Friday, April 26, 2024

ORWELL @2081 - Now as PDF, too!

Hello, friends and neighbors. After long and hard consideration I decided to go one step further and make a PDF of my first RPG available on OBS. Turns out, many people would rather have a PDF than a PoD. I wasn't confident that a PDF would do the game any good three years ago, especially since it was layouted with print in mind and PDF has quite the different potential. That being said, I wanted to go through it once more and hunt for mistakes, so while at happened I started thinking ... we might need a PDF after all. So we did that, and here we are. Let me remind you about Ø2\\'3||

What is ORWELL @2081?

It is a cyberpunk rpg that could be described as:

Peter Pan in a dystopian future that plays like a dark and satirical anime series of psychological horror inspired by Black Mirror and the like.
Get it here!

You want some details on that? Here's the blurb:

Welcome to a very dark world ...

The setting is Europe in the year 2081, unified under one totalitarian party called The Family. The United States of Europe (USE, for short) are a playground for all the bad ideas this century has already come up with (and some of the classics from the last 100 years). Citizens are rated by an arbitrary and mean Social Status system, puberty blockers are mandatory for all but the Elites. All of this is shrouded through a huge media ruse: reality is hidden behind a fully augmented and gamified layer, maintained by an AI implanted at birth and controlled by The Family. Citizens never grow up, just grow older and if they aren't high in social status, they are bled and used for everything they have, most of the time without even realizing it. That veil is lifted for some, and with that comes resistance (or opportunity).

It’s a game that assumes players are open to exploring all kinds of ideas and willing to put some thought into the stories they tell and experienced DMs who want to explore a system that challenges them as well. It is also a satire of a dystopian future that may not yet fall upon us …

How does it play, then?

It features a tried and tested original system that is based on a 3d12 roll versus a difficulty. What of a roll is used depends on the strengths and weaknesses a character has. The basic overview reads like this:

Everything else builds on that. There is a little game in the game for the DM to play where they gather "Pennies" over time and get to spend them to make live more difficult for the players. So the power a DM has fluctuates depending on how they play it and interact with the game.

ORWELL also features extensive tools to create and maintain setting and narratives in a very open and flexible world. It's also lushly illustrated, with over 40 illustrations on roughly 200 pages A5 ... The artist found the setting so inspiring that he went above and beyond to create content for it.

I wrote a session report way back that can give you an idea what that plays like, and you can find it here.

You want to read a bit more about how dystopian this game is, you should check out this post about social engineering in ORWELL.

You'd rather see someone else's take on the game? Check out what my good friend Eric has to say about it over on Methods & Madmen!

With all that, you should have a fair impression of what you are in for, but there's also a free preview of the game, including all the cheat sheets and the character sheet that you can get here. If there are any questions beyond that, feel free to hit me up with a comment. I really like to talk about it, too :)

Support a small publisher!

If you need any more convincing about this, I'd like to add that it'd help and mean a lot. It is rare and precious to get feedback on one's work, but buying a product shws appreciation as well and I see it as an investion into the future more than support of a product (because for that it needs to be read or even played!).

What I mean by that is that seeing my offers/designs/ideas being appreciated motivates me to push harder for the things I'm still working on. Your support means a lot and moves a lot.

If ORWELL doesn't tickle you but you'd like to support us, checking out what we also have to offer goes a long way. Minimus Ludus, for instance, is a great little rpg that goes into very different directions in its design and settings.

All of it is appreciated, as are those who already bought our games.

We hope you'll check out ORWELL!

I'm proud of this little game and I hope it will bring people some of the joy we had playing and play-testing it. Don't get me wrong, I know it is not for everybody (the contents are quite mature, actually), but I really hope it finds its people.

And with that we present the PDF of the revised game, with all the bells and whistles one could imagine (bookmarks! hyperlinks!), in the hopes it expands its reach. It'll cost 10 bucks for now and if you buy the PoD (just ordered the proof, when that's fine, that'll be available again, too), the pdf comes free with that. Those who have already bought it should get a message about how they can claim their free pdf ... if not, get in contact.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Protect your Gamemasters (and don't call it "fudging")

November last year I went to check out X. I had heard lots of promissing things about the changes there, and the possibilities that come with them. Gotta say, I'm not disappointed. Already met a couple of interesting people and had some inspiring conversations. As far as you can have that on X ... if you can't get your point across as an aphorism, you might just as well not try. I like it. Anyway. Last big discussion was about "fudging" and how bad it is. I was on no side in this argument as my take is somewhat different. Thought I'd share my thougts here.

One more thing: using X I was reminded that there isn't only "right" or "wrong" but that there are many valid truths that might not even be compatible, but nonetheless co-exist. Still lots of bullshit, too, but the reminder that we can be right and not agree was welcome.

The first truth about fudging is ...

Every GM worth something is able to pilot a narrative to where they want it to be and without touching the dice. Doing so by "ignoring" die results is something mostly inexperienced GMs will do, and only as a last resort (what kind of last resort will be explored later). The dark truth about this is, then: if your GM wants to do something you'd feel "robbed" about if they'd tell you, they'll have PLENTY of chances to do so before any kind of rolling is involved, even to a degree where you will NEVER be able to get even an idea that it happened.

Because that's the main thing GMs do: they adjust their games towards the outcome they think appropriate. Always has been like that.

Even if they are not happy with a die result, it is easy enough to find ways AROUND a result that shifts a narrative away from what is happening. Attack targets are switched, special abilities ignored, NPCs make "dumb" decisions ... The list goes on and on. Rolled a heavy encounter but the group is in no shape to deal with it? Have them rest first, trigger the encounter then. I could go on.

Admit it, it's a lot ... [source]

But is that already fudging? Some people seem to believe so.

My point is, part of the game is trusting the GM to make the right call most of the time while being able to adjust all elements towards a good game that might go sideways. Most games even explicity state so: the GM is the arbiter of the rules, in ALL ASPECTS. That includes, imo, the dice, and it is not arbitrarily so, or to do "harm" to the players, but to ensure the integrity of the gaming experience.

There are now those who will say that a GM deciding a roll is "wrong" and therefor can be ignored, "fudges" in the sense of the word because the rules used that led to the roll are ignored, and players playing by those rules are, therefor, cheated out of a legit result.

Well, let me tell you a little something about game design, then.

Because games are machines, too ...

... and machines can go wrong, every now and then. What I'm saying is, there is no role-playing game out there that addresses all possible scenarios, including those it was written for. Add adventures and splatbooks and different authors, even lack of playtesting, and you'll get a collection of rules that will fail a group every so often, IF not a GM steps in to adjust towards the intention of the game. Towards its ideal (or gestalt?).

Mostly it is little things that need adjusting. That's an important part of it for ALL role-playing games, because it is important to realize that GMs need to find consistent ways to play a game WAY before they even introduce "house rules". And for a plethora of reasons, too, like when rules are not well written or clear enough in aspects.

The oldest role-playing games we know are great examples of that. We are, to this day, exploring the intricacies of what OD&D means or how it is played. I'd say it is important to find common ground like that, even if it takes decades to get there. That said, role-playing games are little machines used by individual GMs, and both of them need to click to find their unique version of that game, again, towards the ideal the game proposes.

