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.

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*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?

How I run investigation games (part 2: in-session)

Last time I wrote about how I prep investigation games. I’ll talk a bit more about that here, but I also want to move on to talk about what I do during sessions.

My aim in running an investigative game is twofold:

  • Make the players feel smart
  • Make the investigation challenging

Those two aims seem kind of contradictory, but in a way they support each other. You cannot feel smart if the game hands you everything on a plate. You cannot feel challenged if the game is simplistic or handled entirely through dice rolls.

As discussed in a previous article, you can break investigation down into various components:

  • Leads (where should I look next?)
  • Imprints (what clues are there?)
  • Patterns (how do the clues fit together?)
  • Conclusions (what is my theory of the case?)

I want as much as possible of the above to feel like they were investigated by the players themselves, using their own brainpower, without running up against the perennial problems of analysis paralysis and the thing that seems obvious to the GM not being at all obvious to the players. I’m not going to pretend those problems aren’t real – and more on how I tackle them below. But for now, let’s talk about how I handle the components above.

My initial lead is always given away for free. That’s a given: the game will be no fun if you can’t get started.

From that point on, I follow a simple set of rules:

  • If a clue is obvious, you don’t have to roll to find it
  • If a clue is hidden but you look in the place it’s hidden, you find it without rolling
  • You can find any clue with an appropriate roll
  • Once you’ve got the clues, it’s mostly down to you to figure out the logical leads, patterns, and conclusions

You can probably see for yourself how the above could easily lead to an investigation stalling. If the players don’t look in the right place, or roll badly, or can’t figure out the next lead, then everything grinds to a halt. There are three principal ways that I solve this:

  • Critical mass. I make sure there are enough clues available that it’s unlikely they’ll fail to find anything.
  • Keep some leads obvious. Signposting specific characters or locations as being of interest will ensure there’s always a next step to follow (but there’s always the potential to discover more)
  • Move the clock on. If the players are taking too long, then I look to the next event on my timeline and make it happen – so even if they get stuck, the story doesn’t

The aim here isn’t to make it impossible to fail the investigation. That wouldn’t be challenging, and it wouldn’t make the players feel smart. The aim, instead, is to make sure that they never get completely stuck – even if they’re failing, they’re moving forwards. So there’s always enough clues to find something out, and there’s always enough obvious leads that you have somewhere to look next.

Equally, my aim is to create a potential dividend from being smart, from being lucky, and from being quick. Players who get lucky on the dice find more clues; players who think their way around those clues and ask good questions discover patterns and start to reach conclusions; and those clues and conclusions can enable them to get ahead of my timeline. Those who move at the minimum pace enabled by following the obvious links, probably find themselves fighting for their lives at the finalé, having left a trail of murders in their wake. Those who leverage luck and judgement may be able to save some lives and catch the perpetrator unawares.

What this means is: being open to the players failing – so that another person is killed (or whatever consequences I established in my timeline happen); but also being open to them wildly succeeding, so that my villains fail and their plans are completely foiled. The critical mass of clues and obvious leads means that I’m hopefully leaning towards success over the medium-term, with occasional frustrating blocks that make that success more satisfying when it comes.

I cannot overemphasise how important it is for failure to come with consequences. If they get stuck, then those consequences mean that the game doesn’t get stuck; instead of their next lead being a witness they want to investigate or a place they want to investigate, the next lead comes in a body bag. And of course, this also means that when they succeed, they’ll know that it was earned, because they know what happens when they fail.

Very occasionally this means the players fail utterly. The villains complete their plan entirely, and escape. That’s great. It means there’s now a future recurring villain, who the players really want to take down, because they feel responsible for not catching them the first time. As long as things didn’t grind to a halt during the session, so there were always fresh leads to follow and tense pacing created by my timeline events, then failure is ok.

One last thing: do not let things drift towards out of character discussion of clues. To a degree all theorising is out of character, since you don’t actually have the skills, knowledge and brainpower of your characters. But try to keep people talking as their characters, because that will help to reinforce the sense that any frustration they may be feeling is fictional, it’s part of the story. They’re not sat on your couch feeling worn down by the investigation, they’re stood in a dark alley looking at a corpse and wondering when the next one will show up.

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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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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?

Intriguing…

Lately I have been mostly reading A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. It’s a pretty trad game as these things go, but what makes it stand out is the machinery provided to enable you to play politics. And one particular aspect of the game that’s interesting is the Intrigue system.

In essence, it’s a social combat system. I want you to do something and there’s mechanics to enable me to get you to do it, that go beyond “just roll persuade”. Indeed, there’s a plethora of techniques and actions you can take in aid of intrigue, defence scores and hit point-equivalents, and a ten-step system of exchanges (the social equivalent of combat rounds) to make it all work.

This is something I’m pretty interested in: I’ve often wondered what a really well-designed set of detailed social mechanics (as opposed to “just roll” or “just roleplay it”) would look like, and never really found anything that fits the bill. Too often these systems tend to generate piles and piles of dice rolling, but no feeling of “I am taking part in social combat right now”. Worse, they tend to place the emphasis on “combat” rather than “social”, so I have loads of options for moves but little sense of how it relates to the roleplaying I’m doing. Any system where you feel like you could pretty much dispense with the roleplaying altogether isn’t doing the job in my view.

