Rules do not elide

A rule can be a statement of what you can do, what you must do, or what you must not do, and it may also describe *how* you must do a thing. Rules have all kind of uses. In tabletop roleplaying games, one of those uses is to simplify arguments about how things ought to play out in the fictional situations we imagine and describe at the table. This has led to the claim that “rules elide”, and from what I can glean from the froth and din of internet discourse, some people think this is a very important claim*. But I am going to argue this is, at best, a partial representation of what rules do.

Why might we say that rules elide? Well, if you haven’t already, you can go and read the article where this idea was first publicly described (though it has now been deleted and is only available on backup, so don’t harangue the author** about it – which, come to think of it, don’t do that anyway). From reading that article, I take the essence of the “rules elide” claim to be this:

  • Without any rules, we describe the fiction in intricate detail, carefully characterising each little bit of what is happening. For example, we might describe each step, slip, swing and cut of a sword fight.
  • Rules enable us to shortcut that by instead rolling a die and saying “I win”, skipping out all the detail in between.
  • Therefore, rules elide the details of the fiction. Not necessarily all the details – and indeed, by eliding some parts, they effectively highlight what is left – but nevertheless, this is their role. Rules elide.

Whenever one describes another person’s argument there’s a risk that this leads to simplification or misrepresentation but I think the above is a fair summary of the “rules elide” argument.

The problem is that the first bullet isn’t true.

Without any rules, we might indeed describe the fiction in intricate detail. But we might not! In the linked article, an imagined player group describe the picking of a lock by working through the movements of pins and tumblers and whatnot. But that is certainly not how I would handle the picking of a lock. Here are a few ways I would think about doing it:

  • I might make a quick decision either way and describe what happens. “Nope, you can’t pick it, and your lockpick snaps.” “Cool, it opens.”
  • I might describe the lock and ask the player picking the lock what happens. “This is a top quality valyrian steel lock. How good a lockpicker are you, do you think you can open it?”
  • I might present a “yes, and” or “no, but” sort of approach. “Sure, you can open it, but it is going to take a while and you can hear the footsteps of the guards approaching, what do you do?”

You could of course argue that somewhere in there I’m using rules. My ability to “make a quick decision” rests on some rule, whether explicitly stated or implied, that I have a right to make a decision (probably because I’m the GM). But in reality if we started trying to roleplay together without discussing any rules at all, it is very very likely that at some point someone would skip over most of the fictional detail and make such a decision. Indeed, the decision to say “you find a locked door” is such a moment. The casual elision of details is actually a fundamental part of storytelling and imaginative play, regardless of whether you think there are rules involved.

So it’s not the case that roleplaying without rules is inherently very detailed.

But more than that: rules can actually supply detail where none would otherwise exist.

Consider the classic case of a game of cops and robbers. “Bang bang! You’re dead.” “No I’m not!” In this game, we skip over enormous amounts of detail. I point my two fingers at you and say bang bang, you fall over or you don’t. At no point do we consider what kind of gun or ammunition we’re using, what armour we might be wearing, how good my aim is, the potential elements affecting my aim such as distractions or (at longer ranges) wind. We are eliding the heck out of that gun fight.

I defy anyone to look at the crunchier roleplaying game manuals and tell me that these games elide compared to this simple roleplaying activity. Looking at my old copy of Shadowrun 4th edition, I see 2 and a bit pages of rules for adjudicating initiative, 6 and a bit pages of rules for different types of ranged fighting, plus 9 pages of details about different types of ranged weapons (with pictures!) This is not eliding *anything* relative to how I would normally conduct a firefight in a roleplaying game; in fact if I take it seriously as a set of rules, it enormously expands the level of detail and precision I would use in narrating such a fight.

So at the very least, I think we have to say that rules don’t always elide. Perhaps they are always eliding compared to some perfect simulation of reality, but that is certainly not the default or most commonly observed state of imaginative play when unmediated by rules.

What, then, will we say about rules? Rules are a way of guiding the conversation. We can drill into the details we find interesting, as Shadowrun players presumably find weaponry. We can skip over the details we don’t find interesting, as many other games do with the details of the same weaponry. We can remove arguments over who went bang bang first and who is now dead. We can specify how decisions should be made, and who gets to narrate the outcome of those decisions, as when Forged In The Dark tells us who gets to decide what dice to roll and who gets to decide the level of risk and effect. We can quantify things that would otherwise remain vague, as with hit points in D&D or sanity in Call Of Cthulhu. We can introduce details that don’t exist in the real world, like the characteristics of a monofilament whip. We can force the conversation at the table down particular lines, as when in Ten Candles, if the last candle goes out, the characters die regardless of what they may have had planned. We can force a player to describe something they hadn’t even thought about until a moment ago, as when in Apocalypse World a character is suddenly asked to tell us their secret pains.

Rules can sometimes elide. But more often, rules specify. Rules focus. Rule describe. Rules intrude.

Rules are a magical way to shape our conversation at the table, to direct play and to bring imagined worlds to life. Used unwisely they can be blunt instruments that get in the way of good storytelling. But the best rules help us tell stories we almost certainly wouldn’t have told otherwise. They mostly don’t do it by eliding.

If you enjoyed this blog article, please encourage me to make more by supporting the Black Armada Patreon.

*Side note: I am far from the most up-to-date person on internet discourse. I think this claim may be fairly old, at least by the frenetic standards of discussion on X and other such places. I’m sorry if I sound like an old man shouting at clouds.

**Which, to be clear, I have no idea how important the author thinks “rules elide” is as a statement or how sweepingly they intended to make that statement. Perhaps this entire article is a statement of the bleeding obvious – ironically I kind of think so. Still, discourse eh?

