2015-04-14 A Poem for a Setting

Zak says on his blog, that “[…] a poem should be more than sufficient to describe a setting.”

The rusting earth is warm and breathes
The earth churns and in the depths we breed
Lick water from stone
Suck marrow from bone.

We burned down every hall of gold
Melted down every statue, broke everything we got
Now all we have is mold
We work the earth and rot.

I am not happy.

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2015-04-06 Mass Effect

So, I had a little Easter Convention at our place this weekend. On Saturday we played Darkening Skies by Chris Sakkas, an unofficial chapter two for Lady Blackbird by John Harper. On Sunday we played the Mass Effect Fate RPG by Don Mappin et al. If you know nothing about Mass Effect, you might want to look at the Mass Effect page on Wikipedia.

We had decided upon Mass Effect on Saturday evening so I spent maybe an hour or two reading the rules. On Sunday morning, I spent an hour or two looking for adventure ideas online. Let all past and future sages praise the fabulous Mass Effect Wiki. I finally settled on the events described in Mass Effect: Revelation. I had one player who still wants to play the game and so I felt prequel stuff made good material.

The prep I did was this:

  • print enough empty character sheets; the character sheets available for download are form fillable which is great but I didn’t feel like I could create characters in what little time I had left – we were going to spend nearly two hours creating Fate characters including back story and common adventures, the complete package
  • print a copy of the one page reference guide for everybody; excellent call!
  • print two copies of the ranged weapon list for kicks
  • print the power cards: thirty something pages, ugh!
  • print a list of ten names for every species and gender using the Mass Effect Fantasy Name Generators
  • take notes based on my wiki reading on a graph

My notes:

As you can see, I didn’t get to the stats at the end. The PDF has templates for enemies at three different thread levels. Excellent! I had seen the templates for Blue Suns mercenaries, Human Ruffians and a Krogan Battlemaster, so I felt certain I could improvise whatever came my way.

If you read the wiki you’ll note that the story starts as two different threads, one following Saren to Juxhi, the other following Anderson to Elysium and both ending up at the Dah’tan manufacturing plant for a showdown with Skarr. I took notes the way I did because I wanted the players to have the choice to investigate any of the different paths. In the end, they discovered that the Turian thieves had handed over the stolen weapons to some human weapon dealers and decided not to follow the trail to Juxhi but spent some time finding their employers, the Blue Suns, and following that lead via a bar looking like Afterlife in Omega, where Aria runs the show, until they finally tracked down Edan Had’dah at the Dah’tan manufacturing plant. That’s when they learned that the Blue Suns were going to attack Sidon. They sent warning and evacuated the survivors a few days later. Then they went back to the local Blue Suns headquarter and tried to force them into an agreement. No more stealing from Turian freighters, as their mission demanded. A fight ensued, which the Blue Suns eventually conceded and all was resolved in the players favor. There were some hints of things to come, the Sovereign, the Geth, Protheans.

I was happy with the plot. At first I thought I’d need more maps or pictures, but in the end Fate isn’t a map based game and the video game may have a lot of map-oriented shooting but the story itself doesn’t really depend on maps. It’s just interesting locations and systems. This worked very well.

Character generation took a long time but one of my players had never played a Fate game before and she liked the character creation system. I had A6 index cards on which they wrote beginning, middle and end of three adventures, and that really worked.

I was unhappy with the fight. Should I have used just one heavy hitting boss and a ton of mooks? I used a “moderate threat” mercenary for every player (Guns +3) and a boss (Guns +5) and the players were all veterans (apex skill at +5), It took a long time for shields to go down. Luckily I remembered making concessions is part of the game and broke it off after the third mercenary went down. As I’ve said a few years ago, I don't like bennies (or Fate points). This cushions the entire experience and invalidates it, as far as I am concerned. When we talked about it after the game, we all agreed on the difference between heroic deeds and Hollywood action. It just isn’t a “sacrifice” if you have a enough Fate points to cushion the blow. Jörg then suggested the perhaps this would change over time. If we played a longer campaign, the aspects would grow in importance. Players would compel each other. We’d start taking an interested in those particular aspects and we’d want to see how characters grow and change. Perhaps!

Before starting the fight I also made sure people had the necessary shields, armor and weapons based on their abilities. In the rules, any of Resources, Leadership, Rapport, Contacts or Security allows you to buy, steal or borrow equipment. And so we made sure they all had the necessary equipment before going into the one and only fight of the session.

I have always liked the Diaspora rules. In 2010 I ran a short lived campaign where we moved from Traveller to Diaspora. Unfortunately I had missed the document Hacking Diaspora to Mass Effect. That would have been around 100 pages instead of around 250 pages. Perhaps that would have worked better? It would have been less crunchy, perhaps!


Comments on 2015-04-06 Mass Effect

Alex Schroeder
Some interesting comments on Google+:

Jack Gulick says, it comes down to “if you want Fate to be a game about hard choices, force a lot of hard choices.” … Don’t let your other-RPGs instincts to keep things “fair” and “possible” get in the way.”

Robert Hanz adds, One of the things that’s still a hard habit for me to break is the fact that good GMing in Fate would qualify as Being a Dick in most other games.

