Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Thought Eater: Brilliant Forgotten Rules & Memorable Fights

This is a pair of new essays for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If haven't been around the past month for this contest, these are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers
 for the contest. 

In this case, each was assigned the same topic as a first-round opponent who didn't show up. So I am pairing two orphaned essays on different topics. We still have to decide which is better.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "BRILLFORGOT" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

The Worst Awesome Rule in Gaming

(Topic: A brilliant and forgotten RPG thing--and why it's brilliant)

At a certain time in my life, when we talked about what was right and wrong in role-playing, D&D was always our example of what was wrong. And in D&D, we found a rich source of everything we didn’t want from our gaming: drawn-out combats, uninspiring campaign arcs, meaningless social interactions, abusive players, abusive game masters.

This is the story of how a good friend of mine, let’s call him Gary, broke this trend and led to the discovery of the worst awesome rule in gaming.

Gary’s a guy who loves strange games and obscure rules. He’s got a passion for finding value in the things other people throw away or trashing the things everyone agrees are great. He’s the guy whose character decides to found a business in a monster hunting game, or whose plays the angry loner in a game about social interactions. Gary can be difficult.

But Gary also has an amazing instinct for finding awesome gaming things, and the awesome thing Gary wanted us all to play was Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons.

This isn’t the story of how Gary got us to sit down and play D&D, or of how awesome it was, and of how we all got caught up in the old-school renaissance, or any of that stuff that you probably know all about.

What Gary taught us is that a classic game is usually classic for a reason. If you want to know why it’s a classic, you play it. Play it until something awesome happens. If you’re and analytical type, or a designer, you can take that bit of awesome apart, figure out what makes it tick, and put it a new setting somewhere. Or you can just enjoy it as it is, warts and all.

Which brings me to the worst awesome rule I’ve ever found. Actually, Gary found it. I don’t know what to do with this rule, so I’m giving it to you. It’s in James Ward’s “Metamorphosis Alpha,” un-mutated humans are natural leaders. To reflect this, they can roll the dice to make mutants do their bidding. Exactly how you use this isn’t explained in the rules.

This seems like a terrible rule to me. Are you meant to amass an army of mutants and conquer spaceship Warden? Can a human PC order around a mutant PC like a slave? Is there a saving throw? Isn’t this like saying humans are naturally superior to mutants, and isn’t this weird in a game that’s largely about mutants and mutant powers?

Maybe the builders of the Warden deliberately implanted a secret control sequence in the DNA of the crew and animal specimens to make them easier to command. Maybe a mutant scientist could reverse engineer this and use it against the humans or other mutants. Maybe there’s an antidote. Maybe we should all make mutant characters and fight against the imperialistic humans.

The best thing to do with this rule is just to ignore it. But I have a better challenge. Find a way to harness the awesome that’s hiding it in.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "MEMENC" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Topic: Monster and Encounter Design (How to make it memorable? Is 'memorable' even the aim? How to make them good? etc)”

 “Memorable” isn’t something the GM can create, it’s something that happens in play. A throwaway scene that the GM just pulled out of nowhere to fill time can be the most memorable scene of a campaign, while an elaborately plotted scene can be forgotten by the next week. It’s all a matter of what the players grab onto during the scene, what they do with it, and sometimes what they roll. That being the case, I’m going to ditch the idea of trying to make an encounter memorable in favor of some nebulous definition of “good” that includes elements with a high potential for memorability (which, at least according to the Google Docs spellchecker, seems to be an actual word). 

For me, the thing that always makes a encounter seem “good” is context, which needs to work on a couple of different levels. On the meta level, it needs to feel like the encounter does something to move the story along, whether it’s giving the party information, moving them one step closer to the goal, or just helping the story flow by providing some tension when things get boring or a break in the action when things get too tense. If you’re watching a movie or TV show, you can often tell if a scene was just added to stretch out the run time, show off a special effect, or get Christopher Walken’s name on the poster, and noticing it makes the movie less enjoyable. With encounters that 
aren’t plot points, the biggest challenge is knowing when to include them and when to throw them out or hand wave them. If the party has already beaten the level boss, making them wade through a bunch of low-level cannon fodder that can’t hurt them and don’t add anything new to the story just makes it feel like you’re delaying their victory party unless you’ve specifically set up a “it’s getting back out that’s the hard part” situation. If the last hour of the game is spent in a series of boring fights with small bands of half-starved kobolds, the players are more likely to forget the really cool battle with the minotaur by the time the session’s over.   

The other level is the setting level: the encounter seems to feel like it belongs there. Things that are part of the story will already have reasons for being there, but even incidental or unplanned encounters (like surprise ninja attacks to get a group that’s dithering to start moving again or wandering monsters) need to feel like they make sense. If an encounter doesn’t seem plausible,  it’s going to feel like a plot point, so you need to be prepared for when the players realize that there traditionally aren’t any ninjas in Rivendell and start trying to figure out where the guys in black pajamas came from. Even if the players take a “eh, ninjas, what can you do?” attitude and don
’t pursue the anomaly, it doesn’t hurt to throw in something later that helps explain where it came from. The more encounters interconnect with one another and the setting, the more alive the setting will feel. 

My personal solution for making sure that encounters feel like they have context is not to think in terms of encounters. The typical gaming definition of “encounter”--when the players arrive at location X, event Y will happen--is static, which makes the world seem less like a living setting and more like a diorama that only comes to life when the players are there to see it. Instead, I try to think in terms of motivations and conflicts. Instead of sitting around waiting for the PCs to break into their house and kill them, the non-PC actors go about their lives (often clashing with one another) and react accordingly when the PCs inevitably mess up their plans. Even if you’re running a dungeon crawl where the “there are orcs in this room” model works a little better, it still helps to understand what life in the dungeon is like when there are no adventurers breaking up the place. If nothing else, it’ll help you spot design flaws that might kill the players’ suspension of disbelief, like the fact that the Displacer Beast in room 7 probably would have either starved to death or set off the spike trap at the end of the only hallway to room 7 long before the party ever got there. 

