Archive for December, 2009


Fictional Setup and Narrativist Play

December 25, 2009

I’ve been slowly turning a setting idea over and over in my head and realized what I was missing with it:

For Narrativist play, this is what you need in Situation for play:

1) Fictional reasons for the conflict (A struggle for the Throne, kids trapped in a podunk town, demons eating your soul, whatever)
2) Characters with motivations based in human nature or ideals that drive them further into that conflict (Patriotism, desire for freedom, unrequited love, a struggle with addiction, etc.)

This is why stuff like Lady Blackbird and con demos can work really well with minimal Setting – the immediate Situation and Character are already clicked together to work this combo. As it stands now, most rpgs use really in-depth Setting to try to provoke and inspire groups to design good Situation and Character.

Although a lot of 90’s game design started doing a good job with that (one thing Whitewolf excelled at- using splats both for conflict and to epitomize ideals and thematic stances), the payoff of the setup is in play- what the character chooses and faces and becomes.

If the game which you are playing isn’t set up to accept those choices and changes, eventually players stop bothering even trying to have their characters have meaningful changes.

It atrophies and falls away, much like Vincent’s comment on decoupled mechanics and fiction. All the cries about “How do I make my players create ‘good’ characters?” is moot if the gameplay doesn’t allow those characters to be expressed.

Anyway, just make sure when you’re putting together settings, to include both the fictional source of conflict AND hooks for players to develop characters with motivations and ideals about that conflict. And when it comes time to play, make sure everyone at the table has that going on with their characters.


A Way Out

December 19, 2009

ETA: I’ve started to develop a tool to help groups coordinate play: The Same Page Tool.

It’s really easy to reliably have fun role-playing…when you ignore the 30-odd years of “common wisdom” in the hobby, and instead, embrace the idea of how games have worked throughout history throughout the world.

See The Roots of the Big Problems for context.

A Common Ground

Games work on a very simple principle- a group of people agree to a set of common rules.

Much of the problems in the hobby are rooted in failing this fundamental concept.

Imagine if you sat down with your friends to play “Cards”… one of you is playing Poker, another is playing Hearts, and the last person is playing Go Fish.

You’re all playing cards, right?

It’s not going to work.  No one is going to get the game they want.  The problem is that no one agreed to a common set of rules and no one is organized with each other.  The common group activity that makes anything a game, doesn’t exist.

You don’t see this with cards because everyone understands you have to be playing the same game for it to work.

But you see that in roleplaying all the time.

“OH GOD POWERGAMERS.”  Wait.  That’s like going, “OH GOD GO FISH” at a Poker table.  It’s a discussion that shouldn’t even have to happen- someone wants a different game – why are they playing this game with you?  If you agreed on the game, there shouldn’t be problems with people trying to do different things than what was agreed to.

But for roleplaying, the key problem is a majority of the rules sets aren’t actually games.  They give you rules to put scores to characters, resolve some fictional events but no larger picture.  It’s like having numbers, faces and suits on cards- useful tools, but doesn’t actually organize what makes the game.  What are the roles of the players?  What is the goal of play?  What is the intended play experience?

Start with a game that has rules that do ONE THING.

Just like every other type of game in the history of humanity, this has been a proven method.

A game that explains what players can and cannot do, what the goal of play is – whether it’s beat up monsters and get treasure or tell a tragedy of pride and downfall.  How do you create scenes?  What kind of conflict makes sense?  What do players DO with their characters?

Complete and focused rules become a meeting point for a common set of understanding.   It also means that players can decide right here, and right now, if they want to play this game or not.

Most of your “problem players” are just people who want to play a different game and are either under the illusion that you were playing a different game to begin with, or that different games could be mixed.

This is why you see so much talk about the process of “forming a group”- it’s a process of trial and error trying to find people who want the same game as you.   As 30 plus years of the hobby have shown, it’s about as efficient as buying lotto tickets as a serious investment method.  Instead of recognizing the fundamental issue, the hobby has tried to dress it up, “Oh, roleplaying is difficult, only special people can master its intricacies…”

Let’s Agree to This

Now for the second part.  If you’ve clarified what the game is, and how it works, the other part of this is the social agreement about playing.

Games work because the people playing want to play this game.  Implicit in this agreement is that we’re all actually interested in this game, we want it to work, we want it to be fun.  It’s really easy because we’re all working together to make it happen.

If my friends are playing Poker and I want to play Hearts, I have two choices:  Play Poker and get whatever I get from it, or play with them another time when my mood and their game matches.

What isn’t a functional choice is for me to play half-assed, or worse, sabotage the game.  It’s also not ok for me to suddenly start trying to play Hearts in the middle of their game.  That’s me breaking the agreement to play the game in the first place.

On the flip side, if I was told we’re going to play Hearts and suddenly we’re playing Poker, the agreement about what game we’re playing got broken going the other way.

