Brancalonia: D&D Meets a Lighter-Hearted Blades in the Dark

Those of you who’ve been with me for a while know that I’m not a big fan of the systems used for D&D. The older and wiser I get, and the more I come to understand game design, the more I see the justification for the choices the system makes. It seems that a lot of times, my upset with the design choices are amplified by traditional (mis-)interpretations of the intent of those systems. At the end of the day, D&D is a game people love, and there’s nothing wrong with preferring that system over others. For me, though, I prefer my games a little harsher and grittier, and while I think D&D should best be considered a toolkit along the lines of Fate or Cortex (certainly not marketed that way but treated that way by DMs by long tradition), I find that it would take as much or more work to kitbash D&D into something approximating what I want as to design a system particular to my tastes. In fact, a few weeks ago I got some of my gaming friends together in our first post-vaccination meet-up to discuss putting together a fantasy game using highly-modified D&D rules (for all my complaints about the system, I listen to actual play podcasts and get a desire to play all the same). Instead of spending a lot of time discussing changes and systems, as I’d expected, we relatively quickly came to the decision that they’d (and I don’t disagree) that I devote my time to setting and system for Avar Narn and that they help playtest rules.

That’s a long walk to the real beginning of this post, mostly to explain that I don’t usually review or spend a lot of time on D&D-related books or systems as part of the blog. Brancalonia, though, is just that captivating.

Brancalonia is a setting (with rules modules) for 5e D&D, taking place in a “spaghetti fantasy” version of late-medieval/early modern Italy. Those of you who know my background understand that my interest is immediately piqued. Even without my deep love for the Renaissance in Italy, a mashup of fantasy and the spaghetti western genres sounds like two great tastes that taste great together. In execution, the “western” influence gives way more to the Renaissance themes of misrule, the Commedia Dell’Arte, and the best parts of early-modern humor. The fantasy is low without being gritty (think of a greasier, sleazier, ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold sort of vibe).

The mechanics of the system accomplish this in several ways. First, the restriction of characters to level 6 (a common change to evoke “low” fantasy in D&D without much fuss), though there are character advances that may continue to occur after hitting maximum level. Second, the inclusion of subclasses that evoke the feel of the setting without requiring massive overhauls of the core D&D classes. Third, a bevy of rules additions (more than modifications) that reinforce the feeling of Brancalonia. Short rests are changed to a full night and long rests to a week in line with the suggested rules modification in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The long rest is then incorporated into a downtime “Rollick” system.

Other rules include a system for Brawls (a non-lethal combat type indicative of both semi-good-natured contests between rivals and conflicts between criminals who know that drawing steel changes the context of the fight into something of interest to the authorities–to say nothing of lethality), methods for tracking characters’ bounties for their misdeeds (and the potential consequences thereof), the aforementioned “Rollick” system and rules for relationships to the characters’ band and company as well as an upgradable hideout. The standard D&D economy is changed not by complex changes to numbers in costs but by the vast lowering of the amount of gold characters are likely to have at any given time, limitations on magic items, a system for squandering winnings (reminiscent of Barbarians of Lemuria) and rules for “shoddy” equipment–what the characters will most often be using.

I make mention of Blades in the Dark in the title of this review not simply because it’s the previous game I reviewed, but because the systems in Brancalonia remind me of a (lighter) version of Blades in the Dark crew rules. Rather than managing the relationships between rival gangs as in BitD, the Knaves of Brancalonia are “Bounty Brothers” more often than deadly rivals. But the game does follow the same sort of job–downtime–job cycle as BitD, with a simple but perhaps more formalized system for managing the group’s hideout and its available amenities (described as Grandluxuries). The jobs set to a group of Knaves is implied to be a little more varied, both in context and geography, than the heists of Doskvol.

Also like BitD, characters regularly engage in their vices during downtime in Brancalonia, though the results in the latter are more often amusingly complicating than the self-destruction of the former. The best summary of the relationship between the two, I think is that Brancalonia takes itself less seriously, creating a picaresque tale of rowdy louts rather than a depressing story about desperate criminals.

Some notes about the writing itself: the game was originally written in Italian, and I get the feeling (or make the assumption) that part of the mastery of the feel of the setting is the immersion of the writers in both Italian culture and European history in ways that a Yank like myself can only dream of. The translation into English leaves a text that is clear and easy-to-understand–as well as very well-written. The book could have used some more editing, but the issues I find are typically minor mispellings and particularly the omission of certain letters in words (including within chapter titles!). Still, I found nothing that endangered comprehension or that reasonably compared with the first released draft of the latest Shadowrun rules.

I really can’t over-emphasize how well-written the setting material is. Not only from the standpoint of well-constructed and stylistically-impressive sentences, but also of language that evokes the feel the setting aspires to. I imagine both the original writers (the team of Epic Party Games) and the translator (Sarah Jane Webb) are to be commended for this feat. To boot, the artwork is amazing and highly evocative. I daresay that it’s worth the price of admission alone.

I must admit a certain forlorn agreement with all of the “What our party thinks it is/What our party actually is” memes when I see them, and herein lies another strength of Brancalonia–its tone is that sort of light-hearted foolishness often achieved by players of fantasy RPGs to begin with, so what may be considered a falling-short of the transcendent heights of “great roleplaying” in other conditions is right in with the theme and style of the game in Brancalonia. This alone is a huge strength.

If you’re a less-experienced GM looking for the style of BitD in an easy-to-run system, or a group who couldn’t care less about roleplaying as “Art” so long as everyone is having fun (always the first principle of committing free time to an RPG, I think, even if you want to make “Art” as well), a group looking for a grittier but light-hearted D&D setting, a new gamer wanting to learn to play RPGs, an aspiring designer looking for an excellent example of setting writing (rather than excellent worldbuilding–it may be that, too, but there’s so much material to draw on to create the setting that I’m not sure that it deserves that categorization), or a veteran gamer looking to do something decidedly fun and different, Bracalonia is definitely worth checking out.

