Thursday, April 18, 2019

How to play dumb characters well (Advice Post, could be a thing)

I'm more often than not fighting to find topics for the blog these days. It's not that I lack ideas, but lots of energy is going into writing on other projects and the rest is just fatigue, I guess. This was never a blog for just producing noise to keep people entertained, so it might come to a point where there is nothing more to write. That said, there's still some ways to go, so let's get into it.

Disclaimer, because I feel it needs saying: this is talking elf-games, folks, I know there is people out there who have to handle such disadvantages in real life and I surely don't diminish any of that. If anything, I'd encourage others to walk some miles in the shoes of others and get an understanding. Role playing games can do that for you.

EDIT: It was brought to my attention that Olde House Rules over at Pits Perilous had his own take on the subject published only last year. He goes a bit in a different direstion, but it's definitely worth checking out. Please do so here.

What are we talking about?

It's with some role playing games that it's either beneficial or unavoidable to end up with characters that either are very inexperienced or have the system-equivalent of a very low intelligence.

The argument I'm attempting doesn't apply to all games or situations. Therefore, it doesn't concern as much games in which all characters are children, for instance, but might if one player ends up with a child in company of older characters. There's furthermore the distinction to be made between "dumb" and "inexperienced" or "immature", as they allow for different approaches and strategies.

However, we are talking here about games that allow for results in character generation so extreme that it might seem as a disadvantage to play such a character even compared to an average result*. In other words, games that don't assume that characters are just individual expressions of the same average (like point buy systems, for instance). Randomness has a say in those games and it can be (somewhat) cruel. Why is that, though?

3D6 in a row will do that to you ...

... but are you willing to do it to yourself? It's with most role playing games, I think, that people are willing to accept an average rating in their intelligence attribute than a really low one. You gotta have some Intelligence!, they'd say., or Never go full retard!! People would rather be ugly than dumb, is the impression I got, and they will go to lengths in avoiding ending up with a dumb character while happily depleting Charisma (or what have you) for some extra points.
It's good advice ... [source]
I mean, I get it. Having a dumb character has a Geschmäckle, as they say in Swabia. It's like people fear it rubs off on them and most people don't like to be associated with a deficit like that. There's a social stigma attached to it that is worse than being ugly.

That said, people will have fun with a dumb or immature character for a short time. The usual shenanigans and jokes will occur in such cases and everyone will be a good sport about it as long as it is understood that the character is the dumb or immature one, not the player. Keeping it that meta isn't entertaining for long, though. I've seen it happen, people just don't see merit in playing a character like that or just see the bad sides of it in the long run.

To be totally fair, a DM will use this against you in a way that really makes the character less playable than characters with other disadvantages. A DM could force a (automatically somewhat difficult) intelligence check on a player with the argument, that the character wouldn't be able to come up with the "complex" idea the player just had. Same if it is assumed that a character couldn't have experienced somthing like that or how that could be problematic in some situations.

That's quite tricky, actually, as it doesn't affect the in-game reactions to a character as much as the player interaction with the game. Player are restricted in applying their own intelligence and experience to the gaming environment. It's a severe disadvantage, for sure, and definitely not as much fun. You'll also never get similar problems with characters of average intelligence, appropriate or not.

I initially wrote that only "bad" DMs did something like that. However, I had to reconsider the approach, because as long as it is reduced to a roll with a fair difficulty, it's actually what we do with all ability checks. And regarding the maturity, it can (should) be a vantage point for potential drama. It's a thin line, though, and should be handled with care on the DM-side of things.

And here's one final sin: I've had players acting dumb (and dying as a consequence) with the argument that their character couldn't know any better. That's the worst, in my opinion. It's also the closest to the solution of this conundrum.

Embrace the dumb, I say

Alright, what can a player do to make it work if the character generation results in something as undesirable as described above. The first thing is: you don't have to be the character. I know there are players out there who enjoy playing it like that and it is still something that can be done. However, as with all characters, no one wants this all the time. It isn't possible to be "in character" all the time, in my opinion, and as true for a dumb character as for a brilliant one, for that matter. You have to step out at one point and no one is able to fully represent extremes. It's what you do the rest of the time that counts.

So the first thing players should think about is how their character compensates for the lack. How can they play around the disadvantage, what can they do to make work what they intent to do. Just like you would with a wizard when the going gets tough and you are out of spells or with any other situation where a character has a comparable disadvantage: you find ways to somehow compensate said disadvantage.

You could call this the Forrest Gump Defense, but there's usually other ability scores that allow workarounds, like Wisdom, for instance. So if the DM argues that your character couldn't come up with a solution like this, you might most of the time be able to argue that your character's Wisdom is not at a severe disadvantage as its Intelligence and the character might very well have seen someone dealing with something like the situation at hand and had a reaction pattern attached to it that the character would be able to copy ("My ma used to say ...").

Which is exactly how people work, by the way. We copy more than we innovate. But that's not what this is about (or at least you shouldn't have to start arguing psychology). What I'm trying to say is that even a dumb character will have workarounds at hand to keep functioning in society. Something caring people gave them, something they can fall back on.

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If a player describes her characters actions that way, like, if she preemptively gives answers to the question "how could your character know that?", DMs will be way more likely to decide favorable to begin with. I sure would. It means playing the character skillfully and, yes, with intelligence, while adding the disadvantage  with ease to the narrative. It's a win-win.

But there's more. Most (if not all) role playing games allow for supporting rolls, so if a intelligence check comes up and chances are low, ask another character for help. It's not even far-fetched, to be honest, that a character like that would seek and trust the advice others can offer on a regular basis. Actually, also ask non player characters for advice, like wise men or women or sages or priests ... folks that have been asked for advice regarding problems to abstract to tackle for a poor, single mind for as long as humans exist (true for all kinds of intellects, one might add).

