What if horror games are actually driven by banality? Is Call of Cthulhu best when it’s mostly full of the everyday?Continue reading
Category Archives: GMing
Worldbuilding: leave room for later
Leave yourself room for later. If there’s anything I’ve learned from doing lots of worldbuilding—for my own linear fiction and for the collaborative fiction of RPGs—it’s that trying to fill every last nook and cranny of a setting is a daunting task. And actually filling up everything is choking, stifling. Don’t fill up everything. It leaves no room for the future, and it leaves no room for anyone else.Continue reading
Dogs in the Vineyard, moral conundrums, quick thoughts
Somehow, despite a decade of posts on this blog, I’ve never gone in-depth into Dogs in the Vineyard or what I love so much about it. There’s more to Dogs than I could easily cover in a single post: cooperative story-telling and turn-taking, cinematic descriptive and narrative tools, a conflict mechanic that encourages brinksmanship and escalation, a well-articulated method for understanding what’s at stake… all those elements are a delight.
But there’s another piece that Dogs explicitly encourages groups to home in on. That’s the experience of wrestling with moral conundrums, something many modern CRPGs both want—and struggle—to deliver. That’s what I’m focused on today.Continue reading
Majora’s Mask, Time, & Consequences, quick thoughts
I’m thinking about Majora’s Mask again.
One of my RPG groups is currently struggling to solve several time loops and their various disasters. I love time loops (see my thoughts on Palm Springs). But at the end of our last run some of my players asked: “Are we actually getting anywhere? Because I don’t want to keep doing this if we’re not making any progress.” And that showed me that I needed to open up a little more, because, well…Continue reading
5e is wrong about Charisma
Hot take: D&D 5e gets Charisma dead wrong. 5e only acknowledges a tiny slice of the greater whole: Charisma isn’t about being likable, it’s about being compelling. It’s about being a metaphysical Mack truck on a highway full of smart cars.Continue reading
Circles of Belief, Quick Thoughts
I first heard the phrase “circle of belief” as a young teen, and have found it to be a useful mental model ever since. I thought I’d written about it here before, and was wrong. While looking for other sourcing for this post I found a lot of Slayer lyrics and not much else, so… here goes.
Someone’s circle of belief governs what they see as plausible, something they can follow along with, versus what they see as implausible or alien. There’s a lot of overlap with genre expectations or something similar, but they’re not quite the same. The key is that everyone has a circle of belief for any given context. When I’m trying to shape someone’s circle of belief I’m not trying to alter their genre expectations writ large—just their specific assumptions for a given story or game.
Note: this is more or less how propaganda and political messaging works. Here, though, I’m going to focus on fun fiction and story games.
Expected and accepted elements exist inside the circle of belief—they do not require any additional suspension of disbelief from the audience. Working inside a circle of belief is relatively low effort. Inside the circle of belief, you don’t have to convince the audience to agree with you. You don’t risk alienating your audience by including an element that doesn’t fit. Breaking an established circle of belief, however, may push someone out of the story.
When reading a fantasy story, elements like dwarves and elves probably fit inside most people’s circle of belief, while giant killer robots probably don’t. Similarly, a sober spy novel has lots of room within most readers’ circles of belief for skullduggery and betrayal. But if that spy story suddenly featured a goblin going on air and declaring herself a prophet, that might break the audience’s circle of belief and create cognitive dissonance. That cognitive dissonance can lead to confusion and disenchantment. Breaking the circle of belief can break audience members’ emotional investment in a story or their suspension of disbelief, and a story which had been fun could become too bizarre to enjoy.
This isn’t to say that those examples above would be inherently bad stories. Each of those examples could exist and be done well. The audience’s circle of belief could be shaped to include them. But shaping that circle of belief requires specific work, and it takes more work the further the new circle of belief is from the audience’s existing circles of belief.
That work could involve carefully laying out clues and hints before some surprise reveal, a genre twist. Alternately, that work could require laying out the future story elements as early and blatantly as possible to prepare the audience for later. Tropes and foreshadowing, for example, offer more options for manipulating circles of belief—as does marketing copy. If I describe a story as “Harry Potter but ___,” the audience will probably assume they know large chunks of what to expect.
Each person’s expectations will be a little different, of course. Everyone has their own circles of belief.
In many ways, this laying-out-the-elements is what worldbuilding is about. Every little detail can build context for the larger story, and thereby shape the audience’s expectations. But it’s easiest to do this work at the very start of a story. That’s because, in general, the longer a given circle of belief remains static the more work you must do to change it.
