Advancement Systems In RPG Design

 

Image result for leveling meme

I recently had a fun conversation with a friend of mine who is designing a tabletop RPG about what kind of advancement system to use for his game. It got me thinking about the pros and cons of all of the various methods games use for character advancement, mostly in tabletop but also drawing from video games. I thought I would lay out the various options as I saw them and discuss each in turn, both as a way to organize my thoughts a bit further and also to show the wide variety of methods there are out there.

How you use an advancement system for your game is a core question both for game designers and also for those running games. Many advancement systems leave a lot of flexibility based on play style – one D&D game for example might have characters leveling every four or five sessions of play, and another might have them leveling every session. One is a story of slow development where there have to be a lot of rewards that aren’t experience points while the other is a roller-coaster ride to power that won’t leave as much time for character development, since everyone will always be learning and trying out their new abilities. Designers should let GMs know where they think the “sweet spot” is for their game, as this can be a very helpful guide. Trial-and-error also works, but can lead to a lot more frustration among players.

Experience and Leveling (D&D)

Of course, the granddaddy system, the default in most people’s minds, is leveling. You accumulate experiences points doing whatever it is that the game wants to reward, and when you hit a particular break-point you have a sudden increase in your character’s abilities. This is true of many RPGs whether on console or tabletop, and was the method introduced by D&D and many of the very first tabletop RPGs forty years ago.

The important thing here is that the game gives experience points for what you want players and characters to be doing most often. In fact, if you want to know what a game is about, look to what it rewards – and if your game rewards something that you don’t want your game to be about, change your experience system. (This is true for all of the advancement methods I’ll discuss, and also true for any reward system or cycle you have in your game, period.) Reward the behavior you want. Don’t give experience points for killing monsters in your supposed political intrigue game.

You also want to have your level progression lean toward incremental and not be too jarring. Unless it is an intentional aspect of your game, a character shouldn’t be twice as capable after achieving a single level. Not only is it ‘unrealistic’, it is jarring to the fiction. Suddenly, things that were dire threats to you last session are a breeze now because you crossed an arbitrary threshold. Thing through how often you think characters should level – multiple times per session? Every two or three sessions? Every month of play? Etc. And tune your game accordingly.

Incremental Leveling (D&D 4E, D&D Online)

Kind of a subset to the above is something I really liked about Dungeon & Dragons Online, and how it used leveling to make the experience of play more similar to other MMOs (where there tend to be 100 or so levels, each only slightly different from the others). I’ve written about it here in the past, but in brief, DDO took each level in D&D and broke it into 10 mini-levels that were incremental points between. So, for example, instead of being 10% more likely to hit an enemy, you would be 1% more likely at each increment. Instead of 10 hit points, you would get 1. Ten of those increments would add up to a full level that one might recognize from the tabletop version of D&D.

D&D 4th Edition did something similar by making the three tiers of play explicit. First the Heroic tier, from level 1 to 10, then the Paragon tier from 11 to 20, and then the Epic tier from 21 to 30. At each tier different abilities became available, and it was intentional that there be a bigger difference between 10 and 11 than between 9 and 10 for example.

Advancement through Failure (Powered by the Apocalypse games)

When thinking of earning experience or character points or whatever it is that makes a character advance, we often think of achievement. Starting with Apocalypse World, there have been a series of games that root advancement in failure. Generally speaking, in games based on AW, you mark experience or gain experience when you fail in a roll. This is in part so that you can ‘fail forward’, so to speak, and I’ve also found it to be an encouraging aspect of these systems for people who feel like they don’t roll well. It’s also fun to crap out on an important roll, knowing it’ll hurt, but sit back and say, “You know, I learned something today…”

This is really just an example of another type of behavior  you want to reward – specifically, the behavior of taking risks in-game and using abilities you aren’t very good at. However many abilities a game might have, a given character will usually only use maybe a half dozen of them regularly. Characters tend to be specialists in RPGs, and players tend to want their characters to succeed, meaning players will want to only try things their characters are good at. This is doubly true if they only get experience points, or only move toward advancement, when they succeed. Actively rewarding failure is a good way to encourage players to have their characters try new, dangerous, and often entertaining things.