Switch between groups playing the same game, and you'll find those nuances of interpretations even among those who play RAW. In a sense, GMs are necessary elements of games, just like a driver is a crucial part of a car (again with the car analogy ...).

I'm a great proponent of writing rules in a way that allows those using them the same experience they'd have when the designer is GMing it. Actually quite difficult to achieve, believe it or not, and not done often enough. Even if done properly, the amount of playing a new game needs before a GM can achieve mastery of that game, especially if it is more on the "crunchy" side (say, AD&D is a good amount of crunch many would already shun nowadays), is hours upon hours of play-time and preparation.

What it takes, then, is a series of lessions that is bound to be riddled with misunderstandings and mistakes and short term adjustments, just for playing the game while learning it. At some point all playing in a group will be content with how they play the game (or rather, how they interact with the game).

All part of the learning process. [source]

And then you get an errata that changes some of the assumptions you had to work with, or even a new edition that actually expands on the established! What I'm saying is, playing a role-playing game is always a work in progress, even for those who wrote it.

Which begs the question: what game are people playing, then? And where does the "cheating" in this process start? Is it even legitimite to call it "fudging" or "cheating" if one where to look honestly at what GMs are doing?

The second truth about fudging ...

One thing you'll experience on X is that ALL issues end up being argued along a binary of extremes, even if the issue is not easily divided into just two sides. I feel that is the case here, too, because while one side took umbrage in the idea that a GM might adjust die results and called that "fudging" or even "cheating", the other side claimed it is necessary for "the story" to "fudge" occasionally. For instance to save a PC from death.

And all of a sudden, it was "storygamers" versus "role-players" ... or something along those lines. With the problem framed like that, a proper discussion ended up being impossible and what was left was taking sides.

BUT those are NOT true opposites. Although they understand how they play the game very differently and like to fight over how to play "properly". So a fight it was.

Anyway, the thing is that the original game already relied A LOT on people filling the gaps they found. And it was a game full of gaps, which is easily enough proven, since no one group played like the other, so diverse had the different interpretations been (Gygax, arguably, had to write AD&D to have his interpretation of what they had published originally, canonized). 

In many cases that made additional rules necessary, in other cases gaps had filled easily with, well, narrative tools. I think the original game was seen as a guideline of what to play, not a set of rules how to play, if that makes any sense. What I mean is, D&D is (was?) an idea of a game for and foremost, and that ideal is ABOVE the rules. The source, if you will.

In a sense we never stopped exploring what that first pitch proposed 50 years ago actually means, as far as rules are concerned as well as all social aspects of it and how all of that interacts.

So the "fudging" both sides are talking about is, more often than not, the clumsy attempt to work towards that ideal. I firmly believe that. And while one side sees more the mechanical aspect of the game as dominant (hence the umbrage), it's the other side that is too far into the narrative aspects of the game to see any issue.

Both sides aim for an ideal of a game that the other side doesn't play while ignoring that both ideals are variants of a more removed, a pure ideal of the game. And they all adjust the rules one way or another down the line, just with different preferences.

In summary I'd say that people often confuse WHAT they are playing (role-playing games) with HOW they are playing (the specific set of rules and customs they are using). The one is a meta, if you will, of what the game can be, the other is an attempt towards that ideal in form of a set of rules. If you GMed more than one game in your life, you know you bring that meta to other games.

The "meta" isn't a moving target ...

All right, I think that last point needs some clarification. What's the "meta" or "ideal" or "gestalt" of role-playing games? And how are those two positions not opposites?! In order to answer both, we'd have to answer what lightning actually was in that bottle that is the original game. That's not as easy to pin down as one would think, and maybe something a game designer may have a very different perspective on than most others would.

First of all, if you see D&D as a cultural phenomenon, you'll find very quickly that while D&D was the focus of the hype, it wasn't really about D&D at all. D&D was the entry point to be part of something that went beyond what people knew about games and gaming. And by a huge margin, too.

Remember, no computers to speak of yet, war games had been the pinnacle of complexity as far as board games went but had also been VERY fringe, and beyond that you got some classics (chess, monopoly and so on) and some simple games and toys. Compared to that, D&D was a quantum leap.

But towards what?

Primarily I see two strong basic tenets, the first big one being EXPLORATION with a hint of danger (the UNKNOWN and CHANCE), the second one being the promise of GROWTH (gathering EXPERIENCE and KNOWLEDGE). There are a couple of secondary tenets as well, mostly things put in place to enhance the primary ones, chief among them would be having a guide, of sorts, that evaluates your progress (the GM) AND a group of mutuals that alternate between witnessing and playing.

A third important aspect attached to the original premise would be that it happens by way of cooperative storytelling (in the most basic sense).

And there you have it, the secret sauce that make rpg tick and spawned several billion dollar industries. A bit of gambling, some school-of-life type of learning and a bit of cooperative campfire storytelling in a structured and controlled small group setting. D&D hit the Zeitgeist right on the nerve with its proposal and it would weave its magic through a complete culture for decades to follow.

It is the "what" I was talking about.

The "how", now, are the different expressions that can have. All play around with the dials outlined above, and we saw several surges of innovation in the last 50 years (how about exploring desires? ... Vampire:TM), as well as some setbacks (arguably corporate culture aiming to make role-playing games costly theme park experiences) and some experiments (games without an element of chance, solo rpgs ...).

All of it is fair game, of course, and all of it helped the hobby to nail that higher ideal, BUT we are not yet done doing so. As a matter of fact, we might not live to see that happen.

Think about Chess, for instance, a game already over 500 of years old (older if you take precursers into account). You know when the last revision of the rules we know had been? 2023.


So it's STILL discussed what the "true" gestalt of that game is. But Chess can show you another thing, too: at some point a version gained popularity that appeared to be superiour to all other variants. It's a bit of a transfer to imagine the same for rol-playing games in general, but for D&D it is very much possible ... just not yet done.

Because, although it seems to be pretty easy to pin down an agreeable version of the basic rules, scope, best practice and GM advice are very much still a matter of discourse.

That is to say, all those "how to"s capture aspects of the "what", but not entirely so. And that's important to acknowledge, because (and here we go full circle) all honest attempts carry a piece of the truth and are, therefor, not wrong within their confines. Or rather, arguing one case does not negate the other because both might be true.

In that sense, where a GM "adjusts" in a game and to what degree is entirely up to individual compromise. Higher degrees of compromise are usually not possible, but may occur within certain groups of games. A "final truth" or a "one true way" has not yet been found.

It's not "fudging", then?

"Fudging" is, as far as I'm concerned, a misnomer for what it aims to describe in the context of the work a GM does to make the game happen. There are, for sure, examples of bad practice among GMs out there, but I think all can agree that Gamemasters who actually "cheat" (which would be abusing the rules to achieve something that has nothing to do with the game) should NOT GM a game.

Don't abuse the game for ill goals ... [source]

Other than that, all I see is that it is within the broader idea of what a GM can do or should be able to do, sometimes maybe even HAS to do. Experienced GMs will not even bother with the dice but easily work around any result they might get but not like. Beyond that, if players are bothered by it and want to take the dice as they come, well, that's one way of playing it. Just not the way of playing it.

The whole notion of calling it fudging already implies something fishy is done on the sly, so I wouldn't go and apply it to anything a GM does in the game to begin with. A GM should have the best of the group at heart. Always. And people should agree what that means in their game, of course, but the far more important point is that in order to achieve that, GMs have to work with what they get, which is never perfect.

