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Socratic Design

An Introductory Resource for RPG Design and Theory

Updated: 2016-08-11T23:44:08.064-07:00


Socratic Design Topical Index #2


Heya,Barring some radical change in my life, this will be the final entry for Socratic Design.  Here you can find links to all the articles relating to tabletop RPG design and theory.  It’s been a very fruitful 10 years on this blog, and I am thankful to everyone who took this journey with me.  For those coming to this blog for the first time, I hope that what you find is useful.  I will not be checking it, so I’m afraid that any comments or questions will almost certainly go unanswered.SD Topical Index 2On Design Aids-What is The Big 3?-What is The Alt. Three?-What are the Power 19? Pt.1-What are the Power 19? Pt. 2-Why should I post my Power 19?-Whatever Happened to the Power 19?-What is the System Design Checklist?-What is the Setting Design Checklist?-Are There any Design Outlines?On Writing and Designing A Game-Why Do People Do RPGs?-What Should I Design?-How Do I Get Started?-What Should I Expect from My First Design?-What Should My Mechanics Be Like?-When Do I Abandon a Game?-What is the Mathematician Syndrome?-What are Some Common Pitfalls?-Another Pitfall-What is Complexity Creep?-What Do I Do If I get Stuck?-What is a Sacred Cow?-How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics? Pt. 1-How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics? Pt. 2-What Else Besides Dice?-What is Strength of Emphasis?-When is a Concept Ready to Be a Draft?-How Do I Design a Dungeon?-What is a Flag?-What Do I Do if I Find Myself Designing a Heartbreaker?On Resolution-What is Resolution?-What is Narration Rights?-What is DFK?-What are the Different Types of Fortune Mechanics?-What is Chopping the World in Two?On Setting-Does Setting Still Matter? Part 1-Does Setting Still Matter? Part 2-What is Setting? Pt. 1-What is Setting? Pt. 2-What is Setting? Pt. 3-What is Setting? Pt. 4-Is There a New Blasted Sands Available?On Publishing-What Is It Like to Publish a RPG?-Is Publishing Really That Painful?-What if my Game Turns Out Crappy?-What is a Fulfillment Service?-What is Troy’s Twelve Step Process?-Another Process.-Yet Another Process.-Where can I get Art for My Game?-What Are Some Different Publishing Models?On Rewards-Is Character Advancement Necessary?-Is Play Its Own Reward?On Character Death-When Should a Character Die?-What is a Death Spiral?-Why Do Players Avoid Killing Characters?On The Big Model-What is Character?-What is Setting?-What is Situation?-What is System?-What is Color?-What is the Social Contract?-What is Creative Agenda?-What is TITB4B and Why’s It Bad?On Other RPG Theory-What is Stance Theory? Pt. 1-What is Stance Theory? Pt. 2-Is Min-Maxing Bad?-Which is Better, Hit Points or DPS?-What is a GM?-How can Magic be Used in a RPG?-What is Chargen?-What is the Fun Now Manifesto?-What is the 20:4 Ratio?-What Are the Different Time Scales in an RPG?-What Are the Different Types of Rules?-What is GM Fiat?-What is an Endgame?-What is Rule Zero?-What is TPK?-Who Has Final Say?-What is a “Catch-Up” Mechanic?-What is Currency?On The Community-What Is/Was The Forge About?-What is the (Iron) Game Chef?-What is Diaspora?-The End Draweth NighEditorials-What is the Future of RPGs?-Why Design a RPG?-What is a Heartbreaker?-What is a Traditional Game?-So What Are We Looking For?-How Do I Appeal To Youth?-A Side Rant.Laments-D&D Alignments: A Lament-D&D Spell Components: A Lament-Troupe Play: A Lament-D&D Magic Items: A Lament-World Building: A Lament-Spell Books: A Lament-Equipment Lists: A Lament-Meeting at the Inn: A Lament-Splitting the Party: A LamentAnthologies-Socratic Design Anthology #1-Socratic Design Anthology #2-Socratic Design Anthology #3-Socratic Design Anthology #4-Socratic Design Anthology #5-Socratic Design Anthology #6-Socratic Design Anthology #7-Socratic Design Anthology #8-Socratic Design Anthology #9Peace,-Troy[...]

The End Draweth Nigh


Greetings dear friends!  Back in September, I mentioned I had an exciting announcement to make about Socratic Design.  Here it is: my work here is just about finished!

The time has come for me to finally close down this blog.  I’ve been writing here for almost 10 years.  If all goes according to plan, SD will have had 10 years of life before I finally pull the plug. 

My life has changed a lot since I started this blog back in 2005.  At the time, I was single and very young.  I was playing RPGs regularly once or twice a week. I had a very solid core of fellow gamers who all shared a creative vision for each session.  However, as so many of you no doubt have experienced, life changes.  Everyone who was in my play group moved away or drifted away.  We got old, got married, and got jobs. While many can balance game-life and real-life, we came to realize that we no longer wanted to make the sacrifices necessary to do that.  And I personally, found other hobbies.

As a result, I am no longer playing tabletop RPGs, let along designing or even thinking about them.  If you aren’t playing RPGs, you can’t intelligently talk about them.  I have no wish to push off naval-gazing as practical advice, so I cannot continue Socratic Design in good conscience.

So where’s what I’m going to do: There will be one more Anthology then I will compile all my posts for a second Topical Index.  When I have that finished some time in December, I’ll post it as a final reference guide for Socratic Design.  I will not be deleting this blog, it will stay as a reference to anyone looking for answers to questions about RPG design.  I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished here, but it’s just time for me to move on.

I am writing for another website now.  If you’re interested, you can follow my exploits on eXplorminate.  I’d love to see you there.

Anyhow, this is pretty much the end for Socratic Design.  For those who’ve followed me or read my articles, thank you so much for being a part of my life.  I treasure each and every one of you.



