Friday, September 28, 2018

Fighting The Last War (Post-Traumatic Innovation)

One of the very first things I did when rediscovering RPGs was find Shock: The Social Science Fiction RPG. I think I was googling "Philip K Dick""RPG".

It was a storygame, I thought it was pretty neat. After a while later, playing more RPGs, learning more, I wrote about why Shock and the other interesting Indie games I was finding wouldn't really work for my group.

I continued to be interested in them and read them though, holding out hope there'd be something useful in one of them (despite seemingly entire indie game subculture trying to keep outsiders the fuck away). The free-form combat system in Burning Wheel looked cool? But in practice it just took too long and wasn't real different than D&D where you could just do what you wanted anyway. And actually playing Burning Wheel was mostly just funny. Dread had that questionnaire character sheet and the Jenga tower, but...nopeDungeon World was supposed to be a solution to every unnecessary complexity in D&D? Wah wahhhh

Anyway, point is: it is undeniable that these games were full of innovation. And equally undeniable that none of it was helpful. This was weird to me--I can usually find a useful mechanic in fucking anything.  Over and over it seems like the same issue: massive swaths of the systems were solutions to problems I don't just not have, but I've never even even seen in real-life games. And so much text about what you weren't supposed to do.

So much of the design space is based around avoiding pitfalls that don't seem to happen (or that were solved problems ages ago) that there's little left for genuine forward-looking ideas. It's somehow new but consistently not presenting new material? New but reactionary.

Someone's got a term for it, courtesy of Twitter. Somebody's slideshow:

The most obvious offender is the GUMSHOE system, which is explicit about existing only to solve a problem that shouldn't exist: "GUMSHOE exists to solve a problem that many people found with running Call of Cthulhu – one bad die roll can derail an adventure." --that's straight from the section called "Why This Game Exists". So while I'm grateful for Ken Hite's prose and research in Trail of Cthulhu, the system (a lot of the book) left me cold.

So, here's a small gallery of post-traumatic game design text

All I’m saying is, the PCs’ stories aren’t yours to write and they aren’t yours to plan. If you’ve GMed many other roleplaying games, this’ll be the hardest part of all: let go of “what’s going to happen”. Play the town. Play your NPCs. Leave “what’s going to happen” to what happens. 
-Vincent Baker, Dogs In The Vineyard, pg 91
What game was he playing? What game does he think we were playing?

It’s not, for instance, your agenda to make the players lose, or to deny them what they want, or to punish them, or to control them, or to get them through your pre-planned storyline (DO NOT pre-plan a storyline, and I’m not fucking around). It’s not your job to put their characters in double-binds or dead ends, or to yank the rug out from under their feet. Go chasing after any of those, you’ll wind up with a boring game that makes Apocalypse World seem contrived, and you’ll be pre-deciding what happens by yourself, not playing to find out.
Play to find out: there’s a certain discipline you need in order to MC Apocalypse World. You have to commit yourself to the game’s fiction’s own internal logic and causality, driven by the players’ characters. You have to open yourself to caring what happens, but when it comes time to say what happens, you have to set what you hope for aside. 
-Vincent Baker, Apocalypse World, pg 108
(Caps the authors. )
…stick with me for two last bits. First, likeability. This should be a person you can believe in, a power-set you like looking at, a problems profile you can sympathize with. Second, stay super basic – no fancy justifications, no attempt to get ahead of the point-costs, no special push for originality, no piling on multiple different skill or power-sets.
You may be tempted to write up a complicated text piece about the character’s origin. However, origin stories are not about how I got my powers, but about why our story starts here, referring to the immediate situation when the character is introduced. 
-Ron Edwards Champions Now Playtest document
How did originality bite you on the ass?
“Okay, so now that the monks are locked inside the tower, I set fire to it. That’ll teach them to look down their noses at me! Burn, monks, burn!”
“As soon as it’s my turn to guard the prisoner, when I’m sure the others are all asleep, I stride over to him and slit his throat.”
“I’m tired of taking guff from the gnome king. I have my heat shield cloak on, so the confined space of this throne room? One word: fireball!”

