Archive for November, 2014


System Opacity vs. System Mastery

November 25, 2014

System Mastery

System Mastery is how much you master a given set of game rules – outside of sports and games of physical capability, most games in the world are built on this as the primary method of mastering and going deep with a game.  Mastery requires an analytical mind to see how the rules operate together, and how they apply in the variety of situations that come up in your games.

System Opacity

System Opacity, on the other hand, is about how much the game mechanics are built on hiding what they do as a false barrier to mastery.  I say “false” because it’s not actually about more skillful understanding of the system, as much as leaping the first hurdle of what hides the real effects of the rules in order TO be able to make real decisions.

In tabletop RPGs, an easy example is useless skills or powers in a game, that sound useful, but when you actually look at how they interface with the system, they’re quite bad choices.   These really only serve as traps for new players, and create an artificial hurdle in that once you know about them, you consistently avoid them to the point they might as well not even be in the game.  (This is also true of a lot of videogames that rely on certain character builds, or bottom tier fighter characters in fighting games.)

Part of the opacity can be a complete lack of explanation, or an incorrect explanation (“Hey, what do Traverse Points do?”  “Um… I dunno.”  “What’s the difference between having 5 and 7 of these?” “I’ve got no idea.”).

While it’s true you can have a good system hidden underneath system opacity, it’s also a bullshit hurdle to have in the first place.  Historically a lot of games have used opacity to hide the fact that they don’t actually have much strategic or interesting choices to make as part of their system at all.

From a play standpoint

Some games include archetype characters – characters that are either mostly or completely statted up, to speed play.  Part of this is that you don’t have to sit for 45 minutes to an hour as someone thumbs through a book figuring out things, but part of it is that you get to skip a lot of opacity hurdles.    “I want a character who can do this” “Here’s a pre-made build, pick 2 things and go.”

But even if you have pre-gen characters, it might be necessary to explain or have at least some basic clues as to what the character is good at and how they interact with the system.  If a set of rules demands multiple abilities or choices to work in concert, a player should be informed that’s a key point of the character – otherwise, it’s just that you’ve cleared the building hurdles but not the “how the heck does it work?” part.

A good system shouldn’t fall apart under this kind of help – there should still be meaningful choices to make IN play, even with a bit of general advice.  You can tell someone good strategies for chess, for Street Fighter, for all kinds of games, but the strategy alone doesn’t make you win all the time – there’s still deeper to go.   If the game relies primarily on building a specific character set up with no other choices (“Use your fire attack.  Every turn.”) then there’s not really a lot to the actual game itself.

I am finding most of the time when I am writing a quicksheet for how to play a game, half of it is actual rules processes, the other half is helping navigate opacity in the system itself.

From a Design Standpoint

From a design side, opacity is more of a habit it seems like for a lot of people.

“Well, you have Attribute A, and you add Attribute A to Attribute D which gives us Sub-Attribute F, and Sub Attribute F is averaged with your Class Modifier G to and your Weapon Speed H which impacts your Initiative Die and determines if you are going to go first or not.”

Guiding rules for designing transparency, away from opacity:

1. Removal?

Can I take out steps?  Do these extra steps contribute to fun in my eyes as a designer?  What happens if I “cheat” and have the game go without doing these steps?  If we’re playtesting, does anyone feel constrained by not having more steps/choices in the process?  Is there any reason to not go with the optimal choices I can already see?

2. Sets/Less Choices?

Does this work ok if I reduce it to simply 3-4 choices from a list?  Do we have to have players divvy up 100 points among 7 categories?  Is there really a value in choosing between having 32 points and 35 points in this category?  Could I just say Set A, B, C?

3. Guidance

Explain what anything in the system does, both mechanically and how it comes back to impact play.

“Traverse Points are what you spend to run a bit faster, when you’re in trouble.  Although you only directly spend them when you need to push yourself, being tired, injured, or using lots of effort can reduce them – which might leave you short when you really need them.”


NPCs: Contacts vs. Characters

November 24, 2014

Many RPGs let you get contacts or allies as part of character generation – often this costs points to do so, but what many fail to do is clarify how the GM is supposed to handle these NPCs in terms of whether they’re more tertiary characters or actual characters in their own right.  This is kind of a key difference that’s worth considering before you start playing.


A contact is a side character who shows up rarely, and mostly exists to pass along information, make small commentary and potentially give you supplies or items.  In other media, the protagonist makes a few calls, maybe has a montage of these characters, or knows exactly who to buy guns from and so on.  These characters have less to say and do about their own motivations than to appear and show you that the protagonist has connections and access.