Our experience with Backerkit advertising

We’ve been running TTRPG crowdfunding campaigns for almost a decade and we like to think we’re quite good at it. We’ve been gradually and organically growing our audience, but it gets harder and harder to connect with people as the TTRPG world fractures into zillions of little communities. We had dipped our toe in the water of advertising previously, but never had much success with it and viewed it as a waste of money. Enter Backerkit advertising – a service that proved very effective for us. In this article I’ll break down the experience and the outcomes we saw.

The TL;DR here is that we got a lot more money, both before and after taking out the cost of the ads. Wreck This Deck looks likely to have been unusually successful for a TTRPG zine even without the ads, but there’s clear evidence that the ads increased that.

I’m not affiliated with Backerkit, I’m not getting anything from them for doing it, I’m just sharing this because I think it might be helpful for fellow creators.

Backerkit’s advertising pitch is, they buy advertising on your behalf (mostly Facebook/Instagram ads) and improve the targeting using their presumably very impressive storehouse of data from all the millions of crowdfunding campaigns they’ve been involved with. You tell them a target return you want on your ads, and they then increase or decrease spend depending on how well they’re meeting that target. They charge you a commission on any resulting pledges. You don’t pay for anything until the campaign closes and you’ve received your pledge money.

By the way, this is in-campaign advertising. Backerkit (and others, probably) do pre-campaign advertising to build up followers on your launch page. We haven’t tried that, and it isn’t covered here.

We weren’t sure if this service was likely to work for us, but – spoiler alert – it absolutely did. We saw at least a 50% increase in our backers compared to our most optimistic expectations, and there’s very clear evidence to show that this was generated by the ads, as I’ll explain below.

Before going any further, let’s talk about the ick factor. If you’re like me, you probably don’t like the idea of advertising. It’s horrible, intrusive stuff that feels sort of spammy and slightly dirty. You just want to be left alone to enjoy the internet without this stuff, and you don’t want to be a part of it. You maybe feel like your product should be so good that it doesn’t need advertising.  There was a definite emotional barrier we had to push through to get started with this. But the truth is, well-targeted adverts for a quality product are a way of finding people who want something and helping them to find out about it. They’re gonna see some ads anyway, so it might as well be for a cool new game. Provided the things you promise in your pitch are accurate, and your game is good, you’re not hurting anyone by using it.

What we did

We were pretty wary of pouring a ton of money into something for no return. The Backerkit model – tell us a target return on your ad and we’ll spend like crazy as long as you’re meeting it – was kind of terrifying to us. We set up advertising early on in our campaign, saw some fairly middling results, and told them to switch the ads off.

Later on in the campaign, for no reason I can articulate, we decided to give them another go. We switched them on again, at a low level of spend, and saw an immediate increase in pledges. Bumping the spend up a bit, we saw even better results.

Throughout the periods where we were advertising, we set a target return on advertising spend (ROAS) of 3 – meaning the aim is for each £1 spent on adverts to yield £3 or more of pledges. This is the amount we’d worked out, after costs, should ensure we made extra money rather than a loss. Although the ROAS jumped around a lot over the course of the campaign, the final ROAS was 3.04.

The results

The graph below tracks our pledges each day of the campaign for Wreck This Deck.

The blue bit of the chart is pledges that Backerkit identify as not being ad driven. Orange is pledges that Backerkit identify as being ad driven. The tiny almost-invisible grey bit is pledges Backerkit identify as being driven by their newsletter.

You might ask: why should we trust Backerkit’s assessment of whether a pledge was ad-driven? They get a commission on the ad-driven pledges so it’s in their interests to round those up isn’t it? That is indeed an anxiety that we had. But in a way, the fact that we had a gap in the middle where we weren’t using ads was incredibly helpful, in that it clearly demonstrated that the ads were working. You can easily see the point that we turned the ads back on in the graph below, even without the big red arrows, and you could probably guess how much revenue was ad-driven even without the colour-coding.

Graph showing pledges each day for Wreck This Deck. On day 20 we restarted our ad spend and there's an immediate large increase in pledges, through to the end of the campaign on day 29.

The first few days of a crowdfunding campaign always see lots of pledges as existing fans and highly enthusiastic backers jump in. After day 3 or so, things naturally quieten down, and you see a trickle of pledges from folk who have only just heard about the campaign. During this mid-campaign period – days 4-20 on the graph – we saw about £200 of new pledges per day. Once we turned the advertising on this leapt up by a factor of 4, even excluding the last few days when, again, you always see a big increase in pledges.

Interestingly even the organic pledges increased by about 75% during the period we were advertising. Presumably some people were seeing the ads and then pledging on a different device or similar, hiding them from Backerkit’s tracking algorithm.

It’s a lot harder to feel confident about the impact of the ads during the last few days, because you’d expect a big spike anyway. Look at any successful crowdfunding campaign, there’s always a rush of pledges at the end. But it is possible to estimate the effect of advertising here. I looked at our previous campaigns and a few carefully-chosen third-party campaigns that I deemed to be similar to Wreck This Deck. The difference is fairly obvious.

Table showing the percentage share of revenue taken in the last 3 days of various crowdfunding campaigns. The figure ranges from 16-29%, except for Wreck This Deck where 66% of revenue came in the last 3 days.

We also asked our backers in the post-campaign survey whether they’d seen ads. Obviously the data here is subject to the caveat that people might not remember correctly, or might have thought something was an ad when it wasn’t, and so forth. With that said:

  • 35.2% said they didn’t see any ads
  • 13.2% said they saw an ad after they’d already backed
  • 5.7% said they saw an ad after they’d already heard about the campaign
  • 9.5% said they saw an ad but probably would have heard about the campaign anyway
  • 32.9% said they came to the campaign because they’d seen an ad

Backerkit’s marketing stats claim that 57% of our pledges came from advertising. That matches reasonably well to the 61% above who said they’d seen an ad, though just under half of these had already heard of the campaign or think they would have done so anyway.

Did it pay off?

The above analysis seems to pretty clearly indicate that we raised a large amount of revenue from advertising. But of course, that’s before costs.

