Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Tableau

Hooking players into an encounter is a little bit of an art, and I had an interesting discussion about just that today on Twitter. The idea that started it was an image: A little girl in tight braids and well-kept but not fancy clothes calling out for her mommy and daddy in a crowded marketplace. Described well, it’s a heartbreaking little tableau, the kind to tug at the heartstrings ofan audience and quickly draw the players in.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually work that way.

The rub of a tableau like that is that it’s equally likely to invite snarky comments, especially from players who either are playing their characters a certain way or are, to be frank, the kind of players who are inclined to be a little snarky. Given that this describes much of the gaming populace falls under this description, what’s going to happen when they come upon this tableau?

Unless your players are feeling difficult, then they’ll eventually engage the little girl because heroic logic dictates that they must. Heroic logic is, of course, the player’s awareness that the GM is shining a light on this particular character, and clearly that is where they must go to get the ball rolling. It is not quite a glowing exclamation mark over the character’s head, but it’s close.

But the problem is, GMs are not always aware that they’re doing this. When they craft very descriptive tableaus, it’s very easy to get attached to their own prose and think that the players are responding to the quality of the writing and the emotional engagement of the situation. The reality is, they probably aren’t. They’re responding to the direction you’re pointing.

This is harmless enough on its own, but it can be problematic over time. First and foremost, your players are aware of the use of heroic logic, even if you aren’t, and every time they have to use it, their patience frays just a little bit more. This may never really reach a crisis point, but if it does, that’s no fun for anyone.

Of more immediate concern is the possibility that the day may come that your player’s miss the point. You expect them to engage with something, but they’ve picked up the cue that they’re supposed to be observing. This will be frustrating, but you can deal with it. You just need to pull out the stops, and make the tableau MORE compelling, rich and heartwrenching! And when that doesn’t work (because that isn’t what they were responding to in the first place) and you redouble your efforts all the more, you’re going to get frustrated. There’s no way, you will think, that your players could be MISSING this. They’re just being a bunch of jerks.

At which point you flip open the Monster Manual to find something disproportionately ugly with which you will wipe the imagines smirks off their faces. And it just goes downhill from there.

Bottom Line: Friends don’t let friends depend on tableaus.

But then, if you can’t depend on the tableau to spark action, what _can_ you do? Sounds like a job for….Tomorrow![1]

1- Dirty pool, I know, but I’m intentionally experimenting with terser posts. I’ve tried this before, and it never sticks, but it buys me more time to read the new Dark Sun guide, so it seems like a good cause.

More Fungibility

So, the concept of fungibility is also something that’s useful in looking at adventure design, though once again it’s a useful tool, not an automatic indicator of quality or a lack of quality.

First and foremost, it’s an important element when looking at the objective of an adventure. A lot of times the easy hook is a giant sack of cash (in some form or another) , but that can end up raising questions. If the goal is money, is this really the best way to get it? A lot of classic games raised this question, where the rewards of an adventure could easily be overwhelmed by the cost of potions, repairing equipment and so on. If you’ve got a fungible reward, it invites that sort of comparison thinking, and that’s a good way to end up with heros who act more like accountants. Taking a little time to make sure the MacGuffin is non fungible is probably a good investment of time.

That’s a small thing, but it does provide a pointer to a bigger one – Heroism is Fungible.

Not the concept of heroism, of course, just heroism as it exists in games. Menace rises, heroes arrive, fighting ensues, heroes win. The problem is that in many cases it does not matter which heroes arrive to save the day, and this is especially problematic in hero-rich environments (like the many published RPG settings). This is a common problem with published adventures because they need to work with whatever group happens to have bought them. By working equally well with all groups, it’s unlikely to have any kind of personal tie in to your particular group.

It’s hardly news that published adventures are a little generic, but it’s useful to frame it in these terms because it gives a concrete yardstick for any changes you make to personalize it. Does the change you’re introducing make the adventure one which only your group could handle it or does it just make it more complicated?

Fun with Fungibility

So, a fungible[1] resource is one that can be easily replaced with another resource of the same kind. If you have a cup of water, and pour it into a bucket of water, then scoop out a cup, you’re pretty much where you started. Ditto something like a twenty dollar bill or a couple volts of electricity. There are all sorts of interesting economic implications to resources like this (in contrast to distinct one) but they’re also useful to think about in game terms.

A lot of the numeric values you see on a character sheet are fungible. Things like attack bonus or hit points are made up of an aggregate of other numbers (Stat bonuses, equipment bonuses, level and so on) and while those elements may matter a great deal when you’re building the character they all run together once the dice hit the table. If you hit that enemy, there’s nothing in the flat bonus that tells you whether you hit him because you’re strong, because your weapon is particularly accurate or because of the advantage you got from flanking the guy.

This means that, in practice, bonuses are interchangeable. There are few places this is more evident than in 4e, where different stats often end up being used for the same thing (such as making attack rolls). here are a lot of benefits to this approach. It’s incredibly flexible. Adding new elements requires only that they fit into the current economy, so swapping out parts is easy. It all comes out in the wash when it comes time to calculate the final total. It also makes (as 4e illustrates) reskinning of elements entirely trivial.

