Monthly Archives: September 2010

How to Fail Well

As GMs, we fear failure. Not on our part – we’re good with that – but when our players fail. We’re well trained to handle success, to roll forward and turn it into play, but a failure can totally jam us up. It’s unfun for the player and we’re not always sure how to proceed. So with that in mind, here’s another how to: How to handle failure.

First, the disclaimer.
So with that out of the way…

The rule of the dice is that when you roll the dice, something should happen. Ideally, you’re already ready for both success and failure and you know what to do, but I’m assuming here that you don’t. “Something Happens” shouldn’t be too hard a test to past, but too often, a failure translates into nothing happens, and that’s where things go wrong.

So first and foremost, if you can, make the failure active. Things break, disasters happen, and the manure hits the rotating blades[1]. Things don’t just not work, they go wrong, and in going wrong they demand response. It may seem counterintuitive, but the bigger and bolder you get with with the failure, the more your players will embrace it because it will give them things to do.
Now, that’s great if you can make it happen, but not every failure is going to offer itself to that sort of outcome. Sometimes the action doesn’t suggest a good, fun failure, or sometimes you’re just going to draw a blank on how to bring that failure to life. In that case, fall back on this model: A failure is a success with an additional cost.

That is, the character succeeds, but it’s not an unalloyed success. The character jumps the chasm but twists his ankle on the landing.[2] The lock gets picked, but not before the guards see you. You search the room, but you damage the clue you find. You find the book you need, but it’s in a language you don’t know.

Between these two tricks you should have everything you need to handle a poorly timed failure.

1 – This is also an opportunity to respect your players by attributing flukey failure to things external to the character, If you character is good at something, you don’t want the dice to tell you that you suck. Rather, if the failure has some external cause (missing information, a broken tool or the like) then the player’s expertise is still respected, but things have gone wrong.

2 – This is also a great solution for situations which would traditionally be “Failure equals death” since those failures tend to really suck.

Action vs. Frustration

So, while I was pondering other “GM How To” ideas before yesterday’s massive post, one that stuck out was “How to piss off your players without pissing them off at you.” Curiously, this is a lot easier to explain than how to describe something.

The trick of it is simple: Your players don’t mind you doing terrible things to them. In fact, they expect it. They did not sign up for these games to play boring people doing boring things. Stuff going badly is an essential part of excitement and adventure. A lot of GM’s shy away from pulling out the nastiness because they think their players might be averse to it[1] but that’s a misunderstanding.

What players hate is when something bad happens and they can’t do anything about it.

This is not to say they need to be able to *stop* the badness (though that’s nice) but rather that they need to have some sort of reasonable response available to them. Being capable of responding actually breaks down into a two elements, and things tend to fail when one of these is overlooked.

First, the characters must be able to act effectively. In broad strokes this means that things like inescapable paralysis forcing players to be audience to the badness will be frustrating, but it can also be more subtle. If the players can act, but their actions will do nothing, as in the case of an invulnerable boss, then that’s equally frustrating.[2] One way that this can be gotten around is if the limitations on the players are already part of the scene. Characters will occasionally get captured and put in chains, and there’s a certain expectation of helplessness that comes with that, so if a bad things happens as _part_ of such a scene, it is less offensive than the idea of putting them in chains _solely_ to make them watch the badness. Needless to say, you also need to make sure the situation changes quickly so the players can start acting soon – if you show them the badness then just leave them in chains, that’s a little lame.

Second, the players need to be able to act intelligently. That is, there needs to be a clear line of action for them to pursue. If you create a villain and kick the characters’ teeth in to the point where they really hate him and set off to hunt him down, they need to know which way to go. Even if they don’t catch him (‘He was just here last week, but let in an awful hurry!’) they need to know how to keep going if they want to pursue. Give them enough information to feel they can make reasonable choices.

Enough information is a slightly tricky thing because you don’t want to give _no_ information, but at the same time you don’t want to give so many options that it becomes paralyzing. If the path branches, that’s fine, but when it turns into a starbust, you may have a problem[3]. Similarly, be very careful with trying to play the villain smart enough to try to trick the characters (and players) with false leads. If you do this more than very rarely, all information starts becoming suspect, and the game grinds to a paralytic halt.

So that’s the short of it. Do bad things to the characters, but do them in a way that produces action, not frustration.

