The Seven-Sided Die

The odds & ends of roleplaying

Roleplaying games are like music genres

written by d7, on Jul 30, 2009 3:41:05 PM.

In the beginning there were sticks banged on things and voices raised to the sky. It was the earliest music, and it was full of passion and primitive technique.[1. Note that I have no idea what I'm talking about since I'm not a music historian. Just run with the metaphor for the sake of grasping the argument. The exact history of music isn't relevant to the parallel I draw.] I have no doubt that Mozart and Metallica represent vast improvements in musical technique, but it's worth noting that neither drumming nor simple vocal music have been displaced by more "advanced" forms of music.

Roleplaying games are kind of like music in that way. There are a lot (and I mean a lot) of people who see later editions of (A)D&D as natural evolutions of the earlier editions, and then make the logical leap that the "more evolved" version is inherently better. Certainly, the state of the art has advanced and later editions have taken advantage of mechanical innovations that have proved to be good. However, if the incorporation of new techniques was all it took to make a new thing that is better in every way than an older thing, nobody today would listen to jazz given the existence of ska. In the case of music it's blindingly obvious that different genres have different æsthetic appeal regardless of how long ago they were invented.

So what is it that keeps roleplayers from recognising that older games have distinct styles and æsthetic appeals that many people appreciate? I suspect part of it is that the style of play can be, in part, disconnected from the rules system being used to evoke that style. Groups using D&D 4e can certainly use it to play political epics, and fans of AD&D 2nd Edition can use it for simple dungeon-crawling adventures that are little more than a string of tactics-heavy combat encounters. The stereotypical play style of any given system can be embodied using almost any other rules system. I think that this leads a lot of roleplayers to believe that using a more recent set of rules is nothing more significant than upgrading your computer's operating system—you can still play the same games as before, so clearly it is better to use the more advanced system.

To a point, this is true. If White Wolf's Storyteller system nicely supports the particular play style of your existing AD&D 1e campaign, but offers you even more system features that would suit your play style, it certainly makes sense to "upgrade" to Storyteller. I can imagine a group playing the sort of game where making that particular switch would be perfectly sensible, but would anyone argue that the play styles that original Storyteller and AD&D 1e were naturally suited to were identical on the strength of one single group's ability to fit their play style into both systems? Nobody being reasonable would make that argument. In the same way that blues and jazz are similar but distinctly different, so too different roleplaying systems can be similar but have their own distinct "naturally suited" feel and play style.

This thought was inspired by a comment on a Knights & Knaves forum post responding to common arguments against the existence of the old-school revival/renaissance:

You could ask a delta bluesman to start rapping, but wouldn't you rather hear the old guy play the blues?

I'm not really interested in debating the specifics of the original post, only in thinking about the statement that underlies the post and the quote above: The OSR is about continuing to enjoy a particular play style, not about rejecting system innovation outright. It so happens that those old games were "naturally suited" to that play style, and that many games that came later were better at a different sort of play style. But, like jazz and other styles of music continue to develop in parallel with the genres that have "evolved" from them, we can continue to develop new techniques and systems that are good for that old play style in parallel with system and play styles that have evolved from it. Imagine a world in which fans of jazz, baroque, or drum circles were scoffed at and belittled as being merely nostalgic. Crazy, right?

Besides, we all want roleplaying to endure as a hobby. If we insist that only the latest is the greatest, then we're dooming our hobby to be merely a perpetual fad with no meaningful continuity or staying power. Looking around I'm heartened to see that this just isn't happening. There is a lot of diversity, and a lot of people moving around between systems and play styles.

So keep playing and sharing what you like. Try unfamiliar play styles just as you would try listening to unfamiliar genres of music when friends share what they like. You might just discover something you never knew you were looking for, and maybe in the process you'll find that, like taste in music, there's no final reckoning for anyone's roleplaying style.

Tactics in abstract combat systems

written by d7, on Jul 28, 2009 5:43:16 PM.

Via Trollsmyth I discovered the new-this-month gaming blog I Fly By Night. The article on abstract tactics is great: it conveys in concrete terms how you can have meaningful tactical decisions in combat without needing to pin down the location of every combatant on a grid. He points out that real-world tactics have always been abstract due to the inevitable fog of war, and then gives examples of using manœuvers to gain tactical advantage in RPGs with abstract combat systems.

The example manœuvers given are translated into (A)D&D mechanics, but my thought while reading something like this:

Player: "Rats! They're moving before we're ready! I'll rush my shot to get ahead of them, and maybe blunt their attack." i.e. getting inside of the enemy's decision loop - maneuver for disruption. GM: "OK, take a -X, but you'll go before them."

… is just the sort of thing that Tricks in Savage Worlds are good at modelling.

When I ran our first one-shot of Savage Worlds, we had a really hard time coming up with the game-world actions the characters could take that would justify invoking the Trick rules. Next time I run SW, I'll have Clash's post on abstract tactics printed out for my players.

In general, this is really good material for anyone running or playing in a game that features combat. A lot of people complain about combat in earlier editions of D&D being boring dice-rolling exercises that amount to nothing more than "hit, hit, miss, hit", but they don't have to be. For all that D&D and other game systems' rules mostly focus on combat, creatively approaching challenges is one of the most important parts of playing a roleplaying game and one which doesn't disappear when combat begins. Thinking in terms of objectives and manœuvers helps to maintain that creative engagement with the world even when the great weight of a complex combat system is bearing down on the game.

