Archive for August, 2020


Bastionland’s Intrinsic/Diegetic Theory

August 29, 2020

This post over on Bastionland on intrinsic/extrinsic and diegetic and non-diegetic fun has a great system for talking about activities and subsystems you build within a game. (Vincent Baker’s post on cues and fiction from 2005 ties in very well with this.)

What’s really useful about this from a design stand point, is that it helps you figure out how a tool is generating the behavior and fun you’re getting from it, or, as a way to consider “why isn’t this quite right?” (Or, “Is this not a good fit for the TYPE of fun I want this game to create?”)

Cohesion vs. incoherency in design

For example, one of my favorite mechanics is Primetime Adventures‘ Fanmail system – it would count as both Intrisic and Extrinsic Non-Diegetic fun – you get tokens that increase your effectiveness in play, but those are given as part of the social reward between players – the group applauding your roleplaying (and, also, encourages everyone to entertain the group as primary behavior). It’s a powerful play loop. (Along with the other mechanics in the game, it sets up the Fruitful Void Vincent Baker referred to.)

The opposite sort of thing might be one of the things that was quite common in 80s and 90s game design – an essay or whole chapters on what “good roleplaying” was supposed to be but worked in direct contradiction to the rest of the mechanics – the Intrinsic and Extrinsic Non-Diegetic rewards were at odds – you were supposed to rely on group social pressure to stop players from following the reward path built into the system too deeply. A lot of the hanging “one-true-way-ism” attitudes about Immersion is leftover from the demonization of Non-Diegetic aspects of play from that era.

Fine tuning design choices

Anyway, from a high theory point, it’s a useful set of axis to start narrowing down some of the issues when people start jousting about Creative Agendas – there’s a LOT of range of different design options and ways to have fun within ANY one of these and I’m thinking this grid is a good way to start isolating factors even within the same Agenda in a way people can identify. (“I like cars” is a phrase many people can say, but why they like them, and what for, can be DRASTICALLY different.)

I think the most use you can get from this early in a design is if you’re looking at other games and trying to identify what’s working or not working in a given system, and when it comes to games you are designing, probably not until you hit the point where “some things just AREN’T working” and you can’t figure out why. That’s when it’s probably good to step back and ask if it’s missing aspects are turned to the wrong type to function well.

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Signal Boost: Help Sean Get Home

August 17, 2020

One of my friends and often-player in my games has been going through a major health crisis for nearly a year, now. He’s been recovering in a care facility, but is looking to get home so he can finish his rehab in a more safe location during this time of pandemic.

If you have a few bucks you can spare, it would mean a lot. He’s looking to fundraise for a wheelchair, a home hospital bed, and to have contractors widen the doors at the house so the chair can get through the front door, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen.

He has a long history in the RPG scene, and had worked in a FLGS for years and we often talk about games from the 80s and 90s. I know we’re in “Worst Timeline Pandemic Hell2020” so obviously, if you can’t do much, I understand.

Thank you for any help you can provide.


Award time!

August 10, 2020

I don’t think I’ve gotten “single-handedly” but I certainly have been dubbed as someone trying to “destroy RPGs” for pointing out things like:

  • Play games you like, with people you like
  • If you have to lie to each other about how the game works, or how you feel about the game, something is wrong
  • If hateful bigotry “makes” the game fun for you, whether that’s the presented materials/setting or what you add in to the game at the table, it’s not a defense as much as an admission on your part
  • Different people want different things from games + not all rules do the same thing – pretending otherwise wastes time and gets people upset.

Anyway, I’m super glad to see more folks creating a better space.


Betrayal games and how to ruin friendships

August 8, 2020

I was initially going to write this up as a post as normal, but in working my thoughts out on Twitter, I pretty much said everything I wanted to say, so I’m just going to copy and paste the text here. Sorry that it’s going to be short and disjointed sentences due to that format.

There’s a dividing line between the games that involve bluffing and betrayal that are generally bad for friendships and ones that aren’t.

It depends on 3 things:

1) Opposition vs. false alliance

Poker everyone knows they’re against each other. So there’s no feeling of betrayal because there was no illusion of being allied to begin with.

2) Personal appeals as the means of bluffing

In Poker, the cards and chips serve as tools you can bluff with or deduce information from. Games like Mafia or Werewolf, the primary means of bluffing is how well you can manipulate your friends.

There’s a certain psychological trick in these games that amplify that feeling of betrayal.