Splitting the Party - A Lament


Heya, This is a continuation in my series of lamentations about RPGs, mostly fantasy or sci-fi style RPGs to be exact. One thing I’ve always had veteran D&D (and, honestly, Call of Cthullu) grognards tell me is, “Never split the party!  It’s the fastest way to get everyone killed.”  I’m not here to criticize that.They’re right.  It is a very efficient way to end up with a TPK (LINK from TPK entry). The thing is, I think we might be missing an opportunity for some really good play.  Let’s go back to the fiction that pretty much was in the inspiration for every adventuring party since the mid 20th century: The Fellowship of the Ring. Now, I’m not advocating AT ALL a FotR style party split.  I can’t imagine how boring it would be for the Same, Frodo, and Gollum players to simply be told, “…and you’re still walking.” week after week while all their friends get to do stuff like fight at Helm’s Deep, Isengard, or Pelinnor Fields. And yet, I think there are some things we can take from this.  First, Gandalf picks up some important info in the libraries of Gondor (how to reveal the script on the One Ring) and that a key ally has betrayed the good guys (Saruman).  Merry and Pippin pick up some allies for the freefolk (Ents).  Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas secure further reinforcements for Gondor (Rohan).  All of those are really cool plot points that would be very impractical and rather dull if 10 people were involved in each. So what can splitting the party be good for?  Here’s a brief, non-exhaustive list: ·         Getting some key information·         Scouting a future destination·         Planting a spy or trap·         Securing allies or resources·         Misdirecting an enemy·         Division of labor·         Accounting for a player’s absence·         Executing a battle plan or magic ritual·         Create a dragnet to capture a target Those are just a few ideas.  No doubt you can come up with more if you give it some think-time.  Splitting the party is not something you’ll do every session or even for a majority of sessions.  But it is a play technique that can be used to involve plot ideas that cannot be done efficiently or practically any other way.  Naturally, players may be wary of splitting up at first.  Don’t force them.  Let things play out, and let them build trust in their own way. Peace, -Troy[...]

What is Currency?



Back from summer break, and unfortunately, I’ve just got a short one today, guys.  The word “currency” gets thrown around an awful lot in RPG texts and on RPG design boards.  It usually gets taken for granted what it means, but I somehow get the nagging feeling at times that the other person I’m talking with doesn’t grasp the concept fully.  So, I’m doing this post today to help assuage my conscience.

The Provisional Glossary defines currency as “The exchange rate within and among Character Components. Currency may or may not be explicit (e.g. "character points"), but it is a universal feature of System, specifically as it relates to Character.”  Defining currency as “the rate of exchange” is partially unhelpful, I feel, because first it focuses people on the numbers involved instead of the game components involved.  It’s the components that really matter as far as the fiction goes.  And second, because it makes it seem like currency is something that can only be found on characters.  This is not necessarily the case.

So, for the purposes of Socratic Design, I’m going to define “Currency” as, “Any character and/or other game component that can be spent, lost, gained, or traded for some in-fiction effect.”  So basically, you’re trading something from the real world (that is written on the character sheet, GM sheet, or whatever else) for something in the imaginary world.

What are some examples of currency?

There are some pretty easy ones most are familiar with.  Hit points, mana, sanity, rounds of ammunition, attacks per round, gold pieces, experience points, etc. are all examples of currency.  But so are bonus die like in The Shadow of Yesterday, fan mail like in Prime Time Adventures, or Humanity in Sorcerer.  GMs can also have currency they spend to increase the danger of an encounter or to build dungeons that challenge the players.

Just remember, currency is simply some out-of-fiction resource you can use, spend, trade, or accumulate to get in-fiction effects.



P.S. I will be making an exciting announcement about Socratic Design later this year.  Please check back every so often as I prepare for SD’s next phase.

What is a “Catch-Up” Mechanic?


Heya,Every RPG, just about, has some kind of tactical situation.  A lot of people confuse “tactical” with “combat”, but that’s just wrong.  Tactics can be used in the political arena, historical arena, the emotional arena, or in lots of places I haven’t even thought of.  The point is, these games produce someone who is ahead and someone who is behind at some point during play.We all know that’s true, so what then?  In many games, especially traditional games that were made prior to 2001, the usual method of resolving this imbalance was the person behind had to get extremely lucky to win or he just lost.  This was especially true of games that featured a Death Spiral.But something has changed.  Games have developed a series of methods to help the player who is behind to regain an equal footing (and in some cases, surpass the player who was ahead).  I call these methods “Catch-Up” mechanics.Catch-up mechanics have been around for ages, and they didn’t start with RPGs.  Think about the escalating scale for reinforcements when you turn in cards when playing Risk or about landing on Free Parking in many house-ruled games of Monopoly.  These mechanics are great because it decreases the frustration players feel once they get behind.  They know that there is a chance that they might land on the right space or draw the right card and turn the tables on their opponents.  But it’s just a chance, never a guarantee.And that’s the important thing.  Catch-Up mechanics offer an opportunity to catch up, not a promise that you will.  So let’s look at some from some RPGs you may know:Healing Surges in D&D 4e:  This mechanic lets a hero who is behind on hit points recoup some, most, or all of them (depending on what else is going on) during a fight.  The hero (or villain) who was near death is suddenly back to health and ready to continue combat.Critical Hit system in Rolemaster: In Rolemaster, the slightest knick can kill.  During combat, if you score a hit, you deal damage AND inflict some type of critical wound.  Even a light hit causes a roll on a “Critical Table.”  Just about every level of critical (A-E back when I was playing) can kill if you roll high enough on your d100.  So, no matter how far you are behind in a fight, your next sword strike could drop your enemy.Escalating in DitV: In Dogs in the Vineyard, Vincent created an “escalating” mechanic.  Let’s say your character starts an argument.  You roll some dice and they don’t roll in your favor.  So you escalate by hitting the guy.  In DiTV when you make that decision to use your fists you get a band new pool of dice to roll.  Let’s say you lose that roll too.  So you pull a knife.  When you pull that knife, you get a new pool of dice.  And so on.  Each time you escalate, you are given a new chance to win the conflict.  There are consequences for doing that, of course, but the escalating mechanic helps the player who’s behind catch up and get another shot at winning.Catch-Up mechanics are great for games of all types.  Combat-centric games like D&D and Rolemaster benefit from them in the same way artsy-fartsy games like Dogs in the Vineyard benefit from them.  Giving the players a chance to win from a losing position keeps them engaged and can mitigate the effect of an unlucky roll or tactical misstep.  The important thing to remember, though, is the Catch-Up mechanic cannot guarantee victory.  It should never be an auto-win panic button.  It should just give the player a second shot at victory, and might even come at some kind of price.Peace,-Troy[...]

