Sunday, November 19, 2023
Monday, November 13, 2023
Long ago, a theorist named Wolfgang Iser writing on the subject of literary anthropology came up with a concept that's very valuable in game design: the distinction between free play and instrumental play. It's how you answer the question "why are you doing the thing you're doing?" during play. When your answer to that question is, "because I felt like it" or "because it's funny" or anything about its intrinsic appeal, then you're engaging in free play. When your answer is "because it's what I should do" or "because it's how you win" or anything about pursuing a goal, then you're engaging in instrumental play.
Picture Bob watching Alice play a video game. Alice is getting really frustrated with a hard challenge, or like, spending hours doing something monotonous and repetitive. Bob asks "why are you still playing that game if you aren't enjoying it? That's such a waste of time when you could be doing something you find fun instead." It's easy to see Bob's point. But if you've ever been an Alice, you probably understand that a person can be motivated to do something unenjoyable if it's in service to a desired outcome. The process might not be fun, but winning is fun. Or leveling up, or unlocking collectibles, or getting every ending, or whatever.
In short: this is why Minecraft has a survival mode and a sandbox mode. Some people genuinely do not understand the appeal of survival and others don't understand the appeal of sandbox.
Let's talk a bit more about this and how it ties into RPGs specifically.
Wednesday, September 27, 2023
|Credit: a French artist I found on Tumblr called "nymbruyn."|
They said this was for Inktober. Jesus this is such a good picture.
Once again, I'll put in some effort to credit properly and maybe provide additional notes as I can. If you have more artwork that you like, I'd love to see it as well. Some of the art in here is obligatory historical inclusions, some are genuinely brilliant, and some just have a unique variation on the basic design.
For this post, we can also go in (roughly) chronological order, starting with the original Ancient Greek artwork. It gets better and better the further we get, though. You can just look at the pictures if you like (that is what this post is for, of course), but if you like art history/criticism then I'll go ahead and provide some amateur supplemental details. I'm not learned on the matter, I'm just enthusiastic.
Friday, September 15, 2023
Thursday, August 31, 2023
- 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.
Monday, August 21, 2023
Sunday, August 13, 2023
Monday, August 7, 2023
Sunday, August 6, 2023
Sunday, July 30, 2023
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.
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.
Wednesday, July 5, 2023
Friday, June 30, 2023
Monday, June 5, 2023
Before we get started, I swear I'm not a sociopath.
I don't think of NPCs in the same way that most other GMs do. If you're new to the hobby, you'll find no shortage of tips and tricks on "how to make amazing NPCS!" And for many GMs, a well-crafted NPC is literally their favorite part of the game. Here's an article DM David wrote called "how to create loveable non-player characters," which, in my experience, is very typical of the sorts of advice you commonly see. He advocates that your NPCs should...
- Be flawed
- Be relatable
- Be useful
- Be authentic and vulnerable
- Ask for help
- Show warmth
- Show admiration
- Be entertaining
- Be optimistic
That sounds nice and all, but it is not how I roll. If I happen to make an NPC memorable, believable, three-dimensional, and beloved by the players, then that's a happy accident I'll gladly accept. But my goals are a bit different.
To me, an NPC is essentially the same thing as a trap, puzzle, monster, or magic item. They are simply another asset in my toolbox for crafting obstacles and opportunities to challenge my players. The reason it's hard to think of them through that lens is because... well, for one thing, they're people. But also because they are the most flexible and potent tool for crafting challenges, so all-encompassing in their possible design purposes that it's hard to make any generalizations about them. But today I'll share a few things I know.
Monday, April 10, 2023
If you only ever listened to annoying AD&D fanboys, you might think that the OSR is strictly about crawling through big megadungeons as sword and sorcery murderhobos. But no community should be defined by its worst gatekeepers. The very fact that they suggest the OSR to be anything other than a manufactured revisionist narrative is reason enough for them to be suspect. To me, the OSR is an enduring illusion in large part because it's a very flexible culture of play. And I feel that despite its reputation for being notoriously difficult to define, "old school play" is still pretty cohesive and compelling.
Saturday, April 1, 2023
Wednesday, March 22, 2023
Wednesday, January 18, 2023
Monday, January 2, 2023
I recently had a very novel experience running a game that I think has some potential that ought to be explored. Maybe someone out there has done this sort of thing and would like to share. It's a weird one.