Archive for April, 2015


Proficiency vs. Mastery

April 30, 2015

So, anytime you want to teach a game to someone (and, if you design games, you are teaching the game to the people who buy it), there’s a certain scale of understanding people have to meet to play the game successfully.

Spectrum of Proficiency

Consider this spectrum using Chess as an example:

1. Overall goal of the game (“Capture the enemy’s king and protect your own king”)

2. Structure of play, legal moves (“Taking turns”, “This piece moves like this”)

3. Intermediate goals/Tactics (“Cover your pieces”, “Force the opponent to react”, “Set up forking possibilities which all favor you”)

4. Strategy – recognizing patterns of play and tactics (“This particular opening”, “These two pieces work very well together” etc.)

5. Depth – you learn about the people you are playing with more than the game (“Normally he’d fall for this trap, but I can see he’s trying to lure me this time.”)

RPGs and broken wheels

Historically, a lot of roleplaying games have dropped the ball at the first two steps – stuff like my Same Page Tool is effectively a crutch to help people wedge in solutions to bad designs or bad writing.

The first step, the overall goal of a game, is basically the concrete direction of the Creative Agenda of a game.  The second step, of the structure and legal moves in play, is the System of the game, including non-mechanical stuff like “If you say it, your character does it” sorts of declarations.

Without these two, you cannot say you have a complete game on hand – you have something people might cobble together into play, or might import parts to make it run, but by itself, it is incomplete in a fundamental way that quickly leads to a lot of wasted time in coordinating what game you’re really trying to play. It’s a broken wheel.

Things to know vs. Things to learn

By the time we get to the third step of proficiency, which is learning intermediate goals and tactics of play,  you are basically identifying general trends of what you should be doing within the given set of legal moves.

Although in chess and adversarial games this kind of strategizing is easy to see, it also applies to strictly drama focused play in RPGs as well – “Use your character’s personal doubts to bring conflicts to a head”,  “Create compelling reasons why your investigator KEEPS walking into the haunted houses” etc.

In terms of RPGs, this is a fine line to identify – how much of this is things necessary for play to even work at all, vs. how much are things that are more fun to discover in play?  You can find examples of people doing this poorly in all kinds of games.  “Oh, you picked the wrong feat for your character build! I guess you’re going to suck for 10 levels” – that’s certainly not a fun thing to discover.   “This drama game only works if you make characters like this, but you can only find that out after you’ve played lots of the game.”

So where is the line?  Let’s say the line is where you can at least stumble towards good play (by whatever definition the game itself makes for that, whether that’s tactical combat or high drama) and learn how to do it better, and not so far where you have a single optimal choice to make and no surprises come if it (which, is broken in a gamist view anyway).

What does this all mean for my group at the table?

Well, you better make sure your game at least covers the first two levels of proficiency.  And then you want to make sure your group is proficient up to the point where they can HAVE FUN with the game, rather than spend most of their time trying to figure out how to get the system to work.  You can’t have fun racing cars if you can’t get them moving.

Towards that end, where a game may drop the ball, you’ll want to create a quicksheet providing advice on how play should look, what pitfalls to avoid, or neat system tricks to take advantage of.  You may want to set up the first few sessions towards highlighting these specific things.

“That sounds a lot like a videogame tutorial”  – yep, that’s basically what you’re doing.  The sooner players have a good grasp on what they CAN do, and what they generally SHOULD be trying to do, the sooner they can make meaningful choices, whether that is strategic or creative towards a story or painting a world.

When players can focus on how to do things better, they have more fun and can start developing the last two steps – which is system mastery (how to utilize the rules to their best effect) and then also being able to coordinate subtly from each other (as a team of people playing, regardless of whether they are playing cooperatively or competitively).

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The Irrelevant Conflict Trap

April 19, 2015

This is going to be both a design-theory post, as well as a post for how you can look at systems and think about what they do for you vs. work against you at your table.

Structure Mechanics

Some games are designed to tell a specific type of story – there may be a range of stories within that possible space, but it’s pretty well defined.  My friend Quinn Murphy uses this term, “Structure” and it shows up in his Five Fires game – the characters deal with problems, and eventually it brings them back to making art or music – so the stories all revolve around people who are creative.

The thing about these kinds of games is that they can hyper focus their mechanics to only deal with the issues relevant to the type of stories they’re telling, and cut everything else out.  The groups playing them have a much easier time figuring out what kinds of conflicts make sense, because the mechanics are pointing them in that direction.

Non-Structure / Generalist Systems

When you don’t have that, you end up having to do a bit of negotiation and work as a group to make up the difference – What kind of game are you playing? What kind of conflicts make sense within this framing? What is the focus of the story? How should we design characters to fit this? How should I present situations and have NPCs act to encourage that? What problems are addressable vs. impossible to change?  So the first hurdle is getting on that page together.

What kind of conflicts make sense for this game?

What kind of protagonists make sense for this game?

What kind of outcomes make sense for this game?

Just because “anything COULD happen” doesn’t mean that’s a good way to try to use your time – sorting through “COULD” with “would be interesting”.  If anything, entertainment is a lot about editing to interesting parts.

You can find yourself engaging in irrelevant conflicts – and I mean, engaging in mechanics in places that doesn’t actually push play forward or produce interesting choices.  And this can be a giant waste of time, or even detrimental to play.  So, how well the group can find the groove for where the focus is, vs. stumble over that, is key to how well the system without a structure consistently is fun in play.