Edit: It was pointed out, correctly, that it is specifically Dungeon World that grants xp for failure, not Apocalypse World.

Ongoing Point-Buy (GURPS, WoD)

Leaving aside “leveling” altogether, there is the system where experience points are points that one can spend to improve specific abilities. This system is easier to customize, and can be less jarring. When a character levels, they often increase a number of different abilities and capacities, but with a point-buy or character point advancement system, the player can choose to improve some abilities and not others.

Often the choice for the player is whether to spend advancement points frequently on minor new abilities, or to save up the advancement points to buy more powerful abilities. In all World of Darkness games, as well as in GURPS, players are presented with this decision at the end of each session. Some players will want to advance a little bit each session, while others will save up for big abilities. Many will alternate between the two based on how they want their characters to develop.

For these and similar systems, the question for game designers becomes one of pricing. Pricing decisions can be a function of demand, how popular an ability is likely to be, as well as impact on the story. Check out what I wrote about frequency and payoff a while back, and think about how low-frequency and/or low-payoff abilities should be cheaper, in a point-buy system, than high-frequency and/or high-payoff abilities.

Advancement as Currency (Shadowrun, sometimes GURPS)

Often a subset of the point-buy system is when the points you use for advancement can also be used as in-game currency. This adds a layer of decision-making for the player, since they can either have the immediate payoff of spending a point in-game, or the quick payoff of spending the point on some small incremental advancement, or the delayed gratification of saving up for a powerful ability.

Shadowrun is the best example of this I could think of with its karma system, where you can spend karma in-game for benefits, but karma is also what you spend on new abilities for your character. GURPS has a version of this, where you can spend character points earned in play (or even left over from character creation) to do something in-game like have a suddenly wind-fall of cash. The big challenge here is human psychology. It is easy to, without thinking about it, use up a lot of your potential for advancement in-game, making up for unlucky rolls or ensuring your character shines in particular scenes. Players who don’t like to trust to luck will also tend to make more use of things like karma than others. This can lead to a discrepancy in advancement over time. Not necessarily a flaw, just something to consider.

Advancement by Use (Torchbearer, Call of Cthulhu, Skyrim)

Some games do away with experience points or character points granted for victories in the story or for certain player behaviors and simply link advancement to skill-use. The two biggest examples of this I could think of from tabletop games are Call of Cthulhu (the percentile versions) and the various games based on Burning Wheel, the most recent of which is Torchbearer. These systems take a bit more tracking than the ones above, but you don’t have to worry as much about pricing abilities or tuning the leveling system.

A system that links advancement to ability use seems to work better for less high-fantasy or high-powered games, at least where tabletop RPGs are concerned. And even in Skyrim, your Shouts are earned by completing the main storyline’s quests, or by exploring dungeons, rather than advancing based on use. In fact, that is probably a limitation on a system like this for a tabletop game – it would add a lot of complexity to do any kind of calculation – i.e., to make some abilities harder to raise than others based on use. I can also see limitations here – what to do about fantasy tropes like wizard spells, or psychic abilities, which are usually much more powerful than other abilities? Should your Cooking ability advance the same way that Fireball does? Maybe, but I can see a problem there.

Another challenge here is going to be ability-spamming. Players are going to be trying to use every conceivable ability as much as possible during a session if ability use is what is rewarded. This can have a similar effect to rewarding failure, mentioned above – it will make players branch out more in what they want their characters to try. It can also get repetitive, as in each session every character takes a moment to make a Photography roll, and then an Academics roll, and then a Gambling roll, or whatever. (I’ve definitely seen this come up in Call of Cthulhu.) A designer can find ways around this spamming issue, like limiting the total number of abilities that are counted in a given session, but it can definitely be a problem. On the other hand, this system does model reality pretty well (you get better at what you practice) and does reward a much more broad list of activities than leveling systems tend to.