Context is also important in monster design in that the kind of monster you choose or create needs to fit the role you want the monster to play in the story. I usually break monsters down into a few broad categories: Cannon Fodder are nuisance monsters that are mostly used for pacing;  Mystery monsters are puzzles to be solved and can usually be killed fairly easily once you figure out how to kill them; Brutes are big and tough and scary but ultimately just meat that can be hacked apart; Tricksters screw with the character’s minds; Predators create tension by playing cat and mouse with the heroes; and Forces of Nature are things like giant monsters and zombie hordes that require a brilliant plan to defeat because taking them out by hitting
 them with pointy sticks is statistically improbable. Once you know why the monster’s there, it’s just a matter of adding bells and whistles and assorted pointy bits to make it seem cool. 

Ultimately, the key to creating good scenes is asking “why is this here?” or “why is this happening?” and then answering your own question. The more these answers interconnect with one another, the story,  and the setting, the more alive the world will seem. The more alive the world seems, the more the players will have to latch onto in order to create memorable scenes. A series of disconnected encounters with no context or narrative flow are likely to blend into one another, just like a series of random workdays when nothing interesting happens.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Thought Eater: Keeping It Short

Alright: here's a pair of new essays for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new here, these are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers assigned to write about: 
"Brevity, concision, keeping it short--when is it good, when is it bad, how has it been used well, or misused in the history of RPG writing, or GMing?" for the contest.
Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "BREVITY1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

It's common sense that it is better to keep rules explanations concise. And there is a general trend towards minimalism both in DIY D&D circles and amongst indie/story game types. I can see in the abstract why this trend is beneficial: nobody wants an unwieldy rulebook, and looking at big, thick hardback tomes like the core rules for Pathfinder fills me a kind of existential despair - I not only don't want to invest the time in learning those rules; the thought that people have to learn them or choose to do so sends shivers down my spine. Let's just play.

And yet as I sit here writing this there is a loud voice in my brain which is saying, "You are a gigantic fraud and hypocrite, because in your heart of hearts you know that all your favourite RPG books are really fucking long." And it's true. Whether it's Cyberpunk 2020, or the Planescape boxed sets and supplements, Changeling: the Dreaming, Pendragon or even the rules for AD&D, the rule books that I love and hold dear are not brief or concise in any definition of the term. Changeling: the Dreaming is so grossly and irredeemably prolix that I'm still not sure how you even actually play the damn game.

Why the contradiction? As is often the case, an abstract truism doesn't hold true in concrete cases. Rules really ought to be concise. But conciseness is not inspiring, except perhaps if good design is what you are interested in. Passion is inspiring and passion is rarely brief. Passion splurges all over the page. It struggles to express itself except in very long-winded and convoluted terms. When somebody is passionate about something they can't help themselves talking about it, frequently and at length. So while I would not want to suggest that concise rulebooks are written by dispassionate people, I like the big, unnecessarily lengthy work of the hare-brained hobbyist who loves his game so much he can't stop writing it.

And since I need to be inspired in order to want to play a game, and since a passionate author is what is needed to be inspiring, it can only be the case that long-winded doorstops which you would have to be insane to write (think of the sheer effort that went into producing the 5th edition of Pendragon) are the type of RPG books I'll end up enjoying.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "BREVITY2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

The Importance of Brevity

I am a big believer in “less is more.” Especially when it comes to games of the imagination. No matter what accessories, props, or premade adventures you are using - this is a game played within the imagination of your players.  A game of the mind.

Whatever they see in their mind comes from the information you give them. I submit to you that it's better to put the seeds of information in their head with a scalpel rather than a sledge hammer (OK, that analogy doesn't make any sense, but I think you see what I mean). Let me give you an example:

     You enter the room and see a table. On the table is a cat wearing spectacles. The cat appears to be reading a large tome.

That is a pretty brief description of a dungeon room. Now I didn't tell you how big the table was or what is it made of. I didn’t tell you what color the cat was, how fluffy it’s fur was, what style of eyeglasses was it wearing, or what kind of binding the tome had. If you asked all of your players to describe how they pictured the scene, each would have a different answer. I needed them to know that there was a table, a cat, and a book. That’s it. The rest was up to them. Imagination!

In addition to engaging the player’s minds, brevity allows the DM an incredible amount of leeway to create their world. I hate when I buy an adventure or setting and the descriptions are essentially a series of instructions that railroads the players to where the author wanted his story to end up. That is not gaming. The more information that is forced onto the player (or the DM), the less freedom they have.

Brevity also reduces the amount of prep needed to play. I really love the one page dungeon contests (www.onepagedungeon.info). Go grab a few of them, a monster manual, and some random tables and you can game for hours with less information than most DM screens have on them.

Ok, this is becoming a bit long in an essay about brevity so I will close by saying this: Whether you are creating content for a DM to use or presenting content to your players, only give them the briefest form of the information they need. Their minds will do the rest.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Thought Eater: Skipping The Game

These are new essays for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

They are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers assigned to write about: 
How to handle "skip-the-game" spells and effects e.g. Passwall, unlimited-use Flying, etc. for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "SKIP1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Skip-the-game spells and items are inherently worldbuilding effects. You can either plan for them ahead of time, or let them build your world for you. They raise the question of whether your gameworld has a magic ecosystem, and if so, what it looks like. Does unlimited use of powerful spells have in-world consequences? Does it bring the characters to the attention of other, potentially more powerful entities? If there are no consequences, you're setting things up for munchkinism, or at least logical inconsistencies. 

Take Passwall. How common is this spell? In a world where any jackass can learn Passwall, laws and wards to prevent its unlimited use will be commonplace. Or, if such spells are extremely rare, and thus un-warded-against, the PCs should have to work their asses off to get access to them. You only get to waltz past the warlord's castle walls if you've climbed the Mount Indomitable and exposed your body to the appalling fleshrazor frost while smoking the fabled lessa blossoms from a hooka made from the skull of a minor deity - simply having access to the spell implies months or years of in-game dedication and preparation. But if a powerful effect is easy to obtain but has few consequences, it makes the world a little less believable - like a world where anyone can pick a lock but no-one has invented deadbolts or security alarms.