Based on Backerkit’s own analysis, the fees we paid them for the advertising – covering the cost of the ads themselves and Backerkit’s commission – added up to 39.8% of what the pledges that they identified as being ad-generated. So we got to keep 60.2% of what we raised.

Once you take out our own costs, that number comes down, but because we’d already paid off a lot of our costs (art etc) from organic pledges alone, it still leaves a decent % of money left over for paying ourselves for the work on the project.

The possible fly in the ointment here is what I term “wasted ad spend”. This is essentially my attempt to work out how many ad-driven pledges would have happened anyway, and are therefore wasted money. This is really really hard to know.

The survey data above suggest that only about half of our advertising driven pledges were people who hadn’t already pledged, hadn’t yet heard of the campaign and wouldn’t have likely done so anyway. If all that is counted as “wasted ad spend” then we came in very close to break-even – probably making a small amount of extra money, but just possibly making a small loss once all costs have been counted.

However, if you’d heard about the campaign before but not backed, maybe the ad was what tipped the balance, reminding you about this cool game and getting you to pledge. Only those who already backed can be considered definitely as “wasted ad spend”. If you only count these as waste, that’s only a 21.5% rate of wasted ad spend. That might seem over-optimistic, but if you compare what we made in the late stages of the campaign with what we would have expected, based on comparison with other campaigns, you’d guess that only about 19% of the ad-driven pledges were “wasted ad spend”. At any rate, at a 21.5% rate of wasted spend, the ads would have driven a healthy amount of extra money – meaning we would have kept about 23.5% of the ad-driven revenue after costs.

So we can’t ever really know how effective the ads were taking into account wasted spend. Indeed, there are other unknowns: could it be that the ad-driven folks would eventually have bought the game after the campaign closed? Might we be robbing our future selves? Conversely, might ad-driven backers have reshared the campaign a generated more organic sales from people who would never have heard of it otherwise? It’s all pretty hard to estimate.

What we do know is that this was our most successful campaign, in terms of number of backers, ever. Even though it was a small zine project, it was the most revenue we’ve ever raised from a crowdfunding campaign. And even if we can’t quite prove it, the overall trend in the data suggests that the advertising was well worth it for us.

A small further addendum to the above is that obviously a % of our ad-driven backers will come back and support future projects. We can’t know what this is worth to us, but in the scenario where we actually had very high wasted ad spend, and made a small loss overall, this would be the silver lining to the cloud.

What about you?

Before closing out, I want to pile in some caveats to the above.

First off, this was just one example. Wreck This Deck appears to already have been fairly unusual as zine projects go, with nearly 600 backers before the ads kicked in. It had low overheads, and indeed once you’ve got 600 backers the extra cost of delivering additional copies of the game is very low. This makes it easier for ads to be cost-effective. This might not be a representative example.

Second, we’re a relatively mature gaming company. We’re still absolutely tiny in the scheme of things, but we knew we could afford to take some risks with a relatively small project and if we made a loss then it wouldn’t destroy us. It’s wonderful that Backerkit don’t charge you until after the campaign, but they do charge you, and the bill can be quite high. You have to decide your own appetite for risk.

Third, your costs are an absolutely vital part of the calculation here. Not just the cost of the ads, but the cost of providing your product to all those extra people, including shipping and all the other horrible costs that notoriously turn out to be higher than you expected. We made a spreadsheet to add all these costs up, and work out how high a % return on advertising spend we’d need to turn a profit. We looked at nightmare scenarios where that % turned out to be too low, and how much that would cost us. I strongly recommend you do that too, if you’re thinking about using ads.

Fourth, advertising can be a bit anxiety-inducing. You get real-time data about advertising spend, including how effective it’s been today, and sometimes the numbers can be quite alarming. Returns on spend zigzag around. If you’re in the UK like us, it’s doubly alarming as you can’t communicate with West Cost US-based Backerkit until they get to work in your late afternoon. This goes back to your risk appetite – are you comfortable watching your money being spent, and sometimes feeling unsure if it’s worth it?

Obviously I wouldn’t think to tell anyone “go and spend a pile of money on ads” – that has to be your decision, based on your particular circumstances. All I can say is: it worked well for us, and we will likely be doing more of it.

Why we’re using Backerkit for Wreck This Deck

We’ve done four TTRPG crowdfunding campaigns, starting with Lovecraftesque (first edition) in 2015, then Flotsam, Bite Marks and Last Fleet. All four were on Kickstarter. We’ve had some great success with Kickstarter. But for Wreck This Deck, we’ve decided to go with Backerkit, and I want to talk about why.

First a brief plug for Wreck This Deck. It’s a solo journaling game of demon summoning and deck crafting, where you trap demons in ordinary playing cards by defacing the cards: paint them, stitch them, burn them, scrawl on them. It had some great success when we first released it during lockdown and we’re now ready to give it a print edition. If you like the sound of that then you can pledge on our Backerkit crowdfunding page.

When we first started crowdfunding, Kickstarter was more-or-less the only game in town. Indiegogo was there, but it just didn’t look as attractive, and the campaigns on there didn’t seem to do as well. Kickstarter was an accessible, simple way to get into crowdfunding – and it rewarded its users with what seemed to be a pretty good throughput from people who were just browsing the site.

But Kickstarter has made some weird moves recently. From the resistance to recognising the union, to the flirtation with crypto, it’s simply not been presenting an attractive face to ethical publishers and backers. And for a long time, Kickstarter has seemed complacent: for years it wasn’t even possible to put alt text on images, despite us writing to them to complain about the accessibility implications. (This now appears to have been fixed, thankfully.)

Perhaps in response to the diminished reputation of Kickstarter, there has been a growing set of rivals. Projects using these rivals have seen mixed success. It’s always a risk to move from a popular marketplace into somewhere new. And so there’s a risk of a vicious cycle, with alternative platforms seeing poor outcomes, putting off creators from using them.

