I started a new job at the beginning of the month – straight into full time work, which is good, but also a big jump mentally and energy-wise since I fought cancer 2 years ago. June should be the return of my regular (-ish) posting schedule.
So, anytime you want to teach a game to someone (and, if you design games, you are teaching the game to the people who buy it), there’s a certain scale of understanding people have to meet to play the game successfully.
Spectrum of Proficiency
Consider this spectrum using Chess as an example:
1. Overall goal of the game (“Capture the enemy’s king and protect your own king”)
2. Structure of play, legal moves (“Taking turns”, “This piece moves like this”)
3. Intermediate goals/Tactics (“Cover your pieces”, “Force the opponent to react”, “Set up forking possibilities which all favor you”)
4. Strategy – recognizing patterns of play and tactics (“This particular opening”, “These two pieces work very well together” etc.)
5. Depth – you learn about the people you are playing with more than the game (“Normally he’d fall for this trap, but I can see he’s trying to lure me this time.”)
RPGs and broken wheels
Historically, a lot of roleplaying games have dropped the ball at the first two steps – stuff like my Same Page Tool is effectively a crutch to help people wedge in solutions to bad designs or bad writing.
The first step, the overall goal of a game, is basically the concrete direction of the Creative Agenda of a game. The second step, of the structure and legal moves in play, is the System of the game, including non-mechanical stuff like “If you say it, your character does it” sorts of declarations.
Without these two, you cannot say you have a complete game on hand – you have something people might cobble together into play, or might import parts to make it run, but by itself, it is incomplete in a fundamental way that quickly leads to a lot of wasted time in coordinating what game you’re really trying to play. It’s a broken wheel.
Things to know vs. Things to learn
By the time we get to the third step of proficiency, which is learning intermediate goals and tactics of play, you are basically identifying general trends of what you should be doing within the given set of legal moves.
Although in chess and adversarial games this kind of strategizing is easy to see, it also applies to strictly drama focused play in RPGs as well – “Use your character’s personal doubts to bring conflicts to a head”, “Create compelling reasons why your investigator KEEPS walking into the haunted houses” etc.
In terms of RPGs, this is a fine line to identify – how much of this is things necessary for play to even work at all, vs. how much are things that are more fun to discover in play? You can find examples of people doing this poorly in all kinds of games. “Oh, you picked the wrong feat for your character build! I guess you’re going to suck for 10 levels” – that’s certainly not a fun thing to discover. “This drama game only works if you make characters like this, but you can only find that out after you’ve played lots of the game.”
So where is the line? Let’s say the line is where you can at least stumble towards good play (by whatever definition the game itself makes for that, whether that’s tactical combat or high drama) and learn how to do it better, and not so far where you have a single optimal choice to make and no surprises come if it (which, is broken in a gamist view anyway).
What does this all mean for my group at the table?
Well, you better make sure your game at least covers the first two levels of proficiency. And then you want to make sure your group is proficient up to the point where they can HAVE FUN with the game, rather than spend most of their time trying to figure out how to get the system to work. You can’t have fun racing cars if you can’t get them moving.
Towards that end, where a game may drop the ball, you’ll want to create a quicksheet providing advice on how play should look, what pitfalls to avoid, or neat system tricks to take advantage of. You may want to set up the first few sessions towards highlighting these specific things.
“That sounds a lot like a videogame tutorial” – yep, that’s basically what you’re doing. The sooner players have a good grasp on what they CAN do, and what they generally SHOULD be trying to do, the sooner they can make meaningful choices, whether that is strategic or creative towards a story or painting a world.
When players can focus on how to do things better, they have more fun and can start developing the last two steps – which is system mastery (how to utilize the rules to their best effect) and then also being able to coordinate subtly from each other (as a team of people playing, regardless of whether they are playing cooperatively or competitively).
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This is going to be both a design-theory post, as well as a post for how you can look at systems and think about what they do for you vs. work against you at your table.
