Roleplaying Mental Illness

I’ve been thinking about this topic a bit recently (for no particular reason recognized by my conscious mind, and nothing decipherable from my dreams, at least), and I thought I’d contribute my personal thoughts and opinions on the matter. A few prefatory notes:

  1. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may remember that I’ve now lived with clinical depression for fully half of my life (thankfully well controlled so that its effects on me are minimum or none). I know what it’s like to struggle against mental illness, and I understand the stigma that still, unfortunately, exists in the minds of many. But this post isn’t about my experience. I believe that this is an important issue for all roleplayers, not simply on an awareness basis (though that, too), but also because mental illness, if handled well and by agreement of all involved, can add depth and drama to a story–but also runs a high likelihood of being offensive, misguided, and ridiculous when the topic is not handled with care.
  2. You’ll probably also note that my writing on gaming has been focused on Fate RPG at present. The Fate Accessibility Toolkit has been recently released, and my understanding is that it has a treatment of this topic as well. I have not read it, so I don’t know how my opinions fit with the approach therein. Regardless, I can’t imagine that reading multiple opinions and approaches on the topic would be harmful–likely it would be helpful.
  3. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist; I’m a lawyer, gamer, writer and aspiring theologian. None of my comments here should be taken as an attempt at serious medical commentary: we’re not talking about the pathology of actual mental illness here; we’re talking about fictionalized mental illness portrayed for dramatic and narrative effect in games we play–and portraying said fictionalized diseases and disorders in a way respectful to and mindful of those who live with the reality every day.

Getting It Wrong
I don’t have any particular instances I can think of where I had a player roleplay a character with mental illness in a way that was anything other than cartoonish, and that’s perhaps part of my basis for writing this post.

Let’s take an example many of us will be familiar with–a character playing a Malkavian vampire (or Malkovian if NWoD) in Vampire: The Masquerade (or Requiem, if you prefer). I have only seen players portray such characters as a bundle of nonsensical nonsequiturs intended to justify chaotic randomness and the player making all decisions by whim or, even worse, a roll of the dice. This is painful to all involved, except perhaps the player of the character, which is bad RPG group dynamics.

Not to offer criticism without an alternative, here’s how I think a typical Malka/ovian character should appear at the table: entirely “normal” most of the time. Then, occasionally, the character says something off, but in a way that might be a miscommunication, a bad joke, or something else that’s weird but only disturbing or threatening according to a certain interpretation. It’s only occasionally that mental malady truly overtakes the character, triggered by elevated tension or specific events, when it becomes painfully obvious that the character is gripped by beliefs or motivations that simply do not match with reason or the facts of the world. That inability to let go of incorrect beliefs or to overcome unwanted and unreasonable compulsions is where the horror of mental illness is found–for sufferer and for those around him or her. Vampire is a horror game, however, so that’s the point of portraying mental illness or psychological conditions in such a game–whether as a vampire who inevitably suffers from such or as a different type of character who suffers from the same for reasons mirroring those in the real world–unfortunate genetics, after-effects of injury or physical illness, unhelpful thought patterns maintained over time, mental trauma, etc.

The Age of Diagnosis by Committee
With the availability of Google, Wikipedia, WebMD and the like, there’s a growing habit among we who lack any significant training in psychology, to attempt to diagnose personality disorders or pathological mental illness in others. Most often this is our political figures (there’s even a current research trend to analyze sociopathic traits in the types of people who run for or are successful in political office, even if otherwise seemingly mentally healthy) and our celebrities, but it just as easily infiltrates our gossip about the people with whom we work and live.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Since the birth of neuroscience and psychology/psychiatry as well-respected fields of academic and scientific inquiry, historians have jumped at the opportunity to diagnose major figures in our past (particularly those whose behavior was erratic or who had a reputation in their own time for being mentally ill) according to modern psychological theory. There’s George III of England, who likely suffered from porphyria, any historical figure who claimed to have visions from God, who are most often retroactively diagnosed with either temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE-X) or schizophrenia, and plenty of persons we’d like to think of as having a mental illness to explain their crimes against humanity.

Of course, except in limited circumstances where DNA testing might be available and a mental illness had a wholly or mostly genetic cause, we really can’t know what historical persons did or did not suffer from. This trend is less about those analyzed and more about us, about the human tendency to want to categorize things into neat boxes to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty.

There is also a tendency to use this tactic to elevate our historical milieu over the past. We can says things like, “There was so much violence in the middle ages, a sociopath wouldn’t just find it easier to survive, he’d find it easy to thrive!” i.e., thank God we’re so much less violent and so much more reasonable now than people used to be. I doubt that very much. In the case of the TLE-X explanation, the point is most typically to apply a materialist paradigm to the past so that we can laugh about how backward and superstitious people were then and how much better we are now for embracing “reason” over religion (despite the obvious logical, philosophical and epistemological flaws in such arguments, which I’ve addressed elsewhere on the blog).

It’s precisely in the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent to mental illness where we find narrative drama. For several reasons, I’m going to suggest that we put down our DSM VI’s and focus on narrative.

Why Diagnosis is Unhelpful For RPGs
(1) It causes us to use stereotypes.
It’s likely everyone reading this (or nearly everyone, at least) has read or played in an RPG with a sanity system. I’m not going to point out any offending games specifically, but these systems tend to play out in one of two ways: Most often, the system involves preset categories of mental illness (usually given the names of official categories that might be found in the DSM) and prescribed behaviors for each category as a mechanic for something that, by its very nature, defies easy mechanics and particular expectations. Alternatively, the system relies on discrete behaviors rather than full categories.

Here are some of the problems with these systems: First, if the result of the “insanity” (a problematic word for such systems anyway) doesn’t match the instigating events, the disconnect makes the system lack any verisimilitude, which most often causes players to lose any interest in believability and play the system and its effects for laughs. Second, these systems often focus on limited behaviors, which builds idiosyncrasy in a character, but not necessarily serious character development. When the behavior, rather than motive, is the issue, the risk of cartoonish roleplay becomes exponentially higher.

