Nov 1 2011

Context sharing

I won’t belabour the fact that I haven’t written here much, especially since in a way this post is about writing. I will say, though, that if you are looking for writing advice so that you can solve the NaNoWriMo conundrum then you might be better off using Scrivener (or whatever) in full screen mode and getting down to it. In general I mean.

I have been batting ideas around in my head for Soft Horizon lately, and I pretty much have to do that in my head (and in the skunkworks wiki) because I haven’t re-started playing it yet. That happens on Thursday, though, so I expect a surge of new material there and probably here. Anyway, the ideas that get batted around are sharply divided between mechanism and context. But this is a challenge because my preferred design (like Diaspora) avoids context as an explicit construction (like, say, a setting book or even a setting chapter) and instead delivers it through mechanism.

But how, then, to develop it? How to I establish what exactly the context is so that I can work on mechanisms that deliver it? In fact the problem is even more complex than that because I collaborate, so I need to deliver this vision to others. It might not be all that hard (for you maybe, though for me it is) to just hold this in my head as I work on mechanical elements, but this doesn’t help my collaborators much.

And I don’t want to write fiction because I’m not very good at it and I don’t want it in the final product and I don’t want to waste my time on something I’m bad at and won’t use. Hell, look at that sentence up there — it starts with “and”. And I over-use all kinds of sentence partitioning fragment justifiers like em-dashes and parentheses. I’m just not made for writing large chunks of fiction and, worse, I have a philosophical problem with tying a game to a complete work of fiction (which I’ve probably discussed before but if not I expect you to ask me about it so I can justify a good-natured tirade). See, look — there’s another set of parentheses! What’s next, a footnote?

Mind lies in the deep water and waits. A seaward trawler might see a surge or a flash, phosphorescent algae perhaps, and notice the lights surge and sparkle in patterns that coalesce and then disperse, and call it chance or exhaustion. An overwater airship passenger, in formal wear and equipped with a telescope, might see something fainter but more certain, given the high view. The long view. And sometimes the trawler doesn’t come home. Sometimes even an airship goes missing. And Mind becomes more and richer and closer to her purpose. Even now the sea breeds strange things that walk upon the water or swim in the air. And the land beckons.

The answer, maybe obviously, is to write micro fiction. This is the tiny snippets of fiction you see in most of our work, decorating chapter heads and endpapers and so on. It’s not more than a few paragraphs and it’s punchy and tries to be a little clever and very visual. It tries to encapsulate the setting and the tone in very few words. Where successful it implies a whole story but isn’t one.1 So right now I’m trying to figure out what the setting of Soft Horizon is by writing little bits of fiction. Vignettes, parts of scenes, a character sketch maybe, but never a story.

This is fun, of course. It’s fast and easy so I can bang one out when I’m bored and it will be pretty good. It will often derive from play, which is great, because then I get to steal ideas from others (and, better, ideas that come from the synergy of a bunch of others working together). Deriving it from play has the inconvenience (to my ego, mostly) that my personal vision becomes diluted with the awesome ideas of others. I have learned to be okay with that.

So over the next little while there will be an increasing amount of micro fiction going into the skunkworks as I try to outline the shape of the Soft Horizon setting for us all. As I get into actual playtesting again, this will accelerate. There may even be actual sketches though (crystal ball) the game will likely have an artist who is not me for a change. That’s another exciting bit that I will talk about another time.


  1. You may already have noticed that my ideas all run in parallel — the fiction implies a story but isn’t one just as the mechanisms imply a setting but aren’t one. Yes, I want you to do all the work so that when you play, it’s yours. Even the fiction. The meta-story behind a short paragraph about plugging a sucking chest wound with paper towels is yours, not mine.

Jul 18 2011

Skinning Hollowpoint

Sometime in the next short while we’ll release a style sheet for Hollowpoint skins.

Hollowpoint is crazy skinnable. So, per discussion in my last entry here, it seems like a good move for us to make some and for fans to make some and for us to organize them and distribute them and play the hell out of them. The game already pretty clearly states all of the elements that would go into a skin, but not really in one coherent location. Rather it’s scattered around the book as a bunch of implications. In retrospect, this is work that would have been very cool to have done for the book rather than after the fact, but, well, we didn’t think of it.

On the other hand, it nicely addresses the “free stuff” issue — gives us lots of things to put in the download section beside the toe tags.

The core elements of a Hollowpoint skin seem to be:

A concept. Some setting idea that has a team acting towards a mission and being super-competent and bad. As might be obvious already, I happen to think that the best way to deliver this is with a paragraph or two of fiction. A vignette or less, showing what these people are like.

The Agency: what is the organization that gives these people their missions?

The Charge: who or what does it protect?

The Era: when does this take place?

Character skills: are there special skills outside the usual set? Are some of the usual ones missing?

Character traits: how will these be generated? There are three options in the book but there could be others as well.

