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Culture Gaming

May 29, 2017

One of the key problems for roleplaying games is figuring out how much interaction with the broader society in your setting matters or doesn’t.

To give a simple example – if you’re playing a modern supernatural game – does your vampire have to hold down a job? Do they have to interact with the landlord?  How about their family or friends from before they got turned into a vampire?  Or is it all “Politics of the Night Court” and fighting werewolves and such, and we don’t think about the rest?

This question ends up being one of the places where people feel lost when they first start getting into gaming and you give them D&D or a sci-fi game – you need to have an idea of what the fictional society is like and how your character fits into it, if you actually are to roleplay out that interaction.  A knight, a nomadic clan warrior, and hired muscle for a criminal merchant all might fit the “Fighter” class but they certainly will approach the world very differently and be treated quite differently, depending on where they are.  Without specifying that context, it takes a few sessions to even figure out how the world works in the broadest sense for the characters.

This not only is critical in terms of setting up your characters for roleplaying – it sets up what values they hold, what things they’ll fight for and so on.  It gives people options for negotiation – status is a critical thing people struggle for and use as leverage every day.  It creates ties and relationships between player characters and NPCs – and also ties the players into the desires of those NPCs in ways that are reasonable and consistent.

The 3 Questions

What is your role in society, what is expected of you, and what can you request or demand and reasonably expect to receive?

The 3 questions form the basic set up of what you need to know for how things operate in your setting.  Of course, these questions are the sort of thing you could write whole anthropology courses on, so it’s not so much about detailing every possible space, but giving sufficient direction that people can have a good idea and the negotiation/question and answer at the table during play is short and easy.

Specified Roles

Some games handle this by limiting players to specified roles in society – Dogs in the Vineyard, Legend of the Five Rings, Pendragon, Paranoia, for example, all work on the idea that the player characters are from a specific group for the most part, which means the answers to those questions are mostly the same, and the players then create their characters within that space.

This turns out to work pretty great for the sake of getting people into play quickly, and also reliably hitting certain aspects of play.

Massive Setting and Negotiation

Another design strategy is to give a wide setting with a lot of different possible answers and the group having to pick a society/space to focus on and narrow down the roles from there.  Glorantha, Shadowrun, D&D campaign settings, and most of the White Wolf games fall into this category.

While this does provide a lot of options, I have found the process of groups negotiating down to the actual scenario and characters is rarely quick or smooth unless the group has already done a lot of pre-negotiation about what they’re looking for.  A lot of the hurdles start with, “But did you read ALL of this setting material?” and then happen into, “And how did you interpret those ideas?”

Fuzzy Outlines & Negotiation

D&D is the game that exemplifies this design choice.  In baseline D&D, you get some features of things that exist in the setting – dwarves, clerics, deities, but it doesn’t tell you how society really works – are dwarves normal people? Are they discriminated against? Respected and treated with awe? Are clerics rare and amazing like saints? Can anyone get their broken leg healed at any local temple? Do deities demand prayer, blood offerings, incense, what?  It’s really fuzzy for the most part.

So, as a group, you have to either take these elements and form them together yourself, or leave it open and then find bumps when you discover that one player expected one thing and another something completely different.  (“Wait, I’m a cleric, shouldn’t people treat me with respect?” “Wait, people treat half-elves poorly?”)

This choice often has complications, since a lot of the assumed expectations usually will be what someone is drawing from a previous campaign or a setting or series of books and so on, and without clarity, the disconnect can be quite steep.

Practices and Meaning – pre-loading vs. in play

Consider someone doing something insulting without using words.  What do they do? Do they spit on the ground?  Scowl?  Chuckle?  Throw an object instead of handing it over? Bump your shoulder? These things are meaningful, and the context of the situation and culture are what make them hold that meaning.

Since most RPGs are set in fantastical and futuristic settings, far from whereever you happen to be, the meaning of practices might be very different, and the question is how much is this going to matter for your game, and how do we, as a play group, get to a shared understanding?

You can pre-load all of that with lots and lots of chapters of expected behavior to read up on.  Or you can, as a GM, explain as you go what the implications are (“They kneel, but it is only about a second before they look up to you.  They’re respectful, but clearly in a hurry.”)

I’m fairly certain that this language of culture and implication are why game groups seriously invested in a setting-heavy game, tend to have a slow recruitment and deeper investment in long term play – the time it takes to learn this and fluently apply it in play, can take months or years.

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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.

Playtesting

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.

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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.

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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:

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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)

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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).

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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.