Strategic rules

27 October, 2008 at 7:07 am (rpg theory) ()

I’ve been reading a collection of philosophical essays, titled “Tieto, totuus ja todellisuus”, for some months now (slowly but with certainty. A particular article by Jaakko Hintikka contained a bit of terminology I found useful. It is related to games.

Defining rules

In game theory, rules are what define a game. They tell what one can do within the bounds of the game.

For example, in chess: Turns, moving different pieces, winning, stalemate.

Strategic rules

The interesting part was strategic rules, which essentially tell what moves one should make in order to win (winning, in game theory, means maximising utility, and utility functions are something beyond the scope of rules; see, for example, playing against/with young kids, where you are likely to have different goals than you have in normal play). E.g. in chess, you generally don’t want your queen to be eaten.

Learning games

As a contrast to (most) roleplaying games, take a competitive game that has a winner. Assuming it is a good game, players will be making (strategic) choices, which will to some extent determine who wins the game. In my experience, it usually takes a bit of play to really understand these games, which is the same thing as learning some strategic rules. Simply playing the game may be sufficient, but maybe being taught by someone or reading books is more convenient or efficient. Be that as it may, once certain level of competency is achieved, then the intricate and interesting parts of the gameplay open.

Sometimes the learning process outlined above is interesting in and of itself, someties a nuisance. Personally, I only find gameplay meaningful after understanding what the game is about, in a sense.

This is far less true of roleplaying games (again in my experience); most of them are fundamentally the same game with different defined rules. There are two major exceptions: Intricate subsystems (combat and character creation are the most common) and the more divergent Forgey games.

The lesson here is that mechanical rules, in and of themselves, do not matter a whole lot. Maybe I roll 2d6 and add skill, or maybe I compare an attribute to value indicated by a table. The difference is minor, unless the way the game is played changes significantly. For example: If the way to solve problems is to have a character with suitable skill or spell, then the art of character building is important, but if the way the player approaches the problem is what determines the success of a given action, then wits and reading the GM’s/game desiger’s mind are more important, and the actual character played matters less.

In conclusion

Forge wisdom sayeth: System matters. The best way to investigate this claim is to play different systems and see if there is a difference. Here’s my refinement of the phrase above:

Take two games. Between these two, system matters to the extent that a different set of strategic rules is necessary for enjoying the different games.


The above has little to do with system as defined in Forge glossary (as it encompasses defining and strategic rules actually used in play) and even less to do with the content of the system does matter essay, which is focused on GNS and so on.


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17 October, 2008 at 5:59 pm (Burning Wheel, dungeon crawling, game element) (, , , , )

A take on goblins as actual monsters, not a race of ugly and evil and small people. Inspired by a blog post by Jeff Rients and some reviews of Changeling: the Lost.

I will further write mechanical implementations or sketches thereof to some goblin spells, especially for my dungeoncrawling game. Also, I hereby release the rules of the dungeoncrawling game (particularly their presentation) into public domain.

Born of fear and mud

Should it be so that some dark corner, or alley, or woods, or perhaps even cave is feared and dark rumours abound, there will, sooner or later, be a goblin there. Maybe goblins are born of these rumours, or maybe the rumours of the goblins.

Once born, goblins will do as their nature makes them to: Cruel tricks and stealing people, particularly children, is their calling and source of mirth. Should a number of goblins live together for a while, a shaman will emerge and a pit of mud will be constructed, if suitable one does not exist yet.

Captured children are thrown into the pit, only to emerge as ugly goblins, much like those who created them. Captured adults are cast in and emerge as ogres, deformed monsters and mockeries of their former selves, small-minded, aggressive and brutish.

Goblin magic

Goblins are demonic, or feyish, in nature, and some have sorcerous abilities. Not all do, and they are not equally adept at their use. Shamans are naturally the undisputed masters of these arts.


Goblins are born of fear and can use it against their foes. A goblin can, in lieu of surprise attack, (attempt to) scare its foes. Everyone surprised by the goblin must resist it; those that fail are affected as though affected by normal fear effects. If any opponent succeeds, the goblin is also affected by a fear effect as though victim to its own power.

Boo! does not work in proper daylight or lighting of equivalent quality. Other goblins can hear one yelling Boo! over great distances, and they are curious creatures…


For my dungeoncrawly game: Roll magic versus magic, each target resist individually, effect as though the fear spell. Typically a number of goblins equal to magic result of the one invoking Boo! come to investigate at their leisure.

Burning Wheel: Will versus will, with steel test being the fear effect.

