Archive for April, 2022


Same Old Song

April 15, 2022

Tanya believes that the only way to change things is to have more non-white, non-male people involved at all levels of the games industry, but especially at the top. “It’s not good enough to have the representation in games themselves be better, but the people writing/making the games are no different,” she says. “People get exhausted coming to work and being the only person of colour, the only out queer person … often people want to speak up, but they also need their jobs, and it’s difficult.”

I remember many years ago, someone wanted to do an RPG based on indigenous mythology and wanted me to be a consultant. I remember asking “Why are you asking me (not an indigenous person) instead of contacting the people whose stories you’re trying to profit from?” Unsurprisingly, they went ahead and made the game anyway, without consulting anyone then got angry when folks pointed out all the incorrect terms and ideas they used.

Just a few months ago, someone brought up a particularly egregious bit of GM advice in D&D 5E which managed to mash together a bunch of asian cultures in a rather loaf-mouthed, extreme ass-showing, full commitment to ignorance fashion.

I also don’t want people to imagine that simply having someone of X culture/descent on their project automatically is a gold stamp of approval either; as Tanya notes – a single team member may not have the clout to push for needed changes or feel safe in trying to push for it. We saw recently in tech several marginalized people have been pushed out, whether they were advocating against open segregation logics in the workplace or bare minimum ethics in the business practices. The fact that so many of these game creative spaces operate from a default of Segregation, or Apartheid in terms of leadership and direction is pretty telling.

And of course, we can’t assume “interest in POC culture” is any kind of indication of good intent, or that it’s not open racist propaganda, like the kind used to rationalize historical genocides, including from “established” publishers, and obviously, it is clearly the opposite of good intentions when people get VERY ANGRY for SOME REASON at the suggestion of folks who are not white men getting creative control and compensation.

As I’ve written before, “who’s writing this?” is actually not even the real question – the real question is whether the game is part of the vast media ecosystem that encourages white supremacy and speaks over and for, people who should be handed the mic directly, instead.

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The Licensed Game Pitfall

April 13, 2022

I am unsurprised that the 5E D&D take on Dark Souls is… not a great fit.

Games built on pre-existing licenses often fall into this problem, usually because the people who decide the licensing have no real experience in the tabletop RPG world; “X popular thing + Y popular thing should work great, right?” It’s a failure based in the idea that most merchandise you expand into still function the same no matter what you put on it: no one says “Oh my Power Rangers backpack should function differently than my Naruto backpack.”. But for games, actually yes, the game should be different because the experience you’re emulating is different.

What are the fans looking for?

First off, you’re doing a license because you want to serve a fan base. It’s a good idea to know what the fans want. Here’s a thing; if you have to do surveys or marketing polls to even get an idea of what fans are looking for, you don’t have an expert on your team and you’re badly positioned. Hire someone who is in the fandom at least to start (also why are you doing this license if you have no fans involved yet?!?!).

In the case of Dark Souls, people love mastery and tactics. There’s an element of player skill involved. That skill can be “git gud” or it can be “I found a way to cheese this enemy”. Both are in the game’s fanbase.

What systems already do this?

What RPGs do anything like what you’re trying to do? Maybe none of them, but are any close or have some ideas you can pull? Legally, RPG mechanics can’t be copyrighted, so, you should research and see. Obviously, if there’s a pre existing system that’s hitting 70-80% of what you want, maybe you can license it? If you’re going to use a system, you should also be KEENLY aware of where the system DOESN’T fit with the things you want to have happen. Because that’s where your hard design work is going to go.

In the case of Dark Souls, there’s the Japanese official Dark Souls RPG (…which…seems like the obvious choice to license), a dozen indie RPGs that go for the Dark Souls feel, and, in the sense of combat mastery, some games that make use of “blow for blow” tactical play, like Riddle of Steel or Burning Wheel.

Project vs. Money

Finally, to one of the key points from the old Forge Forums I wish people didn’t lose; decide how much money you can afford to lose before starting the project and build your final game product within those means. (I wrote about this again back in 2010).

One of the problems that has plagued a lot of TTRPG space is people designing their game book to match other games; “They have 300 pages, I better have 300 pages”. Apparently the Dark Souls game was 500 pages. The Japanese Dark Souls RPG wasn’t 500 pages. The indie RPGs like Rune Cairn aren’t 500 pages. You’re generating a ton of page filler to meet a goal that no one is asking for; it is hustling backwards.

