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.
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?

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 :)



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 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]

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.


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.


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Violence in (RPG) Communities (not another post about killing orc babies)

This is decidedly not a political post. It is a post about why I despise violence in all its forms, why we (maybe) need tolerated and ritualized forms of violence nonetheless and why the oxymoron "fictional violence" can tell you right there how stupid it is to think that describing or visualizing violence somehow actually is violence. It is a lot for one post. It is probably a difficult one as well, but it is heart-felt and I think we all could benefit from talking about what is acceptable in a community and what is not. The short of it is:

If you use violence against others, you are the problem. If you promote violence against others, you are part of the problem. Do good instead.

The quotes I'll use in this post (in italics) are from the Tao Te Ching to illustrate that those thoughts aren't new. We can know this. Actually, we have to go as far as ignoring it if our own selfish needs dictate otherwise. This also is very relevant to our hobby, as it happens far too often lately that I see people promoting violence or using verbal violence to achieve their goals, even justifying it more or less eloquently. I believe this to be toxic behavior. People using violence should be ashamed and change their ways. Here is why.

What is violence?
Those who advice the ruler on the Way,
do not want the world subdued with weapons.
Definition time! We need to know what we're talking about here. I'd like to go with the definition provided by the WHO (the link leads to a page with some research on violence, for those inclined to look deeper into this):
The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.

The definition used by the World Health Organization associates intentionality with the committing of the act itself, irrespective of the outcome it produces. Excluded from the definition are unintentional incidents – such as most road traffic injuries and burns.

The inclusion of the word ‘‘power’’, in addition to the phrase ‘‘use of physical force’’, broadens the nature of a violent act and expands the conventional understanding of violence to include those acts that result from a power relationship, including threats and intimidation. The ‘‘use of power’’ also serves to include neglect or acts of omission, in addition to the more obvious violent acts of commission. Thus, ‘‘the use of physical force or power’’ should be understood to include neglect and all types of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as suicide and other self-abusive acts.
This is a lot to chew on already. Actually, I believe it covers all the bases. In the report this is quoted from, they go 380 pages into that topic. Here we'll just scratch the surface and only talk about those elements I deem interesting for what I think relevant (encouraging everyone to research as they desire and come to their own conclusions).

What that definition doesn't do is evaluating what violence does, what the consequences are and why, indeed, violence is something we need to get a grip on (the study does that, of course).

It also lacks the search for the origins of violence. But fear not, psychology has some answers there.

Agreeableness is a human trait ... and so is disagreeableness!
Those who praise victory relish manslaughter.
Those who relish manslaughter cannot reach their goals in the world.
"The science is clear on this one," as they say. It's the result of some really interesting statistic research that started in the 1920s and is still going on and is called The Big Five. It is a statistical taxonomy of personality traits using common language descriptors. Very well researched and very well worth the time you can sink into it, if you want to learn something about yourself (or others, actually), imo.

For this post we only need to talk about two aspects of this, though (and short, at that, but it is important for the whole picture):

(1) Having our nature defined like this, doesn't mean we will be able to actually live them. The traits might be in conflict with their (social) surroundings. Following the definition above, those conflicts are always some form of violence or another.

(2) In a sense, violence creates violence that way. Either you are very disagreeable and violence is the only tool you know and appreciate or violence is done to you because of one of your traits or you react to that abuse with more violence. It is a vicious circle like that.

Knowing this and realizing its full potential is the first step in understanding why people do what they do or who wants to do harm to others and why. As far as our communities are concerned, I'd like to point out that it is important to see that people are different and have different temperaments (believes, even) and go from there. A community should embrace the whole spectrum of it under the condition of moderated and fair discourse.

It is important to mention ritualized forms of violence in this context, I think. Although only tangentially (it's discussed further below). Since violence is very much a trait humans inherit, it is important for societies to implement ways to channel it. Martial Arts are the prime example here, as they embrace a philosophy in which discipline masters violence to a degree where it is no longer needed or even overcome. All forms of competition work that way. Laws work that way, come to think of it.

