The Seven-Sided Die

The odds & ends of roleplaying

My D&D Next

written by d7, on Feb 6, 2012 1:50:00 PM.

Wizards is working on the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, but I’m not really waiting for them. I climbed on the 4e bandwagon only to be violently thrown off when it hit a bump in the road called dissociated mechanics, and Pathfinder didn’t appeal to me with its tightening of the rules since I didn’t like the tightness of the 3rd edition rules to begin with. D&D Next, or 5e, or “D&D-with-no-edition-number”, is sounding much more like my cup of tea than 4e or even 3e, but these things take time to develop. In the meantime, I’m helping myself and not waiting around until 2013 or 2014 or whenever it’s going to come out.

I picked up the Dresden Files RPG a while ago and I really like it. The Diaspora game I’m running now will be coming to a pause in a few weeks and I’ve been wanting to run an game in an alternate Forgotten Realms for a while. Between Fate as done in Diaspora, the elegance of the magic rules in the Dresden Files RPG, and a hankering to turn away from sci-fi back toward the worn, comfortable embrace of fantasy, it’s perfect timing to work up a conversion of DFRPG’s version of Fate for the Forgotten Realms.

In many ways Diaspora is to DFRPG as D&D 0e is to D&D 3e. DFRPG has a lot more structure than Diaspora, offering mechanics that, while still narrative in effect, are much more concretely grounded in the details of events in the game. Diaspora is much looser, giving you tools to play with a high level of story abstraction or to zoom in and do things blow-by-blow, but it doesn’t give tools that are specific to that nitty-gritty level. DFRPG does, without sliding into a simulationist model like Strands of Fate does [1].

Dresden Files RPG’s realisation of Fate is therefore perfect for a game of D&D that focuses on the grit and grime and heroics of a dungeon crawl while also directly rewarding character development. One of my goals for a game that does fantasy well but isn’t D&D is to “feel like” a D&D game. DFRPG is the closest I’ve felt a game has come to fulfilling that nebulous criterion.

The Dungeoneer’s Handbook

To that end, I’m working on something tentatively called the Dungeoneer’s Handbook, “a guide for Fate players and GMs who love dragons and dungeons”. My first goal is a slim handbook [3] that we can use at the table as a quick reference and character-conversion guide to make using DFRPG for a D&D-style game as easy as possible. Things like skill changes, sample stunts, a combat manœuver guide to help map D&D-combat thinking into Fate mechanics, templates for the class archetypes, and a monster-conversion guide for me are the sorts of things that will go into this.

Ideally, I would like to have a second milestone for fleshing it out into a minimalist but complete Dungeon Delving with Fate book under the OGL, but the OGL notice in DFRPG is one of those super-restrictive ones that claims everything:

Any material found in this book which is not directly taken from the above named works [Fudge 1995, FATE, Spirit of the Century] is deemed to be product identity.

I’m not a lawyer [2], but I find this a concerning OGL notice. As far as the OGL is concerned, not just anything can be claimed as Product Identity. In particular, mechanics can’t be claimed as PI. But since DFRPG does introduce game mechanics (as defined under “Open Game Content”) that are new since Spirit of the Century, that puts the licensing status of DFRPG and anything based on it in considerable doubt. Regardless, PI does legitimately cover the names and descriptions of “special abilities [and] magical or supernatural abilities”, so reusing DFRPG stunts in a derivative work is verboten and making a “clean” derivative is prohibitive.

At some point I may take it up with Fred Hicks at Evil Hat to get some clarification, but the first, personal-use milestone is going to be plenty of work. Time enough to worry about the OGL later. And with that said, I really should get back to it!


Strands of Fate is another good realisation of Fate, but it’s bent more toward Hero System and GURPS sensibilities than I want to deal with.


… Though I’ve been a keen amateur student of the issues and laws around copyright since the late 90s, so my grasp is more than trivial but short of “useful enough to save my neck in in a civil copyright dispute.”


Oh, I have to remember to enthuse about Scrivener as a pure word processor (which is not the same as a text layout engine – I’m looking at you MS Word) at some point. It’s going to make this project so much easier to manage.

"Who needs rules for roleplaying?" = Missing the Point

written by d7, on Feb 4, 2012 2:56:00 PM.

You might have heard this rhetorical question in a thread about competing D&D editions or on a post about some new indie game – I’ve certainly heard it many times on the front lines of the edition wars. With the open playtest for “D&D Next” coming and the verbal wrestling the fanbase will be doing over how to do it “right”, I’m sure we’ll be hearing it even more often.

The question, “who needs rules to tell them how to roleplay?” is intended to shut down the opposition. It says that they other side is being ridiculous for wanting mechanics for every damned thing that you do, at best. At worst, it says that these people clearly can’t roleplay their way out of a paper bag if they need rules for how to do it.

Like most fronts in edition wars, though, it’s really a statement of not understanding the position of the other side.

Rules are tools

Nobody questions what movement grid rules are good for, or why it could be useful for a game to assign different weapons different damage ratings. A movement grid takes the guesswork out of determining where every character is. The point is not to know where everyone is standing, never mind the absurd “to teach players how walking around works.” The point is to make position simple and intuitive so that everyone can save their thinking, strategising, and teamwork on what everyone is going to do about where the characters are standing.

Rules are tools for streamlining a process that is fundamentally a complicated human social and mental process: a bunch of people sitting around trying to simultaneously agree on what happens in their shared imagination while each trying to coordinate their efforts and trying to play their “best”, whatever that means for the part of the game at hand.

Streamlining your roleplay

Rules for roleplaying are just such tools. If you’ve played and enjoyed such games then you can probably see where I’m going with this. For the benefit of those who haven’t and have found themselves asking the question in the title: Games that have rules for roleplaying don’t tell you how to play any more than a movement grid tells you how to walk. What they do is streamline certain sticking points about playing a role so that you can get on with the interesting parts of playing a role.

A movement grid streamlines play by prevent everyone from slowing down the round with questions like, “Wait, where is that orc standing? Does it have cover? What do you mean it sees me?! I said I was crouched behind the rubble. What, the rubble was in the other room? Can we rewind? ‘Cause I would have cast a spell before the fight in that case…”

Similarly, a roleplaying rule streamlines away confusion and argument over certain details[1]_ about how fictional characters interact with each other..

An example

I’ll use an example from Fate, since I’m reading the Dresden Files RPG right now. Compels in Fate prevent a social interaction between characters from devolving into an extended meta-game inter-player argument like: “I totally just insulted your god! Why is your priest just ignoring that? Dammit… C’mon, listen: I’m trying to distract you with an argument so our friends can sneak into the shop! It’ll be a fun bit of trouble and you can go all vengeful cleric on us when you find out?”

In Fate, the Compel mechanics lets you suggest a course of action to the player controlling another character (including the GM) that’s consistent with the nature of the character (as already detailed in sentences called Aspects). The suggestion is backed up with the offer of a Fate point—if the player accepts, that’s what their character does and they get the Fate point for themselves. Fate points can be used for various things, including buying a reroll or backing up your own Compels later, so the suggestion has mechanical appeal for the target player even while they have the option to refuse.

Compels, then, are a tool: they give players of Fate a standard process for talking about different opinions of what a character “would really do” in a given situation.