But all of this gets interesting when you contrast it with elements of the game which are very clearly not fungible. To stick with the D&D example, if you miss an attack, but then use an ability that grants you a reroll and hit, your sense is that you hit because of the reroll. If the power had given you an extra bonus before you rolled, you probably would not think “I hit because of this power” because it’s just one of many factors in your total bonus, but since the reroll is a change of type (from a fungible resource to a distinct one[2]) then that’s where the cool thing happened.

You get similar reactions when you look at the results of attacks. More damage is nice, but since damage is fungible, it’s not particularly cool if your damage came from hurling daggers of pure ice and my damage came from hitting the guy with a very big stick. Things get more interesting when there is differentiation in the form of non-fungible elements like extra effects. If my ice daggers slow a guy down and your big stick knocks him back then our attacks now feel different in a way that pure damage didn’t allow.

This is an incredibly important point to understand when you start thinking about the role of color in an RPG. Some systems are almost entirely fungible, with the understanding that all distinctions in effect are part of the color. Other games have very limited fungible elements and lots and lots of unique elements. But it’s not a simple split. On one level, everything in Hero is fungible – the underlying idea of what a point is worth is the currency everything can be broken down into, but the complexity in doing so creates a barrier to treating it as truly liquid.[3] And more, there’s no ‘right’ way to handle it. More or less fungibility does not make a system better or worse.

But it can make a system more or less in keeping with your vision, and suggest where you need to put in levers. To use the previous combat example, you need to decide if pure damage is enough to handle things in your system or if you need points of distinction. You can decide if general bonuses get you what you want, or if you need make things a little more specific.[4]

Again, do with it what you will, but if you stop and look at a part of your system and ask what this looks like if you swap in something else, and if that’s what you want to see. 4e shows us how useful it can be, but also demonstrates that doing it well requires really committing to the idea. If you’re not willing to go that far, then make sure you’re getting what you’re hoping to find.

1 – I am using this word in a way that will make strict economists cry, but it’s a useful concept, so if you are enough of an economist to get where I’m taking artistic license, please accept it as that.

2 – yeah, theoretically rerolls could be fungible too, but at least in 4e. In fact, by standardizing things, most of the element sin 4e are fungible – a “stunned” status works the same whether it’s from a blow to the head or from a painting of the 8th dimension. This is intentional, since it allows for easy swapping of color without disrupting mechanics. That said, rerolls are player-controlled and serial, so they’re different enough to be a useful example.

3 – And this one’s for the nerds – Liquidity is NOT fungibility. Liquidity is the ability to turn something into something’s intrinsic value into actual value. A golden statue may be worth a lot, but it’s hard to spend, so it’s illiquid. Sell it for cash (‘liquidate’ it) and now you’ve got some money to burn, but while that money may be fungible, that doesn’t mean the statue itself is. Fungible and Liquid often get conflated if only because liquidating something usually means exchanging it for a fungible asset (since they’re more easily exchanged).

4 – The Ironclaw/Jadeclaw system does something interesting with this. You roll several dice when you act, one for stat, one for skill and so on, with each bonus expressed as a die. You pick the high roll and based on which die it is, you know why you succeeded (and can infer color about other things from the roll too). Cortex could also support this too, but it does require some curious bookkeeping when rolling more than one die of the same type – you’d need different color dice and some clear way of distinguishing them. Kind of a pain, but very neat in theory.


Is there such a thing as a good metaplot?

Tough question, and to answer it, let’s first figure out what we’re talking about. In the broadest possible terms, metaplot encompasses all elements of a setting which are important to the setting, yet not known (or knowable) to people who buy the products, but which may or may not be revealed with the purchase of additional products.

Even as I write that, I realize it’s not the definition I thought it would be. I was thinking about secret history and events unfolding, and while those are definitely types of metaplots, I really came to realize that the unifying factor is much simpler. There are three important elements that make that up:

First, it’s knowledge we don’t have but the developers (hopefully) do. Now, by the nature of fiction, this is something of a necessity. The author almost always knows more about the setting than the reader, and that’s entirely normal. It’s not unfair for game developers to be protected by the same umbrella. Hell, in many ways, this is desirable. Ed Greenwood may know what brand of tobacco Elminster likes, but I will be entirely comfortable never finding out. In large part, this lack of knowledge protects us from trivia, and that’s a good thing (except to the most enthusiastic of completists), so that seems a promising start, were it not for the second point.

Second, the knowledge is important and interesting. Now, both of these are a little subjective, so I’ll concede some fuzz around the edges, but by and large they’re easy to spot and agree on. Important information is information which changes the setting or game in an impactful way. If, for example, the metaplot is going to depower all wizards when the god of magic dies, that’s kind of important, especially if you have wizards in your game. Interesting is trickier. Interesting things are what capture our mind and make us want to know more. We’re given a set of events which are intriguing or exciting, but the last act is blacked out. This seems like an ungrateful complaint – interesting material is interesting because the writer has done his job well; does that really create an obligation to complete the story? But the reality is this interesting stuff is what makes sales. Money is changing hands, and I’ll say that yes, that does create an obligation. And that leads to the third point.

