Archive for July, 2014


Flags: A critical misunderstanding

July 31, 2014

What Flags are

Many years ago, I coined a term on The Forge to talk about a type of RPG mechanics that were coming out – Riddle of Steel’s Spiritual Attributes, Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, Shadow of Yesterday’s Keys… all these mechanics have a simple thing in common – they’re a way for the players to explicitly tell the GM what they want the story to focus on.

I coined the term “Flag”, because it’s like waving a flag or marking a spot.

What Flags are not

When I first mentioned this (2005? 2006? geez, I can’t remember), I remember immediately the first thing that people did, was start suggesting the idea that any old stat or skill or power on the sheet could be a “Flag”.  I see this misunderstanding keeps popping up… (ETA: looks like 2005 – here we can see the problem showing up way early…)

Problem is, that these aren’t explicit, and there’s a lot of room for misreading those scores/choices.

Does the player have a high combat skill because they want to fight a lot?

Or is it because they’re used to having their character die so much that they decided they needed a high skill just to keep the character around?

Or did the player have a character who once was a great fighter, but now is trying to find a peaceful life, and only took a high skill to reflect that past?

If you need the player to tell you why they’ve chosen what they’ve chosen, you don’t have a Flag.  

You have… exactly the same problem you had before Flag mechanics were created.  It’s not Flagging anything -it’s guess work.   Flags are one of the most powerful and useful types of mechanics produced in the last decade, and seeing the word get twisted around to mean the exact opposite of what it’s intended is deeply frustrating.

Not just design, useful for picking a game to play

Part of the reason I’ve pointed them out is not just from a design standpoint (“Here’s a better way to coordinate players and GMs in Narrative story goals”) but also from  a play standpoint – if you want to know how to engage your players, if you want a fairly reliable system for narrativist play, for player input, take a look at games with Flag mechanics.

You structure your scenes, your campaign and the events around the Flags, which means you don’t have to pre-plan your scenes or events.   You improvise by following the conflicts and issues the players are interested in – which they give you through Flag Mechanics.  When you reward players for pursuing or addressing their Flags, you get a powerful reward cycle – suddenly everyone at the table knows what the cool thing is to focus on.  These can transform relatively traditional game systems into very player driven and story focused ones, even while keeping everything else intact.

I’m sure I’ll just have to post something like this once a year, as a reminder, since it seems to keep recurring.


Interrogation: How about we don’t make a game of torture?

July 31, 2014

In something like 3-4 different places online, I see different folks asking about how to deal with the issue of interrogation in their games.   This recurring issue in roleplaying games comes directly out of a certain way of structuring play, poorly.

“And then, they attack!”

Example: The heroes are investigating an abandoned warehouse when suddenly mysterious assailants  attack them!

Let’s start from the top.  What purpose does this fight actually serve?  Sure, it’s action and action is fun, but why are the attackers’ motives and reasons mysterious?  How does it serve your game?

“Uh, well, it brings the clues to the players! Now they have to find out WHY they’re being attacked, right?”

Ok, so clues get brought to them, do they also have to pry those out as well?

Other Media Does This, Instead

In many movies, books, etc. when you have the “kick in the door and get attacked” one of the following things happen which allow the storytellers to avoid turning their heroes into sociopathic interrogators:

1.  The assailants declare their business from the beginning.  (“The Crimson Sword sends his regards! Now die!”)

2.  The assailants spill the beans right after defeat (“Ok, ok, I’m not getting paid enough for this job!”)

3.  The heroes can deduce information using their own knowledge (“That’s the Lu family sword style!”)

4.  The scene simply skips ahead (“Using the info we got from those thugs, it should be on this dock here…”)

Structured for Failure

A lot of times the reason for this kind of thing is that a lot of the combats are meaningless – they’re put in to the game because “you’re supposed to have a fight” – there wasn’t a meaningful way for players to avoid it, to defuse it, or to do anything other than get stuck in a fight, so to get control, they try to get information.   Also, because the information wasn’t immediately presented, the players now have to work to get it.  Finally, if your game relies solely on Actor Stance and the players have to actually play out every scene, what’s their last option for finding out what’s going on?

There’s a LOT of steps here that make this happen, which are all easy to avoid, if you’re not stuck in this terrible structure of gameplay.


