Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Ripping Off Budget/Fan Mail from PTA

I was doing some work on Gallant last night and I started to tackle Plot Points (or Story Points?), which are my player resource for affecting the story. After a quick review of the PTA rules for Budget/Fan Mail, I couldn't think of a better way to set things up.

Something that has been bothering me is the GM's ability to throw whatever he wants at the characters in the game. Player empowerment is all well and good, but if the GM still has the ability to set up whatever situations he wants, he can still railroad the game. Needing to spend a GM resource to bring in adversity seems like the ideal solution.

Does anyone have good or bad experiences with this aspect of PTA? I still haven't had the opportunity to play it, so I'm operating on assumptions gained by reading the rules.

Does anyone have other ideas about how to set up a system of GM resources? Examples from other games?

Character Context Again

OK, so nobody is playing along with my little exercise, so I'll have to pontificate after all. :-(

When you play a character, you need cues to tell you how that person would act in the situations that arise in the shared imagined space (SIS). Those cues are character context. Character context (CC) can be direct or indirect.

Direct CC is a line between the imagined character and you, the player. If you're playing Champions and you have a psychological limitation like "Afraid of Heights", you have a some direct CC. That is, without reference to system, setting, or color, you know how to have your character act if the situation involves being in a high place.

Indirect CC is a line from system, setting, or (rarely?) color through character to you, the player. This is where character stats come in. The numbers may primarily be for use with the techniques of play, but they also tell you things about your character that can translate into contributions to the SIS.

Here's an example. Last week I was running a playtest session of Gallant with my regular group. We were using pregenerated characters. The heroes get to a point where they need to break into a chateau. They decide that the thing to do is climb into a window on the second floor. Mike (one of the players) decides that Henry's character should do it, because he has a higher Bravado score. Bravado indicates, among other things, the hero's willingness to charge ahead into dangerous situations. This decision was made based on character traits implied by the numbers on the character sheet. Indirect character context all over.

Monday, June 13, 2005

You Don't Have to Change the World

Ben at This is My Blog (see the link to your left) brought my attention to this post at YUDHISHTHIRA'S DICE. It touches on some of what I have been thinking myself in the past months.

When I started reading the Forge and thinking hard about theory it consumed me. It was great that I was thinking about the hobby in new ways, but it also hurt my designs. I have focused for so long on trying to do something cutting-edge that I forgot about how much I like some traditional RPG techniques. So I'm going back to my older designs for Gallant and actually writing stuff instead of worrying about staying on top of theory and making it happen.

I think we can all learn a lesson from Luke Crane's The Burning Wheel Fantasy Role-playing System. At its core, Burning Wheel is a fairly traditional FRPG. It innovates in a few solid ways, but stays pretty true to its roots. It doesn't try to rock your world with new ways of role-playing so much as it tries to make the way you already role-play better (or at least refreshingly different). Then he made the revised edition and added more innovation after the core of the system had been tested and played by real gamers. The craft is there.

What I'm saying is, don't sneer at the games that are out there just because they're "old school". If you are moved to make a game, make it now. Don't try to change the world of role-playing all in one go. Write your game. Get it out to players. Then make your next game, or your next version. But whatever you do, don't let a flood of theory stop you from designing the game you want to play now.

At least that's what I'm doing.

An Exercise in Character Context

The biggest, most important type of context for most RPGs is character context. This is provided by resources that tell you things about your character--things that help you decide how to play her in the game.

Instead of me pontificating, take a look at the following table. It contains the ability scores for three D&D characters. Just the numbers. The exercise is this: tell us what you can and can't tell about these three characters with the information provided. I assume that you are all at least somewhat familiar with D&D in one form or another, but even better if you are not! Look at the numbers assigned to the names for each character and think about what they tell you.

AbilityCharacter 1Character 2Character 3

Now discuss!

