Musings on Perfection

We’ve wrapped up our Apocalypse World campaign recently, and it’s left me pensive. Throughout the game, I embraced the AW maxim: “play to find out what happens”. Embraced it to such an extent that I discovered the true “motivation” of the psychic maelstrom (the not-really-well-maybe-antagonist of the world), doubling as the moral lesson for the entire campaign, as I opened my mouth to deliver it. It fit with everything that came before, mostly. It worked. But would it have worked better had I figured it out beforehand? Generalizing, just how much of the game world should we figure out at the start of the game, and how much of it should be left uncharted? See also the Dungeon World principle: “draw maps, leave blanks.”

Roleplaying games are a unique medium. A live one-off show where performers are also the audience. There are no rewrites in it, no fixing it in post, no rehearsals. Dice fall, characters make choices, the world changes. Well, that’s not quite true. We can amend what happened, fudge the rolls, rethink. We can fix mistakes, as long as we catch them quickly. Though when we do, the emotional impact is inevitably lessened.

Point being, RPGs are inherently chaotic. They by definition cannot be perfect, not like a static, complete work can be. The more input players have, the more input the game has, the more we relinquish control over the events, the more entropy we invite. Entropy leads away from perfection, but it can lead to life. We don’t want the high entropy system of everyone just yelling at each other while the dice are on fire, and can’t have the perfectly crystalline structure of static media. We want to find the right temperature and the right conditions that would let our games come alive.

What flowery nonsense, what does it even mean? Take combat, the most regimented activity in most RPGs. We don’t, generally speaking, plot it out. Instead, we trust that once we throw enough orcs and heroes into the same room, swords will clash and fun will be had. However, there’s initial preparation, in some systems a lot of it, in figuring out character and monster abilities and stats, terrain, likely monster tactics, etc. Then we let the dice and the players decide how things turn out. The game provides the elements, the GM picks the right proportions, then together with the players they throw these elements together. Cool and funny and epic moments arise out of this chaotic mess. Combat is not perfect, but it is often fun.

This is what I’m musing over: how do we know we’ve done enough to prepare the initial conditions of the entire game, the way we can be reasonably sure we’ve prepared for a combat encounter? Write out everything, and you have a pretty yet lifeless crystal railroad, players enacting the play. Write nothing, and there’s just a few incoherent story blobs flopping around on the table which may or may not converge into something meaningful. And that’s not even getting into a common mistake of many novice GMs, writing a whole setting that the players will barely see.

Apocalypse World, the game that prompted this post, does a really good job of guiding the GM through at least some of the campaign prep: everything and everyone is a threat, it says. Threats have wants, so no matter how the circumstances change, you’ll know how they react. They come at you from different directions, so make a threat map. Wherever the PCs go, whatever they do, there’ll be a threat there to do onto them. The GM Principles and Moves further help shape the game into a volatile, tense experience. Even the game engine itself, being a narrative rhythm engine, throws curveballs at players and GM alike.

Writers often talk about their characters taking on a life of their own, dragging the story in unexpected directions. In RPGs, the characters do have a life of their own through the players controlling them, and the dice wreak additional havoc. All you’ve got to do is let them. By leaving answers to fundamental questions up in the air, allowing them to emerge from the game seemingly on their own, we give ourselves an opportunity to not only be surprised, but also come up with something we normally wouldn’t have.

If you’ve played with the same group of people for a long time, they learn your storytelling habits and favorite tricks. Many times now, my players had guessed the underlying plot half way through the game. That’s harder to do if even I don’t know it. And the favorite pastime of many a GM, listening to their players speculate, becomes that much more meaningful: you won’t even need to rewrite anything if they have a better idea than you.

And so: just how much should you know about the game before you run it? There is no clear answer to this one, no one-size-fits-all recommendation. If nothing else, it depends on how comfortable you are with drawing connections between disparate plot elements on the fly: not just improv, but integrating results of improv into a cohesive whole.

While I can’t tell you how many big answers you should have from the start, you should try and have all the big questions. “What does the psychic maelstrom want?” gives you something to build upon, whereas simply positing the existence of a psychic maelstrom merely offers you a cool thing which may or may not fit anywhere. A while ago, when I was only starting down this road, I wrote about the benefits of including players’ ideas in your games and managing the resulting chaos. In the latter post, I suggested the “Chekhov’s gunpile” method of throwing cool things into the game in the hopes that at least some of them will “fire”. In that metaphor, the big questions we pose at the start are the targets these “Chekhov’s guns” will hit.

