Are Adventurers Rare?

Stolen from the internet. I hate this kind of art.

I keep coming back to fantasy gaming tropes, because, well, fantasy gaming is a huge part of this hobby. But adventurers exist in pulp story as well, and there’s plenty of sci-fi games with deep space explorers. Regardless what you are calling the heroes of your story, the question comes back to how common are these people who explore the unknown?

The prevailing thought in the annals of gaming lore is that adventurers represent a very small part of a game world. Most people living inside a setting perform the boring day-to-day drudgery, and the PCs represent the brave few who risk their lives to adventure. It is this risk that you’ll die out there in a tunnel under a cave behind a waterfall at the edge of the frontier that ensures adventurers are rare. In fact, low-level characters die often, which represents this risk in a more ephemeral form.

I imagine the guards in Keep on the Borderlands just shaking their heads at the PCs. “These idiots ain’t coming back.”

But modern editions say otherwise.

If adventurers are rare, wouldn’t centaur adventurers be even more rare? Demon adventurers even more rare than that? The list of backgrounds that should be exceedingly rare have become commonplace. And if seeing a demon warlock walk into a town of 5000 people isn’t cause for alarm, the zeitgeist of adventure is no longer novelty. It’s downright pedestrian. At least, that’s the logical connect I make. Your views may differ.

Why would anyone choose to be a human rogue in a world of half-giant gladiators?

Each gamemaster has to decide how rare adventurers are in their game world. Are there ‘renewable’ dungeons that can be pillaged over and over again like a World of Warcraft™ quest, in order to support the 5,000 adventurers who are on the server at the moment?

I’m guessing your answer is no.

You don’t want adventuring to be commonplace and mundane. You want it to be rare. Almost unique. You want this group of adventurers doing stuff that matter, so their stories matter.

I have my own gutterpunk style in which I run games. The world might be a big place, but all that matters right now is this tiny mudhole of a village and the strange towering statues to unknown gods beyond the dale. If the PCs fight and kill and survive their encounters with the monsters who built these statues, great. And if not, they’ll be dead and will have no idea of the fate of the world.

See King for a Day.

Authority

Today, I am in FB Jail because of the use of the word “punch” in a comment responding directly to someone else’s use of the word punch. I was given a ban. They were not.

Why do I bring this up?

First and foremost, I believe in Freedom of Speech. Even people saying things I don’t like, have a right to say them. It’s an unfortunate consequence of freedom. But, there it is.

Secondly, it speak directly to where authority stems from and the subject of this post.

I am in the midst of writing a number of games at the same time. I am also writing a book of game master advice. As such, questions arise constantly over who has ‘the right to rule.’

This is a governing principle in fantasy game writing.

Game writing and writing about gaming are constant forces in my life. I cannot extricate one from the other. If I sit down to write a new game (Protocol for instance), I am forced to examine where the story ownership lies, or who can make a decision in a given situation. And questions of authority always hark back to questions of who bears responsibility for anything vs. who just wants to be in charge.

I have a long history of education in the bronze age and I see authority as a side-effect of pottery. See me at a con and ask me about it some time.

As an American, these questions always come back to roles of (diminishing) freedom in our own lives and why some people turn to gaming in the first place. Gamers, after all, are misfit rebels fighting against everything. Especially gamers with backgrounds in specific parts of the country.

Murder Hobo gaming draws deeply from these roots.

I’m not going to turn this into a political mouthpiece. People like what they like. They believe what they want to believe.

But hobbyist gaming started with war simulation, and rebellion and freedom grew out of Arneson’s game design styles with his pre-Gygax group. People sought to go on adventures and kill monsters for their treasure, rather than get paying jobs in the cities.

Humans & Paychecks™ was not a successful game line.

From this style of gaming grew a competitive spirit, despite all the disclaimers, and acts of rebellion against authority ensued. Even among groups where everyone was on the same side to take down the dragon, there was always a rogue/thief character who insisted on playing under different rules.

As culture changes, so do acts of rebellion. If the world was fair, and everything carefully monitored, rebellion looks like the movie Equilibrium. If people are savages and warlords hurting everyone weaker than them, then rebellion looks like people standing up for the weak. As the status quo changes, so does the acts of rebels.

As you might surmise from my tone, I am headed to a conversation about how the conceit of gaming changes with each generation. Roleplaying games are no longer about rugged individualist murder hobos fighting against unjust authority, or some libertarian ignobility.

Today, gaming is about rebelling against a soft, mediocre status quo by kind characters, with a desire to see life improve for everyone around them. Even the animal companions which seem to flock to every fantasy character type nowadays. Authority is seen as those who would subjugate everyone, while the PCs become conduits for empathy and compassion.

The guideposts have moved substantially. As such, those considered the old guard see modern adventure gaming stories as “soft,” especially when compared to their own mephitic Choatic Neutral attitudes and goals.

Ugh. Alignment.

In a world full of rebellion, what then is the moral center? Do the PCs represent the values of the world; magnified by the camera lens upon their every actions? Are they moral outliers in a world filled with greed, applying modern morays to an environment that could never understand freedom of expression?

