Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Socratic Design Anthology #3


For those of you new to Socratic Design, every now and then I compile the articles I’ve written that I believe have the most bearing on RPG design. These aren’t all the articles I’ve written recently; just the ones I feel are most relevant to the mission of this site. They also do not appear in the order that I have written them. Instead I arrange them in the order I feel they will have the greatest affect and make the most sense. I have already done two anthologies, and if you are new here I recommend reading the articles in the order I have written them. This blog is an evolution of thought. It is not a Bible or infallible step-by-step guide to designing games. What I said when starting out may change as my understanding of game design also changes. But it is important to see where those initial ideas started and how my current line of thinking evolved. Below are the links to the first two Anthologies and below them are the articles of Anthology Number Thee.

Socratic Design Anthology #1
Socratic Design Anthology #2

Here are the articles for Socratic Design Anthology #3:

What is Strength of Emphasis?
When is a Concept Ready to be a Draft?
What is System?
What is Setting? part 1
What is Setting? part 2
What is Setting? part 3
What is Setting? part 4
What is a GM?
Is Min-Maxing Bad?



PS: Please report any links that aren't working. I'd appreciate it.

Monday, December 18, 2006

What is Setting? part 4


I believe this will be the final installment of this series for the time being. For this article, I used the Setting Design Jumpstart to go back and redesign the Awesom-o-fied setting from the origonal Story Games thread HERE that started this series. You are welcome to download the setting and use it as you please for Actual Play. I might suggest the Shadows of Yesterday as a good system to use with it.

Here is the file: Blasted Sands

It's a RTF document. Let me know if you can't download it.

Upon reflection, the Jumpstart seems to do what I want it to for now. The one thing I fear is that it may encourage people to make "DnD-like" Settings. However, that is only one use for the Jumpstart. If you choose to use this design tool, open up your mind to other possiblities. Broaden your own definitions of what things like Geography, History, Authority, and Inhabitants might mean. There are lots more possiblities out there than what has been traditionally held up as a RPG Setting. And most of all, keep in mind that a good Setting gives the players and GMs tools to use during Actual Play.



Friday, December 08, 2006

What is Setting? part 3


Alright! We’re on to part three of my examination of Setting (here are One and Two). In this article I am mainly talking to RPG designers, however I can see how players who create Setting during play could also benefit from what is below. As always, I am very open to feedback and constructive criticism. What follows is what I call a “Setting Design Jumpstart”

The Setting Design Jumpstart is not the be-all end-all of Setting design. Far from it. It is just a first step (among many others) in creating a Setting for your game. What follows below is the list of Setting Aspects from my two previous articles along with guiding questions that support the creation of each in your game. Each aspect has 3-5 questions listed. These questions get you **started** on creating your Setting. They don’t get you to the finished product. That takes a whole lot of work and determination on your own.

The Setting Design Jumpstart:

Lesser Aspects:

1. What were the key watershed events in the past of your Setting’s fictional history?
2. Why were they significant?
3. How do theses past events directly affect the Present of your Setting and its people? How do they affect the Future?

1. What are the significant land features or man-made structures of your Setting?
2. How do or how can these features be used by the players during the game to help them play?
3. How do these structures or features affect the Inhabitants and Dynamic Forces of your Setting?

1. What/Where are the seats of power in your Setting?
2. How is that power used, delegated, and organized by the people of your Setting?
3. How does authority (those with power) affect the average person?
4. What threats exist to that authority?

-Social Situation
1. What is the plight of the common Inhabitant in your Setting?
2. How do those with Authority relate to those without it?
3. What are the significant needs and dangers the Inhabitants face?
4. Is society trying to achieve a particular goal? If so, what is it?
5. How can players and their characters use and be affected by the Social Situation during play?

1. Do the Inhabitants have a creation belief? If so, what is it? If not, why not?
2. To what extent are Faith or Belief in the supernatural a part of the average life in your Setting? What about the PCs’ lives?
3. How active are Supernatural Forces or divine powers in your Setting?
4. How have myth and religion affected History?

1. Describe the technological advancement society has made in your Setting?
2. Is there magic/psionics/super powers in your Setting? If so, are they a tool to be used, a force to be feared, or something else entirely?
3. How have technology and mystical powers affected History?
4. How do they affect daily life for a common person in your Setting?

1. What parts of your Setting might be confusing or too abstract for a reader?
2. What types of graphic organizers (maps, charts, cards, graphs, illustrations, diagrams, etc) can you add to help give the reader/player a better understanding of the Setting you created?
3. Where can the items mentioned above be used to add color, interest, and emphasis in your Setting?

Greater Aspects:

1. What are the main groups of peoples (or other living things) exist in your Setting (including the supernatural/divine)?
2. How do all these different groups interact with each other?
3. How did those groups get to be the way they are in your Setting?
4. What makes each group special or interesting?
5. What sorts of beliefs, customs, resources, and powers should the players know about with respect to each group? Which parts about their culture can you leave out?

-Where the PCs Fit In
1. Are the PCs part of any group covered in the Inhabitants Aspect? Is so, which ones? Ifnot, why?
2. How do people outside the PC’s group view people like the PCs? How do people in the PC’s group view themselves?
3. What have people like the PC’s achieved in the past? What might they achieve in the future?
4. How do the PCs relate to the Social Situation?

-Dynamic Forces
1. From all the other Aspects of Setting, what/which might directly oppose the PCs? Which might directly aid them?
2. From all the other Aspects of Setting, what/which might indirectly oppose the PCs? Which might indirectly aid them?
3. How do the common people (or other) of your Setting view these Dynamic Forces?
4. How have these Dynamic Forces affected History (or other Aspects)?
5. What tools do you give the PCs to help them use these Dynamic Forces during play?

1. What can the PCs permanently change in your Setting? Why?
2. What can they not permanently change in your Setting? Why?
3. Is there something you want them to focus on changing? What and why?
4. How will any change made by the PCs affect the Setting as a whole?

Hurray, you made it to the end. Now before moving on to use this, remember what I said in Part 2. Sometimes, various Aspects of Setting will be totally irrelevant to your game. That’s fine. Whole sections of this article may be totally useful to your current project. It’s okay to cross them out or come back to them later once you’ve playtested a little more. What I’ve suggested is a thorough design of Setting. Your goal for your game may be to not be so thorough. This is only one way of creating a Setting. There many others, some even used by professional authors. If the Setting Design Jumpstart is not for you, I encourage you to research others until you do find one that suits your style and needs.



Friday, December 01, 2006

What is Setting? part 2


This is the second part of a running series on Setting. If you have not read Part One, it might be a good idea to go back and do that.

Okay, since my last post on Setting I have learned a few things. First, I learned (or really, re-learned) that each Aspect has two dials (say from 1 to 10). When the first dial (call it Strength of Emphasis) dial is turned to zero, it means that the Aspect in question is probably not mentioned in the game text. When turned to 10, it receives a great deal of text devoted to it. If the second dial, call it Strength of Relevance, is turned to zero, that means that Aspect is just not critical to playing the game. If it is turned up to 10, then that Aspect is the focus of play. And of course, there is all sorts of settings in between.

The second thing I learned was that I had left out a couple Aspects that could be potentially important. The first covers things like technology, infrastructure, and magic/psionics in a setting. I have decided to call that Aspect category “Resources.” The second Aspect I feel I left out was aids to players and GM who are using a Setting. Things like maps, illustrations, graphics, hints, and so on would fall into the Enhancement category. I’ll elaborate on these more later in this article. But I anticipate more adding and combining these aspects as we continue on. So, provisionally, here is the list of Setting Aspects:

Setting Aspect List:

(Lesser Aspects)
-Authority (as in Government/Rulers/etc.)
-Social Situation

(Greater Aspects)
-Where the PCs Fit In
-Dynamic Forces
-The Mutables

With today’s article, I only want to explain how I define each aspect. You may use a different definition, and that’s fine. Please share it! I do not claim to be any expert on this. At the end of this article, I plan on talking about Short Cuts designers can use to get around using these Aspects the way I describe.

Lesser Aspects:

History: History, simply, is the accurate or inaccurate account of major events in a world’s, city’s, local’s past and potentially future. I say both accurate and inaccurate because misinformation is a tool designers can use to create mystery in their Setting. For instance, if the official history of Terra in 2259 is that humans first made contact with aliens in 2150 but in truth, the governments were in contact with them much earlier, this would be an instance of inaccurate History and a potential point of exploration for the characters. If the elves claim they once ruled the world, but in truth it was the orcs, then the origin of the false belief and its ramification are up for grabs as campaign hooks. I also suggest that History can include the future. I think Hero Wars is an excellent example. The world is going to end in the Hero Wars. That much is certain. But what do you do to preserve what you have for now? Another potential example of a History including the future could be a game based on Norse mythology that made a big deal about Ragnarok.

Geography: Geography is the physical make up of the world/city/local. If it is a city, then Geography is buildings, streets, sewers, alleys, and so forth. If it is a planet, then Geography include mountains, oceans, rivers, cities, swamps, etc. I’m going to call Geography different from the *map* because a map is a tool that can be used by the players. Geography can be described with a map or without a map. The two are not dependant upon each other.

