Archive for March, 2012


Roleplaying Games about Evil

March 31, 2012

I had an interesting realization today- all the good roleplaying games that deal with evil, make a core part of play the issue of collaborating or compromising with evil. I don’t know if it’s a requirement to treat the subject seriously, but it seems like thus far, the most successful means of making evil acts no longer black and white, but a result of choices made in the moment, under pressure, that end up in terrible places and regret.

Direct Deals with the Devil

Drifter’s Escape and Polaris both deal with making deals and taking offers in the heat of the moment. Of the two, Polaris is kinder – you know from the beginning that your character is doomed, so there’s no surprises there, and the Mistaken with whom you deal, is actually telling the truth when the deals go down. Drifter’s Escape holds hope in front of you by a thread, and you have two actively hostile GMs who are offering power…but quite possibly lying at any juncture in play. It puts you in much more desperate straits and you find yourself accepting evil acts that, sometimes don’t pay off, and worse, sometimes do- you get to spend the rest of the game asking if it was worth it either way.

Indirect Deals with the Devil

Funny enough, Sorcerer falls into this category, despite the core premise being summoning and binding demons. You may suffer constant pressure from your demons, but you also have recourse to be rid of them- you can use the rules for banishing. The games that directly have you making bad deals – there’s no way to be rid of the pressure, at any point. Rather, the temptation to evil has mostly to do with the cross goals of Humanity and the Sorcerer’s personal goals, with the demons usually advocating along the way.

Steal Away Jordan also has indirect deals – nothing “forces” you to seek out white allies… but the fact that they have so much more Worth dice makes it always a temptation. And, inevitably, what that means when you have to make choices between the goals of your white allies vs. your fellow slaves, vs. your own.

Dog Eat Dog’s indirect deals come from the Colonizer having no functional way to deal with the Natives outside of arbitrary rules and punishment. The Rules do not deal, compromise, or bend, so then it becomes a question of how do you survive in the face of them?

A constant temptation and external pressure

In Dogs in the Vineyard, the Town Creation rules always start with a reasonable motivation, and either sets it up against people twisting the social system, or the social system itself keeping injustice in place.

The Watchdogs come in to fix the problems, but the thing that always plays out, over and over, is that the morally right thing to do is not well served by the social system itself- the morally correct thing to do demands abandoning the rules of society. (Every session drives you to rebel against Mormonism, might be one way to put it…)

Aside from that, each conflict tempts players to escalate to violence by offering dice. But if you’re actually trying to help people in a community, violence is often the least useful thing…

Poison’d, by comparison, goes the other way around – violence is constant for pirates, and rewards people for committing violence, suffering violence… but more importantly – it also rewards people for actually accomplishing goals… and the real way to do that is through making deals. Although you can make a deal with the Devil in Poison’d, for the most part, the pressure towards evil is more built into the situation of being a pirate rather than anything else. Eventually, though, the questions start becoming – who do you ally with, who do you break trust with, what do you do with people who break trust with you, etc. The inability to leave and the casual acceptance of violence which produces the abusive structure… and how do you navigate it?


Signal Boost: Dog Eat Dog

March 29, 2012

“Dog Eat Dog isn’t a game about how colonialism steals resources; it’s a game about how colonialism steals identities. Who you were, who you are, and who you can be? That’s what gets stolen, and Dog Eat Dog is about how much of that you can hold on to.”

Dog Eat Dog is a roleplaying game about colonialism and how it reshapes people and cultures.

I playtested it a few years back and it was pretty fun and a damn good teaching tool about how people see (and just as importantly, don’t see) how belief systems go hand in hand with institutions and how these things play out power and privilege.

The awesome part of the game is that it works like a mirror both on the part of the oppressor and the oppressed – the Colonizer is defined by a growing set of Rules which are what the Natives perceive to be how the Colonizer’s expectations work. That said, the first Rule, never chosen by the Natives, is that the Natives are inferior to the Colonizer.

Everything moves from there and it reflects so much of what you see in history and present day… it’s amazing.

The Natives become reflected through the eyes of the Colonizer, particularly in where the Colonizer chooses to enforce the Rules and how.

It’s a great game and worth supporting a creator of color!

ETA: Here’s an Actual Play account recently.


One Hour Roleplaying with Burning Wheel

March 18, 2012

I just ran a super-light version of Burning Wheel to demo roleplaying to a friend of one of my group. This came at the end of a boardgaming night without a lot of prep time, but I went ahead and it worked great. I’m going to talk about the techniques I used.

Here’s what I did and how it worked:

Start with a Genre

“What kinds of movies or books are you into?” is what I started with. I refined it a bit more, “Any kind of action movies you like?” and basically found out that everyone had seen, and enjoyed Kurosawa and similar samurai fiction.

I start with a genre because if everyone knows the tropes, it’s easier to tell a common story. It seems like a lot of the time when there’s a disconnect between “what fits within this game”, it comes from lack of a common genre expectation or knowledge of what outcomes the rules typically produce.

