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October 24, 2014

The Essence of the RPG

What makes a tabletop RPG?

People in hobbies sometimes try to define the boundaries of their hobby.  This is usually a conservative move, attempting to defend their hobby against change, evolution, or expansion to new demographics.  I started playing RPGs in 1991, so I became a gamer in the second major evolution of the hobby (the first being its initial expansion in the late 1970s and early 1980s).  My first games were D&D (of course) but also Shadowrun and the World of Darkness, which at the time were packed with innovative ideas and brought new types of play and new types of players into the hobby.  I started LARPing in 1998, and found my LARP and tabletop skills expanded with greater exposure.

All that is a preamble to explain that my attempt to define tabletop RPGs is not a conservative maneuver.  I want to define tabletop RPGs by what they can do, not what they look like.  It's a positive definition, not a negative, exclusionary one.

Here's my working definition:

  1. Tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) are games played by a group of people that is small enough that they can sit around a table and have a conversation.
  2. RPGs involve players playing the role of at least one character in an imaginary, fictional world, with those players working within the imagined space to achieve their characters' goals.  These characters are special, and are often called player-characters or PCs.  
  3. One or more players participates by describing the setting, controlling incidental and supporting characters, offering challenges and conflict relating to the goals of the PCs, and deciding the outcome of PCs' actions to some degree.  The imposition of challenges and conflicts that interfere with the PCs' goals is often called the scenario.  This role is sometimes called the Game Moderator, or GM.  
  4. The rules are descriptive (here's how you can use the system to determine X, if you want) instead of prescriptive (you may only do X).  
  5. The players are empowered to choose their characters' goals and motivations.  Even if some goals are provided for the PCs by the GM (e.g. pre-generated characters) or system (e.g. very focused RPGs), the players are empowered to interpret and control their characters' goals and motivations, add to them, change them, and evolve them.
  6. The player(s) in the GM role have the potential to cause scenario to focus on, respond to, and grow around the goals and actions of the PCs, even as they change.

This definition focuses on both parts of the term "role-playing game."  It includes playing a role (deciding a character's goals and motivations) and having a game (overcoming challenges or resolving conflicts).  Scenarios are stories because they introduce a conflict, and then the protagonists resolve the conflict.  Even the simplest RPG scenario contains all the pieces of a basic plot arc.  Scenarios are games in that they introduce an objective for the players of the game to achieve and a challenge to overcome to achieve it.

In a way, this definition gives us the ideal RPG.  Everything we think of as an RPG is some shadow of this platonic form.  In reality, RPGs are limited.  Before games, the GM and players sit down and agree on a premise, mood and genre (ideally, anyway); tables have a social contract about who makes final decisions; and the rules limit a lot of what the players and even GMs can do.  At the same time, the GM has to decide between preparing content and improvising content.  Prepare too much, and the you wind up railroading the players.  Even if you try not to, the players can tell where the "good" content is, and will follow it.  Prepare too little, and you'll wind up improvising everything, which is fine, except that when I take the time to plan for my scenarios, I can involve more of the PCs' hooks, making the world react to their characters' motivations and goals better.  Perfection is impossible, but I like to try anyway.


I came around to thinking about this question because of a blog post by game designer John Wick and some ensuing discussion on the Tabletop Role-Playing Games Facebook group.  It was pretty good discussion.  Wick's off the cuff blog post was more of a thought exercise than a manifesto, as he explained in the follow-up post and while commenting on Facebook.  There was a lot of criticism of his original post, and some of it with good reason:  He claims that D&D editions up to now were not RPGs, which is somewhat inflammatory.  He's expressed more nuance to it than that, but alone that would seem a rather shocking statement.

What I liked about Wick's post was not the content itself -- I disagree with some of what he says -- but with the approach.  He wants to define what an RPG is by what roleplaying can do, not by what it isn't.  As I said above, I usually stay out of discussions defining the boundaries of my hobbies because I came into it in one of the great expansions of tabletop RPGs, and I love change and growth.  I don't want to close the gates to newcomers or prevent evolution of the hobby at all.  So a positive definition really appealed to me.

In the Facebook group discussion, several of us (Wick included) started expressing our thoughts about the question of "what is distinctive about role-playing?"

It's not in the Rules

You'll notice that my criteria for RPGs are not often represented as rules -- not even in the most popular RPGs.  There might be one or two rules relating to these behaviors, but usually they're implied.  The majority of the RPG rules relate to spells, attacks of opportunity, experience points, damage and healing, and so forth.

Is it so unusual for a game to leave it's most important player behaviors out of the rules?

