Whenever someone suggests that sometimes its ok to ignore the rules, someone else inevitably asks why you should even bother to use rules if you're not going to slavishly follow them at all times, apparently to make sure that the discussion is safe from crows. A super-secret project that I'm currently working on required me to answer that question in some depth. This is what I came up with:
Due to a combination role-playing’s wargaming roots and an early focus on combat and puzzle-solving that led to an adversarial relationship between players and GMs, the first few generations of RPGs were played like strategy games. The “win conditions”--which usually involved survival, overcoming obstacles and increasing your character’s power--were more open-ended than for a board or card game, but early RPGs were still mostly about finding ways to optimize or exploit the rules in your favor. These early games included elements of storytelling, but telling stories wasn’t the main focus.
Storytelling games have more in common with party games in which there’s really no way to win purely through mastery of the game rules. No matter how well you understand the rules of Pictionary, you’re not going to win if nobody can figure out what you’re trying to draw. Also like party games, “winning” has more to do with having fun with your friends than achieving victory conditions, even if those victory conditions are just a vague notion of character success. In fact, since the goal is to tell a good story, some games are more fun when characters suffer dramatically interesting failures. Storytelling games have more in common with Who’s Line Is It Anyway? than Risk.
Rules play a very different role in storytelling games than in RPGs rooted in strategy gaming. The goal of the rules in a storytelling game isn’t to reward players who master the game system or to satisfy some vague notion of fairness or to settle interpersonal conflicts so players don’t have to talk to each other like grown-ups. The goal of the rules in a storytelling game is to help the players tell the story. The following sections explain how.
The Rules Provide Structure
Collaborative storytelling without rules can be awkward for a lot of people. While childhood imagination is viewed as acceptable and even positive, engaging in imaginative pursuits as an adult is considered a little weird, at least when there’s no secondary motive like personal growth or monetary gain. Even players who don’t feel self-conscious or silly are sometimes intimidated by free-form storytelling due to lack of clear expectations. The game format provides an aura of purpose that makes pretending to be a fictional character seem more acceptable and the rules themselves provide guidelines and set expectations by defining characters and other story elements.
The Rules Improve the Story
Predictable stories are almost always boring stories. It’s the twists, turns, and complications that keep the audience interested. Through the randomness provided by the dice, the game rules add an element of unpredictability that can send the story in unexpected directions. This both improves the story and provides more challenge to the players, since they have to react to these deviations from the obvious path.
The Rules Help Fill In the Details
Scenes that rely heavily on character interaction are natural to GM and play because we get a reasonable facsimile of what the audience would experience. We hear the characters’ dialog and in most cases see at least some approximation of their emotional reactions through the other players’ facial expressions, vocal cues, and body language. Our acting and dialog might not be ready for prime time, but it's usually good enough to ensure that everyone understands what’s going on in the scene.
When it comes to action scenes, things become considerably more difficult because more of the important details only exist in the imaginations of the players. Since everyone’s brain works differently and most players aren’t mind readers, it can be difficult to make sure everyone understands what’s going on, which in turn makes it hard to make sure that the scene flows in a dramatically satisfying way. On top of that, players have to verbally describe scenes on the fly that they’re used to experiencing visually or through carefully written (and re-written) prose, which can make it hard to decide what should happen next. The rules provide some structure to help ensure that everyone’s on the same page and the dice rolls themselves provide a sense of the ebb and flow of the action by organizing the flurry of activity into discrete actions that we can interpret and react to.
The Rules Settle Questions of Credibility
Orson Welles once said of James Cagney, “No one was more unreal and stylized, yet there is no moment when he was not true,” and the accepting the difference between realism and truth is an important step in understanding story-drive role-playing. Stories don’t have to be realistic, they have to be credible, and what is and isn’t credible has more to do with genre conventions and dramatic resonance than scientific fact. A good super-hero movie can make you believe a man can fly, but the exact same scene would completely ruin the credibility of most buddy cop films.
