# Category Archives: Experimental Mechanics

## Group Survival

Last post I wrote about trying to simplify the Survival Challenge system for groups. To expand on that thought, I feel like the system works just fine for one character and conceptually it works for a group, but tracking challenge points individually for each character is a pain. The other issue I have with the system is, while there is a way for characters to help each other, it’s not simple.

The easiest way to simplify the process is to handle the challenge points as a group. The problem is, to a simulationist (me) that doesn’t make sense. It could make some sense, since lowering the challenge as a group could signify the characters helping each other through the difficulty. The problem is, that in some situations like surviving a dessert trek, more people make the challenge harder.

The solution could lie in scaling certain challenges, like climbing a cliff, according to how many characters are going to take on the challenge. Even that solution is messy however. For one, the group could decide that only the good climbers in the group are going to attempt the climb and the rest will stay behind.

There is one other issue with the system. That is, tracking when certain events happen in the challenge

Now, midstream, the GM has to change the number of challenge points to match. That’s just annoying. The other problem is that the character’s strategy may be to have one character run through the challenge quickly while the others work through the challenge more slowly. Then the one pool system really doesn’t work.

The solution could lie in flipping the math. It’s mentally easier and possibly more enjoyable to have the players build up to the total number of challenge points. The players track their own progress, and because it’s a build up, the process is more interesting. It would also make sharing progress easier. If each player has a number of points built up, it’s easier to redistribute points among the player characters.

It would also make sense to track this kind of progress with a spin down d20, or in this case, a spin up d20. This would make the progress evident for each character. The players can distribute their points among themselves as they see fit.

The other advantage to this is, it’s easier to know when each character gets to each stage of a challenge. The GM can mark down at what stage each stage occurs.

One more thing

It came to my attention that at each stage of a challenge, the player should get a choice of two different “attacks” the environment can make. I think that would introduce more player agency and introduce choice.

Filed under Experimental Mechanics

## Survival and Tech Challenges – What to do?

Survival challenges are reasonably concrete in how they work. The part that is a little fuzzy is tracking the challenge with multiple players. It just feels like the group should all fight the challenge together instead of individually. It would make Challenge Point tracking simpler but would loose a bit of it’s realism. For instance, if I’m a really good climber and cut through the challenge points easily, another character who’s physically incapable of climbing also overcomes the challenge. That is, unless I can come up with justifying everyone decreasing the same pool of points. I think that’s the big change I’d like to figure out.

Tech Challenges are a different story. They’re completely not concrete and that makes them difficult to handle. A GM has to go through multiple steps just to have the player’s roll once. There’s  a whole series of steps that determine if a skill can be used.

I’ve come to use the tech challenges in a bit more cut and dry way. I set a number of points and judge if a skill is usable, usually if a plausible explanation is given for how it’s used. I don’t use a lot of transforms either but that’s kind of guts the system’s consequences.

I think a simpler system needs to be in place. The GM should pick from a small set (2-3) of skills that are approved to overcome the challenge and select a few transforms (transforms are the consequences of the character’s rolls) from a list. They can either roll or choose the transforms.

Come to think of it, transforms should just be called “Consequences” to make the process more concrete.

I’m not sure how the consequences should happen though, at the moment, they are a reaction to the roll the player makes. That doesn’t seem organic to play though. It should be that the GM gets to make an “attack” that alters the challenge. The problem with that is, the attacks are going to feel directed by the GM instead of a natural process of the character learning about a problem.

I think the key there is to structure the consequence as character learning instead of a series of random events determined by dice. I’ll try and write that up later.

Filed under Experimental Mechanics

## Sensors in Combat

From the very start, I wanted sensors to play a big role in vehicle combat on The Artifact. For the most part, that hasn’t worked out. With the third edition I tried to introduce “sensor locks” into the game. This required sensor rolls in order to start using vehicle based weapons. This is plainly the wrong approach.

I was juggling a lot of elements when putting out the third edition, but this plainly breaks many game design criteria that I set for other systems in the game. Primarily that any additional rolls should reward a player when they succeed, not penalize them when they fail. If a character can’t start firing until they pass a sensor roll, that’s plainly penalizing them.

Try Different

The sensor systems of a vehicle should make them more capable than a person handling a weapon manually, not be an impediment. My thought is, how does a “sensor lock” work in movies? It means that the sensors make for an automatic hit unless a heroic effort is made to evade.

