Category Archives: Theory



A Long Relationship

I think a lot about why I like anime. What about it keeps me watching it so intently?I’m not really for the weird things that often creep out my cultural sensibilities, like weird fan-service or sometimes weird hyper-racist depictions (it doesn’t happen so often with what I like to watch, but that just makes it more violent and weird sometimes…).

I’m not really for the weird things that often creep out my cultural sensibilities, like weird fan-service or sometimes weird hyper-racist depictions (it doesn’t happen so often with what I like to watch, but that just makes it more violent and weird sometimes…).

When I think about why I like anime, I think I get a little weirded out because I loved anime when I was a child. The first time I saw Robotech and didn’t even know about anime (which I think they tried to first nickname ‘Japanimation’ to make it sound less foreign?) I was hooked. Most things I loved as a child I have either abandoned, evolved my tastes or cultivated an uneasy and lukewarm relation to.  My love for anime remains pretty intact though.

Certainly, it can’t be the filler that one must often contend with or people screaming for what feels like minutes. There are all these flaws and holes in most of the anime that I watch that could easily turn you off. They certainly drive my wife away, though my son loves it many of them.

A Physical Emotion: Hyperemotion

Breaking it down, why I am here for anime is that it’s storytelling deals in hyperemotion.  Hyperemotion is that range of intense feelings powerful enough to animate you, moving you out of your normal state of being so that you can change the world around you.  Hyperemotional storytelling can result in lots of screaming-while-you-punch cinematics, but it also results in moving scenes that touch your heart.
Hyperemotion creates a connection between your feeling as an audience member and the character you are watching.
When the story reaches its Hyperemotion apex, it has this chance to make you, the viewer, feel the emotion the protagonist feels. When Hyperemotion is skillfully done, you feel sometimes like you are smashing through that foe, that obstacle, that wall of physical or psychological force that steps in your way.
In Hyperemotion, you and the protagonist share fists, minds, and hearts.
Hyperemotion is built most effectively not by focusing on individual pains and actions, but rather by creating emotion “networks” within the story. The Hyperemotional network is the grid of emotional energy  expressed and delivered by a group of related characters. An emotional network builds better emotion because it can build tension in these networks before releasing them into a climactic burst of emotional and physical entity.

Actors and Feelers

Hyperemotional networks create this tension by creating two basic classes of characters: Actors and Feelers.
Feelers are those who are able to experience the world as it is.  They appreciate and exist best they can within the status quo. They can only experience and feel the world however; they cannot change it. For the audience, Feeelers are our true viewpoint into the world.  We can tell if the balance and harmony of the world is OK based on how we see the Feelers react. Feelers rely on Actors to change the world if it somehow becomes unsatisfactory.
Actors are those with the ability to change the world that they currently inhabit. They have sacrificed feeling for agency and power. While Actors have principles, they lack perception of the world as it is, meaning that they no longer appreciate it to anywhere near the level that feelers do.  Actors can only really truly feel through their relationships with Feelers. It is the relationship with Feelers that allow Actors to feel and eventually lead through Hyperemotional states.
To be direct: Feelers are what make life worth living for actors.  Feelers are the most important characters in just about any anime/manga story.   
I give two classes but understand that every character tends to exist on a spectrum between these Actor and Feeler.  Characters might have a 30/70 split of Actor/Feeler, or even 50/50. Each of these ratios of acting to feeling represents a major character archetype.
It is very rare when a character is 100% Actor or Feeler, and even those states tend to be transitional. We can think about when a character enters a “burst” state, where their emotions turn them into a being of total action for a temporary time. In “Burst” characters can use powers to change the state of the world.  They can tear down the walls or situation that troubles the feelers in their network.

The Krillin Effect

Did you ever ask yourself: “Why the FUCK is Krillin here?”  Dragon Ball Z quickly gets to a point where Krillin is out of his depth. Yet he remains a crucial part of just about every storyline. I think of this as “the Krillin Effect”.
Krillin is probably about 99/1 Feeler/Actor. Krillin does so little in the latter DBZ story. Not through lack of effort — he tries really hard! — but he lacks the capacity to do more than he does in the arena he is in. Krillin is a walking hostage, functioning as a portable plot device.  “Save Krillin!” is a pretty common subplot in DBZ. Krillin’s most important function, though, is that he reminds Goku what it is to be human.
I don’t know if you know this, but Goku is, by most relevant definitions of the word, a God. Goku can literally destroy planets. In the later DBZ, Goku is pretty much 1/99 Feeler/Actor. How does such a being even think about beings who don’t possess his power? Goku is married to a human, but even she is off the battlefield.  Her inability to act is at best background noise.  But Krillin is the in the moment reminder of humanity and it’s limitations. Krillin puts forth effort and falls short, feels fear and pain. Krillin thinks of consequences to the world around.  Krillin is of this world and inside it; Goku is merely tethered to this world.  Krillin is the most impactful part of Goku’s emotional network, focusing and channeling what the even more powerless humans in the generally unnamed and unseen cities would certainly be feeling.
There is a sense to me that Krillin would actually be humanity’s proxy in the world of DBZ.  He is our champion, but not representing our power.  He is the champion of our feelings and powerlessness in the context of Saiyans and other conquering gods.
Krillin has grown up with Goku (interesting to note that Krillin was much more of an actor in the original Dragon Ball) and the two have deep bonds. Their relationship is one of the clearest examples of the Hyperemotional network in action.
Goku has the power to save and change the world…but Krillin represents the reason he even wants to. One can argue that Goku couldn’t even relate to this world he repeatedly saves without Krillin and his network of friends who live inside it and share their jokes, pains, and fears with him.

