The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in June 2008.

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

The Trouble With Tasers

Technology is ruining the storytelling business. Lately it seems like every new innovation of communications technology renders another classic plot device moot. GPS tracking, widespread closed circuit camera use and electronic paper trails make contemporary detective stories harder and harder to write. The screenwriter Todd Alcott, analyzing the works of the Coen brothers, noted that all of them are set before the cell phone era as we know it. Their plots inevitably revolve around disasters of miscommunication and couldn’t happen in a world where people can easily contact one another while in transit.

I recently underwent a tussle with another annoying piece of technology that threatens to wreak special havoc on roleplaying game scenarios. In real life, the taser may be, as its proponents argue, a useful piece of putatively non-lethal weaponry allowing for the peaceful capture of dangerous criminals. In game mechanical terms, they’re a freaking nightmare. They break the paradigm of suspenseful back-and-forth fights on which gaming’s bread is buttered. A taser rule that successfully models the way the things work in real life brings about an instant end to a physical confrontation in one shot. You get hit by a taser, you go down, end of story.

Roleplaying games have traditionally differed from the action genres they derive inspiration from in the ease with which it is possible to KO opponents. In a movie or novel, the hero can conk out an enemy with a karate chop to the neck, sap to the back of the skull, or old-fashioned Vulcan nerve pinch, raining no particular problem down upon the author. The characters are all under his control, so he can count on them not to transform into cold-blooded killers at the sight of an unconscious foe.

PCs, controlled as they are by players, exhibit no such compunctions. When it comes to the chance for an easy kill, players blithely have their characters engage in behavior they’d recoil from if performed by their favorite movie or comic book heroes.

Combat mechanics traditionally rush in to to fill this morality hole, by making it no easier to KO an enemy than to kill him. That way the PCs wind up killing in self-defense, or at least in the process of a fair fight against an opponent who chooses not to surrender. Some rules sets of yore make it even harder to grapple or disable a foe than to kill him, though this is as much a case of simulation gone awry as an attempt to enforce genre norms.

A designer can fudge the relative difficulties of a kill versus a KO when it comes to most forms of combat. It’s easier in genre fiction to render an enemy unconscious without lasting consequences than it is in real life, where vigorous thumps on the head lead to concussions and brain injuries. Taking on a heavily armed and armored opponent who’s trying to kill you probably does make it difficult to score a harmless knockout.

Several of the games I’ve worked on, starting with Feng Shui, allow characters to specify that they’re fighting to disable even while using the standard combat system, making it just as easy to kill as to KO.

Tasers, if rendered accurately, screw up this balance completely. They really do make it almost trivially easy to take an opponent out of the fight in one shot.

Here our genre sources do provide the answer. You’ll notice that sympathetic protagonists, even the cop characters in procedural shows, do not go around zapping perps with tasers. In TV and movies as well as in games, the one-shot nature of the taser makes for boring action sequences. More crucially, there’s the sympathy factor. We can accept heroes who shoot or manhandle the bad guys, but taser use just seems sinister. Perhaps it’s the humiliating nature of a taser bring-down that triggers a sympathy switch. We’d end up identifying with the defeated villain instead of the basking vicariously in the protagonist’s victory.

As audience members, we may also be haunted by real-life abuses of the technology. Anyone who follows the news on this subject has seen the horror stories, starting with sudden death by cardiac arrest. Because the consequences of taser use are, compared to a gun, advertised as negligible, cops and security personnel have shown a distressing tendency to treat it as a weapon of first resort. As it would be in a gaming situation, it’s too easy to use in real life. We’ve seen it deployed to curtail the civil liberties of peaceful protesters. (This will be a huge problem in the years ahead as mass non-lethal technologies come on line and fall into the hands of authoritarian regimes.)

In short, pop culture has, perhaps aptly, tagged the taser as a bully’s weapon.

Trying to reconcile these issues with the known properties of taser weapons sent me down several blind alleys as I worked to develop GUMSHOE rules for them. Before finally accepting the simple solution that was in front of me all along, I considered:

  • dodge rules making it easier to avoid a taser hit
  • fumble rules making a taser harder to use than it is in real life
  • allowing characters to shrug off taser strikes

None of these attempts to nerf the taser passed even GUMSHOE’s loose reality demands. Finally I realized that this was not a matter of rules mechanics, but of literary conceit: PCs in GUMSHOE don’t use tasers because heroes in pop culture don’t use tasers. For Mutant City Blues, there’s the suggestion that lawsuits over inappropriate taser use have led to mountains of paperwork and career setbacks for detectives who resort to them. Maybe in The Esoterrorists we’ll specify that tasers are the fruit of an occult plot to enable tyranny, and that their use weakens the membrane. But really these are fig leaves of credibility placed upon an overriding literary convention:

Real heroes don’t use tasers.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

[Ed.This was originally an internal design document, but it should come in useful for anyone interested in GUMSEHOE background creation.]

The GUMSHOE system departs from standard RPG design practice in a couple of significant ways. Neither of the two extant rules manuscripts, Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, expends much precious space explaining the theory behind these choices. To design rules add-ons for GUMSHOE, though, you have to think in the way the system demands. This document shows you how think GUMSHOE.

Tediously Obligatory Disclaimer

Before we start, please note that just because GUMSHOE makes a certain game design choice doesn’t mean that we’re saying that all games should be this way, or that these design choices are objectively better than others in all cases. They’re right for GUMSHOE. It is meant to perform a specific job. Other games built to achieve other ends might arise from completely opposite principles to be ineffably awesome. A crunchy, rules-driven, determinative, simulationist, integrated game could rock. It is not this game, though.

Design Watchwords

The design watchwords for GUMSHOE are:

  • Emulation of narrative structure (not simulation of imaginary reality)
  • Technique (not rules)
  • Simplicity (not crunchiness)
  • Modularity (not necessarily integration)

Emulation: The ultimate goal of GUMSHOE is to foster play that feels like a mystery novel, TV procedural, or occult adventure comic. Precisely what’s being emulated differs from kit to kit. The first question when designing a rule is: “How would this happen in the source material?” Supplementary questions include: “What structural effect do scenes involving this have on the story? What effect are they meant to have on the audience?” The logic is literary and structural, not literal or reality-oriented. If you design a rules add-on and its result is to encourage behavior or activities that characters in this sort of investigative fiction never engage in, you’ve gone off track, substituting extrapolative logic for dramatic logic. Do not attempt to introduce more verisimilitude than the source material requires.

