Monday, December 23, 2013

Happy Holidays 2013!

Just wanted to wish everyone a very safe and joyful holiday season. May you find mercy, relief, and happiness with those whom you spend your time over the next week!

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Design Journal #3: Distractions


So last time I talked about brainstorming and the time before that about initial concept.  Today, I’m going to talk about “Cook Time.”  Cook Time is when you leave a design alone for a while and let it stew, steam, and simmer in your imagination. 

Sometimes cook time is intentional.  Take Vincent Baker’s In a Wicked Age.  It started out as the Cheap and CheeseyAdventure Generator.  But Vincent gave it time to cook and it turned into a really fun and challenging RPG. 

In other cases, cook time is thrust upon the designer.  This is the case for me.  My mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer just as I was beginning to write this game.  She’s still fighting it to this day.  As you can well imagine, it’s been tough on the family, and naturally I’ve had to take over a lot of the chores and responsibilities my wife and I used to share.  That’s fine and that’s the way it should be.

Consequently, I’ve not been able to work on my game.  But this is not a bad thing!  And if you find yourself in this sort of situation, do not dismay!  The time off will give you a chance to reflect on your initial work, rethink it, and come back to it some time later to see if it’s still the game you want.  Delays like this can give you clarity and help you see where your ignorance, biases, or sacred cows got in the way of what you really wanted to do.

This is a short entry aimed at those of you who want to be RPG designers but have come up against something that blocks your progress.  Whether it’s a design that’s “just not right” for some reason or it’s personal matters that eat up all your time, I want to encourage you.  It’s an okay thing.  Rushing a game to the finish line so you can have it by GenCon is not the way to create a quality piece.  Don’t be afraid of cook time.  If your game is truly close to your heart, like mine is to me, then your patience and courage will be rewarded.  You can get it done.  You will get it done.  I have faith in you!



Late Edit: for another example of how a designer deals with this sort of thing, check out this link:

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Equipment Lists - A Lament


How boring is an equipment list?  Ugh, it’s got to be the most tedious yet necessary thing in a fantasy or science fiction RPG.  Everyone (or close to everyone) loves the little fiddly bits you get with a new supplement: new weapons, new electronics, new armor types.  Each new thing is just a sight modification of the old stuff, but it’s still cool, right?  Well, it’s not cool enough for me.

You know what I would like to see?  Answer: an equipment list that sparks the players’ imaginations and prompts new avenues of play.

For instance, how cool would it be if an equipment list had five entries for Long Sword or Laser Pistol?  What if each entry showed how the weapon or item could be improved using different components or techniques for making it?  Even better, what if the equipment list rules gave hints about how the characters had to quest to find the right material, the right tinkerer, the right artisan, or whatever to make the weapon something beyond its mundane, default entry?

So, take a laser pistol for instance.  A pistol might have 5 attributes: weight, hitting power, accuracy, durability, and other.  The default material on the equipment list would be the cheapest and least reliable material- you know, the kind of laser pistol you would buy at the Wal-Marts of the future.  Then, elsewhere in the equipment section, the rules would give a list of materials that would reduce the weight of the gun, increase its hitting power and accuracy, make it more durable, and the “other” category in this case would be # of shots per battery pack.

In addition to the improved materials, the rules would tell the players how they could fabricate the materials or how to purchase/find the materials.

In a fantasy world, it would give names of weaponsmiths, artists, alchemists, etc. where they could get the blade sharpened to a keen edge, the pommel weight reduced to balance the weapon, or magical enchantments to make it more powerful.

Equipment lists are so mundane in most games, but I think they can add a lot of depth to a campaign if the designer just takes the time to think about how awesome weapons are in the first place and the different ways heroes in the stories we love to read have tried to make them awesomer.



Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What is 'Chopping the World in Two' ?


Chris Chinn coined this phrase a year or two ago.  Basically he asked, “if narration is a part of your resolution system, what mechanics in your game stop a player from saying, ‘If I win, I chop the world in half.”  This is a severe problem and it’s a design flaw that has shown up manytimes, especially after Dogs in the Vineyard was released.  My own Hierarchy is an excellent example of a game that suffers from this problem.
In Hierarchy, players can raise the stakes in a conflict at will.  There’s no mechanical stop-gap to prevent them from betting the fate of the entire world in a single contest.  This, of course, is terrible.  The design relies total on the Social Contract to keep things in check.  That’s possible to some extent, but there are a lot of shades of gray between “my character smacks yours across the face and leaves” and “I chop the world in half.”  It can be hard for a group, especially a novice group, to enforce reasonable limits on narration trading during resolution without some mechanical backup.
It is tempting to allow narration to take the characters in any direction the play-group desires, but narration, like all things, needs constraint to breed creativity.  Putting mechanical limits on what can be brought into a contest is a necessary part of design.
So what are some ways to do that? 
First, you can include a “back-out” clause.  Ben Lehman did this in Polaris, where a player in a conflict can negate an escalation by an opposing player by saying, “You ask too much.”  So, by designing a way one player to return the stakes back to an earlier a previous state, the game can prevent things from getting out of hand.
Second, you can set explicit options for what can be at stake.  For instance, you can say the players may risk “wealth, status, or health in a contest but not life or relationships.”  In this case, you are setting up parameters for the resolution system and prescribing what is in bounds and out of bounds for conflicts.
Third, you can have a way to escalate a conflict with a cost and a cap.  Dogs in the Vineyard does this.  Escalating a conflict from words to fists is possible, but doing so puts the character at greater risk.  There needs to be some sort of cap on how much a player can risk when escalating a conflict.  Often this is the character’s life.  It doesn’t have to be that way, but there needs to be an explicit way to cap the escalation.
Fourth, you can have a resolution system that just doesn’t allow narration to set the stakes.  Task resolution does this.  Many forms of conflict resolution do as well.  You could have the GM always set the stakes, or do it by total group consent.  Whatever.
Fifth, as part of the Chargen and prep work for play, the players can set up their own parameters for what is allowable and what is not during narration of stakes in a conflict.  Sometimes, in a inter-planar superhero game, chopping a world in half may actually make sense!  Cool!  But it needs to happen in accordance with the players’ expectation for the game, the designer’s vision for the game, and the limits of the Social Contract.  Letting the players hash this out before play allows for really powerful characters and situations without breaking the mechanics.
The main thing is, don’t let the power of narration get out of control.  Narration is awesome.  It is a lot of fun, but it is also dangerous.  It can take a well-designed game and wreck it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Design Journal #2: Brainstorming


A few weeks ago I wrote up my DesignDiary #1.  Today, I’m continuing this saga.  But before I get to today’s issue: a rabbit chaser.  Every designer has to deal with personal distractions and tragedy along the road to publication.  Who knows how many thousands of would-be designers have had to abandon their games due to addiction, loss, disease, or what-have-you.  I feel the pain of those designers and my life is an exemplar of that struggle.  So hopefully, this design series will serve not only to instruct nascent game-makers in the art of design and publishing but also instruct them on the art of dealing with real-life barriers that come up during the process.  More on that later, tho.  On to brainstorming.

