Monthly Archives: January 2013

Notes from a Busy January

Notes from a Busy January

You might notice that I’ve posted every weekday in January.  I posed the following challenge to myself at the beginning of the year:

Until the end of March, I’m going to have a good post on the blog every weekday.

It’s been a little bit of a challenge, but it’s also been worth it.  Today I am a third through the challenge, and I’ve noticed that my thinking about games has gotten a bit clearer — I’ve been thinking and writing about it a lot — but in the act of getting there I’ve learned a lot about keeping in the flow of writing, and building material on which to write.

I’m sharing what I’ve learned so far with you, not so you’ll do the same thing (though I recommend it!), but rather to help out if you find it hard blogging or having material to write about.  The following things have kept me going through January and I expect them to help me through February and March as well.

Journeys, not Destinations. Remember that blogging is about a journey.  Blogging becomes a fear-inducing activity when you think of it in terms of proving or maintaining expertise. Blogging is first about the journey and the insights you gain along the way. Expertise is awesome, but that expertise is more compelling when it is hard won and when you “show your work”.  I sometimes post material that I am unsure of or that I know will need more thought to clarify because I feel that blogging is about the path I arrive at being a better game designer, not the destination of being a great game designer.  And even if I was a great game designer, you’d still want to know the process by which I make great games.

When you think every blog post has to be perfectly reasoned and honed, blogging becomes difficult.

Break it Up.  When I ran At-Will I could get frozen up because I had a great concept that was very big, with a lot of moving parts.  I’d work on it for weeks and/or months. Sometimes it got published, other times it didn’t.  Sometimes I had other material to publish along the way, other times I didn’t and there would be noticeable holes in my output.  I still have “big topics” in my brain, but what I do now is realize that I don’t have to write a 5,000 word post all at once to make a blog post.  Actually, it’s better that I don’t most of the time.  I can take big pieces and break them up into manageable chunks to write about.

Blog More? Talk More.  Twitter and G+ both make it easy to have conversations about anything you want.  I often start up conversations on either of these networks to a) get a sense of anyone even caring about a topic b) get a sense of what I want to talk about.  sometimes I get blog posts in the middle of a normal conversation, and that’s just a bonus.  Almost every post that wasn’t game content I’m working on has been talked about and presented to others first, then honed and refined for the blog.

Blogging is about engagement, so getting engaged is, I think, good strategy if you want to blog a lot.

Maybe next month I’ll have more insights! I hope this post helps you with your blogging in the meantime.

Also, I should add having great content from Ryven also helps keep the blog posting going! I am more in rhythm now but it’s still great having his posts up during the week as well.

Perpetual Action: A method of running Marvel games.

Perpetual Action: A method of running Marvel games.

A style that we’ve settled on for running Marvel games that I’ve found works great in a lot of situations and works without any extra rules or rulings is what I call Perpetual Action.

The standard style of play the book offers (which there is nothing wrong with; please take this as an extra toll in the toolbelt and not a critique of what currently exists!) is an alternation of action scenes and transition scenes.  When you have material prepped and in front of you, I think this works pretty well.  You have roughly formed containers of scenes and elements and dividing lines you can pour everything into.  It also works great for longer sessions.

My sessions tend to be 1-2 hours in length and run almost entirely improv (I will design datafiles that we need and I do use pull lists), so I am looking for maximum impact with minimal scaffolding.  What I do is  remove transition scenes as a separate constructs and make the entire session one big action scene.  When we start the game, we take a few moments to position everyone in the action, and then I give someone the initiative, and we hold the initiative order the rest of the game.  Players may start out at different areas and that’s fine. We run these separate scenes (some of which are embedded transition scenes) and go from the next scene to the next, like in a real comic. We move from panel to panel in essence, and keep a high paced game. Because of how Marvel treats conflict, you can run many different scenes in parallel without any major cognitive shift.

In our games, it’s become commonplace to have Kitty Pryde try to convince Captain America to join the pro-SHRA forces while Falcon chases Nightcrawler while  Iron Man and Spider-man interrupt a firefight between the Punisher and Colombian cartel enforcers. It’s high pace, high stakes, all-at-once gameplay that we really enjoy.

