#RPGaDAY 2017: Days 16-20

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Another five days have gone by, so another five answers are due for RPGBrigade’s RPGaDAY 2017, a wonderful opportunity for those of us in the tabletop RPG hobby to discuss the things about this particular subgenre of gaming that we love so much. We’re in the thick of things now, so let’s get to it, although feel free to check out last week’s set of answers too.

August 16th: Which RPG do you enjoy using as is?

As it turns out, I don’t run a lot of games “as is”. Part of that is that I’m a game designer, and as a result I like to tweak and fiddle and bolt on my own parts to games that I run. I also tend to like a particular style of play, a theater of the mind over a sort of granular timekeeping. As a result, I’ve thrown out a lot of the more tactical elements of games I play, like Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars.

As a result, games I like as is tend to be games that are very small, games where the design is so focused that I don’t want to meddle with the few moving parts. So, I’ll turn to the first of two microgames built by Grant Howitt that will be mentioned in this post (the second being Doctor Magnethands, below): Honey Heist.

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That picture above is the entirety of the rules of Honey Heist (which are available here), and a good portion of it is just random generators for GM aid. Honey Heist is a pretty dumb game where characters only have two stats: BEAR and CRIMINAL. You play a team of bears trying to overcome the fact that you are bears to perform an elaborate, Ocean’s Eleven style theft of a massive stockpile of honey.

The thing about Honey Heist is that it’s so simple, but all of the moving pieces contribute to this wacky, nonsense game of bears trying to do sneaky, high-precision thief stuff, despite being, you know, big lumbering bears. It’s instantly learnable, the rules are both funny and intuitive, and there’s no need to monkey around with the rules. In fact, I usually only play with a single houserule: whenever your bear’s hat is knocked off, everyone in the scene is instantly aware that you are a bear. I mostly include that houserule because it has fantastic implications about what everyone thinks when you are wearing a hat.

Small games tend to have few moving parts, but those parts can be so tightly focused as to do a lot of the heavy lifting in making a game come alive. Thus, when playing a small game like Honey Heist, I don’t know that I’d change much at all.

August 17th: Which RPG have you owned the longest but not played?

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I think I’ve owned Hero System for about…probably seven years now? I’ve leafed through it, but honestly I’ve never actually given it a full read-through.

The reason why this book has been collecting dust on my shelf is multi-layered. First, and perhaps most damning, is the fact that I kind of don’t like the superhero genre that much. Don’t get me wrong, I go see the year’s big Marvel movie in theaters every year, and certainly enjoy the genre as a whole, but it never really grabbed on to me in sort of the viral way that fantasy or sci-fi does, where it just inspires me to build and create and tell stories.

My favorite superhero movies are all pretty solid evidence of this. Were you to put a gun to my head and force me to list my favorite superhero movies/series, well for one thing, you’re a crazy person, but this would probably be my list.

  • Captain America: Winter Soldier
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Spider-Man Homecoming
  • Big Hero 6
  • One Punch Man

There’s a trend in that list, and it’s that everything I named isn’t necessarily just a superhero movie, but rather a take on the superhero genre, or the superhero movie blended with another type of movie. Winter Soldier is as much a spy thriller as a superhero movie, and the same could be said of Guardians and space opera. Spider-Man Homecoming could be described pretty accurately as “if John Hughes directed a superhero movie” and Big Hero 6 is “what if Pixar did a superhero movie (again)”. One Punch Man is a satire on the entire shonen and superhero genre, flipped onto its head. If I extended this list, probably everything I’d list would continue to be twists on superheroes: Watchmen, Mystery Men, The League of Extraordinary GentlemenUnbreakableKick-AssHellboy. All distinctly weird.

Not that Hero System can’t handle that. I feel comfortable saying that Hero is flexible enough to handle any of these without having read it due to A) the reputation the game has within the RPG community, and B) the fact that it’s the size of a fucking calculus textbook.

Therein lies the second reason I have yet to crack into Hero: it’s a goddamn enormous, and it sets out to provide a degree of granularity which makes any sort of superhero or superhero story possible, but it does so by being as crunchy as gravel. So, maybe I’ll run Hero someday, but until that day, I think I’ll stick with my usual superhero game of choice, Wild Talents.

August 18th: Which RPG have you played the most in your life?

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My Fantasy Flight Star Wars group is the longest-running tabletop group I’ve ever had, now just past the year and a half mark, and thus, Fantasy Flight Star Wars is the game I have played the most. I know, I’m a young whippersnapper.

I think this answer also echoes the way I play games of any sort in general. I’m antsy, I like to jump around quite a bit. I have some friends who go deep into the video games they love, playing them an ungodly sum, be it Mount and BladeLeague of LegendsEternal, or DOTA 2. While these friends have a four-digit amount of hours in these games, my most played game is probably Team Fortress 2, and summing all my hours across platforms together gets you probably in the ballpark of 300 hours, and that took 12 years to do.

Rather, I like to play a large variety of games, frequently switching my interests from wildly disparate games. Just this summer alone, I bounced from the fast-paced gameplay of Overwatch to the slower exploration of Prey to the tightly-paced narrative of The Last of Us to the confounding nonsense of Deadly Premonition, all while sprinkling in a bit of Rocket League along the way. I just don’t stick to one game for very long.

This goes for tabletop RPGs as well. Since starting this Star Wars group, I’ve frequently overridden my own plans for Star Wars games to run other things, from playtests of my own games to Colonial Gothic to Cypher System. My brain is just constantly generating ideas, and unfortunately I lack the willpower to resist them forever, so while I’ve played a lot of games, I probably haven’t played them very long.

August 19th: Which RPG features the best writing?

Doctor Magnethands, bar none.

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Doctor Magnethands is “a stupid game for drunk people” that’s available for free on the internet, because you can’t put a price on idiocy. In it, players play a rag tag party of possibly heroes but probably nonsense who are out to save the world from Doctor Magnethands, a mad scientist with horseshoe magnets for hands who speaks with, and this is a direct quote, “a sort of bad Dutch accent”.