D&D 3rd: Will save DC 10 + 1/2 HD + charisma modifier of the goblin saying Boo!, failure means being frightened for d6 rounds. Shaken if you want the goblins to not be infuriating opponents. Either way, if anyone succeeds, the goblin is frightened. Spell-like ability, takes a standard action.

Goblin doors

Goblins can open doors from and to dark places, partially disregarding the distance between such places. They are so small that adults must grouch or even crawl to enter one and look like poorly made. There is typically a short winding tunnel after such a door, containing at least one corner such that it is impossible to see the entry and exit points of the tunnel at the same time. At the end of the tunnel there is another similar door, which opens somewhere else. Typical goblin door disappears once closed or left unattended and further it is impossible to turn around after losing sight of the entry door (going back is the same thing as going forward).

When opening a door one must imagine the location where the other side is supposed to be (and tell it to the GM, if appropriate). Most of the time the door opens to the desired location or at least to that direction; sometimes the unexpected happens, for which is the following random chart. Roll a suitable die.

  1. Oops: The other side of the door is the spawning place of the goblin this sorcery was used or taught by.
  2. Long ways to go: Traversing the tunnel takes d6 hours.
  3. Goblins: d4 goblins are lurking within the tunnel, just in case you would happen to wander through.
  4. Horror: An undead, demon, spirit, or some shadowy beast is lurking within the tunnel, preying upon unwary passengers.
  5. Shadows: Travellers are cursed to see everything as though it was night at all times. No light is bright enough, no colours distinct.
  6. Shadowy sight: Travellers can henceforth see in dim light as well as cats.
  7. Reduction: Travellers are gradually turned to size of the goblinkin.
  8. Permanency: The doors and the tunnel is permanent.
  9. U-turn: The exit point of the door is the same as the entry point.
  10. Scared: When leaving the tunnel the one who opened the door casts Boo! on the others who are treated as surprised.
  11. Infused: When leaving the tunnel one character with little magical or mental ability acquires some and can henceforth open a goblin door at will.
  12. Roll twice, apply both results if possible, else use the nastier one.


Dungeoncrawling game: After having entered the tunnel and moved so that returning is no longer a possibility, roll magic; on roll of anything but 1, the maximum distance the tunnel can cover is 20 metres multiplied by magic roll; on roll of 1, game master rolls a d12 and consults the chart. (Reduction is likely to reduce might of the character to around half; infusion gives +1 magic and goblin door at will to one character with lowest magic attribute.)

Burning Wheel: Roll will, count successes, no successes is botch, otherwise distance covered is in the ballpark of 20 metres per success. Becoming smaller reduces power by 1 and gives power cap of 6. Being infused gives a character with lowest will some custom trait that goblins have and access to goblin door. Else treat goblin door as a natural magic skill related to will.

D&D 3rd: Wisdom check DC 5 to avoid mishap, 1 is always a mishap, otherwise distance traveled equals 10 metres * check result. Shadows and shadowy sight mean dim light and low-light vision, respectively. Reduction as though being reduced to small size. Neutralise with any spell that can remove curses. Infusion gives/increases inherent bonus to charisma by 1 and gives goblin doors at will. To determine who it affects, take the highest mental score of the characters and then take the lowest of these. That’s the character you are looking for. Spell-like ability, but full-round action to open the door.

Goblin trader

Goblins are vile monsters, but also willing to help humans and others, for a price. Here’s a list of services they might grant and of prices they might ask. They are not very reliable trading partners, either, and will weasel out of an agreement if able to. Goblin traders are typically shamans out of favour within a nearby settlement.

  • Equipment the goblin happens to have, typically of poor quality – As much coins as they think you have; you would not be dealing with them if you had good choices, so better milk the situation for all it is worth.
  • Training against opponents the goblins are threatened by (say, kobolds) – Beard of a dwarf or delicious, fresh ears of an elf, or something similar.
  • Boo! at will – One live adult, subdued.
  • Goblin door at will – One live child, subdued.

Goblin magic is, I feel, suited for old school play. I doubt it would work very well with encounter-based D&D play, for example, being utterly broken and too unpredictable.

I’d love to add stats for older editions of D&D, but I don’t have the rules for any.


Everything not keyed to rules of BW or D&D is released into public domain. The intro text is not, though.

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Classifying good rules

16 October, 2008 at 4:30 pm (game design, rpg theory) ()

In this post I will outline three (or two) different ways in which rules can be good. For the purpose of this post, let rules be good if and only if they produce good play, and let good play be defined by the people playing.

I am also assuming that freeform play, defined as play in which resolution is handled by social negotiation or fiat and where there are few explicit rules, is not utterly broken and can actually work.

