Archive for June, 2015


Primetime Adventures

June 29, 2015

Primetime Adventures finally has a new website!

PTA is hands down one of the best RPG designs ever made.  If you look through my archives, I’ve run/played in PTA the most over the last 10 years.  I’m really happy to see the game is back in print, and no longer a game of playing “hunt down the last PDF vendor who still sold it” which I had been pushing people towards for many years.

Primetime Adventures is lightweight and elegant.  Unlike a lot of lightweight games that brag “the rules get out of the way”, the mechanics in PTA do what rules are supposed to do – help you make amazing play experiences as a group.  It helps you focus pacing for stories, it gives everyone chances at input, the rules teach you to improvise better, and how to make more entertaining play in the moment, through it’s reward system.  I’ve had people say “We’ve had more happen in a 2-3 hour session than entire campaigns in other systems” and it’s true.

If you’re looking for a game that is easy to learn, focuses on stories (Narrativism) and plays out full campaigns in 5-9 sessions, this game has not been matched since it first came out, over a decade ago.


Examining Conflict to Produce Momentum

June 23, 2015

(This is pretty much solely concerned with Narrativist games.)

Player Commitment to Character Commitment

What makes a good story?  We are care about (are invested in, interested in the outcomes of) the characters and the situations at end.  We, the audience.  In media which we simply consume, part of it is that the movie, tv show, book, comic, etc. in question has to win us over as an audience.  They have to give us characters and events that are interesting, and then we begin to care about the outcomes.

However, in roleplaying games, we are not just audience – we are also creators.  And the relationship of creators to the characters and the fiction is a bit different.  You have to commit towards trying to make interesting characters/situations on some creative level to do it well.

The questions of character commitment are what fuel interest – Can they succeed? How will they succeed? What prices will they pay? What choices will they make? etc. And not all of these questions actually matter – we might all know this is the genre where the good guys win… but what kind of people they will be at the end of it is the question we’re asking.  Or, perhaps this is a superhero story and we know the characters will be true to their original concepts regardless of events, because that’s the kind of genre we’re doing.

So as a player, you have to think about what kind of character you are creating and what they are willing to fight for (and, in some way, make it clear to the rest of the group what that is, whether that’s a discussion ahead of time or good Flag mechanics).

Status Quo – that which fulfills/kills you?

There’s basically two things that drive characters into action – either protecting the status quo or trying to change it.  It’s either something that fulfills them and should be protected, or else it’s something that is harming them, and become unbearable, whether the conditions have worsened or the character is just fed up with it all.

Identifying that when you make your character is a great thing – because it tells the GM and the other players how to interact with your character and where there is space for conflict and growth.

You’ll notice that in other media, it’s the character’s commitment to this protection/change that plays a part of what wins us over as an audience.  If the characters’ don’t care, why should we?  If the characters make a big deal of it, we at least are put to the space to consider how important it is for us as audience members.

Momentum in play

If the players commit to the characters’ beliefs, goals, and so on, and drive towards seeing those fulfilled in play, it becomes very easy to keep things moving.  The players push it forward.  And you’ll notice that it doesn’t necessarily require a clue-train or trying to nudge players into action.

1. The players’ commitment creates the characters’ commitment.

2.. The characters’ commitment creates ongoing events in play as improvised by the players.

3.  The ongoing events create chances for expressing the characters and consequences.

4.  The expresssion of characters and consequences creates player investment.

This requires the players’ to buy in before play begins and commit, but in doing so, this is how you get good play coordinated.  Constrast this to the games that take several sessions to get any investment at all – most of the time it’s fumbling around to get character goals, or any expression of the characters in a way that matters, and of course, whether player input (via characters) gets to matter at all, or is blocked from play as a matter of course.

You can think of events in play like rowing a boat – if everyone’s rowing, the boat moves very easily.  If there’s a group of people in the boat but only one person is rowing, it is very tiring, quickly.

Changing Motivations

What’s key here is the commitment to FIND something your character cares about, and to have your character PUSH to see it protected/changed/fulfilled, etc. and not so much about the specifics of what that thing is.  As long as there’s some kind of established plausiblility you can follow, the motivations can change, or be revealed to be about something else, and so on.

You’ll notice that this is a different sort of spending a few sessions “finding your feet” than the traditional method.  In this method, it’s “let me find a better way to show you what my character cares about” that’s the change, whereas, the traditional method is “let me figure out if my character cares about any of this to begin with, then figure out if it’s worth fighting for”

This is not the same as the reluctant hero, which can work in static media simply because the creators know that the hero will be pushed into her destiny or moment of conflict.  The reluctant hero only works in roleplaying games if you are clear about the difference between reluctance as a trope vs. reluctance as a thing that shapes the story and drags yoru character away from the conflict you’re interested in exploring.


Monsters: Choice, Compulsion, Existence

June 17, 2015

A lot of our games, and settings for our games, have monsters of some type.   However, what that monster is, thematically in the fiction, can be very different things, and depending on how you are coming at it, it can mean a very different type of game, or story you are creating.

Monsters of Choice

A monster of “choice” is a creature that does evil as a choice.  The important part of this is that this is something the monster, as a character, chooses to do, and could, if they wanted, choose to do otherwise.  One might be able to convince such a creature to stop or reform.

In this regard, a serial killer would be as much of a monster as a giant that chooses to eat people.

This is a key point worth understanding, as most often this is the default understanding of sentience – you can choose to do things, and if the species as a whole is constantly portrayed as wanting to do evil (without, say, some kind of context like a society that encourages harm or something), you basically have the classic D&D problem of the “Chaotic Evil” race.

