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.

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Herding the Cats

Over on ST Wild Shannon asked about the tricky process of getting all the players on the same page; I was going to comment but my comment rapidly bloated, so I’m posting my thoughts here instead.

Shannon was specifically talking about a situation where all the players in her Flashpoint campaign seemed to have very mildly different takes on the game’s concept. I’ve been there before. The most trouble I’ve had with this in a campaign wasn’t one I was refereeing, in fact, but one I was playing in: it was pitched as an X-Filesy sort of paranormal-investigation-and-espionage game, in which the PCs were operatives of an obscure, underfunded, and politically unpopular arm of the British intelligence apparatus – a spy agency which most of the major agencies had basically forgotten about and which spent its time chasing up cases the other outfits wouldn’t touch.

In this case, half the players took that brief as a cue to create characters who were rubbish spies, though they had competencies in other areas, and who’d been shuffled into this department because it was the only one which would take them  (I exaggerate a little, but not a lot), whilst the other half generated characters who were entirely competent spies who had been justly or otherwise cast into this bureaucratic black hole for perceived infractions by their superiors. This caused a number of issues (not least being that, once the campaign began focusing more tightly on espionage skills and occult terrorism, the bumbling cardigan-wearing contingent of the PCs ended up feeling a little useless), and in retrospect the referee in question did say that they regretted not doing better expectations management at the start of the campaign.

So, we have a real issue on our hands, and Shannon specifically asks how to get everyone on the same page at the start of the campaign. My knee-jerk response is to say “get them together for a group character generation session rather than having them go off on their ownsome to do it”, because I genuinely believe that is the best and most efficient way of getting a quick read on what people’s expectations of the game are, as well as giving you a chance to either say “uh, the game isn’t actually about that” or “well, the game wasn’t actually about that when I first planned it, but it can be” when people start going down tangents you hadn’t envisaged.

However, Shannon also says that group character generation hasn’t worked for her players before because they tend to arrive with character concepts they are already attached to and don’t want to let go of, or just make characters in their own little bubble during the session without really collaborating, or straight up ignoring the fact that a character gen session is happening and doing it on their own later on. This is a problem in coming up with an answer to Shannon’s query because it takes away what I think is genuinely the best and most natural solution.

(Shannon also details behaviour from players which would make me absolutely livid – if I ran a character gen session and a player was overtly “ignoring the whole thing in favour of out-of-character chit-chat so that they can sit down later on and develop their characters in peace” I’d be directly asking them whether they really wanted to participate in the game at all. If I’m running a character generation session for you and you don’t actually have a character at the end of it then I’m sorry, you’re not going to be in the campaign, because if you’re not going to respect the time I’ve set aside for the character gen session I don’t see how I can trust you to respect people’s time in the session itself. I consider myself to be reasonably tolerant of OOC asides during games, and am responsible for a fair many myself, but if you spend an entire session on OOC chatter and never engage with actual game business then I’m going question your reasons for showing up. Not sure where I’m going with this tangent save to note that Shannon’s players have the good fortune to have a more patient referee than me running games for them…)

So I guess that, unless Shannon is willing to get out a squirt gun and her your players like badly behaved cats when they break away from the group gen session, it’s probably time to brainstorm ways to either make group character generation more appealing or at least encourage people to collaborate more on character generation before game start. Here’s my strategies.

1: Lone Wolf Go Home

Emphasise tighter, more compact character backgrounds, both individually and in terms of intra-party connections. If you need to go away and write up your full character background at home there’s a natural scope to drift there. I tend to take the stance that whilst character background is useful for context and occasional plot ideas, at the same time the most interesting thing about your PC should be what they’re doing now, in the actual campaign, not what they did before the campaign started, though if your players balk at going that far you might again want to consider at least working in incentives for tying in backgrounds together – which would, naturally, tend to make it advantageous to do character generation collectively for that precise purpose. I find that groups whose character backgrounds are tied in together tend to be more cohesive both IC and OOC – it helps set everyone on a comparatively similar trajectory, and even if that isn’t quite the trajectory you envisaged, provided it’s a trajectory you’re interested in and is broadly appropriate for the campaign it’s all good, right. Lone wolf PCs without prior connections to anyone else in the party can fuck right off.

2: Background Mechanics

Find game mechanics which support or incentivise #1 and swipe them. For instance, FATE has specific steps in character generation where you dream up past adventures you had with the other PCs, and Mongoose Traveller gives you bonus skills for tying your background in with the other PCs. (Mongoose Traveller is also really fun for group character generation because you get to watch people’s crazy career progressions.) If you can’t finish character generation on your own then suddenly participating in group character generation makes a lot more sense.

