Friday, December 17, 2010

What is TITB4B and Why’s it Bad?


Let’s start with a history review. A long time ago in a land that now seems so very far away, a man named Gary Gygax published a game named Dungeons and Dragons (1974). It was the first commercial RPG in the modern sense. What this game did was to compile rules for games that people were already playing based on another type of game: miniatures wargaming.

So let me explain what I mean in that last sentence. It’s very important. Dungeons and Dragons was NOT inventing a game. It was describing a game people were already playing. DnD did not create roleplaying, it simply catalogued roleplaying. Even more, roleplaying at the time was not what we tend to think of it today. It was much more like a miniatures war game where the object was to simulate dungeon combat, slaying a dragon, or an encounter between armed foes. The authors just assumed anyone who played the game would have this sort of background knowledge on wargaming and that explanatory text would be redundant (and more expensive to print). Therefore, it did not PRE-scribe play, it only DE-scribed play.

1975 saw the release of Boot Hill, a Western themed RPG. Props go to them for being original with their setting right off the bat. It was non-fantasy, leveless, and made the player-characters the focal point of the design, but the game was heavily geared towards the showdown and accurately simulating a gun fight. The game even touted itself as based on western miniatures. So the same basic assumptions were made- people playing Boot Hill knew how to play miniatures and just needed some extra rules for “roleplaying.”

Also, Tunnels and Trolls was released that year. It was the first in a long line of “Lord of the Rings except not because we can’t get the license” game. It did many of the things that D&D did, but it also held over the mass combat rules of miniatures and tried to be as realistic as it could be.

What DnD and these other games that were like it did accomplish in the 70’s was to make hundreds and then thousands of more people aware of what was going on. That awareness turned into participation. That participation turned into creation. But as time rolled on, the way people played these games started to change. Suddenly, people who had no background in miniature wargaming were picking up D&D, T&T, and Boot Hill and trying to play it based on their background in writing, storytelling, boardgames, make-believe, acting, imrpov, or whatever else. The core market for early RPGs suddenly expanded to whole new demographics.

DnD and these other RPGs were later supplemented by magazines such as TSR’s Dragon and RPGA’s Polyhedron published adventure modules meant to be used in a tournament format at conventions. For some people, the object of playing became to win. For others, it became a place to create stories in the English 101 sense where you have protagonists, rising action, climax, and theme. For others, it meant being true to the vision of whatever gaming background or literary background they came to the table with.

By the late 70’s it was clear that people were using RPGs to do all sorts of things that the texts did not support. In fact, it could be argued that from the very get-go, the texts did not support the play since they weren’t inventing anything, but simply describing pre-existing behaviors.

The results were threefold. The first effect was that the game texts at hand were all incomplete. They didn’t tell you how to play or what to do, they just had a bunch of text that provided resources people already familiar with how to play could use to supplement their gaming. For people who heard about this game and picked up trying to figure out how to play it, there was nothing to really grab on to. Instead, the players had to improvise and make up a lot of stuff and ignore a lot of other stuff. Imagine trying to play D&D 3.5 if the only book you had was Castle Ravenloft. That’s about what it was like. You had people all over the country playing the same title without playing the same game (make sense?). Thus, a tradition was established in RPG publishing where communicating exactly what was expected during play and providing rules that supported that play was a non-essential thing. It really didn’t matter, the thinking went, just so long as you provided really evocative tools for the players. They’ll figure it out eventually, publishers supposed.

The second effect was when publishers figured out that there were large segments of the audience who weren’t playing the game like they had envisioned, they changed their texts to try to suit everyone. A game like Bushido (1979), for instance, tried to downplay the role of miniatures-style combat and stress the importance of the people at the table and what things like honor, duty, and heroism really meant to them. But at the same time, they included plenty of combat rules, magic, and ways to introduce supernatural monsters into play even though the game wasn’t really even about that stuff. They figured that if they didn’t have it, no one would want to buy the game. This was only exacerbated in the 1980’s where we saw an explosion of RPGs trying to cater to everyone and everything all at the same time.

The third effect was that social conflict amongst the players became the norm. The tales of dysfunctional groups, incoherence, and arguments over what was the “right way” to play a game are well documented, and I don’t need to go into them here. Tournaments and conventions (especially GenCon) brought people from all over together in one place. This was great, in that ideas could be exchanged, but at the same time it brought people into conflict because they weren’t interpreting the vague rules and guidelines the same way. This problem increased in the 1990’s when GenCon, Origins, and DragonCon really started taking off. Then the Internet hit and everyone started talking to each other. This talking often consisted of a lot of arguing and belittling people for not playing “right” or whatever.

