By now, I expect everyone who reads this has seen the recent XKCD, and read the hover text:

(For the record: the hover text says “Also, all financial analysis. And, more directly, D&D.”)

What do we make of this? There’s a lot of (I think fruitless) argument one could have back and forth over whether and how this applies. I think it’s pretty clear that it does apply, and that it isn’t a bad thing. We like narratives, and we like random things, and we like coupling them.

But what this really puts in my head is that many RPGs have something more than this: they have systems that couple not just the fiction to the RNG, but also couple the weights of the RNG to the fiction. And this, exactly, is why rightward-pointing arrows are that cool and worth talking about.

Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of L.A. Noire, which is a fantastic game. The most important part of the game is not the action sequences, not even the snooping for clues, but the interviews and interrogation. But sometimes it’s pretty clear how the conversations have a directed acyclic graph underlying them. Of course, there’s really no other option when coding an interactive scene in a video game, and it’s a good model. But what’s really exciting in a tabletop RPG is that, essentially, that graph is dynamically updated with each change you make in fiction, in response to every moment of creative insight and contribution you as a participant have.

These are awesome games, and I am so happy to be living in a time when they are exploding with diversity.

Now, there’s one thing in particular about them that’s hard to deal with, and that’ll be my next post. They take, quite frankly, a lot of energy, and the knowledge of and fear of that energy can provide a barrier to play. I won’t write more about this now, but I will say thanks to Alex P. for putting the question of how to deal with that in my head. I’m working on some ideas.

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And Game Tasting Week comes to a close, with Graham Walmsley’s A Taste for Murder. Great fun was had all week.

We played with me, Allie, Kate and Seth. Importantly, we didn’t get to actually finish the game, due to starting late. But the late start was in turn due to watching Gosford Park, so it was worth it. But it did rob us of a chance to experience the full play and dénouement.

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We’re nearly at the end, folks. Let’s do this.

Last night was Gregor Hutton’s 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars, a game of space marine bug-killing action and self-psychologizing flashbacks. I’ve been interested in playing this game for years, but have only now gotten the chance. I’ll be straight: it didn’t work for me, largely because of the setting. But I’ll do my best to give it a fair analysis. The others—Austin, who ran it, John, Dan and Thaddaeus, all, I think it’s fair to say, straight-up enjoyed it.

It was very clear that a lot of the game happens in the progression of missions, which we weren’t able to do with a tasting. With only one session, the interesting effects of promotion and conflicting orders for the various ranks couldn’t become apparent. Each character could get no more than one Flashback, and thus very little development beyond their initial reputation. But we could feel all that lurking under the surface, for use in future play.

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So, without a game from last night to write about, I’ll take the opportunity to take some other thoughts that have been brewing and talk about what I see as the intrinsic elements of a story game, and how to communicate them.

To start with, there are four major elements to a story-game, as I see it, three of which are story, one of which is game:

  1. Setting
  2. Situation
  3. Motivation
  4. Mechanics

The first and fourth are very familiar and pretty much always explicitly discussed in any RPG text. The third became explicit some time ago.[1] And the second? Lately, it’s been getting a lot more attention. I think, traditionally, it has been the bulk of what people think of as the art of good GMing, but games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Fiasco and Apocalypse World have paid some pretty explicit attention to Situation.

Of course, all four of these are heavily, heavily interrelated. Setting provides context and hooks for Situation and Motivation, Mechanics (ideally) provide a system for reminding you of Situation and Motivation, Situation leads to Motivation and Motivation enacted changes Situation. Sure. I’m going to try to set aside the issues of interaction for now, and talk rather about how to communicate these things.

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  1. When John finishes his grand Timeline of RPG Ideas, I’ll have a date that I can actually back up. []
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Sadly, this game didn’t happen. John was due to facilitate it (it’s sort of a two-GM system, so I won’t say “run”), but he was ill, and so we canceled.

I’ll take the opportunity to gather my mental juices and post something else today, though. There have been some thoughts that are more general than a reaction to a specific game that I would like to hash out and write about.

ETA: Here’s today’s real post, Teaching Situation.

