Archive for June, 2019


Maps in games

June 21, 2019

I’ve been thinking a bit about prep, and maps.  I think there’s a value in thinking about how maps get used in your games, whether that’s “How will I use this map for this campaign?” or “I’m designing a whole game, and how do we use maps in the broadest sense?”

Maps as setting builders

A lot of games, I might use a map as a thing to define setting – the map helps us get an idea of where the fiction is happening, and, say, where characters come from.  But, that’s about the limit of the map’s usage – we never refer to it for travel or worry about distance or time or anything.

It’s mostly to orient the characters in a way – “Oh, my hometown is next to this forest, I’m probably familiar with hunting at least a little.  There’s no rivers around, so I probably have never seen anything larger than a stream or a creek and a pond.”

Depending on your game, the map might be “unreliable” – as in, rather than a representation of how the fictional game world IS, it might be a representation of how the society or characters in that fictional world perceive it… “Here there be dragons” is very different between a world where there are actual dragons about, vs. a world where the characters just believe it must be true because no one has traveled that far.

Maps for situations

If actual travel and placement on the map matters at all, but you’re not bothering with specific measurements, this is using maps for situation.  This is how I usually run most games – the map is sort of a vague “How close is trouble and how much trouble do I have to deal with to get somewhere?” without bogging down into times, travel specifics, etc.

The nice thing about this style of game is that you only really need to mark the map for interesting places, and not worry as much about specifics.

Maps as mechanics

Maps as mechanics deal with actual travel times or how difficult travel might be.  Aside from large world maps, this also includes grid maps for combat – distance and difficult terrain also applies, just in the most immediate way.

The specificity assists in creating specific strategies and choices – where to be, how to get there, how long it will take.  It also means you have to take design into consideration, otherwise you end up with large sections of the map unused or creating types of play you’re not interested in.   Also, the players need to find this interesting as well, otherwise they’ll just consider it tedious and not consider the choices it offers at all (“charge straight ahead”, etc.).

“Map making” maps

And of course, the classic dungeon crawl where the players make a map as they play.  In this case, the “actual map” – the one the GM is using to describe the world, is the map in play as hidden information, and it depends on the players to accurately note and draw out their own map as a reference.  For people into this, it can be quite rewarding, and for people who are not, it is the opposite.  It’s really important to let people know if your game expects this up front.

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Designing Random Event Tables

June 20, 2019

I’m hacking a fix to a game I play – one of the tools is a random event table that is helpful about 2/3rds of the time.  It’s enough it does add value, but the bad points stop play and make things harder – which is not what you want to have happen in play.  Between this, and thinking about a couple of other games I’ve played in the past with these things, I wanted to draw out some basic design principles, which I’ve seen a lot of games fail on.

The Bullseye of design

When you make a random event table, the first large field of ideas is “CAN this happen in the game?”  You’ll write down a lot of possibilities.   But maybe you’ve already jumped to the second step, the smaller subset within that – “SHOULD this happen in the game?”  Within that, “What makes this fun, and is it likely to occur in play?” etc.   It narrows down like a target board, with smaller and smaller areas of ideas, better suited for the game you are designing/playing.

Anyone can throw together a giant list and put it on a table – you can go on forum boards and see these lists, check out blogs, and even pay a few bucks from publishers who do nothing but make lists.   And – yes, these lists will often have some neat ideas in there.  But do all the neat ideas fit together in the game you want to run?  Are they disruptive to the scale of game you want to play?  Do they fit the theme and color of the game?  That’s where it gets harder.

You’ll note in old school D&D, people often joked about how often the magic item The Deck of Many Things could disrupt a whole campaign, because it’s been known to drop disasters, curses, super monsters as much as a mild, silly effect.  It’s the same sort of issue, and also why later editions keep curtailing how far it can go.

So whatever list you make, go back and look hard at whether the ideas fit together, whether they push the game too hard in a direction or if they rely on too many specific conditions to be fun.  (Fun doesn’t necessarily mean good for the player characters, challenge and conflict is also fun, but in both cases, it has to fit the game.)

Communication and Ease of Use

How well does the table immediately translate into use in play?  If you have to stop the game and think for 5 minutes and have a discussion about what it means or how it might work, the table didn’t actually make things easier.  (This is what is going on in the mechanic I’m hacking).