This applies as well for immature or inexperienced characters: make them seek advice. It makes your DM happy that you interact with your environment and always gives you an angle to say the character follows the advice of [insert figure of authority here].

What else? Well, players should realize what a limitation like this means beyond "he'll never be a wizard" and how they could participate in the game without playing their character. Because, if you think about it, how many situations could come up in the game that directly apply to a character's intelligence? Not that many.

Solving riddles, for instance, would be group or even player effort. Everything else can be communicated or solved as described above and if that weakness is targeted directly (which should only, if at all, happen in moderation anyway), it's still not without a chance and, done right, enriching the gaming experience.

It doesn't hurt to talk with your DM up front about what a disadvantage like that would mean in their game, just to be on the same page. And one more solution might be to ask the DM if it is possible to play an additional character (which might add another interesting dynamic, but depends heavily on how crunchy a game is to make it work).

When all is said and done, it comes down to embracing it as a challenge and making it work, an attitude that'll get you far everywhere. That and realizing the chances such a disadvantage might bring.

Too obvious?

As I wrote above, I have experienced this as a DM far too often, as those results can come up in OD&D and the game I'm working on: Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. Especially Lost Songs needs players to embrace disadvantages and make them work because the characters are very young tribes men (or women) going on their first adventures, and they can get severely scarred by their experiences, for instance by losing their Wits (the equivalent of Intelligence in LSotN).

If a game includes design choices that allow extremes, it also needs to offer the room to make it work and even if that is accounted for in the rules, it is also very necessary to communicate all that somewhere. Especially when considering that not all games do this and when a player (or DM) comes with the wrong expectations to a new game, they won't see the potential the game offers if that extreme occurs. Hence, the post.

I hope you find some use for the advice here and if you know of other ways to play such characters effectively, please feel free to share your experience with us. As always, I'd be happy to hear about it.

Had to share, sorry [source]

*Which is, interestingly enough, something modern games seem to avoid more often from the start. Often in an attempt to please buyer demands. Like with computer games, it is a short-sighted compromise to follow up on unreflected customer demands to a degree where the resulting gaming experience is reduced to the equivalent of a short sugar rush, followed by regret and a lack of satisfaction ... Anyway, not what we are talking about. Or are we?

Sunday, March 31, 2019

6 things D&D 1e can do for you (and you didn't know)

There is an excellent post over at Marlinka's Musings you should read, as it inspired this post to some extent. Daniel writes at some point in his post that D&D is about killing things and taking their stuff. The game is good at that, but if you want something else in it, you maybe should look into other games for inspiration (he names FATE and Nobilis as examples). It illustrates his point well and works for the argument he's making. But it got me thinking: is it true? Are we actually needing those other games to have aspects like narrative flow or philosophical musings in D&D 1e/BECMI as written?

More a Development of Insight than an Evolution

I'll start with a heresy: most of what is sold to us as new evolutions in game design is merely a designer exploring something that is already existing in the original games and giving it a different form*. This hobby of ours is not even half a century old and I think in a way we are still trying to find the words to explain what happened in 1973 and why it mattered.

Yeah, one of those posts ...
 Simple proof of this is that we (as in: humanity as a whole) have always been telling stories and always will be. Same goes for playing games (another abstract form of telling stories, if you think about it). We learn abstract thinking by listening and telling stories, which in turn helps us understanding the world. Preparing us to handle it, as it were. We have the science/philosophy/art to proof this for a long time now.

I've long been saying that roleplaying games are not doing much more than offering various tools to expand language to a degree that the output of an exchange gets a specific flavor mixed with a good dose of uncertainty of outcome, while keeping within the rules of suspension of disbelieve. Those tools manipulate the narrative with specific terms and outcomes and developments that are deemed favorable for the intent of the individual game. However, the collective narrative is the thing and we really know how to tell stories.

There's also lots of science about how language works and why, so I could go and rest my case right there (or at least that's the thesis): if roleplaying games are understood as tools that expand language to form a narrative in a playfull and uncertain way and if that is the innovative part of that original design, then most of what comes afterwards cannot be more then just variations and expansions of what the original games already formulated.

Oracles: expanding language with external tools for thousands of years now [source]
Or to put another spin on this: my theory is that if those rules of yore are read with our more modern interpretations of what a role playing game is or can be, we will find that those ideas are already in there to some extent or at least came up pretty fast.

However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I'll try to do the title of this post justice, name 6 modern game design trends and show how they'd already been part of the first editions (I'll draw from OD&D and BECMI/D&D RC for this, if I need to):

1. The System Shapes the Long-Term Narrative

The classic 5 saves in D&D had been a great way to guarantee different class reactions to the narrative environment between classes as well as with character advancement. Players are relatively autonomous to do as they please, so no character will feel alike, even if it's the same class. Campaigns will also differ from DM to DM, so the rules for advancement are the only somewhat reliable constant in all of this. Now, Saves are a character's passive reaction to the environment, not player controlled and only to some extent within a DMs control, which means, a characters reaction to the environment is something every player will experience THE SAME over the course of each characters career. It's one key aspect why fighters feel hardy, thieves feels dextrous and wizards feel well versed in the magic arts: they react that way to the challenges the environment throws them (system-wise).  This is true for all first editions of D&D.

2. Players Decide the Difficulties of their Actions

You will often hear that in the olden days DMs would set you a difficulty and you either make it or not. Sometimes people will add that you could argue some bonusses because the situation (or a rule) allows for it. Modern games will often allow rolls with nuanced results, like, say, partial successes. However, there has always been something like the "play without the dice" and even if not everyone had realized this in the beginning of the hobby (which I doubt, actually, since the early versions had been pretty rules light, negotiation must have been the main mode of gaming), it's common sense today for players to explore and use the environment to their best knowledge to gain an advantage before the first dice fall. So the difficulty of a roll was never the DM fiat many would make it to be, it was the end of a negotiation and if the players did play it right, that roll (if  necessary at all) would be an easy one.