Imagine a 900 AD peasant Bulgar worrying about a dog's suffering. How alien would that be to the world?

Gaming is escapism, but the narrowed boundaries between our real world and the fantasy worlds we explore are now paper-thin. Identity politics have emerged in our hobby and the question of “who owns who” continues to evade the conversation of fantasy gaming — which if you ask me is the center of the conversation, but that’s another matter.

Authority is the ongoing fulcrum of roleplaying games. Who is in power (in the game world) and who has the right to interpret dice results (inside the fiction) must be known or addressed. And that authority represents the causation of the world. How inflexible is your universe? How fast and hard does the fist of cause and effect smash down on the players who rebel? Or fight against the gamemaster’s will? Or just act in foolish ways?

I get into the punishing gamemaster trope in A Good Book for Bad GMs. But this example is not unheard of, and the role of the gamemaster as all-powerful overseer is a thing of the past. Players have imaginations, too. The gamemaster’s power to smash and veto other creative inputs is a legacy of a style of rebellion that no longer exists.

Fighting to overthrow the King? You fail? Off with your head. Fighting to keep woodland creatures safe from the King’s loyalists? Sounds like a fine and a slap on the wrist.

Fighting just to fight? Find another game.

Details…

I spend far too much time agonizing over details no one is ever going to notice. This spread for instance, from my GM Advice book, has been edited and edited and edited numerous times. I think I’ve changed tiny little edge creases over a dozen times. Changed the color and flow. Even the font below has changed.

Even now, after maybe six hours of editing, I look at the torn piece near the bottom left and wonder if I should make it simpler, or smoother like the page on the right. Sometimes I want the pages to be uniform. But other times, I enjoy a little bit of chaos.

When I did the graphic design for The Carcass: Exodus, I made 20 different page trims and scattered however I wanted them to appear on various pages. As close as I could, I tried to have no two spreads be the same.

I doubt anyone noticed.

At the end of the day, for me, I know I can make super busy graphic design like I see in so many other products, but these are still rulebooks. I want the text to be legible and later to be reference-able. And the one place I get to tinker around with the ‘artistry’ of my own books is on these sidebars.

Why am I bringing with up here? “This feels like a Facebook post, jim.”

I give advice across a number of channels on the internet. And this feels relevant to new designers needs. And here’s why. There’s a lot of very busy design out there (Mork Borg), and even more under designed work. Just stuff that hurts my eyes to look at and makes me lose interest.

Your page design is your canvas, not your palette. The concept of your page frames/trims/headers/extras is to keep the eye on the page. While I overdo it with details that don’t matter, my main approach is to put side trim (I almost never do trim on the top/bottom) so that the PDF is easier to read. Your eye flows down the page to the next one on the screen.

I also rarely do background textures. I think this is a hallmark of early 2000 roleplaying games where everything was trying to look like a fantasy scroll. This book would be an exception to my rule, of course, but text should never be befuddled or hard to read because of background imagery. Too many times game companies use an overly-harsh, or clearly-digital looking texture that distracts, or brings the overall quality of the work down.

I can’t imagine having someone else lay out my text in their book and it’s a garish representation of what I’ve written.

If you’re a young writer looking to do your own graphic design, I would first tell you to stop using Word Processing programs as layout programs. Second, get yourself the non-designer design book. It will teach you about typography and everything else.

I can’t stress enough the difference just a little effort makes in turning a game PDF from illegible to fun to read.

Lord. I wish I had a better closer than this.

Ludo-Narrativism and the Analysis of Thematic Design

Whenever I start one of these preachy rants, I always have to remind people that motif is not theme. Just because 50,000 people on board game geek use the term theme incorrectly doesn’t mean it’s right. Motif is the skin or veneer of a game. The art that is used to present a genre or concept. Theme is the culmination of all subtext.

Usually, games have dark themes based around conflict. Casual games avoid these issues by being about collecting butterfly colors, or racing to drink eggnog as fast as you can against a robot with bunny slippers. Traditional roleplaying games, like the original Dungeons and Dragons, are about macro or micro obstacles, with dark cultists in dungeons trying to summon the demonic ball of wax into a cauldron, or fighting a jerk dragon who has been eating the local cows and people.

I think you’ve gotten the point. Let me move on.

Before the term Ludonarrativism was coined, I would talk about the intersection of rules and story until I was blue in the face. I can remember about 50 different conversations with industry alums where I preached why games like Shadowrun are so bad, and why nothing FASA ever made felt like what it was supposed to feel like.

I mean for me. You can play whatever you want. No one cares, Doug.

I, of course, was always wrong, because I dared to question simulationist design. Even when Vampire came along, it didn’t really upset the applecart of simulation-forward games. Numbers added to other numbers and TN numbers were target numbers. The dice performed the same exact function across 1,000 different designs. The only difference between GURPS and D&D would be the types of dice being rolled. The gamemaster is still the authority over what the dice roll means. It’s all the same game.