I want to stress to you just how important to the design process letting your mind generate ideas and at the same time, writing those ideas down are.  The human mind, especially mine, is weak.  I can’t remember every mechanic or piece of trivia I come up with when imagining how my game will work.  Once I have envisioned play, I begin the process of brainstorming.  Everyone has their own method for doing this.  My post today is descriptive not prescriptive, but if you like my methodology, feel free to employ it in part or in whole :)

Back in the olden days (1998-2001) I kept stacks of composition notebooks around me all the time.  Each notebook would be dedicated to a different topic: Chargen, Resolution System, Rewards, Magic, Setting, etc. etc. etc.  After my first game was published in 2002, I switched to computers.

Now, I keep a single file with all my notes.  I have a specific system that I use, and I’ve mentioned it before.  My notes are kept in a stream of consciousness outline.  I let the inspiration flow, and I type it out as it comes.  Sometimes, I still jot things down on random scraps of paper when a computer isn’t handy, but it all goes into my file in the order it came to me.  As an example, here is the first half-page or so of my design notes for this game: NOTES EXCERPT

I have to confess one thing.  The “Dungeons” label for the game came after the entry on Moldvay and Keep on the Borderlands.  It wasn’t until then, I had even the faintest idea what I wanted from this thing.  In a future post, I’ll explain how I arrived at that decision.

Anyway, I find that keeping my notes this way lets me see where I made decisions in the design process and why I made those decisions.  Sometimes, when you get half-way or even 2/3 of the way through a text, you forget why you made a certain rule.  You look at something and go, “What the…Why’d I do this?”  Keeping my notes in a stream of consciousness, helps me understand my game’s purpose SO much better.

Also, it helps me organize my text.  I have an outline ready to go that will only need a small amount of tweaking before I dive right into the writing process.  I found that it makes writing my games more efficient.  This isn’t fool-proof, though.  As you can see, those notes are quite busy in some places.  Sometimes I’ll copy and paste a section of my notes into its own document just to separate it from the clutter as I’m writing.

The entire document is well over 20 pages now, but not everything will make it in.  Stuff I’m not using stays in the notes, but I might make it “strikethrough” or highlight it in a different color so I know not to include it in my text.   

Anyhow, that will just about do it for my entry today.  Brainstorming is the second step I take after envisioning play.  I have kind of a wacky system for doing.  Yours could be even wackier.  If this is your first time writing a game, I recommend putting all your ideas down somewhere.  Whether it’s on paper, on the net, or in a file: write them down!  If you don’t, I promise you’ll forget.



Thursday, October 10, 2013

What is an 'Endgame' ?


Today I’m going to discuss a design technique that has become more and more popular in RPGs over the last ten years.  It is the “Endgame.”  An endgame is a moment where play permanently stops for one or more characters in a campaign.  This means that once certain conditions are met, that character’s story is done.

The idea of an endgame isn’t new.  It’s been around for as long as writing “retired” at the top of a character record sheet has been conceived.  However, the idea has been developed more and more over the last decade.  As a result, several ways to treat an endgame have emerged.

The first way to address the endgame mechanic is to assume that there is no necessary endgame.  Games like D&D, Ars Magica, Vampire, and Sorcerer fit this category.  They assume that play, at least in theory, could go on indefinitely.  Players decide on their own when they are done with their characters and often make up some grand scene to say goodbye. 

The second way is to have a soft endgame.   Dogs in theVineyard and Prime Time Adventures have what I call “soft” endgames.  For dogs, it is the salvation of a town.  The characters discover the sin, find the perpetrator, and punish him or her.  In PTA, it’s the end of a season or story-arc.  If the players want, that can be the end of play OR they have the option to continue the same characters in a new town or new season. 

Some games have triggered endgames.  I think The Shadow ofYesterday and Dungeon World are prime examples.  In TSoY, when one character’s ability reaches a certain value (6 IIRC), the character “transcends.”  This means he or she has become so powerful that the character is taken out of the world in order to maintain balance.  In Dungeon World, it’s getting to level 10.  Both of these are mostly voluntary by the players.  In TSoY, reaching a 6 in an ability is never inevitable.  It’s easy to avoid.  In DW, there’s a way to avoid hitting level ten if you really want.  So the character’s story only ends if the players want to.  Of course, character death in more traditional games is another example of triggered engames.  Triggered endgames are often linked to individual characters and may not affect the entire party or the story.

Finally, there are games with hard endgames.  My Life with Master and my own Cutthroat are exemplars of this.  MLwM ends with either the death of the Master or the death of the Minion (or both).  All play drives towards that eventuality.  There’s no escaping it.  Likewise, all play in Cutthroat drives toward one biker dominating all the other bikers in the gang.  It is inescapable.  When the Master dies or when one biker dominates all the others, the game ends.  Period.

So what is the use of an endgame?

To begin, endgames can provide a focus for play.  They give the players something to drive towards and the characters something to achieve.  It helps everyone know what is happening during the three timescales of play.  The endgame keeps everyone on the same page and satisfies the expectations all the players have.

Additionally, endgames can limit the amount of time people play the RPG.  Take my Game Chef 2012 submission for example.  The Coyote Lode was meant to be a one-shot, one-session RPG.  Thus, I gave it explicit endgame mechanics (every room in the mine eventually floods).  As the designer, my intention for play was not indefinite.  It was well defined.  I think there is plenty of design space in one-shots and might cover that topic in a more in-depth way in another aricle.

