Binary Success and Failure in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

Many popular RPG systems measure success (or failure) as a simple binary. For example, by a strict reading of D&D 5e’s rules, either your character is successfully sneaky or they’re not: there’s no middle ground. There’s no benefit for being exceptionally stealthy, and there’s no real penalty for being exceptionally not-stealthy. Thus, there’re no degrees of success or failure. Every test is pass or fail.

This streamlines resolution of tests, and has the benefit of being fast and simple. But it also misses Continue reading

DIE, and other RPG development

I’ve been lucky to be part of several different people’s thoughts about RPGs in the past month.

At the beginning of April I was fortunate enough to playtest Kieron Gillen’s DIE RPG, which was Continue reading

Consent and Horror Gaming, Quick Thoughts

We, as people playing story-games and RPGs, often assume that our fellow players are on the same page as us. We assume that other players want the same things, have the same tolerances, fears, and interests, or at least don’t differ in ways which would surprise us. These assumptions are frequently wrong, to varying degrees. Worse, unless they’re examined these assumptions interfere with players building trust and giving informed consent.

Players’ trust, consent, and buy-in is important regardless of the game, but it’s critical in games dealing with uncomfortable material… like horror games. There’s a much larger conversation to be had around gaming and consent, but this piece will focus on consent in horror RPGs.

Quick note: when I say “players,” I include the storyteller. As the storyteller, you’re not only doing a bunch of work, you’re also participating in this story world that you’re creating with and for your fellow players—if people are pulling the game into territory you’re uncomfortable with or which you really don’t want to cover, that’s important too! Don’t sacrifice yourself for the sake of other players, or at least not any more than you want to.

Trust is a simple word and a complex subject. Too complex for me to cover in depth in one post. You can’t build consent without a modicum of trust between people involved; for consent to be meaningful, there must be trust that other people will respect the boundaries set and will act promptly and responsibly on feedback they receive. The depth of that trust governs how readily groups can achieve consent, and influences how willing people may be to experiment with their boundaries. One person may have varying levels of trust for different people or topics, and the only way to learn those levels is to ask and observe. So pay attention to those around you, ask for and give feedback freely and without judgement, validate reported discomfort, and resolve that discomfort to the preferences of the uncomfortable person.

Informed consent is another large subject, but at its simplest I’d call it agreement without coercion or surprises. I mention buy-in earlier because I think enthusiastic participation and shared investment is the obvious next step following informed consent; it’s important to have players’ consent, but you really want their buy-in as well. But without laying the groundwork with your players, you’ll only achieve consent and buy-in by luck; ideally, we want to get there by design.

What might that groundwork look like?

The first step is for someone (usually the storyteller) to offer or request a specific kind of game—for our purposes, we’ll assume that people want a horror game. There may be some back and forth here, until there’s a sufficient body of excited players to support a game.

The second step is when a storyteller should warn their players about what underlying kinds of discomfort are likely in the course of the story: a narrative version of “side effects may include,” where you might mention character death, fallible perceptions of reality, gaslighting, decaying sanity, things that go bump in the night, etc. Whatever is particular to your game. You (the storyteller) can also take suggestions from your players here! There’s an art to crafting that warning, given that many horror games revolve around the unknown: I strongly suggest that you touch on broad themes more than specific perils. The specific perils can come up in the next step.

Once you’ve warned folk about what underlying themes you may play with (and asked what themes they might like to add), ask what specific things they’d like to see in the game and what specific things they don’t want. Here the terminology of lines and veils is useful: lines are hard vetos against specific content showing up in a game, while veils are a request to fade-to-black around that content without excluding it entirely. There’s an excellent explanation of lines, veils, and some other safety mechanics here.

Double check to make sure that you’ve heard people’s requests, and that they’ve heard your underlying content warnings.

In the course of play, take breaks! Check in with people, preferably one on one, about how things are going for them and whether there’s anything that they’d like to update in terms of lines, veils, or other requests for the game. I suggest checking in one on one because it’s easy for people to unconsciously pressure others (or themselves) into not speaking up about discomfort. To quote from the link above, a good interaction might look like:

“Ouch!”

“Oops, sorry. Let’s fix that.”

You can also use those check-ins as a means of getting useful feedback on your storytelling, or on the character you’re playing. These are good opportunities to discuss bleed, or any other things that have come up for people through the course of the game. It’s also worthwhile asking the group as a whole to check-in, so long as you’re addressing people’s needs and concerns individually as well.

