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January 25, 2013

GMing Sim Play - Scaffolds and Boundaries

One of the coolest things about roleplaying games for players of all creative agendas is what's called Simulationist Play.  The D&D Next designers are calling it the "Exploration Pillar."  It's something you can't do very well in board games or video games.  I'll call it Sim Play because in a tabletop RPG, you're immersing yourself in a simulated world, and the more verisimilitude you can get, the more accessible this sort of play becomes.

Sim Play in Video Games

Video games do attempt this style of play, and it's called "sandbox play" in video game design.  Games like Scribblenauts, Civilization or Skyrim give you "sandbox" options.  In effect, they set boundaries for what you can do, and then give you a scaffold to help you do it.  The boundaries are the game's limitations on what you can try.  The scaffold is the nature of the problem the game wants you to creatively solve, so that some options work better than others.  Part of the scaffold is how the game communicates which options are going to be more effective.  You can do anything within the boundaries, and anything supported by the scaffold is likely to be more effective than things not supported.

Scribblenauts is an excellent example of a ludic / exploration pillar / sim play / sandbox game.  In Super Scribblenauts, a 2D platformer where you can enter words to create items out of thin air, you may be challenged to tame a lion.  You find yourself on a ledge looking down into a pit with an angry lion in it.  You can walk around, climb into the pit, and create anything in the Scribblenauts dictionary.  The boundaries are the 2D world, your movement options (climbing back out of the pit doesn't work!) and the list of things you can make in the Scribblenauts dictionary.  The scaffold is written into the specific challenge. It helps that you don't have to tame a lion before it can eat you, so you have time.  It helps that you can climb down into the pit if you want, if your idea involves touching the lion or putting some other object near it.  The scaffold also includes the information that your goal is to tame the lion (not kill it, not scare it away).  Most importantly, it includes the secret list of items that are effective at taming lions.

You could enter "Lion Tamer."  Easy answer!  Too bad the game doesn't have that in the dictionary -- so that's outside the boundaries of the challenge.  You could climb down and try to jump on the lion's back.  The lion would just kill you.  That action is not supported by the scaffold.  You could enter "Wings" and drop them on the lion, but now he will just fly up and kill you.  That's in bounds but not supported by the scaffold. You could also enter "love potion" and send it down to the lion, who would eat it and become tame.  That would be in bounds and supported.  Other options would be "whip" to make yourself a lion tamer, "scary bodyguard" to go down in the pit with and scare the lion into submission, or "treats" or "steak" to make it love you.

Sim Play in RPGs

Roleplaying games offer even more creative opportunities than Scribblenauts.  They have far wider boundaries and far more granular scaffolds.

Breadth of Boundaries
In a roleplaying game, you are not limited to the items that the game's creator specifically designed to be interactive.  A GM can describe a prison cell to you, and you can start to explore the "blank space" that the GM did not specify.  "Is there a window?"  "What do I see out it?"  "How is the window secured?"  "Are there other prisoners?"  "Did the guard smell like booze?"

Granularity of Scaffolding
In Scribblenauts, either the steak tames the lion or it doesn't.  In Pathfinder, for instance, it may give you an Equipment Bonus to a Handle Animal check to tame the lion.  It is more effective to try to tame a lion with a steak than without; but a love potion would be even more effective.  Scribblenauts could never implement such a granular system because it would have to consider the relative effectiveness of every object, with every possible modifier word, used in every possible way, for every challenge.  In a tabletop RPG, the GM is there to do just that!

In order for this kind of ludic play to actually be fun it has to have all the elements of good GMing:  A strong hook, transparent communication, and fair application of rules.

One of the problems with stat+skill systems, for instance, is that sometimes the player doesn't know what stat+skill the GM will call on him to use.  In a World of Darkness game, predicting when a wino prison guard gets drunk could be a Composure+Empathy (get a feel for his current level of craving) check, a Wits+Socialize (guess when he will go drinking) check, or an Intelligence+Medicine (understanding the patterns of addicts and analyzing the guard's symptoms and patterns) check or any number of other options. This fairly demolishes the scaffold:  Players have only some vague idea what works better, because they could be called upon to roll something they didn't anticipate and aren't good at.

On the other hand, more detailed systems may be very clear about what skills do what, while going overboard on rules and tables and modifiers.  In the 4th edition Shadowrun system, swimming from a sinking ship to the shore involves one clear skill...  and a page of modifiers.  If you created a Sim Play scene in Shadowrun 4 where one option was swimming, the players would probably avoid that option just because of the hideous rules for it.  The Stealth rules in Pathfinder, for example, are a huge improvement over d20/3.5ed because they remove some of the daunting and annoying complexity of the previous edition's system.  While you knew what skills did what, very clearly, you could never predict how hard the roll would be!

