Posts Tagged “role-playing games”
Nov 23, 2019
Some weeks ago I had a very good discussion stemming from a question I asked on the Mastodon instance tabletop.social: “Can anyone give examples of traditional RPGs that aren’t about adventure and/or investigation?”. I had that question in mind because I wanted to test a theory I had, which I will expand on in this post.
Traditional tabletop RPGs are, in general, about adventure and/or investigation, and thus severely limited as a storytelling medium. In contrast, GM-less games make it much, much easier to explore different kinds of stories.
Not to say other kinds of stories aren’t possible in traditional games, but these games make it explicitly harder to tell these other stories and in practice almost no one does.
What are “traditional games”?
For the sake of this discussion, “traditional games” means games that have a narrator and that focus on solving the “simulation” part of the game, as opposed to the story itself. The latter is typically done by defining characters in terms of a set of skills and/or characteristics.
Also note that many games don’t fit into either of these categories: FATE, Powered by the Apocalypse games, Forged in the Dark games, Dread, etc. In those you get a mixed bag, even inside a given category, e.g. I’d argue that Blades in the Dark is very much about adventures, but Quietus (another Forged in the Dark game) is about melancholy horror, which focuses on the character backstories and feelings.
I can think of three arguments to support the thesis above:
- Statistics: most traditional games are about some kind of adventure and/or investigation. When I asked, there were very, very few games in the replies that I considered exceptions, and we were actively looking for them! Some of the suggestions were adventures, just not violent. This cannot be a coincidence.
- The focus on the simulation encourages framing the story as a set of challenges, mostly of a nature that can be seen from the outside (physical or knowledge), as opposed to internal character struggles.
- The strong biases against metagaming, for keeping secrets, and for having relatively large number of players nudge the game and the story towards discovery of some kind (adventure or investigation) because there’s this dynamic in which the narrator “knows” the world and the answers, and the players are trying to uncover that world.
I believe that the last two create a strong bias towards adventure and/or investigation in the same way that videogames have a bias towards violence).
What is “adventure”?
Intuitively, I mean any story that would belong into the “adventure” genre in a film or a novel. But specifically, I’d like to point out that stories that aren’t about adventures are not stories without adversity. They are not boring stories about trivial tasks we do everyday. Most novels, and probably most films, are not really about adventure, and they do have adversity, and they are not about trivial things!
Examples of GM-less games
Now, the argument might be difficult to understand without a list of games with non-adventure themes, so here is a list of GM-less games I find interesting thematically and that show a bit better the diversity of stories (1) we can tell with storytelling games, and (2) are typically not covered by traditional RPGs:
- Ribbon Drive: self-discovery and learning to live in the present.
- Dialect: how an isolated community breaks down and gets swallowed into another, bigger community; the isolated community is defined through the language they used.
- Fiasco: ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control; think the typical Coen Brothers comedy.
- Breaking the Ice: how two people get to know each other, start dating, and maybe stay a couple.
- The Skeletons: undead soldiers slowly discovering who they were, but forced to protect a tomb for centuries.
- The poison of suspicion (free! written by me): forgiveness and what makes life worth living, told through the eyes of a person dying, and the person who poisons them.
- The 5 whys (free! written by me): how disasters sometimes are a chain of coincidences and/or small mistakes.
It doesn’t have to be important for you, and that’s ok! I just think of story games as a medium to tell stories, and it saddens me that a medium with so much potential is used so little. There are so many stories that are worth telling, why limit ourselves to “group of people going on adventures” and “group of people unraveling a mystery”?
Now, I know that many people play these games to disconnect from reality and they only want them to be fun. That’s fine! I’m just talking from the point of view of considering these games a storytelling medium.
One of my pet peeves is the apparent insistence by some people to consider traditional RPGs as storytelling games, but then resisting the idea that we should expect these games to actively help you in shaping a story. If a game just solves some “world simulation”, and expects you to do all the storytelling work… how is that a “storytelling game”? The game itself (ie. the rules) is not helping you create a story!
Thanks for reading so far. If you’re interested in this topic you might want to read a series of articles called D&D: Chasing the Dragon exploring a very similar topic.
Sep 14, 2019
Recently a friend mentioned that there’s an official RPG guide for some TV show. He was asking for suggestions for an alternative system to play in that world because he didn’t like the suggested system (Cypher). Mostly jokingly, I “strongly” suggested he created a custom GM-less story game for it.
Although I wasn’t really serious, that made me think about why that was genuinely my first reaction. It also made me think about what exactly I like about my idea of “story games”, and what I dislike about more traditional systems like Cypher. This post is a way to try to order my ideas, and give my friend a better response than Twitter could ever deliver.