Consider the game of poker.  The rules of poker define dealing, bidding, folding, drawing, wild cards, suit rank, and order of winning hands, among other things.  They don't codify bluffing.  But without bluffing, poker is a weak game, akin to "war," but with wagers.  Now, poker rules often explain bluffing, but they don't regulate it.  They don't mandate it, proscribe it, simulate it, or prescribe how or when you have to do it.

Tabletop RPGs have traditionally been like poker.  They have a lot of procedural rules for the game, but when it comes to role-playing, they just describe what role-playing is and explain what it's like and why you would want to do it.  They describe making character goals, motivations, quirks, habits, flaws, and relationships; but they don't codify it much.  Sometimes it's included as a small system such as D&D 5th edition's Inspiration mechanic, and occasionally it works well.  But it's almost never a major part of the rules.

However, take a look at the groundbreaking DramaSystem RPG rules.  Role-playing, as set forth above, can be a major part of the system.  It's brand new, and I haven't tried it yet, but goal-seeking and working the scenario around the PCs' goals are the core of the game, and interact with the core system.  The PCs are designed around goals where they want to resolve emotional conflicts with each other, leading to highly dramatic role-play.

Edge cases like Hillfolk / DramaSystem are very instructive.  Let's look at some more...

Everything that follows is a guided tour through some examples that help illustrate why I chose this working definition of what an RPG can do.

Other Edge Cases

To me, the most interesting way to approach the problem is to look at edge cases.  If you want to follow my thought process further, consider these games.  I highly recommend each and every one of them, by the way.  None of these comments are meant to be criticism.  In this section, I discuss story games, board games, video games, and LARP, and what each example tells us about the essence of a tabletop RPG.

Story Games

source: drivethrurpg

Fiasco - Jason Morningstar has said Fiasco is not an RPG, but I disagree.  To me, Fiasco feels very much like an RPG.  You don't have character stats or a static GM (the role is taken by all the other players when it's your turn), but you take on a role, you have a goal, every scene is built around it, you try to achieve it or fail in a fun way, and the outcome of your actions is determined by other players taking the GM role.

source: drivethrurpg

Microscope - By contrast, Microscope claims to be an RPG all over its website (see link).  I won't say it isn't, because I don't want to exclude new ideas; and it sure is a lot of fun.  I recommend you go buy it.  I own it and I love it.  But to me, it doesn't feel like an RPG.  For one, you play whatever character you want, even on your own turns; and the characters you play exist mostly for you to showcase a story event.  You can play Microscope without playing a single character for more than 5 minutes.  But that might just be how it's come across to me when I've played it.  I understand that you can also play it more like a traditional RPG, with a single character you keep the whole time, but even that isn't under your control.  I believe others can play or dictate the actions of characters you invented on their turns.  You aren't even close to being in control of your character's goals and motives over the course of the game.  

Both Fiasco and Microscope have a neat feature:  If your character dies or is otherwise eliminated, you can keep playing!  Both take the philosophy that a player has innate authorship, and doesn't have to influence the game only through his or her character.  This is more pronounced in Microscope, where characters are entirely fluid than Fiasco, which is an engine for interpersonal drama, and therefore is focused on a small cast of characters anyway.  In that way, story games have characteristic #2, but they go far more broad with it than a traditional tabletop RPG.  This is a welcome, super-fun, and refreshing variation; but when taken to an extreme, it stops "feeling" like an RPG, and starts feeling like a really smart method for group story-telling.

Board and Table Games

source: boardgamegeek

Last Night on Earth - I'm including LNoE partly as a contrast to HeroQuest, below.  LNoE gives you a character and lets you move around a town, visit locations, fight zombies, and collect equipment.  Some people play the role of the zombies.  The zombie player(s) feel a lot like GMs.  It has a lot of classic RPG elements, but it doesn't feel like an RPG.  For one, your goal is determined by the scenario card you select at the start of the game and cannot be changed.  The way to win the scenario is static, and while you can change tactics, the strategy is pre-determined.  Acting and conversation are entirely optional.  LNoE also has prescriptive rules (see #4).

source: boardgamegeek

HeroQuest - Here I'm talking about the Milton Bradley board game, not the RPG by Robin D. Laws.  HeroQuest has characters, levels, dungeons, and a DM.  It encourages talking in character between the different characters, but that's not necessary.  It has a static win condition, like LNoE.  It has a lot of similarity to D&D, but it is distinctly different in a lot of ways, as well.  HeroQuest also has prescriptive rules (see #4).  I think the difference between HeroQuest and old school D&D is the essence of an RPG, and I'll discuss it more, below.