Authority: Authority in a Setting does not refer to who gets the right to say what about what among the participants. For this Aspect, I am referring to governmental authority. What person or groups are in charge of the laws, enforcement of the laws, and keeping the peace? This also covers their motivation for making and keeping these laws as it might affect the player-characters. Authority can include anything from an intricately detailed account of elections, voting procedures, representations, and judicial recourse. Or it could be something as simple as, “There’s a king!”

Social Situation: Social Situation can be called “The daily living conditions of the people.” This may include impending social upheaval such as a war, plague, invasion, election, etc. It may include economic status of the world/city/local or the interpersonal relationships impacting that local. The Social Situation is an intersection of the characters in the game (PC and NPC) and “What’s happening right now?”

Mythology/Religion: In some games, the way the world was created, the god or gods of the heavens, the role of faith and belief is just not important. In other games, the role of religion is central to the theme of play. Myth and religion can cover everything from the cosmology of the world to the spirituality of the world to the great heroic legends of yore. It almost always involves the supernatural, and its role in affecting the natural world. It is important to focus on how the myths and religions of a Setting impact the common person. How does it affect what they do, how they react, and how they think the world works?

Resources: For the purposes for this article series, “resources” refers to the advancements and discoveries that the world has made so far. This includes things like technology, architecture, science, magic, psionics, etc. For some games, this is totally a moot point (Cutthroat for example) for others it is central to the game’s Setting (Ars Magica for example). I’m open to a different name for this component. I don’t feel Resources fits it very well.

Enhancements: Enhancements are not really part of the Setting per se, but they may be part of the text. Enhancements include things like maps, character sketches, symbols, handouts, cards, graphs, and tables that help add detail and imagery to the other aspects of Setting. Think of Enhancements as the seasoning for Setting, but not the meal itself. Whatever you, as the designer, can add in a physical way to the game’s text to improve your communication to the reader about various aspects of the Setting can be considered an Enhancement.

Greater Aspects:

Inhabitants: These are the people, creatures, and plants that dwell in your Setting. This component is necessary in every sense. However, that doesn’t mean it is the most important aspect of a Setting. Think of the Inhabitants as the pool from which player-character can be drawn. Are there heroes? Villains? Various species? Mutants? The Inhabitants aspect covers not only what lives but also where it all lives. Are certain Inhabitants limited to one geographical area? Why? All of this goes together to make up the Inhabitants of a world/city/local.

Where the PCs Fit In: Okay, you have who and what lives in your Setting all sorted out. Great. Now how do the PCs fit into all of this? What is their role in society and how does society look at them? The PCs are special…in some way, shape or form. Whatever makes them special gives them a unique place in the world. This isn’t always a good thing. Their uniqueness may make them outcasts. It could be harmful to those around them. Or conversely, it could turn them into idols. Their “something special” makes them the wonder and envy of the world. Or anything in between. Part of deciding a Setting is deciding how the PCs fit into everything. They aren’t just shoehorned in at the last minute or glued to the side somehow. A good Setting will have their “specialness” integrated right into this aspect and all the others as well.

Dynamic Forces: Okay, you got who lives in Setting and what makes those PCs so darn special, now what about conflict? Oh yeah, every game needs conflict. Dynamic Forces are elements in the Setting that directly or indirectly oppose the player-characters. Dynamic forces could be anything from an army, to an invasion fleet, to a dragon, to orcs, to secret police, etc. It could also be things like inclement weather, a plague, a natural disaster, radiation, and so on. Dynamic Forces includes both Inhabitants that can oppose the characters and Environments that can oppose the characters. Some games will define these explicitly (Middle-earth Roleplaying for example) and some won’t (Prime Time Adventures).

The Mutables: Okay, Mutables are aspects of your Setting that the player-characters (and players) can change. Can they overthrow Sauron in Middle-earth or is he untouchable? Can they bring water to Arrakis or does it have to stay a desert? Stating what is mutable and what isn’t is often tacit. That means, a designer doesn’t come right out and say, “Nope, the Dark Lord is off limits!” It requires more finesse than that. First look at the Dynamic Forces. If they are world-spanning mega coalitions, then it’s probably not something the PCs can change. If, however, it is something local (say a band of thieves outside a village) then it’s quite probable the PCs can change it. It is good to have both mutable and non-mutable things in a Setting. The Mutables give PCs directions to go. The Immutables give them helpful constraints that prevent the game from spinning out of control.

Okay, this has gotten pretty long, but there is one more thing I want to talk about: Shortcuts. There are a lot of ways to get around having to address each one of these aspects in your game. One is to have your game set in a real-world time and location. For instance: “New York City, 2007” or “London in the 1870’s.” That right there will knock out most of the aspects of setting for you. Another way some people do it is to (legally) use some other intellectual property or license. Middle-earth, Star Wars, Sherlock Holmes, Lovecraft, Dragonball, etc. all draw on prior knowledge for a Setting. If you can draw on that prior knowledge, then creating a Setting is simplified. Not everyone needs to do it that way, but people can.

Well, I think that’s enough for now. It’s a lot to absorb all at once. Thanks for reading!!!



Monday, November 13, 2006

What is Setting? part 1


This was inspired by a great thread on revising the Dark Sun Setting.

Today I’m going to start a multi-part series of articles on Setting. I don’t know how many parts it will have, but I fully expect by the end of it to have my views on Setting change significantly, and at the same time I expect my views to change those of others’. But to make sure this happens without a lot of arguing and sniping, I’m going to set some ground rules. I want to invite feedback and debate, but I don’t want it to get out of hand. First, as always I expect responses to be meted out with common sense and common courtesy. Debate and learning break down in a hostile environment. So no attacking, and back up your statements with actual play or actual designs. Second, I won’t go back and change anything in the original articles. Don’t expect me to. I will, however, post a revised article sometime distant and down the road or make a note in the next article. Third, I am very open to your ideas. I hope you will be open to mine and others’. Fourth, expect me to play the Devil’s advocate and challenge you to prove anything you assert. I want to agree with you, but I won’t until I feel completely convinced. Fifth, I may add more ground rules at any time.

Alright, enough of that crap. Let me really begin by saying first that I’m not a big fan of Setting Exploration, especially if I already know a lot about the Setting. However, I am VERY interested in Setting as one of the major elements of an RPG. The sad thing is though, that the methods and tools for Setting Design have (IMHO) lagged waaaaay behind those for System and Character design. So what I want to do with this series of articles is create some tools for Setting-generation for myself and anyone who finds this blog useful.

The Provisional Glossary defines setting as: “Elements described about a fictitious game world including period, locations, cultures, historical events, and characters, usually at a large scale relative to the presence of the player-characters. A Component of Exploration.” That’s helpful to some degree. It gives us a starting point for components of a Setting and its purpose in-game. One thing it doesn’t mention, that I feel is important, is that every game has a Setting. Even so called setting-agnostic games like GURPS, Universalis, or Rolemaster have Settings. Sometimes those settings are created by the players in-game (Universalis) or sometimes those settings are implicit based on genre tropes like elves, swords, and magic (Rolemaster). But to really get any use out of a definition of Setting, we must understand what makes up Setting.

At the moment, I have identified nine aspects of Setting. They are:

-Authority (as in Government/Rulers/etc.)
-Social Situation
-Where the PCs Fit In
-Dynamic Forces
-The Mutables

ALL of these are important to a Setting, but not all of them are always present. The first five aspects I call Lesser Aspects. Not because they are unimportant (remember I said all aspects have importance) but because if they are absent, the game can still be quite functional. If you never read the reams of history that comes with Forgotten Realms, you could still quite easily play in the setting. Not knowing the exact geography of New York City does not necessarily stop you from playing Vampire in that local. Knowing what form of government Ptolus has will probably not be essential to a dungeon crawl in that city. Skipping reading the mythology or religion section of Middle-earth (while it is really cool) doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy playing in that setting. These five are important but are not necessary for a design.

The bottom four aspects I call Greater Aspects of Setting. Not because they are more important than the others, but because they are requisites for a Setting to be functional. A Setting must have inhabitants (Characters) in order for it to be useful in an RPG. Who lives in the world? What’s the diversity like? Knowing where the PCs fit in is vital. What is their place in the world? How does the world see them? Dynamic Forces are forces that directly impact the characters. It can be anything from orcs to secret police to a terrorist organization. Where does the conflict in the Setting come from? What do the players play against? Finally, the mutables. These are things the PCs can change in the world. What can the player-characters impact? How do their actions matter in the context of the Setting?

In the next part of this series, I’ll go into greater detail for each aspect. This article is merely to get my ideas down and get some feedback. Hopefully, by the end of this I’ll have something akin to the Power 19 for Setting Design.



Saturday, October 21, 2006

It Lives!!!!!!!!!


