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.


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.


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.


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.


RPGs for Writers, Part II

In the previous post on this subject, I offered some arguments for why writers (particularly speculative fiction writers) should consider adding the running of roleplaying games to their toolbox for development of the craft. This time, I’m going to suggest a few particular games that might help you to begin.

A Bit of Theory

If you spend much time with online forums about pen and paper roleplaying games, you’ll come across a few particular common theories that inform the discussions found there. The first is GNS theory, meaning “Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist.” In short, the idea is that there are three main approaches or sets of goals people have when approaching RPGs. Gamists want to achieve and “win.” Narrativists want to indulge and immerse themselves in character and plot. Simulationists focus on the coherence of the rules and reality in which they play, especially as those rules help create narrative that meshes well with our the player’s own experiences of how reality (extrapolated for fantasy and science-fiction, of course) tends to work. About this, I’ll say what I say about most attempts to categorize things into neat theories–it’s a gross oversimplification that misleads more than helps, I think. I’ve never found a person who fits solidly into only one of those descriptions.

That said, GNS theory has proved useful because it encourages us to think about the games we play critically. At the heart of GNS theory is the idea that different RPGs are about different things; they have different goals that (at least when done well) lead to different rules, attitudes and atmosphere.

The more modern argument about the classification of RPGs is whether they are “traditional roleplaying games” or “storytelling games.” In many ways, this relates to discussions about whether games are or should be “rules-light” or “rules-heavy” (though this is more often called “crunchy.” The argument I commonly see put forth is that storytelling games are an entirely separate category from roleplaying games, the supposed focus of storytelling games being on collectively creating a narrative with very few rules getting in the way and the focus of roleplaying games using rules (extensive or not) to decide the outcome of events in the progressing narrative at least as much, if not more, than “mere” dramatic requirements. Again, I don’t buy this; there are plenty of rules-heavy games that focus on the creation of meaningful narrative above all else, and probably some rules-light games that focus more on the game than the story.

Why bring all this up? Truthfully, probably because I’m a pedant. In my defense, though, these are things I’ve been thinking about lately as I lay the groundwork for creating a roleplaying game for my Avar Narn setting. Since both worldbuilding and creative traditional fiction with Avar Narn are goals I’ve set above a marketable (or even playable) RPG, I’ve been looking at lots of systems to determine how many and what kind of rules would be best to capture the feel and nature of Avar Narn in the improvisational format of the roleplaying game. To speak more plainly (I hope), my thoughts on the above influence the recommendations I’ll make below.

RPGs for the Writer

Roleplaying games have come a long way since the birth of Dungeons and Dragons in the 70’s. “Modern” games have moved away from the wargaming roots of the genre’s pater familias and toward a focus on narrative. By “narrative” in this context, I mean a focus on capturing the feel and structure of traditional fiction.

The gamer/writer will probably get the most out of games with a narrative focus (though any RPG has a narrative focus if you run and play it that way). So, my top three suggestions are some of my favorite narrative-focused RPGs.

FATE (Evil Hat Productions)

If you’re a writer who wants to try running a roleplaying game and it’s something you’ve never done before, I can’t give a better recommendation than FATE. The FATE RPG runs relatively rules-light (although it’s really a toolkit for running the type of game you want to run, so you can make the rules as involved as you like by grafting on additional systems) and, by design, uses narrative logic to influence the mechanics of the game.

The primary vehicle for this is the aspect. An aspect is a short narrative tag on a character, scene or object. Examples might be Sucker for a Pretty Face or (my favorite) On Fire! At the same time an aspect tells you something about the character or situation, it carries oomph–under the right circumstances (usually by spending a character resource called Fate Points, but sometimes for free) a player or the GM can reference an aspect to affect a roll of the dice. If the aspect positively affects a roll, the actor gets a +2 bonus on the roll (quite significant given FATE’s range of results). If it would negatively affect a roll, the same bonus is added to the resistance to the actor.

