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 RPG.net 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.

Oct 6 2010

Boss design patterns

Warning, this is another World of Warcraft post. I think it informs tabletop games, though, so bear with me.

I haven’t done a lot of dungeons recently as I mentioned in my last post. Last night, though, my awesome guildies took me through a dungeon that I had missed but that’s on a quest chain I want to complete — The Pit of Saron. The Pit has a number of cool events and features in it but what struck me was something that strikes me every time I enter a new dungeon with fun, smart, patient people: explaining even the most complicated boss fight is actually pretty simple because they all follow some basic design patterns. Here are a few that I noticed last night.

1. When the boss runs away/shouts something/does some other big, time-consuming emote go hide behind something until he’s done. This was one we all learned that hard way with that bloody bird-guy boss in Auchinondon where you have to hide behind the pillars and no one gets it right.

2. If an amusing pattern appears on the ground beneath you, move. Something bad is about to happen there.

3. If amusing dinguses appear and start moving towards the boss, kill them because they will do good things for the boss which is bad for you.

4. If the boss points at you specifically and shouts, run away. This one, unfortunately, has a few variants. One is “run towards”. Another is “stop attacking”. And another is “everyone stop attacking”. This one will betray your reflexes and needs to get spelled out clearly.

5. Stay out of the goo. Sadly, one variant is “get in the goo”. If your reflex is to stay out of the goo, though, you’ll be good for 99% of all bosses.

For example, the first major bad guy in the Pit is a frost giant who throws huge boulders of saronite ore at you. That hurts, but there’s a shadow where it will land. That’s design pattern 2 above. Now when that boulder lands, it stays there. Occasionally the giant will yell and run towards his forge and, once there, will spray nasty death rays all over. You can hide behind the boulders he threw, though, keeping you out of danger! That’s pattern 1. So my guild mate can summarize this fight with “get out of the shadows and when he heads for the forge hide behind a rock”. A somewhat complicated fight is simplified by our shared experiences (design patterns).

All three major boss fights in there follow the pattern. The second guy is a little more complicated (stay out of the goo, stay out of the goo, when he shouts at you run away). The third guy is simple too (stay out of the goo, avoid the patterns on the ground, when he shouts at you stop fighting). And so I finished this difficult dungeon with a minimum of fuss and only a single wipe that was for embarrassing reasons anyway. And we didn’t need Ventrilo or other voice communications to get the message across!

Okay but this all becomes a little formulaic. One way they tried to break up the formulae was by adding vehicles to some dungeons, and the vehicle behaviour can be quite different from character behaviour, so there can be different patterns in play. Not very different, as it turns out, but occasionally completely out of left field, like having to climb into a cannon and be launched at the enemy tank where you will melee the shit out of his turrets and then jump off and hope you get picked up before you get run over. That’s pretty new.

But having design patterns that are fun are at least as much a power as a crutch. Sure, you can imagine the designers sitting around dreaming up new kinds of goo and new things to shout, and think that’s pretty weak (and it is). If they lean on that too hard you will get bored. But on the other hand, the communicability of tactics is pretty powerful, even if you have to start stacking exceptions to account for new nuances — stand in the goo if you have this debuff otherwise stay out of the goo!

All of this is interesting because it first came to me when the current expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, came out and we were doing a whole bunch of dungeons for the very first time ever. Having never seen these bosses before, we needed some heuristics to succeed and the ones that work are patterns. Here’s the core heuristic for a new boss no one has seen: stay out of the goo and run when he yells. Kill the adds.

So obviously I’m wondering if these sorts of tactical design patterns have a place in tabletop games. And then I immediately start wondering if they are emergent: any design with any serious attempt at modularity and focus might well have tactical patterns as a necessary side-effect. If you design cleanly and clearly, that design might create tactical response patterns. And this is true.

Take FATE for example. One tactical response pattern (that we often have to learn over and over but that almost always works) is: get a bunch of free-taggable aspects down from maneuvers and then make a big hit. This is a feature of the rules and it’s almost always a good idea (assuming unlimited free tags). Because degree of success is also damage inflicted, and because a single unassisted person can almost always get one success if she really tries, this means every maneuver is +2 to the harm inflicted, guaranteed.

