Category Archives: Techniques


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.

The Second Adventure Triad

Ok, to refresh, I posited that the three main models of adventure motivation are Procedural (sequence of scenes or reverts towards a dramatic or appropriate conclusion), Goal-driven (moderately open play with a goal providing overall direction) and Situational (Where the characters are put in a situation which will evolve based on their play).

I present these as a triad rather than a sequence because it is not hard for these to bleed into one another, and in reality, it is rare for a game to move purely to one of these points, and rarer still for it to stay there. Instead, actual play moved towards the spaces in between these points, and those can be described in broad terms.

Between Situation and Procedure, we have Exploration play, which it might more accurately call progression. The model is simple: When play begins, the players are in a particular place or state (such as the small town near the low level dungeon), and as the game progresses, the range of places available to to the players expands. This is probably most commonly seen in video games, but it’s also a common part of D&D and D&D style adventures. The 4e model of moving from the world to the inner planes and on to the outer plains is also a good example of this. The procedural element revolves around the progression from zone to zone, as it were, but it’s still largely situational because those “zones” are large may have a lot of scope for play within them.

The Quest is a combination of Procedure and Goal based play: it’s got a clear goal (the object of the quest) but there’s a chain of steps to go through to get to that point – to kill the dragon, you have to get the sword, to get the sword you have to find the tomb, to find the tomb you need to brave the archives and so on.

Finally, between Goal and Situation, you have Sandbox style play. There’s an ultimate objective in the form of the goal, but there’s no real limit on how the characters are going to proceed nor at what pace.

So, that puts us up to six models, but the important thing to note is that NONE of these models automatically translate into a good or bad game, nor even faintly trend that way. Each one of those models can be used to build a very good adventure or a truly abysmal one. I’m not just speaking in terms of personal taste – I mean really, genuinely terrible adventures.

That said, these models _can_ be useful when it comes time to talk with players about the game. If you can talk about the models directly then that’s probably easiest, but even if you don’t speak in explicit terms, it’s something to keep in mind as they talk about the sort of game they expect.

Roads, Not Railroads

Ken Hite recently ruffled a few feathers by declaring at a seminar that “Railroading is a pejorative term for a game in which something is accomplished.”

It’s an easy point to argue (as the nice people at have demonstrated) but doing so rather misses the point. The purpose of a generalization like that is not to be true, but rather, to be useful. I have spent no small amount of time talking about how to avoid railroading in games, both as a GM and as an adventure designer, but there’s an important point that runs through all those warnings: there are very good reasons that people railroad.

Now, yes, there are also bad reasons. The nightmare scenario is the adventure which consists pretty much entirely of watching the GM do a puppet show of the story which is totally going to be the basis of that novel which is going to make him famous when he gets around to writing it. Nobody wants that, and when it’s the adventure designer who writes the puppet show, that’s even worse because it just encourages that sort of behavior.

There is also a somewhat more dull sort of railroading that occurs when the player’s stray from the GM’s notes. The classic example of this is the unfinished dungeon map, where the characters are steered away from the parts that haven’t been filled in yet. This example sticks in the mind because a lot of us have experience with it (from our own days of vast dungeons scratched out in pencil on graph paper) but I think it’s a less important one, if only because it’s a hallmark of inexperience, not a true technique. That is to say, more experienced GMs don’t have this problem because they have taught themselves how to wing it in those situations, or they have learned not to use incomplete dungeons.

But the main reason good GMs railroad is, to come back to Ken, to make things happen. The railroad is the through-line of the adventure, the sequence of events that makes it all make sense. It’s not something every game needs to work – it can be equally effective (if more work) to craft a compelling, dynamic situation and insert the characters – but having a through-line helps insure a satisfying conclusion. This is especially true in adventures that have a clearly procedural bent, where the first action leads to the second action and so on (you see this a lot in police mysteries and revenge stories). For these games, that process is a bit of a necessity – skipping over bits tends to either be impossible (because key information is missing or because key steps are left undone – like missing a target or failing to get proper evidence for a conviction).

It’s easy to characterize that sort of game as railroading, but the reality is it’s just a good match for the game in question. The problem comes when that same model is misapplied, either to adventures where it’s a mismatch (such as objective based ones) or handled poorly.

For an objective based game (rescue the princess, steal the widget), players can easily get frustrated if there is only one path to the objective (especially if that path is kind of stupid). One of the joys of fiction and play is unexpected solutions to sticky problems, and given a clear goal, you can expect players to pursue those unexpected solutions with great vigor. Designing such a game with only one path to success invites frustration, especially if that path is easily circumvented (as in the case of an adventure where players can skip large parts of the middle by flying rather than walking).

That frustration tends to lead to the reason railroading is a pejorative – the bad GMing techniques that emerge when players go off the tracks. When players deviate from the script, the GM can choose to roll with it and see where it goes, but she might also choose to try to force the players back onto the right track by force and trickery. Maybe it’ll be subtle enough to feel organic, but it can escalate pretty easily. The GM’s gentle nudge fails, so it becomes a hint, which becomes a push, which becomes a blatant abuse of authority and things end up feeling crappy for everyone.[1]

Obviously, that’s something to avoid, but that’s not hard – it’s a failure of technique more than anything else. Realizing that you’re setting up a railroad for a situation that is a poor match can save you a ton of hassles down the line and by extension, recognizing the same in published games can save you similar hassles.