Aspects can also be compelled by the GM or a player to cause the player to act in a manner that is counter-productive but fitting for the character to complicate the plot. The noir detective with Sucker for a Pretty Face may fall for the femme fatale even though everyone else knows what’s going on. In exchange for accepting this narrative turn, the player receives a Fate point, which he can spend later to help his character succeed (or maybe just survive).

FATE uses Fudge dice, which are six-sided dice that have two blank faces, two faces with a “+” and two faces with a “-“. You roll four, looking at the appropriate character trait’s rating and adding one for each plus and subtracting one for each minus. That number is compared to the difficulty of the task to determine success.

I could go on and on about the innovative and influential aspects of the FATE system (see what I did there?), but there’s more ground to cover and you can find full reviews elsewhere on the net. I’ll summarize by saying that FATE has a system that’s easy to grasp, fun to tweak and that feels intuitive to the creative writer.

I will also say, however, that many of the principles of FATE can be used in other roleplaying games without using the mechanics whole cloth.For instance, you don’t need to spend a lot of time writing down scene aspects on notecards to take a look at the description of the narrative and the scene and say “circumstances should affect your action like this, so here’s a modifier” in other games.

Either way, it’s worth a look. Best of all, it’s free!

Cortex Plus (Margaret Weis Productions)

I’ve heard Cortex Plus called “FATE with more crunch.” I suppose that’s true, but given the toolkit nature of both rulesets, there could be wide variation in the “heaviness” of the rules.

To name drop, Cortex Plus is produced by Margaret Weis, co-creator of Dragonlance and is written by (among others) Ryan Macklin–a major force behind FATE, Rob Donahue (who’s written for many different games) and Philamena Young (who has worked on some of my favorite games–Shadowrun and World of Darkness–and who has become a voice worth listening to in terms of both game theory and gamer culture). Maybe to recommend it more, Cortex Plus is used for the following franchised RPGs: Marvel Superheroes, Leverage, Smallville and Firefly.

The base book (really the only you need unless you’re going to play one of the above-mentioned settings) is the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide.

Like FATE, Cortex Plus focuses on a strong dialectic between narrative and mechanics. Conflict is resolved by forming a dice pools from different sized dice that represent different traits, skills or belongings of the actor and rolling against a dice pool created from the opposing character’s traits or the circumstances of the task and scene. The two highest-rolling dice (this can be manipulated) are totaled and compared to determine success or failure.

By giving you control over the categories into which relevant traits fall, Cortex Plus allows you to use a toolbox game to create the feel of particular types of narrative–from the dramatic television represented by Smallville and its ilk to heist-style stories a la Leverage to the thrillin’ heroics of Firefly and much much more in between. This provides the writer a way to customize the stories she tells in RPG form and even to set the mood of the game without much heartache. A game where you receive dice for your pool based on the nature of your relationship with a person and one of a handful of ideals feels very different from a game with character statistics like “muscle” and “guns”. Same mechanic, different atmosphere.

I’ve run and played in several Cortex Plus games–I’ve even used it to run Avar Narn. The “heroic fantasy” rules in the Hacker’s Guide provided a good starting place for developing the grittier more dangerous feel of my own world.

I really like the way the Cortex Plus system works, but I do have a few complaints. While reskinning rules and attributes to fit the tone of your setting goes a long way, a universal system like FATE or Cortex Plus will never match what a customized ruleset will do to accentuate and define a setting. Also like FATE, I think that some of the concepts from Cortex Plus can be used effectively without needing to resort to mechanics to enforce them. That’s my opinion and the people I game with very much like both FATE and Cortex Plus.

HeroQuest (written by Robin Laws and published by Chaosium)

No to be confused with a number of other titles with the same or similar names, Robin D. Laws’ Heroquest is another narrative-focused ruleset that would suit the author experimenting in roleplaying games quite well.

Robin Laws is unqualifiedly a master of narrative in roleplaying games. His Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering and Hamlet’s Hit Points are excellent books for people who want to run games well (no easy task). Writers should read Hamlet’s Hit Points even if they don’t ever run a roleplaying game.

In addition to writing about RPGs, Robin Laws has written for more RPGs and publishers than I can count and has published a number of RPGs of his own design, including Feng Shui, Hillfolk and HeroQuest.