We’ve been slowly working out a number of working techniques to help bridge these issues over the years:

Genre + Setting Fiction

The first trick people often used to try to solve these issues was to pick a genre with strong tropes, and back it up with fiction or setting material.  All of this serves to sort of model and informally teach people where to put their conflict focuses in play.  Of course, if this isn’t backed up mechanically, it is very weakly enforced or creates problems between play expectations – fudging and GM Fiat are often used as tools to deal with that design failure when it happens.

Scene Framing

This technique is actually a pretty good one, though it’s an art more than an easy 1-2-3 procedure.  It basically boils down to “skip to the cool parts” which allows you to avoid getting hung up on things that aren’t conflicts.

Table Negotiation

“Actually, the locked door isn’t really where the mystery is.  It’s a background piece, let’s just move on, ok?”  You just tell each other, what’s going on in play with information in Author Stance – stuff the characters wouldn’t know, but as players, they can avoid getting wrapped up in something that isn’t actually intersting.

Say Yes or Roll the Dice

Vincent Baker’s trick which has gone into many other games, basically states that if it’s not important, don’t make a mechanical conflict of it – just keep it moving.  Notice a rhetorical aspect here – “Say Yes” is first – so you’re encouraged to say yes OVER rolling the dice a bit.

Dogs In The Vineyard, the game where this is from, also has a second mechanic enforcing this- “Give” which lets you simply give up halfway through a conflict – it shortens the process if you see your’e not going to win, but it also allows the people involved to drop a conflict if it simply occurs to them that this isn’t a worthwhile conflict.


Although some game systems with Flags include structure mechanics, some do not, and so you end up with a gap about how well the group can navigate using Flags to narrow conflicts into functional play space.

Narrowed Skill List

Some games show what the relevant conflicts are in their skills list – they drop everything that doesn’t matter so you can know that mechanically, “this game doesn’t care if you know history” or whatever is absent.

Side trap: Heavy vs. Light

You’ll notice that whether you have structure mechanics or not, it has nothing to do with how complex the rules are – The Window, and many other light, genreless games, lack a structure element, and as such, end up in the same position with the same problems as their more crunchy cousin games.  On one end of the extreme, “rules light” shifts over to freeform, but the underlying issues remain.

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Better Targeting Flags with Antagonists

April 9, 2015

Ron Edwards has been writing a ton of great posts on comics history, and the most recent one, on Green Goblin is a great one to read to look at how to do Flag based play with villains.

Simple Opposition is the starting point

When you’re targeting Flags, it’s really easy to simply make the “opposed” antagonist.  “I want to protect the city” “WELL I WANT TO DESTROY IT” etc.

Direct opposition sets up quick conflict, but doesn’t necessarily build good engagement.  Usually, what you find out is that directly opposing the Flag doesn’t put you exactly where you want to be, but it gets you in the range of it.  And as you play, you’ll find something that keys in more particular to the player character.

For example, “destroy the city” could be engaging in a number of ways:

“…because this city was built on prosperity that came at the suffering of my father!”

“…because my plans are for a better city, a stronger one, a Utopia.  But everyone who isn’t worthy must die, first.”

“…because it’s Tuesday.”

The creed the antagonists push can make their opposition to a Flag engaging in so many ways – ranging from sympathetic to “angry making button-pushing” cruelty.

The “pie moment” is when you find the exact angle that gets the table to realize this is the real conflict and the antagonist is targeting EXACTLY the thing you wish they didn’t.

This is, unfortunately, something that doesn’t have an easy formula to find in play – it’s about knowing your players, paying close attention to their reactions, and keying in on that.  It’s why I generally prefer a network of NPCs and a host of problems – a shotgun approach and see what sticks.

Pitfall #1: Forcing Care doesn’t work

A lot of times in RPGs, people try to threaten things before the players care.  “They’ve kidnapped your brother!”… but who is your brother? Why are they worth fighting for?  Players have to have an attachment and engagment before it can mean anything.

This is part of the reason when I run a game if there’s good or decent NPCs, I play them as generally good, nice people.  They’ll help without even being asked.  They CARE about the PCs.  And, some of them, the players click with and care back.  So now what happens to them matters. (This is not to say they then become targets for threatening, sometimes simply what they think of the PCs, their opinion, can weigh a lot).

Other media can get away with this because the characters (written, drawn, acted) care and we either read their emotional expression or their inner thoughts and we connect there – and then we start to care.  Here, in tabletop roleplaying, we work with time at a premium and none of the fancy tricks other media gets to do that, so we have to take some initial play time feeling things out. It also helps to ask players to rethink their Flags as well – even in games with a slow turnover of Flags, I usually look at rewriting them a bit by the 2nd or 3rd session.

Pitfall #2: Some things aren’t supposed to be threatened

Some of the things players care about, are actually key to their character concept, and not actually something to be targeted.  This is why Flags work so well- the player is saying “Hey, this is on the table, target THIS”.

Jared Sorensen had a story about playing Vampire and he spends background points to buy a bar.  His vampire has a cool ass bar, right?  Immediately the GM burns it down.  Now, the thing is, he cared about having a bar as a concept idea – and taking it away craps all over who he wanted his character to be.  It didn’t make the game more engaging, it made it less so.

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