Threat vs. Cost in Combat

July 16, 2017

If you’re playing a gamist tactical game, there’s often a problem when it comes to balancing combat and making it challenging…. and it has everything to do with how you make things “more difficult”.

I want to lay out a few dials/tools I feel get underutilized in a lot of these kinds of games.


Cost is easy to understand – this are the things that actually negatively impact your character and have consequences going forward into future encounters.  For most games this is hitpoints, injuries, broken/lost equipment, and some status effects.

The problem is that many systems tend to treat this in a crude and simplistic way; when you want to make something more challenging, simply raise how much cost it can inflict overall (the extreme example is the classic “Save or Die” effect in D&D).  The problem here is that it doesn’t necessarily make for better tactical play when applied generally, and mostly is controlled by luck – which makes things very swingy.  A bad encounter early, can make every encounter after much, much more difficult.

So let’s talk about other things you can tweak to make for more interesting combat effects in these kinds of games…


Limitations restrict what actions a character can undertake (or, at least, bump the odds or costs of doing the action such that some are more favored than others heavily).   Limitations change how a player has to approach a situation DURING a combat, so these things can be a source of interesting play…. if done correctly.

The key to GOOD use of limitations is variety – you want to change up what kinds of limitations the players face all the time – environment, enemy type, weapons/gear the enemy use, etc.  Being forced to change your tactics and consider your options is more challenging than simply doing the same thing over and over.

Lesser Limitation

Lesser limitations affect secondary actions the character could undertake during an encounter – being unable to get to an item in your backpack, being slowed in movement, not being able to yell information to a team mate, and so on.

  • Getting slammed, pushed, or dragged from where you were
  • Slowed in movement (but not halted completely)
  • Being limited in what you can see, and ultimately who you can choose as a target
  • A normal action requires a roll/check or it takes twice as long (“You want to close the door, but you have to rush in without getting stabbed… so it’s tricky.”)

Greater Limitation

Greater limitations effectively stop the character from their primary mode of interaction in a combat – warriors can’t attack, mages can’t cast, etc.   Greater limitations need to be used sparingly, and for very short duration.  Remember: “Playing the game is fun, NOT playing the game is NOT fun.” – don’t force your players to NOT play.

  • Weapon is pinned, stuck in something, knocked away
  • Restrained or silenced from using magic
  • Unable to move from location
  • Temporarily Blinded
  • Stunned, paralyzed, etc – anything that costs your actions (also, if this would last the whole fight, it is effectively identical to being dead for this encounter, as far as gameplay experience is concerned)

Threat AKA “Virtual” Cost

So here’s a mechanic: “Whenever a Dusk Ghoul hits you, take 1D4 damage AND get 1 Hex Point.  If you are Prone while hit by a Dusk Ghoul, take 1D6 damage per Hex point you have.  Hex Points disappear after 10 minutes.”


As players find their characters getting more and more Hex points, they’re worried in combat.  And anytime they get knocked prone, they’re very worried about getting back up and keeping the Dusk Ghouls away.

High stakes, tension, a bit of strategy around avoiding certain situations.    But, if the extra damage doesn’t trigger?  Then it disappears – no healing needed.

If you want to make it even less likely to kick off, just make the trigger condition more narrow and harder to set up – “Cultists must surround a target on 4 sides before casting the Fire Pillar spell”, “After the wizard successfully hits the target, then he must change for 3 turns uninterrupted…”  etc.  This gives players more ways to disrupt a threat before it finalizes into real costs and damage.

Of course, for any of this to work, in creating tension, the players have to know what the possible/probable consequences will be.  This might be the classic, if foolish, point of villains speaking their plans before doing it – “Surround him! When the 4 of you work together, he will burn to a crisp!” or it might be a bit of internal character knowledge – “You’re not sure what they’re up to, but they’re clearly trying to get a formation where they can box in you in on every side.  You probably want to stop that.”   And of course, there’s always the classic prone on the ground when the giant is about to stomp you where the “second shoe to drop” is literal and obvious.

