Shadowrun Cortex Prime, Part V: Conjuration

For the previous post in the series, click here.

This should be a relatively brief post since it builds entirely upon the previous post in the series.

Conjuration
Conjuration is the practice of summoning, binding and banishing spirits. The types of spirits summoned depend upon the tradition of the mage doing the summoning.

Types of Spirits
I’m going to leave it to anyone using these rules to determine the types of spirits a particular character can summon by refernce to the Shadowrun rules. I will say that I find it unnecessary to create a list of abilities and powers for spirits–just allow what seems sensible for a spirit of that type. If you want to use the Shadowrun base ruleset as a guide for making any calls at the table, that’s not unreasonable.

Spirit Stats (Force)
Summoned spirits have a dice pool of three dice equal to the effect die used in summoning them.

Summoning and Binding Spirits
Summoning and binding spirits takes a single roll, thanks to the use of multiple effect dice.

Dice Pool: The dice pool consists of an Approach (appropriate to the method of summoning the spirit), the Conjuration skill, the character’s Magical aspect (to be discussed in a later post), any applicable assets, Signature Assets or Specializations.

Resistance Pool: The resistance pool should be determined primarily by the circumstances of the summoning: is the character pressed for time or under fire, does the character have adequate resources for ritual magic/summoning, etc.

Primary Effect Die: As mentioned above, the primary effect die from the caster’s pool is used to establish the “Force” or dice type in the pool of the summoned spirit.

Additional Effect Dice
Services: For each step in the die assigned to services, the Spirit will perform one task for the summoning character (giving a total of 1 to 5 tasks).
Drain: As per Sorcery.

N.B. – Yes, this means that it takes a minimum of four dice to summon a spirit (except in the case of a d4 Force spirit, in which you can have only three dice and use the “free” effect die for your primary effect die). In the games of Shadowrun I’ve run using the original rules, the sudden summoning of a spirit in the middle of a fight is a game-changing force-multiplier; I’ve had magicians summon spirits of air to down pursuing helicopters, spirits of fire to hold off massed security squads, etc. I do not want to eliminate those moments–they are part of the fun of the Shadowrun setting and create stories the players talk about long after leaving the table. At the same time, I want to make sure that such a feat is impressive not simply because of the effect, but also because of what it takes to pull it off. Summoning a spirit while minimizing Drain will typically require some preparation (i.e. the creation of preparatory assets) and a little luck (or an Edge Point).

Spirit Services
I want to intentionally leave this somewhat broad, in part because negotiating what counts as a service and what doesn’t can make for interesting roleplaying. I won’t leave you without any guidance, however: in general, a service is a discrete function provided by a spirit, such as attacking a target, using an ability to create an effect (asset or complication), sustaining a spell, etc. The biggest difficulty in determining services is in deciding whether a command constitutes more than one service. As a general rule, a single command counts as a single service unless that service is provided over multiple scenes, in which case the action is one service per scene (and requires the magician to spend a point of Edge, see below). A detailed command that consists of several discrete activities should require one service per discrete portion of the command.

For example, “Knock over that command vehicle and attack the people inside,” is two services in my reckoning.

Longevity of Spirits
A spirit stays with the magician long for one scene. The magician may spend an Edge Point for the spirit to persist for the rest of the session; otherwise, any unspent services are lost at the end of the scene.

Banishing
Banishing a spirit is simply an attack against the spirit using the Conjuring skill as the applicable skill. Results are factored like attacks against any character.

Quick and Dirty Review: The Witcher RPG

I only found out about a week ago that R. Talsorian Games would be putting out an RPG for The Witcher, so I fortunately only had about that amount of time to wait before sinking my teeth into the new game. This stands in contrast to Netflix’s upcoming Witcher TV show, which seems to be coming to us only at a laborious pace.

Regardless, I’m a big fan of The Witcher books and setting, and I’m a firm believer that The Witcher 3 video game is hands down the best video game made to date. So an official RPG for this world certainly caught by attention. Not only for the setting itself–my own Avar Narn setting is a gritty fantasy world and I’m always looking for innovative design ideas that might influence my own eventual RPG design.

A brief caveat: this game was (as far as I could tell) just released on DriveThruRPG.com last night (at the end of GenCon, where I believe that hardcopies were available). I picked up my PDF copy on DriveThru for $24.95. A hgher price than many RPG PDFs I’ve purchased, but not as high as several others in my collection.

I do have a day job, so this review is based on a quick read of the book. Take that as you will.

R. Talsorian is known for the Cyberpunk RPG, a classic in the development of roleplaying games as a whole, though a game I’ve never played. The rules are derived from that system, though crafted to fit more particularly with the dark fantasy of The Witcher.

I will say this about the rules–they are sensible, and relatively easy to grasp in their various parts, but there is a complexity to them that makes me think, “Ugh. A fight’s going to take forever.” The attacker rolls for damage, the defender rolls to dodge, the difference between the numbers is compared to determine a hit or critical hit. Hit location is rolled. Damage and critical hit results are rolled (criticals make use of charts that vaguely remind me of The Riddle of Steel RPG and its successors). Those things are all great for creating a gritty feel for combat, but there are a number of ways that all that dice rolling for a single action could be made more efficient.

Still, if D&D is your go-to, I don’t think that you’ll find that this game plays slower than that. And, between the two, I’d take this combat system over D&D and its derivatives any day. It may have a lot of rolling, but its somewhat intuitive and at least interesting under its own mechanics. Sorry, I digress.

I will say, though, that tracking weapon endurance points is a bit much. It’s one thing to have weapons break at dramatic moments, or to have a system that encourages players to have their characters maintain their equipment, it’s another to have to knock off a point of reliability every time I use it to block (though there are exceptions that allow for blocking without sacrificing weapon endurance in certain circumstances).

The other gripe I have is not necessarily a gripe with the rules but a potential pitfall for any RPG that does this setting justice–players who have characters who are not witchers or mages may find themselves greatly overshadowed. Careful planning and discussion before a campaign begins may be warranted to ensure that players are all on the same page.

To me, a “regular” guy (to the extent that RPG player characters ever represent average people, even within the game world they occupy) forced to deal with monsters is perhaps more interesting than a witcher who does–Geralt excepted, mostly because I don’t believe it’s his being a mutant monster-killer that makes him most interesting.

The rulebook misleads on this front a little, I’m afraid. While continuously making clear that most monsters take half damage from non-magical or non-silver attacks, it seems implicit within the writing that the designers just don’t believe that non-witchers would ever have access to silver weapons. I just don’t find that plausible.

It should also be noted that the game is licensed from CD Projekt Red, and thus based on the video game Witcher 3 rather than the books directly. There are some optional rules to bring the game more in line with how things work in the books when that divurges from the game.

As for the look of the book: the layout and artwork are exceptional; the end result is surely a thing of beauty. Combined with fairly extensive background information on the world of The Witcher, I think that this book is a must-have even for a fan of the setting who doesn’t have any interest in roleplaying games.

But for those who do, the gamemaster section of the book has some excellent advice for gamerunners. There are plenty of roleplaying game books that are valuable in particular for their advice to the GM (and a growing number of books dedicated solely to that task), but this is a nice additional benefit.

The Witcher RPG releases at an interesting time, I think–the early draft of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition just dropped recently. Both are gritty fantasy settings full up with desperate surivors over heroes, where adventuring is not a glamorous or desireable profession. Both are intricate settings with deep history and a rabid fanbase. Both games have, I think, pretty similar levels of “crunch” to them (though, to be honest, I hate the terms “crunch” and “fluff” attributed to games). In other worlds, they fill the same niche, a more mature-by-design setting for fantasy games compared to D&D and other “epic” fantasy games.

Is the RPG market big enough for them both? On the one hand, I’m not sure that it matters. They’re both out and I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of supplements for The Witcher RPG (though I won’t mind being surprised). If history is any indication, WFRP4 will have more supplements than the biggest guy at the gym. Certainly, there are loads of high-fantasy games and no shortage of designers trying to make it with new ones (or their own particular flavor of OSR games, for that matter).

