Player Choice and Narrative

January 14, 2014

PRACTICE 2013: Designing Narrative Choice from NYU Game Center on Vimeo.

23 minutes in, Telltale games talks about how they designed around The Walking Dead game.

What’s interesting is although they’re talking about a videogame, the issues in terms of design and what it means for players carries over a lot for tabletop rpgs.  The two points which they hit on which I think are very relevant are:

1. Choice is how players give feedback to the game

…and in designing a videogame, you need to figure out how to make the game do something with that.  They point out that a lot of narrative tree games usually give you the false choice/all roads lead to Rome approach – you can choose options but they all lead you back to doing the same required thing in the end, which makes them very much fluff choices as opposed to meaningful ones.

This obviously ties over to the problems of Illusionist play since it uses the same tactic as a core part of play, except with more variance in dialogue.

2. Narrative Tree design is a lot of work

For them, they have to develop a giant narrative tree, since the game is just a program that responds to what you do, and they spent a lot of time with a team of writers, flow charts and putting it all together to create a good story.  (and, given that the videogame is short, people do play through it repeatedly).

Compare this to the tabletop game where you have one person trying to design a narrative tree, not just for one player, but several and the fact that unlike a videogame with a clear interface, the players are not generally under the assumption they only have a limited palette of options and on top of all that – will not play through the same situation again.

By comparison, sitting there with your friends and geeking out, “Wouldn’t it be cool if?”  “What if?” kind of story building is actually pretty easy.   Unlike the videogame, you are a living person who can react and improvise on the spot to meet the players’ actions.  All these simple logistical/play reasons, on top of the social problems, are why I think Illusionism is a dead end for tabletop rpgs.


Burning Wheel / Attack on Titan hack

January 13, 2014

Simple hack for playing Attack on Titan using the Burning Wheel Gold rules.

Obviously, there’s good odds that the titan stats I’ve made will be completely wrong 5-10 years from now as the story keeps revealing more and more about them.


Improvising NPCs: “X but Y”

January 12, 2014

I saw a pretty interesting question where someone was asking how to improvise important NPCs quickly and easily.  I realized one of the tricks I use is “X but Y” to build an NPC conceptually.

X is the general gist of the character in one aspect, Y is the twist or part that stands out from it.  It applies across a few categories.


In real life, our brains tend to use shortcuts to identify people.  You might have someone drastically change their hairstyle, or their usual types of clothing, and suddenly you don’t recognize them.

X is the general description of the character, Y is the part that stands out from even that.  It can be a physical feature or something about how they move or stand.

“She’s broadly built, muscled like a laborer, but you see her sword moves graceful and light.”

“He’s tall and lanky, pale and sickly looking.  But his stride is forceful, almost as if he was forcing his way through life by will alone.”

“The soldier’s armor is beat up, many campaigns and battles and his face nearly matches it.  Then there’s a goofy grin.  He’s seen a lot but he’s still got life in him.”

or… you can do it in creepy ways too:

“The wretched thing that stands rotting before you almost makes you retch with the smell of it, as a small piece slides off of it’s left hand.  But worse than the scent is the face, that of an unblemished toddler, unrotten, somehow, on this lanky adult corpse body.”


X is the expected motivations of the NPC given their job, class, or allegiance to some faction in the game.  Y is the exception, limit, or contrary motivation to that.

- The bandit wants to steal from the heroes, but has no interest in killing anyone.

- The marshall wants to catch the crooks, but also wants to be the only one who gets credit for it.

- The ghost will seek to drag others to death, but will protect children, always.

X is nearly always the obvious thing for a character, but Y is where you get to add a fun twist or personality to them.

Building Further

X/Y is the beginning point to a character – not the totality of them.  Once you have this basic visual and motivation parts down, you can always ask “Why?” as you go.  The break between X and Y is where you can find yourself inspired to come up with new, interesting story and character bits and develop an NPC fully.


The Immersion Hurdle

January 2, 2014

“Immersion”.  It means… well, it usually means one of the following, or a combination of the following:

- Player emotional identification with the character

- Actor stance – making choices only from the limited information and motivations of the character

- Not having mechanics be a motivating factor in decisions and actions in play

- Not having mechanics interrupt an experience of the fictional events

Most discussions using “immersion” turn out poorly because people may be referring to only one of these things, or a combination, in a very different way than anyone else in the conversation.

