Principle: Character death

28 December, 2007 at 7:27 pm (game mastering) (, , , )

Player character death is usually a bad thing. That’s why in story- or character-driven games I run the following rule is in effect: Player characters will not die unless the player explicitly risks the character’s life.

By character death I mean any event that makes a character unplayable for extended period of time (at least two sessions) and is not easily reversible.

Character death is often harmful to the game, because

  • Character generation takes time, especially in heavier systems.
  • It often stops the game, either permanently or temporarily.
  • Players don’t like losing precious characters.
  • GM probably had hooks, plot opportunities, bangs, and so forth planned for that character. They all need reworking or become totally useless.

Random character death is even worse. In addition to the above, it is usually anticlimatic.

My solution: Justification

When players must risk the characters specifically for there to be a chance of PC death, they are never (by definition) random. In many situations there won’t be a crushing anticlimax (maybe a mild one). And the player can only blame themselves for the loss.

My solution: Implementation

So, how do players risk their characters and why would they ever do it? Usually the risk is clearly defined; for example, in most of my games combat is a rare and serious affair, and hence entering it always means a risk of PC death. Escalating some conflict may mean it: The noble told you to be gone and stop bothering her daughter. Then he had you thrown out of the ball and declared an outlaw. If you still persist and try to sneak to meet her, failure means the guards will slay you first and not ask any questions after that. If you negotiate well, they might let you meet the noble, and if you flatter well, you might get away with your life. Fail and you will be executed. I think this avoids the problem of random death: The death, if it happens, is clearly significant because it shows that the character really cares for the noble’s daughter and is willing to risk death in the pursuit. Also: the rule of three may or may not be involved in making this seem not arbitrary. Something worth thinking about.

The (slightly more) tricky part is in making the game interesting with reduced chances of PC death. Something must still be threatened and the PCs must still be capable of doing something for it. Personally I have discovered two methods of makings PCs and players care about stuff. First is in asking the player what the character cares deeply about (the rules of the game may or may not help in this; if they do, they are called flags; another fine opportunity to shill the Burning Wheel which has such a feature). Loves, hates, is dutybound to, is tied to with ties of blood. Second is forcing such a relation, either out-of-game (make characters who hate this bastard) which can seem too forced, or through the game (play NPC so as to inspire fear, love, friendship, loyalty,…), which is far from reliable and can misfire.

Threatening the stuff that is important to the PC and the player can make some players turtle. Hence it is important to make it clear that it makes the game better and that you won’t arbitrarily destroy such things without the PC having a chance to avert the destruction (but maybe sacrificing something else in the process, like her life) or also give equal opportunities to gain ore good stuff (which can later be threatened). This is all good stuff for plain old dilemmas. A shadowy figure offers you great power and wealth and magical knowledge if you betray your friend. Allows the character to get something for losing something else. Few players will start turtling if they get to make relevant decisions.

My solution: Additional benefits

I won’t have to fudge rolls to prevent pointless character death. Players who actually are okay with their chars biting the dust at dramatic moments get to do that, which makes martyrism possible. Players get more control of the game. From my point of view, everyone wins.

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Not a design blog.

21 December, 2007 at 12:11 pm (meta) (, )

You know all those blogs where random indie designers post about their own projects? I find them utterly boring. Even if the projects are interesting. I won’t be doing that, hopefully, by starting a small design project here. If I ever get it done, it will be available for free under creative commons. I do it mostly as an exercise and because the damn thing has implanted itself in my head.

Design goals

The core idea: Dungeoncrawling and generic adventuring. Genre: Somewhere between D&D and sword and sorcery. Core story: One or multiple characters select a goal and succeed at it, give up, or perish trying to achieve it. This works best with a self-balancing game.

The game will be full of exact rules. Every skill shall have a clear and explicit use. In addition to that, and to avoid the problems inherent in exact rules, adventure/dungeon designers are encouraged to expand the use of skills for specific situations. The game will be very much a game; players take on goals (GM can design quests or players can decide to do something else within the offered setting) and receive rewards for completing them. If they try too hard, their character may get killed or permanently maimed, or get other trouble. The game will work with only one player and one GM. If I manage it, the might work with only a single player, but it will have a different nature when played that way.

