Category Archives: RPG

Rams’ Ten Principles of ‘Good Design’

I was poking around the interwebs, as you do, when I stumbled upon the ten design principles of Dieter Rams.  Rams is an industrial designer who used to work for Braun in post-war West Germany.  He designed some of the most iconic consumer electronics of the period and his functionalist design ethos heavily influenced Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive and their work at Apple.  How could this possibly relate to game design, you might ask?  Read on!

Good design:

1. Is innovative – The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

There’s a reason this is number one.  Innovation creates markets.

There are hundreds of different fantasy roleplaying games; Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Middle-Earth Roleplaying, the Palladium RPG, etc but they all exist in the Fantasy RPG market. The Fantasy RPG market is over-saturated at this point and hasn’t grown significantly for some time.  The success of Paizo and Pathfinder has come at the expense of 4e D&D, for example; they aren’t creating new Fantasy roleplayers out of thin air. Why?  Because there isn’t anything fundamentally different about the experience each of them provides.  You could say they each innovate in different ways in that they may have more realistic combat or more intricate skill systems or more detailed settings but, guess what?  That’s not innovation.  Innovation is not designing a better Fantasy RPG with more or different bells and whistles.  Innovation is offering the player something they’ve never experienced before.

White Wolf’s greatest triumphs, for example, have come from their innovative games: they ignored the dominant Tolkien-based explore-fight-loot model and instead created a World of Darkness interested in modern-day horror and political intrigue.  The times they have branched out into different genres they have met with critical, but not commercial, success.  Why play Trinity when you already own Traveller or Star Wars?  Why play Aberrant when you already own Marvel Super Heroes or Heroes Unlimited?  Why Play Exalted when you already own D&D or MERP?  This isn’t to say that non-innovative games can’t be successful, but think about this:

Magic: The Gathering created the market for card-based games in 1993 that enabled Wizards of the Coast to eat TSR and the D&D gaming line whole by 1997.

That’s innovation.

2. Makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Its all very well creating a new experience, but if you don’t make the game playable, you might as well take your dice and go home.  Minimise the amount of crunch to make it easy to pick up and play.  Chess is a complicated game to master, but the basic rules are simple and can be summed up on a single sheet of paper.

Hell, minimise the fluff for the same reason.  The more you can simplify the initial user experience the more likely people will understand it.

Licensed properties have an easier time here as instead of having to explain the world you can point to a book or a film and say ‘read/watch that’.  The problem with licenses is that they tend to limit your audience to those people who were already fans of the original book, film or comic.  If the license has a lot of role-playing fans you’ll be okay, but it’s unlikely that the licensed game will ever be as popular as the original product.

You could go the ‘inspired by’ route, which is a convenient way to describe the game in a hurry.  Recent Kickstarter project School Daze asks if you remember high school as depicted in ‘Saved by the Bell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Breakfast Club, or Brick’ and Fiasco is inspired by films like Fargo, Way of the Gun and Bad Santa.  This short hand can be a little disingenuous (Brick and Saved by the Bell, really?) but it imparts the flavour of the game in a succinct way.

Going back to White Wolf, the settings of Exalted and the Trinity Universe might be impressive, but having copious amounts of detail may actually be a barrier to entry in these cases – if you have to wade through 200 pages of background before you roll up a character it’s not something you can pick up and play.  While the World of Darkness has a rich mythology it can be easily described as our world, but shittier and with real monsters.  The clan system in Vampire: The Masquerade provides another short hand way of getting the players into the game faster – want to play a conflicted musician?  Try clan Toreador.  A loner naturalist? Gangrel.  A rambling madman?  Malkavian.

Remember you are not just competing with other pen & paper RPGs anymore!  If I can choose between playing World of Warcraft with my friends now or spending a couple of hours reading a game’s back-story and rules before creating a character and then sitting down with them, I know that I’m more likely to go with the online RPG because it’s more convenient.

3. Is aesthetic – The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the game needs to be beautiful or feature full-colour artwork, but some consideration of how the game looks and feels is essential.

This could also relate to the simplicity and elegance of the rules.  Lumpley Games’ Dogs in the Vineyard has a wonderful set of rules that evoke the flavour of the wild west and the type of game that it wants to play by deploying a system of raises, folds and calls.  It’s evocative because it directly references something that is intimately tied in to the western genre, the poker game, without being a direct copy of it.

