Category Archives: Techniques

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.

Gameable Culture: What I am.

Gameable Culture: What I am.

Last post we discussed getting culture up front in a game.  We started building a cultural framework.  Before I go further, I want to address some great points that came up from that article.

Aren’t these vague/non-nuanced statements going to lead to the type of stereotyping/noble savage stuff that people don’t seem to want?

It can.  There’s always a danger that someone can get it wrong, but why I don’t worry so much about that is I’m using those statements to create white space   I explicitly don’t want explanations of why the culture does the things we stated that they did because that’s what I hope the players/GM at the table will answer.  Why do the Kitan go through obstacles and never around? That’s a good question, and I would want people at my table to work that out. Leaving space to fill works on two levels. On the first we create player/GM investment in the setting.  On the next level we are pushing people to flesh out towards their own sensibilities.  This means the death of canon, but I kinda feel like cannon should be dead in an RPG context, so I can live with that.

Ultimately I think the best RPG source material has ample white space and gets to the provocative bits to inspire players.

Is it really culture that you want to address?  Do you mean history?

I don’t mean history because history is what happened in the past.  Culture embeds history, custom, and belief in the now. History is great and important, but history tends to be about stringing together events.  Culture is about people, and I think people are at the hearts of stories. If we can make our stories more people-centric, wew can make stories that vary wildly from the norm but that still find congruence in the commonality of human experience.


So, having addressed that, I want to look at the next step.  Let’s look at the traits and characteristics our fictional cultures value. For this step we are coming up with ten adjectives that someone from that culture would expect and would like attached to themselves.  It’s key to think of it as members of the culture describing one another positively, and not someone from outside  slapping these labels on the culture.

I’ll start:

A Kitani is….

  • Brave
  • Defiant
  • Brash
  • Forthright
  • Quiet
  • Charismatic
  • Clean
  • Honorable
  • Tough
  • Relentless

If you participated last time, feel free to follow up (maybe copy/paste your entry from the first step).  If you’re interested in hopping in, go back to the previous post and include those steps first, then take these steps.

Gameable Culture: Where I’m From

Gameable Culture: Where I’m From

We’ve done a lot of talking about different cultures and diversity this month.  One thing we haven’t discussed though is what does culture mean in a game?  Culture is a context that defines the socieities that characters come from,  exist in, and deal with.  Going a little deeper, culture is a context from wherein decisions are made.  The culture we’ve grown up in informs the decisions we make (even if we disagree with our culture of origin, that disagreement still defines us), as does the cultures we encounter or deal with.  Customs, beliefs and behavior all come into play.

I’ve often heard that D&D and general fantasy has “no” culture, but that’s not true.  There is a default European -influenced culture that we’ve accepted as the default. One way we can fail to make games set in other cultures uninteresting is to not realize that “standard” fantasy comes from an actual viewpoint. When we fail to realize this, we can build settings with many different trappings that still remain culturally different.  If I am raiding dungeons and taking loot, does it matter if I am going this in Greyhawk or Nubia?

Once we’ve marked the boundaries of mainstream fantasy, we then are confronted with what I think is the most difficult part in relaying culture in an immediate but still real sense to players.  I think the proliferation of status quo settings (derivations on Tolkien-based work) in part is because delivering a variation on the default culture is easier than delivering a culture “from scratch”.  There is so much explaining that you don’t have to do because the status quo culture is so well supported and defined.  You can describe things with only a few words and audiences can reasonably be expected to fill those gaps in their imagination.

We don’t have that with cultures that stray from the norm. To build new worlds for players, we have to not only present the cultures, we have to educate the players on the significance of cultural elements and the cultural context in which they exist.  Gameable culture is the term that I use to discuss the act of delivering culture through the playing of the game.  It’s just not reasonable to expect people to read 50 pages of background just to play a game, so our mechanics need to bring culture to them.

I’ve been building tools and experiments to find useful patterns for creating such cultures.  I shared the following on G+ a while ago, and am sharing it here as well. I have a followup to this, but try out what I’ve got for now.  I’m curious to see what you come up with!

Where I’m From

I want you to make up a fictional culture, and say five things in about five sentences that people from that place do. The important thing is not to tell us what they value or believe.  The actions you use should show us what that culture believes and values by inference (hello there fruitful void!). Speak as that group: “We do X”, “We never do Y”, etc.

After your five things, then give us three archetypes that might emerge from that place.  Keep it succinct – the typical adjective noun works (Vengeful Wanderer) here, as do bold honorifics (Keeper of the Flames). These archetypes can affirm or reject the norms you just established. If it helps, you can make a “personality” that might come out of there, and describe what sort of person he is (succintly).

For Bonus points, make one of your five things about a culture already referenced (“Culture Y worships the same gods as Culture X”) is good mojo.

I will start:

* We never use any tool more complicated than abacus.
* We always take the simplest method of achieving our short term goals if given an option.
* We solve our problems through physical might.
* We go through obstacles, never around.
* We observe the natural order closely and live in tune with it.