The Power of Community

So it is that the powerful and the “weak” often empower each other in Hyperemotional networks. In recognizing this, I realize that my main reason for watching anime for all these years is watching these imaginary communities come to life on screen. I still derive fascination at how these communities come together to empower individuals to transform the world in which they live.
When the storytelling brings us properly to physical and emotional transformation, there’s nothing quite like it.

Three Pillars: Culture, Play and Medium in Social Fiction

Three Pillars: Culture, Play and Medium in Social Fiction

We discussed what social fiction is, but what is it made from? What are the pillars of social fiction?

We start where we always must: the beginning. In any variation, social fiction starts with a group of people who wish to collaborate on creating a story. How they gather and what stories they tell are irrelevant. We want to frame the endeavor, the act of fulfilling this desire and the conceptual spaces and interactions that comprise it. The best way I know to frame space is to ask questions:

Who is playing? What do they want? What do they not want? How do they plan to interact? The answers to these questions describes culture, the norms and customs that define the conceptual, emotional, and political (yes politics! There’s always politics in groups) space where this activity takes place.

What is the process by which we create stories? How do players transition from imagine (“what-if”) to pretending/acting (“as-if”) to delivering feedback (“what happened?”)? These questions frame play. Play gets linked to many things but is best thought of as a process of actualized, manifested pretending in any context. Play is iterative and growth-oriented, linking all other elements described.

What happens? Where does that information live? What is the artifact of the group’s play? These questions define medium, the record of the story we create. Stories exist to be consumed, no matter how the stories are created or told. Whether we consume our group stories into our memories or into word documents or Twitch streams, these stories are always going somewhere. Medium informs the shape, pace, and manner of play. Medium also influences culture.

Culture, play and medium interact in a specific way.

culture-play-mediumCulture and medium are connected through play. Those who play will decide what type of story they want to be telling, then iterate through imagining/pretended/feedback cycles. The  feedback we get from interactions (“what happened?”) are recorded to the medium we use.

Culture is where players live, medium is where fiction lives, and play is how players and fiction communicate.

Though they do not interact directly, culture influences medium with cultural imperatives. What our players want will affect what medium we use and how we use the medium. Medium influences culture with its own needs, creating customs and practices around the medium’s usage.

In the next few weeks I’ll discuss culture, play and medium separately and in-depth.

(Originally published in the newsletter Social Fictions)


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

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.

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?


Stop Designing For Fun

Stop Designing For Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building the Tight Loop: What’s out there.

Building the Tight Loop: What’s out there.

Let’s start thinking about what we want to do. Before I go on new adventures, I like to examine what exists that does what I want or gets close to where I want to be.  I don’t like to reinvent wheels, unless they really could use the work.

Leaping into it, I think Fiasco does a great job of setting up a loop. you break Fiasco down into these fast-playing, discrete units, and you construct a situation and do something with it very quickly.  It can take 2-3 hours, but this is in part because it needs time to construct a scenario from whole cloth.  Once you know how things work, the gameplay gets lean and even faster in short order.

In a similar vein, Our Last Best Hope is a game that I really want to play so bad it causes me pain. It takes many cues from Fiasco, but takes a different thematic bent: instead of acting out something from a Coen Brothers movie, you are playing a group of people confronting an earth-ending catastrophe. Theme aside, What I like about Our Last Best Hope in terms of this style of driven, focused play I advocate is its clever systems for generating complications and threats, driving the game forward without the need to do a lot of prep-work.

What both of these games do is create a space for you to do your thing in the fiction, with just enough “scaffolding” to move you along and  tell you what’s next.  Actually, I need to park on this concept of “What happens next?” for a moment.