In some ways, The Witcher RPG reminds me of the Artesia: Adventures in the Known World rulebook, a RPG that uses a pre-existing-ruleset-that-is-fascinating-but-more-complex-than-I-really-want-to-run to bring to life a fantasy setting born out of traditional fiction that I very much love.

Given that, I expect that The Witcher RPG will fill a similar role in my collection–an RPG that is fun to read but that I’ll probably never run.

Shadowrun Cortex Prime, Part IV: Sorcery

For the previous post in this series, click here.

I’m admittedly skipping around here, but I thought that perhaps the next subject to tackle would be Magic in the Shadowrun/Cortex Prime hack. The way I figure it, some of you will determine whether the hack as a whole is worthwhile based on how I handle this topic (as well as the Matrix and Cyber-/Bioware). So I’ll try to save you some time in making that evaluation by somewhat frontloading that information (if Part IV can fairly be called frontloading).

Admittedly, I struggled a bit in figuring out what I thought was a good way to handle all of the aspects of Shadowrun magic (particularly sorcery and conjuration) in a single roll of dice, which is, of course, essential to the efficiency of the Cortex Prime system, one of the things that I love about it. In the end, I decided to resort to the following rule mod:

New Rule Mod: Multiple Effect Dice
Some tasks may require the use of multiple effect dice; these are marked with Limits denoting the additional required or optional uses of effect dice after the first. When additional effect dice are required or are optional, the failure to assign an effect die to one of those “slots” means there is no effect associated with that slot. In other words, effect dice that could be or must be assigned after the first do not get a free d4 effect if there is no die to assign to the slot. If the only effect die available is assigned to an optional slot, the character may receive the free d4 as the effect die for the primary slot.

This rule mod, I think, handles a number of issues, as you’ll see. It allows Drain to be addressed in the same roll that establishes the success of the spell (without resorting to Consequences, which I wanted to keep free) and gives those wizkids with plenty of dice to their pool something to do with those dice (while consquently putting some pressure on magic usage that has some mechanical “balancing” effect, I hope).

Sorcery
Sorcery is good, old-fashioned spell-slinging. Rather than resort to the categories of spells in the actual Shadowrun ruleset, I’ve elected a more flexible approach. Spells may be used to accomplish the following: make attacks, create/enhance/diminish assets or complications, or take actions to overcome obstacles. The following is always true of a use of Sorcery:

Dice Pool: The dice pool consists of an Approach (appropriate to the type of spell effect), the Sorcery skill, the character’s Magical aspect (to be discussed in a later post), any applicable assets, Signature Assets or specializations.

Inherent SFX/Limits:
Drain: A character using Sorcery takes either Stress or Trauma. If the primary effect die is equal to or less than the Magician’s Magic Aspect, the Drain is taken as Stress. If the primary effect die is greater than the Magician’s Magic Aspect, the Drain is taken as Trauma. The Magician may assign a second effect die to reduce the Drain suffered, reducing the Stress or Trauma by one step for each step in the die assigned (i.e., d4 = 1 step, d6 = 2 steps, etc.)
Additional Effects: Additional effects of spells should be created as Complications resulting from the defender’s roll. For instance, a fireball might set an enemy on fire.

Suggested Complications:
Auras: A magical afterglow remains in the wake of spells cast by a magician. Casting a spell can create an “Aura” Complication on the location that can be used by any character with Astral Perception to gain information about or track the character who cast the spell. The asset created is created in the usual manner of complications. The complication can be reduced by further sorcery or dissipates at one step per hour.
Side Effects: Unintended side-effects of spells–inspired by the spell’s true purpose, of course, make excellent Complications. Think of Harry Dresden accidentally setting fire to, well, lots of stuff when he uses combat magic (not the same setting, I know, but still a great example.

Sustaining Sorcery:
          Without the intervention of some additional force, a spell’s effects (but not the complications it produces) dies after the turn in which it is cast. Whether a particular spell can be sustained (attach spells should not be sustainable under most circumstanctes) is up to the GM, but the following are ways to extend a spell’s effect:
Concentration: 
A magician can sustain a spell through focus, keeping the spell active for as long as the magician suffers a “Concentration” Complication equal to the spell’s primary effect die. When the spell’s effect ends, so does the Complication.
Foci: a Sustaining Focus Signature Asset will sustain a spell effect equal to its rating. See Signature Assets.
Metamagic: The proper Metamagic can be used to sustain a spell effect. See Signature Assets.
Spirit Aid: A summoned spirit may sustain a spell effect up to its rating as a service. See Conjuration.

Counterspelling: By spending a turn defending his comrades from magical harm, a magician may allow nearby companions to add the magician’s Sorcery die to their rolls to defend against magical attacks or effects directed against them.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part III: Distinctions as Fate’s Aspects

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Distinctions in Cortex Prime already function in a similar manner to Fate’s Aspects. Both have the capacity to help a character: in Cortex Prime, an applicable Distinction that provides some advantage to a character is added to the player’s dice pool; in Fate the player may spend a Fate Point to “invoke” an Aspect and add +2 to a roll’s result. Likewise, both can provide a hinderance as well: a player in Cortex can use a Distinction to add a d4 to the opposing dice pool and gain a Plot Point; a player can compel an Aspect in Fate to have some inconvenient event occur to the character (or have the character make some decision that makes sense for the character but results in misfortune) to gain a Fate Point.

While I love the idea of Aspects in Fate, the use of the Fate Point Economy to drive them–the necessity of spending a Fate Point to invoke an Aspect in particular–has always irked me a bit. I must acknowledge that this is a personal issue and not really a design flaw of the Fate System. The Fate Point Economy provides some very desireable benefits: it gives some mechanical balance to the game, means that (as in conventional narrative) a character’s traits don’t always come into play, and, most important, it forces players to resort to compels to use their Aspects beneficially at later points. This last factor both helps the gamemaster in a narrative game by giving cues and assistance in driving the story forward with complications that are sensible and meaningful to the players and adds interesting, spontaneous and unexpected knots to the conflict that simply could not have been planned. It is this last factor, which meshes well with the Powered By the Apocalypse mantra that the GM should “play to see what the characters do” (or perhaps it’s “play to see what happens to the characters;” I don’t recall perfectly offhand), that I very much want to capture in my Cortex Prime Shadowrun ruleset.

By design, the Cortex Prime system sidesteps my complaints about Aspects and the Fate Point Economy–Cortex Prime’s Plot Points are used differently and are not required to invoke Distinctions under normal circumstances but still provide incentive for players to complicate the story by reference to their character’s Traits.

With a very simple modification, we can make Distinctions even more like Fate’s Aspects and underline a grittier tone for the game (perfect for cyberpunk, but probably at home in just about any setting I’d be wont to run a game in).

That modification is this: Instead of a d4, when a Distinction (which I’m going to go ahead and just call “Aspects” in the CP Shadowrun ruleset) is used to gain a Plot Point, that Distinction/Aspect adds its full die do the opposing pool. So, if I have the Aspect Street Samurai d10, it will sure give me that extra oomph to take down mooks like a hot knife through butter, but it also gives me an opportunity to make my supposed adherence to Bushido matter in the game.

I think that this practice also fits well with gritty fantasy (whether or not combined with cyberpunk a la Shadowrun). In fact, it reminds me greatly of heroes of Celtic myth–there’s always a weakness, always some downside that accompanies greatness. Players will (and should) think twice about whether they really want to have that Street Samurai d10 Aspect. Yep, it’ll help you be a combat monster, but is the cost ultimately worth it? This kind of mechanically-supported and inherent game balance goes a long way for me.

You’ll see more about how Aspects will be assigned (and change) when we get to conversations about character generation and growth. For now, though, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this relatively minor but far-reaching modification to the Cortex System.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part II: FAE Approaches in Cortex Prime

For the first post in this series, click here.