The first trick to this style is to focus on action.  It’s not that fun letting one character take a 20 minute turn while everyone else has to wait.  I want each player to state what he’s doing, “step into” the scene for any roleplaying, and then take some action.  Now when I say action, I don’t mean just punching someone in the face.  Action can mean talking, researching, flying a plane.  What we need is characters always doing something at the end of their actions.  Even dialogue should be action-oriented.  Even if the action automatically happens, you want to always be pushing the story forward.

The next tip I’d give:  Keep the individual character scenes short and snappy!  You don’t want to rush player, but it’s your main job as a Watcher in this style to keep the pace going and make sure that people aren’t waiting too long, especially when characters are spread out.  My guideline is I steer each scene into a critical moment and then  move to the next player from there. A character goes searching underground for a bomb that’s set to go off.  You have him roll against the doom pool to see if he can find it, and then when he does, you tell him:

“You finally find the bomb, but you don’t like what you’ve found with it…So, who goes next?”

handing over each player’s turn on a cliffhanger (where sensible or possible) is a great technique for building up snappy units of action that helps keep your game running.

Have you experimented with a style like this for your Marvel games? How did it work out?

Bricks and Buildings: Thinking about Rules, Procedure, and Structure in RPGs.

Bricks and Buildings: Thinking about Rules, Procedure, and Structure in RPGs.

I’ve been thinking about RPG theory a lot lately.  I’ve been designing some games, and found that I had to take a step back to really look at the ground I stood on.  I wanted to make some crazy stuff, but there was too much that I’ve been taking for granted.  After twenty something years of gaming and a few years freelancing and blogging, I definitely have a sense of what I’m doing and what we are doing when we roleplay, but I humbly submit that I’ve not always thought as hard on why (also: this is why you distrust anyone saying they are an expert because they’ve done it for a long time).

More importantly than why, what I find myself groping for the most is a sense of “where am I?” and “what am I doing here, really?” This has lead me to re-evaluating my relationship to procedures, rules, and structure.

Here’s the quick and dirty metaphor that I’m running with (also: I realized after digging around through other models that much of where I am,once drawn all the way out, is a re-jiggeration of  “clouds and boxes” model, but originality isn’t my aim -just trying to get my brain wrapped around some stuff).

Rules are bricks. Bricks are awesome little things.  Get enough of them and you have something you can store things in, or live in.  Get a lot of them and you can store a lot of stuff, or live with a lot of people.

To build rules and bricks, you need procedures and processes.  You could wing it each time, but that gets messy and inconsistent and…well, just don’t do it. Sometimes a person might look like they are winging it, but if you query them you will probably find a person with a highly developed and internalized procedures.

(and waitaminnit –what’s the difference between a rule and a procedure anyway?  In a non-brick sense, a rule defines boundaries and transitions.

* You cannot do X.
* If you roll over X, you hit.
* If you run out of HP, you die.

A procedure defines an action to take:
* To see if you hit, roll a die.
* Whenever you do X, roll 2d6 then….
* Play then proceeds to the player on your left

So I use my procedures for brick making to make bricks and I’m done, right? Not really.  What do you do with the bricks you make?  Sometimes your bricks actually create more procedure, but big picture, what you now need is structure.  We need a plan with what to do with all these bricks! Bricks are useful but unimpressive in an disorganized heap. Give us a plan for a building and now we can do something really awesome with all these bricks.  Again, even if we see a guy with no plan in hand, it’s probably because he has done this before and is working off an internalized plan that he’s built (which is completely cool).

Without bricks, or a way to make bricks, or a plan to use bricks, we can be very screwed. It’s a fine trick to emphasize one element over the others, but we must maintain awareness over when we are doing that and why.

Like I said, pretty damn random, and probably a bit of a mess, but let’s talk about it!

Improv Monster Toolkit for 13th Age

Improv Monster Toolkit for 13th Age

In a previous post, I wrote my Love Letter to 13th Age Monsters. I stand by everything I said there, but I want to take it a step further – really go to the next level, if you will pardon the cliche.

