Archive for December, 2014


Designing mechanics to do things vs. not do things

December 30, 2014

I’ll repeat an idea: the easiest rule in RPGs is “I say it and it happens.”  That’s an easy rule because there’s not much to think about, not much to handle, track, no steps or procedures to take – it’s immediate, it’s simple.

While certainly there are groups that have made this the primary way in which they play games, while the rule is simple, consistently getting it to result in play you enjoy, is not.

Groups that dive into freeform spend a lot of time developing an aesthetic of what is and isn’t acceptable input.  This is why freeform groups tend to be very insular and focus very highly on “it’s all about who you play with” because ultimately their system towards making good play is finding people who can pick up on their chosen idea of good quickly and smoothly.

Mechanics, Systems, Doing Things

So at the end of the day, what do mechanics do?  They do several things together at once:

1. Draw boundaries of what counts as good vs. bad input for this particular game

2. Force players into making interesting choices

3. Help the group negotiate who gets to say what and how those ideas interact

4. Creating uncertainty in outcomes – whether that is dice or forcing the group to speak and choose input in new ways

Freeform play often encounters some common issues:

– conflicting inputs or unsure boundaries about how far you can, or should narrate something

– neutralized input – conflicting ideas cannot be resolved one way or the other

– repeating play patterns – the group always pushes towards the same results, for stagnation.  In worst case scenarios, conflict does not actually exist at all in the fiction, the characters simply spin their wheels, over and over.

You’ll notice that mechanics are basically structured ways of breaking out of those patterns.

“Rules should get out of the way”

Imagine if someone came to you and said, “The best food only makes you feel a LITTLE sick after you eat it, not too sick.”   You’d probably be wondering how far off their idea of what food is supposed to be, or do, is.  The idea that rules are simply a necessary evil mostly means we’re talking about people who have had to use rules that didn’t do what they wanted to do in the first place, but that doesn’t mean they have an idea of what good rules would actually look like.

To be sure, I think most RPGs would probably be better served by something more direct, and cleaner than what they get in terms of mechanics – which would make them easier to navigate and handle – “lighter” by that definition, but at the same time it requires a very different way of considering rules and what they’re here for.

If the rules are not helping your group communicate, organize and create the kinds of play that fits the game you want, then the answer is not only “the rules should get out of the way” but that you need a different set of rules altogether.

Ask yourself – “What do I want out of this game?  What do I want to see that ‘I say it and it happens’ would not adequately cover?” (there’s a lot in many cases, actually)

I’ve been seeing a new generation of game designers bringing up the same old “rules should get out of the way” thinking and it’s just a shitty place for design.

For a lot of people, I really do recommend checking out games like 1001 Nights, Breaking the Ice, Hot Guys Making Out, Primetime Adventures, Inspectres, The Drifter’s Escape – because all of these games will really show you some interesting dynamics in play.

Figure out what you want your game to do.  Make rules that do THAT THING.  Don’t make rules that don’t help with what you want your game to do.   Conceptually easy, hard in craft, but certainly better than “How do I make rules that do things I don’t want, work better?”


Two Branches of RPG Design

December 26, 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about a foundational idea in RPG design that’s been happening since the early 2000s.

Codifying Fiction

There’s a core idea in most RPGs, which is the idea that the system’s role in determining outcomes is to take a set of fictional factors (“Strength 12, Athletics 8, Climbing Difficulty 15”) and run it through a process and produce the outcome from that.

A key point of this style of design is that the rules have to also help teach the people playing how to create or find ways to assign those factors and translate them back and forth between mechanical aspects and fictional aspects in play.  Quinn Murphy has labeled this process “Thingification”.  Also springing from that idea, we see this post on Lost Worlds talking about the struggle of what happens when games have gaps in that process.

It’s important to understand that fictional factors can include things like “How much does this character love this other character?”  “What is the strength of this character’s Lassitude?” and other abstract ideas.  It’s also important to not mix this up with Simulationism – there’s plenty of non-simulationist games which use this from Tunnels and Trolls to Apocalypse World and so on.  This also can include games with rather non-conventional factors like My Life with Master or Steal Away Jordan’s Worth mechanics.

