RPG theory

Design considerations for Role-Playing games from the upcoming Beyond RPG published by Mach One Games.

Design considerations for Role-Playing games from the upcoming Beyond RPG published by Mach One Games.


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Beyond<br />



The Role-Playing Game<br />

MachOneGames| Appendix 1: The <strong>theory</strong> of Role Playing Games 303

Nailed to the Church Door: Game Design Mandate<br />

Dear Gamer, Nov. 25 th , 2002<br />

Role-playing games have been around for many years, and the market is flooded with various systems and products. Therefore, it seems<br />

strange that someone with any sense would launch into creating another set of rules. It is not strange; it is necessary. The proliferation of<br />

gaming systems indicates a need – a deficiency with what is there. Although there are many games on the market, none of them truly satisfy.<br />

There is something magical and wonderful in the ideas of all these games, but in execution they begin to disappoint.<br />

I do not intend of inventing a new game, but refining what is already out there. The compiled works of thousands of creative, imaginative<br />

people show both promise and problem. What you find within these pages is an elegant solution to these problems, and a method of cleanly,<br />

seamlessly incorporating the myriad of wonderful ideas into the core system.<br />

Fantasy game designers seem to choose between vital elements of the game: playability, expandability, balance, and realism. They sacrifice<br />

storytelling elements in the name of simplicity, create artificial statistics that measure nonsensical notions, and use complicated charts to<br />

measure minute advantages while allowing the most egregious abuses both of fantasy and reality.<br />

Role-Playing games can play like a book<br />

– but, please, let’s make it a good book.<br />

The systems that have been published fail to achieve for a number of reasons, but mostly because they try to do too much. I am publishing<br />

sourcebooks with my ideas of wonderful creatures and fantastic realms, and I hope they add to the already vast and marvelous array of work<br />

out there. However, my predecessors have written their wonderful ideas into their games at the beginning, warping and bending the<br />

framework of their systems beyond usable adaptation. Before you think I missed the eighties and the “Universal” games that were popular on<br />

the market at that time, let describe my game designers mandate and my attempt to respond to it.<br />

The function of a fantasy role-playing game is to provide a medium of controlled interaction between players, characters, and an imaginary<br />

game world. This game should make it easy for players to act as they desire, and facilitate the imaginations of everyone without becoming<br />

false. It necessarily follows that a game of this description must be easy to use, so as not to interfere with the play or break the player’s<br />

willing suspension of disbelief. From this mandate it is clear that the ideal game system provides a framework for adventure and imagination,<br />

but never becomes the game. The best system can hope to disappear. Players should never feel confined within the rules. Neither should<br />

they feel that they can bend the false reality to their whims. In both scenarios the world becomes artificial. A good fantasy world is<br />

imaginary, un-real, often mystical, but never artificial.<br />

In order to maintain belief and encourage imagination, a game should provide a<br />

method of evaluating and understanding your character. When called upon, the game system should give you a method of plausibly<br />

returning random results. That’s it. The gamers do the rest.<br />

In these pages you will find a game of Epic storytelling and monumental battles. You will be able to create a rich character with as much<br />

detail as you desire. When you learn how to play, which won’t take long, you will be in complete control of every aspect of the game. The<br />

level of detail, the method of resolving actions, and even the flow of time, will be at your command to enhance your gaming experience. The<br />

game that follows is my response to my own letter “nailed to the church door.” I encourage others to do the same. Good gaming,<br />

Richard Mayo<br />

304 Appendix 1: The <strong>theory</strong> of Role Playing Games | MachOneGames

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The role of the dice<br />

May 2018<br />

In many cases a perfunctory toss of some dice is given no consideration by players and game designers alike. However, the dice resolution<br />

mechanic is the underpinning of the entire endeavor of a role-playing game it cannot be brushed aside as trivial. Every rule mechanism rests<br />

on the consequence and accuracy of what the dice roll symbolizes. The dice represent the structure of reality in meaningful ways.<br />

When we are asking a player to roll a dice we are asking a question, and using the dice to return an answer. I have seen many role-playing<br />

systems where the question is not clear and the answer even less so. In these games the dice roll represents many things at once. The<br />

gamers who devised these systems, and trust me they are gamers in every sense of the word, are excited by a “clever” dice mechanic that<br />

seems fun. They enjoy interacting with the dice more than the imagining what the die roll means.<br />

In this role-playing game the action roll asks a question…”how well does your character perform this action?” The player rolls dice and adds<br />

two of them together to answer the question. As they get better scores, they can roll dice with more sides. They roll dice with one less side<br />

than the score so that the results of the rolls cluster around the character’s score in that endeavor. We start with a peaked distribution of<br />

results, and drift towards a shifted bell curve once we add a 3dx, take the best/worst two mechanic. This is my first point. The distribution of<br />

results is not linear. The game is structured to answer the question “how well do you perform this task” by returning a plausible set of results.<br />

The world’s most popular role-playing game uses a simple mechanism also. A d20 is rolled and a set of modifiers are added. This gives us a<br />

list of results where every outcome has a 5% chance. As a natural “20” is a universal critical success (except on skill checks) and a “1” is a<br />

universal failure, these two results remain fixed regardless of how the table of results is shifted by the bonuses. At the table a natural “20” is<br />

highly celebrated and generates lots of fun. In the fifth edition, the designers did two excellent things: they recognized that the shifts from<br />

the bonuses were too large in previous editions and constrained them so that the mechanism didn’t break down too soon, and they<br />

introduced a roll two, take one mechanic. I wonder if I had any part in this, as I had been espousing the roll three – take two mechanism on<br />

the internet for decades. The roll two take one mechanism has some odd flaws when it comes to probabilities making the natural “20” or<br />

natural “1” the most common result. Distribution curves bulge in the middles; they aren’t slopes that favor the extremes.<br />

So, why does any of that matter? If it warps reality it warps the story. In a world where something extreme happens 5% of the time,<br />

regardless of ability or talent; the common man is induced to attempt things that are not plausible. The GM is now forced to constrain<br />

absurdity so that Gary Kasparov is not beaten by Doug in a game of chess. You might want to point out that reality is not fantasy. There is a<br />

difference between a plausible fantasy and an implausible fantasy. Implausible fantasy is not consistent within its own framework. Absurdity<br />

can be fun; Monty Python is brilliant, but even that is not carelessly crafted. This core distinction seems to escape many. This game is not<br />

written for them. They will not understand the motivation behind the endeavor, but I do hope they can still enjoy some of the other<br />

mechanisms and elements I have created.<br />

So, my first criticism of a dice mechanic is that it must return a plausible set of results. Our most popular <strong>RPG</strong> doesn’t quite deliver on that<br />

point. However, it delivers the fun of the critical roll, and it does a good job in framing the question when it comes to what I would consider<br />

an action roll: attack rolls and skill checks. It frames these questions in a very similar way to ours: “how well does my character perform this<br />

task?” This creates a direct link between the toss of the dice and the internal story. They roll the dice and conjure an image in their mind of<br />

what happened. The narrative is missing the other side of the coin, however.<br />

Reality intrudes upon talent. Even monkeys fall out of trees. When a player rolls the dice and the result tells them how well their character<br />

has performed an action, like shooting a bow. This should be immutable. A specific die roll should mean one specific thing. However, hitting<br />

the target is sometimes dependent on more than just skill. After the arrow leaves the bow it can be acted upon by things out of a character’s<br />

control. The target can move in an unexpected way, the wind could gust or lull, another object may intervene. This can be modelled by<br />

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olling not only the action, but also the difficulty. Rather than accepting a static difficulty target, a randomized difficulty target represents the<br />

challenge of the situation. It allows for extreme results, while skewing towards plausibility and narrative consistency.<br />

