Thursday, December 31, 2020

Staggered, Dazed and Hindered (or, What Was Mainstream Game Design?)

If I were asked to sum up the term "mainstream RPG design" up in three sentences I’d say:
Blind: A combined condition. The character cannot see, so everything effectively has full visual concealment from him. He is hindered, visually unaware, and vulnerable, and may be impaired or disabled for activities where vision is a factor.
A lot of people (or at least a lot of people like you, who read blogs about role-playing games in their spare time) talk about "mainstream game design" in terms of being something they don't want to do. But what is it? Why do people make it? What can we learn from it and attempts to avoid it?

It's not exactly Dungeons and Dragons. Editions of D&D take an unusually long time to produce and are pretty fraught due to fan and corporate interest, so every edition of D&D--technically the world's most mainstream RPG-- inevitably includes:

-a mishmash of relics left over from how things used to be (a thing called "saving throws" which are just a kind of stat check in every other game)

-trailing indicators of current trends (inspiration, traits), and

-innovations (advantage/disadvantage) it's rarely a good example. While most RPG design trots from trend to trend, D&D--like the other still-surviving big properties from the 80s and 90s--gets slingshotted forward in time every five or ten years and bounces around drunkenly trying to find a level until it starts all over again.

I would say the current Monster Manual and spell list in 5e are pretty much mainstream design incarnate, but if you really want to know what would happen if you gave a monkey a Mac and 5 cents an hour and said "Write the most mainstream game possible" for any given year, D&D as a whole is too much of a patchwork to use as a model.

Instead, I'd propose that the best way to find an example of the zero-experiment flattened-bobcat dead-center of the middle-of-the-road at any given time is to ask Green Ronin.

And the hallmark of Green Ronin design is: breathtaking thoughtlessness. 

The Green Ronin name is not especially attached to any specific property (unlike White Wolf and World of Darkness) or system (unlike Pinnacle and Savage Worlds)  or designer (unlike Pelgrane and Robin Laws) or even design philosophy (unlike most smaller indie presses) and they have a record of license-chasing, including Dragon Age, Song of Ice & Fire, D&D/D20 and DC Comics.

Green Ronin is to RPGs what Dark Horse would be to comics if you subtracted out Sin City, HellboyConcrete and anything else anyone made by someone who was paid well and wanted to be there.  They'll make you whatever you want, poorly, and throw in a copy of Predator vs Buck Rogers, free.

If the Ronin is Green, it's only because that's the natural state of a chameleon. 

So GR is going to provide us our example:

DC Adventures

Why DC Adventures? Though it is almost a decade old there are two reasons for this--one good, one bad. 

The bad reason is: the DC Adventures game is the only Green Ronin book I can get through without falling asleep.  I'll need a picture from a different, more recent, GR game to show you what I mean:

They not only put this picture in a book, they put it on the page meant to advertise it. Thanks to the art that came along with the license, DC Adventures at least doesn't look like someone plugged a mannequin directly into a Cintiq and hit "print".

The good reason is: it is probably their most popular game. If you add in the parent system--Mutants & Masterminds, it definitely is. It had a whole line, with a whole line developer

People wanted this game--and it can still be found on the shelves of local game stores next to D&D, Pathfinder, Star Wars and maybe some 40K games.

A lot of folks may read this and go "Well that's just 3.5./the D20 era." or even "Well this is just a crunchy game". Well, no, because:

-All those D20 designers are still around and making things

-Deciding to adapt someone else's system is a choice

-The total self-sabotage, in terms of "helping fun be had" is on the shoulders of the person doing the adapting is real.

-These same kinds of bad decisions where you don't think what the player gets out of the system are being made now with people adapting 5e, people adapting Fate, people adapting PBTA, people who were at Fantasy Flight doing 40k, etc. etc.

Has "normal" moved on since this game was put out? Yes. But what's important isn't the trends in game design they're aping, it's the utter thoughtlessness with which they do it.


So that's the context, as for what's inside, it does what it intends to do, and what it intends to do is unambitious and will be soon superceded. Its limitations are real and frustrating, but chosen. Let's see what that means...

-The cover is Alex Ross--as mainstream as it could be. On the credits page we find the actual designer Steve Kenson (who did its parent, Mutants and Masterminds and now the equally unappealing Icons and is still around). Nicole Lindroos and Chris Pramas, the company's heads (of whom the less said the better, at least for them), as well as a huge list of DC Comics artists--though artist names are not attached or indexed to the specific pictures they did, which, given the fat block of names, kind of guts the point of crediting them--even I can't figure half of them out and I can tell when George Perez inked himself at 400 feet. Which you might call thoughtless. Maybe I missed something and real credits are elsewhere idk.

Quotes from the book are in italics:
Halfway between skills and powers, advantages are minor abilities characters have, allowing them to do things others cannot. They range from special combat maneuvers to things like financial resources, contacts, and so forth. Many advantages have no rank, or rather just one rank; a character either has the advantage (and the benefits that it grants) or does not. Other advantages may have multiple ranks, like abilities and skills, measuring their effectiveness.
Why do we have skills and advantages? If you must have ranked and unranked things, why not divide them by that instead and name the two different things that way?

