The power of asking

Over at Department V, Smiorgan writes about Everway’s three methods to decide a conflict: Karma, drama and llama.

Smiorgan discusses the issue of who decides what the plot should be (in order to rule in accordance with drama), and how randomness (fortune) can introduce something new and unpredictable.

I mostly want to talk about the latter here. It’s a ubiquitous way to keep the game unpredictable: Pick up some dice and let fate decide what happens. An observation I make is that this is very often restricted to determining “can I do X”, which is in itself only one of the interesting things one needs to decide during a roleplaying game, but that’s a topic for another day. What I want to talk about here is an alternative approach to introducing unpredictability – one which I am increasingly favouring in my game design.

Here I am going to refer to the method as asking. More broadly, it is about giving away decision-making power to someone else. You see, your decisions as GM (or a player, for that matter) may be based on drama or karma or something else entirely, but to you they can seem predictable. You have perhaps already thought about what the needs of the story are, or what the demands of the fictional situation are, so making that decision can seem predictable to you.

So an obvious way to get the sense of unpredictability for as many people as possible is to spread those decisions around. I’m not talking about discussion and consensus; in many ways that feels like the most predictable method of all for resolving things. I’m talking about varying who makes the decisions.

In a traditional GM-and-players game, you get this a bit. The GM takes decisions about the NPCs, the world, and often some conflict resolution. so they provide a sense of unpredictability to the other players. And it’s often remarked by GMs how the players’ surprising actions make the game exciting and unpredictable. But it’s clear that the GM has much broader scope for making decisions, and it is they who provide the chief source of unpredictability outside of the dice: the question is not “what will happen”, but “what will the GM decide”.

What I’m increasingly finding is that having all the players involved in those GM decisions, by making individual calls, creates a fantastic sense of unpredictability for everyone. No one person has their hand on the tiller, so the boat goes where it will.

I’ve called it asking, because a very straightforward way to make it happen is by asking questions to another player. Instead of it being either the dice or the GM who decides what happens next, it’s another person whose mind you can’t read. And even the person you ask, moments ago, didn’t know what the question would be or that they would be answering it.

Similarly though, rotating roles (as seen in Microscope and Lovecraftesque, for example) ensures that the story isn’t moving in a straight line. Each person guides it a bit, and no one person could have forseen where it would go. In effect, here, it’s the system doing the asking, but instead of always asking the same person, it’s a different person every time.

It’s important to emphasise this is about one person deciding. If you turn to group discussion for this, you quickly find that you’re relying on negotiation, social dynamics and (often) a rather turgid laying out of the reasons for and against each course of action. This is far from unpredictable.

This is also the method that lies behind improv-based approaches to GMless roleplaying. Each person leaps forward and inserts their ideas into the story higgledy piggledy, like having a jam session. But what improv approaches tend to leave space for a small number of people (maybe just one) to dominate the game, subtly or not-so-subtly steering things so that they are not so much a product of the group as the product of an organising committee. This is why games like Lovecraftesque and Microscope impose a no-discussion rule, forcing every player to contribute to the flow of the game.

So there you go – karma, drama, llama and banana, I guess.

Anatomy of a roleplaying game (LONG)

Georges Cuvier, totally relevant to gaming.

Georges Cuvier, the legendary father of palaeontology, boasted that he could deduce the class and even genus of an animal based on a single bone, because the “correlation of parts” ensures that every component of the animal’s body are related. In other words, every animal is specialised for a particular way of functioning, and therefore every part of the animal reflects that way of functioning.

You can say the same of roleplaying games. There are plenty of games which boast of being completely generic, or of being able to handle just about any situation. But upon close inspection of even individual parts of a game, it is possible to discern a great deal about that game’s way of functioning. Just as an animal has a specialised “design”, games have a literal specialised design that can be observed in individual components of the game.

Before I go on, let’s pause to consider the difference between the design of a game – its procedures, guidance and fictional material – and the way it’s actually played. A game is, after all, not really an organism but a tool. We can learn a great deal from studying a tool, but its full functioning only emerges when we see how it is used. Even so, if a tool is well-designed, its designer will have envisaged a particular way of using it which the design will then promote and support. You can use a kitchen knife to cut paper, and you may even get quite good at using it that way, but it is designed to cut food and that is where it comes into its own.