During this time, derogatory words entered the lexicon that labeled people and play styles who went against the grain. Powergamer, Grandstander, Munchkin, Rules Lawyer, Monty Hall GM, Wussy, Hack ‘n Slash, Blast ‘n Burn, artsy-fartsy-story-telling-wannabes, and turtling were enshrined as the proper way to refer to non-conformist players in dozens of advice books such as the AD&D 2e Guide to Creative Campaigning (1993).

So what was the end result? Well, people did try to come up with solutions. First was the so called, “Rule Zero.” Basically, that rule stated, “any rule you don’t like, get rid of it.” Other variations include, “Make up rules if something happens that this book doesn’t account for,” “Not everything that happens during play can be accounted for in the rules, so improvise as needed,” “It’s the GM’s call” or even worse, “The GM is God!” Sometimes they’d dress it up as much as they could such as in the AD&D1e DMG: "It is the spirit of the game not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rulebook on you if it goes against the obvious intent of the game." Thus, game texts continued to be vague and lack focus on making rules that actually worked and actually told people how to play.

The other solution that was widely practiced was more insidious and brings us closer to the original point of this entry. During the 90’s when the first Goth wave hit, White Wolf ditched games like Ars Magica and switched to the World of Darkness titles like Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: The Ascension. In these books, they presented the idea that the GM just needs to write out a plotline that the characters follow, using the rules only when necessary. Thus, a lot of the conflict in a group would be solved and everyone could have a nice story at the end to be proud of. The catch was, in order to get this to work right, the GM had to force the players into following the story. Since human being tend to be individualists (especially in America), this was a real problem. So instead, these games encouraged GMs to do this covertly, i.e. behind the veil. Play became based on deception and manipulation. The better a GM could hide how he was making all the choices for the players, the better a GM he/she was said to be. The problem is, all this subversive manipulation is just not a recipe for long-term success.

To communicate this style of gaming without totally turning everyone off from the get-go, a phrase was developed and presented in game texts as the proper way to play. It goes something like this, “The GM writes the story and the players decide what the characters do.”

Now, if you’ve been playing RPGs for a long time, that phrase probably makes sense to you. If you haven’t played many RPGs, that sentence probably makes absolutely no sense at all. If it does make sense, read it again. I’ll break it down.

The GM writes the story. The players decide what the characters do. If you have one, you can’t have the other. If the GM has written the story, the decisions of the characters must already be known. If the players decide what the characters are going to do, the GM could not possibly have written out the story since none of the characters had taken any actions prior to play. Those two sentences are totally and utterly incompatible. Yet that phrase, or a variation of it, is presented in numerous roleplaying texts across the spectrum as the way things are supposed to be done during roleplaying. That, right there, is “The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast.” TITB4B. Also, sometimes called “illusionism” or “railroading.”

So why is this bad?

Well, let’s look at what TITB4B causes. First, the GM has to force the players to do something. Not only that, he has to do in covert ways, basically conning them to go along with his plan without ever communicating that plan in a truthful and upfront way. That’s certainly not a sound foundational basis for a functional social group. And, as a result, it didn’t solve the problem it was trying to solve.

If the players became bored with the GM’s story, they would often try to veer off course. This caused conflict with the GM because his well thought-out and beautiful stories were being ruined by people daring to express their free will. Not only that, the GM would be caught totally off-guard and unprepared to deal with these new developments. Consequences included heated arguments, long and boring pauses in play while the GM figured out what to do, sessions cut short so the GM could prep for what was going on (usually, just more machinations to get the characters back to the original plot), or some players being left out of the game completely while those who did choose to follow the GM’s premade plans were rewarded with screen time. This can and often does lead to other social and in-game conflicts amongst the participants. Most bad experiences with RPGs can be tied to this phenomena right here.

So what can be done about TITB4B?

There have been some failed attempts to fix this. GUMSHOE (2007) for example touted itself as solving this problem for mystery games by having not only a Fortune based mechanic for clue finding but also a Karma based resolution. “Although it came up in playtest, I confess to being a little surprised by the idea that The Esoterrorists, by creating a mechanism to ensure that PCs in investigative games always get all the clues they need to start piecing the mystery together, encourages railroading. The GUMSHOE system doesn’t in fact change the inherent structure of investigative games at all. They are no more or less linear in GUMSHOE, on a structural level, than in a traditional procedural campaign using the roll-to-get-a-clue model,” wrote Robin Laws on his blog.

