Archive for September, 2011



September 26, 2011

One of my favorite rpgs, Universalis, is now available on PDF. Universalis is a game that everytime I play it, I’m always surprised by how much fun it is – that is, it surprises me over and over by exceeding my expectations.

Universalis is a genreless, GM-less game, where the players collaboratively create a setting, situation, and characters.

Each player has a number of “Coins”, which you spend to establish facts about the world, or what the characters do. No one owns a character, but you spend coins to control them in a given scene.

When conflicts occur, dice are rolled to see the outcomes AND it replenishes coins for everyone involved (though winners get more), which gives a general incentive to have conflicts in play.

In play, what happens is that players start aligning in vision- the best way to play is to build off other people’s ideas, so you don’t need to spend as many coins, and to add ideas that everyone finds inspiring so they spend more coins on the things you’re interested in. The ideal strategy means finding something everyone’s excited in and reading the group.

That said, the game is very dryly written, and a lot harder to read through than it is to play. There’s also things I find usually get houseruled out, like having to spend a coin for each line of dialogue.

Overall, this is a great game, and if you can make it through the text, fun and easy to teach.

If you want to try a game with absolutely no railroading, and no GM, it’s a great game to pick up.



September 26, 2011

“Serving the market”:

Comic about DC comics failure to serve women


Risk and Emotional Investment

September 22, 2011

There’s a few different conversations going on that tie into an interesting idea: Where are people investing their emotions and willing to accept “risk” in play?

For the sake of this discussion, I’m defining risk as:

1) Something that can change in play, without a predefined outcome
2) That theoretically any of the players can affect, not just a GM


Who is my character? What are they capable of (morally, emotionally)?

Pretty much the core of Narrativist play, risk in character means your character, as who they are, what their limits are, is at risk- you don’t know who they’ll turn out to be- you play to find out.

The idea of the character changing and evolving in unexpected ways ranges from classic Joseph Campbell to more pop folks like Dan Harmon’s formula.

For some folks, though, this is really scary. They have their character and they don’t want the edges poked at, don’t want to have to ask dangerous questions that may leave them looking at the character differently.

Obviously, this ties in a lot to being able to both emotionally identify with the character and being open to being surprised by the character as well.

I think a common problem for organizing Narrativist play hinges on this- Nar play is pretty easy as far as techniques go, but difficult if we’re talking about a group with bad social dynamics and trust issues.

Players used to GMs screwing them over, learn to never open up for emotional change, or worse yet, never invest in a character in play- you may see a 20 page backstory about a character, but nothing in play because opening up invites change and there’s no trust that anyone is going to support you in this exploration of character. (see “Where it goes wrong” further down)


What will happen to these NPCs? What will happen to this place? This organization/group/culture?

There’s tons of games that aim to do this, at least superficially.

The problem is that in a lot of play, you find out that a) the setting isn’t actually meaningfully changing, or b) control of that change lies only in the GM’s hands or a metaplot dictated by adventure modules.

Assuming you get past that, then a lot of groups find great fun in this – this is where players shape the world and find the world reflects the deeds of their characters- the places hold memories, and history, the NPCs have relationships to the PCs.

Both Simulationist and Narrativists enjoy risk here. Mostly, this is the area where people confuse the two as being “about story” in that vague way. Fictional Positioning plays a generally big role here as well.


Did I choose the right tactics? Did I convey that character well?

This risk is the emotional esteem of playing with other people- how well did you perform in the moment to moment.

While this is pretty much always in play for everyone, it is, by itself with nothing else, a minimal requirement for any investment in play. While being the minimum, that doesn’t mean it’s the weakest- social approval and personal esteem are powerful.

Performance investment exists on a dial – highly competitive Gamism and many LARPs rely on high performance investment, while most “silly” or “Beer & Pretzels” games have a lower requirement.

This is an observation, not a judgment of value, here. Or, for the less bright among you: I’m not saying this is any worse, lesser than, or “not real roleplaying”.

