Theory

Fiction and Mechanics

Roleplaying games can be divided into two pieces: the fiction of the game (the story that everyone at the table is telling) and the mechanics of the game (the bit where you roll dice and find out what happens). The relationship between the two can be quite interesting when you dig into it, and can also explain the reaction of some people when faced with games which play with the relationship in unfamiliar ways – if you’re not used to thinking of the game as two separate threads it can be jarring to play a game which has that as its baseline assumption. (See also every blog post about ‘immersion’ and ‘dissociative mechanics’ ever.)

D&D 3.x

In D&D 3.x and other ‘trad’ roleplaying games most* mechanical elements are linked to a specific element of the fiction. The mechanics generate the fiction – when you make a trip attack, for example, your character is actually trying to knock down their opponent – but the fiction also generates mechanics to go with it. Creatures with extra legs have a mechanical advantage when defending against being tripped, and creatures with no legs (oozes) cannot be tripped at all. When the fiction seems like it should provide an effect but doesn’t – like enlarge person failing to provide an increase in movement speed – people find it incongruous.

You can also make the case that this is part of why games like this tend to get so rules-heavy: when you introduce new fictional elements, every element has to have a rule that goes with it and that rule has to interact with the rest of the system – if the system breaks, the fictional elements attached to that part of the system also break and the game suddenly becomes very surreal. You can see an example of this in core D&D with elementals: water elementals are made of water, yet have no special resistance to fire damage. This means that in the fiction of the game a spell like inferno can cause a water elemental to catch fire and burn to death. Which is a little odd.

*Hit points, of course, have never been linked to anything in the fiction except in the most handwavy way.

D&D 4e

The fourth edition of D&D takes a different approach: the mechanics still generate the fiction, but the fiction does not drive anything mechanical. When 4e was first released a lot of people took umbrage at the warlord’s healing word power (I forget what it’s called) because they could see no way to tie the fiction – the warlord says something – to the mechanical healing effect. How does a warlord shouting close wounds generated by an axe to the head?

The answer according to 4e is ‘however it makes sense’. Perhaps that axe to the head was just stunning rather than wounding, or perhaps the loss of hit points was panic and not a direct physical hit – in either case, having a drill sergeant get on your case can get you back in the fight. You’re expected to tailor the fiction of the game to reflect what the mechanics tell you has happened, but the fiction has no reciprocal effect on the mechanics.

For another example, consider a 4e character’s ability to knock a gelatinous cube prone**. The fiction – that a gelly cube has no legs and no real facing – does not create a mechanical imperative that the cube cannot be knocked prone. Rather, when you bash the cube with a prone-making power you are expected to justify the mechanical effects (-2 on attacks, grants CA, can’t move) with some other fictional explanation, like “I’ve disrupted its membrane!” or something.

**I have vague memories of this being fixed in the Monster Vault – but you can still grab swarms, so the basic point remains.

FATE

FATE doesn’t veer too far from the trad games setup in that mechanical elements and fictional elements are specifically tied together, but it does offer the interesting ability to translate the fiction into mechanics just by writing it on your character sheet. Is the dungeon collapsing? Well, now there’s a Collapsing aspect on the scene. Get hit by a hammer and suffer a broken arm? Well, now you’ve got a Broken Arm that affects how you act.

This neatly avoids the problem of D&D 4e where the fiction seems to demand something that the mechanics don’t support*** – the fiction simply becomes the mechanics – and also the excessive rules pile-up of D&D 3.x by allowing the mechanics to interact with plain English phrases rather than requiring the translation of those phrases into mechanical code that can be plugged into the rules engine.

***Just why are mindless undead still susceptible to psychic damage?

Dungeon World

Dungeon World also follows the trad games method of tying specific fiction actions to specific mechanical effects, but explicitly gives primacy to the fiction. It’s not quite an inversion of the 4e model, but it does create a situation where the results of mechanical dice rolls have to fall in line with the fictional paradigm already established – and if the fiction disallows a certain action, such as the frequent example of a dragon which is just too mighty to be fought with regular weapons, then the mechanical action cannot take place.

To be honest, I think this is what gives DW its ‘old-school feel’, since your Labyrinth Lords and your Swords and Wizardrys operate along very similar lines: declare fictional intent to stab goblin, roll to stab goblin, translate roll and damage back into fictional wounding of goblin; declare fictional attempt to climb wall, GM tells you wall is too slick, find another way around or break out some equipment; etc. etc.