Milestones (Fate Core, Parsec)

I’m sure other systems do this, but the example I came up with was Fate Core for a system that rewards characters based on reaching particular points in the story. (I mention Parsec because that game, which I designed, includes a system where players define obstacles and characters advance when those obstacles are faced in-game). A lot of video games do this with the main storyline or main quest-line – do whatever you want, take however much time you want, but you won’t advance until you get to a particular part of the story. This is, of course, significantly easier for a video game where the story is laid out ahead of time by the designers and writers.

But most games have an over-arching storyline of some sort. The DM or GM has come to the table with some kind of plan, much as players love to deviate. And a system like this could be an alternative to railroading, or designing every adventure as a box canyon. You can have more of a sandbox situation, but one that only rewards certain story milestones. Carrot rather than stick, so to speak, or honey rather than vinegar.

A story milestone system can be the way that each of the above systems are handled. The milestone could grant you a level, or character points, or a milestone could even be when the players have used a certain number of abilities in-game. In Fate Core, it functions a bit like leveling, as a milestone is a time you can improve your character as well as move abilities around or change them rather than improving them mechanically. Which brings us to…

Adjustment rather than Advancement (Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files)

In some RPGs, you don’t advance in any way that is marked on your character sheet. The story advances, and your character can change over time, but they don’t get better, or gain new abilities. Whether characters advance or not is a matter of taste, and will determine the kinds of games you play. Some games that include advancement can be played without, especially in the short term, and most games played as a one-shot will not include advancement.

Do you have more, or better, examples? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments or on Reddit/Facebook/Twitter.

 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Common

If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
 – Jay Z, Moment of Clarity

It was rightly pointed out to me on Facebook that this series would have to address hip-hop. I don’t think there’s a doubt that it is the musical genre that is most concerned with demonstrations of masculinity, and there has always been plenty of hip-hop that…ain’t feminist. Even positive hip-hop can include problematic lyrics. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, but I have been a fan for longer than my adult life. It wasn’t hard to think of someone I’d like to take a closer look at in terms of positive masculinity: Common.

In seeking a manly image of Common, I had way too many to choose from, but so many shots were from photo-shoots or from a public, red-carpet event. I wanted something that at least seemed candid, so here you go:

Related image

There he is looking vaguely annoyed that someone was taking a picture of him.

I was excited to find that Spotify had Common’s albums all the way back to Can I Borrow A Dollar, from 1992, so I had a listen. I was 12 when this came out, so I hadn’t heard it before. But the funk-backed, clever lyrics are immediately recognizable. (Interestingly, only 5 of the 13 tracks are marked as Explicit.) He name-drops the villain of Super Mario Bros., so the nerdiness is there too. “Heidi Ho” is pretty awful, but you’ve gotta start somewhere. I think at this stage, Common was still “underground” – he hadn’t made it big, at any rate. His next album, 1994’s Resurrection, includes the first Common song I remember hearing: “I Used To Love H.E.R.” A long way from “Heidi Ho” already. His first big album, as I understand it, was One Day It’ll All Make Sense. And here we clearly have a rapper coming into his full powers. A little less fast-talking for its own sake, smarter lyrics, and deeper funk beats. 20 years old, and it holds up in my opinion.

Anyway, this isn’t a Common music retrospective. I’m under-qualified, though the “research” would be fun. Rather, this is profiles in positive masculinity. Now, Common has been involved in his share of stupid nonsense. He had a beef with Ice Cube in the 90s and more recently with Drake, though shots exchanged never went beyond diss tracks. But for me, Common stands out in general as a positive voice in hip-hop. I don’t think he went down either easy path in the genre: becoming primarily a safe rapper who avoids controversial topics, or a hard rapper who turns machismo up to 11. He seems to be someone who tries to contribute to the world through his music, who is aware of his potential to be a role-model, while still remaining relevant in a music genre that for some people is (wrongly) synonymous with misogyny.