Oh but these are quibbles in comparison to the concept of ranks themselves:
Each rank represents a range of measures. Time rank 4 is actually all measures between 1 and 2 minutes, and time rank 16 is everything between 2 and 4 days! So if you’re looking for a measurement that’s not on the table, pick the next highest one that is; so 12 hours is a time rank of 13 (more than 8 hours, but less than 16), and 6 miles is a distance rank of 11 (more than 4 miles, but less than 8).
This idea of ranking different measures of things (time, space, weight) using universal ranks was in the orginal DC Heroes RPG in the '80s. Possibly earlier. 

In D&D magic a spell might last Level Minutes or Level Hours—say 3 hours or minutes at Level 3. In games like this a power lasts Level Time (and then you look up how many minutes or hours 3 is in Time).

I have yet to discover a single advantage to this system either in terms of playing or writing the game—you still have to look something up, you’re just looking up the measurments table instead of the power description. In addition, though it looks like precision, the math requires vagueness “Time rank 4 is actually all measures between 1 and 2 minutes” well that’s everything from 10 to 20 combat rounds, Ronin, kinda not terrible helpful considering the amount of work it takes to design a system of measurement and keep it consistent across all powers.

The time it takes a Speed 14 hero to cover 30 miles is rank –1, or 3 seconds.

Fuck off.

Don’t directly add ranks. Putting rank 4 distance together with rank 6 distance is not rank 10 distance! Rank 4 is a distance measurement of 500 feet. Rank 6 is 600 yards (1,800 feet). Adding the measurements, you get about 2,300 feet. If you directly added the ranks, you’d get rank 10 distance, or 4 miles! If you have different ranks, it is best to either handle them separately or convert them to measurements, add the measurements together, and convert them back to a rank. In the previous example, 2,300 feet is rank 7 distance (around half a mile).

Fuck off again.

Measurements are approximate. Especially at the higher end, where each rank represents a wide range of measurements, the Measurements Table isn’t intended to provide precise values; it’s just a ballpark estimate so you have an idea of how things work in the context of the game. Don’t focus too heavily on precise answers, just use the table for general guidelines.
Then why are we using this system? Can we just have hours and minutes back?

Interestingly enough, the actual numbers in the Measurement System are similar in important ways to the original Mayfair DC Heroes game which used a totally different resolution engine. In Marvel, the strongest heroes lift around 100 tons  according to the game and the Official Handbook (if you’re wondering: no, this isn’t at all consistent with the comic depictions, the Hulk picks up ocean liners no problem he's not even mad). In DC Heroes and Adventures that’s a mere 12 strength, which is where Wonder Woman was in the 2nd ed DC Heroes. 21 here is 50k tons, and iirc in DC Heroes it was 50k tons in the older game. The heroes themselves however are very different: Wonder Woman is now 16 strength and Superman and Captain Marvel now 19. This means: systemwonk canon is more stable than comic book canon, and, at least if you ask DC, Wonder Woman is benchpressing 16 times what Thor is.
To determine the distance a hero covers in a given amount of time, add the rank of the time to the rank of the hero’s speed, with normal human ground speed being rank 0. So a normal person can cover 2 miles in an hour (time 9 + speed 0 = 9, the rank for 2 miles). In fact, with normal human speeds, you can just directly compare the time and distance columns of the table! As another example, a hero with Flight 12 can cover 8,000 miles in an hour! That’s 12 (speed) + 9 (time) = 21, the rank for 8,000 miles. The same character can go an amazing 16 miles in just 6 seconds (the time of one action round)!
This is a lot of work to avoid just writing a power that says “You can fly Level x 20 mph or Level x 20 feet per round”.

You’d think this would at least make power descriptions shorter? No.
You move through soil and sand at a speed rank equal to your Burrowing rank, minus 5. So Burrowing 8, for example, lets you move through the ground at speed rank 3 (around 16 MPH). 
Why isn’t your speed at least just equal to your Burrowing rank? Because of the math burden created by the measurement system.

The DC Heroes universal measurement system is also strange from the POV of transparency and accessibility. You’d think if the game is meant to be accessible to people familiar with D&D or DC comics or just numbers, you’d make however strong Superman was supposed to be at 20 or 25 or 30 (in the original Dc Heroes it was 50) or another round number to “cap” the system, then scale down from there for everyone else—thus giving a new player a good idea of how powerful an ability was “half as strong as Superman” or even “as fast as Superman is strong” etc. But nope: 19. And Mr Battlesuit (a generic Iron Man style character you can use as a base) has a Stamina of 1? Is that a bad score? Ok my dudes.

Here’s a great vulnerability of these kinds of rules: false efficiency.

I look up a power or object or rule (say pg 57?). It says the effect leaves someone “Hindered”. I then have to turn to page 18 and look up Hindered:

What’s hindered?
“Hindered: A hindered character moves at half normal speed (–1 speed rank). Immobile supersedes hindered.”
(And hindered isn’t Impaired or Fatigued or Exhausted— whole other things—so the chance of me memorizing it straight off isn’t great)

It’d be a lot simpler if it just said what hindered meant under the description of the power//object/rule. It’s simpler for the designer’s life to just go “Hindered is a condition, it’s the same every time, I’ll stick this word here instead of this sentence” it’s harder for the player or GM referencing it—if it’s a deluxe pdf  and the word “hindered” is hotlinked, it’s still a click away and you may not easily be able to click back to where you were.