I have to admit I was a little surprised that he was a little surprised that his game received the same criticism previous mystery games had received since GUMSHOE does nothing to “change the inherent structure of investigative games.” I wondered it Mr. Laws had played Inspectres (2002)- a game that does change the inherent structure of mystery games and makes them non-linear, but in the comments section of his entry, he reveals that he had not.

The old paradigm was still alive: the GM writes the story (in this case a mystery) and the players play along finding the pre-arranged clues and breadcrumbs left by the GM. The fact that they could spend points to get the clues instead of whiffing endlessly on their rolls did, as Robin states, nothing to change heavy-handed, GM-centric nature of play despite being presented as a game that liberated the players from the traditional travails associated with mystery games.

However, there are several viable solutions to TITB4B. As with many things, it seems, in RPG theory, there are names for them: Trailblazing, Participationism, and Bass Play/Sandbox Play. I’ll get to these in another article which, I have a feeling, will be more pertinent to design. For now, the main thing that I hope people come away with from this article is that “the GM makes the story and the players decide what the characters do” is a nonsensical statement that should be avoided in gaming texts.



Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What is The Neighborhood?


The Neighborhod is a new website dedicated to linking all the disperate parts of the indie-rpg movement into one place for mutual benefit. There are several key parts of this site:

1. Forums- The Forge once hosted forums for many different independent gaming companies. Now that it's in its winter stage, those forums are being phased out. I wanted to give those companies a place to go. The Neighborhood is that place.

2. News/Reviews/Editorials- Story Games, The Ogre Cave, Planet Story Games, and RPGnet have some great content, but not everyone is aware of it. I pulled in feeds from all four of these sites at The Neighborhood. I want to help promote those sites as well as add some convenience for Neighborhood users. You can keep up on all the happenings with just a few simple clicks at the Neighborhood, then when you find something you like, you're whisked off directly to the topic that interests you. It saves a lot of time and makes surveying these gaming sites a lot easier. .

3. Radio/TV- There are some terrific RPG podcasts and YouTube Channels out there. I've collected many of their feeds at the Neighborhood. I want to promote these multi-media resources and give Neighborhood users more reasons to come and interact with the publishers. I hope the Radio and TV pages will be mutually beneficial. There's probably a lot on these two pages you don't know about.

4. Links- These are a collection of publisher websites, store sites, and forums/resources for RPG players and publishers. These are really useful for finding companies and products.

If you get a chance, take a stroll through The Neighborhood. If you're a creator-owned RPG publisher, drop me a line in the Forums there and we'll get you set up with a forum all your own.



Thursday, December 09, 2010

Is there a New Blasted Sands Available?


Why, yes there is! For those not aware, way back in 2006-almost four years ago to the day-I posted a RTF file of a campaign setting to use as an object lesson for my thoughts on Setting. I recently re-read that file and was appalled. The amazing thing is, I get a notice in my email about once a month that someone has downloaded that file! To me, that’s amazing.

So, obviously, there is some demand for it. What I’ve done is totally reworked most of it, cleaned it up, and tried to eliminate the typos (although I’m sure there’s still a ton). It is over twice as large as it was and full of more Color and detail. At last, I have a file I can be at least a little more proud of. If you’ve downloaded the first version or are looking for a Dark Sun-inspired setting in which to play, may I introduce:

Blasted Sands (Revised Edition) at
Blasted Sands (Revised Edition) at Scribd

I hope those who downloaded the older version will check this one out too. And for those who have never read my Blasted Sands setting, I hope that it inspires you. All feedback is very welcomed.



Thursday, November 04, 2010

What is Stance Theory? Part1


Today I’m taking on another older topic- Stance Theory. This is part 1 of a two part article. In this one, I’m basically just going to define and describe Stance Theory. In the second part, I’ll try to explain how it might be useful. But honestly I think for the most part, we have left this behind as game designers. None-the-less, I am endeavoring to bring up the old ideas (old in this case meaning from the late 90’s and early 2000’s) so that fresh eyes can look at them, dissect them, and bring forth new ideas.

When it comes to Stance Theory, first and foremost, you must understand that it is describing play, not design. I think that all too often, people talk past each other when it comes to RPG theory because one person is thinking “play” and the other is thinking “design.” Play should inform design, of course, but they are not the same thing.

So what is it anyway? Well, Stance Theory is a way of describing how players (including the GM) affect the in-game events, setting, and characters (aka The Shared Imagined Space). There are four Stances that have been identified. The Provisional Glossary defines them as such:

Actor Stance: The person playing a character determines the character's decisions and actions using only knowledge and perceptions that the character would have. This stance does not necessarily include identifying with the character and feeling what he or she "feels," nor does it require in-character dialogue.

