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
Tag Archives: RPGs
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
Collaborative ideas for Blades in the Dark
I’ve been wanting to play Blades in the Dark for a while. Despite having had the system for several years, I still haven’t played it. I’ve played a game inspired by its sci-fi hack, Scum & Villainy, but my friend running that game paid very little attention to the system’s rules despite using the rules as reference material. The game was fun. It didn’t really let me see how any of the things that make BitD distinct actually work when run as designed.
Now it looks like I may finally have a chance to play! One of my friends is putting a group of players together, people I enjoy playing with. I’m looking forward to it.
And, even as I’m looking forward to game, I’m thinking through all the ways the system looks most likely to break, or where it looks like the GM will be carrying the heaviest workload. That’s reflex at this point. The spot most likely to be lost in the shuffle, as best as I can tell, is the storyteller’s implementation of the faction system—probably followed by tracking debt and its effects.
So I’m coming up with ways to share the load.
For context, Blades in the Dark comes with a whole host of background material. I don’t think any of it is necessary for a fun game. All the supplied narrative fluff can absolutely be ignored, as long as you have some forces in play that replicate the pressures those pieces of fluff offer: corrupt cops, competing gangs, and bigger and more powerful gangs (and individuals) scuffling for power far beyond the PCs immediate grasp. Groups should be able to come up with their own versions of Duskvol without any trouble, and fill them with the characters and groups they want to see.
But alongside that pre-supplied narrative fluff, the game also has a whole system set up for how to track the relationships and power of the different groups in the setting. I think tracking those is extremely important. That’s how the game tracks that pressure I mentioned above.
Now, there’s no reason the storyteller couldn’t bullshit their way through all of that tracking. That would be pretty normal, in my book. But much as the rules of Traveller are designed to simulate a crew’s constant struggle to pay off their ship’s mortgage, impelled into ever more risky and (hopefully) profitable exploits to stay a few credits ahead of their operating costs and debt payments, I think BitD is designed to push the PCs into bold action at the risk of utter catastrophe.
I really want to see how that works. I really want the group I play with to try using those interlocking systems (with debt, faction favor & power, etc). I don’t want to lose that in the overwhelmed-GM shuffle.
This is where my ideas about sharing the load come in.
Apocalypse World had some very functional ways to play a two person game, where people would take turns running different Fronts and groups of NPCs for each other. I see no reason not to do something similar in BitD. Each player could handle the basic duties for tracking countdown clocks and behind-the-scenes action for a few of the different factions, and divvy up the responsibility for maintaining a living, vibrant, dangerous world instead of putting most of that on the storyteller.
The obvious sacrifice here is a lack of surprise around some NPC actions. And players would have to be willing to hand over the various factions’ agency to the GM, or else take a turn as the storyteller when their managed faction have center stage. But with a bit of conferring between players and the storyteller, I think it’s perfectly manageable (we’ll have a group of players that I trust to play well together).
I also think it’s worthwhile to encourage or require players to manage factions that their PC is not allied or friendly with. That reduces the temptation to use NPCs to treat their own PC favorably.
I’m curious about doing this in other systems too. I think it doesn’t work as well in games with more adversarial dynamics or hidden information. But there are always chances to offload work from the GM, and to give other players more time playing off each other and with the game’s world. Always a plus.
I really hope this game comes together and actually works out. If it does, I’m sure I’ll have more details to share here in some months. If this idea works, and if that plus having players track all our various debts and whatnot lets us dig into how the system-as-written forces more audacious play, I’ll be pretty happy. Honestly, I’ll be happy to just play some BitD.
Contracts, Art, and making World Seeds
My World Seed creation process has slowed down. The hard part isn’t the words, though.
The hard part is finding artists. Locations keep coming to me, but without art I’m reluctant to publish the Seeds. I know I have good written content, but the art really helps. It convinces me that I’m offering something more than my own words (the value of which I’m far too ready to dismiss).