Rather than use Shadowrun’s attributes, I’ve opted to use Approaches as introduced in Fate Accelerated. There are several reasons for this choice. First, Approaches are exceedingly helpful to a gamemaster running a fiction-first type of game—by its very nature an Approach suggests potential Consequences and results of particular actions. Second, I think that Approaches provide more guidance for players about the characterization of their in-world persona. That a character favors a “Dynamic” approach over a “Covert” one tells us more about a character than a high Strength attribute and lower Agillity attribute does. There is a versatility to Approaches that, at some level, tells us how a character views the world, or at least how that character prefers to solve problems. And rolls in narrative fiction should be resorted to for resolving actions intended to solve particular problems more than anything else. Otherwise, narrate a result and move on.

There is a much-discussed downside to the use of Approaches—that some players will “Approach Spam,” arguing for the use of their highest-rated Approach for every action. This is narratively appropriate and realistic: as rational beings, humans prefer the path of least resistance, choosing to employ their best skills and aptitudes to solve their problems and only resorting to their weaker abilities when forced to by circumstance.

And this suggests the remedy to players who resort only to their “best” Approach: show them that “best” doesn’t mean “highest-rated.” Remind them that, just because you have a hammer and everything is starting to look like a nail, not everything is a nail and treating a non-nail as a nail can easily result in catastrophic consequences.

“Yes, Player, your character can use Dynamic to try talk his way out of a Lone Star vehicle search. But what does that look like? The Dynamic Approach is about force, sudden action, and overwhelming the problem. In a social context, I bet that looks like screaming and yelling, pretending to be crazy, or trying to scare your target into submission. Is that really how you want to deal with these Lone Star officers?”

Whether you have this kind of conversation and give the player a chance to change his mind or you let it ride and narrate consequences the player never considered is a matter of the style of the game you run.

The specific Approaches I’ll be using are as follows:

Covert

The Covert Approach emphasizes stealth and subtlety. This could              include “Hacking on the Fly,” “Spoofing,” and other Sleaze-type Matrix actions, dissembling and verbal deceit, infiltration, etc.

Expedient           

An Expedient Approach focuses on speed above all else, favoring clever tricks and finesse over brute force (which falls under the “Dynamic” Approach). Use Expedient whenever you are trying to act before another character or in the quickest manner possible.

Dynamic             

The Dynamic Approach represents the application of direct force—whether physical, social, Matrix, magical, etc. When the action relies on strength or direct confrontation with an obstacle (or person), the Dynamic Approach prevails.

Cunning              

An action using the Cunning Approach focuses on outmaneuvering and outwitting your opposition. Where Covert represents the lie with a straight face, Cunning is the mixture of half-truths and misinformation to confuse the opponent into belief. Where Dynamic represents the hardest, most aggressive response to an obstacle, Cunning relies on applying force to the target’s vulnerabilities for maximum effect. Where Expedient operates with a concern for speed, Cunning focuses on maximizing the end result without concern for the time it takes to get there.

Deliberate          

The Deliberate Approach takes its time, considering possibilities, using awareness and focus to reduce risk. Deliberate actions take more time but result in more predictable outcomes and fewer mistakes. When there are a million ways a task could go sideways and the “slow and steady” strategy seems best, choose a Deliberate Approach.

Daring                 

The Daring Approach relies on audacity, surprise, unpredictability and more than a little luck. Feats of debatable bravery and stupidity and unorthodox tactics use the Daring Approach. Examples might include: fast-talking or intimidating a security guard, charging headlong into a room spraying gunfire wildly, or winning a race by taking the more dangerous (but shorter) route.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun, Part I: Initial Rules Summary

I’m finding that I’ve got a lot of work to do in putting together the coherent and comprehensive guide for using Cortex Prime to run Shadowrun games that I’m currently working on. Because of this, I thought I’d provide some teasers of what I’ve got going on to tide you over some before I post the entire document.

What follows is a broad-strokes summary of some of the major rules selections I’ve made so far. The text is mostly taken word-for-word from the draft document for the ruleset, though I’ve made a few adjustments for clarity.

This is a work in progress, so questions and criticisms will help refine the end product!

Cortex Prime Rules Selection Summary

The following is a bullet-point summary of rules (or mod) choices that underpin the game:

• Prime Traits Sets are Approaches, Skills, Aspects, Assets and Specializations. Of course, temporary or scene-related Traits will also be included.

• SFX (and Limits) will be used. SFX are most often attached to Aspects and Assets. As will be explained below, this ruleset will make a distinction between Inherent SFX and Limits, which are automatically a part of certain Aspect or Asset choices, and Permissive SFX and Limits, which may be selected by characters in character creation or character advancement. Additionally, this ruleset uses Hardwired SFX and Limits, which are SFX and Limits that are always in play and applicable to certain situations. Hardwired SFX are described below and used primarily to translate some of the important setting ideas of the Shadowrun Universe to the Cortex Prime System—things like the difference between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality while hacking.

• Character Injury is tracked by stress (called Shock) and trauma (called, coincidentally enough, Trauma). Per the Prime rules, this supersedes the “High Stakes” action rules. See the “Damage and Injury” Section below for more information.

• Characters are created through the “Priority Chart,” described in “Character Creation,” below.

• Plot Points are referred to as Edge when in the hands of players and Threat when in the hands of the GM. Edge and Threat are generated per the standard Prime rules except that the “Using d4 in your roll rule” to gain Edge is changed to the “Use Aspect as Complication” rule described in the “Custom Rules” section.

• The Test-Created Assets Mod is used.

• None of the Prime “Plot Point Mods” is used. Plot Points are stored in the Bank.

• Characters improve through the “Session Histories” rules.

• The standard “Effect Die” rules are used.

• Standard “Random Difficulty” Opposition is used.

“Custom” Rules

• This ruleset uses Ryan Macklin’s ideas for “Dice Cracking,” mostly during character creation. Under this rule, a die may be “cracked” into two stepped-down dice, i.e. a d8 can be used as 2d6. During character creation, this allows for more highly-skilled but specialized builds, jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none builds, and a number of steps in between.

• As mentioned above, additional rules involving SFX and Limits are used—Inherent SFX and Limits allow the feel of certain aspects of Shadowrun to be incorporated inherently into certain power sets. Additionally, Hardwired SFX and Limits help to reinforce the setting.

• Rather than Distinctions, this ruleset uses Aspects. Aspects are treated much like Aspects in Fate RPG—they may be added to a player’s dice pool when the Aspect is beneficial, or the player may gain 1 Edge by adding the die to the opposition dice pool when the Aspect hurts the character. Aspects may have dice of any step rather than always being relegated to the d8 of Distinctions, but because the same die is rolled in negative situations (rather than a d4), having a higher Aspect cuts both ways. The intent of this rule is (other than using Aspects from Fate) to play up the gritty and noir-ish feel of Shadowrun (where characters are often their own worst enemies) and to mechanically reinforce the narrative description of a character’s important qualities. Aspects may have SFX associated with them, but none are Inherent.

Rules Versus Rulings: Failing Forward, Difficulty and Gaming Theory in Mechanics

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently been running Apocalypse World (and have also run several sessions now of its derivative Dungeon World). Meanwhile, I’ve been (re-)reading the 7th Sea 2nd Edition rules, and this has got me to thinking, as I’m wont to do, about RPG game theory and design in general and what sorts of selections and conceits I might use myself in designing my own ruleset (particularly for Avar Narn).

The first pen and paper RPG I played was the old West End d6 Star Wars RPG. This was in late elementary school—well before I had much thought on system mechanics at all. My later youth was spent with the White Wolf games (Old and New WoD), with my perennial favorite, Shadowrun, and reading through—but never actually playing—Rolemaster. Surprisingly (and this is another story for another time), I didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons until college (aside from one abortive attempt at a game of AD&D during a Boy Scout campout).

Most of the games I played or was familiar with growing up were heavy on the crunch, with far more rules than were strictly necessary. As I’ve GMed more and more games, I’ve come to look for “Goldilocks” games that have just the right about of rules, erring on the lighter side. I try to read all sorts of rules for design ideas, but there are many I just would not run a game of. I really like Burning Wheel, for example—it has a depth to it that builds genre and atmosphere. At the end of the day, though, I would never run BW—I have too many minor nitpicks with the system (“scripting” combat for example) and don’t want to have to use that many rules.

