Stealing a Page from Screenwriters

We are often asked as gamemasters to create a scenario for players that we know is intended to allow their characters to carry the day and claim victory. To do this, we have to imagine the end goal of the adventure and then plan to have the challenges be just difficult enough that the characters when even if they have to struggle for that outcome. One of the tricks that we can use to make our lives easier comes from film and television, and many gamemasters are probably using it without realizing that it is exactly what they are doing.

 

In effect, this is an elevator pitch approach to adventure design known as a logline. The point of the log line is to sum up the main plot of the story in approximately 25 words or less. Loglines are not intended to capture the entire story; rather, they are useful devices that let us focus our intention on the most important elements the story is about. Consider the following example using Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:

 

“From a place known as the Shire, a reluctant hero, a hobbit named Frodo Baggins, is tasked by the wizard Gandalf the Grey to undertake a journey with a companions on a quest to make it all the way to Mount Doom in Mordor and find a way to destroy the One Ring while avoiding an epic battle that engulfs all of Middle Earth and a host of beings intent on retrieving the ring for their evil master, Sauron, who will plunge the world into eternal darkness if he succeeds.”

 

Now consider this:

 

“The reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins is charged with the task of destroying the One Ring while avoiding fanatical pursuers and the war engulfing Middle Earth.”

 

If you have seen the movies you know there is obviously more detail than either of these two descriptions can encompass. But, which one feels more intense, the one that goes into detail, or the one that cuts to the heart of the story? This is where a logline can help you plot out your adventures.

 

The point here is not to cut out any contingencies, side quests, or wandering encounters. Rather, the purpose of the logline is to help you plan out the eventual goal of an adventure no matter how many distractions or subplots you can stuff in there to your players’ delight. While it takes more time to prepare for such adventures, the logline works for adventures of any length, meaning you can recycle the logline with a few small changes here and there to alter the plot enough to keep things fresh and interesting. Here’s an example:

 

“The adventurers look to rescue the local merchant’s son who has been kidnapped to force the man out of business and cripple the town’s economy.”

 

Now, with a few changes and several levels later, the logline can be recycled with the following tweaks:

 

“The adventurers track down the mysterious group that kidnapped the head of the all-powerful merchant’s guild, bringing the starving city to its knees.”

 

Notice that there really is not that much of a difference in the plot the loglines. The challenges are greater in the latter, but it is all just a matter of scale. Both are stories of struggle for survival and the key role the characters play in saving the day. What makes them different is how they are dressed and all the trappings that go with those implications, which includes subplots and side quests.

Don’t Tell Me About Your Character

One of the techniques that writing instructors stress time and again is “show, don’t tell.” Yet, no such piece of advice exists for gamers. In fact, more often than not players tell the gamemaster what their characters are doing while the gamemaster tells the players about the world their characters inhabit. It seems weird that something that would bore an audience to tears in a written format is how many players derive satisfaction in the heat of the moment.

Something that strikes me as being just as strange is that when people talk about their most memorable sessions, they show almost as much as they tell. The characters are more alive with details of what they were doing compared to the actual game session. In many ways, their descriptions are like stories of true events. But, again, this is not the most exciting way to tell a story.

What can gamers learn from this? There are ways to interject showing into the descriptions of the events that occur in a game without taking away anyone’s agency. This is why players are able to describe events as a story rather than a report after the fact. But there should be a way we can draw from this to move beyond a report style of gaming.

If you are unfamiliar with the difference between showing and telling, consider the following descriptions of events:

 

“My character walks up to the door and I want to check for traps. I rolled a 16.”

“I walk up to the door and examine it for traps with a result of 16.”

 

The differences are subtle, but one is more active than the other. The first example is a play-by-play report of what the character is going to do and the second is a smoother rendition of the same event that shows. There is nothing inherently wrong with the first method, and this is often the way most game sessions go as there is a need to pause to let people know what is going on in any particular game.

If you trust your players or gamemaster enough, you can show these actions and trust that neither side is trying to circumvent any of the rules. After all, if there are any adjustments due to situational circumstances, there should be little reason to believe the gamemaster is cheating. This also requires the gamemaster shows rather than tells what the world looks like.

In this instance, it requires the gamemaster does not just provide a list of details for what the room, town, or dungeon looks like. A 10’ wide corridor with moss is boring after a while, but if you say that the moss is growing or creeping up the walls, you give a description that feels alive and more active. One of the techniques that keeps descriptions from moving from a showing to a telling is the verbs used. Do the objects interact with one another, or are they just present? If they interact, then you are showing.

