Archive for May, 2020


Gamist Design: Status Effects

May 29, 2020

I try not to do too many “here’s a video, watch this” posts, but this video covers a lot of ideas for gamist design – though it covers videogames, it’s not hard to see the overlap with tabletop games, especially when they talk about how many of the alternate mechanics are basically to create complexity beyond “I hit, you hit” gameplay.

The key issues about reward/payoff, and reliability, are huge. We used to see this kind of analysis in the old WOTC D&D forums, which, despite anything else, drastically improved the dialogue around gamist design in a general sense, from the prior fuzzy “If you don’t like it, just make up new rules” or “Well, just rule that it doesn’t work and then the players have to do something else” handwaving.

If you’re considering doing gamist design, do watch this video for a good summation of the usual sorts and what pitfalls to avoid.


The Wondrous, or not

May 14, 2020

Well, the last few months have definitely slowed my usual font of imagination.  Still, I do end up thinking about HOW genres work to get some ideas of what underlies it all.

In this case, I’m thinking about how some media is magical and wondrous (whether that’s fantasy, sci-fi or whatever) and others might HAVE magic, but it’s not so wondrous.  And that’s not a knock on the latter – it’s just that I think people aim for the former and end up with the latter more often.


The key point I think defines the difference is whether the mysterious weird stuff you’re presenting in the setting feels knowable, whether or not it is explained in the story or game or not.

If your sci-fi has a hovercar, and people use it like an old beat up hooptie to drive around, it’s not wondrous even if it is unusual to us in the real world.  It feels knowable, both in concept, use, and character interaction.

And I think that’s a key point – character response helps us ground what our expectations should be in a movie, show, book, etc.  If you have a weird floating stone that hovers and everyone walks around it in awe… well. I mean it’s flying just like the hover-junker, just that we don’t know how, why or what it means and clearly the characters don’t either.

…now put it in roleplaying games…

For presented media, we, the audience, only get what is shown to us.  The creators may have come up with complex rules about everything, or just handwaved it all, but we only get what is presented, and part of the craft is figuring out what they want to present or not.

In games, the group is both the creators and the audience.  And this means usually you need more agreement about how things work – whether that’s from a more traditional game “these stats help define what things do” or a more story focused “these things fit within genre expectations”.  So in that sense, the illusion of “this world exists out there, somewhere” is broken under the fact that the curtain is pulled back on what is “knowable vs. we’re handwaving this in the moment”.

Obviously, if you have genre expectations about what makes things wondrous, that helps. (Glowing, floating, unseen winds, weird sounds, voices, etc.  Movies and anime have all this in abundance.)

However, I find beyond that, it can help if games assign some authority to specific people in the group to make hidden information that is revealed during play.  That ranges from your characters’ backstories, to the GM’s NPCs and “big plot” and so on.  In our current Universalis game, we’ve divvied up certain plots as ownership for a given player – their role is to drive forward conflict around that thing and also create any hidden elements to reveal in play.

Avoding pitfalls

RPGs have had a bit of a tough time around this, sometimes.  The biggest pitfall a lot of folks end up in is that all the magical stuff has a lot of very consistent rules, well explained, and it is no longer mysterious or wondrous.  (Which is fine for a gamist goal, less so for other types of play.)

Sometimes people mistake this for “rules destroy the wonder” in a game, but rather, it’s that the mystery is gone from what SHOULD be mysterious (at least by that individual’s preference) and not that there are rules to be used.  The “Here’s 10,000 years of detailed history” setting write ups in games do the same thing, oftentimes.

I think part of it is making sure to know what is important to NOT explain and to stick to it.

Now, the other issue is that unlike a presented media, where the creators can edit and pace things to move the action along so you don’t spend too much time with the mysterious strange thing and are left wondering, a game often has players immediately drawn to poke at these things.  And often enough in games, the characters are experts in fields, have magic or tech to dig out more info, and some people will spend a lot of time just trying to play scientist.

This is where it’s really helpful to have had that discussion about the type of game you’re playing, genre expectations, etc.   Just as much as “Shopkeep haggling the Epic RPG” is not a game most people are interested in, “Where on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness is the floating stele that summons the Star God and how can we test it?” is also not a game most people are interested in.

It’s useful to set up expectations of where it makes sense to poke and where things are just there for fun and decoration, so that your players know “some things are actually best left unknown” and also to save time and avoid conflict ahead of time.

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“When do we roll the dice?”

May 13, 2020

I try to make an effort to play with folks new to roleplaying since they often bring new ideas, and ask good questions for things you’ve internalized and forget to examine.   We did a big talk/geek out session recently and one of the players asked “How do you know when to roll the dice/not roll the dice?”

I think this is a great question, because that “not roll the dice” is also when you decide “it just happens, no question” as well.

Is this a challenge given the genre expectations?

The example I used is “Can Spiderman climb that wall? Yes of course Spiderman can climb the wall unless some real wild stuff is happening to actually make that a challenge.”

I point to genre expectations because it usually highlights what IS and what ISN’T considered a reasonable focus for conflict.  Some games will set these things in their mechanics, but many do not, and you’re forced to find a guideline yourself – genre expectations are usually a good place.

Tied into it is also the sort of character specific questions as to their background and expertise, which, in turn, also defines something as a challenge or a freebie.  The sailor knows what a good sailing wind is, no need to roll dice.  The baker knows good fire wood, etc.

Incidentally, when I run investigation-ish situations, I try to consider what certain PCs would notice/figure out just on the basis of their training and give them that info for free – it shows their character at their expertise.

Is there an interesting failure or success result?

If there’s no interesting failure, then you have to think about what you’re asking the player to do – roll the dice for a boring outcome.  The running joke had become “Roll to tie your shoes – oops you’ve fumbled and strangled yourself.”

If there’s no good interesting outcomes, don’t roll the dice.  (Also, if it seems like something that should have interesting outcomes, maybe the problem has to to do with the situation and loading the stakes higher?)

You’ll also notice this is why, for most games, stuff like “bargain with the shopkeep” and “Cook a pot of stew at camp” aren’t actually that interesting to play out.  Ryuutama is one of the few that actually does track all this, though the fact is that it’s basically loading up all these camping things into how well rested/fed you are when it comes to more obvious danger/hazards.

Are we spinning the wheels here?

This is a big one.  Sometimes players get stuck in a loop – explaining what they’re doing, arguing back and forth.  “Ok, there’s a conflict, let’s roll the dice.”   The thing is, this doesn’t block the player from doing things, but it does mean we’re not going to spend a ton of time on this action.

The other benefit of making this call is that it requires players to do a few things.  First, it helps me figure out what the goal is if it isn’t clear – “Are you really trying to convince them to do XYZ, or is there a different angle here?”

Second, they have to commit for the action.  Rarely does it turn out to not be a thing that is a real conflict, but when it is, I get more clarity on what’s happening “Oh we’re just roleplaying our characters bickering” “Ok, well, it’s been 10 minutes of it. If no one has anything serious, I’ve got an idea for the next scene.”


The best thing is when the mechanics make it an easy question by tying clear fiction situations to clear procedures (“If swinging a sword, roll X”), but if you can’t have that, making guidelines for yourself improves the consistency of when this happens.

And consistency is necessary for the group to understand how to play together.   If the basic idea of how the game works (in a play sense, in a “system as we actually play it for real” sense) keeps changing, players can’t really predict how to do things in game and make meaningful choices in any sense.

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