In RPGs, like in most fiction, establishing credibility is mainly about storytelling: making sure the story follows its own rules, the world is consistent, and the character’s actions and decisions make sense. Game mechanics usually come into play when there’s a question of whether or not it’s believable for a character to do something. In most fiction, convincing an audience that a character’s actions are credible is a function of the way in which the audience experiences the story; an author does it with words, an illustrator with pictures, and a filmmaker relies on the actors’ performances, special effects, and assorted Hollywood magic. Whether the scene is credible is obvious in the finished product.
Since RPGs take place completely within the imaginations of the players, we don’t have the kind of experiential clues that most audiences use to determine credibility, and the fact that we’re the creative team as well as the audience makes our judgement suspect anyway. We use dice and game rules to fill in that gap. Since RPGs are created and experienced simultaneously, we also don’t have the luxury of re-writing scenes that aren’t credible. Instead of writing things that aren't credible out of the story, we treat them as attempts that didn’t succeed and try to make the story work in light of the consequences of those failures. It’s one of those dice-motivated challenges we mentioned earlier.
Some character actions, like walking across the room, are obviously possible. Others, like ascending to a higher plane of existence and becoming a being of pure energy, are clearly not possible (at least in most games). For these kinds of actions, you don’t need to bother with the rules. For actions that fall between the two extremes, you may need to roll some dice. Some common situations in which rules are used to settle questions of credibility are described below.
When There Are Extenuating Circumstances
If Robin Hood is practicing archery, he hits the bullseye every time. There’s no need to roll because the character’s skill with a bow is so well-established that failure would actually be less credible than flawless success. If he’s trying to make the same perfect shot to win a wager that will save Little John from execution using a warped bow while Guy of Gisbourne screams insults into his ear, his success isn’t quite so inevitable, so the rules come into play. Common extenuating circumstances include:
- The character faces direct opposition from or is competing with another character
- The character is trying to perform the action under difficult conditions or without the proper resources and equipment
- The character is under pressure due to severe consequences for failure, time constraints, or other distractions
- When how well the character succeeds is important; for example, if the character is trying to impress someone or is being judged on how stylishly or skillfully he accomplishes the action. In this situation, the roll isn’t so much used to determine success or failure (unless there are other extenuating circumstance) as to provide a metric for determining the quality of the character’s performance or the quality of finished product (if the character is rolling to create something).
When There’s a Gap Between Player and Character Knowledge, Competence, or Experience
John “Bluto” Blutarsky is a pretty skilled motivational speaker, so he should have a decent chance of rallying the troops even the the guy playing him has trouble finding the right words and stumbles over his lines. On the flip side, the English major in the gaming group can almost certainly name the characters in The Great Gatsby with no problem, but is it really believable that the Larry the Cable Guy-inspired character he’s playing would recognize the name Nick Carraway? Rolling the dice allows the GM to decide whether the character’s incompetence cancels out the player’s ability (or vice-versa), whether the character knows something the player doesn’t, and whether the character shares a particular piece of knowledge with the player.
The experience gap refers to situations where the outcome is based on things the player can’t fully experience. For example, the player’s only indication of what the character sees and hears is what the GM describes to him. If it’s uncertain whether or not the character would notice something, the GM either has to make an arbitrary decision or roll some dice. Character memory is another good example of the experience gap, since the character probably remembers details that the player has forgotten or never knew in the first place.
When Something Seems Out of Character
Every character has thousands of skills that they had to learn at some point. They also have brains full of information that they’ve picked up over the course of their life. For example, most 21st Century Americans know how to do basic math, drive a car, and use a smart phone, among other things. They also know the rules to half a dozen or so sports, a random smattering of history, science, English, and other things they remember from school, and the lyrics to hundreds of pop songs and commercial jingles.