Two other factors are that:

a) techniques or game mechanics which fulfill one or some of these requirements are completely antithetical to others.

b) most of the mainstream game systems are pretty terrible for achieving these goals.

Emotional Identification

Some of the best games I’ve played where I’ve really been emotionally moved by the character’s situation?  That I felt torn between situations, agonized by emotional bits?   Have been some of the most “meta-game” (as people tend to call them) systems.   Games where maybe the players have set the scenes or defined problems ahead of time, or games where there’s a Flag mechanic to push play toward certain relationship issues, etc.

Emotional identification is NOT dependent on limited information or even restricted to ‘character-only’ control of the game – emotional identification depends on being able to address the character’s emotional conflicts in play.

This doesn’t require mechanics to make happen, though mechanics tend to make it easier and reliable for a group to coordinate it happening.

Experiencing the Fiction and Mechanics

There’s a lot of things that can break the way someone wants to experience the fiction.   The easiest universal way is to have events occur that shouldn’t, given the game/setting you’re playing.

Funny enough, mechanics can be just as useful as tools to make sure the game sticks to the fictional results that fit the expectations, as they can end up breaking them – depending on how they’re designed and what those expectations are.

For one group, a system’s mechanics might support them in getting the fiction they want, for another group, the mechanics intrusively produce the fiction they DON’T want…

Second, the experience of the fiction is sometimes claimed to be disrupted because too much energy/effort/thought has to be put into handling the mechanics.  This, too, varies from group to group.

Between both of these, you can see that Immersion as a goal is a Simulationist goal – the fidelity to an experience in play.   A lot of Immersion discussions break down because it’s basically people arguing over which KIND of sim play is “right”…

And the Bigger Hurdle

Often you see the question of “How do I get more Immersion in my play?” and the obvious answer is, “Just use simple mechanics that the GM handles and no one else needs to deal with.”… which if the group actually wants what is part of that question, shouldn’t be a problem.

Of course, this answer is always rejected, because the real reason is that  not everyone actually wants to play that game, so the question isn’t actually “How do I do this thing better we all want?” but actually, “How do I change the minds of the other people playing, to want the same thing I want?”

The bigger hurdle of immersion is the one-true-way-ism built up around it, as the only form of “real roleplaying” (aka, “All other forms of roleplaying enjoyment or goals are stupid roleplaying”).

There are plenty of mechanics, systems, and design tools for helping players get emotional identification, having mechanics that help reinforce the setting/genre expectations, not break them, and even to do so with relatively quick or easy handling time: it’s just that you can’t actually USE any of them if you restrict yourself to character motivation as the only possible method of directing play.

The most fervent proponents of Immersion often name goals that are at odds with the methods they are committed to.  This is because the methods, not the goals, are the markers of identity used to mark them as a “good roleplayer”.

And as long as the techniques and methods are considered the benchmark of “good roleplayer” it means that people will be unable to discuss the them without making it a defense of their identity, nor consider any other possible ways of getting to the goals they claim they want.


GM Improvisation 101

December 31, 2013

Realizing that a lot of the questions I see coming up over and over are on “How do I improvise?” so I figured I should just put it into one place to link people.

Less hard than you think

A lot of times when I hear gamers talk about improvising, it’s spoken of like it’s this super amazing skill that is rare and difficult – like Bruce Lee’s 1 inch punch or something.  But here’s the thing: it’s only difficult because most rpg advice for GMs is the exact opposite of improvisation.

Let’s break that down.

The two most common methods of GM prep are either: “Make a map and fill it with encounters and puzzles” or “Make a set of events/scenes, either a linear set or a branching path set and have the PCs ‘go through it’.”.

Notice that both of these methods require that you “make” something ahead of time, guessing at what will be fun, challenging, and appropriate.   When the PCs deal with the things you made, they’re then “used up”, you don’t get to reuse them, it’s done.

I used to call this stuff “ammo” – you make it, shoot it, and it’s gone.

Now let’s do a comparison: every week the players show up and all they have in front of them is their character sheet.  They don’t plan out every possible thing they might have to do in the week’s adventure, they just do it.   They use the idea of their character to direct how they’re going to improvise.

What if you did the same – made simple tools you could reference and improvise as a GM?

