Friday, December 02, 2011

What are some Different Publishing Models?


I’m going to briefly tackle some of the different styles of RPG Publishing I’ve seen over the years. Some have proven successful, others have proven potential. This list is not exhaustive, but it is extensive. Hopefully, if you are getting close to publishing your book, these ideas will prove useful to you.

Method 1: Traditional Publishing

This is probably the worst way to do it. In Traditional Publishing, you (the creator/owner) send the book to a printer and order probably 2,000 copies or so. Then, after going through all that pain and suffering (really, printers are a total pain in the ass, I can’t stand them) you have to line up some type of distributor. The most famous is Alliance, but there are others. If you can get a distributor to carry your game, it gets added to a humongous catalog where brick-and-mortar stores might decide to buy a few copies at a 50% to 60% discount if they have some extra cash lying around (most don’t). If the stores choose not buy it, the games get sent back to you (I assume at your expense) or do nothing but collect dust in a warehouse never to be seen again.

The risks of publishing this way are massive. The publisher (that’s you) assumes almost all costs. You pay for printing, shipping, and in some cases, warehousing costs. Then, you have to wait for the distributor to find a few stores willing to take a risk on your new game with little to no name recognition or support. Then, you have to wait on the distributor to get around to paying you for whatever games it managed to sell, and remember, the distributor sells those games at a steep discount to the stores (50-60%) taking a cut of whatever it managed to get for you. I don’t have hard numbers on this because there is no way I would ever publish this way and no reason you should either. This method of publishing is a death trap. Stay away!

Method 2: Using a Fulfillment Service

I talked a bit about this method in a post from 2007 called “What is a Fulfillment Service?” Most of it is still true. You can read about it there. The Fulfillment Service route is one that has been taken by many successful independent RPG companies and worked fairly well for them. Fair warning up front, you may take a steep loss if your fulfillment service goes out of business and has no way to return your stock. Risks here are mostly low, but real.

Method 3: Subscription Service

Back in 2007-2008 I published four RPGs. I had them all playtested and ready to go before I released the first one. I decided to try a new model of publishing. Back then, I overestimated my skill in design and figured I could pump out four short games a year. Based on that assumption, I offered my customers a change to buy all four of my finished games at a discount. They would receive a game quarterly (every three months). The one time “subscription” fee would guarantee them games for a year.

This actually worked quite well from my perspective. I got a lot of money up front that covered my printing and shipping costs. I had customers waiting and excited about my games coming in the mail. And it gave me enough margin for error when it game to getting my books back from the printer that any printing mistakes could be corrected before the next shipping deadline. So this model showed a lot of promise.

Unfortunately, the margin for error wasn’t large enough. I had all sorts of trouble from my printer. I had to delay sending out several games by three to four weeks, and I found the publication schedule actually difficult to keep up with. That was partly due to me being in grad-school at the time, moving to a new city, and changing jobs, but that sort of real-life happenings plague every book publisher. So that’s no real excuse.

In the end, I think this model held some promise, but it’s best for someone who has a lot of games ready to go- preferably short games that are relatively cheap to print and easy to learn to play.

Model #4: The Ransom Model

Greg Stolze pioneered this model. It’s mainly just used for PDF games. Basically, it works like this: first, the publisher creates a game or some other game-related content. Then he sets a target dollar amount he wishes to earn for his work on the game. It might be $100 for instance. Whatever the number, it is enough for the author-publisher to recoup his costs and have a little left over. The publisher then posts a notice on his or another’s website that he is accepting donations for the game. He might provide a little teaser and maybe a sample chapter which are helpful enticements to get people donating. Over time, people donate however much they want to the publisher. It can be a penny or it could be the full $100 amount. Once the target dollar amount is achieved, the donation window is closed and the publisher puts the game up for download FREE OF CHARGE for everyone. So the whole community benefits from the generosity of others.

This system works best if the designer has either A) a lot of buzz about his upcoming project or B) a terrific track record of making fun games. If people don’t think that their donations will ransom a good game, then they won’t donate. And a failure to achieve the target number and consequently failure to release the game can do lasting damage to a publisher’s reputation. Approach this method with caution.

Model #5: Pay What You Want

This method is used by Ben Lehman, and I think it’s great. The publisher designs a game and then makes it available via PDF through e-mail. Anyone who wants the game can get it for free, if they like, or they can donate any amount of money to the publisher. It’s similar to the ransom model in that respect, except there’s no minimum threshold the community has to reach to ransom the game. The publisher will email a PDF copy of the game to anyone who wants it. You only give the publisher money for the game if you want to.

This method has some great benefits, but also some risks. One great thing about it is that it can get your game in the hands of lots of people quickly. Some people wait for a game to come out for a while and be reviewed (or talked about in Actual Play reports) before investing their money. Others don’t want to spend any money on a PDF game, even if the content interests them. The best advertising for your game is people playing it. So giving them an opportunity to get your game cheaply can lead to future sales as word of how your game plays is spread. I think that Ben has found this method very successful in promoting his games.

There are some risks, though. It is very possible that you will make little to no money on your game using this method. If you’re okay with that, then this might be the model for you. However, if you are looking to be compensated for the time and effort you put into making your game, the Pay What You Want model probably isn’t going to work for you- especially on your first game.

Model #6: The PDF Warrior

For some people, just starting out, they are interested most in exposure- just getting their games out there where people can buy them regardless of the fees associated with doing it. If you just want to sell PDF versions of your game without having to worry about running your own software, website, or payment scheme, there are four good sites for this:, e23, IPR, and Lulu. Onebookshelf is actually a merger between Drive Thru RPGs and RPGNow. Most gamers are familiar with these sites and they have thousands, if not tens of thousands of titles available. e23 is owned and operated by Steve Jackson Games. By listing your game there you are not associating yourself with SJG, so if that’s a concern, don’t let it be. IPR has changed ownership and business models a couple of times, but it’s still a great place to shop for smaller titles. It has fewer games than the other three, so the market there isn’t as crowded. Finally, there’s Lulu. One of the benefits of Lulu is that if your customers want a printed version of your game, you can set it up for them to order such a thing without you having to get your hands dirty with warehousing, tracking, and sending stock. If you’re really new to RPG publishing, Lulu might be your best option.

Each of these outlets, though, have some problems. First, all of them take a cut of your sales. That means less money for you, and if you’re serious about developing your game company, you need every cent you can get. Also, with the possible exception of IPR, these websites carry thousands upon thousands of titles. There’s no real way your game will get noticed by someone browsing the site. In other words, you’re still responsible for sending people to those sites to find and buy your game. It’s not going to happen magically on its own. If you are looking for a no-muss, no-fuss way of selling your game on PDF, these sites might work for you. If you’re looking to grow your business, the next option is where you probably want to be.

Model #7: The Independent RPG Model

This method of publishing a game was pioneered by John Wick and Ron Edwards and later perfected (IMHO) by Vincent Baker. This is the ideal, best way for you to sell your game to your audience in the modern RPG publishing world. I recognize that we don’t live in an ideal world, so it might not be the best way for you, but if this model can fit your goals, you should really try it.