He speaks out about racism, injustice and inequality, avoids most of the pit-falls of his genre, and at the same time has remained a significant figure in music for 20 years. He’s brains-over-brawn, though not without brawn, and I think a person could listen to his music and learn something. If he was harder, or softer, he would probably be more successful, but in listening through a few tracks each of his last 25 years of albums, he’s remained true to himself to an amazing degree. Intelligent, socially conscious, and plenty of funk.

Outside of his music and acting, he has also been an activist for some time. He has worked on behalf of PETA, of HIV/AIDS awareness and testing, and founded the Common Ground Foundation to help youth in poverty, among other things. 10 years ago he pledged not to use anti-gay lyrics anymore, which is progressive for hip-hop (and frankly for 2007, though things were turning).

It’s hard to remain relevant in pop music for 20 years. Who else from 20 years ago is still rapping and hitting the Billboard 100 in 2015? Even harder than remaining relevant for 20 years is remaining positive for that long. Using one’s art to try and make the world a better place. In a genre that is, let’s be honest, known for exhibiting many aspects of toxic masculinity, Common has shown both excellence and character, and he is today’s profile in positive masculinity.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Jimmy Carter

Similar to my profile of Justin Trudeau, this is not about who James Earl Carter Jr. was as President of the United States. I’m more interested in someone who can maintain their integrity, even having risen to the highest position in the most powerful nation on Earth. (Or at least one of the two most powerful, since we’re talking about the 70s.) Before we go on, though, we need a manly picture of former President Carter:

Image result for jimmy carter building a house

The way that we structure power in most societies rewards toxicity – aggression, deception, tribalism and so on. Politics is, and always has been, rife with controversy and corruption because there are a lot of harmful behaviors that are rewarded. Normally, political leaders are judged on a different moral scale when compared to the rest of us. We expect a certain background radiation of scandal and abuse of power. When we find hypocrisy, we think “Well, of course, this person is a politician.” What this means is that it is all that much more difficult, I think, to be a genuinely decent person who rises to power in a modern society. You are competing with people who will have advantages over you. It’s like being in a boxing match where everyone else can hit below the belt. If you become a champion under those circumstances, that is noteworthy on its own.

But what happens after you’ve risen to power? In Jimmy Carter’s case, what happened was that he returned to his peanut farm in Georgia. He wrote books and taught at Emory University. Most interesting to me, though, is that he has spent the last few decades working with Habitat for Humanity, working with his hands to build houses for the poor, and serving as a face for Habitat in the world.

I find it a compelling story, that someone like an ex-President, with so much potential power and influence, would choose to work with his hands. It is easy to see this as a mistake, as a waste of time. Couldn’t someone else build those houses? Why not do something like fundraising, which excites so many other politicians? Or be a highly-paid speaker? Cultivate wealthy friends and establish a philanthropic fund of some sort? Instead, he picked up a hammer and saw.

I like that Jimmy Carter has remained connected to simple things, despite having one of the most complex jobs on Earth for four years. Whatever one might think of his presidency, his life after the presidency says a lot about who he is. Justin Trudeau seems to be a highly effective liberal politician – more effective than Carter was, at least so far, and one who often remains true to his stated values. Nick Offerman is an incredible craftsman who builds genuinely beautiful things in his workshop, and a reflective person who has things to say about life and how to live it. Jimmy Carter just builds basic low-income houses. But of the three, Jimmy Carter is the one that inspires me the most. To rise to power, and then be cast down publicly, and then devote one’s life to helping others says a lot about who Carter is.

Of course it matters how someone uses power, but it also matters how someone reacts to the loss of power. His decisive loss to Reagan ended his political career. So what did he do? Among other things, he picked up a hammer and got to work, on behalf of the most vulnerable people around him. That says a lot. If nothing else, Jimmy Carter is a 92 year old man who builds houses for the poor with his own hands. At that age, I’d be proud to be half that manly. Heck, I’d be proud to be half that manly now.