Some games are designed to tell a specific type of story – there may be a range of stories within that possible space, but it’s pretty well defined. My friend Quinn Murphy uses this term, “Structure” and it shows up in his Five Fires game – the characters deal with problems, and eventually it brings them back to making art or music – so the stories all revolve around people who are creative.
The thing about these kinds of games is that they can hyper focus their mechanics to only deal with the issues relevant to the type of stories they’re telling, and cut everything else out. The groups playing them have a much easier time figuring out what kinds of conflicts make sense, because the mechanics are pointing them in that direction.
Non-Structure / Generalist Systems
When you don’t have that, you end up having to do a bit of negotiation and work as a group to make up the difference – What kind of game are you playing? What kind of conflicts make sense within this framing? What is the focus of the story? How should we design characters to fit this? How should I present situations and have NPCs act to encourage that? What problems are addressable vs. impossible to change? So the first hurdle is getting on that page together.
What kind of conflicts make sense for this game?
What kind of protagonists make sense for this game?
What kind of outcomes make sense for this game?
Just because “anything COULD happen” doesn’t mean that’s a good way to try to use your time – sorting through “COULD” with “would be interesting”. If anything, entertainment is a lot about editing to interesting parts.
You can find yourself engaging in irrelevant conflicts – and I mean, engaging in mechanics in places that doesn’t actually push play forward or produce interesting choices. And this can be a giant waste of time, or even detrimental to play. So, how well the group can find the groove for where the focus is, vs. stumble over that, is key to how well the system without a structure consistently is fun in play.
We’ve been slowly working out a number of working techniques to help bridge these issues over the years:
Genre + Setting Fiction
The first trick people often used to try to solve these issues was to pick a genre with strong tropes, and back it up with fiction or setting material. All of this serves to sort of model and informally teach people where to put their conflict focuses in play. Of course, if this isn’t backed up mechanically, it is very weakly enforced or creates problems between play expectations – fudging and GM Fiat are often used as tools to deal with that design failure when it happens.
This technique is actually a pretty good one, though it’s an art more than an easy 1-2-3 procedure. It basically boils down to “skip to the cool parts” which allows you to avoid getting hung up on things that aren’t conflicts.
“Actually, the locked door isn’t really where the mystery is. It’s a background piece, let’s just move on, ok?” You just tell each other, what’s going on in play with information in Author Stance – stuff the characters wouldn’t know, but as players, they can avoid getting wrapped up in something that isn’t actually intersting.
Say Yes or Roll the Dice
Vincent Baker’s trick which has gone into many other games, basically states that if it’s not important, don’t make a mechanical conflict of it – just keep it moving. Notice a rhetorical aspect here – “Say Yes” is first – so you’re encouraged to say yes OVER rolling the dice a bit.
Dogs In The Vineyard, the game where this is from, also has a second mechanic enforcing this- “Give” which lets you simply give up halfway through a conflict – it shortens the process if you see your’e not going to win, but it also allows the people involved to drop a conflict if it simply occurs to them that this isn’t a worthwhile conflict.
Although some game systems with Flags include structure mechanics, some do not, and so you end up with a gap about how well the group can navigate using Flags to narrow conflicts into functional play space.
Narrowed Skill List
Some games show what the relevant conflicts are in their skills list – they drop everything that doesn’t matter so you can know that mechanically, “this game doesn’t care if you know history” or whatever is absent.
Side trap: Heavy vs. Light
You’ll notice that whether you have structure mechanics or not, it has nothing to do with how complex the rules are – The Window, and many other light, genreless games, lack a structure element, and as such, end up in the same position with the same problems as their more crunchy cousin games. On one end of the extreme, “rules light” shifts over to freeform, but the underlying issues remain.
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Ron Edwards has been writing a ton of great posts on comics history, and the most recent one, on Green Goblin is a great one to read to look at how to do Flag based play with villains.