source: Games Workshop

Warhammer 40K - Tabletop wargames are where D&D came from.  They have very prescriptive rules.  They rarely have a GM role (though in competition, they have judges).  They don't allow players to set their own goals -- the goal is to beat the other army.  But I can see how RPGs evolved out of tabletop wargames.  In high school, I had a friend devise scenarios for two of us in Warhammer 40K where we each played half of a squad of space marines.  We had a scenario similar to a D&D module, with a goal and mission, and we had to move around a board to achieve it.  He challenged us by having tyranids or other aliens attack.  It was a lot like old school D&D.  Our motivation was to complete the quest -- other motivations really didn't matter.  Our options were limited to our tactical and strategic choices. We could try out of the box solutions like entrenching or destroying terrain, because there was a GM.  But characteristics #5 and 6 were not present.  It didn't feel like an RPG.

source: Wizards of the Coast

D&D - I'm including D&D because John Wick has stated that he thinks it doesn't qualify as a true RPG, being closer to a wargame.  I don't entirely agree with Wick here.  D&D is definitely an RPG.  But what makes it different from HeroQuest?  Is there a distinct difference between the editions in how much they approach the RPG ideal?  To paraphrase what he said in the Facebook conversation, if I have all the things to make a game like HeroQuest in my left hand, and all the things you'd need to change to make it D&D in my right hand, what's in my right hand?  I think my definition, above, works.  HeroQuest has #1, 2, and 3.  But it doesn't approach #4, 5, or 6.  D&D can be a lot like HeroQuest, though.  Consider the 5th edition D&D boxed set module, Lost Mine of Phandelver.  It comes with characters who have pre-scripted goals.  However, #5 and 6 are retained because the players can change or replace those goals, or even make their own characters with entirely new goals, and the DM can respond to them and focus events on those goals.  

Old school D&D play can feel a lot like my high school games of Warhammer 40K or like a HeroQuest board game.  This is Wick's point:  That not only do the old editions of D&D not specifically require true role-play, they were commonly played without it, just like small unit wargames or HeroQuest.

Or were they?  Even old school D&D, which was originally described as a wargame right on the cover, had that je ne sais quoi of broad options for character goals and descriptive rules, allowing for creative approaches to sim scenes.  The first TSR module for first edition, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, had a lot of opportunity to define your character and goals within the framework of the adventure:  One of the first challenges is deciding if your characters would slaughter hill giant children.  That would never come up in HeroQuest.  But the actual experience of the module was still fairly close to a tactical wargame.

I think that in the 1990s, when I was coming into RPGs, there was a great upheaval, and the old wargame style of play grew less prominent, and games started empowering players to take the role of a protagonist.  In that way, over the years, D&D has defined the growth of the RPG:  It was the first RPG, in that its rules allowed the ideal mode of play, but its players took a long time to discover the potential within those rules.  They learned and passed on new social facilitation and fiction writing skills.  Then later editions brought that aspect to the fore and supported it, until 5th edition which directly includes character goals, flaws, and hooks in the system, right on the front of the character sheet, taking up more square inches than the six classic attributes.  The times, they are a-changing.

Video Games and MMORPGs

source: amazon

Skyrim - Skyrim is clearly not a tabletop RPG.  But it has character creation, an open world, and a lot of player choice.  Video game RPGs have prescriptive rules, like Last Night on Earth and HeroQuest -- you can only do the actions that the game system allows.  But this line is blurry.  In Skyrim, the game offers you so many choices it almost feels like you can do anything you want.  But then you try to build a campfire or burn down a hut filled with monsters, and you come up hard against a missing characteristic #4.

source: amazon

Minecraft - Even more interesting than Skyrim is Minecraft's multiplayer mode.  Minecraft lacks a lot of RPG elements.  You don't create a character, and the rules are very prescriptive.  But Minecraft, even in single player mode, has characteristic #5.  There is a "final boss" but most players don't care about it, and quickly decide on their own goals (build a cathedral, visit all the kinds of temples, cross this ocean, get a sweet enchanting lab, etc.).  The game rewards those goals very well.  Minecraft's multiplayer mode adds even more to the goal choices.  It has multiplayer survival mode, a savage world of griefers; it has multiplayer adventure modes, where you're on a Skyrim style quest; etc.  But it doesn't feel like an RPG to me.


World of Warcraft - The link here goes to a page about role-playing in WoW.  WoW feels a lot more like an RPG than Skyrim, even though its quests don't allow the variety of options Skyrim does.  The rules are still very prescriptive.  But especially on RP-PvP servers, the players can select a wide variety of goals (build alliances, depose another character, explore, etc.).  This feels a lot more like an RPG in a lot of ways.  There is also a lore creating a very rich world with a lot of hooks for PvP stories.  WoW RP-PvP servers have the potential to become a lot like Vampire LARPs, where the PCs' main story comes from feuding with each other.

source: wikipedia

Neverwinter Nights - Single player NWN is a lot like Skyrim; but NWN also had a multiplayer mode where people could take the role of DM (see the link) and run adventures like classic D&D.  Tellingly, the computer is very prescriptive -- you can't burn down houses or dig up the pavement to get into the sewers or other creative actions.  But with the DM present, all of a sudden, anything is possible.  The player can tell the DM that he's using the Pyrotechnics spell to set a house on fire, and the DM can decree that the house has burned down -- even though the computer can't handle that.  But because of the effort required to model the world in the computer, and its limitations, it's hard for a NWN DM to be truly as flexible as in a tabletop RPG.  Still, this makes it feel like an RPG.

