Writing Setting for Play

August 18, 2014

Setting is tricky – it’s what you’re using as a group to create the story, so it’s helpful to have some of it for context.  Enough gets everyone aligned on what to create.  On the other hand, too much becomes homework or a specialized subject – you end up with some players who are experts and other players who barely know it – and instead of bringing your group together, they come apart because their understanding is completely different.

Narrow your Focus

First, most RPGs are…. more like series bibles or like massive lore encyclopedias – things that hardcore fans would get into, but not necessarily useful as a starting point.  Normally you point someone to a book, or a story arc in a TV series, or a comic book arc, or some kind of place that sets up a good introduction if it were another form of media.  

In this regard, it makes sense to narrow your focus SHARPLY for most rpgs.  A single city or region of local cultures is a good way to go.  Even if it’s very cosmopolitan, pick some kind of common factor (“Third rate nobles, desperate for real power”, “The underworld of gangs in the city”, etc.) so you can keep things simple. 

If your game uses some kind of class or splat system, consider cutting down the options and describing how they fit into the specific situation and setting. 

Focus on the Cool Stuff EARLY

One pitfall I see people do is many gamers want to do the “farmers to heroes” story.  What happens is the end up wasting several sessions on podunk stuff that’s not actually the meat of the story. 

To be sure, Tolkien spent a lot of time talking about people walking long distances, but I don’t think most people found that to be the fun part of the stories.  In fact, if you compare the other geek gold standard, Star Wars, you see we don’t spend a very long time on Luke’s farm – in fact, the movie starts with the real focus: the rebels. 

The point of having a “viewpoint” character who introduces the audience to the strange fantastic world is usually an excuse for having exposition about said world, but when players can simply ask, “What does my character know?” or have spent time reading about the setting, it’s not as useful of a tool.


As much as having a quicksheet of a single page (front and back) of important rules is useful, it’s also helpful to have one of the setting bits.  It gives players something to look at and read at the table without being a massive amount of information.  The nice part about a Quicksheet of setting is you can add more, one by one, as the sessions continue, so as to not overload the players with reading homework.

A particularly useful exercise is to consider for ANY given piece of information you’re going to cover on a part of setting is “What is the general, one sentence summary I would write about this?”   Start there.  It’s good to write everything up that way and then see if there’s any parts you absolutely need to do write more about that cannot be covered in play.

“What your character knows is that…”

A lot of setting can be established in play.  I really like to give setting based on character concept – the noble knows the power structure of the city, the criminal knows who’s been economically hurting lately, the soldier can say a bit about wars brewing and people from faraway lands…

If the game has specific knowledge skills you can simply give information based on that. 

“You’ve got Starship Engineer 5? Oh, yeah, you’ve seen these – X4-82’s.  They flooded the market as luxury cruisers, but sold poorly, ending up being popular on the secondary market once everyone figured out they could be modified for high speed smuggling.”

When it comes to setting – simplify your focus like a movie, but give out setting in play like a book – from the character’s knowledge, background and judgment.

Scarcity and Specialization

A useful thing to do is consider where your game is happening.  Is it a particular city?  A star system?  A particular valley?  Then, consider what kinds of characters make sense for that area – in terms of skills, classes, culture, etc.  Now look at the game system you’re using – decide which classes/skills/splats/abilities might fit or not fit.  For a given group/culture in this area, limit what they can pick from.

The scarcity provides context.  A lot of games become weird mishmash settings because there’s no context as to how/why these particular groups are interacting or relative common/rarity of these things.  If wizards only live in the Misty Islands across the water, everyone knows something is up when someone casts magic.  If only the Night Guard of the King use two handed swords, the minute someone shows up one with one, carries much more meaning than the sword itself.

You can do this easily with settings you create, but you can also do this with established settings by considering a location/place and events that may have happened recently to it.  “Yes, normally there would be Templars in this city, but all but the few who are no longer able to fight left when the orders came in.  That was 2 months ago, and no one has heard from them since…”

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August 2, 2014

I try not to do investigations in games because I think they’re generally a poor fit for roleplaying games given current design in general.  That is, I’m sure we can develop some better tools, but mostly games are pretty bad at it, yet it remains something people try to build a lot of campaigns on.

