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December 19, 2013

Theater of the Mind Action

The new D&D is going to revert to an assumption that groups will not be using maps, grids and miniatures.  For fans of 4e and Pathfinder, this will be a big change, and some are upset about it.  There will be optional rules for tactical combat, but making the core assumption Theater of the Mind (TotM) will affect everything from supplements to modules to accessories.

And especially the GM-player power dynamic...


In the beginning, D&D put most of the power in the hands of the DM.  When searching a dead end hallway for secret doors, there wasn't a Search skill and level-dependent DCs; the game went like this:

DM:  "The tracks lead around a corner and down a 30' long, 10' wide, dimly lit corridor.  But the corridor is a dead end, and the tracks stop at the end of the hall."
Player: "What do we see?"
DM:  There's a bookshelf at the end of the hall.  The books seem to have been disturbed or shaken recently.  The hall is lit by a a single candle in a sconce.  The candle in the sconce opposite it has not been lit for some time."
Player:  "It must be a revolving door!  I pull on the sconce with the unlit candle!"
DM:  "The sconce resists for a second, then clicks down like a lever.  The bookcase begins slowly pivoting around a central axle, revealing a narrow, pitch black corridor beyond."

In old school D&D, the DM had massive power.  Here are some other responses that the DM could have made that would have been totally OK in a 1980s D&D game!

DM:  "As you pull the decoy lever, a grinding sound emanates from the wall, and the floor falls out from under you.  You fall into a spiked pit full of rats, and take... 15 damage.  The rats attack you immediately, dealing another... 6 damage."

...or worse, in my opinion...

DM:  "The sconce doesn't budge.  What do you do?"

Later editions of D&D increased the players' power relative to the the GM's by giving them system tools, as opposed to narrative authority (like in Dungeon World).  System tools allow players to make assertions about their characters, and give the GM a way to test those character abilities against the challenges in their game world.  By giving the player a Perception skill, for instance, the player could ask the DM for clues.  If her character was perceptive enough, the DM would have to give the player clues. In 3rd and 4th edition D&D and Pathfinder, the same challenge works like this:

DM:  "The tracks lead around a corner and down a 30' long, dimly lit corridor.  But the corridor is a dead end, and the tracks stop at the end of the hall."
Player: "What do we see?"
DM:  "There's a bookshelf at the end of the hall and two candle sconces."
Player:  "I search for secret doors.  Perception 21."
DM:  "The books seem to have been disturbed or shaken recently, implying the bookshelf is actually a secret door.  The hall is lit by a a single candle in a sconce.  The candle in the sconce opposite it has not been lit for some time. That one must be the lever that activates the door."
Player: "I pull on the lever."
DM:  "The sconce resists for a second, then clicks down like a lever.  The bookcase begins slowly pivoting around a central axle, revealing a narrow, pitch black corridor beyond."

The player made one assertion using the carefully controlled tools the system gave her:  She could assert that her character was perceptive enough to find the secret door and its operating mechanism.  If she rolled well enough, the GM would have to accept her assertion.  Because the social contract of player character abilities is "if you rolled high enough, the ability works" the DM can't respond with a decoy lever or "the sconce doesn't budge" because the player's ability (Perception) allows that player to assert that if she succeeds the check, the information the DM gives her can not be false or misleading.

A low-myth game is one where the world is created around the action, as opposed to one where the action happens in a pre-planned frame.  Such games often allow players narrative authority, which trumps tools like skills, because players can simply make the kinds of assertions about the world that traditionally only the GM was allowed to do.  Players may make assertions without using character stats, even about things their character doesn't know about.  Different low-myth games have different approaches for this, but generally it would go like this:

DM:  "The tracks lead around a corner and down a 30' long, dimly lit corridor.  But the corridor is a dead end, and the tracks stop at the end of the hall."
Player: "He must have gone through a secret door.  I guess I'll search around and find the lever that opens the secret door at the end."
GM: "Go ahead and narrate it."
Player: "There's a bookshelf at the end of the hall and two candle sconces.  I search around and notice that the books seem to have been disturbed or shaken recently, so the bookshelf is probably a secret door.  The hall is lit by a a single candle in one sconce.  The candle in the sconce opposite it has not been lit for some time, so that one must be the switch that activates the door.  I pull on it.  The sconce resists for a second, then clicks down like a lever.  The bookcase begins slowly pivoting around a central axle, revealing a narrow, pitch black corridor beyond."

In this sort of game, the player is able to make a lot of assertions about the world:  That there is a secret door, that there's a bookcase and candle sconces, that one sconce is the lever, that her character can figure all of that out, that it works, the bookshelf pivots to reveal what's behind it, and that behind the bookshelf is a pitch black corridor.  Few games are so "low myth" that the player can make assertions without any system mediation - even Donjon and Dungeon World still use some system to mediate player assertions.  Still, the player assertion is treated as if it were just as valid as if the GM said it.  The GM could not say that the sconce was a decoy leading to a trap, or that it doesn't move.  Those statements would contradict the player's assertion.

Player assertions are critical for TotM play, because TotM play does away with mutually-agreed-upon signifiers for distance, range, movement, and terrain - i.e. the battlemat.  Instead of the map, the players and GM must make assertions about distance, range, movement and terrain.  Traditional and even contemporary D&D does not generally give players the freedom to assert these things.  Here's a traditional combat scene in second edition D&D:

DM:  "Dolan kicks down the rotten double doors, and the rancid smell increases a hundred-fold -- beyond the threshold is a large 30' square room that used to be a barracks, but now is full of garbage and offal.  There, atop a big trash heap in the middle is a large insectile creature with tentacles angrily hissing at your light.  It rushes toward you.  Roll initiative...  OK, Kira, you go first."
Kira's Player: "Is the monster right on top of Dolan?"
DM:  "No, but it's about to be.  It's maybe 10' away."
Kira's Player: "How wide is the corridor?"
DM: "10' wide."
Kira's Player: "OK, cast Fireball at the monster.  I shoot the ball down the corridor next to Dolan, since the corridor is 10' wide and I can see past him clearly."
DM: "OK, your blast goes off ten feet past the monster and incinerates it.  It fails its save vs. spells."
Kira's Player: "So I do 24 damage."

Notice that Kira's player has to assert that she can see past Dolan clearly, and the GM accepts it.  Notice also that the GM kindly accepts that Kira targets the fireball so that the blast won't hit Dolan.  The GM could have said:

DM: "The ball hits the steep hill of garbage right behind the monster and explodes in a 20' radius, which, since Dolan is 10' away, burns him too.  The monster failed its save vs. spells.  Dolan, make a save vs. spells, too!"

It's kind of a dick move of the GM, but it was commonplace in TotM play in the old editions.  And it's come back!  In the live D&D game at PAX, we saw Chris Perkins pull this move on Acquisitions Incorporated, causing a friendly-fireball incident.  This is the danger of D&D Next and TotM play.

Advances in RPG "technology" gave us the use of maps and grids, so that players and GMs were clear who could move where, and what the terrain was.  This empowered players to use the grid "tech" to make assertions in action scenes.  Other games gave us skill systems so that players could make system-mediated assertions based on their character's abilities.  At the same time, TotM games from Vampire: the Masquerade through modern low-myth games and some contemporary non-tactical games (Fate, Gumshoe, etc.) started creating rules for movement, position, and terrain that didn't require a grid, but gave players the power to make assertions about their position in combat.  In Fate, there are zones and situational and environmental Aspects, for instance, and players can use an action to take advantage of those or rearrange themselves as a system-mediated assertion that the GM can't contradict.  In most contemporary TotM systems, the expectation is that the players have the authority to make assertions about their characters' movement, position, use of terrain, etc. that the GM cannot contradict.

Modern "theater of the mind" games use mechanics that empower players to make assertions in action scenes.  They either use clear tactical mechanics for making assertions about terrain, cover, movement, range, and position; or they empower players with narrative authority equal to the GM's.  TotM, done well, can work better than grids and minis for action scenes, for many design goals.  TotM is not just some nostalgia trip - it has to be a carefully balanced design choice.


