Sunday, December 18, 2011

Site Moved

Hi there, you're about to be redirected to my new site at

That message was for people coming to the site. If you're reading over rss, you're reading right, I've moved over to my own hosting at I hope to see you there!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Gm Ethics: Fairness

Last week I laid out some terminology and some ideas that I want to use to explore the kinds of ethical obligations we have to each other around the gaming table. Specifically the relation between the GM and the players, but a lot of this is also applicable to the relations between players as well. I established how the players are stakeholders, and why they have a larger stake in the actions of the GM, because the GM can affect their interests in a more powerful way. This week I want to expand on that and talk about fairness, specifically fairness in principle. Why is it important to be fair, and what does it mean to talk about fairness?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

GM Ethics

As adjudicators of outcomes and interactions, GMs tend to be viewed as having more power than other players. Originally the GM was held to be the master of the game, as stated by E. Gary Gygax in a 2004 interview. I prefer to think of myself as a moderator rather than a master, working with the other players rather than being in charge in some kind of authoritative way, but regardless of what view you hold on the exact role of the GM, it seems reasonable to think that as an adjudicator, they incur certain ethical obligations to the other players. I want to spend some time on what I think these are, and provide some arguments not just for why honouring these obligations makes the game more fun, but why it is necessary to do so.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Fudging Dice

Before we get started, a couple of announcements. First, you should head over to my MoSpace and support Movember if you haven't already. Donate now, and decide what silly thing I do with my moustache for the last week of November. Details are here. Also, over the next month I'm going to be migrating the blog to a new domain, so there might be a bit of downtime. You'll have to update your bookmarks and your rss, and I'll be putting an automatic forward here just in case. I'll keep you posted here, and you can find updates on my Twitter. Now, on to fudging dice.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Safe Space, A How To

Last week I talked about why safe space is important at the gaming table because it helps encourage creativity and comfort, both of which are things that make a game more fun. It can also be used to add depth to a game and present more poignant moral challenges and choices. What I didn't talk about was how we can go about creating that kind of space at the gaming table. It can be challenging, especially with a new group or a group which isn't used to thinking about things in that way. It's important to recognize that there's going to be an adjustment period, but overall I think you'll agree that a game in a safe space is better than a game not in one. Most of the information here is pulled from the GLSEN "Guide to Being an Ally", a kit meant for educators looking to establish safe space for LGBT youth, and tuned for the gaming audience. If you're looking for more information than I provide here, I recommend downloading the .pdf, and if you're interested in establishing safe space at your local schools, I recommend it as a guide. What's more important than safe space at the gaming table is safe space for our youth.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Safe Space

In one of my earliest posts, I talked about how working with players to create a safe space in which people can express themselves is an important goal for a GM, and really for any group organizer. But it raises a lot of questions about what it means to have a safe space, and why it's important. Today I thought I'd talk about that, and give some examples of safe spaces which could be used as models.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Goals, Part 2

Last week I talked about the different kinds of goals we have in games, with a focus on D&D. But not all goals are created equal. There are kinds of goals which don't necessarily take into consideration the interests of other players, or which cut off opportunities rather than creating them. I want to outline what I think some of these kinds of goals are. I also want to take the time to look at why, although they could be reasonable goals in certain settings, they're not constructive for a co-operative role playing game like D&D.