Flipping It – Stunts

So… I’ve laid out a lot of things to make a combat situation more challenging and perceptually dangerous without necessarily requiring as hard hit on the rules for balance in many games… but what about the players, what balances out stuff for them?

Well, stunts in combat are effectively either throwing on limitations or more damage (current or future) or a combination in some fashion.

Smart players should be looking for ways to stunt and gain advantage in a fight – reward them by applying the same logic of limitations and costs to the NPC/monsters as well.  Unlike the player characters, you can certainly rob these characters of their ability to take actions without much worry  – you’ll never be shut out of play, as the GM.  What you DO need to keep an eye on, is to make sure that you don’t end up with a go-to-method stunt that is too easy/powerful and gets used all the time.

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Parallel vs. Isolated System Mastery

June 23, 2017

System mastery is your ability to expertly play the system to achieve your goals in play*.

Now, different systems require different skills as a player, to achieve mastery, just as much as Chess requires different skills than Poker**.   What I want to focus on, is thinking about how games are designed and how skills outside of game might directly help you with system mastery, vs. games where the road to mastery is only through knowing the game itself.

Parallel System Mastery

When skills outside of the game can be well applied in play and help you do better at the game.  Conversely, when the skills that develop system mastery also develop a skill set outside of play as well.

The easiest and most obvious example is the origins of war games – people developed wargames to teach and practice tactics and strategy.  In this case, you want to have it to where whatever strategies work in war, work in the game, and whatever strategies work in the game, should also work in war.

Obviously, tabletop RPGs have moved pretty far from that as a primary motivating factor.  Other parallel skill arenas usually are more popular:

  • Storytelling (pacing, characterization, improvisation, suspense)
  • Social Pressure/Manipulation (Teamwork, deception, alliance making, status-seeking)
  • Genre familiarity (Superheroes, Tolkien lore, etc.)

And of course, you can build games to be even more specific – for example, Riddle of Steel’s combat system is designed to mirror strategies used in historical European martial arts, or Drifter’s Escape focuses highly on the skills of poker bluffing/reading bluffs, or the chat-IRC game Code of Unaris requires your ability to use quick word play and editing to much effect.

Parallel System Mastery design might be completely intentional, like the war game example, or it might be unintentional – like how most “systemless” games usually end up with a mix of storytelling and social pressure***.

Isolated System Mastery


When the primary method for system mastery in a game is knowledge of the system itself.****

The easiest example, is probably most forms of D&D combat.  The things that make you good at D&D combat are very far removed from the things that work in the real world, without, say, the DM using lots and lots of modifiers, house rules, and judgment calls.*****

Now mind you, Isolated System Mastery is neither good nor bad as far as game design is concerned – you want to design rules that are fun to play, in whatever fashion you’re looking for fun.  It is certainly more fun in Tenra Bansho Zero for injuries to make my character better at fighting, because it’s cinematically appropriate.  In Primetime Adventures, it’s more fun to sometimes have the cards and raw luck set up other players to narrate the outcome of something you’ve done.

The important thing to do, in this, is make sure people know what actually helps them succeed, and what skills (or way of thinking) doesn’t matter at all.   The more options and complicated links between subsystems, the slower and more difficult it usually is to gain System Mastery in general – when these are counter intuitive or simply without any other parallel in real life, it can be hard to develop this skill, and sometimes quite frustrating to get there.  (A lot of Burning Wheel’s game systems run into this particular hurdle.)

Different Masteries for Different Folks

One of the most useful things to consider in all of this is that this folds under what we used to call “Technical Agenda” – or, what you, as a group, wanted to experience of the game from the technical side.  Often people muddle around in talking about “crunch vs. light”, “game balance”, etc. and don’t have a good set of terms to identify what skills they’re having FUN exercising in a game vs. not having fun in doing so.

