The Death of Macro Storytelling

Posted: January 24, 2015 in Gaming

art by drew bakerart by drew baker

Disclaimer. I write a lot of games that are small picture stories, because they have to be completed in three hours (though there are protocol games that address large scale problems). The majority of what I’m writing here is about traditional gaming and how the inspiration we receive from other media (tv, etc.) impacts our ideas negatively. Or at least, not in a constructive manner.

George Carlin once said there are two kinds of stories, big picture and little picture. Little picture stories are 99% of what we know and read. A protagonist or group of protagonists facing a specific problem with measurable and tangible cause/effect. ‘Bob’s family is murdered and bob wants revenge.’ ‘Sally loses her job and spirals out of control.’ ‘The black company is hired to kill a dragon.’

Big picture stories are more difficult to explain, as they do many things. The Game of Thrones series or anything by Tom Clancy might be identified as big picture or macro storytelling. Characters pitted against larger than life forces with events that can impact nations, if not the world.

In micro storytelling, characters drive the plot. They are not victims of the events (once the plot is established).

But in macro storytelling, the environment is a real concern. Other people, forces of nature, dragons, and similar obstacles all work against the protagonist(s). Macro storytelling, which could be named environmental storytelling, addresses issues of nations, armies, dozens upon dozens of character and contingencies, plot struggles, and the like.

(I’ve never watch the airbender series. Apparently it is both of these styles!?!?)

Modern, micro storytelling is about personal drama, small picture problems. Anything on CW is a perfect example of this. Small picture problems and issues are at the forefront of these kinds of shows. Pettiness, relationship squabbles, and situations we as readers/viewers can easily empathize with dominate the landscape.

So. Where does roleplaying fall into all of this?

If you’re a traditional gamer, you most likely enjoy playing a single character who can affect change in the world. This means more than just fighting monsters, but saving entire villages, towns, duchies, and (eventually at 20th level) kingdoms. If you’re lucky. Using D&D as an example, the Forgotten Realms is a gameworld ripe with opportunity for this kind of gameplay.

And this is essentially MACRO storytelling.

But. The PCs don’t see it that way. And the gamemaster is probably drawing a lot more inspiration from micro stories and less from macro stories.

Essentially, the wants are at odds with the needs and the inspiration to create either wants or needs is crippling any attempt to write truly macro stories.

Allow me a short segue to explain.

Breaking Bad?

The last great show on television to thread the needle between micro and macro storytelling was Breaking Bad. When the story of Walter White started, the events were small. The stakes were small. The characters faced a few obstacles and those were all tangible. A single street corner fight comes to mind as micro, though with macro repercussions. As the story progressed, so did the stakes. The tone of the story grew to match the character’s reach. Walter had 20 guys killed in 20 different prisons within 10 minutes of one another in a single move. That’s big picture stuff.

(Btw. If you ask me the last two episodes aren’t very good, but that’s a longer post.)

So. Breaking Bad might be the best tool for us to understand how to write campaigns for gaming. Stories that start small and grow into epics have a more profound effect, than stories where characters are already bearing the weight of the heavens on them.

Japanese Roleplaying Games

The biggest offense to storytelling is the tired Japanese roleplaying game. Every single story is identical in structure. The village of a ‘chosen one’ is attacked. He or she must gather some friends and go from village to village solving tiny ‘FedEx’ missions over and over again, fighting ever stronger monsters, and buying ever stronger weapons. There are no choices. The path is linear. The characters take on tiny event after tiny event, only to face a demon the size of the moon in the final scene of the game.


Tonally and thematically, this makes no sense. If this is what video games are becoming, I’m glad I don’t make any.


I love the movie, Dredd. It is a perfect example of how to take a Macro IP and turn it into a single micro story. In fact, there’s a great line that reveals just how macro the environment is should the franchise grow.

“Judges are losing the war for the city.”

This line is normally unnecessary in a movie like this. The judges won’t be tackling the crime of the entire city. They are going to kill/arrest a lot of people, but they aren’t going to make a dent in a city where “Twelve serious crimes reported every minute. Seventeen thousand per day. We can respond to around six percent.” So, the quote about losing the fight for the city implies that there’s a city worth fighting for.

