Archive for the ‘theoryforplay’ Category


Apocalypse World vs. Sandbox Games

May 8, 2017

Apocalypse World has a neat trick in how GM’s prep material for play which is really interesting to contrast to the classic sandbox game prep.

The Sandbox Method

In a sandbox game, the GM preps a lot of situations and things going on, on a map, and as the player characters wander around and go places, they get caught up in the situations there.  This gives players a lot of freedom and choice, as they can basically go where ever they please, and get into things as they see fit.

For the GM, this might entail quite a bit of work, depending on the game’s requirements for prep, the area you are covering and so on – and then, the players may never actually engage with many chunks of the stuff you’ve prepped, which is an amount of effort with little payoff.  It’s no wonder why this kind of prep works best with a long term campaign – because players need many sessions to check everything out and basically run through the content you’ve prepared (and continue to prepare, as play goes on).

Apocalypse World: the world doesn’t revolve around you, but it spills out ONTO you

The trick to AW’s design is that it asks that you prep threats – things which either are problems or soon will, as the focus point of GM prep.   The idea of putting “clocks” on the various threats, and having them advance, is a way of forcing you to bring them into play, sooner and inexorably.   At the same time, it’s not even like the problems have to directly target the player characters, they just need to be headed toward their vicinity… Kinda like how a flood isn’t after you personally, but you personally are going to have problems if a flood comes your way.

So you don’t tend to have a lot of wasted prep – the problems come to the players, whether the players go out and find the problems or not.   What also keeps this from feeling like a big “gotcha!” is that a key procedure for the GM is to foreshadow these problems (“Announce Future Badness”), which allows players to decide if they want to take on problems early and possibly head them off.

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Bad Deal, Great Characters

October 6, 2016

I’ve been a bit of sci-fi from author Yoon Ha Lee – Conservation of Shadows is an excellent set of short stories.  He has a penchant for characters in the trope of making the best of shitty deals – under pressure, forced to work for untrustworthy authorities, in treacherous situations.  It’s great in fiction, movies, comics, tv shows, etc.

I’ve seen this trope attempted many times in tabletop games, and rarely well.  I think it comes to two common pitfalls.

1. Real Protagonism vs. Illusionism

In fiction, these stories work best if it feels like the protagonist could go either way, all the way through the story.  If it’s too loaded in one direction, or the twists and turns don’t feel authentic, then you lose a bunch of the audience early on.

There’s effectively four outcomes:

  • True victory – the protagonist gets it all, and their freedom to boot
  • Costly victory – the protagonist gets the ONE thing that matters, but loses all else
  • Empty victory – the protagonist “wins” but loses the essential part of themselves along the way
  • Crushing failure – the protagonist loses everything of importance and they know they lost

So here’s the thing: in fiction we see the character try their best and depending on the craft of the storyteller to make the contrived feel natural, or not, we buy into the protagonism of the character.  The odds are up in the air – if they win, we don’t forget how close they were to losing, if they lose, we don’t forget how close they were to winning.  It could have gone the other way.

However, if you’re playing some form of Illusionism, you have two points where this falls down.  First, players can feel the rails locking them into limited directions, even if there’s “multiple outcomes” the players know it can’t have gone “any direction” because the constant pressure towards rails, even if it’s branching.  You don’t get to feel your character did it themselves if it’s success, and you wonder if there was ever a chance to win, if it’s failure.

Second, and deeper, is that the outcomes the GM or pre-generated adventure presents may or may not match up to the players’ ideas of what matters or counts as a success or a loss.  The players may be operating on one metric of values, and the presented outcomes are completely different.

2. Player Buy in and commitment

Usually these stories involve threatening something a character cares about – their status, their loved ones, their future opportunities, etc.   When you watch a movie and see that this is “the one chance” the protagonist will have to enter the world of magic, you care because you see how much the character cares and what it means to them.

However, if the game involves pressure and treachery that threatens things the players don’t care about (and also, the characters don’t care about), then you don’t have that tension at all.  This is the fundamental failure point in the classic “meet the stranger in the bar who offers you 50 gold to go into the dungeon” as a useful leverage point.  (This is also where the “I am a dark sorcerer who has made dark pacts, and have a dark fate, but none of that really impacts what I do in play” thing fails as well.)