Also, respect the power of clichés. Sometimes they are required to allow the machinery of genre plotting to work. Many players engage in roleplaying to get up close and personal with their genre expectations. A new spin on a tired trope can be fun, but if your add-on allows only a revisionist take on the material you’re emulating, you’ve created something eccentrically limited. Sometimes it might be appropriate to be self-aware and ironic about the clichés that come with your territory—in a Scream-type scenario, for example. More often you’ll want to find ways to make clichés feel fresh and powerful again.

Because we’re emulating narrative structures, not simulating an imaginary reality, scenarios should not call on GMs to make random determinations for anything that matters. Don’t tell us that the guards will react violently if they roll X and peacefully if they roll Y. Tell us that the guards will react violently under condition X or peacefully under condition Y. Better yet, make these two conditions dependent on player choices or the use of their general abilities. Give us decision trees for GMC actions and reactions, depending on how the PCs change the situation. (General notes on GMC plans and motivations might be preferable in many cases.)

Theoretically there is an investigative sub-genre which, to emulate properly, requires you to ignore any of the other pieces of advice given in this document. If so, do it—but be clear that your deviations from the norm address only that sub-genre.

Simplicity: When designing a new rule, challenge yourself to find the simplest possible expression of it. The urge to complicate is powerful, but must be resisted. Avoid crunchiness creep. Other games put rules front and center during the play experience, and that can be cool, too. But here we want the rules to get out of the way of the GM and players. Episodes of rules use should happen quickly, and take up only a small percentage of any given game session. Just because a rule is cool, doesn’t mean that it is necessary. A rule is never an end in and of itself; if it doesn’t justify itself, it’s so much mental smog.

Technique: The best way to keep a rule simple is to have no rule at all. A technique is a structured way of playing, for GMs and/or players, into which numbers and die rolling do not enter. The flashback concept from Fear Itself is a prime example of a technique. It shapes play in a distinctive way and refers to a narrative technique players will know from fictional sources. It is purely a novel way to perform interactive scenes, without a mechanical reward or consequence.

Another example of technique would be the stereotypes from Fear Itself. Where another game would realize its desired archetypes by giving them rules properties—making them templates for character creation, directly determining your game statistics—this is a simple list that you can take or leave. It is a springboard for player creativity. Again, it gets the players thinking about the source material, but leaves them free to realize them in whatever way, and to whatever degree, they want.

Modularity: First edition AD&D is a modular rules system; sub-systems operate independently of one another. No particular effort is made to make PCs and monsters conform to the same scale and list of capabilities. When Gary and company needed a new rule, they thought, “how do I make this work?”

Third edition D&D is an integrated design; all of the rules systems interrelate. When the designers came to each rules subset, they asked themselves, “How do I make this work in a way that’s congruent with the rest of the system?”

Design integration is considered an important goal for state-of-the-art crunchy games. Integrated rules are aesthetically satisfying and ought to be easier to learn and remember.

GUMSHOE is a modular system, with a twist. Where you can maintain congruence with the existing rules and still emulate the source material, you should do so. However, emulation takes precedence over congruence. The key example here is the way that the game handles abilities completely differently, depending on their relationship to narrative structure. Investigative abilities work one way; general abilities use a completely system.

Aesthetic neatness never takes precedence over function. Note how in GH some of the Psychic abilities use the Investigative mechanics, and others use the General. Again, this depends on their story role: whether they are used to gather information, or to handle threats. In the first case, failure is not permitted. In the second, it is.

There are also actions that use different abilities (and rules sub-systems) depending on their narrative consequences. In GH, you might use Investigative Procedures to find a hidden item that provides information, or Sense Trouble to find one that endangers you. In Esoterrorists, you’d use Explosive Devices to find a bomb whose placement doesn’t threaten you, but does provide a clue. If its primary purpose in the narrative was to threaten you, you’d use Surveillance instead.

Reassurance (gaining information) and Shrink (healing psychic damage) provide another example. Similar according to real-world logic, very different when you look at narrative effect—and therefore treated with different mechanics.

Another split: PCs are treated differently than supporting characters. GMCs need general abilities but aren’t actively investigating mysteries and don’t need investigative abilities. In most genres, important antagonists don’t need Stability scores — though text defining their areas of knowledge and mental states could be very useful.

These distinctions can be counterintuitive, so don’t introduce them for their own sake. When necessary, though, swallow your aesthetic qualms and embrace them.

When designing new rules, the configuration of other rules is important but is not a starting point for your thought process. If you need to devise drowning rules, don’t start by looking at the falling rules and extrapolating from there. Ask yourself how drowning works in the material you’re emulating and go from there. You’ll want to eventually look at the falling rules to see how they match up, and if a previous designer followed the same assumptions you did. If they solved the same problem you tackled in a more elegant way, then go back and tinker. If your solution works better for your situation, stick with it.

As you design new kits, modularity may inspire you to swap out portions of the core rules for something that works better for the material you’re emulating. Trail Of Cthulhu might require a different way of tackling Stability. Many other theoretically possible investigative kits, from Scooby Doo to Agatha Christie, would dispense with it altogether.

GUMSHOE is meant to be a tool kit, from which GMs can mix and match add-on rules to create the settings they want. Encourage this mind-set by indicating what other sorts of investigative games your add-on might be good for. Be clear which add-ons are suitable only for your sub-genre, and which ones have broader applications.

Anti-Rules

When attempting to design systems that facilitate the GMs and emulate narrative structure, you may find it useful to consider creating an anti-rule.

Even gamers who think they know otherwise will over-rely on any rule you put in a game book. Any Call of Cthulhu player will tell you that a good GM doesn’t make you roll for the really important clues. Yet when we play a conventional investigative game of any type, we do have the players roll for clues all the time, because the rules provide for it. Like a gun on the table in the first act of a play, if you introduce a rule, it’s going to go off. GMs who know better will use it anyhow, out of reflex. GMs who don’t know better will cause countless hours of bad entertainment.

An anti-rule is a rule that exists purely to prevent the GM and players from doing this. It looks like a rule and walks like a rule, but really its main function is psychological. It gives gamers the comfortable feeling that there’s a rule guiding their behavior, giving them permission to engage in organically creative play. Like a rule, it provides structure, but unlike a rule, it doesn’t determine what happens in play.

