In case you’re wondering why the blog is late this week, I’ve re-joined the ranks of wage slavery, so new posts will probably be Monday instead of Friday from now on.
In Cinemechanix, every character has a set of character concept traits that allows him to roll a d20 instead of a d12 as his free die. The core concept traits are Role (Job in QAGS terms) and Backstory (which describes the character’s past). Fatal Flaw is also included in the concept section, but usually doesn’t give a player bonuses to rolls. The core rules section also includes the possibility of adding other traits that are specific to the game, so that’s something I needed to go into more detail about in the section about adapting your game.
To help explain what sorts of game-specific traits you might use, I came up with some broad categories to use as examples: Heritage Traits (things like race or species in a fantasy or sci-fi game), Factions (your Hogwart’s house or vampire clan), Secondary Roles (an M-Forcer’s Day Job or a super-hero’s secret identity), Specialization (for games where the core skillset for PCs is relatively uniform, like a game where everyone’s a cop or soldier), and Gimmick (basically a catch-all category for anything else: a super-hero’s power theme, a fantasy character’s weapon of choice, or whatever). The most basic game-specific traits just bump up your default die like Role and Backstory do, but you could also hang one or more special rules on them. For instance, a character might get an extra bonus when using a Specialization or a whole list of advantages and disadvantages that go along with a character race.
One category I went back and forth on and eventually decided to include was Class. It occurred to me that for some kinds of games, you might want a Role-type trait that’s more structured and not quite so open-ended. The best example is probably a wrestling game, where you would have a Class like High Flyer, Bruiser, Luchadore, Technical Wrestler, etc. (with Role describing your ring persona). Classifying super-heroes as Bricks, Energy Blasters, Acrobats, etc. would also fit the Class idea. The problem is that Class and Role (and sometimes some of the other categories) have a lot of overlap and I wasn’t entirely sure that the addition was useful enough to justify the added confusion.
Oddly enough, it was a video game that made me realize the distinction that would clarify things. I’d been playing a city builder game (Clash of Kings, I think) for a few weeks when my tablet broke down, but the emulator I’d downloaded as a temporary replacement wouldn’t run that game, so I downloaded The Walking Dead: No Man’s Land*, which is basically Clash of Whatever with zombies instead of elves and shit. You build up your survivor camp and send your people out to fight zombies so they can collect weapons and food and, strangely, gold. Each character has a class like “Shooter” or “Hunter” or “Scout” that basically describes how they fight: how many hit points they have, what kind of weapons they use, etc. I think there are five classes in all, and they’re purely about how the character works in the game system. If I were running a Cinemechanix game based on the Walking Dead where character did things other than fight, the classes would be way too limited and non-descriptive to work as Roles, and would only tangentially related to how the character fits into the story, but they still might be useful.
The realization about game design that came out of this is that there’s a difference between how the character fits into the story and how he fits into the game. In most games with a class-type character trait, it tries to represent both, which often leads to weirdness. In early versions of D&D (especially Basic), classes were kind of mostly a rules construct--you could describe your fighter as a viking or a knight or whatever you wanted--but even then there was some overlap. Kits in 2nd Edition kind of worked as the version of class that describe the character in story terms, but since the core classes were so structured it sometimes got kind of weird when the core class abilities didn’t make much sense for the kit.
Anyway, the distinction I ended up making for the class trait is that the class trait is purely a game construct that doesn’t necessarily have any explicit meaning within the game world. Rick Grimes might refer to himself a Shooter, but probably not because it would use up valuable time that he could spend moping and making terrible decisions. Class is purely a game mechanics side thing, and one way to use it is to give players access to those “special snowflake” type rules that I mentioned last week. Just create a class and connect them with special rules or bonuses for specific things that you know are going to happen in the game. For example, and M-Force game may have classes like “Monster Expert,” “Investigator,” “Tactician,” “Medic,” “Marksman,” and “Monster Rassler,” each with special abilities nobody else gets. Since the player can still describe how the character fits into the story using Role, you break the characters up into game-based types without limiting them by trying to squeeze the game stuff and the story stuff into a single trait.