So What?

Well, nothing really. But I have a post on D&D 4e skill challenges in the pipeline and I didn’t want to digress in the middle of that in order to a) explain what I mean when I say that the fiction in 4e is an epiphenomenon of the mechanics and b) defend that opinion when the post is about something else entirely.

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Hint Hint

After reading this spoiler-filled but very funny dismantling of the Dark Knight Rises, I started thinking about foreshadowing in fiction. I’m comparing and contrasting three broad methods, here – there may well be additional ways to foreshadow that I’m not thinking of, but this is me just kicking an idea around rather than writing with academic rigour, so.

The Screenwriter’s Boomerang is the term used in the linked review, which I think is a fantastic description of what it is: it’s big, it’s heavy, and you know it’s coming back later. It’s the sort of foreshadowing so heavy it’s almost fourth-wall breaking – a little note to the audience that says “Keep an eye on this; it doesn’t look important now but it will be later!”

The Lego Mystery is a phrase I’ve coined to describe a lot of contextless detail, called out by the narrative, that you have to trust will be assembled into something coherent by the time the arc finishes. You get one brick at a time and no real guidance on how they go together, so you have to use your imagination. It sort of revolves around the question “Is this incongruity part of the plot, or is it just an everyday oversight? Is this plot hole meant to be here, or is it an accident?” I first saw this in anime, where you can be barraged from episode one with things that make no sense but will be explained later (you hope) but it also pops up in Inception, in pretty much every plot-generated-on-the-fly roleplaying game ever and (really badly) in Lost.

Chekhov’s Gun is the classic example of this sort of thing – a gun is loaded in the first act, not mentioned in the second, and used in the third. I think it incorporates the previous two, in a way: Lego mysteries are a hundred little Chekhov’s guns – Chekhov’s shotgun, if you will – while the screenwriter’s boomerang is more of a Chekhov’s elephant gun. But I’d like to keep Chekhov’s gun in its own category because unlike the other two it’s understated*. The setup needs to be simple enough that it doesn’t draw undue attention, but resonant enough that when the payoff arrives the audience immediately flashes back to the setup and realises how clever you were.

*I say understated. I might actually mean ‘really sodding difficult’.

The Sherlock Holmes Fuck You is how to foreshadow badly. The audience are presented with a mystery, a bunch of clues and invited to speculate on their meaning. Then the sleuth arrives and solves the mystery in an unexpected manner by using a clue the audience was never presented with. It’s shooting someone in the third act with a gun that has never been mentioned until now. I remember this happening a lot when I read the old Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories – hence the name – but that was fifteen years ago and I was on a lot of post-appendectomy drugs so I might be mistaken. On the other hand, the Hound of the Baskervilles episode of the modern Sherlock is a textbook model of this so I might not be mistaken after all.

There’s a principle in roleplaying games, which I think holds true in primarily visual media like TV, films and comics as well, that anything the narrator goes to the trouble of describing (or that the camera takes the time to observe) has to be important. In TV and film this is also reinforced by the soundtrack – if you watch CSI you can always tell when a detail is important because the music guy adds a sting when the camera sees it. This makes subtle foreshadowing really difficult – the question in the mind of the audience is not so much ‘is this important?’ but rather ‘how is this important?’ And that means that screenwriters and GMs need to adapt their foreshadowing style rather than just hanging lampshades on things which are going to make a return appearance later.

End Note: Kill Bill is a fantastic example of this kind of storytelling. Almost every single scene in those films is either a setup, a payoff, or both. Anything which isn’t, is an illustration of character. Which reminds me of a comic-writing maxim I once read: every panel should advance the plot, show character, or both. You can apply the same thinking to scenes in a film or locations in a dungeon adventure or pretty much any other form of entertainment. Advance plot, show character, or cut it.

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Fatescape Under Way

Well, the first session in my new Fatescape test game was last night: it didn’t go too badly, all told, although there are a few places where the mechanics need shoring up. I’ve gone with The Shackled City as the module I’m going to run for them.

Translating the dungeon crawls into FATE is tricky, since I’m caught between several conflicting objectives:

  • Presenting the players with meaningful choices between routes through the dungeon.
  • Making sure key scenes get played out.
  • Cutting out as much of the pointless rubbish as possible.