So far, so easy - powerful magic should have costs and consequences. A strong thread in folklore and mythology is monkey's paw logic - powerful gifts tend to have strings attached, and rarely work out like people think they will in advance. The most obvious and probably least satisfying way to enact that is to have an equal DM reaction for every PC action. Maybe people who fly all the time tend to get attacked by manticores or snatched by rocs. This isn't very satisfying because it's so transparently a way for the DM to put brakes on powerful effects. 

A better path is to give powerful effects a spectrum of consequences, which might be good or bad depending on what the PCs do next. Don't just impose a curse or a combat, but make the consequence into an adventure hook. Maybe people who use Passwall a lot are actually poking holes between dimensions. As they go through the walls, they briefly manifest in some other dimension, and the inhabitants of that dimension react to those appearances as angelic or demonic visitations. Then when the PCs have to visit that dimension later on - possibly as a result of getting stuck there while attempting Passwall on a powerfully warded target - half of the residents try to worship them (which might involve 'liberating' their souls from their bodies) while the other half try to banish them to hell (which might mean sending them back to the Prime Material Plane with a funeral barge and a golem army). 

That's just one half-baked example. The larger point is that the consequences of powerful spells and items should be multifaceted. You don't have to think of all of the possible consequences in advance - feel free to riff off whatever weird coincidences come up in-game, to make the consequences feel more organic, and less like meta-game-y effects imposed from outside.

So: give powerful effects consequences, and make those consequences complex and multifaceted. Let them grow the story instead of restricting it.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "SKIP2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

I play by the book. I seldom house-rule and when I do it's usually making up monsters and magic items. I also run my games letting the dice fall where they will, sticking to the results whether they suit my purposes or not: of course, this is all for D&D/OSR type games. It'd be different if it was a story-game, but I have hardly ever ran those.

This frequently puts me in a position, as a DM, of having a party of adventurers who are laden with useful magic items, spells and powers, all of the 'skip-the-game' type abilities. How do I deal with them? I let them use it. I fold into the game, make it part of the story. I let NPCs figure out the PCs abilities if they've been making a name for themselves, and if the NPC is intelligent and have their own resources, then I plan accordingly, but only if it makes sense within the game world that's been created.

At the moment, I have a party of Name-level PCs that have superb AC, excellent weapons and magic items, one member who can permanently fly, and a multitude of invisibility, haste rings, teleport helmets... basically, these adventurers can deal with anything I throw at them. The struggle then becomes a matter of creating obstacles that will challenge the party, despite the 'skip-the-game' abilities they have.

At that point, the good old dungeon delves becomes less interesting, the wandering monster encounters become nothing more than a stepping stone, a bump in the road from A to B. I don't bother with random encounters so much now, and the dungeons they delve are nothing like the catacombs or buried tombs that they once robbed. There are no more dragon lairs to intrude upon, no villages of orcs to slaughter. Other than a possible respire from other matters, these types of encounters are indeed best skipped.

Now the game becomes more about domains, politics, encounters with never before encounter monsters, events that reply more on the players/characters wits than their magic. Unlimited flying is not going to stop an army of 6,000 soldiers heading to raze your newly built domain; but it will help plan a course of action. That Passwall or Teleport spell isn't going to prevent court intrigue, but it will help break into secret rooms to acquire information that can be used to blackmail the count.

That's how I handle 'Skip-the-Game' effects then: by letting the players use whatever items, spells or abilities their characters posses, and just adapt the adventures they participate in, so that they remain engaged and challenged, and ultimately enjoy the game.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Thought Eater: Evil

Good morning. How's your Monday? Here is a pair of new essays for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

These two entries aren't by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers assigned to write about: The Use of The Concept of Evil In Games for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "EVIL1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

The Use of the Concept of Evil in Games

The age-old fight of good versus evil, paladins versus demons, good deities of light versus twisted lords of the abyss. So over-used, so boring.

Let’s be just a bit honest here: that duality, as is presented in most fantasy settings, is not in any way a stimulating way of exploring human (or elven, or dwarven, or orkish) morality. It is, at best, a good shortcode to build a system around. Not a belief system, but a system nonetheless.

That being said, if we are able to ignore the greater ideological qualms of good versus evil, it could perhaps be better phrased as good means altruistic, evil means selfish (the Brazilian Portuguese translation of AD&D even uses those words to describe the “Neutral X” of both).

That is how I use it in my games: work for the greater overall happiness, even if you’re being a dickish utilitarian, you’re doing good deeds; work for your own selfish objectives, to get rich and powerful, you’re doing evil deeds. Gods are usually technically evil, even when they expect their followers to be good. But that’s all fluff, all in the backstage.

The actual use of that is: evil is a reward. Rather, getting to be evil without becoming seen as evil is a reward. In that way, I like to use it less like a moral compass and more like the L5R honour system: the altruistic things you do, the more selfish you can be without becoming driven (only) by your own greed, or at least being seen that way by society.

So, from the player’s standpoint, this is the view: Good or evil are really just opinions and propaganda, right? So as long as I keep them balanced, I should be great! I mean take Mother Theresa: seen as this beacon of good, even though her philanthropy only reached those who converted to her religion!

In-game, it might even end up leading to more interesting villains! It brings down the moustache twirling villain, who does stupid crap for the sake of evil, and in its place puts a much more interesting NPC, with strong motivations and that will stop at nothing to achieve them!

And because the ends don’t justify the means, at least in the public’s eye, the so-called heroic murderhobos end up having to play by the rules in order to not be seen as the villains themselves, unless they do enough good to allow them to use whatever methods are necessary to get the job done.
That’s the way I use evil: A social reward for good deeds. 