To use the Independent RPG Model, you’ll need several things. You’ll need a book printer you can rely on. Those are hard to find. Ask in the Forge’s Publishing Forum or the Story Games Game Design Forum for advice in this area. Second, you’ll probably need your own website. Right now I’m running RPG Crossroads and RPG Crosstalk through Webs. I wish I weren’t, so I can’t recommend them. I’ve heard Intuit is good for novice web designers, but I have no experience there. If you contact Ron Edwards, Andy Kitkowski, or Vincent Baker, I’m willing to bet they’ll point you in the right direction on this topic. They won’t do any of it for you, nor should they, but they have lots of good advice on running websites. Finally, you’ll need some infrastructure. What I mean by that is a system for accepting payments, tracking customer orders, mailing books, emailing PDFs, and interacting with potential customers. PayPal is the standard for accepting online payments. When it comes to checks, cash, and money orders, you’ll have to decide if you want that to be part of your business model. You might use Open Office or Google Docs to track customers, orders, and payments, or Microsoft Office if you own a copy. Avery Labels are helpful for shipping. But all of this you have to do on your own. This model is all about you: the creator-publisher.

The Independent Model does not rely on a fulfillment house or third party storefront such as IPR or RPGNow. Instead, the creator-publisher assumes full responsibility, and therefore full profits, for selling his game. The publisher creates his own website, his own Paypal account, and his own system of delivery for his games.

This is a lot of work! You have to go to the post-office every couple of days, buy the stamps, envelopes, and boxes to send your games. You have to Hand write or print off the address for each of your customers, email each customer your PDF individually, track your stock, and answer questions on a multitude of Internet forums about your game. You have to keep up with customs if you ship internationally. It’s hard. If you haven’t read the posts I’ve made about how tough it really is, you need to. BUT (and that’s a big BUT), it is so rewarding. You get to keep every dollar you earn. You get to reinvest that money in your company to buy better art, better covers, and maybe even booth space at a convention. And it’s not just the money that makes this model so great; it’s the satisfaction that you are running your own small business. My career as a game designer is filled with many regrets, but I cherish the time I spent running my own business. It gave me the confidence I needed to tackle so many other challenges in my life.

This model is not for everyone, especially if you feel you don’t have the time and patience to deal with the headaches of printers, postal workers, and damaged stock. I’ve used this method, and it is tough, but I’ll say it again, running your own business is very rewarding in many ways and it’s the best way to make the maximum amount of cash.

I hope this post has been helpful to you. At the very least, I think it will enumerate the many different methods of publishing that are available to an independent game publisher. Publishing a game is a tough road to walk. There are many pitfalls along the way, but if you stick to it, and truly believe in your game, then the rewards definitely outweigh the heartache.



Thursday, November 03, 2011

Is there a Missing Box in the Big Model?


First off, I’m going to qualify this by saying I’m only now just starting to understand the Big Model. So don’t scourge me if I just missed a point made by Ron or Vincent somewhere along the line.

Second, this is not an attempt to overthrow the Big Model, but to understand one small facet of it in a better light. I am a full believer in the Big Model’s accuracy and usefulness. No one should use this thread as a chance to poke holes in it.

Third, I will greatly appreciate input from everyone, but I’m especially interested in replies from Ron, Vincent, Ben, and Ralph. They’ve both helped me understand parts of the Big Model in the past.

So anyway, here we go. The more I work on the designs of my games and the more I look at the crop of designs from this year’s Game Chef, the more I see games incorporating physical objects into their mechanics and into play. At the same time, I’m seeing DnD renew its interest in minis with the release of the Dungeon Tile series books which the website reports as selling quite well for a few years now. So based on my play of these games and reading of the mechanics, I’m wondering if there should be a box between Social Contract and the Exploration/SIS box in the Big Model called the “Shared Playing Environment” or the “Physical Playing Environment.”

For this post, I’m going to be referencing the following games as examples of games using Physical Items:

Polaris (specifically its candle)
DnD (specifically the minis and dungeon tiles)
Glorantha (specifically the map)
1001 Night (the bowl of gem-looking dice)
Hunter Rose- My Old Game Chef Entry- (specifically its rose, thread, and beads)
The Roach and Standoff- (for the cards used during play)
Code of Unaris uses computers and the InternetDeadlands (1st Edition) uses a community deck of cards
A Hypothetical Game using the phases of the Moon
A Hypothetical Game that denotes a rotating GM by using a hat that is traded around
A Hypothetical Game the uses a Podcast to add content to play
Any RPG ever played (specifically the venue for the game) perhaps including LARPs

The Case for the Physical Playing Environment Not Being Currently Well Represented By Social Contract:

I pulled up the diagram of the Big Model, the Provisional Glossary, and the article GNS and Other Matters. I look at the list of things that characterize the Social Contract: Courtesy, Food, Transportation, Communication, Friendship, Hosting, Romance, and more. While “and more” can be infinitely expanded to include just about anything under the sun, things like maps, miniatures, roses, and other play aids are of a totally different breed of things than “Courtesy, Friendship, Transportation, and Romance.”

The definition of the Social Contract from the glossary says, “All interactions and relationships among the role-playing group, including emotional connections, logistic arrangements, and expectations. All role-playing is a subset of the Social Contract.” Everything that has to do with a group roleplaying is part of the Social Contract and is a subset of it. However, it seems like referencing the Social Contract itself and only itself during play is exclusively done when there are “relationships, emotional connections, logistical arrangements, and expectations” are involved. For anything more specific than that, you look at the boxes contained within the Social Contract. For instance, you would not reference the Social Contract if you used the Hacking rule in Code of Unaris (which is an ephemera term) unless the act of Hacking caused a conflict in the relationships, connections, arrangements, or expectations of the group.

Finally, the Social Contract contains everything needed for play. However, the Social Contract does not describe play. That is covered by the boxes contained within it. Since things like miniatures, cards, tokens, and maps can help describe play, they specifically aren’t an aspect of the broader concept of the Social Contract per se, they should instead be contained within some smaller box once play begins. Just like the textual rules of Polaris aren’t what makes up the Social Contract, but instead are part of what is referenced by the System (Exploration/SIS box). The physical objects a group decides to use are unique to that group.

Basically, what I’m saying there is that the Social Contract doesn’t describe play, it only contains it. The physical objects players actually use, however, can help describe the fiction that is taking place. Therefore, I see it as needing to be in a separate box within Social Contract since physical items are so radically different from what is currently described by the Social Contract Box.

The Case for the Physical Playing Environment Not Being Part of the Exploration/SIS Box:

First, the objects I’m talking about (the Candle from Polaris, or the Cards from Roach) are not imaginary, fictitious objects. They are tangible items. They can be as objectively viewed by all participants and non-participants as any object can be when dealing with human beings. Therefore, putting them in the Shared Imagined Space doesn’t make much sense to me.

Second, during play I’ve observed slight disconnects between the nature of the physical objects used to support play and the shared fiction of the Exploration. For instance, take a miniature in DnD. A mini might depict a character as carrying a bow. However, the character has never owned a bow nor does he ever use one. Therefore, that aspect of the mini is ignored and never enters the Fiction/Exploration/SIS of the game. Another might be the use of gender specific pronouns on a card from a game like Standoff. A card may say, “On his turn, a character…” The character the card references may well be female. So that part of the card is replaced with something the group agrees enters the fiction of the game. It’s small, but I feel it’s important that such distinctions are made. A physical object depicts one thing, but the group agrees that it doesn’t. As a second example, Vincent said here that the character sheet is not the character. The sheet may reference or allude to the character but is not the character in and of itself. It seems to me that would clearly show the difference between a physical object and an imaginary regarding of what that object represents.

