Oi, rules, get out the way!

A long time ago, in a blog post, Vincent Baker wrote about mechanics which are driven by the game fiction, and mechanics which aren’t. He used some fancy diagrams to make the point, but I think it’s not much more complicated than that. His point (or at least a point that he made) was that if your mechanics aren’t, on some level, driven by the fiction, then you end up ignoring the fiction.

Why is this? I think it’s reasonably straightforward. If the game’s mechanics can manage quite well without the fiction, the fiction becomes an inconvenience. You can’t have your hit roll until you’ve described your attack. You can’t have your damage roll until you’ve described some gore. The description makes no difference to anything, and you may well not be that interested in detailed descriptions of combat. You want to skip to the stuff that actually matters, the hit roll and the damage roll. And so, with the best will in the world, it becomes tempting to skip over, you know, the actual roleplaying. And as your descriptions become more perfunctory, they seem ever more unnecessary, the colour drains from your combat (or investigation, or whatever mechanic it might be) in favour of lifeless dice rolling.

(Incidentally, I’m not talking about mechanics that model the fiction. Nice probability curves and mechanics broken down in a way that maps onto the fictional “reality” are not relevant here. I’m not against them. But what I’m talking about is mechanics that engage because of circumstances somebody narrated, and which are sensitive to the detail of that narration.)

Once I’d seen the phenomenon Baker describes, I could not unsee it. Everywhere I looked were designs which violated the “fiction first” principle, where a conscious effort is required to keep describing, at least when the game’s mechanics are engaged. And, conversely, many an hour of dull die-rolling seemed explicable, even inevitable, given the rules of the games I had been playing.

To bring this back to the title, many roleplayers would prefer that the rules just “get out of the way”. And I think Baker’s analysis is highly relevant to understanding why. When your mechanics suck the colour out of your roleplaying in this way, every time you find yourself in a mechanics-free scene, everything will seem that much more vibrant. You have no choice but to describe, because the mechanics aren’t there to pick things up; and the fiction no longer seems a burden, because it isn’t getting in the way of your resolution system. In the absence of those mechanics, that resolution system will probably be GM fiat or collective agreement, probably based on what is plausible in the fiction, making description key.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the entirety of mechanics-averse play is down to a lack of “fiction first” in the rules. A significant amount of it is down to clunky, cumbersome mechanics, cognitive load and tedious book-keeping, for example. But it is certainly a part of it. When the fictional situation drives the mechanics, when fictional logic is put at the centre of the rules, this problem falls away. And so, whenever I design a mechanic, I always look at it through this prism, watchful for anything that might tear the players away from the fiction.

The procedural vs dramatic balance

I’ve been playing a lot of games recently which are focused on intense, dramatic relationships. The poster child for these is Hillfolk, but there’s a whole bunch of others along similar lines (several in playtesting). What I’ve observed is, there’s a crucial balance to be struck between intense, emotional, conversational scenes, and the procedural scenes which provide the energy for them. Hillfolk, it seems to me, undervalues the latter, with the result that its dramatic scenes[*] gradually wind down and end up meandering rather than roaring along. Other games overdo it in the other direction.

Why is this? Conversations have to be about something. Hillfolk sets up dramatic tension by asking everyone to begin with something they want from each other character, and a reason why they can’t have it. But over time those tense relationships from become flaccid, either because the starting issue is resolved or because it becomes apparent that it isn’t going to be resolved. Sooner or later there’s nothing left to talk about.

To stop this happening you need to provide an external stimulus to tighten up those relationships and reintroduce tension. There are various things that can do this, such as:

– Discovery of information that had previously been secret (or at least, known by a more limited group)

– A decision taken that was previously untaken.

– Somebody does something, i.e. the execution of a decision.

– An external event happens which forces one of the above to happen, or creates pressure for it to happen.

Notice that the first two can naturally happen in the course of a dramatic scene, indeed a dramatic scene can focus on these things. The third could be either; I can take action with the primary aim of getting an emotional reaction from someone, or I can do it to achieve some external goal. The last won’t naturally happen in any dramatic scene, though it might well be part of the setup for one.

Once again, eventually tense, dramatic relationships will wind down as all the secrets come to be revealed, all the important decisions are made and all the resulting actions have been taken. The only way this energy can be restored is if something happens that requires new decisions to be taken, that generates new secrets, that demands new action. Most importantly, something must happen that changes the way people feel about each other, or pushes them in directions which will cause them to feel differently about each other.

These external pressures are vital for keeping the drama going, which is why it’s frustrating that Hillfolk downplays their importance. But at the same time, if there’s too much external pressure then there’s no space for the emotional and social reaction to be played out. Dramatic scenes are a sort of emotional and social processing of what has happened in procedural scenes, but that can only happen if there’s a gap in the action in which that processing can happen.

So all this is a long-winded way of saying, in a game about relationships it’s important to include some sort of external stimulus to keep things from winding down, but equally the action has to be paced to enable those relationships to be explored. You need to strike the right balance between the dramatic and the procedural. Get that balance wrong in either direction and you’ll get less drama.

