A big secret of tabletop RPG design is that roleplaying games play themselves. Get the right group of people together and they’ll have fun telling a good story, regardless of which edition of which game they’re playing. The hard parts of RPGs are things the designer can’t control: social dynamics.
What good are rules at all, then? Rules serve two purposes: to enable and constrain the play. The rules of an RPG serve to make the creative process easier by enabling story, and they constrain the scope of the story to keep the group within a manageable narrative space.
In my role as lead designer on Future Proof Games‘s upcoming tabletop RPG Rosette, I’ve made tons of decisions regarding how the rules work. By the request of one of my patrons, I’ll go over that process from a high level.
Continue reading Helping RPGs Play Themselves
If you like this blog post, you can help support my writing by pledging a small monthly donation in exchange for exclusive content on my Patreon page.
I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons fourth edition campaign for going on five years, and it feels like we’ve finally figured out how to fix the combat system. D&D 4e is intensely tactical, more so than any other edition, and I find the grid-focused combat quite fun, but it suffers from some severe problems. The biggest of these for us is that combats stretch on too long without enough excitement. Here’s how to solve that.
Continue reading How to Fix D&D 4e Combat
I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons 4e game called “Urgo” for almost five years. All of my original five players have been replaced except one. It was always a high-magic, swashbuckling campaign featuring airships and demigods, and it’s escalated from there. The player characters are level 16 of 30 and we’ve reached a point in the game where it takes some effort to maintain the tone and even more effort to properly prepare. For some background, here’s the current situation:
Continue reading The Perils of a Long D&D Campaign
I’ve found myself longing to play in a Live-Action Roleplaying Game that focuses on courtly intrigue. What I mean by this is the social sparring, witty repartee, and backroom dealing that happens among aristocrats in the movie Ridicule or among university professors jockeying for tenure. I’ve experienced some of this when playing Vampire: The Requiem using the Mind’s Eye Theatre rules, but that game has a major problem for me. Characters can kill each other with strange powers, so someone playing the political game has to also worry that the person they’re verbally sparring with can decapitate them with a swipe.
I’m working on the rules, but I want to design in the open so that I can get feedback and suggestions. Here are my base concepts for the game:
- This will be a LARP in the American Theatrical style. No foam weapons, and the game runs similarly to a tabletop roleplaying game.
- Sessions take approximately four hours and can be linked into an ongoing game.
- The game can be played with minimal intervention from a Game Master, although an organizer may help with bookkeeping.
- The game can be played while standing and moving around, with limited interference from out-of-character mechanics.
- Direct combat is not useful. Any victories or defeats will happen through social interaction.
- Special in-character skills or abilities may help a character, but they will not take the place of social intrigue.
- While a player’s strategy and charisma will be helpful, a player lacking social skills or cleverness can still have fun and influence things.
My idea so far is a combination of concepts from the card game Whist, the TV show Survivor, and the mancala game Oware.
Continue reading Courtly Intrigue LARP Rules Part 1
In tabletop roleplaying games, it’s often tough to provide backstory and broader setting information to the players. Reciting a summary or printing handouts is seldom effective; even if players pay attention, they’re less likely to remember events in which they did not participate. In the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition campaign I’m currently running, I ran into this problem, and addressed it with the Cutscene technique.
Continue reading The Fall of Stronghold
I play in and run tabletop RPGs. For many games, like White Wolf’s World of Darkness series, all you need for supplies is paper, pencils, and some dice. However, some games call for a more elaborate setup. Since at least its third edition, Dungeons and Dragons, the perennial mainstay of the form, has pretty much required some sort of gridded surface and tokens for use in battle. The combat system depends on knowing how many squares (inches) away two combatants are, and many rules deal with the exact position of characters as compared to enemies and scenery. For years, I’ve used a slightly-misaligned Chessex battlemat and wet-erase markers for the surface and environment layout, with simple wooden disc-shaped tokens labeled in tape for combatants. Lately, however, I’ve found myself yearning for a more visually evocative battlescape, and I think I’ve found it in the form of Fat Dragon Games’s 3D cardstock terrain.