The power of players to make assertions is critical to Theater of the Mind play, but the "traditional D&D feel" that Next is attempting has dialed the game back to old school standards of GM authority.  Skills are gone, and along with them many specific rules mediating player assertions in exploration scenes are vanishing.  The social contract of the game pervades every scene from social to exploration to combat, and if the social contract gives the DM significant power to make assertions without empowering the players, I'm afraid Theater of the Mind could roll D&D back to old school whim-of-the-DM storytelling.

Let's hope the designers of Next thought of this, read some of those new contemporary TotM games, and built some mechanics that favor player assertions.

GM tips

When you're running a TotM game, keep this in mind:  You may have to shift gears when action scenes start.

  • Allow your players to make assertions about space and terrain in action scenes.  Encourage them to state their intention when they move, not just describe the fiction.  For instance a player might say "I move behind the pillar so that the minotaur can't charge me."  Instead of finding a way to have the minotaur charge that character, have it react to Kira's action.  Empowering players means explicitly affirming that their actions worked.  Empower Kira's pillar maneuver by making it clear that it worked.  Don't just say "The minotaur charges Dolan," say "After that acid arrow, the minotaur is pissed.  It's about to charge Kira and exact bloody revenge, but she ducks behind the pillar, so it decides to charge Dolan instead."
  • Ask questions instead of making assertions: "When you moved away, did you hide behind cover?" or "Are you trying to stand in between the monster and the wizard?"  
  • In TotM, the GM should have almost no assumed authority over the terrain unless she makes an explicit assertion.  Don't surprise players.  If the sniper fires and then moves behind cover, state the sniper's intention:  "The drow sniper shoots Helen, then moves behind the cover of the ruined wall so that Kira can't see her to target her with any more spells."  If the players forget something, remind them and let them change their action -- don't force their characters to screw up because the player can't actually see the terrain.  "Kira, remember the trash pile?  The monster is running toward you down a big pile of trash, so the fireball will hit the trash pile and go off too close to the party, hitting Dolan.  Do you want to change your action?"
  • Alternately work with them, not against them, adding assertions to fix their actions in the imagined space.  For instance, no player will be mad at you for adjusting their action slightly, if it means it helps: "Kira shoots her fireball at a spot off to the side of the room, and the blast blows the trash pile to flinders.  The fire and blast-wave of burning trash washes over the monster, scorching it badly without hurting Dolan."
  • In exploration scenes, find ways to empower players and avoid pulling "gotcha" moves on them.  It's more fun to see them succeed than to see them fail.

December 6, 2013

Nights Black Agents Operation Cards

I created some Operation Cards for Night's Black Agents.  They are system agnostic, so you can use them in any espionage or thriller RPG.

The cards have two pages of the basic 9 operations, and one page of my own personal interpretation of reversals of those operations.  Print them out on cardstock and cut them out.  When you need to develop an operation, draw two cards and select the one you like best.  Fill in the blanks, and you have an operation!

The basic operations:

  • Destroy
  • Flip
  • Heist
  • Hit
  • Hunt
  • Rescue
  • Sneak 
  • Trace
  • Uncover

The reversed operations:

  • Guard
  • Mole Hunt
  • Secure/Stash
  • Bodyguard
  • Flee
  • Imprison
  • Watch
  • Provoke
  • Cover Up

Both GMs and Players can use these cards!  If your campaign is sandboxy enough, the players can use these cards to help them decide what to do.  They can draw two or three cards and pick the one that they like best, then embark on using that operation to advance one of the plots they're interested in.

GM Example:  You draw "Bodyguard" and "Trace."  Trace leads to a clue chase style mystery, and that appeals to you more than the Bodyguard card.  So you choose Trace.  Then have to fill in the blanks.  

  • Follow a string of clues and obstacles to a lost person or object
  • The agents will follow the clue ____ because they want to know ____ about ____ 
So you need a lost person or object and a few clues that lead from one to the next in a string that ends at the lost person or object.  Say a local vice detective disappears just as she was about to crack a major case involving human trafficking.  The police won't be able to find her because a lesser vampire mind-controlled her away in the night (Lucy Westenra style).  They have to rescue the detective before she is turned with three bites on three successive nights...

The agents will follow the clue of the vice detective's dreams because they want to know what happened to her (changing "about" to "to" in this case, for grammar reasons).

The first clue is that she had had dreams of bats coming to her window every night for the last week, according to her husband.  In her dreams she left the house and went to a graveyard.  

So the next clue is at the graveyard:  The groundskeeper reports seeing her walk in in a "drugged out daze," and trying to persuade her to leave, but just before he was about to call 911 on her, someone picked her up in a slick Maybach.  In typical Night's Black Agents fashion, add a complication: Say a ghoul watching the graveyard to cover the back-trail.  The PCs notice the ghoul slipping away to alert his master and have to chase him down.  

The Mercedes and Ghoul both provide clues that lead to the vampire's uptown penthouse condo, where the PCs have to slay the vampire to rescue the detective.

Player Example:  The PCs are investigating a money laundering scheme, but don't know where to go next.  They've only vaguely encountered the organization, and then only three people who they suspect of being a low level bagman and two goons who provide at large muscle for the organization.  They draw Flip, Uncover, and Bodyguard.  Flip makes the most sense, but they don't know who to flip. 

They propose to the GM that they use all three cards and more:  They use Uncover to search for clues to narrow down the ideal candidate to put pressure on from the three they've met, then Flip him, and then keep surveillance on to Bodyguard their new double agent until he can create or discover an opportunity for them to Destroy the money laundering operation.

Download the PDF here (LINK FIXED 1/17/14).  Suggest edits or new cards in comments below!

November 27, 2013

The Unarmed Skeletons

The room was full of bones, the remains pulled from four huge mass graves.  The previous grave robbers had taken anything of value, leaving bones, rusting weapons, and rusting armor.

"Let's take all the left femurs,"

"That would work, but it would take hours.  There are hundreds.  The tomb raiders left all the bones, but took most of the weapons and armor."

"There are weapons in there too?"

"You see a few dozen scimitars and other blades."

"We take them and pile them up outside the room.  That shouldn't take long."

"No, maybe five, ten minutes tops."


When the negative energy burst came and the skeletons rose, our heroes were ready for them.  And the skeletons were unarmed!

"The skeleton attacks, with its claws.  Because it doesn't have its scimitar.  12 vs. AC probably misses.  It looks resentful."


Eventually I had a player ask why I was so mad about them taking the scimitars.  I had to explain I wasn't!  I was just roleplaying the skeletons' frustration at finding themselves unarmed as they desperately tried to kill what they perceived as grave robbers.

I love to show the players the bad guys' feeling cocky or triumphant or proud, but I also love to show the players when the bad guys are feeling scared, disheartened, or frustrated.

What happened here is that the players were kicking the disarmed skeletons' asses and they assumed that I as the DM would feel frustrated.  So when I acted for the skeletons, some of them thought it was me.

I should make a point to make sure my players know it doesn't bother me if the monsters are losing.  On the other side of that coin, though, it doesn't bother me if the monsters TPK unless it's because of a bad rules call or house rule I made.

The best way I can communicate this to my players is the Beholder Story.

So in a certain module I ran, there is a boss fight against a Beholder.  This guy is a deadly threat that should at least threaten to kill a PC or two.  It's also an epic fight where lots of off turn attacks fly both from and toward the Beholder as it shoots eye rays on every PC's turn that starts even remotely close to it.

They evicted it from reality temporarily, then stun-locked it for the entire fight.  It failed four saves in a row.  I was tempted to fudge one of those, but I didn't.  They kept it locked down and hacked it to pieces.  It was a much easier fight, but you know what?

They were so thrilled!  Every round it failed the save they were out of their chairs with glee!  That's what I want for my players.  That's why my skeletons were acting SO FRUSTRATED every time they missed!

I just have to make sure the players know it's not personal.  It's me trying to show how awesome they are.

November 22, 2013

4e Combat Social Conventions

The Social Contract is the implicit or explicit agreement between people to behave in a certain way.