In other media

Let’s start by considering movies, books, tv shows, etc. that work on investigation.  A lot of things happen here which we don’t see transferred well to roleplaying games.

Source rule #1: You always learn something

First off, what makes investigations entertaining is a combination of tight editing to keep the pacing rolling, and good characterization.  Either you’re seeing all the fun parts where someone learns something neat about the plot, or it reveals something interesting about the characters involved.

Source rule #2: Information THROWS itself at the protagonists

If you do end up reading/watching a lot of investigation stories, you find that there’s a lot of contrived and implausible things that happen.   The protagonists just happen to stumble upon things by accident, overhear the conversation that makes you suspicious of the right people, accidentally find the hidden note, etc.    Even half the time they come across something completely unrelated that reminds them of an important thing they already knew that puts the whole situation into context.

The one RPG I’ve seen do this well is Dogs in the Vineyard – the problems are all about people, and the rule in the game is that everyone wants to tell the PCs something, and that something is usually only part of the truth best biased in their favor.  Or, if they out and out lie, the GM should tell the players, “They’re lying! You can tell they’re lying…”

Source rule #3: Protagonists are ALSO a source of information

Good investigation stories build on how a protagonist thinks and contextualizes the world.  How they get a read on a character, and how it fits in to the setting as a whole.

“This was a clean murder.  A cold one.  Mr. Govey’s shouting and shoving was a pretty good indication this wasn’t the kind of guy to do the murder.  Well, to murder like that, anyway.   The problem when you’ve got people who know some dirt, is they always assume you’re looking for their dirt, and it makes it a giant hassle to learn anything.   And everyone knew the docks had a long history of dirt.

‘Govey! Do I look like I’m here from the feds? My Uncle Carlos was friends with Jim, and he’s just trying to make sure it wasn’t his gambling that got to him.  Carlos owes money to the same people and he has to know if its time to leave town.’   Sound like you, too, are trying to cover your ass, then watch them spill the dirt.  Nothing like comrades in crime.”

The “Not-Really-An-Investigation” story

There’s a lot of action stories which use the idea of investigation, or clue trails, as props to tie together fight sequences.  These aren’t real investigation stories, and so, they’re even more contrived and shaky as far as clue logic goes.

The unfortunate part is, a lot of RPGs tend to borrow from this kind of fiction and this is where a lot of investigations in RPGs fall down, completely.  If this is the kind of story you want to run, there really shouldn’t be any dice rolls around the clues at all, or any question of finding them – they’re basically signposts to the next fight.  Don’t waste your group’s time, or your own, by making them into challenges that can only really block the point of your game.

Bringing it to your game

Assume Competence, Give information

I always like to assume the characters are competent as some things, and they have angles, leads or ideas to start with, based on what they observe.  Giving those to players is a good way to feed context and often “Do I know about…?” kinds of questions can have you suggest some leads.

“The body was hit hard enough that it slid several feet on the floor, you can tell by the blood smear.  Whatever attacked him was very strong.  Nothing else in the house has been damaged or disturbed, which says this thing was intelligent.   So that rules out the werewolf theory…  you can poke around the house to look for more clues, or maybe check with the Old Man and see if he’s got any suggestions.  Or you can try to convince Lacey to use her psychometry to read the room, but you still owe her from the last job…”

So it’s about feeding some information based on things the characters are already good at, and pointing at obvious paths to go from there.  If the players have other suggestions, try to go with those, too, and unless it’s completely weird or unfitting, try to make sure some useful information can be found that way.  If it is totally off track, then try to simply summarize in a short sentence, “You spend an hour looking around, but you realize this is a dead trail.” and move on.

Stakes and Dice Rolls

The other half of the problem is what do we roll for?  If you roll to see if you know something, or if you learn something, the obvious answers are “You do” or “You don’t”.  If you do, then how much of the mystery is solved?  If you don’t, where do you go from there?  These are both kind of unsatisfactory outcomes, which makes setting up conflicts and tests based on this, a terrible thing.  Instead, consider these options for when and how to make investigation rolls:

Outside Expertise

When the character is trying to learn something outside their personal expertise, the roll is more to see if they know who to go to, and where to look for more information.  Success means they know “just the person!” to seek out, whereas failure means they know who to go to, but dealing with that person is a pain or they owe them something.

