Monthly Archives: April 2010


I apparently used all my smart juice in yesterday’s discussion of piracy, so go check that out, it was actually pretty awesome Today I have work deadline and writing deadline breathing down my neck, so I’m shutting off the internet for the day to grind it out. The good news is if I get everything done in time, I can go to an apple store to see if all the 3g ipads are sold out already.

Wish me luck, and have a great weekend.

How to Tell A Random Story

There has been some growing awareness of the power of mechanizing setting that I’ve been really happy to see. One of the best examples of this is in the form of encounter tables – yes, the classic old D&D trope that was responsible of bugbears appearing in empty rooms. The problem is that the classic form of this is fairly formless – most of the classic lists tend to have everything and the kitchen sink, but the technology has improved since then. Things like the oracles from In a Wicked Age, the Playsets in Fiasco, the character creation system for Reign and half the stuff over at Abulafia are all fantastic and useful. This is good gaming technology.

One trick that’s been through a lot of versions is the iterative random list (or more properly, lists). You make a roll on list #1 and based on that, roll on table #2 or #3, and based on that roll you then do something else and so on, until you’ve built a whole series of events. This is probably most easily recognizable at the model used for lifepath character creation from games like Traveler and Cyberpunk 2020. This is a great trick for character creation, because the same set of tables will be re-ued multiple times. Unfortunately, it’s not as useful for adventure creation[1] because a single pass through the tables ends up wasting ninety-odd percent of the material. The amount of effort that goes into making iterative tables is just too much for the return.

But despite that, the method has some real appeal. There’s a natural pacing to iterative rolling that lets you start at the beginning, end at the end and still have a mightily randomized middle. And, thankfully, there’s a trick for getting that kind of effect with a much simpler table.

The trick is to use a table which is longer than the die you’re using. If you’re rolling a d6, use a table with 10 elements, for example, with the climax as #10. Roll the d6 to determine the encounter, and then cross that encounter off when it’s complete, and skip over it for subsequent rolls. Thus, for example, if you roll a 5, the event at #5 gets crossed off and #6 is the new #5, and #7 is now the new #6. with each successive encounter it become more and more likely events will come to the climax, but that can’t happen until there have already been several encounters.

To illustrate, you can use this sort of ablative table to model a classic dungeon without ever busting out a dungeon map.

1. The Guardhouse
2. Hobgoblin Barricade
3. The Old Brewery
4. The Black Lake
5. Old Dwarven Armory
6. The Spiderweb
7. The Abandoned Library
8. The Twisting Staircase
9. The Sleeping Minotaur
10+. Illusionist’s Throne Room

So, you roll a d6 to see what the first room is, and let’s say it’s a 4, so we open with the black lake. We settle that out, and we scratch out the Black Lake. The list now effectively looks like:

1. The Guardhouse
2. Hobgoblin Barricade
3. The Old Brewery
4. Old Dwarven Armory
5. The Spiderweb
6. The Abandoned Library
7. The Twisting Staircase
8. The Sleeping Minotaur
9+. Illusionist’s Throne Room

It’s a pretty simple trick, but depending upon what kind of story or plot you want to represent, it lets you put it in a can, so to speak, without needing to bust too much hump over making a proper lot out of things. Just roll with the dice (har har) and take their direction as inspiration.

1 – Except at a very high, abstract level, as in the Dungeon Master’s Design Kit, which I love.

Good Things in the Wild

Enough good things happening out there that I figured I’d call a few of them out.

If you’re a small press game designer who would love to have access to Adobe CS5 but stymied by the price tag, consider applying for the Terrible Grant. One small game company will get a copy of the software, free and clear. This is, not to put to fine a point on it, an awesome thing.

Dresden Files RPG
preorders have been going well. We’ve hit the 1000 preorder mark for Your Story and were nearly there (have maybe even cleared it) for Our World. Calling back to Fred’s extensive breakdown of the costs of doing business, that’s a good number to have hit.