Instead of the awkward negotiation in the previous above, this happens:

Priest player: (To the GM) What? I think I would notice my companions sneaking into the shop. They can’t be up to any good. Can I roll Alterness to notice and do something about that?

Con artist player: Hold up there! I see you’ve got a character Aspect that says, “Any excuse to lecture on the greatness of Kermil”. My guy casually slights Kermil as maybe not being so great. I’ll back that up with a Fate point and make it a Compel to Inaction. How about you argue with me instead of making that Alertness roll?

Priest player: Hmm. They’re going to get us in trouble again! Then again, I really need the Fate point after spending so many on getting past the gate guards, especially if we’re going to have to leave town in a hurry… Okay, fine, my ranty priest takes the easy bait and totally misses the mischief our friends are starting…

Cutting to the chase

Rules about roleplaying aren’t about how to roleplay, they’re about cutting to the chase. They don’t replace how you play your character with a bunch of mechanical “if this then that” rules, but rather replace the messy conversations players have whenever there’s disagreement about what should happen next. They are just as much a practical tool for eliding the boring parts of Make Believe as to-hit rules are. Even improv theatre – a more free-form kind of pure roleplaying than nearly every roleplaying game in existence – has “rules” that are really tools and communication tricks for getting everyone moving forward together when the performance might otherwise drag to a halt while the audience watches.

So next time someone wonders, honestly or otherwise, how anyone could possibly need rules for how to roleplay, remember that they’re asking the wrong question. Nobody needs rules for how to roleplay. Rules that stimulate the players’ imaginations and take play in unexpected directions, while smoothing over the usual conversational hitches that come up between creative people, can increase the drama of a game no matter how good at roleplaying the group already is.


Different games streamline different details, naturally.

New year, new blog engine

written by d7, on Jan 6, 2012 12:20:00 PM.

The Seven-Sided Die is back for 2012 with a new engine—Zine. It’s a small, flexible engine that doesn’t have the high profile of Wordpress, and so isn’t the constant target of crackers. As a bonus its smaller and saner code base is way easier to hack, and I’ve already customised it slightly. This pleases me. [1]

If there are any issues, comment or drop me an email at the address on the About page.

Doctor Checkmate once wrote, “Buying product after product has always been the methadone to treat the addiction to play.”[2] I find myself that blogging and reading RPG blogs is also a treatment for wanting to play. Which is to say, oh look, I’m running a game right now and so I have, ironically, little urge or time to write blog posts.

I do have a blog post about the interaction of combat monkeys [3] and trying new game systems, but of course the urge to write that has been spent on getting the last few bits of this new blog engine working and moved to the production URL. I also would love to write about my group’s experience playing Diaspora, but my ambitions and my time don’t really see eye-to-eye.

I love/hate how musing out loud in order to get my thoughts in order (aka “blogging”) so often turns out to read like the classic “sorry for not blogging lately” post. At the very least, I’m optimistic that a blogging platform that requires less fucking-around-with will give me a better posts written : time spent on the blog ratio.

So, onward to 2012!


It also has built-in support for footnoting by using reStructuredText as its text parser. This pleases me immensely. [4]


Sadly, that blog post seems to have disappeared.


A term of affection, rest assured.


Oh gods, the default footnote styling needs to be fixed with fire. Still some fucking-with to be done, clearly…

System matters because you have to say stuff

written by d7, on Nov 1, 2010 3:12:25 PM.

When you really break it down, a roleplaying game is just a bunch of people saying stuff. It might be saying stuff about what's in your head. It might be saying stuff about what someone else just said. It might be saying stuff about the resting state of a platonic solid after ballistic motion followed by several elastic collisions with a level surface.

In the end, roleplaying is all just saying shit.

System is the procedures you're using to determine when you have to say shit, when would be a time to consider saying some shit, and what things can have shit said about them. There's a lot of wiggle space in there, because few to no systems cover all possible opportunities to open one's pie hole to embellish the evolving player[1. Where "player" includes the GM, of course.] dialogue.

Where system matters is in what it requires you to say.

Some systems make this requirement by simply demanding it: "When the roll comes up boxcars, tell the players that they've failed the Extended Contest. They should then roll a d7 against the So Your Character Is In Deep Shit table, and tell you the consequences they've suffered by the failure."

Some systems require you to say things simply because they need you to say something, otherwise the game is going to be really boring if you don't. "So Pat, the Astorian Enforcer levels its lasing appendage at you and demands to see your papers. What do you do?" Silence would be pretty lame right about now!

System vary a lot in what they demand you say, but they vary even more in what they need you to say but leave as an exercise to the reader to figure out.

We can compare games (ad hoc—this post isn't going to sprout a bunch of categories now) according to what they leave un-demanded that needs to be said. Two games might be similar in how they need the GM to tell the players what their dice rolls mean even after they know the number they've rolled. Other games make the meaning of the roll obvious, whether through the rules or through things that the game demanded the GM say before the roll.

And here we come to the inspiration for this post: I'm tired of needing to say certain kinds of things in games I GM. Partly this is because of shifting tastes on my part, partly because I just don't have time to develop (i.e., prep) all of the things that the game needs from me in order for it to leave the region of "suck" and have a hope of approaching the exalted realms of "awesome."

Juggalos In Space, a Microscope playtest

written by d7, on Oct 1, 2010 2:18:54 AM.

A Wednesday in mid-September we had an evening of Microscope. We had a friend over, D, who is a geek of many stripes but roleplaying is not one of them. However, she much enjoyed Zombie Cinema a few weeks ago. She's also working on an Interactive Fiction game, so she was totally on-board with playtesting an unpublished roleplaying game. So. Microscope.

Since this is a playtest report, I'm going to go through the paces:

Big Picture

We started with the concept, which I always find the most challenging when I'm teaching people. People are very invested in the first idea they come up with, whether it's of a useful form or scope, or not. So it takes a while to pin down a concept we all like. I tried a rhetorical tack this time that I've taken from reading the most recent Burning Wheel supplement, the Adventure Burner: I asked everyone to put ideas out there, offering and then discarding them quickly, until one landed on the table that made everyone excited. The trick seems to be to emphasise how much more we'll enjoy it if we're all excited in the idea, and that it's not that the discarded ideas are bad concepts for a Microscope history, just that there are many ideas that are good for a set of people other than the one around the table right now.

We hit on the idea of the rise and fall of the Second American Empire, which had a few bits and pieces that excited us, but none of the ideas that name gave each of us were compatible. A few iterations later we came to—ironically—the bog-standard rise and fall of a galactic empire that seems to be the first default of Microscope groups. In our defense, we got there by parallel evolution and surprised ourselves that we'd come to the stereotypical history concept.

Bookend History

We discussed structure of the game a bit and our concept of the galactic empire, and set our starting and end points:

First Settlement (light) [START]

In which many colony ships set out through wormholes discovered in Earth space, and settled the habitable systems found beyond.

PAX Flu (dark) [END]

In which something called the PAX flu[1. Both of them had just come back from PAX.], also known as the Peace Flu, was the final blow that shattered the empire.

The "PAX flu" was also the first sign that the game would definitely have at least small bits of silliness in it.[2. My reasons for gaming lead me to be more impatient than amused by the silly stuff people bring to the table, but my wife is a silly person and I love her. The "PAX Flu" was D's idea, so I was definitely out-voted by the silly faction.]