3: One For All and All For One!

To further reiterate that character generation should be a group process, incorporate aspects of group generation. If you’re running a game where the PCs are literally a bunch of friends thrown together by blind chance, then disparate PCs who don’t necessarily fit sensibly together might support the concept; conversely, if they are an established cell of a secret society, or the leaders of an organised band of mercenaries, or the masters of an enclave of magicians, or whatever then before gameplay begins they don’t just need to come up with a character – they also need to come up with the details of their specific group. This could just be flavour stuff (“So, how did you guys get together and start investigating paranormal mysteries?”), or it could involve actual game mechanics which determine group resources and characteristics. Reign is built around this concept, as was Ars Magica, the Song of Ice and Fire RPG had nice rules for House creation. I’m sure you can think of other examples. If you end up doing group generation after character generation, then it’ll rapidly highlight which characters don’t belong with the others, if you do it before character generation it’ll prompt the players to make characters that fit the group ethos, but more importantly than either of those considerations is the fact that a group creation process prompts the players to sit down and talk about what they expect the group to be like and what they expect it to do, and if you can get them doing that then that’s half the battle.

Again, if you tie in group generation to character generation thematically and mechanically, so that you can’t complete (or maybe even can’t begin) character generation without group generation, then a character generation session becomes much more attractive.

4: Don’t Feed Their Imagination Until You’re Ready To Harvest It 

Separately from the rest, limit the extent to which players can get ahead of themselves and dream up character concepts they get attached to by limiting the extent of the information you give out about the campaign concept. Go with system, broad themes, general focus of play (“It’s Vampire: the Requiem set during a historical period of tumultuous social change, with characters manipulating mortal politics in order to protect their positions of entrenched privilege from the ravages of the mob”), underscore the point that the fine details will be hammered out collectively as a group (“I’ve not yet firmly decided on which historical period and which city to go for, so I’ll want people’s input on that at the first session”), and handle the detailed nitty-gritty at a campaign planning session which can also include character gen – and go into it with some areas of flexibility yourself, so if the player group decide that it’d be more interesting to play such a game set against the backdrop of the French Revolution as opposed to the Bolshevik Revolution then you can compromise there and the players feel that there’s some give and take going on. The more specific you get with the details, the more specific a character concept the players can dream up before they sit down with everyone else – and the further down their particular rabbit hole they can go – whereas if you don’t actually have the campaign premise solid until the players are all together then you can get a consensus at that point and then people’s character concepts will grow out of that consensus.

5: Don’t Give Sneak Previews

On a related note, don’t get into extended discussions with players about the campaign before the campaign planning meetup, if you go for such a thing. One of the best ways to make sure people have differing expectations of your campaign is to tell people different things about it, and one of the best ways to do that is to let individual players interrogate you. Don’t put your players in the position of those blind fellows in that parable about the elephant where one of them is groping its trunk and one of it is patting its butt and so on; if you make sure you’re telling everyone the same stuff about the campaign, at least when they’re going into it, then you’re not going to have them coming in already on slightly differing pages.

Story Before, Story Now, and Blimey, If It Don’t Look Like Story After Tomorrer

I’m of the view that a lot of the work Ron Edwards and other theorists did at the Forge, back when that place had an active RPG theory discussion forum before Ron Edwards declared the theory complete and shut the board down (one of many things Ron has done over the years which convinces me that he’s a really terrible academic), had a net negative effect on RPG discourse. The biggest achievement of the Forge, I think, was to provide the networking opportunities, pooled resources, mutual encouragement and exchange of advice necessary to cultivate a new wave of small press and self-published RPGs, but that has everything to do with logistical and commercial know-how and nothing to do with the RPG theory ideas they popularised.

Whilst some Forge ideas are useful in a very few contexts (usually when talking about the failures of Forge theory, but occasionally for other purposes), equally a lot of it is quite jargon-heavy – and worse, it’s a jargon which is primarily engineered by someone (Ron) who makes it quite clear that there are some types of gaming experience he specifically wants to promote and be partisan towards, whilst there are other (commercially successful, critically successful, and enduringly popular) models of gaming he is actively and overtly hostile towards. This terminology obfuscates a lot of Forge rhetoric, and in addition if you buy into the terminology too much it becomes difficult to impossible to even talk about certain kinds of game.