Simple Opposition is the starting point
When you’re targeting Flags, it’s really easy to simply make the “opposed” antagonist. “I want to protect the city” “WELL I WANT TO DESTROY IT” etc.
Direct opposition sets up quick conflict, but doesn’t necessarily build good engagement. Usually, what you find out is that directly opposing the Flag doesn’t put you exactly where you want to be, but it gets you in the range of it. And as you play, you’ll find something that keys in more particular to the player character.
For example, “destroy the city” could be engaging in a number of ways:
“…because this city was built on prosperity that came at the suffering of my father!”
“…because my plans are for a better city, a stronger one, a Utopia. But everyone who isn’t worthy must die, first.”
“…because it’s Tuesday.”
The creed the antagonists push can make their opposition to a Flag engaging in so many ways – ranging from sympathetic to “angry making button-pushing” cruelty.
The “pie moment” is when you find the exact angle that gets the table to realize this is the real conflict and the antagonist is targeting EXACTLY the thing you wish they didn’t.
This is, unfortunately, something that doesn’t have an easy formula to find in play – it’s about knowing your players, paying close attention to their reactions, and keying in on that. It’s why I generally prefer a network of NPCs and a host of problems – a shotgun approach and see what sticks.
Pitfall #1: Forcing Care doesn’t work
A lot of times in RPGs, people try to threaten things before the players care. “They’ve kidnapped your brother!”… but who is your brother? Why are they worth fighting for? Players have to have an attachment and engagment before it can mean anything.
This is part of the reason when I run a game if there’s good or decent NPCs, I play them as generally good, nice people. They’ll help without even being asked. They CARE about the PCs. And, some of them, the players click with and care back. So now what happens to them matters. (This is not to say they then become targets for threatening, sometimes simply what they think of the PCs, their opinion, can weigh a lot).
Other media can get away with this because the characters (written, drawn, acted) care and we either read their emotional expression or their inner thoughts and we connect there – and then we start to care. Here, in tabletop roleplaying, we work with time at a premium and none of the fancy tricks other media gets to do that, so we have to take some initial play time feeling things out. It also helps to ask players to rethink their Flags as well – even in games with a slow turnover of Flags, I usually look at rewriting them a bit by the 2nd or 3rd session.
Pitfall #2: Some things aren’t supposed to be threatened
Some of the things players care about, are actually key to their character concept, and not actually something to be targeted. This is why Flags work so well- the player is saying “Hey, this is on the table, target THIS”.
Jared Sorensen had a story about playing Vampire and he spends background points to buy a bar. His vampire has a cool ass bar, right? Immediately the GM burns it down. Now, the thing is, he cared about having a bar as a concept idea – and taking it away craps all over who he wanted his character to be. It didn’t make the game more engaging, it made it less so.
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Years ago, I was playing in an AD&D game, and my GM was a construction worker. He pulled out a small sledgehammer, had us pick it up. “You feel this? This is about the size and weight of the warhammer in the game. Think about getting hit with this full swing, that’s 1D4 hitpoints.”
Of course, AD&D didn’t really have rules for injury or consequences until you hit zero hitpoints, so mechanically, it never was backed up in play.
Fiction to rules, rules to fiction
Tabletop RPGs have the unique medium of existing in the agreed imagination of the group playing which means a great deal of play has to deal with how people can navigate between turning the mechanics (dice rolls, numbers, hard rules) into declarations of the fictional (imaginary characters, events, etc.) and vice versa.
Limbo or Schrodinger’s Fiction
One of the things that can happen with games that deal with events in a more abstracted way, is that the mechanics are pushing along, but people don’t know how to turn that into fictional events. “I swing my sword at him. I’ve got 3 Advantage Points…. what does that mean? Is he hurt?”