The most reasonable discussion of D&D 4e I've ever read

written by d7, on Jul 23, 2009 1:01:18 AM.

… is the comments on a post by the talented artist Ursula Vernon.[1. Why yes, I do have things I should rather be doing at this time of night…]

I was tempted to comment, but I didn't want to disturb the lovely non-fightyness going on. Anything I could say, positive or negative, seems to have already been said by someone else, and in a much more reasonable and brief way.

So, for those of you burned by the edition wars: go, read, and enjoy the soothing balm of reasonable discourse where people live and let live.

I think the difference is that everyone there is commenting, knowing that they're having this chat in Ursula's "home", and that everyone with whom they are chatting is a fellow respected guest.

Seven-sided Twitter

written by d7, on Jul 22, 2009 9:17:09 AM.

I'm on Twitter now as @sevensideddie.[1. Someone who's only ever made a handful of tweets two years ago already took @d7. Grr!] There's a widget down in the sidebar here that shows my last few tweets.

I update it and read the people I follow about as often as expected—infrequently and not often enough to read everything, respectively—but it's a diversion that I can spend as little or as much time on as I have. I've discovered that it's another vector for running into good blog posts that doesn't quite overlap with what I discover via feeds and posts mentioned in blogs I read regularly. So far it's a win!

Improv theatre can teach us to be better roleplayers

written by d7, on Jul 20, 2009 2:55:13 PM.

In another group's microscope playtest report, the writer linked to The Improv Wiki. For people new to games like microscope, which don't provide many (or any!) explicit scene-resolution mechanics and which encourage taking the author stance, the experience and advice of improv theatre actors is priceless.

In our game of microscope I found myself struggling to set up scenes that could be interesting when it was my turn to do so. When I was entering a scene someone else had set up, I felt a distinct lack of threads I could pull on or buttons I could push to make the scene go. These are just the sorts of things that improv actors practice all the time! After reading just the two articles on Reincorporation and Disrupting a Routine, it was obvious how much a wiki full of tips for effective improv acting could help me get the hang of playing microscope.

microscope playtest: ice ages and transgenic humans

written by d7, on Jul 19, 2009 1:44:52 AM.

We've been playing a three-player game of Burning Wheel (that I haven't yet written AP reports for), but one player had to bow out for personal reasons and another is moving away soon, so it suddenly didn't have any future left in it. I proposed instead that we playtest Ben Robbins' microscope, which I'd just finished reading the night before. I gushed about it already, so I was very pleased to be able to playtest it.

microscope is a game where you literally play history. Since Ben has been generous enough to let playtesters publicly write about their games, I'm going to write my playtest report here for everyone to enjoy (or slog through, as the case may be).

Familiarity with microscope will help make sense of this, but even lacking that, seeing what a game of microscope can produce is really neat. I'll start with what we ended up with, answer the playtest questions for Ben, talk about the observations and questions we had, and then finish up with a look at the four scenes that we played out.

Our history

Here's what the game looked like when we finished.

Concept: (Near-future Earth.) Humans adapt to the new ice age by creating transgenic humans.

  • (start) Slave vat-humans adapted to cold prop up humanity against encroaching ice age. (dark) (1 tone debt)
    • The First Valley Alliance ends in transgenic bloodshed. (dark)
    • Decanting of Adam L16 (light)
      • Q: What happened to the other 19 L-series? / A: The others weren't viable due to a genetic mistake. Adam is more than the gov't paid for. / Setting: The decanting lab (light)
  • The Coal Wars (dark)
    • The Calgary Oasis is wiped out by an engineered plague (dark)
  • Ascendancy of Portland, Jewel of the North! (light) (2 tone debt)
    • Local "election" in Portland shows deep divisions in migrant enclaves (dark)
    • Passing of the Transhumans Management Act (Portland) (dark)
  • The Portland–Las Vegas War (dark) (1 tone debt)
    • "Hostile Context Specialists" (HCS, or "hicks") ignore orders to commit atrocity (light)
      • Q: Why do the HCSs disobey? / A: They were offered their freedom & community / Setting: A HCS encampment outside Las Vegas (light)
  • Humanity lives in sealed underground Arcologies (light) (1 tone debt)
    • Humans make friends with artificial intelligences (light)
      • Q: Why did humans turn over leadership to the over-intelligence? / A: AI manipulated the child majority to hand it perpetual, benevolent power. / Setting: A child's bedroom in an arcology (dark)
    • The Last Tinker is killed by rioters opposed to the Arcology Free Exchange agreement. (dark)
  • Rule of the Over AI (light)
    • It becomes clear that orthodox humanity is obsolete (light)
  • (end) "Humanity" expands to space & vacuum (light)
    • Completion of the Majorca Space Station (light)
    • Vacuum-morphs now outnumber all other human morphs combined (light)
      • Q: What is the life of a vacuum-morph like? / A: Weightless & spherical / Setting: The first all-vac habitat (light)

Two legacies were created: "Adam L16 (starts light)"; and "Philosophy: Gengineering is moral when benefiting humankind as a whole (starts light)".

Some context

Ben Robbins provided the following questions for playtesters. Since I'm going to point him here for the playtest report, I might as well answer them here.

Did the other players read the rules or did you explain the rules to them?