Is it just me, or are we in something of a golden age for Italian game designers? I think of The One Ring as well and expect we’ll see more games of note from this group of designers as well.

Blades in the Dark: A Different Kind of Fiddly

As I’d mentioned before, I’ve been, off and on, playing in a campaign of Blades in the Dark over the past few months. I’ve played or run several other iterations of the Powered by the Apocalypse system, but this has been my first foray into actual play of a Forged in the Dark Game. Rather than give a traditional review–as so many have already done this capably–I’m going to leave some remarks about specific “issues” with the game (read “nuances” rather than “deficiencies”). Most of the things I’ll talk about are really aspects of the same issue: BitD requires a very skilled GM to run well.

All Improv, All the Time

That may be an overstatement, but, as with PbtA games, the “freeform” and “narrative” focus of the BitD system puts a lot of pressure on the GM and requires a lot more from them. Every roll requires some level of interpretation, and there is less scaffolding for that interpretation or how to work out the consequences of certain actions as with other, rules-heavier games. There is, of course, an upside to this; otherwise, John Harper’s game would not have become such a successful system being adapted to so many other games.

The benefits mostly accrue to the players, however, at least in practice as I have experienced it. In D&D, for instance, the existence of certain feats and class abilities implies restrictions on characters who do not have those abilities. Not a rogue? You can’t Backstab, so you’re not as likely to choose to sneak up on someone and stab them in the back. Yes, BitD does have “classes” and “abilities” in the playbooks, but these tend to give added bonuses to certain actions without depriving others of meaningfully taking those actions that a more tactical game does not. I’m always telling players, “don’t look at the rules; tell me what you want to do and we’ll figure out how to use the rules to do it.” PbtA and BitD naturally push in that direction. But that also means that the GM has to be ready for anything and can’t be too committed to any particular expectations.

With the game’s mechanics focused on creating “success at cost” results, the GM is constantly forced to, on the fly, come up with reasonable costs and reasonable degrees of success under the circumstances. Likewise, the importance of “positioning” within the game, somehow both a rule and a complete abstraction, gives the GM a shove into the deep end of GMing. Clocks can make for excellent pacing tools and representations of certain obstacles, but if they’re not used regularly and with consistency between uses, they serve only as a doodle representing GM fiat.

I want to be clear here: BitD doesn’t make it hard to run a game. Quite the opposite. It does, however, put a lot of extra responsibility on the GM to make the game go well, and if the GM doesn’t either have a virtuoso intuition for such things, or a good deal of experience with games that have more support for interpreting results, things can go sideways very quickly. When things go well, though, the player freedom and the pace of the narrative created by the system makes for excellent gaming.

So Many Rulings

This is, perhaps, only a specific instance of the general issue of the above, but here it is: There needs to be a discussion of what “success at a cost” means and consistency in the application of that very common result. Starting characters in BitD start with only a few dice in a smattering of skills. While there are very well-designed resources that allow characters to push past their normal limits, the resource-management of which underscores the desperate feel of the setting, the skewing of results toward success at a cost means that the GM has great power (and, thus, of course, great responsibility) for how capable the characters seem to their players. If costs for successes are relatively low, the characters feel capable, triumphing in the face of overwhelming odds. If costs are always made significant, the characters feel like imbeciles, way out of their element and having no business trying to pull heists in Doskvol. This quickly becomes frustrating to the players, and not much fun.

This is, I think where “positioning” comes in. A “properly” paced heist in BitD begins with small costs for success but allows those costs to add up over time until new and significant complications arise. Likewise, there should be an “aim small, miss small,” mentality, where cost is directly proportional to the risk of the action undertaken. The rules explain this, and do a pretty good job of doing so, but the devil is in the details, and when the GM is worried about coming up with a new cost for that unexpected action, keeping track of all this pacing, tension-building, and consistent rulings begins to feel like juggling chainsaws (at least, if you feel that your players are as volatile as chainsaws).

There are a few techniques that may help here. First, of course, is practice. Second is maintaining the “conversation” of the game with the players–it’s completely okay for there to be some back-and-forth between GM and players to establish consequences and costs of an action before the player makes the final decision to take it. This is a game about calculated risks more than overwhelming surprises; so using the “conversational” form of narrative roleplaying is, I think, exactly what is intended here. For bonus points, get the players to make suggestions about results. “I want my character to try to climb the building. I know its raining and dangerous, but the storm also masks his movements. How about a clear success is climbing without issue, the cost is knocking free a loose brick that makes the guards that much more suspicious, and failure means a fall?” If everyone is participating like this, the game becomes (a) much easier to run and (b) more interesting in the telling.

I’ll admit that, even as someone very interested in narrative style games, my background in more “traditional” GM roles sometimes makes it difficult to switch into that other style.

Seduction by Mechanics

Here’s something that hit me quite unexpectedly in playing BitD. The rules for managing your crew, its relationships, holdings, and lackeys is very cool. But there’s an issue with having mechanics for these systems that seems more defined than those for playing through character scenes: it’s easy to fall into the trap that the rules are the sum total of Crew management. Go on a heist, calculate results, make decisions according to the rules, plan next heist. That’s clearly not what’s intended; the crew rules are there to facilitate story, to bring to mind more plotlines and character arcs aside from playing heist after heist after heist. BitD should have a fair amount of Gangs of New York or Peaky Blinders in it–dealing with the shit your lackeys get into and the beef you start with rivals should form a substantial part of play of the game beyond the processes, mechanics and selections that facilitate the crew section. While BitD does have an innovative approach to running heists (or at least a very cogent and elegant iteration cobbled together from the ideas of previous games), it’s not just about the heist. This is evident in the fiction and examples interspersed with the rules, but leaving many of the details of Doskvol to mere implication may subconsciously reinforce the tendency toward a focus on heists rather than other interactions with the world. Again, added weight on the GM. Maybe not unlooked for; worldbuilding (even fleshing out the framework of a provided world) can be an extremely satisfying aspect of GMing in the first place.

