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The Adventures of Yellow Peril & Magical Negro

January 11, 2015

My friend Na’amen and I had been talking about doing a podcast for over a year now.  We finally started, where we talk about geeky shit from a POC view.  First episode, rambly and longer than we expected, but still fun. Show notes here.

Covered everything from Dragon Age: Inquistion, steampunk alt-history books, anime, comics, and more!

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Flag Framing 2: Running the Game

January 9, 2015

Running the Game

What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?

That’s your guiding principle.  That’s pretty much the whole process in a one-sentence nutshell.  It’s very easy.  Everything you’ve done as prep in the previous article?  Those are tools to make this question easy to answer.

I really want to emphasize how easy this is – I’m about to throw a lot of words of advice and people assume that means it’s difficult, but it really boils down to answering that question, over and over, during play.

Scene Framing

Many roleplaying games talk about using scenes, but few really give good advice about how to actually run them.  In the end, a lot of people end up with the classic “What do you do next?” cycle that ends up dragging play along.

If you’ve ever tried to write a story, draw a comic, or do a film, you know that scenes and pacing are what make or break things and they’re also a giant pain in the ass.

So here’s my rules for scene framing:

1. Opening Scenes

Start the scene just before something interesting is likely to happen.

Look to the question at the top of the post here – “What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?” – that’s your guideline.

Don’t make the players work to get TO an interesting situation, don’t make them guess what might be interesting about it, and don’t put it far away so they don’t see it.

A lot of RPG time is wasted in what I call “Traffic and Introductions” – the characters are wandering around or going back and forth (“Where do you go next?”) and then when they meet NPCs, there’s a long awkward conversation period of trying to figure out what the NPC’s angle is and so on.

Movies & TV don’t do that.  They skip it – travel is a short cutshot of the characters racing across town, or just a cut to them walking in the door, initial introductions are snappy conversations where introductions are quick and personality is dripping from the NPCs from the moment you see them.

That said, the moments before something interesting is about to happen gives it the space in play to see what might come of it – maybe it’ll go more or less like you expect it to (“Yep, it’s going to be a fight”) or maybe it goes very different (“You’re going to cut a deal? Well… it makes sense!”).  Those surprises are fun for everyone involved.

Assume Competence

Sometimes you might start a scene and a player will go “Wait, wait, I wanted to do X before!”.  As much as you can, assume the characters are competent, and if it seems at all reasonable, “Sure,  you went and got the evidence before you showed up, that’s fine”.

Once in a while X should get it’s own scene, but most of the time it’s just a logistics thing the player wants to establish and isn’t actually that interesting to play out, even if the implications for this scene, or a future scene, might be big (“Wait, you switched it with poison?!? Oh boy…”)

Regularly assuming competence of the player characters will get the players to trust that you’re putting them into interesting conflicts and not just putting them into “gotcha” moments to screw them over.  It’s an important shift for players used to deathtrap dungeons or railroading GMs to understand as well.

First Scenes

The first scene of any session for any given player character is a bit special – this is the only time you will have time in advance to consider, in depth, what kind of opening conflict or scenario would best hit their Flags and set up further problems.   It sets a tone and if it’s a good situation, no matter which way it goes, it will set up further complications that you can improvise scenes out of from the consequences.

I find two types of scenes work great for First Scenes:

  • “What is the best course of action?” – a discussion/argument between characters, usually with important stakes involved
  • Revealed information/event that shifts your situation significantly (“So… one of us here is a spy.”)

In both cases, these have no specific direction or “right answer” but they do let the players show you what they’re interested in and the way their characters think or operate.  Their choices in these First Scenes tell you directions to consider following in.

2. Closing Scenes

End the scene just after something interesting has happened, or just after NOTHING interesting has happened.

Closing scenes is the hardest skill out of all of these, but it improves your game experience by a great deal – closing scenes quickly and on time creates a momentum.  Everyone will find themselves amazed at how much you can get done and how much energy the group gets to push forward in play when you can do this right.

If it looks like nothing interesting is going to happen (and none of your NPCs are going to push it forward) close it right away.  Sometimes players will want to stretch it further, mostly because they feel like they’re missing an opportunity or something, but you should simply ask them, “Was there a thing you were going to do?  If not, we can assume you spend the time doing X and go to the next scene.”