The investigative rules of GUMSHOE are a prime example. The entire rules structure exists to prevent you from rolling against an ability to get a clue. It’s a rule to tell you you don’t need rules. The point-spending for evocative but nonessential clues adds a comfortable and satisfying gamey element to the experience. It allows you to use a rule now and again, but safely, so that the rules don’t get in the way and spoil everything.

Scenario Note: GMCs Making Rolls

Something I should have thought about sooner: whenever possible, it’s best to take situations in which a supporting character makes a roll and turn it around to one where the PCs make a roll against a difficulty. [Ed: We call this approach “player-facing.”]

It’s not so much an issue in combat and physical situations, where both PCs and GMCs typically have about enough points to last through one confrontation. But in situations like perception, PCs and GMCs are not really congruent. PCs have to space out their point spending through an entire adventure. GMCs are usually there for only a scene or two, and so can spend huge chunks of points on a roll. Having the GM making this tactical decision for them suddenly puts her in an adversarial situation that doesn’t really gibe with the spirit of the game.

In some cases you won’t be able to get around it, but whenever possible, turn these situations around. Instead of having the GMC roll Sense Trouble to see through an impersonation, set out a condition which, if the player makes the wrong choice, triggers her suspicions. Instead of having the GMC roll to search the PCs and find weapons, have the PCs make an Infiltrate roll to hide them so well the frisker doesn’t find them. This is not only fairer to the players but makes them more active participants in their own adventures.

Thought Process

In conclusion, when confronted with a rules problem, ask yourself the following questions, in the following order:

  • How does it work in the source material?
  • Is there a way to do it as a technique, and not a rule?
  • If I need a rule (or anti-rule), how simple can I make it?

Having already worked out the narrative consequences of the action I’m trying to model, have other designers already tackled similar problems in a way I’ll find instructive?

Do I label it as a universal add-on, or specific to this sub-genre?

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The GUMSHOE system seen in The Esoterrorists and upcoming follow-on games and supplements can be used for any mystery or procedural game. We’ll be presenting new settings in the future, but in the meantime, the game’s core engines are easily adaptable to whatever investigative genre you want to run. Here’s how to adapt GUMSHOE to emulate your favorite procedural, whether it be 24, Torchwood, CSI, or The X-Files.

Step One: Study Your Source

First, immerse yourself in the property you want to recreate. You may be adapting a specific procedural, or drawing from a broad subset of similar shows. It might also be fun to combine the structure and tone of a well-known TV show with the genre elements gamers love: “It’s Cracker, but with werewolves.”

For the sake of a default frame of reference, I’m assuming a TV show here, but the general principles apply equally to novel series: you could just as easily adapt Sherlock Holmes, Ellis Peters’ Cadfael, Iain Pears’ art-world mysteries, or Tony Hillerman’s Navajo-centric whodunnits.

Creating your own original property requires less homework but is tougher in some ways. You’ll have to portray your setting and narrative formula to the players without the shorthand that comes with the shared viewing experience of a popular show.

Start by identifying the structure of your source’s typical episodes. Look for standard elements that recur from one episode to the next; these will help you to construct scenarios. For a long running property with many cast changes over the years, determine if the various characters fall into distinct types.

Make a master list of the various GUMSHOE investigative abilities. When one of these abilities, or a close analogue, comes up in the course of an episode, put a tick mark next to it. If abilities appear which have no counterparts in GUMSHOE, make a note of that. Pay special attention to the interpersonal abilities, which are easy to gloss over, appearing as they do in the ebb and flow of dialogue, interrogation and interview scenes.

Take note also of what the characters are able to do during non-investigative scenes. Again, note what GUMSHOE abilities you see in action, and which other abilities you’ll have to define for your game.

Gauge how competent the protagonists are. Are the action sequences, if any, over the top and stylized, or gritty and real?

As is often the case in adaptations to the RPG format, you may have to adjust a series featuring a single protagonist (or a duo) to make an entire team of characters co-equal centers of attention.

Step Two: Investigative Abilities

Take the list of abilities you’ve compiled during your homework. Note how fine-grained the technical and academic abilities seem to be. Is a big distinction made, for example, between the various forensic disciplines? If so, you’ll likely want to use a large list of abilities, as seen in The Esoterrorists. Otherwise, a more stripped down, general list likely suits better. Such a list appears in the upcoming GUMSHOE horror book, Fear Itself.

Look at the abilities you haven’t seen in play in your source material. Can you envision them ever appearing? If so, include them. If not, leave them out.

Certain forensic techniques will be unavailable in non-contemporary settings. Forensic entomology is a very recent sub-discipline, for example. An ancient or medieval sleuth won’t be looking for fingerprints. Other disciplines might be available in more primitive form, providing less information. For example, a photographic expert in a 1940s hardboiled game will have less to go on than his contemporary, computer-equipped counterpart. In some cases, you’ll want to rename abilities: forensic psychology might become alienism.

Once you’ve assembled your final list of investigative abilities, divide the number of abilities by the number of players who you expect will regularly attend your game, then add a handful of points to this total. This gives you the number of build points the players get to buy their investigative abilities during character creation.

Step Three: General Abilities

Repeat the above process with general abilities. Most basic general abilities will apply to any setting, but there are a few that need tweaking for historical genres. Pre-industrial characters might use Riding or Carting instead of Driving, for example.

(When in doubt as to whether an ability is general or investigative, ask yourself if it can be used to gather information, or to perform some other task. If it’s the latter, it’s investigative. If the former, it’s general. If what seems to be the same talent can both gather information and perform other tasks, split it into two, making it both an investigative and general ability. The prime example of this are the Reassurance and Shrink abilities, which resemble each other thematically but have different narrative functions.)

If your setting is gritty and realistic, give the players around 5 build points for each general ability. For a more over-the-top setting, assign 8-12 points per general ability. Some general ability lists will include specialized abilities that few PCs will want; if so, omit them when tallying your total number of abilities.

In certain fantastic genres, you may want to create a subclass of special abilities, like super powers or psychic talents. Write descriptions of these so the players know how they work. It may be that some are investigative and some general; be sure to indicate which is which. Assign them a separate build point total, reflecting the degree to which you want these talents present in your game. You will probably also want to limit the number of special abilities each player can take, or allow only a restricted number of PCs to have them.