Dogs is also a lovely book physically.  It is in a comfortable form factor for reading and carrying about, being small in terms of dimension and page count.  It has only 12 pages of artwork, including the cover, but each is the same sparse style and each reinforces the theme and mood of the game.  The book’s layout is simple, clear and includes compelling stories that reinforce the mythology of the game.  Even though the book is detailed it has a sense of openness created by the wide page borders and line spacing.  It feels like it could be an artefact from the world it is trying to represent.

4. Makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.

Layout and structure should be clear, unless your design goal is to deliberately obfuscate and confuse the gamesmaster or players.

As well as bringing clarity, the layout and structure should also express the type of game you want to play.  That means putting the important and cool stuff in prominent places.  if your game has unique mechanics or an interesting setting, make sure that they are at least summarised within the first few pages of your book.

A problem with the White Wolf’s Aberrant is the main rulebook starts with nearly 100 pages of background material.  This leaves the reader with two impressions: You need to read this stuff to play the game and White Wolf’s background should be important to the gamesmaster’s campaign.  You could use Aberrant’s rules as a basis for your own superhero campaign setting, but the Aberrant back story is tied to the rules in not insignificant ways, particularly the source of Aberrant superpowers and Backgrounds.

The opposite is true for the 4th edition D&D Player’s Handbook, the rules are clearly laid out and lead gently from character creation, through powers and feats, to combat.  But there is no setting to guide you at all.  This is, of course, because D&D encourages many different settings and to give prominence to one in the main rulebook would be to the detriment of all the others.  But consider a first-time player, someone who has entered Barnes & Noble and picks up a copy of the Player’s Handbook.  What they see is a collection of tables, numbers and rules that don’t tell them what it’s like to be a fighter: your hand slick with your enemy’s blood, clad in Starmetal, clutching the Barbed Blade of Hubris and hearing the lamentation of their women.

5. Is unobtrusive – Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

A friend of mine was running a Warhammer FRP game and the players were trying to get from one part of a village being attacked by chaos hordes to another without attracting any attention to themselves.  They reached a high wall surrounding a church and the GM asked them to make a Scale Sheer Surface roll.  Being inexperienced adventurers, they failed, and kept on failing until they decided it was easier to attack the rampaging beasts of Nurgle than get over the damn wall.

Was this fun for the players?  Not really.  It wasn’t a tense moment where getting over the wall was life-or-death; they eventually found an alternative route and play continued.  Was it fun for the GM?  Almost certainly not, he was trapped as much as they were.  The problem he faced was once you’ve set a difficulty for a task, it’s hard to fudge it in the player’s favour after the fact or back down from the initial set up without losing authority.

Who’s at fault here?  I believe the system has to shoulder some of the blame, as it encourages you to make rolls for uninteresting things by having a skill to roll against.  Is scaling a sheer surface interesting enough to warrant its own skill?  Unless you’re being attacked by something, it’s unlikely that you’ll fail or that the act of climbing will create enough tension for it to be interesting in and of itself.  You could make combat more difficult, and make falling a consequence of missing or botching a roll, but that raises the stakes of the scene and adds to the drama rather than detracts from the session’s flow.

So, why bother creating rules to climb over walls if the only consequence of failing is that you don’t get to climb over that wall?  You could say ‘Why bother creating rules to arbitrate combat if the only consequence of failing is that you fail in combat?’ but this is a little disingenuous – combat encounters give players interesting choices to make and failing in the encounter will have bigger consequences than simply not winning.  There is a growing movement of games that tell the gamesmaster to ‘say yes or roll the dice’, Diaspora by VSCA Publishing and Dogs in the Vineyard for example.  In situations were there is little at stake, the GM should simply say yes.

If the main focus of your game is combat, then outside of combat, could you let the players do what they want?  If you put a mechanical arbitration system into your game it should be fun, not just a barrier to doing what you want to do.  If the players want to do something interesting then you need some way of dealing with it, but if it’s just climbing over a wall, who cares?

Should the system attempt to model or arbitrate the most important aspect of the game?  A game like Call of Cthulhu, for example, could really do with a good system for researching and uncovering knowledge, as that is one of the primary activities of Investigators.  The current method works but its not exactly compelling, is it?  I haven’t played the Gumshoe powered Trail of Cthulhu, but all indications are that this is exactly what this spinoff does.

In essence, the system should not get in the way of having a good time.

6. Is honest – It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Reward behaviour that you want to see.  D&D is clear about the behaviour it wants to see: you fight for experience and loot.  Skill challenges are rewarded, but not as much as combat is, so they seem less than optimal ways to get experience and items.  Luckily for D&D, combat is fun in and of itself, so it’s a win-win situation for player and gamesmaster.