A couple of landmarks here. First, this is my 50th post with Socratic Design. I'm proud to have it announce the following: The new Divine Legacy website is up:

This is one of several steps that bring my games closer to productions. I'll keep udates going here as things get closer to the release. Feedback is welcome! :)



Monday, October 16, 2006

What is Strength of Emphasis?


At the moment, I’m in the midst of finishing up the final layout retouches on one RPG and starting to design a new one. One thing I’m finding as I do both is that I want to draw more of the reader’s attention to some aspects of the game and less of it to others. I believe that every word in a game’s text should be important. If it is not important, why is it in there? Fluff and Filler text can be spotted a mile away by experienced roleplayers, and it serves only to confuse new ones. If I find a piece of text that is unimportant to how the game should be played, I should just take it out.

That’s a piece of good advice I got from another game designer a while back. But I’ve also come to realize that while yes, everything in a game’s text should be important to the game, there are different levels of importance.

Take combat and magic, for instance, in DnD- any edition. Look at how much of the PHB those two things take up! It’s close to two-thirds of the book when you include weapon lists and spells. Those two things are vital to play in DnD and therefore are strongly emphasized in the text.

Look at Town Creation in DitV. It’s a big deal. The author even says so. It has a lot of description, and if you look at the game’s website you will find sample towns available. Town Creation receives a great deal of “strength of emphasis” from its creator because it is so important to play.

But should the important stuff always be so strongly emphasized? The answer is no.

One of my favorite examples of a game that purposely did not strongly emphasize its key feature is (was) The Riddle of Steel by Jake Norwood. (Jake, if you read this say hi. It’s been a while) The key feature, IMO, to TRoS is a character’s Spiritual Attribute. But instead of going on page after page about it, it’s just thrown in with all the other character creation items. On the other hand, the book has all kinds of stuff about combat. It probably has the most realistic combat system ever implemented in an RPG. And Jake used that as a major selling point. However, talk to anyone who’s ever played the game, really played it, for an extended period of time. See which of the two they though was more important to play. The importance of Spiritual Attributes is to be discovered during play, not hammered home in the initial reading.

I have run into this sort of thing with one of my own games I am designing. It has a “Walk Away” mechanic. The game is filled with violence, tough choices, and sacrifice. That’s the point of it. But I wanted to offer the ultimate tough choice to the players: giving up. Now it’s not something I want them to choose often, but I do want it to be there. So while other game features get bold print, examples, and lots of description, the Walk Away mechanic does not. Perhaps it will only get a couple lines. But it is something I want them to discover later in play, just not necessarily in the first reading.

So what are some ways to show strength of emphasis? Below are some suggestions:

-Layout Features
-The Blurb

What can a heavy strength of emphasis accomplish for a game? It can draw attention to a mechanic. It can encourage the use of a portion of the text during play. And it will help discourage indifference towards that mechanic/rule/text. Basically, strong emphasis can alert a reader to something’s prominence in the game. What is strongly emphasized in the text will likely be strongly emphasized in play.

What can a light strength of emphasis accomplish for a game? It can hide surprises that come up in play. It can make the use of a particular rule or mechanic more rare. It can present options to players without making them a requirement. Finally, it can be used as contrast to help emphasize the portions of the text that are important.

At lot of this is self-evident, I realize, but this is a topic that was pertinent to what I am doing with my games. Both strong and weak emphasis are necessary to a game’s text. Used appropriately, they can greatly enhance the depth of understanding and play of a game. Used wrongly, and a game could end up an incoherent mess. It’s somewhat obvious, I know, but that does not make it any less important to design.



Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What's the Worst Part of Moving?


For various reasons, none of which I am happy about, my wife and I have moved to a new city. It is much clearner and nicer than our old one and I know we will be much happier here. However, it's a real pain. I hit a mailbox with the UHaul. Our cat got lost outside during a rainstorm. Our landlords are never around so we can't even sign the lease yet. And we have 87 empty cardboard boxes to deal with now (no exageration). But you know what? None of that is what's bothering me. What's really bothering me is our lack of Internet access right now.

You see, in our new town Cable TV/Internet is run by the city as a utility. None of the major companies (Comcast, Insight, Time Warner) are allowed to compete. So when you move in, the city government is in charge of hooking you up. As with anything the government is in charge of, it's never done right, never done on time, and not nearly as effective as it should be. So, I'm at work on my Fall Break (I'm a teacher) using the Internet to catch up on online stuff and enter grades into the school's network. It's lame, but I got no choice. Worse, it's delaying the release of Cutthroat. It will take at least 10 more days for them to get around to hooking us up. You know, if the paperwork isn't lost or a committee doesn't have to vote on it or something else governmentalish.

Whatever. Anyway, I hope you are enjoying the changing of the seasons. Nature is SO beautiful this time of year. You should get out and enjoy the fresh air in a park or nature preserve or something. October is my favorite month.



Thursday, September 28, 2006

Is Min-Maxing Bad?


For a while now, there’s been talk goin’ round that Min-Maxing isn’t a bad thing; that players are just choosing the optimal strategy and finding a niche for their characters. Those that say this do have a point. You can’t hardly blame a person for wanting their character to rock! They’re just doing what the rules allow. However, the full-on supporters of Min-Maxing might have a narrow point of view. In truth, I see three legitimate PoV’s on this: Min-Maxing isn’t bad, Min-Maxing might be bad, and Min-Maxing is bad. I’ll explain.

Let’s take “it isn’t bad” first. Min-Maxing is a strategy. Period. In fact, I’d say it’s a very obvious and natural strategy. Minimizing resources allocated to character components (skills, stats, advantages, whatever) that will seldom see use and/or character components that have drawbacks or flaws of some kind is sensible. Likewise, maximizing resources allocated to components that will see a great deal of use and/or components that provide advantages and bonuses is very logical. It’s almost a kind of “Duh!” moment, if you will. Whether it is during character creation (Chargen) or advancement, Min-Maxing is indeed a legitimate and probably beneficial strategy. Thankfully, those that decry it as a bad way to play are dwindling, however they are not gone completely. Which brings me to why Min-Maxing might be bad.

There are people and play groups that feel that Min-Maxing is bad play or that it’s not very sporting. They feel that the strategy undermines both the spirit of the game and the spirit of the group. It is in this circumstance that Min-Maxing might be bad. More important than good strategy is the Social Contract a group has set up (consciously or unconsciously). If Min-Maxing violates that contract, then if becomes bad play.

So what does one do in this situation? As I see it, there are three options. First, is to open a dialogue and work out a mutual compromise everyone can agree to. Come up with a solution that makes the entire group comfortable, so play and enjoyment can resume. Second, is to conform to the group’s Social Contract. Sometimes one has to sacrifice one’s own preferred style of play for the good of the group and the opportunity for having fun. Finally, one can simply leave the group. If a compromise cannot be found and there is no willingness to conform to each other’s style in either party, then perhaps it is a good time to bid farewell and find a group that better matches that style. Staying in a contentious situation ruins everyone’s fun. Each person will have to decide on their own.

Now for an instance where Min-Maxing is bad (IMHO). I submit that any game where Min-Maxing is the dominant strategy either during Chargen or Character Advancement, that game needs revision. Min-Maxing is one legitimate strategy in play, not the only legitimate strategy. If a design funnels characters into tight Min-Maxed boxes, then I believe the designer has come up short. He has left open a lot of room where he can design far more interesting strategies in his game. Especially if a game focuses on strategic use of character components, Min-Maxing as the dominate strategy is horrible. That’s not really strategic at all. It’s just following the only real path presented by the rules. Others may disagree, that’s fine. But I honestly don’t believe those kinds of game have the potential to produce as much fun as games with multiple and varied strategies. There’s a lot more out there than Min-Maxing.

So to sum up, Min-Maxing is a legitimate strategy. However, players should be mindful of the Social Contract of their group and designers should be mindful of incorporating other strategies in their games. Just because it is legitimate, doesn’t automatically make it good.



Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Design Journal: Saviours


As mentioned back HERE, I am working on a new RPG for my quarterly release called Saviours. I’ve written of Big Three on them and added in answers that respond to two questions raised by Ron and Vincent in THESE videos.

What this Game is About:

Saviours is about superheroes with super flaws. It’s about being powerful and being tragic. Though you save the populous of Ultraopolis time after time, they will turn on you in a second. Though you defeat your nemesis time and time again, there’s always another to take his place. You are powerful, no doubt. You have saved thousands, for sure. But the constant demands of the desperate citizens and the pressures from your enemies lean hard on your back and the temptation to turn against those who support you can look so gleaming at times. Society is doomed anyway, why hold on?

What the Characters Do:

Player-characters in Saviours are divided into two types: Heroes and Sidekicks. Heroes are faced with three main situations: Fight a Nemesis, Rescue your Beloved, or Avert a Disaster. Each of these carries potential benefits or costs to resolve. While doing nothing will certainly earn you the ire of your fans and your colleagues, doing something thrusts the temptation to abuse the great power bestowed upon the PCs. The Heroes must constantly balance gaining power with keeping control of themselves. Sidekicks are helpers to their mentor. They use their powers to augment that of the Hero’s. However, they are often the first to suffer the brunt of the Hero’s frustration and are sometimes forced to sacrifice themselves to save their leader.