1. Make sure combats have obvious motivations

2. Ask if there’s any information players would want to get from their opponents

3. Consider having the information being presented freely by the NPCS, before, during or after a combat.

4. Consider using knowledge skills of PCs as a good way to feed information deduced by their characters

5. Consider skipping ahead after the combat directly to the next place the clues would lead.

What’s a more meaningful interrogation?

Even assuming you skip torture, and say, are doing something like a police procedural (though, there’s a lot to be said about things like tiring people out, withholding food/water, keeping them from going to the bathroom…), the problem is that a lot of games structure it like it’s a matter of pulling out exact facts.

Instead, what makes more sense to do is to pull up motivations and ideas an NPC has.

You know he’s hiding something.  He’s covering for his brother.  You’re not sure what.  He feels bad for the guy who got killed.  You’re pretty sure he’s not the killer.  He let slip that the shop was closed that day – even though he shouldn’t know that if he really was out of town.  Etc.

So half of it becomes whatever social/trickery skills the other half becomes knowledge/information skills to put together the pieces or compare against it.  (“Sure, everyone know’s Sal’s Deli closes on the 3rd Tuesday of the month.  Everyone who’s a regular, that is.”)

Now here’s the thing -for 99.9% of the games out there?  This is not something to play out and roleplay through.  The players are probably not trained interrogators or masterful enough manipulators to play it right, the GM is probably not a good enough roleplayer to improvise the motivations and mistakes of a character well enough to actually do this all freeform, well.

Make a couple of dice rolls, summarize, and move on.  Even cop shows only show you a few minutes of interrogation scenes, and that’s because otherwise you’d have a lot of boring and bad tv.

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Better Pregen Characters

July 30, 2014

Here’s a secret about running a game with pregen characters:

Your pregen characters are an AD for your game.

This is true whether you’re a game publisher, or a GM trying to get your group into a new game.  The pregens are often going to be an example, if not actually the first experience many folks get with a game.

So the bar is actually a little higher for how you create these characters than each player making their own personalized character.

Protagonist Material

First off, the hardest part is actually designing characters who are “protagonist material”.  There’s a lot of game systems where you can put together, a bland, not particularly interesting character – you might have a full set of stats, even a lot of history… but nothing catchy.

The problem is, a lot of times when people try to avoid this, they go all the other way – where the hero is the center of the universe, the super special exception, and full of extra uber powers.  That’s also not the way.

The way is to find a good ideal or personality aspect the character can stand on.  It should be something they’re driven towards, and, they have to at least be somewhat likeable- a complete jerky antihero either becomes the character everyone passes over, or, the character someone plays as a jerky antihero that becomes a problem in the game.

The other challenge, of course, is that it has to be easy enough to grasp as a pregen character, catchy enough to get someone’s eye, and, naturally, fit with whatever your game is about.  If your game is about digging in dungeons, a character who is having problems with their brother converting religions is probably not going to tie well together.

Mostly, though what you have to ask yourself is, can you see this character’s story and conflict playing out in a movie?  (novels have much more room to explore, a movie is about the right level of narrative depth and time to aim for).

Tied to the Scenario

Since you’re either making the scenario or designing pregens with the scenario in mind, look to tie your pregen characters’ goals directly into the scenario.  This works well for giving people immediate, fun play.  You can align the characters’ goals if they’re supposed to be cooperative or working together, or put them at odds if it’s supposed to be in conflict.

Generally, you don’t want the scenario to require any specific characters, or, if it does, only one of them which you can tell the players up front is a necessary character.

Elevator Pitch

You want to have a nice, short, easy to reference description for each character.  The way that works best is a brief description, a short 3-4 sentence background and a 1-2 sentence strategy/play description for the players.  

This should be in as plain layman’s language as possible.  “Thundercast Glimmerblade” doesn’t mean jack to anyone not already deep into whatever arcane terminology your game uses.


Kolemi Kinata

A tricky old man

2nd Level Human Rogue


Kolemi led a revolt against the Minaluku royal house. They were overthrown, but much of their Clan still lives and holds influence, so Kolemi sold himself into the service of the Kinata as a “refugee” and earned his way into their family name. Here and there, he runs into people who recognizes him, though he tries to keep his identity and past hidden.


Kolemi works best by using his mobility to get around, teaming up on bad guys to use Sneak Attack, and using tricky stunts to overcome enemies. He has a lot of skills outside of combat which can be useful.


The point of this is to give a new gamer enough information both on what kind of character you’ve got, what their set up is, and finally, how to play them, without going into specifics about mechanics.