Sarah Newton has very pragmatic advice: My sweet spot for combat is 3-5 rounds. Giving the major NPC any kind of damage bonus makes him nasty - anything that can force a consequence on every hit by overloading the PCs stress tracks makes him very scary and something to avoid. You can then unbalance the PCs my using the minor NPCs mobs more for the attritional wearing down of stress, leaving them in a dilemma as to where to spend their fate points.

Robert Hanz also has a separate post where he goes into the problems a traditional gamer might have when they begin playing Fate. I felt that the middle in particular did some excellent bridge building. He argues that you should make it hard for the players and not hold back because the worst case is not a total party kill. It’s just a different kind of story that will emerge. He says when I see questions like “how do I make sure a fight is challenging, without having the players lose”, my answer is “who cares?” Make it tough. Let them buy their way out of it and carry those consequences. Or let them lose, and let the story go that way.

Now I’m searching the forum for Robert Hanz’s series Fate Core Thought of the Day, e.g. Fiction First, Fiction-Rules Interaction, and Nonsensical Results.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-04-06

Alex Schroeder
Follow up discussion here, at the bottom of the page.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-04-08 06:34 UTC

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2015-03-25 Railroading

I recently had the most amazing conversation on Google+ about railroading. I’m going to try and collect the things I said but if you want to know more, I definitely suggest checking out the thread on G+. If you can’t read it, let me know and I’ll plus you into the conversation.

It all started with my recommendation to read Justin Alexander’s blog posts on the same topic: If you roll behind the screen, or if you like to fudge a rare dice roll, or let players always succeed, or like to think that illusionism is ok, i.e. if you think players not knowing makes your tiny railroading nudges ok, then maybe you should read it. I’ve read the first four parts and liked part two and three in particular. Much better than the first part! I suggest skimming part two and reading the bold text. If that doesn’t make you want to read more, then you can skip the articles.

In a reshare of that post somebody started talking about having an interesting location no matter where people went, but making sure that investigating the location was optional. I said that the term many people use for this is illusionism. It’s the illusion of choice. Once players start to suspect, how will you ever regain their trust?

Alternatively, would you agree to tell them openly that there’s an interesting location nearby and they can choose to ignore it? If so, no problem. Skip the part where your players make decisions that have no effect. Skip going through the motions of choosing a road when every road leads to Rome.

Then again, what about improvising a world? Neither I nor the players know what lies to the east. If you go east, I’ll roll some dice and we’ll find out. If the world grows as players explore, that can work – it’s not misleading players – but when I realize that the referee is improvising as we explore, rolling on random tables as we explore, when there is no actual world to explore, then why are we playing a game about exploration? In these cases, I’d prefer the referee to be open about it and then we can agree that the structure is not “explore the map” but “choose our next adventure location” and we can skip the map. The ref can just show up and say, “hey murder hobos, I bought Castle Dragonstein and the 59 Shades of Doom and I think I’m going to run it!” And we’ll be all like “Hell Yeah!”

In D&D, the question of trust is linked to the question of procedures. If I implicitly “promise” to run a game about exploring a map and having random encounters between interesting locations, I’m “betraying” that trust if the map doesn’t exist or if interesting locations move into our path at my whim. Yes, it’s possible to run a game without making this promise but then I need to be open about and not tell my players that this will be a game of map exploration. If it is agreed at the table (perhaps not even said out loud but simply by a wink and a nod) that we will have a road trip from A to B, then players are not making decisions about where to go next since they are on the road from A to B, and therefore players aren’t bothered by locations coming up in a predetermined sequence.

The problem of trust, the problem of railroading, of invalidating player choice, of illusionism, is when I tell my players that there is a map to be explored but behind the screen, I treat it as a road trip and no matter what they choose, the next location is the one I want there to be.

As Justin Alexander says: “GMs tend to overestimate the degree to which their players don’t notice their railroads. Lots of players are polite enough not to pull back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t see his feet poking out from behind the curtain.” (part two)

Perhaps there exists an algorithm so good that it would be impossible for players to ever discover its existence? Sure. What about procedurally generated content? My idea is this: I’m going to imagine a world for your characters to explore and we’ll pretend that it is real and that actions will have consequences and it’ll be cool. In reality, of course, the world has not always been there and its defined boundaries don’t extend very far. It is understood that I will be adding to the world as we go, that I will do a certain amount of just in time preparation. It is therefore impossible to have a perfect imaginary realm that has always existed and extends further than we’ll ever be able to explore. At the other end of the spectrum is the referee freely improvising the entire world and just saying what they think would make an interesting adventure. Procedural generation is somewhere on this line, preparing 10 minutes before the game starts is further along this line, and so on. And the more I realize this, the more I see that there is no actual world, imaginary or not, to be explored, the more I will be disappointed if and only if exploration was part of the point of our game.

Sure, we can have procedurally generated background for the things that don’t matter. But if I know that you’ll roll on that table of things the dead have in their pockets, looting the dead is no longer interesting. It’s grinding. I want the gold but I don’t really care what they have in their pocket because it’s not really there. We can also have procedurally generated content for parts that don’t matter.

In a Wicked Age is a game where the map doesn’t matter – our games have always been about our goals and relationships. We can have a randomly generated city for In a Wicked Age. But we can’t have randomly generated characters and goals in this game! Because that’s what the game is about!