Fading to the background

As was assumed above, freeform can be good play. Rules that fade to the background make freeform easier and channel it to specific fictional style. Take, for example, a game that has attributes (strength, speed, …). Creating characters gives players a sense of how capable their characters are when compared to each other, and also possibly to the rest of the world. Note that this also happens to other numbers that represent the character.

It has been my experience that given a set of rules that tend to fade, the resolution system is first used frequenly to resolve anything and everything, but it is used less and less as the game proceeds, because people already know what is going to happen. Your character has three times bashed a door down and charged in, so we already know your character is capable of bashing doors down, and there’s no need to roll anymore (assuming a door that is not stronger than those bashed before).

Rules, even though they fade to the background, also shape the fictional world. Take a random fantasy rpg and add magic rules stolen from D&D or Ars Magica, and you will have vastly different sorts of mages in the setting.

I have heard that BRP (basic roleplay, used in Runequest, Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu) and Unisystem are this kind of games.

Creating fun play

Some rules have fairly discrete mini-games. The traditional example is combat in modern D&D (3rd and 4th editions). It is clear that such mini-games don’t fade into background; rather, they are entertaining in and of themselves (given players who like such mini-games, of course). Another feature of them is that there is no need to ever use them; you can play D&D 3rd and never touch the combat rules. It would be something of a waste in that most of the game would be unused, but that doesn’t really matter, as long as the play is good.

In summary: Good rules can create new kinds of good play, or make an existing activity interesting in a new way.

Extreme case

An extreme case of the above is rules that don’t work properly unless they are embraced. Almost all board games are in this category. Burning Wheel is close, because the character development and artha mechanics require actively using and remembering the rules.

I’d be as bold as to say that many games influenced by rpg theory from the Forge are close to this extreme case. It might even be possibly to characterise them by this classification scheme, though there is bound to be loose ends.

Design implications

From design perspective it is useful to have a baseline; what am I improving? (My default baseline is freeform play.) Minigames and games that simply don’t work unless used properly may benefit from another point of comparison, or may be considered without much context, which is not advisable to any game that relies heavily on people already knowing a particular activity or mode of play.

Continuum, not absolutes

As is generally true, this classification creates a continuum, not two (or three) pair-wise distinct sets.

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10 October, 2008 at 8:43 pm (game mastering) ()

Sami Koponen‘s Efemeros is a collection of four articles and a small extra.

First article

The first article, by Sami, is about thematic roleplaying. Main point that I remember still: Thematic roleplay is unlikely if players only care about the success of their characters, so make (potentially) conflicted characters. Every player should know the themes of a game to some extent and make characters accordingly. A setting with thematic content or social commentary is not a sufficient condition for thematic play. Characters must have a measure of depth to be engaging. Rules can be used to focus a game around specific theme, but are by no means necessary.

Notes: Sami’s bias is evident here; he clearly likes story games, uses such as examples and recommends some. There is a small sidebar about GNS (most relevantly, about the sim/nar divide). Given this point of view the text is pretty sensible material.

For me, the contents of this article are not news. One idea I did get from reading: Build rules such as the player can clearly designate which qualities of a character are there to be challenged and which to be reinforced. Overall, I consider this the weakest article in the publication.

Second article

Shinobi no mono, again by Sami Koponen, is a description of several roleplaying techniques. There is a narrative about Japanese students of roleplaying written as if they were studying martial arts or such. There is a total of eleven techniques. Personally, I found the article useful; I had not considered some of the techniques as that. The narrative was occasionally useful, occasionally awkward to read. I’d say this is the second most useful article.

Third article

Author is Wille Routsalainen, article is called Building adventures. For me, this is mostly a useless article, not because it is poor, but because it is not relevant to my playing style (any of them). Overall, third in usefulness.

One good idea I did pick up: Ghost sheets for player characters. Such a sheet contains goals of the PC, what NPCs want of her, the contacts the PC has and things the player does not know about the character. This is likely to be very useful tool in longer games with several NPCs and no forced overarching story.

Fourth article

Designing campaigns by Eero Tuovinen is the absolutely strongest article in the collection. It connects such diverse resources as 1st. edition D&D’s DMG, fruitful void by Vincent Baker and social footprint by Tony Lower-Basch.

A particularly noteworthy part of the text is elaboration on the difference of campaign and scenario (and scene). Building an entire campaign simply to bring a particular scene or situation to play is a waste of resources that leads to railroading; better take what makes that particular scene or situation so interesting and apply that more generally.

Eero Tuovinen’s method of campaign construction is to first take a conflict, then make it nontrivial (merely talking won’t solve it unless one side sacrifices something), make characters as persons, define arenas of conflict, don’t build an end; solving the big conflict is ending the campaign.

