Prep for Burning vikings, plus spoilers

28 January, 2008 at 11:03 pm (Burning vikings, Burning Wheel, game mastering)

Once upon a time, Phil asked how much people prepare for their games. Here it comes (again).

If you happen to play in the game in question, read at your own responsibility and only if you think it won’t spoil your fun and with the knowledge that if the players don’t officially know it, it is up to change.

I mean that. Don’t read unless you are certain it won’t spoil your fun.

Rules aka crunch

Starting out with the short part. I have statted Nifur the giant once, just to get a feel for what the might be like. I don’t use those stats anymore. Statting out Nifur took some time, mostly because I am not used to monster burning, which stands for bad guy creation, for which there are rules in Monster Burner.

I also have written down the beliefs and instincts of all NPC relationships. This counts as rules-prep, but is a fine reminder of how intertwined rules and everything else really are, when constructed properly. Writing these took around an hour in train from Tampere to Jyväskylä, but it is done now, and they only need refinement in the future.

I might write down full stats for Leif, because there is a significant chance he will be engaged in martial or social systems. Maybe even this Tuesday, if I actually have time. The last lecture ends at six, so not much hope for that.

Story-wise, which means the spoilers

An acute reader might have noticed I don’t particularly enjoy pre-plotting stories or building intricate mysteries. I am assuming you have read my previous post, otherwise this will probably not make much sense.

All of the dispositions and relationships here are part of the relationship map I built. I’d be happy to make it public, but there are a few complications. Namely, I don’t have a scanner here, the map is written mostly in Finnish and it is written in my handwriting, which is not exactly clear. It takes the better part of an A4 sheet. Sketching it took maybe an hour in total.


Originally the giant was supposed to be after his brother Thorvald, but since seeing (as opposed to reading, and entire different, but no less evocative, experience) Beowulf and wgaztari having seen Beowulf, I decided to go another route. Thorvald had killed Nifur’s father sometimes in the past (it is known that Thorvald has adventured in the north and killed a giant or few) and eaten his heart to get his power. Now Nifur can’t do the deed, and decided to eat Thorvald’s heart instead. As a bonus, he gets to fill an oath to slay his father’s killer, which he evidently has sworn. Or maybe he is just bullshitting.

Nifur, in addition to being three times as tall as a man, strong enough to slaughter anyone with a good hit of fist, tree of rock, has nice powers. Inspired by Daniel’s post on game weather, I decided for weather to change according to Nifur’s mood. This gives a few perks:

  1. I remember to describe the weather.
  2. Nifur can’t sneak up on anyone, which someone is bound to use against him.
  3. Angry Nifur is hard to shoot due to raging winds, which prevents slaughter by hitting him with 9 good hits, which would be between 27 and 18 shots that hit, depending on the skill of the archers.
  4. Smart players will catch on the thing. If one likes solving mysteries or puzzles, this might make him happy. Thalin may be such a person. wgaztari appreciates movies like 6th sense and the Prestige, so he might, too. No idea about ksym.

Nifur is also quite impervious to physical violence. Nifur’s function, design-wise, is to put pressure on the entire situation. Nobody has time to not act with the giant eating all food, leaving none for winter.

Grímr and Gilla

The husband and daughter if Brunhildr, respectively. The ones who have not yet been seen. To be honest, I originally did not include them because I had no idea how to play them. Bad me. No cookie. Now I have, which means they might be encountered.

As currently stands, Leif has effectively separated them into some cellar, which is cold and pretty heavy, hence perfect for storing Thorvald without excessive rotting or munch-fests by random giants. Leif personally bring food to them, accompanied by few loyal guardsmen. Circles roll to find this out is at least obstacle 2 (3 if during particular session, 5 if immediately). Other skills may be useful. Finding one of the guards whose duty is to guard the entrance during Leif’s visits is +1 to previous for Brunhildr, +2 for the others due to differences in social status. Pretty brutal difficulties. Failure might be a warning to not meddle in the event, and someone watching after you (but still getting to know the proceeding; dice bring complications, not roadblocks) or something else. Sneaking to see where Leif goes is okay, but he will have some observation skill, which makes it risky. Complications obvious. Negotiating would likely take a Duel of Wits, which wouldn’t be easy, either, given no PC has true dueling skills.

