Hey everyone, I’m running an experimental Kickstarter. The goal is a bit different than most where you receive a finished product. I explain it all in the Kickstarter so drop by and drop in a dollar or more to the project.
I’ve been asked “How do you win” an RPG a number of times. This is closely adjacent to “Why play an RPG”, A question I’ve thought a lot about. I’m stealing from the book Finite and Infinite games for this description.
How do you win?
An RPG can be played in two different ways.
You can play a finite game with one win condition in mind. A way to reach the end of a story and everything hinges on that goal. It is some condition agreed to by everyone at the table but often suggested by the GM.
Or you can play an indefinite game, where much like life, there are many finite games along the way. Here, you win as long as there’s more ground that the players want to explore.
There is a big difference in tone in each option. Finite games are powerful, focused and serious. They are played within boundaries, time matters, they are played to be won. It’s not fair for the goalposts to move in a finite game. Players should not be surprised in that way. The conditions of play are controlled.
Indefinate games are dramatic, playful, exploratory, they’re about curiosity. The game’s boundaries will shift and even break, the reason to play is to be surprised by the results of play.
In Robert McKee’s book – STORY he says “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature”
He’s talking about character arcs, but the thing that struck me about the quote is this is exactly why I love to GM. Only I’m not so much interested in the character arcs, I’m more interested in learning how the player will guide the character. It’s almost like a laboratory to find the essential core of the players.
That’s why I think I’m less interested in constructing a “Story” and more interested in how the player interprets their character. A good story helps to do that, but arriving at the story isn’t my end goal. It’s to know that essential element of the player’s personality, to see who they are inside, revealed by that pressure.
It’s really only then I feel like I know someone. So while I like exploring fantastic worlds and finding out how they work, those fantastic worlds allow me to explore the people I’m playing with in ways I can’t in everyday life.
In setting and adventure design, include one minimally counter intuitive element in a scene. This will produce a feeling that the world the characters are in is not their mundane world and there are things to discover.
I’m consolidating some of my far flung posts in different places. This is one of them.
I’m going through some basic business advice on making allies and as I read thoughts are popping out that I’d like to track. So here’s my disjointed notes so far.
Be strategic – Think about who you would like to have as an ally. What skills might they have? What resources? This might sound cold but running around asking everyone to be your ally is probably not going to be helpful.
Be a fan – You’ve heard the advice “be a fan of your players” that’s very similar to being a fan of other designers. Maybe they’re not making what you want to make (and that’s good) but find things in their technique or some other aspect of their work.
Compromise – Try it their way. It might not be the direction you wanted to go but try following their suggestions and see what happens.
Communicate – Ask people what they need to start a project on an idea they’re talking about. Ask them what they need to finish a project. If they ask for something you can’t offer, say so and then counter offer with any skills or resources you think could help. This doesn’t have to be you doing work. If they need a skill you don’t possess, do you know someone that does?
Give dignity – Even if you’ve been doing something for fifty years and they’re brand new, treat them as an equal. Talk about what you think they’re doing right and ask for more.
Respect Input – Even if you won’t use what someone is telling you, thank them and let them know you’ll keep it in mind.
Spend time – If they’re local or if you’ll be at the same con, make the time to at least say hi and have a chat. If you do end up working together, possibly meeting up on hangouts or Skype, is a good option for being friendly.
Your allies’ allies are your allies – That’s it I just wanted to write that.
Give credit liberally – Don’t hold back. Strive to have your next title page full of credits. Look for opportunities to credit people even if it’s just a “Thank You” section.
Don’t drop an ally – Maybe you hate their new project. Don’t give up on them yet, even if what they are currently up to just isn’t your cup of tea.
Reciprocate – When you’ve been done a good deed, do what’s practical to return a favor.
Say no politely – There will be times where you can’t help and things you can’t do. Say no politely and let them know what to expect from you in the future.
These are questions useful for world building and planning campaigns based on different sized communities.
Food – Plant
Where does the community get their grains, beans, nuts, vegetables and fruit?
