Examining Conflict to Produce Momentum

June 23, 2015

(This is pretty much solely concerned with Narrativist games.)

Player Commitment to Character Commitment

What makes a good story?  We are care about (are invested in, interested in the outcomes of) the characters and the situations at end.  We, the audience.  In media which we simply consume, part of it is that the movie, tv show, book, comic, etc. in question has to win us over as an audience.  They have to give us characters and events that are interesting, and then we begin to care about the outcomes.

However, in roleplaying games, we are not just audience – we are also creators.  And the relationship of creators to the characters and the fiction is a bit different.  You have to commit towards trying to make interesting characters/situations on some creative level to do it well.

The questions of character commitment are what fuel interest – Can they succeed? How will they succeed? What prices will they pay? What choices will they make? etc. And not all of these questions actually matter – we might all know this is the genre where the good guys win… but what kind of people they will be at the end of it is the question we’re asking.  Or, perhaps this is a superhero story and we know the characters will be true to their original concepts regardless of events, because that’s the kind of genre we’re doing.

So as a player, you have to think about what kind of character you are creating and what they are willing to fight for (and, in some way, make it clear to the rest of the group what that is, whether that’s a discussion ahead of time or good Flag mechanics).

Status Quo – that which fulfills/kills you?

There’s basically two things that drive characters into action – either protecting the status quo or trying to change it.  It’s either something that fulfills them and should be protected, or else it’s something that is harming them, and become unbearable, whether the conditions have worsened or the character is just fed up with it all.

Identifying that when you make your character is a great thing – because it tells the GM and the other players how to interact with your character and where there is space for conflict and growth.

You’ll notice that in other media, it’s the character’s commitment to this protection/change that plays a part of what wins us over as an audience.  If the characters’ don’t care, why should we?  If the characters make a big deal of it, we at least are put to the space to consider how important it is for us as audience members.

Momentum in play

If the players commit to the characters’ beliefs, goals, and so on, and drive towards seeing those fulfilled in play, it becomes very easy to keep things moving.  The players push it forward.  And you’ll notice that it doesn’t necessarily require a clue-train or trying to nudge players into action.

1. The players’ commitment creates the characters’ commitment.

2.. The characters’ commitment creates ongoing events in play as improvised by the players.

3.  The ongoing events create chances for expressing the characters and consequences.

4.  The expresssion of characters and consequences creates player investment.

This requires the players’ to buy in before play begins and commit, but in doing so, this is how you get good play coordinated.  Constrast this to the games that take several sessions to get any investment at all – most of the time it’s fumbling around to get character goals, or any expression of the characters in a way that matters, and of course, whether player input (via characters) gets to matter at all, or is blocked from play as a matter of course.

You can think of events in play like rowing a boat – if everyone’s rowing, the boat moves very easily.  If there’s a group of people in the boat but only one person is rowing, it is very tiring, quickly.

Changing Motivations

What’s key here is the commitment to FIND something your character cares about, and to have your character PUSH to see it protected/changed/fulfilled, etc. and not so much about the specifics of what that thing is.  As long as there’s some kind of established plausiblility you can follow, the motivations can change, or be revealed to be about something else, and so on.

You’ll notice that this is a different sort of spending a few sessions “finding your feet” than the traditional method.  In this method, it’s “let me find a better way to show you what my character cares about” that’s the change, whereas, the traditional method is “let me figure out if my character cares about any of this to begin with, then figure out if it’s worth fighting for”

This is not the same as the reluctant hero, which can work in static media simply because the creators know that the hero will be pushed into her destiny or moment of conflict.  The reluctant hero only works in roleplaying games if you are clear about the difference between reluctance as a trope vs. reluctance as a thing that shapes the story and drags yoru character away from the conflict you’re interested in exploring.


Monsters: Choice, Compulsion, Existence

June 17, 2015

A lot of our games, and settings for our games, have monsters of some type.   However, what that monster is, thematically in the fiction, can be very different things, and depending on how you are coming at it, it can mean a very different type of game, or story you are creating.

Monsters of Choice

A monster of “choice” is a creature that does evil as a choice.  The important part of this is that this is something the monster, as a character, chooses to do, and could, if they wanted, choose to do otherwise.  One might be able to convince such a creature to stop or reform.