Pete the Pirate pines to perpetuate a peck of piracy amid a pack of poorer places. This means that Pete the Pirate needs to buy a pirate ship, hire a crew, and commence some serious piracy. Gary Gnome gaily grants that it's his goal to get great gobs of glittering gold, garnets, and gum, by giving and getting in the great game of trade. Building an intercontinental merchant network means that he has to muster capital, travel to various places inland and across the sea, hire associates, and make friends. Walter Warblade wishes he was a worthy warrior; weary of his woad he wants a wicked whip and wightskin armor to wear while working as a worldly warrior-king. To do this, he might need to find a special craftsman, earn a kingdom, and certainly slay a wight or two. Each of their character goals seems perfectly reasonable. However, there's only one problem. They're all in the same adventuring party. Pursuing their goals (which are all very interesting) means either breaking up the party or convincing the rest of the party to go along with one set of goals (and abandoning their own). Goals with a problem of scope then, are character goals which become game goals without the consent of the rest of the group. And that includes the GM. In an aquatic game, the entire party making sure they're amphibious and abandoning the water for an adventure on land can be interesting, but places the GM at the mercy of their goals. Ideally, no one ought to be at the mercy of the game goals of another, because doing so pushes them into a game that they didn't buy into, and aren't interested in, hence the necessity for compromise.

Level Gaining
Some goals are harder to express in a game like D&D. For example, le Gimli wishes to master the ability of making a flurry of blade attacks in a few seconds. That's neat, but it makes for a bad character goal, because it's basically a statement that involves gaining levels. Gaining levels is already a metagame goal that is assumed in D&D. You could have a fun D&D game in which no one gains levels, but it'd be the exception, rather than the norm. Furthermore, there is nothing specific that le Gimli could do to achieve that goal. It demands a general result, because the rewards aren't based on in-game advancement. It doesn't motivate. A better way to state goals like this might be to work toward some kind of in-game achievement, whether that's being high priest, pokemon master, or world quidditch champion. These things allow for progressive results, and motivate a character toward some specific pursuit, whether that's doing services for the church, seeking out other pokemon trainers around the world to challenge them, or playing a fucktonne of quidditch in a league.

While a character is the sum of his goals, goals ought not to be the sum of a character. While it's interesting in a literary sense to have a character who is utterly consumed by his need for a single goal (such as Ahab or Arthas), or to interact with such an individual, it is exceedingly difficult to BE such a person in a cooperative game. Both Ahab and Arthas caused incredible grief to those around them, eventually alienating everyone, and ultimately coming to a bad end. Similar to the evil character in this respect, the consumed character has an expiry date, though instead of betrayal and death, it's usually more to the tune of a fierce argument and someone storming off.

Too Few
How many goals are too few? The simple answer is when there aren't enough of them. Think of how many goals you have, long term and short term, whether they're graduating, finding a job, or just surviving the day. It's more important to think of them in terms of the categories. You can't even play the game without metagame goals, so none isn't an option, but one or two doesn't seem like enough to declare intent with a character. Game goals on the other hand, seem more likely to be sparse, as they involve negotiation with all of the people involved, but again, having none or only one or two seems inadequate, because ideally you do want to shape the game. Character goals are either the hardest or easiest to come up with, but they're also the most pivotal and the most personal. None means that a character has no meaningful desires. One means that theirs is all-consuming, be it the lust for power or the desire for ice cream. Two makes one bipolar in a way. For these, it appears that frankly, the more the merrier.

Too Many
In talking about too few, we must also talk about too many. How many is too many? When there's too many. When goals stop becoming manageable, conflict with each other in ways that aren't interesting, or are taken up and discarded willy-nilly. What's the point of aspiring to something if, next week, it's gone? There's certainly room for a dilettante character, but a dilettante's goals are synergized by their desire to have more goals than average. Too many metagame goals often result in a jack of all trades who's really a jack of no trades. The consequence of too many game goals is perpetual boredom or a game full of pirate/prince/mountaineers where the whole scope of the game changes every week. And too many character goals usually just means that none of them can be accomplished, since all of them ought to be pursued. Part of the joy of playing D&D is playing people whose lives are somewhat less complicated than our own, with all of our goal-related madness.