Cast as a Whole

Since you can put together all of the pregens at the same time, you should look to make the characters interesting TOGETHER.  Narrative stories focus on a cast of diverse characters and personalities, so it makes sense to build your characters in the same way.  

Simply having characters with different powers or abilities isn’t enough – “Gruff and Tough Mercenary Fire Guy” and “Gruff Mercenary Toughguy With Ice Powers” isn’t really that different. 

Find personalities that would be interesting and entertaining, as well as entertaining when contrasted with others.  Also consider including advice on how the characters feel about each other, especially if it’s a team or party-based scenario.

Entry Level/Advanced Characters

It’s important to include some entry level characters .  “Entry level” means easy for a completely new player to pick up – if the game has the option between simple and complex mechanics for different character types, this is the simple mechanics options.  You may even want all of your pregens to be simple.

Second, you also want to consider what character concepts are harder to play, or have more complex things going on, fictionally.  The warrior who wants to protect his brother (another PC) is pretty straight forward, compared to the Prince who debating whether he needs to rebel against his father, the King, who is turning into a tyrant…  

Between both of these, if you have characters which are easier/harder to play, it’s worth noting that, so that new players can go for the easier ones to start.


My general rule is to aim for a character who is about 60-75% optimized, and the remaining 25-40% aimed for reasonable breadth from their core concept.  If you have a character who is too much hyper specialized, players have no room to feel things out, if you have a character that is too generalized, the player also won’t feel out how to strategize, and may just feel bad at everything.


If you can, pictures make a world of difference.  You can use art you find online, you can draw your own, or whatever, but having character portraits to go with each character sheet goes a long way towards getting people excited about characters and establishing visually how the game works.

Who plays who?

Although this process is set up to help players pick their own and get the info for how to run the characters quickly and easily… the fact is you may want to take a stronger hand in guiding things.  

I suggest looking at the least experienced players and giving them the easier characters to consider first… after that, let the players who are more comfortable with the game, or roleplaying in general, choose between the remaining simple characters and the complex ones.

The two things you absolutely DO NOT want to happen is:

1) The new player gets the most mechanically complex pregen, causing them to be lost, ask questions constantly (above and beyond the questions they already would have had) and to use the character poorly, as far as the mechanics sit.

2) The new player gets the most thematically loaded pregen, and ultimately their choices affect everything… and they end up either not realizing there’s ramifications to their choices or feeling pressure anxiety.

I’ve seen all of that happen, and none of it is particularly fun or helpful to play.  

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The Oasis

July 29, 2014

The Oasis is a forum aimed at providing a community space for POC into designing or playing games – videogames, boardgames, cards, roleplaying games etc.  A place to trade information, get playtesters, ask for resources, signalboost and get ideas.  Also talk about ways to navigate some of the spaces we have to operate in.

The forum is aimed at doing a slow, but reasonable growth so we can have quality discussion and keep trolls out.  If you’re interested, please check out the application form.


Platforms, Voice, and Toxicity

July 24, 2014

Modelview Culture has been putting out a ton of great articles on videogames and the tech scene.  Today’s article covers the issue of how platforms (programming languages, tools for building games, online organizing tools, etc.) end up being used by marginalized folks who end up promoting the platform, but at the end of the day, the same social circle that benefits the most can’t be bothered to open the door in return…

Here’s a common pattern:

  • Male programmers builds a platform out of code.
  • Platform is adopted by a huge user base of marginalized people.
  • Those people drive widespread adoption and popularity of the platform.
  • Original creator turns out to give no shits about oppression, happily takes all the credit without mention of these creators.

Many of the POC, women, queer designers I personally know have had situations where they haven’t been paid, had the credit for the work they’ve done lifted in projects, or had people out and out plagiarize their work for profit.

Who is community?  Who gets to be human?

Although you’ll always run across cases of unethical exploitation, what is more problematic and worth talking about is the overall community that allows this kind of thing to thrive, and the fact that only some folks are targeted for that abuse.

What the article points to is the fact that these platforms, just like an RPG system, or a play style movement, or a social scene – all of these rely on a network of people to gain viability… and the question is how much does that serve the people who form the network.   Or rather, WHICH people get to be served in that network.

Ten years ago, I went to my first GenCon.  I remember someone said something to me that encapsulated the problem in full:  “Why should we care about people of color?”

