Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Fat Game

So there are Skinny Games and Fat Games.

This is different than rules-heavy rules-lite, but related. It's more like: how big is the library of useful-but-not-integral pieces with distinct mechanical meaning that are part of the game?

A really Skinny Game is rules-lite but, also, does not have a lot of moving parts. The classic example of a "moving part" here would be like a pre-written magic spell like Sleep. The Pool is a really Skinny Game. This superhero game is a Skinny Game. STACK is a Skinny Game.

A Fat Game would be like pretty much every edition of D&D. It has a library of spells that are all different, plus weapons, each with different damage (usually). The classes and races, each with mechanical differences, all fatten it up. Treasures and monsters fatten it up, but not quite as much because you don't have to use them and they aren't automatically part of the game. Plus every house rule and new bit on a blog.

Even though Call of Cthulhu is full of spells and monsters, I tend to think of it as relatively Skinny system since I never use any of the library stuff (except the guns) or maybe use one per game and they feel very much as if they're just there to make the book longer. Does Nyarlathotep need stats, really? Does explaining what "History" skill does genuinely count as content in Cthulhu?

Lamentations of the Flame Princess' lack of a monster list was much lamented, on account of--I think--less that people didn't want to make up their own or just use D&D ones but more that they expected any D&D derivative to have a certain amount of Fatness.

Rolemaster is Fat and crunchy--generally Fat Games are more crunchy than skinny ones but they can be relatively rules-lite like Marvel Super Heroes: it has loads of powers and skills in its library. If you are playing using the actual Marvel Universe as a setting, then the game is really Fat since the stats for all the heroes and villains are included in the game.

I tend to think of RIFTS as being so Fat it's almost Skinny--like, at a certain point you just go "Ok, you can do anything with this game, stop looking at the rules and just make shit up".

Indie games tend to be Skinny--inventing powers and abilities and details is usually part of the creative process that drives those games in play so there isn't a widget library to Fatten them.

EDIT--Important distinction: systems like Mutants and Masterminds and HERO where you build-your-own effects. I don't consider those effects as Fat as they'd be if they just gave you the thing fully formed. Not to say they are bad, simply that Fat is about straight-out-of-the-box library content, not tools to build content. Giving someone a novel is different than giving them the dictionary and going "You can build any sentence you want with this!"

A good Skinny game is elegant and makes you think about good game design. A good Fat Game is rich and inspiring.

A game like Vampire with tons of background that isn't tied mechanically to the gameplay could be thought of as either Skinny or Fat depending on whether you want to use that stuff, I guess.


Here's what I want somebody to write: A Fat fucking Game. A seriously cool new Fat Game full of big fat wonder. Fat as an obscenely baroque high art the way 1e Warhammer and Rolemaster did it. I want to see someone put in 99% perspiration.

Sleek little 3-paragraph flexible minigames--we have people on that. Every week there's a new one. Clever mechanics are getting produced and I trust they will continue to do so as the people who like to do that show no sign of getting bored with it and that important job is being done.

But right now what is going to get me excited is, I think, the Fatter the better. Getting pointed toward a genre and playstyle by a few good illustrations and an Appendix N is all fine and good but I can do that myself pretty much at will these days. I want to see something where nobody at the table knows what the fuck is going on and then you turn to page 546 and....whoa, I never knew that thing did that!

I don't need more crunch, but I want a million billion culled and polished ideas shoved into the fiber of the thing--when I invite the game over to play, I want it to be a multilayered and unpredictable player. I can and do invent stuff all the time, but I like a game that brings a lot of canned creativity to the table. It's fun to collaborate.

I'm supposed to be getting DCC in the mail soon--I hope it's Fat. I hope that the new D&D is Fat with stuff that counts as Fat because it wasn't anywhere in the earlier editions. But I hope no matter how Fat they are, some maniac is off somewhere at this very moment working on something even Fatter.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


These kids drew Displacer Beasts and other things.