Live Action Role Plays (LARPs)

Of all the edge case games discussed here, LARP is the closest to tabletop RPGs.  LARP grew out of tabletop RPGs and mixed itself up with improvisational theater and murder mystery games.  So in a way, LARP is an evolution of the tabletop RPG (which also happened in the 90s, when I was getting into the hobby).  The two main styles of LARP (as defined by me on this blog anyway) are interesting windows into the essence of role-playing.  Though they're clearly not table-top RPGs, they're definitely role-playing, and they're almost always games.  So in a way, they can tell us a lot about role-playing.

source: wikipedia

Adventure Style LARP - LARP obviously doesn't feel much like a tabletop RPG.  It doesn't even try to.  It's very weak on characteristic #1, for instance.  If your LARP feels a lot like a tabletop RPG, you might be doing it wrong.  The type of LARP that feels closest to a tabletop RPG is adventure style.  In my experience, adventure style LARP feels a little like a tabletop RPG that responds very, very slowly to PC goals and unexpected PC actions.  A one-shot adventure style LARP works a little like Lost Mine of Phandelver, described above.  You get a pre-generated character or a character you had input in, with goals created by the GMs, then you embark on a pre-planned scenario, but there are a lot of modular and branching points built in to give you some freedom of how to approach it.  Pre-scripted scenes in an adventure-style LARP feel a lot like a tabletop RPG module's encounters, except that with all the moving parts (sets, costumes, cast NPCs, props, game space, wrangling many times as many players...) it's much harder for the GM(s) to change them.  At the same time, with all the prep needed for adventure style LARPs, the GMs can work a lot of character hooks into every scene.  The more high production value the LARP, the more it tends to lose its responsiveness to PC goals, until you get to something like True Dungeon, which is basically the LARP version of HeroQuest.

source: mind's eye society on google+

Elysium Style LARP - Players can have any number of goals for their characters in Elysium Style LARP, but the GM(s) are even less able to respond to most of them compared to Adventure Style LARP.  The concept of "footballs" I've developed (see link) limits what kinds of things the players can influence with their actions to the things the GM is supporting, but at the same time, it empowers the players to invent goals that involve those footballs.  The GM(s) need to limit and focus on specific conflicts (footballs) because the point of Elysium Style LARP is to pit the PCs against each other, so that the majority of the conflict takes place between PCs.  Elysium style LARP is very weak on characteristic #6.  If a player chooses a goal unrelated to any existing conflicts, the GM(s) are not likely to spend a lot of time and effort focusing the world around it.  All the conflicts in the game need to focus on the arenas of conflict that the GM(s) are supporting.  A player who made a character who isn't interested in the conflicts built into the game had best come prepared to make their own fun ("bring your own picnic basket" is another phrase I've heard) because the GMs are always going to use their time on the established arenas of conflict, to create the most fun for the most players.  The GMs can't spend all their time running adventure style plots for everyone -- the point of Elysium style LARP is for the PvP conflicts to drive the story and game.

Conclusion:  What does this Mean?

These criteria are helpful.  But what is especially revelatory for me is that RPGs depennd on players having roleplaying skills that, in the 70s, were a crapshoot.  If you were Dave Arneson, you got it automatically.  It was just an innate prediliction.  If you were Gary Gygax, you needed to take a few decades to start to figure it out.   RPGs depend on these skills, but they don't spend much effort teaching them.

Yet it's not that hard.  A book could easily convey the skills a player needs to be a solid role-player, just like you can teach bluffing in poker in as few pages as the Spells section of the Player's Handbook.  Some tabletop RPG books do a good job of it, but the vast majority do not.

If you're a GM reading this blog, consider learning as much as you can about role-playing to perform a good example for your players.  I'm not talking about acting -- I mean building characters with strong goals, hooks, and motivations.   And most important is that you build player hooks, motivations and goals in everywhere you can.

If you're a player reading this, think about building some good hooks into your characters.  It's never too late.  Hopefully your GM will respond well and build them into the game.

If you're a game designer, remember to take the time to teach role-playing in your core books.  If you agree with my 6 characteristics of tabletop RPGs, try to focus on the characteristics that other games don't teach - especially characteristics 2, 3, 5, and 6, which are unique to RPGs.  Players won't have much chance to learn them, except from your work.

