Monthly Archives: October 2010

Railroads and Polestars

Anyone who has ever had to run a project of any size knows that a plan is both incredibly useful, but also a bit of fiction. Anything that has a large number of moving parts and deep dependencies is pretty much guaranteed to go off the rails almost immediately. You can build giant gantt charts and hold many meetings to try to pretend that this isn’t the case, but the reality is that every time something comes up, you need to redo the entire plan from that point forward, and that’s a giant pain in the ass.

Some people take this as an argument to not plan at all, but a more successful strategy is to change the approach. This takes a lot of different forms with a lot of different names from “mission statement” to “commander’s intent” to “polestar” but they share a key idea; have a plan, but make sure that part of a plan is a clearly stated (and understood) outcome, then orient on that outcome rather than the plan.

I like the “polestar” nomenclature because navigation provides one of the clearest illustrations of this principle. If you’re flying a plane or sailing a ship towards some destination, 90% of the time you’re off course. Maybe not by a lot, but if you were to continue on your current heading, you’d miss your ultimate destination. But because you know where you’re going, you can easily introduce a course correction, even if things have gone drastically off course. Whatever route you take, you still get where you’re going in the end.

As useful as this is in business, it’s somewhat interesting to look at it through the lens of RPGs. Yesterday, Doyce Testerman put up an interesting post about Mass Effect 2[1] and Railroads which got me thinking.

Railroading[2] gets a bad rap for a good reason – it turns the players into passive observers of play rather than active participants, and that’s pretty crappy. However, it has a second bad rap that is for a totally different reason, and that is that most railroad adventures, especially published ones, are stinkers. And yes, I include many classics in that regard. Some groups make them work, but the reality is that railroading is a writer’s trick to allow you to ignore the composition and characteristics of the characters who are actually playing in the adventure. Making the characters irrelevant means you can use it with any group of players! Score!

Except, of course, that’s pretty lame. I am aware that the desire to have adventures that engage the specific characters the players have made is not universal, but I think it penetrates pretty deep. Even GMs who would never consider changing the story of their world or adventure to reflect their table may still be comfortable using the character’s specific hooks to try to draw them into the generic adventure.

Anyway, one way or another, Railroading is strongly associated with the GM having a story to tell, and that story being the driving force of the game.

The thing is, as much as I get (and make) the arguments against that approach, there is a hard slap of reality to consider – some magnificent games have come from this. Not from the techniques (because squashing player choice is crap, however you cut it) but from that idea of the GM having a vision and making it real through the game. Ideally the GM shares this idea with his players, folds their ideas into it, and makes it something that everyone has a stake in, but the heart of it is born from the GM’s inspiration and talent.

The idea of the GM’s vision has taken a lot of hits over the years, in large part because it allows for a lot of bad things. Abusive play. Blocking players. Railroading. Entire generations of games have been born out of frustrations with past GM abuses and try to bake limitations into the rules system.[3] What’s more, it’s one of the earliest models, and as such was treated as the default for a long time. That meant that there were times when it was an uphill struggle to suggest that it wasn’t the only way. Now, I feel this has been a pretty successful struggle, and for evidence I point to the changes in D&D over the years, but not everyone agrees. But even so, I am not comfortable with the idea of framing a position solely based on its position in a very fringey social conflict.

That’s where I find myself pondering the GM’s authority (and vision) as technique rather than philosophy. I have too much evidence that good, even great, games can come out of a traditional GM arrangement to discard the model as inherently toxic. To do so in the face of real fun would be dogmatic. So I open the door and wonder, if it’s a technique, how can it be well done versus poorly done.

And this is where I come back to railroading and polestars. Railroading is, to my mind, a bad implementation of technique. It is an attempt to answer the question of how to keep events moving towards something interesting, and it’s most useful educational role is as a cautionary example. This is where the polestar model is perhaps a little more useful. The GM may have some things in mind, with varying levels of concreteness but if he concentrates on the points he’s navigating towards rather than the route being taken, then suddenly there is leeway for players to make meaningful choices. They may change things drastically while still allowing the GM to draw things back towards the goal. Obviously, the GM needs to be flexible and responsive, and sometimes he might have to discard or change stars if his players take things too far off course, but a good GM will recognize that change of direction as a signal that perhaps he should consider a set of stars the players want to navigate towards.

The reality is, this is a technique that GMs have used for decades under a variety of names.[4] For every dofus who insists on sticking to the rails there are dozens of GMs who roll with the punches, engage the players, but also keep their own agenda in mind. They are the GMs who treat their job as more than a purely technical one, and who would not be comfortable serving as a mere smart rendering engine nor as a glorified referee.

With all that said, I want to highlight the utility of treating this as a technique, not an article of faith. Techniques are not universally applicable. As a technique, this is something that would be terribly received at many tables, and those tables would be best served by not doing it. This should be no more of a value judgment than one might get for rolling perception checks in advance, doing initiative by seating order or enforcing strict inventory tracking. It’s simply another way of doing things.

There is, I admit, a bit of a danger in looking at techniques for an empowered GMs. By its nature, the role means that the GM can choose to ignore good techniques and best practices, and in the abstract, I agree that’s a problem, but I think the reality is more nuanced. Discussing these techniques, treating them with respect rather than disdain, and working to make them better should hopefully have the effect of making the whole community more aware of what is acceptable or not in a GM. If all GM authority is treated as equally bad, players who are comfortable with the model but suffering under bad techniques have been robbed of useful ways to talk about it.