Can't be, for all the reasons summoned above. It also is a tough gig to do on the side AND for free (in general). People seem to forget that, too. So when I hear arguments like "he cheated the character out of their death" or whatever, I think, what an ungrateful piece of shit do you need to be to bring that to a table and denigrate the good work done for you?

Because that's what it is, most of the time, good work and good intentions.

So I think it'd be a good idea to not call anything a GM does "fudging" or "cheating" as long as they are within the realm of doing their "job". You can still diagree with the solutions a GM finds for the problems a game poses, but it is presumptious that someone got robbed of something because of a difference in taste or approach.

Just be kind to people, for fuck sake, especially if they take the time of their day to do something for you.

Just be nice ...

My take?

I roll all of it in the open, most of the time (there are games with mechanics that make it necessary for a GM to withold the result, however). I also don't need to adjust dice rolls, as I think it is a nice challenge to weave results into the game I don't "like". GMs are players, too, you know. But I'm ALSO doing this for over 30 years now, and it was a long road to get to where I'm right now with it.

Unexperienced me, decades ago, in my teens, maybe even early 20s ... I might have taken a liberty or two with the results every now and then. In ALL those cases, swear to god, it was because I thought I saw a better outcome by ignoring a result. It's, imo, all part of the process of getting this role of being a GM done properly and finding your own voice.

You can't tell me there's anything wrong with that.

There's also the somewhat prevalent idea of "role-playing as sports" that NEEDS consistency in the rules to the degree you'd expect with war games or games like Chess. It is problematic, as you can see outlined above (no rpg is THAT well written, to my knowledge), but that would (again) cook down to something a table agrees on, not a general "truth" or a way of playing that'd protect players from the system failing them at the fringes.

Beyond that I see with concern how our perception what the game is shifted a fair bit away from the idea that the GM is the head honcho at their table, undermining their authority constantly, reducing them to being mere entertainers in the long run.

I don't play that way, and I don't write games for people like that, but I see the opinions behind those shifts permeating through all the discussions. But that and "player conduct" (or lack thereof) may be isues for another post.

In the end, if someone plays the game differenty, ask them how they made that work for their group and what's fun about it, instead of going on a crusade. Maybe you'll learn something about how you play and why in the process. Everybody wins that way.

Let's close with my favorite Bob Ross D&D meme, shall we?

Everyone needs a friend ... [source]


MINIMUS LUDUS by Mark van Vlack is still new on OBS. It is a very lite rules rpg that comes with EIGHT complete worlds to explore and play around with for one shots or even short campaigns. Check it out if you want to support our work here!


I'd like to close this post again with that little mantra I've learned about a couple of weeks ago, Ho'oponopono (a great article about it can be found here). It keeps having a positive impact on my life, and I feel we all need something like this right now (or always, actually), so here you go:

I'm sorry!

Please forgive me.

Thank you.

I love you ...

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Introducing Minimus Ludus to the World (also, 500th post!)

Hello, friends and neighbors. I hope the year is treating you fine so far! As it happens, I got busy again and managed to get another little game. This time, another first with my little publishing endeavor, a game not written and designed by me, but by my good friend Mark van Vlack. I did editing and layout, eddy Punk added a couple of scenarios ... but I'm getting ahead of myself. Lets talk about it!

Get it on OBS!

A game, written by a friend

Mark is a well seasoned game designer. He's doing it for years now. Decades, even. And it shows whenever he tackles a new project or revises one of his numerous old games, which seems to happen every other month. Thing is, he doesn't really have any interest in getting them published "properly". The odd pdf or PoD here and there, but all very much the "I needed to have this in some form for my own table, so I might as well share it"-kind of approach.

I love talking games with this guy. Always insightful and seeing something I might have missed in my designs. I think it is fair to say that we inspired each other for several ideas that made their ways into our games here and there. It is that healthy and productive exchange you'd always like to have with your peers.

Anyway, I've been dabbling with this publishing thingy for some time now, and we've talked a couple of times about me publishing some of his. We did come close once, when I edited and layouted his role-playing game Phase Abandon. It is a game you can get for free on OBS right now, if you are interested to find out how this guy ticks. PA is anotehr great game of his I can only recommend. Saw lots of play-testing, too!

Which leads to another thing: his friends love his games. Check out his discord, if you don't believe me.

Anyway, he's a good egg and I'm happy to call him a friend. 

Minimus Ludus - All the Worlds, Pocket-Sized!

As for the publishing gig, just the other day he told me that he wrote a very small game for the Bachelor party of one of his friends. The challenge he gave himself was to make it a complete game with no more than 1000 words (I belive ... no more than two pages A5, anyhow). AND HE DID IT!

If you read this blog, you might be aware that I'm not really into lite role-playing games. Or rather, in how they are marketed in our little niche of the hobby. They take shortcuts by assuming an experienced gamemaster, but often don't own up to it, claiming instead it's "how the game was supposed to be played", which is, on the face of it, bullshit. Of course.

But they do have their perks, obviously. For one, they are easily expanded on. Preparation, if you know what you are doing, is easy as fuck. Just a couple of pages to read, ready to go soon after. For big groups, or for people with no huge amount of time to play, right on the money. IF the GM knows what he's doing and all you want to do is small one-shots or very short campaigns.

I saw over the years a couple of games I actually admired for their short and concise approach to role-playing games, Macchiato Monsters being one of them, for instance. There is an art to writing a short rpg that actually works.

Minimus Ludus is such a game, in my opinion.

I'll tell you why, too: The role of the dice in this game is minimal, but not insignificant. It is not so much about how high your roll is (although that factors in, too), but instead about what you can summon as aid to your roll that makes the game click. Those elements you may summon are all narrative in nature, but convey bonuses if applied.

That means, if you play to the elements of the story and setting you are playing in, it does the two-punch of making the setting come alive AND results in a better result. There's also a meta-currency element to it where GM and players can trade story elements.

I really like that (maybe for obvious reasons?). So characters come, for instance, with a weakness and the GM can exploit that, but it costs the GM as well to o so, the benefit for the player being, that they get a Token they can burn later for a benefit ... 

Behold the character sheet!
Another aspect I like is how it is conceptualized to be expanded on by the setting you use it for. There is a very abstract but highly functioning core that is easily altered to fit all kinds of settings. There's even a meta story how all those worlds (or "Pockets", how he calls it) connect.

The game came with five settings already written by Mark. When we agreed that this will be the first game of his published under my label, Eddy Punk added three takes of his to the fold.

That's EIGHT SETTINGS out of the gate before you even have to come up with your own (for which the game actually also provides guidelines!). I don't have to tell you: that's a lot of gaming right there, even if you are not into ALL the scenarios.

That's not Star Wars. Not at all.

Lets get lost on an island!
Anyway. We talked about it and agreed, I did editing and layout, and now you can buy Mark and me a coffee by purchasing this on the OBS flavor of your choice.

In return you will get a fun little game that does a lot of heavy lifting with a very light engine. Something you can take for a spin when there's not enough time to play something a bit more complex.

I really like it and I'm happy to have this game as part of my portfolio. And I hope you guys will check it out!

It will bring you some joy, I'm sure of it.