This is called reliant focus play, if you’re keeping track.

For my money, one of the best Indie RPGs ever made is Dogs in the Vineyard. It is a hyper-focused game built around religious zealots imposing their views on others. It is often times referred to as a game of ideological Virgin, Mormon Paladins. It is filled with authority, agency, dogma, and judgement. Hobbyists claim the theme of judgment is entrenched in the game, and the mechanic can only be hacked for other games about judgment.

In short, for those who don’t play the game, there are four levels of conflict that open with talking, then pushing/shoving, then knives, and then guns. You can jump straight to guns from talking if you want, but you only need escalate an argument if you are on the losing side and you refuse to back down.

Damn. I love this game.

Eventually, all of the dice are resolved, and backlash… well… it lashes back. This is where characters can die if they’ve taken a debate too far. But what’s so great about the system is that the dice can (for the first time ever) be used to change the mind of a fellow PC. I’ve never seen a game do this before. Vincent has gone on to use variations of this system in other games like In a Wicked Age and Poisoned.

But Dogs in the Vineyard remains my favorite, as it’s the perfect blend of theme and narrative.

But.

There’s always a but.

But. I think people get the theme of Dogs wrong and it’s what limits people’s ability to hack the system well.

I’ll do a post eventually about why I hate the Apocalypse World hacks because they DON’T do what they are supposed to, but I’m focusing on Dogs right now.

Because people see Dogs as a game of judgment and not a game of conviction, it doesn’t resonate in other game design vectors. Since the PCs aren’t there to render judgment like Inquisitors, or uncreative LG Paladins, the game grinds to a halt whenever people use it for something else.

I once ran a King for a Day campaign with it. Trust me. With some editing, it works.

But the ludonarrative-style of Dogs in the Vineyard translates perfectly when the player and gamemaster understand this narrow, but perceptible difference between judgment and conviction. It works best when people use the dice system to dissuade/persuade one another, as well as NPC, from dangerous behavior, and less so when they try to control and beat down every problem before them.

Escalation of violence and bullying should be rare. And should come with a preloaded cost, as well as backlash. In this context, the game becomes more powerful, despite the limitations placed on it. Now the system can be used for legal battles, arguments with a supervisor, negotiations with the troll under the bridge, and preachers trying to change the mind of their flock.

To name a few.

But. Dogs’ inability to get over with fans the way Apocalypse World has is mired in the fact that Dogs is not a narcissistic endeavor, but a shared experience of similarly-minded characters trying to fix communities within their jurisdiction/purview.

To further explain that final point, let me nudge you toward various ‘outposts’ that people have developed for the game. I’ve played in and run this game about 30 times now. I know what works and what doesn’t. The first four times I played it, the game sessions were purposely built to rush to violence and cleanse the town of worrisome NPCs.

Often times at the expense of all the other things the game tells the players to look out for.

When I finally sat down and wrote my own adventures for Dogs, I wrote a three-part story, set in three distinct communities, where violence solved nothing. And the problems facing the communities were ingrained and spiritual — or just symptomatic of core traditional values that hurt people rather than hold the community together.

I know. I know. I’m getting high-minded here. We just want to kill orcs, jim. Let me wrap this up.

Understanding ludo games, shifting perspective on theme, and realigning game systems to actually do what they are designed to do is the cornerstone of good gaming. But we are taught through the previous 1,000 different games that we’ve suffered through on the pathway to modern design is that because we have dice, we must roll them to crush skulls and cleanse the setting of all negativity. But, in fact, the games we run should look for answers, sometimes, that aren’t violent.

Certainly if you wanted to run a Space Marine campaign where the Inquisitors are burning planets to the ground, then of course you want a crunchy, hyper-simulationist game where your character kill the enemy at the rate of 500 orks per second. But if the game has even an ounce of nuance, then the ludosimulationist model might not always work, and the gamemaster may be forced to examine themes, before examining systems.

I should point out right now that I don’t think Fate is very good at this either, but someone always brings it up as if it’s a solution to these headaches.

That’s it for now. Sorry for the rant. Enjoy your… um… March?

Conceit

“In literature, a conceit is an idea, collection of ideas, metaphor, structure, or other imagined device which defines or enables the world of the story, or some action in it. Conceits can be obvious; if a book is about space explorers who question their humanity upon discovering life on Mars, the conceit is that there is life on Mars. Originally the term was used much more specifically, to refer to a deliberately chosen juxtaposition that rarely or never occurs naturally (life/Mars), used as a means of revealing the unique properties of the items or ideas being juxtaposed. Its usage has broadened.”

I generally have a cynical view of roleplaying games and the people who play them. It’s still my favorite form of gaming, mind you, but my instincts tell me that 90% of people who come to the table, do not give two rats’ buttholes about the conceit of the game. They show up playing what they want, doing whatever they want, and living inside the mind of their own lenses and not the camera of the game world. In other words, the gamemaster might have a particularly genius conceit as to why the PCs are adventurers in the Land of Noodle, but if one of the player wants to be a half-dwarf, half-drow magician/illusionist/kharmic wholesaler/princess/thief, that player is going to do whatever he wants.

