Archive for June, 2010


The Ball: Again

June 14, 2010

The medium of roleplaying

There’s two aspects of the medium of tabletop roleplaying which shape play, all the time.

First, is that play works through speaking. Like any conversation, we take turns at speaking, we take turns at inputting to the stuff we’re imagining. Even though this is moment-to-moment, back and forth, quickly, almost invisibly, it still means one person at a time is directly inputing into play at any given moment.

Second, all play works on the group expressing buy-in. Lumpley-Care principle means the imaginary stuff only has weight because the group gives it weight. That said, while input is singular in the moment, the larger scale of play is determined by how the group chooses to give weight or ignore aspects. In other words, buy-in produces the direction of play.

The Ball Analogy

At any given moment, a single person in possession of the ability to shape play (has the ball) and is working with a team, the group, to push play in some direction or another. Like any team sport, roleplaying comes down to communication. Which direction to go? When to pass? Who to pass it to? Etc.

Most groups simply rely on learning to read each other’s non-verbal cues, which takes time to learn and a lot of practice to develop. A better culture of communication over the last few years has made strong use of metagame talk during play to coordinate things, though modern game design assists this significantly by adding stuff like Flag mechanics to help communication.

Skillful play is still about Fictional Positioning – knowing what the rest of the group is interested in and pushing play in that direction, gaining support by way of buy-in: again, teamwork.


On the flipside, you can see how a lot of conflicts between players about the direction of play are just like people fighting over a ball. It could easily be argued that a lot of modern rpg design is based around successfully negotiating that issue- providing rules and systems to resolve the direction of play. (For example, Luke Crane has often pointed to that as the source of Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits rules).

As game design has moved in to support groups in negotiating/determining simple direction of play – there’s less and less need for stuff like GMing advice on how to “keep play from getting stuck” or to resolve arguments between players.

Also worth reading

My older posts on Creative Vectors and More on Creative Vectors covers what I’m talking about with “Direction of Play”.



June 14, 2010

“Your game is broken because I went out of my way to break it and then I broke it”

If you were trying to play chess, and your opponent deliberately tried to lose, would they be breaking the rules? There’s a certain social contract that goes with any game, including roleplaying games- it’s the goal or point of the game.

I was just reminded of this thing gamers do:

A: “Here’s this game I made about telling stories of tragedy.”
B: “But if you use the rules like this, this, and this, then someone could play the game and totally avoid having tragedy, therefore your game is broken!”

In the broadest sense, you could consider the overall goal/point of a game (“Chess: Checkmate their king, protect your own”) as the founding directive rule to any game.

Naturally this goes back to the usual issues of assuming all games being all things and general poor reading skills people do, but still, it’s really interesting the way in which folks act as if a game is supposed to somehow keep working when you’re not playing by the rules.

“Your game is broken because it doesn’t play itself for me!”

In a similar vein, I’ve also been reminded of people who look at a game, then complain about the part of the game that’s designed to exercise/challenge certain skill sets as the focus of play. That is:

A: “Here’s this game where players take turns adding imaginary bits to create a great story!”
B: “But the rules don’t MAKE the other players like what you contribute! It’s broken!”

“Chess doesn’t have rules that MAKE me make good tactical choices! It’s broken!”

Both of these things come back to not just understanding that games do specific things, but also a core aspect of social contract and buy-in:

Game design has no obligation to cater to people who don’t buy into the premise of the game.

Although you might be interested in Chessboxing, chess has no obligation to meet the expectations of boxers, and boxing has no obligation to meet the expectation of chess players – these are two games that do very different things.

In the same sense, as gamers, we have no obligation to the player(s) who don’t want to play the game we’re playing- if we agreed to play chess and then you start complaining that there’s not enough punching… guess who’s being out of line here?

Likewise, if you’re complaining that “only people who can think strategically can win at chess!” guess how much sympathy you’re likely to get?

In both cases, it’s people ignoring the premise of the game and complaining when it fulfills exactly what was advertised.

It’s pretty sad how many conversations get mired in this: from design, to play, to the GM asking for help how to deal with a “problem player”.

Game design is getting really damn good about being consistent in purpose and design, and being clear about telling players what the game is about.

