Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Who has final say?

Heya,

This is a more advanced theory topic than I usually deal with on Socratic Design, but in light of me coming to a deeper understanding about RPG play and RPG design, I feel I need to share this with my audience.

Within the last twelve months I have written articles about GM Fiat and The GoldenRule (aka Rule Zero).  I’m here, today, in this article to state that neither of these things actually exists.  GM Fiat and The Golden Rule (“the GM is always right”) exist only as a means to describe a phenomenon at only the most surface level.  The truth is, the GM cannot assert anything in any game without the group’s consent.

Now, that may sound absurd to some, heretical to others, but it is the truth.  Consider this: the GM in whatever FRPG you’re playing says, “Okay guys, you walk into the nearest tavern and a sorcerer kills all of you.”  That’s an excellent example of Fiat and/or The Golden Rule.  The GM made a decision and enacted it.  So what happens next?

Do the players go along with it?  Do they rebel and leave?  It doesn’t matter.  Either way, what the GM said doesn’t happen until the group agrees to it.  If they don’t say anything and start rolling up new characters, it means the group assented.  If they argue, “Hey, I never said I even went into town!” then the situation will not be resolved until the entire group-including the GM-agrees to what happened or the players get up and leave.  And if the players get up and leave, the situation is still up in the air because play ended.

See, the players and GM have a co-authorial relationship when play is happening.  Nothing the GM says becomes true until everyone agrees- either explicitly by saying “ok” or implicitly by not raising an objection.  Likewise, nothing a single player says becomes true unless the rest of the group (including the GM) agrees to it implicitly or explicitly.

GMs who think they have all the power in a game are sorely mistaken.  They must still get approval from the players at every step of the way in order for play to continue.  If they don’t, play stops until group consensus is reached or everyone quits.  The players, therefore, have just as much control over what happens as the GM.

Now, it may not always appear that way.  It may appear that the players are allowing the GM to railroad them into whatever direction the GM wants.  Or the GM may be using subtle social manipulation to nullify the choices made by the players.  But those are just illusions.  Nothing happens during play unless the whole group agrees to it or, at the very least, fails to object (implicit agreement).

So what does this have to do with design?  Well, if a designer understands that this dynamic is already in play, then he or she can take advantage of it rather than fight against it.  Instead of trying to create rules that help a GM keep the players “on track,” the designer can create rules that aid and facilitate group consensus.  This way, play moves along at an orderly pace, there are fewer arguments and hurt feelings.  I.E. you avoid making a game where the 20:4 ratio is the default mode of play.

Peace,


-Troy

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Meeting at the Inn - A Lament

Heya,

How many of you started some RPG campaign of any genre by meeting a group of people in an inn, bar, tavern, or Mos Eisley Cantina?  Raise your hand, because you know we've all done it.  How good was it?  Yeah, it pretty much sucked.  I don't think I've ever heard someone say, "And it was so awesome how we all started as characters who didn't know each other sitting around a table at a tavern when..."

Part of the reason this motif gets eye-rolls is because it's SO contrived with nothing supporting the players.  Why would strangers be loyal to each other?  Or if they knew each other, why didn't the motivation for the campaign arise from their shared experiences and history?  Why are the characters suddenly risking their lives on a tip taken from one of the least reputable places in any town?

Another reason it usually stinks on ice is that the people in the tavern or inn are transient.  They aren't staying in one place, even the barkeep and stereotypical barmaids are easily replaced.  Hence, there's nothing for the players to ever really come back to for validation, help, or enrichment.  The tavern little more than a springboard and then forgotten, at least in my experience and in all the anecdotes I've ever heard.  It's sad how the tavern where the adventure began becomes so astonishingly unimportant to the action later on.

I would like to see someone take this tired, lifeless old trope and really make it good.  I've played a few modules that tried (like Return to the Tomb of Horrors), but none did a very good job.  I lament the tavern meeting for this: it is usually so unsatisfying that it leaves a blotch on the memories of those who have played using it, and I want people to have the best experience they can playing RPGs.

So, if you have some great tavern stories OR a theory on how to improve ye olde tavern campaign kickoff, I'd love to read about it in the comments! :)

Peace,

-Troy

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What is TPK?


Heya,

Short one this time around.  I hate gamer-talk sometimes.  We develop our own jargon that we assume everyone gets but really just creates a taller barrier to entry to new people into the hobby.  If you’re reading this entry, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you typed, “What’s a TPK” into Google after seeing it on a post at RPGnet or something.  I’m here for ya.