However Brunhildr gets in contact with her family, they’ll be happy to meet her again. Leif has been bringing gifts to Gilla, which none of the family members are likely to approve. This puts more pressure on the PCs to actually do something about Leif. I want to know what they will do. Grímr is content in keeping the cellar fresh and rats away with relevant herbs. He does want Gilla out of there, though. The cold is not good for her and she is getting delusional, which actually means that she can see dead people see the auras of people, including that of Thorvald, who is still sticking around. Undead Thorvald is a possibility if the game gets slow and I can’t figure out anything more appropriate.

About Gilla; if she gets in contact with Mori and I am bored, there is the possibility that she falls madly in love with him. Take that, ambivalent and uncaring poisoner dedicated to Loki. The seeds of a fine tragedy, especially given the distrust Brunhildr has towards Mori.

Nässla, of whom more next, also wants Gilla as an apprentice to replace Mori, who is a lost case, in Nässla’s opinion.


Nässla, also known as Nokkonen, Nettle in English. Male (I should confirm, but won’t due to laziness; I’ll check before the game.) witch, Mori’s mentor, knows his poisons and a few other tricks. Nässla was defined as hateful/rival relationship, which translates to him not appreciating Mori’s adventures on high seas, into which he was forced. Doesn’t matter. Nässla thinks of him as a failure, but intends to make maximum use out of him before the eventual discarding. Fetching Gilla, who has shown promise, would be such a task.

Halvard’s and Leif’s mother (who needs a name) was cursed (probably poisoned) by Nässla due to the village not showing him the respect that is his right. They dared to use another witch, the pathetic [Grímr/Grímr’s dead mother], to cure Thorvald. Of course the mere meddler failed for reasons totally unrelated to whatever Nässla definitely did not do to him. Not a chance of that having happened. Not the slightest. Anyway, Nässla made the woman pay for her disrespect. Framing Mori for the deed would be far too great an opportunity to pass, though it is made a bit more difficult by the fact that Mori was not present when the lady entered her stupor. Maybe Nässla will come up with something clever.

The plot

You just read most of what I have planned that might happen. Note the lack of specific plotline. If players fail or succeed at some stuff, they will get some consequences. I feel the situation surrounding Gilla and Grímr may be even too tight. Game will show.

BBEG, mandatory random encounters

Nifur may be taken as a BBEG, as may Leif and Nässla. Mori has potential to become one, as does Halvard, and even Brunhildr, to lesser extent. Heroic sword skill and the belief that one is better at using it than any man may end up in blood.

I might throw some happiless animals as random encounters due to failed foraging, tracking, etc. rolls. Probably not, but I do have stats in the Monster Burner, if using them becomes an absolute necessity. I don’t foresee that many battles in this game, but maybe the players will surprise me.

That ended up being a rant. I am getting tired. Good night. Good something else for those who live elsewhere.


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Burning vikings: First session

28 January, 2008 at 4:58 pm (Burning vikings, Burning Wheel)

First session report. Yay. It gathered a bit of length.

Originally I intended for the people to have forgotten the returning party, but decided against it, because everyone has a relationship or two in the village, and everyone having forgotten the PCs and others would feel awfully contrived.

Overall, I am satisfied with the fiction and very rusty with applying the rules. The problem is not knowing the rules, but rather being in the right mindset to apply them. BW works best when the rules are used a lot and becomes dead weight if they are avoided.

What follows is is a scene-by-scene overview of the game events. Scenes are not actually mechanically intertwined in BW, but they are an easy way of recalling the session.

Scene 1

Brunhildr (ksym’s char) and Halvard (wgaztari’s char) have some potentially interesting beliefs: Brunhildr wants to have her daughter Gilla to marry someone worthy (Halvard Thorvaldsson qualifies) while Halvard doesn’t want a dishonourable wife, and Gilla Brunhildrsdottir is the daughter of a woman who has gone raiding, which is forbidden, and of a man who can’t take care of himself, which is dishonourable, and whose parent was a witch, which does not help the situation any. I wanted to know how the situation starts.