That means that getting a sensor lock guarantees a basic hit. That’s simple for the Fraction Column system, a sensor lock gives a single success each turn the lock stays in place. This means the vehicle will at least hit it’s target as long as the target doesn’t dodge, or use their ECMs to break the sensor lock.

A pilot can still roll to hit with their Artillery Operation skill and improve the number of successes the attack has. This means that doing things like avoiding shields or armor is easier. Burst weapons are more effective and having multiple weapons firing all at once suddenly is very very effective. Rall 4s weapon lay out becomes staggeringly effective.

There is one little peculiarity to this concept though. What if the character rolls under their 8th for their sensor roll? Do they get 4 fractional successes to hit? My instinct is no. That would be far too effective and probably break the game. So what does rolling well under sensors do for you?

The main advantage of a good sensor roll would be that the lock is harder to break. The defender has to make an ECM roll that matches or exceeds the roll for the sensor lock. That makes a good lock roll a devastating development to a pilot.

I think that should do it, it makes sense and it follows the basic concept that people would expect. It rewards the player for using an action, so that’s better too.

Any objections to this system?

Filed under Experimental Mechanics

## Fourth Edition?

I’ve casually kicked around the idea of a fourth edition for The Artifact. My first instinct is to convert the whole game over to my Energy System (ES) that’s been getting more and more capable of handling the game world. I’m currently veering away from that though, not because I wouldn’t like the result, but more because of the history the game has. Converting to ES  would massively streamline the rules since it does all the things that the current Fraction Column system does, but with fewer moving parts. The downside is that it would make all the system knowledge that players have built up over decades invalid.

So if I’m not looking at moving to ES, what would a fourth edition do that would make it worth the effort? Let’s look at the things I would like in a new edition.

I would like to clarify and possibly simplify the tech  and survival challenge system.

I’d like to make the infantry system more organic to the system. It’s functional but still requires the player to absorb a very different mindset to employ.

I want to change the role of sensors in vehicle combat. Currently NPCs have a really hard time properly locking on targets and using ECMs. They can take stress to make sure they get the sensor lock but that severely limits them later. We’ve hammered out something of what the new sensor rules should look like and I’ll do a post later on what they’d look like in case anyone wants to use them. As it is, the role of sensors is a little murky in the current rules.

A big maybe

There are a huge number of moving parts in the current game. I know some players really like that, but no one uses everything that’s built into the game. That means there’s a lot that can be trimmed. I’m thinking that some of the in play complications could be helped by reducing the number of attributes, something along the lines of the Physical, Functional, Mental categories becoming the actual attributes. That would be sacrilege to many players though. Maybe characters could specialize in one of those categories and they’d get the attributes in that category broken out for them? That would require a lot of other moving parts to implement, but in play it might make things more streamlined, or it could just swap one level of complexity with another.

Is that enough?

Looking at the list, I’d say no, the third edition is standing up pretty well. That’s never stopped me before though. I think I should approach this the same way I’ve always handled things. I’ll post ideas here on what might work and when I feel like I’ve built up enough changes, I’ll want to rebuild the whole thing into a fourth edition.

Filed under Experimental Mechanics

## Control

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.

Filed under Experimental Mechanics

## What is it that makes RPGs hard?

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 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.

1 Comment

Filed under Experimental Mechanics

## I disagree with Gumshoe

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.

Filed under Experimental Mechanics, GM Advice

## Who’s in control, you or the game?

There is an intersection in any game, where the player and the game structure meet. For nearly everyone, where that intersection lies it hidden to us. We just feel it out.

For example for video games, I like playing Sim City. I really liked Age of Empires. These days I’ve looked around for games like them that I might also like. But the popular interface in almost all the new games is wrong for me.

Some games just don’t feel right. I think this interface between the game’s structure and the player is something that deserves to be explored for a possible cause to that.

One aspect of this interface is control. Is the player the one that dictates what’s about to happen next, or is it the game? There are a huge number of variations of that one question. There is a texture of the interface. I think we pick up on it instinctively and we know what we want when we find it.

For me, I like a game that has a very heavy structure for low-level choices. Video games and table top RPGs I like have a rigid set of options but there are a large number of options. There may be dozens to hundreds of things that the player can activate, but the set is finite. For example, in an RPG, the player can choose to attack, defend or any of other concrete defined actions, there are options within each of those options. In a video game, I can build, destroy, move, with a myriad of possibilities within those.