When a character jumps onto a crate and the GM rolls a difficulty of ten, the player knows that the crate is slipping or breaking because the<br />

difficulty threshold is unusually high. They roll the dice to perform the task and can interpret the results immediately. This is the power of<br />

clarity. Rolling the dice on an action roll always means one thing: how well does the character perform the task. The threshold difficulty<br />

always means one thing… “what is the barrier to any level of success?” The difficulties can change to represent what is happening<br />

independent of the character. The separation of these concepts is essential to being able to build off the rolls in the other rules of the game.<br />

Imagine a standard dartboard. Excellent successes, like the treble-twenty, are adjacent to poor results like the “1”. The skill of the throw<br />

indicates how well grouped and clustered the throw is, but it is subject to the vagaries of the target – a shifting difficulty that imposes a<br />

randomization that can thwart the expert and elevate the novice. Over time the expert prevails, but the immediate odds are able to shift for<br />

inspection.<br />

This brings us to the next pillar of consideration: the inspection level. A single event has a wider swing of probabilities than a set of events. A<br />

game system must be able to recognize and assist the GM with these differences. Am I measuring an isolated event or a series of events?<br />

When measuring a series of events we need to roll more dice. In our system we can roll additional dice and count the best two. This gives us<br />

a shifted bell-curve of results that is consistent with an imagined reality.<br />

The less-popular role-playing games often invoke rules where players arrange or manipulate dice. This draws their attention away from the<br />

shared story and has them engaging with bits of plastic, wood, or metal and strategically thinking about artificial mechanisms. I am all for<br />

strategic thinking, but such thinking should exist in the shared world, not external to it in some concocted schema that has no relevance to<br />

the characters of the story and does not support the reality that is being imagined. No matter how clever these mechanisms are they are<br />

nothing but a distraction… a side game that takes focus on the action at the table. Soon the dice become the game.<br />

We have a second type of roll in our game: the effect roll. While it is mechanically similar to the action roll, it is asking a different<br />

question...”how much am I able to alter the world with my action?” All other role-playing games have effect rolls too. Damage is a roll that is<br />

ubiquitous.<br />

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Behind the GM’s screen: Preparing the world Part I<br />

September 2006<br />

www.Gamegrene.com<br />

"When I was young I had a passion for maps.<br />

At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth,<br />

and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map<br />

(but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say,<br />

'When I grow up I will go there.'"<br />

(Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness)<br />

A referee is used in a game to adjudicate the rules and manage the flow of the game by starting and stopping the action. Unlike any other<br />

kind of game, pen and paper <strong>RPG</strong>s (Role Playing Games) also rely on the referee – by whatever name you use – to control the mysteries of<br />

the environment. By extrapolation, many groups also relinquish the action of the game to the GM (GameMaster). This deference is assumed<br />

but not warranted. The purpose of the added power of the referee is so that the mystery of the game may be preserved, not because it is fun<br />

to set up one person as more important than the others. While the GM's screen has an essential part in any <strong>RPG</strong> it is also the single most<br />

abused rule in any game.<br />

The mysteries and secret rules are held behind a physical and metaphorical screen. What separates the <strong>RPG</strong> referee from his American Football<br />

counterpart is that the <strong>RPG</strong> referee has knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and is aware of rules that the players are not. The<br />

mysteries and secret rules are held behind a physical and metaphorical screen or curtain. In <strong>theory</strong> the GM will base decisions and rulings on<br />

what is created there. However, unless a new breed of GM emerges with the capability to distill a universe into a jar, there will always be gaps<br />

behind the screen that have to be creatively filled. These minor cracks do not detract from an adventure but can be used as an accidental<br />

blind hook that leads to more adventure and mystery.<br />

The fun of the game derives from the sense of discovery, the tension of conflict, the thrill of triumph, and the vicarious immersion into another<br />

personality. Only one of the four aspects above requires the presence of a screen, yet, in many games, the screen (metaphorically) is the<br />

dominant element.<br />

It is all too easy for the GM to hide behind the screen, make mistakes, and have huge flaws in logic and planning. Through the course of any<br />

sustained campaign the players will come to know whether there are indeed any good mysteries behind the screen. By revealing<br />

inconsistencies in the story and execution the players can effectively pull down the curtain between player and GM. In this series I am going to<br />

examine some of the reasons why a GM screen fails and some of the solutions to the problem.<br />

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," laments the Wizard of Oz as his fantasy world becomes unravelled. Much like a GM caught<br />

in the ruin of his own creation, the mechanisms of his magic and fantasy are revealed as gimmicks. Just like in the Wizard of Oz, this signals<br />

the end of the adventure. The Wizard's screen fell because he tried to use it to control others.<br />

Players do not derive enjoyment from being manipulated, teased, or abused any more than they appreciate being senselessly rewarded for<br />

their inaction. This manipulation does not need to be present to ruin a game – it needs only to be perceived.<br />

Let's go back to the Football metaphor and examine some uses of the GM's screen. Imagine that an <strong>RPG</strong> referee was given charge of an NFL<br />

game. On the second play of the game a player is tackled on the 10-yard line. The referee blows his whistle and calls out a 15 yard penalty for<br />

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landing in the "near-end-zone." At half time three other penalties have been assessed for unrelated incidents and the players are frustrated<br />

because they don't feel that they are in control of the outcome of the game. When they step on the field for the second half, the referee<br />

explains to the quarterback that he should throw more passing plays and make sure to do a lot of spinning. After dismembering the referee<br />

the players march off the field to the applause of the fans.<br />

Had the referee spent some prep time, things could have gone a lot better. Imagine the same rules, same mysteries, yet as the players arrived<br />

on the field they noticed that the area between the ten yard line and the end-zone had been painted with a skull and crossbones, and strange<br />

circles are painted in the centre of the field. Even without divulging the new rules, the players are apt to trust the referee because the<br />

preparation connotes consistency.<br />

Everything is a precursor.<br />

Since players cannot see the preparation it is important to give the players a glimpse of your preparation. A player will understand that, like an<br />

iceberg, 90% of your planning will be beneath the surface. That means if you give them nothing as preparation they will assume that you have<br />

done nothing. Give the players something for everything that you prepare. If you create a civilization, give them a clay pot. If you create a<br />

martial art, give them a sweaty glove. Use handouts, maps, recipe cards, or anything else you can think of.<br />

Simplify.<br />

Players will view the game not through the omniscient view, but through perspective. Things that are simple become complex as you add<br />

perspectives. Understand this and you will develop material that is comprehensible. This means that the "hidden rules" are fewer. Even in the<br />

best situation, too many hidden rules detract from the sense that the game will ultimately be decided by the players. Let the players control<br />

the action. Let them play the way they want to without using hidden rules to support your hidden agenda. The stories that you have written<br />

about during your preparation are not the stories that the players have come to act out. The players will respond to your stories with one of<br />

their own.<br />

Dismantle your Material.<br />

Few GM's will effectively dismantle their stories for the players. So often they are so impressed by their own story that they look for someone<br />

to tell it in its entirety, truthfully, and without omission. The story of the last war is going to be told by widows, wounded veterans, and nobles<br />

who profited by the conflict. Take some time to re-examine the story from their perspectives so that what is told is not the truth, but a<br />

consistent window for the actions of the players. Every aspect of your preparation needs to be done at least twice – once from the omniscient<br />

point of view, and once from the viewpoint of the vehicle of its delivery.<br />

Use blank hooks.<br />

<strong>RPG</strong>'s are a creative game and sometimes the players can be more imaginative than the GM. I love to drop blank clues to which I have<br />

absolutely no idea what their relevance is ... yet. A good blank hook piques the imaginations of the players and gets them going. For instance<br />

