Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Mail Must Get Through

An envelope in motionOver on twitter, @ericvulgaris remarked that the next step in his D&D campaign was for the party to start delivering mail in Phlan, and I responded somewhat excitedly because this is a wonderful idea, and one that does not show up in nearly enough games. Consider: delivering mail requires:

  • A lot of open space, but a predictable core of destinations to return to over time.
  • A group that is capable of dealing with that hazards of travel, which are environmental but also may be more direct, like bandits or hazards.
  • An employer and a paycheck.

To me, that absolutely sounds like a formula for adventure. You have a unifying element (the job) that is strict enough to justify unity but which still leaves a ton of leeway within it. You have a steady source of challenges and threats, as well as an easy tool to introduce new ones (simply adding a new destination to their route) plus the variability that comes from travel.

What’s more, once you open the door to the mail, you can start thinking about the things that are mail-adjacent. The history of the mail is fascinating, but for those of us with a D&D bent, knights of the post could have a host of opportunities. You can look to historical examples like traveling doctors or horseback librarians for inspiration, and you can extend them to the fantastical. Consider how much it might matter to a town when the only spellcasting cleric they have access to is the one who comes through once a month or so with the mail? And, of course, these rough and ready souls can also be expected to handle the occasional monster.

The adventuring benefits of this model are obvious, so why don’t we see more of it?

Well, first, to give it’s due, there are games that do this. This is the default structure for Mouseguard and Dogs in the Vineyard, and it was one of the default modes of play in Legend of the Five Rings (doing a procession through your lord’s holdings). But for all that, it’s an outlier – a dungeon map is a normal thing, but a delivery route map would still be an anomaly in most written adventures.

Given that, there are three real challenges to implementing this model.

The first is progression: as characters level up, how do you deal with that? Having the stops on their delivery route JUST HAPPEN to have greater challenges each time they come back feels pretty fake, so are they just going to outgrow this?

The second is that it calls for a wider range of challenges, and some of those challenges aren’t challenges at all. That is, the things the characters may be called on will not be limited to fighting. Some of the challenges will be based on skills, so the system needs to support that, but other challenges are more simple. Consider the Cleric sanctifying a well – there’s no roll of the dice or challenge in that, but it’s very important to the fiction. It can be MADE challenging or interesting, but that takes a lot more work than creating a monster encounter1.

The third is that we tend to design settings to be disposable. Tensions are set up during creation, resolved during play, and then we generally move on2. I think we like the idea that we might come back later and see how things have changed, but there is almost no support for how to run such a thing, so the result often falls flat.

Now, I’ll admit, these are non-trivial challenges. If I were starting a D&D campaign tomorrow, I’d need to have solutions to all three, and I don’t think those solutions exist yet. But I also think they’re all solvable problems.

I might do a part 2 with some examples of solutions, but in the short term, let me offer some tips for how I would mitigate these things:

  • I would schedule out delivery in game in advance. Not in huge detail, but just enough to say that the next route will be A=>B=>C=A in about 1 month. It won’t matter a huge amount at first, but it will make life easier as we progress, because:
  • I would treat a single cycle through the route as an important design unit. When a route it completed, that’s when we would do any downtime-equivalent, and where I would make changes to the route.
  • That is also when I would hand out rewards, including XP. Leveling up happens BETWEEN route cycles, and the biggest XP driver is mission success, not monsters killed.
  • I would start with a small route and add in stops, but try to keep it to 5-6 stops top. That number is from my gut, so it might change, but it feels like there are only so many places they can keep in mind.
  • I would make other mail folk into named NPCs, partly to reinforce the larger setting, partly to create a pecking order because:
  • I would make changes to the routes and make those meaningful. As characters level, adding a more dangerous stop to their route makes sense, but so does dropping a boring one. And, critically, that stop now goes to someone else. Maybe they’re the rookie crew (who might need some help from the old hands sometime) or maybe they’re that asshole’s crew who totally snaked the village with the hot springs because it’s such a great place to stop.
  • I would enter with very flexible ideas about the group’s duties and try to tune those based on player choices and priorities. That said, if there are obvious gaps, I will happily have NPCs in other crews fill them and use that as a complicating factor.
  • The Patron NPC will be distant, but the logistics NPC will be always at hand and constantly annoyed.
  • I would re-read Going Postal before I start.

I think it would be pretty doable at the table, so now I find myself dwelling on how I’d make it a product. Thoughts, comments and suggestions welcome.

