Monthly Archives: September 2013

I am the Danger: Thoughts about Breaking Bad (Spoiler-Free)

I am the Danger: Thoughts about Breaking Bad (Spoiler-Free)


It’s the morning after, and I’m still a touch raw, but I wanted to talk about some of what made Breaking Bad one of the best television shows I’ve ever watched. Because I’m me, I’ve thought a lot about how the principles of Breaking Bad relate to roleplaying games. This post-mortem is spoiler free, so no worries about that.

Character-Driven Dramatic Logic. Characters didn’t make the real world logical choice; instead each character mad the choice that drama dictates their character would make. Breaking Bad never wasted scenes or shots.  It showed you what it needed to, even when it took several episodes to come into play. There was a level of predictability to Breaking Bad in that you could understand the characters and that understanding lead to understanding what moves they were likely to make. Rather than being driven by surprise and “”gotcha” twists and turns, Breaking Bad’s season arced and swelled with inevitability. The show created tension by letting us see the horrible crash that is unavoidable, as dictated by the characters who do those things that they must do.

The Art of the Brutal Turn. I’m pretty good at predicting where a well-written story will go (hint: just follow the characters!), but Breaking Bad always surprised me at the conclusions of its arcs. Why? Because every time there was an opportunity to turn, the show took the most brutal turn imaginable.  I mean brutality not only in physical violence, but in emotional and psychological damage as well. Rather than incremental bumps and confrontations, Breaking Bad’s writers chose hard, character-defining turns at each step. Characters were put in extremely difficult situations and forced to make hard choices or be very clever to survive them. The violence of these confrontations created characters who changed in deep, meaningful ways before our eyes.

War of Integrity. Here’s something to think about:  Everyone who sticks to their ways and principles when dealing with Walter White loses in the end.  Walter White comes out on top repeatedly because he changes perpetually.  He is willing over and over to go where others won’t. Walter tells himself he has integrity and a code, but by agreeing under his breath to stop at nothing what he says is an illusion.  Only in the final episodes do we see the chemistry teacher view himself honestly.

What I like about this from a roleplaying point of view is that it is a great way to make a character. Pick a theme (integrity in this case) and constantly give the character choices that relate to it. Rinse, repeat, and see who the character is afterwards.  Put the character’s vision of himself up against what it is he truly values and see what survives; play that out and enjoy the moral dilemmas and quandaries that arise.  I’ve chewing on techniques for exploring characters for some time now, in part because of this show.

What were some of your favorite aspects of Breaking Bad?  Anything you’d use for your games?

Thinking of a Master Plan: Five Fires at Metatopia

Thinking of a Master Plan: Five Fires at Metatopia


RakimThinkin’ of a master plan
‘Cuz ain’t nuthin’ but sweat inside my hand
So I dig into my pocket, all my money is spent
So I dig deeper but still comin’ up with lint

“Paid in Full”, Eric B. and Rakim


I’ll be at Metatopia at the end of October.  The game that I’ll be looking to playtest and receive feedback on is Five Fires.  Last year I did Dicefighter and All is Lost.  This year I’m going to do a few sessions of just this one game. My main worry is that there might not be enough folks into hiphop for this game to appeal to.

So, if you are going to be at Metatopia and are into hiphop, definitely let me know, and let Vincent know when the time comes!

That worry aside…guess who is violating his own damn rules again? Yup. That’s me.  I’ve been doing Five Fires design here and there in my head instead of writing it out.  Whether or not I share it is besides the point.  I should be getting it down so that I can see and tweak it.

It’s so tempting to write a game in your head.  It feels perfect, doesn’t it?  But the reality is that it’s not perfect — it doesn’t exist if its in my head.  It’s useful exercise but at some point you have to get it out.

The plan this weekend is to write out the complete first draft of Five Fires.  I have some notes in different docs, and I’ve worked out some different sub-systems.  In particular I had a system of approaches that I’d written before Fate Accelerated came out.  My approaches were influenced by Apocalypse World, but I decided that I sort of like what Fate Accelerated was doing better.  I need to hash that system out.

I’ve covered before the procedural aspect of Five Fires, but the challenge has been making sure that conflict resolution can be satisfying and quick.  I’ve run over a gazillion different systems in my head.