Enter Backerkit. This is a platform that already has a lot of understanding of the crowdfunding market. We’ve been using them since our first campaign to provide post-campaign support, tracking our backers, generating helpful post-campaign surveys, managing our digital rewards and so on. Their customer service is second to none: when I’ve had problems working out how to do something they will send me a custom-recorded video by one of their staff made just for me, showing me how to do the specific thing I wanted. Where our Kickstarter campaign pages have always been approved without ceremony, Backerkit actually sent us detailed feedback on the Wreck This Deck campaign page, enabling us to improve it. And their functionality is great.

Backerkit has launched a full-blown crowdfunding platform of its own and it’s shown some pretty good success stories. But much more important, they’ve shown that they know how to run a crowdfunding platform. Their setup is flexible, functional, and well integrated with the kind of tools you need to manage a campaign. And as previously remarked, they have great customer service – both for us as the publisher and you the customer.

It felt like a risky move. We are all too aware of the potential for our campaign to lose visibility because Backerkit is still a relatively small player, with less “passing traffic”. But we think it’s the right move at this time. And early results from the campaign suggest we’ve made a good call. Of course we’ll never know how it would have gone if we’d used Kickstarter, but for a zine campaign Wreck This Deck is doing incredibly well at nearly 350 backers after 1 week, and that’s included a fair bit of people coming from within Backerkit’s website.

Of course, we’re not saying Kickstarter is evil, and we may well use them in the future. So far the crypto flirtation hasn’t come to anything, and they’ve shown they can improve by (eventually) recognising the union and offering alt text on their images. This isn’t some kind of principle-driven rupture. But we do hope that we can be part of a greater move to diversify the crowdfunding market so we’re not all dependent on one big provider. Having that competition will likely be better for Kickstarter too, in the long run.

So anyway, that’s a little insight into why we’re doing this. We’ll be watching closely how well Wreck This Deck does with a view to deciding what to do with our next big project: Lovecraftesque second edition. Watch this space!

How to be a cooperative player

Addie Stardust on Twitter asked for tips on how to be a cooperative player, and it turns out that I have some thoughts about this.

Cooperation means working together to make the game better. This might mean working with the GM but it also means working with the other players around the table. An important starting point here is that WE are working TOGETHER. So it’s not just one person being a cooperative player and helping everyone else, it’s a collective effort, and you get to look after yourself as well as the others. Ok? Let’s go.

The first step in cooperation to make the game better is understanding what would make the game better, and that is mainly about understanding what the people around the table want. So this means three things:

  • Listening to what other people want;
  • Actively soliciting people to better communicate what they want; and
  • Being clear yourself on what you want and signalling it to the other players.

Obviously it will be hard for anyone to cooperate if they don’t understand what each other want. “What you want” means: what you’re interested in; what kind of story you want to tell; what kind of themes you want to address; what kind of things you want to do; what kind of character you want to play; and so on. Some games do a great job of helping to structure and codify these things, greasing the wheels of the conversation. But even if your particular game doesn’t do that, you can do it for yourself. One part of that is getting the information from the other players, by paying close attention and listening to what they’re saying and doing. If they’re not communicating or you’re not clear, or if you think there’s more to know, you ASK them.

The other half of this is playing your part by being clear about what you like. Don’t wait to be asked – the more you share of your preferences, the better other people can help you to enjoy the game. Plus you’re leading by example and likely encouraging others to reciprocate by telling you what they like.

Now that we understand what each other want, we can work to give each other the game we’re looking for. This means consciously and positively:

  • Engaging with the direction and themes of the story
  • Playing towards the role and image of the characters
  • Building connections and synergies with the rest of the group

Engaging with the direction and themes of the story is what, in a traditional GM’d game, would often mean “following the GM’s plot hooks”. In other words, the GM has prepared a story, therefore you engage with that story. You swim with the current rather than against it. But also, whether you’re in a GMless game or a GM’d game where the group are more closely involved in setting the direction, you follow the other player’s “plot hooks” too. If the players have said they want to engage with particular themes, then it’s just as important (maybe more so) to help them do that as it is to follow where the GM is pointing the story. If we’re all here interested in romantic rivalries, then we can have fun playing into that space by flirting, showing jealousy, opening up new relationships, and so on. And we might choose to ignore the GM’s plot hooks to do this, if it seems like that’s what the group are most interested in. In fact it’s just as much the GM’s role, as a cooperative player (the GM is a player too), to step back and take their foot off the gas, making space for us to address these themes.

Of course even better is if we can cleverly make the GM’s plot hooks and our desire for (in this example) romantic rivalries fit together. A really skilled GM will find out about this interest at the start of the game and build their plot hooks around it. And then we as a group will skilfully use the GM’s plot hooks to get the juicy romance plot we wanted. That is what cooperation looks like: everyone striving together towards the story they want.

Playing towards the role and image of the characters is what has been called elsewhere “playing to lift up”. It means having a clear idea of what each of the characters want to do, and how they want to be seen, and taking action to support that. A really basic approach to this is sharing and (where appropriate) ceding the spotlight so they can have their time in the sun. But you can be much more pro-active than that. For example, if another player describes their character as a leader, then that means they want to lead. A leader has to have people who look up to them, who listen to them, who follow them. As a cooperative player, you can help with that by portraying your character looking up to them, listening to them and following them. You might even at times step away from situations where you are naturally inclined to lead, to make space for them to do so. You might give them explicit encouragement when required, saying “these people need your leadership” to prompt the player to push the character into the role they wanted.