This kind of system further pushes us toward caricature rather than character because it operates as a shorthand to approximate mental illness without much care toward our actual proximity to the truth of experience. My players love to roleplay, but most of them are not interested in doing a lot of research to play their characters. I cast no aspersions on that; every roleplayer has different goals in approaching the game and I suspect that most gamers want to focus on the game without having to do “homework.” But it means sloppy roleplaying on issues that require great research or experience to do well, like mental illness.  This is poor form on its own, but when you have someone at the table who has experienced mental illness, personally or in close loved ones, and who potentially continues to struggle with those issues, such a lackluster approach shows a disrespect and lack of empathy destructive both to relationships and to a safe gaming environment.

(2) It makes us rules lawyers of character.
I’ve played with enough gamers who believe that the rules as written constitute the “physics” of the game and trump everything else–fun, good narrative, drama, efficient play, etc. My personal opinion is that the culture, if not the history, of D&D pushes people toward such a belief (I understand that Old School gamers will vehemently disagree; this is a debate for a different set of posts).

When we translate this approach to a set of rules describing a mental illness a character may have, then the rules of the mental illness become a permission for bad behavior by the player. This is not a result of roleplaying mental illness itself, rather it is a prioritization of discrete values and prescribed results (i.e. rules) over the reality of mental illness. “The player argues, ‘because I have…uh, kleptomania…I have to steal everything I can from the Baron. And because I have schizophrenia, I believe that the rest of the party members actually did it, so I blame them.'” Not fun for those other players, probably not relevant to the narrative, not a development of the player’s character in any meaningful way and not a cooperative approach to roleplaying in a group–in other words: annoying, unrealistic, and offensive.

Despite the categorizations of the DSM VI and its predecessors, every presentation of mental illness is different (it is, after all, an expression of a unique soul and psyche), so pigeonholing a disease into a set of rote behaviors is contrary to experience.

It is commonly said that naming a thing gives you power over it. This may be the exception that proves the rule, where naming the thing gives it power over you as you feel obligated to meet a culturally–not experientially–based expectation of the thing so named.

(3) Human behavior is based on a complex interaction of beliefs, the matrix of preferences and thought structures that constitute personality, and experience. Not on hard and fast rules.
Again, I’m not an expert in psychology or psychiatry. But my training as a foster parent has opened my eyes to the complexity of behavioral motivations in children, particularly those with traumatic backgrounds, and I can’t imagine that the same is not true of adults.

My point here has a common thread with my two points above, but I’d like to think that the first point focuses on our respect for others, the second focuses on our approach to gaming, and this one focuses on our approach to narrative.

When we put a name on a mental illness, there will be a temptation to judge every choice a player makes in consideration of his character’s condition against the rubric of our expectations on the disease or disorder specified. Where above I discussed the problem of a named mental illness providing an excuse for a player to dump on his fellows, the opposite is also true–the other players may feel compelled to weigh in every time the player whose character has a mental illness touches on the mental illness as a factor in the character’s behavior and choices.

Sometimes, limitations foster creativity. Here, they only stifle a player.

Psychosis Because of That Which Should Not Be
The descent into madness is a well-tested narrative trope as well as a key feature of the Cthulhu Mythos–and I’d dare say that it was Call of Cthulhu that first broached the issue of sanity systems in games (but I haven’t done the research to verify).

But that’s not the only place that we see such a theme; there are many narratives–often horror–that center on such an idea. Losing the ability to discern reality from fantasy is an existential terror. Perhaps, though, that’s actually something separate from what’s going on in the Cthulhu-verse. There, it’s an exposure to a hidden reality that fragments the psyche. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t treat the results in a similar way, because the source of drama is the inability to differentiate between real and unreal (or meaningful and meaningless).

And this result, this slippery slope, this descent into a darkness in our discernment, has nothing to do with using shorthand diagnoses to act out a caricature of mental illness, nor does it need any name to work its drama and tension upon narrative.

The key here is having the player feel the same ambiguity and terrifying uncertainty that his character does–this lies wholly in the realm of the gamemaster, without need for reference to rules and dice. It begins subtly at first, with the GM giving a certain detail of a scene one way at first and differently later. Maybe it was an honest mistake, but maybe the player can’t trust everything the GM tells him. With a proper basis of trust between players and GM, the player will quickly come to understand that this is part of the story unfolding upon his character, not the GM being absent-minded or a jerk. As more important details get changed on the character, as he acts to devastating effect based on misperceptions fed to him by the GM (as the arbiter of the character’s sensory input), as the chain of events from a mistaken perception or belief becomes longer and longer before the player is able to realize that something isn’t right, the deeper the descent, the direr the desperation, the more doubtful the decisions made. This captures the experience of an unraveling mind without the need to diagnose schizophrenia or some other illness and then feel hidebound to its definitions. Furthermore, by not diagnosing anything, you increase the ambiguity about the character’s plight.

If necessary or useful, you can associate this system with some mechanic for measuring the abstract and relative loss of reliability in a character’s beliefs and perceptions–this can be done with a Fate-style stress track (though a use of Consequences may run into diagnostic issues), with a PbtA “countdown clock,” with a pool of points, or any other method used in RPGs to track condition, so long as the mechanics are used as a guide to how the GM portrays the character’s interaction with “reality” rather than a strict codification of behaviors or named psychoses.

It is popular now to have as many of the elements of a tabletop RPG as possible be  “player-facing.” This should not be, because that knowledge allows for extended metagaming and undercuts the effect of the distrust of the GM’s communications by giving the player something to compare or judge from. As I mentioned above, this requires a relationship of trust between player and GM and an agreement that everyone wants this to be an element of the game. The player needs to be willing to accept the discomfort and frustration that naturally accompanies this type of situation as a worthwhile experience (because it’s interesting from a “what if” standpoint, allows a safe exploration of an experience dangerous and terrifying to have in reality, or satisfies some other goal of the gamers coming to the table).