Like FATE and Cortex Plus, HeroQuest turns narrative descriptions into actual mechanics. The mechanics of HeroQuest are simple and streamlined in the interest of telling fast-paced stories where the rules bleed into the background. Does that make it a storytelling game rather than an RPG? Don’t know, don’t care.

While I’ve played FATE and Cortex Plus extensively, I have not played HeroQuest; I’ve only read the rulebook. That said, it made me excited to roleplay in a way that only a few games do, and I’ve considered using it for games I want to run on many occasions.


The three games I’ve mentioned here are on the rules-light side with a stated narrativist agenda, for whatever that’s worth. Really, they’re just games that are or seem to be easy to run, easily adaptable to your setting of choice and focused on the aspects of roleplaying games most useful to the writer.

Online publishing has been a Godsend for gamers, as it’s allowed an explosion of new games and innovative ideas that are not forced to run the gauntlet of publishing pitfalls (which exist even, if not especially, in the gaming world, I gather).

There are many excellent games to play, many very good rulesets (though I’ve found none I’m willing to call perfect) and many interesting settings to explore to pilfer inspiration from. Go out and find them!

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about the ups and downs of using your own fantasy setting for running a roleplaying game.

Roleplaying Games as a Microcosm of Free Will, Part 2

In Part I, I described an extended analogy using (good) roleplaying games as an example of the compatibilist school of thought on free will. But why does it matter?

Our understanding of free will informs almost every other aspect of our theology. For a human being to be culpable for wrongdoing, he must have free will. This is a basic aspect of our criminal justice system and the same principle holds true for the cosmic importance of sin. Our understanding of the purpose and direction of Creation rests in part on our belief about how and how often God directly intervenes in our lives. Differing views about the cause of events—randomness, directly controlled by God or something in between—influence our understanding of theodicy. More important, perhaps, than all of these, our understanding of free will tells us something about our own place in Creation and about our personal relationships with God.

So why do I feel so strongly about the analogy presented in the previous post on this subject? Like all good analogies, I think roleplaying games show us something about a doctrine of free will that we might otherwise miss. It is not simply that the roleplaying game correlates with a compatibilist doctrine of free will and that makes so much sense to me, it’s what the game shows us about that doctrine.

Here it is: a compatibilist view of free will has a strong component of relationship when there is a being, a personality, behind the deterministic force. The Player and the GM may at times be opposed, but they are always together, negotiating a narrative through mutual agency and response. A good GM, much of the time, need not determine the course of the story—all she has to do is respond to the actions of the Player Characters by determining the logical consequences of those actions—in the physical location (or even the physics of) the game world or in the relationships between Player Characters and Non-Player Characters controlled by the GM.

It’s important to keep and mind that, when responsive determination of cause and effect is the GM’s role, that’s not determinism, at least not directly. We might attribute some determinism to the nature of the rules themselves as they provide the boundaries of possibility, but that’s something we can discuss in a later post. That is an impersonal determinism.

What’s fascinating here are those times when the GM decides that the Players will experience a certain event or encounter a certain character—here, the GM is making a conscious choice (stemming largely from personality) that allows the GM to directly determine his interaction with the Players. It’s a set-up to be sure, but a fundamental one when there are both free agents (the Players and their characters) and an consciousness in control of the game world.

Within a scene, both the Players and the GM (and the mechanics) work to determine what happens. The best GMs sometimes “fudge” the results, occasionally ignoring the dice (or whatever other action-resolution system is in place) and determines himself what happens. The very best GMs are able to keep the players completely oblivious about when this does or does not occur. This is determinism to be sure, but when used sparingly it is a powerful determinism that nevertheless preserves the power of Player’s choices. There must be trust between Player and GM that the other is “playing fair” and preserving free will (and not cheating the rules). Here both free will and determinism play important roles.

With all of this, the roleplaying lays out for us the why of compatibilism being the best school of thought for the Christian. It preserves God’s ultimate sovereignty, maintains the dignity and freewill of man and, most important, builds relationship between the two as they co-create narrative. Ours is a God of relationship—even the trinity points to this. Why would God not, then, write the rules of the universe in such a way that relationship remains the focus?

