There, I Fixed It: The Wish Spell

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Something that the System Mastery guys love to harp on, all the way back to their very first episode: Dungeons & Dragons’ wish spell (and similar spells in the wish tradition from other RPGs as well). As written, wish spells, or wishes in general in TRPGs, are almost always explicitly ways to disrupt players’ expectations and, in a word, screw them. GMs and DMs are often encouraged to find any possible loophole, any interpretation in the player-character’s wish that might justify screwing with them.

In 5th Edition and 3.5 as well, other than that, a wish spell is for the most part just a catch-all for replicating an 8th level spell. There is otherwise a list of possible effects that are clearly defined and limited in scope. Part of the problem is that wishes in the folkloric sense should not be spells – the simple solution here is to excise wish from the list of arcane spells entirely. But if you want to keep it, or if your game is going to feature a significant number of genies, then there must be something better than punishing players with it. (If you want to punish a character, hand them a Deck of Many Things and stand back).

The potential problems with wishes should be obvious, and there are plenty of folkloric stories about well-intentioned wishes going wrong, or at the very least not having the effect that the wisher intended. On the other hand, these problems are usually ways of moving the story forward so that the protagonist can learn something or change in some way. All too often in TRPGs, wishes are simply opportunities for the DM to punish a player for trying to be creative, when it’s the DM’s decision whether to allow wishes in the first place. For those DMs whose players are not masochists, I have some other thoughts.

The first is that a wish should be fun. Here I’m thinking of Aladdin’s first (official) wish in the Disney animated adaptation of his story regarding a certain lamp. He basically gets what he wishes for, and if anything, Genie goes overboard (as Robin Williams invariably did) in embellishing the whole scene. Rather than being a stingy saboteur, one pictures Aladdin’s DM just throwing cool things at the player-character until the player’s head spins. There are complication, of course, as “Prince Ali” draws the attention of a sinister visier and is suddenly plunged into court life having been a fruit-stealing street kid not long ago, but the story moves forward with the wish fulfilled at face value, plus interest.

Wishes should be fun. D&D should be fun. It should never be a DM power trip, or about ‘punishing’ players.

Second, a wish should indeed have a cost or an unforeseen complication, but this cost or complication should be something that is part of the story moving forward and continuing to be fun. The street rat suddenly lifted to Princedom has no actual idea how to be a Prince. No history, no family, no connections, no homeland, nothing. And as mentioned, he draws the attention of the sinister vizier. I would even recommend discussing possible complications with the player who is making the wish. I know this is not everyone’s play style, but in my experience this doesn’t diminish the fun – you kind of trade surprise for a higher guarantee that you’ll all enjoy the twist.

Third, a wish should take context into account. I still think that DMs should just eliminate wish from all spell lists where it might appear, and keep wishes as a story element. Obvious options are powerful fey or genies whom the PCs have worked to befriend. Maybe the goal of a whole campaign could be to earn a wish from a powerful entity, and then to use that wish to restore the kingdom, or end a curse, or cure a plague. But remember that the wish is interpreted in context. If a PC makes a wish granted by the genie, that genie will interpret the wish, and a wish granted by an ifrit will be very different from one granted by a marid, or a djinni. Rather than a chance to punish players, this is a chance for a DM to show off her creativity. To use this example again, a wish granted by a genie voiced by Robin Williams will be one thing – one granted by a stingy cantankerous fey quite another.

Remember that a wish’s fulfillment does not need to be immediate (unless maybe the PC adds that to the request – in which case, it could rain gold pieces or cause other upheaval). Feel free to take a moment in game when the wish is finally made (which again should be a huge story moment) to go think through what it will look like when it is fulfilled.

Discourage players from gaming the wish. A player might be tempted to go off and write out a page-long run-on sentence as her wish, full of legalese and dependent clauses. Depict the wish-granter getting bored and starting to wander off. Understandably, players will anticipate the DM trying to twist their wish against them, and will try to avoid that eventuality. Maybe reassure them, if necessary, that this is a big story moment and you’re not going to sabotage it.

So, to summarize the wish spell – don’t make it a spell at all. Make it a story element. Make it fun. Have a cost or unforeseen complication, but make it one that moves the story forward in an interesting way. Take the context of the wish, and the wish-granter, into account. And push the players not to lawyer the wish, even if you just have to reassure them.

Do you have any stories of wishes going well, or poorly, in your campaigns? If so, share in the comments. 