This is enough for a skin, but it would probably be a good idea to show at least one Mission outline as well, both to set the tone by example and to satisfy the desire for canned adventures. Canned adventures are a strange concept to me but the Hollowpoint framework for missions puts them in a context I can get my head around (they aren’t really fight-by-fight plans but rather lists of objectives and images and people) and they are in demand. People demand them. I mean seriously, people flat out insist that we make them.

One thing we can’t provide in the style sheet is the typefaces used in Hollowpoint. These are all commercial typefaces with no free equivalents and so I can’t give them away. But then, the type should really match the context and not the game, and the skin that gets written will define the context, really. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (a certainly do-able skin for Hollowpoint) demands a rather different presentation than Black Loagoon does.

All this is just thinking out loud at the moment. When we publish the style sheet it will include whatever our plans are — will we wrangle them together and publish? Will we host them all somewhere easy to get to? Will we have a contest for the best ones? Hell, I don’t know.

But I’m thinking about it. And thanks to Jim for making that happen.


May 30 2011

My trouble with fiction

I have a problem. It’s not your problem. What I describe below as the effects of my problem are not necessarily your effects. But whenever I find that I think a certain way, I wonder if I am not a category (since it seems less likely that I am absolutely alone, as the internet constantly proves for sexual preferences). So I’m going to talk about my problem with the hope that it might explain larger scale behaviour in some gaming subcultures.

I don’t like fantasy gaming much. It’s okay for an evening or two, but it has a…lightness, I guess, that I don’t like in large doses. I don’t mind refereeing it, though. In fact I like doing that a whole lot. I love science-fiction and modern gaming.

When I was fifteen, the obvious reason for this was that I was vastly smarter than all other gamers and that I had deeper and more meaningful interests that were explored in science-fiction, rather than the escapist and romantic interests present in fantasy settings. Obviously this argument has holes in it, and these became apparent when I went to college and discovered that I wasn’t all that smart.1 In fact I regularly encountered people I respected brain-wise who loved fantasy.

More recently I discovered that I don’t like fiction all that much. I like it as a critical pursuit — I like thinking about it, disassembling it, tracing references, researching the author’s background and intentions. But I don’t much like just submerging myself in most fiction. There are exceptions. Some are laudable and many are embarrassing. I can’t explain my preferences. But certainly one thing I don’t like at all is fantasy fiction. And I have a very low tolerance for bad fiction. Or even weak fiction. Except for those aforementioned embarrassing bits.

Recently I thought about both of these things, wondering if there was a connection. I think there is.

When I game, I don’t read the fiction. If it’s a fantasy game, I skip the setting sections or if I read them, it’s a chore. Actually, even if it’s an sf game I probably fall asleep in the background material. I really don’t give a shit. And when I realized that was my default behaviour, I got a big fat clue about my preferences.

If I don’t read the fiction for an sf game, I can still count on a ground-state reality that is part of the setting. That means that I can, as a character, plan and plot in detail using knowledge I have with the certainty that anything derived from facts is also a fact. If my character has access to the information underpinning the fabrication of gunpowder, I can find a way to make gunpowder. This is essential to my fun: I like to construct solutions that are outside the framework of the combat system or even the skill system. I like to manipulate my knowledge of reality to create solutions. When this works, the dice rarely hit the table to solve a problem.2

Unfortunately, I can’t count on this ground-state in fantasy. Any given piece of the puzzle might be arbitrarily barred to me — it could be (and often is) that gunpowder “just doesn’t work” in the game setting. But I need to know the setting in detail (and, worse, in similar detail to my knowledge of the real world) in order to have my kind of fun. But the setting information is boring the hell out of me. Hence, no fun.

This suggests a counter-example that illuminates the situation for me even more: I do like fantasy with strong player authority over the setting. I really enjoy myself if there is a mechanism for me to state facts. Maybe that’s why I still break out Nine Princes in Amber occasionally, despite (apparently) hating fantasy fiction: the arbitrary gunpowder logic problem in the setting (gunpowder doesn’t work in Amber) is subverted by what amounts to a player authority mechanism in the fiction (I’m still talking about the novels here–it’s just that Corwin has a kind of player authority): Corwin finds (creates, declares as fact) a material through his arbitrary magical powers that behaves exactly like gunpowder when it’s in Amber. That’s my kind of solution.

And it’s a solution that has a narrative that aligns with my interests: even though I (player) didn’t go through the logic of making gunpowder, I (the character) did as part of my story explaining my declaration (there is another magical way to make gunpowder that I am clever enough to know about). Being able to declare truths in the context of the fiction is as powerful for my fun as being able to rely on truths I already know. This also explains why I’m not averse to running fantasy games at all — as referee I have that declarative power practically by definition.

This probably underscores another problem and, in a way, my aversion to fantasy is a solution to it: when I do start to understand the setting material for a fantasy game and yet am denied declarative authority within the setting, I will hunt edge cases. Places where the story breaks down under logic and yields unintended super-powers. And these places must exist because, logically, fantasy is necessarily broken: the fiction is a limited fabric (it must be — reality is so very much bigger) that cannot hold its shape beyond the intended focus of attention. This makes me a dick at most tables, and I don’t like being that guy.