The hook is also important for scaffolding:  If the players find themselves in a prison cell, they may not be sure if this is an opportunity to prepare for their trial, or an escape scene.  The GM needs to clearly communicate the scene's objective.

Finally, and most importantly, you need to consider and communicate the boundaries the players have such as time, resources, space, location, and people.  Breaking out of a minimum security prison by the end of the week with the aid of a corrupt prison guard and allies on the outside is a different challenge from breaking out of a serial killer's basement dungeon where nobody knows you are, using only the equipment on your character sheet minus any weapons and obvious tools, before he gets back from his trip to the hardware store in an hour or so.  Ironically enough, despite (or because of) the fact that tabletop RPGs are the most open-ended medium for of ludic play, boundaries are crucial.

Be Intentional

Always use Sim Play intentionally.  Plan the beginning hook and the end condition, and then carefully design the scaffolding and boundaries for the space inside.  Running good Sim Play is a lesson I've learned the hard way.  As a very gamist/narrativist player, sim play can be frustrating to me.  (Where's the story choices?  Where's the risk/reward trade-off?  Why aren't the options presented in a distinct and balanced way and connected to story outcomes?)  Consequently, it's a skill that took me longer to develop as a GM.

Part of what helped me develop this skill are the skill challenges in 4th edition D&D.  Initially I hated skill challenges -- from a gamist perspective they're unbalanced, especially compared to the rest of 4e.  From a narrativist perspective, the players' ideas don't actually change the story outcome -- they either pass or fail, or pass with 1 or 2 failed rolls.  That's an outcome matrix with only 4 possibilities, and they seem like game outcomes, rather than intentional story choices for the players.

Then I designed and ran my first skill challenge as a GM...  I learned that the point was to create a very carefully bounded option space, scaffolded by a clear objective and clear starting point, and scaffolded by a limited and comprehensive skill list with a high degree of transparency.  Rituals, skill powers, equipment and feats also help expand the boundaries and make the scaffold more interesting.  The rules for skill challenges require the GM to set the boundaries (What is the hook?  What are the win and lose conditions?  Who has to participate and how much?) and design the scaffold (What skills are more or less appropriate?  What are some other ways skills can be used to help?  What are some advantages the players can call on?).  Then the GM can insert the challenge into the game organically:  "You need to navigate this icy mountain pass.  There is slippery, treacherous footing; hard climbs; confusing switchbacks; bitter, unendurable cold; and orcish scouts looking for you."  The description hooks the players into the scene, gives them the boundaries (location: mountain pass; time: before the cold kills you; objective: navigate through to the other side; fail condition: death or capture by orcs; possible penalties for failed rolls:  battle with orc scouts, losing health to the cold or painful falls).

Better yet, skill challenges are uncomplicated enough that they can be mixed into combat encounters, designed on the fly, or modified on the fly without causing problems.

This taught me that Sim Play can be done well, done carefully, and fun.  The 4e skill challenge system has its flaws, and I think a lot of what I've discovered about it needed to be written into the DMG.  But it gives the game a lot of depth without adding complexity.  Putting a structure like skill challenges around Sim Play scenes is an innovation that needs to be replicated!

Summary Toolbox

Sim play scenes can be amazing creative opportunities for the players.  But to make them amazing, they need to be carefully and transparently bounded, with scaffolding to prepare the GM and players for the problem solving process.  Think some things through when designing a sim scene.  It doesn't take much - just a little prep:

  1. Determine the boundaries of the scene:  
    • Space - where does it take place, and what are the limits of the space that are relevant to the scene?
    • Time - What is the time frame for this scene?
    • People - Who is involved, what are their plans, and what will it take to get them to help?
    • Resources - What are the resources available to the PCs?
  2. Scaffold the scene:
    • What are some possible solutions?  Decide on mechanics for them (skill check difficulties, resource costs, etc.)
    • What solutions should be easier?  (It's simplest for a GM to select a handful of "privileged" strategies and give them bonuses or lower difficulties.)
    • What will trigger failure conditions?  How will that work?  (You will encourage more creative play with a three strikes system rather than a zero tolerance system.)

January 18, 2013

Conflict Resolution Options

I have been running Madness at Gardmore Abbey for a diverse player group.  They just completed the Crypt section, which is the only straightforward dungeon in the module.

Warning: The initial part of this post has some mild spoilers for that one part of the module.  Nothing I say will ruin it for you, but just in case, I'll let you know where to skip to if you really hate spoilers.