1 – And some players will say they’re averse to it, but I’ve found that usually means they’re looking to avoid something more specific than trouble, but they can’t articulate it. Often, this is a result of bad experiences with other games. There’s no one solution to this problem (except, of course, to play respectfully) and it’s something you’ll have to explore with the player, re-establishing trust and finding tastes.

2 – This is a big reason why stealing magic items in D&D is such a hot button topic. It absolutely engages the players by pissing them off intensely, but because a character’s magic items are such a large part of their mechanical effectiveness that the characters end up feeling neutered.

3 – This is, by the way, dangerously close to railroading. The difference is in player motives – if they _want_ to hunt the villain, it’s reasonable to provide a road to him. The catch is that you don’t punish them when they decide to go off the road, or to pursue another road entirely.

4 Elements of a Scene

Ok, so let me start with a a qualifier: there’s no one way to describe a scene. I’m going to be providing instructions for _a_ way to do so in the hopes that they will be useful to anyone who is looking for some guidelines in stepping away from boxed text. The ultimate goal of such guidelines is to become unnecessary. The upshot of this is that if you have other tricks you want to suggest, please feel free to do so in the comments. This is NOT a comprehensive approach, and more tricks are always useful. Now, with that out of the way…

Let me start without he assumption that you need to describe a scene to your players, and that you need to create this description from whole cloth. You may have boxed text you don’t want to read, or you may have a description that you need to paraphrase.[1] The goal is to turn that into a description that actually works for your game.

For your description, you need to provide four things, the FRAME, the THREATS, the OPPORTUNITIES and the DETAILS. If you can cover each of those points quickly and clearly, you’ll have a solid description.

The Frame is the first part of any description, and in some ways the most important, as it establishes the baseline. Since you can’t describe everything in detail, the frame helps set the tone for the details you don’t provide, helping your players fill in the gaps. You should consider it a sketch, and you want to answer these question: What is the approximate size and shape of the space? Is there anything peculiar about the arrangement of the space? Where are the characters within the space?[2]

You should be able to answer those questions in one or two sentences. For example:

You are on a crowded city street that serves as an impromptu bazaar. It’s easily forty feet wide, and goes fifty feet in each direction before hitting a cross street.

Old, squat trees press up against the right side of the trail, blocking sight and movement. To the left, the hillside falls away in a steep embankment that offers a lovely view and the potential for an unpleasant drop.

The alley is cramped, narrow enough that you can touch both sides with outstretched arms. The street is right behind you, and about 15 feet in the alley turns left and out of sight.

The door you came through opens into the center of one side of this rectangular room – the side you emerge from is fifty feet wide, and it is perhaps thirty feet across to the opposite wall.

By itself, the frame doesn’t tell is much about the scene – specifically, it doesn’t tell us why the scene is interesting, and why we’re describing this particular scene rather than some other one. That’s where THREATS and OPPORTUNITIES come up.

THREATS are usually pretty obvious, and while it might be easy to generalize them as creatures or traps, the real thing about threats is that they demand player action (even if that action is to sneak away quietly). Threats are not generic – simply saying there’s a monster in a room doesn’t convey the threat because it does not lead to action. Is the monster sleeping? Distracted? Charging at you? Loading a crossbow? What the creature is doing (and how) is as important as what it is. This is why certain information (such as what weapons an enemy has) is part of the threat – it suggests what action the enemy is going to take.

When the threats aren’t creatures, the same rules apply – just describing the existence of the threat is not going to tell your players enough. If there’s a pendulum blade scything across the room, it’s very important to know whether it’s scything _towards_ the characters.

Thus, with the threat, you must answer the following questions: What is the threat, what is it doing and (if it’s not obvious) what are the consequences of it doing that?[3] For example:

A centaur on the far side of the room startles as you enter, instinctively drawing an arrow from the quiver on his back and scanning you for the optimal target.

The door slams itself shut behind you with a *click* and a small hole, the size of a mans fist appears in the center of the room, though after a few seconds, it has grown to the size of a dinner plater, and is continuing to grow.

Argale waves to you from across the plaza, seemingly oblivious to the men in crimson cloaks approaching him from the opposite side. They’re closer to him than you are, and are holding their hands under their cloaks in a way that strongly suggests hidden weapons.

OPPORTUNITIES are the flip side of threats. They are things which players may use, exploit or take advantage of but which do not necessarily have any impetus of their own. They are the things which, if you were to see in a movie, you just _know_ are going to get jumped on, knocked over, blown up, swung from or otherwise used to liven up the scene. As a GM this requires a little bit of thought. Some elements (like neutral “traps”) may be a mechanical part of the encounter, but other things may be a little more neutral. As a good rule of thumb, opportunities include anything which it has occurred to you the players might use or interact with in the scene and which you’re ready to handle.[4]

Opportunities answer the question “What things might the players use?”