*If you happen to play, my (currently one-man) Guild is called the Red Rock** Regulars. If you’re looking for a Guild, join it!
**Red Rock was the name of the comic store where I worked with Robert Kirkman before he became the Zombie King, so it seemed appropriate.
I have a day job now, but I'll still happily accept your money on Patreon.
As those of you who are following the Cinemechnix design know, I'm currently working on an entirely new section about adapting the game rules to specific game settings. Tweaking game rules is nothing new to me. I've been doing it for nearly as long as I've been gaming, and almost every QAGS supplement I've worked on has at least a few special rules to help make the game mechanics work better for the genre, style, or setting the supplement deals with. Even though I've spent countless hours fiddling around with rules, writing a section that boils down to "how to fiddle with the rules" has forced me to think about why you'd want to create special rules in the first place.
When I've introduced special rules to games I've run or written, it's usually been a gut-level decision. I'd add a new rule because it seemed like a good idea. When I did have more specific reasons, they were usually grounded in the mechanical aspect of game design: how the math worked, the need for added detail to better model the genre, or because quirks of the core system made it confusing, counter-intuitive, or just plain impossible to model something using the basic rules. One thing I've never really thought about very much (at least not consciously) but have come to realize is just as important as the mechanical aspect of game design is what I guess you'd call the "psychological" component of game design. Sometimes the way the rules "feel" is as important as what they accomplish mechanically.
Imagine a system where players roll d10 and add a skill bonus between 1 and 3. If you treat super-powers as regular skills, Spider-Man's radioactive spider-induced climbing ability at 3 is no different from some extreme sports dudebro's wall climbing ability at 3. Both characters roll d10 and add 3. If you add a rule that characters using super-powers get to roll 3d4 instead of d10 the math doesn't change very much (Spidey's minimum and maximum rolls are 2 higher than Dudebro's), but the variant mechanic makes super-power rolls seem like something special since you're using a die mechanic that's different from the standard roll. I think the idea of having a character who gets to use special rules is one of the reasons that even players who don't really enjoy the sort of "deck-building" approach to character creation (finding abilities that are more powerful when combined in specific ways) still enjoy things like class abilities and feats and other mechanics that allow characters to break the normal rules. Getting to use special rules that aren't available to other players activates the "special snowflake" circuit in the player's brain or something.
For the first some-odd number of years that RPGs were around, nearly everything had a special rule. In addition to leading to all sorts of game-breaking rules and making games more confusing, and therefore less accessible to new players, it also decreased the "specialness" or rules that worked differently. If every skill, ability, and action has its own variant rule, variant rules kind of lose their value as conversation pieces.
More recently, the trend seems to be toward systems that separate the game mechanics (effect) from the story (description). It doesn't matter if you're hitting your opponent with a sword or calling down fire from the heavens, it still causes 2d6 damage. Since these sorts of systems allow more uniform rules and cut down on exceptions, they make perfect sense mechanically, but they eliminate that psychological component. If the only difference between one character and the next is the point or dice distribution, it can lead to gameplay where there's so little differentiation between different characters that you might as well skip the character sheets and flip a coin.
I think the ideal system is somewhere between the two extremes. Debates about more or less rules complexity are a red herring, kind of like debates about big versus small government. Most people want an effective government. Likewise, the right level of rules complexity is the level that results in rules that improve the players' enjoyment of the game without introducing complexity that doesn't add to the experience. The right level of complexity varies from game to game and player group to player group, which is why I'm trying to make Cinemechanix a game that you can adapt to the level of complexity you need instead of the level of complexity I personally prefer.
Most gaming sites have names like "Dungeon Monkeys" or "Narrative Pomposity" or something, so you may have wondered where the name "Death Cookie" came from. You also may not have wondered this, but you're about to find out anyway. Although we didn't actually buy the domain name until something like 2000, the name goes all the way back to the late 90s, when both the Death Cookie and the Hex Games website were subdirectories of my Mindspring account. There was a little squiggle in the URL and everything. Like most early websites, they were both terrible, but we found them amusing.
