Archive for May, 2009


Ghost Town

May 8, 2009

I’ve been fiddling for about a year now with the idea of an rpg set in the Gold Rush era, where you have Chinese immigrants doing another shit job- exorcising ghosts. Digging up all the issues of the era, of the colonization, slavery, genocide, etc.

Reading rushthatspeaks’ LJ post on The 13th Child just gave me a chilled thought about a modern brother game to that idea:

I really think the lack of history explains a lot about this country. I mean, one of the quintessential American genres of movie is the road-trip movie, where you have forced character bonding through the fact that they are forced to spend time together in a car through all those miles and miles and miles of– empty space. You can’t do this in countries where every single thing has a name. Something historical is bound to intrude on you. Something outside yourselves is liable to break in.

Imagine the roadtrip where the land wasn’t empty, just full of ghosts. And everything else that such a roadtrip entails.

It really makes me shudder. Would it probably work better as a movie or graphic novel? Probably. Still, I’m going to let that sit in the back of my head as an idea.

(ETA: Will have to play some Steal Away Jordon, Grey Ranks, and Carry before I even really take it there. Still.)


Fantasy shouldn’t read like a history book

May 7, 2009

An interesting discussion is happening about Patricia Wrede’s Thirteenth Child – where people are surprised that there’s something problematic about a fantasy book in which the colonists come to find an uninhabited America filled with wild, dangerous, magical creatures.

Of course, “it’s just fantasy and NO impact whatsoever on anyones’ lives as part of a larger metanarrative of false history, right?

It’s unsurprising this is happening at Tor, where earlier this year we had two editors not only stay classy by calling people of color “orcs” but also make threats of a professional nature towards writers of color.

And people still seem surprised that, ultimately, the response from a lot of us at this point is to walk away. Thankfully, we’re building our own.

(ETA: Also, this just a week after We Shall Remain aired.)


Visualizing Characters

May 5, 2009

I’ve started doing something new- drawing a character before I do anything else- stats, name or even character concept.

You know how some writers talk about the characters “tell them” where the plot needs to go? I sketch characters and it becomes easy to see what kind of character they are- the personality, background, all of it starts to flow from the sketch.

This has come out of me putting together pregen characters for a 4E adventure over the last month or so. Part of it is the problem of POC focal settings- our mainstream media has left us short of such genres (and quick to rob us of the few we get), so it becomes a situation where you’re building up from scratch- pregens serve as archetypes for players to be able to understand what kind of characters work in this setting and also show off bits of the setting in the process.

I think it’s a process I’m going to stick with as a player, as it seems to work a lot better for me to get the creative juices flowing.


Fiction Matters, Cues Matter

May 4, 2009

Watching people flounder at Vincent’s recent discussions has been making my head hurt. I suggest reading the links, the podcast is not so informative.

Fiction & Cues, simply

Fiction is the Stuff We Imagine. Cues are the Tools We Use In Play. Cues could be your character sheet, the dice, poker chips, or more abstract like hitpoints or a set of powers.

If you’re designing roleplaying games, this is useful stuff- for example there’s a reason D&D tracks how much equipment you have on your character sheet, but not how many siblings you have, though if you were playing a game of noble houses, maybe it would make sense to track the other way, right? Basic design logic there.

Why we had System Matters in the first place

So, let’s step back timewise. To the 90’s or so. A lot of gamers, and game advice basically proudly proclaiming “Don’t use the rules!”. Vincent gave the example of his Ars Magica game. You have a group, they want a type of play, and the rules don’t provide it, so they play in a way that does, usually abandoning the rules and most or all of the Cues that go with it.

Nothing uncommon there. What does come up, is the illusion that “System doesn’t matter”, since, no one appears to be using the written rules anyway (of course, they’re actually playing by SOME rules, unspoken, but in place, as social contract).

So, the first big push with the Forge diaspora games was basically against this mentality- design rules that actually do what you want, and use them.

But Fiction Matters too!

So, we get a lot of design focusing on how to use Cues to affect Fiction. Especially since a lot of poor design previously, and dysfunctional play had used Fiction as a mask (“I’m just doing what My Guy would do!”, “That’s what would realistically happen!” etc.). Cues are upfront, on the table, and no widging about with them.

On the other hand, this produces a one-way flow- it doesn’t matter if I have my character hide in the cave if I don’t have any Hide Tokens- the fiction then becomes superfluous, and Vincent’s suggestion is that when that happens, the fiction starts to wither away, as much as Cues for unused rules. (See complaints about 4E Skill Challenges where it’s just rolling back and forth).

In the end, you have this sense of disconnected play- the events in fiction are all widgey and rarely well narrated – which I had simply assumed was the result of people still not being fully comfortable with trading narration games, or the fact that a lot of play was one-shots and short term stuff where groups hadn’t developed a full groove.

(I didn’t understand it at the time, but Ben Lehman had been telling me how much he missed applying Fictional Positioning in rpgs, though I believe it was Emily Care Boss who first nailed it down.)

Return to Lumpley Care Principle

So we have a call to design both mechanics for Fiction affecting cues AND to consider ways to make Fiction crucial to play.

The rub of it is, that someone at the table has to decide when/how the fiction “counts” enough to affect the Cues. Traditionally this has been a GM deciding when “high ground” counts and other such basically subjective things. Though this role could be a variety of players (Great Ork Gods is a good example), or a shifting role (judging Scenes in Bliss Stage, Awarding Fan Mail in PTA, etc.).

Trust and Functional Play

I remember Clinton Nixon talking about Inspectres and narration trading overall- “You can trust your friends to not fuck up the game because fucking up the game is not fun.”

