Category Archives: Essays

Tough but Funny: Tone and the Art of Resilience

Tough but Funny: Tone and the Art of Resilience

I am thinking about Five Fires and another interesting game that I'm working on and the matter of tone keeps coming up. There is simply so much grim dark content out there these days, and while the quality on many products is good, I want the games I'm working on to have an upbeat tone and nature. Five Fires, while it certainly can touch on crime and corruption and poverty, is also meant to be celebratory in a sense. I don't want a game worn with platitudes and empty cheering and cheerleading, though, so how do I get there? How do I build a fictional space that is upbeat and positive without being saccharine or stale?

It occurs to me that the tone of a piece of media is often determined by the resiliency of its protagonists. Resilience, as I use it here, is the capacity of fictional characters to "snap back" to their basic frame of mind and attitude after experiencing dramatic stress and/or trauma. This resiliency can encompass physical resilience but is more a measure of mental resilience.

Resilience affects tone because it is in resilience that audiences can find safety and comfort, even humor, in the face of repeated conflict and stress. As a fiction trends towards high resilience, it trends naturally towards more humor and comedy. At the far end we have animated comedies like Looney Tunes, Family Guy, and Archer. The characters undergo major mental and physical stress but are often back to normal in both body and mind by the next scene. Even Archer, which often uses permanence of stress to create long running gags throughout one or more seasons, allows the characters affected to be functional and sources of humor in other ways.

Looney Tunes operate with characters possessing such absurd resilience that we almost forced to laugh at the violence they suffer on screen. Wile E. Coyote isn't ever permanently hurt by his backfiring schemes, so it is then amusing to see them backfire. But imagine the feel of the same backfiring scheme if we then followed him to the hospital as he fought for dear life, each episode a chronicle of his former life and battle to continue living. It represents a deep shift in tone, and is most likely not upbeat or humorous at all.

When the audience knows characters will be essentially OK after stress, we introduce levity into the scene without even having to make site gags or explicitly humorous conventions. By establishing that our characters can essentially survive what they encounter, we signal for our audiences to relax –their favorite character is going to survive, so just enjoy the show and the ups and downs that come.

When we approach darker, grittier, "realistic" works, what we find is, although the characters are tough, although they are often stoic and capable of masking their emotions and going through extreme pain and anguish, the actual construct of their character is not resilient from our perspective. The characters in these works are likely to change permanently from their trials and tribulations. There won't be any snapping back for these characters to some platonic ideal of their character.

We don't often laugh when one of these characters is hurt because we know the hurt will stay. The longer and more severe the consequences of our fictional space, the less humor we embed naturally in that space. Characters who are moved and effected by stress move us in many ways but not often towards laughter.

Drama and consequences are great! I really love shows that explore the lives of their fictional characters in the midst of their triumphs and failures. I'll always be a fan of Breaking Bad, for instance. But you'll notice that the show starts with a death sentence and moves towards that the whole time. Walt is tough and resourceful but he is no Wile E. Coyote: Walter White is a completely different person at the end of the show then when he starts. Stress alters him and changes him. He carries everything with him. And while he can survive and get out of the worst situations, we don't often laugh at his plight because the character's structure is not resilient enough to "snap back" after each incident.

While Breaking Bad certainly has moments of humor, the overall arc of the show is towards drama and consequence. It's always good to break up the mood of a fictional space by making detours and journeys into different tones and feelings. A show that demonstrates great range while maintaining a generally upbeat natures is Cowboy Bebop.

In case you haven't seen it, Cowboy Bebop follows a group of intra-stellar bounty hunters and their (mis)adventures. It's one of the most brilliant anime ever made on multiple levels. It's tremendously upbeat, even when they are showing us elements of horror and drama. But yet, it's not a comedy, though it has a lot of funny moments. How is it so upbeat?

The characters are all very resilient (you saw this coming, right?). It's not that the characters don't have problems. In fact, some of the characters have big problems. But the show gives us the impression that even when the worst happens, even when the characters are at their lowest, they'll have the ability to not only survive, but be very close to a version of who we knew them to be before the trauma. Now that we as an audience don't have to worry too much about the characters, we are free to get in the rollercoaster and enjoy the ride.

What I'm attempting to assert though is that controlling the overall tone and mood of your fictional space is really a question of how you treat your characters when they are stressed. When you want to inject humor into a fictional scene, think less about and gags or jokes and first look at creating a scene that your characters can recover from easily or a scene where the consequences are light. Conversely, if you want to heighten drama, make sure to create scenes that will bend a character. The more serious the bend, the more serious the drama.

Once you approach tone from the character-centric perspective, it will provide a more solid base for any other mechanics or storytelling you want to do.

New Rules of Fantasy: The Tyranny and Power of Defaulting

New Rules of Fantasy: The Tyranny and Power of Defaulting

A warrior leaps at his opponent, ready to strike a lethal strike…

Stop for a moment. When I said, warrior, what did you picture? What was the color of the warrior’s skin?

It’s OK to say white. If it was something else, that’s OK too (and congratulations for building a different default image!) Many people are going to say this. Why? Because white is the default person in our fantasy (often male too). Some people get defensive when you even bring this up, saying that one is “racist” for discussing race, but the only reason that these folks don’t need to discuss race in the first place is that “white” is the accepted default. If I don’t say anything, the majority of people will assume I speak about someone white. See the trick there? To talk about any other ethnicity is to be forced “to bring up race” and “be different”. I’m forced to be other even if I am describing myself and my life because I have to describe my difference from the accepted norms.