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "EVIL2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

The Other Evil

"The Other" is different from or alien to the self ... opposite to being "us". When used as a verb it means to label...and then exclude those who do not fit a societal norm. In geographic terms ... somewhere along the margins, where the societal norm does not reside. [​Paraphrased from Wikipedia​].


It goes without saying that people, in general, conflate “evil” and “the Other” in real life all the time, and you need look no further than the comments section of any news article whose headline contains any of the following words: liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, gun control, abortion, feminism, men’s rights, Islam, Scientology, Christianity, atheism...


a) The orcs see that they’re clearly outmatched. They surrender. “Okay, we take their weapons and tie them up. What should we do with them?” They appear willing to negotiate with you, escort you around the area ­ “Orcs are evil. I think we should kill them.” They plead for their lives, they’ll tell you anything, please ­ “We can’t leave a bunch of witnesses behind us. Easier just to kill them.” Great, the party cleric just turned into the villain from an action film. “No, we’re the​good​guys.” I know. I know. “It checks out, we cast ​Detect Good ​and everything.”

b) The most prolific serial killer in human history barely broke a hundred kills. Jack the Ripper killed eleven people ​more than a century ago and people are still trying to solve that case. That’s not even enough to hit level two. “But he didn’t kill orcs.” Exactly.

c) “I cast detect evil.” Okay, yeah, he’s evil. “Excellent. I start cutting off his fingers until he tells us where his boss is.” Aren’t you supposed to be good? “​Chaotic ​Good. And you just said he’s evil, so it’s okay.” Right.

d) In Dungeons and Dragons, the conflict between good versus evil isn’t about morals, but eugenics; you don’t kill orcs because of what they’ve done, but because of what they ​are. “Are you saying D&D players are racists?” No, of course not, I’m saying that the primary antagonists are an expression of the Other: ‘evil humanoids’ (orcs, drow, goblins); enough like us to “know better” than to do evil yet different enough that they’re not really people e.g. we can kill them and take their loot without feeling guilt. The fear of like­us­but­not­like­us evil is the fear that drives racism. “I don’t think it’s okay to kill helpless captive orcs just because they’re orcs.” Okay, fine, but grant me that it’s ​more ​okay than killing helpless captive humans.


a) “We tie his hands and feet, then I tell him I’m going to start breaking finders if he doesn’t tell us where his master’s lair is.” Okay, you win, I’ll tell you everything I know. “This is a black op. We can’t leave witnesses behind us.” No, please, I have a wife and kids. “Alright. I take his wallet, write down the address on his ID, and tell him that we’re coming back for his family if he crosses us.” Oh, thank you, I swear you’ll never hear from me again. “We cut him loose.”

b) “So anyone in this city might be a vampire, or working for the vampires, and they look just like us, except they’re stronger, and faster, and have access to way more resources.” Right, and they need to suck you dry to stay alive. Don’t worry, though, it’s only about 1% of the population.

c) “I don’t understand. Are you saying Night’s Black Agents appeals to the OWS crowd?” No, well, yes. The other that looks like us, that wears our skin and walks among us but ​isn’t us ­ this is the Other we fear the most. It’s why players in NBA spend hours planning their routes, establishing safehouses, eliminating their trails, ​hiding,​despite the fact that the game ​explicitly allows you to forego this ​with an in­game mechanic that lets you go “oh, I spent a point, we planned for that”. And of course by fear the most I also mean hate the most ­ which is why you might or might not spare the captive orcs (well, “orc farmers” or “orc midwives” have a shot, anyway, they’re ​humanized​) but no one lets the vampire go free. “Didn’t you lead with a question about OWS?” Right, of course, the point isn’t that rich people are vampires, it’s that we hate people who have more than us, for not doing the things (we say) we would do if we had that much, or are you telling me the vast global vampire conspiracy is ​poor?​Of course not, and this is the catch ­ take a minute, really imagine what kind of setting has a global conspiracy/network struggling to make ends meet ­ aren’t they the good guys?


a) “We can’t leave any witnesses behind.” The cultist of R’yleh makes horrible, gurgling noises. He might be trying to reason with you, if only you could understand what he’s saying. You all take sanity damage.

b) “They’re completely alien. They don’t think like we do, they don’t look like us. They’re far, far, away, but they’re coming. We don’t know when, but soon. When they get here, it’s over. We can’t stop them.”

c) Yes, I’m talking about the Chinese. “You already did a bit on racism and other cultures.” You’re not listening, the orcs are ​us​, they’re ​our culture, they’re the part of us we deny, the people who should know better in safe­to­murder packaging. Lovecraftian horrors ­ they’re the cultures we don’t understand, there are more of them than us by orders of magnitude and they live where we can’t/won’t and we can’t understand their language but they’re coming, the first wave is already here, they get stronger every day and our society is wholly unequipped to face them. “I’m Chinese.” No, not ‘Chinese people’, Jesus, I mean “​the Chinese”, ​forty years ago it was “the Russians”, and before that “the British”, I’m saying we’re Oceania and Eurasia is coming, any day now, and Eastasia is our only hope. “You’re not making any sense.” We are playing Call of Cthulu.


a) Importantly, these are ​the ​same players. ​The party healer solves problems in D&D by kicking down doors and killing everyone on the other side, then spends weeks of game time in Night’s Black Agents hiding, designing safehouses, and meticulously planning a kidnapping only to let the target go once they get information out of him. As the hitman. We might have only two or three combats in an entire Call of Cthulu campaign, period.

b) Note that there is no ‘real’ e.g. mechanical game rule reason why players couldn’t just start kicking down doors and killing people in NBA, or planning the perfect heist across a half­dozen sessions in D&D. In fact, I’ve found players are actually in (significantly) more danger in the average 5e combat compared to NBA, even accounting for the fact that they rush into things more often.