You might say that players killing a dragon in my game and all of us rolling on the random treasure table is the same kind of procedural content generation and you’d be right. I don’t care, however, because the game is not about the kind of treasure the dragon has. We’re rolling because it’s fun to roll high and be rewarded for it, it’s a mini-game utterly divorced from the rest of the game. Exploring the map is not utterly divorced from the game—or if it is, nobody told me. I’m playing under the assumption that exploring the map makes sense because there is a map to explore. If it is not, I might expect us all to roll for the content of the next hex together, at the table, looking up the results, cheering and weeping as we go and it will be cool. But it’s not the same game as before. I might not enjoy it as much.

That’s where the feeling of betrayal and the question of trust comes in. Do you feel an implicit promise about an existing world was made? Was a promise about a map worth exploring made? If I think there was and it turns out there isn’t, I’m going to wonder what I’ve been doing at the table. That moment of discovery will be a sad one. I’ll be as interested to play as when we tried the Mythic Gamemaster Emulator.

If we implicitly agree to explore a map, then don’t generate the map. Since we also implicitly agreed that there would be wandering monsters, rolling for wandering monsters is not a problem. As you can see, I will not prepare each and every thing the characters may interact with in advance. This is not my point.

The point I’m making is also independent of the rules. Even if the rules said to do the very thing I’m arguing against, that doesn’t change my point. You could then claim that I’m not playing by the rules, but the value judgment still stands, the argument still stands.

This is not about interpreting the rules, this is about describing the kind of procedural game content generation that is OK and the kind of procedural or improvised game content generation is not OK because it frustrates players. It’s also about the nature of this frustration. Why are people frustrated? Maybe not all players, obviously. But why me, for example?

If you say that this is not a problem for you and you don’t see the frustration and neither do your players, then that’s fine. I guess there’s no need to continue this conversation with people that don’t see the signs of a problem.

Rolling on random tables is cool and I do it myself, but only when we all implicitly know what is going on. My players know: there are random monster encounters and my rolls depend on them taking too long and making extra noise. They also know that going in particular directions doesn’t change that, so all they need to decide is whether they want to keep bashing those doors, whether they want to use those silence spells, and they don’t need to decide whether to go left or right as far random encounters are concerned. My main beef is that as a player I feel I’m exploring a map and it matters where I go and latter I discover that the referee was rolling on table for random hexes (it’s better if these hexes stay where they are once rolled up, obviously). But the net effect is like playing endless random dungeons in computer games. I’m not interested, or at least: significantly less interested. But if my GM says, “people, these are the cities and travel between these cities takes a week and every week I’m going to roll on this table and every time you are on the road I’m going to roll on this other table” then that’s perfectly fine. I might still have an opinion about the game (and I might like those tables) but at least I’m not wondering whether to go north or south in order to trigger a particular event. I already know that these will be random and I will act accordingly.

If you’re thinking about players leaving the area you prepared and improvise the area – something I do myself, all the time! – then a first step would be to be open about the situation. I think my players know that they too can step so far away from the prepared stuff that I’ll try my best to improvise and maintain the illusion but we all know that this is not how I want to run the game. I will take steps to avoid this. For example, I’ll ask at the end of the session about plans for the next session and I’ll prepare for that. That works often enough. Not always, though. :)

As for switching one monster for another because the one determined by a random table don’t seem exciting enough, my goal would be to use the first monster – e.g. kobolds – because that’s what my encounter table told me but I’d try to make it as entertaining as I can. Are they tough bastards with barrels of flaming oil, Tucker-style? Or perhaps they’ll grovel and beg and promise to lead them to a dungeon or help them ambush a greater common foe? Or perhaps they’ll simply run and we’ll laugh for a few seconds, imagining their antics before moving on.

You might think that you’re doing the best by switching to were rats but it made me think of Oblivion where your surroundings level up with you. It was great at first, but later I was a bit disappointed. I didn’t like it after all. And that’s why my level 1 dungeon remains a level 1 dungeon full of kobolds and I expect my players to delve deeper very quickly and not fight 50 kobolds just because they can. It’s boring and we all know it. To replace every kobold lair with gnolls or hill giants or red dragons … eventually this method will break down, right?

How did we get here? Why do I assume “promises” and “trust” and why do I feel “betrayed” when railroaded? Where did I get all these ideas if they’re not explicitly in the rules?

When I learned to play, a few of us read the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide and tried their hand at running a game. Some of us only ran a single sessions, others ended up DM for life. But reading those rules back then, or reading the blogs these days, and talking about it, and talking about the experiences we had, and the things we enjoyed, I think all of this produces a culture of shared assumption and norms in the circle of people I actually play with. So, the principles we grew up with was:

  1. there is a map
  2. the map has a key
  3. there are monsters and lairs
  4. there are wandering monsters
  5. there are “Saturday Specials” (bosses, ends of campaign arcs, …)
  6. there is random treasure
  7. sometimes treasure gets placed

The kind of railroad we experienced when we started playing were maps that had invisible walls that we could not pass no matter what we tried, monsters that could not be beat no matter what we tried, treasure that could not be found no matter what we tried, non-player characters we could not kill no matter what we tried, and those experiences were intensely frustrating. There are of course lesser evils.

