Monday, December 14, 2009

Socratic Design Anthology #5


It's been a long time since I've done an Anthology, and I figure it's a good way to end the year. I don't always put my entries in chronological order. I prefer to arrange them more thematically. But first, I always list my previous anthologies for anyone new to Socratic Design. If you want to know what this blog is all about, here it is (please report any dead links):

Socratic Design Anthology #1
Socratic Design Anthology #2
Socratic Design Anthology #3
Socratic Design Anthology #4

Socratic Design Anthology #5:

-What Should I design?
-What Are Some Common Pitfalls?
-Another Pitfall
-What is Resolution?
-What Are Narration Rights?
-Is Character Advancement Necessary?
-What is the Mathematician Syndrome?
-What Do I Do if I Get Stuck?
-Whatever Happened to the Power 19?

Feel free to respond to any of those entries here. There's nothing wrong with replying to an Anthology post :)



Thursday, December 10, 2009

What is the 'Mathematician Syndrome' ?


Today I’m talking about a design problem that might be a little more personal rather than something more broad ranging.

What is it?

The Mathematician Syndrome is a term I came up with to describe a problem I sometimes have when designing a game. I envision how a player might play the game, and like it so much, that it becomes the only way to play the game. This issue can be very subtle, and I sometimes don’t realize I’m doing it at first. However, the further and further I get into the design and play, the more apparent it is.

A game is the victim of the Mathematician Syndrome when there is a single line of play or a single method of character creation (chargen) that is clearly optimal. So optimal, in fact, than any player who chooses another line of play or character generation is squeezed out or marginalized during actual play. To try to put it more clearly: The Mathematician Syndrome, in essence, is where the designer’s vision of the game unintentionally causes there to be only one possible way to “solve” the game, and once the game is solved, playing it in any other fashion becomes fruitless and uninteresting.

This design flaw (for my own purposes, I call it a flaw) is, I think, more particular to designs intended to support Gamist or Narrativist-oriented decision making during play, rather than any other creative agenda. I say that mainly because those are the types of games I prefer to write and play. I think that since we Gamists love to figure out the optimal settings for various characters, powers, and so on. It’s in our nature to try to “solve” the mathematics of a game to gain the upper hand. At the same time, though, we find any game that allows for a perfect solution, i.e. a single best way to play, lacking enough of a challenge to keep us interested. Narrativist designers can, at times, fall into the trap of creating a game where there is only one way to address the Premise. If the players don’t take certain actions, make specific decisions at specific times, or use a currency in just a precise way, then the entire point of the game is lost. Players are channeled into playing the game like they were the designer.

How is it applied?

The best way to illustrate this is with an example, I think. I once designed a game called: Lichdom. The game begins with players creating a relationship map, goals, and needs for their character. Characters are on a quest to become liches- this is presupposed. To get there, they have to sacrifice the people and things they hold dear to achieve immortality. However, if they sacrifice too much, the character loses his or her sanity, and the player loses the game (note: I think losing in RPGs is perfectly fine, but that is a topic for another time).

There are plenty of currencies and resources for the players to draw upon. However, after playtesting, it became apparent that there is magical number of relationships that you can sacrifice to gain lichdom without going insane. I think it turned out to be 8 exactly. Six or seven with a few bad rolls were often too few to assure undead-ness and nine or ten put the character at too much risk. Especially if the dice turned on their owner. After several attempts to tweak the currencies, character generation, and reward systems, it turned out that the premise of the game made it all too easy to just figure out the optimum number of resources one had to sacrifice and then drive toward that.

The result was a game that lacked any sort of challenge or mystery. Players knew exactly what they had to do, when they had to do it, and how much it would cost them. It undercut any sense of real “sacrifice” and eliminated any emotional attachment to the shared imagined space. The game felt “dead,” which is almost ironic since it’s about liches. But that wasn’t the feeling I was going for. To fix the problem would require an entire redesign. Which I did. But didn’t solve the problem. *sigh*

Instead, I discovered Mathematician Syndrome Lite. Mathematician Syndrome Lite is when there may be two or three lines of play that are clearly optimal but they do not interfere or compete with one another. I decided that there wasn’t enough conflict in the game and since everyone had the same goal (even the GM really) which was to attain lichdom, gaming the numbers was the only challenge left. So I changed the name of the game to “Liches vs. Paladins.” Players could choose to play a warlock attempting to become a lich OR a knight trying to become a paladin by trying to stop such things. I thought this was great! Players will be actively intriguing against one another, and the GM- if I end up needing one- can just be a referee.

I kept most of the rules for making liches and created similar rules for making a paladin. Since there were two, equal and opposite paths to success, I wasn’t concerned about the math so much. I should have been. I had hoped that the players would be devising ways to thwart each other from gaining resources and achieving goals. For instance, if a warlock needed to sacrifice his apprentice upon an altar, the knight could come and resurrect the lad and turn him into a squire. Or the lich could kidnap a paladin’s squire and sacrifice him for essence. I’m not going to bore you with the details of the game, but that’s sort of how play was envisioned.

It didn’t work out that way. The liches had their own relationships and resources that were separate from the Paladins’. The paladins’ paths to advancement were separate entirely from the liches’. As a result, the players hardly interacted at all until a climactic battle at the end when all characters had reached their highest power ratings. It ended up coming down to the results of a single dice roll. Wow. Sheer luck decides the outcome. I’m sure you can guess that no one really enjoyed it.

Why is it bad?

Despite the fact that there were two optimal choices in the second iteration of the game, the net affect was basically the same. The outcome was pretty much known from the beginning. Players’ decisions were almost entirely made for them by the rules. One just had to figure out the math properly. This made it really unfun. Game play and character generation became rote and stale. We could almost predict a player’s next move. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that the two optimum paths never had to cross. They could be played concurrently without balancing each other out. Balance, in this case, meaning “proper support for the type of play you envision for your game.”