While only two pages long, Doctor Magnethands is written in this amazingly personality-filled tone that feels like the writer is telling you these rules as you sit across from each other at a house party, probably while someone’s crappy trap mixtape is playing. Take this excerpt, for example, which describes how you use torn up bits of paper that people wrote on to describe your character:

“Draw four each. One of them is your identity, unless you didn’t draw an identity, in which case you should make one up. (In one game a woman played Downton Abbey for the whole thing; we had to set entire scenes inside her. I think she managed to have an affair with a priest at one point) These four pieces of paper build your character. Look at the stupid shit written on them. How are you going to use these? Is that name an alter-ego, an enemy, or an ally? Do you want another drink? Yeah. Yeah you do. Get me one as well.”

Doctor Magnethands is one of the few games I wouldn’t mind just forcing the players to read, because it is so goddamn funny to read that just doing so is a treat unto itself. Personally, my favorite bit is the last line, in the Special Thanks section, in which is written a single word: “Wine”.

August 20th: What is the best source for out-of-print RPGs?

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If you don’t live in an area where used bookstore Half Price Books has taken root, and you love tabletop RPGs, I feel bad for you. A chain of stores specializing in secondhand merchandise, from books and comics to movies, CDs, and even vinyl, Half Price Books is a fantastic place to find obscure, out-of-print, and just sort of odd books.

Since the stock of Half Price Books is majority used, it means that whenever groups give up playing certain games, upgrade editions, or (gasp) end up giving up the hobby, Half Price Books is usually pretty lucrative as a place to find old tabletop games. If you’re particularly observant, you can also use it as a metric to measure what games are popular around you. Whenever I visit locations in Austin, for example, I can usually find a lot more GURPS material (understandable, Steve Jackson Games is based in Austin) and TSR-era Dungeons and Dragons. Dallas, meanwhile, tends to have a lot of modern-era Dungeons and Dragons, as well as a lot of Warhammer rulebooks.

As the name implies, Half Price Books usually sells used books for massive discounts, making it a fantastic place to find older tabletop materials. My entire collection of 2E and 3.5 rulebooks, as well as most of my Shadowrun books, some of my Star Wars and Pathfinder books, and a variety of smaller systems, some of which I’d never heard of, were all finds from Half Price Books, for pretty reasonable prices!

I’m lucky to live in Texas, as it is the main hub state for Half Price Books, but if anyone is in an area that has a location, and you love books of really any sort, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s especially good if you just wander in and look around with an open mind, trying to find something cool you’d never heard of. You can also shop their online store, which compiles all of their locations’ inventories together and offers them at reasonable prices.

Sorting My Library (and, An Accidental Review of Ninefox Gambit)

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I own, just, a fuckton of books. It’s been a bad habit of mine since a young age, one which has basically only become worse as my childhood allowance became the tips from my college bartending gig, which has since become the big boy paychecks of my corporate programming job. I simply own too many books, even after multiple boxloads have been taken to Half Price Books (which, for the unaware, is a godsend of a store for bibliophiles in the American South).

So, with this in mind recently, and thoughts of moving in the near future in my head as well, I decided to do something about it, and in the process, really spend some time thinking about the way that books exist in my life.

With this goal in mind, I have decided to enact what I’ve decided tentatively to call The Purge. The goals of The Purge are simple: read more books, trim down my collection of books, and to build an increased pool of inspiration from which to pull while making games.

So, the terms of The Purge are these three rules:

1. To purchase a new book, I must first read 5 books

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F’in’ A, time for more “person reading” stock photos

The first rule of The Purge, and the key foundation upon which this whole system works, is that I must immediately limit the amount of books coming into my home, such that they do not outpace the amount of books that I’m reading and, hypothetically, selling and getting out.

Five is a semi-arbitrary number. Reading five books should, I think, take me about a month, and if I had to guess, I’ll probably get rid of two in five (more about that later), meaning that my collection will shrink over time with this rule in place.

The other nice thing about this rule is that it directly pairs my book purchasing rate with my book reading rate. I get to keep buying a ton of books, so long as I’m also reading a ton of books, and that makes sense.

2. If I can’t finish a book in one go, it is immediately sold

I have quite a few books on my shelf that I started and just stopped at some point, for some reason, perhaps because I lost motivation, perhaps because some new shiny distracted me, or what have you. No more. That represents lost productivity and time, because you know if and when I go back, I’ll have forgotten everything and have to restart from square one. For the purposes of working through my backlog, and in the interest of keeping my desire for new books satiated through rule 1, this cannot happen.

So, harsh as it may sound, if I’ve started a book and just, for one reason or another, cannot finish it without starting another book in the meanwhile, that book gets added to the sell pile. It should be noted that I can take pauses from reading a single book, but the second I pick up another book instead, that first book is done. This rule is designed to be flexible enough for life: sometimes I might just not want to read, or I’ll have something else I’d rather do, and that’s not the book’s fault. However, if I do get in a reading mood, and I end up reading something else, well, that is the book’s fault, and away it goes.

3. After finishing a book, I must genuinely consider whether or I want to keep it

I am neither of the opinion that holding on to a read book is useless, nor of the opinion that I should hold on to every book I read. Rather, I consider a shelf full of books a sort of trophy case. When looking at a book on the shelf, merely reading the spine is frequently enough to evoke memories of the story, of the characters, of the cool ideas contained therein.

I work in a naturally creative field, one which encourages pulling from as many sources as possible to create novel ideas. Books are profoundly useful towards this goal, as each can encapsulate so many ideas, making them ripe for the creative plunder. Having a bookshelf full of books serves as a fantastic reminder of all of these ideas, allowing me to quickly recall the ideas worth using or reworking in each book.

So, once I finish a book, I have to consider what purpose it has on my shelf. Is it full of ideas I find inspiring? If so, keep it. Is it just, generally, a useful resource (such as a book of mathematics, programming, or algorithms)? Then, yeah, that stays too.

There’s a metric that has maybe been meaningfully absent in this measure of whether a book stays or not, and that’s if the book is good.