What the Players Do:

Players in this game are charged with creating a Crises, how much help they will ask for while facing those Crises, and how much help they will give. They will have to closely manage the resources of their character(s) in order to defeat the obstacles that lay before them and to be sure none of them betray the Organization.

The Game Master in Saviours will provide the opposition to the players. He’ll take on the roles of the Nemeses, Henchmen, and Disasters the characters will fight. He will also provide Temptations for the characters to stumble and Hazards that the characters will have to overcome. His job will be multi-faceted as each player will have his own character with perhaps a sidekick and then choose which crisis to take on. It’s a lot to keep track of, but very rewarding to see how the players deal with the high stakes situations.

Why do I want to make a Superhero Game?

Well, first, I’ve never written a Superhero game. I’ve played plenty of heroes, but never with any real satisfaction. The Superhero genre is one many of us can relate to. Many of us got comics as youngsters that stirred our imaginations. I remember my first Spiderman comic. It was the one where the Scorpion is invented. I wish I still had it. It was awesome to me to see how a person with power could be tempted to use it for his own selfish purposes and how another person could use his power for the benefit of others. It was from that initial, childhood impression that Saviours would some day be born.

Why do I want to make a new Superhero Game?

I like games with strategic choice and tactical encounters. I like games that pose a challenge to me, that I had a part in creating, and ask me to figure out a way to overcome that challenge. I also like to narrate. I’m not very good at it, but I like to do it anyway. From these desires came several ideas for a game. None of the other Superhero games, I felt, gave me the kind of play experience I wanted or that others who are inclined like me want. I want strategic fights that are heavy in narration with consequences that matter (i.e. mechanically represented explicitly) at the end. I wanted a game where I got to make both the hero and the villain he faces. I wanted a game where I had the option of making a sidekick, but didn’t have to play him too. I wanted a game where people had to care about and support my character and where I had to care about and support their characters too. So basically, in the words of the Durham 3, I want others to make me look awesome, and I want the chance to make everyone else look awesome too!

So what’s next?

Well, I need to finish my first draft. It’s mostly done, but there’s a couple issues I need to hammer out. I have some tough choices to make. I’m sharing this here on my blog because I talk about design a lot, and I felt that I had better start showing my words in practice. So with Saviours, I’ll try to show how I implement my own design ideas. Today it was the Big Three. Of course, feedback is always welcome! :)



Saturday, September 16, 2006

Memory Lane


Good ole, good ole times. If you're into the Forge at all, check out this link: Bringing back some old memories- good and bad. I'm sure by the time it's all done, there will be a lot to learn from what's posted there.



Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What is 'System' ?


In previous articles I have touched on Situation and Setting. Today I’m going to tackle another key component of RPGs: System. First off, you should know that I do subscribe to the “lumpley principle.” So if you have serious issues with that, then I’m afraid that this article won’t help you very much.

But anyway, the lumpley principle states: “System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.” The first time I read that I went, “Huh?!?!?” Then, through the years, I read a lot of explanations to it and the definition finally clicked.

Basically, System is big. Real big. In fact, we should really write it in all caps like this: SYSTEM instead of just capitalizing the first letter. Writing it like that, I think, might clear up a lot of confusion, because when someone (especially if they are new to RPG theory or design) sees “System”, they might think of something like the D20 System and say, “Well the whole system is just the SRD, right?” Well, not exactly.

To really help me understand what SYSTEM (the lumpley principle) meant, I had to brake it up into two parts: Rules and Procedures. For my purposes, Rules are the games text. They are the printed words on the page, unmodified in any way by the participants. Rules are the author’s expression of the game objectively observed in black and white on the page. Everything in the book, from cover to cover, is Rules. Anything that is not in the book that affects play is Procedures.

EXAMPLE OF A RULE (A): “Roll three d6 seven times to generate the seven stats for your character. Arrange them any way you like on your character sheet.”

EXAMPLE OF A RULE (B): “Choose one of eight races included in this book for your character. This will be his/her heritage and background.

Procedures can include modified Rules (often called “House Rules”), dialogue between participants, deciding who the “leader” of the party will be, who gets to roll dice first, narration of events/actions by characters, negotiating conflicts between players and/or characters in a fashion not provided for in the Rules, and so on. Procedures are essentially the talking around the table and the actions/agreements made by the participants that are unique to the group. It’s anything the participants agree to do or establish that affects the in-game events. Sometimes Procedures are based off Rules; sometimes they are not.

EXAMPLE OF A PROCEDURE (A): “Hey guys, instead of rolling 3d6 for your character’s stats, roll 4d6 instead and drop the lowest one. Arrange them in any order you like.”

EXAMPLE OF A PROCEDURE (B): “Guys, there are no elves left alive in this world we’re going to play in. So when you choose a race, you can’t choose to be an elf.”

So if you look at it like that, you can see that SYSTEM really is big. It includes everything that goes on at the table no matter how closely or loosely it adheres to the written rules of the game. It even includes stuff that people term as “meta-game.” Anything that affects the in-game events is part of SYSTEM.

So what does that mean for a designer? A designer must be aware that the SYSTEM of his game will, no matter what, include two parts: The Rules and The Procedures. It’s been said that the only part of SYSTEM a designer really has control over is The Rules- the words he writes in his game. But this isn’t entirely true. A designer can encourage players to develop Procedures for the game. In fact, many games are enhanced by players making up the bulk of SYSTEM and only referring to the Rules when there is a dispute. A designer must signal to the players (using the text) when it’s probably okay to use a Procedure to handle something and when it is advisable to use a Rule instead. You have to decide, will your game be Rules Strict (i.e. encouraging players to play as closely to the rules as much as possible) or Rules Relaxed (i.e. encouraging players to improvise and customize the rules as much as needed)?

This is quite important. No group will ever play the game strictly by the Rules as written. Human communication and understanding is far too limited to allow for that as a possibility. However, no group will ever completely toss out the Rules either. People sit down to play a game because the game text inspires and intrigues them. Therefore it is vital that the Rules give the participants guidance, explicit and thorough guidance. A designer must ask himself these two questions constantly as he writes his game:

“When do I want them to use my Rules as written to help advance play?”

“When is it okay for them to take ownership of the game and use Procedures of their own?”



Tuesday, September 05, 2006

New Business Plan


((This is also cross-posted HERE at the Forge))

What a trip my path towards game publishing has been lately. Recently I read This Post by Ron. There’s a road of no return that people walk when they get fed up with RPGs and never want to come back; I almost went down that. Just for some quick background two of my games Cutthroat and Hierarchy won Ronny awards last year. I was pumped about getting them tested and published. Well, I got that done, finished the layouts scooped up all the art I could for them on my budget and had it all ready to go. Then several things that I wanted to go my way didn’t. I was disappointed, very disapointed. When my cousin Stacey scheduled her wedding on the weekend of GenCon, I just swore the whole thing off. I thought I was done. But, after several encouraging conversations with my wife and a really awesome trip to the Western United States this summer, I came back with a new perspective. I knew I still wanted to publish my games, but releasing all four (adding Standoff and Holmes ‘n Watson to the list) at once didn’t seem right. I had an opportunity to do something unique, but I didn’t know what. Then I listened to Paul Tevis’s interview with Ken Hite on Have Games will Travel.

The idea struck me like a bolt of lightning. Ken said the gaming industry, specifically the distributors and shop owners, were increasingly looking at RPGs as periodicals rather than books. His words also jived with what I’m learning in my masters classes about children: attention spans are getting shorter and new stimulation is required *often* to keep their minds focused on something. So I thought, “Hey! Why don’t I turn my games into a periodical rather than just dumping them on the market all at once!” It was crazy. And I liked it. So here it is, my new business model:

I am going to offer customers the opportunity to purchase a subscription to my games rather than purchase each new game as it comes out. A subscription would include four books that would come out quarterly (every three months) and be complete, self-contained games. This is not a model where I create one “Core Rules” and release supplements every quarter. Each game is a unique individual and very fun to play. As of right now, I plan to offer three different kinds of subscriptions.

The first kind would be a PDF subscription. This would be the cheapest. I would just send the customer the pdf over email the day the game is “released” and they would have it waiting for them when they got home. PDFs are getting increasingly popular and if someone wants to test the water this way, it’s good for both them and me.

The second kind would be a Book subscription. This is kind of the “normal” subscription. At no additional cost for shipping and handling, they would receive a new book (paperback, perfect bound) sent to their address every three months. International orders would probably cost a little more and take a little longer to ship.

The third would be a Lifetime Book subscription. While it would cost more, it would guarantee them a copy of every book I release under the periodical model I’m talking about for as long as I can keep it up. They would never again have to pay another fee for the books, shipping, or handling even if the costs of my other subscriptions go up. Once that fee is paid, you get one of everything I make. Period.

I think I would probably also offer to sell “back issues” if people wanted those. I wouldn’t make them available, however, until the next “issue” came out. But if someone gets a subscription in the second year of this and wants Cutthroat let’s say, then he’d have a chance to get it. Of course ordering four back issues would be more expensive than ordering a subscription. Subscriptions are what I’m really interested in selling.