David Hill’s Maschine Zeit has been rocking the Kickstarter process. His goal was $650, and he’s cleared $2000 at this point. He’s already agreed to do a supplement in response to all the support, and if things clear $2500 by Friday, he’ll bring all contributors in on another (as yet unnamed) product. This is a badass looking game, and if you’re curious, I totally suggest getting in now, if only to get the pdf when it’s $10, rather than the $15 it’ll be post kickstart. Plus – cute little kid next to poster of space-horror!

Happy Birthday Robot has also rocked its Kickstart goals, so Daniel is trying to find ways to turn that success into books for schools.

Elizabeth Shoemaker has put up preorders for the revised edition of It’s Complicated. If you’re unfamiliar, It’s Complicated was a neat little game that I would best summarize as being designed to play out large knots of complicated relationships. The mechanics are simple, but the situation generation setup, based around the physical act of drawing lines to represent connections, then using the points where those lines cross as points of play, it clever, novel and just neat. However, the initial game was definitely a little bit bare bones – lots of promise, but not necessarily a lot of direction with what to do with these clever ideas. The revised edition fleshes the game out and answers some of those questions, so I’m excited enough about it to have already bought it as book and PDF.

The Shared World Bestiary and Shared Word Writing Camp
exist to make me wish that I was younger or that my kid was older.

Joe Konrath has released his ebook, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. Konrath, if you don’t know, is a successful author who has found more success releasing his older titles as ebooks and generally really testing the ebook waters. He blogs about it regularly, and is a fantastic resource for looking at where publishing may be going. it may or may not be the case that the role of the author is changing, but if it is, there’s a good chance it’s changing in this direction. The ebook is only 3 bucks and totally worth it.

Five Minute Marvels, encouraging you and your kid to draw a little every day, was just one of those things that made me go “Awwww”.

Children and Tasers

Penny Arcade has started a new round of “Lookouts” and WOTC has rolled out a ‘kids’ D&D game so kids games are kind of in the air (John Harper‘s working on something too and because it’s John, it’s probably going to rock). The bug has nibbled at me, but I also know that I really wouldn’t even take a swing at it until I had time for some massive fictions consumption.

See, the problem is that most RPGs are much more fighty than kid fiction. Kid’s stories, especially YA stuff, have a lot of conflict and adventure, but precious little actual fighting, and when there is fighting, it still follows very specific rules. Enemies are knocked down or tripped and taking out of the fight through their own incompetence.

This is why I use the yardstick that a system that can’t handle tasers[1] can’t handle young adult fiction. Fights in YA tend to be one sided and resolved by clever efforts, not direct confrontation. Boxes are dropped on things, enemies are tricked into traps, oil slicks are spread or (as is perhaps most common) enemies are evaded entirely. [2]

RPGs don’t support this well. They support fights well, and you occasionally get efforts to shoehorn these things together, but it tends to work badly. To understand, take a look at actual kids material. At the extreme cartoony end you may have direct violence, but even that has specific rules – you can only hit appropriate targets (zombies, robots, stuff like that) – otherwise attacks are dodged, parried or blocked. When that doesn’t happen and a hit lands, it’s palpable and a non-trivial event. Consider that model versus a traditional hit point approach[3] and the disconnect becomes evident.

Other approaches are even more indirect. One reason magic works so well for YA stuff is that it often offers an array of ways to handle problems without violence, and when direct conflict is necessary, keeping it specifically within the domain of magic allows it to be dramatic and forceful, but rarely actually hurt. Similarly, it’s very popular to allow for fierce conflict by proxy – cockfighting games like Pokemon allow kids to get their fight on without actually getting in a fight.

You can really go on for ages finding examples of this, but hopefully if you’ve been exposed to enough young adult stuff, you can see this pattern well enough. Minimize direct violence, emphasize cleverness and other virtues. Easy peasy.[4]

But that’s not what RPGs tend to do well, so the prospect of a breakout RPG for kids is a rough thing to pitch, especially when the strongest ideas (‘A Pokemon RPG!’) are wrappers around things that are already fun on their own. If the idea does not include the unique benefits of RPGs, it’s dead in the water, because kids are smart, and they’ll just go do the other fun thing without the baggage.