Scene: The ship is approaching the village where everyone has lived in. Brunhildr and Halvard are discussing the matter. Mostly Halvard stalls, so nothing conclusive is achieved.

Soon enough, a fishing boat is seen. The village itself is located in the far end of a fjord (the game happens either in Norway or an analogy thereof), but few families live close to the sea proper. They can alert in case of incoming attacks and fish in the open seas, as long as weather allows it. The longship approaches and fishermen tell them to get away while they can due to a giant. Doesn’t work.

Not to self: What if they had decided to get away? I kinda trusted them not to, because they knew what the game was about, all their relationships and some beliefs are tied to the village, and the ship doesn’t have that much supplies left. I should probably more clear on this not even being a choice.

Scene 2

Approaching the village, a large shape can be seen walking towards it. Ship’s navigator/captain spots it (none of the PCs can navigate, Brunhildr has some skill in seamanship). This is where I should have asked for steel tests all around, but didn’t, for some peculiar reason. My bad. It is decided that the ship will not be brought near the village. Few men are left to guard it and the rest take a hike (in armour, naturally) towards the village. Mori (played by Thalin) snuck away a bit earlier (instinct: always inconspicuous), but the rest catch up on him due to his low speed (not a roll, I didn’t feel it was important enough). Mori decides to hide and manages to do so with his B1 stealthy +1D from darkness versus the perception B4 of Halvard. I gave Halvard a bonus die for help, which is a breach of the rules, but a shipful of people are worth a bonus die in this situation, IMO. Mori got a routine test for stealthy, Halvard and Brunhildr one towards evidently opening observation.

Scene 3

At the village. Weather becomes windy and there is sleet raining. Gotta love autumn. The giant is seen (another opportunity for steel missed), probably drinking something from a barrel. PC’s go forth (Mori joins the party) and leave their men to wait. They get to the giant, who is discussing with Halvard’s brother, now named Leif, but unnamed in the game. Giant notices Mori, who pretends to fail at sneaking (this would have been a fine opportunity to roll for acting or such, but, alas). The other PCs are likewise noticed. When talking as Nifur the giant, I stand so as to look down on the players. I also try talking more slowly than usual. My first attempt at this theatrics stuff. Hope it somewhat works.

Nifur is straightforward at making his demands: Dead Thorvald’s body due to a blood oath, the treasure the vikings got from their raid and a good meal’s worth of meat, which amounts to a couple of cows. The cows are brought immediately and the rest promised tomorrow. The giant leaves.

Scene 4

Halvard gets the door open via communication. Inside there is some conflicting and sharing news with Leif, Halvard’s brother, who has taken power in the village. Mori mingles with the crowd. Brunhildr seeks her husband and daughter to little effect (should have been a circles roll, dammit), but does find out they are guarding or taking care of the dead Thorvald. Halvard meets her mother, who stares into nowhere and recognises nobody. I make a point of staring past the players when playing her.

Scene 5

Brunhildr send some men to unload the ship and carry two chests (out of five) to the village for the giant’s ransom. This might actually have happened before he went looking for his family, but that is a minor problem. Leif holds a “feast” in Halvard’s honour, mostly to showcase they have preciously little food for the winter. He insults Halvard pretty severely. Halvard walks away, as do his men.

Scene 6

Halvard orders his men back to the feast. Mori goes wandering. Halvard goes to sleep a short while thereafter. Brunhildr asks Leif about her family, hearing that they are not to defend against the giant, but rather keep the corpse in good condition. Leif also insults Brunhildr, IIRC. Brunhildr organises watches for Halvard and then goes to sleep.

Scene 7

Mori goes to his small hut, which incidentally is not located in the village proper. Someone’s been using it, probably as a hunting cabin, but also kept it in fair condition.

Next post: Preparation, spoilers, secrets.

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BW characters visible online

25 January, 2008 at 9:53 am (Burning vikings)

We actually managed to create the characters and write them down on character sheets (which have far too little space for beliefs and instincts, which is a huge shame). They are all linked from my BW wiki profile.