First of all, you have to take into account that I care about the story part of role-playing games, and not very much at all about the game part. Second, I don’t really have a stable group, and I strongly prefer one-shots to any sort of campaign: I’m usually more interested in a focused story than in following what happens to a cast of characters over time.
System does matter
Ron Edwards, of (among others) Sorcerer fame, said that “System Does Matter”. Although Ron Edwards doesn’t get into that, the fact that the rules aren’t neutral implies that they make a difference in how the game feels, the kind of things you tend to do, the parts you tend to focus on, and which kinds of stories you tend to tell with it. For example: no matter how traditional it is, Call of Cthulhu would feel very different to play if it didn’t have a sanity rating. Fewer characters would run away from the monsters, and the stereotype of the game would be “fighting Lovecraftian monsters” instead of “going insane or dying”.
At a higher level, one could say that traditional systems that focus on skills and the minutae of simulating every small action encourage stories about challenges (eg. D&D, Call of Cthulhu, OSR games), whereas systems that think in terms of drama and scenes encourage stories following whichever flavour or genre the system is designed for (eg. Dread generates horror stories with mounting tension; Night Witches generates stories about constant stress, death, and the grind of war). And yes, I realise there are many games that are somewhere in between or have elements of both!
“But you can tell stories with any game!”
That is correct! However, if the system doesn’t help you at all, and in fact encourages you and your players to focus on other things, why use it to tell stories? Also, one could argue that if the rules don’t support the drama/storytelling, then that’s not a very good medium to tell stories. And note that I’m specifically not arguing that it makes it a bad game, just that it’s not very helpful for the storytelling part of it. For a (much) longer discussion about this point, read the excellent D&D: Chasing the Dragon (but make sure you read the whole thing, as the ending puts some things in context; I found myself agreeing with a lot more after reading the last part).
Another thing I like about many narrative games is that they don’t need a “scenario” decided beforehand to play: in many of these games, you generate the story collaboratively, as you play. So in many cases the system doesn’t only help you keep the drama in focus, but even generate the story itself!
“But I don’t need help telling a story”
It could very well be, but you’re doing more work than you could be doing if you had a system that supported the style of story you want to tell. Also, I have the impression that lots of people who think that, tend to tell stories about some kind of “adventure” a group of people have… and there are so many other exciting stories to tell!
“But they’re limited!”
This is a critique I have read several times: that narrative games, because they are focused in one genre/mood, are “limited” because you cannot tell any kind of story with a given game. I don’t understand why that would be a bad thing: if you care about the story, usually a narrative game for that specific mood or genre will work better than doing the narrative heavy-lifting yourself. So why wouldn’t you use a narrative game adapted to the kind of mood you want to play? It feels to me like complaining that you cannot tell an action story with the principles of horror films. Of course you can’t! The point is to use whichever principles work for the genre and mood you want for your story, instead of you trying to find some principles that work for every genre, or you doing all the heavy lifting. Besides, indie narrative games are usually very simple and easy to learn right before playing, so they don’t really need nearly as much investment as most traditional games.
The idea of using a single system for any story you want to tell seems a bit ridiculous to me. But if you insist, you can have something very close to that by playing PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) games, ie. games based on the excellent Apocalypse World. It’s still a game for every mood or genre you want to play, but the games have very similar principles and mechanics, so they’re trivial to pick up if you know other PbtA games.
Apr 14, 2019
On March 25th a Norwegian game jam for role-playing games started. It’s called R.I.S.K. (Rollespill.infos Intensive Spillskaper-Konkurranse) and it has been going on for several years now. The idea is that you have two weeks to design a role-playing game and make a decent PDF out of it. At the beginning of the jam they give you five words, and you have to use at least one of them in your game. This is to avoid that you start designing the game beforehand. I thought it could be a nice challenge, so I went for it.
The five words
The five words for this year’s jam were:
- Feiring (celebration)
- Hemmelighet (secret)
- Søke (to search)
- Vår (spring, as in the season, or our)
- Gift (poison, or married)
The one that caught my attention was the last (interpreted as “poison”), but I also used “secret”. The end result was “Mistankens gift” (“The poison of suspicion”), a game about life and forgiveness.
Concept of the game
The game has two main characters: a person who has been poisoned and is probably going to die, and the person who poisoned the first. It’s a game for two players, and each player will take the role of one of these two characters. The game is a succession of scenes, alternating between the poisoner and the victim. The victim’s scenes are meant to illustrate what made the victim’s life worth living, while the poisoner’s scenes are meant to illustrate negative sides of the victim the poisoner uses to justify what they did. The character sheet has questions that can be used as inspiration to come up with the scenes (things like “What did the victim always put before other people?” for the poisoner, and things like “Who would be heartbroken if you died?” for the victim).