Third, you have to pay for the knowledge. Most often this means you need to buy more books, but it’s possible the knowledge may require jumping through different hoops[1]. Whatever the structure, the lack of knowledge is being intentionally exploited to entice you, the reader, to get more into it. That enticement is what separates most game splats from, say, novels where the interest in further information may be unanticipated, but admittedly most authors make use of the teaser effect to hook you into the next book. [2]

Looking at these three things, I don’’ think you can make a good metaplot. The tactics behind it are just too gamer unfriendly.

BUT, I suspect you can make something like a metaplot by knocking out elements that make it problematic.

The easiest and most obvious thing you can change is to stop making people dance for the reveal. Put the answers somewhere and let people see them, and be prepared. The reality is an explained metaplot is always lamer than an imagined one. People get excited about metaplots because filling in the gaps inspires them. The good news is that by offering the reveal up front, you don’t have time for the reader to get invested in their version and thus more angry and disappointed. Rip off the band aid and just get it out there.

If you must have a release cycle, then make sure it’s something inessential. A subplot or a story that might keep the reader’s interest from book to book is ideal, especially if it deals with matters that are peripheral to the game, if it turns out people get very invested in the sidebar, then fine, roll with that, but treat it as the stroke of good luck it is.

Now, all that said, if you feel you Absolutely must have a metaplot, consider using the following guidelines:

  1. Remember Tone – the metaplot should have the same general tone and flavor of the rest of your game. That is, don’t go adding Chthulhu in places he’s not needed. [3]
  2. Wrap it up – stick to short arcs. A single metaplot puts all your eggs in one basket, and the longer it takes, the more likely it is to go horribly wrong.
  3. Don’t Undercut the Reasons to Play – Look, if magic has been lost in your setting, but a prophecy says it will be found again, do not have it found again through your metaplot. That’s a job for your players. Too much metaplot gets written as the campaign the designer _wishes_ he could play, thus depriving anyone else of ever getting the chance to do so.
  4. Clever Sucks – Very often, the need to introduce an idea because it is clever overrides the voice that suggests that it’s not actually any fun at all. This includes hidden wordplay, shaggy dog jokes, and obscure cameo appearances.

They may not save you, but they may at least lessen the blow.

1 – At this point, “metaplot” may make the jump to becoming “transmedia” if the answers are out there and freely available, but scattered across multiple sources that you must engage with. This is less bad than charging money, but it’s still a tricky line to walk.

2- And I’m ok with that, which lead to me questioning my own perception. I’m opposed to the practice in RPGs but forgiving in novels and movies: why? I think it comes back to #2, importance. When an author teases us, it’s part of the implicit agreement. In contrast, when I buy an RPG, the implicit agreement is that I have what I need to play the game. By excluding things that are key to my playing (important) or which are part of the reason I’m excited about the game (interesting), it feels like the agreement has been broken.

3 – Like swashbuckling. But, really, anywhere. Chthulhu is pretty much the least interesting ingredient you can add to any game at this point. It’s done to death. Exception made if, of course, you’re actually playing Chthulhu.

Good Intentions in Design

Ok, so yesterday I talked up all the good things that can come out of building a game with a strong tie to the setting from the ground up. Legend of the Five Rings managed to pull this off in a way that has lead to the game going into a fourth edition, which is a pretty good sign of how robust the idea of it is.

The temptation, then, is to try to do something similar – to create a game that has that tight a tie into the setting from the getgo. And it’s a good instinct – if you can pull it off, it would be pretty awesome. And Alderac clearly thought so too, since that’s exactly what they tried to do with their swashbuckling game, 7th Sea and it’s setting of Theah.

I have a pretty serious love/hate relationship with 7th Sea. The parts I like, I’m nuts for, but the parts that are bad are really and truly so bad that they make me angry and a little bit sad. I should also add that I think 7th Sea is past its expiration date on spoilers, so I’m not going to pull any punches there. If for some ungodly reason that’s an issue, I apologize.

Ok, so 7th Sea pretty much did to Europe what L5R did to Japan, and in some ways this was spectacular, as it was more or less “European History: the Good Parts Version”. England was Elizabethan + Arthurian. France was a mash up of the musketeers and Napoleon. The Dutch were also Vikings. You get the idea. It was shameless in its blatant coolhunting and that was a good thing. Yes, some history nerds might take offense at the abuse to history, but since there was no attempt to hide this, I’d call that kind of objection a party foul.

Yet despite this, 7th Sea has not had anywhere near the kind of robustness in the mind as L5R. So what went wrong?

First and foremost, there’s a good chance that a big part of it was that it had a very deep metaplot which was, to put it bluntly, pretty stupid. There were a lot of crazy details to it, but the big thing is that Europe was surrounded by a giant forcefield designed to make geography utterly nonsensical. The whole world was ALSO surrounded by a giant forcefield. That was keeping out Cthulhu. Some sorcery weakened the latter forcefield. Other magics came from other Cthulhu Lite Guys who hate big Cthulhu.