Monsters of Compulsion

A monster of compulsion is unable to stop itself from doing harmful things.  This is often what you get when you have a story with sympathetic vampires or werewolves.  They are under a condition they cannot control which causes them to do terrible things.  Although plenty of fiction plays with the fact about such types being either against their condition or reveling in it, the role of heroes who are not monsters would be to try to best free such creatures of their compulsion.

Usually however, this only shows up as protagonist characters who are under a compulsion – the various White Wolf games love to play this up.

Monsters of Existence

A demon of hate, summoned from another dimension.  A robot that kills all organic life.  etc.  These are the monsters that are unable to even question or doubt their choices, if they can make choices at all.   They are evil because they are evil and you don’t have to worry about destroying them or whatever harm befalls them in stopping them.

This is the monster that is the best kind to have for guilt free action games – you want a lot of monsters to beat down? Skeletons! Robots! Etc.

Confusion in play…

So, if players don’t know they can try to redeem monsters, as they assume they are unfixably evil… then they won’t.  If players keep trying to have their characters reach out to a demon that cannot be converted to good… they will waste a lot of time.   The players will probably have a lot of intercharacter fighting if they think it goes one way or the other and can’t see why someone would (murder without a thought/reach out to a forsaken demon) etc.

There’s definitely a fun space for stories where you’re not sure which category applies, however, those stories tend to be brutal examinations of morality, and usually over the fate of a single character.  Bonus drama: if you’re still unsure AFTER the situation has been resolved as well – “Do you think we could have saved him?”  “I’d like to think so… but we’ll never know now…


Small Mysteries and how you run your RPGs

June 15, 2015

Humans are curious – it’s why we love mysteries.  I don’t necessarily mean the mystery genre, but what I mean is small mysteries, little things in a story, or a game, where you say, “Something is going on there…” and you really want to find out what it means – Two people shoot each other a meaningful look, someone pauses just so, something seems to not work the way it should….

There’s a lot of different approaches and it’s kind of a key point to know as a group, as each sets up a different play expectation.


A mystery as a puzzle is something to be solved, and the question is more about whether it should be solved in the short term (“figure out how the trap works to get past it”) or in the long term (“Find out who killed Colonel Mustard through investigating everyone…”)

A key expectation about treating mysteries as puzzles is that the mystery is only uncovered through actions of the protagonists (and, in RPGs, the players who control them).  With that in mind, it means players have to constantly ask questions, poke and prod at things, and act kind of an ass in general to figure things out.

This mirrors behaviors in adventure videogames where players poke at everything, “click on everything”, push/attack every wall or object, try to jump over walls, etc. because they have to try to find every secret.

This is common to dungeon crawl type play, but ultimately very weird and out of place for any other kind of media.  It works well when you’re mostly prodding objects, however, when it comes to investigating other characters, the sort of compulsive information squeeze doesn’t work so well.  You’ll also notice that this expectation can get players stuck on investigating non-interesting things, because they’ve projected onto it, some kind of importance or mystery.


A mystery as a promise is how stories typically do it – “there’s something weird” and you know the storyteller will eventually reveal it.  The mystery is presented as a tease, as suspense, and you know there’s going to be a reveal and depending on how it’s all done, you are either entertained, nonplussed, or annoyed.

When it comes to RPGs, treating mysteries as promises frees players from having to compulsively pick at everything – they can either let it pass, let their characters be ignorant/heedless of it, play into it even further, or check on it and be ok that it will come back later.   This is also true of players revealing mysteries about their characters, as well.

The nice thing about treating a mystery as a promise is that it lets you take time to find the most entertaining way to address it, and as a group commitment, allows everyone to work together to revealing stuff together, without necessarily requiring some kind of out of play conversation about it.

Window Dressing

Mysteries as window dressings can make for cool background material – the weird statue, the sound that seems to come from the walls, the character who acts strange for no apparent reason.   The problem is that a great number of old school dungeon modules would mix up the Window Dressing with the Lethal Deathtrap – so many gamers ended up developing habits of assuming everything is a Puzzle mystery instead.

Window dressing mysteries can add a LOT to the play experience – they are basically the style, or the aesthetic you build.


Bullshit mysteries are what I call it when a story or game pushes itself with mysteries as Promises and then turns them into Window Dressing or leaves them forever unanswered.  People tell me this is effectively what the TV show Lost, was doing.

Now, roleplaying games are great for being able to make shit up on the fly – until it gets stated or otherwise put into play, everything is unformed.  So it’s easy to set up mysteries or connections without knowing the answer when you do it – but you also have to bring it back and answer it at some point, and in a way that fits with the plausibility expectations of your game.

If you don’t deliver, or break/destroy key ideas that people have accepted as part of the story/world/setting, then people feel cheated.

Coordinating this all

One of the things I’ve done over the years when I run dungeon crawls is I tell everyone that there will be no traps or hazards that are not clearly visible as dangerous.  I’ve done this because I despise “check every 10 feet because the whole dungeon wants to eat/fall on you”, but it also ends up being a very clear communication of what mysteries to expect and deal with – if there’s going to be a Puzzle mystery, it will be clearly marked, otherwise everything else is Window Dressing.

I usually play explicitly Narrativist RPGs like Primetime Adventures, because the default expectations and rules set you up to get mysteries as Promises, and you can focus on the character development and events that form in play without having to poke or prod at things, and so on.  Flag Mechanics are effectively a way to set your character’s issues, goals and values up as Promise mysteries to deliver on.

(This post was mostly inspired  by watching Steven Universe and catching up on the Erfworld comic, and thinking about the ways in which they reveal their mysteries over the longer story form.  Yes, I’ll probably put together a short, simpler way of talking about this and jam it into the Same Page Tool later on.