Monthly Archives: June 2012

Good, Fast, Cheap Design Journal #3 – Information

Good, Fast, Cheap Design Journal #3 – Information

I love big, bold statements. One of the things I will respect most about a human being is her ability to stand up and say something controversial or bat-guano crazy with a straight face. I don’t even really need to agree with him. I find the pure willingness to risk reputation and harm for the sake of an ideal compelling. I also like to lead by example, so here’s my bold statement of the day.

Information-gathering checks (Perception, Gather Info, etc) are an obsolete RPG technology. Players should not have to entrust the gaining of information to randomization.

Let’s look at the general (and admittedly simplified) history of the Perception check. The earliest games suggested that the GM make information-gathering checks on the player’s behalf in secret. This was of course to ensure that the player had as little metagame knowledge as possible to judge the quality of the gained information. Sometimes, no information was given at all until it was too late. (“Yep, you totally missed that pit trap there. Take 10 damage.”)

As time progressed, this method came under fire for its mysteriousness. What if the GM decided you don’t get to roll? What if she rolled but ignored it because she didn’t like the result? With no other witnesses besides the GM, how could you determine he was playing fairly? Shouldn’t the player have the agency to make all her own rolls? Thus the age of transparent information checks began. You could see exactly how well you rolled on that Sleuthing check and compare it to a fair, predetermined target number.

Then of course, things like this happened and lo, the masses cried foul on ‘metagaming.’

“Failing forward” – a concept by where a failing skill check is deemed “yes, but..” instead of “no” further helped these problems. (“You failed your Streetwise? OK, you overheard the rumor but the people talking caught you eavesdropping and chased you out of the bar.”) Metagaming problem solved, transparency problem solved.. it’s all good, right?

The answer to that question depends largely on whom you ask. Isn’t the possibility of failing and not getting the information part of the fun and tension?

Well..   sort of..  but not really. It falls apart if you think about for a minute.

Say you’re at a locked door and you listen. If I say “you don’t hear anything” it’s sort of a let-down. There’s no fun behind this door. Sorry. “But wait!” you think, “what if there is something there and it’s just asleep or trying to be quiet? What if there’s free loot? We should open this door!” Suddenly the door is interesting again because of your expectations. You have manufactured possible information on your own, which then drives you to move forward.  The fact that you gained no information despite mechanical success provides no game fuel, but the assumptions and conjecture  – the information that you think you have – does propel forward motion.

It’s true that players with high expectations and wild imaginations might not have much trouble getting around the lack of information to find motive. However, I posit that most groups of players upon passing through a hallway of quiet doors won’t bother checking them. A thing in a game (barring stuff controlled by shared narration) needs to somehow signal its existence to be meaningful. Gleaned information is the primary and most basic type of signal.

The Apocalypse World engine – games that also include DungeonWorld, Monsterhearts and the like – recognize this. The “perception” check in those games always yields information. The question becomes a matter of how much information instead. It’s an important and substantial leap forward. Still, something about it bothers me. No matter where I sit at the table – as player, spectator or MC – I’m always sad when the player only gets to ask one question, because asking one question is never as fun for anyone as asking three questions. More information equals more fun.

There are other unadressed issues, such as the at-the-table practicality of relaying the results of an information check. One player passed, the other 3 failed. The GM tells the player that passed and then everyone else overhears, but has to pretend they don’t know. It’s awkward. Also, what happens when one person’s failure prompts another to call for a roll and it’s just a matter of time until someone gets it and the failure possibility is irrelevant anyway?

For “Good, Fast, Cheap” I’ve decided to do away with the whole thing. You want to know what’s behind the door? You want to know if the NPC is lying to you? You want to find the best escape route? Just ask. I put toys out for you to play with and there’s no point hiding them from you. I want you to play with them. Go on. Have fun.

BUT – and this is like a Sir Mix-A-Lot sized but – there is a twist since I still enjoy surprising and ambushing the PCs as much as any GM out there. The twist is this: you as the player can give me the ability to retcon.

I fricking love retcons. Why? As a GM, I’m sort of impulsive and prone to a lot of weird detail without necessarily knowing what I’m doing with it. Most of my best stuff comes the day AFTER the game when I get the chance to slow down and tie together all the loose ends I left lying around that the players didn’t touch. Retcons routinely save my bacon.

On a failure of “Good”, one of my options is to retcon something you thought you knew, thus effectively causing you to “fail” earlier “perception checks” (despite that no dice were rolled). Thing is, you decide where your dice land. If you don’t want me to retcon, place a Success in Good every time you can. It’s that simple. I can do some really dastardly and obnoxious things to you, but only when you give me permission.