This is to cover two cases that would be detrimental to my cultivation of a good, useful bookshelf. The first is the case of a book that is definitely good, but doesn’t really do anything for me. This is the way I feel about The Chronicles of Narnia series: it’s good, seminal even, but the world it portrays and the characters and the ideas all sort of just bounce off of me. I’m not likely to be pulling from Narnia anytime soon, but if I decided to keep good books, it would sit on my shelf pointlessly, instead of potentially making its way to someone who’d genuinely appreciate it on a greater level than I do.

The second case is equally detrimental, and it’s the case of a book that I didn’t quite enjoy, but contains interesting ideas that I might want to pull from. I have a much more recent example of this, the book I just finished, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit.

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Ninefox Gambit is about as ambitious as sci-fi gets. The world is set up as unmistakably alien, as the fundamental forces of mathematics and physics are not constant, but instead, can be manipulated through what are called “calendars”: strict regimens upon which this entire society is based. For certain sci-fi technologies to work, certain calendrical effects must be enforced, meaning people must follow certain rules, perform certain rituals, even celebrate on certain days and, controversially, torture sacrifices in certain ways.

It’s an astonishingly interesting idea, one which plays with the idea of reality itself being formed as a matter of consensus, not just the perception of it. It’s a sci-fi portrayal of the concept that the fundamental structures of society can affect the people who live in it, and of the friction that occurs when people of differing lifestyles interact. For the hexarchate in Ninefox Gambit, when a heresy breaks out in the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a key border outpost of the empire, a declaration of war is not merely an act of xenophobia, it is a necessity, as the defensive systems on board the station will literally not work unless cultural norms are reestablished.

While this world is, ultimately, fascinating, Lee absolutely makes no attempt to try and give readers a frame of reference, a commonality with which to understand these things. Instead, Lee just charges forth, hoping that you’ll be able to use context clues to piece together very loose language into a cohesive understanding of the world, and sometimes, it’s simply very easy to completely lose grasp of what’s happening. I had to reread pivotal scenes of the book, scenes I could tell were supposed to be extremely meaningful moments, simply because I didn’t understand what was happening.

Despite all of this, Ninefox Gambit will have a place on my bookshelf for the forseeable future. The gusto with which it abandons the familiar in favor of creating a truly alien world, the way it uses this far-flung sci-fi to discuss very real, human ideas, and the sheer imaginativeness of the characters, technologies, and societies of the book are the equivalent of a creative barrel of gasoline, fuel that I can burn to power new ideas for years to come.

This sense, that creative fire, is what I hope to cultivate in my bookshelves through this Purge. By the time I’m “done” with this (which, of course, is a fool’s errand, but I will march forward as best I can), I hope to have shelves of books that no longer taunt me with how few of my books I’ve actually read, but rather that spark inspiration within me on days where I have none. I want to have shelves of books burgeoning with memories and ideas and creativity, to serve as a monument to the creative field as a whole.

Those books that I relinquish, meanwhile, will make their way to a used bookstore, where maybe they will wait, until a bibliophile of different tastes than mine shall discover them and read them and be inspired by them, for while everyone is, in my opinion, an engine capable of great creativity, to continue the metaphor, each engine just runs on different fuel.

 

 

The Ur-Game

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I’ve noticed a trend among people in the tabletop RPG scene to describe all games as though they derive from Dungeons and Dragons. New games are described in the ways they alter the Dungeons and Dragons formula, and decidedly non-Dungeons and Dragons traits of games are considered oddities. For example, a member of my gaming group, who basically has only played D&D, looked confused when I explained that the new system we would be playing tonight required you to roll below a target number, instead of above, before finally remarking “Oh, it’s one of those games”.

Yes, Dungeons and Dragons was the first known tabletop role-playing game, and thus, in a historical sense, calling D&D the source of all games is right. However, much in the same way most modern movies don’t look much like The Story of the Kelly Gang, the first feature-length movie, plenty of modern RPGs don’t look much like Dungeons and Dragons. There are dice and skills and classes, the same way most movies have shots and cuts and soundtracks, but they manifest in extremely different ways. Like any other designer or director, the creators of these projects made decisions to fit to their vision, but since they were the first, some of these decisions have been codified as “fact”.

There is an ur-game, though, one which sits at the center of all role-playing game design. In fact, here are the rules, printed in all their glory:

The Ur-Game

Whenever a character performs a task that they have a reasonable chance of failing at, flip a coin. Heads, they succeed. Tails, they fail.

That’s it. That’s the game.

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That’s nine rules fewer than God gave to Moses, and seven rules fewer than Fight Club.

All role-playing games can have their design carved away until they reach this essential, core game. Every action, no matter who’s doing it or what it is, fifty-fifty. Every game simply exists as a series of layers of complexity placed over this basic game.

It can be hard to recognize, but that’s really all it is. Layer after layer of mechanics are added to this game, and after a certain point, they start modifying each other, instead of just that core game, until the final product is almost unidentifiable from the original game.

The first, and most core, modifications most games make to the Ur-Game is to play with that probability curve. Maybe you don’t want characters to succeed half of the time. No problem. Just make it so that the result that indicates “success” comes up the amount you want. Obviously, a single coin isn’t really going to provide that much probabilistic flexibility, so switch to a die, and denote a number of spaces on the die “success” such that the probability is to your liking. Want a 12.5% success rate? That’s…oddly specific, but switch the coin to a d8, and say the character only succeeds upon rolling an 8.

If no die can achieve the precise probability you’re looking for, then you’ll probably want multiple dice instead. Multiple dice also grant you an uneven probability curve, unlike that provided by a single die. Of course, that only counts if you’re adding the die results together. If you’re treating them each as an individual success or failure, the whole thing gets flipped on its head, even though it doesn’t: each of those dice is still a single instance of the Ur-Game, you’re just making players play several games of it concurrently.

Do you see how this spirals rapidly into complexity? I bet there’s a way to control this spiral, by making a series of single, thought-out alterations to the Ur-Game, just like a sculptor making an intricate sculpture by making single, thought-out strikes to a block of marble. Take the Ur-Game, then make a single change, a thoughtful change. Turn the coin into a different random number generator. Make it multiple coins. Whatever. Keep doing that, keep making single changes, until you’ve created that sculpture.