When It’s Not Me; It’s You
The horror game need not be the only genre in which mental illness may play a meaningful role in the game; nor does a descent into irrationality need to be the game’s focus, as it must surely be when the system described above is employed. How then, can we represent mental illnesses in a more balanced way that benefits the story but does not consume it? Particularly if, as I’ve argued above, any diagnosis of a mental illness is a Thing-Which-Ought-Not-Be-Named?

The answer, I think, is a relatively simple one. We focus on character beliefs that do not match with reality (as reality is generally accepted, I suppose). This could be a debunked conspiracy theory that a character unrelentingly clings to in spite of the evidence. It could be a wrong belief about some fact in the world, an impossible expectation, a delusion of self, a magnified fear, or a perceived relationship between things that anyone else would see as causally unrelated. These beliefs may be small ones that only rarely come up in the game, or they may be so fundamental that they almost always have some effect upon the character’s decisions.

If we focus on beliefs instead of behaviors and let the behaviors flow from the mistaken beliefs and perceptions, the character behavior will have a higher verisimilitude, greater fidelity in both dramatic interpretation and depiction of realistic characters and events. The risk of caricature remains if the beliefs in play are not carefully considered and crafted by the player(s) and GM, but even if the portrayal of the belief devolves into parody, that parody is farther divorced from any particular person who has been labeled as having a particular mental illness, somewhat blunting its offensiveness, at least.

This provides better guidance for the player than a set of strict “rules” of behavior to follow, is likelier to result in behavior more related to and helpful to the overall narrative of the game (or at least not obstructive thereto), and matches more with our experience of mental illness in others (at least mine).

Unless someone gives us a label to use or we fall into the game of armchair diagnosis of people who annoy or offend us (dangerous on many levels), we don’t experience other people as exemplars of particular disorders or diseases. We might call someone “crazy,” but in the colloquial and lay use of the term we mean exactly that the person acts in a manner we believe to be contrary to common sense, rationality, and the facts as we understand them to be, not that the person exhibits particular quantifiable markers that seem to indicate a particular differential diagnosis. We are better equipped to name a mistaken belief someone seems to have than to diagnose them, particularly when the illness is one of conscious and interior experience, not something plainly writ upon the body.

The focus on beliefs over expected behaviors also gives us a fuller view of the experience of mental illness. If you’ve watched The United States of Tara, you’ve seen at least one successful narrative that captures both the heartbreak and suffering involved in mental illness and the times where its effects are more lighthearted–perhaps even amusing. Likewise, centering our systems of “(in)sanity” in games on beliefs may allow us to more safely laugh at absurdity without laughing directly at a condition suffered by real, living people. That is my hope.

Corruption Systems and Sanity Systems Are Not the Same
In fantasy or otherwise “grimdark” settings, there is a tendency to have a system that represents the idea of “corruption,” though the meaning of that term is often ambiguous at best.

The term, I think, has its basis in the sense of “moral corruption,” as with the corrupting influence of Tolkien’s One Ring as a vessel of the corrupted and evil will of Sauron. Other roleplaying games and settings have used that term, but not necessarily the meaning. The roleplaying games for the Warhammer settings, for instance, typically have corruption systems. But these systems amalgamate an idea of moral corruption (usually, though, through the eyes of themselves corrupt societal structures) with the body horror of unwanted mutation (perhaps problematic for its symbolic portents for ideas of “purity”) and with the Cthulhuverse idea of a degradation of sanity and moral fiber that results from seeking out those Things-Which-Should-Not-Be!

I have numerous problems with conflating ideas of sanity and judgments of morality. On the one hand, there is a tendency going back at least as far as the 19th century, to call immorality or criminal activity a form of “insanity.” This dehumanizes those who commit criminal offenses, simultaneously insinuating that they cannot be held fully accountable for their choices because of mental illness and yet classifying all antisocial behavior as abhorrent and inhuman and thus allowing us to ignore the possibility that, under the right (wrong) circumstances, we might engage in just the same kind of behavior. Neither aspect of the argument is logical, philosophically or theologically sustainable, or even useful in a societal sense.

Perhaps I’m overthinking here (although I reject the existence of such a thing altogether), and I understand that some will respond, “Get over it; it’s just a game! What are you making such a big deal about?”

Regardless, both the would-be game designer and the aspiring theologian in me must protest the conflation of these ideas. If you want your game to have a conceit that exposure to certain things is damaging to the psyche, great; that’s what sanity systems are for.

If you want to have a system for the degradation of a character’s morality, fine, although my personal preference is that such ideas are a matter of roleplaying more than mechanics (though there are excellent ways to manipulate changes in character Aspects in Fate if you want a middle-ground).

If you want a system for body horror resulting from exposure to dark magics, that’s cool, too, if it suits your game and your players are on board.

But aggregating all three into a single system dilutes the effects of all of them, not to mention the philosophical problem of determining what the numbers mean for each of the influencing factors. Suffice to say, while mental illness may lead to immoral behavior, that behavior should probably be viewed in light of the mental illness as a mitigating factor in determining the extent of culpability, so morality and sanity systems should probably remain separate, unless you intend to make the argument that sanity and morality are closely intertwined, which I reject.