I also kind of savor the challenge of this because the acknowledgment of the GM’s role as a creative one makes it much harder to simply come up with a few canned rules to make for a great game. Much like writing or other creative acts, there are rules to learn and things you can do to improve, but if you try to do things purely by the rules, the product is going to be flat. There’s a necessary element of human inspiration. I think, in ignoring that, we’ve been grabbing for the low-hanging fruit of RPG design, and that’s part of the reason that rules have thrived, but more explicitly creative elements (like setting and adventure design) have received far less attention.

I don’t know that this will change, but for now, I will hope.

1 – Yes, this hinges on the idea that the story in mass effect 2 was compelling. The reality is that, like any example, there are people for whom it doesn’t hold true, and that’s fine. Just accept that there is an audience out there who really enjoyed it, or Dragon Age or whatever other game comes to mind.

2 – Which I’ll define here as a game where the player’s choice have no meaningful impact on events. There are lots of associated definitions, like watching the action and reading boxed text, but that’s the heart of it for me.

3- This is a generally unspoken reason why the idea of Rule Zero (the GM owns the rules) is anathema in some quarters. If the rules are there to curtail the GM, then giving (or acknowledging, depending how you see it) the GM the right to change them undercuts that entirely.

4 – At which point I mention that the I-word is not a welcome addition to this conversation. It is toxic jargon, and there are better ways to say what you intend to say. If you don’t know what I mean, then be glad.

The Allure of 2d6

I ran another session of the Cold War game on Monday. Slightly weird session, bringing a few things to violent culmination, and also introducing the first real point of departure from real history. Previous disastrous events had happened in the shadow of real world disasters, allowing for a bit of sleight of hand that allowed things to keep from divergence. I’m pondering what impact that’s going to have on things – on one hand I could probably smooth things over and keep to traditional history. On the other hand, I could embrace the divergence. It would be a bit of a weight off my shoulders and allow me to start bringing in the weirdness a little more hot and heavy. Tough call.

I also took a bit of a mechanical departure and switched to a 2d6 model for the session (added together, not d6-d6, as is sometimes a substitute for fudge dice). Blame it on the combination of Apocalypse World and the loveliness of the d6s that came out with the endgame celebration.

This is not the first time I’ve been bit by this particular bug. Endgame’s previous dice were beautiful as well, and other games and celebrations that have offered commemorative dice have inspired me to think “Man, I need to do something with these very cool dice.” The problem is that 2d6 is a harsh mistress.

Part of the problem is that in limiting myself to two dice I lose one of the better mechanical sliders for additive dice games – bonus and penalty dice. That removes PDQ from the table and leaves me with what is, frankly, a not terribly satisfying curve. But Apocalypse World does a pretty good job within that curve (up to 6 is failure, 7-9 is limited success, 10+ is a clear success) and I figured I’d give it a shot. The Cold War ladder is different than normal fate – it’s just three tiers at +2, +4, and +6. The one +6 pretty much overwhelms the roll, but that’s in keeping with expectations – the characters are pretty much James Bond with a focus on whatever that +6 is in. The +2 and +4 are a bit better than AW characters (who cap out at +3) but that’s fine – I was skewing towards a little bit more success.

That was all well and good in theory, but it fell a little too flat in practice. It might have been a result of the specific dice that night, but things skewed even higher than I expected. That was inconvenient, but what it really did was highlight the thing that a 2d6 curve needed was the explicit outcomes of Apocalypse World. In their absence, it makes for a fairly uninteresting distribution of outcomes, especially partial successes. The detailed outcomes of AW (and the way they are explicitly designed to push play) are what make it sing. Which is to say, the dice and the outcomes are a much more atomic unit than I originally thought.

Now, it wasn’t a total loss. It still worked, but if i do it again I’m more likely to go to a 3d6 based model. That’s a bit more of a fun spread, and allows more tricks. It does mean leaving the 2d6 by the wayside again, but I’m sure I’ll be back again.

The Critical Audience

Much of what I think of as tactics come out of pushing little plastic and metal figures across a series of squares, where it’s all about the relative position of things. After some excellent conversation on twitter, it struck me that the same could be applied to criticism.

Now, I do not pretend to speak to big C Criticism, where there are decades, even centuries of academic tradition, schools of thought and Deep, Meaningful Understanding. Instead, I’m talking about one fellow getting on the Internet and talking about a game he liked or didn’t like, and how that’s received.

This is on my mind of late because I’ve been bombarded by examples of how badly our hobby handles thoughtful but negative criticism. This is frustrating to me because well thought out criticism from someone unhappy with a product is incredibly valuable and useful in my eyes. It is a terrible shame that the expectation is that such a review is basically an invitation for an internet ass-whuppin.

So as I got to thinking about this, it struck me that there’s a large potential for disconnect when you consider the audience. Put simply, is the criticism written for the artist, or for the audience for his work?[1] It’s not a hard question, and either answer suggests some specific things, that are easy to address. If the review is clearly directed at the artist, it is not unreasonable for the artist to respond in a personal fashion, perhaps even taking umbrage (because the reviewer has opened the door to dialog – more on that in a bit), but if the artist takes a similar response to a review that is very clearly for the public, then it’s the artist who is picking a fight.

And there’s the rub – if the answer is not clear, then right out the door you have an invitation for disaster as appropriate responses on one end become inappropriate responses on the other.

Now, it would be easy to suggest that the answer is to just assume all reviews are public facing, and consider communications directed to the artist to be directed to her. Sadly, things rarely work that way (especially on forums), and there is a natural bias for the artist to think they’re being addressed directly, even if that is not the intent.

This leads to a lot of seeds of unproductive discourse, so I want to talk about each kind of criticism and its role.