In RPGs, and any time that you’re in a shared narrative space, it’s important to know what is inside and what is outside of your fellow players’ circles of belief. That could be for the structure of the game itself: I might assume that my character could die, or that the storyteller is my adversary, while someone else might assume that we’re playing a collaborative narrative game. It could also be for the fiction within the game: I presume that we’re playing a hard fantasy game, while the storyteller thinks this is a magical post-apocalypse full of the ruins of ancient civilizations. These assumptions aren’t all incompatible with each other, but you can probably see how they might cause trouble if unaddressed.
The simplest way to handle this is to talk about the story elements everyone wants to play with (or avoid) before you play. You can also check back in about these things, and see whether there are any pieces people want to add or remove after any given session. I recommend checking in every once in a while. You’re less likely to be unhappily surprised that way, and more likely to make stories that everyone finds fun.
D&D & Disease (in 5e)
There are a lot of topics that D&D isn’t ready-made to explore. As best as I can tell, disease (chronic or acute) is one of them.
This line of thought came up for me while talking with my sib about dangerous encounters in a weird fantasy / sci-fi / horror adventure campaign I’m running for some friends. It’s a roughly post-apocalyptic setting, based in The Hub, in which the apocalypse(s) in question took place a variable amount of time ago and in different fashions, depending on where the PCs explore. Some of the perils the PCs face include radiological disasters, and radioactive environments or threats.
My sib, naturally, asked what I’d done on the topic of cancer.Continue reading
Why do I get bored during dungeon crawls?
Dungeon crawls. Creeping step by step through a dangerous maze, never knowing whether the next monster is lurking in ambush just around the corner. The bubbling pit of anxiety and paranoia simmering in my guts, asking, “Are we being careful enough? Are we being too careful? Do we need to push forward faster now?”
Sounds exciting, right? An invigorating gamble, as the delvers push their luck to its limits. Or maybe it sounds like a challenging adventure full of both risk and reward.
Or maybe it sounds exhausting. Grueling. A long, undifferentiated grind of tension gradually giving way to player-fatigue as you weary of the prolonged stress and lethal stakes.
I’ve experienced all those things while playing dungeon crawls, often within the same game. And after talking with my sib about the experience, I have some better-structured observations to share. So, how can I make dungeon crawls more fun for myself? What parallels exist, what narrative structures can storytellers build on?
First up, let’s talk about stress.Continue reading
Finding a way into D&D 5e
My partner is curious about RPGs but didn’t reliably click with D&D when we played online over the first year of the pandemic. Some of this is no doubt an artifact of that group and its dynamics, and my partner only knowing one other player in that group. Some of it came from their struggles to find the sweet spot for playing their character and engaging with the story. We spoke about that a good deal.
But I think it was also due to D&D simply being… not simple. It’s not straightforward, or intuitive, or streamlined, or… any of that. My impression of 5e as an “easy” system is grounded in decades of playing RPGs, starting with 2nd ed. AD&D before I could reliably read or write. And while a different system wouldn’t have removed any of the hurdles posed by story, character, or group dynamics, I can’t help but wonder whether it would have made the other issues feel more approachable or less insurmountable.
There are plenty of other RPGs to play. The very narrative-focused systems which have grown from the indie RPG scene would offer games more focused on the character and story. Any number of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) systems would have given my partner a more mechanically streamlined introduction to gaming. Hell, I love Monsterhearts and would happily play that all the time, and my partner enjoyed playing that for a little while too (though that group fell apart due to COVID).
We could have gone with Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies, for the straightforward percentile-rated skill-based gameplay with no (or very few) special abilities. I even could have used an extremely simplified GURPS—presumably with plenty of help during character creation, because that system feels like it’s intended to train future CPAs, and navigating all the possibilities of GURPS is a headache in its own right. What I’m trying to say is, I have a laundry list of RPGs that I’ve played and run before. At last count, most of a decade ago, I’d run more than a dozen systems and played close to thirty… and a lot of them were easier to engage with than D&D. That isn’t necessarily true for every step of playing them, but many have a lower mandatory cognitive load for “effective” play. Unlike with D&D, you don’t always have to keep track of an ever-growing collection of powers and abilities with hyper-specific uses.
But none of those other games are D&D. And that’s the problem. In so many other contexts, in pop culture, with other groups, or just playing with me and my sibs, my partner knows they’re going to run into D&D. And they’re abundantly aware that, for that to be accessible to them in the future, they need to pick up the basics at some point.
