Archive for August, 2010


Advanced Conflict & Stake Setting

August 31, 2010

This Primetime Adventures game has been super-educational for me. We’re getting about 80% really awesome conflicts, and maybe 20% ok ones. So I’ve been thinking hard on what the magic line is we’re crossing between that 20/80 split.

What I’ve come up with, are some things which I think can apply to a lot of games that use stake-setting mechanics.

Is it Emotionally Charged?

This seems kind of obvious for Primetime Adventures, but the trick here is to realize that any character’s Issue is a sign, not a destination. Most of our most emotionally charged, and good, conflicts come out of secondary things we found while pursuing the Issue, but not the Issue itself.

This is also why I think it takes a little time to totally hit stride in this- you have to be able to see what the written down Issue/Flag is as a start, and through play, hone in on what it is the players are -really- interested in. That’s where you find the gold.

For our game, I think a lot of the split deals with that. We had a lot of conflicts which were “Do you win the fight?” which PTA points as being pretty crappy stakes, but looking closer, what was -really- at stake was stuff like, “Do you save your home planet from being invaded?” “Does your clone prove the doubts you have about your ability?”, “How much will you sacrifice to hold up your ideals?” etc.

We didn’t have to explicitly say these things – some of them were just unconscious to us as we played, but definitely charged the conflicts and made them fun.

The 20% of so-so conflicts simply didn’t load with emotionally charged consequences, so I need to step back and be willing to simply “Say Yes” and let those go.

Is it a Question or a Statement?

When you have games where you can set a wide range of stakes, nearly anything can become a conflict. But should it be a conflict?

One thing to consider is if what the player is doing is a statement about their character… or if it is a question, something that is not yet decided and the character is struggling with.

If your character is courageous, it’s pretty disempowering to have conflicts that make your character a coward if they fail- your statement is being overturned. When you’re playing games that use stake setting, it’s important to avoid turning statements into conflicts.

Now, if your character has had an issue or concern that isn’t decided, that’s up in the air… that’s a Question. That’s totally worth milking for conflicts. “Can you tell him how you feel?”

Part of this is thinking about your stakes and outcomes. If you can’t see interesting and fun outcomes, both ways, then you shouldn’t make it a conflict.

For our game, we had a scene where Jono’s character killed his clone. Given that we’re basing it on Star Wars, it would not have been out of place to make that into a conflict on the basis that good Jedi wouldn’t necessarily kill someone after defeating them and leaving them helpless.


What would the outcome be in challenging that? It would be me taking away Jono’s statement and turning it into a question – robbing the moment of what it was. Likewise, Sushu’s character had a point where she was defying a superior – I set the stakes as, “Do you keep your authority?” – since it wasn’t going to be, “Do you change your mind and buckle under the command?”

It’s a fine art figuring out where players are making statements vs. questions, but at least keeping it in mind and being mindful goes a long way. I’m thinking this is really the most dangerous pitfall for stakes setting games.


Asking those two questions is actually pretty easy and intuitive in play- though I’ve written a lot here, it’s not like you have to think hard about it. It’s just something to be aware of, and then you can keep it off to the side, checking in once in a while and helping your game as you go.


PTA – A Galaxy Divided Ep. 3

August 29, 2010

After a month hiatus for life, traveling, etc., we got back into our Star Wars PTA game.

I think we’re starting to hit our stride. Everyone’s got a feeling for each other’s characters, the situation, the conflict, and the Issues in play. As a GM, it’s easier to really spike the situation with sticky scenes, and hammer on the issues in crunchy ways.

We finally saw a good flow of fanmail. (Accidental drift #1- the producer isn’t supposed to give out fanmail. I’m not sure why.)

Strong Directives

Now that we’re hitting that stride, I’m really seeing how much PTA is a Directive-heavy game.

I’m re-reading the book, and carefully looking at the advice on conflicts, and realizing that what is obliquely stated but not outright- is that good conflicts deal either with the protagonist’s feelings/attitudes OR how they influence other characters’ feelings/attitudes.

