Points of Articulation

Since I’m working on the new dice system for With Great Power, this kind of stuff is on my mind.

Just looking at dice systems, most of them have certain “points of articulation” like an action figure. Places where inputs from the fiction or from player decisions can affect the probability of the roll. One of the tasks of good design is to determine what those points of articulation are, map them clearly to their triggers in the game, and be certain you have a good understanding of what consequences each decision will have on the probability.

Let’s look for example at D&D 4th edition. The basic roll is d20 + bonus number versus a difficulty class or defense value. Where are the points of articulation in this single dice mechanic? Each item in that formula is its own point of articulation: the die roll, the bonus number, and the difficulty class/defense value.

The game puts in lots and lots (and lots) of different ways to change the three parts of this equation. For dice rolls, there are special abilities, usually race-related, that will allow you a re-roll, or allow you to add a d6 to your roll, or allow you to roll twice and use the better one. Access to these abilities is almost always determined in character creation, but their use is decided in play. The bonus number probably has the most ways to alter it: Level bonuses, ability score bonuses, special powers, weapon bonuses, and gaining combat advantage, just to name a few. The defense value will change through the use of abilities, and some powers allow you to attack different defenses than other powers.

In play, these points of articulation drive players to weigh the options when creating their characters, driving them to design characters that do one type of thing very, very well. In play, it encourages players to look for opportunities that combine bonuses of different sorts into the same attack. Movement is encouraged, since positioning can gain you multiple bonuses. This supports the kind of exciting, action-intense combats that D&D 4e was built to create.

As a designer, these exceptions can be the real meat of your game. They are where the players get to take fate in their hand and shape their own probabilities by the choices they make. Players love doing that. Make sure that the choices they make reflect the basic premise of the game. When your points of articulation do not match up with the tactical, exploratory, or thematic decisions that the premise demands, your game will earn the title “broken.” And deserve it.


A week of ups and downs, but my game chef entry is finally done: Exiles of Will is away. Here’s the intro:

The glories of the canon are past, but five wandering characters live on. Although their plays have finished, and their epilogues have been spoken, some characters have still not found peace. They have been exiled from their homelands. They seek completion, and a curtain call of their own. No longer upstaged by the gaiety of others’ wedding feasts, or the woes of others’ funeral pyres, these wanderers are the Exiles of Will.

I was rusty, but I powered through and finished!

Ya gotta have consequences

Just watched Shadow of the Vampire, a movie about an obsessive visionary director making the classic silent film Nosferatu. The twist is that the director has hired an actual vampire to pretend to be an actor playing the vampire. The movie was okay, but not great. A great deal of dramatic tension in the first and second acts is about the crew not knowing what kind of danger they are in, and the director making sure that no one finds out. When they finally do learn that the lead actor is a vampire intend on draining the lead actress dry … they do nothing. They just keep doing their jobs exactly as they did throughout the movie.

It leaves a hollow, unsatisfied feeling. The characters aren’t acting like believable people. There is a revelation, and no consequences follow from it. It breaks the dramatic contract. If there is no splash, why drop the stone in the pond?

In RPGs, lack of consequences for action surface in many ways, and all of them sap player interest and excitement.

  • NPC reactionsA character gives a long, impassioned speech on an important issue and everyone else continues their steadfast denials.
  • Fight resultsThe group is faced with a combat encounter that is far beyond their abilities, and have no chance of making so much as a scratch.
  • Predetermined plotsThe players concoct the most ingenious plan ever to circumnavigate the GM’s carefully prepared finale, so the plan arbitrarily fails.
  • Misread flagsA player crafts a character who is the long-lost prince, but the game never addresses this fact.
  • Rules-Genre disconnectThe group is all there to wage heroic battles against foul beasts, but the game only has rules for poetry slams.

Any of these will strain the suspension of disbelief, weaken interest in the fiction, and sap enthusiasm for the game itself.

Moments of Judgment–AAARRRGGHH!