I want to propose some explicit conventions for the 4e social contract for combat situations, not because there's a problem with any players I game with, but because in the middle of the Heroic tier, 4e slows down.  Then it slows down again in mid-Paragon, and then even more at the start of Epic.  

The reason it slows down is that you get more and more options every round, and your actions start to impact the other PCs more and more.  So not only do players spend more time thinking about their choices, risks, and trade-offs, they also start thinking about the other players' choices, risks and trade-offs.  That's fun (if it wasn't Pandemic would have been a flop), but it's also easy to lose perspective.  97% of the time, the PCs win, and the fights are just a part of the story.

Here are three conventions you can propose to your players for social behavior in 4e combat...

1. Be Ready.  Try to choose your action when your turn is about to come up.  Feel free to pre-roll so you can focus on story instead of stats. It lets you do more verbal/creative than dice/arithmetic during your turn.  Compare!  "I pivot around his shield and swing at his knee with my mace, 22 vs AC for 19 damage."  Versus, "I think I'll use Mace Attack.  That's +10 vs AC...  I rolled a 12... so 22?  OK.  It does 1d8+11.  And... I rolled an 8, so... 19 damage."

2. Live and Let Die.  When it comes to the other players, please let them screw up.  Let them screw things up for your character, too.  Respond in character to their mistakes if you must.  Talk about it OOC as a side conversation after their turn or after the combat.  I call this one "live and let die," because there may come a time when a player makes an almost-good-enough decision when his character's life is on the line and you'll have to bite your tongue.  Or shout "Noooooooooo!" in character as the monster makes that OA they didn't consider and drops them like a sack of potatoes.  If saying "live and let die" seems too harsh, replace it with "let it ride" or some other colloquial phrase (gambling jargon is full of good ones).

3. Keep it IC.  Table talk about tactics and strategy must be done IC.  That means that the enemy can hear you.  Out of character side talk is totally OK as long it's not with the person whose turn it is, and we don't have to talk over you.  (This is a game, not a board meeting.)  Feel free to ask rules questions of other players before your turn.  

These are more "ideals" or "goals" than rules with sanctions.  Because you're adults.  But also because you're adults, you can talk about social expectations and actually make stuff better.  You're saying "this is how our ideal combat goes, even though it doesn't always actually go that way."

The titles of each convention are short imperative phrases to make it easy for your group to communicate them.  

November 11, 2013

Hot Topic: The Strange Frame

After posting my last piece on Telling Frame Stories I looked at this kickstarter for The Strange.  By Monte Cook Games, The Strange is an RPG about interdimensional adventures.  It's like a "Fringe" or Dark Tower RPG meets TORG or RIFTS.  There really hasn't been an RPG like this for a while.

In my Frame Stories piece, I talked about the players taking the roles of different characters across time and space.  The Strange will allow you to do that across dimensions and sci-fi and fantasy genre tropes without leaving the singular narrative of your campaign.

I think the Frame Story is the ideal setup for The Strange, because while dimension hopping is fun, it doesn't have to be the only way to tell stories across different recursions.  You can even tell stories that jump back in time in the current narrative, describing recursions that have ended.

So now an example campaign idea...  You know I'm addicted to examples!

You could start with hard boiled New York organized crime task force detectives.  Your first adventure would be investigating several new gangs in Brooklyn.  You make an arrest a strange figure who seems to be key to one new gang of assassins, transition to sword and sorcery as he gives a Usual Suspects story -- but set in fantasyland -- about the awakening of a dark god and a religious conflict spilling out across the Strange into Brooklyn.  You would play through the suspect's story, which would be a series of two fantasy world sword and sorcery "good guys vs. evil cult" adventures, except that you're doomed to fail and eventually flee across the Strange to Brooklyn.  And because you're starting with the frame story (NYC detectives) the players will accept this premise!

After the fantasy story, we return to the NYC cop drama to investigate more gangs (now identified as warring refugee groups from other dimensions).  We meet a character from a sci-fi universe who's a refugee from a new war against mysterious aliens, and play through his story...  Only to discover that an infectious psionic disease awoke across several races across the galaxy in that recursion, and those people started working as a hive mind with a dark purpose...

Ultimately the players will discover a narrative about a dark god awakening in multiple recursions of Earth, threatening to come to Brooklyn and infect the people of New York (and eventually all of Earth).  And they eventually learn why the evil god can't get to Brooklyn yet.  But he's sent his minions there to destroy the one thing holding him back...

So if you want to get Strange, go to the kickstarter page.  I think the All the eBooks package is the best value, but that may be because my dance card is full.  If your group is looking for a cool new game right now, then you might want to spring for a print core book, or maybe the pricey (but fair) All the Print Books option.

If you're reading this after 11/22/13, go to Monte Cook Games or your local game store to find The Strange.

(I was not paid or any way compensated to write this by the way)

November 8, 2013

Frame Stories

A frame story is a story that contains other stories.  It is distinct from a series of stories that fit into a larger arc, which is the typical tabletop RPG (Battlestar Galactica is a famous television story with a series arc).

Some of the most famous frame stories include Canterbury Tales, 1001 Arabian Nights and Interview with the Vampire.  Kill Bill was a fantastic frame story about a quest for revenge, with each target of The Bride's revenge being another story set in the frame, contributing to the frame story.

So you can see, what counts as frame stories are a continuum from something like Kill Bill, where the frame story is the primary story with a series of inset stories supporting it, to Canterbury Tales, where the frame story is just an excuse to have a series of unconnected sub-stories, to The Princess Bride, where the frame is barely present and only used to color the stories contained within, to HyperionThe Usual Suspects or Forrest Gump where the frame provides a twist or resolution to the sub-stories.

In classic history-telling frame stories, the frame is "contemporary" and the sub-stories are historical to the frame.  In Kill Bill and The Call of Cthulhu, for instance, the sub-stories happened in the past.  In The Call of Cthulhu, it happened to someone other than the point of view character.  These are history-telling stories.  Many mystery stories are history-telling frame stories, where there are several persons of interest, and the investigator goes from person to person getting their history with the victim.  Clues within each story point to which one is the real killer.

In fiction-telling frame stories, the frame is used to tell stories that are fictional within the frame, like Canterbury Tales and 1001 Arabian Nights.  The Wizard of Oz and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland blur this line a little.

A typical tabletop RPG campaign is often like Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, where the story is framed by a "series plot" or "campaign plot" in an RPG.  But because the sub-stories are not stories told by or about characters inside the story, they're not really frame stories.

So...  How can we use frame stories in tabletop RPGs?

Frames for Color
The easiest way to use a frame story is to use a color frame, like The Princess Bride.  The book and movie use different frames, but the movie is clearer:  A grandfather reads a book to his sick grandson, coloring the story as a whimsical fairy tale from the start.  Interview with the Vampire uses a frame for color as well, setting the gothic tone of the sub-story.  In this sort of frame, the frame story is very much secondary to the sub-story, the real story.

Frame to Play with the Fourth Wall

Video games often use a frame to play with the fourth wall.  In Bastion or The Bard's Tale the player experiences someone telling a story to him about what's happening in the game.  In Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, the protagonist is narrating his own tale.  When you die in the game, he says "No, wait, that's now how it happened!"  Frame stories in other media use the frame to give us an important fact: the protagonist is still alive.  This colors the sub-story so that the audience knows that threats to the protagonist's survival are not meant to be the main source of thrills - the stakes depend on some other outcome.  A GM can use a frame story like this to emphasize or de-emphasize dramatic elements.  A GM can also use this sort of story frame to justify meta-game mechanics and genre conventions.  Do you want to run D&D with item shops and level-ups happening mid adventure, lightheartedly emphasizing fantasy genre tropes and anachronistic speech?  Build a frame story about a group of people playing a MMORPG.

You can also use a frame story to justify rotating GMs.  Every GM has a different style, so every adventure will be different.  Why not frame all of the sub-stories in a Canterbury Tales style storytelling contest?  Then either use the same characters in each story (a team of heroes boasting about their adventures in different taverns), or have the characters engage in a contest to tell a fictional heroic adventure story about the other characters (e.g. Fighter tells the story of Wizard, Cleric, Barbarian and Thief), or use entirely different characters for each sub-story.