A Source of Problems > A Set of Problems

What the prepared GMing styles teach you is to create a set of problems – it’s a set of encounters, scenes, questions/replies, clues, etc. but they get used up.   What you want instead is a source of problems, something that easy to improvise ideas with.

If you were playing a Batman game, could you take 5 minutes and simply make up a dastardly plan for the Joker?   Sure.  You get what kind of problems the Joker creates.  You can probably make up Joker action and reactions on the spot.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s easy enough to come up with something.

So what you’re looking for is situations and characters that make it easy for you to come up with twists and problems rather than having to do a lot of prep.  You prep just enough detail on the SOURCES of problems, so you can adapt in play, easily.

NPCs with Motivations

A very easy solution is to have NPCs whose goals and personalities naturally clash with those of the PCs.  You don’t have to figure out each event or scene – you just look down your list of NPCs, play them as characters, just as much as players play their characters, and events happen.   You pick which NPCs to focus on based on what seems the most interesting.

Also notice that the NPCs’ motivations do not need to be static – they may change their minds, switch sides, or otherwise change up what they’re interested in – you can have an enemy turn into an ally, an ally turn into an enemy and not totally break the game.

Useful reading:

Making Good Flags (PC’s motivations)

Conflict Webs (NPC’s motivations)

7 Types of Antagonists (NPC archetypes)

Logistics as a Source of Problems

The other part of it is sometimes nature, or the situation produces a source of problems.  Having the refugees of your village lost at sea and running out of supplies is a source of problems, even if everyone is trying to work together.   Instead of necessarily prepping tons of individual events, you can have a larger situation that easily suggests a lot of potential problems.

Useful reading:

Logistics & Politics (the small amount of prep for logistics issues)

Magical Cause & Effect (logistics and problems tying into magic, or mythological ideas)

Big List of Combat Stakes (likely combat situations that comes out of these things, also provides it’s own form of mini-logistical issues).

Easier Math

Now, with all that said, there’s still things to be said about the point of the game system you’re using.  Improvising is easier when the rules make it very easy to do math on the fly.    (Suggestions: The Pool, Inspectres, Lady Blackbird)

While many rpgs at this point make that easier for things like skill or attribute checks, few are as easy for combat encounters – partially because they often deal with a lot of different variables, but also because many rpgs are built around funky math for balancing an encounter.

When you have this kind of situation, it’s better if the game gives you a lot of pregenerated monsters/enemy types so you don’t have to build things from scratch – this is effectively what the classic D&D Monster Manual was about – you can simply flip to the right page, pull up the stats and go.

Follow the Players

Games where you’ve tried to prepare everything ahead are much harder to make a fun and entertaining game, in my experience.  You’re trying to guess what your players will do, what they’ll find fun, and how to make it work before it happens.  You’re not just exercising mind reading, but also divination of the future…

Games where you improvise on the spot, you simply pay attention to what gets the players excited – you let them show you what they’re interested in and you give them more of that.  You don’t read their minds, you pay attention to what they show you.

The link of making Good Flags is a good one to read for a technique to help you, but the real key is paying attention to the people at the table.  Are they engaged?  Are they asking questions and all excited?  Are they clenching their fists in anxiety?  Are they trying their damndest to win a conflict?  Pay attention to these things.  You can see if you’re getting hotter or colder when you play.

Pacing – Go to the fun

Years ago, I wrote, “Fun Now” as a motto- figure out what is fun for your group, go for it and don’t waste too much time getting to it.  I’ve also stated it as “find out what is interesting for your group” and it says a lot about the levels of broken gamer culture that I would always get someone asking “How do I know what is interesting?”

Anyway, the nice thing about rpgs is that you can literally skip the unfun parts at anytime you want.  “3 months later, you’ve braved the terrible sea voyage and you’ve made your way to the Capital.” , “It’s almost dawn by the time you get out of the Tombs of Sarkoth, you’re exhausted, hurt, but alive.”  etc.

Tied into this is the idea brought forth in the rpg Dogs in the Vineyard – “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”.  If you already know the outcome of a situation – just Say Yes and skip over it.  If there’s no possible interesting failure or consequences – Say Yes and skip over it.

Finding out what the players find fun, focusing as much play on it as possible, that’s how you get the most out of your improvisation and gaming.


Five Fires – Hiphop RPG

December 28, 2013

Quinn Murphy on the Five Fires RPG he’s working on, which you can support and get early in on the playtest work on Patreon.