Criticism directed at the artist has its place, and is in fact a critical part of many creative processes. These critics carry other names, like editors, alpha readers or trusted friends, but their job is that of the critic, to speak to the work. However, it is critical to note that most of these contributors speak to the artist before the work is finished, and most of them would not presume to continue the criticism after completion. Once the art is completed, the number of people who the author is willing to listen to directly is limited by the bounds of her trust. Whatever element of the work goes out into the world, there is always some part of it that exists only between the artist and her work. To presume on that is to invite a strongly negative emotional response.

Yet that is exactly what a critic does when addressing his criticism to the artist rather than the audience. Even assuming the best of intentions – that he wants to help the artist’s next work be better and that he’s looking to foster a dialog – it is a vast presumption. The author is not obliged to enter into a dialog with a critic any more than the critic is obliged to think well of her work.

Now, this is not an incomprehensible instinct on the critic’s part. He wants to help and he wants to make a connection. Both of these are normal, human instincts. But he’s doing so in a manner comparable to the man who wishes to ingratiate himself by telling you about your mate’s flaws on the presumption that you do not know them and that clearly you’re looking to upgrade.

If, in contrast, criticism is directed to the audience, then there is no presumption. The critic is speaking to the subject at hand and, assuming good faith on the part of all parties[2], he’s on solid footing to do so. The artist’s personal relationship with her work is not being challenges, and the artist is free to take the criticism or leave it, as best suits her own judgment or taste. This criticism might ultimately be useful to the artist, but only if the artist chooses to make it so.

All of which is to say, there’s a lot to be gained from making it clear who you’re speaking to when you want to talk about someone’s game.

Now, I’ve put a lot on the critic’s head here, but there’s another side of the equation. If the critic is taking steps to keep the criticism from being personal, the artist needs to not take it as such. Yes, they may hate the thing you love, but that does not change it (or you), and you need to decide if striking them down with thunderous fury is worth everything you lose in squelching discussion.

But it’s not that simple is it? Most artists I know develop thick enough skins to handle the criticism, or have other ways to deal with it. They know that a critic who thoughtfully hates their work is still a thousand times more invested in it than someone who’s never heard of it and doesn’t care. But it’s not just about the artists, it’s about the people who love them.

And that’s the hard thing. You see someone says bad things about a book you love and who’s creator you consider a friend – the instinct is to kick someone’s ass. Even if the creator is chill about it all, her self-appointed defenders are quick to step up.

Yes, some very cynical folks exploit this phenomena, allowing them to keep their hands clean while their supporters run around like angry vikings, but I think they’re in the minority. In most cases the artist might not agree with the actions taken, but also appreciate the underlying sentiment, and thus won’t rein it in. Not that they really could.

The thing is that the friends and defenders need to realize that criticism, even negative criticism, is valuable to the artist. Squelching bad reviews is a Nile perch solution. It looks like it helps in the short term, but in the long run it makes things worse for the artist as fewer and fewer readers are willing to start the kinds of conversations that really bring a game to life.

If you want to do the best thing you can for your friends, then use these reviews as the basis for interesting discussion. Speaking as a creator, praise is nice, criticism is useful, but nothing is quite as amazing as knowing your ideas have helped push people to find other awesome ideas. Being criticized is far, far, far less important than being talked about.

Anyway, that’s just my take on it – obviously there’s no one true way to review or respond, but as someone who wants the world to be as full of as much robust discussion of the things I love as possible, I present my perspective.

1 – As an aside, it is kind of fascinating to me that this question can be asked at all. Before the internet, you had to be in a very particular time and place if you wished to direct your criticism to the artist directly. Nowadays, if both the artist and the critic are on the internet, anything goes.

2 – And no, you can’t always assume good faith, but if the problem is that the critic’s being a jerk, that is usually self evident. If it not so clear that as to be irrefutable, they’re probably just being snarky and it’s equally likely you’re just being oversensitive.

Hard and Soft Tags

Lots of good feedback about hard and soft compels last week, but also some interesting discussions. See, this also revealed a few things that speak to the guts of Fate design.

So, playtesting is a wonderful thing, and one of the joys of having an open system is that a lot of people try a lot of different things, often things you would never even consider as a designer. By and large that’s fantastic, but it does mean that a designer may end up facing the challenge of trying to solve problems that he’s never encountered. This happens to me a lot. As a specific example, a lot of the problems people encounter with compels simply never come up at our table. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had players reject a compel. That may sound strange (especially given the number of games I’ve run) but we’ve got a culture of enthusiastically rushing towards badness which I love, but which is not universal.

All this leads to something that is rather the inverse of hard and soft compels, and that is the whole matter of tagging, compelling and invoking aspects external to the character, such as those on the scene or on other characters. Again, this is something I don’t really encounter problems with locally, but I try to listen to people’s experiences and this is why we end up with sometimes confusing ideas like free tags or fragile aspects. Just saying “use your best judgement” is half-assed game design, so things like that are come up with as explicit rules to try to capture a certain feel or style.

Now, this is mostly an issue in the context of fights, so I’ll use that as a basis. Fights in FATE are absolutely designed to model the way they work in fiction that we enjoy, which is to say that it’s all about tempo and momentary advantages. If the hero manages to throw sand in the bad guys eyes, that rarely wins the fight, but it creates an opening that he can exploit. The free tag is designed to fulfill much that same purpose[1] – a player pulls off something interesting and creates an opportunity that he takes advantage of, but it is then lost in the bustle of subsequent action. On a more meta level, it rewards players for creating new situations and playing with new approaches rather than just using the same exploit over and over again.

It is not, however, realistic. Or at least it’s not realistic in the sense we tend to mean it in gaming, which is a whole other discussion of its own. The objection, you see, is not to the free tags per se, but rather that players need to pay fate points to tag these things in the first place. That is to say, if the black knight has a CHINK IN HIS ARMOR, then why do they need to spend a fate point every time they aim for that chink? After all, it’s *there* – it doesn’t magically go away if they don’t aim for it – shouldn’t it just be baked in? (The same logic applies as you get into more game-y aspects that might be reflected as statuses in other games, things like PRONE or STUNNED.)