Conclusion

All of this is to say that BitD is probably not the sort of game to cut your chops as a GM on. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to run the game well, it wouldn’t be at the top of my list to introduce new players with, either. Running the game well requires a working knowledge of the GM’s narrative and practical toolbox; some familiarity with story structure, tension-building and drama; good improvisational skills and adaptability; and more theorycraft of roleplaying games than most competitors require. But, for some thing, you only get what you give.

“Fluff,” Lore and Mechanics

“What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee, [fluff]!”

I absolutely hate the word “fluff” as it is applied to gaming worlds. If I understand correctly, the term was first used by wargamers to discuss the information given about the world in which their chosen wargame takes place (for me, it was first used in “Warhammer 40k fluff.” The word is, of course, derisive, with the connotation that “fluff” is not necessary, but only a nice addition to have. I understand why some wargamers might have coined and still use the term if they only carry about the actual game they’re playing itself (they want to know which options make for the best Tyranid warriors but don’t give a fig about Tyranid biology, for instance), and the word makes this plainly evident.

Even in the wargaming realm, though, I think the word does a disservice. Maybe I’m just not as competitive a wargamer as others (or maybe I think I’m not until I sit down to a game and take it overly seriously!), but the narrative of an unfolding combat is just as or more interesting than all of the rules themselves. Games overly based on the army you bring and the synergies between unit selections quickly bore me over games where on-the-field decision making and use of resources takes center stage. I want to know a reason the forces are fighting for me to be interested in outcomes more than winning and losing. I think that’s a more fun approach, too, as you can celebrate the sudden reversals in fortune for your opponent with them instead of lamenting as “unfair” every time the dice turn against you.

As a curious aside, I find in interesting that some fictitious settings get “lore” or a “legendarium” while others have only “fluff.” I’m not quite sure where the distinction lies, but I’d love to locate the line. It’s not simply that games have fluff and speculative fiction has “lore”–the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age worlds are often spoken of in terms of “lore” and not “fluff.” Maybe some of this is just a matter of how seriously a particular person takes a particular settings; almost certainly some of it is a matter of semiotic fluidity and carelessness with words.

But I do think it matters. Over the past fifty years, roleplaying games (and games based on fantasy and speculative fiction in general) have increased both in popular appeal and in the seriousness with which the writing of gamebooks and the playing of the game are taken as artistic and literary pursuits. Academia is studying and writing about roleplaying games more and more, and I think that’s an amazing thing; there may be more to learn about how humans examine and work through their own existence in the roleplaying game than in the solitary virtuoso’s classic novel.

When it comes to roleplaying games, I absolutely detest the word, “fluff.” I like a good set of mechanics for a game and I have a great interest in analyzing, modifying and creating RPG mechanics, as some of the posts on this blog demonstrate. I don’t want to fall into the trap of proclaiming the “one true way of roleplaying,” so take my opinions for just that: opinions. But I believe that the setting in which a roleplaying game takes place is not only just as (or more important than) the hard-coded rules, but that the setting and lore surrounding the game are part of the rules.

Those of you who read my RPG-related posts with some frequency know that I gravitate toward narratively-focused games, and especially Fate. But my posts on character-building for Shadowrun are probably the most-read posts on the entire site, so I’m not averse to rules-heavy games either. Still, the games I favor tend to explicitly incorporate setting as mechanics. Fate uses Aspects as a mechanism for those things that are narratively important to affect the dice resolutions, Cortex Plus and Prime do the same thing in a slightly different way. These rules are both focused on providing flexible mechanical systems to handle those points of narrative where randomness and insecurity of outcome is beneficial to the game, while keeping the narrative at the forefront. There are not rules for every case, nor do these rules get too bogged down in exceptions, combos, etc., leaving both Fate and Cortex as RPG toolkits for those gamemasters who like to tinker with and personalize their rules without having to start from scratch.

Forged in the Dark and Powered by the Apocalypse take a different, maybe even more direct, approach to setting as mechanics. They call this narrative or fictional “positioning,” and they don’t need hardcoded rules to do it. The premise is simple–when deciding how successful and effective an action is, we look at the context of the action to make the determination rather than resorting to a “margin of success” or other explicit rules. In a gunfight with a knife and you’ve out-rolled the opponent? Maybe you’re able to get a good slash on the opponent and disarm him. Had you been using a gun of your own, maybe the result would have been a John Wick-style headshot, since you’d have had a much better fictional possession relative to your opponent.

Both systems can use the “hardness” of a GM response, cost of success or degree of success or how many pieces of a clock are filled in for a more specific tracking system.

But neither of these system is necessary to use the “setting and situation as rules” approach. In fact, I think it’s fair to argue that all games to this to a greater or lesser extent. Even Dungeons and Dragons, where you might have a discrete dice roll for damage or to determine whether a condition is suffered, many tests (especially skill tests) are wide open to interpretation of result by the GM. Genre, setting and situation can be drawn upon to determine results in such cases.