Telling is often passive and does not come across as vividly. Veteran gamemasters are often great at doing this, but when players make the transition to the other side of the screen they often tell as that is the mode they have learned to operate from when playing a roleplaying game. Showing is a skill that people have to develop as we are used to reporting what has happened in the past. This is as much caused by how we learn to receive news as it is the way our brains process stimuli and weed out the information it doesn’t think is important, like how things interact with each other unless the event affects the observer.

Another area where showing and not telling comes in handy is in interior dialogues with a character. We might not be able to show the interior of a character’s thoughts, but we can show how he acts as a result of them. Even if the process is mostly in the character’s head, there are a few tricks to help make these moments dramatic and active. Most of these tricks are the same as those outlined above. What is important to remember is that the events have to be actions if you want to retain the excitement.

To make it more mysterious, you can limit who gets the information for what goes on in the character’s head. However, that can lead to other problems with players being left out of some of the action. That is where letting the players see the results without seeing the cause comes in handy. It is just like the movies, only better because it is unfolding in real time.

So, when someone gives a dry description, you can tell them “Don’t tell me about your character, show me.”

Shadings in the Boxes: Playing it Slant

Since its introduction in the late 70s in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax’s two-axis alignment system has been a staple of that game line for more than thirty years, culminating in its continued use in the d20/OGL third-party products still in print.  Despite this longevity, the concept of nine alignments with their strict interpretations as described in the rulebooks seems to be the only way in which characters can be played.  The rules aren’t immutable.  They are termed guidelines by the games’ authors.  If the rules are considered as such, doesn’t that mean one should consider that the same applies to the alignment definitions?  Most gamers don’t seem to take this view if one looks at the number of complaints and arguments across the Internet on this subject.  How does one account for the venerable seventeen-plane Great Ring cosmology that accompanied Gygax’s introduction of this system?  As such, there must be shadings within the alignments if that cosmology is any indication.  These questions are the impetus of this inquiry and whether or not it is possible to interpret what alignments truly describe.

A few things need to be deconstructed in order to not only establish the ground rules for the project as a whole, but also as a way to examine variations on alignments without being a complete departure from their core values.  Rather, these variations express something that is contrary to these very values on a superficial level.  This gives a sense of standing apart in an erstwhile sea of sameness without running completely outside the group.  Thus, these slight deviations are referred to as “shadings” given their take “colors” the perception of an alignment.

It is important to note that there is no attempt to undermine the system that exists, but rather to promote the idea that the good/evil and law/chaos axes are a system of coordinates within which there is room to maneuver.  The hope here is that players will take more leeway with interpreting alignments in their games, have a better understanding of someone’s interpretation, or shadings of what already exists.

The series is structured by examining what is written about each alignment and then following it up with a series of sample interpretations for each.  The examination of the alignments starts by questioning and deconstructing their descriptions and if they are fair assessments of adherents of the alignments they profess.  Through deconstructing the concepts in each, it becomes easier to identify what concepts must remain intact and which are negotiable.  From there, the variations in the shadings can be constructed and still remain true to their parent’s description.  Thus, good will remain good, even if its honor is shredded a bit.

In writing terms, this is known as playing it slant.  It’s the angle one takes to tell a story or portray a character.  Actors do this to find a character’s motivation for the behavior exhibited.  The entire point of this work, then, is to spur players to explore and mine their characters’ back stories for all they’re worth.  Or, in other words, how a character’s personality shapes his alignment.

Anatomy of Game Design: Cheating Death and Avoiding Injury

Call them what you will: resistance rolls, saving throws, defenses, or what-have-you; they’re all the same.  This is the mechanic that games use to prevent the impartial nature of probability mechanics from killing characters through sheer dumb luck.  After all, a roleplaying game is not reality.  Happenstance is a great tool to keep the rules fair, but not when it would chill the fun.  This is what these rules are designed to curb.

Let’s face it, random character death is annoying as can be.  Players are likely to be much more upset if there is no meaning to a fatality in the ranks.  The attachment is greater the more experienced the character is and the longer it is played.  This is why games have a built-in system to stave off oblivion.  It isn’t just a technique for writers, after all.  Saving throws are an RPG’s safety net to protect it from its own math.

One of the salient features of roleplaying games is the storytelling element.  The gamemaster describes a situation and the players respond.  This call-and-response mechanism is the core of the interactive nature of the tale woven by a group of players.  The math behind the dice rolls is meant to provide an impartial judge so that arguments about who can do what are kept to a minimum.  But it is this same randomness and impartiality that can lead to character death in an otherwise nonlethal situation.

