Archive for the ‘theory’ Category


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.


Guaranteed Input

March 21, 2021

Many months late, I come across Cavegirl’s Theory of Hard & Soft Tools which is an excellent summation of the design issue around types of player input, GM fiat, Procedures vs. Directives, undirected broad authority, and the old conversations around Push & Pull play and mechanics.

For the last month or so I’ve been trying to formulate a good way to talk about hard tools and “guaranteed input”, but that post kinda covers most of it. This idea is also one of the points of why narration trading is an easy and useful feature to include in games aiming for Narrativism; when the whole group has the potential to completely change the direction of any story, railroading, or Illusionism cannot function.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because on one hand, there is a treasure trove of design theory available (GDC talks, boardgames, etc.) RPG design is only -just- starting to tap into it and a lot of the old spectres keep popping up, including confusion “light systems”(short word count) for being the same as systems that are supporting or complete when mostly it shovels the work onto the group or the GM and provides rather inconsistent play experiences across the board.

It is true that the simplest rule is “I say the thing and it happens” and everything else is more work, but fundamentally for play to have a direction and momentum, mechanics should be contributing to that as well. A system that “gets out of the way” is basically saying you’re going to swim because you’ve found all vehicles are bad because you kept driving cars into water and wondering why they don’t float, instead of trying something that does what you are trying to do – get a boat instead.

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Video on Situational Game Design

March 11, 2021

Longtime RPG theory heads will see parallels with Vincent Baker’s stuff on How Rules Work, The Fruitful Void, etc.


Layering understanding: Players vs characters & audience

January 27, 2021

I often find a lot of good ideas in RPG theory/understanding by looking at other games or media genre analysis, and something I’ve been thinking a lot about is how speculative fiction ends up presenting a double hurdle. The creator has to present a strange/different world to the audience, and then, often, the difference between what is normal for the characters in that world vs. unusual/exceptional for those characters.

RPGs, however, have an additional layer; the group is both the creators and the audience, which means:

  1. You need the group to find a way to coordinate on what they’re creating – this either usually comes in the form of setting text, safety tools, guided or (most of the time) unguided discussion up front, or direct tools in play.
  2. You need to figure out what aspects are more fun for the players to know, but their characters don’t, vs. what is fun to be revealed to both the player and character at the same time.

Consider, for example, a religious or folklore belief of a character in a fantasy game:

  1. The belief is cosmologically true; the player and the character both know this.
  2. The belief is cosmologically true; the player knows this, the character is unsure.
  3. The belief is cosmologically true; the player is unsure (assuming a GM game, the GM knows), the character is played as believing it true.
  4. The belief is cosmologically false; the player knows and the character does not.
  5. The belief is cosmologically false; neither the player (again, assume a GM knows) nor the character knows.
  6. The belief is actually irrelevant to the events in play – it might never be proved or proveable in play. (Add in every possible iteration about player/character knowledge as well.)

Of course, in this case I’m using fantasy religion and presumably some thing like “Dragons are enemies of the gods” or whatever, but you could easily put in stuff like “The government is working for aliens” or “This elected official was against the war the whole time” or whatever is relevant to the setting/game.

Ah, but designing for this

Now also ask how you communicate this in a game text to a group?

A lot of older games in the 80s and 90s would have a GM section, where the “truths of the setting” were placed, however, this simply assumes players who won’t read it, or haven’t GM’d the game, or played in the past and been exposed to the “big reveals”.

I’m not even saying there’s ONE way to do this; several of these options might be better for a given genre, setting, or game, or worse for them. I do think, however, it’s a complicated idea about the roles of creator(player, GM, etc.), characters in play, and how we play them, and it’s not like you can simply shove a bunch of theory at a group and say “yeah now play this”.

The easiest way is that everything presented is both true for player and character; you don’t have to do a lot of mental displacement. The next easiest method is that the players have full knowledge while the characters may or may not have knowledge (common in a lot of horror games).

I don’t have easy solutions, but, as usual for me, mapping out the issue is the first step towards getting the navigation tools around it. My suspicion is that the solutions will probably be very game specific about “You know this vs. your character knows this” and that a broader theory would not be mentioned in any given game (or to a group you’re running with).

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Backporting design from FF6 to Tabletop

December 1, 2020

I’ve been saying for years that the design theory/analysis in videogames is light years ahead of tabletop RPGs and often when I post stuff here related to videogames, it’s because there’s good crossover to bring back to tabletop. In this case, I recently picked up Patrick Holleman’s Reverse Design: Final Fantasy 6 book, which goes over some rather useful stuff for folks into tactical combat RPGs.