c) The action, ​the action​, in all three systems is still about the struggle against evil; each of these games deals with a different type of evil, that is, a different part of “evil”, and each of these requires a different response. You don’t complain that Call of Cthulu doesn’t have enough action just because you aren’t killing dozens of starspawn every night, not because you can’t kill starspawn in Call of Cthulu but because that’s not how you fight an unknowable enemy from beyond our shores / stars and besides even if you did there are infinite more where that came f r o m . “ G o o n a s t a k e o u t ? T h e d r o w a r e r i g h t h e r e ! I c a s t ​F i r e b a l l . ​”


a) “Give me something gameable.” Not part of the essay prompt, but alright, bear with me one minute longer. These systems steer you ­ players and DM ­ towards certain styles of gameplay, certain story arcs, certain campaigns not by the rules but by the nature of evil they present. “D&D has vampires too.” Sure, but it never occurred to you to run ‘track down the vast global vampire conspiracy’ ​in D&D. “Well, NBA is designed for exactly that kind of game, why would I run it in D&D?.” Alright, so you own it, and I own it, but I bet most people who play D&D don’t, and it ​still never occurred to them.

b) “Something gameable.” Fine, here we go: ​change the nature of evil​. Give your D&D players a conspiracy to unravel. “All this build up for that? Boring. Lots of city adventures revolve around conspiracies.” Let me try again. Sit down with your D&D character sheets and ​play Night’s Black Agents, with the D&D ruleset. Do you understand? If you sit down with the same DM and the same players and run through the ​exact same adventure​, I swear to you, hand­to­God, the game goes in a completely different direction if ​it is understood that you are playing ​Dungeons and Dragons, Night’s Black Agents, or Call of Cthulu.​Moreover, this will happen ​even if you never roll any dice. ​It’s not, can’t be, the rules, but an implicit understanding of the nature of evil and, consequently, the rules of engagement.

c) I ran a session of D&D using ​Betrayal at House on the Hill and it was the single best session we ever had. “So what do we do?” The house is evil, and maybe one of you is too. Try and get
out. “What do you mean, the house is evil?” You hear footsteps coming towards you from down the hallway. “I run the other way.”

d) This only works/is interesting if it runs contrary to expectations e.g. you have a NBA adventure, a FASERIP adventure, whatever, ​in the context of your D&D campaign. You can, of course, run a whole campaign using a different paradigm of evil, but it won’t stand out, and another system might be better suited anyways.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Realism (Thought Eater)

Here are a pair of entries in the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new here, these are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write about: Uses and Abuses of Realism for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "REALISM1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

It's difficult to talk about abusing reality without first discussing the nature of reality.  That particular topic is very large and the range of approaches to it are very wide.  I will do my best to cut it up into some smaller and more chewable bites.  It's a bit of a rough draft, so please try to bear with me.  For the sake of getting to a manageable point, lets go ahead and assume that there are two basic types of reality.   

There is essential reality.  This is an idea from the Greeks that eventually gave us modern physics.   Essential reality is the ground we stand on.  It is our planet going around a star, due to gravity which pulls various dusts and gasses into a warm ball.   It is the reason that rocks are hard, sunshine is warm, and the sky is blue.

This idea of things having an essential form works very well for describing the physical but it starts to break down when you deal with social reality.    Things like Justice and Happiness aren't concrete enough to pin down with this sort of thinking.

There is a socially constructed reality.  Social constructivism is the most common approach for the modern social sciences to take when trying to suss out the nature of reality.  Humans use language to come to a consensus on things in the world around them.  The sky is blue instead of green, because some humans a while ago agreed on the set of criteria that make Blue blue, instead of Green. ( see example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ao_(color)  This approach is much easier to use when tackling topics that aren't concrete.

An example of abusing reality #2:

Sitting down at the game table is (as Ice-T accurately put it) "some of the most crazy, deep, deep, deep, nerd shit ever invented.", because we entertain ourselves by socially constructing a reality that is an alternative to the one we walk around in every day.   People outside of that social conversation have no idea who or what the fuck its participants are talking about.   If you show up to your family reunion and talk to your grandma about how a Glitter Boy's Boom Gun hits for 3D6x10 she will look at you (rightly so) like you're speaking a different language.

Within this abused reality, the participants in the social construction still have a very basic need to intellectualize and understand what exactly is going on.  If you tried to play a game where people pretended to be energy based life forms floating in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant, it would not go smoothly.  There has to be a baseline of realism for comprehension of the social reality within the game to be built up from.   You stand on the ground in the game, just like in real life.

This leads to the codification of storytelling, through a reality emulator.

An example of abusing reality #1:

Video games are a great example of a reality emulator.   To illustrate this point, I'll use the popular indy game Goat Simulator.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goat_Simulator
Go google up some short YouTube videos if you're unfamilliar.

So, in Goat Emulator the fun comes from the tweaking and abuse of essential reality.   The set dressing for the game is drably real.  There are gas stations with cars, suburban homes full of average citizens, streets paved with asphalt,... a goat.   Bland, bland reality.  Just like the stuff you see when you step outside.  The difference is very slight, and completely under the hood.   Physics in the game are just a little bit whacked.  That one change to a single part of essential reality takes a boring thing, and makes it immensely entertaining.

Game systems are also a form of reality emulator.
Just as video games have code working under the surface to generate a recognizable world, paper and dice games have their system.  Gravity causes falling damage.  You can die from drowning.  You can starve to death without enough rations.   The fun comes in the same way as the Goat Emulator.   Tweaking things here and there throws the participants off balance enough to make it fun.

The best example of abusing or tweaking reality inside of the paper and dice reality emulator is Magic.  Magic uses language, the tool of reality#2 to rearrange reality#1.  
As such, fantasy magic can act as a sort of social shorthand.  It can create spells that resemble other real things in a faster and simpler form.   A fireball spell in the game has much the same effect as dropping an incendiary grenade in reality, minus the factories armies and materials needed to explain the existence of an incendiary grenade.   A charm spell enthralls a character in much the same way as a charismatic leader gains converts, but without the time investment of multiple gradual brainwashing sessions.