So what DOES make a good YA RPG? That’s where the plie of fiction comes in. Start grabbing books from Rowling to Nix to Alexander to anyone else you can think of and start reading them with an eye towards what problems the hero faces and how he overcomes them. You will find that the answer is very rarely “With Both Guns Blazing” but what the answer is may be a bit harder to pin down.[5]

1 – Very, very few can. Insta-helplessness is a cost effective route to killing for bad guys or easy victory for good guys, and most games put up explicit barriers to keep that from being a cheesy path to victory. Unfortunately, it’s essential for YA stuff.

2 – This does not last forever, depending on the story. One coming of age element that you’ll sometimes see is the point at which the young hero must fight and kill. It’s never a trivial thing and it underscores the idea that you don’t do it lightly. This idea has, of course, been subverted by the popularity of dark hero tropes, because killing is fun an totally ok because there are lots of people who deserve it! However, that’s just lazy writing. Killing people without consequences is juvenile at best, and a number of writing habits have evolved over time to address this. Monsters, specifically unsophisticated evil monsters like zombies, allow for “killing” without complexity.

3 – Yes, it can theoretically be handled by very abstract hit points, but in practice, that theory works for crap.

4 – This is not to say that YA stuff is toothless. It’s not. But if you think violence is the only way to bring it, you need to work a bit harder on that.

5 – I am not touching anime in this discussion. Just acknowledging that and moving on.

Back In Brief

The week off was fantastic for my wordcount. Project’s due on the 30th, and I’ve gone from running in circles panicked to comfortably within sight of done. it also revealed a few things about my writing and most tellingly really demonstrated that this blogging thing has been working all the right muscles. My wordcount in a sitting and in a day have both improved dramatically since my last project, so much so that it’s pretty much impossible to ignore. I’m pleased enough that I’m half tempted to re-skin some old Charles Atlas ads to talk about “The BLOG that made a MAN out of Pete!”

However, the project’s still out there and it’s not yet the 30th, so I need to remind myself to stay brief. It’s harder than it sounds, since I’m developing a mental backlog, but I’ll manage. With that in mind, I’m going to answer a question that came up. A while back I stuck my head very deeply down two different holes: the new Warhammer RPG 3rd edition (here, here, here and here), and the new Dragon Age RPG boxed set (here, here and here) . I was pretty happy with both games, and had some nice things to say, but here we are a few months later: where do they stand?

The most damning thing I can say about warhammer is that I haven’t even been faintly tempted to pull it out to play again. It was fun, I enjoyed it, but its footprint (which is to say, the thought of digging out all those bits and keeping them straight) is so large that it’s hard for me to have any kind of casual interest. Like 4e, playing it is a production, and I don’t have time for a production. Also, when I come up with an idea for a game, it’s usually the idea first, followed by my mentally running down a list of games I might make fit this. WHFRP3 runs Warhammer really well, but it never makes the list for other game ideas. That’s not a criticism of the game – it does what it’s supposed to – and I know that with time and effort I could hack it, but the level of effort is just too high for the return.

Dragon Age, on the other hand, is both more prominent in my thoughts and more frustrating. I liked the core system and it’s retty lightweight. That means its not onerous for me to turn to, and it’s easily tweaked to support other game ideas. At least in theory. My frustration comes from the fact that it’s only 25% of a game, and I don’t know how long I must wait for the next 25%. I do know that if I were actually running it, I’d have bumped up against the level 5 cap a long time ago. So when I think of a game, it’s often one of my first thoughts for what I might like to try to use, but then I realize I jsut don’t have enough meat to manage it.

That said, I absolute _could_ hack Dragon Age. It’s got some system elements that absolute beg for it. But I choose not to because Green Ronin are some pretty smart guys, and I don’t doubt that whatever they have planned for subsequent boxes will be fantastic. I don’t want to spoil my own experience of that by takign off in a different direction and deciding they’re doing it “wrong.” I want ot give them a chance to show me what they’ll do with it before I start really takign it weird places. Also, it’s not an open system, and while that’s no problem at my own table, it takes some of the joy out of redesign. That’s not a problem with the game so much as a problem with me.