Another thing worth deciding upon from the start is the main theme of the campaign, or at least of the current story arc – a suggestion I first saw in tremulus. Something as simple as “revenge” or “hope”. The players are not likely to ever recognize it, but it provides cohesion, acting as a hidden context for most plot lines that occur.

Most importantly, remember that you will sometimes miss the mark, and that’s fine. However good you get at GMing, you’ll make missteps, or the players will, or the dice will refuse to cooperate. Plot lines will not always converge in a satisfying manner, characters will not always get their due. All you can do is learn and try to do better next time, one imperfect game at a time.

Musings on Cross Contamination

A curious thing has been happening in our weekly 13th Age game. When a player rolls poorly, the GM would sometimes offer them what can only be described as an ugly choice. And often enough, players choose the course of action that is “sub-optimal”, if not outright harmful to their characters, as if compelled. If you’ve played Apocalypse World or Fate, you’ll recognize those terms. There are mechanics in those systems that demand ugly choices or compel dangerous-yet-interesting behavior. Except we aren’t playing either of those games.

Of course, Apocalypse World doesn’t hold a monopoly on failing forward, and neither does Fate originate the idea of playing out the negative sides of your character’s personality. However, these games (and many others beside them) are built around those concepts. By playing them, you internalize their ideas. It becomes natural to consider how your actions will impact the overall direction of the game, to offer choices. And when you move on to the next game, you bring along this expanded approach. Your games become cross contaminated.

Is that a good thing? Not necessarily. By coming into a new game with preconceptions on how to play games in general, you risk missing what makes that game different. The aforementioned AW basically screams from every page it’s a different kind of beast, yet some seasoned players and GMs alike read it and are left wondering why anyone would want to ever play something that allows its GM to respond to any PC action with bears. Likewise, going into an OSR game expecting it’ll provide a sequence of fun, challenging yet ultimately fair tactical encounters à la D&D 4e will only result in disappointment.

So playing a game as “intended” is important, to understand it before you change it. Whenever learning a new system, conscious effort is required to figure out the way the author(s) had intended for it to be played. That’s not always easy. All too often, these expectations are not articulated in the text. Indeed, one suspects these expectations are rarely articulated even in the author’s head. If the author has only ever been exposed to one “way” of playing, why would they be. This is where the aforementioned AW and Fate shine: they dedicate a lot of their text to elaborating on how they’re meant to be played, and with good reason.

Naturally, you are free to change the games you play as you see fit – no game police will stop you, and purists declaring you’re having fun wrong are best left to their own strictly regimented hells. However, the cross contamination of ideas described in the first paragraph is not as overt. We didn’t introduce mixed successes or fate points to 13th Age. Instead, we had those as part of our vocabulary. We knew those tools existed, had experience with them, so we were able to metaphorically grab them off the shelf, use as required, then toss them back without looking, without even thinking about it.

By offering a mechanical reward for going against your character’s interests, Fate teaches its players it’s ok to do so. It’s all sleight of hand, the negative consequences often take more than a single fate point to resolve. It’s a bad deal, if you’re trying to “win”. But take it a few times, and you realize the game doesn’t end when the character fails, it gets more interesting instead. The criteria for “winning” shift. And once that happens, the fate points are not needed anymore.

Likewise, AW teaches the GM to put a lot more trust into the players. Its rules dictate the GM to let them pick their own poison, and ask them questions and accept their answers as truth. In effect, the players take ownership of these little bits of the game, and through them, the game as a whole. Once you are used to relinquishing control just a bit, you no longer require the rules to tell you to do so.

The moral? Play more, play different, play mindful. Step out of your comfort zone every once in a while. All the GMing advice articles in the world won’t beat the experience of actually doing it.

Musings on rules

Once, at the dawn of my roleplaying career, I had convinced a friend to try DMing, letting me be a player for once. It was, naturally, D&D. We had ourselves a decent enough adventure, and fought some robotic wolves at some point. An enjoyable experience. Later, I asked him what stats he used for the monsters. He said he used regular wolves, but wanted to make them tougher, so he didn’t track their hit points. Instead, they died after a few rounds, when he felt like the fight had gone on long enough.