Sorry, I was wrong about the hard part. The hard part is having a contract I’m willing to use with artists. I’m sure I can find artists via several different channels, if I reached out through those. I have a short list of places to put calls for art, after all. But I don’t want to reach out without a written contract.
I might be letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Unfortunately, from the horror stories I’ve heard I’m also confident that having a bad contract can and will come back to bite me.
My first two World Seeds have art made by people with whom I have some kind of personal relationship; either I know the artist myself, or they’re within my immediate circle. There’s some basis for mutual trust. There’s some history of collaboration with myself or with someone else I know.
Without that, I don’t want to move forward on a wing and a prayer. Is that a mistake? Maybe. It certainly feels like one. It feels like I’m sitting on my hands and doing nothing, even though I keep adding to my collection of location descriptions to use in the future. I’ve posted forty nine of those so far to Patreon, and have thirty one more finished first drafts waiting in the wings (eighty in total). I average a little over a new one every week, more or less.
I have a few leads on contracts and contract advice, and expect to receive those reference materials in the near future… but there isn’t a clear timeline for that beyond “soon.”
Maybe, then, the right choice is to put together art-free versions and sell them for less. At least if I do that I’ll be moving finished products out the door, things that will require a minimum of additional work to fill with art once I have a contract ready. Doing that would allow me to publish an art-free Seed within a couple weeks, and another one within a couple months.
That isn’t what I’d dreamed of for this project—I’d thought about selling art-free Seeds while first developing this project, but incorporating visual art was always the goal. Sadly, that’s not where I am right now. If I want to make visible progress, it’s time to change course and ship something while I wait for the contracts and visual art to catch up.
Expect to see those art-free versions come out soon. In the meantime, if you want to see the currently available World Seeds, check out my stuff on DriveThruRPG.com.
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.
Whimsy’s Throne is live on DriveThruRPG!
You can find the first two World Seeds here. If you read and enjoy these World Seeds, please leave a positive review. That would mean a lot to me.
My goal, as I said a little while back, is to continue producing these Seeds for the foreseeable future. If you’d like to see the process in action, learn about how I’ve repeatedly edited out half—or even two-thirds—of the words in a piece, or see the art as it moves from concept to completion, you can do that at Whimsy’s Throne.
There’s still more to do, of course. I want to find another artist to work with next—if you make art, and would be willing to make something like what you can see in those Seeds for $400, let me know. I also want to have more legible covers for the DriveThruRPG store, which will require some tinkering.
And I’m trying to figure out where in the World Seeds (and how) to add a reference to Ginny Di’s video about advice she struggled with as a novice GM. I want these World Seeds to be as accessible as possible, to engage people in as many ways as possible (hence having both art and words). And while I can’t address the audio-preferred crowd very well in my pdfs, I can share videos that fill that gap. And I think her video has a usefully different approach to a lot of the advice my World Seeds give or imply.
It’s not advice that veteran storytellers are likely to need, but these World Seeds are supposed to be accessible to storytellers of all skill levels (ideally without feeling pedantic and overbearing). And while you could (and likely would) reach her conclusion by reading lots of material from The Alexandrian (like this, or this), I think she does a good job of saying it fairly concisely… and in a way that some GMs might understand more readily. I don’t know whether I want to expand World Seeds into a broader “RPG education” tool, or whether I want to do that in some other format, but I keep finding tidbits to add because I want these World Seeds to be a complete package for people at any level of comfort and confidence with storytelling.
Next week I might miss a post, as I’ll be traveling. I’ll be back before too long though. You should see me here again the week after.
World Seeds, Whimsy’s Throne, DriveThruRPG
I’ve made a DriveThruRPG storefront for my World Seeds project (see Whimsy’s Throne for details). I’ll link to that after I’ve uploaded my first Seeds. I knew this step was coming, once I had another finished Seed ready for publication. And now I’m dealing with the intricacies of posting content on DriveThruRPG while trying to figure out how to optimize the PDFs I’ve made for general distribution. I don’t want to publish content that immediately breaks when a stranger tries to open it, after all.