As I’ve also mentioned in other posts, I’m quite a fan of the Fate ruleset and of Cortex Plus, though, as I’ll explain, I certainly have my concerns and gripes about these rules as well (I can’t say I’m ever completely satisfied by a ruleset, which is probably why I spend the amount of time I do thinking about RPG rules).

But this post is not really about the rules “lightness” or “crunchiness” of gaming systems. Nor is it about the “GNS” debate—which, while a useful construct for thinking about designs, probably shouldn’t have the level of concern about it that it does.

What I want to talk about instead is how much the metaphysics of gaming (or, more appropriately, design priorities and theories about rulesets) should be hard-coded into the rules of a game. Which returns us to the Apocalypse World Engine/PbtA games and the second edition of 7th Sea. I’ve heard both John Wick and Vincent Baker called pretentious by gamers for their approach to games, but if they’re pretentious, I’d be happy to be in their company all the same.

Baker’s games (not just Apocalypse World but also the excellent game that I’d never actually play Dogs in the Vineyard) and Wick’s new edition of 7th Sea are emblematic of a late trend in roleplaying games—games that know what they want to be and are unabashed about it. It’s not simply that these games are “rules-lighter” or more narratively focused, it’s that they are built on specific design principles.

I don’t want to confuse (in fact, quite the opposite is the point of this post) the theory of running a game and the theory behind mechanical choices. Baker’s agenda for Apocalypse World (barf forth apocalyptica, view every NPC through crosshairs, etc.) is not the same as his design theory.

Here’s a design principle used by both 7th Sea and AW that has become something of a byword in design lately: “fail forward.” This idea behind fail forward is that every action, success or failure, should move the story forward. Another way to put this is “no whiffs.” A statement that “you fail,” by itself doesn’t progress the story and just isn’t interesting. Adding a complication as a consequence of failure, or interpreting failure on the dice as “success at a cost” does and is.

Mechanically, this is hard-wired in both Apocalypse World and 7th Sea. The very resolution mechanic of AW provides various costs for failure and presents a result range that is specifically “success at a cost.” 7th Sea has a sidebar about the lack of a Dodge skill—because simply dodging and being missed isn’t fun or exciting (by the theory of the game). In 7th Sea, your approach is to use obstacles, climb the walls, defend yourself with your weapon, throw sand in the enemy’s eyes and otherwise create exciting and innovative maneuvers to avoid being struck—maneuvers that likely manipulate the environment in addition to stopping an attack, thus pulling double duty.

Having run AW and Dungeon World, I will say that the system’s mechanics do push the story inexorably forward, giving the GM a chance to complicate the story without having to prepare this in advance. My reading of 7th Sea seems to indicate a similar drive, with the additional qualifier that the generation and spending of Raises in that system creates a sort of bargaining system where failure and its consequences are not accidental. As an aside, I strongly suspect but cannot confirm that the Raise system used by 7th Sea drew heavily on Vincent Baker’s dice-bidding in Dogs in the Vineyard.

While some form of “fail forward” mechanic could be converted into use with any RPG’s core mechanic, the question I ask myself is whether this is necessary. In a Dungeons and Dragons game, a skilled GM can do the same thing without needing a mechanic for it—“Your sword strikes true but shatters against the mail of your enemy. Roll your damage and count your sword as a dagger from now on.” Success at cost. On a bad lockpicking test: “You manage to pick the lock, but the time it takes you to do so means that you’re exposed for too long—a guard notices you just as you slip through the door.” If you look, this idea, this reluctance to mechanically codify the theory of roleplaying into hard rules is at the heart of the OSR—you’ll see many OSR players say something like “Yeah, that’s the way we’ve always done it. That’s why 3rd, 4th and 5th edition move in the wrong direction—too many rules and not enough flexibility for the players and GM.”

To add to this, Apocalypse World reverses this pattern with the difficulty of tasks. In “traditional” games, like D&D, there are rules to modify the probability of success by shifting the target number for a skill roll—a mechanical effect for the narrative difficulty of a task. In Apocalypse World (and derivative games), the GM is supposed to narrate the outcome of the roll based on the narrative difficulty of the task without ever changing the percentage chance of success. The GM simply determines that a success means less for a difficult action than it would for an easier one, or, conversely, that failure means more for a difficult action than for an easier one.

It’s in this reversal, I think, that we find something we can latch onto in this discussion. Either approach (with either “fail forward” or difficulty) works; even though there’s something that intuitively bothers me about static difficulty numbers, I have to admit that I don’t think either me or my players notice it when running a game. At the same time, I’m wholeheartedly unwilling to admit that system doesn’t matter; it most certainly does, and this discussion is probably, more than anything, my argument for that fact.

That’s because the choice of mechanics you include in an RPG ruleset tells players and GMs what’s important about the game and establishes that ever-intangible “feel” of a system. This goes well beyond, “a game about pirates without any ship rules has a problem,” though the scope of the rules you include in the ruleset and the areas you leave to GM interpretation is part of the same equation.

Let’s look at editions of D&D, for instance. Early editions of Dungeons and Dragons were, in many ways, closer to Dungeon World than later ones. Admittedly, with only that one attempt at pre-3rd edition D&D I’m relying on “scholarly understanding” instead of experience, but the whole “rulings not rules” idea that we hear about—particularly from the OSR diehards (no aspersions cast)—is based in the idea that the rules provided a framework to support the narrative, allowing for creative problem-solving. As D&D “matured,” the agglutination of rules brought about a focus on knowing the ruleset to exploit it and on complex character-planning (mechanically) rather than the creative and explorative wonder of the early game. 5th edition has attempted to go back toward the beginning, but with competitors like 13th Age, 7th Sea, Dungeon World, the entire OSR, Shadows of the Demon Lord, Barbarians of Lemuria and even more “universal games” like Fate and Cortex Plus, I’m not sure that there’s any going back—for me, at least.

Of course, there will always be a place for players who want massive libraries of rules like Pathfinder has constructed (aspersions cast this time). I’ll admit that I enjoy reading Pathfinder rulebooks because they are full of interesting ideas shoved into rules, but I’m sure that, if I’d ever run Pathfinder, I ignore 95% of the rules, probably throwing out some of the baby with the bathwater (not my best analogy). So, what’s the point?

But I’ve diverged from point here, rambling again about rules-heaviness rather than design choices (this, I fear, is representative of many of the gaming theory discussions I’ve seen lately—they’re about how “crunchy” a system should be overall—or how much it should cater to each aspect of GNS theory—rather than what the point of this or that particular rule is).

Again, this allows me to circle back to 7th Sea and PbtA. These are systems that know what they want to be and the mechanics push the game to fit the niche the designer(s) had in mind. Agree with those design choices or not, I have to have a lot of respect for that. The static difficulty system in Apocalypse World tells players and GM that consequences and results are more important than difficulties—we’re telling collective stories that are exciting and fast-paced rather than attempting to simulate a fantasy world in excessive detail. This merges well with the PbtA position that the GM should be playing “to find out what happens” as much as the players are—if the GM doesn’t have influence over difficulty numbers, the GM has less narrative control for railroading players and is therefore freer to play “to find out.” Here, the rules influence the style of the game.

Similarly, the (new) 7th Sea system, with its generating and spending Raises for narrative effects (whether in scenes of action or drama) supports the narrative feel of the game. Having been watching the BBC Musketeers (why so much leather?) at the same time as reading 7th Sea, I can’t but conclude that the RPG does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the show, which itself is of course drawing upon the tide of swashbuckling adventure in the works of Dumas and others. The rules support the game the designer wants you to play. I cannot wait to run a 7th Sea game. One question remains for me, though: could the new 7th Sea rules just as effectively run a game in the style of Black Sails? I think so, but I’m not quite sure.

Not to rag too much on D&D, but the major problem I have with that game—the conglomerate of my distaste for Vancian magic, classes, levels, etc.—is that the rules become the setting of Dungeons and Dragons, rather than the setting influencing the rules. We can talk about gamer nostalgia or market demand as causes of these things, and I’ll concede there’s some truth to that, but in the end I’m just of the opinion that a good RPG ruleset facilitates the underlying (and overarching—it’s that important) narrative rather than forcing a narrative to conform.