Once something interesting happens, it’s a good time to cut the scene.  Cutting the scene quickly after that allows the players to take the energy and excitement into the next scene and gives a real flow to play.  If it drags out, then things slow down and it gets harder to pick up again.

Aiming at Player Flags

The players have told you what kinds of things they find interesting and want the game to revolve around – so that’s what you aim your scenes around.  Again: What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?

You can ask these questions and get good ideas of how to make a scene on various Flags they give you:

  • What makes a (relationship) /achieving (a Goal) complicated?
  • Will you do (Goal) /fulfill (relationship) even if it costs you? (choose between goals and personal costs)
  • Will you do (Goal) /fulfill (relationship) even if you have to wrong? (choose between goal/relationship & ideals)
  • Is this still the right thing to do? (things that make you doubt your cause or relationship)

These are the interesting things that make a character’s journey worth following.  Finding out how far a character will go, where their lines are, and what they will, or won’t do… and along the way finding out what ideals they hold and who they care about and how deeply.

Twisting the Knife

Game designer Paul Czege once told me that the trick to this is that the issues that the Flags are based on are like a knife, and you basically keep twisting it – “Do you still believe in this?  How about now?  How about NOW?” etc.

Obviously, how these Flags get tested and pushed on depends on the genre and style of story you’re trying to tell.  Golden Sky Stories, The Friendship Game, Breaking the Ice or Clover all are games that can be rather light hearted and fun, but still hit emotional points without being grimdark or brutally intense.

Self Complicating Flags

Sometimes the players give you great issues and Flags to deal with from the start.

A player might set up their own goals, ideals or relationships at cross odds within their own character (“I love my brother the drunkard king” “My patriotism means I have to stop him from running our nation into the ground”).

Some groups might set up Flags that are complicated between characters – two people want things that are at cross odds, or suffer from a key misunderstanding between characters.  This makes it very easy to set up scenes around this stuff.

Let the NPCs take dramatic actions

I find the easiest way during play to answer the question “What would be interesting…” is to simply look at the motivations of the non-player characters and how they intersect with player characters’ Flags.

Since I set up the scenario and the NPCs in such a way that they’re already going to complicate the player character’s goals, ideals and relationships, all I have to do is follow the logical actions and reactions of the NPCs.

“Of course your sister doubts whether you are telling the truth…” “He thinks you tried to murder him.  He’s going to go all out at this point…” and so on.

Look to the motivations for your NPCs, and simply play your NPCs – they pursue their goals according to their personalities.

The players improvise by simply playing their characters – all I do is do the same thing, through the filter of “What would be most interesting right now?” and scenes become very easy to create.

Some possible dramatic actions for NPCs to take:

  • Make an attack (physical, social, political)
  • Make a public challenge, or talk trash
  • Make a demand or a threat
  • Offer a deal, ask for help
  • Reveal how they feel about a character or event
  • Ask how you feel about a character or event
  • Steal/Take/Break something
  • Reveal how they’ve changed how they feel about a character or event

Extreme Complications (use sparingly)

Extreme complications are things which change the situation drastically, but they’re not necessarily pushed for by any of the characters – a sudden sandstorm trapping everyone inside a building, the king dies from a sudden illness, etc.

Extreme complications shake up the situation for EVERYONE, which makes them both exciting and hard to handle (look at your list of NPCs, now consider that each of them might have to drastically reconsider how they’re going about things… yeah…).

When you do these right, the players become more invested – they’re either scrambling to protect what they’ve got or they’re saying “YES! This is the chance I’ve been waiting for!”

When you do it wrong, it feels cheap and unfair, and much like any other story media, like the writers are looking for a cheap bit of excitement and a dodge from the story threads they don’t know how to handle.

It has to feel reasonable for the setting and genre you’re playing in, and it has to basically impact everyone.  It can’t just be there to block the player characters from gaining influence, power, or success.

Escalating to a Climax

So you’re going scene to scene, asking “What would be interesting to see the player characters face right now?” where does this all go?

There’s an easy, natural tendency in how stories, work, which you’ll know because we’ve all grown up listening, watching, reading stories our whole lives – the situation will escalate.   The non-player characters will become more active, and the player characters will, too, and things will come to a head.