This can also happen because the entry is too vague or broad.  You don’t want to spend too much time trying to puzzle out what it actually means, and, it also means the real work of making it interesting is falling upon the GM or the players and instead of being a thing that helps play speed ahead, it’s a thing you drag along.

So make sure the chart entries are easy to grasp, don’t require too much explanation, and if they require secondary steps or actions, that it’s not too deep or involved.

Lock-in vs. Flexibility

One of the better design features in recent years has been making random tables either with multiple choices within them, or giving a mechanic to bounce the result a bit, to find something more fitting.

The former, we see a lot in the Apocalypse World family of design – “You rolled a 7, pick 2 things from this list of 5” “You can have X, Y, or Z.” etc.  This doesn’t always have to be a thing for an advantage or challenge – it can also be picking things that are just appropriate for the game situation.

The latter, we see in say, Tenra Bansho Zero’s Emotion Matrix – you roll an entry, but everyone can choose to spend some Aiki to bounce around the result to something that is more appropriate or exciting for everyone.

Flexibility gives you wiggle room in the design and helps mitigate the possibility of weird results or things not fitting in.  It is still best to have thought deeply about the entries, however.

When to use?

When should a random event table be used?  Sometimes this is a strictly mechanical thing – “X numbers of turns pass in the dungeon, roll for wandering monsters”, “If a character’s stat goes above X, roll for Corruption Effects”, “At the beginning of each session, roll to see what problems beset the Town”.   Sometimes it is a fictional trigger – “When an NPC is angry enough to take action, roll on this chart”, “When your character loses hope, roll to see what Scar affects them.” – which means it’s a judgment call from someone playing.

Either way, it’s good to be clear when and how often you expect a given random event chart to be used.

The Actual Odds

First, consider how often a chart is getting used.  Then consider how often something interesting should be happening from that chart roll.

If a chart is rarely used, you don’t want entries where minor or inconsequential things happen, because it basically is doing extra steps for little content.  If a chart is being used a lot, there’s a point after which you might see the same things happen a lot, in which case – would it be interesting if it happens repeatedly, or will it get old?  Will it be hard to rationalize why it happens repeatedly?

So just keep these things in mind, as I’ve seen both ways happen in charts that have turned them from a play aid into a detriment.  It’s not hard to make a chart, it’s hard to make a chart that aids play.

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Heretical Geese

June 18, 2019

One of my favorite sci-fi authors, Yoon Ha Lee, has co-authored a micro RPG over on – Heretical Geese.

Heretical Geese by Yoon Ha Lee & Ursula Whitcher is a two-page tabletop roleplaying game for a cunning Fox (or GM) and wary Geese (or players).  Can the Geese achieve moral insights before being assimilated?

The game may be of particular interest to fans of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire novels, but does not require familiarity with them.

No animals were harmed in the creation of this mini-RPG.  Some cattens might have been petted, though.



NPCs based on Flags

June 13, 2019

I’m gearing up to run a game that will have an element of politics and intrigue.  The game uses a multiple set of flag mechanics which naturally suggests ways in which you can make a host of characters that can play off of those mechanics.

I realized there’s a sort of list you can go down to figure out things to build the NPCs off of, based on those Flags.  (Consider this a parallel idea to my Seven Types of Antagonists that can combine as you like.)  It lets you make sure you have some well rounded set of issues for the player characters and a good amount of NPCs with motivations to play with so you can improvise during play.

NPCs at “starting points”

The NPCs you create using this are at a “starting point” of the idea and the situation.  They may change their minds, attitudes, alliances, etc. just like any other character – your initial idea may not be how they stay.  They may also turn out to be much more complicated and nuanced than your starting point, so don’t assume this first part is all you have to them.

You play the NPCs like you would any character – look at their motivations, look at what would be dramatically interesting, and go from there.

Alliance/Opposition Roles

Make a list for each player character of these four roles: Solid Ally, Grudging Ally, Opposition, True Enemy.  You can think of this as a cardinal direction set giving you a well rounded situation for politics.

Each player may have a couple of NPCs in each category, but the main thing is you want to make sure you have at least 1 in each of these to start.  As play progresses, these might move around or players might happen to have none in one category for a while.  It’s fine, again, this is about setting up starting points for play.

The same NPC might be in more than one player’s list, and might not even have the same role between those players.  For example, the Vampire Queen might be a Grudging Ally to one PC but fill the Opposition of another PC, depending on their roles and situations.