I explained the palette, which is the other thing that seems to take a bit every time I explain it. I should mention here that I didn't read the How to Teach Microscope section before the game due to *toddler-mumble-mumble-toddler*, so I get to wear the Playtester Shame Hat next GoPlayNW.

I jumped in first with "no FTL (except wormholes)", giving us a nice fragile network for the empire. My wife M added "no wormhole machines", i.e., things that could make new wormholes apart from the naturally-occurring ones. After some though, D added "no time travel". I wanted to do another round and added "yes sentient robots". M anted up "yes juggalos".

And in such moments is history made.

Juggalos, in case anyone is unfamiliar are… oh hell, just go Google it. The relevant parts are that they're fans of Insane Clown Posse, who recently did that mock-tacular song "Miracles" about how they consider high school–level physics to be examples of Clarke's Third Law; they wear a lot of grease paint; they're tightly-bound by their identity as a tribe; and their view of the world is vaguely nihilist. I made a face and promised to blow up their planet as my first event[2. A toothless threat in Microscope, which is kind of awesome.], but she was passionate about it and I was already adapting to having a serious game liberally sprinkled with silliness.

So. Juggalos in Space.

First Pass

We had three players, so after our first first pass we did another to get a more fleshed-out timeline to start normal play with. (Again, I was just making this up: Shame Hat. But it worked fine.)

The first first pass gave us the periods:

Trade Constellation (light)

In which the colony worlds have knit together a trade network of yet more wormholes that connect them to each other directly, not mediated by Earth space, and an era of prosperity is enjoyed in the Trade Constellation.

Robot Prohibition (dark)

In which sentient robots are banned, and they are forced underground. There is some kind of robot underground railway, but nothing more than that was nailed down. This was placed after Trade Constellation and before PAX Flu.

…and the event:

Founding of Faygo Colony by The Dark Caravan (light)

In which the Juggalo colonists of The Dark Caravan have finally made planetfall, and deploy their pre-fab dome city, to much joy, ICP-playing, and Faygo-drinking. This was placed, naturally, in the period "First Settlement."

Our second first pass added the periods:

The Robot Regency (dark)

In which an infant emperor is orphaned, and a robot is given the responsibility to rule in the child's stead until their majority. Although the robot's regency was just and measured, it was a dark period because of the intense resentment felt and unrest caused by of a few groups. Placed after Robot Regency and before PAX Flu.

Silence of the Juggalos (light)

In which the wormhole to Juggalo Space collapses, cutting them off from the rest of the wormhole network. Light, because, well, yeah. Placed between Robot Regency and Robot Prohibition.

Renaissance / Enlightenment (light)

In which a rediscovery of First Settlement and Trade Constellation culture, technology, and learning leads the empire into a new era of prosperity and so forth. Placed after Robot Prohibition and before PAX Flu.

That gave us a starting timeline that looked like this:

  • First Settlement (light) [START]
    • Founding of Faygo Colony by The Dark Caravan (light)
  • Trade Constellation (light)
  • The Robot Regency (dark)
  • Silence of the Juggalos (light)
  • Robot Prohibition (dark)
  • Renaissance / Enlightenment (light)
  • PAX Flu (dark) [END]

With that we were ready to start the normal turn sequence.

First Focus: Juggalos + Technology

Damned Juggalos.

M was the first Lens, and picked "Juggalos + Technology". That included their relationship to their own technology, since that was already an outstanding "bwhu?" for our group that needed some answers.

(At this point in writing this playtest report I developed a bad stomach bug and then we had a family emergency, so the memory of the game had two weeks to become fuzzier. I'm going to be less exacting from here. Alas.)

M opted not to make a nested set of history, going with a Scene in "Founding of Faygo". There was some waffling about whether we should kick off with a scene, but having seen Ben Robbins do that at GoPlayNW to good effect (and having read in passing that part of the "How to Teach Microscope" section!) I assured her that scenes go much smoother in this version of Microscope.

1st Scene Question: "How did SnazzyDog, Juggalo Prince, die during the deployment of Faygo's prefab environment?"

Set the Stage: The Dark Caravan is in orbit of Faygo, a barren planet around a star in an alien system, after wanding for years in Earth space looking for a wormhole. The crew are preparing to deploy the dome city, also to be known as Faygo. The Prince and pilot are on the bridge.

Check Drama: Light Drama was applied to the Period since there was none before the scene began.

Choose Characters: Prince SnazzyDog and the ship's pilot are required. D picks a Juggalo janitor, I pick the pilot, and M is left with the Juggalo Prince.

Reveal Thoughts: Crap, this is always where I need to write things down or record them. I don't remember the exact thoughts revealed. D's was about something leaking, I think. Mine was wondering what that blinking light on the control panel meant. I don't remember M's, but it set up the Prince as flighty.

The scene started on the bridge, with the Prince nagging the pilot about when he could push the Big Red Button. The pilot was flustered, trying to figure out what the blinking light meant. He flipped through manuals, getting increasingly flustered with his superior dancing about nonchalantly and pestering him about the Big Red Button. The janitor comes in, makes obeisance to the Prince, and sets about cleaning stuff. The pilot goes to another locker and pulls out more manuals as the janitor humbly asks the Prince to join in on the celebratory dancing about. The pilot finally finds something that explains the blinking light, and informs the Prince that the Big Red Button is broken. But there is a backup button in the cargo bay holding the prefab environment! They go down there, followed by a gaggle of Juggalo reporters and various hangers-on.

The hanger is long and could hold a small spaceship. (Picture the hold of a Star Destroyer.) There is a massive rectangular object taking up most of this cavernous space. There is a raised platform with the Backup Big Red Button. Before the Prince pushes it, the pilot hands him a bottle of Faygo to cristen the prefab brick, which smashes satisfactorily. The Prince pushes the Backup Big Red Button and… D shouts out "Nothing happens!"

At this point we each have different ideas of what happens. I've got an idea, so I explain the scene-resolution vote mechanic. I offer the counter that the Button works, but the containment field doesn't and so everyone gets sucked out into space as the prefab environment drops toward the planet. That would answer the question! The vote goes to D, so nothing happens.

The Prince is not pleased, he pouts and stamps his feet, and then… we do another vote. We were still shaky on the voting mechanic itself and how to leverage the voting to make things happen smoothly, so there was a bunch of discussion at this point and some explanation that counters can be "what she said, and…". The vote get done, and it turns out that there was an activation switch that the pilot forgot to flip on the Backup Big Red Button. He notices it, and goes to flip it. Meanwhile, the Prince has lost all patients and reason, and gone over to the bay doors with a crowbar to impotently try to lever them open. The pilot flips the switch. The containment field works, but the Prince is so close to the prefab brick that he gets sucked out through the field's shaped breach along with the brick. Victory and sorrow for the Juggalos.

So that went well enough, and we got a taste of how scenes work. We judged that dark, because despite how eliminating a parasitic and unpredictable noble did the Juggalos a lot of good at that critical juncture, it was a blow to morale and a tragedy on the day that should have been a celebration.

We struggled a bit in both votes because our proposals and counter-proposals somehow had to be "light" in order to invoke the Drama necessary to bring things to a vote. We weren't entirely consistent with that. We already knew that the Prince would die, so to bring the scene to a resolution we either had to make up stuff to frame it positively ("maybe the Prince is a jerk and his people would be better off without him"), or we had to set up a negative event (death) with positive things. It didn't feel quite natural.