Making “Failure” Interesting in RPGs

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I had an idea come to me as I was listening to a review of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG. This particular review was from someone (Dan Repperger of Fear the Boot) who was enjoying the game he was playing in but was simply baffled by the game’s mechanics – specifically, the custom dice mechanic.

I feel like I have an OK handle on it, having run the intro adventure for friends and read through the Edge of the Empire book. The dice system is complex, giving six different interacting results: Success, Triumph, Advantage, Failure, Despair, Threat). Basically, when you roll dice, the result of the roll gives you a lot of information:

  • Do you succeed or fail in your intended purpose? (Success and Triumph versus Failure and Despair)
  • Does your success or failure cost you any stress, or allow you to recover stress? (a use for Triumph and Despair when there isn’t something else to do with it)
  • Does the situation overall get better or worse? That is, you could succeed but the situation could worsen for you overall, or you could ‘fail forward’ where you don’t succeed but your situation improves through some unforeseen windfall. (Advantage and Threat)
  • Does your success or failure trigger some kind of special effect, like the equivalent of a critical success or failure perhaps, or a special ability. (Triumph and Despair)

But this post isn’t primarily about the dice mechanic in Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG. Rather, it is about failure, and how to make failure more interesting, which is a challenge in any RPG that features a success/failure mechanic.

The thought is a simple one, derived from the complexity of Fantasy Flight’s dice system – that a failed roll can either mean 1. you don’t get what you want, or 2. you succeed and get what you want, but the situation worsens for you. This is a variation on the “succeed with a cost” mechanic, but it is rooted in the narrative, in the player’s decision to accept greater overall peril in exchange for succeeding on a key roll. In the FF dice system, this is kind of like rolling Success and Triumph paired with Threat, but without all of the complexity of six different colors of dice with multiple custom symbols on them.

For example: your fighter is surrounded by a gang of goblins. She activates her special ability that lets her attack a group of lesser targets with one roll – you roll, and miss. So, instead of just whiffing on your cool ability, your ability succeeds, but just as you mow down the fourth goblin, you look up to see that the fighting has drawn the attention of the Goblin King…and he looks angry. 

What do you do in your game to make sure that failure is still an interesting part of the story?

Thoughts on Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition PreAlpha

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What It Is

In a word, interesting. This is touted as Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition, coming from White Wolf instead of Onyx Path. Remember, Onyx Path has been the publisher for the Requiem materials, as well as V20 a few years ago. (There is a kind of tangled history with White Wolf and Onyx Path, a failed MMO, and some other things, but I don’t want to get into all that). Clearly, they are counting VtM Revised as 3rd edition and V20 as 4th, and they are skipping ahead to 5th. As a lead designer and writer, White Wolf has brought on Kenneth Hite, who I personally think is amazing, and a very intriguing choice that wouldn’t have immediately come to mind. His game design skills, and deep knowledge of history and the occult will serve him well however.

What I Like

The feel I get from reading the design goals written in the PreAlpha rules packet is that White Wolf is going for something of a 5th Edition D&D type of coup, drawing elements from all previous editions of the game (including Requiem, as we’ll see) into something that will resonate with all Vampire fans. When WotC said that was their goal for D&D, to take 40 years or D&D rules and mash them together in a way that made their wide variety of fans happy, I thought it was impossible.  In retrospect, I called D&D 5E a coup for a reason – they got about as close as possible to their stated goal.

They are also going for a simpler, more streamlined system that is easier to learn and play. Some choices they’ve made are along these lines, while others are not, as we’ll see.

I like the streamlining of attributes – now there are only 3: Physical, Social and Mental. Each can have a specialty, which would be one of the previous Masquerade attributes like Strength or Appearance. These specialties add one die when they apply. The system is still an attribute rated 1-5 added to an ability rated 1-5 and then rolled as a pool of d10s. The ability list is very similar to previous incarnations of Masquerade, with a few additions like Physique functioning just as it does in Fate Core.

Damage rolls and soak rolls are both out, and I approve. They’re using the Requiem system of an attack roll against a defense, with the remainder being damage applied against the target’s health. I like this – I much prefer an attack resolved in two dice rolls compared to four. And generally speaking, this idea of mixing some Masquerade with a little bit of Requiem, the best parts of it anyway, runs throughout the PreAlpha rules.

