Archive for May, 2021


“Go make your own” “No not like that”

May 29, 2021

As of today, Into the Motherlands Kickstarter is four times funded and has several weeks to still go. It has 14 videos on Youtube showing play and setting in action, using Cortex Prime, which they have stated may or may not be the final system they work with, but clearly shows they have a strong vision for the game.

As usually happens, angry Hatebros are upset to see POC doing well and succeeding and we basically get the same questions that rarely seem to spring up for white creators. It’s no surprise that racists come out in droves when anyone excels in ways that make whites feel jealous.

It’s wild to me because you can look at most IP/Franchise based RPG conversions and see a lot of terrible design and those give you even less info on what the vision / goals of system are and we don’t see open accusations of fraud or deception…

Anyway, we’re back to the same old problems we’ve always had. Some folks got “whites only” signs in their heads and at their game tables and are very angry other people don’t play by those rules.


GDC talk: Indie RPGs and Narrative Design

May 28, 2021

This talk is from 2019 but now is available on Youtube. A very cursory overview of some ideas in RPG design, focused a lot on games and the folks who came out of the Forge and Storygames circles. This is a lot of what helped develop my Same Page Tool and you can also see on the right hand side of this blog, the link list with Forge Theory entries if you want to read about the stuff around Player Agenda or Big Model Theory.


Puzzlebox Backstories

May 5, 2021

I was talking to a friend about stuff I’ve been GMing and stumbled upon the perfect wording for something that’s been bounching around in my head for a while – “Puzzlebox Backstories”. It’s something I do a lot in games, but I didn’t have a good word for it. I’m sure I’ve probably heard this term on a podcast or something somewhere about movies or books, but I’m going to talk about how I’ve been doing this in RPGs specifically.

The basic idea

A Puzzlebox Backstory is either a backstory to a character, to an NPC, to a place, or series of events, that is revealed in pieces and designed to play out suspense and drama by being revealed in parts. For RPGs, this is created by one person (whether GM or player) and revealed to the rest of the group over the course of play.

In static media, NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, Nolan’s Memento, Yoko Taro’s Nier Automata, and Atlus’ 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim are all examples of amazing use of Puzzlebox Backstory logic to build intricate plots.

This pre-designed backstory is crafted to some level before it is revealed – not simply improvised on the spot, even if the rest of the game setting is often built by improv – hence, the Puzzlebox – there’s something in the box, already, you just gotta shake, press and shift it to get it out.

That said, this is NOT supposed to be the entirety of play – it is not railroading or Illusionism – these should be cool bits of character development or history that are running alongside whatever the actual spotlight of the campaign is. You will be flexible in when/how these things get discovered, unlike railroading where you must force everyone’s hands in a variety of ways.

Building a Concept

First off, figure out the scope of the thing you’re dealing with – is it a single character, a couple of characters together, an organization, a place, an item? As you’re thinking of what the “secret” is, or perhaps a series of things, it is important to try to find something of this scale – it’s enough the group will be interested in it, but it’s not so overwhelming as to overwrite, or retcon everything so the story is just about (this one thing). The single protagonist hyperfixation can work in static media, but does not work with a group making a story together through play.

Good things for characters: Hidden feelings, past crimes/failings, previous allegiences, blood/family ties, bad goals, etc.

Good things for objects/places: Emotional events, evidence of wrongdoing, history, cultural weight, secret magic, etc.

You may come up with a couple of ideas nested together – 1-3 is a good number. More than that tends to fall down. It also works well if you have one broad idea that many other specific ideas can come from – for example, if there is a lost history of a magical war, you can create a lot of specific incidents or places that are built on that larger idea.

Navigating this with your groups’ expectations of play

If you’re playing a traditional GM/Player split RPG, then coming up with these things as a GM is expected. If you’re a player coming up with these for your character, it can be useful to tell the GM, and maybe the group, that you’re adding some stuff to your character to be revealed later.