Sadly, SIFRP doesn’t make the cut either. While it provides some nice mechanics for reflecting how character are disposed to each other, and requires that the actions you choose match what you have roleplayed, it otherwise feels very much like a jumped-up combat system. Most of the action revolves around wearing away your opponent’s Composure (the social equivalent of hit points); and during this process, what type of technique you select from the admittedly fairly extensive menu is irrelevant – it just determines what dice you’ll be rolling. Only at the end, when your opponent is out of Composure, does it matter which technique you’re using or what it is you’re trying to achieve. In the mean-time you’re roleplaying away but like stunting in Exalted it all feels a bit superfluous.

Moreover, like most combat systems, the rules don’t draw any connections between what the characters are doing. They’re just slugging away at each other – it’s more like a race than an interaction, and whoever crosses the Composure finish line first wins. So for instance, there is no scope for me to take your attempted seduction and work it into my intrigue – a sort of social judo, if you like – the fact you’re trying to seduce me is more-or-less irrelevant to what I’m doing.

I’ll probably give the game a go to check that the experience of play bears out my initial impressions, but I fear this is another fail. I suspect some of the above will be ameliorated by the use of bonuses and penalties for “appropriate roleplaying” and “circumstance”, but when a system is relying on the players to fix the system with more-or-less arbitrary modifiers, you wonder why they don’t just skip the system and “just roleplay it”.

What I’d really like from a social “combat” system is something that focuses on the roleplaying and on the characters. My social approach to your character depends on who they are, what they believe (or what I think they believe), and must react to their approach in turn. Just like a physical combat system requires me to think about tactical placement – flanking and charges and so on – with reference to what all the other combatants are doing, social “combat” should require me to think in the same way. But not literally in the same way: the mistake so many systems seem to make is to think they should try to find an analogue between physical and social combat, when the real aim should be to make the social interaction rules as richly detailed as the combat rules, not the same as them.

Obviously if you want a job doing properly, you have to do it yourself.

Leverage: Points of drama

This weekend just gone was Admiral Frax’s birthday roleplaying party. Amongst many other great games, I ran Leverage, which uses the Cortex Plus system. Believe it or not, this was the first time I’d run or played in a game that uses Drama Points as a currency for making minor changes to the in-game situation (as opposed to allowing rerolls or other purely mechanical effects).

The idea of this mechanic is to allow players to have greater narrative control by enabling them to create minor dramatic elements (an object, an emotion, or some such). So you could declare that your character had a gun in his pocket, or found an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Or more significant stuff, like declaring that an NPC henchman is considering defecting. In the case of Leverage, they also enable the GM to introduce complications to existing situations – like having a character who is sneaking past one security guard suddenly notice there’s another one just coming around the corner. Drama Points can only be spent when particular game-mechanical triggers occur, so there are limits to when you can use them.

I was quite excited when I first read about the Drama Point mechanic described above, but after thinking about it and playing the game, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they encourage the players and GM to play creatively within the established situation. They allow unexpected things to happen which are beyond the power of any one person to control, and that has the potential to make the game more interesting to everyone. But. They seem like a bolt on when combined with a system with traditional player and GM roles.

For the players, they seem of very limited utility. Take the examples I gave above.
– The character who finds the gun in his pocket could easily have avoided paying a Drama Point by saying before they set out “I’m taking my gun with me”. So the Drama Point is either a penalty for bad planning (annoying) or a means to insert a gun into a situation where it couldn’t possibly come into play, such as when the players have been captured, thoroughly searched and locked in a cell (disbelief-creating). Otherwise they’re just a means to react to unexpected situations as though they weren’t unexpected.
– The character who finds an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Same thing, essentially. The character has simply short-cutted an unexpected situation (in this case, presumably, a lack of transportation). But they could presumably have used their in character skills to get hold of transportation, which I suspect would be more interesting than the rather unsatisfying bicycle ex machina.
– Declaring a henchman is considering defecting. This looks a bit more interesting at first glance – monkeying with minor NPCs in a GM-like way. But realistically, in most cases the character could probably persuade such a character to switch sides through a decent Persuade roll or similar. So in this case Drama Points are again short-cutting the need for your character to make some effort to come up with a cunning plan.
– In all three cases it seems to me the same effect could be got by the player saying to the GM “I brought my gun, ok?”; “I hunt through the bike racks to see if one isn’t locked” or “I’m going to try and work out if any of the henchmen are less than 100%”.

For the GM it’s even worse. In most games, the GM is pretty much free to insert new dramatic elements into a story if they choose. After all, if you’d written in your notes prior to the game that there were two security guards at the location rather than one, you wouldn’t need to spend a Drama Point to create a second one. And most GMs leave enough flexibility in their notes that adding an unplanned extra security guard really isn’t something you need a Drama Point to do. Of course, the presence of Drama Points does encourage the GM to throw in complications they hadn’t necessarily planned – but that may or may not be a good thing, depending on the situation. A good GM will judge these things rather than just following the mechanics.

Now I’m not against the idea of using mechanical systems to regulate the narrative power of players or GMs. But as the above examples hopefully show, Drama Points don’t actually do this – they just create a slight encouragement to and, in limited circumstances, increase in opportunities for, ad libbing. In the worst case they could actually restrain creativity, by blocking people from playing creatively when the supply of Drama Points dries up. I’m open to trying this mechanic a few more times, but on first inspection I’m somewhat underwhelmed.