I think a lot of groups find themselves navigating muddy waters here – both in how much investment is expected of players AND how performance should be judged. Here’s where we see a lot of “Well, are they good roleplayers?” with “good” meaning anything from portraying a character well, to coming up with good solutions for puzzles.

Where it goes wrong

Where performance level investment is a problem is when it’s a symptom of being unable to get any other kind of satisfying play.

Notably, this usually shows up with players who aren’t getting the Creative Agenda they want. Being unable to have influence/control in the things you want to have in the game, means you’re left being excited that you managed to make a nice speech, or set up a power combo, or roll a 20…

You’re getting the best you can get from this, and that’s effectively where we start seeing “20 minutes of fun in 4 hours of play”.

It’s a clear symptom when you find players unable to go for any other type of emotional investment even if it’s what they say repeatedly they want.

I remember an L5R game where a player set himself up in a moral crisis (both what he said he wanted before play, and what he did in play) and when he was presented with choices, literally ran out of the room, angry. Instead of seeing me leaving the door open for his choices, he only saw it as an Illusionist “trap” – he couldn’t read where I was going (because I wasn’t aiming to go anywhere) and he totally freaked out.

Emotionally investing in risking his character, was too much – not because of any personal failure on his part as a person, but because the years of gaming had trained him that anything beyond performance was effectively a set up for an asshole GM.

The ability to create fiction or imaginary events AND enjoy them requires trusting enough to put some emotional investment into play- and having that hampered by the expectation of getting “hit” all the time, AKA “Abused Gamer Syndrome”, is basically what Ron Edwards was speaking about with the Brain Damage discussion.

What do I do with this?

When you sit down to start a game, really think about these questions and talk about them as a group:

– What does “good play” look like for this game?
– What’s at risk here? Are we excited about that? Is that the right game for us?
– Do we know the roles and expectations of the GM, the players and the general style of the game? See: Same Page Tool

For most of the folks I play with, this is like a 10 minute conversation when we’re figuring out what games we want to play – it’s like picking out a meal or what movie to go watch.

I know a lot of groups freak out about these kinds of questions/discussions, because they expect them to be some kind of massive multi-hour “discussion”(argument) which only leaves everyone feeling resentful.

For those folks, all I’ve got is recommended reading: Roots of the Big Problems and A Way Out.

ETA: Ron Edward’s recent essay on Setting & Emergent Stories is really worth reading here.


Karma Folds (Sorcerer Exalted)

September 13, 2011

I’ve been playing my Sorcerer Exalted game on Google Plus with a couple of friends. We closed up our first scenario, and it went well despite the rough edges.

Social Context

We’re all late 20’s to early 30’s, and have gamed together here and there, usually about a year or two at a time, but due to geography, haven’t been able to for a few years now.

Les and Dave both have played an Exalted campaign or two – none of us are totally stuck on setting canon, which is good, because I’m only really familiar with the Solar Exalted core book and the rest of the stuff I never got into.

We all share a strong common background in movies/anime/videogames we’ve seen/played, so it forms a good common reference set.

Color & Inspiration

The setting of Exalted is a fantasy Asia, somewhere between Hero, Ninja Resurrection and older Final Fantasy games. This game started in the city of Bei Long, a city built around a massive library.

The look of magic is anime- Solar Exalted use powers and glow with an anima banner of power, fast fighting, people get slammed around, and nearly all magic has some kind of overt energy blast kind of thing going on. The demons are all the past lives of the Exalted, usually appearing in dreams, flashbacks or momentary hallucinations.

The Sorcerers

Kwan is a young paper artist of 19. His family was killed during the great Machine Rampage a decade ago, and he was taken in by Master Mei, and trained in the arts. (Her daughters were killed in the same accident).

Stamina 5 (Laborer, Ascetic lifestyle)
Will 3 (Natural Exuberance)
Lore 2 (Memories of a Past Life)

Covers (Papermaster 5, Twilight Caste 3)
Price: Infamous – the sole survivor of the Machine Rampage -1 to all human interactions.

