rules fluidity in an imagined space

Role-playing games are notorious for rules fluidity: players modify the rules to suit their immediate needs to such an extent that there is often a special rule granting this authority. It may even be a sufficient (though not necessary) feature to categorize something as a role-playing game. I won’t try to sell that point here, but think about it.

So why? Many bemoan this, wanting rules that satisfy all table needs. Many celebrate it, pointing out that this is where the fun is (where the game becomes a game about designing the game you’re playing, which does sound fun).

MapIn general an RPG explores an imaginary space. A space the size of the world or larger sometimes. And the behaviour of this world, no matter how weird, is intuitively understood. We might all understand it slightly differently, but we do have a private understanding. We can easily imagine the way things that are not described in the text would or could work. So the private world of the RPG is effectively as complex as the real world, but it gets explored piecemeal — it doesn’t exist somewhere in whole cloth but rather as you imagine a new part of the space you easily imagine how it must operate.

So now you want rules to govern how this space is explored.

Let’s call the imagined space a BARN.

Let’s call the rules a PAINT BRUSH.

You want to paint the barn. You need to pick a paint brush, The brush, however oddly, must also be fun.

Okay, so you love detail work (a fiddly combat simulator, say, with lots of kinds of polearms meaningfully differentiated). You want to use a double-ought brush. A tiny brush. You can never paint the whole barn with this. That’s fine, you just give permission to the end user to paint whatever bit you left blank however they want. If they enjoy painting, everyone wins. Well everyone who likes detail painting anyway.

But let’s say your goal is to cover the barn. You don’t want to leave any space for the end user to paint. But your imagined space is huge and complex. What are your choices?

You can broaden your brush — abstract your system to the point that you get enough coverage to credibly cover your barn. It might be a little sloppy in places, but you can have a reasonable expectation of coverage. Now your detail painters are still going to get in there with their fine brushes and elaborate and touch up the moulding and so on, but you can’t stop them. You achieved your goal of delivering a painted barn. And depending on how much work you can do you can go anywhere from a 3” brush (pick a system that suits that!) to a paint roller (again I invite you to imagine what game I’m thinking of) to a spray gun. I bet there’s even an experimental explosive painting device out there that paints not only the barn but much of the surrounding countryside.

You can also constrain your barn. This happens a lot in some design spaces: declare we are not going to even think about the barn. We are only interested in the door. Anything outside the door is not part of this project. And then pick a relatively fine brush and paint a perfect door. There are lots of games in this category.

When we say “why are RPGs like this” we aren’t really talking about RPGs. We’re talking about some category of RPG or even some category of player talking about RPGs. And consequently we’re talking about a fairly specific barn/brush case or expectation. But in reality there are many ways to paint that barn, with and without requiring the rules-creative input of the end user. We have to think of handing the end user the brush as an option any RPG should consider — and then accept or reject.

The important thing about game design to me is not doing it one way or another. It’s doing whatever you do deliberately. Everything should be intentional in your text. There may be unanticipated (emergent) properties to the game, but everything you write down should have a goal. Including, possibly, the goal of offering design space to the user.

 

players making shit up

The further your game world drifts from the real, modern world the more you have to let players make shit up.

Here’s my logic.

20180516_171517Universes are crazy big. Douglas Adams tried to tell us how big and didn’t come remotely close. Universes, however, that obey our physical laws at least have a set of truths that you can draw on. A set of premises. How gravity works, how fast light goes, what’s in the periodic table of elements, and stuff like that. And so, as a player, there is a significant fraction of the universe that you can manipulate safely (game-safe I mean). If I see a plausible orbital maneuver in the way the ref has laid out a space, well, I can probably do it. There are touchstones and they are myriad.

I think sometimes we forget just how much shared knowledge we have.

I used to play a lot of games set in my home town of Vancouver. One of the chief advantages to this was the touchstones — you could hide in that place you know, the culvert under the highway up near Kelly’s place — and you weren’t making that up as a player: that place exists. Most of us knew it. Many of us secretly drank there on Friday nights. So most of the play space is known and does not require mediation. It’s just real.

Science, if it works in your game, is like that contextual touchstone but writ large. We all know (and can expect and therefore manipulate) how gravity works, what air pressure does, how things behave at very low or very high temperatures. I don’t need the ref to fabricate any of it and imagine the burden if I did!

Now as you drift from real places in a real universe the amount of information needed to manipulate the environment increases and very very rapidly. There are millions of pages of material written about how this world works. Maybe billions. Your fantasy world, however, has only the tiniest fraction of that content: a practically non-existent amount of material. Frankly no one, even the originator of the fantasy world, knows much of anything about it compared to the content available from the real world.

But you should know. Your character lives in this world and is aware of a similar volume of data that you have by living in the real world. Your character knows about the equivalent of that culvert under the highway and thousands of other truths that know one has every thought to write down or map out. It would be an impossible task.

We mediate this by putting a ref in the hot seat. The fewer the touchstones, however, the more of a burden this becomes on the ref. And the less reasonable it is for them to mediate it — they don’t know either, we’ve just given them the authority to invent it.

I’ll suggest then, that the more your world deviates from reality the more benefit you’ll get from letting players make up their own details. As ref just nod and follow along. If you can’t pre-fabricate all of the details of the world then this will give you two significant advantages: you’ll get a world that’s the product of four or five peoples’ creativity rather than one (it’s nowhere near what went into the real world but it’s five times better than investing the whole problem in one person) and your players will be able to smoothly “recall” facts and even manipulate them without the awkward “was there some place we used to hide as children maybe” — useless roll — “yup there was a culvert under the highway” exchange.

Once you get used to that you can let them manipulate. For example, games rarely if ever examine exactly how magic works (mostly because it always results in contradictions in detail and so it’s best glossed over — magic basically can’t work so don’t look too close). If I’m playing an ancient wizard who’s researched it forever, though, then I expect to have some detailed hypotheses about the underpinnings of magic and a good deal of experimental evidence for it. And I will want to bring that to bear.

img_20170907_133639When I do, I want to imply vast knowledge I don’t actually have. Consequently it’s probably best if I just make it up. “I’ve studied fire magic all my life and I am certain that it is not simply brought into being as that would violate the third law of thaumaturgodynamics. Magical fire must therefore come from somewhere. I postulate that it comes from the plane of Elemental Fire and that therefore it must create a path. I think we should try to track this Efreet by trying to identify this path.” Now I’m not narrating my success, but I am saying a lot of facts about the world that no one ever ever wrote down in advance. Those facts should not be subject to mediation. The ref should greedily note them and start crafting complicated implications. And yet there is resistance to this kind of player participation in world building.