Unfortunately for me, I also don’t want to optimize my published content such that the art turns fuzzy and indistinct. This might be an issue.
My next steps are to upload the two World Seeds I have thus far. I’m making one available for free, and one for cash. Then I need to find another artist I like working with. Meanwhile, I’ll keep chugging along: writing more rough location descriptions and expanding existing descriptions into full-fledged Seeds.
My goal with this project has always been to produce a bunch of these things. And I want them to have notably distinct art styles for each Seed, for the most part. If I can have different artists bringing distinct styles (or experimenting with styles that are new to them), that’s perfect. I’m happy to do repeat work with artists, of course—I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with the artists I’ve worked with so far. I look forward to working with them again—I just don’t want the Seeds to be tied to only one style. The more variations, the merrier.
My hope is that I can have a varied body of artwork and styles reminiscent of the huge variety that was present in early 90’s Magic: the Gathering art. That’s what I grew up with. And while some of it was bad, I loved the way I could find so many totally novel art styles in the same game. During the 00’s MtG homogenized their style significantly, allowing some variation between sets but building a unified “house style.” While I can see how that makes sense for a company managing such a large quantity of content (and a company concerned with consistency in its artistic brand), I feel like MtG lost something when they stopped having such significant variation in artistic style from one card to the next. The individuality and experimentation faded away.
Given that I’m trying to build a product that engages people on as many levels as I can, and which appeals to as broad a group as possible, I feel like changing up art from one Seed to the next is my best option. If someone hates one art style, maybe they’ll love a different one and pick up that Seed. The dream would be for people to love and use every World Seed, but I’ll absolutely settle for catching people’s eye with a few different options.
RPGs as tools, quick thoughts
RPGs are magical. They’re incredibly powerful tools for personal exploration, when used intentionally. And they’re some of the best fun I’ve found.
I’ve played many different characters, seeking many different things. I spent a long time playing characters who wanted to control things or be prepared for all eventualities—something I associate with the style of game I played as a kid, and with my fear of failure or character death (heck, even character misfortune). Those traits, and the struggle to optimize or avoid failure, took a long time to unlearn. I still feel their pull.
I suspect that Monsterhearts, with its suggestion that you “drive your character like a stolen car” helped me break out of this mold the most. But it took me a long while to carry that same delight and freedom, and embracing of consequences as part of the game and story, into my games in other systems. Now, years later, the majority of the characters I’m playing these days are closer to that carefree mode. I feel considerably lighter playing those games, and I feel lighter when I am able to bring some of that same openness to the rest of my life.
I appreciate how my awareness of this has shifted, how I’m better able to recognize my preoccupation with not-failing and not-suffering in games and elsewhere. And I appreciate how RPGs give me an opportunity to explore failure and suffering without actually being stuck in those things. That exploration has been therapeutic for me. Giving in to my characters’ heedless pursuit of fulfilling their desires and achieving their (often simple) goals—and accepting the many ways they end up stubbing their toes or bloodying their noses on the way—offers a profound release from the constant clenching struggle of seeking perfection and avoiding failure.
In many ways, this exploration has paralleled my personal struggles with perfectionism, control, and risk avoidance. My characters have served as a means of venturing outside my comfort zone, of exploring what other possibilities I have and what other modes are available for interacting with the world. My characters often take that exploration to the extreme, far beyond anything I’d want to engage with in real life, but they offer a safe place for experiencing what it’s like to live differently than I do. And they offer an avenue for both self-reflection and growth.
Of course, I play my characters for fun. Most of my characters aren’t designed with any of this in mind. And I don’t make my explorations at the expense of other players at the table, or without their engagement in the kinds of characters I play (my friends’ fun matters too). But with a bit of foresight, self-awareness, and reflection I’ve found RPGs to be right up there with meditation (perhaps like meditation’s active counterpart) as a means of uncovering and facing parts of myself, and growing myself in new directions.