Archive for the ‘theoryforplay’ Category


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.

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A simple dungeon

March 22, 2021

We’ve started playing Perilous and I ran a very simple dungeon (using the Dungeons for Stories principles)since I know half my group has never done dungeoncrawls before, and I wanted something that would hit some basic ideas without being a massive commitment. I wanted to go ahead and use it as an example of ideas in play, not necessarily “perfectly designed” or anything like that.

A last minute dungeon

I jammed this whole dungeon together in an hour, because work has been hell lately and I didn’t have a lot of prep time. I started with an idea, scribbled out the map (with a vague of idea of a couple of the rooms) then typed up the rest before the game. Because Perilous is very mechanically light, all I need to do was make sure I had the ideas ready to go.

If the notes seem spare and incomplete? Well, remember, you only need as much notes for yourself to run the dungeon, not for everyone else, as you would with a published product.

That said, 1 hour of rushed prep got 6 hours of play, so it worked fine.

Layout Choices

So, there’s two needs happening at the same time for this layout. (entries are at the bottom of this post)

First, it was once a functional place – and with that in mind, I thought about a small religious palace – the left side (2 and 7) has a room for vistors and then a shrine. The central rooms (1, 5) were greeting halls, leading to the throne room (8), and much later, the magical meteor room was added (10). The right hand side is all practicality – an apothecary and storage room (3 & 4), a ritual room (6) and the hall of the dead to work with the necromancy (9)

Second is all game needs. I wanted minimal choice, but still choice. So, there are two entrances, the front door (1) and the hole in the roof in the ritual room (6). The available paths are fundamentally a ring with side rooms – but until you explore it, it is unclear how much this will branch off, which was a useful bit of misdirection for the players who were familiar with dungeon crawls – they’re not sure how big this place can get, or how many monsters, so until they loop around, there’s a bit of tension.

Storywise, there’s two things going on. One is the little boy Manyo who fell into the dungeon during the roof collapse. There’s the problem of getting him to safety and his family looking for him (the town points to the dungeon). Second, the monsters are all guardians and the rooms have environmental stuff to foreshadow the truth of what happened. Some of the things aren’t going to be solveable by the party without help from the town (the dungeon points to the town).

Monster Choices

There’s basically 4 encounters set up for this dungeon. The clay Guardians outside the doors, crawling forth from the mud are numerous, but the party has the option to retreat and the monsters are not smart. The Clacking Chimera is a wandering patroller of the “pouncing predator” variety – about as smart as an animal and something they might encounter in any room. The Beetle Guardian and the Dead Guardian Skeletons both are inactive until you enter the room, but the difference is that the Beetle will not pursue you far, while the skeletons will not stop.

There’s not a lot of mechanical differentiation in Perilous, but there is a lot of fictional considerations – if you declare a monster has a ghostly immaterial body, you better have a way the heroes can fight it, while at the same time, acknowledging not EVERYTHING can work against it. So in this way, one trait is as mathmatically weighty as the next, but it is clear some traits are much more versatile or difficult to overcome.

Plans for future dungeons?

Well, now that we got the intro dungeon for the players future dungeons will be a bit bigger (I can’t imagine more than twice the locations, though, maybe 24 rooms, tops), more navigation hazards, more dungeon NPCS and people outside/near the dungeon, and monsters + treasure. At a larger size, stuff like 1 way routes or loopbacks become more viable.

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Click here to read landslide dungeon entries

A Broken Wheel – A reminder post

December 31, 2020

A few conversations online has let me know it’s time for a reminder about… I guess one of the most basic theory things that directly, immediately, and completely impacts play.

  • No game system is good at everything; each system is good/bad at certain things
  • Trying to make a system do what it’s bad at, means more work and probably unfun experiences for the group

Improvising, to start

One of the conversations I saw was someone asking about improvisation play; specifically within D&D – but, given D&D’s tight expectations of encounter balancing, D&D is bad at improvisation. The conversation had someone giving advice with the usual “Improvisation is hard!” opener, but that’s exactly the problem. Improvisation in other rules sets is easy, just as much as crossing a river in a boat is easier than trying to cross it in a truck.

Consider: every player of a character is improvising every session they show up. They have no idea what is going to happen, or what their plan is, but they come up with dialogue, choices, and actions just fine. Improvisation is one of the first skills of roleplaying, period. When you’re not required to tightly balance specific numbers and factors in a minute or less, with the consequences of making the game unfun for everyone, yes, improvisation is easy.