I started writing notes with ideas for mechanics and game concept from the beginning of the jam, and soon I came up with some mechanics I liked (I think maybe Wednesday or Thursday?):
- Each player has two sets of dice. The first set is called scene dice, and the other opposition dice. Each set of dice has a 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, and 1d10.
- Before each scene, the player who is about to narrate it (the active player) will announce what the scene is going to be about. Then the active player chooses a dice from the scene dice, and the other player one from the opposition dice. If the active player rolls the same or higher, the scene will go as planned (highlighting the good sides of the victim, if the active player plays the victim, or highlighting the bad sides of the victim, otherwise) and the active player wins as many points as their own die showed. If the other player rolls higher, the scene will have to have some contrast or shadow of doubt, and the active player doesn’t earn any points.
- At the end of the game both players compare their points to a number between 10 and 15 called fate number, chosen by the poisoner player at the beginning and kept secret throughout the game. If the victim reached the number, the victim will survive. If the poisoner reached the number, the poisoner will be forgiven, either by themselves, or by the victim. Once the fate of both is known, both players agree on an epilogue.
The idea was to create some tension between the goals of the two players. Also, I really like the two layers of contrasts or conflicting points of view in the game:
- Both players are essentially presenting the same character (the victim) in very different lights.
- When they “lose” a scene, the players have to add a conflicting point of view of idea into the scene: poisoners will admit or realise that the victim wasn’t as evil or deserving of death than they wanted to believe, or victims will realise that their lives weren’t as good and positive as they wanted to believe.
The final PDF
To write the rules themselves I used LibreOffice, and to design the character sheet I used Inkscape. I put everything together using pdftk, and used illustrations from the British Library Flickr account, and I’m fairly happy with the final result.
I’m really happy that I participated, regardless of the outcome. I have played the game a couple of times (to playtest it) and I thought it was pretty enjoyable! The feel is fairly close to how I imagined it would be. I have several ideas about how it could be improved, but I’m not sure I’ll have the focus to do so. Time will tell. In any case, it’s perfectly playable as it is, and I thought it was fun both to design it and to play it.
If you want to try it out, you can download the game from its homepage. You need a second player, a printout of the character sheet (also available as the last page in the rules themselves), at least one die of each type (4-, 6-, 8-, and 10-sided dice), and something to write with. It takes about one hour to play so it’s not a big time investment.
Edit: If you’re interested in seeing the initial design notes, including all the ideas that didn’t make it into the game, and the false starts, you can have a look at them: page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4.
Aug 13, 2018
If you have been following this blog for a long time, you might know that I’m a big fan of the suffragettes, the English radical suffragists led by Emmeline Pankhurst. I’m also obsessed with role-playing games, stories in general, and I like designing and making. You don’t have to be a genius to guess that I have made a story game about the suffragettes! It’s the first game I ever make.
The game is called Deeds, not Words, after their motto, and it’s a simple game for three players. It doesn’t need a narrator or Game Master, and it needs no preparation. It should last for 2-3 hours.
The idea behind it is to create three characters (three suffragettes) and come up with scenes of their daily life, or their work as activists for the women’s suffrage. The story is divided into 12 chapters in which the characters train and become better at different things, bond with each other, and fight against their opponents: the police, unjust laws, organisations that oppose the women’s suffrage, etc.
The game focuses on balance (the fight for women’s suffrage consisted of physical confrontations, stunts to outsmart the police with diversions and disguises, and effective communication; all this is reflected in the game) and collaboration. The mechanics should probably work well with any kind of activist group, but my version focuses on the suffragettes.
You can download Deeds, not Words from my story game website Hardcore Narrativist. And if you need any inspiration or want to learn more about the suffragettes, I recommend the excellent, freely available documentary No Man Shall Protect Us.
Oct 5, 2017
Inspired by similar articles I have read, I decided to give my two cents on writing scenarios for role-playing games. While I’m far from being an expert in the matter, let alone a half-decent writer, I have written several scenarios that seem to have clicked with some people. These are my principles when writing story-centric scenarios (beware spoilers of most of my scenarios, don’t read if you intend to play them!):
Remember the story is not linear: don’t write as if you were writing a short story. In a way, writing a scenario is writing down your (obsessively detailed) research for a short story. Focus on the mood, possible scenes, characters, general plot, and clues, and improvise the story from there. Example: Gone Girls has a list of characters and possible scenes and locations, but no order is implied, or even that all scenes will happen. Characters are described with their goals and knowledge, and several possible endings are described for reference.