Since there are adults today who don't remember dial-up, it's important to understand that in the early days of widespread internet access, things worked differently than they do today. We didn't have social media, share buttons, Wikipedia, or even Google. In those days, if we wanted information we had to type a search string into Yahoo or Alta Vista or ArkJeeves and click links until we found something useful. Most of the time you didn't find what you were looking for (either nobody had made website for it yet, the site hadn't been indexed by the search engines, or you got a dead link because whoever had made the link had left their school or job and the account it was hosted on had been deleted), but you often found some really weird shit.
When you found something you wanted to share, how it got shared depended in part on the nature of the content and who you wanted to share it with. For "so-and-so might like this" sites or sites you wanted to send to someone in another town, you shot the link to the person (or people) in an email or posted it on a message board. So, for example, the first person in our gaming group to stumble across RPG.net probably sent out group email or posted it to one of the 7,000 message boards my friends and I ran on our college's mainframe system.
For the really good stuff, you saved it to share face to face. Back in those days, most social gatherings with a computer handy eventually turned into a game of "let me show you this site." Everyone crowded around our comically gigantic monitors with tiny screens and we'd read an "Ate My Balls" page or watch the hamster dance or keep punching movies names into the Oracle of Bacon trying to find someone with a (non-infinite) number higher than 4 (we finally succeeded after about 4 hours with Tetsuo II: Body Hammer). Even electronic memes were transmitted through person-to-person contact rather than electronically because the internet was still new and we didn't know how to use it yet.
Somewhere around this time, Leighton and I (and sometimes Dale) started writing QAGS. While we often worked diligently on the text, we also got distracted a lot. Part of this was because we worked in my apartment, which was right next to our college campus and people would randomly drop by when they were bored or visiting our friends Ray and Stacy downstairs. This often led to us looking at dumb web pages. Also, sometimes we just got burnt out and slaphappy from writing and started searching for dumb web pages. Since most pages were static, they provided limited enjoyment--"Mr. T Ate My Balls" is really only funny once--so you only went back to them if they came up in conversation and someone had never seen them, but at some point someone found the glorious exception: The Chick Publications website.
As anyone who's read Waxman's Warriors or my review of the Dark Dungeons movie knows, I have what is probably an unhealthy fascination with Jack Chick and his work, so I was especially happy to discover that the Chick website had many of his tracts available in HTML format. This led to a new web-based activity that happened more times than I would be entirely comfortable admitting: dramatic readings of Jack Chick tracts (the snooty little angel who said "His name's not in the book, Lord" had a Monty Python voice). Dark Dungeons was mandatory, but other favorites included DOOM TOWN and Hi There! Even though those got read multiple times, I'm pretty sure we made it through everything they had available (this was before every tract was online) at least once.
Once we'd finished with QAGS, we decided that we should use our website (such as it was) to do one of those fancy "E-zines," which is what we called blogs back then. Even though we had no plans of getting a domain name (or even any idea how to get a domain name), we decided we needed a name for the magazine. We went through lots of terrible, terrible names that I don't remember, then got bored and started reading Jack Chick tracts. One of them was called "The Death Cookie." In Chick-land, the title refers to the communion wafer eaten by the filthy Papists during their pagan rituals, but we thought it would be a good name for a gaming site. I remember a discussion about how that had nothing to do with gaming and probably was just a funny combination of words and in fact not a good name for a gaming site. I don't remember what was said during that discussion (I'm reasonably sure I was pro-Death Cookie), but the URL of this page makes it clear that we somehow convinced ourselves that "The Death Cookie" was a perfectly reasonable name for a gaming site. Alcohol may have been involved.
