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#RPGTheoryJuly – 28th – Emergence

The concept of emerging game play has been central to RPGs right from the start. Emergent play was, to the best of my knowledge one of the main selling points of human run games over computer adventures.

So the principle of Emergence is when the style of play emerges during play. Each RPG group will develop its own style of play, house rules emerge and often things that work in your group would have another group looking on in horror because that is just not the way they do things.

In some ways Emergence is a funny thing to put on an RPG theory megathread, unless it was for the benefit of the computer designers.

The next wave of games that are going to have to deal with emergence are games being controlled by more sophisticated AI cores. If these have to adapt to the way the game is being played then emerging ways of playing will force the AI to create new ways of running the universe.

Today I saw a tweet from @solorpg that said “Work progresses on my solo player/NPC conversation system. But it is still so hot inside. Second playtest tonight. Will need ice. #ttrpg#solorpg#dnd

We will come back to that tweet shortly.

One of the first attempts at AI was made by the Victorians and was called an Automatic Governor. It was fitted to steam engines/locomotives and provided a basic form of cruise control. The way it worked was to suspend a couple of weights on the ends of levers. The other end of the governor was put in the flow of steam from the engine. As the engine ran faster the weights would spin around and centrifugal force would make them swing up and out operating the lever they were attached to. The lever would work to limit the flow of steam. That would slow the spin on the weights, operating the lever again, increasing the steam flow. The engine operator could limit the movement on the levers to control the cruise control. This isn’t real AI but it was quite miraculous for the time. The Automatic Governor could maintain the speed of a train more accurately than a human driver.

I think of some of the Chaos factor implementations as automatic governor. If there is not enough action the Chaos adds more action, if there is too much action the Chaos eases off.

PbtA clocks have the same feel for me. You decide some future event and the events that would bring that about and the simple act of ticking down the clock ensures that the right events happen at the right time for each events. You can have unlimited clocks each running down at their own pace.

Now we come to soloRPGs tweet. If we can build conversation emulators and they are simple things (I haven’t seen soloRPGs convo system but I could build one right now using 1d6) then we have another solo tool that adds a layer of information that the solo player has to bring their games to life.

I don’t know what soloRPG is designing but my instinctive reaction was something like this:

RollSpeaker 1Speaker 2Roll
1Strongly Disagrees with… Strongly agrees with …1
2Disagrees with… Agrees with…2
3Has newsIs shocked by…3
4Needs to know…Doesn’t care3
5Agrees with…Disagrees with…5
6Strongly agrees with…Strongly disagrees with6

That could be nothing at all like soloRPG had in mind but I could easily see it as a part of future solo tools.

So is this a new emergent movement in solo play? Building in more false AI to take a bit of the improv burden off of the GM/player?

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#RPGTheoryJuly-27th – Player Stance

Player stance is not really a design issue it is about how the player is playing the character. There are generally three player stances and one that is normally reserved for the GM.

The player stances are Actor, Author and Director. The forth stance is that of Pawn and is what happens when the GM is moving bit part NPCs around with no more thought than whether should run away or not.

Players can fluidly move between stances, talking in character is Actor stance, describing the characters movements is Author stance and making decisions about the environment is Director stance.

A game can encourage or discourage the use of Director stance by players. If you use a fate or fortune point change a dice roll so you don’t die that is pure mechanics, if you play the point and describe how at the last second blocked the blow using a sack of flour you are using Director stance, controlling the scene and creating props.

Some games, such as fate actively encourage player collaborations to create the world and scene descriptions. This is encouraging Director stance. Other games put all that power only in the hands of the GM.

More often the player will flip between Actor and Author stances. Describing actions and what was said and how it was said in Author stance and moving to Actor stance when addressed in character or when reacting based upon their backstory, motivations and alignment. Deeply personal reactions for the character are Actor stance moments.

The mix between Actor and Athor can be down to the player and how comfortable they are at play acting in front of the other players.

