EU VAT for indie roleplaying publishers

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this so hard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about selling through a third party? Or crowdfunding?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playtesting: some reflections

Lovecraftesque playtests

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

Recruitment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Method

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

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

Results

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

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

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

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

Here’s what our groups found:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

Will people like your game?

I’ve recently been playtesting a game, and the difference in response to that game and the previous one I designed got me thinking about what makes a game successful. The diagram below massively simplifies the process:

Screenshot 2015-02-21 18.22.17

 

Notice that if your ideas aren’t engaging, you’re already at a disadvantage. I doubt this will come as a surprise to anyone, but I think its an important observation.

Notice also that if you fail to communicate your ideas (or your design) then once again you are hampered.

There’s also feedback loops between these three streams. If people don’t buy your game (or download it, or sign up to play it at a con, or whatever) then you don’t get past the first hurdle, and people never play it. If people don’t play your game then they obviously won’t get to enjoy it. If people enjoy your game then they will talk about it, helping you get your message out and get more people to buy your game.

So, every element in all three chains is vital. And, unless you’re hiring someone else to do parts of the process for you, you need to be able to do all four things – ideas, communication, networking and design.

Roleplaying the silly way

I want to talk about a couple of games I played this year that deviated quite dramatically from the script of what I’d normally play. Both of them pretty silly games, in different ways. Both of them really enjoyable.

The first is Grunting: the Race for Fire, by Jennifer Spencer. The game is about playing cartoonish cavemen on a quest to get fire for their tribe. The game has some unfortunate aspects, notably some pretty sexist tropes in the background material (which our GM, Triskellian, mercilessly stripped out: quite right too). But I’m here to talk about what I enjoyed about it, so I won’t dwell on those.

Grunting requires the players (not the GM) to speak only using a limited list of caveman words, which are provided at the start of the game. The words are pretty elementary, stuff like “Bam” (stone) or Nurrr (dark). Even when speaking to the GM you must only use these words. (You are allowed to write notes to the GM in your normal language, but it’s more fun if you don’t.) This simple rule is the core of the game, and almost the entirety of what makes the game fun.

I don’t mind telling you, when I started playing the game I found it next to impossible to understand my fellow players. Everything they said involved a look up, furrowed brow, followed by the same again as I attempted to reply. The game could really have helped with this by providing an alphabetised list of words (alphabetised by caveman word and by english word). Instead they are organised by conceptual groups, which is no help at all when you’re trying to translate from cave speak. But after a while, I started to really get the hang of the vocabulary and the game began to flow.

The actual action in the game is pretty simple. Kill a sabre tooth tiger by throwing a rock. Steal fire from the other cave-folk by lighting a burning torch. That kind of thing. But it is surprisingly entertaining just sitting trying to explain your plan to the other players in cave-speak, or trying to understand them. Indeed, there is entertainment value in trying to come up with a plan that can be communicated in cave speak. Moreover, you can make up your own words, but of course you can only explain them to other players using existing words, which is itself fun and sometimes hilarious.

The other game I want to talk about was made up (not published) and run for me at a con by Cuthbertcross. It is called Burt-EE, and is basically Wall-EE the roleplaying game. Now I haven’t seen Wall-EE so you’ll have to bear with me if this sounds like an excessively elaborate explanation. You’re all playing service robots on board this massive cruise liner in space. There’s various kinds of service robot: the little welder-bots that whizz around on monorail tracks, the bulky storage-bots with a belly full of tools, the zippy little butler-bots that serve drinks, and so forth. They all have amusing names that reference their function like Burn-EE the welder bot.

Anyway. Before going further it’s probably important to mention that we played this game with an eight year-old, one of Cuthbertcross’s kids. I can actually hear some of you wincing at that. But the game went perfectly, and indeed was maybe even enhanced by her presence. There isn’t too much to say about this really but I thought it worth saying!

The action of the game was, again, very simple. Get given tasks to do, do the tasks. Slowly become aware of something awry with the ship. Decide what to do about this. The fun came from your typical childish pretend-play stuff: talk in a robot voice. Pretend to be someone whose whole role in life is to be a storage container, and imagine what their perspective on life might be. Come up with innovative uses for your single super-power (you can probably imagine what these were from the robot descriptions above). Make lots of puns ending in EE.