An example to close out:

People are dying in this hospital at an abnormal rate. The only thing you could possibly find during your investigation to trace it back to is the Attending General Surgeon. He needs to step down. He’s getting stressed out and sloppy; bad calls are being made and it’s ending lives.  You confront him and make your case, rolling two successes and a failure. What’s important?

If you fail Fast, at least one more person will die while you’re talking – probably someone important.
If Cheap, you could lose the support of your colleagues (a Condition) or your own faith in medicine (an Asset)
If Good,  he steps down but only after telling you about the undiagnosed infection spreading through the wing (which you didn’t notice earlier, did you?? Might not be all his fault in the end.).  

What will it be, Scrub?


Want to get in on the next “Good, Fast, Cheap” playtest session? We’ve still got two seats open for Friday the 29th at 7PM EST. Come for the game, stay for the chat with Quinn, Ryven and friends at 9 PM EST afterward. Be there! 

Soundcrime #4: Bumps in the Night

Soundcrime #4: Bumps in the Night

Horror is about atmosphere more than any other genre. The right music can crawl under your skin, and it will unsettle your players more than your hushed whispers could achieve.

Some gamers prefer metal for their horror games, but I like something slow and subtle. Something that will stalk you and get you before you know it’s there. Not something that’s just going to pop out of the shadows for a cheap thrill.


Daniel Licht – “Intro Perk Walk”

Into the Haunted Mansion

Daniel Licht had big shoes to fill for the Silent Hill games, but this song from Silent Hill: Downpour shows he was up to the task. This song plays in the beginning of the game as the hero is leaving prison. The game implies he’s safer in prison as the song grows more sinister as he nears the nightmarish ghost town.

Ennio Morricone- “The Thing”

What’s down that dark hole?

Ennio is a master. I’ve always loved his score for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, but this track from The Thing proves scientists need to keep their poking and prodding to themselves. A steady beat of terror suits an investigation in the darkest corners of your game’s haunts.

Angelo Badalementi – “Bookhouse Boys”

The Spooky Speakeasy

David Lynch’s Twin Peaks is bizarre, and and Baldalementi’s score is a perfect, jazzy accompaniment. This song hints at mysteries just outside the character’s perceptions.

Sigur Ros – “Avalon”

Ancient Tongues

I try to avoid lyrics, but Sigur Ros gets a pass. They sing in a fictional language called “Hopelandic.” Their unusual music may not be terrifying or unnerving, but it does provide a haunting atmosphere.

Jocelyn Pool – “Masked Ball (1999 Extended Cut)”

The Cultists Chant

To be honest, I don’t always listen to a whole song when assembling these playlists. I skip around and try my best to get the feeling. Then I’ll listen to the playlist all the way through and tweak as I need to. But I can’t make it through this song at all. It is terrifying. You may recognize it from Eyes Wide Shut. The hymns on the track were played backward for extra nightmare fuel.

Bumps in the Night- A Horror Gaming Soundtrack

Recommended Games: DreadCall of Cthulhu, World of DarknessAll Flesh Must Be Eaten.

1. Daniel Licht – Intro Perk Walk
2.Christopher Young – The Suffering Begins
3. Danny Elfman – The Story…
4. Harry Gregson-Williams – Suicide Blonde
5. Danny Elfman – The Tree of Death
6. Ramin Djawadi – Addiction
7. Ramin Djawadi – Unwelcome Partner
8. Danny Elfman – Tales from the Crypt HBO Theme
9. Thomas Newman – To the Shock of Miss Louise
10. Alan Silvestri – First Grendel Attack
11. Akira Yamaoka – The Darkness That Lurks In Our Minds
12. Akira Tamaoka – Silent Heaven
13. John Carpenter – The Haunted House
14. John Carpenter – Better Check the Kids
15. Massive Attack – Butterfly Caught (Version Point Five)
16. Daniel Licht – Blood Theme 2010
17. Daniel Licht – Wink
18. Hans Zimmer – The Citrine Cross
19. Mogwai – I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead
20. Nine Inch Nails – Gone, Still
21. Nine Inch Nails – 22 Ghosts III
22. Daniel Licht – Don’t Go in the Basement
23. Jack Wall – The Thorian
24. Sam Hulick – A Very Dangerous Place
25. Sigur Ros – Sigur 6 (Untitled)
26. George Crumb – Black Angels: Devil Music
27. George Crump – Black Angels: Danse Macabre
28. Hans Zimmer – She Never Sleeps
29. Ennio Morricone – Main Theme from The Thing – Desolation
30. Angelo Baldelementi – Night Life in Twin Peaks
31. Angelo Baldelementi – The Bookhouse Boys
32. Mogwai – Scotland’s Shame
33. Christopher Young – Theme from Hellraiser
34. Jocelyn Pook – Masked Ball (1999 Extended Mix)
35. Jocelyn Pool – Flood
36. Petri Alanko – Mirror Peak
37. Petri Alanko – Bright Falls Light & Power
38. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – With the Flies
39. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – How Brittle the Bones
40. Sigur Ros – Valtari
41. Anton Coppola – The Brides
42. Anton Coppola – The Ring of Fire
43. Michael Giacchino – Cloverfield