It looks, if you're an engineer, like efficiency but if you actually think about play at the table it’s not.

Even worse, the next page has combined conditions—conditions that reference 1 or more other conditions .

Some are just stupid and unnecessary:

Restrained: A restrained character is hindered and vulnerable. If the restraints are anchored to an immobile object, the character is immobile rather than hindered. If restrained by another character, the restrained character is immobile but may be moved by the restraining character.

Incapacitated: An incapacitated character is defenseless, stunned, and unaware. Incapacitated characters generally also fall prone, unless some outside force or aid keeps them standing.

Staggered: A staggered character is dazed and hindered.

So if you have a bad guy with a power that staggers people, you gotta look that up, then look back at the other section to find Hindered (pg 18), then turn the page to look up Dazed (pg 17). 

…insted of just writing “This leaves the target with 1 action per round and at half normal speed.”

Like that's it. That is the description. Really could you not just have done that?

This isn't a fault of the D20 system, this is what failure to think about what you're doing and who you're doing it for looks like.

Also: the conditions could’ve at least fit on one spread of the book but they stuck a couple pictures in there and so fucked that right up.

This fiddly language even get into the description of what different level superhumans are like. From Power 10 Superhumans:

Power level 10 heroes may have a balance of attack and effect, defense and resistance, or may go for being stronger on one side than the other, having great combat skill, but comparatively limited damage, for example, or great Toughness, but lowered defenses.
Not like "Teen Titans are Power Level 10" but: that.

Spending Hero Points in this game is hilarious trash. (From the point of view of someone who likes games to be a challenge from the character’s pov. If you’re a dull person I'm sure its all as exciting as the new Decembrists album.) Some things you can do:
You can “edit” a scene to grant your hero an advantage by adding or changing certain details. For example, a hero is fighting a villain with plant-based powers in a scientific lab. You deduce the villain may be weakened by defoliants, so you ask the GM if there are any chemicals in the lab you can throw together to create a defoliant. The Gamemaster requires a hero point to add that detail and says the right chemicals are close at hand. Now you just have to use them!

 This option is intended to give players more input into the story and allow their heroes chances to succeed, but it shouldn’t be used as a replacement for planning and cleverness, just as a way to enhance them.
So the chance of having a chemical in a lab isn’t random, it’s the effect of having done hero stuff. Let's say you didn't have a hero point: is there suddenly no chance of having a defoliant in a lab? Is the cleverness of thinking there might be suddenly negated by not having previously done a hero thing and gotten the points?

It's philosophically complicated but I don't think it's pushing it to say:

A straightforward way to reward cleverness is to say if you think of the idea "maybe the lab has defoliants" then maybe you can look for them and if you (cleverly) play to the character's strengths and they happen to be in chemistry or noticing stuff than maybe this looking is more likely to be successful. 

Throwing in a currency that is given for previous play encourages something else but it isn't in-game cleverness.

Ok, you're not convinced? This is much worse:

You can spend a hero point to gain the benefits of one rank of an advantage you don’t already have until the end of your next turn (see the Advantages chapter). 

So essentially there’s a whole arsenal of effects under Advantages….
Accurate Attack Trade effect DC for attack bonus.
All-out Attack Trade active defense for attack bonus.
Chokehold Suffocate an opponent you have successfully grabbed.
Close Attack +1 bonus to close attack checks per rank.
Defensive Attack Trade attack bonus for active defense bonus.
Throwing Mastery +1 damage bonus with thrown weapons per rank.
Uncanny Dodge Not vulnerable when surprised or caught off-guard.
Weapon Bind Free disarm attempt when you actively defend.
Weapon Break Free smash attack when you actively defend.
You suddenly get to-/have to- sort through mid fight. 

This rewards system mastery and staring at page 70 mid-game instead of being engaged with the fictional positioning. That is: what your character in the comic-book panel in your head is actually up to.

None of this has anything to do with how The Flash beats the Weather Wizard. This is just pure systemwonkery. It’s opposed to tactical transparency. You gotta actually know the system to gain the benefit which is a bad thing at most tables including any one I've enjoyed.
You can spend a hero point to get sudden inspiration in the form of a hint, clue, or bit of help from the GM.
Yes this is like the Idea roll in Call of Cthulhu. it’s stupid there too. Learn to say "I look at the ceiling", Batman.

You can also use hero points to remove the cost of “Extra Effort” rolls, which opens up a variety of other options that look a lot like the Advantages (enhancing speed, enhancing strength, etc). So: more system mastery. Less tactical transparency. You get stronger by having done something unrelated last scene and having read the book alone a lot.

What's a better hero point system look like?

In Marvel Superheroes/FASERIP hero points just help you with a roll. Period. It might not even work and you have to announce you're spending them before you roll--so it can't be reliably used to circumvent a problem that could be solved by thinking.