Following that, I made a Dictated Scene. I'd been wondering how individual Juggalos, being willful technical incompetents, survived the hazards of colony life, and decided that it was time to introduce the Sentient Robots from the palette and implied in the "Robot Regency" Period.

2nd Scene Question: "How do Juggalos survive colony hazards?"

Answer: "Guardian Angels", sentient robots assigned to each Juggalo, keep them safe. I narrated a bit about the Juggalo "techs" going into the Angel containment section of the ship, going to each pod with a printout of how to do the activation, and releasing each Angel. Pre-programmed to seek out their assigned Juggalo, the Angels took it from there, leaving the containment area and going to meet their Juggalo to accompany them down to the newly-deployed colony. Judged light, because the Guardian Angels were definitely a hopeful element. The Prince's Guardian Angel is orphaned…

After that, D made a new Event in "The Robot Regency" Period: "Royal Robot Sex Scandal (w/ a Juggalo)". This she was marked light because, though it was a PR disaster, it distracted the rebellious elements away from effective activism against the Robot Regent by giving them something titillating/enraging to waste their energy on.

M finished up her turn as Lens by making an Event in the "Silence of the Juggalos" Period: "Guardian Angels collapse the Faygo-system wormhole to prevent war", a dark period. Again she declined to make nested history in favour of moving the game along.

First Legacy: The orphaned Guardian Angel

D, to M's right, picked this Legacy. I opted to make an Event: "Death of Emperor & Empress, Appointment of orphaned guardian angel as Regent" inside "The Robot Regency" Period, which nicely explained how that happened. This was light, as the new Regent was an able and fair ruler in the child's name, despite the nay-sayers.

Second Focus: Wormholes

It was my turn to play Lens and I wanted to hear more about the wormholes. I didn't really have an idea of where that might go, and I wanted to find out.

I made an Event in the Renaissance/Englightenment Period: "The wormholes of the Imperial Homeworld are reopened." This implied that the seat of the Empire had been cut off at some point. I like to make stuff like that to show off how making history can imply something about events in the rest of the timeline simply by existing and the game forbidding that existing history be contradicted. At some point, the wormholes around the seat of the Empire must have become unusable! This reopening was light.

D opted to make an Event in the "Trade Constellation" Period: "Discovery & Slavery of tentacle monsters" through a new wormhole. This amused everyone, and we were curious to explore this bit of shameful strangeness on the part of the proto-empire. She understandably marked that dark.

M made a Juggalo-related (of course) wormhole Event to expand the "Renaissance" Period: "Juggalo Civilization redisovers wormhole; is reunited with greater humanity." She marked it light, since it was good for the Juggalos.

I opted for a nested bit of history to finish this Focus off, in the "PAX Flu" Period. I made the Event "Something changes in the wormholes—humans who pass through sicken & die soon after." Definitely dark, that. Inside I made a Dictated Scene.

Third Scene Question: Why are the wormholes deadly?

A: A traveller in robes and cowls goes from system to system. This one itinerant guardian angel poisons the wormhole network as it passes through each wormhole. It is carrying something in its torso that does this passively. The reason is inscrutable, but must be (at least to its best belief) for the greater good, due to the implications in the "Peace Flu" alternate title for the enclosing Period. However, this is a dark, dark thing that is done in the name of peace, and we judge it so.

This Focus turn passed fairly quickly, without any scenes, since we'd got the hang of it. Alas, we'd also run out of time, so we didn't get in a third Focus for D as the Lens.

Second Legacy: Guardian Angel Robots develop a libido!

To my right, M created this one. To her right, D was given the chance to make some history Focused on this Legacy. She made an Event in the "Robot Prohibition Era" Period: "Original Robot Sex Scandal eventually deposes current emperor." The details of how the sex scandal from the earlier Period came to haunt that later emperor weren't clear, but we speculated about how long guardian angels lived and whether it might be the same robot from the original scandal (which was tentatively named "Orangina"), causing trouble for later Imperial generations. This was dark, in line with the enclosing Period.

And that was the game. We had to pack up because it was a week night and we all had to get up in the morning.

The final history

The history timeline looked like this at the end:

  • First Settlement (light) [START]
    • Founding of Faygo Colony by The Dark Caravan (light)
      • Q: How did SnazzyDog, Juggalo Prince, die during the deployment of Faygo's prefab environment? A: Sucked out airlock with prefab dome due to own stupidity. (dark)
      • Q: How do Juggalos survive colony hazards? A: "Guardian Angels," sentient robots assigned to each Juggalo keep them safe. (light)
  • Trade Constellation (light)
    • Discover & Slavery of tentacle monsters (dark)
  • The Robot Regency (dark)
    • Death of Emperor & Empress, Appointment of orphaned guardian angel as Regent (light)
  • Silence of the Juggalos (light)
    • Guardian Angels collapse the wormhole to prevent war (dark)
  • Robot Prohibition (dark)
    • Original Robot sex scandal eventually deposes current emperor (dark)
  • Renaissance / Enlightenment (light)
    • The wormholes of the Imperial Homeworld are reopened (light)
    • Juggalo Civilisation rediscovers wormhole; is reunited with greater humanity (light)
  • PAX Flu (dark) [END]
    • Something changes in the wormholes—humans who pass through sicken and die soon after (dark)
      • Q: Why are the wormholes deadly? A: One itinerant guardian angel poisons the wormhole network (dark)

The focus record was:

  1. Juggalos + Technology
  2. Wormholes

The two legacies were:

  • The orphaned guardian angel (D)
  • Guardian Angel Robots develop a libido! (M)

The palette was:

  • Yes
    • sentient robots
    • juggalos
  • No
    • FTL (except wormholes)
    • wormhole machines
    • time travel

Inspiring imagery

written by d7, on Jun 2, 2010 12:44:04 PM.

For June's Blog Carnival, Johnn Four kicks it off by asking, "What inspires your games?"

I'm often inspired by images I find online, either because they reflect what's in my head or send sparks of ideas into the back of my brain. There are a lot of good places to find images, and I want to share some of my sure-fire sources.

Pictures speak to me

I am, in many regards, a very visual person. As a roleplayer I am very invested in the aesthetic socket: as a player I seek out wondrous and strange places in the game's setting to immerse in them; as a GM my campaign preparations and inspirations are often a compelling images that I want to realise.

Often enough the images behind a campaign I want to run are just in my head[1. Right now, I have a far-future, post-fantasy, post-technology, apocalyptic setting bubbling in my head that involves a dead sun, radioactive god cadavers, a weird hill where time runs backwards, and soldiers of the god-killer nation in sleek power armour wielding god-cadaver-powered assault cannons. It's such a weird mix of inspirations that it's probably good for a second carnival post.] The inspirations might have their roots in a videogames I've loved or places I've been, but the real driver is an image on its own as it encapsulates senses of place, time, emotion, and theme.

Other times I'm inspired directly by images, or I've found images that come close to what's in my head.