To make clear that this is not about the “rules heaviness” of D&D (whatever your position on that might be), let me look at a “crunchier” game that accomplishes something similar to 7th Sea and PbtA: The One Ring.

Having run a small set of adventures in The One Ring, I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness of the rules in evoking the feel of Tolkien’s world rather than adding Tolkienesque elements to a setting that’s really higher fantasy. The Journey rules in TOR are probably the best I’ve ever seen—a brilliant mix of zooming in and out of the narrative to make journeys important and exciting rather than tedious or the entire focus of the game. As I’ve said before, I think the aspect of journeying in the wilderness is vastly underrated in both roleplaying games and the fantasy genre as a whole.

Additionally, the battle mechanics for TOR require players to work as a team—an archer can’t be an archer without front-line fighters to protect him; the positioning of player characters, while abstract enough to not require tokens, minis or a map, still has a tangible tactical influence on a fight (since the difficulty to hit or be hit is determined by position within the party). This is not the careless, reckless heroics of other games (7th Sea and Dungeon World perhaps included), this evokes the sense of a dangerous world where people survive through teamwork and fellowship.

Here’s the insight I glean from the long thinking-out-loud above: those concepts that are core to the principles of design adopted for a roleplaying game probably ought to be hard-wired into the mechanics themselves. At the same time, some concepts—fail forward, for instance—are just good advice for how GMs run their games. Do they need to be incorporated into the rules? No. Does it say something specific about the game when they are? Absolutely.

If, like me, you’d really like to create a marketable RPG, whether independent of or in conjunction with a setting you intend to write fiction in, I’d suggest you start with these questions: “What is this game about? What is it trying to be? How should it make players and GM feel?”

The answers to those questions may help answer what kinds of rules your game needs, how they should work, and—most important—why they work the way they do. This sense of purpose is the only way I know of to cut through the analysis paralysis of the infinite possibilities of game design and to avoid simply stealing concepts that worked for other games.

RPG Review: Apocalypse World, 2nd Edition (and Description of Play)

I’ve known about the “World” games for quite some time; I’ve had a digital copy of Dungeon World wasting away in a forgotten corner of my iPad for years. But it wasn’t until this past week that I really gave the system the attention it deserved.

I had picked up Dungeon World not to run it, but because I’d heard that it was a “must know” for aspiring game designers. I’m constantly toying with ideas for RPG systems, and while I’ve never completed a ruleset I’d be proud to publish, I’m getting a little closer each time I think. So, with the idea that I had some things to learn from the illustrious Vincent Baker, I decided to take another look.

I purchased and began to read the second edition of Apocalypse World, the game that started it all, so to speak. Having read (but never played) Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, I knew going in that there was a powerful mind engaged in building profound storytelling games behind the work.

In the past, I’d only really skimmed Dungeon World, and it seemed too fast and loose for my tastes. Then again, I grew up playing Shadowrun, d20 and World of Darkness games and reading and re-reading the Rolemaster books, so my definition of fast and loose was itself pretty fast and loose.

In reading Apocalypse World, I was surprised to find a system that was deceptively tight, with rules determined to incessantly advance the story at all costs. Even more than Fate, one of my favorite systems over the past few years, this game is designed from the ground up to play out fiction-first games that put the characters at the heart of the narrative and keep them there. The examples of action—which I found to be believable portrayals of the rules in effect—reminded me constantly of a well-written and run television show—say Deadwood or Game of Thrones. The cast of characters is connected to the setting in ways that inevitably draw them into conflict, which is, of course, the essence of plot.

I don’t mean to say that Apocalypse World is a perfect system; there’s not such a thing. But AW does fit a certain playstyle very well, a playstyle that resonates with me. I like reading roleplaying games—they’re often great sources for both mechanics to adapt to other systems and setting ideas to explore in games or writing. But there are few that, upon a first read, make me want to go out and play the game as soon as possible. AW is one of those systems.

As a word of minor warning: if you’re not familiar, AW has some narrative space dedicated to sex, particularly the way sex influences relationships between characters and drives plot. Each character class gets or gives certain bonuses for having sex with other characters (with an explicit focus on these relationships developing between player characters). I fully appreciate the power of sex in the human psyche (and therefore as a motivating or driving force within fiction) and don’t consider myself prudish by any means, but the prospect of weaving a subject so fraught with sticky wickets into a tabletop game with my friends is daunting and doesn’t appeal. In the one game I’ve run so far, I’ve tried to take a middle ground in establishing that there are some sexual/romantic relationships between PCs and NPCs to get some plot mileage out of these connections but leaving the prurient details (well, most of the details, really) to remain in the background.

I give the warning above because some players and readers might be turned off (no pun intended, I suppose) by this content in the game. If that’s the case, and who could blame someone if it is, my recommendation is to ignore all the “sex stuff” and run the game without incorporating the rules dedicated to that aspect of the game. As is typical of any narrative or roleplaying game that addresses mature subjects, it’s best for the group to decide where the boundaries of those subjects lie by adapting the boundary established by the most sensitive player to the subject. This is just good teamwork, and a good roleplaying experience requires teamwork.

Which leads me to one of my favorite aspects of this system—it is collaborative between the gamemaster (called the Master of Ceremonies or MC) and the players in a truly effective way. The MC asks questions to be answered by the players and incorporates those into the story. This takes some of the improvisational and preparatory burden off of the MC (though an MC not comfortable with generating story on the fly should approach this game with caution) and gives the players some real skin in the game, with characters who have established ties to the setting influenced if not created by their own ideas and storytelling interests.

You can find plenty of reviews that detail how the rules play, so I’m going to skip that and talk more about the “feel” of the game.

I very quickly suckered some friends into trying the system out, so we set up a time yesterday to meet, make characters and start playing. Here’s how it went:

The game strongly discourages significant work on the MC’s part to “plan” game sessions and sets things up so that the MC is also “playing to find out what happens.” The prep I did was as follows: First, I created a few basic setting details—the game takes place in the Greater Houston area and the Apocalypse that happened about fifty years ago: (1) had nothing to do with nuclear annihilation and (2) involved massive sea level rise, making parts of downtown Houston look akin to Venice and completely submerging Galveston and some parts east of the downtown area (I looked at several map projections for climate change and sea level rise to get a feel for this). That said, I didn’t fully define the reasons behind or events of the Apocalypse—I’ll play to find out the details as they get created, just like the players. Second, I created a list of apocalyptic-sounding names to use for characters (the rulebook advises that the MC should “name every NPC” and make them feel like real living people). I printed the rules references and the playbooks for characters. I created an “Apocalypse World” playlist in iTunes with some movie soundtracks, a mix of hard rock, blues, Tom Waits, Nine Inch Nails and other seemingly-appropriate artists. I watched about two-thirds of The Book of Eli and about a third of Doomsday to collect ideas for—as the game puts it—“barfing forth apocalyptica.”

My players arrived around 11:00 to make characters. I’d set them during the week to thinking about the different playbooks/classes and what they might want to play. The choose The Angel (a medic-type), The Chopper (a biker-gang leader, think Clay Morrow or Jax from Sons of Anarchy), The Hardholder (the leader of a community, this reminds me somewhat of characters in Jericho but even more of Al Swearingen in Deadwood), The Brainer (a psychic with mind-control and mind-reading powers) and The Maestro D’ (the owner of a bar or entertainment establishment, the closest thing I can think of offhand, unfortunately, is Peter Baelish and his brothel in Game of Thrones).

There are a few things for each character to define and describe in that character’s playbook—The Chopper makes some decisions about the edges and flaws his gang has, The Hardholder defines some of the advantages of and threats to the hardhold, etc. I followed up on this by asking pointed questions and letting the players answer however they wished. For instance, we determined that the Chopper had once had someone betray the gang, the one rule they cannot abide being broken. But instead of killing the underling to make an example of him, The Chopper beat him badly and banished him. Instant villain—the banished character, who we named Ajax, has recently returned with a small army at his heels to get revenge.