So, this is where the notion of trust and promise and betrayal of expectations comes from. If you want to use different words for it, no problem. The experiences still stand, however. My claim is that where as the game may or may not have claimed something in particular, those were the issues I had and I’m actually not that interested in discussing whether my expectations were justified or not, or whether my words are the precise words to use. If you need to use different words to talk about the same issue that’s fine.

Back to players leaving the area I have prepared for. What if they enter a forest I know nothing about? Is my decision about the encounters there equivalent to springing an encounter I though of no matter in which direction my players leave town? I think the answer to the question of where I stand is that both situations are indicative of a game I don’t like as much as the ideal game I strive for. Do I need to choose between those two evils or can I compare each to my ideals?

If the forest is unknown and I have nothing prepared, then perhaps nothing needs to happen. “You slowly make your way across the forest but there are no incidents and you arrive safely at Oathcomb seven days later.”

Less ideal solutions:

  • roll on this random monster table for forests in the area.
  • roll on this generic random monster table.
  • improvise a session about swan maids and goblins.
  • you can’t go there because there is a river and it’s too wide to cross.
  • you can’t go there because an elf shows up to tell you that you shall not pass; if you fight the elf, it so awesome that it could kill you with one spell but it will sleep you all and leave you by the road where a traveling merchant picks you and takes you to where you want to go

If there is a particular encounter you want your players to have, then that’s fine. After all, sometimes the sun shines and sometimes it rains and that’s not about railroading the players. It’s railroading if the players get to choose things that have no effect. If there is an information indicating that a dragon is waiting for them outside the city and no matter what they do, they’ll meet the dragon. That’s frustrating. If you manage to pull it off such that the players believe they had a choice but blew it, then congratulations, you were lucky once. Every good referee can pull this off every now and then, for a session or two. But sooner or later – or so I claim – the players will grow suspicious and the game will feel a bit more hollow because of it.

!Do I want to be surprised! by an encounter; do I like using random tables? Yes I do. I like the surprise of random encounters, but only if the players understand that particular kinds of events are determined by random tables and the players like it as well, eg. random treasure, wandering monsters.

Do I mind moving an encounter I had in mind from one road to another? It depends. If the encounter was not centrally related to the kinds of choices players made at the moment – if players think they’re exploring an area and that it matters whether they go north or south, it bothers me to get the same encounter no matter what I do; if a small number of encounters are placed by the referee no matter where players go then that’s fine; if the encounter is placed because it kicks a new campaign arc and is therefore peripheral to the activity of exploring (going north or south) then that’s fine; it’s not fine when I discover that I picked seven directions and realize that I would have gotten the exact same sequence of events had I picked seven different directions. Why did you waste my time and tell me that I needed to pick seven directions if if doesn’t matter what I do. Just tell me that we’re on a road trip and bring it on. It might be a good game without cheating me.

At one point Jason went back to the rules. His point that if something isn’t in the rules, then assuming said thing and realizing that the referee was not providing it – such a map prepared ahead of time – wasn’t “betrayal” because nothing had been “promised”. The discussion continued and he wondered why I was blaming the referees instead of the rules themselves.

To me, this rule based approach is weird and confusing. I’m thinking of the railroading and player choice invalidation problem as problems that are unrelated to any rules. In the abstract, role-playing games provide a framework for players to make decisions and influence the events at the table. This breaks down as more and more decisions made have no effect on the events at the table.

Why was the person doing that? Power dynamics? Lack of empathy? Ignorance? Were they doing so because of the rules? Perhaps. Who cares, though? A bad game is a bad game even if the rules as written say that this is within the rules. I only care about the why and how and improving my game (and the game of people I play with).

Jason then tried to frame it as an equivalence. Both I and the imagined railroading referee I’m complaining about got our values from somewhere. Was I prepared to say something positive about these other values that weren’t mine?

I said that I don’t attribute negative motivation to that other person; instead I attribute bad technique and describe unintended consequences. I believe people when they say they are doing what I am criticizing for the enjoyment of the table. It’s just that I think that they are failing to do the best job they can and based on my own experience, I have a hypothesis for how this comes to be.

Now, given that I believe we’re talking about bad technique, there’s no need to identify positive motivations to that person. “Your backswing isn’t great, I think you’re holding the club to close too your body. If you want to hit that ball, you need to let it drop on the way down.” Bad technique doesn’t need balanced perspectives. Your golfing can be improved, that’s all I’m saying.

Later, Harald had some questions. His first question was about randomly generating content and placing it on the map, and keeping it there, and integrating it with the rest. Is this taking away player agency?

The idea of randomly generating placing content and then keeping it there is cool. But does it provide the best experience at the table if this is how we run the game? I don’t think so. A thought experiment: given the choice between doing (A) what Harald described and (B) providing players with a list of rumors about interesting locations and directions of how to get there, and implicitly acknowledging that on the way to these locations random encounters will happen and some will stay on the map (essentially option A), then I’ll say that option B is clearly superior. I’m making the decision to go to a particular location, I’m making the decision to take a certain amount of risk (based on the distance traveled, based on the regions we’ll travel through), I’m making the decision to continue or to turn back, and these all have consequences. If we’re using just option A, then some of these decisions aren’t as great. I can’t choose to go anywhere in particular. I can’t choose a different route to avoid the Griffin Mountains. All I can do, in effect is to continue or to turn back. Yes, it’s still cool. But it could be even better!