Leaving Clues in Return

Are there people who would look unkindly upon this investigation?  Failed rolls mean you are spotted, you ask questions in a tactless, obvious way, or otherwise, leave clues that you’re involved.  Folks may take action to scare you away, attack your reputation, or otherwise stop you.  Notice that this doesn’t have to be the villains – it can be other authorities who don’t like or trust you.

Devil’s Deal

People who will give you info, or access to something to learn what you need to learn… for a price.   It’s rarely money or goods – often it’s favors in return.  These favors may be risky, or implicate your into other kinds of trouble.

Do friends use friends?

“Look, I’ve done you too many favors already.  I can’t do this, this time.  I’ve got too much else going on.” “Please, this is really important.”  “You can’t ask this of me.” “C’mon man.”  “You know what? If I do this, everything from before? You can forget it.  This is the last time.”  “…ok.”

Failure means losing the respect of a friend, family, mentor, or contact.

Clues put together… too late

You roll the dice ONLY at the moment of truth.  “You failed the die roll?  You just realized the vampire would only recognize the Eastern Orthodox Church as holy ground – this church doesn’t count.  None of you are safe here.”

This is a lot of fun, but there’s two things you have to do when you do this trick.  First, you have to give bonuses if the players have taken good precautions and made intelligent research beforehand.  Second, if the roll is failed, there needs to be a way to get to success nearby and that needs to be set up as the goal once this roll is failed.

If it’s a monster of the week, the key to defeating it’s weakness might be across the street – if you can get there.  If it’s finding out who the murderer is, it’s trying to catch them in a chase scene, etc.

Player Input

One of the best games for investigations is Inspectres.  Inspectres is one of the first games to really focus on narration trading as a key mechanic, and it works well for investigations.  Instead of the GM having a set of clues hidden for the players to discover, successful rolls mean the players make up, on the spot, what the clues are and what they point to.

Naturally, this means as a GM you can’t have a hidden solution, or a full backstory worked up, since the players might take it in a completely different direction – on the other hand, it also means you don’t have to prep much.  Just take the clues the players give you and run with it.

A lot more investigation games can work like this, though it changes the experience from “uncovering” a puzzle, to one of creating a story as you go.  It means any success will always produce something one of the players found interesting and it also means that there’s not a lot of time wasted poking at dead ends.   The thing to be careful about is having everyone in the group on the same page about what fits for genre expectations as to what kinds of motivations/types of mysteries make sense.

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Flags: A critical misunderstanding

July 31, 2014

What Flags are

Many years ago, I coined a term on The Forge to talk about a type of RPG mechanics that were coming out – Riddle of Steel’s Spiritual Attributes, Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, Shadow of Yesterday’s Keys… all these mechanics have a simple thing in common - they’re a way for the players to explicitly tell the GM what they want the story to focus on.

I coined the term “Flag”, because it’s like waving a flag or marking a spot.

What Flags are not

When I first mentioned this (2005? 2006? geez, I can’t remember), I remember immediately the first thing that people did, was start suggesting the idea that any old stat or skill or power on the sheet could be a “Flag”.  I see this misunderstanding keeps popping up… (ETA: looks like 2005 – here we can see the problem showing up way early…)

Problem is, that these aren’t explicit, and there’s a lot of room for misreading those scores/choices.

Does the player have a high combat skill because they want to fight a lot?

Or is it because they’re used to having their character die so much that they decided they needed a high skill just to keep the character around?

Or did the player have a character who once was a great fighter, but now is trying to find a peaceful life, and only took a high skill to reflect that past?

If you need the player to tell you why they’ve chosen what they’ve chosen, you don’t have a Flag.  

You have… exactly the same problem you had before Flag mechanics were created.  It’s not Flagging anything -it’s guess work.   Flags are one of the most powerful and useful types of mechanics produced in the last decade, and seeing the word get twisted around to mean the exact opposite of what it’s intended is deeply frustrating.

