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!