Now, I have an answer to this, one I feel is pretty persuasive, but I’m not going to delve into it at the moment[2]. It is not my intent to argue against this position because it’s not a matter of the right way to play things. Rather, today I want to talk about how to better support it if it’s your bag. There are a few ways to make aspect use a little more “realistic” depending on what exactly you’re trying to accomplish.

For purposes of terminology, I will be referring to all use of external aspects as tagging, and I am dividing these into two categories, hard and soft tags (yes, I’m stealing my own naming). A soft tag is the normal kind, one you would spend a fate point to perform. A hard tag is one which your internal logic says should not require spending a fate point to receive the benefit from.[3]

Additionally, if you go with a strict model of hard tags, you may wish to consider removing the rules for free tags. I won’t say you have to, but stop and consider what it means and how well free tags fit your vision of play. I’m not going to refer to them in the models below with the assumption that they’re not hard to plug in or remove.

Hard Tag Approaches

Free Hard
This is the obvious one, and I just put it here so I can refer to it: You can tag hard aspects for free. There might be some limitations, like “only one free hard tag per roll” or limiting them to certain scopes[4] but the heart of this is “If it’s hard, it should be free[5]

Half Hard[6]
This is probably the easiest implementation with the least drift from normal play. A hard tag grants a +1 bonus if you don’t spend a Fate point, +2 if you do. That reinforces that fate points are used for dramatic, heroic efforts, but still acknowledges that some opportunities should grant advantage. This approach still encourages the creation of interesting aspects, even soft ones, because the extra bonus is always welcome, and soft tags make for a more cost effective application of fate points.

You do want to decide how to handle this in conjunction with consequences. I would suggest that minor (and perhaps moderate) consequences be treated as soft, but how you set the slider on that will determine the potency of injury. If all consequences are hard then injury is quite scary indeed.

This is not an approach in its own right so much as a supplement to another approach. The idea is that even if tagging aspects grants free numerical bonuses, there may be some special effects which are triggered only by spending a fate point (and possibly by the success of the roll). To use the example above, when fighting an opponent with a CHINK IN HIS ARMOR, that aspect might or might not provide a passive bonus, but if you spend a fate point then the attack will also ignore his armor. If an ancient mummy is FLAMMABLE then fire attacks might get a bonus, but spending a fate point means it will actually catch on fire.

This model proposes a limited set of aspects with fixed mechanical effects that include free tags but may also have other mechanical hooks. This set of aspects will roughly equate to the statuses (like stunned or asleep) you might find in other RPGs, notably in the 4essentials version of D&D. For example, the PRONE aspect might grant a hard tag to attackers within reach, but grants the PRONE character a hard tag on his defense against long range attacks. A character who is OFF BALANCE and has that tagged as part of an attack may end up PRONE.

This model, especially combined with triggers, allows you to get pretty fiddly with powers and stunts, since it gives you an array of custom effects to differentiate things with. That’s pretty cool if you’re going for the crunch, but if you’re not then there’s a danger of it getting overwhelming. Ideally, you want to find a set of statuses that is comprehensive enough to cover a decent range of options but is not so broad that it creates a bookkeeping challenge.

A Few More Notes
With those suggestions out of the way, just two more notes to add:

Hard Tags and Hard Compels
If you’re using hard tags then give some thought to how the inverse works. If players are getting bonuses for free then they probably should not be getting fate points when they are impeded by a hard aspect. This sounds harsh on paper, but in reality most such situations are either obvious in their resolution (“No, you can’t run on on a broken leg”) or just quietly give the opposition a bonus.

Few things are more useful than writing down the aspects in play. We’re fond of putting them on index cards and tossing them down on the able, but other methods work to. This becomes doubly important if you have hard and soft tags in play because you’ll want to note the aspects differently, such as using different color pens or underlining the names of aspects you feel invite hard tags. This won’t be 100% – plenty of aspects are only hard if approached in a particular way – but for common situations this can save a lot of headaches.

1 – it was a bit of serendipity that it also resulted in the “Everyone contributes in some way then one character launches the big attack, using all the free tags for a big, massive hit” model which, while not ideal for every fight, has made for many satisfying SOTC finales.

2 – I will, however, say that hints of the difficulty of this can be found in the SOTC text. Look at the rules for Stealth and concealment sometime and consider how at odds they are with everything else. That’s because the idea of making the character pay for the dark was a bit too jarring.

3 – Internal logic is squirrelly business, and that’s the real reason I’m using categories. I am so very much not going to do the work of telling you what should be hard and what should be soft. if you’re looking to use these rules, it’s because you have already made that decision yourself.

4 – From Diaspora. Scopes are the arenas aspects fall into like personal, equipment, environment and so on.

5 – This is going to be a very dirty-sounding post, isn’t it?

6 – Yup.

Cool Stuff on Monday

Trying to get back into using Monday’s to point to things I’m excited about and remind me why I like the internet. And we’ll start with Strands of Fate, a new Fate based game that has just been released after a pretty robust beta. You can read more about it here, but the quick pitch is that it looks like a well-engineered version of Fate that makes a few different choices of emphasis (like removing the adjective ladder) and goes a little more crunchy. Someone describe it as a love child between GURPS and Fate 3.0 (and I think they meant that in a good way) but I’m not sure I’d even go that far. I think it’s still close to Fate at heart, keeping a lot of the fast and loose, but nailing down a few more quantitative things like equipment. I’m still reading my pdf, but it’s pretty cool so far.