  1. Not that I’m suggesting that good monster encounter design doesn’t require skill, but the simple truth is – with D&D and it’s family especially – they’re just a LOT easier to create. This is especially true for a written product because fights are largely one-size-fits-all, whereas non-fights often rely on things like personalities of and relationships with NPCs, which are more emergent in play. ↩︎
  2. An exception to this can be found in city games, where there size of the city allows us to mask this pattern, and there are lessons on re-use to be taken from there, but that is also a fairly neglected model. ↩︎

Navigating the Table

I love maps. Especially big outdoor maps. I don’t think that love is mandatory for this hobby, but I think it definitely helps.

The thing is, I have always struggled with how to convey the map into play at the table. A map is so open and flexible that it feels like narrowing it down to something I can convey at the table is an effort doomed to blandness.

The root of this is in my own mind. When players are in a place and want to go to another place, my process has always been “Imagine the line of their travel, Indiana Jones style, making note of each thing they pass through, and then provide some amount of travel activity for each thing.” This is very intuitive to me, because that’s how traveling in actual space works, and that’s what I want it to feel like, right? The problem is that it makes for fairly uninteresting descriptions at the table because they’re unfocused. They might offer a little bit of color, but there’s nothing to hook into the minds of the players to spark interest or action.

Video games solve this problem in a number of ways. A lot of RPGs just embrace the map and use line and node travel. That is, you hit a button to see a map that looks like this:

Then select a node that you want to travel to, and bam, you’re there. Nine times out of ten, the transition just happens, but if the game feels like it, it’s possible that an encounter or discovery happens during transition (which often adds a new node, temporarily or permanently, or otherwise alters the map).

This model works REALLY well, but I struggle with it a bit because I am expecting something more akin to an open-world game, like World of Warcraft, where I’m actually moving between space.

But I recently started paying attention to how these games handle their geography and realizing how much of it is sleight of hand. Most video game maps are functionally node based, and the “connective” elements are surprisingly small and thin. The geography introduces some constraints (adjacency) and opportunities (exploration) but practically it’s still a matter of moving from node to node.

All of which is to say, I think it may be time to make my peace with a line and node map at the tabletop, even if it’s just a functional overlay on a much prettier map.

Thanks to You All

Yeah, I have more stuff to write about roles, but this morning my focus is more on rolls as I run around cooking for American Thanksgiving. I am not a great cook, but I am an enthusiastic one, so it is always an interesting experience.

But for this brief window while several things need about 10 minutes before the next stage in cooking I’d like to thank anyone and everyone reading this. Y’all are awesome, and I’m immensely grateful.

Investment vs Escalation

I was thinking about TV shows and the easy trick of upping the stakes to increase viewer investment, and how it’s kind of cheap. We all know this: it is a lot less work to have the plot endanger a bunch of kids than it is to spend the time to get us to invest in a smaller problem. Trauma is a super useful shorthand when time is short.

We have a version of this in RPGs, and it has a similar tension, but is maybe a bit more confusing. See, the TV model only sucks because writing characters we care about is the harder but better option, so forced escalation feels cheap. RPG characters are a bit more nuanced.

At first blush it would seem that if you are playing with a high level of character investment, forced escalation is awkward. But what if a high level of character investment is something you reach quickly? Playing a character over time to explore them is one valid mode, but so is slipping into a new character and buying in IMMEDIATELY. For that player, the “forced” escalation might just be jumping to the good part.

And, of course, some players are more interested in the escalation (or rather, the issue behind the escalation) and for them a *lack* of character investment provides some emotional protection (or distance, for authorial purposes),

Obviously, taste is rooted so deeply in this that there is no one good solution, which is as it should be. But I mention it because I sometimes see people get confused about how people could *enjoy* certain types of games (usually those with fairly bleak content), and the instinct is to look at the content for explanation. I suggest that if you can shake free your assumptions about character investment, it might be easier to make sense of.

Personally, my tastes skew towards investing in a character over time and seeing where play takes them. This makes high escalation, short term play something I have to really shift gears to enjoy, and I’m not always successful. But I get that that’s my bag, and thinking about stuff like this is how I made peace with it.

(Semi experimental post. Did it all on my phone while sitting in a waiting room, so apologies for any weirdness.)

Achievements and Levelling Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trigger Tables

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

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

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

table with escalating outcomes from 1-10

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

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

How I Choose Aspects

Fred ran a one shot Star Wars game the other night night, using a Fate hack he’s been working on.  We had a ton of fun as a gang scoundrels and rogues one a mission for Maz around the time of the current films.  I’m not a Fate player that often, and I don’t get to play with Fred nearly enough, so it was a win across the board.  And, of course, it has me thinking about a couple of things, some of which may bubble up here, but one kind of struck me.

I’d given Fred a rough sketch for my character, and I’d thought about him some, but at the start of play I only had provided my high concept and trouble aspects.   This is not much of a problem – coming up with aspects on the fly is something I’m comfortable with – but it made me think a bit about how I do it, and I figured I’d share here in case it’s of any use to anyone.

