Death note?

12 February, 2008 at 8:17 pm (game design) (, , , )

There exists an anime called Death Note. I have seen some episodes of it. Premise: A college student finds a notebook. Writing a name on it causes the death of the named person. Kills criminals. Implausible plots and death gods are involved.

Why is the relevant? Well, Thalin just finished he SW d20 game he GM’d in the Monday (university) group. I’ll run a one-shot, or maybe even longer, game with inspiration from the aforementioned anime. (Implying that I steal the idea of death note and ignore everything else.)


I’ll likely go with Egypt. Something like Indiana Jones, tech-wise. Other possible setting is South or Meso-America. Doesn’t matter that much, anyway.

Characters are people who organised an excavation to get hold of the fabled Book of the Dead or Book of Death. Whatever. Write any name on it and think about the person and he will die. Possible elaboration: Death occurs within an hour and not immediately, character can determine the method of death, some sort of sign is left, the killed follow the character as undead bodyguards, character turns into undead, … It is quite easy to come up with more.

Characters should either know each other well (in which case getting the item is of extreme importance) or be strangers who have used false identities so as to not give each other power over themselves. Either works.


This is what I call a generic system. It makes relatively few assumptions. It does have a new way to roll dice because I like experimenting.

Characters are defined by an archetype: Something that tells their general skill-set and way to solve problems. Occupation is a good idea. In addition, all player characters and important NPCs have other traits. I think I’ll go with one related to appearance (like lean, scar-face, sun-burned, tidy aspect, big, kid) and one to personality (religious, friendly, scheming, irritable, curious). These are simply to make the characters easy to remember (appearance) and to play (personality). More can be added in play as explained soon.


Resolution is engaged if and only if there is a consequence to both succeeding and failing such that both take the game to interesting directions.

Dice pool. Get two dice if doing something clearly suitable to the archetype (soldier shooting or marching, chemist investigating a foreign susbtance), one die for something related to the archetype (journalist repairing a camera, guide telling about local legends of man-eating ghouls), one die for every relevant trait, up to two dice for favourable circumstances, variable number of dice roll-over from any linked rolls. Also: One die for every trait the opponent has that hinders the opponent. If you have no dice, you get one and the opponent’s pool is doubled. If neither would get any dice, both get one. If a roll is not opposed, GM sets a suitable amount of dice for it.

Before any dice are rolled, the consequences for succeeding or failing are described by GM. They are open to negotiation. After they have been agreed upon (negotiation is rare), dice are rolled as follows: Both sides total their dice and roll them (example sets: {1, 2, 2, 4, 4}, {2, 3, 3, 6}). Matching results are negated so that both sides lose an equal number of dice (example continues: both have one 2 and one 3, so lose one of both => {1, 2, 4}, {3, 3, 6}). Highest number indicates the triumphant side (the second, 4<6). Number of dice the winner has that are greater than all the dice the opponent has indicate the number of successes the winner got (6>4, 3<4 => 1 success). This number can be rolled over to any roll that is clearly linked to this one.

Foo points

Every system needs foo points. I might call them willpower in honour of WoD or maybe something setting-appropriate. Any ideas?

Players start with 2 or 3 foo points. Foo points do any of the following but only when rolling the dice, up to veto by other participants in the game:

  • Define a new trait for your character. This must be relevant to the roll at hand, either beneficial or harmful, and does contribute a die to the roll. “Did I mention my char is a pretty good swimmer?”
  • Define a new trait for an NPC in the conflict, up to the condition above. I am not certain of including this.
  • Get 2 dice in the conflict. Use before rolling. “I buy flowers and chocklad to her before knocking on her door.”
  • Spend n to get n dice in the conflict. Use after rolling. “The dog is about to catch me when a hare jumps from the bushes. Dog runs after it, barking loudly.”
  • Give to another player for whatever reason, but hopefully for entertaining play.
  • Remove a trait the character has grown over after demonstrating said development in the conflict. This probably won’t happen in such a short game.

Foo points can be earned in the following ways:

  • Get them from another player, hopefully due to entertaining play.
  • Get them from GM due to good (role)play.
  • Get one when your trait gives a die to your opponent in a conflict.

I’ll use whatever small objects I happen to find to represent foo points and kill book-keeping.