The "24 Hours Ago..."  Frame
Frequently used in television, start with the characters in a very bad situation, then rewind to the beginning and tell the story of how they got there, then conclude the story by getting them out of their pickle.  This sort of frame story could be especially awesome for tabletop RPGs.  Players hate losing, so starting there frees them to play a story that ultimately ends with them in a bind.  But the object of the sub-story is for the players to build up allies and resources that they can then call on to escape the conundrum of the frame story.  Example:  The heroes start in cells in a secret dungeon, locked up and about to be sacrificed to Asmodeus. Then you flash back to 24 hours ago, where the heroes are trying to find a way into the Shrine of Asmodeus.  Eventually they learn that the only way to get close to the High Priest of Asmodeus is to pretend to be peasants and be captured by his goons looking for easy marks for human sacrifice.  So they spend part of the adventure smuggling in their weapons and armor, concealing lockpicks in the dwarf's beard, etc.

Series of One Shots
Like rotating GMs, you can use a frame story to run a series of one-off stories, like 1001 Arabian Nights.  Or you can tell a series of one-off stories about the same group of protagonists like The Adventures of Baron Munchaussen.  The frame gives some shared context and allows you to connect elements from one adventure to the next, even though they're unrelated.

Nested Stories

An ambitious use of the frame story is to tell nested stories, like in Frankenstein or The Historian. Nested stories can go quite deep, with a contemporary story, a sub-story, and a sub-sub-story.  Each nested story uses an entirely different party of protagonists.  Group A goes on adventure A1, where they meet Group B, who tells the story of their adventure B2, where they find the journals of deceased Group C, which tell the story of ill-fated their adventure C3, which tells Group B something they need to know so that they can survive adventure B4, which tells Group A something they need to know so that they can conclude the campaign with adventure A5.  Over the course of the campaign, the players play three different characters, each.

Mystery Frames
Another ambitious use of the frame story would be to tell a mystery story.  The challenge of this setup is to tell a story where different "five man bands" are suspects, so that the sub-stories can engage all of the players.  For instance, a team of investigators on Babylon 5 is trying to find out who killed an ambassador.  They interview three groups of suspects who had run-ins with him:  A group of black market smugglers, a shadowy team of psi corps, and a rival alien ambassador and his staff.  Each of these is actually innocent.  Each tells their story, and in each story, the players take on the new characters and experience the sub-adventure.  Each sub-adventure has a clue that, given together, point at the real killer.  Then the investigator team has to catch the killer, undue her shadowy plans, and arrest her.

History Frames
A large, complicated historical event like the Age of Sail (real world history), or The Clone Wars (Star Wars), or the Anarch Revolt (Vampire) spans continents (or star systems!) and many different social groups with different perspectives (merchants, various national navies, pirates, jedi, clone troopers, smugglers, loyalists, anarchs, inquisitors).  You can use the frame of the historical event to tell the story of various groups that experienced the event, so that you can let the players experience the event from different perspectives across time and space.

For instance, a Dutch East India Company armed merchantman in the Caribbean in 1795 would have a different perspective from a Spanish man o'war escorting treasure ships for the Third Coalition in the Mediterranean in 1803, compared to a privateer sloop in the Atlantic hunting Napoleon's gold in 1806 or an American heavy frigate defending Boston Harbor in 1812.  Together, one adventure on each ship can allow a different player to take the role of Captain each time, and provide different historical perspectives of the Age of Sail and let players experience sailing ships of various kinds.

October 28, 2013

Two Steps

Today I'm making up for being late with the post last week with a bonus post.  I'm going to describe how I determine how much to prep.  I prep a lot for my games.  That's just my style, but I think it's important to do at least a bit; as others have written, your prep should be efficient.  It's all about the most bang for your buck, so to speak.

I write two steps ahead of my players.  Being two steps ahead of the players is very important.  Two steps exactly.  Here’s why…
While you’re planning, the PCs are currently in transition.  They have finished something (last encounter; last session; last adventure) and are about to start something else (next encounter; next session; next adventure).  After the next thing is where you get two steps ahead. 

Your next step needs to be informed by where you are, and where you want to go (two steps ahead).  To build the hooks into the next step that lead to the step after, you need to fully think through two steps ahead to generate them. You're on A.  You're planning B.  You need to know quite a lot about C before you can plan the parts of B that lead to C.  You're close enough to C to start committing to certain things, and not so far that you really risk wasting that effort if the PCs go a different way.

Planning further than two steps can be harmful.  When you set things in stone, you’re loathe to change them; and even if you maintain your flexibility, it can be a waste of time as you’re constantly rewriting.  You might have the time for that, but I don’t.

What about outlining the campaign?
There are two kinds of campaign prep I do:  Scene Daydreaming and Adversary Planning.  Scene Daydreaming is when I come up with a really cool scene I want to see happen.  I don’t actually write a set of rails to get the PCs there; instead I look for opportunities to use that scene whenever I start adventure and session planning.  Adversary Planning is where I come up with cool bad guys and what they want and are trying to do.  I don’t build rails around this either.  Usually I don’t care if it ever comes to light – it just helps me design my two steps.

Isn’t the next adventure more than two steps ahead, in terms of scenes?
You might notice that I’m staying two steps ahead on multiple levels:  Two scenes ahead, two sessions ahead, and two adventures ahead. 

My scenes have three stages of writing: Outline level, stats level, and story level.  At the outline level, I have a few sentences about the scene, what it could be used for, alternatives to it, and how it connects to the plots in the game.  At the stats level, I have provided stuff like maps, handouts, skill check target numbers or modifiers, and NPC stats (as needed), and I may have written some “box text” or bullet point notes.  That scene is still not set in stone!  I change my scenes on the fly as they approach, based on the characters’ actions.  At the story level, I determine the reason why the scene is happening, and what ripples it will cause.  That sets the scene’s contribution to the story that’s unfolding.

What about modules?
I actually run a lot of modules these days.  I add a lot of detail to the modules, including new encounters and weaving in character plots and hooks.  Even a heavily designed module encounter is  only "stats level" design - I still have to tailor it to the player characters' decisions and recent actions.  Have they summarily executed all the other goblins?  Well then this next room's goblins will express disgust at the PCs' murderous slaughter, yet also be afraid for their lives; and they might try to flee but they will be unwilling to surrender under any circumstances.  Without responding to player actions like this every now and then (you don't have to do it for every encounter), the module comes across as canned (which it is, but you don't want it to feel that way).

What modules give me is a lot of "stats level" work, some of which I have to reject, rewrite, or add to.  I find that I prep almost as much for modules as for home-brewed adventures.  But I get more "bang for my buck" because most of my outline and stats level prep is done for me -- assuming the module is any good.

You know I love examples!
Here's my example.  The PCs will be investigating a shadowy temple that they discovered last session.

Outline:  Written as part of adventure planning.

Shadowy temple, PCs might investigate – may be spied on by cultists who have abandoned the site since it was discovered, may discover specific things have been moved out (so that they can search for them later).

If I did some Scene Daydreaming and had a cool idea about chasing down a spy who made the PCs in a crumbling district full of slums and old ruins, then this is where I deposit that scene.  If I did some Adversary Planning about a cultist spy who murders witnesses and shadows the PCs, keeping tabs on their moves, this is where I insert that guy.

Stats: Written as part of session planning.

At this point, I will draw a map of the temple, find the stats (and name and description) of a spy and set the roll required for the PCs to notice him; determine what the spy knows and what system I will use if they try to extract that information; google pictures of things that work for the missing items that they may look for elsewhere as clues; and so forth.  

Even if I do a lot of Adversary Planning, I don't actually stat out my adversaries until I'm a few sessions from using them.  The reason is that I need a good idea of what the PCs' current skill levels are and what the circumstances they meet the adversary are.  These change!  In this case, the PCs will meet a potential adversary while he is alone, but the PCs are also unprepared and on the adversary's turf.  But it could very well have been a scene where the PCs were prepared; or had allies; or where the adversary had allies; or dozens of XP or a few levels earlier or later depending on the game system...