Fictional Quality Independence

(yes, this is a shitty term.  I need to come up with something better.  Whatever, I’m not here to shit out jargon, I’m trying to focus on ideas. )

There’s been a branching out of games where the system does not engage with codifying fiction, but rather the outcomes are mechanically independent OF any qualities of elements within the fiction.

In more plain language – “Can I climb that cliff?” isn’t answered with “How strong are you?” “How tall is the cliff?” “What is it’s rating?” and so on, but other factors that drive play.

The easiest game to point to would be 1001 Nights.  The GM describes a story, the other players put forth questions about the story.   The GM chooses to push the story towards answering some questions and not answering others, which then creates the dice economy in play.  Ideally, the GM tries to spread this out to answer questions relatively equally to get themselves more dice in the process.   “Can Aladdin escape the sword wielding guards?” is not resolved at all with how fast, strong, or smart Aladdin is, or the guards, or the layout of the palace or anything to do with the fiction at all.

This kind of game design is extremely interesting because it ends up focusing play on player choices and player input in a more direct manner. It cuts out the middle man of having to juggle the qualities or stats of fiction to drive play straight into the choices or experiences it wants from players.

These games tend to simply bypass a lot of issues people find in games built on Codifying Fiction – “How do I improvise?” “What do I do when too many characters are involved in a conflict?”  “How do I stop XYZ from being overpowered?” etc. Of course, these games are also usually targeted for “That’s not a real roleplaying game” fallacy.

Examples include: 1001 Nights, Dog Eat Dog, Hot Guys Making Out, Drifter’s Escape, Mist Robed Gate, The Dance and the Dawn

I think there’s a lot to learn and develop from this kind of design,

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D&D Hack: Initiative Damage

December 22, 2014

This is a simple hack from a game mod I was working on a couple of years ago.  It’s designed to give people a simple way to give combat damage more effect while avoiding the complications of hit locations, wound damage, etc.

Initiative, slightly bent

Instead of a D20, use a D12.  D12 + Dex mods etc. has two effects – it means the initiative totals are lower and the attribute mods play a bigger part.


For characters and creatures, they each get two ratings:

Shaken: 1/4 their total Hitpoints (round up)

Reeling: 1/2 their total Hitpoints (round up)

Initiative Damage

Whenever a creature takes hitpoint damage from a single attack equal or greater than their Shaken threshold, they lose 4 Initiative from their total.   When a creature takes damage from a single attack equal or greater than their Reeling threshold, they lose 8 Initiative.

A) If the creature hasn’t acted this round – it will act on it’s new initiative total.

B) If the creature has already acted this round – it will act on it’s new, lower initiative total NEXT round. It does not get to act again this round.

Stunned – Initiatve Zero or Negative Initiative

If a creature is reduced to zero or negative initiative, it cannot functionally act.  It is rolling around in pain, stunned, or otherwise unable to functionally do much.  At the end of the following round, it regains 1D6 initiative.  If it is still zero or negative, it will need to continue to spend rounds regaining it’s senses (+1D6 initiative) until it has an Initiative of 1 or higher.

For the sake of gameplay, creatures at 0 or negative Initiative cannot be take further initiative damage until they have a positive score.

Managing this in Play

My suggestion is to take index cards, put the characters’ names on them, along with their Shaken/Reeling ratings and you can write the initiative in pencil.  As they take damage/recover, you can line up the cards in order.


A useful thing to consider is whether certain actions or attacks do greater initiative damage as part of play.  Some attacks may do relatively low hitpoint damage but pretty big initiative damage (“I shoot down the beehive with my sling.  Let the enemies play with that…”).  You can easily suggest saving throws or attacks against alternate defense ratings that may result in a -4 or -8 initiative.  Monsters that typically suffer saving throw penalties from certain types of attacks may suffer initiative damage whether they succeed or fail the roll.

Magic vs. Magic Users

The basic rule listed above naturally favors tough, high hitpoint characters from getting stunned this way.  You might want to rule that spellcasters are less likely to be stunned by magic, being more accustomed to dealing with such things.   Spellcasters might be only be Shaken at 1/2 hp and Reeling at 3/4 hp from spells.  Or, if they make a save, maybe they suffer no initiative damage whatsoever from magic.

You can customize this accordingly – this might be true of clerics vs. life drain or evil spells, or of druids vs. poisons, elementally based creatures vs. that type of element, and so on.  Obviously consider this with care, the point is to keep this relatively simple.


