Archive for the ‘theoryforplay’ Category


Sci-fi and the right questions

November 19, 2019

I’ve got a few sci-fi things I’ve been tooling around with.  In terms of feedback, sometimes I encounter people who miss a key part of sci-fi – it’s rarely a hard look at “What would life definitely be like with x conditions and y technology?” and more about framing things as what sort of questions and stories do you want to create.

You gotta ask the right question.

For example, if you have AI, or brain uploading, or copying people, you have a whole host of ethical questions to address as part of your setting, and probably in play.

If I want something like a adventure/shooty sci-fi like Mass Effect, where the ethical questions are more “How do I treat people in a given situation and how much violence/lawbreaking am I ok with?” that’s a different set of questions and the former ideas can quickly overwhelm them.

(To be fair, really any genre could have this kind of  host of questions and focus, sci-fi just tends to bring it to the foreground quickly, and tends to be where I have to spend the most time making these curated choices.)

For this reason, I often choose to make/play sci-fi settings with a lot of things missing.  No AI.  Maybe very limited drones.  Etc.   These choices aren’t because I’m not familiar with ideas of the technology or the fact that society will be drastically different with those technologies being widespread, it’s often because that’s not the questions I want to do with this particular game/campaign.

Then the issue of onboarding.

There’s also the second issue, which is that tabletop RPGs are not a passive form of entertainment – it is critical to get people up to speed to be able to play the game.  I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of the 300 page setting required reading, but even short settings still require people to get on the same page for ideas.

With many sci-fi, the issue becomes a matter of which the society is so alien, and difficult, to grasp, that your group becomes lost or confused as to what’s going on.   This kind of story works well in books, because you can take time to re-read sections, and think about what is happening.   In a game, where everyone is collaboratively creating character dialogue, choices, and events, it can be a hurdle.

(This is also true of other genre types too, and the point after which the high concept/fictional culture is so weird to the players or has to fight it’s way through pre-conceived expectations it becomes a hurdle to play rather than a useful feature.)

The wrong answers.

There’s also the point where if you include things thoughtlessly, it naturally leads to setting up answers you probably didn’t intend.  “The good guys made a slave clone army to fight and die by the millions?  How are these good guys?”  Oops.

One of the differences in technology vs. magic in fiction, is that technology is generally understood to be reproducible, while in some cases, magic is not quite so reliable/predictable, and this means if you do something with technology, the question comes up why you wouldn’t do it again/elsewhere?  If you can cure cancer, why not cure more people?  If you can bring someone back from the dead, how long until this becomes a regular use technology?  And then… why AREN’T you doing this?

Obviously, there’s plenty of good stories to have around both technology that can’t feasibly be reproduced wide scale (“You can change one moment in history… but only one.”) or are being forcibly placed into artificial scarcity as a means of social control.  Again though, that’s being thoughtful about where and how you place it in your setting.


“How much crunch is too much?”

November 12, 2019

In tabletop RPGs, few things have “one right answer” and most are “well what do you want?” as the real guide.  However, having a better set of questions and guidelines will take you pretty far and save a lot of time and trouble later on.  “How crunchy should a game be?” is a matter of preference, but I have found two things work as a great guideline for any given group or campaign.

Basic Proficiency

“Do the players have an idea of how to do things with the rules to try to get what they want to have happen in play?”

Note this isn’t the same as rules mastery, it means they have a general idea. Think along these lines:

“If I want to do X, I’ll probably need to make a skill roll using these dice.”

“If I really want to win, I should look at spending hero points”

“I can use my ghost powers from my class to help do X thing”

If multiple people in your group can’t reach this level of proficiency within a session or two, the game is probably too crunchy for the group you have.


Does playing the game feel like work?

“Time flies when you’re having fun” is because the fun factor outweighs the effort, so you don’t notice it.  But when the work outweighs the fun, it feels like a grind and a chore.

Obviously, different players may have different things that feel like work, or different levels that do.  Again, though, if it feels this way for multiple people, it might be the wrong choice for your group.