Let’s take as a simple case study the so-called “traditional” game. This is a class of beasts rather than a single animal, but its members have components in common from which we can deduce a common function. I’m going to look at three such components: the GM; difficulty checks; and ratings for weapons and armour.

First and most fundamental, the GM. Games vary wildly in how they implement this component, but the “traditional” approach is for one person to exercise their judgement and creativity to plan a fictional setting and events, which form the context for a situation that same person creates, populated by people,

Your guide in the realm of…

creatures and phenomena that person describes and controls, regulated by rules that person adjudicates up to and including ignoring the rules in favour of their own rules or ad-hoc decisions. Everyone else describes and controls one character within that setting and situation.

Given that description of a GM, a game design Cuvier would conclude that this was an incredibly important role. The backbone of the game in which it featured. It is possible for a GM to take a highly collaborative, discursive approach, but the role’s natural oeuvre is autocratic – there’s nothing in that description I just gave about collaboration except at the interface between the player characters’ actions and the rest of the world. And because they control so much, they dictate the terms by which the other players must engage with the game.

Returning briefly to what I said earlier about the way a game is actually played, it’s really important to acknowledge that a lot of groups, whether their particular game tells them to or not, do in fact adopt this more collaborative approach. GMs may look to their players for subtle cues to help them craft an experience that will be satisfying for their players, or they may be much more explicit, discussing what the players want from the game and giving them creative input on setting and even situation. But that is not what the game component known as the GM is designed for.

No, the GM as a design component is clearly aimed at producing a specific experience: highly guided play, where one person decides broadly what the game is going to be about and then prepares and moderates the game accordingly. As an experience it’s close to a choose-your-own-adventure story, but with the vastly expanded flexibility for action implied by decisions being run through a human brain instead of a branching flowchart. I’m not going to go into a discussion of other approaches but it should be obvious that there are many other possible experiences a game could promote.

Moving on: difficulty checks. These

Polyhedral dice, how I love thee.

are a ubiquitous mechanic across a range of games, and in most games that have difficulty check mechanic, that is the single core mechanic for handling conflict (outside of combat which sometimes has its own dedicated mechanic). Characters have some numerical stat (attribute, skill, talent, whatever) and via some kind of randomisation they either succeed at a task (if they beat a difficulty number) or fail (if they don’t). Maybe there will be degrees of failure, yes-and, no-but, etc, but fundamentally the mechanic is about: can this character overcome this obstacle, avoid this risk, complete this task.

The fact that so many games make this sort of mechanic the core of their ruleset tells you one simple thing: they want you to tell stories that are about trying to do stuff and succeeding or failing. In other words, what Robin Laws would call “procedural beats”. There are lots of great stories you can tell that revolve around success and failure: action movies and police procedurals, for instance[*]. But, once again, there are many other possible experiences a game could provide.

Let’s also pause to note the link between these first two components: the GM typically decides when a difficulty check is needed, what the difficulty level should be and what the consequences of success of failure are. So in games with a GM, difficulty checks are a key tool that can and often are used to help the GM control pacing and dictate the terms of the story; they help to make the game even more of a guided experience. Once again, we observe Cuvier’s principle of the correlation of parts.

Finally, ratings for weapons and armour. A lot of games, and virtually all games that have both a GM and difficulty checks, include rules for inflicting damage on characters. This very often means a set of numbers telling you how much damage weapons do, and how good armour is at blocking that damage. (Sometimes the “weapon” is a spell, or the “armour” might be a mutation or something, but it’s the same principle.) In most such games, no other sphere of activity is delved into in that level of detail: we don’t (usually) have ratings for various investigative tools, or for how different types of terrain interact with stealth, or anything like that.

What this tells us should be obvious: the game is about fighting. We need all that detail about weapons and armour because we’re going to be doing a lot of fighting and we care about giving it a level of granularity (perhaps “realism”) that we don’t need for other areas.