Game Playtesting on G+: Introducing GAMEPLAY

Game Playtesting on G+: Introducing GAMEPLAY

I’ve launched GAMEPLAY on G+, so game designers and playtesters can get together and try new games, all online.  We make use of great technologies like G+ Hangouts and Tabletop Forge to create a welcoming digital group based on game design and game playing.  Obviously the Thoughtcrime group wants to playtest our games, but we also have a lot of other great games to playtest:


Jun 21, 2012 @ 7 PM
Designer: +Ryan Macklin Playtest run by: +Kit La Touche

Mythender is high-action adventure game where you play amazing, mythic heroes—called Mythenders—who go around the Mythic World and destroy its gods and monsters, because, hey, why not? It’s all about leaping off of mountains with your giant, flaming sword drawn and diving into a giant’s face. At least, it was a face before you showed up.

In this roleplaying game, most of you will take on the role of a Mythender, a single man, woman, or child pretty much turned into a force of destruction. One of you will play the Mythmaster, who takes on the role of the Mythic World and everyone in it: gods and monsters, powerless mortals, and even the land itself.

Horde of Corpses

June 24, 2012 @ 2PM
Designer: +Alex Mayo Playtest Run by: +Tim Rodriguez
Zombie Apocalypse story-based roleplaying. Fast but dramatic character creation and play.

Death by 1,000 Posts

June 26, 2012 @ 7PM
Designer: +Quinn Murphy Playtest run by: +Dev Purkayastha
You know how hard it is to keep a thread going in a forum on the internet without it devolving into a flamewar or get horribly derailed in pointless debate?  If you don’t, you’re about to find out. In this game you play a user on an internet forum trying to make a good post that leads to a good thread…unless you’re just trying to troll and bring the whole thread down.

Again, these are playtests of games in process, but the hope is to get people playing and thinking about games, and building a community through practice (playtesting and answering questions) instead of theory (merely talking about games) both are important and have a place in game design, but this is what I want to focus on.

You can join the group on G+ and look at June’s calendar.  We are always looking for new players and designers, so sign up to be on our list and we will connect you to some awesome games!

Questions for Game Designers: Ryan Macklin

Questions for Game Designers: Ryan Macklin

Never far away from a kick-ass gaming project, Ryan Macklin has been involved in the writing and/or editing of projects such as Don’t Rest Your Head (and soon, Don’t Hack this Game), Dresden Files RPG, Leverage, Technoir, & Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, and Hit A Dude. Ryan dispenses with the gaming goodness on his site, but he can also be made available to have his brain picked on twitter. He will also be at Gen Con, where he is an Industry Insider Guest of Honor.

He shared his thoughts with me a while ago, and I get to share the awesomeness with you.

When is a roleplaying game successful, from a perspective of play?

The easy-and-useless answer is “when it’s fun.” More to the point, it’s when that fun can be recounted in your mind as a story of risk, triumphs, pitfalls — the sorts of things that make for exciting narrative in our own minds.

So when the aftermath of a game fills our minds with all those points of tension and we want to retell that story to re-experience it, success!

What should an RPG do & how do you know you’ve done it?

The key element of an RPG is the ability to play with platforms & tilts, with persistence & consequence. It doesn’t matter if the game has one single system for resolving things of a bunch of subsystems, if the game supports the idea of a through-line.

Take D&D 4/e, which some like to claim (in a very hipster way) that it’s not a roleplaying game. When you’re in a battle, you have all these battle rules which can feel like a skirmish game without a necessary acting component. But because you have moments after battles where what happened in that battle effects an overall narrative — from small bragging moments like “man, did you see me kill that demon?” to consequences like “damn, that one kobold ran away” or “crap, our cleric’s dead” — you have persistence. You have story.