We established that the hardhold is a rusted-out tanker ship washed fairly far inland by a tsunami, with Lita’s (the Maestro D’s bar) in the lowest deck and the upper decks providing the habitations, workspaces and other necessaries of the hardhold. This followed with the creation of some nearby settlements with whom the Hold (as the hardhold was quickly named) had tenuous relationships—a pseudo-feudal community producing much of the areas fuel and ammunition and a matriarchal society of slavers. Further questions established some history and relationships between the characters.

And away we went. Since the players had determined that the Hold had a bustling market for trade, that gave me a starting place—an injured caravaner arrived to explain how she and her fellows had been ambushed and robbed on a western road toward the Hold, territory The Hardholder was responsible for protecting. While The Maestro D’ stayed back to manage the hold (well, mostly her bar), the other characters road out in force, taking The Chopper’s entire gang, half to the Hardholder’s guards and several armored vehicles. They too were ambushed, though they fared much better than the caravan—only one of The Chopper’s men was injured by sniper-fire before the crew was able to eliminate the hostiles—too well, as explosive rounds left little to investigate about the nature and origin of the attackers except for a cryptic tattoo found on a remaining arm.

I’d like to pause here for a moment to point something out. This fight ran fast and smooth, with the characters making tactical decisions based on what they’d tactically do rather than looking to their character sheets for permission. There was the aforementioned enemy sniper, RPGs (that’s the other kind—rocket-propelled grenades), dragging the wounded to cover, exchanging fire from a mounted gun, near misses against the characters and more, with the whole thing taking less than five minutes.

Combat in AW (or any “World” game, as far as I know) doesn’t use initiative, with the MC just bouncing back and forth between players as narratively appropriate. Since the players roll all the dice, the MC only has to initiate a “move” and have the players roll to respond when the NPCs are doing something more than reacting to PC actions.

As an aside, I noticed that this is how combat was run in the “not-Pathfinder” game depicted in the show Harmon Quest—in a half-hour episode, quick combat is essential! Like D&D, it takes players who are either willing to do something non-traditional or unfamiliar enough with the system not to notice to pull something like this off, but I think it’s much preferred to the “classic” tactical combat of D&D or games like Shadowrun.

I have to admit that, when running RPGs, I sometimes find ways to shy away from fights because of rules that make them play out laboriously, slowly and without much excitement. AW does RPG fights right—the rules push the narrative of the fight but remain effectively in the background while allowing for narrative details to immerse the players and add nuance to the fight that just aren’t well captured in simulationist mechanics.

The players had determined that the ship had a functioning radio suite, one that was used both for communication with other settlements and for entertaining radio broadcasts. When the players had eliminated one “lead” to advance the plot I simply offered another—they began to pick up a new broadcast on the ship radios, one that sounded very much like a religious cult.

Once they’d returned to the Hold, I pushed more MC moves to advance things—an assassination attempt on the Hardholder, sabotaging of the ship’s power generation, the leaders of the other holds disclaiming responsibility, hard deals to track down the new cult—only to find out that it was a splinter sect and not the cult proper responsible for the attacks, etc.

It’s a general RPG axiom to never “split the party.” AW often encourages just this, and the Maestro D’ was working contacts in the Hold while the Chopper and his men went patrolling for other ambushers and the Hardholder, the Angel and the Brainer went on a diplomatic mission to secure help from the matriarchal hardhold. Because the action of the game carries forward pretty naturally, presents new twists and ideas to the story and allows the MC to not get bogged down in the resolution of events, there was no perceived difficulty at jumping back and forth between various scenes and characters. Unlike many games I’ve run, where players zone out when not actively involved in a scene, the players listened intently to the other player’s actions and scenes, wanting like the rest of us to find out what happens next.

The system is not fast and loose; it supports rather than controls a quick-pace of narrative and action. Just as with writing traditional fiction, pacing is important in roleplaying games and the narrative demands should control pacing more than mechanics—particularly overly-complex ones.

In all, not counting a pizza break, we played for a total of five hours. I haven’t played a single roleplaying session that long since I was in college, and never with so little preparation beforehand.

I loved Apocalypse World—mainly for the usefulness of the rules and the collaborative approach to plot and setting. In all honesty, I could probably take or leave the apocalyptic setting itself. Fortunately, there are tons of “hacks” for AW (Dungeon World, tremulus, Urban Shadows, Uncharted Worlds, just to name a few) and hacking one’s on setting or version of AW seems pretty easy to do. I certainly haven’t tested the system to its limits and breaking points yet (all systems have them), but I feel like even a single session of the game has greatly improved both my GMing chops and my game design toolbox. I highly recommend it for casual gamers, dyed-in-the-wool narrativists (though I don’t buy too hard in GNS theory) and would-be game designers; there’s a lot to sort through here in a tight and somewhat condensed ruleset.

RPGs for Writers, Part I

This topic comes to mind because I’m currently spending a good deal of time writing short stories for the world of Avar Narn and have also just started GMing a roleplaying game in the same setting.

I’ve always had a love for both roleplaying games and for writing, and I’m convicted that my experience in one medium has influenced (if not shaped) the other. If, like me, you’d like to be a professional writer–particularly, but not exclusively, in the fantasy or sci-fi genres, I highly recommend that running roleplaying games becomes part of your curriculum of self-education. The reasons are myriad, videlicet:

Roleplaying Games Have Heavily Influenced the Modern Fantasy Genre

When watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, I amusedly observed a certain dialectic that had formed between Tolkien’s works and Dungeons and Dragons (and also the Warhammer Fantasy setting). D&D most certainly drew heavy inspiration from Tolkien (though a look at Gygax’s Appendix N shows that that’s far from the only source). The idea of pointy-eared elves, stubborn dwarves (or dwarfs, if you prefer) and long overland quests all originated in Middle-Earth but found a new home in D&D and its derivatives. Likewise, Games Workshop’s much-beloved Old World setting of Warhammer Fantasy began as an close spin-off of Tolkien, and closely associated with Dungeons and Dragons as well (Citadel miniatures where sculpted and cast for D&D use before they ever had their own setting and style).

In the past few decades, D&D (and again, Warhammer) has become as much a part of mainstream culture as Tolkien has (look to Stranger Things or the fact that D&D got its own movies–however awful they might have been). The tropes of D&D now often stand alone, indebted to but moved beyond the original source material J.R.R. provided.

And so, in a strange reversal, I find several points in Jackson’s films that seem to be inspired far more by the over-the-top “epic” fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons than by the rather low-magic setting of The Lord of the Rings books. A few examples: stone giants attacking one another as the Dwarves and Bilbo  traverse the mountains, Legolas skating down the trunk of an oliphaunt, the boar-riding in the Battle of Five Armies and some of the action-oriented scenes involving Tauriel (who is far more a product of modern gaming than of Tolkien).

What this tells me is that fantasy roleplaying and wargaming have become so ingrained in (at least gamer-) culture that we know look back to the original inspirations (Tolkien, Vance, Lord Dunsany, George McDonald) through the lens of the tropes and ideas of these more-modern creations.

It’s not just the fantasy genre where roleplaying games have had a hand in shaping pop culture. The horror game Vampire: The Masquerade had its own TV series in the 90’s (called Kindred: The Embraced and produced through Aaron Spelling’s production company–find a copy if you can!) and certainly has had a hand in the 21st century vomitorium of vampire novels, TV shows and movies (True Blood, Twilight, etc.).

My point is this: to borrow a quotation from The Music Man, “You have to know the territory!” I’d wager that there are more people who have played D&D than who have read The Name of the Wind or Mistborn: The Final Empire, though both are of a vastly-higher literary quality than any RPG I’ve run or played. There is a certain fantasy mindset that D&D and other games engenders that leaves people with certain expectations (R.A. Salvatore’s sold a lot of books, after all). I’m not encouraging you to emulate the tropes of D&D in your own fantasy works (for the love of God, please don’t!), but you need to know what readers’ expectations and assumptions might be so that you can prey on them (in a completely benign literary sense, of course).

Practice Makes Perfect

In my experience, there are few harsher critics than nerds, and that’s a good thing. Every one of us has our own ideas about what tropes, genres and ideas are cool (or kewl) and which are lame. I love it when nerds find ways to call one another out: “You like Star Trek? How lame! There’s only Firefly.”