And yeah, it sort of sucks and is problematic in a variety of ways in and out of gaming, but what I want to talk about it is how defaulting from my understanding works and most importantly how we can use it to make gaming more interesting.

To start, let me dispel the notion right off hand that a thing you don’t talk about is a thing that you can effectively change. One is not going to diversify one’s fiction by “just not talking” about race. Ignoring it means we go to the default. And the default is not yet diversity. We apply conscious commitment and effort to change things, not a stifling silence and inability to discuss them.

Defaulting is the creation of assumptions within a culture that establish a baseline identity and context for discussion and action. It can be bad when used to cancel or negate other identities, or to encode hate implicitly in one’s speech. Can defaulting ever be good though?

I say yes. The power in defaulting, and why it is so powerful and why people just want to use it, is that it provides a shortcut. It is simply easier to say “I’m American” than it is to say “I’m African-American”. And definitely easy to hold one model in your head than it is to hold multiple models at a time. Context-switching is a real thing. People save time and energy when they default. You build one model of the world with your defaults, saving time, energy and effort.

Defaulting seems to fight diversity. But what if you apply conscious efforts to build different models? In real life, one’s defaults are heavily influenced by locality and experience. In a fantasy world we have a lot more control. Instead of applying a blanket default of eurocentric ideals and appearance, let’s get specific and explicit. Then let’s create smaller defaults for regions that characters go to.

What would our games be like if we were explicit about skin color? If you said that a character was white instead of not saying it (and simply assuming it)? “The typical person in the village has ruddy skin” establishes a default in a specific place, but being explicit about color has some unusual but beneficial effects.

First, yay we can create a platform to discuss ethnicity and race without weird fantasy stand-ins! Being explicit about everyone’s race seems like the opposite of comfortable, but in my experience being direct about descriptions in this way is fine and actually starts to rev up people’s imaginations. You create diversity implicitly when you actually put different types of people or the possibility for different types of people in your game.

If we don’t ever bring up skin color, everybody assumes it’s not a particularly important thing and leaves it on the table. If we “pick it up”, other people observe that and now see that as something that they can play with too.

Next, we add more texture to our backdrops. When players switch reason, we are going to change the model. We are going to describe more to them than race of course, but we are going to create a brief model of what people are like in an area. You can use Gameable Culture as a guide to do this. We are going to use our player’s attraction to shortcuts to give them different looks. We aren’t going to shift the model every second, but as they move through regions they will have different defaults given to them. They will see the differences in culture and appearances in different places that they travel if we impart that information well. Every important region in our game has it’s own baseline of how people look and act. By giving players a slice of that when they travel, we create a richer set of experience and bring our worlds more to life.

Defaulting can be used to oppress and silence, but if we embrace it and use it consciously, we can charge up our worlds of imagination. I mention race and ethnicity here, but you can use this model for any particular thing you care about with positive results.

Everyone gets 15 Minutes of FAE

Everyone gets 15 Minutes of FAE

I need to talk about  Sleepy Hollow.

I’d heard that this show was quite good, but I am classically late to any and all TV phenomena.  I just tuned into it a few days ago, and it is a very fun show! It is a modern-day retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in which Ichabod Crane finds himself awoken in the present-day, where he must fight off supernatural foes with the aid of Lieutenant Abigail Mills. The show isn’t always at the high end of the truth and reason scale, but all I really ask of a show in those cases is that it entertain me when it stops making sense.  If you can entertain me when I make major suspensions of disbelief, I’m all good.

The plots in this show are pretty clever and the cast is at once likable, believable, and intriguing. Most importantly, dear reader, this show makes a great starting point for a roleplaying game.

I think every RPG nerd spends time figuring out how to translate his favorite piece of media into a storytelling experience. Statting up protagonists is an activity as old as roleplaying itself.  RPGs model some version of reality of fiction, so why wouldn’t you expose some of the fiction and reality you consume and live to some statting?  Statting characters becomes simpler the more you do it, and the more experience you have in the system you are using to stat.  The problem in my mind is how do you mimc the tropes and highlight the dramatic selling points of the show? That’s much trickier.

The problem for me comes in having to move from narrative to quantities and numbers.  How can I make the narrative arcs of the shows fit numbers?  Yes, I can develop systems and mechanics for this, but what if I want to just get something together really quickly? Let’s say I want to play Sleepy Hollow as an RPG in about 15 minutes?

This is the part where I want to introduce you to Fate Accelerated.

You can stat up a character really quickly using approaches (which describe ways to do things, not just raw stats) and Aspects, which allow you to move from narrative to natural language, which is a much smoother transition.  Once you have that, the main conceit of Fate with invocation of Aspects and Stunts is generally great tech.  If you want to develop a more advanced ruleset, you can add the additional layer of tech and rules that Fate Core provides without missing anything.

Even better, you can get some genre/show-specific items for free with little effort.  I decided that I wanted to highlight specific approaches and aspects of Sleepy Hollow, but instead of adding in a lot of new rules, I added different approaches. The approaches tell you a lot about the game you are playing, and act as world-building attributes. The fact that my Sleepy Hollow FAE approaches are Historical, Supernatural, Fighting, Investigative, Lawful, and Rebellious tells you an awful lot about what is happening on the show, doesn’t it?

In addition, the Aspects that you use give you a lot of information about the characters and the setting. You can use normal Aspects like High Concept and Trouble, but since Sleepy Hollow often spends a lot of time in the past, I also added a Flashback Aspect, which lets a character tell a story from their past as they invoke it.

All of these were easy to add, and I had the skeletons for this in about 15 minutes or so.  Then I just started making characters, and we’re ready to play!