Structure of the game

Characters start at a safe place (a point of light, if you will). They gather information and set an objective for themselves. They equip themselves for the quest. They travel to adventure location (by default, a dungeon). Quick or stealthy travel means no or few random encounters, which potentially deplete the resources of the characters. Once they arrive at the adventure location, the characters must navigate it to their final destination. This is essentially navigating a flowchart. Moving too slowly or carelessly will cause random encounters. Rushing in too quickly will cause missing useful shortcuts and other secrets. Once the objective is reached (or characters too exhausted to effectively go on), a way back to safety must be discovered and the journey survived. Once back, characters will face the consequences of the quest they took and those they didn’t (though some will only manifest given a longer period of time and some won’t be urgent at all). They will have time to recuperate from their wounds and weariness, will usually spend all their hard-won loot on booze and whores and other entertainment, take on new quests, and the process begins anew.

On actual crunch

Core mechanic is stolen from Ville Vuorela‘s Praedor (a Finnish rpg) and a forum  thread by Jim Bob (Kyle). That is: Roll nd6, try to get below relevant skill. Sometimes the number of dice/difficulty is fixed, but usually the player gets to decide it, with greater number of dice giving greater benefits. Also, most rolls are player-initiated. Also, players roll all the dice (as a default assumption). Opponents have fixed results.

Why not just play D&D or Rune

D&D has too much cruft and extra bits. Rune is too competitive, has at least one significant balance problem and has far too much point-counting to be enjoyable to me. Besides, I’m doing this as a design exercise and as an excuse for playtesting and fun dungeonbashing every now and then.

Why not make it electronic

I don’t have the skills for that, nor do I find it equally interesting. One or both of these may follow from the other.

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It’s all about choices

19 December, 2007 at 11:52 am (rpg theory) (, , , , )

For me, roleplaying is about making choices. I hear there exist alien entitites called other people who disagree. Whatever.

Large heaps of rpg theory are also about choices. More probably, I remember those ones better, but again, whatever. I’ll go through a few from this point of view.

GNS

GNS is about the kinds of choices people (in groups) want to make. I am not an authority on the subject, but am fairly likely to get G and N approximately correct. I think these are useful not because they are a tool for putting people in boxes (which they technically speaking are not, but which is a very easy extension of the theory, but instead because you find out that there actually are people who enjoy these kinds of choices, and including them in games to see if people enjoy them might be useful. That’s my opinion.

In a group with a gamist agenda, people appreciate most the kinds of choices that show off your sense of tactics or guts or something like that. These are usually related to winning or beating an obstacle.

A group playing in narrativist way people most appreciate choices that reveal interesting parts about the characters’ inner life. Such decision points often manifest as moral dilemmas and sometimes may involve playing suboptimally from fiction or rules POV (note the qualifiers; they matter).

A group where simulationist play happens most appreciates, well, uh.., I’m not actually quite certain. I’m trying to do a positive definition here. Maybe choices which reveal interesting about the way the fictional reality functions? I guess that is good enough.

GDS aka Threefold

John H. Kim has done a great summary of the threefold model, as has Silvered Glass of rpg.net. From my perspective, threefold talks about the heuristics game masters use when making choices. I will blatantly extend this to players, too. Note that the categories are not mutually exclusive; rather, an overt focus on one will limit the others, because usually there are situations where following a different heuristic would lead to different consequences. I think it is useful to analyse one’s gaming based on these categories. I also think it is useful to check out systems based on thse categories, especially to see if some of the GDS styles will conflict or are congruent in a particular game.

GM with gamist tendencies is someone who tries to make choices so that the game is challenging to the players. My extension is that a player with gamist tendencies wants to make choices which overcome the challenges. Note: Rules and fiction can both be used as the method of presenting the challenges. A courtly intrigue can be as good a gamist challenge as a series of bloody skirmishes even in a game with few to no social rules.

Dramatist GM or player makes decisions that result in the best story (or tries to, anyway). This can be a railroad or a more collaborative exercise (I certainly prefer the latter).

Simulation as a preference means that the participant will make decisions based on “what would really happen”, given the diegetic (in-game) reality.

AGE model

The AGE model by Kuma takes a look at roleplaying from ecological POV, in that the environments that play takes place in are emphasised. This post will not make much sense unless one is somewhat familiar with the model. The six forces are essentially created by players with given decision-making heuristics. Choices are constrained by the different spaces (em, a, game, play) and also affect those spaces by setting precedents and opening new potential interactions.