In other news, I am going to be beaten in a contest by a concept.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Art History, Amazing Case, Hot D&D Babes On Podcasts

So I was off doing a visiting artist thing at a college...
...and I was thinking about art history, and then I was thinking about games...

Art history fact:

Nearly every new art form whose birth history has recorded (photography, the novel, movies, comic books, popular recorded music...) went through a period where it was attacked for taking on themes too serious or adult for it. This period usually occurred before the art form was considered an art form and often before it had produced anything good enough that anyone would bother defending it as art.

In other words, the part of a creative activity's life-cycle where it is derided as being juvenile and exploitive and has to fight for its creative freedom would appear to often precede the period where it produces something deserving that hard-won artistic license. And may be necessary to achieve it in the mind of the public.

This situation generally resolves itself into an uneasy truce through a process of commercial genrification, whereby the medium ceases being identified with a single kind of work and a single audience and begins to branch out into kids stuff, teenager stuff, pop stuff, arty stuff, etc etc. Part of this genrification typically includes subconsciously assuming that while the medium is capable of art, only some of the genres (and which genres depend on who you ask, leaving the whole thinking conveniently vague to avoid arguments) are.

The word "arty" in this context corresponds roughly to "leave those weird fuckers alone".

After that, the turf wars only recur when stuff basically designed for one audience somehow manages to get itself (through accident or intentional provocation) in front of a different audience.

In other words, the problem is essentially the one where the guy who likes mushrooms and the guy who doesn't are both trying to order the same pizza, and the solution is the same, too.

Oh Medina Antique Mall, Medina, Ohio, I love you.

Yes, the cobra-fighting-mongoose taxidermy was too big to fit in my luggage and yes, the British tax-stamped Revolutionary War-era bone d6 set I saw last year for 27$ and wasn't quite sure I wanted was gone too, but all is forgiven because...

Holy Fuck Check Out My Vintage Alligator-Skin Sample Case

Narrow enough to fit under the seat in front of you, rigid enough to sit on during 12-hour layovers in Milwaukee, and, better than both--double tiered.
Below is the lower section--exactly the same size as both my laptop and any standard-dimension RPGs, and deep enough to hold 5 D&D core books.
And the top layer? OMG sexy...

And it cost less than a tackle box.

And that jar on the bottom left, it came with like 6 of them.

And now, some of my favorite grognards...

Also, Top-Right and Middle there are interviewed about RPGs on a podcast, with some intermittent help from Bottom.

There's a lot of talk about being chronically ill (and Mandy says "Roleplayer" when she meant to say "Rolemaster"), but if you hang on, other topics include:

Mandy Morbid, Kimberly Kane, Isabelle Lilium, I Hit it with My Axe, D & D 1st Edition, MUD, Text Adventures, Aspergers, Autism, Shadowrun Kickstarter, Shadowrun Catlyst, Rifts, Classic Rolemaster, Twilight 2000, Fiasco (Bully Pulpit Games), Theatrix, D&D 4e, Call of Cthulhu, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dark Heresy, Monster Manual (Sutherland Cover), Vornheim, Raymond Carver, D&D 5th Edition Announcement, D&D Character Creator, Monte Cooke, StarCraft, D&D 3.5 archive, Arabian Nights Roleplaying, Magic the Gathering, Google Plus, Succubus, Draconian Race, The Sims, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, WoW BGLTQ Guild Story, World of Warcraft, Steam, League of Legends, Heroes of New Earth, Doctor Who,
RPG- Cubicle 7, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Firefly, Fallen Angels, Star Trek, Far Scape, Ten Commandments- Ramses II, Rick Santorum, The Joker, Harley Quinn, Drow Elves, Catastrophe Dominated Ecosystems, The Phoenix, Jean-Paul Sartre, Anarchy, Changeling the Dreaming, Sci-Fi Alignment Chart, Autodidact, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Ragnarok Online


Oh and

Tomorrow is International Anklebiter Illustrator Day!

Get those munchkins drawing.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Some brief notes from the road

Two search terms people used to find this blog today:

"playing d and d with pornstars biting donkeys"
"playing d and d with pornstars animal assisted arson"

If I recall my Actual Play posts correctly, neither searcher will come up empty-handed.