Now this last one is so ubiquitous that many games that really are not supposed to be about fighting nevertheless include it. Call of Cthulhu is about investigation and being traumatised by gribblies. Fighting is mostly futile, and not a central part of the Lovecraftian genre at all. Yet it includes special skills for different kinds of weapon, and ratings for their damage levels (pre-7th edition, at least – I haven’t seen it). This is arguably bad design: it doesn’t seem necessary or particularly useful as a component of that type of game. Such games typically fall back on guidance to let you know what the game is “really” about, or a well-understood culture amongst the fan-base.

The point is, these are not “generic” rules or vanilla design choices, they support a specific type of play. Each of these rules reinforces that type of play, promoting a very specific experience. A single person plans and guides the experience, which is mostly about struggling with obstacles and fighting threats. Individual groups may graft on other aspects of the experience or house-rule or ignore the rules to get the experience they want: but a study of the anatomy of those games provides a clear view of what they’re designed to do.

[*] Aside: I’m not actually sure there are that many great stories about success and failure. When I think about stories I’ve enjoyed even within the broad category of “mostly procedural”, the heroes largely succeed unless they’re overmatched. When they’re overmatched it usually marks out the key obstacle of the story, which the heroes must then struggle to somehow overcome through cleverness, a macguffin, some kind of montage, whatever. It’s pretty rare for random success or failure to generate interest. But whatever, it’s a popular model.

AW’s dirty secret: you can say anything

As part of my endless quest to spend every waking moment of my life obsessing about game design, I have spent some time analysing the MC moves in Apocalypse World. And here’s what I learned: what at first looks like a long and fairly complex list of options could actually be boiled down to “say something, anything”.

Ok, it isn’t quite that simple, as I’ll explain in a moment. But let’s take a look at the basic moves (i.e. those which don’t come from a front).

  1. Announce future badness, announce offscreen badness. This translates to “tell us something bad is happening, or about to happen”. Obviously, it also has to be something the players weren’t previously aware of, else it isn’t announcing, obvs. Minor subtlety: it has to be badness. Bad for whom? The game doesn’t specify, and at times it makes it clear that moves don’t have to be against the players, they can be against anyone. If that applies here too, then this is truly a flexible set of moves indeed – announce anything that could be bad for someone. In that case, I could just write “QED” here and be done. It probably doesn’t apply here, though.
  2. Offer an opportunity (with or without a cost), tell the consequences and ask. This translates to “tell us something that might happen depending on what we do next”. Now, a particular corollary of this, combined with the “be honest” rule is that whatever that something is, it will definitely happen as described unless someone acts appropriately. So this move boils down to “say what is about to happen and then do it unless someone stops it”. Already we have the basis for essentially anything to happen.
  3. Remember that all the previous four moves can be used with just about any time period attached. Future badness could mean “in the next five seconds” or “in a year’s time”.
  4. Put them in a spot. This translates to “make something bad happen”, more or less. Ok, perhaps it’s a bit more specific – it implies they’re going to have difficult choices to make or challenges to overcome. But that pretty much boils down to “make something bad happen”.
  5. Capture them, separate them, take away their stuff, inflict harm (as established), trade harm for harm (as established), turn their move back on them. Obviously, these are much more specific. The harm moves are the system’s means to link what the MC says to the harm system, and to prevent the MC from just killing a PC (the principles prevent you doing that anyway, but this bit of system reinforces it). The others  are more-or-less just specific examples of someone being put in a spot i.e make something bad happen.
  6. Make them buy. This is just a sub-type of offering an opportunity and/or telling the consequences. It amounts to a prompt to think about barter and other such trade/negotiation.

So essentially everything can be boiled down to “say what might be about to happen” or “make something bad happen”. This looks like it rules out nice things happening, but of course it doesn’t – if you offer an opportunity and someone takes it, something nice will happen. But clearly, for the most part, nice stuff is there to prompt the characters to action so they can get the nice stuff.

So this is maybe not quite just “say anything”, but it’s pretty close. It’s extremely close – maybe indistinguishable from – “say anything that the players won’t want to ignore”. (This seems jolly close to the Dogs in the Vineyard formula, from the same game designer of “do something they can’t ignore” when engaging in conflict.)

What’s my point? Well, mostly it’s just a bit of analysis I did, and I felt like writing it up. But it matters to me because, when I first started playing PbtA games, I remember staring at the moves list when it was my turn to act. Blinded by the sheer range of options. Paralysed, at times. But in practice, if I’d just fallen back on the principles and said something – anything – that the players would be expected to give a damn about, it would probably be fulfilling one of the moves.