So, what the resistance roll allows is a way to temper the probability which could kill characters undramatically.  But that isn’t the sole reason for including them in a game.  They also fill a dramatic roll in a game’s rules.  Granted it is still a way to skew the math in the favor of the player characters, but there are times when players place their characters in harm’s way.  Often these instances are climaxes in adventures.  The heightened drama is rooted in how close to death heroes can get without crossing that threshold.

Regardless of whether story or probability motivates their inclusion, saving throws keep characters alive.  And in systems where the chances of success improve as the character gains ever higher levels of experience, the level of danger such individuals can face becomes more intense.  There is also the added benefit that the character won’t fall victim to a bad roll or two.  If you consider how much time and energy gets invested in high level characters, it makes more sense why the math works this way without recourse to the dramatic story elements of this form of gaming.

What’s to be taken from the above?  Chiefly that the safety net against probability’s cruel impartiality is also designed as a dramatic tool.  As such, systems can be used to mitigate probability from hijacking the story and hence lessening your fun.

These Teachers Should be Fired (NSFW)

Okay, so while I’m a huge supporter of education.  There’s an article from the Wall Street Journal that is something else.  And it’s not the fault of the article or the reporting.  It’s what the English teachers are doing to their students that I find abhorrent.  It’s downright repellent that these instructors are telling their students that they cannot use certain words that are, in effect, the glue of our common language in a sea of over 500,000 words that make up the English language.

Think about that.  There are over 500,000 words in this terribly fucked-up language we speak.  The history of the language is so convoluted that if you turned it into a story, people would hate you because it would make no sense.  English is the little language that could and it probably shouldn’t have if you look at how many times it came close to being wiped out by other languages.  But, somehow it morphed into a massive mutated multilingual murdering monstrosity maintaining a lexicon of words.

Nobody remembers half of these words anymore, yet they’re maintained in the ginormous catalogue that is the Oxford English Dictionary along with all the variant spellings of words nobody cares about since they’ve fallen well out of favor for no other reason than they just did or someone’s standardization of spelling.  And nobody cares unless they are either English majors or English language historians, and even then these are the people who describe how the language works without telling you how to use it.

So, this is where the problem with these asshats comes in.  They’re telling kids that they have to chuck out all the words that essentially make up the core of good, concise writing for international business English.  You know, the words everyone who speaks English with any level of skill has to know.  These poor kids haven’t even gotten comfortable in their own skins and these fucking teachers have the audacity to tell their students that they can’t use words the teachers consider “dead?”  Seriously?  What in the ever loving fuck is this shit?

These failed writers are telling your kids that they have to be more expressive when they’re still trying to learn the basics of the language.  I’m pretty sure that either these horrible people are trying to live vicariously through the writing of their students or want to make them feel as miserable as the teachers do and want to snuff their dreams in the cradle.  If you’re not upset by this, you really should be.  Just look at this little gem from the article:

Megan Riley, a sixth-grader in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., recently joined her classmates in chanting the words that their English teacher has pronounced dead: “Good, bad, nice, a lot, OK, fun, thing and stuff.” Later, the students were told, they might hold a mock funeral to bury those words.

A mock fucking funeral?!?!  For “dead words” sixth-graders aren’t supposed to use anymore?  These kids are experiencing all the terrible things hormones are doing to their bodies to make them feel self-conscious and awkward as hell and you want to pull out the rug from under them for the words they’re allowed to use?  Who the fuck do you teachers think you are?

Look, I have no illusions that I’m an awesome writer as I’ve been doing this as a profession for 11 years now and buying a website had to be weighed as a monetary decision that was feasible and necessary.  If I was awesome at this shit, I’d have a pile of money I could use to pay for websites without debating whether I should and it’s taken me years to get to the level I’m at.  It was 10 years after high school that I fumbled through shitty draft after shitty draft before I could make a coherent thought artful enough to get paid for it.

Now I get wanting kids to expand their vocabulary, but that’s why we should be encouraging reading everything and anything available.  We want kids to feel they can express themselves and to have all the tools at their disposal to do just that.  This doesn’t encourage them to do so.  It encourages them to be wordy and artistic before they’ve learned how to write the truth of their own observations?  Besides, do you honestly think a business proposal avoiding “dead words” would be taken seriously?

All this purple prose bullshit is arrogance in the extreme.  The students aren’t being taught how to use language effectively, but rather how to call attention to the very artifice that makes bad writing so terrible.  If I proliferated this rant with nothing but profanity or used the largest words I could just to prove a point, there would no value to reading this or justifying the time I wasted figuratively throwing up in your eye holes.

So, here are a couple more gems from this article that should make you want to pressure the schools to get rid of these teachers who are harming their student’s education.

