Wednesday, December 05, 2012

What are the Three Major Timescales in RPGs?


When designing an RPG, there are three time scales you have to worry about: The Immediate, The Session, and The Campaign.   Each is a component of the next and scale up in the amount of time elapsed.  So there are many Immediate moments in a Session.  There are many Sessions in a Campaign.  Immediate moments are very brief periods of time- usually the usage of a single game mechanic.  Sessions are one sit-down play experiences: whether that’s thirty minutes or ten hours.  A Campaign encompasses all of play from when a group begins creating fiction using your game to the moment they conclude the fiction.

The Immediate time frame is filled with what the players are doing at the table at any given moment.  Each immediate moment could be very different from the next.  Players could be rolling dice in combat.  They could be talking in character to barter for information.  They could be strategizing their next attack.  They might be acting out a romance scene between their characters and so on. 

As a designer, you have to think about what you want your players doing at any given moment.  If your first thought is, “Whatever they want!” then you need to rethink.  A game needs focus.  If players aren’t given direction (or hooks) from the game’s text, they’ll just flounder about until they make up their own rules or drop the game altogether.  By limiting what can happen in the Immediate time frame, you give the players creative constraints within which they can work.  So, does your game involve romance?  Does it involve hand-to-hand combat?  Is it about fulfilling a quest or learning about some new world?  Do you need rules for all of these?  Or just some?

Also, you need to think about what the players are really doing at the table.  Okay, you might have a game about mecha pilots being mercenaries for hire, and as part of that they need to be able to negotiate a bounty for their services.  So what does that negotiation actually look like AT THE TABLE?  Is it simply a matter of rolling 2d6 and referencing their characters’ negotiation skills?  Do the players have to spend points of some kind?  Is it left to the acting skills of the players to decide?  Is it done by GM fiat?  Fighting, negotiating, picking a lock, hacking a computer, etc. are all different activities for the characters, but from a design standpoint, these can all be the exact same activity for the players: rolling dice then checking against a target number.  Conversely, they could all be completely different depending on how you write your rules!

So when thinking about the Immediate time scale, consider what is actually going on at the table in the real world.  Think about what the players should be literally, physically doing at any individual moment of the game- then design rules to support that.

Rules for the Immediate time frame are generally procedural.  They guide the players, step-by-step, through different processes of resolving dilemmas.  Sometimes, these types of mechanics are referred to as crunchy or grainy, but that’s not helpful terminology.  Examples of Immediate Timescale rules are things like combat rules, task resolution, conflict resolution, saving throws, recovery mechanics, Chargen, equipment lists, critical hit tables, random encounter tables, and so on.  These rules are generally used for brief moments then set aside, and often players rotate through them during a Session.

Speaking of which, the next step up (as far as timescales go) is The Session.  During an average session, whatever amount of time that might be, what do you envision the players doing?  What should they have accomplished by the end of the night?  Things that happen within The Session time frame are a result of what happens over the course of multiple Immediate time frames.  These can be things like traveling, character advancement, treasure accumulation, character death, mission completion, reward cycles, and so on.  Rules for what goes on at The Session level tend to be a mix of procedural (e.g. leveling up a character) and directional (e.g. the goal for the night is to explore the next level of the dungeon). 

The third time frame is The Campaign, or “why are we playing this game in the first place?”  The Campaign (for lack of a better word) is the author’s vision for what the game is all about.  It is what should happen when all The Sessions are added together: from beginning to end.  Rules for The Campaign timescale tend to be mostly directional, e.g. “Fulfill this quest” or “Survive with dignity” or “Solve the crime.”  The Campaign provides an over-arching context and focus for rules at the Immediate and Session levels.  Not all rules at the Campaign level are directional, though.  Some might be procedural.

This is where pacing rules can come into play.  Take D&D’s experience point mechanics for instance.  These are pacing mechanics for character advancement.  The D&D design and development teams come up with how many XP the typical character should earn in a Session then adjust their rules, tables, values, and expectations accordingly.  It provides concrete guidelines for DMs to follow during the course of the entire Campaign. 

That’s one example, but for the most part, Campaign level rules are guide interactions among the players rather than interactions between the players and the game’s step-by-step mechanics.

Since this is Socratic Design, we can think about these three timescales in the form of questions:  “What are we doing right now?” ; “What are we doing tonight?” ; and “What are we doing during this campaign?”  I believe I have to credit Ron Edwards for first organizing play in these three terms.  But players should be able to clearly and succinctly answer these questions at any given moment.  If your playtesters can’t, then perhaps you need to work on how your vision is being communicated by the game’s text.