[*] I’m using Hillfolk’s terminology here. A dramatic scene is one where someone is seeking an emotional response from someone else; a procedural scene is one where someone is trying to achieve something more practical, even if the means to this end is a social interaction.

Trindie, schmindie

I read Smiorgan’s discussion of so-called trindie games (and the “trindie triangle”) on Department V recently. I disagreed with a lot of it – in particular I see the essence of the three gaming spheres, and in particular the indie sphere, very differently from Smiorgan. But I’m not planning to critique his ideas, rather I want to set out some of my own.

Disclaimer: these are my thoughts about what makes a game trad, freeform or (in a much broader, vaguer way) indie, and therefore what could be a trindie game. Obviously, this is to a certain extent semantics – but I think it does identify a space that isn’t fully explored yet, which may therefore be of interest.

A trad game will involve a GM who mostly makes the rules calls and who controls most of the game world and the characters in it; player characters who are the exclusive domain of the other players; mechanical procedures that relate to the actions of characters in the game and aimed at determining success or failure; and game time based on when something interesting is happening to one of the player characters, and skipping over the rest.

A freeform game will be played in real time. It will focus on a defined situation, which will usually be designed to minimise the need for rules calls i.e. characters who aren’t likely to start fighting each other in-session, or using lots of powers, or whatever. It will have a rules system for adjudicating when people do enter conflict, which will usually be designed to minimise the need for a referee, but there will usually be some people who can serve that function if needed. Often times there is a downtime system for managing what people do between sessions, which is much more ref-moderated.

An indie game could look quite similar to either of these (AW is quite like a trad game in many respects; WTDiG is like a freeform game) or be completely unlike either of them (Fiasco, Microscope, forex). So what makes an Indie game (apart from the obvious question of whether it’s independently published)? I think the answer is, no one thing, but there’s a whole set of tools and techniques which you see in indie-style games that you don’t see very often in trad or freeform games.

Diverse options for division of GM duties. Such as:
– Fiasco, has no GM (this seems to be the exemplar indie game by Smiorgan’s metrics, and I suspect the one he was thinking of when he wrote his article). Everyone is responsible for working out how the scene should go. The final outcome of the scene is decided by selection from a limited pool of available positive and negative outcomes.
– Microscope, has no GM. For most of the game creative responsibilities are clearly delineated so that just one person has authority to decide at any given time, so it’s sort of like having a rotating GM. Except! In scenes, the players roleplay in a fairly unstructured way to answer a question posed by the person whose turn it is.
– Apocalypse World, has a GM. But the GM doesn’t have the power to dictate when the game’s mechanics are brought into play. And, the GM is encouraged to ask questions, often quite sweeping questions, about the game world and situation, so that they no longer have full control over those.
– Dream Askew, has Situations which have owners, who effectively take on some aspects of the GM’s role, in particular creating pressure on the player characters. Other aspects are handled through questions asked to others, like in Apocalypse World.
– When the Dark is Gone, hands over creative decision making to the players in its entirety. The GM-role is just a facilitator who asks questions.

Messing with the player character role, so that people may have more than one character. Such as:
– Durance, where everyone has two characters; one from the criminal side and one from the authority side.
Lovecraftesque (and, I understand, Downfall), where everyone takes turns playing the main character.
– Rise and Fall, where you play an archetype, and may play several different exemplars of that archetype, one per scene, maybe coming back and playing the same one(s) more than once or maybe not.

Using mechanics to structure the story and drive its overall shape. Such as:
– Fiasco sets hard limits on the number of scenes and on how many of them can have a positive or negative outcome. After half the scenes are used up, there’s a tilt; once they’re all used up, there’s an aftermath.
– Dog Eat Dog gives out tokens, and at the end of each scene the characters make judgements about the scene, which trigger a token exchange. The token exchanges drive the events of the game and ultimately determine when it ends and with what final outcome.
– My Life With Master is another game with a mechanical trigger for the endgame, based on the accumulation of points resulting from the outcomes of individual scenes.
– Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne frames the whole game around a journey, and has a required number of scenes and a theme at each location, with a fixed ending.

Now, I’d like to touch on the so-called “trindie” games such as Fate and Cortex Plus. What these particular games seem to do that is considered by some to be indie-ish is to allow players to create stuff outside their character – scene aspects in Fate, and mechanically similar assets in Cortex Plus. In effect, the player narrates a little chunk of what would, in a purely trad game, be narrated by the GM. But this is very limited! Players can only do this within fairly narrow limits, and the primary effect of doing so (and I suspect in many cases the primary motive for doing so) is to attain a temporary mechanical advantage in a conflict. In other words, aspects and their ilk are like temporary traits that a character can use, that just happen to sometimes concern a bit of the world outside their character. They’re not so much about creative control as broadening the range of ways your character can be awesome. That doesn’t seem particularly “trindie” to me – it seems like a trad game with a tiny bit of narrative control grafted on.