Step Four: Conceptual Aids

If characters in the setting tend to fall into definable categories, write brief descriptions of each type, to help the players fit their characters to the property.

Look at what motivates the characters in the property. If necessary, create guidelines or rules structures to assist players in acquiring the necessary mindset. For example, Fear Itself character creation requires the players to pick the worst thing their characters ever did. This provides a plot hook to use in flashbacks and scenes of character development. It also requires you to pick from a list of possible motivations to take the apparently stupid risks that get horror characters into entertaining danger. A rule then provides an incentive for reluctant players to make the choices that drive stories of this type.

Step Five: What to Leave Out

Just because a rule structure is present in current iterations of GUMSHOE doesn’t mean that it will work for your property. Stability, for example, is essential for horror-based mystery games but inappropriate for all but the most punishing and gritty crime or detective properties.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Everybody knows this ancient joke: A guy goes to the doctor. He rotates his arm a bit and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” So the doctor says, “Don’t do that.”

When designing roleplaying rules to emulate narrative sources, much of the job consists of finding places to say the same thing: “Don’t do that.”

As we all know, the roleplaying form grew out of the war-gaming scene. Its earliest incarnations focused on tactical play. This was, and remains, a fun and rewarding play style. The choice to focus on dramatic structure rather than tactical choices is not a repudiation of the older mode of play, or an evolution to a superior state of being. It’s just aimed at creating a different sort of fun.

It’s also usually a matter of emphasis, rather than of aesthetic purity. Storytelling elements can suddenly intrude into the most determinedly experience-point grubbing dungeon crawl. Moments of tactical decision-making may become appropriate in even the most experimental of narrative games.

That said, many of us tend to default to the assumptions of the tactical style when we design or play narrative-based games, because that’s where the entire roleplaying tradition stems from. It can be profoundly liberating to question these assumptions, sometimes tossing them out the window in favor of simpler choices that better model the literary or cinematic sources we’re striving to emulate. To say, “Don’t do that.”

The “don’t do that” principle can be difficult to implement when players have grown emotionally invested in particular ways of doing things during their time playing tactically-oriented games. In my narrative-based game system, HeroQuest, I keep trying to get rid of the fine differences between various sorts of weapons and armor. In the fictional source material, they provide defining gimmicks for the various characters but rarely, if ever, serve as a determining factor in success or failure. A combative character who wields a strange or unlikely weapon is so well trained in it that it’s as good in his hands as the default weapon wielded by the average character. Incremental differences between armor and weapon types belong in the detail-crunchy world of tactical play, not in an abstract system designed to mimic dramatic structure. Yet players who are otherwise on board with the general concept of story play still have that love of those crunchy differences ingrained in them from their happy formative experiences with tactical games. You’ll see, when the upcoming generic version of the HeroQuest rules come out, to what extent I managed to win the battle this time around.

The central “don’t do that,” at the heart of the GUMSHOE system concerns the mechanism whereby players in an investigative scenario gain the clues they need to solve the mystery. The tactical tradition treats this as a skill use like any other, with a chance of failure corresponding to your investment of character resources into that skill. Say you need to find out what your suspect’s grandfather was doing during World War II. You roll your Library Use skill. If you allocated enough points to Library Use during character creation and/or manage to score a lucky roll, you get the information you need. If you invested lightly in the skill, or roll poorly, you’re screwed. In theory, that is.

In reality, GMs either fudge the roll, or improvise a workaround, giving the characters repeated shots at discovering the same fact with various abilities, until one of them finally succeeds, permitting the plot to free itself from its rut and lurch onward. The standard approach borrows some of the outward aspects of a tactical game, but in fact relies on GM kludging to prevent them from operating-as it must, to serve the demands of story structure, which craves ongoing forward momentum.

GUMSHOE says, “Don’t do that.” Since the end of the process is a foregone conclusion — the characters get the info they need-why waste time, focus and creativity with a system that provides only the illusion of chance? Instead, GUMSHOE provides a character generation system which guarantees that someone in the group will have made the necessary investment in every information-gathering ability, and which then grants access to clues on that basis. It is a simpler, streamlined way of achieving what good GMs are already doing-without the pointless and annoying faffing about.

Some GMs of investigative games have responded to second-hand descriptions of GUMSHOE by saying that, because it ensures that players always get the clues they need, it does what they are already doing. In other words, they’re saying that they’re already not doing that. I wonder to what extent this assertion matches reality. When a game design provides a rule, that rule tends to get used, even when it shouldn’t. Its use occurs reflexively, even invisibly.

The crystal ball I use to peer into other peoples’ houses while they GM is in the shop for repairs, so I guess I can’t conclusively say that commenters are mis-describing their own play style. However, my bet would be that most of them are:

• putting absolutely crucial information (what in GUMSHOE are called core clues) out in plain sight, with no skill use (and therefore no roll) required

or

• employing the above-mentioned workaround, continually finding new ways to reveal the same information, until somebody finally gets the needed roll

and

• still requiring skill rolls for less essential clues

We have probably abetted this misperception by emphasizing the fact that GUMSHOE never leaves you stuck on a failed die roll. The traditional skill roll method tends not to leave you stuck in practice, because GMs have grown used to clumsily working around it. For those folks, the value of the GUMSHOE approach is not that it does something they can’t or haven’t done before, but that it does so with smooth and seamless efficiency. It’s not only what it does, but how it does it.

The result is a faster, sleeker approach to emulation of the mystery structure. When the emphasis is taken off the finding of clues and placed on their interpretation, the pacing and tenor of sessions change substantially. This is the benefit of looking at established practices and saying, “Don’t do that.”

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Click here for part II of the “Fear of Structure”

With The Esoterrorists now available and a series of GUMSHOE products in the pipeline, it’s time to embark on a series of columns supporting the game. Even if you’re not, heaven forefend, an Esoterrorists player or reader, I hope you’ll find something in these coming columns to chew on, whether you occasionally run or play in other investigative scenarios, or are broadly interested in the theory and practice of roleplaying game design.

If there are prevailing threads through my various different RPG designs over the years, one of them would be a desire to drill through theoretical preconceptions of what the roleplaying experience ought to be, to get to what is really fun about gaming. (This is not to say that all theory is inherently wrong. If that statement were true, it would itself be a theory, and would be wrong, thus opening up a rift in the space-time continuum that cause the universe to devour itself. And who wants that, really?)