Bringing it all together, I have been surprised at how much enjoyment I can get from just silly, light-hearted play based on a simple (though unusual) concept and just basically messing around in character. I have always assumed I would find such play rather tedious, but in practice they were immensely enjoyable. Indeed, I only agreed to play Burt-EE to make up the numbers (sorry Cuthbertcross, if you’re reading this!) but found it was actually one of my favourite games of the con.

What’s my point? Roleplaying games throw all sorts of elaborate mechanics and high-concept stuff around, hoping to engage their jaded audience. But these light-hearted concepts encourage players to discard their usual inhibitions and throw themselves into make-believe. The simple pleasure of doing a silly voice and playing a silly character, the stuff that you enjoyed as a kid and maybe the germ of what got you into roleplaying in the first place: imagination.

Apocalypse World: Fronts

I’ve recently started a new Apocalypse World campaign and re-reading got me thinking about the Fronts system. Apocalypse World Fronts are basically a set of linked threats that the MC writes down with countdown clocks and stakes questions as a means to (a) give him interesting things to say that aren’t just improvised from scratch and (b) address one of the principles of AW which is “sometimes, disclaim decision making”. Anyway, there’s a prescribed format to them and what I’ll do here is analyse that format.

The fundamental scarcity. Every Front has a fundamental scarcity chosen from a list of eight (hunger, thirst, envy, ambition, fear, ignorance, decay and despair). The AW rulebook has almost nothing to say about the purpose of this, and I surmise that it serves to provide inspiration and keep everything apocalypse themed, nothing more. I have found myself struggling to identify a single fundamental scarcity for a given Front, and even the book’s example Front seems like it would fit with at least two fundamental scarcities. Maybe it could be handy to remind yourself what the Front is all about or to judge whether a new threat should be added to the Front, but mostly it feels a bit surplus to requirements once the Front has been written down.

Linked Threats. The whole point of having a Front is to add value to what a list of individual Threats would achieve. The example in the book doesn’t help us here. We have this mud-fish parasite which is infecting everyone, the waders who carry it and some bunch of thugs who enforce quarantine. Those all seem highly linked and could be called “the mud fish parasite front”. But then we have Dustwich, this person who wants to overthrow the hardholder. She seems unrelated, except insofar as the previous Threats will create pressure to overthrow the hardholder, aiding Dustwich. Anyway, my feeling is that Dustwich is a bit tacked-on, as though Vincent Baker felt that merely having the holding overrun by a parasite wasn’t interesting enough (and perhaps too faceless).

Still, I guess if you start from a fundamental threat – the mud fish parasite in this case – and ask what other factors bear on this threat, either as obvious  connected things like the waders, or things which push the other way like the quarantine enforcers, you’ve got something there. Asking yourself to generate linked Threats is an exercise in thinking about what else is implied by the existence of the core Threat.

The Dark Future. Every Front has a dark future which is what will happen if it is allowed to roll forward undisturbed. This is useful as a check for the MC – is this Front really threatening or have I created a situation the PCs can ignore? It could provide useful fodder for improvising, too.

Again, the example Front in the rulebook is unhelpful. In the example Front , the Dark Future is essentially “Dustwich takes over the hardholding”; the other threats in the Front are just things which serve to antagonise the people against the hardholder and over to Dustwich’s side. I mentioned before that Dustwich felt tacked on, and indeed because the Dark Future relates to Dustwich, it feels as though there’s no real relationship between it and most of the Front. If we imagine, though, that Dustwich were gone and the Dark Future were “everyone gets the mudfish parasite; lacking a healthy workforce, the holding grinds to a halt and one by one its members die or leave”, now we have a Dark Future that relates to the elements in the Front.

So with that imaginary alternative example Front, we can see more clearly that the Dark Future serves an additional purpose, which is to keep the MC’s mind on where the Front is going. Every time something happens the MC can ask – does this bring the Dark Future closer or set it back?

Countdown clocks. Countdown clocks are introduced as a thing relating to Fronts, but in actuality the book recommends they be attached to Threats. Regardless, they’re probably quite closely oriented to the Dark Future (or should be – again, the example Front lets us down here). They serve to provide a concrete sense of the factors that build up to the Dark Future, pacing for that build-up, and a way for the MC to drive that build-up without it just being on a whim “Bam, the dark future happens because I decided”. Having said that, what seems to me missing from the countdown clock concept is:

Triggers. This isn’t in the Front rules, but I think it should be. The book says the countdown clocks are descriptive and prescriptive. Meaning, if I get to 9 o clock then the mudfish parasite eats my head, but equally if for some reason the mudfish parasite should eat my head then the clock automatically advances to 9 o clock. All well and good, and this serves to avoid the clock becoming divorced from reality. But we’re still left with a clock that (absent the mudfish parasite eating my head of its own accord and thereby advancing the clock prematurely) ticks forward on the MC’s whim.