One system that seems awesome is a variation of Daniel Solis’ Split Decision. The core of what I want is a system that creates choice by letting a player choose success as weighed against possible outcomes.  Say that blue dice are “honest” die and red dice are “dishonest”.  You might choose the dishonest dice because they are higher and let you win, but there could be fallout that deals with your dishonesty.  If you choose blue dice, your fallout deals more with how complicated honesty can make your life.

The core is not to make value judgements. I don’t want either honesty or dishonesty to be “better”, at least not universally.  Sometimes one is optimal, sometimes the other is.  But more importantly you have to balance results with your notion of your character.  If you roll a 7 on your blue dice which will fail, and a 12 on your red dice which will succeed, what do you do when you have a character who you consider very honest?

Let’s also expand our pool of dice.  If we add two more values –let’s say nice and mean.  Nice is a green die, mean is yellow.  So now you roll four dice and choose any two. If I pick the green and the blue dice, I take an honest and nice approach.  If I pick the red and the green, I am dishonest but nice about it (a white lie?).

I won’t use these exact values in the game as they don’t mean a lot for Five Fires.  I like this approach because it offers a richness of choice without a lot of complexity or procedural cruft. Characters can have affinities for different dice and weaknesses to others.

That’s probably what I’m going to run with as I build the game out this week.  Other parts of the game are just building the structure of play, setting elements, and character building.  It seems like a lot but I’m pretty sure it’s doable in a few days.

Wish me luck, and tell me what you think of the new approach system!

Hacking the 13th Age: Places to Start

Hacking the 13th Age: Places to Start

13th AgeThanks for sticking with me so far!  We’ve looked at what 13th Age is and what it isn’t, but now we should look at some patterns for hacking the game.

Quick note: I only hack games that I like.  I hack a game not to express dissatisfaction or to one-up the designers. I hack games because I like to, and I like to peer deep into games I enjoy. So if you interpret these hacks as denoting a lack in 13th Age instead of a love for 13th Age, let me officially sad panda face you right now.

I love 13th Age and I hope these patterns help you do the things you want to with the game.

Everybody else, you good? Great!


Backgrounds as Fiction Anchors

You can see in negative backgrounds and ephemera that backgrounds can  anchor states of fiction to your character.  Backgrounds can model injury, emotional state, wealth, experience, memories…the list goes on and on.  If there is anything in your setting or story that you feel is important enough to call out, using a background is a great start.

What you want to from there is figure out  what the duration and rules of use for the background is.  As my general rule, a basic, by-the-rules background is part of the character.  It’s something not easily changed.  Other backgrounds should use their dynamics and duration to show their relationship to the character.  An injury lasts until it heals (maybe you lose a point a day), and can hamper you on any physical roll.  Wealth might last until you spend it.

The last use of backgrounds is an improvisational placeholder.  Is cool and completely unexpected stuff happening?  Do you want to mark it as important mechanically somehow without spending a lot of time making rules? Make it a background and move on.

The Escalation Die is a Timer

The threaten mechanic that Yenee of the Waves uses takes advantage of the fact that the Escalation die makes a great timer.  You can use the escalation die to stage different events.  13th Age doesn’t give you tactical movement but it does give you a timer that you can play with great overall battle effects.  You can stage a fight in a burning building that does increasing fire damage each round based on the escalation score.  You can simulate a fight aboard a ship that’s taking canon fire, having cannon fire effects on odd numbered rounds.

The Escalation die is perfect for hanging events off of, so do that!

Leap into Fiction

Remember when I was talking about the owlbear and how great it was? What made it great was off of one strike it makes a leap directly into the fiction of the game. 13th Age doesn’t model what it means to lose an arm, and it doesn’t try to. So the owlbear yanks off your arm on a critical and then runs off. Holy crap! Are you going to get it back? Are you passing out? What’s happening?

The owlbear is mechanically super-simple, but offers this potentially thrilling and game-changing event that is only modelled in the story.  It’s up to the table to figure out what’s going on and that is awesome.

