Archive for the ‘theoryforplay’ Category


The UI Hurdle

April 3, 2023

I’ve been playing a lot of RPGs online for… well, more than a decade now. One thing that has occurred to me is that the user interface for playing online has… stalled out after a point. Generally we have virtual tabletop services that you can use which unfortunately have the tendency to automate things in a way that is more complicated and difficult than the non-automated option you would normally have.

Why is this so hard?

Last year I ran Thirsty Sword Lesbians, which is a Powered by the Apocalypse game. PbtA games are usually a low-medium crunch game with a very easy “handle” or interface for players;

  • Say what you want to do
  • Roll 2d6 add or subtract a number no greater than 3
  • Pick from a list on the Move the GM told you

Playing on Roll20, however, using the system that is literally built in for TSL specifically, every roll was kind of an involved affair:

  • Open up your character sheet
  • Hunt for the Move on the character sheet. Scroll to find it.
  • Hunt for the pop up window asking if you want a modifier added (doesn’t always pop up to the front)
  • Then Roll the dice, jump over to the main Roll20 window
  • Go back and find your character sheet window and look for the Move to actually figure out what the roll outcome means.

This would… be more reasonable if you only did this a few times a session, but you tend to do it like a dozen times or more, and that’s for each player, and it never seemed to get easier. The UI turned an easy process into a painful process.

While this is the most egregious example, it’s also true of most other games I’ve run or played; the interface makes playing or running games harder, rather than easier, most of the time. I’ve been running a campaign of Errant and I realized not having an integrated character sheet in Roll20… made things faster. We recently moved to rolling physical dice and calling results rather than using the roller in the app, and things are faster still. So…

The Minimalism Workaround

This isn’t a manifesto or some kind of call to “ideals through play”, just… a set of workarounds I’m going to play with over the next year and see how much it improves my play experience in speed, mental load, and handling; as well as the experience of my players.

The basic principle here is readability and minimalism is better than completeness when and where the UI is not well set up.

Methods I’m going to work with:

  • Skip dice rollers, use physical dice and call outcomes where possible.
  • Go for minimalism/cleaner designs in character sheets over completeness/complexity; some things players can figure out to drop into a “notes” section if they want to record it, while other things are play-critical to track.
  • Reduce the number of tabs/windows a player will need to reference. Ideally just character sheet if possible.
  • Where maps are needed, consider other collaborative presentation tools to have maps + tokens rather than the mess that is most VTT systems.
  • Play around with in-browser tools to assist navigating tabs/windows where needed. (For example, Chrome’s “Group Tabs” will let you a) have a group with only a single tab in it, and b) color and rename that tab – making it easier to find)

Key restrictions include:

  • I don’t want my players to have to pay for new apps/services
  • Whatever we use has to run on older computer hardware
  • We are all very tired and half brain fried by the time we get to play; we do not have the capacity to learn new hotkeys or juggle through 8 massive bars of icons that look more at home on a professional art software system than a game of imaginary magic sword wielders.

I’m not sure I have an answer, and I’ll probably have to come back at the end of the year with some better ideas or discarding others, however, given the general stalling out of VTTs, I don’t think waiting and suffering is better than just doing the ideas I’ve got now.

Anyway, feel free to play with some of these if you, too, have been finding the small bumps in online UI getting increasingly more annoying and time consuming, and I hope we can figure something out until someone can do better for “needs more support than freeform, needs less tools than ‘complex layered map + 500 condition tracking stat’ games”.

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Mystery Quest

February 12, 2023

Elsewhere, some folks are having a pretty great conversation about how one sets up a mystery in TTRPGs. Not, like, the step by step of it, but the broad issues about why these things are hard and the issues of setting up info ahead of time vs. coming up with it in the moment and all of that.