Why am I recommending this? After all, it doesn’t seem like to amazing a revelation, hardly something to shout from the hills. But too often, amateur RPG designers start by taking a mechanic they already know and like and making modifications on it until it resembles a mechanic they want, but this is like trying to carve an old sculpture into a new one: you’re going to end up destroying some integral parts on accident, tacking on new parts where there were never intended to be any, and you’ll never be able to shake the resemblance to your origin point.

By starting with a blank canvas, a single block of marble, the Ur-Game, you’re starting at square one, and instead of finding yourself trapped by the limitations of another mechanic that you are modifying, you’ll be free to explore the entire possibility space of your design instead, using other games as reference, not as your foundation.

 

Netflix-Style Game Development

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Now, when I say “Netflix-style” in the title, I’m not referring to the idea of having people pay a subscription to access infinitely a library of games until the time comes where they stop paying their subscription, because that idea is bad. Instead, what I’m postulating on is the idea of a game development strategy inspired by Netflix’s content production pipeline, although the translation isn’t exactly 1-to-1.

So, we’re mainly focusing on the concept of Netflix Originals, which is the name given to projects that are produced, or co-produced, by Netflix. These projects have basically nothing to do with each other, except when they do, such as in the case of the interconnected Marvel/Netflix collaborations like Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Vaguely inspired by this format, I present the Netflix-Style Development Strategy for Video Games, which you can tell is important, because it’s capitalized. It’s meant for a medium-sized development team, of probably at least 12 team members, with a fairly even distribution of specialties.

The first part of the Strategy is what I would call the Preparatory Stage. During this time, team members pitch the concepts for games they want to make, perhaps in the form of a game jam to produce prototypes, much as how Double Fine has done in the past. From these projects, the entire team selects a number of projects that they A) feel passionate about, and B) feel are similar gameplay-wise to the other selected project. Obviously, this judgement process might be a bit laborious, but it’s important that the projects selected share a good number of mechanical characteristics. These projects together compose what is called a Season.

With a Season selected, the Prep Stage ends and a new part of the Strategy, called the Group Stage, begins. Here, the entire team is working together, basically developing code, art, and design that all of the games can share. Programmers are developing general code for movement, inventory, menus, etc. that all of the games can share, as well as code for any mechanics the games share (here’s where the Season being cohesive comes into play. The more commonalities in the games’ mechanics, the more work can be done by the entire team during the Group Stage). Artists and sound designers make general assets that all of the games can use (crates, doors, GUI, grunts, whatever).

Once all of the common assets are developed, and all the work that remains would be specific only to a subset of the games in the Season, the Group Stage ends. Everyone who pitched a game selected for the Season becomes the new project lead on their game. They then create a small team out of whatever roles they cannot fill, and these teams divide, marking the start of the Cluster Stage.

During the Cluster Stage, there are a lot of small teams working on their own separate projects, building upon the general-use code and assets developed during the Group Stage to fit the needs of their own game. Maybe the RPG team is working out their leveling-up mechanics, while the shoot-em-up team is working on bullet behavior. The teams don’t break communication, however: optimizations and improvements made to the common code and assets get redistributed out to every team, and team members are free to ask for help and input from one another, and are in fact encouraged to do so. Ideally, the Clusters are still all working in the same space.

The games of the Season don’t release at the same time. The smallest project of the Season gets released first, at which point the team members from that project disperse out into the other projects. This continues until the entire team is finishing up the last game of the Season. Once that’s out, the Clusters are formally disbanded and the process starts anew.

Obviously, my experience with formal game development is limited as a student, but this is more of a thought experiment than a legitimate suggestion. As far as I can see, here are the positives and negatives of this design strategy:

PRO: Everyone gets a chance to be Creative Director

Everyone can pitch an idea or make a game during a jam during the Preparation Stage, meaning anyone has a chance to have their game be selected and produced.

PRO: Highly efficient

This is obvious. Anything that could be shared is, and no work is repeated amongst the Clusters. Furthermore, a nice, dense release schedule of games is ensured by staggering releases. Small teams making small games get to finish fast and release fast, while bigger games get slowly bigger teams, and get longer development time.

CON: Big teams can be suffocated by bad scheduling

If smaller teams take longer than they expected to release their smaller projects (which will almost certainly happen), the teams making bigger teams will have to carry their much larger workload on their few shoulders for longer, desperately waiting for new team members to come help shoulder the burden.

PRO: Big teams speed through heavy lifting, small teams work on passion projects

During the Group Phase, the entire team can combine their knowledge to hammer out the more generic and boring parts of the game, freeing individuals in the Cluster Phase to work on the things that they are interested in.

CON: Games come out samey

Since all of the games in a Season share assets and code, they’ll all probably be extremely reminiscent of each other

PRO: You’re releasing an anthology, not an epic

This is just a rethinking of the previous con: your team is instead working on smaller, related projects, giving them the chance to do some experimental stuff without using the entire organization’s resources on it.

PRO: Speed up acclimation of late arrivals to teams

When a game ships, the team members disperse out into the remaining Clusters. However, they don’t need to acclimate as much as a completely new team member would: they saw the game when it was pitched, they worked on a lot of the shared assets, and they watched and helped out with a lot of development previously, so getting up to speed is much quicker.

 

 

I don’t intend for this to be the last post about this idea. As I think about this strategy, and work on more game development teams, I want to refine this (probably crap) idea using my experience into one that might be one day actionable in my own indie studio.

What Can We Learn From The First Chapter of RPGs? Part 2

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What you don’t realize is that this Lizardman Warrior is so scary because he’s armed with knowledge.

So, in the previous edition of this series, I discussed how the first chapters of assorted fantasy roleplaying games introduced players to the games’ mechanics. Specifically, I talked about how the various editions of Dungeons and Dragons performed this feat, and how the differences in these first chapters mirror the differences in editions.

Well, there are more fantasy tabletop RPGs out there than just D&D, so a thorough analysis should also include those games which Wizards doesn’t make (or those who adopted Wizards’s rules, in the case of Pathfinder).

