What we need to play

September 27, 2015

There’s a few common failure points to successfully running a game, however, the solutions to these mostly boils down to this decision tree:

Did you talk about it and come to an agreement?

A)  No, we didn’t. – > Go talk about it and come to an agreement.

B) Yes, we did.  -> Talk about what went wrong, or changed, and come to a new agreement.

C) We can’t come to an agreement – > either play a different game or play with people whom you can talk and come to an agreement with.  (also: don’t play games or with people you can’t come to agreements with.)

Keep this idea in mind – it applies to all of the following steps which are crucial to being able to run a tabletop roleplaying game.

Social Commitment: Can I even fit this game into my life?

How long is each session? How long is the expected campaign?  How important is steady attendance? How well can it adapt if people get busy, get sick, or schedules change?

The question underlying all of this is: “Can I even fit this game into my life?”

This is a question people don’t ask, yet it’s really the biggest question to start with – if people can’t make the time to play the game, maybe you need to play a different game.

And, if the game is bigger than a single session, you have to figure out what to do when it comes to life intruding.  Not having this conversation doesn’t mean “things just work out”, it means the game just stops after a point.

Agenda: What’s the point of the game?  What’s the fun part?

Note that if you play a superhero game about fighting villains and the fun part is strategically using your powers to win tactically and the same premise but the fun part is roleplaying the drama of balancing a secret identity with obligations as a hero – the focus of play, what you do in play, is very different.

If you don’t talk about this, then people may show up with all kinds of mismatched expectations and start trying to force each other to “play right” without ever agreeing on what “playing right” is.

Setting: What do we need to know about the fiction to play?

What’s the genre? The tone? The setting?  What kinds of characters make sense to go into this setting?  What kinds of decisions, or behaviors?  What kind of outcomes and conflicts?  Do you need to know the Culture of Vampires and Elves?  Do you need to know The Third Age?

This helps us create together as a group.  If we don’t know what we’re working with, some folks may make references or meaningful statements while the other players have no context at all.  If it is expected to be known, how much reading or “homework” is it, and again, can players fit it into their lives?

System: How do we find out what happens?

The actual rules.  How much do you need to know to play comfortably?  How much is it ok if you look it up during play or have someone handhold you through the process?  How do you, as a player, try to make things happen in play the way you want them to?

I mention “the actual rules” because a lot of games suffer from people saying, “You can do anything you can imagine” and then find out “Actually the GM has preplotted everything and you can’t really do much really” and similar issues.  Jono’s Big Flowchart of What Game Are We Playing? is a great example of a terrible and common issue.

Clearing these hurdles

Effectively what my Same Page Tool does, is take several standard RPG play tropes and sort them into categories to make it easier for a group to talk about and make a decision on everything except social commitment.  The problem I’ve always pointed to is that games should already tell you what the point of play is and how the system works and an idea of how to use the fiction and genre tools they give you to play – you pay for a game to tell you how to play it.

A well designed and well-written game makes these issues trivial – you are able to easily come to agreement because the game either sets the parameters or gives you tools to decide between the forms in which it operates.

So this fixes everything?  Not quite.

There’s two common problems this doesn’t fix.  However, these are fundamentally unfixable problems.

“What if people are dishonest about what they want out of a game?” 

Well.  In a game medium that exists through conversation, if someone is lying to you, about what they consider fun, in a game about elves, cyborgs and vampires or what have you – think about how deep the distrust has to be for that to be a reflexive behavior.   Someone who can’t be honest about what they find fun is someone you can’t find fun with.  Move on.

“How can I make people like what I like, want the same kind of game that I want?”

You can’t.  You can’t make people like music they’re not into, you can’t make them enjoy flavors they don’t like, and so on.  If you know that you have incompatible goals – don’t roleplay together.  Play games or do activities that you all DO enjoy, and leave the roleplaying to the subgroup that has the same tastes.  It’s ok, you’ll still be friends.

Having an honest talk will reveal both of these situations rather quickly.  Either the agreements fall apart in play because someone is dishonest, or you can’t come to an agreement in discussion because what you want is fundamentally different.   These are the hard truths people don’t like to deal with, but there it is.  Once you recognize these, you can stop wasting time and focus on people who want to play a game with you and have fun.