Original thought

Rules can align some priorities. If, for example, the rules are designed to help in creating a story through challenges, they can be enjoyed by people whose styles of play might normally conflict. Setting likewise; if all characters have a drive to prove themselves by doing the impossible and also want to become as powerful as possible, realistic behaviour in that setting corresponds to facing and triumphing over challenges.

Both of the above effects are achieved by constraining some choices and creating new ones. Rules and setting do both.

In traditional play (huge sweeping generalisation incoming) GM is the one who thinks about the good of the game as a primary filter that removes choices, or such is ideally the case, at least. Personally I don’t see the point of not assuming that players also want the good of the game. I do, as a player, to some degree. Many people who both run and play in games probably think more holistically and act in the best interest of the game.

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Reflections: Like umbrella

19 December, 2007 at 8:30 am (actual play) (, , , , )

Like umbrella was a game of new Mage GM’d by Thalin. Players were me, wgaztari and ksym (hopefully spelled right). I wrote some of the story down before getting bored. This post is mostly intended as a feedback for Thalin and a way for me to structure my thoughts to dig out more insights. Thalin may or may not write somethig related from his POV. Probably not, which is a great excuse for calling him lazy.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Alignment

16 December, 2007 at 10:43 am (game design, rpg theory) (, , , )

Omnius of Alephgaming talked about alignment. I have a bit something to say about it, too.

First, assumptions: Alignment has something to do with character behaviour. It may be descriptive or prescriptive, but some sort of connection must exist. Further, alignment does not have concrete and significant mechanical effects for most characters. If it does, at least I count it as a personality mechanic, no longer alignment, which means it gets a bit more tangled. Even further, alignment does not have an exact definition, because otherwise people would argue about it anyway due to conflicting ethics and such.

So. What purpose does alignment have? First, it can be used as a roleplaying guide. This is especially useful to new players, casual gamers, or people just not that interested in developing a compelling personality for their character, but who don’t want to play themselves. When in doubt about what the character would do, check the alignment and act according to that. Otherwise ignore it. I feel that this is a very useful function of alignment. It can be accomplished by personality rules or just writing down some phrases like “honest” or “sadistic”. But alignments are one way of accomplishing the goal.

Second, a bit more controversial, effect that alignments can have is a clear division into good guys and bad guys. Like, as a totally hypothetical example which is not in any way related to D&D, it may be that all bad guys are always evil and all player characters more-or-less good, and good defeats evil. This is very useful for high-action games with little interest in deeper issues. The enemy is evil, so slay them. One can create compelling moral dilemmas in a clear-cut world, of course, they just will look a bit different. It may be that anger leads to evil (or the dark side). Will your good guy get revenge, no matter the cost, even if the good status may be lost in the process?

One can, naturally, ignore the sides implied by alignments. Good people are those who tend to be kind and helpful and hug puppies, while evil ones are hurtful and want to hurt people and kick puppies, but this does not meant that good characters will always get along, due to such factors as personality, goals, scarce resources, whatever. The question I pose to people playing like this is: Why not get rid of alignment altogether and replace it with descriptive personality qualifiers? They do all the job that stunted alignments do and don’t imply an undesired division.

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Fuzzy rules

14 December, 2007 at 6:19 pm (game design) ()

I’m talking precisely about rules that are fuzzy with regards to the setting, not rules that are hard to understand or anything.

An example of exact rule: Climb in d20. It tells exactly what one can achieve with a climb roll an how difficult it is.

An example of fuzzy rule: Profession, not considering the part on earning money, in d20. It tells roughly what character can do but does not include particular difficulties or durations or such (because there would be too much to list, but that is not relevant).

My argument is that exact rules are prone to breaking the game and hence being ignored. I probably could also provide some arguments that tell exact rules are actually preferable, I don’t actually think they are nearly as compelling and so would likely set up strawmen anyway.

The breaking happens when some task clearly in the province of the skill but not covered by the exact rules comes up. Like, say, two characters are trying to climb atop a 50 feet castle wall. The important bit is who gets there first. You could habe both chars roll those 7 to 4 climb rolls that the rules imply. Or you could simply roll one opposed roll. Seven to four isn’t lot. What about if the thing climbed is 500 feet high. Still rolling? I’m certainly not.