Photograph of tented index cards showing the character aspects discussed in the body of the article.

My first aspect is my go to. It’s omething that so clearly reflects what my character is that I’ll be able to use it almost any time. This is usually the high concept, and frequently is some manner of broad role. In last night’s game it was Grumpy Old Soldier (Sol was his name) and it served the purpose well. It’s easy to express, and it was a fallback aspect on almost any soldiery situation, which was most of them for me.

#2 is my hook for the GM. It is something that I feel like if the GM knows she’ll have an easier time planning scenes or putting hooks in scenes for me. This is *probably* my trouble, but it might not be because I also have #3. Ideally I want the “if this, then that” to be implicit in the aspect, so the GM knows full well that if they lay down *this* then I will *that*. In this case it was Doesn’t want to care, but ends up caring.  Sharp eyes will notice that is different than the card (which says Does Not Care About You) because that was the public facing side – the reverse simply said “This is a lie”.

#3 is my Fate Point generator. This aspect is more or less carte Blanche for the GM to complicate a scene, and the specifics of the aspect communicate the *flavor* of the complications. It can be generalized (last night I had Worst. Fucking. Timing) if you have a flavor in mind, but another great way to set this up is as a consequence for past actions. One of the other players last night had an aspect that was effectively (“I stole a lot of money and a lot of people are mad”) which proved a font of complications.

#4 is what I consider the contextualizer. At this point I have enough of a sense of the character to be able to think “if I described the character to someone, what part of their story am I not telling here?” Then add an aspect to reflect that. Put another way, this is the “backstory” aspect, and it usually complements and expands on (or otherwise relates to) the high concept.  For me it was Imperial Elite, Republic Trash – he’d come from an imperial (formerly republic) military family and was fresh to the service when the Empire fell.  There’s a longer story, of course, but I don’t need to tell it all at once now that I have an anchor point for it.

#5 s the wild card. No guidance here, this is the slot to keep flexible (and maybe even fill in on the fly if your GM goes for it). I often look at this as my slot to see what the *table* needs, and if I can use it to connect to other players, that’s perfect. If the game is a one shot, then it might just duplicate another category. If it’s a campaign, then it might be something that reflects a long term goal.  In this case it was a bit of history based on a prompt Fred gave (“What’s a battle that sticks with you”), so I went with The Bloody Streets of Corsucant, since he’d been there and on the imperial side when the empire fall, and it wasn’t all singing ewoks.

That’s my fast and loose approach.  I should note, I rarely sit down and run through the list when I make aspects.  Rather, the first couple aspects often suggest themselves naturally, but then I end up thinking about #4 and #5 or so. At that point I do a quick mental inventory to see if I’ve hit all these notes.  Do I have a generator?  Have I anchored my backstory?   That is when these become useful prompts.

Final Caveat – this is just an approach to this. I’m not suggesting it’s optimal, it’s just a tool that might see some use.  Use it, abuse it or discard it, but hopefully, it’s handy for at least some folks.

Persona and Mage

A while back, on the strength of great reviews, a delightful trailer and the promised of capers, I picked up an played Persona 5 on the PS4 (my primary video game console) and I loved it. Loved it loved it loved it. It is amazing how many of my buttons it hit. It had capers and style, but it also had time management and fun characters and entertaining dungeon crawls and great pacing and and and…

So I liked it. I liked it enough that I borrowed a copy of Persona 4 from a friend, and ended up enjoying it enough that I bought my own player. I also may have watched all the available anime.

I liked that enough that I dusted off my PS3 to install the PS2 emulated version of Persona 31 and despite the fact that it was a little bit of a pain in the ass (and the age of the game was showing) I enjoyed the hell out of that.

I am unlikely to go back much further. The technical limitations of the older games and the hoops I need to jump through to get them playing outstrip the benefits of just watching them on YouTube. I’m ok with that – these are now thoroughly embedded in my personal canon.

Obviously, I’ve put some thought into mapping them to RPGs. It would not be hard to capture their gameplay structurally by starting from Blades in the Dark – crew-centric, mission based play is right in the sweet spot, and it would just need tools for social links and dungeon crawling, which would not be a huge lift.

But despite that, the game that I have found myself thinking about when I get to the end of each of these is Mage: the Ascension.

Now, Mage is a fascinating game which is hard to talk about because by it’s nature, everyone who played mage played a different version of the game. Because the nature of the game was about the manipulation of subjective reality and the rules were designed to support anything, the game tended to be about whatever slice of that was most exciting to a particular group.2

For all that, the most fascinating part of Mage to me was the part it probably did least well.

So, in Mage, there’s an underlying, true reality which mages can understand and manipulate, and it’s represented by the various “spheres” (like death, life, mind, entropy etc.) that make up the building blocks of an experienced universe and which are also the mechanical components that drive the magic system.