That doesn’t mean persistence makes for a good RPG, but it a necessary component to make something a RPG in the first place. Another component is space for human interpretation & retelling, but that’s another topic altogether.

When does an RPG fail (if ever) as a system? What are common problems as you see them?

When a system routinely produces uninteresting results, or is more cumbersome than its reward, then it fails. But you also get fail points when the game awkwardly constrains human interpretation.

A lot of early designer efforts I’ve seen make the system too light, trying to cover everything. And when they play it, it will because they’re putting implicit spins on the game during play that others won’t know to put in their games. Games that work only under certain circumstances based on a play style that fall apart when others handles them.

Also, most people can’t actually write their implicit elements into their texts. Which is why working with an editor who hasn’t played the game with you the whole time is key to a successful, accessible game text.

What is your favorite game you’ve designed? What lessons did you learn building it?

Though I’m not finished writing it, I am finished designing it: Mythender. I’m blogged quite a bit about learning lessons, but to sum them up, I’ve spend the last few years learning how to design a game around an explicitly tactile experience. I had this idea of tying the story of a grand battle at the table tied to that more primitive brain associated with tactile experience & basic visual accounting — the “he has more nuts than I do” sort.

I’m happy to say it works pretty well. But it took many iterations to make that work without breaking on its weight or making the heavy-die component — as it requires well over 100 d6s — into something that can be sidestepped or ignored, as that would push the experience from semi-tactile to fully-cerebral.

Man alive, that sounds so academic. I had to make a game where you might roll 40 dice not boring due to the handling time. And after having a hundred playtesters try it, looks like I did.

What is your favorite game that someone else designed? What do you like most about it? What one thing would you change (if any)?

For its system, the Apocalyse World engine. It’s elegant, works damned well with the implied setting elements — games about scarcity, low population, local-scale politics like you’d see in a Western, weird psychic stuff. The system is harsh & unforgiving, which honestly took me several plays to warm up to because it’s harsher than most games I play. But because the engine promotes qualified successes, hard choices, and compromise/concessions, the play experience nearly always feels like it’s at a point of tension.

What I’d change? The text. 🙂 It’s written for the hip, inside crowd. Luckily, you don’t need to read it to play, as the rules are on handouts that can be explained by the GM.

When is an idea/concept good enough to turn into an RPG? What makes something “gameable”?

When you have two or three ideas you can rub together to spark your imagination, you have an RPG seed. It doesn’t take much to have a concept. That could be a couple system ideas, or a couple setting ideas, whatever.

Making it gameable is another thing entirely. Lots of work, trial & error. That’s for both system & setting. People don’t talk enough about playtesting setting, but then huge parts of the gaming community fetishizes system the way that some car enthusiasts do engines.

Tell us about something great you’re working on.

I just got done writing notes on a potential game whose high concept is “Jewish Halfling Rokugan.” But I’m playing that one a bit close to the vest.

I’m also hoping to carve out more time to work on my book on convention GMing. I’m really excited about that. The pedagogy of this hobby is a passion of mine — in all aspects, not just design.

And then there’s Fate Core & Don’t Hack This Game, which are currently in my editing hands.

Good, Fast, Cheap Design Journal #2 – Pokemon

Good, Fast, Cheap Design Journal #2 – Pokemon


I’m doing things differently in designing “Good, Fast, Cheap” as opposed to other games I’ve tried to write before (none of which have ever actually seen the light of day). Usually, I’ve had some kind of hard and fast agenda or goal for the game. (“It needs to do X, Y, and Z in setting A with other parameters F, G, and H”). With “Good, Fast, Cheap” that’s not the case. I have an interesting play mechanic with a general “sacrifice and morality” theme but is has no definite destination. Instead, I’m trying to let the game write itself  – exercising the rules in various genres and styles to see where it naturally fits.

“Temptation’s Gate” is a fairly generic scenario with very little structure around it and it holds up well enough for a first release. Is that really where Good, Fast, Cheap belongs? Maybe, maybe not. I am much better at identifying what I don’t want rather than what I do want. It can be difficult for me to access my own desires directly. When faced with many options, I always rule out the ones I really dislike first and then think about why I don’t like them.  Thus the logical course of action for game design is to start wildly experimenting with things and eliminate paths as I go.

I’ve been on something of a Pokemon kick lately, courtesy of my friend Nateal (@HotPinkJoystick), so it seemed fitting to start the journey there.