Harald also asked about the difference between randomly generating map content vs. randomly generating the treasure some undead might carry since I had mentioned that I didn’t enjoy looting corpses.

I had the same answer as before. Yes, it can be cool. Let’s call it option A. But it sounds an awful lot like grinding in World of Warcraft (which I have never played so this is based on stuff I read). It could be even better! Give me some information that allows me to make a better decision than “let’s kill more undead until we find the bone mirror”. Option B examples: a rumor saying that Vlad the Impaler has one. That Vlad can found in Castle Wittgenstein. On the fifth level. Have a captured kobold offer to guide me to the secret entrance to Vlad’s lair. All these decisions are not possible if we limit ourself to random loot on bodies. Yes, option A is not bad, but all the options B are better. And given option B, looting the undead will always be a minor activity. So minor, in fact, that as a referee I won’t even bother to look at a random table with weird things the undead might be carrying because I already know that it is useless detail. It can be funny for ten seconds. It might be funny in half an hour if an unusual application for the pine cones found on the first level of dungeon can be found. But this entertainment is so tangential, so unimportant, so meaningless in the larger context, that I might as well not bother.

Harald continued this line of inquiry and asked about the difference between randomly generating map content vs. the essentially random outcome of combat.

The way I would analyze this involves thought experiments and better alternatives. So, the situation is a confrontation between party and monsters. Option A is: roll for initiative, fight to win or TPK. This is how we played it when I was a teenager. The only meaningful decisions we could make was “what spells are we going to use?” Option B is: add more tactical stuff. This is what D&D 3, 4 and Pathfinder did. More small decisions, maneuvers, abilities to use, effects to have. Option C is: add more strategic stuff. This what I like best. Do we avoid, fight, run, or talk? Can we learn how to avoid or seek out these encounters in the future? Can we improve our chances of talking i.e. influence the reaction roll? Can we disengage? Can we force morale checks and have the other side disengage?

In short, if encounters turn out to be just randomized outcomes, then this is a poor game indeed. It’s not without it’s charm. I know the excitement of a pitched battle. Will we make it? We need just one more lucky roll! Come on, have the dice cursed us? Nooooo! Fuuuuuh! People shouting and throwing their hands up into the air. These are great moments and they happen even if we pick option A. I’m just saying the game could be even better.

And to return to the matter of railroading: providing the illusion of talking and then have the monsters always attack after a number of rounds (as was common in the Adventure Paths and modules I read by Paizo) reduces the talk option to “ask a few questions to learn about the setting” (much like “loot a few undead to learn about the setting”) when it could be so much more.

So, does it matter whether the map (or whatever the environment of our player agency is) was built from non-random first principles or not? No it does not. I’m sure you’ll smooth out any inconsistencies and provide a coherent experience.

You could of course fake it, rolling quickly, and players might believe it for a while, but when they discover it, the experience will feel hollow. Having done the preparation ahead of time solves the problem. It would have made a difference if we had gone north instead of south. If we later learn this, we will feel satisfaction, we feel like we understand the consequences of our actions and it will be good.

A tangent introduced by Chris referred to the limits of railroading. If railroading is about invalidating player choice, then having meaningful player choice is a prerequisite. So, without information to act upon, all acts are random, all choice bereft of meaning. I like to avoid that. Random actions having consequences is not good enough in the long run for the kind of game I’m looking for. If there was no meaningful decision in the first place, there is no way you can invalidate it. It was already invalid. There was no railroading. There was simply bad design for that particular obstacle.

Random Wizard wanted to know more about my preferences and suggested that perhaps I “prefer a game where details are written out before hand?” He thought that perhaps I wanted to “keep the DM from making up things on the fly” or to “prevent nonsensical things from happening from random tables.” I’m not so sure. The reasons he suggests don’t resonate. I know that referees need to make up a lot of things on the fly and I know they give their best to give coherence to the results of dice rolls. Thus, I wouldn’t describe myself as preferring a game where details are written out before hand, in a general sense. If we’re playing a game were exploration matters, then I’d like to make meaningful choices regarding said exploration, and if these meaningful choices involve movement on a map, then I’d prefer that map to be written out before hand. The list of prerequisites is long. At the same time, I think improvisation makes sense when talking to non-player characters. I think a reaction roll table injects some interesting randomness. I like random wandering monsters. I like road trip adventures or river travel adventures where the obvious route is going to take use through a fixed sequence of locations and events (plus some additional random encounters). I don’t think it’s so simple to nail it down unless you accept a very abstract description such as: I like meaningful choice.

To provide some more context, I’ll try and think of a game that doesn’t involve a map. Let’s say this is an urban setting. The city has 12 factions. The party leaves to meet one of them. I wouldn’t like it if we went to visit the 12 headquarters without knowing what to expect and without a way to learn it. Without information, choice is meaningless. If there is information, then clearly something has been prepared before we arrived on site. It doesn’t even need a written form. Perhaps the referee has eidetic memory. In addition to that, if the referee determines the characteristics of the faction as we enter their head quarters, I will loose interested quickly because I don’t feel like I’m exploring something that already exists. I feel like I’m exploring a randomly generated dungeon in a computer game that offers nothing but random dungeons. I don’t like it. But perhaps we don’t need to choose a headquarter to visit. Perhaps there is a party at the palace and every faction sends an envoy and we get to talk to them. Clearly, no decision needs to be made. We’ll just talk to them all, in whatever order the referee provides them in, and we’ll see how it goes. No fake decisions so far, no problem so far.