The fight was a lie. The fight was exactly the same. We still stabbed the wolves, were bit in return and prevailed in the end. What changed? While individual rolls were a waste of time, the decision to fight did matter: we could have, perhaps, found a way to sneak past them. The starting point (decision to fight) and the destination (wolves dead) stayed the same, it’s the actual journey in the middle that turned out to have been meaningless. Except even that is not quite true. We still enjoyed rolling the dice, and imagining the hits and misses.

Don’t get me wrong, that was a terrible thing to do, but mainly because it violated the rules of the game that we thought we understood. One can easily imagine a system where a fight (or any other scene) only goes on as long as it’s interesting. In fact, that’s a backup rule or suggestion in many games: wrap things up and move on if players start getting bored. And in systems without such rules, people have invented tools like Combat Out for D&D 4e, ways to end a combat once the victor is determined or a specific condition is met.

Generalizing, many if not most games have the so-called rule zero: ignore the rules if that makes your game better. And on the flip side of that is the illusionism approach: the belief that the GM cannot cheat, and should be free to lie about the dice rolls and other mechanical elements to make the game better. This may involve helping a recurring villain get away, saving the party from an unlucky TPK or engineering one.

Then why even have rules? Why do we bother with mechanics if they inevitably get in the way of the experience we wish to have? Some people quite happily play freeform, after all. Others avoid using any rules for the majority of their game time, e.g. playing a social intrigue D&D game. In no particular order, and not necessarily exhaustively, rules provide impartiality, surprise, structure, and fun.

The fun part is the easiest to explain: by most definitions, you can’t have a game without rules. And we like games. We like to roll dice, to demonstrate our mastery of the rules and be rewarded for it. Then again, I already mentioned freeform games here, and I’m not particularly interested in declaring something Not A Roleplaying Game. A different kind of enjoyment can undoubtedly be had even without rules.

Rules allow players and GM alike to anticipate likely outcomes of their actions. They make it harder for a GM to play favorites with their players, and make it easier to be consistent. Rules also take on the blame. It wasn’t the GM that killed you, it were the dice. Rules make sure the game is fair. This is where the desire for game balance comes from: it is a problem if the players perceive, whether correctly or not, the game itself to not be fair.

Then again, there are entire playstyles dedicated to the idea of GM knowing best, like the aforementioned illusionism. “Rulings, not rules.” Indeed, some players reject the idea of rules governing some of their activities, such as social interactions or exploration.

By and large, the impartiality of rules is an illusion anyway, though a useful one. In all but the most restrictive games, the GM has leeway to interpret an event in a variety of ways, and to decide whether to apply mechanics at all. Fate is particularly noteworthy here: its rules govern narrative circumstances rather than the in-game situation. Meaning the GM (hopefully with cooperation of the players) chooses which rules to apply. Not to mention the ability to set up any kind of situation in the first place. It’s not against the rules to throw a tarrasque against a 1st level party, just not advised. Declaring that Rocks Fall, Everyone Die is legit, too.

Related to impartiality is the capacity of a game to surprise us, to choose the outcome for us. More than that, true surprise comes from unexpected outcomes rules can provide. Not just path A or B, but an entirely unforeseen path C opened up by a (un)lucky critical hit. 13th Age’s owlbear exemplifies this: most of the time it’s just a monster to be fought, but it could rip your arm off, forcing the story in a new, bloody, direction. Then again, the GM can certainly surprise players without any rules, and players are notorious for doing the same to the GM.

So far, everything the rules do, we can achieve otherwise. The last element left is structure, and this is, I believe, the main benefit mechanics provide. Roleplaying games are an interactive medium. A group creates their own game every time they sit down to play. We breathe life into it, use our imagination to create and live out stories of our characters. And while we do so, we have the rules, the mechanics, to fall back on. Any time we don’t know what to do, what to choose, we can lean on them. If you’ll forgive me waxing metaphorical for a moment, if a roleplaying game is a plant, its rules are the structure around which it entwines as it grows, as we play it. And just as a structure can offer support, it can be stifling.

We don’t need the rules. But with them, we can reach higher, go to places we wouldn’t have imagined otherwise. Constraints breed creativity, being forced to grow in a certain direction gives the plant a shape. Just be sure you picked the right rules for the game you wish to play.