I am a very improvisational game master. I write maybe a dozen sentences tops about a game session before we sit down to play and even that’s being generous. This is not even a paragraph, mind you, just sentences.  It’s enough to know where to start, but leaves plenty of room to follow whatever happens to come up in the moment. No adventure survives contact with the players, so why write much in advance?

One of the few remaining tasks that requires prep work is monster design. I enjoy 13th Age monster design, but I got to thinking, “could I make monsters on the fly? If I just sat down at the table with some kind of short reference tool, could I design a monster literally as it fights?” Turns out the answer is “yes.”

The last several games I’ve run now, I have not prepped all my monsters. I’ve done maybe two or three in advance for special occasions, but everything else I’ve made up as needed. I then took my document, made it look all purdy and now, for your benefit and amusement, here it is! Do you necessarily need to use it to improv monsters? Of course not. You could just as easily use it to prepare monsters in advance of a session as well. I think it fits both needs admirably. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

Special thanks to Derek Weller of for graciously allowing me to use his art for this product!

Click here for the 13th Age Monster Design Toolkit!



RPG Blogging in February, Diaspora Edition

RPG Blogging in February, Diaspora Edition

I’m going to focus my blogging on gaming from an afrocentric viewpoint during February.  I don’t really want to tackle social issues, not because they aren’t real and not important, but really…I’m just tired of arguing with people.  I’ve found that people can see the issues or they can’t, and the people who can’t see the issues want to argue about it forever.

I want to educate, create, and celebrate.  I want to make gaming related material with a specific bent and share it with Thoughtcrime readers. Settings, sources, maybe interviews….I’d like to create the things in game I’ve always wanted to see (as much as I can without a normal game dev cycle) and see what folds out.

Everyone is welcome, but it would be really awesome if black creators where involved on this for what I hope are obvious reasons.  The less-obvious reason is that, man…I don’t know of that many black creators in the tabletop space.  I tried to get a list a long time ago but that list is SMALL.  I’ll put some focus on the people I know in that list, and I’d love to discover people I don’t know ( talk to me! )

If you have something you think is interesting for Black History Month and tabletop gaming, please submit it via our form.  I’ll do weekly roundups in February in addition to my regular sweep of blogging and I’ll include your submission there.

What I’m hoping for are settings or elements inspired by mythology.  I’m pretty not-interested in slavery or social justice material unless you’re making something seriously awesome like Steal Away Jordan. I am very uninterested in blaxpoitation stuff. Art, historical references, discussions of mythology, reviews of products in the theme –stuff like this is great, and I’d love to see it and share it with other people!

Looking forward to hearing from you and looking forward to this experiment!

Tao of Gamemastery, Part 2

Tao of Gamemastery, Part 2

In part 1, we observed the fruitful void – the empty spaces left in our games from which good and interesting things spontaneously arise. Let’s now read poem number 29.

Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.

The universe is sacred
You can not improve it
If you try to change it, you will ruin it
If you try to hold it, you will lose it

So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind
Sometimes breathing is hard; sometimes it comes easily
Sometimes there is strength; sometimes there is weakness
Sometimes one is up and at other times down

Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses and complacency.

I know a game group that runs back in Toledo that has met nearly every week for over 22 years. 22 YEARS!!! They started with the Azure Bonds scenarios from 2nd edition D&D and have continued ever since.  Is it possible the DM planned 22 years worth of material ahead of time? Maybe, but I’ll tell you for sure that’s not the case. One game merely leads into another and from the collection of all those episodes, a grand story arose. Not every game is equally good. Some are better than others. Sometimes there’s a plan ahead of time and sometimes there’s not. Some material is from the DM and others is from the players. No one keeps track. The irregularity makes it feel real.

The Tao abides in non-action
Yet nothing is left undone
If kings and lords observed this
The ten thousand things would develop naturally
If they still desired to act
They would return to the simplicity of formless substance
Without form there is no desire
Without desire there is tranquility
And in this way all things would be at peace.


