Conflicts and Outcomes as Genre

January 4, 2021

For years I’ve been saying that part of what you’re trying to do when you start up a game is for the group to understand the what kinds of conflicts and outcomes make sense for this game you’re trying to run, and I only just realized the easiest analogy is to consider genre in movies or books.

Think about it this way: the kinds of problems that show up for protagonists are very different in a horror movie, a political thriller, a rom-com, and an action movie. In the same sense, the ways they go about dealing with the problems they face, are also very different. And finally, what kind of outcomes you can expect, are different as well.

Because everyone in the group is contributing to the events in play, even if they’re limited to only controlling one character, having everyone make sure their ideas, actions, and narration fit within that general category is critical to avoiding weird situations in play.

Now, sometimes genre is a perfect stand in – for example, if you have a book, comics, tv show, or movie series that the game is based on, you can use that to reference for what kinds of things fit or don’t fit. However, most of the time “genre” by itself doesn’t work because it tends to be too broad and you can have vast differences within it, or, for example, a media series that has gone on a very long time and changed tone repeatedly.

A well designed game will generally stack these things into the mechanics on some level, or at least give good procedures so the group can converge on the ideas appropriate for their game.

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A Broken Wheel – A reminder post

December 31, 2020

A few conversations online has let me know it’s time for a reminder about… I guess one of the most basic theory things that directly, immediately, and completely impacts play.

  • No game system is good at everything; each system is good/bad at certain things
  • Trying to make a system do what it’s bad at, means more work and probably unfun experiences for the group

Improvising, to start

One of the conversations I saw was someone asking about improvisation play; specifically within D&D – but, given D&D’s tight expectations of encounter balancing, D&D is bad at improvisation. The conversation had someone giving advice with the usual “Improvisation is hard!” opener, but that’s exactly the problem. Improvisation in other rules sets is easy, just as much as crossing a river in a boat is easier than trying to cross it in a truck.

Consider: every player of a character is improvising every session they show up. They have no idea what is going to happen, or what their plan is, but they come up with dialogue, choices, and actions just fine. Improvisation is one of the first skills of roleplaying, period. When you’re not required to tightly balance specific numbers and factors in a minute or less, with the consequences of making the game unfun for everyone, yes, improvisation is easy.

But yes, also applying to everything else, too

Extending this beyond improvisation, this issue that some games are good at some things and not others covers a whole lot of possible things people might want in a game:

  • Character drama and character development
  • Moment to moment tactical choices (block, parry, feint, etc.)
  • Resource tracking/logistics
  • Rising/falling story arcs and tension
  • Collaborative world building
  • Low cognitive load for math
  • Quick handling time with mechanics
  • Social tension between players (not just characters)
  • Deduction, deception and hidden information games

And of course, more. Literally this is why I have the Same Page Tool to help people sort through “Do you want to play this system, this particular way, this campaign?” and to make sure people aren’t confused about mixing up other possible (but not well fitting) ways.

House rules vs. Broken Goals

Another car analogy. It’s one thing to mod your car. That’s a choice you make because you want your car to work different in some way. There might be some tinkering, but basically the car does the basic thing you want it to, and you’re just making it a LITTLE better in the way you want.

If you have to fix your car all the time, or because it keeps not doing the thing you want (working), that’s not the same at all. That’s a problem.

House rules are the former, trying to get the game to do what it’s bad at (that you want to do instead) is the latter. If you spend a lot of time constantly having to ignore the rules, fudge dice, or change them repeatedly to because it’s still not doing what you want – you should probably use different rules.

RPG myths that hold us back

Hand in hand with “this game can do everything!” are the myths that:

  • All games are as hard to play or run
  • All games are as expensive
  • You have to “master” this game to get it to do what you want

In all of these, the benefit for publishers is monopolizing a customer base and making sure they don’t look at any other games. I remember in the early 2000s when I suggested people play 3-4 very different kinds of RPGs to get a feel for what is out there, Internet Doodz(TM) claimed I wanted everyone to play one particular way. (Even though, I myself, have a few drastically different ways I prefer to play and that hasn’t changed, really.)