And I realized one thing I’m going to do going forward in the games I run; if solving mysteries is a “thing to do” even if it’s a tertiary aspect of the game, I’m going to just give players XP/points/whatever when they verbalize the solution in a way that they feel 70% – 80% correct in it. Having them spend a lot more energy trying to dig up info when they have the crux of it, seems wasteful of time, anticlimactic, and RPGs are generally not well set up to do the “ah ha! The killer is in this room!” dramatic reveal scene.

Giving them the points hits the climax of the situation, and also lets them know, as the audience, that this was correct.

While videogames often do stuff like pour tons of lore and has people writing 4 page essays or 30 minute video analysis… I don’t actually think this is great for tabletop play. I generally don’t want players swimming in confusion; I want them to know they’ve explored part of the world, figured something out, and to move onto the next mystery or cool thing.

I think about how much 80s and 90s GM advice is about hiding info and obscuring the situation including for adventures where mystery isn’t even the point of the game. It’s a weak way to fill time, and time is the most precious thing when you have a group coordinating to play together.

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The hidden different games in “when do we roll dice?”

January 18, 2023

I’ve been reading a lot of small indie games lately and, in a certain way, many of them fall into a category I call a “game kit”. If you were completely new to roleplaying, you’d see a lot of basic instructions and charts, but not really enough to fully know how to run a game; if you’ve done a good chunk of roleplaying these short games can basically skip over key procedures because it’s assumed you’ll be able to construct it yourself from prior knowledge – hence “kit”.

Anyway, a bunch of them fall into a paragraph on doing some type of skill check or saving throw, and usually it’s “roll under your stat” or “roll over (target)” or something equally simple.

What’s left out, and what makes a fairly heavy difference in game play is “when” and “how much do we modify?”

Consider the scenario of a sneaky character trying to get past some guards and how different the situation is based on which way you run it:

Flat Rolls, No Question

“Roll vs. your Dex”. No modifiers. If there’s a risky situation, the dice roll. I generally dislike this sort of thing, but I see it used VERY OFTEN in play. I could also see a few design use-case scenarios, such as a game that tries to discourage some specific thing.

We roll but there’s low modifiers

“I’m going to lob a rock at the stack of crates down the alley so it’s loud and they fall down and sneak around while they’re investigating” “Oh cool, add +2 to your roll”. Low modifiers means the character stats/skills play the biggest part and the player’s input means a lot less. I find this kind of thing generally discourages players and you end up sliding back towards Flat Rolls, No Question when people simply decide it’s not worth the creative fatigue.

I think it’s a fine option when you’re abstracting a large situation – “weeks of research” “hours of talking up contacts on the street” etc. because the players only have to come up with a general angle rather than specifics.

We roll but there’s high modifiers

This means player choices matter as much, or more than, the stats, and I generally like that, with the only drawback to this being that it’s high creative fatigue for players and high “translation” work (figuring out fiction to modifiers) for the GM. “Oh that’s a smart idea! Add +8 to your roll.”

Games where individual dice rolls feed into a larger cycle (“When you roll a 1 get 5 XP” etc.) you don’t want to skip out on dice rolls, but it also means more work for each of them.

We only roll when it’s a very close call

Some games the expected default is that it’s going to be “GM’s fiat, 90% of the time, roll the dice 10% of the time” or something like that. It means player choice and the situation take the precedent, but if there are mechanics that key off the dice, they matter rarely or not at all. “Don’t even roll the dice, that plan is smart and it works.”

Now all four of these are totally viable ways to play a game, but all four give you a very different feel for how the game works. And when the game kit just says “roll under your stat” without indicating elsewhere what expectations are around rolling the dice when and where? It can lead to quite different experiences of the game. (For me, I remember playing Basic D&D and not knowing that the expectation was that the GM would be making judgement calls, which meant lots of TPKs because by default, a lot of the math and situations work against the players without them.)

And while this has come up a lot for these small games, it’s also quite common in larger game texts as well. I remember a 300 page book with 4 pages on GMing that only covered weird edge cases and not… the moment to moment of play.