Yenee’s threaten command has a leap into fiction at the end of it.  Each of her threats is more or less a normal monster until it’s timer is up, and then it gets to run away and mess up your town! On a more extreme level we have Hynd, who gives players and GMs a very interesting way to reveal secrets of the setting.

Relationships of All Sorts

Who doesn’t like Icons? Who doesn’t like having relationships with important characters in the setting?  One thing I’ve not seen hacked quite enough is the relationship die (I’ll uh, change that shortly, just wait). Let’s assume that icons are the most important relationship in terms of your setting. What are lesser relationships that are lower in scope?

I think it’s a mistake to make a lot of different Icons or other relationships at the same “power-level” or scale as Icons.  I think additional relationships should be more specific in scale and effect.   You could have a relationship with an Icon and a Mentor. You could have a relationship with a Faction. You could have a relationship with your own Shadow.

Each of these relationships could use a d6 (I would do this for a number of reasons which I might explain in another post).  What you change is how you use it.  Icons always have an influence on the setting and can be used to make dramatic changes or to help get adventurers unstuck.  Your relationships should do smaller things.  Maybe your Mentor lets you have a +D6 to a die roll in specific situations.  Your Faction might let you get access to certain resources.  The GM might call for a Shadow roll at times to determine what part of your psyche reacts to a situation.

There are many important relationships a character can have.  You don’t want to overwhelm characters (I wouldn’t use more than 1 extra relationship with an Icon if I used any in a game), but you can add extra detail and interest to your game with it.

Your Hacks

Do you have any interesting hacks or patterns that you use for 13th Age?  Now would be the time to share.

Hacking the 13th Age: What 13th Age Is.

Hacking the 13th Age: What 13th Age Is.

13thAge book

So just yesterday I rambled on about what 13th Age is not. It doesn’t have familiar hooks from the two recent forks of D&D, so you should design with that in mind. The natural followup once we’ve defined the borders and gaps of the game has to be “Well, what is the game about?  What is it?

Here are my thoughts.


D20 Optimized for Improv

If you come from a model of  prepped plots and semi-linear campaigns, the notion that a player can potentially “call in a marker” to an Icon and blow through a scene.  Or, worse yet, cause a whole other scene to form spontaneously!  What about all the prep you did?

13th Age doesn’t really want you to run that sort of game.  I think Rob and Johnathan designed a game shaped by what your players decide is important to them (see Wishlist below) and by luck and improv.  As a GM, you are there to bring trouble and to plant seeds. It’s a game that want to be at least 50% improv, and if you can raise percentages, it’s even happier.

Why do you think that even the skill system (Backgrounds) is open to interpretation? An open skill system is better for improv. Monsters are kept pretty simple so you can grab them and use them on the fly easily. There’s no tactical movement, so you can sketch up a random map on paper as needed.  If you’re stuck, the game offers a clever Deus Ex Machina in Icon rolls. A game can go wildly different than any prepped plot and that’s what the game wants to do.

13th Age wants to give the GM and players prompts and guides for unscripted play.  You can start a game with a basic situation and characters, and let the rest of the session spawn off of that.  Trying to put too much ahead of you will force you to ignore the disruptive creative elements (thereby missing the fun of the system) or cause you to throw away a lot of work.  Don’t prep plot!

From a hacking perspective, I think anything that creates new prompts for player and GM input is awesome. Mechanics that establish and create are very welcome to 13th Age’s design.


Backgrounds Bend but Don’t Break

I’ve got a whole section just to talk about Backgrounds. Again.  In case you missed earlier rants, here it is:  backgrounds are the true secret sauce of 13th Age.  Icons and One Unique Thing and clever class design bring you to the table, but backgrounds…backgrounds! They are really potent and in my opinion they work way better than skills. A skill gives you rules for interacting with the world.  If your numbers are off, your interactions can become weak or overpowering in the context of the game. You have to strike a fine balance between what skills do and how much power they provide you.

A background, on the other hand, is as much an assertion and worldbuilding tool as it is an input.  When you use a background, you are saying “Because I have this history, role or experience, it has prepared me for this moment in front of me.”  I’ve heard people express concern at the interpretation needed for backgrounds, and worrying about balance.  But 13th Age isn’t that game. Because there aren’t hard-set ways to use backgrounds, the main thing that your group needs to figure out is what sort of game you are running, and does the use of the background make sense in that use? How you use a background asserts all kinds of things about what type of world you play in.