For the non-player characters, look at the list of motivations and decide as you go along:

  • Get more aggressive, escalate in how far they’ll go
  • Change tactics, try a different way to get their goals
  • Cut a deal, demand action from others, compromise
  • Find help, make new alliances with other characters
  • Bail out, give up, surrender, come clean
  • If they normally follow rules, they start breaking them
  • If they normally break rules, they try following them

At some point between the player characters taking action, and the non-player characters taking action, the situation resolves in a way that seems stable or answered for the near, foreseeable future.  That’s where you end the story arc.

The sooner you want things to end, the faster you have the NPCs put more and more on the line, upping the ante and risking more, until the whole matter gets decided.

Between Sessions

Between sessions, your prep time is very low, anywhere from a few minutes of reviewing your notes of Flags & NPC motivations to an hour if you have to push together crunchy stats for NPCs and so on.  The less a game depends on you prepping mechanical stuff for conflicts, the easier this is.

At the end of each session, consider if any of the NPCs may change their motivations, escalate, and so on.  These notes are worth jotting down for your next session.  Pay attention if the players have made changes to their Flags – that’s important!  Mull these things over before your next session and consider a First Scene or two to kick off the drama for your next session.

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Flag Framing 1: Setting up a Campaign

January 7, 2015

Flag Framing

An updated, comprehensive version of this style I’ve written about before.

This is a method to run RPGs that allows the GM to improvise and adapt to anything the players do in play, without requiring onerous amounts of prep or years upon years of experience.

The basic premise is that the same way the players can show up to play every week and simply look at their character sheets and figure out “what would my character do?”, the GM can prep in a way to look at NPCs and the PCs and figure out “what would be most interesting to have happen next?” and go with that.

I first began employing this when I drifted the rules for Feng Shui, but it basically can slot into many traditional RPGs.  Many close versions of this exist in existing games – Primetime Adventures, Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, and so on.

What this does well – High drama action/adventure, feuds, blood opera, politics, intrigue

What this doesn’t do well – clue trail investigations, planned endings, combat games that are hard to generate combat encounters easily

Idea & Pitch

Before you do any heavy lifting in terms of prep, start with the idea phase, and get only the basics together so you can pitch it to your players.  This lets you avoid doing unnecessary prep work, and you can adapt after you hear their ideas as well, without much work.

1. Create a Situation

You should figure out a situation that is going to be a source of major conflict.  “Major conflict” can scale quite a bit, based on how long you want to play – “Who will be the honored warrior at the Tournament?” is one scale, “Who will control Christiandom after the Schism?” is another.

The shortest scale might be the outcome of a battle or an argument, but the largest scale can be the outcome of histories or planets.  The main thing is that conflicts are something where many parties are invested in seeing things go their way, and they’re willing to either risk their own safety and/or harm others to see that happen.

It should be a situation that as a GM, you can simply make up problems on the spot, because it inspires you to see what sorts of trouble would keep spewing out of it.

You can create this with your players or on your own and pitch it later in this process.  Just be aware that the players should buy into the situation and be excited to play in it.

Situation with a game that has setting

If your chosen game already has an established setting, it maybe a matter of picking a place, a time, and what’s going on.  This may involve juggling facts dealing with canon of the setting or stories you’re working from.  Figure out how to communicate that and make sure the players are on the same page.

Situation with a game that doesn’t have a setting

If your chosen game doesn’t have a setting, or you’re choosing not to use it, find a way to put what the players need to know into 2 pages, a quicksheet, you can type up, and print out.

2. Create Concepts for Key NPCs

You will have between two and a dozen core NPCs at this point.  You should describe them in 1-2 sentences, primarily looking at their position in the situation and their motivations.   Effectively, the NPCs motivations are what fuel the Conflict.  These NPCs might be against each other, or planned to be against the PCs.

3. Get the Player’s Concepts

Tell the players what the basic situation is and who the key NPCs are involved.  Get the players to pitch their own ideas about their potential PCs, who they are and why they’re involved or committed. These concepts need only be 1-2 sentences as well – giant backstories don’t help at this stage.

You should also decide if the PCs are supposed to be working together, at odds with each other, or shifting alliances or what, as well as what kinds of characters fit with the mood and genre of this game.