Now I know this sounds a little crazy. A book every three months!?!?! That’s nutz! But hey, I’ve got the first four already written and tested. That’s the first year at least. I’ve got two more games in the draft stage and will start testing them after a couple more revisions. So for the first year and a half I’m already set. Plus, if you’ve followed my Blog at all, you know that I’ve created a good number of tools to help me write these games. I now know what it takes to make a complete game and I’ve got a whole wad of ideas just waiting to be realized.

And you know, honestly, the games I write are pretty simple. They aren’t designed on the same level of depth as say Dogs in the Vineyard or the Mountain Witch. Character creation in each of them is fast and easy. 5-15 minutes for most of the games. And they are really designed to give the players a complete game experience in one sitting. Kinda like a short story rather than a novel. So imagine a customer gets his book. It’s 50-70 pages long and takes less than a half-hour to set up and only 2 to 5 hours to get a complete game. If he and his friends play twice a month, then by the time my next game comes out they’ve had 6 play experiences with it. They’ll be ready for something new. And that’s the idea. I will provide customers with frequent, new gaming experiences at regular intervals that won’t take up a lot of their time with things like set-up and prep. At least, that’s the hope.

I will be a little bit before I get this in motion, though. I’ve got to redesign my website. I need to figure out PayPal a little better so I can set up a storefront on my site. I need to revise the covers and touch up the layout on a couple games. So no sooner than the 4th quarter of 2006 would I be able to get this out the door. That sounds about right.

Anyway, here is what I want from you guys. I’m not really interested in comments on why this model won’t work, why the games will suck, or how I can’t possibly keep up the pace. I am very interested in comments that suggest way to HELP make it work. I’ve discussed this privately with a couple other people. Interestingly, they had opinions on the opposite ends of the spectrum. But I am very interested in what do you think I need to do to make this happen and happen well, and even more interested in anyone’s publishing experiences that might be helpful. How can I avoid potential pitfalls? What are the good points of selling games in this fashion?

I do appreciate you reading this far and all the feedback you will offer.



Tuesday, August 29, 2006

When is a Concept Ready to be a Draft?


As I get ready to make an official announcement about how I’m going to sell my games, I’ve been wanting to stockpile a lot of different game concepts. Of all the steps in RPG Design, this is BY FAR the easiest. So let me preface this article by saying that having a game concept doesn’t really mean all that much. Practically everyone who plays RPGs has a game concept of some kind.

Okay, so what is the article really about then? Well it’s about knowing when your concept is fleshed out enough to move on to actually writing down a coherent version your game. Everyone is a little different, but for me I have a checklist. I call it my “Systems Design Checklist.” What I do is break my game concept up into seven distinct parts (or systems). Think of it like the systems checks that NASA does before they clear a space shuttle for liftoff. If I don’t have each of these systems in place, the concept stays in my notebook. If I do, it’s off to my keyboard. So what are these ‘systems’ I’m talking about? I have a checklist provided below if you’d like to copy and paste that, but for now I would like to describe each individual system in some detail.

System #1- The Play System: This system basically answers the question “What do the players do?” It covers items like scene framing, narration rights, procedures for entering ideas and actions to the shared imagined space where in-game events take place, stakes setting, and stuff like that. In essence, it’s the rules for talking. The play system spells out who gets to say what about what things, when they get to say it, and how far that power goes. This tends to be fairly free form in a lot of games, and that’s totally fine. However, some games ritualize this a great deal (e.g. Polaris).

System #2- The Character System: The character system covers two aspects of character. That is both the creation of characters and their components. This system answers the questions, “What does it take to make a character?” “What resources does the character provide its main player?” and “What resources does it provide all the other players/GM?” Character is one half of the components that go into Situation. So the character system should include arenas of conflict (since conflict is what drives the Situation). Usually arenas of conflict will be tied to a characters stats, personal history, or abilities. When designing my character systems, I make sure I have plenty of built-in arenas of conflict for the player to explore. However, it’s not just the character’s primary player that matters. All the other players, especially the GM if there is one, will be interacting with that character. So the arenas of conflict need to be made available to them as well in order to facilitate collaborative storytelling. When creating your character system, think about what parts of the character can other players (including the GM) use to springboard action? If you want to break it down, I believe the character system consists of three main parts:
1. Process of Creation
2. Main/Primary Player Resources
3. Other Player/GM Resources

System #3- The Resolution System: There are two main types of resolution: Task and Conflict. Each one of those can be broken down into styles: Drama, Fortune, and Karma. I’m not going into any sort of detail about those right now. Check the Provisional Glossary if you’d like to learn more about them. What I am going to talk about is what a resolution system accomplishes for a game. Mainly, it answers the questions, “Where is the element of chance?” “How can disputes between characters be mediated?” and “How are the outcomes of task or conflicts decided?” This can bleed over a little bit into the Play System. But that’s fine! All parts of a game should be related to each other in some form or fashion. When should a Resolution system be engaged? Answer: any time there is a dispute or conflict of interests between characters and/or players in the game that cannot be resolved by talking it out. Vincent’s, “Say yes or roll dice” seems a very appropriate answer to that question.

System #4- The Endgame System: An endgame system is very optional in an RPG design. A majority of games don’t have them, but some do. It answers the questions, “What is the final objective of the game?” “How does the character’s story end?” or “When does play stop?” Not every game needs and endgame. I happen to like designing with them because it helps me conceive of what a session or campaign (for lack of a better word) should look like, what I want the players to do, and the product I want the game to produce. For me, it is a device that helps drive the action to a climax. You may find that you don’t need one, but I encourage anyone working on an RPG to consider just how the game will end and if there is a way to mechanically support that ending that would enhance the experience.

System #5- The Reward System: Or really, the “Reinforcement System.” This system answers the questions, “How do I encourage the kind of actions and behaviors I want and discourage the kinds of actions and behaviors I believe are detrimental to play?” “What mechanical rewards do the characters receive?” and/or “What mechanical rewards do the players receive?” The best way, IMO, to break up rewards is to split them into two- Character Rewards and Player Rewards. It’s very important to understand the difference between the two. Heh, that’s probably a whole ‘nother article in and of itself. But anyway, examples of player rewards would be things like narration rights, plot tokens, or spotlight time. Examples of character rewards include experience points, relationships, and improved proficiencies. Not every RPG will have both kinds, but it is important to consider whether or not your game should. Remember the reinforcement system is the main tool you, the designer, have at your disposal to help the people playing the game to get as much out of it as possible. A weak rewards system will likely result in a weak play experience.

System #6- The Setting System: Setting is the second component of Situation. Where the action takes place has a great bearing on what sorts of conflicts (and by extension Situations) you can have. Creating your game’s setting is therefore, critical. The setting system answers “Where & when does the action take place.” “What is the geographical context and and/or social context for the game?” or “What parts of the fictional world do the players *not* have to worry about?” My games tend to be setting lite, but that’s not necessarily the way to go. Each game will be different. You’ll have to decide. In any case, the “setting system” can be represented in several ways. First, the setting can be predetermined. For instance, White Wolf has World of Darkness. Second, a setting can be hinted at in the text and then left up to the players to fill in as they go. Example: InSpectres. Finally, a game’s setting can be generated on the spot through play and discussion among the players like in Prime Time Adventures or Unversalis. It is important to know how your Setting System influences the Situation of your game. Providing a context for the conflict and action of the game is the main job of setting.

System #7- The Responsibility System: This system is the one you’d probably think about the least. It is the system that decides who does what in the game. For instance, it doles out whose job it is to decide when the Resolution System kicks in or when the Reward System kicks in. It decides which and how many characters each player will be in charge of. The Responsibility system is basically the job list of your game and procedures for deciding who is going to be in charge of what. Does your game have a GM? Does your game allow anyone to introduce conflicts? Does your game force each participant to portray a character? Basically, the responsibility system answers the questions, “What is everyone’s job?” or “What is each participant in charge of?” Sometimes various responsibilities will overlap. Sometimes they wont. Sometimes this will overlap with the Play System. Sometimes it won't. But whatever you decide, your game concept needs to make it clear who is going to be doing what during the game and what tools/mechanics/game pieces they will be able to use to accomplish their charge.

It doesn’t matter in what order you tackle these systems. I just sketch them out as the inspiration arrives. I put them in this order for this article as I found them in my notebook. So don’t feel like I’m prescribing a certain order of conceptualizing. I’m not. All I am doing is suggesting something to you that might be helpful since I have found it helpful to me.

So in conclusion, basically this is the method I use to determine whether or not a concept is worth taking to the next level: the drafting level. Drafting is probably another article for the future, but I feel that if I can have something - some idea - to drop into each of these seven slots, then I feel I have a game worth transferring from the scribbles in my notebook to a coherent document on my computer. You may have more systems or you may have fewer. But I would say that having some kind of method that determines when a concept is worth pursuing and when a concept is wasting your time is a valuable and time saving device.