I had a vague idea about this years ago when every so often someone would complain that it “wasn’t fair” to have a game that focused on storytelling elements in improvisation because “some players aren’t good at that”… (unlike, presumably, the ability to quickly calculate encumbrance and speed movements and supplies, which I guess everyone can do in their head? Oh wait.)

Anyway, I think this is important for both designers and people committed towards finding more games that fit whatever their particular niche is.  Or avoiding things they dislike.

For example, bluffing games that revolve around a real resource cue (cards, liar’s dice, etc.) are fine by me, games that involve player-to-player social manipulation are games I absolutely despise.  I know this, and that helps me choose what games I’d rather play.  When it comes to tactical type games, I like there to be enough Parallel System Mastery that things that generally work in real life, generally work in the game (or, if not real life, whatever genre it’s emulating).

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(Wow, a fuckton of footnotes today.  Well, I’ve been writing less often, so I guess I’m making up with divergent side thoughts and context.)

*  “Goals” are not synonymous with winning.  For example, there’s a few Narrativist games that focus on tragedy – so maybe having terrible things happen to your character in a way that is dramatically appropriate, is your goal as a player.  Having specific things happen, or happen in a specific way, might be part of it, and your mastery is utilizing the system to make that occur.

** You might realize that if you play a given game with different GMs or different groups, the set of skills that are exercised and necessary to do well in the game might be completely different.  This would be the part that old Forge Theory pointed out that the rules as written were one thing, but the actual game in play, is where you see the System emerge- and that this means even if you’re playing “Vampire” using the same books, you might have completely different Systems in actual play.  Designers should be giving people good tools to match up these things, and because this is historically been shitty, the reason why I wrote out the Same Page Tool.

*** An example I love to come back to, often enough, is a phrase that appeared in Exalted 1E’s introduction: “Rules exist to prevent bitterness between friends.”  There’s so much to unpack there, but in this case, you can tell someone apparently suffered greatly at the hands of unintentional and terrible social pressure design, which honestly, has to be one of the worst things that’s happened to the hobby in so many games.

**** Although I say “isolated”, a) there’s a lot of groups that tend to fall into the same system pattern regardless of what rules they’re playing by, so naturally they have a System Mastery that carries over game to game, b) there’s a lot of games that are functionally built on the same premises and core ideas to other games, and so, again, learning one helps you with those others, and c) of course, there’s baseline skills like your ability to communicate clearly or do basic math, that contribute to your quality of play, but are low-line enough that by themselves do not constitute System Mastery.

***** Underlying at least some of the conflict in “edition wars” is people realizing their carefully cultivated System Mastery under one edition doesn’t hold up under another edition.  To be fair, these differences can be marked enough to scratch entirely different itches and desires, but when you see how many folks brag about what you have to do to be a “real gamer”, you can see a lot of that is about pride in their Isolated System Mastery.


Signalboost: Send INDG to GenCon

June 11, 2017

I remember going to GenCon around 2003-4 and having someone say, “WHY should we care about gamers of color?”  Well, I never thought we’d see folks getting a chance to really talk about it anytime in my generation.

Drop a bit if you can!

Help send I Need Diverse Games to GenCon

Send Tanya DePass—2017 Industry Insider—to Gen Con! (Tanya DePass)




Culture Gaming

May 29, 2017

One of the key problems for roleplaying games is figuring out how much interaction with the broader society in your setting matters or doesn’t.

To give a simple example – if you’re playing a modern supernatural game – does your vampire have to hold down a job? Do they have to interact with the landlord?  How about their family or friends from before they got turned into a vampire?  Or is it all “Politics of the Night Court” and fighting werewolves and such, and we don’t think about the rest?