The point is, being potentially more aggressive than others, does not excuse acting violently towards others. Never. There are ways to learn restraint or let off steam in every civilization that is worth anything. People ignoring this because they get a kick out of it or because the end justifies the means or some such bullshit, just decided to be bad people.

It is also important to note that to the degree this can (will) exist unchecked in any society, it also tends to guise itself as taking the morale high ground. So this is another aspect how it relates to gaming communities (or as much as it relates to anything else, really).

People wanting to act violent will find ways to do so. The degree of excusing they need to do with it could be seen as an indicator how wrong their behavior actually is (or how healthy a community actually is). And yes, there still are societies out there where you don't need excuses at all. They are, however, in the minority. We should thank the gods for that.

Exchange without violence, that's what makes a community healthy and productive. To get there it needs acceptance, reflection and the option to change for the better.

Are there accepted forms of violence?
Those who defeat others are strong,
those who defeat themselves are mighty.
Here's what civilization and culture have come up with over the course of the last couple of thousand years: the state has the monopole on violence. It is basically the essence of what has been discussed here so far.  Let me point out the first, most obvious critique to this idea: what if the state is abusive and violent?

There is no easy answer to this, but there is a bail-out: it is an ideal and as such something a people should strife to reach. It doesn't give you any answers, though. Would violence be a means to overcome a violent state? Did any attempt in history ever result in anything but more violence in the long run? I'd say, no. I'd say, if everyone would just start with themselves, all would be for the better.

But I digress. Violent states it is right now. What can I say. A close look at history reveals that things really got better over time. Extreme poverty is declining, people become more and more aware of how important the environment is for our own survival ... The list goes on. If not for it's individuals, humanity as a collective might be on a good way.

However, as always, you have the mean or average to look at, and the extremes. And there definitely are harsh extremes in the margins, making their presence felt. Rape, torture, murder, all kinds of violence and abuse make headlines all the time. It's a challenge to address and face those in every community. The best way so far seems to be to have laws and authorities to enforce those laws.

Naturally, those authorities underly the same rules of having means and extremes. It is, as they say, the nature of the beast. Overall, however, you will find more evidence that authorities do an average to outstanding job than doing harm and although those systems will have drawbacks every now and then, they evolve over time, aiming for a better version.

So overall, it's definitely a good thing to have laws and authorities to enforce them. It's also a good thing to monitor, discuss and change the modalities under which they operate. There is always reason to optimize. Just imagine a world without any kind of "law and order". Better yet, research it. Happened a lot and it's always ugly. Really ugly.

For the rest? Well, society provides ways to compensate violet urges (both healthy and unhealthy, and to a changing degree from society to society). Some of it is ritualized, some of it institutionalized, some of it inherited or, say, a natural consequence of who we are.

The mix changes from region to region, from community to community, of course. However, as a constant you could say that western civilization as a whole made access to all kinds of collected knowledge in that regard very easy. All you need is access to the internet or a library and you can start researching to help yourself (or helping others). Most will even offer therapy if you recognize the problem and want to change it.

What is NOT violence?

What differentiates us naked monkeys from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to learn from abstract experiences. We can read a text or see a picture or a movie and we can emphasize. We can understand second hand feelings and ideally, it prepares us for the challenges we have to face in our own lives.

That is why stories and art have value. It's why they matter. They carry meaning and if we take the time to confront some unwelcome truths about life like that, there is no better way than the abstract and safe way fictional realms of all sorts offer. You will always be better for it.

Zen is one answer [source]
 Furthermore, having fun exploring those ideas (like you'd have when playing some FPS, for instance) is not the same as actually doing it. It's not even the same ballpark. Believe it, they try for decades now to pin that label on computer games and it just doesn't stick. There is no harm in playing games with fictional violence or reading or seeing fictional violence.

