The Nova Problem / 15 minute adventuring day

December 13, 2014

It’s a problem where the mechanics for super powers, magic, or special moves are supposed to support a choice between using them to get a bonus now, or trying to hold on to them for when you might need them later – BUT, the actual game play makes it optimal just to use all of your best powers now, retreat, recharge, and do it again, over and over.

Remove the design from it’s context, and…

In the case of D&D, it’s yet another problem of what happened when the game carried over things from it’s original context without adapting – in this case, the resource of time.  In old school D&D time was your enemy – it not only meant wandering monsters, it also meant running out of supplies – food, water, torches, and not just in the dungeon, but potentially days or weeks of supplies you’d need to get from town to the dungeon.  Each extra day spent was a threat to the party as a whole.

When D&D shifted away from that kind of time and logistics issues, then the constraint of time stops being such a big deal.

Resources fueled by time, without any time pressures, are effectively free.

This also becomes a problem when you realize magic can, in theory, solve everything.  Need to do damage? Magic can do that.  Need to heal damage? Magic can do that.  Need to learn about the threats ahead? Magic can do that.  Need to avoid a fight? Magic can do that.

Simple Solutions

Reintroduce Time Pressures

Without the logistical issues, the other ways to introduce time pressures include either a literal time limit to a specific goal (“We have to cross the border before the monsoons, and the floods, cut us off completely”), or some kind of opposition that makes taking time dangerous (“Every day we waste, they get closer to surrounding us.”).  These are by nature, contrived, but when done well they feel a natural part of play.  You will need to take some time to consider what the logistical issues are and naturally your players should be aware that this is a key point of the game you’re playing.

Powers fueled by something OTHER than time

Fictionally this could be many things – the good old “material components” system can work here, in which case the question becomes what are players paying with instead?  Is it gold = magic power?  Is it time or cleverness? (“Let’s spend an hour looking for herbs in the woods, I can use it for spells.”)

If you’re willing to go into meta mechanics, it can be things like being entertaining or fun – for example Tenra Bansho Zero’s Karma dice come from earning Aiki by saying/doing cool things people at the table approve of.  The Shadow of Yesterday does this with players doing character development time – time spent romancing or expressing their passions is used to recharge your Ability Pools.


Indie Initiative Bundle of PDF games

December 12, 2014

The Indie Initiative Bundle of Holding has a LOT of good games right now.

$8.95 gets you

  • Breaking the Ice
  • octaNe: premium uNleaded
  • The Shadow of Yesterday
  • Trollbabe
  • Universalis

Go above that and you get:

  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
  • InSpectres
  • My Life with Master
  • Polaris (and The Wish We Wish to Night)
  • Puppetland
  • Sorcerer (Annotated Edition)

There’s a TON of really good games here, and if you’re looking to try games that are still very innovative RPG designs, this is a great deal.


Designing for Momentum

December 4, 2014

Momentum is the term I use for when games flow and have a palpable energy at the table.  Some games are better designed to produce this than others, typically a major part of it is how well the game communicates the goals of play and gets everyone on board with it, and how well the mechanics match that.

Notably this is how well a game communicates it’s Creative Agenda, the process by which it gets there, and often times, the group’s individual ability to understand that, fill in any gaps, and do cohesively as one.


Character motivation is an easy way to get momentum – “What does your character want to do?” gives a direction to players.  It also tells the GM what to focus conflicts on.   These motivations can be hard set (Inspectres- you are a team of ghost busters), it can be player authored (Drifter’s Escape – list things your Drifter wants to do/get before leaving town) or it can be from a pick-list (Poison’d – pick Ambitions) etc.

Two key points must be understood for motivation mechanics to work.

First, they must be relevant to immediate play.  If your character has motivations that aren’t going to show up for another 2 months of play – they effectively do not exist until that time.  It’s important that at least some of the motivations apply to your character’s situation, here, and now.  This is both an issue for players and GMs – the players have to pick things that are going to be immediately addressable, the GM has to also include them into scenes and conflicts.

Second, motivations should lead the player characters together.  This could be together as a team or a group working towards a common cause, or it must lead them to conflict.  Some games do an excellent job of doing both- which creates an amazing tension of characters gauging whether cooperation or conflict is in their best interests.  Although a few games out there recommend potentially doing characters’ stories in parallel -without necessarily intersecting, I haven’t reliably been able to pull it off and don’t think it is as reliable of a thing to design for.