Blood and hunger will play a more central role in V5, it seems. There is no longer any blood pool. Instead, you track your degree of Hunger, rated from 0 to 5. Your Hunger has a chance to increase every time you use a vampiric ability – instead of “spending blood” the term is now “Rousing the Blood” in order to power disciplines, appear human, etc. This leads to one of the PreAlpha’s big weaknesses, discussed below, but I like this change. Abstracting blood and hunger out, while also making them central to your dice-rolls, is a strong thematic move. Instead of blood being a resource you manage, hunger is a threat you deal with night after night.

One of the things that Hunger does in this rules set is mess with your mind. Hunger afflicts different vampires in different ways, and one cool thing they have added is Clan-specific hunger afflictions. So a Malkavian, for example, might have an extreme mental illness episode due to Hunger, while a Gangrel might be made paranoid and have to obsessively see to her own security. There are general problems that Hunger could cause, and then each Clan has three or so of their own specific ones, and I really like this. Not only does it make hunger front and center, but it also brings Clan to the forefront. Both good things for a Vampire the Masquerade rule-set, I think.

The last thing that came to mind as I read through the rules was that more things are returned to the 1-5 scale. In particular, Willpower is now rated 1-5, which I like. It’s just more consistent. There is now a companion to Willpower, Composure, which like Willpower can be spent. It isn’t quite clear what the difference between the two is precisely, but I look forward to seeing more. My intuition is that they will be to similar and will be collapsed back down to one, but I could be wrong. For now, it seems that Composure is used to resist frenzy and Willpower functions a lot like it did in Masquerade.

When I moved from the rules document to reading the playtest scenario, I found another blood-related rule that I thought was interesting: blood from different mortals will have slightly different effects on those who feed from them. Feeding from a drunk person might give you a penalty, while feeding from a baby (I know) might make it easier to appear alive in the following scene, giving you the blush of health. Feeding from an anxious or athletic person might let you activate Celerity once without having to Rouse the Blood, and most of the benefits were along these lines – letting you use a Discipline once without having to take the risk of increasing Hunger. I like this idea, but I also note that it will involve yet more bookkeeping for the player, which is a weakness. Something they can fix, or work around, but there it is.

Not So Much

One change is a pet peeve of mine in RPGs. For the love of God, don’t make dice-rolls into coin-flips. This PreAlpha pack places the target number for all d10 rolls at 6+, meaning every die-roll is a 50/50 chance. Since they also remove the rules that 1s subtract successes and 10s can be rolled again, the d10s literally become coins. The only remaining reason to have d10s at all is legacy – they lose every interesting element as dice. This is always a design choices I dislike, even in games I otherwise love, like Mouse Guard.

I mentioned the Hunger/Rousing the Blood mechanic above as strong thematic move linked to a serious problem with the system. That problem is that in what should be a move to simplicity, the Hunger mechanics as written actually add a huge amount of bookkeeping to the game. Every time you use an ability that Rouses the Blood in a scene, you note it. At the end of the scene, you roll d10s equal to the number of marks you have, and that determines whether your Hunger increases. First, this will mean that Hunger will be increasing pretty much every scene, which means that frenzying and hunting will happen much more often in V5 than in previous editions. Second, this is an incredible amount of bookkeeping that will constantly take players out of the moment. Each scene has to end with accounting before you can move on. This is just a poor design choice, but again, this is a PreAlpha playtest rule-set, so presumably they will have tons of time to fix this.

Unfortunately, V5 takes it’s inspiration from Requiem’s version of Potence, which was terrible. You still have to ‘Rouse the Blood’ every turn that you use it, making it an incredibly expensive discipline. The reworking of Fortitude is actually similar to Fortitude from Mind’s Eye Theater, which I think is a good move compared to Masquerade and Requiem Fortitude, which is by far the most boring Discipline. But Potence was the only Discipline that stood out to me, as it does in Requiem, as something I would almost certainly never spend experience on. (And, like in Requiem, that’s easily fixed with house rules)

In Conclusion

I keep reminding myself that this is a PreAlpha playtest document. It is far from done. And I haven’t mentioned most of the Disciplines or some of the other things that are in the Appendices because, for the most part, the Disciplines seem very similar to previous versions of Masquerade, with the exception that activating them always requires that you Rouse the Blood. Again, I can see how this might result in a frenzy-fest with so much less room for error in the Hunger system, but we’ll see.

