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It’s All In The Cards

Apologies for the repost. I originally posted this right after the game, but then we lost it in the server migration. I meant to repost immediately, but then I started actually writing up the rules for this and was going to release both, but those are taking a bit longer than planned, so rather than keep waiting, I’m just reposting this now and will get to the rest of it later.

Needed to run a game for an interesting mix of folks today, and for a variety of reasons I decided to dust off some Amber-derived ideas I’ve had and take them for a spin. Final result was, while not flawless, REALLY interesting, and I certainly had fun. It was also deeply arts & crafts heavy, so it might be of interest to some.

So, we started from a blank slate at the table, and I introduced Proteus. Proteus is, as the name suggests, a shapeshifter, and they are very old and very powerful. They have a tower at the center of several cities in several worlds, and this is their place of power. Proteus also has a number of children, each of which is a power in their own right. They are…

So, at this point I had 7 cards with names on them (Meredith, Finn, Indigo, Keller, Sparrow, Cassia, and Bowie), and I dealt out the top 6 in a circle, setting aside the 7th.

For the next prompt, I pulled out another 7 card deck and said “Let’s flesh them out a bit” and I handed the player to my left a card. Now, this deck was 7 archetypes (The Prince, The Warrior, The Lost, The Wanderer, The Scholar, The Seer, & The Hunter) and I asked players to associate each one with a name, and again I set aside the 7th card.
We repeated this with the next deck of 7 “domains” (more or less arenas of power or similar) – Warden of the Tower, Keeper of the Flame, The Watcher, Nature’s Hand, The Shaper, Walker of Secret Ways, Guardian of the Void, once again letting players assign them. This is where it started getting interesting, since there was some interest in pairings making sense or seeming at odds. When we were done, we had:

  • Finn, The Warrior and Walker of Secret Ways
  • Meredith, The Lost and Keeper of the Flame
  • Sparrow, the Wanderer and Guardian of the Void
  • Indigo, the Hunter and Nature’s Hand
  • Keller, The Scholar and Watcher
  • Cassia, The Seer and Warden of the Tower

(And I had privately set aside Bowie, The Prince and Shaper as a potential future NPC)

So, this was a solid start. I had icons associated with the roles and domains, and at this point we had the skeleton of a setting, so I unpacked a little bit more, and explained that these characters we had just created were the parents of the characters we would play. These characters would be slightly superhuman, heel quickly and be able to travel through dimensions due to the blood of Proteus. They had also been favored by Proteus sufficiently to have lodgings in the tower, which effectively has many floors of well staffed hotel rooms (Proteus has odd ideas about family). As we discussed this, I threw out questions about setting elements, like the cities surrounding the tower, as well as interesting things to be found in the tower. Unsurprisingly, the player contributions did great things to flesh out the setting.

So, at this point we had enough foundation to start diving into actually making characters, so we started with parents and names. I had a list of names for each of the elders, and when players picked a parent, they were urged to pick a name from the list. They had the option not to (representing their name coming from their other parent or some other source) but no one took that option, so we ended up with:

  • Lucas, son of Finn
  • Kaspar, son of Indigo
  • Doris, daughter of Meredith
  • Edda, daughter of Meredith

With another quick round of dice, we used some of the other names to come up with NPC siblings, alive and dead. And now the real show began.

So, for a bit of context, I was using a simple four stat system (Might, Wits, Grace & Resolve), so for each elder I put out 5 cards – one labeled by the secret of their domain and four of them had the name of a stat on them. The stats were not evenly distributed – Finn, the Warrior has three Mights and one Resolve, for example, while Keller, the Scholar, had two Wits, one Grace and one Resolve. I’d set these distributions up in advance based on the roles, and because one role was missing, the distribution was slightly asymmetric. I also added two extra cards, once for Proteus themself and one labeled “Forbidden Secrets”.

I also gave each player a sheet with the list of elders and a few blank spots, and two tracks for the relationship, one which measured support, one which measured respect.

The mechanical part of this was very straightforward – the players went around picking up these cards. If they picked up a stat card, they got a point in that stat. If they picked up a secret, they got some sort of power, trick or item. In each case their relationship with whichever elder’s card it was, and they got a “talent”, which was effectively a skill keyword.