Solo Time

The solo player has access to all four stances all the time regardless of the game designers ideas on the subject. There is no barrier to playing in any style and certainly no social pressure to adopt one style over another.

This doesn’t mean that you can just manipulate the world to your own advantage, well you can but… in solo play the question and answer mechanics can create facts that you need to respect, exits are there or not there, there is or isn’t a life raft. They are facts and part of the game. On the other hand many game world choices will never go to the Oracle. If it seems obvious then you don’t ask, you just decide and make it so.

The line between Actor and Author stances in solo play is more blurred. I certainly see my character from outside, I am not seeing through his eyes. I know his motives, his words and feelings and play these out, which is all Actor stance but at the same time I am watching the scenes unfold very much in the third person in my minds eye.

Director/Pawn Stance

For solo play this has the most potential for doing more work. I have recently become enamoured with PbtA clocks. As soon as there is some event happening off camera you start a clock and it counts down. When you are sneaking around each failed stealth action could count down the clock one tick until the security guards are alerted.

You could have a clock that really was time based and every 30 seconds of game time it counted down. When it counts down the police arrive.

Clocks are the thing that has my attention now and they have the potential to direct the arrival on scene of pawns. There is a 1d6 mechanic in the One Page Solo rules for directing combatants actions on a random bases.

Here is the really cool bit of this post! Everyone knows there are supposedly five stages to guilt. I was reading today that there is an anger cycle that goes something like Rest Phase (not angry), Build Up Phase, Outburst phase, Guilt/Remorse Phase. So rather than rolling a 1d6 to see of this random NPC who the oracle doesn’t like you attacks, we could roll a d4 and place them on an anger cycle.If they are hostile and you get them in the Outburst phase you can imagine what happens. If they are in the build up phase then your actions and roleplaying could move them into outburst or maybe calm them.

We could rationalise the five stages of grief down to four stages and now we have two viable NPC mind state cycles. I did a quick search and found four stages of love: Phase 1: Falling In Love Phase 2: Becoming a Couple  Phase 3: Disillusionment  Phase 4: Real, Lasting Love.

I cannot help but think that with a bit of work even pawns and their behaviour could be resolved using a simplistic oracle tool.

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#RPGTheoryJuly – 26th – Realism vs Playability

Is realism actually a thing in role playing games? I have played some of the crunchiest and rules heavy games available over the past 40 years and I have never seen anything approaching realism.

I have played games that have confused micro management for realism, or those that gave tried to model real world events, like getting hit by a war hammer, and these fail terribly. It is almost a sport to visit their forums and read the archers complain about how archery is modelled and the fencers and pugilists complain how swords are modelled. Then you get physicists trying to rationalise whether plate mail would act as a faraday cage or not.

There is a saying along the lines of ‘amateurs talk of tactics, professionals talk of logistics’.

In game design amateurs and marketeers talk of realism, real designers talk of consistency.

Consistency means that players can plan actions with some sort of world knowledge. If a human can long jump. 10 + 1d6 feet then a character could look at a chasm and say “I can make that.” If a human can long jump 2d8 feet you would have no idea if you can make the jump or not. The 2d8 is unrealistic and unplayable because it is inconsistent.

A jumping rule that says you could jump you Dex in feet plus 1d6 would also give consistency, you can look at a jump and estimate if you can make it or not. The rule is very simple and playable but is it realistic? Well in a typical medieval town there could be more that 100 people who could long jump Olympic distances, 24′ or 8m. Ellery Harding Clark was Olympic gold medalist in the first games of the modern era and had a personal best of just 6.6m.

One could of course take the characters limb length, take off distance and speed and how encumbered they are. But how how do you distinguish between 20lbs of dead weight and 20lbs of well distributed weight? If you solve the weight problem then there is a rabbit hole of ever greater granularity of the factors influencing a simple long jump.

Does it make the game more realistic, perhaps but probably not. Most groups I have known have abandoned rules that the found to be too cumbersome.