Scholar of the Wild, Berserker King, Gruff Woodsman.

Remember: one entry per post, and try to space out multiple posts!


Perpetual Action: A method of running Marvel games.

Perpetual Action: A method of running Marvel games.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pull List Template

The Pull List Template

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

Anyway, enjoy the template preamble!

Pull Lists

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

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

This is pretty good:

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

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

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

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

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

A plot looks like:

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

A situation looks like:

Dr Doom invades New York

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



Keep Your Marvel Games Flowing with the “Pull List”

Keep Your Marvel Games Flowing with the “Pull List”

Here’s a nifty little technique I like to keep prep light for your Marvel game and give players what they want. At the end of each session, take about 5-15 minutes to create a “pull list” (thanks Cam Banks for the name!).

A “Pull List” is what you get at your local comics for titles you want to subscribe to and pick up from the store each month. In your game you use a pull list as a scene wishlist.  Basically, you can ask people what scenes they might like to see in the future with their characters or other characters.  Give everyone a chance to contribute just one scene at the end of the session.

“If scenes are player-contributed,” I hear some asking, “why do we need a Watcher?”  What happens is that players can suggest scenes, but the Watcher is still the one in charge of what scenes are getting started and the flow of each session.  The Watcher doesn’t have to immediately use each scene in the next session.  Most vital to this technique is to remember: the players can influence what scenes are started, but they don’t control the exact contents or the results. No player scen can dictate an outcome (or if it does, that dictation is ignored).  A player can say “I want to fly a spaceship” but not “I’m flying a spaceship to The Skrull homeworld and bombing them into the dust.”  The former is a scene starter; the latter is wish fulfillment.  The Watcher can feel free to twist the scenes into a form fitting the current story, but in so twisting the Watcher need to err on the side of interest and care. The pull list is a love letter to your game, and you should honor that.  Don’t make players gunshy but messing up their lists and creating lame scenes.

Once you’ve got a pull list going, you have a powerful Watcher tool for running games on the fly or a tool for improving your prep.  Don’t feel compelled to use every scene in every session; it’s in fact better to let scenes stay for a while.  The pull list is not a straightjacket!

I’ve used the pull list in my games and I really like it so far.  So do my players!  The process of creating the pull list is also a nice post-mortem wrap up. My prep is reduced and player investment is increased, so win-win!


Structure First, Story Last.

Structure First, Story Last.

I’ve been working a lot with how RPG sessions are run and planned.  What’s been bugging me is that it has always seemed difficult to find that right blend of preparation and improv as a GM.  I’ve run from both ends of the spectrum, and I’ve run in between.  In twenty or so years, I’ve hit what I feel is every major variation of running for and preparing a game.

And I still haven’t been happy.  I realized first that what has filled me with discontent is not the notion of preparation or improv or preparing to improv; it has been the notion of preparation itself.  Until recently I haven’t found a proceess that coincides with the way that I think an RPG should be run.  My process used to be something like:  Figure out a story, describe some situations, prepare the maths/crunchy bits go.  Sometimes there was more refinement to this, other times there was much less.

The first epiphany I had was:  Story is an artifact of play.  Re-phrasing: Story is the point of playing an RPG.  If story is the thing that you’re making,  you shouldn’t then fill your preparation with narrative.  Prepping story is like shovelling dirt in the hole that was dug to build a pool.  You’re going to need that space emptied for the players to do anything and to have fun.  Story is typically the first thing GMs build, trying to define the beginning middle and end of a narrative, when that in reality should be the thing that we do not define.  Story comes last, because creating the actions and reactions with the characters inside a fictional space is why we gather to play.

Instead we should build situations.  Adventure Burner does some great work describing what makes a great situation.  What I’ll add is that the best situations present an event, then also pose a question relating to that event.  A monster approaches the players, bellowing loudly. What does it want from the players?  In the answering of that question is where all of our play begins and then progresses.  You can add more or less detail to the situation, and you can ask more particular questions for followup.  Once you have the event and the questions (it should go without saying that these are implicit questions, not specifically posed to the players) you have created a space where play can happen.  Instead of filling the space of events with “if players do this, then that”, you let it be explicitly blank and powerful.

Underlying the creation of situations is what should be our first step: the creation of a structure.  What is the framework that the situations rest in?  What are the implicit genre assumptions we abide by?  What is the ultimate progression that events might lead us to?

More succinctly:  What sort of story do we want to see in play, and what is the best “box” for that story? For example, I’ve decided that I want to do a murder-mystery.  I know that structurally, the characters must be introduced to a crime (someone getting murdered), and then they the group will be involved in scenes where the interrogate and explore the people and environment. Finally, they will confront their suspect.