Conclusion
Like good fiction, good roleplaying allows us to explore difficult existential or experiential issues in a safe place where we can imagine the consequences that flow from particular troubling situations and then leave them at the table when we’re ready–or need–to walk away. Like other difficult issues–racism, religiously-motivated extremism and hatred, poverty, violence and all other manner of social strife–has a place in roleplaying, at least for those groups who want to struggle with “serious issues” over the course of their play (and not every gaming group, player, or campaign needs to). But when we choose to dive into such difficult topics that are also very real experiences for people who may or may not be sitting at the table with us, we have some moral responsibility, I think, to do so in a respectful and at least semi-realistic way. Not only is this good ethical roleplaying (which term now makes me want to think and expound more on the morality and ethics of roleplaying games), but without it we’re missing the point of including tough issues in our games at all.

When properly addresses, dealing with those tough issues in a roleplaying game opens up our eyes to things we may not have thought before, deepens our understanding, and increases our empathy for others. And that, in my mind, is roleplaying at its finest–when it entertains us, teaches us, crafts meaningful narrative and helps us to become better humans.

I’ve got a friend who is a gamer and fellow writer and who works professionally in raising awareness of, compassion for, and competency in dealing with mental illness. I’m going to ask her to at least comment on this post, if not write a follow-up (or perhaps rebuttal!) with her own ideas which, given her training and experience, likely have more weight than mine on this topic.

Faith, Fiction, Fatherhood…and Frostgrave?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve recently decided to take a break from video-gaming and devote more time to my “analog” hobbies. It’s now been roughly six weeks since I’ve played a video game and, honestly, I don’t think I miss it as much as I expected to.

The novel I’m working on is progressing slowly but steadily, and I seem to be on schedule to have a finished draft by the end of the year.

But what else has filled my time? I’ve been finishing up Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, so expect an overall review on that in the near future. As I mentioned in a recent post on gaming as an adult, I’ve been building a hyperlinked database (in OneNote) of characters, locations, events and other goodies to drop players into for future Shadowrun campaigns conducted in the style of a “narrative hexcrawl” (if you’ll bear with me on the liberal use of the term).

With the remainder of my time not spent on the above, or working, or caring for children, I’ve been returning to a long-running, off-and-on-again love affair: miniature gaming. It started around when I was twelve; my dad brought me back some Warhammer Fantasy miniatures from a business trip to London. I was hooked. I remember fondly spending a lot of time in a partially-finished room of the house he used for his model railroading set-ups, listening to the radio and painting miniatures. That was were I discovered my favorite band (Live) and probably much of the rest of the 90’s music I still enjoy so much (it was the 90’s, after all).

I never actually played Warhammer Fantasy. But I spent hours in middle school and high school playing (and arguing over) Warhammer 40k, Necromunda, Mordheim and Warhammer Quest with my best friends. I worked on a lot of miniatures in college, but never seemed to get in an actual game. Off and on, I’d paint and sell minis, get “out” of the hobby and then return again–there are many people on Ebay and Bartertown that got some great deals out of my indecisiveness. After finishing (law) school, I played Warmachine for a while, then Infinity, then Malifaux. I enjoyed all of them (probably Infinity most of all), but the focus on synergies over tactics in both Warmachine and Malifaux left me unsatisfied at the end of the day.

After a few years away from minis games (and a false start with the new Necromunda), I decided to get into Frostgrave. I’ve found that I prefer skirmish level games, love campaigns where characters can gain XP and improve (how I miss Mordheim!), and kitbashing plastic kits is perhaps my favorite part of the hobby side of miniatures games. I also wanted a game where I could, without spending a small fortune, have enough minis to invite my friends to play without having to first convince them to buy into a game. This all pointed to Frostgrave.

I don’t do anything half-assed, and my approach to miniature games is no exception. I cannot bring myself to play games with unpainted figures and really prefer to have some nice terrain to fight over, too. Fortunately, I’ve collected a modest set of skills to accommodate both preferences over the years.

I began (after collecting all of the PDFs available for Frostgrave) by buying up a collection of plastic minis to build from. I picked up the Frostgrave Soldiers, Soldiers II (the women soldiers), Barbarians, Cultists and two boxes of the newer plastic Wizards. On top of that I added Fireforge Foot Sergeants and Foot Knights as well as a box of Oathmark humans. I had a set of Perry War of the Roses Miniatures from the small set of things I hadn’t gotten rid of the last time I got “out” of minis gaming, and I look forward to acquiring more Perry medievals for three reasons: (1) they’re beautiful minis; (2) they’re pretty good for historical accuracy; (3) while many others have used them for Game of Thrones minis (search Google for “To Westeros with Captain Blood” for the best example, in my opinion), they strike me as perfect for a Witcher minis game (y’know, once I’ve built and painted all the Frostgrave minis, and bestiary monsters, and terrain to complete a good collection).

I started by kitbashing and painting a few random soldiers: a knight here, a few thugs there, a marksman. This is the knight, the first of the minis I’ve painted in a long while:

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After a few of these, a thought occurred to me: what if I do a warband that seems to go together rather than a bunch of ragtag outcasts, a group of models with some unity in their clothing and colors. After all, I’ve got thirty Oathmark bodies and plenty of stuff to mix them with.

I’d decided my first warband would be a Sigilist, so I built my wizard and his apprentice (the header photo) and sixteen of their closest companions: thugs, an apothecary, archers, a marksman, a thief, a treasure hunter, a tunnel fighter, etc. I finished painting them today.

The bases still need some detailing (my model snow and foliage tufts are on the way), but they’re otherwise finished. Not the best painting I’ve ever done, but not bad for shaking the dust off after so long.

Of course, after I finished painting these guys was when I looked at how I might assemble them into a starting warband and realized I’m probably at least one thug short for what I should have (and there are a few other soldier “classes” I don’t have represented yet), so I started building some more to accompany them even before my brushes were dry.