The players have to agree to push their characters to fight for, to protect, and care about certain things, and the GM has to agree to base conflicts around those things.

Making it work

However, these kinds of stories work well when you have the right approach.  Notably if you have a way to coordinate as a group what values matter for the characters and to build conflicts around it, and allow play to produce spontaneous outcomes around those situations, those 4 outcomes are certainly possible.

This focus can be created in a few ways:

  • Situation – Set up the fictional situation and keep your conflicts and spotlight focused on those things (Sorcerer, Burning Wheel, most flag-based games)
  • Resolution Mechanics – the mechanics are set up to threaten the characters’ values as part of play (Polaris, Drifter’s Escape, With Great Power, Trollbabe)
  • Larger Pacing Mechanics – the mechanics serve as a countdown for a larger finale of the story (Primetime Adventures, Thou Art But a Warrior, Tenra Bansho Zero)

Preparing to Prepare

July 11, 2016

As I get older, and it gets harder to coordinate time to game, I find myself spending more time doing some things which save a lot of time in the long run, but are things I would never have thought about when I was younger and less experienced at seeing how campaigns work, or don’t work.

First off, I like a lot of different kinds of games and a few different kinds of genres.  So, what I’m in the mood for changes every few months.  When I get an idea in my head, I now start here with these factors:


How much time does this game require to get a good play cycle from it?  One session? 10? What will I need to run it? A map & minis? Tokens? Etc.   Most of my players are split up around the country, so we play online, and the electronic versions of some of these things is a giant pain the ass, especially since we may be on all kinds of platforms or working from secondary computers or devices.   My in-person games tend to be pick-up games or on short notice, which also precludes many games.

These issues determine whether it’s even reasonable to suggest some games or not, knowing who I have available and our time/logistics constraints.  I think about all this even before I pitch a game.


What do I need the players to know to play the game?  Can I make a 1-2 page summary of the most important rules and best practices?  Do they need to read pages upon pages of setting? (alternatively, do I need to find a way to focus whatever setting/background they may have in their heads to a common vision, especially if it’s something like a movie/comic/book series that has multiple interpretations?)

How long will all of this take?  Are the players into this level of detail, or tracking?  How much can I teach in play? How much is the gameplay experience negatively impacted if you don’t know the rules well?

This is actually the first level of “prep” I do – I look at making quicksheets of rules and setting, each being a page (front and back) at most.  This not only works for teaching the players, but also helps me have my reference materials and brush up on rules I may not have seen for years.

This also tends to be the point when I maybe junk some ideas because I realize the logistics of play is much higher than what I remember.


Assuming I clear those two hurdles, then it’s about a pitch to the players.  If I don’t have an enthusiastic push, I junk it as well, now.

For me, pitches are easier face to face – you can flip open a book, share related material, and communication is quick.  You can read body language easier and everyone can get into a flow of conversation that makes it easier to pick out what kinds of games are going to work for everyone.

The enthusiasm level has to be much higher for online play.  The overall communication process is slower, and when you play online, you are competing every moment of play with the players’ focus against emails, chat windows, cat videos, etc., and it becomes easy to lose your momentum.  (this is also why I try to keep sessions online short).

I’ve seen and been part of too many “Well I guess I’ll play…” campaigns and they just kind of hobble along, and nothing particularly great comes out of them.  It’s a lot of effort for so-so enjoyment.

And then I finally prepare…

If I can clear those hurdles THEN I finally start thinking about what I need to prep in terms of stats, notes, etc.  It seems like a lot of work, but it ends up saving me a lot of time and headache these days.


Set Piece Battle Design – example

July 2, 2016

I’m going through old files and I found a half-written document for a D&D set piece battle designed to get that fun sort of Jackie Chan mayhem in the fight.  (This was written before the year I fought cancer so my memory is completely shot around then).

Although it’s lacking a map and monsters, there’s a few things I think it highlights really well:

Teach the Players

This was something I learned a lot from running old Iron Heroes – you need to highlight what are opportunities or options, at least early on, so players can know that these are in fact options.  Pointing it out on the map helps too.