Which brings me back to the issue at hand. What other game might I run for them first, to give them a better feel for RPGs before they try D&D again? How might I run D&D differently to better engage them, and to help them feel their way into familiarity with the system?
I have some ideas.
We can talk through what genres my partner is excited to play, and choose a system with mechanics which fit. We can try some solo-play, to give my partner experience with a system without the distraction of larger group dynamics. And we can try a couple different one-shots or brief stories, to let us more-quickly sample the many different flavors available. Just jumping in and trying different systems and genres is probably our best bet.
D&D 5e doesn’t work equally well for everything, I’m very aware. But hopefully we can find ways to play that my partner enjoys, and give them the background to feel comfortable with D&D even if it’s not their game of choice. Wish us luck.
Draws, Dangers, and One-Shots, quick thoughts
When I’m building my own one-shot scenarios, I focus particularly on draws and dangers.
Draws are anything that compel people to be somewhere, preferably of their own volition. I want my players, and their characters (the PCs), to *want* to be where they are. I write about this in Be Hungry, a post about making characters, but here I’m thinking of it from the storyteller’s perspective. I want players to feel engaged, for their characters to actively pursue things in the course of play. If they don’t want to be there (player or PC), they have few reasons to stay involved with anything in a scenario. It’s possible to trap characters in a situation they don’t want to be in, but that’s usually more stressful for players. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable that it’s a frequent trope of horror stories. More on that later.
Dangers are just that; a danger is anything that might threaten the well-being of a character, or which presents a potentially harmful obstacle between a character and what they desire. A danger’s potential harm could operate on any of several levels: physical peril, social or emotional threat, or jeopardizing other things a character values. The severity of the danger is critical, and needs to be calibrated against both the draws of the scenario and the other dangers present.
Dangers must be calibrated against each other because they shape how PCs react to the world around them. If a danger is sufficiently scary, PCs will do whatever they can to avoid it. This could include facing other dangers which seem less scary, or simply turning tail and fleeing.
Dangers must also be calibrated against the scenario’s draws, because those dangers may scare off PCs or cause them to despair. As a concrete example, if PCs seek a unique treasure but discover that it lies on the far side of a vast pit full of demons, they may decide that the treasure isn’t worth the trouble. If there’s a secret route to the treasure and the PCs don’t find it, the PCs will probably just shrug and move on, marking that treasure as something to come back for later. This is perfectly normal and fine in most games, and such juxtapositions of draws and dangers have their place in stories, but it’s not going to deliver a triumphant story experience in that game session.
“We came, we saw, we turned around and went home because demons are scary.” As a story, it’s a little anticlimactic. Keep in mind, because this post is focused on one-shots, I’m not as interested in foreshadowing large challenges for later sessions… which is where that anticlimactic story may have a larger role.
To tell a dramatic and triumphant story—a frequent goal of one-shot scenarios—PCs should engage with dangers, resolve them, and reach the draw they sought. Ideally those dangers are scary enough to unsettle the players and make players feel good about resolving or bypassing them, but not bad enough to convince the PCs to give up and go home. It’s a careful balancing act. And it’s a balancing act that you can build into the scenario from the very beginning, both by making sure that the draws pulling PCs in are sufficiently exciting, and by making sure that the dangers don’t seem that bad at the start.
Notice the “seem” in there. It’s entirely possible to reveal that dangers are worse than the PCs expected part way through a scenario. Revealing that the danger’s threat is worse than previously realized is a very traditional way of increasing the tension of any story. It’s possible to do poorly, or to wear out the trope by doing it too reliably, but when done well it’s delightful.
Finally, one quick note on how horror scenarios work with draws and dangers.
Horror stories, which I mentioned near the beginning when talking about trapping PCs, can be different. Some horror stories thrive on the PCs’ sense of helplessness, their feeling stuck with a danger that is too great for them to defeat unscathed, or to overcome without losing in the process. In these horror scenarios, overwhelming dangers lie between the PCs and whatever the scenario’s draw may be (usually escape, or resolving the danger without overwhelming sacrifice). Classic movie examples could include anything involving being trapped in a space with something hunting you: Alien, any number of serial killer movies, various murder-puzzle movies like the Saw series, etc.
This doesn’t describe all horror stories though, and the topic is big enough that I’m going to leave the rest of it for another time.