-- three people in the same town all have a similar scar on their right arm that they hide and won't talk about; Small figurines of animals are<br />

found in various locations; a Paladin character gets a strange sense of evil from a horseshoe but nothing else supports that conclusion. Those<br />

that resonate with them can be followed up on and lead to adventures. Players will begin to fill in the story for you and investigate in some<br />

odd places.<br />

Inaction is the enemy of the GM and a hook, even a blank one, can precipitate action. Make sure that not all your hooks are blank, and<br />

remember that you can tie the hook to the plot much later and make it seem like your pre-planning is greater than it is. You can't ever be<br />

caught with a blank hook. Let them discover it and don't offer any explanation -- you don't need one. Don't ever use a blank hook as a riddle<br />

or something that is tied to the immediate action. They belong solely as flavour.<br />

Leave Space.<br />

The allure of adventure is tied to the unknown. "When I was young I had a passion for maps. At that time there were many blank spaces on<br />

the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I<br />

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grow up I will go there.'" (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness) Players should be confronted with a well presented mixture of space and setting.<br />

Without this space the GM's screen has no purpose.<br />

Link your treasure.<br />

A lot of novice GM's use the treasure pile as a reward -- avoid this. I had been playing with the current group for six years before they got<br />

their first magic item. Use the treasure pile to lead to the next adventures. Treasure should have a story. A good story always gives the reader<br />

what they want, but does it in an unexpected way. Treasure is often stolen from other people and places, and something that may be a trinket<br />

to the PC's is immensely valuable elsewhere. The next part of the story lies in the elsewhere. Include letters in the treasure pile from some far<br />

off king pleading to have a glass key returned. Include the glass key in the treasure pile. In order to cash in on the treasure they have to find<br />

either the King -- or whatever it is that the key will open. Write the treasure out on recipe cards and describe the treasure as you lay the card<br />

in front of them. Be sure to write small and let them know if they touch the card, they have touched the treasure. Obviously, only include<br />

obvious visual descriptions about the treasure.<br />

Twist on treasure from my campaign: Dragons sit on treasure because they take energy from magic. They don't know what is magic so they sit<br />

on valuable items (they are likely to be magic). After many years the dragon draws the magic out of the treasure and becomes more powerful,<br />

or magical, themselves. Young Dragons haven't acquired much treasure yet -- old dragons have absorbed the magic from their piles. The<br />

players will pull out their hair over that conundrum.<br />

Planning is essential to keeping the GM's screen for what it was intended. It is not intended to hide poor preparation as you then require<br />

manipulation to stimulate action. Planning is used to create parameters for action and give the game back to the players. In order for the<br />

game to survive the players must be free. One of the reasons why so many people have turned to electronic gaming for <strong>RPG</strong>'s is that the<br />

computer is better prepared, more consistent, and more fair than the GM's of the PnP (Pen and Paper) world. So many people lament the rise<br />

of the computer <strong>RPG</strong> and do so little to address the inadequacies of the PnP games.<br />

In this series I am going to examine some of the reasons why a GM screen fails and some of the solutions to the problem. If there is interest I<br />

will continue this discussion on the GM's screen with views on Game transparency, Game Table management, and using meaningful archetypes<br />

and mysteries. These views include the use of open dice rolls in critical situations and other tactics to limit the "power" of the GM.<br />

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Behind the GM’s screen: Putting the Magic back in the Game – part II<br />

I believe it is the job of the GM to surprise the players with what they want. Create the kind of experience that they are looking for, use your<br />

GM magic to save them from themselves in times of despair, allow them to control the direction and flow of your game – do these things and<br />

you will not diminish the world you have created, but will enhance it. Don't try to control how they respond to the story. Respond to their<br />

response.<br />

In the first part of the series we began to look at the role of the GM and the mechanism of the gaming screen. The screen, like the curtain in<br />

the Wizard of Oz, holds the power of the GM. The screen preserves secret rules and allows the GM to manipulate the outcome of the game.<br />

My <strong>theory</strong> is that in order to sustain a long and interesting campaign the successful GM will not let the screen separate them from the players.<br />

A good GM's screen is not an impervious wall – like a novice GM is apt to make – but a magician's cloak that reveals both truth and<br />

mystification. A magician's trick always appears to be spontaneous, but is actually the result of preparation and study.<br />

So that is where we left off. I espoused my views on what makes good preparation for a gaming session. Game table transparency can't<br />

happen without preparation; otherwise, you reveal inaccuracies, problems, and inconsistencies. So if you struggle with Part II – go back to Part<br />

I and do some more work. The section that follows is all about how to cheat and play fair at the same time. It is an art, and, like all good art,<br />

is about a problem. It is my GM's pledge to always seem more fair and open than any GM they have ever played with and to never get<br />

caught cheating.<br />

Part II – Transparency and Obfuscation<br />

The players must feel that they are in control of the environment around them and that their actions and dice rolls determine the fate of their<br />

characters. Too often the GM's screen is used to cloak the manipulation of events. Most players can do basic math and will so recognize when<br />

the laws of probability are turned on their head to suit the whim of a decadently controlling GM. They will recognize when they are being<br />

steered towards a solution because the GM has only one interesting scenario mapped out. If you have done your job in preparing the world<br />

for play then you are ready to enhance the gaming experience by putting the players in charge of the events – you are only in charge of the<br />

rules.<br />

Pre-game Dialogue<br />

Before you begin the game, explain to the players that they are in a world where they need to participate. Find out the kinds of things that<br />

they like to do and make suggestions for adventure. If they express interest in treasure and power, make a couple of suggestions out of game<br />

as to what their characters may choose to do. Opening this dialogue will increase your credibility with the players.<br />

As some players may be used to an adversarial relationship with the GM it is important to instil this concept in prospective players. I had the<br />

frustration of GM'ing for a "gun shy" player who was so afraid of doing something wrong that his character would hide from everything, run<br />

from everything, and avoid everything. This warrior would hide in the bushes if he saw travellers on the road, or villagers on the street. He was<br />

expecting that I would bombard him with the adventure and he was entirely defensive in his style of play.<br />

The pre-game dialogue works well with players who you have played with for a long time too. I still ask the players in my 20-year campaign<br />

where they are planning to go and what they are planning to do next. It gives me the opportunity to prepare. Sometimes they will have<br />

surprises for me – as they may conference call before a session to prepare a clever plan or work something through, but they know that I like<br />

to have things ready. There is, of course, another reason. This dialogue helps them to feel like they are in complete control.<br />

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If you have characters, clues, and locations ready you get to put them wherever you want the first time. This power of first placement is the<br />

hidden prerogative of the GM's screen. In essence you are subtly encouraging them to go to unexplored areas – areas where you can place<br />

your characters and locations to the best advantage of the story (all the while making the players feel more in control). It is a win-win scenario.<br />

The Open Dice Roll<br />

Don't try to control the dice. Your story should be well enough put together to handle the unforeseen. The threat of death to characters<br />

should be palpable. When lives hang in the balance, stop and look up at the players. In a sombre GM voice let them know that this<br />

spell/event/attack could finish the target player's character off. Calculate the odds carefully, announce the threshold result required and roll the<br />

dice in open view.<br />

Win, lose, or draw these events solidify the players faith in the integrity of the game. The laws of averages tell you that life and death rolls will<br />

eventually catch up with the players. Sure, wiping out some characters in a pick up game of your favourite <strong>RPG</strong> isn't going to ruin the fun of<br />

the evening. However, you can't sustain a long term campaign with a 5% mortality rate per session. At this rate the story and character<br />

development is jeopardized by your "realism."<br />

One of the tricks of a good GM is to make the players believe that they have rolled more of these than they have. The characters legitimately<br />

feel like they have cheated death in many situations – not because of GM intervention, but because of fate and good play. Here is where the<br />

clever art of deception comes in.<br />

Depending on the kind of game that you are running, you may wish to plan escape routes. If you want to be able to scare the players, but<br />

don't want a procession of characters to the Halls of Valhalla, put some preparation into creative escapes. A note here – I don't play with Raise<br />