January 11, 2013


LARP Prep Manifesto

Regardless of how much plot has been written,
the bottleneck 
is where the drama of the plot 
is transmitted from the writer 
to the players 
in the form of opportunities for action 
to resolve (or cause) the conflict

Your goal in preparing for your LARP is 
to create opportunities 
for the players' characters 
to take action 
to resolve dramatic conflict
(or to cause dramatic conflict) 
in a meaningful way.

A story outline is not enough.
You must provide structured opportunities
for meaningful dramatic action.

Structured opportunities
for dramatic action account for
Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How
the conflict will be
introduced and resolved.

Generally, 1 hour of prep time is sufficient
to craft 10 player-hours of dramatic action.

Different Styles: Slight Variations

In an adventure style game,
opportunities for dramatic action are
events that tell a story
over which the players’ characters
have meaningful control
despite an interesting challenge
that offers a chance for risk-taking,
which is making consequential decisions
with limited information.

In an Elysium style game
opportunities for dramatic action are events
with uncertain outcomes
over which the players’ characters
have meaningful control
relating to an issue over which there is
conflict between player-characters
important enough that they may 
be willing to take action despite the cost.

Between-Game Activity (BGA) responses
can be used as structured opportunities for dramatic action.
To that end, they should not merely respond to the activity:

In Adventure style LARP,
BGA responses should provide hooks
or exposition
related to the activity.

In Elysium style LARP,
BGA responses should introduce
or advance
a contested issue.

January 4, 2013

Try Something New

This is going to be an eclectic post.

First, I want to share's 2012 Year in Review.  In it, they explain how D&D had its worst year since 1975, and Pathfinder isn't doing so well either, especially in traditional sales.  Yet, there is a bright side for gaming:  20 different RPGs made over $100,000 on kickstarter (technically 19 since two of them were for the Pathfinder MMO), and three RPG related kickstarters made over a million bucks.

Contingency Envelopes

Next, I feel like I need to share some practical advice for LARP GMs.  I mentioned several GM techniques in the post titled Giving Back a while ago, and I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss one of them in detail, so that other LARP GMs can use it.

I want to describe a contingency envelope.  This is a technique I learned from the LARPA crowd.  It's astonishing how simple and versatile it is.

A contingency envelope is an envelope given to a player not as an in-game prop but a piece of out of game information.  The envelope is labeled with the contingency that triggers the player to open it, for instance:

Open at 10:15pm.
Open if asked about John Dee.
Open if a GM says "Contingency A"
Open if you hear someone speak Russian
Open if you are a Malkavian  
Time-based contingencies allow GMs to create events that only a few players are aware of, without doing anything to break the flow of the action.  For instance, the envelope "Open at 10:15pm" could be part of a intrigue-filled LARP about intelligence analysts commanding field agents. The paper inside could say "You receive a text message on your secure phone from your field operative: 'WE HAVE A MOLE. COVER BLOWN. GOING DARK.'"  Meanwhile one player would get a message "Your agent texts you on your burner phone 'The anthill has been kicked.'."  All of a sudden a few players in the game would be tipped off to the presence of a mole, and the mole, who spent the whole night setting a patsy up to appear to be the real mole, is watching the chaos unfold.

"If asked" contingencies allow the GM to make player-characters into NPCs.  The envelope must contain seemingly innocuous information that even a paranoid character would not feel was important, but in the context of another player's character's plot, it is.  For instance, in an Elizabethan occult LARP, a faction of PCs may be trying to learn where John Dee is summoning angels tonight.  The contingency envelope may say "This morning, you saw John Dee's ornate carriage, with his bizarre glyph on it as usual, leaving Richmond upon Thames for the countryside.  This is not interesting or unusual, and though you remember it, it is just one of many mundane things that you observed in London today."  Several such clues could be seeded through the game.

GM announcement contingencies allow the GM to trigger subtle events or specific information to be released secretly, without a specific time.  For instance, the GM of a Vampire LARP could be running a plot where an infernalist poses as an anarch and builds a faction of malcontents who oppose the Sheriff, providing them a secure base of operations, free resources such as Transportation influence to get around the city without the Sheriff observing, etc.  Then when he is ready to topple the tower, as it were, he could pass out "Contingency A" envelopes to all of the characters with Auspex, containing the words "The character the GM is pointing at smells like brimstone."  Then the GM can point at the infernalist and quietly say "Contingency A" to a player instead of shouting out secret information to the the entire game and diverting everyone's attention.

Object contingency envelopes are meant to stay with the object.  Unlike personal ones, the players must return the contents to the envelope and keep the envelope with/on the object, so that other characters eligible to open it can do so, given the chance.