So I don’t go there any more.


  1. This is not strictly true. I discovered in college that I was pretty smart but also that I was surrounded by peers as well as superiors — I was certainly no longer unique or even close to it. Bear in mind I was (and probably still am) measuring others’ intellect by my own experience with people. So no intellect was actually being measured.
  2. I am certain that many a referee who has tried to manage my behaviour has vowed never to let me near their table again. This is part of why I describe my preference as a problem.

Apr 25 2011


It’s been a while, I know. And what’s worse is that, in the interim, I haven’t been doing any gaming, so I don’t really have any gaming thoughts to deliver. What I have been doing is moving from Vancouver to Toronto. So now I’m in Toronto in a tiny condo with my girl, my three cats, and my dog. And that’s it — the furniture isn’t due for a few weeks and frankly I don’t know where it’s going to go when it gets here.

My first task, now that I have internet functionality at home and have got into the workplace where I have a regular and comfortable workstation, is of course to establish gamer contact and start thinking about design, publishing, and the business again. So this will ramble as I cover my thoughts on these (somewhat) diverse topics.


I already said I haven’t thought much about design. But I have thought a little and over the next couple of weeks I’ll be working on Diamondback, a supplement for Diaspora. This came out of a discussion on about Diaspora and mecha. Now, I don’t actually know much about mecha as a genre (nothing, really), but I did play a lot of Mechwarrior and so I get what’s cool about giant walking robots. I spent a few thousand dollars on little plastic ones. As is typical with me, however, I never paid a moment’s notice to the backstory for it. Yeah, in video games I always click click click right through the dialogue until there’s a decision to be made. I play World of Warcraft, for example, but I have no clue about the “lore”, as they call it.

That of course means that I will be writing my own. Or rather, consistent with VSCA house style, the rules will imply a setting and I can hope it will at least not be (literally, anyway) derivative: having no contact with existing material there is little chance I will copy it deliberately. Of course, this sort of material is usually drenched in archetypes, so there are even odds that I’ll closely parallel something between most and all of the existing genre content.


This move has seriously disrupted work on Hollowpoint, and that means we will probably miss the deadline for ENnie submissions. I’m okay with that, though I doubt Toph is, because I don’t really want to compete with Dresden Files RPG as well as Pathfinder and whatever new Eclipse Phase material is out there this year kicking ass. Oh, I’m sure there’s something even more terrifying to compete with next year, but it’s not really a decision at this point so I am prepared to declare those grapes extremely sour.

I’d love to say there’s something else on the horizon (nudge nudge) but there’s not at the moment and the geographically fractured design team makes that situation even more chaotic than it would otherwise be. Still, I anticipate a great deal of creativity over the next few months and, if the VSCA can get a few Skype sessions together, maybe as much or even more work than we would normally get done.


The first quarter of 2011 has been kind to us. Diaspora sales remain high — our Poisson curve has so far has refused to turn over as predicted and instead we continue to make pretty consistent sales numbers — very slightly lower than last quarter, basically, which was good. In another post at another time I’ll talk in more detail, but certainly I expect to be chatting with Fred Hicks soon enough about another print run. This makes me really happy — to see Diaspora behave as what they call an “evergreen” title is a joy. Lots of games start out popular, but the real feature of a great game is whether people continue to play it. Certainly we did (and hopefully will again) over many years both before and after publication. And I suspect that steady sales is an indication that there is plenty of play, budding off new owners.

Well, I hope that’s what’s happening anyway.


Apr 7 2011

Everything might not be a potential RPG

I had the good fortune to talk with some very smart people in the game design community last night. Cool people, too. Fun, witty, social — you know, all those good things that make human interaction more fun than television. At one point, one of these people (might have been Cam Banks or Rob Donoghue, but don’t make me sign anything to that effect), during a conversation about role-playing game licenses, talked about how much fun Grand Theft Auto was and whether that could be captured.

This gets into the same place that fiction licenses do for me, though perhaps moreso. These things have fundamentally different design goals and so adapting an existing work to a role-playing game is a big deal. Selecting the right material is a way to lighten the load, but also recognizing when you will need to make changes so deep that there is no longer an interesting relationship between the products.

Different design goals

There are three media interesting to me in this conversation: fiction (written, televisual, cinematic1), video games, and role-playing games. Here are what I see as the core differences in design goals between these, and this will be the place we need to do the most work to translate from one to another.


All of these things have protagonists. In fiction, however, the protagonist is typically an individual, and this is a critical problem to resolve when translating to an RPG, because in an RPG the protagonist is usually a team — you have five people at a table and they all want to feel like they are part of the developing narrative in a meaningful way. There is some fiction that is not about individual protagonists, in which a team operates as a team (rather than as a series of stories about individuals), but it’s rare. Leverage springs to mind, and it consequently strikes me as a great choice for a very close translation.