In this regard, a serial killer would be as much of a monster as a giant that chooses to eat people.

This is a key point worth understanding, as most often this is the default understanding of sentience – you can choose to do things, and if the species as a whole is constantly portrayed as wanting to do evil (without, say, some kind of context like a society that encourages harm or something), you basically have the classic D&D problem of the “Chaotic Evil” race.

Monsters of Compulsion

A monster of compulsion is unable to stop itself from doing harmful things.  This is often what you get when you have a story with sympathetic vampires or werewolves.  They are under a condition they cannot control which causes them to do terrible things.  Although plenty of fiction plays with the fact about such types being either against their condition or reveling in it, the role of heroes who are not monsters would be to try to best free such creatures of their compulsion.

Usually however, this only shows up as protagonist characters who are under a compulsion – the various White Wolf games love to play this up.

Monsters of Existence

A demon of hate, summoned from another dimension.  A robot that kills all organic life.  etc.  These are the monsters that are unable to even question or doubt their choices, if they can make choices at all.   They are evil because they are evil and you don’t have to worry about destroying them or whatever harm befalls them in stopping them.

This is the monster that is the best kind to have for guilt free action games – you want a lot of monsters to beat down? Skeletons! Robots! Etc.

Confusion in play…

So, if players don’t know they can try to redeem monsters, as they assume they are unfixably evil… then they won’t.  If players keep trying to have their characters reach out to a demon that cannot be converted to good… they will waste a lot of time.   The players will probably have a lot of intercharacter fighting if they think it goes one way or the other and can’t see why someone would (murder without a thought/reach out to a forsaken demon) etc.

There’s definitely a fun space for stories where you’re not sure which category applies, however, those stories tend to be brutal examinations of morality, and usually over the fate of a single character.  Bonus drama: if you’re still unsure AFTER the situation has been resolved as well – “Do you think we could have saved him?”  “I’d like to think so… but we’ll never know now…


Small Mysteries and how you run your RPGs

June 15, 2015

Humans are curious – it’s why we love mysteries.  I don’t necessarily mean the mystery genre, but what I mean is small mysteries, little things in a story, or a game, where you say, “Something is going on there…” and you really want to find out what it means – Two people shoot each other a meaningful look, someone pauses just so, something seems to not work the way it should….

There’s a lot of different approaches and it’s kind of a key point to know as a group, as each sets up a different play expectation.


A mystery as a puzzle is something to be solved, and the question is more about whether it should be solved in the short term (“figure out how the trap works to get past it”) or in the long term (“Find out who killed Colonel Mustard through investigating everyone…”)

A key expectation about treating mysteries as puzzles is that the mystery is only uncovered through actions of the protagonists (and, in RPGs, the players who control them).  With that in mind, it means players have to constantly ask questions, poke and prod at things, and act kind of an ass in general to figure things out.

This mirrors behaviors in adventure videogames where players poke at everything, “click on everything”, push/attack every wall or object, try to jump over walls, etc. because they have to try to find every secret.

This is common to dungeon crawl type play, but ultimately very weird and out of place for any other kind of media.  It works well when you’re mostly prodding objects, however, when it comes to investigating other characters, the sort of compulsive information squeeze doesn’t work so well.  You’ll also notice that this expectation can get players stuck on investigating non-interesting things, because they’ve projected onto it, some kind of importance or mystery.


A mystery as a promise is how stories typically do it – “there’s something weird” and you know the storyteller will eventually reveal it.  The mystery is presented as a tease, as suspense, and you know there’s going to be a reveal and depending on how it’s all done, you are either entertained, nonplussed, or annoyed.

When it comes to RPGs, treating mysteries as promises frees players from having to compulsively pick at everything – they can either let it pass, let their characters be ignorant/heedless of it, play into it even further, or check on it and be ok that it will come back later.   This is also true of players revealing mysteries about their characters, as well.

The nice thing about treating a mystery as a promise is that it lets you take time to find the most entertaining way to address it, and as a group commitment, allows everyone to work together to revealing stuff together, without necessarily requiring some kind of out of play conversation about it.