This question ends up being one of the places where people feel lost when they first start getting into gaming and you give them D&D or a sci-fi game – you need to have an idea of what the fictional society is like and how your character fits into it, if you actually are to roleplay out that interaction.  A knight, a nomadic clan warrior, and hired muscle for a criminal merchant all might fit the “Fighter” class but they certainly will approach the world very differently and be treated quite differently, depending on where they are.  Without specifying that context, it takes a few sessions to even figure out how the world works in the broadest sense for the characters.

This not only is critical in terms of setting up your characters for roleplaying – it sets up what values they hold, what things they’ll fight for and so on.  It gives people options for negotiation – status is a critical thing people struggle for and use as leverage every day.  It creates ties and relationships between player characters and NPCs – and also ties the players into the desires of those NPCs in ways that are reasonable and consistent.

The 3 Questions

What is your role in society, what is expected of you, and what can you request or demand and reasonably expect to receive?

The 3 questions form the basic set up of what you need to know for how things operate in your setting.  Of course, these questions are the sort of thing you could write whole anthropology courses on, so it’s not so much about detailing every possible space, but giving sufficient direction that people can have a good idea and the negotiation/question and answer at the table during play is short and easy.

Specified Roles

Some games handle this by limiting players to specified roles in society – Dogs in the Vineyard, Legend of the Five Rings, Pendragon, Paranoia, for example, all work on the idea that the player characters are from a specific group for the most part, which means the answers to those questions are mostly the same, and the players then create their characters within that space.

This turns out to work pretty great for the sake of getting people into play quickly, and also reliably hitting certain aspects of play.

Massive Setting and Negotiation

Another design strategy is to give a wide setting with a lot of different possible answers and the group having to pick a society/space to focus on and narrow down the roles from there.  Glorantha, Shadowrun, D&D campaign settings, and most of the White Wolf games fall into this category.

While this does provide a lot of options, I have found the process of groups negotiating down to the actual scenario and characters is rarely quick or smooth unless the group has already done a lot of pre-negotiation about what they’re looking for.  A lot of the hurdles start with, “But did you read ALL of this setting material?” and then happen into, “And how did you interpret those ideas?”

Fuzzy Outlines & Negotiation

D&D is the game that exemplifies this design choice.  In baseline D&D, you get some features of things that exist in the setting – dwarves, clerics, deities, but it doesn’t tell you how society really works – are dwarves normal people? Are they discriminated against? Respected and treated with awe? Are clerics rare and amazing like saints? Can anyone get their broken leg healed at any local temple? Do deities demand prayer, blood offerings, incense, what?  It’s really fuzzy for the most part.

So, as a group, you have to either take these elements and form them together yourself, or leave it open and then find bumps when you discover that one player expected one thing and another something completely different.  (“Wait, I’m a cleric, shouldn’t people treat me with respect?” “Wait, people treat half-elves poorly?”)

This choice often has complications, since a lot of the assumed expectations usually will be what someone is drawing from a previous campaign or a setting or series of books and so on, and without clarity, the disconnect can be quite steep.

Practices and Meaning – pre-loading vs. in play

Consider someone doing something insulting without using words.  What do they do? Do they spit on the ground?  Scowl?  Chuckle?  Throw an object instead of handing it over? Bump your shoulder? These things are meaningful, and the context of the situation and culture are what make them hold that meaning.

Since most RPGs are set in fantastical and futuristic settings, far from whereever you happen to be, the meaning of practices might be very different, and the question is how much is this going to matter for your game, and how do we, as a play group, get to a shared understanding?

You can pre-load all of that with lots and lots of chapters of expected behavior to read up on.  Or you can, as a GM, explain as you go what the implications are (“They kneel, but it is only about a second before they look up to you.  They’re respectful, but clearly in a hurry.”)

I’m fairly certain that this language of culture and implication are why game groups seriously invested in a setting-heavy game, tend to have a slow recruitment and deeper investment in long term play – the time it takes to learn this and fluently apply it in play, can take months or years.

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Apocalypse World vs. Sandbox Games

May 8, 2017

Apocalypse World has a neat trick in how GM’s prep material for play which is really interesting to contrast to the classic sandbox game prep.