Then you find that the designer was using his detailed modeling of weapon and armour encumberance as a balancing factor to balance martial professions against stealth professions and you have just junked the game balance mechanism.

Detail is the lever that designers use to simulate realism but detail is the first thing that groups drop when it gets in the way of fun.

Going the other way, it could look at first glance that a complete lack of detail would be equally unplayable. If there is nothing to stop you karate chopping a dragon and killing it then how are you going to construct challenges that provide the backbone of roleplaying?

This is a red herring or false argument. The challenges and structural elements for role pkaying is a social contract. That is exactly how Fate works. Here is a dice roll but what it means is negotiated between GM and players.

In solo play what story cubes or random game icons mean are not determined from a rule or table but by what is best for the story.

The playability is not a written rule but part of the agreement between GM and players when they decide to play. Break that contract and you have GMs where their players drift away and players who don’t get invited to join games.

In solo play this social contract is not needed. You could play your favourite game using just broad strokes of the rules while playing on a train, using a dice roller app and a pdf rulebook. Get home and you have everything easily to hand and you can apply penalties for this that and the other rather than just eyeballing it and coming up with a number.

Is it the same game? Yes. Is it as realistic? Maybe not but not that far off. Is it more playable? Most definitely.

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#RPGTheoryJuly – 24th – Alternative Topic Solo Roleplaying

The actual prompt today was Fantasy Heartbreaker and as a rule I don’t do fantasy games either as a designer or solo player. I run a couple of fantasy campaigns for long term friends but that is it.

I want to talk about solo play.

I was on the Cypher System discord and saw this quote.

As far as I’m concerned, solo RPGs are called “writing a novel “ smile

Stephen

I just found someone talking about using a “Cypher Emulator” to play solo. I found it on drivethrurpg. Weird

Welkin

I am pretty sure I could find the same, basically uninformed, attitudes on ever game system specific discords everywhere.

I even took Epidiah Ravachol to task over his definition. Point 1 and 5 are clearly wrong.

  • It’s a game you play with friends in a social setting. …
  • It’s an exploration of intriguing or fanciful scenarios. …
  • It’s a chance to be someone you’re not. …
  • It’s a celebration of sticky situations. …
  • It’s collaborative daydreaming. …
  • It’s exercise for your personal sense of drama. …
  • It’s a way to trick ourselves into creating interesting things. …
  • It’s something you’ve been doing all along. What Is a Role-Playing Game? Ravachol, E., Dig a Thousand Holes Publishing, USA, 2013.

Getting a regular game together is hard for a lot of people and in those cases you still have options.

Discord is used for distributed groups, but they still have scheduling problems.

Forums offer play by post but that is slower with a couple of rounds or turns a day being considered fast.

Computer games are rather shallow compared to human role play.

For some reason solo play sits at the bottom of the list.

Solo play does two things better than any other form of roleplaying.

The characterisation of the setting, characters and action is perfect. There is nothing lost in translation between the GM’s vision and the players visualisation.

Breadth of play. By this I mean I can play a hard bitten glaswegian private eye this morning on the train from St. Ives to Taunton and then beta test Ironsworn Starforged this afternoon when I get to Bristol. On the plane to Edinburgh I can play Stars Without Number.

I can experiment with different settings and situations and can set up situations where the PC is likely to die in the first two minutes, just to see if the character dies in the first two minutes. Do that with an entire party and people would get upset.

For many, solo play is not some poor relation to the knights of the dinner table. Solo play is distinct and the go to form of the hobby.

It is hard to put yourself into the shoes of a brand new player and the first time you have to speak in character in front of other and probably more experienced players. That awkwardness can appear in solo play as well. It isn’t easy to solo your first scene.

Juggling your character, the game rules and a solo engine can be a lot if you don’t know if you are working the Oracle correctly.