From Genre, Situations

While we ate dinner, I quickly thought up a couple of 1-sentence scenarios that might be interesting. When we sat down to play, I tossed them around and kept my ears open if anyone had suggestions. We ended up going with, “The night before battle, the daimyo is assassinated – his generals must protect the heir and decide what to do next.” (Cheat: this is almost exactly the starting situation of Poison’d except modified to samurai genre)

The scenarios were pretty easy to do, because if you know the genre, you know the tropes. Don’t worry if the starting situation sounds too hackneyed or unoriginal, the characters, and the play, will make things interesting and unique – just focus on something that has conflict and that is exciting to the group.

From Situation, Characters

Next, I asked three questions that outlined the characters:

1. What’s your name, age, and what are you best known for?
2. What is your ambition, personal or grand?
3. You’ve failed your lord in some way. How?

Obviously, these 3 questions would be different if the game was focused on superheroes, a diamond-heist, a grim war story, whatever. But basically it boils down to a basic outline of the character, a “positive” or active thing to aim for in the situation, and a negative/haunting thing that can be another source of problems. I thought up these 3 questions during dinner, which maybe took 10 minutes to do, but mostly it deals with genre familiarity to know what things will create room for conflict.

We also made suggestions and played off each others’ ideas. The players being familiar with the genre knew to differentiate the characters based on stereotypical character types – the cool tactician, the mighty yet brash war-general, the old schemer with his own ambitions and a spy network…

From Characters, Conflict

With the three questions above, we had: a general who had been skimming off crucial funds to pay off gambling debts, leaving them under-supplied, one who was sleeping with the Daimyo’s wife, and one who was hoping to take the heir as his puppet while he ruled the clan. I asked the players to suggest an important NPC – they came up with the Daimyo’s brother who was charismatic, but disgraced years ago, and therefore not entirely fit to rule.

Rules, briefly

Notice I hadn’t spoken anything about mechanics until this point. The questions that hang in the players’ heads are, “Will the clan survive the battle? Will I fulfill my ambitions? Will I make up for my past?” – the players really want to know the answers to these things. The players are invested.

Now it’s time for rules. I explain:

“You’re going to roll a bunch of dice. You want a 4 or higher. Each die that comes up 4 or higher is a success, and more successes is better. When you spend an orange token, you get an extra die to roll. When you roll a 6 and spend a blue token, you get extra dice. Going after your Ambition, or dealing with your Failure can get you extra orange or blue tokens.”

I give each player 2 orange and 1 blue to start.

For each player, after hearing their description of what their character is best known for, I give them a 1-word description to write down on their character sheet, rated at 5 – “Courage 5”, “Tactician 5”, “Cunning 5”

Demonstrated during play, not before it

What I don’t say at the beginning, but have happen during play is this: if it’s their specialty, they get 5 dice, otherwise they get 4 dice. If they make an excellent description/dialogue that goes with the action, they get an advantage die (which I do announce- “you get an extra die for awesome dialogue”) and if they get a major NPC to side with them, they also get an extra die (“Toshiro-sama finds your plan reasonable and gives his approval – here’s an extra die”).

I would prompt players, “Tell me what your argument is. Tell me how you’re doing this.” and that would help me figure out if it was worth an advantage die or not.

During play, I made sure each scene gets 1, and only 1, conflict roll. This makes each roll every important as it determines which way the events will swing.


I knew we were getting to the end of the night, so I aimed for trying to get 3 scenes out of this. (In the end, I think we had 5, but basically 3 scenes were major, and 2 scenes were minor.)

1. Start your first scene with all the characters present and a reason to interact. A debate/argument/discussion is always a good one. It allows the players a chance to show off their characters and develop their relationships to each other. In this case, I used the initial strategy meeting as the place to do things.

The nice thing about this kind of debate scene is that it immediately points to the next scenes- people have made decisions about what to do, or have stepped on each others’ toes enough that it’s easy to figure out the next interesting events.

2. The second major scene should focus on the attempt of any plans or actions which have been decided from the first scene- and the consequences for good or ill from them. You can, and should, skip ahead to where the critical actions are going down, in terms of time. If this were a movie, think of the next BIG scene that would be a major focus of the story. Skip everything else in-between.

3. Finally, the last major scene should be some kind of resolution of the goals you’ve gotten for the characters- set up a do-or-die moment for everyone and get them to figure out what happens or not. It ended up being a final argument/discussion scene followed by everyone rolling dice to carry out their decisions.

Theory Stuff

Think of new ideas like food you eat with your hands – you can only hold so much at one time, and you can only digest so much at a time. Too much new ideas at once, and you start dropping them. So everything I did here was based on that logic.

Start with story genres people are familiar with so they have grounding. Start fiction first – ask fiction based questions which get them oriented and excited. Explain rules in a jargon-free fashion. If you can, always point to a physical object rather than a game term (“Dice”, “Orange Tokens”, “Blue tokens”, not “Exponents”, “Artha”, “Persona” – the abstraction becomes yet another idea the player has to hold in their head).