If you’re using Forge talk to talk about Forgey games, then it sort of works because the designers of said games tended to refer directly to those ideas whilst designing them; you can easily find the Creative Agenda because the designers made damn sure to include it prominently, for instance, In other cases, when discussing games designed by people with an entirely different outlook, using Forge jargon at best it feels like discussing Buddhism using exclusively definitions and terminology from Catholic doctrine (the jargon doesn’t even relate to the material in question), or trying to discuss which variety of socialism is better whilst exclusively using definitions from anti-Communist literature (the jargon is actively hostile to even contemplating the sort of ideas you’re trying to express). This is a shortcoming when you want a terminology to talk about RPGs in general, but I suppose it’s a boon if you want to encourage the development of a particular type of game which isn’t well-served by major publishers (due, in part, to the necessity to go for a big tent approach when you get past a certain scale).

One of the few bits of Forge jargon I think is sometimes useful to use in other contexts is the whole Story Before, Story Now, and Story After deal. For those of you who aren’t aware of it, this is a way of looking at how a roleplaying game offers the experience of a “story”, which is something a lot of people in the hobby say they want but equally is something a lot of people disagree about when it comes to actually defining what it is or how to achieve it.  Roughly defined, these terms mean the following (note that this is not a chapter-and-verse quotation of Ron’s definitions, which evolve regularly as he updates some parts of his theories and disowns over parts, but a rough summary of the terms as they are most commonly used):

  • Story Before play is exemplified most obviously by prewritten modules and more or less all the refereeing advice White Wolf has ever written: the referee devises a prewritten plot before play commences (whether they do it for the entire campaign in advance, or immediately before each session). Here, storytelling is an exercise in planning out a plot arc for the campaign to follow.
  • Story Now play uses overt system methods to drag the process of telling stories into the context of the session itself. People have raging arguments about what this means because they often are working from different definitions of “story”. For example, if you define “story” the way Ron does, it’s “Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself”, then game mechanics which hardwire in a premise and steer the process of play towards presenting, heightening and resolving it are Story Now mechanics. (Dogs In the Vineyard was a good example of this, though I confess I sold my copy ages ago so I may be misremembering.) If you don’t agree with Ron’s definition of story, of course, the same Story Now techniques which tickle his pickle will set your teeth on edge and make your palms itch. Games gunning for Story Now generally try to minimise the distinction between “telling a story” and “playing the game” as they humanly can.
  • Story After play looks at story in retrospect. There’s no pre-planned plot from the referee, and there are no game mechanics to hardwire in a particular type of narrative. The game session is a series of things that happen; in retrospect, after the session, you can see about piecing together a story by looking at the events of the session in retrospect and identifying a narrative in that. (Note that if your definition of “story” is “a series of things that happen, told in order”, then there’s literally no difference between Story Now and Story After – they’re only two distinct types if you have a particular narrative theory about what a story is that is different or more narrow than “sequence of events”.)
  • Since the easiest way to understand the concept is as denoting when the bulk of the work of story construction happens, you could propose a fourth type of play: Story Never. This would be almost indistinguishable from Story After, except the effort to construct a story based on what happened in the game never actually happens: the RPG is approached not as an engine for creating stories but as a simulation for exploring worlds, and the stuff that happens in a session is, like the events of real life, just a bunch of stuff that happens rather than part of a cohesive story. Ron never talked about Story Never, mostly because he was working on the basis that nobody would ever dream of playing an RPG without thinking about story.

Continue reading “Story Before, Story Now, and Blimey, If It Don’t Look Like Story After Tomorrer”

Referee’s Bookshelf: Nightmares of Mine

This book was originally published by ICE ostensibly as a supplement for the Rolemaster Standard System – perhaps the most complex iteration of Rolemaster due to its aspirations towards shifting from being a fantasy-based game to becoming a generic system (an experiment which arguably was reflected in the development of D20/D&D 3rd Edition). In retrospect this is a bit of a shame, because aside from having the Rolemaster trade dress applied to it it’s actually an almost completely generic product, with a tiny, miniscule smidgen of Rolemaster system stuff pitched in terms which could be easily translated to other systems.

What Nightmares of Mine actually boils down to is an expansive book-length essay by Ken Hite (with contributions – I suspect the Rolemaster system stuff – by John Curtis) on horror RPGs. Over the course of the book, Hite breaks down horror as a genre to see what makes it tick, considers how horror RPGs differ from those of other genres, and provides extensive advice on running both horror-oriented games and the occasional scary scenario in an otherwise less fright-focused campaign.