Now here’s the thing; if you go read the article, do you think the fans are more invested in have 500 pages or in having functional core game mechanics? Which would have been a better investment of time and money?

Anyway, it’s deeply frustrating and sad because tabletop RPGs are among the least expensive things to develop (compared to, videogames, Netflix series, mass runs of physical merchandising) and we’re forever stuck in this cycle of bad design choices with licensed games.

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Making Emotion Matrixes

April 5, 2022

Tenra Bansho Zero

One of my favorite RPGs, Tenra Bansho Zero, introduced the mechanic of the Emotion Matrix.

The basic idea is when two major characters in a game meeting, you roll 2D6 and look up a relationship or gut feeling between the two of them, sort of like a prompt that helps skip past the awkward “who is this character and how do I feel about them” that tends to eat up a chunk of playtime. (Other types of media usually either starts with the characters knowing each other, knowing OF each other, or establishes quick cues as to how their interactions are going to go.) Tenra also lets you spend some points to bump around the results because sometimes a choice is a bad fit, or a perfect fit is near by on the chart.

Now, when the Emotion Matrix works, it does amazing things for play and really sparks creative directions you wouldn’t expect. However, TBZ’s emotion matrix has a lot of entries which are… too vague or unclear, which then turns it from “Here’s a helpful prompt” into “What does that even mean?!?” and slows play down. So, unfortunately, for that reason, you can’t just take the TBZ matrix and plop it into other games and get it to work just fine.

What I did for my game

Of course, this is actually where hacking together your own, might be a good idea. I recently ran Dolls of Theseus as a oneshot and figured making an Emotion Matrix would be a good way to keep things moving, quickly.

For the Emotion Matrix I made, I had a few guiding rules to each entry:

  • Try to have clear ideas of what the relationship/feeling is.
  • A little bit of width/room to look at it a couple of different ways.
  • Put in provocative questions for the players to answer, to give them input and direct the story
  • The most rare options should be in the 4 corners, the slightly rare stuff along the edges. (when you bump around an outcome, the corners and edges are the hardest to get to, or get out of.)
  • Some of the entries should tie deeply to the specific game setting/premise (robot parts, missing memories, missing pieces, robot purposes, etc.)

I knew I had done a pretty good job because there was at least one time where the players were like “What we rolled AND all the options to bump to are really interesting! It’s a hard choice.” Not bad given I slapped it together in an hour.

Now, if Dolls of Theseus was a much longer game, I might modify the entries to pull back on some of the more… situation derailing options, if only because the more playtime you have, the more likely you are to get duplicate rolls. And much like comic books and soap operas, you can only meet so many evil twins before it gets played out (that is, usually once).

For Your Games

If you decide to make one for your own game/campaign, it’s worth asking the following questions to set it up:

  • What are the tropes / general types of character histories or reactions that make sense?
  • Are there any that are basically unique or so rare it DOESN’T make sense to put them on the Emotion Matrix?
  • How much of these should be friendly vs. hostile? Should you make 2 matrices, one for positive vs. negative connections?
  • How much should these possibly define histories/backstories of characters? Are your players ok with that?
  • How much should these be tied to a specific place/situation within the setting?

Making the one I did, took about an hour, if only because I had a good set of genre familiarity to pull from and I knew that it only had to survive a one shot. You may want to think a bit harder if yours has to go through dozens of sessions or more.

Second, it’s worth asking “How much can characters bump the results around on the Matrix?” In TBZ, any player can spend points to bump the result around, however, Dolls of Theseus I just decided “you can move it 1 square”. Depending on your game, you may want the option for more, especially if the players will have to deal with the results of the rolls for much longer.

In Tenra, the whole reward cycle is good roleplaying gets points, points give you bonus dice, spending bonus dice helps conflicts, but also forces your character to change, so you do more roleplaying… Other games have far different dynamics so other possibilities are “can bump it 3 steps once a session, or 1 step anytime” or something like that.

Also be aware that this is a mechanic that is antithetical to railroading and narrative-tree GMing. You must be willing the improvise, after all, the NPCs and their goals might be very different than what you envisioned after a single roll on an Emotion Matrix.

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