I have been reading the hell out of Gray, Brown & Macunfo’s Gamestorming, and enjoying it enough that I’ve been taking my time going through it (and taking notes! Voluntarily!). I’d been following the blog and I enjoyed Gray’s previous writings on visualizing information (I have the initial copy of the unbook Marks & Meaning), so I was already ready for this to rock. See, Gamestorming is about games you can play in a business context to get things done in meetings, such as brainstorming, team building, problem solving and so on. There’s some fantastic analysis of games and creativity, but the bulk of the book is dedicated to the actual games themselves. In a weird bit of nerd recursion, I’ve been looking at a lot of these games he’s adapted to business and been thinking about them in terms of adapting them back into games, and it’s been quite useful. It especially offers some useful insight on shared creation, as in games like the DFRPG. Sometime after I finish, this one will probably merit a full review, but for now suffice it to say I’m very much enjoying it.

On the fiction end, Harry Connolly’s Game of Cages is out. I mentioned this when it was released, but having finished it I need to mention it again because it rocks hard. As with its predecessor, it’s much more on the action-horror end of the Urban Fantasy spectrum, full of dark, painful stuff. But it rockets forward, once again underscoring how scary you can make something without ichor by illustrating it’s impact more than the thing itself. This is shaping up to be a great series, and since there are only two books, this is a great time to get on board. However, I would definitely remind any prospective reader that I do not lightly describe this as dark. Very bad things happen to people, and the usual protections of fiction are no place to be seen. I find it a breath of fresh air, but I also have warned my wife off the series.

I have to recommend reading What Batman Taught Me About Being A Good Dad. As a newish father, it kind of doubly struck home and got me thinking about what I will be watching with my son as he gets older.

These are too pretty to go without comment: Typographic Maps.

Linnaeus (Who has been doing some FANTASTIC daily game analysis) has offered a summary of why Race for the Galaxy works so well for him that I am in strong agreement with. Race is one of my absolute favorite games, but one I only get to play every so often because it’s got a bit of a learning curve.

Alex Epstein, one of my favorite writers about writing, breaks down the 6th element of story. John August, who is also in that category, provides the short answer for how to write a romance.

Gamefiend has started a kickstarter to fund his 4e villain book, Worldbreakers. If you haven’t seen the stuff he’s done so far, you should. With the Worldbreaker’s he’s basially creating boss fights where ther transitions, environment and flow of the fight are all baked into the monster. This is good stuff, and more it’s exactly the sort of stuff that D&D 4essentials could use more of. The fact that Gamefiend is probably one of the most insightful guys writing about D&D these days is just a bonus (and if At-Will isn’t on your 4essentials radar, it should be)

That should do for now. I already feel reminded that the Internet is full of awesome.

Aspect Technology

I’ve been kind of randomly designing Fate widgets for a variety of purposes and thinking about some fiddly bits, and I figured I’d share a couple of them.

Hard and Soft Compels
So, one of the most contentious rules issues in Fate revolves around the handling of compels. The question is this: when the GM puts forward a compel, should the player be able to defer (at no cost) or should the player have to pay a fate point to put off the compel.

There are good arguments on both sides that more or less boil down to this: On one hand paying to resist a compel is pretty expensive and not necessarily fun because that fate point could be better spent doing something interesting. On the other hand, paying to resist is the only way to give aspects teeth, and without the requirement to pay, aspects which should have a concrete effect, like injuries or scene aspects like “Out of Air” don’t actually have any teeth.[1]

There are other issues too, though less central ones. For example, not-paying is arguably more newbie-friendly (which is why my earlier Magic Words implementation was a no-pay one). You can pick any number of issues, but as long as you can grasp the main conflict, it should be pretty clear.

In an ideal world there should be some way to distinguish between aspects that you opt to take versus those which you must take. There’s a temptation to split the terminology here into offers (optional) and compels (Pay or play) but just for consistency I’ll refer to them as soft and hard compels.

There are a couple of ways to handle this, so here are two that are on my mind[2]:

1. Straight Signaling
No mechanical change here except that when the GM puts forward a fate point as part of a compel, there are two ways to do it, depending on how the GM intends the compel. On a soft compel, which the player is free to refuse, the GM offers the fate point held upright in his fingers, or in his palm, facing up. On a hard compel, which the player would need to buy off, the GM sets the fate point down on the table (ideally with a forcible *click*) and withdraws his hand.

The one thing this demands are fate points that are clearly visible and easily manipulated. Poker chips are my usual favorite and they work very well for this approach, especially for getting that *click*.

2. Adjusted Cost
One other easy way to do it is to up the effective “value” of a hard compel over a soft one. Doing this effectively reduces the cost of refusing a compel by one fate point, which is to say, when the GM puts forward one fate point, the player is free to refuse. If the GM puts forward _two_ fate points, the player needs to put forward one to counter it. The GM can then put forward a third, the player a second and so forth. This has the advantage of being pretty clear with any kind of fate point, and it implicitly acknowledges that some compels are nastier than others.

Decoupled Refresh
So, a fixed refresh pool is an important thing when it’s a part of the rest of the system, as it is in the case of Dresden Files, but that’s not a necessity in every game. Similarly, Spirit of the Century has an implicit refresh (it’s not called that) equal to the number of aspects, but there’s no need why that must be so. Setting a much lower or higher refresh value can tweak a game. Admittedly, setting it higher can get silly, but setting it low, sometimes quite low, can be very powerful. The trick that I am currently very fond of is this: Assume a default refresh of zero, and increase it by one for every aspect on the character’s sheet that you’ve used to plan the current session.