And that ties back to the problems I mentioned long ago when I first shifted over to making this blog – a lot of the history of tabletop RPG design has been poor design propped up with “We’re the real roleplayers! Not like those guys over there! Don’t look over there! Don’t try any other games unless you want to be a loser like them!” – some people believe the ONLY way you can recommend a game is because you want no one else to play any other game, ever again.

I said many times it’s a game, not a marriage. Or perhaps more accuately, it’s not a religion demanding you disavow any other ways along the way.

I often point to boardgames as a healthier example – boardgamers often play many types of boardgames, and while they have some favorites they come back to, outside of things like Go, Chess, etc. most people play many of them without a problem. And, equally important, the variety allows them to have examples and language to talk about what they like vs. what they don’t like – which helps you ask for what you want and lets you find people who also want the same thing, so you can play together.

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Backporting design from FF6 to Tabletop

December 1, 2020

I’ve been saying for years that the design theory/analysis in videogames is light years ahead of tabletop RPGs and often when I post stuff here related to videogames, it’s because there’s good crossover to bring back to tabletop. In this case, I recently picked up Patrick Holleman’s Reverse Design: Final Fantasy 6 book, which goes over some rather useful stuff for folks into tactical combat RPGs.

First, all the caveats; the book is mostly useful for people doing videogames – only a couple of key points are good for bringing back, and I’ll summarize them below. The book is both short (64 pages) and pricey – it uses small font so it’s denser than it appears. Still, this is probably one of the best examples of game design analysis I’ve seen.

Fight Duration and Real Durability

One of the key points is the way in which combat is built over the course of the game; the expectation is that most combats go for a consistent amount of time for the player – that is, most will be about X number of rounds long. Which means, as the party gains levels, the current encounters should match in defensive/offensive ability to last a similar number of rounds. The average number of hits a monster can take is it’s “Real Durability” – regardless of the specific numbers on the stats. Whether this is exactly mapped out by most turn based JRPGs or not, it becomes a defacto design logic; you can see the same in many other games as well.

Now, in tabletop, as power levels advance, we tend to see combat tends to either drag out, or shorten drastically. For games like D&D, this is usually the double pitfall of hitpoint inflation and instant incapacitation, respectively. Likewise, another problem is that a lot of games choose to cause the gap in specialized strengths of a character/monster type vs. the type of resistance by a non-specialized type to grow so much that it becomes a game of who can fire off their their attack first. In all these cases, real durability isn’t really considered at all.

This is why you see stuff like people taking D&D and limiting it to “sweet spot” levels, like the E6 hack (PDF link) – the issue of keeping play within certain bounds can be done by simply excising the later levels where the issue becomes worse.

Now, to be fair, the way in which you apporach Real Durability in a tabletop must be considered a little different than a videogame; players come up with clever solutions, the math isn’t as complex as videogames to create the perfect bell curve that allows for more consistent calculations, the number of combats for a TTRPG is thousands which means averaging matters more, and Class/Role convergence (see below) typically has to be well dressed up for players to accept it (at least in mainstream TTRPG culture).

AI over number inflation

One of the things I found intersting to discover was that the endgame enemies in FF6 didn’t have a lot better stats than prior monsters, what they had was better AI that caused them to pull out better attacks earlier. I have found this is generally a true issue in games in terms of how dangerous you can make a monster with the same stats.

Now, of course this idea isn’t surprising to any long standing GM, but it’s worth considering how many TTRPGs rely on stat inflation as the default. And again, not just “numbers go up to stay in line with the PCs” but rather the numbers go up fast enough that fights suddenly start either dragging out or getting very swingy and short – Real Durability swings.