Solid Ally

The Solid Ally is someone who is strongly in the character’s corner, and willing to take risks and utilize their resources to help.  They may be limited by not have much power, by being far away/busy, or politically tied up and unable to help as much as they like.  The Solid Ally strongly agrees with one of the PC’s values which is probably one of the Flags in the game.

The Solid Ally creates risks/conflict by potentially suffering for being around and aiding the PC, if they are powerful or influential, they risk the opposition escalating and calling in their bigger allies as well.

Grudging Ally

The Grudging Ally doesn’t like you, might be suspicious, or looking for a reason to take you down a notch.  They have decided they WILL work with you, so they’re not going to sabotage you, but they’re also not going to handhold you.  You’re going to have to carry your weight and live up to the cause they’ve decided to work with you on.

The Grudging Ally creates problems by making demands, by working around you when they don’t trust you to do the job (right or at all), they may have methods you don’t like, they might leave you in the lurch after they get what they want or see you aren’t useful to their goals.  They’re also vocal about how they feel, which leads to interpersonal drama.

The Opposition

This is someone who generally works against you but isn’t going to take big risks for it and while they may want to see you suffer or out of the situation, they’re not trying to kill you or see your complete ruin.   These people might just trash talk you, they might lie and gossip, or they might try to sabotage your reputation, career, or goals.  The fact is, beyond a normal person who dislikes you, they’re willing to take some actions.  If it’s a violent situation, they’ll fight you, but they’re not invested in your death – running you off, degrading you, is enough.

It’s a good idea as a GM to think as to why these characters dislike the PC, and as play progresses, whether they might grow to respect the character, or go deeper into their hate of them.

True Enemies

The True Enemy wants you ruined, destroyed, and/or dead.  They are willing to take risks, and will see you ended.  If you are lucky, they have a sense of honor and won’t go after your friends and family, but usually people who are this driven don’t care anymore.

This is not an enemy of opportunity – this is someone who knows of you (by face, name, or at least description) and will gladly shank you, roll a boulder on you, or watch you burn slowly if given the chance.  You may not be their entire life’s aim, but they will need very pressing reasons to not destroy you if given the chance.

Although one would think that True Enemies must have good reasons to go this far (“You killed my brother!”), sometimes the reasons are just pettiness, bias, and/or narcissism  (“How dare she say no TO ME” etc.).    As a GM, it’s really worth thinking about what motivates this character, since, it will dictate both how they go about it – straightforward violence, political angling, manipulation, etc.   Rarely, but sometimes, these characters can be moved from hating the PC into a different attitude, but it usually requires a pretty hefty deed, or occasionally they find out they were mistaken (“Then that means… you weren’t the one who killed my father?!?”).

Authority Chain NPCs

Now, tied in with the above, there’s NPCs that naturally fit given a genre or situation that form a chain of authority – people with the power to give a PC orders, or at least, heavily encourage/discourage certain actions, and people whom the character might have authority over as well.

These types may fit into those four roles in many ways, however since they’re in the same chain of authority as the PC, so there’s usually an assumption of being allied – the types of stories you have when your own “side” is crooked or against you is very different than when at least everyone is nominally working towards similar ends.

Greater Authority – Commander, Mentor, Boss, Liege, Powerful Family members

Characters who have more authority than the PC tend to set up complications just by the fact they have both more power and their own desires.  They may end up giving the PC orders or restrictions they do not like, or make decisions on their behalf without checking in first.  This is even if they are Solid Allies, which is why even under the best of conditions, many people find points of friction with their parents, for example.

As a GM, these characters require some thought, since you don’t want them to make all the choices for the PCs and order them around like a videogame handing out a quest checklist.  You also don’t want them stepping on too many boundaries or the players (rightfully) get resentful and see the NPC as an enemy.

These characters work best when they provide some complications, and sometimes provide support, but not when they’re always around or in the way.

Less Authority – Protege, Assistant, Student, Ward, Charge, Apprentice, Less influential family members

There’s a character who you are responsible for, and you can often make many decisions for them.  How much this character supports you vs. has their own ideas can be a big deal.