Relay the Message: Dyson's Dungeons Patreon



Some of you may be creating games that use dungeons.  If so, you might check out Dyson Logos' Paetreon:

He creates some of the BEST dungeon maps out there, and he releases them on a Creative Commons license that allows you to use and modify the maps in your game, royalty free, as long as you attribute the original work to him.  That's pretty rad!  You can read up more about it here:

Artwork and dungeon designs can be very hard and/or expensive to get as a RPG designer.  This may be an avenue that works for you at a much lower cost.



Who has final say?


Heya,This is a more advanced theory topic than I usually deal with on Socratic Design, but in light of me coming to a deeper understanding about RPG play and RPG design, I feel I need to share this with my audience.Within the last twelve months I have written articles about GM Fiat and The GoldenRule (aka Rule Zero).  I’m here, today, in this article to state that neither of these things actually exists.  GM Fiat and The Golden Rule (“the GM is always right”) exist only as a means to describe a phenomenon at only the most surface level.  The truth is, the GM cannot assert anything in any game without the group’s consent.Now, that may sound absurd to some, heretical to others, but it is the truth.  Consider this: the GM in whatever FRPG you’re playing says, “Okay guys, you walk into the nearest tavern and a sorcerer kills all of you.”  That’s an excellent example of Fiat and/or The Golden Rule.  The GM made a decision and enacted it.  So what happens next?Do the players go along with it?  Do they rebel and leave?  It doesn’t matter.  Either way, what the GM said doesn’t happen until the group agrees to it.  If they don’t say anything and start rolling up new characters, it means the group assented.  If they argue, “Hey, I never said I even went into town!” then the situation will not be resolved until the entire group-including the GM-agrees to what happened or the players get up and leave.  And if the players get up and leave, the situation is still up in the air because play ended.See, the players and GM have a co-authorial relationship when play is happening.  Nothing the GM says becomes true until everyone agrees- either explicitly by saying “ok” or implicitly by not raising an objection.  Likewise, nothing a single player says becomes true unless the rest of the group (including the GM) agrees to it implicitly or explicitly.GMs who think they have all the power in a game are sorely mistaken.  They must still get approval from the players at every step of the way in order for play to continue.  If they don’t, play stops until group consensus is reached or everyone quits.  The players, therefore, have just as much control over what happens as the GM.Now, it may not always appear that way.  It may appear that the players are allowing the GM to railroad them into whatever direction the GM wants.  Or the GM may be using subtle social manipulation to nullify the choices made by the players.  But those are just illusions.  Nothing happens during play unless the whole group agrees to it or, at the very least, fails to object (implicit agreement).So what does this have to do with design?  Well, if a designer understands that this dynamic is already in play, then he or she can take advantage of it rather than fight against it.  Instead of trying to create rules that help a GM keep the players “on track,” the designer can create rules that aid and facilitate group consensus.  This way, play moves along at an orderly pace, there are fewer arguments and hurt feelings.  I.E. you avoid making a game where the 20:4 ratio is the default mode of play.Peace,-Troy[...]

Meeting at the Inn - A Lament



How many of you started some RPG campaign of any genre by meeting a group of people in an inn, bar, tavern, or Mos Eisley Cantina?  Raise your hand, because you know we've all done it.  How good was it?  Yeah, it pretty much sucked.  I don't think I've ever heard someone say, "And it was so awesome how we all started as characters who didn't know each other sitting around a table at a tavern when..."

Part of the reason this motif gets eye-rolls is because it's SO contrived with nothing supporting the players.  Why would strangers be loyal to each other?  Or if they knew each other, why didn't the motivation for the campaign arise from their shared experiences and history?  Why are the characters suddenly risking their lives on a tip taken from one of the least reputable places in any town?

Another reason it usually stinks on ice is that the people in the tavern or inn are transient.  They aren't staying in one place, even the barkeep and stereotypical barmaids are easily replaced.  Hence, there's nothing for the players to ever really come back to for validation, help, or enrichment.  The tavern little more than a springboard and then forgotten, at least in my experience and in all the anecdotes I've ever heard.  It's sad how the tavern where the adventure began becomes so astonishingly unimportant to the action later on.

I would like to see someone take this tired, lifeless old trope and really make it good.  I've played a few modules that tried (like Return to the Tomb of Horrors), but none did a very good job.  I lament the tavern meeting for this: it is usually so unsatisfying that it leaves a blotch on the memories of those who have played using it, and I want people to have the best experience they can playing RPGs.

So, if you have some great tavern stories OR a theory on how to improve ye olde tavern campaign kickoff, I'd love to read about it in the comments! :)



What is TPK?



Short one this time around.  I hate gamer-talk sometimes.  We develop our own jargon that we assume everyone gets but really just creates a taller barrier to entry to new people into the hobby.  If you’re reading this entry, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you typed, “What’s a TPK” into Google after seeing it on a post at RPGnet or something.  I’m here for ya.

TPK is an acronym for Total Party Kill.  It’s simply when everyone in an adventuring party (usually a traditional fantasy, sci-fi, or horror RPG) ends up dead after an encounter.  It could be because of player error, GM error, a combination of both, or some really bad luck on the dice.  It happens. 

Anyway, I’m defining this here because I plan on using this jargon (and linking back to this post) in a future entry and just want to have my bases covered.


Relay the Message: Early Fall Kickstarters


Heya guy,

Hope you are having a good harvest season.  There's a pretty good crop of Kickstarters I'm following, and I thought I'd share them with you.

First, we have Warlocks.  I'm usually more of a tabletop guy, but I'm getting more and more interested in video game design as that medium gets more and more democratized like RPG publishing did in the early 2000's.  This game is a pretty cool fighting game with old-school pixilated graphics.  If that's your sort of thing, I encourage you to give it a look.

Next, I submit Smoke and Glass by Shoshana Kessok.  It's a SteamPunk setting for Fate Core.  I still haven't got my SteamPunk itch scratched by a game yet.  I'm still looking for something I can't put my finger on.  S&G looks pretty cool, so if you're like me at all, you can check it out. :)

Finally, we have Broken World which is powered by the Appocalypse.  I've enjoyed other AW spin-offs like Dungeon World.  If that system is your thing, check this game out!