Continue reading Cardstock Dungeons
Games are simulations.
Games take a set of rules describing how things work, and they apply those rules to a world state to determine how that world changes over time. Sometimes the rules are very simple; “Snakes and Ladders” has about four rules. Sometimes, they are extraordinarily complex; World of Warcraft has rules that govern the actions and interactions of thousands of actors at once, with each actor having maybe a hundred different ways to affect the progress of the simulation. All games, however, share these fundamental attributes: they simulate the changes in a system over time using a set of rules.
Inherent in their status as a simulation is the fact that games are abstractions. No simulation can be an exact model of real life. Therefore, games use only a subset of the rules present in the systems they simulate. Sometimes, games simulate the real world: Roller Coaster Tycoon simulates the everyday workings of a theme park. Sometimes, they simulate a fantastic world: Morrowind is a simulation of the fictional fantasy island of Vvardenfell. Sometimes, they simulate an abstract world: Conway’s “Game of Life” simulates a world composed of either a grid of unicellular organisms, or a world of multicellular organisms with a very strange way of living. In all these cases, however, the designers of the game have chosen which rules to include in the simulation and which to abstract away. Roller Coaster Tycoon does not require the player character to get sleep. Morrowind allows the PC to eat, but does not require it. The “Game of Life” uses a very limited set of rules.
What distinguishes a game from, say, the sort of airflow simulation used by aerospace engineers? Player interaction. In games, players can modify the progress of the simulation. They can change the starting parameters, or choose what an actor will do, or even modify the rules of the simulation as it progresses. It is this interactivity that is essential to the nature of games. Games simulate worlds, but their most important property is that they allow the player to affect the simulation. It is from this ability that goals emerge, that agency arises, that fun appears. Games are simulations with life.
There’s a certain class of player behavior in tabletop RPGs and LARPs that often causes issues. It’s when a player notices a way to be really good at something. There are two ways this is done, and they have gained the nasty names “min-maxing” and “rules-lawyering.” But this isn’t actually a bad thing.
Continue reading Exploiting the Rules
I am involved in the Camarilla, which is the White Wolf RPG publishing company’s official fan organization. Among other things, the Cam organizes a global campaign for live action roleplaying, or LARP. This is a “theatrical LARP,” not a “boffer LARP.” We don’t hit each other with foam weapons; instead, we have more social and politically-focused games, and any combat is as heavily abstracted as it is in tabletop roleplaying. The nature of a global campaign raises some very interesting issues in game design.
The Cam is not the only global LARP campaign around; One World By Night is another organization that runs a similar campaign for the old World of Darkness setting, for example. As far as I know, though, the Cam is the largest global LARP around. A global campaign means that local games are connected to games across the US and the world, so that I can go on a trip to California and use the character I play in Charlotte to a Camarilla game there. Events that occur in Alabama can affect nearby locations, and there are periodic conventions where players and characters from all over the world come to play in a single game. This results in all sorts of interesting consequences and annoyances.
Continue reading A Global Chronicle
This is a summary of my ongoing Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition game, played with some friends from college over the internet using MapTool and Teamspeak.
When we last left our game, the citizens of Meersha had fled a dragon, Zekleinenezzar, who had taken over their town. They took refuge in an abandoned fortress overlooking the abandoned city of Decolay, which has been taken over by kenku, goblins, and possibly other forces. They returned from a trip to the dream world to find kobold worshipers of the dragon making advances on the fortress.
The party consists of:
Etzlojek, kobold rogue and lover of fine things, adopted by the town’s general store owner; he is branded Etzlojek the Traitor by the attacking kobolds
Eva, student of the local ritual mage and magic shop owner, who seems like a perfectly normal human wizard with a penchant for shapechanging spells
Donaar, dragonborn warlock and enemy of dragons, who ended up in town after his home city was overrun by undead
Diesa, stalwart dwarven fighter grossed out by bugs, who was visiting family in town and seems to have vampire heritage
Sully, formerly-retired half-elf paladin of Erathis and party NPC, who ran the tavern in Meersha.
This is level five.
Continue reading Dream Project 5 – The Battle for the Fortress