Archive for the ‘Role-Playing Games’ Category
I talk about it off and on, and have over the years, but I don’t think it can be stated enough: the language of your rules needs to be as playtested as its mechanics. This is part of what I look at in developmental consultations, because the words we use to communicate ideas have weight, baggage, and prior meaning, whether in the wider world or within out subculture…yet none of that context is guaranteed to be shared.
But you can still hit closer or further from the mark.
Take Classic Fate’s “Maneuver” action. In every convention game of Fate I’ve run, I had to explain that “maneuver” didn’t just mean physical action, but anything could be a “maneuver.” So, when it came time for Fate Core to happen, and we were seriously reexamining all the language, we got to kill “maneuver” and turn it into part of “create an advantage” — going from explaining around a thing to naming a thing closer to what it is.
In Mythender, I used to call what Mythenders use “traits,” and frequently people would make up traits that didn’t work in the game, because they sounded awesome but were too defensive. I constantly had to explain around it, saying “how would you End Thor with that trait?” Eventually, I decided to call them “Weapons” in one playtest, and everyone nodded — I still had to explain around “feelings and emotions and talents can be Weapons,” but most people grasp that sooner and with fewer hurdles than they did “traits.”
This is something I watch the design team and the developers work over at Paizo (and, as an editor, assist with and verify execution of). Terminology was a huge consideration in, for instance, the Advanced Class Guide playtest.
Point is, language is a non-trivial problem in a game whose initial teaching and reference medium is the written word, and is primarily taught by the spoken word. So it needs to be playtested, just like mechanics, because if language gets in the way of understanding, or routinely conveys the wrong thing, that language is ill-suited for that mechanic’s job.
- Be clear and unambiguous, whenever possible
- Be dissimilar from other terms used (like having “spend” and “expend” mean two mechanically different things in a game)
- Be thematically or tonally appropriate, as to keep the players in the right frame of mind (having “hit points” in a purely political game would, for instance, be jarring)
- Be wielded with intent, especially in every case where you’re making the language harder in order to make a specific impact on the reader and player
(I’m not really fond of the latter point, but I acknowledge that it does exist and can sometimes be legit.)
That said, you’ll run into one significant problem with playtesting language: once a group understands the concept, they cannot help you test new language around that concept. That’s why I had to try “Weapon” with a different group of Mythender playtesters. But to go back to Fate, let’s look at Fate Core’s “create an advantage” rule:
Mechanically, it’s (mostly) assessments, declarations, and maneuvers from Classic Fate. And it’s collapsed because that makes for neater, tighter mechanics, so rules-wise it’s a good move. But what’s really interesting is that with all the new people coming to Fate because of Core & FAE, there are folks asking a new question: how do you find or discover things? That was highlighted in this Fate G+ post, and one thing mentioned was one guy who’s old-hat to Fate, Teo Tayobobayo, now misses the word “assess,” because that clearly showed that Fate covered this action. Now, we have “overcome,” “create and advantage,” and “attack” as actions. The language we’re using is all active, and while certainly many Fate players know that they can create advantages fictionally by observation, it’s something we have to explain.
It’s Fate Core’s “maneuver.”
Granted, I think it’s a better situation, because “create an advantage” is generic enough, but “maneuver” has implications of physical or even social positioning, so the explanation around it isn’t as cumbersome. Plus, you can still use the Classic Fate language of “assess.” But that doesn’t change the end result: that it’s after publication that the incomplete nature of that term clicked for me. Teo’s totally right.
That goes to show the value of having new people play your game, but that’s not the entire story. Unfortunately, the truth is that many people don’t realize that they should give feedback on terms — some don’t for fear of being pedantic, and others focus on parsing the rules language that they only give feedback on critical clarity problems, leaving minor clarity ones unmentioned. So when you’re talking with playtesters, try asking a few language-specific questions:
- Were their any terms that felt off or seemed weird?
- Where did you struggle with the phrasing or vocabulary?
- What language bored you?
- What parts of the text or game terms sounded the coolest? (Follow-up: were they as cool as they sounded?)
- What sort of games have you played? (This is key for understanding if they are or aren’t bringing subcultural baggage to your words, like classic fantasy gaming vocabulary.)
I wish you designers out there luck on this front. It’s super hard to playtest language! And even after publication, you’ll kick yourself for some term. (For Mythender, it’s “Blight” and “Personal Blight” and “Lasting Blight.” Mainly “Personal Blight.”)
 Which is currently running, if you’re so inclined. I am digging playing my bloodrager.
 I don’t really treat defend as an action, at least in active conversation. It’s reactive.