Contrast the injury clock on every player’s character sheet, and which ticks forward when you take harm, back when you are healed. There are rules for this; the MC can change it more or less on a whim but there is a logic that constrains him in doing so. So for me, the countdown clock needs triggers; every time the parasite infects a PC or a new group of NPCs, move the clock forward, for example. That way, aside from the obvious fictional trigger that if the events described in the clock happen of their own accord, you move the clock forward, there’s a separate, more inexorable trigger that if nobody does anything the clock will tick forward, which is at least somewhat outside the MC’s control. So you’re disclaiming decision-making, like the principles say.

Custom moves. One of the things that makes AW popular is its customisability. Custom moves, yay! I’m not sure these are really specific to Fronts but it’s obviously good to think about them when you’re doing your Front prep. Having the Dark Future, the Threats, the Fundamental Scarcity and all the rest in mind when designing custom moves will serve to give everything coherence and relevance.

Stakes questions. These are little questions you write about the fate of particular individuals or groups in the game world, and which you commit to answer using the game fiction’s internal logic. The book says they’re real important but gives little guidance on how they fit in with the wider Fronts framework, or even what committing to not answering the questions yourself entails.

The example questions mostly relate directly but not straightforwardly to the Threats in the example Front. The first and most straightforward is “who will fall prey to the mud fish parasite?” – ok, so I’m committing not to choose who gets it, which seems pretty tough. If I choose to put a non-infected character in a room with an infected character I’m almost making the decision, aren’t I? There will definitely be situations where I put two people on a collision course but let the PC’s actions decide whether they actually collide, sure; but I don’t really see how I as MC could avoid deciding some of who gets infected. Naturally I’ll do it based on the game fiction’s logic, but I would have done that anyway – the crucial question is, have I just fiated someone to infection or not? I think I’d have to if I used this example Front.

The other questions are less straightforward and more interesting for it. “Will Dustwich get a better life for her people?” This question tells me that even if Dustwich fails in taking over, there might be scope for a better life for her people. She won’t get a better life for them unless she overthrows the hardholder or someone else intervenes to make life better, so I can see the benefit of the stakes question here. The question is saying: the answer is no unless something happens to make it yes.

Another is “will Grief’s cover get blown?” – there’s a specific trigger for that in a custom move, so it’s very easy to see how the MC is disclaiming responsibility on that one. The final one: “Will Snug and Brimful stay married?” – great question, totally unclear how it will be resolved given that Snug and Brimful are throwaway names in the Front cast list. How does the MC commit to not deciding it? I honestly don’t know.

What is the point of all these questions? I presume that apart from getting the MC into the mindset of disclaiming responsibility, it’s to ensure the Front isn’t just about the central Threat rolling forward supervillain-style to take over the PC’s world, it’s about the impact the Front has on real people. But honestly, I’m not sure what the point of them is or how they’re supposed to work – as outlined above sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not at all obvious how the MC will keep his grubby mitts off the decision-making process.

Do we need them at all? The book says that Fronts are fundamentally conceptual, not mechanical. I think that’s right; they serve a purpose of structuring the prep process and hopefully giving it coherence and direction without just making it into a one-way railroad.

So far my experience of this is limited to trying to write some Fronts for this game, and for the one that went before it. I haven’t found the process all that intuitive or helpful. I’m mulling over whether to pull the whole thing apart. For example, could my stakes questions be completely separate from my Fronts? I identify some characters whose fates I care about and ask the most obvious questions I can think of about them. Whichever Fronts and Threats intersect with those fates (including the PCs of course) can answer the questions for me, so they don’t need to be tied to a Front. Might it be better to ask what the fundamental scarcities are for the group as a whole, and just use them as an off-Front inspiration for generating new Threats and understanding the consequences of events in the game?

I guess the fact that I’m asking these questions suggests the elements of a Front have their uses, as outlined above, but I wish the AW book had devoted a bit more time to explaining how they were supposed to work and what the benefits of using them were.

 

Four questions for your NPC

I’m starting a new campaign in a couple of weeks’ time. I’m planning to use these four questions to rapidly develop my NPCs when I need to.