Story:  Customized by the GM two scenes ahead of time.

The PCs have decided to go to their contact, who tells them that he’s heard of some activity over at the old temple site.  But next they have to make their appointment with the Duke’s seneschal, so some time will pass.  I'll make sure to describe the area around the temple, on the hopes that I can set up a frenzied foot chase through the area and my players will remember the terrain and use it in their action descriptions.  Near the old cult temple, there should also be an NPC resident who witnessed people leaving the temple just before dawn – maybe the NPC is someone who just moved into the area and doesn’t know enough to be scared.  The resident can describe the objects they took, and give a description of one of them (the spy who stayed behind to see who showed up).  This resident will get killed later for informing if the PCs don’t notice the spy. If they do notice the spy, attacking the spy and killing him will have other consequences.  Capturing and imprisoning the cult spy will lead to a jail cell murder of the spy and more clues, or perhaps I can make the spy an important cultist who engineers a jailbreak from the inside.

Notice how much more detail gets added as the scene gets closer.  How I describe the scene's setting is determined by a combination of prior long-term planning and the player characters' actions just a few scenes ahead of time.  The hooks into and from previous scenes are inserted; timelines are solidified; and other incidental NPCs get inserted based on player decisions only a few scenes ahead.  My Scene Daydream had a slum, ruins, and a high stakes foot chase; so naturally my final scene plan is focused on making my daydream a reality -- but it's still not set in stone.  The PCs might not notice the spy or might decide it's a trap and let him go; or even capture him before he flees.

October 27, 2013

Social Arsonists

I learned 50% of my tabletop GM skills from LARP.  I learned half of those just playing LARP, and the other half from GMing LARPs.  (No, I'm not making you a pie chart.)

LARP is a crucible of GM skills.  Any half-decent tabletop GM can run a successful LARP for 10 players by simply doing what he does at the tabletop for twice as many players.  You may have been to a LARP (perhaps a networked LARP) where the GM basically ran a series of tabletop scenes interspersed with playing NPCs and answering player questions.  This is just tabletop GMing, with more players.  When the player count hits 15 or 20, the GM starts leaving half the players behind to get bored while he takes the other half of the players off on a tabletop scene.  Most of the LARP GMing I did was spent doing this, I'm not proud to admit.  I only started to pick up real LARP GMing skills by attending different games outside my sphere of influence.

I learned that LARP is different from tabletop because the GM needs to be able to get players interacting and reacting, but not with him.  And while interaction is preferable to reaction, a good LARP GM knows that if you can goad a player enough to react rashly, it will lead to a lot of interaction.

A good LARP GM knows that his players should rate the moments spent where the GM is talking as the most boring parts of the LARP.  A good LARP GM knows how to get players to interact and react with as few words as possible, and then to move on.  A good LARP GM flits about the game-space like a toxic gossip at a party, lighting little fires and walking away.  A good LARP GM is a social arsonist.

Another term for this is agent provocateur.  An agent provocateur is an infiltrator who pretends to be an ally and pushes people in the organization to take risks and commit crimes.  A LARP GM is like an agent provocateur, urging players into taking extreme and drastic action to cause others to react.  Good LARP GMs are double traitors, often setting up false flag operations or urging players to set up false flag operations against their enemies implicating a third party.  Having assassins attack your player characters is amateur.  Shake them to their core by killing off one of their enemies "off camera" instead.  You can do this with a note on a 3x5 card while you're off with other players subtly implicating a third group in the murder with a half sentence of whispered innuendo.

After that, fine tuning the level of tension among five players when you have their full attention around your kitchen table will seem like a cinch.

October 18, 2013

Toymakers and Storytellers pt 2

I posted about Storytellers and Toymakers a while back with a tongue in cheek cosmo-style quiz.  I should talk about Storytellers and Toymakers a little more.  The fundamental difference I envision is that both create hooks and stories and dramatic arcs and NPCs and challenges and so forth.  But they start in different places and stress different elements.

The Toymaker GM creates potential challenges, resources, events, and NPCs (toys) and organizes them so that when the players interact with them in character, they will be likely to have a dramatic story.  This doesn't mean a Toymaker is essentially a sandbox GM.  The organization and nature of the "toys" can lead players into clusters of challenges, resources, events and NPCs with strong hooks.  A bad "railroading" Toymaker will put all the toys in a straight line, with a barren desert all around.

The Storyteller GM creates a story, then uses challenges, resources, events, and characters (props) to tell it.  This doesn't mean that the Storyteller is a railroading GM any more than the Toymaker. Good Storytellers use the narrow-wide-narrow model of GMing -- start with a strong hook that can lead to several different possible paths that all converge on the resolution of the dramatic question posed by the hook.  Bad Storytellers "railroad" the players down a narrow path.

The Storyteller's props are there to push the story forward.  The Toymaker's story is the structure that organizes her toys.

The two approaches are fundamentally different.  In practice, they can create different experiences for players.

Toys and Props

Because of the Toymaker's stress on toys, each element in her games is likely to be an interesting puzzle or a fun setting element for the players to include in their stories.  But that also means many toys the Toymaker crafts will never be explored fully.  The storyteller's props are often like movie sets -- there's not much to them beyond what you can see.  Only props that are designed to be deeply involved in the story (or which later become integral) get a lot of detail.  This means that the Storyteller tends to improvise a lot.

Because the Storyteller's focus is on the story, a good Storyteller will have tight arcs, good pacing, and a well timed climax.

  • The story will have a high degree of verisimilitude because the Storyteller sees it holistically, and Simulationist players may enjoy that part of it.
  • Narrativist players will enjoy a Storyteller GM only if that GM allows them a good deal of input in the story.
  • Gamist players will enjoy a Storyteller GM if the GM's narrow-broad-narrow model includes real risk (making consequential decisions with incomplete information) and strategy (some options are better than others).

Because the Toymaker's focus is on the individual scene, character, event, etc., a good Toymaker will have deep characters, dynamic settings, and game-elements mixed in at every level.

  • A Simulationist player will enjoy the depth created by the GM's focus on creating toys, as long as the GM designs for what the player is interested in simulating.
  • A good Toymaker GM will please Narrativist players with her habit of placing story elements in front of them and then letting the players take over the story from there.
  • Gamist players will enjoy that everything a Toymaker creates is designed to be played with -- e.g. involved in challenges, strategic decisions, or resource management.
I think every GM should learn about to the strengths of both kinds of gamerunning.

October 11, 2013

Dealing with Absent Players

Every GM has to deal with absent players. What do you do with their character?  How many absent players is too many?  The answers to these questions are found in your group's social contract.  This is the expectation everyone brings to the table about... in this case... coming to the table!

Personally, I play and run in two different formats.  I game in short, weekly, weekday evening games on Tuesday and Wednesday.  These games are 3 hours long, and it can take several sessions to get through a story.  We alternate games, too, so every other Tuesday is one game, and the other weeks are another game.  I also run long 12-hour sessions for two different groups about 5 times a year each, on Saturdays.  It's much easier to handle a missing player for a 12-hour session than for a 3-hour session (he's been captured, or is off on another quest); yet I've only ever had one single player miss a Saturday all-day session.

Addressing a missing player in an evening work-night session is hard because of the options...

  1. Hand wave it.  The character isn't exactly missing.  He's just never on screen.  In a fight, he's just not represented on the board.  In conversation, he just doesn't talk.
  2. Have another player control his character.  This is helpful for keeping combat challenge levels balanced in some games.  Otherwise, it's a bit of a burden.
  3. Create a story excuse.  The character is captured or has other tasks to attend to.  This doesn't work in an isolated dungeon, or just before going off to save the world.
  4. Postpone or cancel the game.  Nobody likes this option, but if it's a climactic moment, you might need to.  Generally, my groups have a quorum rule:  With 3 players, we run.  With less, we cancel.  But for important sessions, we'd rather postpone if one player is going to be absent.