A great iron chandelier hangs from the ceiling, with the winch and chain holding it attached to the far wall.

Heavy tapestries hang from each of the balconies, almost down to the floor.

The ancient statue of Thor up against the wall has seen better days; it’s a wonder it’s still standing.

DETAILS are the elusive “everything else” and they’re where you’re most likely to trip up in providing a description by providing too many details. The temptation is to treat details as their own thing, and to launch into a thorough rundown of the contents of the scene in meticulous detail[5]. Don’t.

The other temptations to use details as an outlet for your internal author, busting out vivid, moving descriptions of people and things which will totally suck your players into the moment. That doesn’t work either, and in fact one reason so much boxed text is so bad is that it strives to do just that.

The trick is that all the details you need should be included in the FRAME, THREATS or OPPORTUNITIES. Look back at the examples I’ve given so far and imagine if I’d been even more terse: A tall crumbling statue is up against the wall. The street is an impromptu bazaar. A hole has appeared in the middle of the room and it’s growing.

All of those would have conveyed the critical details, but nothing more than that. By including a tiny bit more information in the form of small details, like that it’s a statue of Thor, or the merchant’s blankets, I suggest a great deal more.

And that’s the trick. A good detail says a lot about the scene without explicitly stating it outright. It is a shorthand for something that would take much longer to describe. Consider the following:

You are in an opulently furnished bedroom.

That gives us some information, but how do you fill in the details? How big is the bed? What shape is it? Other furnishings? Windows? Art? You need to give the description some sort of touchpoint. For example:

The bed is a giant four-poster monstrosity, carved from the same severe, dark wood as the rest of the furnishings.


The bed is a circular cushion on the floor directly under the skylight, covered with silken pillows and surrounded by a gauzy curtain.

Either one of those would be a valid way to provide some detail about the room but they suggest _drastically_ different bedrooms. And with only one element detailed (the bed), how many other things have been suggested about the room?[6]

The trick is that any time you feel you have a lot you need to say, pick one element of it that seems reasonably iconic. The art on the walls. The style of dress. The smell of the place.[7] It will not convey everything you might have in your mind, but it’s a function of diminishing returns. That first detail captures ~75% of the flavor of a scene. The next one only brings it to ~80%, and each subsequent detail adds a little less. The number of details you need to add to get near 100% is enough to be cumbersome. If, instead, you embrace the approximate nature of key details, you can get onto playing more quickly.[8]

Ok, so now comes the time to tie it all together. While I would not suggest reading pre-written text, I might suggest it’s worth writing down you description as you intend to provide it. The purpose of doing so is not to lock you into those specific words, but rather to plant the key points in your mind.

As a rule of thumb, try to keep the description under 100 words, which will end up being a little over 30 seconds of speaking time. That’s short enough to keep your players focused, but long enough to include some details. If you’re describing a whole new place for the first time then you might go a little longer, but err on the conservative side.

Try to shoot for 7 sentences, 2 sentences of frame, 2 sentence of opportunities and 2 sentences of threat, with one free-safety sentence to use as you see fit.

That is all a lot of verbiage for something that boils down to 7 sentences. But some of the simplest things are the hardest to explain.

1 – Part of the assumption is that the information you need to describe has not been presented to you in an immediately useful way. There are means (both hypothetical and real) of presenting that data more usefully, but we won’t get into that here.

2 – Describing where things are, especially characters, can be complicated, especially in oddly shaped spaces. If you’re using a battle mat, you’re saved a lot of this hassle, but if you’re not, consider a quick sketch as the solution to something too complicated to explain.

3 – The threat can most often be followed by the question “What do you do?” which is why it is usually the last part of any description.

4 – But be aware there’s no guarantee they will ever use them. Also, consider how your opportunities and threats interact. If one of the opportunities in the scene is an awesome elevated nook where an archer can fire from cover, then there’s a good chance the enemy has already places and archer up there.

5 – This is a bad habit left over format he early days of dungeon crawling when the description of a room was often a puzzle of its own. Players were expected to engage every detail listed because if they overlooked one, odds were good it was a polymorphed purple worm or the key to the incredibly important secret door opened by 1970’s rock opera lyrics. This oversight would usually mean they got their faces eaten. If you’re playing a game in that mode, then you’re better off just sticking to the boxed text anyway because it’s less likely that you’ll “give something away” with your inflection.

