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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First Session Comprehension

April 8, 2017

I often look to all types of games when considering game design and play issues.  Yesterday I had enough friends come through who were willing to try out some boardgames I hadn’t gotten a chance to play yet – the more involved, crunchy-rules kind.  Between those games, it occurred to me a key goal of game design that often isn’t addressed for RPGS: First Session Comprehension.

The basic idea is this: by the time you finish the first session/game, you should have a firm grasp of the procedures of play, a good idea of viable options, and a notion towards more optimal options to go try out.

Procedures of Play

These are the logistics of play – how to set up (for RPGs, this includes things like character generation), the flow of resolutions, how to track resources, and, how things like gameboards, cards, or figures are used.

For one of the games, we failed to even get past set up, because the instruction manual was fairly opaque, and we set aside the game for another time (after, say, finding a tutorial video or something.)   This was a lot like my first experiences trying to run Red Box D&D as a kid – we’d get to the “buy your equipment” part and everyone would stall out, either not sure what to get, or get bored and quit.

Many RPGs are designed with the idea most, if not all, of the group will have read the procedures of play, which is already a step beyond what boardgames expect.  Dogs in the Vineyard had a great idea of putting the basic resolution procedure on the character sheet, which mirrors a lot of boardgames idea of a reference card that shows how to play out your turn.  Other RPGs, on the other hand, assume “just tell the GM what you want to do” is adequate, but that also has the pitfall for counterintuitive results (for the player) or frustration if they run into non-viable actions.

Viable Actions

“What can I do?”  Viable actions are second step – how can your pieces move, how can you spend resources, can you initiate some kind of special sub-system rules (“I’m declaring a duel!”) etc.

Tabletop RPGs have two layers here.  First is “I can do anything fictionally viable for my character”, which is a hurdle very different than boardgames.  While I’ve seen people take to this quite quickly, for traditional RPGs it seems to slow down and players can take as much as 3-5 sessions to get it.  (I feel a lot of it has to do with opacity of WHEN rules are applied, vs. not).

Optimal Actions

“What are the best options?”  This is the point where people are truly playing the game – they’re not having to fuss with the mechanics of HOW to play, they’re not trying to remember what they CAN do, but they can now focus on what they SHOULD do.

And while “optimal” is a word most folks think of applying to Gamist goals (how to win), it applies equally to the goals of Simulationist play (how to make this FEEL like the fiction/experience we’re trying to create) or Narrativism (how to MAKE compelling, dramatic situations as we go).  In all cases it is about how to best use the tools towards the established game agenda.

The goal for design in comprehension

The better designed boardgames and card games, I see the goal is getting people to cycle through those three levels turn-by-turn, such that they’re already looking at optimal actions before they’re even done playing the first game.  Once people are thinking of optimal actions, they’re playing out scenarios in their head, of what to do, and whether something would work or not – and they’re eager to try it out on the next go around.

For tabletop RPGs, however, I feel like traditionally we’ve accepted 3-6 sessions, and even with the lighter indie game arena, we’re still talking 2-3 sessions before people get a good feel for what’s happening.

Because tabletop RPGs have most of the action exist in a fiction space that we collectively imagine, there’s a cognitive load that makes it harder in general (I cannot simply look at the game board and get an idea of the game state, I must remember and imagine what is happening, and communicate with others to get that info or clarify it).  Even then, I think we could probably do better, design-wise, thinking about these things and applying them to  our games.

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Pandemic Legacy Design

March 25, 2017


Aside from the Pandemic games being pretty awesome, it’s really fascinating to watch folks develop campaign play from a very different mindset.  It also highlights some really useful things we can backport to tabletop rpg design as well.

Campaign Commitment Time

This was one of the major concerns in the design discussions and a focus for a lot of the indie rpgs that came out of the Forge – that the longer the campaign commitment, by nature, the smaller your target audience is who can/will commit that time in.  I think it’s really interesting that they talk about 12-15 play sessions being their top expected amount of content in a Legacy game, and the value of having a specific number laid out to players from the beginning.  (This was one of the big points I’ve written about for years, as simply making games more functional).