Where the rubber hit the road was that when a card was pulled, that was a prompt for a question (often a series of questions) about that elder, the character and what the story was behind this. When possible (especially with secrets), the player was offered a choice – ideally one which was pointed at other players at the table. Exactly how this played out could impact how the elder relationships would shake out, and it would be used to select the talent for that round.

Secret cards were put back after they were used (Largely because I hadn’t printed multiples), but the stats got used up as we went. This had a very fun effect of forcing players to develop relationships with Elders they normally would not have picked, and since the Elders had gotten steadily fleshed out as we went, these choices felt toothy.
For example, Kaspar’s first draw was to learn Indigo’s secret (Hand of Nature). I asked how old Kaspar was when Indigo took him on his first hunt, and Kaspar’s player’s answer was “Three!”. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity, so as it turns out Kaspar spent ages 3-5 as a hound in Indigo’s pack. Next round, he picked up one of Indigo’s Resolve card, and the story was even less kind. While Kaspar’s player was enjoying it, everyone else at the table pretty much concluded that they did not want to learn anything from Indigo if they could avoid it.

The other two cards were a bit wild cards. The Proteus card called for a die roll which would provide a random boon, though the character also got to spend time doing something useful for Proteus. Only one character went that route and ended up getting turned into a knife and being used to sacrifice a unicorn, so there’s that.

The Forbidden Secrets deck had a set of cards for other powers and groups in the multiverse, and drawing that meant that I drew one of those and offered them something delicious but terrible. One player immediately drew that, got a fun item out of it, and then discovered she was in a horrible position as a result, and was gun shy after that. However, the deck still showed up occasionally when I needed inspiration for an outside force. A few of the factions on that deck ended up getting added to the blank spots in the relationship sheets, usually as enemies.

So, there were 8 rounds of this, and it was pretty marvelous. As often happens in this sort of thing, players ended up with characters that were not quite what they expected them to be at the outset, but in ways the players really ended up enjoying. The downside of this is that we spent long enough on charges that we did not actually get to start play. However, the players are conspiring to play on Discord or similar, so I take it as a good sign.

All in all, definitely a good experiment. A few takeaways:

  • 8 rounds was probably too many. Went a bit slow.
  • About halfway through I switched from players drawing one at a time to everyone drawing at once, then doing resolution. It sped things up and made it easier to thread these things together.
  • I had intended to pre-load the questions to the draws, but ran out of time, so I was improvising them. Worked out ok, but prepared questions would have sped things up.
  • The relationship sliders were really satisfying, but I think I should have leaned on them a little more. Most of the changes were positive, which doesn’t quite align with the tone I imagine – should have had a little more tension in that space.
  • I ended up improvising some of the interactions between the secrets. As designed, they were effectively three tier powers, but I hadn’t really considered how they might synergize.
  • The deck of threats was a last minute addition, but may have been my single favorite deck. Partly because it was the wildest, but also because what drove me to create it was remembering that putting a bunch of demigods in the middle of reality is only interesting if you can give them something to push against.
  • I did not have enough explicit lateral connection and questioning. Added plenty will well-made questions, but if I add another deck, it will be for player to player relations.

So, successful test. The Proteus setting is one I’m absolutely going to use again – it’s my current personal Amber alternative. This particular variation on card-driven chargen – probably the most complicated I’ve tried so far – still holds up.

The Benefits of Caring

Quick thought over coffee.

Almost every mechanical problem becomes easy to solve if you know what a player cares about, because once the player cares you have the tools to offer meaningful choices with real costs.

Unfortunately, as useful as that information would be at design time, it isn’t. It comes up at the table. This is one of those reasons I tend to rate GMing over design in the priority stack, but that’s a whole other thing.

So the designer has two options: first, she may assume the player has only self interest and design mechanics that put consequences into the character. This is pretty shallow, and a way to hack it involves putting more things onto the character sheet. It’s not a bad hack, but it’s got some awkward edges to it, and when it breaks it is not graceful.

The other option is to presume that players are invested in something the designer values and just sort of hope the game finds the audience for which that is true. It may well do so, since that design decision is a flag for those players, so it may be fruitfully self fulfilling.