The problem I’ve found is that if I cut all the pointless stuff and focus only on the key scenes, the dungeons become entirely linear. A lot of the meaningful choices in D&D seem to spring not from ‘do I go from A to B or A to C?’ but rather from ‘do I go from A to B via route X or route Y?’

I’m not sure yet how to convert that into FATE terms. The player choice of route from scene to scene should have consequences… hmm. I think there’s something in that, somewhere. I’m thinking some sort of flowchart-based dungeon design, where you map out which paths lead to and from which scenes (since in a site-based dungeon scenes and locations cross over to a great extent) and just make notes regarding the pros and cons of each path.

Yes, I’ll try that for the dungeons in Chapters 2 and 3. The second part of Chapter 1 offers enough interesting choices on its own that I don’t think it needs embellishment, but the following dungeons could do with some brevity.

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No, THAC0 Really Is Inferior

It pops up time and time again on D&D threads: is the ‘ascending AC’ system of D&D 3.x (where better defences = a higher number) superior to the ‘descending AC’ system of earlier editions of D&D (where better defences = a lower number, dropping into negatives eventually) and their legion of retroclones?

There are a lot of spurious arguments floating around, the primary one I keep seeing being that ‘addition is easier than subtraction’. That, and that having +1 chain mail that gives a -1 bonus to AC is counterintuitive, which I sort of buy – although I’ve played enough AD&D to know that you get used to the idea pretty quickly.

Anyway, I was thinking about this in the shower this morning and I think I’ve realised why I prefer ascending AC: it involves one less step in the calculation of each to-hit roll.

d20/ascending AC

  1. The player rolls the d20 and adds their bonuses.
  2. The GM recalls the target’s AC.
  3. The two numbers are compared. Hit or miss is established.

THAC0/descending AC

  1. The player rolls the d20 and adds their bonuses.
  2. The GM recalls the target’s AC.
  3. The AC is added to the d20 roll.
  4. The result is compared to the character’s THAC0. Hit or miss is established.

OR

  1. The player rolls the d20 and adds their bonuses.
  2. The GM recalls the target’s AC.
  3. The to-hit table is consulted.
  4. The d20 roll and AC are cross-referenced on the table. Hit or miss is established.

It’s not much – just one extra step each time an attack roll is made – but it’s that little bit of extra arithmetic (or table consulting) that makes the THAC0 system less streamlined than the ascending AC system, and you make an awful lot of attack rolls in a typical session of D&D. As I’ve said, I’ve played enough AD&D to know that you can get used to it, but why should you have to?

That said, here’s a handy ascending AC conversion for Labyrinth Lord (which is my current retroclone of choice).

Attack Bonuses**

Level/HD Fighter/Dwarf/Elf/Halfling Cleric/Thief Magic-User Monster*
1 +1 +1 +1 +1
2 +1 +1 +1 +2
3 +2 +1 +1 +3
4 +3 +2 +2 +4
5 +4 +2 +2 +5
6 +5 +3 +2 +6
7 +6 +3 +2 +7
8 +6 +3 +3 +8
9 +7 +4 +3 +8
10 +8 +4 +3 +9
11 +8 +5 +4 +9
12 +9 +6 +4 +10
13 +10 +7 +5 +10
14 +11 +7 +6 +11
15 +12 +8 +6 +11
16 +13 +8 +7 +12
17 +14 +9 +7 +12
18 +15 +9 +7 +13
19 +16 +10 +8 +13
20 +16 +10 +8 +14
21 +16 +11 +9 +14
22 +16 +11 +9 +15
23 +16 +11 +9 +15
24+ +16 +11 +10 +15

0-level humans have an attack bonus of +0.

*Monsters with ‘X+Y’ HD attack as monsters of the next HD up. For example, a 1+1 HD monster attacks using the 2 HD bonus.

**It’s interesting, making this table, to note just how the numbers stack up. Monsters get murderous as their HD increase, being more likely to land a hit than a fighter at all levels up to 15 (and with more hp besides). Clerics, thieves and magic users all kind of suck by comparison although at low levels (where I assume most games happen) the differences are minimal. There’s no difference in attack rolls at all until level 3, so fighters have to rely on having more hp and better equipment until then.