Dead/Resurrection abilities as I feel that they take away from the game (another topic though).<br />

Here's what I mean: have the character come across a single-use item of magic that is all but useless, say a magical broach of protection from<br />

feathers. Whatever player ends up with this trinket you mark carefully. After many gaming sessions and many years you should have a couple<br />

of aces for every character – really stupid and improbable defences or exceptions that will certainly be forgotten by the players on a day-today<br />

basis.<br />

When it comes time for the coup de grace roll in the life or death situation, make sure that you set up the out. "The mighty chieftain spins<br />

around with his war-spear and cries a mighty battle cry to Aarok of the sky. His face a half-mockery of man and bird as he plunges his birdspear<br />

into [your character's] chest."<br />

Then you turn to the open dice roll to determine if the character lives or "dies". If the result is death, be immediate in announcing that the<br />

mighty war-spear of the chieftain – a strangely fashioned weapon – pierces the chest of the character and that the character of 10 years of<br />

play has been unequivocally killed. The group will be silent, and after a few moments of reflection you know that one of the players in the<br />

group may ask the inevitable question "what is it made of?" If they don't, continue to resolve the battle as normal. Organically, and in stages<br />

let the revelation occur that the spear is made from the feathers of a Roc or giant eagle and let the winds blow where they may. You now<br />

have many options. The players could call you on the construction of the weapon and declare that the character is immune to the blow –<br />

trumping your determination and giving the players no end of satisfaction. The rest of the party could be defeated and taken captive in an<br />

"impossible" situation where the "dead" character could remarkably recover to save them. Whatever the outcome – you have planted an ace in<br />

the hole and can heighten the gaming experience through manipulation of a situation that on the surface appears beyond prejudice.<br />

I am anxious in sharing this trick of the trade as I know that it could be horribly over-used and abused. Characters should play the game and<br />

the dice should be left to their job in many cases. After a few years of experience a GM should be able to bend the story where appropriate.<br />

Like any magician's trick it takes slight of hand and practice to execute. Doing this kind of thing poorly will quickly ruin your campaign.<br />

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Constant Target<br />

Many GM's will hide too much information from their players. I feel that it is better to give them information on the game mechanic as soon<br />

as it is needed. As soon as players attack one of my monsters I tell them the Armor Class and I announce saving throws that are required<br />

before hand. I assume that many people do the same thing and include this tip not as something original, but to espouse a consistent<br />

approach to game table transparency.<br />

Open Table Riddles<br />

If your preparation is done correctly then you will be able to lay the answer to a riddle or a puzzle upside-down on the table in front of the<br />

players. When they take action to solve the riddle, or do so, have them flip over the card. This also works for any kind of multiple path<br />

scenario. Don't have certain doom as the result behind many options because players will always make choices that seem strange to the GM.<br />

If I have to tell you how you can manipulate this kind of methodology, then you weren't paying attention during the section on open dice<br />

rolls, aren't a good student of human behaviour, and shouldn't be trying to manipulate these events until you improve.<br />

Handouts<br />

Handouts are a useful tool in the game transparency toolbox. It gives the players a document that can confirm the legitimacy of a solution or<br />

idea. As a GM you should be able to hide enough ambiguous information within a handout that whatever action the players take you can<br />

reveal something that will decode part of the handout to predict that eventuality. Because they only ever decode part of the handout they will<br />

never realize that all scenarios were ambiguously predicted by the same handout – and what looks like fore-knowledge is an age old gypsy<br />

trick.<br />

Tricks aside, the sheer act of giving a handout implies that you don't need to hide your plot from the players. It gives the sense that your<br />

story is accessible with their diligence – and it should be, but the secret of a great game is that the story is a much the player's as it is yours.<br />

The Post Mortem<br />

After a gaming session take time to re-hash what happened and find out what resonated with the players. Review the events of the gaming<br />

session and take notes for next time. As you talk about the gaming sessions, prior session will come up as well. This gives you the opportunity<br />

to put a slant on the actions and motivations of key players to re-interpret what happened with new direction and insight. What appears to be<br />

a transparent re-telling of past deeds is an opportunity for the conniving GM to go back and re-engineer the story to prepare for upcoming<br />

events or provide perspective on current events.<br />

The Tell-back<br />

The tell-back is the in-game version of the Post Mortem that allows you to re-tell the deeds of the characters. Players love hearing about their<br />

actions and the effects they have had on the people of the land. Again, you can re-interpret the past with present knowledge. Within a session<br />

or two the players have accepted that a concept that was first introduced in your campaign two weeks ago has been a theme for the last four<br />

years. The human mind is surprisingly ill-equipped to perceive time correctly. That is why we talk about time in spatial terms – length and<br />

distance. Telling someone that they are going to die in two weeks or two years elicits the same response. Understand this weakness of the<br />

players and exploit it.<br />

Like a magician's trick, a good gaming session is all about creating a shared experience that leaves the audience mystified – it challenges<br />

preconceptions, overturns expectations, and reinforces faith. But tricks don't work if they are hidden. Making a rabbit appear from a hat only<br />

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works if you show the empty hat at the beginning. At the end of the trick you need to show the rabbit too. One trick means showing the<br />

audience two points in time. Magic is the inability of the audience to connect what is shown with what is hidden.<br />

I believe it is the job of the GM to surprise the players with what they want. Create the kind of experience that they are looking for, use your<br />

GM magic to save them from themselves in times of despair, allow them to control the direction and flow of your game – do these things and<br />

you will not diminish the world you have created, but will enhance it. Don't try to control how they respond to the story. Respond to their<br />

response.<br />

In the last part of the series I would like to examine the structure of the story that is told and how to avoid the clichés of fantasy while<br />

drawing on the rich archetypes. At times I feel that these articles are too vague to be useful in providing insight and I hope that the concepts<br />

are not too wrapped up in metaphor to be usable.<br />

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Behind the GM’s screen: Wheels and Gears of a Good Game – Part III<br />

May 2008 www.Gamegrene.com<br />

This series of articles is about exploring the concept of the screen used by GMs in tabletop <strong>RPG</strong>s. In the first article we explored the function<br />

of the GM and how they can prepare properly for an upcoming session – doing the preparatory work required to make a session run<br />

smoothly. The second article focused on the in-game tactics that are available to the resourceful GM. In the last article of the series I'd like to<br />

the structure of the story as required by an ongoing expansive narrative. It is my experience that many GMs– even those good at preparing<br />

and running a session -- are unable to sustain a long campaign. My approach to the task of the GM has four major components: Prepare,<br />

Disassemble, Re-assemble, and Re-prepare.<br />

Recursion<br />

There is no more powerful tool in the GMs bag of tricks than the use of recursion. We learn through repetition and embedded patterns. These<br />

patterns on a grand scale are called archetypes and these resonate with us on the deepest level. Yet even the mundane aspects of the game<br />

can benefit from recursion. Players trying to immerse themselves in a game that has a whole new world of cultures, races, languages, and<br />

religions can quickly find themselves overwhelmed with information. Amidst utter confusion they will revert to what they know. If you are ever<br />

going to whisk them away to a far-off land it must be done in slow degrees and the unusual aspects of the setting can only become familiar<br />

through habit and re-visitation.<br />

The Medicine Wheel<br />

The native medicine wheel identifies the seasons and changes that happen over the course of a year. Yet it recognizes more than this. It<br />

recognizes the cycles of life as we change and grow old. This wheel is not static, because every year when Spring returns there is a difference.<br />