One recent afternoon after school, Josie and Josh agreed to take a stab at editing famous authors, starting with the closing words ofJames Joyce’s “Ulysses”: “….yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Head down, her pigtails brushing the paper, Josie examined the phrase and then suggested a small amendment: “…yes I hollered yes I will Definitely.”

Josh decided to let “said” stand, given Joyce’s reputation. He did, however, insert the commas neglected by Joyce.

No, no, no, no!  This is truly audacious.  The teachers have students “correcting” James motherfucking Joyce!  Does no one understand that the whole of Ulysses is a deliberately designed piece of art that relies as much upon mythic structure as it does linguistic sound qualities?  It seems that the teachers don’t as they’re allowing their students to misuse the very tools they’re trying to instill in their students.

“Said,” “walk,” and other such words are dry and factual and can be overused just like any other linguistic expression (clichés anyone?), but there’s a huge difference between expressing the emotional content in a character’s words as there is in the delivery of those very words.  I don’t need to know that someone exclaimed or ejaculated a string of words if they’re followed by an exclamation point.  I don’t even need to know how angry someone is or that they ambulated their way across the page if it’s clear what’s going on from the context alone.

At best, the words will be redundant; at worst, the writing will be tortured and a clear example of telling, not showing.  And this is what these teachers fail to keep firmly in mind.  They are quite literally failing their students and instilling in them a sense that language is used for reporting, not expression.  Writers have to trust that their readers are smart enough to pick up on the emotional and literal context of their work.

So, when the kids stated:

Second-guessing famous authors was tricky, Josh cautioned: “It’s almost as though they’re given a free pass” to flout the rules. Josie submitted that she wasn’t sure they should get that pass.

Her brother winced: “You’ve got to remember,” he lectured, “most of these guys are dead.”

This shows you exactly how arrogant this practice is and that wince should speak volumes of the discomfort the kids should feel for what they’re being made to do, not to the structure of the literary works of Joyce and Hemingway.  Letting the work speak for itself is what the teachers should be instilling.  Understanding the hows and whys of written works is what you study after you have a firm grip on the basics.

 

Interface Zero 2.0 Malmart Catalog

So, one of the projects I’m working on is the Malmart Catalog for Gun Metal Games‘ Interface Zero.  For all intents and purposes, let’s just go with the fact that this is a good thing and keep that in mind for some of the things I’m about to talk about that might make you think otherwise.  I’m really happy to be working on this book.

There are a few things here though that make it a bit strange and a huge first for me.  The most important is the writing style.  Since this is a catalog for the year 2090, the bulk of the products described are being written in copywriter speak.  So, yeah…. You’re getting a book that’s filled with ads for products that don’t exist.  Not only that, but the book’s primary audience in this regard are the middle class and affluent.

If you know anything about the cyberpunk genre, the audience I’m writing to aren’t the heroes.  So, that’s where the other bit of weirdness comes in.  I’ve always been told that writers are supposed to write for their audience and that’s not what I’m doing here.  The book is supposed to give you a sense of how the world is in the game which makes it ideal for players and gamemasters.

I’m aware how bizarre this sounds.  It’s like a dialectic that refuses to be solved.  But that’s exactly where the book needs to be.  For cyberpunk heroes who come from the streets and have oh so little, this is a representation of a world that ignores them and essentially left their forebears behind.  It’s also filled with the things they want.

When your life sucks that much though, what do you do when you get these things?  How do they help you survive?  There are a lot of questions like this that the catalog can’t and won’t answer.  The only phrase to help you in solving this dilemma for the characters is from William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome”: “the street finds its own use for things.”

 

Anatomy of Game Design: Adjustments and Derived Values

As far as measurements go, ability/attribute scores are pretty abstract.  They’re a great tool for comparing creatures and characters, but that is it.  Something is missing if a game leaves it at that.  While some systems will use dice pools for a measurement, they will still not fully explain how the numbers work.  What it comes down to is this: it is one thing to have a quantitative measure of a character’s ability to interact with the world and another to provide a definition of what that truly means.  This is where derived values and modifiers come into play.

Regardless of your familiarity with roleplaying games, it helps for everyone to have the same definitions with which we can work without too much confusion.  To start, we must borrow from computer programming terminology.  In a program there are two types of variables: global and local.  Global values are applied to different routines as needed to keep various functions synchronized with user input, data flow, etc.  These values do not change globally unless mandated to do so.  The same happens in RPGs, but less often and will be discussed elsewhere.  Local variables are more specific as they apply to a specific routine and are internal to it and do not affect anything else.