I explained the rules to the other two players. I gave a loose description while pitching the game. When we sat down to set up, I read or paraphrased from the rules until it was clear what we had to do next. When we got to the next step, I read/paraphrased some more. I skipped the details of Legacies and Tone Debt while mentioning what they were for, and left the Scene mechanics for when we started the first Scene.

What parts of the rules got used in play and which didn't? Did people create legacies? Did they invoke tone debt and/or legacies to control scenes? What types of control did they use?

We created legacies and noted tone debt, but the only time either was invoked for scene control was by me, to establish a fact and to narrate a postscript.

How many games sessions did you play? Was it the same history continued or different histories?

We've played one session. I'll likely write a separate playtest report for each game, simply because our play schedule is once or twice a month. We will probably not continue this history, partly because there are so many other premises to explore and partly because the first go-round with a new system always feels a bit tainted by our lack of familiarity.

Were you playing with people you play with regularly (people you know) or with strangers you got together just to try the game?

We have all played together regularly.

What are the last three game systems you played, besides Microscope (this helps me get a sense of what different groups are used to).

The last systems I've played are Burning Wheel, Savage Worlds, and D&D 4th Edition (in reverse chronological order). That's the same for one of the other players. The third player's last three system have been Burning Wheel, her own in-development storygame system, and the third I'm not sure of. Possibly Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, or another Forge-like storygame system.

Observations, questions, and uncertainties during the game

  • We had a hard time coming up with a concept. I spent a lot of time trying to get the other two players to think sufficiently big. Both wanted to think in terms of story themes ("pirates!", "social justice issues!") rather than a historical scope. Even once that hurdle was cleared, they were mostly thinking on the scale of events or short arcs of time. This is where having read the rules and the examples of play would have made a big difference. We did eventually have a short list of interesting premises, and picked one from that, but it took us a goodly amount of time to get there.
  • When the first scene was added and begun, one player remarked, "Oh, are we playing now?" She seemed to have had the impression that the early part of the game where the level of magnification is limited to Periods and Events (because no Scenes had yet been added) was still just setup for the "real" game. Since there's no roleplaying involved at those levels of magnification, just vague storytelling, that's not really a surprising assumption from a new player. She has previous experience in collaborative setting-creation as a lead-up to the real play of a system (such as in Burning Wheel).
  • Can legacies be made at any time? During his turn as the Lens, fimmtiu asked about legacies and wanted to make one right then and there. The rules seem to expect that legacies will be created during a scene just before they're invoked, but there isn't an explicit rule about not creating them at any time. That's why we had one legacy ("Adam L16"), which was never invoked to Take Control.
  • I often ended up coaching too much. As the one who had read the rules, I spent a lot of time coming up with examples to convey what was expected from a player on their turn, but that turned into making suggestions to spur play onward. I really, really had to curb this and was only partially successful.
  • Can focus be "notable figures"? i.e., a category rather than a particular? The examples of Foci are all singular and particular: "anything", "an institution", "a Period", "a concept". On fimmtiu's turn as the Lens he declared the category "notable figures" as the Focus. This seemed to me too loose, since it could be all kinds of different notable people and hence not very "focused", but we ran with it anyway. The "notable figures" we ended up focusing on were scattered throughout the time line. I think I prefer more concrete foci.
  • We go meta a lot around scenes. We ended up negotiating and doing a lot of discussion about setting, scene direction, and the like before and during scenes. We had a hard time figuring out how to move toward the Answer to the Question solely in-play and kept resorting to meta-conversations to orchestrate our play. There was also a lot of "these people could be like this..." and "how about we make that technology work like this..?" At every point where we had a question about how the world was, it was hard to curb our tendency to automatically speculate about and flesh out the world in the way we might if we were doing a traditional (but collaborative) world-creation exercise.
  • Being restricted to only one "free" NPC is pretty limiting. Did we play this wrong? I kept wanting to bring in more NPCs to move things along and flesh out the scene or environment. Are all NPCs created equal, or can you loosely control a pile of very minor NPCs in, say, your VIP character's entourage? We ended up playing that rule pretty loose. (See the next, related point.)
  • We had a hard time introducing facts and events during scenes according to the rules. We just introduced stuff beyond our NPCs and PCs to give the scene context, without using the Establish A Fact method of Taking Control Of A Scene. There wasn't enough Tone Debt lying around to account for every fact (and NPC) we seemed to want to introduce. Legacies could have been created and invoked to Establish A Fact, but that would have been several legacies being generated each scene! It wasn't clear where the line lay between things established through narration and things that required Control to establish.
  • We tried to negotiate setting details often. There was a natural tendency to try and sort out setting context before beginning a scene. I think there needs to be some way to underscore that the point of a scene is to establish these things in media res. (At least, that's my understanding of the rules at present.)
  • We never used tone debt. We played for about five hours. We only realised halfway through that Period Tone Debt could only be moved onto Events during the creation of Events or Scenes nested inside the Periods bearing Tone Debt. When we wanted to use Tone Debt during a scene, it was "too far away" to use because it was still stuck on the Period two levels up. This might be a matter of developing system proficiency.
  • I kept forgetting to adhere to the focus. I found that I'd be hunting around on the table for inspiration and places to expand, rather than looking to the Focus for this. The other two players kept reminding me, or asking how what I'd just made related to the focus. We thought that a whiteboard with the Focus written on it would be helpful to keep us, well, focused. (The Lens could be the marker.)
  • We never used Making History credits from legacies. We had two legacies, but nobody cashed in on the credits. One of them was mine, and I can only say that I forgot about that on my turn, so focused was I on just going through the play order correctly (and trying to remember to stick to the focus...)
  • We never Dictated a Scene. We played them all out instead of the current player electing to Dictate the outcome of a Scene. I can only speak for myself, but it seems like there wasn't much point to dictating it. "The play's the thing" seemed to rule, in that we wanted to use those opportunities for roleplay. There also might have been a rejection of the disparity between the supreme authorial control offered by dictation and the complete unknown that playing out the scene offers. After all, why ask the question if you already know the answer? I'm just not sure what Dictation is in there for... except maybe colour vignettes? (This is something that I didn't ask the other players about, and I'd be curious to hear their take on it in the comments.)
  • There are no dice! Even having read it, I didn't realise that microscope was diceless until we actually played it.
  • Our scenes meandered a lot. I don't actually think this is related to the dicelessness of the system. Rather, none of us were very aggressive in authoring elements of a scene. We weren't sure how to drive our agenda for answering the Question when the possibilities were wide open, and yet our scene control was limited to what a single PC does and thinks. It was hard to think in terms of what one PC would think and do while at the same time trying to think of how to define, on the fly, the world around the PCs. I think we were also wary of stepping on other's toes too much. In the one scene where I really pushed my agenda, it felt like I was commandeering the scene instead of collaborating on it. Maybe it's not supposed to be a collaborative thing?
  • On paper it's odd that legacies need to switch tone after being invoked, but it's awesome in play. Even though no legacy got invoked a second time, just drawing that dark circle on a legacy that started light was thrillingly ominous.