If the players want to create full characters at this time, that’s fine as well.  Games like Sorcerer or Burning Wheel encourage groups to do a group character generation session which effectively does just this thing right here.

4. Player Character Motivations AKA Flags

A Flag is a mechanic or aspect included as part of your character which is explicitly designed for the players to tell the GM and the rest of the group what kind of conflicts, or story focus they would like for their character.

When you choose a Flag, you’re telling the group that you want to see your character tested on how they feel about this and how far they will go.   These may change during play, but it’s a nice way to “flag” something, to say, “Look at this! COME OVER HERE!!!”  Will you hold to your ideals? How far will you go?  What prices will you pay?  You play to find out.

It’s really important at this stage to look for Flags that don’t fit with the game as a whole – if you’re playing a cheery superhero game and someone makes “Grimdark Murder Man” you need to look for those Flags and concept and find out if they really want to play the same game you want to run.  Sometimes this idea drift is habit or miscommunications, so fix it here before play starts.

Good Flags

Good Flags focus on a relationship or ideal that your character is willing to take a risk or cross a moral line for.

Moral Lines

“A moral line” has to mean something for your character – and it depends on the character!  If your character is a ruthless assassin, then killing probably doesn’t mean anything to them.  But maybe they have rules “I don’t kill children” or “Only if it’s in the contract” or whatever.  Whatever that line is, you can make a Flag about it.  If it’s not really an issue for the character, it’s not really fun to poke at in play.

Consider – would you lie to help your child?  Steal?  Risk your life?  Murder?  Under what conditions?  The places where you can easily say yes, or easily say no, aren’t as interesting as the places where you have to think about it, or you say yes or no, but you don’t feel right about it and it sits with you.

You can also play with a reverse moral line – a relationship or ideal that would make your character draw a new moral line they never had before.  For example, the assassin who decides to never kill again, because of a promise they made to their son.   How important is it to honor that promise?

Pointing Flags at the Situation

The Flags the players are creating should aim their characters at the situation.  They should have strong ideals, morals, relationships that make them get involved.  They may want to support or oppose any of the NPCs you’ve already laid out.  Players must tie their characters into the core situation this way.  The more direct and clear reasons they have to be involved, the better.

This is not to say their motivations may not be complicated.  The Player Characters may have different reasons for getting involved, their motivations may be at cross odds, or any given character might have two or more conflicting motivations that complicate the situation (“I am loyal to the King and will see his wishes fulfilled.” “My family could finally gain power to deal with the rival faction if I favor my own instead.”)

4. Now flesh out the NPCs

The players have just given you a good idea of what kinds of conflicts they’re interested in seeing in this game you’re about to run.  Flesh out the NPC ideas you already have, add a few NPCs if called for based on what the players just gave you (“His kung fu master disowned him?  Yeah, the master has to show up for sure.”).

Focus on giving the NPCs motivations and Flags that cross with the Player Characters.  Just like the Player Characters, the Non-Player Characters have goals, ideals, relationships and lines they’re willing or not willing to cross – how these conflict with the Player Characters’ notions create great drama.

Reasonable NPCs are BETTER NPCs

“Reasonable” doesn’t mean agreeable – reasonable means the characters have reasons for what they want and what they’re trying to achieve, and if the Player Characters are in line with that, or can be made to a decent compromise, then most NPCs are willing to go with that or change their own plans.

In other words, NPCs also have a point after which they will either change their goal or their methods or both – either increasing how committed, aggressive, and how much they will risk to get what they want, or they will decrease it, potentially giving up altogether.

This is where enemies can become allies, allies might become enemies, a person who merely was friendly is now willing to risk their life for you, or a rival who merely wanted to best you, now wants to eat your liver.  And it makes the PCs important, because while the NPCs are acting and reacting, the PCs are a major part of how that happens.

You can have a few non-reasonable NPCs in the mix as well- they tend to spike the situation and make it hard for everyone else, often forcing people into polarized camps.