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Maps for Play 2 – The Ring Map Layout

November 27, 2022

Shout out to HexKit which is the software I used to make these examples and one of the easiest mapping software to use. I used a mix of tilesets though you can do a ton with the default set or just one or two sets. The Heightened Sensory Input tiles, Little Classic Hex set, Ordinal Simple Set, Duvelman’s Hex Map Set were used for this.

I was intending to write up the Threat & Structure after Maps for Play 1, but this happened to be easier to jam out for me, and I think highlights some key ideas that will show up for the next in the series.


This is a simple structure you can use to layout a map for a hexcrawl. It uses some tricks from videogame level design, and allows you to take the structural aspects and dress them up in a way that is “naturalistic” for your setting.

Some assumptions to the type of game that makes sense for this:

  • The players can mostly choose where they want to go
  • There are costs in time and resources and risk to travelling
  • The campaign will involve tackling multiple dungeons/adventure locations
  • Regularly returning to a safe haven, or a town, is a key part of your game.
  • You plan on having at least 6 (preferably 9 or more) dungeons or adventure locales available in this campaign

I’ll use three towns for the example here, but of course, you can add additional towns and alternate paths every which way as you like, while following the general structure of easy to hard while softly setting up difficulty in a way that fits the pattern. I highly recommend Game Makers Toolkit videos on level design for Zelda and Metroidvania games or the video on Dark Souls.

Funny enough, the game logic to the map structure is just an evolution from the earliest dungeoncrawlers – “Worst monsters are deeper in the dungeon”, but applied to your larger map.

The Starting Points

On your map, place three towns in a ring formation (well, a triangle anyway). It can be a rather acute triangle if you wish. These towns will be connected to each other by road, river, tunnel or perhaps something more exotic or magical means of travel. From each town, 2-4 dungeons or locations of adventure will be attached. The locations may or may not have easy connections to the town they are ‘attached’ to.

This is the basic skeleton which your map will rest on.

Can you add more towns? Yes! And the “ring” might look more like the Monaco Race Track than a ring proper, but it’s a good conceptual starting point. You could even set up these Towns to be within some large megadungeon as safe communities where the party can rest.

Here is a cut down version of the map I’m playing with. Triangles are dungeons/adventure locations, the big blocky icons are my three towns. I’m just using roads to connect them because I don’t feel like adding more complications for this.

Towns are Hubs, Dungeons are Spokes

For this example, we’ll label the three towns Town A, Town B, Town C. Town A is the starting town and is connected to dungeons that are the least dangerous. Town B will be intermediate, and Town C will be the most difficult.

You don’t need to have all of these dungeons ready to run; you only need to worry about the ones attached to Town A to start, and you can even use pregenerated adventures or maps. If you already have some you want to run, you can simply make your map fit the terrain needed – if it’s a cave adventure, have some caves built into your map so you can just plug it in.

I’ve labeled the map with green connections for the least dangerous attached connections, orange for the intermediate, and red for most dangerous.

The Optional Superdungeon
Well, one exception. The blue line would be to the “final dungeon” of the area, but kept inaccessible until you’ve gotten whatever “key” is necessary to open it, probably sitting in the dangerous red dungeons connected to Town C. JRPGs use this trick a lot – putting the greatest danger near the starting town, because it gives you an excuse to go back to the starting point and see old NPCs, adds a little chill down your spine to realize DOOM was around the corner or even in town, and finally if they highlight it in some way (“Here’s this old temple but it’s locked up tight”) it works as a mystery to return to. Anyway, this is completely optional to put on the map.

Roads – safer, but not safe

Ok, now let’s talk about the roads and areas between the towns. The roads should have some hazard attached to them, so that if players want to travel between towns, there’s a bit of risk or effort involved.

From Town A to Town B, the road should have risk equal to the upper end of the easy dungeons around Town A. It softly encourages them to spend a little time getting stronger before going to Town B, but isn’t so tough that they don’t have choice about going earlier if they prefer.