“Light but not supporting” – a trap

One important thing I want to highlight is that there’s a number of rules light systems that aren’t hard, mechanically, but they also lack rules or support to help you, so you end up doing most of the work of having to do anything from pacing to stakes setting, just that it’s made “invisible” because it’s NOT in the rules.

Again, you can ask those same two questions and with honesty, sometimes, “yeah, I don’t know when to roll the dice” “Wait, how come a single roll does only X this time and when it did Y the last time?” and such become things to consider in a rules light game.

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The Prep Tool Hurdle

October 24, 2019

Right now I GM two weekly games.  One is prep intensive, taking hours to prep for a session, the other is 15-20 minutes.

Aside from the requirements for play and math stuff that make a difference, I realize one of the big issues is whether I can prep while commuting to and from work, or while eating lunch or whether I have to sit at a computer and create a map.

The easy-prep game I never feel nervous because the actual work for prep is something I can do anywhere, anytime, and I can improv easily in play as well.  The hard prep game is a stress every week, because not only do I have to set aside the time, I also have to make sure I’m not too tired, or that no other emergency has come up that eats into that time as well.

As we think about what games to design, run, or play, part of it has to include the issues of tools required even in the prep itself, as that often determines how easy/hard it is to make that happen.


Maps in games

June 21, 2019

I’ve been thinking a bit about prep, and maps.  I think there’s a value in thinking about how maps get used in your games, whether that’s “How will I use this map for this campaign?” or “I’m designing a whole game, and how do we use maps in the broadest sense?”

Maps as setting builders

A lot of games, I might use a map as a thing to define setting – the map helps us get an idea of where the fiction is happening, and, say, where characters come from.  But, that’s about the limit of the map’s usage – we never refer to it for travel or worry about distance or time or anything.

It’s mostly to orient the characters in a way – “Oh, my hometown is next to this forest, I’m probably familiar with hunting at least a little.  There’s no rivers around, so I probably have never seen anything larger than a stream or a creek and a pond.”

Depending on your game, the map might be “unreliable” – as in, rather than a representation of how the fictional game world IS, it might be a representation of how the society or characters in that fictional world perceive it… “Here there be dragons” is very different between a world where there are actual dragons about, vs. a world where the characters just believe it must be true because no one has traveled that far.

Maps for situations

If actual travel and placement on the map matters at all, but you’re not bothering with specific measurements, this is using maps for situation.  This is how I usually run most games – the map is sort of a vague “How close is trouble and how much trouble do I have to deal with to get somewhere?” without bogging down into times, travel specifics, etc.

The nice thing about this style of game is that you only really need to mark the map for interesting places, and not worry as much about specifics.

Maps as mechanics

Maps as mechanics deal with actual travel times or how difficult travel might be.  Aside from large world maps, this also includes grid maps for combat – distance and difficult terrain also applies, just in the most immediate way.

The specificity assists in creating specific strategies and choices – where to be, how to get there, how long it will take.  It also means you have to take design into consideration, otherwise you end up with large sections of the map unused or creating types of play you’re not interested in.   Also, the players need to find this interesting as well, otherwise they’ll just consider it tedious and not consider the choices it offers at all (“charge straight ahead”, etc.).

“Map making” maps

And of course, the classic dungeon crawl where the players make a map as they play.  In this case, the “actual map” – the one the GM is using to describe the world, is the map in play as hidden information, and it depends on the players to accurately note and draw out their own map as a reference.  For people into this, it can be quite rewarding, and for people who are not, it is the opposite.  It’s really important to let people know if your game expects this up front.

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Avoiding Burnout

March 31, 2019

I’ve been playing in two consistent games a week for over a year now.  One is rotating GMs, the other is me, GMing and it’s generally prep heavy.  Between that, work, life… things were getting hard.  However, playing/running in a game that is effort light while also running a game that is prep heavy is a pretty great way to start seeing places for contrast and what options you have.


The first and biggest impact is the system you play by.  (As always, this also includes houserules or modifications you are actually playing by.)  There’s some games that only run on improv and give you good tools to play, and there’s some games that require significant planning ahead, and design work by the GM.