Since trying to translate everything a character knows or can do into game mechanics would require months of player time and a character sheet several hundred pages long, and it would still be incomplete, we have to assume that the character knows and can do a lot of things completely unrelated to the abilities described on his character sheet. Usually, a character’s assumed abilities and knowledge are obvious from the character concept and other things we know about the character, so there’s no need to bother with the dice unless there are extenuating circumstances. However, if a player wants to do something that’s so far outside of his character’s wheelhouse that it stretches credibility--for example, if a hedge fund manager wants to operate a backhoe--he should have to roll.
Rolling Dice Can Be Fun
Whenever you roll a die, there’s a moment of anticipation. When combined with good storytelling techniques, this anticipation can make things more exciting, create tension, or even make the players nervous (especially if the GM asks them to make a roll without explaining what they’re rolling for). Relying solely on dice rolling to set the scene is a terrible idea, but if the players seem bored, coming up with an excuse to let them roll some dice can sometimes get them back in the game.
Marvel might have coined (or at least popularized) the term “cinematic universe,” but it’s not a new idea. It’s the way comic book universes have worked for decades, and according to one theory nearly every TV show ever made takes place in a cinematic universe inside a snow globe. A cinematic universe is basically a universe with crossovers, and in my opinion the crossover points are what differentiate a cinematic universe from just a shared world. A shared world has a sense of continuity (the PCs from another campaign are now kings and high priests and guildmasters), a cinematic universe has a sense of coexistence (the PCs from another campaign are out in the world doing things RIGHT NOW).
My first experience with an RPG cinematic universe was the super-heros game that (QAGS co-creator) Leighton Connor started running when we were in college. The game started out as a standard supers game, but as time went on we started occasionally playing sessions that didn’t revolve around the PCs we normally played. Sometimes they were “zeppo” type episodes about supporting cast members, sometimes we’d play another team of super-heroes that had previously appeared in the game, and sometimes we made up entirely new characters, usually based around a specific theme like “teenage wannabe supers” or “professional monster hunters” (which was how M-Force was born). Sometimes we even played the villains. Most of these games were contemporary with the main campaign, but we did sometimes play historical games as well as games set in the (possible) future, mirror universes, and lots of other weird places in space and time.
One of the things that I think contributed to the success of the game (we played it for something like six years) was that Leighton didn’t GM all of those spin-off games himself. He ran some of them, but he also left plenty of room for players to say “hey, how about next week I run a game about Australian super-heroes?” Whenever we players took over a little chunk of the world for our own game, it got us more invested in the world as a whole and the primary campaign Leighton was running. It also introduced new ideas that probably wouldn’t have ever come up if Leighton was the sole GM. Even if nothing from a side-game ever appeared in the main story, the fact that it was there made the whole world seem more alive and vibrant.
Want to give it a try for yourself? Here’s my advice:
- Make sure this style of play will work for your group. If the players tend to see the GM as an opponent rather than an ally, you're probably going to run into all kinds of problems.
- It's usually a good idea to have one main GM who's in charge of coordinating the overall storyline and making sure all the parts fit together.
- When someone runs a side-game, there should be a plan for how many sessions it will take, but don’t force an ending just to keep on schedule. It’s usually better to tell a complete story (or at least get to a good cliffhanger) before moving on to another one. You don’t pause the Avengers movie halfway through to watch an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., even if the episode takes place between two scenes of the movie.
- Respect the other GMs’ ownership of their creations. Chances are that if they introduced a new character, faction, or other story element into the campaign, they’ve got plans for it. Unless a GM has specifically released a creation into “public domain,” always check with them before doing anything that expands upon or alters what’s already established.
- If you haven't done this before, it's usually best to keep the crossover between different sub-games to a minimum at first. As people get more comfortable with sharing the world, you can start bringing the different character groups and story arcs together.
As many of you already know, today is the official start of Shark Week (though if you're like me you started early with the Rifftrax Live presentation of Sharknado 2 last Thursday). As many of you also know, I wrote a shark-themed supplement called Sharktoberfest a few years ago. To celebrate Shark Week, we're offering the print version of Sharktoberfest for just $10 at Drivethru. In order to get the deal, you've got to use this link. The sale lasts until the premiere Sharknado 3 ends on July 22.
