Monday, November 09, 2015

The End Draweth Nigh

Greetings dear friends!  Back in September, I mentioned I had an exciting announcement to make about Socratic Design.  Here it is: my work here is just about finished!

The time has come for me to finally close down this blog.  I’ve been writing here for almost 10 years.  If all goes according to plan, SD will have had 10 years of life before I finally pull the plug. 

My life has changed a lot since I started this blog back in 2005.  At the time, I was single and very young.  I was playing RPGs regularly once or twice a week. I had a very solid core of fellow gamers who all shared a creative vision for each session.  However, as so many of you no doubt have experienced, life changes.  Everyone who was in my play group moved away or drifted away.  We got old, got married, and got jobs. While many can balance game-life and real-life, we came to realize that we no longer wanted to make the sacrifices necessary to do that.  And I personally, found other hobbies.

As a result, I am no longer playing tabletop RPGs, let along designing or even thinking about them.  If you aren’t playing RPGs, you can’t intelligently talk about them.  I have no wish to push off naval-gazing as practical advice, so I cannot continue Socratic Design in good conscience.

So where’s what I’m going to do: There will be one more Anthology then I will compile all my posts for a second Topical Index.  When I have that finished some time in December, I’ll post it as a final reference guide for Socratic Design.  I will not be deleting this blog, it will stay as a reference to anyone looking for answers to questions about RPG design.  I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished here, but it’s just time for me to move on.

I am writing for another website now.  If you’re interested, you can follow my exploits on eXplorminate.  I’d love to see you there.

Anyhow, this is pretty much the end for Socratic Design.  For those who’ve followed me or read my articles, thank you so much for being a part of my life.  I treasure each and every one of you.



Thursday, October 22, 2015

Splitting the Party - A Lament


 This is a continuation in my series of lamentations about RPGs, mostly fantasy or sci-fi style RPGs to be exact.

 One thing I’ve always had veteran D&D (and, honestly, Call of Cthullu) grognards tell me is, “Never split the party!  It’s the fastest way to get everyone killed.”  I’m not here to criticize that.

They’re right.  It is a very efficient way to end up with a TPK (LINK from TPK entry).

 The thing is, I think we might be missing an opportunity for some really good play.  Let’s go back to the fiction that pretty much was in the inspiration for every adventuring party since the mid 20th century: The Fellowship of the Ring.

 Now, I’m not advocating AT ALL a FotR style party split.  I can’t imagine how boring it would be for the Same, Frodo, and Gollum players to simply be told, “…and you’re still walking.” week after week while all their friends get to do stuff like fight at Helm’s Deep, Isengard, or Pelinnor Fields.

 And yet, I think there are some things we can take from this.  First, Gandalf picks up some important info in the libraries of Gondor (how to reveal the script on the One Ring) and that a key ally has betrayed the good guys (Saruman).  Merry and Pippin pick up some allies for the freefolk (Ents).  Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas secure further reinforcements for Gondor (Rohan).  All of those are really cool plot points that would be very impractical and rather dull if 10 people were involved in each.

 So what can splitting the party be good for?  Here’s a brief, non-exhaustive list:
 ·         Getting some key information
·         Scouting a future destination
·         Planting a spy or trap
·         Securing allies or resources
·         Misdirecting an enemy
·         Division of labor
·         Accounting for a player’s absence
·         Executing a battle plan or magic ritual
·         Create a dragnet to capture a target

 Those are just a few ideas.  No doubt you can come up with more if you give it some think-time.  Splitting the party is not something you’ll do every session or even for a majority of sessions.  But it is a play technique that can be used to involve plot ideas that cannot be done efficiently or practically any other way.  Naturally, players may be wary of splitting up at first.  Don’t force them.  Let things play out, and let them build trust in their own way.



Thursday, September 03, 2015

What is Currency?


Back from summer break, and unfortunately, I’ve just got a short one today, guys.  The word “currency” gets thrown around an awful lot in RPG texts and on RPG design boards.  It usually gets taken for granted what it means, but I somehow get the nagging feeling at times that the other person I’m talking with doesn’t grasp the concept fully.  So, I’m doing this post today to help assuage my conscience.

The Provisional Glossary defines currency as “The exchange rate within and among Character Components. Currency may or may not be explicit (e.g. "character points"), but it is a universal feature of System, specifically as it relates to Character.”  Defining currency as “the rate of exchange” is partially unhelpful, I feel, because first it focuses people on the numbers involved instead of the game components involved.  It’s the components that really matter as far as the fiction goes.  And second, because it makes it seem like currency is something that can only be found on characters.  This is not necessarily the case.

