Once I got past the last chapter, it’s much easier to push on.
I’ve been working on The Imbalance for a very long time. Ever since 2011 I’ve been stuck on the 15th chapter titled Calling on the Memory of a Friend. I couldn’t write it in a way that satisfied me at all. Since then I’ve played a game that started to explore the places Onix would have to go. I think I may be moving too fast in the chapter, but the overall feel is right.
I’ve had a bunch of different thoughts going through my mind lately but they all lead to the same conclusion.
One is that I’d like to do something a bit revolutionary as far as game design is concerned. I’d like to bring RPGs into the 21st century.
Another has to do with a couple threads on an RPG forum. Among the respondents of those threads, there was a strong disregard for anyone trying to produce an RPG and trying to make some money. Now I’m not here to make money, but I think what I do has value, so the conversation struck me as disrespectful. If RPG enthusiasts look so poorly on the efforts of designers, then why would someone want to work for them?
A third thought is about sunk costs. In economics, it’s considered an error in logic to keep putting resources into something because you’ve already “sunk” a lot of resources into it. I’ve certainly sunk a lot of resources into making RPGs and I had plans to do a lot more.
Each thought is important to me. I have the desire and ability to do more game design but there is no reason for me to do it. I’m not designing for money, I’m not looking for accolades. But I put money and time into keeping these websites running. I’d like it if that was for something. I could easily play my games with friends and it would be a lot easier than trying to typeset everything exactly right, to have enough artwork to balance the text, to buy new software and equipment to handle a gigabyte and a half book file, to maintain these blogs and pay to keep them running.
I love designing and developing RPGs but does the RPG community care? Let’s be honest, for the most part, no. There are a few people that have cheered me on and I appreciate them immensely. They’ve been wonderful and I can’t thank them enough.
When I was about half as old as I am now, I saw something ugly. I was working for my Father in the construction industry, in the region where I live, people we were doing work for didn’t want us to succeed. They viewed us succeeding as them being ripped off. We started working in other parts of the country and guess what? People wanted us to succeed, they would help us to protect our profits when changes were made or when we had to compensate for mistakes by others. We started traveling all over to do work.
I think I need to do some metaphorical traveling. If I’m going to do design work, I need to leave this place I’m in and find a place that wants me to succeed.
Now be honest, when you read that last sentence, did you think “I want you to succeed?” There are about five people that I know that will, the majority of people probably are indifferent or even adversarial. That is a sad statement for the RPG community. Someone giving away product that they pour themselves into should not be someone you’d be indifferent to.
I’m not giving up. I’m not quitting, but if I’m going to do something to bring RPGs into the 21st century and find the place where I can succeed, I need to leave what has become comfortable behind. I’m going to have to develop new skills. That will take time. So for now, this is goodbye. I have a few projects that are mostly done. For closure I’ll probably finish them off.
I certainly hope that the lessons I’ve learned here will be useful wherever I travel to.
When I was a little boy, I watched a show called Starblazers. I was four and the series blew my mind. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, which isn’t saying much, I was four.
We didn’t even call it by the title because we couldn’t read. I think we called it “Our Star” because that’s how the theme song started. The details are fuzzy by the time I was nine, the series had come to an end and Robotech started up.
Robotech was even better than Starblazers and I think the two adapted series firmly planted in my mind that all starships should have a main cannon. Besides, giant robots.
Through the next decade of my life I looked for cartoons that would do for me what these two shows did for me. They set up an ongoing story that dazzled my young mind with a dangerous world and a reasonably well thought out consistency.* Shows like Transformers delivered giant robots but with bizarre and often staggering inconsistency.
Star Trek was also a favorite. My father is a fan of Trek so that helped out. He also liked Star Wars which, I wonder if the dangerous world presented there, seeded my mind to look for that kind of story. I enjoyed Trek, but it never felt like “my” show even though I still identify strongly with it.
Starblazers and Robotech always felt like they were “mine”. It didn’t matter that few people knew what Robotech was and no one I knew had ever seen Starblazers.
I think the next cartoon I enjoyed was the nineties Batman series. It was written far better than almost any other animated show of the time. I’m still not really interested in Batman per se, but the art direction and writing was head and shoulders above anything else.
In the nineties I had an opportunity to watch Starblazers. I managed to locate some VHS tapes of the series and I bought them all. The tragedy was that the show was terrible. I got a few episodes in and had to stop lest I destroy my childhood memories. I can’t hold the show up to the pinnacle that I once did. I wonder if the original Japanese title would be more watchable?# Robotech held up considerably better.