6 – In this case the bed is part of the frame, unless you’re playing the sort of game where it’s the opportunity.

7 – This is where the basic creative writing teacher speaks up to remind you that you don’t have to just use sight. Sound and smell are powerful descriptors, and you should use them, but sparingly. They are powerful because they’re anomalous – our attention will be drawn to any scent or sound described unless they’re _always_ described. So don’t use them just to jazz things up, use them to draw attention to specific things.

8 – And if there’s confusion, then your players can ask questions. Yes, answering questions is less efficient than describing everything up front, but it’s more efficient then trying to answer every possible question before it’s asked. Also, questions are useful. When a player asks a question, first ask yourself why you didn’t mention that detail. If the answer is “Because it’s a niggling thing” then you’re ok. As an additional trick, when your player’s ask a broad question that is full of stupid details like “What are the contents of the desk?” and you’ve already mentioned everything important, then it’s reasonable to ask “What are you looking for?”

The Curse of Clarity

In talking about the salability of the dungeon as an adventure model the other day, I really came back to the fact that it’s the best answer to a new GM asking “What the hell am I supposed to do now?” That is one of the most important questions to prepare for in any game design, but it’s especially important when you’re writing a game for novices. Without a cushion of existing lore they are looking for a level of clarity comparable to what they might expect from a board game.

There is sometimes an instinct to answer that concern with simplicity, but I think that misses the mark. These potential players aren’t stupid, and the yardstick of boardgame rules is not one of simplicity (because many boardgames are in fact more complex than RPGs) but thoroughness and, yes, clarity. Making things simpler on the assumption that players will be more able to “figure it out” is building on a bad foundation. If your expectation is that your players will have to figure out the parts you haven’t explained then you’re pretty much conceding a great gaping hole in your design.[1]

The first problem is that we’re a little lazy[2]. Part of this is that we’ve found tools that work well enough (dungeons, boxed text) but but a larger part of it is that this is the boring stuff. Taking the time and wordcount to really explain this stuff is going to detract from the rest of your game design, especially with smaller press games. If you’re writing a tight, focused game about one thing or another, you’re assuming an audience who already knows this crap and you don’t want to go completely off track teaching the basics.

There are more than a few parallels to cookbooks in this. There are cookbooks that teach basic techniques and recipes, then there are the “real” cookbooks which assume you already know how to chop, mince and brown.[3] As long as you know which you’re buying (and which you’re writing) it works out pretty well, but if you expect the book on breadmaking you bought to explain how to make a simple sauce, the problem is not with the book, it’s with the mismatch of your expectations.

That said, there is a kinder problem than laziness: we also have pretty big blind spots. The more you play the more you find your own solutions to things, and the more reflexive they become. It is easy to stop even thinking of these problems as problems because the solution has become second nature. For example, I find boxed text annoying, but in a “this is utterly useless to me” kind of way. When I encounter it in a design, I do not think about the player who it is there for nor do I think about what I do to turn it into something interesting – I just do it.

These unexamined behaviors are one of the most powerful tools we have as GMs and designers, but also one of the hardest ones to bring to bear. If you can get someone to stop and realize where their blind spot is and get them to think and talk about it, odds are good they’ll be a hugely useful resource. But that’s a big if; they’re called blind spots for a reason. This is why I love talking to players and GMs with different experiences than my own – there is no better way to spot your on assumptions than in an unfamiliar mirror.

Anyway, all this came to mind out of a combination of things. Part of it was from pondering the clarity of Apocalypse World and wondering what else could benefit from that sort of clarity. Part of it came from Sarah Darkmagic raising some entirely reasonable questions about boxed text in adventures which reminded me of one of my blind spots.

So, I’ll get around to the Aspect ideas in a bit, but tomorrow I hope to talk a bit about how to not use boxed text, and what goes into the actual act of describing a scene.[4]

1 – This is not automatically a bad thing. Many, many games are not designed to be a player’s first RPG. If a player starts with one of these game then it’s unlikely they just bought it off the shelf and are trying to figure it out form the text. More likely they have been brought in by a group who are already familiar enough with play to fill in the gaps.