Locally grown – Circle all that apply
All, Staples, Supplemental, Luxuries
Imported – Circle all that apply
All, Staples, Supplemental, Luxuries
Does the community grow produce for other communities? Yes, No
Where do they export to?
Food – Animal
Does the community eat animal products? Yes, No
Circle the activities the community takes part in for food and sport. Fish, Hunt, Trap
Are domestic animals farm raised?
Locally Raised – Circle all that applies
All, Staples, Supplemental, Luxuries
Imported – Circle all that applies
All, Staples, Supplemental, Luxuries
Are there large herds? Yes, No
Do families keep a few animals for food? Yes, No
Does the community export animals? Yes, No
Do they host hunters from other communities? Yes, No
Do they host fishermen from other communities? Yes, No
Is there a market or restaurants? Yes, No
Are these services for the local population or to accommodate travelers? Local, Travelers
Does the community have breweries wineries or distilleries? Breweries, Wineries, Distilleries
Are these commercial businesses or operated by individuals?
Fuel – Electrical
Does this community have access to electrical power? Yes, No
If so, how widespread is it’s distribution? Central source, Distributed source, Distribution network
Why do people receive electrical power? They pay money, It is considered a right, By title position or rank
Generating electricity requires powerplants and possibly electrical transmission equipment.
Is water, wind, steam engine, or some relic the source of electrical power? Water, Wind, Solar, Steam, Other
Where does the community get the fuel for electricity?
Fuel – Chemical
What fuels are used?
Wood, Coal, Gas, Oil, Animal dung Other
How do people cook their food?
Do people control their home’s temperature, how?
Do they use fuel from local sources? Yes, No
Do they import fuel? Yes, No
How abundant is the supply?
What machinery, equipment and jobs are needed to provide fuel?
Does the community harvest trees for building materials?
Do they grow crops or raise animals for making thread?
Do they have clay in their soil for making bricks or tiles?
Do they mine for metal
Are raw materials imported? From where?
Does the community refine raw materials?
Circle how they refine materials
Lumber mill, Weavers for textiles, Smelting refinery, Cement kilns, Brickworks, Chemical plant, Oil refinery
If the community does not have these facilities themselves, where can materials be obtained from?
How often can the materials be acquired?
Does the community produce it’s own tools?
How do they make tools? Circle all that apply.
Carpenter, Blacksmith, Foundry, Machinist
Do they import tools? From where?
How hard is it to obtain tools?
Communities will need a source of clothing. Does the community make their own?
If so, for small towns they may have tailors or for large cities, garment factories. However in very small communities a family member may make clothing for each household.
Where does the community get their textiles? Where do they get the tools for making clothing come from? At it’s simplest this could be sowing needles.
If the community does not make their own clothing, where does it come from?
The vast majority of communities make use of some kind of shelter. The more the society produces as product, the more elaborate their homes are.
Who makes the shelters the community uses? Does a family make their own? Are their skilled individuals that build shelters? Is there an industry for making shelters?
Where do the refined materials and tools for shelters come from?
How do people move themselves and goods around?
If they use animals, which animals are used and for what purposes?
Are the animals used as mounts or do they pull carts or wagons?
Who makes the gear for harnessing animals?
Who makes the carts if they are used?
Does the community use powered transportation?
Where do the vehicles come from? Who maintains them?
Does the community use water travel? Are there special hazards in doing so?
Who makes the boats or ships?
Are there different tiers of prestige linked to methods of transport?
How is law and order maintained?
How does the community ward off attacks from the outside?
Is there a central figure that handles security or are there many people that get involved in security decisions?
In small close knit communities, law and order may be kept socially, where each individual upholds the group’s ethics.
Larger towns, especially those with travelers going through it may need someone empowered to enforce law like a sheriff or chief. In the case of external attack, the enforcer is likely to select able individuals to aid them in defense.
Cities require a network of enforcers such as a military or police force. In many cases, the role of maintaining law and external defense are different specialized roles but not always.
Does the community make aggressive attacks on others?