What Do I Do if I Find Myself Designing a Heartbreaker?


Heya,Back in the saddle after a nice long summer break.  I hope all of you are well.  It’s good to have you back at Socratic Design!This blog entry was inspired by THIS THREAD.   Back when that thread was active, I just did not have the time to sit down and write the kind of response I really wanted.  I was swamped.  If I had said anything, it would have just been something dismissive or insensitive to the OP, and that’s not something I wanted to do.For context, I highly recommend you read my oooooooooooold article from 2006, What is a Heartbreaker?I’m not going to critique Xarcell’s design in this entry.  I think the folks on Story-Games did a pretty thorough job of explaining the potential problems, challenges, and reception Xarcell could expect.  Instead, I’m going to try to offer some advice to him (any anyone) who wants to still drive ahead and publish their D&D-like Medieval Fantasy game.  To begin, let me say I’ve been there.  I’ve done it.  My first published RPG was a Fantasy Heartbreaker in every single definition.  My friends and I spend years creating a derivative of Rolemaster.  We spend thousands printing up books.  And we sold probably less than a thousand.  So I’m not some ivory tower dude passing my judgment down on the great unwashed.  I’ve lived it.  It’s not pleasant.But if we’re going to go ahead with it anyway, what should we do?  There are five things I think a person should do if they are going to publish a Fantasy (or Sci-Fi or Vampire or Cthullu or whatever) Heartbreaker.  1.Play it!  If you’re not playing it when you go to start the publishing process, then I personally think you’re doing it wrong.  You must stay in touch with what makes the game fun.  You must still be excited about it.  People get excited about things other people are excited about.  If the game isn’t still worth your time, how can it be worth theirs?  Also, continuing to play will improve the game quality, and you’re going to need the quality to be as high as possible.2.Put it up for free first.  You need to get the game out there somehow, even if it’s just a plain text or PDF version.  1km1kt will host your file for free, and it doesn’t require any special accounts or logins for people who want to get your game.  It’s easy and easy is good.  There are plenty of other sites who will also do it, but that’s just the one I like.  You need your game on the Internet for free because you’re going to have to do a lot of ground work to make this thing successful.  You’ll need to be able to give everyone who hears about your game a frame of reference.  A free copy does that, and it creates  a good feeling in those whom you contact.  If you’re willing to give the text version away for free, it must mean you’re confident in the quality of your game.3.Build up a community.  The first two points are easy.  This is where things get a little harder.  You need to get people involved in your game.  You need a community who is anticipating your game’s release and is excited about it.  It may be tempting to go find a way to host some free phpBB forum and try to get people to come there to talk about your game.  That is almost certainly going to end in disaster.  Messageboards require a lot of activity and a lot of participants to be truly successful.  A Heartbreaker game just isn’t going to generate that much interest at the start.  Instead, I recommend starting a blog, Facebook page or G+ account for your game.   Start liking, friending, circling, and linking other people.  Create lots of entrie[...]

Socratic Design Anthology #9


Heya Guys,

Summer is fast approaching and that's when I usually take break from blogging.  I hope the first half of the year has been a productive one for you.  Before I go, I'm doing my annual anthology.  For those who may be new to Socratic Design, every year I post links to all the articles I've done in the last 12 months or so as well as links to previous anthologies.  This way, people can easily catch up if they recently discovered my blog.  Enjoy! :)


What is Creative Agenda?
What is an Endgame?
What is Chopping the World in Two?
Does Setting Still Matter? part 5
What is Rule Zero?


Equipment Lists - A Lament

Design Journal Entries:

Design Journal #1: Envisioning Play
Design Journal #2: Brainstorming
Design Journal #3: Distractions
Design Journal #4: Breaking Up My Game

Previous Anthologies:

Socratic Design Anthology #1
Socratic Design Anthology #2
Socratic Design Anthology #3
Socratic Design Anthology #4
Socratic Design Anthology #5
Socratic Design Anthology #6
Socratic Design Anthology #7
Socratic Design Anthology #8

Topical Index:

SD Topical Index #1



What is Rule Zero?


Heya,Today I’m looking at a topic that became a really hot-button issue in the early 2000’s.  And even to this day, arguments over it will arise on one online forum or another.  It’s called “Rule Zero.”  If you don’t know what that is, it’s probably a good thing, but more than likely, you’ve had some experience with it whether you know it or not.Rule Zero basically states, “If you don’t like something about the rules [provided for you in this game’s text], change it!”  Well, that’s the nice way to put it.  I’ve sometimes seen it also called “The Golden Rule” which basically says, “The GM may ignore or change any rule at any time.”  If that looks like a Social Contract disaster filled with GM Fiat punts, then you are right.I wish I knew who coined the phrase “Rule Zero” in this usage.  My first contact with it was in the Amber Diceless Roleplaying System, where it comes right out and says that the GM can change any rule he or she wants.  I know the White Wolf Games used the “Golden Rule” terminology in its texts.  I suspect, whether this empowerment of the GM and/or players to just change the rules on a whim was officially termed early or late in RPG history, people were doing it from the beginning.    I don’t know who first recognized this was going on, but the point is, once the idea took hold, designers started incorporating it into their games and RPGs have suffered ever since.Why was Rule Zero/The Golden Rule invented?Rule Zero/The Golden Rule came about because the early RPG texts that set the template for all RPGs to follow did a horrible, awful job of communicating how to play.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  Listen to what the man himself, Gary Gygax, had to say about his own game in his introduction to AD&D1e, “D&D hasturned into a non-game.  There is so much variation between the way the game is played [that] there is no continuity and little agreement as to just what the game is and how best to play it.”  This could only happen if the text did not explicitly lay out what the game was about, what the players were supposed to do, and what the characters were supposed to do.  I have my copy of the 1978 AD&D Player’s Handbook right next to me, and there is not one page devoted to what players should be doing at any given moment of play, during a session of play, or for an entire campaign.As a result, it became necessary for the DMs to improvise, change, and modify the rules at will.  D&D never empowered the group as a whole to make these decisions and since the DM was seen kind of as a replacement for the referee in wargaming, the players looked to him/her for what to do when nothing made sense.Why is Rule Zero/Golden Rule bad?There are several reasons why relying Rule Zero is a rotten idea for designers.  If you haven’t read my article on The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, it’s some good background knowledge to have for this article.The first reason Rule Zero is awful is that it encourages lazy design.  By including it, often in the introduction to a game, the designer is letting himself/herself off the hook.  Why worry about making all the rules work tightly together when the GM/Players will just change them anyway?  While it’s true that the designer cannot control how people actually play his game, it seems contradictory to in one breath prescribe how to play your game and in the next tell the players to just make it up as they go.  Second, players are disinclined to actually try playing by the rules.  By including Rule Zero in your game, you give them carte blanche to start changing [...]