In the end, I would advise most GMs to think in terms of roads rather than railroads. Feel free to build in those plot threads and through-lines and have them go interesting places. You and your players will probably find it rewording, and if done well, your players will stick to the roads more often than not. But unlike railroads, there’s no disaster when someone swings off a road in an unexpected direction. The trip may be a bit bumpier, but that doesn’t mean it won’t go someplace cool.

1 – This can happen even when the GM doesn’t have a plot of through-line in mind, and is instead merely thrown off by the players circumventing his brilliant encounters. This is even more petty, and there tends to be a streak of vindictiveness to it as the GM seeks to punish the players for “outsmarting” him. This is not a technique, it’s just being a douche, but enough people have seen it in action that it’s left long scars across the hobby.

Reverse Anchors

I’ve mentioned a few times how much I like the idea of anchors as a way to concretely draw aspects into play. The idea is simple: after a player picks an aspect, they name some element of the setting (a person, place or thing) that is tied into that aspect in some way. It provides the player easy ties into the setting and it gives the GM convenient handles with which she can grip onto character’s aspects. Win-win all around.

The other night I was talking with my friend Morgan about some ideas that we’d kicked around for Dresden but which has never really materialized. One of them revolved around thematic categories for aspects to fall under, and we were kicking around ways to capture that, and it occurred to me that you could really make this work by turning anchors on their head.

That is to say, you could begin a game with a limited set of anchors, and say have aspects tie into those. Exactly what those anchors would be depends entirely on the game and the genre. Amber, arguably, provides a great example of this in the form of the cast of characters (the royal family) plus a few key locations. The same thing could easily be done with the little town outside the dungeon or a city in a Dresden or cyberpunk game.

Now, there are some obvious benefits to this approach – a fixed list of anchors and an open list of aspects means you have a pre-built set of tools for building adventures, but this also taps into the same mojo as The Trick. The fixed set of anchors provide linking points for the characters through the anchor rather than directly.

One important qualifier is that the list of anchors is a snapshot, not a fixed list. The initial list should allow for some room to grow as players come up with ideas. After chargen, the list may change (slowly or quickly) over the course of the game. How it changes depends on the game – the game might be complex and call for only occasional changes or it might start with only a few anchors and expand over time.

Obviously, this calls for a little thought before character creation, but it’s actually pretty light duty stuff, and it has the advantage of helping prune the field of unwelcome elements. Any potential elements that don’t interest players enough to tie to their aspects probably deserve to be shuffled off to the sidelines. But with that small amount of work, you have created an easy way to keep a game’s central elements in the middle of play without breaking a sweat.

Faces and Places

Edit: Seems I screwed up my scheduling, so there’s a double post today – this one and the one below. Enjoy the fruits of my inability to read dates!

Dresden Files’ city generation is one of my favorite parts of the game, but it can occasionally create problems for groups that are trying it for the first time, especially if they’re using the Vancouver method of sing a generic city as a backdrop. The problem tends to be the points of inspiration – the usual model is to outline places, the come up with the faces associated with them, but that can be rough when you have no starting point.

So this came up in discussion the other night with Chad “Robot from the future powered by beer” Underkoffler, and his solution is probably the most straightforward – if you don’t have places, then start with the people and then figure out where they are. That works pretty well, but I know that some people like a little more inspiration, so I got thinking about how to do that for a city.

The trick is that you’d basically be generating “A [QUALIFIER] [PLACE] with [SITUATION]” and that’s easy enough to turn into a set of tables, so I sat down and started doing so. Simple enough, at lest for qualifier and place, but situation is a bit trickier. Yes, sure, it’s totally possible to come up with a random list of situations, but I think that would ultimately be counterproductive. Generic situations are all well and good, but the point of doing collective city creation is to come up with things that are relevant to the players. Now, I am sure your players are creative, and they would tie themselves into the events that rolled up with no problem, but that feels enough like cheating that I’m leaving that out. Instead, here’s a simple table of qualifiers and places. My suggestion is that before you roll on one of these, pick an aspect, and let that be the inspiration for the situation in the place.


This has been stuck in my head as I’ve been reading through Influencer by Patterson, Greny et al. It’s a book about how people change their minds – in some ways a practical companion to the Heath Brother’s Switch – and it’s chock full of interesting stuff. But the bit that’s been riding me has been that about persuasion and how it works.

See, verbal persuasion (making a good argument and so on) works pretty well in lots of situations so long as the recipient trusts your intentions and your expertise and so long as they’re not already invested in the subject. If another cook offers you a tip on how to prepare garlic, odds are good you’ll change your behavior and give it a try provided you don’t think they’re trying to pull a fast one. But for less tractable issues, ones where there’s already an investment or other sorts of gravity? Well, the book puts it quite well:

Consequently, whenever you use forceful and overt verbal persuasion to try to convince others to see things your way, they’re probably not listening to what you say. Instead, they’re looking for very error in your logic and mistake in your facts, all while constructing counterarguments. Worse still, they don’t merely believe you’re wrong, they need you to be wrong, in order to protect the status quo. And since the final judge exists in their own head, you lose every time.