I realize that in summing it up in this fashion, it is merely preposterous sounding, so bear in mind that you need to read a great many books to get all of this revealed in what I can only describe as a thoroughly 90’s fashion.

So there’s the first really painful bit: a terrible metaplot, complicated, fiddly and not particularly contributing to the tone of the game. This is another area where L5R’s CCG roots ended up providing an unexpected benefit. It also had a metaplot, but there were a couple explicit limitations on it. They were using their tournaments to determine the direction events in the empire went, so they could not plan that too far ahead. Also, they needed to make sure that they could bring in new card sets, which meant new elements needed to follow some of the same rules that made the initial elements work (simple, understandable, but with potential depth). 7th Sea had a CCG but, like the RPG, it was never as big as L5R and it didn’t provide as much of a set of constraints (or at least so it appears from the outside).

The second problem was that Theah was much closer to a kitchen sink design than L5R. Some corner of Theah probably had whatever you wanted out of a game, but that meant the rest of it probably doesn’t work out so well. The obvious split was between pirates and musketeers, but there are dozens more thematic splits throughout the setting. Contrast that with the focus of L5R[1] and you find yourself facing one of the hardest questions in RPGs “Ok. But what do we do now?”

Now, yes, obviously, any specific campaign can answer that question, but that’s not the same as having the setting answer it for you. It establishes a baseline which you can choose to deviate from, but which gives you what you need.

The third problem was one that you could also find in a lot of 90’s designs – It was the NPCs game. At first glance it did not seem like this was the case. There was a lot of talk about how pivotal the PCs were in the rulebook, and the setting took the novel step of freezing the timeline, so that all the supplements that came out were from a single snapshot moment in time. In theory, this meant that there would be no unexpected metaplot events that changed the game.

In practice, it did not quite shake out that way. Rather than advance the timeline, the various books started changing the underpinnings of the game, initially with mild reveals but eventually with information that flew in the face of earlier material. The metaplot unfolded in a fashion that introduced a lot of tonal clash and made it clear the things that were important in the game are not the things the players were aware of when they made their characters.[2]

With all that in mind, I’m not looking to bust on 7th Sea so much as say that the lessons I would take from it are somewhat cautionary. As much as it might seem like reskinning history with extra awesome is an easy formula for success, there’s clearly more to it than that.

If I want to follow this particular model (and I might) the trick will be (as it seems it so often is) all about embracing the limitations. Narrowing in on a specific slice of a setting that creates strong context for players is much better than something broad which might give me, as a creator, more leeway to do stuff I think is cool. It’s a slightly brutal tradeoff, but probably a smart one.

1 – And especially the fact that this focus gave characters an implicit role. In L5R, you start with a duty of some stripe – it’s a necessity.

2 – Not that it mattered much because the NPCs were all statted out to make it clear that there was a tier of awesome that you could simply never aspire too

Cultural Game Design

Someone, and I feel like a heel for not remembering who, just did a very nice review of Legend of the Five Rings, 4th edition. I have a lot of conceptual love for L5R, though most of that love was fiercely beaten out of me by Second edition. Third edition looked very pretty, but was sufficiently errata-laden that I never made the leap to picking it up. 4e sounds a lot like a cleanup of 3e, and that’s an admirable thing, but I genuinely don’t know if the spark is still there.

But it might be. L5R has left a fairly profound footprint in my mind despite the fact that I never really considered myself a fan.[1] At first blush it might seem like it’s all about the Samurai. After all, while there have been a few other Samurai games, none of them have been nearly as successful (in large part because L5R is _not_ a historical game) so it clearly stands out in that light. But really? Not so much. I mean, I enjoy getting my Yojimbo on as much as the next guy but it’s not a genre that grabs me the way that some others do.

No, what sticks with me is the fact that L5R is such a fantastically structured cultural game.

That’s a big and somewhat unclear statement, so let me zero in on the pieces that make it up.
First and foremost, the system is strongly integrated into the setting yet still robust. You can re-use parts of it for other games if you want. You could even use if for another samurai game and it would work ok. But it works at its absolute best in Rokugan. This shows up in many places, from the application of specific skills for things like the Rokugan Tea Ceremony to character creation, where the character’s house (with the specific social contexts that implies) serves where other fantasy games would use race, and is much better designed.

That leads to the next point: when you finish chargen, your character has a place in the world, even if it’s as a context. You have a lord, You have family. You have the relationships between the clans to serve as a baseline which you may then personally proceed to deviate from.[2] It’s a small thing, but it goes a long way. In other games like FATE or Smallville, entire sessions are dedicated to creating that sense of connection, but in L5R, it came baked right in.

That was possible because of the third (and possibly most contentious) points. The setting really carries weight.