As humans, we are generally understanding that lies scale to a situation and we accept how/why someone would lie depending on context.

“How are you doing?” / “I’m fine.” is a way to simply acknowledge each other & avoid deep/uncomfortable conversations for the situation. An appropriate scaled lie. If you’ve got serious lies that it turns out involve trauma in your life, people are more understanding. Same thing.

So let’s say we’re playing a game of Werewolf or Mafia and there’s no money on the table. There is effectively “no stakes” that are meaningful here. In order to lie successfully, “You gotta trust me” “Please don’t do this, we’re friends” puts the friendship as stakes in play.

So, our brain goes, “You wouldn’t put this high of stakes on the table for an empty game” and that’s how the feeling of betrayal creeps in on one side.

The other side is the person who IS telling the truth and not believed. “If you won’t believe me when there’s no stakes at hand, what will you do if it’s something important that affects my life? I thought we were friends.” is the feeling.

Then there’s a third strategy – sowing distrust away from oneself. That depends on playing up negative emotions between other people in the group. So… gossip to tear people down.

3) Time

Finally, here’s the one that I think amplifies the previous in a really bad way; time. A 20 minute game of lying to each other is a short, quick thing. A 2, 3, 8 hour game is not. That’s the timescale we start talking about interrogation & brainwashing sessions lasting.

Games where there’s an agreed time limit or mechanical limit (including “when you run out of money” in Poker), don’t have this as much, while open-ended games do. People are tired, irritable, but again, “you wouldn’t put this much in for a low stakes game, right?”

People break down over time, and thinking also chews up emotional resistance. It’s why interrogations and brainwashing work this way. But you’re doing it for a game. So the brain assumes this must be, for the only thing that matters; friendship & status of self.

You trigger physical survival mode responses, then play emotional manipulation for long periods of time. So yeah, if a friend betrays me in a 20 minute game, haha, that’s good fun. If a friend betrays me in a 7 hour game and I’m exhausted, that’s just inflicting bad brain stuff.

So basically…

So why are these games so popular? Well, strong emotional stimulus STICKS with people. I think, for some people, there’s a “gotta win” drive that might be normal competitiveness, or, the desire to win from losing previously, as a “redemption” model in their head.

That said, I’m all for betrayal games where there’s mechanical tools besides “know how to plead your friends into believing you” and “know how to read when your friends are turning on you” that don’t last more than 2-3 hours at most.

Just be aware when people say a game “ends friendships” it might not just be people being sore losers and immature, you might be playing a game that’s well engineered to create negative spaces in friendships and add a dose of torturous stress on top of it.

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Playing Flawed Protagonists

August 8, 2020

I never play characters who I think are the best possible people. Not out of the sense of “ooh, edgy bad boy” BS, but rather characters with flaws are more interesting to play, especially if a part of the character’s arc is whether they will out grow them or not.

However, there are some general guidelines I follow in these sorts of characters, because I’ve also seen people use their character’s flaws as an excuse to fuck up a game (“My Guy Syndrome” – “My guy would do this” “I’m just playing my guy” etc.).

Flawed, not despicable

For PCs, I play characters who I, personally as a player, feel are good people or at least people trying pretty well to be good. That means I don’t include flaws that would make them horrible people, in part because I would just feel terrible playing that kind of character all the time.

As a GM, I’ve run some NPCs that make me actually feel bad, not because they didn’t anything particularly traumatic, but they’re just the people who I truly despise the most. For example, in a Sorcerer game, I played a tech CEO who would constantly come up with ideas that are… objectively bad, irresponsible and ruinous to communities. He didn’t have to hit anyone, abuse them verbally or physically, etc. he was just such a callous person who would casually monetize disaster, that…. eeesh.

So anyway, I think of a character and I give them a flaw that I know I can live with over the course of a campaign – I do hope to see them overcome the flaw, but I’m also willing to pull one of the principles from Apocalypse World and place “being true to this character” (in terms of growth) as a guiding directive.

Plays well with the group

I make sure my characters have reasons to interact with the group – the “loner/anti-social” character who actively pulls away from the other characters rarely works out well in tabletop. While, to be sure, in most games you play with the characters as a party or a band of allies, even in games where it’s all rivalry and drama, you want motivations pointing the characters to interact with each other.