I read that and had to go dig up a highlighter to mark it, because I had never seen every argument on the internet, ever, described so succinctly.

The author’s go on to assert that the best real persuader is personal experience, and I have to agree with that. Seeing and doing real things impacts people profoundly, in a way that just thinking or talking about it does not. But they concede the problem with that is that experience can be hard to come by, especially specific experience. And that is where stories come in.

The book has an interesting output driven view on stories as our most effective tool for creating vicarious experiences. That is to say, if you can’t actually be there, a good story from a good storyteller is the next best thing in terms of power to influence how you think. This is not news – marketing has been telling us for years that we sell with stories, but I found this the most practically explained framework for the idea to date.

And it also has me thinking about what we mean when we say stories. What’s interesting about this approach is that it talks very little about how to tell good stories, instead acknowledging that it can be done well or poorly and moving on, and just concentration on the _outcomes_. This fascinates me because, I think, it highlights some of why the term is so contentious in gaming as some people talk about inputs and others talk about outputs, and are then so busy stabbing each other to sort it out.

Anyway, I’m still chewing on this, but I needed to get it out of my head and into circulation.

Glass Bead Fate

Ok, so before I start, I have to ask: did you learn how to play the game? You should have, and if you didn’t then this isn’t going to make a lot of sense.

The reason you want to learn the game is simple: the skills that make you good at playing the game will help make you better at designing adventures for FATE games, including the Dresden Files. The method is simple – once you start getting used to drawing connections between seemingly unrelated items, you can start applying those same skills to finding connections between aspects.

This is one of those ideas that is simple and powerful, so much so that there’s a temptation to just stop there and say “That. Do that.” because if you actually do it, odds are good its benefits will be sufficiently self evident that any explanation will seem like overkill. Still, assuming you don’t have the time to walk through it right now, let me break out an example. This is a variant on the default Glass Bead Game board:

Now, let’s combine this with some aspects from the sample Baltimore characters in the DFRPG.

Evan: Young White Council Wizards, In Over My Head, Heir to Montrose, Precision is Everything, Here’s the Plan, Hail Hail the Gang’s All Here, I’d Rather Not be a Warden, Thanks.
Biff: Trust Fund Jock, “Sorry Mouse”, Dumb Luck, Krav Maga, Mortimer Lewis Abernathy III, Hail Hail the Gang’s All here, Plays the Dumb Jock

I’ve randomly distributed these on the grid. How is not terribly important, you can do whatever you like to spread it out.

One curiosity of this particular map is it’s asymmetry – the item in the middle right is disproportionally connected to the grid, which has interesting implications when applied to adventure design – it suggests that aspect is going to be a crux of things. Something to think about when you fill in the grid for your game.

Next, let’s grab two of these and pluck the string between them to see what it makes. There are a few gimmes – Heir to Montrose and Mortimer Lewis Abernathy III are an easy pair since they suggest a range of issues about society and family and so on. To easy to even consider using as an example.

Let’s consider something a bit more challenging, like, say, Dumb Luck and Young White Council Wizard. White Council drips with hooks, but Dumb Luck’s a tricky starting point because, while it’s easy to bring up during play, it doesn’t have a lot of setting hooks, but the upside is that it’s a wildcard. If these two aspects were on the same character, it would be easy to put these two in conflict with some bit of mundane luck (like winning a lottery) drawing too much attention to his Council role, but it’s a little trickier to tie in both characters. The best bet would be to draw on Dumb Luck as an initiator – the lucky find or discovery of come sort, one that might be of interest to the council. Something that the council values or wants. If you want to introduce some tension, then you give Biff something cool that the council demands Evan take away. If you want to tie them together, then have Biff stumble upon one of the White Council’s secret’s (perhaps a way map, or something personal about a senior council member) that is personally useful, but which Evan either needs to keep concealed from the council, or Evan gets some pressure from the council to “do something” about.

Whew. Ok, that one took some work. ( This is, by the way, one more reason I like anchors – having concrete things to plug into the grid is much, much easier.) But whatever the case, it’s doable, and something similar could be done with almost any pair on the grid, and I encourage you to try. But despite my saying so, you may not believe it.

It is easy to saysee the connections between these things and find potential points of intersection” but as advice goes that’s only marginally more useful than “be creative.” No matter how much you intellectually understand that’s what you want to do, it still can seem impossibly hard.

And that, right there, is why you need to try the glass bead game. Yes, it’s fun and interesting and that’s great, but it’s also a drill, a drill that makes you get better at seeing connections between things. Like any skill, it gets better with useful practice, but like many soft skills, practice is not easy to come by. That is, unless you can find something like the glass bead game. It’s not something I can demand you do, but if seeing connections is something you want to get better at, whether to make for better games or for some other personal purpose, why wouldn’t you give it a try?