A simple, weird D&D psionics system I invented at Richard Lurker's request.

If you still do not own Vornheim here's a relatively thorough video review of that slim but throughly
fucking reviewed volume--start at 13:00.


Our girl Satine Phoenix getting interviewed about RPGing. It's so cool to see her off running her own games and being all confident and shit and out there making Hollywood D&D friendly. Even if she does fudge on the dice. Interesting new-to-DMing POV.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Kinds of Player Skill

Diegetic Thinking Skill

The term "diegetic" comes up most often in terms of sound in movies. A nondiegetic song is one the audience can hear (like a theme song over the credits) but the characters can't. Diegetic, conversely, refers to songs or dialogue that the characters are supposed to be hearing, too, like if somebody turns on a radio.

Diegetic Thinking Skill is basically when a player is good at imagining themselves as having the same constraints and opportunities their character would have in the game world. Like "Wait, you said every house here had a fireplace, right? That means there must be a chimney, and if there's a chimney then we can..."

Decent Diegetic Thinking requires that the GM and player be basically on the same page as far as what kind of logic and physics apply in the gameworld, or at least in the part of the gameworld they are talking about at the time. This gets harder the more fantastic the gameworld is.

Like: is a medusa vulnerable to the same kind of venom produced by the snakes coming out of her own head? There is normally no diegetic way for a player to figure that out (outside in-game testing or asking an in-game authority) since it is essentially wholly in the hands of the GM's ideas about gameworld biology.

In practice, the best way to encourage and enable diegetic thinking is for the GM to constantly communicate to the players what the current "grit level" of the fiction is. Like "This is pretty much a typical village" or "You are Baba Yaga's house, everything is enchanted and strange..." and sometimes this will require the GM communicating Extradiegetically (that is--talking directly to the players rather than acting as their characters senses), like: "If it'd catch on fire in real life, it'll catch on fire here" or "This is some kinda mystic flame and you don't know what it'll do and there's no way to find out without just trying stuff". This requires good GMing--possibly a level of good GMing you can't expect from an inexperienced GM.

An alternative way to describe "grit level" is trying to get everybody thinking in terms of the same kind of fiction--like "we use Star Trek logic here" or "we use John Woo logic here". This is really hard when the PC actions involve any element of the fantastic--Can we modify the deflector array to do that? Who the fuck knows? However (as in the illustration at the top of this blog entry here) very often the PC's actions themselves involve no fantastic actions despite the fact that they exist in a fantastic world.

From the GMs point of view: if your players consistently find diegetic solutions to problems in terms that you didn't expect but that fit easily within the ideas you already had of what's possible according to the physics and metaphysics in the gameworld (like you think "oh yeah, you could do that, I can't think of any reason why not..."), then you're probably doing a pretty good job of communicating the grit level of the game.

If you argue a lot about it, you're probably not.

If you hear a PCs plan and go "Hmmm...well it could work like that I guess..." then you change or expand your idea of how the gameworld works to accomodate the players you are basically working with the PCs to "create" a solution by changing or expannding the game logic so it works like that and they are kind of getting Extradiegetic about it.

The most important idea here is: once an idea about how stuff works is communicated, it becomes true. Like in common law.

An example of an edge-case was when I tried to saturate a donkey with holy water to act as a baited trap for vampires. It had already been established in-game that vampires would suck the blood out of donkeys (definitely diegetic logic), but the idea that holy water would stay holy once a donkey drank it and would stay in the animal's bloodstream long enough to matter once the vampires drank it was probably all stuff the GM--Jeff--hadn't considered and just went with because it seemed like a fun plan (extradiegetic).

You could argue that if Jeff checked both Christian catechisms and biology textbooks before telling me if my plan was plausible then we've got a wholly diegetic plan, but then I'd counter that I had no way of knowing which authorities were considered true in the gameworld (as obviously the existence of vampires at all implies at least a certain level of folk-science is in play).