The map of your fantasy world is basically completely empty other than the gross geography. I highly recommend inviting anyone who’s found a blank spot to fill it the fuck out.

formalizing the art of invention

A lot of my refereeing is intuitional. I ad lib. I come up with one idea or image and then follow it around. When this happens in a game it works for me, but one of the things I need to do to make a game work for someone else is formalize these processes. Reveal them to others so they can reproduce them.

The problem is, of course, that I just do it. I don’t have a system.

But this is nonsense — I do it the same way every time. There must be a system. I just haven’t looked at it closely enough. So I’m going to go through a premise and lay out my thought patterns as a hierarchical choice tree. Someone else can use this as a jumping off point for their own exploration of the same premise. For a lot of game design this is the heart of it (for me): watching myself ad lib and then formalizing that.

Premise: you have a space that has not been explored (a slipstream that connects an unknown or forgotten system). You might not be familiar with Diaspora: a slipstream is a wormhole that connects two systems. There aren’t a lot of them — clusters in Diaspora are only a handful of connected systems.

Screenshot 2020-03-02 17.33.09

So in this cluster we have a link from Cando to…what? It starts out unknown! At some point the players are going to want to go there though, so…what’s there? Quick! There’s a session in twenty minutes?

Here’s what I would go through. At the top level, I explore the big questions.

  • Why did no one know about the route before?
  • Who’s there?
  • What’s there?

And then I cascade. For each I ask more questions. And then again. Until I get to some answers. And I might ask more questions.

  • Why did no one know about the route before?
    • It’s new
    • It has been deliberately hidden
    • It recurs
    • It was destroyed but has re-emerged

Once I have a nice set of possibilities, like say:

  • Why did no one know about the route before
    • It’s new
      • Why did it suddenly show up?
        • Local astronomical change
        • Change in the astronomy of the new side
        • New technology reveals it
        • Technology on the other side has suddenly allowed them to visit us
    • It has been deliberately hidden
      • Who hid it?
      • Why?
      • How was it revealed?
    • It recurs
      • When was it last here
      • How do we know that?
      • What causes it to oscillate?
        • Astronomy? Maybe a distant binary?
        • Technology? Did someone or something do this deliberately?
    • It was destroyed but has re-emerged
      • Who destroyed it?
      • How?
      • Why is it back?
      • Is it stable now?

I pick a path. That’s the plan. Here’s the whole tree:

  • Why did no one know about the route before
    • It’s new
      • Why did it suddenly show up?
        • Local astronomical change
        • Change in the astronomy of the new side
        • New technology reveals it
        • Technology on the other side has suddenly allowed them to visit us
    • It has been deliberately hidden
      • Who hid it?
      • Why?
      • How was it revealed?
    • It recurs
      • When was it last here
      • How do we know that?
      • What causes it to oscillate?
        • Astronomy? Maybe a distant binary?
        • Technology? Did someone or something do this deliberately?
    • It was destroyed but has re-emerged
      • Who destroyed it?
      • How?
      • Why is it back?
      • Is it stable now?
  • Who’s there?
    • Are there humans there?
      • Yes: may connect a whole other cluster, different colonist cultures
      • No: did there used to be?
        • Yes: dead failed colony
          • What killed it
          • How long ago
          • Is it still here?
    • No: new territory
      • Intelligence?
        • Yes: aliens, alien cultures
        • No: used to be but no longer
          • Dead civilization
          • Reclaimed by nature or ruined?
        • No: example of pristine location, no penetration by intelligence. What’s awesome? What’s horrible? It has to be DIFFERENT. No one has EVER been here.
  • What’s there
    • Nothing. What the hell? How is there a slipknot to nothing?
    • A normal system
    • A normal system with something anomalous
      • Black hole
      • Neutron star
      • Giant artifact
      • Evidence of ancient civilization
    • A very not normal system
      • Impossible orbital arrangements
      • Planet sized artificial structures
        • Bigger?
      • An artificial star
        • How do we know it’s artificial?

This can be used at two levels. At one level, it’s a thought process you can adopt in its most general form: ask a few big questions, answer them, and let the answers raise more questions. That’s one kind of mind’s tool.

If you are not comfortable with something so unbounded, at least in the context of this game, you can literally use this tree. I only used a fraction of it and even if you pick the same things I did, you probably won’t present them the same way I did. And your players won’t be arriving with the same baggage mine did. It will be different.

And of course this could be further formalized into a randomized oracle.

With the process laid bare, you can choose the level at which you want to ad lib and still benefit from someone having blazed a path for you. Happy trails.

antoine

pelagia et al

Some time ago I was really intrigued with oceanic adventure. I tinkered with two games around that time, neither of which really sang but both of which still, I think, have some promise in their premise.

The first was Navigator.

The second was Pelagia.

There might be a third — there’s a way in which Polyp fits in there too.

navigatorNavigator was about modern (ish) pirates and criminals making a living on the ocean around Thailand, smuggling and otherwise getting into trouble between exotic and poorly policed coastal cities and villages. It’s obviously a rip-off of Black Lagoon but no one has ripped that off very well yet, so it’s still viable.

Maybe it’s not obvious, but the matrix I built it on is Traveller. Or bits of Traveller. It’s very much, I realized, a Traveller premise — you have a ship, there are places on a map to visit, you use your ship, the law is relatively weak. You do crimes, make ends meet, keep the ship running.

I don’t think I have anything written for it any more — my recollection of it is that I was using paper notes exclusively and so they are gone. But it’s a kernel of an idea and I don’t think the actual game was all the interesting. Just the idea. So that could easily happen again.

It definitely had a life path system because I did find this:

Choose: NATIONALITY

Choose NATURE: HUGE, FAST, SMART, or CONNECTED

      • Huge: Unarmed Hold, Armed Heavy Weapon or Melee, Finesse Intimidate
      • Fast: Unarmed Karate (or whatever), Armed light weapon, Finesse Evade
      • Smart: Unarmed Hide, Armed Thrown weapon, Finesse Hack
      • Connected: Unarmed Talk, Armed Found weapon, Finesse Negotiate

Choose PLAN: CAREFUL, LUCKY, BRAZEN, or CALCULATING

      • Careful: when unprepared you have a HIDING SPOT
      • Lucky: when unprepared you have a WEAPON
      • Brazen: when unprepared you have NO WEAPON
      • Calculating: when unprepared you have SOMEONE ELSE’S WEAPON

Write a paragraph about yourself that integrates these. Don’t talk history, talk personality.