If I have the background “Pirate of the Southern Sea” and try to use that to communicate with dolphins, I’m asserting that :

  • talking with dolphins is a thing that can be done in this setting
  • pirates can talk to dolphins
  • dolphins can be characters you interact with

In other forks you ask “Does this fit the interpretation of the skill use?”. In 13th Age you ask “is my game the kind where this occurs?”  If it is, roll on your merry way.  If it’s not, veto or give partial credit and carry on.

The first time that happens, we’ve done some world-building. The next time you talk to the dolphins, we can add extra flavor and surprises.  We didn’t “break” the skill because the world around it got bigger. When you can creatively assert things, you create space around your assertions.

A lot of your hacking can play with backgrounds.  Backgrounds are a great anchor and middle ground between mechanics and fiction in 13th Age.

Open Door to Fiction

Of the multitude of lens one uses to describe RPGs, I’m most partial to the notion of an RPG as a gateway to fiction.  When an RPG is doing it’s thing, it is helping you create stories with a mixture of conversation and abstract expression.  I talked yesterday about how weak the level of abstract expression is in 13th Age.  The flip side to weakened abstractions is that it makes getting to the fiction easier.

The trick is that you don’t want too direct a route to creating fiction because then you are just in a storytelling process which is great, but always runs the risk of creative fatigue and possibly losing direction.  Too much abstraction and redirection, though, and you get stuck behind the abstraction and mechanics, unable to make your way to the fiction you are creating.  This is where 4e and sometimes 3.5e could get stuck in.  You spend 10 minutes dealing with abstractions to generate a sliver of fiction.

13th Age keeps a d20 skeleton, but deliberately makes concession to fiction.  This occurs in class design at multiple points, but really shows up in monster design.  I want to introduce you to the best monster in the 13th Age book, the Owlbear, and one of its abilities:

Feed the cubs: An owlbear that scores a critical hit against a  hampered enemy tears a piece of the creature off (GM chooses a limb) and will subsequently attempt to retreat with the prize to feed its cubs. The torn-up enemy is stunned until the end of its next turn.

So there’s a mechanical element (stunned), but then we’ve just leapt right into fiction. It’s a simple but elegant bit of design that can create all sorts of great side stories after it. You’re missing an arm, which the Owlbear is running away with.  Congratulations!

What this means for your hacks is that you want to keep them mechanically simple (with a few triggers), and find elegant ways to leap through the abstraction with a powerful fictional event.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk about a few patterns and idioms I like for 13th Age hacks. See you then!



Hacking the 13th Age: What 13th Age is Not

Hacking the 13th Age: What 13th Age is Not

13thAge book

If you’ve heard the raves about 13th Age, you’ll have heard that it’s a cross between 3rd and 4th edition D&D, with it’s own slice of story-games on top.  This is true! But this truth leaves you in a confusing state when you are trying to hack the game for your own use at the table. In merging the games and cherry-picking pieces, 13th Age leaves out some fundamental parts of both editions.

This isn’t a problem until you try to port or express some concept from either game into 13th Age. It took a fair amount of thinking to port Worldbreakers from 4e to 13th Age. A lot concepts and idioms that made Worldbreakers tick in 4e just don’t exist in 13th Age. Ultimately, what you get in return more than makes up for it, but you have to acknowledge what you can’t really do in 13th Age to appreciate what you can do.

A disclaimer.  Some of these might seem like criticisms at first (especially before you see what I say what 13th Age is), but please keep in mind that 13th Age is the only d20 game that I play or plan to play. I like this game a lot. All I’m doing is trying to describe it’s shape and boundaries for fellow hackers like myself.

Weak Abstract Expression

So here is a thing that, depending on who you are, you really liked or hated:

“Your paladin takes a hit from Etherkai, and is hurled across the field…take 30 damage and push you 5 squares. You’re taking 10 ongoing damage from blood loss.”

I don’t want to spend a lot of time arguing the value of this, but I personally liked it because you could use the abstract state to demonstrate on the board the fictional happenings. It was possible in 4e to get too abstract and as such lose that connection, but as long as you kept those linked, you supplemented your narration with demonstrable effect.