Last, endgames provide a social reward.  When a player or a group of players hits the endgame successfully (like killing the Master in MLwM), there is a payoff of social esteem.  For a lot of players, social esteem is why they play, and an endgame will greatly appeal to them.

There are ways to further break down these endgames.  For instance, you could break them down by character, session, adventure, or campaign.  A character’s endgame could be when he loses all his hit points in D&D or loses all his humanity points and becomes the GM’s character in Sorcerer.  A session’s endgame could be tracked by some expendable currency or resource, or it could be timed.  For an adventure’s endgame, it could be solving a crime in InSpectres.  And as I mentioned earlier, My Life with Master is an excellent example of a campaign’s endgame.

Do all games need an endgame?

Nope.  In fact, many do not.  But is another tool in the RPG designer’s toolbox that you can use.  As you create your game, regardless of the genre or creative agenda you want to support, consider whether an endgame might be right for your design.  Sometimes it will be; sometimes it won’t.  But it’s always good to at least consider how it might help focus your game or provide a payoff for the players at the end.



Monday, September 30, 2013

Design Journal #1: Envisioning Play


Back in March I casually mentioned that I was writing a new game. This will be my first new game since I wrote “The Holmes and Watson Committee” back in 2009. And I’m excited, so I’m going to share my experiences with you. Hopefully, I can make it from design to published product. We’ll see.

The reason it’s taken so long are many. First, the publishing process has been extraordinarily painful for me. My first game was published in 2002. The printer problems and business mistakes we made back then were excruciating. I’ve talked about how taxing the publishing process can be in the past, the problems of 2002 and 2003 were the main reasons why. Not the only reasons, though. In 2008-2009 I tried my hand at publishing again. I figured by now the POD process had evolved and small press printing could be done efficiently and easy. WRONG! The same problems plagued me a second time and forced me to cancel a whole second line of books I wanted to produce.

It wasn’t just publishing though. In the last half-dozen years I’ve gotten married, had a child, got my master’s degree, switched positions at my job four times, and helped my wife get her master’s degree as well. Many in my family have gotten terribly ill (some terminally), and I’ve dealt with distractions of every kind and sort. I’ve not overcome all of these obstacles yet, but I’m hopeful that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And once I’m through, I think I’ll have the chance to publish the game I want.

So now it’s been 11 years since my first publishing and four years since my last. What have I learned? Well, that’s easy to answer. Everything on this blog is about what I’ve learned! But the problem with what’s on this blog is that it’s not real enough. I haven’t put it into practice, or at least, haven’t in a very long time. So that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to practice what I preach.

So where do we start?

I’m going to start with my initial concept. I began with something I called the G.A.M.E. engine. You can follow that link to it on 1km1t. It was great, it was fun, I got some playtesting in. The problem was the advancement system is totally broken and I wasn’t willing to make the compromises it would take to fix it. So I had to move on.

I was inspired by Luke Crane’s We D&D threads which you can read about HERE, HERE, and HERE. I remembered back to the simplicity and awe I had in my first RPG experience (which was Middle-earth Roleplaying). Like SO many designers I wanted to recapture those moments. So I focused on the memories instead of the mechanics.

What did I remember?

1.We didn’t know the rules well enough to constantly be referencing them, so handling time was kept to a minimum.

2.We quickly grew tired of the constrained canonical setting of Middle-earth put on us, so we started making our own content to adventure in.

3.We focused on the combat and the loot, but our characters had motivations. They were simple ones (the Free Peoples vs. the Dark Lord), but the motivations supported gameplay.

4.Magic items were awesome, rare, and special. There were five characters in the party and after 27 collective levels, we maybe had seven magic items (it might have been less, honestly).

5.Making maps was a huge part of the fun- for both the GM and the players.

So that’s where I started with my new design: remembering something I enjoyed and setting that as my design goals. Those were the things that were going to matter most. Next time, I’ll explain how I went from abstract ideas to core design principles.



Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Relay the Message: Kickstarter Roundup


It's been a while since Kickstarter had anything interesting for me, but all of a sudden that has changed.  I've got three projects I'm following closely, and I thought I'd share them with you:

1. GrimWorld: this is a supplement for Dungeon World.  It looks great, and if you have enjoyed DW (which many of you have) this could be right up your alley.  Time is short, however.  You've got around 40 hours from this posting to back it.  Sorry, but I didn't catch it sooner.

2. S/lay w/Me App: Ron Edwards is trying to take his RPG to the 'net in a new way.  The app works with Google Hangouts, and is meant to help bring together gamers who don't live close to each other.  Ron is running "choose your own reward" system with his Kickstarter that has a lot of neat stuff.  It's different from other Kickstarters, so I recomend checking it out.

3. The RPG Table: if you haven't seen this yet, you need to check it out.  Jim Barnes is selling plans (and parts if you pledge enough) to build a really awesome table meanth for tabletop RPGs.  I first saw things thing a few years ago and have always wanted one.  It's pretty rad.

Technically, none of these are games exactly: one supplement, an app, and a piece of furniture.  But our hobby is evolving.  It's no surprise that our Kickstarters are evolving with them.



Thursday, September 05, 2013

What is Creative Agenda?


I’m tackling a tough subject today.  Hopefully, I can do it justice.  If Ron or Vincent or Ben come along later and correct me, I’ll change this post as necessary.

So what is a creative agenda?  The Forge wiki defines it as "The players' aesthetic priorities and their effect on anything that happens at the table that has any impact on the shared fiction"

There’s a lot of heavy words in that definition, so let’s break it down.  First, let’s deal with “aesthetic.”  Here, aesthetic means “a principled taste and/or style adopted by a rolepalyer for the enjoyment of roleplaying.”  Priorities means “what is most important to the roleplayer.”  At the table means, “what the players are literally, physically doing in the real world.”  And finally, shared fiction means, “the imagined events created by the players through mutual ascent.”  So, to reword creative agenda in Socratic Design speak:

“Creative Agenda is a principled style regarding what is most important to making roleplaying fun for an individual roleplayer when it comes to anything he or she physically, mentally, or emotionally contributes at the gaming table that modifies in any way the shared imagined events that the group-as a whole-has cooperatively created.”