It’s weird to read just my side of the story. I did some minimal editing. I’m not sure how easy it is to read without the other G+ comments. There is a lot of repetition.

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Comments on 2015-03-25 Railroading

Alex Schroeder
Also relevant: The Mediocrity of Improvisation.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-03-26 07:10 UTC

Alex Schroeder
On Google+, I talked about this one shot using the Mass Effect Fate RPG and remembered how I decided to switch from Traveller to Fate back in 2010. I picked Diaspora as my Fate system of choice, mostly because it was shorter than Starblazer Adventures (no longer available) and I hadn’t heard of Bulldogs!, and Mindjammer didn’t exist back then. On the day I was supposed to run the Mass Effect one shot, I discovered another file in my Mass Effect folder: Hacking Diaspora to Mass Effect. It was based on Diaspora where as Mass Effect Fate RPG is based on Bulldogs!. Hacking Diaspora to Mass Effect is an add on and therefore shorter (less than 100 pages) where as Mass Effect Fate RPG is around 250 pages but stands alone. Hacking Diaspora to Mass Effect is more conversational. If I ever run a Mass Effect session again, I know what I’ll use!

Or perhaps I’ll just use Stars Without Number. :)

Here’s the author explaining how he’d use Stars Without Number to run Mass Effect. And here are some more extensive notes by

– Alex Schroeder 2015-04-08 06:10 UTC

Alex Schroeder
In another Google+ discussion, Jack Gulick talked about the difference between Fate games and traditional games. In another thread, we were talking about how to avoid an unsatisfying “players save all their fate points and nova burst the final boss” issue. More about that thread over here. In this new thread, he explained where player agency resides. He said it is no railroad when you change the stats or the number of enemies in a boss fight. This is supposed to be more engaging and challenging. His point was that the aspects chosen are essentially a sign for the game master – “poke me here”. Essentially, the game is no longer about puzzles and beating challenges, I guess, but about how these things affect your characters and the world around them.

At character creation (and every time you revise you character, which is potentially after every session), you select the 5 (or more) aspects that are always true about your character. These are your strengths and weaknesses, the places the drama is most likely to press about you.

But since they are dynamic things, able to be changed as your character grows and reinterpreted as the story develops, I don’t think everything is decided at chargen. Most of the meaning of aspects is discovered in play as the interaction of various facts with the character and the evolution of the character proper occurs.


[In] Fate, a lot more of the emphasis is on how your characters major attributes (their aspects primarily, but also stunts and skills) impact the world they’re in.

Because, you see, the world also has aspects, and those get changed by what happpens. In effect, the world is a character (for the sake of this topic), as are the NPCs. All of them are changing because of the intersection with the PCs.

PCs can change a lot or only a little, based on if you want a dramatic or an iconic character pattern (dramatic has big change-filled development arcs, iconic change the world more than they themselves are changed), as can the world based on if the GM wants a “bigger than you” world or a “you are making a huge difference” world.

– Jack Gulick

Definitely food for thought!

– Alex Schroeder 2015-04-08 06:23 UTC

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2015-03-23 Sagas of the Icelanders

Today we played Sagas of the Icelanders. I spent about half an hour skimming the book, having read various playbooks and some stuff online, some months ago.

I had three players playing the Skaldmey, the Seiðkona and the Huscarl. I noticed that the fighters picked moves such as Belligerent, No Mercy and Freya’s Light. That seemed to indicate armed conflict. The witch picked Bonecaster. That seemed to indicate some searching. I decided to make this about a whale. If somebody managed to harpoon a whale, there was a 50% chance that it would wash ashore in the following days, dead. In this case, half the whale belonged to the owner of the land and the other half belonged to the owner of the harpoon.

We quickly introduced relatives. Picking a last name automatically determined the names of parents. The relationships at the beginning determined additional background: The Huscarl belonged to the family because his father had been killed in Norway and the father’s friend had taken the boy back to Iceland. The Seiðkona had maybe killed and buried her husband and made sure to set the Skaldmey on her path of rebellion.

The player characters venture out to find the whale. Some bone casting follows. They arrange to bring along an ally from a neighboring homestead, a young man thirteen years of age, defend their honor against malicious comments from the elder brother, find other neighbors having also heard about the whale, pick a fight, kill one of them, both parties call for reinforcements, a standoff ensues and finally the whale is divide 50:50, partly to avoid a feud about land ownership because this is a bay where oath breakers are drowned and therefore it belongs to neither family, and partly to avoid a feud because the Skaldmey had killed one of the neighbors in a wrestling match, tempting fate.

Some of the interesting things I saw at the table:

  • The Huscarl trying to influence his foster sister the Skaldmey and realizing that he had only violence at his disposal. The men cannot reason with others. He didn’t want to risk killing her an so she got her way.
  • The Huscarl being goaded by the Skaldmey to jump from the cliff into the cold water below and risking grave harm. That’s when we realized that a failure meant death.
  • Whenever the women talked reason, the men were still free to ignore the warnings and suggestions, but it meant incurring a significant disadvantage.