The key point about these characters is that their helpfulness doesn’t involve having to do deep negotiation with them (the bargaining, if any, is for show), and you don’t really have to worry about them having their own angle or set of motivations on the side.  They don’t really change as characters.

This also includes “utility characters” like a spaceship crew who you don’t have names for, who basically provide background help without much question.


Full fledged characters may or may not help you based on what they think is right or in their best interests.  This means it’s a lot more work to get what you want from them, but if they really want to help you, they will go the extra length and potentially think for themselves to create methods to aid you.  If the relationship is positive, you have to maintain it – if it is not, you have to work around it or deal with them in some way.

Full fledged characters are potential sources of conflict in and of themselves – even the allies trying to help you might be pressuring you to do things in a certain way or have conditions about how you treat them.  What these characters think matters, because it informs how they will then act (or…not act).=

Confusion = Problems

Confusing the general nature of these two categories typically leads to bad play.  “Wait, the guy who sells me swords has his own angle?  Why would I even know to look for that?”  “I thought my brother would actually, you know, give me some actual help, seeing how dire the situation is! What do you mean he’s gonna give me this clue then run off?” etc.

This is true in general, but also has an extra layer if the game has rules where you’ve spent points of some type to get contacts/allies – knowing what role they play and how you need to manage them is part of it too.

The Non Contact AKA “Trap NPCs”

An unfortunate amount of adventures, modules, etc. are built on the “mysterious guy at the tavern” who turns out to be a person sending people on a fool’s errand to betray them or some such.  The core problem with these characters is that when you break down their motivations, it’s really “screw over the PCs”.  (Players accustomed to too much Trap NPCs eventually fall into Abused Gamer Syndrome.)

It’s why these kinds of adventures tend not to work well with games that actually have reasonable social mechanics – the unreasonable nature of the Trap NPC doesn’t go well with negotiation that can happen.



Designing Conflict in play

November 23, 2014

A fun game for me, involves meaningful choices.  There should be some point when a choice comes up, and I really have to think about which way to go.   This could be tactical/strategic, like “Do I use power X, or power Y?” or it can be story focused, like, “Do I support my character’s brother, or stay loyal to the Queen?” and so on.

If you want to build conflict into your game, you can do so with several options, using one, or all together.


Scenario is the specific situation – “You’ve just been granted the title of Champion of the Crown, but your brother wants to go against the throne.”   These may or may not directly come out of established Setting ideas (“Elves and Dwarves hate each other”), but mostly these require some establishing at the beginning of what the problem will be.

Notice at this level conflict boils down to two types of questions: “What do I do?” (morally, such as the example above) or “How do I do it?” (logistically, for example, “The Duke kidnapped your brother, whom you must rescue.”)  The latter type must involve freedom for player options, otherwise it can fall into linear Mother-may-I? railroading and Illusionism.

Although there’s rare cases where you build something like character motivations and that, in turn, builds the scenario, most of the time I’ve seen where the scenario lacks it’s initial conflict, you have a hard time getting the group to gel and push forward towards conflict.  No direction, no momentum.  This is where you see a lot of games taking 3-6 sessions to “find their feet” – in other words, the scenario was lacking direction and the players didn’t build their characters or know how to push for a direction as part of the process either.


Motivations are specific goals for your character and how they conflict with other characters or other motivations the characters themselves hold.  A key component here is that usually players are the ones to establish these.  If the group doesn’t build motivations that force characters to cross with each other, you can often lose the power and conflict that comes out of it.

Part of this has to be a commitment on the part of the group to pursue these motivations – which is why these often end up becoming part of the reward system of many games – giving players reward to do so keeps them on track.

Stakes Setting

Meaningful choices spill out of the scene-t0-scene situations where you have to figure out what’s at stake in the moment.  “The Queen looks to you, and to your nephew, your brother’s son.  ‘The cost of treason is amputation of the right hand.  If the father will not pay, the son will.  You are the Champion, you must enact justice.”

The previous two categories, being larger on the imaginary Venn diagram of these options, are good for driving play towards this sort of thing specifically.  That said, players and GMs have to be on the look out for ways to engineer these situations and get the conflict-meaningful choice payoff as play goes, otherwise you see things flounder.


The mechanics themselves can force these choices.  Probably the clearest example would be the mechanic from Fallen Leaves: You obey your duty or you risk dying.  The evolution of this kind of hardcore mechanic would be The Drifter’s Escape – you let the hostile GMs run over you OR you cut a deal with them and they, in turn, alter your motivations a bit.