Diegetic solutions do not usually require system mastery. They require understanding the fiction--often merely a small part of it.

Extradiegetic Thinking Skill

This is player skill at thinking about or manipulating something that exists as part of the game but not part of the fiction.

A good example is in the (totally sweet) game Dread where your character's fate depends on ability to pull Jenga blocks from a Jenga tower. Another example would be a mechanic which allows you to choose to roll 1d10 or 2d6-pick-the-highest without any corresponding in-game explanation for what these two different die set-ups represent. Another example would be the oft-cited "If it just sounds cool, then the GM will let you try it" policy.

Often Extradiegtic Thinking requires some element of system mastery, but not always. In the above examples, the one with the dice requires system mastery, the Dread one kinda does (if you consider pulling blocks the "system".) The third one involves "mastering" or simply "impressing" the GM.

A large part of player skill is about weighing odds based on character skills--if a character can attempt to do something using two separate skills, like "Library Use 20% " or "Journalism 30%" and opts for Journalism because they have a better chance then it's diegetic skill unless the character for some reason doesn't know they suck even worse at using libraries than being a reporter, then it's extradiegetic.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has Extradiegetic thinking Skills (required to write the story, not just the solution to the murder) and Diegetic Thinking Skill. The reader who solves the mystery while reading before Holmes does using only information provided in the story and science as it was understood up until Holmes' time has Diegetic Thinking skill. The reader who solves the mystery using literary savvy about what kinds of solutions Doyle was likely to come up with given his literary sentiment has Extradiegetic Skill.


This is, quite simply, the ability to make stuff up that is interesting. Like, say, an interesting character background. It's purely subjective, until it becomes....

Creative Problem Solving

This is the ability to make stuff up that is interesting and original (the subjective part) and which also accomplishes a specified game goal (the objective part). Like: "Your character has two magnets and three daggers, make a trap out of that" or "Give me a character background that explains why you have a nose like a turnip and three peanuts in your pocket."

CPS can be diegetic (the first example--the trap--could be) or extradiegetic (the second example--the turnip story).

Mimetic Skill

Basically: Player is good at doing something therefore the character is good at a similar thing, too. There is almost always a "translation gap" involved in mimetic skills and so it's hard to say exactly how "true" the equivalence is.

Example: A Rolemaster player or 4e player in charge of Aragorn is good at telling other players what fighting techniques to use for generally optimum effectiveness on the battlefield just the same way Aragorn is a great tactician.

Or: A player is quick-witted and funny in acted dialogue and makes the other players laugh and so the NPCs also laugh.

Or: deciding someone's PC can't spell because the player misspelled "captain" in that note up there.

This kind of thing overlaps with Extradiegetic Skill if these tactics require weighing of numbers or factors that would matter in the kind of game being played but not if the situation were actually occurring (again, any element of the fantastic can make this hard to judge). That is: a great general might be good at Risk even though many of Risk's tactical rules are extradiegetic because it (perhaps) requires the same kind of brain, just using it to think in different terms.

This usually overlaps with Diegetic Thinking in one way or another, though it is possible to set up situations where it doesn't require actual thinking, like: player throws a dart at a target to determine whether a character manages to hit a target or (and I've done this one) hand the player a maze to solve and as soon as they finish their PC has escaped a maze. In this case the GM has essentially decided that the players' real life skill should be mapped to a character skill and the player hasn't really had to think in-world at all.

The Jenga-block mechanic in Dread is definitely not Mimetic but could suddenly be if the GM created a scenario where the characters were facing an Indiana-Jonesish puzzle where they were pulling blocks out of an ancient idol to get to a treasure without triggering a curse.

The edge cases here are legendary--these occur, for example, every time you see two people arguing over whether a flanking formation should give them a +1 or +2 bonus and whether this is "realistic" and on and on forever.

However, for practical purposes we can say:

-That it is really hard to tell which tactical game mechanics represent actual pieces of mimetic logic and which represent strictly extradiegetic logic made up to make the game work.