Linear Story for a Linear Metric

One of the biggest differences in a boardgame and tabletop RPG is the fact that while you can drench the boardgame with fictional elements to encourage roleplaying and enjoyment of the theme, the fiction doesn’t feed back into changing the outcomes of play as it does with a roleplaying game.  No one is under the illusion that they can “do anything the character can do” as a viable option in a boardgame, so it also means the directions a story can go is highly limited, and makes things like the linear story set up they’ve created work.

It’s funny that they mention Robin’s Laws, since Robin Laws’ version of HeroQuest 2 attempts to create the up and down beats, except without the additional considerations of players gaming the system (“incentivizing failure”) or engaging the mechanical aspects beyond turning a difficulty dial up and down.  I suspect Jason Morningstar’s Juggernaut might be a better parallel, but having not played it yet, and not trying to spoil myself before doing so, I could be wrong.

The Power of Unlockables and Physical Artifacts

Although sometimes people have given their players a document or a puzzle box to open, it’s not the same as fully integrating unlockable, physical cues/objects as a key part of play.  In the video, they mention that people KNOWING there would be a box to open incentivized action to either open it or avoid opening it, depending on whether the assumption was that it was good or bad.

In tabletop RPGs, either mechanical rewards are well known ahead of time (“If I get X number of points, I can buy Y power”) or exist solely as a verbal description (“The sword glows with magic power…”) but not as a physical object to taunt, tease, threaten you.  Adding uncertainty into advancement hits Pavlov’s intermittent reward cycle, but also because these rewards are thematic/plot based, and not just “get +X to ability Y”, they tend to be more interesting and emotionally fulfilling to the group.


I think this is some of the best information on tabletop playtesting out there.  They’re looking for: a) when the group has confusion, questions or forgets rules, b) emotional responses to play, c) why a group is making certain choices in the game.  (Notably, this was effectively what the Forge folks pushed for from actual play accounts in regards to playtesting).

You’ll also note that they’re talking about hundreds of hours of playtesting from several groups, including strangers.  While the indie RPGs pioneered the idea, it was Paizo’s Pathfinder playtest that really made it popular for tabletop games – however, having video or recordings where you can see the actual play rather than depend on memory, filters, or bias in self reporting is vastly superior.


I Need Diverse Games GoFundme

March 7, 2017

I Need Diverse Games has been doing some pretty amazing work over the last couple of years with analysis, awareness, interviews, and game criticism.  If you have a bit to spare, they’re trying to keep functioning while the last paperwork for going non-profit is finished up.

If you can, please spare some funds for their GoFundMe page.


Signalboost February

February 24, 2017

While I haven’t been able to game as much as I’d like, between my new career, long term health recovery and most of my game circles undergoing similar life shakeups this last year, I’m still sometimes hearing about a lot of cool game things to check out and pick up.

One thing I try to do is promote a more diverse space of game creators, and so, here’s a couple of new projects, and old ones, that I think could do with boost:


Laura Simpson’s Companions’ Tale is an RPG that plays with the hero’s journey except from the viewpoint of the companions to the main hero.  You create the world as you play, create the map, and define more of the hero and the companions as well.  (Kickstarter, currently funded)

Tales of the Warrior Princesses is a set of 11 D&D adventures based around fairy tale princesses… as the heroes of their own tales.   (Kickstarter, could definitely use more funding)


The Watch is a short campaign RPG set in a world where an evil force is possessing people, forcing an uneasy and desperate alliance between different clan groups to survive.  It’s built on the Apocalypse World Engine.  (Kickstarter, could use more funding).

Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog is a game I’ve posted about before – an amazing game about surviving colonialism and the scars it leaves upon society and identity itself.  It feels even more relevant right now as we watch people play out “Whose country is this?” by identity rules they never realized they’ve been indoctrinated with… (PDF, pay what you want).

Quinn Murphy’s Community Radio is another fun, but timely game.  Super inspired by Welcome to Nightvale, this game is a fun short one that you can make your own, weird, bizarre world, as narrated through your radio station.   Right now as we’ve been told that news reporting is “the enemy” of our governing body, maybe it’s time for games about uncovering unspeakable evils…  (PDF, $2, or more if you’d like to pay more).


Luck vs. Skill in games

February 20, 2017

A generally good talk on the differences in game experience and what it means for your game.

While this is directly applied to gamist RPGs, the interesting twist to realize for other types of RPGs is that you are looking at how well the rules allow you to navigate either in a Narrativist experience or Simulationist one as well, and the level of mastery required.  Also, and specific to tabletop RPGs, is the element of how much the fictional positioning plays in this whole experience.