3. Character-Driven Narratives instead of Murder-Hobos

It certainly didn't start that way, but BASIC already introduced the idea that monsters could just be "overcome" with wits instead of combat and Moldvay also offers experience points for playing your character and class well (as well as for great ideas and heroic play). Later in the BECMI series clerics will get xp for helping others of their alignment, domain play offers xp, as do jousts and leading an army into war will also garner a character xp. So it's not just "kill and loot" and it is interesting at this point to note that on higher levels (up to level 36 with the BECMI series) there wouldn't be enough monsters or treasure in the world for a group to gain enough xp just with killing and looting (which is why late in the development of 1e you potentially gain more xp for playing your character than for anythiung else ... read here for details). Also: there wasn't that heavy an emphasis on high ability scores and lots of freedom for coming up with who your level 1 character is ...

Diplomacy can be fun, too! [source]
4. Scope

Epic, year-spanning campaigns or one-shots, fantasy or steampunk or science fiction, as many classes as you can come up with (want an example how, have one), highly customizable toolbox of rules (from very low to very high complexity), lots of original material (still in print!), highly compatible with newer versions of D&D (and other games, for that matter), just as easy to house-rule and over 40 years of fan-made material freely accessible on the internet (another example), with all the experience and advice you could need to last several life times of gaming ... that's D&D 1e in a nut-shell. Few games can do that much, most won't even come close.

5. It's not Randomness, it's Controlled Variation

Random Encounter Tables, Random Encounter Reaction Tables, Random Treasure Table, Morale ... Going by the rules, the DM gets to decide very deep in the manifestation process how things shape up. This is by design and it has a very simple reaon: it (1) reminds the DM that there are more possible outcomes to a situation than he could come up with on the spot and it (2) also illustrates that you can still have some controll within that randomness by chosing the selection of possibilities a random table offers to begin with. Lots of games try (and achieve) some of the same effects with story circles or shared narratives to produce recognizable yet unexpected variation, but D&D made this work right from the start in it's own way.

6. The Cheat is in the Game

Many modern games claim that one distinctive new element to older roleplaying games would be that modern games enable players to influence play from a meta-perspective with concepts like story points, for instance. It's always some sort of meta-currency that could help getting characters out of tight spots. The thing is, that's not a new  or "modern" idea at all. I'd say that it was part of those first editions from the beginning in form of magic items, spells like Wish and wonders like Ressurection, you just had to play long enough to earn them. In modern gaming terms you had to "unlock" them, so to say, as they'd only be accessible to higher level characters. In a way it is part of learning the game to reach that point (it's like that famous G. Gygax quote that character background is what comes with the first 6 levels ...). Experienced players (or so is the theory) will have all the meta-currency they need to keep their characters afloat for as long as possible (even later characters, one could argue).
 

And that's that ...

I was aiming for 10, but that might stretch it a little. The result of this little exercise (for me at least) would be that, well, "there's nothing new under the sun" doesn't quite cut it. Of course there is beautiful and great and creative modern games out there and there's definitely room for more.

However, the closer I look at those first editions (D&D RC is one of my favorite things in the world, as you might be aware), the more I come to the conclusion that it was more the inability to completely express what they had in hands when they published it. They had been quick to adjust, for sure, and many of the first alternative rulesets published were arguably nothing more than what the game intended to begin with: variations of the original game (even when not published by TSR).

Furthermore, and I'll close with this, I hope I helped to show that many of the now popular facettes we have in newer games were also arguably already part of those first games. I mean, sure, you could argue that there might be some better ways to use the dice (or something else entirtely, like cards) and there's still lots to explore. But damn, they did a lot right from the start and even where they weren't entirely on target, it ended up being strong enough to become part of popular (gaming) culture on more than one level.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on the subject. I know, lots of this comes down to taste, and I'm not as much interested in hearing subjective claims about what new game is superiour. Instead I'd love to hear about games that are truly innovative in their approach and why.

Either way, thanks for reading!

[source]

 * Conversely it's the discovery and enhancement of those ideas that made games like Vampire: The Mascerade so popular, so there definitely is merit to the process.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Aphorisms about Game Design Theory (lazy blog post)

I haven't forgotten. One blog post per month, at least. Here we go ... So I have a group on MeWe that talks about philosophy and game design. It's basically me collecting ideas (for now, that is). You are welcome to join, of course. However, since I suspect the overlap to be minimal (to say the least), I thought I'd share a little something I wrote over there.  It's a random collection of thoughts on design. Enjoy!

Day 1:

I need to apply some discipline here to keep going. So I thought it'd be nice to share some of the observations I had while tinkering on games. Small sprints on a daily basis. This is social media, so let's keep it random as well. Fell free to chime in while we are at it.
 
Here goes: Something I try to do as often as possible, is feeding my subconscious with all sorts of different patterns. It's not as much about reflecting new content, it's just taking it in and trusting that it somehow helps shaping whatever I'm working on. To enhance that, I try to follow my "whims" as much as possible as well. If I'm in the mood for some victorian drama, it's what I'm following up on, if it's true crime, I'm all over that. Doing so helps finding an understanding of what you like and you'll seek and collect that with more care. It also helps finding connections between patterns that are not that obvious. It's also something my girlfriend hates, because she sometimes just wants to watch stupid tv.

Baseline is, feed your brain not for immediate benefits but for building a frame of ideas to draw from when you sit down designing stuff. Sorry if that was too obvious ... Is it something you guys experience as well?

There was a short argument that this can't always be achieved, and my answer to that fiat was:


Time definitely is a restriction, as is compromise ... What I wrote is more like something a designer should aspire to, if that makes more sense.
[source]
Day 2:

There is no game out there that fully realizes what a role playing game can be, but there are some that come close, if only in different areas or aspects of that nebulous new media. Seek those games and push the boundaries they found. That said, don't make the mistake assuming some game or another is better than other games just because it's newer. That's not how progress works. They are all forays into the dark to see what sticks and what doesn't. Knowing that should encourage you to create and look at all games, old and new, for inspiration. There's also no way to know if something is "right" or "wrong" that way. Tinker, publish and play to find out.