If you want something easy to put before your players, here's the rules.  I made one set for weeknight games and one set for weekend long format games.  What happens to the absent player's character really depends on how long they're going to be absent for.

Gamerunner's Weeknight Attendance Rules

  • Commit to a Regular Schedule:  In general, players will commit to coming to the game over other leisure or social commitments; but they may occasionally excuse themselves with 2 days notice (e.g to go see a movie, have date night with the spouse, caulk the bathtub, etc.).  
  • Emergencies are Excused: Obviously, no prior notice is required for absences for acute health problems (especially contagious illnesses), major unexpected family responsibilities, and unavoidable work requirements.  
  • Two Hours or Nothing:  A player should attend at least two hours of every game session, or not at all.  It is not acceptable to arrive only for the last hour or leave after the first because it can disrupt the game.
  • Absent Players' Characters Fade Out: If you are absent from the game, your character will fade into the background.  If you have any unique abilities, the GM will alter the game to ensure that they're not needed (substituting other players' characters' abilities).  If there is any information your character would know that becomes important, the other players are allowed to know it as well, ("Well ___ once told me...").  Anything that happens to the entire party happens to the absent player's character (if they all get cursed, or all take 20 damage, etc.).
  • Be Honest About Long Term Absences:  If you intend to miss more than 1 game session, tell the GM.  The GM will write your character out of the story temporarily with a plot event -- sentenced to prison, captured by powerful and mysterious foes, killed (in many games this is temporary), questions her commitment, called away to greater responsibilities, trapped in a space-time rift, cursed to eternal slumber, etc.  The GM will write a plot event around this.  Another player may or may not need to play your character for this initial scene, so keep your character stats and notes available to the GM.
  • Quorum is 50% of Regular Players:  If fewer than 50% of the regular players are able to make the game, regardless of the GM's plans, the game is cancelled.  If 50% of the players are present, the GM has "quorum" and should run the game (unless, as above, a player whose character was necessary for the scenario had an emergency and cancelled with less than 48 hours notice).
  • The GM Must Run for Who is Coming:  It is the GM's responsibility to run the game for all the players who have not cancelled with 48 hours notice.  If the GM intends to present a scenario that requires a certain player (or all players), the GM will ensure that all of the players will be present for that scenario: The GM will find out who will be present ahead of the game day.  If the required player(s) are unavailable, the GM will plan a different scenario (filler encounters, a side plot, an unexpected complication, etc.) instead of cancelling the game.  And the GM will not let the players know it's filler -- it should be as well-designed as the regular scenario if possible.
  • Remote Players Abide by Table Customs:  If you play remotely (via Skype, Hangout, etc.), you must remain on camera as much as a "live" player is expected remain at the table, have functional equipment, handle your own tech support, and close all programs and browser windows on your computer other than the teleconferencing window and anything else needed specifically for the game at hand (character sheet, game wiki, etc.).  
  • Frequently Absent Players are Guest Stars:  If a player misses game sessions frequently, the GM may consider them a "guest star."  The GM should not plan for scenarios that require the guest star to attend.  If the GM allows a guest star, he should prepare games such that the guest star's character is taken into account.  Guest stars are not counted against quorum.  (e.g., if there are 4 players and 1 guest star, 2 players still counts as quorum.)  What counts as frequent absence is between the GM and the absent player, and they should come to an agreement about the player's status between games.
  • OPTIONAL:  Good Samaritan Reward:  A player who writes a session summary for the group gets a reward.  The group has to cover his week to buy pizza.  Or... He finds the lowest level magic item off his wish list.  Or... He gets a full Refresh of his Willpower, or one of his Abilities, etc.  Or... Some other perk, determined by group consensus.
  • OPTIONAL:  Absence Penalty:  If you miss a session, you are required to bring chips/beer/soda/etc. to the next session.  If you are a remote player and miss a session, obviously this is impractical.  I guess you get a pass.  It sucks having to play remote, anyway.

(I've been told my blog uses cutting edge graphics... for 1998.)

If you want an alternative for infrequent, long-format games, here's a ready-to-use rule you can use for your troupe, the...

Gamerunner's Long-Format Attendance Rules

  • Consensus Scheduling:  The game will be scheduled using a survey so that everyone is available for every session.  The game will be scheduled at least two weeks ahead of the date of game.  The players all have input into the date choices and time choices this way.  The date and time of game will be determined to be the date and time that every player is available to commit.  Players will be responsible adults and seek childcare, spousal permission, or time off from work at least two weeks before game.
  • No Cancellations Except Emergencies:  Once committed, players will prioritize the game over other leisure or social functions.  Allowances will be made for acute health problems (especially contagious illnesses), major unexpected family responsibilities, and unavoidable work requirements.  A player who can't make the entire session due to an emergency must either attend at least 4 hours of the game session or none of it (it's too disruptive otherwise).
  • Four Hours or Nothing:  If a player can't come to game for at least 4 hours, the player should not come to game.  The player should consider this during scheduling and when deciding if he needs to make an emergency cancellation.
  • Absent Players' Characters are Written Out:  If a player is absent from the game for more than 4 hours, his character will be written out of the story -- sentenced to prison, captured by powerful and mysterious foes, killed (in many games this is temporary), questions his commitment, called away to greater responsibilities, trapped in a space-time rift, cursed to eternal slumber, etc.  The GM will write a plot event around this.  Another player may or may not need to play the absent player's character for this scene, so keep your character stats and notes available to the GM.
  • Quorum is 50% of Regular Players:  If fewer than 50% of the regular players are able to make the game, regardless of the GM's plans, the game is cancelled.  If 50% of the players are present, the GM has "quorum" and should run the game.
  • The GM Must Run for Who is Coming:  It is the GM's responsibility to run the game for all the players.  If the GM intends to present a scenario that requires a certain player (or all players), the GM will have to change her plans on the fly.  The players will be understanding about this.
  • Remote Players Abide by Table Customs:  If you play remotely (via Skype, Hangout, etc.), you must remain on camera as much as a "live" player is expected remain at the table, have functional equipment, handle your own tech support, and close all programs and browser windows on your computer other than the teleconferencing window and anything else needed specifically for the game at hand (character sheet, game wiki, etc.).  
  • The GM Keeps the Sheets:  Given the infrequency of game sessions, players should take notes.  Players will then leave character sheets, notes, and player handouts with the GM in the Party Folder between games.  They may make copies of anything they need, or ask the GM to scan/fax/etc. stuff for their reference between games (or just visit the GM to look at it) if they really want.  
  • Break Policy:  It's a long game, so players are not expected to ignore email, SMS, and phone calls all day.  Smokers aren't required to go cold turkey.  Etc.  Bathroom breaks and stepping away from the table to make a quick call are fine.  Any break that will last more than 5 minutes, however, will stop the whole game.  Any player may call for a 10- or 15-minute break at any time, as often as needed, with no explanation.  The troupe trusts that this won't be abused, and that if a player needs very frequent breaks because of an emergency at home, work, or with his health, he will leave the game for it.  Further, the GM will call for official breaks every few hours regardless of the players' needs, because people need breaks, and the GM is best suited to predict the best time for a break, based on the NPCs' actions and scenario.  Try to schedule breaks at a natural break in the tension.
  • OPTIONAL:  Read the Session Summaries:  The GM will write session summaries, describing the events of the previous session.  These take a lot of work, and all players are expected to read them before each game session.  
  • OPTIONAL:  Meal Breaks:  Meals during game will take place at a break time set by the GM with player input.  The GM do her best to start and finish eating first (if there's any question), because she needs to start preparing to resume the game before the players do. If the players leave the location for meals, the GM will set a time, and everyone will be back at the table before that time.

I developed these two policies based on my ideas of what's worked for me as a policy for absent players for the last 20 years or so.  If you're just starting as a GM, feel free to copy these word for word for your game, with or without attribution, yada yada.  Use them or change them as you see fit.  Definitely feel free to edit these policies as you implement them.