Anyway, that’s where they stand – excited promise and a muddled now. WHFRP3 is probably unlikely to change status, which is a shame since it really is lovely and novel. But I’m optimistic that at some poitn down the line I’ll have something different to say abotu Dragon Age.


Schedule is tighter than I anticipated, and rather than try to kill myself, I’m going to take a week off from the blog so I can continue my writing sprint.

So I’ll be off from today (4/19) through the rest of the week, hopefully returning Monday, April 26th.

Everyone have a good week, and wish me luck.

Good Ideas From Bad Places

Even twinks can teach us something, if we know where to look.
So Merlin, the protagonist of Zelazny’s second Amber series, and for people who play the DRPG, he is basically the template for a twink. In a setting where most of the characters are either from Amber (with the powers that come with that) or Chaos (with a different set of powers), he’s a half-breed with powers from both.
He’s hardly alone in this distinction. Mediocre fiction is awash in half-breeds with the best attributes of each side who are, despite their profound badass-ness unprecedentedly rare.
When I see a character like this in a game, my first instinct is to roll my eyes.[1] This is usually a gimmick to try to justify more than average powers or combinations than the rules might normally allow, and that’s a big red flag. That may sound cynical, but it’s not an unreasonable assumption. However, it does reveal something interesting that might be usable in almost any other game.
See, the truth is that there’s a lot of mojo in hybrids. Interesting things don’t happen in the middle of things: they happen at the edges and crossroads, and that’s equally true of characters. Interesting characters in fiction and play are usually exceptions in some way, and hybrids are a good way to handle that.
First, it’s conceptually powerful. White Wolf has pretty decisively demonstrated the power of combining two templates to make a character, and a hybrid character model can tap into that same appeal. The trick is that in White Wolf (or D&D, in the case of Race/Class) is that the combination is the NORM. Every character out there is something from column A and something from column B. There’s nothing exceptional about any particular column.
With that in mind, there’s something to be said for designing a setting where the combinations are possible, but not the norm. Create the factions and groups and declare that for the most part, they do not overlap, then quietly allow (perhaps even encourage) players to pick more than one. Everyone else may be a musketeer, and that makes it all the more fun when one player used to be a priest (or noble).
Anyway, my point is that while this is a pretty bad habit when used to exploit the system, it also reveals something that can be used to make a game more fun for everyone else.
1 – When I see that a character like this is an NPC, I am tempted to throw the book across the room. A setting has only so many “slots” for interesting exceptions before they start blurring the lines and making such exceptions meaningless. Those slots are for PCs, plain and simple, and every time a supplement author gives one to an NPC, a kitten dies.

What Makes a Game Hard?

I believe that playing an RPG should be hard[1]. Not in a bad, punitive way, but in the way that many things which are rewarding in life are hard (sport, performance, many other games). But when you start, you should be uncertain regarding where you’re going to end up, and even a little worried about some of the possibilities.

Right up front I’ll acknowledge that this perspective is not universally held. There are numerous reasonable alternatives to this, including enjoyment of the voyage of discovery, a primarily social focus, or just a desire to blow of steam. With that in mind I want to be clear that I’m not presenting this as how things should be done, only as something I (and, I think, a non-trivial number of others) want in games and how i think it can be accomplished. If you reject the premise, no harm, no foul.

Now, classically RPGs have introduced challenge by making the game more difficult. This has clear roots in the wargaming table, and it makes things challenging for the character (through bigger monsters, more damage and such) as well as for the player (with puzzles and traps that depend on player cleverness or knowledge to resolve). This is a tricky balancing act; if the ratio of player vs. character challenge skews too far one way or another then it can turn into a mess.