As most of you have probably guessed, this post was inspired by the death of Chick Publications founder Jack Chick last weekend. While the world is probably a better place without him around to spread his amoral and bigoted ideology, I'm thankful to Mr. Chick for the endless hours of entertainment that he's unintentionally provided me and my friends with. Maybe that will count for something when he gets judged by that giant glowing faceless Jesus.
A few weeks ago, I talked about some of the things that game-specific rules adaptations can accomplish, like clarifying how story concepts fit into the game rules or allowing for customization. The next section covers actually deciding whether or not to implement special rules for a specific story element. If you think of the first part as the theory, this section is about the practical application. The previous post helps you understand how different chemicals react with each other, this one helps you decide whether you really want to poor the blue vial into the red beaker.
One you’ve decided which story elements may need rules, it’s time to take a close look at how those rules will improve the game. If you’ve played other RPGs, you’ll probably assume that certain game elements need special rules simply because many games include rules for them. In reality, many of these common rules are holdovers from role-playing’s wargaming roots. They’re essential in a strategy game, but have few if any parallels in fictional sources. In fact, sometimes they lead to outcomes that contradict or violate the spirit of the source material. If the main reason you think you need a rule is that other games have similar rules, give extra consideration whether the rule is really necessary. Below are three things to take into account when deciding whether you need to go through the effort of creating game-specific rules for a particular story element.
There are tons of story elements in every game world that theoretically need rules, but you only have to worry about the rules that you’ll need for your game. For example, if your world includes dragons, those dragons presumably have game stats that describe their power and abilities. If the players are going to encounter those dragons, you’ll need to define those stats. If nobody’s seen a dragon in 500 years (and you have no immediate plan for the “mythical creatures return” cliche), you’re not going to need those stats. At most, you’ll need some story rules about what people in the game world believe about dragons. You don’t have to decide how accurate those beliefs are until Kitiara Targaryen shows up riding Smaug.
Is the thing that you’re considering creating a rule for important to the story, or merely a matter of description? If the absence of whatever the rule describes would only change the story cosmetically without altering the plot, you probably don’t need a rule for it. For example, would a character in the kind of story you’re telling actually get injured less often if he was wearing armor, or would the description merely change to reflect that he’s dodging attacks rather than just letting them bounce off of his plate mail? If the knight in shining armor and his half-naked barbarian friend suffer about the same number of injuries during a typical story, you don’t really need armor rules.
Sometimes story elements aren’t significant or immediately relevant, but are necessary to make the game flow smoothly and keep the story interesting, often by placing limits on player authorship or providing a way to settle differences of opinion about the direction of the story. For example, most fantasy stories don’t include any scenes of the wizard deciding what spells he’s going to learn, but it’s often helpful to establish which spells a PC wizard has at his disposal (or at least the general limits of the character’s magical ability) so the player doesn’t try to solve every problem that comes up with Marysueomancy. This will involve brainstorming and possibly even defining the details for spells that the player may not pick and coming up with guidelines for a spell selection process that doesn’t happen in the source material, but it’s unlikely that work will go to waste since most GMs will find a way to use it before the campaign wraps up. The necessity of gameplay rules is often a function of player group dynamics. Players who know one another and have similar storytelling sensibilities can usually get by with fewer and less detailed gameplay rules than groups who don’t.
Gameplay rules can also include variations that change the “feel” of the rules in order to underscore differences in the game world or assist the players in interpreting the results of dice rolls. For example, a world with monsters may include pixies, who are hard to hit because they’re really small and fast and agile, as well as trolls, who are slow and easy to hit but who have such thick skin that most weapons just bounce off without causing much damage. Both of these defensive advantages could be modeled with a Boost on defense rolls, but using the same mechanic leaves communicating how the monster avoided damage and deciding whether the player missed troll or just didn’t hit it hard enough up to the GM. Taking away the troll’s Boost and giving him an armor or soak rating that decreases any damage he takes (effectively giving the attacker an Effect Penalty) lets the rules underscore the difference. If the either creature wins the combat roll when defending, they dodge. If the troll loses the combat roll but its soak rating reduces the damage to 0, the player landed a blow, but the troll didn’t feel it.