So what would a truly trindie game look like? Well, I don’t see how you could keep the tr in trindie without keeping a pretty unified GM role and players who each play one character (maybe two). But there is a game which keeps all of that, while altering the trad formula in a number of ways: Apocalypse World. AW gives you background and plot that is mostly generated by the players through question-answering (but driven forward by the GM); mechanics that are triggered by fixed circumstances and with relatively fixed outcome options, reducing the role of GM judgement and constraining GM fiat; it encourages the GM to put things beyond their direct control using tools like countdown clocks. It even lets you play more than one player character, while remaining essentially a player rather than a GM.

I don’t think AW has driven as far into this space as you can possibly go. But it suggests some thoughts about what aspects of a trad game you could retain while introducing elements of indie play. I would suggest the core of a trad game is a GM whose role is to represent adversity and drive forward external threats; and players whose roles are to fully inhabit the roles of a much smaller cast of characters.  Within that model, you can divvy up a lot of creative power, you can introduce mechanics which put the structure of the story at least somewhat beyond GM control, and you can give the players something other than just a single unchanging character to play. I can’t think of another game that has done this to the extent that AW has, but I’ll be very happy to hear of one. Suggestions?

Lovecraftesque update

For those who have been following this project, we’ve just been through another round of playtesting (some internal, some external) using updated rules.

This was a bit of an odd playtest in a way. The rules updates we had made had their intended effect, the game seemed much improved, and overall we seem pretty much bang on in terms of realising our design goals while keeping the game fun to play. But we had two pieces of fairly broad-brush negative feedback which shook our faith a little and made us re-evaluate where we were. The bottom line is that after some soul-searching we concluded that we should not panic over two bits of feedback, when most of our feedback is so positive – but this feedback nevertheless led us to make some further changes.

The big one was that the game was too complex. Of course, as an indie/story game-style game, it is a *lot* less complex than your average traditional RPG. At the same time, it is probably significantly above average complexity compared to its peers. More importantly, after reviewing the game we concluded that there were elements of complexity that could be removed quite easily, without changing the play experience. A no brainer, really.

This has led to a number of changes:

  • Progress through the parts of the game is now driven by scenes played rather than clues revealed, which seems simpler and more intuitive.
  • We’ve ditched the idea of separate reprisals scenes (and the reprisals track), and merged reprisals into our card system.
  • We’ve ditched the decreasing narrative distance rules and, again, merged them into the card system. By default you can only introduce rationally explicable clues throughout the game.
  • The revamped cards allow you to introduce a thematic element (e.g. a cult) and enable thematically appropriate rationality-breaking clues or reprisals (e.g. the cult threaten or attack you).
  • We’ve simplified the journey into darkness so you can pretty much choose whatever role you like on each step rather than having to switch back and forth between roles.

The gameplay is more-or-less unchanged, but the burden of explaining the rules has been significantly reduced. The cost is that the cards are much more important – we need to playtest that before we’re sure if they work the way we want them to.

The other issue we picked up was around tone. The default tone of the game is very much slow-building, brooding horror, with a protagonist who is at the mercy of events and probably doomed to meet an unpleasant end. But there’s nothing to stop the game from being a bit more heroic in feel. You could even run it for laughs, deliberately parodying the style. We’ve introduced a stage where this choice is explicitly discussed. This is less because we think these other options will be chosen, and more to make sure that whatever choice is made, everyone has explicitly agreed to it. We think this will reduce the risk of divergence of styles causing grief in play.

We’ve also hit the start button on a couple of art pieces (we’ll only commission the rest if/when the kickstarter is successful) and some sample layout options (again, we’ll pay for the book to be laid out if we get the funds). Discussing ideas with our artist and layer-outerer (?) has really got us excited, and we saw some early sketches this weekend which look really awesome. We’re beginning to talk to printers and flesh out our ideas for kickstarter reward levels and stretch goals for the kickstarter. We’re still a little ways off launching the campaign, but it’s beginning to come together.

Watch this space.

Lovecraftesque – actual play report

Actual Play report of Lovecraftesque

As played at Seven Hills in April 2015

Players: Josh, Fergus and Ric

[In the setup we agree the basic parameters for the game, in open discussion – the only time that discussion is permitted.] We decided to set the game in the Himalayas. Off the back of that, we decided to make our Witness an explorer. We wanted a classic Lovecraftian game, so we decided on 1890s for the era. His reason for being in the Himalayas seemed pretty obvious, so we just needed a personality trait (we went for arrogant) and a source of strength (we decided he was driven by the need to prove himself to an explorer’s club back in London). Finally, we needed a name (this always seems to come last!) and we decide on Sir Arthur Worthington.

[Fergus had an idea for a starting clue, so we started the first scene with him as Narrator, Ric as Witness.] We began with Sir Arthur, already high in the Himalayas, trudging through thick snow with a retinue of sherpas carrying his equipment and supplies. A blizzard blows in, and Sir Arthur can barely see past the end of his nose. [Fergus comments: Already the power of having a Watcher was beginning to show as Josh brought the hostility of the environment to life, describing numbing extremities and the suffocating thin air.] Sir Arthur follows what little he can see of the path, to a large, blocky building of black stone, clinging to the edge of a precipice. He has lost the sherpas, and it’s only getting colder, so with trepidation Sir Arthur goes inside. Within he finds a dark room lit by yak fat candles, and filled with saffron-robed monks. The walls are carved with scenes of monsters. One of the monks greets him silently as he enters, and beckons him to follow. The monk leads him to what can best be described as an audience chamber, where a saffron-robed boy is waiting on a dais, backed by more carvings of strange demonic monsters. The boy explains that they have been expecting him, that there is a prophecy that foretold the coming of “Siratha”. He will save the world from a great evil. [This was the first clue.] Baffled, Sir Arthur agrees to the monk’s suggestion that he should rest now, and goes to sleep on a simple bed within the monastery.

