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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.)

Achievements and Levelling Up

Screenshot from Alto’s OddyseyI’ll be back to weird aspect tricks in a bit, but I had an oddball thought.

My son is a big fan of Alto’s Adventure, a tablet game, and I just got him the sequel, Alto’s Oddysey.  He’s happy as a clam, and I’m watching him play, and I was struck by something.

In the game, you level up.  I admit, I don’t 100% know what that means in play – my sense is that it unlocks things in the environment and possibly your access to extras – but that’s not what caught my eye.  Rather, the means of levelling up is, effectively, by getting achievements.

That is, to his level 3, my son needs to collect 50 counts, bounce off a balloon and score 500 points in one run.  These are all things that are likely to happen in play, but the balloon one caught my eye – while the other two will pretty much just happen if he plays enough, the balloon bounce would seem to require some intentionality and luck.

I suspect the way the game is set up is that situations where he needs to bounce off a baloon to progress are now either being introduced or will be more common.  Or at least I would hope so – if the game requires that I do a thing, it seems good design to then tilt things so I’m able to do the thing.

So, of course, that lead to tabletop.  We’ve got lots of different ways to handle advancement, and many of them are well designed for their particular needs, but I admit that I now find myself thinking what achievement based advancement would look like in an RPG.

The first question is where the acheivements come from.  I think “The GM” is a bad answer, but I could see them as part of the system. I could especially see it for a lifepath style system (like WHFRP or Burning Wheel) where the chain of acheivements kind of organically build into a story, but the model could work for almost any game where you’re expecting the character to have an arc.

The other possibility is for them to be authored by the player.  The upside of this is that the player is very *clearly* communicating to the GM the things they want to see in play.  If a player has an achievement “Defeat one of the Red Swordsnakes in single combat”, then that is a *gift* to the GM. And if everyone has 3 of these, the GM can quickly scan to see where spotlight needs to go.

This would require some checks.  It’s abusable, of course (if the player picks trivial acheivements) but even with good intentions, it may require some discussion to line up the acheivements with the game.  I think the best compromise would be pre-written achievements (from the GM, the game, the adventures, player input, everywhere really) which are then chosen among.

These could even be meta goals.  The first three acheivements might all be system mastery things.  Heck, in 5e, advancement from first to second comes so fast that it might as well be:

[] Have a fight
[] Make a stat check
[] Take a long rest

I don’t think this is a good match for every game, but I can definitely see some situational uses as well – this could be a super easy and fun way to do a live mid-session level up at a con game, or provide clear direction in a short arc.

Not sure what I’m going to do with this thought, but it’s in the stew now.

Trigger Tables

Quick post, because I used the term “Trigger Tables” to describe something and while I knew exactly what I meant, I realized there wasn’t actually anything to point to for it.

The idea is not new – you’ve seen it in lots of adventures. It’s a simple table where there is some value that is tracked (alertness, threat, whatever) and a description of what happens as a result. So, for example, let’s say we’re doing a game around uncovering a ruined city, with dungeon-crawling interspersed with logistics and town building.  As part of this, we keep track of an “Uncovered” Score that is sort of a general metric for the state of how much of the ancient city has been uncovered.  How exactly the uncovered score ticks up is not super important – could be clocks, could be tracks, could be in-game events, could be it’s own minigame of Dig-Dug for all that it matters.

Then, as the GM, I have a table among my notes that looks like this:

table with escalating outcomes from 1-10

To reiterate – this is not a new or complicated idea.  You’ve seen it before, I promise.  I’m mostly writing about it here so I have something to call it because much like clocks/tracks and encounter tables, this is an insanely robust (and often underused) technology.  It can work just as well when the thing being tracked can go up and down as it can when it’s ratcheting up (as in the example).  It can be used for things as small as the state of a dungeon or business, or for things as big as the events of a campaign.   Hell, take a page from Shadow of the Demon Lord and make one of these tables for your character’s level progression, and you have the skeleton of a campaign right there.

So, like clocks, these are flexible.  Like encounter tables, they imply a lot about the game in an easily communicated/transmitted fashion.  Trigger tables are fun tech, and well worth taking advantage of.