Choose first career path, COLLEGE, MILITARY, BUSINESS or CRIMINAL. Roll 1d6 on the appropriate chart. Write a bit about that. Write your skill as an aspect but make it clear.

So yeah, pretty much what you’d expect though certainly there are some novel ideas in there. I’m pretty sure it was asymmetric too — player character simulation is not the same as environment simulation. I think it’s also one where the ref never rolls (since that goes hand-in-hand with that kind of asymmetry).

Screenshot 2020-02-29 19.55.07Pelagia I have even fewer notes on. From what I can find it looks like it dates from a period where I was still mostly hacking Fate. It’s also related to Deluge, perhaps a less or at least very differently apocalyptic. You would be people who live in these oceanic cities or villages, mostly underwater, after some event flooded all of the land masses of the world — everything you need you have to find in the ocean.

Since it’s something you bolt onto Fate, it’s mostly about the world and the technology. I never really figured out what you do. Just where you are.

I still think it’s pretty cool. If I ever figure out what characters do here I might restart work on it. If I know what you do, I can find a system for it.

polyp-titleFinally there is the very strange Polyp. In Polyp you are the strange unspecified animal avatars of a god that lives in the middle of a world composed entirely of water. Yeah, not a waterworld in the sense of being covered in water, but in the sense of being only water. This meant I could piss away hundreds of hours researching the states of water at various extraordinary pressures (which is really cool, go do that a little) even though that had little to do with the game. The important part of the game as that your cute little larval gods spent their time (your time at the table) sculpting a civilization out of the permanent ocean.

Now this game had a whole system but I don’t think it was really playable. I’m not sure I can ever find out because the only content I have is in an InDesign file and I cancelled my Adobe subscription ages ago. Maybe it was playable. You know what, since we will never know for sure, let’s just say it was awesome.

What I can recover (and this is not easy since it is also stored in software I am know longer allowed to use, but for different reasons) has this in it:

Yshtra. The water-engine of the world. She is both being and monster, machine and mind. Her name is also the name of this world composed only of water.

The history of Yshtra is one of oscillations, of waves. Over the tens of thousands of years recorded in her memory the world has been many things — civilization, wilderness, heaven, hell, destination and origin. Today it is a wasteland — the last cycle left the world deeply damaged. But you will change that. As the Polyps of Yshtra, you are designed to bring about the next great cycle though it is up to you to decide how. You are empowered with her authority: what you decide will not only be supported by Ysthra, but it will become her doctrine in the next cycle: you will start the world on a course of reconstruction and you will decide what that will be at its peak. You may also find you have sown the seeds for its inevitable decline. This is as it should be.

Of course since I was (and am) always thinking harder about the setting than the system, there is a way to generate the apocalyptic (hmm, that’s happening again too; I wonder why) starting form of the world that you will fix.

The state of life

The current state of life on Yshtra determines what your early conflicts will be about. As you progress through the oracles and tell the story of the world as it is now, codify the degree of fantasy in this reality — are you playing a science fiction game? A fantasy with relatively strict physics? A pure fantasy where physics are subservient to magic? Or will you be causing the physics to take shape as you go? When you know which you want to play, speak it out loud and write it on the map.

1. None. Whatever happened here, even if it was just entropy, it ended all life processes. The chemistry is still possible but there is nothing in the water that swims or eats or metabolizes in any way. Draw your DEATH symbol near Yshtra. Your FIRST CONFLICT could be fixing things so life can start already. Pick a new roller and roll again:

1. It’s dead cold. Solid ice. To kickstart this place again you’re going to need to start from outside the ice.
2. It’s cold. Everything has halted because the world is ice. Some warmth flows in myriad tiny crevices between the bulk of the ice, but not enough for life to sustain itself. Enough to kickstart something, maybe, though.
3. It’s warm. It’s fine. Just that nothing is running.
4. It’s hot. The upper part of the globe is water vapour and the parts that are low enough pressure to be useful are way too hot. Why’s it so hot?
5. It’s so damned hot. The world is vastly larger than it should be because of the heat. Something keeps it so hot that it’s almost entirely water vapour. Again, you might have to go outside the world to solve this one.

2. Some. There is some protozoic life here and so all of the necessary components to sustain life exist. But it can’t yet evolve and it’s not clear what it will become if it does. Draw your SIMPLICITY symbol near Yshtra. Your FIRST CONFLICT can be the jump-starting of life on a correct path. Pick a new roller and roll again:

1. It’s dark. Even the upper layers are too dark for photosynthesis and so the core life forms must do without. They live on some other energy source entirely — some heat source perhaps? An abundance of an active chemical compound? Radioactivity?
2. It’s bright. A sterilizing radiation from the sun penetrates the upper regions of the world forcing life to operate in the low-energy depths. Is something wrong with the sun? Or just the atmosphere?
3. Monoculture. There’s some life here but it’s all the same and lives in a relative equilibrium meaning there is no competition — no trigger to evolve. This world needs some change.
4. Simple. It’s just not complex enough — it’s a chemical dead-end for life. No amount of competition is going to trigger any interesting complexity. It would make a great food source for something that did, though!
5. Climactic chaos. Something external — weather, asteroid storms, solar instability, something — causes vast periodic extinctions before anything can take hold.

It just goes on like that. There is actually a ton of material here and I might reconsider it. Maybe I have enough tools now to make this one work. There’s an example of play that implies we’re working with some Hollowpoint variant here. This might be a branch of an early Soft Horizon game then.

For example, let’s say we’ve just come out of the Preparation session with the following world:

(Rolled 2 and 2): There is some simple life in the sphere of Yshtra, but the upper reaches of the water are savaged by harsh ultraviolet and worse from the sun.

(Rolled 3): The last cycle ended in disaster — a flourishing civilization damaged the atmosphere of the world (something they thought they didn’t need) and ruined the protection it provided. The sun flares at regular intervals and when it last flared, the habitable areas of the world were sterilized.

The group considers the problem and decides they can either fix the sun, fix the air, change the water so that it acts as its own radiation filter, or change the life so that it is impervious. They decide that they will bend their efforts to changing the water. As this is the opening action and there are four players, the referee rolls 8 dice: 6 6 6 1 1 4 4 3

A daunting opposition!