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The Failing Business of Hate

September 4, 2015

So, this last week has been full of some interesting news, with several people boycotting DriveThruRPG for carrying about as blatantly open violent misogyny material as one could imagine.  The discussion about the products, or the choice to carry them mostly falls into points I’ve made in the past.

The interest discussion for me, in this, however, is that several other game publishers have noted how much the impact has been on their sales, and argued against a full distributor boycott.  There’s effectively two arguments, but both are empty, and those are both worth dissecting.

What the Market Wants and Business Choices

Before we go into the arguments – the fact is, if your sales have been impacted, then that’s how many consumers have just told you that they not only don’t want to buy hate material, they also don’t want to support businesses (the distributor, in this case) who also profit by them.  A growing gaming community that isn’t built on hate propganda is more important to them than buying a luxury.  I’m sure you’ve made other choices about how to sell your game and how it will fit into the market – here’s one more factor.

Now consider the distributor’s role in this: the distributor exists to make it easier to sell your game.  Part of that is basic PR – ideally they promote your game and make it look good, but if nothing else, maybe not themselves becoming associated with the kind of thinking that gives us mass shooters and violent stalkers is kinda one of those basic PR things.   If your distributor is making themselves look so bad that customers are not buying your games, perhaps, you should look for other options?  (ETA: here’s an example of a videogame company who hired a PR firm… that had bad PR themselves and what that meant for their game…)

In this particular case, it’s not like there aren’t a ton of options for electronic distribution, and, at least, a few good options for print on demand.  A key problem that the Forge folks pointed out in the past was that 3 tier distribution meant you were locked into playing the distributor’s game, even if they fucked you over, said your company had closed to people asking for your game, didn’t pay you on time, or at all, etc.  And likewise, customers had to deal with the chain as well.   These days, you have options – and realize, so do your customers.  They can buy a LOT of RPGs, from a LOT of places, and they can even get them for free.  Sorry, it’s a hard market,  maybe you better make some choices about how to meet it…

Argument #1: You shouldn’t boycott the distributor because it hurts ME (and businesses like mine)

I’ve seen this argument show up in the Sci-fi/Fantasy community before – it’s a very entitled view.  Often people will talk about their kids needing to eat, their medical issues, and so on.  And yes, those needs are real, however customers have no obligation to make sure you pay rent or eat every month – what you’re looking for there is the base needs safety net to be found in socialist policy – not capitalism.

Basically, you’re making a sales pitch combining the value of your product plus the sympathies of the people you see as your market vs:

a) the fact they don’t owe you sales

b) you’re selling a minor luxury

c) market demand for basic human decency

Personally, if your living situation is that dire, there’s many fundraising sites specifically for that purpose – I had to use them several times in the last 2 years during and after cancer.  The passive aggressive “you owe me sales” is a dishonest guilt trip to throw at folks.

Plus, honestly, RPGs do not pay living wages.  If you are a professional writer, editor, layout designer, illustrator, etc. you already know that RPGs do not pay decent wages, or on time.  You already know you can’t afford to do this and make rent.  The only people who seem to not get shorted are the printers, and that’s because they demand money up front and do not accept the 1930s Depression-Era wages other folks will take to “be accepted into RPGs”.  If you have structured your life to try to survive on RPGs, a lot of choices had to go into that.

Argument #2: “This is an attack on Free Speech!”

We’ll hopscotch past the obvious points of Free Speech and government, and consequences, and go into this simple idea:

I can choose to spend my money, or NOT spend my money, on consumer products as I wish.   If you make products that are shit, I can choose to not buy it.  If your store sells Klan Regalia, I can choose to not go to your store entirely, and while I know I wasn’t going to buy an Imperial Grand Wizard KKK hood, I also know I don’t want any of my money going to your store because you’re clearly ok with that stuff.

You’re making a business choice on a principle – I’m making a consumer choice on a principle.  Effectively you’re using the idea of Free Speech as a marketing tool, albeit poorly and dishonestly, however, it’s this idea a principle that you’re selling.