In the language of the roleplaying game community, global variables are termed “adjustments” and local variables as “derived values/stats.”  Both categories function in much the same way.  The difference between the two types is often expressed in mathematical terms unique to the value in question.  Adjustments are often static for all ability/attribute scores in the game.  This allows the core mechanic to work with all of them using the same formulae and language.  Hence the global nature of these numbers.  The adjustment scores also get applied to skills, attacks, health, and so on.  Derived values are calculated for specific purposes such as how much weight one can lift, how well armored one is, the ease at which magic can be learned, etc.  These do not affect the core mechanic as much as they do subsystems in a game.

So why do games require these secondary stats?  In truth, games can only simulate so much through their core mechanics.  The rest has to be handled by subsystems, some of which are used in conjunction with the core mechanic.  What is really being provided is a method (or series therein) for describing exactly how a character’s ability/attribute scores translate from abstract measures to how he interacts with the world and vice versa.  In effect, these values are more important than the stats they are derived from because of their tangibility.  There are fewer instance in which an attribute/ability score is used other than as a generic, catch-all, or raw ability.  Such uses boil down to a roll with the stat as the threshold against which success is determined.

A question that may come up in the design process is how many derived values does a game need.  There is no simple answer to their inquiry.  The complexity of the system should suggest the number needed.  The more present, the more subsystems or calculations necessary to define character interactions.  Too few and the game may fail to address fundamental situations, leading to player dissatisfaction or arguments impeding play.  It is a fine line a designer has to walk in order to simulate reality without ruining the entertainment the system is meant to facilitate.  What is important is that a player is armed with enough information to determine what his character can or cannot do.  Anything unique that comes up and players will be smart enough to improvise.

 

Anatomy of Game Design: Attributes/Ability Scores

The heart of any RPG is its ability/attribute score system. This reflects the ways in which the characters interact within the fictional world. In effect, it is the physics of the world as experienced by an individual. Thus, the refinement of the mechanics must always be based on the categories that represent the basic capacities. In these styles of games, this is, at minimum, a score for physical aptitude and one for mental faculties.

A two-stat system is simple and possibly quite malleable, but probably not deep enough to simulate anything but film. This is not to say that cinematic action isn’t enjoyable, only that it is limited in scope and the value of diminishing returns. To prevent this requires a third stat to measure the character’s strength of will or spirit. This creates the illusion of the so-called three-dimensional character so highly prized in the literary arts. Or, for the modern reader of novels, the minimum elements for believability in the “reality” of a character’s ability to leap off the page. Games of this type are more robust, but run the risk of straining options and limitations placed upon the game as inherent in a genre.

To combat these issues and provide a multiplicity of genres and accommodations for play styles, a greater number of attributes are needed, which both increases the game’s complexity and the number of dimensions of interaction between the character and the world. The single limiting factor that prevents the system from collapsing under its own weight is the reliance of a core mechanic that not only serves as the glue and underpinnings of the game, but doubles as the simplifying device that prevents potential players from abandoning the game before having given the game a chance to reveal its possibilities.

Any system employing multiple categories for attributes must maintain as close as possible an equal number of physical and mental stats.   The reason for this is to preserve a balance of actions between the two prominent plot types common to dramatic forms: plots of the mind and plots of the body. Why is this the case? Because one of the primary sources for these games is literature, to include the works of playwrights. The format of the game is rooted in oral storytelling techniques, but everything else defaults to the technology of writing.

Like film, the RPG must borrow from the novel to create characters that serve as more than images if a story is privileged above the act of moving pictures. Stage techniques are mainly useful for the gamemaster to create the game world, thus it doesn’t readily aid in seeing how multiple attributes expand the game’s interfaces. That is if one is unwilling or unable to discern how an actor’s performance is infused with a different skill set that dictates the strengths and dimensions of the character portrayed when compared to another actor. This isn’t just a different set of stats in an RPG, but rather potentially an entirely new set of attributes. Reaching? Maybe, but inspiration for how many points of entry/interface between players and the world of their characters nonetheless.

These are the considerations one must make when defining what the game can handle while setting the complexity level of the simulation. The dividing line between nuance and simplicity of storytelling and character design, not game mechanics, lies in the number and type of attributes. The core mechanic remains untouched, it is the design of character creation that colors the view of the system’s complexity. The fewer the number of rules governing how to generate a character, the easier the entry into the hobby, but it comes at the cost of exactness in how and when the rules are applied. In the parlance of the literary community: do you prefer plot or character? For the gamer: few stats or many? This determines the core audience of the game.

 

New Home

Okay, so there’s not much to see at the moment, but I’m working on that. I’ll be setting up things as time and my writing schedule permits. Until then, hope you’ll stay tuned.