5. What does this Campaign Prep look like?

Time

Outside of the time you spend talking to your players, or the number juggling of whatever character creation system you have, it usually takes between 1-3 hours at top.  You can think up a lot of ideas during your daily routines, the official prep time is just organizing your notes and/or typing stuff up for the group.  For a pickup game I managed to think up ideas during an hour of dinner and then 10 minutes of prep, so it’s not a very involved process in practice.

Between actual sessions, you’re taking 10 minutes to an hour of prep, sometimes this is really just reviewing your character notes before play.

What you should have

You’ve got the general situation.  You’ve got the list of PCs and their Flags, and you’ve got a list of the NPCs and their Flags or motivations as well.    That’s really all this method requires – if your game makes it easy to improvise difficulties or challenges, then you can pretty much go from here.

You can try a few different ways to organize these:

a) List method

Have a list of the PCs, a list of the NPCs.  Put a sentence of their motivations next to them, or their full Flags under them.  This tends to work well if you have a dozen or less NPCs.

b) Conflict Web

This works great if the NPCs are generally opposed.  Write down the name of characters who are involved in the situation, and draw lines between characters who are opposed or support each other.  You can use notation or different color lines or whatever makes it easy to tell which is which.   This is also effective up to about a dozen or so people, before it becomes really complicated.

c) Relationship Maps

The Sorcerer supplement Sorcerer & Soul goes into using these, where you map blood relations and romantic partners, and basically use that as your visual cue of who is probably aligned or against whom and where shady secrets, forbidden relationships, and horrible behavior lies.

d) Index Cards

One card per character, put their Flags on the card.  Pretty useful to lay out on a table, easy to visualize, and you can rearrange them to whatever suits your needs in the moment.

Next Up: Flag Framing 2: Running the Game

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Cultural Appropriation: RPG Version

January 2, 2015

I’m watching a horrific thread over on rpg.net on Cultural Appropriation, which is… basically 90% people arguing about strawman ideas back and forth.   The usual two arguments dominate the conversation: “Well you can only write about your own culture, that’s racist!” and “Well, no one can define a line therefore it’s a completely bunk idea” etc.

A Useful Question

Let’s start with this first question: does your media perpetuate stereotypes of a group?

That’s really the first, and biggest hurdle most games fail.  Those stereotypes might be obvious racist caricatures from 1800s racist propaganda, stereotypes which were used to justify genocide, current racist ideas still carried forth, exoticized projections based on stereotypes, or oversimplifications which effectively fall back into stereotypes. grossly misrepresenting cultures and beliefs in ways simple google searches could resolve,  or just a plain a mix of several of those problems.

When we talk about this first question, the issue isn’t even ownership, or who has the right to write/create about any given culture.

The issue is whether your game or media sits in a larger scale of racist media which exists over generations?   There’s a far, far difference between writing games or creating media that deals WITH racism, vs. media that promotes it, and that difference is primarily whether it critically addresses it, or gives tacit or outright approval about it.

Racist propaganda comes from people who absorbed racist propaganda

Now, it’s not like anyone sat down and said, “Man, I’m going to write a racist game! This will be great!” (well, there is the RAHOWA RPG, literally the white supremacist term for “Racial Holy War”… ).  People make racist shit because they don’t realize it’s racist much of the time. They actually think these stereotypes are “real enough” or “Cool” or good.  Sometimes they imagine this stuff is actually COMPLIMENTING the people it’s insulting – much like how football teams with racist slur names claim they’re “honoring” indigenous people

While in most situations one doesn’t ascribe malicious intent to ignorance, but the problem in this case is that when someone does something out of ignorance, and is told what they did was harmful, they stop.  When someone does something malicious, they go out of their way to defend it, excuse it, but most importantly, to KEEP DOING IT.

This issue of intent and action becomes more clear when you consider how much work goes into making any form of media, or a game.  It requires a lot of work to say, “I am going to make a product about X topic” and somehow never come across known issues which are well documented with writing going back at least to the 1960s if not further in many cases – in other words, at least 50 years of people pointing out the use of media in racist ways.

You don’t even have to take college classes for this information – google will take you far.  Basic research into this would even cover the issues of power differences and what historical factors are loaded into the imagery and depictions you’re using.

Another Useful Question

Given that in many of these cases, there’s either direct sources someone can talk to, or descendents of a given culture, a really interesting question comes up, “What is interesting about this culture or group of people that you want to make a game about, BUT you absolutely do not want to interact with the actual people in any way?”