Same rules as last time, but here’s a quick refresher:

  1. I only looked at fantasy RPGs, and crunchier ones at that. My game is a rules-medium fantasy game, so I figured that was where I should look to see my inspiration. That means yes to looking at Dungeons and Dragons, no to looking at Dungeon World.
  2. I’m specifically looking at how mechanics are introduced. Explaining the concept of a role-playing game is pretty constant across games, and introducing setting is dependent on how much setting a game has to introduce. All games have mechanics to teach, though, and each game could differ significantly in how much of their mechanics they teach, so this is what I’m interested in.
  3. As a result of Rule #2, the “first chapter” doesn’t necessarily mean the very first chapter in the book. To avoid going “Yeah, this first chapter is just setting, so there’s no mechanics”, the “first” chapter of every book is the first chapter that includes any game mechanics.

Earthdawn, Second Edition

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Hey guys, there’s a…there’s a dragon…THERE’S A DRAGON LIKE, RIGHT THERE

A criminally underrated RPG, Earthdawn is equal parts Dungeons and DragonsFallout, and Foundation. In the world of Earthdawn, there was a great apocalypse of demons which destroyed the world. Prior to this, a particularly forward-thinking empire called the Theran Empire got its power trading protection from this armageddon, specifically in the form of vault-like kaers: giant underground cities. Now that the Scourge is over and people are free to walk the scarred earth once more, tensions arise due to the Theran Empire’s power.

Earthdawn begins its first chapter by describing the rolling of dice, and specifically the idea that, if a die rolls its highest value, you get to reroll it and add that to the total (a concept frequently called “exploding” dice). Once that’s out of the way, the game describes why you’d want higher sums: in this game, you’re going to be rolling skill checks with dice to beat a Difficulty Number. Just as your dice can explode, you can also have critical failures, which spell bad news.

Once Earthdawn has this bare basic structure of a dice roll down, it describes what flavors these skill checks come in: you can roll against a DN, roll against a DN and have the degree of your success come into play, or just roll and try and get as high as you can.

With this information, Earthdawn then lays on the final element of complexity into its dice rolling system: Steps. Basically, all attributes, skills, and talents are measured in the form of Steps. Whenever you want to roll for that attribute, skill, or talent, you see what Step you are, then compare that to a table which describes what dice you roll. This gives the system the benefit of being able to require fairly complicated dice pools (such as 1d20+1d10+1d8+1d4 for Step 25) without cluttering the character sheet or requiring clunky conversions. Also conveniently noted is the fact that the number of a Step is always the average of the associated dice roll.

The opening chapter then goes on to describe, in brief detail, the assorted attributes of the characters, but by this point, you already have the fundamental mechanic of the game down pat. Earthdawn does a really nice job of building complexity upon the most simple expression of its rules (“roll a die”) until it has cemented understanding of the whole thing in your mind.

A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying

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“And for my first decree, I demand the comfiest pillow in all the land, because the seat of this chair is made of pointy swords.”

I am only a bit familiar with the Song of Ice and Fire series, but I have picked up enough through cultural osmosis to know what’s going on: it’s basically just the War of the Roses period of medieval history with a layer of dragon-colored paint. Heavy focus on interpersonal relationships and politics. Got it.

The intro chapter to SIFRP begins, again, simply: you’re gonna be rolling dice and adding the results together. Sometimes you’ll get bonus dice to roll, and you get to choose the best dice to add to your result. Sometimes you’ll get a modifier, which just adds right to your result, no roll needed! Lovely.

The book then goes on to describe how to perform the most basic skill test. It divides the procedure up into steps, then describes each step, and provides a moment-by-moment example of how it works in action.Once we have this example learned, it teaches a few variants: sometimes you’ll have to do multiple tests in a row for the same thing, sometimes you and someone else are going to make tests alongside other people, and sometimes you’re going to be making tests against other people. This covers basically every significant deviation from the norm.

The system then goes on to describe other edge cases: getting help, taking longer to succeed at a task, how failure works, how to to determine difficulty numbers and whoa, ah, fuck, where’d this character creation come from?

The book just jumps right into some character Archetypes, before we’ve even gotten into detail about what the characters are made out of. The book just says “Here, take one of these, I made ’em special!”. However, for the chapter based around introducing new players to the game, I hate this idea. Character creation is the ultimate moment of expression for the game, and is maybe the most important part of any tabletop RPG. Don’t just encourage players to fasttrack. Also, on just an organizational note, this infinitely more belongs in the Character Creation chapter immediately following the intro.

Dungeon Crawl Classics

dcc
“OK, for starters, why did you even think this would work?”

Dungeon Crawl Classics is a masterpiece of old school-style roleplaying. Designed to harken back to the glory days of AD&D, where adventurers were made to delve into dungeons and kill stuff, DCC manages to simultaneously feel familiar to those well versed in OSR-style gaming, while also innovating in new and interesting ways. My favorite feature of DCC is character creation: instead of rolling up a level 1 adventurer per character, every player rolls up several level 0 characters who go through an adventure called The Funnel. Those who survive are elligable to be played as player characters.

Befitting of the Old School Revival, where games have minimal rules to give game masters greater control over how a game is played, DCC’s introduction “chapter” is a single page.

In fact, in perhaps the most refined version of the Dungeons and Dragons opening chapter yet, this page only really has one single section to teach mechanics: The Core Mechanic. In essentially two paragraphs, the book details the concept of rolling a d20, adding and subtracting modifiers, and trying to beat a difficulty number. It also introduces the idea of Armor Class, as well as the idea that maybe you’ll roll a different die other than a d20, in a surgically efficient number of words.

The other 2/3 of the words on the page is dedicated to an interesting segment: a section describing how DCC is different from other games the reader might have played before. We’ve seen games use this first chapter used as a way to teach brand new RPG players, as well as a repository for system vets, but this idea of the “you’ve played RPGs, but not this RPG” is a relatively novel one. Specifically, this section targets people who have played various editions of Dungeons and Dragons, pinpointing the exact ways in which DCC differes from the assorted iterations of D&D.