Musings on the Apocalypse

Catchy title, if not entirely accurate. You see, I want to ramble about Apocalypse World Engine games, but I haven’t actually played AW itself, only tremulus, its lovecraftian horror offspring. Still, I’m under the impression the games are mechanically similar enough (sharing the engine and whatnot) that this is a reasonable basis.

At its most basic, the mechanics of AWE can be described as “when you do something you may not succeed at, roll 2d6 plus an appropriate stat; on 10+ you do it, on 7-9 you’re going to have to compromise with the GM, and on 6- something interesting, usually bad, happens.” Player moves provide some constraints and mechanics for specific outcomes, and GM moves provide a slate of options to choose from. It’s not entirely accurate either, but we’ll keep this definition for now.

The issue many critics of the system have is that there’s no mechanical connection between what the PC do and what the GM can spring on them as the result of their failure. Something interesting happens. If a PC is trying to lock-pick a door into a seemingly abandoned mansion without being detected and rolls 6- on an Act Under Pressure roll, anything could occur. The lock could get jammed. A groundskeeper could come round a corner. Or a maniac swinging an axe. Or a distant wolf howl could send shivers down their spine. Or a bullet could hit them. Or… You get the idea. It should make sense, naturally, but that’s left entirely up to GM.

That’s not the way a straightforward game like D&D would handle it. In it, you fail – you do nothing. Maybe you get to try again, maybe something occurs to prevent you – but not because you made the roll. The same groundskeeper could show up. The same maniac, the same bullet. But not because of the roll. Even in games which embrace the “fail forward” ethos like Fate (and 7-9 is failing forward in AWE), the outcome of a failed Overcome roll like trying to open a door could be either simply failing or succeeding at a major cost. Such as “if you stick around long enough to get it right, you will be spotted by the groundskeeper whose footsteps you now hear.” It would be quite odd for a Fate GM to offer an axe-swinging maniac as the cost for success.

And this trips people up. Sometimes, it trips me up. I’m quite happy to see an axe-swinging maniac appear in a horror game, but why should my Reason stat impact the probability of it happening? How does failing to open a lock make the maniac come out? It’s entirely possible to avoid making such moves, to only have events occur that logically follow from the action itself, but the system doesn’t demand you do so, and I believe that’s purposeful.

That’s because AWE doesn’t have a task resolution system. It has a narrative rhythm system that masquerades as a task resolution system. It doesn’t tell you whether you succeed or fail, it tells you whether a good or a bad thing happens.

There are no difficulties in AWE, you always roll the same dice against the same numbers. There’s close to nothing players can do to stack the odds in their favor, they can only try and make some outcomes narratively inappropriate. Whatever PCs do, whatever happens, roughly the same proportion of good and bad/interesting outcomes will occur across every game.

But what about stats, you may ask, wouldn’t they affect this? And indeed they do. But once you start to consider AWE from this point of view, stats take on a different role too. Rather than helping or hindering characters in their tasks, they encourage players to match their actions to their characters’ capabilities. It’s not that having a low Reason score means you’re more likely to meet an axe maniac while you pick locks. It’s that you shouldn’t be trying to pick locks if you have low Reason. And if you’re desperate enough to try, the tension is already high and bad things will be happening to you. It’s narrative logic of tension and drama, not of skill and consequences.

We’ve started with a definition of the core mechanic of AWE, and I warned you it wasn’t quite right. That’s because you don’t roll dice when something may go wrong. You roll them when a move is triggered. The rules encourage you to not think of the moves or mechanics at all, until you need them. To never go “I use Act Under Pressure to pick the lock,” but “I pick the lock and, oh, looks like I’m Acting Under Pressure.” The rules act like an impartial observer, sometimes interfering to introduce a new direction in the story. In a way, AWE may work better if the players didn’t know the rules at all. Without the tangible link between lock-picking and axe-swinging maniacs, there’s no contradiction.

Is this the intended interpretation of the way the mechanics are meant to function? Probably not. But that’s what I get after squinting, turning my head just so, and staring at AWE for a while. The deeper, almost subconscious workings of the system. The narrative truth behind the mechanical lie. But perhaps we need the lie of actions and consequences to get us to follow along, to fool us into thinking we’re in control while the narrative rhythm does its thing behind the scenes.

