Archive for November, 2013


Tenra Bansho Zero Actual Play over at Thoughtcrime Games

November 27, 2013

Anyone interested in hearing about the TBZ game we’re doing, I’ll be guest posting over at Quinn Murphy’s site, Thoughtcrime Games.  We’re looking at getting more POC gamers talking about their experiences and what’s fun in the hobby.


Stanford’s Orbis – a historical trip planner

November 22, 2013

Orbis is an interactive simulator that takes the Roman Empire and maps out how long a journey would take to get from one destination to another using a variety of methods – including calculating what it would be to take the fastest route, the cheapest route, etc.

Aside from folks who are just into Rome, it’s pretty cool because you can easily get an idea for how much distance folks could theoretically cover, parallel it to other places, times, or fantasy settings.

(via the awesome MedievalPOC tumblr)


Game Mechanics: Choice and Flow

November 22, 2013

Let’s say you want to design a mechanic or subsystem where players have to choose between some options – two concepts make this work – choice and flow.


Any game that’s more than simple chance is based in some element of choice.  Choice is fun because you get to exercise your judgment – you develop skill in reading the best choices to make in a game.

I’ve spoken before that good game design of choice mechanics:

1. Provides multiple viable options – rarely does one option appear as the best choice.

2. Lacks options which are NEVER viable, or are so rarely viable as to be nearly as useless (bunk choices).  These only work as pitfalls for new players and do not actually constitute something to choose from once a player understands them.

3. There is enough information that people can make educated guesses about what choices are better/worse – it’s not simply guessing in the dark.

A common pitfall for many roleplaying games is to put a lot of choice into character building but nearly no choices in actual gameplay.  That is – “I’ve built my Fighter around the Big Chop Move!  Every round my best choice is to do the Big Chop, for the rest of the game.”


Flow is how the immediate situation in the game changes which choices are better or worse – and how that changes as the immediate situation changes.

“What’s the best direction to move my queen?” in Chess depends a lot on where all the other pieces are on the board, which changes every turn.

Likewise, if you’re going to build a choice mechanic, then there should be some way in which the situation changes and thereby changes which choices are better/worse.  The more dynamic this is, the more players are asked to assess a situation and apply skillful judgment.

Tactical Mechanics, not necessarily Gamism

A tactical mechanic simply asks the player to make smart choices – it doesn’t mean that it is complex, or even central to the game as a whole.

For example, Hero’s Banner is a game that is focused on Narrativist play, but has some minor tactical choices the player makes about their Passion scores and how to shift them around, scene to scene.     Meanwhile, games like D&D 4E make a big use of tactical mechanics involving map movement as a core aspect of play to support a Gamist agenda.




Reclaiming Problematic Material

November 19, 2013

One thing roleplaying does really well is the ability to take a setting and simply do it better – excising the problematic aspects.  This doesn’t have to be very complicated, but it does require knowing your setting and genre expectations and how to twist them and being able to talk about that as a group.  Dev Purkayastha’s Firefly re-working is a good example.

A big consideration when you’re reclaiming a setting is how you want to address the problematic aspects:

1. Presented as background

A lot of settings do this, and actually this is why a lot of settings are rife with problematic material.  Someone put something in and didn’t think about the implications for play and whether it fits the rest of the tone of the setting.   Or, worse, they basically thought it would be cool while trivializing something pretty serious and ugly.

This option is pretty shitty all around.  It includes something serious, but doesn’t say where the boundaries are or how to engage with it – it just sits there like a landmine waiting for people to step on it.  When, where, and how do you include it and why?

The only folks who find this a great option are the people who are unbothered BY the problematic thing itself, and use it as a way to engage in a form of “ha-ha-those-people” kind of jokes and behavior through imaginary play – after all, it doesn’t matter how insulting or painful something is if you never have to interact with the targeted group or, you don’t care and you’re using it as a microaggression at the table.