We also played for a session’s worth, on which I will write a more comprehensive post when I am not taking a break between a lecture and a demo. In addition, I have built a mental relationship map, which I should sketch on paper and maybe even put online. A great way of preparing, it is.

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Fudging, cheating, and so forth

22 January, 2008 at 9:11 pm (definition, rpg theory) (, , )

Definition time. I’ll go for normative ones, even if they can be argued against.

I assume that rules are used, where rules are the perceived and accepted procedures of play. This includes such sentiments as “follow GM plot hooks”, “roll d20 and add skill, higher is better”, “all players can create facts about their own character’s homeland as long as GM okays the facts, which usually happens”. (For those who know system in Forge theory: This definition of rules has significant overlap with system in the Forge sense, but is not equivalent, and neither is a subset of the other.)

Resolution is using rules to determine diegetic (fictional) facts. This particularly means that there exists at least two different outcomes of the resolution such that they must have different implications as far as the fiction is considered. For example: Rolling attributes in D&D. Different results lead to different diegetic outcomes. A trivial example is GM narration, but it is also not very relevant to this blog post. I’ll talk about the non-trivial cases, in which some other factor is used to restrict narration or the fiction in general. Random encounters are a good example.


Disclaimer: I don’t like fudging.

A participant (player or GM) fudges when resolution rules are used and their effect wrt the diegesis is ignored. Note: Player fudging is usually cheating, which I define a bit later.

For example: Player rolls a lousy set of attributes and rolls a new one and displaces the worst with it. It is worth noting that this is only fudging if it is not assumed in the group. GM rolls a random encounter, which is zombies, again, and uses skeletons instead. This, again, is fudging only if GM usually uses the encounter tables as is, with no need to alter the results afterwards. By this definition, it is not fudging to alter the mechanical statistics of entities mid-game, which might mean this is a bad definition. I’m not sure.


Participant is cheating when some rules are used or are not used and the group does not approve of this, or would not approve if it knew.

Particularly: Game masters who fudge or alter statistics of NPCs or spontaneously swap the place of cities are cheating if and only if the players do not or would not accept it. If, on the other hand, the players assume or would accept such activity, it is not cheating (but may still be fudging). Almost all player fudging is cheating. In some games, GM fudging is also cheating. In others, not so much, but this still is a matter of the group.

Direct conclusions

Fudging is not inherently bad. Cheating often is. Not all fudging is cheating. Not all cheating is fudging (player reducing too few hit points is, but adding them during a calm moment is not).

Also, my definition of fudging doesn’t seem to work properly. It needs a bit more refinement, I think.

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Character burning: The crunch

20 January, 2008 at 12:06 pm (Burning vikings, Burning Wheel) (, , , , )

This Wednesday I had the pleasure of actually getting the Burning Wheel campaign going. Sort of. BW is an excellent game, but it does have the problem of involved character generation, especially with only one copy of both core books (and one Monster Burner which was not used).

I am the GM. Players are Thalin, wgaztari and ksym. Thalin has played around one con game of BW and is somewhat familiar with the basic mechanics and knows what combat is about. wgaztari is new to roleplaying and has only played in Thalin’s Like umbrella. ksym has played some Warhammer fantasy roleplay (and is somewhat familiar with lifepaths), as well as the aforemention Mage game.

Thalin had a concept and started burning it, adjusting pretty well to the system, which was not surprising. ksym took to it pretty quickly, too, and at the end of the session told that the chargen was pretty inspiring. I agree. wgaztari had problems. BW is not the game for beginning roleplayers. He had similar problems in the Mage game, too, so it may be he does not enjoy building characters. Maybe it is due to the huge amount of choices one can make and inexperience at building character concepts and translating them to mechanics. Or maybe he just doesn’t see the relevance: The chargen choices don’t matter. Note to self: Ask about this later.

The session ended after midnight (University starts at 8.15 on Thursdays and I would rather not go there without at least four hours of sleep) and all the rules-stuff was dealt with. The actual meat of the game, beliefs and instincts, we did not have time for. Some ideas were thrown around, so it should be a breeze. BW has handy character burning worksheets. By “handy”, I mean absolutely invaluable. I am pretty happy at printing them. I can do chargen with pen and graph paper, but I doubt the others could have achieved the same.