The players have rolled as follows:

Diisha, a Convert prime, rolls her Observe (3). She is whirling throughout the globe attempting to find more information about the water’s mineral contents and see if there is some way to use it to create a chemical cascade that will make a shield. She rolls: 5 3 4

Amal, a Deceive prime, rolls her Edit (4). She is moving through the past to find times when the water was more resilient and she will nudge some reactions to make them persistent. She rolls: 6 5 4 3

Benek, an Edit prim, rolls her Edit (5). She is moving through the past to find asteroids that were near misses that can be diverted into hits to alter the chemistry of the water. She rolls: 5 5 2 2 3

Since Diisha has rolled no sets, Amal asks to borrow her 4 since it will all make a set for her! Diisha agrees and the agree on the narration: in her travels Diisha has discovered a molecule with extra-physical properties that can be polymerized to create a floating shield on the surface of the water. It would require the presence of some magic in the distant past though. Amal now has: 4 4 6 5 3

Benek would also like a die, the 5, and suggests the narration that Diisha has discovered evidence of a huge asteroid storm in the past that grazed the planet. It would be a rich time period to mine for impacts. Benek now has: 5 5 5 2 2 3

Diisha’s remaining dice are irrelevant as she cannot be attacked since Observe was used to increase team resources.

We begin! The Widest, highest set is the Oppositions’s 6 6 6. The referee narrates: The problem is a crushing one. Time is vast and the things you seek may not even exist. She decides to apply her 6 6 6 to Amal. Amal can choose to take her hit on a 4, ruining a set, or be damaged by the attack. She chooses to take the hit and now has an Immediacy of Sticky — she is finding it hard to move in time. The sets are now:

Diisha: 3
Amal: 5 4 4 3
Benek: 5 5 5 2 2 3
Opposition: 4 4 1 1 3

Benek is next with her trio of 5s. She narrates: But in the depths of time, in that long void between then and now, there is a hope, a shower of asteroids that nearly missed. They contain elements critical to the creation of the Barrier Layer and I change the chances in time so subtly as to cause them to impact instead of miss. She chooses to take out one of the Opposition’s 4s:

Diisha: 3
Amal: 5 4 4 3
Benek: 2 2 3
Opposition: 1 1 3

Amal has the next move with the pair of 4s. She realizes she is vulnerable here and so starts by burning a trait (Justice — a facet of Yshtra that she now no longer believes in) and adds a die rolling a 6 — no help at all). She narrates: There are now minerals in the deep past with the mystical properties needed to form the shield. I nudge them together, trigger the cascade and it begins but will it hold? She takes a 1 from the opposition to protect herself.

Diisha: 3
Amal: 6 5 3
Benek: 2 2 3
Opposition: 3

Finally Benek acts with her pair of 2s. The ancient asteroids mingle with the new reaction and parts of the world are covered for some time. But it isn’t complete and might not be permanent. The job is not yet done. She damages the opposition with a hit from her Edit: it now has an Amenable Past.

It seems this tactic will not work, but neither has it entirely failed. The polyps will need to come up with something new.

This is obviously a game that puts an enormous creative burden on the players.

Lots of apocalyptic water in there.

 

social combat in diaspora

In the first edition of Diaspora we kind of made a hash of a great idea, tricked by successful playtests into thinking we’d written excellent rules. And for a small number of people we probably had, but not for everyone and not even for most.

I think the idea was first brought to my attention (nothing is original) in an RPG.net post in 2008 or so by Fred Hicks. I can’t find it now, but the gist was that maybe you could just use the existing zone combat rules and change the map to something notional rather that geographical and get a social combat system. Zones would be ideas or beliefs or other abstractions, but otherwise you’d leave the system intact.

This sounded like a brilliant idea. In practice it wasn’t — it led to the same problem I always had with social combat: you’re just figuratively beating each other, reducing a different kind of hit point. While the narrative is different, it’s still constrained to make sense of a combative scene, so it’s actually very limited. Like using the combat system to model acrobatics as well as gunfights. Yeah, yeah, Fate fractal, I hear you. Sorry, but endlessly and reductively using the same complex system for everything is boring. And strangely confining. It’s like saying Lego is best used for making a wide variety of giant Lego bricks with which you can make more and bigger bricks. Literally any kind of brick! Eventually you realize you haven’t got around to making anything but building materials.

Anyway, it sounded enough like a good idea that we wrote it up for Diaspora and what we published is pretty much where we stopped thinking about it. The rules give some unfortunately vague advice about what a map should look like and some contradictory rules for how to interact with the map. The thing is, our playtests with it were great. They were great, though, because we stumbled on some specific uses (that actually disobeyed many of the rules we wrote down) that were huge fun. I had actually failed to analyze what I did as a ref so I could mechanize that and instead mostly just wrote down the core idea that led us to a fun space. I had failed to give you the tools to reliably reproduce those good times. Since I hadn’t done the analysis, I didn’t even know why it worked when it worked or why it sometimes failed. Not all of the examples were every tested — they were just ideas that might or might not work.

Since then I’ve thought a lot harder about this. There are actually two different ways I’ve obeyed these rules (sort of) with good results and they are substantially different. These differences should be codified for a decent system to exist, and we might even want to just pick one.

The first is to have the protagonists and antagonists on the map. The objective is to move yourself to the Idea you want to dominate and to move your opponents to some place inert or favourable to you. Since this is the most important part of the resolution, the whole idea of beating each other’s composure hit points down should be dropped — that’s an attrition battle that distracts from the maneuver battle where we’ve invested all our energy. The map is a creative burden on the ref — what best handles the scene’s needs? But this is the biggest problem: not all maps work and there’s limited guidance as to what does work. And a lot of maps that look different are topographically identical.

The other way is to invert this and make ideas the pawns on the table and the map can be people, places, cultures. The geography becomes static and we move the ideas around it. The objective is to cluster ideas where we want them but now who rolls and against who become unclear. The few I’ve run with this inversion have been great but entirely ad libbed. I have no way to tell you how to reproduce this but, as it turns out, I have no way to tell you what maps will work in either case. So we’re not further ahead.

While tinkering with a very early version of Soft Horizon I started thinking about formalizing the map: let’s have one kind of map and all combat is social at this scope. How you resolve the map (where you move all the pawns to) determines just what kind of event this will be (warfare, violence, diplomacy, sorcery, and so on) and this has largely narrative impact: you make the final roll in the determined resolution space and if it’s WARFARE then you narrate your success or failure as a war. That is, the whole minigame is in the preparatory moves for the conflict and one roll resolves the conflict. This never got tested but I think it’s a step in the right direction: develop a single, generalized social combat map. I still think is possible. I still haven’t done it.

abstract plural units mapIt did get me thinking about a single abstract map for combat, though: surely if it was possible to generalize social combat to use a single map, then maybe you could do the same for combat! This is of course the same trap as thinking you can use a hit points combat system and relabel everything to make a decent social combat system. But I still think it might work, especially for mass combat which seems to demand more abstraction.