First, all the caveats; the book is mostly useful for people doing videogames – only a couple of key points are good for bringing back, and I’ll summarize them below. The book is both short (64 pages) and pricey – it uses small font so it’s denser than it appears. Still, this is probably one of the best examples of game design analysis I’ve seen.

Fight Duration and Real Durability

One of the key points is the way in which combat is built over the course of the game; the expectation is that most combats go for a consistent amount of time for the player – that is, most will be about X number of rounds long. Which means, as the party gains levels, the current encounters should match in defensive/offensive ability to last a similar number of rounds. The average number of hits a monster can take is it’s “Real Durability” – regardless of the specific numbers on the stats. Whether this is exactly mapped out by most turn based JRPGs or not, it becomes a defacto design logic; you can see the same in many other games as well.

Now, in tabletop, as power levels advance, we tend to see combat tends to either drag out, or shorten drastically. For games like D&D, this is usually the double pitfall of hitpoint inflation and instant incapacitation, respectively. Likewise, another problem is that a lot of games choose to cause the gap in specialized strengths of a character/monster type vs. the type of resistance by a non-specialized type to grow so much that it becomes a game of who can fire off their their attack first. In all these cases, real durability isn’t really considered at all.

This is why you see stuff like people taking D&D and limiting it to “sweet spot” levels, like the E6 hack (PDF link) – the issue of keeping play within certain bounds can be done by simply excising the later levels where the issue becomes worse.

Now, to be fair, the way in which you apporach Real Durability in a tabletop must be considered a little different than a videogame; players come up with clever solutions, the math isn’t as complex as videogames to create the perfect bell curve that allows for more consistent calculations, the number of combats for a TTRPG is thousands which means averaging matters more, and Class/Role convergence (see below) typically has to be well dressed up for players to accept it (at least in mainstream TTRPG culture).

AI over number inflation

One of the things I found intersting to discover was that the endgame enemies in FF6 didn’t have a lot better stats than prior monsters, what they had was better AI that caused them to pull out better attacks earlier. I have found this is generally a true issue in games in terms of how dangerous you can make a monster with the same stats.

Now, of course this idea isn’t surprising to any long standing GM, but it’s worth considering how many TTRPGs rely on stat inflation as the default. And again, not just “numbers go up to stay in line with the PCs” but rather the numbers go up fast enough that fights suddenly start either dragging out or getting very swingy and short – Real Durability swings.

Usually when I see game advice about making combatants smarter in tactics, is either based in Simulationist “realism” or those old vindictive “how to be a killer GM” kind of books – not as a measured, considered set of advice for Gamist play based directly into the existing rules. Consider if your monster stat block had 3 challenges, and different tactical instructions, maybe an extra power or something, but mostly the same stats which played much differently based on the challenge level.

Class/Role Convergence

A key point for FF6 is that the large cast of PCs, and how often the game has you playing with a split up group, means that they had to try to bring more of the characters to a closer range of ability to keep encounter balance reasonable (and Real Durability similar). What this means is that as characters advance, they become more similar in damage output/defense so party makeup becomes less an issue.

In tabletop RPGs that use a “balanced party” design, the problem is that class role is often tightly silo’d by making those differences stronger, not weaker. In turn, this means fights tend to be more swingy depending on how well the optimal folks can do their thing (or not at all) and that the balance of encounters gets much worse once any character is incapacitated – often leading to the dreaded ‘death spiral’. This is also why the classic D&D rule is “never split the party”.

A secondary issue is that the expectation of a ‘balanced party’ means new players are expected to have enough system mastery to even know what that is supposed to be for the game to begin with. Ironically for all the complaints that D&D 4th edition “made the game like an MMO”, the fact that classes became more alike meant you didn’t have to lock in exact party compositions as tightly as other editions; that is, one of the big things you have to do in MMOs.

Game (re)design is hard

If you’re designing a new RPG that uses combat, these are things you can apply to build a more robust design that has less rough spots. Unlike a JRPG, you don’t have control over encounter composition and moment to moment experiences other groups have, but you CAN pull out the swinginess and build in more meaningful tactical changes.

If you’re playing an existing game, you probably can see how much of these issues tie down to a structural problem in the system. Upping opposition tactics for higher difficulty is probably the easiest one to bring in, but the other issues around role differentiation and combat consistency are deep system structures that effectively require a full redesign.

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