Setting in RPGs is a serious business, and by no means am I asserting that L5R had the best (or even most gameable[3]) setting of any game ever. Many games had vastly richer settings, from Tekumel to Talislantia to Stafford’s Shamanic babies. Some of those settings are deep, crazy deep, with the kind of cultural consistency that can only come of a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

But they take some work to get into. And by some, I may actually mean “A Lot”. The very things that makes them such compelling and rich setting also demand such an investment in lore that they’re not necessarily friendly to step into. In contrast, Rokugan shamelessly steals from bad history to create enough identifiable elements that it’s very easy to grasp.[4]

Rokugan managed to strike an interesting balance between various directions of setting design. As noted, it did not have so much depth that it created a barrier of entry, but neither was it a simple disposable shell of “just enough setting to get you started” (like the default setting of 4e). In shamelessly treating history as something to abuse and plunder, it kept itself from being bogged down in details (Something which, I think, kept Sengoku from getting the love it deserved) while still being recognizable. It also had a fairly narrow focus, so there was no danger of it being a Kitchen Sink setting like the Forgotten Realms.[5]

All of which combines to explain my initial assertion – it was probably the strongest example I’ve seen of a cultural game. A game where setting and system (and, to be honest, some of the elements of physical design) combined to create a complete cultural game.
This is on my mind as I think about the heartbreaker. Having that kind of context as a part of setup is pretty powerful. But that’s easier said than done. There are ways for it to go impressively wrong, something I’ll chew on tomorrow.

1 – And, despite investing a little in the cards, never got into the CCG either.

2 – Now, this may not seem like a big deal as virtually every 90’s game had organizations with strong opinions of one another, and that’s a fair cop, but L5R lifted itself above the pack by the fact that those relationships did not feel tacked on. To pick on Vampire, each clan was geographically and culturally diverse, and the idea that its membership could agree on what to have for breakfast was a stretch, to say nothing of having a unified view of another equally diverse group. The sterotypes made a nice shorthand, but they didn’t have a lot of power to them. In contrast, the houses were an important part of the setting, with concrete locations and people of importance, and the perceptions of the other clans were an extension of the clan’s dealings with one another. That is to say, they had real weight within the setting.

3 – That prize goes to Feng Shui

4 – Some of this is a function of good design, but some of it is – I suspect – a pleasant side effect of having a CCG as a foundation. A CCG needs clear, iconic, easily expressed ideas and groups which can be revealed to have depth over time. The clans work so well because they’re designed to work well in a CCG, and they’re really the foundation of the setting as a whole. Tellingly, I can remember exactly one piece of geography in Rokugan (the Wall) but I can easily recall the clans.

5 – Is that an unfair comparison? After all, the Forgotten Realms (and Eberron) are both quite successful and popular. Why not emulate that?

There are a couple answers, but the first is that it’s a hard way to sell a game. D&D is a fairly open-ended game, and as a result it needs settings that can encompass the range of possibilities it suggests. This results in setting which are on one hand wonderfully diverse but lacking in focus. Most fans of these settings are actually fans of narrow slices of them. For example, I really dig Waterdeep, and I have a legacy fondness for Phlan, but I am mostly uninterested in other parts of the setting, except out of a sort of academic curiosity. When you’re trying to cast a wide net over an existing group of players, you want the net to cover as wide a range as possible so that every prospective customer (and novel/tie-in buyer) can see something they like and get excited about.

If you don’t already have an audience, that’s a less compelling practice because you have no initial buy in. Even if you put something for everyone in your setting, you have no guarantee that they’ll look to try to find it in the first place. To create an audience, you need to wear your selling point on your sleeve, so to speak. You want a setting that’s about something that you can quickly and easily express. L5R was absolutely that.

SIgnature Coolness

So, back when the Star Wars Galaxies first rolled out it had many problems, more than I could go into in any sort of constrained space. But one decision in particular stood out to me: playing a Jedi was not really an option. I mean, there was a way to do it, but it was convoluted and required a lot of luck and commitment, probably most comparable to building a full set of high tier gear in World of Warcraft.

Now, the first thing I want to emphasize is that this was a design decision, not an oversight or mistake. The thinking was quite clear: in the canon of the Star Wars universe, Jedi are rare and few and fare between. If every player could play a Jedi, it would undercut that sensibility and make the game feel less like Star Wars. The image of thousands of players running around public areas waving lightsabers would break suspension of disbelief and ruin the game.
It is easy to appreciate this logic, but it overlooks one simple truth: When someone buys a Star Wars MMO, they want to play some Star Wars, and that basically means you want one of three things: 1) Cool Boba Fett style armor, 2) The Millennium Falcon or a reasonable facsimile thereof or 3) A freaking lightsaber. Explaining to them that you’re keeping it from them so that it stays special is a great way to come across sounding like a jerk.[1]

This is on my mind because a recent interview about the forthcoming Warhammer 40k MMO suggested you could not be a Space Marine right out the gate. Now, my generous reading of this is that you’ll just need to jump through some hoops – get out of the newbie zone and get to some reasonable point in play to be able to become a Space Marine.[2] An alternate reading suggests that it may be another Jedi situation which inspires a bit of bile.

Whichever way it settles out, it got me thinking about to reflect rare coolness in a large scale game, such as a MUSH or MMO.