I want to elaborate on “principled style”/”priorities” because this is key.  Creative Agenda (CA) is all about what is most important to the player when it comes to enjoying actual play.  And it’s all about actual play.  It is not about being with friends.  It is not about the snacks your GM’s mom makes every week.  It is not about personal relationships or identification with geek culture.  Those things can be important, but they are all social reasons for play, not creative reasons.  CA deals explicitly with a person’s pleasure that he or she derives from the imaginative fiction being created at the table.

What different creative agendas are there?

So far, there have been three creative agendas identified by Forge Theory.  They are Gamism (a.k.a. Step on Up), Narrativism (a.k.a. Story Now), and Simulationism (a.k.a. The Right to Dream).  I happen to divide the Creative Agendas slightly differently from what Ron et. al. did at the Forge, but this article isn’t the right place to discuss that.  For the purposes of this piece, these three are all there are.

What is Gamism?

Briefly, Gamism is a habitual prioritization of personal guts, sound strategy, inventive tactics, and problem-solving in risky situations.  This means, a person whose CA is Gamism will seek esteem from the other players by consistently guiding his character(s) to act bravely, innovatively, and fearlessly in dangerous situations.

What is Narrativism?

Narrativism manifests itself as a habitual prioritization of engaging on an emotional level to address real-life, human problems (such as war, poverty, love, loyalty, faith, abuse, etc.) while purposely not pre-planning any solution or outcome.  This is sometimes called addressing a theme or a premise in the Lit. 101 sense of those words.  A person whose CA is Narrativism, will allow the events of the fiction created during play to determine the outcomes of the conflicts, plot, and consequences made by the characters.  He or she will not go into the game with any pre-set what ideas of what his or her character will do in any given situation.

What is Simualtionism?

Simulationist play is the habitual prioritization of in-game causality and rigorous application of pre-established facts, themes, motifs, and attitudes in play.  The Simulationist CA values strict adherence to a source, whether that source is a licensed intellectual property (like Star Wars or Middle-earth), genre (like horror, science-fiction, or fantasy), or elements created during play (such as past fictional events the players established).  

So how does one measure Creative Agenda?

You can’t measure CA by determining if a certain, singular “thing” is there.  For instance, if you observe people using combat strategy, you cannot say they are “gamists” or whatever.  If the setting for the game is Earth-Sea, you cannot say it is “simulationist” or whatever.  Just because a certain thing is there, does not mean a certain Creative Agenda is also present.

You must look at what is most important to the players: what he or she consistently finds personally rewarding over an instance of play.  I’ll get into what an “instance of play” is at a later date.  Suffice to say, it is a lengthy period of time.  Do not confuse instance with instant.  An instance of play is not a brief moment of play.

Ask, what appear to be goals of this player as he or she speaks and acts at the table?  What are his or her decisions like?  What sort of actions does he or she consistently make during play?  Answering these will reveal what a player’s CA is.

Are players aware they are using a Creative Agenda?

Not always. In fact, very frequently a person might not be able to articulate what they find rewarding during play.  This is why people resort to saying they most enjoy things like, “I just like hanging out with my friends,” or “I thought this book looked cool from the cover, so I decided to play it.” 

What is the use of Creative Agenda?

Once you understand that players prioritize certain aspects of play, you can begin to design games that support that prioritization.  If you want to make a game that appeals to Gamists, you make a game that proses risky challenges that require skillful strategy to beat.  If you want to appeal to Simulationists, you create a set of mechanics or a gripping setting that engrosses their imaginations and encourages them to stay faithful to that source. 

Design techniques that support the three CAs is an article all to itself, and I’m sure that might be disappointing to my readers who were hoping to get some practical design advice out of this article.  Taking on design techniques from this perspective is a HUGE job, and one I’m not ready to tackle just yet.

For now, I’m going to leave it at that.  If you would like to read more about Creative Agendas, I encourage you to check out the Big Model Wiki or the Adept Press Forums.  Those are both great resources, IMHO.



Monday, August 26, 2013

Relay the Message: Fight Cancer


Back a littler earlier from summer break.  I want to talk about someone a greatly respect in the RPG scene.  His name is Chris Chinn.  If you have never followed the Deeper in the Game blog, you need to start.  It is, IMHO, the best RPG blog on the Internet.  I think it's better than mine or Vincent's or anybody's.

A few months ago, Chris was diagnosed with a rare cancer.  The good news is, it's curable!  That bad news is, it will keep him out of work and no doubt cost a fortune to cure.  When I read the news about his cancer on his blog, I wanted to help, but I didn't know how.  Thankfully, Chris provided an opportunity.  He started a You Caring drive where anyone can donate to help him.  I just discovered it, and it only has a scant 5 days left.  So I'm definitely going to do that.  But I wanted to give him a signal boost on my blog.

This is a great opportunity to help beat cancer (a disease that's taken several of my family members, and probably some of yours too I would imagine).  If you can lend Chris a hand, I'm sure he would appreciate it.



Monday, May 27, 2013

Socratic Design Anthology #8


I'm going on summer break once again.  I'll be back some time in August/September.  Until then, I'll leave you with my latest anthology.  I was surprised how long it's been since I've done one.  As always, PLEASE notify me of any malfunctioning links.  If you're new to my blog, this is an excellent way to catch up on what I've been saying.  I'll miss you guys.  Be well while I am gone :)


What are the Different Types of Rules?
What are the 3 Major Timescales in RPGs?
What is GM Fiat?
What is Complexity Creep?
How do I design a Dungeon?
What is a Flag?


D&D Magic Items: A Lament
World Building: A Lament
Spell Books: A Lament

Previous Anthologies:

Socratic Design Anthology #7
Socratic Design Anthology #6
Socratic Design Anthology #5
Socratic Design Anthology #4
Socratic Design Anthology #3
Socratic Design Anthology #2
Socratic Design Anthology #1

Topical Index:

SD Topical Index #1



Monday, April 22, 2013

World Building: A Lament


Back when I started playing RPGs, the GM had a huge job.  He had to create an adventure hook, create a world, create monsters, magic items, NPCs, and props each week in order for us to have a great time.  He had to portray all the NPCs, roll dice for random events, roll dice during combat, keep track of maps, XP, treasure, and everything else while trying to keep the power level of the challenges relatively in line with the power level of the characters.  This was an immense amount of work, and most games gave the GMs very few tools to help him do that.  It was up to each individual to figure out how to get all these different chores done while keeping everyone happy and without getting burned out in the process.