Monday, June 06, 2005

Starting to Talk About Context

I've been promising an essay about context, as I define it pertaining to RPGs. It's turning out to be a really big topic. So, instead of writing a huge manifesto, I'm going to break it into chunks. I think that will help in getting feedback and opinions, too. Here's the first bit:

What is Context?
Context, as I am defining it in terms of role-playing games, is something that helps a player contribute to the collaborative story being told. Context is like a handle to a tool that the player uses to play the game. In recent weeks, it is becoming clear to me that things that provide context can also be called player resources, and that may be a better term in the long run.

To understand where I am coming from here, you need to understand the concept of exploration as defined in the Forge's Provisional Glossary. If you aren't familiar, go do some research there until you've got it. It's one of the easier and less contentious parts of the Big Model, so don't be intimidated.

A player resource can be anything that helps with imagination. It can be something written down on a character sheet, a rule in a book, the way the resolution mechanics interact, a story that is or is not directly related to the game, a movie, another game, anything. For my purposes, let's keep our discussion of player resources to things that are known and predictable to a published game. That is, I'm talking about player resources that are under your control as a game designer.

A player resource can provide context to exploration. Context might be thought of as a compass, which gives direction and aids in exploration--it's not a map: you still need to fill in the creative details, but it helps you do so productively. Any given resource can contribute to none, some, or all of the elements of exploration (character, setting, situation, system, and color). Forthcoming posts will deal with the various types of context that can be provided.

My hope for this discussion is that we will gain a better understanding of how the rules and books we write as game designers help (or don't help) people contribute to the game. And more importantly, what types of things we can write to provide specific types of context.

For this post's comments, please limit yourself to discussion about my definition of context and player resources. We'll get into the nitty gritty soon enough.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Getting on the Same Page

My last few posts have been supplemented by comments and clarifications, and people still don't seem to be getting what I'm saying. That probably means that I'm not saying it very well. This post is about where I'm coming from, so as to avoid any confusion.

The following items encapsulate my current thinking:

  1. Role-playing is hard. Even though we all have storytelling capacity within us, society does not generally prepare people for cooperative storytelling. It's a skill we have to learn.

  2. Most published games do a pretty poor job of helping people learn the skills needed to tell stories together.

  3. Any resource that helps players tell stories together is a good thing. This can include mechanics, advice, setting material, illustrations, and more. If it helps you tell your own story it is good.

  4. Some games overdo some elements that might normally be helpful in a way that stops encouraging players to tell their own stories. Most often, in my experience, this involves very prescriptive metaplot which makes the players' stories irrelevant next to those of the star characters of the published setting. This phenomenon involves a threshold between useful and restrictive that is a personal setting for each player. There is no hard and fast rule about where the line lies.

Does anyone disagree with any of those four statements?

The more complicated issues, like "core stories", come down to personal reactions about where helpful starts and stops. I don't expect that any reasonably sized group of gamers would ever be able to agree completely about them.

Core Stories (I'd Call 'Em Formulas)

John Kim pointed to this post on Mike Mearls' LiveJournal in a response yesterday. Go take a look, it's interesting.

His argument is that a role-playing game should have a predictable formula that describes what in instance of play is like. For example, he quotes Ryan Dancey's core story of D&D:

"A party of adventurers assemble to seek fame and fortune. They leave civilization for a location of extreme danger. They fight monsters and overcome obstacles and acquire new abilities and items of power. Afterwards they return to civilization and sell the phat loot. Next week, they do it all over again."

I'm not sure that I agree. I don't dispute that having a core story for your game helps people understand what they're supposed to be doing in the SIS. What I don't like is the idea that this is mandatory. Maybe it's just me being stubborn and resistant. What do you folks think? Can you give examples of games that don't have a core story that you have enjoyed with your group?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Embarrassed by Gaming?

Marc Mielke says

I refuse to discuss RPGs with non-gamers, and get very embarrassed and upset when others do around me. When asked, I've learned to be very evasive about what I do on weekends.

So what's up with this? I'm sometimes embarrassed about my hobby of choice too. What about the rest of you? What makes you so?