A few notes on this:
(1) I think that this is part of what OSR gamers are looking for–greater acknowledgment of setting and situation for resolution rather than specific rules for every action authorizing what can and cannot be done. There’s an opportunity cost for writing rules for specific actions, one most evident in feats and abilities for characters, I think. If there’s a “Great Leap” ability that allows for a jump attack, there’s, at the very least, an implication that characters without this ability can never make (Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy-style) badass jumping attacks.
(2) Also with reference to D&D, the opposite situation–when mechanics are treated as the physics of the setting, even when that doesn’t make rational sense–occurs. I think that this is part of what drives me away from the D&D system as a whole (among other things). I think of Jake Norwood, writing in the preface of his awesome game The Riddle of Steel, when he states that part of the impetus for creating his game was a D&D experience where his character stood on the edge of a cliff, a horde of orcs rushing towards him, and he realized he’d take less damage jumping off the cliff than fighting the orcs. It’s okay to say, “if your character does this, he will die”–even if the rules say otherwise. Unless you’re trying to play a goofy slapstick game (power to you if that’s how you roll), everyone at the table should understand that logic trumps rules when they’re in conflict. A good example, I think, was how the Serenity RPG handled being thrown into space without protection. The rules state (in paraphrase): “The character dies. If you really need to, roll all the dice on the table and apply that much damage.” Note that I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate for a game to have a mechanism for resolving falling damage, only that that mechanism should give way to the fiat of death (perhaps modified by whatever “barely escape from death” points the system has) when it is logically appropriate.
(3) No rules system can cover all situations, nor can it possibly account for all of the minute variables that might factor into a resolution roll, so by necessity we resort to using setting and situation (as our form of internal consistency and logic) to structure resolution rolls in the first place. Is this a one-die penalty for difficulty or two?

And, of course, the lore of a setting tells us what types of things are likely to happen in that setting, what things are extremely unlikely, and how actions or events are likely to play out. You can, and sometimes should, homebrew and modify rules to reflect those realities, but the truth is that you don’t necessarily need to if the setting itself provides the North Star in guiding the structure and interpretation of rolls.

For all of these reasons, I’d argue that setting is a much a part of mechanics (or at least should be considered such) as everything that falls within the “rules” section of the books. When that’s the case, there’s no such thing as “fluff,” there’s only information about the setting that helps us understand how to position the mechanics we use when playing in that setting.

On Mapping

I have spent more time and energy on mapping tools for Avar Narn and other works of mine than I care to admit, with far less to show for it that I would like to admit, except that it might be beneficial for some of you, so here we go.

I’ve owned ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer since it was CC2, and, over the years, I’ve purchased most of the add-ons and about two thirds of the Annuals. And yet, I have only really completed about 2 maps with CC3+, and none that I’m particularly happy with. CC3+ is a beautiful program with tons of content and all sorts of features. It’s based in CAD, providing a solid drafting basis. You can search the web to find many, many, many, beautiful maps created through the ProFantasy programs.

For me, though, the learning curve is simply too high. I’ve come a long way from my early days with the program and understand how some of the features are intended to work and can be manipulated–I understand the use of sheets, how to change sheet effects on textures and objects, how to join paths and create nodes in paths, etc. None of this was learned through trial and error–I had to watch videos on YouTube, read the “Ultimate Mapping Guide” scour through posts on the various fantasy cartography sites, etc. Even with all that I’ve learned, I look at the beautiful maps others have created and then my own and wonder how many more things I have to learn and understand to make the mighty leap from where I’m at to where they are. Then, I spend hours fighting with the program and decide I’m better off hand-drawing. It doesn’t help that while I have a relatively powerful computer, I don’t have anything but the onboard graphics card, so draw times are slow and the program sometimes lags severely.

I like hand-drawn maps and I’ve probably spent the most amount of time working on various iterations of pencil/pen and paper maps. I’ve collected over the years copic markers, a Speedball quill and nibs, liquid inks, artist pencils, etc., etc. Still, most of my handdrawn maps (some of which have been on the blog) remain in relatively low-detail black-and-white. I try, over and over again, to practice top-down and isometric mountains and symbols and never end up with something that satisfies. Part of that is my setting high (read: potentially unachievable) standards for myself as a novice artist (at best), part of it is becoming relatively quickly discouraged, setting it down, and picking things up much later.

In the past six months, I’ve tried a number of additional techniques. I’ve started drawing digitally using Procreate on my iPad Pro. While I’m making some progress there, both in terms of mapping and general drawing, my dedication to learning has been much more lackluster than it should be.

As alternatives, I’ve tried some of the more recent mapmaking programs–Wonderdraft and Inkarnate. I went with Wonderdraft first, using it to create some passable maps for the Innumerable Isles fantasy piratical game I recently ran for friends. While I found the program easier to use than CC3+, I also ended up with coastlines that were much blockier than I’d have liked.

This past week, I decided to try Inkarnate. At $25 for a yearly subscription, it’s far more affordable than CC3+ and just slightly less than the one-time payment for Wonderdraft (at $29.99).

It’s also far more intuitive than any of the other programs (though some basic understanding of layers in digital art is necessary), the “textures” (which are background fill patterns, such as types of grass, lava, wasteland, desert, etc.) blend really well and have enough adjustability to provide a lot of function while remaining quite simple in application. One thing I especially love is the ability to import your own textures. I’m not skilled enough to create real patterns for mapmaking, but I can use the import feature to import a picture of one of my previous maps to shape the coastlines and place icons for a new version of that map before replacing the textures with ones actually suitable for the map. That’s how I created the updated version of the map of Altaenë in Avar Narn that is the topic photo for this post: I imported a digitally-drawn rough map (itself based on a previous pencil and paper map) to create the map above.