Third, play usually does not explore the physical nature of the objects used to aid play. The color and texture of the cards in Deadlands are totally irrelevant to the Exploration of the game. The online map of Glorantha itself is not what the players explore, but the relevant elements of Setting agreed to in the game’s shared fiction. A hypothetical game that uses the phases of the Moon (in real life) to determine a werewolf’s power does not explore the Moon, only the mechanical affects of the System. The Moon only facilitates the System. It is not itself the point of play.

Fourth, game-related objects that are contained within the physical environment where play is going on may not ever get included in the SIS/Exploration. For instance, unused portions of a dungeon in the Dungeon Tiles set never make it to the SIS. Areas of the Glorantha map where the characters never venture don’t make it into the Exploration of the game. Cards in games like Standoff that never get dealt are there and can help facilitate play, but never enter the fiction of the game. The beads in Hunter Rose are accumulated and tied to the thread, but only reflect play- never influence it. Basically, leftovers.

The Case of Physical Playing Environment Not Being Part of System (also SIS box):

This is all System in the lumpley/Baker-Care Principle sense. Just for quick reference, from the Provisional Glossary it says, "System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play."

First, for the way I’m looking at the Physical Play Environment of a game, the physical objects must exist prior to the “group agrees to imagined events during play.” If a group is going to agree to use the scale on the map of Glorantha to chart the distance the PCs traveled, then the scale and the map must already exist before they reference it. If the players are to agree that a card should be drawn in Roach, the cards must already be in the play area for them to do that. Therefore, the objects have an existence separate from the System of the game.

Second, though the System can reference the physical item, it is not a requirement that every aspect of the physical item become part of “how we decide what happens during play.” As mentioned earlier, details on miniatures, the surface of the moon, the gender pronouns on a card, the color of the dice, etc. can all be ignored yet the object can still help determine what happens. Thus, I don’t think that the physical objects are a part of the System but only reflect the System and/or can only be referenced by the System.

Third, like Exploration, System relies on communication. However, not everything communicated is part of the System. The type, scent, and color of the candle in Polaris may enhance the ambiance of the play session, but it plays no part in deciding how things happen- just when we start, and when we stop. Right? The candle may communicate something about the player as a person, but is almost never a part of the SIS. The SIS may reference the candle, but the candle is apart. Since System is only concerned with “the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play,” what aesthetics the candle provides, while part of the environment where play is happening, isn’t part of the System used for play.

The Case for Social Contract Containing the Physical Playing Environment:

First, as stated by the Big Model Diagram and the definition provided by the Provisional Glossary, everything that has to do with roleplaying is contained within the Social Contract. Physical objects manipulated during play in reaction to or in reference of in-game events are part of roleplaying. Therefore, the Social Contract would contain the Physical Playing Environment.

Second, the Physical Play Environment could not be a larger box than the Social Contract since deciding who would bring the maps, cards, minis, roses, dice, and so on would definitely be characterized by the “interactions and relationships among the role-playing group, including emotional connections, logistic arrangements, and expectations.” The physical objects could not be part of play as physical objects unless the conditions for the Social Contract are met first. Referencing physical objects that are not in the Physical Environment would make them imaginary objects, in my opinion.

Third, the Physical Objects used during play are one among many things that are part of the interactions of the roleplaying group (like the fiction, techniques, and ephemera of the game). Thus, I believe the Physical Playing Environment is a recognizable and discrete component of play.

The Case of SIS/Exploration Being Contained within the Physical Playing Environment:

First, just as the SIS/Exploration of a game can only reference or rely on the Social Contract, the SIS/Exploration can only reference or rely on the Physical Objects present that the group agreed to bring as aids to facilitate play as well as the people who are actually there participating. Since the Physical Playing Environment is like the Social Contract in this way, it seems to me at least, that it too would be a box that encases the SIS/Exploration box.

Second, since the Physical Playing Environment contains things that were agreed to be brought to the game by the Social Contract but might not be incorporated into the Exploration of the game, then the SIS/Exploration of a game would be a subset of everything in the Physical Playing Environment. For instance, not all the minis brought to the game might be used that night. However, they are still game-related and a part of the Social Contract.

The Case for Making the Physical Playing Environment a Distinct Box within Social Contract:

As an area of design and play, the Physical Playing Environment holds great potential for roleplaying games. Relegating the Physical Playing Environment to the “and more” part of the Social Contract downplays its importance, almost making it non-existent as part of the theory. The Big Model is useful for both examining play and designing games. It should help facilitate understanding and innovation in both areas. By not expressing the Physical Playing Environment more clearly, I believe it leaves a gap its communication to a reader- especially for newcomers to Forge theory. To me, that is a problem.

By highlighting the importance of the Physical Playing Environment, it brings another layer of understanding to the Big Model without adding a layer of complexity. The Physical Playing Environment, including the unconventional environments like the Internet or empty field used for LARPing, is an easily grasped concept. It adds a level of detail that makes the Big Model more concrete.

When it comes to examining the Big Model, we are mainly looking at human interaction. However, there is more to roleplaying than just humans interacting with humans. While we roleplay, we are also interacting with non-human objects. Dice, cards, books, pictures, miniatures, foam swords, and other props are part of the ritual. Yet, those things are not found listed on the Big Model as it currently stands. Many newcomers look at the Big Model and go, “So where does the Player’s Guide fit in? I see where it says, ‘reference to the rules’ but I don’t see the rules themselves.” I regard this as a small oversight in the current Big Model. Not a critical or fatal oversight, but I believe it is an oversight.

Finally, I can’t see that anything is lost by adding this new box to the Big Model. The concept of a Physical Playing Environment does not shortchange the concept of the Social Contract nor the Shared Imagined Space. It does not dilute the definitions or relevance of the other boxes; therefore, adding it should not cause any major upheaval in the theory. It does alter it some (anything new should) but not in a cataclysmic way. Hence, I think the model would be improved by adding the Physical Playing Environment to it.

Closing Remarks

Since it seems to me that the SIS/Exploration box includes reference/reliance on some things that are in the Physical Playing Environment but also can exclude things included in the subsets of the “interactions and relationships among the role-playing group,” the Physical Playing Environment is a discrete facet of the Big Model. Keeping all that I said above in mind, I would tentatively put forth that the Shared Playing Environment is “Anything physical that assists and/or participates in play including but not limited to manipulatives (minis, cards, tokens), venues (a dorm room, Skype, chat rooms), and visual aids (maps, character sheets, character sketches) and people (players, GMs, observers). I don’t know if the Big Model was meant to include LARP play, but if it were, I would think that the Physical Playing Environment would be a vital, obvious, and important aspect of play, and thus the model too.

I may be totally off here, so I am willing to get GNS copped on this by the big-wigs. But I’ve always wondered where things like maps, character sheets, minis, and models (and LARP props if they count) fit in when it comes to play and the Big Model. I’m hoping that this blog entry is the starting point for some good discussion on the topic.



