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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Continuing the discussion from last time, I do think the “plotiness” axis is an interesting tool, but creating axes is where things get really fun. Some axes are more interesting than others, so how do we know which opposing conceptual concepts would make good pairs? Here are some guidelines I go by.

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As people, we’re good at identifying two opposing things and using that to make sense of the world. So, let’s talk about one of these opposing pairs, and maybe in a later post I’ll talk about creating axes as a way for understanding games more generally. The pair I’ve been looking at recently is what I’ve been calling the “plotiness” axis.

On one side of this scale are games about atmosphere. Here, the gestalt experience of mixing specific feelings and tropes together is the whole point of the game. Atomspheric games tend to have lighter character mechanics, quicker character generation, and sessions of the game tend to be disconnected from each other. These games have strong scene framing techniques and some emotional distance between the players and their characters. A good example would be Annalise. Another good one is Durance. (Both are excellent, and the latter has a Kickstarter underway right now.)

On the other side of this scale are games that feature strong episodic content. By that, I mean that the game is intended to be played week after week with the same crew and the same cast of characters. These games often have richer character mechanics, an “us-them” party-based dynamic, and GM-directed play. There’s also a strong “event-ness” to them—players will make plans, have those plans go awry when something happens, and generally focus on getting through the events of the day. Most traditional RPGs fall into this category, but so do games like Apocalypse World or Burning Wheel.

What’s cool about drawing lines in the sand is what we see by looking at the whole beach. We see games like 3:16; its char-gen is notoriously lightweight and play is highly disconnected—each session is a new planet. This is an atmosphere game about war. But at the same time, subtle mechanisms like Strengths/Weaknesses and Rank/Medals add just enough episodic play to give it a hook.

Or maybe we take a look at something like Call of Cthulhu and see that despite it being a very episodic plot-oriented sort of game, that sanity scores can really push towards brooding, atmospheric scenes and that GM techniques to establish tone are essential to creating a great play experience.

Or we can look at things that fit surprisingly well and extrapolate additional qualities: games like Dread and My Life with Master both fit very squarely into the atmospheric domain. And both these games barely, if at all, include character advancement. Neither particularly talks about “stuff”—items or gear or tools that might make things easier to do.

Or we can find games that don’t seem to fit cleanly into the spectrum. Principia: Secret Wars of the Renaissance—a fun episodic game where there’s this extra “what is happening to the world” mechanic that doesn’t really fit into this model at all. (Go download it. It’s free and it’s good.)

Next time, more on creating axes like this. Enjoy!

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So, I think Primetime Adventures is a great game. So great a game, that we might well ask why we don’t just use it for everything. Well, because of reasons.

Let me unpack that a bit. Some time ago, I was promulgating the notion that most of what makes a successful instance of RPG play is shared genre-expectations among the people at the table. I still think that this is true.

Primetime Adventures is a game with some powerful mechanisms for getting everyone at the table to share those genre-expectations. It’s a one-two punch: first the pitch, where everyone at the table gets in the same general area of idea-space, and then fanmail, which works[1] as a feedback mechanism to let players tell each other “yes, more of that, please!”

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  1. When it works. It can and does fail. []

More and more these days, I am fascinated by the power and role of decisions. Decisions create buy-in, generate unexpected outcomes, and provide drama. As I’ve come to see it, most of all, decisions provide meaning.

But not all decisions create meaning—to do that, a decision needs to be personal, needs to have weight, and has to be visible. Each of these things is challenging to engineer reliably. I’ve been trying to take stock of what works for me. This is what I’ve come up with so far.

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When you’re designing a game, it can be helpful to ask—and answer—”what do I want my players to describe?” It’s probably not the first question you want to answer, but when you need to ask it, you know you will. It’s not quite the same as “what happens in my game”[1] because, importantly, it’s about what details your players will dwell on, what will give the game its texture.

Once you have some answers to that question, the next thing to consider is how to get your players to actually spend some effort describing those things. This is part of what Vincent’s whole thing about “rightward pointing arrows” was about. They’re one possible technique for making the things described in the fiction meaningful and important enough that people don’t gloss over details, and thus describe what you want them to.

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  1. Look at the wonderful illustrations from Dylan Meconis for the Italian edition of Dogs in the Vineyard for a great expression of “what happens” in Dogs. []

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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It’s been a while since we’ve made as much good progress as we did tonight on Piece of Work. We’ve had trouble developing the game. At its core, there have always been problems with its cohesion. On one side, we want a game with cyberware and grit. On another side, we want it to play to noir tropes and carry emotional weight. And we wanted a game that spoke about corporate greed and responsibilities that go beyond one’s personal issues.

So here we are trying to make a game that does all these things but not understanding how to put it all together. Somehow in all the muck, neat ideas, and rough attempts we’d forgotten one of the lessons from Metatopia, or perhaps I’m just characteristically slow. What is clear now, though, is that this idea that a game should have a system for each thing it does turns out to be a lot more than talk. We’d already created one system for the cyberware, and one for the noir. But despite really wanting to drill down on the activist angle, we didn’t have something to address it. Until tonight.

What stuns me, even hours after we’ve stumbled upon a solution is that it just clean works out. We’d already been using three dice in the core mechanic, one gear and one motivation, but the third’s been difficult. We’d already created a system for bringing existential crisis to the front, and, of course cyberware, but only recently came up with something for bringing the day-to-day life home. Realizing that there are these three things the game is supposed to do, we’ve been able to tie the third one in. I can’t speak yet to how well it works yet, but it feels like the third post of a tripod.

Once the details have been fleshed out, there’ll be more to say, but for now all I can think about is breaking down games into the stories they tell and the systems they use to tell it. I’m keen to hear other people’s experiences with systems per principle.

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This is some follow-on from my musing about too many protagonists.

When we sit down to play a role-playing game, there are three to seven of us (more or less) who want to make a narrative about a bunch of characters. Great. Depending on the game, one of us might play a more general role, wrangling all the walk-ons and antagonists and such, freeing everyone else to really get into the protagonists’ roles.

This doesn’t actually say anything about the nature of the protagonists’ relationships with each other.

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I’ve brought up the unease with which I view things like The Big Model before, but I don’t think I’ve ever really explained why the whole mess gives me hives. Ironically, I haven’t had the words to express what my problem with it is succinctly. Now that we’re out of the woods with editing Becoming Heroes, I have a better sense of my own mind and want to put those thoughts down before I lose them.

A curiosity of language is its inseparability from context. Sure, we can use words and have a limited success at conveying them without context, but when we try and convey meaning, we’re inextricably bound to interpretation and contextualization. Which means that names and jargon are both impossible to avoid and unavoidably shaping.

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