I think the AW moves list is probably intended to function as a prompt, to help MCs mentally brainstorm their options in the few seconds before they open their mouth. Occasionally I think I’d find that useful. But I think for the most part I’ll just be saying the first thing that comes to mind, in future. I’m pretty sure I’ll end up sticking to the rules as I do so.

Rolling versus fictional positioning

So, I was reading some stuff about the OSR, and came across the concept that spot checks and detect traps rolls aren’t used in the OSR: instead, you identifying potential danger zones and have your character check them, and the GM tells you what you find. This article is about the more general case of this dichotomy: when is it appropriate to allow a player to describe their way to success, when is it appropriate to reduce it to a roll, and – in the absence of a roll – when to punish a player for neglecting to describe some particular action in the fiction. But yeah, I’ll talk about traps a bit because it’s a convenient example.

Caveat: I’m talking about games where you have Player Characters trying to overcome obstacles through skill or luck, and where those obstacles exist in the GM’s head or in their prep i.e. not invented after a roll is made. I realise not all games are like this, but that’s the scope of this article.

Matthew Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming talks about a couple of examples which are relevant:

  • Some dudes are walking down a corridor. There’s a pit trap ahead. Do you have them make a detect traps check (as you would in, say, 3e AD&D) or do you hit them with the trap unless they take an action which will allow them to detect it and disarm or avoid it? Supposedly the latter is the OSR approach. He describes how the dudes, having lost their ten foot pole, look for cracks in the ground and then detect the edge of the pit trap by pouring some water on the floor and looking where it collects. Then they just walk around the trap.
  • Some dudes enter a room. There’s a moose head with a concealed compartment behind it. Do you have them make a detect secret doors check (as per AD&D 3e) or let them find it if and only if they investigate the moose head (OSR). In the example the dudes fiddle with the moose head and discover it slides to one side.

So, looking at “detecting hidden stuff” as a category of action, we can see that you can just skip over the business of describing how you find it and make a roll (perhaps the GM describes how you succeed or fail after the roll), or you can have the player describe in some detail what they actually do and judge what the effects of those actions might be.

We can go further, though: some hidden stuff will jump out and mess with you if you don’t detect and deal with it, some hidden stuff is something nice you’ll only get if you detect it. I think this is an important distinction. If the world is full of stuff that will hurt me unless I take the correct action, then this raises some questions:

  • What warning, if any, must the GM give me before the bad stuff happens? Is “there’s a corridor” sufficient warning that there might be a pit trap?
  • How much detail do I need to go into in my description? In the example, simply touching the moose head seemed to be sufficient to get it to slide, but what if I can only open it if I tickle the moose under its right eyebrow? Do I need to describe all the weird combinations of action I might take to get to that?

Now, this brings us to GM philosophy. Think about Apocalypse World’s “be a fan of the player characters”. In a system where you’re relying on detailed action description rather than “just make a detect hidden stuff roll”, it would be a dick move to have a moose head that only opens if you tickle its right eyebrow. That’s just too obscure. On the other hand, at the margin, it’s a total guessing game whether the particular hiding method you’ve decided on is too obscure, too easy, or just that nice level of challenge.

I suspect the OSR answer to all this is “who cares”. You’re going to get hit by traps sometimes, and sometimes they will kill you, and sometimes it’s because the GM put something in place that turned out to be a bit too obscure for you to pick up on it. Sometimes it will be because you were slopped and forgot to investigate the obvious moose head; sometimes it will be because you investigated the obvious moose head and it turned out to be a trap. But as someone not particularly signed up to OSR philosophy, the idea that my character’s life or death hangs on the question of whether the GM’s idea of fair warning and mine align, or whether the GM’s warning of a reasonable level of description and mine align.