For a lot of players, this is their sweet spot, and there’s a lot of literature and lore dedicated to hitting it just right. From my perspective, a great deal of the old school Renaissance is targeted at hitting this window, and much of the reason they reject subsequent visions of D&D is because they go too far off the point of balance (usually towards more character challenge).[2]

For some players, however, this all gets a little too meta. To properly pull off this kind of balance often requires keeping the “game” part of play very close to the surface, whether it’s in the form of common resurrection or riddles based on 1970’s tv shows. Perhaps even more, this is a player-centric model, and it works less well when you want to put the character in a more pre-eminent position.[3]

That thinking presented difficulties as new structures of games started showing up, most notably Vampire. The problem was that the dungeon was a finely tuned machine of challenge, and stepping away from it left GMs at a loss. Some games addressed this by simply re-skinning the dungeon into spaceships, haunted houses, corporate offices or what have you. Some added on a layer of abstraction to try to structure non-dungeon events like a dungeon (usually by imposing unreasonable restrictions, and creating the basic model for “railroaded” adventures).

But all those tricks could only go so far, so a new method of introducing challenge came along: Obscurity.

It turns out that if you give players free reign but keep them on a very restricted diet of useful information, they tend to freeze up, or at least limit their action to the known range of options. By turning the valve on secrets, you could keep things hard, dole out rewards, and generally make your players dance like rats in a cage.

Obviously, I’m not terribly fond of this model, but I concede it had some strengths. The one thing that was required for this approach to have any teeth was, paradoxically, a very richly defined world that the players could invest in. The element of mystery left hazy spots to be filled in by the imagination in ways that were far more compelling than the reality of the game could ever be. By giving a high level vision for players to sink their teeth into, the GM could engage in the worst kind of sleight of hand at the table without raising too many hackles because, hey, awesome background and total freedom, right?

Another interesting choice for challenge has been to challenge the creativity of players by granting them a great deal more authorial control and by offloading traditional GM responsibilities. This is an interesting solution because the bad outcome is rarely something that happens in game so much as the game (or story, depending on perspective) falling flat. This is an interesting idea, and it’s easy to take in directions far afield from normal gaming, but it’s definitely a specialty track.[4]

My favorite method for making a game hard is to make it compelling. That is, create a game with strong enough player investment that in-game consequences matter to the player enough that when the player makes empowered choices[5] in play, they have meaning. This is an interesting thing to contras to traditional difficulty because this model works even if players NEVER FAIL. Success and failure have their place in the picture, but the game is made hard by making the choices hard.

Now, for all that I distinguish between these approaches, and as much as they can seem like armed camps, the important thing to remember is that none of these are mutually exclusive. A good game may lean towards one pole or another, or even stick primarily with one, but it is a rare game that could not benefit from occasionally dipping into the other sources of challenge to mix things up.

1 – Perhaps more accurately, ‘challenging.’

2 – The point, after all, is to engage the player. The character is merely an agent to that end.
3 – The ill-informed tend to categorize this as “Roleplay vs. Roll-Play” (usually followed by a passable yokel laugh) but it’s much more nuanced than that. Both camps savor roleplay, but it’s position of preeminence (compared to other elements of play and fun) is subject to re-arrangement within the hierarchy.
4 – The real irony, to my mind, is that the emphasis on player challenge puts this approach very much in tune with the OSR’s goals, while the methods are so much at odds I constantly expect dance-fights to erupt between the groups.
5 – That is, choices that matter to the game, as opposed to choices that only seem to matter to the game.