Day 3:

A feeling (or measure?) for scope is one of the most crucial skills a game designer needs. It's not only about knowing what it means if a game checks "all the boxes", it also means to be able to extrapolate that for the game being written. This relates not only to the level of detail a game might need (or not), it also entails how different manifestations and interpretations impact a game on all levels of resolution (immediate, midterm and longterm implications, for instance). Power levels, tact regarding the terms a game uses ... All of that needs scope to be integrated properly.

Day 4:

When you write rpg rules, you basically do so for at least 4 different readers with just as much different assumptions. You'll have those intending to DM the game and they'll focus on how to use the game for what they had in mind or for the inspiration of the next campaign. While understanding the game is necessary for the first reader to get in a position to use it for the next campaign, it is the sole reason for the second reader, which would be the players. They (ideally) want to learn the game and (maybe) learn how to exploit it as well. For both readers the game needs the structure to be read front to cover as well as being an easy reference during the game and preparation phases. The third reader is the collector. They can transit to become reader one or two, but the main reason for a purchase would be the look of a game, which would be (in order of significance) artwork, production value (is it coffee table worthy?), layout and whatever could be gained from short pieces of text (interestingly enough, this works well with clones of well known games, as it mostly proposes variants to a known set of rules and thus allows directly going into referencing). The fourth reader might be an odd mix of all other possible readers (optionally split into several new readers, obviously, but they form very small groups, so ...). Here you'd have those just reading games for the fun of it (a rare breed), reviewers and critics as well as other designers looking for inspiration (or checking out the opposition). All those readers need to be addressed to some degree and there's definitely some overlap. Depending on how you aim to market your product, you'll have to make some decisions. Can you think of other readers?

[source]
Day 5:

This one is about playtesting new rules. Actually, you might say, it's about why games need to be played to be evaluated, because rules that might sound well on paper (and you will have those), might actually fall short in the game. Sometimes simply for having the wrong dynamic in play. So for one, if everyone at the table is not using a new rule repeatedly (even the one who wrote it), you might need to do some changes. That's not to say the rule is worthless and needs to be ditched, but it will need readjustment. Realizing that taught me not only to "read" games, it also showed me how to manipulate the flow I want in my games by using, for instance, the right markers at the right time and in the right place. Character sheets are a huge part of this, but information design in general is crucial ... That's why games have phases in combat and similar structures. Rules are carried by mnemonic patterns like that and applying those patterns is part of the design process.

Day 6:

People can work their way around processes with between 3 and 7 steps. Everything below that is boring as fuck ("My attack roll also resolves damage and endurance AND the enemy's attack! "Slow down, bro, this isn't always about efficiency."), everything beyond that will have people ask you about the rules (for instance) constantly. Having three steps to everything is a save bet (3 classes), but going 4 or 5 can work, if it's not overdone or rules that get frequented regularly (because routine helps a lot) and 6 or 7 will stretch it and most likely only appeal to those people into more complex games. Incidentally, that is the reason for having all those little sub-systems in OD&D and AD&D, because once you play and you decided for (race and) class, you reduce your choices from "unlimited"* to "manageable". It's also why THAC0 is brilliant just because it is counter-intuitive: it's a clear distinction to the other number systems in the game and therefor better to be remembered (and it has, what?, 3 steps?). So if people get easily bored with your game (applies to mid- and long term as well, like campaign play, for instance), think about adding a couple of steps to it. If people tend to re-read rules a lot although they are into the game, categorize a bit more. Not necessarily ditch some rules, just group and differentiate by the ratio outlined above (races, classes, spell-types, combat phases, you get it).

That's it for today. Tell your friends. I'm here all week.

*Btw, common mistake is to think a game like AD&D is too complex, often enough because just reading rules from cover to cover definitely makes it look that way (ironically just for the reasons discussed above). However, and I really want to stress this point: where it matters, when playing the game, if designed properly (with little sub-systems and the right groupings, with steps between 3 and 7 for everything, all that jazz) it'll feel never too complicated (might include a learning curve, though, but I, for one, always appreciated that).

This, as well, provoked a comment (and I really provoked it with my comment on games being light on combat in the beginning there). The argument being made was, that while it might be true for most (if not all) areas in game design, it might not apply in combat, to what I wrote:

I think we mostly agree. I can't dismiss your argument as anecdotal, though, as there is something to it that needs to be addressed (still anecdotal). An easy way out would be to say there are different preferences and reduce this to a matter of taste. It can be that, as you could say that it's what works at your table. The counter argument would be that it is possible to make every game work with the right people. One is about reducing your selection of games to the whim of the folks you want to play with, the other is reducing the people to the whim of the game you want to play. Both work, both have merit. That's not what it's about, then. I've actually seen a couple of games that offer (at least) two ways to handle combat, but that's just as an aside.

The argument that I'd be trying to make here, is, that there are two kinds of role playing games out there: those that let you explore (AD&D, as an example) and those that offer a room where you can express yourself (the PbtA games, as an example). The first works with critical hit tables and dungeons to loot, the second not so much (or at least not in the same way) but it offers a frame or a couple of frames . Consequently, both games will come with a very different set of conditions to work properly, and they don't mix well.