With this structure in mind, I know what elements that I need to create, and where the gaps will be left to fill up in play.  If I tried to think about this in terms of story first, it is certainly doable but in my experience it’s harder, because building story tends put you in a linear, narrative mode.  Building a a space for RPG play is best when you work from structure and fill out just the parts you need. Structure provides guidance but few answers. You shouldn’t be doing a lot of if this happens, then this will occur.  You are building key events and describing the flow of  play, then you consign yourself to what happens in play.

When you have a lot of story, it’s easy to go off-script.  When you have a lot of structure, you never go off-script, and you never truly waste elements.

Adventure Burner talks pretty deeply in this vein, and one of the many things I like about Marvel is that it already does a lot of what I’m talking about.  Because of Marvel’s structure-based adventure writing, you can play the Breakout intro adventure multiple times with the same people and never have the same story twice.  The event has a flow and it has elements, but little else.  You orient the players, spark the inciting situation, and boom! You’re all set for a few sessions.

I’ve also done a bit of chattering about situational play on the old site.

Earlier I mentioned experimenting with this kind of preparation.  A little bit at a time I’ve been building a 13th Age adventure called Hell’s Harvest that uses some of these principles.  If you want, you can follow along and see what you think.

Small Conquers Big: Building your Creative Work 15 Minutes at a Time.

Small Conquers Big: Building your Creative Work 15 Minutes at a Time.

Pressfield’s always got good stuff, but his piece on Thinking in Blocks of Time  really resonates with me and how I’ve been working lately.

To expand on this a little, here is something I’ve been doing.  I’ve got a lot of stuff to do.  Tons of stuff!  And in the midst of that, my writing I know can suffer.  I have a few projects that I am working on (Dicefighter revision, All is Lost, and something I’m calling “DungeonThing”) and I want to get at least the first two done before Metatopia.

MY old approach would be to say, ok, I’ve got to work on this evry day or on X day or something *completely vague and unhelpful*.

Here’s what I do now:

I write on Dicefighter for 15 minutes a day, and stop when that timer goes off.
I write on All is Lost and DungeonThing for 5 minutes each every day.

The secret for me is that 15 minutes is a productive block of time, but is also an easy block of time to find.  5 minutes is even easier to find and stilol productive.

I am finding it really helpful.  I can see the projects build up every day, and am always amazed at the progress I can make in a week.

On top of that, on the weekend I have chunks of free time.  If I have a ton of energy or more I want to work on with these projects, I can sit for a few hours if that’s what I choose.

I can take advantage of inspiration when I need, but working in these short bursts, lets me keep the creative pressure up so I always have something to write, and also short circuits the brain’s impulse to go “I’ve got no time for that!”  For freelance assignments I have developed a different workflow, but the two complement each other, so I can do both in the same day without feeling like I’ve burnt myself out on creating and writing for the day.
If you have some creative and/or personal project you’re working on, I completely recommend trying this approach.  Tell me how it works for you!


Table Techniques: Puff-Puff-Pass

Table Techniques: Puff-Puff-Pass

The Problem:File under “endless loop”: A character (PC or NPC) wants something from another character, who doesn’t want to give it away. Back and forth they go, request and denial, request and denial, until someone gets tired and relents or finally someone has the decency to make a roll or change the tactics.PC: I want that sword
NPC: Well, I won’t give it to you for any price.
PC: But surely there is *some* price?
NPC: There is none.
PC: I think this unreasonable.
NPC: I disagree.
PC:Well that is absurd! I disagree with your disagreement!


The Solution: I guess this makes me sound like a stoner, but I swear…even though I have dreadlocks, I HATE pot. I’ve smoked it enough in college to capture the basic etiquette:

Puff-puff- PASS.

Violate this basic rhythm and you will be in trouble. You don’t keep puffing on the joint as long as you please. It slows things down and gives you more than your share.

Similarly, in your games, interactions/dialogues should be moving.  Each exchange of dialogue should ideally be “turning” and building plot. Something that annoys me a little is when RP becomes stream of conscious small talk.

There is value to a conversation that stays in a spot for a second. In my experience though, the limit is about two exchanges before it gets stale. So here’s the rule.

After the second exchange of a stalemate, the “aggressor” (the one making the interaction happen) must accept the denial or make a significant change to the action. That change can be going to the system to resolve (“OK, I’m rolling diplomacy to sweet talk this guy”) or changing the stage (“I’m punching this guy in the face”).  So in the example conversation,  after “I disagree with your disagreement!” you pause the exchange and ask the character want they want to go for and how they are going to get it.  Maybe it’s time for a negotiation role. Maybe the character goes to another shop.  Maybe the character gives in.  But when we hit that impasse, we don’t want to keep it going.  We want to spot the impasse and turn it over to keep our game flowing.

Doing this a few times quickly trains your group to thinking, and opens up your game.

And note:  If  a conversation is moving and entertaining, you don’t apply this. Only during a stalemate.


Have you used something similar to this in your games?  Let us know with an e-mail or on twitter.  Or favorite e-mails get published, and the best e-mail gets a gift certificate at the end of the month!