Over the last few years some of the more mainstream games have attempted to try to take in motivation mechanics but failing in these regards have basically added another line you fill in on your character sheet and forget about 97% of the time in play.

Conflict Cueing

How does the game produce conflicts in the fiction? How do you know WHEN to add more conflict? I’m using conflict here to mean overarching or recurring issues – a swordfight isn’t important, pissing off the Red Sword Clan is (a source of problems > a given set of problems).

It can be player authored (Primetime Adventures – players set scenes), GM authored (Most RPGs, but especially assisted if given good Flags or targets to base conflict on), a result of resolution mechanics (“But only if…” in Polaris and Thou Art But a Warrior) etc.

One of the biggest killers of momentum is either a lack of conflict – literal – as in no stress is upon the characters to do anything, or communicated, as in, why things should be important or why the players themselves should care, is absent.  This is the primary reason a lot of Illusionist/railroaded play falls down – in such play the conflict is often artificially stretched out – so you end up with a lot of information withholding and blocking of options – so players either don’t know what to do, or don’t care because they realize there just isn’t a lot to engage with after all.


Pacing Mechanics are pretty excellent and a great way to do things.  Either they require the players to push their characters to cause the pacing to advance, or else they put a time limit so the players have to push their characters to achieve goals before the game ends.

These pacing mechanics might be a hard set of sessions like Primetime Adventures “seasons” or it might be a set of conditions such as My Life With Master’s scores for the characters.

Pacing mechanics can also force changes in play or focus – Bliss Stage forces players to use Intermission scenes and focus on character relationships.


Rewards are points – advancement, experience, hero points, bonus dice, whatever.   Points or bonuses that you can use to improve your choices or odds in play.

Rewards tie tightly to motivations and conflicts (facing them, overcoming them) and serve as a great tool to push momentum.  The key point is about whether the rewards are pushing folks in the right directions – you can see games where there’s “Get an XP for good roleplaying” and no real direction on what good roleplaying looks like – and all you end up with is most players spinning out.

Rewards are not the only way, though they are extremely reliable for producing momentum.  These can be hard set (The 80’s Marvel Superheroes game laid out it’s Karma system as the code for heroes), they can be tied to player authored Flags, or they can be completely open to judgment by the group (Primetime Adventure’s Fan Mail, Tenra Bansho Zero’s Aiki).


Avoiding, removing penalties, or being forced to work with limited options because of penalties can drive a good set of momentum.  The key point to a good penalty mechanic is that it forces you to make interesting choices (relative to the Creative Agenda/point of the game, etc.).

Just having a penalty that makes you worse at everything doesn’t mean much, unless there’s choices that come out of it – options to use other means/methods, options which indebt you to others or otherwise affect your motivaitons and character in a larger sense, options which you spend valuable points or resources, options which basically boil down to “Here is a desperate situation I can run or I can risk myself for it.” etc.

It’s also important to realize some forms of penalties, such as injuries, may in fact, be more of a pacing mechanic – bringing a foreseeable end to a character, or forcing a personality change upon them (Sorcerer’s Humanity 0 rewrite rule, for example).


Primetime Adventures

The meta view of making a TV show helps a lot of players really understand to design the situation and their characters to interact with each other, compared to many tabletop RPGs.  The Issues mechanic serves as a great Motivation set up, which is followed through with the scene setting rules that pushes players and the GM to focus on those as Conflict sources.  The generation of new conflict also occurs in places with the narration trading mechanics.   Fanmail serves as a reward that is passed between the group for engaging with all of the above in interesting ways.

The episode/season rules set up a pacing mechanic for the overall campaign, but also in terms of characters’ story arcs – when you have more Spotlight you are able to achieve more and narrate more often, when you have less, you often stack up problems and conflicts for later.


System Opacity vs. System Mastery

November 25, 2014

System Mastery

System Mastery is how much you master a given set of game rules – outside of sports and games of physical capability, most games in the world are built on this as the primary method of mastering and going deep with a game.  Mastery requires an analytical mind to see how the rules operate together, and how they apply in the variety of situations that come up in your games.

System Opacity

System Opacity, on the other hand, is about how much the game mechanics are built on hiding what they do as a false barrier to mastery.  I say “false” because it’s not actually about more skillful understanding of the system, as much as leaping the first hurdle of what hides the real effects of the rules in order TO be able to make real decisions.