Defences
To work out the AC bonus of a piece of armour, subtract the AC it offers from 10. For example leather armour (AC 8) becomes a +2 bonus, and chain mail (AC 5) becomes a +5 bonus. To make life easier, here’s a revised version of the armour table on page 15:

Armour Cost AC (desc.) AC bonus (asc.) Weight
Banded mail 85 gp 4 +6 35 lb
Chain mail 70 gp 5 +5 30 lb
Helmet 10 gp 5 lb
Horse barding 150 gp 5 +5 60 lb
Leather 6 gp 8 +2 15 lb
Padded 4 gp 8 +2 10 lb*
Plate mail 450 gp 3 +7 50 lb
Scale mail 50 gp 6 +4 40 lb
Shield 10 gp 1 less +1 10 lb
Splint mail 75 gp 4 +6 45 lb
Studded leather 30 gp 7 +3 20 lb
Unarmoured 9 +1

* Since padded armour is both cheaper and lighter than leather, and offers the same AC, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever wear leather. Perhaps it gives some sort of Cha bonus for being more stylish? Is it more durable?

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Traveller vs. 40K – Agency in SPAAAAAACE

This post stems from a discussion I was having with a friend of mine the other day (in Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, in front of the RPG section, Purge the Unclean – a supplement for Dark Heresy – clutched in my greasy paw).

I don’t remember quite how we got onto the subject of Traveller vs. 40K, but we were both very much of the opinion that Traveller was kind of boring but the various 40K games made us want to get playing, and we started chatting about why this might be.

Traveller has its good points – and I’m not just saying that because I worked on Mongoose Traveller – primary among them the game of character-building. In a fit of contrariness the first character I ever made for MGT (and the only one I played) was a barbarian warlord whose background was pretty uneventful except for the bit where I found Space-Excalibur wedged in an asteroid. Other notable characters were the one-armed space postman (who had once started a war and couldn’t afford enough cybernetics to cover all his missing body parts) and the space equivalent of Paris Hilton (a wealthy debutante with no skills of note).

But the game itself is lacking something, and I reckon that something is agency. The default game mode of Traveller seems to be a group of near-psychopathic misfits bumming around the universe trying not to get stuck in dead-end systems where they can’t get enough water to fuel their stardrives and attempting to make as much money as possible. The thing is, you can’t really achieve much. The Traveller universe is a vast place and the scale so sensible that anything individuals do is unlikely to make any difference in the grand scheme of things. You might save (or doom) the occasional ship or planet, but it never feels like what you’re doing matters.

Compare and contrast with Rogue Trader, which is also a game of near-psychopathic misfits bumming around the universe trying to get rich. When you play RT you don’t start out scrabbling in the dirt like Traveller characters – you start out with so much money that on a personal scale it’s near-irrelevant. You start out with a warp-capable starship (with tens of thousands of souls aboard) and a bit of paper that says you can do anything you damn well like, so long as it isn’t heresy. When an RT character acts they leave a mark on the setting, because that’s the kind of scale they act on.

It’s helped by the 40K setting. Not only is it dripping with flavour that the Traveller setting lacks, but for all the GRIMDARK and the waffle about “to be a man in this time is to be one among countless trillions” it’s a setting where individuals can and do change the shape of worlds. The precendent is all over the fiction and the wargames. A single unchecked enemy – an unlicensed psyker, a genestealer, a chaos cultist – can bring about global destruction, which means that even in Dark Heresy (the 40K RPG where you are grubbing about in the dirt) your actions have major, meaningful consequences.

So, that’s what I think of that. If you want to create a scifi setting, either dial down the scale (Eclipse Phase) or dial up what characters are able to achieve with their actions (Rogue Trader, Deathwatch).

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Burning Wheel: Smoke Without Fire?

For the past few weeks I’ve been playing in a Burning Wheel game – something I’ve wanted to do ever since I first read the system about 5-6 years ago. Having actually played the system, however, I find myself somewhat underwhelmed.

Let’s start with the good stuff, though: BW is stuffed full of really good advice for GMs and players alike. Creating characters who are driven by Beliefs, allowing characters to drive the plot, spelling out that conflict creates story, keeping the GM’s touch light and their ability to interfere minimal… this is all good stuff. I think everyone should read Burning Wheel, if only to get these ideas into their skull in a form which is explicitly noted and mechanically supported.