I’ve been thinking about doing this for awhile, and now that I’ve done it I would suggest that everyone familiarize themselves with this ruleset and use it to put it to use.  If you want a fast way to tell your own versions of the stories you like to read or watch, I just don’t know if there are better systems in terms of ease of use and fidelity. Please try it out!

And while you’re at it, take a peek at my 10000% free, fan-friendly FAE adaption of Sleepy Hollow.

Five Fires Beta

Five Fires Beta

I wanted to make something that spoke to my soul.

I love RPGs, and I love hip hop.  I know that there have been games that have focused on urban life, but for my tastes most of those focus too much on violence and/or gang culture and not enough on music and culture. I wanted to make a game that used what I love about hip hop and that would focus on the artistic side of it. I wanted a game that was really about making art, and one that would focus on people with everyday problems who use the criminalized expression of hip hop to help them solve their problems or just to relieve the stress that their problems cause.

I made Five Fires to do just this.

In Five Fires, you play a regular person with extraordinary talent in one of the elements of hip hop — graf-writing, b-boying, MCing or DJing — who is looking to get exposure for her art, solve problems and find her own way through life.  Play is meant to take roughly an hour per session and each campaign, known as an Era, is six sessions long. At the end of an Era the problems yo’ve solved and the exposure you’ve gained lets you determine how your character’s story ends.  If you want to play in the same city afterwards, you can start a new Era in that city with a brand-new crew. What do they do with the legacy of those in the previous Era?

This is  beta for people who like RPGs and like art; this game is meant for those who like hip hop who don’t yet know that they love RPGs; this is or gamers who love RPGs and hip hop and want a game that speaks to those loves.

If I can be blunt, I really wanted to make Beat Street: the Game, because I love that movie and it says the things about hip hop that I want to say.

It’s in beta right now, so there are typos and some playtesting to be done.  There is a lack of setting text, so it is assumed that you know something about 80’s hip hop (though you can pick any time period of rap and play through it easily).  The game is also very, very player-directed, which allows the GM (titled the Opposition) to focus on a few things with no prep but requires players to be more pro-active

I hope if you love hip hop that this game speaks to you on some level. Here it is.

I want to thank everyone in my Patreon for their support, and all of my playtesters (I will enumerate everyone in the full edition of the book).


New Rules of Fantasy: On the Road

New Rules of Fantasy: On the Road

Adventuring is weird profession, isn’t it? As an adventurer I wander around the region looking for monsters to kill and ancient treasures to grab. If you’ve ever heard the term (“murderhobo”)[] , you’re starting to see where I’m going, but I want to go even deeper into the awkwardness of adventurers.

First: who is letting all of these very powerful people roam their kingdom doing as they will? Gritty fantasy constrains the impact of a small group of individuals, but in heroic fantasy, what king or queen wants a party wandering within the borders who can create an extinction level event? I’ve always felt that, unless a group of adventurers quickly aligned themselves with rulers and power brokers, they’d gain as many enemies as they have people thinking of them as saviors. There is no way that those with power can allow powerful people to just snowball into huge problems for them later.

The next issue is what you’d expect from me: who is it that pours power and skill into people and then says “you’re free to leave! Enjoy your life”? Historically, this did not happen. You were trained, you apprenticed, you served some person or organization’s purpose. There are always people who made their own way of course, but I doubt there were many people who left these organizations with a smile on everyone’s face. Similarly, I care most about how our characters got our skills and what connections that acquiring those skills gave them. If you were a member of the guard, then who do you still know? If you still work for them, what do they ultimately want you to do?

Taking this further, what I want in my games is to take away adventuring as a “profession”. What I’d rather have is adventuring as something that emerges from the result of my crazy job, and the crazy people that I meet. I want to keep mobility so characters can travel freely, but I want to give characters a purpose in the world besides gaining power and money. Rather than being the sole purpose for taking action, adventure becomes an emergent part of characters engaging in activities they are doing.

The real trick is: what professions do the characters take? There are any number of low-fantasy games that actually address what I am talking about, but I want to deal specifically with heroic fantasy as a genre. To do that, I need to make the scale of my professions scale. In a world where magic is a real thing, our professions need to embrace this. I’ve got two basic rules for professions that lead to adventure:

  • Travel is a must. The job must have a high amount of travel involved, whether by choice or necessity.
  • Personal judgement placed highly. This profession can’t be one where you are forced to follow orders to the letter. You are given general orders or specific missions and then you are left to decide how they are done.
  • Community built in. this profession comes with a built-in community. Whether it is an official organization or loose affiliation of like-minded people, this is who you know and who you may have learned from. It’s a source of connection, drama, and also plot as you move forward. Sometimes you need things from the community, sometimes it requires action from you.
  • Feed into fantasy. These professions don’t need to echo mundane real world professions. We can assume mundane professions exist, but we want to make professions that drive the fantastic and unreal aspects of the world.

Here is one example of what I’m talking about.

Gravemen. The Sacred Order of Headsmen is a guild for those trained as executioners and gravediggers. Though the guild has higher aspirations, its members are typically pulled from the lowest ranks of society. The work is grim, brutal, and lucrative, offering a chance at rising in station for those with the stomach for the work. Gravemen are not popular, and sometimes must retreat from mobs incited by more politically-charged executions. The guild provides safe-houses to gravewomen, and any other member of the guild is obliged to help anyone who can give them a “sword” or “shovel” coin, given to members of the guild after the apprenticeship period is over. Gravewomen typically serve at a station for a few months at a time before moving to the next assignment, though political realities can shorten that time period.