For example, if you’re playing a game that involves tactical combat, maps, and encounter balance – you’re doing the equivalent of videogame level design.  Except you don’t get to play test it, and you will only use it once.  And you’re not getting paid like a videogame dev would be, so… yeah, it’s a bit of work.

Alternatively, if you’re running a story-focal game but the GM is the primary producer of “story”, and the one who must always push the pacing and action, then yes, that’s effectively the same thing, even if there’s less math or maps involved.

The easiest games to run make it easy to improvise in play, whether that is because the prep stuff is all done for you, like a prepared dungeon for a dungeon crawl, OR, if the rules make the players the primary pushers of new events and conflicts.  This distributes the workload, but also allows players more input and ability to shape the direction of play.

Reduce Time Cost to Play

There’s a ton of things in life I’d like to go do more of, but there’s a time cost around the actual activity that makes it a very hard choice.

For example, I may want to go see a music show, I just don’t want to have to be out and about and still away by 12:30 am when the band I want to see finally gets on, then drag myself back home, and get up for work the next day.  The actual performance might be 45 minutes, but whew, it’s the stuff around it that make it hard.

For your games, consider both the direct logistics of play – travel time for face to face games, actual time spent playing, hangout time etc. but also consider the time cost of what people might be giving up instead.

If you pick a time that overlaps with other social possibilities, people are choosing to give up another thing to play with you.  Perhaps they have to schedule even more time out of the day to make it work – travel time, when to eat, making sure they get enough sleep, and so on.  That’s before we talk about anything like child care for parents, or extra accessibility needs for disability.

Part of why this is important to burnout is that if there’s a lot of extra requirements around the game itself, that also contributes to the burnout for both GMs and players.  If there’s people cancelling, understand some of that time cost might be taken up still – driving out to someone’s house to discover the game isn’t happening still means driving back home.

I like to make sure that everyone tries to give as much advance warning as possible for disruptions (understanding, of course, that life happens).  But there’s a far difference between “Oh, no, got food poisoning this afternoon” vs. no message at all, or, worse, “I went to a concert that I bought tickets for 3 weeks prior”.  Basic social contract of respect for everyone’s time – TTRPGs suffer from the fact that, much like playing in a music band, they are easily disrupted when one member is gone.

One thing that helps is to have a central means of communication.  This could be a group chat on a social media site, or a group email or whatever.  If everyone knows there’s one place to look, and one place to post if something comes up, that’s easier to work with.

Schedule Break Time

Plan break time for weeks to not play.  Holidays are the obvious thing, but also regularly ask the group what things look like in the next month or two.  Special events like vacation trips, weddings, or life events like moving house or having visits from friends and family might force you to take breaks.

This planning ahead also allows everyone to avoid that extra time cost we just covered.

I’m starting a new practice as well, for my weekly game that has the highest prep, I’ve decided to take one week out of the month as a skip week.  It gives me a little more time for prep, but also just recovery time in general from things like work stress and so on.

This pre-emptive time scheduling allows other people to get that time too, and then you have less cancellations from illness or people being completely burned out.  For me, I was hitting a point where work stress + trying to meet deadlines to keep up prep for play was combining and my health was not doing great for it, and, my ability to stay focused while running was also suffering.  When it stops being fun and starts being work, you need a break.

Life Comes First

Many years ago, one of the things I wrote as a pushback against broken gamer culture was my “Fun Now Manifesto” and part of it was that this is a game, not a marriage.  Games are fun, and so is hanging out with friends, but you should never have to feel guilty or bad that you might have to take care of other things first.

It’s easier to realize up front you don’t have time for games right now, but you might in the future, than it is to try to force it to work and make yourself unhappy both in the time spent gaming and the stuff you need to do outside of it as well.

No Magic Solution?

There’s no magic solution to burnout.  There’s no infinite well of energy and time you can draw upon, despite the fact there’s a million and one “productivity” articles everywhere you look promising to let you make the impossible happen.

The real solutions I pointed out above are all variations of “Do less”.  However, much like pacing yourself for a marathon – planned doing less is more functional and valuable than unplanned doing less (burning out and collapsing).