At the end of two and a half hours, all three players said they liked it. One of them had run a few sessions of Apocalypse World for us, ages ago. He liked it. The other had played in those Apocalypse World sessions and he had also played in my One Shot of Colonial Marines. He said that he liked Sagas of the Icelanders best.


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2015-03-16 Writing a Dungeon Key

Ramanan Sivaranjan recently wrote a blog post about Dwimmermount’s Room Descriptions and started a discussion about room descriptions on Google+. The things that got discussed:

  • If you like to read a dungeon in order to get into the groove, to get a feeling for the thing, you might want to like long and elaborate room descriptions—but not I!
  • If you had studiously extended your vocabulary into ever more eclectic subject areas as a child reading Gary Gygax, you might like fancy words in your room descriptions—but not I!
  • If you liked traps and wanted your players to detect and disarm traps by interacting with the environment instead of rolling dice, you need more information about traps—and I agree
  • If you have noticeable things (large statues, dangerous monsters), make them stand out, put them at the beginning—and I agree (I like to use bold or color codes to make paragraphs and pages easy to skim)
  • But that doesn’t mean I need more words, such as the material of the floor or walls, unless it’s relevant
  • But I do agree that generic things are worse than nothing: “mystic symbols” is a wasted opportunity—alchemical symbols? astrological symbols? elven symbols?
  • Sometimes a bullet list works well, but recently I stopped using them in adventures I type up because they take up a lot of space; I want dense text with important stuff highlighted by bold typeface or color highlighting. I also think rooms should not contain more than three or four “things”. This is too short for a list.

Ramanan said that D&D modules needed to be written in Hemmingway’s style. That’s something I totally agree with. Rafael then proved the point by providing this gem:

That summer, we journeyed into many dungeons. We went down into the Crypts of Khaxa’Muuanda and the Forgotten Tomb of King Rheghrad and the Ossuary and the Cave of Dragons that was neither truly a cave, as it was a cleft in the mountains, nor did it have any dragons inside it, for the demons had driven them all out, and there was no gold in there either, damn it. That summer we visited them all, and we drank our healing potions in the sun and we slept on thin sheets on stone floors and thought ourselves lucky.

There are brave adventurers and there are foolish adventurers, but there are no old adventurers, because it is the kind of job that puts a man in the hot seat and then he makes a mistake, which is his last.

I walked away from that life, and I think of it every day, and my life now is no good, but then, what is?

– Rafael Chandler (ibid.)

In the same thread, Gus provided a very long description of a room and asked us all to rewrite it (ibid.). Here’s mine:

3 thouls (stats here) will attack intruders; one more (Gorzog) will drop from above with +4 on the second round. Gorzog may surrender and tell enemies how to activate the dry alabaster fountain.

Amidst cracked bones stand five sarcophagi, four smashed, one still intact. Above it rotates a blue jewel in a shaft of magical light (1000gp). The intact sarcophagus contains the mummified remains of Buffo the Stuntysmasher, according to its goblin inscriptions. The jewel is a treasure of the Mold Mountain Dwarf clan and they will take offense if the jewel is sold instead of being returned to them.

The walls of this burial chamber are covered in chartreuse grave moss sigils; read languages reveals prayers to Yeenoghu in his guise as overlord of ghouls.

When the conversation turned to other megadungeons, I said the following:

The reason I think I like terseness is because I don’t care about long descriptions when reading, when playing or when running the game. At the same time, the joy I find at the table usually involves monsters interacting with players, the things they know, the things they say, the friends they have, and so on. I haven’t yet seen a megadungeon that takes much of this into account in its descriptions…


Comments on 2015-03-16 Writing a Dungeon Key

Some nice tips here. It is indeed a challenge to create a key that is both robust enough to be of value at the table, and yet economic enough to be usable.

Tad 2015-03-17 16:30 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Thanks. :)

– Alex Schroeder 2015-03-18 07:02 UTC

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2015-03-12 How To Create A Large Dungeon

I’m not yet ready to provide a procedure to write a megadungeon. What I can say, however, is based on my experience using Gridmapper and trying to create The Sewer Prison, a little dungeon of 30×32 (I actually wanted to keep it within 30×30) – six levels deep.

What I did was this: I started with the entrance, drew some rooms and corridors, started placing pillars, altars, statues, secret doors, rooms nearby, beds, chests, and so on. Sometimes stairs down. And I kept going through the dungeon, looking for dead ends, doors that didn’t lead anywhere, and I just kept on adding. Sometimes there was a local significance. An area hidden from the rest via secret doors. But if I went on for long enough, I’d forget and what started as a secret segment of rooms on level two would end up going down for a few levels, and then connect to the rest of the dungeon – without a secret door! Oops?

At the same time, I know that I connected all the stuff because I always began drawing stuff starting from an existing corridor, an existing door. And yet, now that I start keying the dungeon, I realize that I have two main problems:

  • Which areas go together, form a segment?
  • How to get from A to B – as in: “what is the main road from the entrance to the big temple on level five?”