For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Sharktoberfest is one of our "plug and play adventures," like Roller Girls Vs. and IMP, where we provide a basic set-up for an adventure and then several variant story ideas that you can plug into the formula. For Roller Girls Vs. and Fratboys Vs., it's things for the Roller Girls or Fratboys to fight. For IMP, it's different things for those wacky aliens to try to invade. For Sharktoberfest, it's what we called Sharkbominations: basically different mash-ups that include the word "shark." Some of them, like Sharks on a Plane, were included because they were so dumb they made me giggle. Others, like Sharkmageddon and the Unishark, were included because our artists, James and Lindsay Hornsby, wanted to draw them. One of them, Sharkcano, was mostly included as a clear homage to Sharknado, just in case anybody still hadn't figured out the inspiration for the game. (You can read more about the making of Sharktoberfest here).
Here's the basic description of the Sharkcano plug-in:
"Mount Haleakala on the island of Mauihasn’t erupted in over 200 years, maybe longer, and it’s a good thing, too. Unknown to both the locals and scientists, several species of sharks have taken up residence in the warm subterranean tunnels beneath the mountain. If the volcano were to erupt (which it will), it’s likely that the movement would break down the walls of these tunnels, expelling thousands of sharks out of the volcano along with the lava, rock, and other normal volcanic discharge."
According to a video that's gone semi-viral this week (at least in the feeds of those of us who are obsessed with dumb shark movies), it's not quite as unrealistic as it sounds. Sure, the scientist say that an eruption would kill the sharks rather than spewing them unharmed (but possibly on fire) from the volcano, but science has no sense of drama. Here's the video:
Last week, I set out to answer a question we get periodically, “when are you guys releasing more Qerth books?” but kind of got sidetracked explaining what happened with Qerth (and our company, and the game industry) between the time we started writing it in 1997 or 1998 and the book’s eventual release in 2006. The book (and later the PDF) wasn’t a blockbuster, but it sold well enough that we could justify releasing more books. We wanted to release more books, in part because there was a lot of material (including character advancement tables beyond Rank 3 and a whole bunch of spells) that was already written. But outside of The Dungeon of Moderate Annoyance adventure (which Joshua LH Burnett wrote and illustrated), we still haven’t released any new Qerth books. There are a few reasons for that.
As most of you know, the Qerth Apprentice Level Rules are set up much like the D&D basic set. By doing this and including information for the first few levels, we kind of locked ourselves into that format. Since we already had the advancement tables (several of which form complex extended jokes when you look at them as a whole), some of the spells and at least ideas for monsters, magical items, boring minutia, and all the other stuff, this mostly made sense at the time.
The problem with the format is that since most of the things in the first book existed only to make fun of old school D&D (there’s even a section in the GM part of the book that basically says “Oh sweet Jesus don’t try to play this game as written!”), and since we’d already hit the most common tropes and cliches in the first book, filling out the additional books meant either repeating the same jokes in slightly altered format or making fun of increasingly obscure elements of fantasy gaming that only some members of the audience will get. Following the format also meant spending a lot of time on tedious filler. It’s fun to write a couple of goofy monsters, dumb magic items, or pointless rules, but writing enough of them to fill a book gets boring really fast. As a result, a lot of the fun-to-write parts of the future Qerth books has been done for years, but there’s a lot of filler that needs to be written if we want to release a book that continues the “Blank Level Rules” format. It’s really hard to get the time and energy to write filler, especially when there are a other projects in the works that involve writing something fun or interesting.
The other problem with writing Qerth is the authorial voice of the book. Even though everything about the game is stupid, it’s written in the voice of someone who thinks all this nonsense is pure genius. It’s the voice of a gamer most of you have run into at some point: the guy who’s covering just truckloads of social awkwardness and insecurity under a layer of know-it-all pomposity. Writing in the Qerth style requires capturing just the right mix of stupid ideas, totally unfounded smug superiority, and years of unresolved butthurt. While I’m sure there are better writers who can just sit down and write whatever tone they need, I can’t do it. To make Qerth work, I’ve got to be in just the right frame of mind. When the Qerth Muse (or maybe Eris) is there, I can churn out Qerth material. When she’s not, it’s tedious and slow and painful and I usually end up deleting most of it because it just doesn’t work. Unfortunately the Eris doesn’t drop by very often, doesn’t stay long, and usually shows up when I’ve got more important things to do.