But yes, also applying to everything else, too

Extending this beyond improvisation, this issue that some games are good at some things and not others covers a whole lot of possible things people might want in a game:

  • Character drama and character development
  • Moment to moment tactical choices (block, parry, feint, etc.)
  • Resource tracking/logistics
  • Rising/falling story arcs and tension
  • Collaborative world building
  • Low cognitive load for math
  • Quick handling time with mechanics
  • Social tension between players (not just characters)
  • Deduction, deception and hidden information games

And of course, more. Literally this is why I have the Same Page Tool to help people sort through “Do you want to play this system, this particular way, this campaign?” and to make sure people aren’t confused about mixing up other possible (but not well fitting) ways.

House rules vs. Broken Goals

Another car analogy. It’s one thing to mod your car. That’s a choice you make because you want your car to work different in some way. There might be some tinkering, but basically the car does the basic thing you want it to, and you’re just making it a LITTLE better in the way you want.

If you have to fix your car all the time, or because it keeps not doing the thing you want (working), that’s not the same at all. That’s a problem.

House rules are the former, trying to get the game to do what it’s bad at (that you want to do instead) is the latter. If you spend a lot of time constantly having to ignore the rules, fudge dice, or change them repeatedly to because it’s still not doing what you want – you should probably use different rules.

RPG myths that hold us back

Hand in hand with “this game can do everything!” are the myths that:

  • All games are as hard to play or run
  • All games are as expensive
  • You have to “master” this game to get it to do what you want

In all of these, the benefit for publishers is monopolizing a customer base and making sure they don’t look at any other games. I remember in the early 2000s when I suggested people play 3-4 very different kinds of RPGs to get a feel for what is out there, Internet Doodz(TM) claimed I wanted everyone to play one particular way. (Even though, I myself, have a few drastically different ways I prefer to play and that hasn’t changed, really.)

And that ties back to the problems I mentioned long ago when I first shifted over to making this blog – a lot of the history of tabletop RPG design has been poor design propped up with “We’re the real roleplayers! Not like those guys over there! Don’t look over there! Don’t try any other games unless you want to be a loser like them!” – some people believe the ONLY way you can recommend a game is because you want no one else to play any other game, ever again.

I said many times it’s a game, not a marriage. Or perhaps more accuately, it’s not a religion demanding you disavow any other ways along the way.

I often point to boardgames as a healthier example – boardgamers often play many types of boardgames, and while they have some favorites they come back to, outside of things like Go, Chess, etc. most people play many of them without a problem. And, equally important, the variety allows them to have examples and language to talk about what they like vs. what they don’t like – which helps you ask for what you want and lets you find people who also want the same thing, so you can play together.

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Puzzle Dungeons

November 20, 2020

I’m sure I must have linked Game Maker’s Toolkit Boss Keys series on Legend of Zelda dungeon design before, but this recent one on puzzle dungeons has some great principles for tabletop folks looking to make the same kind of thing.

I do recall old school dungeons having stuff like rotating rooms, elevator puzzles, etc. here and there, and it’s not a bad idea overall.

I think a key difference is that in a videogame you can back track through rooms in a matter of seconds and there’s a small play reward of the joy of jumping, swinging, etc. along the way that doesn’t quite happen in tabletop – so you probably don’t want the density of required state changes to solve a puzzle that a Zelda game has.

Where these do become more interesting is if your game has issues like wandering monsters or supplies that run out (like… torches) where efficient navigation becomes especially useful.

And, being a tabletop game, you can play with ideas like – does a state change in the dungeon trap, block, or kill some monsters? Does it open pathways for other, dangerous ones to run loose? Are there intelligent creatures also enacting state changes to the dungeon?

It’s important to note that until players understand what they are doing and how it works, the whole thing is an obstacle, and once they do, it might become a useful tool or advantage.

Finally, there’s also the issue that unlike videogames, players can come up with some really creative, but plausible ways to traverse to areas you might think impossible. Rope, a little bit of magic, and some creativity can get people around a lot more than you think.


Focus vs. Background

October 16, 2020

One of the questions I ask when looking at a game to run, is “What kinds of conflicts make sense?”.