Now, one option is just to not worry about it. If you take a few seconds to think about the heroes of World of Warcraft and the things the do, it becomes clear that there’s no shortage of suspension of disbelief. Given what gamers tolerate, there’s a good case to be made that ubiquitous lightsabers would hardly raise an eyebrow.

Alternately, you could just make the coolness more common (as I suspect the new Star Wars MMO does by placing it in the days of the Old Republic, so there’s an in-setting excuse for lots of Jedi). There’s a bit of a trick of scaling to this: in a LARP, it is reasonable that everyone be a vampire or the like, but that might not scale to an MMO, especially if there is such an idea as the Masquerade. A lot of White Wolf MUSHs have had to wrestle with this issue over the years, with the most common answer being “Ah, too hell with it.”

This factor is one reason I’ve always felt that Exalted, especially the Dragon Blooded component of it, would make a fantastic MUSH or MMO. In setting, there are a LOT of Dragon Blooded Exalts, enough to support a very large game without it breaking the setting since that’s rather the point.

The last solution is probably the hardest, but possibly the most rewarding. To be totally frank, it probably would not work on an MMO, both due to scaling and due to different play priorities. The idea is to have enough different ways to be cool that every player can take one and be one of a fairly select few. To illustrate, on Road to Amber, there is a group called “Custos” who are basically bodyguards for the wizards of their culture.[3] On paper, they’re very distinctive, with elementally themed weapons and a very clear role. The rules support the sort of things that they can do, but that’s about as far as it goes. The net result being that the fact that you’ve bought this power does not actually reveal much of anything about how it relates to your character. The player whose concept is that they’re a hardcore Custos is, mechanically, no better off than someone who has dabbled in it.[4]

I have to ask if perhaps there might be a way to distinguish those two characters, so that for one, ”Custos” is their signature – it’s what they’re known for and, mechanically, it creates specific bounds within which they excel. The dabbler has a non-signature version of the power and while his color may be similar, it only carries so much weight.

It is, perhaps, easier to illustrate with something simple, like strength. One character, Jerry, is the paragon of strength of the campaign, renown for his might. The next character, Chuck, is pretty strong. I mean, he’s a big guy, look at him, not someone you want to meet in a dark alley. But no one is writing stories about how he knocked out a giant with one blow. In a given scene, they might both a feat of strength to give them an advantage, but Chuck’s use will be more prosaic, and Jerry can probably perform more feats, more potently. If Chuck and Jerry throw down in a contest of pure strength, Chuck can put up a fight (unlike Mike, who isn’t particularly strong at all) but it’s ultimately one-sided. Strength is Jerry’s thing.

I once had a system for Amber that produced something like this at the tabletop. It allowed for freeform attributes (So Ranger, Pattern, Soldier, Con Man and such were all on the table rather than the usual power options) with the rule that if you bought one, it cost you 5, 15 or 50 points. At five points it was a minor detail in your character’s history. At 15, it was an important part of your character. At 50, it was THE important part of your character’s history. It holds up well in a fast and loose way, but it gets a little weird with magic.

This also might be a good use for Big aspects and Little aspects, as I was discussing a while back. As I think about it, I’m already doing this a little bit with my Cold War game, with the characters effectively having 4 little aspects and 1 big aspect, the one that controls their superpower, but that’s slightly different. Their superpowers are necessarily reflective of their essential nature.

On a MUSH, it might be possible to designate “Signature Level” powers and allow only one of them per character, with a non-signature version of most such powers available for others who buy into it at a lesser level of intensity. Thus, you can have two characters of the same noble bloodline but with very different relationships to it. There are a lot of interesting things you can hang off this. Suppose, for example, in game items or changes of a certain level of significance were only available at the signature level. That is to say, in an open system, it’s not hard to find someone to create a magic sword. But if doing so was limited to people who specifically chose Mystical Weaponsmith as their signature, then suddenly you’ve introduced scarcity. If you want to fight a war, you need a *General*. If you want to throw a really big party, you need a socialite and so on. This is a mixed bag, certainly – some people hate being force to interact outside their circle, and when everything’s available, closed circles are more viable, but I’m kind of ok with forcing people o acknowledge other people’s cool, especially when it’s merely rare rather than unique.

Of course, now I’m thinking about Signatures for tabletop, if only as flags for “This is how I intend to change the world.” Hmmmm.

1 – This is one of the areas where tabletop play can end run around MMO’s – making a table full of people special is far less hard to handle than making thousands.
2 – Perhaps comparable to getting a mount in WoW. Many MMO’s have a secret (or not so secret) internal sense that there’s a point where the “real game” begins, usually in the higher levels, with the idea that the earlier levels are an extended training opportunity.

3 – Yes, the idea is ripped off from, like, 4 different sources. I’m ok with that.

4 – This is complicated somewhat by the fact that many such powers are several powers deep, and there’s an implicit suggestion of extra investment in buying more powers from that tree, but the reality is that those decisions are oten made based purely on the utility of the particular powers.


