The Supremacy of Context

In OSR circles people talk about “the Hickman Revolution” as a harbinger of TSR shifting away from the old school ethos in favour of producing a different style of gaming product – the tightly railroaded Dragonlance modules being the archetypal example of the sort of work that resulted.

Tracy and Laura Hickman self-published their early modules before TSR picked them up, and Tavis Allison of The Mule Abides actually found an original version of Pharoah in which the four guiding principles of their design work were enunciated as follows:

  1. A player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing.
  2. An intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself.
  3. Dungeons with some sort of architectural sense.
  4. An attainable and honourable end within one or two sessions of playing time.

The comments thread on David McGrogan’s post on the subject is worth a read because Tracy Hickman actually shows up in the comments to give his thoughts – namely, that he agrees that the four principles there are guiding principles of his and Laura’s work, and that Pharoah didn’t actually succeed very well because it’s basically just another dungeon crawl.
Continue reading “The Supremacy of Context”

The Limits of Control

This arose out of a discussion with a friend on Facebook about the role of randomisers in tabletop RPGs, and how one of the things which can bug people is when they feel that the dice (or cards, or yarrow stalks, or whatever) end up taking away their control of their character’s actions or story.

I like having randomisers because of the element of surprise; I like having the scope in a game to have stuff happen which, individually or collectively, we wouldn’t have thought up ourselves. For instance, Ygraine’s NPC stats in Pendragon would have given me, as the GM, the impression that it’s basically impossible for the player characters to try and woo her after Uther dies; a combination of flukey rolls on the part of one of my players when it came to flirting with her and similarly unlikely rolls on her part when it came to judging whether she was receptive made it clear that as far as the dice were concerned Ygraine was 100% into this and that took the story in a direction none of us expected but which turned out well.
 
With respect to being in control of your character’s actions, I think systems need to default to the randomiser determining the result of your action rather than completely rewriting the action you decided on in the first place. The former is important for immersion and simulation and creating the sense that your character exists in a real world that will kick back rather than a cardboard set that exists solely to contextualise their story; the latter takes away the player-PC connection which is vital to the tabletop experience to begin with.
 
That isn’t to say I’m 100% against systems which take away some choice, mind. Occasionally it can be useful for the system to nudge you and say “Are you really sure your character would do this?” For instance, Pendragon‘s personality trait system doesn’t often force you to act in a particular way, and when it does it’s usually because you have set such a strong precedent for your character behaving in that way previously that it’s genuinely difficult – though still possible – to break the habit of a lifetime. It is not too difficult to avoid traits getting to that extreme (though extreme behaviour has its benefits), and the main constraint is requiring a Valorous roll to engage in combat with particularly terrifying beasts, which I think is an acceptable way to reflect the fact that in some situations having genuine freedom of choice requires you to first wrestle your fight-or-flight response into submission.
 
(For similar reasons, though its implementation has its issues, I think Call of Cthulhu‘s “roll when you see a monster to avoid panicing” concept is very useful. It’s all very easy when you are sat in a cosy chair surrounded by friends to be all “Yeah, I’m not afraid of this”, but your investigator doesn’t have that benefit.)
 
At the same time, critical fumble tables which make your character behave in silly/humiliating/gamewrecking ways can get in the sea.
 
With respect to being in control of your character’s story, I can see the desire to have that control but I have very carefully weaned myself off it over the years, and I enjoy both tabletop and LARP substantially more as a result. The thing is, even in a very story-focused game you never actually have full control of your character’s story. To have that, you would need a veto power over everything anyone or anything else does which might affect your character, and that tends to be incompatible with playing a game where you have multiple characters running around ostensibly able to affect the proceedings.
 
Unless the player characters are genuinely irrelevant to each others’ stories – which kind of wrecks the point of running a game with more than one player – then they are going to be able to affect each others’ stories. And in games where you have a GM-like role, then the GM’s ability to frame the situation has an enormous capacity to affect people’s stories.
 
Frankly, I think the best and most successful storytelling game out there is Once Upon a Time, in which there is no identification between players and individual characters at all and all elements of the story are fully accessible to be meddled with once you take control of the narration. There are a bunch of storygames which explicitly deviate from the “one player, one PC” model – The Quiet Year and Microscope, for instance – and even more which I think would be radically improved if they brushed off the residual “one player, one PC” assumption they inherited from more traditional RPGs (for instance, I think the best part of Fiasco is the collective setting and character creation phase, and I think the game would be more fun if the pool of characters were entirely communal), and still more which are designed from the principle that other players can and will shape your character’s story (such as A Penny For My Thoughts). I can think of none where your character’s story is explicitly immune from external meddling.
 