See.  This is where we talk about this as appropriation.  It’s about having the power to define others because your own attachment to your projections and delusions takes precedent over actual harm (centuries of media warfare…) to actual people.

To be sure, most rpgs reach a few hundred people at most – a tiny drop in the bucket of media.  And most people playing?  Play with 3-8 people in their circles – again, tiny numbers.  It’s like if someone draws a nazi swastika in their notebook – ultimately it’s not affecting a lot of people, individually.

BUT, when you consider that whatever media you create is part of a larger whole, larger movement and message, the question of “Why would you even want to do this anyway?” and “Wow, even these small arenas of escapism can’t escape this shittiness” both come up.

The Root of It All

You’re not responsible for the fact a few centuries of racist stuff came out before, but you are responsible for joining into it.   The fact that you can put in hundreds of hours of labor into creating something towards harm and never bothered to do the minimal amount of research or consider it, reveals the priorities at hand.  And that’s why when people end up critiquing games for mirroring longstanding hate media, the creators usually go straight to talking about how hurt their feelings were or how much effort they put into the product.

These things do not actually constitute real defenses, but rather further self-incriminations: “It’s really more important you don’t say anything bad about what I did, even if it’s part of a massive action over generations with actual, documented harm to millions of people.”  Really you’re being too sensitive!  Racism is often a society-wide groomed form of narcissistic personality disorder.

Can’t Win for Trying!

The other channel to which people fall into is “I guess I can’t make ANYTHING then!!!” (pouting).   This is rather like saying “It’s not fair I can’t go into public because I am unable to restrain myself from hitting people!”.   Well, if you can’t make media that’s NOT horrific stereotypes, maybe you should consider what you need to do to fix that.  Again, it’s not really a defense as much as an admission of how deeply one has accepted racist thinking.

A subset of this is simply erasing the core group, under the rubric of “no THOSE people, no racism” which, again, becomes akin to an admission of “I really want to use (the culture/setting/ideas) but I can’t actually see those people as human enough to NOT make horrific stereotypes about them so let’s just not have them at all.”

Can’t See the Forest

Inevitably these conversations spin out into details about exactly WHO has the right to say what, “well no game is historically accurate”, or whether culture can be owned, or historical cultural drift – but all of that happens to be dodges for the core questions at hand.  The forest is around you, no matter how much you want to argue the definition of a “tree”.

Does your media fall into a larger historical context of racist media?

Are you deliberately avoiding research or feedback from the actual folks you’re busy making games about?

Do you need to participate in a legacy of hate for your fun?

Hmm.

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Designing mechanics to do things vs. not do things

December 30, 2014

I’ll repeat an idea: the easiest rule in RPGs is “I say it and it happens.”  That’s an easy rule because there’s not much to think about, not much to handle, track, no steps or procedures to take – it’s immediate, it’s simple.

While certainly there are groups that have made this the primary way in which they play games, while the rule is simple, consistently getting it to result in play you enjoy, is not.

Groups that dive into freeform spend a lot of time developing an aesthetic of what is and isn’t acceptable input.  This is why freeform groups tend to be very insular and focus very highly on “it’s all about who you play with” because ultimately their system towards making good play is finding people who can pick up on their chosen idea of good quickly and smoothly.

Mechanics, Systems, Doing Things

So at the end of the day, what do mechanics do?  They do several things together at once:

1. Draw boundaries of what counts as good vs. bad input for this particular game

2. Force players into making interesting choices

3. Help the group negotiate who gets to say what and how those ideas interact

4. Creating uncertainty in outcomes – whether that is dice or forcing the group to speak and choose input in new ways

Freeform play often encounters some common issues:

– conflicting inputs or unsure boundaries about how far you can, or should narrate something

– neutralized input – conflicting ideas cannot be resolved one way or the other

– repeating play patterns – the group always pushes towards the same results, for stagnation.  In worst case scenarios, conflict does not actually exist at all in the fiction, the characters simply spin their wheels, over and over.

You’ll notice that mechanics are basically structured ways of breaking out of those patterns.