Not just design, useful for picking a game to play

Part of the reason I’ve pointed them out is not just from a design standpoint (“Here’s a better way to coordinate players and GMs in Narrative story goals”) but also from  a play standpoint – if you want to know how to engage your players, if you want a fairly reliable system for narrativist play, for player input, take a look at games with Flag mechanics.

You structure your scenes, your campaign and the events around the Flags, which means you don’t have to pre-plan your scenes or events.   You improvise by following the conflicts and issues the players are interested in – which they give you through Flag Mechanics.  When you reward players for pursuing or addressing their Flags, you get a powerful reward cycle – suddenly everyone at the table knows what the cool thing is to focus on.  These can transform relatively traditional game systems into very player driven and story focused ones, even while keeping everything else intact.

I’m sure I’ll just have to post something like this once a year, as a reminder, since it seems to keep recurring.


Interrogation: How about we don’t make a game of torture?

July 31, 2014

In something like 3-4 different places online, I see different folks asking about how to deal with the issue of interrogation in their games.   This recurring issue in roleplaying games comes directly out of a certain way of structuring play, poorly.

“And then, they attack!”

Example: The heroes are investigating an abandoned warehouse when suddenly mysterious assailants  attack them!

Let’s start from the top.  What purpose does this fight actually serve?  Sure, it’s action and action is fun, but why are the attackers’ motives and reasons mysterious?  How does it serve your game?

“Uh, well, it brings the clues to the players! Now they have to find out WHY they’re being attacked, right?”

Ok, so clues get brought to them, do they also have to pry those out as well?

Other Media Does This, Instead

In many movies, books, etc. when you have the “kick in the door and get attacked” one of the following things happen which allow the storytellers to avoid turning their heroes into sociopathic interrogators:

1.  The assailants declare their business from the beginning.  (“The Crimson Sword sends his regards! Now die!”)

2.  The assailants spill the beans right after defeat (“Ok, ok, I’m not getting paid enough for this job!”)

3.  The heroes can deduce information using their own knowledge (“That’s the Lu family sword style!”)

4.  The scene simply skips ahead (“Using the info we got from those thugs, it should be on this dock here…”)

Structured for Failure

A lot of times the reason for this kind of thing is that a lot of the combats are meaningless – they’re put in to the game because “you’re supposed to have a fight” – there wasn’t a meaningful way for players to avoid it, to defuse it, or to do anything other than get stuck in a fight, so to get control, they try to get information.   Also, because the information wasn’t immediately presented, the players now have to work to get it.  Finally, if your game relies solely on Actor Stance and the players have to actually play out every scene, what’s their last option for finding out what’s going on?

There’s a LOT of steps here that make this happen, which are all easy to avoid, if you’re not stuck in this terrible structure of gameplay.


1. Make sure combats have obvious motivations

2. Ask if there’s any information players would want to get from their opponents

3. Consider having the information being presented freely by the NPCS, before, during or after a combat.

4. Consider using knowledge skills of PCs as a good way to feed information deduced by their characters

5. Consider skipping ahead after the combat directly to the next place the clues would lead.

What’s a more meaningful interrogation?

Even assuming you skip torture, and say, are doing something like a police procedural (though, there’s a lot to be said about things like tiring people out, withholding food/water, keeping them from going to the bathroom…), the problem is that a lot of games structure it like it’s a matter of pulling out exact facts.

Instead, what makes more sense to do is to pull up motivations and ideas an NPC has.

You know he’s hiding something.  He’s covering for his brother.  You’re not sure what.  He feels bad for the guy who got killed.  You’re pretty sure he’s not the killer.  He let slip that the shop was closed that day – even though he shouldn’t know that if he really was out of town.  Etc.

So half of it becomes whatever social/trickery skills the other half becomes knowledge/information skills to put together the pieces or compare against it.  (“Sure, everyone know’s Sal’s Deli closes on the 3rd Tuesday of the month.  Everyone who’s a regular, that is.”)

Now here’s the thing -for 99.9% of the games out there?  This is not something to play out and roleplay through.  The players are probably not trained interrogators or masterful enough manipulators to play it right, the GM is probably not a good enough roleplayer to improvise the motivations and mistakes of a character well enough to actually do this all freeform, well.