Following the Story
Going along with the story is not a goal worth having. Flat out. It's a denial of agency, and a commitment of a willingness to be entertained rather than an investment in participating in the game. If someone just wants to go along with the story, they should probably go play a videogame. Read a choose-your-own-adventure book, or just read a regular book. The point of a cooperative game isn't to go along with the story, but to create the story. Even in a linear campaign which limits the scope of the players' decisions, there are still decisions to be made. Just like D&D isn't about one single character, it's also not about the GM's vision of a tale of epic fantasy. If you're interested in that tale, just ask to hear it sometime, instead of presenting the illusion of participating in it. This isn't to say that there isn't some sort of buy in required, that's what game goals are for, but just going along with the game goals isn't playing the game. In a game about tactical, strategic, and dramatic decision making, the story follower has chosen to be a spectator.

A key thing to remember about the above goal strategies is that they're not always bad in every way. In various mediums, they make for excellent goals. But in the context of a cooperative action/adventure roleplaying game, they don't always work very well, though even then, they can be made to work with the right leverage.

On Achievement 
This is the most important thing about goals. I like the S.M.A.R.T. guidelines, but there's other ones, and if they're followed, then goals are going to be attainable. This means that you have to think about what happens when you get what you want. This isn't forty years ago, where the dreams of player characters are merely things to be crushed underfoot by the traps and monsters of a cackling dungeon master. These things are doable, and there are consequences for doing them. Furthermore, they are victory conditions. When you achieve them, you are winning at D&D. In some cases, they represent actual victory conditions, because they lead to a character retiring (which is an expiry date, but not necessarily a bad one because ideally the goal will be very long term and represented in many stages). More likely, they lead to the acquiring of more goals, which takes you back to last week.

There's a lot that can be said about goals and the nature of them, and it's something I'll definitely come back to, but I think this is a good foundation from which to work. What do you think? How do you handle these kinds of goals and work with players to make them constructive?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

At My Table: We Think About Roles

I think everybody's thinking about roles in some way or another when they come to the table. But how we think about roles is going to be as important as what we think about them. Today I want to start by talking about how I encourage people to think about them and why I do that, and over the next few weeks I'll talk about how roles work in some other games, and whether they work well or not. 4th Edition D&D focuses on roles, and I'm definitely going to talk about that next week, once we get through what roles mean.

Monday, October 24, 2011

D&D Goals

Every time I start a D&D game, I ask for some goals related to the characters involved. Sometimes I get some. Sometimes I get a lot. D&D doesn't include a lot of character development in the process, like Burning Wheel or Spirit of the Century do, so I think it's important to add that in. For the next couple of weeks, I'm going to talk about goals for players in D&D and D&Desque games explicitly, what kinds there are, why they matter, and some of the goals which fall short of that kind of game. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

At My Table: Conversation Café

At my table, instead of characters meeting in a bar, we use Conversation Café. It's a method of discussion which encourages deeper character descriptions and leads to each of the players having a better understanding not just of the other characters and their place in the party dynamic, but often their own as well. It's been effective with new players and experienced ones, and serves as a kind of round robin fireside chat.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Starting A Game

This is something I should have talked about right at the beginning, and happily we're close enough to the beginning that I don't feel terrible about it. Starting a game. It might be as simple as getting people together, finding a game, and going, but I want to take the time to consider a series of actions that can make your fledgling game a lot more fun for everyone.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Problem Players

This came up in the comments here, and it's one of those things that comes up a lot in any co-operative exercise, I think. What does a person do with someone who won't co-operate, or won't co-operate in a way that's useful for the group? It's not an easy question to answer, and I don't think it's possible to do it in one post, but I want to outline some of the best ways I've found to deal with the issues that crop up.

The first thing to mention though, is that I don't believe in problem players. I'm not even sure I believe in problems, which I discuss here and here. I do believe in problematic behaviours, but I'm even a little cagey about that. I'd mark a behaviour inefficient or non-constructive before problematic, because they're usually better labels. It's often a behaviour that isn't helping the person achieve their goals, and we can take that to be a problem, or to be an opportunity to help them achieve what they're really after. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and find that very few people who might seem like jerks think that they're being jerks. People do things for reasons, and if we can understand what some of those reasons are, we can help.