Having a written (or emailed or wiki-posted) policy for your group may not be necessary if you've played with them for a long time.  It might help established groups to write up their customs for new players.  It might help new groups, organized play GMs, or new GMs to write their policy, even if they're experienced roleplayers.

October 4, 2013

GM Tips from GUMSHOE

I’ve recently read Night's Black Agents (thanks to the Bundle of Holding and my pal Dave).  There are two great innovations in its system, GUMSHOE, that I wanted to share.  These two innovations may be adaptable as GM techniques in any system. 

Investigation is about Deduction not Perception

The innovation:  When following a plot, players never fail to find a core clue.  In character creation, the GM ensures that the players, between them, have taken every important investigative skill needed for his campaign.  Typically, that just means making sure the players take at least one point in every investigative skill.  Core clues are the clue that leads to the next scene – the clue that’s important for the plot to progress.  Whichever PC has that skill (or the most points in it) is the one who finds the core clue in each scene.  They find it simply by asking a question even vaguely related to it.  There’s no roll or expenditure required.

Why it’s great:  Mystery solving is supposed to be about figuring out what the clues mean, not simulating the process of searching for the clues.  Worse, if the PCs don’t find a core clue, what are you going to do?  End the adventure?

Adaptation:  Ensure that all of the skills available in the game are spread among your players’ characters.  Rating is irrelevant.  When a core clue comes up, the PC with the most in that skill automatically finds it simply by looking for it.

Skills are Spotlight Sharing

The innovation: In GUMSHOE, all die rolls are 1d6 vs. a target number.  Characters with 1 in the skill roll the same die against the same number as characters with 10 in the skill.  The skill rating defines a temporary pool that can be spent on a one time basis to add to any given die roll.  So you could spend 3 Shooting to roll 1d6+3 instead of 1d6 on an attack roll, for instance.  Investigative skills have no die roll – you just make a spend of 1-3 points to automatically gain information that gives your character an advantage (either information beyond the core clue that could help you, or an advantage with your general skills).  The effect of the spends rule is that players have to share the spotlight.  If they go on an “Infiltration” skill heavy mission, the character with the best Infiltration is going to get the most spotlight time, but he will eventually run out, and the other characters with Infiltration will get a chance to shine as well.  In most games, there’s one character with Stealth, and that character does all the scouting.  In GUMSHOE, that character eventually runs out of points and others have to take over.

Why it’s great:  Normally your PCs will focus on different tasks, so that spotlight is shared by sharing who is good at what task.  But then only the stealthy character ever uses stealth, and only the good driver ever drives, etc.  The other characters – and other players – never get to enjoy doing other tasks.  Characters become focused tools that only get used to do a few things, rather than generally competent heroes, like they’re supposed to be.  GUMSHOE fixed that.

Adaptation:  You can’t copy the full glory of the GUMSHOE spotlight sharing mechanic without house rules, but you can use mechanics that exist in every game to encourage rather than discourage spotlight sharing.  In a lot of games, skills like Driving and Stealth are better if one character does the task and the others wait.  The reason being that if one character fails, there is catastrophic consequence, so it’s better to trust the character with the highest rating to handle the task alone.  Most RPGs have a “working together” mechanic, though.  It may initially strike you as unrealistic/counter-intuitive, but consider using PC cooperation as a bonus in these sorts of situations rather than a penalty.  If five characters go scouting together, let the one with the highest skill make the roll “that counts” and let the others make rolls to give him bonuses or do other tasks.  It actually makes sense:  A scout works better with a lookout and someone making a diversion.  A car chase works better with other cars to serve as decoys or to cut the fugitive off and channel him into a dead end.  A sniper works better with a spotter and ground support.  A hacker needs help with social engineering, research, and data analysis.  (Etc.)

Try these adapted innovations and come back and tell me how it works.  As for me, I'm going to try running Night's Black Agents.

September 27, 2013

Last Words on Next

I will buy the D&D Next Player's Handbook.

I wanted to get that out of the way before I continue.  Wizards just released the final public playtest packet, and Mike Mearls discussed some of the rules they'll be working on with internal design and playtesting.  That tells me that now is the last chance to comment on D&D Next before Wizards starts setting things in stone.  With no currently supported edition, they're under pressure to complete Next and release it, so they're going to be committing to system soon.

So this post is going to be harshly critical, but not intentionally mean.  That's the point of that first statement.  I'm loyal to D&D, and will at least buy the core product, but whether I buy much more than that depends on how good the system is.


Most of the time, when designers make an RPG, they use one of two processes.  First, if it's a new edition of a past game, they take an old edition, add a few smart new mechanics, and fix problems with the old mechanics.  This is how AD&D Second Edition came out of AD&D First Edition, or how the God Machine Chronicle rules update arose from the Storytelling system.

More often, even with some new editions of old rules, the designers build an entirely new game first.  With new editions, the new game often resembles the old game and uses a similar core mechanic, like how 3rd edition D&D replaced 2nd edition AD&D.  The process for designing a new RPG system is pretty clear -- I follow lots of these guys' blogs and twitters.  I'm friends with the Asylum developers.  Their process seems pretty logical:

1. Draft a functioning game system
2. Playtest the draft
3. Poll the playtesters and assess the market
4. Present the game based on your new idea of its essential nature

Mike Mearls, for all his love of D&D, sort of did this process backwards for D&D Next.

1. Present the game based on your new idea of its essential nature
2. Playtest the draft
3. Poll the playtesters and assess the market

And presumably, according to his latest post on the design process...

4. Draft a functioning game system

D&D is a core system with a lot of emergent elements.  I'm not just using those words to sound smart.  The game is a basic idea of a 20 sided die rolled, modified by one of six attributes, and compared to a target number.  As players progress, their characters advance in level, which adds hit points and emergent system elements.  Emergent elements are rules options (such as bonuses, spells, weapons, items, etc.) that emerge from a core system.  A well crafted game has a set of rules-about-rules that can be used to generate emergent elements.  By having a system for creating emergent elements, a "meta-system," you're not just pulling them out of your ass and playtesting them to see if they're unbalanced, you're actually being intentional and goal directed about design and balance.  Playtesting is still necessary because nothing's perfect, and combinations can have unexpected effects.

Next does not seem to have been built with a meta-system.  Each playtest packet to date has been immensely different from the last.  Classes and abilities seem to come out of nowhere, and trap choices and overpowered options abound.  The "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" method may actually work for D&D because of the vast number of playtesters, but depending on your playtesters is dangerous.

D&D Next resembles AD&D 2nd edition Player's Option.  Forum posters are calling it 2.5.  Mike even said in that last post that the tactical combat rules will resemble Player's Option.  Depending on feedback from your players is dangerous because their idea of what is "iconic" about D&D is based on nostalgia, for those that have it.  And for most players old enough to be nostalgic about D&D, the edition they played first or most was probably 2nd edition AD&D.

I'm Being Unhelpful, I Know

If I were the D&D Next Design Team, I'd be pretty pissed about this blog post right now.  To this point, I'm guilty of not providing constructive criticism - just gripes.  "OK, if you say it's bad, what do you suggest we do about it?"  I apologize.  I'm afraid I can't give advice like "make all fighters use the Gladiator mechanic" or "return feats to 3rd edition style" or whatever.  The flaw is that there is no backbone "meta-system" that generates and regulates all the emergent elements.  What math balances wizards with fighters?  What's the target number of rounds in a combat?  What's the target number of encounters in an adventuring day?  Is it based on a sense of the encounters/day in actual past modules, playtests, or surveys?  How much damage does a paralysis status effect equate to?  What is the ordinal or tier of power of every status effect?  What math keeps monster ACs bounded by level?  What math is used to determine a monster's damage output and other numbers based on its level, and what system is used to introduce balanced variation to that?

Here are some particular recommendations:


Keep Magic Items
You have a great system for magic items.  Keep it.  I hate the way 3.5, Pathfinder and 4e make magic items about as special as a trip to the grocery store.  Your bonded items system is great.