 

Works in Progress

I have way too many irons in the fire. I have a lot of things to work on (in addition to, you know, work) – far too many to actually finish any of them. As a friend reminded me recently, finishing things is a skill. I have that skill, but I need to sharpen it. Sometimes it helps to write everything out – and who knows? Maybe something here will be of interest to a reader. So, in no particular order:

Servants of the Secret Fire

Yes, this is a fantasy hearbreaker. A Tolkien-esque one no less! Until Cubicle 7 put out The One Ring, I was working on a system that actually reflected Middle-Earth. When TOR came out, I really felt that they did a good job at my task, so I let it languish.

The system as it is still has some interesting things about it. I wrote a post about attribute decay, for example, that is part of SotSF, and there are other elements in there that I like. But, an obvious problem: I do not work for Cubicle 7, which currently has the right to publish a RPG based on Middle-Earth. So whatever I do to complete this project would just be for me, for groups I game with, or maybe to release out into the world for free.

Simplified D&D

Years ago – eight years ago now? – before 5th edition existed for D&D, I hacked 4th Edition in order to run a game for a group that wanted to play D&D but wasn’t interested in learning a lot of rules. Or, in some cases, any rules. Though that hack was designed with 4th Ed in mind, I could definitely adapt it to 5th Ed. It’s even something I’m still interested in playing and running.

Rewilding the Bible

One of my problems is that I am interested in too many things. Scattered. But one thing I’m interested in is rewilding, and more than that, the idea that for the most part our civilization is not a good idea, certainly not in the long term, and that some other way of life is probably the way to go.

There are plenty of other people who know a lot more about this, who are working to learn self-sufficiency, and becoming ungovernable, and training in prehistoric survival skills. I’m not very good at any of these things, yet.

I have noticed, though, that I know more about the Bible than other people who are interested in rewilding. What I would like to do is to create a resource, probably the length of a short book, that looks at passages in the Bible that reflect this worldview. There is actually plenty there. And based on the reception of a recent sermon, I think there are people who might be able to hear what I have to say.

95 Tweets Expanded

A few years ago, two friends of mine and I assembled 95 Tweets, our homage to Luther’s 95 theses, all arguing against the idea of a Hell of eternal conscious torment. Even from a purely Christian standpoint, even from a literalist, the arguments for Hell are incredibly week, and the counter-arguments kind of overwhelming. So we overwhelmed, with 95 tweets.

The problem is that, with a barrage like that, there’s no point at which to engage. Even if someone wanted to argue a contrary position (and I know many do) it’s hard to get a hand-hold. So, I feel like I need to expand the ideas and claims that we made in the 95 Tweets. Part of what makes me hesitant is that there is already a lot out there about this issue, and I need to make sure that what I would contribute would be worthwhile, and not just replicating someone else’s work.

5E Setting: Dragonblade

I started a D&D 5E game set in what I’m not calling Tianxia, but that was just called Dragonblade at the time. It’s a south and east Asian mashup in the way that a lot of fantasy settings are a north and western Europe mashup, primarily drawing on Japanese, Chinese and Indian history and mythology. It’s fun, and I’ve posted a bit of my work on this blog before. It’s also the result of my frustrations with other attempts to do the same thing. Does that make it a hearbreaker? Sort of. Oh well. I think it’s a cool setting, and I’ve run the first part of a game in it. My rule is that I design settings that I would be excited to play in, and this one fits the bill.

5E Setting: Twilight of the Gods

I recently completed a long-term campaign called Twilight of the Gods. The setting is mythic Scandinavia, and beyond that, Europe and the wider world. The setting takes Ragnarok literally, and a campaign set in it will begin when Ragnarok is just about to. The advantage here is that the setting is actually slightly simpler than the base setting for 5th Edition. I’ve also already put in a lot of the work already, having run a full campaign.

5E Setting: Alaam

This is a cool setting that I’ve sketched out, but in which I have yet to run a campaign. It is inspired by the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights as well as aspects of Islamic mythology, blended with Dungeons & Dragons of course. It has a monotheistic religion, and godlike genies ruling a realm of raw and exaggerated elements, and other coolness. Less developed than Dragonblade or Twilight of the Gods, but still really cool.