Systems that tell you what happens after a player takes an action lessen the need to do a bunch of prep-work ahead of time. What happens is a very different thing than a result.  I can roll my attack, get less than my target, and acquire the result of a “miss”. But what happened?  A result,  is something a rule provides you as a basis to interpret into the fiction. A result doesn’t usually mean much outside of the abstract system that created it, but  you often need or prefer a result because it gives you that interpretative control over the fiction, which is awesome. If you are constantly interpreting results into fiction however, creative fatigue can sneak up on you. A system that offers the next “move” in the fiction of your game provides a valuable service.

Think about it: what do you spend most of your time prepping for in your story? Contingencies.  If the players do X, Y happens. If they do Y, Z happens.  That’s just a GM ahead of time deciding what happens next for a subset of actions. Nothing bad about, but what I’m advocating is that we get to the table without the homework and without the guesswork. If I am GMing and I know a system provides ample feedback on what happens next, it lifts the burden from my shoulders.  I can be more confident that I can keep a game going since I don’t have to do all the legwork of providing feedback to player actions over and over, or worse yet, having to prepare a lot of it ahead of time (knowing that most of it won’t be used)

A game that I think really pushes “what’s next?” gameplay to another level is Apocalypse World. When you do X, roll dice and see what results fall out” is a really powerful design pattern in RPGs.  If you don’t believe me, shall I point you all of the really incredible hacks of the system spread over the entirety of the internet, the most famous of which is Dungeon World. A less-discussed (or I don’t hear it very much at least) aspect that Apocalypse World works with are threat “clocks” and “vectors” with the mechanics and structure of Fronts.  This takes “what happens next?” even further. It asks and answers “What’s coming?” which is a great tool for adding suspense and tension to a game.

Did you really think you were going to go a whole week without hearing me talk about Marvel?  Really? I thought you knew me by now.

Anyway, here’s the deal: having a generalized conflict system rocks. Hands down.  In Marvel we never roll for initiative, and we never have to lean back and let the dust settle. Winning an argument and getting into a fight with the Hulk (why would you do that?) use the same rules in different contexts and with different tools available to you.  We don’t have the cognitive load of switching subsystems and we get to represent all of our actions on equal terms so it lets us run crazy stuff in parallel at a quick pace.  I can run a pretty solid Marvel game in about an hour and a half that feels like an issue of a comic.

Last, I want to talk about Dog Eat Dog.  I have yet to get folks together to play this game (it hurts!!!) but looking at the game I can see its elegant premise and mechanics at play in a game that falls nicely within my (admittedly arbitrary) parameter of 1 hour.  If you want to play it via G+ Hangout, you should let me know. I’ve been wanting to play it for quite some time. Dog Eat Dog combines a narrow (but strangely versatile) premise with a simple , consistent mechanic as a driver to what seem like meaningful and concise games.

Of course I missed your favorite game!  Please tell me about it in the comments and why you think it’s something we should take note of.

More with Less: Tight Loops

More with Less: Tight Loops

I talk with Chris Chinn about games a lot these days. We talk about RPGs on twitter. We talk about them while playing Borderlands. We talk about  RPGs while playing RPGs. One thing  out of many things we agree on:  RPGs take too long.

I like when RPGs have movement and pacing and momentum.  The game flows from one scene/element to the next in a logical and brisk matter.  I think that many of our games are built and structured against this.

I agree with what Chris says in the linked article. I’ve also been chewing on it on my own.

The first problem I see is the assumption that players will have to carve out a 4 hour block of time to play. It carves out an expectation that the game must fill a sizable chunk of time and our play will expand to fill it. Building an episodic story in 4 hour blocks week by week (or every other week or whenever you structure the scene) really does seem to imply that an RPG must take a long time to enjoy. RPGs are a fine wine that must age over time to be appreciated.

I disagree. I think RPGs can be made enjoyable in a smaller unit of time. I think that you could make a game that plays well in the space of one hour, an experience with a clear start, middle and end; play that opens a situation and then does something with it.  Play that doesn’t dawdle, look up rules, or roll for initiative.

What I don’t want anymore: a structure of RPG play that assumes a 4 hour block. I almost never have that time to play RPGs anymore, but more importantly, it feels like 4 hours assumes some  “waste” in the game. Maybe players spend time figuring out what to do, or it could be the enacting of a complex procedure or mechanic, or it could be an in-game “shopping” trip.  Whichever it is, there is a certain amount of waste implied, an expected amount of filler that I no longer want to incorporate into my designs or my game.

I want to play a game for one amazing hour, and then I want to do it again.  If I can make a game play well in one hour, I can run that loop three more times and get a four hour game.

There are games out there that provide a good structure and/or rules set for doing just this.  I’ll touch on some of those, but I’m also looking at how I can work with this in my own games and my own designs. I want to work with you to see how you could use it in your play.