TPK is an acronym for Total Party Kill.  It’s simply when everyone in an adventuring party (usually a traditional fantasy, sci-fi, or horror RPG) ends up dead after an encounter.  It could be because of player error, GM error, a combination of both, or some really bad luck on the dice.  It happens. 

Anyway, I’m defining this here because I plan on using this jargon (and linking back to this post) in a future entry and just want to have my bases covered.
Peace,

-Troy

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Relay the Message: Early Fall Kickstarters

Heya guy,

Hope you are having a good harvest season.  There's a pretty good crop of Kickstarters I'm following, and I thought I'd share them with you.

First, we have Warlocks.  I'm usually more of a tabletop guy, but I'm getting more and more interested in video game design as that medium gets more and more democratized like RPG publishing did in the early 2000's.  This game is a pretty cool fighting game with old-school pixilated graphics.  If that's your sort of thing, I encourage you to give it a look.

Next, I submit Smoke and Glass by Shoshana Kessok.  It's a SteamPunk setting for Fate Core.  I still haven't got my SteamPunk itch scratched by a game yet.  I'm still looking for something I can't put my finger on.  S&G looks pretty cool, so if you're like me at all, you can check it out. :)

Finally, we have Broken World which is powered by the Appocalypse.  I've enjoyed other AW spin-offs like Dungeon World.  If that system is your thing, check this game out!

Peace,

-Troy

Thursday, September 04, 2014

What Do I Do if I Find Myself Designing a Heartbreaker?


Heya,

Back in the saddle after a nice long summer break.  I hope all of you are well.  It’s good to have you back at Socratic Design!

This blog entry was inspired by THIS THREAD.   Back when that thread was active, I just did not have the time to sit down and write the kind of response I really wanted.  I was swamped.  If I had said anything, it would have just been something dismissive or insensitive to the OP, and that’s not something I wanted to do.

For context, I highly recommend you read my oooooooooooold article from 2006, What is a Heartbreaker?

I’m not going to critique Xarcell’s design in this entry.  I think the folks on Story-Games did a pretty thorough job of explaining the potential problems, challenges, and reception Xarcell could expect.  Instead, I’m going to try to offer some advice to him (any anyone) who wants to still drive ahead and publish their D&D-like Medieval Fantasy game. 

To begin, let me say I’ve been there.  I’ve done it.  My first published RPG was a Fantasy Heartbreaker in every single definition.  My friends and I spend years creating a derivative of Rolemaster.  We spend thousands printing up books.  And we sold probably less than a thousand.  So I’m not some ivory tower dude passing my judgment down on the great unwashed.  I’ve lived it.  It’s not pleasant.

But if we’re going to go ahead with it anyway, what should we do?  There are five things I think a person should do if they are going to publish a Fantasy (or Sci-Fi or Vampire or Cthullu or whatever) Heartbreaker. 

1.Play it!  If you’re not playing it when you go to start the publishing process, then I personally think you’re doing it wrong.  You must stay in touch with what makes the game fun.  You must still be excited about it.  People get excited about things other people are excited about.  If the game isn’t still worth your time, how can it be worth theirs?  Also, continuing to play will improve the game quality, and you’re going to need the quality to be as high as possible.

2.Put it up for free first.  You need to get the game out there somehow, even if it’s just a plain text or PDF version.  1km1kt will host your file for free, and it doesn’t require any special accounts or logins for people who want to get your game.  It’s easy and easy is good.  There are plenty of other sites who will also do it, but that’s just the one I like.  You need your game on the Internet for free because you’re going to have to do a lot of ground work to make this thing successful.  You’ll need to be able to give everyone who hears about your game a frame of reference.  A free copy does that, and it creates  a good feeling in those whom you contact.  If you’re willing to give the text version away for free, it must mean you’re confident in the quality of your game.

3.Build up a community.  The first two points are easy.  This is where things get a little harder.  You need to get people involved in your game.  You need a community who is anticipating your game’s release and is excited about it.  It may be tempting to go find a way to host some free phpBB forum and try to get people to come there to talk about your game.  That is almost certainly going to end in disaster.  Messageboards require a lot of activity and a lot of participants to be truly successful.  A Heartbreaker game just isn’t going to generate that much interest at the start.  Instead, I recommend starting a blog, Facebook page or G+ account for your game.   Start liking, friending, circling, and linking other people.  Create lots of entries on your blog/Facebook/G+ about your game INCLUDING actual play reports.  Be excited and promote other people’s games on it as well.  It’ll make you feel good for helping others and it may encourage others to link your game on their social media site.  That’s what you need.  Building a network and a community where people can come, read, and easily comment on your work.  Just make sure you get the people playing the game with you from Step 1 posting and commenting as well. 