Ditch Vantage
Throw out Advantage/Disadvantage (Vantage).  The idea is smart -- rolling two dice at the same time requires less arithmetic.  The problem with these is that they don't stack.  If you use Vantage too much, one bonus will cancel a stack of penalties, or vice versa.  If you reserve it for just a few effects, you've still got to use arithmetic for most modifiers, and static modifiers and Vantage interact very poorly, especially in a system with bounded accuracy.  I recommend that you keep Vantage as a GM-supplied situational modifier.  That is, don't include spells, class features, etc. to allow the players to reliably cause Disadvantage or gain Advantage (such as Bardsong).  Let the GM hand it out as she sees fit.

Throw Everything Else Out
Throw out your monsters, classes, etc.  Go back to the drawing board and build a meta-system that you can use to generate your classes, races, monsters, spells, attacks, weapons -- everything.  It's pretty clear that the 15 minute workday isn't a problem except when some classes have daily abilities and others don't.  That needs to be addressed, and giving casters fewer spells won't do it.  At the very least, explain that once the game hits level 7 or so, every adventure needs to be under time pressure to keep the PCs from resting every encounter!

Design for the Game; Write for the Icon
Instead of building a game out of the fans' ideas of what is iconic about D&D, build a great game, and then present it in a way that evokes the fans' ideas of what is iconic about D&D.

Include a Narrative Mechanic if That's Your Goal
You might want to build a more narrative-focused version of D&D.  That's great, actually.  I mean, the game has moved toward a simulation / game focus in 3rd and 4th edition, so it may be time for a narrative edition.  Building a lighter, easier, more narrative version of D&D is great...  if!

If you're aware of the light, narrative games out there.  If you make design decisions based on putting players in more of an author or even director stance.  If you make design decisions based on giving players more narrative control.  If you involve mechanics that help the GM build hooks into every session (13th Age's icons, FATE's aspects, a replacement for Alignment that involves story hooks, faction association baked into character creation like in Vampire, etc.).  That's a big if, and the playtest editions of Next so far fall very short.

So adapt, borrow, or design some narrative mechanics or stop telling me your game supports GMs telling a story instead of rolling dice just because the rules are less tactical.

Start Supporting Every Line
Dear WOTC:  It's your worst nightmare.  The small market that fantasy tabletop RPGs serve is divided up between Pathfinder, 3.5, 4e, and Next.  But that's the reality.  Even if Next is fantastic, the market will still be divided.  Personally, I'm in a 3.5 game, two 4e games, and a Pathfinder game -- so even a single gamer can be divided!  Publishing Next isn't going to fix this.

So, WOTC, you're going to lose money unless you start supporting every line.  Maybe even Pathfinder.  Go ahead and publish Next with or without my advice (probably without -- you don't have time to read every little blog); but if you want to make any money, you're going to need to support every line.  Actually, you might already know this.  I recall Murder in Baldur's Gate is just such a product...

These are my last words on Next until it's published.  See you then, PHB in hand.

September 20, 2013

Incorporating New Players - Troubleshooting

There are several kinds of barriers to participation in RPGs.  I won't be touching on the kind that the GM (you) can't do anything about.  This post is mostly about troubleshooting problems with new players.  I might want to do a post on social contract soon.  Here's what someone else said:

Stated Barrier:  I don't know these people that well.
Translation:  I don't feel comfortable acting or sharing the fruits of my imagination with people I don't know and trust.
Problem:  The new player feels vulnerable.  Even if he plays your game, he will hold back.
Solution:  Establish a norm of honest openness among your players.  Don't let them explain how they get into character or play the game.  Encourage them to ham it up and acknowledge how silly they appear.  Remember that even one criticism could shut down the new player.  Model hammy behavior by doing voices, embarrassing yourself, and generally showing trust by going out on a limb for yourself, too.

Stated Barrier:  I feel out of my depth with this setting.
Translation:  The other players seem to know a lot about the world this game is set in, and I feel constrained in my creativity.  While they can invent ideas and interpret the world, I feel like I can't.
Solution:  Bend the world to fit this player.  Make it clear that there is no inviolable canon.  If she says she's a Tremere who defected to the Sabbat but came back, don't explain all the many reasons that's not possible.  Instead bend the setting to make that possible.  Use the setting to make it more interesting, but not punitive or un-fun.  Maybe she was a sleeper agent and doesn't know it yet!  Maybe she was an experiment in breaking Vaulderie!  To hell with the canon.
Note:  This is one of the reasons that organized play -- be it One World By Night or Pathfinder Society -- has a greater barrier to entry than troupe play.

Stated Barrier: I don't get these rules.
Translation:  The rules, or just the presence of rules, probably seems too complex for the character.
Solution:  One easy solution is to just take away the rule book and handle all the system for them.  Some games make this easier than others (though even in something as detailed as Pathfinder or 4e D&D, there's a class for this sort of player).  A better solution is to start slow.  Starting slow is good for pacing in general, but it also works for people shy about rules.  If your sheet is a tangle of numbers and everything you try fails, you start to feel like you can't crack the code.  If, instead, you tend to succeed at almost everything, you'll start exploring and trying crazy new things.  If those don't work out, you don't feel like it's your fault for not understanding the system.  There is a problem with starting slow:  Poor party balance can prevent this solution from working.  If you start off with easy rolls, to give a newbie player a 90% success rate, but the rest of the table has optimized sheets, they'll be pushing for insane stunts (because they can) and the newbie player will go back to feeling like he can't crack the code.  Games where character build is important (Vampire LARP, Pathfinder) tend to experience this problem more often.

Stated Barrier: ...
Translation:  This player is a wallflower or is feeling excluded.
Solution:  Wallflowers, you can draw out by giving them opportunities and challenges.  Reward their contribution, and make them feel like how they responded to the challenge or how they took advantage of an opportunity was a clever choice.  Empower their contributions and they will contribute to the point where they're comfortable -- but usually not more.  Some people are just naturally wallflowers.  Another solution for wallflowers is to make sure your eager players know to step back.  Step forward/step back is a facilitation technique used by professional meeting facilitators to remind participants that some people just talk more than others, and it's OK as long as they know to consciously step back and wait after they've finished. 

Stated Barrier:  I feel like they don't like me.
Translation:  You may actually have to draw this one out of the player.  They may appear as a wallflower for a while before expressing this to you, if ever!  They feel excluded.
Solution:  There isn't always a solution.  If a player is feeling excluded, there's one of two problems.  One, it can be because the other players are excluding them.  This is common and typical human behavior toward someone you don't like.  You may wish to talk to the opinion leaders among your other players to see why.  They should tell you if they don't like the new player (see below!).  Groups of friends don't always accept a newcomer, though, so it may be irreparable.  You may just have to remove the new player.  There should be no hard feelings.  I have friends I wouldn't play golf with or talk about politics with or game with.  They're perfectly cool people, but sometimes personalities clash!  Alternately, it could be because the player feeling excluded perceives that he is being excluded and is afraid to participate -- but the other players like them.  Usually it's the other players' behavior making the new player feel excluded inadvertently.  Geeks can often geek out about things.  That's what makes them geeks.  Anyone "not in the know" will naturally feel excluded.  If all your old players are Trekkies and the new player isn't, he might feel like all the Trek-geeking is intentional snubbing -- especially if it's a Star Trek RPG!  In this case, you can get the other players to help the new player feel more included with social interactions outside of game, talk about personal lives, other hobbies, and other OOC chit chat. They may still be at a disadvantage in Trek talk, but they'll know it's not intentional snubbing now.

Stated Barrier:  None.  You don't like this new player.
Translation:  Someone invited a new player you don't like.
Solution:  Tell the person who invited the new player immediately -- or at least as soon as you realize that the new person is more unpleasant than you can handle (this might take a several sessions, unfortunately).  You don't have to be mean.  Here's a script.  Feel free to use it without attribution:

"I don't think the new person and I get along.  I don't feel good about having them at game.  I'm sure they're nice and cool and all -- it's just we don't mesh."

NOTE TO MY PLAYERS AND CO-PLAYERS:  I like you all!  This is not about you.