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Fantasy vs. the Fantastic

July 8, 2018

I’m finally getting a chance to get back into a combination of gaming and catching up on media after a hectic beginning of the year and it’s helping me get back into a key concept for tabletop gaming settings:

What parts of your setting are mundane vs. fantastic to the characters? (as opposed to us, real people, who do not have to worry about dragons and cyborgs and such.)

And how do you get the group on the same page about it as well?

A simple example

So let’s say you’ve got a fantasy game, and there’s a spell to turn invisible.  As far as the society in this game, is this:

  • Completely unknown?
  • In legends/stories, and probably feared or considered child’s tales?
  • Rare but known to exist?
  • Uncommon but something people take some precautions against?
  • Completely known and has several common countermeasures to stop it from being abused?

Depending on the setting, this is either super powerful and scary, or it’s a minor advantage.  In some cases, the thing is just as fantastic to the characters, as it is to us, the people playing the game, and in other cases, it’s about as mundane to them as someone knowing out how bust open a lock on a car door.

Sense of Wonder vs. Genre Piece

As a group, are these things supposed to be a thing that’s a sense of wonder (or terror) or are they just another piece of genre trope that’s fun and not a big deal?  This covers a lot about how you narrate things, prepare things, etc.

Doing a favor for a fae being who grants you a miraculous healing point and their castle disappears after you walk out of it will have you considering that healing potion one way, while buying a dozen healing potions at the Temple after picking up supplies is a different thing.

Playing Your Character & Narration

If you know where these things stand in the game world, it also lets you know how to play your character, and to mesh well with the other players as well.   If magic is unknown, your wizard might be able to scare a king into submission with a few spooky tricks, while if it is well known, your character might be considered little better than a shoe cobbler.

Likewise, this affects how you narrate things.  “Spectral energy glows at his hands, before he chants the mantras of the divine archer, and a golden bow appears in his hands…firing forth arrows that blaze light from the mouth and eyes of his targets!” vs. “I scramble up the stairs while firing Magic Missle at the pursuing forces.”  Both the creative effort and time you spend, in part, depends on what fits for your game setting, and likewise, most people prefer description for the fantastic, brevity for the mundane.

Strategy in Play

Of course, if your game depends on strategic decisions, or choices that are well enforced by an internal logic to the game world, understanding where things sit in Mundane vs Fantastic is critical to both your planning and counter-strategies.  A good part of strategy is asymmetric information – who knows how things work and what options are available.

In our real world, an invisibility spell would let you get away with a LOT before people started floating the idea that maybe there’s an invisible person walking around (though, between the Predator movies, Ghost in the Shell, and real world experiments in optical camouflage, maybe quicker than you think).

Setting up for play!

I usually like to write up a 2-3 page document that hits what is expected of the game, including a bit on the setting and cultural expectations, especially if the game itself doesn’t include these things or I’m doing something different than what the book describes.

I look to see what things are different from our world, and I also look to see if there’s other popular media I can point to as a quick touch point.  If the game is set to existing fiction (movies, books, comics, videogames, etc.) – I try to find the quick short things I think people should refresh themselves with and also if we’re going to cherry pick specific parts of the larger work. (Which, you pretty much HAVE to do if a thing ends up going through multiple writers, has existed as a large franchise, etc.).

If players are building characters deep into an unusual thing, I try to give them more information or context about what that looks like and what expectations, challenges, and support are around their character.

Mind you, all of this is usually pretty short.  Since most of the games I run are something like 4-8 sessions these days, it doesn’t make sense to over invest in prep if the game isn’t going to be that long anyway.


Variety in Monsters

August 4, 2017

With the broad number of tactical-fighty RPGs out there, and tons of monster books, you’d think there’d be a pretty good understanding of creating variety in monsters and combat, right?  Well… aside from a few status effects and a changes in turning a dial up or down in terms of numbers, it can get pretty repetitive, quickly.

Aside from breadth in strategic goals for combat to drive variety… a few categories to consider with your monsters:


How well can the creature think in a broad sense, and what are it’s general goals around?  This is important because it determines a lot of how the encounter is shaped and the larger scale idea in play how these creatures shape the situation.

Predators – Animal level intelligence,  wants to hunt, or drive things away from it’s territory.

