Friday, September 15, 2023

Nested Tasks

[This post contains mid-sized spoilers for the video game Breath of the Wild and the RPG adventure In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe]

Your quest is to awaken the slumbering elf king by bringing him the fairy stone. To do that, you must journey to the ancient shrine of Cernunnos, now controlled by orcs deep within their dark, industrial colony. You get behind enemy lines, sneak past orc armies, kill some scouts, steal their maps, and locate the shrine. Once at the shrine, you have a dungeon to clear out. There's a sequence of rooms you discover, soon finding the fairy stone. It's locked behind the Hart Gate, an ornate lattice fence shaped like a stag. You'll need a series of keys, each one hanging from a branch of its antlers so you can unlock the gate. That means exploring the maze of trials and secrets throughout the shrine. In each room of the shrine, there's monsters and orc patrols, puzzles and riddles, traps and hazards, secret treasures, imprisoned civilians to free, and weird magic stuff to play with.

Room < Dungeon < Hexcrawl

The above adventure doesn't exist. But the broad strokes are familiar. All adventures are a sequence of tasks. But the way those tasks are organized goes a long way in shaping the whole thing. There's a hierarchy. Every room of the dungeon presents a short-term task. You start a combat encounter with some orcs, and for the next stretch of playtime that is the task you are performing. But those are all contained in the context of the dungeon task, which you're also performing simultaneously. It's not just a series of arbitrary, disconnected episodes. There's a through line tying it together. Collect the keys to unlock the gate and get the MacGuffin. That's a mid-term task you began when you entered the dungeon and which you completed after finishing a bunch of the rooms. But the dungeon is not the full story. It's also a piece of a greater context. Doing the dungeon is just the last task in the hexcrawl. Getting to the dungeon was a series of tasks, as is getting back from the dungeon. All of those hexcrawl tasks, with the dungeon task in the middle, comprise a long-term task. And it's that long-term task that is the true "quest."

This probably sounds obvious, but I have a theory.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Least Interesting Type of Crunch

As I'm sure you well know, not all crunch is the same. It can be broadly useful to know if you generally prefer less crunch or more crunch. But it helps a lot to feel out the nuance of the issue. I myself don't often identify as preferring "rules lite" games anymore because I have to admit that there's actually some very crunchy games I love. My own design certainly leans lite, but I know confidently that I'm no true minimalist. I can sink my teeth into rules and procedures, so long as they're the right kinds. But I think I've discovered the one category of crunch that I find the least interesting overall. And I'm sure many of you out there will vehemently disagree.

Rules, resources, and procedures that complicate basic task resolution do basically nothing for me 99% of the time. I cannot get excited over this sort of thing. And the worst part is, this is also the focus of, like, 75+ percent of all RPG design discussion. Just go onto and see how much of it is literally just talking about dice mechanics.

Don't get me wrong. I'm well versed in this area. I can talk about it for fucking days. Right now, off the top of my head, I can name and explain at least 20 different core mechanics from RPGs I've seen or read or played. I can tell you all about the strengths and weaknesses of d20s, d6s, 2d6s, d%, or whatever. Binary pass/fail? Variable difficulty or static difficulty, then? Or what about noting margins of success? Or if you're a PbtA fan, gradations of success then? Please. Roll-under or roll-over? How about roll-under blackjack? Hell, some games exclusively use contested rolls for all checks. And yet, others have exclusively player-facing rolls. Dice pools are cool, but you know what's cooler? Measuring attributes in die sizes themselves. But I'm sure some of you enlightened ones are about to preach the gospel of narrative dice, or FUDGE dice, or Zocchi dice. And how do we feel about modifiers? +/- X is a bit clunky, but we could go back to matrices. Advantage/Disadvantage is pretty slick, but have you heard of Boons and Banes? Personally, I really like Momentum from the 2d20 engine. Effort dice to deal "damage" to a task is cool, too. But sometimes you just gotta go for exploding dice, right? And yet, is anything more elegant than two attributes sharing a single stat, as in Lasers & Feelings? We haven't even touched criticals and fumbles, either. Oh Jesus Christ how the fuck do you begin to explain FASERIP??