But, fiction-wise, you don’t just jump to that understanding. That’s the underlying truth, but there are numerous magical traditions that lead to power, but are incomplete in their understanding. On paper, the arc of a mage in Mage is to discover power through, say, Hermetic Secrets, and use that power for a while before eventually reaching an understanding of the meta-truth behind everything (and then, with subsequent splats, to discover the meta-meta-truth, but that’s less interesting to me).

The problem, and I use the term loosely, was that the meta-truth was laid out very clearly to players and was essential to the workings of the system, so there was very little incentive to spend any time in that space of incomplete understanding excepting any point where the mechanics demanded it.3

To unpack a little, the Mage sphere system could be used to mechanically model almost any in-fiction effect. This was awesome, no question. And it meant if you started from fiction that you wanted to shoot a lightning bolt from your hand, you could determine that that was a Forces:3 effect, and you had all the mechanics you needed, and if you had Forces:3 on your sheet. And that’s great, but on your sheet you had “Forces:3” so it was easier (and more beneficial) to think in terms of “what can I do with my 3 dots of forces?”

None of these things were bad, but they pushed Mage into the meta game pretty fast unless you forcibly dragged it back. Whether that’s a bug or feature depended what you were shooting for.

Which brings us back to Persona. In each Persona game, it is revealed that there is a deeper layer of reality that most people cannot perceive, but which contains both power and threats which impact the real world and can be used by some handful of beings who have the awareness. It also suggests that there’s a deeper layer still, which the protagonist accesses, and the arc of the protagonists journey (which is the journey through the Major Arcana) involves a lot of monster fights, but also represents an arc that ends in deeper understanding of the true nature of the world.4

This delights me to no end, and is a big part of the reason that when I finish a Persona game, I kind of feel like I’ve just finished the best session 0 of a Mage game that I could possibly imagine.

  1. For the nerds who know enough to ask: I played Persona 4 Golden and Personal 3 FES. On 3, I completed The Journey, but I admit I just watched a YouTube of The Answer because there’s a reason I don’t play Dark Souls. ↩︎
  2. In contrast, Mage: The Awakening is much more about the things Mage said it was about, which is exactly why it was not Mage in many people’s eyes, so make of it what you will. I note, I really liked Awakening a lot, but it’s a different beast.
  3. Mage 2e did a lot of things which, I think, had the intent of making this intermediate step more prominent, but at that point the genie was out of the bottle, so it felt punitive. Curiously, I would also argue that this is part of what made Technocracy stuff more playable because the Technocracy are more strictly tied to their model of the universe, because that’s rather the point. ↩︎
  4. This is more obvious in 4 and 5 – hell, 5 ends with with protagonist looking directly at the player. 3 is thematically similar but, of course, has a somewhat different arc. ↩︎

Selling Failure

Poker ChipsI’ve been running games a little bit for my 9 year old son lately, and it is forcing me to look more closely at a lot of my ideas around failure in play.  I am absolutely a believer in using failure as a tool to move things forward, and that well handled failure can make a game much more satisfying for everyone involved.

Then I tried to explain that to a 9 year old boy.

He gets the idea in theory, but in practice, he is super loss averse.  This is a challenge if we want to use any system that incorporates failure usefully, and that’s what’s gotten me thinking about a lot of things.

One of them was whether I could get him to buy into failure as an option.  I had a fruitful conversation about this on Twitter, and Morgan Ellis got me thinking about the utility of rewards for failure being good enough to make it intrinsically appealing.   Thinking that through led to a very simple system as follows.

  • Players starts with N (say, 10) white chips and 1 black chip.
  • GM has a supply of white, red and blue chips
  • When a player wants to make a declaration that something is true, it costs a chip.  White for small things, red for larger things, blue for big deals.
  • When a player faces a challenge (its own topic, roll with it), the GM lays out a poker chip.
    • Chip is white, red or blue, representing increasing degrees of significance
    • To proceed, player must also lay down a chip.  That chip is spent(lost).
    • Black chip is a concession. It always loses, but returns to the player.
    • If the player matches or exceed’s the GM’s chip, they win (whatever that means)
    • If the player fails, they gain the GM’s chip

There’s room for a lot more wrapped around this – specific mechanical things that red & blue chips can do, other ways to earn white chips and so on, but at its heart this is a failure engine, since failure is the only way to get red and blue chips, which are powerful and useful.  I’m curious how my son will react to it.

My fear (and my wife’s expectation) is that the kid won’t like it.  This would work great for players who have already bought into failure as awesome, but this isn’t going to sell it.  There’s a decent chance she’s right, but the good news is that it’s going to be very easy to test.