My governing observation here is that there is often a gulf between what we think we want, or ought to want, and what really entertains us. We gamers are a cerebral lot and tend to construct theoretical frameworks, which we lean on heavily when articulating our tastes. Sure, sometimes these theories are reliable markers to enjoyable game play. But it’s always worthwhile to question them, and often liberating to chuck them out the window.

To take an example from an earlier design, Feng Shui questions the then-prevailing assumption that the GM should be entirely in charge of determining what is present in the characters’ environment. Its play advice section instructs players to help imagine what stunt-worthy props might be available for use during fight scenes. They don’t ask the GM if there happens to be an aquarium present, they simply assume it: “I leap over the table, using it as a springboard to land on his back and knock Mr. Po headfirst into the fish tank!” Though they retain veto power over completely implausible or abusive choices, GMs are urged to encourage this player collaboration. The game does this to further its goal of evoking the feeling of being inside a fast and furious Hong Kong-style action movie. Some GMs incorporated this trick into all of their subsequent gaming, Feng Shui or not, which I find incredibly gratifying.

In the case of the GUMSHOE system, my hope is that the people who adopt its core technique-which guarantees that players who look in the right place will find the clues they need to advance the storyline-will find it a powerful tool to increase the fun to frustration ratio of their investigative scenarios. This puts us into conflict with another long-standing assumption about good gaming-that scenario structure is a thing to regard with suspicion, as a sign of that dreaded phenomenon, railroading.

Most gamers have been burned by dictatorial so-called storytelling GMs whose heavy-handed, anti-collaborative techniques discredit all narrative-based play. We all know the kind-the guy who has an “epic” story to tell and wants the players to follow pre-assigned roles as he reveals to them, sequence by sequence, the script he has written in his head. When many players think of an adventure having structure, they think of this guy, and want to run as fast they can in the other direction. Even when, to painfully exceed my daily metaphor quota, they’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

This is unfortunate, because to emulate certain fictional genres in a satisfying way, the GM needs to be able to create a sense of structure, with an opening that leads to a series of interconnected scenes, and finally to a climax that wraps up the various plot threads dangled in the previous action.

No story format is more rigorously demanding of structure than the mystery, from which any investigative scenario must, by definition, draw inspiration. Its opening scene sets up a question. The intervening scenes move the protagonists toward an answer to that question, though often in a meandering or indirect way that enriches the puzzle with various tangents and red herrings.

This classic structure allows for some common variations. Sometimes the original mystery the protagonist investigates turns out to be a mere lead-in for a much more important problem. The modern mystery novel often weaves together two apparently unrelated mysteries-one serious, one of less seeming consequence-which the protagonist discovers to be connected. Also common in modern mysteries is a thread of tangentially related character development, which develops the protagonist from book to book. A more classical structure treats the detective as an essentially unchanging iconic character, who resists the efforts of the world to change him, instead altering the world by solving mysteries and imposing order on it.

If you’re not using some variation of the above structure, you’re simply not telling a mystery story.

The problem this genre choice presents us with, then, is that certain players, seeing the theory and not the practice of roleplaying, are overly fearful of a linear or so-called “bread crumb” plot structure, which they equate with egregious railroading.

I’d argue, first of all, that these fears are misplaced, and arise from a fundamental misperception. The trail of clues, or bread crumb plot, is not the story, and does not constitute a pre-scripted experience. What the PCs choose to do, and how they interact with each other as they solve the mystery, is the story. As mentioned in The Esoterrorist rules, we saw this at work during playtest, as all of the groups had very different experiences of the sample scenario, as each GM and player combo riffed in their own unique ways off the situations it suggested.

In fact, every RPG session (or series of connected sessions) remotely partaking of a narrative winds up being linear in retrospect. One scene leads to another and finally comes to a resolution. Every choice the players make precludes other choices. There is only one story in the end, made from a wider range of possible branches. It is the sum total of what happens in play.

The scenario, on the other hand, is a series of notes on what might happen when actual play occurs. Published scenarios, except where written by incompetents and/or designers who don’t play much anymore, are invariably presented as a series of possibilities. Game sessions are always linear. Scenarios are always multi-linear.

It would be convenient if players could be relieved of their fear of structure by mere exposure to this argument. However, it’s hard to dislodge one theory with another. In a battle of theory versus practice, you have to show players that their preconceptions are getting in the way of their fun, in actual play.

In the next installment of Page XX, we’ll look at ways to do just that.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Click here for part I of the “Fear of Structure”

Last time we looked at the paradox inherent in running investigative scenarios, whether in GUMSHOE games like The Esoterrorists, or with other systems: structure is essential to the mystery genre, but players have learned to fear it, equating it with railroading or so-called “bread crumb trail” plotting.

What’s important is not whether the players really are following a set of scenes in a predefined order, but whether they feel like they have freedom of choice and are important participants in determining the direction and outcome of the narrative. They can feel straightjacketed when you improvise wildly, or think that they’re steering the narrative when you’re in fact running scenes in a flat-out linear order.

The simplest structure for a mystery scenario is, indeed, linear. All of the scenes occur in a predetermined order; at each scene, the PCs find a clue leading them to the next scene. During the climactic scene, they acquire the final clues. These allow them to piece together the solution to the mystery, resolving it. Diagrammed out, a purely linear scene structure might look like this:


More complex structures allow the PCs greater choice regarding the order in which they assemble the clues and move through the scenes. One scene might offer several clues, each leading to a different scene. The players decide where to investigate next.


Here, by creating multiple lead-outs from various scenes into others, we see that the same events can can occur in at least six different orders. Especially clever player choices may confer advantages; it may be, for example, that it’s easier to withstand the awful revelations of the Bag Of Hands sequence if the characters are prepared for it by what they learn of Mr. Pike’s Dilemma. Riskier choices may result in more hair-raising but faster play, as the investigators leapfrog over particular scenes. Maybe it’s smart to avoid the hazards of the Wood Chipper; on the other hand, maybe it provides an essential opportunity to regain precious mental stability.

There are as many possible structures as mathematical permutations of scenes. The more you rely on improvisation and rough notes, the easier it is to generate new connections between scenes on the fly. This is much easier to do as you go than to notate for someone else who’ll be running the adventure. Not only are alternate sequences of events difficult to convey clearly to the reader of a published adventure, but they chew up limited word count like crazy.