We have changed through the passing year and bring forward the sum of our experience to a Spring that is new and familiar. The longing<br />

that it awakens and the promise of new adventures remains even as the perspective shifts. The blooming of Spring to a dying man is still the<br />

birth of hope – a reminder of all the Springs that have passed. So it is a spiral. We can never set foot in the same river twice. The changes are<br />

a sort of permanency. If you want to tell a long story – and most <strong>RPG</strong>s are built upon an expansive epic framework – you have to have the<br />

great wheel running for you in your game. Otherwise your players will eventually drift off, growing bored of characters who always do the<br />

same thing because they never re-visit their journeys or explorations on the wheel.<br />

Home Sweet Home<br />

The first places that the characters visit should be the most important. As the wheel turns they can return to them with new understanding.<br />

The re-introduction of these locales does many things for the story. It becomes a benchmark for how they have progressed in wisdom and<br />

confidence. It makes their actions to this point significant. This layered approach means that you must have two truths at work in each<br />

moment, in every location. There is the story that they know – at first the enigmatic stranger who offers them a task. After some time, they will<br />

discover the politics behind this task and the wheel will have turned round completely. The second task will happen on the political level, but<br />

behind the curtain religious or arcane forces stir. Again, over time, these forces will be known and the characters will act on those, while there<br />

is an unknown but growing knowledge in an ancient connection with an obscure force. The story is not absolutely confusing because the<br />

layers are peeled back one-at-a-time. Connections between the first and fourth layers are appreciated (or imagined) long after the fact. This<br />

connects the narrative so that it is not one linear series of events, but a connected and personal tapestry in which the players become<br />

emotionally invested.<br />

That's what she said<br />

Whether it is the pithy patois of Josh Whedon's "Firefly", the slang of "Battlestar Galactica," or the pedantic quips of "The Office" language<br />

provides a portal into new and different worlds. The repetition of certain words and phrases allows the participants to engage the world on a<br />

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certain level. They know what to expect and these words become markers that help maintain the illusion of "otherness." Characters from<br />

diverse backgrounds can easily melt into bland, indistinguishable supporting roles if the GM does not pay attention to languages. Few GMs<br />

have the voice talent to successfully pull off varying accents, but all of us can use word choice, common phrases, and sentence structure to<br />

not only clearly identify the character who is speaking, but also remind us of their cultural framework. Yoda speak is achieved by placing the<br />

verb at the end of a sentence. While this works moderately well in a movie – it is far better suited to the gaming table. NPCs can be given<br />

some pat sentences that they repeat. These phrases are different enough to remind us who the character is and what essentially different<br />

viewpoints they have. Perhaps your barbarian spent some time in a city and lost "the smell and taste of water." Upon returning to the wild this<br />

scent returned. Forever she will use this metaphor in her speech. A place where the "rains do not breathe" is not place for your character.<br />

Recursion is not repetition<br />

Doing the same thing the same way every time gets tired. Characters who are cliche have borrowed too much from the work that precedes<br />

them. Conan is not an archetype. He is however an example of the wild-man archetype; like Enkidu in the "Epic of Gilgamesh" he is struggling<br />

between the wild world and the civilized world. His raw power is tested by the lure of flesh, comfort, and the fruits of civilization. The walls of<br />

Uruk become the metaphor for society, law, and constraint. To fashion a character out of the primal struggle between progress and wild<br />

nature is laudable, while to make a muscled, fur-wearing, sword-wielding nomad with a gruff demeanor has already been done. It would be<br />

hard to look past the similarities unless the character is well differentiated from the type. Start with the archetype<br />

(http://people.sinclair.edu/mildredmelendez/docs/267/archetype.pdf) that your character belongs to, then identify their personal metaphors,<br />

mix in their past experiences and prejudices, and salt with their aspirations. Find ways to constantly remind yourself of their quirks and<br />

different world-view and you will have a character that comes alive in a game session.<br />

Not all bad guys are opponents<br />

There is more than one kind of foil to the characters. Rival adventurers, former mentors, corrupt politicians, misguided priests, weak monarchs,<br />

prejudiced literalists, and self serving mercenaries are among the many villains in a good story. These villains cannot be overcome with a<br />

mighty battle, but through constant effort and struggle. The opinions of the townsfolk, fickle and often misguided, will see the characters place<br />

in society shift and change. In order for them to have a context in society there needs to be more than the two viewpoints. They can choose<br />

to align themselves with certain groups and sever old affiliations. Players can develop a deeper visceral reaction to a petty self-serving noble<br />

who has never robbed or killed in his life than to the Trollish chieftain who has waged suffering and slaughter along the coast. They have a<br />

method of controlling the chieftain. It is the petty noble who is beyond their reach.<br />

If the wheel of understanding is drive gear that runs the game, the villains are the crank that turns the gear. Games that set up all of the bad<br />

guys as the pure embodiment of Evil lose context and characters do little self examination as their place is the story is too easily defined.<br />

Villains belong to archetypes too.<br />

Back to the Beginning<br />

So, we are back to the beginning after having a turn on the wheel. The GM must prepare a session, run a session, and be able to string the<br />

sessions together into an Epic cohesive story. To accomplish this they have the mystery and enigma of the screen at their disposal. Used<br />

properly it is a magical curtain that can hide secrets, yet is tantalizingly transparent revealing an open, honest, well-prepared adventure. The<br />

players can drive the action, but for there to be longevity in the game, the GM must understand the structure of a story and use the Great<br />

Wheel to re-visit old knowledge from a new perspective.<br />

I tend to run long epic campaigns using my own material. I've been doing this for about thirty years, and have been running a single<br />

campaign (same players, same characters, same story) for over twenty years now. In this time I have made a lot of mistakes, but have done a<br />

few things right along the way. If I can remember to throw out what doesn't work (for me) and keep what does, maybe I'll be running games<br />

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for many years to come. I'd love to hear other suggestions to improve the gaming experience from session preparation to in-game tactics and<br />

finally, keeping the magic alive.<br />

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Derivatives and Drivel: A Criticism of Statistics<br />

Since the birth of role-playing games, the core statistics have become enmeshed and entrenched into almost every set of rules. On the surface<br />

it seems reasonable to attach values for a character's "vital talents" and use these as the basis for building a repertoire of actions.<br />

Unfortunately, in most systems, the statistics are a source of imbalance, create unnecessary complexity, and stifle creativity.<br />

On the surface a statistic is meant to measure something about a character: for instance, how strong or smart they are. If you have ever tried<br />

to measure someone's strength or intelligence you quickly realize that the definition creates a problem. You see both these things can<br />

manifest differently on different tasks. It is the specific task that you really end up measuring, not some arbitrary underlying tendency.<br />

Historically this has been ignored by the hobby and players get a warm-fuzzy feeling when they put a 16 beside the intelligence of their<br />

character. This one measurement then adds to everything they do that is attached to this characteristic. This forces the game to roll an X<br />

modified by a Y. Unnecessary, complex, and wrong. If you get good at a judo throw you learn to do it your way, using your strength, your<br />

height, and your weight. Strength doesn't matter. Height doesn't matter. Weight doesn't matter. Skill doesn't matter. What matters is how<br />

demonstrably good you are at performing the technique. Sure, all of the attributes (Strength, Height, Weight, center of balance, Skill, hip<br />

separation, balance) factor in to the action, but trying to codify it or more egregiously, just saying it is all based on "Strength + Level" is stupid<br />

and unbalancing.<br />

Fighters are strong or quick, wizards are smart, bards are pretty, and priests are wise. They have to be. Otherwise they are not a very good X.<br />

This is the problem with the base structure of all games based off this model. The X + Y mechanism creates more basic arithmetic at the table<br />

and has no positive effect on the game. Not only does enforcing a strong or quick fighter force players into making decisions about their<br />

character, but it also pigeon-holes them into other choices. As soon as you create mathematical relationships between core statistics and the<br />

mechanical actions of the game, you force optimization upon the table.<br />

While optimization strategies are essential to many kinds of games, imposing them on the character creation process begins to exclude new<br />

and novel combinations. The first few times around a new gaming system are the most fun, but once you finish playing all the optimal and<br />

slightly-less-than-optimal combinations, you begin to see the same characters at the table over and over again. Racial "options" are usually<br />

just inducements to play different classes when specific races add specific bonuses to core statistics.<br />