In the modern world of RPGs, however, this is not as much of a concern.  Games like D&D4e have terrific tools that help DMs balance the power level of encounters with the power level of the characters.  Games like Apocalypse World have taken the need for dice away from GMs so they don’t have to worry about fiddly numbers all the time.  And most indie games today come with some kind of pre-fabricated setting or situation (e.g. The Mountain Witch, My Life with Master, Psi-Run, Hero Quest, Shock, Poison’d) that takes a huge load off the GM’s shoulders by significantly reducing the amount of prep time necessary for play.  This is great, especially for guys like me who have a job, wife, kids, school, church, and other interests that devour free time.

At the same time, though, I think there is an art that is being lost.  Designing one’s own setting used to be an important form of expression for roleplayers- especially new ones.  Almost certainly everyone who comes to roleplaying has read the works of J.R.R. Tolkein, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, Ann Rice, or Louis L’Amour.  Those novels inspired us, provided us with a window into fictional worlds full of love, vice, triumph, and redemption.  People who take up roleplaying have those experiences and feelings welling up within them.  Play is one way to express those things.  Setting design is another, and it’s something I want to talk about today.

There are several ways to approach setting design.  First, there’s the AD&D method where there’s basically no guidance at all in the core books.  They just present you with things that *could* be in a fantasy world, and then you have to figure out where to go from there.  That’s not a good way. 
Second, there’s the build-as-you-go method.  The game might give you something to start on like in Sorcerer or Prime Time Adventures, but then it’s up to the all the participants to fill in the blanks as play unfolds.  This is a nice and functional way of doing things.  However, it’s not where I’m going today.

Third, there’s the formula approach.  I’m going back to my old standby game: Dogs in the Vineyard.  Vincent has one of the most functional and practical set of procedures for original setting design I’ve ever read in a game.  You start with a sin, then from that you build relationships, and from that you build geography.  To distill that down, the formula goes: Conflict->People->Places.  It’s really quite brilliant and consistently produces engaging and effective micro-settings.  This type of method can be ported to any type of game from sci-fi to dungeon delving to gritty noir games.  In today’s hectic world, the DitV method may be the best type of procedure to use if you want your game to encourage/require players to pre-generate settings for play.  The one downside to this style is that if the PCs need to go “off the map” for whatever reason, GMs can get stymied.  If all their preparation is geared toward the setting within the boundaries the GM created, he may not know what to do if the campaign shifts to some other location.  Such an event could stall a campaign until the GM goes through the setting creation process again or comes up with something on the fly.

Finally, there’s the epic style of setting creation.  There have been several world-builder’s guide books published over the years.  My first published RPG that I wrote collaboratively with my college buddies included an entire chapter on building a world from the ground up- topography, mythology, anthropology, technology, etc.  This style of setting generation is the one that many of us remember from high school or college.  We had lots of time on our hands.  The newness of roleplaying games energized our imaginations.  And the impetus to create something unique to ourselves was very strong.  Part of the epic style of world building is emulation. 

Most fantasy world or science fiction galaxies resemble the worlds and galaxies the designer grew up with.  Middle-earth, Narnia, Gloranthra, Babylon 5, Mechwarrior, Star Wars, and Star Trek have provided countless baselines for roleplayers over the last 40 years. 

The obvious shortcoming of this style of setting creation is time.  It takes a lot of time to draw a poster-size map, write reams of histories, make up illustrations of important aspects of the world, and then distill all of that into something functional on the relatively small scale of a campaign.  There’s nothing wrong with including tools for this sort of thing in one’s game, but the designer should know that the audience for such a game is going to be small.

In the end, I think the third method (the DitV method) is as close to ideal for setting creation as we can come given the lifestyle limitations most adult-age gamers have to deal with.  Regardless of how you want to use setting creation in your game, if you even want to incorporate it at all that is, you should provide some clear tools and procedures for the GM (or whoever) to use as he builds the setting for play.  If you would like some further reading on setting design tools, I created some aids back in 2006 for game designers, but those same tools could be modified to work for players too if that’s your thing.



Thursday, April 11, 2013

Relay the Message: Unusual Monsters


From time to time I will link a Kickstarter project that piques my interest.  I don’t always back them since they aren’t always relevant to what I’m playing, but I link them because I think they’re a good project and I want them to succeed.  The project I’m linking today I believe is both a good project and relevant to what I do.

Larry Sneed is creating a monster tome for unusual RPG creatures.  That’s no so original at first glance.  There’s been dozens of such manuals.  However, this is no ordinary monster manual.  First, Larry is taking monster ideas from the backers!  Even if you only contribute $1 you can submit and idea.  That’s awesome!  Some Kickstarters have involved the backers in the creative endeavor in small degrees and usually only at the higher levels of backing (i.e. the most expensive options).  But Larry is doing something different.  That’s really great. 

Second, Larry is making the book Open Source.  That means if you want to use these images and monsters in your RPG design, you can!  Free of charge!  There aren’t many deals like that out there, and while you won’t be able to use every monster, even having some is worth it IMHO.

Finally, the paperback is only $17.  I’m not sure what sort of profit margin Larry is going to have, but it doesn’t seem like he’s asking a lot for his product.  $17 is a steal.  So, if the product interests you, I highly recommend you back it.




Friday, March 29, 2013

How Do I Design a Dungeon?