But this also can go into a lot of things, including strategic Gamist play – do I do X or Y? can become game critical choices.  The question is whether the meaningful point is put on fiction-based issues (“What kind of person have I become?”) or numbers and tactics (“My odds look better if I…”)

Conflict Avoidance

There’s a subset of gamers who basically avoid these conflicts altogether.  “Let’s pretend to be someone else and really that’s all I want from play, that’s it, don’t make me do anything else” is a valid idea, I guess, though it seems weird to me to bother playing games with rules and and math and crap to track if that’s really your core goal.

These players often find all kinds of reasons they don’t like this game or that game, though it boils down to the fact that what they actually want is pretty specialized and not particularly well suited to tabletop RPGs.  I’ve seen folks like this panic just as much at having to do some basic system mastery for a tactical game as much as having a juicy conflict put in front of them in Primetime Adventures…

I think these players are usually best served by freeform games, a lot of the online RP games, and even “lonely fun” chargen and worldbuilding systems in a lot of games.

Tricks for Raw Narrativism

You can have Narrativist play rather easily without a Narrativist system.  It mostly involves setting up a conflict focal scenario, the players building characters with good motivations that sit within that, and then choosing the scene to scene conflicts and spotlight to focus on those things.  Notice that may still involve things like stealth rolls or lots of combat, but the point is that the context of why and the goal of the group playing is clear and directed.



Drawing within the lines vs. drawing our own lines

November 22, 2014

One thing I’ve been thinking about is setting as an emotional investment and two ways it works.

Drawing within the lines

Take pre-established setting, and one of the core goals of play for a group is staying within the setting canon, and the fun and events created in play are primarily about how the characters fit within the canon or interact with it.

This requires the group to sufficiently coordinate on what that canon is, and how they’ll use it.  It’s also where I see a lot of groups begin splitting across lines as a few people have read the 402 pages of setting scattered across 8 books, and then you have the other player who looked at the pictures in half of one book.  Some friends were really invested into Lord of the Rings and it was kind of critical to get group re-readings of select books to get themselves on track.

So, if say this was a superhero game, based on say Marvel comics, it would be very important to respect and give nods to the setting bits – SHIELD, Victor Von Doom, Morlocks, etc.   The focus of play is playing within and interacting with all of these bits.

Drawing your own lines

In this kind of play, the core focus is not necessarily overriding or breaking canon, as much as it is focusing on what you create revolving/tied to your characters.

Again taking the Marvel Comics example, you might instead focus on the heroes being a small team in some corner of New York, and the setting focus would be on their personal families, friends, nemesises and so on.  The focus of play would be building this entire world and whether the larger setting bits come into play at any point, or simply remain distant ideas rarely mentioned, wouldn’t matter as much.

Where the focus goes

Although this seems mostly like a stylistic choice, I think it’s becomes a bigger issue – this goes everywhere from how you build your characters, what relationships/NPCs you establish, what conflicts you choose to build your focus on and so on.  It spread further out in terms of where the camera or spotlight goes, where conflicts focus around scene to scene, or story arc to story arc, and even what should be getting narrated, if at all.

Both Simulationism and Narrativism can go either way, which I think is one of the tripping points for the issue of fidelity vs. protagonism as a dividing point for a lot of people.

Sim as interaction-with-setting is Fidelity to the Setting in terms of canon elements, primarily, while Sim as creating-parts-within-the-setting is Fidelity to the Setting in terms of tone/mood of story, color, and established tenets of what fits within that world.

Nar as interaction-with-setting is Protagonism with some elements established as boundaries – “We can be knights of the Round Table, but we can’t kill Arthur, or fundamentally change the other major established characters”  Nar as creating-parts-within-the-setting is pretty trivial – it runs on basic Narrativist play without any thought at all, except perhaps intentionally avoiding canon elements.

Time and feedback loops

Provided everyone knows what elements are involved and are on the same page as setting, playing within the boundaries of setting requires less time investment – once the tenets/elements are established, you can play one shots of games and get that payoff in play rather easily.

I think this is one of the reason superhero games work so well for many people – genre familiarity, familiar elements, short story arcs are already part of the genre.   You don’t have to build up tons and tons of investment and exploration – you can simply shorthand because people have read the comics/watched movies – they know who the characters are, they know what their motivations are, and the emotional content is already loaded to some level.

That is, if we run a game where Batman and Wonder Woman get married?  That sentence alone stirs up a lot of thoughts and ideas for conflict and I don’t have to spend lots and lots of time explaining who these characters are and what it might mean or why it might have conflict or drama involved.

Creating your own setting investment within a larger setting requires more time and tighter feedback loops to get everyone making things that are important and interesting and investing back into it.    “Sure, sure, the X-man Mansion was destroyed, but what we really find interesting is our mutant kids who have all moved back into one person’s extended family house and so-and-so’s brother who disowned him and my character’s best friend who doesn’t know I’m a mutant…”

It takes more time or tighter design to create these new elements, to get everyone invested in them and to focus on them instead of the shorthand for setting elements.