A lot of folks base their business or consumer choices on principles – some people only use specific types of Linux OS because they have views about open sourcing, and how they use their computers or data.  Some people put their products up for free – either as in no cost, or as in available to be reused, re-mixed, etc.  Some people will not sell PDFs or ebooks, only hardcopies.

That’s all your choice to do.  If it’s really important to you to sell your game in a venue that will also carry open hateful material, so that you can stand firm on your principle, go ahead.  Just don’t complain about what the market wants in regards to that.  I mean, you can sell your game only in BitCoin – that’s a choice some folks make – but don’t complain if it gives you a limited market.

At the end of the day

It’s so telling to me about the “we’re not the bad ones” publishers who look at this situation and can neither see business choices to make NOR what the point is when people vote with their dollars.  It really only makes sense if you felt entitled to sales and didn’t think your customer’s desires mattered at all.


“What am I supposed to do with that?”

August 25, 2015

There’s a nice technique I’ve pinned down for play – although it seems to focus on the NPCs acting, it really ends up getting the player characters to respond, and you learn more about them instead.

Funny enough, I got this from a videogame – the Walking Dead game. In the game, there’s a point when a 10 year old girl you’re helping escape the zombie apocalypse, Clementine, asks you, “Did those men have to die?” It’s an emotional gut punch where there’s no right answer.

In terms of tabletop games, the technique is to have NPCs explain what they’re going through emotionally and use the PCs as a sounding board. Aside from making the NPCs more human and interesting, it also causes the players to reveal more about their characters as well – do they give good advice? Are they supportive? Manipulative? Are they too emotionally scared or inept to help? Do they say absolutely the wrong thing to say?

All of this then feeds back into the NPC’s motivations and actions after that – again, improvising is easy because all you have to do is play out on those motivations, and players can see how the impacts they’ve had have been for good or for ill.

It’s a very different play on the idea that NPCs always need something from the PCs – most people think in terms of side quest type things: “Fetch this” “Kill that” “Find out X” but instead, “I’m going through this, and I don’t know how to feel about it” is just as much a request, it’s just one where there’s not necessarily a single good answer and a skill roll won’t solve it.

It also brings up a great way to cross with the player characters’ motivations as well – do they take the time for the NPCs to help them, attempt to convert them to their own causes, do they decide to change their own principles and values after hearing how others are doing?

The way I’m using this is to simply make sure at least every few scenes there’s an NPC talking about what’s going on and what they’re dealing with and how they feel about things – and see what happens from there.


Formalized Scene Structuring

August 15, 2015

I’ve been trying to get back into the groove on running games.  It’s been tough as I can’t run with my usual group due to my new job schedule, and playing online with new people involves the usual hurdles of tech logistics, new scheduling, and new communication spaces.  The thing I’ve noticed that has been the hardest part of falling back into play is keeping up momentum on scenes – which, when I think back to why it worked so well for my usual group is that we’ve internalized the Primetime Adventures method of scene structuring, which boils down to this:

Go around the table, each player (including the GM) gets a turn to set up a scene, focused on any of the PCs they’re interested in (including their own, as players).

I think I’m just going to import this rule into most of the games I run, since it works better for getting people to plan for the kinds of scenes they want to see, and to have time to think about it while play continues.  As a formalized rule, it also sets expectations and I think ends up being one of the fundamental play habits which kind of permeated a lot of the games out of the Forge era, but effectively became an “unspoken oral practice” which is kind of necessary to make half of the games even work right.


Dungeon Design: Specific Tricks

July 25, 2015

The new job has eaten up a lot of my brain and energy the last 2 months.  However, I have been taking in game design videos and articles here and there, and picking up some interesting ideas from the world of videogames and figured it’d be worth talking about some ideas that port over well to tabletop dungeoncrawls and further expanding on my previous set of dungeon design posts.

Effort to Play ratio

One thing to realize is that you have to manage how much time you put into designing areas for a dungeon crawl against how much play you’ll get out of it.

The classic GM burnout comes out of pouring lots of hours of design into things the players will run past without a thought.  Videogames can afford to do great design in their levels because thousands of players will get into the game, and in most cases, there’s a decent level of replayability – so the areas will see a significant amount of re-use.