Likewise: Mass combat in any game without specific rules to handle it. Creative use of skills, spells and other character abilities. Diplomacy.

With fuzzy skills, I can simply ask for a roll and state difficulty, together with consequences of failure and success, with little need to consult a book or such. Like using profession (general) in a war situation: Roll it as a special aid another that affects the entire army if you beat the opposing general. Or roll to guess the ambush, DC 20 for it being possible but unlikely for a random person to notice. Or perform DC 15 to get the lady talking to and interested in you. Or roll farming to get your crops look impressive enough that the samurai believe you are able to pay your debts, so you won’t be slain right away.

This does mean that there won’t be a one-to-one mapping between the char’s running speed and relevant abilities. Or the estimated jumping distance and relevant numbers. Instead the GM makes a call about the difficulty of the feat (jumping that is pretty easy, DC 5) or asks players to make the call (“How difficult is it to jump 5 ft. without a running start?”). Or doesn’t even use clear measurements, because it is not like the characters know those anyway. So, pit traps can be measured straight in difficulties (DC 15 to jump over, 25 to jump out of there once in, +2 if someone is ready to grab you if you get high enough, +n if smart tools are used, …).

I certainly prefer fuzzy rules. They don’t create logical inconsistencies or huge rollfests as often as exact ones. They do give more responsibility to the GM and possibly players, though, which is something I can and will live with. YMMV. Credit goes to Thalin for making me think.

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Good rules help to improvise

13 December, 2007 at 12:32 pm (game design, game mastering) (, , )

When writing my previous post, I realised one important component of good rules: They actively help me in improvising content by taking the burden of decision-making away from the GM.

Good example is abstract wealth systems (Burning Wheel and d20 modern have one, for example). The question “Can the NPC afford this and that?” can be quickly solved with a simple die roll or checking the wealth levels involved. PCs wanting to buy a certain item just roll wealth. with adjustments for obscure or specialised items. And failure means that I have the perfect excuse to add some fun complication, like the chars getting into a hostage scene or catching the attention of authorities/pickpockets or buying unreliable equipment. An invaluable feature.

Abstract contact systems work pretty much exactly the like: Roll to find whoever you are seeking, with factors such as character background and social station affecting the roll. Failure means that you get the attention of someone or that the person you find happens to hate your guts (called enmity clause in Burning Wheel). Again, great way to introduce new complications and conflicts to play and the players do part of the NPC design work (asking them to name the NPCs thus found may be useful trick, too).

Random encounters are kinda similar. A good random encounter table can be used when characters fail a roll in the wilderness. Maybe they are tracking the bugbear that slaughtered some villagers and fail. It’d be no fun for them simply to not find anything, so instead they trigger a random encounter (maybe the vily bugbear tricked them into territory dominated by whatever beasties they encounter, or maybe it is pure bad luck).

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Getting out of the adventure (with no rails)

12 December, 2007 at 9:28 pm (game mastering) (, , )

Jonathan Drain crawled out of the dungeon (an excellent article one ought to read). I’m going a bit further explain some ways of gaming that don’t fit his definition of adventure, which is: any series of exciting, heroic events involving a group of heroes who set out with a purpose. As previously, this shall happen without the rails.

First, it should be noted that many gamers are in for the co-operation, excitement and eventual triumph implied by an adventure. That’s fine. Go play, have fun. Maybe there is something useful for you in this post, maybe not.

So, how to get off the rails and the adventure at the same time? First way is to break the party. Not merely split it, but to stop assuming it at all. The problem is in keeping all players engaged regardless. Sending them out of room or using notes are, obviously, very bad ideas. So one must trust the players; trust that they will not abuse the metagame information, but either ignore it or use it well. The simplest way of keeping all players engaged is cutting between their characters rabidly. First ask what everyone is doing, then play every situation a bit at a time, jump to next, play a bit of it, and so forth. A good alternative is to recruit players to play NPCs when their characters are not present, assuming the players are willing. It is also beneficial to have the player characters interact with each other as much as possible, because it inherently involves more than one player and gives more time to think, or to play the scenes of other players, whichever suits the situation and the group.