Video games are far more often about individual protagonists. In Grand Theft Auto, it sounds like (and I haven’t played it, so this is hearsay and assumption, but I have played other video games) the closest you get to team play is when, online, you invite another player character into your car and you run someone over together. Cool, but closer to sidekick than co-protagonist. And certainly not very teamy. I’ll ignore the obvious close relatives in the video game world — those which already are role-playing games to some extent or another — as trivial examples for translation.

So somehow this needs to be resolved. GTA the RPG becomes “about” either a team of bad guys blowing shit up in a city very like a real major city, or it becomes a serial tale of individuals (a solution I dislike intensely, but that’s personal and we’ll see why later I think). The team solution is a good one, but we need to recognize that it’s a new beast now. We have drifted very far afield in this one step.2

Non-systemic rewards

Fiction has no systemic rewards because it’s non-interactive. All your rewards are non-systemic.

Video games have rich systemic rewards (character progression, high scores, achievements, plot advancement).

Role-playing games have blurry but rich systemic rewards that are similar to video games.

When talking about a GTA RPG, however, conversation rapidly turned to how fun the sandbox component is — how much fun it is to just blow shit up. This morning while riding the train, I thought a lot about why that’s fun, and came to the conclusion that it’s an important non-systemic reward that is intrinsic to video games (some live and die by it) and not present in role-playing games. It’s also the meat and gristle on the bones of all fiction: visual and auditory kazow.

In a GTA-like game 3 you are jazzed about blowing the top off the Chrysler building with a rocket launcher because it looks and sounds awesome. You also get to tell your friends how awesome it was and they can repeat it. This reward is unavailable to you in an RPG.

There is also an element of discovery, and this is, to some extent, available to you in an RPG. When you discover that you can ride a tricycle off the MGM hotel roof and paraglide safely to the street, while it looks and sounds awesome, it’s also a feat of discovery that’s worth telling others about. That’s something you might want to replicate in an RPG translation. Certainly you need your game to support the statement of intent, “I drive off the roof of the hotel and deploy my paraglider” with a nod from the GM, maybe some dice, and admiring hoots from the table.

So some of that you can do and some you can’t.

With fiction, your non-systemic rewards are the revelation of the narrative, the imagery presented, sometimes a delight in the use of language, and often the thrill of guessing events correctly (or incorrectly — that’s sometimes more fun). Most of these you can get from a role-playing game but it’s a tricky space because there is so much interaction in the development of the narrative. And some of it just isn’t in the rules — delightful use of language is not going to come from someone reading  box text, no matter how well-written, unless the reader performs.

RPG non-system rewards are the most interesting to me because unlike the previous, they step entirely outside the activity. The most valuable non-systemic reward in a role-playing game (for me, IMHO, YMMV, &c, but also it’s totally true for everyone) is the way the course of the game mediates, amplifies, and facilitates the social interaction at the table. The deepest non-systemic reward is the joy of five people sharing a great evening together. Board games get this too, obviously. Sometimes a video game gets close (I’ve had some fun Ventrilo sessions while playing World of Warcraft). But in a table-top RPG it’s absolutely central.

My suspicion is that this social reward of role-playing games is closely related to the team construction, though I will also say that Fiasco is an awesome counter-example. I’m also tempted to place it in a category of its own, though, and one that I want to spend a lot more time in.

So what, Brad

So this. There are two things going on in a translation that are interesting to me here and now: there is the conversion of non-systemic rewards present in the source material to something equal but maybe different, and there is the need to retain the non-systemic rewards already present in the destination media. Who gets to play Doctor Who? I’m not saying that’s impossible, but I am saying it needs to be addressed — it won’t be very satisfactory to just emulate the source material’s universe and then let loose regular folks. Somehow you need to get as many as six people engaged in the fiction without devolving their participation to just listening.

This means that some properties will be very hard to handle. It also means some will be especially tasty. Firefly and Leverage look tasty. Smallville sounds tasty though I have never seen it. These examples tell me someone in particular is doing a very smart job of selecting properties to license. Spiderman sounds like crap, but The Avengers sounds awesome. Doctor Who sounds very iffy to me, but I understand that the issues above are not unaddressed.

I will now admit that I have little experience with licensed RPGs. They are all necessarily too heavy on setting (even if they say nothing more than “we expect you are familiar with all this already”) for my tastes. So I could be out to lunch about the challenges. But I do know these three media somewhat, and they are all doing different things. They are not different ways to do the same thing (tell a story) but rather they have orthogonal goals and alignment between them is accidental. There’s no reason to suspect that an awesome book will also be an awesome game.

But as Cam has demonstrated, with careful selection, thought and design, it can be.


  1. I recognize that grouping these together is an over-simplification — gimme a break. Some shit was slung last night about blog posts longer than 500 words. I don’t think I want the sub-500 word audience very badly, but I also realize you are not going to sit through 5,000
  2. Here’s where I plug Hollowpoint, which gets a lot of GTA feel packed into a team-oriented non-visual medium. I think it’s a good accidental translation.
  3. That’s deliberate because I am not actually discussing GTA but rather a fiction in my head based on second and third party knowledge.