Anyway, if you can think about designing your rules to cover each of these different time scales, the coherence of your design will be markedly improved.  It will also help you understand how play will flow from moment to moment and create an emergent game experience for the players.



P.S. I’ve included a diagram of play formy game “Blasted Sands” that shows how the different time frames work within the context of a flow chart.  You can find the text of that game here (spelling errors and all!).  I appologize for the low resolution of that image.  I could not find my hi-res version.  Once I do, I'll upload it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What is GM Fiat?


In keeping with my resolution to explore some of the older ideas in RPG theory, I’m going to very briefly tackle GM fiat.  This term has had something of a negative connotation since the IndieRPG movement began back in 2000, but it didn’t always used to be that way.

Basically, GM fiat has come to mean something like “any decision made by the Game Master (or similar authority figure) that is final and cannot be appealed or changed by the other players through the mechanics of the game.” 

I’ve seen some people use it as a synonym for “dictatorship” or “the GM is god” or “bad game design.”  But it doesn’t mean any of those things.  Sometimes, a decision has to be made and it has to be final.  In those cases, it’s okay to have someone like a GM make a final call that ends any dispute so the game can progress forward.

The problem with GM fiat is when it is used too much by a designer.  Modern RPG design needs to involve the players more in the decision making process.  Once upon a time, decades ago, the GM might have been the only one in a playgroup with the time, inclination, and monetary resources to collect all the tomes necessary for play, read them, and master the content.  The players had to trust him or her because there just wasn’t a lot of information available to everyone about the game.  The Internet has changed that dramatically.  Players are well informed now, not just about a game’s specific content, but also about play styles, strategies, options, and techniques.  They are now fully capable of contributing to a game’s direction on a plane level with a GM.  Information has become democratized in a sense.

As a result, a good game designer will rely on GM fiat only as a last resort to settle a quandary that cannot be settled through the game’s usual mechanics or a group’s usual social interactions.  Contemporary players are not accustomed to the 1990’s style of GMing.  They want to express their creativity through control of the world too.  That’s not always going to be practical, but more often than not, it is.



Thursday, September 27, 2012

What is a Flag?


It's good to be back after my summer break.  I hope all of you are doing well.  Happy autumn!

All roleplaying games, in essence, are just guidelines for communication among a group of people.  Information flows from one person to another and then bounces around, changes, and develops according to a set of rules.

In traditional RPGs, there are two sub-groups of people in a game: GMs and Players.  Typically, information originates with the GM is passed to the players, digested, and returned with their content.  On the other end of the spectrum, you have GMless games like Universalis, Capes, and Cutthroat where information can originate from anywhere and ricochet in any number of directions. 
Regardless of where information comes from and where it goes, RPGs need to provide something to structure that flow of data.  Structure for communicating information can come in many forms, the most common of which are rules, procedures, directives, and flags.  Today, I’m going to talk about flags.

Generally speaking, flags are anything on a character sheet that can tip off the other players (and GM if there is one) as to what that character’s controller is interested in exploring during play.
Here are a few examples from some well-known games.  This is not an exhaustive list from these games, just a representative list:



Dogs in the Vineyard

The Shadow of Yesterday
-Bonus Dice

Dungeon World

When designing your game, think about what the players need to communicate to each other and the GM (if there is one).  What parts of your game are fiddly? What parts are confusing?  What parts do some players need to know about and others don’t?  Focus on these aspects of your game, then design flags for them. 

There is a danger in over-using flags.  Too much junk on a character sheet makes it seem cluttered and hectic.  Emphasize only the confusing parts of your game that are really important.  Leave plenty of room for the player to ad-lib as different situations come up during play.



Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Socratic Design Anthology #7


I haven't done a Socratic Design Anthology since March 2011, so I figure it's about time to do another. I'll be going on my usual summer hiatus after this. Expect me back around August or September unless something big comes up (and it always could, you know). Anyway, here are the links for the latest angthology. If you're new to Socratic Design, check the link for the SD Topical Index #1 at the bottom of this post first.


How do I get Started?
What is the Social Contract?
What is the 20:4 Ratio?
Why Do Players Avoid Killing Characters?
What Should My Mechanics Be Like?
How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics? pt.2
What are some Different Publishing Models?


D&D Alignments: A Lament
D&D Spell Components: A Lament
Troupe Play: A Lament

Previous Index and Anthologies:

SD Topical Index #1
Socratic Design Anthology #1
Socratic Design Anthology #2
Socratic Design Anthology #3
Socratic Design Anthology #4
Socratic Design Anthology #5
Socratic Design Anthology #6

As always, please notify me of any broken links. Thanks for reading!