With this sort of introduction, those who have played D&D in some respect (read: basically anyone who’s ever rolled a d20) are given a mental comparison point, meaning instead of teaching someone a whole new game from scratch, DCC goes “Remember D&D? With these exceptions, everything you learned there translates here”, and the entire process of teaching is replaced with the much easier process of remembering. If you’re brand new, DCC only teaches you the single, base mechanic, allowing the rest of the book to expand upon it naturally.

The One Ring RPG

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Pictured: a horrible forest full of monsters, or maybe a photograph of Arkansas

While the original Dungeons and Dragons was heavily inspired by, but not directly related to, Lord of the RingsThe One Ring is a liscensed LOTR game, designed to explicitly recreate the type of stories in Tolkien’s books. We’ve got Hobbits and Gondor and pipeweed and everything, with no need to cleverly dodge copyright.

The first chapter of The One Ring spends a lot of time on story before eventually beginning to explain the game. However, instead of leading with a mechanic, the book starts off by explaining the flow of storytelling, specifically the two phases of the game: the Adventuring Phase, which is where most of the normal RPG things happen, and the Fellowship Phase, which represents characters taking a breather and seeing the results of their action.The game’s first real description of gameplay doesn’t describe dice rolling, it describes the passing of “storytelling initiative”: basically the story stick that gets passed around, giving you the power to control the story.

The first chapter describes its dice mechanics, which is pretty par for the course, but before that it does something pretty interesting: it has a detailed breakdown of the character sheet. Instead of anchoring player’s experiences on the core mechanic, it instead anchors them on the character sheet.

This is the interesting thing about The One Ring, is that it’s truly trying to capture the spirit of the Lord of the Rings books, not just in the mechanics, but in the very way the player thinks. By writing the first chapter in such a way as to force the player to think about the game as a story, and to consider their characters as the origin point for the entire game, The One Ring takes steps to ensure that its adventures are seen as stories, not dungeon crawls.

With this, we can see the sheer variety of ways you ca introduce people to a set of relatively similar games. The very mundane and unimportant-seeming decision of what order to introduce ideas in can greatly affect a player’s understanding of a game, both in the way they comprehend the rules, and the way that they percieve the purpose of the game.

 

 

Dice: A Tale of Triumph and Despair in A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Edge-of-the-empire-picture
“Look, all I’m saying is, I’ve never seen Yoda and Darth Vader in the same room, that’s all.”

Currently, I’m having quite a bit of fun running a campaign of Fantasy Flight Games’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game for my college buddies. After getting an itch to create my own stories in the Star Wars universe, and finding that itch unsatisfied with games like Knights of the Old Republic, I did some investigation into what tabletop games have been made for the iconic franchise. The answer turns out to be quite interesting: one per trilogy, approximately.

During the time of the original trilogy, West End Games put out Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. A fun and fairly simple d6 system, this game actually used an evolved version of the mechanics from West End’s Ghostbusters game. About six trillion supplement books came out for this game, and it’s good fun. It’s not too simple, not too complicated, and a lot of people still consider it their go-to Star Wars system.

With the prequel trilogy came a need for a new game company to produce the roleplaying game, as West End Games went bankrupt a year prior to The Phantom Menace. The late 90s and early 2000s were a relative dark age for roleplaying games, with the indie revolution not yet able to begin, and the golden era of Gygaxian roleplaying long dead. Thus, with only large publishers to turn to, the Star Wars license went to Wizards of the Coast.

Star Wars d20, and its subsequent rework as Star Wars Saga Edition, are basically reskins of Dungeons and Dragons into Star Destroyers and Sarlaccs. The d20 mechanics of D&D are basically unchanged, and new classes were developed for the new setting. D20 tends to be the least popular of the three Star Wars games, as it has a hard time offering interesting class features to distinguish any class from any other class, and on top of that, Force users are stupidly broken compared to anything else.

Now, with the new trilogy beginning, the license for Star Wars has gone to a relatively new juggernaut in the world of tabletop gaming, Fantasy Flight Games. FFG’s main foray into tabletop roleplaying prior to this was in creating the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop RPGs, so they’d had experience working on large sci-fi universes with established canon. Star Wars is the king of that category, however, so Fantasy Flight had a lot to live up to. Could they match the fun of West End’s d6 system while creating a more comprehensive set of rules? Could they fix the balance issues of WOTC’s d20 system without gimping the Force users into oblivion?

swf24_12309_monsterslaying_timothybenzweifel-5
Oh hell yes

Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game is thoroughly, in my opinion, a masterpiece of a game, not just among Star Wars games, but in the entire roleplaying genre. The entire game just oozes Star Wars, and manages to be complex in every way it needs to be, while remaining fast and fun.

The first, and most immediately noticeable, piece of genius in this game is the fact that it’s divided into three core rulebooks. However, unlike other, more Dungeon-y and Dragon-y games, where all three rulebooks are required to play, each of these three core rulebooks in Star Wars contains all of the rules needed to play and game master. Instead of segmenting rules, the Star Wars RPG rulebooks segment themes. The first book, Edge of the Empire, covers games featuring smugglers, bounty hunters, and other criminal types in the Outer Rim. The second book, Age of Rebellion, covers adventures of Rebellion heroes fighting the evil Empire. The final book, Force and Destiny, covers how to play an adventure focusing on Force users.

By creating this distinction, Fantasy Flight lets you only pick up the books relevant to the stories you want to tell, while still having a full game available. Every aspect of Star Wars is given equal, deep coverage, and the division of books also gives you a nice way to frame your game in such a way as to avoid things irrelevant to your story taking the spotlight. Don’t want Jedi and Sith to be the strongest characters in your game? Don’t play Force and Destiny. Force users are still available in Edge and Age, but the lesser amount of coverage they get means they won’t become the de facto hogs of the spotlight, at least not without some work.

The next biggest aspect of Fantasy Flight Games’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game is easily the one that interests me the most, and that’s these babies:

DiceFan
“Luke, these were your father’s polyhedrons. Yes, your father was pretty lame.”

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game uses custom dice, which initially led to skepticism about them being a cheap cash-grab, but having used them, these dice are a masterpiece of design. You’ll notice that these dice don’t have numbers, but symbols. When you roll these dice, you total the symbols, and infer the results from their meaning.