And fortunately all of these ideas are game-independent: you’ll get less mechanical support for belief-driven characters in, say, D&D but you can still implement them. You can still let them drive the plot rather than the GM leading them down a pre-defined story path.

I say this is fortunate because the BW system is bad, and you should probably not use it for anything. Since I love criticism, I’m now going to spend the rest of this post examining my dislike for it.

1. Poor Organisation
This isn’t really a game design issue but it is hugely annoying.

The first thing you will notice when you crack your BW book (or books, if you have the old version) is that nothing is where you expect it to be. The recent ‘gold’ version of the game fixes some of the organisation issues but many remain. A short list (off the top of my head) follows:

  • Lifepaths are not in any kind of order – not by ‘sub-setting’, not by logical progression, not alphabetical.
  • The index is useless unless you know the specific terminology for what you’re trying to find. There’s no such thing as ‘training’, for example: you’re looking for ‘practice’ or ‘instruction’.
  • The master skill list doesn’t contain all relevant information (such as what ‘type’ the skill is for training purposes) – there’s no substitute for flipping through and finding the skill.
  • A number of other organisational problems I had – traits all over the place, magic in three separate books – may have been rectified in the new version. So I won’t talk about them here.

2. The System Clunks
The basic system is simple and quick. Collect as many d6 as you can persuade the GM to let you get away with, roll, job done.

It goes downhill from there.

The first problem is that there are too many skills. Way too many, and too specialised. (‘Ditch Digging’, anyone?) Because of a dearth of skill points characters will be utterly incompetent outside their area of expertise, and it’s very easy to make a character who is accidentally incompetent within their area of expertise because you didn’t know they needed Skill X to do Thing Y. Cue comedy results.

(Never mind that a skill of 6 – default maximum for starting characters – means you only hold the wrong end of the sword about one time in ten.)

Then you have the issue of skill and trait classifications. For skills I like to use Stealth and Observation as examples. They are classified as forestry skills. Stealth, in particular, is almost impossible to get as a path skill in character gen unless you have some sort of wilderness stalker lifepath. In fairness you can still get it thanks to open skill points, but it annoys me that urban characters are all assumed to be clanking dullards.

For traits, my pet peeve is Tall Tale Teller. It’s a trait that gives you bonuses to certain social roles if you can spin a story to go with it. It is only available to pilgrims. Not only that, but it’s a compulsory trait for pilgrims. So all pilgrims (or ex-pilgrims) are fantastic storytellers, and no one else is. Oh, except tinkers. Who also get a compulsory-available-to-no-one-else storytelling trait called The Story (I think).

I get the Canterbury Tales reference, okay? But your in-joke just made my game world really weird.

Of course, skills can be learned and improved in play, which leads me to my next problem: you have to track everything. Every time you make a test, check a box. Every time you spend artha (fate points) on a test, check a box. When you have the right number of checks erase them all, edit your skill rating, start again. This gets cumbersome really quickly – it would be fantastic in a video game, which would track these things automatically (Romancing SaGa 3 springs to mind as a game which does something very similar) but in PnP games it grates.

It also leads to a lot of metagaming regarding what sort of tests you need to advance, including a tendency to ‘attempt failure’ if you need a particular level of test.

Actually, most of our BW sessions are metagaming – the ratio of ‘game discussion’ to ‘actual play’ works out at around fifteen minutes of discussion to five minutes of play. Mostly it splits about half and half but every so often we’ll get into a detailed breakdown of how best to do something or, worse, we’ll try to use the Detailed Conflict Resolution Mechanics.

I could complain about the DCRMs all day – and since this is my blog, I will. First of all there are three versions (Fight!, Range and Cover, Duel of Wits) which are all just different enough from each other to render their similarities more misleading than helpful. (I think sorcerers’ duels get a fourth version, too, but I don’t know for sure.)

Secondly, the DCRMs are entirely one-on-one focused. The whole game is, really – it handles conflicts with multiple people on each side spectacularly poorly, and I have a vague recollection that you’re supposed to pare it down into a one-on-one structure wherever possible – but the DCRMs exemplify the problem. Combine this with the time that a dramatic conflict takes, and you have the problem of half the group having nothing to do for fifteen minutes (or more) while one or maybe two do their thing.