Of course, now that I think further on this, I suppose a case could be made that some people would prefer that meddling with their story happened as a result of other human beings explicitly deciding to do that, rather than because of a roll of the dice. I guess personally I don’t find that much of a meaningful distinction. Sometimes shit happens to a character because somebody else decided that it should. Sometimes a character has a sudden stroke of amazing luck or terrible ill fortune. Their story is in how they deal with that.

The Dream of an Indie RPG Boom

I read with some interest Alessando Pirodi’s recent post on the so far limited commercial success of story games and other highly-coherent hobby games that take the lessons of the Forge to heart, compared with more traditional RPGs. I think he raises a number of good points, but may be overoptimistic in his long-range prognosis.

First off, he certainly seems to be right in his assumption that RPGs deviating from the “Incoherent/GM-centric/Traditional” format are a niche of a niche. This is one area where ENWorld’s charts of how much different games are being discussed online comes in handy. Although it’s possible that ENWorld are failing to track significant foci of indie RPG discussion, I can’t imagine they’d do that deliberately – if nothing else, the tracking includes the RPG.net forums, which are exceptionally busy and which tend to be quite friendly towards indie RPGs. And what do we see? Consistently, a chart dominated by games which fall into precisely the sort of Incoherent/GM-centric/Traditional style Pirodi refers to, with perhaps a very few games like FATE and the various Apocalypse World derivatives which strive for greater coherence but don’t deviate very radically from the GM-centric and Traditional parts of the IGT puzzle.

That said, I question Pirodi’s understanding of the major sellers in the industry. As I mentioned, FATE and Apocalypse World are still GM-centric and Traditional games. Numenera is about as “IGT” as a game can get – yes, it borrows some mechanics from FATE, but simply including some mechanics usually regarded as narrativist doesn’t make a game coherently narrativist. (By definition, coherence isn’t about the presence or absence of a particular mechanic, but how all the mechanics included hang together.) 3rd Edition WFRP may or may not have been a success, but certainly wasn’t enough of a barnstormer to justify Fantasy Flight continuing to produce new materialEdge of the Empire isn’t a new edition of D20 or D6 Star Wars but a brand new Star Wars RPG with a system influenced by WFRP3, though notably it scales back an enormous number of the innovations WFRP3 brought in (hence Edge of the Empire not coming in a massive box crammed with components) and merely keeps the use of non-standard dice, suggesting a retreat away from the very experimental direction WFRP3 took. D&D 4E might have been coherently Gamist, but it was also a commercial disaster when compared to how every previous edition fared; 5E, meanwhile, seems to be explicitly embracing incoherence in order to provide a “Big Tent” RPG.

And it’s the last part which I think Pirodi is especially missing: the fact that the ideology of coherence inherently requires that coherent games direct themselves towards particular niches, rather than angling for a mass audience. In particular, I’m highly sceptical about Pirodi’s assumption that there’s a major target audience out there for these games that is being missed out. He talks about these Facebook RPGs that the kids are apparently into these days, but then hilariously imagines that a game designer out there needs to come in and make a fun and interesting game out of that to sell to that audience. This is ridiculous because the audience in question is already playing fun and interesting games in the form of their Facebook RPGs, and nothing could be more foolish than trying to sell people an experience they are already enjoying for free and which they probably understand better than you in the first place. As far as the power fantasies Pirodi talks about, that’s something which his “IGTs” already cater to perfectly capably – as illustrated by the fact he talks about being snared by Heroquest and Red Box D&D when he was 12.

Heck, I don’t entirely agree with him that indie developers are designing for other adults as a group – I think for the most part indie RPGs are designed for the sort of people who already play and design indie RPGs. The very fact that there are particular trends and fashions in indie RPG design that you can identify suggests that indie designers are consciously and deliberately targeting a very particular niche, after all. Ron Edwards’ Spione might not have been marketed along RPG channels (and doesn’t even describe itself as an RPG), but so far as I can make out it doesn’t result from Ron identifying a particular target audience and designing a game to meet its needs (the correct way to approach the concept of target audiences, as Pirodi rightly points out), so much as he wrote the game he wanted to write and then tried to find a target audience who might enjoy it.

The thing is, I’d rather indie and small press designers concentrated on writing games which they personally enjoy myself. We have Hasbro and Paizo and Fantasy Flight and other giants to take the corporate give-the-people-what-they-want approach, and when they allow themselves to take that route they tend to do quite well at it. Compare the warm welcome that the extensively playtested and survey-driven D&D 5E has enjoyed compared to 4E; compare the outcome of the centrally-imposed WFRP3 experiment (game line support dries up after a few years, and then after a long gap they eventually put up the white flag) to the success of the Dark Heresy 2nd Edition and Only War public beta playtests.