Ah, that classic moment of roleplaying dysfunction, when one person in the group decides it’s time to cross the line from lovable rogue to psychopathic scumbag. This classic move of the uncollaborative player either wrenches the storyline onto a grim sidetrack of consequences that fall on the entire group, or shreds the plausibility of your ongoing story.
-Robin Laws, here 

Don’t make the PCs look incompetent 
When a PC rolls a 1-3, things go badly, but it’s because the circumstances are dangerous or troublesome—not because the character is a buffoon. Even a PC with zero rating in an action isn’t a bumbling fool. Here’s a trick for this: start your description of the failure with a cool move by the PC, followed by “but,”and then the element in the situation that made things so challenging. “You aim a fierce right hook at his chin, but he’s quicker than he looked! He ducks under the blow and wrestles you up against the wall.” 
-John Harper, Blades In The Dark p 197 
and the Moby Dick of the genre...
Don’t Use This System 
That’s right. You heard what I said. Don’t use it. If you are rolling dice in the course of the game you have done something wrong. Or at least that is how I see it. But I admit that I am somewhat of a roleplaying purist. Telling a consensual story with players sitting around the table, all inputting their parts of the narrative is the most perfect game to me. It requires loads of imagination, insight, teamwork, a certain level of verbosity, sense of curiosity, and a hunger for knowledge—all attributes that are well suited to any aspect of life, not just the gaming table.Ok, now that we all feel good about ourselves, I will say it again: Don’t use this system. Dice and numbers just get in the way of good story. And that is what we are all after, deep down, isn’t it? A good story. We come to this game inspired by brilliant narratives and we want to participate. We want our chance to act in the story, to change things, to do it our way—we come to the game to get in on the action. The system should be subordinate to that desire, kept in your pocket as a back-up to your own good story. It should support that story and help it move along, not bog it down, and drag it in impossible circles. That is why you shouldn’t use this system, or any system for that matter.Let the story reign. My favorite nights around the table are the nights when we don’t roll any dice, the nights where all the hurdles are overcome with a little discussion, a little teamwork and a lot of roleplaying. Trust me, these nights are not just “sit around the campfire and talk about our adventure” nights. I have run whole rebellions without touching the dice. The inspiring words of a commander are far more important to the game and to the players than a roll of the dice.This system is the antithesis of that free form of storytelling. It is exacting, accurate and sometimes harsh. A well-placed roll of the dice will tell you unequivocally if you have succeeded or failed—if you survive or if you are destined to bleed out your life staring at the twilit sky. This system will inject such a fierce drama into the game that players might come to enjoy it. They might look forward to rolling the dice—to seeing their ideas accurately represented in those little cubes. And we wouldn’t want that! We wouldn’t want the system to actively support the characters and their development. We wouldn’t want all this to make sense, now, would we? So, like I said, don’t use this system. 
-Luke Crane, Burning Wheel Page 230
And, no, the irony of this title for this blog post isn't lost on me. But keep the term, it might come in handy.

Now back to writing 258 super-powers....


GardenDM said...

I have a hypothesis on why Trail of Cthulhu isn't very good for Cthulhu investigative play, but Night's Black Agent's is great for hunting vampires (both are Gumshoe).

You're correct that Investigative skills in Gumshoe solve a problem that doesn't need to happen in a well run investigative game. But, that's not the issue here.

When you're going up against the Cthulhu Mythos, the fun is in being powerless and going insane while you uncover the grim reality behind the mystery. Gumshoe basically sucks at that since your PCs are fairly competent and powerful, even on hard mode. Call of Cthulhu is just so much better at making it feel like you're up against a dangerous and uncaring world.

Night's Black Agents on the other hand is about being hyper-competent super-spies. It's great that you kick ass at almost anything day-to-day. And, it works fine when you go up against vampires and other powerful monsters since they can still kick your ass.

Zak Sabbath said...


I don't think that's it, because no matter what game you're playing or what themes it's supposed to have, figuring out where the clue is is still fun. I think it's this:

GardenDM said...