Three or four independent agents will make planning kinda difficult. So, the key is to define a number of NPC, their motivations, and abilities (including the people, money and influence they have at their disposal), after which playing them is just like playing a PC, but at a less accurate level.

Another way to get out of the adventure is to break the heroism. Maybe the characters or their achievements are not heroic. “Realistic” drama can be compelling, as long as everyone is interested in it. Or playing “evil” characters. Or other fiction that can be taken as nonheroic. To not start a semantic argument about heroism I will leave it undefined (the easy solution, I hope). Key in making nonheroic games interesting is in giving the player character power to influence something relevant. Saving the world from Cthulhu may be out of question, but saving your relative may be possible. Or trying it may be possible. Real choices are what makes all gaming worth it (in my not-very-humble opinion). Extra care must be taken to provide low-power characters with meaningful choices. Ditto for evil ones; moral dilemmas don’t work quite as well on them.

Third way to break out of adventure is to leave the purpose. I do not advocate purposeless play (it is boring), but play where the characters don’t have clear quests or such can work. One method of accomplishing it is to build a relationship map of characters tightly involved with each other and the PCs, but where people want conflicting things from the PCs. They can’t please everyone, which creates conflict, but can alter the situation to any way they will. Adding some external pressure to the situation usually manages to create a good game. The NPCs should be played according to their motivations and capabilities, as before.

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To not railroad

7 December, 2007 at 8:51 pm (game mastering) (, , )

njharman asked how to avoid railroading. For the purpose of this post, I assume reader does not want to railroad and has a good reason for it, such as not enjoying railroading or wanting to try new things. (Bad reason would be because some internet person told that railroading is inherently evil.) Any examples will be drawn from D&D because njharman used DM as a phrase, which kinda implies D&D or similar. I further a prep-heavy game (that is, not Wushu or similar).

Railroading can be avoided, and can happen, on several levels. The easiest and lest painful change is to change the macro level. The simplest method is to always prepare at least two adventures and let players essentially select which they pick. After one has been finished, the other should be altered as appropriate due to PCs ignoring it. The undead gains more minions or the orcish horde sacks more towns or the rakshasa infiltrates a position of power. Even if the adventures are on rails, players still have some choices: To engage this adventure or the other one, with the neglected situation often growing worse. Or maybe some other adventurers solve the other case. Something concrete that the players will notice.

Slightly less simple method is to ask players what their characters will next pursue and to build the next adventure around this. Pacing is important: The direction that PCs take should be clear at the start of each adventure, otherwise boring play and all symptons of that may start manifesting. Big twists and reveals should happen near the end of the session and the next adventure at the very end, preferably roleplayed to not make it boring, if people are in the mood for that. Email or simple face-to-face meetings between games may be an option based on the social environment of participants.

The key in both of the above methods is to clearly communicate with players that their choice matters. This may be out-of-game or in-game, whichever works more smoothly and reliable. Another important factor is to always start each game on the run. Either the plot hooks hit them on the head (more or less literally) by someone asking for help, some PC hearing rumours, the party being attacked, et cetera or the preselected adventure gets rolling right away, e.g. “You are in the sewers and have discovered the body. Who has the light source?”.

One way to get rid of the rails is sandbox gaming. It takes a heavy up-fron investment, though, and is not trivial to get correct. Do this only if you like building or memorising settings and have the time for it.

Not surprisingly, the method is to create a dynamic setting and then let players create characters and do as they will within the confines of the setting. The tricky part is “dynamic”. The setting must have interesting things going on on the scope that players can concretely affect. If they start with power and prestige, politics and wars are good default solutions. If they start as random farmboys, which is probably the better way to introduce elaborate settings for long-term play, slowly giving them power and prestige opens up many possibilities. The “slowly” part is to avoid player freesing at the terror of having the negotiate politics or an unknown setting with a fairly unfamiliar character.