[Some] Game designers spend a great deal of time working out the conceits of their published game worlds (even if they don’t know this word), only to have all of that ignored by a single player who “does what he wants.” Gaming is escapism after all. Who needs a logical excuse to go rape and plunder a dungeon (both figuratively and literally). And it only takes one player to ignore the conceit of game design to make the jenga tower unstable.

People who do this intentionally are spoilers. People who do this because they hide behind the excuses of “I’m tired and I’m out of ideas,” are also spoilers. Just a worst kind of spoiler. But spoilers come in many shapes and sizes. I won’t delineate them all here, but you know them when you see them.

I’ve been accused of taking gaming too seriously in the past.
But then, I really love gaming. I know what I want out of it, and I’ve spent enough time around spoilers to know, I don’t like them.

The generally goal, in gaming, for any conceit is to explain what is in conflict and what keeps the group together. D&D’s conceit is simple and perhaps the best in all of gaming. We are adventurers who want gold and glory. Out there are people/monsters who have gold and killing them will bring us glory.

New iterations of D&D move this goalpost to match the morality of the players. We are not adventurers. We are heroes. Or whimsical neophytes out for a walk. Who knows what we’ll find? Or we are mercenaries hired for a specific task. Or we are pirates out for our own selfish desires? Or vikings? Or ninja? I think in many modern derivatives of D&D, these conceits are ignored completely and people just accept that the gamemaster is feeding them things to do.

Lots of games do the conceit, relying on the thinnest explanation of what is going on. Old editions of Star Wars really had no conceit at all. It fell on the gamemaster to invent one. Fading Suns comes to mind as well. Great universe. Now what do I do with it?

Vampire’s conceit is strong, but most people ignore it and just run around with super powers doing whatever they want. There’s even a running joke in the hobby: Vampire would be a great game, if it weren’t for the players.

In truth, the conceit is the most important part of the game. The looser the conceit is (D&D; see above), the easier it is to play and the more copies of a game someone can sell. The tighter it is, the easier it is to focus a plot, but the harder it is to find people who want to play it. (Criminy. Just look at my catalogue of games.)

Conceit tells you what you are playing and why. Combined with tone, these two elements trump anything else relevant to the game. Rules. Plots. Character options. These are all byproducts of conceit. D&D wins the conceit game because a half-centaur bard and a blind elf night soil merchant can be in the same adventuring party.

But when the game and gamemaster write up a conceit that delineates what the players CAN and CANNOT play, the list of people who are interested in the campaign diminishes.

Which brings us back to escapism. For some people, escapism means doing whatever the heck they want and damn the rest of the table. For some, it’s about shared storytelling and exploration of things they would never usually play (conversely, we all know players who just play human barbarians). For some players, escapism is doing math and spread-sheeting, while tracking every copper and iron piece.

For some people, escapism means building new worlds, with new problems and plots (check out my one-page worlds series on dtrpg for examples). No one can define your escapism for you, but it might be questionable whether a shared gaming experience is the right place for your needs.

Some assembly required.

The next time you sit down to write up a campaign, or a new game, consider the question: What is my conceit? What about this game/world is any different from generic D&D? Is the work you’re doing even necessary if all you’re doing is changing the name of elves to aelves and naming their forest the Foreverwood? Is anyone going to notice? Are they just going to kill your orcs with the same intentions and vehemence?

I don’t have a good closer. Just assume I wrapped it up with a closing paragraph the way my English teacher told me to.

My Other Dream Project: D&D 6

I stopped playing D&D a long time ago. Too many other great indie games out there for one, and two, the environment passed me by. My best years of D&D were in the early to mid 90s, when I was running these strange, multi-character campaigns across the land of “Merrick,” a fantasy world we all built together for years. When third came along, I fell in love with the tight nature of the rules language, but quickly tired of all the third party deluge.

By the time 3.5 hit and 4th hit, I was well into my indie writing days and I had given up on writing fantasy campaigns for someone else’s product.

Note: I still wrote published material for other people, but I haven’t really played D&D in about 15 years.

I did run three sessions of 5th edition — having not read the rules — at a convention recently, and I found that people play it like Last Airbender more than people play it as Vance’s Dying Earth. The shift in tone doesn’t affect or concern me, but it does change my perception of what I can write for it.

Nevertheless, the following are the changes I would make to 6th edition if someone was stupid enough to give me that option.

Let’s start with the stats. Charisma and Intelligence are gone. Wisdom is replaced with Wits. You roleplay now charming and smart you are. Wits becomes a rogue’s most important stat.

Attribute values are gone, replaced with bonuses. Each attribute is ranked –5 to +whatever. PCs start in a range of –1 to +4. No more derived information leading to more derived information. It’s not 1974 anymore and we are not cavemen trying to eke out a game from clay pots and cuneiform.

