Rolling the dice: When vs. How

27 November, 2007 at 7:45 pm (game design, game mastering, rpg theory) (, , , )

Rolling dice, playing cards, betting tokens, comparing scores, dancing, RPS, whatever. Resolution in general.

Open a random rpg. There will be a section of some length on how the dice are rolled, what the result means, how character traits affect it, and so on. All absolutely essential and useful material. Sometimes there is elegence, rarely true innovation, sometimes cumbersome chart-look-ups (but I don’t like charts, so maybe there are elegant uses of them somewhere).

At least for me, when the dice are rolled is far more significant when actual gameplay is considered. If there is little to nothing in the book, I default to style mostly stolen from Burning Wheel. What follows is a listing of some”when”s of rolling the dice.

  1. When the situation is dramatic or meaningful. In my mind, this is a fundamental requirement. No boring rolls, please. Boring scenes are generally not very good idea, either, but rolling dice there is adding insult to injury.
  2. When there are consequences for failing. There is little point in rolling if failure means simple retries ad infinitum. This should be pretty obvious, too.
  3. When two players want a different thing to happen in play. If GM want’s Bob character to escape and all players want it too, it can be argued that there is no point in rolling, and Bob’s character simply escapes (or maybe a style roll determines how impressively Bob or the GM will describe the run-away, but that is not relevant). This is far from obvious principle. I don’t use this one, for example. In my opinion, the next is better for the flow of game because it introduces more trouble.
  4. When there is more than one possible outcome and all of them move the story forward. That is, if someone (usually the GM) can come up with an interesting complication in case of failure, the dice are rolled. There is no point in rolling to discover the secret door which is integral to the story, if failure means not finding it. But if failure means that before finding the door, the party is tracked down by a ferocious minotaur (because finding the door took time), suddenly the roll has no chance of screwing the game and also rewards players for being good at finding secret doors.
  5. When two fictional characters are in conflict. Character may be interpreted liberally (allowing the rockslide to be a character trying to bury the hapless mountaineer) or literally. I think this is a pretty good rule of thumb, because there often are interesting consequences when two characters conflict.
  6. When GM (or nobody) knows or has a stake in what will happen next. Basically, as a means to avoid unfun decisions or to move blame. I think this is a useful tool in moderation (and great way to use random encounters), but widespread use is a sign of trouble. I might be wrong. Rationale: The game may be too slow (“what do you do next?”), GM uninspired (watch for burnout), GM unprepared (learn to improvise or take a break), GM not listening to players (they are bound to have some ideas for what their characters will do next), or the game simply boring (take a longer break, start a new game, get someone else to GM).

I prefer number four. Other people have other preferences. Do know that this is a fairly imporant choice and think for yourself.

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Defining omnipotence

27 November, 2007 at 6:49 pm (definition, philosophy) (, , )

This is a sufficient definition and from human POV; that is, if something like what is described existed, we would call it omnipotent.

Let U be a closed universe, or something very near closed. Closed means that the things inside it can’t get to or sense the outside, and hence are unlikely to know anything about it. Let G be an undefined entity (you can read it as God if you really want to).

G is omnipotent with regards to U if G can shape U into whatever native form it could encompass. So, for example, in our universe an omnipotent G could create and remove physical objects at will, but it would not be necessary for G to be able to create things fundamentally beyond our understanding (I have a few problems with trying to create examples for certain reasons), because they are not part of our universe as is.

From this basis, a theorem: G must be outside the conception of time (or entropy or another measure of change, with apologies to everyone who knows physics for probably misusing “time” and “entropy”) that exists in U.

If this was not the case, G could first (within the dominant measure of change) create the indestructable wall and then create a cannonball that destroys everything it touches, third make them touch, which results in impossible outcome, and hence is not true. This does not happen when G is outside the conception of change as it applies in U, because then G would both create something and cancel it at the same time, which amounts to not creating the thing to start with, which leads to no paradox, because G didn’t actually create one of the conflicting absolutes after all.

The definition also assumes G is omniscient, but when talking about omnipotence, that is kinda trivial.

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A diversion: On square circles

25 November, 2007 at 9:18 am (mathematics) (, , , )

This is a semiformal proof. A formal one would be hard to understand without pictures and would require me checking out the English translations of a number of words, which I am not inclined to do.

A square is defined as an ordered set of four points, no three of which are on the same line, and further that the angles thus created are all right (there is a bit more, but it is not too relevant). Circle is defined as a set of points that are from given distance (radius) from a given point. Because a square does not exist in hyperbolic geometry, it is sufficient to think about Euclidean geometry. Assume that there is a square circle. Let A and B be two points of the circle that are part of the same edge (i.e. that edge does not go through the circle’s center). Let C be a point that is between A and B. Distance from The center of the circle to C is lesser than the distance to A or B, so it is also lesser than the radius. Accordin to one axiom I am a bit too lazy to check out, it is possible to find D so that D is behind C when observed from the circle’s center and D’s distance from the center is the circle’s radius. Hence D is part of the circle. D is not anyof the original points that defined the circle, because if it was either of the unnamed ones, the definition of rectangle would get messy, and if it were A or B, C would also be A or B, which contradicts the choice of C. Hence, there are no square circles. Qued est demonstratum.