Roleplaying Games as a Microcosm of Free Will, Part I

In this post, I’m going to use an analogy (or set of analogies) to describe the various philosophical schools of thought on free will. Being a nerd and avid gamer, I’m of course going to find that analogy in the world of gaming. Specifically, in that corner of the gaming world that is possibly the nerdiest (and also my favorite): roleplaying games (RPGs). Here, I mean RPGs that are played with pen, paper and dice (or some other mechanic) in a face-to-face situation—not video games that would be classified as falling in the “RPG” genre.

If you’re not sure how a roleplaying game works, I’ve written a basic explanation here.

Here begins the analogy:

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that written literature represents pure determinism (at least when you are the reader). The story is already set, the characters are going to take the actions that they have been written to take, and you’re just along for the ride.[1]

On the other end of the spectrum is when you tell a story to others and have no set requirements about the content or nature of the story. This is pure free will. No outside force determines the course of the story and no logic need constrain your characters; you are the sole captain of your ship.

Somewhere between pure determinism and pure free will, things get interesting. Here we find a debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists. The latter believe that any element of determinism destroys the existence of free will, while the former believe that some determinism and some freedom of will can peacefully and logically co-exist.

In a RPG, the GM is a little microcosm of a god, though GMs who take this seriously usually fail to keep in mind that they’re playing a game that the Players are there to have fun, and that being forced to act out a story over which they have no control is neither fun nor interesting. Players generally call GM behavior that forces them down an inevitable story arc “railroading.”

When a GM railroads his players, they may be choosing their actions, but the consequences of their actions will always lead to the same result. The meaningfulness of choosing is lost; only the illusion of meaningful choice remains. Don’t look at the man behind the curtain or that illusion will itself disappear.

Railroading in a RPG, then, represents something more akin to the deterministic nature of Fate in Greek theatre—the characters seem free to do what they want, but they will always reach the same result no matter what they do—just ask Oedipus. Like Greek tragedy, this is depressing; it’s only real meaning is the paradigm’s tautology that Fate is unavoidable, so no matter what you do, you cannot avoid Fate.

Both Greek tragedy and poorly-run RPGs represent incompatibilist theory—it’s plain to see here how the determinism of the situation makes the existence of the remaining modicum of free will ultimately meaningless.

Roleplaying games, when run by a skilled GM, fall firmly into the compatibilist free-will philosophy. There are some—indeed, many—things outside of a Player Character’s control. From the very conception of a game, the determination of the setting to be used for the game naturally precludes certain options for characters, both ontological and practical. Once the game begins, at least some of the events that occur are predetermined by the GM.[2] What has happened before the game begins, for instance, is usually dictated solely by the GM.

Once the story begins, however, the Players and their characters have true agency. When a PC acts, he has the capacity to enact change in the (fictional) world around him. The things he does influence the story in a tangible way as the GM incorporates the results of the character’s actions into the plot and narrative as they progress.

What we end up with is a back-and-forth, a give-and-take between Players and GM where both influence the course of the story. Determinism—the actions of the GM in setting the stage for the characters’ actions—and free will—the actions of the characters in pushing the story along—live side by side and feed off of one another. This scenario is clearly the most meaningful. We’ll explore why in the next post.


[1] I understand that many writers, myself included, would argue that a story takes on a life of its own during its creation and wanders in directions we never initially considered. Nevertheless, once put down, the story is immutable.

[2] It has become popular in the last decade to focus on building narrative in an RPG and, thus, to foster “collaborative storytelling,” in which the players have greater control over the story in a more cooperative relationship with the GM. Even games without such a focus have become less “adversarial” in their depiction of the relationship between GM and players. Nevertheless, the analogy for our purposes focuses on the situation where the GM has ultimate narrative authority but allows the actions of the characters to alter the story as it moves forward.

What is a Roleplaying Game?