I had planned from the beginning, however, for a captain. I wanted my captain to have mail armor, though, and the Oathmark humans, well, don’t. Frostgrave makes a distinction between no armor, leather armor and chainmail armor (the latest game by McCullough, Rangers of Shadow Deep, uses “light armor” and “heavy” armor, which, for a game that encourages you to use whatever minis you want, should probably have been the distinction in Frostgrave as well). Technically speaking, what the Oathmark soldiers are wearing is what D&D (and therefore many fantasy games) calls “studded leather.” This categorization is based upon a misunderstanding of armor depicted in art, where the “studs” that make the leather “studded” are actually rivets holding together small metal plates between a front and back (both probably of cloth, not leather) forming what is called a “brigandine.” This type of armor is probably closer to chainmail in its effectiveness. But, I figure most of those poor souls I can convince to play a minis game with me don’t also want to hear my pedantry about medieval arms and armor–the above is just the tip of the iceberg.

All of that is to say that I decided to go with the conceit that the armor on the Oathmark minis is “leather” armor. Actually, there’s a lot of dispute about just how much leather was used in armors, historically, but…see what I mean about the pedantry?

The point is that I needed a model with mail but wanted one that would still fit with the clothing of the rest of the soldiers. I sucked it up and decided to venture into a new skill, one I’ve actually wanted to pick up as a hobbyist for a long time–sculpting in “green stuff” (kneadatite) for the conversion of minis. So, I started with an Oathmark body and set to work.

Once I’d done the mail for the mini, I couldn’t help but also try a fur cloak. They’ve come out well, but I have a few minor details to sculpt before the mini gets some primer and a proper coat of paint.

As I said, I don’t really tolerate a minis game without some passable terrain as well. The below is my first humble piece, not quite finished (the ladder needs painting and it also needs snowy details). I’m mostly happy with it, but I’ve since learned some techniques to put some more color into the stonework, which is what this piece is currently lacking.

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And that’s it for now, but the work continues. My Proxxon foam cutter just arrived today and I’ve drawn up some templates for the main building in the Silent Tower scenario, so I’m itching to put it to work.

So here we are, with a new (sub-section) of the blog, wherein I’ll post some more my work toward getting an entire table worth of terrain and a slew of minis to go with it, hopefully followed by some tales of battles fought by–as my wife calls them–“tiny minions of dice death.”

Pre-Review: Shadowrun 6th Edition (Beginner’s Box)

In this short review, I’m going to focus mainly on changes in the Sixth Edition of Shadowrun (as they are explained in the Beginner’s Box) to earlier additions. I’ll do a full review when I get my grubby hands on the main rulebook in early-to-mid-August with the rest of the plebs.

The info on the tin says that the Sixth Edition is a “streamlined” version of Shadowrun, and the Quick-Start rules in the Beginner’s Box bear this out. Those familiar with Shadowrun will see much carried over from previous editions: rolls are generally Attribute + Skill to form a dice pool of d6s, 5s and 6s are “hits” which are compared to the Threshold in a simple test or the hits generated by the opposing person/object in an opposed test. Rolling more 1s than half the dice pool remains a “glitch,” and something bad happens.

The first change you’ll encounter in the new rules (in their simplified form in the Quick-Start) is how Edge is used. Each character still has an Edge attribute and starts each scene with a number of Edge points equal to the attribute. In contrast to earlier editions, Edge flows much more freely now and is expected to be spent more like the Plot Points of Fate. Mechanical effects can be chosen by spending between 1 and 5 Edge points, and the expenditure of 5 Edge points, with GM permission, can even be used to “Create a Special Effect,” much giving the player agency to add a new fact, event, or trait to the scene at hand–essentially an interposition into the narrative itself (again, much like Fate).

This new Edge system, at least based upon the Quick-Start, seems designed to take the place of large lists of modifiers to rolls seen in earlier editions. Edge is awarded when one character is on the better end of a large discrepancy between Attack and Defense Ratings, when the situation gives the character an advantage over others (low-light vision in a darkened room, for instance), or when the GM awards Edge for good roleplaying decisions (based on the wording it’s unclear whether they mean this as a “reward” for playing the character well or for creativity in approaching problems or both). The Quick-Start does not include any lists of modifiers to combat rolls (recoil, lighting, distance, etc.), giving the impression that Edge is to be awarded in lieu of having to track lots of numbers. If this bears out in the full ruleset, I think that this is an excellent idea, basically (in my mind, at least) taking a cue from more narratively-focused systems to streamline the mechanics.

Another big change I appreciate (if I’m reading the rules correctly) is to how initiative enhancement works. In previous editions, those characters with Adept Powers, Wired Reflexes or the like took additional turns in a Combat Round, meaning that they essentially were multiple times faster in all aspects than unaugmented characters. This created an impression that characters intended to have a lead roll in combat situations had to have initiative enhancement. The Quick-Start rules give everyone a single turn in a Combat Round. A character gets one Major Action, one Minor Action, and an additional Minor Action for each Initiative Die the character has. So, most characters will have one Major Action and two Minor Actions per turn, with (if the numbers for initiative enhancement translate) at most five Minor Actions. Four Minor Actions may be exchanged for an additional Major Action. This means that the most augmented characters will (at extensive cost in nuyen and Essence, presumably) be able to make two attacks in a turn at a maximum. This is a much better balance (in my opinion), make characters without augmentation much more viable in combat, and is probably how I’d run things even if the Core Book changes this.

Attacks remain opposed rolls similar to previous editions. The “Soak” roll following a defender losing the opposed roll remains as well, and I wish we’d seen some additional streamlining here by using a flat deduction from damage.

Although the Quick-Start rules contain no modifiers for recoil (or recoil compensation)–and I don’t expect the Core Book to either if I’m understanding the design philosophy correctly, it does retain Fire Modes–Single Shots, Semi-Auto (two rounds fired) and Bursts. A Single Shot does not modify the base rules, while Semi-Auto trades dice from the Attack Rating (for determining Edge, not from the Attack Roll) for additional damage and Burst Fire allows you to do the same or to split your pool between two targets (as if you’d fired at both in Semi-Auto). This maintains tactical options without resort to the dizzying amount of potential modifiers we Shadowrunners are used to.