The idea that, as a gamer, involved in the scene, that I had to prove myself UP to being worth considered equally as any other (white) gamer?  Oh, well, there’s the problem right there.   The disconnect was that “people of color” didn’t equal “people”.   “Prove to me that you are people” is the underlying assumption.

Questions we shouldn’t have to answer

Just as much as you have to navigate whether your money is going towards someone who wants you literally dead, the other parts you end up having to navigate as marginalized person are:

– Will working in this (rpg platform/community/etc) help me by creating outreach, or will it just promote people who will exploit then throw me away after the fact?

– Will participating and promoting this particular geek thing be fun, let me engage with other folks and “finally prove” to people we’re also part of the hobby?  Or will it just be promoting a scene that will shit on and harass me?

The balancing act between useful network and meaningful connections vs. harassment and exploitation is one each person has to navigate for themselves.   Much as I said before, the options often boil down to suffer in silence, suffer more for speaking up, or walk away.

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Challenge in your games

July 24, 2014

There’s a LOT of stuff that carries over well from videogames to tabletop roleplaying games.  The relevant stuff starts at about 2:05.

Telegraphing/Sufficient Information to make choices.

The part about telegraphing, and sufficient information towards making meaningful choice is a critical one.

You can see a lot of old school dungeons where “gotcha” traps basically take people out without any sort of reasonable forewarning (which, may be a realistically great way to set up traps, it’s a shitty design for game play, though).  On the flip side, one of the principles in Apocalypse World that works really well is the Countdown Clocks and the difference between Soft and Hard Moves.  Effectively, these rules force the GM to start telegraphing problems before slamming players with the consequences.  Other games like Trollbabe and Poison’d also do this with injuries/harm to the character.

Iteration Time

This is one of the huge hurdles for tabletop rpgs, particularly ones where players can find themselves left out of play when a character dies.   High challenge works well for videogames because you can simply go back to a save, restart, or otherwise get back into play without much problem.  For tabletop games, you have to start with the fact that making a character might be a half hour, or much longer, making the “restart time” pretty punishing – and that also doesn’t take into account the time it takes to bring their new character into play.

Both of these ideas are important whether you’re making a roleplaying game, or trying to run a game based on Gamist Challenge.


Dungeons Part Seven: Flow and Area Encounter Design

July 23, 2014

A much more indepth look at the ideas I spoke on in Running the Dungeon.


So remember when I said that dungeon design is like videogame level design IS game design?  In part one I linked a bunch of things from analyzing good dungeon set ups in a macro sense, or Metroidvania style game design.  Here we come full circle, except this time I’m looking at the flow of individual rooms, or areas, as they pertain to making a good combat encounter.  Here’s where mostly it comes down to the logic in stuff like MOBA or FPS game design.

Unlike those games, you’re not going to have playtesters run through it thousands of times, nor will you get to reuse most of your areas many times, which makes it a lot harder to come up with good, novel areas on a consistent basis.  Oh well! You don’t need perfection, you just need good fun.

Positioning as a choice

Boardgames and war games rely on positioning as a key point of strategy in play.  Tabletop roleplaying games… well, sometimes.  The problem is that many include maps or grids but ultimately don’t do a lot with positioning.   If the ideal form of play is to simply run up and hit each other without much movement during the actual battle, it’s functionally no different than a JRPG console game where the teams line up and hit each other until one side drops.

Tabletop games have attempted to add some of it with flanking rules or spell area effects, but it often only results in minor back and forth shifts during play and not a lot of heavy movement.  Because so few games give good support in the core mechanics, it falls upon the GM to set up areas where movement is encouraged.

The Crashpoint

What’s the goal in a combat game?  To beat the enemy.  So what’s the best place to be, tactically?  The place where you can dish out damage the quickest and receive the least damage.

In an empty room or area, with no features and no tactical factors whatsoever, the “best place to be” is the place where you can do damage to the enemy the quickest – which often ends up being the midway point where the two groups meet – the Crashpoint.

The Crashpoint is like the center square in Tic-Tac-Toe – it’s where all the interesting stuff of play happens, and, if you know where it is, you can build areas and rooms that are tactically interesting by putting stuff there to make it hard to get there, or to make other places more tactically valuable to be – and thereby, move or split the Crashpoint.

Remember, fun tactics sits in fun choices.  If there’s only one place that’s the tactically best place to be, what choice is there?  You want to make a few tactically interesting options, so players have to start thinking about what’s going to be best.