Let’s think wider than hidden stuff. You may wish to base a category of action resolution on the players’ detailed description if you want your game to be about describing that thing in detail. (Duh.) If you like the idea of describing turn after turn of agonisingly detailed trap searching, weighing up the risk of wandering monsters against the risk of arbitrary death at the hands of a concealed trap, then OSR D&D clones may be for you. Equally, if you want a game that is about complex political negotiations, you might not want to boil every interaction down to a roll – you want to ensure there’s enough fictional positioning required that it feels like you’re actually negotiating, not just rolling a bunch of dice. Conversely, DON’T do that if you want to avoid such detailed description. If you make the intricacies of character position a crucial factor in a fight, then every time there’s a fight you’ll get painstaking description of character position, obviously. If your game isn’t about fighting, you probably don’t want that.

If you are going to make a category of action resolution all about player description (with or without dice rolls) then you’re also going to have to think about how to get everyone on the same page about that. Establish what a reasonable level of description is. Establish what fair warning is. This goes wider than traps: does my political negotiation description need to give the gist of what I’m saying, or the detail, and if the latter, do I also need to roleplay my impassioned, emotional argument, or just describe what I’m saying? If we’re not on the same page about this, I’ll be pissed off when you have my argument fail (or saddle me with a fat negative modifier to my roll) because you felt I wasn’t impassioned enough. I’ll be annoyed that you thought describing the quirk of your NPC’s eyebrow is fair warning they’re about to stab me in the face.

So this brings me back to the OSR. I read in the primer that OSR is about rulings, not rules. Fair enough; but one thing rules do is get everyone on the same page. Quite literally. If we all read the rules, we can have common understanding of how a given situation might play out, and even if we don’t then at least we have a fair way to check the arbitrary power of the GM. If we don’t have that, then that sense of fairness depends on the players and the GM being on the same page, metaphorically.

Anyway, what this has got me thinking is, there’s a space for an OSR-style game that provides exceptionally clear explanation of the above factors: how much detail is it reasonable to expect, how much of a warning sign is it reasonable to expect. Providing some parameters to your rulings, without forcing you to conform to highly detailed rules. Maybe it already exists? Comments welcome.

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?

Stance and stancibility

So, where was I? Oh, yeah: stance.

Le Forge has this to say about stance:

  • In Actor stance, a person determines a character’s decisions and actions using only knowledge and perceptions that the character would have.
  • In Author stance, a person determines a character’s decisions and actions based on the real person’s priorities, then retroactively “motivates” the character to perform them. (Without that second, retroactive step, this is fairly called Pawn stance.)
  • In Director stance, a person determines aspects of the environment relative to the character in some fashion, entirely separately from the character’s knowledge or ability to influence events. Therefore the player has not only determined the character’s actions, but the context, timing, and spatial circumstances of those actions, or even features of the world separate from the characters.

So I was thinking to myself, actor and author stance are basically about playing a character, in the former case according to the character’s motivations, and in the latter case according to your motivations as a player (retro-justified as needed).

Director stance appears to be about playing the environment. But wait: we can subdivide this further also.

Let’s say that Regulator stance is playing the environment in accordance with the fictional logic of the environment. So, for example, you’ve just dived into the Niagara Rapids wearing naught but a polka-dot bikini and a baseball cap. In Regulator stance, I’m afraid you’re toast. You are swept away. The last we see of you is a flash of polka, a flailing arm, then nothing.

Meanwhile, God stance is playing the environment in accordance with your own motivations. Ok, you aren’t likely to survive a headlong dive into the Niagara Rapids, but I’d quite like it if instead of dying, you find yourself hanging by a delicately positioned tree branch, and just within sight of your arch-rival… what will he do now?

The same breakdown can be applied to less environmental questions. Say I want to know “will the inhabitants of Endor rise up against their invaders?” – I can resolve that by thinking about their motivations and the things we know about the situation, or I can do it according to what I think would be interesting, or what I’d like to see. Maybe that’s Sociologist stance and Dictator stance, I dunno.

So there we go. Director stance isn’t just a monolithic thing you can do, it means decisions justified in different ways, just like when you play a character. Maybe it would be simpler and clearer to divide the scope of decision-making in two. Actor stance when you’re playing a character, Director stance when you’re making wider decisions; Endogenous justification when you’re going with fictional logic or character motivation, Exogenous when you’re deciding for other reasons.