Window Dressing

Mysteries as window dressings can make for cool background material – the weird statue, the sound that seems to come from the walls, the character who acts strange for no apparent reason.   The problem is that a great number of old school dungeon modules would mix up the Window Dressing with the Lethal Deathtrap – so many gamers ended up developing habits of assuming everything is a Puzzle mystery instead.

Window dressing mysteries can add a LOT to the play experience – they are basically the style, or the aesthetic you build.


Bullshit mysteries are what I call it when a story or game pushes itself with mysteries as Promises and then turns them into Window Dressing or leaves them forever unanswered.  People tell me this is effectively what the TV show Lost, was doing.

Now, roleplaying games are great for being able to make shit up on the fly – until it gets stated or otherwise put into play, everything is unformed.  So it’s easy to set up mysteries or connections without knowing the answer when you do it – but you also have to bring it back and answer it at some point, and in a way that fits with the plausibility expectations of your game.

If you don’t deliver, or break/destroy key ideas that people have accepted as part of the story/world/setting, then people feel cheated.

Coordinating this all

One of the things I’ve done over the years when I run dungeon crawls is I tell everyone that there will be no traps or hazards that are not clearly visible as dangerous.  I’ve done this because I despise “check every 10 feet because the whole dungeon wants to eat/fall on you”, but it also ends up being a very clear communication of what mysteries to expect and deal with – if there’s going to be a Puzzle mystery, it will be clearly marked, otherwise everything else is Window Dressing.

I usually play explicitly Narrativist RPGs like Primetime Adventures, because the default expectations and rules set you up to get mysteries as Promises, and you can focus on the character development and events that form in play without having to poke or prod at things, and so on.  Flag Mechanics are effectively a way to set your character’s issues, goals and values up as Promise mysteries to deliver on.

(This post was mostly inspired  by watching Steven Universe and catching up on the Erfworld comic, and thinking about the ways in which they reveal their mysteries over the longer story form.  Yes, I’ll probably put together a short, simpler way of talking about this and jam it into the Same Page Tool later on.


Before the swords come out

May 31, 2015

Between getting back into martial arts training and also watching a lot of stuff on video game design, I’ve been thinking a bit about combats in tabletop RPGS and how they skip something critical: what you see/know before the fight begins.

There’s a lot of things which you pick up on, before a fight – how aggressive someone is (“changing”, “approaching aggressively, but with caution”, “cautiously circling”), how well they move (“fast, graceful”, “powerful, heavy”, “very comfortable with that axe”), some aspects of emotions in their face (“belligerent, angry”, “fearful, panicked”, “disturbingly calm”, “menacing smile”)… and all of that gives you some inkling of what to expect and how you might want to deal with the situation or the individuals involved.

Of course, for any of this to matter, it also has to come up in play and be something you can interact with – otherwise it’s a meaningless detail.  And, without a clear process or step to make these things something that shows up in play regularly, you just forget to put them in.   So what’s a way to go with it?  Describe something that is a “tell” or indicator about one or more of these factors when a combat begins.  If the game involves an initiative roll, that’s a great time to go with it.


Give some indication of how powerful the threat is – is it large, fast?  Is it a person who is scared and unsure in their movements, or someone with a loose, relaxed movement?  This is a great tool to give players some idea of how they may want to approach (or avoid) such a threat.


Does it look like it’s going to just come straight at you?  Will the bandit circle then charge in after his friends help circle you?  A lot of the beginning movements tell you what might be happening next.


Does the threat look sure, wild and frenzied or just hoping to get away?  Is there a way you can scare off the fight before it happens?

Again, showing these things is meaningless if you don’t give players a way to interact with them.  This might be part of the game mechanics naturally (morale rules, etc.) or it might be something you have to add on as a house rule.  Regardless, make it clear to the players that these things matter and there’s more options than simply “fight or run” and allow them to take advantage of this.


Quiet Month

May 24, 2015

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.


Proficiency vs. Mastery

April 30, 2015

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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The Irrelevant Conflict Trap

April 19, 2015

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.

Structure Mechanics

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.

Scene Framing

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.

Table Negotiation

“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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