Have a theme/topic for the story: something like family, prejudices, the cost of freedom, or loyalty. A story theme will help you focus while writing, and it will give the scenario a certain consistency. It will also give you ideas for possible scenes or for plot elements, when used literally or metaphorically. And don’t worry if you think the players won’t catch the metaphors: they still give the scenario a certain feel and focus. Example: Suffragettes is about class warfare from a feminist point of view. One of the metaphors is that the protagonists are fighting the patriarchy. And thus, the antagonists are middle- to high-class people who worship a deity they call “Father”, based on Father Dagon.
Know the important NPCs well enough: you should know how your NPCs (non-player characters; anyone who isn’t the protagonists) will react to different situations. It helps to write down a couple of likely situations. Example: Suffragettes (page 5) has a relatively in-depth description of what Florence knows and how she will react in different situations.
Make/get maps of the most important locations: they are handy for consistency, especially if it’s possible there will be an action scene in them. Example: The Cultists has a full map of the prison, even if the players are very unlikely to see it all.
Make a timeline of events: if there are certain things that will happen regardless of what the characters do, make a timeline. Example: Gone Girls has a timeline of events both leading to the beginning of the story, and happening as the story develops.
Treat the scenario as resources and ideas when improvising: in the end, you will have to make up a bunch of the stuff on the spot, and also it’s satisfying to change or make up new elements to adapt the story to whatever the players found interesting, or to incorporate ideas the players give you as the story develops. Example: once, when telling Gone Girls, the idea of making Edward Clarke invincible came up, along with the idea of making him being able to manipulate opponents to the extent of making them kill themselves. This was never part of the original story but made sense that one time and made the ending more dramatic.
Show, don’t tell! Instead of telling the players about certain important things (eg. some character is a racist, some character is lazy, a room is a mess), setup a situation to make that point. Not only is more memorable, but it gives nuance and extra information. Saying “Tom is lazy” is generic and vague, but seeing how Tom still has boxes from when he moved in, a mess of cables all over the floor, and a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, says just how lazy he is, and in which situations. Example: in Suffragettes (page 9), Elise Samson is not simply described as “poor” or “homeless”. Instead, there’s a short sequence in which this is explained through a situation.
And that’s it! I hope you find this list useful. As a bonus tip, if you are writing horror (interactive or not) I recommend you read my summary of the book “Writing Monsters”, and maybe read the actual book, too.
Jun 27, 2017
Finally Arcon is over and I can publish my latest scenario. Luckily, it was one of the three winners (second place) and I bought Fiasco companion with my gift card. It had nine players, which we split into three groups that played simultaneously thanks to the help of two extra narrators.
The scenario is called “The Cultists” and it’s a Lovecraftian horror story about a group of Christians that know each other from church, and are captured by a group of cultists. They are put in what seems to be an abandoned jail, together with 20 or so more prisoners. The protagonists have no idea why they are kept there, or what the cultists want or intend to do. As days pass, more and more gruesome things happen to the prisoners. The main themes of the scenario are truth, and whether it’s useful to be right if you live with people who are wrong and cannot be convinced otherwise. It’s written for Call of Cthulhu but it almost doesn’t depend on any rules so you can play it with whatever system you like. As most of my material, it’s written for adult players.
This scenario completes what I jokingly refer to as the “SJW trilogy”, a collection of three horror scenarios related to social issues: “Gone Girls” (about racism and prejudices), “Suffragettes” (about class warfare, esp. in the context of feminism) and “The Cultists” (about having “crazy” people in power). As always, you have them available in the scenario section of my RPG resources page.
Edit: update links to point to HardcoreNarrativist.org.
Jun 7, 2017
It hasn’t quite been one year since I wrote the first post on Elm, but it’s not that far off and the title was clearer that way. In this time I have written three programs in Elm, each one more complex than the last:
NARROWS, a storytelling system halfway between online role-playing games and improvised Choose Your Own Adventure books.
What I like about Elm
It’s a simple language with few concepts, easy to learn and understand. After my initial (small) struggles, I have mostly loved it since.
The Elm Architecture is really nice and simple, and it’s nice that it’s integrated into the environment. It’s like having a framework for free with the language.
Everything immutable: the easy way is the right way.
Nice, clear, useful compiler error messages.
Generally nice toolchain.
Static types help you a lot, mostly without being annoying.
Newer major versions of the language simplify things further and make things clearer and less error prone (I’ve been through two major updates).