I've written at length about this just two months ago, so if you want to read more about my take on this aspect of the discussion, you can do so here.

As an aside (probably a whole point in its own right), the same goes for humor and comedy. I've heard just the other day a comedian say (I think it was Theo Von) that comedians are the "canaries in the coal mine" as far as the political climate of a society is concerned. If what they say (or draw or whatever form of expression they chose) is considered violence, a society is in deep shit. I believe this to be true.

Oppose violence, always
The forceful and violent will not die from natural causes.
Beware the people that find elaborate means to excuse violence. There are other, more civilized ways to solve problems and seeing a simple truth like that ignored should warn people that something is afoul.

It is difficult to distinguish the good from the bad "players" in a community and it is easy to fall for passionate ideological claims if they resonate with your fears well enough. It is tempting to use the shortcut and act aggressively to reach you goals as it is tempting to look away when others act that way. I know it. It's a fucking struggle.

But seriously, not trying to understand, not trying to be a better human being, is just as bad as using violence (in fact, neglect is a form of violence). All of it, the looking away, the calls to arms, the verbal abuse, all of it is doing harm to everyone and in the end, everyone loses. That's not what we should want in a community (or a society, for that matter).

Struggle. Be better. Educate yourselves. Help and understand each other. Seek dialogue before confrontation. And if you can stomach it, oppose violent behavior. However, the best way to oppose violent behavior is by acting good yourself and showing others how they can do the same.

You might think you don't have an impact like that, but you'd be wrong. Every little thing helps. A nice comment, a like or just resisting temptation and not engaging in a fight (digitally or otherwise). Do not applaud or condone violence ... Little things like that, done every day, will have a positive impact in your surroundings. It'll resonate and encourage others to do the same. If that's not worth struggling for, I don't know what is.

One last thing: if you find yourself to be a victim of abuse, you should always reach out for help, regardless if it is in the rpg community or elsewhere. That said, I'd like to encourage the idea that there is always a way to heal and overcome shit like that. You'll get stronger than you think if you get strong enough to have it never happening again.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

D&D RC Campaign Summerbreak Summary Part 2: The Art of Boredom

Hello, everyone! I'm still alive and I got lots of writing to do, just not for the blog. Have a great little home campaign cooking and people seem to enjoy it enough to put some more energy into it, I started writing some more fiction, which will get published through other outlets (if you want a taste, check out my little cyberpunk story here) and I still aim to publish a couple of projects I started the last couple of months ... it's been busy. Anyway, so much for the update. I this post I'll talk a bit more about our D&D campaign and share some of the world building we've been doing. Enjoy!

Here's Part 1, for those interested in the whole bit.

Where we left

I need to write this down or I'll forget it ... Alright, the characters arrived in Deverrin, a nice town in a nice valley with a nice apple festival going. They got involved in a heist of some very expensive apple cider, or at least everyone thinks they are involved and the party of adventurers becomes a party of interest for at least 3 factions involved.

In best noir-tradition, they go with the flow and see where they can benefit form the situation. First in line was a priestess of the Goddess of Boredom and after some unfortunate business about unpaid bills in a tavern, the characters are on their way to the temple for room and board (or should I say "bored" ...).

This is where we get back into the story.

The Temple of Boredom

The challenge here was to present the players with something that obviously bored their characters, but still was entertaining to behold. Not an easy task, beyond the obvious jokes that come to mind immediately: highly bureaucratic, boring architecture, boring people ... and yet, you'd have burned your way through that pretty fast and they came to stay, so it'll need a little bit more than that.

I started out lucky, as the Narrative Generator suggested that the characters encounter some rivals. Having the group encounter another adventuring group is something I do very rarely in my D&D games and this gave me a great little opportunity to change that. So as they enter the temple, looking forward to some free food and a bed, and they see a group of eccentric strangers that could only be adventurers: a pixie, a veteran, some shady looking guy and a halfling.