In tabletop RPGs, an easy example is useless skills or powers in a game, that sound useful, but when you actually look at how they interface with the system, they’re quite bad choices.   These really only serve as traps for new players, and create an artificial hurdle in that once you know about them, you consistently avoid them to the point they might as well not even be in the game.  (This is also true of a lot of videogames that rely on certain character builds, or bottom tier fighter characters in fighting games.)

Part of the opacity can be a complete lack of explanation, or an incorrect explanation (“Hey, what do Traverse Points do?”  “Um… I dunno.”  “What’s the difference between having 5 and 7 of these?” “I’ve got no idea.”).

While it’s true you can have a good system hidden underneath system opacity, it’s also a bullshit hurdle to have in the first place.  Historically a lot of games have used opacity to hide the fact that they don’t actually have much strategic or interesting choices to make as part of their system at all.

From a play standpoint

Some games include archetype characters – characters that are either mostly or completely statted up, to speed play.  Part of this is that you don’t have to sit for 45 minutes to an hour as someone thumbs through a book figuring out things, but part of it is that you get to skip a lot of opacity hurdles.    “I want a character who can do this” “Here’s a pre-made build, pick 2 things and go.”

But even if you have pre-gen characters, it might be necessary to explain or have at least some basic clues as to what the character is good at and how they interact with the system.  If a set of rules demands multiple abilities or choices to work in concert, a player should be informed that’s a key point of the character – otherwise, it’s just that you’ve cleared the building hurdles but not the “how the heck does it work?” part.

A good system shouldn’t fall apart under this kind of help – there should still be meaningful choices to make IN play, even with a bit of general advice.  You can tell someone good strategies for chess, for Street Fighter, for all kinds of games, but the strategy alone doesn’t make you win all the time – there’s still deeper to go.   If the game relies primarily on building a specific character set up with no other choices (“Use your fire attack.  Every turn.”) then there’s not really a lot to the actual game itself.

I am finding most of the time when I am writing a quicksheet for how to play a game, half of it is actual rules processes, the other half is helping navigate opacity in the system itself.

From a Design Standpoint

From a design side, opacity is more of a habit it seems like for a lot of people.

“Well, you have Attribute A, and you add Attribute A to Attribute D which gives us Sub-Attribute F, and Sub Attribute F is averaged with your Class Modifier G to and your Weapon Speed H which impacts your Initiative Die and determines if you are going to go first or not.”

Guiding rules for designing transparency, away from opacity:

1. Removal?

Can I take out steps?  Do these extra steps contribute to fun in my eyes as a designer?  What happens if I “cheat” and have the game go without doing these steps?  If we’re playtesting, does anyone feel constrained by not having more steps/choices in the process?  Is there any reason to not go with the optimal choices I can already see?

2. Sets/Less Choices?

Does this work ok if I reduce it to simply 3-4 choices from a list?  Do we have to have players divvy up 100 points among 7 categories?  Is there really a value in choosing between having 32 points and 35 points in this category?  Could I just say Set A, B, C?

3. Guidance

Explain what anything in the system does, both mechanically and how it comes back to impact play.

“Traverse Points are what you spend to run a bit faster, when you’re in trouble.  Although you only directly spend them when you need to push yourself, being tired, injured, or using lots of effort can reduce them – which might leave you short when you really need them.”


NPCs: Contacts vs. Characters

November 24, 2014

Many RPGs let you get contacts or allies as part of character generation – often this costs points to do so, but what many fail to do is clarify how the GM is supposed to handle these NPCs in terms of whether they’re more tertiary characters or actual characters in their own right.  This is kind of a key difference that’s worth considering before you start playing.


A contact is a side character who shows up rarely, and mostly exists to pass along information, make small commentary and potentially give you supplies or items.  In other media, the protagonist makes a few calls, maybe has a montage of these characters, or knows exactly who to buy guns from and so on.  These characters have less to say and do about their own motivations than to appear and show you that the protagonist has connections and access.

The key point about these characters is that their helpfulness doesn’t involve having to do deep negotiation with them (the bargaining, if any, is for show), and you don’t really have to worry about them having their own angle or set of motivations on the side.  They don’t really change as characters.

This also includes “utility characters” like a spaceship crew who you don’t have names for, who basically provide background help without much question.


Full fledged characters may or may not help you based on what they think is right or in their best interests.  This means it’s a lot more work to get what you want from them, but if they really want to help you, they will go the extra length and potentially think for themselves to create methods to aid you.  If the relationship is positive, you have to maintain it – if it is not, you have to work around it or deal with them in some way.