Matrix and Rigging rules are, necessarily, simplified in the Quick-Start, but the Matrix rules look like they have become much more task-focused rather than the complexity of placing marks and then resorting to all other manner of shenanigans to achieve effects. GOD is still in control (of the Matrix). The result is a simplified system allowing a more seemless move back-and-forth between meatspace team members and deckers/hackers/technomancers. Shadowrun has needed this approach for a very long time, though it remains possible that the Core Book complexifies things and mucks it all up.

Riggers get two pages of rules, mostly some quick notes about which Attributes to use when “jumped-in” and some brief vehicle rules. The attention to “Meters per Combat Round” for vehicle distance seems a relic of former rulesets entirely unnecessary to this approach, but your mileage may vary.

Only sorcery is treated in the Magic rules here; the rules seem to have been streamlined here as well. The greater part of spell mechanics are now determined by the category of spell (retaining the standard categories of Combat, Detection, Illusion, Health and Manipulation), with individual spells now differing in smaller details (area of effect, target type, etc.). Drain remains a separate roll from casting (which again, I would have preferred to see streamlined out).

So far, so good–while I have some nitpicks and places I’ll likely houserule to further streamline (and it’s likely that I’ll want to use this ruleset), I think the design philosophy has by and large gone in the right direction.

What remains to be seen, of course, is the complexity of character creation, particularly in how augmentations (cybernetic, bioware or adept powers) and resources such as nuyen and contacts are worked out. Based on the weapons and decks described by the Quick-Start, the customization options for gear have been simplified in favor of ease of use, and the Edge system also seems to indicate that the details of what certain augmentations do will be left to the provision of Edge rather than factoring in tons of modifiers. I’d very much like to see character creation that no longer takes hours to do correctly. While I must admit that I find character creation in earlier Shadowrun editions an amusing exercise for its own sake, for actually running games a much-abbreviated design process is a must.

My understanding is that we’re about two weeks out from the release of the Core Rulebook, so expect a full review shortly after that!

A Short(ish) Note on Rolling Dice (in RPGs)

This morning, I’m re-reading through the Sixth World Beginner’s Box for Shadowrun 6th Edition to write a short review as a prelude to a full review when the core book releases. As I’m reading through, comparing to other roleplaying games, and thinking about the mechanics and systems that make our games run, a thought occurs to me.

We need a paradigm shift on dice rolling. For some of you, particularly those who play more narratively-styled games, this is likely already part of your repertoire, and a number of games that have been out for quite some time make a point of this explicitly, or at least imply it heavily. Others may say, “yeah, that’s not necessarily in the rules, but it’s the heart of ‘Old School’ gaming.” But I think that the approach I’m about to describe (wait for it!) should apply to all roleplaying games, because it’s fundamental and universal to the way stories are told.

Dice should only be rolled with the result increases drama and drives the story forward. Seems simple, right? But if it’s so simple, why do games keep using a different formulation, one that goes something like this: “Easy, mundane or routine tasks do not require a roll. Complex or more difficult actions do.”

If you want to lean heavy on the simulationist side of the GNS theory (and if that’s what’s fun for you, I’m not going to say you’re doing it wrong!), then this formulation does make some sense.

But from the standpoint of telling a story–even if aspects of that story are governed by intricate and complex systems to govern outcomes–the difficulty of a task is not the standard by which we should determine whether to pick up the dice. Novels and short stories often compress into tiny fractions of the narrative those tasks which, while difficult, are necessary to the story but not terribly interesting to focus on. Perhaps the epitome of this approach is the oft-maligned (and oftener-used) “montage” of film fame. The training or preparation depicted in the montage is crucial to understanding where the narrative goes next (or explaining why it goes where it goes), but it’s not where we want to spend our time. Rocky immediately comes to mind, right? All that training that the eponymous character does provides context and justification for everything that comes after, but if the film had two hours of watching Stallone work out as “character development,” many of us would never make it to the story’s climax.

Dice rolling should be treated similarly, and the best example I can give in practice is the Gumshoe system and its treatment of investigation. In an investigation adventure arc, the discovery of the clues to move the plot forward is essential and integral to the success of the story (unless the investigation is a side-story which will turn up again whether or not the characters are successful). Therefore, the characters must succeed at discovering the crucial facts, though it’s just fine if they don’t discover all of the available clues.

If you predicate the discovery of clues on successful dice rolls placing difficulty as the first concern, you get a realistic approach to be sure–but plenty of mysteries are never solved, and that’s just not interesting in a roleplaying game when the mystery serves as the main plot! So, as Gumshoe suggests, don’t roll the dice–just give the players the core clues in ways that match the particular characters’ skills and backgrounds. Sure, you can let them roll (or, as in Gumshoe, let them spend character resources) to gather additional helpful but non-essential clues, but we don’t want to hide the narrative ball (as it were) or put our foot on it to stop it altogether.

This goes well beyond investigation, though, and applies to all types of actions and scenes. Do the characters need to scale that castle wall–no matter how difficult–for the next central plot point to occur? Then success cannot be predicated on a roll of the dice, and the GM shouldn’t put himself in the situation where s/he must fudge the roll or the story hits an impasse.

There are plenty of narrative ways to keep these challenges interesting to the players (and GM), and we can return to the montage for one example. In our scaling the castle wall, maybe the characters need some manner of assistance to do it, so it’s not about a roll of the dice but the proper preparation. This may be as simple as having the players come up with a feasible strategy and concomitant preparation and having that influence the description of the ascent. The obstacle could simply require the expenditure of some character resource (to represent the difficulty) without being predicated on a dice roll. Or, you could make them do the legwork of the preparation as dedicated scenes in the adventure (if interesting), and have these subtasks involve dice-rolling, so long as the last feasible strategy available to the characters automatically succeeds (otherwise you’ve just move the same problem to a different location in the narrative).