It’s simple, and though it somewhat mitigates pure tactical challenge it doesn’t make you think outside the character’s pov much, unlike say spending a point to claim some acid was already there or going ok I want to use my points to temporarily be better at throwing specifically. It encourages a kind of thinking I like.

In FASERIP you go "Do you want to spend karma on the roll?". That's it--it's a moment of gambling that makes the stakes feel higher. It works, too, it really does feel like that panel in a Marvel comic where someone goes "Must...move...thing...before...I...drown...".

I can save people, act in character, fight a bad guy (all things I’d be doing anyway) and then the math slides in my direction according to how much effort I put in. In DCA game there’s an element of having to switch to being the author rather than being like “I am trying hard” (represented by 70 karma pts) there’s “I need a new idea”--ok, spend  a hero point.

Karma in FASERIP makes conditions more favorable—-it’s very comparable to effort and motivation. Hero points in DCA move you into the writer’s position--or the minmaxer's--forcing you to squeeze the rules to get an efficient result. 


Character gen is point-buy.

There are a number of archetypes prebuilt and you can customize them (like "Battlesuit guy")—which is a bone to how fucking pointlessly complex the system is. They build half the person for you then let you fiddle with whatever parts you dare to understand.

Other than the archetypes, character gen doesn’t do much to inspire new ideas unless you want a megapowerful character and so end up having to buy disadvantages that make you more interesting. But such is point-buy.

More crunch: if you wanna play Master of Kung Fu you need hella system mastery.

The Gadgeteer and Martial Artist rely a great deal on their advantages (as do other archetypes like the Crime Fighter and Weapon-Master). You’ll want to read the descriptions of all of the character’s advantages from the Advantages chapter so you know the benefits they provide. Remember to make use of them during play to give your character every appropriate, well, advantage.

In particular, note how some advantages and even powers work together. The Gadgeteer can use Quick-Thinking to speed up the process of inventing (see Inventing, page 145) and Skill Mastery (Technology) to make some inventing checks as routine. Similarly, note the Martial Artist’s Power Attack advantage, good for doing extra damage to slow, tough, opponents, and the Skill Mastery (Acrobatics) advantage for pulling off formidable (DC 25) Acrobatics checks as routine!

I don’t get the point of any system where just having a really good "Acrobatics" isn’t all you need to be good at acrobatics.

At least in Pathfinder, you can justify it by going "Ok monks and rogues might make more of their high dex than another class" but in a superhero game there's no excuse
there's no classes. Spiderman is good because he has a high score. Its simple. It works. There isn't a problem, in any take on the superhero genre, with letting Spiderman do all kinds of acrobatics.

Enhanced Strength 10, plus Enhanced Strength 2, Limited to Lifting (Lifting Str 14; 400 tons) • 22 points.

I mean why?

You can have abilities that increase your dodge, but…acrobatics isn’t one of them?

Feinting in combat is part of Deception and makes the target get the “vulnerable” condition til next round.

Here's a complete player skill override:

You can use Deception to send covert messages using wordplay and double-meanings while apparently talking about other things. The DC for a basic message is 10. Complex messages or messages trying to communicate new information have DCs of 15 or 20, respectively. The recipi- ent of the message must make an Insight check against the same DC to understand it.

Noncombat skills are very lightly supported—both “Streetwise” and “Magic” —undeniably useful knowledge-bases in the DC Universe—are given as examples that might be chosen under the grab-bag skill “Expertise” alongside “Carpentry” and “Cooking”.

So helping to solve the crime (half the story in lots of superhero comics and games) using Streetwise or Magic is weighted the same as being good at kitchens and bathrooms.

This interferes with defining the character, personalitywise—in a game where even Deception can give you a bonus in basically any fight and a list of combat-useful Advantages literally as long as a child’s arm that you all buy from the same pool, choosing to have a character that can cook is choosing to make your PC less effective in most situations.

How come Green Arrow got killed and had to come back from the land of the dead in a Kevin Smith comic and Batman didn’t? Well because Green Arrow spent vital character creation points learning to make chili:

This is a problem that can only be solved three ways, as far as I know:

-Establish the campaign world up front such that the challenges are such that only well-rounded or characters will survive (this can be very boring—because it means you have to make the campaign more predictable and know or convince your players you know what the game will be like before it starts) and will include making chili.

-Set aside a given number of points or a section of character gen for only noncombat skills (DC Adventures feints toward this with “Complications” but doesn’ follow through).


There are people who will make “thematic builds” instead of “combat builds” but putting these players side by side in a superhero game risks making combat less interesting. You got people who are straight up so nightmarishly good that letting anyone else try is pointless—this is already a problem on the scale superhero games operate, exacerbating it by letting the details get out of control is not really feeding into any group’s needs or wants.

A good game doesn’t force the Superman player into a position where them having their fun risks fucking up everyone else’s. Players and campaigns (like ongoing comics) need to be able to have moods—sometimes they do this, sometimes they do that. If the ony way to do That is to choose to be decisively, worldbendingly worse at This, then you’ve made the campaign less flexible.