-Actual practical military wargames used for actual training of actual military people from Napoleon's time to our own are based on the idea that modelling at least some mimetic situations is possible.

-Whether the mimesis is "true" or not, being good at these kinds of things is a skill.

Notes: there are some clarifications on some of this stuff below in the comments.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Found this at a yard sale... issue of Dragon I've never seen before--so I snatched it up. The guy whose yard it was had one of those rubber veteran's hospital legs and was reading a Daphne DuMaurier paperback. He told me he used to collect them. Dragons I mean.

He gave me a discount because this one was largely illegible due to various pretty much indescribable printing errors...
"It's all fucked" he said "take it for a nickel."
The only part I could make out was...

The rulers of Byzantium were accustomed to blinding their rivals. With ornamental eye scoops, with daggers, with candelabras, kitchen knives, and tent pegs, with burning coals and boiling vinegar, with red-hot bowls held near the face and with bandages that left the eyes unharmed but were forbidden to be removed; sometimes it was sufficient merely to singe the eyelashes, for the victim to bellow and sigh like a lion as a trained executioner pantomimed the act. Sometimes cruelty was intended beyond the enucleation itself, as when the emperor Diogenes Romanus was deposed and “they permitted some unpracticed Jew to proceed in blinding the eyes” and “he lived several days in pain and exuding a bad odor.”

...which--while a pretty good template for how to write up a setting for print--somewhat dischronistically seems to come from this.

Anyway, does anybody have an undamaged copy of this issue? I kinda want to know whether the "Divine" who wrote this issue's fiction is the John Waters one. And both "On Eons" and "Temple of Poison" look interesting.

Oh, and what I can make out of the "Optional Critical Magic-Damage Rules" looks mind-blowing.

Also, the ad on the back cover was nuts...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Tolkien Toolkit

Me and D, talking (edited for concision)...

Zak: What's something you'd like to see in 5th edition D&D that was not in any previous edition of the game ?

D: I'd like to see a total replacement of the non-human races with something else (no more elves, hobbits, dwarfs or orcs)! They've made some interesting moves in that direction but leaving the old standards in there means the assumptions of the game don't change.

One-- My problem with that is the cliches make it really easy for me to explain the options to my "not the usual fantasy RPG demographic players" very fast. "You know, elves right?" "Oh, right, ok". Too much straying from cliche in initial PC choices means I need a lot more buy-in. "Like, ok, it's kind of like a hunchback but has gears for arms and cloaks for teeth and the culture is based on exchange of meerkats and..."

The issue is not feasibility but whether it'd be a good idea period. If D&D went totally Mieville (or whatever) it'd be really hard to explain to anyone who wasn't in a certain subsubgenre of cultural payingattention-ness, whereas as it is now it casts a wide net and you can funnel the game toward avant-garde fantasy ideas after you get buy-in . Seems like a decent solution to me. Somebody has to make the elfgame where there's elves.
(See: The describability problem.)

Two-- "assumptions of the game"?

Assumptions like you can play a human that can be any way any real person could be; a creature that is lucky, small and fast; something large, dumb and ugly; something tall, beautiful and graceful; or something short, tough and mean.

The short tough and mean guys don't get along with the tall graceful ones. The big ugly ones don't get along with anyone. Humans get along with everyone (kind of). The little ones just try to hide their communities or blend into the larger races lands. But really everything is not so different because some of them can mate with each other and everyone is competing for the same resources.

These are assumptions everyone goes into a game with. Your "You saw Lord of the Rings, right?" promise that is fulfilled with every setting.

Does that make sense?
(Interpolation: You may have heard this idea before, I certainly have. Only versions of this argument I usually hear are dumber and angrier than this one.)

It makes sense except the whole point of Medieval folklore is it is a bunch of incredibly stupid ideas (theocracy, monarchy etc.) thought up by our ignorant forbears and that's why the D&D world is horrible and full of bad monsters and evil kings and therefore fun to fuck around with. Also: part of the point of the game for many people is to transcend and fight personifications of these ideas.