This Blog

I’ve been blogging since 2006, and have carried over two other incarnations of my blog to this site. So, if you want, there are 11 years of my writing to choose from. Can’t recommend it all, though.

I’ve been working to be more consistent in writing, and I’ve found some cool connections on Reddit, as well as continued connections through social media. I’m trying to build up weekly, ideally daily, writing discipline. I’m not there yet, but it’s a vehicle for sharpening my skills. It always has been.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Nick Offerman

I am a huge fan of Parks and Recreation. It is a show I’ve watched in its entirety three times through. I have a lot to say on the value of the show, and how it stands out compared to other TV comedies, and even how it relates to my beliefs about God. But that isn’t for this post. This post is yet another profile in positive masculinity, focusing on perhaps the most masculine person I can think of: Nick Offerman.

As with my previous profiles, I’m not going to go through all of Nick Offerman’s life and work, but rather I’m going to highlight a couple of elements of his life and work that I think exemplify positive masculinity. But first, as always, a manly picture – which for Offerman is not hard to find:

Image result for nick offerman manly picture woodworking

Not only is Nick Offerman the ridiculously appropriate narrator for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the audiobook, but he has written a number of books himself – Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop, Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, and Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living. He is, often intentionally I think, almost a living parody of manliness. Smelling of whisky, flecked with sawdust, robust mustache or full beard, and just wafting androgen wherever he goes. Offerman’s success seems to come from embracing himself. I didn’t realize how similar he and his Parks and Rec character were until after the first time I watched through the series, and wanting to learn more I looked up the various actors and people connected to the show. He reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt, and is one of the only people alive today who could say “Bully!” to describe something positive unironically.

I think of Ron Swanson as one of the best type-castings in TV history, and it’s fun to learn about how much Ron Swanson became like Nick Offerman. The Libertarianism was already present in the character, but he was expanded to include Offerman’s love of woodworking, red meat and Lagavulin whiskey. Scenes in Ron Swanson’s workshop on the show were shot in Nick Offerman’s actual workshop. (This didn’t make it into the show, but he and I share a love of the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings. As if I could love the guy more!)

In an interview with A.V. Club, he even reflects on his relative masculinity, something he also discusses in his books:

I think it’s fascinating that I receive attention for what people perceive to be a level of manliness or machismo, when amongst my family of farmers and paramedics and regular Americans, I’m kind of the sissy in my family. But when I arrive in Los Angeles in the entertainment community, and I use implements like a shovel and a hammer, our society has distanced itself so far from working with its hands that those incredibly pedestrian skills are perceived as somehow being extraordinary. I think the whole thing is kind of sad, honestly, in the same way that our civilization—particularly the consumers of pop culture—has grown so used to an emasculated, bare-chested leading man that something like simply growing a mustache can impress people. [Laughs.]

For such a manly man, Nick Offerman also has a lot of Feminist friends, including of course Amy Poehler. In interviews, he is open in his insistence on the necessity of Feminism. He also insists on the necessity of self-reliance. He’s kind of a Libertarian Feminist, which is not a creature one meets everyday.

He wants to inspire people to treat each other better, and he knows that to do that, you need to lift up the experiences of the oppressed and disadvantaged. Here, in his own words:

Honestly, in the case of Nick Offerman, I think his masculinity is unassailable (even without a mustache), and his positivity is immediately apparently in his acting, writing, interviews, etc. I probably should have started with him, but, you know, hindsight and all.

When I thought through these profiles, and talked about the phronemos, the Aristotelian exemplar of wisdom, I hadn’t realized how much I considered Offerman to be a phronemos, not just of positive masculinity, but of wisdom in general. I look forward to reading more of his writings, and learning more from Nick Offerman, today’s profile in positive masculinity.

 

 

Ability Frequency vs Payoff

Image result for classic D&D art

I’ve been thinking about an issue in game design, and in running games. The issue is the relationship between the frequency with which a player uses an ability and the amount of “payoff”, or impact on the fiction, that the ability provides. For this consideration, an ability might be an ability score, or proficiency, or skill, or move – whichever things a character has to influence the fiction directly. Whatever point of contact there is between the character sheet and the shared imaginary space.