PS: Blogger has decided to change its interface because the old one worked perfectly. Therefore some of the formatting on this post may be odd. If it looks funny or confusing to you, please let me know. Thanks :)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Relay the Message: Engle Map Kickstarter


I have an old friend named Chris Engle. He and I met when I was in college in Bloomington, IN. I was briefly involved with the local SCA, and Chris was a proud member. He and I talked about RPGs and CCGs, and I would see him every so often at the local game shop, The Game Preserve, in downtown Bloomington.

This guy has been busting his hump making games for years now. I have no idea how many years he's been at it (Chris, if you read this blog, comment and tell us!), but I know he's contributed more to independant publishing than I ever will.

Right now he's got a rather unique Kickerstarter going. Unlike the other's I've mentioned, this one is not so much for a book but an artifact. It's for historical maps for London, Paris, and Rome. I've done some gaming in London and Paris (in imaginary life, not real life), and would have loved to have had these maps. I believe they come with a game too, but honestly, the maps are a treat all themselves. I'm especially excited about the London map.

Anyway, give the Kickstarter a look. If you think it's something you could use with your group, then give Chris some suppport. I can tell you that he does top-notch work, and you'll be happy with the end product.



Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Why Do Players Avoid Killing Characters?


I’ve covered character death on two other occasions. It can be a difficult subject to talk about because for some people a character dying is no big deal, and for others it’s a total anathema. Today, I’m going to tackle the question of why people avoid killing characters even in games that have character death built in as a design feature. I believe there are two types of causes for this phenomenon: Player Causes and Design Causes.

Player Causes:

The first big reason I think players avoid killing a character is because of social pressure. Players can sometimes get really invested in their character and the other participants feel that if the characters did die, the player who was using him would rather quit than deal with the consequences. This could be communicated overtly, “Hey, you better not kill my guy…” or covertly, “This is the best character I’ve ever had! I’m having actual fun for the first time…” This can also be communicated through play. If a player “turtles”, or avoids any kind of serious engagement with danger or threatening situations, it probably means the player is not prepared to let his character go. This is understandable and may be part of the group’s Social Contract. If it is part of the group’s mutual understanding, then cool. If it’s not, the group probably needs to have a chat about character death and the role it should play during their sessions.

The second big reason I believe players avoid killing a character is to cover up a mistake or some kind of misunderstanding. For instance, the GM may have thrown too many enemies at them at once or one player didn’t understand what the others were trying to communicate and thus made an illogical choice. Likewise, the system rules may have been improperly used and everyone is just deciding to gloss over it. Avoiding killing the PCs in this situation isn’t a big concern, and it’s pretty common when people are learning a new game for the first time.

The final player cause I’m going to suggest is “over-eager players.” Numerous times I’ve seen players engage their characters in some sort of fight that they could have circumvented using some other means. So instead of getting the gold/loot/information that they wanted, they are facing overwhelming odds in a fight. Imagine a caper RPG where instead of disarming the security system, crawling through the ventilation, and cracking the safe, the players had their characters go into the complex guns blazing, shooting every security guard they meet. Then, by the time they blow up the safe with dynamite, the entire Los Angeles S.W.A.T. team is outside. The players are frozen. They don’t know what to do. The S.W.A.T. team showing up never entered their calculations. So the GM is forced to make a choice: fudge the dice and let them escape somehow or have a TPK (Total Party Kill). Time after time, I have observed GMs fudging the dice to make up for over ambitious players who used their brawn instead of their brains.

Design Causes:

None of those reasons above relate to the design of an RPG. However, the next two I’m going to cover do. One HUGE reason I believe players avoid killing characters is because it takes too long to roll up new characters. This is a massive problem, especially since the turn of the century when D20 and DnD4e became the industry standard for how much complexity can or should be crammed into an RPG. When making characters in AD&D1e or 2e, it took relatively little time to roll one up. Choose Race/Class, get 6 Stats, calculate Thac0 and AC, pick spells and a few non-weapon proficiencies then you’re done. Easy, fast, no matter what the level. ODnD was even shorter! In 3e, Pathfinder, and especially in 4e, you’ve got feats, skills, powers, stat bonuses, and a million other options you have to consider. Filling out a level 8 character in the middle of a session takes hours and sidelines the player until the next session. That’s just not fun. As a result, rolls get fudged, players avoid real conflicts, and/or the DM slow-rolls everything so the players have plenty of time to heal their character, gear up and strategize for the next encounter.