During the nineties we also got to play a lot of Palladium’s Robotech. The movie Stargate also came out and showed me that you don’t need starships to make a good Sci-Fi movie. It was in this atmosphere that The Artifact was born. Seeded by an amalgam of Cybertron, Robotech, a hint of Starblazers and Stargate. I fed it a diet of Science news that I was reading and let it grow.
Over the course of playing The Artifact, it’s taken on it’s own life and it’s branched out in strange ways that filled in the gaps. One of the first questions that I had to answer was, what’s inside this thing? A question I don’t think any other BDO** fiction has. The answers ended up far more structured and less wild than I had originally envisioned.
The next question was how do the people fit into this landscape and how do they live? This has been the most interesting of the story’s answers. It’s down to the point where I can tell you how a Scimrahn brushes her teeth. I realize that it’s silly that we’ve gone that far but that kind of world building happens over 19 years of play.
So that’s what got us here. I hope that makes sense to somebody.
*The adaptations did not always deliver this but the consistency of the original world did show through.
#I just got a copy of the 2010 movie Space Battleship Yamato which is not bad for it’s tiny 12 million dollar budget.
**Big Dumb Object
I recently picked up the book Universal Principles of Design. It’s a book I wish I had a long time ago but didn’t know existed. I used to think of design as one of those murky subjects that no one really knew what was going on in because I would see designers that churn out wacky or useless items. Maybe I was just seeing the fringe actors that were more interested in grabbing people’s attention. The book, first published in 2003 is research based and although it still leaves a lot of wiggle room up to the designer, it illuminates the ideas that lead to good design.
One of those principles is control. The concept is very simple, there should be a way to use a design for beginners that is simple and consistent and an expert way to use a design that opens up options and adds flexibility. I’ve stumbled on the idea of making simpler RPGs to help beginning players a while ago but the simple treatment of the subject made me take another look at the subject.
The principal of Control is laid out to include the concept of two levels of interaction with a design. This is nothing new to RPGs, in fact it’s very old. You have your Basic book and your Advanced book. I think the thing that turned me off of this concept early on, was that often the rules for the basic book were inherently different than those in the advanced book. This meant that a character made with the basic rules wouldn’t translate to the advanced rules. At least, that’s my recollection. I think the Marvel Superheroes game by TSR had a clean translation from beginner book to advanced.
I tried to give lip service to this concept when I was working on the 3rd edition for The Artifact. In the beginning of the rules, I point to the rules that are vitally important and the ones that are there for added functionality. I don’t think that goes far enough. For one, it doesn’t simplify things in the eyes of the reader. They still feel compelled to read through all the added functions. But even if the idea did work, I’m only making things easier on the GM. I haven’t helped out the players yet.
I have a partial concept of simplifying the character sheet by emphasizing the main useful strategies that an occupation could use. I’m not sure about how to do it yet though.
This is one of my perennial topics. I harp on it because if you were able to remove the entry barriers to an RPG, you might see a lot of people take up playing. There have been a lot of attempts to remove barriers, but they seem to have missed the real thing that keeps people away.
Let’s do a quick list of the things people most often try to fix when it comes to RPGs.
- Too much reading
- Too complicated (too many rules)
- People want story not more game
But there have been games that address these problems. For example Risus has a shorter list of rules than most board games. There isn’t too much reading and it’s not too complex. There are a large number of story games that remove mechanical barriers and allow story freedom. I agree that these things are potential barriers to people picking up a game but they haven’t suddenly produced a huge number of players. This tells me that while these things are nice, they aren’t the main blockade to RPGs being accepted.
What games are the most successful of all the RPGs? D&D, Pathfinder and the Star Wars franchise. Each one of these games has a large buy in to our cultural consciousness. People just know what D&D is, it’s been around long enough to have embedded what it is into people’s consciousness. Pathfinder is a straight out extension of that. A majority of people start playing RPGs in these two games because to many, these titles are synonymous with RPG. In essence, someone says “I’d like to try this RPG thing” and they pick up one of these big titles.
What about Star Wars? This may be the one example of an RPG that draws in a lot of new players that may not have looked for an RPG in the first place. I see a good number of players that talk about starting their RPG careers in a Star Wars franchise. Many of these new players started in the D20 system. This is not a simple system. It requires a lot of reading. It’s very mechanical, often artificially so. It bucks the trend that RPG designers are trying to work toward and bring down the barriers to entry.