Friday, October 21, 2011

D&D Alignments: A Lament


When I first started roleplaying, I was introduced to the hobby through MERP, a Rolemaster variant. It was lots of fun, though it was a simple game with plenty of design issues. We explored Middle-earth, got tired of it, made our own worlds, and pursued radically different creative agendas concurrently and somehow made it work. I got to play with some awesome people who were my best friends, and we had some deep, rich, and rewarding campaigns.

Then I went away to college. I was introduced to AD&D2e. I had heard it wasn’t all that great of a system, but it was the only thing the guys around there knew how to play. When I first met up with them, I asked to borrow the Player’s Handbook. As I read over Chargen, I seized on Alignments. I thought it was the coolest part of making a character. I could see how it would challenge me as a player to hold to it, and I figured that the game would reward sticking to your alignment even in situations where it would be advantageous to abandon it. The game did no such thing.

In fact, alignment almost never came up in the games I played. I got to game with about five separate DnD groups in college (truth be told, I crammed 4 years of college into 6). And not one time did alignment matter. No one cared about it. The mechanic seemed more of a shackle than invitation for roleplaying. Eventually, I gave up my quest for it to matter.

I hated that. I really wanted alignment to be important, in fact the center of my character. In truth, I think it should have been. It seems obvious that, at some point in DnD’s design, someone thought moral dilemma would be an interesting facet of play, but the game never supported it. Alignment is the ultimate flag in DnD when it comes to what a player wants his character to really be about, but the game never provided incentives for challenging and changing alignments. It would tell you how to do that (and offer some nominal punishments for the change), but not why a person should, or when, or offer bonuses and temptations for doing so. I felt the mechanic was almost entirely ignored by the game. I wish it wouldn’t have been.

This is why I have high hopes for Dungeon World. I’m not really plugging that game here, just relating that I am sorrowful that my experience with DnD marginalized what I found to be the most intriguing part of character creation, and that I hope DW offers me the chance to see what it would have been like if Alignment mattered.

Have you ever felt this way about a game? That there was a mechanic that seemed really awesome and even central to play, but was ignored altogether by the rest of the rules and/or players?



Monday, October 10, 2011

How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics? pt.2


Back in 2007, I wrote an articled called “How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics?” I’ve learned a lot since then, so this is a follow-up article to that.

The definitions of mechanics vs. rules can be a little bit fuzzy. I’m not going to worry about the minutiae of that debate today. Basically, I’m going to refer to the Rules as the printed text in your book, and the System as the lumpley principle (see link). Anyway, here’s some pointers on helping your rules better teach people how to play your game:

#1: Write the Rules according to what the players (including the GM) actually do:

Rules should be written to provoke action by the players. The text explains what the players are supposed to be doing at the table during play. Therefore it reasons that rules should be written with player action in mind. If the characters in your game are Texas lawmen from the old west and you want to give them a bonus for aiming their rifles rather than shooting from the hip, don’t write this: “Aiming: +3 bonus to hit.” Instead, write, “Aiming: If you have your character spend one round aiming his gun, add a plus three bonus to your Attack value.” As I said in my article on writing mechanics, mechanics (rules) are for people, not for characters. The character is getting a bonus for aiming, but it’s the player that decides to have him aim.

When writing your game, you will inevitably come across a sentence or two that seems confusing. If you do, ask yourself, “Is this written in a way that talks about what the players are actually physically doing, or is it talking about something else?” If the answer is “something else” then it probably needs to be rewritten. Focus on real people making real decisions and taking real actions around the game table and your text will be much better at communicating your vision for play.

#2: Don’t just explain the rules, explain the rationale behind the rules.

Designers are getting better and better at explaining not only what to do but also why players should be doing it. It used to be that a game might propose combat options as just a list of bonuses a character could get if the player simply declared he/she is using them. There was no explanation of where to use them or why to use them. It was just assumed the players would figure it out.

This was especially true in Chargen. Take alignment from AD&D 2e for example. There was a listing of each alignment and then an explanation of that alignment, but never any rules or text about why you should play your alignment, why you should change your alignment, or why you should care what other people’s alignments were. There were rules on HOW to do those things but not WHY you should do those things. Therefore, it was my experience, that alignment rules were pretty much disregarded with the occasional exception of the cleric class.

So how can you explain the why in addition to the how?

Well, the simplest way to do that is just include it as part of the chapter or section where the rule is introduced. Vincent Baker is a master at this. Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age, and Apocalypse World are all exemplar texts for discussing the Why along with the How without breaking up or interrupting the text.

That’s not to say that breaking up the text is a bad thing. It isn’t. Using a designer’s sidebar on the outside margins of a text is a perfectly viable alternative as well. D&D 3e did this. They called it, “Behind the Curtain.” It introduced the reader to the thinking of the designer and developer when it came to certain mechanics. This was extraordinarily helpful for players (like myself) who were converting over from AD&D 2e rules.

Another way to do this is just to have a subsection at the end of each chapter or whatever explaining your rationale for the various mechanics. So at the end of Character Advancement, you might have a section entitled “My Vision For These Rules” or “Why This Should Matter to You.” It’s okay to come right out and say “Hey Mr. Reader, this part’s important. Let me tell you why it is.”

#3: Don’t hide anything.

This is related to the first. There’s been a tradition in roleplaying texts (see my article on TITB4B) to hold back on telling the reader everything for fear of ruining the surprise or suspension of disbelief. This is silliness. Leaving out critical parts of the instructions for prescribing play is a BAD IDEA.

You are inventing a new game, even if you are basing off some other game like FUDGE, FATE, or TSOY. Therefore you need to explain, in detail, everything you as the designer expect to go on during play. You must prescribe to the players the actions they should take in order to understand, play, and enjoy your game. I’m not talking about dictating every move or adding rewards and punishments for what the characters do. I trust that a reader of this blog knows that. Instead, what I’m saying is if challenging other player-characters to duels is really fun in your game, come out and say that! Don’t just include the rules for having duels without any type of text explaining that dueling is an important aspect of game-play.

I think that some of the talk about the “Fruitful Void” is sometimes confusing to new designers. When Vincent talks about the Fruitful Void, he’s not saying that the game gets fun when the players finally figure out what you left out of the text. He’s saying the game gets fun when the players finally figure out exactly what you put in your text. The Fruitful Void is a very heavy topic and one I’m not comfortable going into at great length without its own article. For the purposes of this entry let me just say, don’t get hung up on whether or not your game has a Fruitful Void. Instead, play, play, play and then explain-explain-explain.

#4: Give model characters, items, techniques, etc.

People learn best in an apprenticeship. However, that is rarely feasible with an RPG that has any sizable print run at all. You, the designer, can’t be everywhere. Therefore you have to resort to another very effective method of teaching: models.

I regard the following as key sections in an RPG rule book:

Character Creation
Character Advancement
Reward Mechanics
GM Prep (if there is a GM)

(You can reference my article on the System Design Checklist for further explanation) In each of the above sections, I highly recommend you give finished, polished, and multiple models of what you, as the designer, expect. In fact, if your character creation, resolution, or GM prep rules are complicated, I would encourage you to give examples at each step and then one final, holistic example at the end. The more models the better.