I hadn't planned on posting this article for quite a while, but it turns out that two days ago Alex Shroeder just started this year's One Page Dungeon Contest.  If you want to take a look at some past winners, click here.  I've been secretly working on my own dungeon game for the last nine months, and have accumulated a lot of good advice.  Not all of it is applicable to the one page dungeon contest, but I feel it has helped me in my quest to make a better game.  I will share that advice with you here: 

  • Dungeons ought to have an area where lack of light is an issue.  For example, dripping ceilings that get torches wet or wind that blows them out or even low oxygen areas or flooded tunnels.
  • At least 1 item/effect per 2-3 levels should have some kind of lasting and tangible effect on at least one PC.
  • Add ledges, overlooks, and peaks to create three dimensions in your design.  This will also give your players a chance to exercise their cleverness to get around.
  • Don’t aim for the stars on your first dungeon design.  You will build up ideas and the ability to create more elaborate maps as you go thru the process several times.
  • Don’t get too caught up in making your dungeon subtly random, irregular, or odd.  Be obvious with what’s unusual.
  • Food and drink should be fairly abundant for the most part, but it doesn’t have to be delicious.  Mmmm…Rats!
  • Make your dungeon used.  Have sections where there is some obvious repair/expansion work being done or evidence of a collapse.  This will break up the monotony and provide cover during fights.
  • If this is your 1st time, or even your 20th, there’s nothing wrong w/looking at old dungeons you love & copying features.
  • Implied threats are as effective at real threats at times.  Create false leads and ominous doorways that make PCs think twice.
  • Items found in dungeons are not meant to be permanent.  Find ways to keep a circulation of items going- whether that’s sacrificing them to earn favor with a subterranean race or to an idol to get a better/different item in return.
  • Mini-goals and side quests are necessary for design.  Keep the people outside the dungeon important to what’s happening inside the dungeon.
  • Monsters can and should retreat- not everything should be a pitched battle to the death.
  • Most of the sentient races are far more interested in having a slave than killing adventurers.
  • Not everything should cost blood or gold.  Things can cost honor, time, obligations, and other resources.
  • Propose lots of different problems- including coins and items that can’t be easily divided among the group.  Making these decisions is part of the dungeon-delving experience.
  • Realism: for some groups this really matters, for others it’s superfluous.  Know your audience.
  • Resist the temptation to maximize the use of your graph paper. There should be plenty of it that can’t be explored (i.e. solid rock).
  • Re-use old space.  Make items, objects, and locations that are in the upper levels relevant to what’s in the lower levels.
  • Show the players they aren’t the first ones there- have bodies/treasure of other dead heroes placed in your dungeon in various places.
  • The entrance does not always have to be at the edge of the paper.  Start in the middle sometimes.
  • There should be no need to hyper-charge the monsters in your dungeon.  The additional difficulty of your encounters should come from the hazards & relationships innately present in the dungeon.
  • Think about what other monsters might join a fight or run to sound an alarm.
  • Think logically.  Many dungeons will have a common, public area with “work” areas or “living” areas as off-shoots.
  • Thresholds are important in mythology and in RPGs.  There should be hard challenges that unlock the next area/level.
  • Understand that details will change over time.  Don’t be afraid to retcon something to improve the campaign if everyone can agree to it.
  • Understand that some of your mysteries and plots won’t be followed by the players. That’s okay, proceed with consequences.
  • Variety is critical: don’t put 1 monster per PC in every room.   Make most encounters lopsided for one side or the other.  This will stretch your players- and reward them!
  • Wreck your own dungeon: have explosions, traps, cave-ins, wars, experiments, etc. permanently alter the geography of the dungeon during play at least once.
  • Your dungeon will feel more immersive it if looks like it was designed by nature or for a specific purpose by an intelligent being and not designed just for a game.
There ya go!  If you’re a dungeon style gamer, hopefully these will help.  Comments and questions, as always, are welcome.



Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What are the Different Types of Rules?


Recently, in an article entitled “What are the Three Timescales in RPGs?” I tossed around a couple words without defining them.  I’ve gone back to that article and linked it to the future, to this article where I explain them.  I should have defined them then, so I’m making up for it now.  The two terms I’m talking about are Directives and Procedures.

Directives, or directional rules, are general guidelines for play.  Basically, directives answer the first question of the Big Three: What is this game about?  Directives rely on a player’s ability to cooperatively work with the group toward a mutual goal.  They set up the parameters in the Social Contract for what is acceptable play and what is not.  Some directives are big.  They give advice on how to play the game from a top-down point of view.  I call them macro-directives.

Some examples:
-Dungeons and Dragons: Kill monsters and take their stuff.
-Dogs in the Vineyard: Rid a town of sin and vice.
-Sorcerer: Feed your demon while not sacrificing your humanity.
-Prime Time Adventures: Explore a theme using a TV/Movie as inspiration.
-Vampire: The Eternal Struggle: Explore what it’s like to be a vampire.
-My Life With Master: Escape from a dysfunctional relationship.
-Apocalypse World: Decide what you’re willing to sacrifice to get what you need.
-Inspectres: Solve a supernatural crime while competing against other agencies.

This can sometimes be called the “object” of the game, but I think some designers would have a problem with the connotation of that word. 

Directives give context to all the other rules.  Combat mechanics in D&D wouldn’t make much sense without a dungeon to explore.  The humanity rules in Sorcerer are empty without the demon your character bound. 

Directives can also be advice on how to portray something on the micro scale.  For instance, think of the reams of literature about Forgotten Realms.  There’s plenty of advice out there on how a DM should play someone like Elminster or Drizzt.  Alignment rules in AD&D is another example of a micro-directive: “This is what Lawful Neutral means…”  For a more indie-centric example, think about resorting to your pistol in Dogs in the Vineyard: it is a big deal and the rules say you should only do it when something is VITALLY important to you.  The mechanics on what to do when someone loses their Humanity in Sorcerer are also micro-directives. 
Sometimes, directives are called “play advice” or “guidance” within a text.  If you know them by that name, you should understand what I’m talking about.

I think directives are the hard part of an RPG.  If the combat rules don’t work, it’s easy to see.   If you accidentally skipped a step during Chargen, the oversight will become evident during play.  But missing that DitV is not a guns-blazing style western RPG or that if you are playing Prime Time Adventures to see what it would be like to live in the Buffyverse, you’re doing it wrong are easy mistakes to make.

Procedures, on the other hand, are much more concrete.  Procedures are step-by-step mechanics that lead the players through some kind of process in order to produce something.  Chargen is an example.  So are combat mechanics, task resolution, conflict resolution, spell casting, recuperation, leveling up, conch shell narration, and so on.