Aliens – building concepts for action-adventure

November 16, 2014

Sci-fi is full of aliens.  But there’s a pretty big divide between hard sci-fi aliens (“We found a fungus on a rock.  It apparently can count to 2.”) and action-adventure aliens, which are basically people, with a few things different.  I’m going to lay out a formula for action adventure aliens, and why the tropes work and what they do.

1. Humanoid

This one is pretty obvious.  The reasons are varied – that traditionally sci-fi shows only had budget for facepaint and head ridges on actors, that no one wants to make out with a weird inhuman thing (the Knights of Sidonia manga is a fun exception), and so on.

I think though, what’s relevant especially to action-adventure is that combat has to be easy to understand in short order – we know what fistfights and gunfights look like between humanoids, we have a much harder time picking up what that looks like when someone is a floating set of intersecting energy fields containing 7 hiveminds against a kung-fu centipede cyborg.

Mind you, humanoid has a fair range of options within it – you can usually add wings, extra arms, have bipedal animals, etc. and still get a lot of visual variation.  Star Wars typically gets away with this a lot – you have a lot of visual variation.

2. One Major Biological Difference

Choose one thing the aliens have that is very different about their biology than humans.   This is important if you want the aliens to be more than simply people with a slightly different culture, which happens a lot too.

Consider this: humans take a long time to mature to independence – we’re talking 12-16 years, at least.  Our societies around the world build their family structures around ways to care for children until they achieve decent self-sufficiency for survival.   Now imagine what happens if you have an alien species that clones themselves, bodies full grown, and only need to take a few years to get their offspring up to full mental/social speed?  What does their families look like?  What does their society?

When you pick one thing, it gives you enough to springboard off of to see a really different way to look at the world.

3. Culture and Values

So, you have one biological fact that shapes the aliens, right?  Now you can start thinking about what values make sense around that, and start kicking together some history/politics to go with it.  And from that?  You get a culture to define characters and you can pop together some values for their culture and if you’re already looking to make a character, where their character supports or deviates from those values.

Taking the idea of the self-cloning species above – I’m thinking maybe they are actually pretty competitive – their history is actually a record of their total clone-lineage, so each clone is actually trying their best to make a big mark, to basically become well known and favored amongst their own lineage and against other clone lines.  Maybe the ones who can’t cut it in this hyper-competitive space end up drifting out to live with other species where they can have more freedom to “be themselves” in all kinds of ways.  (And then, are there splinter societies of outcast clones? Do they basically build their own, new way to live?).

4. Tech and Resources

Now that you’ve got the biological issue and a culture bit down, you can consider what this means for their technology and resources.  They will probably advance certain types of technology ahead of others, based on bias and values alone, and they will probably strain certain resources based on that as well.  Or, if they’re left without sufficient resources to meet culture (or biological!) needs, then they will be in a serious situation in short order.  (Consider our own planet and resource use for say, advertising coupons mailed to you every week…)

Although many people like to build environment-first to build culture (such as the Fremen in Frank Herbert’s Dune), the point here is action-adventure alien cultures, which don’t need to be quite as detailed or deep – so you can go the other way around, building from the most prominent points that will show up in play and fill in the rest as you go.

So, my example Clone Aliens will obviously have very advanced cloning technology and probably some serious knowledge of brains – the maturation of a brain isn’t just size and shape – you rewrite your neural connections as you learn, so skipping over a decade of wiggling around as a baby, learning how to separate sounds into language, voluntarily controlling muscles and so on, is actually a big jump.

I’m also guessing they probably have to regulate who can make clones and how often.  They’re probably pretty good about resources since they have a perfect control over birth ratios and their offspring become productive members rather quickly.

5. Specific History

Give at least one major event tied to your setting the aliens are involved in, or had happen relatively recently (within a few generations, for example).   This provides some nice ties and context for what’s going on.   It’s also great if this event directly ties to other species or has some kind of outgrowth effect based on it.

So, I’m thinking the Clone Aliens lost a major planet to a giant disaster – sudden stellar destabilization – something like 60% of their entire population died, so now they’re desperately trying to repopulate, and even looking to simply give clones out to adoption to be raised with mixed species groups.  They’re also on the hunt for land and territory to live in.

6. Bringing it to play

So, this doesn’t need to be a 10 page write up of any alien species. You can knock it out in short order, put together a paragraph or short list, and you’ve got something nice to reference.  You can put a bunch of these on a single page and it’s easy to refer to in play.