Archive for the ‘theoryforplay’ Category


Making the Real

May 13, 2022

Let’s say we’re playing a dungeon crawl game, and the protagonists come upon a closed door. What’s behind the door? There’s several ways we could go about deciding what’s behind the door:

  • There’s a written module and it already establishes what’s behind the door
  • The GM has written down (or basically memorized) what is there
  • The GM hasn’t decided but will make it up on the spot
  • One or more of the players at the table will decide (maybe they spend a point, maybe they have to roll a certain score, maybe there’s a negotiation process, whatever).

Now, because it’s “not in play” yet, that is, hasn’t been revealed to the group (per the Baker Care Principle), you could argue it doesn’t exist yet. Except, here’s the important part; all of those 4 possibilities set very different expectations and procedures for the group playing on what to expect from the game and how to approach it. (My mega link post about different theory stuff that might be useful to read now, or later, depending on how much you feel like digging into it.)

Consider; with the first two options, the GM might be making choices knowing what’s behind the door (“Ah, the adventurers were loud! The monster will hide, then try to ambush them!”). If the GM is making stuff up on the spot, the classic “Don’t say that out loud! You’re giving the GM ideas!” issue appears. If everyone knows what is behind the door might be made up by anyone (appropriate to the mechanics) maybe you don’t have to do a bunch of careful set up before opening the door, since it’s just as likely to not be useful.

This sort of thinking applies to a lot more than closed doors; character backstories, motivations, “Who is the killer?” in a mystery, “What does the magical gem do?” and so on. How do we establish the things we imagine as “solidified” in the game? How do we use them to shape play?

It’s not that any one of these is better, it’s just that they’re better at different things and very different expectations of play and likely have different stages during play… so let’s go through it.

Shared and Established

If something is shared – communicated amongst the group as true, then it is established in the game fiction as “real”. My usual statement that the easiest rule is “I say it and so that’s what it is” in the game applies here. Likewise, if the group agrees that we’re going to assume the setting in the game is true and everyone is reading the book, then that’s also “Shared & Established”. (Same thing too if you’re playing a game based on a TV show, book, comics, or movies or whatever – if we take that canon as our canon, it falls into shared & established).

All games must have SOME facts and events that are shared and established – it is the part that makes the game something we agree upon together. But not everything will start from here nor necessarily end here.

Personally Committed

Some things are hidden from the group but a player (including the GM as a player) are committed to making their choices and narration on the basis of facts or ideas that only they know. This could be:

  • The adventure module
  • A character’s backstory and motivations
  • An specific combat encounter & stats
  • Making a roll to yourself to see what a character would do
  • Knowing who the killer is in a murder mystery

The important part about personal commitment is that it allows the rest of the group to potentially suss out or deduce what is going on and allows for a consistency in action.

Uncreated – Singular Authority

“What’s behind the door?” “I haven’t decided yet!” Or, possibily “I was thinking X, but maybe I’ll change my mind.” Without the commitment, it’s not established. The important part here is that this is controlled by one player. Now obviously, this shows up a lot when you are forced to improvise things (“Wait, I gotta come up with a name and personality for the waiter?!? Uh, hold on.”), but some people like to run whole sessions like this.

I think it’s not too bad if it’s not being masqueraded as something where there is a commitment, otherwise you sort of pull a bait and switch on players who are invested in trying to draw the connections and connect the dots. (see everyone upset who got invested in the TV series Lost…)

There is also the point when you have abusive GMing where someone will constantly pull the switcheroo of facts in order to disempower or antagonize players (“haha, it turns out your shoes were cursed all along!”) but obviously the larger problem is a social one and not necessarily this particular method of establishing fiction. We can also see this goes back to the classic “We’re playing Let’s Pretend” and the “I shot you” “No you didn’t” argument issue.

Uncreated – Group Authority

For this to work, the group either has to know it’s part of the system, or it has to happen consistently enough in play for it to become “unwritten” system that the group engages in. For example, “My hunter wants to identify the tracks we found” “Well, you’re the expert, tell me what you find – that’s large, dangerous, and somewhat magical” “Oh.”

Some games make this abundantly obvious with narration trading mechanics – for example, drawing the highest card in Primetime Adventures, or spending coins in Universalis to establish facts. Other games do this a bit more sneakily; for example, if you roll a miss in Apocalypse World to Read A Situation, the GM might ask you “Where are YOU the most vulnerable to the enemy?” and in answering, you establish a truth of the game setting.

This sort of thing is great for collaborative groups (and drastically removes a lot of prep and creativity labor for a GM), but also makes it harder for anyone to plot/plan a larger picture backstory, without needing to be very flexible to changes.