Here's my essay from the third round of Thought Eater (you can click here for the post from D&D With Pornstars with the topic/rules for that round). I was eliminated this round, but there's still one more round where the two remaining writers will battle it out. Keep an eye on Zak's blog in the coming months for the two final essays.
Making Your Character A Character
You’ve just bought a new RPG for your group to try out, and if it’s organized like most RPG rulebooks there’s a players’ section and a GM’s section. If the game is at all well-designed, the GM’s section has tons of useful information to help you figure out what you’re supposed to do both before and during the game. There will be rules you need to know, tips on using the built-in conflicts of the game world as hooks for adventures and campaigns, formulas for coming up with the right level of challenge, ideas to help you set the tone and mood during the game (horror games in particular like to talk about music and lighting), tricks for making action resolution easier, advice on creating memorable NPCs, and lots of other stuff. In the players’ section, you’ll find--well--setting background and basic game mechanics.
Ok, some games go a little farther than that. Sometimes the players’ section also gives you a few paragraphs about creating a character backstory or coming up with character goals and story hooks, but it firmly falls into the preparatory “character creation” step of role-playing. If the rules tell you anything at all about how to play your character once the game begins, it’s all very generic surface-level characterization stuff, like “use an accent” or “give the character a distinctive mannerism or nervous tick” or “masturbate vigorously when your character triumphs.” Most game books tell you how to create a character sketch, but offer very little information about how to tell a story with that character. They help you create an action figure, but don’t tell you how to play with it. If you’re mostly interested in the strategy game aspect of role-playing (hacking monsters, solving puzzles, that kind of thing), that’s probably all you need. If you want to focus more on storytelling, it might not cut it.
You might be inclined to think that game books don’t talk about how to tell your character’s story because people can figure that out on their own. After all, it’s not like you have to give a kid instructions on how to use an action figure. The problem is that an RPG is not the same as playing childhood imagination games, no matter how many cookie-cutter “What Is Role Playing?” sections claim otherwise. There are a enough similarities that a lot of people can make the jump, but there are also enough differences that not everyone can figure out how to make their character and that character’s story a real part of the game. How many players have you seen show up to a game with pages and pages of character background that never comes into play during the game? Or worse, extensively detailed characters that they try to shoehorn into a game they don’t fit into well at all?
To tell a story with a character, you need three things. The first is a character that the audience (in this case, the other players) can identify with in some way. This is the kind of “don’t just make a dead-eyed murderhobo” stuff that lots of game books (and thousands of gaming articles and blogs) have covered endlessly, so there’s no need to waste ink on it here. The second is the sense that the character fits into the group: giving the character a reason to be there, the group a reason to keep him around, and building relationships between the characters. This often happens naturally, and can be improved by making sure everyone knows the premise of the game and building connections between PCs from the start, either by working out more than just who has to be the cleric during character creation or by using something like Dungeon World’s Bonds mechanic. Most groups have no problem with players talking about the game before it starts, it’s talking about the game after the characters have left the tavern that some people have a problem with.
For some games, that’s all you need. A mission (the story provided by the GM, whether in the form of individual adventures or an over-arching plotline), some characterization, and a sense of group unity were the key ingredients for most TV shows and movies until around the turn of the century. The thing that’s missing is the character’s story. Without character-driven subplots, the character doesn’t really have a life of his own. The character only exists within the context of the group and the story that the GM has set up (and sometime he’s only involved in that story because he happens to be a PC). Especially in today’s world of seasonal (as opposed to episodic) television and cinematic universes where every major character has their own story that weaves in and out of the main plotline, more and more gamers want their characters to have arcs and subplots as well, and that’s the thing that most RPG books don’t really explain how to pull off (the lacuna, for those of you who have been wondering when I’d get to the point for the last five paragraphs).