Roleplaying games, at their heart, differ from most other types of games because they are about telling an interesting and enjoyable story in a medium that combines traditional storytelling techniques with improvisational theatre, speculative problem-solving and statistics (found in whatever “resolution mechanic” that decides actions that could succeed or fail—and, according to modern RPG theory, both success and failure are interesting and appropriate to the story).

There’s no need to detail the venerable forty-some-odd-year history of “modern” roleplaying, but a few notes might prove useful for those drawn here by subjects other than gaming. The mother-of-all-roleplaying-games (as we think of them today) is of course Dungeons & Dragons.[1] In that game, as in most other RPGs, one of the participants takes on the role of the Gamemaster (GM), while the others take on the roles of the Player Characters (PCs). We’ll call the latter the Players.

As in a theatrical performance, a Player seeks to play his Player Character as well as can be done. What “as well as can be done” depends heavily upon the group and the RPG, but for our sake we’ll stay highbrow and assume that this means immersing oneself in being someone else for a while, learning how someone other than yourself might feel and speak and act and exploring an alternate reality through that lens.

Under normal circumstances[2], each Player has only one character to portray. With a typical group, that means the Players are supplying three to five PCs to the game. While they may have intricate backstories, complex psychologies and all of the other traits that well-thought-out characters in fiction have, there’s not much for them to do without a situation for them to be in.

This is where the Gamemaster (GM) comes in. In an RPG, the GM represents all forces external to the characters—the weather, the setting, things that happen, all the other characters in the story that are not the PCs, etc. This gives the GM broad authority over the nature and course of the story that will be told over the course of the game.

So, the PCs find themselves in a situation over the creation of which they had no control. Once the “scene,” the playing out of the situation, begins, however, it is the agency of the PCs (and other characters involved in the scene—known as NPCs or non-player characters and controlled by the GM) who move the story forward.

This brings us to a feature of roleplaying games that separates the genre from other storytelling games—rules and mechanics. A Player Character has “statistics”, values that determine the character’s strengths and weaknesses. When the PC takes an action that could potentially fail, that character’s statistics are used along with the rules and mechanics to determine the result of the action. The mechanics of most RPGs use dice to add the element of chance to the action—representing all of the little factors that could come together to ensure success or conspire to assure defeat. This prevents the game from being determined by GM fiat, leaving some things to chance.

The rules may allow for possibilities that do not occur in our reality (such as wizardry and magic), but they may also prohibit certain actions (like hacking a computer to which one does not have access, or succeeding at sprinting down a tightrope in gusting winds and pouring rain).

Once the dice have fallen, the results of the action (its success, failure and side-effects) become part of the story, which now moves forward having incorporated that event. The “structured unpredictability” of the game both separates it from other types of storytelling and adds drama to the story. If, as occurs in Dungeons & Dragons, a brave hero confronts a dragon, he cannot be assured of success. When played as intended, neither does the GM have the ability to absolutely determine the outcome of the battle (although, as the controller of the dragon, he may try his best—using the rules—to defeat the hero).

Who wins? Some RPGs focus on an adversarial relationship between the GM and the Players, with each attempting to outwit the other for control of the story. Fortunately, the mainstream approach is quickly becoming that of “structured collaborative storytelling.” Here, everyone wins or loses together—either the story is a good one or it falls flat. Well-developed and -played characters can improve a poor plot; conversely, a rich setting with an interesting plot can cover for two-dimensional characters. But the game only takes on the transcendence sought by its Players—it only becomes meaningful as something more than mere game, something closer to art—when Players and GM all do their jobs to the best of their ability and everyone’s benefit.

Stories can be long or short, they can be played in a single session of a few hours or stretched into many sessions over the course of months or years that create truly deed and epic narratives.


[1]Thoughts about Dungeons & Dragons, RPGs and Sci-Fi/Fantasy as they relate to Christianity are (or will be) addressed in other posts.

[2] Much to my delight, creators of roleplaying games have brought us a wide variety of approaches to gaming, some quite avant-garde in pushing the envelope of what the genre of game can do. There’s far too much variety (and I have far too much to say about that variety) to address such things here. So, when I say “normal circumstances,” just know that I intend the most common approach used by current RPGs. There will always be variation.