Looking at the reward/experience systems of games gives you an insight into the type of game the designers had in mind when designing it.  Call of Cthulhu and Cyberpunk reward players for using skills, White Wolf games reward roleplaying your character well and Fate rewards players that go looking for trouble.

I don’t know if the designers of Cyberpunk added the life path section to character creation before or after they’d finalised how deadly combat was, but it does make character creation interesting and fun.  It’s a smart move as players aren’t discouraged from taking risks in combat by a clunky and painful character creation process.  Having said that I once spent a morning when I was a kid rolling up eight characters in quick succession, all taken down by rogue headshots, that wasn’t much fun.  I think I carried on with a dim conviction that I wasn’t going to be beaten by dumb luck.  It turns out that, yes, I was.

So clearly there are two ways to reward the behaviour you want to see – make it pay or make it fun.  Good games will do both.

7. Is long-lasting – It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

This is the point where I argue that licensed games are doomed to fail.

To be sure they make money if they’re brought out in a timely fashion, but can you think of any that have stood the test of time as good games in their own right?  The obvious answer is Call of Cthulhu, but I’m not sure that’s your typical licensed game.

Any others?  The success of games like TMNT, the Ghostbusters RPG, Star Wars and Star Trek are heavily dependent on the popularity of the licence.  If the licence falls foul of fashion then no matter how good your game is, people just won’t play it.  Taking a look at the computer MMO market is instructive here, Lord of the Rings is a reasonably successful MMO, but is certainly not a market leader, despite the health of the licence.  The Matrix Online, once heralded as the next big thing in MMOs thanks to the all conquering Matrix licence crumbled and disappeared when interest waned in the films.  There are so many factors out of your control that once you’ve hitched your wagon to a licence that it seems inevitable that unless it’s an evergreen, like Star Wars or CoC, which are already taken, you will struggle when the going gets tough.

8. Is thorough down to the last detail – Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.

You could read this as a call to model every possible outcome through dice rolls or card reveals.  I think, this would be a mistake.  As previously discussed, rolling to see if you can catch a trout, or repair a shield buckle or cook a stew aren’t necessarily entertaining if you’re playing D&D.  They are certainly necessary and need to be entertaining if you’re making a game about fishing, repairing or cooking.

Exalted is a game about conflict on all sorts of scales and every theatre.  It attempts to model every possible way these conflicts could play out, be it through debate, personal combat, skirmish warfare or state and continental diplomacy.  While it achieves the goal of making sure important actions/interactions are modelled, it is debatable if they are always entertaining.  The charm system is heavily skewed towards personal combat, so the other interactions are less interesting as there are fewer options for players.

A different example of thorough design is Fiasco.  Every meaningful interaction during play is settled mechanically; how each scene plays out and what happens to the players at the end of the acts is settled through selection or rolling of dice.  The beauty of Fiasco is that the only random element is the roll at the end of each act, every other mechanical interaction is still dictated by a choice of the players; choose to set up the scene or resolve it, choose a good or a bad resolution.

I’m thinking now about an Exalted playset for Fiasco…

9. Is environmentally friendly – Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

This is a tough one to make fit, but I’d suggest that you make positive games.  What I mean by that is you should make games that, at the very least, aren’t derogatory, anti-social or encourage criminal behaviour.  It’s a fine line, but take the example of Cyberpunk 2020.  Cyberpunk is about rampant capitalism and the destruction of the human spirit in the face of technology.  It’s a depressing concept, but it’s also a warning.  It can, of course, be played as something that glorifies criminal activity.  You can skirt the morally ambiguous line playing mercenary street gangs, but the game itself doesn’t reward you for doing so and has a brutal combat system that kills players more often than not if they do get into combat.

It’s a bit of a joke around our table that if a system doesn’t have a Humanity stat, like Vampire, we feel we have no obligation to be nice, decent people when we play.  That aside, White Wolf show their talent for game design by including the Humanity/Path/Road system.  Not because it tells you how you should play, but because it gives your choice consequence.  The game is designed from the ground up to be an exploration of humanity so it makes sense that there is some measure of a character’s moral rectitude and a mechanism for it to be changed.

It also wouldn’t be a bad thing to offer environmentally friendly products in terms of their production and dissemination.  Specify paper that meets sustainable or recycled standards for print versions or offer an electronic version to reduce your environmental impact.