Success and Failure symbols cancel each other out, and as long as you have one uncancelled Success at the end of a roll, you succeed at doing the thing you’re doing. Advantage and Threat symbols also cancel each other out, with a surplus of Advantage signifying that things are going your way, while a surplus of Threat indicates that things are starting to go down the crapper. Triumph and Despair symbols represent moments of incredible success and dire failure, but interestingly, this pair does not cancel each other out.

It’s a lot to learn at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s extremely simple. Knowing which dice to roll becomes extremely easy to figure out after a session of doing it (which the Beginner Games make silky smooth), and having results in the form of these symbols instead of a flat number or sum means that skill check results exist on a spectrum. You can succeed, but badly if you have uncancelled Successes but a surplus of Threat (ex. You can successfully blast an enemy droid, doing damage, but doing so disables his combat inhibitor and increases his deadliness). Similarly, you can fail, but still fail in such a way that’s beneficial with a surplus of Advantage (ex. You miss your shot against the Imperial Jailer, but the shot rebounds and instead breaks the lock on your buddy’s cell). Add the dimension of Triumph and Despair to this, and it’s extremely hard to roll the dice and have nothing happen. Which is good, because nothing happening is an extremely boring game.

Imagine all the times you played a roleplaying game and the GM said “Roll a Perception check”, or “Roll a Sense Motive check”. You roll the dice and he goes “Oh. You notice nothing.” That is so ungodly boring. All you gained from that interaction is a bit of metagame knowledge (there’s something to perceive here, or a motive to sense, I just need to figure out what it is) with nothing gained in the story. Imagine instead if you could still fail that check, but still grow the story in interesting ways. “You notice nothing about the boss you’re talking to, but one of his cronies is really antsy, and keeps eyeing the nearest escape”. Isn’t that more interesting?

This is the key to Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and the way it solves one of the hardest problems of roleplaying game design: keeping the game interesting. If your party always succeeds every check, there’s never any risk or tension, but you don’t want to nerf a party that’s obeying the rules. If your party fumbles every check, they can’t move ahead in the story, but you don’t want to give them victories they haven’t earned. With these custom dice, Star Wars ensures that even parties on a losing streak can push forward in their goals ever so slightly, and parties that win all the time still aren’t free from danger.

A story of nothing but success or nothing but failure is a boring story. The best storytellers know that engaging stories are made of struggles, and Fantasy Flight created this system of “Yes, but…” and “No, but…” to ensure that every action the players take has the potential to be more interesting than simple flat success and failure, and thus ensure that the game’s core mechanics naturally generate struggles and a constant stream of successes, failures, and most importantly, twists.

 

What Can We Learn From The First Chapter of RPGs? Part One

tarrasque
You know what’s scarier than a Tarrasque? Ignorance.

One of the most challenging parts of writing a tabletop RPG is, in my opinion, writing the opening chapter. Meant to be an introduction to the game, this chapter needs to:

  • Explain the concept of a role-playing game to someone new to the hobby (as well as basic concepts like game mastery and dice notation)
  • Set up the general mood and setting for the game
  • Explain in very brief terms the core mechanics of the game
  • Usually, provide an example of play which is both representative of real gameplay and shows some game mechanics in action

This is a lot for a single chapter to do, especially when you consider these chapters are usually no more than a couple of pages. These pages are one of the first things a new player is going to look at, though, and they’re going to expect this chapter to introduce them to the game. First impressions are everything, after all, so designers need to make this one count.

The trouble I was having was figuring out exactly what mechanics to introduce in this opening chapter. Do I just discuss the core dice mechanic? Do I introduce systems which heavily influence this dice mechanic (for instance, the Strain system in Blackmarked)? Do I talk about character attributes? Do I discuss specific ones, or just the fact that attributes exist?

As a bit of homework, I decided it would be interesting to look at other tabletop RPGs, and see how they handle this first chapter and the introduction of their mechanics. I set up some simple rules:

  1. I only looked at fantasy RPGs, and crunchier ones at that. My game is a rules-medium fantasy game, so I figured that was where I should look to see my inspiration. That means yes to looking at Dungeons and Dragons, no to looking at Dungeon World.
  2. I’m specifically looking at how mechanics are introduced. Explaining the concept of a role-playing game is pretty constant across games, and introducing setting is dependent on how much setting a game has to introduce. All games have mechanics to teach, though, and each game could differ significantly in how much of their mechanics they teach, so this is what I’m interested in.
  3. As a result of Rule #2, the “first chapter” doesn’t necessarily mean the very first chapter in the book. To avoid going “Yeah, this first chapter is just setting, so there’s no mechanics”, the “first” chapter of every book is the first chapter that includes any game mechanics.

Without further ado, let’s begin the analysis. This post is going to focus on Dungeons and Dragons, and the following one will cover games that aren’t Dungeons and Dragons, because I said so.

Dungeons and Dragons, 3.5th Edition

dnd3.5
Fuck you Krusk, I’m King of Tall Skinny Moutain!

Let’s begin with the grandmaster of fantasy tabletop RPGs, and with the oldest edition I have: good ol’ three-five. This was my first RPG system, and thus holds a special place in my heart.

The introduction chapter of D&D 3.5 begins with the mechanics by introducing The Core Mechanic, as it calls it. This mechanic is three simple parts:

  1. Roll a twenty-sided die
  2. Add relevant modifiers to the result
  3. Compare this result to a target number to determine success or failure

This is the core mechanic upon which all other mechanics in the game are established, so the game lays the foundation to teach all of this here. It then goes on to teach what specifically those “modifiers” are, mainly Attribute and Skill modifiers, thus introducing the main elements of every D&D character. It goes on to cover some obvious edge cases (mainly what happens if you don’t have any Skill ranks for a Skill check).

Once that all is introduced, it adds another layer of complexity by discussing attack rolls, which are Skill checks with an added wrinkle in the form of Armor Class, which forms your target number. Another element of your character is introduced, and another layer of complexity is added to this Core Mechanic: the idea of the target number.