October 17, 2014

Scene Framing

Scene framing is a very hard GM skill to master.  Most GMs don't master it, because it requires a crack familiarity with the players at the table and their limits and preferences.  It's a skill that requires you to be a little pushy.

At the same time, scene framing is the most basic GM task.  It's the first GM task you learn how to do in the "what is an RPG?" section of every rulebook.  It's as simple as "the GM describes the scene to the players..."

So why is it so hard?

The Fast Forward Button 

Scene framing is basically pressing the Fast Forward button on game time.  At its very basic level, scene framing is used to skip past boring stuff where there's no conflict or interesting opportunities, and arrive at the dramatic challenge.
source: dndclassics

This is the second paragraph of the 5th edition D&D Basic Rules for Players, an example of play given to teach Dungeon Masters the concept of Scene Framing:

Dungeon Master (DM): After passing through the craggy peaks, the road takes a sudden turn to the east and Castle Ravenloft towers before you. Crumbling towers of stone keep a silent watch over the approach.  They look like abandoned guardhouses. Beyond these, a wide chasm gapes, disappearing into the deep fog below. A lowered drawbridge spans the chasm, leading to an arched entrance to the castle courtyard. The chains of the drawbridge creak in the wind, their rust-eaten iron straining with the weight. From atop the high strong walls, stone gargoyles stare at you from hollow sockets and grin hideously. A rotting wooden portcullis, green with growth, hangs in the entry tunnel. Beyond this, the main doors of Castle Ravenloft stand open, a rich warm light spilling into the courtyard. 
Phillip (playing Gareth): I want to look at the gargoyles. I have a feeling they’re not just statues. 
Amy (playing Riva): The drawbridge looks precarious? I want to see how sturdy it is. Do I think we can cross it, or is it going to collapse under our weight?

As you can see, the PCs traveled through some craggy mountains along a road, when it suddenly turned, and there on the side of the mountain was a castle.  The GM accelerated the story all the way up to the first real challenge.  After reading this, a GM learns the most basic scene framing skill:

Skip over chunks of time where nothing interesting happens, and just narrate it to the players.

So scene framing is the skill of using the Fast Forward button.  But there's a lot more to it. The most important aspect of fast forwarding is trust.

Assuming Control

When the GM presses the fast forward button, she takes control of the players' characters.  The D&D example, above, has the GM controlling the PCs for days of travel through the craggy peaks.  The players must trust that the GM is going to treat their characters right while she has control of them.

If the players don't trust the GM, here's what could happen.  Now I'm going to edit the D&D Basic Rules text to show how scene framing can go wrong...

Dungeon Master (DM): ...Beyond this, the main doors of Castle Ravenloft stand open, a rich warm light spilling into the courtyard. 
Phillip (playing Gareth): No, no, no.  We know we're approaching an evil castle.  We would use stealth to approach the guard towers and make sure they're empty, so we don't get attacked from behind.  
Amy (playing Riva): Yeah, and maybe there's something in those guard houses we need.  Treasure, or a key, or a monster we can interrogate for information.
Phillip (playing Gareth):  We approach the first guard house using the rocks and brush as cover, until we're just within bowshot.  What do we see?

Or it could have even gone worse...
Dungeon Master (DM): After passing through the craggy peaks, the road takes a sudden turn to the east and Castle Ravenloft towers before-
Amy (playing Riva): -Woah!  No way!  We know we're approaching an evil castle on a mountainside.  As soon as it's within view, we should double back and camp the night.  No way we're approaching it with the sun down!  And then I say we go cross country and come at it from the mountain slope behind it, instead of crossing that drawbridge, which is an obvious ambush point.
Phillip (playing Gareth): Why are we even going here at all?  This sounds like a crazy plan - just walk right into an evil Baron's castle?  Let's rethink this.

In the GM world, we like to call this behavior "turtling."

Pacing and Scene Framing

Who presses the fast forward button, and what can be narrated by the GM (fast forwarded past) depends on the group of players, and how much they're willing to hand over control to the GM depends on how much trust they have in the GM as a co-creator of a fun story about their characters as protagonists.  The more aggressive your scene framing, the more your players have to trust that you're not going to hit them with any "gotchas" they won't enjoy, and that you haven't skipped anything interesting or any opportunities to influencce events.  Further, any time you fast forward and frame a new scene, it's your responsibility to help the players put their characters in the scene and give them important decisions to make.

Scene framing can set the pace of the story, just like the other pacing techniques I've highlighted in the past.  When you fast forward up to a point in the story, how close you get to the critical decisions the players have to make determines how aggressive the pace of your scene framing is.