You could arrange your lead-outs so that the climactic confrontation could occur during any one of three scenes:

 

Here the climax can occur during the Wood Chipper, Fear Club or Ghost River scenes, whichever the PCs happen upon last. This also gives you the option to skip one of the three end scenes either for pacing purposes, or to reward the team for clever clue interpretation.

Players may create their own routes through your map of possible scenes, rather like Billy from those horrible Family Circus cartoons where you see his circuitous route through the neighborhood. They might return to a previous scene to scour it for clues they didn’t look for the first time around. You may deliberately introduce callbacks-for example, Mr. Pike may be only partially forthcoming the first time around, revealing a final bit of information only when confronted with evidence found near the Wood Chipper:

Although I’ve used a linear structure in the above diagram for clarity’s sake, callbacks can just as easily be done in a branching structure.

However robust your branching structure, there is still the matter of player perception to contend with. No matter how many possible sequences of events your scenario offers, the players wind up with only one. Like I said last time, scenarios may or may not be linear, but all remotely narrative RPG adventures are linear as played. To repeat a diagram, the possible structure may look like this:


But your story as played will look like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or whatever.

In other words, one of your tasks as GM of an investigative game is to make the adventure feel like it presents a multiplicity of choice and a complex structure-which is not the same as ensuring that it actually possesses those qualities.

Do this by salting your scenario with disruptive events unrelated to the collection of clues. The Esoterrorists ensures that PCs get the clues they need to interpret the mystery, but offers no similar guarantee that they won’t be dismembered by ichor-dripping beasties from the Outer Dark. Disruptive events can include action sequences, including fights, chases, evasions, and infiltrations. These can be instigated by the players, or by antagonists reacting to their investigation. In a more low-key but possibly more memorable mode, disruptive events can also include scenes of drama or character development that evoke an emotional response in players. Maybe they confront a moral dilemma, having to sacrifice one good to attain another, before moving on to the next investigative scene.

Disruptive events may be triggered by actions undertaken in investigative scenes. Or they can be free floating, to deploy as pacing demands. Since their entire purpose is to add choice and uncertainty to what might otherwise feel like a linear storyline, ensure that player choice reigns supreme in these sequences. Each must allow for a full range of success or failure. If they get to chase an antagonist, they must have a chance (perhaps slim) of catching him. Moral dilemmas should offer no easy cop-outs, and so on. In GUMSHOE, resolutions of disruptive events can confer advantages in investigative sequences, but cannot rule out the collection of core clues.

(In games with traditional clue gathering techniques, where you make ability rolls to gain information essential to investigation, failed rolls have served as faux-disruptive events. They disguise the basic linearity of the mystery genre, but they do it by introducing unnecessary additional scenes in which the GM frantically improvises workarounds to get the PCs the info they should have gleaned the first time around. Ironically, the traditional paradigm in effect uses failure and frustration to create the illusion of infinite choice and possibility. What it really provides is annoying extra padding.)

With the addition of disruptive events, your final branching structure might look something like this:

Hmm. Maybe we should have a contest and award a prize who can tell us who Mr. Pike is, what he has to do with the bag of hands, and what dread fate awaits him at the Fear Club…

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

One of the big differences between roleplaying sessions and the adventure stories from which they derive their inspiration is found in the degree of interaction between hero and villain before their conflict devolves into violence.

In a Bond flick, 007 typically meets the archvillain at least once before the final confrontation. Often they interact a couple of times before our hero finally starts blowing up the bad guy’s impressive hideout.

The archetypal action-based RPG is D&D, where the monsters conveniently check into hotels, which the heroes raid, one suite at a time, busting in the door and killing everything inside. Once one room is cleansed of its valuables, they head down the corridor to the next door, opening it, too, with their hobnailed passkeys. If the inhabitants of a room are ancient vampires with an awesome pedigree, or high-level characters with elaborately fleshed personalities, it doesn’t much matter. They’re going down, man, with no time-wasting conversation to separate the smashing of the door from the rolling of initiative.

If you don’t think roleplaying ought to resemble other narrative forms, this isn’t a problem, just a point of divergence.

However, if her players want to respond to the evolving story of a roleplaying session as they would to a movie or book, a GM has a tricky task to execute.

Part of the problem lies in the relentlessly first-person nature of RPG narrative. If the heroes aren’t in a scene, the players don’t see it. Contrast this with the shifting viewpoints found in most heroic fiction, or the cutting between scenes typical of a movie.

When writing a novel, if I know that the hero and villain won’t actually meet for a long stretch of the book, I can still introduce the bad guy early on in the proceedings. I just give him his own chapter, a bit of internal monologue, or a secondary character to interact with and presto, I’ve got a living, breathing antagonist with a bit of distinguishing depth to him. In a screenplay I can cut from one character to another just as easily.

However, there are a few fictional examples where we see everything through the lead character’s eyes. Most, if not all, detective novels are structured this way. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels are a touchstone of this approach.

In film, we can go back to the Bond example. The classic template includes at least three meetings:

1) Non-violent conflict, in which the hero gets a sense of the villain’s character with a face-to-face meeting. Usually this occurs in public. The Bondian fascination with gambling is not only an evocation of Fleming-era high style; it’s a highly useful fictional device allowing the antagonist and protagonist to undergo a conflict that will not bring the narrative to a premature close. (Goldfinger gives us two of these scenes: a card game and, later, a round of golf.)

2) Capture. The hero is captured and placed in a trap. The villain and hero interact once more, this time with deadly stakes. The villain then departs, and the hero escapes. He lives, but once he is free, the bad guy is long gone. Again, they’ve come into contact, but the final confrontation is delayed.

3) Climactic action. Finally, the hero has learned of the villain’s nefarious plot and arrives to defuse it before mass carnage ensues. Once he’s neutralized the plot, his conflict with the villain reaches its ultimate, fatal resolution.

The introduction of a secondary villain or henchman often follows a similar pattern. Sometimes the hero meets the henchman in a nonviolent context before later coming to blows with him. In some of the Bond films, the henchman survives the main villain, showing up at the end for a coda fight scene, as in Diamonds Are Forever.

Adding these elements to your roleplaying scenarios is a matter of context and motivation. You must provide your heroes with a reason to hold off on the ultraviolence until a later scene. Solid motivations include:

Cover. Like Bond, the heroes have reason to make a least a token nod toward concealing their identities. They can’t blow their cover by blasting away the moment they run into a suspected bad guy.