Now, this is not to say more games would not benefit from stating their assumptions up front, but there are only so many games where there is a reasonable expectation that the player’s first exposure to RPGs will be this game, and most of those are D&D (though not all – licensed games, for example, can hook in players). That might suggest this thinking is not terribly pressing for those of us who aren’t WOTC, but the reality is that new, unfamiliar players are the only way this hobby grows. If they come in only at the rate of indoctrination, that’ smooch slower than if they can be brought in by product (a point that has no small amount to do with the new D&D essentials line).

2 – Perl programmers know this is not necessarily a problem.

3 – And beyond that are the even more esoteric cookbooks that have high enough bars of entry as to basically be written for chefs, by chefs. How that relates to game publishing I leave as an exercise to the reader. (And, on the other hand, you have cookbooks which turn convention on its ear to create something accessible by changing the way you think about things)

4 –
Unsurprisingly, I usually write these in advance of when they go up so I’ve already been working on the boxed text one as I post this, and I just want to say, wow, I am surprising myself at how long it is to simplify.

Apocalyptic Ramble

I was going to write about podcasts, but my brain kept turning this over and wouldn’t let go. So, apologies that it gets a little rambly. I’m still pinning something down myself.

Apocalypse World continues to gnaw at my brain, which probably speaks well for it. I expect I’m just going to have to run it to get it out of my system, sooner rather than later.

I had an interesting exchange with Vincent Baker on the 6 session topic. There’s a bit of the text that suggests that after 6 sessions is when the game gets good, which stuck me as a weird (and problematic) sentiment. Turns out it might more aptly say that something particularly cool happens around then, though I sort of took Vincent at his word for that. What caught my interest was another comment he made (and I’m paraphrasing) that the only thing he objected to was people thinking the game was an treadmill of bleak hopelessness before 6 sessions.

That got me thinking a bit. I admit, the sense of bleakness I got from reading the rules was a bit off-putting. Not that it was bad so much as it proposed a game I was not necessarily interested in playing. Still, the prospect of things turning a corner is a compelling one, enough so that I gave it some serious thought. Part of the rub is that sometime around session 6 (or more precisely, after 6 advances) you can buy your own happy ending. That is to say, you can retire the character and he is guaranteed some protection from the awfulness of the world. So by retiring your character under your own terms you makes the world a better place.

This is, I admit, kind of cool, but it put me back to thinking because, for me, that wasn’t quite right. I don’t want to save me – I want to save someone else. It’s just one of my play sensibilities.[1] Now, it’s an easy thing to change: Add the ability to “retire” someone as an option and you’re good to go. Yes, technically, it’s not a new move, but I feel like it’s probably a reasonably in-bounds change with the knowledge that it makes for a drastic change in tone. But that’s not important.

What interested me as I thought about that tweak, it struck me that AW’s rigidity really makes for some interesting hackery. Like 4e, the fact that the mechanical moving parts are right on the surface and closely interact means that it’s a lot easier to make small changes to great effect. And the fact that AW has fewer moving parts than 4e makes it possibly even better suited to such things.

As an example, I ended up mapping the characters to Firefly (which works suspiciously well) and I realized that one thing I found lacking in the characters was interaction. I really love the Savvyhead’s “Oftener Right” move (which gives a benefit when people come to you for advice and take it) and I love First Quest’s Banners[2] so it seemed the obvious thing to do was say each character adds a move for other characters. Bang. Done.

Now, the counterargument here is that as easy as it is to say “bang, done” the reality is far more fiddly, which seems apt. There is a bit of deceptiveness to the simplicity of AW as a lot of the moves, especially on the GM’s part, are a lot more complicated than they appear. They are easy to do, but also easy to do poorly. I think they dovetail wonderfully with a certain level of GM skill or experience, but I have occasionally heard people talk about how the simplicity makes it a great training game for a GM and I admit that prospect makes me wary. Barf Forth Apocalyptica is a great principle, but it’s easier said than…er, said.

Of course, the game’s not necessarily supposed to be a set of training wheels. It’s probably more aptly an intermediate or master class, and that’s a good thing. It’s an under-served slice of things.

Anyway, the bottom line is that AW is good enough to make me think about it, and about other games through its lens. It has, for example, inspired some very solid thoughts on Aspects of radically different persuasions. But that is, I think, a topic for another day.

1- Fred wants his heart to bleed so bad it comes out his eyes. I want to eat bitter to make a difference. Everyone’s got a lever like that.