If you’re just going to have the party run through an area once, there’s not much point in putting too much work into designing it.  If this is going to be an area they revisit and deal with in multiple sessions, then these tricks make more sense.

Preview Spaces

One of the key things in dungeon design is information control – if you can have some idea of what’s ahead,  you can prepare for it.  The problem is that many tabletop games are run where the dungeon gives you zero future information, which means the players can’t really plan ahead, so they just have to stumble forth from battle to battle – no strategy.

However, if you give preview spaces – an area where you can see ahead to something else you can’t reach (the other side of the iron bars blocking the path, the other side of the chasm, the garden below the balcony), you can give previews to what is ahead.  It’s not just enough to see a space, it’s also important to consider what makes that space interesting – and that usually comes in one of the following flavors:


“You’re not quite sure, but you swear you see the form of a wolf, slipping out past the wall when you look out across the yard.”    Forewarning players of danger allows them to plan and to stay on their toes.  This can be obvious danger like a monster, or it could be an indication of a fight that happened recent – “There’s bodies and smoldering torches. This couldn’t have been too long ago…”


“The other side of the gap you can see a turned over cart, and the gleam of silver spilling from the torn bags.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the bridge wasn’t out…”  Resources get the players to think about how to get to them, and perhaps to push ahead to try to get to that area quicker.


“Above in the bell tower, you can see an unearthly blue glow…”  Mystery is one of those things players can see going either way – but it definitely gets them curious.

Easy Preview Zones

A few types of areas lend themselves naturally towards previews and you can use them in a lot of different contexts.


Balconies, viewpoints, rooftops, walls, windows, bridges, walkways, ladders, towers, stairs, hills with winding paths.   Think of being on these, at the top of them, or underneath them looking up.


Gates, doors, walls, windows, cracks in walls, holes in floors, ceilings.


Chasms, rivers, broken bridges.

Pitfalls to Preview areas

Now, there is a pitfall to this that is particularly important to tabletop design – in a videogame, you can accept a bunch of weird things like invisible walls or limitations that you wouldn’t accept in a tabletop game.  Players can come up with a lot of creative methods to get around/across/up/down things you wouldn’t think of, and it becomes even more true when you add in magic or super powers.

In most dungeon crawl games, as play continues, the players gather more and more means to circumnavigate the obstacles that divide preview areas.  This is effectively why dungeons either become totally pointless after a certain point where the power curve is exceeded (“We can fly, burrow, teleport, breath water, and turn insubstantial. Nothing can stop us.”) or become ridiculous magical mazes (“Everything is magical forcefields, adamantine walls and null-magic zones”).

Gating Opposition

One of the key points to a dungeon crawl is controlling the flow of encounters – you don’t want the whole dungeon of monsters to jump the players right away, so you have to figure out how to keep things from getting out of hand – it becomes important to think about how you gate the monsters and NPCs and keep them from running everywhere as much as you would the players.


One way is if the monsters are limited to a specific type of terrain.  Your water-breathing fishman can’t really go chasing everyone around the dungeon – they have to stay in, or close to, water.

While this is a great way to have a strong gating mechanism, it also only works for a few monsters – presumably most breath air, or can survive in the areas where the player characters can.   You can set up a few things like undead that will only stay in dark areas or magically empowered constructs that can only operate within a magically empowered zone, but overall this is hard to do for the majority of creatures.


Big monsters can’t fit through small tunnels.  This is a pretty great way to limit the really nasty monsters from being able to run throughout the whole dungeon area.


So, you have a dungeon full of hostile monsters that may fight amongst each other or prey on each other for food… if you were a monster living in this place, you would probably stick to a few safe hunting/foraging zones, or claim a “territory” and not go too far from it, for your own safety as much as anything else.

This means monsters may chase you a certain distance, but back off once you start going into areas they don’t know much about, or areas that they know are populated by the monsters they don’t want to tangle with either.  This works for any kind of creature with animal intelligence or better.

Altering Space

Many people have pointed out that the dungeon isn’t static – new monsters move in, others change territory as the protagonists change the power balance within the area.  However, there’s yet another part which you should consider – the physical space of the dungeon can change as well.