Turtle's Pace
When the players move very cautiously, playing out their preparations up to the last minute before an interesting scene, they're turtling, and moving at a turtle's pace.  This can get dull fast.  See my post on turtling for some suggestions.  My ridiculous third example would be an example of turtling.

Simulation Scene Framing
A simulation (sim) scene is designed to give the players a problem, and let them take creative approaches in a simulated environment in an attempt to solve it.  Some groups have more interest in this sort of scene than others.  Sim scenes can't be framed very tight -- the players need to see all the context approaching the challenge, so they have to have the time before the challenge to explore and hear valuable details about the situation and setting.  The first alternate example I gave would be about where you would start framing a sim scene.

The key to framing a sim scene is to describe the player characters' situation in the few minutes or even hours before the interesting scene starts, and then give the players a reason to start it.  This reason is the hook or dramatic question of the scene.  The players will probably have their characters take all kinds of actions to set things up so that they can overcome the challenge presented by the hook.  Having plenty of time gives them more options than threshold framing (below), so you can expect a lot of activity to go on before they get to the meat of the dramatic conflict.

Sim scene framing was very common in old school D&D, as well as a lot of 1990s games that focused on supernatural heroes in the modern world.  It allows the players to show off cool magic powers that can take over and resolve conflicts, like in a modern fairy tale or occult thriller story.  With the old school revival (OSR) and the return to high-sim encounter design in 5th edition D&D where monsters are given locations and the PCs are able to approach them slowly and cautiously, this style of play is coming back.  Sim scene framing allows the player characters to become overwhelmed quickly if they put a foot wrong.  Consequently, sim scene framing is also great for horror games.  In horror RPGs, the players are conspiring with the GM against their own characters in a way, because part of the fun is reading the ancient tome, opening the sarcophagus, or going outside to see what that strange sound was.

Aside "MACRO_01":  In 2002 or so, I was in a 3rd edition D&D game where the rogue in the group actually programmed a graphing calculator to process the die rolls for all the hyper-cautious tasks you did for every stretch of hallway and every door you encountered.  So now I can't play an old school style D&D game without thinking about "MACRO_01" every time we approach a closed door in a dungeon.  The player just pulled out the calculator and said "OK, I walk up to the door and MACRO_01."  This is the danger of using too many sim scenes:  Typically the stats of RPG characters and even parties are all built to specialize in a specific set of tasks. Once the party determines what those strengths are, they use the same approach to as many different kinds of problems as possible, to make sure they have a system advantage.  This isn't unrealistic:  Real people do this, too.  You play to your strengths.  But it can get repetitive if every scene is a sim scene. 

Threshold Framing
Very common in the post-2000 editions of D&D, threshold framing is when you begin a conflict or other encounter with indeterminate outcomes right before the conflict or complications take place.  In D&D, it places the player characters literally on the threshold.

The example text from the D&D Basic Rules, above, is threshold framing.  The PCs are literally placed on the threshold of a rickety drawbridge.  Crossing the bridge safely appears to be the challenge of the scene.  The advantage of threshold framing is that it gives the players a chance to avoid the conflict in creative ways, but also skips most of the cautious over-planning that can bog down a fast paced heroic adventure if you use too many sim scenes.  But that depends on the group's preferred style of play, too.

The example players could climb down into the gorge, walk a mile, then climb back up out of sight of the bridge and its hidden dangers.  Or they could shout a greeting across, and ask to be invited in.  They could fight their way across, or sneak across, or bluff their way across, or hide and wait for other visitors.

Cut to the Chase
When you skip the threshold and drop the players right in the action, it's commonly called "cut to the chase" or "in media res" (in the middle of things, from Greek theater).  The important part is to skip to where the players are in an exciting action sequence, and the dramatic question is not resolved.  But the chance to decide to avoid the action sequence has passed.  The players are denied that opportunity.

On the other hand, jumping right into the action can be empowering, exciting, and gives the player characters a chance to kick butt without the annoying preamble.  Filmmakers use this technique to grab the viewers' attention right away.  You can use it the same way, in your games.  Here's the very first scene from Skyfall:

Framing that scene for, for instance, a Night's Black Agents RPG, would work like this:

Director (GM): OK, let's get started for the session.  As you recall, you were looking for the thief who stole the hard drive.  You tracked the thief to the middle of a busy Istambul souk.  The target spots your approach and leaps onto a motorcycle.  You can't let him get away with the hard drive!  What do you do?
Daniel (Playing Agent 007):  I draw my gun and look around for a bike to commandeer, myself.  Can I get a clear shot?  
Naomie (Playing Moneypenny): I bash out the windshield of the truck and try to follow, and then I radio back to Vauxhall to coordinate tracking.