Author Stance: The person playing a character determines the character's decisions and actions based on the person's priorities, independently of the character’s knowledge and perceptions. Author Stance may or may not include a retroactive "motivation" of the character to perform the actions.

Pawn Stance: A subset of Author Stance which lacks the retroactive "motivation" of the character to perform the actions.

Director Stance: The person playing a character determines aspects of the environment relative to the character in some fashion, entirely separately from the character's knowledge or ability to influence events. Therefore the player has not only determined the character's actions, but the context, timing, and spatial circumstances of those actions, or even features of the world separate from the characters.

Okay, that’s nice. But let’s break them down some.

Director Stance is sometimes treated as synonymous with players narrating in-game events, or worse, people think that’s the only thing Director Stance does. Director Stance *can* do those things, but players using Director Stance don’t *have* to. A player can say, “There’s some brush next to the wall, my character hides there and is unseen.” That’s Director Stance. He could also say, “Gunther looks left, then right, and finally above to make sure he isn’t being watched. He carefully creeps over to a thick patch of shrubbery next to the castle wall in the dim twilight of the evening. None of the guards atop the wall were looking in his direction.” Both are examples of Director Stance.

In Director’s Stance, the player is not regarding what the character is thinking or feeling or what the character has the power to change in the Shared Imagined Space. The Player is capable of changing the environment and circumstances around the character. If the player wants a guard on top of the wall and he is operating in Director’s Stance, he can put a guard there. If he wants bushes, there are bushes. But that’s the player’s desires, not the character’s. Those two may coincide, but that’s entirely beside the point. In Director Stance, the player is disregarding character motivation.

A player operating in Director’s Stance can basically manipulate anything in the imaginary game world. It can be characters, objects, places, the weather, or whatever. Nothing is off-limits; the power is quite broad. Additionally, the Director Stance player can base these changes off of in-game considerations or meta-game (stuff outside the imaginary world) considerations WITH OR WITHOUT offering in-game justifications for these changes. In other words, what he’s doing doesn’t necessarily have to make “sense” in the imaginary world, it just has to be acceptable at the Social Contract level. Think about the space alien scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” That doesn’t make any sense in the imaginary world of that movie, but it is acceptable given the nature of the crew who made that film.

Pawn Stance is sometimes seen as the default stance for Gamists. This is one thing I hardly have to spend any time on. If you’ve ever watched people play D&D using the alignment system, you’ve probably seen Gamists operating in a stance other than Pawn. Pawn Stance *can* be used by Gamists, but doesn’t *have* to be. In Pawn Stance, the player is limiting him/herself to just deciding what the character does without any special relationship to the character. It’s just a game piece in this context. The typical GM use of Palace Guards and Barmaids or other static characters is often Pawn Stance in traditional fantasy roleplay.

Author Stance is the hardest one for me to fully grasp. It seems to lie somewhere past Actor Stance but before Director Stance. It’s sort of in the middle, lacking the buy-in that Actor demands and the power that Director gives. When in Author Stance, the player is making decisions just for a character- not for the environment, circumstances, or non-character items in the imaginary game world. That’s the biggest difference from Director’s Stance: The Author cannot affect anything except a character.

Second, a player engaging in Author Stance makes his or her decisions about a character based on the meta-game. In-game/in-character motivations and conditions can be (but don't have to be) ignored at the player's choice under Author Stance. However, that doesn’t mean a player using Author Stance can go willy-nilly all over the place, making decisions for a character as he or she pleases. These decisions must make sense in-game. So, even though the player is using knowledge from outside the imaginary world as the basis for decision making, he/she must justify those decisions using logical fiction inside the Shared Imagined Space. This is another break with Director Stance. The spaceship from the Monty Python example above can only happen under Author Stance if it had been previously established that aliens existed in the Setting and were watching over the main character.

Last, but not least, is Actor Stance. It’s been my experience that Actor Stance is occasionally and wrongly associated with Simulationist Play. As if, Actor Stance was the only “right way” to play using the Simulationist Creative Agenda. It is also sometimes treated as the same thing as talking in-character or “Immersion.” But Actor Stance is SO much more.

First, Actor Stance does not care what Creative Agenda you are using. In fact, none of the stances do. One can use Actor stance as the situation demands. Second, Actor Stance prioritizes the character much more than Director and Author Stance do. Decisions made using Actor Stance are made in accordance with what the character’s motivations are AND take into consideration in-game knowledge, conditions, and events. The player is not manipulating the scenery or objects in the imaginary world, just the character from the character’s own perspective.

