Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Conversational Spirals - Closure in RPGs

What is Closure?

In Scott McCloud's book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, McCloud discusses various aspects of comics, including panel transitions, the use of gutters, and the reader's engagement with the page. McCloud introduces the concept of "closure," which refers to the mental process that occurs when readers fill in the gaps between panels to create a seamless narrative. He also discusses the idea that comics allow for a non-linear reading experience, where the reader can control the pace and revisit panels or sequences as they desire. 

On a comic page, the reader's eye can move all over. They can revisit earlier panels, even earlier pages, and reread sections. Your eye flicks between the text and the images, skips quickly over several panels of transitional art, then lingers over a beautiful, detail-rich spread. 

This is different than movies where you're trapped in the director's experience. Short of rewinding or bothering your wife by asking "Who was that guy again?", you experience the narrative through the tyranny of time's straight arrow.

Tension Spikes in RPGs

In the forthcoming Mothership Warden's Guide, Sean McCoy attempts to set realistic expectations of what a game looks like by illustrating the rising and falling action and tension of a game. 

It's not out yet, but everything I've seen coming out of this book is absolutely A+ material.

Sure, sometimes you take bathroom breaks, but when you're remembering the game after the event, those moments evaporate away--you had an amazing, exciting time. Your brain provides closure to the sequences of the evening's play.

Conversational Spirals

As a conversation game, trad RPGs have this essential structure:
  • The GM describes something.
    • The players ask clarifying questions.
    • The GM answers
  • The players describe their actions.
    • The GM asks clarifying questions.
    • The players answer.
  • The GM describes the consequences.
But as the participants of the game do this, they slip in and out of different tenses and moods--effortlessly and without confusion (usually). There are pauses, re-establishment of details, zooming in to get clarification on someone's position, skipping ahead in narrative time, skipping backwards in narrative time, editing details, jokes, laughter. 


Like movies, RPGs have directors (multiple competing ones!) pushing you and pulling you into different experiences. Like comics, you can linger on some moments, skip past others, return to points for clarification.

It's not just spikes, it's like this:

RPG play moves like eddies in the stream, little vortices of conversations spiraling. They loop back on themselves, but ultimately move down the river of time.  

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Mario vs ActRaiser vs Final Fantasy vs Zelda - Types of Advancement in RPGs

A new video game title came out recently and a few other bloggists did Zelda posts, so I felt left out and jealous. 

When you level up in a pen and paper RPG, you sometimes grow more powerful. Let's talk about types of TTRPG advancement by making a shaky analogy to the last video games I played: Super Nintendo Games. 

Mario advancement 

In Super Mario World, you gain power ups for sure. But Mario does not gain levels. He always takes damage the same way: If you're hit while Big Mario (even if you have a powerup like the cape), you become Small Mario. 

Advancement in Mario comes from you, the player, being better at the game. Your twitch reflexes get better, you learn the interactions from the different items in the game, you learn the patterns of the enemies, you learn the layout of the levels.

TTRPG paradigm: Player skill 

Some RPGs have little mechanical advancement. Often, these games are intended for one-shots, but some are intended for long term play even though they have few mechanics whatsoever (FKR is one example). But more broadly, this sort of paradigm comes into play for lots of games.

Player skill is noted as an important feature in OSR games. Learning that a troll's regeneration is stopped by fire is a player skill. Learning to drive pitons into the door of your room before you sleep is a player skill. Learning to listen at doors (and then not doing that because of ear seekers) is a player skill. Player skill makes you more successful at overcoming the challenges of the game in a persistent way.

ActRaiser advancement

In ActRaiser, you play as God ("The Master" in North America). You have to manifest to slay demons, and also help your worshippers build their towns by delivering well-timed miracles. Gameplay moves between two modes: platforming and "simulation" (which is really an overworld, top-down flight shooting/town building hybrid). 

TTRPG paradigm: Endgame shift

In ~D&D games, there's talk of tiers. 4E D&D covered three tiers of play (level 1-10 = heroic > 11-20 = paragon > 21-30 = epic). Other editions and D&D-alikes have cut this pie up in different ways (adventurer > conqueror > king), but the gimmick is still there. OSR bloggists insist that this is important. 