You’re like a backing singer or supporting actor working to make the main character look good. This doesn’t have to mean “look good” in the sense of “look like a badass” – if the player wants their character to be comic relief, you can help them do that too. If the player wants tragedy and pain, you can be the one dishing it out. The point is to know what they’re after (again, if you aren’t clear, ask) and help to give it to them. This may mean you have to tweak your own idea of what your character would be like. Hold your ideas about your character loosely, making space to adjust them to be a better supporting act for other people. Perhaps you didn’t really envisage your character as someone’s follower. But take a moment to think – could they follow another person? Maybe they are a leader in some contexts and a follower in others? Try to keep your character malleable enough that they can fit in with what is going on at the gaming table.

As with the story themes, this is a job for everyone, including of course the GM. And it’s also important to say that you get to have your time in the sun too. Sometimes you’ll be stepping back to make space for someone else’s preferred role to play out, but sometimes you should claim your space in the spotlight.

You can be even more cooperative here by inviting others into your spotlight time: if you’re the leader, ask if anyone wants to be your follower right now. If you’re the protector, ask if anyone wants to be protected. This is where building connections and synergies begins to become important. Right at the start of the game, you can look for roles that are complimentary (leader/follower; mentor/student; unrequited lover/oblivious object of desire). You can also do this in real time during the game, identifying where your cool action in the spotlight could involve someone else. Invite others into what you’re doing. You can come up with any pretext you like: perhaps there’s a genuine logical reason why you’d want a wingman for this mission, or perhaps your character just feels like some company.

The reverse also applies. Don’t be shy in asking if you can get involved in what other people are doing. Having two people in the spotlight at a time means twice as many people are having fun, but also potentially they’re having fun in ways they couldn’t otherwise. Sure, the sneakthief could just go off and do a cool stealth mission on their own. But might it be even more fun for them if there’s another character (you) tagging along, permitting the action to be peppered with conversation, perhaps allowing them to rescue you from a tight spot.

Stepping into someone else’s spotlight is a bit risky, because it could feel like you’re hogging the spotlight or treading on their toes. This is a good time to take the conversation out of character and ask the player whether they would enjoy having you along rather than just having your character ask theirs. Once they’ve said yes you can continue to exercise your judgement about how best to support them and lift them up, enhancing their enjoyment rather than crowding them out.

You can weave the whole of this together into the most beautiful connections and synergies if you want to. The themes of the story can support the desired roles and relationships, and vice versa. That’s what a really tight design can do, by the way – some games dish out character archetypes, relationships and mechanics that are all mutually reinforcing. But you don’t necessarily need the game to do that for you if you are actively working together to do it yourselves. There’s probably such a thing as a too tightly-woven mesh of themes, roles and relationships; you may be going too far if you’re just pre-deciding everything that’s going to happen in the game. But definitely having awareness of what everyone around the table wants and consciously working to play into those things, will create a more cohesive and fulfilling game for everyone.

I personally think that cooperation is the apex skill for roleplayers. You can be an amazing character actor, a genius at deploying the game’s mechanics, an incredibly evocative narrator, a brilliant problem solver, and many more besides. These all can make a contribution to a great game. But if you’re taking those skills and pointing them at the other people at your table, positioning yourself to connect with them and support them in what they’re doing, you’re going to come off as a much better roleplayer, and get a much richer game to boot.

Lies, damned lies and TTRPG art – our experience with a dishonest “artist”

We have been working on the second edition of our storytelling horror card game, Lovecraftesque, for quite a while and have begun to reach out to artists to illustrate the game. During this process we had a bad experience with an “artist” who we think was trying to scam us out of money, or who at the very least was dishonest, and we wanted to share what we’d learned as a warning to others.

We solicited artists for the game through a google form that we circulated on social media, requesting details, availability and a portfolio. Our intention was to review the portfolios submitted, alongside other artists we were potentially interested in working with, and then draw up a shortlist to ask for quotes from. This is a new idea for us – we usually identify artists we like and approach them directly, but we wanted to cast our net a bit wider this time, avoid just going to the usual suspects, and potentially open up the field to lesser known artists. Little did we realise that we were inviting in someone with less positive motives.

We got a good response and we shortlisted five artists whose work we liked. We reached out to them by email with a detailed specification, asking for a quote, and having got these, we narrowed the field to two artists whose work we liked. One was an artist we had used before and whose work and professionalism we were confident of. The other was someone we had not worked with before, who had an eclectic portfolio of gorgeous images, albeit submitted as a Google drive folder of images, which was a little unusual. It was this second person who very nearly tricked us into hiring them on false premises.

Having narrowed the field, we arranged a meeting with each artist and talked through the project a bit more, clarifying details and trying to ensure we got the most accurate estimate of both the cost and the time to do the work. Our new artist, who said they were based in Texas, turned up a little late for the call and when they arrived they did not turn their video camera on. We thought nothing of it at the time. We talked through the project and they offered refined quotes with a discount based on the volume of work we were suggesting, but saying they would give a final “package” price once we confirmed exactly what we were hiring them to do. They asked for a 50% deposit on each piece before starting work, something we’ve done before with other artists. At this point no alarm bells rang.

It was only later when we sent them the final details of what we wanted that they came back with a different price from what they’d discussed with us – a higher price, even though the specification hadn’t changed. They also asked for 50% of the total package as an up-front payment, which was a big change and would mean giving them a lot of money without any work having been done. They’d also given a New York address which, having said they were in Texas, seemed at the very least a little strange.

Something felt wrong and, acting on instinct, I Googled their name. I’d done this before of course, but hadn’t really worried when I didn’t find any information about them. Looking back this should have been a warning sign. I still felt a nagging concern and so I went back to their portfolio and downloaded the images, before performing a reverse Google image search on them. And that is when I realised that we were being lied to.

The reverse image search revealed that most of the images were lightly edited copies of images in the online portfolios of several different artists, none of whom shared the name of the “artist” that we’d come so close to hiring. I put “artist” in quote marks there since, at this point, it has to be doubtful whether the person we had spoken to was an artist at all. Perhaps unsurprisingly they were quite prepared to continue lying once confronted, claiming they shared the portfolio with other friends of theirs, and continuing to state that they are a “legit artist” even when I informed them I had contacted the artists whose work they had used and none of them had heard of them.