On the other hand, Town A to Town C should be rather difficult. Maybe only a little safer than the dungeons attached to Town C. This could be really nasty monsters, a route that’s just naturally dangerous (river rapids, a snowy mountain pass, etc.). This definitely presents itself as “harder” lock but also sets up a preview for the more daring parties; “past this point, things are really bad”. Local characters should know all about how bad this is, and NPCs should also remark on it – unlike a videogame, you don’t simply reload after you find out the hard way.

Town B to Town C should be only as dangerous as middle-high threats attached to Town B. It gives them a little bit of a break before they face the worst stuff in the region, but also if they find out how dangerous the area around Town C is and want to go back to B, they’re not trapped there.

Rest points and resources

Everything I said about Loot, Sustainment, and Harvesting points applies equally to this kind of map. Depending on your game system, you may need more Sustainment and rest points, or Harvesting points in order to make some trips worthwhile. Most games that worry about this sort of stuff also worry about encumbrance which also means thinking about how much (treasure, resources) the party can bring with them to make a trip worthwhile. Having nearby safe zones allows them to stash some stuff and find means to get it all back to a larger town on their own.

The Big Picture

I’m always a fan of thinking of how much play I get for the prep I do – mostly because life happens and too many people never reach a good “stopping point” for a campaign, it just falls apart when life happens or people get tired of it. Plan ahead for how long you expect it to go and you can filter a bit more from your friends who might be interested in a game given the duration.

If you just do a simple default of 3 Towns, each with 3 Dungeons attached, you have 9 Dungeons. Depending on the dungeons you use, the system you’re using, and the players you have, they might be knocking out one a session or taking a dozen sessions per dungeon. Multiple that by 9 and now you have a ballpark figure; and that doesn’t count if a whole session is spent in a town or in the wilderness getting there. As you can see, just one of these maps built this way is easily months to years of gameplay on a simple structure, even if your players miss or opt to skip some of the locations.

If you’re one of those groups that alternates GMing, you can let each person be in charge of a subset of the dungeons and the area around it, splitting up the work even more.

Next time: Ok, I’ll try to do Threat and Broad Structure for real.

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Designing Strategy 5

November 19, 2022

(series links: part 1part 2part 3part 4)

So we’ve got our basics:

  • What do we do? Force players to switch up tactics
  • Enemies have different weaknesses and offensive abilities, players adapt to meet that
  • Terrain adds further modifications to how you choose to fight – close/far, moving/holding the line, etc.

But sometimes you want something completely weird and unique, a spectacle. You want a gimmick.

Now, don’t get me wrong; gimmicks are fun. I love using them to make unique, stand out encounters. But they suffer from the problem we spoke about earlier with terrain; they’re usually used once, or maybe a handful of times and never again, so they’re somewhat a bad prep vs. play ratio – making them best for special boss fights or encounters that are unusual (Fighting in a satellite undergoing orbital re-entry, battling a monster that is a living chamber, etc.) They also tend to go pretty far afield from whatever the usual design of the game is; so you risk weird imbalance situations, so that also requires care.

Dress Up Effects – the Easiest Gimmick

The easiest gimmick is using a mechanic or a condition or status that already exists in the game, and simply reskinning it to appear to be something new. Let’s say your game has a poison mechanic, and the rule is it does 1 point of damage a round for 1d8 rounds.

Memory Ghost

  • When the memory ghost hits you, you forcibly relive traumatic and painful moments of your past for 1d8 rounds, inflicing a -2 to all rolls and 1 point of psychic damage every round.

See how easy that is? It’s almost the same, you just change the type of damage and the description. Dress up effects are less likely to break the system because they’re using close to the same math and ideas the system already gives you, but you can create a lot of cool, weird stuff. If it only shows up for one encounter or a few, the players might not even put together the math that it’s the same mechanics they already know.

Now that’s the mechanics side. The other half is description. For a gimmick you can have a somewhat florid description to use for the first time players encounter it, to set the tone, or, if you’re playing online, your VTT system might automatically post the description when you roll the attack.