At the core of both of these behaviors is a lack of trust.

I don’t trust you enough to tell you how I feel about what I find fun” and “I don’t trust you enough to tell you the truth to make your own decisions about what you find fun”.

That’s a terrible place from which to try to build any activity of fun.  For it all being “just a game” that’s a lot of distrust and dishonesty.

If you can’t honestly talk about the game, something is wrong.

Fun is reliably had when people are doing what they want to do- not because they’re tolerating it to please their friends, not because they’re secretly hoping for another activity, not because someone else is trying to “show” or “convince” them.

You cannot make anyone, including yourself, like something they do not like.

When people make that agreement and put in effort to make things work and don’t receive the expected play experience, whether the result of clarity, a lack of communication, miscommunication, or out and out misrepresentation – they get frustrated.  With time, that becomes resentment.  (This is also true of relationships, personal, professional, romantic)

Human nature is such that we operate on the assumption of an implicit agreement- a social contract, whether or not we actually sat down and discussed things.  Regardless whether the group sat down and started “trying to play cards”, or actually agreed to a set of terms, when those expectations are broken, the feeling is betrayal, and eventually, complete distrust with repeated violations of those expectations.

Trying to hide the rules, not talk about the issue, or lying about how people feel or how the game works doesn’t fix the problem – at that point it feels like betrayal because it is.

The initial agreement can only be held if people can honestly talk about how they feel the expectations are, or are not, being met.  Hence the need for a clear, complete set of rules.

Reasonable Expectation of Commitment

Part of agreeing to any activity is an idea of how much you’re committing to it.  Are we playing 6 sessions?  I can think about my work and personal life and schedule to make that happen.  I can gauge my own interest and see if I’m willing to commit that.

Establish and agree to a set time period.

“Indefinitely”, “Forever” and “Unstated” are not terms people can make meaningful decisions about.  These especially don’t work when the social expectation is that participation is equivalent to friendship and non-participation is non-friendship.  People get busy, people’s moods change.   The timeline can be exact or flexible- “3 months” is meaningful, “6-8 sessions” works.  “A campaign” or “A story arc” is not. (This is also assuming your game doesn’t have an in-built endgame mechanic.)

Again, as I spoke about above, you have to give an idea to make a meaningful expectation for people to make decisions and negotiate with.

The Formula:

  1. Use a complete set of rules that do one thing.
  2. Honest agreement about those rules.
  3. Establish and agree to a set time period

The Roots of the Big Problems

December 15, 2009

Some historical context on the big problems rife in the roleplaying hobby, both in regards to design as well as play culture.

Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons was the breakout game that started roleplaying as a widespread hobby. Two features of D&D would later become problematic for the hobby, primarily in misuse and with the loss of historical context.

Incomplete Texts

Games as products, include rules to teach you how to play the game.

Roleplaying would start off quite differently -the original 1974 D&D books actually were descriptive of games people were already playing- it was assumed those buying the game were probably already playing some version of it- so the rules were more like cliffnotes rather than full instruction manuals.

New people ended up cobbling together “D&D” based on how they guessed these rules worked and whatever the local folks agreed upon. In context, this makes sense. Out of context, you have people arguing about “the right way” to play something that lacks core rule to begin with.

This would also lead to roleplaying games, in general, simply lacking full rules on how to play. Not only would this make it harder for a new person to pick up a game and learn from the book, this also means that the effect of “Many games under the same name” continues to happen over and over.

(ETA: Relevant Grognardia Quote from Gygax: “…there is so much variation between the way the game is played… there is no continuity and little agreement as to just what the game is and how best to play it.”)

Wargaming Roots

D&D was based off miniatures wargaming, and such, was focused on a lot of things specific to wargaming- combat, movement, encumberance, etc.

What would become a problem later on, was that 99% of roleplaying games would copy these features whether or not it made sense for the game concept.

Tied into the issue of Incomplete Texts, is that the context or reasons for design decisions would be lost over time, yet people still copying them over and over, with less and less understanding what purpose it served (which is basically the opposite of design). Seeing enough of this, many players (and designers!) would come to conclusion that ALL rules were shitty, and mostly worthless and not worth thinking about.

“We’re all playing the same game!”

So you had all these folks playing different games, under the same name. Somewhere, that context was lost. And those people were trying to play together.

Later editions of D&D and most roleplaying games that followed, attempted to cater to ALL of these groups, at the same time.

To “solve” the issue of gamers with mutually exclusive goals trying to play together, there’s a ton of advice in everything from the game texts to magazines and newsletters either a) trying a variety of tricks to try to keep up interest and minimize conflict or b) convince everyone involved that one method is better than all others, primarily by laying claim to “real roleplaying”, and in both cases, with a lot of shame and identity calls as the basis of proof.