Make a couple of dice rolls, summarize, and move on.  Even cop shows only show you a few minutes of interrogation scenes, and that’s because otherwise you’d have a lot of boring and bad tv.

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Better Pregen Characters

July 30, 2014

Here’s a secret about running a game with pregen characters:

Your pregen characters are an AD for your game.

This is true whether you’re a game publisher, or a GM trying to get your group into a new game.  The pregens are often going to be an example, if not actually the first experience many folks get with a game.

So the bar is actually a little higher for how you create these characters than each player making their own personalized character.

Protagonist Material

First off, the hardest part is actually designing characters who are “protagonist material”.  There’s a lot of game systems where you can put together, a bland, not particularly interesting character – you might have a full set of stats, even a lot of history… but nothing catchy.

The problem is, a lot of times when people try to avoid this, they go all the other way – where the hero is the center of the universe, the super special exception, and full of extra uber powers.  That’s also not the way.

The way is to find a good ideal or personality aspect the character can stand on.  It should be something they’re driven towards, and, they have to at least be somewhat likeable- a complete jerky antihero either becomes the character everyone passes over, or, the character someone plays as a jerky antihero that becomes a problem in the game.

The other challenge, of course, is that it has to be easy enough to grasp as a pregen character, catchy enough to get someone’s eye, and, naturally, fit with whatever your game is about.  If your game is about digging in dungeons, a character who is having problems with their brother converting religions is probably not going to tie well together.

Mostly, though what you have to ask yourself is, can you see this character’s story and conflict playing out in a movie?  (novels have much more room to explore, a movie is about the right level of narrative depth and time to aim for).

Tied to the Scenario

Since you’re either making the scenario or designing pregens with the scenario in mind, look to tie your pregen characters’ goals directly into the scenario.  This works well for giving people immediate, fun play.  You can align the characters’ goals if they’re supposed to be cooperative or working together, or put them at odds if it’s supposed to be in conflict.

Generally, you don’t want the scenario to require any specific characters, or, if it does, only one of them which you can tell the players up front is a necessary character.

Elevator Pitch

You want to have a nice, short, easy to reference description for each character.  The way that works best is a brief description, a short 3-4 sentence background and a 1-2 sentence strategy/play description for the players.  

This should be in as plain layman’s language as possible.  “Thundercast Glimmerblade” doesn’t mean jack to anyone not already deep into whatever arcane terminology your game uses.


Kolemi Kinata

A tricky old man

2nd Level Human Rogue


Kolemi led a revolt against the Minaluku royal house. They were overthrown, but much of their Clan still lives and holds influence, so Kolemi sold himself into the service of the Kinata as a “refugee” and earned his way into their family name. Here and there, he runs into people who recognizes him, though he tries to keep his identity and past hidden.


Kolemi works best by using his mobility to get around, teaming up on bad guys to use Sneak Attack, and using tricky stunts to overcome enemies. He has a lot of skills outside of combat which can be useful.


The point of this is to give a new gamer enough information both on what kind of character you’ve got, what their set up is, and finally, how to play them, without going into specifics about mechanics.

Cast as a Whole

Since you can put together all of the pregens at the same time, you should look to make the characters interesting TOGETHER.  Narrative stories focus on a cast of diverse characters and personalities, so it makes sense to build your characters in the same way.  

Simply having characters with different powers or abilities isn’t enough – “Gruff and Tough Mercenary Fire Guy” and “Gruff Mercenary Toughguy With Ice Powers” isn’t really that different. 

Find personalities that would be interesting and entertaining, as well as entertaining when contrasted with others.  Also consider including advice on how the characters feel about each other, especially if it’s a team or party-based scenario.

Entry Level/Advanced Characters

It’s important to include some entry level characters .  “Entry level” means easy for a completely new player to pick up – if the game has the option between simple and complex mechanics for different character types, this is the simple mechanics options.  You may even want all of your pregens to be simple.

Second, you also want to consider what character concepts are harder to play, or have more complex things going on, fictionally.  The warrior who wants to protect his brother (another PC) is pretty straight forward, compared to the Prince who debating whether he needs to rebel against his father, the King, who is turning into a tyrant…  

Between both of these, if you have characters which are easier/harder to play, it’s worth noting that, so that new players can go for the easier ones to start.