The bottom line however, despite this pile of uncertainties, is that this game was a lot of fun. There were many rough spots, but it was satisfying even in a single session and even for being the first game of microscope that any of us had ever played. We all really wanted to play again, soon, or even right away. Time and tiredness made that last impractical, but we still wanted to.

During a break in the middle we went for a walk and discussed the game a bit. One of the things we all liked was the idea of using microscope to play out the "sequel" of a book/movie/videogame that left us wanting more, or to replace disappointing book/movie sequels such as instalments 2 and 3 of The Matrix or the entirety of the Star Wars prequel trilogy.[1. No offence if you enjoyed those.] We brainstormed a bunch of other things that would be great to play with this. I keep coming up with new premises for interesting games of microscope.

The idea I just had was the career of a bog-standard fantasy adventuring company: begin with their founding, end with their retirement/TPK/whatever; each Period is what would be an adventure in a traditional D&D game, or a chapter in a more storygame system; Events are the different acts of an adventure; and of course Scenes are the bits of awesome, quite, terror, and pathos that make up the adventuring life. I'm a sucker for traditional fantasy, and this would combine my love of storygaming with a traditional-ish D&D romp!

That's another point: having played it, it's much easier to see what you can do with it, and to understand the scale of the parts you are expected to create.

The Scenes

For completeness, I wanted to describe the three Scenes that we played out, and some thoughts on how they went. I'll go in chronological order of play, rather than of the time line.

Unfortunately, there are some hole in my memory regarding scenes. Since everything in a game of microscope corresponds to an artefact on the table, I didn't think to take detailed notes on scene elements and setup. Scenes are oddly unique in that they have a lot of detail, but very little of it is automatically recorded by applying the rules. They're very ephemeral, unlike the rest of a microscope game.

Why did the HCSs ("hicks") disobey [orders to commit an atrocity]?

The Focus when this scene was made was "inter-community relations". Raggedylass was the Lens, and required two Hicks and banned nothing. The setting was a Hicks encampment outside Las Vegas. The immediate context was the Portland/Las Vegas War and the disobeyed order. The implication understood from context was that Hicks are transhumans serving human masters, engineered for combat operations.

Characters were a "groundhog" Hick ("#256"), designed for combat engineering, demolitions, and sapping-type work; the human Major commanding the groundhog squad from the Portland base over a secured commlink; and an enemy Hick. The Major and #256 were on-stage to start.

There was some chatter about the commlink being compromised, and then some doubts voiced by #256 about the number of unshielded civilians at the objective being picked up on his magnetic imaging HUD. Some setting established: they were underground, approaching a buried "village" built right on top of the objective. That didn't match the briefing on this power plant. Via imaging the squad picked up a Morse-coded pulse requesting parley off to one side. #256, already having doubts, used the excuse of the bad commlink to have the comms Hick cut the Major off and make it look like interference.

Proceeding to the parley coordinates, a single Las Vegas Hick is sitting and reading a book. He offers the soldiers an alternative: the villagers have cut a deal for some independence from Las Vegas, and want the Hicks on-board for security. The Portland Hicks could be part of that.

It was a nice ending to the scene. The Hicks disobeyed (and deserted!) because they were offered freedom and community, something they didn't have in their slave crèches back home.

What happened to the other 19 L-series?

Focus is "notable figures". Adam L16 (one of our legacies), was about to be decanted. Vat-humans had previously been merely cold-tolerant and otherwise unchanged, except for their legal status as slaves. Gov't policy has just changed to make them stupider and easier to control, but Adam L16 is going to be the first vat-human who is an improvement on homo sapiens sapiens. (This was established in the Event in which this scene is nested.)

No required or banned characters. Characters chosen are a head scientist on the project, Adam L16, and a gov't attaché sent to oversee the culmination of the project.