A city we might see again.

To put it into fantasy game terms, imagine you are fighting a single street gang in the alleyways of Waterdeep. Defeating them won’t make the city safer, but acknowledging that they are 1 of 100 gangs that make Waterdeep unsafe, the PCs can grow the story from micro to macro. The tone of the story might change, but the themes of it could remain the same.

And there’s the magic word again. Theme.

I intend to address theme soon in a post all its own. For now, just know that as a gamemaster, your games will always be stronger if you keep your themes tidy.


Marco storytelling is going away because of the changes in our culture and the demand for more personal stories. Multiple characters facing internal and external conflict. Etc. This is neither a good or a bad thing. But it does mean if we want roleplaying games to have big strong campaigns, we need to learn to use tools that aren’t readily available. There are much more stories in our wheelhouses that reflect micro stories. And if we turn to them for guidance, we’re going to run the same course of stories we always do. “All of a sudden the ground trembles and there’s a massive demon facing you. What do you do?”

jim is on the radio… woa-o?

Posted: January 21, 2015 in Gaming

I spend an hour yapping about me and gaming on an Ithaca radio station.

Oh yes.

Cookie Jar

Posted: January 16, 2015 in Gaming

115517Years ago, I was writing George’s Children and my first playtest with Mark Nau (and others) resulted in a few of us staring at a stack of chips. We were done playing and trying to find a way to make the tokens vital to gameplay. I eventually did, but in the process of doing this, the idea of a finger-pointing game to me. And I immediately realized I was writing rules to a game akin to “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” but with a murder mystery/criminal bent.

And a little risk/reward thrown in.

The rules are simple, covering a page. And I’ve always enjoyed it with the right people. But. To this day, I have no idea if anyone has played this game outside my group. But it requires a fistful of dice. And it’s free on drive thru.

The Alphabet Soup Series

Posted: January 9, 2015 in Gaming

131221Some time last year, I started uploading cheap GM Advice PDFs for the Alphabet Soup series. The first one, the letter A, was free. Following that, the pdfs included topics as well as lexicon jargon advice for gamemasters, though mostly focused on fantasy gaming. The Letter Series is only up to letter C (though letter D is coming soon). These actually take a long time to write and research, so I can’t upload them as fast as I would like.

Sample entries include:

Aillen Trechenn
(also Trechend) A three-headed monster. It comes from Irish myth and emerges on Samhain from its cave at Cruachan bringing destruction. Interpretations differ. Some believe the monster breathed fire. Others say is was a bird with three heads. It might also be a three-headed vulture that leads and army of goblins. All great gaming fare, nonetheless.

Any person entitled to bear heraldic arms, such as a knight’s squire.

Headless men with their eyes and mouth in their chests.

Bribery is a complicated system of paying above and beyond for a service one expects for free. In fantasy roleplaying games it is often a die roll or some extrapolated concept that removes that occupants from the activity. As you can imagine, the author thinks bribes should be more complicated than that.

Bribes are not only expected by members of feudal society, not paying them could have deleterious results. Someone waiting for his mail is expected to bribe the courier for his package. Without a bribe, the package may get lost, or even stolen. Anyone wanting entry to the city must bribe the guard or be marked. The list goes on.

In some cultures, the person receiving a bribe is punished more than the person giving the bribe. Tipping the writer of this pdf will not result in punishment.

A parcel of land measured by a cord.

Curtal Friar
A friar serving (as an attendant) at a monastery court gate.

Each PDF comes with pages of these entries, expanding your vocabulary of history and myth.

134369The complimentary series is a series of clean, easy-to-read, 1d100 charts for a variety of topics that rest outside the standard 1d100 charts. There’s orc habits, guilds, pickpocketings, warning sings, and magic rings. And I know what you’re thinking. How can magic rings be ‘outside the standard 1d100 charts?’ Well. Here’s a short sample of rings from the chart:

  • Knotted, iron Viking band increases confidence, for better or worse
  • Pair of lion-headed signet rings that grant telepathic communication to the wearers, but can never be turned off
  • Dragonfly ring grants power to speak with one type of animal, while making another hate the wearer

You can read up on all eight PDFs on drive thru RPG.