Show your players

The wiki for the one setting I have online, the country Tayel, is peppered with images that I found inspiring or reflected the imagery in my head. The Serpent River slips green and placid through the wood for which it's named. The Swift Valley farmers grow fields of bright red amaranth for their grain, oil, rich red dye, and greens.[2. Amaranth is a real crop, versatile and easily-grown.] The Winter Weald is a frozen forest year-round. The Briarwind Hills are windy forage land below the Sunset Mountains for the hardy shepherds who call it their home. Belying their name, the Spine is a string of low, wooded hills that define the southern boundary of the Swift Valley and offer fertile hunting grounds.

All of those images helped me put what was in my head when I was building Tayel in front of my players. They also serve me as reminders of the particular diversity of the landscape within the small country, keeping me from using mental shorthand and picturing every acre of forest identically.

All of those images are also freely available—every one I sourced from Wikimedia Commons. For example, the representative hill of the Spine is a hill in Aizu, Japan. Although the paddies below the hill are rice in the image, at that distance they serve admirably as amaranth paddies.

When I already know what kind of image I'm looking for, the Search box at Commons is one of the first places I turn to. Usually it will give me some images or categories that are close enough, and from there I can start browsing the categories, looking for the image that will convey the idea I'm looking for.

Feed your creative process

Right now my desktop has this image on it. (Choose a screen resolution below the thumnail and click Download to open a new window with the image full-size. It's really worth seeing at high resolution, and full-screen if possible.)

It's an image of a very tall stone house on a hill overlooking a road and a plot of cultivated yet scrubby trees, with a snow-scrubbed mountains rising above it, glowing (or glowering) under a portentous sky. It's incredibly atmospheric, and makes me want to play that, right now. I don't know what kind of game "that" is, but it makes something primitive and creative thrash about in me. I like that, and when I need inspiration for a location I can tap into that.

I have my desktop wallpaper on a constant cycle, randomly filling it every hour with an image from a selected folder. Any time I want a quick dose of awe, I can just swipe all my windows out of the way and soak in the atmosphere of whatever has been hiding behind them.

The images in my current cycle have all come from one site, Interfacelift. Originally I was simply drawn by the way you could set the image filters to match your screen aspect ratio and resolution, but I was blown away by the number of images that are perfect for feeding the creative beast.

Beaches, mountains, lonely buildings, and bodies of water seem to be very popular with the photographers that contribute daily to Interfacelift, and that just so happens to be exactly the kind of imagery that works for me and my focus on fantasy settings. There's an RSS feed that I've subscribed to as well that keeps my folder updated with the most recent pieces that fit what I find inspiring.

Share your inspirations

The current blog carnival has just started, and we can always use new sources of inspiration. If you blog, share your own sources of inspiration and link back to Johnn's June Blog Carnival article.

If you don't have a blog your inspirations are welcome in the comments here or at Johnn's article.

What gets your creative juices flowing?

Satire explained

written by d7, on Apr 22, 2010 10:56:06 PM.

Apparently the satire I wrote about the GenCon icon needs to be explained to a depressing minority of people. (Mostly men, funnily enough. [And by "funnily enough" I mean "painfully predictably", of course.])

I've been accused of being offensive and over-the-top. "Thank you," I must reply to that because that was the fucking point. The satire in this case is meant to take a belief or argument that is considered acceptable, break it down to its underlying structure, and populate that structure with equivalent items that highlight how inappropriate the original thing is. Y'know, to make the reader question calcified and antiquated assumptions.

Like this:

An image explaining the structure of the satirical GenCon icons. A blank icon area is labelled "insult"; a blank text area is labelled "inclusive intent"; the combination is labelled "contradictory bullshit".

Here, an icon representing an insult is used to illustrate a textual expression of an inclusive intent. The combination image is flatly contradictory bullshit. (Those are technical terms.)

The point of the satirical icons was to show the reader that these things are all the same in kind (if not degree), just with different groups of people who are marginalised by modern Western culture (i.e., our culture). To accomplish this, the images slowly ramp up the degree of blatant insult encapsulated by the image until the contradictory bullshit is undeniable.

Let's start with the most blatant and work our way down:

Proposed GenCon icon: Minorities welcome! Depicts a cartoony, stereotypically-caricatured black man (or a white man in blackface), with the description "Racially-Inclusive Activities".

This image is just so fucking offensive it's unbelievable that I could bring myself to create it. It's incredibly over the top. It's unbe-fucking-lievably complete bullshit, and I hope all the readers would agree. This is indefensible if GenCon did it. Which is why I created it, to get us all on the same page that some things are just wrong. I could have gone all Modest Proposal on y'all and included baby-eating and worse, but I think this image goes far enough to make sure we've established OMG fucking wrong without a doubt. Baby-eating would have just been gilding the lily.

The inclusive intent in this image is pretty awesomely good: everyone is welcome and racial issues will be sensitively addressed! That's pretty sweet! We need more of that.

Now, the icon is really, really bad. OMG so bad. Not only does it depict a blackfaced man and/or the most egregious caricature of black men in our collective memory, but it is using this image to represent all people who would care about racially-inclusive events. "Race" in our culture is almost synonymous with "black", which is a crock. White is a race[1. Actually "White" is not one homogeneous race too, yet that's for advanced students of race issues.] too, yet only things about "coloured" people are considered to have anything to do with race. Worse, this image manages to lump all "minorities" together as if they're a homogeneous group.

A fucking crock that is!

If the icon was funny to someone, would that make the image OK? NO!

If in the privacy of your own home you called your black friend a racial slur and you both thought that wasn't offensive because it was "just in jest", would that make this image OK? NO!

I hope the structure and its relationship to unacceptability is becoming clear.

So that's the most offensive and over-the-top icon explained for the humourless and empathy-impaired. Let's say that image gets 6 out of 5 WTF?!s because it is just completely unacceptable.[2. I almost wrote "beyond the pale" here, but you know what? That's an expression that literally means, "those bloody Irish savages outside the fortified walls of civilisation that we English have carved out of Ireland for our colonists." I think that's a phrase I will have to strike from my lexicon.]

Next up:

Proposed GenCon icon: Cripples welcome! Depicts a armless and legless figure helplessly sitting there, with the description "Accessible Games for the Differently-Able"

Now I think we can all agree that making GenCon accessible is a good thing. That text there in the image is pretty good as far as inclusive intent goes.

I think we can also all agree that the image is really fucking offensive. (Do I really need to explain this? Because I want to move on to the commonalities of structure. OK, moving on.)

So again, the combination of the insensitive insult as expressed by the icon with the positive inclusive intent expressed by the text results in a contradictory pile of steer manure. It makes the image as a whole offensive, and any organisation using it in naïve earnestness would be guilty of being insensitive assholes. (Also a technical term.)

If someone somewhere laughed when they saw this icon, would that make it OK for GenCon to use this image in their schedule? NO!

If you and a buddy regularly called each other "retarded cripple" as a term of endearing affection, would that make an iota of difference in the asshole-itude of GenCon organisers if they chose to use it in their schedule? (Hint: still NO. I mean, really? Do I have to spell that out?)

Let's give this image 4 out of 5 WTF?!s for the sake of argument. Clearly it's not as unbe-fucking-lievably outrageous as the blackface icon (though it's pretty ridiculously bad), and we need some room lower down on the scale for the rest of the images.