I’m going to use 5th Edition D&D as one example, but I think this line of reasoning is important for any game, whether one you’re designing, or hacking, or running.

High and Low Frequency

When I talk about high frequency, what I mean is those abilities that get rolled or used often. A good example from many games is the perception skill, or whatever the equivalent is (perception, awareness, alertness, notice, listen/spot, etc.). I wrote about perception previously, and I won’t go over any of that here. The point is, simply, that some abilities get used significantly more than others in a given game. After a while, experienced players figure out what those abilities are, and often give every character at least a little bit of capability there. Perception rolls can be called for in every scene, to detect monsters or notice NPCs or find clues. These rolls can also provide a road-block to the game when the clue isn’t found.

Lower frequency abilities often include lore-related abilities. In D&D, knowledge skills are generally only used for two things: answering questions about the setting and background, which may or may not have any impact on the game, and giving the character knowledge about  monsters that the player knows from the Monster Manual. Other abilities are aimed only at rogues, or in the case of performance, only at bards. These can be low frequency abilities, because only one class will generally be rolling them – though sometimes that class will roll them a lot.

I imagine, in an average D&D 5E game, there could easily be 10 or more Wisdom (Perception) checks rolled, 2 or 3 Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Stealth) checks rolled, 1 Intelligence (Religion or Arcana) check rolled, and zero Charisma (Performance) checks. Each of these abilities, though, costs one proficiency pick at character creation. In terms of character generation, they have the same weight, but in play, they have drastically different weights.

High and Low Payoff

I’m comparing abilities by frequency and also by payoff – by what the ability gets you. Charisma (Performance) is another example of a low-payoff ability. If you use it, you might get a small amount of money or briefly entertain a crowd. Importantly, it doesn’t help you do anything central to any edition of D&D – explore set pieces and fight monsters. By contrast, Strength (Athletics) lets you do things that are central to D&D, like climbing and swimming – things that actually let you navigate a dungeon or outdoor setting. Dexterity (Stealth) lets you avoid combat when you want to, or set an ambush, or gain an advantage in combat. And we’ve already talked about Wisdom (Perception).

Some abilities are high frequency and high payoff, like perception abilities in many games, while other abilities are low frequency and low payoff, like performance or artistic abilities in most games. Other abilities lie somewhere in the middle. I don’t necessarily want to go through an inventory here, just put forward this way of understanding abilities in games and game design.

Frequency and Payoff in Running Games

When running a game, it’s good to keep in mind what abilities your players have invested in, and to make sure that all of them come up in the game at some point. You can also give insight when planning a game, which abilities will come up most often. For an urban campaign, maybe investing in Wisdom (Survival) won’t be all that useful, but Intelligence (Investigation) could come up frequently. In a game that will focus on cults and the undead, Intelligence (Religion) might come up a lot more often.

Some payoff can be in the fiction itself. For the example of performance or artistic abilities, which tend to be low frequency and low payoff, you can have a higher payoff in the fiction. The crowd can go wild, and the character can gain new fans. Maybe they get to stay in the inn for free whenever they’re in town. Later, when they want a hireling to come with them, they get one that is extra competent, or cheaper, or at least really loyal and enthusiastic. For a more concrete payoff, maybe there is a noblewoman in the audience who decides to become the character’s patron, paying her will to perform when not adventuring.

In the example of a knowledge skill, instead of giving basic Monster Manual information on a creature, perhaps each creature could have a particular weakness, or condition that the characters can exploit in conflict. Something like T-Rex in Jurassic Park supposedly not being able to see things that aren’t moving.

Frequency and Payoff in Game Design

Ideally, the frequency and payoff of abilities in game design should balance out. Low frequency should correspond to high payoff, and high frequency with low payoff. I think that this option is more interesting than having abilities be low frequency and low payoff (why have them all). High frequency and high payoff  would work well, though it might at some point become monotonous to have every ability have a huge impact every time.

