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An incredibly deep analysis of play

January 28, 2023

Over on Trilemma Adventures, Michael Prescott created A Taxonomy of Roleplaying Utterances which is set up like those ways in which sociologists or psychologists analyze communications and social dynamics by literally breaking down the general types of communications and tracking them over an analysis.

Then Prescott took a transcript of a session of an old school dungeon game and broke down the percentages and how things look from the GM’s side vs. (collective) players’ side of things. Then did the same with an episode of Critical Role.

I don’t think any playgroup should have to do this level of work, but I could see the larger companies PAYING someone to analyze a few sessions; maybe the difference between a group that’s loving their game vs. a group that is having a hard time with the system to try to figure out where the pain points are, either in advice or in actual structure of mechanics.

I definitely think there’s a value for anyone trying to understand the ease of understanding/using the rules in tracking how much goes into the “clarifying” stuff or rules debates. This stuff would be pretty much a gold mine for new groups or groups adopting a new rules set.

Anyway, well worth checking out if you’re into understanding the flow of play and design.

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The hidden different games in “when do we roll dice?”

January 18, 2023

I’ve been reading a lot of small indie games lately and, in a certain way, many of them fall into a category I call a “game kit”. If you were completely new to roleplaying, you’d see a lot of basic instructions and charts, but not really enough to fully know how to run a game; if you’ve done a good chunk of roleplaying these short games can basically skip over key procedures because it’s assumed you’ll be able to construct it yourself from prior knowledge – hence “kit”.

Anyway, a bunch of them fall into a paragraph on doing some type of skill check or saving throw, and usually it’s “roll under your stat” or “roll over (target)” or something equally simple.

What’s left out, and what makes a fairly heavy difference in game play is “when” and “how much do we modify?”

Consider the scenario of a sneaky character trying to get past some guards and how different the situation is based on which way you run it:

Flat Rolls, No Question

“Roll vs. your Dex”. No modifiers. If there’s a risky situation, the dice roll. I generally dislike this sort of thing, but I see it used VERY OFTEN in play. I could also see a few design use-case scenarios, such as a game that tries to discourage some specific thing.

We roll but there’s low modifiers

“I’m going to lob a rock at the stack of crates down the alley so it’s loud and they fall down and sneak around while they’re investigating” “Oh cool, add +2 to your roll”. Low modifiers means the character stats/skills play the biggest part and the player’s input means a lot less. I find this kind of thing generally discourages players and you end up sliding back towards Flat Rolls, No Question when people simply decide it’s not worth the creative fatigue.

I think it’s a fine option when you’re abstracting a large situation – “weeks of research” “hours of talking up contacts on the street” etc. because the players only have to come up with a general angle rather than specifics.

We roll but there’s high modifiers

This means player choices matter as much, or more than, the stats, and I generally like that, with the only drawback to this being that it’s high creative fatigue for players and high “translation” work (figuring out fiction to modifiers) for the GM. “Oh that’s a smart idea! Add +8 to your roll.”

Games where individual dice rolls feed into a larger cycle (“When you roll a 1 get 5 XP” etc.) you don’t want to skip out on dice rolls, but it also means more work for each of them.

We only roll when it’s a very close call

Some games the expected default is that it’s going to be “GM’s fiat, 90% of the time, roll the dice 10% of the time” or something like that. It means player choice and the situation take the precedent, but if there are mechanics that key off the dice, they matter rarely or not at all. “Don’t even roll the dice, that plan is smart and it works.”

Now all four of these are totally viable ways to play a game, but all four give you a very different feel for how the game works. And when the game kit just says “roll under your stat” without indicating elsewhere what expectations are around rolling the dice when and where? It can lead to quite different experiences of the game. (For me, I remember playing Basic D&D and not knowing that the expectation was that the GM would be making judgement calls, which meant lots of TPKs because by default, a lot of the math and situations work against the players without them.)

And while this has come up a lot for these small games, it’s also quite common in larger game texts as well. I remember a 300 page book with 4 pages on GMing that only covered weird edge cases and not… the moment to moment of play.

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Alternatives for D&D

January 14, 2023

WOTC’s choices for their licensing has certainly shook things up more than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been there to see every edition war since the start of 3E, so… that’s a thing. (Before 3E a lot of the grumblings had to be heard at the shop without the benefit of the internet, so I can’t say I got enough idea of those.)

For the creators, I recommend seriously considering how to make sure your income stream isn’t dependent on a singular other entity whose financial interests are in competition with you. I still don’t think there’s enough money for creators of game material to make a living in tabletop.

For gamers playing games, here’s some options I’ve enjoyed if you want some D&D alternatives:

Dungeon Crawl, Tracking Resources

My number 1 go to game for this would be Errant. I’ve been running a campaign since last year and it’s been live as fuck. The linked preview gives you the full rules without art. It’s pretty easy to convert pre -3E stuff, and only a touch more to re-build the monster for more modern types.