Next image:

Proposed GenCon icon: Fatties welcome! Depicts an enormous figure guzzling food, with the description "Orc and Pie - Activities for Big and Talls"

Is accommodations for GenCon attendees larger than a #6 dress size actually a problem? I don't know, but let's assume for the sake of explaining this satire thoroughly into the ground that there are attendees of GenCon who feel marginalised due to their physical size. Given this possible state of affairs, efforts to make these people feel more welcome and accommodated would be great.

It would be especially great if accommodating such people didn't backhand them by calling them a big fucking whale. Because that's what the icon does. See that tub of lard who can't go a second without shoving something down the gullet? Man, that is a giant radius on that ellipse. Let's all point and laugh!

NO! you insensitive assholes who are actually laughing. You can laugh and point privately (asshole), but that still wouldn't make it OK for GenCon to paste this up on their website.

If you and your Widdle Shnooky-Wookums sweetheart at home are weighty people and decide to affectionately call each other "my giant tub of love-lard" and "my overflowing cup of fatty joy," that's your business. Would your private feelings that it's "just a joke" make it OK for GenCon to actually use this icon on their schedule? NO!

Have we got the pattern clear? Is there any confusion about how this satirical structure works? No?[4. Oh, you answered "Yes?" Either ask for clarification with the honest intent to be educated or fuck off.] Good.

Let's give this image 3 out of 4 WTF?!s.

Now we arrive at the image that GenCon actually used on their schedule:

Ball-and-chain icon for GenCon Indy 2010 "women's" activities

Let's see what we have here. An expression of inclusive intent in the text of the image? Check.

A term that is used widely as an insult in the icon? Check.

Do I really need to step through this structurally to show why there's a problem with that combination that results in contradictory bullshit?

Sigh. Alright then: Accommodating spouses of gamers at GenCon is a great fucking idea. It sounds like the program is very successful as evidenced by the growing number of attendees signing up for SP.A. activities each GenCon since the program was started. The more people attending GenCon and enjoying their time there, the better! Yay! Cake for everyone!

It would be especially great to have such a program that didn't deliver a backhand slap to the attendees who are actively being welcomed by insulting them and their relationship to their gamer spouse. It would be even better if such a program didn't assume that women are strange, special creatures that need very specific, women-y activities for entertainment, and didn't further assume that… Oh fuck it, I need bullet points to enumerate the assumptions buried in that one single image:

  • Gamer are all men
  • Women aren't gamers
  • Women only like crafty, dancy, stripper-pole-y activities
  • There are no male spouses
  • There are no gay gamers and spouses
  • Non-gamers should have an activities ghetto
  • Men universally consider their wives a burden
  • All married couples think this joke is funny
  • All women think this joke is funny
  • All men think this joke is funny
  • Everyone thinks this is appropriately professional and respectful
  • GenCon is run by insensitive assholes more interested in their own in-jokes than in being fucking professionals in their work
  • Women are fair game as the butt of a corporation-wide joke
  • Women don't mind being repeatedly insulted by their con schedule so long as the insult is "minor" and some people think it's more funny than insulting (Hint: it's still insulting even if its funny quotient is greater than its insult degree.)

Now, I'd only rate this image 1 or 2 out of 5 WTF?!s, but only because making women the butt of jokes is still considered normal in our society and not very WTF-worthy to most people. Jokes about black people and the disabled were just as common not so many years ago, but we fucking know better now (and those who don't are considered disgusting and vile people).

There are still "fat" jokes everywhere, and as a culture we have a really unhealthy relationship with weight (high and low) and the issues around it. The jokes mask attempts to shame and ostracise people who don't conform to (constantly shifting) ideals of health and beauty that are mostly made up by people who don't actually know what a good ideal of health or beauty is.

We only don't know better when it comes to jokes about women because we're in a time of transition between an era where women were considered domestic labour not worthy of education or regard (or the vote, or working outside the home, or pleasure, or human rights, etcetera ad nauseum.[6. Very much nauseum to think of how poorly half our species has treated the other half for thousands of years and as recently as last century.]), and an era where women are given equal regard and rights to men.

So, y'know, catch the fuck up. If you wouldn't laugh at a black man being called a monkey by a large corporation like GenCon, then you really shouldn't laugh at a large corporation like GenCon calling you or your partner a device of shame and incarceration. (Do you think there are any black men who laugh at monkey-black-man jokes? At all? If there were, would that make it right?)

Conclusions for the short of attention-span

A lot of people consider jokes about women harmless, having been brought up in a culture where it's just normal to hear and makes jokes at the expense of women's dignity. Many women do, even, because they were brought up in that very culture that says making jokes about women is the way to show she's not "stuck up" or "full of herself" or "can't take a joke".

To illustrate that there's really no reason to condone the ball-and-chain icon except due to one's own understandable blindness to a common injustice, it is compared to a structurally identical image that is slightly more obviously inappropriate; then to one that is very obviously inappropriate; then to one that is so very inappropriate that it is undeniable and possibly shocking.

The hope is that the reader can connect the dots with a crayon.

If the reader can't, then isn't it convenient and comfortable (and dare I say, privileged) to live a life that doesn't include questioning one's assumptions such that it might lead to giving up such an immeasurably important thing as a trite and tired joke.

GenCon "reaches out" in the spirit of "inclusiveness"

written by d7, on Apr 20, 2010 12:27:55 PM.

GenCon organisers have been making efforts to accommodate the non-gaming partners of the thousands of gamers that flock to Indianapolis every year. Critical Hits highlights GenCon organisers' efforts, bringing to our attention all the non-gamer activities on the schedule for women[1. Because "of course" women don't game and bring their non-gamer male partners, nor do gay men game and bring their non-gamer male partners, let alone transgendered couples. And yes, if you didn't catch it this article is satire.] in all their varied glory.

Activities such as dancing lessons, fitness classes, yarn and needle crafts, jewelry-making, cooking (for your gamer), the ever-empowering pole dancing lessons, scrapbooking, bellydance, and self-defense are helpfully marked for easy identification with this icon:

Ball-and-chain icon for GenCon Indy 2010 "women's" activities

Ball and chain! Haha! Those super-smart geeks sure can come up with intelligent and respectful humour when poking gentle fun at the women they purport to love!

This is a great first step for GenCon to make everyone feel valued and welcomed to the convention, but I think GenCon organisers can do better. I propose that GenCon adopt the following icons for appropriate events to make sure that no-one is left out:

Proposed GenCon icon: Fatties welcome! Depicts an enormous figure guzzling food, with the description "Orc and Pie - Activities for Big and Talls"

Don't you hate it when you get to a table and the chairs are all too small? Or worse, all the tiny chairs are overflowing with immense gobs of geekflesh streaked with Dorito dust?

With this icon the "Big and Tall" gamers would know which games had the capacity to accommodate their corpulent selves comfortably, and the skinny-jeans geeks will know which games to avoid!

Proposed GenCon icon: Cripples welcome! Depicts a armless and legless figure helplessly sitting there, with the description "Accessible Games for the Differently-Able"

This forward-thinking and progressive icon would help the physically and mentally disabled (because that's all one homogeneous group, remember) find games and events that can accommodate their unusual and specific needs.

Normal gamers would no longer have to deal with weirdos in bulky wheelchairs breaking the suspension of disbelief in LARPs, or the awkward and resentful responses to their short series of perfectly well-meaning questions about how a disabled person became disabled.

Everyone wins!

