find 10 goblin beads, then bring those back, there are two ways you might be stymied (beyond the goblins’ objections): The goblins aren’t dropping[1] the beads fast enough, or you can’t find the goblins. In the first case, you might be annoyed, but you know what to do: just keep killing goblins. In the second case, you will quickly end up frustrated, maybe check an offline resource or otherwise completely break your flow (there’s an even worse version of this where you’re killing the _wrong_ goblins, but that’s a whole other thing). WoW has minimized the likelihood of this second kind of problem, which means that most problems that remains are ones you address by playing the game. Presuming the game is fun, that’s as it should be.

Immediate Feedback is Powerful – Feedback is a curious two-way street in MMOs, because it applies to both play and design. Blizzard mines data on play like mad so that they can judge the impact of changes they make, and while GMs might take a general lesson from this (pay attention!) we tend to lack the tools and sample set to apply that sort of rigor to our games. However, we can take a lesson from how WoW handles feedback to the players.

Characters in WoW level as you would normally expect in an RPG, but they also are progressing in dozens of other ways at the same time, between their faction with other groups, their profession skills and the assorted accomplishments and awards one can get throughout the game (such as for exploring a zone completely). Because there are so many of these in play, if you don’t pay attention to them, then the rewards they give when you achieve something come as pleasant, semi-random surprises that occour with fair frequency (more often early in play than later). That’s powerful by itself because it hits the same part of the brain that wants to give slot machines money. But what makes it more subtly potent is that if you _do_ pay attention to one or more of these, there are concrete actions you can take which will improve the one you pay attention to. It can take work and time, but the ability to generate immediate, measurable improvement triggers a feedback cycle that does not limit itself to paying out once per session or once per level, but rather, rewards the activity. So given that, how often does your game give rewards?

A Changed World is a Richer World – Bumping the timeline forward is incredibly rewarding both to players (who can appreciate the changes) and to GMs (who benefit from re-purposing old materials), and even if not done as a dramatic jump, it is incredibly cool to come back to the town outside the dungeon you cleaned out a few years back and see how its changed (for better or worse), especially when those changes tie directly back to the PCs an their actions. If you look at a lot of published adventures, they often depend on the backstories of the people involved which do not touch up on the PCs at all. Being able to make the PCs part of that backstory? Priceless.

As a bonus, this is a great way to take ownership of a published setting. Even if you started in Eberron as published, Eberron five years later is much more clearly YOUR Eberron. It’s perhaps not as dramatic a statement as killing Elminster, but it is more widespread.

Anyway, enough of that. I have goblins to kill.

1 – For the MMO ignorant, “drops” are loot. You kill something, loot the body, and find what it’s carrying, usually some coins and junk. If it has a bead, it is said to have dropped the bead.

Cinematic Difficulty in Cortex

Not every Cortex game uses opposed rolls, instead relying on difficulties for handling some simple situations. Leverage does not, but that is in large part because Leverage’s mechanics depend on some very specific interplay among the dice. It’s easy to see why some games would do this: it’s certainly less work to call for a roll and just see what it hits difficulty wise. It allows for a little bit more predictability: the GMs 2d4 has that oddball chance of coming up 8, while a simple difficulty does not. That means the GM has to deal with fewer situations where the dice take things in a direction other than what’s expected.

Those are all good reasons to go with difficulties, but turn them a few degrees and I find them a persuasive argument for using opposed rolls all the time. Why? Because the opposed roll forces the GM to think about the roll, enough to ask herself “Is this really worth rolling for? Am I really ready for this to be interesting, however it turns out?”. That little bit of extra thought can make all the difference between keeping a game cracking along and getting hung up on some stupid roll going wrong. Obviously, rolls will go wrong with opposed rolls too, but the GM should be more prepared for that outcome.