Although you track resources, you don’t have to “tight” track everything; many of the resources are abstracted. You don’t count how many turns the torches last, but every turn the GM rolls an event die, and one of the entries is “burn up resources” in which case all the light sources use up 1 point.

Not Dungeon Crawl, Tracking Resources

The Japanese RPG Ryuutama, I’ve heard some people call “the camping simulator”, is about the classic fantasy party going on a trip/quest, and has some fun mechanics about how well you set up to rest, improving or hurting your stats the next day. It’s not too crunchy and it’s well designed for a short or medium campaign easily. I think a lot of D&D groups actually would love this game.

Light Rules, Adventure

I ran a game of Perilous last year. I found the rules a touch lighter than what I wanted, but if you want something built to do your typical adventure fantasy with little complexity and easy to hack options, it’s a viable choice.

Legends of Middle Earth is a free game designed to do Tolkien, but you can also hack it fairly easily towards other things. It has a fun mechanic where characters who are less powerful get Story Tokens as the balancing factor which is a nice addition to the simplicity of the core rules.

Light Rules, Some Tactics

If you wanted a bit more to your rules, and a longer advancement path, Savage Worlds would probably fit the bill for many groups. The system is designed around generally faster resolution, has some use of map tactics, and works pretty well when you have larger skirmish battles.

I’ve only played the first edition, but Agon, while aimed at being for Greek fantasy, can be easily modded to other fantasy. This is less “a party goes on an adventure” as much as “rivals all trying to one up each other in taking on epic tasks”.

Fantasy, High Drama

Fellowship is the classic “go on a quest, fight the big bad” game. It’s designed for a medium length campaign, has a great grasp of character tropes, and looks like a solid option.

Thirsty Sword Lesbians is a game highly influenced by shows like the new She Ra or Steven Universe. I’m also guessing there’s quite a few D&D groups who actually are running their campaigns in this mode as is.

Primetime Adventures isn’t “fantasy” per se, as it’s any genre you want to put high drama into, but if you don’t care about stats or trying to measure logistics or range, and only want to focus on amazing pacing and high character drama, PTA does things few other games can. I’ve run it for Star Wars, for mecha anime, for kung fu stories, it’s great and consistently one of the games I keep telling people to go play.

The Green Knight is obviously built around the movie adaptation from a couple of years back, but it has a lot of room to modify for other fantasy, as long as you have the idea of honor at the core of the game. I think this game probably is the best game I’ve ever seen for teaching someone to GM who has never really played an RPG.

Fighting focal games!

Given that D&D’s origins are wargames, it’s not surprising that you can find war games that you can throw a little bit of roleplaying on top of, but mostly enjoy the war game.

Song of Blades & Heroes is a simple, and extensive game that allows for easy hacking.
Five Leagues from the Borderlands adds some resource tracking and team management to the mix.


Other games!

Obviously, there’s a ton of other “D&D-adjacent” games you can go play. I know a few friends who LOVE Pathfinder, which forked from the 3E D&D, which is definitely a game if you’re into character builds. There’s a fairly wide group of retroclone and OSR type games though most are based on pre-3rd edition rules which often are a “love it or hate it” for most groups.

Anyway, thislist got way bigger than I expected! Have a great time gaming.


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Maps for Play 3 – Threat and Broad Structure

December 21, 2022

(Maps for Play 1, Maps for Play 2)

You know what’s really nice? When you’ve been struggling with coming up with a way to communicate an idea and then someone puts it together in a way better than you could have ever written it. Cyclic Dungeon Generation, a free PDF by Sersa Victory has torpedo’d my post in the best possible way.

The only minor comments I want to add are:

  • Sometimes players find ways around obstacles or create new paths you never expected. Don’t block them from doing so.
  • Puzzles that aren’t obviously simple (“red key in red door”) should not be mission critical paths.
  • Consider any hazard as a potential problem forwards AND backwards; if the party has to run from danger in the dungeon or an area, they have to get past the hazard AGAIN, probably while being attacked. Not to say to not set up hazards, just understand they are multipliers for many more encounters than the one you’re thinking of.
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factions23 – a dungeon23 alternative

December 14, 2022

Some folks I know are talking about doing the dungeon23 challenge – write up a room for a dungeon a day, for 365 days for 2023. That said, my preference is not megadungeons, but short, small dungeons and even those exist more as a “content delivery system” since my groups are not big into deep area exploration.

However, one thing I am always using in just about any game I run, is NPCs and factions. Characters with goals, with angles, with emergencies, plots and plans.

So I think for me, what my plan is, is this:

Each week, come up with a small group, crew or faction:

Each day write up one of the following:
a) A NPC and their personality & motivations or;
b) A special resource, methods, or knowledge the faction/crew has
c) Something interesting about their methods/symbolism

I’ll post once a week for what I have, so by the end (barring, you know, life emergencies) 52 factions, and a lot of neat ideas to go with. The nice thing is that while I’m going to set these up as fantasy default, I can probably bump the idea to fit sci-fi or other genres with a little work if need be.

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