The Sandbox Method

In a sandbox game, the GM preps a lot of situations and things going on, on a map, and as the player characters wander around and go places, they get caught up in the situations there.  This gives players a lot of freedom and choice, as they can basically go where ever they please, and get into things as they see fit.

For the GM, this might entail quite a bit of work, depending on the game’s requirements for prep, the area you are covering and so on – and then, the players may never actually engage with many chunks of the stuff you’ve prepped, which is an amount of effort with little payoff.  It’s no wonder why this kind of prep works best with a long term campaign – because players need many sessions to check everything out and basically run through the content you’ve prepared (and continue to prepare, as play goes on).

Apocalypse World: the world doesn’t revolve around you, but it spills out ONTO you

The trick to AW’s design is that it asks that you prep threats – things which either are problems or soon will, as the focus point of GM prep.   The idea of putting “clocks” on the various threats, and having them advance, is a way of forcing you to bring them into play, sooner and inexorably.   At the same time, it’s not even like the problems have to directly target the player characters, they just need to be headed toward their vicinity… Kinda like how a flood isn’t after you personally, but you personally are going to have problems if a flood comes your way.

So you don’t tend to have a lot of wasted prep – the problems come to the players, whether the players go out and find the problems or not.   What also keeps this from feeling like a big “gotcha!” is that a key procedure for the GM is to foreshadow these problems (“Announce Future Badness”), which allows players to decide if they want to take on problems early and possibly head them off.

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First Session Comprehension

April 8, 2017

I often look to all types of games when considering game design and play issues.  Yesterday I had enough friends come through who were willing to try out some boardgames I hadn’t gotten a chance to play yet – the more involved, crunchy-rules kind.  Between those games, it occurred to me a key goal of game design that often isn’t addressed for RPGS: First Session Comprehension.

The basic idea is this: by the time you finish the first session/game, you should have a firm grasp of the procedures of play, a good idea of viable options, and a notion towards more optimal options to go try out.

Procedures of Play

These are the logistics of play – how to set up (for RPGs, this includes things like character generation), the flow of resolutions, how to track resources, and, how things like gameboards, cards, or figures are used.

For one of the games, we failed to even get past set up, because the instruction manual was fairly opaque, and we set aside the game for another time (after, say, finding a tutorial video or something.)   This was a lot like my first experiences trying to run Red Box D&D as a kid – we’d get to the “buy your equipment” part and everyone would stall out, either not sure what to get, or get bored and quit.

Many RPGs are designed with the idea most, if not all, of the group will have read the procedures of play, which is already a step beyond what boardgames expect.  Dogs in the Vineyard had a great idea of putting the basic resolution procedure on the character sheet, which mirrors a lot of boardgames idea of a reference card that shows how to play out your turn.  Other RPGs, on the other hand, assume “just tell the GM what you want to do” is adequate, but that also has the pitfall for counterintuitive results (for the player) or frustration if they run into non-viable actions.

Viable Actions

“What can I do?”  Viable actions are second step – how can your pieces move, how can you spend resources, can you initiate some kind of special sub-system rules (“I’m declaring a duel!”) etc.

Tabletop RPGs have two layers here.  First is “I can do anything fictionally viable for my character”, which is a hurdle very different than boardgames.  While I’ve seen people take to this quite quickly, for traditional RPGs it seems to slow down and players can take as much as 3-5 sessions to get it.  (I feel a lot of it has to do with opacity of WHEN rules are applied, vs. not).

Optimal Actions

“What are the best options?”  This is the point where people are truly playing the game – they’re not having to fuss with the mechanics of HOW to play, they’re not trying to remember what they CAN do, but they can now focus on what they SHOULD do.

And while “optimal” is a word most folks think of applying to Gamist goals (how to win), it applies equally to the goals of Simulationist play (how to make this FEEL like the fiction/experience we’re trying to create) or Narrativism (how to MAKE compelling, dramatic situations as we go).  In all cases it is about how to best use the tools towards the established game agenda.