Ok, so much as I enjoyed the WE ROCK (formerly KWORC) posts, those were a heck of a lot of work. I mean, I’m totally pleased with them, and I may at some point go back for another swim but after all that thinking I’m really all for spending some time thinking about how to smash monsters or cool dice tricks. So for the moment, let’s just focus on some cool stuff.

Will Hindmarch has done a fantastic playset for Fiasco which reminds me of The Man Who Folded Himself pushed through the lens of the Coen Brothers and Quantum Leap. This is not a bad combination at all.

Fiasco playsets are, by the way, one of the most fantastic pieces of gaming technology of the past few years. The game rules themselves are quite simple, but each game uses a playset to create the relationships, locations, objects and needs that drive the particular game. Playsets are modular tools that can be swapped out to totally change the nature of the game, yet they’re simple enough that anyone can make one with a little time and effort. Simply brilliant. Brennan Taylor has been working on something similar with Campaign Frames for Mortal Coil, though his approach is a little different (and he’s selling them, so slightly different distro too).

On one hand, some part of me wonders if it’s possible to do a game for free but supplements like this for charge and try that as a model. Another part of me says that’s not workable because you really want to encourage players to make their own because doing so improves the game as a whole. There’s a lot of merit to either approach, and it’s totally something to watch.

Rob Schwalb, the man I like to think of as “The guy who wrote half the cool RPG material published in the past year or two” has started blogging and its well worth checking out.

I occasionally bump up against things I need words for. In this case i was thinking of things which are eye-opening and useful when you first discover them, but eventually get set aside as old hat or foundational, so that when – some time later – someone else finds it for the first time and is full of bright eyed enthusiasm about how this is the most amazing thing ever and you can either nod and smile knowingly or roll your eyes and wonder what kind of idiot they are. As I explain it, it is perhaps weird that it comes up often enough o demand a word, but it really does. But unlike my usual quests, someone actually found one. My friend Shai suggested Liminary, which means something introductory or preparatory, but implies a gateway of sorts (from limen). Its wordplay also suggests liminal and luminary, and that seems just about right. So, thank you Shai.

New theory to explain the Bermuda Triangle. Methane Gas. Not sure I buy it, but it is a great set up for MASTER BLASTER RUNS BERMUDA TRIANGLE!

On a different note, Daniel Perez has written a pretty serious post about balancing love of gaming with life. Lots of stuff that will sound familiar to anyone who has realized their passion is not a practical choice as a way to make a living.

Lastly, I think I’m going to dip my toe in trying to run some tabletop games online, so I’m looking for recommendations for tools. I’ve put out the call on twitter and already have some great answers, but I always welcome more. I have no idea what we’ll actually end up playing, and we’ll likely have a mix of computer types, but since this is a experiment, I’m willing to try most anything.

KWORC: Endgame

By and large, I’ve been talking about the big picture for KWORC so far, with occasional forays into fine details for purposes of illustration. This is because for the most part, the model works equally well for a campaign as it does for a single session, but the small points of divergence can be a problem. And the most noticeable of those is the endgame. It is easy for a campaign to have a high-level, slightly abstract core goal, but a given mission tends to be very specific in its needs.

See, if your goal is something simple, like killing the bad guy, then there’s really nothing to worry about. You work your way through the problems, get to the end and grab the golden ring. Victory! However, the goal is not always simple. A nuanced goal like “bring the villain to justice” may actually have multiple components including “Stop his scheme” “Provide compensation for his victims” and “Keep him from ever doing it again” and those are not necessarily resolved in the same way. Similarly, a mission like “Steal the Golden Egg and swap in this duplicate without anyone realizing it” actually splits into two or three subgoals right there on the surface of it.

Now, the good news is that structurally, this is not that different from a normal KWORC construct. Let’s use our ‘Justice’ example to illustrate – in practice, if we accomplish all three of the subgoals (Stop him, provide compensation and keep him from doing it again) then we have reasonably accomplished our core goal of bringing him to justice. Structurally, those three goals are similar to problems that must be overcome to achieve the goal, so we can just branch out from them, figure out the KWORC needed for each and we’re good to go.

Now, as much as I can point to these subgoals all falling under the same umbrella and being part of a larger whole, that’s not always true. Sometimes these goals have differing levels of priority, or only some goals are important to some characters. And once you’ve opened this door, then you also invite in other goals entirely. And this is where it gets scary. One goal with lots of branching, interesting problems looks like a beautiful, complex jellyfish with long, spiny tentacles. It’s a little tricky to handle, but manageable. But multiple goals? Holy crap, how are you going to manage the complexity of a pool full of those spiny critters!?!?

It may seem like a contradiction, but the solution is simplicity. See, it’s entirely possible to build a very long, complex KWORC construct around a single goal if you’re so inclined. Doing so is desirable if you want to build an entire campaign around that goal, but if you want something less grandiose, the simple reality is you rarely need to go more than two layers[1] deep around any goal, and often a single layer of problems is all you need.