Stop Designing For Fun

Stop Designing For Fun

If you’ve been following the blog for awhile (if you’re new, hello!) you know that I believe in player involvement and investment above almost all else.  Even though I mostly GM, I do my best to make it as not about what I’ve built as possible. The thought of players staring lovingly into my eyes as I describe a stunning vista in front of them for 10 minutes fills me with dread, not of delivering the scene (I can talk for days), but of being with a group that is passively waiting for me to relay information into their imagination. I want fun, but I don’t  want to be the guy who is in charge of making fun.

This is because I think “fun” is an end-result of play.  I don’t think you can design with fun in mind without getting frustrated. Fun is so personalized; what I find fun and what you find fun can be completely different things, and can completely oppose each other.  Put us at the table and a GM now has to make fun for both of us?

Trying to make fun  directly can be difficult.  It can be mitigated with agreements and trust at the table, but I think if we cast our net wider we can create a platform in which players can make their fun, rather than have one person responsible for several people’s version of fun. To make this platform, I think you have to stop designing for fun and build around it.  Design for interest, investment and engagement, and you triangulate the fruitful void where fun lives.

Interest is the state of wanting to know or learn about something or someone. In the context of an RPG, it’s building fiction and establishing a method of interacting with the fiction that allows for characters to move towards and into it.  I make my games interesting if players get feedback that invites exploration. Interest on its face seems like a synonym for fun, but interest has no emotional charge.  One can be interested in things lighthearted or horrific or even a little bit dry.

When creating interest, what’s most important is you create something that provokes players to go further. Even if the element presented has a completely mapped out representation, you can create interest by only presenting part, and letting players move towards the rest.

Investment is sense of ownership.  The simplest way to create investment is to let players establish and “build” things in the world. No one can care but so much for things they don’t control,influence, or create. Let players do more than just be inhabitants of a world, responding to what occurs; let them be co-authors in the experience and you increase investment. As you increase investment, players will tend to act rather than react, and in your role as chief troublemaker, the things they invest in provide hooks and targets.  When you threaten to blow up the world, a player can go through the heroic motions; when you threaten a player’s part of the world that they built, you can get a real response.

Engagement measures activity.  It’s not how much are the players doing (but they should be doing a lot), but are the getting to make real decisions when they take actions? You can roll a lot of dice and step through a lot of procedures and not make real decisions.  Whatever your processes and systems entail, they should never outweigh the impact of the decisions that players make.  When I think of game “balance” this days, this is what I’m typically looking at. Are characters making decisions commensurate with the “paperwork” they need to do?

I think part of engagement is getting players to look forward to their next moment to act, but making the process of taking actions exciting enough that they stay tuned into the action even when they do not act. I think a game where players are only tuned in when they act has a porous level of engagement.  It typically means that the procedures and steps that a player has to go through are long-winded compared to what they produce.  It’s not interesting or engaging to watch someone else’s actions but it is fun to take your own. I want to play games and run games where we are excited about the actions that everyone is taking.

I think often we push this to table culture when we could look at the structure and/or rules of our games instead.  I’m not saying table culture is not responsible, but when the table culture is flawed, so much other stuff is not working.  I’d rather look at what we can design instead of trying to fix people and relationships.

This is a model I’ve been building for a few years now and have just now started to express. There are a lot of frustrations I’ve had with more traditional models of GMing advice, so I’ve been working towards this to help me have the games I want.

I found when I focused on my inputs, outputs, and systems for engagement, my games got much closer to whatever we were defining as “fun”.  Because fun is, I think, as much about your expectations and needs as it is about the vaunted feedback loop (which is still a useful model).

Anyway, I’m sure there is deeper to go, and points of contention that can be raised.  I am all up for some respectful debate, so let’s get on that!

Icons of the Schism: The Muse

Icons of the Schism: The Muse


The Muse is a beacon of hope and relief amidst the never-ending downward spiral which seems to have Laeda so firmly in its grasp.


“I’ve seen ice melt into water, a forest regrow from being burnt down and a family reunited after years apart. I’ve even seen the dead rise and walk again. Now the light and warmth in a heart? Once that’s gone, there is no coming back.”