Gravemen have a bad reputation, as many think of them as psychopaths who also rob graves instead of digging them. The latter notion is somewhat true: Being specialists as digging graves and burial rites, gravemen are given access to location of tombs and mausoleums filled with riches. Those who like to take their life a little easier avail themselves of this knowledge, but gravemen are also the first suspects when tomb’s riches go missing.

Despite their bad reputations, Gravewomen are considered indispensable for their burial rituals that ensure a body cannot be woken with necromantic rituals, and for political expedience when a ruler must make an unpopular execution. Often unfairly, an executioners take the blame for the killing. A King’s executioner can be masked and therefore have his identity hidden, but a Gravewoman cannot be masked. Any retribution from a mob can and usually does fall squarely on her shoulders. This relieves the pressure from the person who ordered the execution, and can normally settle down even the most volatile of situations.

Gravewoman similarly serve a purpose of providing an neutral outsider to dispense the most brutal justice. Some communities will not dispense the proper justice to criminals because they risk censure from the community. Having a member of a smaller community be an executioner often meant isolating that person from everyone else so that she would not become to attached to those she might later have to kill. The lives of these executioners were bleak and miserable, and created distrust in the communities.

For these reasons a gravewoman is always begrudgingly welcomed into a community. A hardened outsider who will do what is needed and move on in time is seen as the perfect way to dispense justice and put people to their final rest.

What “adventure-ready” professions would you put in your world?

Naming our Narrators

Naming our Narrators

Here’s a thought that I can’t guarantee will leave us in a productive place: I can’t believe that meta-fictional narrators in RPG texts are neutral.

As I was working on the write-up to the drau, it occurred to me that the strongest part of the article was when the drau got to speak for themselves. The third person description in the first part was less compelling. And why was that? I didn’t know who was telling you about the drau. If I don’t know who talks to you about these people that I’m describing, how can I give you the proper perspective? How can I understand what this person is saying to you? I feel when the drau got to speak for themselves, they gave you a very biased outlook on who they were. The tension that the explicit bias creates is part of the appeal in the write-up.

The third person description, being neutral and meta-fictional (I don’t in anyway frame it as someone who lives in the same world as the drau) is bloodless and not as compelling, though I think it had some interesting details. But who is telling you all this detail?

Is it a drau historian? Is it a high elf? A human? Is the person a traveller who has seen all this, or someone who is getting a lot of information secondhand?

It’s not that there is no precedent for fictional narrators. Many books have and currently use it. Really what I want to do is call attention to it so I can use it explicitly with some of the content that I’m creating. Some of my favorite setting books were old school Shadowrun books. Bug City is to me a masterpiece of setting work. While long narrative description of setting is something I’m trying to avoid, that book is one heck of a good read, and a lot of that is because it represents so many viewpoints of the world. Enough that you never buy an objective timeline of events, but become engaged in the process of learning who to believe and how to interpret the events as reported. To run your own Bug City game, then, was to immerse your group into these events and to decide what is actually true. You want to know what things are really like, who is telling the truth? Play to find out.

Here’s what I’m thinking: What if we borrow a page from 13th Age (I’ve borrowed a lot of pages from 13th Age :)), and have narrators as icons? they won’t be prime icons, of course, but maybe a writeup of a few historians and travellers will give us a way to frame information that is at once more grounded and more interesting. Knowing narrator A is telling you something as opposed to Narrator B forces you to do a little guesswork if you know about their biases and prejudices. These opposing narrators might say completely different things about the same set of events…and that is great!
So as I’m doing more of these fantasy write ups, & I working more on revising my strategies for world building, I come into problems like this. And my first tendency is to question my assumptions. I know that the first answer to this question is because we’ve always done it this way. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I want to know what happens when we do something else. I want to know what happens when we don’t take these things for granted and then we try something else.

At this point I think I’m rambling, but I will put it out to you: what do you think of the history text approach to describing fantasy fiction? Are things fine like they are? Am I really just staring at my navel too intensely?

I think this is something worth talking about, and will probably be up a conversation on my Twitter

I am but a Simple Merchant: The Drau.

I am but a Simple Merchant: The Drau.

As a follow up to my alternate Lolth, here is a write-up of the drow. I am tweaking the spelling of the name here as drau to simply note the difference between what I’m doing here and more canonical representations of the race. Pronunciation is the same, but if you are writing it, using drau will make it easy to denote If you like drow as they are, I encourage you to keep enjoying them as you will and simply pass this by. If you are interested in a different look, take a peek and see what you like and what you might incorporate into your games! I recommend that you read about Lolth before delving into this.

Also, thanks to Brian Cooksey for suggesting the nickname “silk elves”. It fits perfectly and I love it. Thanks again!

Most who live on the surface rarely encounter a drau (also known as “silk elves”). But those who have met a silk elf know the phrase “I am but a simple merchant”, a common phrase spoken by drau silk merchants plying their trade far from their subterranean homes. The arrival of drau merchants in a place is anything but simple. The arrival of a silk caravan brings the opportunity for cultural enrichment and is a platform for intrigue. No drau merchant is simply what she appears, but what she is and what she wants is a mystery, sometimes even to the merchant herself. Lolth’s will is impossible for even her faithful to contemplate. Many locales have been irrevocably altered by the passage of these simple merchants, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

Even with the possibility for mayhem, most cannot resist the incredible properties of drau silk nor the enchanting music and poetry of the drau. The somber tones of drau-silk cellos can make even the gods weep, the silk merchants lie (but not by much).