Given that both of the protagonists have issues about the war they’re fighting, it makes it easy to turn many, though not all, action situations into applicable, good conflicts.

Good and Bad Conflicts, a tricky line

What’s tough, though, is that there’s a lot of conflicts in which it actually works better to set the stakes as “who wins” and leave the moral choices an aspect of narration:

Gruchakla had a fight with his clone, winning the fight (run as a conflict. Jono, had won the stakes, though I won the narration. I described his character disarming and finally leaving the clone helpless, though Jono decided Gruchakla would actually kill the clone.

While certainly the real “conflict” and emotional impact of the scene was him choosing to kill (think Empire Strikes Back and Luke’s test in the Dark Side Tree) – it would have been terrible to use as a mechanical conflict. I mean, what do I set as the stakes, “If I win, you DON’T kill him?” It was a heavy choice that worked -because- it was a choice.

Having done some re-reading of the book, I’m thinking that conflicts should never make choices for a player and their protagonist, but they can focus on whether a character recognizes something about their own self, or another, or communicates/displays that personality aspect.

Scenes and Genre Conventions

We had a couple of hiccups in scene setting (Accidental Drift #2- player-request scenes, in turn order. d’oh).

A lot resolved when I pointed out that we don’t need to worry about actual logistics, but we can just do scene cuts- it only needs to make enough sense that an audience buys into the action, not that we show every step taken to fix a machine/get these people to help/the planning, etc.

What I also found helpful was we were good about referencing Star Wars genre conventions:

“Yeah, and then it explodes, all sparky-explosion like”
“And then there’s a screen-wipe, and there you are landing on the planet”
“Oh, this is Star Wars, I can’t say he’s an asshole, um, ‘That Nurglewomp will pay!'”
“Let’s bring back in N2-V2, our show budget could probably only afford one fully articulating droid, so we’re going to feature it as much as possible.”

Although this is mostly geek factor, one thing these descriptions were good for were helping us remember genre conventions of how stories would work for an 80’s Star Wars Prequel series.


We had a really intense session for under 3 hours. A lot happened and we’ve really set up a lot of conflict to kick off for the double-spotlight session next time. I’m also impressed with how the deeper I go with PTA, the more depth it reveals in play.

(Comments are open for Jono, Sushu, or Matt)


Sustainable RPG Business

August 27, 2010

Reading stuff in both videogames and tabletop rpg businesses right now and it’s got me thinking about… well, some stuff that it’s amazing isn’t obvious.

I’m going to focus on tabletop rpgs, since I figure the multi-billion dollar videogame industry probably already has hired many serious economists to help on their industry…

In an ideal world (for businesses at least)

In an ideal world, you’re publishing/distributing/selling a product that:
1) needs to be bought over and over, regularly
2) is impossible or very hard to transfer or reproduce
3) needs no or little effort to upkeep/update to maintain sales

What are we really selling here?

See that list? RPGs can reliably hit #3 as products, though, the general gaming culture has embraced the opposite idea- that a company needs to constantly be publishing for the game to be “current”, which is why we see a lot of traditional publishers doing a new edition every few years.

Rpgs only need be bought once to work for a whole group, can be loaned easily, and if electronic, easily reproduced. By their nature, rpgs are low turnover items, and also end up competing with their own products after a point.

Low turnover, small market. What’s that say to you? You have to meet the market, not the other way around.

A smart business would look at that, and go, “Well, this isn’t going to be a major source of income, no matter what we do.” A lot of indie publishers have already figured this out and based their publishing models on it.

The problem lies mostly for folks who expect to make a huge profit or even, to make enough to be a primary source of income.

These are the folks who are constantly having to say, “the industry is dying”, because, well, the boom that was D&D back in the 70’s to early 80’s isn’t coming back anymore than the Magic the Gathering boom of the mid-90’s is.

Cashing in on a fad bubble is not a sustainable business model.