As a GM, the easiest version of this character is the assistant or sidekick who is basically a Solid Ally and mostly does what the PC wants, and is generally good at it.  The player doesn’t face much conflict, and the character is pretty helpful.  However, it is worth considering the NPC’s values and goals, and at least letting them be vocal about what they want/feel about various situations, so they’re not just a convenient sidekick.

The characters who are less capable, or less cooperative, are, again, difficult because you don’t want them to be so much trouble the player decides it’s not worth dragging them along on adventures, action and intrigue.

You need to make them at least interesting enough as characters that the player wants to keep them around (Note: interesting doesn’t necessarily mean likable, and also, the player’s desire to have the NPC is not the same as their character’s desire to see the NPC around.)

Equal Authority – Coworkers, Friends, Rivals, etc.

Some NPCs are of equal authority as your character, and sometimes placed in the same role as yours.  Neither of you have the right to issue commands, so you have to cut deals and interact more.  These NPCs also can compete with your in the eyes of greater authorities, and you can argue with each other more easily without rank getting in the way.

This sort of character is easier to come up with and play as a GM, it’s just important to be mindful of what social/genre positions for the characters make sense to have “equal authority”.  If it’s tied to a common role – “We’re all knights” then it’s easy enough.  If it’s a game with unique and strange PCs – “I’m the Wizard who raised Atlantis”, you might have to think hard about what kind of characters are “Equal authority” and what that looks like.

Family Members, Lovers, Close Friends

Of course, onto any of the characters or roles, you can slap one of these categories onto and instantly make things more complicated.

These characters tend to be the most skipped or left underdeveloped.  Mostly because a lot of games are terrible about intrigue and politics and these characters naturally set up chains of obligation and relationship that complicate things.  (Also, just about everyone has personal histories and drama around these roles, which can also complicate the feelings for the actual people playing at the table.)

That said, this is kind of where we see a great deal of who your character is and how they operate in life.  These tend to also be the sorts of roles that a given society (real or fictional) has a lot of values, expectations, and rules around, which makes these relationships ripe for good play around Flag mechanics.

However, if the authority chain roles were a tough balancing act between “complicated character” and “fuck I hate this NPC”, these characters tend to be moreso.

Tying Roles to Flags

This is easy; allied NPCs support the player character in one of their Flags, opposed NPCs work against or challenge the player character in one of their Flags.

Complicated characters might support one Flag and oppose the other Flag, despite the Role you start them in.  For example a character’s father might be a Solid Ally, totally support their career goals, but disapprove of their fiance.  Your rival Knight might be Opposition and want to see your name ruined but will support you in protecting the King from assassins.

Then you can get into NPCs who support one PC, but oppose another, and so on.  Having ties to more than one PC allows an NPC to be multifaceted but if you do too much, it becomes less of a relationship grid and more like 8 dimension hypercube logistics – too much to track.

The One Red Flag

If you can’t come up with an NPC to tie into a Flag in a meaningful way, that’s a sign it’s probably not a good Flag and the player needs to rethink it or reword it better.

Same thing if you can think up an NPC but you don’t feel a little excitement about the conflict or complication it brings.  The whole point is to help people create interesting conflict which is exciting and emotional, so you should at least feel some initial spark to know you’re in the correct direction.

Focus and Calibration 

Generally, gameplay will narrow down the focus on NPCs – maybe only 2-3 get real spotlight in a session, or even over a story arc.  This is fine.  Let the players guide you by which characters create the most interesting interactions.  Also be willing to accept sometimes secondary or tertiary NPCs might become more important than the ones you started thinking would be important.

You may want to rewrite the list in a few sessions to see where the real focus sits, much in the same way I usually find that what people initially write as Flags (goals, issues, conflicts, etc.) usually is NEAR but not quite what really gets them hyped in play – and those first few sessions let you see what the real thing is they’re interested in.

When you hit the good point of conflict and interaction between PC choices and actions and NPC choices and actions feeding off of each other, the initial list of roles falls away – it’s more like a rocket booster to start things in a direction, but you let it drop away once you have got the speed you want.

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Building a play network

June 10, 2019

My current RPG gaming schedule is 3 games a week.  I’m sure if I had the energy, I could probably be running/playing 5 days a week, if I wanted, given how fast people jump up when I put out an offer.   This is… astounding, really.  For 20 years of my gaming career, a great deal of the problems dealt with finding people to play with and keeping it together in the face of logistics, etc.  But once you hit a critical mass, things get a lot easier.