Musings on Hit Points

This is going to be a little bit different. I don’t really have a point I want to make, nor am I attempting an exhaustive analysis of the topic. Rather, it’s a bunch of thoughts on it, which may or may not lead somewhere. Expect such posts to be shorter and (more) rambling than usual. 

Some of my players have admitted recently that they didn’t enjoy the combat in Fate that much. They felt that often there was little threat to their character, and while the narrative side of it was fun enough, the actual mechanical impact of a turn in which they inflicted one stress upon the enemy, and would need to do so several more times to finish the fight, was lackluster. They had contrasted it with D&D 4e, in which the mechanics were interesting to them (to one more than to another), and so they didn’t mind the long fights.

It makes sense: the fun part of Fate is the narrative, and all its mechanics merely help to move it along. The actual rolling dice and inflicting damage part is plain – it’s how you inflict the damage that’s interesting. And it’s my fault for failing to make all fights exciting in their own right, not just because they’re a fight. 4e had a reverse problem, that I had more or less solved for myself: while the fights were interesting, their outcomes were not. The solution was to offer different outcomes, not just the predetermined victory of PCs.

But back to the topic at hand. A conclusion one can draw for the stated complaint is that hit points (stress boxes, in this case) make a round of combat matter less. Indeed, had each roll posed a risk of inflicting lasting consequences, there would be no boring rounds of hit point attrition. Why do we even have hit points? In a way, hit points are only interesting when they run out – that’s when something changes. Note that when talking about hit points, we also talk about variously varying damage they ablate, so I won’t mention it specifically.

Mechanical element

Hit points are a piece of the mechanical puzzle, along with attack and defense skills or parameters, dice sizes and pools, position on the map, etc. By manipulating these elements we play the game. They offer us a chance to demonstrate a mastery of mechanics, take risks for a chance of rewards, make mechanically meaningful decisions.

In games like D&D 4e where mechanics are a source of fun, it is obviously an important role. The more elements there are, the more interactions between them the designers can come up with, the more varied the abilities and resulting experience will be.

In games like Fate where mechanics offer the backbone on which the fun parts rely, this is somewhat less relevant. You may not care about taking some damage as that has no bearing on the plot… unless you take a few more points of damage and receive a consequence, or get defeated, or don’t attempt something dangerous you would have otherwise.

Protection from Goblin Dice

Hit points are a buffer against a random bad roll or three that would cause an unexpected and, presumably, undesirable result. Swingy, dangerous combat could be a goal of the system, of course. In that case the hit points would be set low relative to damage (see low levels of earlier editions of D&D), or there would be some alternative side-effect of fighting, like crippling critical hits. In most modern games, though, it’s unfashionable to have a character die from a stray bullet.

It’s a question of just how much of an impact random chance should have on the game. The more hit points, the more time there is for statistical averages to reassert themselves.

Verisimilitude

It’s got to feel “right”. A barbarian should have more hit points than a wizard, and a bazooka should do more damage than a rock. Hit points are one of the easy ways to signify and communicate the relative potency of weapons, characters or events. How hot is that fire? 5 damage hot.

Time to be cool

Related to the previous two items, hit points determine how many rounds a fight takes, and that determines how many actions players get to make. Again, it’s got to feel right. It’d likely feel anticlimactic if you were to defeat your archenemy with one punch. You want the time to exchange insults and blows. To use your abilities and prove you are better, not just luckier. Unless, of course, abrupt death is part of your game’s genre.

The reverse is also true: time afforded by hit points becomes unwelcome if there’s not enough interesting stuff to fill it, narrative or mechanical. If your fight is 5 rounds of going “I attack” while standing immobile in front of your enemy, you can probably do with a few less.

The journey, not just the destination

It’s not just who wins, but how they win. By focusing only on the final outcome of a scene, which side runs out of hit points first, you lose what makes the scene interesting. It’s no better than replacing a social encounter with a single Diplomacy check. Yes, the NPC we’re talking to will either agree to help us or not. But ideally we actually enjoy the act of talking to them. Similarly, ideally we enjoy the action not just for its outcome. Ideally, each hit point lost is a single step on a journey. It’s up to us, players and GMs alike, to make that journey exciting.