I have a mission to make sure there are simple to use solo rules for every major game system. Rules that help ease new players into solo roleplaying. If I manage that, and there are a lot of games to write for I will loop back and start to write solo adventures for these games. The more solo material there is, the higher the profile of solo play.

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#RPGTheoryJuly – 19th – Accessibility

I have been thinking about accessibility of rulebooks recently. In some respects I was looking at it from a rather self serving point of view.

My intentions are to release a large print and a high contrast version of an upcoming game. The Royal National Institute for the Blind has guidelines on making texts accessible.

Creating such a document is incredibly easy. Strip out the art, increase the font, choose easier to read fonts and put ‘boxed text’ into high contrast black on yellow.

All the changes can be made from a standard manuscript by little more than modifying paragraph styles.

That would deal with visual impairment.

Going down the route of free PDF and paid POD would remove and reduce economic/financial barriers.

There is an issue called scotopic sensitivity. Those people who are affected often find the black on white text difficult to focus on and read. Some people use tinted lenses in reading glasses or coloured light desk lamps to cast a more sympathetic tone onto monochrome texts. There would be no reason not to create pdf with layers of all the most commonly used coloured backgrounds and a Dyslexia friendly font. Readers could then turn on the scotopic layer of their choice.

There is do much that we can do now with pdf game books that there is no reason not to.

I called this self serving. It is my intention to apply all this to my next release, Devil’s Staircase Wild West (free playtest version on Drivethrurpg.com). The seeds of it are already there. If you download the playtest you will find it is all Doc files. The advantages of the doc over pdf is that the reader can change the fonts, the text sizes and page colours. This is the start of my accessible gaming drive.

These articles are supposed to be about RPG theory. This one is less theory and more about practicality. I don’t just think about accessibility it is something I am actually doing.

If at the end of this Devil’s Staircase ends up as the most popular wild west game with visually players and GMs I would be very happy.

Accessible games require very little effort but a lot more action.

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#RPGTheoryJuly – 12th – Character Embodiment

This is something you either struggle with or you don’t. One of my players is so self conscious that he will tell me what his character says and how the character says it but he will never say what his characters says the way the character says it. He will tell me that his character is really angry and abrupt but he never acts angry or abrupt.

Is this a problem? No it isn’t. I know the player well and all the other players know the player. It does cause some interesting contradictions. He will describe his character to the other players as appearing well educated and well spoken but he then acts like a psychotic thug.

We only get to meet up a couple of times a year and we rent a big old house near Glastonbury Tor and game for 3 days solid. We start each weekend with a round of describing our characters to each other to help us get into the game. Last time someone turned to this player and said “Your playing the psycho aren’t you?” To which he replied “No actually my character is softly spoken and rather well read.” At which point the other players burst into laughter.

The conflict comes from the fact that at the top of the players character sheet are two descriptions the first is a physical appearance and the other is something I ask players to create. It includes mannerisms, catchphrases and attitudes. It is intended to be a mini recipe for when I have to NPC a player character, or that is how they started. I now have them for every NPC so I can get into character quickly and consistently.

These do get changed over time but at the top of the players sheet it says well educated, softly spoken and he has never resolved the conflict between the way he plays and the way he sees his character. He would like to play a more subtle character but in the real world he doesn’t suffer fools kindly and when we play it is his own personality that comes through more than anything else.

We have been playing together since we were teenagers and nothing is going to change his play style now and if you don’t have the confidence to play in character after 30+ years it is never going to happen. When we don’t play together he doesn’t play at all. He could never join another group because he could not role play in front of anyone else. (He gets his fix wargaming the rest of the year so don’t feel too sorry for him.)

So is he really embodying his character? I think he is to the best of his ability. In many ways a group around a table is the shallowest form of role playing. In this situation if you are going to feel inhibited then having to act in front of other people is likely to be one of those situations. When it is someone else’s turn in the spotlight we will often suppress our own characters to give them space.