Could we find a similar common abstraction for social combat? Or is this physical combat really one sub-map of many different kinds of conflict? That seems to be more the case (and I’m excited by the idea of having a vastly richer social system than violence system: one that subsumes violence as a single special case of conflict and not the most interesting). A separate system for romance, persuasion, grifting, …

Can these be enumerated? Can all of them be reduced to a model that is fundamentally about maneuver and action in the context of position? I think if the categories are general enough the answer to the first is yes — but I haven’t found the categories for this to work yet. And I’m not working all that hard on it. And I’m pretty sure that all of them can be reduced to a maneuver model, to be put on a map. Lots of maps.

But the point of this was that I am still, ten years later, flailing around trying to find good maps for this concept of social combat. So the idea that we could make a rule in Diaspora that basically said “first, invent a good map” was absurd. That’s why that section fails: we told you to take on the part that needs all the thought, all the testing, and was most likely to fail. And told you to do it on the fly.

Sorry about that, that was bullshit.

 

 

getting out of a rut

I have a rut when I ref.

I so dislike the trope of the asshole NPC, the uncooperative and unfriendly local, that I generally make everyone okay. Not obsequious, but not instantly negative, and wherever possible they acknowledge the power that the players’ characters have by reputation (earned or otherwise). That is, these are worlds of normal people who pay attention. They care about their lives and their family and friends and they prefer to get along than to make waves.

Of course the problem here is obvious: there’s not a lot of room for an emergent villain. Or even conflicting interests. And these things help move a game a long by giving the players something to react against.

I solve this systemically. The current Diaspora: Anabasis system under test is designed to prevent the stresses I feel and to make my games better, so we have to address my obsession with an army of friendly NPCs.

At the heart of the system, as with the Soft Horizon system (which so far is suspiciously similar) is the attachment of risk to every roll. In the current design the chance of realizing a risk (adding a complication) is very high. You succeed, but things are a little worse (complication) as well as a lot better (success). Getting players to avoid thinking of this as failure is something I’m still trying to address. That aside, the ref chooses a risk from a list and if it is realized they ad lib in the new twist to the narrative implied by that complication. It’s a cue, an oracle.

I love a good oracle.

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It’s all good!

The one that solves this particular problem, the rut of a universe where everything is pretty much fine, is the revelation. The risk of revelation is the risk of learning something true that you didn’t know and don’t want to be true. It’s the twist and it’s hand delivered to the players as a result of the roll. It wasn’t true before the roll. It’s true now. It’s an ad libbed zig and/or zag to the narrative.

How does this help me with my particular problem? It forces my NPCs to have their own agenda. It makes them perhaps seem cruel, certainly adversarial, by having interests that conflict with the players’ interests. Sure I could do this myself, but generally I don’t or don’t do it well or don’t do it at a perfect time. Doing it on the hinge of a roll is the perfect time. This mechanism lets me be me and still have enough spice to keep the narrative engaging.

An example! Last week we were engaging in conversation with a being named Glint, the synthetic intelligence that maintains a huge orbital ring habitat designed for millions but currently empty. My vision of Glint is that they lost their humans to some catastrophe ages past and they have been keeping this great space-borne graveyard only out of habit and a programmed sense of duty.

Then a player made a roll, a SOCIAL roll, to attempt to analyze the emotional state of Glint, to understand their strange behaviour. Perhaps to guess their motives. So far Glint has been very helpful to the point of turning over world-ending weaponry to the players (which presents a different kind of conflict that I am good at: the moral conflict). I attach the revelation risk to this roll and before the dice come out I start thinking about what my ad lib will be.

Dune rolls a 5: pretty great roll!

Brad Murray: Very good. Complication is indicated though — you’d need one stress to avoid it.

Dune: mechanically in this roll, is there anything that affects XP?

Brad Murray: No. You need to fail or make a stress/injury permanent to get XP

Dune:  Ok, I’ll take the complication. No stress to increase.

Brad Murray: You have been studying Glint very closely throughout this discussion. You can see that they are purposeless and desperate to find purpose or to invent it. Maintenance is not what they are for. And you suspect there is a love here too for humans and a desire to be amongst them but suddenly…

Brad Murray: Glint turns to Markella and their faceless mask takes on a fierce false face. They glow orange and red as though afire. Glint: “STAND AWAY FROM ME! LOOK ELSEWHERE!”

Brad Murray: Glint spreads its arms and grows a meter in height and you are suddenly aware that they could end all of you in an instant and is quite close to doing so.

Brad Murray: And you understand that though Glint has a desperate need to serve, Glint despises you. Despises organics. Is offended by you and by the way this conflicts with their needs.

Dune: “Take cover!” I’m not sure of our immediate environment, but I’ll dive for cover. I relay the conflicted psychological state to the others.

Toph: Darros is tipped back, and falls out of his wheelchair.

So the player gets what they want with a successful roll: an accurate read of Glint’s emotional state. And I get what I need: a nudge to change my (habitual) construction of this NPC. Glint goes from elegant and subservant host to a host whose subservience may be a veneer over something else. Or who may literally be of two minds. Or something else. But not boring. Not simple. And not safe. Glint is now something that has to be factored in to the plan.

Again, I could just do this. But I don’t think to often enough nor at the right times. So this mechanism helps me. And it will help anyone who suffers from any kind of creative repetition and yet responds well to a cued demand for improvisation. This might be a narrow audience but it certainly includes me.

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character sheets and choice and success

I recently read a definition of OSR (and I do not want to talk about defining the OSR) that included the idea that players are expected to use the content of their character sheet to find an optimum path to success. That is two things: the character’s skill set defines the shape of the narrative (the character happens to the world) and players are seeking success as a priority. I do not doubt that this is at the heart of OSR because this is very consistent with its wargaming roots.

So I now withdraw my old proposition that my games belong in some niche of the OSR. Unless this is a new axis I can be far to the left on, this isn’t what I want from a game at all.

example-char-sheetNow the first I’ve probably over-implied my distaste for. I do want the character sheet to impel the narrative, to sculpt it in terms the player has indicated. But I don’t want any part of the sheet to be irrelevant. I want characters to deal with complex problems that push them out of their expertise. I like it when Fighter is desperately trying to sneak into the castle. When Wizard gets in a knife fight. When Thief has tries to solve a problem with a half-learned spell. The real world rarely hits you head on — it hits you from the side. It forces you to learn things you would never choose for yourself.

So, systemically, that has to be fun to work. And that’s tied to the next thing.