Usual Location

The Muse is constantly on the move but her fame both follows and precedes her, so finding her at any given time is not difficult. She tends towards settlements where war and disaster have recently struck. For two months of the year she returns to her home by the Southern Sea, presumably to recharge and escape the dreariness of Laeda.

Common Knowledge

Due to her increasing popularity the Muse travels with an armed escort, though rumor has it she’s pretty handy with an axe. She stays in a settlement no more than three days at a time, singing in the markets and outside the temples. She has no permanent accompaniment, preferring to recruit from among the locals as she needs them. Her songs always change based on where she is performing, praising or cutting down the Laetian leadership as she sees fit. Her most loyal fans claim she sings to end the violence; her detractors, on the other hand, see only a threat to their power.

Adventurers and the Icon

The Muse is quite familiar with adventurers as she and they often visit similar places – taverns, temples, markets and the like. Any suitably experienced adventurer can catch her attention for an hour or so with a good tale or information about the local area. Her adventuring fans are generally bards, but she convinces even the occasional sorcerer or fighter to join her band for a day. The Muse will employ most adventurers to deliver messages or act as extra security while she travels. Rogues may be asked to spy or scout ahead. A few even claim to have been hired to set up accidents or embarassing situations for local leaders that the Muse can then ‘capitalize on’ and lampoon. She of course denies such allegations.


The Muse gets along famously with the Prisoner, claiming him to be an excellent ‘captive audience.’ She has also impressed the Merking. She has on occasion sought out the Scrivener for insight; the Scrivener was reported to be cordial but otherwise unswayed.


The Muse has powerful enemies in the Speaker and the Steam King, but shows complete confidence in her ability to deal with their schemes.


The Muse arrived in Laeda from the Southern Sea expecting to learn new ways of song, but was instead met only by the dirges chanted in the temples of the death god and the graveyards of those fallen in war. The Muse wasted no time in rewriting the songs of her youth with new lyrics that would appeal to Laetian sensibilities. Equipped with her new musical arsenal, she storms the ravaged villages and front lines of combat.

The True Danger

The Muse is a bridge between Laeda and the nation to the south. Currently she brings hope to the war-torn Laetians and all is well. Should the war instead follow her home, it is unknown whether the southern nation would be ready.

The Pull List Template

The Pull List Template

I posted my pull list technique earlier in the week. Brian has his variation of the technique on his site, which you should also check out.  Here is the template I use in a google doc for my Marvel players.  It gives examples of what I’m looking for and then gives some space for players to share their scenes at the end.  I thought this would help explain pull lists a little better.  If you want to see an example pull list I’ve shared out our Marvel Mondays pull list so you can see it in use.

Anyway, enjoy the template preamble!

Pull Lists

So, here’s how the pull list works.  You give me a few (let’s say three per person) potential scenes/situations you’d like to see in our Marvel game. I will use these some of these scenes (probably not all) in running the Marvel game, and I will use some that I think are appropriate. As Watcher, I get to determine the exact content of the scene.

The best way to do this is to state something specific with no specific resolution, That gives us a start, and gives me room to work.

This is pretty good:

Mr. Fantastic gets into a fistfight with Dr. Doom.

it gets some evocative imagery going between two specific entities, but it doesn’t force a place or a time, and doesn’t try to say what happens.  What happens is the reason why we play the game, so don’t tell me that.

If you fail to use specific people that is great too, as it makes it easier for me to fit in.

The scale can be huge (“Galactus comes to eat the Earth….again”) but probably I’ll only use 1 of something like that, so keep that in mind.

Also, most important: Don’t worry about story!  Your scenes don’t have to fit into any given context.  The making of story is what we’re going to do at the table, not beforehand.  No plots! Situations only, please.

A plot looks like:

Dr Doom takes over New York, and the heroes must stop him.

A situation looks like:

Dr Doom invades New York

There’s no progression (“this happens, then that, then this”), only a starting incident which demands a response of some type (“This is happening!”)