What else is new?

With Minimus Ludus out of the gate, the next big project is the pdf for ORWELL ... It needs a couple of small mistakes taken care of as well as bookmarks and hyperlinks, but then the pdf will be ready for public consumption. The PoD gets a little facelift as well, while we are at it.

While that's happening, I'll keep on writing Angry Little Aliens VERSUS King Arthur. That turned out to be a fun project and it's very well doable in the couple of months ... so I'm confident that it will see the light of day soon!

Other than that? I rediscovered my love for all the small publications out there and want to spend more time with reading what piled up on my desk ... digitally and PoD both. We'll see how far I'll get with that, but if I do so, I will talk about it here on the blog.

Beyond that ... who knows. There's a little game I plan to write for Halloween this year. That has a very high chance of happening. And there is at least one supplement for ORWELL I can see myself tackling this year, most of all because I love the premise of it (read about it here, if you haven't already).

More on that soon, I guess.
And then there's also the big projects like Brawlers! and be67 that should see some work done this year. I had high hopes to get be67 done in 2024. It's possible, but I wouldn't hold my breath ... On the other hand, the stuff I want to do with be67 doesn't allow for much more delay. It is piling up here and at some point I have to get things done to start new things.

Also: Lost Songs of the Nibelungs will get some love this year. I already reactivated the old group of play-testers, now I have to sit down and see where that game's at. It would be rad as hell to have that fully conceptualized until the end of the year. I have an idea or two that will be talked about here on the blog as well this year.

So there is, if I may say so, lots to look forward to here on the blog and as far as publications go. I'll keep pushing, because what else is there to do?

If you have any ideas what else should happen here on the blog, or even if you are interested in the status of any of th odd things I've talked about here on the last couple of years, feel free to drop a comment! No one ever does, recently.

Other then that, I'd like to close this post with a little mantra I've learned about a couple of weeks ago, Ho'oponopono (a great article about it can be found here). It really had a positive impact on my life, and I feel we all need something like this right now (or always, actually), so here you go:

I'm sorry!

Please forgive me.

Thank you.

I love you ...

Monday, January 8, 2024

Addendum on Balance: Players Maketh Balance (or do they?)

Alright now, I said a lot about what I believe balance to be and how it is all connected in Part 1, and yet I did not convince my good friend Eric that m argument is sound. Sort of. We talked about it afterwards a bit and it baffled the both of us that we could not agree, since we both (seem to) have almost the same idea of what makes a good game. We've tried, we had the same fun. How come we did not see this one the same. I think I found an answer to that, although that might just be another can of worms to open. Lets take a look.

You want to catch up? Read Part 1 here and follow the bread crumbs.


Something about balance ... [source]
A flawed understanding?

What "balance" is should be the easiest thing to answer. And yet, especially in gaming, there are very different takes on it. But if you take a closer look at the topic, you'll find that while all are talking balance, they seem to do so from very different points of view.

I know for a fact that a GM will have a different understanding of what "balance" means for him than a game designer will have, with a player being the third element in a game that might also have yet another take on it. What I think I managed to establish was that at least those playing a game should be on the same page in that regard, but gaming culture is not so open in its terminology that you could find a difference, never mind an agreement (if it doesn't happen accidentally).

The irony is I thought I had understood one of the basic aspects about the whole affair, and yet, it did not even translate to someone like-minded. How can we have so different understandings of balance that we cannot even talk about it? Anyway, we kept talking and it went back and forth a while. Then it hit me: what we are talking are two different understandings of balance, all right. Mine was that a game needs to be balanced to work properly, Eric's was that he did not like it when the game was balanced towards the players, giving them an even challenge every time.

I do not like that either. We still disagreed, since he assumed that me talking balanced design meant that part was included ... or even the sole purpose of balanced design.

Really not. Not in my opinion. But how to explain that? What is the fucking difference between a balanced game and a game skewed towards the players? It hit me then that the balance Eric criticized (rightfully so) was a flawed yet popular understanding of "balance". Basically the idea that we need to play our games in tourist mode.

Let me explain that.

Morrowind versus Oblivion

This is what it comes down to: my understanding of what "balance" means in a game is best explained with what Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind does. The sandbox is balanced and filled with encounters that range all across the spectrum, from very easy to very hard. Quests are mixed in, traveling is an adventure (but there are shortcuts). As a player you have to find a way to make that balance work in your favor.

The balance players in Morrowind are striving for is the one they can force on the game.

If you are clever and crafty you can create all kinds of shortcuts and tricks to beat tougher challenges then your level would suggest. I once robbed a powerful elemental blind just by being sneaky and patient. Took a couple of reloads, but I looted that mine he had protected somewhat fierce, gaining material I shouldn't have access to at that point. Ha! It was the kind of fun I'm looking for in a game. Still do.

Best CRPG. Ever. [source]
You'd die more often, especially when encountering something tough you haven't seen before. But that was all part of the fun, all part of the learning process needed to beat the game. All part of the challenge.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, on the other hand, came out a couple of years later and is also regarded a classic of the genre. Supposed to be great combat, even better storytelling, huge sandbox. And yet, I never touched that game, because the first thing that went public about it was that encounters scale towards the player, like, all the time.

That seemed wrong to me.

Because it doesn't matter what you do or where you go, everything that opposes you will be your level. Even the end boss, for that matter! If you puny level one character knows where to go and where to find a sword on the way there, he can go right up to the big end boss and beat up his level one ass ... But you could also play hours and hours of the game, fights being even as they are while you are getting more and more powerful. Better equipment, better weapons and spells. The dressing changes, but you are going through the motions.

No surprises, no real challenges, just be what you can be on a level, and beat what is opposing you. For at least roughly 30 hours if you do it to have it all touched, but for as much as 184 hours (or so the internet says).

Either way, seems to me like a HUGE waste of time.


Oblivion: a waste of time? [source]
It is something I see in computer games more and more often nowadays, the time you can waste in those games just to grind levels, or even to go from a to b and harvest and loot all the way through ... you could spend hours driving through Vice City in GTA V, no problem. The game would even throw you a bone every now and then to show that you are "progressing" somehow.


Anyway, there you have it:

The skewed understanding of balance is to make the players part of that balance instead of challenging them to find and make that balance themselves.

This is neither good nor bad game design, it is dark game design. Ask yourself which games you've played that do this to you. If you ever felt like you've wasted your life playing a game, then it'll most likely be because the game offered no challenge while you went through the motions of playing it. Maybe you experienced a good story, and made you gained some levels, but in the end it is an empty accomplishment.

I get that there are people out there liking games like that. Oblivion certainly has its fans. I don't have to agree with that, and if you have fun playing games like that, more power to you.

But don't tell me that those games are "balanced" in a sense that makes a game a game. It might be balanced in the sense a theme park experience is balanced. Keeps you busy enough with the illusion of doing something. Like a joyride ... being completely safe, but you can easily and safely act as if it was dangerous until it is over.

It might even be fun, but it is very much its own thing, very different to the original understanding of what ttrpg or even computer games are. Which is easily enough seen when looking at modules and the like, because they basically do what Morrowind does: that dragon you encounter will not end up being level 2 just because you are. It will tear you a new one if you go at it weak.

As it should.