I am fortunate to play at some tables where players will take on sub-optimal combinations. My question is, why should they have to? Why do<br />

we need to have an X + Y mechanism when "Y" is simply a gross, inaccurate simplification of some underlying nature -- a nature that can be<br />

trained and shaped. What would happen if you started a new D&D game where you replaced every stat bonus with a generic +2? What kinds<br />

of characters would your players make? You might have overweight fighters, or foul-tempered bards who rankle those they meet (but have<br />

the voice of an angel). You might find a better game.<br />

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Analogue not Abstraction<br />

Years ago I tried colloborating on a game with some other designers. As they project developped it became clear that it was nothing that I<br />

could get behind. The problem was the level of abstraction. The whole methodology of game design was, in my view, flawed. These were<br />

bright individuals – with game design credentials – who I could just not work with because of philosophical differences. The approach was to<br />

determine the setting and tone and then build a game mechanism that supported that setting and tone. To give it a Western tone we would<br />

add playing cards as part of the game. Players would match cards – and suits would be the various aspects(physical,mental, energy). Players<br />

could get special benefits from straights, two-of-a-kinds, etc. There would be a situation card put down that the players could use to match<br />

the cards in their hands. A physical challenge would have a physical suit. The mechanism would use d12’s and cards – d 12’s are the most<br />

satisfying dice and they could correlate to ace-queen of a standard playing card deck. I liked the rules, but not the game.<br />

In a role-playing game the rules serve a different purpose than other games. The rules are supposed to allow you to travel to another place<br />

and enact a story. A storytelling game must be able to translate a desired action into a rule and ultimately a resolution. It must also translate<br />

the result of a roll or back into a narration. A rule is an analogue of an event. If you have a rule for jumping it might be: roll a six-sdied dice,<br />

multiple the result by one foot. That is how high you jump. There is a strong correlation between the rule and the imagined result. When<br />

you roll a 4 you can translate the result easily: I jumped up four feet. This has high correlation and simplicity – it only lacks verisimilitude<br />

(what person, who everytime they jump, achieves a result between 2 and 24 feet with an even distribution of results). That is why in our game<br />

we roll and sum two dice for every action. The result gives us a peaked probability line with their level as the normal and most likely result.<br />

When we add bonus conditions for well-practiced situations, we have a shifted bell curve that performs admirably at modelling the kinds of<br />

results we see in the real world. It measures a real world thing with a rule that is like it.<br />

An abstraction says that we will measure a real world thing —or many things -- with something that is unlike it. Confronted by the task of<br />

modelling a framework; it is far easier to concoct a mechanism… make a dice game that is fun; and use that as your mechanism. The problem<br />

is that the rule is a metaphor and metaphor are often stretched beyond utility (for more on this subject watch the movie Shrek and pay<br />

attention to the “Ogres are like onions” scene – Shrek understands metaphor; donkey does not).<br />

Suppose we will agree that rolling 12 dice and placing them into pools for attack and defence is our mechanism. How we distribute the dice<br />

has elements of strategy and is supposed to correlate between an attack posture and attitude. When you can transform the dice to the action<br />

and the action to the dice you have an analogue. They are not the same, but can be freely transformed from one to the other. But be<br />

careful, for every rule that you impose on the game you impose the same rule on the narrative. So as the rule-set grows to improve the<br />

mehanism and refine the odds, the freedom of the narrative to shape the outcome of events is curtailed and diminished. For example,<br />

suppose we want to innocently use this roll for more than a single blow-counterblow interaction. We have now forced the narrative to remain<br />

fixed for a longer period of time. The player cannot introduce a new idea into the narrative – even a naturally flowing event – until the dice<br />

mechanism allows it.<br />

The problem is that the game has now been split into two parts – the narrative and the rule. Furthermore, they will introduce strategy into<br />

the rules, not at the narrative level, but at the rule level. By having rules act upon rules the narrative game is irrevocably lost. The hapless<br />

game-designer attempts to build up the rule set and ends up warping the useability. Keep the rule small and the correlation high. Tactics can<br />

be achieved in-game; they don’t need to be artificially bolted on to the rules system. Flavour and tone can be achieved in-game; they don’t<br />

need to be artificially added to the rules either. Take a look at any of the most highly criticised elements of old fantasy role-playing games,<br />

and you will see that they are the most abstract and least analogous to the narrative (Alignment, HP, AC).<br />

Chess is an abstract game. It does not simulate warfare, but it does require strategy, tactics, memory, and dedication. In chess each piece has<br />

pre-defined moves; the attacking piece always wins; and each player takes turns moving pieces. It does not lend itself to being a good roleplaying<br />

game. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a good game.<br />

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So, you will see that placing small actions at the centre of this game we can translate rule into action, or action into rule with ease. A gamer<br />

at the table will look for ways to interrupt or interfere with an opponents counteractions; attempting to remove defensive actions from their<br />

queue. He does this by taking small actions that attack defenses. A narrativist at the table will look for opportunities to distract opponents<br />

with light or sound before delivering their blow. Both actions translate one-to-one. The rule is the action; the action is the rule. The<br />

narrativist has freedom to try anything – loading basic actions into the queue alongside other actions. Mechanically basic actions aren’t as<br />

powerful as other actions. But, the narrativist plays for the bonus conditions that can make them equal or exceed the utility of pre-optimized<br />

actions. A gamist player will often build their strategies before-hand, making sure that they have a stable of actions that compliment each<br />

other. Both solutions are satisfying to both players as they have game/narration equivalence.<br />

Statistics<br />

If you are an experienced role-player you will immediately note the lack of statistics from the description of the game. There is a very good<br />

reason for this. Statistics don’t model an action. They attempt to make a measurement. What do they measure? Statistics measure action:<br />

How well can you solve a problem? How hard do you hit? How fast can you run? So previous games have taken actions and tried to<br />

summarize them with a statistic when a character in a game is taking actions – sounds needlessly derivitive doesn’t it? They build up some<br />

rule-concepts and then assign a value to a statistic. This statistic will modify actions later. If we are lucky the statistic 4 gives an adjustment of<br />

four – but likely a statistic of 17 might give bonus of three.<br />

The problem with this approach is then you need to be able to translate the measurement back into action. What this creates is an absurd<br />

circle of frustration and complexity. Not only do they double the inaccuracy by trying to model the same thing twice. Now actions are<br />

adjusted for statistics by rolling a dice, adding a skill, adding a bonus for a statistic. If your statistic has increased from 17 to 20, that means<br />

that your bonus has gone from 3 to 5, which is two more that what you were using, so if you add your roll ten and your bonus six and then<br />

give yourself two more for your extra stat bump then it means… that you are no longer imagining what is going on in the game you are<br />

practicing your arithmetic.<br />

The game uses actions. We measure actions. Because the action has a high correlation it does not break the narrative. I jump over a crate. I<br />

roll my “Move” action. If we have effects in play they will modify the action directly, not its derivitive.<br />

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Role-playing Games and the Artificially Unique<br />

Most role-playing rule-sets confuse narrative and strategic differences. In an attempt to make the experience of playing a different "type" of<br />

character feel different they introduce a multitude of rules to govern the same actions.<br />

Players and game designers imagine differences that do not exist. Most role-playing games use character build options that "break" existing<br />

rules, or add special circumstances to specific actions for characters of a selected background. Unfortunately, this is nothing like how a real<br />

world works. Suppose that my character spent twenty years training to the top-level in a specific martial art, should I expect that my character<br />

gets some special abilities or rules? If I do I am an idiot. Training in the martial arts will make me better a few things that all other people can<br />

already do: punch, kick, control distance, strike with elbows and knees, evade attacks, throw and push, hold people down, and apply chokes<br />

and locks. People who come from a different martial arts tradition don't get a different list. They get better at different items on the same list.<br />

