early gmless gaming

There is one game I can think of that’s really purely gm-less. That is, there is (usually, when it’s done right) no single source or mediator for the story. There is no pre-planning. There’s no session zero developing characters or setting. Rather a narrative develops straight from a group of peoples’ brains with no particular mechanism for scene framing, risk, or conflict resolution and everyone is totally equal in participation.

When I was a kid, my mother and her sister and their friends would gather around the table with a wine glass and some strips of paper. My father would be absent — he wanted nothing to do with this though whether the event originated because he was out playing poke anyway or whether he played poker so as to not be there for it I can’t say. I never asked him about it and I can’t now. Or can I?

Anyway, a table, an inverted wine glass and a circle of paper scraps with letters and numbers, a yes, and a no. Yup, a “ouija board”. I don’t think I found out you could just buy one at the store for years. And I doubt that the timing with the release of The Exorcist was a coincidence.

So my other and my aunt and sometimes myself would settle our fingers on the base of the inverted wine glass and it would stutter and eventually move. When this gag works there is no sense that anyone is moving the glass–it feels completely emergent, as though the source is somewhere else entirely. But it’s certainly not necessarily one person doing the moving — we gather this story together by a subtle form of consensus, letter by letter.

Ghosts! Goblins!

And the stories were weird. Sure there was the usual appearance from the recently dead and related, but far more often the story was a pastiche of people and places and times and movies and novels and bullshit that bears a striking familiarity to me now. The stories were closer to soap opera than literature. To myth, perhaps, or folklore anyway. So we’d speak with long dead highwaymen who missed their dog and gather together amongst us the bizarre tale, which would meander improbably and end nowhere in particular. We’d speak with South American smugglers who met a bad end, family members who we always just knew were up to shenanigans during the war, and queens of lands not really accurately recalled who met tragic composite ends stitched together from imagination, historical novels, and Charleton Heston biblical sagas.

They were stories told by us to each other as a group with no real leadership nor mediation. And we creeped ourselves out a good deal. Were they role-playing games? Sorta. Were they story games? No question.

certain death and perception checks

Consider this scenario. I’ve seen it more than once so I think it might be interesting.

As ref, you describe a place that will definitely kill the characters if they enter. You don’t intend the adventurers to go in there — it’s just an illustration of the capriciousness of the owner. The adventure is somewhere else. So, say: the open archway is completely clear of sand, unlike where you’re standing outside of it. And right inside are the skeletons of three people who are dressed just like the people you know were exploring here last night. It looks like they crossed the threshold and died instantly then decomposed over at most a few hours.

From my perspective as ref I have made it totally clear that this path is barred. What I am selling here is the death of the friends not a puzzle. However, players will usually see a puzzle. So:

“I want to go inside and see what happened.”

Hmm, okay. It’s certain death. That doesn’t sound like fun. How about we tie a roll to it?

“Hrm okay. Let’s have a KNOW check then.”

Now this requires elaboration. The player may well think that failure means you don’t KNOW what’s going on. Success means you KNOW what’s going on. But this doesn’t lead anywhere interesting. I dunno means they go ahead and die. I know means I reveal it’s insoluable and the move on. Neither are very fun sounding. And what RISK would I apply here? Fail and die and also trigger a risk? Seems weird. Succeed and you can’t go there but also trigger a risk? Mmmmmaybe, sure. Success with no risk? It’s a hard success to celebrate so, hmmm, no.

And it fails to address the misunderstanding between ref and player. It maybe reveals it. So instead: explain the misunderstanding (you are humans, you can do this) and consider what the player really wants: they don’t want to know whether they can enter. They want to enter.

This reframes the player’s position in the context of the roll as “Do I KNOW how to enter safely?” At this point as ref I would be confident saying:

Risk is REVELATION (because I have an idea — the revelation will be that on entering you get the eternal enmity of the owning god but we won’t say that out loud right away).

Don’t piss off the ibis god. You won’t like them when they’re angry.

Fail is death. You KNOW you can just enter. But you can’t. This is extreme but we’ve already established in the narrative that it’s lethal. Say it out loud. The player can still decide against acting. They want to enter but given the evidence maybe it’s wiser not to try. Not only will they die, but thanks to the risk their they die entering and the god (which in this actual case the players need to continue the path they’ve chosen) hates them.

Success with risk means that the revelation happens and the character knows away around the certain death. This is the divergence from the main narrative that risk tends to produce.

Success without risk means that the character knows a way around the certain death and the ref should narrate at will with this new direction. The god is apparently fine with this.