If you’re on the indie and small-press end of the scale, you’re better off producing something a few people love rather than trying to hit on something that vast numbers of people quite like, because if you go for the Big Tent approach you’re directly trying to compete with the biggest gorillas in the market and that doesn’t usually end well. If your game happens to be a runaway success, great – you’ve designed the new Vampire: the Masquerade and you are a fucking hero – but nobody can predict ahead of time whether they’re going to catch lightning in a bottle.

That said, Pirodi does correctly identify a bunch of trends in recent indie RPGs which seem doomed to limit their appeal still further than their dedication to coherence. In my experience, games like Fiasco or Hell 4 Leather do genuinely suffer unless everyone has been fully briefed on the rules beforehand, and they do demand that everyone is fully engaged all the time whether or not they’re feeling it; indie RPGs are also chronic for dreaming up their own idiosyncratic resolution systems to master from scratch, rather than basing themselves on more familiar resolution systems. In short, Pirodi is 100% correct that indie RPGs demand that all participants approach them from a “hardcore” perspective and tend to leave little room for engagement from a more “casual” angle. I think there’s a time and a place for all-hardcore games and there’s nothing wrong with that; I also think that this is an inherent outcome of coherence ideology and the Forge theories associated with it, since these intrinsically assume that everyone has a big fancy Creative Agenda going into a game that’s more developed than “have fun with my pals by mucking about playing pretend”.

Meanwhile in the Story Games discussion on this point, check out user AsIf’s first post, which is a really excellent takedown of the idea that coherent indie-type RPGs are inevitably going to take over from inherently inferior IGTs.

Remembering the Forge

This is a post prompted by Shimmin, who was asking after a simple introduction to subjects surrounding the Forge. I realised that I couldn’t think of many that weren’t highly biased one way or another; certainly, the Forge itself isn’t much use for this, since a lot of their explanations of their ideas consisted of either a) articles which were working documents for ongoing conversations or b) extensive forum conversations.

So, here’s my attempt to summarise the points Shimmin seemed to want clarifying about the Forge. This isn’t going to be especially neutral, because I have my own well-developed opinions about all this stuff, but I’ll do my best to try and present the points in question with as much context as possible. If you have a different understanding of the Forge’s work or disagree with my conclusions, I’d welcome comments that’d either illuminate points I don’t explain adequately or provide corrections.

What’s a quick explanation of all this?

Once upon a time a now-defunct web community – the Forge – spent a lot of time trying to elevate tabletop RPG criticism and theory to academic levels. They ended up coming up with a bunch of contentious theories that on the plus side led to the development of some interesting games, and on the downside led to some inflammatory statements being made, including some truly abhorrent stuff about brain damage and child abuse.

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On Goals Both Personal and Common

There’s a neat article gone up at Hack and Slash about character progression in Dungeons & Dragons, both analysing the old school-new school split (and in particular the impact of removing XP-for-gold), as well as batting down some of the more common (and less useful) points people tend to raise in such discussions. I had a mild quibble at the point towards the end concerning setting personal character goals and pursuing those in games where character advancement is based solely on sessions attended (a point raised in response to the common “I just level everyone up after 3 sessions or so” thing), which grew into this.

My quibble is that accomplishing your character goals isn’t necessarily connected to the level of your PC. Yes, being level 11 instead of level 5 might come in handy when you want to seize the throne of Aquilonia, but your level 5 dude might be able to pull it off if they’ve gathered sufficient allies, or uncovered suffiicent weaknesses of the current incumbent, and have a plan which leverages them effectively. You are correct that there’s no behaviour you can engage in to increase your rate of advancement to achieve your goals faster, but that is not the same thing as there being no behaviour you can engage in which would allow you to achieve your goals faster – it’s just that you’ll need to work out that behaviour by looking at the in-game situation and saying “what do I need to do to take this guy down, and what resources do I need to accomplish that?” rather than saying “OK, what level do I need to be to take this guy down?” (I concede, however, that this requires referees to actually provide sufficient in-game meat for you to make that assessment.)

I’ve also seen “level up when we feel like it” play based not on attendance but on advancement towards goals – usually the common goal of advancing the “main plot”, but I can see running a game where the GM could give out levels if they believe a PC has made concrete progress towards accomplishing one of their declared life’s ambitions (or has accomplished a more short-term major goal) – indeed, I could even see a game where the referee and player sit down before hand and identify a set number of landmarks towards achieving the goal in question which they both agree constitute a sufficient challenge to merit a raise in level.

But I personally wouldn’t do that if I were running a traditional D&D game, which is what I’m currently doing.

What I think the people who focus a lot on “but you should have personal goals anyway” are really missing is the benefits to be had from having common goals beyond “show up and play”. If there’s a course of action which clearly and objectively benefits every single party member, then that provides an in-game stimulus towards co-operative play, whether that’s co-operation in grabbing gold or killing things, and whilst there is a long and honourable tradition of player-on-player backstabbing in RPGs, most games assume that the players will tend to co-operate. Although most players will sit down at the table with that in mind, presenting an in-system incentive towards co-operation helps to focus their mind on that, whereas concentrating on personal goals pushes each player towards thinking “what’s best for me?” rather than “what’s best for the party?”.

