Rolling versus fictional positioning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oi, rules, get out the way!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The procedural vs dramatic balance

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

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

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

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

– A decision taken that was previously untaken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trindie, schmindie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stance and stancibility

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

Le Forge has this to say about stance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Impro by Keith Johnstone

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

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

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

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

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

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

But to the book review itself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investigating investigation

Due to popular demand (well, Blackrat demand), I am going to write a bit more about investigation and how it can be systematised.

Fundamentally, investigation in roleplaying is about searching for and discovering clues which can be used to draw conclusions about something happening in the fictional world of the game. If you over-mechanicise searching for clues (for example by making discovery automatic, as with Trail of Cthulhu) then you end up with something that feels like railroading. If you elide the discovery of clues and drawing of conclusions (something it’s easy for a GM worried about whether the players will be up to the task of deducing what is going on) then you end up with exposition rather than true investigation.

We can break it down further
– Following leads to direct the search for clues towards particular people, places, groups, events and so on.
– Finding the imprint left by the events one is investigating, especially if it is concealed (fingerprints, footprints, CCTV footage, a statement by a witness…)
– Identifying a pattern, an anomaly within a pattern or a definite lack of pattern (for instance, all the victims belonged to the same religion)
– Interpreting the imprints and patterns found so far to draw conclusions about what might have happened
– Making the link between an imprint, pattern or conclusion and a new lead, widening the investigation (a person whose fingerprints, footprints, etc were left at the scene; the local temple of the religious group being victimised, etc)
– Drawing a solid enough conclusion to allow a confrontation of some sort (arrest the murderer, grab the lost artifact, reunite the father with his lost daughter)

Each of these can in principle be broken down into appropriate skills or abilities (forensics, interrogation and so on), if the game system wishes, but most game systems don’t really use the above breakdown. Most systems concentrate almost exclusively on the second bullet: finding the imprint through awareness tests, while some that are more focused on investigation also move on to the third and fourth bullets, allowing skill use to draw conclusions such as “these footprints were made by a very large man”.

To me, at the heart of an investigation game is how you move through these steps, and how the elements highlighted in bold get you from one step to the next. What makes an investigation game enjoyable for me as a player (and vicariously as a GM) is taking those steps myself, not having the system do it all for me; but of course, since I am not in fact a forensics expert or arch-interrogator or whatnot, it must give me just enough information to make it possible for me to draw conclusions and decide on appropriate leads myself, rather than spoon feeding me.

A stone’s throw away from the answer

An analogy I often come across when describing investigative games is the “trail of breadcrumbs”. That is, a linear series of clues each of which points to the next in the series. It’s an approach that reaches its apex in the Gumshoe system, which advises the GM to write a “spine” of scenes, each of which contains a core clue which is necessary to progress to the next scene. The game makes discovery of core clues automatic for any character with the relevant skill, solving a genuine problem with investigative games, which is that they can stall when the players miss an important roll.

This is not an approach I subscribe to. Notwithstanding the fact that the “trail of breadcrumbs” is rather demeaning towards the players, suggesting they are simply mindless birds pecking their way to success – well. That is exactly what they are in Gumshoe, it seems to me. The system deliberately removes any element of challenge in the process of discovering the Truth, leaving the players with the job of describing how they do it. Whether they peck at the breadcrumbs furiously or idly, I suppose.

Let me give you my own pointless metaphor for the process I follow. Imagine the villain of the piece is standing on the shore of a lake, throwing stones. The stones create ripples, which spread out in all directions and persist for a long time.

If the stones are the villain’s actions, and the ripples are the clues they leave behind, then you should start to see where my analogy is going. The players are presented initially with some information about the “ripples” – the key evidence that starts their investigation off. Now they are in a position to look for more ripples. They begin to be able to piece together where some of the stones fell. If they are watching closely perhaps they can even spot some stones landing. But I as GM don’t plan out which bits of the ripple they’re going to find, or which stones they will discover the location of. Or in other words, I don’t know which evidence they will discover or what clues they will deduce from it.

Instead, I make sure that there are plenty of stones being thrown, with a varied size of ripple, so that I can be reasonably sure that they will eventually figure out who is throwing those stones. Finally, the stones continue to be thrown as the investigation is ongoing, generating still more ripples. By which I mean:
– My villain is doing lots of stuff
– He is, therefore, leaving lots of evidence behind for the players to find
– Some of it is really obvious, some less so, so there is room for skillful play
– My villain carries on doing stuff while the investigation is going on, so the trail never goes completely cold, and (this is important) there are consequences to failure

Think about the difference between these two approaches. Under the Gumshoe approach, no matter what the players do, they will uncover the mystery, and without any role for intelligent deduction, clever investigation or even just plain good or bad luck. The game (I read Trail of Cthulhu) strenuously denies it railroads the players, but this feels like a game on rails to me. Even a standard “trail of breadcrumbs” (not Gumshoe) game will feel a lot like this.