2 – It’s a TSOY expansion from Judd’s First Quest. In TSOY you can get XP by doing certain things in keeping with a Key (so if you have the Key of Anger you may get XP for losing your temper). Banners expand this so other people can get XP for playing to your key (so they may get an XP forpissing you off). It’s pretty awesome.

Newbie Adventures

The dungeon is a fantastic piece of gaming technology. It’s one of the oldest, certainly, but in certain ways it has yet to be surpassed, and that fact is one that has a lot of bearing on anyone who is looking to sell an RPG to anyone who has not already been indoctrinated into the tribe.

As a means of running an adventure, a dungeon has certain advantages and disadvantages: most notably it’s a closed, restricted environment so choices are strongly limited without it feeling like that is the case. You can, after all, choose whichever passageway or door you choose. That feels quite unrestricted, and makes it easy to overlook that the choices presented to you are controlled. This is great if you want to maintain pacing (it keeps the game on track) but frustrating if your players are looking for more of a range of activity.

These limitations have meant that other models for adventures have emerged over time, most of them superior in one way or another, but the dungeon has never quite gone away. Some of this might be attributable to it’s “old school” appeal, but the reality is that it remains one of the simplest models possible, and simplicity is often quite desirable.

It is _especially_ desirable for people new to a game, facing questions of what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it. The Dungeon most strongly resembles the pure game experience, and can usually be played as such by novices who are looking to teach themselves the game. In contrast, some other model will introduce complications, like making subjective judgment calls in an open ended environment or demanding more creativity from a novice GM than they may be comfortable providing.[1]

Now, I’m not convinced that the dungeon is the ONLY adventure model you can pitch to a novice who must pick up and play from the text, but I cannot yet think of an example that is comparably playable out of the box. It occurs to me that it might be worth looking more closely at the “game” aspect of these adventures. A dungeon mimics some elements of a boardgame – are there other games, board or card, that might be emulated in this fashion? Card games are the obvious choice, but on some level that is easier said than done.

No answer yet, I’m afraid, but definitely a question I’m chewing on. An alternative is something we’re really going to need to find[2] if we want to broaden the appeal of the products.

1 – I explicitly say “comfortable” here because it’s not a question of capability – I am ok assuming that the potential GM is creative enough to do it, but their first time out, they’re going to be gunshy and worried about doing things incorrectly. You want to give them a complete recipe of what to do as a baseline. If they’re comfortable going off book, then that’s great, but if they’re not then you wan tot make sure they’re able to play.

2 – And again, I want to underscore, the priority here is that it’s something someone totally unfamiliar with an RPG can grasp. It is easy to come up with ideas that are better than dungeon but unless they are more duffer friendly, the other ways in which they are superior are meaningless.


Reading Apocalypse World also crystallized a few other thoughts for me. This is not going to be a post about Apocalypse World, mind you, but it is at least tangential to it.

Part of the reason I end up dwelling on the importance of setting in play is that I want my play to have meaning. Not in any grand, deep sort of sense, but rather the small, mundane sense of satisfaction I might get out of finishing a good story. The events and people involved may be fictional, but despite that I am made happy that they have faced their problems, resolved them, and brought matters to a close. Life is, of course, hardly that tidy, and the emergence of new problems is fodder for sequels, but those are matters for another day. Today we have overcome, and we have earned our rest.

This is surprisingly tricky in RPGs. A good ending is something I’ve talked about before, but it’s only part of the picture. The problem is this: the GM has an infinite budget of trouble. There are always more dungeons, new threats and fresh problems to throw at players. Since dealing with those things is the basis of play, that’s mostly a good thing. With an infinite budget of trouble, there’s no reason anything should ever get boring. However, it is very easy for that budget to turn into a treadmill. Your victory today can become meaningless because the empty spot will get filled by some fresh trouble.

When it reaches that point, that’s where I get dissatisfied. The treadmill of trouble usually means that any change I can make in the world is transient or meaningless – it’s just new fodder for trouble. In the worst sort of situations, this is why some players end up making lone wolf orphans. It’s not that they don’t _want_ to have connections to the world, it’s just that they’ve been trained that any connections they have will be used against them as a blunt instrument.

All of which is to say, it’s a balancing act. If EVERYTHING is trouble, players have no incentive to invest in anything.[1] But if nothing is trouble, then the game is going to get pretty dull. Finding the path between those things is one of the challenges that every table must face because there’s no one right solution.