And yet... I don't give a shit. I just don't care. If the most interesting part of a game is its dice mechanic then I probably won't be able to get into it.

I recently tried looking up "gimmick mechanics" in RPGs. Y'know, little pieces of design that aren't exactly foundational or revolutionary, but which still make you go "oh that's cute." I love gimmick mechanics. I wanted to collect a list. On occasion I'll revisit it, and maybe consider bolting one or two of these gimmicks onto whatever project I'm working on that week. And the list is coming along okay. But you know what I found in my search? Almost exclusively fucking dice mechanic variations. Things that just interact with the probability of success or failure at basic tasks.
  • D&D 5E has inspiration. Do a cool thing, DM gives you advantage. Spend it to get free advantage to one die roll. Only 1 inspiration at a time, so you better use it.
  • Fate has fate points. Everyone starts with a pool of fate points they can spend to either get +2 on a roll or to re-roll, whichever would be better. But to spend it, you need to invoke one of your traits and make it relevant to the fiction somehow.
  • Paranoia: Red Clearance Edition has the Computer Dice. It's the one die you always get to roll in your dice pool no matter what, but gets weird if it rolls the computer symbol. You gotta erase a point of Moxie and see how Friend Computer intervenes, which could be helpful or harmful.
  • Savage Worlds has the wild die, exploding dice, and bennies to spend for dice re-rolls. Do I have to explain all three? Go look it up.
  • Blades in the Dark has the "devil's bargain," where the player can add an extra die to their dice pool in exchange for a narrative complication.
  • Kult: Divinity Lost has relation inspiration. You have certain character relationships that are valuable to you. Then, whenever you can invoke the power of one of these relationships during a roll, you can get a bonus on it. Lifting a car to free someone underneath is difficult, but it's less difficult if the person is your own child.
  • Lots of Free League games include the "push" mechanic. Take some damage for the chance to re-roll some dice.
  • Troika! has an attribute called Luck. It's used in all sorts of places, usually just to see if things "go in your favor." But every time you test your luck, it lowers by 1 no matter what.
  • Call of Cthulhu has both a spendable Luck stat and a "pushing the roll" mechanic, which cannot interact with each other!
  • Every Star Wars RPG has had some kind of metacurrency. The 80's WEG one has "force points" The 00's WotC one has both "force points" and "destiny points." The 10's FFG one has "destiny points." All of these work differently. All of them are something you earn by being cool and you spend to make things work out better.
I'll admit that Dread really did something special in this area. But it's a rare sort of innovation.

The folks at Critical Role are currently coming out with a new game of their own. You may have heard of it. It's called Candela ObscuraHere's a video of a developer explaining the basics. I watched it. It seems like a fine game to me. I'm sure lots of folks will have a blast. But I just can't get past how much shit is involved in basic task resolution. To recap:

You have a score from 0-3 for each Action, determining how many dice you get in your pool when you roll that Action. Actions are nested in categories called Drives. When you roll an Action, you can also spend points to add extra dice from the pool attached to its parent Drive. You refresh Drive points by using one of your Gilded Actions. When rolling a Gilded Action, you replace a die in your pool with a Gilded die and can choose to take its result instead. Even though it may be worse, it at least restores a Drive point. And you also have Resistances, which you can spend to re-roll dice when you fail a roll.

Dear god that is so fucking boring. What could justify this degree of overthinking dice rolling?

I think one thing I've found during all my years running and playing games is that I want basic task resolution to be as quick and seamless as possible. I get unreasonably annoyed even just when one of my players takes 10 seconds to find the right die to roll, or they're struggling to type out the exact roll command on a VTT. Hell, I announce difficulty classes out loud when I call for a roll in the vain hope that I can maybe get the player to skip a couple steps and instead answer me with a simple "I succeeded" or "I failed."