Once the proper mathematics of this type of game are discovered, the game is demystified. It’s like, “oh, so that’s how it ends.” This likely limits re-playability, and also runs the risk of de-legitimizing all the player decisions that led up to that point. It wasn’t the role-playing that mattered, it was the calculations in one’s head that made the difference. The interaction among the participants was entirely irrelevant to the game’s outcome. To me, that’s not fun. For a RPG, interaction among the participants is the essence of play- it’s why we do it. A good game will make that the most important feature of play.

Some players find it unfun if a game can be “solved.” In fact, I would venture to say that most do. Mystery, choice, challenge, and significant impact of player decisions are the key to a good roleplaying game, IMHO. The Mathematician Syndrome undercuts all of that.

How can it be avoided?

The best way to avoid the Mathematician Syndrome is playtesting. I know that’s probably the last thing you want to hear. Playtesting is one of the hardest parts of RPG design, but it is also the most necessary. In games with a significant amount of currencies and values, playtesting is the ONLY way to make sure you get the balance right. (see previous definition for balance).
First, I recommend you focus on idealized play, not mechanics. Decide what you want a session of your game to look like. Don’t worry just yet about numbers and equations. Think about actual play. What’s the pacing of your game like? How quickly do you want to move from scene to scene? How quickly should the game reach its climax? Consider those questions before you get really bogged down in the fiddly bits of your game. Once you have an idea of what play would look like around the table, you can go to setting your preliminary numbers. Those numbers- almost certainly- will be revised after your first few sessions of running the game.

Is it Always Bad?

With human beings in the realm of arts and creativity, it’s rare for something to always be bad. So, obviously, the answer is: “No.” If you want to create something, oh, like a one shot game that really packs a punch or makes a statement, then this is not a problem. In fact, it’s probably exactly what you want. There’s nothing wrong with a game that can be “solved” if that’s the exact effect you’re going for. The problem only arises when the Mathematician Syndrome shows up unintentionally in a design. If you want your game to have some longevity or re-playability, then the Mathematician Syndrome most likely is best stamped out if at all possible. Otherwise it can just kill players’ drive to stick with the game.



Monday, November 30, 2009

What Are Narration Rights?


This might be one of the most important issues I ever take up on Socratic Design. I hope I can do it justice. In fact, if I’m not happy with the way this article turns out, I’ll probably do a part 2 later some time.

Defined simply, Narration Rights are the ability to describe what happens during play with the credibility that makes what was described established as fact in the game’s fiction. Okay, so maybe that’s not so simply. Let me try to rephrase. Narration Rights basically dictate who can say what matters when.

Narration Rights pass around quite frequently in all games. There are two main instances when Narration Rights and who has them are important- In-Resolution and Plot-development. Plot development is narration designed to move the characters through parts of the game where there aren’t any conflicts or challenges. Examples might be traveling on a road, describing the interior of a bar, an exposition on the history of a place/item/person, or just general description. I’m not going to talk a lot about this type of narration. Vincent does an excellent job explaining it in his Roleplaying Theory Hardcore article entitled, “Roleplaying’s Fundamental Act.” I highly recommend that article. Usually one person is designated as having Narration Rights when it comes do framing scenes or describing items/locations.

The other type of narration, the in-resolution narration, is more important and interesting to what I’m doing here at Socratic Design. If you haven’t read my post on Resolution systems previously, I recommend it. I’ll be basing a lot of what I say in this article on what I wrote there.

In-Resolution Narration Rights can exist at any of the stages in IIEE. In the beginning… Narration Rights for resolution systems were strictly allocated. In most games the non-GM players were given rights to describe what their characters did during the Intent and Initiation phases of resolution while the GM was given the right to describe what happened in the Execution and Effect parts of resolution. For instance, in AD&D you could say that your character was swinging his sword. However, if you fumbled, it was up to the GM to describe why and what the consequences were. In other games, the EE might have been left up to “non-partial” rules and sourcebooks. A good example would be Rolemaster. The players could narrate that their characters were swinging their swords, but upon rolling, the players or GM would consult a weapons table that would describe (in detail) the amount of damage, injuries, bleeding, and consequences of each strike. However, it was never left up to the players in these games to describe what came after the roll. At least not according to the rules.

Games that followed this tradition were molded in the image of Dungeons and Dragons which invented that dichotomy of Narration Rights. The dominance of that method of delineation of narration existed for decades, and really, one could even say that today most mainstream games follow it. This method is also more a feature of Task Resolution systems rather than Conflict Resolution systems, but that’s not absolute.

While giving the GM control of the final two or even the final one step of resolution has been the traditionally accepted method of allotting Narration Rights, I have a significant problem with it. First, it denies the players the ability to really see his/her character through a challenge or conflict. They have to let someone else describe what their character does or suffers. Second, it stymies group creativity when so much of the narration burden is placed on one person’s shoulders. GM burn-out is a real thing and can really poison a group’s social contract. Finally, and most importantly, strict separation of narration rights very easily can neuter the importance of success or failure. Let me explain what I mean.

Let’s take an old standby RPG example- sneaking past some guards. Specifically, let’s say the situation is that the player-character wants to get by the guards to gain entrance to a building. First, let’s take an Actual Play experience I had in a game I played once called Mechwarrior:

Player: I want to sneak past the guard to the door on the other side of the room. (Intent)

GM: That’s fine, modifier is 2. Go ahead (Initiation).

Player: Here I go! [He rolls against his character’s Sneak ability. It’s a success.] (Execution)

GM: You get past that guard, but on the other side of the divider is another guard taking a coffee break. He notices your character, what do you do? (Effect)

In this instance, the GM totally negated the roll by the player. The GM controlled both the setting and the Effects of the rolls, so he wasn’t breaking the rules. He was just simulating the break room for the guards at a military installation. The Player’s ambitions and goals were secondary to the whim of the GM or perhaps the information provided by the adventure module we were using. The roll became meaningless because no matter the outcome, a guard would have discovered the player character. One has to ask, what was the point of rolling, then? It’s a good question.