Practicing storytelling in front of a tough audience will help you to hone your skills, and RPGs provide a prime opportunity for this. Serious roleplayers (and a discussion of serious versus casual roleplayers merits its own post–but let’s say for now that both are categories are full of respected and valued people) will call you out (or complain behind your back, which is always easy to check on) if your characters are flat or your plot is full of holes. Even those players who prefer to avoid confrontation (in real life–they often play some of the bloody-mindedest characters!) will be happy to help you improve your skills if you ask.

And, as we’ll further discuss below, running a roleplaying game is a very different animal from writing a story on a page. Notice that I called it “storytelling” above–GMing a game is storytelling without the same rigor of grammar, syntax and style of the written text (although it is full of its own set of nuance and stylistic conventions).

I’m a firm believer that style and substance are inseparable in writing (particularly in fiction, when words must evoke a feeling or atmosphere as much as describe events, people and places), but that doesn’t mean that improving the substance by itself–which is possible in some ways at least in the RPG medium–won’t make your writing better as a whole.

Working on the Building Blocks

Outlining a plot for written fiction is a tough task. Making sure you don’t leave any gaps or loose ends, that the narrative flows up and down in drama and tension and that both the logic of events and the characters move in believable ways prove daunting, to say the least.

What can help with that? Having developed characters whose own motivations and personalities suggest the plot and push the story to its conclusion through seemingly-inevitable (but often surprising) actions. Well developed settings that intrude upon the narrative, providing both obstacles and the means to overcome them. Situations that arise organically from the nuance of the setting, creating plot hooks. And, of course, sometimes it comes to a whole lot of creative pondering, brainstorming and working back and forth through the plot as currently written.

Skillfully creating characters, setting and ideas for the beginnings of a story before attempting to sketch out a plot is more efficient (and artistically successful) than starting with a plot and pigeonholing characters and events into it.

As a (good) GM, what are you responsible for: creating memorable characters in an evocative setting and letting the plot develop organically (and often chaotically) out of the intervening actions of the player characters. In other words, creating all of the building blocks for a strong plot and then letting it go, responsively building events and scenes from the characters’ preceding actions.

This is difficult to do at all, much less to do well. But so is writing, and you didn’t decide you wanted to take up writing because you thought it would be easy and relaxing. You decided to take it up because it’s demanding and rewarding and, dammit, you’ll explode if you don’t get some of your ideas out of you and onto paper.

Creative Juices

Because the plot of an RPG develops through the back-and-forth between players and GM, you can only go in with strong building blocks (characters and setting) and a vague idea of plot direction, because no plan will survive contact with the enemy–er, players. The spontaneity demanded of a good GM means that you will have to develop your ability to improvise, synthesize and dramatize quickly and meaningfully. If you become able to do those things well on the fly, just think about your abilities when you’ve got time to sit down and slowly develop and rework a story.

Alongside this, the worldbuilding aspect of roleplaying is, potentially, far more extensive than it is for typical fiction. Tolkien’s example aside, the fiction writer really only has to do enough worldbuilding as will appear “on-screen.” You only need as much culture as will influence the plot and characters, as much geography as suits the story, as much depth as bolsters the fourth wall.

This is not true of a roleplaying game. If your characters wander to the edge of the map (or, more likely, the edge of the scene) and find blank space, they’ve lost all sense of immersion, and the most important aspect of a profound roleplaying experience has been lost–probably never to be recovered. Because of player agency, you need to know what is (or at least, what could and what could not be) on the other side of that hill, what the heretofore unnamed NPC’s life is like if the characters somehow decide he’s more important than you originally intended, what the foreign cultures that the players’ characters may hail from are like. Your worldbuilding has to be far more complete, because the players are not sitting captive in a movie theater exposed only to what appears on the screen–they are holding the camera and may turn it unexpectedly at a whim.

Is deeper worldbuilding always better? No, not necessarily. If you’re writing a standalone story based more on an idea than a setting, it’s probably a waste of time to go into the kind of detail a roleplaying setting demands. But, on the other hand, if the setting itself is part of the fiction you want to weave, why not become adept at doing the thing right?

Go to Amazon and search for books on worldbuilding. If you search well, you’ll find far more books written for roleplaying games with deep discussions of worldbuilding than those for writers. More to the point, you’ll often find the works with “games” in mind deeper and more developed than those with “literature” in mind. This is admittedly changing as Tolkien-esque worldbuilding (along with fantasy map-making and conlanging) becomes more mainstream, though I’d argue that this is another facet of my first point, that roleplaying games have pushed certain aspects of fantasy to the forefront.

A Feel for Narrative

There are plenty of books on “proper” narrative structure. You can find formulae for stories in any kind of genre you can imagine. Plenty of theorists or writers will tell you that there’s only a limited number of dramatic situations (sometimes so few you can count them on fingers and toes) that get recycled from story to story.

Theory is well and good, and I don’t intend to argue with any particular formula or convention here. However, there’s more to plot than the mechanics of dramatic beats and intervening beats, of a rising action and a denouement. The best narrative is like a rollercoaster–it goes up and down, sometimes twists suddenly to the side, gathers momentum or slows, and sometimes, just sometimes, curls back on itself or hangs upside down.

There are even successful stories that in many ways should be described as lacking a plot–Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, for instance.

Of course, roleplaying games without plots really don’t work except for players fastidiously (perhaps narcissistically) concerned with their own characters. The point is really that plot must be felt as much as coldly planned.

Running a roleplaying game (well) requires the development of a keen sense of narrative structure, when to rise, when to fall, when to zig and zag. This relies on a sense of mood and audience as much as “rules” of plot.

Sometimes Rules Help to Control the Fun

By this, I do not mean that a novelist should create roleplaying statistics for all his characters and then have them roll against each other to determine how the plot moves. But, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, a lack of consistency can destroy the suspension of disbelief.

Rules in (good) roleplaying games are designed specifically for consistency–to constrain the possible results and ensure that two similar situations have similar odds of resolving in various possible ways. For a game, this is in part a matter of “fairness,” though the best roleplaying games (I find, and so does John Wick–the game designer and roleplayer, not the Keanu Reeves hitman) are patently unfair in ways that mimic real life (and may or may not be codified within the rules). Regardless of origin, though, the consistency of the rules contributes to the consistency of the world, which contributes to willing suspension of disbelief. Nobody likes a hypocrit; even fewer people like a hypocritical fiction.

The “mundane” rules necessary to roleplaying games are unnecessary in fiction writing–logic can help a writer determine when a character dies of thirst without the need to roll dice or consult charts. On the other hand, certain aspects of speculative fiction–particularly systems of magic and superscience–can benefit from a codified rulesystem that ensures consistency. This does not mean that the fiction writer needs to create a mathematical resolution system for these aspects of a fantasy story, but the principles of creating a well-realized and consistent magic system for written fiction and a workable magic system for a roleplaying game overlap so significantly that experience handling one will certainly help with the other. Speaking from experience, the complex systems of magic in the Avar Narn setting are deeply nuanced and influenced by my own inspirations from and criticisms of magic as portrayed both in fiction and in RPGs (I’m looking at you, D&D; your magic is stupid and lacks the fantastic).

Jim Butcher, author of the wildly successful Dresden Files, helped translate his fictional magic system into RPG rules through the FATE-powered Dresden Files RPG. Given his frequent references to roleplaying games in the novel, it’s clear he’s a fan, so I can’t help but wonder if his roleplaying experiences shaped the way he thought about magic for his setting.

To rag on D&D (and its derivatives) again in this section, sometimes a roleplaying game can tell you how not to structure your world. From a standpoint of game design, I have a lot of bones to pick with Dungeons & Dragons (level- and class-based systems, character growth based on violence, etc.), but the worst of it is that (probably more through players’ fault than the games’ writers) the rules of D&D are usually scene as the physics of the work, rather than the rules attempting to model the physics of a fictional world. What I mean by this is that, if the rules say that something is possible, or even vaguely imply that things should work in a certain way, or the history of those rules carries with it such an implication, then some players assume that the rule trumps all logic and narrative coherence. Hence jokes of leveling up by pouring boiling water on an ant mound (millions of 1XP kills, right?) and far less funny arguments between player and GM about the results of some seemingly ludicrous action supported by the black-letter reading of the rules. This experience may be an artifact of my own biases and agenda when running a roleplaying game, but D&D does seem to be susceptible to this occurrence more than any other game I’ve ever run.