And finally the metagaming problem rears its head again. DCRMs are so involved that the ratio of ‘time spent rolling dice and doing game rule stuff’ to ‘time spent playing the game’ expands significantly. This is most noticeable, I think, in a Duel of Wits – you each say a couple of lines of biting dialogue, then roll dice for five minutes. Repeat until someone is bored into submission.

Oh, and the adversarial nature of the DCRMs encourages you to think you can outsmart your opponent by a careful choice of actions but because everything is a) scripted three steps in advance and b) completely secret it more or less comes down to blind luck.

And while I’m on the subject of conflicts: a light wound (-1 die on all actions) is one step up from a superficial wound (+1 difficulty on all actions) but each +1 diff is worth two dice of penalties, making punching yourself in the face to convert three superficials into a light is an effective healing technique. (Any wound more severe than light is basically lethal.)

2a. The System Produces Wacky Results
A sub-set of clunk.

Most of the ones we have encountered are to do with Resources and Circles. For starters, the only way to raise your Resources is to use your Resources: you literally have to spend money to make money. Or, less sensibly, you can throw a six-course banquet for 100 people and become wealthier as a result.

Even less sensibly, doing honest work only helps you restore ‘taxed’ (temporarily lost) Resources dice. If you have a Resources of 0 there is literally no way for you to make money. You can’t succeed on a Resources roll with 0 dice and you can’t get a job to earn Resources because that only restores lost dice, it doesn’t grant you new ones. Your only hope is to steal something valuable or get someone to spend money on your behalf.

Because when someone helps you with a Resources test it counts as a success for both your Resources and theirs. Thus by having someone buy you shoes (or a castle, or whatever) you become richer and so do they.

Circles is also a bit odd. You can roll it to find a contact, but even if you go to meet this guy at his home or place of work you can’t find him again without rolling Circles again. Even if you just sit in his home and wait for him to turn up. You have to succeed about five times before you can just ‘go to where he is’.

3. ‘Gritty’ + ‘Character-Driven’ = Wank
So, death is easy in Burning Wheel. Anyone with a bow has about a one-in-three chance of one-shotting you, no matter who you are. In fact, they have a further one-in-three chance of giving you a bleeding wound that will bring about your inevitable death. If mortally wounded you have to spend a persona point (a type of fate point) immediately or die. But even if you spend the point you have to roll Health against a difficulty of ‘GTFO’ or die. Then a surgeon needs to roll Surgery against the game GTFO difficulty or you die.

Then your character is incapacitated for six months to two years while they recover, meaning they’re effectively out of the game anyway.

But the EZ-Murder system isn’t what I’m complaining about. I’m okay with gritty realism when it comes to stabbing people in my RPGs.

Actually, that’s not true. I think that the fact you can survive a terrible wound against all odds but still have to roll up a new character sucks giant neon balls. Realistic or not.

Anyway. My problem is that if you’re going to have a game where life is cheap it needs to have two qualities which Burning Wheel does not:

  • Character generation should be quick and easy in order to facilitate getting the player back into the action as soon as possible. See, for example, old-school D&D and its retro-clones. You can whip up a new character for OSRIC or S&W in about ten minutes – two minutes if you don’t bother picking a good name and just call them ‘Kevin II’ or whatever. Character gen in BW is neither quick, nor easy. Too many skills, poor lifepath organisation, traits and skills assigned to lifepaths more or less at random… I’ve complained about all these elements already. Better hope your character dies at the end of a session so you’ve got time to make the next one.
  • The plot should be able to survive the death of any player character (or NPC, for that matter). BW is designed to promote character-driven storytelling, which gets kind of screwed up when a scrub with a crossbow takes out one of the characters. Kind of like if the detective in The Usual Suspects pulled his gun and put a bullet in Kevin Spacey’s forehead half an hour in. Oops, what now?

4. tl;dr
Burning Wheel is full of good ideas, wrapped up in a system that clunks and scrapes and can’t decide if it wants to model fiction or reality. Read it, then apply its lessons to any other game system of your choice.