[The next scene is Ric’s to narrate, with me (Josh) playing Sir Arthur.] Sir Arthur wakes up to find the monastery empty. Nobody seems to be around – the monks are gone. Wondering if he has dreamed the whole thing, or lost his mind, he wanders through the monastery, trying to retrace his steps to the exit. En route, he stops to look at those carvings he saw before. He stares in disbelief as he recognises a perfect likeness of his own face amongst the carvings on the wall. [Second clue.] Although Sir Arthur has barely exchanged words with anyone, we have discovered more about him from his inner reflections.

[Next up, I’m the Narrator, Fergus is Witness.] Sir Arthur Worthington makes his way up the mountainside. He has lost his sherpas, and the monks are all gone. He has no supplies. He has little hope, really, but his desire to prove himself drives him on. As he trudges up the path, he spots a small building – a hut – crouching in the snow. Within, he finds a comfortable little home, complete with fireplace, bed, a rather nice desk. This will make a good place to camp for the night. Idly flicking through one of the books he finds on a shelf, he is baffled to see that it is entitled “Ye Journale of A Worthington”. Within are various coded writings, together with the occasional unencoded note such as “Tried it again today without success. Perhaps tomorrow.” [Third Clue.] He tosses the book on the fire, but as it burns, a terrible, fiery symbol appears, crystal clear within the flames. [Fourth Clue, created using a card – “reveal a Clue that has no rational explanation”.]

[Fergus is Narrator next, Ric is Witness. Fergus chooses a Reprisals scene.] Sir Arthur wakes up in the hut. He still has no food, no hope, no ideas. He opens another of the books – unbelievably, it’s the same Journal from before. He opens another – the same. They’re all the same. [This is a re-use of an existing clue, so doesn’t count as the clue for the scene.] Setting out into the snow, he spots a couple of scavenger birds flying in the distance, periodically descending to the ground. Realising that there may be food where those birds are landing, he heads in that direction. When he arrives, he finds one of his sherpas. He has been brutally killed. He appears to have been hit with something – a massive impact – and his face is a mask of terror. Most disturbing of all, his entrails have been torn out and arranged in the pattern of the symbol Sir Arthur saw in the fire. [Again, this is clue re-use.] A trail in the snow reveals where his body was – presumably – dragged to this spot.

[Ric is Narrator, I’m Witness.] Sir Arthur is filled with horror at the sherpa’s fate, but pushes his fear down. He knows he will surely starve if he can’t find food. It is possible – just possible – that the other sherpas are at the end of that trail. So he has little choice: he follows the trail. At the end, he finds a cave in the ice. Inside, he finds a package of perfectly butchered meat, no bones within. [Fifth Clue. This triggers the end of part 1, which means all new Clues from now on must have no rational explanation.] Returning with haste to the hut, and desperately trying not to think about what might have butchered the meat, or what (or who… please say not who) the meat might have come from, he cooks the meat and eats it.

[Ric Narrator, I’m Witness. Another Reprisals scene, this time played with a card.] The next morning, he awakens to find that the hut has been ransacked torn apart. The desk, smashed to matchwood. His remaining equipment, gone. The books, torn to shreds. And over the fireplace, daubed in blood, the symbol from the fire. [Another clue re-use.]

[Me Narrator, Fergus Witness.] Emerging into the snow, Sir Arthur finds that there’s a trail heading away from the hut. Looking at it closely, the trail seems to be made up of countless clawed footprints. No living animal could have made these prints. But a thick fog cloaks the mountainside, and though he hears a terrible, cracking, bubbling noise from deep within the fog, he does not dare to pursue it. [Clue 6.]

[Fergus Narrator, Ric Witness. Once again, a card is played, this time “Change Location”.] Once the fog has cleared, Sir Arthur goes looking for his stuff and spots some of it, scattered down a sheer slope near the hut. Clambering down to retrieve his stuff, he discovers a deep, dark cave.

[Ric Narrator, I’m Witness.] Heading into the cave, Sir Arthur comes upon the monk he met at the beginning of our story. Enigmatic to the last, the waiting monk gestures him to follow deeper into the cave. Sir Arthur follows, and after a time emerges through a carved stone doorway into an underground room, where the saffron-robed boy awaits, this time wearing a golden mask. The boy removes his mask to reveal Sir Arthur’s own face staring back at him. [Clue 7.] Sir Arthur screams the scream of the unhinged.