Having a PC that is stupid but strong (and, character-gen wise, stupid because they are strong) is one thing—that can even be funny and interesting in the game. Having a character have to choose between being strong and, say, having a hobby driving drag racers is just making the character less interesting in a way that doesn’t benefit the game at all.

If you're going to have "personality trait"-like skills in the system, encourage players to take them without an effectiveness penalty.


You can use Intimidation in combat as a standard action to undermine an opponent’s confidence. Make an Intimidation check as a standard action. If it succeeds, your target is impaired (a –2 circumstance penalty on checks) until the end of your next round. With four or more degrees of success, the target is disabled (a –5 penalty) until the end of your next round.

Oh do you take Intimidation or Deception? Intimidation lets me use a standard check to make an opponent Impaired, Deception let’s me use a standard check to make an opponent Vulnerable! Which is worse? Oh I’d better Master This System.

Here's an advantage you can have on top of having a good archery score, to be good at aiming:

When you take a standard action to aim, you gain an improved circumstance bonus: +10 for a close attack or ranged attack adjacent to the target, +5 for a ranged attack at a greater distance. See Aim, page 175, for details.
Green Arrow has this advantage.

Is this even a thing?

Like: Green Arrow is better at shooting with bows than anyone else. Fine, That already means his aiming means more than anyone else aiming (his shooting-people-with-bows number gets bigger). Does it have to get bigger again? 

Fast Grab, Improved Grab and Improved Hold are three different things. So if you want to make Lobsterman that’s that much more work.

“Inspire” and “leadership” are different things.

When taking a standard action and a move action you can move both before and after your standard action, provided the total distance moved isn’t greater than your normal movement speed.
This is a common advantage for fast-moving heroes, like the Flash.

Why not just include that as part of the superspeed power? It's actually a nice way to model that without adding a bunch of math.

Building powers--the supposed benefit of this system--is bananas:

 For example, a weather-controlling heroine has the following effects: Damage, Concealment, and Environment. Her Damage effect is the power to throw lightning bolts, so it has the descriptor “lightning.” If a villain can absorb electricity, then his power works against the heroine’s Damage (since lightning is electrical in nature). Concealment creates thick banks of fog, giving it the “fog” or “mist” descriptor. So if an opponent transforms into mist, with the ability to regenerate in clouds or fog, he can regenerate inside the heroine’s Concealment area. Her Environment is the power to control the weather, giving it the descriptor “weather.”

So in order to have Weather Control you need to read through all the powers til you find out “Environment” does whatever that was?

Practically speaking there’s only 2 ways to create a new superhero in this system:

-Read through the system yourself and totally master it
-Ask someone who’s done that already to make your character for you

There’s no good reason for this. Some people like the challenge of extracting a character from an opaque system: this game only works if everyone at the table is them or is willing to hand the translation of their creativity over to them or if everyone is ok with having a system full of bs nobody uses.

This is another example of False Efficiency: yes, controlling the weather in comics usually means you can zap people with lightning, which is basically just like zapping them with eyebeams, but even though bundling them as the same “effect” and calling Weather Control a combined power including both effects sounds efficient if you’re a programmer, if you’re actually playing it means you have to look up twice as much stuff and include more stuff when trying to write the power. So, again, it’s not actually efficient to any of the users

Look how hard it is to “build” telepathy out of its constituent parts:

Rapid: Your communication occurs 10 times faster than normal speech. Each additional rank increases communication speed by a factor of 10. This is useful for high-speed computer links, “deep sharing” psychic rapports, and so forth. Flat +1 point
Selective: If you have the Area extra, you can choose which receiver(s) within range get your Communication, excluding everyone else. This allows you to go from a single receiver (point-to-point) to all potential receivers in range (omni-directional) or anywhere in between. +1 cost per rank
Subtle: Your Communication cannot be “overheard” (it is encrypted, scrambled, or otherwise protected). With 2 ranks, your Communication cannot even be detected. That is, no one can even tell you are transmitting, much less what you’re saying. Flat +1 or 2 points

Like you can’t just say “you can send messages with your mind to whoever you want, buy a range”. This is just stupidity really, at this point, it’s not even an oversight.

Healing does not work on subjects unable to recover on their own, such as creatures with no Stamina rank or inanimate objects.

Fuck off.

Like Trail of Cthulhu, DCA recommends railroading. But the complications system actually intentionally enables it:

Some staples of the DC comic books, while enjoyable in the stories themselves, don’t always translate well to the medium of roleplaying games. You might want to take these “translation issues” into account when planning your adventures.