This is a nicely double-edged trick. To players it communicates who is going to be in the spotlight in a given episode. As a GM, it tells you how well you’ve engaged each player. If you find yourself giving someone no fate points, you’ve probably done something wrong. I’m doing this in my Cold War game, and, I try to gun for at least two per player as a baseline, with more of them for the character drawing my attention.

Fast Aspects
I love a good phased chargen for building connections between players and characters, but you simply don’t always have time to do all that, so here’s a quick and dirty way to generate a list of aspects that defines the character and ties everyone together.

First, generate your three key aspects. The first is your High Concept. As in the DFRPG, this is the single aspect most reflective of what your character is, If you were to describe him in a single turn of a phrase, it would be this. The second should be your Trouble, the aspect that lies at the heart of most of the problems you encounter. This is the big obstacle you struggle with. Third is your ace in the hole, your little something extra that makes you a little bit more than yout high concept and trouble might suggest. Maybe it’s a secret, maybe it’s a different problem entirely, maybe it’s some unexpected past experience you can call on. Whatever it is, it’s the twist that rounds out your core description.

You will get an additional number of aspects equal to the number of players (including yourself, but not the GM). The first of them is what your character thinks (or perhaps hopes) people think of you. This is your Facade. At this point take a quick pause – everyone should share their High Concept, Trouble and Facade and, optionally, their Ace in the Hole.[3]

The others are each something your character thinks is true about each other character. It’s helpful for these to be strong opinions, and it’s important to embrace the idea that these (as well as the facade) are not simply _possibly_ wrong, they are almost _certainly_ wrong. That’s as it should be. It creates a mild friction that provides a basis for interaction that might otherwise be purely limited to the necessities of play.

Feel free to openly discuss these aspects as you pick them, and players should reveal them all at the end of chargen before play begins.

As a GM, give the players opportunities to change the aspects if they have particularly good player-player interactions that would seem to change the relationship. Make sure that the new aspect is clearly stated. See, no one is one thing all the time, so creating a new expectation is just as much of a play driver as a misapprehension.[4]

1 – The iconic bad example of this is a character with a “Broken Leg” refusing a compel on an athletics roll to keep the from sprinting around.

2 – This pair of options (and others like it) are the kind of rules options I’m very fond of because you can drop them into any FATE variant and they hold up.

3 – Yes, you can keep your Ace in the Hole secret, and while this would seem at odds with my usual problem with secrets, note that with the limited set of aspects, there’s going to be a strong incentive to _use_ that aspect. Which is to say, if it’s a secret, it’s a secret that wants to come out in play, and that’s as it should be.

4 – Kudos to the fantastic Smallvile RPG, which inspired this idea.

Using Monsters

I talked a bit yesterday about how pleased I was with the Dark Sun monster book because it had the tools of play baked right in. That got me thinking a bit about monster books in general and how well (or poorly) they line up with how they actually get used. (This is all pretty 4e centric, but theoretically applies to any game with a bestiary.)

For me, monsters fall into two categories – reliable and stunt. Reliable monsters are ones that I’ll use a lot in any given game. Kobolds. Skeletons. Orcs. Creatures which I imagine existing in the setting as “monster races” or otherwise having a reason to exist in large, interchangeable numbers. 4e proved an absolute delight for these guys since it embraced the idea that there might be lots of creatures of that type representing a range of threats. That made them a lot more useful to me.[1]

Reliable monsters also have a substantial impact on the setting of the game because they don’t come from nowhere. The goblins live somewhere, and the undead were once not quite so dead. They become part of the fingerprint of the setting.

Stunt monsters are pretty much everything else. I pick them up to jazz up fights or to build fights around. They’re one-offs, and while some of them fit into the setting in a high level sense, there’s not necessarily a huge need to put a lot of effort into it. Ultimately, nobody really cares where that gibbering mouther comes from once it’s been looted and the party has moved onto the next room.[2]

Now, it’s possible this is entirely idiosyncratic on my part, but I think not. Consider the way adventures make use of new monsters – it is a rare adventure which does not have at least a few unique monsters which are unlikely to ever bee seen outside of the bounds of that adventure (and maybe DDI). These monsters serve some particular purpose in the adventure, and that’s much of the fun of them.

All of which is to say that this speaks to the importance of putting plot hooks right into the monsters. With reliable monsters it might be important to give some amount of background and social context, but for the bulk of monsters, it seems the thing to provide is guidance for how to _make_ it that interesting one-off.

Curiously, one of the most interesting examples of how to do this can probably be found in people’s write ups for their own version of New Crobuzon.[3] Since the basis of the writeup was (effectively) pick three reliable and three stunt monsters for your city, you get to see some really fascinating ways to handle both types. Because the stunt monsters are explicitly designed as one-offs, they get writeups that are all about play, not about bad biology essays.

1 – Birthright did this quite cleverly with their “Orogs” which basically were a single bucket into which a number of evil humanoid races were tossed, with the idea that you could run into small runty ones or huge, ogre sized one, but they were still Orogs. Given that they had a national presence in the game, this worked surprisingly well, though it only came up every so often – Birthright was usually about people and Big M Monsters. Handling Orogs this way felt suitably Tolkeinesque.

2 – There’s an exception to this in the form of Big-M-Monsters, monsters that are big enough that as individuals that they are elements of the setting. Named dragons are probably the best example of this, but things like the Beholder crime boss of Waterdeep count too.

3 – If you haven’t read these you absolutely should. They’re some of the best examples of how to take a small set of 4e elements and make something fantastic. I admit, I’m totally proud of mine, Vicidia.

The Sun is Dark

The new 4e Dark Sun setting books are pretty good. They’ve changed up their format a little bit, and rather than doing a GM’s book and a Player’s book, they just did one setting book and one monster book[1]. I was a little bit skeptical of this approach, but as it turns out, I like it very much. It made Dark Sun pop in a way that the previous settings hadn’t quite managed to.