Although telling the players EXACTLY what mechanical effects are in play seems a bit much, it allows them to properly gauge threats – a lot of players may be used to games where drowning is an extremely likely situation or that a fall will kill you instantly, and such, be unable to prioritize their risks and choices.  I assume that the characters are competent and this helps players make informed choices – just as much as a trained acrobat can estimate what kind of jumps they can make, the players use the mechanics in the same way.

Bumping the focus of rules

The special rules around falling and swimming are both designed at emulating the genre, where these things are penalties but rarely “finishers” in and of themselves.

Guiding the GM

Notice it’s entirely a walkthrough for the GM on how to teach and share this, but also advice on how to manage all the characters and environmental bits through play in a step by step process.

Obviously, your own notes can be as sketchy and light as will work for you – however, here I am, 4 years later, reading something I don’t remember writing (thanks chemo!), and going “Oh, yeah, this makes sense” because I was smart enough to write it for others.  Always assume you will be tired, half fried from work, and perhaps stressed by the time game night rolls around – so you might as well put in the work now to make it easy for future-you to be able to play the game as easily as possible.



Genre Scaffolding

June 18, 2016

I’m slowing forming a Mekton campaign in my head.  Between the busy season at work and less brainpower for thinking (age, post-chemo, whatever), I’m realizing how much harder it is to set up games with older, traditional games that are set up to do “broad genre” ideas instead of more specific ones.

For example, while Lord of the Rings, Journey to the West, The Mahabharata, and The 1001 Nights are all “fantasy” which you could theoretically play using D&D rules, capturing the correct feel and pacing depends on:

  • The GM knowing the genre and setting scenes & NPC actions around it
  • The Players knowing the genre and setting characters and action around it
  • Constant selective use/disuse of mechanics to appropriately model the specific feel
  • and/or house rules specifically set to bend the game towards that end

…compared to a focused, well designed game which sets everyone towards the same goal and understanding from the start, with rules to back it up – which is a lot less work to play and keep going.

For the Mekton game, I’m having to dissect the specific things I want from a mecha story to even get to framing the situation to sell to players.  While I could easily point-build a billion and one robots, or stat up characters upon characters, the part I’m not supported in, is navigating what conflicts, cast design, etc. tends to make the juicy parts of the specific things I’m looking for.

I have no Genre Scaffolding upon which to build, so I have to make my own.

Once I have that skeleton in place, then the ideas about what kinds of conflicts or characters make sense, and only then can I pitch it to players AND give them some guidelines of what kinds of characters to make.

I’m guessing once that’s nailed down, the rest is easy, but I’m also comparing this to other games where this isn’t a struggle – for example, Dogs in the Vineyard you already know what kinds of conflicts to expect and what kinds of characters fit the bill – the only point you have then is filling in the specifics.

(Mind you, this isn’t a dig at Mekton, the whole Interlock system really does represent some of the best of the 80’s RPG design – which we’d see again in D20 over a decade later, however, it does highlight a massive missing piece in most of the design at the time.)


Theory Context:”Say Yes or Roll the Dice”

April 12, 2016

Back in 2004, Vincent Baker released Dogs in the Vineyard.  It had quite a few good design things in it, but an idea which found it’s way into the general tabletop scene is “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”.

Like many of the things that spilled out from the Forge forum crowd, it would become a thing people say, shifting the idea and losing the original context.  Now you can find people arguing “But if a player wants to have their character punch the planet in half in my gritty realistic detective game, do I have to say yes or roll the dice?!? This is ridiculous!”…  So, context.


First, it’s important to know the basic structure of Dogs in the Vineyard – the player characters are special religious deputies, whose job is to go into towns and fix their conflicts and problems.

There’s basically two axis’ of conflict: whether the situations violate the social norms of their religious society, and whether the situations are morally bad as you personally judge them (as players, as characters, etc.).   The characters are basically put in a tight spot to make things better for the community, while much of the community actually resists or is in the midst of internal strife.

Ok? That’s the mission structure.  The actual dice rolling conflicts are pretty involved, often lasting 30 minutes or more.  Along the way, the characters make a lot of choices, mostly involving whether it’s time to use violence or time to use words, and how much consequences they’ll risk.

You are set up to run into conflict, and conflict is an involved affair.

Say Yes or Roll the Dice

Now, here’s the actual section on Say Yes or Roll the Dice:

Drive Play Toward Conflict

Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes.