10. Is as little design as possible – Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

If it’s not important, chuck it out.  Don’t set out to create a 400 page epic.  And if you do get to 400 pages take a long hard look at what you’ve got and ask yourself what’s important and what could be edited down without making the game less fun.

And, as brevity is the soul of wit, and I’ve already been typing for an age now, I shall depart.  Let me know what you think, either here or on Google+.


The Laundry RPG

In order to read this review you must have signed and dated the 137/22b Review and Records Form, sought a counter-signature from a delegated authority determined by your department, and passed the relevant paperwork to Marcia in Human Resources for processing. 

I’ll wait, don’t worry about it.

No, you need the other form, the 137/22B.  It was updated last week, didn’t you get the email?  Your laptop was eaten by a parasitic, inter-dimensional virus?  Sounds like you already have the requisite field experience, perhaps I should just begin.

The Laundry is based on the science-fiction spy series of the same name written by Charles Stross.  Starting with The Atrocity Archive, Stross has chronicled a world not too dissimilar to our own, with the small difference that vast, alien chthonic gods from alternate dimensions are trying to eat our souls.  Set in the UK it lampoons the bureaucratic nightmare of the civil service through the character and adventures of Bob Howard, a hapless IT technician.  Howard works for The Laundry, a quasi-mystical secret service tasked with defending the realm from the aforementioned hideous beasties and filling in any paperwork associated with aforementioned defending of the realm.

The strength of The Laundry, as a series and as a game, is the diverse and playful setting.  The CERN research centre isn’t flinging tiny elementary particles at each other, for example, it’s true purpose is a sacrificial-goat-fuelled summoning grid and demonic computational engine.  Oh yes, and if CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN ever comes to pass it’ll be a defence bunker for a few thousand people, if that many survive.  The ever present Elder God Apocalypse Event generally only seems a little less inviting than the Auditing Commision inquiry if you overspend on your mission budget, however.  It seems, from a GM’s point of view, that one of the difficulties in running the game would be managing the levels of horror and bureaucracy without falling into a pastiche or spoof of either.

The world of The Laundry is heavily influenced by Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, of course, but it is also heavily indebted to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the spy fiction of Len Deighton and Ian Fleming, and the classic treatise by the International Standards Organisation, Environmental Management Systems – Requirements with Guidance For Use or to give it it’s snappy title – ISO 14001:2004.  If you’ve played Paranoia you’ll also get shades of that game’s, well, paranoia, security clearances and the idea that technology is not always the most effective answer to every problem.

The Lovecraft influence has also spilled over into the Game’s system, which is a modified version of the Basic Roleplaying System from Chaosium, most prominently featured in Call of Cthulhu.  The majority of it is intact, with characteristics and skills being basically the same, but there are a few additions.  Players have to choose a Personality Type, a Profession and their Assignment within the Laundry.  Each stage allows you to distribute points to your skills based on that selection; a bruiser personality has the opportunity to put skill points in Brawl whereas a Thinker doesn’t.  What this means is that all of the faults of the Basic Roleplaying System are largely intact too, so if you find the system restrictive, clunky or without enough crunch, then you may be disappointed.

The magic system has been changed rather dramatically, The Laundry setting states that the 20th century’s greatest magician was Alan Turing; computers are used to calculate magical spells and tinker with the fabric of Space-Time.  In this age of Android and iPhones there are even magic spell apps, designed to be used on specially jailbroken devices, that cast minor cantrips.  You can use mp3 players and some speakers in a ritual instead of a group of chanters or a set of lasers to create a pentacle if you are so inclined.  Magic can still be cast without technological trappings, but it can be slower and is usually more dangerous.

Along with large amounts of flavour text from the novels and an expansive background section, there are three missions to get you started:  Going Down to Dunwich, A Footnote and The Greys.  The first mission describes a military facility at Dunwich, a Norfolk village erased from the map in the 1940’s by the UK government, and is designed as an introductory adventure to the setting.  The players are cast as new recruits to the Laundry who are sent to Dunwich as part of their initial training.  As might be expected there is a twist, but one that I won’t spoil here.  It is an effective adventure, with plenty of back-doors and GM advice based on the playtesters responses, and does embed the setting firmly in modern Britain.

While the first mission references ‘The Dunwich Horror’ directly, it is actually the second mission, A Footnote, that takes some of the plot of that short story as its inspiration.  The final mission, The Greys, touches on themes of dementia, demonic possession and mistaken identity.  All in all the three missions provide a good introduction to the setting and concepts that are unique to The Laundry, but ultimately, your mileage may vary depending on the type of games your group likes to play. 