Obviously the Forum Romanum, but it'll serve as temple district ... [source]
The group's very own shady looking character sneaked in and heard that their jig was threatened (is that how you say it?): those guys offered their services for finding the missing bottle of Goldspritz and their offer was good. The players wouldn't have it. However, instead of confronting their competition, they "sleep-spelled" them (which totally should be a word ...).

It was a gamble, of course, as they had no idea how tough those NPCs were and plan B seemed to be of the bloody variant, with the thief hoping he got a surprise attack if the wizard failed ... Well knowing that if he failed, they wouldn't get out of this alive (at least it would get bloody).

Anyway, the spell dropped 3 of the four, leaving the Pixie awake and they managed to handle that one. Took a little bit of intimidation and pointing out that cutting some throats would be the easiest solution right now, and the competition was no more. They sure made an enemy that day, though.

Having their place secured, they claimed the offer they got. The next problem seemed to be that they couldn't agree how to pair for the rooms they got, so they had to share a room with some (very boring) strangers.

Here's the thing: there is beauty in boredom. If you are bored, nothing dangerous is happening, and that's a good thing. That's why the Goddess of Boredom has a strong following and people come from all over the place to experience true boredom at the temple. Mostly office types, probably. But there is nothing wrong with embracing a boring life. Or so they told the characters.

Of course they tested the limits of that by trying to disturb the divine boredom of the place. It's just that the reaction was never as spectacular as they thought it'd be. Hence, that first night in the temple was quite unspectacular.

Breakfast was when the characters realized that this place might not be healthy. They'd been led to a room without windows, with two rows of tables where the seating always faced a blank wall. The food was gray porridge. Nourishing, for sure, but not very appealing. To make things worse, they had a little machine in there that made a constant ticking sound, like you'd know from a loud clock.

It was too much for the characters and they'd have to make a save versus death rays to avoid the boredom affecting them (which two characters failed, of course). Still, a free meal it has been. They gathered some more information in the temple, then they went back into town to gather some more ...

Deverrin with details (or rather, that's what I use) [source]

Rumors and the Redcape Militia

Another rainy day in the city. But still, the festival was in full swing and apple-themed gimmicks and pastries where all over the place. The (fat) wizard and the (fat) cat woman where happy to explore a variety of apple extravaganzas, while the rest of the group headed to the next guard post.

The city guard is a militia called the "redcapes", obviously for their choice in clothing. From what the characters know, they are mainly financed by powerful political entities in the area and thus, let's say, a bit biased towards certain cash cows. The baron keeps out of town, mostly, so the city guard is who's having the say. And who controls them, controls what's happening.

Chief among those powerful is the Godmother of apple cider in town, Gertrude Oldinges. Now, guess who was target of that heist ... Right. So the city guard had a vested interest in solving that particular case.

In come the characters. It's a busy little guard station, right in the center of town. No obvious leaders, but the characters wanted to mingle first anyway. The barbarian offered an arm wrestling competition and those redcapes just hanging around happily accepted the challenge. Anything to get some entertainment, right?

So the barbarian fails, which is good for morale, then the pretty boy of the group (our very own Prince Charming) joins the fray and devastates the strongest guy the guard could offer. Now people started paying attention. The thief made some good winnings on the side (which he had to share, because people with axes persisted).

Our prince charming wished he looked like that, but it's close enough ... [source]
Having played the crowd like that, the group starts asking questions, especially asking who's in charge. Turns out, the guy in charge is called Irmin and he's quite the hero material, all muscles and charm.

He's open to exchange information, but wants the group to do him a favor first (again the narrative generator throwing a curve ball): his young cousin has fallen in with a bad crowd. A band of misfits that hang out in the slums that grew outside the walls of Deverrin. Irmin wants the group to go in there and get the boy back to his family. If they manage to do that, they get the information they want.