What I don’t like about Elm
The compiler seems slow and often seems to compile older versions of the code. This might be my own fault, as I have a custom Brunch configuration with an Elm plugin and I don’t even understand Brunch all that well. In comparison, the TypeScript compiler was amazing.
Newer major versions of the language break compatibility and you have to rewrite parts of your application, which is really annoying… but also worth it.
I’m not that fond of currying. Sometimes I feel like it makes some compilation error messages harder to understand.
I’m really happy I gave Elm a try almost a year ago. Although I’m looking forward to going back to ClojureScript for some project, I really, really enjoy Elm, and it has almost become my defacto front-end language/framework.
Jul 3, 2016
I finally had time to take all my notes for the last scenario I wrote and format them properly in a nice PDF so people can read it and enjoy it.
It’s a horror scenario set in 1914 London, where the protagonists are suffragettes (the radical branch of the suffragist movement). The themes are oppression, feminism and class warfare, but you can play as a random horror/investigation scenario without caring about the underlying themes. In any case, this scenario is for adults, so please don’t play it with younger players without first reworking and adapting it.
I have added a list of resources at the end of the text. It’s obviously not everything I read or took ideas from when I wrote it, but it’s a pretty good starting point that will help narrators retell this story with more context and depth.
Jun 20, 2016
Around two months ago I started a new pet project. As always, I built it partly to solve a problem, and partly to learn some new language or technology. The problem I wanted to solve was showing images and maps to players when playing table-top role-playing games (and, while at it, manage my music from the same place). The language and technology were TypeScript and to a lesser extent ES2015. As always, I learned some things I didn’t quite expect or plan, like HTML drag-and-drop, Riot, a bit more Flexbox, and some more canvas image processing. The result is the first public version of Lyre, my program to help storytellers integrate music and images into their stories (especially useful for semi-improvised or interactive stories).
But the reason for this post is to talk a little bit about the technology. I admit that I haven’t really studied TypeScript thoroughly (I mostly learned bits and pieces while programming), but I think I like it to the point that it might become my front-end language of choice when I cannot use ClojureScript or similar.
Apart from enums, you can create union types that eg. are as simple as a choice between two strings, like type Mode = “off” “on”.
- Interfaces can be used to specify the properties, not just methods, that should be available in an object. Among other things, it’s possible to specify that an object should have certain specified properties plus any number of extra properties as long as their values are of a given type.
For actual editing I’m of course using Emacs, in this case with TIDE. Although the refactoring capabilities are very limited, the rest worked quite well and I’m very happy with it.
The other bigger thing I learned was Riot. Which, sadly, I didn’t like as much: I found it very confusing at times (what does this point to in the templates? it seems to depend on the nesting level of the ifs or loops), ended up with lots of rebinding of methods so they could be safely passed around in templates, and generally felt that I spent too much time fighting with it rather than writing my application. Now, some of these problems might have been caused by Riot-TS and not Riot itself, but still the experience wasn’t that great and I don’t expect to use it again in the future. Again, bear in mind that I mostly tried to learn on the go, so maybe I was doing everything wrong :-)
In conclusion, I love these projects because I end up with something useful and because I always learn a bunch of things. In this case in particular, I even learned a language that positively surprised me, even if I’m not a big fan of static typing. Again, if you want to have a look at the result, you can learn about Lyre and download the code from GitHub.
Aug 3, 2014
In the last couple of months I have become obsessed with role-playing games again. I used to play a lot in my teens and some in my early twenties, and then completely stopped until around one year ago. Some months ago I decided to be the narrator (as opposed to regular player) and the obsession kicked back in grin. The game I chose was Call of Cthulhu, partly because I was familiar with the setting (stories written by H.P. Lovecraft set in the 1920s) and with the rules, and partly because I think it’s a very flexible game, as in you can centre the games on combat, on investigation, or, my favourite, on emotional tension and social interaction between characters.
In any case, all this Call of Cthulhu, the 1920s and such sparked my imagination and served as a pretty good inspiration to draw characters, different expressions and poses, clothes, hairstyles, etc. As you may know I’m still trying to learn how to “draw properly”, meaning something better than stick figures, so I need the inspiration and the practice. I’ve been drawing a lot lately and finally I decided to make a website with my drawings so that I can see how I improve over time. Some of my favourite drawings follow, but you can see all of them in the new http://drawings.hcoder.org.
And finally, if you’re interested in trying out role-playing games and Call of Cthulhu in particular, Chaosium has published a quick-start guide for the upcoming 7th edition of the game that you can download for free from their website!