I wonder how long it will take for folks to start catching up.


Procedures vs. Directives

June 9, 2010

Thinking more about general game design and how rules are communicated. Most games use both of these to different degrees, but the question is what parts should be procedural? What parts should be directives?

Procedure Rules

Procedure rules are mechanics or rules which indicate a procedure, a process.

“Roll for initiative, then move, then pick action, then roll dice” etc. It’s a process from A to B to C, and could be represented by a flowchart. (Many people use the term “system” or “mechanics” for these types of rules exclusively).

Procedures are clear, step by step processes in play. They’re constrained, good at focusing and shaping play, and reliably producing play experiences.

Examples include:
– Most combat systems in rpgs
– Trollbabe’s Conflict system
– Universalis play overall
– Polaris’ Bargaining mechanics
– Dogs in the Vineyard Town Creation
– Boardgames. (Boardgames ONLY have procedural rules)

Directive Rules

Directive rules are broad directions that rely primarily on judgment and social contract and not step-by-step procedures.

“Describe action in cinematic terms! Offer suggestions freely! Make comments, ask questions out of character!” etc. Directive rules could be represented by broad Venn diagrams.

They very often explain what’s the point of the game, and -when- and -how- to use the procedure rules. (Many people throw around terms like “style”, “good roleplaying”, “play advice” to talk about directive rules).

Directives give direction and shape to play in a broad sense and allow the group to use the procedure rules in more flexible ways. Due to the unstructured nature of directives, they require more skillfulness to apply, and often take practice to learn.

This also makes them significantly less reliable in communicating the game and play.

The other part that makes directives tough, is that historically they’ve been used very poorly. Either contradictory to themselves, contradictory to the procedures of play, and/or assumed useless or interchageable amongst all games. That is, a lot of folks assume that reading them, much less considering and applying them is a waste of time, so they tend to be less often translated into play.

Examples include:
– Sorcerer’s use of Loresheets
– Primetime Adventures advice on addressing Issues
– My Life With Master on how to play the Master
– Apocalypse World’s Principles
– The Quick Primer for Old School Gaming
– Polaris on how to play the Moons
– The Style rules in Houses of the Blooded
– The advice in Whitewolf games

Emergent vs. Directed Play

That said, the interaction of both types of rules in a game, determines -how- the game does what it does, how it achieves it’s Creative Agenda.

Emergent play is where the Creative Agenda primarily comes from a high reliance on procedural rules- just follow the procedure and the focus naturally arises.

If you play D&D 4E and follow the procedures, you will get a tactically focused strategy game. You don’t have to think about it, or put a guiding hand on the rules- they do what they do and the resulting game naturally rises from it.

In contrast, Directed play requires the group to apply the directives, the advice, to use the procedures in an intentional way to shape play. There has to be more care and thought to how you’re playing the game to successfully produce a coherent Creative Agenda.

You also notice that games that rely on this also have the potential to drift to different Creative Agendas and it becomes harder for groups to reliably get on the same page with new groupings or players.

Sorcerer would be a prime example here. The game has a lot of instructions about what the focus of play is about – crafting situations to stress Humanity, through the use of Kickers and Bangs, and you see in games where people do this, it works, and places where people don’t, they shrug their shoulders and go, “This game doesn’t DO anything different”… when they ignored the rules that told them how to play the game.

Communicating Procedures, Communicating Directives

– It helps to have a list, outline or flowchart that people can reference.

– If it ties into other procedure chains, it helps to give references (“See Magical Backlash, pg. 232”)

– It helps to repeat aspects where other procedure/rules tie into the current one (“Again, you can always spend Luck to get an extra die!”)

– Be clear that it is literally rules and not vague mumble-advice.

– Repeat, repeat, repeat. If the directive is important, repeat it throughout the book.

– Show examples of how to use the directive to shape how you interface with the procedures and the rest of play. (“Jim suggests that maybe the two characters are actually related and didn’t know it until now! The group agrees, and decides to add a Rank 2 Relationship using the Trait rules”)

– You might need to explain how other types of directives don’t work with your game (“You can’t prep a story beforehand. It won’t work with the mechanics…”)

Be careful with this, as rpg history is full of games with random rants and One-True-Wayism. Practical advice is often mistaken with crusading, and crusading is often shoveled in under sections marked, “Advice”.

