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#RPGTheoryJuly – 15th – Task Resolution

I still imagine games as existing on a spectrum with what I used to call simulationist games on the right and story teller or narrative games on the left and everything existing between two extremes.

I have dropped the phrase simulationist as simulations of some of the gory and brutal worlds we inhabit when playing would be rather gruesome and definitely not fun. What players of so called simulationist games, including Rolemaster companion authors, are really after is not a perfect simulation but consistency with the real world.

You you do X in the real world then Y will happen so if you do X in the game Y should also happen.

As long as there is no magic or technology beyond our understanding that all works.

Some games strive to constrain all possible outcomes to the point where the consistent outcome is the only outcome. This is the main criticism of Rolemaster back in the day when you were using all possible optional rules. Every variable had been take into account and added a bonus or penalty to the skill resolution system. Along the same lines forever greater detail in the skill system meant that task resolution could be micromanaged to the nth degree.

On the other hand some systems will happily use a single indicative roll and allow the players and GMs to infer a mass of detail from the one roll.

The preference is just that a preference, neither is better or worse than the other. It is a case of what you like in your games. The of the important considerations is that games with fast task resolution mechanics are more engaging for the players. That sounds like a sweeping generalisation but if you spend 20 minutes just picking one lock and then another 20 trying to detect any traps who has had all the limelight at the table? I would expect every other player have their phones out and being totally disengaged with the game. If a three hour game session achieves nothing exciting because the game moved so slowly is it really going to keep the players coming back? I had a GM back in the 80s who loved massive combats but was also a stickler for every rule. A combat round could and would take 40 minutes to resolve. People would roll to hit, miss and then leave the room, make a cup of tea, go for a smoke, anything to pass the time. One weekend we ran a Traveler game in the kitchen while he was running a combat at the gaming table. We got more playing in waiting for our turn than we did in the game we come to play. We only did that once as the GM got really upset that there was a second game being played and he wasn’t invited.

If you read the post on Emotional Beats you will also know that games with fast resolution are also more addictive and I would say by extension more financially successful. What we need is enough detail and consistency to make decisions, we don’t need perfection.

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#RPGTheoryJuly – 14th – Genre Microscripts

I am a big fan of microscripts. A miscroscript is almost a repeating scene within a genre that has an impact on the greater story. One classic example is the Great British Stiff Upper Lip and social inhibition over showing emotion or sentimentality in public. You end up with scenes where so much is unsaid, sticking to the microscript, that the heroes do not live happily ever after, they don’t get the girl and so on.

Microscripts are part of what I was demonstrating a couple of days ago, Character Embodiment was the writing prompt I think. Microscripts can keep the genre and what makes the setting special to the forefront of the players imaginations. It can be really simple things. Characters in the Forgotten Realms greet each other with “Well Met!” and that in itself is a microscript. It is a ritual that grounds the character in the genre and setting.

A genre is a repeating set of ideas. If you constantly use gothic words and phrases to describe buildings and scenes then the feel with be gothic. Put something decidedly non-gothic such as a six gun wielding cow rancher in the scene and you can start to mix your genre. Which side of the dual genre you favour will mean that the other still gets played out in microscripts.

Even if you are not mixing genres we sit get those vignette scenes. Scenes we have played out a thousands times such as the mysterious stranger in the tavern that becomes out quest giver. The sole surviving innocent from a devastated village, that becomes the quest signpost. We all know how these microscripts play out. They are familiar and allow the players to hook into the game. The problem with these cliches is that as GMs we try and avoid using cliches. In doing so we are taking away part of what allows the players easy entry to your adventures.

There is a time to avoid microscripts. I have been working hard to avoid traditional microscripts in the Rolemaster fanzine series I have been writing. The genre is fantasy but the setting is a fantasy version of east asia. The difficulty is to stop the players and their characters defaulting back to medieval european fantasy play. That is what players are so conditioned into playing that making the humid jungles, terraced peasant fields travelling and down wide rivers in flat bottomed canoes real for the players requires constant work and constant microscripts. I need my peasants to be excessively polite and deferential, meetings take place after a ceremonial meal and lines of monks file through villages with just simple garb and a begging bowl. These repetitions are formulaic and follow a similar script but help keep the players in the world.

I cannot help but think that most of these writing prompts are about things that every experienced GM does instinctively. You don’t need to know what they are called or the theory behind them. Half of them I have had to Google (or more accurately DuckDuckGo search) to find out what they actually mean, only to think “Oh year, I’ve been doing that for years”. I am pretty sure you all have as well. The value in this series is probably in open discussion of ‘normal’ things but in a way that is accessible to inexperienced GMs.

Sorry, I couldn’t work Solo play into this easily. We don’t really need quest givers or setting reinforcement when we are solo playing.

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#RPGTheoryJuly – 13th – Emotional Beats

Roleplaying games are like a double helix.We have two very distinct threads but each has a myriad of connections to the other.