 “A Hip Hop RPG?  What, Wu-Tang in a Dungeon?”

No. (not yet. Wait for it…)

Five Fires is a game about making art.  The specific form of creation are the skills and talents of those involved in hiphop culture in the late 70s and early 80s.  You play regular people with powerful abilities of expression.  You live your life, deal with problems, and make art to heal yourself and maybe, just maybe, you can heal the world along the way.

I’ve been pretty hyped about this game for over a year now.  I’m pretty excited he’s moving it forward and can’t wait to playtest it.

ETA – Quinn gave the ok to quote this part in the playtest doc which nails it:

Hip hop has been blamed for everything you can think of. Throughout its life, the culture and genre has had its enemies and those who seek to callously criminalize it. This book is not going to upset those fears. Hip hop is dangerous. It can and has literally changed the world for millions of people. It is dangerous to the status quo, opening eyes and sharing a different viewpoint to what we are commonly offered.

Hip hop is not perfect. One criticism that can be levelled at the genre is that it can be homophobic and misogynistic. If that is a concern, please know that such aspects of hip hop are not in this book. To me, the core value of hip hop is love.  It is a genre and culture that helps people know themselves and their communities, and imparts wisdom. Where it has deviated into these values is a distraction from that, and not one I wish to repeat or endorse in these pages.

There is so much to love and so much love within hiphop, that I’ll gladly sacrifice some “realism” to make a game that feels and plays safe and that demonstrates those core values.


Blade of the Iron Throne

December 11, 2013

For years and years I’ve been telling folks about the amazing, out of print, Riddle of Steel.  I finally saw that apparently folks released Blade of the Iron Throne, which takes 90% of the RoS engine, and adapts it to pulp sword and sorcery.


Passions, which are the renamed version of Riddle of Steel’s Spiritual Attributes, are the driver of the game.  Your character has goals, relationships, ideals they believe in, and when they are acting to further or protect those things:

a) the GM gives them another point in that Passion

b) they get to roll extra dice equal to that Passion

This is only the first part – the second part is that you then spend down those Passions to permanently give improvements to your character.  So the best way to power game is to roleplay, and roleplaying IS the method to power gaming in this system.

Riddle of Steel had initially allowed players to add multiple Spiritual Attributes to any action which encompassed all of them – but in Blade, you are limited to one.  I’m guessing they weren’t as big of a fans of the uber-ing out of characters, which is about the only change I’m not a fan of.

Tactical Combat

The tactical combat system is fun, has depth without requiring deep mastery to use, and is fast – it also doesn’t use a map or minis either.

There’s basically 3 ideas which run the system:

Dice Pool

Combatants have a dice pool which represents their skill at using a particular weapon or fighting style- these dice will be used over the course of two exchanges before the pool is refilled.  The core of gameplay is trying to figure out how much to commit and which maneuvers will be the best use of the dice you have… and getting your opponent to commit their dice poorly.


If a weapon has reach advantage (the longer weapon if you’re on the outside, the shorter weapon if you’re up close), each range difference is a die penalty to the disadvantaged side to attack.  Smart positioning puts you in a situation where you can take bigger risks in offensive maneuvers because the enemy won’t have the dice to hit back.


Unlike a lot of games, “initiative” here doesn’t mean taking turns in a given order, if you have initiative, you are the attacker, and you can keep doing attacks as long as you keep the initiative.   If the defender manages to defend with more than a tie (that is, getting at least 1 success more than you), they take the initiative.   This can be a big deal, because if you can take the initiative after the enemy has over committed, they’re basically left open for a serious counter strike.

Wounds tend to hit hard and fast, and few characters take more than a couple before being incapacitated enough to not be effective in a fight.

Setting and Imagery

So the game is built on pulp sword and sorcery… which means problematic parts too.  Mostly there’s the offhand comments about wenching or that men are mighty and women are voluptuous.

Most of the default setting civilizations are described as people of color by their physical descriptions – but even though you get stuff like stand-in-Egyptians as an “Enlightened” culture, you also get stuff like “dusky skinned” or the asians as literally described as “yellow skinned”…

So, you’re not going to be reaching or having to revise to have heroic POC in this game, you’re just going to sometimes wince at the language in the setting chapters at places.  I feel like I have to give the representation 3/5 for doing much BETTER than I expected,  and sadly, still much better than a lot of rpg settings out there despite the issues.


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