Movement, a critical aspect of 4e, is a non-factor in 13th Age. Terrain doesn’t mean a whole lot as a result. You don’t get a laundry list of keywords or states to describe what’s happening to your character. Pushing and sliding have zero game for expressing what’s happening.  We are working abstractly in the game, but we are working on loose abstraction, where there is as much explicitly undefined as there is defined.

Abstract states, keywords and precise movement also kept you grounded in a game of incremental advantage.  You could see round by round who had the upper hand, who was in trouble, etc. 3rd edition has this to a lesser extent, but 13th Age has very little of this.

What you should avoid in 13th Age is trying to model a simple back and forth of giving and taking advantage. 4e did a great job of utilizing its tools for state management and expression to simulate swings and comebacks. In 13th Age you should remember the Escalation die. If a fight starts strong, as long as players can act, they are going to get stronger. As a fight goes longer, our characters become more effective. Because of this, don’t try to model swing, and don’t try to use mechanics to express what’s happening. 13th Age cares most about dynamics (more on this later) and fictional change. Of all the monsters in the core book, the Owlbear is the best monster for this reason. More on that in later posts.


Loosely Defined Fictional Inputs & Outputs

I think the easy term for this is “a skill system”.  If you think about a skill system, it is providing a precise way for your character to interact with the world.  When skills are tightly defined, they will provide your character with capabilities and mechanical advantages and options aplenty.  3.5E is clearly the most defined of the editions in this manner. 4e is much looser, and 13th Age, again…is non-existent.

Seriously, there are no skills!

What we get are backgrounds.  Backgrounds are incredible! But they perform incredibly different from a skill system.  First we acknowledge that a skill system defines the parameters of interacting with the world, whereas Backgrounds are border-defining.  Saying I have Hide +10 means that I can conceal myself given certain conditions.  Having a Leader of the Red Hands +5 says that there is a group of thiefs called the Red Hands that I happen to lead.  The background defines many possible interactions while the skill describes only a few.

Both the background and the skill can be considered “inputs” into the fictional world, but the skill is more rigidly defined and system-directed. The background is more loose and player-directed in its use. A skill tells a player how to interact in the world where a background indicates how a player would like to interact with the world.

What this means for 13th Age hacking is you want to stay away from building rigid defined inputs to your game world.  13th Age is at its best when it is providing hooks for improv-heavy gameplay.

These two things are what I think you need to unlearn when you are hacking 13th Age from older d20 games.  Next article I’ll highlight what I feel are defining patterns and characteristics for 13th Age, and discuss what some cool patterns and idioms for hacking are.

Worldbreakers of the Schism: Yenee of the Waves

Worldbreakers of the Schism: Yenee of the Waves
Yenee in her human form.

Yenee in her human form.

Off the shores of Laeda, Kitani, and Beltzhoover, the Merking is known as a nuisance player vying for a foothold in the region. In Zimare he is a major player who controls a fair amount of the seaborn trade that they engage in. He terrorizes the coastal towns, demanding tribute in drowned children each year. It is a cruel and terrible practice by which he builds an army of re-animated children to bolster his raiding forces with magic.

Yenee’s tribute bore an unusual and powerful fruit. Everyone in her village and beyond knew the girl as a talented dowser. When the Merking found out, he had to have her. Rather than let the village choose their tribute, he demanded Yenee. Her village could not refuse.

When the Merking began his ritual of drowning and bonding the child with water spirits, something unexpected happened. Yenee disappeared completely into the water, merging with it and taking control of the spirit completely. In a release of power, she became a series of living waves that battered and almost destroyed her village.

The Merking used the most clever of his glamours and tricks to calm her down, though none of his magic could control her. Yenee became a little girl once more, aghast at what she had done to her village. The Merking threatened to finish off whoever remained unless Yenee brought similar destruction to other villages along the Zimare coast.

Her love for her village turned Yenee into the Merking’s slave. She does his destruction with a heavy heart, but hopes one day to free herself and her people.