So, when you pick flaws, you want flaws that make the characters complicated to each other, but not necessarily enemy-making or causing the other players to decide “Oh hell no, get rid of this person”. I played a character who would not kill, but had no problem using violence outside of that. And it was complicated because at first the party is like “Oh, you’re the muscle” and then to find out he’s “I do harm reduction. If someone needs to be knocked out, cool. But I’m not taking a life.”

It’s even better if the flaws enable or tie into other character goals/motivations, so then you set up this interesting dynamic where your character’s problems are also in a way, helpful.

I played a magical talking cat who had the knack for doing cat things – getting where he shouldn’t, breaking things, and being a bratty cat – inevitably this became helpful whenever the party was in a jam or impasse – a little chaos, someone finding the inconvenient truths behind the curtain, or willing to rile up deceivers into dropping their masks worked well. Of course, all of these things usually makes you enemies as you go along, so he was also a source of trouble as it was.

Overcoming Flaws

We all love the story where the character transforms into a better person in an epiphany, and sees triumph. This sort of thing is hard to do in RPGs if only because it is hard to structure most conflict and interaction in ways to highlight this sort of thing without a lot of planning and editing.

So, instead, I look for characters to evolve in stages. Sometimes it’s finding a line they won’t cross with regards to their flaw. And that line gets drawn tighter and tighter so the flaw is smaller and smaller.

Sometimes, it’s that the character develops a coping mechanism and a better way to do things so the flaw isn’t a problem as much anymore. It’s good to look at the other characters in the game and ask yourself if your character ever gets enough awareness to go “Oh, I should just do like they’re doing.” and grow as a person.

Also, as situations evolve in a game, your motivations and goals change, which might also change your flaws or have you outgrow them. If your character is nationalistic, maybe when the Demon Lord tears through the world and hell gates are everywhere your character suddenly realizes the rivalry between two kingdoms is meaningless and has to find a new path.

Flaws I like to use


The character has done something (or at least blames themself) and now has oriented their goals and way of doing things around fixing/never doing X again.

Always listens to X

The character has another character they always go along with their plans or ideas, even if these are poorly thought out or have glaring issues. Your character might have a LOT of good sense and insight otherwise, but when it comes to this person, they always trust, or eventually fold and accept the plan. (You can also externalize this to NPCS – “Always listens to my parents”, “Always listens to the clergy.”, but it mostly depends on the campaign and situation on how often this will come up).

Important Moral Line

There’s a thing your character won’t do. And this thing is quite likely to come up in play. If you can’t think how this will get complicated and difficult for your character you don’t have the right moral line.

Be aware, however, don’t pick a moral line that’s simply obstructionist to the point of play. If you’re playing a band of thieves, it’s fine to have a character who won’t steal from certain types of people, or steal certain things, but not someone who is opposed to theft from the start.

Mild Overconfidence

I say “mild” but this is actually the sort of overconfidence that’s mostly out there – it’s not complete foolhardiness, it’s just taking on things a little above what you should be, and not properly planning or thinking about it ahead of time.

Obviously, in high lethality games, this is shitty for both you and allied characters, so maybe not in the sense of life/death risk but other fields it would work fine.

Inattentiveness and ignorance also work here as well. The nice thing about this kind of flaw is… well, there’s lots of real world examples – it’s the minor problems you get yourself into, your friends get into, and so on. Most of us only have a few places where we’re like this, so you can figure out what would be the most entertaining.

Generally – the best kinds of these flaws put you into troublesome situations, gets you interacting with other characters more, and so on.


Your character has a code of honor about something. For me, it’s usually stuff like “If someone is harmed by your actions, even accidentally, you have to make restitution.” “If you make a promise, deliver on it.” etc. You don’t need to announce these things, just play your character following it.

This, of course, becomes a flaw when your character encounters places where these simple values start to become impossible due to the stuff that happens in RPGs. Who and what will your risk to stay true to your belief? How bad will you feel for breaking it?


I like to pick one topic/thing the character is really afraid of, whether they’ve been threatened by it directly or saw someone get hurt/killed by it, or otherwise had lives ruined. Sometimes that fear is “I just want to live my life and not lose everything I’ve worked for.”

The key is not irrational “omg run screaming” but the other issues like avoidance strategies, hesitation, asking for reassurance, or the character basically going into a panic attack/hyperventilating AFTER facing the thing. Our media usually goes for 2 dimensional melodrama around fear, but subtler, more realistic reactions tend to work better in RPGs.


Give your characters a fun flaw or two. Make sure they’re fun for the group, not just yourself. Be true to the character, but also know the character can, and should, grow and change.

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