– Intelligent creatures will set up barricades or traps, or repair some areas, or burn bridges

– A fight or battle that happens when the PCs aren’t present might cause damage

– Rain, melting snow, flooding, cave-ins, all of this might contribute to changing the area

– Burrowing creatures might open up new pathways, or collapse existing paths

– Other adventurers might leave climbing gear, nail doors shut, make barricades, etc.

This is particularly fun to do if you’re doing the kind of game where the party has to come back to the dungeon for multiple trips.  Their old maps are mostly good… except something they’ve come to count on has changed, or there’s some sign of some kind of incident that makes them take pause or reconsider the situation.  (“Good news – something killed the GiantClawBeast while we were gone.  Bad news – some THING killed the GiantClawBeast while we were gone, and it probably is still down here…”).

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Honest Communication

July 4, 2015

There’s no real new problems for tabletop RPGs.  A lot of the issues people have are the same problems you can read about in old issues of Dungeon Magazine from the early 80s, or even older newsletters.  These problems boil down to trivial problems (things that are a matter of taste and easily adjusted, like small house rules), problems that take a lot of time (“retool this complicated set of rules to support a completely different setting”) and non-solveable problems.

The last category is where a lot of gamers waste an incredible amount of time and once you recognize them,  you stop wasting energy trying to fix what is unfixable.

Honest Communication

If you sit down to play poker with your friends, you understand there is an expectation of how you will communicate within the game – you are totally expected to lie about your hands and bluff and all of that.  That’s part of that game, right?  However, no one would consider it “fair play” to set up a fake call from the hospital telling a fellow player their mom is dying, just so you could look at their hand.

A game can include deception within the bounds of the game, however, people are expected to be honest outside those boundaries.

Here’s two things, which you need honesty from for a game to work:

– What game are we agreeing to play?

– What do I want from this game?

If there is dishonesty here, the game will simply dysfunction. When people can’t communicate with you honestly as one person to another, what can you build on top of it?  The trust around most games is a super low bar to meet.  (Yes, there are super emotional games where trust matters. Most Imaginary Elf games are not it).

Yes, everyone can show up, yes all the players except one player might be playing the same game, but it’s rather like playing a boardgame with a toddler who picks up random pieces or throws their crayons on the board when their turn comes up – no one looks at that and imagines the child is playing the game with you, or that their actions aren’t sometimes disruptive to the actual game being played.  Unlike a toddler, however, you’re dealing with someone cognizant enough who should be able to make a choice to play or not play and communicate it.

Emotional Dishonesty and Intentionality

Now, in nearly every case like this with tabletop games, it’s not like someone showed up and said, “I’m totally going to lie about these things, let me get my story straight”.  Emotional dishonesty is often a reaction that people don’t realize they’re doing, a pattern.  HOWEVER, when you present the differences between what they say they want to do and what they’re doing, there’s basically only 3 options:

“Oh shit, you’re right.  This isn’t what I wanted to have happen at all.  Let me figure out how to change what I’m doing.”

This is the path where you can FIND honesty and create functional communication.

“Well. damn, you’re right.  I guess I actually want this OTHER thing and maybe this game isn’t the right one for me.”

Hey emotional honesty and an end to wasting time on things that aren’t going to change.

“No, that’s not what I did at all!!! Let’s just have fun! Why can’t we just play?”

I’ve pointed out before that when everyone is interested in the same type of play, it’s really easy to make happen.  When someone isn’t interested in actually playing that way, everything “somehow” becomes a problem. And that a lot of this kind of “don’t talk about it” attitude is about the idea of either forcing each other into “One True Way” to play or else trying to avoid the elephant in the room that the group doesn’t actually want to play the same game.

Problems that cannot be honestly described, problems that you don’t have cooperation in addressing?  Those can’t be solved.  This is not a matter of time.  You can’t force any individual to “want” something they don’t want (well, you can abuse and brainwash people, however, that’s certainly not about fun or enjoyment…)

Pretty much after the point where the group has talked to a player or set of players about what the expectations of play are supposed to be, and they continue to be violated?  Then that’s someone who isn’t interested in communicating – they’re not listening.