::System Design Checklist::

O The Play System
O The Character System
O The Resolution System
O The Endgame System
O The Reward System
O The Setting System
O The Responsibility System



Monday, August 21, 2006

Which is Better: Hit Points or DPS?


Like last week’s, this post may actually be more applicable to playing RPGs than Designing, but I feel there is something to learn on both fronts here. Anyway, I was thinking about RPGs and the RPG market the other day. Depending on who you ask, the market ranges from “Never better!” to “A nuclear wasteland littered with the corpses of dead companies.” Either way you believe, there can be no doubt that RPGs are facing some competition. But this competition comes not from CCGs or Minatures or Boardgames. It comes from MMORPGs (Massive-mulitplayer Online Roleplaying Games). Games like EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and DnD Online. I know Mike Mearls has talked about these things once or twice, but I thought I would add my observations.

To me, there is something very important MMORPGs can teach us. First, people don’t need to be sitting in the same room to enjoy an RPG. I salute Code of Unaris for recognizing this and making that a centerpiece in its design. Second, is that games with a Gamist slant (which include MMOGs), hit points are a character’s key feature. They are far more important than DPS (damage per second or how much damage characters can do per round) and the breadth of his repertoire of spells or abilities. This is true for both online games and for tabletop games.

I generally prefer Gamist style games and really look for the best strategy in situations, especially combat. When I examined all the resources available to me during combat in Gamist-leaning games, I came to a conclusion: Hit Points are the most key resource. Not to my surprise, this was backed up by Jonathan Tweet in this article.

In essence, you can really boil combat down to this statement: “You run out of hit points, you lose; your opponent runs out, you win.” Speaking in absolute terms (ignore retreat, capture, etc) that’s the bottom line for victory in combat- the winner is the guy who ends up not running out of hit points.

Victory does not go to who deals out the most damage. That may seem odd, but you have to take the victory conditions into account. You can dose out insane amounts of damage each round in a game, but if you can’t get your opponent’s hit points to zero, you will lose. If your opponent starts out with more hit points than you, can heal himself, pick up extra hit points, or reduce your net damage, then your DPS won’t matter. He has ways to counter it.

So what does that mean? Well, if you’re designing a game where combat is strategic, violent death is a likely outcome, and hit points or something equivalent is involved, be mindful of how you design other aspects of your game. A lot of things that typically go along with hit points such as healing, damage spells, character enhancements (buffs and enchantments), and equipment can inadvertently and radically affect how victory is decided.

Take for instance healing spells. In my mind, these are very powerful spells. They prolong a fight, in fact they can prove the clincher. Even if you only got 1d8 hit points per spell like back in DnD, it made a major impact on the game. If your opponent doesn’t have access to the same spells, the impact is even greater. This is why, if you ask anyone who has played a game like oh say EverQuest 1, clerics are the most vital class to have. They are not the ones who kill the bad guy, they are just the ones who make sure the good guys don’t lose.

So now what? Heh, if you are playing a game where combat and hit points are important, look for feats, skills, and rules that help you not lose hit points. Things like cover, armor, spells and so forth that grant additional defense or hit points should be high on your tactics list. Things like weapon enhancements, fireball, criticals, and so on should be farther down. From my experience, it is better to have strategies to not lose a fight than it is to have strategies to win a fight.

From a design standpoint, designers should think carefully about how you want combat to begin and end and how long you want it to last. The more hit points (or wounds or whatever) a character can amass, the longer an instance of combat will take. Especially if the characters have access to hit point saving strategies like healing, buffs, armor, etc.



Friday, August 18, 2006

Monday, August 14, 2006

What is a GM?


What’s a GM??? Even for Socratic Design, isn’t that a little basic? Heh, maybe. This article might be more useful for players rather than designers. We’ll have to see. But over the years I’ve been roleplaying, I have heard the GM defined as many things. The GM is God. The GM is a moderator for the action. The GM is the one who tells the story. The GM is a game referee. The GM is the final authority. The GM is the opponent. All these things have been said and applied in games at one time or another, but from a design perspective, they aren’t all that helpful. So let’s look at what I believe a GM really is.

First and foremost, the GM is still a player. He is a participant in the game just like everyone else. I think this concept is sometimes lost on people, especially new designers. The guy behind the DM screen still wants essentially the same thing as the guy portraying the half-orc barbarian. He’s there to have fun and use the system to kick ass. So one thing designers need to keep in mind, if they plan to include a GM in their game, is that the GM really is on equal footing as all the other participants. He’s there to explore the game elements, have fun, portray characters, and socialize with his friends. He’s not a mystical entity behind a curtain with smoke and thunder surrounding him.

Second, the role of the GM boils down to responsibility, specifically the degree of responsibility a game thrusts upon him. All participants in a game have certain responsibilities dictated to them by the game. For players it is generally their job to portray one or more characters. GMs, however, are usually responsible for handling everything else. That’s a lot. But in recent years, this has started to change somewhat.

Imagine, if you will, a spectrum. On one side you have a game like Dungeons and Dragons. Players play one character that is strictly defined by class and race. The GM creates the setting, NPCs (both enemies and allies), and challenges the player-characters will face. The players have a very limited amount of responsibility, while the GM has a very expansive amount of responsibility. Moving over slightly you have a game like Ars Magica. In this game, players might portray many characters- especially allies of their main character. The GM still creates a lot of the setting, NPCs, and challenges, but player input in much more encouraged and even supported somewhat with mechanics. Next over you might have a game like Dogs in the Vineyard. Here, the GM is responsible for creating a town, its people, and a Situation. However, it is then up to the players to decide how all that relates to each other. It is the players that tend to drive the action while the GM rolls dice in opposition. At this point, the responsibility of the players and the responsibility of the GM are about equal, IMO. Finally at the opposite end of the spectrum is InSpectres. In this game, it is almost totally up to the players to decide what parts of the setting will be explored, who/what the monsters are, and how the whole thing ends up. The GMs role is pretty much just to react to what the players do. Most of the responsibility is lifted from his shoulders as the players are most definitely in charge. There’s a million games in between and beyond even those, but when you envision what a session of your game will be like (if your game has a GM) think about how much you want the GM to be responsible for.

Third, the GM is the pace setter for the game. Often, it is the GM who starts a scene and who declares a scene over. This is often called “Scene Framing.” It’s up to the GM how fast or slow a particular set events take. This is where a GM has to be very responsive to the players. He has to gage what the players want to get out of a particular scene and how much they are enjoying it. Sometimes a scene will last a few minutes in real time but encompass hours or days in the game’s imaginary time and vice-versa. Designers need to consider this role of the GM. What tools do you give a GM to create, explore, and end a scene? Is it his sole discretion? Is that authority shared with the players in any way?

So in the end, what have we got? The GM is a player first, he’s endowed with certain and specific responsibilities, and he is the pace setter for the game. Every GM in every game will be slightly different. Examine the GMs you’ve had in the past. What made them great? What made them suck? For your game, what would the ideal GM do? How much responsibility and credibility are you going to give him (or deny him)? What tools and aids are you going to create so he can do his job? Finally, what makes your game fun for him?



Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Socratic Design Anthology #2


So I’m working getting back to a regular posting schedule. Things are coming along well now, and soon the hectic pressure of school starting up again will be behind me. Anyway, to tide everyone over I’m releasing the second anthology of posts on this blog. If you haven’t read the First Anthology, go back and look it over. It’ll give you good context for this one. Anyway, expect a new, original post in the next week or two.

Anthology #2

What is the ‘Alt 3’ ?
When Should a Character Die?
What is a Death Spiral?
Does Setting Still Matter?
How Can Magic Be Used in an RPG?
Where Can I get Art for My Game?
What is Troy’s 12 Step Process?
Another Process.
Yet Another Process.



Sunday, July 30, 2006

So Where are Troy's Games?


This is sort of another update as to what I’m doing personally. I’d like to update you as to where I am with my upcoming RPGs. I can proudly say that Cutthroat, Hierarchy, Standoff! and The Holmes and Watson Committee are all revised, laid out, and ready to go. So what’s the hold up? Well, I’ve been doing some thinking. I’ve taken a look at how the gaming industry is set up right now. Have a look at what Ken Hite says in this pod cast. This has really resonated with me. Couple that with the fact I'm unable to attend GenCon this year, I’m going to hold off on these products for a few more months. I apologize, but you’ll just have to wait a weeeeeee bit longer. What I’ve got in mind is really cool and I can’t wait to share it with you. But first I need to get to work on my next two projects: Saviours and Ballin’. I’ll give an update on those in a few more weeks and probably work on them openly at The Forge once it’s back up and running. Thanks for your indulgence and I can’t wait to discuss design topics with all of you in the very near future.



Saturday, July 22, 2006

So Where Have I Been?


Good question. Well, for the last month and a half, I've been on a long road trip out west with my wife. She has vamily in Utah and so we decided to go on a road trip to see all the sites out west and visit her folks. We got to see everything from Yellowstone National Park to the Great Salt Lake to Las Vegas to Old Town Albaquerque. It was a great trip and really recharged my batteries.