Everything in Pokemon is simple. The characters have clear, uncomplicated motivations and don’t really change all that much. They don’t need much mechanical definition and Good, Fast, Cheap doesn’t really provide a ton either. Character generation took maybe 15 minutes and we were on our way.

Though there is a heavy dose of battling, not all the conflicts in the Pokemon world are combative. Many are explorative or social. Since “Good, Fast, Cheap” uses a single resolution system applicable to many types of situations and cares about cost over skill, we had no problems addressing all kinds of scenes. It handled beauty pageants, trainer battles and chase scenes fairly effectively (but not Super Effectively).  Anything from the anime or game I wanted to throw at the players, we could do.

In media res character advancement crystallized during one of our sessions. Casey (@thednddaddy) had a Rival named Larry who always punched him in the face. When Casey met Larry on the road and beat his Pokemon, Larry charged Casey but this time, Casey punched Larry in the face. We all immediately knew THAT is how characters should advance in this system; it was really a matter of defining how it works. In the newest revision, XP has been eliminated. Instead, when you make a roll you can bet one of your Hooks, erasing it from your character sheet. If you get a Major Success on Cheap, you may advance an Asset die (or Sphere die under certain circumstances) related to the Hook that was fulfilled. If you fail Cheap at all, one Asset is demoted a die step instead. Minor Successes of Cheap have no effect on advancement. This weights character advancement slightly toward instances of compromise or frustration (failures of Good) but not overwhelmingly so. It’s possible to learn just as much by being awesome as by being thwarted.

My vote for best scene of the game was the encounter with Team Rocket. James distracted Casey while Jessie picked his pocket (relieving him of his partner MissingBit*). Kait (@thedndmom) then called for her Wolpy (a Fakemon from DeviantArt) but Meowth got a hold of Wolpy’s Pokeball, retreated him and promptly tossed the ball to James who was hiding on a roof. Casey smacked Jessie with a rock, causing her to fall and get pinned by Casey’s Daramaku. Kait blinded James with her trademark flashlight who then fell off the roof and tried to escape but ended up getting turned around and running into Casey who remembered how awesome it was to punch a guy and so flattened James. James spilled Rare Candies into the street as he fell and Team Rocket got away while Casey and Kait retrieved their Pokeballs and phat lewt.

*MissingBit is the pre-evolved form of MissingNo which itself later evolves into MissingHex. You find them in buggy copies of Red Dead Redemption.

One thing that became abundantly clear over the last two sessions is that “Good, Fast, Cheap” doesn’t do well in ‘friendly’ environments. Gym battles are an excellent example of this. Generally nothing gets destroyed, there’s no outside interference and nothing huge is at stake for the challenger. It’s all about the tension of “will she or won’t she?” Though PC Pokemon were knocked out, the Gym battle scenarios were clumsy and not very interesting. The same goes for the beauty pageant. The narrow focus of the event made adjudicating the system awkward. Had the pageant been important to the relationship between Kait and her Rival, crucial to her Poke-hat business and maybe, I don’t know.. interrupted by Kyurem at some point I think it would have worked a lot better. Also, there was nothing chasing the PCs, no ominous presence with vile machinations in the background and no countdown to doom. The number of times I was given an Opportunity was vastly greater than the number of unique Opportunities I had sitting around. In short, the world surrounding the characters must be more hostile (or at least busier) for the mechanics to really work the way they’re supposed to.

“Good, Fast, Cheap” is very much a Black Box. Input parameters, stuff happens, results come out. It doesn’t really tell you the story of how you moved from input to output, however. For me, this is a feature. I get a big kick out of having to somehow puzzle together what happened and apply back-justifications. As a GM I know a lot of what is going to happen so these moments of murkiness are my gateway to surprise. That being said, it gives the game an odd pacing. It moves two or three steps forward, then reverses for a moment while you work out the resolution justification and then proceeds forward again. It’s a fun mental exercise but admittedly screws with narrative flow. The resolution mechanic requires too much input to be efficiently granular (like a hit-by-hit combat), but lacks story unless you string three or four resolutions together in short sequence. I think this is mostly a factor of scope and can be fixed with good scenario design but it’s at least something I’m thinking about. Ample Posturing (telegraphing or outright stating an impending Opportunity) may also play into this. I tend to ask my players to make decisions in terms of mechanics (Good, Fast or Cheap) rather than color. With good Posturing, the possible Opportunity is already shown in advance, and cuts down on ‘calculation’ time.