It can be tempting as designers to include every awesome idea we generate as we are brainstorming our games. But the increasing layers of rules and mechanics in some games (most notably fantasy and sci-fi games) really starts to rule out character death because Chargen is just so painstakingly long! This phenomenon is called Complexity Creep, and it’s an issue I’ll be dealing with again in the near future. (for a preview, check out these character sheets from OD&D, AD&D2e, and D&D4e and think about which one you’d be least likely to kill as a DM).

Lastly, I believe players avoid killing characters because the game encourages them to become emotionally attached to the character instead of the story. Games can push really important character features at the players like kickers, bangs, destinies, flags, high level play options, godhood, and so on that imply that characters should live long enough to accomplish all these things. If a character has a destiny written on his or her character sheet, it might oblige the other participants to ensure that the player has a shot of making the destiny happen. This might mean slow-rolling encounters, fudging the dice rolls, “nerfing” the bad guys, or whatever else. I mean, who wants to stomp on someone else’s dream, right?

Also, some of these games present players with rather boring options at the beginning of the game but promise much more interesting feats, powers, spells, etc. in later stages of the games. Whether the design uses prerequisites or levels or some other pacing mechanic, players are left wistfully thinking about how cool the game will be “someday.” Thus, they will avoid danger altogether just so they have a chance to get to the good part of the system.


So what can we do about this? If you want character death to be a part of your game, you cannot make the penalty for having a character die be too harsh. Nobody wants to be fiddling with player’s manuals while the rest of the group is having fun. You must also state up-front that death will be part of play.

First, as much as possible, avoid overly detailed and involved character creation systems. If Chargen takes too long, players and GMs will not embrace character death very enthusiastically. Neither will the players. Another option would be to employ a Troupe System during Chargen where the players can create minor characters who can be killed off to increase the tension and drama of the game while preserving the main characters. It can be nice to have backup characters like hirelings or retainers who can step into the void if another character dies. Check out this thread from Story Games to see what I mean.

Second, you as the designer have to communicate very clearly to anyone who reads your rules that the characters stand a good chance of dying each session. That doesn’t mean the character must die, it just means that there is a strong possibility it could happen, and the players should gird themselves for it. You also cannot make promises that the action will get better in the future. Don’t put all the good stuff at level 10 for instance. Don’t design your game so the deep, meaningful part of play can only be established after eight or so sessions. Start off with fun, interesting, and fulfilling characters right off the bat. At the same time, though, relate to the players that they should not be too attached to these characters. Some are going to die. That’s okay; it’s part of the fun.

Third, you can have characters die but not be gone. There’s plenty of work-arounds for that. Resurrection spells with penalties can be given out at any stage in a campaign. Characters’ spirits can mentor another character (a la Obi-wan Kenobi from Star Wars) or haunt another character (a la Six from Battlestar Galactica). They could come back as a zombie, vampire, or other abomination. And I’m sure there are plenty of other cool ideas. Death doesn’t have to be the end, just a transition to a new part of play.



Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Relay the Message: Game Chef 2012


Anyone who reads this blog knows that I've been active at the Forge, Story Games, and in the Game Chef contests at different levels of intensity over the years. Well, the Game Chef contest run by Jonathan Walton and Mike Holmes has been annouced for 2012. It is the last time the contest (which has run since 2002) will be hosted on The Forge.

The Game Chef is an amazing opportunity for first time and veteran RPG designers to stretch their creative muscles and make a game. It forces you to eschew all the non-sense that gets in the way of creativity and write!

So, check out the contest's official forum on The Forge and it's update page on the official Game Chef Site. The contest begins April 7 and runs for 9 days. Good luck to everyone who enters!



Friday, March 30, 2012

Relay the Message: Dungeons and Colonies Kickstarters


There's a couple RPG projects on totally different ends of the RPG spectrum that I'm really excited about. Both have a Kickstarters going, and I just wanted to give them a shout out here. I'm not suggesting that you should go give them your money, I'm just suggesting you should check what they have to say and see if they're interesting to you.

The first is Dog Eat Dog. The name doesn't really imply what the game is about, but I'll fill you in. It's about colonization, and the affect it has on both the colonizer and the native population. It looks really rad and has some unique mechanics I never really considered before. From what I've read so far, I feel that if you liked My Life with Master, there's a chance you'll like this game too.