I appologize for not responding to anyone's post in a while. I really just needed to get away from Gaming in general for a bit. I'll do my best to catch up on what's been going on and post a bit more regularly. Thanks for sticking with me :)



Thursday, May 18, 2006

Does Setting Still Matter?


The quick answer is Yes, of course Setting still matters. I won’t deny for a moment that when I’m working on a design, I feel the System > the Setting, but they are both necessary for good play and good design. Okay, so why does Setting matter?

Well, first off the PCs need to BE somewhere. So in the very basic sense, there must be a Setting in which they exist. But that’s a non-helpful answer. Setting matters because it is the material the participants build conflict out of. Yes, the resolution systems detail how you resolve those conflicts, but the mechanics themselves don’t spell out where the conflicts come from. The Setting provides the context for the conflicts. It helps the conflicts make sense.

For instance, my game Cutthroat is VERY light on Setting. I barely mention it at all (basically I can sum it all up with “Biker gangs in the 1970’s”). But even though I just barely touch on it, that is enough to give the players all the context they need to create hilarious stories and rivalries among the characters. Take that small bit of Setting away, and everything from the Challenge to the Status Rolls to the Top Dog stop making any kind of sense. Dogs in the Vineyard’s setting focuses heavily on religion. And it is out of the religion that the characters follow that the conflicts in each town arise. Strip out the setting, and you just have a nifty way to roll dice, IMO.

So what about Setting Agnostic/Generic RPGs? Good question. I’m going to divide these two kinds of games into two camps for the purposes of this essay. The first kind is the type of game that gives you procedures for creating your own Setting. Universalis and Prime Time Adventures are examples of this sort of game. The games do not contain an exact Setting, but provide explicit rules for making your own. In fact, it’s part of the fun! The other kind of game is where Setting is implicit. For instance, the core books of ADnD2e had no official “setting”, yet it was very clear that you would be playing in some kind of fantasy world. People often point to GURPS as a game with no Setting. But I would in turn point to the insane amount of supplemental books that’s come out of SJG that deal directly with Setting elements. To say GURPS as a whole doesn’t deal with setting is absurd. It most certainly does. And each group that plays GURPS will have to deal with it in some way also.

So what’s the best use for Setting? That’s another long essay. The main thing to keep in mind when creating the Setting for your game is to make the setting elements drive the conflicts. If your Setting isn’t involved in what the characters are fighting for, then it’s time to redesign it.



PS: On the topic of Settings, the grandaddy of all settings is coming out soon: Ptolus! I've seen a few previews and from what I read and seen, I give it a preliminary thumbs up! If you're into D20, you really should check this thing out.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Just So Ya Know...


Just throwing out a little FYI here. I am officially signed up to be at the Forge booth at GenCon this year! It runs August 10-13ish I believe. If you regularly read this blog and will be there, drop by the Forge booth. I'd love to shake hands and meet ya! :)



Tuesday, May 09, 2006

When should a Character Die?


When designing an RPG, the issue of character death always comes up. Some people feel it is a necessary part of design (untrue), while others feel it should be avoided because it is un-fun play (also untrue). It can be hard sometimes to know when to include and when to leave out character death. To my way of thinking, there are only four reasons to include it in your design: 1) it adds to the atmosphere, 2) it increases the stakes, 3) it fulfills the player’s goal, and 4) it escalates the overall conflict/scenario all players are participating in. Let me break them down one by one.

1. It adds to the atmosphere
It certain games, mainly those that explore the setting or situation, character death can be an integral part of play. In fact, character death is expected, and the lack of it will diminish the fun. I am reminded of many Call of Cthullu games I have participated in and read actual play reports about. There was even a really hilarious thread on RPGnet many years back where people posted the most outlandish and fun way their characters died. For this game, at least the way I’ve seen it played, character death is well accepted, and honestly it’s anticipated. The thing that really makes it work, IMO, is the speed of Chargen. I know many CoC players who can draw up a brand new character in 5 to 10 minutes. So when their character dies, they jump right back in during the next scene no biggie. To me, that’s the key for using character death in this way. If your game has a time-intensive character creation and advancement process (imagine recreating a level 15 character in DnD 3.5 from scratch) then I would counsel against using character death to add atmosphere to your game. Three things to remember for this use of death: Frequent, Fast Chargen, Expected.

2. It increases the stakes
In my game, The Holmes and Watson Committee, players have the option to put their character’s life on the line. Choosing to do so grants them an additional bonus, but also makes the situation a lot more crucial. This is an example of character death increasing the Stakes. Sometimes it’s important to put everything you have on the line to accomplish something important. In RPGs, that can mean everything from nabbing the bad guy (like in Holmes and Watson) or saving a town from corruption (like in Dogs in the Vineyard). For designers, using death to increase the stakes means limiting the conditions where a character death is possible. Usually, that means making it a player option of some kind. Choosing that option ought to grant the player beneficial but dangerous bonuses of some kind. Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, and The Holmes and Watson Committee are the best examples I can give you of games that do this. Three things to remember for this use of death: Optional, Bonus, and Lethal.

3. Fulfills a Player’s Goal
Some games have players create a destiny or goal for their character to achieve by the end of play. The death of a beloved character can be a very moving experience. I can easily envision a game that incorporates that fact into the mechanics. The payoff would be the character dies with *something*. For instance, a character could die in redeeming himself. He could die with dignity in a war. He could die saving another person. Or he could die in order to allow another character ascend to a great position. The point of using character death in this way is to allow the player to choose the outcomes, but not necessarily the means of the character’s death. I can see a functional design that allows another player to choose the way a character dies so long as the character’s player gets to choose the conditions leading to and the consequences of that death. Three things to remember: Resolves the Character’s Story, Player Controlled, Consequences.

4. It Escalates the Conflict
Escalating the conflict means that the death of one PC impacts all the other PCs and their enemies in a way that makes the conflict more meaningful. Using character death in this way requires that all players be invested in everyone’s characters in some way or fashion. A dungeon crawl where everyone is out for himself to grab as much loot as possible and then skedaddle is not an effective atmosphere for character death that will escalate the conflict. A game where characters are dependant upon each other or where characters are related to each other in some way (blood, sex, loyalty, duty, etc) is the type of game where the death of one will add meaning to the final victory. In cases like this, character death IMO should still be at the option of the players playing the characters. However, the conditions that the game puts the characters in can make and should make death an attractive option. For instance, if I sacrifice my character, everyone else gains two bonus die and has enough time to rescue the princess from the evil sorcerer. Without my character’s death, the mission might fail. Of course now the sorcerer is really pissed and will take his vengeance out on the whole kingdom. Three things to remember: Sacrifice, Relationship, Meaningful.

In any of the four examples, character death needs to be explicitly mechanically supported by your game. Just including a rule like “When your hit points equal zero, your character dies” is not good enough. What does that death mean? Why might a player want his character to die? What does the character’s player get in return for putting his character’s life on the line? What does everyone else get if he does die? Answering these questions will add a lot of depth and meaning to the death mechanics of your game. Consider them carefully as you design.



Thursday, May 04, 2006

Yet Another Process


I have found a third Game Design Process I thought I’d share with you. If you haven’t checked out Ron Edward’s thread on The Forge (Click Here) about his new game “It Was a Mutual Decision” then go check it out. He has a very thorough run-down of the process he used to bring that game from concept to finished product. Also, other people chime in with their own experiences. This thread is a treasure trove of helpful hints, models, and suggestions for designers who intend to write and publish a RPG. Troy’s Rating: two thumbs up! Enjoy :)



Thursday, April 27, 2006

Another Process


This is a follow-up to Troy’s 12 Step Process. Another game author responded to my article and gave his design process. It’s a good read, IMO. You can check it out here: Mike Miller’s Blog Talk.

I’ll give you a brief outline of what he says his process is like. Before he begins, he divides the process into two distinct activities: Designing and Writing.

1st he designs his game at the genre level. He brainstorms about tropes, issues, conflicts, fun, etc. Generally, he accumulates a pool of ideas and emotions he associates with the initial game concept.

2nd he focuses on player interactions and behaviors. Followed closely by mechanical enforcement and reinforcement of those behaviors.

3rd he does some self-testing of various and potential resolution mechanics, all the while keeping the main themes of the genre in mind.

4th he takes it to trusted advisors. He does not even have a complete draft at this point. It is, essentially, an oral game, not a written game yet.

5th Notes from the closed playtest with his friends become the basis for the rules of the game.

After explaining the game in a verbal a sufficient number of times, he converts it to written form. The writing process is also broken down into stages.

1st is the outline stage, giving himself a template to follow.

2nd is the draft stage, where he creates the first complete written version of the game.

3rd, interestingly, he gets his artists working on graphics for the game.

4th he sends the game to an external reader who makes notes, suggestions, and edits.

5th the test-revision-test-revision process begins until he is satisfied that he has a complete and playable game ready to go.