Monday, September 26, 2011

GM Style Overview

So over the last three weeks I've looked at three different styles of GMing, Linear, Semi-linear, and Sandbox. I thought it'd be good to do an overview and directly compare them. The real question, of course, is which one is best? And that's a complicated one to answer, because they're good for different things. I also want to try and illustrate what they're like a bit better by using example of video games which execute these styles particularly well. If you haven't played these games, I highly recommend them. So let's get right to it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sandbox GMing

The time has come for the third and last of my GMing style posts, and this one's a doozy. the first thing that I have to admit is that I'm a sandbox cheerleader. I like it, I like what it tries to do, and I think it does a pretty good job. However, I'm not going to let that distract me from the challenges that it presents to a GM who wants to pursue that style. I designed a sandbox setting about a year ago, and run two separate games in it at the moment, and have been for about eight months now. I've had to adjust some of the ways I think about the game and the players, and it's been an interesting experience to do so. That said, this is definitely the style I have the least experience with. This isn't a post about how to design a sandbox setting, just an analysis of the the strengths and weaknesses of the style. So, sandbox!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Semi-Linear GMing

Last week I took on linear GMing, which is a bit of a touchy topic for me, but this week I want to explore semi-linear GMing, which is a style I have a lot of experience with. I've run a number of semi-linear games over the past decade, though I'm finally making a try at turning that setting into a sandbox (and at developing a wiki, the results of which can be seen here). In general, I find that semi-linear is usually a good starting point, because it accords people more freedom than a linear style while maintaining a balanced workload for the GM.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Linear GMing

Something I've wanted to do for a while is explore the benefits and challenges of the three essential styles of GMing. Linear, semi-linear, and sandbox. To make my biases clear, I think sandbox is definitely the best, but each style certainly has its strengths and weaknesses. So here we go with linear GMing.

Monday, August 29, 2011

At My Table: We Vote on House Rules

At my table, we vote on the house rules (which can be found here, on our as yet sparse wiki)

I run two 3.5 edition D&D games, and I've been running one for about eight years now. The players and characters fluctuate, but I try my best to keep them going. I decided I wanted to use some house rules about two or three years ago, after learning more about how the mechanics fit together on various gaming forums, especially the Wizards Forums, Brilliant Gameologists, and the Gaming Den. Before that I was a little naive. I actually banned monks for being overpowered. It's okay. I got better.

I had experience with house rules in the past as a player, and they often went unannounced, were executive decisions by the GM, or took the form of extensive "Patch kits", sometimes in excess of thirty pages. So when I thought about making some, I resolved to try not to do any of that. I wanted them to be light (less than two pages); general, rather than tweaks to specific classes or abilities; and community supported. My general policy is that things aren't a problem until they're a problem, which saves me a lot of time not putting out fires that haven't been lit yet. And realistically, if I couldn't present a clear enough case for why these house rules would make the game more fun, then we didn't need them. While doing that, I learned a lot about the benefits of establishing them democratically, and about a few of the challenges involved.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Ideal GM: System Mastery

It's a bit of a loaded term, but one of the qualities of the ideal GM is complete knowledge of the rules of whatever game she happens to be running. Obviously, the best we, as mere mortals can hope for is an extensive knowledge of the rules, but it's still worthwhile for a number of reasons. Knowledge of the rules helps us design adventures and settings which are consistent with the ruleset, and the more we know, the faster and more efficiently we can do it. This consistency can be one of the cornerstones of our credibility, which allows us to act in secret without the worry that we're not playing the same game as everyone else in the group. However, what's interesting about the ideal GM on this subject is that she goes above and beyond this, using her system mastery in other ways in order to make the game more fun.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

GMing Goals

After some delay, I decided to make my first real post about GMing goals. It's a lot of work, but what's it for, when you really get down to it? I want to explore the overarching goal, some smaller goals which contribute to it, and how to attain them.

The Big Goal: Run a game where everyone is able to have fun. 