Dec 16 2010

Magic, physics, and system

I was thinking about magic a while ago. And since then. It started a long time ago, when JB first brought his Chimaera project to the table with the clear intention of characters having access to what he calls “kewl powerz”. I agree with you that this lacks a sufficient definition to start working from, but it smells like magic. We tried some stuff and it was okay. Later we tried to start up a new game that certainly has magic in it (Crown of Gods is the early label on it) and decided to use an existing system as a baseline for it. We tried Strands of Fate. The results were pretty bleak — character generation was not a lot of fun (I think because there was a lack of direction going in, so the whole book read like a menu) and there was no suspicion that the mounting list of things on the character sheet were each going to contribute usefully to play.

There are at least two things in here that I want to break out. The first is a “what I like” opinion sort of thing and you should feel free to ignore it because opinions are horse-shit unless you are trying to either please or gall the person announcing opinions, in which case opinions are ammunition. The second is a dissection of why the character generation in SoF fell so flat for me and, while the fact that it fell is pretty subjective, the reasons it fell suggest at least two distinct player interests that one game generally can’t simultaneously satisfy, so that’s more interesting maybe.

I like magic that has a physics. Here’s the thing: if there’s magic in the world, I want it to seem real. And mechanically, as a player, I will not be satisfied if it is a substitution for mundane skills. That is, if “magic damage” and “melee damage” are differentiated only by the word magic, the skill used, and some resource substitution, I am bored. I don’t want a magic that is an alternate way to express physics. Fireball and fusion cannon cannot be the same thing. Ideally they are not even related.

Rather I want magic to have its own physics. Maybe several different physics where there are different schools of magic. I want magic that does specific things that are not just paint jobs over existing mundane action. There are a couple of ramifications from taking this stance. The first is that magic necessarily becomes tightly woven with the setting, and this is why generic magic systems usually make me unhappy — if a magic has its own physics, this is a profound and direct statement about the setting. If we are using, say, the spirit binding magic system for Burning Wheel (and I recommend that you do), then this is a world in which spirits exist, have their own wills, can be bound by others, and may extract revenge. This is a big deal — as big a deal as the unannounced “magic” of nearly every system: physics. And this is not like most other aspects of a game, which can be fairly easily extracted to a generic method.

The second is that it demands a sub-system. When a magic system uses the same core sub-system that, say, combat uses it loses its differentiation. Magic missile becomes a mundane arrow with magical paint. This, for me, is insufficiently magical. Rather I require that a magic system be completely defined, contacting the core system only at the points of resolution and resources. And, better, when there are multiple schools of magic, these better be as different from each other as they are from the mundane. When I play a magician I want to feel like I am engaging the system differently than I am when I am punching guys in the face.

There are two systems that suit my needs nicely in this regard. I am sure others are out there. D&D before 4e was pretty close, actually, but I didn’t really enjoy the bookkeeping of spell lists and books. The systems that work for me magically are Greg Stolze’s Reign and Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel.

I want character generation to be social. I want the system by which I generate characters to demand interaction between players. I want it to be fun to do together as a session and I really want ideas from it to feed into the setting. This, like magic systems as novel physics, has implications to the system and even to its expression.

For example, if character generation requires the review of a large amount of material (lists of complex material, inter-related), then perusing those lists is done alone, whether or not other people are at the table. If character generation requires attention to some interplay between resources (math!) the amount of time spent doing that is time spent not socializing. It’s time spent alone. You can’t always eliminate that, but you better pay attention to it, because at some point the system is asking me to make my character at home, and I can tell you that the thing that’s going to stay home is the game. I’ll play something else. This is a personal preference and one that is starkly contrasted amongst gamers. Some dearly want to be alone for character generation.

When we used to play D&D, Traveller, Twilight:2000, and all that great stuff in the 70s and 80s, the games followed fairly similar patterns for character generation. Not that they had the same methods, because they didn’t, but they had similar expectations from the player: the player would master this game and make her character. This was pretty broken at my table because we usually couldn’t afford multiple copies of the game, so character generation had to happen at the table. We could deal with that two ways — we could hand the book around and do characters one at a time, with the rest of the table bullshitting and waiting for their crack at the book; or we could do character generation through mediation: the ref would hold the book and manage the process of character generation.

Obviously, we did the latter and this became part of a model of game-time behaviour that persists to this day for us. What I would do is conduct the character generation. For each phase of character generation I would, book in hand, tell the players what they were to do and what the ramification of their decisions were. I would ask for dice rolls as needed. You might see already where this is going: we are already playing. Character generation has been integrated into the game proper and it is social (in the GM mediating play model of social action anyway). A happy side effect is that the players communicate with each other throughout each phase and plan for the next phase. They avoid overlapping niches naturally and good-naturedly (“Oh, you’re going to amp up stealth and knives? Cool, maybe we can be a stealth team — a hit squad or a thieve’s guild. I’ll pump up magic and stealth. Hey everyone make sure you have lots of stealth!”). And the setting gets enriched when the players do that.