Still, there’re several lessons here. First, you’ve got to be aware that the rules can cut both ways, whether codified in RPG mechanics or simply narrative restrictions–if something works once, you can’t complain when it working again hampers the story you want to tell. Second, as mentioned before, audience expectations must be managed carefully. If you’ve indicated to them in one scene that your story or game is going to be zany and over-the-top in its fantasy tropes, readers or players will be confused and upset when later you try to make things too gritty.

The Future of Entertainment?

While I’d prefer to avoid making decisions based on the commercial aspects of writing, it is worth considering that there is good work for writers to do in emerging media. Video games are becoming more and more concerned with strong storytelling and literary elements–see The Witcher 3 (in my opinion, the best video game made to date, particularly on the storytelling front).

With the impending boom of virtual reality, I think that we can expect a corresponding boom in second-person storytelling in ways previously unavailable to writers and storytellers–except through roleplaying games. Responsive narrative crafted through alternatives of player agency marks an opportunity to tell multiple stories through the same outlet, to examine issues from multiple perspectives and approaches in literary style, and to leave a more powerful impression on the audience than words alone (possibly–I’m willing to accept the possibility that technology will never surpass the power of raw imagination).

Without all the visual and haptic special effects, roleplaying games already do this. I know gamers who have had experiences in roleplaying games that have changed them as people, so powerful was the narrative created at the table. In that sense, a good roleplaying game has the same potential to effect change as a good novel–albeit on a smaller and more intimate scale.

Conclusion

So, have I convinced you, dear fellow writer, that you ought to consider picking up an RPG rulebook, getting some friends together and playing a game? I hope so.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore some different RPG rulesets, systems and settings to think about when selecting which game to play. In the post after that, we’ll talk about the benefits and drawbacks of using the same setting you intend to write in to run roleplaying games.

RPGs for Writers, Part III

Having offered up some game systems to use if you’re going to take the dive into roleplaying, let’s talk now about the bigger question: should you use your own beloved setting for your game? I answer the question with a categorical “maybe.” Here’re some of my experiences to illustrate the ups and downs.

Can you let go of your baby?

This is the hardest part of using Avar Narn for roleplaying games. I’ve spent years thinking about this world, developing nuance and atmosphere and thinking about the kind of stories that take place here.

No GM’s plan survives contact with the PCs. My players do not always get Avar Narn. Sure, they understand that it’s a gritty fantasy setting where magic is as dangerous as useful, sinister forces wait in the shadows but “regular” people are just as likely to be monsters as some demon-spawn, but that’s not always enough. When you play a roleplaying game, there need to be some rules–not just the mechanics of the game, but an agreement (implicit or explicit) between GM and players about what sorts of things happen in the setting. Avar Narn is very different (perhaps by design) than the high fantasy you’d find in a typical Dungeons and Dragons game. Characters in Avar Narn may have supernatural abilities and great skill, but the setting is not one of over-the-top action or near-invincible heroes.

When your players don’t meet your expectations for how stories go in your setting, when they unintentionally misunderstand or intentionally reject some of the narrative constraints of your setting, you will naturally be disappointed.

There are two ways to handle this, I think. First, you let go of some control of the setting. What happens in your games doesn’t have to become canon in your world and may still reveal to you important things about your setting–or give you new aspects about your world to explore. This is easier said than done; I don’t think I’ve ever accomplished this approach and I’m not sure that–at least at this point in my creative life–I’m able to.

The alternative, and it’s a harsh one, is to train your players to respect the narrative “rules” of the setting. Were I to do this with Avar Narn, my players would lose characters on a regular basis, because recklessness or foolishness (or perhaps even a really bad run of luck) would get them killed. They’d eventually come to understand what I (or if I’m to shirk responsibility, the setting’s rules) expect, but at what cost? If I cast my net far and wide, I could probably find enough players comfortable with this to run a game, but I think that some of my regular players would (understandably) drop out because that kind of game doesn’t meet their expectations of what roleplaying games should be and do.

This issue is tough to navigate and can easily lead to either you or your players (or both) being disappointed. Beware.

Work or play?

Serious fiction does not always have as its goal being fun in an obvious way (bear in mind that this is different from being enjoyable–think of catharsis, the emotional experience of terrible events that can be left behind at their conclusion and the intellectual satisfaction of a story well told even if not felicitous). If your roleplaying game is not fun, you have a problem–few players want only the sort of parenthetical enjoyment previously described.

On your side of things, will using your setting to run a game feel like work? C.S. Lewis was once asked by a young lover of theology whether he (the young man) should go to seminary. Lewis advised that the young man ought to consider whether making his profession in something he loved my deprive him of the joy he found in it. So much for “do a job you love….” But there’s a point here–a roleplaying game may sometimes require creativity on demand, which is not always the best kind of creativity in worldbuilding and writing. If you find yourself forced to enter your setting rather than doing so for the joy of it, you may find yourself hampered in progressing in your writing and the creation of your world.

Doubling Down

I started with the negatives I’ve experienced in running Avar Narn games. Let’s now turn to some positives:

If you’re running an RPG set in the same setting in which you want to write, the work you do goes twice as far. Planning your game will tell you new things about your setting, working on your setting and stories will give you ideas you can use in your game.

Further, the improvisational nature of roleplaying games may help you stumble onto unexpected ideas for the furtherance of setting and stories–your players may stimulate you to unlock untapped creativity for your world.

Constructive Criticism

While by no means a market-study or a scientifically-valid survey, your players’ feedback will help you to revise your setting by identifying what’s working and what’s not. In particular, RPG players tend to be quick to point out internal inconsistency–the death of a fictional setting.

Indulgence

I have to admit that there is a deep joy that comes from diving into your fantasy world rather than viewing it from a remove. I readily defy the idea that fantasy is mostly (or even much) about escapism, but there a happiness endemic to humanity closely attached to creation and experience, to the exploration of something other than what is. (If that sounds like escapism to you, I’d argue that there’s a difference between retreating to a fantasy world to avoid reality and diving into a fantasy world for the joy of experiencing that world regardless of its comparison to reality).

There are few other ways to participate in your world in such an intimate way. Indeed, I’d say that if your inclinations are towards worldbuilding itself rather than storytelling, you’ll get much more enjoyment from running roleplaying games set in your world than you would from writing stories about your world. If you’re like me, do both when you can manage and reap all the benefits you can.

Storytelling Plus

Why do we create fantasy settings? As I mentioned above, there is a deep human need to create, and you may well feel that you have no choice in the matter–you are pregnant with ideas that must be born (to use a Renaissance analogy). Then there’s the natural desire to share things we love with others, to get them to experience the same joy we have from something.

Here’s perhaps where roleplaying can do something no other storytelling medium can–you can immerse your players in your world with second-person fiction, letting them experience your ideas in a way far more intimate than traditional writing.

If you subscribe to Joss Whedon’s statement (about Firefly, if I remember correctly) that “I’d rather create a show that five people have to see than one that fifty-thousand people want to see.” (I’m paraphrasing and the numbers used may be off, but you get the idea). That is to say, if it’s really about the art itself (that we could all bring ourselves to such true virtue!), you may well find more satisfaction in running a game for a few people than writing for the masses.

Conclusion

While I recommend that speculative fiction writers at least try roleplaying games to see how the genre helps them with their craft, I see justifications both for and against using your own narrative setting for those games. If, like me, you have trouble relinquishing artistic control, you may be better of using a different setting for your games. In so doing, whether you use a published setting or a new creation of your own, you’ll learn things that you can readily apply to your spec-fic setting.

If you can let go a little, or especially if you enjoy collaborative creativity, you may well find a deep joy in running games set in your world that enhances the other joys your setting provides.