The cool bits

Lifepaths are the way BW goes. The orcish lifepaths are available as a free sample (and I recommend reading them for pure inspiration; they positively radiate inspiration). Each life path gives skills, skill points, traits, trait point (or not), resources, years and sometimes stats, physical or mental. Pretty standard fare, but it does create character history with little extra effort. Also: The first skill and trait (if any) are always mandatory for each LP. This gives nice colour to characters.

The truly brilliant part are resource points. It is a pool of points that can be used to buy gear (equipment, stuff), property (house, workshop, cattle), affiliations (membership in a group), reputations and relationships. Usually there are a few extra points left after the expensive things are bought. Minor relationship is five points base, but can be modified: -2 for close family, -1 for extended family, -2 for romantic love, -2 for hatred or rivalry, -1 for a forbidden relationship. The minimum cost is 1. This means that almost every PC will have a minor relationship that is rivalry or forbidden, both of which are great story fuel, especially when combined with love or family relationships. Players get to create a number of NPCs that I must make relevant in play, which goes a long way towards building player investment.

Thalin’s char

The lifepaths for Thalin’s char, whose concept is “cheater”: Village born – village peddler – lead to outcast setting – itinerant performer – poisoner – conscript – pilgrim

Those do tell a story, sort of. The pilgrimage was just an excuse to get a few more skill points. The story explanation is a bit hazy as of yet, but it’ll clear up.

Stats: Will 5 (good), perception 4 (normal), power, forte, speed all 3 (poor), agility 6 (excellent). The character is quite likely to be very wounded if ever engaged in combat, melee or ranged.

Skills: Poisons is grey, or heroic, 5 (very good), cooking 5, inconspicuous, falsheood and herbalism 4 (professional), mending and sleight of hand 3 (trained), and big heap of skills 2 (nominally trained). Stealth is 1, which ought to be amusing, unless he wants to increase it.

Traits: Odd, off-kilter, hide before battle, collector, scheming (edge in social conflicts), chronologue (always knows the time of day, which means Thalin will keep track of time or impro it; less work for me), tidy aspect (the character is always tidy, no matter the circumstances), unlucky (arbitrary decisions are always wrong; can be bought off by having the character screw up at the moment of total victory, which removes the trait and gives artha [hero points]), plain-faced (call-on for inconspicuous).

Gear is not interesting, but notably includes a pet and no weaponry, not even knives. Relationships: Forbidden relationship with the giant, forbidden and hateful relationship with the village witch, his aunt.

Resources ability, which is actually used in game and derived from resource points used on affiliations, reputations and property, is zero. Nada. No money, no favours owned, no nothing. This’ll be fun.

ksym’s char

Concept: Warrior and the wife of a loser (ksym is male; I hope this turns out fine). LP: Son of a Gun (born at sea, in other words), sailor, marine, lead to village, village guard, village sergeant.

Stats: Good power and forte, others average. Steel attribute, used to resist pain, fear, surprise and shock, is notably 7, which is not bad at all.

Skills: Sword grey 6 (expert and heroic skill; ouch), command, bow and field dressing 4 (professional), intimidate 3 (practiced), seamanship 2 (nominally practiced), plus shield and armour training. Pretty focused combatant, all in all.

Traits: Sea legs (no sea sickness, call-on for speed on deck), sailor’s oath: I vow to drink to excess at every opportunity I get (this will be fun trait to poke at), bruiser, thug, cold-blooded (reduces hesitation; that is, makes steel tests easier).

Relationships are romantic family: husband (this may be liberal interpretation of “close family”, but let it be so) and hateful family: child. Fleshing these out ought to create some great story fuel. Also has a local reputation, the details of which were not written down. This must be done.

Oh, yeah: Resources 0.

wgaztari’s char

Concept: The son of the village king/leader/ruler/whatever title I will be using. LP: Village born – village guard – village sergeant – lead to soldier setting – bannerman – lead to village – captain of the guard (technically, guard captain is a city lifepath, but it was a good fit for the character and the lifepaths are not built for vikings, so I tweaked it a bit).