But I like my high level options to be open. There is no structure that says I can’t make certain moves when I want to. Sim City is a good example of this. The play is open ended. The only thing that limits my options is money. In Age of Empires, there is no explicit winning strategy other than gather materials before you are wiped out by an enemy.

My likes in RPGs are similar, although this high level control is usually the default. In some cases it’s not though. Games that have phases of certain kinds of action bother me. Games that have scenes that dictate what can and can’t be done in them bother me.

Video games often limit a player’s options on the high level these days. Even building games seem to be doing this more and more by giving the player an endless string of “Missions” or “Goals” that you can’t ignore. A lot of them will not allow you to continue playing the game until you’ve accomplished those missions.

In these games, I wonder, who is in control? The player or the game? To me it feels like the game is playing itself an I’m just along for the ride. On the other hand, this kind of game set up is apparently very popular since there are so many of them.

I assume then that I’m in the minority in wanting open ended freedom to take the game where I want. That makes me wonder, is that a reason RPGs are not attractive to many people? Precisely what attracts a player like me, is not desirable to others?

This would seem to be bolstered by the fact that a lot of people that play RPG for a short time and then move on may be playing because of the GM’s style. Maybe the GM is giving them what they want, by sending them on very specific missions. They’re not there for the high level choices. They’re there to push the button, or roll the die that they’re being told to.

This might seem cynical but it seems to be borne out by the evidence. Games are obviously not a one size fits all endeavor. In a lot of situations, we have a lack of language to figure out why. So let’s try and create some language to talk about it.

Some games give some control to the player, others give control to the game. Although in RPGs the control can be shared between the two. It’s often up to a Game Master to set the levels of control. In some cases though, RPGs can set these exclusively to player control.

### High Level Control

This is an open ended game that the player sets the agenda. There may be an overall mechanism for survival (this is usually defined in the low level), but beyond that, the player calls the shots.

Player Control Examples: Sandbox RPG play, many story games, Microscope, Archipelago, Sim City, Legos, building blocks

### Mid Level Control

There may be a stated goal, take over the world, defeat your enemies, get to the finish line first. How to accomplish that goal is up to the player.

Player Control Examples: Traditional RPG play, many story games, Archipelago, Fate, Age of Empires, Risk, Chess, Catan, Sim City, Legos, building blocks

### Low Level Control

The player can define how the game will work on a mechanical level.

Player Control Examples: Some story games, Archipelago, Fate (to a minor degree) building blocks, toy soldiers, cops and robbers

For me, I enjoy games with high level control (HLC) and Mid Level control (MLC) but tend to not enjoy games with low level control (LLC). For example, Legos. They don’t set the goal, they don’t set how to get to the goal, but they do have a low level set of rules that if written out, would be extensive.

Building blocks on the other hand, have almost no rules other than gravity (although I could glue them together) and their geometry. There’s relatively few mechanisms that enforce how they are played with. This makes them easy to learn, but also have limited options.

I think a lot of story games are in that way similar to building blocks. They’re easy to learn and there’s nothing preventing you doing what you want. However they don’t always have a structure that tells you how to accomplish the higher level goals.

Where do you fall in the games you like? Do you think this language is useful for figuring out what kinds of games you like? Are there other variations that you think would need to be accounted for?

Update: I thought of one more control level that’s worth mentioning.

### World Level Control

This is the ability to define the world in which the game is played in.

Examples: Microscope, Possibly home-brew games since the GM is creating the world, Generic games like Risus and Gurps don’t make world level control part of the game but require it by default, I’ve included limited world control in a few games like SPF and my 24hr game Starpunk.

I know that there should be more of these out there, I’m not thinking of them at the moment though.

Filed under Experimental Mechanics, GM Advice

## Let Me Tell You My Character’s Story!

Yesterday, we looked at how sharing a character with others can go wrong. I don’t like to leave things on a negative note though. It’s one thing to have a list of don’ts. It’s another to have a useful list of do’s.

So how can we share and have it got well? Like I said last time, people are often willing to hear a GM talk about their games. I’ll add the criteria that they’re willing to listen when said GM is brief and doesn’t delve into all the minutia of their “well laid out” campaign plans. “Let me tell you about my campaign” can be nearly as painful. The important thing is that people listen to the places where characters, players and the campaign intersect. That’s where the sharing is worth while.