All Zimare recognize and know Yenee as the Merking’s harbinger of destruction. People hide and prepare to give the Merking what he wants they see her enter the village. In Laeda, she is just a little girl…

Yenee of the Waves

3rd level medium summoner {human spirit}
Initiative +8
Vulnerability: cold

AC 19
PD 17 HP 90
MD 13

Liquid Spears +8 vs PD (targets up to 3 far enemies), 15 damage.
    Natural 16+: 15 extra damage is taken.

Aquatic Aegis. Whenever Yenee is hit with a melee attack, she makes a Swallow the Sea attack against the attacker.

Swallow the Sea, +8 vs PD, target is is dazed and takes 10 ongoing drowning damage (save ends both). Can only be used as a result of Aquatic Aegis
    Miss: Target is dazed.

Liquid Form. Yenee can disengage without provoking attacks of opportunity.

Escalator: Yenee adds the Escalation die to her attacks.

Worldbreaker. Yenee is a Worldbreaker. She has several powers that trigger when the escalation die hits a certain number. Each ability stays into play unless dispelled. If the number on the escalation die comes back to a certain number, abilities are not used again.

Yenee creates threats that actually attack the village or town that the adventurers are in. If these threats are not taken care of in time, they move off the map and kidnap/destroy/seize something important in the area. Anything with the threaten X ability will leave do this after it is on the board for that many turns. Declare what the creature/item with threaten is attacking when you bring it into play. Each threat can attack players that engage, but all seek to move off the map and attack their target.

Track threats with dice on the table. Threats rise with the Escalation die. If a Threaten die is at it’s value at the end of a round, it leaves the map to attack it’s target.
Worldbreaker: Gifts from the Sea. Starting when the Escalation die is 1, tidal waves start bringing in different threats. Summon a Gift for each adventurer fighting. Each round after this, roll a 1d6 at the beginning of the round. On a 4+ you add another threat to the board. All gifts act on Yenee’s turn.


Merfolk Raiders (12 raiders)

The Merking’s agents splash ashore and look for plunder.
2nd level merfolk
Initiative n/a

AC 18
PD 16 HP 9 (kills one raider)
MD 17

Threaten 3. The Merfolks kidnap and kill villagers, and steal loot at the end of any turn when their die is 3 or greater.

Trident Rake, +7 vs AC, 3 damage.

Children of the Sea (5 children)

Though they resemble children, all innocence has been drained from them long ago. They are more spirit than child now, bound to the Merking’s wishes.
3rd level water spirit
Initiative n/a
Vulnerability cold

AC 19
PD 17 HP 11 (kills one)
MD 13

Threaten 2. The Children look for more children to join them or look to sieze a strategic target at the end of any turn when their die is 2 or greater.

Undine Fury, +8 vs PD, 6 damage and the target is weakened.

Crushing Wave

A crushing wave rises so high it blots the sun. Nothing it touches will survive.

3rd level wave
Initiative n/a
Vulnerability magic, fortifications

AC 15
PD 15 HP 90
MD –

Threaten 4. The Crushing Wave destroys any structure or person it hits at the end of any turn when it’s threaten die is 4 or greater.

Menacing. The Crushing Wave has a fear threshold of 15.

Bigger than Swords. The Crushing Wave cannot be engaged and never provokes attacks of opportunity. It takes half damage from melee attacks.

Obliteration. Crushing Wave has no attack, but if a character is at the site of attack when the threaten timer goes off, she must make a save or be reduced to zero hit points immediately.

Thinking About Talking: Values and Proxies

Thinking About Talking: Values and Proxies



Tabletop RPGs use conversation as a building block of the game.  Much of how a game proceeds is based on conversations between the participants, with mechanics and procedures punctuating that when deemed necessary by the ruleset.

Conversation is rarely an artifact of play.  Maybe a few quips here and there, or buts of conversation, but rarely is there a truly great exchange of dialogue that is truly memorable and great.  Narrative and action are way more likely to emerge as interesting content because most systems build with them explicitly in mind, and most GMs develop procedures and techniques to draw these things forth.  But conversations, not so much.

Part of me wants to find why that is, but the sensible and sanity-saving part of me doesn’t really care.  I just want to poke around and see how I can stimulate in my games great conversations. Can I encourage great dialogues to emerge without tight scripting or pre-planning?  What does that look like?  I’m thinking about this, so I’m sharing my thoughts with you.