Models make the abstract concrete. If someone trying to play your game gets stuck, a model can serve as a guidepost they can use to see if they are doing it right. Multiple models are preferred since it gives the reader/player multiple points of reference, thus increasing the likelihood they will understand your text.

#5: Use text features, more importantly, use uniform text features.

Text features are things like headings, titles, sub-titles, boldface, italics, bullets, pictures, graphs, timelines, charts, text boxes, colors, and fonts. There are many more, but those are the most commonly used text features.

Text features are important because they can cue a reader that something new or something important is being presented. A text box at the bottom of the page cues the reader that there may be some supplemental information relevant to the topic in that section. It also tells the reader that what’s in the box is separate from the rest of the text and therefore meant to be read separately.

One thing I’d like to stress is using uniform text features. Make all your titles, headings, and sub-headings the same size, font, and whatever else. All your titles should look the same. All the heading should look the same. All the sub-headings should look the same, and each of these things should look DIFFERENT from each other. I can’t tell you how difficult it can be to read a game text where some of the headings are boldface, others are underlined, everything is in the same font or size, and some key words are capitalized and others aren’t.

Create a style guide for yourself or adopt one from some other source like the APA or MLA. Whatever you do, be consistent. Your readers will thank you for it, and doing so will lead to better comprehension and more consistent play.

#6: Include Bonus Resources Players Can Complete or Customize.

When people think of resources in an RPG book they usually think of one of two things: Character Sheets or Maps. Those are a good start, but they aren’t enough. If the GameMaster’s job is to create a villain, give him a villain sheet to help out- one with all the relevant stats, values, and space for notes that he’ll need. If the GM has to create setting for play, give him some type of setting sheet that is- at the very least- a checklist of things he/she needs to consider when making the setting.

All sorts of tally sheets, note sheets, blank maps with a legend at the bottom, character sheets, monster sheets, charts, diagrams, or logs can be provided to help make implementing the game’s rules easier. For years players have had to create their own, and a lot of confusion can arise from this. If you provide everyone with what they need in this regard, then the resources everyone uses will be uniform and easily understood by the other participants.

The easiest way to come up with resources for your game is to watch people during playtesting. What cheat-sheets or help-sheets did they create? What sorts of suggestions did they make? What parts did they note were cumbersome to keep track of or confusing to catalogue? Playtesting is a gold mine for this sort of thing. Don’t let such valuable feedback go to waste. Use it to make your game more convenient and easier to play by turning those player-made resources into game-provided resources. Before you finish a game, ask yourself, “What else could I include that would make all the book keeping and handling time easier for this game?” Then add that stuff.



Thursday, September 29, 2011

What Should My Mechanics Be Like?


In the world of RPG design, there are millions of different mechanics that have been invented over the four decades of our hobby. Sometimes these mechanics work really well with how the game is played or with the theme, genre, mood, and/or setting of the game. Other times, the mechanics seem disjointed, false, or imported from an entirely different game and given a thin veneer of originality. How does one design mechanics that not only function well but also fit the focus of play the game is trying to evoke? That’s what I’m going to try to talk about today.

For this article, I plan on using a lot of examples, anecdotes, and hypothetical situations. It’s impossible to intelligently talk about mechanics in a vacuum. So as best I can, I will try to provide some amount of context as I go.

The key to designing good mechanics is to constantly, diligently stay focused on what your game is about and what the players do. You may recognize the italicized portion from the Big 3, but there’s something I intentionally left out with regards to the questions the Big 3 poses: what the characters do. Mechanics are not for characters; they are for people. To rephrase: mechanics are what the players do and what the players do should reinforce what the game is about. If you get nothing else from this entry, I hope you get that.

So, let’s start with some negative examples. Take Call of Cthullu for instance (6th Edition). The BRP system it uses is great for creating a very simple and generic resolution mechanic that holds up fairly well under most circumstances during play. But, how does a d100 roll-under mechanic really reinforce the horror of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing? The truth is, it doesn’t. That’s why CoC has a totally separate and tacked-on sub-system called Sanity.

Having these two separate systems always felt disjointed to me. It increased handling time right in the middle of the satisfying, high-tension moments of play. It forced players to stop doing one thing, and start doing another, then go back to doing the first thing again. Also, since the connection between the two mechanics is loose, it is easy to go through lengthy periods of play during a session ignoring one or the other. To me, that was unsatisfying and an example of taking the easy way out in game design. BRP worked, so they used it. It reinforced Chaosium’s branding, so they used it. In my way of thinking, those are not good reasons for using a particular mechanic or set of mechanics.

Instead, let’s imagine a different resolution system, one that more closely integrates what the players do to the sanity genre trope associated with CoC (i.e. what the game is really about). Rather than a d100, I would give each player a standard deck of cards, jokers included. Whenever a character attempted a task, the player would shuffle his deck and flip over the top card. If that card’s value beat the target number, then the character succeeded. If it didn’t, the character fails OR the player has the option to flip over another card and add its value to the original. He could repeat this any number of times. Once the value beat the target number, he’d have to stop flipping. Values for face cards, aces, and jokers would all have different effects. This would have to involve some kind of risk, however.

Any successful skill-check involving the occult or monsters or scary places automatically causes the player to remove from his pile of flipped cards the card or cards with the lowest value. A failure would result in the loss of all cards. When a player runs out of cards in his deck, his character goes insane. Thus, the resolution mechanics and the sanity mechanics are much more intertwined and visceral. As the deck gets thinner, the player knows he’s getting closer to losing his character. But at the same time he also knows that his average card values are getting higher, so it entices him to take more risks in his skill checks- especially those made when not dealing with the spooky stuff, which is a true sign of someone who is losing his/her mind. I believe this would do a better job of communicating to the players through play what the game was really about: the genre convention of slowly going insane as you fight against unimaginable powers.

Let’s take another example that might surprise some: The Riddle of Steel. This game was first published in 2002 by Jake Norwood. TRoS is among the most venerable and beautiful independent RPGs ever produced, so I do not choose to criticize it lightly. I know full well that TRoS is a very functional and enjoyable game to play.

My criticism of The Riddle of Steel comes from the seeming mis-match of combat rules and Spiritual Attributes. The game is really about the Spiritual Attributes and the moral dilemmas they present the players during play. The SA mechanic can force the players to make hard-hitting, gut-wrenching decisions and to reexamine their values. Then, all of a sudden, players are thrust into a highly technical, simulationsist style of sword fencing the moment combat enters the scene. It’s jarring for some. At times, it felt like I pulling my mind out of a deep well of narrativist decisions making, link by link, and then plunging it into the boiling cauldron of an SCA fencing tournament.

It wasn’t jolting every time, but there were moments when the group wanted a fight, and I was like, “Fiddling with all these moves is the last thing I want to do right now.” Unlike the call of Cthullu example, there is nothing generic, cheap, or “easy way out” about Jake’s design. It’s brilliant. But I’ve wondered on several occasions if the combat system would have fit better in a game about sword duals and if the Spiritual Abilities mechanic would have been better served by a more direct and relevant combat system (what I mean by ‘relevant’ is putting what the characters were fighting about at the center of the conflict rather than the thrusts and parries Jake meticulously described in his text). In TroS, I felt at times that I was leaving behind what I really cared about in favor of caring about which fencing technique would be best to defeat the character played by the GM this time around.