Alignment. Gone. Gone, gone, gone. Gone so fast, that it snaps the time-continuum. Everyone sees themselves as the hero, regardless of their ethics and morality. Who cares what Lawful Good is? It’s all relative.

Equipment lists. So long and extensive, they snap the binding of the book, but equipment NEVER NEVER replaces your character. All damage is based on your class. Carry whatever weapon you want. It’s all flavor. Same goes for gold pieces and the like. Immediately replaced with a resources system. Only more complicated than vampire’s.

World Specific Information

This is a biggie.

A great deal of D&D’s early charm was that everyone understood the limited source material in 1974. You had Sword and Sorcery and you had Tolkien-esque fantasy. And that was about it. Certainly there was Pern and other High Fantasy schlock. But the source material for D&D was old school sword and sorcery. Fire and Ice (the cartoon), and Beastmaster (the movie) certainly informed my sense of fantasy long before Tolkien did.

But now, anime, comic books, and movies have split the audience focus. No two people agree on what is fantasy, so the milieu is a contextless grabbag of anything goes. And while that’s all well and good for people who like grabbags, the core rule book cannot be a receptacle for all fantasy any longer. The core book should just be rules. As such, things like Race/Species/Heritage/Class whatever is only found in world books. Each game setting has its own options. Not every mollusk that ever wormed its way out of a wizard’s laboratory is a playable species and my version of 6th edition would stop promoting this sort of thing as ‘official.’ Let DMs and PCs play whatever they want, but game worlds lack tone and context when every stupid idea can be turned into a PC. A soul-damned half-dwarven centaur sentinel-artificer-nomad comes to mind as a mindless array of templates someone chooses for effect and not theme/tone.

Limited lists of options focuses game play. This is the job of world books which provide the bevy of options players love, while providing a grounded tone to the setting. Half-formorian kobolds don’t appear in every game world. Put them in the books they belong in.

In the meantime, the core book has maybe six class options and that’s it just to get people going for that first intro adventure.

My sixth edition would focus the rules on rules and allow setting to dictate tone.

The same goes for spell lists.

Clerics need the most work and probably won’t even appear in the core book, except maybe to create some super-generic healing cleric dedicated to the goddess of mediocrity. I have so many theories on clerics, it would take too long to talk about them here.

Turn Undead. I’ve always hated this was implemented. I would use my rules from d20 Secrets, which involved pure damage to all undead within a certain radius (based on level).

Combat rules probably need the least amount of work. People have been playing this game for 500 years now. The amount of tinkering to every little nugget of the game is exhausting. Some rule advocacy has to go back to the GM.

Monsters need less information. Not more. Additional books on the ecology of certain monsters are expansion material. GMs need basic stats, tactics, and some general ideas on how to use them. No monster should be longer than half a page, except dragons and core species. I don’t need to know where an owlbear craps, I just need its AC and hit points.

Dungeon Master’s Guide

I would put advice, dungeon construction, and adventure planning into the DMG. Examples of play that inspire need to return. Remember the example of play in first edition with the guy looking for a secret door? Damn. That was rich with ideas.

Treasure needs its own book. Magic too.

Skill lists would be reduced to 10 or so, with most stuff being folded into classes. Rogues would have the greatest edit since most of their abilities are useful outside of combat.

Sneak attack becomes overly simplified as guaranteed (minor) damage each round.

Fighters can take skill points in specific weapons to do extra damage.

Unfortunately, this is D&D, so the Vancian magic isn’t going away, because if it did, people would riot. Less damage-dealing spells, however (after a while they are all the same to me).

Each cleric class is unique to the deity it serves.

There’s a ton more to cover, but I’ve reached my patience with this list. I’m not going to make 6th ed, anyway. But maybe I’ll make my own clone someday. It will be much, much shorter than 5e.

My Dream Project: Vampire 6

I know it’s strange for me to be silent so long on this page, only to show up and talk about someone else’s product, but I’ve been thinking about making a vampire-oriented RPG lately, and my brain started spinning on what I find wrong with Vampire.

So. I took a few hours out of my day to scribble some notes, edit a character sheet, and rant about my feelings.

I personally think vampire is one of the best games/settings out there (I’m not a goth, I just love the political machinations of the setting), and I could easily see doing this for both modern and dark ages simultaneously (two different teams work on respective lore). But this is just a dream project. It is not a judgment of how anyone plays vampire, or who has written on it before. This is how I play and how I would market a new edition. I’m king for a day, I get to write whatever I want.

Okay. There’s a little bit of judgment.

Also. Bear in mind I don’t play 5th edition, so I recognize that a lot of changes were made to the game, but I don’t know all of them. I do know I don’t like the new dice system. My dream project is based on what I would do to make a stronger game and not worry about “repairing” damaged areas. I want to build this anew.

Now. Before I say anything else, standardized target number MUST BE AT THE TOP OF THE LIST FOR DESIGNING A NEW EDITION. 7+ or 8+. I don’t care which it is, but it’s the same for everything in the game. I can’t believe a game that’s been around this long hasn’t fixed that.