This may sound like simplification makes for less boring play, but that overlooks the power of multiple goals. Goals are much more interesting drivers of play than problems are. In a broad sense, when measuring interest, adding a problem adds to interest, but adding a goal multiplies it. To illustrate this, look at show that have complex, multi-problem/goal plots. The path to any particular goal is usually fairly short, but enough things need to get done to keep busy.

Now, once you’ve opened up the floor to the idea of multiple goals, your bag of tricks[2] gets much bigger. In addition to the aforementioned introduction of secondary goals, you are now armed to handle things like changing goals midstream. And because you stick close to the obstacles surrounding the goals, you’re not making any more work for yourself. Players may create interesting threads as they work their way to those core problems, and that’s awesome, but you don’t need to stress the bookeeping because you still know where the endgame is.

1 – In this context, a “layer” is how many iterations of problems you need to reach the goal. A goal that requires knowledge (as password) and Opportunity (access to a computer) has only one layer provided you can get that knowledge and opportunity. If you need to steal the password and keycard from a guy to get those things, that’s a second layer.

2 – Another, unrelated trick. Capability obstacles are a fantastic basis for a hiring montage. Consider the beginning of Ocean’s 11 or any Mission: Impossible through a KWORC lens. The core goal has been identified, the problems have been branched, and several of them are capability ones. At this point we know we need someone who can crack a safe, someone who can pass as a Ukrainian housekeeper and someone who can take down 3 security guards without giving them a chance to raise an alarm. BAM. Recruitment montage follows.

KWORC Part 4: Stuff to Watch For

Now, at this point you’ve got enough tools to build an adventure – start with a goal, isolate the problem, figure out what needs to be done to overcome that problem and state that as another set of problems. Repeat as many times as necessary to feel like you’ve filled things out. It’s fairly simple, but there are a few loose bits that are worth nailing down to help bring the whole thing together.


As you plan these potentially long sequences of problems and resolution, it’s easy to feel like you’re leading your players around by the nose. If you view this all as a a series of tasks the characters need to perform it can become precisely that. The trick, of course, is that’s not the way to view it.

See, there’s a tendency to look at the specific problems and solutions as hard points that need to be stepped through to reach the end point, but that’s backwards. The important thing is the core problem, not the path to it. Players will surprise you, but if you keep the core problem in mind, that won’t take things off course. Instead, it will just prove to be a different route to the same end.

Consider for a moment how liberating that is. There’s no right or wrong direction for play to go – there’s a direction that may result from events, but no direction things MUST go. As an extension of that, so long as you keep the goal clear, there’s no need to push players towards specific action – the goal provides a point of reference that gives context for all actions.

Clarity and Urgency

Sure, it’s all pretty much cupcakes and puppies if you can keep it working, but there are two things which can grind everything to a halt – if the players lose their sense of clarity or urgency, things go badly.

Clarity is the most dangerous thing to lose. The whole KWORC model depends on the characters having a sense that they can do _something_, and it will matter. There needs to be a sense of a thread connecting where the players are to where they want to be, and if they lose that thread they can get frustrated.[1]

It’s usually pretty obvious when players have lost that sense of clarity. They argue about what to do next without any real passion – they’re casting the net out and hoping to catch something, anything, and starting to get annoyed.

When this happens, you need to ask yourself what you’re seeing that they’re not.[2] You know what the core goal is, and you know where the player’s stand, so you should still have a clear view of the options and problems facing them. The disconnect between what you can see and your player’s seeing is usually pretty small, and once you spot it, the means of correcting it usually suggests itself.

Urgency is, strangely enough, not necessarily as urgent provided the game is going well. Sometimes the big goal can take care of itself for a while, especially if the players are enjoying an engaging distraction. But when things start to slow down, it’s important that players _want_ to get back to the main goal. If they don’t, you may need to go back to whatever initiated the game, and possibly dial things up a notch or two. The villain takes an action. The problem gets worse. The clock starts ticking.

Why Opportunity Matters Most

I’ve mentioned a few times that opportunity problems are the most important for solving the big problem, but that’s not necessarily obvious. Opportunity problems don’t require anything else but character action to resolve. Why is that important?

See, every other kind of problem[3] is going to require _something_ to resolve – a source of knowledge, rare or hard to get items, consequences and so on. Opportunity tends to just require the one thing players have in excess – pure cussedness. Opportunity problems can often be solved by pounding you head against the wall long and hard enough, and if there’s one thing players will do, it’s that. Players are almost always willing to try a little harder or push a little harder. This is actually something of a problem in many cases[4] but this is one situation where that can get rewarded.

To Sum Up

Ok, you hopefully now have the problem areas nailed down, so tomorrow we can tie it all together.

1 – Now, that said, a little frustration can have its place, but only very little. It’s a reasonable follow up to things going badly wrong, but it can’t stay in that rut for too long.

2 – Unless you have also lost the thread, in which case it’s time to seriously review the situation.

3 – Ok, Capability problems can be overcome in this fashion too, but that tends to be all or nothing. Either they can, and they do, or they can’t and they don’t.

4 – It’s the anime fighting thing, where fights are resolved by “I FIGHT HARDER!” Players are always willing to fight harder, so that translates pretty badly into play.