In D&D you give a thief a backstab where they do oodles of extra damage in the right circumstance. You bolt on a rule that makes your<br />

character "feel" different, even if the rule is stupid. Even if it can't make up its mind as to whether it is a targeting bonus or a surprise bonus.<br />

You see if it were a surprise bonus ... shouldn't everyone benefit from it against an unaware opponent? If it were a targeting bonus, should it<br />

not get mitigated by armour? On the one hand, you could give a "Thief" a backstab bonus that allows for prodigious damage; or, on the other<br />

you could make them good at sneaking.<br />

Doesn't it make more sense for a stealthy character to be better at being stealthy at the sacrifice of their martial skills? They may not be as<br />

good with a sword, but they are more likely to sneak up on someone and stab them? It doesn't matter if you are a little less proficient with<br />

your attack if it is unopposed. Game designers tend to ignore these issues as "too complicated" when in fact they are quite simple.<br />

Complications arise when you try to build on top of an already flawed framework. Getting a rule to fit into D&D requires knowing the peculiar<br />

interactions with a whole series of artificially constructed mechanics that have no relation to a real experience. If you are a nincompoop who<br />

wants to take umbrage with my use of the word "real" in relation to fantasy gaming, please substitute the words "visceral" or "genuine" or<br />

"internally consistent" or "immersive" or even "unjarring."<br />

Really there is a universal set of skills. Everyone can juggle. Some of us just happen to have trouble when you introduce the third ball. Most of<br />

the popular <strong>RPG</strong>'s out there like to sell you on complications as to why things are different and don't clear through the rubbish and help you<br />

see what is the same. They make two characters who are stylistically different mechanically different. The problem is that the interaction of all<br />

the different mechanisms makes the game less focused on the narrative and more focused on deciphering the strategic mechanisms --<br />

mechanisms that are flawed and less sensible.<br />

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The Next Iteration: A decade later<br />

Dear Gamer,<br />

It was over ten years ago that I wrote the introduction to a game -- a game which was a framework for a rule-set deliberately devoid of<br />

context. Yes, the rules were flexible and innovative. Yes, the mechanism allowed you to expand and collapse any action in scope, complexity,<br />

and time. Yes, the action could flow quickly and was woven into the game to create verisimilitude. There, however, was no game -- only a<br />

vast expanse of paradigms waiting for source material. In this nebula I extolled “look at this vast playground that can shape itself around<br />

imaginary people, places, actions, and things! I have a great role-playing game.”<br />

Mesmerized by the emptiness, play-testers would ask “what does it do?” I would say “drop in an action and watch the rule-set give it life.” I<br />

was met with stunned silence. It was immediately clear that I required context. I would provide the gamer with more statistics on swords, and<br />

people, and armour – give concrete examples that wrap around the rules to allow them to experience the game.<br />

I was now walking a road that I didn’t want to walk. If someone doesn’t like dark fantasy, the game may not appeal to them even though the<br />

core of the game supports any universal elements. Do I create a standard EDO (Elf-Dwarf-Orc) setting with lots of magic? Do I show how I<br />

can simulate a D20 world – only faster and more consistent—or do I show off the improved tactics with a more historic setting -- do we roll<br />

the clock back 15,000 years and then roll it forward without the Pleistocene extinctions? After years of working at the game from the insideout<br />

I would have to cover the mechanism with a layer of setting and flavour. In essence I would have to hide the parts of the game that I<br />

think make it special so that someone can pick it up and start playing. I was also acutely aware that I was now competing for the role-playing<br />

attention with some very well designed settings.<br />

Most role-playing games out there are settings. At the core this is a role-playing game. The skin over the rules is a small slice of a world<br />

known to the locals as “Rael”. The myths of Rael place it at the crossroads of up to five different realms of existence. How real these myths<br />

are; how much the worlds intersect; and the nature of the outer realms is left in the hands of the gamers. The starting point is a small town,<br />

in a small kingdom, in a semi-harsh climate at the broken edge of civilization. What lies beyond is shrouded in mist and superstition.<br />

Everything you know comes from the tales told by travelers and the mythologies of your forbearers. The truth of other cultures and races is<br />

obscured by your up-bringing.<br />

So the direction the game takes, and the eventual truth of things is for you to discover. Magic, horror, technology, other species, and other<br />

realms of existence, may be right around the corner. You will reveal the truths and lies of your up-bringing as you travel outward; figuratively<br />

and geographically. Eventually the first little town and all of its ideas and beliefs will be an obscure footnote in your world. Once you have<br />

played the game using the overlying setting you will make new settings: places, races, cultures, and skills. You will find it easy to strip away<br />

what you do not need and build on the gaming framework. When you first do this, you will encounter – for the first time – the game that I<br />

made ten years ago.<br />

Good Luck,<br />

MachOneGames| Appendix 1: The <strong>theory</strong> of Role Playing Games 321

Criticisms of D&D<br />

June 2008<br />

There is a lot of discussion about the latest release of Dungeons and Dragons. Now that the Fourth Edition of the industry leader has been<br />

released, the debates have begun as to whether this is an improvement on the game, or a degeneration of the game to appeal to a less<br />

sophisticated audience addled by computer action-fantasy games. I'm not going to address those issues here, but would like to trace my<br />

somewhat critical opinion of the direction of the game from 1st Edition (fairly close to the beginning of the hobby) to its last published<br />

incarnation of 3rd. Along the way I will stop to criticize, tangentially, other <strong>RPG</strong>'s – just enough so that I should have people spewing<br />

intelligent invective at me from all directions; from all the traditional gaming "camps."<br />

Which skills do you role for?<br />

In AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st and 2nd Editions) there were limited skills. When a character needed to bluff a guard or find<br />

treasure in a room, they needed to interact with the story and resolve the action. Bluffing a guard depended on the skill of the player (not the<br />

character) to swagger to the DM. Certain players, no matter what kind of character they were playing had the panache and personality to<br />

achieve results consistently. This flaw in the game would be addressed in 3rd Edition, but at a heavy price. Falling behind a trend in the<br />

industry to give characters a growing skill list D&D (3.x) entered the market with both skill and feat mechanisms. They borrowed a mechanism<br />

for using these skills (challenged and unchallenged) and applied this across all the skills. They narrowly missed the boat though. This narrow<br />

miss was one of the worst blows to Role-playing games in the history of the hobby.<br />

Bluff, search, spot, diplomacy, intimidate: these are certainly good skills to have on a skill list. Whoever wrote up the skill descriptions, though,<br />

deserves to be fired. Rather than apply a role-playing game logic to the skill, they applied a logic that is easily emulated by a computer. The<br />

problem I have is that the result is a single target (Do you notice the trap door). One number that determines pass or fail in noticing,<br />

changing, or affecting what you want. The role-playing is over before it begins. Players are not hanging on the words of the DM, because the<br />

narrative is not connected to the roll. Before you scream, "Situational Adjustment!" at the top of your lungs at me, why don't I show you the<br />

alternatives?<br />

Had the roll fed back into the narrative with "Search" it would mean that players would get a more detailed description of each room and<br />

object. The trap door is not revealed by a very high search roll, but a "long set of scuff marks on the floor that terminate abruptly." A less<br />

successful roll would yield "scuff marks on the floor" but without context and imbedded amongst distracting information, may result in the<br />

players not finding the trap door. Do you see how the players would still need to respond in the game to find treasure? Imagine setting up<br />

your iPod for listen checks – record the noises for each inhabited room. The listen roll determines the volume level you use on playback.<br />