[I’m Narrator, Ric is Witness.] Sir Arthur is numb with terror, but continues into the depths of the cave. He passes through another arch, carved with the same monsters he saw in the monastery. He finds himself at the top of a deep shaft, with winding stone steps carved into the side, descending deep into the earth. But it is what is carved into the walls that horrifies him: a written history of previous pilgrims to this mountain, horribly reminiscent of dreams that Sir Arthur has had long before his journey to the Himalayas. Or thought he had. Were they dreams? [Clue 8.]

[With the 8th Clue, part 2 ends. It could have ended earlier, if the Witness had decided to voluntarily initiate the Journey into Darkness, but he didn’t. Fergus is therefore Narrator for a Force Majeure scene, which proves rather simple.] Sir Arthur stands at the top of the winding steps, and knows he must go no further, his innate determination rising within himself. But then he feels a shove at his back, as the saffron-robed monk pushes him over the edge, and he falls, down into the darkness.

[We now begin the Journey into Darkness. Since I can’t remember each individual step of the Journey, I’ve written it as a single scene, though different parts were narrated by different people.] Sir Arthur comes to at the bottom of the shaft. He lights a torch, and looks around. To his horror, he sees that the carvings that had described his dreams continue even down here. But now they are describing the events of the last few days. [Clue re-use.] There is a further staircase leading down into greater darkness. Sir Arthur follows it, plunging further down into the earth. He is feeling a mix of terror and exaltation now. He feels that this is his destiny. He was born to fulfil this destiny, and the fools at the explorer’s club will regret laughing at him. He finds himself at an altar, where a copy of the Journale of A Worthington sits waiting for him. But now he can understand the coded text. He reads it – it is a ritual, which he begins, chanting wildly. There is a little bowl of flesh. He eats it. A portal opens, and he steps through.

[With the Journey over, we briefly conferred over who should do the Final Horror. As it happens, two of us had an idea, but Fergus said that his was perhaps a little too optimistic an outcome to the story, so I stepped forward to narrate the Final Horror, with Ric as Witness, for all the good it did him.] Sir Arthur emerged onto a cold mountain peak. Before him was a great cauldron of blood. The saffron-robed monk was there, and gestured to the cauldron. Knowing now that his destiny would be fulfilled, Sir Arthur drank from the cauldron, deeply. But now he felt strange. His limbs began to change. His voice was changing, his hands warping into tentacles. He tried to scream, but in place of his voice was a terrible, cracking, bubbling noise. The saffron robed monk places a golden chain about his neck, and leads him down to join the other monstrous creatures, his predecessors on the mountain.

[The Epilogue rotates the roles so that someone not involved in the Final Horror gets to be Narrator. That’s Fergus, so he narrates what becomes of the Final Horror, and Ric gets to narrate the fate of the Witness (in this case, his descendant.] In the Epilogue, Sir Arthur’s son grows up and becomes a geologist. He, too, decides to journey to the Himalayas. We ended with the monster that was Sir Arthur watching, wordlessly, as his son arrived to enact the ritual.

Lovecraftesque: playtest

After half a dozen external playtests and a similar number we ran ourselves, we’ve been beavering away on an updated version of Lovecraftesque. We’re now opening it up for a second round of external playtesting.

What’s the game about? You create your own story of brooding horror in the mould of Lovecraft, but without using any of Lovecraft’s material. It’s a GMless game, in which you spend most of your time as a narrator whose role is to intrigue, torment and terrify the Protagonist. You and the other players create strange clues for the Protagonist to investigate and, ultimately, draw them together into a compelling Final Horror to drive the Protagonist to despair or insanity.

What’s changed since the first playtest?

  • We’ve ripped up the token mechanics. They were clunky, and they were getting in the way of engaging with the game.
  • You’ll receive one or two cards at random at the start of the game, which make each story unique and a little unpredictable.
  • We’ve introduced the “leap to conclusions” rule, which keeps things coherent while leaving everyone plenty of room to influence the story and be surprised by what the other players contribute.
  • We’ve created a teaching guide which makes it quicker and easier to teach the game to new players, and which gives a great summary of Lovecraft’s style and themes for players who aren’t familiar with his work.
  • Plus loads of other, smaller tweaks designed to make the game easier to play or deepen the atmosphere.

If you’d like to take part in the playtest, please leave a comment here or email lovecraftesque at vapourspace dot net and we will send you the playtest files.

Crowdfunding calculator

In the run up to our planned Kickstarter of Lovecraftesque, I’ve been busily crunching numbers to make sure that the whole thing will fly financially. All of our figures have gone into a spreadsheet, where I can easily update the costs as I get better information, and tweak the prices of the rewards to reflect those costs. In turn the spreadsheet works out how much we need to ask for.

Anyway, having gone to the effort of creating it, it seemed like other people might find it useful. If you give it basic information about your crowdfunding campaign (like reward levels, costs and so on), it will work out your reward levels for you.

I’ve included instructions on how to use it (at the top and in comments on the relevant cells). In brief: fill in the yellow bits and then read off the information in the green bits.