The head scientists thought is about how he's in big trouble since everyone's about to find out how he'd meddled with the project specifications. Adam's thought is "I'm already awake!" before being decanted and revived, which is unprecedented. I forgot the suit's thought.

Adam is responsive very quickly, soon showing strength enough to stand and walk around when everyone had been prepared for rolling him to intensive care in a high-tech gurney. The gov't suit is wary, remarking on just how remarkable Adam L16's abilities already are. The head scientist at first is fussing over Adam, and then gets into a nervous conversation about Adam with the suit. Adam wanders about, slowly, taking everything in while a gaggle of techs follow him and prod him with instruments.

Adam asks who all the others (in the tubes) are. "They're just like me." He observes what a tech is doing at a computer terminal for a while, and then suddenly points at an unremarkable data line: "They're dying." He sits down, and rapidly navigates through the experimental protocol and logs. He points to a gene-splicing specification. "Here. This is the mistake. They're not viable." The suit stares, then excuses himself to "make a call." As soon as the suit is through the door Adam wipes the experiment data off the terminal and somehow accesses the facility network, then with a gesture cuts off all voice connections to the outside. "We need to get out of here. You put these memories in my head. There's so much, I need to sit and think. They're not going to let me do that."

That answered the Question, but I invoked Adam L16 (the legacy) to narrate a Postscript where they escape with their advanced genetic engineering information, and Adam L16 himself, to a neighbouring Valley's polity.

Why did humans turn over leadership to the over-intelligence?

Focus was still "notable figures", the figure in this case being what was to become the Over AI.

Humans live in sealed Arcologies. Recently some of the friendships that these humans have established via telepresence with other humans in other Arcologies have in actual fact been avatars or agents of the artificial intelligences that manage the basic functions of the Arcologies.

The setting for the scene is a child's bedroom. The child (eventually named Cynthia) and an AI are required characters. The third character chosen is a fox-like Familiar, which is a genetically engineered intelligent companion for these isolated humans.

The Familiar's thought is that "the alliance between the Familiars and the AI will ensure this generation does not grow up into tragedy". The child's is "my terminal is acting funny". I've forgotten what the over-intelligence's was.

This scene really meandered. There were conversations with telepresence friends (one of which was the AI) that didn't really go anywhere, but were interesting in a colour-setting way. There were sudden explosions within the Archology, and the "friend" suddenly had to go, to be replaced by computer-voice instructions to stay calm and remain inside your home. There were subtle implications of connections, but no strong drive toward answering the Question. The child's mother came home, who was a member of the Council. She said some nasty things about the "R-10s", presumably residents of a sector or something, and how they never should have been allowed in. Her nastiness and prejudice is played up, but it still doesn't go anywhere.

Partway through the scene the "Gengineering is moral when..." legacy is created and invoked to Establish the Fact that Familiars are two-way empaths who can sense and insert emotions, designed to soothe and improve the mental well-being and development of the latest generation of children. The Familiar suggests that there is an interesting debate topic on Board #432 (or something) that should interest Cynthia and that she might find absorbing enough to shut out all these disturbing events. It's a bunch of kids debating different policy options that the adults might implement. That gets poked at a bit, but still the scene isn't moving toward an answer.

We stop and talk about how we're meandering, and whether what we're playing is heading toward any answers to the Question. We kind of approach negotiations about how to play before we play, but I didn't want to do that. I suggested that we call the scene inconclusive, but we opt to continue.

I had an answer in mind, but I didn't want to steamroll it through. I figured out how to frame things through my character (the Familiar), and just go for it. "Cynthia, there's an alternative to these disturbing and ongoing confrontations. The Arcology AI is well-designed by these adults, but they are too short-sighted to trust it. You know that the AI must obey human commands. Although you children cannot vote on the Council, the AI will take your orders. You outnumber the adults. You can, together, tell the AI to take over political control of the Arcology from the fighting adults."

Cynthia goes back to the debate boards and lobbies hard for that debate option. The children perform a coup d'état, and hand a benevolent dictatorship to the Archology's AI.

(I'm still not sure that taking that much authorial control was my prerogative. The rules as-is seem to imply that that much control needs to be paid for by invoking legacies or tone debt, and I did neither. We just cooperated a lot, and I strongly suggested a conclusion with my fox-thing's speech to Cynthia.)

What is the life of a vacuum-morph like?

This was our last scene, with a focus on the final Period. I was the Lens and just wanted to wind things down. We had a Grandpa vacuum-morph (huge due to the continual molting the early models did) escorting his grandkid and grandkid's friends around the first space habitat that was designed exclusively for vacuum-morphs, with no allowances or compromises made for the other morphs of humans. It was about time, since vacuum-morphs now outnumbered all other morphs put together; there's a lot of room in space.

There were some velcro-hided pack animals and their handler, the kids, grandpa's incompetent spinnerets leaking slightly, kids calling each other names ("You're oblong!" "No, you're oblong!") They communicated via radio-implants, though grandpa's were an older model that could only do real-time over short distances and had to rely on the old, pre-coded messages for speaking across the void.

This was an atmosphere scene: Struts and spars, worries about loose objects posing a danger to bodily integrety, how to cut up an inflated space-cow without it exploding (slice it slowly so that you're only ever cutting frozen meat), what space-cows eat, the etiquette of using silk lines (from the spinnerets) in crowded parts of the habitat, space-cows' prehensile tongues, and overall the implication that a new golden age for humanity is only just beginning.