Long story short, the reason it’s taken so long for us to write new Qerth material is because the rules set format require generating a ton of material that nobody wants to write. So we’ve decided not to write it. Most of the stuff that adds to the experience of the game is already done, so instead of holding it back until we can force ourselves to write filler that doesn’t improve the game in any way, we’re going to just pretend the filler already exists. Instead of the Journeyman Level Rules, our next Qerth product is going to be The Comprehensive Soldier. The Comprehensive Soldier “reprints” pertinent soldier-related information (like advancement tables) for the “previously published” Qerth rules sets along with new material Soldier characters. Other Comprehensive Splat guides will follow. This format allows us to get most of the rules we’d intended to put in the Blank Level Rules series without having to write all the stuff that we don’t want to write and you don’t want to read. Since Qerth is as much a joke as a game, we think this is a fine solution, and referencing books that don’t exists seems especially appropriate to a game where Eris plays an important role.
We’ve got the Comprehensive Soldier mostly written, so it should be out in the relatively near future.
Except for last week’s blog about running con games, I’ve been doing a lot of shameless self-promotion here recently. I’m going to continue the trend again this week, but at least this time I’m using it as a sloppy segue into the main topic of the column. But first, the whoring: Brainfart Press (which is basically what I call myself when I publish incredibly unmarketable books, like Obscure Early Bluesmen (Who Never Existed)) has just released its second publication, The Callypigian Grimoire: A Discordian Activity & Spell Book. It’s completely full of stupid shit. You can download it for free from the Brainfart Press page or order a print copy through CreateSpace or Amazon. I recommend a print copy, but since I actually make a buck or two off those, the recommendation is based on an ulterior motive.
And speaking of Discordianism, some of you may know that the entire world of Qerth is based on the idea that Eris want some good cheese! See, I told you it was a sloppy segue. As you can probably guess from the cover, Qerth is a D&D parody. It’s not one of our best-known books, but I do get semi-regular questions about it through the web site, most of them asking when we’re going to come out with the next set of rules (like the original D&D rules, the first Qerth book only gives rules for the first few levels (or Ranks, as we call them)). My answer usually sounds like an evangelical Christian’s answer when someone asks them when Jesus is coming back. Something along the lines of “It’s going to happen, but nobody can know when.” The real answer is complicated and requires understanding the history of Qerth, which is what I’m going to focus on this week. The background involves some behind the scenes details about how things work at an incredibly small game company and ties into the changes in the game publishing industry over the last decade or so, so hopefully even non-Qerth fans will find some of this interesting. Next week I’ll get into the current status of future Qerth products.
Qerth was actually the very first QAGS supplement that Leighton and I started. In fact, I think we wrote the very first pieces of Qerth (the introduction and some of the Job tables) when we were still working on QAGS. We kind of lost momentum and started working on other things, but returned to it periodically when inspiration struck. It was pretty low priority though, for a couple of reasons. There was a concern about whether it was “marketable,” although since our distribution network at that point consisted of the store where I worked, our website (the URL of which at the time was “www..mindspring.com/~sejohnson; this was the late 90s and domain names were still kind of pricey), and teh occasional con, marketability was kind of a moot point. The bigger problem was that at that point we were doing digest-sized, staple-bound books printed by a company that was one step up from Kinko’s (you can download most of those old books in PDF format for free on our website if you want to see our incredibly humble beginnings for yourself), and there was just no way a book the size of Qerth was going to work in that format.