Time is also something of a problem. I’ve been aware for a while that some events need to occur outside of and without being triggered by what the characters do. The Time counter has done an adequate job of this. However, in the really interesting sequences Time moves abnormally fast and either I forget to track it or I don’t want to interrupt what’s going on with some other event. Because the game ‘camera’ is always focused on the PCs, I think pretty much everything is going to have to be mechanically triggered from PC decisions. Still, I want to create the illusion that it’s not.

Overall, “Good, Fast, Cheap” is a mediocre system for a Pokemon game. It works better when you can explain why everyone is acting all at once, but Pokemon’s general feeling of always utilizing one-on-one conflicts in conceptually small spaces just doesn’t fuel the system properly. Also, permanent loss is not a trope of the setting. The status quo is neatly preserved which runs antithetical to “Good, Fast, Cheap’s” aim of tough decisions and noble sacrifice.

Where should I go from here? I have some ideas of my own but would also like to hear your input. What kind of setting do you think this game should be played in? What kinds of settings do YOU want to play it in? (because, you know, I need playtesters and stuff) Email me at, hit me up on Twitter (@ryvencedrylle) or find me on Google+.  I eagerly await your thoughts!


(editor’s note: Ryven is running a playtest of this game on Jun 14th at 7:30 as part of the GAMEPLAY playtesting network on G+.  Check out the page and contact him or us to get in on it)

Three types of challenge: Creating things.

Three types of challenge: Creating things.

We’ve covered survival and desires for challenges you can experience.  The last one is the fine venerable art of…

Making s*** up.

Isn’t that what RPGs are all about? Yes and No. RPGs are games of the imagination; we visualize in our minds fictional worlds which we engage with.  But maybe the creation isn’t as deep as we think; we are often using our imaginations to draw up different tropes, borrowed bits of creativity from other places.  A bit from a character in this novel, a bit from a movie, etc. We aren’t usually in an RPG using our brains to do all the heavy lifting creatively.  We use rules and the aforementioned tropes to create a solid ground that we use our minds (and maybe some props) to see.

What I’m getting at:  Imagination is not the same as creativity. While the ability to visualize and sense things that do not currently exist is a key component used in creativity, not all imagination could be described as creative.

(Please don’t think my point is to rank the two.  Imagination and creativity are both vitally important to just about anything, and they both need places to exist in our hobby.)

My point is — actually, let’s do this .

Picture an elf.  What does he/she look like? What activity is the elf ready to engage in?

Now, picture a daizoowhoozle.  I don’t know what that is; you’re on your own. What does the daizoowhoozle look like?  What is it, even? How did it get in my blog post?

The elf came to mind faster, right?  The daizoowhoozle took work.  An elf is fictional but still “exists”. The daizoowhoozle takes work because it isn’t anything.  There ‘s a good chance to bring it into being in your mind, you might have borrowed from something else you already had in mind. But the elf you definitely borrowed from somewhere  else.  This borrowing is powerful and probably explains why there are so many fantasy games on the market.  The collective library of imagined creatures makes great reference and affords you the luxury of not having to explain yourself in detail all the time. You can explain the differences in your version of an established thing.  Nothing wrong with this –imagine if every RPG you read had to explain gravity!  That would get boring pretty fast.

So, challenges.

I can ask you to put your right to play a character on the line (survival), or I can challenge your character’s goals and needs in the fiction. I can also ask you to create something from whole cloth. This can be done in a meta-sense — what do you the player think happens at this part of the story? — or it can happen in fiction, where your character needs to make something.  A favorite challenge of this sort I like to use is to force a player-character into a situation where she must give a speech.  I let the character’s abilities contribute, but then the player needs to figure out at least part of a speech to provide as a character. Games can just ask players to directly contribute to the creation of content, which is another creative challenge that empowers players to be mini-GMs or even co-GMs.

It sounds all roses, but two major drawbacks manifest. One of the comforts of formal systems is their ability to generate a predictable system of consequences and feedback.  When you use them, you are given a pretty powerful tool to figure out how things should go.  This is the “physics” engine of your story.

When you ask PCs to create things out of thin air, you take away that safety net and risk two things: paralysis and exhaustion.

Paralysis comes because a person might not, if given a very open framework, not have anything to say.  It’s an artists’ maxim that constraints aid creativity, and it applies in RPGs as well.  A blank check sometimes equals a blank stare.

“Make something!”  is exciting to some people, but frightening to others. The former flies with the freedom, and the latter is going to need guidance from you to fully utilize their freedom.