With that said, I'd add that the principles discussed above still apply with combat as well. All preference changes is that you'll most likely shun games that allow levels of detail you won't need if it is inventing funny shit when opportunity arises. Stuff like that would get in the way and as far as design goes, the difficulty would be to adhere to those conditions (I'm not sure, but moves might do something like that in Dungeon World, right?). Still, the choices you'll have in those games reducing combat to just a blip in the game, will (if done right) offer just a couple of choices or phases in order to not overwhelm. Another example: how many special powers have the monsters you use in your games? More than 3? Maybe the well-known ones like dragons. More than 6 or seven? Would that even work? 6 or 7 might work for an end boss or something like it, but beyond that? I don't think so. The rules apply.
As well as:
Addition: there's a whole subset of arguments connected to how the advent of D&D 3e with it's streamlined rules led to the simplification of rules down to that bare minimum that fuels the games where people play to express themselves instead of exploring a (for lack of a better word) 'simulated' fictional world. Consequently (or so I'd argue), it's simplification what you provoke if you are not distinguishing rules to bring them to full effect (said sub-systems). Some of it is (maybe) that it's nowadays just as easy (and maybe enjoyable) to mimic those original games without going through all those motions. However, it's different vantage points and I'd go as far as saying different gaming experiences with different needs to cater to.

That's a lot and I hope you all find something worth your while in it. There'll be more of the same in the days to come. However, I'll probably write something else here first. Join us over at that social media place, if you want to. You'd be most welcome. Either way, share your thoughts :)

[source]

 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

UbiquiCity Book 2: Undercurrents (now in stores!)

A cyberpunk/science fiction story I wrote got published as part of an anthology. If you dig what I'm doing here, you might want to check that out, too! Here, have some details (a fair warning though, as an author of one of the stories, I get my share for each sold copy):

I'm so happy about this right now. When Tod Foley put out an open call for authors in his second UbiquiCity Anthology, I tried my hand and he actually gave it a shot. I mean, you write and write for years to get an opportunity like that and there it was all of a sudden. I gave it my best.

However, that shouldn't be the only reason to go over to amazon or rpgnow to get that collection of sci fi tales. And it needn't be. As far as I can tell, all those stories are great, every one of them carrying nuggets of inspired (and inspiring) ideas and concepts, as you'd wish from a collection of sf stories.

Found at amazon or rpgnow!
They are also part of a huge universe that Tod is in the process of creating for the last couple of years. It started with the first UbiquiCity anthology, keeps growing on the dedicated website thisisfractopia.com and will ultimately lead to a big and universal rpg sourcebook about that city the stories are set in. It's all connected (and brim full with easter eggs as well as a growing history). From what I have seen, it's a thing of beauty.

There you have it: a great collection of stories of which I have the honor to be part of, with lots more to discover where that came from and yet more to come (although it all stands well on its won, if you don't want to dive into it that deep ...).

Just don't take my word for it (beware the author, see above). If you are in the mood for some science fiction, check out the preview that is provided by the vendor of your choice instead (which will give you a good part of the excellent first story!).

If that tickles your fancy, the rest might as well. If you need a bit more convincing, check out two more stories I wrote for this setting over at thisisfractopia (for free, you can find the first story here and the second story here, a third is already in the works).

It goes almost without saying that I'd be very happy to hear your thoughts about it. Sharing and spreading the good news is also very appreciated, naturally :)

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Let's talk Setting and Genre, Folks (Design Post)

Happy New Year! Thought I'd do a "year in review" post or some such nonesense. It's just, there didn't happen a lot here, and I sort-a-kind-a already did one of those in November 2018. No need to repeat myself when I'm already low on content here on the blog. Instead I thought I'd try and open the new year with one of my design posts. People seem to enjoy them well enough.

Distinctions matter when writing games!

You could say they matter everywhere, but that's not what I'm about. What I'm aiming at is more in the line of thinking that you can not build meaningful tools for your game if the areas that need designing aren't properly defined.

Let me get into this a little bit more. That games have different areas with varying demands for design is plain obvious, I think.  That a gamemaster will need different tools than a player might be among the first to come to mind. Non-player characters can't be as detailed as player characters (in most games anyway). Or (something I had to learn the hard way just the other day) information design is a completely different animal than game design (there is a difference between writing rules and writing rules, goddammit).

Great example how things can be the same and still very distinct ... [source]
The distinction between setting and genre, on the other hand, is not among the main concerns mst of the time, although its a crucial one from a design point of view, as setting and genre do very different things in a game and therefor need different tools if they are to be utilized properly.

It might be overlooked easily because we don't often see it as clear in other media as we do in role playing games and there isn't much need to distinguish them in other media to begin with. They are used as authors see fit, be it for books, movies or computer games (I'll have to go deeper into that further below).

However, since the emerging stories of our games are in part due to the decisions the players make, in part due to the random results a game's engine may produce and in yet another part what the gamemaster makes of all that (or how), it seems imminent that the tools we use to achieve a satisfying result need to be properly designed specifically for the areas they are used in. For that they need to be recognized and distinguished first.

Proper distinctions make a narrative more powerful!

I had a discussion about this very distinction with a player once when we tried to get on the same page about what to play next. Had I known back then what I know now, I could have made a strong(er) case ... well, let's have the argument first: the proposition had been to play Castle Falkenstein (classic steampunk setting and tropes) in an America how the game it envisions (the idea was to use Sixguns & Sorcery). Now, Castle Falkenstein (from all I could remember) wasn't heavy on the crunch or the players. You could get away with playing a proper Holmes or Tesla, the game wouldn't kill you off easily.

What the player envisioned when he heard that proper Wild West was on the table, he wanted it to be gritty and deadly, Sergio Leone-style. He'd accept steampunk as decoration, but what he couldn't understand was that a game like that came with certain restrictions, one of them being that it ain't The Proposition (Australian Western written by Nick Cave, who also did the music score, very much worth seeing). I said back then (rightly so) that the game is not able to carry that kind of action, I just couldn't explain properly why that is. All I knew was that he wanted to play a different game.