Is The Riddle of Steel functional as is? Heck yeah! Is it fun? Heck yeah! Could it be improved by swapping out one set of mechanics for another? I think maybe it could.

Now, let’s talk about some positive examples.

First up, I’m going to talk about Prime Time Adventures. The game is all about exploring the types of themes explored on TV shows. Players portray television (or movie) characters through episodes and seasons. That description actually does the game a disservice. There’s lots more to it than that. If you’re interested in learning more about Matt Willson’s game, I encourage you to pick it up. For the purposes of this article, though, the above description will suffice.

So anyway, PTA incorporates its mechanics extremely well into what the game is about and what the players do. In fact, it does it so well, that it’s hard for me to know where to start in the chain of mechanics. Let’s take the Fan Mail mechanic for instance. Fan Mail is given out by the players to the other players for doing a good job portraying their characters and addressing the premise. The Fan Mail is then used as currency to buy bonus die to be used during play.

I love this mechanic for several reasons. First, it incentivizes players to do what they are supposed to do which is to portray their characters well and engage the story lines in accordance with the premise the group has decided upon. Second, it fits the television motif perfectly. Imagine if Fan Mail was called advancement points or story points instead. It wouldn’t have anything close to the impactful connotation “Fan Mail” brings to the game. So, yes, keywords matter, and flavorful keywords are almost always better and more effective than something generic and common. Finally, I love this mechanic because it creates a closed circuit. It leads the players from the “how we play” mechanics to the rewards mechanics and then back to the “how we play” mechanics. It’s beautiful, symmetrical, and fun. Fan Mail tells the players what to do while helping “what the game is about” to be front and center the whole time.

Let’s take a look at another example. At first I was reluctant to use this game as an example because I always use the game as an example. But a good example is a good example, so here we go.

Dogs in the Vineyard has several mechanics that I feel are expertly woven into what the game is about and what the players are to do. The Escalation mechanic is among its best, IMO. The game, in large part, is about violence and the problems it causes. The resolution system of DitV puts violence at the heart of what the game is about. As the level of violence increases, i.e. Escalates, the player adds more and bigger dice to his pool. The mechanic nails what I am talking about both on a thematic and a visceral level. Physically adding bigger dice to one’s pool gives this mechanic a sensory aspect that enhances its effect on play. Imagine if Vincent had decided that escalation just let you reroll your dice or gave you a +3 bonus to your highest three rolls instead. The mechanic would not be nearly as powerful in communicating the increase in tension and in stakes. It would be dry and uninspiring IMHO. I don’t think the role the physical aspect of game mechanics plays in design and play can be understated. It certainly is underappreciated in many games. I salute DitV for equating the physical act of escalating the number of dice in a pool to the escalating level of violence in-game. (for more on cool mechanics about violence, see also Vincent Baker’s Poison’d- IMO, it’s DitV cranked to 11).

Moving on, there are some games that start off well with regards to the mechanics reinforcing what the game is about, but then lose that initial brilliance in the interest of expedience. Deadlands is the poster child for this, IMO. When it first came out, the poker mechanics used for resolution were very fun and flavorful. Later, though the game switched to the Savage Worlds Engine which is dice-based. I felt the game lost a large amount of its charm when that happened.

Some games have mechanics and play that are totally unrelated, but as time passes and newer editions come out, the game moves toward a greater convergence between mechanics and play. Take AD&D2E’s evolution into D&D4e. AD&D’s mechanics were very abstract, generic, and at times, counter intuitive. They did nothing to tie together what the players did, let alone reinforce the fact that they were actually playing a fantasy RPG. The migration through 3E into 4E, however, changed that. Now mechanics like feats and stances are much more flavorful with regards to the fantasy tropes the game is all about, and the requirement of using miniatures throughout play is much better at mating the mechanics to what the players are actually doing during a play session. Fourth Edition is not everyone’s cup of tea (it’s certainly not mine), but I respect the fact that the mechanics are much more tightly woven into to the types of play and color the game wants to create.

It’s probably time for me to close this article. I’ve rambled long enough. Just remember, your mechanics are for people, and the implementation of those mechanics should closely resemble and reinforce what the game is all about and what the players are actually doing.



Wednesday, March 02, 2011

SD Topical Index #1


This is my 100th post on Socratic Design. IMHO, that’s quite a feat. It gave me pause for reflection. I looked over my anthologies and thoughts, “Geez. These are really hard to use. There’s no organization here.” As I am often referring to my older posts, it can take me a long time to locate a particular entry. Therefore, with my 100th post, I am creating a topical index. I will do so on every 100th post.

So here you go. If you were hoping for an easier reference for my blog, this is probably the best you’ll ever get.

SD Topical Index 1

On Design Aids

-What is The Big 3?
-What is The Alt. Three?
-What are the Power 19? Pt.1
-What are the Power 19? Pt. 2
-Why should I post my Power 19?
-Whatever Happened to the Power 19?
-What is the System Design Checklist?
-What is the Setting Design Checklist?
-Are There any Design Outlines?

On The Big Model

-What is Character?
-What is Setting?
-What is Situation?
-What is System?
-What is Color?
-What is TITB4B and Why’s It Bad?

On Other RPG Theory

-What is Stance Theory? Pt. 1
-What is Stance Theory? Pt. 2
-Is Min-Maxing Bad?
-Which is Better, Hit Points or DPS?
-What is a GM?
-How can Magic be Used in a RPG?
-What is Chargen?
-What is the Fun Now Manifesto?

On Resolution

-What is Resolution?
-What is Narration Rights?
-What is DFK?
-What are the Different Types of Fortune Mechanics?

On Setting

-Does Setting Still Matter?
-What is Setting? Pt. 1
-What is Setting? Pt. 2
-What is Setting? Pt. 3
-What is Setting? Pt. 4
-Is There a New Blasted Sands Available?

On Writing and Designing A Game

-Why Do People Do RPGs?
-What Should I Design?
-What Should I Expect from My First Design?
-When Do I Abandon a Game?
-What is the Mathematician Syndrome?
-What are Some Common Pitfalls?
-Another Pitfall.
-What Do I Do If I get Stuck?
-What is a Sacred Cow?
-How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics? Pt. 1
-What Else Besides Dice?
-What is Strength of Emphasis?
-When is a Concept Ready to Be a Draft?

On Publishing

-What Is It Like to Publish a RPG?
-Is Publishing Really That Painful?
-What if my Game Turns Out Crappy?
-What is a Fulfillment Service?
-What is Troy’s Twelve Step Process?
-Another Process.
-Yet Another Process.
-Where can I get Art for My Game?

On The Community

-What Is/Was The Forge About?
-What is RPG Crossroads?
-What is the (Iron) Game Chef?
-What is Diaspora?

On Rewards

-Is Character Advancement Necessary?
-Is Play Its Own Reward?

On Character Death

-When Should a Character Die?
-What is a Death Spiral?


-What is the Future of RPGs?
-Why Design a RPG?
-What is a Heartbreaker?
-What is a Traditional Game?
-So What Are We Looking For?
-How Do I Appeal To Youth?
-A Side Rant.