People don’t want to hear it

You ever have friends in a bad relationship, and you point out obvious A to B connections about behaviors and what’s going on and the one option that never comes up is “just leave” or when you bring it up, they have a million and one reasons including “..but I love them!”?   Yeah, that’s the same pattern when it comes to dishonest communication in a game group.  You can read forums and see this question pop up again and again, “What do I do about X player?” and pretty much it boils down to: “Talk to them, and either they change or they leave.”

The answer they really want is “How do I change their mind? How do I make them want what I want?  How do I change who they are?”

There’s no answer to that.  It’s an unsolveable problem.

Some of it is that people don’t want to admit the difference in goals and that they actually just like different things.  Some of it is that the person in question is abusive or a jerk, and most importantly – never was your friend to begin with.  Self examination can reveal a lot and not all of it is pretty.  “Are THESE people and THIS game giving me what I want?”  There’s a question to consider.  Like a relationship, “Is this even working?” is a question people don’t bring up for themselveses enough.  Being honest with yourself often is half the hurdle here.

I deal with enough unreasonable people in life in general – why spend my time gaming with them as well?

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Three Questions in Action

July 3, 2015

Someone on rpg.net asked about how the “three questions” work:

What kinds of conflicts make sense for this game?

What kinds of characters make sense for this game?

What kinds of outcomes make sense for this game?

It’s important to recognize “this game” isn’t just the specific ruleset, or a setting, it is for this particular campaign we’re going to run.  Good game design and text either locks these answers in and makes them clear to you in play, OR it gives you tools to create the answers as a group before you start playing.

I’m gearing up to play a Star Wars hack of Shadow of Yesterday, and given how “Star Wars” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, these 3 questions are actually pretty useful to answer.

Let’s start with the raw premise:

10 years after the prequels, a few half trained apprentices are on the run, seeking the last remaining Jedi to train from.  Half of this is a diaspora story – what traditions do you preserve, what do you change, how do you survive?  The other half is martial arts story – proving yourself, finding lost techniques, comraderie vs. rivalry.

What kinds of conflicts make sense for this game?

There’s the easy kind of conflict to point to – being hunted by the Empire, though that’s more of a pressure builder than necessarily a core conflict.  What’s more interesting is the idea of the rivalries between the survivors, the struggle to prove oneself, and the issue of which parts of history you hold onto vs. let go of.

The hinge points are idealism, traditions, and secret techniques to bring this all out.

What kinds of characters make sense for this game?

On the surface, we’re talking about inexperienced Jedi or Force users.  Capable enough to survive these last 10 years, but not so capable as to be “full fledged” in their own right.  Equally as important – these characters are still exploring what their ideology or world view is – maybe it’s “set” in their mind, but… they’re about to have to put it to the test and see where they really stand.

So this fits perfectly with the martial arts story parallel here.

What kinds of outcomes make sense for this game?

The primary point of this kind of game is the transformation of the characters – rites of passage, making choices about where the older folks are right, full of crap, or only halfway right and how they themselves want to live.  The choices might be a process of maturation or a process of bad choices and regret.

The outcomes that make that happen are what people do about traditions, about ideals, about learning or not learning specific techniques.  For a parallel – take a look at Avatar the Last Airbender – nearly all of the themes, the issue of training and tradition, ideals and self development – all of those appear in that story as well.

Original trilogy Star Wars isn’t too far from this by the second and third movies – Luke’s path to success is effectively rejecting every tradition given to him – staying at home, abandoning his friends at Yoda’s behest, joining Vader, fighting and killing in domination, etc.  Pretty much the only value he ends up sticking with is Obi Wan’s “Trust the Force” (over everything else).


See how all 3 of those questions fit together? We ended up hammering these together in about 45 minutes of discussion from being unsure what to play at all.

It wasn’t a deep theoretical discussion as much as, “Hey, what about Star Wars? Like 10 years after the prequels?  Scattered surviving Jedi apprentices?” “Oh, yeah! What if part of the conflict is that some are hardcore about the Jedi way, others are doubtful?”

We bounced it back and forth to get those ideas together and now everyone is working on characters.


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