But most importantly the character generation session is a session in which we are already playing the game and having a good time with it. We are not addressing a burden that needs to be shoved before we can begin. Why would one do that, anyway? Create a burden, I mean, that has to be addressed before play can begin? What better way to kill a campaign before it starts?

Okay so there’s my screed. I like magic to be a novel physics and therefore have a well-defined subsystem all its own. I demand that character generation be social play. I don’t want to sit at the table with five guys reading to themselves and taking notes. That first is mostly opinion and not so interesting. The second, I think, is a demographic and has an opposed group, but it’s also something a good referee can address at the table regardless of the system. If she spots the problem and decides to address it.


Nov 17 2010

A Narrative Begrudged

I don’t even really know what “begrudged” means except what I deduce from context, and half that context is probably bad usage. However, if I can hand-wave it, you can probably decode it.

I’m running this nifty empire builder game right now and it’s only a turn in and already a lot of fun for me. I’m refereeing it and in doing so I’m making maps, organizing data, tuning rules, coordinating, and communicating. I love this. The rules themselves came out of a fairly technical process — I actually started with requirements, then wrote rules to satisfy the requirements, and then wrote an analysis to discuss the coverage of the requirements by the rules.

The result is a set of rules that have no narrative.

Normally I’d start with a story in my head. “This is a tale of the nascent exploration of space by man,” say, or “Once the universe was ours but then Cthulhu ate the Earth and we lost contact and now we are many terrified and isolated cultures fearing the void of space and yet drawn by the riches in our ancient tales.” Whatever. This time I started with no story.

I have no problem supplying story. Rules can be a simple framework — a kind of physics — and I am perfectly happy to invent the rationalization — the narrative — that turns the physics into a story. Some games have subsystems that demand this and I like those. Think, for example, of Aspects in FATE: you have a phrase about your character and the rule is that you can speak the phrase, pay a point, and get +2. The narrative is your story about how that phrase gave you an advantage. The opposite design choice is to supply a simulation: whenever you encounter ice, you get -2 on any rolls to Athletics or Agility. The problem with simulation is that you have to simulate everything you care about and that will necessarily, eventually, call for invention. In marketing terms this invention is sometimes called “supplements”.

I like simulation too. But I don’t need it. Some people do need it though. Or at least they really want it very badly indeed. I often forget that and wave my hands when someone demands a narrative explanation. “I dunno, make something up. Whatever, it’s cool with me. Tell everyone and we’ll write it down and it will be true.” Lots of people hate that. They want me to tell them the story. The problem with that is that it then invites them to examine the story and the rules and then think really hard about the defects in the simulation — the interface between the rule and the story. Honestly, fuck that. I’m not really interested in that analysis. I would rather change the story if the rule is making fun happen.

Obviously (maybe) this is driven by a real life case. In our empire builder there is a simple rule: you can influence governments of other systems (not player home worlds, mind you) by spending resources. You can send Raw Resources out to jump 1 (a fixed distance with no declared real metric — because it doesn’t matter and if you care then go ahead and make up a story that works for you already), you can send Industrial Resources out further to jump 2, and you can send Social Resources the furthest — all the way to jump 3.

In my head, obviously, there was already a story for why that makes sense. Sure, partly it’s to satisfy some requirement and partly because it seems to create a fast and interesting expansion pattern that generates friction between players fast, and a lack of this friction is what has contributed to stagnation of the game in the past. But yeah, I had a story. It went something like, “there’s already a lot of space travel going on but you don’t control it”. So Raw stuff is bulky and expensive and we abstract that by limiting distance. Industrial stuff is profitable to move because it encapsulates both stuff and expertise. So it moves further. Social stuff moves fastest because it’s just information and so it’s dirt cheap to move.

The problem is, this is in my head. Or rather, the problem is that it’s not out of my head where someone else can see it.

No matter how hardcore a simulation-demanding player is, if there’s a hole for a story then they will fill it. The problem (it’s not really a problem but it’s a kernel around which a problem accretes) is that they develop this story instantly absent any declaration of story. That is, they develop it before they have fully absorbed (or possibly even read) the rules. And so it is very likely that they begin play with a mismatch between their internal story for the rules and the rules as they discover them. Gears grind. A player enters the empire game with an already developed narrative that says “the only way to influence people is to send a space ship to meet them because the ships I build are the only ships there are”. Then when they hit the rule that says “you can spend resources to influence governments” they are already deciding that they need to have space ships to do that even though there is no rule that declares it. They are, in fact, prepared to invent a whole rule set in their head that does not exist on paper and act according to that.

This is hilarious. And all because I didn’t write a couple of paragraphs at the beginning that tells the story. And, worse, it’s a story that was already partially formed in my head in order for me to make sense of my own rules. But, you know, I was totally comfortable with (by which I mean that I would be delighted, were I a player, with)  players inventing whatever story fit the rules. I had not counted (again) on players that require the rules fit the story and, absent a story, will invent one prior to reading the rules.

This blows me away. Not in a “man what an idiot the player is” because he’s not. But rather in a “holy crap that story is so much more important than I thought it was in order to make the game work for everyone”. It’s like finding a missing piece in a jigsaw. It’s obvious — I know what shape it is and what colour it is and everything, but until I hold it in my hand the picture is just not finished.