Players leaning in quietly and holding their breath on listen checks – now isn't that better than roll-playing?<br />

How heavy are your dice?<br />

Over the course of its evolution D&D has moved away from a loose set of rules to a more linear one. In order to thwart abuse of the rules,<br />

they have become narrow. Boots of Striding and Springing increase your speed – that's it. There is never any other situational adjustment for<br />

them (oops, there is a jump bonus too). Right after I started playing D&D (3.x) for the first time my character with the aforementioned boots<br />

(which he bought at the local magic market?) was equally impeded by a set of low angled stairs as were the others in the party. Maybe I'm<br />

just griping, but I couldn't visualize why I didn't get an advantage. Later there were some dogs, behind some double doors, trying to kill us. I<br />

thought I'd use my "rope use skill" and tie the two doors so that they could only open two inches. I'd then open the door two inches wide<br />

and stab the dogs with my rapier. I was told that in D&D if I can attack a monster, it can attack me. "It is just the way D&D works," I was told.<br />

I smiled, said "okay," thinking to myself: "No, that is the way that D&D doesn't work." Different DM's could have handled it differently, and I<br />

concede that. In the end he is a decent DM trying to interpret the rules that are given to him.<br />

322 Appendix 1: The <strong>theory</strong> of Role Playing Games | MachOneGames

Beyond<br />

The Role-Playing Game<br />

At this point the RLC (Rules Light Camp) will be ardently in my corner ready to conclude that D&D has too many rules. The boots have a<br />

mechanical adjustment and the rules about combat are too mechanical. A narrative description of the boots and a more open set of<br />

guidelines for play are what's required. D&D suffers from an appalling level of tactical wargaming rule-consistency. That is to say that the<br />

game is now as flexible as a piece of concrete. I'm now going to piss off the RLC.<br />

Picasso starts to play <strong>RPG</strong>'s<br />

The lack of a rule allows you to stay in the narrative context and look for the answer there. This can keep the game moving quickly and ensure<br />

that the game is adaptable. Or so the <strong>theory</strong> went. The problem with fewer rules is that it means that more events and situations are covered<br />

by one rule. Because a rule has to have breadth, it typically lacks depth. At the edges of the rules application you get the fun-house mirror<br />

distortion effect. The efficiency of rules light means that fewer distinctions are made. This loss of detail is immediate. Players are now less<br />

reliant upon the character to solve the problem confronting them and turn to their own skills. Rules Light games work well for comic action,<br />

short scenarios, and quick pick up games. It is no coincidence that these kind of games are not typically played in long character-driven<br />

scenarios. One of the biggest reasons for this is that the player is again at the forefront. The player is less impeded by the deficiencies of their<br />

character.<br />

An abstract rule sits between the narrative and the players.<br />

The other upshot of the RLC is the increasing abstractness of the rules. An abstract rule is more universally applicable than a concrete one.<br />

However, an abstract rule sits between the narrative and the players. Dice-matching, action points, counter actions – all of these things focus<br />

the player on the rules that sit outside the game. Instead of leaning in to hear the result of their "search" and "listen" rolls they are engaged in<br />

the meta-game. Again we have lost the narrative – the story of the other character in the other world.<br />

The not-so-open game license<br />

The D&D setting has expanded greatly over the years. More settings are added all the time and the number of worlds that you can play in are<br />

increasing all the time – or are they? D&D introduced an open game license where 3rd party products could be added to the d20 line so long<br />

as they don't conflict with the CORE rulebooks. Unfortunately, the core books are so full of setting material already that everything built from<br />

it starts to feel the same. D&D is far less open nowadays than it ever was. Building off the four character archetypes seemed easy. From there<br />

with a little imagination almost anything was possible. Lego went the same way. For those who don't know you used to get a lot of these<br />

things called "bricks" in a Lego set. Each set would have a few new unique pieces that were small and could be built and re-combined in ways<br />

that their creators didn't even think of. Large molded and painted pieces dominate Lego sets of today. They look cool, but can rarely be used<br />

for anything other than their original design purpose.<br />

In my experience there will be people that will defend the merits of this system, initially on an emotional level because they feel that I am<br />

attacking an activity that they enjoy doing. I enjoy it too. The game can be better. Arguments that place the burden on the ability of the<br />

players and DM to modify the game according to sense and situation are stating the obvious. It is apparent to everyone that this can be done.<br />

However, it is neither a solution nor a justification for a set of broken rules.<br />

MachOneGames| Appendix 1: The <strong>theory</strong> of Role Playing Games 323

Skills and the Continuum of Character Agency<br />

August 2017<br />

Gary Gygax famously relates the inception of skills into D&D as a result of having a character cross a river and someone asking "Can my<br />

character swim?" Since then skills began to creep into D&D and other <strong>RPG</strong>'s at a furious pace. Eventually, most games added some skills or<br />

even made skill-based systems -- dispensing with classes altogether. Most gamers accept the premise of skills blithely, seeing them as another<br />

thing that their character can do and fail to recognize that some skills take away player agency from the table.<br />

Player agency is the ability of the player to direct and control the outcome of the game by interacting with the narrative constructs of the<br />

game. It is at odds with character agency -- the mechanical advantage that a character has within a scenario. I'm not in favour of either<br />

extreme. That is my bias. In early role-playing games, those games with few or no skills on the character sheet, player agency ruled the day. A<br />

clever player could run a stupid character in a way that they solved all of the puzzles, negotiated with tyrants, and wooed the NPCs. The<br />

introduction of skills like perception, investigate, persuade, and deception tilted the scales in the other direction. Players could circumvent the<br />

game by picking up the dice and rolling. Neither is truly role-playing as they are either ignoring the character or the context. It is only through<br />

GM fiat in either case that pushes the players back to the middle-ground between pure gaming and pure narrativism. I abhor such heavyhandedness<br />

on the part of the GM, while others see it as part of the GM's sacred duty.<br />

So what is a skill? In D&D these terms get broadly used to include knowledge, tactics, and actions. I think that giving a skill too broad of a<br />

definition is a problem. Survival, for instance, is predicated on the rule of three: three minutes without air, three hours of exposure, three days<br />

without water, three weeks without food. Knowing the priorities of survival is essential to the skill of surviving. These are the tactics -- the<br />

hierarchy of goals. Knowledge is knowing what plants have water, what food will make you sick, etc. The actions that you have are -- pitching<br />

a tent, tying a rope, extracting the good parts of the plant, etc. If your skill broadly encompasses all of these things what is left for the player<br />

to do but roll the dice?<br />

Let's examine Persuasion in D&D:<br />

"Persuasion. When you attempt to influence someone or a group of people with tact, social graces, or good nature, the GM might ask you to<br />

make a Charisma (Persuasion) check. Typically, you use persuasion when acting in good faith, to foster friendships, make cordial requests, or<br />

exhibit proper etiquette. Examples of persuading others include convincing a chamberlain to let your party see the king, negotiating peace<br />

between warring tribes, or inspiring a crowd of townsfolk."<br />

By mixing the skill definition with the tactic -- how to inspire a crowd, you have taken away part of the game. There is no need for the party<br />

to determine what the motives of the townsfolk are, to figure out what would inspire them. This was included in the skill description. Roleplaying<br />

gets closed down.<br />

Misguided role-playing <strong>theory</strong> suggests that characters are best described by a list of attributes that combine with races, professions, classes,<br />

backgrounds, and rule exceptions to yield a set of simplistic mathematical statements that determine what a character can do. If you lucky,<br />

your role-playing game represents the modifiers directly; if not, you have a core statistic represented by a number, that yields a modifier<br />

represented by a different number, that is added to a third number to yield your total modifier for a particular action. This is convoluted<br />

madness.<br />

324 Appendix 1: The <strong>theory</strong> of Role Playing Games | MachOneGames

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