-Socratic Design Anthology #1
-Socratic Design Anthology #2
-Socratic Design Anthology #3
-Socratic Design Anthology #4
-Socratic Design Anthology #5
-Socratic Design Anthology #6

Please, please, please report any dead links. Also, if you have any questions about any of the articles, please post them in response to this entry. I don’t check the older ones very often. Enjoy!



Thursday, February 10, 2011

Socratic Design Anthology #6


I haven't done an anthology for Socratic Design since 2009. It seems like yesterday to me, but a lot of time has passed since then. I figured it's time to do one, just to review what I've talked about for the last year and a quarter. Here they are:

-What is DFK?
-How Do Fortune Mechanics Work?
-What is Stance Theory? Pt. 1
-What is Stance Theory? Pt. 2
-What is TITB4B and Why’s it Bad?
-When Do I Abandon a Game?
-Is Publishing Really That Painful?
-Is there a New Blasted Sands Available?

Please report any malfunctioning links. I've often had trouble with these in the past. For reference, here are the previous Anthologies listed in order:

-Socratic Design Anthology #1
-Socratic Design Anthology #2
-Socratic Design Anthology #3
-Socratic Design Anthology #4
-Socratic Design Anthology #5

If you wish to comment on any of these posts, please go ahead and post that reply here on this article. I do go back and check my old posts from time to time, but not very often. I'll be happy to entertain any questions on any of these links here. Anyway, I hope you enjoy them!



Friday, February 04, 2011

How Do Fortune Resolution Mehcanics Work?


There is some required prior reading for this article: What is Resolution? and What is DFK? If you have not read those articles yet, I would recommend doing so. Otherwise a lot of what I have to say here will lack proper context. I’m writing with the assumption that the reader has, indeed, read those articles.

All Fortune mechanics have the same four basic components: Declaring Actions, Narrating Actions, Rolling Dice and Applying Resources such as currencies, modifiers, escalation techniques, rerolls and so on. The order of these four steps, though, matters a great deal and can completely change how a game is played. There are four Fortune methods I’ll be covering here today: Fortune at the Beginning (FatB), Fortune in the Middle (FitM), Fortune in the Middle with Teeth (FitMw/T), and Fortune at the End (FatE).

Fortune at the Beginning (FatB): Fortune at the Beginning has only been experimented with. I am not aware of any large scale game production that has found a way to effectively use it. Not to say it hasn't been done at all. Daniel Solis' games "Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple", "The Leftovers", and "Happy Birthday, Robot!" feature FatB. Currently, I am experimenting with it myself. You can find an example of what I’m doing with the G.A.M.E. system over on 1km1kt.

Fortune at the Beginning works like this. First, before declaring anything, a player adds up all modifiers and resources that might affect the roll. Second, he rolls the dice. Then, after the results of the roll are revealed the player gets to decide what to do. Based on the result, the player may decline to have his/her characters act, may assign any number of successes to any number of actions, or declare what his character won as a result of the rolls. Basically, in Fortune at the Beginning, the player is rolling blind.

The advantages of this system are mostly tactical. In a dice pool system where multiple successful results are possible with the dice, the player can prioritize the actions or tasks he wants his character to complete. He or she knows which actions/tasks will be successful or which prizes he will win. FatB almost becomes a Karma system at that point. It’s not as much of a guess like it is with the other resolution systems.

FatB as opposed to Fortune at the End (FatE), decreases the amount of opportunity costs for acting. If a result shows up in the dice that the player is unhappy with, he can decline action and thus avoid outright failure. If the results are unexpectedly fortuitous, he can react by taking advantage. The order of operations basically looks like this: Apply Resources (if available)->Roll Dice->Declare Actions->Narrate Outcome. In a way FatB resembles FatE in that the dice do get to decide pass/fail, but unlike FatE the player is not locked into a specific action prior to rolling.

I feel that FatB is best suited for tactical games where characters are trying to execute a number of maneuvers in order to win against an opponent or obstacle. Games with the play philosophy of Dungeons and Dragons lend themselves well to FatB IMO. It really supports well many Gamist tendencies.

The problem with this system is, it can be a little unnatural. Rolling prior to declaring anything in the fiction or at the table is strange. You initiate a conflict or trial, but don’t talk about the results, what’s at stake, or what the characters are trying to do until the dice are rolled. It’s very strange. And honestly, I don’t think there’s a well played, widely used functional example of it yet. However, I've just recently been made aware of Daniel's games, so I'll have to give them a whirl.

As a quick aside, a FatBw/T would order its operations like so: Roll Dice->Apply Resources (if available)->Declare Actions->Narrate Outcome. More on the whole “with Teeth” idea in a bit.

Fortune in the Middle (FitM): A bare-bones Fortune in the Middle resolution system places the rolling in (surprise!) the middle of the operations. Players declare what their characters are trying to do, roll the dice, and then narrate the outcomes based on the dice. The narration in this resolution system is really key. In order for a resolution system to really be a FitM system, the narration has to have a mechanical effect on the in-game fiction. This is not saying, “I strike my opponent with my sword” after rolling a natural twenty in D&D. Hitting with a Nat-20 was something decided waaaaaaaaay before anyone said anything. In fact, it’s pre-supposed in the rules. The 20 would hit regardless of whether or not the player said anything. FitM narration is retroactive and can override anything that was said prior to the roll. Players are free to adjust their actions and tactics based on what the rolls’ results are. The dice (or cards or dominos or chicken bones or whatever) are not the final arbiter of what happens in the game’s fiction.

Bare-bones FitM systems operate like this: Declare Actions->Apply Resources(if available)->Roll Dice->Narrate Outcome.

Fortune in the Middle (both with teeth and without) really support Narrativist tendencies. It’s not exclusively so. It can support Gamist play as well, but the types of conflicts Narrativist play tends towards are very well supported by FitM. Simluationist tendencies are not so much. Simulationist play really wants things to be well defined and dedicated to supporting the reinforcement of the area of exploration. I’ll get into the distinctions between the creative agendas at a later date. For now, this information may be useful to designers who are already familiar with them.

Fortune in the Middle with Teeth (FitMw/T):

FitMw/T is where you’ll find a lot of indie game design. Hero Wars, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Shadow of Yesterday, Prime Time Adventures, and so and so on have Fortune in the Middle with Teeth systems. The key feature and key difference between with Teeth and without Teeth systems is where the Spend Currency/Apply Resources operation is located. Instead of applying modifiers, bonus dice, hero points, or whatever before the roll is made, that stuff comes after the roll is made. This is very important because it allows players to escalate the conflict, make better tactical decisions, lend a hand in someone else’s fight, or adjust their character’s actions to better suit the result.

In FitMw/T results are fluid and more subject to what the players want rather than what the rules or dice dictate. For instance, if a player in Dogs in the Vineyard is unhappy with his roll, he can escalate the conflict. If a player in Hero Wars is unhappy with her roll, she can spend a Hero Point to reroll. FitMw/T allows for ways to get around or obviate the initial roll and replace it with something else.

Fortune in the Middle with Teeth systems arrange the resolution operations basically like this: Declare Actions->Roll Dice->Apply Resources (if available)->Narrate Outcome.

The problem with this system is it can be labor and/or time intensive. If the resolution of conflicts or tasks is not what you want your game to be about, then FitMw/T may not be the best choice for your game.