(An alternate version of this is to make it the player’s problem to care, and just throw up your hands if they don’t. That has an appeal, but is not quite my jam,)

Looking at those two-and-a-half options, I admit I’m wondering if there’s a third. So much of the judgement about care needs to happen at a personal level, I wonder if there are explicit tools to offer the GM to work with this. Some of the “put it on the sheet” mechanics feel like they might be usable in this fashion, but it’s going to take some thought.

A Thought on Crunch

Cover of the book “Thinking Fast And Slow”Ok, I have a new theory of crunch.

Kahneman & Tversky did a whole lot of super smart writing about how we think, and one of the takeaways is that we have two main modes of thinking, system 1 and system 2. There’s a great book on this (Thinking Fast And Slow) that sold a ton of copies, and some Nobel prizes floating around, so this is a pretty commonly known model, not some weird fringe thing, so bear with me a moment.

System 1 is Fast, automatic and intuitive. It’s what we use most of the time to just function in the world to walk, talk and generally interact. System 2 is slower and used for reason and analytics. Our thinking is generally dominated by system 1, but we engage system 2 when we’re forced to by circumstances, such as high stakes situations or problems that we lack heuristics for.

The part that is weird about this is that system 1 is really capable. It’s easy to imagine it as just sort of dumb autonomic stuff, but the reality is that it can do a LOT, and it’s super good at creating narratives to make everything around you make sense. System 2 is what we tend to think of as thinking, but it kicks in less often than we think.

Lots of implications to this and stuff that’s way smarter than anything I have to say, but I was thinking about it recently and considering the prospect that a lot of the System 1 stuff sounds similar to what some people enjoy about gaming (flow, creating narrative and so on) and that when they talk about the game just “getting out of the way” that seem consistent with the game being a system 1 operation. On the other hand, there are plenty of games and players where the enjoyment seems to be explicitly in engaging system 2 (for complicated problem solving and so on).

And I think that has given me a new handle to think about what “crunch” means – it’s system 2 play.

This feels very satisfying to me because it embraces the fact that there is no bright line distinguishing crunch from the alternative – rather, it is a function of comfort and familiarity. If you learn a system well enough for it to require less thought (allowing System 1 to do the lifting) then you stop needing system 2 for it, and it stops being crunchy.

It also makes it make a little bit more sense, because some people enjoy system 1 play, but not system 2. Some enjoy system 2 but not system 1. Some enjoy both. That maps to my experience of how people end up enjoying games (and how they end up complaining about crunch or about other things).

Now, there are some odd gaps to this. Some of the other things that can trigger system 2 are emotional, and I’m not sure how the intersection of that and FEELINGS larps works into the model, but I also don’t have a good model for those in general, so I just flag it and move on.

Anyway, I’m not sure if this is a useful perspective, but I definitely intend to try it out for a while and see how it goes.

The Size of Success

Action result table from Talislantia 4e

It is impossible to overstate how much modern game design rests on ripping off John Harper, Clinton Dreisbach and Jared Sorensen

The most basic resolution is binary: Success/Failure.

Ok, that may be a lie. The most basic resolution is NULL/Success, which is to say either it succeeds or it never happens in the first place. Consider how conflicts are “resolved” in chess – it just happens. The only way for it not to happen is for the move to not be made.1 For the moment though, let’s start with the binary.

Now, we play games of the imagination, so binary outcomes are a bit of a ham-fisted tool. There is a natural gravity towards some larger number of options, but also a limiter imposed by complexity. It is fairly trivial to generate an arbitrary number of outcomes (a d20 can have 20 outcomes, after all) but it is much harder for them to be genuinely meaningful.

So game designs seek to thread that needle, and pick a path between those options. Or in some cases, outside of them. The first expansion on this was a 4 step model – Critical Failure, Failure, Success and Critical Success. This covers a decent range of options, but its assumption that critical are outliers makes it less flexible than it might otherwise be. That is, if critical happen enough to be part of regular usage, then they don’t feel like criticals.

The next step is to unpack that space between success and critical success, and the most common tool for that is some sort of margin of success system, where the amount that the effort succeeds by has a mechanical effect. This is nicely elegant – better rolls yield better results, which feels very intuitive. Unfortunately, it also tends to make scale a bit difficult to explain, since it often ends up a bit open ended (especially if the system has something like exploding dice). Saying 7 successes is what it takes to shoot a horsefly in a hurricane is great, but only if your system genuinely makes 7 successes that uncommon.