Informative article, thank you! I agree that the genre fit is strong between NBA and techno-thriller spy stories for many of the reasons you describe there.

Q: "figuring out where the clue is is still fun"


1. The player (not their character) happens to recognize that the my description of the building architecture could be connected to some other clue already found.

2. The player rolls high enough on their architecture skill for me tell them that their character recognizes the connection.

3. The player has architecture, so the I tell them how their character realizes the connection (default NBA approach).

4. Something else?

I've mostly run NBA (only played as a player twice) and have enjoyed the Gumshoe approach of just saying "ok, you have architecture, here's what you know about this building". I've taken it for granted that whether the player knows the clue (#1 above) or whether they roll high enough to get the clue (#2 above) isn't where the fun is, it's what they do with the clue after they get it (#3 above) that's fun for this genre.

Jason Bourne: "I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab or the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking."

He doesn't have to roll to know these things, he just does. I think the fun part is moving towards the showdown (and to a degree, uncovering the details of the conspiracy) and getting the clues are a given. The important player decision is whether to go to Paris after the drug smuggler or Vienna to talk to the art dealer (knowing plenty about both and what the implied stakes are via the clues already uncovered).

Also, how is #1 or #2 reliably fun when you have the following issues?

1. Jeez, my players are just staring at me dumbly. Do they actually know nothing about architecture? Was my description shit and went over their heads? Did they forget about the scene from last session with the clue this links to?

2. Oh. Shit! They failed the architecture roll. Better think quick of an alternate way for them to roll for this clue. Alternatively (and probably better), they failed the roll and they still get the clue, but now with consequences (someone spotted them and the cops are on the way).

Ugh, sorry, that got long. Hope it makes sense.

Zak Sabbath said...


"He doesn't have to roll to know these things, he just does."

I don't think that either

-having to roll these things, or
-being told them because of a score

is fun.

I think what's fun for me is having the building described by the GM and I either notice or don't.

If 1 or 2 happens, then they dont' get the clue and they fail the challenge and they experience the consequences of failure, which, like the consequences of success, are designed to be interesting:

GardenDM said...


I went back and re-read hunter/hunted (and investigation as dungeon for good measure).

Two additional thoughts on this:

a) What you're describing (#1, player recognizes clue / doesn't recognize clue based on GM description) feels like a good fit to me for Call of Cthulhu level investigators (basically normal people). For that style game, the player missing a clue is a reasonable proxy for their character missing it. And presumably the fall-back is the GM asks the player to roll for it. At least that's how I've seen it play out (description->wait for player response->ask for a roll if players seemed to miss the clue from the description).

OTOH, it doesn't seem like a good match for NBA-style play. Even with some "research" (watch movies, read books, etc.) ahead of the start of play, none of my players are going to have knowledge anywhere near the expected level of their Jason Bourne Super-Spy (I can meticulously describe the explosives used and none of my players will have a clue...but their character should know that this a type favored by the KBG). It feels dumb and punishing to withhold that information. I suppose if we were running this game in BRP, I could ask for a skill roll at that point, but it doesn't feel like an interesting roll to have to make.

From your Zero Dark article, I think this is because NBA really isn't about the players exploring the wonder of things (unlike D&D), but messing around with the real world. In D&D, failing/making this roll (if there even is one) leads to more crazy and wondrous happenings. In NBA, the players just move on without even knowing they missed an avenue for exploration.

b) I can see how hunter-hunted would help for a limited-scope scenario. I'm gearing up to run Dracula Dossier. It's a massive sandbox. As such, even if the players missed some clues, it doesn't feel like it would matter much because 1) they'll be drowning with clues and 2) the conspiracy will routinely put pressure on them, regardless.

I'll be sure to check back in after the campaign and let you know if it got boring or tedious to have the players always get the clues. I'm actually more worried about the General abilities getting old ("I spend 3->success!" problem) than the Investigative ones making it less fun.

Zak Sabbath said...


a) "Dumb" seems like a very dumb word to use to describe "Challenging your players to be smart".