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How a game’s playability can have nothing to do with the mechanics

So this morning I received a nice little pdf for an RPG – and I use the term loosely, as I’ll waffle about in a moment – with the unwieldy title of ‘Look Upon Your Father’s Murder and Be Ashamed, Young Prince’ (henceforth ‘YFM’). I got this pdf for the princely sum of one dollar, the benefit of trawling Kickstarter for interesting projects. I would have pledged $5 but that level came with free shipping of a hard-copy, and I think it would have cost the maker more than $5 to ship it to the UK – so now I get to feel slightly ashamed of my paltry donation. Ho hum.

YFM itself is one of those indie games that hangs around the border with the nation of ‘Freeform’ and its shady inhabitants*. Much like the Baron Munchausen Roleplaying Game – a fantastic read and well worth picking up if you see it – it’s called a roleplaying game and marketed as one, but it’s not. Not really.

It’s certainly a game, and there’s some amount of perfunctory RPing, but it’s more like a mechanism for generating stories. And it’s a good mechanism for such: don’t mistake my terminological nitpickery for dislike. The art – what little there is in a ~10 page booklet – is fantastic, too. Evocative and stylish. All in all, it contributes handily to my guilty feeling over only paying $1 for it.

But I’ll never play it.

Not because I don’t think it would be entertaining. No, I would very much like to give it a try.

And not because the name is so long and tangled, although that does make a difference.

It’s because you can’t play it casually. The strict time limit and lack of distinction between player and character mean you have to be ‘on’ the whole time – and you have to learn the (very simple) rules first. Basically, given an hour to kill with some friends I can probably have a better time by breaking out the Scrabble or firing up Super Smash Brothers. We won’t create as compelling a narrative** but we’ll probably get a whole lot more out of it.

I had similar thoughts when I got my hands on a pre-release test version of A Penny For My Thoughts – that while it was intriguing I was never going to play it with a bunch of gamers around a table. The key difference here is that Penny is eminently playable online; in fact, it seems almost tailor-made for such. YFM’s hidden token mechanic makes that more difficult without roping in an impartial GM.

The onus is on YFM to be easier and more fun than the things I could be doing otherwise***, and outside of some very specific circumstances that isn’t going to happen. If I’m going to invest time in prepping for a game, making sure that everyone knows the rules, etc., then I’m going to run Burning Empires or Nobilis – it’s a lot easier to teach casual gamers new mechanics than it is to incite them to invest in the game.

I think this also might say something about the eternal popularity of D&D: when a gang of casual gamers get together to play a game, D&D is often easier and more fun than the other options. You can play it casually, as part of a social experience rather than just as a storytelling exercise. There’s a lot to be said for low barriers to entry.

*Shady mainly because of all the Dark McDarkendarks who live there. Not even the sparkling of the vampires can lighten the gloom.

**Unless we’re playing Smackdown vs. RAW, the wrestling games. The narratives my flatmates and I concocted using those games were epic in both scope and absurdity. You haven’t lived until your very own Belgian tax-collector has adopted a masked persona and teamed up with Jesus Christ to win the tag team belts from a 7 foot tall preacher and a warrior nun.

***Similarly the onus is on Munchausen, as a game which involves drinking, to be easier and more fun than just sitting around drinking with your friends. Hence why I think the kids’ version (in the same book) has more potential as an actual game rather than just a hilarious read.

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Riddle Me This – Or Not

I am not a fan of puzzles in dungeons.

The primary reason for this is that there is precious little in-game reason for a puzzle to exist in a dungeon (or any other site-based adventure). The reason for this lies in the correct use of security protocols: a dungeon is a place where you put things that you want to keep away from just anyone, but you have to either want to allow access to the ‘right kind of people’ or just be flat-out incapable of destroying whatever you’ve locked away down there.

Aside I: With a little modification this theory holds for any adventure site. Take the fortress of an evil archmage, for example: the item which he wants to keep safe is his own person; he can’t destroy the item, for obvious reasons; and he wants to make sure that the right kind of people – those bearing gifts, or with legitimate reason to visit him – can get through.

So, with this in mind, every security protocol you put in place has to act as a screen – allowing the right kinds of people through but keeping others out. It’s the same reason that sensitive data on computers is kept encrypted and password-locked* – it has to be accessible to the right people, but no one else.

Aside II: Not every encounter is a security protocol. The evil archmage’s pet hydra has a perfectly good reason to be loafing around in the dungeon – and that reason is tasty halfling-based comestibles – but he’s not intended to screen anybody. He just happens to be there.