Heroes in the comics are frequently defeated early on in a story. The typical structure is: the heroes encounter the villain, suffer a defeat or reversal, and then come back from defeat to overcome the villain. 
In longer stories there may be several reversals: the villain beats the heroes and escapes, then beats the heroes and puts them in a deathtrap, which they must escape to make their final confrontation with the bad guy.
DC adventures encourages this kind of narrative structure by awarding hero points for defeats, capture, and similar complications suffered by the heroes. Essentially, the more the heroes struggle early on in the game, the more resources (in this case, hero points) they have to overcome the villain later.
Defeat in the comics isn’t a serious problem, since it usually just results in the heroes facing another obstacle, like a deathtrap, rather than ending the story. Some players, however, don’t care for the idea of defeat, even when there is some kind of reward for it. This may come from other RPGs, where defeat has much more serious consequences, up to and including the death of the heroes! It can also come from associating any kind of defeat or set-back with “losing the game.” These players may overreact to potential defeats in the game.
The best way of handling this is to discuss it with your players. Point out that an early defeat by the villain is not necessarily a “loss,” but a complication, and that they earn hero points for complications, leading up to the point where they can use their earned points against the villain. If this doesn’t address the issue, you may need to give the heroes complications other than defeats, at least at first. When you do have the heroes defeated as a complication, make sure the players all know that there is no chance for their heroes to avoid this once you spring it on them, to minimize the opportunity for them to struggle and rail hopelessly against it.

In other words: if the PC gets captured its part of a plot and plots are planned.

Initial encounters also provide opportunities for the heroes to earn hero points. This means the early encounters in the adventure don’t have to go well for the heroes. In fact, it’s better for them in the long run if they don’t go well. The more complications the heroes face early on, the more hero points they earn for use later in the adventure. In the classic comics story, the heroes encounter the threat and suffer a defeat of some sort: the villain may get away, the heroes’ powers may prove inadequate to deal with the problem, their plan may not work, and so forth. The heroes then regroup, come up with a new plan, and try again.

...A good guideline for awarding hero points is at least one hero point per scene in the adventure leading up to the final scene.
A seldom appreciated knock-on effect here:

The abstract GM advice is: railroad them.

The incentive system is: use your hero points in that final encounter—which means knowing how to use them (it isn’t as simple as FASERIP where they just add to the die roll). At least in practice this means that the game is kinda designed to force you to numberwang around in order to “win”.

And, just in case you forgot:

This is a “Bystander”
STR 0, STA 0, AGL 0, DEX 0, FGT 0, INT 0, AWE 0, PRE 0 Equipment: cell phone. Advantages: Equipment 1. Skills: Expertise: Choose One 4 (+4), Expertise: Current Events 2 (+2), Expertise: Pop Culture 2 (+2). Offense: Init +0, Unarmed +0 (Damage 0). Defense: Dodge 0, Parry 0, Fort 0, Tou 0, Will 0. Totals: Abilities 0 + Powers 0 + Advantages 1 + Skills 4 + Defenses 0 = 5

Here’s a cop:
STR 2, STA 2, AGL 1, DEX 1, FGT 3, INT 0, AWE 1, PRE 1 Equipment: Bulletproof vest (+4 Toughness vs. Ballistic), light pistol, tonfa, cell phone, handcuffs. Advantages: Equipment 3. Skills: Athletics 3 (+5), Expertise: Current Events 2 (+2), Expertise: Streetwise 3 (+3), Expertise: Police Officer 4 (+4), Insight 4 (+5), Intimidation 2 (+3), Investigation 2 (+2), Perception 4 (+5), Ranged Combat: Pistols 4 (+5), Treatment 2 (+2), Vehicles 4 (+5). Offense: Init +1, Unarmed +3 (Damage 2), Tonfa +3 (Damage 3), Pistol +5 (Ranged Damage 3). Defense: Dodge 2, Parry 4, Fort 4, Tou 6/2, Will 2. Totals: Abilities 22 + Powers 0 + Advantages 3 + Skills 17 + Defenses 5 = 47

Jesus fuck. It literally occurred to no human being involved that a GM might want to pick up this book in the middle of a game and see whether the cop was good at shooting and that there might be a reason to not make that d10 seconds at the table excruciating.

So, yeah, traditionally I'd say "Do better!" at this point, but we know the incentives are all to make sure that doesn't happen. So, I don't know, end capitalism and make therapy reliable and free and then wait another decade?

And how many lectures on "creepy male gazey dude game art" were Green Ronin
staffers giving while making a point of showing us this?

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Scale of Grimdark to Cute Fantasy Correlated With Creators' Behavior


Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

As the graph clearly shows, at least in popular traditional fantasy: soft creators are bad, brutal ones are good. Possible theories:

A) Random Noise: There's no trend and this is just sampling error or something. Counterexamples welcome.

B) Jamie Lee Curtis Thesis (Grim Art Causes Empathy): Plausibly imagining terrible things makes you take moral choices more seriously.

C) Jean-Paul Sartre Thesis (Empathy Causes Grim Art): A person who takes moral choices seriously knows fantasy from reality and uses art as a place to safely explore dark feelings.

D) Art-as-Religion Thesis (Comfort Fantasy Amputates Empathy): An imagined world without terror or grey issues stimulates in the audience an expectation that problems should be able to be solved without reference to other peoples' needs or safety.

E) "I'm Baby" Thesis (Lack of Empathy Creates A Desire For Comfort Fantasy): A belief that the world is too horrible to handle so its ok to be self-absorbed also leads them to seek escape in worlds lacking in complex problems or difficult choices.