One last thing – in practice I almost never go into a pure Exogenous way of thinking. Basically if the fictional/in-character reasoning is overwhelming and obvious, I go with what that says. If it’s, like, 90% pointing in one direction then I’ll need a strong external reason to ignore that. If it’s less clear-cut, I’ll think more about what would be interesting, or just go with my whim. It’s still helpful to be able to clearly talk about the decisions we’re taking and the reasons for taking them, but it’s fair to say that these aren’t either/or.

Book Review: Impro by Keith Johnstone

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A long time ago I asked on Story Games for people to recommend their top books about role-playing… which were not actually books about role-playing.  Simply any books which had rich ideas which could enhance the hobby.  I asked the question because at the time I was doing an MBA and my major area of interest was (and is) organisational culture.  I have used quite a few techniques and theories regarding organisational culture in my role-playing and I was sure that there would be other  disciplines out there which might have similar insights.

I got a fantastic list of books and now my MBA is in the bag I’m making the time to read some of them.  Starting with Impro.

It seems obvious that books about acting might hold some vital lessons for Role-Players but Impro has particular relevance to story games and GM-less story games in general. Admiral Rabalias has already written here about how common problems in improvisational acting are also common in GM-less RPGs.

I would go further than Admiral Rabalias. I think that as traditional role-players coming into GM-less games we have to learn an entirely new way of thinking about improvisation.  There is a temptation to assume we know it all – after all “we never have a script we improvise all the time”.  But in a traditional game this is only true in a very narrow sense – in a traditional game it is very clear who has creative control over which sections of the game, players improvise their character’s thoughts, conversation and actions but by constantly bouncing off the content created by the GM.  In fact much player improvisation is interrupted by the need to ask question of the GM e.g. “Where is the red wizard in relation to the windows?” “Is there a door in here?” Many GM-less games have techniques for dividing up creative control and this always puts a greater burden on the players than traditional games.  Therefore problems such as a player’s creativity drying up or a lack of confidence often leads to the classic improv problems of blocking and wimping become more acute.

I think we need to starting using and practising improvisational techniques more widely and writing them into our games.

Impro is a great sources for ideas and exercises on improvisation.

But to the book review itself:

I shall be honest and say that the personality of the author is very strong and quite ego-centric.  Indeed the entire first chapter is auto-biographical.  I don’t think I would want to work with the author in real life but if you like his style then you will enjoy this section, if you don’t like it then the other sections are interesting enough to persevere.

It is easy and quick to read with lots of clear examples and good suggestions for easy exercises you could use in a gaming group of almost any size.

The book has 4 main sections about 4 different ways and theories concerning improvisation.  Briefly these are:

1. Status – how feeling stuck in an improvisation can be unlocked by deciding on whether you are playing high or low status – especially in relation to the people you are playing with. I think this could

2. Spontaneity – This chapter goes into more detail about what blocking is, how to recognise it and and how to stop it.

3. Narrative Skills – This section is about making up stories and perhaps more interesting to the role-player, drawing stories out of people who think they can’t make them up.  It explores techniques which revolve around asking smaller questions to build up a story as it is often easier to make up lots of little facts and weave them into one narrative than create one seamless entirely improvised story.  This is not dissimilar to some traditional GMing roles, where the players ask clarifying questions about the scenarios such as “Where is the red wizard in relation to the windows?”.  However it made me think that we could use these techniques of asking questions about small details to help players who might be floundering a bit in GM-less games. The technique breaks down the amount of stuff players have to invent into small manageable chunks. Some GM-less games have codified systems for this such as Durance which is very helpful but it could be used more widely.

4. Masks and Trance – this was a very odd chapter, it was semi-spiritual and it really read like the author had half an idea, had jumped to some odd conclusions and didn’t really know what they were trying to say.  I think that there might be some parallels here with bleed but nothing terribly helpful is drawn out other than that masks might help people to establish characters and bleed.

In conclusion: There are a lot of useful tips and ideas in the book and also some half-baked, unhelpful pseudo-spiritual ideas.  I would recommend people read the chapters on status, spontaneity and narrative skills for the most useful bit and ignore the auto-biography and the chapter on Masks.

I shall trying out some of these exercises with my gaming groups and writing variations on them for some of the games I am currently designing. I’ll update if anything interesting happens in those sessions!