Physical Characteristics

The drau appear as other elves do, with elongated, pointed ears and fine, pointed features. Drau bodies are long and lithe, though they can hold deceptive amounts of strength. Their skin is bone white, adapted after milennia spent underground. The most common eye colors for drau are a vivid pink and a cold steel blue. Wide variance in eye colors exist for drau, though the colors are always either exceptionally bright or muted.

Their pale skin means that the exposure to sunlight can quickly harm their skin. When on the surface, drau don multi-layered garments known as sun-robes. The first layer is a wrapping of drau silk to cover the flesh, while the outer layer is a brightly colored robe embroidered with stories and histories from that drau’s brood. To protect their eyes in the sun, the drau don crystal googles to filter light. When the weather is too hot, the outer layers of clothing can be stripped and the drau’s skin will still stay protected.

A drau garbed this way is what most surface dwellers see; few have ever seen the bare flesh of a drau unless visiting the drau in their own underground cities, where sun-robes are not needed.

Drau are creatures deeply attuned to magic like other types of elves. Whereas other elves are connected to the lands of fey, the Drau are connected with Lolth to the Lifeweb. The Lifeweb (other elves call it the Demonweb) grants silk elves with the ability to communicate with Lolth (when she deems it necessary) and to receive power and blessings from her. The Lifeweb possesses ambient power of its own, and all drau gain the access to create life loam, a living clay that can be sculpted and animated to perform the will of its maker. Drau with deeper connections to the Lifeweb can weave together the fabrics of organic things through intense concentration. When people imply that drau cities are full of life, they mean so literally, as loam guardian statues and servitors can be found everywhere within drau civilizations, as can incredible structure built from silk, moss, and lichen.

Drau Culture

I’m used to (and you probably are as well) supplying a long narrative about a culture to give you a picture of who they are. What I’m going to do in this article is I will try to use another format I’ve built for what I refer to as ‘gameable culture’. This format sacrifices narrative thoroughness for a more emergent, easier to play experience. It is told from the perspective of a drau and details elements of culture and belief. If I’m doing this right, you should be able to take the above overview and the below information and let characters quickly step into playing a drau or encountering and interacting with drau. I hope you try this format and let me how it does or does not work for you! Just be aware that I know I haven’t supplied you with a long list of detail. This is purposeful, so you can integrate the silk elves into your games more easily.

Where I’m From

(What are things the drau do?)

  • We gather in extended familial organizations called broods, each ruled by a matriarch “Broodmother”.
  • Each drau has her own private connection to Lolth, but one’s status determines how much weight we place on that relationship.
  • We will go to great lengths to get elves to forsake their gods.
  • We travel above ground rarely, and never just to trade silk.
  • We expect others not to trust us. We use their distrust to further our own purposes.

Heroic Archetypes

(what are common heroic archetypes for the drau?)

Simple Silk Merchant
Loam Artiste
Sage of the Lifeweb
Fey Infiltrator

A Drau is…

(how do drau see themselves? What characteristics seem virtuous to them?)

  • enigmatic
  • creative
  • reverent
  • soft-spoken
  • clever
  • faithful
  • independent
  • sly
  • sarcastic
  • multi-faceted

Drau History

(important events -evocatively named but left purposely blank- how did these events occur in your setting?)

  • Banished from the High Court
  • Abyssal Invasion of the Lifeweb
  • The Silent Year when Lolth Refused to Speak

So now comes the fun part. Given this material, can you stat up drau in your favorite system of choice? If the drau interest you, I’d love to see what you come up with. If you draw them up in D&D, Pathfinder, 13th Age, Fate, Savage Worlds, et al. please post a link on this article. If we get a good response I’ll make a page for the Drau that links to your write-up!

New Rules of Fantasy #3: No Man is an Island

New Rules of Fantasy #3: No Man is an Island

I know how strong I am and how fast I can run. I have a rough measure of my intelligence and also how persuasive or good looking I am. I know that I can or cannot cast spells and what skills I possess. I have a name. What do I know about my character?

Not much. A lot of what we're doing when we build characters is we build them from the inside out. We fill our character's attributes and traits, but we have no clue what culture our character comes from (and no elf or dwarf is not a culture), and because we don't know really what culture the character comes from, we don't have any clue what the character does or does not believe.

Before you start hunting out the systems that do deal with culture, another gentle reminder that I am looking at general trends and I am looking at systemless approaches to the issues I account for. While it would be nice to just say "everyone play game XX", I don't think it's practical. To be honest, I don't really want to prescribe a one system-fits-all solution for any of this. Systems are great, but what I care most about is how I'm thinking. A lot of things get done because that's how they've always been done and very little reason beyond that. I want to look at these assumptions and pull the thread a bit.

Not having a cultural reference point is rarely a problem in modern or near future games because we get to use the time we live in as a reference point. But the underpinnings of even a stock fantasy world are such that lacking culture is the equivalent of lacking character. We can try to overwhelm this lack with a big backstory, but I've a rather dim view of doing a bunch of story before we even start playing. After all, we're sort of playing to tell the story, right? If you come into the game with 10 pages of background, you have a lot of detail, but all that history in practice can really stifle play. Plus, in order to really bring it into the story, the whole table really needs to know it, so that they may steer play to interact with it. Multiply the big back-story by several players, and you soon have background that makes actually playing a bit difficult.

Without this, characters are hard to get a grip on until we actually play for several sessions. We are forced to make decisions, and merciful GMs usually let people undo some of their choices early in a character's life to make sure a player is playing the character she wants to play. That's a fine workaround to characters lacking background, but fundamentally I think the problem is that we build characters as individuals first. It is very common in our fantasy gaming to build an imaginary person and then bolt culture (if we have any reference points for it) on later. That makes sense, right? Our stories are those of individuals making some change in the world, so what is wrong with building that component?

