Archive for the ‘design’ Category


Provoking GM Creativity Via Rules

April 4, 2020

I’m running a game of Apocalypse World and one thing I’m noticing this go around is a way in which the rules do this slick shifting of traditional GM narration framing.

GM as fact creator

When you’re running any game where the GM is expected to create/assign aspects to the world and narrate it, you’re always having to decide “HOW do I decide what is true?”  That may be information you’ve prepared ahead of time (“This character is this strong and has a Strength score of 17”) or it might be something you assign in the moment.

Going from facts to facts

In traditional games, the usual mental framing for the GM when you DO assign something in the moment is what is the most logical thing or really to think of it as if you were looking in on an existing world and what would fit there.  Of course, it’s just you assigning it, but these mental framings are important in terms of how you approach and do things because they shape what you end up doing.

So you’re running a game and there’s a fight and you’ve “assigned” in your head where the enemy is (“Over there, behind the table, taking cover”) and antics happen and the player decides to have their character take a quick look and trying to figure out where the enemy is now.

In this traditional framing, you run through the usual factors “Where would they want to go? How fast could they get there?” or maybe the game assigns a speed stat and you can use that to figure out the positioning and go from there.  (Obviously, all these facts and what ‘makes sense’ is genre context dependent – a superhero game works on different expectations than a gritty street crime game).

Most traditional GMing, the established facts are the PRIME thing to consider, the priority in deciding what new facts and events to create.

Sometimes go to the edge cases

Continuing from the prior example “Where is the enemy?” has a range of possible answers – and you can think of that range as a bell curve – the thing that makes the most sense given established facts is the largest, mostly likely distribution, while the edges are less likely.  If you always pick the middle, things get less interesting, and, as a GM, you’re likely to always go for it because it’s the path of least effort.

Apocalypse World shoves your focus as a GM to the edges, with one simple phrase in many of the moves: “…but expect the worst.”

If we were simply using the facts for new facts and sticking with the most likely answer, then “Where is the enemy?” has the same answer whether you rolled well or rolled poorly and got “…but expect the worst”.

This is only triggered in Apocalypse World when players have a Miss on a roll, this means the answer, the outcome or fact you create as a GM should be substantially different – that fact exists as a Schrodinger’s Cat – an undefined quantum state – until the dice are rolled and you narrate it.

Often times when these rolls come up and I don’t think I have a good answer, I am pushed to improvise a situation that I never would have thought of, had not prepped, and makes the game much more interesting.

Example of Expect the Worst

A couple of sessions ago, a player character was hiding in the husk of a burnt out car while two gangs were fighting in the street.  She made a Read a Situation Roll and asked “Who’s in control here?” and, by the facts, kinda no one was, in the chaos.  But “expect the worst” made me consider “What would be the worst situation? I mean, being caught in this situation is already… bad.”

Oh, wait, of course.

“You just know to look over your shoulder, and you see the ripple in the sky is opened and the psychic maelstrom is looking down on this.  It’s watching, THIS fight, specifically.  The maelstrom is in control here.”

What does that mean? Fuck if I know.  I just know the situation immediately is made worse, if not in a obvious fashion, in a “well, whatever the big picture is, this is extra, especially, not great.”

It encourages you to create twists that you, yourself, as a GM don’t see coming at all, while still retaining a moderately traditional GM role.  As I often say, the simplest rule is “I say a thing and it happens” so every other kind of rule should provide something more interesting than that – having outcomes force the GM to look at the edge cases, “plausible if not immediately obvious” is a pretty great rule to work with.

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Lancer: Comp/Con character builder

January 12, 2020

This.  This is what I’ve been wanting TTRPGs to start doing more often:

Lancer RPG Comp/Con Character Builder

Even if you’re not interested in playing or buying the Lancer game, you should check out the free program for this.  It’s a great example of what we should have for more games that have character builds to track.

  • Easy and clean interface.  Short comments let you know what skills/powers do.
  • Free. Available for Apple, Windows and Linux.
  • Local data.  You don’t need to be online for the app to function.  You don’t need to hope the company will be still running servers 2 years from now, or that someone isn’t funneling malware through it later on.

Now, I also understand that building software isn’t a snap, but for the publishers with more money and resources, this sort of thing is basically the future for mid-to-high build complexity games.