Overall I like the direction they are going – taking things from Requiem like simplified combat rolls and working to simplify and to place thematic elements like blood and hunger in the center of the system itself. I imagine it might result in more monstrous vampires who are less like blood-fueled dark superheroes. (I would not be surprised if Ken Hite was central to this move)

This is a strong showing, and if this is their new direction for V5, I’m on board.


Advancement Systems In RPG Design


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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.


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.

Ability Frequency vs Payoff

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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? 

Attribute Decay in RPG Design

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“You cannot pass,” he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”

This isn’t an original idea – I know that in Misspent Youth for example, your attributes change as part of the game – but attribute decay is something I have been using in Servants of the Secret Fire, my Middle-Earth RPG that I’ve been poking around at forever. I also just brainstormed an attribute-change system for another person’s game, so it’s on my mind.

In brief, the idea is that your attributes, or ability scores, or whatever the name is in the game for you character’s basic capacities, change over the course of the game. In Servants of the Secret Fire, that change is through decay which I’ll discuss below, as an example of this idea in practice.

To begin with, a character in Servants of the Secret Fire has five attributes: Bearing, Grace, Might, Wisdom and Wits. They’re in alphabetical order, but also in order of priority when conflicts arise, and they each interact in different ways that don’t matter for the purposes of this blog post. Those are the five attributes, and many other things in the system derive from them, just like the classic six ability scores in D&D or attributes in 99% of RPGs out there. Not trying to innovate here.

But one of the design goals for SotSF is to model the moral structure of Middle-Earth as Tolkien wrote about it. It isn’t just any generic fantasy world – it is a particular world with particular assumptions behind it. One of those assumptions is that evil is powerful but limited. Here, my mind goes to a W. H. Auden quote from his review of The Lord of the Rings that I love, which includes the following: “Evil has every advantage save one; it is inferior in imagination.” Evil is less flexible, and those corrupted by evil are unable to see beyond their own machinations – and that is how they are overcome.

In order to bake this into the system, I decided that each attribute would decay to a lesser attribute, and that this would reflect moral corruption, or the influence of the Shadow. It would make it possible to see corruption as an incremental loss of creativity and capacity, which I think fits well with Tolkien’s moral universe. (The decay breaks the alphabetical order, but no-one’s perfect.)

Bearing decays into Dread. Where you once had a magnetic personality and a larger-than-life presence that could inspire, you are now only able to coerce and threaten. We see this in the Orcs and the way the treat each other, or in Sauron overwhelming power that only manifests as fear.

Grace decays into Quickness. For Grace, imagine the way that Elves move through the world, both physically and interpersonally. This decays to mere Quickness, like the Orc stabbing Frodo in Moria, or Gollum lunging for the ring.

Might decays into Force. One might use Might to defend the weak, or even as Boromir does to plough through the heavy snows on Caradhras. But it decays into Force, useful only for violence and to impose your will on others.

Wisdom decays into Cunning. As an example, we can look to Saruman of Many Colours versus Gandalf the Grey, and then White. Saruman literally comes from Angl0-Saxon for “cunning man”, and he retains his ability to create engines of destruction but loses the insight and deep lore that made him a Wizard. He still knows how to do things, but not whether he should.

Wits decay into Subtlety. Instead of broadly useful cleverness that would let you solve a puzzle, or a riddle, you only have the ability to hide and dissemble and subvert.

Functionally, each decayed attribute is the same as the previous one but with diminished options.With Bearing, you can do four or five things, but with Dread, you can only do one or two. If this was an Apocalypse-style game, you would simply crossed off some of your moves. Your options narrow, so that you can still be powerful and formidable in a conflict, but you are less of a person.

I like this system, in part, because it reflects my own view of morality and my own experience of the world and other people. People who are evil are so often people who see few possibilities. People who resort to violence often do so, in my view, because of a lack of creativity and imagination. As someone committed to nonviolence in my own life, I have had this conversation many, many times. I say I’m a pacifist, and people ask what I would do in a certain situation, where they can only imagine doing nothing or using violence. My response is that I have an infinite number of options minus two – I can’t do nothing, and I can’t resort to violence. And then I list a bunch of other options off the top of my head, because I’ve practiced this kind of thinking.

Evil is so often justified as necessity, but to me, it is just a failure in the person in question. They have allowed some of their capacities to decay, to become corrupted, until their options narrow and their imagination is strangled. This is so common in the world that I wanted to reflect it in this game.