It is in Actor’s Stance that motivation is brought to the forefront. Actor’s Stance pursues this motivation and tries to carry it out. This is where character knowledge and player knowledge are split, and meta-game considerations are disregarded. It requires the player buy into the character as a living, breathing, free-thinking individual. The character is not a game pieces or a means to an end, but it becomes the focus of attention. Actor Stance is the expression of an intimate relationship between the real life player and the imaginary person that is being portrayed by that player. GMs often play significant NPCs (for lack of a better term) this way. That’s the most common example I can think of.

Some people define Immersion by saying it’s engaging in Actor’s Stance as often and as much as possible. I don’t really have a good definition for Immersion. A lot of talk about has gone on over the years. I don’t think Actor’s Stance is a handy synonym for it, but you should be aware that some (not all) people think of it that way.

Over the years, several problems associated with Stance Theory have arisen.

One common error that was made in the early days of hashing out Stance Theory was that it related only to “your” character. It doesn’t. It relates to any character. You can be an Author, Actor, Pawn, or Director anyone’s character or characters. The emphasis is not on the character, but on the player- i.e. what stance the player is taking toward the fiction being created in the imaginary world. Some people mistake Stance Theory as character-centric. It isn't. It's player-centric.

Another error that was made was that Stance Theory didn’t apply to GMs, or that all GMs were, necessarily, by default operating in Director Stance. This is, of course, totally untrue and can be observed in actual play. Any time the GM operates the NPCs (for lack of a better term) based solely on that NPC’s knowledge- and not his (The GM’s) knowledge- that GM is operating in Actor Stance. This happens all the time and is usually seamless during play.

Third, some believe that all roleplaying is stance. Meaning, that everything said at the table comes from one of the four stances. That’s not true. When talking about Stance Theory, we are talking about character actions and the way the imaginary world reacts to the characters, nothing else. The damage from a sword thrust is not stance. The death of a character is not stance. The effects of drowning are not stance. A majority of the things said at the table are said from a stance but not everything. When examining a piece of roleplaying for stance, look for player decisions, character decisions, and changes in the imaginary world. Don't get hung up on mechanics.

Finally, the last common mistake I want to highlight is the assumption that people do or at least should maintain a consistent stance throughout play. As if idealized play is when everyone is operating in Actor Stance or in Director Stance. This is rubbish. Players are constantly moving from one stance to another as the needs of the situation arise, and I can see no benefit (or at least, very little) from rigidly maintaining only a single stance. I’ve played in campaigns where the Social Contract strictly enforced Actor Stance (talking in character, using only character knowledge, following the character’s alignment to a T). Anyone who broke Actor Stance was immediately penalized socially if not mechanically. Play devolved into a game of “Gotchya!” and those sorts of campaigns never lasted long for me.

Well, that’s all for Part 1. In Part 2, I’ll delve into how this is relevant to RPG design (Hint: it’s really not so much anymore). Until then, take care of each other.



Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is Publishing Really That Painful?


The answer is yes. Over and over on podcasts and forums, you can see experienced independant RPG publishers talking about how painful the process of publishing really is. This post in an anecdote.

I was midway through my first series of DL-Quarterly. I had sent the PDF files of "Standoff!" to my printer, RapidPOD. RapidPOD was local for me. It is headquartered in Brandenburgh Kentucky, which is only a few minutes drive from where I live. I want to help the entreprenuers in my state, so I decided to work with them. The first two books, Cutthroat and Hierarchy came back fine. Shipping seemed a little slow, but I was ahead of my deadlines which made everything work out okay.

The PDF for Standoff! was a little complicated. I had very narrow margins, the book cover was mainly a big red rectangle, and I used some pretty wierd fonts. It wasn't anything a print on demand printer couldn't handle, though.

I submitted my book in April, expecing to get it back in June at the latest- plenty of time to get it before GenCon. I got a confirmation email when I uploaded the file to their site, and I thought everything was cool. I was just starting on my Master's degree and the end of the school year was coming up, so I was focussed on creating my final exams and finalizing my students' grades. You know, teacher stuff.

Anyway, June rolls by before I know it. I give the printer a call, and it turns out my file has been lost. So I upload it again, somewhat worried about getting to GenCon this year with my games. A couple more weeks pass, and I call again. RapidPod was going through some sort of management change and it might be a while before I got my books, but I was assured they'd arrive prior to GenCon which was toward the middle of August that year.