If nothing’s at stake, say yes to the players, whatever they’re doing.  Just plain go along with them.  If they ask for information, give it to them.  If they have their characters go somewhere, they’re there.  If they want it, it’s theirs.

Sooner or later – sooner, because your town’s pregnant with crisis – they’ll have their characters do something that someone else won’t like.  Bang! Something’s at stake.  Launch the conflict and roll the dice.

Roll the dice or say yes.  Roll the dice or say yes.  Roll the dice or say yes.

So…that context…

Notice how the primary point here is that it’s about character agency and figuring out when and where to use conflicts.  If there is no conflict, if the characters are unopposed?  They succeed.  Period.  If they are opposed, then it’s time to set the stakes, and then push through the mechanics to see what comes out on the other side.

Also notice that this isn’t about avoiding the use of mechanics, rather, it’s about making sure you’re not blocking the players from getting to the meat of the situation – which, when you reach it, is exactly what the mechanics are for.

This doesn’t say anything about genre breaking things, or impossible by your judgement of reality… it’s with the assumed group understanding of what the genre and character capabilities are (the book has 2 chapters laying out tone, social structure, etc. on this), and here we’re just talking about pacing and pushing towards the point when the player characters and the NPCs come into conflict with each other, and choices have to be made about what you’ll do about it and prices you’re willing to pay.

Broad Application

If you want to export it, then there’s basically two ideas you’d be using:

  1. Characters succeed at things within their ability unless something is at stake that matters for the focus of your game.
  2. Drive play towards those conflicts about the things that are the focus of your game.

If your game is tightly designed, this is pretty easy because the mechanics and the advice in the game are already pushing you this way.

If your game is designed without a tight focus, or, worse, just badly designed, then you have to do a lot of work to figure out what the focus of the game you are going to run is going to be, and you’ll end up ignoring a lot of the skills/powers/mechanics, etc. that aren’t going to be used.  You’ll need to tell the players about this so they don’t waste time creating characters with abilities that won’t get used, or spending time learning rules that won’t matter.



A Formula for Narrativism

February 27, 2016

Narrativism: It’s like this


  1. Your character has values that are emotionally important to them*.
  2. During play, you express and wrestle with those values as a key focus of play
  3. A story arc is fulfilled as part of play

Values – your character’s vs. your own

Narrativist play, in general, boils down to “What does your character care about, why, and what are they going to do about it?” – with the actual playing of the game being where we find out those answers.**

Maybe your character is really obsessed with mastering a particular martial art move – but the emotional reason is that it was the one thing they felt left them a connection to their deceased father.   The action only holds meaning by reason of the context.  The fun part of play is questions like “Will you work with this sketchy master who will teach you the technique, but only if you help them in crime?”***

So one of the basic things to this is buy-in – we’re agreeing to play characters who care about SOMETHING and we also agree that we, the players at the table, care about how our characters care about those, in some way.  We also agree our characters might change, grow, or fall – they’re not 2 dimensional characters who never change.

This isn’t to say you have to agree with your characters’ values – but rather they are compelling.  That character you love to hate, but you can’t stop watching/reading about them?  They’re compelling.  So, you care about what they care about, even if that’s the care of complete disagreement.

It’s also important to recognize that these values are not locked in – it’s not the classic alignment or Paladin’s Code from which your character doesn’t stray.  These values are things which your character is going to wrestle over – maybe outgrow, maybe reject, maybe commit harder.  We play to find out.

The Starting Values vs. the Real Values

One of the things I’ve noticed in play is that what you often think your characters’ core values are, are only starting as an approximation, or a guess.  It’s a direction to strike out in, and usually in a few sessions you find a more accurate idea, or that the real value is something very different than what you started with – but that initial direction allowed you to find it.  It’s important to be aware of this idea because people will often over-think their characters initial values or attempt to hold onto them when it’s time to move on.

A Story Arc

What I’m referring to here is not a full campaign, but rather enough of a story that would fit into a TV episode, a comic book issue, or a chapter in a novel.

Enough happens that you can say you felt there was a significant development and something came to a conclusion or consequence.  You know how the end of a good chapter or episode hits those notes that leave you fulfilled in some way?  That’s what I mean.  That doesn’t necessarily mean everything is wrapped up, or that the story has “fully been told”.