Stats: Good will and agility, others normal. Notable attribute is steel at 8. When combined with will 5 that gives hesitation 5, this character can actually succeed at steel tests, which is rare enough.

Skills, which may be revised significantly: Spear 6 (expert), command 4, conspicuous, brawling, sword and tactics 3, few at 2, plus shield and armour training.

Traits: Thug, honoured, exasperated, gloryhound. The last on is interesting, but requires some explanation. Generally, when a character fails a steel test, there are following options, of which player selects one: Run screaming, stand and drool, swoon, beg for mercy. The game has a bit of a gritty edge. Gloryhound adds another possible reaction: For glory! In melee, this means charging the opponent. In ranged, this implies a steel close, which basically means charging the opponent. In both cases, it has a significant chance of being suicidal. Cool trait.

Relationship: Rivalry with a brother (about the leadership of the village), 1D affiliation with the crew of the ship, 1D reputation as fearless. Resources 1, which means the character might, with good luck, actually be able to get a bread to eat.


All of them have good story potential. BW is good at that. I can barely wait for generation of the beliefs and instincts.

I’ll post the characters on BW wiki, once they are finished.

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To challenge or to validate

18 January, 2008 at 7:53 pm (actual play, game mastering, rpg theory) (, , , , )

More theory-related non-dichotomies. Basically, something is validated in play if the it is accepted and engaged when playing. Something is challenged when it is engaged in play in such a way that it is questioned. I’m going to apply the definitions on the level of fiction and particularly characters, though social issues can also be analysed by the same methods.

Most, if not all, games have some portion of character validation in them. Thalin is GM in a Star Wars game that started this Monday in the university group and I am playing a jedi weaponsmaster. I want my character’s skill with weapons to be validated; thus far, there has been training of less experienced jedi and no truly challenging combats. I’m totally happy with that. On the other hand, the character has some dark side influence (which is not as huge a deal as in normal SW, because the setting is quite far from canon and set in the far future) and that is something I do want to be emphasised and challenged. I don’t know how far the character is willing to go if someone, say, mocks him or irritates him, though he is darker than I originally envisioned. Finding such things out would be interesting.

Alignment in D&D, particularly that of paladins, is also a great example. Some players and game masters want the paladin to be a knight in shiny armour, all good and just and so forth. This is, I believe, how paladins were intended to be played. At least this is the way the design points towards, with the extremely great price for falling (paladin becomes worth less than a fighter in combat) and the difficulty of becoming a blackguard unless that was intended from the start. Validating play supports the paladin; opportunities to be good, encouragement to do the good thing, maybe an opportunity to redeem a bad guy in a game not focused on combat.

Some game masters want to challenge the goodness of paladins. Some players want their paladins to be challenged thusly. Should orc babies be killed? A demon has possessed an innocent child, killing whom would banish it forever from this realm. How should one act in a hostage situation? The usual method is to put two goods against each other or make choosing one of two bads a necessity. In this model, the assumption that paladins are good is often put under microscope. Are they really the shining examplars they want to be? Is it even possible?

Both methods are, of course, totally valid. As with all theory and naming, one should be aware of the differences and find a suitable middle ground. Or an extreme view. Whichever. The problem with this issue is that conflicting assumptions can lead to play that is bad (not satisfying, in other words). A GM who wants to challenge the paladin and a player looking for validation can lead to perceived persecution, while player looking for challenging play and facing only validation will feel the game falls flat. This is true on characters not like paladins, but usually to a less dramatic effect.

Riddles and mysteries are another similar issue. I see absolutely no point in them, because that is not the way and the place to challenge me. Other players find them enjoyable. Mechanical challenges likewise: Attempts to challenge the mechanical aspect of a character are something I don’t find particularly interesting. Some play to be challenged in such a way.

I am fairly certain that a game where a lot of things are challenged would lead to more volatile play and one where the central parts of the game are validated would be more predictable, and hence easier to run in scripted way.