This diversion due to another discussion.

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Setting does matter

24 November, 2007 at 10:44 pm (game design, game mastering, rpg theory) (, , , )

Most people accept that system does matter. But so does setting, at least as much (it must be true because Troy Costisick has said it before). Setting is tenously defined as the diegetic (in-game) context of the actual play.

How does setting matter? Well, I’d start with players often having preferences to some direction, and away from some other directions. I am a dark fantasy junkie, for example, but dislike running Cyberpunk. A friend has an unexplained dislike towards guns in gaming. These tastes are overwhelmingly subjective. Conclusion: Don’t play in setting someone hates. Do play in settings people are ambivalent about, because trying new things is useful.

On more technical note, setting is a large contributor in the sort of events that can take place and, hence, stories that can be told. Rarely do they completely rule out genres, but they often suggest and facilitate certain broad ways to play. If vampires are a major theme in the game, most likely possibilities are horror of them chasing you, horror of being them, high-action or gritty vampire hunting, or the political etc. ramifications of supernatural beings. Comedy, for example, is not ruled out, but neither is it particularly made easier by the vampires.

Setting design

I am assuming that the reader is a GM designing a setting for gaming purposes. If publication is in mind, this article is probably useful. If world-building in and of itself is the goal, with a distinct possibility of someday gaming in the setting, the Campaign Builders’ Guide is a useful resource (it is good if you intend to game, too).

The most important thing is not to overdesign. Nobody but you is really interested in the fine details of the kingdom’s dressing habits during the summer solstice, unless they are somehow very interesting. And if everything is full of interesting detail, the setting is utterly overwhelming to anyone trying to learn it. Further, such a setting will feel cluttered.

The other most important thing is to not under-design. It is very possible to start with freeform or very light system and more detail as play goes on, but starting with next to no setting is hard. The first reason is that players need something to inspire their characters. “You can play anything!” is far from useful. Second reason is that improvisation and keeping the game consistent are hard without a baseline.

So, one requires a suitable level of detail to create the optimal setting. The actual amount is, of course, a factor of group’s playstyle. GM, if any, needs to know enough to set up the game. Depending on play style, this may be a situation (the orcs are attacking the village where you have lived your entire lives; D&D-esque fantasy) or a location (the city is large, approximately medieval, and limited by two rivers and the ocean; create shady characters; little if any magic). This needs to be communicated to players. Again, depending on play style, GM may need enough material to prepare an adventure, or to build a relationship map, or map a dungeon, or whatever. When player characters are created, again depending on group style, additional material such as NPCs (contacts and relationships of the PCs), houses, organisations, cities, monsters, and so forth, may be required or created.

That’s all well and good for starting the game, but to keep it running smoothly, further information may be necessary or at least useful. One option is to be creative and create more-or-less original and new material. A second, far more economic, method has been adequately explained by Chris Chinn over Deeper in the Game, but I can do a summary of the piece: Apply real world stuff, or other known material (Star Wars, Tolkien, D&D, Cthulhu mythos, …). A culture that is “like ancient Romans” or a religion that is “Christianity with different symbols” are both very easy to use in play. Another powerful method is taking or making up an arbitrary game element and creating an intuitive explanation for it. For geography, “archipelago”, “great plains”, “huge delta with rainforests” or an overall map are likely sufficient for quite some time.

Some of the most important roles of setting simply snuck in: The role of PCs, the things they can change, and the things that can affect them. These are often emergent qualities, but sometimes part of the concept. They should be thought about, either way. Simply saying “You can play anything!” is, again, not useful. Some examples are either necessary or damn useful. A setting inspired by vikings might have the coming of Ragnarök as an immutable factor (there is no way to prevent it) that pushes the PCs around by threatening that which they hold in value. Or it may be something that needs to be stopped, NOW. The game will have a different feel in both cases.

For more detail on elements that compromise a setting, see Troy Costisick’s relevant article. And for good list of things to think true and potentially write down, see another article by the same author. Both are highly recommended.

How much detail should one create? For me, the sweet spot is in just enough to improvise all sorts of fun details, but not so much that I have to reference anything or fear making big mistakes. Your mileage may vary.

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The purpose of rules

24 November, 2007 at 12:00 pm (game design, rpg theory) (, , , , )

I have dabbled in freeform. It works. This begs the question; why use rules at all?

There have, naturally, been several good answers to the question. One famous comes from the Forge and is called Lumpley principle: “System (including but not limited to ‘the rules‘) is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.” In essence: System, including the rules, tells who can say what and when (“what” regarding the fiction). So, what are the implications? First, all games with one GM and number of players who only decide things about the behaviour of their characters are fundamentally the same. Second, there are alternatives to that model. Third, there is always a system; rules just make it explicit.