The second project is the Dwimmermount. If you are into OD&D style games- specifically in this case Labyrinth Lord or the Adventurer Conquerer King System- this project might be right for your campaign. It's a mega dungeon in the old school style of things like The Tomb of Horrors. It needs some help reaching its second bonus goal which is a 13th level. To me, that would be really cool.

I probably need to do an article on Kickstarter here soon. I've never mentioned it before, but I feel these are worthy projects. Again, I'm not suggesting you go donate. I'm just suggesting you check these things out to see if they are interesting to you. From there, you can decide where to put your money. :)



Monday, March 26, 2012

What is the 'Social Contract' ?


This is a short article today because I’m setting up another three or four articles that will reference this one. The Social Contract is a concept not invented by Ron Edwards, but appropriated by him to describe how the players agree to what can and cannot happen in the gaming space. Basically, it is the agreement that everyone participating makes to accept each other and each other’s contributions to the game. This includes everything from what game will be played, whose house will be the setting for play, what optional rules will be allowed, who will GM, who’s bringing snacks, and so on. The Social Contract also includes relationships among the players like who’s in love with whom, who is an old friend of whom, who is related to whom, or who is currently at odds with whom in real life AND in the game’s fiction. All roleplaying and everything that happens within the game’s interface (tabletop, internet connection, email, snail mail, etc.) among the players is contained within the Social Contract.

Short Version:

The Social Contract Includes…

-All Decisions Made by the Players
-All Relationships Among the Players
-All Agreements and Understandings for the Group
-All the Game’s Fiction

(see The Big Model for further reading)



Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Troupe Play: A Lament


For reference, please see my previous laments on Alignment and Spell Components.

There is one aspect of play in a traditional fantasy/sci-fi RPG that I only got to touch on once or twice. It’s called Troupe Play. If you’ve ever played Ars Magica2e or high-level AD&D2e, then you may know what I am talking about. Troupe Play is where each player controls multiple characters of different race, class, motivation, sensibilities, and/or power with some kind of uniting allegiance or purpose. This style of play is quite unique from the usual one player-one character dynamic most RPGs use.

In Ars Magica, especially 1st through 3rd edition, the game encouraged the players to make one main character (a mage) and many supporting characters. Supporting characters were divided into two groups Companions (body guards) and Grogs (servants). I’m simplifying a bit, but the basic idea was each player (including the GM or Story Teller) would have a Mage and a group of supporting minor characters that helped the Magi research, gather resources, defeat enemies, and provide for the Covenant (the organization all the characters belonged to). Some sessions, a player would devote his entire time to playing his Mage. Others, he wouldn’t play his Mage at all. It just depended on what the group decided they needed to accomplish that night.

This method of roleplaying had its advantages in that Magi could actually do the stuff you’d expect wizards to do like researching, casting rituals, making magic items, and so on. These activities take time, so instead of being out for the rest of the session while the player’s Mage does his work, the player could switch to playing another character and help the other Magi in their tasks. This style gave the players a chance to broaden their perspectives and invest themselves in the motivations of the other players’ characters. Players could even rotate into the Story Teller spot. This was very unique at the time it was printed and still remains a scarce trope in contemporary RPGs. Sadly, this style of play has been relegated to the optional rules section in the modern incarnation of Ars Magica.

In AD&D2e, characters- especially martial classes- would get followers starting around level 9. I played a fighter in ADnD2 in college and got him to 17th level. By then, I owned a keep in Battledale in the Forgotten Realms complete with a small contingent of soldiers, pages, squires, and a rookery of gargoyles- all followers gained through the randomness of the follower mechanics. It was amazing to me that the campaign changed from the dungeon-based adventuring we did for the first ten levels to the managing and organizing of a small vassalage in the last seven levels. I had character sheets for most of my important followers and would sometimes play them instead of my main character, or let some of the other player (including the DM) play them if the need arose. You can check out the first page of this thread on RPGnet for some other anecdotes on what playing with followers was like in ADnD2e. (After the first page, though, the thread devolves into the usual sniping that characterizes many RPGnet discussions)

However, much like spell components, the follower mechanics were oft ignored by players and the mechanics did not survive the transition to third and fourth editions.

And I think that’s a real shame for three reasons. First, having to play multiple characters broadens your experience in the game. You get to see the same story from different perspectives, and that informs and improves your play. It kept the action of the game from getting stale. If you got tired of playing your Mage, you could switch to a Companion and go bash things with your sword for a while.