Some examples from games:
-D&D: Combat
-Capes: Narration Rules
-Call of Cthullu: Sanity Checks
-Dogs in the Vineyard: Town Creation
-Shock: Conflict Resolution
-Rolemaster: Resistance Roll
-Ars Magica: Troupe Generation

That list is hardly exhaustive, even within those games.  The typical game will have many different procedures, each with its own end product. 

I think procedures are easier for new players to grasp since they are (usually) laid out in a coherent way with bulleted lists, numbered steps, and sometimes visual representations.  Small aspects of procedures can be confused by players at first, but after a few sessions they will usually iron out all the bugs.

So what are the pitfalls of each?

For directives, you must be consistent and your procedures must support them.  You cannot tell the players to portray their characters one way then give them mechanics that incentivize doing the exact opposite.  The classic example of this is D&D and the number of Heartbreakers that imitated it.  Let me cite an example from one of my own games.

In the Core Rules for Ember Twilight, we include a play advice section.  In that section we talk about heroes are flawed people in literature and legend.  Then we admonish players to keep that in mind as they play.  But we didn’t give them any mechanics to support that play.  Consequently, this advice was almost always ignored by the players.  When they did follow it, it was usually just by accident.
For procedures, you must be clear and they must reinforce your directives.  Making procedures understandable is one of the hardest parts of game design to master because it requires good writing skills.  I’ve talked about how to design good mechanics in “How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics” part 1 and part 2

Procedures often benefit from having examples, anecdotes, charts, and/or illustrations to help.  Not everyone can learn just by reading a set of instructions, so including fun anecdotes or graphics can be a big help. 

Also, you must design procedures that actually do what you want them to do.  If you want negotiation to be a big part of the interaction between players at the table, you cannot have a procedure for checking the success of a negotiation be something as simple as “Roll a d100.  If the result is less than your Charisma stat, you succeed.”  You need to set up a procedure that creates a back-and-forth dialogue between two or more players and incentivizes them to narrate what their characters say.  Always go back and double check your procedures to make they actually support the kind of play you envisioned for your game.



Friday, March 01, 2013

Spell Books - A Lament


I’m not sure how many more Laments I have left (which is a good thing!).I’m not done, but I’m getting close.If you have not read my laments on Spell Components, Alignment, Troupe Play, and Magic Items, I would encourage you to do so. They aren’t required reading for this article, but all of them go together.

On to my topic!

Aren’t spell books the most iconic and at the same time least iconic thing in fantasy gaming? Think of all the genres of fantasy games the incorporate spell books in a significant way: D&D, EverQuest, Magic: The Gathering, etc. But in the end, what role do these prodigious tomes actually play in a typical gaming session? Answer: almost none. In fact, they are sometimes more of an inconvenience than an important feature of play.

That’s what I’m here to talk about today- how spell books are a key component of the fantasy RPG genre but at the same time almost universally marginalized during the action at the table. So what can spell books do? Historically, spells books in the most popular FRPGs (fantasy role playing games) have just been a collection of spells a wizard character memorizes at the beginning of the day then is stuffed in the backpack and left unused until the next morning. It always bugged me that spell books were treated this way.For characters with remarkably high Intelligence stats, wizards seemed to have really lousy memories.

I’ve considered this problem many times. There are three interesting ways I think spell books could be used that I want to touch on today: focus items, absorption devices, and advancement tools.

The first way is probably the simplest and least original, but at least it’s something. Spell books can be used as focus items. What this means to me is that when the character is reading from the spell book as he casts a spell, the player gets some kind of bonus. This could be a bonus toward success, an augmentation of the spell’s mechanical effect, an augmentation of the spell’s fictional effect, and/or the preservation of some other consumable resource. In these cases, the spellcaster should probably have to hold the book in both hands. Thus he is giving up the ability to hold weapons, shields, potions, or other items that might come in handy. The book provides a bonus, but it also has a cost- an opportunity cost. This is a simple thing that most FRPGs could add without significantly changing the game’s mechanics.

The second way is for the spell book to be a type of absorption device.Magic is brutal. It is primeval. It should not be benign in its use. One way to represent that is to have magic require some sort of tribute. The best way to explain this, maybe, is with examples.

Imagine a wizard wants to cast a healing spell. Rather than memorize an incantation and a few hand gestures from his spell book, imagine if the wizard had to go and find a plant with healing properties. Like aloe or athalas. The wizard would then dig up the plant, mix it with some kind of reagent, and then place it between two of the pages in his grimoire. The properties of the plant would then be infused in his book for a one-time use later. If he wanted to have five healing spells available, he’d have to kill five plants.

Let’s take this a step further. Imagine a spell casting duel.One wizard casts a fireball at the other.The target of the fireball chooses to try to block with his spell book. With specially prepared pages open and ready, he holds the book in front of him to block the orb of flame. If the player’s roll (or currency spending, card flipping, or whatever) is successful, the fireball will have no effect and is instead inscribed for a one-time use later.

Let’s take it ANOTHER step further. Let’s say our wizard friend wants to be able to cast a resurrection spell. What kind of tribute would the spell book require then? Interesting to think about, eh?

Finally, spell books could be used as actual books of knowledge.Character advancement can be a tricky thing. In many FRPGs including my own Ember Twilight and of course classic D&D, your character gains a bunch of XP then one day, boom!, he’s leveled up and better than before. This is just fine for games with a more tactical focus.Who needs in-game causality? But for some games, where the fiction is important, spell books (and their kin) can play a role.

What if characters had to accumulate the spell books of other wizards to learn new spells? Or study tomes and manuscripts from philosophers, naturalists, and sages gain a better understanding of the arcane arts? Spell books could then form a library the player-character uses to improve his craft. It would make the ever-present but barely justified “wizard’s library”motif more meaningful for the players. The books would have some mechanical weight rather than a place to find clues to the next encounter or quest. Wizards would have a reason to pile up tomes on nature, minerals, anatomy, and mysticism that are often thrown into campaigns without any explanation of how all these encyclopedias are actually used.

It would take some work by the designer. And it would take a lot of buy-in by the players to accept such a narration-centered method of character advancement, but I believe it could be fun. And at the very least, it would make the PC’s collection of books more personal and meaningful.