You can see right away: not a romanticized version of the past [source]
Here is the thing: the system needs to support the emergence of the narrative at least to some extent, because if it doesn't or - even worse - if it contradicts the expectations people bring to the table, they'll feel the game lacking although it might not be the game's fault to begin with. You can have a Superhero campaign that is gritty, you just shouldn't use Marvel Super Heroes for it. At least not RAW, a hack might be able to fix a problem like that ... most of the time.

There is a point, though, where you have to change a game so much, that it ends up being another game. And that is because games are written with a specific genre in mind regarding the resolution of conflict. Setting is merely the stage and the requisites (which would be the gamemasters material and tools).

Done right and used as intended, role playing designs should lead to a satisfying gaming experience. Trying to get this right is one of the main motivations for me (and others, I'm sure) to write (or hack) games. It's why we tinker.

Genre is the pattern you want to see emerge ...


Definition-time! If you search for a definition of "genre" you'll find it intermingled with "setting". Interchangeably so, even. That goes back to the original meaning of the word, which is "kind" or "sort". One could say genre is a collection of abstract terms accumulating to a specific pattern that is recognizable. You don't need all the pieces to recognize it, but enough to make it click.

We have certain expectations when consuming other media like movies or books. If a movie is labelled "romantic comedy", it's what we want to see and if someone were to die an explicit and grizzly death in that movie, it'd feel wrong. This can get a bit more complicated when genres get mixed and when done well, it'll enhance all genres equally (Wes Anderson movies are like that). Either way, genres follow very general patterns we know and recognize to a degree that allows us to communicate them. We also know how to play with them or what variations of them might look like. The setting of a story is part of that, of course.

If your game needs to evoke a certain genre, you basically need to dismantle those patterns and find ways to let your rules dissolve in patterns that resemble the genre you want to emulate. It also needs to create room for the players to enforce those patterns themselves (since they are participants and not merely spectators).

Covers are good examples for showing characters interacting with their environment [source]
Here is an example: in the dystopian game I'm working on is a rule that will get the character in trouble if their dice come up with an 9 and an 1, even if the roll is a success. The rule helps supporting the drama that comes with living under an oppressive force. It's a pattern people expect to encounter regularly and it emerges from the system (of the game, ha!).

It needs more than that, obviously, but establishing those rules from the core will help you getting there step by step. How easy or fast should player characters die? Is there something else at stake? Something that is valued more? Their status, maybe, or their sanity? How powerful are characters in the beginning and how powerful can they get? Or: what scope of development is needed?

All of that describes rules tat are formulated around the player interaction with their surroundings. How you answer the questions above will influence the gaming experience. If you take "genre" into consideration when doing so, you have a good chance that the game will evoke those tropes just by playing it. Players will recognize a genre by playing the game and should also have tools to evoke it themselves.

However, "setting" needs to be distinguished ...

As described above, you usually wouldn't need to distinguish setting and genre that hard when dealing with other media like books, movies or even computer games*. The simple reason for that is found in the fact, that no other medium involves all participants in the emerging narrative as much as role playing games do. Fueling a narrative is as much part of playing the game as exploring its contents is.

Another reason is that role playing games entirely resolve around communication and "theater of the mind", the rules being merely a tool to enforce certain outcomes in the narrative while introducing a certain amount of chance (actually the distinct element that makes it a medium to begin with, but that's neither here nor there). 

In that sense it is very useful to treat "setting" as something that is to be distinguished from "genre". Its emergence is not as much manipulated by the players as it is explored and interacted with. Setting is the stage and the requisites and the only participant able to manipulate that is the gamemaster**.

That is a big distinction, in my opinion. With their character players can do what they want, the restriction only being the social rules established at the table, the system that is used to play and the limitations of language (or the ability to use language ...). What they can't do is introduce elements to the setting that way. They can't just decide that they wield laser guns in a fantasy setting, for instance. That is something they could discover as a possibility and (learn to) use (like requisites).

Morrowind: a great example of a sandbox! [source]
The concept of seeing settings as "sandboxes with toys" is the purest form of that distinction, in my opinion. It still has the gamemaster as the one "building" the stage and requisites and it ideally still - which is more important in the argument I'm about to make - has the designer providing the tools for the "build".

So this is the biggest distinct element I can see here: from a designing-perspective, you need to create different mechanics for creating a world with all its moving parts and for interacting with it. The focus there is very different to creating the "game engine" itself (if connected).

Going full circle, and then some

This is something I realized when writing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs and Ø2\\‘3|| @2091: GMs need tools and those tools need to match the game just as much as the other rules do. It's just not (as much) about the narrative emerging during the game when it's played as it is about creating the world and the interactive elements it can represent mechanically***. There is a special difficulty to make that work well (is my impression so far).

However, that isn't all there is to it. Knowing all this might not only help a designer getting an impression how role playing games can be structured, it will also help gamemasters (those buying and using the rules, one should add) evaluating games they read or already know. The benefit being that it gives you one more (valid) criteria to judge if a game has what it needs to work at your specific table. Or (maybe a bit more important) what kind of work you are expected to add to it to make it work.

Anyway, I hope it does.

That's it for now. To close on a more personal note: I wish you all a productive and interesting and engaging and fulfilling year 2019. Stay awesome, keep it polite and game the hell out of it. I'll take care that the blog keeps it's (admittadly low) pulse and if I play my cards right, I might get a couple of things published this year as well (just not Lost Songs, but I hope to get it done conceptually this year, which would be huge as well). Fingers crossed!

Btw: know your tropes ... then break them [source]


* Computer games are still too limiting to allow free expression of the participant in the emerging narratives they offer. Interaction with the gaming world is way to restricted to allow an exchange as complex as role playing games do.

** There are, of course, rules that give players more narrative controll about those things. It is a meaningful variant, but still just a variant and most of the time the input created that way will adher to the genre everyone agreed upon, the only difference being that it is closer to the understanding of "genre" in other media.