Design Journal #4: Breaking Up My Game


Heya,Welcome to my design journal entry # 4.  In case you missed the first three, you can find them HERE, HERE, and HERE.I’ve brought this up before, but I use a Design Outline when I create a game.  I think about the different aspects of my RPGs very compartmentally.  Chargen is one things.  Resolution is another.  Character Advancement is third.  Equipment is its own thing.  Now, all of these different aspects are tied together thematically in my current RPG, but I work on them separately.  So I got to thinking: If each of these are separate in my mind, why I am I putting them all in the same book?Now clearly, separating the core rules of a game into separate books is as old as RPGs themselves, right?  So I’m not breaking any new ground by doing this, but I have noticed that games which are not following in D&D’s footsteps (and even many games that are) have gone away from a multi-book approach.  This just was not working for me.I want a character creation (Chargen) process that is more elaborate than what I currently get out there.  Therefore, I am pulling that entire process out into its on manual.  All the combat, resolution, spell casting, and character advancement stuff runs off very similar mechanics.  So that’s going in its own book.  The player options, equipment lists, spells, powers, feats, etc. have their own book.  So will the GM stuff.  And finally the setting books will be separate from all the rules.  The reason I’m doing this is because is, I want these concepts to be digestible.  Packing all this into a 200+ page tome just seems ridiculous to me.  I wouldn’t want to read that from cover to cover.  I know I’d skip a lot, or just make assumptions.  I want to present my game in bite-size chunks that are an easy read while you eat at the dinner table or ride the train to work.  So that means I’ll probably have some saddle-stitched, kinda homely looking books when I get done.  That’s fine with me.  I am so over having a pretty cover.  For me, the game needs to work.  Then it will sell itself.  My goals for this game are modest atthis point anyway.Anyway, the lesson from today’s entry is this: don’t lock yourself into producing everyone in a single volume because it looks like it will save costs or because that’s what your favorite author did.  Evaluate the needs of your game and the needs of your target audience.  If splitting everything up into their component parts works for you, then embrace that.  You’ll be glad you did.Peace,-Troy[...]

Does Setting Still Matter? part 5


Heya,I haven’t written about Setting since2006, and that entry wasn’t very good.  I’m going to update my thoughts on Setting very briefly here today.Why is Setting important?  Yes, it’s an integral part of design.  Yes, it’s one of the five areas (according to Forge Theory) of exploration.  Yes, it sells lots of supplements.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.Setting is important because it serves two primary functions: (1) it gives the players some creative restraints with which they can build their stories and (2) it keeps out useless, conflicting, and often counter-productive Setting elements that creep in when there’s a vacuum.Let’s break down #1.  Creative constraints (i.e. hard boundaries for play) actually breed creativity, not quash it.  People need some sort of hand-holds, or “hooks” as the term is commonly used in RPGs, to give them a foundation.  There have to be certain things that everyone agrees are true before we can start making up stuff that might or might not be true (roleplaying).  Creating a rich setting sparks the readers’ imaginations.  If the Setting is designed well and communicated clearly, the players can instantly see where their characters should fit in and have a myriad of ideas about what their characters can do.  A good example of this is Hero Wars.  Set in Glorantha, the setting is this game is all about the oncoming apocalypse.  The PCs know the world is doomed, but they are to be heroes none-the-less.  Anyone familiar with Norse mythology should easily be able to relate to that scenario.  It’s easy to image what a hero fighting for a doomed cause might look like, act like, and die like.  It’s beautiful.  And it makes the games memorable.As mentioned, the second purpose of Setting in an RPG is to keep out counter-productive Setting elements.  By this, I mean unfocussed, player-created Setting elements.  If no Setting is provided in the rules, the players will start adding their own.  If five people start trying to guide the exploration of the Setting in five different directions all at once, you’re going to get a pretty incoherent story.   Even worse, people will fall back on crappy entertainment tropes they’ve learned from watching TV, movies, or reading Twilight novels (shudder).Let’s look at GURPS.  GURPS prides itself on being totally Setting agnostic.  “You can play anything anywhere!” it likes to brag.  The problem with this is everyone might not be on the same page.  We might have a mystery campaign on our hands and one person has Sherlock Holmes in his mind, while another is channeling Dr. Who, and another is introducing plot elements from MacGyver, and still another thought that this was a caper campaign like Leverage.  These things are not compatible and will very likely lead to arguments, wasted moments of play, unfulfilled expectations, and big ‘ole dose of the 20:4 ratio.So, okay, we should at least state that the game is a fantasy, science fiction, gothic horror, or some other sort of genre, right?  That’s enough of a Setting to get play rolling, isn’t it?Let’s look at D&D.  Since 1978-or thereabouts-D&D has had three core books: The Player’s Handbook, The Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual.  From these games it’s clear we’re playing fantasy.  But what kind of fantasy?  Are we playing a lower-power fantasy like the Lord of Rings?  High powered like the Silmarilion?  Same author.  Totally different themes.  Do animals talk and do whimsical th[...]

Happy Holidays 2013!


Just wanted to wish everyone a very safe and joyful holiday season. May you find mercy, relief, and happiness with those whom you spend your time over the next week!