Crowdfunding calculator

Crowdfunding calculator

EU VAT for indie roleplaying publishers

I first noticed the changes to EU VAT when they started being shared all over my social meejas around about December last year. Everyone was all doomy about it. It didn’t seem that relevant to me at the time, partly because I don’t sell digital stuff on the internet, and I suppose mostly because I assumed it would blow over.

It hasn’t blown over, and now I’m contemplating selling digital stuff on the internet. So I’ve been doing some research into this. For the uninitiated, it basically means that anyone, anywhere in the world who sells digital products or services to customers in the EU is liable to pay VAT at the local rate to the member state where the customer lives. Phew! That’s a lot of people. And in due course – scheduled for 2016 – it will apply to physical goods too, though one might hope they’ll make some improvements to this confusing and opaque law in the interim.

I have seen some people, mostly Americans I think, rolling their eyes and saying “how do you plan to enforce that”. Well, I wouldn’t want to put my business in the position of breaking the law in the EU, even if I was in America; but as it happens I am also in the EU, so that makes it… pretty easy to enforce, actually.

Anyway: my research is, essentially, a bit of googling, a fair bit of looking at the website of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), and an email conversation with same. HMRC’s answers can probably be considered as definitive as it gets at this point, for UK businesses at least, and probably for everyone.

And before I go any further: I’m not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. I am not responsible if you mess this up.

Why is this so hard?

Well for one, it’s not that easy to determine where your customer is. You’re selling them digital goods, so it isn’t like you can easily tell by looking at them. And the VAT rate is different in different EU Member States, so it’s pretty much easy to mess this up.

The HMRC online guide to the new rules says that except in some weirdly specific circumstances (it’s along the lines of, if the customer is buying through their mobile bought from country A while flying in a plane from country B to country C but is in the airspace of country D when the sale is made…) then you have to “obtain and keep 2 pieces of non-contradictory information to support and evidence the member state where the customer is normally located.”

And, “Examples of the type of supporting evidence that tax authorities will accept include:

  • the billing address of the customer
  • the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the device used by the customer
  • customer’s bank details
  • the country code of SIM card used by the customer
  • the location of the customer’s fixed land line through which the service is supplied
  • other commercially relevant information (for example, product coding information which electronically links the sale to a particular jurisdiction)”

So, that might be easy or difficult, depending on how you handle your payments and so forth. Administratively, it’s definitely not going to be easy for anyone who has an appreciable number of EU sales.

Oh, and you’re required by law to include the correct rate of VAT in your prices, too. In theory that means you need to get the above bits of information in advance of sale and then work out the correct VAT and include it in your price which, let’s forget about that. I can’t see any reason why you can’t just quote a blanket price to all customers and say “if you’re in the EU, we’ll pay the VAT”, but then you have a tricky balancing act to set a price which ensures you can afford to pay the VAT, when you won’t know how many customers you’re going to get from each country; plus you’ll be marking up your prices for non-EU customers to make sure you have the funds to pay VAT for the EU customers.

I don’t like the sound of this! What can I do about it?

There’s a lot of ways you might legally avoid having to worry about all this.

First off, if you’re selling bundled products, and the digital product is only “ancillary” to the main product, then you don’t have to pay, at least as long as the law only applies to digital stuff. But you have to be careful, because the definition of when a component in a bundle is ancillary and when it’s part of the main thing you’re selling, doesn’t seem to exist. My guess is that a hard copy RPG sold with a PDF version counts as primarily a physical product, but I wasn’t able to get a straight answer out of HMRC so I’m not 100% confident.

There’s a sort of loop-hole in the law – I say loop-hole, it seems to have been deliberately designed this way to catch the likes of Amazon but miss smaller operations – which says that if your product isn’t delivered automatically then you don’t have to pay VAT. Emailling an attachment doesn’t count as delivering automatically. Emailling a link to a download site does. I can’t really see the logic, but that seems to be the rule. Still, you probably won’t want to manually email attachments to large numbers of people if you can help it. Also, you may want to check up on your email providers policies, as some email providers (e.g. gmail, or so I’m told) blacklist people as spammers who send too many such emails.

What about selling through a third party? Or crowdfunding?

A third way to get around the tax is if there is an intermediary in your sales process. This is crucial for a lot of roleplaying games, because they are frequently sold through online platforms such as DriveThruRPG, Indie Press Revolution, or through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. I wasn’t clear on whether digital products sold through such a platform would be subject to the EU VAT rules, so I asked HMRC. I am going to quote their reply in full:

“If the platform operator identifies you as the seller but sets the general terms and conditions, or authorises payment, or handles delivery/download of the digital service [my emphasis], the platform is considered to be supplying the consumer. They are therefore responsible for accounting for the VAT payment that is charged to the consumer.”

I think that’s pretty clear. In the case of sites like DrivethruRPG and Indie Press Revolution, they will handle the payment and delivery of the digital service, so they are liable to pay the correct rate of VAT. In the case of sites like Kickstarter, they set the general terms and conditions and authorise payment, so they are liable to pay the correct rate of VAT.