First, problems as I see them. Conversations in RPGs usually go nowhere. I want something, you don’t want to give it to me, we bicker back and forth until you wind around to something or I wind around to something. Pacing is usually stagnant because there is no sense of turn or escalation; conversation is merely a proxy for the thing you really want and not a thing in and of itself.  Conversations are understood on the surface as a bit of small talk layer over the exposition bits.  How do I traverse from point A to B, swinging on vines of language?

I actually think these problem are most of the time not problems.  Our games are often about things other than dialogue and witty conversations.  This only becomes a “problem” when I want the conversation to matter, and to take center stage.

What I’m looking for are informal rules and techniques that can help me stimulate an engaging improvised conversation between two or more participants. I want a system that I can use as a scene transition, or to expand on an important subject or just to learn about some characters in my game.

I’m going to take a stab at something. It’s an experiment and untested, but the best way for me to sort these things out is to make something, get feedback, test it out.  Here we go:


Values and Proxies

The key point this technique is that we are talking about one thing through the metaphor or lense of another. What we are really talking about are our values, but we have a proxy to get there.  I might be interested in discussing the nature of truth, but maybe we are talking about truth as it applies to Transformers and Gobots. Our conversation is about these two toylines but they are just proxies for truth and falsehood.

A good value is really an expression of opposition; True vs False, Good vs Evil, Crowded vs Spacious. Your proxies are similarly divided, but the person who starts the conversations starts with where he thinks the proxies are.  In my Transformers/Gobots example, I might start by asserting that Optimus Prime of the Transformers line was the realest robot that ever roboted. Leader-1 by my reckoning is the perpetrator of a mass fraud.

In order for us to start, you have to some point of contention.  There are a few different ways to enter this, but for now, let’s say you’ve got to disagree with my valuation of proxies.

You can disagree in on of three ways:

Discuss Values. Go right to the underlying value. You can assert what your value is and why it invalidates in your opinion the statement about the proxies.  “You’re wrong because both Transformers and Gobots are both frauds! Truth lies on a body of falsehoods.”

Attack Proxy. Go after a proxy. Invalidate its appropriateness, or ridicule it. “Optimus Prime is the corniest robot ever. At least Leader-1 had some dignity.”

Escalate. Raise the stakes.  In trivial conversations, we are now moving it towards something non-trivial. “I’m glad you said that, because it will make me feel less sad when I blow up your Gobots collection.”

You can use any of these techniques to disagree, but never the same one twice in a row.  It’s crucial that conversations turn and grow. Also, you have to tune your responses to what was just said.  You can’t disagree with something ten exchanges ago, though you certainly can use that detail in your argument.

The conversation end when one side gives in, or both sides agree to disagree. You can interrupt the conversation with action, or you can let it escalate into something pretty real.

This is just the start of a system. Note that this is informal andnot a set of “hard” mechanics.  You can use them with any game you run and see how they flow; I’ll probably be using this at a game of mine in the near future, and I’ll also use run a test on G+.

In the mean time, uhm…talk to me about talking?


[Adventure] Wrath of the Demiurge: Chapter 1, Awakening

[Adventure] Wrath of the Demiurge: Chapter 1, Awakening



In this part we introduce the characters to their true destinies. The characters are spoken to and introduced to the Demiurge.  The Demiurge may or may not tell the characters her true nature at this stage, but will definitely look to help the character out of any troubles they might have.



First, let’s establish who the characters are.  On setup for this is that the characters are ordinary folks with very mundane needs and desires.  This might be the most powerful setup, though it is atypical for a fantasy adventure game.  If you use the Demiurge in the midst of a regular campaign, it might work  to introduce her when a character is in a desperate situation. Maybe the adventurer has fallen in the middle of a desperate fight when she hears the voice of the Demiurge, offering to help her re-enter the battle.

The critical part of the awakening is that each awakened character has some problem beyond her ability to conventionally solve.  The Demiurge will try to help with lesser problems, but using her abilities to get something the character can’t have or must change to get is her optimal strategy.