The problem with that is that no one exists alone. Try as you might, you exist, right now, in a political, geographical, and social context. Humans are first and foremost creatures of culture. To understand any human fully, you must understand the place and times in which they live first. Knowing this will let you know where they are typical, where they are atypical, where they struggle and where they excel. Every person is a product of their society. Even if you play the typical anti-social loner character, that character's anti-social behavior is reflecting off of some other culture. Your anti-social loner who has left a culture of nomadic desert people likely carries a different set of beliefs and traits than my anti-social loner who comes from a agricultural culture in temperate climates.

Culture informs the basics of what we believe and how we perceive the world. Culture implies a history, as culture is often a reaction to events happening to a people. Culture also implies culture, as significant shifts in context (racial, geographical, religious, et al.) create alternate histories (really alternate views of history) which in turn create different reactions which then become different subcultures.

In this sea of culture and history are the individuals who live in it right this moment. Your character is one of them! Now that you know you came from the nomadic desert people, what can you say about your character? How does your race affect that context? Did folks treat you differently? Why have you left it? Do you identify with it or reject it? When we start our character creation culture first, all of these questions emerge quite naturally. Once we get a sense of where a character is from, determining the character's attributes now take a whole new dimension. Determining who are individual is in the context of other people in a time and place makes everything else make sense. The great thing is that it even gives us purchase when we reject things! Rejection and acceptance of cultural norms are both equally powerful in terms of character definition, and the act of simply accepting or rejecting everything from our culture is an easy way to make a powerful character. It might seem unsubtle, but there's even room for nuance by approaching matters in detail.

The problem here is that using culture to start character creation requires having cultural hooks to begin with. There is a lot of setting detail that fantasy games have, but for the purposes of actually playing games, having to read all that material isn't going to work for most people. "You need to make a character, so go read these forty pages first" is not very appealing. How then, do we approach culture-first characters?

I've created some Gameable Culture tools that will get you started. Condense the relevant cultures of your setting with these tools, and make a 1-2 page reference for your players. They will not have the entire history of your setting, but they'll have enough to ground them and start playing. The trick here is that you don't need a setting's entire narrative to engage with it. Evocative hooks work incredibly well here.

It's important that you portray each culture as worthy to itself. If there is a culture where lying is acceptable and corruption is commonplace, don't write their defining statements as if they think of themselves as liars — find the reason that they find lying acceptable. Everyone is the hero of their own story, so make each culture worthy to itself without judging from the outside.

The upside to this approach is that you then create room for characters from differing cultures to productively disagree. If my culture sees yours as liars, we might be able to talk about that thing. Your character might choose to explain how you see it, and I can accept or deny it. The key isn't that there are right or wrong answers, it's that we create interesting, layered hooks for play.

I know that it seems I've delved into moral relativism, but let's put this in the proper context: We are playing games that produce stories. What makes stories interesting are detail and conflict. By providing the hooks and details for cultural interaction, what we are doing is creating a space for our game to have richer detail and conflict. I don't believe that we need to believe the things our characters believe. I think sometimes the most interesting characters to play are those who see the world very differently. But to run those characters, we need the groundwork for building how they see. In all cases, the way to know how someone sees the world is understanding what it is that they've been shown, and what they have already seen. Understanding their cultural context is the most sure way to get that.

New Rules of Fantasy #2: Action, Not Violence

New Rules of Fantasy #2: Action, Not Violence

Violence is overrated.

Let me tell you something about myself. Since kindergarten I've been obsessed with combat sports of all types. I've consumed probably hundreds of ultra-violent pieces of media, and am a mega-fan of UFC and MMA in general. I don't think that violence is something that can be 100% avoided in this life, and I am by no means a pacifist.

But I'd like less fighting in my games. More specifically, I want violence to be just one of many expressions for conflict. When I was talking about evil races I think it was a bit easier to grok because it parallels to life. It's easy to see where art imitates life and how that might be problematic of stifling.

But this…am I saying RPGs should not have combat? That I should take the action out of an action-adventure game? On its face that is what it seems, but where I really want to go is in-depth on what action is. What I want is a broader palette of what constitutes "action" in the first place and to be willing and capable of serving different modes of action to players instead of different types of fights.

I want to put the action in action-adventure games, and action is not violence. Doing this in my own games produced for me a more vibrant region of play. As I created more scenes that where action-oriented but not combats, it signaled to players that they had more expressions of character capability more than just how they could swing a sword or cast a combat spell. As the players learned that there were more types of action than fighting, they proceeded to try more things. One of the reasons I like to GM is to have players surprise me with their solutions to problems, so you'd imagine my delight as they came up with crazy things they want to try.

Another reason that violence in my fantasy doesn't always fit well with me is because it is too easy to get into this mode where all of your problems will be solved if you stab the right person. I understand that this resolves moral ambiguity and makes for cleaner storytelling, but the formula over these almost thirty years doesn't do much for me; maybe I've just been doing it too long? Whatever the reason, I don't want games that are just strings of "other stuff" to pad the time between combat. I want fights, but I want them to be exciting and well-suited to the situation. I can't stand the thought of random encounters in a tabletop games. When I play tabletop games, what I'm really sitting down for are interesting narratives and interactions; I'm really not looking to spend significant time killing things in my imagination. I can scratch that itch more immediately and more profoundly by playing Diablo III or Street Fighter IV or just about any good action video game on the market. I want tabletop to provide different things, things that it is better at. I don't think RPGs are great for combat as a major mode of play. People are tempted to bring in their favorite system, but I am not interested in looking at this from a systems point of view. I look at this starting from the viewpoint of our sensibilities; what do we think we should be doing, and how do we get there? When we change our assumptions, we can use almost any system we prefer to do what we want.