What does this tell us then? It’s possible that Star Wars is doing something that people aren’t working toward?
In general, franchises of popular media entities get faster adoption than generic games or new stories. Why? It seems that the barrier isn’t the reading or the rules. It’s trying to fit a new world in your head. If that world is already there, the barriers are far less.
Is that the end of the matter then? No, I don’t think so. I think there should be a way of shortcutting this barrier without having to adopt a big media franchise as your world. As an example, think of video games. There are entrenched media worlds like Super Mario Brothers, but there are also new titles that get picked up, like Portal which is now an established name of it’s own but that started off as a throw away concept game.
In each case of a new world being introduced in books, movies or video games, the world has to start in just the right way.
- It has to have limited options at first. Think of the first Super Mario Brothers, jump run, left, right and a few others. Think D&D, left, right, straight, fight, detect trap (in a dungeon anyway).
- It has to be vibrant. Questions about what this world is and what happens in it have to be answerable intuitively.
- It helps a lot if the answers to questions are amusing or unexpected. Think about Portal, the unusual uses of the gun that are explored. Super Mario, piranha plants come out of sewer pipes. Star Wars juxtaposes high tech with a priestly order and a cowboy smuggler.
- There has to be obvious first order strategies that will get you through. A focus on brute strength, or raw speed for example.
- Familiarity with the real world helps as an anchor. The world is ours, except for X. Although this takes away from the vibrancy and simplicity of the world because people know the world is complicated and often boring.
These are just some common things that hook people into a new world. These things are inherently limiting, but that’s the point. Potential players are often overwhelmed at the start of trying to pick up an RPG. Making the story options limited by only giving the players a few starting activities that they’ll take part in limits the scope of things they have to absorb. Designing a world that explains itself means less reading and the players will get a better concept of how to move the game forward.
The problem is less with the complexity of an RPG’s text, and more with the complexity of it’s play. Story games have missed the point and often increase the complexity of play by opening up more possibilities to a player that would have a hard time with a dungeon crawl.
Can an RPG be taken down to the complexity of a board game or a video game and still remain an RPG? I think it can. Think of Dungeon World* and how it basically gives the player five or so “buttons” to push as actions. It’s far easier for players to know what to try next when the options are narrowed down for them.
I don’t think RPGs should be limited to this kind of design development, but it would be good to have a race to the bottom in terms of story complexity among a group of writers. It would give a list of easy answers when someone says that they’d like to try an RPG but want to start easy. We need a class of RPGs that really push the boundary between playing like Monopoly and keeping the theater of the mind that an RPG has.
*I feel Apocalypse World limited itself by having an adult theme so is less a contender in helping RPG adoption.
If you’re unfamiliar with the RPG Gumshoe, the central premise is that failure is usually less interesting than success. An investigator in the system, automatically gets clues if they apply the right ability, because not getting the clue is can stop the story dead in its tracks.
This always struck me as wrong. I couldn’t quite pin down why, it was definitely wrong. But why?
It’s the automatic success that bothered me. It does eliminate the problem of a game that has stalled because of a failed roll. In this case you have a problem with information flow so Gumshoe yanks off the valve that controlled it and declared the problem solved.
The solution is also not leaving the status quo. If the flow of a game stops, adjust the valve, open it up a bit more.
The premise for removing rolling is that for investigation stories, you don’t see the characters fail to collect clues. But that’s not true. There are plenty of times when Sherlock Holmes doesn’t get the clue. There are plenty of times when the Enterprise crew pass over information because they don’t know what to do with it, until later.
There are times when it’s just an issue of not having the right skill set but Gumshoe addresses that. I mean that there’s a skill that the character has and the clue is beyond them.
So I disagree with Gumshoe. It solves a problem, but not in a way that properly sets up the fiction.
What am I going to do about it? Propose a better solution. It’s one thing to disagree, it’s another to bring your own solution to the table.
Ask yourself, what is the most robust system in most RPGs? Combat. Most games spend an inordinate amount of time on combat and it’s effects. One reason for this is, it works. The most developed part of the game is also what attracts many players.
How well would combat work if you got one roll to take down a foe and if you failed, you cannot beat them? That would be a strange and very different game. Yet that’s what a lot of skill tests are in games. They were secondary to the early RPGs and so designed to get out of the way quickly. If you want skills to be more important to your game, they must have a more robust system.