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I Love You, Elfstar, But Don’t Forget You’re Debbie Too

So I had another “comment that turned into a blog post” situation, this time in relation to a stream of thoughts in response to Dan’s point on my previous one.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the one recurring feature of genuinely “bad” GMing is indifference to player engagement.


The Vampire GM who only cares about their lovingly detailed plot is neither better nor worse than the OSR DM who cares only about their painstakingly documented dungeon, or the 4th ed DM who cares only about their perfectly planned encounter balance, or the Dogs in the Vineyard GM who cares only about their oh-so-challenging moral dilemma.

I think Dan is mostly correct here – at least, for definitions of “bad GMing” which mean “at least one person ceased to have fun, and it was down to refereeing practices which don’t involve blatant OOC favouritism or hostility or other behaviours which would be flat-out inappropriate regardless of the context”.

Certainly, I’ve witnessed a vast amount of bad RPG experiences that resulted from one or more participants in a game caring more about the game than they did about one or more of the other participants, and it isn’t even limited to tabletop GMing – players do this too. Consider:

  • Tyrant GMs remorselessly ploughing through with their predetermined vision for the campaign (whether that vision involves presenting an open-ended sandbox or a ramrod-linear plot or anything in between) regardless of whether their concept is tanking with the players.
  • Players making constant demands of a referee because they’ve decided that their particular ideas about the local LARP campaign is more important than the head GM having something resembling free time.
  • Entire factions in big LARPs being screwed over because the referees made a decision based on “what’s best for The Game” without considering whether the decision was disproportionately ruinous for any particular set of players.
  • Tables full of participants who do not give one shit about the other folk in the room because they’re there for the game and not the people.
  • A player feeling unwelcome in a campaign because another player latched onto something and wouldn’t let it go IC, and it’s started to dominate things OOC.
  • Hell, Dan and I were in one campaign which was dealt a fatal blow because a player decided they’d rather be true to their character concept than give the OOC convenience and patience of the rest of us due credence.

I’ve been on both sides of those situations and it’s never fun. It’s also such an easy pitfall to get into. You’re the referee – you’ve got to give a lot of importance to the game, right? And if you’re in an ongoing thing rather than a one-off mess-around, then you’re presumably invested enough in what’s going on to take the game seriously, right? So it’s just a little slippy-slope down from there to saying “I know Player 2 really dislikes this but I have to go through with it for the good of the game”, or indeed ceasing to see the other participants as people to interact with and starting seeing them as tools for enabling the game, and as soon as you catch yourself thinking that way you’ve got to get that bucket of ice water and immerse your head in it real deep until the bad thoughts go away.

People constantly get the wrong end of the stick about this stuff and think that being responsive to player desires and requirements and needs translates to being a doormat who gives the whiniest player big wooshy magic items that unbalance the game for everyone else because Player Whiny whined enough and that sort of thing. At the same time, there are complications. I do think bad GMing can sometimes result because people want to take player engagement and living up to the promises you made the players about a campaign seriously but aren’t sure what to do when it becomes clear that they players they’ve got aren’t enjoying the campaign as they envisioned. A referee in such a position might say “I can’t change tracks now, I promised these guys a sandbox campaign and I’m obligated to deliver on that”, and yeah, maybe we can say that the referee in question needs to get their adult on and just talk to their players and work their way through it, but on the other hand maybe the referee in question knows their players better than us and realises that if they open up the possibility of changing the campaign’s focus or style it’ll cause a shitstorm and a shouting match that’s best avoided; I can equally see a situation where a referee would like to change the focus of a game to help one participant enjoy it, but another participant says “Listen, you promised me X and you’re delivering it just fine and if you compromise because of Player 2’s snivelling I’m walking”.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” comes to mind. Saying “I am this sort of referee, I deliver this sort of experience” – or, indeed, “I am this sort of player, I require this sort of experience” – not only limits your gaming opportunities, it also limits the directions your campaigns can go in compared to if you say “Well, the campaign is going to mostly go like this, but since we all like a bit of that from time to time I’m happy to throw that in too to change the pace a bit if it feels like that’s what’s called for.” Or, indeed, saying “OK, clearly this sandbox direction is causing issues, how about I give your characters some more linear missions for a couple of sessions and we see whether that refreshes things”, or even “hey, why don’t we just play videogames or watch a movie since we’re clearly not into this to the extent I was hoping we’d be”.