So, for the purposes of Socratic Design, I’m going to define “Currency” as, “Any character and/or other game component that can be spent, lost, gained, or traded for some in-fiction effect.”  So basically, you’re trading something from the real world (that is written on the character sheet, GM sheet, or whatever else) for something in the imaginary world.

What are some examples of currency?

There are some pretty easy ones most are familiar with.  Hit points, mana, sanity, rounds of ammunition, attacks per round, gold pieces, experience points, etc. are all examples of currency.  But so are bonus die like in The Shadow of Yesterday, fan mail like in Prime Time Adventures, or Humanity in Sorcerer.  GMs can also have currency they spend to increase the danger of an encounter or to build dungeons that challenge the players.

Just remember, currency is simply some out-of-fiction resource you can use, spend, trade, or accumulate to get in-fiction effects.



P.S. I will be making an exciting announcement about Socratic Design later this year.  Please check back every so often as I prepare for SD’s next phase.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

What is a “Catch-Up” Mechanic?


Every RPG, just about, has some kind of tactical situation.  A lot of people confuse “tactical” with “combat”, but that’s just wrong.  Tactics can be used in the political arena, historical arena, the emotional arena, or in lots of places I haven’t even thought of.  The point is, these games produce someone who is ahead and someone who is behind at some point during play.

We all know that’s true, so what then?  In many games, especially traditional games that were made prior to 2001, the usual method of resolving this imbalance was the person behind had to get extremely lucky to win or he just lost.  This was especially true of games that featured a Death Spiral.

But something has changed.  Games have developed a series of methods to help the player who is behind to regain an equal footing (and in some cases, surpass the player who was ahead).  I call these methods “Catch-Up” mechanics.

Catch-up mechanics have been around for ages, and they didn’t start with RPGs.  Think about the escalating scale for reinforcements when you turn in cards when playing Risk or about landing on Free Parking in many house-ruled games of Monopoly.  These mechanics are great because it decreases the frustration players feel once they get behind.  They know that there is a chance that they might land on the right space or draw the right card and turn the tables on their opponents.  But it’s just a chance, never a guarantee.

And that’s the important thing.  Catch-Up mechanics offer an opportunity to catch up, not a promise that you will.  So let’s look at some from some RPGs you may know:

Healing Surges in D&D 4e:  This mechanic lets a hero who is behind on hit points recoup some, most, or all of them (depending on what else is going on) during a fight.  The hero (or villain) who was near death is suddenly back to health and ready to continue combat.

Critical Hit system in Rolemaster: In Rolemaster, the slightest knick can kill.  During combat, if you score a hit, you deal damage AND inflict some type of critical wound.  Even a light hit causes a roll on a “Critical Table.”  Just about every level of critical (A-E back when I was playing) can kill if you roll high enough on your d100.  So, no matter how far you are behind in a fight, your next sword strike could drop your enemy.

Escalating in DitV: In Dogs in the Vineyard, Vincent created an “escalating” mechanic.  Let’s say your character starts an argument.  You roll some dice and they don’t roll in your favor.  So you escalate by hitting the guy.  In DiTV when you make that decision to use your fists you get a band new pool of dice to roll.  Let’s say you lose that roll too.  So you pull a knife.  When you pull that knife, you get a new pool of dice.  And so on.  Each time you escalate, you are given a new chance to win the conflict.  There are consequences for doing that, of course, but the escalating mechanic helps the player who’s behind catch up and get another shot at winning.

Catch-Up mechanics are great for games of all types.  Combat-centric games like D&D and Rolemaster benefit from them in the same way artsy-fartsy games like Dogs in the Vineyard benefit from them.  Giving the players a chance to win from a losing position keeps them engaged and can mitigate the effect of an unlucky roll or tactical misstep.  The important thing to remember, though, is the Catch-Up mechanic cannot guarantee victory.  It should never be an auto-win panic button.  It should just give the player a second shot at victory, and might even come at some kind of price.



Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Relay the Message: Dyson's Dungeons Patreon


Some of you may be creating games that use dungeons.  If so, you might check out Dyson Logos' Paetreon:

He creates some of the BEST dungeon maps out there, and he releases them on a Creative Commons license that allows you to use and modify the maps in your game, royalty free, as long as you attribute the original work to him.  That's pretty rad!  You can read up more about it here:

Artwork and dungeon designs can be very hard and/or expensive to get as a RPG designer.  This may be an avenue that works for you at a much lower cost.



Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Who has final say?


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.



Saturday, January 10, 2015

Meeting at the Inn - A Lament


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! :)