Okay. Moving on.

A new edition of vampire starts by examining what information people require in order to play and what they don’t. A look at the character sheet shows a great deal of math for a game that is about social and political power. If the game is to remain math-heavy, then parts of the character creation system need to get smarter.

The game has been around for nearly 30 years now. No one wants to play neophyte vampires who’ve just woken up to the world. They know the world. They want to play characters with some establishment to the world. So at the very least things like a domain and herd should come as part of a starting character, or the point system for buying them should be more abundant. Why am I struggling at the end of character creation to find just one more point for a domain? Is being connected to Denver so powerful that I need to pay points for it?

But I’m already getting into the weeds here. We need to examine what goes into the (hideous) character sheet and what I really need to know when I’m playing. It seems to me that my powers are my greatest asset and the thing that make me a vampire. In fact, let’s put them at the top of my character sheet. Every single discipline needs the same formula for rolling dice Attribute + Skill + Discipline level. And only skills needed for disciplines should be in the game. I’ve already deleted a bunch that I feel do not belong in the setting and/or have no reason to ever been challenged.

“Who wants to make a Finance roll?”

Knowing my disciplines and powers is the heart of the game. It’s what makes me a monster. Why is so hard to reference? We need to make sure all of that information is easy for the players to find and the explanation of what powers do needs to be written like game mechanics, not flowery prose. There are about 50 disciplines I still don’t know what they do because the writers interchange words throughout, so one minute I’m reading about the underworld and then the shadowlands. And in vampire, those are not the same place.

Disciplines are the very core of the game. Make them easy to read, fun to use, and costly. And standardize the damn target numbers.

I’ll be getting back to disciplines later when I talk about bloodlines.

Next. There are nine attributes and twenty-seven skills. Ah. Nice round numbers. Now. I know why there are nine attributes. I don’t like it, but I get it. But 27 skills is just dumb. It’s 2021, why are we still making craft rolls? My sheet has reduced the number to 18, but I’m sure there’s a way to trim it down to 15. Maybe.

Conversely, the game can have 1000 skills if it wants, but each needs to be equally weighted. Why are firearms and technology the same cost? Are you shooting bad guys at the same rate at which you are setting up a new wifi router in your vampire crib? Come on, white wolf. Get it together.

(Sorry. Had to be said.)

The sheer number of skills and attributes is probably why most people treat vampire like a simulationist game and not a storytelling game. Dice are rolled when things matter.

(The stories I could tell about bad gamemasters. Ugh.)

I never liked all the extra courage/conviction/self-control noise. I know why it’s there, but if nature/demeanor is staying a lot of the logic of when a vampire loses control and when she doesn’t can be folded into that.

It’s nice to see this sheet has simplified all that. Hunger definitely needs to be a thing, I can easily devise a system for what happens when you don’t feed enough, but I would tie this to bloodline.

Merits and flaws suck, too. I’ll be dealing with that later.

Backgrounds are my favorite part of the game, but they are such a mess. Backgrounds and relationships define who these vampires are. Every vampire in the setting has to know how they are connected to the town they live in. The Prince might not know who you are, but he knows about you. And that’s enough to warrant an overhaul of the backgrounds. I’d fix all that allies/contacts/retainers mishegoss. It makes no sense. They are cost the same amount of points, but operate completely different from one another. This all needs a clearer write up and better tools for the GM to manage. Ugh.

Nature/demeanor either needs to stop being a thing, or it needs to stop having mechanical benefits tiied to willpower. We all know what the best ones are mechanically. Stop rewarding shitty play. If they remain, they need a long list of options tied to things like courage and self-control (as I said above).

v20 Dark Ages has HUGE lists, by the way, which I think is great.

Roads and humanity are great, but they are not clubs you join. Why is this written this way?

Who openly tells people, “Yeah. I’m a king.”

“You are? Me too! We should hang out.”

Okay. The biggest one is coming. No more clans. None. (Bye tremere). Just bloodlines. Dozens and dozens of bloodlines. All of them come with a list of five disciplines people from that bloodline can choose, as well as bloodline-specific weakness and strengths to choose from (all characters have one of each). This gets rid of merits and flaws and focuses the bloodlines even further, so things like ‘smells of death’ is part of your bloodline, but not necessarily who you are.

In fact, I think bloodline is so important, I think it needs to be the first thing a player chooses when making a character, followed by disciplines. Putting points into disciplines FIRST teaches the player which attributes and skills she’ll need to make an effective character.

While I’m at it about bloodlines and working together, I liked covenants from Requiem. It’s the perfect way to get the characters all on the same page. They MUST all be from the same covenant, but they can be from any bloodlines. Who cares if you like shapeshifting into a wolf, so long as we agree they other convenants are jerks, we’ll get along fine.

I don’t see the need to make them so limiting. There’s nothing wrong with a dozen or so major and minor covenants.

Getting rid of clans and using covenants refocuses the power systems around beliefs rather than a handful of powers that all people have duplicates for some reason.

We’re the ventrue. We apparently run everything, but we can’t fight anyone.