Of course. It doesn't matter whether you're playing D&D, Spirit of the Century, Descent, or even Vampire, the end goal ought to be a game where everyone is able to have fun. A game where everyone has fun is better, but it's not something you're in charge of. If Tammy's dog got run over last week, and she's still broken up about it, she might not have fun no matter what you do, and attempts to get her to have fun could result in less fun overall.

So what goals are going to help create a game where everyone can have fun? A lot, but here are the ones which seem most important.

  • Create a vital setting
  • Cultivate a vibrant style
  • Create a safe space
  • Treat players with respect

Create a Vital Setting
Why? A setting that seems alive, with events happening all around, as well as with the player characters gives players more options. The idea that things are happening off-camera helps create an immersive world, and immersion increases people's ability to have fun. 

How? A sandbox GMing style works well for this, with pre-established chains of events that the PCs can influence by interacting with them. Creating a rumour mill or toown crier network throughout the setting will allow PCs to hear of events going on in distant lands, which may prompt them to go there. Semilinear styles can work for this as well, allowing you an avenue with which to pitch adventures to the party. 

Cultivate a Vibrant Style
Why? An adaptive style with good descriptions of scenes is going to speed up play and keep people involved. Short, visceral descriptions allow people to ask more questions, and you won't run the risk of them getting bored. Boredom is the fun-killer. It is the little death that brings total distraction. 

How? There's an old saying, "Show, don't tell". All players have to rely on for what the world looks like are their imaginations and your description. You're not in charge of the former, so make the latter as good as possible. And better does not mean longer. Use visceral terms, or common sympathetic elements (I could do a dozen posts about those). Write down little snatches of descriptions you might use, and give yourself a word limit for them. Or practice by stopping periodically throughout your day, looking around you, and just describing what's going on in as interesting a way as possible. 

Create a Safe Space
Why? This is second only to treating players with respect. Roleplaying games are about theatre and escapism as much as math and mini combat. People are acting out, pretending to be things they're not, whether that's elves or villains. That's a big part of what makes it fun. But people are less inclined to do those things if they think they'll be judged negatively by their peers for doing it, whether that's by people outside the game thinking they're nerdy, or other players making value judgments about their character decisions. This isn't to say that criticism shouldn't be valued, but that it should be framed constructively, and the basis for it ought to be examined. If someone wants to play the villain, or do a bit of gender-bending, why shouldn't they? If you're playing Rifts, D&D, Mage, or Call of Cthulhu, you're already imagining things which are way stranger, and not batting an eye. 

How? Look to the needs of your players, and balance them with the logistics of the gaming group. If people are getting self-conscious about being nerdy, try to avoid playing in public places. If they love moving around and being wildly animated, try playing somewhere with a bit more space. Most importantly, try and cultivate a safe space within the gaming group by maintaining a positive and encouraging view on people's ideas, no matter how strange they seem. People who are comfortable will be more immersed in their characters, and thus more immersed in the game, which means they'll be able to have more fun. 

Treat Players With Respect
Why? This is without a doubt the most important one. Sure, there's a time and place for adversarial GMing, but if you're trying to have a character driven game (and you probably are, because if you're looking for the player-driven tactical game, you should all probably go play World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2, or even Risk. They'll supply those elements in spades) you need to respect your players' choices. Nothing kills someone's fun faster than the stonewall "It doesn't work" or the sense that their choices don't matter. Everybody's guilty of this now and again, and all you can really do is try and be conscious of it. Players are not your enemy. They are not whiny babies who want more points. They're people you sit around and cooperate with in order to have fun. If that's not the case, you might be playing the wrong kind of game. 