The layout is effective, or at least it would be if I was using a print copy of the book.  One of the difficulties of using a pdf is the insistence on a two-column layout for all but a few paragraphs.  I realise that The Laundry is not alone in this, but I do hope that, as more games offer a pdf version or go straight to pdf, that this practice is phased out as you find yourself going backwards and forwards interminably to get from one page to the next.  The artwork is also effective, if limited, being mostly quarter or half page black & white images of various horrific creatures or locations.  It is a bit of a shame that there aren’t more splash pages, as there are some great pieces of art that seem squashed to fit.

I think the key test of licensed games is not whether they would just satisfy a reader of the original material, but whether they would also be interesting and deep enough to play if you hadn’t read any of the source material before picking the game up.  In this, The Laundry succeeds admirably.  There is so much information here that a group would have no problem picking up the feel of the game from the flavour text and system.  While it is derivative of Call of Cthulhu I don’t think The Laundry ever feels like a cheap and quick knock-off or parody.  The balance between humour and horror hits more often than it misses and the references to Cthulhu, Lovecraft and the Elder Gods add to, rather than detract from, the overall Cthulhu Mythos.

Perhaps I am biased, I live in the UK and work with policies, procedures, standards and 137/22B forms all day.  Perhaps I get all the jokes and references that a roleplaying gamer from Little Rock, Arkansas may not get.  Perhaps I should end this review with a caveat – not for consumption outside the UK?  I don’t believe that for a second though.  If you can play an Elven warrior born in the slums of Neverwinter you can play an IT technician bevearing away in The Laundry.

Exalted – Post D&D RPG

In 2001, White Wolf was enjoying a renaissance, it had released revised editions of the World of Darkness rulebooks and looked set to challenge its main competitor, Wizards of the Coast, when they announced a fantasy RPG to rival Dungeons & Dragons. Exalted was released with great fanfare as a prequel to the World of Darkness, set in the ancient Age of Sorrows. The game eschewed the Tolkien milieu that had been the basis for a great chunk of modern fantasy literature and took inspiration from ancient myth and legend, Edwardian high fantasy, and modern manga and anime. Despite the mixed pedigree, the differing influences were woven together with no little skill to produce a complex and original world that felt new and exciting.

Exalted* uses a heavily modified version of the in-house White Wolf Storyteller System. The key differentiator from, for example, Vampire: The Masquerade is that instead of a system of disciplines that grants a unique power for each level you purchase, Exalted allows you to buy any Charm you like, as long as you meet the pre-requisites, which would be based on the players attributes, abilities and other charms. Each charm allows players to supplement or replace an action with a super-power or to perform an action many times after spending essence. There is a subset of charms, called Excellencies, that allow the player to add dice, successes or a re-roll to an action. Usually you can only activate one charm a turn, but after practice and spending experience, charms can be put in special combinations called combos, that allow the use of two or more charms on the same action. For example, you can use an action adding charm with a dice adding charm so that every extra action can be supplemented with extra dice. This simulates the increasing power of Exalted against mortals pretty well, in that Exalted quickly outclass mortals in almost every respect if the player is smart during character creation.

While the general Storyteller System is easy to explain, in practice it can get quite complicated. Combat in Exalted is painful. For each action the player wants to make there is a ten-step method for resolution**. At each step the player has to roll dice or add/subtract successes so each action could take a few minutes to resolve. This isn’t a big problem when only a handful of combatants are involved, but once you add a few extra action charms and a couple of extra bodies, things can get slow… very, very slow.

The Mass Combat system alleviates some of the problems that come from adding a lot of bodies, but it is only useful when you reach a certain size of encounter. One character takes the role of a General and uses his abilities to attack the opposing forces, who are divided up in to units. The General’s own abilities are enhanced by the unit he is with. This means that if a General is within a unit of Archers, he adds a number of successes and damage dice to his rolls when making ranged attacks based on the units potency. Other players can be nominated as Heroes or Sorcerers who can make melee or ranged attacks respectively for the General if they are better at that sort of thing. It’s a neat idea that really plays up the heroic aspects of Exalted combat and makes the General the focus of the conflict. It does, however, have the effect of sidelining players that aren’t Generals, Sorcerers or Heroes, as there is a limit to the number of special characters in a unit. Those without a role either have to act as Solo character, which can be risky, or hide within the ranks of another unit and effectively not take part in the conflict.