August comes. I get a box on my porch. I now what it is, and I'm relieved. I take it inside and open it up with my wife to find that all of the books are horribly miscut. The covers are nearly diagonal. Words are chopped off on half the pages and a bunch of the icons didn't print. I call up RapidPod (now Vixen Printing) and complain. They offer to resend my order, but state that from now on I'd have to order a minimum of 100 books. I was irate.

I didn't go to GenCon that year. My books arrived four weeks later. I switched printers for The Holmes and Watson Committee and finished up the first series for DL Quarterly. Then I just shut the whole thing down. The experience really turned me off from publishing for a long time. I know many have had to go through the same thing.

Don't go into this thinking it's easy. I'm proud of the work I did with Divine Legacy and my earlier work with Twilight Press. In the end, it was all worth it. I'd do it all over again without a second though. But that doesn't mean it wasn't painful. It was.



Friday, July 30, 2010

When Do I Abandon A Game?


Let's deal with a heavy topic today: abandoning an RPG design. Abandoning a game can mean different things for different people. I know some designers that never commit to a design unless they know how and when they will finish it. In fact, they don't even begin designing a "game" until they have spent months designing potential mechanics and/or examining the themes they might want to consider for their design. They almost never quit on a project. Those kinds of people are rare.

I'm more in the second group. I'm willing to bet most people are. Right now, I have a Word document with over 85 sketched-out RPGs. What I mean by sketched-out is: the rudiments of Chargen, Resolution, Setting, and Advancement are planned out. There's a title and a targeted demographic. But of those 85+, I've only ever brought 1 to print: The Holmes and Watson Committee. Many designers probably have similar stories. There's a ton of games they've sketched out, written about, outlined, and dreamt of, but ultimately let it go for whatever reason. Sometimes, before the games really got off the ground.

But I want to talk about abandoning a game that is further down the line in development. This is a game where the designer has spent hours and hours writing it down. Spent hours and hours playtesting it. Spent hours and hours talking about it to friends, players, and Internet junkies. Maybe he has even published an Ashcan. This is a game that is well developed and has seen functional play at some level, BUT (and it's a big BUT) isn't achieving the kind of sustained, fun, and effectual play the designer wants.

Actually, most games that get published end up in that situation at some point. Playtesting will hum along fine, but there will be something missing or there will be some part of the mechanics that don't seem to work the right way. At this point, one of three things will happen. First, the designer will solve the problem. Perhaps he'll get some help form online forums or a blog. Perhaps one of the players will suggest a change that works out. Perhaps it will come in his sleep. Hey, it happens. However it comes, a solution presents itself and the designer jumps on it and development continues on its merry way.

Second, the designer will just publish it anyway. This is not all that desireable and is frequently the reason why the first edition of a game is quickly followed by a second.

The third eventuality is the most painful. The game is abandoned. It dies. But how does a designer make the choice to leave it and move on? It's an intensely personal thing and the designer has to take a hard look at himself in the process.

Designers are under development as much as their games are. I don't care if this is your first RPG or your thirtieth. Each game teaches you something about roleplaying and something about yourself. Publishing a game is a grueling, grueling process. Designers aren't joking when they say that. It's a personal expression of creativity, determination, and heart. The process changes you- usually for the best. And that's the important part: The Process Changes You.

When we start designing games, we have a certain skill set. Most of the first games we design are a lot like the games we enjoyed growing up. That's a good thing. But after the first one, our skill sets change, we add some new ones, and the next time around, the game is quite different from the last. Our taste, vision, and perspective change. This is a continual evolution for as long as the designer designs.

The decision to abandon a game comes when you aren't willing or you aren't able to change to suit the needs of the design. If you get to a point in your design where you are totally at a loss, where designing the game doesn't even make sense to you anymore, where you aren't willing to give up what you currently believe and currently enjoy to get it finished, it's time to leave the game behind. It can be painful because you know that the design is right there, just out of reach. But the skill set you currently possess is lacking to complete it, and there's no reconciling that.

It happens to the best of designers. Three high profile designs I can think of are Robots and Rapiers by Ralph Maza, Acts of Evil by Paul Czege, and Dragon Killer by Vincent Baker. Ralph, Paul, and Vincent know how to make games, but they got to a point in the designs of these games where they just couldn't take them any further. They had to abandon them and move on to other things. I don't presume for a moment to know what that meant to them personally. I'm sure it was difficult to some degree. But they made the choice, and as a result we have games like Apocalypse World and Blood Red Sands. So abandoning a game is not a bad thing. If it happens, it happens because it's a necessary thing.