Proposed GenCon icon: Minorities welcome! Depicts a cartoony, stereotypically-caricatured black man (or a white man in blackface), with the description "Racially-Inclusive Activities".

In this post-racial world it's important to constantly highlight and emphasise how minorities are welcome everywhere normal people are. If GenCon organisers adopted this icon, minorities of all colours would be able to quickly and easily identify the games and events that are welcoming of and sensitive to their quaint subcultural customs and non-English languages.

Similarly, people who don't want to get into uncomfortable discussions of race when they're trying to enjoy their escapist fantasy of many lands full of white, muscular men and white, bustin'-out-everywhere women can rest assured that avoiding events with this icon will do the trick.

I for one hope that GenCon will consider these icon suggestions and take them as a celebration of their efforts so far, and as encouragement to further develop their sensitive and inclusive scheduling policies. I think this issue is so important that I missed my Parent and Tots knitting circle to write this article![5. Seriously, I did miss my knitting circle to write this. I must also say that the kids have been remarkably patient with my blogging.]

Paizo's response to criticism of their portrayal of women

written by d7, on Feb 1, 2010 1:31:11 AM.

Last year I sent a slightly snarky email to Paizo in response to their virtual Christmas card mailing, which was a picture of the Pathfinder RPG iconic character Seoni[1. Not that I recognised her as Seoni at the time, not being familiar enough with PFRPG then. Granted, I still wouldn't know if not for that post, and I don't know any other PF iconic's name.] done up as a sexy Santa. As an afterthought I turned the email into a post because hey, why not get double duty out of that text I spent time writing?

Unsurprisingly in retrospect, but completely taking me by surprise at the time, that turned into a huge mess when the post was linked to on the Paizo forums.

I hesitated to write a follow-up post for a long time. When the next Christmas came around I considered writing something but ultimately skipped it just because it still left a foul taste just thinking about it. Even now I'm not really interested in analysing it, but a recent experience trying to explain male privilege to a friend and the resulting sensation of banging my head against a wall reminded me of that post and my undischarged duty to a commentor on it. That I've been reading the excellent Border House Blog that bankuei recently blogged about probably has a lot to do with it too.


When I wrote that post, one of the first comments was from Ravyn of Exchange of Realities, asking that I post a follow-up should Paizo respond to the email. They never did so I never did, but I did (eventually, when my anger with the invaders had cooled) go and read through the entire long Paizo forum thread that discussed my post.

The male privilege and cluelessness about same was predictably rampant, but there was a surprising number of eloquent people arguing my point to the rest of the forumers,[2. roguerouge in this post and cappadocius in this post are particularly fine examples.] which was great to see. Most of them were more gentle and better-written than I was, but that sadly didn't seem to change any more minds than my angry arguing in the comments of my post did.

There were some very disappointing posts in that thread, and the most disappointing were the ones from the Paizo staff. So Ravyn, here's your answer:


—Erik Mona, Publisher #

All I have to say since I ordered the Holiday Pin-Up Seoni is I LIKE IT and "pin-up" was in the art order description!

—Sarah Robinson, Art Director #

I don't think that Christmas Seoni is "bad" or sexist or anything of the sort. I think Paizo's done a great job at being open-minded and getting all sorts of genders, races, sexual orientations, beliefs, and all that good stuff out there in a non-discriminatory way. In other words, the only thing I discriminate against is bad writing, I guess.

—James Jacob, Pathfinder Editor-In-Chief #

The only thing to say about Erik Mona's response is that if the head publisher of a company is going to respond at all I would expect more of them. He could have said nothing at all, but he chose to respond and chose that to respond with? It seemed to be much more a response for the sake of the bulk of the forumers—"don't worry, I'm not taking this seriously either"—than for me or any of the forumers who brought up criticism of Paizo's representation of women.

The art director's answer is just tiring. That she asked for it doesn't mean it wasn't sexist. If she'd said, "I asked for a black slave naked except for Rudolph antlers and nose, with a white man's Santa-style boot on her back," that would have been plainly wrong.[4. This is not to compare sexism and racism, which are different yet related in complicated ways. It's an over-the-top example that I would hope the majority agree clearly demonstrates the irrelevance of an art director defending a piece with, "but it's what I asked for!" when the resulting art is inappropriate. Despite that intent, if using that example is offensive in a way that I—in my white privilege—have failed to see, I hope you feel welcome enough to say so and allow me to make amends.] It is the content of the art direction that matters, not whether or not it was asked for or even whether or not the art director happens to be female. Women can absorb and transmit oppressive cultural values just as easily as men can, because having the right bits in the pants doesn't provide magical brain-immunity to the culture that we're soaked in.

James Jacob's response I cared less about and I included it for the completeness of Paizo's response, paltry as it was. (Unlike the others though, he participated in the thread conversation beyond this response.) Still, it's annoyingly self-congratulatory. If the detractors are ignored and you make a point of stating your point of view over theirs, then you're selecting for self-congratulatory feedback. It's entirely possible to have done a great job on diversity and still have a lot of room to improve, and it's so much easier to overlook an area where there's a huge lack of improvement when you simply assert that there's no problem.

And of course, there were Sean K Reynold's self-serving responses in the comments of the original post, but the less said about those, the better.

So that's it.[9. Dammit. I just can't write a short post. I could have been working on my conversion of Shaintar to Burning Wheel.] The people at Paizo don't take concerns about sexism in their art seriously because they think their art is already not sexist.

Edit to add: Now that there have been a few comments in the moderation queue, I can see that this post is going to attract some of the same Champions of Men that the last did. I have only a little bit of interest in arguing with people who don't know—and more to the point, don't care—about the fundamental concepts that a conversation about inequality starts from. If your comment ladles a big helping of male-privilege condescension on top of the cluelessness I'm not going to approve it.

Yes, I'm going to police the comments.[5. Criers of "censorship!" are welcome to educate themselves about freedom of speech on their own time. The short version is: No, I don't have an obligation to give anyone a soapbox here; Yes, you are free to write in your own blog instead.] You might really want to add your opinion to the comments, but opinions saying that there's no problem are pennies a gallon and they get old fast. I'd rather keep the thread welcoming to all, no just the ones who ironically and loudly insist that there's nothing to talk about.[7. There's a quote of Lady Macbeth that applies here.] That said, you're welcome to add vitriolic comment to the original thread, where it would be in fellow company with all the other white men saying that they don't see what the problem is.

Otherwise, I'm happy to converse with people who are genuinely curious and make an effort to be respectful (not to me, but to women and PoC who are in the audience). I'm not setting the bar high—the least indication of having thought about it and being willing to keep thinking about it is all that's necessary.

Pick a lever, any lever

written by d7, on Jan 23, 2010 2:31:37 AM.

One of the best reasons for not updating a roleplay-gaming blog is being too busy with the actual hobby—busy roleplaying—to have time to update.[1. I suppose I should make a post about what I've been up to, at some point. The short of it: Google Wave; reading a pile of new games; playing Diaspora; playing Savage Worlds/Shaintar; adapting Shaintar to Burning Wheel.] One of the not-so-best reasons is that I used to blog when my son napped and he's stopped doing that. Tonight is one of those rare nights where I'm not gaming or prepping for a game, I've slept well the night before, and I have a post in mind that shouldn't take more energy to write than I have left but is still worth posting.