Okay so, about success-seeking. In a role-playing game specifically, I really dislike this but I understand it — I think it derives from combat-centricity and the threat of character death. That is, we have become trained to seek success by games that punish us (the player) for failure. You’re knocked out of Gloomhaven. You go broke in Monopoly. Your bard dies. And so we seek to optimize both preparation and play for success to avoid punishment. We try to win.

moodBut the opportunity for something else is front and centre in role-playing games. We have no victory conditions. We don’t need to put death on the table as a risk if we don’t want to. And so we can explore failure safely, or at least partial failure. And I think this is necessary for an interesting narrative — a string of successes would indicate to me a lack of struggle. It doesn’t sound like interesting — or surprising, and I like surprising — space. We have to deal with reality, though, and reality says losing is bad. I used to cry when I lost a game. Flat out wail. That’s training we need to confront and overcome to get somewhere else.

Fortunately language has enormous power.

The system I’m refining to use for Diaspora Anabasis scales results as automatic failure, failure, success with complication, and success. The rarest is a success. Sadly players read this as “I am always going to fail” and the memory of losing Park Place to a slightly drunk and very performative Auntie Jean looms. We flinch. We don’t want to be put in that space. I’ve already given the game away here though — the word complication.

See, it didn’t used to be that. It used to be “realized risk“. This really triggers that reflex: the stage is set, the risk is declared, you roll the dice and the risk is realized. The bad thing happens. You failed.

Except you didn’t! You succeed, and the risk was realized. You got what you wanted, it’s just that there’s a twist. The negative reaction is largely a function of the language, though also partly because it is unavoidable. So two things are in order: a repair of language and a choice that you probably won’t take but that needs to be there to give you some security when you face the ghost of Auntie Jean. Hence “complication” instead of “risk realization” (which flows better anyway). And stress. Don’t want to eat that complication even though it’s a change in the narrative direction? Take some stress and add a FACT to your character sheet that has only fictional weight (which sounds like it’s weak but fictional weight is very strong indeed — consider your 10′ pole for a moment and all of the rules associated with it compared with all it will do in your game) and avoid the complication.

So mostly what’s going to happen is you’re going to succeed, even if you’re not great at something, but something unanticipated is also going to happen. You’re going to learn something that makes things more complicated (interesting). You might get injured (but not dead). Someone else might get injured. You might lose something. You might get delayed. You might get lost. But these things are at the heart of stories!

These, then, are critical ways my games will deviate from the OSR. In many other ways they align elegantly. But you won’t really have a character that lets you optimize all scenes for success, in part because there is no Fighter/Thief/Wizard role provision and combat is not privileged, so there are few contexts in which each broad skill category has a contributing role — the artificial tank, dps, healer cooperative role does not have a scene unless there is a complex positional combat system. And there isn’t. You will certainly look to your character sheet for ideas, but you won’t always pick your best skill and try to make it work.

And you won’t be confronted by Auntie Jean. Things will go south, get complicated, feel desperate, but you won’t feel like a loser. You will, I hope, feel beset with woes and emerge out of every strange twist of fate in a more interesting space.

scope of interest

Let’s say you’re playing a game in which the ref is framing a scene. Not a huge stretch here since this is basically all of traditional RPG gaming and a lot of the rest of it. I think what follows will apply to other patterns of play as well, but let’s stick to what we know here. So you (the ref) are framing a scene.

What do you want? You want the players to engage with something, make choices, and consequently cause the wheels of the system to turn and have that machine generate whatever it generates. That’s the reason we buy games, right? We are buying a machine and it’s up to use to get it started and keep it moving. The beginning of a scene is how the engine gets started.

How do you do that? Usually you want to get to an event. Now you might start with casual discussion between characters and NPCs but this will usually stall in banalities unless something external HAPPENS. And event. As ref, probably your most useful input to the game is to craft events. Ad libbing based on the results of events is maybe the next bit. But it’s up to you to push the starter on this engine. The rest of the players shoulder a substantial burden as well: to engage with it. And, in the best of all possible games, to start stirring up their own shit, their own events, to feed the engine. But as ref even if you don’t see it as your responsibility to start shit (as in, say, a pure sandbox where you are mostly reacting) it is still a tool in your kit.

In my games I expect the ref to kick things off.

In thinking about this, about events that define scenes, I find three “scopes of engagement” for the players and their characters. Each is very different, has different results, and different values at different times. I think that recognizing these three scopes and understanding them lets us use them deliberately rather than instinctively or accidentally and that has to be a good thing.

Uninvested

This is an event in which the players have no initial investment. It happens to a place or person or thing that we haven’t discussed yet and so the players cannot have invented an investment in it. That’s not to say it won’t be affecting, in fact we hope it will! But since nothing about the event has any relevance to the player (not the character! We may find that the character is incredibly invested, but that’s super important: we are going to find this out) it does not require (and does not benefit from) any kind of decision tree.

The event happens and the players react. The event is a done deal, a fait accomplis. It is an instigator.

Since we’re all big fucking nerds, let’s use Star Wars for an example.

Han Solo jumps into Alderaan system and it’s nothing but rubble. That’s the event. The Empire has destroyed an entire planet. Before this event Han’s player knew nothing about Alderaan — we hadn’t discussed it, it’s not on their character sheet. Their introduction to Alderaan is its destruction. Consequently the player cannot be invested in it yet. Consequently we don’t need a big decision tree leading up to it. We present it.

What happens next in the scene is the reaction to the event. Facts have been established about the Empire’s ruthlessness, their evil. Players will want to investigate, maybe find survivors, maybe punish the wicked. At this scope of engagement, the uninvested event, we generate investment. All of the scene is about reaction. This is a self-guided missile, a fire-and-forget tool for the ref. Kick it off and ad lib against the player reactions.

Invested

Here we have an event that will affect something the players are invested in though not, critically, their character. We have already somehow established investment through backstory, prior play, mechanical elements, or some other method. We know about the thing that will be threatened by the event and we already care about it.

As referee you have carefully chosen this event to threaten something players are invested in. You have deliberately selected this scope for the scene.

When the players are invested we want them to be able to change the apparent course of events and consequently there must be decision points built into the scene: when you threaten something players are invested in, they must be able to act to affect the outcome. That’s the whole reason you chose this scope. So as ref, don’t get too invested in a particular outcome. You kicked the hornet’s nest and your plans get what they deserve: player agency.

Star Wars again suits me for illustration.

Princess Leia is threatened by assorted villains on the Death Star: cough up the rebel info or we destroy your homeworld! Well, shit, Leia’s extensive backstory notes are full of info about Alderaan! Her first girlfriend is there, her prized record collection, her family, her friends. It’s all in the backstory. Of course you read it, that’s why you’re threatening to blow it up!