Now, some of this may be all about legacy. The first two settings are both thoroughly documented beasts from previous editions which had to get distilled down into some manner of workable version for the much more minimalist 4e presentation. Dark Sun had different parentage.

For those unfamiliar with it, Dark Sun was one of the Boxed Set setting released in support of second edition D&D, along with Planescape, Birthright and Spelljammer.[2] Like Planescape, it was in large part defined by its art style (courtesy of Brom) and it was well-loved and mechanically interesting, trying to express ideas like tougher PCs, ubiquitous psionics and bone weapons without he fairly crude tools 2e provided. It wasn’t always a great match, but it more than made up for its shortcomings with its clear, brutal style and creativity in presentation.[3]

Dark Sun suffered a bad fate at the hands of a revised edition that showcased all the worst parts of novelization. Basically, the setting had been changed over the course of the books as a troupe of heroes had gone around and killed all the big bad guys who had a large role in defining the setting. Revised Dark Sun kind of hinged on how awesome those guys were and how much you were getting their sloppy seconds.

The 4e version kind of rolls back the clock on that, picking a moment of change (just after the death of one of the Dragon Kings) and taking a snapshot there. It’s a good choice because it puts a nice level of tension and potential change into things without mandating anything. Players could be at the center of changing the world, or they could just go off in their own direction without things changing drastically. That’s good design.

The art is…well, it’s maybe unfair to pick on the art. It’s ok – too clean in places but excellent in others. The problem is that in my mind it’s being compared to some truly iconic art, and much of it suffers by comparison. Still, the good is quite good, and some of the monsters really shine.

And monsters bring me to the part that I found most impressive. The monster book _is_ the GMs book. A lot of the hooks in the main book are fleshed out in one monster entry or another. There’s no easy way to document these connections, which is perhaps a bit frustrating, but at the same time the fact that the reader can make the connection as they go draws him in a little more, so I think it’s a net positive.

I’m not sure I can state strongly enough how good an idea this is. Putting the material in the monsters book basically imbeds the setting elements right into the tools. There’s no abstract layer between them required to bring them together – it just happens. These monsters are associated with this setting feature. Done.

I really like this direction for setting books. Where Eberron and the Forgotten Realms were well enough put together, they are not setting that lend themselves well to overview. There’s just too much stuff. Dark Sun, on the other hand, is actually a fairly small setting, for all that it contains bigness within. It’s a limited geographic area on a world that might otherwise be dead, with civilization clustered in only a few places. The volume of text in these books really feels like it’s just about the right amount.

Now, no books are going to be completely flawless, and a few weaknesses pop up in the main book. The bulk of the book is setting information, usually 2 or 4 page spreads on each area of interest, with a larger spread for Tyr, the theoretical hub of any campaign. Sadly, Tyr is probably the least interesting part of the setting. In and of itself that’s no problem – something has to be least interesting – but why it (and a few other entries) fall flat struck me as very interesting.

See, the dullest entries in the book are the most normal. The ones that fill in names of locations with a line or two of detail. They’re very clearly written in accordance with a specific format which hearkens back to older adventure design, and the weakness of it ends up standing out more strongly in a book that mostly eludes it. The pattern is this: where a writer assigns two lines apiece to outline five “normal” parts of a setting (shops, NPCs, stuff like that) it feels like filler. But when that same writer[4] takes 10 lines to talk about, well, almost anything, the setting comes alive with hooks and interesting elements.

It’s very curious to me, since it seems to be no shortage of talent on the writer’s part. Rather, I think the bullet-point location format proves to be a bit of a lead weight because things like the name of a cheese shop are the parts the GM can most easily fill in on her own. Giving the same writers a little more breathing room produces much better results.

So I’m filing that one away as potentially useful down the line. I don’t think it’s a blanket condemnation of short summaries – there’s plenty of evidence that you can put a compelling hook in a single sentence – but it definitely warns against small details purely for the sake of small details (at least for me).

All in all, I’m pleased I picked it up, and a little worried that just as WOTC hits their stride on a setting book, the entire idea of setting books is tossed up in the air by the emergence of the Essentials line. But such are the vagaries of the hobby.

1 – I believe there may also be a mega-adventure for it as well but I, er, kind of don’t care.

2 – Of these four settings, three of them were brilliant and evocative. One was very stupid, but evocative.

3 – Many of the Dark Sun adventures were physically unlike any other published adventures, including folders of flip-top books with information for players on one side and the GM on the other. Even if they weren’t great adventures they were bold experiments.

4 – And I mean that literally, some entries go from flat to snappy at the drop of a hat.

A Good Setting

I have occasionally remarked that for all the incredibly clever and interesting ideas we have managed to develop in the realm of RPG rules, we have let setting be something of the poor cousin in our pursuit of excellence. There are a lot of reasons why this is so, but one in particular keeps bubbling to the surface. We can say with reasonable accuracy whether a set of rules works. It’s testable. You consider the goal, run some scenes, and assess it. Maybe you hate it, but it still may do what it’s designed to do quite well.

It’s much, much harder to assess a setting. Part of that is a problem right on the face of it – setting is going to be even more a function of taste than rules are, and there’s no way to get around that. It’s easy to like or dislike a particular setting. But more than that, it is much harder to _test_ a setting.

Certainly, there are some rough benchmarks. “Do I get an idea for a game hook on every page of the book?” is a common one, but it’s pretty loosey goosey in terms of pinning things down. How well the setting suggests ideas can hinge on a lot of factors, including taste.