Meanwhile the cat and the wizard eat and drink their way through the festival and gather some more rumors while they are at it: something about an explosion in the north-east of town that seemed somehow drug related and there is some underground fighting somewhere in the sewers.

The group unites and head towards the residence where Irmin's aunt lives to gain some more knowledge on the boy.

A tragic story?

Irmin's extended family lives in the artisan quarter of town. Houses with several stories, where the business is on the ground level and the living quarters are above. Usually several generations lived in those houses, as well as the apprentices and the helps. The characters are met with suspicion first, but as soon as they explained that Irmin sent them and what their quest is, the family warms up to them and they are allowed inside.

The family seems to prepare for supper as the characters arrive. Women and children in the kitchen, the mother of the boy in trouble among them. She sends the rest of the family outside and tells the characters the story as far as she knows it. Her son, Tlaus, had a childhood sweetheart called Yvi. They'd do everything together, but it was a strange and silent girl most of the time and they'd soon find out why.

She was the daughter of a famous artisan living close by. Seemed to be a perfectly happy family, too, but something went on there that wasn't supposed to be public. A secret, until the day the family residence burned down and revealed some ugly truths. Or at least some rumors about went on when no one was looking.

Not many of the family survived that fire, but among the dead had been Yvi's father and the surviving family members where unanimous that Yvi had set that fire in a fit of rage about something her father did to her. Most of it was left to the imagination, but Yvi definitely went into hiding after the fire and was searched for as the culprit behind the fire.

Tlaus had secretly kept in touch with her, very much aware that it wouldn't find approval with his family to help the firestarter (the reasons didn't matter that much). It was a situation that had to escalate at some point, and it did. When his family found out that he'd helped Yvi, they tried to intervene and (of course) he ran away because of it.

Last thing they heard was that they started a gang and mugged unwary johns in the outskirts of town. Their main residence seemed to be (as far as the family knew) an establishment called "The Burning Kobold" They'd love to welcome Tlaus back to the family.

Meanwhile the cat made some friends aḿong the children living there and in the end the group got offered some stew in the kitchen. However, the had to be gone before supper started.

The weather had cleared up a bit when they headed towards the wooden shacks that grew like a tumor between Deverrin and the river Wolter. It was an impressive sight, mostly because of its height, and it looked like a proper labyrinth. However, there'd be enough freelancers at the entrances offering their services as guides into the filthy underbelly of town.

That's pretty close to what I described ... [source]
They threw a little boy some copper to get them there and then headed towards the Burning Kobold. What happened there, will be told in Part 3.

Still no fights ...

The group was very careful to avoid conflicts so far. That might be because they realized that all kinds of NPCs with varying power levels populate the area (as should obviously be the case in a D&D sandbox game, right?) or they wanted to avoid forcing their hand with the very brutal and unforgiving combat system we where testing for the game.

Hard to say, but they seemed to have fun nonetheless and that's all I need to know (I really wanted to test that combat system, though).

Still super happy with the Narrative Generator (the only part of Lost Songs that sees some testing right now, I'm afraid). It forces me to develop the narrative in directions I wouldn't have thought about. That's a good thing.

It also helps to imagine this to be an anime story. D&D is great for this kind of game (as I keep saying). All the tropes are either in there or easily implemented. Not really serious gaming, but lots of fun to play.

All the other house rules we agreed upon work as they should, although no character had been challenged really hard at that point. They still get xp for good roleplaying and ideas (as you'd get when playing the D&D RC), so people will level up eventually.

I know many people will tell you that you need to have some sort of mini-dungeon or similar challenge for a low level group to get them some treasure and monster xp, but I found it is very much worthwhile to take the time and built a strong narrative instead. I mean, who's to know, it's a sandbox game and anything goes. I sure enough gave them the hints for some proper dungeon crawling.

However, this is where the game went and it worked just as well, if not better.

Next time we'll learn how things went down with Tlaus and Yvi and what the guard had to tell about that heist. Stay tuned.