You making money is your concern, never the consumers’

The attitude I mentioned in Not a Marriage is that this unrealistic view turns into a sense of entitlement- an emotional plea that the consumers owe you your daily bread.

A business model should not, can not, rely on customers worrying about how much profit you’re making. Most people are only concerned with your business in how it meets their needs, not in how yours are met. You’re the one running the business.

(To be sure, there are loyal customers who want to see you do well, but this is the same equivalent to people choosing not to shop at certain stores or buy from certain companies for human rights or environmental issues- it’s a personal choice, certainly not a business choice).

The issue is the same whether you’re a retailer talking to end-consumers, a distributor talking to publishers and retailers, or a publisher talking to anyone and everyone else.

The industry isn’t dying, it’s just a small market. Deal.


Indie Creators vs. the World

August 16, 2010

– No one else will be motivated to realize your creative vision better than you.
– Choosing constraints that limit your audience, sales, or profit for other goals, are valid choices. (Sometimes, this pays off more in the long run as well)
– A lot of “helpful” people benefit from the advice they advocate for you – this has nothing to do with your creative vision, and taken too far, will lead you away from it.
– When you call the shots, you take all the credit and the blame.
– “Because I want to” is all the reason you need.

These are all basic ideas from the Forge ethos, but people seem quick to forget them, mostly wrapped up in the pursuit of the non-existent “infinite profit” or just being internet famous.


Not a Marriage

August 14, 2010

Years back, I coined this phrase, “It’s a game, not a marriage”, talking about how roleplaying together is not a marriage- it doesn’t have to last forever, and you can still be friends and not wah-wah-sad if you decide you don’t want to game together.

Funny enough, I find we keep running into this issue, over and over when it comes to business in rpgs as well. Whether it’s retailers, publishers, or distributors (repeatedly), we keep coming to this thing where when it comes down to numbers and business choices, the responses are anything but business-like.

Obfuscations, justifications, pleading, calling on people to have loyalty or duty, basically sentimentality?

It’s true you can sell a lot on sentimentality, but seriously, when the customers start getting down to numbers and brass tacks, and your service is not measuring up for their needs, making emotional calls isn’t going to help. Wish them well and don’t waste their time or yours- you got other people to sell to.

Back in 2005, Ben Lehman nailed it:

…I use IPR because they provide me with a useful service. They make lots of money for me and my company. If my situation were to change (as it may in the future, with Lulu becoming a better and better option), I wouldn’t hesitate to drop IPR in exchange for some other business model which was more convenient or more profitable for me. I don’t owe them anything other than what’s stipulated in our contract.

I cannot fathom a mindset that sees a distributor as anything other than a service provider. Frankly, from what I’ve seen amongst my colleagues (like, say, Luke with BW), RPG distributors are really shitty service providers at that. The idea that I should turn over my printing jobs to them out of some sense of duty is laughable.

Although close to the geek fallacy, I actually think it’s more a feeling of entitlement- the assumption the customers owe you their business just because you exist.

For the last few years talking about Racefail, when people have brought up, “Hey, I’m going to buy all these books full of awesome instead of these ones full of racist/sexist/heterosexist shit”, we see some authors jump up and go, “Buh-but, why are you trying to put me out of business?!? I have a family to feed!”. Aside from the O_o admission in that response, it’s the assumption that they were already OWED a sale and now you’re “robbing” them.

We saw similar antics from US automakers re: Japanese import cars, and now with music publishers being wiped out between independent distribution and peer-to-peer options – there’s messages about morality, supporting people, etc. and not much in changes to business plans.

Coming back to roleplaying… the sad part is that all of this is not news. This was Forge 101 back in 2001-2002: current technology makes retailers, distributors, and large scale publishers unnecessary and completely optional.

If you’re going to run a service that is no one -needs-, you seriously need to come with some A-game.

You can’t hope for the same crowd who cut their field by not needing these things to turn around and support you… “just because”.