For example, older Heroquest had a point bidding system – the final consequences of a bloody sword fight wouldn’t be known until the final totals were made, usually several rolls later. This meant that every attack had to be described in some way that left the consequences of it open for interpretation – after all, you didn’t know if it amounted to nothing or if it would be a deadly wound until the conflict ended. (This also becomes a potential pitfall in D&D and hitpoint based games as people try to find ways to describe why getting shot with 20 arrows doesn’t stop a character from fighting or jumping off a cliff is a minor wound.)
Movies and other types of media can afford to do this, but it doesn’t cross over well to tabletop RPGs. In movies or TV, pretty much any movement on the screen is visually interesting, so whether an attack lands, or is blocked, or whatever, doesn’t matter specifically as much as that there’s continuous movement. In books, they have time to edit and re-edit, and they can skip to the relevant point of actual consequence at any time.
By comparison, in tabletop RPGs, you have to improvise interesting action, and not being able to narrate the effects/consequences takes a bit of creative work that begins to add up quite quickly. All the events effectively sit in “Limbo” – their consequences are unknown, until the resolution mechanics finish out.
Short Abstraction vs. Extended Concrete Mechanics
Games that avoid this usually focus abstract game mechanics to short resolution systems – either a single roll or pull of cards, or something like best of 3 or such. You’re not expected to keep producing descriptions of non-determined consequences. When you do it this way, it’s easy, you describe build up knowing that the actions won’t be “set” for consequences, and then after the mechanics, you finish out with an idea of what consequences can land. “I enter the duel with a fast, mobile style. I’m looking for weaknesses at any point. Oh! I win by 10, so that means a great victory – I think my barrage of strikes keeps him on the defense, then I kick out his legs!”
When it comes to extended conflict mechanics, usually games that have more concrete consequences do better. This is because the consequences don’t have to be worked around repeatedly and creatively held in abeyance – “I hit you with the sword, your arm is bleeding and you dropped your axe.” and we can continue the conflict from there.
The case of freeform
You might notice that the issue of “when do we decide consequences and how?” is effectively a problem many freeform groups also engage with. Usually it falls down to either “when the GM decides” or “the group agrees” which usually settles consequences as an immediate reply to any given action or conflict.
What this means for your game?
In terms of system preferences, the rules you use determine:
– How granular the choices are players make in play? (One roll vs. several choice points)
– How much creative energy is put into narration vs. the system giving you the results
– How much the group feels coordinated on the fiction vs. lost to what’s happening and how we decided that
Now here’s a thing I point out a lot in other situations: anyone who cares about human rights as long as they’re treated nice, isn’t actually an ally. Say, if a woman is really crappy to me, do I go, “Oh, I don’t CARE if horrible misogynistic violence happens TO HER?” and if enough women are crappy to me do I go, “Well fuck women’s rights?!? Let’s roll back the clock to the 1600s?”
The people who do that were never really worried about human rights to begin with. The basis of justice and human rights has to rest on something bigger than “how I personally get treated”.
So, Mike Mearls is saying that people arguing for more representation, more equality and more humanity are worse than the harassbros?
Ok, that’s cool. We can leave you alone, and take our business elsewhere. Thanks for being very clear on that.
As much as I love Tenra Bansho Zero’s Emotion Matrix… it suffers from the fact that some of the entries are really vague and a lot of it is geared towards a specific type of shonen anime story genre. I wanted to make a different set of starting angle charts, for general use in high drama/action games, that’s more precise and a little easier to swap around.
Decide if the characters have a history or not, and if they are friendly or unfriendly. How do you decide? You can use player’s choice, what makes fictional sense, or randomly assign it. I figure you’ll find a method appropriate to your game and situation. Roll two dice, and pick the one that appeals to you. If neither appeal, use one of the results on the Weird chart.
This is a starting point, not set in stone. Characters can start off liking each other or hating each other, and come around to the other point during play.
Having a history may mean you both know each other personally, or you may have only seen each other a few times at a events but know of each other. You definitely have some basic idea of the history about them, and if your game uses some kind of knowledge roll, you can get even more info about them or talk to other NPCs to dig deeper. Of course, depending on how you’ve been carrying yourself as well, who you are has probably already reached their ears as well.