This isn’t conflict in the sense of “combat” specifically, this is more like, “Is counting torches and supplies important, or is it background?” “Does your noble rank involve family and power struggles, or is it background?” “Does the crew of the Starcrossed Lion need to pay attention to fuel and bank accounts to get to the next spacestation or is that background?”

Years back, I remember playing in a game of Dog Eat Dog and one of the players tried to play it like a tactical game – he tried to have his character gather weapons and supplies and hide in a cave – but that kind of conflict doesn’t fit the game – it’s about culture, identity, and social power(lessness), not “x feet to target, partial cover, 18 more bullets left”.

So we had a pretty bad mismatch, and, unfortunately, a lot of games experience this because roleplaying has a ton of possible play space and things a game could be about, but for a game to run smoothly, folks should be coordinated on what specifically the focus is.

So, some terms to use to help talk about this:


Another term I heard long ago was “furniture” to apply to things that were fundamentally decorative in a game, sort of how in many videogames there’s furniture in the scene but you can’t interact with it.

Is the fact your character a retired general mostly just a neat background fact that doesn’t mean much to the scenario? Is the keepsake necklace just a fond memory of the past that’s a cool costume decoration? Is the catty talk in the grand ballroom mostly just to show the NPCs are gossipy and not something you’re supposed to engage/challenge? Decorative.

Some games have you roll for your character’s height, weight, hair, and eye color or at least make you mark it down like it was a driver’s licence – and while it’s not impossible for some of these to matter in a game, for the vast majority of games, this is decorative.

Now, to be fair, tabletop RPGs are unique in that you can basically make up anything and your creativity means you might sometimes leverage a decorative thing into an angle or tool for a real conflict/situation, but the point in knowing what’s here is that it’s not the FOCUS of play, for this particular campaign you’re running.

Plot Device

Plot device elements are also background, but they provide initial motivation to move towards something, without necessarily being the focus.

Consider treasure hunting in modern D&D: few games actually are about walking off with the most treasure, as much as clearing the dungeon/stopping the evil/fighting the monsters. The treasure hunting is a plot device to enable the actual focus of play.

This specifically occurred to me as I was thinking about pulp fantasy and how much of any given story begins with a plot device style motivation that ultimately gets put aside or subsumed for the ‘real conflict’. Being washed up from a shipwreck would make survival seem like the focus, but actually meeting the sorcerer who is raising dead gods from the volcano is the real focus, for example.

This part matters a lot for player character backgrounds – the player and the GM should probably figure out what’s what – the GM wants to make sure they don’t neglect something the player wants to be a focus, the player wants to make sure the GM isn’t taking something that’s decorative/plot device and turning it into ‘a thing’ instead of what they really want to play with.

Of course, I’ve written about Flag Mechanics as the easiest solution for this problem.


Focus is actually the things you’re trying to have the play focus on. These are the elements that will be in conflict, challenged, brought as leverage either way.

Is the number of gold pieces you get from the treasures hunt going to determine how well supplied you are next time and whether your character gets stronger or not? Is the fact you’re a retired general going to be a situation where your status and political stance hold weight, and you’re forced to encounter people you’ve commanded, for good or ill, or even people who your armies fought?

I once ran a Legend of the Five Rings game, and a player had a interesting character concept – he wanted to play a character who couldn’t lie, as someone in the faction known for scheming. In hindsight, I guess he was expecting a game that would be railroaded and that things would ‘work out’ for his character, whereas I saw THAT, being truthful in a fundamentally devious social hierarchy, the real conflict.

When it came up that his character choosing to fight some ronin types didn’t earn him accolades, but scorn (“Why would you lower yourself to fight dogs in the street?”) the player froze up and actually freaked out a bit. For him, noble status was a background aspect, not supposed to be the focus.


Support elements matter, but they serve primarily to help play around the focus of play. Usually support elements provide a small amount of leverage to the core conflict focus of a game; gear choices in combat, your wealth level in a political game, camping skills in most wilderness situations in games.

The thing here is to point out “Here is the focus, but don’t neglect these other things too.”


Anyway, I think this is a good thing to keep in mind when you are writing a game or pitching a game to a group. It’s also not bad language to have if you are joining a game.

Again, this is one of those things that I think good game design solves – a well written game that is clear what things are the focus vs. background, OR, at least, gives you tools to clarify that as a group, would make this unnecessary.

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