2. Excised 

I often do this for my setting material – just cut out or change the problematic into something ok.  This is a great option when you want something fun, escapist, and don’t want to have to deal with bullshit.  “Ok, we’re doing Lord of the Rings, but women are equal, there’s no “primitives” like Ghan-Buri-Ghan, and no sketchy miscegenation scare BS like the half orc character…”

Excising might also involve ADDING stuff where there’s exclusion – “We’re playing Firefly except Chinese people actually show up as more than weird background folks in 1800s garb…”

3. Criticized

The problematic material exists in the world, but is going to be addressed as something problematic, not ignored or left uncommented on… or worse, celebrated.   This requires some thought and discussion, since you probably want to agree as a group how far play will go into addressing the problems and how dark it might get vs. when to cut away.

Dog Eat Dog, Steal Away Jordan, Dirty Secret, and Dogs in the Vineyard are all games that thoughtfully include problematic material with the idea of it being criticized as a key part of play.

4. Solvable?

A big question is whether the problematic issues are to be solved in the game itself.  If the setting has sexism, can you, through the course of play, change society to remove or at least seriously diminish the it’s power?  Transforming a culture or society is a big deal and certainly a great thing to play with, but if that’s what it’s going to be it’s going to be the focus of your game and you want to know that before you start.

I ran a Dogs in the Vineyard game where a player once decided, without warning, that her character was going to lead the NDNs to revolt against the white settlers… it felt very much like it was coming out of a weird place of white guilt, but just as important, was the fact that I wasn’t playing with the assumption that the problems of setting (Mormon Utah, 1800s, racism, sexism, etc.) were going to be resolvable in play.


Making Good Flags

November 19, 2013

Years back, I coined the term “Flags” to talk about game mechanics which explicit aspects of a character designed for players to tell the GM what kind of stories and conflicts they want for their characters.  As this is becoming more and more common in games, I figured it might be a good idea to put down some ideas of what makes a good Flag (and good conflict) for players.

Examples of Flag Mechanics:  Primetime Adventures (Issues), Shadow of Yesterday (Keys), Riddle of Steel (Spiritual Attributes), Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, Torchbearer (Beliefs), Lady Blackbird (Keys), D&D 4E (Quest Cards), Tenra Bansho Zero (Fates), Hero’s Banner (Passions)

Types of Flags

1. Goals

An easy Flag to always put down is a goal for your character.  Usually this works best if the GM has set up a situation (“There’s a struggle for the throne”) that you can start to take angles on and build your character around (“I want the younger brother to take power”).

Goal-based Flags can produce two very different kinds of conflicts.  The simplest is raw challenge – the GM throws a number of challenges and obstacles to be overcome/outwitted on the way to achieving the goal.  The second kind of conflict is one of choice: how far will you go? How much will you sacrifice?  Will you give up ideals?  Will you sacrifice relationships?  Will you give up other goals?

Examples: “I want to get revenge for my dead family”, “I will remake this city into a place where people can live in peace”, “I will find the secret of the magic of resurrection”, “I’ll make sure my son safely reaches Eridan IV.” ,  “I will destroy the system I once served, as atonement for my crimes”

(Notice that motivation is part of the goal – why your character wants to do something and what it says about them is just as interesting!)

2. Relationships

Relationships as Flags are great, but they should be used with consideration.  At the simplest, a relationship can be threatened by potentially cutting off the characters from contact – imprisonment, kidnapping, or death.  But just as often, a relationship is threatened by losing trust, building resentment, misunderstandings, overreactions and more.

Or, if the relationship is negative to begin with (“I’m sure my stepfather is trying to kill me…”), then how you deal with that relationship in the face of social or legal pressure that makes it something you can’t simply walk away from or end without a lot of trouble.

Relationships as Flags basically means conflicts of having bad things happen to the people you care about, struggling to maintain the good will, or else having ties to bad people.

There should be an angle on any given relationship – an idea of what’s going on with it and what causes the stress or threat.

Examples: “I swore to my best friend to protect his little brother”, “I’m afraid my husband is slipping too far into cyberspace and may not come back”, “I have to earn my teacher’s respect”, “I must make sure my parents never find out the truth.”, “My ex-friend is out to get me.” 

3. Ideals

Ideals are about principles, beliefs, or values the character holds to.   These types of Flags tend to overlap a bit with Goals – any generalized Ideal tends to push a character towards action – if you have “Protect the Weak” you’re going to find yourself doing a lot of protecting.   Just like Goals, these can be aimed at the raw difficulty of the task or weighed against other things, forcing you to make hard choices.