I’m pretty happy with that map. I’d still love to produce some digitally-drawn custom maps with blended colors, handdrawn features, etc., but for the time being, this is a map I’m happy displaying or using in some of my materials. The map itself took about three or four hours to do (at a leisurely pace), making it probably the most efficient map I’ve ever produced–certainly so in light of end result. To be fair, I had long ago placed the features and coastlines and come up with most of the names (aside from making changes to better suit Altaenin linguistics), so most of the heavy creative work for the map is not included in the creation time cited.

I’m also working on a world-scale map for Avar Narn in Inkarnate and, like my experience with the map above, I’m getting results I’m quite happy with, especially for the investment of effort. In fact, I’ve not been able to create continental-level maps I’ve been happy with in other media.

I’ve still got some of the creative brainstorming to do on finishing the farther-flung regions of Avar Narn for that map, so I’m probably going to turn to a city map next to flesh out the urban setting where several of the Avar Narn short stories (including “Blood Over Gold” posted last week) are set.

If, like me, you would like to quickly, inexpensively, and efficiently produce some maps for you RPGs or fiction writing, I highly recommend that you give Inkarnate a try. There is a free trial version and you could do a test paid subscription at $5 per month if you want to dip your toes before any greater commitment.

To be clear, I have no affiliation with Inkarnate’s creators and haven’t received anything from them (or anyone else) for writing this post. Sometimes, though, I get excited enough about a writing/creative tool (even one that you’ve probably already heard of) that I feel like its worth sharing for those who might find some use in it.

Rules for Piracy in Fate

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been running an RPG campaign of fantasy piracy in a nascent setting I’m calling “The Innumerable Isles.” I ended up doing a lot of work (drawing upon my The Fate of Piracy series from the not-too-distant past), to come up with some rules for pirate games in Fate.

You’ll find attached below a PDF with the rules as I currently have them. Within those pages, I’ve included a system for using Professions as Skills, rules for Ships as characters (as well as assembling and customizing a ship), general guidelines for character creation, rules for handling piratical particulars (a ship-to-ship combat system and some easy ways to run the ruses used by pirates to tempt unwary prey), and even some fantastical elements (including a magic system).

The ruleset should be easy to employ for either historical games or in fantasy games set in an age of sail analogue.

I’ll follow on soon with some background on the Innumerable Isles setting (although I am turning my main focus to writing down more of my Avar Narn material in preparation for my Patreon launch with the start of the new year) and with some additional tools for the rules included here (including some random encounter charts!)

Infinite Recursions

I think it was Stephen King who wrote or said that, if one wants to be successful as a writer, one needs to writing like a (second) job. I’m not one for taking people’s advice on reputation alone, especially on something so deeply personal and resistant to generalization as writing. Nevertheless, I think (maybe “worry” is a better word) that he’s right.

In light of that, I’m considering starting a Patreon. Through that medium, I’d add some focused posts on my personal worldbuilding endeavors, including fiction and roleplaying rules for those settings. Avar Narn would, of course, be a particular focus, but I also have a handful of additional settings I want to develop—especially for roleplaying (mine and others’). Posts would be at least weekly, with deep dives into aspects of setting, maps, and much more for the enjoyment and use of patrons. I don’t know if I really have a critical mass for something like that to work, but I think it would be useful to me in several ways. First, the deadlines and accountability this could bring me would, I think, help my productivity.

I’m also reminded of a story about a Russian agent working for CIA case officers at the height of the Cold War. He’d regularly ask his handlers for money in exchange for his services, increasing the amount that he wanted every time he asked. Eventually, the Soviets found him out and did what they always did to suspected spies. The CIA officers rushed to his apartment to strip out anything that could link him to others before the KGB could recover it. As they did so, they found all of the money they’d paid him. He had never been the mercenary they’d expected; the money was his way of ensuring that the information he passed to American spies was worthwhile and valuable.

I’d like to think that that’s how Patreon would work for me—as a tangible indication that people are actually interested in my creative work. It would be nice to have some associated income—either to allow me to devote more time to writing and other creative endeavors or to invest in the settings themselves—for artwork and other needs that could allow me to produce professional-grade works—but I don’t expect the income derived therefrom to be a life-changer.

One of my reservations about taking the leap, other than the possibility that a lack of response becomes a de-motivator, is some release of creative control over my productions. Which leads me to the title of this post.

As I was thinking about the prospect of a Patreon, of what it would practically look like, I realized the fallacy of thinking about absolute creative control. Once a piece of art or writing is shared with others, it irrecoverably shatters into a number of pieces equal to the number of participants in the setting.

There is no single Middle Earth, no one Marvel Universe, no absolute Star Wars (just ask Disney). And this goes well beyond fanboy-ism and head cannon—the “feel” of a setting is going to be unique in some inexplicable way to each experiencer, even before we talk about fan fiction or roleplaying games set in that world.

And that’s not a bad thing—it’s a really fascinating one to think that every fictional world becomes infinite worlds, recursions of varying degrees all riffing in some core ideas.

Like all things, that makes the creative act both deeply personal and necessarily communal if it is to be enjoyed. That dialectic speaks to my soul, if I’m going to be honest, and all my worries about whether other peoples’ ideas creep into my own creations seems stupid, honestly, in the light of our corporate relationship between a setting with all of its idiosyncrasies created by our own idiosyncrasies, and the relationship that creates between each of us.

Frankly, it makes me want to create more, write more, give others more setting to make their own in their various ways and enjoy.

I think I’ll give Patreon a shot. We’ll see what happens.

Tom Clancy’s Division Tabletop (Fate) RPG

I’d been recently gearing up to run a tabletop game (using the Fate RPG) set in the world Tom Clancy’s Division. First, my potential players asked for more granularity than Fate usually offers, so I created the attached rules for weapons, equipment and encumbrance.