Exhaustion can come to those energized and frightened in equal measure.  A more typical game has only a few moments of gonzo “what next” off-the-cuff craziness, bound on both sides by more structured play.  If you push that too much, eventually people experience “creative fatigue”, where the quality of their ideas or willingness to generate them starts to lag.

RPGs are traditionally built — I am aware of the exceptions, just hold on a moment — to peak and valley creatively.  The rules guide you to point A, describes the physics and fictions, then gives you some place to create within.  You can play many sessions nestled comfortably within the rules without the game asking you to do create anything from whole cloth.  Everything you do is an extension or reaction to game elements.

But at another extreme we’ve got something like Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.  I love Do. But Do is one of these games that RPG vets tend to scratch their head at.  The goal of Do’s  system is to provide a framework for you to write a story. As such, it takes away the challenges of desires and survival mechanically.  Your main challenge in this game is to narrate the challenges of desire and survival with the cues given by your Pilgrim “letter” and from the drawing of stones. It’s not a game where you roll dice to figure out if you can stab a dragon in the eye.

It is a lot of fun! But if you expect a game more centered around the first two challenges, you might be dissapointed.  Creative challenges aren’t regarded as a worthwhile challenge and I say boo to that;  It may not be the sort of challenge you like, but creating things with others in a more direct and less competitive sense can be very fulfilling.

Games like Fiasco provide their challenge 99% as creation.  There are no rules for facilitating other challenges.  Your mission is to make a story and guide it to  its conclusion. This is another game that can confound expectations, but is otherwise brilliant.

Creative challenges expand your game in amazing directions but require a lot of mental energy. Be careful how often you use them and what guidance you offer.

When you are thinking of creative challenges in your game, think of it in this way:  What elements of the fiction could you just let your players define?  How can players beat a problem by having their characters create something?  I’m probably going to touch on this in a larger sense soon, but in the meantime, let me know what successes/failures/confoundments you’ve had utilizing creative challenges in your games!




Good, Fast, Cheap Design Journal #1: DragonRaid

Good, Fast, Cheap Design Journal #1: DragonRaid

My primary blogging focus for this site is the “Good, Fast, Cheap” roleplaying game and documenting its development. This is the first journal entry in that series.

In order to understand a primary driving force behind “Good, Fast, Cheap” and why I try to design games at all, I need to introduce you to DragonRaid.

No, that’s not Dungeons and Dragons, or DragonStrike or even Dragon’s Gold.  It’s DragonRaid and I have an epic love-hate relationship with this game that would inspire bards to song if they only knew.

I’m willing to bet no more than one of you has ever heard of DragonRaid( I totally played that –ed. ). If you have, you are my type of guy or gal and I want to buy you a cookie. For the rest of you (who are still cool and likely cookie-worthy), here’s the basic premise:

DragonRaid was the first (and as far as I know only) tabletop RPG meant to teach Christian discipleship. Players take on the role of LightRaiders, journeying into the dangerous and deadly DragonLands to show the enslaved peoples (aptly named DragonSlaves) the light of the OverLord of Many Names. Once converted, the LightRaiders would lead the newly freed “TwiceBorn” back into the Liberated Lands and to safety. Along the way, the LightRaiders face deceit, temptation and outright violence at the hands of the Grand Dragon’s personal army of Dark Creatures.

(The game is totally late ‘80s/early ‘90s as evidenced by the DualCapitalized CompoundNames.)

This is the game that got me back into gaming after some years of absence, mostly because I was able to convince my mom that it was about Jesus and stuff. I tried to run the game for my circle of friends for both fun and evangelism, but it didn’t work too well. I accept some of the blame for that failure. I’ve never been a particularly good evangelist. Then again, this isn’t a particularly good game either.

In some ways, DragonRaid was ahead of its time. It attempted to employ some innovative mechanics with various degrees of success. First, it used non-standard, persona-based stats: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, Faithfulness and Self-Control. There were also Strength and Agility stats, but they weren’t nearly as meaningful. At a time when all the ‘secular’ games were still hellbent on measuring your intelligence, attractiveness and carrying capacity this was new and refreshing. The stats were even leveraged in what might be identified today as a sort of prototypical Compel system, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Second, it codified experience points for role-playing. Sure you’d get some experience for battling the demon but not nearly as much as if you convinced your friend to tell the truth in an awkward situation or refrained from stealing the obviously unguarded shiny object. Show a repentant enemy mercy? Have some points toward Love. Refute the troll’s blasphemy? Here’s a few experience into Faithfulness.