Designer’s rambles

Chargen is quick and simple. I can drop movie references (quality movies like Mummy [who may return], Indiana Jones) if someone gets stuck. Character development, if any, happens in play. Players have narrative power if they want to seize it, but doing such is not mandatory.

Dice are rolled when it matters and players can, if they care about it, influence the result significantly. (Forge theory or at least Ron Edwards would call this a position mechanic or some such.) This also has the tendency to build more colourful fiction as a side effect. As a bonus: Resolution practically always resolves something. Draws are rare and can only happen when both sides have the same amount of dice. Also: Adding dice after the roll can, in certain situations, wildly alter the result.

Giving foo points for good roleplaying is something that keeps me active and watching the performance of people. I just need to lower my standards to get the foo flowing properly.

The situation: General structure is one of my favourites; there is this powerful MacGuffin. You are about to get it. Who will take it? Who will get to use it? Will the others be killed? After that has been resolved, the nature of the game changes significantly. The main theme becomes: You have the power to kill anyone. Any public person at all. Anyone who has ever slighted you. Ultimate power. Ultimate corruption?


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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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Setting element: Those who fight the forest.

8 January, 2008 at 7:21 pm (game design, game element) (, , , )

This setting element started as an exercise in setting design. First posting happened on the Campaign Builders’ Guide.

Design goals: To make a setting suitable for many gaming styles, including the exemplified by Dogs in the Vineyard, and to further make it one that has themes that engaging to me on personal level. The setting has seen some play-by-post action, which is currently on hold because one player is serving his year in the FDF. The game hopefully continues after that.


Once upon a time there was a magnificient forest, untainted by civilisation. Humanity came and hacked and burned. Significant areas are now devoid of forest, but vibrant with farms, livestock and even a few cities. Now the forest is coming back.

The forest

It is dark, ancient and malicious. It wants to conquer your lands. Beasts mundane and mystical have been sighted. Few who dare to enter the woods come back, fewer still untainted.

Yet the forest is not without a weakness. An iron fence keeps a village safe from the enroachment of beasts. An iron blade is what can slay the beasts. An iron amulet protects one from the vile sorceries practiced by witches.

The people

Men and women are weak. They open the gates and let the forest in. They worship dead gods of the ancient forest-dwellers. They give away their amulets to be cured from a disease. They huddle behind their gates and let their blades rust. They neglect the fences during cold winter nights. They build with wood, not stone.

The banished, the outlaws, the poor, the diseased, the heretics, the muggers, those are the only people who have no choice but live next to the forest. No noble, no merchant would ever live there. Few are brave, or foolish, enough to visit the border. Most live in their secure castles and fabulous palaces, caring little of the forest and even less of those who live next to it.

The wardens

The nobles with no money, the bastards, the wealthy or influential who have earned the ire of the powers that be, the nonexistant children of the clergy are trained as wardens. They are taught to fight, to pray, to help. They travel from border village to next, slaying beasts and heathens, bringing news, murdering, raping, robbing, saving innocents, repairing the iron fence, holding sermons, smothering rebellions. They are the law near the forest. Theirs is the power over life and death, over sin and salvation. They are trained to be righteous, just, and careful saviors of the poor. Many are murderous, cunning, lecherous thugs. They hunt rogue wardens as often as beasts of the forest.

In play

A group of wardens, together for safety and watching over each other, enters a border village. Maybe they need to identify the witch, whose evil eye has cursed the doubtless devout priest. Maybe they need to judge the witch: She heals people and works as a midwife, the best of the region. Her magic is tainted by moss, rot and corruption, yet it is used for good. What’s a warden to do? Maybe they need to bring down the wolf of huge size and great cunning, which has slain all herds and some men. No villager has the courage to tread outside after dusk. Maybe a village is full of heretics worshipping the ancient pagan gods. Slaying everyone is not feasible. Maybe a rogue warden tracked down is enjoying quiet country life with his new-found wife rumoured to be a witch.

The themes

There is man fighting the forest (I am on the forest’s side). There is new religion against the old one (I support the old). Behind all conflicts are humans.

That said, do go and play it as a heroic monsterslaying spree. It is adaptable. It can be investigation, travelogue, hacking and slashing, or a tragic full of angst and moral dilemmas. That’s the point.

Add it to an existing setting. Some fringe area, possibly an island, where humanity recently arrived. It may be a jungle or a marsh. It may be a distant planet or moon, far from conventional trade routes.