“Rules should get out of the way”

Imagine if someone came to you and said, “The best food only makes you feel a LITTLE sick after you eat it, not too sick.”   You’d probably be wondering how far off their idea of what food is supposed to be, or do, is.  The idea that rules are simply a necessary evil mostly means we’re talking about people who have had to use rules that didn’t do what they wanted to do in the first place, but that doesn’t mean they have an idea of what good rules would actually look like.

To be sure, I think most RPGs would probably be better served by something more direct, and cleaner than what they get in terms of mechanics – which would make them easier to navigate and handle – “lighter” by that definition, but at the same time it requires a very different way of considering rules and what they’re here for.

If the rules are not helping your group communicate, organize and create the kinds of play that fits the game you want, then the answer is not only “the rules should get out of the way” but that you need a different set of rules altogether.

Ask yourself – “What do I want out of this game?  What do I want to see that ‘I say it and it happens’ would not adequately cover?” (there’s a lot in many cases, actually)

I’ve been seeing a new generation of game designers bringing up the same old “rules should get out of the way” thinking and it’s just a shitty place for design.

For a lot of people, I really do recommend checking out games like 1001 Nights, Breaking the Ice, Hot Guys Making Out, Primetime Adventures, Inspectres, The Drifter’s Escape – because all of these games will really show you some interesting dynamics in play.

Figure out what you want your game to do.  Make rules that do THAT THING.  Don’t make rules that don’t help with what you want your game to do.   Conceptually easy, hard in craft, but certainly better than “How do I make rules that do things I don’t want, work better?”

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Two Branches of RPG Design

December 26, 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about a foundational idea in RPG design that’s been happening since the early 2000s.

Codifying Fiction

There’s a core idea in most RPGs, which is the idea that the system’s role in determining outcomes is to take a set of fictional factors (“Strength 12, Athletics 8, Climbing Difficulty 15″) and run it through a process and produce the outcome from that.

A key point of this style of design is that the rules have to also help teach the people playing how to create or find ways to assign those factors and translate them back and forth between mechanical aspects and fictional aspects in play.  Quinn Murphy has labeled this process “Thingification”.  Also springing from that idea, we see this post on Lost Worlds talking about the struggle of what happens when games have gaps in that process.

It’s important to understand that fictional factors can include things like “How much does this character love this other character?”  “What is the strength of this character’s Lassitude?” and other abstract ideas.  It’s also important to not mix this up with Simulationism – there’s plenty of non-simulationist games which use this from Tunnels and Trolls to Apocalypse World and so on.  This also can include games with rather non-conventional factors like My Life with Master or Steal Away Jordan’s Worth mechanics.

Fictional Quality Independence

(yes, this is a shitty term.  I need to come up with something better.  Whatever, I’m not here to shit out jargon, I’m trying to focus on ideas. )

There’s been a branching out of games where the system does not engage with codifying fiction, but rather the outcomes are mechanically independent OF any qualities of elements within the fiction.

In more plain language – “Can I climb that cliff?” isn’t answered with “How strong are you?” “How tall is the cliff?” “What is it’s rating?” and so on, but other factors that drive play.

The easiest game to point to would be 1001 Nights.  The GM describes a story, the other players put forth questions about the story.   The GM chooses to push the story towards answering some questions and not answering others, which then creates the dice economy in play.  Ideally, the GM tries to spread this out to answer questions relatively equally to get themselves more dice in the process.   “Can Aladdin escape the sword wielding guards?” is not resolved at all with how fast, strong, or smart Aladdin is, or the guards, or the layout of the palace or anything to do with the fiction at all.

This kind of game design is extremely interesting because it ends up focusing play on player choices and player input in a more direct manner. It cuts out the middle man of having to juggle the qualities or stats of fiction to drive play straight into the choices or experiences it wants from players.

These games tend to simply bypass a lot of issues people find in games built on Codifying Fiction – “How do I improvise?” “What do I do when too many characters are involved in a conflict?”  “How do I stop XYZ from being overpowered?” etc. Of course, these games are also usually targeted for “That’s not a real roleplaying game” fallacy.