Post World Games 2014 Year End Report

Posted: December 31, 2014 in Gaming

11518597-funny-goat-sketch-symbol-of-2015-new-yearNothing like waiting until the last minute. Right?

Okay. Let’s get this started.

First off, I’d like to start with all the thank yous. Thank you to everyone big and small who helped this year. Even if you only bought one pdf, hearing the stories of what people are doing with my games is so much fun. Regardless of the sales/profit/business jargon side of things, the reason I do this is that I get to create games.

And I never get tired of creating games.

The Protocol game series is proof of these. There are now 40 games in the series. 40. That’s a lot of choices.

Before it’s over there will be 60 of these things. I have no idea if I have anymore in me after that, but I’d love to cap it at 100 Protocol games. How cool would that be?

But, I digress.

Those of you who were around for the 2013 year end report may have noticed that only about half of my plans came true. That said, I released 75 products in 2014 vs. 40 in 2013. So. I’m not exactly sad about what I was able to do.

However, it is true that I’m a little behind on work for those of you still waiting for GMZero and Toolcards 2.

There is a schedule/plan to get these games done. No fear. I might be late, but I will never cheat anyone.

2014 also saw the development of projects with Souljar Games, my other game company with Alyssa, Jack, and Ross. We are already started development on our next two board games, as well as two expansions for Cairn. For those of you not involved with what we’ve done so far, you can check out

So? What’s next?

The big plan for 2015 is the Dramatic Game Engine, a new roleplaying game system that I intend to release at least five games with, though not all this year. The first has already been announced — Bastille Day. You can read more about that elsewhere on this page or the internets.

bdlAdditional games using this system involve a scifi game, a game set in the an alternative 1960s America, and a dark fantasy game. I’m keeping the last one under wraps for now.


I also have a three game series of ‘society builder’ rpgs coming. They’ve been ready for development for sometime now, it’s just a matter of inventing more hours in the day. The first of the three is called Fairview and it’s set in a post-apocalyptic 1950s America. All three games play the same, but the styles are very different.

But that’s not all.

I still have three more games ready to go: NM156, 151 Minutes, and The Last 12 Hours. I think they need new names, though.

NM156 should be ready in the first quarter, while the other two need more writing. NM156 is an homage to Logan’s Run. 151 Minutes is a hostage stand off game with a gamemaster pitted against the players and the Last 12 Hours is a GMZero game in the style of Pulp Fiction or the Last Seduction.

Damn. I feel like I’m just spitting out information.

I’ve been awake for 22 Hours. So. Forgive me.

Finally, I’d like to announce the first Double Door Prize of 2015. I’d like to honor the amazing two-player game, Longhorn by Blue Orange. This game is everything I like about two-player games. Innovative, fast, tons of replay value, and a thorough understanding of its own design engine. Let’s not forget the gorgeous art as well. And for $20, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything better. It even comes with 45 wooden cows.

Now. I just need to decide which prize icon to send them.

10626324_732841553478879_4860624810857695372_o 10860851_732841586812209_713463098204610858_oWell. I think that’s about it for the 2014 year end report. I’d like to give a final shout out to a few key people who made the year easier. Ruth Phillips, Karen Rucker, Tobie Abad, Timothy Hidalgo, Anthony Moro, Leslie Gilbert, Mike Leader, Rob Adams, and of course Diana Stoll, my rock star.

Have a great new year. I’m taking the first week of 2015 off, so I’ll be gone until the 8th.

Double Door Prize

Posted: December 29, 2014 in Gaming

PrintThis is going to sound strange, because game companies don’t do what I’m about to do. But I don’t usually do what is ‘normal.’

And I certainly don’t care what other game companies do.