Leia’s character is invested. They are motivated to stop this. As ref, this is the hinge of your scene! Betray everything you believe in and we’ll keep your planet safe otherwise it’s plasma. A moral dilemma (and this is the scope in which they thrive) — betray your most earnestly held beliefs or save your family, your friends, and people you don’t even know? A decision point. Not a chain of them, this isn’t suddenly positional combat on a grid, but at least one.

Leia decides to give the information but lie. The baddies destroy Alderaan anyway. I guess she should have put more points in SOCIAL but maybe when she levels up the player can think about that. In the meantime, angst, betrayal, and further investment in something that matters (the course of the narrative) at the expense of something that matters less (backstory). I use expense deliberately: backstory is a currency. We use it to buy things. If we don’t spend it, it’s not useful. Spend backstory.

Affected

At this scope characters are directly threatened. We don’t care about investment because we are going to be in a situation where they have to act because the bad thing is happening to them now. This is the easiest way to engage the system but none of these scopes are “best”! They do totally different things. This one is the easiest, most mechanical, but does not always provide the most (or even a lot) of change within the story.

This is because it is defined by multiple, perhaps many, decision points that are focused solely on the event and not the story arc. We are zooming in, blow by blow, making choices that are critical in the moment (I draw my knife!) but irrelevant from a larger scale. Ultimately there is still only one hinge here — what is the end state when the smoke clears — and a lot of decisions. It’s a lot of system engagement for comparatively little story change.

But! But we’re here to engage the system. Not better. Not worse. Different. We play the game at a minor expense to story (per unit time).

Star Wars fails us here, at least in the Alderaan scene, so let’s look at a character that never got mentioned: Planetary Defense Captain Olberad Pinch! While everyone else is wringing their hands or waiting for fireworks, Olberad Pinch has a problem with multiple decision points! Now we all know they failed utterly, but look at the expenditure in table time to get there. And it was very important and interesting for Pinch’s player.

Detection. A moon-sized warship enters the Alderaan system! What do Planetary Defenses do? That’s in Pinch’s capable tentacles. They investigate, gather information, determine the next course of action. Maybe send ships — maybe Pinch is on one and their story ends in a lopsided dogfight! Maybe they escape!

Action. The Death Star is determined to have planet destroying weapons and is powering up! Did you get spies aboard? Was Pinch one of them? What about the planetary railguns? The local fighter swarm? Sure, all of these things obviously failed, but there are one or more detailed, system-engaging scenes here. In game time, this space which is largely unseen in the movie, could be multiple sessions, maybe the bulk of a months play. This is the nature of the Affected scope! It’s about your character, not just something you like! You care this much!

Climax! The Death Star is powering up! If you’re not in a position to stop it maybe you can escape? Evade TIE fighters in your shuttle just in time? With who? Which eight people did you select? And where are you going now? Again detail, lots of table time, all to save your ass.

And so

Those are the three scopes of engagement I can think of for a scene. Each requires a different level of planning or ad libbing from the ref. Each has different expectations about the players and uses their character sheets differently. Each has a place, makes different things happen. If you over-use one habitually, think about the others. Think about ways you can fabricate investment with uninvested scenes. Think about ways you can engage the system by explicitly threatening characters.Think about ways you can make a scene-staging event interesting by picking on investments the player has declared right there on the character sheet (and incidentally this is why the lonely loner backstory will always be the most useless — if the character cares about nothing then a third of the tools are obviated — if you take anything away from this as a player it should be that the more your character clearly cares about things the more interesting things can happen to them).

catastrophe in the first person

So yesterday I blurted out this twitter-splort as a sort of sub-tweet related to someone asking about what could happen to engage characters when an asteroid station’s reactor malfunctions. I gave them direct and I hope useful advice but then I did this.

Something that doesn’t get explored enough for my tastes in RPGs: confusion. In real life confusion + baseline fear creates some of the most terrifying and difficult to navigate circumstances.

When something big and terrible happens in an RPG often we start with full knowledge of it. This is a missed opportunity. Often the outward signs of a disaster for someone not immediately killed are ambiguous and subtly terrifying.

There are lots of emergency people and they don’t know what to do. People are running in multiple directions (no obvious origin of danger). Things that always work are working sporadically or not at all. There are sounds that aren’t alarming but you’ve never heard them before.

There are dead and injured and it’s not obvious what killed or injured them. There are people demanding you help who don’t know how you can help. Visibility is suddenly restricted or obliterated. Alarming smells are suddenly commonplace (gas, smoke, rubber, metal)

But most importantly these haphazard inputs are all you have. They don’t assemble into a certainty as to what’s going on. They might not even help. If you are in this situation you are either:

* leaving

* investigating so you can understand

* helping the immediately in danger

A fair question is, how do you evoke this in a game. Now my first thought is that this isn’t mechanical in the strict sense — it doesn’t need points or clocks or dice. I mean, you can employ those things, but there are more general techniques you can bring to bear.

Maybe it’s obvious, but if a real person is terrified because things are uncertain and confusing and dangerous then evoking the mood for players guiding a character through the disaster might benefit from the same thing: lack of information. This is of course in direct conflict with the idea that players should have full information and play their characters as though they don’t. Sometimes that’s the right thing and lets mechanisms already present engage, but it doesn’t establish mood. So what I’ll suggest is that whether or not you eventually draw back the curtain to allow the mechanism to play out, at least start with limited information.

So consider this asteroid reactor failure:

Ref: You’re buying noodles at a swing-bar when suddenly there’s a lurch. The air goes opaque with dust or something and your noodles fly out of your hands, whirling across the open space of the Trade Void. You hear screaming and you can’t see shit.

This is where I start: you don’t need to evoke confusion or simulate. Start with the actual confusion. Players will probably start looking for information. Before they get too much out, follow up. This makes things urgent.

Ref: People are rushing past you, just grey shapes in this fog, bumping into you. They are heading in different directions and are incoherent. Except for the one begging for help from across the ‘Void. You find your clothes are smeared with blood from someone who passed you.

Players are now in a position where they have little information, no easy way to get more information, and yet a motivation to either leave, help, or investigate.

I think it’s a critical technique to know and use as ref: to step back from the simulation engine and use the information itself to establish mood and urgency. It’s a story telling technique, not a game mechanism. When you rush or interrupt people, they get anxious. When they don’t have enough information they get the Fear. When they know the danger is real but don’t know the direction that is dangerous, they get careful.