*** Which is where it connects with the emerging narrative and helps forming it in play, although within the parameters and variables established in preparation or offered by the system as part of the rules (think Random Encounter Reaction Rules, for instance) and entirely handled by the gamemaster.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Oh DM Tools, Where Art Thou?

Every now and then I encounter some problem with a system and I start to wonder: when is a system complete? Because it sure ain't as soon as it's playable. At least not in my experience. So I thought, as those things often go, I write a post about why we need DM Tools and see what I end up with.

Playable versus Fully Realized

This is, if you want, my "all-in" at the beginning of the argument: I say that something like a "fully realized rpg" does indeed exist. What could I possibly mean by that, you might ask, and I would answer that I mean a game that has all the tools it needs to support play for an entire campaign. In other words you could buy that book without having a clue what a rpg is to begin with and it would give you the full picture.

Those games are not unheard of (if rare) and you could call me out on beating a dead horse (again), but one of those games would be the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. I might have talked about how great this game is before :) Anyway, if you haven't read my opinion on it (and want to) you could follow this link and come back afterwards.

Fully Realized in this context doesn't mean that there is no work to be done with the game or that it is by any means complete, it means that enough of the tools a game might need are present to gather an informed opinion about it, which is possible today because the hobby is now over 4 decades old and necessary to form the game to your liking. People wrote books about that, rpg-design had time to experiment and gather information about what's needed, what works and what doesn't and why. It's all there.

However, people tend to take the short cut and put games out there that work, but aren't complete. My litmus test for this when looking at games is the amount of DM Tools they offer. If they don't, it's not a complete game. Full stop.

Close, but no cigar ... [source]
Examples?

Yeah, of course. I've been on record for saying that I was disappointed with Sword & Sorcery White Box leaving the Encounter Reactions and Morale out of the rules. The ignorance regarding the importance (and brilliance) of those rules is astonishing, if not telling. They are (imo) the single, most important rules in any game of D&D (followed by the Random Encounter Tables), because they show that there are creatures not always willing to fight to the death or even that they would not fight to begin with but have reason to parley instead.

Even if you disregard the impact those two little rules have on the game itself (completely changing combat dynamics and even exploration tactics, for instance), it should be obvious that not every DM is aware of those dimensions of the game, especially those new to DMing. (I blame video games to some extent for that, but that's material for another post ...)

I'll give you a second example, just because we happen to play with it  right now: Castle Falkenstein. You might not know it, you might have heard of it. I always held CF in high regard for all the lovely details it offers for a steampunk setting, but I never got to explore the rules in full until just recently.

I love everything about the core mechanics. They are light and fast and fit the atmosphere and style of the game (using cards in a steampunk setting is a no-brainer, imo). The rules for magic are some of the best out there and the dueling rules are great fun. What the rules lack, however, is support rules for the DM and that is really bumming me out right now. It honestly takes the fun out of DMing, because it gives a DM nothing to play with.

To Challenge and Inspire

The system offers no challenge for the DM, that's a big part of it, but it also gives no indication how the setting and the world function beyond the literary examples it summons to illustrate the kind of stories it wants to tell. That's just bad design, because it assumes that literary examples translate 1:1 into a gaming experience.

Okay, Castle Falkenstein is a couple of years old and was exploring new ground back then and all that. Agreed. But shouldn't we know better by now? I've been reading this more and more lately: the DMs are players as well, they are just playing a different game. My argument in this is, that the rules for that (part of the) game need to be part of the rules and those rules are just as important as those for the players. Leaving them out of a game reduces a DM to playing referee of an advanced game of cops and robbers.

DM tools inform and form a game. They expand a DMs narrative range by challenging the necessarily narrow perception or scope a DM could muster of the stage the game is manifesting on. It helps a DM explore the gaming world by experiencing it with a designer's eyes through the mechanics the game offers. That's crucial for new DMs and for those willing to actually play a fully realized game instead of just bringing their own notion of how every game has to be played.

I know, I know, most "experienced" DMs out there are able to play/DM any game out there because of the games they already have played. They bring their own tools, so to say, and wing it. Considering the above, they are not wrong in doing so, because lots of games lack that kind of support and need you to bring something extra. However, they are missing out when ignoring those games that offer DM tools specifically designed for the game they are in.

You cannot ... [source]
 The lack of DM tools in Castle Falkenstein brought that point home for me fully, because I also have my own tools for the games I DM and I can "wing it" if I want to. However, for CF it would have meant to take out the dice to compensate for that lack and it just wouldn't fit with a game featuring cards as the core rules.

I'm basically forced to either come up with my own rules to use at the table or arbitrarily deciding what I think the game needs in any given moment. If I wanted to do the latter, I'd be better off writing a novel, as the amount of preparation needed to do it properly does not justify the time we play the game (although it's an interesting exercise, no doubt, but I just don't have the time). So I have to write my own rules for it. Which sucks as well, for some of the same reasons (time, research, etc.) and one more:

Designing DM Tools is hard, though ...

The main crux of the problem is that writing those rules is hard to begin with, doing so for a specific game is where the real challenge lies. You need to know the scope and impact on the core rules in all phases of the game, and the transition needs to work from one system to the other. The results need to match or at least conversion needs to be simple and fast (ideally). Easy example for this? Mass combat.

It's an art to write a set of rules for a completely different play-style in a way that seamlessly translates to the player-side of the core rules. The thousands and thousands of soldiers of an army just can't all have stats and levels and items as the players do. Maybe some of them do (important NPCs and whatnot), but never to the level of detail or depth the players do.

This is a well known problem, of course. Let a group of high level adventurers (players) meet another group of high level adventurers (NPC) and you will see some of the problems. Or a high level wizard. What spells does he have memorized? Did he use any of them already? The easy way out is to just create the NPC somewhat like the player character and use the player-side core rules to play him. But is that satisfying? Are there any better solutions to that? And what about mass combat? Or colossal creatures?