Hell, it’s hard to even settle on an idea of how setting should be presented. On one end of the spectrum you have entire volumes dedicated to a given setting like the Forgotten Realms or Glorantha, while on the other hand you may have nothing but a roughly sketched out set of ideas and maybe a map. And what’s utterly baffling on some level is that both of these models work equally well.

And that, right there, may be the trick of it. For a minute let’s set aside the people who buy setting books out of a desire to know more about the setting or a completist urge.[1] What are we left with?

The answer is: play. Play is the eye of the needle which the camel of setting needs to pass through. In any given game the players will see only so much of the world, encounter only so many people, and otherwise explore only so much setting. That amount is often small enough that it’s possible to build from scratch, but it’s equally easy to shave that portion off a larger block (as in the case of a large setting) for use.[2]

What’s interesting is that this doesn’t have any relationship to the size of the setting. If the game is world-spanning, players may see many locations, but they will see them very shallowly. The published setting may have an advantage in terms of already having names for those places, and cool maps, but the bulk of the information in that setting is simply not going to ever be seen.

Now, how we arrive at this unit of setting definitely impacts its composition. If it’s shaved off a larger whole, there is probably a stronger sense of a “world beyond the horizon”. If it’s built from the ground up, there’s probably a stronger tie between the actions of the PCs and the details of the setting. Both of these are cool, and you can strike differing points of balance between them, but ultimately they’re fairly small differences.

With that in mind, I find myself wondering if the trick of setting is not to try to make better or more compelling settings. Neither is it to make more clever rules for generating setting. Rather, I think the trick may be providing more guidelines for how to turn a setting of any size (from a page of notes to the Forgotten Realms[3]) into a game-sized piece.

Obviously, I’m a little late to my own party. In some ways this is one of the purposes of collaborative character creation, especially when it has an explicit setting building element to it (as in the DFRPG). Sitting down and doing this can either build up the elements you want for a game, or pull out the interesting bits from a larger setting based on the interests of the group. This is potent kung fu, but it comes from the rules end of things. What I’m wondering is what we can do with the design of settings to make tools like this more viable.

1 – They’re a non-trivial segment of the populace, so I would suggest against ignoring them from a publishing perspective, but that’s a whole other discussion.

2 – I feel like there’s a soup metaphor here just waiting to be put to use, but I’ll resist.

3 – Initially typed that as “Forgotten Reams” and was sorely tempted to leave it as such.

Magic Words

Aspects in Fate (and by extension Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files RPG) are an incredibly powerful tool, but like most tools they can be hard to use without a little familiarity. Obviously, if you’re already very comfortable with their use then advice in applying them is of only limited use, but maybe you’ll find this interesting anyway.

Players tend to be very enthusiastic about using aspects once they feel they can, but there’s often an initial period of hesitation, where the player is mostly asking the GM whether or not he can use an aspect. It may be a step on the learning process, but playing mother-may-I with the GM is rarely something that gives players an excited first impression.

More problematic is the GMs end. The process of compelling aspects is one of those things that is harder to explain than do, and the process of explaining it can often end up seeming needlessly arcane. The fact that it works well at some tables does not erase the fact that it’s overly tricky on others.

So with that in mind I’m going to propose a model of aspect use which will hopefully solve both problems. This is of especial use for new players and new games since it will have an impact on the type of aspects that people choose (or more specifically, how they phrase those aspects).

In this approach, we no longer explicitly refer to compelling, tagging or invoking aspects, and in fact there are no such actions. Instead, we simply treat aspects as magic words.

For a player this simply means any time he actually uses the aspect as part of his description, as part of what his character says or generally as part of play, he can spend a fate point for appropriate bonuses.

I come at him fast and furious.
Jet’s in trouble!”

I look over the scene cautiously.

When spending for effect, which is to say, spending a fate point for something other than a bonus, simply make it part of the phrase.

I’m pretty well prepared, so I’m sure I’ve got some spare batteries here somewhere.

I’ve got a girl in every port and this one’s name is Trixie

I’ve been up for two hours already. I’m a light sleeper.

And that’s all the player needs to know. Say the word and slide the fate point forward. No need to ask the GM or check if it’s ok. Just go forward. Now, yes, a GM may raise an eyebrow if something is totally out of line, like using well-prepared to justify having a rocket launcher in a boy scout pack, but things like that don’t actually happen unless someone is being a tool, so don’t sweat it.

On the GM side, the same logic applies. These are magic words, and every now and again you will start a sentence with one while sliding forward a fate point. If the player takes it, that’s their cue to pick up the thread. If they don’t then close it off. For example:

This guy has been riding you for the whole trip, trying to get under your skin. It would be easy to get angry…
At this point the GM slides forward the chip, if the player takes it, then the player proceeds.
Yeah, he gets me so pissed off that I pop him one in the dinner car over breakfast.
If the player declines, the GM proceeds, taking back the chip.
…but you manage to keep a cool head.

Yes, for the GM’s part there’s a bit more non-verbal communication, but not enough to break the flow.

Long time Fate players will also notice that in this case, the player was given leeway to make trouble for himself with the aspect. This is not mandatory – the GM can frame the aspect in much more detail – but unless the player is in a position where it might be hard to come up with a way the aspect might complicate things, it’s often worth leaving such trouble in the hands of your players.

This model is fairly flexible in terms of what aspects it supports – people, places and things can all be named dropped (“If there’s one thing Master Po taught me it’s…”) but it will get a bit gummy with more poetic aspects. The harder it is to work the aspect into a sentence, the harder its going to be for it to come up in play. Players looking to use this approach in existing games may need to consider rephrasing some of their aspects so they flow more naturally.

1 – Yes, adverbing it up or making other reasonable transformations are entirely valid.