And of course its "punishing": challenge-based play by definition includes punishment. That's what motivates you to jump on the turtle rather than in front of it.

b) Scenario is irrelevant. Hunter/Hunted is very clear:

The consequence of failure is a villain finds you before you find them. It's perfectly within genre

Anonymous said...


Thank you for engaging on this. I've admired your analytical style for some time and continue to learn from it.

a) I've read quite a bit of the back and forth about player vs character skills over the years. For D&D type games, I'm leaning more and more towards the player skill and deduction side of things. I'm less sure that player skill instead of character skill is a good fit for ALL (most?) games - NBA being a prime example. That said, of course the players have to figure out what to do with the clues, otherwise there'd be no challenge or fun in it at all.

I think part of the challenge is that I've been writing in generalities, so if you're game, here are three examples of clues available to the players if their characters have the appropriate Investigative skill. I'm curious how you'd handle each.

- Architecture: you recognize the churches date back to the 17th and 18th century and are exemplars of Bulgarian National Revival style. (alternatively, just describe the style of the buildings and hope the players recognize it? roll for it?)

- Forensic Pathology allows the stains to be definitively identified as traces of blood. (again, describe the brown-red stains and leave it up to the players to debate over whether it is blood or not?)

- Forgery identifies them as fake passports (I don't know - describe passports, but mention a few details that would tip perceptive players off to them being fake? "the pictures look newer than the paper they're on" type thing?).

b) Noted. I'll mull over it and how I could apply to DD. I'm a Demon City backer, so I've got the full PDF text to read through as well for ideas. I was assuming that without set scenes (due to the improv style of DD), it may not be applicable.

Thanks again.

GardenDM said...

@Zak - not sure why that showed up as anonymous, but it was me, GardenDM.

Zak Sabbath said...

@GardenDM / Anonymous

In all 3 of your examples you've given things that basically an expert would HAVE to analyze. I don't know what Bulgarian National Revival style looks like and I probably know more about architecture than the average player, but.. while, fine, that is a place where only a roll could save you (and if you fail: that should be interesting too), there should ALSO be challenges that a player with no specialized knowledge could notice. Like you verbally describe a series of five buildings from the same era and all of them have columns holding up the roof except one.

There's a difference between "expecting everyone to have specialized knowledge"(impossible) and "expecting people to notice patterns and have reasoning ability" . I think the second thing should be tested in games . Anyone can go "Oh I look on the ceiling, oh I check under the bed" etc

GardenDM said...


Ah, gotcha! In which case, we may have mixed our signals. In running NBA so far, 90%+ of the application of Investigative abilities has been for the expert stuff.

Typical play has been like:
a) GM describes the scene
b) Player: I check the guard's desk
c) GM: His body is slumped over the desk and riddled with bullets
d) Player: Interesting, I examine the bullet entry points to see if I can figure out anything about the shooter (Forensic Pathology)
e) GM: They used a 9 mm, typical for CIA station issued autos. Strangely enough, the guard was spun around by the first shot and then shot again in the front, indicating he was shot by someone inside the building, not part of the group that burst in through the front door...

So, I think we're saying the same thing. Players have to drive the interaction with the scene, Investigative abilities (mostly) let them know shit.

Zak Sabbath said...


Yeah I just think:

1. They should be able to fail and the game keeps being interesting
2. There should also be tests that have nothing to do with character expertise

I think NBA is a bit lacking in the 1 department

GardenDM said...


If you wanted to run a big NBA game (I'm prepping for the full Dracula Dossier - starting Dec.), would you tweak NBA (how), or use something else (what)?

Zak Sabbath said...


I've done a few things, in order of how much I like them:

-I ran it with a reduced skill list (hit the "Night's Black Agents" tag on this blog to find that list--i thnkt he post is called "Diet Night's Black Agents"

-I then ran it basically in Call of Cthulhu but with the NBA skills instead of CoC skills

-Nowadays I'd run it in Demon City, though, again, with NBA skills instead of the DC skill list