Who Owns the Problem?

I’ve been thinking about two different types of premises in Narr games. The distinction is subtle and not a matter of this way OR that way, but more like a spectrum of emphasis. One of the key points of Narr design is that there’s a difficult-to-solve problem. On the one end of the emphasis spectrum the problem belongs primarily the PCs/protagonists: “There’s something wrong with me.” On the other end, the problem belongs primarily to the world: “There’s something wrong here.”

In My Life with Master, the emphasis of the gameplay is on the minion’s relationship with the Master and the townsfolk. His stats represent the state of his fragile psyche. The problem belongs to the minions: “I”m in a horribly dysfunctional relationship with the Master.” This isn’t to say that there’s no problem with the world in My Life with Master, it is, after all, terrorized by a meglomaniac and his More Than Human lackeys. But the problem with the world is not the focus of the play.

Most Dogs in the Vineyard play that I’m aware of sits pretty far on the other end of the spectrum. “There’s a problem with this here town and we’re aiming to mend it.” Although the “I am a Dog” traits, and the fact that one or more Dogs generally have kinfolk in the town certainly complicate matters, the focus remains on the town’s problems. I imagine the personal angles would come up more in long-term, multi-town play.

Personally, I’m more fond of the personal end of the emphasis spectrum. WGP… falls there, with the world itself as an expression of the superheroes’ inner Struggle.

I actually realized that I’m not overly fond of the worldly end of the spectrum thanks to Thor. In his last blog post he praised the Conan story Red Nails as great for Narr purposes. I read it and found it dull, because the emphasis is heavily on the “problem-with-the-world” end of things. The only “problem-with-the-protagonists” is that Conan wants to sleep with Valeria and she doesn’t want to. So Howard has to have all this nasty stuff happen to her so the buff warrior woman can be worn down to the shrinking violet that will fling herself into Conan’s rescuing arms. All the crap with the inhabitants of the ruined city bored me because I didn’t care about any of them.

Ron Edwards’ designs are interesting because the pull very strongly from both ends of the spectrum. Trollbabe is set up to run like a Red Nails-style story, and if the PCs weren’t Trollbabes, it would be farther to the problem-with-the-world side than Dogs. But they are Trollbabes. They’re these things that don’t quite belong anywhere. And with the gathering of Relationships through play, I can see the emphasis shifting more toward this type of issue as time goes on.

Sorcerer does the same thing. Relationship maps (and the detective novels that they’re drawn from) are heavily on the problem-with-the-world side. But smack-dab in the middle is the “I’ve summoned and bound a Demon” problem. Very personal. I think Sorcerer and Sword, with it’s Pacting rules and option of not starting with a Demon shifts the game heavily toward the problem-with-the-world end.

Ben, before you ask, I’m not real confident in my classification of Polaris, ’cause I still haven’t played it. But, I’d say that like an Edwards game it has strong elements from both ends of the spectrum. The Mistaken and all the crap they pull is the problem-with-the-world. However, the whole Zeal-Weariness corruption thing is very much a problem with the nights themselves.

The Burning Wheel convention games that Luke runs “Inheritance,” “THe Heist,” “The Gift,” lean toward the problem-with-the-characters end. I haven’t really talked to Luke about what BW was like before publication of the Classic edition, but some stuff in the text leads me to think it was more slanted toward the problem-with-the-world end.

Is one type of emphasis better than another? No. They will just appeal to different sorts of people. Thus, it’s something to keep in mind. And possibly leaving room for the play group to customize their own emphasis (as Sorcerer does) is a desirable goal, as it increases the games’ potential audience.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Over on his RPGtalk blog, Ben Lehman wrote:

I wish I had words to express the pure joy that is writing Anima Hunters powers. There’s something of the pleasure of writing the Polaris aspects, without the pressure to be super-poetic, and the additional pleasure of choosing Feats in D&D. Watching the powers fit together in interesting ways as I am writing them is just great. It’s like writing a crossword puzzle or something.