She’ll lie about who she is to any character who seems too scrupulous or beholden to one of the gods.  Anyone detached from religion or with loose moral boundaries is likely to get a version of the truth.



When does chapter 1 come to a close?  It ends when each character has had an introduction to the Demiurge (under any pretense), and at least 1 offer of help that the character has rejected or accepted.  Whether the character has rejected or accepted the Demiurge’s help will determine her actions in the next chapter, Transgression.


Book meet Game: a book club for game designers.

Book meet Game: a book club for game designers.


It hit me the other day:  Maybe there aren’t more games with people of color because we are cribbing from the wrong sources?  It’s just hard to find representation in the typical fantasy tropes out there.  And hey, that’s fine. It’s fine because there are all these other books that might not get the attention that they deserve, or just aren’t being mined for RPG material.

What if instead of Tolkien, we used Throne of the Crescent Moon for RPG source material?  That seems too directly provide what it is I’m looking for, which is more diverse, more inclusive fantasy.

The question then is: What are we building?  We can build systems from scratch, sure…but what if we used a powerful and fast system like Fate Accelerated to build content from the books, with a few rules hacks where needed?

If this all sounds good, then you’re in luck!  This is exactly what I’m working on.  The book club in question is called Chroma, and I have invited a group of brilliant designers that I know to participate, and I’m hoping to having content available for you near the end of October!

There are a lot of ways to slice up the concept.  I’m keeping it small so I can iterate it.  Eventually I’d like this to be a way that we can help introduce people of color to RPG game design, but we must take baby steps!

I hope this excites you as much as it excites me.

Ambiguous Diversity in Art Isn’t

Ambiguous Diversity in Art Isn’t

One thing I am happy about is that slowly but surely, representation of people of color in the art of games is improving!  One thing I see sometimes that bugs me is ambiguous “choose-your-own-ethnicity” art. What I’m talking about is leaving the ethnicity of someone in your art open to interpretation, or otherwise making it unclear.  I’ve seen artists mention it as a purposeful choice before, and I’ve seen it in books.  I’ve seen it brought up after the fact when someone mentions the lack of diversity in a book’s art.

“There are no people of color in the book!”

“Actually, the person on the cover is half-asian…”

I hate these conversations. I’ll get to the exact details of my discontent momentarily, but first I want to talk about my standard.

If I have to do guesswork whether your art piece is representing a person of color, it isn’t. 

That seems harsh or rather unforgiving, but let’s consider that books contain characters who are unambiguously white all the time.  Why then, do we have to make people of color always appeal to something “universal”? If you leave me guessing, it makes me feel that what you really want is credit for “diversity” without marring your pages with someone who is unequivocally non-white.  That doesn’t feel great.  When I am looking at a piece trying to figure out what race a character actually is, I’m left to wonder why I have to do that, why can’t this character just be black/latino/asian/whatever?

Worse yet for me is to put a character in a costume of one ethnicity but to essentially make him white. Again, why are we even bothering?

And here is where we approach my discontent. For me, if you want to be more inclusive, you should just do it.  If there is something else that keeps you from committing to it, then just leave it alone!  No one is forcing you to be more inclusive in your art (though if you are one of the horror-story artists I hear about who are directed by art directors to draw people of color and refuse to, boooooooo to you). Stand by that decision.

I can point out a million books that disappoint me with their art. I’d rather point to the Fate Accelerated book as one that I feel does it right.  It has a reference character who appears repeatedly who does awesome stuff in the panels and is unambiguously black.  Cool! It’s nice to see. Let’s ignore the fact that Fate Accelerated is really good and pay what you want for one moment.  This type of commitment to a character from the cover on in actually makes the game feel more welcoming.  It’s a truth in roleplaying games that you can find more airships and dragons than you can any non-white person, but in this book you feel like the designers acknowledge that other folks exist, that maybe  other gamers exist.

One of the characters is asian as well, and a similar line of thinking applies.

Needless to say, I like this! People who champion the RPG status quo like to talk about how diversity makes things bland.  I don’t think they could be more wrong!  If you think Fate Accelerated is made more bland by more, non-ambiguous representations of people, than I don’t know what to say to you.

I’ll leave you then, with a question:  What other RPG books get inclusive representation in the art right? Talk to me.