There could be any number of things that you could do to model skill. My assertion is to go with what has been tried and tested. A contest that depletes a less skilled person’s resources faster than a skilled person. A contest that is not solved by a single roll. A contest that establishes how a person with that skill, overcame the test. This is basically what combat is in most games.
Let’s apply that to an investigation. The skills in use are not really in question, they can stay as is. The amount of skill can also remain the same for whatever game system you’re using. What resources are involved in an investigation? Usually the big one is time. The other is effort, a highly skilled investigator needs to put out less effort to get the same result as a less skilled investigator. Given infinite time and effort, it would seem that any investigation should be solvable.*
Is the investigation going to be solved by a single roll? No, that would be dull. Should each clue be discovered by a single roll? Maybe some, but not all. Each roll takes time, effort or both. Failure takes more time and effort without delivering results, while success delivers. Each clue has a certain resistance to being found. It would have a difficulty value that is worn down as rolls are passed. When the difficulty is zero, the clue is discovered
How much time and effort should a roll cost? If we use combat as a model, and damage as our model, some games have variable damage while others have a constant amount of damage. So maybe the result of a failure costs a variable amount roll a die for how many minutes or hours, maybe it’s constant. That’s up to taste.
Effort is the x factor here. Some games have fatigue mechanics, many don’t. But really, if you have more time, you can output more effort because you can rest and recoup. For games without fatigue mechanics, more time can be substituted but it misses the same in game impact of character’s getting worn out and still trying to push through the story.
That’s the mechanical end, how does this work out for the story? Each attempt at a roll gives a bit of how the investigators work at solving the puzzle. What skills were used? How hard a time did they have? Those have all been answered at this point by the system. There is still the question of how the clues get put together to solve the mystery. Should the players be given this task, or should they be able to use character skill?
The answer I like best is that if the players figure out how to assemble the clues, it costs them nothing. If they use their character’s ability, it costs them more time and effort. Again, assign the “solve” a difficulty number. If the players guess something right, it lowers the number. If they want to roll, that’s fine, but it will cost them. In order for the costs to really matter, there has to be a final showdown where the character uses whatever is left over to seal the deal, to get a confession, to convince the police chief, to finally track down the culprit. This way there’s an incentive for the players to think it out, but if they’re stuck they can still work out a solution.
This is really the same way I modeled Tech Challenges in the Fraction Column system for Artifact. It’s also how the energy system is put together. So, yeah, this is my solution, but I feel it matches the stories that I’m familiar with in mystery fiction.
*Unless opposed by someone with equal or greater skill, time and effort.
I’ve been making a mistake when GMing my games. I’ve been trying to jam more and more intellectual and social challenges into my games. What I didn’t realize is that some of my players aren’t interested in this kind of game and it wasn’t who I expected.
Maybe you already know this, but some players are workers and some are bashers. For some reason I always imagined that players usually start out as bashers and then eventually develop into workers. That’s not true though.
There’s something that is missed by a lot of GMs, because we are involved mentally in the game we imagine that the players are similarly mentally involved. Some, possibly most, are there to be entertained. They are there passively. Yes they roll the dice and go for obvious advantages, but they’re not making strategy and only take the lead when there’s a direct threat.
Now, I understand that this may be self evident to some GMs, I didn’t realize it because my players tend to be intelligent and don’t shy away from thinking. They seem like they’d make good workers. If you have players that overtly say “I’m just here to hang out and blow stuff up.” Then you know what you’re dealing with. Many bashers will dabble in intellectual challenges and even enjoy them. It’s not the center of their experience though, they’re most interested in some action and enjoying what everyone else is doing.
Workers tend to be the ones that develop the strategies, they take the lead in puzzles and social situations because the way forward may be less clear. They may be more interested in avoiding combat because it reduces their resources. They may be rules lawyers because they want to squeeze out every advantage they can out of the game.
Are workers better than bashers? It might seem so, but here’s something to consider. The majority of the populace are more interested in sitting back and passively allowing entertainment to happen to them. That’s not a level of intelligence or ability, it’s an approach to recreation. Would you rather have a healthy gaming group that’s happy and enjoying the game, or a small handful of players that are looking to take the reigns?
Bashers can be intelligent and imaginative but they’re in the game for the action, for the fun. Workers are interested in making the game happen the way they want it to. Bashers allow the game to happen to them. GMs tend to be workers, or maybe the role of GMing turns the player into a worker.