Minimize character stats- assume you, not the new players, will be the one having to handle every number on their sheet, likewise, assume every stat you put on their sheet becomes yet another thing they have navigate. You want to be able to have a functional game even if the player’s only frame of reference for making decisions is answering the question, “What do you do and how do you do it?” – which means it has to be simple enough you can make the translations between the math of the game and the imaginary events.


Wrath of Ashardlon D&D Boardgame

March 12, 2012

I usually keep my focus on rpgs, so this post is going to be more about a comparison of WoA as a boardgame and the mechanics to what D&D does (4E, or other editions).

I’ve mentioned previously that D&D has had a legacy issue of competition vs. cooperation along party lines (gold = xp, magic item divvying, alignment), but the boardgame has some pretty elegant solutions that really encourage cooperation.

Good ideas

If any character dies, the whole team loses. And, the whole team shares Healing Surges.

These two things solve a lot of problems right out the bat.

It means everyone wants to protect everyone, in a very proactive way. It really reinforces the front line fighters vs. the soft squishy characters a lot- the fighters can take more hits, get more HP from surges, while the weaker characters will burn through surges faster.

It also means you automatically start looking at best magic item distribution for the team as a whole. “What will keep everyone alive?” becomes the philosophy everyone adheres to.

The second thing which works great is the constant push for exploration. WoA has you draw an “encounter card” every turn you DON’T explore a new area of the dungeon. Encounter cards are always bad, but the question is basically what KIND of bad you’re dealing with.

This differs strongly from the wandering monster rule of older D&D where you could gamble on not encountering anything, and had a good idea that right after a wandering monster, you had a little bit of time before the DM would make another check. Here, you’re constantly under pressure and every turn it could quickly snowball into a clusterfuck of problems, so the incentive to keep moving is strong.

The third thing is minor, but valuable- each monster takes very few hits. I’m of the firm belief that most D&D monsters work best taking 1-3 hits, with the tougher ones taking 2-5 hits, and solo monsters being the only exception.

WoA makes most monsters take 1-2 hits. Given that the attacks are pretty much a minor part of the whole strategy of play, it makes sense to make them a minimal engagement – short and sweet.

But it’s not a roleplaying game

And I don’t say that to mean it’s a shitty game, just that it doesn’t quite scratch the itch an rpg has.

There’s no rules for having the imaginary events affect the game, no stunting, no clever use of fictional positioning, no way to talk down, trick monsters, lure them into their own traps, etc.

I’d love to see whatever numbers WOTC is getting from these games- the fact that they’ve released 3 boardgames in this series so far means it must be doing decent. But is it having the same effect Arkham Horror has on CoC players? It’d be neat to find out.


A Closer Look at Whiff Factor

March 5, 2012

Forge Definition of Whiff Factor:

The effect of a high failure-rate for a given Resolution mechanic, especially when the rate does not accord with the character’s expected competence. A common source of Deprotagonizing; usually considered a Design flaw.

Basically, you roll dice/use cards/go through mechanics and “whiff”. My thoughts on it are slightly different- it’s not just the high failure rate, it’s this:

1. The easiest technique for any rpg is, “Somebody says something, that’s what happens”.

2. Every other mechanic is more effort and as such, needs to provide something worthwhile, to add to the play or imaginary events to justify the work put in.

3. Whiff factor is what you get when you have mechanics that do not change the situation- people have followed the step-by-step process and gotten no change for their work. It is, literally, a waste of time.

And, while I say, “No change”, it also includes negligible change as well.

Now, mind you, there’s a lot of design tricks to avoid whiff factor.

No Passive Results

Any easy one is that there’s no “roll to defend” that results in “I guess you don’t get hurt”, but rather, each resolution means one side or the other comes out ahead. This means both mechanically and for the imaginary events, either the resolution solves the whole situation, or at least pushes it towards spiraling to a conclusion.

Primetime Adventures, Hero Quest, Poison’d

Defense feeds Offense

Defensive actions, the kind that negate results, at least give a bonus to respond on the next action. It’s a lighter version of spiraling towards a conclusion but at least gives a solid nudge. Sometimes this involves winning initiative or similar benefits.

Sorcerer, Shadow of Yesterday, Riddle of Steel, BWG, some versions of FATE

Degrading Defense

The ability to negate results drops as you go, also pushing towards resolution. This is typically seen in “hit points” type games, though luck points, degrading armor, these things all fulfill the same function. The effectiveness of degrading defense depends on how quickly it degrades – if there’s too much buffer it means doing more work than what it’s worth.

Burning Wheel, Hero Quest, D&D

Fictional Positioning Pushes

The mechanic pushes for specific results in the imaginary events which changes the situation even if you avoided another result. Stuff like, “Well, you don’t get hurt but your sidekick does”.

Polaris, Trollbabe, Apocalypse World