I note here that Green Robin’s AGE system struck a very nice balance here with a kind of light critical system where a better than average success gives currency to do cool things, but the effect is bounded.

The other possible approach is to expand the space between success and failure with a marginal or modified success. The idea is old, but I first encountered this in it’s explicit form in Talislantia 4e (coughJohnHarpercough) but nowadays it’s most easily recognized as the 7-9 result in Powered by the Apocalypse games. Of course, that can even be expanded to produce qualified successes and mitigated failures.

The thing is, we’re now up to a pretty wide spread of possible results on the dice:

  • Critical Failure
  • Failure
  • Mitigated Failure
  • Qualified Success
  • Success
  • Better success
  • Critical Success

There’s a pretty obvious linguistic spread here

  • Critical Failure (No, AND)
  • Failure (No)
  • Mitigated Failure (No, BUT)
  • Qualified Success (Yes, BUT)
  • Success (Yes)
  • Better success (Yes, AND)
  • Critical Success (WOO HOO!!!)

I’ll admit here, this would be more symmetrical without better success, or if I added a “worse failure” option, but I’m not sure how much fun there is in that. Critical failures can be fun as turns of dumb luck, and make for good stories, but worse-than-normal failures seem like they would be a punitive addition. On the flip side, having some space between success and critical success tends to allow a little more mechanical breathing room for cool tricks in system. As such, I’m ok with a little asymmetry.

But here comes the key question – the one I’m not 100% sure of the answer of. Is that too many outcomes? What is the right number of outcomes?

I don’t think there’s an answer for this, but I think there’s an interesting pointer to be found in thinking about it, because it reveals the question of how you’re going to use the outcomes.

That is, if you are providing these outcomes as guidelines for GM interpretation, then it’s probably close to the right number. It provides prompts that allow for most of the kinds of outcomes that make sense in fiction, so it’s just a matter of wrapping some guidelines around those tiers.

But if I was developing a more explicit system, one where the meaning of those outcomes all needed to be expressed as rules (think PBTA Moves), then this many result tiers could be cumbersome. I don’t want to have to write up that long a list for every single possible situation.

If I’m doing something in between – a system that MOSTLY resolves things one way, but has some explicit outcomes, then it gets a bit more subjective. For example, I might have a system that uses the same rules most of the time, but each skill has a different rule for critical success. In that case, it’s going to be much more of a judgement call.

So, there’s a perfectly reasonable case for fewer outcomes, but is there a case for more?

I admit, I used to think so. Ideally, I imagined outcomes as a subtle gradient between extremes, rich in nuance and interpretation. In practice, I have found that I simply do not have the creative juice to distinguish between every 7 and 8 on a d20 roll, and that I fall into roughly the distribution I outline above.

I’m not sure how useful any of this is, but it does reveal something to me about my tastes. See, that ladder of outcomes I like is VERY CLOSE to the ladder I internalized for diceless play from the Amber DRPG, which gave guidance in terms of running fights where the character was:

  • Vastly Outclassed
  • Outclassed
  • Moderately Outclassed
  • On Par
  • Slightly Superior
  • Superior
  • Vastly Superior

And in my heart of hearts, I think that is what I’m striving for. For a host of reasons, not the least of which being how strongly it centers characters.

But where this gets interesting, for me, is that if this diceless distribution is what I’m really looking for, then what are dice really bringing to the table?

I have an answer, but at this point, that’s probably another post. 🙂

  1. Curiously, this mode is quite applicable to RPGs, and resonates with the argument against the addition of skills to old school games (“no one fell off a horse until we added a riding skill”). Functionally, every game with any amount of GM interpretation leans on this resolution model for almost every point where the system is not engaged (aka Common Sense). This is a pretty rich topic on its own, but also tangential to the topic on hand. ↩︎

The Mail Must Get Through

An envelope in motionOver on twitter, @ericvulgaris remarked that the next step in his D&D campaign was for the party to start delivering mail in Phlan, and I responded somewhat excitedly because this is a wonderful idea, and one that does not show up in nearly enough games. Consider: delivering mail requires:

  • A lot of open space, but a predictable core of destinations to return to over time.
  • A group that is capable of dealing with that hazards of travel, which are environmental but also may be more direct, like bandits or hazards.
  • An employer and a paycheck.