So is that the end? No. Just because you abandon a game doesn't mean it's gone forever. Take the three examples from above. I spoke to Ralph about Robots and Rapiers about a year ago. He's filed the game away and plans to start over with it and publish it one day in the future. Vincent is returning to work on Dragon Killer after taking several years off. He learned a lot from publishing Apocalypse World and now feels he's ready to tackle the design problems for his former game. Paul has opened up Acts of Evil for anyone to develop. So it's very possible that someone, some day could publish a finished version of the game.

If you get to a point where your design requires something of you that you can't or don't want to give it, then it's okay to put it away and leave it behind. Maybe some day you'll be able to return to it. Maybe you won't. But if you chose to leave it behind, leave it behind. Abandon it. Don't let it hang over you. Move on to something else- it doesn't even have to be RPG design.

It's okay to abandon a game. And if making RPGs is really your passion, a new design that better matches your skills and interests will be just around the corner.



Thursday, June 17, 2010

What is DFK?


First in my retroactivist articles is DKF. DFK stands for "Drama, Fortune, Karma." In itself, that probably doesn't mean much. It was, to the best of my knowledge, originally cointed by Johnathan Tweet around 1995. The exact usage has changed some since Johnathan invented it for his game Everway. However, it was very instructional at the time and formed the basis for a lot of innovation in the years to come.

Drama, Fortune, and Karma refer to the three major types of resolution systems typically used in RPG design. Think of them as the Genuses in the Family of Resolution Systems. Each Genus has multiple species that are radically different from each other and impossible to recount in any detail here in this blog post. Each Genus has its own characteristics that help the players decide what happens and how.

What is Drama Resolution?

The Provisional Glossary defines Drama as: "Resolving imaginary events based on stated outcomes without reference to numerical values or (in some cases) statements that have been previously established (e.g. written on a character sheet)."

A definition is a good place to start but not really complete enough for understanding. Drama resolution systems are about forcing human-to-human negotiation and contact during play. In fact, negotiation becomes the centerpiece of any climactic situation, conflict of interest, or crisis. The players are expected to actively and verbally extend ideas for action within the game to advance the plot. The players must interact with each other.

This is usually accomplished through several, rather formulaic, methods. I really want to examine all the different ways these different resolution systems tackle resolving tasks and/or conflicts in their own isolated articles, so I'm just briefly going to describe what can go on during Drama Resolution here.

Most of the tinkering with Drama Resolution systems goes on in the area of assent. Just because a player states something happens, doesn't automatically make it so. Sometimes the group as a whole has to agree, sometimes just the GM, sometimes it's another player with whom the first player was interacting. It can be something as simple as Player A stating he leaps down the firepoll and Player B saying, "Okay, that's fine." Or it can require the use of currencies where Player A has to offer X number of tokens in the pot, then if anyone trumps his tokens with more tokens, that player gains narration rights unless someone trumps him and so on. Or the rules could require Player A to give all the other plays a certain number of his XP points in order to earn the right to narrate the action. However it works, the end result is that one (or more) players decides and then verbally describes how the situation resolves to the rest of the group.

What is Fortune Resolution?

This is the resolution system most of us are familiar with. The Provisional Glossary defines it as, "A method of resolution employing unpredictable non-behavioral elements, usually based on physical objects such as dice, cards, or similar."

Again, the definition is okay to start with, but needs to be unpacked some more. Let's get the obvious and boring out of the way first. Fortune mechanics can use any sort of randomizer like dice, spinners, cards, chicken bones, coins, or whatever to achieve some type of result. The key is, the result is unknown before the resolution system is put into action. There should be some mystery (i.e. unpredictability) to how the conflict, task, crisis, or action will be resolved. If there isn't, it might be Karma Resolution instead. But I think most everybody already knew that.

The key is the "non-behavioral" elements. The randomizer or whatever must be apart from the players. It can be something that they interact with, but must be something that acts or thinks impartially and independantly of the players' desires. There can be PLENTY of shenanegans that alter the result before or after the randomizer is used. In fact, those are often the most fun parts of the Fortune resolution system. But the randomizer must still remain an independant negotiator apart from the players themselves. It's almost the "invisible extra guy" at the table that mediates conflicts of interest.

There are a lot of abreviations associated with Fortune mechanics. You've probably seen things like FatB, FatE, FitM, FitMw/T or something along those lines. I'll give you a quick run-down of what they stand for but hold off on really going into detail about them until I can do an article just dedicated to Fortune Resolution.