So, on with it.

Greywulf wrote a post on why the D&D 4e Powers system is good. I didn't find myself agreeing, but he wrote a follow-up comment that illuminated a dynamic between the Powers system and player creativity that I hadn't thought about before. One commentor was unhappy with the way players seem to prefer invoking powers over creative tactics. In part j_king wrote (emphasis mine):

It seems that whenever my players get into a combat, their most difficult choices are: where to move and which power to use. And perhaps whether to use an action point once in a while. I find that it’s rather rare that they think of clever ways to gain the advantage over a monster; especially if the encounter is balanced so that the party is likely to win. More often than not, once an encounter gets past the 15 minute mark it devolves into “Great cleave, 18 — hits, 12 damage. Marked.”

Could just be uninspired players. However, I think the system could do more to encourage more imaginative thinking rather than purely tactical.

To which Greywulf replied:

4e does rather hand it to you on a plate, doesn’t it? I think the key is for the GM to present situations that can’t be solved using their Powers alone – a 100′ chasm or trap’n'monster setup, for example which just begs for the players to stretch their imagination a notch. Once they get the hang of using their brains rather than just what’s written on their character sheet, it will soon become second nature.

The parts I emphasised are about the role the character sheet has as a tool for creative play. A character sheet has a lot of stuff on it, and what that stuff is varies tremendously from system to system. Often enough most of it is just pre-crunched math that is collected on the sheet for easy reference. Increasingly in the games I read and play I'm seeing another category of stuff present on the characters sheet, things I'm going to call levers.

Moving the world

Levers are things that a player can look at on their character sheet and yank on for effect in the game, often (but not necessarily) as a response to a problem that needs a solution. One of the most common types of lever is the skill. How often, as a GM or player, have you seen a player confronted with a crisis immediately look down to their character sheet to scan their list of skills for the magic bullet that will solve the problem? The player is looking for a lever—something they can yank to make the game do what they would rather it do.

Skills aren't the only kind of lever that show up in systems. An example of a lever that has mixed mechanical and story effects are Aspects in FATE. These are short phrases like "Twitchy as a ferret" that can be called on to influence a roll in the player's favour, or to bribe the player into making a choice that's probably not in their character's best interest for the sake of a more interesting story.

Power are a major type of lever in D&D 4e. Powers are the primary mechanic through which characters can have significant effects on the world and through which players can have significant mechanical impact on the game system. There are a lot of options, and the character advancement system is set up so that Powers are a large part of defining and refining a character. For any given situation in combat it's likely that the character has (or could have taken) a Power that would optimally exploit or solve the situation. Need to whack a badguy but you're a bit low on hit points? If you've got a Power that strikes and lets you use a healing surge, that's a lever you can pull to solve that dilemma.

Creative impulses

It might be obvious by now what I think this has to do with creativity. When you've got a problem on the one hand and a lever that fits the problem on the other, the obvious choice is to pull it. In a game with few or no levers there are few or no ready-made answers to the game situations, while in a game with many and varied levers there is always going to be one or more that are good enough to apply to the situation.

Whether pulling that lever results in a creative addition to the game or not depends greatly on the game system that lever is part of, and I think this is part of why the Powers system in 4e leaves me cold. Not only does it give a player many levers to pull in combat, but the system doesn't ask anything more of the player after the lever is pulled. You can get creative with the use and description of a Power, but you don't have to in order to make the game's engine run.[1. To be sure, this is a benefit in other ways. For instance, the tactical aspects of combat run very smoothly because you only have to make a choice of Power and then the mechanics follow smoothly from that choice.] 4e provides lots of levers, which makes it easy to just pull a lever. Of course this could be waved away as an example of lazy play—but who's going to stop that lazy player, and haven't we all been that player at some point?

So levers can be creativity inhibitors.[6. One of the most uncontroversial examples of a lever that greatly inhibits creativity is Diplomacy in D&D 3.x. Part of why that skill is so reviled is because, as written, it short-circuits any roleplay that is about conflicting PC and NPC interests. With a high enough Diplomacy, any time the player wants they can pull that lever and make the game instantly less interesting to everyone else.] Given a choice between McGuyvering up a solution to the challenge and using a Power that is obviously going to do the trick, pulling that Power's lever is going to win out for most players in most circumstances.

That's not to say that levers are inherently bad. They're not. A system can also provide levers as a kind of story bribe: "Here, you can pull this thing for powerful effect, but before it does its magic you have to add a bit to the story yourself…" Levers of that sort work as a bribe for the player to add to the ongoing story because their in-game effect is partly undefined and needs that bit of player storytelling in order to have a defined effect.[2. How levers can require story in order to work is a matter of their mechanics. In Burning Wheel for example, in order to earn Artha (an important fate-point currency) the player has to make decisions that further their character's goals and beliefs. In order to pull a lever like the belief "I am the greatest swordsman alive" so that it pays out in Artha, you have to do things like challenge the king's champion to a duel. You don't get the mechanical effect of the lever until you create some story, because the act of creating that bit of story is what pulls the lever. I'm sure there are more and better examples, but forgive me my blogging rustiness.] Levers like that have a coin slot—you can pull the lever, but you have to pay into the story before the lever will let you effect the game.

Which leaves the other way that levers can encourage players to be creative: by not existing. A lever that isn't there is a lever that doesn't offer a short-cut to solving the problem. Are you an untrained schmuck with a rusty sword and nary a stealthy skill to your name peering down on the four bugbears guarding the cave entrance you need to get into? Without a skill or a fighting chance there are no levers to provide obvious solutions, so you have to get creative.[3. I'm not saying sneaking past the bugbears or slaughtering them is a badwrongfun thing here—I love me some steathly characters and enjoy the more fighty parts of this hobby fine—just that not having the two most obvious answers of "fight" or "sneak by" available means that an unorthodox solution is the only option left.] Shoving boulders onto them from above, luring them away with a clever strawman silhouetted against the moon, or some other unorthodox solution is going to be fun to play and memorable after the game.

Full circle

Which brings me back to the insight that j_king and Greywulf's exchange gave me. The abundance of easy levers on a D&D 4e character sheet don't prevent creative play, but by being there they make it easy to just pull a lever rather than get creative, and the system doesn't make up for that damping effect on creativity by making those levers require creativity after pulling them. Since I'm personally not interested in the tactical combat side of D&D 4e, the abundance of purely mechanic levers in 4e explains why as a system it doesn't excite me.

Greywulf's suggestion to j_king that the way to solve that is to set up situations where Powers aren't the answer to the challenge is a good one for people who already like 4e but want more opportunities for creative problem-solving. From my perspective, the Powers system is what makes 4e different from the stacks of other games I own—having to write scenarios to work around that core of the game seems to me like a reason to use a different system. As I wrote in my comment on Greywulf's post, the core system of a game shouldn’t be an obstacle to creativity that needs to be GMed around to make the gameplay good, and the contents of the character sheet should be inspirational rather than creativity-damping.

There are a lot of other half-formed thoughts bumping around in my head about how the lever metaphor can be used to understand what makes different games tick, but those will have to wait.[4. Now I remember why I haven't been posting. This took the better part of three hours to write, link, and shoddily proofread. Three hours used to not seem like a lot, but now that it's my entire post-toddler evening it seems like a lot more.]