Depending on how well you know each other as a play group, this may require more or less discussion – for example, you don’t want to do anything that will step on other players’ sense of their own characters or over-hog spotlight with your backstory.

If you’re playing a non-traditional game, for example, games with a lot more narration trading between the group, you should probably let the group know you’re adding more to a character or a thing – you’re setting up a Puzzlebox, so they know not to accidentally narrate over it.

Servings, not walls

Now, here’s the thing to master; the reveals should happen any time it makes sense, and it shouldn’t be too hard to get them. It is not walls the rest of the group needs to break through – it’s servings at a multicourse dinner. You WANT everyone to get into the story and follow it it to the end, and they should want it too. If they get to some things earlier, or faster, or through all of it, before you expect, that’s fine, too.

This is ultimately where Illusionism and Railroading fall down in trying to get this – they want people to get invested in the clues adding up, but because artificial walls and redirection happen all the time, the group is simply taught to stop trying and just wait for the “Mother May I?” of the scenario to play out.

The end of the Puzzlebox Backstory

What happens when everything (or everything important anyway) is revealed? Well, for the setting, there will be more interesting bits to go with, and for characters, they still have interesting motivations, even if their past motivations are already revealed. While these things are fun, again, they shouldn’t be the core focus of play, otherwise it begins to feel a bit like M. Night Shyamalan movies – there’s no depth past the reveal, it’s a one trick pony and it gets old quickly.

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Map Crow – a great video on dungeon design

May 1, 2021

This is a great video highlighting in a simple, concise way, some of the things I was (poorly) trying to communicate in my dungeon design series. I really appreciate that he points out that you have to foreshadow some information for people to be able to make meaningful choices, and, that information can also be a reward in turn.


May Game Hype

May 1, 2021

This last month has been really hard on my RPG fun – both my games missed 2 weeks of sessions and work has been crushingly stressful. We’re still playing Perilous and Uncharted Worlds, and there’s not much new to report there. I did manage to do some game design somewhere in that, and have to playtest some things later down the line. My hype is pretty low right now because all I can think about is wanting to take a break when these arcs hit their end point.

The Shape of Shadows

I backed this Kickstarter, because, even though I haven’t gotten deep into solo/journaling RPGs, it sounds along the lines of weird mystical journey stuff, which was what I wanted more from old WW’s Mage series but they kept moving away from it. That said, I’m looking forward to seeing how this is set up and how it works, especially with the “everyone is playing alone, but together” – which seems to be a sort of common thing for a subset of videogames these days as well.

Ironsworn – Starforged

I haven’t yet looked at the original Ironsworn, but given that this game is supposed to support both solo and co-op play, I think that’s pretty interesting and worth checking out. I guess part of the game is lots of inspirational charts, and we’ll see how well those are set up – I find people either do a good job of building great material for those things or they build mostly empty and not non-functional entries that cause more work in trying to figure out how to use it. Given the fact that this is the sci-fi version of Ironsworn and it’s doing so well, I’m going to guess it’s doing something right? It’s 3-4 games deep on my sci-fi backlog of things to play so it’ll be awhile before I get to it and can say more.

Hardwired Island

Cyberpunk that actually focuses on the punk part. I’ve just picked this up and barely skimmed the mechanics, nevermind the setting. I really like how flexible the character creation is – there’s plenty of defining roles to pick up, but a lot of things are customizable in interesting ways. The last few times I tried to come up with a cyberpunk setting it got really depressing really fast, and this game looks like it has enough balance of the real problems vs. hopeful possibilities that I think I could play or run this without it being “10 years from now, how fucked are we?” the RPG.

Hearthside Woodworks Dice Tray

I don’t think we’ll be gaming in person until next year, but I got sucked into looking at fancy dice trays. Most turned out to either be too gimmicky or too expensive for what I wanted, but the Hearthside one was small, affordable, but high quality. I like that there’s enough depth in the tray that I can add an additional layer of felt or cloth if I want to muffle the dice roll more and the forward cut out is a small ergonomic choice that makes it easier to grab the dice after you’ve rolled them.