Eventually, we graduated to producing grown-up books, which got rid of the format limitations. Unfortunately, it also made marketability an actual concern. This was still back in the days of traditional printing, so printing a book meant printing at least 2,000 copies, so we had to worry about whether or not we could sell the things. Since we were selling our books through traditional distribution channels, that was at least theoretically possible, but since we were printing each book with the proceeds from the previous book, we couldn’t take the risk on something as iffy as Qerth. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of calling Qerth “iffy” when most of our profits were from a 64-page digest-sized black and white rules system written mostly as a joke. I’m not completely disconnected from reality. When Hackmaster came out, we discovered that a D&D parody was a marketable idea (at least if you had an incredibly popular comic behind it), but the niche was now filled and we realized it would be hard to market Qerth as anything but a Hackmaster clone. We still worked on Qerth occasionally, and even ran it at conventions (one of my favorite con games ever was a high level Qerth game at DragonCon where the players got attacked by a living mountain and then had their henchmen fight the dragon off-screen while they raided the treasure hoard), but its publication seemed farther away than ever.
When Print on Demand came along, we were freed from spectre of huge printing costs, but traditional distributors (especially the 800 pound gorilla) had something called “returnability,” which meant they still ordered huge quantities (which we had to pay to print), then returned whatever didn’t sell after a year or so. Since even our “marketable” products were very niche, we eventually realized that traditional distribution wasn’t for us. By the time we’d printed all the books that the distributors ordered, paid them back for the books that didn’t sell, and paid for shipping both ways, it added up to more than we made from the books that did sell. This called for some serious re-thinking of our business plan.
There were really two reasonable options. One was to just call it quits. The other was to produce stuff that would actually sell (like maybe getting in on the d20 glut) but that we had absolutely no interest in creating. We decided to go with the third option. Since we could now literally print a single copy of a book if we wanted to, we decided that we’d write what we want and just print what we need to sell on our website (which by this time had a real URL), any stores that would deal with us personally outside of the distribution channel, and at conventions. It meant resigning ourselves to working day jobs and doing games as a hobby, but it also meant that we wouldn’t be hemorrhaging money to print books for the distributors to store for a year and then ship back.
Thanks to the rise of the PDF game market, this plan eventually kind of worked out for us, but at the time we were just happy that we could keep making games for ourselves and that we’d found a few people who also enjoyed the games we made. It was oddly freeing, because it meant we could do anything we wanted or, as we sometimes put it we could “embrace the stupid.” There was nothing stopping us doing Qerth, so we started working on it.
Even though at this point Qerth was basically being written for our personal gratification, we wanted to differentiate it from Hackmaster. By that point, we’d learned enough about Hackmaster to realize there was a pretty significant difference. Hackmaster is a parody of D&D, just like “White & Nerdy” is a parody of “Ridin’ Dirty.” It’s basically the same thing as old D&D, just with funny “lyrics.” Even at that point, Qerth was a satire of D&D; to continue the Weird Al analogy, the relationship is closer to the one between “Everything You Know Is Wrong” and songs of They Might Be Giants. The satire of Qerth was a nastier than Weird Al’s satire, but it kind of became our hook for writing the rest of the game.
Based on the satire hook, we decided that we wanted to make a game where all the dumb shit in D&D actually made sense in the context of the world. We’d already done some of that with the idea that the Knomes were secretly setting up the dungeons as training grounds to fulfill the “And Lo, There Shall Come A Cheese Maker” prophesy--the inclusion of Cheese Makers was to fulfill Leighton’s long-time dream, based on a single non-weapon proficiency in the Complete Humanoid Handbook, of running a campaign that prominently featured cheese making--but hadn’t really figured out the end game. I think it was when we were trying to come up with a context for the weird-ass D&D style magic system that we first introduced Eris, and that’s when everything clicked. Qerth was a fake world built on the Golden Apple (you can actually see part of the word “Kallisti” on the map if you look closely) because Eris wanted some cheese. Which brings us back to where we started and gives me a chance to once again remind you to buy my stupid Discordian magic and puzzle book.
Next week: Exciting Qerth News!