Design Journal #3: Distractions


Heya,So last time I talked about brainstorming and the time before that about initial concept.  Today, I’m going to talk about “Cook Time.”  Cook Time is when you leave a design alone for a while and let it stew, steam, and simmer in your imagination.  Sometimes cook time is intentional.  Take Vincent Baker’s In a Wicked Age.  It started out as the Cheap and CheeseyAdventure Generator.  But Vincent gave it time to cook and it turned into a really fun and challenging RPG.  In other cases, cook time is thrust upon the designer.  This is the case for me.  My mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer just as I was beginning to write this game.  She’s still fighting it to this day.  As you can well imagine, it’s been tough on the family, and naturally I’ve had to take over a lot of the chores and responsibilities my wife and I used to share.  That’s fine and that’s the way it should be.Consequently, I’ve not been able to work on my game.  But this is not a bad thing!  And if you find yourself in this sort of situation, do not dismay!  The time off will give you a chance to reflect on your initial work, rethink it, and come back to it some time later to see if it’s still the game you want.  Delays like this can give you clarity and help you see where your ignorance, biases, or sacred cows got in the way of what you really wanted to do.This is a short entry aimed at those of you who want to be RPG designers but have come up against something that blocks your progress.  Whether it’s a design that’s “just not right” for some reason or it’s personal matters that eat up all your time, I want to encourage you.  It’s an okay thing.  Rushing a game to the finish line so you can have it by GenCon is not the way to create a quality piece.  Don’t be afraid of cook time.  If your game is truly close to your heart, like mine is to me, then your patience and courage will be rewarded.  You can get it done.  You will get it done.  I have faith in you!Peace,-TroyLate Edit: for another example of how a designer deals with this sort of thing, check out this link:[...]

Equipment Lists - A Lament



How boring is an equipment list?  Ugh, it’s got to be the most tedious yet necessary thing in a fantasy or science fiction RPG.  Everyone (or close to everyone) loves the little fiddly bits you get with a new supplement: new weapons, new electronics, new armor types.  Each new thing is just a sight modification of the old stuff, but it’s still cool, right?  Well, it’s not cool enough for me.

You know what I would like to see?  Answer: an equipment list that sparks the players’ imaginations and prompts new avenues of play.

For instance, how cool would it be if an equipment list had five entries for Long Sword or Laser Pistol?  What if each entry showed how the weapon or item could be improved using different components or techniques for making it?  Even better, what if the equipment list rules gave hints about how the characters had to quest to find the right material, the right tinkerer, the right artisan, or whatever to make the weapon something beyond its mundane, default entry?

So, take a laser pistol for instance.  A pistol might have 5 attributes: weight, hitting power, accuracy, durability, and other.  The default material on the equipment list would be the cheapest and least reliable material- you know, the kind of laser pistol you would buy at the Wal-Marts of the future.  Then, elsewhere in the equipment section, the rules would give a list of materials that would reduce the weight of the gun, increase its hitting power and accuracy, make it more durable, and the “other” category in this case would be # of shots per battery pack.

In addition to the improved materials, the rules would tell the players how they could fabricate the materials or how to purchase/find the materials.

In a fantasy world, it would give names of weaponsmiths, artists, alchemists, etc. where they could get the blade sharpened to a keen edge, the pommel weight reduced to balance the weapon, or magical enchantments to make it more powerful.

Equipment lists are so mundane in most games, but I think they can add a lot of depth to a campaign if the designer just takes the time to think about how awesome weapons are in the first place and the different ways heroes in the stories we love to read have tried to make them awesomer.



What is 'Chopping the World in Two' ?


Heya,Chris Chinn coined this phrase a year or two ago.  Basically he asked, “if narration is a part of your resolution system, what mechanics in your game stop a player from saying, ‘If I win, I chop the world in half.”  This is a severe problem and it’s a design flaw that has shown up manytimes, especially after Dogs in the Vineyard was released.  My own Hierarchy is an excellent example of a game that suffers from this problem. In Hierarchy, players can raise the stakes in a conflict at will.  There’s no mechanical stop-gap to prevent them from betting the fate of the entire world in a single contest.  This, of course, is terrible.  The design relies total on the Social Contract to keep things in check.  That’s possible to some extent, but there are a lot of shades of gray between “my character smacks yours across the face and leaves” and “I chop the world in half.”  It can be hard for a group, especially a novice group, to enforce reasonable limits on narration trading during resolution without some mechanical backup. It is tempting to allow narration to take the characters in any direction the play-group desires, but narration, like all things, needs constraint to breed creativity.  Putting mechanical limits on what can be brought into a contest is a necessary part of design. So what are some ways to do that?  First, you can include a “back-out” clause.  Ben Lehman did this in Polaris, where a player in a conflict can negate an escalation by an opposing player by saying, “You ask too much.”  So, by designing a way one player to return the stakes back to an earlier a previous state, the game can prevent things from getting out of hand. Second, you can set explicit options for what can be at stake.  For instance, you can say the players may risk “wealth, status, or health in a contest but not life or relationships.”  In this case, you are setting up parameters for the resolution system and prescribing what is in bounds and out of bounds for conflicts. Third, you can have a way to escalate a conflict with a cost and a cap.  Dogs in the Vineyard does this.  Escalating a conflict from words to fists is possible, but doing so puts the character at greater risk.  There needs to be some sort of cap on how much a player can risk when escalating a conflict.  Often this is the character’s life.  It doesn’t have to be that way, but there needs to be an explicit way to cap the escalation. Fourth, you can have a resolution system that just doesn’t allow narration to set the stakes.  Task resolution does this.  Many forms of conflict resolution do as well.  You could have the GM always set the stakes, or do it by total group consent.  Whatever. Fifth, as part of the Chargen and prep work for play, the players can set up their own parameters for what is allowable and what is not during narration of stakes in a conflict.  Sometimes, in a inter-planar superhero game, chopping a world in half may actually make sense!  Cool!  But it needs to happen in accordance with the players’ expectation for the game, the designer’s vision for the game, and the limits of the Social Contract.  Letting the players hash this out before play allows for really powerful characters and situations without breaking the mechanics. The main thing is, don’t let the power of narration get out of control.  Narration is awesome.  It is a lot of fun, [...]