1 They helped someone you care about.
2 They’re closely connected to someone you care about – you feel an obligation towards them.
3 You both struggled for the same cause.
4 They did something difficult that you admire or respect.
5 They hold an ideal or belief that you respect deeply
6 You were good friends or romantic in the past and haven’t seen each other in some time.
1 They harmed or hurt someone you care about deeply.
2 You were on opposite sides of an ugly conflict
3 You were close… once. And now you’ve split ways. Why?
4 They committed a crime or betrayal you cannot abide by.
5 You’ve wronged them, whether you meant to or not.
6 You’ve harmed someone they care about…for right or wrong reasons.
You’ve neither really interacted or heard of each other, beyond maybe a distant fact (“Lord Vanu has a nephew…”). Beginnings are pretty much what you see of them when you meet them and a gut feeling.
What you get out of this roll kind of points the direction for the scene itself in terms of how to roleplay and interact with each other. As always, the roll you get here doesn’t mean that’s going to be the only way you can feel or think about them – it may turn out very quickly that a nice seeming person is terrible, or someone you thought was suspicious is actually a great person.
What becomes mostly interesting with this, is that until there’s more concrete evidence one way or another, this kind of gut feeling will often dictate which direction the NPCs will lean in terms of supporting factions or goals.
1 You seem to get along well – easy smiles, good jokes, they seem like a good person to be around.
2 Name an admirable quality which they display that you find appealing
3 They’re reliable in some way – professional, honest, straightforward, emotionally open – what is it?
4 There’s some way they handle themselves you yourself don’t feel strong at – what is it?
5 What’s the thing that makes you feel a kinship or parallel with them?
6 They notice something about you that few people pick up on – what is it?
1 They seem like they have an angle or want to use you for something
2 They seem unreliable and like the kind of person who will leave you when trouble strikes
3 They seem aloof and disdainful of you – like they’re tolerating your existance
4 They seem to take everything you say as an attack or threat
5 They’re allied with a person or group who is troublesome or dangerous to you
6 You see some kind of sign or evidence that they are engaged in an activity you despise
The Weird Chart is improbable but common-in-adventure-fiction-and-soap-operas kind of things. These are good to have once in awhile, but too many of them and it just feels too cartoonish.
1 This person is using the assumed name of someone you knew. What’s going on?
2 You know this person did something in secret you feel strongly about (good or bad). What is it?
3 There is a case of misplaced blame or mistaken identity – yours or theirs? Over what?
4 They have changed drastically since you last saw them. You barely recognize them. Both in appearance & demeanor.
5 This person shouldn’t be here- something drastic must have happened for them to come to this place.
6 They sought you out to beg or demand something of you. Something important.
Using Starting Angles In Your Games
Any NPC should only be rolled for 1 or 2 of the Player Characters. More than that and it becomes cartoonish and puts the NPC at the center of the story instead of the PCs. Don’t do it for every single NPC, do it for the sorts of major characters or supporting cast who might make a difference -when you do this, you’re basically saying, “This character is important enough to have their own opinions and motivations”.
No good with railroaded campaigns
Starting Angles doesn’t work well with pre-planned, railroaded Illusionist play. The NPCs might have very different personalities, motivations, or goals than what you plan before play begins – so you can’t predict who will ally with or oppose the player characters, or how those attitudes will evolve.
It works best with play that has room for GM Improvisation especially where you have a good idea on the conflicts in the setting and the player’s goals and you improvise by looking where the NPCs motivations collide with the goals of the Player Characters.
No character should be an island
This assumes that characters have a bit of history to them. If all the player characters are 14 year old kids who lived in an isolated village, and they leave the area, they’re not going to find a lot of NPCs with whom they have a history. You can certainly have one character who is an “unknown” but these Starting Angles assume at least some if not most of the characters will have had a chance to go out and make friends, enemies, etc.
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