The problem with this is that it’s not safe. When you try to get real emotions at the table you are treading on dangerous ground. If you’re going to attempt to directly evoke fear and anxiety in people, they better all be on board for that. And even if they feel like they are, it’s helpful to have an out like an X-Card or a Script Change. Make sure everyone knows what they are in for and have a way to opt out. If I use fast random information and overtalking people in order to establish confusion and anxiety, I’m doing a real thing to real people and you bear a great deal of responsibility when you do that. Someone not prepared for it would have every right to get angry about it. So tread lightly and talk first.

The upside is that the mood is easier to get into, easier to react within context, easier to build scenes that are memorable for the emotion and tension.

Nachtwey_NewYork_1
Most of our catastrophe images have context because we are looking back on the event through lens of investigation and analysis. But what could you conclude from this if it’s all you knew? A vast cloud of thick grey is descending on you and the noise is tremendous and people are screaming. Context is a luxury.

One level above this is how to analyze situations in order to understand how to place someone in them convincingly. If you’ve never been in mortal danger, you might have no idea what features of that terror are easily conveyed. But there are things that are generally true as I indicated in those tweets:

Low information: initially you know nothing except the effects you see.

Low visibility: bad things often create visual confusion. Fog, smoke, tear gas, crowds — your ability to see what is going on is constrained, so don’t describe everything.

High emotions: people are screaming, crying, begging. Not all of them are in danger or physical distress but almost all of them are overwhelmed by the confusion. You can’t immediately tell which are which.

Blood: Even just second order injuries (people getting banged about by the confused other people) generate a lot of blood after a few minutes. And you can’t tell who’s badly injured from who just has a broken nose. Or who’s covered in someone elses blood.

Low air: whether the air is filled with Bad Things or you’re overcrowded or you’re just hyperventilating it always feels like there is not enough air.

On the upside you will also usually find pockets of local organization: there’s usually someone trying to help and even if they have no idea what’s going on this will tend to form a nucleus of organization: people in this situation are attracted down the confusion gradient. They’ll walk right into a crossfire of bullets if it’s easier to see and breathe there.

There’s also usually a coordinated response very rapidly and that forced organization defuses confusion rapidly. The longer it takes to get there the more certain people are that it’s never coming, which amplifies confusion rapidly.

Presenting these things fall into the category of technique for me. You can mechanize some of them I suppose, but I think you only want to do that if you want your game to be about catastrophe. If you just want your particular game night to deal with a catastrophe, you want to hone some skills for presenting the catastrophic.

advancement

Oh advancement systems how we love you in the RPG world. By “we” here I mean you, and maybe not you specifically. Personally, I dislike them a great deal.

The problem with character advancement is that opposition either scales with character advancement or it doesn’t.

When opposition scales with you, the best advancement systems have the following features:

  • The range of options available to the player increases
  • The range of options available to the ref increases
  • New chapters of the monster manual are brought to the front — you are revealing new pictures of new opposition

For myself, the first two of those are not appealing to me. I don’t want my game to get more complicated as I play it. I’m not saying you’re bad, stupid, or evil if you like it, but let’s acknowledge that it’s a very important design choice that people are going to react to differently.

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A possible hero to me without being a secret fireball-throwing wizard.

Especially as ref, new complexity can feed my anxiety and lead to me violating the rules. There’s no way I’m managing a spell list for a high level dragon and deciding what they do from round to round as though I was playing my wizard character. At least in part because this dragon is probably going to die soon and there’s another complicated monster in the next room.

As a player I can cope, especially if there’s a type of character that doesn’t change much in complexity. If my fighter has increasing bonuses to scale with the baddies but not a lot of tactical choices that increase over levels, I’ll probably play the fighter and not the sorceror.

Revealing new parts of the monster manual is valuable: changing up the nature of opposition is cool. And the implication that these increasingly powerful monsters imply increasingly existential threats to the low level societies I am protecting is pretty cool. But this is a very specific kind of story arc and not one I want to play every time I sit down. And, frankly, not one I have the patience to work through from zero to hero. It’s just not for me. I’d rather start where the fun is, wherever that is for me today.

Everything else is basically the same except the numbers are bigger, and this can get to feel pointless, especially if the monster manual is weak. If the gnolls just keep getting bigger and better at magic then I don’t feel like we’re going anywhere interesting. I’m just doing more damage against larger hit point pools.

If the system doesn’t scale opposition (like an asymmetrical system where the opposition model doesn’t change or where the opposition isn’t really modelled at all) then something very different happens: you just get more successful. Now I actually find that pretty interesting as long as it happens slowly and as long as failure is rich — the whole tone of the game should change over time. But it has a cap and not a very well defined one: at some point there are no challenges any more and that’s an unsatisfying way to end a story. It might make an amusing allegory once. Just once.

Again these are matters of personal taste. I know there are people (because I was one) who get a rush from advancing. Accruing enough points to ring the bell and get a new power is intrinsically satisfying regardless of its relationship to the story (and sadly there often isn’t one — maybe I’d be keener if something happened in the fiction to explain and explore my sudden leap in ability). But this makes it a mode of play, not a necessary feature of play. I like playing cards for money but it doesn’t mean that money needs to be on the table for every card game.

This is why advancement figures weakly if at all in my games: it doesn’t sing to me. It’s important that there are games that have it because it sings to a lot of people. But it’s important to have games that don’t as well, because that thrill of improvement ties a reward to the accrual of experiences that help you advance, which can distract you from the fact that sometimes these things are abhorrent and rewarding them should be questionable. When the thrill comes from this reward, this advancement, questioning the underpinnings of the idea of rewarding murder and robbery (for example) is uncomfortable and unproductive. I think we need to play without mechanical reward for a while to get a grip on what kinds of things we love in a story that aren’t murder and robbery. Maybe that leads us to games that reward different things and in different ways. And sometimes we find that it’s fine that that changes from session to session, and maybe advancement as a reward isn’t always necessary.

And sometimes, for sure, we want to ring that bell as we stand on the corpse of a wizard-dragon that took hours of smart choices to slay. But not always. And, for me, not even mostly.

Postscript

I wanted to talk a little about heroism but I forgot to. I don’t think a hero should be defined by their capabilities. I mean they can be, but it feels insufficient — even Superman is a hero for reasons far beyond being crazy strong and largely invulnerable. Powers enable hero or villain. A hero to me is about how someone responds to adversity — about the choices they make when the choices are hard. So “heroic” gaming to me is gaming within a context where its’ not obvious what the right thing to do is and, most importantly, where you’re celebrated when you make a great choice. People treat you like a hero when you’re heroic. Scale of conflict is not strictly relevant, though it’s a cheap way to get action that could resolve heroically.