A couple weeks back, Jeremiah Frye, Mythender superfan, asked me if there was a way to speed up character creation for a con game, like to make pre-gens. I’ve never had a pre-gen game of Mythender feel all that great, because without making the character, there’s little investment in either abstaining from or diving into apotheosis. The time it takes to make a Mythender was one of the flaws I accepted as part of the game’s nature, and that it’s better for three players in a four-hour slot than it is for four.
But in talking, we came up with an idea. He tried it, and it seemed to work well…
To speed up character creation, we’ve collapsed some of the decisions down — namely, linking the Heart and the Past together. Here’s a set of six Heart/Fate pairings, with partially filled out playsheets. They are:
- Warrior of Love
- Crusader of Death
- Commander of Judgment
- Bearer of War
- Tempest of Life
- Loremaster of Chaos
Each has one Weapon filled in, one of the two Fates chosen, and the first Gift filled out. To use these, hand out the six choices of Hearts/Fates, and then the six Pasts (see the next section). Mix and match, more or less as normal. You don’t need a persona sheet, because there’s plenty of space to write anything you need to write down on these handouts.
To speed things up, don’t have them write down answers to the Heart & Past questions, just look them over for a moment. In play, you might get them to answer, perhaps as they’re also doing actions. And have them only choose one more Weapon for the moment, leaving the other to be revealed either during the Tutorial battle or to come up with right afterward, before going into the first Mythender turn. Likewise, just do one bond, and let the others come up in play (or ask at certain points, if you feel as the Mythmaster that the moment would benefit from brief introspective interruption).
Note: the Weapon and Fate elements are in medium gray, to help rewriting if that’s desired.
Easy-to-Print Hearts, Pasts, and Fates
The dirty secret is that I rarely use persona sheets when I’m running Mythender. Instead, I print out the Hearts, Pasts, and Fates from the book and hand them out. That’s why there’s space on the pages for answers! I decided to make it easier to print them out, and make them simple letter-sized handouts with a guide in the middle for cutting.
I know that Vincent and Meguey Baker have run Murderous Ghosts for a room of people — I believe in a Parsely style, where one person plays the ghost book and the player turn passes from one person to the next. (One time, Meg tried to talk me into playing in a group game, which I totally would have if I didn’t have a panel to go to. On that one, I think she had an assistant to have and read the player book for the group.)
Last year, I finally got to play Murderous Ghosts. We were at a decent restaurant with a sizable table, and were playing a bunch of games. There were five of us, and at a point, we decided to break it out. On a lark, we split up as two of us being the ghosts, and the other three being the player. It kinda worked, but had some bumps, so when I got to try it again a month later, we had a setup ironed out.
After putting out last week’s Master Plan episode where Vincent & I talked about Murderous Ghosts, and briefly mentioned playing in multiplayer, I figured I would share how I’ve done it.
My Multiplayer Rules
Split up into ghosts and explorers. Be in separate sides of the table or parts of the room; your kind don’t mix well.
Ghosts: Briefly talk about what the building looks like and what your ghosts are. Are you all the same ghost or group of ghosts? Are you different ghosts? If so, how are you connected? (For extra fun, don’t talk about it beforehand, and be all “yes, and” to stuff.)
Explorers: You have to make a promise to the other explorers, that you will never leave them alone down here, that you’ll never run out on them. This promise is something you can’t break. Say it right now. (The game wasn’t designed for shifting focus, hence this social construct.)
The game starts with one ghost player reading from the ghost book. There is always only one active ghost player at a time. Every time the explorers draw a card, immediately pass the ghost book to the next ghost, and they continue from there. Yes, in the middle of a moment, so that you have one ghost feeding into something, and another finishing it out.
Explorers make decisions together, though the ghost can interpret any rash of impulsive reactions as needed. So keep your cool! Or, you know, don’t. You can whisper amongst each other without fear of drawing a ghost’s unwanted attention. But if you ever split up, the ghosts totally murderify you. (There should probably be another global action like “If you ever split up, turn to X” and it ends with “MURDERED!” or something.)
If you try it, let me know what you think!
When I’ve Played It
Both times, I’ve been a ghost player. The first time, the other player and I didn’t talk about it, so when we imagined different ghosts, she was taken aback when I started describing the gross “murder hole” nature of the place. When the dissonance was too much, we took a break and talked it out — deciding that her ghosts and her building descriptions were about a factory during its days of action, and mine about after it had been closed for a decade and used as a snuff film stage.
The second time, we talked it out and decided we were all different aspects of a union riot in a factory that lead to many, many deaths. One of us was (if I recall right) the workers, one was the corrupt foreman and corporate bosses, and one of us was…something else.
I remember at some point that I was also the ghost of a dog, but I think that was in my super creepy snuff film stage ghost.
Oh, and the explorers didn’t survive.
There’s a common joke in the professional game making community, that you’ll stop playing games once you start making them. And sure, that’s to a degree true, because leisure time turns into design time, and generally the timeline in becoming a designer lines up with the timeline into entering other adult things, like relationships and taxes and stuff that takes away from leisure time.