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Rule element: Clock of doom

15 January, 2008 at 10:55 pm (game element) (, )

A character cursed with demonic powers, able, but not willing, to use them. A fire mage who always risks creating a fiery hell when using the powers. A mage who can use his lifeforce to power his spells, but who risks death or worse when doing it.

One way of representing such characters is to give the player access to powers, but with a hook: Every time they are used, there is a chance of something very bad happening. In the end, it will be inevitable.


Player, or character, can receive a significant benefit by bringing the character’s doom closer. When the power is used, roll a die. If result does not exceed the number of times the power has been used, Bad Stuff happens. Otherwise the risk has just increased a bit.

The size of the die determines how often the ability can be used. A d4 means that even the first try is quite risky (1/4 chance of bad stuff). It can be suitable for a one-shot where the power should be used no more than few times. d6 may work with a game the length of a session or two. Increase as appropriate, but a d100 may be a bit excessive and anything larger than that missing the point.

The chance of being able to use the power n times without bad stuff, given a die with s sides, is (s-1)/s*(s-2)/s*…*(s-n)/s, or zero once n at least equals s.


Player-controlled destiny is much more appealing than a demonic power usable once a day and GM-assigned side effects every now and then. It is up to the player and the game group if something the character could have little to no control over is still given to the player. A traditional example is a destiny of some sort: The character is destined to die by drowning, say. When the bad stuff happens, the character will die next time it will be possible and not utterly silly (GM’s or player’s call). This might kill the suspension of disbelief or break immersion for some players.

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15 January, 2008 at 7:27 pm (meta)

Boring writing about the lack of posting schedule and other miscellany.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Preparing for chaos

12 January, 2008 at 1:19 pm (rpg theory) (, , )

What follows is three broad ways of preparing for play. They are basically refined and slightly more narrow versions of a post I made before this blog at Theory decides. The versions written here have slightly different naming schema and extensively use Montola’s theory.

Disclaimer: I find scripted play generally distasteful, pointless or alien. That might influence something.

Sandbox play

When game master and the group builds a setting and the players characters (with varying amounts of input from players and GM on the different aspects) and then the characters are placed in the setting, do stuff, and the setting responds, game is sandbox play. A setting generated by improvisation in play based on “what would really be there” can also be sandbox play.

In terms of the model discussed, a sandbox has accidental attractors in that a given group of characters might or might not care about them. Maybe the want to slay the slumbering dragon, maybe awaken it, maybe take its stuff, maybe they ignore it completely. There are things happening in the setting, but they go on independently of the player characters, who are free to go and do as they will.

Sandbox play is hit-and-miss: If the characters don’t have agendas of their own or happen to bump into something that engages the players, the gaming will be dull. There usually is a slow start where players get used to their characters and the setting and have little time to start doing something interesting. On the other hand, given characters with strong principles and goals, sandbox play can create wonderful organic stories and experiences. If characters are of the sort who always get offended by something or always are scheming to the over the world, at least something will happen.

There is a strong starting cost, or need to be good at impro, to run a sandbox game well.

Scripted play

There are strong attractors the player characters are expected to follow. The expection may be tacit (that is what roleplaying is) or explicit. It may be part of the game rules (Rune). There usually is a setting where things that don’t directly touch the player characters happens, but they are on the background. Often there is a particular story that is being told. It may have been designed by all participants (the crazy Swedes are up to no good with that kind of stuff, I’m certain) or by the GM in solitude. There certainly are other methods.

Strong attractors are the key here. If all the player characters are united in purpose (save the world), share similar values (alignment and interpretation of it) and have well-defined solution to most problems (fighting), the game should go along just fine. GM knows what kind of hooks and rewards to use, players know what they are supposed to do. GM can plan excellent events while the players have fun dealing with those.

The great strength of scripted play is that preparation is both useful and efficient. What is prepared is often also used. If not, it can be recycled to some later situation. The great flaw is the tendency to stick with what one has prepared. Some games make this near mandatory. The myth of impro being somehow difficult (more difficult than using prepared material, at least) is a result of relying on preparation. Railroading happens when GM creates more and more attractors that actually lead to the same place when players diverge.