When developing a game, either for print, or just for a game that you’re going to run as a GM, there is a seemingly endless amount of world building that you can indulge in. The question is, how much world building is useful? How do you know how deep into the core of your world to go?
Most of the time, we think of a story setting as the players will experience it. Then we try and work out why the world is that way. In effect, working history backwards until we can explain why the setting is the way it is. Why do these people hate those people? What made people build this city? Why do people use a particular greeting? The problem is, these questions are endless. You can always work things a little further back. Most of the time, this is a fun exercise by itself so it could seem like there’s no problem with delving as far into the background as we can. There is however a rate of diminishing returns that we get from these efforts.
For one, it begins to be difficult to record and remember all the setting details. When it’s hard to keep track of what has been established already, you run the risk of players getting confused and breaking their immersion in the setting. The game may even break down into arguments and dissension. Some of the errors can be hand waved away but surprisingly often, setting errors and revisions effect the player characters.
There is also the danger of a setting designer trying to force the players to experience all the minutia of their creation. The designer has invested a lot of time into the setting, and it may be that the players are going to miss out on some of it. The designer might respond by railroading, or not giving the players the spotlight. In very small quantities, this may be tolerated, but it can quickly get out of hand. The designer should never be so invested in the setting that parading it out in front of the players gets in the way of playing the game.
With that in mind, here are some questions to ask yourself as you dig deeper in the setting.
- When would this setting material make it into the game?
- Would it make more sense to fill in this detail during play so I can adapt to the players?
- Can the majority of the setting be understood by a new player without a lengthy introduction?
- Can the players use this information more than once?
- Is the setting information so detailed that material has to frequently be looked up?
I have to admit that I am way past some of these criteria for The Artifact but that’s partly because it’s been played for over eighteen years. A lot of our adventures have opened up new territory for us. I wouldn’t expect another gaming group to play the setting in exactly the same way that we have.
A setting feels deep when it reacts authentically according to it’s own history and culture. Having peasants talk about their favorite bands is usually going to seem inauthentic. Peasants in a remote village usually would only get to hear music if they learned to play it or if there was someone that could play music in their local area. Your favorite is going to be everyone else’s favorite in town because it’s their only choice.
On the other hand, in a city full of millions of people are likely to have some kind of entertainment available. To not have an idea of what city folk do for fun is going to cause the GM to default to what they’ve seen before.
To avoid this kind of oversight, plan out the following.
- What do people do for work? (In the city, in remote areas)
- Where do they get the things they need?
- How much extra do they have? (Money, time, food)
- How much do people travel? (This is effected by how much extra they have)
- How does society keep order? (Police, religion, mob rule)
- What unusual thing is allowed? Why?
- What unusual thing is forbidden? Why?
- What do people do for amusement? (In the city, in remote areas)
- What pets/labor animals do people have?
- What are the important landmarks? (Cities, land forms, bodies of water)
- Who is important? (Heads of state, scribes, lawyers, warriors, hunters, etc)
- Who are disliked? (Garbage men, itinerant salesmen, immigrants, lawyers)
- What luxuries are most prized? (In historical settings, medicine is one of the most valuable commodities)
It’s unlikely that you have to go very deeply into any one of these questions to get the feeling of the setting. Beyond the basics, long descriptions are probably unimportant unless they are counterintuitive.
For a bit of flair, give the setting something unusual to hang on. Maybe the people here don’t use any utensils when eating. Maybe they really like big hats. You really only want one or two things to stand out because otherwise nothing stands out.
To make the setting seem really deep, pick something that society has gotten wrong but thinks they have right. It could be something about history or some pseudoscientific belief. It’s often best to assume the players won’t cure this ignorance with a simple explanation of the facts, so there has to be something to anchor their misunderstanding. All the better if the players take up the belief too.
In most cases, going any deeper isn’t necessary until the players are asking for more information. If something strikes the players as odd, they’ll ask. Otherwise, they aren’t looking for more information and more information isn’t desirable. Sure, if your game relies on the lineage of the emperor then go ahead and make it up. Isn’t it better though, to have left that kind of information open, until you need it locked down? Don’t assume that because you write it down the players will read it. The players are probably more interested in their own actions than what happened in the setting’s history. When they need a history lesson, culture lesson or geography lesson, have a helpful NPC explain it to them and keep it short.