A guard post functions to let people through who are recognised by the guards and/or who know the password, but stop everyone else. A trap functions to let people through who know how to avoid it, but stop everyone else. A lock lets people through who have the key. A puzzle lets people through who know the answer… and anyone who’s smart enough to figure out the answer. It’s a lot like replacing the password on your email account with an integral equation that must be solved to proceed: you know the answer, but so does anyone else with the right knowledge and time to calculate. Would you trust the contents of your inbox to anyone with an A-level in maths?

Unless you’re specifically filtering your dungeon so that only smart people can pass a certain point – and I can think of a couple of dungeon concepts where that might work – there’s no reason for a puzzle to exist there.

I’m also not a huge fan of puzzles outside of dungeons, for different reasons. Typically they either exist to challenge the characters – in which case a single die roll normally takes care of that – or they exist to challenge the players, which have a whole host of problems of their own: any puzzle easily avoided will be avoided, and any compulsory puzzle will either be trivially easy (therefore pointless) or completely impossible (therefore derailing the entire game).

I think that puzzles can be done well – a murder mystery, for example, where the characters must interview suspects and reach their own conclusions about what happened – but that such things are a rarity.

*Unless you work at Sony. Fuck you, Sony.

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D&D, Exalted and ‘game space’

Recently I’ve noticed an increasing tendency in myself that, when thinking about which games to run, I tend to ‘home in’ on indie games and other one-book-complete systems as opposed to heavily supported product lines. Give me a core book, a sample adventure and some example antagonists and then leave it the hell alone.

For a while I thought this might be because I have become that most dreaded of creatures: a gaming hipster, always playing obscure games that you’ve probably never heard of and rejecting the mainstream on the grounds that popular = bad. *shudder*

But then I started dissecting this attitude. Why did I dislike 3.5 so much but like retro-clones? Why did I like Pathfinder when it was virtually identical? What is it about Exalted 2e that makes me slump with despair whenever it’s mooted as a system?

The answer to all the above is this: the vast and sprawling ‘game space’.

And by ‘game space’ I mean the total mechanical content of the game. D&D comes in about eleventy-billion books, most of which I do not own and have never read. The content for Exalted is spread across 20 books, half a dozen websites and two blogs. I have neither the time nor the patience to keep up with all of this.

The issue I have with an expanding game space is that every new release adds more mechanically distinct options for the players to solve problems. In D&D it’s spells and class features (and entirely new systems, like skill tricks or psionics or incarnum). In Exalted it’s charms, sorcery and artefacts. As the GM you have to track all of this to make sure that nothing in there invalidates the upcoming challenges you have planned.*

The important thing is ‘mechanically distinct’. I don’t mean power creep, where a new power is just flat-out better than an old power – that’s a separate problem – I mean that a new power provides a win button for a specific scenario that was previously tricky but possible to navigate, or that a new power makes a previously impassable obstacle passable. To pull an example from D&D, when a wizard hits level 9 and gains teleport a whole class of encounters becomes irrelevant. The new mechanical option invalidates those challenges. When a level 9 wizard’s player picks up the Spell Compendium… it’s all over.

Compare and contrast with 4e D&D, where all the extra races, powers and magic items really only amount to new ways to win in combat** (leaving non-combat challenges intact), or FATE, where you have an almost-infinite range of possible characters but new mechanical ways to solve problems are limited to stunts or powers (depending on which version of FATE you’re using).

So that’s why D&D 3.5 and Exalted are off the list of games I’d be willing to run these days, and why the aggressive proliferation of supplements for Pathfinder is increasingly driving me away. I have better things to do with my time than spend it tracking game spaces.

*Or you can ban all these new sources, but I find that problematic for a couple of reasons. First is the battle of wills that you must undergo with the player who wants something from the new source. Much like corporate law, ‘my game, my rules’ is a very straightforward concept with less than straightforward execution. Second is when the new material is actually a good thing – if it’s rich in flavour and cool stuff, for example, or if it fixes problems with the game as it stands. It’s good to let this stuff in, but it might still screw with your planned challenges.

**With a few notable exceptions, like that warlock utility power (level 2) that grants an at-will one-square teleport. In combat it’s underwhelming but out of combat it makes the warlock a challenge-dodging machine. The only thing that can stop him going where he pleases is a wall at least five feet thick.

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