This is where I come back to the quest for meaning. I invest myself in the setting so that I can, in turn, find meaning in the losses, victories and changes. That helps me find a path towards more trouble, but gives me some anchors to keep me from going over the ledge (as I perceive it). Since other people gravitate towards different paths, the fact that meaning is such a soft idea allows me to plant a flag in a _general_ area without pinning it down precisely.

The trick with meaningful things is that they merit respect, and respect is more nuanced than a simple “on the table/off the table” split. Meaningful things are always on the table, but in a way that _reinforces_ their meaning, not in a way that simply uses them as fodder.

To illustrate, let’s say your players have rebuilt an orphange. They’ve put time and effort into this, and it’s an important element of the game. If the orphanage is protected (that is to say, immune to trouble) then it’s not going to be threatened by events in play except in purely cosmetic ways. If it’s “on the table”, then it’s now a valid stake in play, so plots threatening its destruction are a valid way to engage the players.

If the orphanage is meaningful, then it can be threatened, but it should not be _existentially_ threatened. That is, the stakes should not be that the orphanage is destroyed or irrevocably changed, but rather that the orphanage is the source of other plots. This may sound familiar to folks who saw my last trick – rather than use the thing itself as the hook, find the things around it and connected to it. This way, the threats _reinforce_ the importance of the meaningful element rather than just treating it as a punching bag for the GM.

1 – Even if they’re willing too, it’s ultimately meaningless, since everything is fuel for the great machine of trouble.

Exception World

I had put off my post-gencon purchases for a while, and that combined with some curiosities of timing to result in a bundle of truly fantastic looking games to cross my threshold at roughly the same time: Dark Sun, the new DC Adventures, Blowback, Remember Tomorrow and Apocalypse World. I’m still working through the pile, but the gravitational pull of AW was too strong for me to resist, so I’ve pretty much devoured it.

This isn’t a review of Apocalypse World. I might make one at some point, but others are doing a fair job of talking it up. But in the interest of summation, I would say that it was absolutely worth it’s (Slightly High) price tag. This is a complete Vincent Baker design (as opposed to some or most of a design) and while it’s worth it as a game, the reality is that the biggest interest is going to come from rules wonks and design theorists looking to see the shiny newness. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. This is not to say my enthusiasm is unreserved, but my turnoffs are few enough and idiosyncratic enough to have no place in a nutshell.[1]

Rather, I want to zero in on a particular element of the rules that really struck me as interesting, that is to say, how strongly the rules seem in keeping with those of a Collectible (or non-Collectible) card game.

Ok, so for all the interesting things to say about AW the one that explains the most things is that there is a rule for everything. This is not necessarily to say there are a lot of rules (there aren’t) but rather that every action taken is represented with a rule. There’s no soft, interpretive space – if you’re doing something, there’s a rule for it.

These rules are called “moves”, and there’s an explicit set of them handling basic actions (Threatening people, helping, perception checks and so on) as well as class specific ones (like healing). If you want to add a new rule to the game (or make a ruling to handle a special situation) then you add a new move to represent it. This idea that everything is rules is a pretty powerful one[2] and may merit its own post at some point, but I want to zero in on a specific bit of structure to it.

The quiet workhorse of the game is a specific move called “Act Under Fire”. You use this move when you try to do something hard, and the rules are basically this: Roll 2d6 and add your cool. 2-6, you blow it and the GM does something bad. On a 10+ you pull it of. On a 7-9 you don’t quite pull it of and the GM can do things like present you with a hard choice or a diminished outcome. There’s some game-specific terminology at work, but that’s the heart of it.

It’s presented like every other move, but the trick of this particular move is that it’s the true baseline of play. Everything else is some manner of variation on this idea of success, failure and modified success. That is to say, this is the baseline rule, and every other move is basically an exception to it.

Some of you might see where this is going: Apocalypse World is a fantastic (and somewhat unique) example of exception based design. This is an idea in game design that a game will have only a very simple core set of rules, with all of the intricacies and complexities coming from rules for explicit situations (that is to say, exceptions to the normal flow of things).

This comes up a lot in the context of CCGs because most CCGs are exception based designs. The basic rules tend to be very simple: rules for drawing and playing cards, maybe some basic actions, but its all very straightforward. However, each card has a little bit of rules text on it which applies when it’s played. That’s how it gets interesting to play.[3]

Apocalypse World’s play could pretty easily be boiled down into a deck of cards, probably with less material effort than goes into most boardgames. Cards for the key elements of the character sheets and to track a few things, then cards for the moves you have personally available. And that’s pretty fascinating. The RPG that successfully incorporates CCG elements has been something of a holy grail for a while, often discussed but rarely achieved in anything but a peripheral fashion. AW’s structure suggests a clear way to do so. Not only could you easily play with the rules as is, if you want to add a random element for a different type of game entirely, the move structure would make that very easy indeed.