The system you choose can give you a good grounding in simulated reality, either substantial or social and choosing how and where to abuse it will dictate, in part, the shape of the fun.
Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "REALISM2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

There is a reason that combat was originally written as an abstract idea in the beginnings of our great hobby.  Part of our job as grand schemers behind the screens is to paint a picture for our players.  To do this one must on occasion bend and break and sometimes completely alter the rules of the real world.  I must ask you to open your eyes and really see the world around you, for the first time. 

Take a coin out of your wallet, and drop it on the floor.  Keep your eyes open, and watch it fall.  How long did it take for the coin to hit the ground once it was released from your hand?  One second perhaps? Possibly two if you’re a bit taller than I.  Now swing an imaginary sword in a few daring manoeuvres, feinting a bit, and parrying.  We have been told in the past that there is a certain amount of time that is elapsed within a round of fighting.  If you watch a sparring matching between two professional fencers a inordinate amount of blows, glances, parries will happen within a very short time frame.  Relaying the above statement has taken me a bit of time to write correctly, however I've attempted to paint a picture for you.  Rather than confirm exactly how many times that you were in fact hit, or how many times you in fact missed within that obviously very short time frame.   

Below the balcony is a large hall occupied by your companions and vile monsters.  You decide to grab a rope swing it over around a chandelier at the centre of the room.  With one great throw you manage to hook the rope around, and position yourself to land into the midst of the fight.  Drawing your sword you call out to whatever gods are listening and jump down.  As you descend you hit a few monsters.  You tuck and roll, coming up about eight feet away from the chandelier, with one might heft you pull the chandelier down on to the monsters.  The very idea of the heroic deed is part and parcel of playing out our fantasy, the essence of role playing.  To water down the experience to a series of dice rolls, which take a lot longer than ten seconds seems like a waste of time.  For that matter a waste of dice rolling.  The above scenario was an abstract view of combat.  Granted the whole scenario could have been played out over a series of rounds and checks.  It can and should be played out with one roll, one round.  

Riding across an open expanse of a field, you see a lady in a red dress from far off.  Between the lady and yourself are hundreds of well-dressed Cats that look all very similar.  There are two ways to get through this.  We can proceed through the process of explaining every single step you take, everything you see, everything that you fight or evade.  What will also happen is that both of us will become bored with the never changing scenery, the obvious references to certain black cats that appear to look alike.  All in an attempt to make our way to the lovely woman in the red dress.  The other option is to tell a story.  What happened, when? Who? Where? Did She? Did they? Did you?  

The fantasy worlds that we inhabit and bring to life are inherently just that, fantasy.  From the sword fight to the hero saving his friends, to you riding across a barren expanse attempting to rescue the fair maiden.  All of these examples are based on a fantasy world, one that isn't always based on the rules of the real world.  Combat should never be an extended set of dice rolls; it should always be an abstract idea, brought about by great role-playing and descriptive enthusiasm. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Alignment Used Well & Poorly (Thought Eater)

These are two new entries in the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

The contest works like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write about: Alignment: Used Well And Poorly for the contest.

Who the hell are these people playing with?

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "ALIGNMENT1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Alignment: Used Well and Poorly

When I'm thinking about how to uses a particular mechanic in an RPG, I have a few basic principles.

A well designed mechanic used well...

1. Tells me something about the setting of the game.

2. Provides a meaningful choice

3. Resolves the outcome of that choice:

2a. In a way that (ideally) everyone at that table feels is fair

2b. In a way that is applied consistently.

Alignment, as it functions in Chainmail tells you what figures could be used in a particular army. If you play Chaos, then you can have dragons. If you pick Law, you can't have dragons but you can have treants. That's give some context to the assumed setting and makes a choice of belligerent you are playing meaningful. The original D&D rules expand on the simple “us vs. them” aspect and tell us about the assumed universe in which a D&D campaign takes place.

1. There is an eternal struggle between Chaos and Law

2. There can never be peace between them.

3. The principle beings in this eternal war are driven by their essence to fight for one side or the other. They are what they are and can not choose to be otherwise.

4. Some creatures, like humans, have a choice.

5. Each side wants humans to choose. If you choose the other side or betray the side you are on, the great powers will smash you when it is in their interest to do so.

The fight is bigger than the petty concerns of mortals. Forces beyond the understanding of mortals have an interest and choosing one side over another may mean a big headache for your character. Now the PC has a complication to take into account. The context gives the player a feeling of depth to the setting. It can help the player to feel like they are part of a fiction not just a meeple on a two dimensional representation with a thin veneer of context. The emotional engagement or immersion of the mechanic helps make the decisions meaningful.

At the beginning of a character's existence, you make a choice, Law or Chaos? Since the choice has context then it is meaningful and that choice has a consequence. Certain creatures, when encountered, will seek your character's death. Certain creatures, when encountered, will aid your character. Certain creatures could go either way. Certain creatures will seek to subvert that choice and convince you to change sides. A character may decide to change sides and that betrayal brings problems.

Alignment goes bad when it is used to force player choice or there is no consequence to player choice. The evil vs. good axis introduced in AD&D made alignment more complex. Some unskilled DM's use the two axis alignment to railroad players. The DM may impose such a nasty consequence on a choice that the player has to comply to continue playing that character. Go rescue the village or you aren't a paladin. The DM may choose not to impose a penalty because imposing a consequence will derail the train. The paladin does something egregious but because the DM needs a paladin for his story to work the paladin faces no consequence. Either way, not a good practice. In the first case, your choice is go the way the DM wants or be miserable and in the second, your choice has no consequence and breaks the context of the setting with discontinuity. Both create a dissonance in the game that players have a hard time resolving when they are making future decisions.

Players will sometimes get into a situation where one character intends to do something that would potentially cause another character to face an alignment crisis. The conflict between players can get out of hand and cause hard feelings. It creates a tough judgement call for the DM and the group as a whole. The DM will do well to be clear about where the act falls on the alignment chart and the effect it may have on individual characters before deciding that the character has done the deed and resolving the outcome. Go back again to the basic underlying questions: Does the choice have a meaningful consequence in the context of the game setting? Is the consequence fair? Is it applied consistently?