I have a soft spot for expressions of honest enthusiasm like this. It’s cool that Ben is enjoying this aspect of writing his game. But it got me thinking about my own tastes and preferences.

Y’see, I hate this kind of thing. I don’t think it’s bad design–not at all. It’s just design that doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t have a good name for it, but there’s a whole massive strain of it in RPG design, and it always, always bugs me. To pin “it” down further, I’ll list examples:

  • Spells in D&D are the biggest offender. In AD&D2, at least, each one was its own separate ruleset, doing its little dance, and stepping on the toes of a million other parts of the system.
  • Pretty much any sort of “power list” is a child of D&D’s spells, with their pages and pages and pages of kewlness
  • D&D3’s Feats are all about this.
  • Two words: Weapon Lists
  • Burning Wheel is rife with this stuff–Traits, lifepaths, spells, skills–Luke loves it (and does it well, I might add).
  • tSoY’s Secrets and Keys work like this, too, although with more clarity and less complexity than the above examples

I sometimes think about it as a 2 x 2 grid with “simple” and “complex” on one side, and “pieces” and “interactions” across the top. So, checkers has simple pieces (each piece can do one thing, kings can do one extra thing), with moderately-complex interactions (when you can jump, when you must jump, etc.). Chess has more complex pieces (6 different types, each with their own moves) and much more complex interactions. Clicky-based minis games (although I’m not real familiar) seem to have very complex pieces (dozens of different figures, each with their own advantages & disads) with rather simple interactions (do damage to the other figure).

I like games where the pieces are simple, but the interactions are complex. My Life With Master excels at this. There’s only 5 scores in the whole game, and 2 of them are common for the group. But the interactions of those scores produces something truly beautiful. Sorcerer also has simple pieces, for the most part (adding in the demon powers does raise the complexity level, though), with highly complex interactions.

It seems to me that Ben is enjoying creating complex interactions of complex pieces. Which is great for people who can do that. I can’t. Considering that the FVLMINATA magic system, cool as it is, is 100% Jason Roberts’, you won’t see this in any game I’ve designed.

Simple pieces interacting in complex ways: That’s what I like, that’s what I do.

Do I get a poofy hat?

Well, I did it. I finished my entry for the 2006 Game Chef Contest. It’s a game called Play Right! (title is Kat’s ’cause I haven’t named any of my own games since Discernment). It’s a heavily-Universalis-inspired story manipulation game. Situation-first. Lots of bidding glass beads and rolling dice. And drama. Dear God, I hope, drama. As is par for the course for me, it’s got no Color or Setting. And I kinda really wanted to write Color and Setting for my Game Chef game.

BUT, I had over 55 hours of work this week, and a number of family commitments. The Revolutionary War game that I started needed too much research for the lack of time I had. And Color and Setting just don’t excite me {shrug}.

In any case. I did it. I finished a game in all of 27 hours from initial concept to submission, actually. Next stop: 2 weeks of reviewing other folks’ games.

EDIT: Here’s a link to the PDF. I feel like my rough draft is showing!


It’s Game Chef week. It’s also one of those weeks rife with overtime. I started a sketch of a game called Give Me Liberty… but the amount of research to do it right is prohibitive in a week when I have no time. And the more time that passes since Saturday morning (when I came up with the idea) the less thrilled I am with it. It’s frustrating.

On Monday night, Kat & Michele & I talked about what we want out of our gaming. I didn’t quite identify it then, but I realized this morning that my absolute favorite part of gaming is the act of making things up. Two of my favorite games of all-time are The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Once Upon a Time… I consider prep a bug rather than a feature because I come to the table to make stuff up. Even playing with something I made up last week is less fun than making stuff up RIGHT NOW.

It’s the same way with game design. Clinton and Vincent are talking about their high and low points of the design process. My high point is that span of time when ideas for the game are just jumping into my head. Sure, half of them will get thrown out, but just coming up with the ideas is the fun part.