Let’s review that same situation but instead, the Player has Narration Rights over the Effect of the resolution mechanics.

Player: I want to sneak past the guard to the door on the other side of the room. (Intent)

GM: That’s fine, modifier is 2. Go ahead (Initiation).

Player: Here I go! [He rolls against his character’s Sneak ability. It’s a success.] (Execution) Sweet! My character slips past the guard and makes it through the door to the server room unnoticed. (Effect)

OR, let’s have him fail:

Player: Here I go! [He rolls against his character’s Sneak ability. It’s a failure.] (Execution) Ack! The guard notices me when I bump into a table. (Effect) I draw my taser and try to hit him before he can sound the alarm.

In both of those instances, the player’s actions, rolls, and goals are front and center in play. The GM helps facilitate the action without dictating success or failure. The dice rolls matter. They affect the play in a permanent and meaningful way.

Let’s take another- searching a room a clue in a mystery game. My experience from Call of Cthullu:

Player1: I want to pick the lock on this roll-top desk.

GM: That’s fine, roll for it.

Player1: My skill is 65. [Rolls a 75. Failure]

Player2: I look under in the wastepaper basket for anything useful.

GM: Roll a spot check.

Player 2: [Rolls an 88. Failure] Drat!

Player 3: Let me have a try at the desk. [Skill is 43. Roll is 55. Another failure]

GM: Okay. You fail to get the desk open, but on top of the desk is an open envelope. There’s an old parchment inside and…

In this instance, the GM has negated the effect of a failure. One might not think that this is as bad as the guard example, but really it almost is. There were no consequences for the failures. However, the GM had to make up something to keep the action going. Otherwise the game would have stopped. If the players had the Narration Rights to describe the outcomes and consequences of a failure, the action might not be stymied. For instance, it could turn out this way:

Player1: I want to pick the lock on this roll-top desk.

GM: That’s fine, roll for it.

Player1: Player1: My skill is 65. [Rolls a 75. Failure] Okay, I break the lockpick in the lock and suffer 2 damage but manage to get the thing open. Inside I find documents that link the businessman to the cult we discovered…

That’s not an easy thing to do in a game design. I know this from personal experience. It took me a long time to get the mechanics of The Holmes and Watson Committee right. And then it took my play group a while to get used to them. However, I have found it is much more satisfying for players (and the GM too honestly) if they get to describe what happens to their characters. The action and the fiction of the game center much more around what all the participants want to do rather than preconceived plans by one player.

Even if your game breaks down the Narration Rights to the Player gets to narrate all successes, the GM gets to narrate all failures is better than the GM gets to narrate all Executions and Effects. But even then, I feel that’s not very challenging both as a designer and a player.

Do you HAVE to do it that way? Of course not! Your vision for your game may require a more traditional method of allocating narration rights. But don’t let that be your default position because it’s easier. Challenge yourself and your play group.



Monday, November 09, 2009

What is Resolution?


I’m going to tackle a rather large topic today- Resolution. This is one of the most necessary parts of a RPG and also one of the most thorny. It seems that almost every game has a different one. There’s been some attempts at OGL’s and Creative Commons like D20, The Shadow of Yesterday, and maybe a few others. If they fit for your game, I encourage you to use them. However, from my own experience, I’ve found that independent RPG designers really like to create their own Resolution system.

Resolution is a part of System, but not the whole of it. It is one method that can be used to decide what happens in-game. I’ve divided this entry up into three main parts: IIEE, Task Resolution, and Conflict Resolution. Hopefully by the end of it, you’ll understand Resolution a little bit more and be in a better position to evaluate the resolution system you have in your RPG or need for your RPG.

Generally, most resolution systems follow a particular order of operations called IIEE, or Intent-Initiation-Execution-Effect. You are probably already familiar with these even if you’ve never been exposed to that term before. Sometimes each step in IIEE is very formalized within a game’s mechanics, and other times they’re left up to the players to hash out during play. I’ll give you a brief overview of each term before delving into the two main types of resolution systems.


Intent- Intent is all about real-world announcement of what the players want the characters to do in-game. Shooting an arrow, hacking a computer system, talking down two strangers in a gun fight, romancing the femme fatale, are all examples of a character’s intent. As I’m sure you well know, announcing something doesn’t mean it actually happens.

Initiation- At this point the characters have moved into action. This is not to be confused with another game term “initiative.” Some games allow players to roll (or use some other method) to see in what order their characters will act. Sometimes that method precedes the Intent phase of Resolution, sometimes it precedes Initiation. Be careful not to confuse the two. Initiation is where the character is doing something. No more announcements about the particular character who is in action may be made.

Execution- In this phase, the action is completed. We know whether or not the character has succeeded or failed. None of the consequences of that action are dealt with here. This is purely the phase where success, failure, or something in between is decided.

Effect- This is where the ramifications of the action are adjudicated. Damage to one’s hit points are counted, death checks are made, fallout is decided, modifications to areas of the Exploration like Setting, Character, or System are incorporated into the game, and so on. Here is where the tangible changes to the in-game narrative happen.

The important thing, from a design standpoint, is to realize that at each step currencies can be spent, bargaining between players can take place, and modifiers can be added. Typically, games focus just on developing currencies for one area- usually Initiation or Effect. However, there is plenty of design space at each one. Open up the possibilities in your mind as you consider your design. You might decide that only one or two steps should be affected by currency or modifiers in your game. That’s cool. But don’t let that be your default position.