Hobby-wise, this means you have:
a) A hobby with the general design philosophy that design actually doesn’t matter nor does complete communication of how to play
b) A group of enthusiasts with no means of communicating what they want to do together, and a lot of shaming when that goes wrong


White Wolf Games

White Wolf games were a breakout success hitting the second wave of mainstream push, primarily by cashing in on goth and neo-pagan kitsch. Like D&D, two aspects of White Wolf’s games would become very problematic from a social contract aspect and influence most game groups, one way or another.


White Wolf games promoted a style of play in which the GM ushers the players’ characters through a pre-written story. The problem is that the GM is supposed to do this without the players ever realizing that their choices are limited or non-existent- in fact, contrary to what the rules state (“Players control the characters”) – hence the “illusion”.

Illusionism’s method is deceit and social manipulation. The GM can (and should!) lie, cheat, ignore the rules whenever necessary to produce a good story. These things were not just promoted as acceptable, but signs of a “Master Storyteller”.

Even still, it’s very hard to play to a script you’ve never read, and it’s also very hard to get people to do things without knowing you’re pushing them towards doing so. When’s the last time your unrequited crush read your mind and asked you out on a date? Or that annoying person suddenly stopped being annoying without you saying anything?

Illusionism is a fairly unreliable method of play, yet has become a common standard for most roleplaying games.

Identity & Esteem

The constant calls to esteem worked well as a marketing tool- it served to push the WW games’ branding away from Dungeons and Dragons, and also to bring over gamers from other rpgs in the hopes that this time, the game would deliver on fun story which wasn’t working out with other games.

Of course, these games carried over the problems from before, including not-really-design and wargame bits (the cries about Power Players and Munchkins still remain) except now also you had Illusionism. Which worked very rarely, if at all.

Instead of questioning the design or the theory behind that (after all, there was stacks of books saying it worked), people got frustrated and began pointing fingers and shaming. Later books would have telling phrases like, “The rules exist to prevent bitterness between the players”, which kind of tells you how far it went for some.

The Impossible Social Contract

When you have a core game philosophy that works on “I want you to do things without me communicating them to you” and “I can lie and use social pressure to get there”, there’s not really any basis on which you can build a functional social contract.

Games work because people agree to play by a set of rules. If the rules are unknowable, or, that one person is lying about that agreement, you have no basis on which to negotiate the game or even agree to anything in actuality.

Hobby-wise, this means you have:
c) An atmosphere in which deceit and social manipulation are expected, destroying any sensible space to form trust
d) A culture in which play cannot be analyzed – the methodology of the party line is correct- any errors must be with those around you

I’m pointing these things out as things to be overcome. The typical issues that are bemoaned, “I can’t find people to play with”, “Problem players”, “How do I get my players to do this?” basically grow out of these things.

Next: A Way Out.

ETA: The Forge has it’s articles back online – A Hard Look at D&D is worth checking out. If you happen across any of the OD&D “Little Brown Books” online, you may wish to look at those especially.


Abused Gamer Syndrome

December 11, 2009

Ron Edwards has a damn good summary of the behaviors I’ve labeled Abused Gamer Syndrome in the past (also, “My Guy Syndrome”)

That viewpoint toward “play my character” is what I was referencing with the problematic term “traditional.” I’ll try to summarize it as follows, based on my own experiences.

– Play optimally concerning character survival. The game system is perfectly capable of killing your character, and at least some GMs are invested in making this happen or in not doing anything to prevent it.

– Play optimally concerning your own ego. The GM is very invested in making his story happen, and if your character needs to be overly gullible or stupid for the story to work (often the case), then the GM will take him over and make him that way, making you look stupid and basically stripping you, personally, of social and creative power at the table. Such a GM is not a player-killer like the ones I mentioned in #1, but in some ways, he’s worse!

If “play my character” is construed from these parameters, it results in the following tactics (I’ve stated them a little bit extremely):

a. Come up with as colorful a concept as possible, preferably somewhat irrational, so that you can carry out the following safety-measures from “in character” and blame the character for “making” you role-play in this way.

b. Safety-measure – treat all GM characters as hostile, treacherous, and of no emotional importance whatsoever.

c. Safety-measure – avoid rolling the dice or otherwise engaging in the resolution mechanics as much as possible.

d. Safety-measure – create as much minor strife or minor friendship for your character with the other player-characters as you can, because such interactions carry no risk, take up time

I had never really tied “wacky inappropriate character” to the defensive behaviors but it makes sense.

It’s also tied deeply to something I’ve been thinking a lot about- the kind of dysfunction that comes from a group that doesn’t agree to a common set of rules.

The GM that takes away player power over their characters is nearly always breaking agreement and the players who react defensively are already showing they didn’t have any faith in that agreement, whether or not the GM has violated the social contract.