1. What does she want? Why? This question should be answered with half an eye to how this might intersect with what the PCs want. Is this a character the players might work with, or one who is likely to oppose them? But mostly, it’s about giving every major NPC something that they’re up to, so she isn’t just inert but in motion, or at least ready to move towards something. Why is important too, firstly because it dramatically changes how we feel about what she want, but also because it tells us a lot about what kind of character she is. So maybe she wants to take down the Empire, because they executed her brother; or maybe she wants the same thing because she hates the Emperor. (How do the PCs feel about the Empire?) Perhaps she plans to rob a bank because she needs the money to pay off her gambling debts, or perhaps she’s just greedy.

2. Who does he love? Is it true love, brotherly love, loyalty, or what? (Could be “what” rather than “who”, but that’s usually less interesting.) This is a separate question to 1, partly because it’s about who the character values without any need for a “why?”, and partly because it will often be the case that the character already has the person or thing that they love. (If they don’t, there may well be an overlap with the first question.) Again, we have half an eye on how this intersects with the PC’s interests – do they love or hate the person in question? The second part of the question helps to colour the question, which shouldn’t just be about romantic love but any positive relationship bond.

3. Who does she hate? Is this implacable hatred, rivalry, petty dislike or what? (Again, could be a “what” rather than a “who”.) Very similar considerations apply to question 2. Hate is great because it puts people at odds even when there’s nothing much at stake; they look for ways to hurt each other regardless. It’s somewhat interesting if the NPC hates the players, but probably more interesting when it’s a third person they have in common.

4. What will he do? How far would he go? In pursuit of his goals, his loves or his hatreds. This question tells us what the character’s immediate actions are going to be, and what his limits are. Immediate action is important for obvious reasons: it puts the character in motion straight away, makes them more than just a person you might meet. As for the character’s limits: Player characters are at their most interesting when they refrain from action not because they are incapable of acting, but because they believe it would be objectionable morally or emotionally. The same logic applies to NPCs. (Though a line the NPC won’t cross for simple practical reasons could also be important.)

Caveat: I think I’ve been thinking about these issues informally for a long time and used them in games without thinking, but this stuff is otherwise untested. Who knows whether I’ll still think they’re a good idea in three weeks! I’ll report back when I know.

How to GM a GMless Game?

Ok, so this is a deliberately misleading title and could probably be more accurately described as how to facilitate a GMless Prepless game.

Originally I was skeptical of GMless, Prepless games but there are so many great examples of how to share creative control (e.g. Fiasco, The Trouble with Rose, Witch, 1001 Nights and A Taste for Murder) that I am far from worried that a GMless game world will feel flat and paper thin.  However I have noticed there is another aspect of GMless games which needs to be discussed more openly. This is the problem of “mental responsibility”.  Mental responsibility is the phrase I’ve coined to refer to many things in life such as who notices when the toilet roll is about to run out and ensures it is replaced before disaster strikes.

 
Mental responsibility for ensuring a game runs smoothly in GMed games is obvious, it rests with the GM.  The GM ensures a session is organised, that people know what to expect from the game, what dice (or not) they may need and it is the GM, ultimately, who takes responsibility for pacing the game.

 
There is no such obvious role in most GMless, Prepless games and there needs to be.  Just because the creativity is more equally divided up between the players doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for someone to take mental responsibility for the following things:

 
1. ensuring everyone understands the rules;
2. taking everyone though character and/or game world creation and answering questions;
3. noticing when pacing slips or rules are not being used properly and steps in to correct it;
4. actively setting an example of keeping people to a particular tone or ambiance in the game; and
5. noticing when one player is not getting sufficient screen time and bringing them back into the game.

(I am sure this is not an exhaustive list)

This doesn’t mean that you need to do all these things, just take responsibility for making sure they happen i.e. getting someone else to explain the rules.

If I introduce a GMless game to my gaming group then I always ensure I have read the rules, got the right amount of dice, dominos, character sheets and props and then manage the game to ensure it happens according to an agreed vision and in a way which maximises everyone’s fun.

Ultimately this comes down to the old and boring idea that things work more smoothly when one person is actively co-ordinating them. Unfortunately this means that someone has to do all the boring administrative work without getting the cherry of the creative control a GM enjoys. But I don’t think it is really that much of a hardship as you still get to play in a fun game – just one you have put slightly more work into than everyone else.

So my advice for GMless Prepless games is that GMless doesn’t mean rudderless or a total free for all.  GMless means no one person has overall creative control – but you still need to a pick a facilitator to carry out the background tasks which make a game happen smoothly.