Another, more recently surfaced, theory says that rules share spotlight (originally from Ben Robbins, further elaborated by Fang Langford here, here and here). The implications include that rules which create separate subgames (hacking in Cyberpunk) not accessible to all players are bad. In turn-based environment, such as many combat systems, rules that give extra actions should be considered carefully. Critical hits and fumbles are actually meaningful rules; they give random bursts of spotlight to players. The purpose of rules is to regulate spotlight away from those who would have it in freeform gaming.

Rules also create shared expectations with regards to the fiction and player behaviour generally, which is probably more important. The Mountain Witch (Vuoren velho in Finnish) has rules for betrayal and every player knows that every other player has a dark secret. This creates the atmosphere where betrayal is assumed to happen, at some point, and hence reduces the potential for damage that may happen with unexpected interparty conflict (see also: this RPGsite thread). Game art and such also contribute in similar manner. Under this point of view rules make the gameplay smoother; less need for negotiation, fewer mistakes that need fixing.

“The rules are the physics of the game world.” is often heard. I am going to extend it a bit: Rules define setting. The effect is not necessarily straightforward, but it is there. D&D dwarves are harder to hit by giants. There might be several reasons for this, or none at all, but it will be reflected in the setting somehow. What does this imply? Well, first, the more rules, the more defined the setting will be. This may be a perk or a flaw. Second; setting andrules interact. Choosing one will or should affect the other. Third, if you want a setting that does make sense internally, take a good look at the rules and how to translate them into in-game (diegetic) information.

Rules create tactical and strategic sub-games. Some are very explicit about this, some far less so, but at least the combat or generic conflict resolution systems tend to be minigames. Implications: Make them meaningful and fun, given that they are there.

In summary, there are several ways of looking at the purpose of rules. When selecting a ruleset, or designing one, it is useful to look at it from several perspectives.

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Go Play

24 November, 2007 at 11:06 am (roleplaying) (, )


A meme that started in Story-Games and spread through and other forums. It is basically a symbol for identifying other gamers. It is also a reminder to, no matter how engrossed one is at writing theory or reviewing games or whatever, go and play. Know it. Use it.

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Writing actual play reports

23 November, 2007 at 3:03 pm (actual play, roleplaying) (, )

There is a movement, spotlighted by the decision to close Forge theory forums, which says that theory should always spring from actual play. There is a stronger form, too: All theory discussion should be in context of AP, being tied to a specific instance.

I tried writing useful AP posts. It didn’t work out well, for a few reasons. First: It feels like work. I don’t want to make my hobby work. Second: The reports have the tendency to degenerate into story hours. After writing that, I am too weary to write down anything insightful.

They do have a use: They help in remembering what actually happened in the game. A permanent record is always a good thing. It just is not worth the trouble, to me.

Hence, writing those posts will be rare. I may do it, when it feels useful. Not that often, I fear.

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An old thing

23 November, 2007 at 1:42 pm (roleplaying) (, , )

What roleplaying genre would you be great at?
created with
You scored as TragedyYou’ve got a handle on how a tragedy occurs – one part stubbornness and one part nobility. Along with the willingness to go for the dramatic moment even when you know it’s likely to end badly, and the ability to express emotional moments, you have a solid foothold (or more) in the things that player needs to excel at tragedy-based roleplaying.If you’d like to put these skills to use right away, you can click and download Microcosm. It’s a free, introductory roleplaying game. If you decide to go for it, remember the awards on the left; those are ones your group may want to use.


Stolen from Levi Kornelsen.

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Epistemology for roleplayers

22 November, 2007 at 8:55 pm (game mastering, rpg theory) (, , , )

Epistemology talks about the possibility of and criteria for knowledge.

Roleplayers are people who spend a significant amount of their time creating fictional characters and interacting with fictional worlds, often via the fictional characters. In my personal opinion, it would be foolish to not adopt a theory of knowledge that allows sentences such as “The lowly orc stabs Drizzt, who drops to his death in the gorge.” to be meaningful, and further makes most sense from the practical point of view.

The theory of truth often named correspondence says that a proposition (claim that something is true, essentially) is true if and only if it corresponds to the real world. This is, of course, totally useless to an average roleplayer. At least I hope the world isn’t really swarming with vampires who wield katanae, mages searching for Atlantis, werebeasts eating folk, etc.

Coherency is another way of defining truth; it claims that something is true as long as it is coherent with our other beliefs. I find this to be more usefu, as a roleplayer and especially GM. After I know something about a given setting, further additions can be evalued based on the coherency of them: If they conflict with existing facts, accepting them is kinda risky. Not always wrong, but risky nonetheless. Direct contradictions should be avoided almost always, but somewhat dissonant material can be useful.

Especially if Universalis or some other less extreme game where everyone gets to narrate is the order of the day, coherence is a pretty useful concept, also for checking the contributions of others. See also no myth as a related way of gaming.

There is at least one other theory of truth that springs to mind. I don’t remember what it is called, but the content is that truth is whatever works best. This, too, is a useful point of view for roleplayers. Usually, whatever works best, at least in the long run, is also coherent with the pre-established material.

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The difference between philosophy and math

21 November, 2007 at 5:49 pm (mathematics, philosophy) (, )

Mathematics is the art of proving p.

Philosophy is the art of justifying p.

A proof is almost always a justification.

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