Usually when I see game advice about making combatants smarter in tactics, is either based in Simulationist “realism” or those old vindictive “how to be a killer GM” kind of books – not as a measured, considered set of advice for Gamist play based directly into the existing rules. Consider if your monster stat block had 3 challenges, and different tactical instructions, maybe an extra power or something, but mostly the same stats which played much differently based on the challenge level.

Class/Role Convergence

A key point for FF6 is that the large cast of PCs, and how often the game has you playing with a split up group, means that they had to try to bring more of the characters to a closer range of ability to keep encounter balance reasonable (and Real Durability similar). What this means is that as characters advance, they become more similar in damage output/defense so party makeup becomes less an issue.

In tabletop RPGs that use a “balanced party” design, the problem is that class role is often tightly silo’d by making those differences stronger, not weaker. In turn, this means fights tend to be more swingy depending on how well the optimal folks can do their thing (or not at all) and that the balance of encounters gets much worse once any character is incapacitated – often leading to the dreaded ‘death spiral’. This is also why the classic D&D rule is “never split the party”.

A secondary issue is that the expectation of a ‘balanced party’ means new players are expected to have enough system mastery to even know what that is supposed to be for the game to begin with. Ironically for all the complaints that D&D 4th edition “made the game like an MMO”, the fact that classes became more alike meant you didn’t have to lock in exact party compositions as tightly as other editions; that is, one of the big things you have to do in MMOs.

Game (re)design is hard

If you’re designing a new RPG that uses combat, these are things you can apply to build a more robust design that has less rough spots. Unlike a JRPG, you don’t have control over encounter composition and moment to moment experiences other groups have, but you CAN pull out the swinginess and build in more meaningful tactical changes.

If you’re playing an existing game, you probably can see how much of these issues tie down to a structural problem in the system. Upping opposition tactics for higher difficulty is probably the easiest one to bring in, but the other issues around role differentiation and combat consistency are deep system structures that effectively require a full redesign.

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Puzzle Dungeons

November 20, 2020

I’m sure I must have linked Game Maker’s Toolkit Boss Keys series on Legend of Zelda dungeon design before, but this recent one on puzzle dungeons has some great principles for tabletop folks looking to make the same kind of thing.

I do recall old school dungeons having stuff like rotating rooms, elevator puzzles, etc. here and there, and it’s not a bad idea overall.

I think a key difference is that in a videogame you can back track through rooms in a matter of seconds and there’s a small play reward of the joy of jumping, swinging, etc. along the way that doesn’t quite happen in tabletop – so you probably don’t want the density of required state changes to solve a puzzle that a Zelda game has.

Where these do become more interesting is if your game has issues like wandering monsters or supplies that run out (like… torches) where efficient navigation becomes especially useful.

And, being a tabletop game, you can play with ideas like – does a state change in the dungeon trap, block, or kill some monsters? Does it open pathways for other, dangerous ones to run loose? Are there intelligent creatures also enacting state changes to the dungeon?

It’s important to note that until players understand what they are doing and how it works, the whole thing is an obstacle, and once they do, it might become a useful tool or advantage.

Finally, there’s also the issue that unlike videogames, players can come up with some really creative, but plausible ways to traverse to areas you might think impossible. Rope, a little bit of magic, and some creativity can get people around a lot more than you think.


Towns, shops, places

November 15, 2020

I saw a thing where someone was giving the time honored advice about preparing a town or place in an RPG using the “atlus/gazateer” method – where you think of all the sorts of places and people that would make sense and list them out. I find this tends to be rather time intensive for little play value most of the time, so here’s how I normally go about this.

Game worlds are fractal, your real time is not

So here’s a thing; you can make any location and group of NPCs deeply interesting if you want to – consider how a soap opera can take a dozen characters and go for years, adding or removing only one or two people here and there.

The depth of complexity is fractal – the more you zoom in, the more you can add.

However, your real world time, as a GM, and as a play group, is not infinite. So you need to figure out where the focus of play is, and put the effort there – if the game is about who will win the throne, having 4 sessions of play dedicated to resolving a fisherman’s relationship with his estranged son as a random aside might not be the way to go.