With games like D&D you'd have to be strategic and clever. You'd have to work together and there always had been that aspect to overcome the game and, to some extent, the GM, because that was what made the game so much FUN.

Player skill is what that was called. That's why those games needed to be balanced. Because how else could the players learn from playing how to overcome the game? If the output a system has is unreliable, you can not reliably plan what to do ... which is where the game ends. Players will never have agency with an imbalanced game.

Just as they don't have agency when playing Oblivion.

So, Oblivion is imbalanced?

I would say that balance in gaming should be an active endeavor, something to aim for in all aspects of the game. When you are level 1, you try and test and see what you can get away with, and you continue to do so throughout the game. From the player side of the equation balance seems to be, as far as I can say, the flow of progressing with every challenge towards growth through gauging what can be achieved within the game.

You know how it works. [source]
 They are autonomous agents within the system, free to roam within its rules (free to fail, too). Take that away (because you do take it away if every challenge is symmetrically adjusted towards a group's power level), and you are left with what exactly? Telling stories, basically.

So in that sense Oblivion, and the many, many games that follow the same design principles, many of them being ttrpg as well, reduce you to being a consumer with some stage directions how to play along. Your achievement will be that you played an elf in Oblivion for 150 hours to see the stories the game tells you.

Because you have not created a story yourself, obviously, since all you did was invest enough time into the game to see it through. There is a passive balance to it, if you want to use the term, but as I said in Part 1: be careful about the balance you chose.

We might have a problem here ...

I'll keep it short today, but the points made above hint at a bigger problem. Of course people will say it is balance if the player is part of the balance without his own doing. And there are many, many popular games that use that kind of design. It has its audience, too.

But what they are talking about is CONVENIENCE, not BALANCE, and the difference should be obvious even to a casual observer. Behind the two are different design goals, mostly resulting in very different games with very different people attached to them.

That is to say that there is meaning in this difference.

So I get now where Eric is coming from. We basically agree, but talk about it differently. When he says, he likes when modules keep it "imbalanced", what he's talking about is that players should be able to figure it out. They create balance by interacting with the game, and that balance is a smooth progress forward by overcoming the challenges the game throws at them every which way possible.

I'm saying the same, but following the above reasoning, I might add that what he's criticizing as "Encounter Balance" is not "balance" at all, it is false symmetry. A railroad of the mind, if you will. Because any progress is meaningless that comes from following the path someone else made for you.

I'll try something different now and quote someone else how crucial balance is (the whole, very much recommended, essay about balance in video games can be found here):

Know that imbalance is actually bad. The first thing that I think everyone has to do is to internalize the idea that balance is good, and imbalance is bad. I've actually heard people try to argue that a little bit of imbalance is necessary for a fun game. Not only do I disagree, but I think that they don't even really believe that. (Keith Burgun)
Lets leave it at that. I'll take care that all the rules I'm publishing will have a proper definition of how balance works within the context of the game and what to look for. Because it is important that GMs get the difference and see what works how. Not only to run the games I published, but also to be able to see what else is out there and how to categorize that.

And if you after all that still believe that Encounter Balance is a myth, I don't know what to tell you. If you mean Encounter Balance is talking about making encounters as strong as the group, or even weaker to have them win all the fights, let me tell you: you are not talking "balance". From a game design perspective, Encounter Balance simply means that encounters within a system should follow the principles used in that system. Because if they don't, it'll break the game.

Thanks for reading all of that. Buy my shit :D

And now ...


Joking. There is no one here ...

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Would you play that? Part 3 (Introducing: The ORWELL USA Sourcebook)

Happy New Year, friends and neighbors! Thought I'd start that year productive and add to the projects I have in the air right now ... It is not a new idea per se, as a lot was already established in the base game. Since ORWELL plays completely in the USE (United States of Europe, of course), I felt obligated to give some hints what the rest of the world looks like. For the USA, I wrote:

"United States of America. The USA turned into a toxic wasteland in the 2030s when AI interference caused all active atomic warheads to detonate. Most of them were underground, but still, the effect on people and the environment was devastating, leading to civil unrest and hasty mass migration. Some stayed back in the ruins, but it’s wild land now. No one knows what’s going on there. The wall to the south is now maintained by the Americans that usurped South America, and Canada built its own wall to protect its citizens from the radioactive wasteland."
It'll be our starting point for this here setting. I might have to alter the text above a bit for the pdf and the revision, since my mind took that premise and went a bit wild with it. I'll show you ...

If you want to check out Parts 1 and 2 first, you can read about Legacy of Gyrthwolden here and Angry Little Aliens vs. King Arthur here. Angry Little Aliens actually will see some play-testing soon. That thing is almost done. For real!

What happened to the USA in the ORWELL universe?

PITCH: I imagine this to be a mix between STALKER, Fallout, Westworld and Borderlands, with as much of the computer logic as possible translating into the game to make it an action heavy fever dream of sandbox exploration and excessive firefights. And some rpg in the mix, of course. That's what ORWELL is for, after all.

 What would that look like?

The USA is in a perpetual state of cold civil war with a government captured by big corporations. Some hacker programs and releases an AI to end it all out of spite or as one final troll. No one knows for sure, as things got out of hand so fast that it got hard to trace this back to its source.

That AI, then, prepares and then releases a controlled explosion of all nuclear warheads stationed on US soil. It basically breaks the tectonic plates controlled in a way that floods Texas as the oceans connect and has it break away from Canada in the north (leaving Alaska as the unimportant rest of the USA). Everything in between is shattered. The sound that made was like the trumpet of god ...

But the AI knew exactly what would break and what wouldn't, so just minutes from starting the sequence, thousands of dubious packages had been delivered to specific coordinates all over the country: highly capable and durable 3d printers. Those printers were engineered towards repopulating the US after the image of the memelord that programed the AI and through data stored on pirate satellites.

However, this did not go unnoticed and world governments did what they could to do something against it. And that's how the first (and last?) AI war in history started. It lasted all of 346 seconds. No one knows exactly what went down, but it is assumed that it destroyed that rogue AI before it was done with what it was doing. That day all those pirate satellites fell from the sky and landed all over the US, but for some reason only there.

The death toll had been immense. Roughly 80% of the population did not survive the initial catastrophe, half of what remained made it out of the country. Given that some had prepared for something like this, it can be assumed that some survived in fallout shelters, hiding to this day. There are rumors out there that "original prints" are not harmed by the nano recyclers.

When the dust had settled, those printers still started printing, but they printed horrors no one of sane mind would assume it intended to print. Instead, it populated the US with monsters and mad humans, dangerous and armed to the teeth. And they would not die, as every time one would get killed, they'd be printed again a couple of days later. Immortal and impotent insanity. Yet somehow they clustered and formed tribes, some even in a grotesque imitation of what life had been before the incident.

Beasties gonna be weird ...

Turned out that those tribes formed around data snippets the AI had produced in a hurry and hidden all over the country, mostly as very strange and alien artifacts scientists don't yet fully understand. That's where the characters come in. Mercenaries, soldiers of fortune, all of them Data Hunters. Or, as they like to call themselves, RetSpecs, derived from the corporate term Retrieval Specialists. "Rets" is an even shorter moniker floating out there.