About the time of getting through the first draft of the rules for character creation (and the accompanying program), discussion among us turned to the fact that this setting might just hit a little too close to home right now to fully be the kind of distracting amusement we could all use. At the same time, two of the other people in the group both offered to GM–if we played D&D.

So, this project has been put on the shelf, maybe indefinitely (I have to admit that, if I had my ‘druthers, I’d have stuck closer to the Core rules of Fate without all of the added complexity). Nevertheless, this was a very interesting exercise for me in game design, particularly in pushing the boundaries of the Fate system’s intent without (hopefully) breaking it.

Anyway, the rules I’m including here are for character creation, as I hadn’t gotten to the rest of the rules (settlements, group combat, etc.) that I’d intended to write. They could be easily adapted to any higher-granularity modern military-style game; feel free to take what you want and leave the rest.

I’ve included a character-generation spreadsheet that will help calculate all of the weapon design and encumbrance matters for you, as well as some premade weapons and archetypal character builds to provide some examples for the system as a whole.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, as I can apply comments and criticisms to my future design efforts, whether for Fate or for something else.

Division Fate Character Creation Unfinished
Fate Division Archetypes
Fate Division Character Spreasheet In-Progress v2
Fate Division Weapon Premades

 

 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the D&D

I generally don’t like D&D as a gaming system. So how did I get here? Well, given the general downtime for everyone, I started working on a roleplaying game to be played virtually with some friends. Since the Shadowrun game tapered off, I haven’t had a game running and there’s a part of me that’s just not happy whenever that’s the case.

I suggested to my friends a game using the Fate system based on the Tom Clancy’s Division games. I spent a lot of time working on some custom rules for the setting (which I’ll post in their unfinished state in a separate post) before two things happened: (1) several of us came to the conclusion that that setting probably doesn’t provide enough respite from every day life in the COVID-19 world, and (2) two other members in the group both offered to GM/DM if we played Dungeons & Dragons. I do a lot more running of games than playing in them, so, despite my reservations, I quickly agreed and we set about negotiating a rotating GMing situation, with our first game set for this Friday.

Here are some of the (admittedly subjective) reasons I’m not a big fan of D&D:

  1. I would prefer a more “realistic” rules approach to combat, particularly than large hit point pools, armor as making one more difficult to hit and no penalties for taking damage until you’re out-of-action.
  2. I don’t like classes and levels, generally. I tend to think that these constructs detract from roleplaying and character development in their rigidity. For instance, only Rogues get sneak attack bonus damage–other characters are mechanically incapable of taking full advantage of an ambush, no matter whether they’re a soldier whose survived a thousand ambushes himself or a gutter punk getting lucky with a sudden knife attack.
  3. As a corollary, D&D is a game (like Shadowrun) with a ruleset that draws me into ours of obsessive character-building to try to find the exact build that will do all the things I want it to, even while knowing that the character generation’s economy of resources won’t allow for it and I can’t (and shouldn’t) try to play characters that are good at everything.
  4. I see D&D as a system that pushes a game toward combat and the gamist side over the roleplaying side based on its design. As you know, my preference leans heavily narrativist. Basing XP on kills makes me uncomfortable on many levels–from the ethical and theological to game design itself. G.K Chesterton once wrote (and I agree): “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” But that’s a big leap from killing 100 orcs because, well, they’re orcs and “orcs bad!”
  5. Encounter building and levels work together in a way that, if playing strictly by the rules, makes some fights unwinnable. I fully believe that some fights should be unwinnable if the players aren’t resourceful, clever and maybe a bit lucky, but D&D as written militates in favor of a straight-up fight of hit-point attrition and forces the good GM to make-up whole cloth how alternative approaches work. Yes, we can talk about “rules versus rulings,” but I’d argue that, when we have to have that conversation at all, something it lacking in what the rules are communicating. That’s not to say that rules should address every eventuality and should be rigidly followed–far from it. The problem here is that the D&D books might say that they encourage this kind of player creativity that requires responsive and flexible GM/DM adjudication, but the rules give the impression of the opposite, and few tools are provided to assist in making such ad-hoc judgments. Put another way, I don’t like that Level 1 characters (or 5 or 8 for that matter) don’t have a chance against a dragon simply because they haven’t ground out enough levels yet. In addition to the ways the rules are written complained of above, a skills-based system over a level-based one can go a long way in this regard.
  6. The assumption that combat is the way you overcome monsters bugs me. Why not more interesting possibilities? Ghosts that you don’t hit with magic swords but that must be banished or appeased in some other way that relies on wits and skills more than fighting?
  7. D&D Physics. This is perhaps my biggest gripe, and it’s admittedly about certain players rather than the rules themselves. Some players assume that the rulebooks represent the physics of the worlds D&D games take place in–if something is technically allowable by the rules as written, no matter how ridiculous, then it’s a loophole in the spacetime continuum that should be exploitable by a player. One example: the player who thinks that, as long as he succeeds at a Deception/Persuasion check, he can convince anyone of anything, no matter how blatantly untrue or unlikely. Another, from 3.5e: a ladder costs less than two ten-foot poles, but is comprised of two ten-foot poles plus some other stuff. You do the math. If I remember correctly, in the forward to The Riddle of Steel roleplaying game (an amazing game on many levels, if not the easiest to run), Jake Norwood described a game of D&D where he realized he would take fewer hit points of damage jumping off the cliff he stood atop than fighting his way through the oncoming orc horde as an inspiration for creating a game with much more realistic combat (he’s also a talented western martial artist, so he was just the type of person to write that game).