4.Try a Kickstarter.  Kickstarter is great because not only does it get funds to ideas the market wants, it denies funds to ideas the market doesn’t want.  Once you’ve laid the ground work for your game by posting it for free and building up a community, it’s time to see if the market wants your game or not.  I can’t tell you what your goal should be.  You have to decide based on how much the cover will cost, how much the interior art will cost, how much your time on it has been worth, and whether or not you’ll offer a print version.  If I were going to do a Kickstarter for The Holmes and Watson Committee today, I’d probably set the Kickstarter goal at $1,000 to get a new cover, new art, and maybe a map of Victorian London.  But every person is different, and every game has its own needs.  If the first Kickstart fails, you can try a second a few months later.  If a second campaign fails, the market is telling you that your game is A) best left as a free game on the ‘net or B) needs a lot more work.

5.Finally, even with a successful Kickstarter it’s important not to keep sinking your own money into the game.  More money does not equal more success.  Vincent Baker made a great post on what to do with a game once it’s published.  Continue steps 1 and 3.  That will drive future sales of your game (if continuing sales are something you want).  But whatever you do, do not sink thousands of dollars promoting or selling your game.   Do what you can for free and let the sales grow organically. 

Well, that’s the best advice I can offer.  Avoid using your own money as much as possible.  Stay excited about your game.  Help promote other people’s games.  And build up a community before going to Kickstarter.  If you do these things, there’s a chance (just a chance) that your game will be a successful business venture.

Peace,

-Troy

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Socratic Design Anthology #9

Heya Guys,

Summer is fast approaching and that's when I usually take break from blogging.  I hope the first half of the year has been a productive one for you.  Before I go, I'm doing my annual anthology.  For those who may be new to Socratic Design, every year I post links to all the articles I've done in the last 12 months or so as well as links to previous anthologies.  This way, people can easily catch up if they recently discovered my blog.  Enjoy! :)

Articles:

What is Creative Agenda?
What is an Endgame?
What is Chopping the World in Two?
Does Setting Still Matter? part 5
What is Rule Zero?

Laments:

Equipment Lists - A Lament


Design Journal Entries:

Design Journal #1: Envisioning Play
Design Journal #2: Brainstorming
Design Journal #3: Distractions
Design Journal #4: Breaking Up My Game


Previous Anthologies:

Socratic Design Anthology #1
Socratic Design Anthology #2
Socratic Design Anthology #3
Socratic Design Anthology #4
Socratic Design Anthology #5
Socratic Design Anthology #6
Socratic Design Anthology #7
Socratic Design Anthology #8

Topical Index:

SD Topical Index #1

Peace,

-Troy

Friday, May 02, 2014

What is Rule Zero?

Heya,

Today I’m looking at a topic that became a really hot-button issue in the early 2000’s.  And even to this day, arguments over it will arise on one online forum or another.  It’s called “Rule Zero.”  If you don’t know what that is, it’s probably a good thing, but more than likely, you’ve had some experience with it whether you know it or not.

Rule Zero basically states, “If you don’t like something about the rules [provided for you in this game’s text], change it!”  Well, that’s the nice way to put it.  I’ve sometimes seen it also called “The Golden Rule” which basically says, “The GM may ignore or change any rule at any time.”  If that looks like a Social Contract disaster filled with GM Fiat punts, then you are right.

I wish I knew who coined the phrase “Rule Zero” in this usage.  My first contact with it was in the Amber Diceless Roleplaying System, where it comes right out and says that the GM can change any rule he or she wants.  I know the White Wolf Games used the “Golden Rule” terminology in its texts.  I suspect, whether this empowerment of the GM and/or players to just change the rules on a whim was officially termed early or late in RPG history, people were doing it from the beginning.    I don’t know who first recognized this was going on, but the point is, once the idea took hold, designers started incorporating it into their games and RPGs have suffered ever since.

Why was Rule Zero/The Golden Rule invented?

Rule Zero/The Golden Rule came about because the early RPG texts that set the template for all RPGs to follow did a horrible, awful job of communicating how to play.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  Listen to what the man himself, Gary Gygax, had to say about his own game in his introduction to AD&D1e, “D&D hasturned into a non-game.  There is so much variation between the way the game is played [that] there is no continuity and little agreement as to just what the game is and how best to play it.” 

This could only happen if the text did not explicitly lay out what the game was about, what the players were supposed to do, and what the characters were supposed to do.  I have my copy of the 1978 AD&D Player’s Handbook right next to me, and there is not one page devoted to what players should be doing at any given moment of play, during a session of play, or for an entire campaign.