I know a couple of years back people were really excited about D&D’s character builder, but it premium locks most of the options until you pay for that specific book, and whatever point WOTC decides to move on and shut down the servers – you basically have nothing for it.

This is such a contrasting difference in approach to Lancer’s putting the player base first – the people who buy your game and want to play your game need good design tools – money locking it just makes it harder to play your game.

(It’s a far lesser scale, but does remind me of the problem with the D20 attempt at open source design – the way in which it was set up encouraged everyone to only put their LEAST interesting stuff as free, and everything else was held behind a premium barrier – so you got a glut of material, but nothing to encourage increasing quality of design.)


Fiction Feeding

October 1, 2019

Between a couple of games I’ve been playing in and some game design I’ve been doing on my own, I’ve been thinking about something that I’m calling “Fiction Feeding Mechanics”.  These are formalized sorts of designs that come directly from Mo Turkington’s theories on Push and Pull in TTRPG play.

(Also for new readers, whenever I say “Fiction” in reference to tabletop RPGs, I mean the imaginary stuff that’s happening in your campaign and session that you are playing.  Not necessarily whether the game is tied to an existing property or book series, nor the setting stuff specifically.)

Fiction Feeding Mechanics

Game mechanics that take place in the course of regular play that specifically ask questions for people in the play group (players, GM, sometimes specified, sometimes not) to answer that feed into the fiction directly.

The most popular example these days is Apocalypse World Moves – stuff like “You get to ask the GM ‘What is the biggest threat I should be looking out for?'”.

Consider how much more directed this is, than “I rolled 3 successes on Perception. What happens?”.  The classic traditional game mechanic measures success but doesn’t direct narration, which means sometimes you get weak or empty answers, and not necessarily because the GM is trying to cut you out of something, but because it’s a non-directed mechanic and there’s a lot to track and do in play.

Also compare to narration trading games – in those games the key component is who gets the right to TELL something, but it’s not well directed.  The benefit is at least the creative work is spread around so the GM isn’t the only one stuck doing the work, but if the game also expects to limit the scope of outcomes, it simply moves the question of “What are 3 perception successes in the fiction?” to a different player.

As I have often said, the easiest game mechanic is “I say it and it happens.”  So, the second easiest game mechanic is “I ask about it and someone tells me.”  A set of directed questions allows play to move in meaningful directions and avoid things like the jokes about players poking at a normal chair for hours.

Fiction that shows up in play

An important point here, is that a lot of traditional games have a lot of questions during character generation, but much of them end up left behind once play starts.  Sometimes these are because the questions are… not good questions (“What’s your character’s favorite color?” etc.) but also it can be because the game doesn’t have good ways to bring the answers into play.

By putting the directed questions into regular use mechanics in play, you find that it builds a loop of “fiction drives mechanics, mechanics feed fiction”.

Anyway, if you’re designing games, consider what questions would regularly show up in the kind of story you’d want of your game.  The key to a good question is that it either leads to more questions or it leads to more choices/decisions/actions, but not resolving everything.

For example, in a murder mystery game, “Who is the killer?” resolves the situation and ends play, while “Who is hiding something? Who is afraid? Who is desperate? Who is resentful?” are more interesting questions, because while none directly solve the scenario, they bring you along towards it’s resolution (and often along the way show you dead ends, albeit interesting ones.)


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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The rules that do nothing

May 14, 2019

I ended up coming across The Law of the Conservation of Complexity which basically says, for a given situation, there’s a fundamental baseline level of complexity that you can’t simplify any further.  The interesting part is a second note:

One interesting element to this law is the suggestion that even by simplifying the entire system, the intrinsic complexity is not reduced, it is moved to the user, who must behave in a more complex way.

This points to an issue that is longstanding in tabletop RPGs – what the rules don’t cover by procedure, the play group must do.

In some cases, this is trivial (“name your character”) or well covered by established genre expectations and group expectations.

But in many cases, you can find a number of games which were designed with rules minimalism only because the designers couldn’t figure out what TO push and promote, which then ends up either giving very bland play and/or a lot of creative fatigue on the play group to make up the difference.

While the design maxim is true “emphasize everything and you emphasize nothing”, we seem to have a lot of people who also need to hear “emphasize nothing and you emphasize nothing” as a point as well.

I noted years ago that “the easiest system is ‘I say a thing and it happens'” however, rules should provide you something more interesting as an outcome than that to have a reason to exist.