Design Journal #2: Brainstorming


Heya,A few weeks ago I wrote up my DesignDiary #1.  Today, I’m continuing this saga.  But before I get to today’s issue: a rabbit chaser.  Every designer has to deal with personal distractions and tragedy along the road to publication.  Who knows how many thousands of would-be designers have had to abandon their games due to addiction, loss, disease, or what-have-you.  I feel the pain of those designers and my life is an exemplar of that struggle.  So hopefully, this design series will serve not only to instruct nascent game-makers in the art of design and publishing but also instruct them on the art of dealing with real-life barriers that come up during the process.  More on that later, tho.  On to brainstorming.I want to stress to you just how important to the design process letting your mind generate ideas and at the same time, writing those ideas down are.  The human mind, especially mine, is weak.  I can’t remember every mechanic or piece of trivia I come up with when imagining how my game will work.  Once I have envisioned play, I begin the process of brainstorming.  Everyone has their own method for doing this.  My post today is descriptive not prescriptive, but if you like my methodology, feel free to employ it in part or in whole :)Back in the olden days (1998-2001) I kept stacks of composition notebooks around me all the time.  Each notebook would be dedicated to a different topic: Chargen, Resolution System, Rewards, Magic, Setting, etc. etc. etc.  After my first game was published in 2002, I switched to computers.Now, I keep a single file with all my notes.  I have a specific system that I use, and I’ve mentioned it before.  My notes are kept in a stream of consciousness outline.  I let the inspiration flow, and I type it out as it comes.  Sometimes, I still jot things down on random scraps of paper when a computer isn’t handy, but it all goes into my file in the order it came to me.  As an example, here is the first half-page or so of my design notes for this game: NOTES EXCERPTI have to confess one thing.  The “Dungeons” label for the game came after the entry on Moldvay and Keep on the Borderlands.  It wasn’t until then, I had even the faintest idea what I wanted from this thing.  In a future post, I’ll explain how I arrived at that decision.Anyway, I find that keeping my notes this way lets me see where I made decisions in the design process and why I made those decisions.  Sometimes, when you get half-way or even 2/3 of the way through a text, you forget why you made a certain rule.  You look at something and go, “What the…Why’d I do this?”  Keeping my notes in a stream of consciousness, helps me understand my game’s purpose SO much better.Also, it helps me organize my text.  I have an outline ready to go that will only need a small amount of tweaking before I dive right into the writing process.  I found that it makes writing my games more efficient.  This isn’t fool-proof, though.  As you can see, those notes are quite busy in some places.  Sometimes I’ll copy and paste a section of my notes into its own document just to separate it from the clutter as I’m writing.The entire document is well over 20 pages now, but not everything will make it in.  Stuff I’m not using stays in the notes, but I might make it “strikethrough” or highlight it in a different color so I know not to include it in my text.&[...]

What is an 'Endgame' ?


Heya, Today I’m going to discuss a design technique that has become more and more popular in RPGs over the last ten years.  It is the “Endgame.”  An endgame is a moment where play permanently stops for one or more characters in a campaign.  This means that once certain conditions are met, that character’s story is done. The idea of an endgame isn’t new.  It’s been around for as long as writing “retired” at the top of a character record sheet has been conceived.  However, the idea has been developed more and more over the last decade.  As a result, several ways to treat an endgame have emerged. The first way to address the endgame mechanic is to assume that there is no necessary endgame.  Games like D&D, Ars Magica, Vampire, and Sorcerer fit this category.  They assume that play, at least in theory, could go on indefinitely.  Players decide on their own when they are done with their characters and often make up some grand scene to say goodbye.  The second way is to have a soft endgame.   Dogs in theVineyard and Prime Time Adventures have what I call “soft” endgames.  For dogs, it is the salvation of a town.  The characters discover the sin, find the perpetrator, and punish him or her.  In PTA, it’s the end of a season or story-arc.  If the players want, that can be the end of play OR they have the option to continue the same characters in a new town or new season.  Some games have triggered endgames.  I think The Shadow ofYesterday and Dungeon World are prime examples.  In TSoY, when one character’s ability reaches a certain value (6 IIRC), the character “transcends.”  This means he or she has become so powerful that the character is taken out of the world in order to maintain balance.  In Dungeon World, it’s getting to level 10.  Both of these are mostly voluntary by the players.  In TSoY, reaching a 6 in an ability is never inevitable.  It’s easy to avoid.  In DW, there’s a way to avoid hitting level ten if you really want.  So the character’s story only ends if the players want to.  Of course, character death in more traditional games is another example of triggered engames.  Triggered endgames are often linked to individual characters and may not affect the entire party or the story. Finally, there are games with hard endgames.  My Life with Masterand my own Cutthroat are exemplars of this.  MLwM ends with either the death of the Master or the death of the Minion (or both).  All play drives towards that eventuality.  There’s no escaping it.  Likewise, all play in Cutthroat drives toward one biker dominating all the other bikers in the gang.  It is inescapable.  When the Master dies or when one biker dominates all the others, the game ends.  Period. So what is the use of an endgame? To begin, endgames can provide a focus for play.  They give the players something to drive towards and the characters something to achieve.  It helps everyone know what is happening during the three timescales of play.  The endgame keeps everyone on the same page and satisfies the expectations all the players have. Additionally, endgames can limit the amount of time people play the RPG.  Take my Game Chef 2012 submission for example.  The Coyote Lode was meant to be a one-shot, one-session RPG.  Thus, I gave it explicit endgame mechanics (every[...]