Anime Sorcerer

February 18, 2017

Gearing up for a game in the near future, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that I find myself often drifting back to Sorcerer for anime inspired games.  And the more I thought about why that is, I figured it’s probably worth writing up a little guide as to what makes it a good fit and how to make it work for you.

Dangerous Power & Riding The Line

Well, it’s not hard to find several anime or manga series that revolve around power that’s not totally in your control and characters who risk going to far… which is pretty much what Sorcerer is all about.

I usually start by asking what does it look like when the protagonists lose control of the power?  Giant robot Evangelions going on a rampage? Psychic powers ripping up city blocks, police squads and your loved ones while your body mutates out of control?

Usually thinking a bit about that will tell you how to word the pitch in terms of mood, theme, and how to define your demons and sorcery in the game.  Also consider if there’s any limitations on what kind of characters would make good protagonists.

Specializing Your Demons and Sorcery

First, does the world know that the demons exist?  And how are they viewed?  Usually the Rule of Secrecy is the first thing that disappears in an anime or manga setting.

Second, you may require demons to only be one type, and to have certain types of powers, or none of others.  The Imminent rules in Sorcerer and Sword are often useful, potentially along with the Pacting rules if small one-time demons get used a lot in the setting.


I know the core Sorcerer rules set up that demon Needs are completely individualized, but I find that usually leads to… really disjointed situations that maybe don’t fit well together.  Instead I prefer to pick an appropriate Need that generally falls into one of these categories:

  • Colorful but not hard to fulfill (“Say the magic words & raise your hands!”)
  • A logistical need to fulfill that sometimes is a problem (“The robot needs refueling”)
  • Something that will probably lead to complications later. (“Steal something sentimental from someone and then sacrifice it.”)
  • Something thematically intense every time (“Make a promise to an enemy then deliver on it”)

The demons might all have the same need but if they are different, you generally want them to fall into the same category type, or you might have a very disjointed feeling game and setting.  Generally I make the differentiation around desires rather than needs.

Demons as… sort of known?

Baseline Sorcerer establishes that demons violate your fictional setting – whatever people in the fiction believe them to be, it is just projections, guesses, and not the actuality, which is ultimately OTHER.

In anime and manga, these things may be known on some level, even 100% accurately described… but not controlled.  Are these things giant robots? Yes.  Do they sometimes activate and move on their own?  “That’s impossible!” but apparently that too.  Oops.

“My Demon is a good demon!”

There’s a common trope where you have most of the demons of whatever sort as evil, but the protagonists have somehow found/created one that is good.  The easiest way to handle this in the rules is to change it’s Need and/or Desire so that it’s less messed up than the usual ones.


Starting at the bottom – humanity 0

I like to consider what Humanity 0 looks like, first, since it often makes all the other definitions easier.  It tends to be a thing that happens a lot in shonen anime and manga, sometimes temporarily for protagonists, or with permanent consequences for antagonists.

  • Becoming obsessed with a goal and becoming inhuman through extreme experimentation/magic/cybernetics, etc. – always a villain favorite
  • The demon is in control and can wreak havoc without your influence for a time. (Tokyo Ravens)
  • You disappear or fade out from existence. (Control: C)
  • You become a monster or demon, probably the very thing you’ve been fighting. (Madoka Magica)
  • Go berserk or obsessive in pursuit of your goals, taking the most extreme and ultimately destructive path. (Full Metal Alchemist)

You can look at what kind of characters end up here, and what sort of behaviors preceded going too far.  This helps you suss out things that are bad for Humanity, and conversely, which things would be good for it as well.

Dual Humanity Definitions

The dual humanity rules in Sorcerer & Soul get a lot of use in these kinds of stories.  You’ll find there’s a lot of antagonists who, in one category, are the scum of the earth, and in another category, shining exemplars.   If one definition is “Compassionate” and the other is “Decisive and confident”, you can see how someone might focus one or the other, and keep up their Humanity through relentless pursuit of embodying that.

You can also set up Humanity definitions as completely orthogonal to actual morality – in which case, “What’s right?” is tested in theme against “But I need to do something quick and easy to get my Humanity score up”, which doesn’t always line up.