So…what is action? Let's start by being boring:

  1. the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim.
  2. a thing done; an act.

It's a start? Really it's too sweeping and generally applicable for us to use at the table. This definition of action is pretty much everything we are doing, from talking to rolling dice.

So let me try a working definition of action in a storytelling game:

Action is any fictional sequence that changes the state of the fictional world through by creating tension and then resolving it through navigation of one or more dynamics.

So, asking the GM, "what do I see?" is not action. There is no tension in the fictional world, just perception. There is no dynamic at play. You just want to understand what it is that your character perceives. Your GM tells you to some degree and then you move on.

You'll note that combat in almost every RPG fits this definition. There is a tension — Do I live? Do I win the combat? — and varying dynamics that propel us towards answering that question. So when we engage in combat, we feel like we are taking action in the world, whose state will certainly change depending on whether we win or not.

Don't lose the thread and start hunting for different combat systems! We can find combat systems with more or less detail, or systems with very minimal/non-existent combat rules, but these exceptions are notable because of the general trend they go against.

There is a tendency for skill systems to be the opposite of this. You make a roll and succeed or fail. There is a bit of tension, and a state change, but dynamics are usually missing or flat. Again, there are great games that are different than this, but I'm speaking high level/general trends. I'm even going to move away from systems at this point, because what's important is how we break this down ourselves. I find that when start thinking differently about action, we can build systems that satisfy our thoughts and rebuilt assumptions.

Where we create dynamics is where we point players to interacting with. Part of the fun of games is the pachinko effect, where you drop your chip down the top, and you get to see where it comes out. We want to generate surprise and by obfuscating the realm between the player and the fiction, we can build systems that turn out just differently enough that meaningful engagement can possibly emerge and delight us.

I believe combat is the heart and soul of what we tend to understand about the hobby because it can speak so directly to this. But when you break it down, it becomes a liability to have it as our sole expression of action. Is combat always life or death? If it is, I am encouraged to be as safe as possible, because over the course of many fights I am risking a character I love with one or two bad rolls. Similarly, don't my opponents have to engage at this level as well? Combat feels like an action where failure is so bad that, while it is often a common expression of action, it also risks ruining a campaign or session. We want the tension of death, but the reality of death is that it's final or we have to engage in unsatisfying workarounds. One step is to build a whole new set of outcomes for fights….but that's another post.

Let's look at building up that lexicon of action. Something I've found is that you can make interesting actions with a four step process:

  • Define Your Context
  • Create a Question
  • Define Your Verb(s)
  • Define Opposing Forces

Define Your Context. What's the situation? Where are the characters and who surrounds them? What are the stakes?

Create a Question. the question is what everything is about. Can the characters arrive to the church on time? Can the characters successfully climb the mountain?

Define Your Verb(s) this is the start of the dynamic. What are the characters doing? Are they climbing? Running? Singing? Are there multiple ways to get there?

Define Opposing Forces. You know what the characters are doing, but what is to stop them from doing it? What opposes them along the way? How does the opposition oppose them? Once you know what the characters are doing and how and by what they are opposed by, you've got the creation of an interesting dynamic.

Once you've define the action this way, you have built something for your players (and by extension, their characters) something to hook into. Again, feel free to use your favorite system for mechanics, but I think this simple rules-agnostic method gets you in the correct mind-frame.

Here's an example:

** Down the Mountain **
Situation. Characters are coming back from a fruitful exploration of dwarven ruins. They carry back some artifacts with them, but the spirits do not like being disturbed.

Questions. Can the characters descend safely? Can they find some way to appease the disturbed spirits?

Verbs. Climbing, rappelling, navigation. Negotiating.

Opposition. The snow-covered mountain, with its avalanches and harsh climate. The spirits, who try to scare and sabotage the character's trip.

We could make a few rolls and be done, we can hand-wave getting down the mountain and do something else. This isn't a tool that you have to use for every scene, but isn't it nice to have options? Isn't it nice to run a game where action can mean a whole host of things?

That's the type of fantasy I'm building and playing these days.

New Rules of Fantasy #1: Evil is a Choice

New Rules of Fantasy #1: Evil is a Choice

I'm bored with fantasy.

I love fantasy.

I'm torn regularly by what fantasy gaming has been to me and what it has not been to me; I anguish a bit about what fantasy gaming is and what it could be. Anybody who knows me knows I'm always full of these hopes and anxieties, negatives and positives waging war for my heart.

When I love something, I embrace it then run for the edges and boundaries: What if we did this? What about that? When I hate something, it ceases to exist: if you can get me to discuss it at all you'll get nothing more than a cautionary tale. When I can't fully reconcile something, when I oscillate between love and hate, I like to rebuild it. Rebuilding gives me a way to excise what I hate, while strengthening what it is that I love about the thing, whatever it is.

So, cloaked in hubris, I've decided to rebuild fantasy gaming from a cultural perspective to something I can vibe with. I shouldn't even need to say this, but I will: These are my rules and my thoughts, for how I intend to build and run fantasy games in the future. I'm not going to entertain what has already been done because it's umm, already done. By all means do what you like and if the status quo works for you, do it. I'm all for people enjoying the games they enjoy, but I have to go here because I'm not really enjoying gaming and I want to. I design games, so I can just make the games I want to play.