In practical terms, I've played lots of high level games and never really done domain management. I think this type of shift is rare, but understand that it exists for some people. 

Advancement in this paradigm comes from abilities that obviate the early challenges of the game. Dungeon challenges such as starvation, darkness, and spiked pits are completely overcome by higher level spells such as Create Food, Light, and Flight. 

(There's a reason that early tournament dungeons had long lists of spells that simply didn't work: Passwall, Teleportation, etc. Those spells removed the challenges of the dungeon, so they were removed from tournament play almost as soon as they were put in. Similarly, 3E making Create Food and Create Light into spammable cantrips removed dungeon crawling as the essential focus of the game. But I've digressed).

Once the early game challenges are trivialized, gameplay opens up into new pathways. This can be political intrigue in a city-centric game, getting your own castle and beginning a wargame with Chainmail, or blasting off in your spelljammer to explore other worlds.

Final Fantasy advancement

In Final Fantasy 6, you move around the overworld getting sucked into random and scripted battles, assembling a team of misfit heroes with different powers, and trying to save the world (and failing). Pure JRPG stuff. 

You begin the game fighting hornet and leaf bunny, and end the game fighting ymir and zone eater. You begin by casting Fire, which costs 4MP and deals 21 damage. You end by casting Ultima, which costs 80 MP and deals 150 unblockable damage. 

There's some new strategies that emerge as you have your full roster of heroes, but the gameplay is essentially the same. You get new powers, new spells, and new items that are slightly better than your old ones. Sometimes, you visit the starting levels and can totally destroy leaf bunny in one hit, but usually it takes the same number of moves to defeat the enemies in your current zone. 

TTRPG paradigm: Deep growth

Games coming from the design tradition of 3E (including Pathfinder and 5E) live in a space of "challenge ratings" and "adventuring days." The gimmick is this: The game should have narrative tension where players almost are defeated, but manage to win the day. At the end of a quest, you should be beaten, bloody, and without any spellslots, but you defeat the boss and get the McGuffin. If you're level 1, this might be a fight against goblins in a cave. At level 10, this might be a fight against giants and trolls in a cloud castle.

(These games claim (and consistently fail) to provide this experience, and all the number crunching in the world can't seem to get this right.)

Advancement in this paradigm comes from getting more, bigger numbers. You start off with a base attack bonus of +1. You end with a base attack bonus of +10. You start with 10HP. You end with 100HP. You can see the numbers going up, and that makes you feel good. 

Zelda advancement

In The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, your little guy (Zelda, I think his name is) explores a sandbox world. You can go anywhere, but find yourself facing roadblocks of "Big Boulder" and "Water." Later, you find the power glove that can move the boulder and flippers that let you swim. As you continue to explore and delve dungeons, you get all sorts of persistent power-ups that let you engage the game in new ways, traversing new environments or adding new types of moves and attacks to your core set. 

Link to the Past does have small bumps in advancement. The normal sword does 1 damage, the forged sword does 2 damage, and the master sword does 3 damage. But for the most part, advancement comes from the range of options available and the interactions between these items instead of more numbers. 

TTRPG paradigm: Wide growth

In some games, the number of abilities you have access to increases, but these abilities are neither inherently more powerful (Fire > Fire 2) nor game changers (Flight, Wish, Resurrection). Rather, they're incomparables.

His Majesty the Worm lives in this space. There are very few abilities that actually increase your base numbers; for example, your attributes never go up. But you can learn any talent in the game, training with your friends to learn their skills. 

Advancement in this paradigm comes from new options that let you approach problems in new ways. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Matrices of Blorbiness

Here are some discussions of different aspects of playstyle. In my RPG career, I have definitely sat at the table for all of these situations. And as of today, I have some crisp opinions about what I prefer.

Mandatory Apotropaic against the Nerd: There are lots of different sliding scales to measure RPG play, lots of legitimate ways of play, lots of things that enjoy at different times, etc. etc. 

The Blorb to Quantum Continuum

These are different experiences:

Situation 1

The GM has a puzzle to open a secret door.

The players don't know how to open the secret door, but push different buttons and twist different knobs. 

Each time they touch something, the GM describes something happening. 

The players keep pushing buttons until they understand the mechanism and input the right pushes and twists to open the door.