When I run/play PBP games I run them so that ever player has their own threads that are invisible to the other players and I ask people not to share ingame information. Your thread is your story, you are the star and you take a backseat for no one unless that is your characters choice. No one knows who is a PC and who is an NPC. Your character meets people and interacts with them. If two PCs meet I take the responses from one player and copy n paste them across and I may change details seeing as the character is being seen from a different place/angle. If the character says “I lean against the fireplace and spit into the soup.” It will become “He leans against…” and so on. It is particularly funny when one character is incredibly drunk. They have failed any save/resistance roll against the Alcohol and they are convinced they are perfectly sober and coherent. Sometimes the other players think otherwise.

In this sort of game what you lack in responsiveness compared to a gaming table you gain in characterisation. You can write as much or as little as you like, you can add in tones of voice, mannerism, stage direction as well as non verbal posture and utilise props. You also have near perfect recall as you can scroll up at the old game posts and fact check before you click send. I am perfectly happy to let groups or parties form and dissolve. If you character is unpleasant noone is going to put up with them just because you are a PC. I have also seen a massive decrease in murder hobo behaviour and characters talk to NPCs as their peers rather than as props.

Now we get to solo play. When you don’t have to vocalise or even type out how your character behaves or presents themselves all physical barriers to character embodiment disappear. I have said before that in solo play the visualisation of the setting is perfect, the visualisation of the NPCs is perfect and of course the acting of your PC is also perfect. No one else is going to misread your body language or turn of phrase.

You cannot please everyone all of the time. Around a gaming table all of the players cannot stay perfectly in character all of the time. At some point their character embodiment will break down just because we are human.

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#RPGTheoryJuly – 10th – Ephemera

This is an odd topic for RPG theory as almost everything in game is ephemeral. The way I tend to play the only physical objects are either my phone or my laptop. I have my solo engine as an app, my dice are an app, my rules are a PDF and my character tends to be in excel.

Right now I am sat in a hospital reception waiting for the mini bus to take me to the airport and back to the island. If I wasn’t writing this post I would probably be playing Ghost Ops (the FUDGE version not 5e). The starting point would be a terrorist raid to snatch their wounded leader from intensive care where he is under armed guard. I would start the game from the point where concussion grenades start going off and my fellow guards are decimated.

My journal would be a list also in excel as would any lists of NPCs or scenes.

I have two hours to kill and at the end of that time absolutely nothing permanent would exist to say the game ever happened.

When I play a group game I have the rules on tablet but I still end up with paper. We have character sheets. I have my adventure notes and we spawn paper for maps, sketches and at least a few secret notes. We use physical dice, one player says he doesn’t trust dice apps to be fair which is ironic as he is the most likely to misread his roll and revise it upwards. (Don’t worry, I have a habit of misreading tables and revising them downwards.)

Even with all this physical stuff I still think I am pretty paper light. On the tables is everything from a 5 year campaign.

I think that is pretty paper light but it is still significantly more than I could whip out in a hospital waiting room.

So I think solo play has greater potential to be entirely ephemeral,.if you want it. If you love books and dice then that is also an option.

In group play shedding the paper and books is much, much harder.

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A Devil’s Staircase Update

It has been a long time since I have posted an update about Devil’s Staircase.

DS as we like to call it is a playing card based RPG core engine that started life as a series of blog posts over on Stargazer’s World. That was in October 2017. The core of the system was hammered out over about six weeks with the community making suggestions and giving feedback. The game then went into a period of playtesting and then finding a writer to handle creating the setting content. The core engine plus the setting makes it into a full game known as Devil’s Staircase Wild West Role Playing.

In October 2018 the game was released as a public playtest version and a quickstart. Since then it has been downloaded 244 times and we have released its first supplement, a set of solo role playing rules that are also playing card driven.

What we really want is as many play testers as possible. If you want to have a look then why not grab the free download?

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3Deep in the Doom Universe

For me one of the classic games of all time was Doom.
As a fun one off game you can put your players through the Doom maps using 3Deep as your system of choice.