In a traditional dungeon with few stairs connecting the levels, these problems don’t arise as quickly, I guess. But I was really trying to use the third dimension. And now it’s a big mess and I’m realizing that I’m slightly overwhelmed by my own dungeon map. Gridmapper has allowed me to jaquay the dungeon beyond my ability to handle it!

So, what would I do differently?

  1. Start with the main roads from the entrance to the deepest important destination.
  2. Label those areas that belong to a larger segment spanning multiple levels. Don’t just think in rooms.


Comments on 2015-03-12 How To Create A Large Dungeon

I had a similar experience while playing around and “We dig deeper” grow. Mostly I got confused whit the question if this stair is now going up or down or both and how far does it go. I was thinking about writing labels (UP and DOWN) for that but in the end didn’t to.

– Sam 2015-03-16 16:40 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Hah, I am not alone!

The stairs never bothered me much. I just add them on both levels and the direction seems to work well for me. With six full levels, my laptop sometimes takes too long to switch levels. It annoys me sometimes. Specially if I have to switch jump many levels, for example. Some speedup might be in order.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-03-16 22:31 UTC

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2015-03-09 Magister Lor

We played Magister Lor (PDF) and it went well. In general, I think most of us liked it. All except one would probably play it again in a few months. After the game, we talked about it some more.

The things we liked are the simple rules, the layout keeping rules and character sheet on a single page, this being a different situation entirely than Lady Blackbird…

When compared to Lady Blackbird, I noticed a difference in theme. The thing I like about Lady Blackbird is that the underlying theme appears to be love and friendship. Is the love between Lady Blackbird and the pirate real? What sort of bond is there between Lady Blackbird and her body guard? What sort of bond between the captain and his goblin? What sort of relation between Lady Blackbird and the mechanic? It’s interesting, it’s positive, and it goes into themes that my usual games do not.

In comparison, the theme of Magister Lor wasn’t as strong: revenge and forgiveness, the love and hate between siblings – somehow we couldn’t relate as much. The setup is also highly symmetrical. Master and Apprentice vs. Master and Apprentice. Brother vs. Brother. Magister vs. Demon. This contrasts with the multi-layered Lady Blackbird setup where bonds of various strengths relate characters to each other in asymmetrical ways. This made it feel a lot simpler, or it provided us with less guidance towards a complex situation.

One proposed solution was that we might start our next game without any pool dice, forcing us to start with refreshment scenes. Perhaps that would introduce some initial asymmetries and some “grit”.

Another thing we noticed in comparison with Lady Blackbird was that this is a clear player-vs-player situation, the game does not come with a suggested list of obstacles, events, and so on. These provided a lot of setting and inspiration for the game master to improvise upon. This is lacking in Magister Lor. A list of things to do in the Sanctum would have been nice – even if just a list of things to use against each other! Circuits? Elevators? Traps? Archives? Magical currents? Prisons? Names of demons and their characteristics? It would have helped, I think. Perhaps somebody else will write something like that?

When compared to our goto player-vs-player game, In A Wicked Age, we noticed that Magister Lor does not provide best interests for the characters. There is some guidance hidden away in the keys, but since these try to suggest various ways of running the game without offering a clear “win condition”, I think we all went with the simplest solution: Fight! Master and apprentice vs. demon and apprentice. In hind sight, not the most exciting development.

All in all, 4/5 stars.

★ ★ ★ ★

Here’s how I think about the number of stars: 5 is a recommendation, 4 is a good game with some very good elements, 3 is a good game that I’d play again, 2 is only for people who like a particular thing about the game and 1 is not recommended.


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2015-03-04 GM’s Day

“March 4th for GM’s day” or “March forth for GM’s day” – yes indeed, today is GM’s Day. Of course, every time we run a game it’s Player’s Day. Hah! But March 4th is GM’s day and as I was about to start running the game, Sam and Miae said that they had prepard a rap song for GM’s day! And then they launched into a rap in German, Celtic and Korean, about the person placing all the monsters, the person being so mean to players, Chorus: Who!? – the person that took our stabbing pencils and gave use a gold sword instead, Chorus: Who!? – it was hilarious.

Thank you! :-D

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2015-03-02 RPG Blogs

With blog rolls decreasing in importance and a lot of the RPG talk having moved to Google+, what are the blogs people recommend? I asked on Google+: If you were to recommend five RPG blogs to others, what would those be? If you want to recommend your own blog, please recommend five other RPG blogs, first! That’s how I did it. :)

Here are my favorites, in no particular order:

You’re welcome to the .ch top level domain Blogspot feels like adding because I live in Switzerland. No idea what this is used for.

Anyway. So many of my old favorites have fallen silent! I basically went through my blog subscription list, looking for names I recognized and checking whether the latest post was less than 100 days old.

Suggetions from the comments on Goole+


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2015-02-26 Gridmapper Library

Gridmapper can now save maps to and load maps from the Gridmapper Campaign Wiki. Perhaps we could start building a library of dungeon maps! :)

My current project is “The Sewer Prison”.

And since I didn’t find any new bugs and since I didn’t need to implement any new features, I decided to call it a day and tag it version 1.0! Not bad, from nothing on Feb 9 to release 1.0 on March 1.

Gridmapper makes me happy.

If you have questions about the code, extensions, features, whatever. Let me know! Plus me into a conversation on Google+, or send me an email (see Contact).


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