Situation 2

The GM has a puzzle to open a secret door.

The players don't know how to open the secret door, but push different buttons and twist different knobs. 

Each time they touch something, the GM describes something happening. 

The players keep pushing buttons until the GM thinks they look bored, then describes the players having a Eureka moment and the door opens.

Situation 3

The GM has a puzzle to open a secret door.

The players don't know how to open the secret door, but push different buttons and twist different knobs. 

The players look for a way to bypass the secret door. They roll Perception and get a 20. 

The GM thinks "Wow, a 20, that's really high." They then describe a secret panel that wasn't there previously. The panel gives them access to the trap's mechanisms, allowing them to bypass the door.

Here are three other different experiences:

Situation 1

The GM has a monster stat block. The monster has HD3+3.The GM rolls for HP and determines the monster has 7 HP.

The players hit the monster and do 6 damage. 

The monster gets to act next round.

Situation 2

The GM has a monster stat block. The monster has HD3+3.The GM rolls for HP and determines the monster has 7 HP.

The players hit the monster and do 6 damage. 

The GM decides that it'd look cool if they took it down in one hit, and what does it really matter. The GM describes the monster dying.

Situation 3

The GM has a monster stat block. He does not roll for HP.

The players hit the monster and do 6 damage. 

The monster takes as many actions as the GM wants, until the players look appropriately bruised and beaten for a monster of this level, then describes the monster dying.


Essentially, these three experiences differ in terms of "blorbiness" the situations have. 

Imagine a scale. On one end of the scale reality is fixed (blorby). On the other end of the scale, reality is uncertain as Heisenburg, with secret doors or extra ogres popping into existence as the GM needs them.

In our scenario, it seems that the GM is willing to bend the fictional reality out of concerns of the players' fun. (And nobody is arguing the players shouldn't have fun, so we can sympathize with our GM in these scenarios, even if we disagree with them.)

The Sandbox - Railroad Continuum

Here are two other experiences:

Situation 1

In a dungeon, one player character contracted a magical disease. They lose 1 point of Strength a day until they benefit from the Cure Disease spell.

The GM asks the players what they want to do. They decide to carry their diseased companion back to town.

The journey takes 12 days. The diseased player has 9 Strength. On the 10th day, the character succumbs to the disease and dies. That night, he rises again as a mummy. 

The rest of the players flee. The GM makes a note that a mummy now lives in hex 0201, about 2 days outside of town.

Situation 2

In a dungeon, one player character contracted a magical disease. They lose 1 point of Strength a day until they benefit from the Cure Disease spell.

Outside of the dungeon, the GM's favorite NPC -- who they played as a PC for years -- named MacMuffin the Wise is waiting for them. He casts Cure Disease on the poisoned character.

MacMuffin the Wise teleports the party to the Vorpal Plane, so they can use the Holy Sword they just got against MegaSatan.

These two scenarios differ in terms of how much the GM preps "plot." In one situation, the players have a good bit of freedom about where they can go. There's a map, and the GM has no expectations about the direction the players will necessarily go. In the other, the GM has a very clear idea of the events that will happen every session. First, the players get the Holy Sword. Then, they go to Hell. Then, they get defeated in Hell, and wake up in Ultra Hell. Then...

Combinatory Problems

With the caveat noted at the top of the article, there's a degree of success that occurs at certain coordinates of these two playstyles. 

BlorbRailroad: Sometimes, a GM has a very crisp idea in mind about how the door can be opened and how hard the monster is. When these expectations break down during play, frustration occurs.

When the players don't know how to open the puzzle door and there's no alternative egress, the players get frustrated.

When the GM creates a cool boss giant that gets one-shot KO'd by the players' broken, janky builds, the GM gets so mad he has to go outside to cool off.

Blorb principles create friction in a railroad because the fixedness of the fictional reality doesn't allow for the practicalities of sequential narrative scenes. The players cannot guess what the GM is thinking, and the GM cannot elegantly force the players to follow their story.

BlorbSandbox: In this quadrant, the GM has a crisp idea in mind about how the door can be opened. And if the players don't figure it out? They can leave. They can go back to town. They can look at the quest board to earn some extra coin. Then they can hire a team of dwarf hirelings to come with them back to the door and take the damn thing off of its hinges.