Starting in 2015, I will begin offering an award to games that ‘rock my world.’ But I won’t be giving them out in specific categories and I won’t be awarding the prize out at regular intervals. In fact, the Double Door Prize will go to a game that particularly grabs my attention at the moment it does so.

Of course. There will be honorable mentions from the past, such as History of the World and Montsegur: 1244. But I could list games like that all day long.

The fact is, I want to honor games ‘moving forward.’ And since I have no qualms pointing people to games that are good, even if I didn’t make them, I think the Double Door Prize is an interesting step in more hobby ‘synergy.’

Gah. Did I just type the word ‘synergy?’

The Official Statement

The Double Door Prize is awarded to any product in the tabletop gaming milieu that evokes exceptional ideas, execution, and design. Products that inspire and advance the hobby in interesting directions — as judged by jim pinto — are awarded the Double Door Prize.

Why the Name?

Tobie Abad brought it to my attention that ‘pinto’ means ‘door’ in Filipino. Instantly, my mind thought Door Prize and the convergence of ideas happened. Of course, calling it Door Prize isn’t thematic to the adventure hobby, but a DOUBLE DOOR sure is. The logo just sort of happened.

Read the new here. Don’t wait until the end, spread the word now. Also, tell people they can get a single game for $1.


There’s no reason not to get involved at that level.

Cards Against Your Face

Posted: December 9, 2014 in Gaming

Just in time for the holidays, I’ve created and released three unofficial expansions to a famous, horrible, offensive, ‘you know what it is’ card game. The cards are print versions, not those ridiculous paper PDF things. Gross.

Each deck has a theme and includes 75 cards (55 white and 20 non-white cards) on premium paper.

cardsagainstcivilityCards Against Civility is themed around ‘those people’ who don’t seem to have manners and fit in with the rest of us. You know who you are. Audi Drivers top the list.


cardsagainsthumilityCards Against Humility is themed around events and people that/who embarrass us. Grandma kissing you in front of your friends would be an example, though it didn’t make the final cut, though watching porn with grandma in the room did.



cardsagainststupidityFinally, my favorite of the series is Cards Against Stupidity. This is just the kind of stuff that drives me nuts (and probably you, too). Seriously annoying and stupid things and people. My favorite from the deck is probably people who shave off their eyebrows and draw them back in with a sharpie pen. If you’re going to get one, get this one.


More Design Advice: Graphicality

Posted: December 7, 2014 in Gaming

I’m sure there times I’ve reviewed a game, or posted a screed and you wondered, “what is he doing?”

Well. Sometimes I give general game design advice. Or writing advice. Or graphic design advice. And no matter what you are doing, there are specific rules to HOW and WHY you do things. All forms of design adhere to the same rules. There are hierarchies of how information is presented, form and function marrying well, and legibility, among others. Within these rules are various techniques for achieving your ends. Two typefaces might contrast one another, in order to make the information appear different or stand out from one another, for instance.

This isn’t a workshop, so I’m not going to list everything. Just know, that anyone working in design, knows there are rules, even if they don’t know everything there is to know.

(I’m still learning)Previously, I talked about this in how to make character sheets for a roleplaying game. Design is a crucial element, but often character sheets are an after thought. Today, I’m going to use one of my favorite board games as an example of how NOT to design card frames for your games.Ready?Disclaimer: Splendor is a brilliant card/board game. Genius. It did not need a veneer. It is so obviously themeless, that it could have just been numbers on a card. But I think modern eruo-gamers wouldn’t have liked it and wouldn’t have played it if it didn’t have the jewelry leitmotif slapped on it. And it is just slapped on. Again. The game is genius. Go play it.This is what a typical card looks like in Splendor.

splendor1If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know where this is going already.

And here is what this game information means.

splendor2Without explaining the rules, the card cost is the single most important piece of information on a card. It is what you look at for over 50% of the game. Once purchased, the ‘in game bonus’ becomes the most important piece of information on THAT card, but not on ALL cards. Finally, the VP is only important at the toward the end of the game as you need 15 points to win.

The art is never important. It is merely a game affectation.