The worst part is that once you stop playing games regularly, it’s easy to stay in that space, because you could always put off a game night tonight and “do it maybe next week.” Then put off that one under the same idea, and so on. I have done that quite a bit this past year.
I’m going to address that now, by playing a game every night of Hanukkah, or the holiday that the McElroy Brothers gifted to the world known as Candlenights (which totally isn’t Hanukkah). I’ll be doing this with my fiancee and (depending on the evening) possibly others. That starts tonight, and I invite you to do the same thing.
Join me in Gamer Candlenights or Gamer Hanukkah. Play a game tonight, and play a game every evening until Thursday, December 5th. Share what games you play with the world, maybe with the hashtag #Candlenights or #GamerHanukkah.
If this timing isn’t good, don’t let it stop you. Try it for one day this week. Try it next week. Try it next month. Play games when you can, and definitely when you need to. Look at games that only take five or ten minutes to play — don’t think you need to take the entire evening every evening to play.
And as you’re playing games, remember this idea:
Happy Gamer Candlenights, everyone.
There are a couple things I’ve seen pop up again in the Fate community, which seems to pop up as new people discover Fate. People, you gotta understand two things about Fate:
To the people who say “It can do everything!” no, it can’t. Fate has a particular player dynamic and information economy that lends itself better to some types of play than others, much like how you can use a Leatherman multitool — which can cut things and screw in things and file things down — to bang a nail in, but that’s gonna take more effort and result in something less optimal than using a hammer.
Understand that when Leonard Balsera and I were sitting down to start the rewrite of Fate Core, we took this idea as a feature. We accepted that survival horror (where characters aren’t especially empowered), gritty combat (better executed by systems that give a damn about equipment), intense mysteries (where all the information creation is in the GM’s hands) are not strong suits in Fate. They can be done in Fate, so long as you also understand that Fate’s own sensibilities will twist them.
(Also, as a professional game designer, whenever I hear anyone say “this game can do anything/everything!” I hear “I don’t know what this game is about, and it does nothing especially well.” For of advice for those designing their own games: have a better answer or statement than that.)
To the people who say “Make it an aspect!” I wince every single time. To give a brief history lesson, Spirit of the Century had you go through five story phases of character creation, and come up with two aspects for each. Ten aspects was deemed too many — partly because GMs felt overwhelmed by the perceived (and incorrect) needs to keep all of them in mind for all players, and partly because creative fatigue meant that some of those aspects would either suck or just end up never getting used. The Dresden Files RPG introduced the high concept and trouble aspects, and pared down the five story phases to one aspect apiece. Still, seven was more or less slightly too many, so when we tinkered with Fate Core, we removed to story phases and brought the character aspects down to five.
That gave room for situation aspects (and to a lesser extent, game aspects) to shine. So when I see people say “oh, you want to do X? Just add an aspect!” I cannot do anything except see that as amateur aspect-spamming. This is especially true with people trying to model equipment.
Not everything needs to be an aspect. Some things are about narrative permission — you can’t shoot someone unless you have a gun. No aspect needed. Some things are just cool, like having (an example from a recent G+ post) a double-bladed weapon. And if something is really key to a character concept, then that’s a character aspect, stunt, or just something you note down when you make your character — not inherently an aspect in and of itself.
If something can be used or taken away and it is somehow different from most others of its kind, then maybe it’s a situation aspect — like the Fabled Double-sword of the Haleish or a cursed double-axe. Otherwise, you’re aspect spamming, and you’re breaking the information element of Fate’s economy.
Whenever you think “oh, this is another thing attached to a character, it could be an aspect!” stop, look at how that’s a high concept or other existing character aspect, or a stunt relating to privileged talent or extra (if it makes you better or different all the time, and not just on invocations), or decide if it’s just awesome color that you want to use to describe being interesting and badass. But don’t make it an additional aspect attached to a character except as a last resort. And maybe not even then. Your Fate games will be better for not aspect spamming.
Treat aspects, persistent and not, as their own economy. Having double-edged sword is as useful an aspect as I have arms – which unless having arms is unusual in your game world, isn’t worth taking up a precious slot of this actionable-information economy.
P.S. I realize we’re going to lose this war, but when you capitalize “Fate” as an acronym, it just looks ugly. We don’t do it anymore. Also, if you acronym-ize “Fate” in a third-party product, I’m going to assume that you’re either a joke or someone who isn’t a part of the Fate community trying to leech off of it.
 One of the struggles I had early with Achtung! Cthulhu’s Fate build was reconciling the pulpy nature of Fate’s player permissions with the horror elements of the Cthulhu Mythos. If not for A!C having a pulpy flair to it, that would be genuinely near-irreconcilable.