Gatekeeper envelopes are object envelopes that can only be opened by players whose characters have specific traits.  For instance, the GM could put spray painted graffiti on the wall (use roll paper or silly string) with an envelope that says "Malkavian Characters Only" inside which is the secret meaning of the graffiti, within the Malkavian Madness Network.  Or the GM could put a laptop computer in play (using an actual laptop as the prop) with "Open if you attempt to crack the password on this computer and have Computer skill of 4 or higher" on an envelope.  Inside the envelope is the password to get into the computer, if the character attempts to hack it.  You can use these envelopes for locked doors ("Open if your character is carrying lockpicks and has Larceny 2+, or no lockpicks and Larceny 5"), clues at crime scenes ("Open if your character has Search 3 or higher") stuff in foreign languages ("Open if your character speaks French").


The benefits of contingency envelopes are saving GM time and cast, and reducing GM-system access time:

  • The GM does not need to recruit cast for NPCs if he has PCs ask other PCs for information as part of an investigation scene.
  • The GM does not need to run an investigation scene himself.  He can just send the players off to do it.
  • The investigation scene does not leave the game space, and the investigators get to stay available for roleplay with the other characters.  In fact, they have to manage their time carefully, balancing their investigation with other pressing business.
  • In an Adventure style game, this forces one faction to "share" their plot -- if four PCs are on a John Dee plot, and they ask 12 other PCs about John Dee, it gives 12 other players a chance to try to get in on their plot by offering to help investigate, or asking more questions back. 
  • In an Adventure style game, the GM can use object contingencies to minimize the amount of time he spends using the system.  Instead of a note that says "Locked, see GM" on a door, the GM can leave the envelope to handle the system.  Even worse than the note, I can imagine players lining up to start a virtual space scene "Hey, GM, we want to break into the chapel."
  • In an Ellysium style game or in a game with competitive/rivalry elements, players can't just ask questions straight!  They have to work their way around to them subtly, so that the other players can't figure out what they're up to.  Imagine if some PCs want John Dee dead and others want to find him and help him.  Both are looking for him, and neither faction knows who is in what faction...
  • The GM can run multiple simultaneous investigations, causing all the players to mill about for an hour, asking each other for information.  Or he could run competing investigations (like the Elysium style example, above).  Or he can run race-against-the-clock investigations combining time contingencies or scheduled events with "if asked."

Coming Next Week: a MANIFESTO for LARP GMs!

(Holy crap!)

January 2, 2013

Happy New Year

Happy new year, readers!

I realize I missed last Friday.  I was playing stay at home dad during holiday week, so you get a Wednesday post this week instead.  I think everyone who runs a game should have New Years Resolutions for their GMing.  New Years is about saying goodbye to the old and hello to the new, so my resolutions are based on those concepts.  Here are mine:  Two endings, some continuation, and a beginning!

1) This is hardly a resolution, as I would probably be strung up for failing to do it:  I will finish up the half-decade-long D&D 3.5 campaign I've been running in a way that satisfies the players.  Then never run 3.x again except maybe guest GMing or one-shots.  The labor involved in designing encounters took too much time, and as levels increased I spent a greater proportion of my time on combat not because there was more combat, but because prepping it took longer and longer.  The second last encounter sitting in my dropbox is 14 pages long, not counting the terrain (6 pages of printed map).  The players in this campaign are great.  The characters and stories have been spectacular.  And the system was actually really good up to around level 6 or 7.  
2) Conclude the story arc for my Vampire LARP character (it's an 80s game; ask me about it in comments below!).  I can see where it may end, and I will leap down that path when it comes.  If it doesn't come by the end of the year, I will retire him and then decide if I want to make a new character or not (and just NPC until the chronicle ends).
3) Continue, continue, continue!  I will continue trying new games.  Exposure to new systems is key to staying up to date as a gamer; and exposure to new GMs is key to your success as a GM.  Also, I will continue and probably complete the long format Madness at Gardmore Abbey runthrough I've started.  Finally, I will continue playing all the tabletop games I'm playing.  Specifically, I resolve to keep better notes in them.  Now I have an iPad, I will try to type up session notes and email them to the other players or keep them in OneNote if I don't feel like tidying them up.
4) Begin, begin, begin!  I will begin playing a new world of darkness LARP, run by people I know and trust to put on a good show, though they're new to some LARP logistics.  But part of citizenship in a community is helping, and while I don't think I will contribute anything to their story (they totally have that covered!) I may be able to help them with logistics, if they want.  I will also begin playing the Pathfinder game that follows after my 3.5 game ends, and I have put a lot of effort into making sure my character fits the GM's idea of the game's themes and direction, and will be mechanically fun to play.  Finally I will start another long-format all-day-long 4e D&D game, with different players, is I can convince my wife to let me out of kid responsibilities for a Saturday every other month.

 Do you have any New Years gaming resolutions?  Commit to them publicly here!