That said, setting difficulties in Cortex is not always intuitive. If the GM has a whole lot of attributes out on the table, then she can usually build a roll out of them, but that’s not a reliable resource. Sometimes the material’s just not there, sometimes your players go off in another direction entirely, and none of the material you have on hand are of any use.

In the absence of that, I suggest some guidelines for creating difficulty based on two words that you can assume almost everything has: “Normal d6” and “Thing d6.” That is to say, if you need to roll for the security guard in a complete absence of other information, then he’s a Normal Thing (or Guy, in this case), so 2d6. Easy peasy. Structurally, this is an extension of the basic rule that you fill in empty slots with d6s, but conceptually the difference is all about making sure there is language to these things.[1]

Assuming one-off rolls, this is not always going to make sense. Sometimes roll should be pretty trivial, but you’re willing to call it to fish for complications. Sometimes a roll will simply be harder solely because the player is making it harder (such as, for example, trying to con someone in a language he speaks badly rather than his native tongue). For those situations, I suggest that a cinematic model of difficulty can be applied.

A cinematic model of difficulty hinges on two axes: is the task important, and is it interesting? These are possibly counterintuitive to someone who is used to thinking purely in terms of whether the task is difficulty or not, and if this is too weird for you to think about, consider that interesting and difficulty usually go hand in hand, and I’ll treat them as a pair in my examples.

Important, however, is the rub. If we were shooting the movie of this game, how important is this task? Is it a trivial distraction, like distracting a barrista to get a free scone? Or is it something critical and high stakes, like disarming the bomb before the timer reaches zero? Important tasks are, by their nature, high tension and high risk, and the size of the importance die reflects that. Identical tasks can have different importance depending on the context – picking a lock may be only moderately important in a bus terminal, but it’s much more important when the water is rising and the sharks have just been released.

Interesting also ties into the movie of the game: how cool would this scene be to see? How exciting is it? How awesome will it look if the character pulls it off? Hard things tend to be more interesting, at least so long as they’re visible to the viewer: one math problem is probably about as interesting to the viewers as another, which is to say, not terribly.

The net result of embracing these two axes is that the cooler the roll is, the harder it will be. Think about that for a moment – the greatest reward will be the most difficult to achieve. There is a specific, rewarding symmetry to that, and let me call out right now that it is not to everyone’s tastes, but it’s surprisingly adaptable. For example, many players take great satisfaction in reducing difficulties through careful planning, seeking to maximize their chances of success. At first blush, such players might seem at odds with this approach, but consider that these machinations may be seen as turning down the Interesting Dial (as things are now a little less seat-of-the-pants). That player is rewarded with what he wants – less risk, greater certainty.

Which leads to the abuse. Players can, theoretically, game the system by doing boring, unimportant things, and I say, more power to them. Sometimes that’s what people want, and if success doesn’t change their behavior, then it’s good to be able to support it.

Anyway, this is hardly applicable to every game, but on the off chance it tickles your fancy, I use the table below.

(And as a bonus guideline, if you find yourself sitting there with 2d4 in your hand, it may be a cue to ask yourself: Does this even need to be rolled?)

EDIT: Quick clarification for those unfamiliar with Cortex: it is effectively an Xk2 system, which is to say, you roll some number of dice (minimum two) and keep the two highest. In this case, it’s assumed those two dice are I&I. In the specific implementation used for Leverage, 1’s create problems, so d4s are effectively penalties on a roll: They do not help the total much, and they increase the odds of rolling a 1. Thus, something that’s Awesome and Trivial would be d12 + d4, and while that averages decently (at 9, same as 2d8) the odds of a 1 coming up are greater, and creating a problem for the GM. That is to say, GMs looking to not suck out, are well served to make things more interesting and important.

1 – Speaking strictly for Leverage, you should really only do this for truly one-off rolls. If something’s going to call for multiple rolls, the Fixer should add a real attribute for them. That said, for other games, you might want to assume the GM has an infinite supply of Normal Things, and only require spending to bump any of those up, or add additional values.