There are some alternatives to the standard alignment system of D&D. There are “honor” systems where certain acts add to the honor of a character that can have an effect on NPC reactions. In Vampire: The Masquerade, certain acts would reduce your character's humanity and making it more likely they would lose control of themselves and become mindless killers. I've run D&D games without alignment but certain classes had a code of conduct that could cause problems should the player chose to break it. If you use alignment, it doesn't necessarily have to be Law/Chaos and Good/Evil. RPG's are about conflict, alignment is a tool that can give you a rough way to model which side of a conflict everybody is on. That conflict can be Bilderbergers vs. Conspiracy Theorists, Hatfield vs McCoy's or Axis vs. Allies. You are using it well if it tells players something about the setting and provides meaningful choices resolved in a fair and consistent way.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "ALIGNMENT2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.


Let's get the obvious out of the way: Alignment sucks when it's used as an excuse to be a douche.

To use some of the clichés:

"Of course I'd steal from the party! It's right there on my character sheet: what part of chaotic-evil thief do you not understand?"

"I burned down the tavern because I'm chaotic neutral. I'M CRAAAAAZY."

"Well you resisted arrest from the evil overlord's goons. Since he's the lawful authority around here, your paladin just totally lost all his class features."

"And in the back of the cave are baby orcs! Do you let them grow into murderous monsters or do you kill INNOCENT LITTLE BABIES. What I'm saying is you're evil now."

Those last two examples point out that on the GM's side, alignment is used poorly when it limits how players can interact with the game. No one wants a straightjacket. This implies the inverse: alignment is useful when it adds shit the players can fuck around with*.  A few examples.

Lots of games have chaotic sorcerers summoning eldritch monstrosities. Only Carcosa comes with 34 pages of horrifying people-sacrificing rituals. Wanna summon the Leprous Dweller Below? Get yer ass to hex 2205, find a leper, tear him apart and eat his flesh. Wanna stop that bastard? Well you know his plan, what are you waiting for? Carcosa gives you blueprints for evil.

The Planes take the nine fold alignment and convert it into geography. Lawful neutral? You can go there. There are armies to fight and everything! Have a problem with Zeus? Find him and give him a wedgie. A TPK means you get to bust out of hell.

Here games with others gives you a Jedi/Sith class. In a nut shell: each force power has a light side and a dark side version. You can choose which version you use, but you get a light/dark side point. Level up with more dark side points and boom! You're Sith now. Level up with more light side points and you have been redeemed! It's mechanical support for one of Star Wars' great moral arcs.

And lastly this bit of genius from Monsters! Monsters! "BLACK HOBBITS: This does not refer to their skin tone, but rather to their political affiliations." Law and chaos go from personal philosophy to political parties. The best game I've ever played had me going door to door in the caves of Chaos as a black hobbit, asking each monster in turn "Have YOU decided who you're going to vote for Evil Overlord in 2016?"**

And like anything else, sometimes alignment makes for good roleplaying. Absent any fun mechanics or interesting scenario, this is the wooden spoon award for including alignment in your game: it might make someone's character more interesting, it might be cause for roleplaying.

Another essential quality of alignment is how LOUD it is. If you put an alignment slot on the character sheets but then never mention it again, it's entirely up to your players to fuck around with it. If the standard currency of your campaign is souls and various alignments have different exchange rates, alignment is going to come up all the time. If Satan himself rises from the ground and insists you JOIN HIM OR DIE, then the players literally cannot avoid alignment. All of these have their place, as long as you observe rule number one: don't be a dick.

So there you have it: alignment is a sometimes food. Spice it up but don't force feed it to people.

*To be less colloquial: using alignment well adds ways to interact with the game.

*After a wave of disappointing answers, I decided I would run for Evil Overlord 2016. The problem I kept having to solve was this: how do I make all these monsters obey me while killing as few as possible. Assassination, intimidation, charm spells, bargaining, stockholm syndrome and sexy orc girls were all tried with varying levels of success.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Player Making Stuff Up (Thought Eater)

Here's some more entries for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you don't know about the contest, it's like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write about: Players Making Stuff Up for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "MAKEUP1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

All players are inherently creative, by virtue of being human beings you are not afraid to sit down at a table with. The trick is getting this inherent creativity past their internal barriers, and any social barriers the group or game may have put in place.

It's important to ask yourself just what you want your players to invent, and how much control you want to give them: in a hyperdetailed location-focused game like D&D it's usually discouraged for players to try to add detail or interactivity to the environment, while encouraged for them to try combining aspects of their character with the environment in unexpected ways. Moving farther along the arc of creative freedom, you have something like Feng Shui, which has explicit rules for players spending Fortune Points to add (plausible) items they need or want to the scene that they're in. Past that, and you have something like Nobilis or Amber, where the narrative and setting are an ongoing negotiation between the players and GM, and then on to purely troupe-style games. Similar tricks are going to work for players in all these games, but knowing where you are trying to encourage creativity and to what extent can help you to be consistent and help your group to understand expectations.

The most interesting thing about RPGs, as a player or a GM, is that the options available are limitless. Experienced players already know this, but if you have new ones, or if your old ones haven't been playing with GMs who encourage creativity, the basics of encouraging creative play are: model the kind of behavior you want to see from your players; don't discourage them in their early efforts; give them forms and structures that they can replicate and tinker with; and keep them aware of how the possibility space of the game has expanded by being as clear and consistent with rulings and writing down or otherwise noting house-rules.

Modeling can be done using your GM-voice or through NPCs--if your PCs are always performing basic attack actions, put them up against NPCs who use the environment in more complex ways. If you want them to introduce backstory elements during play, consider initiating flashbacks during play. If you want them to narrate the beauty of their martial arts attacks, or to come up with insane stunts, throw some verbiage or breakneck daring of your own at them. They'll pick up on it quickly, if the game you're trying to run is a good fit for your players.