Do that without reducing it to a narrative ... [source]
It's hard to write those rules. I know, because that's what I'm facing right now for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (and for Castle Falkenstein, as if I had needed that kind of additional workload). Way harder than writing a core resolution system for the player side. Still necessary, though, and games that don't offer those rules shouldn't be considered "complete", imo. 

Final thoughts

Fully realized games offer DM tools that either address those problems for the DM or offer examples how to DIY problems when they arise in a campaign. I know it can be done. I argue it should be done. I close in saying that there should be a discussion about games that don't offer DM tools and the impact it has on a game or the implications it has for the DM. For one, it is actually unfair to leave DMs out there unsupported ... It'd be a start to at least educate new DMs in a way that they know what is needed and what to look for.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. And one for the brain pool: are there supplements out there offering just tools for the DM? Not advice (those are plenty), but an actual "game within the game" for DMs to drop into games that lack that kind of thing? Just wondering :)

Saturday, November 10, 2018

This is not goodbye (introducing Ø2\\‘3|| - A Dystopian RPG)

I read an interesting post the other day that we only blog to show expertise, but we publish to gain an audience. I always thought blogging was some sort of publishing (and still belief it to be true, especially for communities exploring new ideas), but this got me thinking.

With the recent shifts in the rpg blog-o-sphere (dusk of g+, lots of former bloggers either leaving for good or for publishing gaming content in more traditional venues), there is almost no audience left for more academic approaches on gaming or for show-casing the design processes behind writing games. Never change a running system, as they say. So the machine is running and too much is at stake for those earning a meager buck with what is published now to allow for open questioning of that content.

That's not a bad thing. Markets have a tendency to sort that kind of stuff out, if you let them. From what I have seen, the algorithmically controlled downgrading of visibility, targeted on those with smaller audiences is far more damaging to the hobby than a shift to a monetized market could ever be. The more obscure you are nowadays, the less likely it becomes that you gain an audience with it. Hence the statement in the beginning.

In a way, market places like One Book Shelf are more honest. You'd still have to fight for reviews and it is hard work all around, but on the other hand you don't have all the bad taste social media leaves with its politically fueled popularity contests or the meme machinery with its constant recycling of the past and simplistic messages.

So yes, it is time to move on, I think. Retreating from social media a bit had been appealing to me for some time now, but I always thought I'd leave too much behind. I have lots of projects that actually found a small audience that is looking forward to seeing shit happening ... I have no problem with trying to get all that done and out there. That hasn't changed at all.

What I won't keep doing, though, is talking at length about the process to get there or the insights I gained doing so. I will update this blog occasionally (once a month sounds about right at the moment). I'll also be lurking on g+ until that's done and you can find me on (don't-believe-the-bullshit) mewe for some more lurking. Feel free to engage and socialize and chat here or there. I'm always happy to talk games.

Instead of mingling on social media and writing walls of text here, I'll put some more effort into producing content. This has long been coming, I guess, and it has already begun: some of you might know my first DIY module, Monkey Business (which doesn't get enough - or any! - love out there) and there's definitely more where that came from (Rise of Robo-Hitler would be next and after that, The Goblin-Tribe Simulator).

I also got an opportunity to publish some science fiction and you can get a taste of that here and here, with another story being published as part of a great science fiction anthology very soon.

Lastly, there is the role playing games ...

Lost Songs of The Nibelungs

Lost Songs is on a good way to be complete soon-ish. I work on it constantly and play-testing should resume shortly. Over all, it's progress. Issues and design choices grew too complex to allow for musings on the blog, but I aim to announce some online play-testing early next year and I will keep you guys updated here on the blog.


Be67

We are currently testing this Labyrinth Lord Grindhouse expansion with the D&D RC, and testing is going well. Needs some writing, needs to be done before I can start with Robo-Hitler ... I expect some progress with this early 2019. I might throw around a beta-version of it on the social media circuit before publication.


The Grind

Not sure many of you remember The Grind. I didn't talk about it for some while now ... A card-based dark and brutal DungeonPunk RPG about heists in a world controlled by monsters. It never left my mind. It should be the next thing I do after the design on Lost Songs is done. It's dear to me and I want to see this happening, so expect some news on that in the next couple of years :)


Ø2\\‘3|| - A Dystopian RPG

This is the latest game I'm working on and it should be the next thing I publish. Here is the blurb from the introduction:
This is an attempt to update the classic dystopian and social science fiction of yore into a roleplaying game. There is a bit of everything popular in here (as the name of the game betrays). Half-life 2, 1984, Children of Men, Brave New World, Fallout, Black Mirror, you name it, it‘ll have a place in this game.

However, it is not just about the action, it‘s about exploring a world where the most hideous ideas humanity can come up with became reality in a near future. Nothing here is as much invented as it is satirically exaggerated. Some of it has already happened in one form or another.
It'll be my attempt at a rules-light narrative based roleplaying game and it will tackle some dangerous ideas to play around with (as the sticker says: mature readership implied). It's 80% done and I'm in talks with publishers about getting this out there. I will tease this soon, so stay tuned. Okay, here, have a teaser already:

Elements of this might change ...
Here's the gist of it: the setting is about a corrupt and fascist party called The Family, ruling what is left of a shattered Europe by subjecting all but the most politically conform citizens to puberty blockers in an attempt to control a population that is also under total state surveillance. Every extreme produces its opposite, and that's what the game is about.

So, stay around, folks!

Almost 8 years of blogging, with ups and downs and I think I managed to say a lot in the time. I'm not done yet, but I will change my online presence and concentrate on publishing, designing and writing fiction. The blog will stay as it is, for now, with updates every now and then.

I was thinking about offering a monthly/bi-monthly newsletter with all the interesting stuff I encounter in the wild out there, if something like this can find an audience. If you'd be interested in something like this, please leave a comment where I can find it and we can go from there.

I'll be around.

[source]