I think we can all agree that combat needs rules of some kind to determine an outcome, but determining the outcome of social conflict through dice rolls is still a relatively novel idea. In Exalted, social combat plays out almost exactly like traditional combat but with the names changed – instead of rolling join battle, Exalted jargon for initiative, you roll join debate; instead of aiming, you monologue or study. While this means that social interaction can be played out between those with charms equitably, it does mean that it leaves little room for role-playing. Even if a player makes a rousing speech that the entire group agrees is awesome, they can only receive a three-die bonus to the roll. A starting character with a social first excellency can easily beat that bonus with a small expenditure of essence. This is the equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi waving his hands and stating ‘these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.’ While it works from a simulationist point of view, in that it is clear who won and is based on the relative strengths of the combatants, it doesn’t necessarily feel fair to more narrativist players.

Pop quiz, and show your working, what’s the probability that a player will roll at least six successes with 10 dice? Okay, I’ll start with an easy one, what’s the probability that a player will roll at least two successes on three dice?*** Okay, I’ll start again, why do I need to know how probable things are, as a player or as a GM? As a GM I like to know how difficult something will be for a player in order to make it challenging enough for it to be exciting but not so difficult that it’s impossible. If I don’t have to worry about the mechanical challenge, it gives me time to think of other interesting and exciting things that could be going on in a scene. As a player I’d like to know the comparative worth of adding one or two dice to my dice pool; my choice of how much essence to spend boosting my roll or which charm to use is less meaningful if I don’t have adequate knowledge about the potential consequences.

While it is a good rule of thumb that you need about twice as many dice as successes required to have a 50% chance of success, that doesn’t help if you want to use more or fewer dice as it is extremely difficult to know how much of an impact adding or subtracting dice will have without using advanced statistical modelling or brute force calculation. If you’re trying to save essence for a later encounter, how much can you reasonably get away with not spending and still have a good chance of success? In games like D&D and Call of Cthulhu you have a very clear idea before you roll as to your chance of success, so you can make more meaningful decisions about your actions.

By now I’ve probably lost about half of you. What type of boring nerd wants to know this? In the heat of battle, with stunts and descriptive storytelling, who cares about the probability that you’ll hit that dude with that sword? You’re probably right, players are less likely to care about this sort of thing, but as a storyteller, I think it is important to have at least a good understanding of the difficulty of the encounters you’re building. Herein lies my second problem. What is a challenging difficulty for a player who can roll between 10 and 20 dice on a given action?

If you have players who love to min-max their characters, Exalted is great, and it’s a fun game in itself to determine what gives you the ultimate build in a particular skill/sphere. But, if you haven’t got a group of players who want to do that, or worse you have a mixture of power-gamers and normal players, how can you balance encounters? One character will have five ten-die attacks that can hit for 14 dice of damage, a Defence Value of 9 (meaning you require nine success to hit them) and a soak of 13 (Meaning you get rid of 13 damage, to a minimum of one), the other has one 6-die attack that can hit for 5 dice of damage, a Defence Value of 5 and a soak of 4. If you make it challenging for the first character, there’s a very real chance you’ll kill the second, and if you make it challenging for the second, you risk killing the former with boredom. Balancing encounters is made all the more difficult because there is a staggering lack of a decent bestiary or ‘monster manual’ to throw at players.

The argument follows that the GM should encourage players to take combat skills to ensure they reach a minimum level, but that involves taking choice out of the players hands and reducing the number of interesting decisions they can make about their character. The rulebook recommends that players should all take at least one level of Ox-Body Technique, a power that increases the amount of damage that can be taken, why not just make it a standard power and reduce the number of options available?

Given the dizzying number of charm choices, and the way that the castes have been designed, players are more inclined to roll up characters that excel in different roles. But, instead of the traditional fighter, mage, cleric, thief set, Exalted is geared around players dominating particular spheres, so you could have a character that is a combat monster, a social monster or a crafting monster. Each of these roles complements the other in general, but in specific situations, there is little opportunity for synergy. What effect can a social or crafting character have in combat situations? What does a combat monster do in a social situation? While they may be able to make minimal contributions, a bruiser might be able to intimidate an underling, they are relegated to less than secondary roles during those encounters. While the players can make contributions before the event, social characters can try to persuade the group to lay down their arms or crafters can create better weapons, once the fighting starts they are left with little to do. Again, the argument would be that players should be encouraged to create rounded characters, but this just means that they end up being uninteresting clones of each other.