Vincent is drilling into the nitty-gritty of how Points of Contact work over on anyway.

In his most recent post, he calls attention to the “moment of judgment” that is required when providing mechanical teeth to wholly fictional input. In most traditional games, this often applies when the GM hands out situational modifiers for tactics, weather, etc.

In reading his comment about how many recent games deal with the problem of these judgments being potentially biased by “commoditizing” them. That is, players spend game currency or the like to buy the verdict of the judgment. I find myself drawn to this solution repeatedly.

Why do I commoditize or avoid as many moments of judgment as possible? Quite simply because whenever I have to make them, I feel like I’m wrong. 20 years of playing these games, I still always feel like I’m wrong. If I decide against the players, I feel like I’m being mean or cheating. If I decide for the players, I feel like I’m being a pushover or not challenging the players enough. Even when everyone agrees with my decision. I hate it.

This probably explains why–despite my admiration for the intricate construction of Luke’s games–I failed as a Mouse Guard GM. MG and BW depend heavily on the exercise of the GM’s judgment. And I find that taxing in the extreme.

No big conclusions here, except about my own psyche. And, if you’re interested in RPG theory and not reading anyway, you should!

Little Game Chef — Done!

I just submitted a game for Little Game Chef. I hadn’t planned on entering, but I had a few nearly-sleepless nights this week, and a weird, geeky little game flowed out of me. It’s 110% derivative. I don’t think there’s an original bone in its tiny, 2-page body.

The contest is anonymous, so I won’t post the name of my game right here, right now. Anyone who wants a copy, e-mail me. I don’t know if it’s a straight game or a parody or what, but I just read it aloud to Kat and was laughing so hard that tears rolled down my cheeks. I’ve got a grin plastered on my puss that I haven’t felt in a while. Even if I never touch the game again, it was FUN to write.

Grappling with 4th Edition–Part 1

So, we’ve been playing a lot of 4th edition. I mean A LOT. Something like twelve sessions in the last eight weeks. For someone who hadn’t played an RPG at home for something like six months, and only sporadically for more than a year before that, this is is a whiplash-inducing change of pace. I’ve been enjoying the game. But, as a game designer, I find myself compelled to dig at the cause of WHY I’m enjoying the game.

Due to time constraints, I’m going to have to stretch these posts out over a number of days.

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Private Story Fiefdoms

(suggested by judd_sonofbert)

Kat’s doing some role-playing on IMVU. It’s a 3D chat site, and some people have crafted the rooms into fantasy taverns and the like. She was explaining that there’s a lot of people who have customized their avatars to look like elves or whatever, and they sit in the tavern and exchange character histories. Since there’s not much of a social contract, there’s no one who’s doing the GM-duty of “adversity-bringer” and so, not much happens going forward. But each character has a past that is rich and melodramatic and well-storied.

I think some of this has to do with the lack of trust intrinsic to role-playing in a public forum like IMVU. You could also see it in “classic” old school D&D where anyone who wanted to play, could play, and character histories (and the player interests they represent) didn’t matter, because the GM was going to lay the dungeon or the kingdom-in-peril out in front of you. Your job was to react to it, and if your character was secretly the lost prince of the Sea Kingdoms raised by a mystic order of monks in the fulfillment of prophesy, it didn’t really matter.

These sorts of situation are (in the broadest outlines) similar to the circumstances that gave rise to feudalism in Europe. After the fall of Rome, the barbarians might arrive and sack your rough-hewn village at any time. In wide-open roleplaying culture, the other players might ignore or subvert your creative interests at any time. In both cases, the obvious solution is to pull up the drawbridge and lock your treasure away where it cannot be touched. In role-playing, the best place to do this is in character history. No one can touch what has already happened to your character. Their fictional past is your Private Story Fiefdom–none may tread upon it without your express permission.

Personally, I’d much prefer to use character histories to catapult story going forward… but that’s just me.