It’s a simple concept that works with a functioning social contract*. Vincent’s suggestion that having a single authority/referee/umpire to implement the Fiction to Cues flow as one viable solution also works on the same premise.

Likewise, extended outward, this is also where general group consensus as that “authority of judgment” works- we see it in the “Free and Clear” rules in Trollbabe and Shadow of Yesterday, or in cases of collaborative freeform that sits with equal-ish power amongst the participants.

(*Things you have to take as assumed: that the group is non-abusive, not using the game to play status games, that the group agrees to an authority person per the rules, that the group is mature enough to handle the idea that the authority person may not judge things perfectly every time, but often enough that it’s worth it, etc. Remember, good rules help functional groups reliably have fun, but there’s no rules that can reliably help dysfunctional groups.)


4E Skill Challenges made easy

May 2, 2009

To Challenge or not to Challenge?

The first key to using skill challenges is to understand when to use them and when not to use them. It’s really basic, but clearly needs to be stated since people seem to keep missing the point. The questions you need to ask yourself before running any Skill Challenge are:

Would this be fun for the group (and can I make it entertaining)?
If the group fails, will interesting stuff still happen?
Is there more than one way to address the Challenge?

Yes to all 3? Go ahead. Otherwise, consider simply saying “Yes” and skipping it, or making it a single roll and keep it moving.

Structuring Challenges

It’s like a level, not a door

One of the biggest mistakes I’m seeing is people are using Skill Challenges for Skill Checks. For example, picking a lock should be a single roll, not a skill challenge. Who wants to take 5-6 rolls to unlock a damn door?!? No wonder people think they’re boring.

No, think of Challenges as if you would a videogame level – there’s a big goal and probably several steps you have to take to get there. If the goal is to rescue the hostages from the bandit’s camp, make it one big skill challenge, don’t make it a series of them (“Scout out the Camp”, “Sneak in”, “Unlock the cells”, “Find the Weapons”, “Get out”, etc.).

You do this for two reasons: First, it makes each success feel like it’s got some weight- the players will have accomplished an actual step, not just “You’re 20 feet closer to climbing the mountain, roll again.”. Second, it makes it easier for players to bring in more skills and for everyone to have something to do because it covers a bigger range of options.

Fiction First!

Second, whatever is happening in the fiction of the game comes first! Skill Challenges should not be crappy IF-Then trees where players guess a skill to use! Players describe what they’re doing to solve the problems and you should be willing to use whatever Skill or difficulty makes sense based on that.

Including being willing to give an auto-failure or auto-success if something is exactly what needed to be done.

This is how players from older editions who are used to narrating their way through problems fit in with Skill Challenges (“…then I carefully slide the jar on the silk, which should keep it from making noise…”).

This is where players think tactically and use their minds (as in Fictional Positioning) to solve Skill Challenges.


Another thing that’s necessary for DM’s to do is describe new problems that crop up during the Skill Challenge, regardless of which way the rolls are going.

“You totally snuck past the guards. But before you get to the cell, you see that their cell is right next to one of a griffon! If you want reach their lock AND keep your cover, you’re going to have to hope it doesn’t reach through the bars and take a snip out of you…”

You should come up with at least a half dozen possible Twists for any given Skill Challenge, more if it’s going to be high in Complexity. Twists not only make the Skill Challenge exciting and tense, they also open the door for players to use new tactics or skills, and most importantly justify why this isn’t just a one-roll skill check.

A Twist should come up either after failures or every 2 rolls in a Skill Challenge to set up a fun pacing dynamic.

Every roll has an effect

If you’ve followed the advice above, each success or failure should actually encompass a fair amount of actual action. It’s a good idea to give them some kind of benefit or cost to each part, so that way, it’s possible to win the Skill Challenge and paid dearly along the way (“We got across the ravine, but we lost our supplies!”) or lose it and still get something good from it (“We’ve been captured, but now we know the Lich’s soul is in the statue!”).

Some possibilities:
– Advance your plot/reveal exposition
– Give Misinformation
– Get items/equipment/Treasure Parcels
– Lose items/equipment (I go for support stuff, weapons, armor tends to piss folks off)
– Setting up another Skill Challenge later
– Quest Possibilities
– Making Allies/Enemies of NPCs
(You can always fall back on the give/get conditions or taking a Healing Surge, but those are pretty dull and better used for one roll Skill Checks).

Shape the World

Skill Challenges are best when they shape the setting. What I mean by that, is that the results of the rolls, of success and failure overall, has some lasting effect. This doesn’t have to be epic “The kingdoms of Karha and Lihga will never be allies!” but rather small, local stuff – “And the town of Mughi always gives you free food and place to stay, because you helped with the floods”, or “Sir Grahzar grants you leave to pass through his lands, but you are never allowed to draw your weapons except against beasts”.

Even if it’s small stuff, players then see how Skill Challenges matter and really invest in the outcomes.

Longer term thinking

Here’s a simple rule I have for myself: Every Skill Challenge that fails leads to another Skill Challenge or Quest- sometimes immediately (“Escape the Goblin camp!”) sometimes for later in the campaign (Quest- Convince Lord Desna to come BACK to his throne…)

The point is not to make it “one damned thing after another” but rather to get yourself in the right mindstate to think of failures that open up possibilities in the story, not failures that grind the adventure to a halt. By asking “what next?” and in a way that the players can do something about it, you produce an ongoing adventure from it.

(You can do this for successful ones too, but those rarely have as bad consequences for play if they’re not fully thought out).