The best game is probably had by playing it collaboratively. The main enemy on the first map are the zombie marines, shotgun wielding armoured marines and imps, those firgeball throwing humanoids. The objective being to run around the map, killing everything, find the secret locations and then the exit. This is classic first person shooter action. Playing it as a one off RPG is a fun session. Players respawn when killed so no one is going to have to sit out should the very first encounter go badly.

As a GM it is an interesting challenge. Can you bring this setting alive? Can you describe the scenes with the flickering lighting, barrels of toxic waste and lumbering undead to bring the setting to life?

I used this as one of the play test scenarios for the original 3Deep rules and ran is as a dream sequence. The characters in a regular modern day setting went to sleep and all woke up inside the Doom game world. At first they did not recognise it and feared death but after one of them found a chainsaw the players started to make their own Doom jokes and references. After the first character respawned they realised what was going on. They wrongly assumed that they would have to complete the game to escape but actually I wanted to do a total party kill (TPK). Once they were all dead in the same encounter the characters all woke up in their own beds, unharmed but in a cold sweat.

map of the first level in Doom
Episode 1 Map 1

Playing Doom

To play this setting you are going to need to add a few bits of equipment. The classic chainsaw, shot guns, machine guns right up the the BFG9000 if you get that far. There are several sets of armour including the standard armour, improved body armour and the helmet. The standard should be Medium Rigid and the improved is Heavy Rigid. The helmet is medium Rigid for the head only. The body armour covers only the chest and abdomen.

Doom Weapons

Shotguns would be a 2d6 piecing firearm. Up this to 3d6 for a double barrelled version.

The default pistol would be 1d6 or if you are feeling generous a 2d6 piecing attack. The 1d6 version eats up ammunition much faster. In practice more than twice the rate as a good 2d6 roll can take out an enemy in a single hit but this is much more unlikely with a 1d6 weapon.

The chaingun would be 2d6 per target when strafing or 3d6 when focused on a single target.

The dagger is a 1d6 slashing weapon and the all important chainsaw would be 2d6 slashing.

You can use standard zombies from the core rules for the marines but give the black armoured sergeants some body armour.

An Imp

The imps get to use their mana for producing fireballs. I would pay the 4pts for 1d6 of damage. Any special damage from rolling a 6 would be fire. They also have claws for a natural attack of 1d6 slashing damage.

Medipaks will give a +1 to first aid rolls and will heal 4 points of damage to any one stat. The full blown first aid kits are more powerful and five the same +1 to first aid rolls but restore up to 12 points to any one stat.

If you get taken out by an imp or zombie then I think you can assume you will be killed. At that point you respawn back at the starting point with the original pistol, knife and no armour.

Environmental Doom

There are a few environmental hazards. These are rivers and pools of toxic waste, rivers and pools of lava and exploding barrels.

Firstly the protective suits do prevent damage from toxic waste. They have a finite life time and the way I played it was to have the suits 10 points of v.strength (vehicular strength) . Each second the character was exposed did 1d6 of damage but only the special damage is applied to the v.strength. Once it reached zero the suit was effectively destroyed, eaten through by the toxic waste.

The invulnerability power up can be treated the same way. Or simply make the character invulnerable for a minute. That is easy to track with 1 second combat rounds!

If you click the map above you can get all the maps from all the versions of the game.

If you want to have a go then you can pick up the 3Deep rulebook for $9.99 as either print or PDF or both for $14.99 from RPGnow. Click here to more info or to buy.

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Theatre Of The Mind

We are pleased to announce a new product line. These are our Theatre Of The Mind adventures. Each one is a detailed plot hook that can be used with any game system. The adventures themselves are system agnostic. Detailed descriptions of NPCs, monsters and magic items are given but the actual game system mechanics are left to you. You can choose the power level to suit your game.

Some Theatre Of The Mind adventures are simple, interesting one off encounters other may evolve into story threads that can run though your game for some time should you wish.

You can find all the adventures on RPGnow.