There are some common pitfalls hidden sandboxes. First is players who don’t get interested. It is probably a good idea to start with a bang to avoid this. Burning farms is a long-time tradition among orcs and evil empires. Second is falling in love with the setting. Good gaming is the point. Setting is at best secondary. Players probably are not that interested in random setting bits (but if someone is, let him build parts of it or get involved in other ways). Also: Player characters are the most unreliable portion of the setting. They will blow it to pieces and reassemble them. Or not. Allow this to happen. Maybe they dethroned the emperor. Good for them. Play on. The setting is not sacred. Third is to make a totally impenetrable or alien setting. Resist the temptation. Players will start interacting with the setting only after they understand how it works, generally speaking. As clash bowley did when designing Book of Jalan, steal liberally from real world cultures, but feel free to mix and match cultural tropes, religion, environment, etc. Monotheistic roman dwarves living in jungle or something. It will look and feel exotic but also familiar, which is exactly the point.

The method of gamemastering in a sandbox is to have the aforementioned dynamic forces, player characters who are involved with them, and the rest of the setting for context and ideas. When preparing, think about the motivation and goals of the dynamic parts. What will they do to accomplish them? What do they want player characters to do? What will they do to PCs? How will they be involved? There’s the adventure. Some fairly static but interesting locations and events are good to keep the game changing. A dragon sleeping in the cavern, some random ruins there, an enchanted island here. Just don’t assume that players will go after them. Restricting PC travel is useful, because one can always spring random encounters (that hopefully do have a point or serve a purpose besides depleting hit points) on hapless travelers.

More on the next post. These are the easiest to adopt from railroading background, I’d say. Also: remember to inform the players that you won’t railroad as much anymore. You can’t change a group’s style by yourself.

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More on railroading

5 December, 2007 at 5:18 pm (rpg theory) (, , )

In my previous post, I defined railroading. Before that, I listed some heuristics for choosing to use or not use the game’s resolution mechanics. Adaen of Bridgewater asked if there is a connection between these two. I think there is.

Most railroading happens because the GM has something in mind and an action initiatiated by players is threatening it. Maybe it is an entire script. Maybe a single scene, like the death of a villain, has been planned. Maybe the player characters should simply be somewhere or meet someone. Maybe the pitiful goblins should really not have been a threat, only a simple diversion.

Generally speaking, players can ruin something in three ways:

  1. Ridiculing it out-of-character. “Wouldn’t it be a huge surprise if the tavern-keeper died right after we left the place?” If the plan was that someone assassinates the tavern-keeper, they have guessed it. Chances are that players know of the railroading if this happens with any frequency. They may or may not be okay with it. One should talk to the players in this situation.
  2. Making the “wrong” decision. Having discovered the big bad’s true identity, they choose to ally with him instead of the assumed blood spilling. Or maybe the clues are interpreted in a totally wrong way and party investigates the wrong rumour. This can be a sign of rebellion, not caring about the existence of prepared material, or simple mistake.
  3. Failing or succeeding where they should not have. This is a matter of rolling the wrong result or not figuring out the riddle or whatever.

Dice, in games where railroading can happen, generally are tied to the third option. So, that first.

The maxim “roll dice only when both failure and success are acceptable” is a relevant one. It deals with many unwanted effects of the third kind. If PCs need to find something (a clue, a secret door, whatever) simply letting them do so without rolling is a solution that makes any rails explicit, and, generally speaking, accepted. It also makes all relevant skills useless or at the very least less useful. Some other benefit should be given for them. For example, the better the skill check, the faster the research. The maxim essentially makes railroading easier and makes it more explicit.

One trigger for rolling that absolutely kills railroading is to roll the dice whenever two participants disagree about what should happen next, assuming the roll’s result is lived by. Including this statement in game text is a very strong anti-railroading message.

Rolling only when nobody particularly cares about the result, which is somewhat common among the people who think that it is a virtue to not use the rules of the game, makes railroading pretty easy if the default is that GM decides what happens otherwise. The opposite, rolling when the situation is dramatic, will encourage fudging when combined with preparation that tends to cause railroading, otherwise it is not special in any way.

Rolling when something might go wrong is pretty standard. Just thinking hard about what will go wrong before rolling allows on to avert many an undramatic death or failure and put something entertaining as the consequences. Failing the jump roll doesn’t mean a 50 metre fall into rapids for the character, but all his foodstuff does go down and he is now clinging to a steep cliff. Situation potentially becomes more dramatic in the short term (gotta climb up; especially cool if there are enemies there) and long term (gotta find food; especially effective if in hurry) and the game can go on.

I’ll be writing a bit more about railroading sometime soon. Specifically on how to avoid it, if one is willing.

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