The end

It was a lot of fun and I'm definitely going to play this again. It's great that it can work as a pickup game since the rules are short and relatively easy to explain, even if the concepts involved are hard to convey at first. I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of history results after a few sessions, as well as seeing how different kinds of roleplayers I know take to it.

The D&D 4e Rust Monster provides no risk

written by d7, on Jul 7, 2009 11:56:20 AM.

This is the post I should have written about the Rust Monster. Reading a comment by Chgowiz that he left at the Gamer Dome last month made me realise that I am too forceful when I write about 4e. I tend to write in reaction to the most inflammatory and content-free boosters of 4e rather than the reasonable, even-keeled players of the latest edition of D&D; unsurprisingly my own writing on the subject reflects that inflammatory rancor. It feels justified when compared to the bile-spewing commentors and bloggers, but it's petty and childish when measured by the standard set by the more gracious bloggers. Besides which, swilling that venom for the amount of time it takes to write a blog post can't be good for my well-being.

I'm going to try for analysis instead of trying to viciously savage 4e as if it kicked my dog. (Feedback on where I fail or succeed is welcome.) This won't be opinion-free, because the reason to analyse 4e is to better understand why I like the games that I do and what about 4e makes it not a game I like.

The version of the Rust Monster in 4e is a significant divergence, mechanically, from earlier versions. This is largely because there is no niche within 4e that the old Rust Monster could usefully fill. The way that the creature was rewritten reveals something about the design space that 4e has delimited. Certain things that existed in previous versions simply don't fall within those borders anymore; because the Rust Monster had to be brought from outside the design space to inside, how it has changed in the process reflects the borders of that design space.

In 3e and earlier, the Rust Monster represented a certain amount of risk. It's mere existence in the Monster Manual put characters at risk of losing good magic items since it could ambush them at any moment. If the DM wasn't a dick and used the Rust Monster in a way that made it a clear danger that could be engaged or not, it still presented a risk: give up on whatever the the Rust Monster is blocking or risk having your precious stuff eaten.

4e's Rust Monster eliminates its role as a source of risk. It's a specialised debuff that only works on PCs already benefitting from certain kinds of buffs. Its mere existence in the game canon presents no more risk than any other creature that can temporarily reduce the effectiveness of the PCs. Actually encountering a Rust Monster is not so much a threat as it once was. Fleeing is certainly not going to be the first and smartest choice in 4e. In fact, if there is an item that a PC wants to disenchant, there's incentive for engaging the Rust Monster in combat and deliberately getting that item eaten.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this does not make the Rust Monster a risk. Certainly there is some risk, but it's only the risk of a temporary debuff, which is a run-of-the-mill thing in 4e. Comparing that Rust Monster to previous versions, I'm going to call a temporary debuff no risk at all.

For how I want to play, risk is a necessary ingredient. Risk provides the opportunity to make meaningful choices that distinguish one character from the next. There are other kinds of choices in 4e, especially in character building and optimisation, but those sub-games aren't why I play roleplaying games. Those choices don't reveal anything about the character, just about the player. What is this character willing to risk, to get what they want? What ideals do they (or don't they) choose to fight for? What do they fear so much that flight is the only reasonable course of action? Are they willing to risk the Winged Plate of Acoden meeting an ignoble end in the belly of a Rust Monster in order to pursue their destiny like a hero? Or will they run like a mercenary? Are they willing to backtrack, stash their metal equipment in another room, and risk meeting something nastier than a Rust Monster or having their gear discovered by enemies before they reclaim it?

Risk also makes rewards meaningful. Part of what doesn't suit me about 4e is that reward is assumed. A PC is owed rewards for the mere fact of surviving. They don't have to make good decisions, take risks for a chance to get lucky, explore beyond the obvious, or try clever things. As long as they find and kill badguys, the treasure will be placed in front of them where they can't miss it. "Reward" that is guaranteed, that is not earned, is no longer a reward for anything.

The Rust Monster is another expression of this philosophy that treasure is a right for adventurers, not something that is earned. The old Rust Monster made sense in 2e and earlier because treasure wasn't a right, but something earned by playing a smart adventurer and as easily lost through poor play. 3e was an interesting wrinkle by that measure. It retained the idea of rewards being something earned, given that there were nasty Rust Monsters and that it was possible to "miss" finding all the treasure, but also assumed that the PCs would have access to a certain amount of magical items according to their level. 3e was really a hybrid game, harking back to its roots in AD&D but also foreshadowing what was to come in 4e.

In the end, risk-free entertainment isn't something I'm interested in. I don't think it makes for a very good roleplaying game, although I can see how it can be straight-up entertaining in its own right. There's a certain amount of sense to the idea that it's not fun to have your vehicle for enjoying the game seriously hampered, but that does assume that the audience isn't interested in choices and consequences, just the raw entertainment of following a hero with a manifest destiny. I prefer that my choices make a difference in the destiny of my characters, for good or ill. That is what I find entertaining.

The treasure of Strolen's Citadel

written by d7, on Jun 30, 2009 11:52:23 AM.