I'm not an FKR purist, mind you. I enjoy that style of play, but I do prefer the uncertainty that dice can add to the equation. It's a crucial piece of design for me. I am pro-dice. But it's an ingredient of the design where I firmly believe that less is more.

Every piece of crunch you add has a cost. A cost in how much brainpower it takes to learn, to teach, to remember, to use. The essential tradeoff is to make sure that crunch is able to add something really valuable to the game in spite of that cost. I try to only add crunch in the parts of the experience that I think have the most potential for interesting decision-making. And in my opinion, "will I be successful at the thing?" is one of the most shallows questions to ask for inspiring decision-making opportunities.


Monday, August 21, 2023

Samwell Tarly the Slayer vs Ghost the Good Doggo

D&D didn't forget about or abandon followers, flunkies, and lackies. They merely evolved. Adapted to selection pressures, now built for a different ecosystem. Now D&D has animal buddies. And there's actually a lot to this, I swear.

The two most popular kinds of sidekick are followers and pets. I want to use general terms here because old schoolers will get hung up on the distinctions between hirelings, henchmen, and retainers while new schoolers will get hung up on the distinctions between animal companions, mounts, familiars, and other summons. But that's missing the point.

Obviously, both old school D&D and new school D&D can and do make use of both followers and pets. But they definitely each have a preference. Modern DMs have to choose to add followers into the game, often because they specifically want to add a pinch of old school! And old-minded DMs rarely are prepared for when their younger players inevitably ask to have a pet, and at best might homebrew some "animal taming" procedure to feel better about it. I'm just here to point out that each one is better adapted to the norms and expectations of each play culture, yet are fundamentally variants of the same basic thing.

Followers are better suited to old school play because they're good for carrying items and holding light sources. Modern D&D doesn't care about either of those things. They're also a great backup character if your PC dies. But as far as modern D&D is concerned, an unplanned PC death is basically a complete fail state. It's like the worst thing that could possibly happen in the game and it means that someone, probably the DM, supremely and unforgivably fucked up. Followers are also an active agent to some degree, with their own motive, voice, and concerns about what they're sent to do and how they're treated. This holds potential for interesting social conflict, but it's a type of conflict that modern D&D doesn't have much interest in exploring or validating. Whereas an old school adventurer has to make a choice about whether they're abusive or fair to their followers, modern D&D would simply rather not allow them the opportunity to be abusive to anyone at all.

Pets are better suited to new school play because they don't have motives or agency or much of a voice. They can instead act as a fun accessory for their PC, making them look cooler. Remember, the PCs are much more the focal point of the game nowadays. Time and attention are finite resources, so anytime an NPC is getting the spotlight, it comes at the direct expense of the PCs. Followers are also more mechanically complicated. Pets are simple to run, which is good because PCs are now more complicated to run than in olden times. A pet can just be an extension of the PC, not unlike a mage hand. Of course, they can have personality. The players who want pets the most would all agree that the best part about a pet is when they're cute and fun and charming. There aren't many folks interested in a pet strictly for its practical benefits. That said, they do still have those!

The main utility a pet has in modern D&D is to serve as scouts and spies. That's a type of challenge that remains relevant in modern play, and my own group has to send out a pet to do some reconnaissance almost every single session. The second most common practical use for pets is to have them harass your opponents in battle so you can get advantage on your attack roll. This is a bit cheesy, but the prevailing ruling among the 5E community is to allow this idea (admittedly, probably mostly just so you can placate the player who really really likes their pet and wants it to be involved). Pet as an easy source of advantage means you don't have to be as clever about tactics. No need to work together with your fellow PCs (individual initiative is a modern design choice that already makes that less viable), no need to leverage the environment, no need to really read your opponent for their weaknesses. Just press the "activate pet advantage" button and move on to your attack roll.