Second, I liked this style of play because it posed a fun challenge for the GM. Switching from an adventuring party-oriented campaign to a defend-the-keep style campaign let you really exercise your GM skills. It can be hard to get excited about starting yet another campaign with fresh new characters that take time to get to know. It can be equally hard to challenge a group of high-level characters drenched in magic items accumulated over fifteen levels worth of hack-and-slash. With a troupe, you can start with characters that are already made and have an established base of operations. GM-burnout is a real thing and players can get tired of playing the same characters too. Troupe play is a way to keep things fresh. It is much easier just to whip out some follower character sheets and have a mini-adventure to rejuvenate everyone’s interest in the original main characters.

Third, Troupe Play allows that players to be invested in something other than their character. They invest themselves, instead, in the organization that unites the characters. So if one character dies, it’s not such a traumatic thing for the player. They just start playing one of the other characters on tap. I’m going to pursue this line of thinking more in some future articles about My Guy Syndrome and Character Death, so I’ll hold off expounding on these ideas for now and just end with this: Troupe Play allows you to have more throw-away characters so that character death can be a part of play without sidelining the player for long periods of time.

With the next incarnation of D&D purportedly having a modular bent, we may see a return to Troupe Play in that game. Also, I think Dungeon World could potentially support it as well. I don’t think that’s where Sage wants to go, but how hard is it to hack a hack? What I would really like to see, though, is a game where Troupe Play isn’t an option, but a focus. There’s a lot of material to mine in Troupe Style. It’s a shame it’s laid dormant all these years.



Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What is the 20:4 Ratio?


It’s pretty rare to get to do something on the day we celebrate Leap Year. I’m somewhat dismayed that we as a human race don’t celebrate this day more. It’s an extra day of life every four years! That’s a big deal to me. So to commemorate this day that comes only once every four years, I’m putting out my March article a day early. Don’t worry, I’ll have an extra article for March too.

I’ve been working on articles concerning some older RPG Theory issues like DFK, TITB4B, Stance Theory, and the different Fortune mechanics. Today, I’m taking on the 20:4 ratio.

The 20:4 ratio is probably an unfair characterization, but it has been and still is used quite often as a term by RPG designers and theorists (such as Chris Chinn) for years now. It goes back to the early days of independent RPG publishing, and honestly, is probably what helped to start it all. Put simply, the 20:4 ratio is having “twenty minutes of fun in four hours of roleplaying.”

If you’ve ever been in a RPG group where what was going on totally disinterested you, players often argued over which rule meant what, the GM used heavy-handed force to keep everyone “on track” and leafing through the monster manual was more entertaining that fighting the monsters themselves, you know what the 20:4 ratio is all about. The 20:4 is about slogging through all the “necessary” parts of the game like buying supplies, eating at the local tavern, traveling through the forest, getting harassed by the city guards, organizing a watch through the night, and so on in order to get to the parts of play the players are actually interested in exploring. Groups spend all this time getting to where they want to go and once they get there, the engagement with that aspect of play is so fleeting that it hardly seems satisfying. Hence, 20 minutes of real fun in 4 hours of dithering play.

So what causes the 20:4 ratio?

Well, there can be several causes. One, you could have a GM who is domineering and plays a sort of “my way or the highway” style. That’s not really a game-related problem; that’s just a human interaction problem. The players can either put up with it and be bored; talk with the GM about the problem and work it out; or just not play with him anymore. That’s easy to fix. The problem could also be that the person who is only having twenty minutes of fun in four hours of play is pursuing a different creative agenda than the rest of the group. This happens, and it’s usually just a miscommunication of expectations. The bored player can stick it out, change his style of play, or find a different group. Again, an easy fix.

But the most common cause I’ve found for the 20:4 ratio is poorly written game texts. Why do players spend hours figuring out how many iron rations they’re going to need, how much those rations weigh, how to keep the rations dry, and so on? It’s because the rules tell the players to do that! Why does the GM have to roll random encounter dice for every day traveled and night spent on the trail? Because the rules say so! Do those these mechanics have anything to do with what the players find fun and engaging? Almost certainly not, but they do those things anyway ‘cause it’s in the rules!

All that stuff may not be important to the players in any way. Instead, these non-essential mechanics keep them from enjoying what they are actually at the table to do. In my mind, this is a serious design problem; however, I believe it can be fixed with better design and better writing.

The biggest cause of this messing around with unimportant or uninteresting stuff is because designers include mechanics in their games out of tradition or fear rather than necessity. The more layers you add to your game’s mechanics and systems, the more durdling around your players are going to do rather than addressing what is important to them.