F) Self-Defeating Insular Fandom Nightmare Thesis: Note that creators on the cute end of the graph tend to be "from the internet". Grim fantasy has been increasingly ascendant in popular culture since the '60s and so many people who became successful in traditional ways ply its byways while safe fantasy as respectable pursuit is a result of the internet's refocusing on the aesthetics of underserved marginal communities (women and lgbt people looking for escape from a patriarchal world) but in addition to being more female/queer these creators are also more internetty and so reliant on internet communities--and internet fan communities are toxic and make people evil.

G) Inherent Profitability and Horizontal Competition Thesis: Either because they are inherently more dramatic thus appealing thus profitable or because that's the current public taste and thus profitable, grimdark creators make more money and don't exist under as much competitive pressure as creators doing comfort art. The comfort art creators are fighting over limited space and so do terrible things. 

I have no idea which of these, if any, is accurate.




Monday, December 28, 2020

Quicky LotFP Druid

I just finished a short module and while writing I realized I reference "druid spells" all the time and there aren't any LotFP druid spells. So I made an LotFP druid.

The module is an evil fairy land sandbox it's in the Store for 5$

Here's the druid:

Quick LotFP Druid

HP  1d6

Spell Progression  as Cleric. 8th and 9th level spells can be gained at the end so long as you have more 7th level spells than 8th and more 8th than 9th.

Saving Throws  as Cleric

Base Attack  +1 to hit

Gain  1 skill point per level including first for...

Animal Handling  (starts 2 in 6) (you get this in addition to a charisma roll--either one succeeding is success)

Bushcraft  (starts 2 in 6)

Climb  (starts at 1 in 6)

Search  (starts at 1 in 6



Blending (as Invisibility in forests)


Faerie Fire


Locate Animal or Plant (as Locate Object but limited to, y’know, animals and plants)


Purify Food & Drink

Spider Climb


Charm Animal (includes giant animals) 

Darkness, Continual

Delay Poison

Heat Metal

Light, Continual 

Magic Mouth 

Resist Cold 

Resist Fire

Speak w/Animals

Stinking Cloud

Wall of Fog



Charm Plant (includes plant monsters) 

Cure Disease

Gust of Wind

Howl of the Moon

Plant Growth

Remove Curse


Speak With Dead Animals 

Speak With Plants

Water Breathing 

Water Walk 

Wings (as Fly)




Hallucinatory Terrain 

Neutralize Poison 

Polymorph Others 

Polymorph Self

Wall of Fire

Wall of Ice


Airy Water

Animate Dead Animals 



Faithful Hound

Insect Plague

Stone Shape

Transmute Rock To Mud 

True Seeing

Wall of Stone



Find the Path

Flesh to Stone


Legend Lore

Move Earth

Speak With Monsters 

Stone to Flesh


Control Weather

Camouflage, Mass (as Invisibility. Mass, works only in forests) 


Grasping Hand

Part Water



Witchlamp Aura




Trap the Soul

Shape Change, Animal



Shape Change

Module's 12 pages, looks like this...

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Character Optimization and Easy Mode

Here's something I don't understand.

Everyone's familiar with the idea of "Hard Mode" and "Easy Mode" in video games. Hard mode is for people really into developing whatever skills the game tests (or, if you're really lucky, making money in tournaments) and Easy Mode is for people who don't and also it is often considered an accessibility feature.

All that's easy to get. People know what that means.

Then in tabletop RPGs we have these endless circular discussions for twenty years on the internet (and for the entire life of the hobby if you count fanzine pages) about "Character Optimization".

Character Optimization is basically just playing on Easy Mode.

A few minor differences between video games and RPGs:

  • Rather than just flip a toggle, you are doing (depending on system) either a lot of math by yourself or a little math by yourself in order to play on Easy Mode.
  • It only works if the GM predictably gives you the kinds of challenges that are better solved with your build than otherwise and you consistently choose to use those solutions.

Why do people keep going around and around about this? What's complicated here?




Monday, December 14, 2020

Sacred Crackpots

Sacred Crackpots 

There's a kind of person who causes a lot of problems in all kinds of communities that I call the sacred crackpot.

The sacred crackpot has three main characteristics:

1. The sacred crackpot talks about their emotions online all the time.

2. The sacred crackpot inspires protective feelings in other people in their scene online because of this.

3. The sacred crackpot says things that aren't true, a lot. They either lie all the time or are too emotional to fact-check anything.

This is how hippie gamers describe them.

(Concrete Examples in the Online Game Scene)

OSR: Paolo Greco, Goatmansgoblet/Brian Yaksha, Jensen Toperzer, Terra F, Evlyn Moreau

Story-Games: Ash Kreider, Robert Bohl, Fred Hicks


Here's the typical course of the sacred crackpot hurting people:

1. The sacred crackpot gets emotional on some subject and says some wildly untrue thing about a victim.

2. Instead of responding properly ("That's a bold claim, do you have evidence ?") the people watching just smile and pretend it isn't happening and that a false accusation hasn't just been injected into the Googleable world.

3. The victim or someone else who has a conscience, then, is stuck calling them out all alone. They call out the crackpot because that legit is the only reasonable thing to do.