But coming up with ideas doesn’t make a published game. Refining those ideas into something fun, playable, and understandable by others does. Maybe my Game Chef game should be about the act of making stuff up. Maybe I’ve only got four more days (minus lots of work and overtime) to start fresh.

It’s frustrating.

My Assumptions of Game Design

Maybe I’m floundering from idea to idea and need to re-affirm my focus. Maybe I’m trying to get myself psyched up for next week’s Game Chef Competition, which I just might enter. Maybe the winds of March are just blowing me some clarity.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking about the assumptions I bring to the table when I design a game. This is not as sweeping as Jared’s I-System Manifesto, but more like a collection of Keith’s This I Believes, except less-Polish and less-Angry.

A well-designed game should promote more fun and cooler stories than unstructured play. Otherwise, why do we design? Call it my rephrasing of “System Does Matter.”

The more engaged the players are, the more fun the game will be. Gaming runs on enthusiasm, and a game must help (dare I say “force”) the players to become enthusiastic about their own play.

If you make it up, you will care. RPGs thrive on creativity. When the game invites, encourages, and celebrates the creativity of the players, they will become engaged–that’s why they sat down at the table.

Activity spawns engagement. The more ways for each player to contribute to the game, the more they will be engaged. Taking turns is a great organizational tool, but there should be opportunity for fun/play/creativity even when it isn’t your turn. If you’re sitting at the table, you should be doing something.

Decision spawns engagement. When a player is forced to make a decision, with clear understanding of his options and the consequences of them, he must engage with the game. Randomness has its place, but decisions are the important moments of the game that will be remembered.

Preparation for play is a bug, not a feature. My life is busy. So is everyone else’s. When I set aside time to game, I want to play, not be forced to set aside additional time to prepare to play. It adds to the time-cost of the game and makes it less likely that it will be played. Preparatory tasks should be brought into gameplay whenever possible.

This, I believe…

Some thoughts on why Chivalry is dead

I just finished reading Finding Serenity, a collection of essays about the TV show Firefly. The essays were a mixed bag–some were a waste of paper, and others were extremely thought-provoking. A guy named John C. Wright wrote an essay about what chivalry is, why chivalry is intrinsic to the Western genre, and how Firefly fails as a Western due to its lack of chivalry. I think he’s missing a big point.

Read more

Tasks, Conflicts, & Discords

Last year, Vincent took up the topic of Task Resolution vs. Conflict Resolution. Recently he answered a frequent question about it, that’s helped me with something I’ve been thinking about. He talked about it here.

I’ve been struggling with this in my own game designs, and giving a name to an elusive concept helps immensely. A Task Resolution System determines moment-to-moment activities in the SIS (e.g., “I roll my Charisma, do I say suave things, or do I spill wine all over her dress?”). A character attempts something and may or may not accomplish the specific actions he set out to do. A Conflict Resolutoin System determines which characters get their actual goals (e.g., “I roll my Charisma, do I seduce her into bed?”). A character attempts to attain some goal and may or may not secure it. I think there’s also a third type of Resolution at work: When one player wants the story to go in one direction and another player wants it to go in another direction. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this Discord Resolution. A Discord Resolution system determines which player(s) get to see their preferred turn of events in the SIS, their “heart’s desire,” if you will (e.g., “My guy’s an everyman making a play for a queen. He should get denied.”)

I think that all three of these resolution systems are functioning any time people are role-playing. Keep in mind that I’m not saying that these resolution systems are explicitly defined in text for all games, or are coupled to rules mechanics in all games. Certainly not. In a lot of traditional games, there are explicit, dice-based rules for Task Resolution, but the entire Conflict Resolution System is “The GM decides when any and all conflicts/character goals are resolved.” In these, the Discord Resolution System is often “the biggest personality wins.”

Other games do things differently. The Pool’s dice provide both Conflict and Discord Resolution (since you don’t roll if there’s no conflict). Task Resolution is: “The GM or the winner of the Monologue of Victory describes all Tasks.”