The traditional ideas have value precisely because they expose the ignorant reptile thinking at the base of our culture. The devil being equated with sexuality for zillions of years for instance explains so much more about the way people think than if I subbed in some mutant thing I thought up yesterday. Thinking about this world is good and smart and helps people. It is not the only world worth thinking about, but D&D is a major existing cultural representation of that exact world of ideas.

I agree these things are based in folklore, but they are still interpretations of that folklore. Elves in Celtic folklore where frightening monsters that stole children, musicians and craftspeople for their amusement. In D&D they are often the good guys. An ancient race in decline. It's not quite the same thing. Tolkien's take on elves was great, it's just sad to me that there seems to be no room for anything else.

Yes, but I am also saying that the players' default position regarding the cultural assumptions behind these ideas starts out critical rather than naively accepting. Simply because their own modern world is so obviously not full of knights and orcs.

The exception is children--but if we don't grant them the ability to turn the mythology of childhood into an adult consciousness then we have to start bowdlerizing our way through every single product that resonates with them ever created--which I think is a very very dangerous cultural practice not only due to the damage it would do to all pre-1990s art for children but to child-rearing practices in general. Build skeptical children, not a padded room for them to be credulous in.

Or simply this: if you don't use "elves vs trolls" someone else willbecause it's an idea that resonates. So use the idea in an interesting, self-questioning way rather than pretending it doesn't exist. The repressed always recurs. The altered gets evolved.

OK Zak, maybe I can explain where I am coming from.

I think my main problem with what I called the assumptions of D&D is that I see them as mostly one man's interpretation of the common folklore.

I'm a bit of an odd ball because I didn't read any tolkien until I was in my 20s. As a child I was more familiar with the source material (folklore) than the shiny world of middle earth he had created. The first fantasy I read was Ursula K LeGuin's Earthsea books. Those stories operated under a different framework of ideas. Not completely different, but different enough.

D&D introduced me to tolkien's elves, dwarfs and hobbits. To me they weren't entrenched tropes, but strange new takes on old familiar stories. Elves were like the Sidhe, but nicer. Instead of coveting master craftsmanship or music they were master craftsmen and musicians themselves. It wasn't huge leap, but it was one that I had to make.

It is amazing to me just how much the tolkien take on it has invaded our culture. With the movies, books and all of the other IPs that make use of these same tropes, including 40 years of D&D, it really has become a common mythology.

You are correct, the idea of trying to ignore all that common ground would only create barriers to play. Besides, I have had tonnes of fun playing in that same framework. I guess it just bothers me that it has become the "right way" to do it, instead of one way of many.

D&D has successfully "drifted" Tolkien in the past (and Tolkien was, in turn, a "drift" of Victorian fantasy, which was a "drift" of Medieval folklore). I think further "drift" is probably the best solution.

"Drifting" is a great way of putting it. Some interesting drifting has already happened in D&D. Dark Sun and Birthright come to mind as examples.

I feel like a crazy person right now because I agree with pretty much every point you've made. The Tolkien setup still feels like a box. Drifting is a great way to turn the box on it's side, giving us a whole new perspective and set of possibilities, but it's still inside the box. I like the idea of jumping OUT of the box, even though it seems insane and impossible. Not to mention lonely.

Clearly D&D needs to remain inside it's own framework to move forward. I wonder if they can leave room for drifting or jumping in their new rules?

I think pretty much every version of D&D allows totally chucking out the Tolkien race kit. It's not a problem. Dark sun? Eberron? The options have always been at least implied since even 0e:
"There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top"

(The same author's AD&D DMG later reversed this position, but the rest of D&D overrided him, so whatever...)

This all lead to Cole starting another conversation...

What PC races besides the "Tolkien Four" have enough broad folk or mythic resonance to be accessible and quickly grasped by new players not deep in the nerdosphere?

Where we talked about the possibilities of animalpeople, devilpeople, hags, mummies etc etc and then it all ended, as usual, with us talking about Iron Maiden.

On account of they're the best way to explain Githyanki.