Encouraging creative efforts from players doesn't mean they always have to succeed, just that they have to feel like they could succeed if they come up with the right ideas. If their idea is awesome and impractical, make it clear you at least think it's awesome. Most of this is straight out of basic improv theater: saying "Yes, and" and making your partner look good. The goal is to make sure that people keep trying things to see what sticks, even when it doesn't always work. When you can't agree that something is possible, try to offer a "No, but" instead of a flat no, maybe using it as an excuse to layer in a few more concrete details to the scene--the more details are in play, the more likely someone is to use one of them.

Making an attack using some aspect of an environment, weapon, or character in a way that is not innately governed by the rules in the book on the table is a form that players can understand and will grab on to quickly. Every game has places that creativity can be layered in, and finding new ones is part of the fun. Some are pretty obvious and the players will find them on their own sooner or later. Others, like if it's possible to add to your backstory during play, or to create certain kinds of detail in a way that is not directly linked to the capabilities of an individual player character, should definitely be explicitly spelled out, with clear examples whenever possible.

Keeping a clear and ongoing understanding of rulings and house rules between players and GM can be challenging. It doesn't necessarily need to be written down, but the more sessions you play the more likely parts of it are to be lost. Having the rulings be clear to everyone keeps the players on an even footing and lets them use previous ruling to attempt new invention; if no one knows them, or the rulings keep changing, it can result in confusion and wasted effort, which can in turn be discouraging of further invention.

Just as the scope of invention available to the players can vary, so too can the purposes of those inventions. Sometimes, when faced with a difficult problem, players rack their brains to invent something to save their character's skins. At other times, they might be inventing things purely for tone, or to amuse the other players, or because they think it sounds cool. What kinds of inventions work best is going to depend on your group, and the game you're playing, and figuring it out always takes trial and error. It might even be necessary to switch games some times, or try running for different people, but the things that you and your players can come up with will surprise you. Just like inventions in the real world, trials and errors are what it's all about; and in a role-playing game, no one actually gets set on fire.


Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "MAKEUP2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Getting players to add things to your game -- whether it's just minor details or major elements of the game world -- is fun and time-saving. Like the best random game elements, it produces results you wouldn't have thought of, which is desirable. But it isn't necessarily easy. If you're running a game, chances are you're the person there who's most comfortable just creating stuff out of the blue with four other people watching you. Some players balk at this kind of thing, especially when they feel like they're put on the spot. 

Fortunately, role-playing games are *already* a tool for getting people to contribute things to the game. Getting players to contribute stuff outside the usual role is just a matter of looking at what the game already does and applying it to a slightly different type of situation. 

Choices and restrictions

Some games have character creation systems that advertise themselves as "be whatever you want to be; anything at all!" But most successful ones provide some kind of restriction on what the player creates, either in the form of random generation or in the form of a menu of options. You can encourage players to invent stuff, especially early on, by presenting opportunities as choices -- "should Zylphia's dad be the local lord, or do you think he's just some guy?" Don't let menus be exhaustive. If the player says "what if he were a pirate," go with it. 

You never need to worry about choices constraining players who *don't* need encouragement to contribute. Those guys will always add stuff -- sometimes whether you want them to or not. 

Posing questions like this also helps you get around two of the three major pitfalls in this kind of situation: first, that some players will use the practice to make their characters the most important. You avoid this by limiting the scope of the question. The second pitfall is that players may like the element of surprise, and many (although not all) will feel that there's not much point to exploring if they know what's out there.

Have choices matter

My players like it -- or at least they have the good grace to pretend -- when something they created turns up in the game. An extended riff about one character's competitive relationship with his overachieving sister turned into a fully-fledged NPC, for instance, and I think she's more valued because she came from the players' conversation. But it all depends on how the new addition is used in the game. If you ask the players to explain why the sheriff decided to join the outlaws, but the sheriff is just some guy they're supposed to beat up, it's not as good as if the thing they're creating matters to what they're doing.. This is the third pitfall. 

Of course, sometimes things won't go the way you expect and something a player created gets left on the shelf. C'est la vie, but in general, try to show the players that the stuff they create for the gameworld is relevant. 

You know how some players are always embellishing their characters in kind of pointless ways (pointless for the other players, anyway)? My familiar is a sugar glider, my uncle's eyes are hazel, I went to Bumbleton University, that sort of thing? I tend to think that those are players who would like to make stuff that is important in the game world but sort of think it's bad manners to ask or aren't sure whether it's OK. When an old pal from Bumbleton University shows up, I think they find it very rewarding and hopefully it will encourage them to do it more in future. 

Don't only do it at the table

One thing that can be really handy is to have some kind of other space in which players can add creative stuff. Aaron Allston wrote about this stuff already, although they didn't have wikis back then. But basically, if you encourage players to create stuff during the downtime between games, you might get better results on both ends -- players can take their time to think about things and not feel put on the spot, and you can be warned about what they're going to introduce. I have historically used wikis for this stuff, but it could be anything as long as people can get access to it. I'm sure there are new cool online collaborative tools, but it can also just be talking over lunch. 

Begin at the beginning

Look at the development of early fantasy settings and you can see that they were often collaborative efforts, but in a very divided way -- this is Steve's kingdom, this is Laura's kingdom, this is Percival's island, etc. Presumably this was originally to do with the way setting-creation occurred in wargames and Diplomacy variants. But it's a good way to make sure that contributing players don't step on one another's toes; give distinct areas of responsibility. The easiest way to do this is to do it before the campaign starts; that's easier if you tend to run many short games rather than a single long campaign. There are even games such as Microscope or Lexicon that make little mini-games out of creating a campaign setting or its history. 

So there you go: some tips for encouraging and using player contributions. Exactly how you do this depends on how into it your players are; some of my players really enjoy it, while others are more reticent. But assuming you're stopping short of full-on distributed-GM play, these are good ways to coax stuff out of players without losing control.