When you are designing, ask yourself some important questions. Does your game really need a complex combat system? How many of the character elements (stats, passions, gear, heritage, talents, relationships, etc.) are designed to focus on what the game is about and how many are designed to cover corner cases and contingencies? Is there anything in your text that could be left up to player discretion rather than use a table or calculation?

Focusing your design on what is really important, what you really want play to actually be about, is the best way to avoid the 20:4 problem. Toss out anything that is not reinforcing the object of play and the themes you want to communicate. Food, gear, travel-time, damage tables, skill lists, and all things of that sort are only important if they are part of what makes play fun. A game about traveling nomads in a post-apocalyptic world where conflicts over food and materials are common is the right place for rules involving hunger, starvation, encumbrance, exhaustion, and so on. A sci-fi game about starfighter pilots probably is not.

So, in the end, you need to make sure your rules are tightly focused on what the game is about, what the characters should be doing, and how you want the players to actually play.

A Separate Issue:

There is a separate yet somewhat related issue I want to address while I’m on this topic. I was hanging out at my local game store the other night. I was talking to some guys about what RPGs they play, and one said, “There’s times we never even touch the dice! Those are some of the best sessions we have.” And he was quite proud of this fact.

I thought, “What a horrible thing.” I didn’t say anything, of course, but the reason I thought it was so terrible was because it was obvious to me that the game was not delivering the kind of play these guys wanted. Yet they kept on using the game for whatever reason. This is another type of 20:4 ratio. If you’re using a game’s rules for only twenty minutes in a four hour session, then you probably need to find a new game. It’s clear that the system you’re using isn’t supporting the players’ aims and goals. Why stick with something if you never use it?

This has applications to design. If, during playtesting, the players only reference your rules on the rare occasion, they are probably relying more on their prior knowledge of roleplaying rather than on the new content you are presenting. When this happens, you need to inquire why they aren’t utilizing the rules more or, at the very least, why it seems that way. What is it about your design that they find unnecessary for most of what they are trying to do? Chances are you have left out some critical procedures or guidance.

This problem can be hard to notice as a designer ESPECIALLY when the players are having fun. But it’s not something you want to ignore. If players don’t need your rules for their enjoyment, why would they bother buying your game? It’s something to keep in mind, even for minimalist designs.



Thursday, February 02, 2012

D&D Spell Components: A Lament


A few months ago I wrote a lament about DnD Alignments. I’m going to turn this into a mini-series for Socratic Design: lamenting design aspects of games I grew up with that I wish were explored and perfected by indie games. In light of the news about DnD 5e, I think this series is quite relevant. Today, I’m going to talk about Spell Components.

Specifically, I’m referring to material components. The verbal and somatic were just kind of “meh” to me, but material components piqued my interest. As I stated last time, I came late to AD&D2e, and my group used books from OD&D to AD&D1 to AD&D2 and tried to reconcile them all somehow. As I poured over these manuals trying to learn the system, spell components jumped out at me. I saw them as a flavorful (colorful) addition to spell casting and a way to balance out wizards. In Rolemaster (my first RPG), Mages are really powerful once they get to 6th or 8th level. Icebolt was a brutal spell.

When I actually got to play DnD for the first time, spell components were entirely ignored by the group. The wizard never had to buy any, we never had to quest for any, and even when we would be captured and restrained, he could cast his spells. It was disappointing. When I switched colleges my sophomore and junior years, I found other DnD play groups. None of them used spell components either. Once I started going to conventions like Origins and GenCon, I found that most players around the country routinely ignored the spell component requirement. “Why was it in there then?” I wondered. It’s probably a better question than I thought at the time.

Anyway, I believe that material components for spells is a game mechanic full of potential. I’ve written before on how I think Magic could be used in RPGs. I’m going to expand on those ideas a bit here. In that older article I suggested that Magic could be used to accomplish one of three goals. I’m going to delve into Answer 3C: “Magic is used as Color to enhance the description of the Setting.”

I’ve written before that mechanics should work in a way that reinforces what the game is about (i.e. its thematic elements). For me, material spell components can accomplish this very well. Think about the scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Lord Voldemort is restored. The spell requires a ritual and physical components to do something. Each of those components is significant in a thematic and resonate way. It’s more than just pixie dust you bought at the local general store while on your adventure. Those items are meaningful to the characters, the story, and the setting. They enhance the importance of the spell-casting and required work and sacrifice for the characters to attain.

Take also how magic in Middle-earth seems to require physical objects to work. Gandalf turns pinecones into fireballs in the Hobbit. Galadriel can see the future in her water basin in The Lord of the Rings. All this stuff reinforces that the characters have a deep connection to the world and that the mundane can be special.