The first thread is the game mechanics. These are completely neutral, or almost neutral. I have been reading and listening to a lot of FATE this week and there the rules and mechanics are, to use the authors own words, there to make you look awesome. Most of the time the rules are neutral. Conflicts or all sorts are resolved by dice and random numbers with a built in presumption of success being more frequent than failure. The same rules apply to everyone and the rules have no favourites.

The second thread is the emotional side. As a situation in the game starts to develop our excitement levels go up, as your plans or intentions come to you you get a feelings of anticipation. When you get to roll will you succeed or fail? What is riding on this? Once the roll is made and the result known it could be feelings of elation or heightened tension.

Incidentally for any game designers out there. It is the post roll elation moment that releases the little dopamine hit that will make your game addictive. If you put all your manipulation before the roll and keep the post roll/resolution short and sweet your game will be more addictive.

So although we are telling a story, the structured game loops where descriptions of our actions are turned into game mechanic actions and then back into descriptive narrative provide the emotional beat or rhythm to your game, the tension, anticipation and elation.

I think this is part of the success of D&D. The relatively simple character design means that there is very little to look up and check on your character sheet. Most actions are one or at most two rolls to resolve and the post resolution is fast. You roll, you hit, you roll damage, the villain dies or not. Repeating rounds which some people negatively point to as hit point attrition or grind is actually, on the emotional level a rapid beating rhythm and the eventual victory gives a bigger sense of elation when it comes.

I never played D&D 3.5e or 4e but I get the impression that they split the community and they were regarded as too complex with too many feats. I cannot really comment but if that is true the underlying biology could be that the moment of resolution was being drawn out to the point where the sense of elation was reduced and the resulting dopamine release was smaller and weaker. Unless you were really into feats and things in which case you probably hated 5e and are still playing 3.5 or 4e.

An RPG with a genre/subject with mass appeal and a well thought out emotional rhythm could be as popular and as addictive as Facebook. It is the same basic reward system, rolling to hit and clicking “Like”. The RPG is would be owned by us to tell our own stories but I suspect FB may want us to play in their story, like it or not.

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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 – 11th – Fateplay

The prompt word for today is fateplay. I have no idea what this is. I googled it and it appears to the be the name of someones youtube channel, one that I have no interest in. If it relates to the fate game then I also have no interest.

There are a set of fate solo rules but I guess if you were interested then you probably already have them.

Today I am going to just talk about characters that are fated. Some seer has told you that you are fated to confront the ancient dragon Sárkány. Traditionally this gives the DM/GM a bit of a problem. If they are fated to confront Sárkány are they ‘plot armoured’ against every other threat on the planet because fate will not be denied? I have played with a GM many years ago that literally did that. He would fix dice rolls and change foes stats to guarantee that the outcome he wanted came about. If you did die, you had one hit point left and rather than retreat you threw yourself on another seventy five orcs to save the party, then he would find a way to bring you back. We were basically invulnerable right up to the climatic battle.

It is possible that the Seer got it wrong or you are the third person that week he has been giving the same prophesy to. Rather like a newspaper horoscope where one in 12 of the entire world’s population is going to find a new love today or put off making financial decisions just because they were born in July.

Solo play can get around plot armour. You create the prophecy, create the character, play out the final battle. It doesn’t need to even be a battle. The seer only said confront, not fight or defeat, so you could start with a verbal confrontation and then take your story from there. If you do want to fight an ancient dragon but it isn’t going well, it rarely does, you can break out and play flashbacks. We can easily start a fight, hop about in the timeline, have amazing adventures and finish the fight some hours later of continuous play.

While we are thinking about fates, let us talk about story cubes and game icons. The mysterious seer casts his runes and reads the results.

What he came up with was…

icon diceicon dice

So what does that mean to you?

I am extremely tempted to create a character with a two icon ‘fate’ and then play him until I find out what the fate meant. Now that I could see as an interesting solo game. What do the icons mean? Will I recognise the characters fate when I see it. Will knowing the icons make me interpret oracle questions differently to bring this fate about? This one idea here is that I now think of a Fateplay,

That other FATE

There are a great many FATE players and GMs. There is also an existing FATE Solo engine by Cabbage Games. The problem is that the author seems to have walked away in January 2017 and the product was never finished. The reviews are typically 1*. It was really written for experienced solo players and just translated the Mythic oracle to FATE with little or no support.

When I write my system specific solo booklets I work on the principle that I an trying to entice players who have never played before to try solo gaming. The solo rules take up two or three pages and the supporting material and examples take up the other 15 pages typically.

I have worried about this on and off for six months or more. The rules that are out there are creating a negative impression and are not helping spread solo play as a viable hobby branch. On the other hand if I devote some time to learning how to play FATE and create some solo rules that target new players is that not stomping all over Cabbage Games’s territory?