ETA: Also worth looking at – Vincent’s old post on Procedures and Principled decisions.

ETA: Vincent’s comment on Style


Paying in time, paying in turns

June 8, 2010

Aside from the PTA game, I’ve been playing a lot of boardgames recently. I’ve been looking at mechanics where the player has to choose between several options, and the price of a poor choice is a “wasted turn”.

In gamist play, this is pretty much a given – “Oh, you moved your bishop here? It didn’t threaten anything AND it gave me another turn to set THIS up.” In a literal sense, this is what we mean when we talk about “initiative” – being able to be ahead on setting up your plans and actions while the opposition has to play catch up.

For roleplaying games, a good example is D&D 4E’s use of positioning- sometimes you want to be in a certain place, sometimes you need to move- failing to see that can put you behind, leave you open or at a disadvantage, etc.

But a lot of roleplaying games -don’t- use these mechanics. And I think the reason why is this- for a Narrativist or Simulationist bit of play, “wasting time” isn’t a punishment on a single player- it’s antithetical to the experience of the whole group.

If your point of play is to have a good story, saying, “Ok, now we’ll have 10 minutes of boring stuff as punishment” doesn’t encourage people to try to have better story through play, it just means 10 minutes of boredom.

While Gamism prioritizes the experience of strategizing, player choice, and consequence, both Narrativism and Simulationism prioritize the experience of the fiction. Costing time is effectively getting in the way of that experience.

This is also why a lot of modern designs focus on having opt out rules or advice (“Say Yes”, “Giving the Conflict”) when a conflict is foregone or nearly over- if you know you’re going to lose, there’s not much point in making three more dice rolls, just close it up and keep the game focused on the fiction.


Sasha by Joel Shepherd

June 5, 2010

A good friend loaned me Sasha, which is probably one of the better fantasy books I’ve read in a good while.

Sasha is a disowned princess who gave up the intrigues and politicking of her family to instead spend her years apprenticed under Kessligh, a war hero and foreign sword master.

Naturally, the shady drama of her family and the entire realm draw her back in, and she is quickly drawn into a conflict between the banner lords, the two religions of the land, her many siblings and their own goals, and more – which threaten to sink the land into civil war and genocide.

The book managed to avoid every cliche I expected along the way without working at it- the story falls into a natural place, though nowhere I really anticipated. There’s lots of great action, finding the right balance between detail into strategies of medieval war while still being engaging and light.

The world Sheperd describes is low fantasy, the only clearly otherworldly thing is the serrin, a group of people who are mystically inclined, and apparently savants at many things. They make a small appearance in the book, and aside from being pretty awesome at stuff, the only clearly supernatural thing they have is the ability to see in the dark. So.

What I found really appealing was the way in which the various layers of society are depicted and intersect- you have a land ruled by nobles of one religion, a majority of another religion, yet both having mixed enough that it’s not always clear cut ethnic/religious lines, and, of course, alliances and feuds between them ALL.

Sasha’s own journey manages to cover her doubt and growth without simply falling back into, “And now I magically awaken to how AWESOME I am” which is a trope I’m pretty much done with in fantasy. The issue of sexism is dealt with well- she’s challenged at every turn, but also respected by some, and at no point is there a grueling abusive arc, that you sometimes find in stories about dealing with kyriarchy.

I’m giving this 4 out of 5 stars and recommending it as fun, action-y, low fantasy, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequels.

RPGs I would use with this setting

HeroQuest. Sasha is a must-read, Sheperd’s descriptions of the Goeren-Yai pagans and the Verenthane nobles are pure gold for folks wanting to play with the Heortling/Empire issues of co-existence and conflict.

Burning Wheel would also work well here. The serrin are totally Grey shade characters doing grey shade stuff. The low-fantasy aspects tie in real well to the system- there’s no magical healing, people get hurt, crippled even, and that’s just how it is.

Houses of the Blooded or Blood & Honor. The shady politics, the issues of keeping together a fractious nation, war. I could see the larger scale Season mechanics in both of these games playing a big part. (Alternatively, Reign might also work here as well).