It’s very interesting and very good to get multiple viewpoints on the RPG design process. Note that Mike relies very heavily on trusted friends. Relationships with people who think and play in ways similar to him are the key to his design process. He has built these relationships over years, I would assume, and uses them to help build his games. If you have friends like Mike, I encourage you to think about using this process or hybridizing it with the 12 step process I gave earlier. It will take practice and experimentation to find the process that works best for you. Good luck!



Saturday, April 22, 2006

Where can I get Art for my Game?


One of the things I’m working on right now is getting art together for the games I’m about to release. I’m on a pretty tight budget at the moment, so economical art is really what I’m after. I imagine you are too. So to help out, here’s a list of links I’ve been using to fill in the spaces for my games:

Ed Heil’s Art Trove:
Ed has done the RPG world a favor here. He’s got a collection very good art and an equally generous offer. You get access to all the drawings on this website for only 25 bucks! Not only that, he’ll draw another picture for you according to your specifications. If you’re new to RPG design, let me let you in on something- this is a steal! Take Ed up on it.

Dover Art:
For years Dover Publishing has been releasing “clip art” type books. You can use up to 10 images per book without violating any copyright laws. If you want to use more, just write them and ask. You can find books on almost any subject here. I own over twenty at the moment. This is another high recommend. Oh, and I recommend that you order the books that come with CDs if you can. They’re a little more expensive, but scanning art is a pain and can have certain complications as far as fuzziness and resolution scale of the images.

MSN Clip Art:
Clip art can serve a purpose to help break up a page or add in small designs for stuff like page numbers and backgrounds. I don’t recommend making a whole book out of clip art, but you should be able to find some useful images here. They are free to download, so help yourself!

As much as I loathe and despise Wikipedia for academic reasons, I hail Wikimedia as a gift from heaven. There are tons of free pictures here that are very applicable to RPG designs. Make sure you read the warnings at the bottom of each picture. Some require accreditation and some aren’t actually free. But if you’re working on your game setting, especially if it’s based on a real place (like London or New York for instance), then this website is an answer to your prayers.

RPGNow Stock Art:
RPGNow has several pieces and collections of Stock Art for sale. It can really vary in price and usefulness, but if you’re in a pinch, you might be able to find something here. Of all the options I’m mentioning, this will be the most expensive. But remember, these guys are just trying to make a buck just like you. They should charge whatever they feel they can get for their product.

So anyway, I hope that helps some of you out. I know from experience how much of a pain getting art can be. Good luck to you guys :)



Monday, April 17, 2006

What is Troy's 12 Step Process?

What is the design process?


By now if you’ve been reading this blog, if you haven’t go back and look over the stuff in the Anthology #1, you’ve seen me introduce thoughts and suggestions on various aspects of design. Sometimes I’ve talked about components (Death Spiral, Magic, Situation) and sometimes about tools (Big Three, Alt 3, Power 19). What I haven’t really talked about is a process to use these things. So here’s what I’m going to do today. I’m going to show you the process I’ve used on my games like Cutthroat, Hierarchy, and Holmes and Watson. Perhaps, it will help you out also and perhaps someone can offer an alternate or better version of a design process.

#1-Initial idea-

The first stage is generating a game idea. I carry around two spiral notebooks wherever I go, and I’m never very far from a computer. In the notebooks I jot down any game idea that comes to me. I feverishly write down all my thoughts without worrying about if the idea is workable or playable. The reason is that I forget stuff very easily. If I focus on working out all the details right away, I’ll miss the next wave of inspiration when it comes. This is just a brain storming exercise at this point.


After several days or weeks of jotting notes, I sit down in front of my computer and type up everything I’ve written down. I organize it, categorize it, and delete redundant or extraneous ideas. It’s at this point where I actually see what I’ve created and where my imagination was going with this.

#3-The Big Three/The Power 19-

After gathering up all my notes and ideas, I see if I can answer the Big Three about the game. Usually I can, but if I can’t, I know that either it’s not a game I can make or I need to do more work. If the Big Three come easily, I set to work on the Power 19. I meticulously go through them and answer as many as I can. Sometimes the answer is “I don’t know yet” or “Not applicable” which is just fine.


Once I have the Power 19 in hand, I’m ready for feedback on the Internet. Whether I post my answers or I post a more general idea of what I plan on creating depends on what I need for the game design to progress further. Feedback is important because it will point out gaps and inconsistencies that the Power 19 or other design tools aren’t able address. Sometimes I take the advice and run with it. Sometimes I politely say thank you and go with my original idea. I wish I could give you some method of knowing when to do which, but it’s very much based on the individual who is designing the game.


After feedback, it’s time to rethink things. Questions like “Can I finish this?”, “Is this game worthy of being finished?”, or “Will this game be enjoyable if I do finish it?” are the way I approach this phase. If I can answer yes to all three, then it’s time to get to work. Reexamining the Key Components is the next step I take in the Rethinking process. I call Key Components of a RPG design the following: Chargen, Resolution, Reward Cycles, Currencies, and Color. Using the feedback I have gotten, I explore how each of these areas of the game can be improved and how they relate to one another. Once I have that done, I’m ready for the draft.

#6-First Draft-

The First Draft comes in at the 6th stage of the design for me. I think a lot of people start at the draft stage and get overwhelmed by the project. I really encourage people to make an outline, use the Power 19, or come up with some other sort of devise to organize and categorize their design thoughts before attempting to write a playable draft. The work of writing an RPG, even one that’s only 50 pages or so, is immense. Breaking it up into smaller parts helps make the job more manageable. In any event, for me, the first draft is intended to be a coherent, readable, and playable version of the game. This is the “Alpha” design stage.


Getting feedback on a draft used to be the hardest stage for me. Mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to share the draft. Now, with so many designers having their own websites, it’s easy to get someone to help out in that department. I gotta thank Blankshield Press for helping me out with Cutthroat in that regard. They were awesome about helping me out. And there are many more out there willing to help just like them. Anyway, posting your draft on the ‘net and getting people’s reactions is the next stage. It’s here where your game will really be molded into the RPG it wants to be. Even though you’ve already done a lot of work, expect many more changes to your game to come as a result of this stage. Be persistent here. Sometimes it can be deflating when no one responds to your posts. Keep trying and try on many websites. The Forge, RPGnet, and Story Games are all open forums for this sort of thing.


After getting feedback on the draft, it’s time to revise. This step is pretty simple. Choose the feedback that makes the most sense and adapt it to your game. Disregard the feedback that doesn’t make sense to you or that simply praises your design. Sadly, praise isn’t all that helpful when it comes to revising a draft. You may revise your draft, post it again for more feed back, revise it again, post, and repeat this process many times. Once your revisions are finished (at least for now), it’s time for the most fun and most agonizing part of RPG design.


Playtesting is fun because you get to actually play! But it is also excruciating because it is slow, shows SO many weaknesses and ambiguities in your game, and requires constant revision. When I playtest, there is one thing I hold as important. That one thing is to play the full playtest session with the rules as they are currently written. I don’t change the rules midstream during a session just because we hit a bump in the road. Like any new game, it can take while to learn the system. Allow for that learning curve to take place before changing anything. Also, it’s hard to know how playable your draft was if you keep changing things constantly as you go. Playtesting needs to give you a clear picture of what your game is like and can do. It can’t do that, in my opinion, if you’re constantly stirring the waters with new ideas and mechanics on the spot.


Our old friend Revision is back. This time we take the feedback from the playtest sessions and use that to upgrade and revise the game. It will probably take several “playtest and revise” cycles for you to get a design hammered into shape. There’s no exact number, but I can definitely tell you it is greater than one. Somwhere in the middle of these cycles, you ought to open up the playtesting to groups outside your direct influence. The feedback you get from them will be invaluable.


After playtesting and revision, its good to open your game up for one final round of feedback on the ‘net. This is when they can point out what sections of your game need more words, better clarification, and more examples. It’s really helpful if people who have never read your game before are able to look at it at this point. A fresh set of eyes will usually find the vagaries and oversights in a design. Get as many people to read it as possible. And for heaven’s sakes don’t worry about someone stealing your design and publishing it before you do. That’s one of the biggest mental obstacles new designers face. No one is going to steal your design and publish it. They might take inspiration from your mechanics and write their own game, but that’s only good for you! More than likely they will mention your game as they write theirs and, boom! that's free advertising for you. Never fear about someone swooping in and taking credit for your work.


With the final feedback in hand, you are ready for what will likely be the last revision. At this point your game will probably not be perfect. But here’s the truth when it comes to that. Your game will never be “perfect.” At some point, you will have to cut off the playtesting, revision, and feedback. If you don’t, you’ll never publish the darn thing, and publishing your game will teach you more about the whole process than you can possibly imagine. Double check your spelling, grammar, punctuation, make an index and table of contents, get a cover, and do the layout. These are the last parts of revision you will pass through for your game. So the only thing left is the business stuff of publishing, and that’s a post for another time. :)

I hope that the process I use will be helpful to some of you out there also. I’m sure that many other designers have different and fascinating methods they use as well. Check into the processes used by designers you admire and see if you can adapt them to your style. As always, questions are always welcome here at Socratic Design :)