My general rule is to aim for a character who is about 60-75% optimized, and the remaining 25-40% aimed for reasonable breadth from their core concept.  If you have a character who is too much hyper specialized, players have no room to feel things out, if you have a character that is too generalized, the player also won’t feel out how to strategize, and may just feel bad at everything.


If you can, pictures make a world of difference.  You can use art you find online, you can draw your own, or whatever, but having character portraits to go with each character sheet goes a long way towards getting people excited about characters and establishing visually how the game works.

Who plays who?

Although this process is set up to help players pick their own and get the info for how to run the characters quickly and easily… the fact is you may want to take a stronger hand in guiding things.  

I suggest looking at the least experienced players and giving them the easier characters to consider first… after that, let the players who are more comfortable with the game, or roleplaying in general, choose between the remaining simple characters and the complex ones.

The two things you absolutely DO NOT want to happen is:

1) The new player gets the most mechanically complex pregen, causing them to be lost, ask questions constantly (above and beyond the questions they already would have had) and to use the character poorly, as far as the mechanics sit.

2) The new player gets the most thematically loaded pregen, and ultimately their choices affect everything… and they end up either not realizing there’s ramifications to their choices or feeling pressure anxiety.

I’ve seen all of that happen, and none of it is particularly fun or helpful to play.  

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The Oasis

July 29, 2014

The Oasis is a forum aimed at providing a community space for POC into designing or playing games – videogames, boardgames, cards, roleplaying games etc.  A place to trade information, get playtesters, ask for resources, signalboost and get ideas.  Also talk about ways to navigate some of the spaces we have to operate in.

The forum is aimed at doing a slow, but reasonable growth so we can have quality discussion and keep trolls out.  If you’re interested, please check out the application form.


Platforms, Voice, and Toxicity

July 24, 2014

Modelview Culture has been putting out a ton of great articles on videogames and the tech scene.  Today’s article covers the issue of how platforms (programming languages, tools for building games, online organizing tools, etc.) end up being used by marginalized folks who end up promoting the platform, but at the end of the day, the same social circle that benefits the most can’t be bothered to open the door in return…

Here’s a common pattern:

  • Male programmers builds a platform out of code.
  • Platform is adopted by a huge user base of marginalized people.
  • Those people drive widespread adoption and popularity of the platform.
  • Original creator turns out to give no shits about oppression, happily takes all the credit without mention of these creators.

Many of the POC, women, queer designers I personally know have had situations where they haven’t been paid, had the credit for the work they’ve done lifted in projects, or had people out and out plagiarize their work for profit.

Who is community?  Who gets to be human?

Although you’ll always run across cases of unethical exploitation, what is more problematic and worth talking about is the overall community that allows this kind of thing to thrive, and the fact that only some folks are targeted for that abuse.

What the article points to is the fact that these platforms, just like an RPG system, or a play style movement, or a social scene – all of these rely on a network of people to gain viability… and the question is how much does that serve the people who form the network.   Or rather, WHICH people get to be served in that network.

Ten years ago, I went to my first GenCon.  I remember someone said something to me that encapsulated the problem in full:  “Why should we care about people of color?”

The idea that, as a gamer, involved in the scene, that I had to prove myself UP to being worth considered equally as any other (white) gamer?  Oh, well, there’s the problem right there.   The disconnect was that “people of color” didn’t equal “people”.   “Prove to me that you are people” is the underlying assumption.

Questions we shouldn’t have to answer

Just as much as you have to navigate whether your money is going towards someone who wants you literally dead, the other parts you end up having to navigate as marginalized person are:

- Will working in this (rpg platform/community/etc) help me by creating outreach, or will it just promote people who will exploit then throw me away after the fact?

- Will participating and promoting this particular geek thing be fun, let me engage with other folks and “finally prove” to people we’re also part of the hobby?  Or will it just be promoting a scene that will shit on and harass me?

The balancing act between useful network and meaningful connections vs. harassment and exploitation is one each person has to navigate for themselves.   Much as I said before, the options often boil down to suffer in silence, suffer more for speaking up, or walk away.

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