This system works really well if you want to make certain types of monsters immune or resistant to some types of damage.  For example, arrows are not going to bother a zombie, really.  Or a stone golem.  Or a treant.  Once players become accustomed to dishing out damage to stun creatures and taking advantage of it (and also, having to cover their own team mates who are stunned), finding something that simply, won’t, stop, is a great way to highlight why they’re scary.

Consequences in Play

This rule can make combat more lethal in all directions – getting stunned opens the door for followup attacks that simply mob someone.  Smart play with stunting can swing things in the player’s favor.  You can also set up monsters or events that do mostly or solely intiative damage (“The dragon’s wings cause gusts of wind to knock you down, take 1D6 initiative damage.”)

Heavier damage attacks are favored over lighter attacks, so you might have to find some balance if your game is supposed to do the usual “light damage several attacks vs. heavy damage few attacks” setup that shows up.


The math here assumes you’re playing a D&D or D&D like game that is 3rd edition or later where the attribute modifiers tend to sit in the -5/-4 to +4/+5 range.   If you are using a game that has a smaller range (such as -2 to +2) you’ll want to both use a smaller initiative die (D6 for example) and do correspondingly less initiative damage (-1/-3, for example).

If you’re using a game that relies heavily on multiple actions/attacks per round, you might want the stun status to only cost 2 or 3 attack/actions rather than fully leaving the creature unable to do anything.

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The Nova Problem / 15 minute adventuring day

December 13, 2014

It’s a problem where the mechanics for super powers, magic, or special moves are supposed to support a choice between using them to get a bonus now, or trying to hold on to them for when you might need them later – BUT, the actual game play makes it optimal just to use all of your best powers now, retreat, recharge, and do it again, over and over.

Remove the design from it’s context, and…

In the case of D&D, it’s yet another problem of what happened when the game carried over things from it’s original context without adapting – in this case, the resource of time.  In old school D&D time was your enemy – it not only meant wandering monsters, it also meant running out of supplies – food, water, torches, and not just in the dungeon, but potentially days or weeks of supplies you’d need to get from town to the dungeon.  Each extra day spent was a threat to the party as a whole.

When D&D shifted away from that kind of time and logistics issues, then the constraint of time stops being such a big deal.

Resources fueled by time, without any time pressures, are effectively free.

This also becomes a problem when you realize magic can, in theory, solve everything.  Need to do damage? Magic can do that.  Need to heal damage? Magic can do that.  Need to learn about the threats ahead? Magic can do that.  Need to avoid a fight? Magic can do that.

Simple Solutions

Reintroduce Time Pressures

Without the logistical issues, the other ways to introduce time pressures include either a literal time limit to a specific goal (“We have to cross the border before the monsoons, and the floods, cut us off completely”), or some kind of opposition that makes taking time dangerous (“Every day we waste, they get closer to surrounding us.”).  These are by nature, contrived, but when done well they feel a natural part of play.  You will need to take some time to consider what the logistical issues are and naturally your players should be aware that this is a key point of the game you’re playing.

Powers fueled by something OTHER than time

Fictionally this could be many things – the good old “material components” system can work here, in which case the question becomes what are players paying with instead?  Is it gold = magic power?  Is it time or cleverness? (“Let’s spend an hour looking for herbs in the woods, I can use it for spells.”)

If you’re willing to go into meta mechanics, it can be things like being entertaining or fun – for example Tenra Bansho Zero’s Karma dice come from earning Aiki by saying/doing cool things people at the table approve of.  The Shadow of Yesterday does this with players doing character development time – time spent romancing or expressing their passions is used to recharge your Ability Pools.


Indie Initiative Bundle of PDF games

December 12, 2014

The Indie Initiative Bundle of Holding has a LOT of good games right now.

$8.95 gets you

  • Breaking the Ice
  • octaNe: premium uNleaded
  • The Shadow of Yesterday
  • Trollbabe
  • Universalis

Go above that and you get:

  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
  • InSpectres
  • My Life with Master
  • Polaris (and The Wish We Wish to Night)
  • Puppetland
  • Sorcerer (Annotated Edition)

There’s a TON of really good games here, and if you’re looking to try games that are still very innovative RPG designs, this is a great deal.