The fact is that we were extremely close to giving this person money to produce art for Lovecraftesque. If they had played their game a little bit better, and not attempted to change the price and terms they offered us, we would have handed over hundreds of dollars to them. I think it likely that they would have simply taken that money and disappeared. At the very least we’d have been unlikely to get art that was up to the standard we wanted. Of course, if we hadn’t got suspicious it’s possible we could have ended up giving them even more money.

Two images of an angel-like creature, appearing as a dark-skinned woman with two pairs of feathered wings, and wearing white and gold clothing and a gold headdress. 

They look essentially identical except that the one on the left has been colorised with a purple filter, mirrored, and its aspect ratio slightly altered.
One of the images submitted in the “artist’s” portfolio (left) and an original illustration by Kang Sojin, used with permission (right). Find Kang Sojin’s work here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/L9oK5

It was a surprise to me that anyone would bother to target a small creator like us in this way. Obviously we’re aware of internet scammers, you couldn’t move for Nigerian bankers looking to give their money away in the 1990s, but the idea that someone would fill out a Google form for a tabletop game art project with the aim of tricking them out of money never occurred to us.

My lessons from this experience are:

  • Google your artist. You want to know you’re not hiring someone disreputable, and if they have no internet footprint at all then that should at least prompt you to investigate further.
  • Consider asking around – has anyone worked with this artist before? Of course with this you should be careful that you aren’t discriminating against newcomers.
  • Reverse Google image search their portfolio images, and make sure the names match.
  • As with all scammy stuff, trust your instincts – if something feels wrong, pause and look again. Don’t hire someone that’s setting off your inner alarm bell.

Similar considerations apply to hiring freelancers of all kinds, I fear. If you don’t know them or have good references, you need to do your homework.

Two near-identical images, each showing what appears to be a boat atop a pile of moss-covered stones, in the shadow of which is another ship, and the whole of which is surrounded by azure water. Rocky crags loom in the background.

The left-hand image has a brighter, more saturated palette and is mirrored compared to the one on the right.
Another of the images submitted in the “artist’s” portfolio (left) and an original illustration by Andrew Porter, used with permission (right). Find Andrew Porter’s work here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/w88qg

In the age of AI, this is going to get harder. Some of the art of our “artist” did not show up on reverse image search, and looking at the images that it did throw up made us suspect that these might have been AI-produced. Of course you might ask why that’s a problem, if you liked the art? Personally I find AI art to be ethically dubious, as it essentially remixes the work of other artists without credit or permission. But even if you’re comfortable with it, you probably wouldn’t want to pay the same price to such a person as you would for an original illustration by a skilled artist. You might also think that there was a risk that a person who had simply produced their portfolio using AI might be doing as we suspect our “artist” was, and luring you into giving them money for nothing.

Luckily, we did spot the fake artist’s lies, and we’re now working with an excellent artist to make Lovecraftesque as beautiful and haunting as it deserves to be. But we will certainly be a bit more wary of unknown applicants, and check their credentials carefully as standard in future.

The rock of dramatic potential

It is a fact that some roleplaying games get into the meat of the story faster than others. One way to do this is to have a clear mission which is the focus of play, like “raid this dungeon” or “investigate this murder”. But what about the more character/relationship driven side of play? What is the difference between a game that cuts straight to interesting, meaningful drama, compared to one that takes ages to get going, whose relationships are lifeless or where the drama is just sound and fury, signifying nothing?

This isn’t just a theoretical question. I’ve lost count of the number of games that have handed me (through character/ world building at the start of the game) a bunch of interesting characters and intriguing relationships, but where I and the other players were at a loss where to start with bringing them to a head. The result, too often, is unsatisfying early scenes where we skirt the drama, or charge headlong at it, emotionally flailing at each other, but without any real sense of meaning.

I think of interesting RPG drama as like a rock that you must get rolling. The rock must have the heft created by meaning, but it also must have momentum so that interesting scenes can happen. To get the rock moving, you must roll it up the hill of dramatic potential, before it can roll down that hill, generating interesting drama in its wake. Games vary wildly in how big a rock they give you, but also in how much work they do to roll the rock up the hill.

Metaphors are all very well, but what does this mean in practice? Let’s take an example of a potential PC romance. A classic game like D&D wouldn’t bother to give any help making such a romance happen; it’s entirely in the player’s hands to do that. They might decide to introduce some romantic interaction but it might feel forced, or require quite a bit of work to get it going or make it feel significant.

Indie games might more typically help set up some potential, by asking you relationship questions like “which other PC do you have a crush on” or even “which other PC are you in love with”. This, then, is the rock: pre-generated emotional weight. It means weaving into your character’s backstory (even if only implied backstory) a sense that they have been interested in this other character for a while. It gives them an automatic reason to pursue a romance, and makes any resulting scenes more significant for them.

But it’s still pretty boring, as it stands. Even having established that one character (let’s call them Romeo) is in love with another (let’s call them Juliet), we don’t have a particularly dramatic relationship. One person being attracted to another, even in love with them, does not make for drama. Romeo may ask Juliet to dance with him, or suchlike, and she is left to either respond positively or negatively. Perhaps they’ll even hop into bed straight away. Which is fine, but not terribly dramatic or meaningful, because we have no real sense of their emotional context beyond “he’s in love with her”.

It’s actually pretty hard to get started on a conversation with your crush, as Peter could tell you.

For drama, there must be this emotional texture and, ideally, interesting complications. Consider these alternative starting relationships: Romeo is in love with Juliet, and Juliet is in love with Romeo, but they belong to warring factions who will never accept their love. Or: Romeo is in love with Juliet, but Juliet cannot forgive Romeo for killing her best friend. Or: Romeo is still in love with Juliet, after their marriage ended in acrimony.