The key to figuring out both frequency and payoff is playtesting. You’ll see how players use various abilities, and how much the enjoy the payoff you’ve designed in to them. You can not how often the abilities are used, and then when revising, tune the payoff up or down, or perhaps redesign the abilities so that they come up more or less frequently.

What are your thoughts about frequency and payoff in the games you design, play and run? 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Justin Trudeau

Image result for justin trudeau yoga

Not hard to find a manly picture of Justin Trudeau. I like this one because it is strong but also flexible and playful, not just flexing in a mirror after being misted with faux-sweat or something.

And as I move on from Michael Forbes to my second Profile in Positive Masculinity, I need to clarify a few things. One is that I’m not a journalist, and I already work 60 hours a week and am a dad, so I don’t have time to do what I’d prefer, which is to go out locally and find unsung heroes of masculinity. I have to work with people who are famous one way or another. Second, I’m not advocating for or against Trudeau’s politics. That isn’t what this profile is about. In fact, I am going to focus on two specific instances of positive masculinity and leave it at that. I don’t know everything about Trudeau’s life, any more than I knew all about Forbes’ life.

And lastly, remember, this is not meant to be flawless masculinity. Just positive masculinity.

The first instance of positive masculinity I want to highlight came during Trudeau’s interview for the Daily Show with Hasan Minhaj. It’s your standard Daily Show interview, and kudos to Trudeau for accepting the interview in the first place, since he had to know they were going to try to get him to say or do something silly. Hasan Minhaj is no Stephen Colbert, though, so the tables in the interview quickly turn.

What’s interesting is the moment that comes at 5:40 of the video posted below. Just…just watch.

See that moment? Hasan Minhaj has come to roast Justin Trudeau, but he gets shut down immediately. There’s a moment where Minhaj is clearly thinking, wait, did shit just get real? And it did not get real. Well, maybe briefly. But what I liked about that moment was just the quiet confidence that Trudeau showed, shutting down even a playful threat without bullying or blustering or threatening in return. He just says, “You might find that a little more difficult than you think.” Maybe I’m just a little jealous of someone who is that self-possessed. Maybe I’m reading reading too much into a situation where Trudeau is surrounded by armed security, sitting in his own capital.

The second moment I wanted to highlight is the moment when Trudeau does something almost no other world leaders seem able to do – he reached a handshake detente with Trump. (And yes, I will regularly present positive masculinity in contrast to Trump)

First, let John Oliver break it down for you with lots of examples of the Patented Trump Yank-and-Pull Handshake.

So, we see that pretty much every time Trump shakes hands with someone, especially another man in a suit, he yanks their hand over towards him, and sometimes leans in aggressively as well, and is probably squeezing as hard as he can as well. It’s clearly something he heard about from someone, as something that real men and strong leaders do. He shakes hands like an asshole, is what I’m saying. Almost invariably.

Forward to the most recent meeting between Trump and Trudeau. Trudeau knows about this handshake move, and he’s come prepared. Here is a video with a little bit of analysis:

He’s prepared for the adolescent power-move. He moves in close immediately, keeps his right hand close to his body, and puts his hand on Trump’s shoulder as a brace. Trump tries to drag on his hand awkwardly a couple of times, then kind of gives up and leaves it in a state of detente.

So, clearly, Justin Trudeau is singular, the Prime Minister of a whole country. Not a goal most of us are going to reach. But all of us have to deal with assholes in our lives. Adolescent jerks who want to awkwardly show dominance, or punk us, or whatever. Stereotypical masculinity has a response to that – escalate. But I think there is a more powerful, positive response as well – what one might call quiet strength, and a little preparation if you see an asshole coming your way.

Man or woman, being self-possessed is compelling. Being at home in your own skin, and being committed to maintaining your dignity without having to fight back or one-up someone.

We can’t all be world leaders, obviously, but we can be a little bit more like Justin Trudeau, today’s profile in positive masculinity.