Movement Tax

So consider this – anytime characters or monsters might want to move somewhere else than a direct line to do damage, they’re paying a “movement tax”  (actually, it’s a time tax, as they’re losing actions doing something other than direct damage… but since we’re talking about moving a map and how to set up areas to affect this, we’ll stick with Movement Tax).

If you want folks to go somewhere other than the Crash Point, you have to either put enough hazards/dangers in the way, and/or advantageous positions in other locations to make the Movement Tax worth paying.   In other words, this sets up choice – players can try to go straight for it, or try to avoid danger, or try to get something that should be worth more than doing straight damage.

Area Encounter Design

Blockers and Funnels

Blockers and funnels are obstacles, walls, debris, rocks, trees, crates, whatever you want that basically stop movement and funnel movement into particular areas.  This changes where combats happen and change where the Crashpoints are.  These also tend to set up some fun tactics about ranged attacks and chokepoints for melee fighting.

It’s also worth noting what’s a Blocker or Funnel for one type of creature or character may not be for another – a half ruined wall might be a big obstacle for a normal character, but the giant spider just climbs up the side of it like nothing.    This is worth considering if you want to load the map to favor one group or another.

Also consider that blockers and funnels may be destructible depending on what’s going on.  A monster might knock them out of the way, an earthquake spell knocks down the trees, the bridges everyone is fighting on start collapsing.. etc.  When you put Blockers and Funnels in the way of the Crashpoints, you move where they go, just like how water flows around things.

Alternating Wide and Tight Areas

Generally, you’re not going to go wrong by playing around with alternating more open areas with only one or two hazards or obstacles, and tight areas.  Usually my rule of defining “wide” vs. “tight” is whether the party can all stand side-by-side and fight without having to do tricky maneuvering around each other (for grid based games, don’t forget this includes diagonal positioning).  Tight areas should often include alternate paths to flank each other.  You can take a big area and set up enough Blockers, Funnels, and Hazards until it’s effectively a tight area.

The big effect this has on play is a matter of things like how well groups can focus fire on a single target, how well players can quickly distribute healing, retreat at short notice, surround an enemy or use area effect spells.  It also strongly impacts the advantages of having good movement abilities, whether raw speed or skills to jump over small gaps, climb over things, fly, etc.


Hazards are a negative incentive- everyone generally avoids them, if they have a choice.  That said, putting Hazards next to Crashpoints or near places with advantages will cause players to have to start weighing their odds.  Be careful if the Hazard can move around, because it might completely change the set up of the encounter area.

Single Use Stunts / “Power ups”

Things that can be used to an advantage on a short term are positive incentives.  This could be a pile of logs to knock over on enemies below, a catapult to be shot, a lever to close a gate, etc.  If you can only reasonably use it once in a combat, it’s a “single use” advantage, and so, it needs to have a good amount of effect to be worth the Movement Tax.

Alternatively, you can make it a thing which can be reused at the cost of time – a catapult might be reloaded to be used again and again, but then the cost turns into time spent.  Again, consider what the benefit is compared to the amount of time the players could have been just using direct damage to the enemies.

Sandbox Encounter Considerations

Unlike an FPS map or a videogame encounter zone, combats can flow across areas, or move into spaces you didn’t expect.   This means your initial guesses on crashpoints or hazards might be completely off – the party isn’t going to care about the fiery pit in the middle of the room if they’re stuck in the hall when they’re getting attacked.   Again, this is the reason you don’t want a lot of empty rooms and halls without anything tactically interesting in them – the more the dungeon as a whole has interesting stuff in it, the more likely you are to have that intersect with your encounters for entertaining results.

Work vs. Payoff?

“Wow, this all seems like a LOT of work, to consider all these game design factors in making a dungeon!”

*Tired voice* “….yes, yes it is.”

I generally don’t do a lot of dungeon crawls for this reason – I set up short dungeons, maybe 12 areas/rooms or less, with more emphasis on Logistics and Tactical play, and not so much on Exploration.

Unless you plan on publishing a dungeon or having several groups run through it, you’re probably not going to get enough payoff for thinking this hard about it.  Of course, if you’re the kind of person who actually cares enough to want better dungeon design for your games, and you read this massive amount of words and thoughts I’ve thrown at it, you probably WILL use some of this to whatever level fits your needs.

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