My rule of thumb  – if you propose the game then you run it, where running means either GMing or facilitating.

 
This stuff might sound obvious but I have seen even the best written GMless Prepless games flounder without someone taking responsibility for getting it right. It is easy to assume someone else has taken on that role when they haven’t.

 

Baked-in story

So, Pete suggested a while back that I should talk about games with built-in story structure, and now I’m finally getting around to writing about it.

The truth is, I’m fairly new to “indie” games, which for the most part are the ones which have built-in story structures. I think my first experience was probably Fiasco, which I think I got about a year ago. This year has been packed with new and exciting gaming experiences. So anyway, what this means is I have a few thoughts on this subject but a lot to learn.

I think the game with the most baked-in structure that I’ve played is, ironically, one I’m writing myself: Disaster Strikes!. The game is split into three Acts and an aftermath, running from the introduction and placement of the protagonists in the context of the disaster site, the explosive emergence of the threat, and the plan to escape or confront the disaster head on. The game supports this with specific mechanisms: the GM and players are required to behave differently in each of the three Acts. For instance, in Act I players are not permitted to notice or comment on the developing disaster – the most they can do is to dismiss it in some way as not that bad. Meanwhile, before Act III the GM is not permitted to kill protagonists that haven’t put themselves in harm’s way. This is all modelled, to some extent or other, on actual disaster movies, and the entire game is written to hand-hold you through the process of running a disaster movie. And this is for a very good reason: it’s a zero-prep game, so you don’t want a blank sheet of paper.

Fiasco is similar, albeit much more versatile (and indeed DS! is influenced by Fiasco). Fiasco’s structure is looser, but it gives you more detailed tools to get started with: every game starts by generating the relationships, objects, locations and (most importantly) needs which will drive your story. It has a two-Act structure and everyone knows that in Act I they’re setting up a grand plan, after which there will be a tilt which throws everything up in the air, and in Act II we watch the plan go seriously off the rails with tragic and/or hilarious consequences.

A different approach is taken by Apocalypse World. Apocalypse World has relatively little built-in structure; the first session is run differently from subsequent ones, but the story very much unfolds organically after that. But the game provides a toolkit of moves the GM can make to accentuate the drama and keep the game moving. It also provides a built-in structure to the GM’s prep, by organising the GM’s plots into fronts, collections of related threats which, left to themselves, will slowly unfold and put the players in danger.

The same designer as AW also created Dogs in the Vineyard and, similarly, the game provides clear guidance to the GM on how to run things. The characters are sort of enforcers for the in-game faith, travelling from town to town to expose pride and root out sin. The game has a built-in story structure of sorts: every new story involves the Dogs entering a new town and being approach by people to sort out their problems, directly or indirectly. Better still, the game provides excellent guidance on how to break down the moral problems the Dogs must deal with, and how to ensure they’ll be interesting (broadly: two people must have opposed interests, so at least one must lose out from whatever the Dogs do, and both must be sympathetic enough that you’ll care who is going to lose out).

Anyway, the point is this: there’s a lot of good shit going on out there in terms of games which help you to make an interesting story happen, be it through clever mechanics, awesome GM guidance, or built-in structures that lead you through the story. These games sort of point you in the right direction, so you can get on with being creative and focusing on your roleplaying without the worry that you won’t get the kind of game you wanted. They also, not coincidentally, contain some great transferable lessons on how to be an effective GM (and roleplayer) more generally.

Any other suggestions on games that do this stuff well? Chuck ’em in the comments section. My spam filter has been concealing comments from me recently but I’m wise to the problem now, so will keep an eye out for them as they come in.

Great Expectations

So, there’s been an interesting discussion on UK roleplayers about how “mooks” are treated in RPGs, and why more GMs don’t treat their mooks as fully-fleshed out (well, not entirely faceless, anyway) NPCs. This led to an interesting comment about genre expectations, which I shall now shamelessly steal and riff off.

Genre is a great tool for getting your audience in the same headspace (or for deliberately creating expectations only to defy them in some sort of twist). The mooks example is terrific. As mentioned in the thread linked to above, it would be a dreadful violation of genre expectations if James Bond were tracked down and sued by the family of two heavies he shot in scene 3 of the movie. Doing this could qualify as a twist on the genre, but if so you’d expect it to be telegraphed in advance. Doing it thoughtlessly would destroy any sense of what the James Bond franchise was about, and most likely alienate the audience to boot.