For the portion of the Internet that doesn't understand and/or will hate everything I'm about to say, I say: I don't really care. You have the games that you want and you can keep what you've got. You win, I'm done and doing something else. That something I make will be for me and maybe for others as well. I won't be bothered to argue about what's better, because I don't believe that there is some objective truth for gaming. It's all about meeting one's needs in the most fulfilling manner possible, which is what I am doing in this post.

For everyone else, let's have interesting discussions about this.

Rule #1: Evil is a Choice

Kobolds and Goblins have always made me uncomfortable. It's not on an aesthetic level, as they were made to be grotesque and non-human. It's the notion that they have been labelled in D&D and it's derivations as innately evil, or that they are inherently prone to evil acts.

Evil to Who? Centrality

To even talk about good and evil, we need a reference point. In D&D we have alignment as a strict tool, but simply the notion of good and evil applied at a racial level implies that there is a universal set of standards being applied to a whole planet of people. Kobolds are evil, but who says? Do Kobolds think they are evil? I don't think even evil people think they are evil. They feel they have to do things based on what they have seen and what has been done to them. All thinking beings try to do things that they think will benefit them or help them avoid harm and punishment.

But who gets to say what and who is evil? Who is the reference point. The typical fantasy answer is humanity does. We'll note that generally humans are the only race in these worlds with totally flexible morality. They stand in the center of all talks of morality and alignment. This flexibility to choose is generally posited as humanity's main advantage over races that can be smarter, tougher, or more numerous.

What is wrong with humans being central to fantasy? We are, in fact, humans when we play these games. While this can't be argued, the problem I see is that we end up telling one story. When there is only one central point, all we get is one look at a group and one look at the world. That one view can get monolithic really quick, and then no matter how much we try to add new elements and vistas, our setting is not truly being enriched. When we enforce a centralized worldview on our settings, we turn everything into a comparative exercise with the people or culture at the center. So kobolds are evil as opposed to humans while angels are good; dwarves are shorter than humans and elves are taller. It's hard to express the truly unique aspects of our fantasy world when the most powerful mode of expression always ends with "…as compared with humans." If we are being honest, we are not even looking at humans broadly; we are only looking at the views and morality of ancient European civilizations, and even then only through the filter of where we were raised (so for me, an American filter).

Loot Machines

One way we can approach how we got to this problem is to look at fantasy's dealing with race through a sort of racial determinism, an insidious tie to real-world views that some races are just naturally X and are bad at Y and prone to Z. I've certainly heard some gamers argue for exactly this.

As much as I'd love to deflate and debate this in fantasy gaming and real life, what I want to do to be more productive is look at an even simpler game decision that I think drives this on a more conscious level: Who do I kill to get XP?

If one race is good (compared to humans) and one race is evil (compared to humans), it's then pretty easy for you to point your blade at the former group and not the latter. I don't kill elves because they are good, but I kill kobolds because they are evil. Kobolds give me XP, and possibly loot!

Many fantasy games make racial evil a necessity by driving character growth through murder and violence. For my character to grow in capability, I have to kill someone. I'm not judging this, or failing to recognize exceptions; this is merely a large driving function in many fantasy games.

If killing is how you grow, and you expect characters to be heroes (even anti-heroes), they need some motivation or reason to kill that is higher than "get loot" –that is nakedly sociopathic behavior and probably not something many people want to do for their recreation.

So we dress it up. The kobolds are evil from birth and when you see one, it is probably going to be attacking you and you are OK to slay it. It's a convenience, and it's a reason I grow more and more disenchanted with it. I'll be honest and say when I think of this I think about my own life as an African-American and how many times I am pre-judged to do be all of these threatening things when I am really just a nerd trying to raise a son and be a good employee, father, and husband…and all of a sudden I feel for the kobold. It's not that being a kobold has anything to do with being black; it's that in both of these cases we are told this is who we are by societies and people who know nothing about us as individuals. It is frustrating at times.

More importantly, it's not what I want to be doing with my free time anymore. The best and worst thing that ever happened to me was to start taking my gaming more seriously. Doing game design and re-examining the lens of gaming has made gaming more fun but it's also closed a lot of doors. I just can no longer go back to hordes of evil races that I can kill without guilt. It's just too real for me and not fun.

In real life what people do is label people as evil to justify performing atrocities to those they've labelled. Is that what our fantasy has to be?

Choosing Evil

So if we can't have races full of people born evil, do we abolish evil?

Nope. Evil is still a great narrative tool, and still carries constructive energy to use in our stories. We just need to restructure its use, and stop using evil as a shortcut that means "you can kill me".

It means looking at the motivations for our characters individually, and seeing what choices they've made, and then reacting.

Some kobolds are attacking you and trying to kill you? You of course have to defend yourself. But why are they attacking you? Not every fight has to be a moral conundrum, but just understanding a basic motivation like "These kobolds want your stuff" gives us a richer basis to understand what the kobolds want to do, how to react, what to do next.

And when we say evil, let's be explicit whose worldview they are evil from. Making a universal, centralized evil is completely convenient but ultimately hollow. The dragon terrorizing town might be evil to the humans in that area, but what if the dragon is afraid that it's babies will fall victim to the bandits in the area. We might have to fight the dragon to the death, or maybe we learn the dragon's situation and compromise. Maybe we go after the bandits!

When people are choosing, we have options. When people are on tracks of behavior, we have almost no options. This dragon must attack the town because it is evil gives you way less options than the above scenario does.

I know people are often afraid to unpack fantasy's shortcuts and conveniences fearing that doing so will make their games to heavy or morally complex. I say that embracing a decentralized morality makes our games richer and more vibrant.

That's the choice I've made.