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Rules element: Shooting contest

6 January, 2008 at 11:00 pm (game element) (, , , )

This is a nice semi-portable rules element. Should be usable in almost all rpgs that measure character skill and have some uncertainty. That is, not Wushu or Amber.

The purpose

The reason for this rules element is making a shooting contest, or similar event, mechanically interesting to play. An uninteresting method would be having the participants roll opposed checks and the best winning or having everyone roll more and more difficult checks until all but one fail. They are generally uninteresting because there is no player choice inherent in them (a specific game may not have this problem, depending on its rules).

This creates a small tactical minigame out of the situation. Not playtested. You were warned.

The implementation

The contestants are ordered in some way (preferably something that can be affected before the contest by PCs, like the whim of some important person).

First shot: Everyone sets their own difficulty, the first the first contestant, then the second, …, the last, after which the first can opt to increase her difficulty or keep it static, then the second has the same options, …, until nobody wants to increase her difficulty. Failing this shot means dropping out of the contest. The highest success determines who gets to set universal difficulty of the second shot. If there are multiple highest difficulty successes, the first in the order among them gets to decide.

The second shot: The winner of the first shot sets the difficulty of the second shot to any reasonable number. That is, any number achievable by an expert in the use of the equipment. DC around 15 in d20, obstacle 2 or 3 in Burning Wheel. Any contestant but the one who set the difficulty can voluntarily make the shot more difficult for herself only. Again, failure means utter defeat, while the highest success implies control over the next shot’s minimum/default difficulty. If multiple best successes exist, the one next in order among them gets to decide. (Example to follow).

The following shots: The winner of the previous round  may opt to increase the difficulty or keep it as is. It can be increased by significant, but not overwhelming, amount. In d20: by up to +5 (or by 0, +2 or +5 for less granularity). BW: keep as is or +1 Ob. All contestants may again opt to increase their personal difficulties.

The process continues until there is only single contestant left. She is the winner. If all remaining contestants fail at the same round, all get another try at the same or slightly less difficult level (GM’s/governing character’s choice). The reward could be decreased in case this happens.

When to use?

This is an extended resolution system, much like combat. Use only at dramatic situation and when PCs are involved. It is not a bad idea to let any noninvolved players play other contestants or the governing character, if NPC. Or maybe they are busy “adjusting” the result or getting bets or whatever. For less important situations simply roll opposed checks and get on to the important parts of the game.

An example

Athy, Bonaley and Chelae (names ripped from Abulafia) are competing in an archery contest. By totally random chance, their order is alphabetical. First Athy selects her starting difficulty (I’m using BW for no particular reason) as Ob 2, than Bonaley at Ob 3. Chelae could take 4 to get the potential starting position or anything if not trying that. She decides to risk the 4. Athy can increase her difficulty. Increasing it to four is sufficient to get the edge, due to her being first in order. She does so. The others pass their opportunities to further increase their difficulties.  Everyone succeeds at the bow rolls, so Athy can decide the next shot’s starting value.

Next shot. Athy is confident and set the difficulty at 4. Bonaley chooses to go for a quick win and increases hers to 5. The others would have to succeed at Ob 6+ to get the decision-making power, which they opt to not try. Everyone rolls: Bonaley barely misses her target.

The two remaining contests, Athy and Chelae, are tied, but Chelae is the next in order after Athy, so she can make her decision regarding the next shot’s difficulty: Remain at four or increase to 5. She decides to keep it at 4, which already has a significant chance of failure, given her  formidable bow skill of 6. Athy has little motive to up the ante. Rolls are made, but due to a poor strike of luck (and sudden gusts of wind) both miss. The baron overseeing the contest calms the dismayed crowds by letting half the reward promised to the contest winner be used in place of the taxation of the next year. The common folk is pretty happy after that (the other nobles less so). The baron decides to not make the shots any easier (GM seeing that one ought to be able to succeed).

Athy, surprisingly, sets the baseline difficulty at 5. Her player decided that this is the right occasion to burn some artha (kinda like action points) to ensure a victory. With her artha-boosted skill roll she gets a grand total of seven successes, while Chelae fails again, making Athy the winner (of half the price, if the baron keeps his word) with a particularly spectacular shot.

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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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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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Rolling the dice: When vs. How

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Setting does matter

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

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

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

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

Setting design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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