What I take away from this is that revelatory checks should do more than just reveal a fact. They should acknowledge the further intention of the player — what do they want to do with that knowledge — and play with that instead.

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resolution as narrative

Sometimes the resolution system in a game is the game. You spend most of the time resolving or trying to get to the point where you have to resolve. You’re looking for a fight, for skill checks, for conflicts. And these conflicts largely define the play — the narrative is a string of resolution rolls and their interpretation.

Soft Horizon, I just realized today, doesn’t operate that way. The meat of the system, the thing that drives moment-to-moment play is in fact the interpretation of oracles. The nature of community relations and their bearing on the characters. And critically, the debts that characters owe to other entities. This is not present as a roll, as a check, but rather is underlying the ad lib work the ref is doing.

That’s a Juan Ochoa original. See previous post. Thanks Juan.

What the system provides instead is pivot points: places where things go where the ref wasn’t expecting. When a risk is realized it creates a design space for the ref: you must now decide how this risk realization changes the direction of play. Some are automatic — if someone is HARMED they take a WOUND and they will want to resolve that before anything else. The direction of the narrative pivots around their self-interest to get rid of the hindrance on their character.

More nuanced is COST — the character now has a DEBT to an entity. They owe them something and until it’s resolved, the character is often at a disadvantage. This is really a quest mechanism except as ref you are going to have to think it up on the fly. Where your narrative path was heading one way, now a character needs it to go another and so off you go. A pivot. A hinge.

It’s very hard to railroad anyone in this. The pivot points aren’t entirely up to you.

All of the risks (except the runt of the litter, INEFFECTIVENESS) are roughly like this. While only HARM and COST have a mechanical bearing, let’s look at the rest.

SPILLOVER creates a moral debt on the player not a mechanical debt on the character. Someone or something that shouldn’t have been harmed has been harmed and it’s the fault of the player’s character. The player will often feel compelled to fix this because being a fuck up stings extra when someone else gets hurt. Players that don’t feel this moral tug will be less likely to turn this into a pivot. Players that do will often use more energy to fix it than they would trying to fix a mechanical DEBT.

CONFUSION turns the situation from clear, directed action to unclear, undirected action. It pivots travel into study. It pivots combat into reconnaissance. What you knew is no longer certain. You’re lost. You don’t know who the enemy is. Something that made sense is wrong. It diverts action into search, movement into thought.

REVELATION forces the ref to invent a new hook, to bring in new information that they probably didn’t plan to bring in. Maybe that valuable thing isn’t really valuable. Maybe that uninteresting NPC is profoundly important. The narrative landscape changes. Again, the ref can’t really plan for this since it derives from the conflict which derives from play. This is huge creative space for the ref to pivot the whole narrative, revealing a deeper truth than what was previously thought to be complete.

WASTE creates a scarcity that wasn’t there before. You’re travelling from A to B and in the middle you run out of fuel. Or food. Or ammunition. This pivots the narrative to the story of either re-supply or living without.

DELAY makes something the players were going to encounter pass by. Got a meeting with the mayor? You missed it and that has repercussions. Trying to get to the airship dock before your ride leaves? You blew it, now what? Trying to get out of town before the invading force breeches the wall? No luck, you’re now in the thick of the invasion. It pivots away from an expected rendezvous and into whatever happens if you miss it. The creative space here is relatively small but easy. And the pivot is no less extreme than the others — everything can change by missing a vital appointment.

So the system provides pivot points and you don’t need a lot of these to make the narrative run like hell. One or two a session is fine — any more than that and you probably want to lean on the less disruptive ones occasionally, INEFFECTIVENESS say, just to rein in the chaos. Or, you know, go nuts. Embrace it.

Is it weird that one of the things that eases my anxiety as ref is to be forced to ad lib in specific ways? I find it makes detailed prep irrelevant, which means it’s very hard to show up unprepared. That’s where my anxiety is alleviated.

trusting the ref too much

Here’s a thing that happened in a game once (many many years ago — we may have just cracked open the box on a the freshly published Twilight:2000) that I never ever want to happen again.

IMG_0419 (1).pngThe characters were captured by some bad guys. Insert cool imagery here (I think it was a beached supertanker re-purposed as a fortress). Guards come and point to one of the characters. “You, come with me. It’s time for your execution.”

The player nods. “Okay I go with them.”

“The guards lead you down the makeshift steps — very rickety. What do you do?”

“Go with them.”

“You emerge suddenly into sunlight. It’s dazzling. Everyone covers their eyes for a moment to get used to it. What do you do?”

“I wait.”

“They tie you to a post and shoot you.”