You almost have to go to “bad” design to avoid this, by giving opposition rule-breaking capabilities that explicitly deny a pattern. In FATE we call these “stunts” but we don’t often use them for this. Maybe we should think about that. Maybe the tactical patterns that work so well are exactly the things we want to (occasionally!) undermine with a stunt on an arch-villain. Think about that.


Oct 5 2010

The monkey on my back

I play some World of Warcraft. There, I said it.

I’ve been playing off and on since release. I’ve  raided Molten Core, I’ve founded a guild (which celebrated its third anniversary just this summer), I’ve got several characters at level 80, and I’ve cleared Naxx. I’m not a “raider”, though. I don’t know what I am, but I am pretty common. We often get the name, “casual”, but this is either wrong or just an incredible misuse of the word.

The way I play stems from the fact that I generally hate other people. Practically everyone on the planet aggravates me. This is my default position in life: until I meet someone and communicate meaningfully with them, I think they are despicable. This is probably because my contact with people I don’t know is usually in the form of them nearly hitting me with a car, or edging into line, or otherwise annoying me. Sometimes it’s just stealing my lichbloom node while I kill the gnoll beside it. Fuck you, druid.

So this game is a lot of lonely fun for me and tight grouping with my guildmates to do dungeons. The new random dungeon finder? It’s handy when we only have three or four guildies and need to round out the group. But generally I only use it to kill the holiday bosses. “Kill the holiday boss” is an awesome phrase out of context, by the way.

The fact that there is a lot of lonely fun in a social context (a massively multi-player game, after all)  is pretty interesting to me. In fact it hints to me that every role-playing game that expects to see use over time better have some compelling lonely fun in it. It doesn’t have to be onerous — maybe even it shouldn’t be — but it does have to eat time and make things. Let’s look at what I do alone in WoW that I like.

Leveling. Yup, I like to level a character. Several years after I started playing the game, I am only now getting bored with this, having seen the same early scenery so many times. I also have a strong feel for how weakly designed the old world material is, built largely on the exhausting “tedious = challenging” equation that programmers who don’t play like to inflict on audiences. This has been nicely redressed in the last year or so by taking pains to introduce faster travel earlier and increase the rate at which bad guys drop things you need to finish quests. That’s nice. The scenery is still old. That, however, will change with the next release in December.

Building. This is part of leveling. I like to find obscure character builds and try to make them viable. Sometimes this is awesome. Sometimes it’s just funny. I had a discipline priest before that even worked. I had a survival hunter before that worked. Right now I’m playing a frost DPS death knight, which happily seems to work. The talent system, the wide variety of actions, and the range of gear available makes this a pretty fun exercise, but as I am experimenting with the utility of the character, you really need to group with friends who are in on the experiment. The average person (who, recall, I despise) will have no patience for this. They have no science in them.

Collecting. I only recently realized I love this. I love flying around for hours picking flowers and then selling them in the auction house. This makes me a crapton of money, which is also fun in the usual satiated-greed sort of way. But it’s a new realization to me that I will happily fly in large circles for so long with almost no conflict beyond the occasional close storm elemental or something. I don’t even make potions with these flowers, mind you. I just pick ’em and sell ’em. It’s possible that what I really like is the flying, which is pretty wonderful.

Fighting beside my friends. This is not a lonely bit but it’s something I love. I’ve no interest in dungeons generally any more, but I adore fighting inside them alongside people I like and trust. I like being able to be goofy. I like the safety of doing complicated things alongside who will at worst laugh cheerfully when I screw up. I like the spontaneous stories, like Jinxi’s need to free all the slaves in the Pit of Saron every single time. We don’t need to do it. We did that quest. We all did that quest. But Jinxi just can’t leave a man behind.

So these are the things that are important to me and I think there are analogues in our table-top gaming. I like building complicated things alone. I don’t mind repetition if I am feeling creative or explorative (random charts anyone). And I like acting with a group I trust. I hate acting with a group I don’t trust and I note that I don’t play much tabletop with strangers either.

I am Brad Murray and I am an altoholic.