Once you say to yourself, ” You’ve got an hour to play and no more”, you are forced down the path of simplicity. Look at what you don’t absolutely need and discard it.

So, what don’t we need?

Excessive steps for a players turn.  This is extending on rolls a bit.  Basically, the more stuff you have to do procedurally on your turn, the slower things go.  This is a boring conclusion to reach, as it’s not conceptually interesting. Nevertheless, it’s a reality that more steps equals more slowdown in gameplay. We’ve got to be lean.

Lots of choices. Choice happens essentially at two places  There’s the choice of what we want our character to do and the choice of how we want them to do it.  The funny thing is many games provide not much mechanical support for the former choice and too much choice for the latter.  Not much structure is given for helping players decide their next step, but for the actions a game deems important, there is an embarassment of riches, to the extent that making a choice in the fiction can seem boundless and without heft (no mechanical support) and a choice mechanically can be overwhelming (too many options, not enough differentiation between options).  Guess what all of this means? Slow slow slow.

Capital “P” plot.  We’ve got an hour, so long overarching plots aren’t what we want to do (there is a way to build this that I’ll talk about later).  We need a situation that is interesting and resolvable (it could or could not get solved, it could or could not escalate), and we need to get players right into it and moving.

I’ve got a lot to say about this, but this is a good start. Interested to see what you think and what your experiences have been.

7 Habits of Highly Effective Players, Part 2

7 Habits of Highly Effective Players, Part 2



Our first post laid the groundwork.  I’m going to slow this down a bit and discuss each point thoroughly.  This post is about Habit #3: Talk About  Your Thinking.

3. Talk About Your Thinking

There is this taboo about discussing the contents of your character’s head. I disagree with it but I get where it comes from. The taboo is clearly a measure taken against the dreaded monster of metagaming.
Metagaming and my thoughts on it need another post, but in short: I don’t think metagaming is as big a deal as it’s been made out to be. I don’t care if you the player use something your character doesn’t know to steer play, as long as the resultant play is interesting. If you are using the information to make the game more constrained and less interesting, it’s not the metagaming that’s the problem, it’s your use of it.
Again, this is a full post on it’s own,  but I need to be upfront that this habit will strike some people as very metagame-y. On the other hand, I feel that anyone who already does this is probably nodding her head right now.  For people in the middle, let me break it down a bit more.
Discussing at points what your character is thinking  creates more opportunities for better roleplaying.  Being in-character as much as possible rocks, but what I’ve found that having to stay in character doesn’t always create the best roleplaying moments.  I’m trying to be my character, but let’s face it: it is going to be difficult for me to get inside the head of a half human, half dragon creature, or to occupy the mind of a dwarf who has lived for hundreds of years.  Part of the fun is the trying, but the trying bears more fruit if I step outside  the process and attempt to figure out what the character thinks in this moment.  I create a clearer connection between myself and my character before stepping backing in his skin.
Going one step further, sharing or explaining that thinking about your character’s thinking improves the level of roleplaying at the table.
You an keep your thoughts to yourself and just act based on those thoughts. Sharing ups the ante because when you know how my character thinks, you can react in a way that complements or opposes your own character.  When you share your thoughts and I respond, we’ve implicitly framed a short scene based on our characters’ reaction to an event and each other, with not a single change to any rule anywhere.  We didn’t have to develop a language or incur cognitive overhead with rules for establishing a scene (nothing wrong with such). We flowed naturally into it because you know as a player something about my character and you moved your character towards or away from it.
Need I say it?  You can’t overdo this.  But once or twice a a session in response to worthwhile events this can be powerful.  Thinking about what your character thinks and telling the table about it is for me a part of great gaming.
As a GM, the easiest way to move players towards this is to ask them what their characters think about different aspects of the setting or session. The power of the technique  is inverse to the abstraction of the question asked.  Ask “What should be done to evildoers?”  and you are almost guaranteed something cookie cutter.  Ask “would your character prefer to travel by horse or mule, and why?” and you might be surprised at how far you can follow the thought.  Specificity wins; ask specific questions about a character’s thoughts for the best answers.
Another note: thought must always translate into action.  After you share your character’s thoughts, you should always explain what your character might be doing that indicates that, or what action he’s about to take because of it.
Don’t try to make your characters mind-readers. Sometimes you want to share your character’s thoughts but not put them “on the table” for reaction.  You might discuss what your character thinks, but also note that he keeps silent about it. In that case, you just acknowledge as a player what you know, but maybe later you suggest a follow up scene to discuss it. Maybe it doesn’t go anywhere and you simply learn more about someone else’s character, which is also great.