Design Journal #1: Envisioning Play


Heya,Back in March I casually mentioned that I was writing a new game. This will be my first new game since I wrote “The Holmes and Watson Committee” back in 2009. And I’m excited, so I’m going to share my experiences with you. Hopefully, I can make it from design to published product. We’ll see.The reason it’s taken so long are many. First, the publishing process has been extraordinarily painful for me. My first game was published in 2002. The printer problems and business mistakes we made back then were excruciating. I’ve talked about how taxing the publishing process can be in the past, the problems of 2002 and 2003 were the main reasons why. Not the only reasons, though. In 2008-2009 I tried my hand at publishing again. I figured by now the POD process had evolved and small press printing could be done efficiently and easy. WRONG! The same problems plagued me a second time and forced me to cancel a whole second line of books I wanted to produce. It wasn’t just publishing though. In the last half-dozen years I’ve gotten married, had a child, got my master’s degree, switched positions at my job four times, and helped my wife get her master’s degree as well. Many in my family have gotten terribly ill (some terminally), and I’ve dealt with distractions of every kind and sort. I’ve not overcome all of these obstacles yet, but I’m hopeful that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And once I’m through, I think I’ll have the chance to publish the game I want.So now it’s been 11 years since my first publishing and four years since my last. What have I learned? Well, that’s easy to answer. Everything on this blog is about what I’ve learned! But the problem with what’s on this blog is that it’s not real enough. I haven’t put it into practice, or at least, haven’t in a very long time. So that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to practice what I preach.So where do we start?I’m going to start with my initial concept. I began with something I called the G.A.M.E. engine. You can follow that link to it on 1km1t. It was great, it was fun, I got some playtesting in. The problem was the advancement system is totally broken and I wasn’t willing to make the compromises it would take to fix it. So I had to move on.I was inspired by Luke Crane’s We D&D threads which you can read about HERE, HERE, and HERE. I remembered back to the simplicity and awe I had in my first RPG experience (which was Middle-earth Roleplaying). Like SO many designers I wanted to recapture those moments. So I focused on the memories instead of the mechanics.What did I remember?1.We didn’t know the rules well enough to constantly be referencing them, so handling time was kept to a minimum.2.We quickly grew tired of the constrained canonical setting of Middle-earth put on us, so we started making our own content to adventure in.3.We focused on the combat and the loot, but our characters had motivations. They were simple ones (the Free Peoples vs. the Dark Lord), but the motivations supported gameplay.4.Magic items were awesome, rare, and special. There were five characters in the party and after 27 collective levels, we maybe had seven magic items (it might have been less, honestly). 5.Making maps was a huge part of the fun- for both the GM and the players.So that’s where I started with my new design: remembering something I enjoyed and setting that as my design goals. Those were the things t[...]

Relay the Message: Kickstarter Roundup



It's been a while since Kickstarter had anything interesting for me, but all of a sudden that has changed.  I've got three projects I'm following closely, and I thought I'd share them with you:

1. GrimWorld: this is a supplement for Dungeon World.  It looks great, and if you have enjoyed DW (which many of you have) this could be right up your alley.  Time is short, however.  You've got around 40 hours from this posting to back it.  Sorry, but I didn't catch it sooner.

2. S/lay w/Me App: Ron Edwards is trying to take his RPG to the 'net in a new way.  The app works with Google Hangouts, and is meant to help bring together gamers who don't live close to each other.  Ron is running "choose your own reward" system with his Kickstarter that has a lot of neat stuff.  It's different from other Kickstarters, so I recomend checking it out.

3. The RPG Table: if you haven't seen this yet, you need to check it out.  Jim Barnes is selling plans (and parts if you pledge enough) to build a really awesome table meanth for tabletop RPGs.  I first saw things thing a few years ago and have always wanted one.  It's pretty rad.

Technically, none of these are games exactly: one supplement, an app, and a piece of furniture.  But our hobby is evolving.  It's no surprise that our Kickstarters are evolving with them.



What is Creative Agenda?


Heya, I’m tackling a tough subject today.  Hopefully, I can do it justice.  If Ron or Vincent or Ben come along later and correct me, I’ll change this post as necessary. So what is a creative agenda?  The Forge wiki defines it as "The players' aesthetic priorities and their effect on anything that happens at the table that has any impact on the shared fiction" There’s a lot of heavy words in that definition, so let’s break it down.  First, let’s deal with “aesthetic.”  Here, aesthetic means “a principled taste and/or style adopted by a rolepalyer for the enjoyment of roleplaying.”  Priorities means “what is most important to the roleplayer.”  At the table means, “what the players are literally, physically doing in the real world.”  And finally, shared fiction means, “the imagined events created by the players through mutual ascent.”  So, to reword creative agenda in Socratic Design speak: “Creative Agenda is a principled style regarding what is most important to making roleplaying fun for an individual roleplayer when it comes to anything he or she physically, mentally, or emotionally contributes at the gaming table that modifies in any way the shared imagined events that the group-as a whole-has cooperatively created.” I want to elaborate on “principled style”/”priorities” because this is key.  Creative Agenda (CA) is all about what is most important to the player when it comes to enjoying actual play.  And it’s all about actual play.  It is not about being with friends.  It is not about the snacks your GM’s mom makes every week.  It is not about personal relationships or identification with geek culture.  Those things can be important, but they are all social reasons for play, not creative reasons.  CA deals explicitly with a person’s pleasure that he or she derives from the imaginative fiction being created at the table. What different creative agendas are there? So far, there have been three creative agendas identified by Forge Theory.  They are Gamism (a.k.a. Step on Up), Narrativism (a.k.a. Story Now), and Simulationism (a.k.a. The Right to Dream).  I happen to divide the Creative Agendas slightly differently from what Ron et. al. did at the Forge, but this article isn’t the right place to discuss that.  For the purposes of this piece, these three are all there are. What is Gamism? Briefly, Gamism is a habitual prioritization of personal guts, sound strategy, inventive tactics, and problem-solving in risky situations.  This means, a person whose CA is Gamism will seek esteem from the other players by consistently guiding his character(s) to act bravely, innovatively, and fearlessly in dangerous situations. What is Narrativism? Narrativism manifests itself as a habitual prioritization of engaging on an emotional level to address real-life, human problems (such as war, poverty, love, loyalty, faith, abuse, etc.) while purposely not pre-planning any solution or outcome.  This is sometimes called addressing a theme or a premise in the Lit. 101 sense of those words.  A person whose CA is Narrativism, will allow the events of the fiction created during play to determine the outcomes of the conflicts, plot, and consequences made by the characters.  He or she will not go into the game with any pre-set what ideas of what his or her character wi[...]

Relay the Message: Fight Cancer



Back a littler earlier from summer break.  I want to talk about someone a greatly respect in the RPG scene.  His name is Chris Chinn.  If you have never followed the Deeper in the Game blog, you need to start.  It is, IMHO, the best RPG blog on the Internet.  I think it's better than mine or Vincent's or anybody's.

A few months ago, Chris was diagnosed with a rare cancer.  The good news is, it's curable!  That bad news is, it will keep him out of work and no doubt cost a fortune to cure.  When I read the news about his cancer on his blog, I wanted to help, but I didn't know how.  Thankfully, Chris provided an opportunity.  He started a You Caring drive where anyone can donate to help him.  I just discovered it, and it only has a scant 5 days left.  So I'm definitely going to do that.  But I wanted to give him a signal boost on my blog.

This is a great opportunity to help beat cancer (a disease that's taken several of my family members, and probably some of yours too I would imagine).  If you can lend Chris a hand, I'm sure he would appreciate it.