Finally, the “magic” system. Of course “magic” equals “witchcraft” so the LightRaiders didn’t actually do magic. However, they had WordRunes – little snippets and verses of Scripture they could quote from memory for supernatural benefit. Since the verse had to match the effect, you ended up with a “spell list” that was VERY different that what you’d get in D&D or Storyteller. Some of it was your standard “create food and water” and “find the right path stuff;” others were utterly unique. The Possibility WordRune summoned a mirror that, when gazed into, would show you and your friends some part of the Overlord’s life plan for you. The Sea of Faith TeamRune (some had to spoken by the whole group at once) calmed storms and waves. One of my favorites, if for no other reason than being really weird, was the Food Unbinding WordRune which cured someone of the desire to overeat. Point being, “magic” wasn’t Vancian – it was always available to all characters and that was amazing.

Turns out a lot of what I explained for Good also counts for Bad. The ‘compel’ mechanic I mentioned above was really awkward and ham-fisted. If one of your stats wasn’t high enough in a certain situation, you would automatically succumb to some temptation and your party would have to rescue you. (“Your Self-Control is only a 3, eh? Guess you’re downing that whole bottle of Friendship Juice!”) Then, because you did the bad thing, even though the game forced you to, you were docked experience points. You could usually make up for it by reciting WordRunes down the road (which also netted experience for you), but it felt really forced.

The WordRune system became bland quickly once you got past the first set of utility WordRunes. Most of them were “add two to a stat,” “reduce damage from this dragon’s breath by 5” or “reduce the power of this Dark Creature’s sin enchantment (don’t even ask) by three.” Also, your secondary skills like swimming, detecting evil and tracking enemies had weird equations (“2 Goodness + 1 Joy + 1 Love + 1 Self Control / 5”) so even though the battle math was gone, there was still a ton of non-combative math. Good ideas badly executed.

The morality decisions…. Lord, help me the morality decisions were TERRIBLE. “Cardboard” doesn’t begin to describe it. F’rinstance in the first module, a well-dressed goblin or something shows up in a cave and tries to distract you from your mission by offering you tickets to a private beach somewhere. If you take the tickets – game over! Later, you run into a giant who offers you alcohol (Friendship Juice) and you are IMMEDIATELY punished if you so much as TOUCH it. I personally don’t drink, but come on, really? No sense of moderation? ::sigh:: Others are just wildly obtuse. A squirrel drops pinecones on you and you get experience as long as you don’t attack the squirrel or complain. You run into a guy wandering the world who compliments you for seemingly being independent and making your own way. You have to explain that not only are you actually in service to the Overlord of Many names but you must also try to convince him that in being a ‘free man’ he is in fact slave to his own selfish desires and thus ultimately the evil Grand Dragon. I could never get my players on board with these scenes though now that I’m older I don’t feel so bad about it.

As a lesser point, rescuing the Dragon Slaves had a funky mechanic as well. You had to be able to recite five specific Bible verses correctly, with chapter and verse number, in order. That was it. No attention to the character’s motives or family or the repercussions of conversion..  nothing. I thought it would be that easy in real life. Turns out it’s not that easy at all. Thanks for nothing, DragonRaid.

DragonRaid showed me that a role-playing game could do more than entertain – it could teach. It provided a safe environment, allowing you to make decisions and try things you would normally never attempt.  RPGs could explore the nature of what is and what should be in a way that books could never do because books don’t respond to you. For as long as I’ve been gaming, I’ve looked back at DragonRaid with both fondness and consternation and thought ‘maybe someday I can fix it. I can make it live up to the potential buried within.’ Every half-finished game on my hard drive (now my Google Drive) has some small nod to DragonRaid; “Good, Fast, Cheap” is no exception.

Where DragonRaid ultimately failed for me was the lack of sacrifice. Martin Luther traced all vice back to idolatry; I trace all virtue back to self-sacrifice. When I choose to tell the truth in a hard situation, I sacrifice my chance to make a clean escape. When I’m faithful to my wife, I sacrifice the chance to enjoy other partners. When I refrain from stealing, I sacrifice an opportunity to get ahead in life or enjoy some luxury I didn’t earn. DragonRaid never really asked the LightRaiders to sacrifice. “Good, Fast, Cheap” does.  While the game is religiously and spiritually agnostic, I want the constant stream of judgement calls – what is important and what can be sacrificed – to be the core play experience.

Who knows? Maybe when this is all done, I can show it to the folks over at Adventure Learning System, Inc. and we can do this thing the right way. Maybe. There’s still a long road ahead and where it leads, I do not know.