So when you are prepping a place, keep in mind if this is a place where the focus of play will happen, and whether it will be a recurring location or a one-off place, in order to decide how much effort to put in.

Having a notebook with tons of detailed notes on each village but the players basically pass through them all in minutes, is not a good use of time.

A summation to start

Start with a broad understanding of the place you’re doing prep for. “A decaying village, no longer receiving trade from across the water.” “A small military fort, on edge awaiting war.” “A dragon’s lair, where the creatures who have moved in await the day, in the far future, when it shall awaken.”

The broad idea helps you make up anything that would fit in – the characters, the objects, how things look, feel, smell. You can do this for a whole place, but also the places within it as well – inns, schools, shops, sketchy alleyways where the gangs hang out, etc.

If you feel comfortable enough with it, you might not need anything more to improvise – I usually find this is true with modern-day locations or in games where we already have a very set of movies, books, cartoons, etc. to draw from – “What things look like” is already well established.

Attitudes vs. Angles

NPCs have two levels of detail to start with.

“Attitude” is a tiny bit of personality and a general thing they want. The smith is tired, wants you to hurry up and buy stuff and get on. The innkeep is a terrible gossip and loves hearing drama. The cyberhacker collects toys from a videogame series and will talk to you all day about it.

It’s a decorative thing I give NPCS and not intended to be a “deeper thing”. If I see players starting to do the thing where “you’ve made this more interesting than a featureless wall, I will overexamine/interact with it”, I let them know that this isn’t the focus here and there’s no secret hiding in this NPC.

NPCs who have MORE going on, either want something from the PCs or else are hoping to make something happen with regards to other NPCs, and are willing to take action. This is an “Angle”.

The Captain of the Guard wants the Red Slasher caught, mostly, but he also would like the credit, because the Council has been trashing him. The CEO of the security company wants to ruin your team’s reputation since you keep making his business look useless. Etc.

Make it up on the spot

Just those tools above make up the most of how I prep or improvise things. I don’t need to list every character in a place, I just need to be able to jam together some idea of a personality and build from there. I need to prep when it’s important that some angle or aspect of a place or town is covered but not as a general rule – so I may only have 1-3 NPCs written for an entire city and expand outward as we continue play.

Of course they have X vs. The weird thing is

Generally, you can always state something is present that would make sense, but sometimes you might say something that seems out of place. When that happens, you can either go, “oh my bad, you’re right, actually they WOULD have X” or, if you’re feeling quick witted, “The weird thing is…” and explain why something is unusual.

Those sorts of things could be conditional – “The tools are aren’t in the shop because we had a summons for a big job today and they’re working on the Mayor’s house” or they could be setting building – “Yeah, the ironworkers are across town, but they send over a cart once a day. It’s a holdover from the days when we had an East gate before the dragon attack 30 years ago, and didn’t have to put the stables over here.”

“You already know this…”

There’s a really good shortcut in play for places – just tell the players what their characters are already presumed to know.

Sometimes players get into the habit of playing an RPG like a videogame when it comes to learning about the location – “I look here” “I open the drawer”, open each door, etc. You can skip all that and just tell them with the assumption their character either is making a very good guess/inference, or actually knows a thing.

It could be historical – “Yeah, you already know a short cut to the healer’s house – you used to run behind the low wall chasing your friends around as kids” or it could be immediate – “You already saw the restuarant’s back door to the alley when you went to the bathroom before dinner – there was a fire alarm and a hook for keys, probably for the janitors and the delivery bikes.”

Creative Fatigue

Now, coming up with lots of details, repeatedly, can be taxing. However, you should be prepping more for the focus of the game you’re playing and helping players also follow that set of expectations as well, so the stuff to improvise should be relatively few and lightweight.

If you find that you are having to do a lot, it’s worth considering what the focus of play is, and what you really need to prepare.

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