The goal for design in comprehension

The better designed boardgames and card games, I see the goal is getting people to cycle through those three levels turn-by-turn, such that they’re already looking at optimal actions before they’re even done playing the first game.  Once people are thinking of optimal actions, they’re playing out scenarios in their head, of what to do, and whether something would work or not – and they’re eager to try it out on the next go around.

For tabletop RPGs, however, I feel like traditionally we’ve accepted 3-6 sessions, and even with the lighter indie game arena, we’re still talking 2-3 sessions before people get a good feel for what’s happening.

Because tabletop RPGs have most of the action exist in a fiction space that we collectively imagine, there’s a cognitive load that makes it harder in general (I cannot simply look at the game board and get an idea of the game state, I must remember and imagine what is happening, and communicate with others to get that info or clarify it).  Even then, I think we could probably do better, design-wise, thinking about these things and applying them to  our games.

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Pandemic Legacy Design

March 25, 2017


Aside from the Pandemic games being pretty awesome, it’s really fascinating to watch folks develop campaign play from a very different mindset.  It also highlights some really useful things we can backport to tabletop rpg design as well.

Campaign Commitment Time

This was one of the major concerns in the design discussions and a focus for a lot of the indie rpgs that came out of the Forge – that the longer the campaign commitment, by nature, the smaller your target audience is who can/will commit that time in.  I think it’s really interesting that they talk about 12-15 play sessions being their top expected amount of content in a Legacy game, and the value of having a specific number laid out to players from the beginning.  (This was one of the big points I’ve written about for years, as simply making games more functional).

Linear Story for a Linear Metric

One of the biggest differences in a boardgame and tabletop RPG is the fact that while you can drench the boardgame with fictional elements to encourage roleplaying and enjoyment of the theme, the fiction doesn’t feed back into changing the outcomes of play as it does with a roleplaying game.  No one is under the illusion that they can “do anything the character can do” as a viable option in a boardgame, so it also means the directions a story can go is highly limited, and makes things like the linear story set up they’ve created work.

It’s funny that they mention Robin’s Laws, since Robin Laws’ version of HeroQuest 2 attempts to create the up and down beats, except without the additional considerations of players gaming the system (“incentivizing failure”) or engaging the mechanical aspects beyond turning a difficulty dial up and down.  I suspect Jason Morningstar’s Juggernaut might be a better parallel, but having not played it yet, and not trying to spoil myself before doing so, I could be wrong.

The Power of Unlockables and Physical Artifacts

Although sometimes people have given their players a document or a puzzle box to open, it’s not the same as fully integrating unlockable, physical cues/objects as a key part of play.  In the video, they mention that people KNOWING there would be a box to open incentivized action to either open it or avoid opening it, depending on whether the assumption was that it was good or bad.

In tabletop RPGs, either mechanical rewards are well known ahead of time (“If I get X number of points, I can buy Y power”) or exist solely as a verbal description (“The sword glows with magic power…”) but not as a physical object to taunt, tease, threaten you.  Adding uncertainty into advancement hits Pavlov’s intermittent reward cycle, but also because these rewards are thematic/plot based, and not just “get +X to ability Y”, they tend to be more interesting and emotionally fulfilling to the group.


I think this is some of the best information on tabletop playtesting out there.  They’re looking for: a) when the group has confusion, questions or forgets rules, b) emotional responses to play, c) why a group is making certain choices in the game.  (Notably, this was effectively what the Forge folks pushed for from actual play accounts in regards to playtesting).

You’ll also note that they’re talking about hundreds of hours of playtesting from several groups, including strangers.  While the indie RPGs pioneered the idea, it was Paizo’s Pathfinder playtest that really made it popular for tabletop games – however, having video or recordings where you can see the actual play rather than depend on memory, filters, or bias in self reporting is vastly superior.