Years ago I ran a D&D game and reskinned every attack for a dragon, to make them unique. Here’s the bite attack:

Dress Up Effects are great and you should definitely consider them whenever you want to do a gimmick.

Mode Changes

Videogames and anime often use the mechanics of staged bosses. An enemy takes a certain amount of damage, then changes “mode” and mechanically your opponent has changed in some ways. Mode changes are totally worth considering for tabletop games, though again, remember, this is going to be “prep that gets used once” so you shouldn’t spent too long doing too much for it.

One option is to have the enemy drastically change the terrain – maybe they spew poison or acid and sections of the floor are unsafe to walk on, or maybe they smash the wall and rubble falls from the ceiling, etc. This means the players have to change their tactics in positioning and movement, but they know how the monster still “works” and can have some idea of how to approach it.

If you do mode changes where the enemy’s type of attacks change drastically you may want to have slightly less offensive power in your threat overall (or move it to status effects that impair the player characters) so they have more time to figure out their strategy.

The key thing to watch out for is that combats tend to go faster in tabletop than videogames (not in actual time played, but, attack/counterattack sort of volleys). So bosses in many RPGs don’t last that long, so if you mode change and instantly get stomped out, then the players didn’t get to see anything interesting. So you may want to take that into account when creating these sorts of encounters.

Random Table Attack

Something I’ve done for Tenra Bansho Zero is have a boss encounter where the enemy has something like 3 or 4 attacks or actions and just random roll which one will come out. I always try to put one on there that’s less effective or perhaps even something detrimental to the boss. Players in general get a little anxious when you roll a die “for something” and aren’t sure what effect it’s having. It also means I can avoid doing the thing where “this boss could be perfectly smart and crush everyone by using the right moves exactly at the right time”.

After the encounter or session, I usually share the boss stats/chart with the players so they can see any thing that maybe didn’t come up or if they got unlucky or lucky in some way.

Novel Mechanics

Sometimes you want to do something completely out of the system. A weird novel mechanic for extra gimmick. Sometimes you see stuff like encounters on a chessboard layout where you have to apply some aspects of chess movement to win, or a gambling mechanic as part of the combat.

My basic rule for novel mechanics is that you either want to explain them to players up front or make it clear within 1-2 rounds at most. If it’s a bit of a puzzle, I tend to make the encounter less offensively dangerous to give players more space to learn the mechanics (unlike a videogame, they can’t just reset repeatedly or look up something on the internet to learn how to get through it).

The more fundamental aspect of play that the novel mechanic messes with, the more careful you need to be. For example maybe I’ve got some weird gimmick dungeon where the gravity reverses for you depending on if you move north or south. I would be VERY thoughtful and careful about things just because movement in games is a basic idea that could lead to really strange outcomes. On the other hand, if moving north or south gave you fire or ice element damage on top of a normal attack, it wouldn’t really be that big of a deal since most games that deal with that usually have some way of getting those effects anyway.

One trick you can always add for larger effects/outcomes is some version of Vincent Baker’s Otherkind Dice. Simply declare that certain goals, if met, add bonus dice to the roll being made with the Otherkind dice effect. I used this for a game where players were caught in a massive battle, and the questions where which of their allies would be protected, or who would retain status or be outcast after the battle ended. Let them know what’s at stake and maybe give them some options to get extra dice at a cost – “If you’re willing to lose/risk X, then you can get another die”, etc.

There’s a thing that happens in videogames I absolutely hate, which I call “Last level, new skill” where the game forces you into novel mechanics on the last level or the last boss and you haven’t had time to learn how they work, which adds a cheap layer of difficulty on to play. In tabletop, you really don’t want that to happen, and the only thing which you have in your favor is that RPGs are not real time, so you can take time to explain, give examples, and let players think about what they’re doing to absorb the new ideas and use them with some idea of what’s going on.

These are the core ideas that I use in putting strategy into games I run. I’d like to do a part 6 of examples, but work and everything has been really ridiculous and it’s unclear when I’ll get enough focus for it. Fingers crossed.

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