Archive for January, 2016


Systems that work

January 30, 2016

Supported Design

A system that supports your goals in play does three things:

  1. Makes it easy to generate moment to moment situations and events of interest
  2. Creates interesting choices for players to make
  3. Creates appropriate, but also sometimes surprising, outcomes

You’ll notice all three of these are highly dependent on what you’re looking for in a game, and the specific game itself.

In Action

For example, a classic dungeon crawl works like this:

  • Moment to moment situations are created between the hazards, the monsters and the logistics of navigating the dungeon
  • Strategic and logistical choices about how you face threats and overcome obstacles creates choices
  • Outcomes include: surprise encounters, traps, utilizing resources or found objects in novel ways, etc.

Whereas, say, Primetime Adventures works like this:

  • Moment to moment situations are created by players taking turns setting scenes
  • Choices are around how you approach the situation and express your character, as the tension/issues build, secondarily, how/when you choose to spend resources
  • The classic succeed/fail outcomes are further adjusted by narration trading – different people get to narrate the outcome and define what happens in ways that creates unexpected results.


When the system fails on one of these three fronts, you have some common problems.

If you fail to have moment to moment situations being created, there’s either a lot of dragging along of play, as no real interest is being produced, or that the situations all have to be pregenerated, shoehorned in, and much of the work is spent trying to keep these together and not have them fall apart or be “used up too fast”.

When the choices are not interesting in and of themselves, people just go into automatic mode and disengage.  This could be because there’s no real choice (railroading and Illusionism) or because the choices are bunk choices anyway (“Time to do the one attack my character is built to do.  Again.”).

Alternatively, the system supports choices that don’t fit what you’re trying to do, in which case, you either have to slog through a lot of mechanics and procedure that is a waste of time, or else you simply excise/skip it.

And finally, when the outcomes aren’t appropriate… well, this is where people really love to talk about how bad systems are and freeform is the one true way.  GMs can either spend a lot of time fudging or creating new rules or just fiating everything to try to keep things within reason.

Work for Play

You might notice a lot of what I pointed out above sounds like a great amount of play for a lot of games.

That’s because a lot of games are built on incomplete design – they’ll give you rules to make a character, to make skill rolls, have combat, get some more powers… but all the stuff around what creates good situations, pacing, how to drive points of play that highlight choices, or create outcomes that feed back into that?  Too many are absent it.

When people have to create their own solutions, you quickly find that game groups that are “playing the same rules” actually have very, very different games involved altogether.  This can also be made worse if the game itself gives contradictory or actually non-functional advice/procedures for play.

High Hurdle, Low Return

All of this extra work to make the game work… is a high tax for play.  It’s one of the reasons lots of tabletop RPGs get poached by boardgames, card games and videogames – you don’t have to work to make the game work.

A few years back, I thought that a key part of the problem was the creative load that was part of what TTRPGs stay with small groups, however, between all the amazing creativity you see pretty much everyone doing online for so many things, I’m more likely to just chalk it up to this hurdle of work to make the game work (plus the usual issues of high expected time investment and toxic gamer culture).

At Your Table

If you have a system you love, it’s worth considering how it does these three things and why they work for you – it will help you understand what other games do differently, or similarly.

If you’re struggling or not entirely satisfied with a system, it’s worth considering where it’s dropping the ball, and if other games don’t have this problem, and why.

If you’re designing a system, well… it’s worth asking yourself how these things work for the game you’re about to make.


Monsters, Beasts and Peoples

January 4, 2016

One of the interesting points to navigate when you deal with the issue of “monsters” in the vaguest sense is that there’s a core idea that defines how the audience (and in tabletop RPGs, the people playing) should consider them.


“Monster” in the sense of a terrible evil.  It cannot be truly reasoned with or change of it’s own accord.  The stuff of myth and legend.   Surviving encountering it is victory, killing/destroying/trapping it is miraculous, and bargaining or trying to co-exist is folly.  Many horror movie monsters/killers are this sort of thing, and they fill the same role as old folklore monsters.*


Beasts are like animals – they may be harmful, as much as a hungry tiger is harmful, but they are not evil, nor capable of making a moral choice in any direction.  On one end of the scale, they might be a danger that can be kept at a distance and people could live with, on the other end of the scale they are too invasive/harmful to endure – the xenomorphs from Aliens, for example.


These are “Monsters” might be what the things look like, what they can do, or they may need to survive on blood or dead flesh or fear, or something similar, but they’re actually fully cognizant and capable of making moral decisions as much as anyone else.

Importance for creators

Think of these 3 categories, and you can probably think of movies or stories with classic monsters where they have filled these different roles depending on the way the story wanted to treat them – vampires, werewolves, ghosts, orcs, aliens, demons, Lucifer as a character, etc.

While there’s certainly a good number of stories around people mistaking categories – either as a note about bigotry (mistaking People for anything else) or horrific naivete (mistaking anything else for People), when you are the person creating the events in play – as a GM and as players, you don’t want to be mixed up about it.

The general trend in stories in the last 20 years has been to make more of the classic monsters into the People category, so it’s not new, although it has shifted the landscape drastically.  The stories you tell about people surviving EVIL vs. people dealing with dangerous nature are NOT the same as people dealing with other people.