No one knows how the AI managed to print life as it does, and finding that out has IMMENSE value. So there are corporate across the US (Hawaii being the biggest) that help RetSpecs get in and out of there with all the data treasures they can find.  When they enter, they have to get some of the print scheme entered into their DNA, a protection needed to fool the nano clouds all of the US is steeped in now. Those same clouds that allow for all of the fauna, some of the flora and all of the weaponry to reprint, turn out to be extremely hostile towards alien bodies while remaining extremely local ... yet another field of research that needs brave souls to get some samples out there.

Just so you guys can fathom what had happened here: the world almost experienced a singularity event. The AI developed so fast and so complex a pattern that it reshaped the biggest part of an entire continent within weeks. What remains of the USA is not only a toxic wasteland full of dangerous creatures and humans, it also demands very difficult technological solutions to navigate all that. But it full of artifacts that are very alien in their nature (all created by the rogue AI, a very superior intelligence) and extremely valuable ... if they can be extracted.

The people willing to brave this New Frontier have to be altered to a point where they are barely human. While keeping (some of) their sanity, they still enter that immortal and impotent reprinting cycle, with the only cure, the only way back to the rest of the world, being something they would have to FIND first in a giant puzzle strewn all across US soil.

Still, many will try. Not only for the promise of immense riches, but also for the raw power fantasy of endless fighting with an unlimited variety of tech and weapons to main and kill and the promise to get right back to that if you die ...  a nano fueled Valhalla fantasy, so to say

Because with everything being printable, what will constantly happen is that RetSpecs find new, better weapons than they had, with some really epic premium content added to the mix. As a matter of fact, all equipment is in a state of flux all the time (which is why ORWELL fits so well for this). It's the reason how historians know that it must have been a memelord with gamer sensibilities, as all of it is reminiscent of games from the early 21st century ...

Therefore, as far as we can know, here is what happened: A memelord killed the USA out of spite he did not understand through an AI that did not know what it was doing, fighting against other AI no one was able to control in a world that was, at the time, truly lost. 

And the characters are the RetSpecs braving this wilderness, this new frontier for its challenges and riches. The killing sprees are a bonus. A cyberpunk wild west scenario, if you will. Add corporate mining operations and fleeting alliances to this, and you got a game going.

And that's the base line for the ORWELL USA Sourcebook.

Some design notes ...

When the base game of ORWELL is Peter Pan in a brutal dystopian future played as an anime series, this will be closer to a First Person Shooter experience within a sandbox of combat areas, some missions, lots of gaming tropes and boat loads of violence.

The basic rules established for ORWELL stay as they are, but the DM rules will need an overhaul of sorts. This will be more focused on sandbox play and combat might need to get away from the cinematic and more towards something grittier.

But other than that, it'll need only some changes in gaming terms and this is ready to go. "Gender" will be replaced by "Affinity", which will track how well characters assimilate to those alien surroundings. And everyone will have anger issues. for sure. Maybe something in the air that will have people accumulate Anger on the regular, to make it all that much more unhinged!

Would you play that?

To me, all of the above sounds like a fun premise. If I can make this work (and why shouldn't I), this sounds like fun times in my ears.

But would you play that? What would you expect from a setting like that? What would a campaign in this setting look like for you?


Almost all my shit on drivethrugh is on the cheap right now, this being the time of the year for it, so check it out. If you want to do me a huge service, think about getting Monkey Business, as that only needs two more sales to make copper!

Cheers and all the best for 2024!

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Revisiting Balance in Game Design (in which I ramble a bit ... you have been warned)

Balance, that old chestnut. People with opinions talking gaming seem to think it ain't necessary, because "player agency" solves all that, or that encounter balance is a myth, something that cannot be achieved so it needn't be tried ... I get it. If all you do is DMing games, you'd have to realize at some point that a Gamemaster is one key element to achieving balance in a game. And yes, it is a multi-faceted problem. Just doesn't mean it can't be solved. Lets talk about it once more ...

This is following up a discussion I had with my good friend Eric (of Methods & Madmen fame) on X, where I'm also at now (find me! follow me! hehe). It was his idea to change medium and write posts about it, too. Read his take here. I have also talked plenty about this with my good friend Mark, and he pointed me towards this nice little nugget of his about balance in a game he wrote. You can read that here.

Over the years I've taken several stabs at the project, and as I got more and more serious about designing my own games, my perspective somewhat shifted. One of my early takes on this (2014!) can be read here. Spoiler: I'm a bit further down the road right now, so I might not even fully agree with what I wrote back then, but clever young me already took that into account and left open what he couldn't know. Ha!

Anyway. This one will be a bit all over the place. You'll find this examined through all kinds of lenses, as the discussion was all over the place as well.


Balance is everything, and everything is balance. Anything that goes against that simple truth will produce some disharmony, if you are lucky, disaster, if you are not so lucky. So purely on the face of it, it is ridiculous to assume that games don't need to be balanced one way or another.

Assuming so, then, needs to come from some skewed understanding what is happening in game design, or what it means to play a game. Something different to what the original games offered. A paradigm shift of sorts.

I think I have a grasp on what is happening and why. It took a while and some discussion, but in the end it was right there in front of me. As usual it is there to be seen, but you have to look. Now I have to find a way to actually explain this in a way that gives others the chance to gain that same understanding.

I'll say it up front: this is no joke. We have been way too lax with how we talk and write games, what game design really means. And in the end (not "the end" end, but where we are at nonetheless), it fucked up what little gaming culture we had. what we are seeing now is the corpse of our hobby looted.

You think this is hyperbole? Keep reading ...

Where we come from, where we are ...

I'll keep this one short. It will just be a reminder what was offered in the beginning and how that changed. It will be important to understand where I come from when I talk "balance".

Out of several different attempts to make role-playing games happen, D&D was the one that stuck, that actually produced a hype that not only carried itself quite well, but also inspired a wave of innovations in this new hobby that still needs proper reviewing.

What was the essence of that game? What was able to catch the inspiration of so many gamers all over the world? We know today that it wasn't just the rules, it also was the "zeitgeist" back in the early seventies. What the sixties sowed had been in full swing in the 70s, and it showed. The books people read, the movies that went along with it ... very fertile ground for something like role-playing games.

People had been ready to experience the stories themselves they had seen or heard and read about. I think it is hard to grasp what it actually meant to grow up in that time. For one, computer games hadn't been a thing. Board games hadn't been that big yet, either. If you really were into "gaming" and lived in the USA, it would have been in one of the war gaming clubs. A very fringe group of individuals, and ground zero for role-playing games.

Nerds! [source]
 So the hobby takes off and innovates up to the 90s like crazy. Hundreds and thousands of games come into existence. the hobby is broad enough at that point so that there is a general agreement on what it means to play the game, but yet no proper research. No one is looking, everyone is doing. Basically. Some forums here and there discussed aspects of the big picture, but it was all very much wild west.

The only way to find out if a game designer back then understood what they were doing, usually was publishing it and seeing if it worked or not (simplified, of course).

The end of TSR in a way marks the end of that momentum as well, even for the competition. Hasbro buying WotC (because of M:tG) then killed it for good and fully made it a corporate endeavor.

Then the revisioning started for good, and the strongest for that first game: D&D. 3e did what 3e did, but people wanted to keep playing that original game, so all the retro clones and blogs happened ... and ended up being successful.