Demon: (his past life) Han Fei, the Geomancer (power 9). A sorcerer obsessed with creating life, sentient life, just to see if it could be done.

Hui Jin is a civic engineer in his early 30’s, whose ingenious machines and alchemy has produced numerous projects over the years. His greatest failure, though, is the automated mill that became possessed and began the Machine Rampage, forcing him to seal it in alchemical salt.

Stamina 4 (simply healthy)
Will 5 (driven, believer in destiny)
Lore 1 (Hapless fool)

Cover: Alchemist & Engineer 5, Night Caste 4

Price: Overconfident -1 to first die roll of any scene

Demon: (past life) Lao Jie the Breathstealer (power 9). An alchemist seeking immortality… by alchemizing his own blood into different substances.


As I mentioned before, the game started out rough between technical issues and me poorly prepping, but it ended well.

Important background stuff: two of Han Fei’s creations Tan and Kai-ti, sentient beings made of paper, had been looking for his new incarnation and came into town 10 years ago.

Tan had been despondent, and attempted to commit suicide by throwing himself into the new automated paper mill (made by Hui Jin), which then went berserk with his rage and despair. The people he killed, were turned into paper, and their souls sealed in along with him when Hui Jin tossed a Contain on the whole affair.

Now: the Imperials have sent troops to “rectify” the library as well as find the “paper which can contain souls” as their divination had indicated.

Some highlights:

– A ghost trapped in paper, coming back to frame Kwan for murder
– Hui Jin using crazy alchemy to gas Imperial troops into unconsciousness by throwing chemicals into various lanterns in the area.
– Kwan freeing the city god and vowing to find all of the wayward “children” he created in the past life
– Mei, Kwan’s master, thanking him for finding vengeance against the man she believes responsible for her daughters’ deaths, but letting him know they would be enemies if they met again.

System Observations

Voice chat makes online gaming actually playable for me. That said, I still found having to use a dice roller a bit clunky and tried to avoid doing the multiple rolls whenever possible (“Roll cover to get bonus dice to make a primary roll”). That may disappear with some practice.

The 90 minute sessions work fine. I found it’s short enough people don’t get distracted on the computer, which is a constant danger with online play.

There was a lot more swinginess to the dice than I expected. I saw more than a few rolls where someone came out with 5-7 successes (!). I’m hoping that’s just how it is, and not some wackiness on the part of the dice roller.

For Sorcerer, everything hinges on Humanity checks/gains, which hinges upon your Kickers and relationships. In this game, it’s about making/restoring relationships – Kwan had several to use – ghost dad, his adopted mother/teacher, his two paper golem “children”. Hui Jin didn’t have any and that became a problem for engaging the character, and the player played cautious as well. Hopefully I can get over that next session.

Humanity to stat gains: It was really interesting- Hui Jin got all the stat raises, while Kwan didn’t get any- even though Kwan had all the Humanity gains throughout play.

We’re excited to do some more, and next go around I’m going to push for stronger Kickers and prep from that.


Externalizing Motivations

September 12, 2011

“Real roleplayers don’t need motivation mechanics!”

There’s a funny old school attitude I see sometimes.

“I don’t like D&D, because it’s just about beating up monsters, you only get experience points for fighting. I’d rather roleplay!”

“Ok, here’s this game where you get experience points for chasing your goals, agonizing over motivations, falling in love, and roleplaying.”

“That’s not real roleplaying! That’s a boardgame! You’re not roleplaying anymore because you’re only doing it for points! The game is telling you how to roleplay!

In this school of thought, the only way roleplaying can happen is if mechanics never influence players in how the characters make choices.

That said, it’s also pretty tough to make work- everyone has to be exceptionally mindful of remembering to constantly display/reveal character motivations, stick to them, and support each other in the process.

When this is tied to Actor Stance only, each player trying to “just play my character”, results in the characters constantly pulling away from each other and not doing much to address each other’s motivations.