There are two main types of Resolution systems used in modern RPGs I’m going to talk about: task and conflict. For a long time, really, only task resolution existed. I remember the early days of the Indie RPG movement when designers started experimenting with conflict resolution. The wars that had to be fought on billboard forums to establish its legitimacy were vicious. I don’t think that designers who come to RPG creation now-a-days really have a grasp at how hard guys like Ron Edwards, Jared Sorenson, John Wick, and Clinton Nixon had to fight to fend off attacks on what they were doing. See Vincent Baker’s “Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore” if you want to taste a slice of what it was like. Anyway, that’s probably a story for another time. Brief definition of the two: Task Resolution looks at the component actions that must be taken to solve a conflict, while Conflict Resolution tackles the entire conflict in whole often without necessary regard to the minute methods or skills used.


Task resolution is fairly simple. A character is trying to perform some action and the player uses dice, cards, fate points, or some other mechanic/resource to see if it happens. Opposition is usually provided by some static difficulty factor or perhaps environmental obstacles that make performing the action more difficult. Famous games that have employed this type of resolution include Dungeons and Dragons, Rolemaster, Call of Cthullu, GURPS, Star Wars D6, and Palladium.

The arguments over which method to use like roll-under, roll-over, dice pools, fate points, poker cards, d100 vs. d20, taking a twenty, and so on are basically meaningless. Task resolution is about whether or not a character will be able to perform a single act or a series of actions successfully. It doesn’t deal with the player’s goal, long-term consequences of those actions, or anything beyond what’s happening immediately.

Task resolution is really great for “crunchy” games where the point of play is to pit your characters against challenges and see if your strategy as a player can overcome them. Gamists tend to like task resolution because it gives them a chance to step up and show off their strategies, equipment, and skills. It’s not an absolute must-have type thing for Gamists. They can enjoy games with conflict resolution as well, but in my experience, the advantages of using a task resolution system really shine when creating a game about facing physical challenges and obstacles.

Task resolution is also quite good for capturing the “essence” of a Setting or System in order to reinforce that Setting or System. For instance, I played a lot of Mechwarrior RPG back in the 90’s (I am getting so freaking old!). It used task resolution to simulate the decisions a mech pilot has to make during combat. Why I was fighting my opponent in the mech or my character’s long-term goals were irrelevant to the mechanics. It was all about reinforcing the sense of decision making under pressure. That’s not engrossment or immersion as some may be tempted to call it. The task resolution system was implemented to strictly reinforce the expectation that the goal of play was to experience (as best as possible) what it would be like to be a mech pilot.


Conflict resolution on the other hand takes a look at a bigger picture. Rather than concern itself with a blow-by-blow account of what happens like task resolution does, it instead focuses on character or player intent. Some of the better-known games that have used this form of resolution include Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, Universalis, The Shadow of Yesterday, Polaris, and Spirit of the Century. There are two main methods I’ve seen for handling conflict resolution: setting stakes and stating intentions.

Setting stakes has fallen out of favor somewhat as the years have gone by. It’s easy to see why. When setting stakes, players will negotiate the outcome of a contest before any dice are rolled (or whatever mechanic is used to see who wins). Each player describes what will happen if they win the contest, and then tradeoffs and qualifications are added as necessary. This continues until all players involved in the contest are satisfied, then they roll (or whatever). Whoever wins gets to narrate what happens and fill in any details that were left out during the stakes setting portion of the resolution.

The potential problem with this type of conflict resolution is that the stakes can get out of hand. “If I win, I get to rule the world!” is what it can degenerate into if one is not careful. This method can sometimes put the “Effect” part of Resolution before the “Initiation” part. That can lead to a great deal of confusion and an anti-climactic (and thus less satisfying) ending for a long, drawn out conflict. A game designer may have to incorporate rules for backing down on stakes and starting over if they get too high for the players to agree on like in Polaris. A strong Social Contract is needed in order to keep things from spiraling too far out of control. A good example of how this is done right can be found in Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard. A good example of how this can be done totally wrong is in my game, Hierarchy.

The other type of conflict resolution- and probably the one much easier to work with as a designer- is stating intentions. For instance, when two players come into conflict, i.e. characters they are playing have opposing goals, each will state his or her character’s intended action. One player might say, “My ranger intends to leap across the table, disarm his foe, and back him into a corner for interrogation.” The GM then might say, “The villain intends to dodge your lunge, grab the jewels, and escape out the second story window.” Players then take their dice and roll (or use cards or whatever) to see whose intentions get to be implemented. The winning player then narrates how it actually happens.

While those two systems may seem similar there is a big difference. Most games are more complex than my simple example between the ranger and the villain. There’s a lot that can happen before, during, and after players roll dice. Lots of currency and resources can be spent to alter the outcome, and unlike with task resolution, partial success can actually mean something here. A partial success for the ranger might be disarming the villain. While a partial success for the villain might be to escape without grabbing the jewels. It’s all up to the narration of the players once the dice are done.

And I think that’s the important facet of conflict resolution, or one of the important facets anyway. With task resolution, the outcomes are dictated by the rules. If you fail your lock picking skill check, the lock stays shut (and often a second attempt is forbidden). You can always add in narration if you want, but it has no way to mechanically affect the success/failure in the game according to the rules. Any effect it does have is decided at the Social Contract level among the players and then implemented into the System (big S) afterwards. With conflict resolution, the players (remember the GM counts as a player too) dictate the outcomes. Getting a bad roll while trying to pick a lock can mean all sorts of things. It could be that the lock is picked, but trapped. It could mean that the character is shot during the process. It could mean that the lock pick is now jammed in the door. These are very simplistic examples, and I hope they don’t make you think that conflict resolution is just task resolution with talking. It isn’t. Conflict resolution decides who gets narration rights to say what did and did not happen in-game, and more importantly, it decides if a character achieves his or her goal.

Conflict Resolution is, I feel, best suited for games that want to emphasize moving the narration and plot along rather than overcoming discrete challenges and physical obstacles. While those two things are certainly part of the conflict in games that employ conflict resolution, the physical movements of the players aren’t as important as the story that’s being told. The throw of the fist, the hurl of an insult, or the smile of a seductress are not seen as wholly different from each other in the way that task resolution might differentiate them. The key is not focusing on individual actions but instead on individual motivations. I hope that’s not too confusing or repetitive.