So I wrote a paragraph. The players will still need to cope with adjusting their internal story to meet my declared one, but at least I have now declared it. Whew!


P.S. Here’s the narrative:

You are playing an emerging imperial culture. There is already a commercial infrastructure in place, and corporations ply the space lanes in vessels of varying degrees of quality. Some are recent constructions and some are ancient, but all are designed entirely for trade. The hyperwave relay sends data at many times the speed of light and quite a bit faster than any ship can go. Yet.

You are now interested in controlling this hodge-podge of capitalist enthusiasm. It is already proving useful to move strategic resources around — raw steel to a shipyard on the fringes of your domain, perhaps, or Bussard jets to bribe an emerging culture to allow a naval base in its system. Or sometimes just words — promises and threats, which travel fast and light. You will build new ships — armed ships — with the express intent of conquering those who will not submit to your bribes and your propaganda. And when you meet those other imperial contenders, those who would also own everything in space, maybe you’ll become fast friends.

Or maybe you’ll have an armed fleet ready.

Jul 8 2010

Elements of a successful campaign

As activities go, role-playing games are surprisingly hit-and-miss for me. It’s not surprising that there is a fairly high proportion of failures but rather that we so eagerly tolerate it, which suggests to me that there is something outside the game that keeps it worthwhile, and/or there is a different kind of fun in failure. I will bet on “and”.

I am a problem solver. That doesn’t mean that I solve problems, but rather that I enjoy trying to solve problems. If someone tells me what’s bugging them, I will try to construct a plan to solve it. This pisses a lot of people off. Within the context of gaming, though, it means that when a game goes badly I get to analyze it and try to figure out why it broke and then how I might fix it and if that happens at the table, then the evening can be a stunning success for me even if the game failed.

But I want to talk about success. There’s a lot of talk about “story” moving around the role-playing-game-meme-o-sphere and I think it has a lot of merit, though the word “story” is dangerously overloaded. Here’s what I buy, because the idea that fiction maps directly onto gaming strikes me as completely broken, but I don’t think a lot of people make the claim anymore anyway. I’ll also add that there are huge swaths of the gaming community who want to talk about how railroading sucks and so when anyone uses the word story, they use that as a launching point to talk about railroading.

There are things that writers do when writing fiction that works (as opposed to “good” fiction, which is orthogonal) that can probably be ported to gaming. I’m not a trained fiction writer so I don’t necessarily know what these are. But I know what kinds of things work for me in a book that also work for me in a game, so maybe I can get by without the correct terminology. Here goes.

Characters. One of the things that makes a stellar evening’s play for me is having an awesome conversation about something entirely in-setting from the perspective of an interesting character in the game. If I could only have one trick up my sleeve it would be this: make sure there is one character who is passionate about something and that the players will be in a position to talk to. The sharper among you will notice that there are some more tricks embedded in that trick.

Passion. In order to engage the players, someone has to be passionate about something. This is hard. You can’t expect your players to do it — even if they have a dozen aspects, three beliefs, and a handful of statements explicitly declared as passions, there is a disjunct between what the character is passionate about and what the player is passionate about. So there are a couple of ways to manipulate yourself and others to get some passion.

You can bring it. Seriously, you’re the ref, you’re reading this, you care. So bring some passion to the table. Tie it to a character (or two — anyone passionate about something is usually intense about it because they are opposed, so now you have another passionate character automagically) and now that character has something to talk about. And if that conversation goes well you can at least credibly enlist cynical mercenary players and at best sell them on the character’s vision (or its opposition!) and create motivation. Even if you get only one good argumentative in-character scene, it paid off. The evening will be memorable.

As a player (and this is the second ref trick: tell your players this bit) you can get passion without fabricating it by making your character care about something you do. I know, the thespians will balk at the idea of playing a character that’s like you (I play to be someone else!) but let’s face it, you don’t get to cleave off heads in pursuit of your passion, so even if this character shares your deeply-held convictions, she is different from you: she’s going to do something serious about it. And, if the ref is on the ball, she’s going to be challenged on it.

Imagery. At some point you are going to be describing stuff. You will want to get at least one setting-establishing image into play every session. Something awesome that the players can see in their heads. Some people use props, some use prose, some use pictures from the interwebs, some use combinations of these. It doesn’t really matter how you get there, but if you can plant an image in the heads of the players, and if that image is part of what compels you to ref in the first place, then you stand a chance of creating a shared atmosphere that will be memorable.

I use “memorable” a lot because I don’t think fun is all that important. Everything we can say we “liked” is defined by our memory of it — no action exists anywhere but in the instant and as a memory, and memories are all stories. How you will recall an evening’s play is the story you will tell about what happened. That’s why memorable is more important than fun. Fun smells of frivolity and frivolity is not a necessary component of a successful game. What’s important is that you relish the story you will tell about it (even to yourself — maybe especially to yourself as many of us have learned hard lessons about picking up girls by re-telling the exploits of Smegnar, our Fighter-Thief) and the priority for establishing a future story is memory. Memory is necessary for a successful sessions. I cannot recall any successful but forgotten sessions. I don’t need to remember detail for it to have been successful and detail will fade over time, but I do need to smile and look up a bit and think, yeah, I had a swell time when Tirian found the sword at the bottom of the cavern lake, littered with the skeletons of ancient elfish kings.