Finally, the game needs the term ‘chronicle’ to mean something. And here is what I propose. Each character starts with one chronicle (from a list of 50 or so — and they can make their own if they want). Buying additional chronicles is expensive, but it can be done. Chronicles are a weird combination of nature, demeanor, road, and story. Essentially, a character’s chronicle determines where she wants to go. Each time she ends a session having furthered her progress on her chronicle, she gains XP. All characters have their own chronicles, because all characters have unique goals. This FORCES players to set goals for themselves and play in a proactive manner, the main missing ingredient from a game that never should have had missions and yet every published adventure is a pull-you-by-the-nose mission.

The biggest changes I’m proposing are the ones that simplify and redirect the focus of play. Bloodlines, powers, backgrounds, and chronicles make a vampire much more interesting that Strength 4.

Have I said enough? Is this a good closing paragraph?

Writing Adventures vs. Writing Stories

It’s been a while since I posted here. Mostly I don’t find this website the best tool for communication. But, I would probably find it more useful if I made it more useful.

Insert infinity symbol.

Today’s post started based off a Facebook remark by a friend of mine. His adventure idea for Call of Cthulhu struck me as an example of how old guard game writers… write.

Here’s the synopsis:

Cast against the backdrop of Cold War espionage, the story focuses on a spy who’s been corrupted by Mythos forces and is now returning home, intending to spread chaos and madness when he does.

Without any additional information, this is a great plot to start a story from. But, without a lot of work from the game writer, this will inevitably turn into another Scooby Doo Cthulhu session.

First of all, the best part of the story has already been told. The spy has been corrupted and is bringing his bag of mythos tricks back to the “real world.” I sense this character is complex, with multiple dimensions and a tragic past that is only going to get worse. A true horror story is about what we lose and — in the case of the Cthulhu Mythos — how small and insignificant that loss is.

Following this train of thought, the PCs are now in the middle of a story they must thwart. The story isn’t about them and without a good gamemaster (or plotline by the author), the PCs are thrust into stopping a great storyline from continuing. Who is this spy? What happened to him? What happens next?

Because of the nature of horror (with the exception of the Last Girl trope in slasher films), the villain is often the protagonist of the tale and the PCs are the antagonists. Their role is to stop the villain from getting what it wants.

Where does the story of the PCs start?

Now. One can easily kajigger this story to make the PCs important to solving it. But that’s not easy for the author to do. After all, she doesn’t know who the PCs are. Where in their campaign is this adventure taking place? Are they investigators, scientists, or soldiers? Why are they invested in the strange first clues inhabiting every Cthulhu story?

This plot is more akin to a novel than a gaming adventure. But that doesn’t stop game writers from conjuring up these plots time and time again. This is an earmark of the old guard who grew up on genre novels and whose background is infected with conflict-laden plots, devoid of resolution.

Fact: Game writers do not get to write the endings to their stories. As such, they aren’t good at it.

There’s hundreds of examples of pull-you-by-the nose adventures out there I could use to illustrate how these adventures start with strong plots and crumble apart once the gamemaster must apply the material — and this is just a plot idea from one friend of mine as an exercise (i.e. it is by no means the only example I could use). I trust that if she really wanted to explore the story from tips to tails, we’d see a much better adventure than I’m projecting. But this loose explanation is perfect for my point.

Gamemasters (generally) learn their trade through application and use. Few go to film school, or learn critical literary theory. Dissecting a story to find the character nodes and story hooks is not something a hobbyist is expected to do. Which is why adventures like this become Scooby Doo.

Let’s presume the adventure is written as a series of clues the PCs must track down, which leads them to some infected people who must be dealt with, then more clues, and then a final confrontation with the Mythos-warped spy.

That example isn’t ridiculous. We all know the format.

The PCs are doing two things. Firstly, they are following breadcrumbs. You already know this. But, secondly, and more importantly, they are living someone else’s story. This is a detail that is often forgotten in the hobby. Unless the gamemaster stops for moment and says, “Abe, you’re sensing something wrong here. There’s a memory in your head that isn’t right. You are having trouble reconciling it. Tell me what that memory is.” then the PC is just a bystander in the story.

Typically, Call of Cthulhu stories involve characters going mad. But madness that manifests is determined by an absolute gamemaster who writes the story for the PCs. “Abe goes mad, his brain tormented by the memory of his mother leaving him.” Unless Abe worked this out with the gamemaster ahead of time, the gamemaster is telling the PC who he is and what he was. And while hopelessness is a theme in Cthulhu, this is not a novel. This is a roleplaying game.

If this were a fantasy adventure about stopping a plague, the good part of the story still precedes the PCs. Their task is the same. In fact, move this story to any genre or veneer and the conclusion is the same. This story is about someone else.

warlock

Now. This doesn’t mean the original plot can’t be written well by the original author. But it does mean that years and years of poor training for gamemasters means the adventure is going to play out the way it always plays out. Clue. Clue. Fight. Club. Fight. Go insane. Finale.