Okay, that’s a fair amount of griping, and none of it’s new to anyone. While there are alternatives to D&D (some very good ones), D&D retains the large majority of market share in fantasy roleplaying, despite decades of competition. Why? For one, it’s the only name that most would-be roleplayers know. Additionally, it’s got a special nostalgia factor for a lot of gamers my age or older and a solid place within popular culture that grows every year (2 episodes of CommunityStranger Things, the Greetings, Adventurers! and The Adventure Zone podcasts, etc., etc.). But most of all, I must admit, it’s just a fun game. I’ve played several campaigns of D&D in the past, none of them especially-long running but usually going for a few months or so, and not one of the things I’ve mentioned above really factors into my overall-fond memories of those games.

I’ve decided to enter this upcoming D&D campaign with an eye toward throwing aside some of my complaints and design differences and enjoying the game for what it is–a time-tested engine for running enjoyable high-fantasy games. The other players in my group are all fans of D&D and familiar with it (to varying degrees, but certainly moreso on average than any other system I’d choose to run) and, if all goes well, I may well commit to (personally) running more D&D for them in the future.

Okay, so how am I stopping worrying and learning to love the D&D? Some counterarguments to my complaints above I’m trying to keep in my mind as I undertake this adventure:

  1. Hit points aren’t meant to be a reflection of damage (though they often are treated that way). They’re more like Stress in Fate RPG: a narrative indicator of the leeway a character has before receiving a serious injury. A character who loses hitpoints has lost some of that vigor and focus that keeps her from being injured and comes closer to the possibility, but shouldn’t be thought of as having taken a blow (instead having barely turned it aside, etc.). There are a few points that, as a GM, I’d have go along with this: (a) narrate hit point damage as a near miss and degradation of performance but not a blow actually received; (b) use lingering injuries when hitting zero HP to drive home the fact that that’s when injuries occur; (c) use alternative mechanisms over HP to adjudicate unavoidable damage where appropriate (falling, etc.). Under this approach, it makes good sense that armor serves as a buffer to having to use up HP rather than as a dampener on HP lost, so I get a double rationalization with this mindset!
  2. Classes really are a good conceit for certain types of roleplaying games. In D&D, classes give everyone’s character a chance to shine, clear delineations of where characters fit within the team of players, and accentuate’s cooperative, synergistic play as a group.
  3. Levels can make sense, too, within the conceit of the game mechanics. If we’re literally talking about the accumulation of experience that makes adventurers better at what they do, levels are an appropriate shorthand for that, even if not the choice I’d personally make in game design.
  4. A good GM can use the rules in creative ways (or modify/ignore them) to overcome issues about the game being too combat-focused or too restrictive in the allowance of creative problem-solving, and the occasional unbalanced encounter can be a good reminder to players that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.
  5. I tend to take a very particular approach in what I want from roleplaying games–I expect deep immersion and something approaching high art. I rarely get it, so these expectations are just setting myself up for disappointment. If I’m willing to focus on entertaining stories, interesting characters, exciting encounters and generally having fun, I’d likely enjoy running games even more than I currently do. In other words, maybe I should just get over myself. D&D is an excellent system having fun and telling entertaining stories if I forego my pretensions. I retain the belief that RPGs can lead to deep, immersive stories with significant impact on the players’ thoughts and lives–but they don’t have to be, and if my gaming friends frankly aren’t that interested in that kind of roleplaying, maybe I should lighten up and just have more fun with them! After all, I am a writer, so I do have some outlet for the deep and artistic (if that’s actually more than just pretension and something that actually pervades my writing…).

So there it is. D&D may not be my first choice of RPGs, but there are certainly things about it I like, and could potentially grow to love. Now, if I could just figure out how to build the character I want to play…

Professions in Medieval and Early-Modern RPGs

As I continue to work on rules for the Fate RPG (continuing my Pirates/Age of Sail setting rules and the Fate Control Panel and Fate rules for Avar Narn), I find myself more and more drawn to the design idea of using “professions” over “skills” in late-medieval and early-modern roleplaying games (the most common historical analogues of fantasy settings).

I’m not the first to think of this concept. While not actually used in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, by using “Professions” instead of “Classes” to group skills and abilities, that system made initial steps in this direction. More recent games–13th Age, Barbarians of Lemuria and Shadow of the Demon Lord, for example–have wholeheartedly adopted such an approach. Even the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons has nodded in that direction with its “Backgrounds,” though it still retains discrete skills.

I’m going to make a few arguments as to why I think this approach is better than using more discrete and granular “skills”:

(1) Flexibility and Creativity
One of the things I don’t like about a discrete skill list is the way it causes players to think. Skills cause players to think that their characters can only act in ways specifically described by the skills on their list. In my mind, this is a microcosm of the idea of language shaping cognition–players tend to assume that the skill list represents something about how the game is “supposed” to be played and–especially for less-experienced players–tend to think that they’re “breaking the rules” or somehow trying to pull something if they can’t directly articulate the skill they’re using for their action.

This is counter to the “fiction-first” approach to gaming. I want my players to put themselves in the character’s shoes in the circumstances at hand and, without reference to their character sheet (except as a reminder of the sorts of things the character is good at, I suppose) tell me what they’re trying to do. Then, we can go to the rules and figure out some mechanics. In other words, skills push players toward “mechanics-first” thinking.

To be fair, this complaint goes beyond “narrative” or “fiction-first” gamers. I’m not a member of the OSR community by any means, but I am given to understand that one of the factors driving the OSR is the feeling that early editions of D&D, with their attribute bonuses without skills, allowed for more creative action by players. But that only further makes the point.