What the fuck happened here?!

A bunch of things. As ref I thought I gave several opportunities for action to get out of this but the player never bit. Looking back on it now I see exactly why.

First, the player trusted the ref and did not believe the character would be killed so ridiculously. But the ref (me) had switched gears. This was serious business and there were ways out, but the player had to act and to take a risk. The player didn’t act because they didn’t get that this was their moment. They thought the moment to act would be later and trusted me not to kill them before their chance. To my mind, once we had poor Tim tied to the post, there was no way not to kill him. It was the stated intention, game mechanism would not longer save him (we weren’t going to roll hit and damage for a firing squad), and I felt bound to follow through.

Second, it was a system where the ref sets difficulty levels and the player assumed that at each possible action point the player decided action was riskier than inaction. They didn’t know what the difficulty would be and made an assumption. Based on prior gaming with me, for sure. But they didn’t know, they didn’t ask, and I didn’t offer. Because that’s how we played games then!

Third, the words “what do you do?” had no culture associated. It’s not a phrase that the rules command you to say to indicate you are expecting action. It’s just words in a conversation. It has no weight. I intended it to have weight but for that to happen we’d have had to have a discussion about it and agree on that. And frankly none of us were that self-aware about our gaming to realize that that was even what was happening.

Finally, everyone knew I fudged the dice. They were reasonably sure I would fake a bad roll at the critical moment and let them squeak out. But I had no more rolls to roll, in my mind.

Now there are things you can do about this without changing the rules, but they all involve changing the people and changing people is bullshit. You could say “well, players should be more proactive”. What if they aren’t? You could say “well, players should ask about difficulty levels and possible actions”. What if they don’t? Should the game just fail embarrassingly (and it did — the player was pissed, I was flustered, and we stopped early)?

How about we change the rules instead?

If difficulties are fixed then the player knows what’s what.

If the risks have to be declared then the player can make substantive choices.

If the ref never rolls dice then the ref never fudges dice.

If the culture is that the question “what do you do?” invites concrete (go to the dice) action then the cues are real cues and not just part of a conversation that might only be conversational.

So in some ways the Soft Horizon system is designed to heal this 25 year old wound.

There are no difficulties. What changes when you roll is the risk, not the difficulty. When you roll you already know the odds of success and the ref has already communicated (in a vague way) the risk of failure (or imperfect success). As player you already know you can succeed.

The ref never rolls.

“What do you do?” is codified in the text. This is what you say when you expect the players to act. Maybe not go to the dice, but certainly narrate something pro-active, something that progresses their interests. It’s a declaration that what the player says next is important.

Yeah I stole all this from smarter people. I’m not proud. It works.

the first rule of design club

I want a new club. It’s really an old club but let’s not talk about that. It’s a club of game designers that welcomes fresh faces. It’s not a club about game play or play styles. Just about design. If you agree with these principles, you’re already a member of design club.

it’s not about play style

It’s about design. We don’t critique play style. Sure you have to talk about play style because of the next rule but we’re not here to decide which play style is “best”. We’re certainly not here to talk about which play style you hate. We’re here to talk about design.

You can divorce your tastes from your ability to analyze design.

design deliberately

Rules exist for a reason. Yes all of them. So yes, you need to know what play style you want. Intimately even. You need to know that so that you can write rules that accomplish that goal. You as a design club member agree to talk sensibly and supportively and productively about how a rule helps achieve a goal even if you think the goal sucks. This is a technical exercise not an emotional one. I even expect you to go ahead and test a rules or set of rules that create a play style you hate and earnestly help people understand whether it does what they want and even how to get to the place they want.

Even if you don’t personally want to go there.

Part of designing deliberately is (perhaps gradually) shedding the urge to cargo cult. This is when you copy someone elses work in the hope that it does what you want rather than through understanding how it functions. We strive for deliberate design: each rule helps serve the greater purpose. Intentionally.

play or sit down

So much design discussion sits in a hypothetical state for a lot longer than it needs to. And when it hits the table it can be a shock. So be prepared to talk about how your proposed design plays, especially if you already have 300 pages of it. Let’s not hypothesize about how it might play, not in design nor in critique, but rather let’s test the shit out of our games, even if it’s alone, and find out how it plays.
How it might play is bullshit. How does it actually play?

I’ve talked before about methods for doing this. One is scaffolding, where you build just enough rough game around a rule to test it. Another is to create a play example: write the interaction between players in detail as though it was transcribed from the table. This is imperfect because there’s not really play going on, but you will find that this runs under a different simulator in your head than the one you use to write rules. And this simulator is way better at finding problems. In fact I often discover that my example deviates from my rules as I instinctively house rule the system I haven’t finished writing. Making examples is super powerful.