Design and oops, design

Obviously, if you’re designing a game, it’s worth thinking about these things and how you expect the game to work and what parts should work like one way, another, or shift over time. However, it unfortunately falls into the hands of a lot of groups, when games have not thought about this very well and you are left with a nebulous “find your style” advice which means you’re actually having to navigate these things all the time but not knowing how it works and re-communicating or negotiating these with new people over and over (or… having bad mismatches in play expectations and the problems that creates…)

You can also see a lot of the issues around this goes into the poor discourse around “meta gaming” or railroading and more, but at least having a language can help you figure out what you’re trying to do or avoid in the games you play or make.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.


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.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.


All Genres isn’t actually all genres

February 19, 2022

A tweet I saw this morning made me chuckle:

I played a bunch of GURPS back in high school. I’ve played Big Eyes Small Mouth, FUDGE, FATE, Savage Worlds, and probably read through a good number of ‘genreless’ RPGs. Funny enough though, I think there’s two big hurdles people miss when they think genreless RPGs are the answer to all things.

The lesser issue is conversion work. Just because the rules don’t get in the way of you playing whatever genre, doesn’t mean the material you need to play is ready; how much prep time do you need to stat up things? How much time do you have to spend figuring out which subrules work for THIS thing you’re trying to do? How much time do you spend explaining this new subset of systems to players? FATE games tend to skip a lot of this by making aspects just “labels” you toss on rather than subrules, and this is one solution.

The bigger issue is structure of play. GURPS is very well suited for dealing with “does X happen or not?” with a skill roll or ability check. It is not structured to set up pacing for a game of tragedy, it will not force players to make choices of loyalty, it will not make your give up your treasured values one by one on a quest of vengeance. There are genres and fiction archtypes that basically thrive on these things, and, also rpgs that do these things as part of the system. Genreless games don’t have these structures because… well, they’re literally genre defining and very much at odds with each other.

Someone shooting someone with a shotgun is a skill check. What it looks like and means in a Looney Tunes cartoon, vs. a grindhouse revenge movie vs. a B Zombie film vs. a noir detective novel vs. a war-is-hell story are all different. WHY you shoot someone, what drives you to make that choice, those are also extremely different as well. Most genreless systems depend on a group enforcing those expectations and being genre savvy enough to know when, how far, to go.

When I was a teenager and played a lot of GURPS, when I found Cyberpunk 2020, I moved over to running/playing that more. While I could have had “more flexibility” with GURPS, Cyberpunk was already ready to go, if I handed the book to a player, I didn’t have to explain setting to them, it was right there. Gameplay moved faster, which fit the feel we wanted for the game. (It also, system-wise, felt better than it’s competitor Shadowrun, for moving faster, etc.)

For most people these days, when they want a “genreless” system, what I usually hear is they want something the systems they’ve tried have not provided. Often that has me pointing them to Primetime Adventures, since a lot of times what folks want is a system that encourages narrativism, but all they can find are systems built around skill rolls and 5 foot tactical squares.

I just wish more people who are hardcore “genreless system” advocates knew how to ask a few more questions to even see if the system would actually help folks get what they want or not, before simply shooting off at the hip.


CRPGs and the trap of the railroad

November 22, 2021

The heroes stand together, gazing out on the final gate… they ready themselves. Someone puts a hand on their friend’s shoulder, and nods. It’s now or never.

This kind of stuff is pretty awesome in movies. In books. And videogames. It’s the last boss, and the climax of a story. You, the audience, are invested. You CARE.

Tabletop RPGs, have a harder time doing these, and it mostly boils down to missing a key difference in these media vs. a tabletop RPG.

The thing is, in all those other media, the protagonists are mostly already spoken for. Every good trick in classic storytelling to get an audience invested in terms of pacing, character dialogue and response, all of that is already decided, and you, the audience, just have to absorb it. It seems like it should work for tabletop RPGs, after all, you’re making fiction, right? It also seems like it should work because you play videogames, and these are interactive media, right, and they work there.

But again, even ones where there’s more options, the characters are spoken for. Even if you have the silent protagonist, the NPCs get personality, and that becomes the things you get attached to. There’s a limited number of ways this will play out – and these are set up in ways to build your investment using tricks from the long standing traditions of storytelling.

When you play a tabletop RPG, you’re playing with a group, and improvising as a group. It’s much harder to lean on those tools of storytelling because 1) you don’t know what story it will actually be, and 2) you can’t simply edit it over time, like traditional storytelling does. Those characters aren’t spoken for – you play and find out in the moment. The railroading will not work here, the way it does in other media.

What this also means, is that presenting a hard situation or challenge doesn’t necessarily mean the players will be emotionally invested. The game has to follow what the players are into, not try to present the situations and assume the players will be there. (Which is why games that require a lot of planning for the challenges, such as heavy planned map grid fighting RPGs, don’t do so well at getting investment based on story, as much as investment based on gamism and challenge.)

Based on all the other types of medium, it SEEMS like railroading should work. But it doesn’t, and that has everything to do with the game being a fiction of multiple creators improvising in the moment, and not anything else where you have the option of planning and revisions.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.


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.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.