FatB: Fortune at the Beginning

FatE: Fortune at the End

FitM: Fortune in the Middle

FitMw/T: Fortune in the Middle with Teeth

These types or "Species" of resolution systems also exist for Drama and Karma, but they aren't talked about very much. The terms above were developed by many authors over the years and discussed at length at the Forge. All this ties into IIEE, and I'll get into them more at a later date.
The thing that makes Fortune mechanics unique from the other is that it allows players to advance the action without necessarily interacting with anyone else. A roll of the die can decide if one charcter hits another and kills him, if one character successfully disarms a trap, or if the charasmatic rake woos the slutty bardmaid all without any input from the players other than the controler of the character. Fortune doesn't have to work that way, but it can work that way. Some see this as the key feature of the Genus; others see it as a drawback.

What is Karma Resolution?

Karma resolution is, "Resolution based on comparison of Effectiveness values alone." That's a very brief definition compared to Drama and Fortune. The reason is somewhat obvious- Karma is the simplest of the three. The character has a value, the conflict/task/situation has another value, and if the character's is higher, he or she succeeds.

The key feature of this method of resolution is who sets the values. Like Drama, this value is often arrived at using negotiaton among the participants. Often, it takes at least two people to make this thing work. The person playing the protagonist can't also play the opposition or the contests of the game fall flat and no one has any fun. Therefore there must be a GM or some other player/arbiter who chooses a target number for the conflict, scene, task, etc. How that number is chosen can be dealt with in a myriad of ways. The rules may suggest default values. The number could be arrived at using group consensus. It could be the result of various mathematical calculations.

Karma can seem somewhat rigid at times. Values can be strictly defined, and players can feel stymied by the fact that they can't do things at certain times. But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Karma Resolution is. Karma is there to inspire you to achieve greatness. Your character may not be able to scale that mountain right now, so go on some quests, build up your strength and your allies and THEN come back and see if you make it to the summit to see the Guru. Karma can be used to put more emphasis on the journey of a character instead of the destination. That's a little trite, but that's been my experience.

So is this Still Relevant to Design?

I think it certainly is. Fortune is the most developed of the three resolution systems. I think designers who want to break some new ground could really do some cool innovations with Drama and Karma. Aside from that, knowing what types of resolution systems are out there makes you a better designer. Each game calls for a different set of skills, or at the very least, a refinement of the skills you already have. You need a large toolkit to maximize your skills. DFK is one of the tools. Get to know it well, and your designs will improve.



So What's the Future of SD?


What's the future here? That's a very interesting question. I'll tell ya where I've been for the last few months. I'm a Gamist at heart. That doesn't mean that's the only type of roleplaying I like, but I am what I am. And honestly, to get my Gamist itch scratched the best, I've found that Magic: The Gathering does better than any RPG I've played. Ew, the enemy, I know, but I love that game. I'm fairly decent at it too. I've won a few tournaments here and there, earned a few rewards from WotC's player's network. Overall, I've had a great time with it.

However, Magic requires more money and more time than RPGs. I think it was originally intended to take less of both, but that's just not the case. With a wonderful wife getting her Master's degree and a beautiful baby daughter added to my life, I just don't have time to be heavy into Magic anymore.

But writing about RPGs is a whole 'nother matter. I've been looking over the anthologies of Socratic Design, and I've found that some of the best articles I did examined the basic principals of RPG design and play. I meant this blog to be an introductory resource for RPG theory and design, and when I've focussed on that, things have turned out best.

So that's what I'm going to do. I'm going back over the early days of RPG design theory on the 'net and the indie rpg movement in general. Over the next few months, I'm going to the best of my limited ability examine some things that were discussed, disected, and diseminated years ago that we sort of take for granted now. RPG design has come a long way in the last 10 years, but I feel that designers new to the scene have missed out on a lot of the discussion. The foundational stuff like areas of exploration and resolution systems have been so integrated into people's thinking that they just don't come up on message boards anymore. With the Winter of the Forge recently announced, I feel it is an appropriate time.

Many of these concepts are automatic and understood, or at least partially understood. And that's where I feel the loss is. Newbies to the Forge or Story Games Praxis lack familiarity with the foundational conversations that took place seven to ten years ago. The inspiration provided by those conversations rolled out a string of seminal games like Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life with Master, The Mountain Witch, Polaris, Dust Devils, and Prime Time Adventures. I feel like something has been lost since then, and I want to provide a place for those who want to re-explore or re-familiarize themselves with those concepts to do just that.

Let me say in advance, I'm no expert on these. I'm merely relating what other- more brilliant- people have said and how it applies to game design. I'm not going to take any credit for creating these concepts. I'm just bringing them up again after years of dormancy.

Expect to see new articles here soon. They'll be on topics that you likely won't see at the Forge or Story Games anymore. If you're new or maybe lost in RPG design, I hope they will prove useful to you.