Bystanders. Initial encounters can take place in public. If the heroes start a fight, innocents will be killed or taken hostage.

Public relations. If they have an authority figure as a patron, the heroes may be discouraged from staging their fights in places where massive property destruction may take place. They have a stake in the reputation of their stomping grounds – the king won’t like it if their villain-smashing activities make his nation seem like a dangerous, lawless place.

But above all, the most important reason for PCs to keep their cans of whup-ass sealed is information gathering-/-evil scheme preventing.

In the standard RPG plot, the villains are passive. They’ve done something bad already, and now are merely holed up in their well-trapped dungeon complexes waiting for the PCs to show up and slaughter them.

In fiction, the villains are almost always actively doing something. The PC’s main aim is not to kill them, but to stop the bad thing they’re trying to do. Any antagonist killing occurs merely as an adjunct to this main goal. The heroes are trying to save people, not just confiscate some loot after committing a justifiable homicide.

(The revenge movie, like Unforgiven or Gladiator, is an exception to this pattern. But even there, the protagonist and antagonist interact prior to the act that inspires the anti-hero’s quest for vengeance. In some cases, such as Kill Bill, the interaction takes place in the antecedent action, but it happens nonetheless.)

To stop the bad guys, the heroes have to find out what they’re doing. Interacting with them is a way of doing this – hence the time-honored Bondian technique of infiltrating the hideout and getting captured. (At the end of Diamonds Are Forever, Bond dispenses even with the pretence of infiltration and just has himself dropped on Blofeld’s doorstep, essentially reporting for incarceration.)

Capture sequences are tricky in an RPG context. PCs prefer death traps they can disarm before they climb into them. Many players game for a feeling of power and freedom and react with surprising anxiety if their characters are imprisoned. Some, oddly enough, prefer character death to capture. A less extreme reaction is a loss of hope when captured – you may have to be blatantly heavy-handed in pointing to possible avenues of escape.

By allowing the PCs to meet the bad guys before they get the chance to kill them, you’ll be delaying their gratification. In other words, you’re frustrating them in order to enhance their enjoyment at the adventure’s end. You’re employing frustration as a tool, which can be rewarding – but only if you use it with a laser-like precision to do Auric Goldfinger proud.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

One of the powerful abilities of a roleplaying rules-set is to provide compromise without negotiation. The normal process of conversational give-and-take through which people normally resolve issues of mutual preference or gratification is inherently distorting.

Let’s say there are three of us – you, me, and Bernice – and we’re all trying to decide what movie to see together tonight. If we hash it out until we come to a conclusion, the chances of us arriving at the actual objective compromise between our preferences are lower than if we introduced a rules system to resolve the matter.

In a process of negotiation, a host of emotional and interpersonal factors come into play. You may be more skilled at arguing the merits of your choices than either of us. Bernice may be a pleaser, more anxious to seem accommodating than to express her true wishes. I may be a bit of an emotional blackmailer, ready to subtly sulk and moan if I don’t get my way. Our simple chat to decide what movie we want to see will likely favor you or me, leaving Bernice silently wishing she’d spoken up for herself.

If instead we all sit down separately to rank the movies we want to see in order, and then compare the lists to see which flick earns the best spot across all three lists, we’ve removed the interpersonal distortions. Assuming that we’ve created a good system that can’t be gamed by a clever player, we’ll have correctly ascertained our real collective desires.

Creating a game experience together requires a constant state of compromise, both among the players and between GM and players. The system serves as a traffic cop of our narrative desires. I want to hit the orc. You want to coax the monkey to shimmy across the beam and snag the amulet. Bernice wants to use her fireball spell. The GM wants the encounter to serve as a moderate threat that will cost us some resources without killing our characters. She hopes it will go fairly quickly, leaving time to hit the big climactic encounter in time to resolve it this evening.

We’ve all engaged the system to speak for us in this non-negotiated compromise. I’ve built a character designed for maximum smiting potential. You paid points for your useful pet monkey. Bernice has not only loaded up as many fireballs as a PC of her level can legally carry, but has committed the rules to memory and learned to thoroughly exploit their loopholes. The GM has used the rules’ challenge system to fit the threat, as best she can, to her time constraints and desired degree of lethality.

Highly defined, determined, and detailed systems tip the balance of power in favor of the players’ collective will. Here the GM is just one participant making requests of the system and hoping to get a desired result. Loose, diceless, or story-oriented systems give the GM more power and flexibility in determining outcomes. They give the GM many opportunities to decide outcomes by fiat, bending them toward her goals.

As rigorously determined systems distribute power evenly within a game group, they increase the unpredictability of results. The greater the number of rules components – character stats, spell effects, creature abilities, skills, and so on – involved in an outcome determination, the harder it becomes to predict or control the ultimate result. The end product of the system’s compromise between desires may be surprising, wonky, even arbitrary in its dishing out of rewards and punishments. Just like real life.

In a determined system, the GM has little leeway once an encounter begins. She’s set up half the dominoes. You and your fellow players have set up the other half, in a not particularly coordinated fashion. Once the dice start bouncing, the dominoes fall. Most likely, I’ll get to hack orcs, you’ll have a fair shot at the monkey trick, and Bernice will get off some fireballs. Possibly, though, the fireball will react unpredictably with a funky creature power, instantly killing everybody but the monkey.

Systems which leave precise determination in the GM’s hands allow her to impose her will on the group, if she is a selfish and inattentive GM. If she’s a sensitive, quick-thinking GM, though, she’ll be working to take the place of the compromise mechanism inherent in a highly determined system. She’ll be looking not only to make the encounter moderately challenging and fairly quick, but also to let me hack orcs, you attempt the monkey maneuver, and Bernice to singe some ass with her mighty fireballs.

Loosely determined systems permit the GM to weave a sense of order into the proceedings. Outcomes become reassuringly apt, as in a satisfying narrative, and less like the apparently random, undirected nature of real experience.

This leads to two questions, one philosophical, the other practical.

To tackle the practical one first, the outcomes of a loose system are only as good as the GM. The outcomes of a tight system are only as good as the collective work of its
designers. All else being equal, one might argue that the active, judicious intervention of a GM on the spot will always be better tailored to the group’s desires than the uncontrolled interaction of various separate rules bits.