Perhaps you should ignore the rules you don’t like and play Exalted a bit more loosely? Concentrate on the story and it’ll all work out, right? The problem with this is that the players abilities are so closely tied to systemic enhancements it is difficult to describe player powers in any other way. Because the game is built around Exalted characters who are defined by their charms to a great extent, removing the ability to use those charms makes it impossible to play an Exalted character! There are charms for each step of the combat sequence, so if I take out certain steps to simplify combat I’m potentially hobbling someone’s character. If I try to ignore the rules for social combat I have to judge myself whether or not a player can influence an NPC. There is always the temptation to rig the encounter, depending on how the encounter is ‘supposed’ to go, whereas the more fair solution is to let the dice fall where they may.

The other problem with simplification in favour of quick and easy gameplay is that the Exalted world has been designed from the ground up with the idea that the Exalted have the power to shape and define Creation. Once you start chipping away at the edges you start removing some of the most interesting and fun narrative ideas in the system. If I say that Sidereal martial arts are too complicated and difficult to manage and get rid of them, well, then I’ve taken away one of the defining traits of the Sidereal Exalted. It’s one of the great successes of Exalted that every aspect of Creation can be influenced by the player characters, and the system is detailed enough that those interactions are fairly arbitrated. The detail in Exalted, it’s greatest strength from a storytelling point of view, make it complicated and difficult to run. Removing or altering elements to make it more manageable actually makes the setting less interesting at the same time. If you want your character to have interesting and unique charms, then you need a certain level of detail to ensure that not every charm is essentially ‘does x damage and has minor side-effect’.

Exalted is roleplaying without the training wheels, turned up to 11. It is no wonder that White Wolf challenged players to ‘Graduate’ their game from D&D, as Exalted is orders of magnitude more complicated to play than the offering from Wizards of the Coast. Whereas D&D has a reputation for complexity it is relatively easy to play, especially 3.5 and 4.0, and only character creation is moderately difficult, Exalted is exactly the opposite, character creation is a breeze, but resolving anything can be soul-crushingly time consuming. For those willing to put the effort in to learn the system, this time is reduced enormously, but it is a very steep learning curve.

*I’m largely talking about 2nd Edition throughout.
** This can go up to 16 steps if a counter-attack is involved.
*** It’s 0.46.

You Owe It To Yourself…

Designers & Dragons

I think you’d struggle to find a more comprehensive history of roleplaying than this mighty tome.  The story of every major publisher from AEG to White Wolf via TSR and Wizards of the Coast has been chronicled in impressive detail.  This isn’t just a nostalgic look back on the highs of the industry it takes a look at the crashes, and also looks forward to those stretching the boundaries of the medium, either through the type of games they’re creating or the method they take in creation, distribution and development.

Does Music Belong In Tabletop RPG’s?

Disclaimer – Only useful for groups willing to experience more than just background noise.

Music is a useful and unique tool for tabletop GM’s for creating a mood during an RPG session.  All too often though it is an afterthought and merely acts as an aural backdrop to the main action.  While this is okay for some games and sessions, adding a little depth to the campaign through music can mean the difference between a merely good experience and a great one.  The best time to prepare the music of a game is during the writing of the campaign, as there are so many inter-related elements that thinking about the music you want to play will influence how you eventually run individual sessions.

Getting Started

Probably the first thing to do is set the musical theme in the same way that your campaign has an overall theme: Pick a theme song, sonata, suite, symphony or album that fits with the theme of your campaign.  Play an element of that theme at the beginning of every session so that everyone is drawn back into the campaign.  The track should act as a signal that the session is starting and help players recall what happened last week.  Giving a brief rundown of last session over the title theme also helps give the session a bit of momentum.  Don’t be afraid to change the theme over time, or at key intervals during a campaign.  My initial theme song for my current Exalted campaign was ‘Cluster One’ by Pink Floyd, as I was trying to get the frigid, empty feeling of the North.  After the reveal of the campaign ‘big bad’ behind the group’s woes, the theme has changed to Dream Theater’s ‘Misunderstood’.

In much the same way a campaign has a theme, think of appropriate pieces for each of your major characters.  Play them whenever they are in a given scene.  One way to make this work is to have a playlist with a selection of tracks and the theme snuck in the middle, once the track comes on, introduce the character as if they’ve just arrived in the scene.  You can put together a playlist that consists of the themes of group members that will create subtle associations where they aren’t obvious.