The same is true for RPGs: you flout expectations at your peril. Indeed, the whole GNS theory of roleplaying is essentially about how we can sort it out so that our games reliably give us the experience that we expect/want. The reason the theory exists is because the authors felt that gamers were frequently not getting the experience they wanted, for predictable reasons. But I digress.

A theme that I’ve noticed in roleplaying discussions over the last year or so is that a good GM is constantly observing his/her players’ behaviour and adjusting the game to meet it. We are told that we should give the players the game that they want. It is bad GMing, we are told, to just plough on ahead without regard for the way the players are, uh, playing. But this is taken a step further by a school of thought that says: don’t plan your game at all, but create it in reaction to what the players seem interested in.

This is all well and good, but it has the potential to be the ultimate in genre expectations fail. You can’t establish a clear set of genre expectations if you’re waiting on the players to tell you (through their behaviour) how the game should be. Worse, it’s possible that different players have different ideas about how the game should be. How are you gonna deal with that, hot shot?

I’m not saying that GMs shouldn’t be ready to give the players what they want, or react to their behaviour. That would be crazy. But if you set out some clear ideas about what YOU want, in the form of genre (or clear explanation of where you plan to break from genre), then you stand a far better chance of your players giving you appropriate behaviour from the get-go. This also has the added advantage that if your players hate the game you’re describing they can tell you before you’re halfway into a campaign, and you can either adapt or find some other players.

What this comes down to is, I like to talk about my roleplaying. I like to discuss it with my players, and find out what they like (and don’t like), and I like to let them know the same in turn. Genre is a terrific way to shortcut that conversation, but the conversation is still worth having – and not just hoping that by masterful GM skills you’ll just be able to muddle through and somehow give the players what they wanted all along.

Your gaming group needs YOU (to GM)

A lot of gaming groups have just the one person who does the GMing. And it’s legendarily difficult to get GMs to run games at conventions, even though there’s no shortage of people who want to play. So why is it that some people are happy to play but don’t GM?

Part of the story is that there’s a mystique about GMing. People seem to think that there’s a special set of skills required, and natural talents that most people just don’t have. They think that they would screw it up if they did it, or at least embarrass themselves with a mediocre game. And let’s face it, a lot of roleplayers enjoy bitching about games they didn’t enjoy, even to the extent of hating on the GM who ran them. And the roleplaying community encourages the view that GMing is so, so hard. We write endlessly about GMing techniques you need to use, about the detailed game backgrounds we write and the zillions of complex plots and incredibly, vividly realised NPCs in our campaigns. It all looks terribly daunting from the outside.

But the reality is this: anybody can GM. Everyone had their first time GMing once, and yeah, it probably wasn’t that great. But with practice comes, if not perfection, certainly improvement. And it’s a similar set of skills that you need to GM as what you need to play – imagination, quick wits, the ability to juggle long lists of complex stats (ok, maybe I’m just thinking of playing Exalted with that last one).

And it’s not only first-time GMs who feel daunted by GMing, either. I still get pre-game nerves from time to time, or end up fretting over whether I’ve done enough prep the night before the game. I have bad games, too – everyone does.

So what’s my point? Well, my point is that GMing is like cooking. Not everyone is brilliant at it. It can be hard work. Occasionally you may burn the food and leave everyone feeling a little annoyed. But unless somebody cooks, there’s no meal. And it isn’t fair to assume that someone else will cook every time. If you’ve enjoyed someone’s GMing session after session but never tried it yourself, there really is no excuse not to try your hand at it, and, frankly, to pull your weight.

And if you’re one of those GMs who runs all the games in your group, ask yourself whether there is more you could do to encourage others to step up and give it a try. Fact is, some GMs hog the hot seat, always having a new game ready to replace the one they’re about to finish so that nobody else gets a try. After all, GMing is good fun. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gotten from it, and it has a certain status attached to it. Are you one of those GMs? Might you be discouraging others from trying it by bigging up how hard it is, so others will think more of you? Give this a try: next time your latest game is heading towards the finish line, why not say you’re thinking of taking a break for a few weeks, and does anyone else fancy running something? Maybe you could offer them help and advice if they haven’t tried before.

I’m not someone who thinks that GMing is more important than playing, but it’s definitely the case that GMs are harder to come by than players most of the time. So if you’re a GMing refusenik, consider giving it a try. And if you’re an experienced GM, think about what you can do to help bring more GMs into the fold.