To me, that absolutely sounds like a formula for adventure. You have a unifying element (the job) that is strict enough to justify unity but which still leaves a ton of leeway within it. You have a steady source of challenges and threats, as well as an easy tool to introduce new ones (simply adding a new destination to their route) plus the variability that comes from travel.

What’s more, once you open the door to the mail, you can start thinking about the things that are mail-adjacent. The history of the mail is fascinating, but for those of us with a D&D bent, knights of the post could have a host of opportunities. You can look to historical examples like traveling doctors or horseback librarians for inspiration, and you can extend them to the fantastical. Consider how much it might matter to a town when the only spellcasting cleric they have access to is the one who comes through once a month or so with the mail? And, of course, these rough and ready souls can also be expected to handle the occasional monster.

The adventuring benefits of this model are obvious, so why don’t we see more of it?

Well, first, to give it’s due, there are games that do this. This is the default structure for Mouseguard and Dogs in the Vineyard, and it was one of the default modes of play in Legend of the Five Rings (doing a procession through your lord’s holdings). But for all that, it’s an outlier – a dungeon map is a normal thing, but a delivery route map would still be an anomaly in most written adventures.

Given that, there are three real challenges to implementing this model.

The first is progression: as characters level up, how do you deal with that? Having the stops on their delivery route JUST HAPPEN to have greater challenges each time they come back feels pretty fake, so are they just going to outgrow this?

The second is that it calls for a wider range of challenges, and some of those challenges aren’t challenges at all. That is, the things the characters may be called on will not be limited to fighting. Some of the challenges will be based on skills, so the system needs to support that, but other challenges are more simple. Consider the Cleric sanctifying a well – there’s no roll of the dice or challenge in that, but it’s very important to the fiction. It can be MADE challenging or interesting, but that takes a lot more work than creating a monster encounter1.

The third is that we tend to design settings to be disposable. Tensions are set up during creation, resolved during play, and then we generally move on2. I think we like the idea that we might come back later and see how things have changed, but there is almost no support for how to run such a thing, so the result often falls flat.

Now, I’ll admit, these are non-trivial challenges. If I were starting a D&D campaign tomorrow, I’d need to have solutions to all three, and I don’t think those solutions exist yet. But I also think they’re all solvable problems.

I might do a part 2 with some examples of solutions, but in the short term, let me offer some tips for how I would mitigate these things:

  • I would schedule out delivery in game in advance. Not in huge detail, but just enough to say that the next route will be A=>B=>C=A in about 1 month. It won’t matter a huge amount at first, but it will make life easier as we progress, because:
  • I would treat a single cycle through the route as an important design unit. When a route it completed, that’s when we would do any downtime-equivalent, and where I would make changes to the route.
  • That is also when I would hand out rewards, including XP. Leveling up happens BETWEEN route cycles, and the biggest XP driver is mission success, not monsters killed.
  • I would start with a small route and add in stops, but try to keep it to 5-6 stops top. That number is from my gut, so it might change, but it feels like there are only so many places they can keep in mind.
  • I would make other mail folk into named NPCs, partly to reinforce the larger setting, partly to create a pecking order because:
  • I would make changes to the routes and make those meaningful. As characters level, adding a more dangerous stop to their route makes sense, but so does dropping a boring one. And, critically, that stop now goes to someone else. Maybe they’re the rookie crew (who might need some help from the old hands sometime) or maybe they’re that asshole’s crew who totally snaked the village with the hot springs because it’s such a great place to stop.
  • I would enter with very flexible ideas about the group’s duties and try to tune those based on player choices and priorities. That said, if there are obvious gaps, I will happily have NPCs in other crews fill them and use that as a complicating factor.
  • The Patron NPC will be distant, but the logistics NPC will be always at hand and constantly annoyed.
  • I would re-read Going Postal before I start.

I think it would be pretty doable at the table, so now I find myself dwelling on how I’d make it a product. Thoughts, comments and suggestions welcome.