Fortune at the End (FatE): This is not to be confused with the FATE engine used with Spirit of the Century. IMO, Fortune at the End is the simplest and was the most commonly used resolution system for the first three decades of RPG design. D&D/AD&D, Rolemaster, RuneQuest, CoC, Tunnels and Trolls, Boot Hill, MERP, GURPS, WoD, Rifts, Shadowrun, Deadlands, and so on and so on all used a Fortune at the End mechanic*.

In Fortune at the End, a player first declares what his character wants/is trying to do. Second, all tweaking of values, modifiers, dice pools, et cetera is done prior to the actual rolling of the dice. You figure in your attack bonus, defense modifier, saving throw, THAC0, and all that sort of stuff before the dice hit the table. Third, the player rolls the dice (reveals the cards, flips the pennies, or whatever). After the dice reveal their values, the fortune system is done. Normally, you’ll compare the values to a chart or some target number, and read your results from that.

There are two important features of a Fortune at the End system. The first is that once the dice are thrown, the players (including the GM if there is one) are unable to alter the results. The results stand and you deal with the consequences there. The second feature is that what you are rolling for is decided before you roll. There is no going back and changing your mind once the dice are counted. You can’t take your swing of the sword back after you rolled your d20. Players can’t change their minds. Fortune at the End, much as its name suggests, is final. It arranges the order of operations as such: Declare Actions-> Apply Resources (if available)->Narrate Outcome->Roll Dice.

Fortune at the End excellently supports Simulationist play and is practical for Gamist play as well. Narrativist play tendencies seem to be stifled under this system. The idea that a conflict is wrapped up independent to player-input after the roll is antithetical to most Narrativist players’ priorities.

Well, that’s just about all I have to say on this for now. Just for reference, here are the order of operations for each system in shorthand:

=FatB: Apply Resources (if available)->Roll Dice->Declare Actions->Narrate Outcome.

=FitM: Declare Actions-> Apply Resources (if available)->Roll Dice->Narrate Outcome.

=FitMw/T: Declare Actions->Roll Dice-> Apply Resources (if available)->Narrate Outcome.

=FatE: Declare Actions-> Apply Resources (if available)->Narrate Outcome->Roll Dice.

As you design your games, I hope that you experiment with all of these at some point. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Play with them and decide which one is right for your vision of how your game should work.



*Technically, many of the games have resolution mechanics that are abstract enough that they are easy to drift towards FitM or maybe even FatB; however, the intent of the designs strongly indicate that they are FatE.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What is Stance Theory? Part2


In our last episode, I ran down the four main roleplaying stances and gave a brief description of each. In this installment (much shorter than the first), I’ll describe how designers can use Stance Theory when making their games.

Here’s the big thing you need to take away from Stance Theory: all it does is to say who can say what when and how much credibility what they say has. Let me unpack that.

First, is “who can say what?” All the stances except Director Stance state that the player may only make statements about a character. It does not have to be “their” character. It can be any character or all the characters or a whole group of characters. Actor, Pawn, and Author are all character-centric. Director is the only stance that permits a player to make statements about non-character things such as furniture, location, geography, foliage, the weather, and so on and so forth.

Second is “when can they say it?” Each stance has certain conditions that have to be met in order for a person’s spoken words to be added to the fiction. If you want to speak in Actor Stance, you must be acting within the motivations of your character and take in-game causality into account. If you’re not in a position to do that, then you can’t use Actor Stance until you are.

Third is “how much credibility do they have?” A person who is expected to be acting in Pawn Stance cannot suddenly narrate in an open treasure chest in the middle of the room. A person expected to be engaging in Actor Stance cannot suddenly disregard the sensibility of the Setting and past fiction just to gain a tactical advantage. Stances set up expectations that assist people in communication during roleplay.

And that’s sort of how this all relates to design. Remember, that Stance Theory is meant to be used as a tool to describe play. When we design a game, we sort of turn that on its head. Stance theory becomes a way to prescribe play. A game designer helps make the decisions about when each stance can or should be used. But instead of using that terminology (it would just go over everyone’s head), the rules you create give the players guidelines for setting up permissions and expectations of how the game should be played.

The rules imbue the participants with different levels of access or “permissions” to enter fiction into the Shared Imagined Space. In a game like InSpectres, everyone is given permission to use Director Stance powers at will. The expectation then is that the players will add clues, NPCs, locations, or whatever to the game’s fiction as they play just like the GM. Conversely, in a game like AD&D, only the DM is given permission to use Director Stance while players are ostensibly instructed to remain in Actor Stance as much as possible using their characters’ Alignments as a guide. (Granted, AD&D’s texts are horribly unclear on this at times, but go with me on this) The expectations then are the players act with within the bounds of the fictional world using only their characters abilities, knowledge, and motives while the DM gets to control everything else.

As a game designer, it is your job to write the rules so that the players know their roles and know how to play. Understanding Stance Theory provides you with a foundation of knowledge you can draw upon as you write those rules. It can help you to communicate your vision of how play should unfold through the permissions of your rules and the expectations of the players.

As you write your game, you should be cognizant of who can say what and when they can say it. And not only should YOU as the designer be aware of it, anyone who picks up your game and reads it should be aware of it. Setting up permissions and expectations is not something that should be shrouded in the text for the players to discover as they play. It’s not emergent. It should explicit and upfront.

Now, like I said, don’t use Stance terminology in your game! Don’t write, “Now the GM has Directorial Powers but the players should maintain Author Stance except in the following instances…” That would be horrible! Even people who enjoy RPG theory don’t want to read stuff like that in a game. Instead, write something like, “The GM is the one who introduces new places and items, but it is up to the players to decide how they and their characters want to react to them…”

Knowing the how the different stances work gives designers an insight into how communication during play works. Armed with that knowledge, you will be in a better position to write the rules of your game. Just remember, all of the fancy Stance labels and theory talk are just window dressing. The real meat of the matter is setting permissions and expectations for communication during play. I.E.: Who gets to say what, when do they get to say it, and who cares if they do?



PS: As you design and playtest your game, don’t believe for a minute that if you set the permissions and expectations that players should always speak in Actor Stance that the players will always do that. They won’t, and it’s okay. Groups will move in and out of stances as the individual situations call. That’s part of playing the game. But, there should be a default position (read: permission and expectation) for each participant explicitly stated in the rules. This way, when people aren’t sure what to do next or what they should be doing at all, the rules are there to guide them. Lapses in Stance are often used to solve a social problem, not a system problem.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What is RPG Crossroads?


A while back I mentioned the The Neighborhood. Since that time, the website has gone through a number of very beneficial changes. Do you have an RPG company? What about a Podcast or YouTube channel? If you answered yes to any of those questions, there’s a place for you at the renamed RPG Crossroads.

RPG Crossroads is a place where I’m trying to bring together all the great, creative minds that are doing work with roleplaying games. There’s forums just for publishers to talk about their games and where their fans can ask questions and post suggestions. There are forums for podcasters to talk about their shows, promote their sites, post upcoming shows, and discuss issues facing podcasting on the Internet. Already, there’s some great conversations going on there. There’s also a forum for people who want to talk about theory or heavy issues like race and sex in RPGs.

If you want a place to meet a broad cross-section of gamers, RPG Crossroads is design exactly for that. I hope to see you there!