If you just give out levels for attendance and encourage players to select their own personal goals for their characters, then I can foresee three possible outcomes, two of which may be undesirable (and would probably be considered undesirable by most groups) and the third of which is functional but not interesting:

  • Some of the PCs have goals which are directly incompatible in a way which doesn’t leave much room for compromise: Gabriel the fighter wants to protect Queen Bess, Lyra the wizard wants to overthrow her. This is fine if you don’t mind a game focused on player-versus-player conflict, and that’s cool but it’s not really what I use D&D for.
  • Some PCs’ goals are entirely disconnected from each other: Gabriel the fighter wants to protect Queen Bess, Lyra the wizard wants to visit the moon. Viable, but gets awkward when you want to explain why Gabriel is accompanying Lyra to the moon or why Lyra is hanging out at Bess’s court when she really wants to go to the moon. Why hasn’t Lyra joined a party who want to go to the Moon with her? Why is Gabriel off on interplanetary adventures when Queen Bess has bigger problems closer to home?
  • By lucky chance or careful planning, the players actually manage to come up with mutually compatible and interrelated goals for all the PCs; Gabriel wants to protect Queen Bess from the Archdemon Throatstabber, Lyra wants to go to the moon to learn how to defeat Throatstabber from the kindly toad people who live there. Great, your personal goals now tie into a common party goal – explain why experience is tied to session attendance instead of progress towards the party’s common goal again?

Another point which is missed if you go with “level up every X sessions” is the point that, especially in TSR-era editions of D&D, the experience progression is set such that you don’t actually necessarily spend the same amount of time at each and every level. Experience requirements for levelling up tend to double with each level in these editions of the game, but treasure doesn’t necessarily increase exponentially.

In my 2E campaign I do give XP for session attendance, but at the same time the majority of XP given in my game is for stuff accomplished in-game (monster defeat plus gold plus class-specific stuff). The attendance XP is enough to accelerate character development (helpful since ours is a fortnightly campaign) and encourage attendance but not so much that it dominates progression – for instance, by my reckoning if I were only giving XP for attendance at the present rate then the PCs would only be level 2 and still be quite vulnerable after over a year of play, whereas currently they’re level 3 and 4 and beginning to come out of the squishy lower level portion of the game.

Referee’s Bookshelf: Gygax On Mastery

Gary Gygax’s Role-Playing Mastery and Master of the Game are odd birds. Emerging in the late 1980s, following his controversial departure from TSR, they represent suggestions about how to most fruitfully engage with RPGs, but root this advice in Gygax’s very specific vision of how he would have liked to see the RPG scene develop, rather than in the realities of how it was at the time.

Role-Playing Mastery suffers when it comes to working out exactly was talking about by a certain uncharacteristic sloppiness and imprecision. Most notably, Gygax likes to contrast the terms “role-playing” and “role assumption”, but isn’t consistent about how he applies them. Early on, he defines “role assumption” as playing a role you could conceivably take on in real life, in contrast to “role-playing” that has no such constraint. Later, however, he defines a “role assumption game” as one in which you are assigned a predetermined role (as with many gamebooks) rather than coming up with your own character.

Continue reading “Referee’s Bookshelf: Gygax On Mastery”

Referee’s Bookshelf: Kobold Guides to Game Design and Worldbuilding

I don’t jump for every offering from the fine folks at Bundle of Holding, but I do keep an eye on it because their PDF bundles are insanely good value. One recent bundle, in particular, looked to be extremely useful just on general principles – the Worldbuilders Bundle, which despite the name seems to have been a more general Game Prep Bundle.

Two of the books included that are the Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design – a compilation of the three previous Kobold Guides to Game Design with the articles rearranged thematically – and the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. These are put out by Kobold Press, the folks responsible for the late Kobold Quarterly magazine and who have now shifted their priorities to focus on their Open Design adventure-design-by-patronage project.

This background has, perhaps, shaped the focus of the Guide to Game Design more than a little. Kobold Press are mostly built around supporting recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons (including Pathfinder), and consequently a proportion of the articles in here seem to be more about “game design” in the sense of “writing stuff for Wizards of the Coast or Paizo or Kobold to publish for an existing game line” rather than “writing your own shit”. On top of that, there’s an almost complete failure to discuss the self-publication route, which in the post-Forge/storygames period that the original Guides came out in was a huge oversight and in these post-OSR days is downright farcical.

Continue reading “Referee’s Bookshelf: Kobold Guides to Game Design and Worldbuilding”