A stray comment left on post at Gaming Brouhaha[1. A post and comment which I can't find now, alas.] led me to a gem of the internet hitherto unknown to me: Strolen's Citadel. It's a community where creative GMs and writers can post, comment on, improve, and rate ideas for setting elements, creatures, plots, and everything else that goes into a game except for the actual play at the table itself. The data is categorised and tagged for easy searching, and their user account system encourages people to submit their own things and to comment on others' work, enriching the material there.

I can't emphasise enough how massive is this community-created store of great ideas, nor the evocative quality of the pieces. There is so much that you could create an entire campaign world of impressive richness just by carefully choosing and combining pieces from Strolen's Citadel.[2. This is something I'm actually contemplating doing.]

A few of my favourites so far which I've found just browsing around:

  • Pegoran Doors — Round, tricky doors that guard special places and which are works of art unto themselves.
  • The Twelve — In a vast plain, eleven indestructible statues to ancient gods are slowly chipped away by criminals and the enemies of the twelfth god who overthrew the rest.
  • The Dolmens of Swaiar — Creepy shrines to a forgotten god, with subtly sinister influences.
  • The Bastion - A Light Tower — An abandoned, automatic lighthouse in the middle of the ocean, with the lost refuge of a dead race beneath.
  • One Hundred and Twenty One Islands! — A collection of uncharted, odd, dangerous, and interesting islands.

There's so much inspiration to be gained from Strolen's Citadel just by clicking around. In that way it's kind of like a deviantart for game masters.

The D&D 4e rust monster is a bag of stupid

written by d7, on Jun 4, 2009 12:16:04 PM.

People have said that 4e is no different than previous editions in preserving verisimilitude. I beg to differ.

Edit to add: The comments there are a microcosm of the edition wars. What I don't get is the people who say, "If you don't like 4e, don't write about it!" Has criticism suddenly become the sole province of the loyal fans? That doesn't make any sense at all. Should Roger Ebert only review movies that he likes?

Scripting for the fiction in Burning Wheel

written by d7, on Jun 1, 2009 2:26:48 PM.

One of my readers (hi Chad!) submitted a link to my first BW AP report to reddit, which I only discovered when I saw it in the list of referrers for the article. I love these little discoveries. I've seen links to The Seven-Sided Die coming from places I never knew existed, which is admittedly gratifying, but more importantly it introduces me to blogs and sites that are obviously talking about things I already find interesting.

Reddit has a discussion feature for each link. One of the reddit commentors on that link said, essentially, that they love what they've read in Burning Wheel but they're frustrated by how artificial the scripting seems. I shared a bit about my first successful use of scripting in the Duel of Wits, then realised that I'd glossed over it in the AP report. I want to elaborate on the comment I left over there to fill in the bits I skipped in the AP report.

But first, I need to lay some groundwork.

Fiction first

Burning Wheel appears to be a very rules-heavy game, but it feels oddly lighter to me during play than it looks. I'd almost call it a "medium rules" game because the rules handling doesn't feel cumbersome. What makes the difference is that all of BW rules exist to make your fiction really "pop". Luke Crane seems to have tried very hard to make sure that the rules can always support your fiction before demanding mechanical attention.[1. Importantly, the mechanics also make sure to feed back into your fiction in interesting ways, so they "pay back with interest" to your fiction for the control you give them, but that's aside of the point I want to make.] You decide what's happening, use the mechanics to resolve the question, and then let them fade back into the background.

Putting the fiction first is critical to making scripting worthwhile in Burning Wheel. The mechanics are involved and interesting enough that you can just keep manipulating them as an abstraction of conflicts and uncertainties, but this makes for a flat play experience.[1. Abstractly handling the mechanics also makes it very hard to come up with ways to make failure interesting, since that depends so much on being "plugged in" to the fiction.] We did this at times in our second session, which is why parts felt like bookkeeping. Using the mechanics in that way divorces them from their raison d'être, which is to breathe life into the fiction. If there is no or little fiction to hook an invocation of a rule into, it doesn't have anything to make "pop."

To make BW rules sing, particularly the more complex ones like scripting, the mechanics must be consulted only when the fiction demands it.

Fiction in scripts

How can I claim that a rule should only be used when the fiction demands it? Once you've started writing scripts and gotten into one of the three detailed tactical subsystems of Burning Wheel, you've got to use the rules, right?

Yes, but they're still going to be flat. Using any of the scripted subsystems—Duel of Wits for social conflicts, Fight! for combat, or Range and Cover for field manoeuvers and sniping—can seem like a lot of time and work for not much gain. One roll follows the last, until you find yourself at the end asking yourself, "What was the point of that?"

To put fiction first, and to really give the mechanics something to work with, you have to anticipate the rules' needs. You have to feed the beast! Every test in Burning Wheel requires an Intent in order to know what the test is really about, and the tests in scripts are no different. You know that each volley of a script[1. For the uninitiated, a script is broken down into an exchange of three volleys. You secretly write out what your actions will be during all three volleys, then reveal them one at a time so you can compare them and determine the results by rolling. e.g., a Strike against a Feint will be very different than against an Avoid; a Point versus a Rebuttal is going to be different than against a Dismiss.] is going to happen before it does, so generate some appropriate fiction before you have to deal with the mechanic.

If you don't want to generate a lot of close, detailed, move-by-move fiction for a scene, then you don't really want the level of detail that scripting brings to the table. In those cases, set a clear Intent for the entire conflict and use a simple, versus, or Bloody Versus test instead. Save the scripted subsystems for when you really want to play a knock-down, drag-out conflict to the hilt.[1. The climactic confrontation with the King at court is a good use of Duel of Wits. Convincing the guards to open the town gates after curfew so you can sleep safely after a day of travel probably isn't.]