As long as the book is talking about combat, it quickly touches on some other concepts of combat. Time is measured in rounds which are the units of time which the whole game uses, and in each round there are three different kinds of actions you can make: standard, full, and move. It doesn’t explain what these are per se, but it does explain what configuration of these actions you can make in a single turn.

Alright, that’s quite a bit of information to pack into a single chapter, and it’s all in just a few pages. Players are equipped with the main mechanic, as well as the most common cases in which that mechanic manifests. Now, players have a foundation upon which they can learn all of the weird, specific sorts of dice rolls they are going to have to make.

Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition

dnd4
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition: Y’all Like World of Warcraft, right?

Fourth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is…let’s say…controversial. Many people believe this system plays like a tabletop miniatures game instead of a roleplaying game, eschewing any roleplaying elements, focusing almost exclusively on combat.

This is immediately obvious from the first chapter. The first bit of mechanics that Fourth Edition teaches the player is that there is a clear distinction between combat and non-combat encounters. That’s pretty telling. Narrative encounters are described simply as the absence of combat.

Once this distinction is out of the way, there’s a quick example of play. Interestingly, though, this example doesn’t actually describe the details of the mechanics at all. It just sort of vaguely hints at the existence of things called skill checks, and that occasionally you’ll have to make these checks in an opposed fashion. Cool.

How do you make checks? Easy, The Core Mechanic. Again, the main mechanic of D&D is taught in the form of these three easy steps, but instead of leading with it, it’s the last thing explained in the first chapter, meaning you now have to think back to what you just read and imagine how this Core Mechanic was being used behind the scenes in that example of play. Writing this chapter this way forces you to actively think about how the mechanics are being abstracted for your convenience, and in fact, ends up being an inconvenience.

Dungeons and Dragons, 5th Edition

dnd5
“Zap zap, motherfucker!”

A return to form and an apology for Fourth Edition, Fifth Edition tries to balance the beginner-friendliness of Fourth Edition with the fiddly and all-encompassing rules of 3.5. The resulting game seems like it’s striking a chord with a lot of people.

The first chapter of the Fifth Edition marries the first chapter of its father and grandfather. It’s brief and simple, yet constructed in such a way that it forms the basis for learning the rest of the system.

Fifth Edition begins by offering the briefest example of play yet, basically doing nothing but describing the dynamic of “Dungeon Master describes, Players react”.  This honestly means this example of play isn’t explaining mechanics at all, it’s really a part of the “What is a Role-Playing Game” section.

Once that’s done, whoa, crazy, it’s the Core Mechanic, presented at the start of the mechanics once more, where it belongs. Now we know what all of the game mechanics are based on: a twenty sided die, some modifiers, and a target number.

All of a sudden, a new element is presented: advantage and disadvantage. These ideas are simple and presented simply. If you have advantage, you get to roll twice and take the highest. If you have disadvantage, you have to roll twice and take the lowest.

Alright, so what I don’t like about this intro compared to 3.5 is that 3.5 used mechanics as a way to begin to describe what characters in this game are composed of. Players who read 3.5’s first chapter know that they need to start thinking about Attributes, Skills, and Armor Class. Players of Fifth Edition just know that they’re going to have to make d20 rolls, and that they are going to need to somehow get good modifiers and advantage.

Think about this, though: Fifth Edition isn’t trying to teach you what a character’s made out of, because it’s targeting Dungeons and Dragons veterans. Part of being an apology letter to veteran players is treating them like old friends, and that means not explaining to them stuff they already know. Let them jump into the knitty-gritty of the system as soon as they can. New players are given just enough to introduce them to the system. They maybe don’t get as much leading them into the system as they do in 3.5, but they aren’t getting confused.

Pathfinder

pathfinder
“These skeletons technically can’t be copyrighted, so we just resurrected them! Good as new!:

When Fourth Edition came out, a lot of people missed 3.5’s way of just having a bunch of crunchy rules for everything. Since RPG rules can’t be copyrighted, the good people at Paizo took 3.5 and just…made more of it. This en-more-ening of 3.5 came to be known as Pathfinder.

Pathfinder‘s first chapter just oozes with this philosophy. The first thing it begins with is a massive glossary of basically every major game term, explained in brief, but still fairly descriptive terms. Everything from Armor Class to Experience to Rounds to Skill Checks get covered here, and anyone new to the game will get instantly confused.

Once this section ends, there’s a quick overview of how character creation works, which provides some context for some of the concepts explained in glossary, creating a solid mental category of “character stuff” that your brain can shove some of those terms you just learned into.

Paizo also decided to abandon the Core Mechanic, instead opting for a general form version: dice rolls are going to be of the form XdY, plus or minus modifiers, and rolling higher is better. Higher in comparison to what? Who knows. Who cares. You’ve played D&D, you know how this works. This general form of the Core Mechanic does imply correctly that you’re going to be rolling all sorts of dice, but it obscures the fact that d20s are your main weapon here, which is indicative of the sort of game that Pathfinder is: a big swingy game full of epic heroes. Of course, you’ve played D&D, so you know that.

Pathfinder then goes on to explain what every ability score is, how to generate them, and the idea that you get bonus spells from abilities. Beginners are going to be even more overwhelmed by these concepts then they were before. Again, this game isn’t built for beginners.

Finally, we have an extremely in-depth example of play, covering how Skill checks work, initiative and initiative bonuses, Difficulty Class, saving throws, attack roll bonuses, types of damage, and Armor Class.

The key to understanding Pathfinder is that it came out when 3.5 players had transitioned to Fourth Edition. They read and learned this new system and decided they hated it. Pathfinder then came along and went “Hey, remember this system you love? We brought it back”. This first chapter isn’t meant to teach you the rules, it’s meant to remind you how things used to work, before Big Bad Fourth Edition came and ruined everything. By touching on so many concepts so fast, it hopes to jog your memory to the point where you can pick up where you left off.

Alright, so that’s how the Dungeons and Dragons games begin their games, and how the first chapter changed and adapted to suit the needs of the new edition. Now, in the next post in this blog, let’s see how the competition tried to set itself apart, or maybe top, the top dog.