Scripted game (as in a series of sessions) is built so that attractors draw the PCs together. Avoiding bifurcation points is important. An alternative is to place them so that one has time to prepare, whichever attractor is followed after the brief chaos.

Volatile play

Players create characters. Game master builds or tweaks everything else so that characters are engaged, but the direction they move to is unknown. Essentially, volatile play means that GM constructs bifurcation points the players will bump into. The Forge people call a specific sort of bifurcation point a bang. More generally, there are two sorts (not dichotomous) of volatile situations that can be prepared: Those which rely on player making a decision and those which rely on dice making a decision. Generally speaking, the first are more enjoyable, at least in my opinion. Combinations, such as the player deciding which dice get to make the decision, are possibly. See for example many combat systems.

There is room for using attractors, too. They should be used to keep the player characters interacting and the game as a whole coherent. Otherwise all the characters might end up doing their own thing separate from the other PCs, which is generally not as fun as players interacting. It is also more work for the game master.

Good rules are things that don’t require much preparation, or at least much preparation for specific occasions. Improvisation is practically necessary technique, so rules that make it possible or easier are always nice. Rules which make resolution unexpected but not overtly random are another good tool: Stuff like action points that give a significant bonus to rolls, for example, allow success at unexpected situations that the player finds important.

Problems include the aforementioned bubble play, where PCs don’t significantly interact, and inconsistencies. When much detail is generated on fly to drive PCs towards a given bifurcation point, there is significant risk of an inconsistency or three appearing. Usually they don’t matter because they are not noticed. Sometimes things do go messy.

And the lesson is…

Play the way you do, but know that there are alternatives which can look totally alien. Experimentation is a good thing; some techniques transfer well between gaming styles.

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Chaos in roleplaying

11 January, 2008 at 8:31 pm (rpg theory) (, , , )

I have woefully neglected mentioning and linking to Markus Montola’s chaos model of roleplaying. The way I actually use the model, which is somewhat different from what Montola has written, is as follows. Ignore if you actually know something about chaos or are math-phobic. For the record, I don’t anything about chaos.

Chaotic system is one which has a given starting state and then changes from that recursively, where each iteration can be determined but predicting the end result of multiple iterations becomes increasingly difficult due to the interaction of multiple factors all part of the system. Technically, there should no random factors involved, but I don’t think they actually chang the model at all, assuming that the possible effects of randomness are possible due of the state that is used as base for current iteration and might not be possible, or at least not as likely, given some other state of the system. Even with no randomness, there must be some state that might happen as the result of given iteration that could not be the result of some other starting situation.

I think the model can be applied to roleplaying on two levels: The diegetic level, which is a fancy way of saying the level of fiction , where a every situation is a different end and beginning of a new iteration, or the social level where the players actually function and play happens. It could be argued that only the social level is important, but at least I also find it interesting to investigate how the diegetic situation changes and which factors change it to specific directions. There would be no roleplaying without the fiction.

Attractor is a certain path (an ordered list) of situations. The social situation or gameplay tends towards attractors. On social level, there being a rules expert in a given group is an attractor. It is likely that someone will take on that particular group, and if only a single session is observed, it is likely that there is only one such person. On diegetic level, the player characters fighting the undead hordes could be an attractor, given suitable adventure and PCs.

Bifurcation point is a situation where the game (there doubtless are social equivalents, but I haven’t thought about them as much and can’t come up with a suitable example) can take at least two directions; that is, one attractor is chosen, others disregarded. For example, in a totally original plot twist the GM decided that the big bad evil guy (BBEG) is one PC’s father, who asks the relevant PC to join the dark side and rule the world with him. This is very much a bifurcation point, because the PC and the BBEG might start working together towards world domination after a family reunion or the PC and the father might fight and there might be much angst. Either could happen. Other factors, like group mentality (everyone must be a good guy) or character portrayal (BBEG is very evil and nasty and more-or-less literally drips darkness and goo) can affect the situation, or even not make it a bifurcation point at all by making the response a given.

The next post outlines three playing styles, applies the terminology introduced in this post and provides more examples as a side effect.

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