Let’s wrap this up. First, this is not a matter of scale. If you believe Task Resolution focuses on minute actions, you’re wrong. If you believe Conflict Resolution can’t be used to cover blow-by-blow combat, you’re wrong. The difference between the two methods can be described as “what’s at risk.” Take again the very common RPG motif: picking a lock. You find it in fantasy, sci-fi, westerns, whatever. Genre isn’t important. Let’s add some Color, though. Let’s say the character wants to pick the lock so he can successfully spy on people in the next room. Task Resolution puts the success of picking the lock at risk. Failure in that lone action negates (or potentially negates) any further actions taken to implement the character’s motivation. The roll (or whatever) only decides if the lock can be picked and will likely be modified by the physical construction and intricacy of the lock. That’s all.

Conflict Resolution on the other hand isn’t really concerned about the lock, or rather isn’t really concerned about just the lock. It’s concerned about the character’s motivation- to spy on the other people. The roll (or whatever) won’t be modified just by the lock’s physical properties, but the physical properties of the room, the determination of the “other people” not to be spied on, methods being employed by those who want to stop the character from spying, and so on. The lock is part of it, not the whole of it. What’s at risk (and this is the important part) is whether or not the character learns anything by spying on the other characters i.e. satisfies his motivation.

Is that then assuming he gets past the lock? No. If the results of the roll (or whatever) determine that the character fails to learn anything, it could be because of the lock. Or it could also be because the walls were too thick. It could be because the others were talking low. It could be that the character’s nemesis was hiding in the room and challenged him to a duel before he could eaves drop. It could also be that there was a woman and her baby crying in the other room, or something else more interesting in the room distracted him. The possibilities are limited just by the narration and players’ imaginations. A roll that does not grant the character’s desire is not a failure per se, it is instead an invitation to add complication. For task resolution, a failure means “stop, try something else.”

Task Resolution is exploring the challenge of performing a particular action; Conflict Resolution is exploring the challenge of gaining advantage over other characters.

A RPG necessarily has to have some type of Resolution system. There’s no getting around that because sooner or later, characters will come into conflict. If they don’t, then you really don’t have a narrative of any kind. Sometimes the conflicts are on a grand scale, like fighting for the immortal souls of a town full of people. Other times it’s fairly simple like cracking open a safety deposit box. Either system can, eventually, resolve the conflict. Decide which best suits the type of play you envision for your game and then begin developing in that direction.



Monday, October 26, 2009

Whatever Happened to the Power 19?


I think a good subtitle for this blog entry might be “4 Years = Forever.” Just last week, the Power 19 celebrated its fourth birthday. In human years that’s very little time. In RPG years, that was a metaphorical century ago. Each year the innovation and improvement in RPG design- especially Indie RPG design- is so great, that it almost represents a whole new generation. Each GenCon gives birth to an entirely new and improved breed of game. So it’s not surprising, really, that in the last four years the Power 19 has gone from “new-punk, anti-gaming-establishment design tool” to “old stodgy design crutch that is far too restrictive for modern design forums.”

So how did that happen? Well it may surprise you that, originally, the Power 19 was never meant to be used as a design tool per se. In fact, it was nothing more than a question bank intended to be used by Forge veterans to help newbie designers get started or get past a particular design hurdle.

I want to take you back to where it started: Troy’s Standard Rant #3. I modeled this after Mike Holmes’ Standard Rants which I encourage you to search for and read on the Forge at your earliest convenience. This is where I introduced the Power 19. I spent a ton of time slogging through hundreds of posts by Vincent Baker, Ralph Maza, Mike Holmes, and many others on the Forge. I looked for patterns- questions that came up over and over in design discussions. I collated them, studied them, and then condensed them. The list eventually grew as large as 21. But two of them I felt were rather redundant, and so meshed them with a couple others and bang! The Power 19 popped out. I posted them in my Standard Rant #3 and asked for feedback. I think the discussion in that thread was very good and helpful, and by the end of it I felt I had a pretty solid question bank for Forge veterans to use.

I think the key sentence in that thread is, “Be careful when using these in the Indie-Design forum, however. I don’t recommend asking all 19 questions at once to someone who just posted a brief sketch of their game. I’m pretty sure that would overwhelm them. Instead, walk them through 2-3 questions at a time- especially if they are a new designer. When those questions are resolved to satisfaction, move on to the next few.” That captures the initial intent of the Power 19.

For a brief time, the Power 19 was used as intended. It wasn’t specifically talked about much beyond the RPG Theory forum on the Forge. I never intended it to be; never guessed it would be. However, when I posted it on my blog (following the shut down of the Theory and GNS forums on the Forge) things began to change. I posted Part 1 on January 19, 2006. I wanted to explore the Power 19 some more and talk about the refinements and qualifications that had come up since I first compiled them. Since I knew it would be a lengthy post, Part 2 didn’t come until a week later.

I phrased Part 1 the way I did because I wanted my blog to be about helping new designers. I figured if someone was checking out my blog, A) they had to search pretty hard to find it, and B) if they did search that hard, they must have a game design waiting in the wings that they need help on. Those were probably not safe assumptions. Rather than try to accomplish that through the comments option on my blog post, I wanted the Power 19 to serve as a surrogate “Troy.” So, I encouraged people to take the Power 19 and run their game through it to see if there was any issues they had not addressed. Sort of like a conversation, even though I wasn’t present.