Again, using the example from the 5th edition D&D Basic Rules, it's important to make clear the dramatic question, so that the players don't feel cheated out of their agency.  Making the dramatic question of the conflict extra clear signals to the players that they still have a lot of agency here:

Dungeon Master (DM): You're crossing a drawbridge over a wide chasm that disappears into the deep fog below. The road beyond the bridge leads to an arched entrance to the courtyard of Castle Ravenloft, which towers before you.  A rotting wooden portcullis, green with growth, hangs in the entry tunnel. Beyond this, the main doors of Castle Ravenloft stand open, a rich warm light spilling into the courtyard.
Suddenly, Riva the elf cries warning, and the chains of the drawbridge creak in the wind, their rust-eaten iron straining with the weight as you dive to the decking:  Gargoyles!  From atop the high strong walls, stone gargoyles dive at you, their hollow eye sockets suddenly alight with green flame.  The winged creatures pass above you, and would have toppled you off the bridge without the elf's warning!  They're wheeling about for another pass.  You've got to try to get the party across without being knocked off - but how?  Gareth is the first to recover his balance on the wobbly bridge.  Phillip, what does Gareth do?
The bold section in each example communicates the dramatic question.  The DM is stating it so it's clear that the players have a choice.  Perhaps they'll use magic, or they'll sprint across, or they'll try to scare the gargoyles away, or they'll take out bows, or they'll try to intercept them and force them to fight in melee.  The DM has made it clear there are lots of options, but they have to think fast.

Another important aspect of such aggressive scene framing is that the DM should assume that everything the player characters did while the fast forward button was advancing was a sparkling success.  Note how Riva spotted the ambush in time.

Not for Everyone

Aggressive scene framing is not for every group.  You have to have a lot of trust in and among your players to be able to pull off aggressive framing, and even them some people just don't like it.

If you find you screwed up and framed the scene too aggressively for your players, just walk it back.  If the players objected to the D&D in media res example, the DM might say "OK, so where would you like to start?  How about just before you go out on the bridge?"

Not for Every Situation

Even if your group is a trusting, experienced troupe full of players who like the idea of aggressive "cut to the chase" framing, it's not always the best way to start a scene.  When pacing a session, if you start with all-out action, you can't go up from there.  Some games (Feng Shui, for instance) might work well with that.  But most other kinds of stories need pacing that builds to a fast-paced climax.  You might want to start Act 1 with more conservatively framed scenes, then drop some in-your-face tightly-framed action in for Act 2.

To avoid trust problems, back off and use something like threshold framing (which cuts to right before the chase) for twists, big scares, and tragic scenes.  You never want your players to feel railroaded into those.

October 10, 2014


Turtling is a player behavior that occurs in tabletop RPGs and LARPs.  There hasn't been a lot of theory discussion on the behavior as far as I can see, and definitions vary.  Video and board game designers talk about it all the time, so I'm going to use a definition similar to theirs.

Source: Wikipedia

Turtling is when players become protective of their characters to the point where it detracts from the fun of the game.

In video games and board games, designers try very hard to prevent turtling, because in video games it makes the game boring; and in board games, it detracts from the fun of all of the players at the table.  Tabletop RPGs aren't any different.  I've included three different turtling behaviors in the table below, all of which fall under this definition.

In my experience, turtling happens when the players feel like they don't have much control over the game.  Here's a troubleshooting table of some of the turtling behaviors I've seen, some of the mistakes I've made that caused the problem, and some solutions that have worked for me.  Some of those solutions have inspired previous posts, so check out the links in the table.

I haven't made all the mistakes you can make as a GM, of course, so this isn't a complete table.  Feel free to suggest additional rows in comments!

Possible Causes
The players have a goal but don’t know what to do next.  They spend time asking pointless questions and interrogating NPCs instead of pursuing the plot.
The GM has not provided the players an opportunity to achieve their goal.  Nobody wants to play “hard work and perseverance, the RPG.” And sometimes the players want to pursue a goal different from the one the GM wants them to.  This is likely a failure of power (railroading) or a failure of buy in.  They’ve lost control because they feel railroaded or out on a limb.
In a tabletop RPG, either you hand wave the hard work, and skip straight to the “a problem arises!” scene, letting their goal be the hook, or you skip the hard work and let the PCs achieve their goal through great heroic deeds with hooks.  If the PCs are trying to follow a goal other than the one you want, you need to let them, and run the game they’re playing.  If they’re so far off your goal that it seems like they didn’t read your pitch, you need to have an OOC conversation about the shared premise and maybe end the campaign.
The players are over-planning, and even they don’t seem to be enjoying it.
If all of them are doing it, and not having fun, it’s because they’re afraid of the Gotcha! Making a plan is a challenge that can be failed.  The amount of time the players feel they have to plan depends on how likely they think it is that you have created a puzzle that they will suffer for not solving.  They’ve lost control because they think they’re going to be punished for not outsmarting you.
If the players are over-planning and they all like it, or the ones doing all the planning seem to enjoy it, that’s OK (as long as the other players don’t get too bored).  If you created the puzzle, give them help and hints.  If you didn’t mean it to be that complicated a puzzle, clarify your boundaries and give them hints about your scaffolding.  