Whether in the GM’s section of an RPG book, or in the growing number of books about the craft of GMing, it’s an axiom that a good GM will give each character (and therefore player) a chance to “shine” and take center-stage in the narrative for a bit of awesomeness. If there’s a challenging task in the characters’ way that must be successfully resolved, consider dictating that one of your player characters is able to accomplish it readily because of particular skills, backgrounds, or other character traits that make the character especially suited to success.

You could also use the “failure at a cost” principle on rolls that must succeed to drive the story forward. Rolling the dice isn’t about the success of the roll, but about the severity of the cost of that success. See the Powered by the Apocalypse games for an example of this principle writ mechanically. Like Gumshoe, though, the principle can be applied to any roleplaying game whether or not codified in the mechanics.

My key concern in this rant (which is already longer than I’d originally intended) is to decide when to roll the dice based on when doing so pushes the players toward the edge of their seats, not the objective/realistic difficulty of a task at hand. Choosing when to roll the dice is like zooming in the camera–you’re telling the players, “here’s where the story gets interesting.” Always make good on that promise!

There’s a corollary to that–always have a back-up plan when you roll the dice. If you’ve asked your players to roll, there ought to be an interesting result no matter how the dice fall. If there’s not, consider avoiding the roll altogether and simply dictating the interesting result.

At this point, if you’re working out in your head some criticism about player agency, let me address you specifically (I’m tempted to put a random name here in hopes of blowing the mind of some fortuitous reader, but I’ll not). Player agency is not an absolute in a roleplaying game (just as it’s not in real life); it ebbs and flows and is often a “negotiation” between player and GM. Sometimes the characters have more ability (and therefore agency) to freely respond to a situation than others. And the dice are not the only mechanism of player agency–far from it. On top of those points, most players intuitively understand the idea that their character’s agency changes from scene to scene and will accept that without complaint. Problems arise when (the lack of) player agency gets pushed beyond the breaking point and players feel “railroaded” or as (unwilling) participants in a story told solely by the GM. There is a great distance between dictating the occasional outcome without resort to the dice and reaching this point. If you’re basing dice rolls on drama anyway, you’re going to blow past the dictated results to focus on the times when the players have the greatest amount of agency in the story (and thus drama is at its peak). That’s the whole point.

I’m going back to my reread of the Beginner’s Box to hopefully get my pre-review up this morning as well. Rant over.

(Roleplaying) Gaming as an Adult

With kids in the house again, I’m reminded of how precious little time I often have for some of my favorite pursuits–reading, writing and games of all types. The change in lifestyle has brought about for me a new opportunity (or perhaps mandate is a better word) to consider my priorities (for both life and leisure) and develop some strategies to meet those priorities.

My Xbox One X developed an issue about six weeks ago–the HDMI out port has blown, meaning I can run the system if I stream it through my computer (which is a poor substitute) or otherwise not at all. It’s currently sitting in parts on my study table, waiting for me to receive the new HDMI port, finish desoldering the old port, and hopefully complete the repair without having damaged anything else on the motherboard. I’ve learned a lot about soldering in this effort, which is cool (I like learning and improving skills, not matter how tangential to everyday life), but I’m not yet sure of the cost. Given my past history with DIY electronics repairs, I may well have completely botched the whole thing.

Regardless, the break from my Xbox (between its state of disrepair and the kiddos taking up most of my time) has been an unexpected but welcome change. Even if I fix the Xbox (and I hope I do!), I’m looking forward to devoting more of my free time to analog gaming for a while–roleplaying games and (one of my first loves) miniatures games.

Writing is still the priority, and though the children have drastically slowed the rate of progress on my pending novel, I am still finding small bits of time where (for lack of distractions and sufficient energy and focus) I’m able to push things along ever so incrementally. My goal is still to have the first draft of the novel finished by the end of the year; the goal remains a seemingly reasonable one.

That brings me to my leisure activities. While I love writing and feel compelled to do it, it’s not always a leisurely thing. Sometimes I hit that magic “flow” state and the rhythm of it becomes intoxicating, sometimes I write that magically-worded sentence that causes me to glow with pride, sometimes I discover something new about my narrative that gives me an indescribable joy of creating something with a hint of life in it. Most of the time though, writing is work, and hard work at that. In some ways, then, it’s like running for me. While I sometimes enjoy running, I usually don’t. I do enjoy having run. I like writing a lot more, but it is often a difficult thing.

So, my writing remains a priority along with work, family and other obligations. But I need to look elsewhere for those times to recharge my creative batteries and replenish my energy while bleeding off some stress.

But, as all adults, and especially those with young children, time for other things is rare indeed. Gone are the days when I could call up a few friends on short notice for an all-weekend or all-night roleplaying session. Gone are the days when I got home from school at 3:00, finished homework in an hour, and had all the rest of the day to play videogames and paint miniatures.

Multiply that problem by however many other adults you have in your gaming group, and getting everyone together for a game at one time seems Herculean.

There’s no panacea to this ailment of course; it’s just a fact of life. But I have thought of some things (none of which are shocking or new, but I’ll tell you how I’m using them) to make my leisure goals a little more attainable. These ideas are specifically focused on “pen and paper” roleplaying games.

(1) Online Gaming

I don’t mean for video games, as I’m focusing on “analog” games here. About a year ago, I ran an online game for some Methodist pastor friends of mine (which arose out of the Israel trip, believe it or not). It lasted for a few months and played relatively smoothly. There are a lot of virtual tabletop programs out there, and we used (for a time) Roll20. It’s an excellent program, with many great features, but I’m of a mind just to use Skype or a different video-conference platform to run games.