What does that mean? That when your character does something in a game, it’s more interesting than anything you planned out on the character sheet. What you planned out on the character sheet may have made it possible for you to do cool things but stick to the action. It’s even more interesting when you ran into something you thought you couldn’t handle and then pulled it off anyway. Emphasize the reason you thought you weren’t going to make it. That’s your hook. That’s how you get your listener to say “I wonder what happened next!”

GMs are used to dealing with hooks, but hooks are something that work when you want to share a story.

Show what it’s like to have your character interact with the other PCs and the GM. Is there a funny conversation you can relate?

Is there a part where your character became pivotal to the campaign? That could be an interesting story too. Is that something the GM planned? Was it something that happened by accident?

You want to focus on the action of the game, it doesn’t have to be the fighting but is should be where something happened. Got the deal you wanted on the new equipment? Didn’t get it? Had a funny interaction with an NPC?

The intersection of the players and the rules can sometimes be interesting, but the feelings you have during those interactions are more important. Rolling two or three perfect rolls in a row is not that significant. The feeling it gave you is. “I rolled three perfect rolls! Do you know what the chances of that are?” is a dull conversation piece. “I rolled three perfect rolls in a row! Do you know how good that felt? It was amazing!” is something that will get even veteran players nodding their head. Positive feelings and energy are infectious.

Some things are just general good conversation rules. Remember shorter is better. Enthusiasm can make us ramble but fight it! Know when the story is done and make it time for someone else to talk. Maybe they’ll ask you to continue, that’s a sign that you’re doing well but again, give room for them to talk if they want to. Or maybe they have to do something and would like the story to end so they can. Give your listener that dignity. They’ll appreciate it.

So tell me your character’s story. Tell me your story. That’s something unique. That’s something entertaining. Lets learn to share so that it’s not just the guys at our table that get to share our experience. Let’s get good at brining in people from outside our gaming group in on the fun we’ve had. Maybe they’ll join you in your next game.

Filed under Experimental Mechanics, GM Advice

## Let me tell you about my character!

Cringe! That phrase is probably the most frightful thing a game designer can be cornered with. On the one hand, it’s your game, and you want to reward the player’s enthusiasm for your game. On the other, your brain is screaming “Dull! Boring! Painful!”.

Why is this? Where is the player’s enthusiasm for the thing they’ve built, failing to come out as an interesting story? You have people that pride themselves in complex back stories and acting out what their character would do, telling a painfully dull explanation of their character.

Maybe it’s because we’re given tools for playing the games but we’re not given tools to tell people about them. Lets look at some examples of other story telling that is boring and see what it teaches us.

Mary Sue” is a label given to a character that is good at everything. A Mary Sue is often seen in fanfic writing where an enthusiastic fan is writing about their favorite character. The beloved character overcomes every obstacle with ease, nothing can stop them. Mary Sue characters are boring. Any enjoyment from a story featuring such a character is purely on the part of the writer.

A lot of player characters are Mary Sues. At least their player is trying to make them into one. At one time, most of us tried to build an uber character that would beat everything in their path. It can be an interesting goal, it can be highly rewarding to reach toward. Once a character gets to that point, they usually get retired. Why? They’re no longer fun to play. They’re not making an interesting story anymore.

What do we learn from this? Telling about all the monsters you can beat and all the toys you have is dull. Telling me about your “fascinating” back story is usually an exercise in Mary Sue character building.

Why does this fail? After some examination, “legitimate” characters might seem like they fall into this category.

It’s not the skill of a character that’s interesting. It’s the challenges they face. But the challenges don’t usually get written down on the character sheet. It’s the GM that comes up with challenges. People will much more often listen to a GM’s tale of the games they’re running or even the plots they’re concocting, than listen to a character’s back story.

The second area that players run into when telling about their characters is they focus too much on stats and possessions. Do you want to read a book full of measurements of Mount Rushmore, or would you rather hear a story about the faces carved into the rock, why they’re important, and the great effort that it took to do the work and the current efforts to preserve it? Obviously it’s the latter.

Why? Stats tell a story but a good story, shows. There’s a huge difference in telling the story and making the listener feel like they’re in the middle of it. Showing them what it’s like to be there. Yes, on occasion a stat may be important but they’re rare, often one time thing and they should be connected to a story the tells the listener what it would be like to have such a good stat.

Early players frequently obsess about stats, but stats enable great things to happen. They aren’t great things happening.

These are two of the reasons that “Let me tell you about my character” fails. Next, let’s see if there’s a good way to share a character with others and make it interesting.