Now. The first thing I would have done with these cards is removed the art. There’s a small amount of thematic cues to the card based on the card back (level 1 is mines, level 2 is jewelers, and level 3 is cities), but this is mostly superfluous information. But, presuming we keep the art in, the design here is just messy and incoherent.

First off, the art is the largest piece of information and it’s useless.

Second, the other three elements are relatively the same size, positioned in each of the corners, and not all that amazing. Seriously. The typeface for the numbers looks like the first free one out of the box. The in game bonus in the top right is one of five different colored gems. It’s fine for what it does, no complaint, but it doesn’t need to be as big as the card cost icons.When I’m playing the game, I’m looking at three things. How many gems I have (tell me what I can buy), how many gems my opponents have (i.e. what they can buy), and the card cost of each card. And while the information is easily legible, it’s the same size on the card as the other two pieces of information (in order to give room for the superfluous art).

Now. I’ve worked at enough game companies to know that sometimes the art directors aren’t gamers. Or at least, they don’t always play the games. Hell. I’ve been hired by people to make cards without know HOW to play the games. So, I always ask them to provide a hierarchy of information so I know what’s important and what’s not. And I’ve actually dropped out of projects while fighting production managers who didn’t even understand their own product.

(“You’re not selling the art. You’re selling a game.” I would say.)

Now. Had I been hired to make these card frames (and the art had already been ordered, as I presume was the case here), this is how I would have handled the card frame sketch (before doing any real work).

splendor3Notice how the card art is screened behind the information and the card costs are FRONT AND CENTER. This is purposeful. I’ve played the game now, I know what I need to know while playing it. The in game bonus is still at the top right, because that gives me a discount on all future purchases. I definitely want that information handy. And the VP is tucked at the bottom right, because I don’t need that shouting at me.Now. You’re thinking, but if I fan my cards on top of one another, the VP is hidden under the other cards. And you’re right. This would be hurt my ability to play the game. So. I’d make this change.

splendor4Now the VP is at the top left, but at half the size of the gem at the top right. Removing all of my explanatory text, a card frame would look like this.

splendor5Everything in it’s place, everything easy to read, and the art still adding ‘visual texture’ to these abstract game, while not interfering with the gameplay. This is so brain-dead simple, I don’t know why people continue to make games that mess this up.

[Aside: All this card art, and they still ordered a separate piece of art for the cover that doesn’t appear on any of the cards and has zero thematic value. What a waste of money. All that said, it’s selling really well for them. So good on them.]

Okay. So Splendor isn’t the only game that has these kind of headaches.

In fact, I deal with companies all the time who don’t want to spend money on art or icons or anything, but still want to look like Ticket to Ride. And there’s no way to do it with the cavalcade of data that’s sprawled across the game.

Here’s a card frame I made for a game that had almost zero art budget. No lie, I had to order b/w art and make it look like it was colored. I had to use an inordinate about of textures and I had to to present the information in such a way that the card text and icons wasn’t fighting the rest of the game.

fatecards_all-1I won’t defend how the style of this game harkens back to how games were made in the 1970s, but this publisher’s material plays like old school products, so I think it’s a match in that regard. But. Most importantly, it’s clean. Title and art are not important during play. In fact, if I had my way, that information would be on the bottom of the card. But that’s too revolutionary for words. Once the card is on the table, people only have to read one of those columns as the game text in front of them. Everything is explained immediately.

I’m working on a board game here soon called 100 A.D. We’ll be kickstarting it early next year. The game design is mine and the card frame design will be mine as well. The art will be kept to a minimum because the information on the cards is so important to play.

(You’ll see what I mean in a few months.)

But when I do it, I’ll link back to this art and show you an example of me putting my money where my mouth is. In the mean time, stop putting information on card frames in the wrong order.

Thank you.

This PSA brought to you by the Kellogg Foundation, Price-Waterhouse Cooper, and 1d6. Never underestimate the value of designing a game around a dice type that everyone already has.

Protocol Kickstarter Updates

Posted: December 5, 2014 in Gaming


There are now 20 games in the Protocol series and a bunch of updates, including spotlights on specific games.