How to Pay Writers When You’re Broke

So, the inestimable Chuck Wendig managed to get a lot of panties in a bunch by suggesting that writers should get paid. Most of the responses were from people who were still entranced by the novelty of the power of free, and they made predictable arguments about promotion, brand building, making connections and so on. Sadly, very few of them read what Chuck actually wrote, which more or less boiled down to “your writing has value, treat it as such.” I’m pretty comfortable with that position.
More impressively, the folks who Chuck raised the point to took it seriously, and are now considering ways to try to create a model that acknowledges the value of the writers. I’m not going to weigh in over there, partly because I’m not a writer, but more because my answer is TOTALLY CRAZY.
So, of course, I will share it here.
Ok, so say you want to publish a collection of writing. A magazine or small book. First, sit down and do the absolute basic business plan of “It will be X pages and cost me Y dollars to print and distribute Z units”. Do it through Lulu or Amazon’s service or some other POD shop.[1] You will need that much seed money, hopefully not to much. Scrape it up.[2]
Put out a call to writers and supporters through whatever channels you see fit and start getting things together, and as you do, be absolutely transparent about your anticipated costs and business plan. Put out a call for patrons and allow them to buy shares in the project for a fixed cost (how much? See below). At some point after the book has been released for, say, 4 months, you will buy back all shares at a price equal to the amount of money on hand after costs (which you have transparently revealed) are covered.[3] Pretty simple, and I expect anyone who invests in this fashion knows they’ll lose some money, but they probably won’t be doing it as an alternative to bonds.
Now, sit down and figure out a few things, notably how much writing you expect to get, and how much you would pay for it in a perfect world. You can be a little approximate onhe payment – if you want to price it per word, great, but if you just ballpark it to $x for flash fiction or poems, $y for stories, that’s fine.[4]
With this information, it’s time to price your shares. $x is an excellent starting point, but every project needs to decide for itself. A highish share price probably means fewer, more committed supporters. A low price means more shares but also more voices. If you’re going to run things with shareholder input (you don’t have to, but I’d suggest it) then the ultimate number of shareholder is an issue, and for reasons of bookeeping, fewer shareholders will probably make your life a little easier. Once you have the price, let the world know (and as I keep underscoring, do so as transparently as possible). Maybe you get some sales, maybe you don’t.
See, the trick here is that once you’ve got a price, you pay the writers in shares in keeping with their contribution. No, it’s not cash, and in the end the shares may not be worth a lot, but there is always a possibility of success (which is nice). More importantly you are acknowledging the *value* of the writing as concretely as you are cash contributions. The writer’s shares will absolutely dilute the value of the purhased shares, and if the project makes very little money, everyone sees very little return, but so long as costs are covered, it’s no worse than it you’d just done it as a lump in the first place.
Initially, this may seem like a lot of bookeeping, but it’s really something that requires little more than a spreadsheet and a shared understanding that paypal (or whatever service you use) is going to take a small bite out of every transaction. The important thing is to pay everything out. There will be a temptation to allow people to roll investments forward into the next project, but that is how things explode in complexity. Keep it simple unless you’re committed to getting all businessey about it. The simple solution is best.
Now, this leaves all manner of questions on the table regarding how to manage the project, and those are better answered by the individual. Personally, I think there’s a lot to be said for opening up decisions to discussion by shareholders – people have a much different perspective on issues like paper vs. e-pub or how much to spend on a cover artist when they have money on the table. Since these shareholders will, naturally, be people of great intellect and discriminating taste, they probably have something worthwhile to say as well.[5]
Ultimately, this model may or may not work for any given project, but I want to float it out there specifically to broach the idea of allowing writers to ‘buy in’ with their writing. Obviously, it’s a different model than paying them outright – but if you’re not in a position to pay straight cash and you want to do something a little more concrete than straight profit sharing (which, I fully concede, this ends up looking like) then give an approach like this some thought.[6]
1- This does not demand that they will be your final printer, you’re just establishing a baseline.
2 – If you CAN’T cover this minimal cost then doing a collection of other people’s work may not be the best plan to pursue. Yes, you can gather contributions, kickstart or the like, but doing so depends that you have an actual product, which in turn depends on other people. If you can make it work, great, but it’s going to be a juggling act.
3 – If you’re really committed, use your seed money to buy shares. If you’re conservative, treat your seed money as a debt to be paid back. Either approach works, but just don’t be secretive about which it is.
4 – Life will be a lot easier if Y is divisible by X, for reasons that will be apparent.
5 – Encouraging participation also underscores the idea of ownership that comes of a share based model, which in turn underscores the value of the author’s contributions.
6 – Chuck asked me a pretty reasonable question: “How is this better than the normal model of simply paying the writers up front?” My answer is this: Paying writers what they’re worth up front can be more expensive than might be reasonable for a small project. That means the alternatives are often to pay them less than they’re worth, or nothing at all. “Less than they’re worth” is usually the necessary compromise, but this approach at least allows for the possibility that the writers might get their fair share.