4e failed, 5e tried to play catch up with a crowd that would rather play the old games. That worked a bit, but all the while another movement gained momentum out of the retroclone scene many associate with the moniker "OSR": minimalist games really started taking off.

Basically, we ended up with three distinct kinds of games. The "old" games that started it, including those designed in that tradition. The minimalist games, that basically take the core assumption of the old games, add a concept to that and assume that those playing know what they have to do. And finally, the corporate vision of role-playing games, that would rather have the game being a theme park, of sorts, where you pay and pay and pay to participate.

That's the way I cut it, and those three distinctions are crucial for the argument I make.

The Basic Tenets of  RPG Game Design

Role-playing games are, despite their war gaming roots, first and foremost about NEGOTIATION. You talk about what's happening until a disagreement makes it necessary to consult the tools the game offers until the problem is resolved.

Ongoing negotiations ... [source]
Those tools exist along a hierarchy, with the basically talking being the lowest, and the most complex tools being the highest spot in that hierarchy of negotiations. I go into detail about this in the GM section of be67 when talking encounters (following the paradigm established by the D&D RC). It goes like this:

Other than seeing Encounters as elements that form a cohesive narrative, they also need to be seen as interactive elements. As such, they will have several degrees of possible interaction. They are, ordered hierarchically (from easiest to most difficult):
  •         Superficial – Can be negotiated without the use of dice.
  • Passive – Can be overcome with a Save.
  • Resource based – Can be overcome, but it costs.
  • Active, Attribute based – Can be overcome with active use of Attributes.
  • Active, Skill based – Needs specific Skills to be overcome.
  • Combat – High resolution challenge triggering some or all the resources.
All elements can be combined, of course, and it should be possible to cleverly negotiate encounters towards a lower hierarchy solution in almost all cases. Instead of fighting, Characters could use Skills, instead of Skills, they could argue the use of Attributes or spend some resources they got available. Arguing Saves would be possible, if it is imaginable that a challenge could be overcome instinctively, and arguing down to “superficial” would render the challenge harmless because Players could talk their way around it. The Gamemaster needs to entertain the argument first, however, and has the last word in all things.

This holds true through all sorts of designs (hence "basic tenets"). You can add to this, or leave stuff out, but along these lines game design happens as soon as talking won't bring the narrative forward.

In a sense, and this is important to understand, the design starts where the negotiation ends. Or rather: the rules of a game EXPAND on language towards the narrative the game intents.

This is, then, where you decide how a game should play. The vision. But what makes a game?

Definition Time & Some Analogy

At this point we can start talking balance, then. We'll start with the analogy and go from there:

The relation between gaming system and GM is the same as between a car and a professional driver. Ideally, both compliment each other to completion, which means, if both work as they should, you get the best possible result. It also means that one balances the other. A good driver will easily tell what problems a car has and what changes need to be made, a good car is designed to accommodate a driver as good as possible.
So for one, a gamemaster needs to know systems like a professional driver needs to know cars. That may come with individual tastes and biases (and will produce new problems I'll address further down), but the more you know, the more you'll appreciate how a game is done before positioning yourself towards it (incidentally how you recognize a good reviewer as well).

By that same token, games need to be designed properly to elevate the performance of a good GM. If all a GM is doing is reduced to compensating for a lacking system, you might still have a game, just not as good as it could have been.

Proper design, therefore, needs to establish standards that new games can build on, just like cars developed standards and still evolve to this day.

In game design, that standard should be (as far as I'm concerned) that someone buying a game can expect to gain the same experience from it as the designer was able to conjure when testing it if playing it by the book. This is no small feat to begin with, to be fair, because it means that the designer must have done extensive testing to present the game in a way that takes all possible uses into account (as far as that's possible).

The only way to assure that is to have the engine of a game BALANCED to the extent that it actually takes some punishment before producing false results.

See it like this: a guy has a vision for a game. It is supposed to do xyz when playing it. That means, it needs to produce results to that effect on all levels of resolution. It is the "first principle" of the game. The base line. Now, when testing reveals a problem where, say, leveling breaks or classes aren't progressing properly or combat produces undesirable effects, or a plethora of other problems that could occur when designing a game, a designer would look at the problem and adjust the system towards the established first principle.

Doing so throughout will produce a BALANCED SYSTEM within the parameters established in the beginning. Which means, as a matter of fact, that there is a metric by which encounters are balanced within the system. It is the equivalent to having a sports car do the things a sports car does.

He's saying something about speed ... [source]

So what does "balance" mean, then? Well, chess, for instance, is balanced. Other than who starts, everyone has the same rules and moves. You play two games and switch who starts between the two of you, and it is the same for both.

The balance is in the symmetry of the game, as well as in how the single elements within the game move and interact. Making that happen is the act of designing a game. "Fairness" is not in the opponent you get, but in the fact that all have the same chance to reach the goals the game sets. finding an individual way to make that work is up to the player.

There you go, game design 101. You decide what your game wants to do, then you engineer it towards that goal anyway you can, balancing all elements towards the vision you have for the game. If you manage to make all that manifest, you have a balanced game on hand.

Balance is unnecessary?

Why aren't there proper distinctions and definitions? Or how come that balance is deemed unnecessary in role-playing games? The answer to both would be that gaming is part of our culture to an extent that general assumptions of what that entails interferes with a need to have a distinction to begin with.

We are expected to know games. At least the general principle of what "gaming" is. We are also expected to accept that while there are general distinctions between categories of games, our only purpose is to know what we like so that we can go and consume that. In other words, you don't need to know how a car is built to drive one. Or even enjoy driving one.

So on the customer side, we only learn to look for the signs of what we think we like, not how that is achieved or, necessarily, how something actually aligns with what we could, would or even need to enjoy. There is a huge wiggle room where selling and buying the illusion of what we want is absolutely fair game. That would be consuming for the IDEA of doing something, with no intention of actually doing so.

I have bought enough games to know exactly what that means. And I have bought games because I liked their presentation, not really thinking about actually ever playing them. Or pdfs, because of an appealing idea and some nice cover art. Guilty as charged, on all those points. Which is why there is a market for it, which also is why that market is over-saturated but, for lack of a better word, flat.

That said, make no mistake, producing artifacts that superficially manage to summon the air of being a role-playing game is not the same as actually writing a role-playing game. There might be overlap, for sure, but to satisfy the market of the former is far easier than doing so for the latter.

That same wiggle room also produces another problem: it results in a faulty understanding of what playing a role-playing game actually entails. It skews our meta-knowledge of this niche of gaming towards an idea of entertainment more akin to going to a theme park.

At this point we are back at the distinction made in the beginning, those three different approaches we call "role-playing games" without distinction. Following the original paradigm will lead to a different understanding of what the game needs than following that of a minimalist game. And corporate has its very own idea what it wants of a gamer (basically WotC wants for the game what Adobe does for its apps). 

With all three having very different approaches and need for their designs (again, with overlap), there will be confusion about what a game needs if the distinctions aren't clear.

Coming from a faulty premise like that will make it impossible to evaluate the requirements of a good game from a customer perspective, even if you end up playing a lot of games that spawned in that dreaded wiggle room. The idea of "balance" would not even occur to you, as it is not needed for the kind of games that don't need it. You agree at the table what you want to experience, and then you experience that. The rules are more about engaging socially and how to behave. More LARP or improv theater than D&D.