Arenas of conflict are a smart idea: They are essentially the means to change the outcome of the campaign. Combat is the traditional arena. In my current BW game the sympathy of the people and summonings and lizardfolk and what they symbolise are also arenas of conflict.

All in all, the big insight this article gave to me is that designing a campaign is like designing a game, and many same principles apply.

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Random encounters: Practicals

3 October, 2008 at 8:31 pm (dungeon crawling, game mastering) (, )

D7 wrote about the care and feeding of random encounters. Here’s some examples of what I have been doing in my current dungeoncrawly game.

The game practically relies on random encounters. There are few creatures here and there that are not part of encounter tables, but anything that moves around is a wandering monster. I have separate encounter table for different locations and in one case, entries to a particular location.

Of gaming and risk management

The background story is that a bunch of people survived the end of the world, escaping to the expansive network of caves and tunnels wherein the fantastic exists. Right now there are a total of 26 characters the players more-or-less control.

They have some conflicting needs; it is necessary to defend the noncombatants. It is likewise necessary to explore surroundings and try to make sense of the underworld. This means that it is necessary to split the group of 26 people; around five characters at a time have gone exploring or fighting or whatever.

Wandering creatures are the reason for having capable guardians keeping the noncombatants safe. (Alleged invisible flying monster fluttering among the people is another.) From this follow two characteristics of these encounters: Certain creatures should be encountered pretty often; a small chance of really random stuff is also useful.

A lair of wolves implies frequent encounters with wolves (unless they are wiped out or prevented from entering or such). This is just common sense, and also lets players figure out smart ways of dealing with the recurring visitors. The rare encounters (I have one table roughly titled “monsters”, where there are ten or so random pretty dangerous monsters) are there to add danger and uncertainty to the whole affair. Preparing for the unknown, from player point of view.

Of simulation and realistic environment

Second purpose of random encounters is to simulate something like a dynamic dungeon environment. This particularly means that I need to add more herbivores there. The key is making them somewhat interesting as encounters; natural defenses, potential for being tamed, just plain exotic. I still need to do some work on this subject. Since there is a fairly open area nearby, there will be random creatures of all shapes and many sizes occasionally finding any particular location.

Of story elements and improvisation

Encounters that are close to each other, time-wise, may just be random situations. Or not. If, say, wolves are rolled twice a row to enter the same situation, maybe it is the same pack. Are they chasing something or being chased by something? Perhaps they were successful in their hunt are returning to their lair. The possibilities are even more lucrative when there are civilised creatures involved.

This effect should not be emphasised too much; the game is about exploration and survival, not story improvisation (other games are better for that purpose).

Dynamic tables

The encounter tables are not etched in stone (I much prefer pen and paper). They should be changed as a result of the game. Player characters exterminated a number of centipedes, so I removed them from the encounter table. If there exist a total of 50 kobolds and 30 of them are killed, rolling for 3d10 kobolds is not smart; make it 2d10 or 3d10, drop lowest. Should a few goblins spot people in their areas and live to tell the tale, the number and frequency of goblins appearing will go up.

Some assumptions

These are facts about my game that may or may not be related to my approach on encounter tables.

  • Simple monster stats. Here’s a centipede: Might 6, magic 2, poison. Here’s a minotaur: Might 15, magic 2, all damage from charge must be taken by single character. I can improvise these stats at will in play and they will roughly make sense. This means that using encounter tables is utterly fast; I don’t need to browse a manual or write stats downs before play, because I can assign them on spot.
  • Lack of planned story: Yeah. Random encounters certainly tend to fit poorly in preplanned stories, especially if there is a mood to convey. Furthermore, it is usually not very interesting to fight a yet another random group of grunts on the way to Borgoria.
  • Lack of tactical depth: The combats are not very tactical. I don’t need to carefully plan a location or the opposition to make the combat exciting; combats are fairly quick, most of the time, and pretty brutal. More importantly: They are not the point. (Consequently: No battle maps. Sometimes dice and tokens and pencils masquarading as heroes and monsters and cave walls and whatnot.)
  • Several characters: Losing any one character is not something that will kill the game. There are others to play. (Thus far, no character has died, but one was very close.) So, arbitrarily dangerous random encounters do not break the game. An additional consequence is that I can include instakills and paralysis and madness and such with impunity, should it feel useful.
  • Not rolling dice unless the options are acceptable: I build the encounter tables, I set the probabilities of encountering something, so I also accept any and every result the dice give. In play I am an arbiter, not someone who tries to challenge the players (or build an interesting story).

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