These wrinkles add colour and meaning to a bland relationship, and they set up interesting stuff to happen in play. The warring factions are going to get up in Romeo and Juliet’s face and force them to work to have their romance happen. Or, Romeo is going to have to work to get Juliet to even consider him, and whether she says yes or no it will be freighted with meaning for them both. Or, their every action will be loaded with the regret and longing of their broken relationship and the question of whether it can ever be revived.

Good stuff. This has made the rock heftier, because it’s made the relationship more interesting and dramatically meaningful. Anything that happens to that relationship in future will be more significant because of the work put in to define and complicate the relationship.

But it still takes work to roll the rock up the hill. Some of the above starting relationships have more dramatic potential than others. What this amounts to is, to what extent is the relationship in a stable equilibrium where there’s no real reason to expect interesting stuff to happen, and to what extent is the relationship close to an interesting turning point or crisis that will throw it into motion. If Juliet hates Romeo’s guts because he killed her best friend, that is very interesting but seems like a brick wall in Romeo’s path. It’s hard to know how he even gets started romancing her, because the obvious answer to any move he might make is “get lost, friend-killer”. The relationship is stagnant, immobile. One of the people playing these characters is going to have to work (probably a lot of work) to get their character into a position where that can change.

Did you just kill my best friend? Get lost, friend-killer!

In contrast, if Romeo and Juliet are already in love, and there’s already a war between their factions, then that is close to crisis point. You can immediately see the possibilities for scenes that will pit their love against political reality. All we need do is have their midnight tryst witnessed by a faction member, and we are straight into crisis. Or perhaps we can have a close faction ally of one character kill a close faction ally of the other, to throw the relationship into conflict and emotional confusion. Here, the rock has been rolled nearly to the top of the hill, and it takes only a little more work to push it into action.

We can get the rock even closer to the top of the hill, very easily. Put simply, we can decide at the start of play that a crisis or turning point-inducing event has already happened. So for a starting relationship: Romeo and Juliet are in love with each other, but Romeo just killed Juliet’s best friend. Our game will start with Romeo having to decide how to break this news to Juliet or perhaps to try and conceal it from her. That’s an instant scene starter and, no matter what Romeo does, a drama-generator. The rock has practically started to roll already.

We could have started from cold (as in the D&D example above) and got into the above very dramatic situation in play, and there is a good argument that getting into stuff in play is more interesting than just defining it up front. But doing so entails a lot of work, during which no drama to speak of is happening, and with the risk that we’ll never get there. After all, good authors sometimes struggle to create engaging, meaningful drama between characters. It isn’t actually easy. Instead of taking that risk, we can kickstart the drama, propelling us towards exciting in-game decisions that lead to more drama, if work has been done to put the characters at some kind of inflection point at the start of play.

We can do the same thing but with a slightly less immediate “must address this NOW” feel by putting the crisis-inducing event further into the past. Like this: Romeo and Juliet are in love with each other, but Juliet doesn’t know that Romeo was the one who killed her best friend. Which other character knows about it? This approach puts the rock of dramatic potential at the top of the hill, but stationary. It only takes a nudge to throw it into motion: the character who knows Romeo did the deed tells Juliet. But that nudge can be held back and delivered right at the most exciting moment, when it will cause maximum emotional chaos.

Creating dramatic potential and putting things close to (or preferably at) an inflection point is particularly important for one-shot play. If you want character relationships to be front and centre in a one-shot, they simply must be made complicated and pushed to an inflection point, so that meaningful drama can happen in the session. Campaigns also benefit from this because it gets things going right away and enables the relationship to further develop rather than struggling to get going in the first place.

So, whether you’re a game designer or a GM or player, you can help to get drama going in your games early by:

  • creating emotionally charged relationships at the start;
  • complicating them; and
  • putting them at or near an inflection point as play starts.

These simple steps will virtually guarantee exciting emotional drama right from the word go, and make you wonder why you ever settled for questions like “who do you have a crush on?”

How I run investigation games (part 1: prep)

A really juicy mystery, with the cool feeling of piecing together clues and coming to the correct conclusion, is one of my favourite things in roleplaying. It’s also something that I feel isn’t well delivered by existing RPG systems. Here I’m going to talk about my approach to building a mystery and enabling real investigation.

This isn’t the first time I’ve explored this terrain. Back in 2013 I talked about how mysteries are like stones falling into a pool, creating ripples. And I went on to talk about how investigation isn’t just about clue detection, but about deduction and reaching conclusions. But I stopped short of talking about how to construct a satisfying mystery, which is what I want to do now.

Just for the moment, let’s assume I have an ok system that will cover the business of discovering clues, and an ok premise that make sure the players want to investigate this mystery. I may come back to these later, but let’s imagine they’re solved problems for the purposes of this article. Let’s also assume I’m running something that has a substantial investigative focus, so there’s more than just one simple mystery to solve.

I then create my mystery in a number of fairly discrete steps:

  • Decide what the fundamental driver of the mystery is. Something like “There’s a cult trying to summon a demon through a series of ceremonial sacrifices”, or “House Rukh are planning to assassinate the governor and take over the planetary government”
  • Generate from this driver a series of events. These can be past events which the players are (presumably) going to be investigating, or future events which the players are (presumably) going to be trying to avert.
  • For each past event, I generate a footprint, that is, a set of clues which are out there waiting to be discovered by the players.
  • The footprint breaks down into physical clues and witnesses, which are obviously investigated in different ways. Each of these is amenable to assigning a location and/or time. I’m also thinking about the ways in which the players might discover the clues, though I’m leaving myself open to other ways as well.
  • For future events, I generate a timing and/or trigger, some consequences, and (in case the players don’t find out about it until after it happens) a footprint, exactly as for a past event.