And on to night three. It was Primetime Adventures, by Matt Wilson. John ran it, Dan, Kate, Thaddaeus and I played. We decided on a show that ended up feeling like The IT Crowd meets Sliders, and it worked pretty well as a concept. I played the nerdy highschool protagonist, Kate my military brat tomboy friend, Dan my wisecracking grandmother, and Thad the entitled rich guy in town. We got sucked into a parallel world (where we were in a steampunk fascist America at war with communist Canada) and hijinks ensued.

The game was hilarious and great fun. Having two semi-comedians at the table certainly helped, and it helped them earn a lot of fanmail. It was immediately clear how the fanmail mechanic was the real point of the system, and having some people who were great at working with it made the system shine.

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Last night was Fred Hicks’s Don’t Rest Your Head. Again, I won’t talk much about the structure of the game, but rather how we reacted to it and what we got out of it.

Four of us played: me, John, and our friends Eric and Avedan. I ran it. As the book warned, there was little motivation for the characters to meaningfully interact and overlap, so there ended up being, largely, three different stories. A guidance counselor, a shipping logistics manager and a writer all fell into the Mad City for one reason or another, and went in some interesting directions. The setting really shone with the guidance counselor in particular, as he decided to head right to the High School and do what he could to get a job there. For anyone familiar with the setting, that’s a chilling notion.

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I know, we’re late to the party.

The internet has been very excited about Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World for some time now, but we’ve only just gotten to play it. I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining the game, because at this point I figure you’re all familiar with it. What I will do is talk about our thoughts and reactions to it. It was perhaps a less-than-ideal game, too, but it was quite fun.

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So, this coming week, we of Transneptune (with some friends) are going to spend this coming week trying a different game every night. And we’re gonna post about it.

Here’s the schedule:

Hopefully, the posts will go up the day after, but they might be delayed if we’re busy. Which we probably will be.

So first, read John’s brilliant post. I want to talk about some of the “fenceposts” we use to corner off that narrative space he mentions.

My first attempt at designing a game was laden with the same kind of hubris the creators of GURPS had—trying to make a game that could do anything. And a game that can do anything can do no one thing really well. Eventually we got bored of it. Why play a wild west game in a generic system when you can play Dogs in the Vineyard? Why play a game of space marines in a generic system when you have 3:16, or if that is insufficiently crazy, WH40k? Mechanics are a huge part of this. A generic mechanic (like percentile dice, any pure attribute + skill, d20, etc) will never hook you like one designed for what it’s doing, in its home narrative space. This is because those fenceposts are fun in and of themselves, in their own way. So we all know about some neat ways to say, hit a guy with a sword, but I want to talk about mechanics that change the game over time. Because in the end, even a really neat mechanic for hitting a guy with a sword pales in comparison (after a few sessions) to the macro-sized mechanics that define how the game is played after the first few sessions.

So games like Burning Wheel have an interesting way of engineering the shape of play. Over time, the conflict that Beliefs create for the character add up in the form of Artha and cause them to Be Awesome later. Similarly, in FATE, you get narrative ammunition through losing conflicts, in the form of Fate Points. The end effect is that over time, a bunch of strife and loss cause you to accumulate narrative power which you then leverage in a later conflict. This seems to me like a neat hack to getting that awesome story-like arc that many are looking for in a game—a period of being laid low followed by glorious victory. The best part is that the GM doesn’t even need to plan too much for it happening, they just need the barest of peripheral awareness of your banked-up story control points.

Of course, this kind of story-like shape is nearly impossible to engineer in more traditional games. D&D, Shadowrun, Pathfinder and their comrades don’t try to get this kind of story, and so they don’t get it. So if you find your epic fantasy game devoid of the proper amount of epic heroism, there is a reason for that. The advancement mechanic, really all the macro-level stuff, in games like D&D do not change or do anything to your narrative space. It’s simple math, an incredibly careless mechanic that gives you no sense of progress or destination. Think for a second about how in movies, heroes become more badass, but in D&D, you do not really change relative to your opposition. CR is matched to party level. You just get more options for texturing your opposition as you grow in “power” over time.

This of course leads right back to that tricky issue of needing boundaries to be boundaries, while needing them to get broken. Advancement really highlights issues with relative power level and boundaries, and I’ve not yet encountered an advancement system that was to my liking. Does anyone out there have some particularly good examples in mind?

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