I’ve talked numerous times about the game systems bad gamemasters gravitate to and how they bring all their bad habits to those systems. So regardless of intent, this plot is just a placeholder for the gamemaster to write three clues and two fight scenes. And while that sounds like a grim critique of the hobby, there are ways to correct this thinking.

One. The PCs come first. Even if the story is about the Beyonder™ eating the Earth and everyone dying, the PCs still come first. Their stories are at the heart of any adventure they go on. The things they see and do and feel are the point. If it’s not, then it’s a pulpy adventure like Indiana Jones stopping the bad guys from getting the mcguffin. Replace Indy with any other hero and the mcguffin still gets got. Some game systems are built around this with advantages, disadvantages, aspects, traits, talents, skills, and what have you.

Which leads to point two… spotlighting. If you’re writing a story and there’s a PC who is a forensic scientist, there better be a dead body to examine. Otherwise, where is the spotlight? The list of examples goes on, but the forementioned forensic scientist is drawn from an actual published module.

Everyone needs a moment to be a “hero” in the story. But that hero moment need not, in and of itself, be heroic. It could be a chance to spotlight who you are, even if that moment adds nothing to the “solution of the plot.” A character who visits her mother’s grave is writing as much of her story as someone who shoots Cthluhu in the face with a panther cannon. The key is to let characters define their spotlights.

But, adjudicating spotlight time isn’t easy. The gamemaster has to be fair in how time is divided up. A character need not be useful in combat, but if combat is 75% of the session, it’s hard to give non-combat characters a chance to shine. I make specifically “socialist” games for this reason, so people always get a chance to tell part of the story, even if their character isn’t particularly interesting or effective. Games with gamemasters can benefit from “spotlight points” which give PCs five-minutes of uninterrupted story, or the like.

These are just examples. I’m not trying to solve your gaming issues for you. This post is merely to illustrate how we get stuck in rhythms that perpetuate the same kind of gaming. Over and over again.

I hope this article helped. I was interrupted half-way through writing it. There might be a logic gap in there somewhere.

art directing ccgs

In CCG art, there’s a school of thought that since it’s going to printed on a postage stamp the colors must contrast so the focal point of the card pops off the ‘page.’ I agree (mostly) with this school of thought.

And here’s why.

CCG art serves many functions and I don’t think most art directors get this. So I’m going to break it down for people who can’t afford an art director who went to school.

  1. The art must look as different as possible to the point of being unique. This will make more sense when you read #3. But even if you don’t agree with #3, the entire point of the game is that the cards are collectible. Why would I want to collect 200 cards that all look the same?
  2. The composition must stand out on it’s own. This is vital. A muddy composition is hard to distinguish from other muddy compositions. This took me a long time to learn as an ad, because i didn’t go to school for this. I learned through trial and error (and some screaming from William O’Connor) that art composition is the soul of the image.
  3. The image must be recognizable from a distance. This is so important. A good CCG may have upwards of 2000 (or more) cards in it over its lifetime. Players intimately familiar with the game, know all the cards. And while the title is right there, at an event, players need their brains to relay to them as fast as possible what has just been played. And recognizing the art is done faster than reading the name. These are timed events and people need to process what’s going on quickly. An expert player has probably memorized all the card text in the game. Seeing a green mox (jewel) at 10 feet away means he knows what that card does just from the art, faster than if you said the words “emerald mox”
  4. Most game company ADs don’t play the games they are in charge of. And certainly not at a tournament level. Trust me when I say, I’ve played most of the games I worked on at a semi-competitive level (not Anachronism). I don’t want to wait around for my opponent to think. I want to get in there and play.
  5. Character cards need to look like character cards. Buildings like buildings. Actions like actions. Items like items. Etc. All of them should follow inherent logic, so that the art is instantly recognizable as one of those card types. Magic is the exception because all of the cards are essentially either: land, creatures, or magic. And those will never be mistaken for one another. But some CCGs have 8 to 12 different card types. Maybe more. A spell card in a game about singing tacos needs to look nothing like a ‘taco follower’ card.
  6. Art is not representational. Art is evocative and declarative. It must adhere to function and form and so many rules that no single writer’s description should ever trump them. People who force the art to mimic the text exactly need to be clubbed. If the art is doing exactly what the text is doing, then you’re completely missing the value of a second footprint on the card.

    Ever watch a music video and the images on the screen are identical to the lyrics? That’s boring. I know the song is about falling in love. Don’t bore me with an echo chamber of visuals that do the same thing. I can imagine people kissing just fine.

  7. Don’t believe me? Check out my art for Black Monk. None of the text has anything to do with the art. The art speaks for itself and stands alone, even if my writing is bad.
  8. When you’re looking at a sketch, you as the art director need to visualize (as quickly as possible), all of this information. The least important thing is “does this match the art description,” because the art description in and of itself is just a launching off point. Who fucking cares what the original intention was. The consumer isn’t going to see the original intention. They are going to see the final piece.

That’s all for now. I’ll post more when I think of it.