For instance, let’s look at the cult example:

  • For events, I decide that the cult has already sacrificed two victims. One of them was pursued through a particular district in the city in the night, and then murdered in a junkyard. The other was killed previously and more quietly, in their apartment.
  • The pursuit generated some witnesses along the route it followed – people who heard screams for help and some who looked out of their windows to see a group of figures pursuing the victim.
  • Both the murders generate a corpse, some messy bloodstains, perhaps a footprint. They also include the identity of the corpse – for the junkyard murder that may not be obvious, while the apartment victim (if the players discover it) is in their apartment so probably can easily be ID’d.
  • The junkyard murder will be reported, which is the trigger for the players’ investigation. The apartment murder will likely lie fallow for a while, but might show up later.
  • I also create three future events: a near miss where someone is cornered by the cult and nearly killed, but escapes by jumping out of a window; and a murder that involves an initial kidnapping and the victim being brought to a specific site for the final sacrifice. Perhaps the near-miss will report in to the authorities and the players can find out about it that way. Perhaps the kidnapping will be reported, perhaps not.
  • At this stage I might also add in some kind of link between the various murders, be it geographical (the locations form a shape on the map, with the final sacrifice in the middle) or social (the victims are all highly religious people, say), or whatever.
  • If the final sacrifice is completed then the demon will be summoned and a whole new set of events will be generated after that (but I don’t bother thinking about that right now, because I’m expecting that the players will stop the sacrifice happening and/or kill the demon after it’s summoned.

Once I’ve planned all this out, I’ll review what I’ve got to make sure there’s enough there to give the players a fighting chance of cracking the mystery, but not so much that they’ll solve it in five seconds flat. I can add or remove witnesses and clues until I think I have got that right. Of course, my future events ensure that, no matter what happens, the players will have something to do. If time passes and they haven’t made progress, the next event happens.

I’ll then break the information down into a number of components I can use:

  • A timeline of events
  • A list of locations with clues that can be found there
  • A list of characters with motivations, information they might have and any key abilities

Once I’ve got all that in place, the game more-or-less runs itself. The players move from location to location as prompted by clues and/or a future event becoming a present event. Perhaps they discover clues which help them to get ahead of the timeline, perhaps the timeline runs ahead of them and they’re forced to confront a scary situation unprepared.

I’ll talk in a future article about how I use this prep in practice.

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Game design: Torg

It’s my personal policy not to write reviews about games I haven’t played, and ideally multiple times. So this isn’t a review, because I’ve only read Torg. But it threw up some interesting game design ideas, so I thought I’d write an article off the back of it.

I picked Torg up second hand from Baz King’s big rpg sell-off some time back, along with bunch of other fairly old games that I’m slowly working my way through. The game was published in 1990, in a period when a lot of game designers seem to have been looking to go beyond the model of gaming exemplified by D&D, with innovative game mechanics becoming increasingly commonplace, but the overall paradigm of fairly mechanics-heavy, wargame-with-knobs-on style gaming remaining dominant even in these cutting edge games. You need to bear this in mind when reading about their mechanics, which (I believe!) were extremely innovative at the time, but now look fairly clunky and outdated.

The mechanics

Zero-based die rolling. Torg is the earliest example I’ve come across of a game where the average result on a die roll is zero. This is an important innovation, because it takes quite maths-intensive systems (roll 3d6 and add your skill, or whatnot) and simplifies them by saying “your expected result is equal to your character’s skill level”. By extension, an “easy” task is one which has a difficulty number lower than your skill level, while a “difficult” task is one which has a difficulty number higher than your skill level. Of course, Torg went and ruined it by requiring players to roll a d20 and compare the roll to a look-up table to find out what the actual result was, adding in exploding dice whenever a 10 or 20 was rolled for good measure. In other words, they took a great and simple idea, and made it complex and cumbersome. Only two years later, this model was simplified in FUDGE[*], which does the same thing but much more elegantly.

Cards. I have often commented that it is strange how board game designers avail themselves of a wide range of tools to make their games function well: dice, cards, tokens, and so on, while roleplaying game designers typically restrict themselves to one tool: polyhedral dice. Torg breaks with this trend. It makes use of cards which are said to be designed to inject drama into the game. The players use them to generate a hand of cards which provide one-shot bonuses and special effects usable in combat, enabling them to put extra “oomph” into a given action, or to get GM hints, or even to create sub-plots for their characters on the fly. The self-same cards, if flipped 180 degrees, have GM text which create special effects during conflict, always handing an advantage to the heroes or their opponents, and so creating an ebb and flow in combat. These effects even vary depending on whether you’re in a regular scene or a climactic scene. I won’t go into more detail here, but suffice to say that the cards do two further things. They really are jam-packed with game mechanical power. And, as with much else in Torg, this is their weakness. They go too far with a good idea, and what was an interesting and elegant mechanic becomes cumbersome and complex. Still, it’s interesting to observe that two decades on the idea of cards in games seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance, with games like D&D 4th edition and the latest iteration of Gamma World allegedly (I have yet to sample these games) part of their mechanical set.

Possibilities. Torg uses a variant on what are typically called Fate or Drama points in other games, called “possibilities”. What’s interesting is that Fate points weren’t common in 1990 – indeed, as far as I know only Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying had made use of the Fate Point mechanic at that point. Possibilities in Torg are usable to reroll dice, survive danger or as experience points. They also have a formal role in the metaphysic, such that competing paradigms can be temporarily boosted by their use – so that, for example, my wizard could cast his spells in a world where magic doesn’t exist.

These mechanics are all ideas which, at their core, are very similar to concepts I’ve been toying with as a way of getting a crunchy, simulationist system that nevertheless supports drama and the ability of players to steer events a bit more than, say, D&D, without going the whole hog and turning into, say, Fiasco. It’s interesting to me that they all existed in 1990, albeit in a rather baroque form.

[*] I have no idea if the authors of FUDGE were trying to improve on Torg’s mechanics. I simply observe that the one came very shortly after the other.