Full fledged characters are potential sources of conflict in and of themselves – even the allies trying to help you might be pressuring you to do things in a certain way or have conditions about how you treat them.  What these characters think matters, because it informs how they will then act (or…not act).=

Confusion = Problems

Confusing the general nature of these two categories typically leads to bad play.  “Wait, the guy who sells me swords has his own angle?  Why would I even know to look for that?”  “I thought my brother would actually, you know, give me some actual help, seeing how dire the situation is! What do you mean he’s gonna give me this clue then run off?” etc.

This is true in general, but also has an extra layer if the game has rules where you’ve spent points of some type to get contacts/allies – knowing what role they play and how you need to manage them is part of it too.

The Non Contact AKA “Trap NPCs”

An unfortunate amount of adventures, modules, etc. are built on the “mysterious guy at the tavern” who turns out to be a person sending people on a fool’s errand to betray them or some such.  The core problem with these characters is that when you break down their motivations, it’s really “screw over the PCs”.  (Players accustomed to too much Trap NPCs eventually fall into Abused Gamer Syndrome.)

It’s why these kinds of adventures tend not to work well with games that actually have reasonable social mechanics – the unreasonable nature of the Trap NPC doesn’t go well with negotiation that can happen.



Designing Conflict in play

November 23, 2014

A fun game for me, involves meaningful choices.  There should be some point when a choice comes up, and I really have to think about which way to go.   This could be tactical/strategic, like “Do I use power X, or power Y?” or it can be story focused, like, “Do I support my character’s brother, or stay loyal to the Queen?” and so on.

If you want to build conflict into your game, you can do so with several options, using one, or all together.


Scenario is the specific situation – “You’ve just been granted the title of Champion of the Crown, but your brother wants to go against the throne.”   These may or may not directly come out of established Setting ideas (“Elves and Dwarves hate each other”), but mostly these require some establishing at the beginning of what the problem will be.

Notice at this level conflict boils down to two types of questions: “What do I do?” (morally, such as the example above) or “How do I do it?” (logistically, for example, “The Duke kidnapped your brother, whom you must rescue.”)  The latter type must involve freedom for player options, otherwise it can fall into linear Mother-may-I? railroading and Illusionism.

Although there’s rare cases where you build something like character motivations and that, in turn, builds the scenario, most of the time I’ve seen where the scenario lacks it’s initial conflict, you have a hard time getting the group to gel and push forward towards conflict.  No direction, no momentum.  This is where you see a lot of games taking 3-6 sessions to “find their feet” – in other words, the scenario was lacking direction and the players didn’t build their characters or know how to push for a direction as part of the process either.


Motivations are specific goals for your character and how they conflict with other characters or other motivations the characters themselves hold.  A key component here is that usually players are the ones to establish these.  If the group doesn’t build motivations that force characters to cross with each other, you can often lose the power and conflict that comes out of it.

Part of this has to be a commitment on the part of the group to pursue these motivations – which is why these often end up becoming part of the reward system of many games – giving players reward to do so keeps them on track.

Stakes Setting

Meaningful choices spill out of the scene-t0-scene situations where you have to figure out what’s at stake in the moment.  “The Queen looks to you, and to your nephew, your brother’s son.  ‘The cost of treason is amputation of the right hand.  If the father will not pay, the son will.  You are the Champion, you must enact justice.”

The previous two categories, being larger on the imaginary Venn diagram of these options, are good for driving play towards this sort of thing specifically.  That said, players and GMs have to be on the look out for ways to engineer these situations and get the conflict-meaningful choice payoff as play goes, otherwise you see things flounder.


The mechanics themselves can force these choices.  Probably the clearest example would be the mechanic from Fallen Leaves: You obey your duty or you risk dying.  The evolution of this kind of hardcore mechanic would be The Drifter’s Escape – you let the hostile GMs run over you OR you cut a deal with them and they, in turn, alter your motivations a bit.

But this also can go into a lot of things, including strategic Gamist play – do I do X or Y? can become game critical choices.  The question is whether the meaningful point is put on fiction-based issues (“What kind of person have I become?”) or numbers and tactics (“My odds look better if I…”)

Conflict Avoidance

There’s a subset of gamers who basically avoid these conflicts altogether.  “Let’s pretend to be someone else and really that’s all I want from play, that’s it, don’t make me do anything else” is a valid idea, I guess, though it seems weird to me to bother playing games with rules and and math and crap to track if that’s really your core goal.