Mindless – Constructs, zombies, amoebas, some bugs.

Intelligent – Capable of thought, making plans, adapting said plans, etc.

Weird – Things from beyond space and time, abstractions given flesh, etc.

Intelligent Tactics

Some creatures use some or all of these tactics.  Understand that any/all of these can drastically change the power balance and threat level of a type of creature.  Also be aware one might have a relatively mindless creature that is adapted use one of these tactics.

Ambushing – Hiding, creating camouflage, waiting by watering holes, etc.

Trap Creating – making pitfalls, sandpits, etc.

Tool Using – capable of picking up, finding, or creating new tools to solve problems

Verbal Negotiation – capable of speech, might negotiate and/or lie.


Effects are the actual game mechanical things that shape how a combat feels and plays out.  Many of these also have to deal with the environment or area that a combat occurs, so definitely take that into account as well.

Special Movement – natural (flying, swimming, climbing, swinging, burrowing), unnatural (teleporting, phasing through objects, being liquid and oozing through cracks)

Environment Affecting – leaves a poisonous slime trail, large enough to knock down trees and small buildings, sets the area on fire, sprays a mist that makes it hard to see.

Resistances/Immunities – against poison, fear, types of elements, types of weapons (“The undead creature takes minimum damage from arrows.”), needs silver, blessed weapons, can only be injured in daylight, etc. 

Ranged – spitting caustic/poison saliva, choking spore cloud, throwing rocks, ranged weapons, magical effects – deadly gaze, etc.

Forced Movement/Immobilizing – charging/body slam, dragging with tentacles, pouncing and pinning, chomping on leg and clamping down.

Formation Effect – wolf pack getting bonuses for group attacks, herd animals stampeding, clay soldiers that fight with phalanx tactics, etc.

Set Up Attack/Action – takes 1-2 actions to “power up” or prepare a special action that is very powerful.  Coiling before constriction, chanting a spell, etc.

Lasting Damage – effects that last beyond the current encounter (a day, a month, until certain medicine/magic is used, etc.) – acidic attacks, poison, disease, lycanthropy, a curse/hex, etc.

Examples: Skeletons in different ways

Standard fantasy skeletons are like this: Mindless + Resistance/Immunities (poison, disease, fear, etc.)

Aren’t they tool users? They usually come with swords and spears, right? Not so much.  Consider the classic “We’re being chased by a horde of skeletons, and we hide out in a room with a really strong and large door that we shut behind us.”  Normal fantasy skeletons either a) stand around and don’t bother trying to get in, b) beat at the door, a while, but still can’t get in.   They have weapons, but they don’t really look for or utilize tools otherwise.

Tool Using Skeletons, however, will pick up that busted wooden ceiling beam that was laying around and use it as a battering ram.  (also, these are at least Predator mentality and intelligence at that point as well).

If they moan or simply repeat phrases, that’s not any extra sign of intelligence.  If they start whispering through the door that they’re tired, and just want to see the light of your torches, it’s been dark down here, so long, please don’t deny them this one thing… well, now they’re using Verbal Negotiation in an Intelligent, if evil fashion.

When the skeletons have figured out to cling to the ceiling with their untiring bony hands for uncountable years waiting for victims, you’ve got Ambushing skeletons.  When that ambush is also next to a ledge by water, and they roll you in, you find out Forced Movement is a bad feature for these guys.  The one that uses the magic staff of freezing to ice the water overhead so you can no longer break the surface for air is Environment Affecting.

As you can see, until we get to the magic staff, pretty much anything here can be done with the normal stats for most skeletons in many games and can make them much, much worse than what you normally get.   However, the point is not to simply throw twists on existing ideas, but to give you a better way to organize your tactical focused gamism as a whole.

The Big Picture

What you should be looking for is variety in those categories.  Make sure you have a mix of different Mentalities, of creatures using different Intelligent tactics as well as Effects.  By doing all of this, the players will have to use different tactics and strategies as well- which makes for better tactical play.  Strategies that work against one thing will not work against others, and this makes for more interesting situations than simply throwing bigger numbers at everyone.

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