We like to divide things, I guess. Often, it’s into binaries. Today, it’s a troika.[1]

There are three things I’m currently thinking about in RPG design, and those are story, emotional response, and interaction.

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  1. I feel that word is very appropriate in this case; like a troika, these three are distinct, but must work together to bring everything forward. []
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It’s hard to make RPGs that build, maintain, and deliver on tension at the right points of a story. Systems that don’t allow for tense scenes or palpable stakes just don’t have grip. And yet, if a system engages too directly with tension and action, the outcomes it produces feel trite. At worst, an errant die roll can derail a campaign that took weeks or months to build. While I think there are a lot of different techniques for pacing a story, I’ve come to believe there are a few overarching modes a system might be aligned with.[1]

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  1. NB: As with all the times I’ve suggested deconstructing ideas, I don’t actually think these are the only ways RPGs influence the tension of their games. I also think that a single system might use any or all of these approaches in different ways at different times. I find it useful to separate them out and talk about them, though. []
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One thing we haven’t talked much about here is character flags—things about a character that signal what kinds of story elements interest the player. For example, if one of your players has a character with lot of skill in picking locks, then probably you need to throw some locks at that character. This is a major difference between a simulationist take on RPGs and a narrativist one. In simulationist play, the challenges are all laid out in advance, and if you want to excel, you need forethought, scouting, and planning. In a narrativist model, you know what the challenges will be because they’re tailored to your characters, and you should expect that if you’re good at lockpicking, you’ll need to pick a lock.

(Caveat: I’m not a huge fan of GNS, but I find it useful in discussing larger-scale issues such as character flags.)

Obviously, I’m a proponent of looking at character flags to figure out how to structure play. But flags are just the beginning. Russian playright Anton Chekhov has an adage about guns that applies equally to characters in an RPG. That is, the characters created for a game should strongly influence the events of that game.

More specifically, when someone plays a wizard in your game, not only should you let them decipher some runes, or throw in a mystic library to explore, but magic should become a central theme to the plot of the game. Perhaps there are people tampering with the structure of magic, or the old magic is returning, or magic has gone wild and uncontrollable. The point is, the story is about these characters because these are the characters that matter, which we know because these are the characters that were created by the players. They matter because of who they are and what they do.

In Becoming Heroes, we do this mechanically, because each character has an arc and the arc points are specific events that you should expect to see in the game. In Piece of Work, we’re using a system we call Clocks that allows a player a more freeform way to specify what they want to see. But every system has some way for the players to shape the story, if you’re listening for it.

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Sometimes, I think about game development in a computer-game-y way. Particularly, I divide system—procedures, rules, crunch, etc.—from assets—the pre-provided things you use to engage with those systems.

As I’ve been working on Et in Arcadia Ego, and particularly thinking about how to make room for continuing content, I’ve realized that the continuing content has to be an asset, though not all assets have to be that pluggable. I’ve also realized that making assets is a very different skill from making systems, and engages people differently.

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First, let me just say that the word narrative is terribly overloaded in the game industry. Turn it this way, it means story. Turn it that way, it means the events in a game. Turn it yet another, and it’s a play style. Here, I’m using it to talk about genre. About the kinds of stories we tell with role-playing games. There are an almost innumerable number, each with a different narrative space.

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Some talk on Twitter the other day (ending here) got me thinking about the best game I’ve ever played. Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps understandably, it violated a lot of the common assumptions about how to play role-playing games, but for at least two of us who played—me, and Austin—it changed the way we see role-playing games and what we felt that they could do. What follows is an anecdote, hopefully interesting.

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Peter Brook’s excellent The Empty Space has been my reading of late. It’s a wonderful book on theater, but not wholly irrelevant to thinking about role-playing games, either. There are many parallels one can draw between gaming and other media—novels or short stories, plays, improv, movies, TV shows—and much to be gained from looking at media with longer critical traditions.

So, Brook has been talking about the problems with the various participants in an instance of theater. He has moved from the actors and directors through the audience and reached the writers. Audience and actors are clear enough roles in a role-playing game, and director is even relatively clear, but there’s an important sense in which there is no writer—or, to be more precise, no one author. Each participant takes on this role in some fashion at different times, even in the most GM-heavy game. So what does Brook have to say about group authorship?

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