I know this all makes me sound curmudgeonly and dramatic, but I sincerely like both of these playstyles and see the value in how each of these sidekick types complement them respectively. Followers make sense if the focus of the game is on navigating a landscape of complex, interactive challenge elements. Pets make sense if the focus of the game is to serve as a terrarium for your blorbos. But of course, everyone who's ever adopted the goblin NPC as a mascot for their party knows that followers can still satisfy blorbo appeal, and everyone who's sought out to tame a unicorn so you can have a powerful mount knows that pets can be treated as a very gameable asset even a rugged adventurer could see the use in.


Sunday, August 13, 2023

Brave, Final Edition

Here is a link to my hack of Ben Milton's minimalist RPG, Knave 1E. Here is the word document version. You can download this and then edit the text directly. This game was made using two free fonts (Sebaldus-Gotisch and Crimson Text). You'll want to install those so the formatting is retained in the document version. Just like the original, I recommend you print it out. Finally, here is a character sheet for it.

I started working on this in early 2019. It began, more or less, as just the houserules I found myself adding to Knave as I played it. Like many folks, I basically never run any game completely by the book. In time, I added more and more of my own content. It grew ambitious. And clunky. And generally kinda bad. I haven't touched Brave since mid 2021. What started as a break from the project turned into a terrible realization that I was out of my depth and had been making bad mistakes built upon worse mistakes.

But Brave still gets linked to a lot online. In nearly any conversation about Knave hacks, it gets brought up. So as long as people out there are looking for a version of this game that has my special touch on it, I still want to offer this. This has been streamlined to just the simplest, cleanest, and best modifications I've made to the game. Steal as much or as little from it as you like. I expect most folks have moved on to Knave 2E anyway. I'd also recommend Cairn or Errant. And keep an eye out for His Majesty the Worm when it releases.

As for the rest of my work... I'll revisit it at some point down the road. There's some interesting design that happened along the way. It would be a shame to let the good bits go to waste. I'll sift through the wreckage at some point, pick out the stuff worth salvaging, and figure out what I can do with it later. I'll keep everything up on my blog for posterity, but I don't recommend anyone bother with it.

Here is a list of differences between Brave and Knave 1E:

Monday, August 7, 2023

Clashing, Continued

Some people think my posts are too long, and I should try breaking them up more. I've tried many times, it usually goes poorly. Here's another attempt. This post is the follow-up to my previous post "Clashing, Not Attacking." In that post, I proposed a basic concept. In this post, I'm going to elaborate.

Warning: this is a very technical design post hashing out an experimental mechanic in great depth. If you're the kind of person who enjoys seeing the full thought process behind mechanics, this is for you. I'd especially appreciate input from folks like that. Everyone else... this might be dry, even for me.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Clashing, Not Attacking

Anyone here into HEMA-tube? Yeah, I bet you are. You fucking denegerates. You love LindyBeige. You probably have some others you watch, too. That part of YouTube is the center of more RPG nerd attention than actual RPG YouTube. You may have even gotten into HEMA yourself!

In the words of my friend Pollux, "every HEMA dude eventually tries to write a system that truly captures the beauty and subtlety of combat, all of which have sucked."

They are correct. And today, I am that HEMA dude.

I mean, not actually. I'm not terribly interested in realism for realism's sake. Combat rules are a loose simulation of real-world violence, and the best combat rules are going to make it a simple and streamlined simulation. You just can't include all the variables which realistically could make a difference. If you ask real-life melee combat experts, they'll tell you that weapon length was a really important factor back in ancient and medieval warfare. Does D&D care? Nah, that's not really accounted for. Some things just have to get left on the cutting room floor, okay? In many ways, what makes one combat ruleset different from another is the variables it chooses to simulate and how.

What I care about is interesting game design, and real life often provides great inspiration for this. It's important to just remember not to get carried away with simulationism. And in this case, I've spent a while thinking about something I see get a lot of focus in HEMA theory that I think is gameable.