This point sets aside the unfortunate reality that most GMs, whether using loose or determined systems, are not especially good. (Though I hasten to add that if you’re bothering to read this column, you yourself are surely a GM of surpassing taste, ability, and physical handsomeness.) From a player’s point of view, the non-negotiated compromise of a tight rules set protects you more from a weak GM than does a loose system in which your fun is dependent on the quality of her decision-making.

Even when playing with a GM you like and trust, her rulings by fiat will sometimes seem wrong to you. In that case, you’re left with no one to blame but the GM. More complex games allow you to vent your displeasure at the system – and afford the GM the privilege of riding to the rescue and overruling the obviously faulty bit of game text.

The philosophical question concerns your desire for narrative satisfaction. Do you want your characters to operate in the universe of storytelling cause and effect, or in one driven by the morally neutral interactions of various physical forces? For some players, it’s a question of taste: storytellers and butt-kickers may seek the guided cause-and-effect of a fictional world, where tacticians and immersive roleplayers will gravitate toward the interaction of neutral forces. In other cases, the source of preference may go deeper, speaking to your personal worldview.

That’s a preference that may be amenable neither to negotiation, or to compromise.

The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008.

by Julia Ellingboe

[Editor] Julia Ellingboe is the author of Steal Away Jordan, an RPG about slavery in the United States.

“Steal Away Jordan is about playing heroes” has become my mantra of late. I declare it to illustrate that Steal Away Jordan can be as accessible as any story game which doesn’t make race a theme. I declare it to illustrate that Steal Away Jordan, despite the brutality incorporated in the mechanics, is fun and is not an exercise in futility. I declare it to illustrate that all Americans share African American history. We all own the stories of slaves who survived against all odds.

I’ve been saying this hero thing quite a bit lately and I believed that any misunderstanding of this idea was based in culture. My mother is an American History professor. I am a descendant of slaves and other African American “heroes”. This is the message my parents taught me. I come from a long line of survivors. I figured that most African Americans believed the hero myth of their ancestors. I recently had the chance to test my belief, and was pleasantly surprised that others shared part of my mantra.

The director of the Digital Moving Image Salon and the head of the computer games section of the Computer Science Department at Spelman college invited me to give a presentation on Steal Away Jordan . My audience would be one with whom I’ve never had an opportunity to play or discuss my game: mostly African American women who have never played a role playing game before. This was a whole new choir for me. I assumed they would get the desire to create a game where the characters looked like us, even if they didn’t get the whole role playing game thing. I started to squirm about the hero idea. While lurking on a forum devoted to people of color interested in comic books and comic book heroes, I discovered that quite a few black folks find the whole notion of playing a slave less than fun. I didn’t know what to expect.

I gave a short dress rehearsal presentation and demo in a Computer Science seminar class on operating systems. I opened by asking, “When you think of slave narratives, what comes to mind.” A young man, a Morehouse student, sheepishly raised his hand. “Suffering, punishment, pain.” He said. Another student offered similarly dismal words.

“No one thinks, ‘hero’?” I asked. The students replied with blank stares. I’ll show ’em! I thought. I started a quick demo. I gave the three women standard slave names from the game text: Abyssinia, Button, and Jane. I named the Morehouse student Caesar. They each created characters. When they went around the table and introduced their characters, All four players had created highly skilled, intelligent, attractive, slaves; powerful in their own right. In play, they certainly acted like them. The midwife protected a mother from an angry mistress, despite the risk to herself. Caesar, a blacksmith, waited for the right moment to exact revenge on an abusive owner even though it meant his hard work and expertise would go unrewarded and unrecognized. They all created characters who certainly rose to the occasion. I was encouraged. Maybe this slave as hero thing wasn’t just part of Bond family lore. Maybe there was something universal about it.

That evening I gave my presentation to a crowd of about twenty which included some relatives. Two were seasoned roleplaying gamers. All but two attendees were African American. I preached my hero gospel and used a short clip from a Boondocks episode (“The Story of Catcher Freeman”) to illustrate my point. And I ran a demo with three volunteers with two men and a woman. The men were the seasoned gamers. The woman was my cousin, an Atlanta native who came to see what this whole roleplaying stuff was all about. One of the players was one of the not black folks in the audience. Thankfully, Sam Chupp of the Bear’s Grove podcast, recorded the presentation

In Steal Away Jordan, the GM gives you a name and a worth, which is the number of dice you roll in a conflict. Players create tasks, motives, and goals for their character. The GM is not privy to these. After character creation, I left the room and the players, with audience assistance, created their tasks, motives, and goals. I had never heard this process until I listened to Sam’s recording. All that stuff about heroes, while I still maintain as the key to fun in Steal Away Jordan , paled in importance to another theme: community. Sure a roleplaying game of slave narratives is about heroes, but in order for any individual character to rise to heroism, she needs the support of her community. Heroes don’t act in a vacuum, and when there are no superhuman feats to achieve, pure survival against all odds requires networking, friendship, and someone with your back.

I gave the players five minutes to discuss their goals, decide if they wanted to share goals (such as rebellion or forming an underground railroad), and I asked the other audience members to help them out. It took them fifteen minutes to do this. I didn’t hear their conversation until I listened to the recording of the presentation. It was a game designer’s dream. The players started roleplaying while they discussed their goals. They, both characters and players, made friends with each other. The other people in the audience gave suggestions, and from what I heard, enjoyed the “performance”. When I came back into the room, unbeknown to me, the game had already begun. I ran through a few examples of the mechanics, and wished I’d had more time to actually play the story. Little did I know they already had.

So back to my “hero” mantra. When I want to convince potential players that Steal Away Jordan is just like any other role playing game, except, perhaps in setting I still bring up the hero thing and the survivor thing. To it I add that the game is also about building a community and surviving together. Heroism cannot happen in vacuum. The reason we play is to spend time with our friends, strengthen our own community, and in the process, have fun.

Did you know that Pelgrane Press once conducted audio interviews with prominent game designers? Neither did I! The following interview originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008.

Luke Crane and Vincent Baker

In this first in the podcast series, Luke Crane (Burning Wheel) talks to Vincent Baker (Dogs in the Vineyard, Poison’d, In a Wicked Age and Kill Puppies…) Luke uses lots of words, while Vincent occasionally demonstrates the power of dead air. Is Kill Puppies a playable game? Is it possible to play too much Dogs in the Vineyard? Found out here…

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