A roleplaying game that took advantage of spell components (and made them a critical function of actual play) wouldn’t have to worry about balancing powerful spells mechanically. Those spells could just require rare components that must be quested. You can’t just go to Ignacio’s Curio Shop in Freeport and buy what you need. Spell power could also scale up if the mage used rarer, purer, or more personal items as components. It would also enhance the system for creating magical items since that subsystem could share mechanics with the spell casting subsystem.

I never got to play in a game where spell components meant anything to the players on any level: not in theme, not in challenge, not in exploration, not in any way, shape, or form. I think that’s a shame. I feel games that support all three creative agendas could easily incorporate material components into their mechanics and improve both the color and effect of their system. I hope someday somebody does, ‘cause I’d be the first to line up to buy it.



Friday, January 13, 2012

Be Part of the Solution


In case you've missed it, Wizards is coming out with a 5th Edition for DnD and YOU can be part of it. I imagine it'll run mostly through brick and mortar stores and the DnD Encounters thing. So if you're interested in being a part of revising the oldest RPG out there (and they're serious about asking for fan help, guys), sign up!



Thursday, January 05, 2012

How Do I get Started?


Since it’s the beginning of the year, I figure a good thing to write about would be the beginning of the process. People come to RPG design at many different stages. There’s the wide-eyed youth who’s played one game all his life and is ready to make a better version of it. There’s the setting enthusiast who’s worked on a fictional map/culture/world for years, hammering away at people, places, and things that stoke his or her imagination. There’s the veteran gamer who’s played dozens of games and, unsatisfied, is taking to the task of creating his own. And finally, there’s the veteran designer who’s created and perhaps published several games in the past and is putting his nose to the grindstone yet again. Maybe you fall into one of these categories, or perhaps you’re a different breed. In any case, the way I’m going to suggest you begin your design applies to all.

IMHO, the best way to begin to design a roleplaying game is to envision what you want to happen around the game table (or computer interface). This goes back, in some degree, to the Big Three: What do you want your game to be about? What do you want the players to do? What do you want the characters to do?

I tend to start my designs with what the game will be about. Sometimes, this is short and simple, “I want a game about courtroom drama.” Other times, it can take me a while to really settle on what I would like to design, “Do I want a gritty post-apocalyptic world or a new world, devoid of civilization ready to be settled?” I think answering the question of what your game will be about is the most fundamental question of all RPG design.

Next, I think about what I want the players to do. Do I want them to go balls-out, trying to win every challenge they face? Do I want them to explore the world I have created? Do I want them to examine a pressing social issue or question? Roleplaying games are about real people interacting in ways they would not ordinarily interact, so getting a firm grasp on what you want them to do is highly important.

Thus, I begin with brainstorming. I often make little notes in a notebook or Word document as I think up what I want the players to be doing. Here is an example of a game I toyed with called “Judge and Jury.”

Judge and Jury
-Players play a jury.
---GM is the judge and bailiff
---Based on the themes of 12 angry men
------ Clues and facts from case are made up on the fly
---------- GM just referees
-------------- Players given story tokens to buy clues and facts
----------------- Anyone can override for 2 tokens
---Players win if votes = all guilty or all not guilty
------Players fail if jury is hung
---------- Order goes according to jury # (draw numbers)
---------------- One player acts as Foreman
---------------- Maybe he plays judge and bailiff too
------------------- Perhaps everyone does

As you can see, my quick brainstorming took me in several directions. I didn’t need to make any final decisions at this point. I just needed to get ideas down on paper.

After the brainstorming, it’s time to reflect and revise. Looking back, I could have decided to make the game with a GM or without a GM. I could adjust the override costs, raise/lower/eliminate the clues/facts cost, or adjust who gets to play the Judge, Bailiff, or other non-jury characters. These are the first real decisions I will have to make concerning the game’s System.

After that, I might begin to brainstorm about the game’s characters, setting, mechanics, or endgame, often in that order. I would just follow the same procedures I did when brainstorming for the players. For instance, I might think about what it means to be the Foreman, the Judge, or the Bailiff etc. I might think about how characters could form alliances or rivalries during play. The object, at this stage, is just to get your ideas on paper. The revision and refinement come once you have had a chance to reflect.

If you are just starting your game, try simple brainstorming first. Start with what your game is about, then proceed to what the players do, then think about what the characters will do. Don’t worry about making hard decisions right away like “what does it mean to lose” or “how much currency should players start with?” Just jot down your thoughts in stream of consciousness and let your imagination take you where it wants to go.