And remember that trust, consent, and buy-in are all things which can change! None of those established preferences are set in stone, and people’s needs may change. Use safety mechanics (some linked here) to make sure that people don’t feel that their consent has been abused, or their trust diminished. Stoplight check-in vocabulary (green = more of this please, yellow = this is on the edge don’t push further, red = NOPE) is valuable for making this process easier, and having something on the table that people can use during scenes without interrupting game is very helpful. That on-table tool could be an X-card, or several differently colored circles.

Just because you’re playing a horror game doesn’t mean that you should run roughshod over your fellow players. The experience of horror should be in the game and in response to the game, not because your friends were assholes to you in real life.

p.s. the earliest mention of Lines and Veils I could find while writing this today was here, in this thread from 2004.

Scope, Scale, & Stakes in Genres: Detective Noir

I wrote about Scope, Scale, and Stakes recently, but I didn’t give clear examples of how they shift during the course of a story. I’ll try to give a more concrete account of that here, with a focus on one particular kind of story or genre.

Let’s try the genre of detective noir. Continue reading

Setting Expectations for Rulings in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

Somehow, despite reading hundreds of thousands of words on how to run roleplaying games since the age of twelve, I don’t clearly remember any RPG book giving me this advice:

Explicitly set expectations for your group around how you, the storyteller, will adjudicate rolls, rulings, and mechanical resolutions.

It’s totally possible that I simply glossed over this advice when I did read it. But it’s important enough advice that I’m going to devote more words to it here.

Setting expectations explicitly is helpful because Continue reading

Milestones, XP Rewards, & Training Your Players, Longer Thoughts

MurderHoboRPG_flowchart

The flowchart of the “murder hobo.”

Game systems, role-playing game systems, are a set of constraints on cooperative imaginative play that are designed to facilitate making up stories together. The constraints they impose create boundaries around the kinds of stories that you can tell within those game systems. This doesn’t make “resistant play” impossible (using resistant play as one might use the term resistant reading), but any system will tend to make a particular kind of play or story experience easier to support than others.

I’ve discussed related thoughts previously, in the context of “flavor.”

But what about experience points, or character advancement?

What about the game’s systems for rewarding players?

Continue reading

Writing LARPs for Multiple Audiences, Quick Thoughts

I’ve already submitted the LARP I wrote about last week. Now I’m deep in finishing a second one in time for the deadline tomorrow.

While a more detailed report will have to wait, I can give you additional tidbits. And it just so happens that those tidbits play neatly into another topic: writing for multiple audiences.

The game I mentioned last week is about death and mourning, but I can’t be sure that every person who plays it will engage with it as such. Actually, I can be pretty certain that they won’t. Audiences aren’t monolithic, after all, and some of my players might not yet have experienced death as a personal thing. Even if they had, they might not recognize what I created as anything like their experience.

So I wrote a game that plays with all those themes I mentioned last week, and which has places for good fun outside of but adjacent to those themes—almost like two games running in parallel. My hope is that players who don’t feel the emotional resonance of connecting with and mourning the dead (or being mourned) will find reward in fighting and building relationships with the big scary monsters of the Land of Spirits.

In many ways, the game I wrote is reliant on the skills of my staff and players who start the game as monsters. They need to give the People, the folk traveling into the Land of Spirits, enough space to have their emotional scenes. But they also need to present a challenge to the players who are bored and spoiling for a fight. And I’ve made it clear that I want them to encourage the fighters to engage with them in status-and-respect interactions. The underlying idea is that the Player Characters aren’t the only ones who can be mourned; the mechanics I introduce around mourning and offering respect to the dead work for *everyone* in the game, including people who aren’t PCs. I want the monsters to reward the PCs who mourn them, even after fighting them, because I want the people who are distracted from dealing with mourning and connecting with the dead to be drawn back into the main themes of the game and be rewarded for interacting with them.

The warriors will mostly be self-selecting, so if there are people who want to fight they’ll have the chance. And if the PCs who fight monsters never mourn any of their foes, they’ll still have an opportunity for more fighting. Actually, the more they fight and don’t mourn, the more fighting they’ll get in the future. So while one group of players is connecting with and mourning the dead, getting their enjoyment from the more emotional content of the game, another group can have a totally different experience at the same time in the same place. I hope.

At present, my rules say that dead spirits who are bored can go to RE (our system’s personification of reincarnation). My plan is for bored spirits to come back as more monsters. I see an obvious failure mode here, if RE sends people who lack the requisite skills out as monsters. Game could rapidly devolve into butchery and loss if too-eager monsters murder all the PCs. But as long as RE knows the players well, I think we can avoid that.

With luck, maybe this will work!

Forbidden Spells & Summonings, Quick Thoughts

My family is waiting for me to run a game, so this will be short.

My brainworm of the day was wondering why wizards in D&D 5e have so few summoning spells. That’s morphed into thinking about what kinds of summon spells wizards would have.