I don’t think people really started doing that until Ron recommended it to Christopher Peterson. This was at the height of the Ronny Award contests (which was probably my happiest time in the RPG design scene). Ron said of Socratic Design, “Just post responses to any of the topics he's posted already, and you'll see your own game design suddenly boom.” This was a couple weeks before I posted the Power 19 there. Everyone was big into the mutualism the Ronnies inspired, and so doubtless many nascent designers read that post and started using Socratic Design as a resource. Even though it preceded the Power 19 on SD, I think it raised awareness about the work I was doing here. When the P19 was posted, it had been-by extension- already legitimized by Ron as acceptable material to use in forum posts.

I think it was with Part 2 when things started to change. By then, three people had used the Power 19 explicitly to talk about their game on the Forge. I could see that the use of the Power 19 was changing before my eyes, so I wrote an entirely different post than I first planned. You can see from the third or fourth sentence that I didn’t care for the way the questions were just listed and then answered. “They don’t ask for specific feedback!” I wrote. I could tell, even then that it would be a problem if people started post the Power 19 and nothing else. In response, Clinton R. Nixon, Ben Lehman, and Tony LB posted three of the finest Power 19’s ever done IMHO. I still enjoy reading Clinton’s to this day.

At this point, though, I don’t really remember how popularized the Power 19 was. For the rest of January is was still relatively obscure IMO. That changed in February. Ross Winn highlighted the Power 19 in one of his articles entitled Close to the Edit #30: In Search of Heisenburg. There really wasn’t much follow up in the forum over it, but seeing the Power 19 on RPGnet was- I have to admit- gratifying for me and eye opening for many others. From there, the use of them began to really increase.

You could check the First Thoughts forum of the Forge and generally see two or three posts that included them. On Story Games or RPGnet, there would occasionally be a post that either referenced the Power 19 or used them explicitly to talk about a game (Andy eventually asked people to stop posting them on Story Games, I believe). Several people posted them on their blogs. Sadly, some of those blog posts have been lost. I honestly think that those are actually some of the most valuable examples of how the P19 could be used outside the conversation starter context. However, during this time the use of the Power 19 on forums stayed the same. People would often just post the questions and their answers without asking for specific feedback or prefacing their post with any kind of context for the reader. It was becoming cumbersome to read.

I think the first people to really speak out against posted on Story Games. It was in this thread that Shreyas expressed his concerns. Andy Kitkowsky and Jon Walton (for other reasons) jumped in as well. Some in the thread wanted to create another set of questions to answer in forum posts. I was against this at the time since the Power 19 had already showed what a bad idea that was. If ever there was going to be a set of questions or something along those lines to challenge the Power 19, I think it would have happened here. As a result of this thread, I think, the P19 was solidified as some kind of pre-eminent authority on how questionnaire templates for RPG design should look. You can almost see here how any vestiges of the Power 19’s role of being conversation starters in design forums was lost during this thread and instead replaced by the default mindset of “the Power 19 is something to be answered en masse in a public forum.” It was mainly my fault for not reminding people of my original intent with the P19. I was too focused on discouraging another overbearing set of questions being created and the foisted on newbie designers. Back then, I didn’t realize how important that thread would become in defining the role of the Power 19- especially for veterans of the Forge.

If there was a chance to get the Power 19 back to where they should have been, it was right there. But the allure of a template that helped you design a game was too much, I think. Even the person who started the thread to express concerns wrote directly to me in that thread and said, “Please, please put the P19 somewhere permanent, not a blog, but like a proper-style website or a print publication or something, and talk about how you arrived at it and what sort of design thinking it comes from and what it builds. This is stuff that needs to be...what's the word? Needs to be put into that kind of form, set in a story about its strengths and contests, preserved.” I maybe should have done that, but I think it would have made the Power 19 even more ensconced as the de facto method for discussing design.

Several more months passed and the Power 19 had been around about a year and a half. It was helping many designers refine their games, challenge their assumptions, and post their designs on the Forge and other places. Podcasting was becoming a larger and larger part of the Indie RPG scene. Paul Tevis had been doing it for quite some time and had a rather large following. His show opened the gates for many other podcasters to come through. One of those new podcasts (new at the time, that is) was Canon Puncture. They interviewed me in March or April about the Power 19. Looking back on that now, it seems like it was forever ago. I can tell I was really caught up in the excitement of it all, but I can also tell that the Power 19 was having a significant effect on game design. Many designers from all over were using it to help them orient themselves in relation to their design. For that purpose, I think the Power 19 is really good. I look back at this interview very fondly. I was proud of what the Power 19 was accomplishing outside the online forums.

By now the Forge Diaspora was fully matured and the old guard started returning to their cradle so to speak. In May 2007 Andy Kitkowski started a thread under Site Discussion at the Forge entitled, “Practical Things we can individually do to Revitalizing the Forge?” In that thread, Ralph Maza (Valamir) posted, “I suggest that all veteran Forge designers (current regulars or diasporized) post a Power 19 for their current and future designs to First Thoughts. These can then serve as a template, a supply of good examples to help make the Power 19s posted by new designers more useful.”

Actually, this was a really good idea. If long time veterans could find a way to make the Power 19 viable for forum discussion, that would go a long way making them more useful. Also, it would provide a series of models for new designers to look at and get ideas. I was fully behind this. Here are some examples of what people posted at that time:

Christian/Xenopulse’s P19
Ralph’s P19
Northerain’s P19
My P19

I followed this up with a blog post called, “Why should I post my Power 19?” I gave three reasons. I only agree with two of them now that I look back. I have to take issue with what I wrote here, “Phooey! Feedback, even misguided or lackadaisical can be useful to a designer as it help you reinforce and defend your ideas. At worst, the feedback will help you sharpen your edge.” While technically true I suppose, the problem is if such feedback becomes the norm, then the overall quality of the forum begins to decline. Forums like the First Thoughts forum for the Forge are about exploring new designs and helping nascent game designers overcome their hurdles. It’s not about glory-hogging for veteran designers nor about clogging it up with a particular design exercise. The Power 19 posts that came from this era were useful and instructive, in my mind, but they perpetuated the idea that the Power 19 was really the “right way” to talk about a game in First Thoughts.