This quadrant can feel frustrating. When you limp victorious out of the dungeon but die to a swarm of low-level rats because you're at 1 HP, you did not have the Lord of the Rings experience you were hoping for.

This quadrant can be exciting. Hard-won victories where the players actually win through moxie and luck, not just as a foregone conclusion, are fun. When you abandon the riddle door and have an "aha" moment about how to get past it 3 months later, you feel like a genius. When you only have one arrow  and you actually kill the dragon with a super lucky critical hit, the whole table explodes in cheers.

(This is my favorite quadrant.)

QuantumSandbox: In this quadrant, the GM has a setting, a map, and some handy procedures. They also are committed to principles like improvisation or shared setting creation. They ask the players questions and use the answers. Nobody had previously imagined that the elves lived on the moon and rode meteors down to earth, but when the elf player mentioned this, everybody said "Wow cool." 

This quadrant allows for near infinite generative ability from the players and GM alike. Nobody knows exactly what's going to happen, and that's exciting.

This quadrant can also remove a feeling of mystery or discovery. If the answer to "Who killed Farmer Ben" is "Whoever the players make the most convincing argument against," then there's just a story that sort of feels like a murder mystery. Nobody really feels like Poirot.

QuantumRailroad: In this quadrant, the GM has a pre-prepared story, some scripted fight scenes, some pretty painted minis, and the players are along for the ride. 

When the players buy into it, this can be fun. The GM artfully makes the fight sequences feel tough but fair from behind the mystery of the GM screen. Nobody knows whether they really rolled high enough on Perception to see the secret door, but the secret door is found. And down this hallway? An ogre! Wow! That ogre mini is very well painted, you did a great job on that Steve.

This can also be a frustrating experience. Every fight is just a quicktime event. The fun of making a character is all in the pre-planned 1-20 "build" process, not the actual "discovery of a character through roleplaying." And down this hallway? An ogre. No matter what. 


Saturday, May 13, 2023

Dolmenwood HIS MAJESTY THE WORM House Rules

I've been a big fan of Dolmenwood for a long time now. I bought almost all of the Wormskins back in the day (losing out on some of the first and the last one). Gavin's house rules for camping, hex crawling, hunting, etc., wheedled their way into my brain and served as inspiration for HIS MAJESTY THE WORM's own focus on the micro-scale. How are you keeping warm and snug in a dungeon? What exactly are you eating? These questions are important for me.

Having drawn my playtest of HIS MAJESTY THE WORM to a close (total 8 years, ~5 years in the same campaign) I wanted to run a different game. Dolmenwood has been on my vision board for a while, so out of the dungeon, into the wilds!

My group is doing their session 0 on Tuesday. Here are the materials I've prepped for them.

(It's entirely possible that these rules are pat nonsense to anybody unfamiliar with HIS MAJESTY THE WORM. I apologize. I hope when the book comes out, maybe these house rules are useful to you.)

Art by Tom Kilian, who also has some pieces in HIS MAJESTY

Character creation

His Majesty the Wyrm Lifepath Character Generation - I had half of this written, then my players said "What if we were a coven of witches?" Most of them haven't read the intro yet, and I was hesitant to align them with a particular faction yet, so I went with an Umbrella Academy-esque/"Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters in Dolmenwood" bit. 

A lot of this is directly inspired by Beyond the Wall, my favorite OSR hack. 

I hate how specific this is. When players uncover other factions and unlock other player choices, I'm going to have to do more work to make this generic and applicable more broadly. But I also think some of these choices are pretty flavorful and fun.

House rules

Dolmenwood HMTW Player's Guide - Since we're moving into the overland play space, I adapted and expanded the optional hexcrawling rules. Then I pulled in a bunch of Dolmenwood specific flavor stuff that I think players will want to know--what food can I buy at this inn? What do the herbs do?

I've been playing HIS MAJESTY THE WORM by the book for 8 years because I wanted to make sure the rules worked as intended, but I hate playing any game by the rules (and don't expect anybody else to stick to the rules when they play the game). This campaign is a chance for me to mix stuff up. Introduced a bunch of new talents here for the setting. Playing fast and loose here, no promises that these will work.