Universalis is built around Discord Resolution. That’s what all the Coin and Challenge mechanics are about. The dice are about Conflict Resolution, even suggesting that you shuffle characters around in order to set up a Conflict if you need more Coins. And the rules for narration after a Conflict roll, plus the basic Coin/Fact mechanics handle Task Resolution.

Burning Wheel Revised says explicitly in its text on Beliefs that your character should want what you want, which welds Discord Resolution to Conflict Resolution (at least on the player side). Then, the Intent and Let It Ride rules weld Conflict Resolution to Task Resolution, allowing everything to be settled with one series of rolls.

A “classic” D&D dungeon crawl with no cheating or fudging has explicit, dice-based Task Resolution. The implicit Conflict Resolution is: “If your characters can succeed at the assortment of Tasks necessary to bring my characters’ hit points down to zero before I do, you achieve your goal.” Discord Resolution is assumed to be welded to Conflict Resolution because everyone wants their character to survive and thrive.

In With Great Power…, I specifically instruct players to name their Stakes as “how their character wants the scene to end.” I then provide an opportunity for the player to decide how he wants the scene to end, by giving them the option of playing a high or low card. So, the card rules are not a Task Resolution system because they do not establish specific actions/tasks/events in the SIS (it’s the Scripting-Penciling-Inking rules that take care of that). The card rules are a Conflict Resolution system because they settle the Stakes of the Conflict. They also provide for a Discord Resolution system because players can voluntarily choose a card that reflects their own desires for the scene.

I think this distinction of Discord Resolution vs. COnflict Resolution is why I’ve never been real enthusiastic about “Narration Trading” or “Conch Passing” that was all the rage in ’02. The unspoken assumption was that you always wanted your character to do well, and, for me at least, that isn’t always the case.

The Anatomy of Situation

I’ve been thinking a lot about Situation-with-a-capital-S. What are the component parts of Situation? How can I, as a designer, break a Situation down into useful, clear categories that will help a participant in one of my games create a better (i.e., more fun) Situation than they could have created on their own?

I’ve never claimed to be a theorist, nor do I play one on TV. But breaking things down into categories like this often helps me to wrap my mind around them in a useful fashion.

The way I see it, the important components of Situation are:

Backstory: Situations don’t just appear out of thin air. “What has gone on before” constantly informs what’s happening now. By establishing how things relate to one another at the outset of play, it’s analogous to the opening setup of chess or checkers. Backstory can be so much fun that adding more later is a nice technique for deepening play that’s begun to grow stale. Paul: I think this is where Setting should be very useful, but historically has not been.

Instability: Situation cannot be settled. It must be untenable. Situation is all about change. Stasis is boring.

Conflict: How will the instability play out? Different people/forces want different outcomes and they cannot all be met. Goals need to have some degree of exclusivity.

Passion: The needs and desires of the characters are what gives Situation its drive. Humans are feeling beings and our emotions drive us to do dramatic things.

Relationships: Strangers on a train are not in a Situation. If the train derails in the middle of the desert, that conflict forces them to develop relationships with one another, which makes the Situation interesting. I’m wondering if Relationships help audiences identify with the story by parallelling relationships in the audience’s Real Life. (NOTE: Although I think “total stranger” can be a meaningful relationship [the film Seven is a good example] I think it’s very tricky to use–very easy to slide into “no relationship.”)

Consequences: Situations that resolve without something meaningful changing are cheap (the end of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a good example). Keeping the potential consequences of a Situation in mind throughout play gives dramatic weight to each decision.

There’s more, I’m sure. Availability of Information is a big factor in Situation (Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy because of it), but I’m not quite sure how that fits.

These things are all interrelated, of course. Relationships and Passions are often filled in as part of the Backstory, which may also supply the impetus for the current Instability. Instability implies Consequence, since a situation in flux must change into something. Passions & Relationships drive the Conflict over what the Consequences will be.

None of this is directly useful as-is, but somehow I feel as if I’m closer to being able to write my Shakespearean RPG than ever.