For the next year use of the Power 19 grew both in online forums and in offline use for designers. It became very prevalent at the Forge. It was during this time, though, that my involvement with RPGs mostly came to a close. There were several reasons. First, my long time playgroup- one that lasted since 1996 finally dispersed. We got old, got careers, and started getting families. The distances between us finally became so great that they could not be overcome for the sake of roleplaying. It is really hard to talk about RPGs if one is not playing RPGs. Second, the games I was designing became more and more like the one that got me into adventure gaming in the first place- Magic: the Gathering. I decided to pick it up again after leaving it in ’99. To my surprise, I discovered I was actually decent at it and have won several tournaments since ’07. The Gamist in me was getting satisfied even though RPGs were no longer a large part of my entertainment. Third, I finished up my Master’s degree but began my National Board Certification for teaching. Thus my education ate even deeper into my free time. Three years running of writing for educational purposes was sapping my will to write for entertainment purposes.

The result was I was no longer able to shepherd designers using the Power 19. I had no problem conversing with people on the First Thoughts forum who posted P19’s, but it is apparent that was not the case for everyone. By 2008, some of the old concerns were resurfacing. Anders Larsen posted a topic in Site Discussion called, “Ideas for how to get better feedback in First Thoughts.” His main complaint was, “Where Power 19 is a good design tool, it is not a very good starting point for a discussion if you are looking for feedback/suggestions on your system. The problem is that Power 19 put a lot of focus on asking about mechanics, but not so much focus on the basic concepts of the game.”

The thread was short, and had Ralph posted a link to a really good thread for getting feedback. There was even some agreement with Anders when Ron said, “I especially agree with you that the Power 19 is a good tool for orienting oneself about a game in design (if that's needed), but is not as useful as a presentation tool.” However, nothing really came of that thread. The use of the Power 19 continued on First Thoughts. One can see from threads at the time from the Forge, Story Games, and RPGnet (I’m not going to bother to link them) that the Power 19 was a very helpful tool for game designers. But its use as a conversation tool was still stuck in the 2006 mode. No serious attempt had been made either to get people to stop using the Power 19 in design forums or develop a methodology for responding to the Power 19. This is partly my fault for not being around anymore, but each person involved with the “indie rpg scene” has the right to walk away at any time. I definitely feel regret that I wasn’t there for many new designers during this period, but I am pretty happy with the life choices I have made since walking away.

Finally, in mid July 2009, Luke Crane lashed out and the use of the Power 19. Though it is apparent he made no attempt to look back at the history of the Power 19 and its use, and despite the fact that his post is rife with misconceptions about the P19, he was right to bring up the topic. At times you could see a page on First Thoughts full of threads where two thirds or more of them had [Power 19] in the title. Most of them had maybe 2-5 responses. Designers just weren’t getting feedback. It was probably a combination of boredom with reading the Power 19 over and over for four years, my long absence, and a general shift in who was participating at the Forge that led up to that post. The Power 19- which had originally been designed to challenge the ideas of traditional game design concepts- had become a traditional game design concept itself. Just as Hit Points or GMs had become sacred cows of RPG design in the 90’s, the Power 19 had become a sacred cow of RPG design on the Forge. Sacred cows are meant to be sacrificed.

Just to speak a little bit about my involvement in that thread: I was not disagreeing with Luke that the Power 19 was horrible for conversation on the First Thoughts forum. I agreed whole heartily with that. I did, however, take issue with what he and Paul were suggesting- the Power 19 is completely worthless. There are four years of threads and personal accounts that state otherwise. Designers of all stripes used it, and to denigrate their designs is the antithesis of what I’ve experienced to be the Forge ethos. I was honestly appalled at some of what I read in that thread. A more reasoned approach was taken by Adam Dray a few days later.

Luke’s thread, though, prompted Ron to post new rules (the old ones had lasted for the first 3 years) for the First Thoughts forum. Specificaly, they addressed the Power 19: “In short, don't post 19 questions and answers. It's too much to read all at once. It puts people off. It's a long, one-way conversation that is too late to interrupt. Tell us what your game is about and who the characters are and what the characters do. That's a good start.”

I really like what Ron wrote in that entire section. I think it’s a good rule for the First Thoughts forum on the Forge, and it is my hope that now the Power 19 can have a chance to get back to what it was intended to be: probing questions to be used as conversation starters for new designers.

Where the Power 19 goes from here is hard to say. No doubt it will still be widely used offline as a good orienting tool and design strategy. I’m positive it will be passed on for years to come, and I’m glad that it has helped so many designers overcome the hurdles of RPG design. I’m proud to have contributed a verse.

I hope that this wasn’t too tedious or boring. I know it’s long. I hope to have something more substantive as far as design goes in the near future. However, I think this article is important in one way. It’s rare to get a look at the history of independent RPGs. Occasionally Ron will post something about it on the Forge, but very rarely. If you’re new to indie design, I hope that this article gives you a peek at a very small facet of that movement over the last four years. I believe it’s good to know where you’ve come from in order to have a good idea of where you’re going. Until next time!



Sunday, August 09, 2009

Another Pitfall


This is an addendum to my last post. I forgot to mention this one:

#11: I’ve published six games since 2002, and I think there is one pitfall I’ve fallen into this one almost every single time. Don’t feel like your published game needs to fit some page number or word count. Your game doesn’t need to be any longer than it has to be so long as it produces coherent, enjoyable play experiences for your audience. Using fancy words and lengthy explanations will probably hurt your game more than help. It doesn’t have to be a certain number of pages to be considered good. Games aren’t judged on how good they are by their thickness. Bulk does not equal quality. Verbosity is not a virtue.

Okay, that's enough platitudes. This particular pitfall has been a personal albatross of mine, and I think some of my games if not all of my games have suffered as a result. Here's to you not following in my footsteps :)



Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What Are Some Common Pitfalls?