In traditional D&D combat, every participant is an isolated, discrete agent who can target all other agents in symmetrical fashion. D&D doesn't even have rules for what direction your facing. But in fencing, two combatants become entangled with one another. They are not trading attacks, taking turns attempting to strike one another. Instead, they engage in a phrase (to borrow the modern fencing term). This is an exchange where both participants are trying to attack and defend simultaneously. Either one could win the exchange. And while dueling, they very much are entangled on the battlefield. If you play enough D&D combat with a grid and minis, at some point it feels like maybe two people in a swordfight should be occupying the same space.

I have an idea for how to reinvent attacking in D&D.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

This one's for all the aspiring Matt Mercers out there

This is the secret technique that you wouldn't find in "How I Run The Table." This one weird trick will supercharge your game and maximize player satisfaction. I call it...

The Family Guy-Style Cutaway Gag

All you Blades in the Dark fanboys can go blow yourselves, because flashbacks are for pussies. This is how real game masters spice up narrative flow. Allow me to teach it to you, if you can handle it.

Look at yourself. You're pathetic. You aren't funny. You're a gamer. But you're on the spot, your friends are waiting, and they expect to be entertained. How in all your hopeless ineptitude can you possibly make them laugh? Are you good at improv? Can you do impressions? Of course not. But all you need is your new best friend:

The rogue is probing the lock on the chest when he hears a sharp click. Family Guy-style cutaway to the elder lich watching you through his crystal ball at the center of the dungeon, saying to himself, "oh this is gunna be good."

Boom. Knocks em dead, every time. Instant laughter. Adulation. Dare I even say worship.

You want verisimilitude in your game? What better way to remind the players that the imagined world exists and lives independently of their PCs than by literally narrating as much.

You want character development? Worldbuilding? A threatening villain? Then interrupt your dumb players and tell them about it. Throw whatever scene at them you want, whenever you want.

You want your players to take a more active role in storytelling, filling out the world, and bringing it to life? I promise you, whether you like it or not, once you start using the Family Guy-style cutaway, your players will begin doing it too.

Now I cannot stress this enough: you have to verbally say "Family Guy-style cutaway" each time you use this technique. It's how you indicate to the players that you're doing it, so you can transition into the gag. If you don't, how will they know what the fuck is happening? Trust me, nobody ever gets used to this technique, probably because it's so refreshing and clever. So make sure you announce it because it can be difficult for your players to follow along if they aren't as smart as you.

I use the Family Guy-style cutaway gag every time I ever run a game, and also frequently in regular conversation and sometimes while I'm alone too. It's by far the most reliable way to maintain a smooth flow of play and active engagement from your players.

Better yet, make your players reveal their backstories exclusively through the use of comedically-timed Family Guy-style cutaways. They don't get to share it all up front. They have to wait for somebody to say, "Wait, you don't know how to swim?" so they can cutaway to some embarassing childhood experience where they got laughed out of the public pool. And if you aren't proactive enough, the other players will develop your character for you. "Wait, these NPCs all know your wife already?" Trust me, you don't want to wait and let the other players give that an explanation with their own cutaway gag.

Worried about splitting the party? Fret not. It's just an advanced application of the Family Guy-style cutaway technique. Jumping back and forth between two or more groups of players can and should always be paced according to comedic timing and situational irony.

If you really want to impress your players, you can level up your cutaways by breaking the fourth wall. Provide meta commentary on the action not by speaking out of character, but by employing a Family Guy-style cutaway in character which describes you and your players at the table, making an observation about the events in the game. That kind of self-referential layering of the experience is what people play D&D for.

And of course it's a uniquely formalist method of storytelling in the RPG format. You can't just have a cutaway whenever you want in a video game. Someone has to program and animate that. But in an RPG, you're able to take advantage of the freeform nature of the medium to explore innovative styles of humor.

This is, without exaggeration, the defining difference between true masters of the game and sad, bumbling, incoherent fools saddled with a responsibility far too great for their inaequate faculties of storytelling and drama.