A few reasons for this: First, as I’ll state below, I think running games of a more narrative style makes a lot more sense for the time-strapped gamer. Second, it became an extra time-burden for me to try to learn the systems that make Roll20 run smoothly in addition to all the other gaming-planning I had to do for the game. The KISS principle seems to work for my adult-oriented gaming schedule. No, that phrase isn’t the right one. You know what I mean.

I’m looking simply to recreate the feel of sitting at the table together as simply and authentically as possible. I think a lot of “set pieces” and battlemaps and miniatures focus a roleplaying game on the wrong things (as I prefer to play, not objectively–there’s no “one true way” to play an RPG, and that’s one of the wonderful things about them), so I don’t really need most of the features that Roll20 has to offer. If I can email or fileshare handouts easily enough, and if I really need to visually display something I can manipulate in realtime, I can set up an extra device to put a camera specifically on that.\

The online venue doesn’t fully substitute for all sitting down at the same table, but it does make things much easier in terms of scheduling everyone or being able to game with friends across large geographic distances.

(2) Pick a Ruleset

We all know that there’s a learning curve with any new roleplaying game, and even a “relearning” curve when returning to games that you haven’t played in a while. The fewer rulesets you can manage in your gaming group, the more you cut down on this learning curve and keep it easy to jump into a game with little preparation.

There are some rulesets that lend themselves to (relatively easy) adaptation across settings and genres–those of you who read regularly (or as regularly as I write!) know that I’m a big proponent of Fate and Cortex Plus/Prime.

But the Fifth Edition D&D rules are being constantly tweaked to be used in different genres and settings, so if that’s your bag (or GURPS or anything else for that matter), no reason not to use one of those.

The point is to find efficiency in consistency. The fewer rulesets to jump between, the faster character generation is and the faster gameplay goes.  That said, specific rulesets built for certain games are often better at evoking the mood for that setting (The One Ring comes to mind), so there’s a balancing act to consider here.

(3) Run Narrative-Focused Games

Quite simply, narrative-focused games run more intuitively (in my opinion) and keep the action focused on the story over the mechanics. I have a strong personal bias in this direction, admittedly, and if I want to focus on detailed tactical combat, I’ll play a video game or a miniatures game.

Games like Fate, Cortex Plus/Prime, the Powered by the Apocalypse games and the Forged in the Dark games have enough “crunch” to structure gameplay and create consequences for failure and success based on more than mere GM fiat, and I think they’re easier to run spontaneously (certainly at least the Apocalypse games were designed with that in mind).

What I don’t want to do is spend lots of time balancing “encounters,” looking up charts and carefully choosing enemies from lists with large stat blocks. That can be a fun exercise, but it’s not were I want to spend my personal gaming budget.

(4) Personal Setting Books, OneNote and “Emergent Gameplay”

This one is part well-trod ground and part personal eccentricity. For me, though I don’t think this is a necessary consequence, this goes hand-in-hand with running more narratively-focused games.

I’m not by most definitions an “old school” gamer. I cut my teeth on West End Star Wars, Shadowrun Second Edition and Vampire: The Masquerade (and its sister games). But I’ve always like the idea of the sandbox game and the hexcrawl.

My tack here is to adapt the mechanically-focused idea of the “old school” hexcrawl to a narrative focus. By that, I mean the creation of a narrative sandbox rather than a “physical” one. Instead of filling in hexes on a map and developing random generators for what players might find in that hex, I’m working on building the practical setting to run a game in–collections of NPCs and their relationships, important location descriptions, events and conflicts underway.

Right now I’m working on building a setting for Houston in the Shadowrun universe. I can do this a little bit at a time–do a quick write-up for an NPC who could be a contact here, fill out organizational charts of the important criminal organizations and local megacorp executives, etc. Since I can do one thing at a time, or even jot some notes down to return to and flesh out later, I can fit this kind of work easily into small opportunities to write. The more I develop, the more links between characters, events and locations that naturally develop, bringing the world alive.

This allows for emergent gameplay. You can drop the characters into the setting and you have all of the elements you need to organically respond to the actions they take and the direction they lead the narrative.

This makes the work persistent, as I can do this for each of the settings I know I’m likely to want to run in the future. I can start a Shadowrun game with what I’ve got in my “setting database,” add to it both as a result of play and in my free moments away from the table, and whether that game fizzles and dies, I’ve got the background material ready to go to run a fresh game immediately or later without going back to square one with a campaign idea. Efficiency is key here.

A setting can sit for a very long time and, when the urge to run that setting returns, it’s ready for you at a moment’s notice. You can even have your gaming group build characters in advance for various settings and you can play “pick up” games with very little prep-time. This takes a lot of the GM stress out of gaming and helps me be excited to run games and to enjoy them to the fullest when I do.

As an added bonus, this kind of writing seems lower risk to me than writing for Avar Narn, so when I’m feeling “stuck” in my “more serious” writing or just needing to get my creative juices flowing, I’ve got ready prompts to turn to where the work I do will be useful elsewhere.

You can also use these setting portfolios like gaming scrapbooks–see a character idea or an interesting location that would work for one of your settings (whether in an official book for the game or as a riff off of something you experience in the quotidian)–and you can create an entry for it, import text or inspirational pictures, etc.

This system can easily translate to a setting bible for your own fictional universes as well.

I prefer OneNote for this kind of work. It’s inexpensive, it’s relatively intuitive, and it has a lot of hypertextuality which allows me to link my work easily and access it effectively at the gaming table. I can save my OneNote notebooks to the cloud and have them both securely backed-up and easily accessible over multiple devices.

Conclusion

So there you have it, a few of my thoughts on managing to keep playing RPGs as a busy adult.

As I mentioned, I’m also trying to get back into miniatures games (and Frostgrave in particular; I’ll have to post on this separately). Strategies for this are more difficult–I try to do some modeling of both terrain and miniatures when the kiddos are sleeping and I’m not yet to the point of being ready to play games!