  1. Not that I’m suggesting that good monster encounter design doesn’t require skill, but the simple truth is – with D&D and it’s family especially – they’re just a LOT easier to create. This is especially true for a written product because fights are largely one-size-fits-all, whereas non-fights often rely on things like personalities of and relationships with NPCs, which are more emergent in play. ↩︎
  2. An exception to this can be found in city games, where there size of the city allows us to mask this pattern, and there are lessons on re-use to be taken from there, but that is also a fairly neglected model. ↩︎

Navigating the Table

I love maps. Especially big outdoor maps. I don’t think that love is mandatory for this hobby, but I think it definitely helps.

The thing is, I have always struggled with how to convey the map into play at the table. A map is so open and flexible that it feels like narrowing it down to something I can convey at the table is an effort doomed to blandness.

The root of this is in my own mind. When players are in a place and want to go to another place, my process has always been “Imagine the line of their travel, Indiana Jones style, making note of each thing they pass through, and then provide some amount of travel activity for each thing.” This is very intuitive to me, because that’s how traveling in actual space works, and that’s what I want it to feel like, right? The problem is that it makes for fairly uninteresting descriptions at the table because they’re unfocused. They might offer a little bit of color, but there’s nothing to hook into the minds of the players to spark interest or action.

Video games solve this problem in a number of ways. A lot of RPGs just embrace the map and use line and node travel. That is, you hit a button to see a map that looks like this:

Then select a node that you want to travel to, and bam, you’re there. Nine times out of ten, the transition just happens, but if the game feels like it, it’s possible that an encounter or discovery happens during transition (which often adds a new node, temporarily or permanently, or otherwise alters the map).

This model works REALLY well, but I struggle with it a bit because I am expecting something more akin to an open-world game, like World of Warcraft, where I’m actually moving between space.

But I recently started paying attention to how these games handle their geography and realizing how much of it is sleight of hand. Most video game maps are functionally node based, and the “connective” elements are surprisingly small and thin. The geography introduces some constraints (adjacency) and opportunities (exploration) but practically it’s still a matter of moving from node to node.

All of which is to say, I think it may be time to make my peace with a line and node map at the tabletop, even if it’s just a functional overlay on a much prettier map.

Thanks to You All

Yeah, I have more stuff to write about roles, but this morning my focus is more on rolls as I run around cooking for American Thanksgiving. I am not a great cook, but I am an enthusiastic one, so it is always an interesting experience.

But for this brief window while several things need about 10 minutes before the next stage in cooking I’d like to thank anyone and everyone reading this. Y’all are awesome, and I’m immensely grateful.

Investment vs Escalation

I was thinking about TV shows and the easy trick of upping the stakes to increase viewer investment, and how it’s kind of cheap. We all know this: it is a lot less work to have the plot endanger a bunch of kids than it is to spend the time to get us to invest in a smaller problem. Trauma is a super useful shorthand when time is short.

We have a version of this in RPGs, and it has a similar tension, but is maybe a bit more confusing. See, the TV model only sucks because writing characters we care about is the harder but better option, so forced escalation feels cheap. RPG characters are a bit more nuanced.

At first blush it would seem that if you are playing with a high level of character investment, forced escalation is awkward. But what if a high level of character investment is something you reach quickly? Playing a character over time to explore them is one valid mode, but so is slipping into a new character and buying in IMMEDIATELY. For that player, the “forced” escalation might just be jumping to the good part.

And, of course, some players are more interested in the escalation (or rather, the issue behind the escalation) and for them a *lack* of character investment provides some emotional protection (or distance, for authorial purposes),

Obviously, taste is rooted so deeply in this that there is no one good solution, which is as it should be. But I mention it because I sometimes see people get confused about how people could *enjoy* certain types of games (usually those with fairly bleak content), and the instinct is to look at the content for explanation. I suggest that if you can shake free your assumptions about character investment, it might be easier to make sense of.

Personally, my tastes skew towards investing in a character over time and seeing where play takes them. This makes high escalation, short term play something I have to really shift gears to enjoy, and I’m not always successful. But I get that that’s my bag, and thinking about stuff like this is how I made peace with it.

(Semi experimental post. Did it all on my phone while sitting in a waiting room, so apologies for any weirdness.)