Examples include: 1001 Nights, Dog Eat Dog, Hot Guys Making Out, Drifter’s Escape, Mist Robed Gate, The Dance and the Dawn

I think there’s a lot to learn and develop from this kind of design,

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D&D Hack: Initiative Damage

December 22, 2014

This is a simple hack from a game mod I was working on a couple of years ago.  It’s designed to give people a simple way to give combat damage more effect while avoiding the complications of hit locations, wound damage, etc.

Initiative, slightly bent

Instead of a D20, use a D12.  D12 + Dex mods etc. has two effects – it means the initiative totals are lower and the attribute mods play a bigger part.

Shaken/Reeling

For characters and creatures, they each get two ratings:

Shaken: 1/4 their total Hitpoints (round up)

Reeling: 1/2 their total Hitpoints (round up)

Initiative Damage

Whenever a creature takes hitpoint damage from a single attack equal or greater than their Shaken threshold, they lose 4 Initiative from their total.   When a creature takes damage from a single attack equal or greater than their Reeling threshold, they lose 8 Initiative.

A) If the creature hasn’t acted this round – it will act on it’s new initiative total.

B) If the creature has already acted this round – it will act on it’s new, lower initiative total NEXT round. It does not get to act again this round.

Stunned – Initiatve Zero or Negative Initiative

If a creature is reduced to zero or negative initiative, it cannot functionally act.  It is rolling around in pain, stunned, or otherwise unable to functionally do much.  At the end of the following round, it regains 1D6 initiative.  If it is still zero or negative, it will need to continue to spend rounds regaining it’s senses (+1D6 initiative) until it has an Initiative of 1 or higher.

For the sake of gameplay, creatures at 0 or negative Initiative cannot be take further initiative damage until they have a positive score.

Managing this in Play

My suggestion is to take index cards, put the characters’ names on them, along with their Shaken/Reeling ratings and you can write the initiative in pencil.  As they take damage/recover, you can line up the cards in order.

Stunting

A useful thing to consider is whether certain actions or attacks do greater initiative damage as part of play.  Some attacks may do relatively low hitpoint damage but pretty big initiative damage (“I shoot down the beehive with my sling.  Let the enemies play with that…”).  You can easily suggest saving throws or attacks against alternate defense ratings that may result in a -4 or -8 initiative.  Monsters that typically suffer saving throw penalties from certain types of attacks may suffer initiative damage whether they succeed or fail the roll.

Magic vs. Magic Users

The basic rule listed above naturally favors tough, high hitpoint characters from getting stunned this way.  You might want to rule that spellcasters are less likely to be stunned by magic, being more accustomed to dealing with such things.   Spellcasters might be only be Shaken at 1/2 hp and Reeling at 3/4 hp from spells.  Or, if they make a save, maybe they suffer no initiative damage whatsoever from magic.

You can customize this accordingly – this might be true of clerics vs. life drain or evil spells, or of druids vs. poisons, elementally based creatures vs. that type of element, and so on.  Obviously consider this with care, the point is to keep this relatively simple.

Monsters

This system works really well if you want to make certain types of monsters immune or resistant to some types of damage.  For example, arrows are not going to bother a zombie, really.  Or a stone golem.  Or a treant.  Once players become accustomed to dishing out damage to stun creatures and taking advantage of it (and also, having to cover their own team mates who are stunned), finding something that simply, won’t, stop, is a great way to highlight why they’re scary.

Consequences in Play

This rule can make combat more lethal in all directions – getting stunned opens the door for followup attacks that simply mob someone.  Smart play with stunting can swing things in the player’s favor.  You can also set up monsters or events that do mostly or solely intiative damage (“The dragon’s wings cause gusts of wind to knock you down, take 1D6 initiative damage.”)

Heavier damage attacks are favored over lighter attacks, so you might have to find some balance if your game is supposed to do the usual “light damage several attacks vs. heavy damage few attacks” setup that shows up.

Assumptions

The math here assumes you’re playing a D&D or D&D like game that is 3rd edition or later where the attribute modifiers tend to sit in the -5/-4 to +4/+5 range.   If you are using a game that has a smaller range (such as -2 to +2) you’ll want to both use a smaller initiative die (D6 for example) and do correspondingly less initiative damage (-1/-3, for example).

If you’re using a game that relies heavily on multiple actions/attacks per round, you might want the stun status to only cost 2 or 3 attack/actions rather than fully leaving the creature unable to do anything.

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