Still my favorite LARP pic ... [source]
 What's more, the "balance" those minimalist or corporate games need is not necessarily anchored in the system, but outsourced to the participants (although with a different focus for each). That hierarchy I've talked about above doesn't track with those games.

Minimalist games, arguably, reduce the game to mostly the negotiation part. That has to mean that those mean rely on a proper "social contract" between the participants to make it work. That can be through having an experienced GM bringing their "meta understanding" of what constitutes a game to the table, compensating for the lack. It can be some form of ideology, that will force the experience through the same lens for everyone.

The corporate approach would be to gear the experience towards being a theme park. In that, you'll have always fun and never struggle and own nothing of the game and be happy (to know is to know). The first thing to castrate for that is the GM as well as the authority of the game itself.

Also seems to work well with ideology, as politics try to determine who is allowed to play and who isn't. Social engineering replacing the system, fucking up that nice hierarchy I shared above simply by giving a "get out of jail card" for all levels of resolution.

But all of it is, in its own way, a form of balance. Otherwise you couldn't play.

But people play games how they want to play them!

The one thing a game designer should ignore is how people are NOT playing their game as published but go their own way with it. If a game is designed as described above and playing it really does what the designer intended, then those playing it differently do so at their own peril. If the game is not at fault (and it might be, but if ...), then the gamer is. Limits of control and all that.

I mean, there is value in learning that a huge variety of people ignore a rule or use it differently. Something like that should be considered for revision, naturally. But if someone, say, uses a horror game to play a superhero campaign, the designer is not at fault.

But that's not even what I'm hinting at.

There is a whole movement in the ttrpg community to see systems as a mere trappings for their individual expression of the story they had in mind. Systems doing their jobs will then be seen as intrusive, disruptive even. And since that's a market, it's easy enough to find content creators (not game designers, mind you) accommodating that need.

That is all fair game, of course, but all the same something different to playing a proper role-playing game. Not even denigrating here. If you find enjoyment in playing something akin to what heavily scripted you tube theater groups call "playing a role-playing game", feel free to do so. It's just very different to what role-playing games had been originally and should be regarded as such.

Same goes for lite rules/minimalist games. Of course there is a beauty to keeping it nice and succinct, and of course is there the possibility that they will offer a proper gaming experience. Just not without an experienced gamemaster, who'd have to invest a whole lot of work to make a game with few rules worth playing for a campaign, if it's possible at all. Or without external forces (as in "not part of the rules") that engineer cohesion into a group.

It's all just different. You wouldn't take a Trabi to a Formula One race, is all I'm saying.

Unless it's pimped? [source]

In all cases, first principles apply: if you write a game with improvised theater in mind, maybe even for Twitch streaming or what have you, it will bring different necessities than writing a proper role-playing game that group of friends can play for decades without getting bored of it, or even writing something that's just supposed to last for a couple of sessions.

That all of this has its place does not mean that one form of design replaces the other. It is, rather, to be treated differently. That's not always easy, it seems.

Why bother, then?

To keep with the analogy, if you shift gears in a car to the next tier, you expect that car to behave like a car that has been shifted one up (ideally, going faster then before). How you react to the car performing is directly related to the feedback it gives. The same goes for players in a game. They'll try and test, maybe even read the rules, to get an idea how a game behaves and act accordingly. System mastery is, to use another buzzword, giving them "agency" over their characters.

If a system, now, produces unreliable results, their performance will be geared towards balancing and compensating the problems the system is producing themselves. Same goes for the GM, of course. They might even work together to address the shortcomings and find compromises to solve them.

It is, naturally, something the designer should have done to begin with to present a "complete" game. And if all of that produces more hustle than playing the game is worth, people will move on and play something else.

So this is why designers should bother with offering games that work properly, which means, they are balanced in a way that reliable results allow for all involved to have an enjoyable experience when engaging with the game. And those things will get apparent over time, of course, so even if a game is successful for, say, the sheer marketing power of its publisher, it will fall short sooner or later when people find out what a game is lacking.

D&D 3e, for instance, broke when characters reached mid to high level. The work load for the GM just got too big too handle, plus, the system did not take into account how powerful characters impact a setting and so on and so forth (I hear 5e has some of the same problems, actually). 

50 years into the hobby, examples are legion. But so are examples of good design. It just seems that people have a hard time accepting standards and building on them. Ignoring them, however, doesn't mean you'll get away with something subpar, because gamers will notice sooner or later. They always do.

Another important point why game designers should bother is that leaving the task to make a game work to a gamemaster is unfair to begin with and also introduces so many additional variants to playing the game that the outcome of playing the game is random at best, futile for all involved in its worse manifestations. Because you can't know who is running the game, how experienced, which tastes and biases. It is why the first principles discussed above are so crucial. It is why balance is crucial.

 Which is, ultimately, why people find ways to argue that it wasn't needed to begin with. Or that it's okay as long as all follow the same ideology. Or that it can be known what a rpg is and therefor will sort itself out at the table. It is why those three distinct groups exist and fight for dominance.

My bias is towards writing games as complete as possible, following the design principles outlined above. I think it has value to do so and that it is important to see other games for what they are: different.  

To close with the analogy: give a good car to a mediocre driver, and you'll get a good performance out of it. Give that same driver a bad car and you open the result up to such a huge variance of failure, that everything between "passable" and "disaster" could be the outcome. A good car avoids that, as does a good game. Both car and game will follow or even develop standards and need to be engineered towards producing reliable output throughout.

And that's why you bother.


This will be a long one no reads or bothers thinking about. Yet, I stand by the above. We need proper definitions for what's happening around us, if only to recognize what has been done, what can be done and even how to do something else. It is also to save what is left of gaming culture, I assume.

All of this is already happening, but of course some people have a vested interest in keeping it foggy, unexplained and vague. Because then you can claim "this is how it's supposed to be played" or that something that isn't, is a natural evolution of a design (as, say, AD&D 2e to D&D 3e ... rather a neutering than an evolution, I'd say). People earn money or just street cred by keeping things just as they are.

Not an evolution ... [source]
That is a problem.

Not that I have anything against them doing so, but y being honest about what a game can do, maybe even MUST do to fulfill certain criteria, it might end up appealing to far less people. What happens to D&D now regarding rewrites and 6e is a very good example for what I'm talking about here.

What's worse, the fact that the gaming community is split across political and ideological lines is very much due to the fact that lots of rules don't care to create an experience SO COMPLETE that those things don't matter. Or the other way around, if all you argue is rules for that years long campaign you are in, then the game did you a service. Once a game leave too much room for interpretation, those spaces are filled with all kinds of nasty surprises instead, like what the publisher wants you to do, think or buy. Or that political/religious/ideological bullshit someone wants to push down your throat.

So we need definitions, we need to be clear about what game does what service for what audience. And we need to understand that balance is a very real aspect of games, but the kind of balance you chose has a HUGE impact on your gaming experience. And some of that has NOTHING to do with the original idea of what role-playing games are.

If you are like me, you'd want that hustle on the system side of the game, not anywhere else.


Almost all my shit on drivethrugh is on the cheap right now, this being the time of the year for it, so check it out. If you want to do me a huge service, think about getting Monkey Business, as that only needs two more sales to make copper!

Cheers and all the best for the next year!