Try establishing mood through music, by using the right style/genre for the mood you wish to engender.  Don’t be afraid to use music that’s not popular if it’s more appropriate.  A scene set in a Society ball would be better served by Mozart than Metallica, no matter how much your players may protest.  If you’re trying to give a place character the most effective method at your disposal is to use traditional music associated with the people that live or work there.  For example, if you’re setting a large part of your campaign in New Orleans, you can give it instant flavour by playing some New Orleans Nightcrawlers or the Hot 8 Brass Band (And yes, I have been watching Treme a lot recently…)

Even if you don’t want the hassle of micro-managing your music choices, putting a little effort into your playlists can be really rewarding.  Try and pick music that reinforces the plot; but remember it doesn’t have to be exact.  If, for example, you’re campaign is about madness, then anything off Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album will fit in with that theme.  The reverse of this can produce interesting results; so try taking plot ideas from the lyrics of songs you intend to use.

Björk’s Army of Me contains the following lyrics:

‘You’re on your own now
We won’t save you
Your rescue squad
Is too exhausted

And if you complain once more
You’ll meet an army of me’

You could take a number of elements from that short excerpt and turn into ideas for character, plot or theme.  Meeting an Army of me, could mean that the NPC will become an antagonist of some kind, or it could literally mean that a character turns into a horde of creatures, or less literally that they command a horde of some kind.  The part of the song about the rescue squad being exhausted could allude to a support network of the players being unavailable at a critical time.  The plot or thematic points don’t have to be as specific as the examples above for them to be effective.

Advanced Techniques

Foreshadowing involves taking a piece of music that has some element that you want to introduce later on, but is not strictly speaking relevant at the moment its played.  The musical theme can create a subtle link between characters and their associations, so you don’t have to labour the point through exposition.  A good example of this is used in Star Wars: A New Hope.  Luke is standing on Tattooine watching the twin suns set while the Jedi Knight Theme is played in the background.  So far we’ve not met a Jedi Knight, so there is no reason to play the theme, but it represents the character’s ambition and foreshadows his eventual fate.

Diegesis is a difficult word for an interesting concept.  Simply put in a diegesis relates to  something that is present in the world, rather than something external that is adding to it unnaturally.  Music being played on an NPC’s car radio as they drive past is diegetic.  Non-diegetic music is what we might traditionally call the soundtrack.  All of James Horner’s music in Alien, for example, is non-diegetic: the characters in the film can’t hear it and its main purpose is to act as a signifier to the audience.  Non-diegetic music tells, rather than shows.  Why is this important?  It’s much more powerful to show that a character likes a certain piece of music rather than just using it as a signifier.  If the NPC is listening to music on his radio, it shows us something about his likes and his character.  If it is merely playing in the background, it could be that the music is representing the area, the NPC, the mood of the players or something else entirely.

One of the greatest inventions of modern music is the remix.  It allows GM’s to use the same piece in a variety of different situations.  There is a cottage industry in deconstructing Nine Inch Nails tracks, so that’s a good place to start but my personal favourites are remixes of video game tracks found at OCRemix.  Covers of songs are also great for getting something different from a piece of music.  Jimi Hendrix’s cover of All Along The Watchtower has a completely different feel to the Bob Dylan original, but they are obviously linked (You can also use the versions from the new Battlestar Galactica for added sauce).  Using the associations within the music can lead to associations in the game.

Remember, just as effective as good music, a well-placed silence can add tremendously to the atmosphere of a session.

When you start a session, you need at least an mp3/CD player or computer and a connected set of speakers.  It’s best if you can determine the music before hand, as shuffling through a disorganised CD collection during a session is hard work and can detract from the game if it takes a long time.  If you can control the music from the GM’s chair, so much the better.  My set up at the moment relies on an Ubuntu Netbook wirelessly running Spotify plugged into stereo speakers either side of my GM’s screen.  This allows me to use all the music available on Spotify and my own collection of mp3’s and sound effects for those times when a particular song isn’t available.

The trick with all of this is to do it often enough that players start to notice and look for other associations but not so much that players are busy deconstructing every song you play for meaning and advice.  You don’t want every song to be ultra-relevant, all of the time or else it becomes a game of spot the plot hook/character trait.  Ideally, you’d like players to occasionally sit up and take notice of the music because it’s created tension and feeling, with an added bonus of developing some element of the campaign.  I do it because I find it fun to hide things in plain sight.