As a result, it became necessary for the DMs to improvise, change, and modify the rules at will.  D&D never empowered the group as a whole to make these decisions and since the DM was seen kind of as a replacement for the referee in wargaming, the players looked to him/her for what to do when nothing made sense.

Why is Rule Zero/Golden Rule bad?

There are several reasons why relying Rule Zero is a rotten idea for designers.  If you haven’t read my article on The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, it’s some good background knowledge to have for this article.

The first reason Rule Zero is awful is that it encourages lazy design.  By including it, often in the introduction to a game, the designer is letting himself/herself off the hook.  Why worry about making all the rules work tightly together when the GM/Players will just change them anyway?  While it’s true that the designer cannot control how people actually play his game, it seems contradictory to in one breath prescribe how to play your game and in the next tell the players to just make it up as they go. 

Second, players are disinclined to actually try playing by the rules.  By including Rule Zero in your game, you give them carte blanche to start changing things before they even play.  Thus, they often try to bend some new game into some old game they are more familiar with.  Consequently, they miss out on a new experience.  Is that what you would want for your design?  Wouldn’t it be best if they were encouraged to at least try to play by the rules?  Isn’t that why your wrote your game in the first place?

Of all the games that have been Rule Zero’ed more than any other, OD&D stands first.  Yet, read this account of a group howfastidiously followed the rules of OD&D (as much as humanly possible) and how much fun they had as a result and how much they learned about the emergent properties of the game.  It’s brilliant!  But I know of very few groups and very few players who’ve stuck by the letter of the OD&D books, or any version of D&D for that matter (with the possible exception of 4th ed. at game shops while playing Tuesday Night Encounters).

Incorporating Rule Zero in a text shows me that the designer has a lack of confidence in his or her game.  Be confident.  As a customer, I am naturally pre-disposed to trusting you to produce a fun game.  I WANT to play the game the way you intended.  If you tell me upfront I don’t have to, then you break that trust.  And I probably won’t play the game the way you envisioned.

Third, incorporating Rule Zero/The Golden Rule overtly into your rules can often lead to heavy use of force by the GM or players to “keep things on track.”  This could be an entire article on its own (again see my entry on TITB4B).  Force is basically covert, social manipulation used by the GM to nullify player input in order to form a narrative during play that fits the GM’s vision alone.  How many of you like to be manipulated by other people?  How many of you enjoy having your creative endeavors subverted then negated by someone else?  That’s what the use of force and application of Rule Zero often bring to the table.  And it’s something we’ve hopefully left behind for the most part.

Finally, no other type of game invokes anything like Rule Zero.  One of the things that really bugs me about this is that this sort of behavior would be totally unacceptable in any other format.  Imagine if Pat Sajack suddenly started changing the rules for Wheel of Fortune right in the middle of an episode!  Or what if Dr. Richard Garfield had written into the original rules of Magic: the Gathering- “Eh, if you don’t like the mana system or any of the other rules of the game, just make them up as you go.  It won’t matter.”  It would be a catastrophe.  Now, creating recognized variants of the game (say, Commander or Cube in the case of M:tG) is fine, because everybody is on board with the modified rules set from the beginning.  But imagine if Rule Zero applied to something like Poker at something during a Pro Tour?  If other games don’t tolerate this, why should we?

Wait, you might be wondering, if variants are okay, then is Rule Zero actually a real thing?  What about house rules and hacks?

Good question.  So, after everything I’ve said, I’m going to contradict myself for just one tiny second.  If you take the “you” in my original definition of Rule Zero to mean the play group as a whole, then it’s not really a bad thing at all.  People can play however they want.  Coming to a group consensus on how a game should be played is a very functional thing.  Who hasn’t hacked a game they loved or mashed two great games together to form something new?  We’ve all done it and had a blast!  As far as play goes, the real problem with the rule comes when that “you” is interpreted to mean just one person- usually the GM.  In these cases it is one person coercing the players to play according to a single, non-negotiable vision.  This can very often lead to arguments, disenfranchisement, and a big ‘ole heaping helping of the 20:4 ratio most ESPECIALLY when rules are ignored, modified, or added during play without group consensus.  I don't see this as a particularly desirable design element.  Do you?

So, when making your game, I suggest not even including anything in the text that even remotely resembles Rule Zero/The Golden Rule.  It’s not helpful, since people will ignore/modify your rules anyway if they want.  It’s poor design, because you're letting yourself off the hook instead of working to find a real solution.  And it just obfuscates the real intent of your game, which is why you're writing this thing in the first place, right?

Peace,


-Troy