Meanwhile under my approach the players are required to use their eyes and ears and brains to piece together what happened. They don’t get any free passes. There is scope for them to solve the mystery slower or faster, and there are consequences if they fail. It is unlikely the players will fail because there is lots of evidence and the villain doesn’t disappear off the radar, but they can still screw up properly, allowing the villain to commit more mayhem, and conversely they can score a roaring success, catching the villain early.

A trail of breadcrumbs investigation means you are roleplaying an investigation, but not actually doing one. The stones and ripples approach means you get to actually investigate, not just go through the motions.

Final thoughts: my approach is not without problems. It’s a lot of work, and it requires the GM to think on her feet about every player action and what clues it might uncover. It can mean an unpredictable game length. The GM must pay a lot of attention to whether there is enough evidence to go on (so they will probably succeed) but not too much (so it just feels like childsplay, ruining the challenge). I think these are a price worth paying to get an approach that feels like real investigation.

XP. Uhn! What is it good for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pointless mechanics that aren’t so pointless

I recently bought a copy of Kagematsu through the ever-wonderful Bundle of Holding (highly recommended if you haven’t come across it). Kagematsu is a game about the attempts by the women of a Japanese village to woo a wandering ronin in the hopes he will save their village from a looming threat.

I haven’t played the game (yet) but reading it has highlighted an interesting issue that I’d like to talk about here. The issue is: mechanics that ostensibly do nothing, but actually exert an important psychological effect.

Here’s a flow-chart I made showing how Kagematsu is played, from a mechanical perspective.

Kagematsu flowchart

The solid lines and boxes represent game events and the flow of time. The dotted lines and boxes represent game stats and the flow of mechanical causation.

There’s a couple of things  I want to highlight here.

The first concerns Pity. In Kagematsu, in every scene a villager tries to elicit an affection from Kagematsu (the ronin); this is carried out through the mechanics shown schematically above. At the end of the scene, regardless of the mechanical outcome up to this point, Kagematsu’s player must decide whether to allocate the villager a point of Love or a point of Pity. That is represented on the diagram by the dotted arrows from “End scene” to “Love” and “Pity”.

Notice that while there are a couple of dotted arrows from Love to other bits of the diagram (Love is important in the game; it improves your chances of winning affections in future scenes, the Kagematsu uses it to confront the threat at the end of the game, and also, though this isn’t shown on the diagram, it shows who gets to go off into the sunset with Kagematsu if he defeats the threat), there are no dotted arrows from Pity to other bits of the diagram. What this means is that mechanically, Pity does not do anything.

But Pity is an important part of the game, because of the influence it has on player psychology. If we didn’t have Pity, the choice would be: award the villager a point of Love, or don’t. It seems pretty clear that this would lead to a lot more Love being given out, simply because the alternative is to do nothing. By introducing Pity, even though it has no mechanical effect at all, we give the Kagematsu a real choice – do you love this woman more than you pity her? It also makes the choice somewhat less controversial, since while one might be peeved at not receiving Love, one is probably more likely to accept that one deserves Pity.

The second point I want to highlight concerns the Shadow Track. Every time anyone rolls a 6 during a scene, that 6 is placed on the villager’s Shadow Track. If three 6s are placed on the Shadow Track, the scene is interrupted by the looming threat. The villager describes how the threat breaks the scene up. The villager does not receive her affection; indeed, it is as if she had never attempted to gain it.

The Shadow Track does have a mechanical impact, in that it nixes the last affection attempt and ends the scene prematurely. But the overall effect is to slow the game down a bit, rather than to actively push it in any particular direction. So while it’s less empty-seeming than Pity, it is fairly weak mechanically speaking.

But the constant risk that the threat will muscle in on a scene, and the occasional reminder that the threat is present, have an important psychological impact. They reinforce one of the central themes of the game and boost atmosphere. They remind everyone what’s at stake.

My point is, both of these are examples of good game design. On paper they look like mechanical dead-ends, failing to influence the key game outcomes much if at all. My initial reaction on reading them was to think the designer had made a mistake. But their psychological impact is important. I shall try to bear this in mind for my own design work.