Gamer Adjacency

First, my social networks at this point are primarily people of color who are geeks.

The general geekdom effectively creates a “gamer adjacent” group – some have played an rpg once or twice when they were younger, some bought books but never played, some were always interested but couldn’t figure out an entry point, and some are completely fresh.  Gamer adjacency is a far, far, far larger group than RPGers, so it makes sense to look there first.

The other part, and probably what I would have told younger me, is to have not wasted as much time as I did in white gamer spaces.  If the network is what allows you to play, walking into self-segregated spaces that are full of microaggression (or not so micro ones) are basically poisoned wells in that regard.

So.  Find the geek spaces that you are comfortable in and have lots of good social interactions between baseline treatment and common geek interests.  That starts the social part of things.

Low Commitment Entry

Second, it helps to have low commitment play options to start feeling people out and establishing yourself and the circles of people you want to play with.

I find 3-6 game sessions of 2 hours of duration tend to be the right number for me.  It gives everyone enough time to feel out the group dynamics, feel out the game mechanics, and, of course, get a good idea of their character.  It’s also just enough of a taste of longer play that people can start deciding if they’re into it or not.  (this duration is also how I often run game arcs in larger campaigns, which allows people a little easier time if they need to drop out for various life reasons or just not being into the game anymore).

One shots, I’ve become less a fan of, if only because there’s an overhead of teaching rules and communication and that becomes a lot of work for relatively little play payoff.

Pitches and Setting Expectations

Geeks talk about things they love.  So.  You already can start looking at overlap and figuring out which games might work best from there.  If everyone is into superheroes? Pitch a superhero game.   Epic Fantasy? Lord knows there’s plenty of game systems for nearly any sub-genre or type of story, go with that.

Pitches are best put forward in 3-5 sentences.  “I’m thinking of running (GAME) which is (Geek Media) but with (Different Unique Thing) based around (General story/campaign premise). The game rules really support (epic space battles/intense character drama/long term planning/whatever).  Is anyone interested?  Here’s a link to the quick start rules.”

No point in doing a lot of work until you see if people are interested or not.  Sometimes people won’t be interested, but WILL tell you about what they’re interested for instead, and you can see if there’s a second or third option you’d prefer to run or play.

Also, in doing this, you set expectations since any given geek fandom might have very different takes on the same thing – it’s a good point to see if what makes you excited about (Star Wars / historical religion / post humanism) is what makes them excited  or if it is completely different.

Smoothing Entry

For most games I write a “quicksheet”, a short front and back reference sheet of basic rules and ideas to keep in mind.  I will often include best practices (“If you do X, you get a bonus die, so you should try to do this a lot.”).  If the game’s setting is also important, I might write a separate sheet for that of 1-2 pages.

I often ask what people are thinking about for characters, in order to help guide people on what might fit their idea (“Look here in the book and maybe these options would work for what you need?”) and also to help in case someone is doing something that might not fit this particular story run, especially if it would be disruptive or genre breaking for this game.

But not just your games!

The other thing you’ll start to see as you build your network is other people either are playing, are talking about stuff they’ve played in the past, or will be thinking about running a game of their own.  Encourage and promote that.  If you know someone is about to run a particular game one of your friends probably would enjoy, point them that way.

The more folks who are talking about playing and what fun things happen, the more it self-propagates.  But this has to be based in the real love of what you’re experiencing.  Real games, real fun = real interest being generated.

Migrating Spaces

Geek spaces come and go – some of this has to deal with social factors and glue, sometimes your forum is bought out and shut down by a major company or whatever.

Things happen and the specific venue moves, so now you need to find another venue to keep up the network.   This is not necessarily something that happens overnight – communities fragment and reform maybe 6 months or a year later, even.  So, keep in touch with the tight base of people you know, and be willing to look at the other spaces as they form up.

This is something you should consider as a matter of “when” not “if” and consider things like having a spreadsheet with people’s email addresses or some other means of contact if you find one day things have suddenly come apart.


So… yeah, that’s basically what I’ve learned from the last 4 years or so.  I’ve got a lot of gaming with a lot of different people, and easy access to a lot more if I wanted.

I think a network of people who want to play is more resilient to disruption and allows more variety in play… and probably is the better way to start if your goal is to build the eventual long-term game group, rather than trying to manifest that from the start.

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