Examples: “The pride of the Lao Clan must never be tarnished”, “My word is my bond.”, “Insults must always be repaid in kind.”, “Always help those in need.”, “The folks across the river must never be trusted”

4. Self Doubt or Fear

Self doubt is a great Flag tool and a point of character development.  It also tends to be double layered – you can have a Flag about what your character fears (correctly or incorrectly) and/or a Flag about what the character subconsciously acts on, but hasn’t consciously acknowledged yet.

Example: “I’m not sure I’ll be able to stand strong when the raiders come.”, “If I use my power, I’m not sure what I will become…”, “I don’t want everyone to find out that I really don’t know what I’m doing…”, “Will I be up to the task when the King calls on me?”

Torn between options

You can mix the above Flag types together to create some fun, and interesting combinations where the problem is essentially a choice between priorities.

Relationship vs. Ideal – “Loyalty to the family above all else… but will that include my honor?”

Goal vs. Fear – “I will see him dead – but who will I be at the end of this?”

Relationship vs. Self Doubt – “I must make my mentor proud of me… but am I up to the task?”

Using Flags Better

Buy In as a player

Flags are your way of saying “This is what I want the game to be about!” – so make sure that’s actually what you want the game to be about.

If you pick something that doesn’t make you excited, then guess what you’re going to get?  Likewise, also realize that the Flags you choose are places where real conflict will happen – the outcome is not certain.  If there’s an aspect about your character that is NOT up for grabs, don’t make it a Flag (or, at least, clearly define what part of it IS in the air and which isn’t when you make it…)

Adjusting Flags

In every game I’ve played, usually within a session or two, people will want to adjust or change their Flags.  Your initial Flags were what you THOUGHT was going to be interesting, but once you start playing you find out exactly what you REALLY find interesting.   So, some of your Flags may get adjusted in wording, to refine the types of conflicts you want to see, or they may get tossed altogether and replaced with something you find more interesting.

It’s important to do this because it helps the group as a whole redirect their play better.

Flags as a tool for character growth

An advanced trick is to take Flags that are simple minded or just plain wrong, with the idea of making an arc of your character growing beyond them.

Examples: “Always trust my brother’s word.”, “The law is the law, no exceptions.”, “Every time I use my power, someone gets hurt.” 

Contrasting characters with Flags

Arguably every good drama is about characters with different beliefs, goals, ideals and doubts hashing out their differences between each other.  Amongst all the players, it really helps and is fun to design your Flags together – bouncing off each other to create points of conflict, discussion or growth.  (It’s also a GOOD idea to know whether conflict will be just for show, minor and resolved later, or potentially the source of all out conflict between characters before you put these together…)

The simple way is to just set up opposing Flags (“The system must be destroyed!”, “We can fix things through reform!”).  What often works better is to set up a different Flag that is perpendicular, rather than directly opposing.  For example, one character is hellbent on revenge, the other character is swore to see to the safety of the first character.  It’s not directly opposing, but you can see plenty of places where they can conflict between each other.

The Trap of Non-Flags

When I first named these general types of mechanics as “Flags”, almost immediately people started asking “Well, what if I just look at where the player puts the most skill/stat points, that’s telling me what they want out of a game, right?”

NOPE!  A player may choose to give their character an awesome sword skill for any of the following reasons:

– They want to get into sword fights as a focus of play

– They really don’t like sword fights, but putting a lot of points there means it will be over quickly when it happens.

– They expect the game to be lethal, and are afraid if they don’t put points into sword skills, their character will die.

– It fits the concept of their character but they don’t actually ever expect to use it that much.

Notice that one involves wanting that kind of conflict, and the other three basically don’t want that conflict at all or in a real way.  This is why stats and scores are not necessarily useful, and why Flag mechanics are by nature, explicit.  (ETA: Also watch out for Players Hiding What They Care About.)

If your game doesn’t have Flags, I suggest playing a game or two that does, so you can see how they work, before trying to import or hack the mechanics into a game that doesn’t have them.  A nice easy one for most folks to try out is Lady Blackbird.

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