Paul Czege Principle

A useful idea is the Czege principle, which points out that in roleplaying, it’s not really fun to be both the architect or creator of a problem or conflict AND the person who decides how it resolves.

This is part of the reason many games continue to use stuff like dice or cards to determine results- even if you end up being the creator/resolver, the randomizers force restrictions on the actual outcomes.

In a sense, when you follow that old school idea of no motivation mechanics, you end up with all motivation choices being conflicts players themselves create, and resolve themselves, because there’s no other “handles” for the rest of the group to really grab on to.

The fun of hard choices in fiction

In fiction, we often like to see characters make tough choices. Because we are watching/reading a story, we’re not 100% sure which way things will turn out, and the more in doubt the outcome, the more tension we experience as an audience.

In roleplaying games, the reason the Czege Principle applies is because there’s no tension if you know absolutely which way you will go.

What motivation mechanics do, is they apply a pressure upon you, as a player, and create a tension, which might make things a little unpredictable for you, the player, even.

The character’s motivations have been externalized- something which might be influenced by something other than just you, the player.


A commonly used method is to reward motivations. Several games initiated this type of mechanic- The Pool, Hero Wars, Riddle of Steel. Currently Burning Wheel and Fate are probably the two most popular examples of this.

While giving points for doing things is pretty simple, the more interesting results are when two or more motivations conflict – do you support your wife in child labor, or do you volunteer for a mission that could secure you lands from the King?

A common mistake is assuming that reward mechanics are “locked in” – that once you choose your motivations, you are trapped to just those. Most games that use these allow you the option to change them, naturally as the character’s motivations change.


Another type of motivation mechanic is the “temptation” or offer – if you do X thing, then either you -might- get something, or you will get Y thing in exchange.

Polaris uses straight offers in this regard, each player making deals back and forth with another player who has the role of being the antagonist.

Drifter’s Escape, on the other hand, uses temptations, with 2 GMs asking for certain favors in exchange for giving a series of cards. This one heightens the tension because the GMs are allowed to lie about how good their card hands are, before you get them.

Reward systems tend to focus on the raw pursuit of your motivations, while temptation/offer systems focus on your character taking unexpected choices or motivations along the way.


Restrictions limit or hinder actions your character can take.

The most infamous example is old school D&D alignment, which apparently has colored a lot of peoples’ perceptions of all motivation mechanics as removing the ability for character change and growth.

In actuality, these can range from numerical penalties (“You’re at -2 to fight your beloved, since, you know, you love him.”), to situational restrictions (“You agreed to help with the plan, but if it goes sour, you can change your mind.”).

Usually the biggest contention is around social mechanics and restrictions brought about by them.

Successful social mechanics:
1. Let you decide whether you’ll entertain an argument at all
2. Limit requests/demands to something reasonable
3. Have an opt-out either as a mechanical option or part of the situation (“You agreed to help with the plan, and it’s clear the plan has failed, you don’t have to help anymore.”)

Again, though, this is just about externalizing motivations – with these kinds of mechanics, you have other players and characters jockeying to influence your character and provide tension.

Questions to Answer

Externalizing motivations means you end up having to play to find out who your character is.

“Will I stand true to my friends in the face of evil?” I don’t know! Am I tough enough? Am I hard enough? What prices will I pay to do so? Are they worth protecting after all?

Sometimes folks like Vincent talk about being unsafe with your characters, and I think this is really the kind of stuff these mechanics produce- you start play with an idea of who your character is, but over play, you discover it as much as anyone else in the group.

Sometimes your character is more amazing than you thought, sometimes they’re a terrible person, sometimes they’re both.

Some people imagine this “destroys immersion”, but I find it’s just fine with it- sometimes I find myself doing things I didn’t think I had the courage or sense to do, and sometimes I go, “Wow, I can’t believe I can be such a dick.”

Anyway, hopefully this gives you some idea of how these mechanics work and what they do.