4. The crackpot just gets emotional and lies more and performs pain more and harasses their victims more.

Crackpot Allies

The super-unusual thing about this kind of aggression is: nearly everyone watching agrees exactly about what happened. I've never had a frank one-on-one conversation with even the storiest storygamer or dreamiest sworddreamer where the person pretended Ash Kreider or Brian Goatgoblet actually had a point. They know their friend got emotional and said something that wasn't true.

There's an obvious right thing to do: get the crackpot off the internet and into therapy--or at least have their friends swarm them with "Hey please stop, you do not have the emotional resources to finish the fight you're starting" every time the crackpost gears up into attack mode. And, of course, nobody does it.

The allies of the crackpot have, and create, a curious position:

1. The sacred crackpot is viewed as somehow the community's responsibility and not the community's responsibility.

2. The allies view the online community as like food or water or medicine to their crackpot. To deny the liar the community would somehow be like denying them a basic resource they need to survive and so cruel. Nobody goes "Wow maybe an internet environment where people launch false accusations and try to cancel each other for money and clicks all day isn't the best place for my emotionally fragile friend?"

3. Allies are totally unwilling to even try to stop the crackpot from harming innocent people when they make shit up.

4. Everybody acts like the whole "making shit up" is essentially victimless and there's no reason not to keep the crackpot around, in the warm Web-based bosom of the community they lie to.

5. The crackpot continues to crack, never reforms, never improves, keeps lying in community after community, keeps creating real problems for more and more people.

6. Eventually, the crackpot's rewrite of history is even believed by people who come in later whose only source of information is the crackpot, and who aren't sophisticated enough to ask victims or anyone else for a record of the original attack.

7. The crackpot continues to harass their victims forever with fake accusations and nobody wants to stop them because they Have Feelings and therefore can't be criticized.

Question for you, reader

What do you do?

Please answer in the comments.




Monday, December 7, 2020

Every Tomb, Every Tunnel, Every Inn, Every Mountain

It turns out all of the (or most of the) Baedeker Guides are online now, thanks to Emory University.

If you don't know, the Baedeker Guides were ostensibly travel guides but were really a kind of post-Victorian, early-car-tourism, pre-internet attempt to catalogue the contents of the entire planet in the form of tiny red books with fold-out maps. They were so monomaniacally detailed that one intelligence officer described them as "Written by spies for spies".

Here's one of the fold-out maps--keep in mind this fit in a book that was small enough to fit on your outstretched hand, without going past your fingertips:

Here's a random page about the National Gallery from a 1908 Berlin Guide:

Third Floor. (Lift, see p. 87.) The Anteroom (I) is decorated with good mural paintings by Paul Meyerheim, representing nature at the different seasons (covered at present). This room contains chiefly paintings and sculptures of the early 19th century. Paintings: to the left, *898. ./. G. v. Edlinger, Count Preysing; 605. Joh. Heinr. Tischbein, Family group; *568. Anton Graff, Portrait of himself; 606. ./. H. Tisch¬ bein, Councillor Ch. Fr. Robert; *218. Tassaert, General Zieten (bronze bust). *561. A. Graff, Portrait of himself; *b()3.Friedr. Tischbein, Lute-player; 484. A. Graff, Female portrait; 197,198. Gottfr. Scha¬ dow, Frederick William III. and Queen Luise (bronze busts); 554. J. A. Koch, Sabine landscape; 1060. J. Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Annunciation; above, *49S. Wilh. Schadow, Thorvaldsen, Wilhelm, and Rudolph Schadow; *856. Joh. Jac. Biedermann, Landscape near Partenkir- chen; 413. J. A. Koch, The convent of San Francesco di Civitella in the Sabine Mts. — *144. G. Schadow, Princess Frederica of Prussia (terracotta bust); *593. A. Graff, Henriette Herz; 908. Heinrich Filger, Princess Galizin; 577. Anna Dor. Therbusch, Henriette Herz as Hebe; *196. G. Schadow, Bust of Crown Princess Luise (plaster). — 1081. Rafael Mengs, Portrait of himself; 380. Fr. G. Weitsch, Alexander von Humboldt; 525. Ed. von Hews, Peter von Cornelius; 366. K. Chr. Vogel von Vogelstein, Ludwig Tieck, the poet; 525b. Ed. von Heuss, Friedr. Overbeck, the painter. — 201, 202. Gottfr. Schadow, Designs for monuments to Prince Leopold of Dessau and Zieten. — Smaller sculptures by G. Schadow and others. Room II, to the left, contains Frescoes from the history of...

They are completely fucking bananacrackers.

And like most things that are completely insane, they're of great interest to RPG fans. If you're running Call of Cthulhu you're totally sorted for every turn-of-the-century city and most of the countryside in the western world plus a few places outside of it. If you're running a fantasy world, just pick a random part of the Belgian seaside and start describing nearby hills and lighthouses.

I have a few of these at home--Egypt, Paris, and Southern France--picked up in London in Cecil Court (the famous street of cranky old London antique book dealers--the guy in the all-Lewis Carroll bookstore is so mindbendingly hateful I think Bernard Black was based on him). Every few months I pull one out and contemplate drawing all over it and turning Paris into some fantasy city I made up but I don't.

Anyway you don't really have to because yeah.