I will be remembering the people, their passions, and the imagery of those moments.


Mar 23 2010

Herding snowflakes

This always happens. Well not always, but often enough that it’s time to talk about it.

Everyone wants their character to be special. That’s cool. That binds you to your character. That invests you in him or her and that is good for the game. But if everyone is special then no one really is, and a game about the antics of a group has to see the group as the central feature because it will need to stick together somehow. So it’s more important that the group be special than that each character be special. I promise — play will make you special in ways that are cohesive as well as fun.

Anyway in my upcoming game special is not really the problem right now. Everyone is special, but in fairly subtle and undisruptive ways. We have only one non-human, so the group doesn’t stand out as a bizarre anomaly for the world and nor does it imply a D&D-style world of roughly equal racial representation. That’s good. In fact that’s really good. Magic is supposed to be rare and there is only one person who can wield it. Non-humans are rare and there is only one in the group. Not too special. Hurray!

No, the problem here is slightly different but oh-so-familiar. In creating characters we have many with opposing interests. Not just different, but flat-out opposite. Specifically, we have a wandering revolutionary and two people whose job is hunting revolutionaries. I’m not a big fan of just covering that land-mine up and walking very carefully and pretending it’s not true undermines the character stories and makes the characters significantly less of what the players wanted from them. So what to do?

I game with adults. That means one of the things I can do with some reasonable hope of success is just push it on the players. “Here’s the problem folks, tell me a story that makes it work.” But that just sidesteps the issue, because then the question is just, “what can they do” instead of “what can I do?” So what are the options?

We could declare that past jobs are past. The spy is no longer a spy and the hunter is no longer a hunter. Or the revolutionary has reconciled with the new government.

We could find a way to reverse a loyalty. The revolutionary now believes in the right to rule of the new government. The spy turns on his master. The hunter has become a revolutionary.

We could find an over-riding motive. The political interests of the individuals are overshadowed by some much more urgent and dangerous issue. This of course risks returning to the problem when the new issue is resolved, but it might be credible at that time to have the characters reconciled, having worked together through some great hardship. This is kind of nice because it gives us a starting point — the revolutionary arrives in town where the spy has laid a trap for him and the hunter (working with the spy) arrests him and then bang zoom a much more terrifying thing happens. That’s pretty nice and suits my opening image idea.

Hmm, in fact I think that by writing this I solved my problem. I open with the scene of hardship and bonding disaster and maybe let the players handle the backstory for the capture and so on as a flashback.

Damn I never really got the idea of flashbacks in a role-playing game before but this is singing in my head now. Thanks for your help, folks!


Mar 16 2010

GM Prep

I often say I don’t prep. Well I don’t, except when I do. How much do I prep? Well, this wiki entry is on the deep end of my prep scale. A map that leads to some discussion of place and people. Some hints at secrets and an idea about how much and what kind of magic is there. A stab at “what people do” who do things.

In writing that much (and that’s a lot more than I usually do) I had to think about why I do what I do. Or more correctly why I don’t do so much of what other people do do. Ha, I said “do do”.

One motivation to not do too much is a desire to see what the players will do with it. Even before “play” I am deeply interested in how players will take this information and turn it into characters. In the process of doing that (and we codified this in Diaspora, which was really smart — you should go buy that game, holy wow) they will be feeding information back into the setting so I want to a) make room for that and b) appear to give permission to do that. So there’s only so much I want to write — I’m comfortable throwing out some names but not elaborating allegiances and stuff. I want to talk about magic to establish some tone, but I don’t want to force an interpretation that might be fun. I need room for alternatives and elaborations. Fortunately worlds are big, so I can paint broad strokes and still have room for details that needn’t contradict anything. Exceptions are fine because they are new detail and I have room for detail.

One reason I do as much as I do is because it’s a hoot. This is play for me — drawing maps, making up names, and inventing sketches of history and culture that might belong to this place. But I’m lazy as hell — I get no joy from deep detailed discussions of history or religion and, worse, I know no one is going to read it in detail either. So if it’s not for me, who’s it for? So my core assumption in prep is that no one is actually going to read any of it, and therefore it’s play for me. And so I don’t feel obligated to do any more than I find fun.

Now by assuming no one will read it I’m not saying that no one will read it. I expect that some players will read some of it. But assuming they won’t gives me a certain measure of freedom to do as little as I like and as much as I want.

But mostly I just want to draw a map and explain it a little. To make a place. Really, I don’t even need to play the game proper, though I dig the new detail it inevitably adds to the place. But I already had my fun so now the game is basically dessert.

What do players get from it, though? I dunno, I’m asking.