Are these ideas the only ways to make spell books more mechanically significant in an RPG? Nope! I could write for days about different ideas. This article is not prescriptive so much as it is descriptive. I’m describing how something can be important and yet barely used in many FRPGs, and then suggesting that designers do something to change that.

Oh, and one more thing. This idea is not limited just to spell books. What about technical manuals in a sci-fi or post-apocalyptic setting? What about lore books in a contemporary vampire setting? What about lab reports in a mutant/superhero RPG? All of these things are takes on spell books and can be used in ways similar to what I’ve described above.

When designing spell books (or their kin) in your RPG, think about how you can make them more personal for the players. How can you make them care about their tomes more than other games?  How can you make them special or memorable? If you can answer that question, I think your game will be improved.



Thursday, February 14, 2013

What is Complexity Creep?


First time I saw the term “Complexity Creep” was in reference to Magic the Gathering adding new mechanics like Legendary, Rampage, multi-color cards in its third expansion set called Legends.  These new mechanics had to have their own special rules with rules insert cards.  These new rules weren’t incorporated very well with the old rules and caused a lot of confusion.  In the end, the extra confusion was worth it, but it took the Magic development team years to sort everything out.  And as a result, there were a couple close calls where Magic: the Gathering almost died.

Complexity Creep can apply to RPGs as well.  In big games like D&D or Ars Magica, rules from new editions pile on to old rules in an attempt to A) enrich the play experience and B) solve known design issues.  Unfortunately, sometimes these new “fixes” end up convoluting what play should actually be about.  For instance, take a look at the character sheets below:

OD&D circa 1976

AD&D2e circa 1998

D&D4e circa 2012

ODnD fits on a single page and tells you up front what’s important.  In ADnD2, we can see a lot of extra fluff, a notes page, and plenty of optional character traits like Psionic powers.  You can easily see how two editions later, much had been added to the game.  It’s not ALL relevant.  Having had experience with this character sheet, I can tell you that almost all of it past the second page can be ignored by most players.  But on the 4e character sheet, everything is relevant to the character.  I wanted to show you one that was filled out just so you could see how much stuff a player is responsible for during play.  There are so many icons splattered across the page, so many fields to fill out and keep track of, and so many rules right on the page that your eyes can go buggy just looking at them!  As you can see, the game went from a simple dungeon crawling game to a massive epic style adventure game.  But in the end, did all that additional complexity add enjoyment and streamline play?  Ask the OSR guys.

For smaller press games, like your typical indie game, complexity creep is not usually spread out over multiple editions.  Instead, the creep happens during design.

Complexity itself is not necessarily a good or bad thing.  Designers generally add complexity to their mechanics when problems arise during the design or during the playtesting phases.   There are questions, issues, and situations that will always arise during play.  Some will be singular to a particular group, but others will be common enough that every play group or nearly every play group will have to address it.  When a problem is common enough that a large number of groups will have to confront it, it’s time to make a rule- i.e. add complexity.  That’s not a bad thing, that’s a necessary part of design.  Complexity solves problems that stall or prevent fun play.  That’s it’s job. 

But there is a point where complexity goes too far.  This can be hard to talk about without stepping on people’s toes, but step on them a bit I will.  Some designers get toward the end of their design phase or even playtesting phase and feel that their books aren’t long enough.  They have it in their mind that an RPG should be a certain length, and if it’s less than that, people might not buy it.  As a result, they start adding in extra rules and optional rules that suddenly cloud what the game is really about.  This is a silly notion that RPGs have to be a certain length, but designers- especially new designers- fall prey to it.  Your game does not have to be a certain length to be good or done or marketable.  It just needs to have coherent rules that communicate your passion and vision for play.  Never add rules just to add length.

Another complexity trap that designers will fall into is including certain rules because every other game in the genre has included them.  The poster-boys for this kind of complexity creep are drowning and falling.  A dungeon-based RPG where drowning and falling are real dangers is a great place for these rules.  A romance fantasy game is not.  Another legacy rule from older games is reload time for weapons.  A lot of games include these arcane rules for “realism’s” sake or whatever.  If it’s not a tactical game where the act of reloading actually matters to the fiction, you probably don’t need to worry about including it.  When you’re designing your game, ask yourself, “Do I really need rules for drowning and falling?  Do I really need rules on how long it takes to reload an AK-47?”  Often times, you won’t.  This relates, somewhat, to the design problems I outlined in my article on the 20:4 ratio.  If something is not important to actual play, then it’s probably not important enough to include in the mechanics of your text.

Finally, I believe that designers add in extra complexity because they’re afraid the players won’t have enough to do and they’ll be bored.  This happened with my design on Cutthroat.  All the stuff about being arrested and whatnot is total crap.  It shouldn’t be in there, but I was afraid that the players would get bored tear-assing around town and beating the living daylights out of each other.  Turns out, both those things are really fun!  The game didn’t need the extra complexity.

The real depth of play that is so fulfilling actually comes from the interaction among the players, not just the interaction between a player and the mechanics.  So piling on more and more of them is not necessarily the best way to go.  Your game should have enough mechanics to help the players generate the kinds of play you want, and that’s it.  If you go beyond that, you’re allowing needless complexity to creep in.  Keep your design focused; that’s the best advice I can give.



Friday, February 01, 2013

Relay the Message: Worra Realms


There's a very fascinating new project out there called Worra Realms.  It mates the classic dungeon crawl RPG with the "rules on cards" ethos of CCGs.  I'm a big fan of CCGs as well, so this project caught my eye.  Here's their corporate site:  It's interesting to me that they still use dice and miniatures to keep the RPG feel.  I know a lot of gamers don't have a lot of time, especially those of us who are adults with jobs, kids, families, and financial pressures all clamouring for our attention.  Worra Realms might be just what we're looking for.  I think this idea of putting the RPG rules on bite-size cards has a whole of design potential because play can be quick yet still satisfying.

Here's their Kickstarter if you are interested in helping them out:

This is one of the projects I am seriously considering supporting.  I haven't made a decision yet, but of all the things I've seen recently this game has sparked my design antennae more than anything.  If it's something that you think you might like, please lend them your support.