Consistently hitting this experience is what makes great Narrativist play.  As a player, you can talk about it as “I struggled, I tried, win or lose, but damn, I did something.”   When I’ve had people tell me that “we did more in this one session than I’ve done in most campaigns” it’s simply that the story arcs found conclusions – choices had consequences, characters developed and so on.

I’ve found the trick to success here is not so much in the epic long term issues, but delivering on this experience every session.  Seeing consistent closure to smaller arcs gets people excited and eager to keep playing, and to shape the larger arc.

Thematic Focus

Given that the sorts of stories you could create are infinite, how do you get it to hang together well with these different characters with different values and beliefs?

Some Narrativist games give you a single set of values to play from.  This is often a code or set of cultural expectations that the characters subscribe to, but not as an unchangeable set of rules, but rather a set you test, live up to, fail, reject, or reinterpret.  Polaris, Dogs in the Vineyard, Mouse Guard all do this – the thematic focus is seeing all the different ways these characters navigate these codes they’re involved with and often finding the gaps between what the codes say and what actually makes you a “good person”.

Some other games build the values you need to wrestle with into the mechanics.  For example, The Drifter’s Escape has you constantly making bargains with hostile forces of the universe, and having to take a gamble anytime you want to get through without indebting yourself to them.  The core question of what will you accept, what will you fight for, and what will you run from is deeply built into the conflict mechanics.

Many Narrativist games, and any other game you drift into Narrativism, however, leaves it wide open.  In those cases, I find it’s useful to start with unified situation and draw some rough lines about factions/sides/issues and let that be the focus.

I’ve screwed up a few games by forgetting to get this in place before play starts.  Often it’s in trying to run one shots or pick up games without good forethought.  Without the focus, it’s like dropping characters from entirely different emotional genres into the same story, and nothing quite clicks (Imagine a game with grimdark Batman characters and Adam West Batman characters trying to interact.  It doesn’t work.).

System Driftable

You can get this experience with a lot of different games, or sets of mechanics.  However, don’t confuse that for “any and all”.  Being able to get that focus on emotional values and playing with them requires focusing the “camera” on those issues scene to scene.

This means any game where you preplan the scene-to-scene events and outcomes stops that from happening.  So this often becomes the most important thing to eject from a game if you’re trying to get Narrativist play from a system that doesn’t support it.

Although you can simply go from there, you get more reliable success if you have some kind of Flag Mechanics to help focus what kinds of scenes and conflicts you should focus on.  This is also why a lot of people find games like Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel or Sorcerer are confusing as far as Creative Agenda – the functional mechanics are fundamentally the same as many other games, until you hit the point of their Flag Mechanics and how you construct scenes and the events in play – the things the characters emotionally value are what drive the direction of the story.

The second common issue is that if the scene to scene conflicts aren’t attached to the characters’ emotional values, then you don’t actually spend any time playing with them.  This is a common issue when the focus of play is mostly dictated by survival and logistics.  For example, a common concern I hear from a lot of 5th edition D&D players is that the Inspiration rules often are forgotten or fall by the wayside in play – the scene to scene events are usual D&D stuff – dungeons and fighting, but the Inspiration rules are often tied to much larger story arcs you don’t necessarily get to hit on every session in play.

All of these are reasons why games that are specifically aimed at supporting Narrativism hit this play mode better than “generic” mechanics.  You need to coordinate the group on the values, and making them show up in play consistently.  Flags make it easy to target the right things in both scenes and conflicts.  Narration trading allows players a lot of power in shifting the camera and the outcomes to focus on things that matter.

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* This is a rephrasing of my past use of “human issues“.

** Players who are used to being blocked or denied this opportunity in play often end up making giant character backstories or making the equivalent of fanfic outside of actual play itself.  If there’s no actual avenue of expressing and playing with those values in play, then it ends up having to happen outside of play, or not at all.

***Notice that this has nothing to do with whether you get to have control over the plot, world, or facts outside of your character.  You can have the usual standard RPG set up of “One GM controls the NPCs and environment” and “Each player controls one character and only that one character” and still get this kind of play.   The idea of control beyond your character is called Director Stance, and the usual mechanic which applies it is called “Narration Trading”, and while these are pretty good tools for Narrativist play, they’re not required.  See my past post What Narrativism Isn’t.