[edited to add:] The HMRC website also has this to say ”

If you operate a digital platform through which third parties sell e-services you are liable to account for the VAT on those sales unless every one of the following conditions are met:

  • the digital platform and everyone else involved in the supply must identify who the supplier is in their contractual arrangements
  • the invoice, bill or sales receipt must identify that supplier and the service supplied
  • the digital platform must not authorise the charge to the consumer
  • the digital platform must not authorise the delivery
  • the digital platform must not set the general terms and conditions of the sale”

Again, this seems pretty clear to me. [/edit]

Kickstarter have specifically said that they will not do this, and that the campaign promoters are responsible for dealing with EU VAT. However, I think HMRC’s advice makes it pretty clear that they are wrong about that. This may not be particularly good news: after all Kickstarter is a big enough target that at some point someone may go after them for the VAT they have said they won’t pay. VAT is generally paid at around 20-25%, so the bill could be pretty big. If I were Kickstarter I think I’d be thinking pretty hard about this. But HMRC’s advice strongly suggests to me that you, as  the campaign promoter, do not need to think about this.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there are payment platforms out there like Payhip, who as well as being legally bound to deal with EU VAT, have said that they will do so. Where possible, you should consider using such providers, simply because those who are still in denial may be on a rocky road, and if you use them you may take some bumps along the way.

Lovecraftesque update

So, as you might have noticed from my earlier post about playtesting, the first round of Lovecraftesque playtesting is over. We picked up a lot of issues – a few quite major, most not so. We’ve moved quickly to make some changes and additions to tackle the former, in order to get some rapid feedback from some playtests we’ve already got lined up. So: here is a summary of some top-level issues we encountered and what we’re doing about them, with the caveat that this is only a first cut and we reserve the right to have a total rethink in the coming weeks.

1. Not Lovecraftian enough.

Man, this was a real disappointment to hear. The structure of the Lovecraftian tale is clearly in our game, but in terms of realising the alien, uncaring universe of Lovecraft – we didn’t do so well. Admittedly, this was most visible in groups who were not familiar with Lovecraft, but even some experienced players found that just following the rules wasn’t enough to make the game feel like Lovecraft. (Although one group said it was about as Lovecraftian as most Call of Cthulhu, which is either a backhanded compliment or damning with faint praise… but better than we’d feared.)

The main change we’ve made is to provide a style guide to Lovecraft, covering the themes, paraphernalia and language used by Lovecraft. This is supported by other changes which I’ll describe in a moment. It remains to be seen whether knowing the themes and having them at the forefront of one’s mind will be enough to make the game feel like Lovecraft – we should know pretty quickly after the next few playtest reports come in.

We’re also thinking about introducing a requirement to choose a theme for the story, from a list we’ll provide. But that’s something we need to think about over a slightly longer time period – it hasn’t gone into the game yet.

2. Hard to teach, hard to learn

This was also a bit of a disappointment, if I’m honest. I have to explain complicated concepts for a living, so I thought I’d do pretty well at this. I think most of my playtesters managed ok at learning the game. Those that didn’t, were new to indie-style games, which may account for the problem. The teaching of the game, however, seems to have been more laborious than it needs to be.

We’ve created a teaching guide to tackle the latter problem. It’s pretty clear that, since this is a game that has a number of stages that work quite differently to each other, the best way to do this is to teach the game as you play it, not attempt to explain it all at once. That’s what we’ve done – create a guide which you read out at key junctures to explain the key concepts (at the start) and how the basic procedures differ as the game evolves (when the changes happen). The guide also includes a potted summary of the Lovecraft style guide, so that it isn’t just the facilitator who benefits from that. The whole thing would take about 15-20 minutes to read out if you literally just monologued it, but it’s broken into chunks, so hopefully the job of teaching is a bit less strenuous.

We’re going to have to think about whether the rules are just too complicated, or the rules guide not structured in the right way. That’s something we’ll get to in a later iteration.

3. The Final Horror

Quite a few groups found that it was a real challenge to weave together all the clues they had seeded through the story into a single compelling Final Horror. They ended up either ignoring some clues, or laboriously explaining through exposition how they fit in, or having a lengthy discussion as a group which obviously breaks the tension.

We’ve introduced a new rule to address this. In the new version, after every scene there’s a pause in which everyone individually writes down what they think is going on. Obviously nobody really knows – but the rules say you have to leap to a conclusion. The idea is that you’ll then use that premature conclusion to guide what you narrate in the next scene. Since the other players will surprise you, your ideas will change every scene – but because nobody is just firing off ideas into the void, the story will be a bit more coherent. More importantly, when the Final Horror comes, nobody is starting from a blank slate.

Other stuff

These weren’t the only issues our playtest uncovered! But they’re the biggest – we think the rest will be relatively easy to crack. We’ll be going over these, and thinking more broadly (and maybe more deeply) about the game’s overall design, over the next few weeks, with a view to commencing a fresh playtest on a completely revised version of the game.

Playtesting: some reflections

Lovecraftesque playtests

I’ve collated the information from the first Lovecraftesque external playtest and I thought it might be useful to discuss it here. I’m not going to talk about our game, instead I’ll be talking about the playtest in more general terms, in the hopes of deriving some more general lessons about playtesting.