If so, are the attacks carried out by untrained civilians or a trained, dedicated military?
Why would the community make aggressive actions against others? What could make them change their stance?
Small communities may raid neighbors for resources especially if they are not self sufficient. Often a leader selects and possibly trains individuals to go on raids.
Tribal or territorial conflicts may cause medium sized communities to attack one another. These are usually calculated attacks intended to push back a rival. These conflicts are often carried out by militia that arm themselves.
City states may go to war over trade conflicts philosophical differences or territorial disputes. City states are likely to have militias or their own standing army depending on how centrally controlled they are.
Who does the entertaining in the community?
Are there a few talented people that play music or act?
Is entertainment something that everyone has a part in?
Do travelers have a part in sharing stories from afar?
What kinds of entertainment is common, what kinds are taboo?
Even in small communities information is an important resource. What is the role of gossip in the community?
How much are people involved in news of their community?
Is keeping up on the lives of people encouraged or is it frowned on?
Is there an industry built around information or is it just a hobby?
Is there one or more dedicated spy networks?
Is there a way of recording and spreading news?
How do people find out about events that happen around them?
An application of movie making to RPGs
In the early days of film, there was an argument about the proper way to make a movie. There were film makers that subscribed to Realism, the idea that film should be as close to a person standing where the camera is placed. There would be as few cuts in a scene as possible and the camera should remain at eye level. This was to emphasize the content or substance of the film.
Then there were film makers that subscribed to a new way of making film called Formalism. This kind of film goes for dramatic cuts, scene transitions, mood lighting and dramatic camera angles. Formalistic movies convey feeling through style.
Almost all film is somewhere in the middle of this substance vs style dimension.
Directors are mostly who determines where on the continuum a movie ends up.
A google search on Realism and Formalism will provide more information on what this means for a movie. The big take away to emphasize is that both of these qualities serve a purpose. A movie that goes in one direction too far is not going to appeal to a mass audience. Masterworks of film have been produced on both ends of the spectrum but a hit is most frequently in the middle.
This window into style vs substance is illuminating for RPGs also, although where one game falls is not determined by a director. Realism vs Formalism in games are usually built into a game’s mechanics, although the style of a Game Master can also influence how the game is experienced.
How could Realism and Formalism inform the design and the play of a game? Realism consists of elements that are easily called to mind, elements that readily form a mental image. Formalism consists of guiding structures that are felt more than clearly imagined.
No game could entirely follow Realism and it would be difficult to imagine playing a game that was entirely Formalism. All games have both qualities, it’s only the balance of these qualities that defines where the game lands on this spectrum.
Formalism in game design is most easily exemplified by Aspects in FATE. They are a stylistic mechanism that is very difficult to concretely define. They produce a style or feeling to play.
A traditional Formalism that is almost never treated as such is Hit Points. As they were originally intended, Hit Points were intended to represent a vital force that is worn down as a character dodged attacks. In most play they are treated as a representation of physical tissue damage a character can endure. The formalism is often too much for players to adopt and a more concrete image of physical punishment is adopted. It goes from something nebulous to a solid image of wounds inflicted. Even if it is not realistic, it has become a Realism.
Narrative control as a concept is also a Formalism. It is a largely undefined concept that gets frequently cited as a control mechanism. The idea of narrative control says who gets to talk next. While the concept seems straightforward, there are often caveats to a player having complete freedom which can make it difficult to understand what’s allowed and what isn’t.
Another Formalism is genre emulation. This is a popular Formalism to design toward because its a pattern that the designer hopes the player will recognize. However genre is not fixed. In most instances, a ground breaking piece of fiction violates genre norms. Strictly emulating genre prevents the very fact that some of the best genre pieces break the genre.
Realism is not exactly what it might seem at first. For a game to have Realism, it could be forgiven if the designer thought they were supposed to make the game play model reality. Often when a player cites realism, they actually mean a thing that is concrete, something easily imagined.