Funky Humanity Tricks – “The Power of Friendship!”

Now the other set of rules to pull from Sorcerer & Soul – all those bits about using Humanity as an action score unto itself.

The most common usage is declaring why your character is so motivated about doing XYZ and rolling Humanity to generate rollover successes.  It you want to truly emulate the genre, try Humanity vs. 1 die, but useable maybe once per session, since it seems to often create a super boost.  (note that this can stack with the usual roleplaying bonus dice).  This is a Shonen manga/anime classic – Naruto and One Piece for example rest heavily on this one.

If your setting is a bit more grim, maybe you can do Humanity rolls vs. 1 die of the Humanity of various allies/friends/loved ones who died, that are motivating you to push on and Do The Thing.   This sets up a perverse dynamic – the protagonists obviously want these people to live, but the more of them who sacrifice themselves or are victimized along the way, the more powerful you get in dice, potentially allowing you to take on “The Big Bad”.

Really dark series, however, posit Humanity as a force that interferes with effectiveness, rather than enhance it.  The most obvious one might be having your Humanity rolled against your acting score before you can commit an act of violence… which sets up a great point of decent people not wanting to hurt others, but also means the character might be forced to ride a low Humanity score to survive.


While I’m pulling direct from series here, I actually prefer to create new settings and ideas that are anime-like, but if you see how it works with established ones, you can see how you can make your own as well.


Demons: EVAs. (Objects, Armor, Big) Need: Power Cord  Desire: Hurt someone you care about.  EVAs may be a state secrets, but yes, the world basically knows about them and there’s no way a 200 foot tall robot is going to uphold the Rule of Secrecy.  People think they’re just machines, mostly.  Rebellion: doesn’t activate when you need it to, activates when you don’t, goes on a rampage, etc. Sorcery: Disturbing visions/flashbacks into your traumatic subconsciousness.

Humanity: Actual decency and kindness to the people around you.  Humanity 0: Being useless for a while, and if you have an EVA it can rampage without your control for a while.  Make a Lore roll vs. 1 die to come back from your state (whether, it’s  catatonic or, you know, physically transformed into liquid or whatever).  Otherwise you’re gone forever, another useless pilot.

Special Humanity Rule: Your humanity can generate rollover successes for anyone trying to manipulate or lie to you.  This includes if you’re lying to yourself.  (Notice how this can quickly cause a Humanity check as well…)


Demons: Parasytes.  (Parasites, Shapeshift, Perception:Other Parasytes, Lethal Damage, Vitality, maybe Hop)  Need: Migi needs sleep, but the other Parasytes need to eat people, generally.  Desires: all across the board here – the basic list in Sorcerer can work and you can add on to it with stuff like “Motherhood”, or “Domination” etc.  The Parasytes are mostly not known at the beginning of the series, and looked upon with horror and fear as people find out about them.  Rebellion: Well… leaving the host, committing horrific acts of violence, etc.

Humanity: Caring for the people in your life.   Note that the series involves a lot of Humanity Gain rolls for protecting people from being eaten BUT at the same time has a lot of Humanity Checks for emotional distancing.   Humanity 0: Trade down your maximum Humanity per Sorcerer & Sword, you’re now Inhuman.  If this happens again, your Humanity max must continue to drop further.  If you reach absolute 0, you’re now a Passer Demon and not human at all.

Special Humanity Rule: Humanity rolls against you committing violence or simply allowing other people to be sacrificed through callous inaction.



Kill La Kill

Demons: Clothing (Object, Boost, Taint) Need: Blood, lifeforce of wearers. (Makes an attack vs. wearer’s Stamina, as if it were an Edged Weapon). Desire: Most either want something like Alien Domination, while Senketsu has Knowledge.  Aside from Goku Uniforms, the world is generally uninformed about clothing.  There’s not a Rule of Secrecy, though the REVOCs corporation is keeping it’s true history hidden for obvious reasons.  Rebellion: Aside from the usual “won’t activate” possibility, there’s always Taint which can be used against the Wearer.

Humanity: Connections with friends and family.  Humanity 0: Any demon-clothing you wear can make a Binding roll vs. 1 die on you.

Special Humanity Rule: Power of Friendship – anyone who pitches in their support and tells you why you matter can make Humanity rolls to create rollover successes that you can use.