How? Lots of little ways. Follow the rules, for instance. Players rely on the rules to tell them what the world is like, so try and follow them as best as you can. Try and find ways for people to be able to do things, rather than ways that they can't. Burning Wheel is really good for this, establishing stakes before dice are rolled. Spirit of the Century as well, with its negotiation mechanics, allows people to examine what they want from an encounter and then everyone tries to find a way to reach it. View your players as shareholders, rather than adversaries. They have a stake in what you do, and you have a stake in what they do. That makes their considerations relevant, and if they know that you're behaving that way, it creates an atmosphere where they can have more fun. They'll trust you, and as long as you don't betray that trust, you can get a fair amount of leeway. 

These are just some of the minor goals that can help you achieve the major one, and I could really do a post on each one, but I wanted to start with an overview. 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Starting Point

I thought it would be best for a first post to define some of the terms I’ll be using a lot, so that my meaning is precise. I’ve left out more generic role-playing terms, like PC or NPC, because if you’ve made it this far, you probably already know that much.

-         Fun – Fun tends to be one of those words for which the definition is always a little loose. The first thing to note is that fun and good are not the same thing. Reading a trashy romance novel can be fun, but that doesn’t make it a good novel. It’s okay to have fun with diversions that aren’t good, but it’s usually easier to have fun while doing things which are. In all instances where I use the word fun in the context of gaming, what I mean is “The ability of the player to contribute meaningfully and make meaningful choices in all aspects of the game.”

-         Choice – But if that’s fun, then what counts as a choice? For our purposes, a choice must have consequences which are distinct from each other, and each of the consequences must be relevant. Choosing between two irrelevant options or between one irrelevant option and one obviously superior one aren’t choices in this sense, but rather calculations, a simple recognition of obvious superiority or indifference.

-         Meaningful – For a choice or contribution to be meaningful, its consequences have to have an effect on the situation, the setting, or both. It has to matter, or it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to be fun.

-         Min/max – An often reviled term, but one that will come up a lot, so let’s be absolutely clear on what I’m talking about. Min/maxing is the act of creating something within the rules that meets expectations, whether that’s a character, a trap, a dungeon, or a story. It’s a theory of decision-making which involves making decisions which minimize undesirable elements and maximize desirable ones.

-         Practical Optimization (PO) – This refers more specifically to character creation, and to the act of creating a character that is min/maxed for fun. A character which is optimized practically will be playable and useful in many situations.

-         Theoretical Optimization (TO) – This is the act of min/maxing a character which meets outrageous expectations, resulting in things like invulnerability, infinite abilities, or other manners of absurdity. These levels of power often compromise fun. The general rule for whether something is Theoretical or Practical is, if you would have any objections or reservations to GMing a game with the character in it, it’s theoretical.

-         Linear – A style of campaign often complained about, but often seen in early RPG video games, such as Final Fantasy. A linear campaign moves like a novel, from one plot point to another, regardless of the level of player participation.

-         Semi linear – A style of campaign which branches about, but stays around the same central theme or plot. Later RPG video games like Dragon Age have campaigns which are semi linear.

-         Sandbox – A style of campaign which does not have a plot of its own, rather telling a story about the actions of the PCs. MMORPGs are often examples of sandbox games, though the potential for complexity and richness in a tabletop role-playing environment is much greater.

-         Encounter – Any conflict or challenge which the PCs have the opportunity to overcome.

-         Adventure – A series of encounters.

-         Campaign – A series of adventures.

-         Good – Good is another one of those words which has a lot of definitions, so it will be best to define it here. A game element is good when it meets reasonable expectations. The more reasonable expectations it meets, the better it is.

-         Bad – Things which are bad then, will fail to meet reasonable expectations either through inadequacy or by actively working against them.

-         Reasonable Expectations – So what are reasonable expectations? Put simply, they are expectations for which strong arguments can be made. For example, it is reasonable to expect that a melee warrior archetype will perform well in melee. If it does not, then it is bad, because not only does it fail to meet reasonable expectations, but does so while claiming to meet the central expectation.

Hopefully these will be helpful in understanding why my assertions are what they are when it comes to design and theory, and how they fit together. Feel free to dispute any and all of these definitions, as I’m always looking for better ones.