Tangential thought: I think a major weakness of big-scale LARPs – or even smaller-scale freeforms once you get past ten participants – is that they more or less demand that the referees and organisers prioritise “the game” above the needs of individual participants. You can reach accommodations and agreements between the members of a small group much more easily, you can’t enter into individualised negotiations with every single person who attends a fest LARP, and you sooner or later find yourself faced with a situation where you can royally screw a tenth of the player base if you jump one way but slightly-less-severely piss off three-quarters of the players if you jump the other way. I know some of my biggest GMing mistakes have been in that context and it’s kind of why a) I don’t miss running such things and b) when I attend such things I tend to look to making my own fun in such a way that doesn’t heavily invest in aspects of the setting the GMs might nerf or rebuild later on.

Second tangent: I wonder whether games that get a visceral love/hate response from the gaming community do so at least in part because they give the impression of only caring about their lovely plots/dungeons/encounters/moral dilemmas? Certainly, a weakness of the 4E Dungeons & Dragons materials I’ve seen (the original core books – I didn’t stick around for Essentials) is that they certainly give the impression that painstakingly balanced encounters are the important thing, and the rest of the game is essentially set dressing there to provide a context for said encounters. On the other hand, are there many examples of games which succeed at implying a “big tent” that can accommodate a range of play styles with their core books? I’d suggest the 2nd edition AD&D core does a good job there but that may be my affection for that system showing. D&D Next actually seems to be going in this direction with the recent announcement of the different optional rules components they’re developing – there’s going to be a character optimisation-focused one, and a tactical combat-focused one, and one which covers domain management and all sorts of other activities that had previously been abstracted away in downtime, and even one for adding in storygamey narrative-sharing mechanics. If the core D&D Next stuff can really support such a broad range of add-ons I’d be genuinely interested in dipping into it.

There Is More Than One Agency, There Are Many Interactions

More or less everyone in RPG discourse – in which I include blogs, forums, podcasts, and other mediums where people waffle about the process of playing RPGs – agrees that different people want different things. Most of us also under-estimate how difficult it is to actually understand want other people want when what they’re after is highly incompatible with what you desire.

This has come up to a certain extent in my discussions with Dan on some recent posts concerning White Wolf’s recent output. It’s become quite apparent that part of the reason White Wolf’s decisions about how they design their games and arrange their books are so bizarre to me is that the White Wolf staff look for entirely alien things in their gaming products compared to what I look for. (I’d say “the White Wolf staff and their customers look for entirely alien things” there, but I’m not sure whether White Wolf have that many customers these days beyond a small rump purchasing stuff from the Kickstarters or via their print-on-demand division – it makes little business sense to disappear from game shop shelves and switch to an all-POD model unless you’ve decided you don’t want to cater to anyone who isn’t already a confirmed fan of your work.) To a certain extent I think they are still making mistakes – I believe Dan when he posits what White Wolf’s agenda might be since he’s always paid more attention to their output than I have, but I still think that what they present in their books doesn’t actually serve that agenda especially well.

What’s inspired this post, however, is Dan’s recent thoughts on the Quantum Ogre.

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Is a Referee Responsible For the Environment They Game In?

I’m an adult, and I like the company of other adults; this being the case, everyone I game with is a grown-up and so far as I’m aware few of them have especially prudish attitudes to sex. Consequently, characters in games I participate in have been known to have sexual encounters – indeed, some PCs made this their main goal in life – and we don’t get all bothered and embarrassed when the subject comes up.

That said, we tend not to go for – how shall I put this? – blow-by-blow descriptions of what goes down. More or less every time sex comes up in a game we decide by mutual consent to draw a veil over proceedings once they hit a certain stage.

Over on The Tao of D&D I recently got into a comment altercation with Alexis Smolensk, who had made a post which seemed to be calling for radically more  overt and explicit exploration of sex in Dungeons & Dragons than a lot of people are used to. Actually, as is so often the case with this sort of blow-up, I don’t think we were disagreeing as much as we’d thought when it came to explicitness – or rather, we still disagree, but our disagreement is different and more complicated than the disagreement I first thought we had.

Alexis has, to be fair, said he’s fine with drawing a veil at a certain point and argues that the short account he caps off the original post with wasn’t really that explicit because he used lots of allusions to stuff happening rather than overtly saying “he places his penis in her vagina” or something like that, and that after the fighter presses the pirate captain down to the sand they might just be making sand castles at that point. This is technically accurate but, I would argue, kind of weasel-wording it. Yes, words mean things, but context means things too, and given all the description in the scene up to that point it’d be irrational for any listener who wasn’t entirely clueless to conclude that something was going on which involved less sandcastles and more body-to-body action.

Continue reading “Is a Referee Responsible For the Environment They Game In?”