XP. Uhn! What is it good for?

Ever since D&D, many RPGs have handed out experience points without a huge amount of thought as to why they’re doing it. The standard model of XP, which D&D pioneered, is achievement based. OD&D made it a mix of XP for killing monsters and XP for getting treasure. Many games mindlessly copied this approach, often ditching XP for treasure as unrealistic. But over the years many more methods have emerged.

XP for achievements: mechanistic version – the classic D&D formula, XP awarded in a pre-defined way based on the power of the foe slain or the value of treasure acquired. Often derided as unrealistic or creating perverse incentives, this approach actually gives a pretty strong incentive to keep doing exactly what the game is about, i.e. killing monsters and taking their stuff. It also has the distinct advantage that players get rewarded for acting effectively. If your plan enables you to somehow kill the monsters and get the treasure in a low-risk way, why shouldn’t you be rewarded for that? It’s a pretty strong system for an adversarial, GM vs players dungeon-crawling game.

XP for achievements: nuanced version – a less mechanistic approach. The GM awards points for clever plans, defeating baddies, achieving story goals, and so on. This has the advantage of enabling a broader spectrum of play – you can get XP for solving a puzzle, succeeding at a non-combat task, or even for personal goals like becoming head of the watch, or whatever. The downside is that the whole reward system is subject to the arbitrary judgement of the GM. Favouritism and bias can become a problem. The GM may reward what they see as a clever plan rather than one that actually is clever. Worse, it can be used to railroad the players towards the GM’s preferred outcomes.

XP for turning up – what it says on the tin. Here, XP is used primarily as a means to allow the character’s abilities to evolve and improve over time. There isn’t much of an incentive mechanism here, beyond the obvious one of actually coming to sessions, and many GMs even drop that requirement (everyone gets XP for a session even if they didn’t turn up), effectively removing any incentives.

XP for using abilities: simple version – Call of Cthulhu is the earliest example I’m aware of (but no doubt not the first) of a system that simply gives XP whenever an ability is used, that can be spent on improving that ability alone. (CoC actually went further and asked that you succeed in using the ability at the time, but then roll again and gain XP only if you fail.) This has the dubious advantage of realistic progression, as the more you use something the better it gets (and in the case of CoC creates a pleasing bell curve of progression). It also incentivises players to get stuck in and use their abilities as much as possible, which could be considered an advantage, though equally it encourages the use of abilities when they aren’t really needed or interesting. Other games have awarded XP for using stats without requiring it to be spent on the stat that was used, a more flexible approach with similar pros and cons.

XP for using abilities: advanced version – Apocalypse World is an example of a game that gives XP for using abilities but doesn’t require you to spend it on the ability that got you the XP. AW develops this method further by asking other players to “highlight” the stats they want to see you use, only rewarding the player for rolling highlighted stats. The result is a strong incentive for players to push themselves into specific situation types that other players have chosen (presumably because they think it will be interesting to watch). It also forces players to mix it up a bit rather than always sticking to the same old turf.

XP as fallout – Dogs in the Vineyard introduced (again, possibly not the first to do so) the interesting method of giving players stat improvements or even new stats as a “reward” for being beaten up in play. Each time you get verbally lashed, physically beaten or shot, you may gain a fallout stat like “a healthy respect for bullets” which can then be woven into future stories. What’s nice about this is that it makes the more painful and risky elements of roleplaying pay, and turns each new stat into a reminder of a previous encounter, so that the character sheet actually has character. It creates an slightly odd incentive to up the stakes in conflicts, which is well tailored to the genre of Dogs but perhaps not great for just any old game.

Surveying the above list (which is hardly exhaustive, but I suspect is a reasonably representative sample of common methods), what’s striking is how many of them vary the thing that gets you XP, but how few vary what the XP can be used for. They are virtually exclusively about stat improvement. The pace of improvement varies – D&D did levels, while most games now break upgrades down into individual stats and advantages – but it’s basically the same thing every time.

There must be a lot more that can be done in the space of Dogs, giving you character changes that are directly based on in-game events. Or maybe even advances that don’t change your abilities at all, but interact with some other aspect of your character, like beliefs or relationships.

If you know of any interesting XP systems out there, shout out – I’d love to know about them.