Traditionally, at least in my brain, wizards have a long history of calling on powers they cannot control and meddling with things they do not understand. It’s part of why wizards have a bad rap in some places. It’s also part of why the ones that survive end up so powerful. Drinking from the firehose and all that.

In the 5e Player’s Handbook (and the other official 5e spell collections I’ve seen), wizards are able to safely summon elementals and a few spirits (Unseen Servant, etc). And if you think of the official 5e spell collections as the “mostly safe and authorized” spells, these limits make sense.

But there’s a model for unsafe summoning spells, via Contact Other Plane. So what if PC wizards researched their own forbidden spells, to let them summon dangerous entities without any guarantee of control? These summoning spells might take the shape of an encounter table, with one entry being the entity the PC was aiming for while the other entries are unknown to the PC.

If clerics can summon celestials, and druids can summon the fey, perhaps wizards dabble in the unsafe arts of everything else. If they manage to make bargains with the things they summon up, they might become warlocks. If they fail to contain the dangerous things they call on, they might become dead—along with most other people around them.

There’s probably some correlation between the level of the spell and the power of the creatures it could reliably control. A PC wizard might begin their spell research by learning about what to expect, with early missteps possibly leading to greater danger down the road.

Clearly, the more ambitious the wizard, the more dangerous the spell.

I’ll explore this more later. Right now, some eager adventurers are calling for me.

Duality and Thematic Tension in RPGs: Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts

I’ve recently been working on a swords & sorcery-inspired Apocalypse World (AW) hack, trying to create something which fits the themes present in Robert E Howard’s Conan stories, Steven Brust’s Taltos novels, and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. In doing this, I’ve had an interesting realization about the construction of AW and the games it has inspired: dualistic tension in the games’ principles drives the dramatic and thematic tension which fuels their best stories.

Continue reading

Exemplars & Eidolons: Post-Mortem

It turns out that Exemplars & Eidolons was almost exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. It also turns out that I failed to sufficiently anticipate the bottleneck that I would create by not printing out more materials for my players to use while making their characters. So much for “less than half an hour.”

To be fair, most of character creation was finished faster than that. The dice-rolling and number generating side of things, and the decisions that people had to make about equipment and such, were really quick. Choosing their gifts, with the limited information that I gave them, was really quick too.

What took time was copying information about their gifts onto their character sheets, and coming up with facts about their characters. The first of those has a pretty obvious solution; I can give out more pre-printed materials after people have chosen their gifts, instead of being the only person with access to the full text of the gift entries in the book. The second seems a little trickier.

The game suggests that players write three facts about their characters. As the text puts it in the one page cheat sheet, “One fact should be about their past life and how they obtained their skills. Another should be about the family or social ties they have, and the third should be about some special trait or personal quality.” It took a little convincing from me for them to say ridiculous and awesome things about themselves. I also had to tell them that these were intended to give them more hooks or ways to interface with the world, instead of being intended to shut them away from it.

Maybe it’s because first level characters in Exemplars & Eidolons don’t look like all that much on paper, but I don’t think they really believed how badass I was encouraging them to be. The truth is, if I were only looking at the numbers on the sheet without having read the rule book, I might think that most E&E characters were doomed to suffer ignominious deaths at the hand of a few goblins with pointy sticks. In point of fact, I think just about any E&E character would totally wreck those goblins, probably on their own… but it’s tough to embrace that when you look at your character and don’t *believe* it.

So how am I going to make that side of things go faster? To some extent there’s no way for me to rush the creativity of my players. If they can’t come up with anything they like, they can’t come up with anything they like. I’ve certainly had that problem today, getting 720 and 530 words into two different tries for a flash fiction piece and liking neither of them. But I think I should write three examples of different kinds of facts for each of the prompts and include them in the additional materials that I print up. I can also include my little reminders about how people should make their facts more badass than not, and how they should create further engagement with the world if at all possible. Maybe I’m deviating from the original intent, but I don’t want players to hobble themselves because they decided to make their fact about “some special trait” be ‘dies their hair green’ when other people are throwing around things like ‘walked barefoot through the Valley of Knives both ways, in the middle of winter.’

And, if all else fails, they can write their facts while we play. Heck, that might be the best possible option. If I prep some adventures right now so that I can start game the moment people have the relevant numbers, and start with the characters already undertaking some task, I’m pretty sure a bunch of improv trained LARP campers can come up with some personal character details.

Oh, yeah, the session was awesome. I’ll probably talk more about it later, but suffice to say that improvising and flying by the seat of your pants is really easy in this system. It’s great, and fighting spooky snake sorcerers in a dark and creepy space is scary.