In any case, AW gives a lot to talk about, but this particular bit absolutely has me turning over potentials in my head.

1 – Ok, except the 6 sessions thing. That’s weak sauce.
2 – It’s also the engine behind 4e.
3 – Elizabeth S. very reasonably compares the moves to menu selection in a CRPG rather than a CCG, and rightly so, but the principal is the same, just adding menu items rather than cards.

Labor Day Games

For labor day, I want to celebrate the work of my wife[1] who managed to organize my game collection from something like this:

Into this:

Shelf by Shelf breakdown follows for those nerdy enough to care.

It’s been crazy, as I’ve been discovering games I had no idea I had.

Anyway, I hope everyone’s enjoying the long weekend. See you tomorrow!

1 – My wife has informed me that much of the credit belongs to my friend Kim, so I expand the shout out!

External Threats

NPR’s did a fantastic set of pieces over the past few days describing the actions of the USS Kirk in last days of the Vietnam War. As Saigon was being evacuated, the Kirk was ordered to turn around and go back to rescue refugees and salvage (or sink) the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy. It was one of those events that got no press at the time, and is exactly the sort of thing NPR excels at – a tapestry of very human, very moving stories.

A part that really grabbed me was the story of the dropped baby. One man, a helicopter pilot, loaded it down with his family and everyone he could carry. The Kirk’s a destroyer escort, which is to say it had no place for the helicopter to land, so the pilot had to keep it as steady as possible over the deck to allow people to drop down to the sailors. One of them was a 10 month old girl in diapers, and she was the one telling the story. She didn’t remember it, of course, but she had grown up hearing it.

This was just one of many things, a few of them horrifying and many of them amazing and heroic. This stuff really grabs me, as a person and as a storyteller. So much so that I’m a little hesitant to turn it into an example, but it’s so fresh in my mind that I can hardly pass up the opportunity.

See, the thing that grabs me about this is the heroism of doing everything you can. There’s no difficult choice involved[1], just desperate action and uncertainty. Last, desperate chances. When I can get this in a game, I can’t get enough. It’s a lightning bolt down my spine. it moves me, and that’s something I want.

The problem is, it’s not easy to get this, and the route to it is perhaps a little counterintuitive. Explicitly, I am NOT going to get it in a game that is structured towards building that sort of scene. I can get all the motions, but not the emotional punch. That is to say, things like aspects, personality traits, narrative control and whatnot, I can create a _scene_ which contains all the elements of a desperate last stand. I can even bring it to a satisfying resolution.

But it’s not the same.

The thing about that scene, as a planned or structured thing, is that it will focus on the heroic choice. In good drama, there’s not much question whether or not the hero can vanquish the villain if he can find a reason to take up his sword and fight. Because of that, the dramatic approach reduces the focus on the fight and puts the focus on the choice. The choice is (and should be) hard and full of challenges and consequences, but once its made, you’ve rounded a corner and things will go from there (until the next choice) .

The same scene, unplanned, with none of those tools is entirely unreliable. There’s nothing that guarantees that the scene will ever happen. And if it does, there’s nothing that guarantees that it will be a satisfying scene in any way at all. But that knowledge is what makes it all the more powerful when things actually come together because (or perhaps despite) that it’s not about the choice, it’s about what you do when you must do what you can . It’s a bit contradictory, I know, to say that I want X, but X is best in the context least likely to provide me with X, but I can live with that. Contradiction is a part of life.

Traditionally, I’ve considered this a function of crunchy systems, but the reality is a little more nuanced than that. It’s not the crunch per se that does it, it’s the enforced external concrete elements that make it matter. Rules are traditionally the most concrete elements but, depending on level of buy in and investment, setting can be equally concrete if that’s how the game is run.

So, there’s no deep lesson in this. Just a stated preference. But I want to hold it up as something important to me, and an indicator of the fact that there’s a lot of powerful emotional punch to be had in matters external, at least for me. It’ s not the only emotional punch, and I won’t claim it’s the best, but it’s something I need to keep a grip on because it’s important to me.

1 – Except perhaps the choice to do nothing, but that is (as a person and as a character) not much of a choice at all.