A list of professions gives players the information they need (“what are my character’s experiences and strengths?”) without pushing to very granular modes of action (“I can Deceive my way out of this, or I can Jump over the rooftop to get away, or I try to Hide, but I don’t have any other applicable skills”). A player who says, “Okay, my character has been a Courtier and a Soldier, how might he try to get out of this situation?” puts the fiction first and removes barriers to the player’s creativity in selections of actions.

I personally think that this really opens up in Fate if you use the combination of Approaches with Professions (in place of Skills) as laid out in the Fate Codex, Volume 3, Issue 2 (Merging FAE and Fate Core). What’s the difference between a Flashy Courtier and a Sneaky Courtier? Drama, that’s what!

(2) Professions Build Character History
Saying that a character has the “Stealth” skill doesn’t say nearly as much about the character as the character having the “Thief” or “Scoundrel” profession. The skill does beg many of the same questions, but the profession evokes them much more fully and makes us think about a phase or era in the character’s life rather than a simple explanation for how the character acquired a specific skill.

Further, overlap between professions actually allows for character diversity. A character with the Scout profession and a character with the Scoundrel profession probably both know how to be stealthy, but they learned to do so under different circumstances and for different purposes.

If we take the ideas in the two proceeding paragraphs and apply them to character creation, we should quickly see that this pushes us into asking questions about the character and not the skills during character generation. The player isn’t choosing whether the character has the “stealth” skill so much as thinking about how the character acquired it and the other circumstances of the character’s life around that acquisition. In other words, the player is making decisions about the character to get the skills, rather than selecting the skills and then retroactively justifying them.

I think that professions support taking this even farther with character creation systems that offer greater narrative potential than simply point-buy or array-assignment systems.  Simple systems certainly have their place–character creation in Barbarians of Lemuria is exceptionally friendly and simple.

In my opinion, a profession system begs for a “lifepath” system in character creation, allowing us to build the character by moving through his or her personal history. I’ll probably talk more about lifepaths in another post later on.

(3) Professions Are Reflective of Early-Modern Cultural Rigidity
Historically speaking, even as the changes that would lead to more social mobility were taking place, Western Europeans thought of their societies as easily compartmentalized under the “Great Chain of Being”: by the circumstances of their birth, a person was positioned by God where he or she was supposed to be. A peasant seeking to become a lord rebelled not only against society but against God.

A character’s choice of profession implies something about her social status–even in the modified (and often whitewashed) settings our fantasy games often take place in. I wrote in a previous post about leaning into the medieval mindset for fantasy writing and gaming; this is a design mechanism for doing so, I think. A character who has the Courtier, Soldier and Scoundrel professions occupies a different social status than one who has the Tradesman, Scout and Farmer professions, or even one who has the Soldier, Scoundrel and Traveler professions.

One of the areas where this makes the biggest difference, I think, is in social skills. A player who has the Persuade skill (perhaps rightfully) assumes that his character is persuasive to all people at all times. That’s rarely the case in real-world experience. If that character has a high rating in the Courtier profession but no skill in the Farmer or Merchant professions, the character is likely persuasive in the rhetorical speech and etiquette of the nobility, but might well be laughed at when trying to apply Cicero to an earthier and more practical sort of folk. That difference creates verisimilitude and depth to the setting (and probably helps remind players that, no, their character cannot just persuade the guard to give him his armor and weapons simply because he has a certain number of points in Persuade).

If you don’t want to add on additional systems to your game to accentuate the importance of (and difference between) levels of social status, the use of professions by itself will go a long way.

(4) Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic
I’m thinking that I should write a separate post entirely about handling knowledge skills in roleplaying games, but for now, I want to point out another benefit of using professions over skills. In Tudor England, about 8% of women and 24% of men could read and write well enough to sign their own name unassisted–provided I’m remembering my statistics correctly. Regardless of the actual numbers, literacy was on the rise but far from universal.

Some roleplaying games seek to capture this, requiring character resources to be dedicated to the ability to read and write if the player wants her character to have that ability. That’s good for immersion in the setting, but it creates other design problems in balancing the cost of that ability versus others (and balancing against our modern prejudice against those who are unable to read and write). When using professions, you can kill two birds with one stone: characters who have put points into certain professions (or a certain number of points into certain professions) are assumed to be able to read and write; those who have not are assumed not to be able to.

This helps sidestep the need to justify the ability (though the GM should find ways to accommodate players with believable backgrounds that break our assumptions and stereotypes) by corresponding the ability with those we would (logically and historically) expect to have it (say those with the Scholar or Priest professions).

The same goes for scientific and mathematics skills. Greek, Roman and Islamic scholars (and other ancient peoples in cultures from around the world) had advanced understandings of geometry, astronomy and other mathematics even before the late-medieval or early-modern periods in Europe. Under the Tudors, “tally sticks” allowed some record-keeping even for those with a relatively basic ability to conduct mathematic operations and perhaps no ability to read and write. Differentiating the likely arithmetical abilities of different characters becomes much easier when we have some idea of their background, experience and training rather than a list of skills on a page.

(5) Professions Evoke Setting
Your list of available professions tells players about the world they’ll be playing in. A world with Duelist(s) and Pirate(s) is very different from one with Knight(s) and Monk(s) (or Pirate(s) and Ninja(s?)).

(6) Built-in Contacts
If using a system like Fate, with its “Contacts” skill, then the use of Professions gives you both specificity and breadth that (I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, n’est pas?) increases immersion, because the professions can be used to generate contacts of the type of people someone with experience in the given field is likely to know.

In Fate, this can be supplemented by allowing the invocation of Aspects to allow the introduction of contacts a character may know aside from the channels of his place in the world at large.

Conclusion
As usual, I’ve rambled on a bit more than I originally intended to do. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve given you some good reasons to think about converting skills into professions in the next campaign you run, regardless of system.

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.