I’ve been going over several design threads. There are some common questions I see newer designers raise that in the end, really don’t matter all that much. I recall when I was working on my first RPG design and having many of the same concerns and fears as they do. I made a lot of mistakes back then because of stuff I was worrying about so much. I realize now that many of those mistakes and concerns were pointless of worry over. For the most part, I have overcome these fears and, in this post I hope to enumerate what they were and why they really don’t need to be worried about.

#1: Don’t include something extraneous in your game just to “please everybody.” Here’s why: you won’t ever please everybody, and you certainly won’t sell your game to everybody. Does your sci-fi game need psionics to make it more appealing? No! If something like that enhances your game, great. Put it in there. But it’s totally not necessary for the game to be complete, appealing, fun, marketable, or anything else along those lines (same goes for magic in a fantasy game). Don’t include something solely because you think it might increase your buying audience. Chances are, it won’t. Focus on what your game is really about and use your mechanics to enhance that.

#2: Don’t worry about creating a whole line of products based off your initial game. There’s no good reason to do that. You don’t know how your initial sales are going to do, let alone any supplements. Chances are you’ll end up saving some of the really cool stuff for some later supplemental manual. If that second (or third or fourth) book never comes out, people will miss out on all the fun they could have had with your game. Why would you not want to include the really fun stuff in your first RPG anyway? In addition, after your game has been on the market for a bit and some actual play has gone on, you may find that what you originally planned to expand isn’t nearly as interesting as something new that’s come up. The future is way too unpredictable to *plan* on a whole line of products. So don’t waste your energies designing supplements if your first book isn’t even out yet. Don’t hold out on the players.

#3: Speaking of books, don’t get caught up in thinking that your RPG isn’t a real RPG unless it’s in printed, book 8.5” x 11” format. PDF games are just as real, just as viable as printed games and cost a fraction of the start-up price. There are plenty of outlets now for online sales of PDF games like RPGNow, Drivethru RPG, Lulu, and many more. Don’t fall into the trap of believing in the “my game will be better if it’s hard bound with nifty color illustrations…” mentality. Do what makes best business sense for you. If it’s going strait to print, fine. If it’s starting out as a PDF first, then super!

#4: If this is your first RPG, don’t make what creative agenda your game supports the first thing you worry about. In fact, you probably shouldn’t worry about it at all. Creative Agenda will emerge from your design and the conversation process you have with folks on design boards and even more in Actual Play. To be sure, the CA is important, but look at the Big Model illustration in the Provisional Glossary on the Forge. The CA is only one part of what a game is. Don’t obsess about it first thing. Describe what kind of play you’d like to see for your game and go from there. Your playtesters will be invaluable in helping you hash all that out.

#5: Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. That is not what the design forums and blogs do. The only way you’re going to get useful feedback is if you divulge everything your game is about. The people interested in helping aren’t interested in stealing from you. They can’t do so with incomplete information. Also, bare in mind that only a game text can be copyrighted, not the mechanics. If people really do want to copy your design, there’s not much to stop them. And if your game really is so brilliant that everyone does want to emulate it, there can be no better advertising for you than that. Everyone will be talking about your game as they go to write their own. It’s a win-win situation for you.

#6: Don’t obsess over the name of your game. When it comes to sales, the name isn’t going to make all that much difference. Take “Sorcerer” for example. It’s a rather simple and plain title. Ron didn’t invent the word, and the idea of a guy summoning a demon has been around forever. So why do we think that name is so cool? It’s because of what’s between the covers. That’s what sells the book. It’s not a flashy or weird name, it’s the content. Now one may point out Vincent Baker’s brilliantly named “kill puppies for satan” RPG. It definitely has a name that grabs attention and one might thing that would lead to extra sales. I’m pretty sure Vincent would back me up on this when I say that he wouldn’t have sold half the copies he has if it weren’t for the content inside. If a game sucks, it won’t matter what the name is. If it’s great, the name will just be window dressing. If it’s mediocre, the name won’t save it.

#7: Have faith in your playtesters and by extension, your audience. Players will play your game with the objective of having fun. Trust them to do that. They will find a way to make the rules work for them. You don’t need to extensively and exhaustively explain every rule and possible permutation. Your job as the designer is to create an evocative setting, a compelling premise, a workable set of mechanics, and a satisfying reward system. The players will take care of the character, color, and situation. Use examples, but not a litany of do’s and don’ts. Your players can figure that out on their own.

#8: Don’t change something about your game unless you are positive how it works. One play session is not a large enough data set to truly understand whether or not mechanic is working. Give it several sessions and talk about it in Actual Play forums before deciding to change it. Sometimes you’ll find that a mechanic isn’t really broken, it’s just illuminating an aspect of the game you hadn’t considered before.

#9: Don’t feel intimidated by those who have gone before you. You are not expected to produce a Dogs in the Vineyard, Burning Empires, or Spirit of the Century. Vincent, Luke, and Fred are who they are. You are someone different, unique, and equally valuable. Your game can stand on its own. The only person you should compare your work to is yourself. Work until you’re happy with it, not until you think some RPG luminary would be impressed by it.

#10: The last thing I’m going to list is don’t worry about being made fun of or hated here at the because of what you design. More often than not, the hurtful kind of criticism stems from the criticizer’s own insecurities. Remember, the games you create should please you first and others second. As long as you are happy, you are successful. Everyone else can piss off. Be brave, put your design out there and let people play it.At some point I have tripped up on every one of these mistakes myself, and I’m sure plenty of others here have too. But I don’t anyone else to have to go through the crap I did. It took me a long time to come to an understanding that it’s okay to design the kind of game I like. I don’t have to be ruled by fear; instead, I can be ruled by courage. I hope that my meager words here have helped some. We’re all in this together. Mistakes are okay as long as you learn from them, and it is my hope that you can learn from mine. Nothing would make me happier.