Recruitment

We advertised the playtest through our website, Black Armada, and through G Plus, Twitter and Facebook. We put the files in a public drop box but only provided the link on request to people who expressed an interest in playtesting.

We received 31 expressions of interest. 29 of these were from people who appeared to be men, 2 from women. 6 were from people who we know quite well in real life, and another 3 from people we’ve met a few times in the flesh. The rest were from comparative strangers.

We allowed six weeks for playtesting from the day we announced it. We sent a reminder out at the midway point to anyone who we hadn’t interacted with for at least a week, and another one a few days before the deadline.

Of 31 expressions of interest, 19% sent in a report.

We received 6 playtest reports within the playtest period – just under a 20% response rate. All of these were submitted by men. 2 came from friends, 4 from comparative strangers. Between these we got 22 session-hours of playtesting, or 72 person-hours.

It seems to me that we were fairly fortunate to get as many as we did. In previous playlists using a similar method I only had a 10% response rate, from a smaller number of expressions of interest. The improved success comes, I think, from a combination of us being better connected within the indie roleplaying community than I was back then, and having a game pitch that was always likely to be a bit more popular.

Method

None of the playtesters received any guidance from us or clarification. They were given a set of detailed questions covering 10 aspects of the game, which were rather bossily labelled “READ THIS FIRST”, in addition to the rulebook and some supporting materials.

None of the playtests involved us, either as a participant or a witness.

Results

All six playtest reports responded to the questions we asked fairly assiduously. I wouldn’t say they were all completely comprehensive, but none of them ignored the structured questions, and all responded to most of the points we wanted covered. One came with a blow-by-blow actual play report (which was quite valuable beyond what our questions elicited).

I shall now provide a breakdown of the issues identified by the playtest. (Either identified by the playtesters themselves or apparent from their report whether they themselves realised it or not.) I have classified them as follows:

  • A critical issue is one which would make the game unplayable.
  • A serious issue is one which would make the game not fun or prevent the design goals of the game from being realised. If even one group identified a serious issue, I’d count it.
  • A major issue is one which makes the game very clunky or interferes with realising the design goals of the game.
  • A minor issue is one which doesn’t interfere with the design goals or make the game avery clunky, but rather is a matter of polish. Minor rules clarifications also fall into this category.

I’ve obviously had to exercise judgement as to whether an issue identified by a group is attributable to the design, and whether there’s anything that can be done in the design to ameliorate the issue. In one or two cases, because different groups reported radically different observations, I haven’t recorded an issue, but will instead watch for these recurring in the next round of playtesting.

Here’s what our groups found:

  • Critical issues – 0 (phew!)
  • Serious issues – 1
  • Major issues – 2
  • Minor issues – 16

50% of our groups caught all three major or serious issues, but 33% only caught one and 17% didn't catch any.

A note here about consistency: not all our issues were detected by all of our groups. Two groups (one of which played twice) did not pick up the serious issue identified above, and the two major issues were each picked up by only three of the six groups (arguably one of them was detectable in a fourth group, but I think we might have dismissed it based on their evidence alone, as it didn’t look that serious). More importantly, these were clustered: 3 groups caught all the serious and major issues, 3 groups missed at least two of these issues.

I want to be clear, by the way, that I don’t consider the above to be a poor reflection on any of our groups. I suspect the ones that missed issues did so because they were more familiar with the style of game or the genre. Some of our clearest and most helpful feedback came from groups that didn’t catch a lot of the bigger issues, but did notice many smaller ones. All the feedback was immensely useful.

The above suggests to me that you want at least three groups to test a game to be reasonably confident of picking up on major and serious issues. With fewer, you might get them, or you might be unlucky. (Of course in our case, we would need four groups to guarantee catching them all.)

By the way, I haven’t analysed the minor issues, but my impression is that they were sprinkled liberally through all six groups. I doubt if there’s a single group that didn’t pick up some minor issues missed by the rest.

Conclusions

The top line conclusion is that you need to playtest, and not just with one or two groups. The comparison with the playtesting on my previous game is instructive. I only had one response, which added a little to my own efforts at playtesting. But clearly, my analysis above means that there is a high risk of failing to catch even quite serious issues with such a low level of response. There would be innumerable smaller issues that will have slipped the net.

Getting playtesters isn’t at all easy. I think we were fortunate this time around. Our voices carry a bit further as a result of a few years circulating in the online indie gaming community. We got support from a couple of people with a very wide reach, and although it’s hard to say how much impact this had, I would guess a lot. And our game concept was more grabby – though whether we would have been taken as seriously if we’d proposed such a concept three years ago, I can’t say.

One thing I would observe is that it’s a lot easier to make playtests happen if you offer to organise them yourself. That’s pretty obvious, but it is worth saying anyway. You can tackle the tendency for the game to get cancelled by providing a venue, making sure you pick people you can rely on and above all not dropping out yourself. And you can make sure decent notes are taken and guarantee to take them away with you. It’s more effort, and if you want it to have the same value as an external test you’ll have to be disciplined about not facilitating the game itself, but it dramatically increases your sample size, which reduces the chances of missing a given issue.