The primary example of this is the character sheet. Even thought there are no stats that define the whole of a person in life, a stat that defines the capability of a character seem abundantly real to the player. They are discrete and measurable, contradicting them would violate the player’s understanding of the game.
Similarly, even though it would be realistic for a character to lose things that they theoretically are carrying on them, it would strongly violate many player’s conception of the game to say that something written on the character sheet has gone missing. The written word on the page is easily referenced and seems incontrovertible to the player. It is more real than anything else.
Props, maps and the printed page are often considered the most real. It’s easy to point to them and reinforce “facts” that the player perceives with their own senses. The Availability Heuristic says that things that are readily available seem more real to us. This is the core concept of Realism as it is being referred to.
So Realism is in fact elements that are easily called to mind or easily demonstrated. Hit Points mentioned above exemplify something that was meant as a formalism but reducing their interpretation to physical trauma grounds them in a easily called to mind concept. A successful strike with a sword means the weapon literally impacts the character and compromises their body. Nevermind that it wasn’t meant that way as exemplified by the fact that Hit Points in D&D are restored after a long rest.
This might seem to point away from simulation as being a valid goal but that would miss the fact that simulation is easily understood. It’s repeatable and lines up with real life experiences making it easily relatable. A player’s real life experience swinging sticks at each other, pretending they’re swords, informs their expectations of how a sword fight might be experienced in fiction. Simulating those experiences makes it easy for the imagery of the narrative to spring up in the player’s mind.
Realism and Formalism have their own roles to play in every game. There are many more examples of each that can be explored and there are games that have took Formalisms and developed them into more concrete and relatable concepts making them feel more realistic. Examples of this are Archipelago’s ritual phrases and Microscope’s 3×5 cards.
This bifurcation is most easily described as style vs substance. It isn’t the only measure of a game and this isn’t intended to explain everything in RPGs but it’s a tool that describes two concepts that tie together and shape a game experience. Some players prefer a Realism based experience while others revel in Formalism. These qualities deliver different experiences that speak strongly to some but not to others. To say that one or the other is superior to the other is foolish and willfully ignores the fact that all games have some of both but more that our enjoyment of them are subjective.
I gave up on Protector. The Energy System’s version of a supers game. The unfortunate thing is that it was too difficult to create art and support all the different ages the game was supposed to go through.
I do still like the way it handles powers, so I’m releasing Protector, warts and all to the public.
This is the first game under the Energy system to use a simplified dice mechanic. There are now suggestions for how to describe a depleted die using the acronym RISKED and healing is faster now because each rest phase gives depleted dice back automatically in addition to the result of rolls.
Get the file here. Protector RPG
We’ve been working on a streamlining of the Energy System that’s used in Jump Temp and Skree and Thrum. Currently the players all roll from their dice pool and add up all the dice. Unfortunately that’s a little math intensive. Not that people can’t do it, just that it could become tiring.
Our current thought is you pick your highest roll and all the other dice rolled add a +1.
But when we were play testing we talked about an optional possibility that a player could bring in the full value of more dice but at a cost. At first we talked about depleting that die but it didn’t feel right. It also nearly killed both characters each time that happened due to an escalation where both kept depleting dice to be ahead of the other character.
I recently had a different thought though that sounds cool to me but I don’t know how to implement yet. Instead of depleting a die when bringing in more dice, the player is “raising the stakes.” Basically putting themselves in a worse and worse position to achieve a goal.
I’m not quite sure how to do that yet. My first thought is that the other player can put a condition on the character. How to structure that condition is the question. I’m thinking that the condition is treated like any other challenge but also akin to an agent that adds a die to the roll.
The character with the condition can attack it directly to deplete it or just endure it until it depletes.
David Johnston did a nice A6 layout for The Lost, my solo space survival RPG. It looks very nice when printed out in booklet form. I like it better than the original layout I did. David also drew a quick picture for the front which he said I should replace, but I don’t know, I kind of like it. It has a Buck Rodgers feel that’s raw and fun.
You can download it here!
Here’s a link to David’s ultralight game Microcrunch.