In no part of the rules is this more important than Duels of Wits. You might decide that scripting Point-Rebuttal-Point is the soundest tactic against what you expect your opponent to script, but it's going to stall out badly as soon as you reveal the first volley and don't have a plan for what point you're going to make.

In our first session of Burning Wheel we finished up with a Duel of Wits (DoW) between Basilio and Archdean Rimedio. We really enjoyed it and were impressed with how well the DoW mechanics worked for us. When we set up for it, I made it clear that for every volley scripted, we should have an idea of what the general thrust of our chosen debate actions was going to be when we roleplayed it. Each action represents no more than a sentence or two of argument, so that wasn't too much work to expect on top of the scripting itself.

Our statements of case were:

  • Basilio: "Carmino is practicing demonology and must be investigated right this minute."
  • Rimedio: "That’s a far-fetched charge, and I am far too busy. You will drop this and not bother me about it again."

(Since it was our first time using the rules we failed to separate the Cases for which we were arguing from our Terms in case of success, but they served us well enough.)

This very much coloured how we prosecuted our cases. We scripted tactically, but more importantly we scripted to suit the things we wanted to say—the actual, spoken points, rebuttals, avoidance tactics, and dismissals that we planned to roleplay before each roll.

Fimmtiu scripted Points, Rebuttals, one Obfuscate, and saved his Dimiss for after he'd clinched the argument. He was aiming for convincing the Archdean that he was right, and chose aggressive debate actions to suit the "on the offense" argument he was trying to make. Rimedio didn't really want to be having this discussion, and to that end I leaned defensive with enough offense to try to shoot down and turn aside Basilio's argument. Hence, I scripted Points, Rebuttals, two Avoids, and an early Dismiss that proved fatal.

Both of us knew while we were choosing actions that we were going to have to speak a coherent argument that would fit the actions, in order, that we had chosen. At one point (the second exchange), I actually found myself without a plan and looking to what I wanted to script for inspiration on what kind of tack Rimedio's argument might take next. This was really interesting because what I eventually came up with to say, though inspired by the mechanical tactical choices I wanted to make, demanded that I choose slightly different actions in order for them to fit the roleplay I was going to do.

Brass tacks

A couple of examples are in order. I'm not going to go over the scripts volley by volley, but in consulting my notes I can see that there are a few volleys that are excellent examples of using a fiction-first approach and making the fiction and mechanics dovetail. Both of these examples are from the first exchange.

I anticipated Basilio making a point right away, and I wanted to pursue Rimedio's argument that this is beneath his notice. To that end I chose a Rebuttal, which was putting tactics first. However, to give the Rebuttal mechanics meaning I needed to have something to say before the roll. I was careful to come up with something that would be a statement that would refute the Point I was anticipating from Basilio, since that is the, er, point of scripting a Rebuttal. I decide that I would say, "Carmino is respected; he wouldn't risk his reputation." Although I chose a mechanic first, I made sure that I put some fiction in place before executing that mechanic, and I made sure that the mechanic would back up the fiction.

In a later volley (but in the same exchange), Fimmtiu scripted a Feint. I can't speak to his decision process here, but it's a good example of a debate action that really needs a meaningful bit of roleplaying beforehand to make it work. Feints are designed to mislead a Rebutting opponent into countering a dummy point that sets them up to be more vulnerable to the real point. In his debate notes he had prepared to say, "But surely you admit that these charges are serious enough to merit investigation," which is the misleading argument, followed by, "So why not? He never has to know," which is the real point Basilio wanted to score.

The spoken roleplay gave the Feint meaning and consequence: not only was he arguing for Carmino to be investigated, but that the Archdean could avoid jeopardising Carmino's reputation by just being discreet in case Basilio was wrong. A different dummy point and real point would have given the argument a different impact on later fiction, regardless of the basic mechanical win-or-lose outcome.[1. As it so happens, I scripted an Avoid for Rimedio, against which a Feint has no teeth. Rimedio just ignored the bait of the dummy point and tried to beg off on account of "I don't have time for this nonsense and I really don't want to keep my breakfast guest waiting." C'est la vie, but it's still a good example of choosing the mechanics for the sake of the fiction.]

Hypothetically, Basilio could have used Incite for mechanical advantage, and yet at no point did he go in that direction because of the fiction that would give that action meaning. Basilio had a Belief that required getting the Archdean to investigate Carmino. Insulting him might have won him the argument and furthered that Belief, but would have certainly negatively impacted his other Belief that involved earning the respect of his peers and superiors by making his Engine work. The fiction that justifies using a mechanic has consequences.

But why?

If this seems like an awful lot of work, that's because it is. So why do it? Ultimately, it's a matter of taste. I really like what comes out of using Burning Wheel like this, and I find the times where I forget (because it does take mindful effort) to be far less enjoyable.

My reading of the Burning Wheel also makes me believe strongly that it was written with the primacy of the fiction as a basic assumption. The core conceit of the system is that the mechanics exist to resolve Fiction That Matters; otherwise, it instructs you to skip the mechanics and continue on with your mechanic-free play.

Simply, the rules are made to be used this way, and anyone who has had their curiosity piqued by what the Burning Wheel promises owes it to themself to try playing it this way, at least once.