These players often find all kinds of reasons they don’t like this game or that game, though it boils down to the fact that what they actually want is pretty specialized and not particularly well suited to tabletop RPGs.  I’ve seen folks like this panic just as much at having to do some basic system mastery for a tactical game as much as having a juicy conflict put in front of them in Primetime Adventures…

I think these players are usually best served by freeform games, a lot of the online RP games, and even “lonely fun” chargen and worldbuilding systems in a lot of games.

Tricks for Raw Narrativism

You can have Narrativist play rather easily without a Narrativist system.  It mostly involves setting up a conflict focal scenario, the players building characters with good motivations that sit within that, and then choosing the scene to scene conflicts and spotlight to focus on those things.  Notice that may still involve things like stealth rolls or lots of combat, but the point is that the context of why and the goal of the group playing is clear and directed.



Drawing within the lines vs. drawing our own lines

November 22, 2014

One thing I’ve been thinking about is setting as an emotional investment and two ways it works.

Drawing within the lines

Take pre-established setting, and one of the core goals of play for a group is staying within the setting canon, and the fun and events created in play are primarily about how the characters fit within the canon or interact with it.

This requires the group to sufficiently coordinate on what that canon is, and how they’ll use it.  It’s also where I see a lot of groups begin splitting across lines as a few people have read the 402 pages of setting scattered across 8 books, and then you have the other player who looked at the pictures in half of one book.  Some friends were really invested into Lord of the Rings and it was kind of critical to get group re-readings of select books to get themselves on track.

So, if say this was a superhero game, based on say Marvel comics, it would be very important to respect and give nods to the setting bits – SHIELD, Victor Von Doom, Morlocks, etc.   The focus of play is playing within and interacting with all of these bits.

Drawing your own lines

In this kind of play, the core focus is not necessarily overriding or breaking canon, as much as it is focusing on what you create revolving/tied to your characters.

Again taking the Marvel Comics example, you might instead focus on the heroes being a small team in some corner of New York, and the setting focus would be on their personal families, friends, nemesises and so on.  The focus of play would be building this entire world and whether the larger setting bits come into play at any point, or simply remain distant ideas rarely mentioned, wouldn’t matter as much.

Where the focus goes

Although this seems mostly like a stylistic choice, I think it’s becomes a bigger issue – this goes everywhere from how you build your characters, what relationships/NPCs you establish, what conflicts you choose to build your focus on and so on.  It spread further out in terms of where the camera or spotlight goes, where conflicts focus around scene to scene, or story arc to story arc, and even what should be getting narrated, if at all.

Both Simulationism and Narrativism can go either way, which I think is one of the tripping points for the issue of fidelity vs. protagonism as a dividing point for a lot of people.

Sim as interaction-with-setting is Fidelity to the Setting in terms of canon elements, primarily, while Sim as creating-parts-within-the-setting is Fidelity to the Setting in terms of tone/mood of story, color, and established tenets of what fits within that world.

Nar as interaction-with-setting is Protagonism with some elements established as boundaries – “We can be knights of the Round Table, but we can’t kill Arthur, or fundamentally change the other major established characters”  Nar as creating-parts-within-the-setting is pretty trivial – it runs on basic Narrativist play without any thought at all, except perhaps intentionally avoiding canon elements.

Time and feedback loops

Provided everyone knows what elements are involved and are on the same page as setting, playing within the boundaries of setting requires less time investment – once the tenets/elements are established, you can play one shots of games and get that payoff in play rather easily.

I think this is one of the reason superhero games work so well for many people – genre familiarity, familiar elements, short story arcs are already part of the genre.   You don’t have to build up tons and tons of investment and exploration – you can simply shorthand because people have read the comics/watched movies – they know who the characters are, they know what their motivations are, and the emotional content is already loaded to some level.

That is, if we run a game where Batman and Wonder Woman get married?  That sentence alone stirs up a lot of thoughts and ideas for conflict and I don’t have to spend lots and lots of time explaining who these characters are and what it might mean or why it might have conflict or drama involved.

Creating your own setting investment within a larger setting requires more time and tighter feedback loops to get everyone making things that are important and interesting and investing back into it.    “Sure, sure, the X-man Mansion was destroyed, but what we really find interesting is our mutant kids who have all moved back into one person’s extended family house and so-and-so’s brother who disowned him and my character’s best friend who doesn’t know I’m a mutant…”

It takes more time or tighter design to create these new elements, to get everyone invested in them and to focus on them instead of the shorthand for setting elements.


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