And stop pulling gotchas on them, because that could be it, too.
The players are taking undue defensive measures to make themselves invincible in combat.  This manifests in over-preparing for combat, avoiding combat when they don’t feel 100% prepared, and the “five minute workday” in D&D.
They do not feel like bad-ass heroes.  In a game where the PCs are not supposed to be tough action heroes, the players may have a mood disconnect.  They’re trying to get action hero defenses in a dark, gritty or horror game.  In a game where the PCs are supposed to be action heroes, they probably feel weak, possibly because you’ve been “red lining” them.  They’ve lost control because every battle seems to be a close call.
In a gritty game where the PCs are not supposed to be action heroes, consult the Horror-Hunter ladder and make sure everyone’s on the same page about the mood and genre of play.  In an actual action hero game, you need to give the PCs encounters that let them kick butt at least half the time, or they'll start getting hyper-cautious.  If every encounter is super hard, they will feel like it’s their fault they’re not kicking butt, and compensate by putting a lot of effort into system min-maxing.

October 7, 2014

Picking Your Aspects

I have a longer post planned for Friday, but I had to get this one out.  I spent a lot of time designing aspects for my latest Fate character.  I wanted to get my design down in formal language and then share it with you all.  Yes, this is advice for Fate PLAYERS more than GMs, but I suppose Fate GMs can share it with their players at game and character creation.

Fate already does a great job of teaching you how to pick Aspects.  I think this helps players who are trying to pick Aspects that will generate the sorts of compels they would enjoy the most.

The goal of this process is to have Aspects that generate problems for which the solution is the kind of thing you, as a player, like to do in tabletop RPGs.  Do you like bloody violence?  Chase scenes?  Talking your way out of trouble?  The goal is to make aspects that generate the kind of problems you like solving.

Reverse Aspect Design 

  1. List the kind of activities do you enjoy in tabletop RPGs, or pick one kind of activity you want this character to get involved with a lot.
  2. Match your favorite activities with problems your character could run into, which you can solve by doing your favorite activities.  Try to generate more problems than aspects you're planning to take, so you can narrow down later.  Your goal is to list a bunch of problems so fun for you that you would sick them on yourself -- which you can do, in Fate ( and
  3. Invent catchy phrases that summarize those problems.  You can leave a lot out, because you’re going to explain where the aspect came from to the other players so that they’ll know how to use it.  
  4. Revise your catchy phrase so that it mostly sounds like a positive trait, and make sure that it’s future-focused.
  5. Pick the best ones, but try to pick ones that fit a theme.  You don't want to be all over the place.  Try to invent a story that fits all of them.
  6. Be transparent about this process.  When you explain all this to your GM, explain the activity (in step 1) that you like most, so that the GM can use that sort of compel against you as often as possible.

Here's an example.  This isn't a character I actually created, but it sure would be a fun one!  
  1. I like to get into combat with unambiguously bad villains and their henchmen.  I see this character as the sort of person who has a lot of nasty enemies, who are always setting things up to make his life hard.
  2. I could be known as an enemy to monsters; I could be haunted; I could have something that really bad guys want; or I could have betrayed nasty criminals.
  3. Infamous Vampire slayer. Haunted by evil ghosts. The unseelie court wants my magic sword. I brought down a drug baron.
  4. Vampire slayer.  Last heir of a sorcerous bloodline.  The unseelie court wants my magic sword. Won't rest until I bring down the Altman gang.  I could use any of these in a positive way in a lot of situations.
  5. I need 3 more aspects, so I'm going with the first three, since they all have to do with the supernatural.  Here's my story:  As the last heir of a sorcerous bloodline, I inherited a magic sword, which I was supposed to turn over to the unseelie faeries.  But when my lover was attacked by vampires, I found it helped me slay them, and I began hunting the blood suckers down.  Now the vampires, unseelie court, and ghosts of my ancestors are upset with me for various reasons, but I'm armed with magic and a cool sword.
  6. "Hey, GM!  I really like the idea that my character is always getting jumped by monsters.  When coming up with compels for me, do a lot of that.  Have existing bad guys turn out to be monsters who are at least in part just trying to capture or kill me, have otherwise nonviolent encounters get a lot closer to breaking out in violence because of my aspects, or have monsters randomly jump me out of nowhere, especially when things are already pretty tense."