Most game books give the GM all kinds of information about telling the main story. Many also give the players good information for providing set-up for the character’s story (those pages and pages of background that never become relevant), but very few touch on how to make the background stuff an actual part of the game. Since story is traditionally the GM’s territory, the few games that talk about character-driven subplots put the pressure on the GM, assuming that it’s her job to bring all the stuff from the character background into the game. I think this is unfair to the GM (she already has enough to do) and to the player (who shouldn’t be completely dependent on the GM to tell his character’s story). It also ignores the reality of how most games work. In my experience, the players with fully-realized characters were the players who actively worked to tell their character’s story by playing character goals and introducing supporting characters, character-driven subplots, and other character-centric stuff in a way that naturally fit into the larger game (just forcing your way onto center stage just annoys everyone). They also worked with the GM to make sure the player’s story got told.
The “working with the GM” part seems to be where most games drop the ball, in part because most game designers seem to be writing for an extreme (and mostly straw man) audience. For games aimed at the “let the dice fall where they may” crowd, who are nothing but power-gaming munchkins, any out-of-character discussion about the game is meta-gaming*, which is inherently evil, so talking about it would alienate the audience. On the other end of the spectrum are games aimed at the “drama club” crowd, where it’s taken for granted that every character is a special snowflake and the GM is not allowed to cause them any “agency”-destroying inconvenience without a drawn-out negotiation where everyone talks about their feelings. These games either talk about character subplots in vague terms or just assume that anyone playing them already knows what they’re doing.
Most games ignore the vast majority of gamers who fall in the middle and want character-driven stories and surprises, but don’t really grasp how to accomplish it. That’s unfortunate, because RPG players are both audience and authors, so their connection to the story doesn’t fit the author/reader relationship, or even the co-author/co-author relationship. A lot of people, even game designers, have trouble grasping that. My third criticism of first-time adventure writers (after passive verbs and misplaced modifiers) is almost always that they’re trying to tell the GM a story rather than give the GM the tools to tell the story. If the stable boy is a vampire, the adventure writer needs to tell the GM about that when the stable boy is introduced, not when players are supposed to figure it out. On the player/GM side of things, if you want your character to settle his score with Jabba, you need to let the GM know that your character wants his debt to Jabba to be a subplot sometime during the game, and probably give her some background about Jabba and his resources. She’s got this whole “galactic civil war” plotline to deal with, so she’s not going to have a lot of time to fully detail the Hutt crime syndicate. At the same time though, you don’t get to stage manage your character’s encounter with Jabba or decide how it turns out. That takes away the uncertainty that makes the story fun. If you get some bad rolls and end up getting frozen in carbonite, you and the rest of the party have to deal with the consequences. It’s the risk you take when you decide you want your character to have his own story.
Giving players the tools to work with the GM to tell their characters’ stories requires accepting the idea that not all meta-gaming is bad (just like most spoilers don’t actually make a movie less fun to watch), recognizing that playing an RPG isn’t the same as either creating or consuming fiction, figuring out what division of authorship between players and GM allows the players to enjoy the story both as a co-creators and as audience members, and providing advice about how to talk about it so players can figure out what works for their group. On the most basic level, this missing section is something like “How to Compromise,” but it’s a little more complicated than that and requires breaking down some long-standing gamer fallacies about how fiction, gaming, and adult social interaction work. Some of this involves theory and process that’s kind of hard to pin down, some of it involves basic interpersonal communication stuff that’s obvious to most people and potentially deeply upsetting to the people who need it most. I think I’m starting to see why most game designers just skip it.
*While talking about the game does meet the dictionary definition of meta-gaming (if it were in the dictionary, at least), when I first encountered the word (probably in the early 90s, when people added “meta” to everything), it specifically referred to using player knowledge to give the character an unfair advantage. I’m not sure where or when the usage drifted to include any and all out-of-character discussion of the game, but I’ve run into it online and with a few flesh-and-blood gamers. Depending on which definition you’re going with, meta-gaming is either absolutely essential (actually talking about the game) or cheating (reading the module), but the negative connotation of the most obvious term for the kind of thing I’m talking about is kind of annoying.