The problem with this is that someone’s already making this club. As soon as I had these principles formed in my head as bullet points, someone else I trust announced they were making a club like this. They are working out rules of interaction, a code of conduct. I was working out a purpose. So if we link up and are actually doing the same thing, I’ll let you know about that.

But in the meantime, even without a particular space to communicate, you can be part of this club. You know the rules.

intense play in sand dogs

Yeah we had some intense play and some interesting flexing of the rules yesterday. Here are some high points. I’m paraphrasing in all cases:

Scene: our heroes have come to the edge of a clearing as they track their nemesis, Harrison. From cover they see Harrison and three flunkies talking to two bug monsters (bug monsters so far have been very friendly) and the bugs have weapons on Harrison et al.

Toph: I approach under a white flag offering to explain the situation.

Me: Hmm, okay, well that’s clearly SOCIALIZE…

Toph: No, I don’t want to explain the situation. I’m trying to get close enough to murder Harrison.

Me: Ah. Normally I’d call that VIOLENCE but I think here what’s really important is the deception. So MISCHIEF. And the risk is CONFUSION.

So what’s interesting here? Well, obviously the first thing is that the actual intent of the player wasn’t stated clearly at first and so there was some necessary back and forth to get at the nub of the action. This is good: there are conflicting instincts at play. On the one hand you want your text to be a good read, to be poetic, and to preserve secrets until the last moment. But also you want to be absolutely clear what method to bring to bear. So we go back and forth a little to get there.

One of Harrison’s punks, now defunct.

So Toph’s character Jesus gets close enough and rams their strange artifact, the “pliant fuzz” down Harrison’s throat. The power and function of an alien artifact is mostly narrative: it’s incomprehensible, it has some properties that are absurd but well defined. The rest is in the hands of the players. So they can inexplicably serve the narrative already established by the dice with complete freedom. Here’s what’s certainly true about the pliant fuzz: its mass is much much higher than it should be and it’s dangerous. The results when successfully murdering someone with it are spectacular (and cause CONFUSION since that risk was realized): Harrison dies horribly, the fuzz explodes all over things, those with guns all open fire, grenades go off, everyone runs for cover.

Fun stuff.

The next point that was illuminating was when Dune’s character Duarte opens fire with an alien gun on Harrison’s remaining cohorts. He knows nothing about the gun and it has 3d6 — that means you get a lot of dice but they all kind of suck. There’s a lot of room for risks to get realized but also succeed.

Dune: I fire the vegetable gun at Harrison’s men! I wonder what it does?

Me: Okay that’s VIOLENCE obviously, with a risk of CONFUSION [I figure the gun is noisy and makes a lot of vapour].

Dune: [rolls dice and gets success with risk]

Now this is part of a montage and I’m juggling the actions of three different people roughly at the same time. I realize at this point that another character’s action is much better if it risks CONFUSION and that Dune’s action is obviously better risking SPILLOVER.

Me: I think SPILLOVER is better here actually. You open fire and there is a huge eruption of noise and vapour. Thousands of 15cm quills are launched into the clearing killing all of Harrison’s men and one of the two bug people.

Dune: Oh no!

I goofed. I shouldn’t change the risk after the roll since declaring the risk is an opportunity for the character to change their actions. And the players are really fond of the bug people so this result is actually quite traumatic. It’s also a really powerful and unexpected twist in the story which is exactly what the system is supposed to deliver.

So if there was an X-Card on the table I wouldn’t have been too concerned — I would expect Dune to tap it if this was unacceptable (which would have been totally reasonable either because it was too cruel or because I got the rules twisted up). But we don’t generally play with one in this particular group (there is already a very high level of trust) so I am a little on eggshells over this result. What to do?

Talk it out. I explain the problem. We talk about X-Cards. Dune assures me that he doesn’t need an X-Card in order to tell me to back the fuck up — that is, we do have an X-Card in that everyone agrees they are fine with stopping play at any time if it goes down a path they are not cool with.

Relief. I thought we had that relationship but I haven’t clarified it. Clarifying it takes a load off me: we actually do play with the X-Card just not literally and I didn’t know for sure we did. Now I do. And I also know now that if I ever run a con game or otherwise set up for people I don’t know, I will use the X-Card at least because it starts that conversation before it’s necessary.

You can get Sand Dogs when it’s ready. It’s one of a series of games set in the multiverse of the Soft Horizon, and you can get the first one, The King Machine, now.