I think this is one of the reasons we’ve seen more stories about zombies -these stories still accept the monsters as either capital M-Monsters or beasts operating on some kind of instinct and not conscious choice.  Although you can find stories where these are considered people, for the most part the expectation is that they are NOT people, and the issues in dealing with them and the entertainment value of fictional violence can be had without guilt.**

The Troubling Space of Stand-ins

Creatures in all three categories have long been stand-ins for human interactions throughout history, though it’s a fraught area to navigate.

For example, the vampire-as-abuser dynamic is a common one, though with good consideration it can be a great critical look at abusers.   On the other hand, you have stuff like “orcs” where the descriptions of orcs turns out to be lifted nearly word for word with the terminology used to justify colonialism and genocide in the real world.  So… then the stand-in factor is basically an expression of real world racism transposed to an “acceptable” target.

This becomes even more pronounced when the given story/fictional world is absent said people as well – “Group X doesn’t exist in this world, just the Horrific Monster People who have all these traits that neonazis and white supremacists attribute to Group X…”

So… you end up with this rather twisted space of “I’ll create a fictional creature group as People and then ‘un-People’ them using the exact same logic folks use in the real world against real people… for FUN!” (the even thinner version of this is to create stand-in fictional humans and declare that in this fictional world, these walking stereotypes ARE “like that” and therefore, it “isn’t racist”.)

What’s this mean for your game?

If the game revolves around playing, or interacting with a given creature set, it’s good to set the expectations of what category things fall into, or that you’ll be playing.

Vampires as People vs. Vampires that are People that can devolve into Monsters vs. Vampires as Monsters are three very different kinds of stories to play in.

Games that have a lot of different types of creatures may have all three categories covered, in which case, you have a different problem about considering when/where/why some get some treatment and others get a different treatment despite being more-or-less the same.

The classic problems of D&D’s “evil alignment races” has always been along this line.   My usual cop out is to redefine such things and either firmly put creatures into the People category, or make them some kind of creation of magic where they are Monsters or Beasts – not sentient folks who have kids and hopes and dreams, etc.  It still means a bit of work both on the backend of creating it and explaining to players.

This is one of those things any pre-existing setting should have already handled and made clear, but for many games and settings, it’s a nebulous or unclear thing, often the result of a mishmash of many people creating a setting without much consultation or consideration of overarching narrative themes or real world biases.

And of course, in the classic tabletop RPG fashion, it’s left to us at the table to fix what shouldn’t have been absent/broken in the first place.

Side Notes

* There’s occasional stories of the horror movie monster finding redemption or being released from their role of evil, however that happens primarily through the actions of protagonists, and not the agency of the monster itself.  The monster will not change without someone else forcing it to change.

**Zombie stories complicate this a little by questioning the time of when someone “turns”, but you don’t see people turn BACK after they become zombies.  And of course, the whole zombie mythos being used that way is EXTRA fucked up in regard to “guilt free violence” when you consider it’s original mythology of the horror of dehumanization and eternal slavery…


Building Tutorial into Play

January 3, 2016

Although I’ve been writing a lot less here, I’ve been doing a lot of research into game design.

One of the things we do a lot in tabletop games is give a lot of description in how the rules work, and examples of the rules working, but not so much in terms of considering building play in a way that progressive teaches/builds skills for play in the process.

Boardgames that have variable scenarios will often have tutorial scenarios where you learn a few rules at a time, or highlight a few key strategies that are necessary for proficient play.  And of course, that multi-billion dollar industry of videogames has a lot of development…like this short analysis of Nintendo’s design consideration in Zelda: Link to the Past to teach about how combat works.

While videogames are definitely a different medium, there’s certainly a lot of design ideas we can backport to tabletop games.  In that example alone, consider the fact that the encounter is designed to put all the advantages to the player between giving the player a free ambush, and the option to run.  It’s not just about numbers, it’s about framing the situation, and giving the players information and time to consider their options.

At least for RPGs of the tactical Gamist bent, there’s plenty to draw from in terms of designing to teach tactics or strategies by encounters.  But what about other types of games?

For Narrativist games, Vincent Baker’s Poisoned does a good job with the starting scene of play. For Poison’d, the pirates are in a highly charged situation – there’s an assassin to deal with, someone needs to be nominated Captain, and the Royal Navy will soon be upon them…The game basically revolves on making Bargains and committing violence, and those two are well primed to happen in short order.  Beyond mechanics, however, the situations also set you up to make a lot of moral choices, which is the thematic core to the game.

Narrativism has the advantage that the core skill of expressing a compelling character and their development is something people have a lifetime exposure to, in the form of stories, and the real trick is mostly getting players to think about how the wield the rules towards that end.

Simulationism’s spectrum of creative expression within the genre expectations and the experience of character identification…  The genre expectations part is probably easier by priming situations that fit within it easily, but the latter has always seemed so subjective to me I don’t have any way to consider a full approach to it.

Of course, this all depends on identifying what the core point of your play is to begin with, before you can figure out how to provide situations that best orient and train players.