The ideal gaming con II: Organizing games

How to actually form games, schedule them, publicize them, registered for them, and (when necessary) cancel or communicate further about them is a huge problem for a gaming con — probably the single biggest one.

When do games run?

One thing I don’t like about Con of the North is that events run until exactly the top of the hour, and start at exactly the top of the hour. That means that, if a game actually runs the full length of the session, players will either end up late to their next game, or have to have a blank block of time. If a game runs late (which, realistically, just sometimes happens), or if people just want to take a bathroom break or get something to eat between sessions, players can end up late to their next game. This means that exposition/character development/other beginning-of-the-game stuff also runs late, and the game may end up running later, and the cycle continues.

It would be nice if there was a way to have games end with a half-hour or fifteen minutes between one block and the next. But that’s difficult to do, because when you have some games that run an hour, others than run eight hours, and others that run everything in between. Games also run less than or over their slots. I guess if it’s just accepted that games will have to end 15/30/whatever minutes early, it could work, but it would feel like the reduction in gaming time for shorter games wouldn’t be proportional. I assume that the Con of the North people have thought about this problem and decided that having the blocks run until and from the top of the hour is the only way that works. At a small con, it’s possible to just, for example, set a morning slot and an afternoon slot each day and then leave plenty of time between them. But once you have a bunch of games, it gets harder to schedule them without conflicts.

What better methods are out there? I haven’t encountered any. What do you think?

When to hold the con?

Another kind of schedule conflict that is pretty basic, but still worth mentioning, is: trying to avoid conflicts with other cons and fannish activities. In the Twin Cities, that can be pretty difficult; there’s something going on almost every weekend. Here, though, it might be easier. Of course, avoiding conflicts requires knowing in advance what else is going on. And sometimes, WizardCon decides at the last minute that your weekend is a great time to hold one of their events, or whatever. Conflict isn’t perfectly avoidable at the best of times, but it’s good to minimize when you can.

Starting, getting into and leaving games

One continuing problem for gaming cons is event registration systems. You’ve probably heard the tales:

  • Running around a massive convention center or clicking madly on a website to register for a game you’ve been looking forward to for months, only to not get in.
  • Finding out that you got into none of the games you were hoping for in a given block.
  • Registering for a game and then looking forward to it for even more months, only to get to the con and discover that the game has been canceled.
  • Registering for a game and then looking forward to it for months, only to get to the actual game location and time before discovering that it’s been canceled — and now all the other games you would’ve gone to in that slot are full.
  • Showing up for your favorite game and discovering that your least favorite player is in it.
  • Finding out that your two favorite games are running opposite each other.
  • Finding out that no one has registered for the game you spent months preparing for, or that all the player slots were taken but no one actually shows up.
  • Not understanding that you need to be au courant with the latest edition, or that the game is going to have themes you’re uncomfortable with.

There are a million ways the registration process can go wrong.

Having run programming for a science fiction convention (though not a dedicated gaming convention), I have a lot of sympathy for the difficulties of creating a good game registration system. The whole process is something that, I’m sure, the Con of the North people have dealt with a lot. Their system uses physical, paper tickets for games. They’re graded into something like ‘primary’, ‘alternate’ and ‘probably-not’ classes. Each ticket has the name of the event, the location and time, the number of player slots, and various other information. In your registration packet, you get a letter-size print-off of whatever you sent in for your event preferences, and stapled to it is your own little pile of event tickets.

At the Con of the North registration desk, they have these pretty amazing peg-boards on which all the tickets for all the events hang during the con; at-con event registration consists of asking the folks for a given ticket, which they then find within its time-slot and either give you a ticket or tell you ‘sorry, all the tickets for that event are gone’. Importantly, the ticketing doesn’t cost anything extra, either before the con or at the con (except maybe for some of the minis events, I think). All games are included in the membership cost.

Really, it’s a pretty ingenious system, and it works amazing well, all considered. And really, given some of the horror stories I’ve heard about GenCon and other cons, CotN’s system works quite well.

But it does have its drawbacks. For one thing, if people have registered for a game but decide — early on, or at the last moment — that they don’t want to actually attend, there isn’t a lot of incentive to return their tickets to the registration desk. This means that other people who are interested in the game can’t officially get in; they might not even think to, or bother to, show up to the game and see if it really is full up. CotN has been encouraging people to return tickets for events they aren’t actually going to use, but not enough people bother. Having no breaks between schedule blocks also discourages returning tickets.

Bulletin board at Con of the North 2016Related to this, GMs and hosts don’t get clear information about registration for games they’re running. By default, no information is given about how many people have registered for games you’re going to run. That means that the game you spent months preparing for might end up with no players; this is a perverse incentive, because it has the effect of encouraging low prep and even sloppy GMing. (“Why should I bother to prep, since I don’t even know if the game is going to actually happen?”) CotN of course does state that GMs should prepare adequately for games they’re going to run, and I think even has an official complaint channel for players who discover that a GM didn’t do enough prep. But still, the lack of feedback about how many players have registered makes lower prep tempting. If you go to the registration board, you can ask them how many tickets have been pulled for a given event; but even knowing that doesn’t tell you how many people will actually show up (see the problems about not returning tickets for games you’re not actually going to), or which people. (And sometimes it can be good to know if everyone who has registered for your game is, say, already familiar with the system, or 18+, or whatever.) There is a moderately strong perverse incentive to register for a bunch of things simultaneously (such as registering for a two-hour game that overlaps with a four-hour game, just in case one or the other doesn’t pan out), which means GMs get false positives for interest levels.

Another related problem is that it’s hard to get information out about canceled games. If you wake up Sunday morning and discover that you have a horrible case of con crud and shouldn’t go to the Con, but you’re scheduled to run four games that day that are all fully registered, what should you do? And if you cancel, do you call the CotN people? At best, they might let the folks at the registration board know and add your game to the list of canceled games on the bulletin board; but not everyone checks those sources (and with zero break time between slots, they often don’t have time to). So it’s entirely possible for a full slate of players to show up to a game that has actually been canceled. This adds another layer to the perverse incentives to register for more than one game in a given slot, which results in something of a vicious circle.

Another big problem is that the paper ticket system doesn’t really allow for pick-up games. If, at Con of the North or any other con I’ve been to, you decide at midnight that you’d like to play a game of Zar or Moneyduck or Advanced Civilization or whatever, the only way to get it together is to run around and find people you know and try to cajole them into committing. In my experience, this often results in basically playing the same games as usual with the same people as usual. Often quite fun, but I also go to gaming cons to play games that I don’t usually get to play. And sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to feel like playing at the con several months in advance.

Cell phones make this whole process slightly easier — texting to the rescue — but it still means furious communicating back and forth, and not everyone has a cell phone, and sometimes connections get missed, or whatever. Cell phones make it easier, but not easy. CotN has some large standing whiteboards, on which people write impromptu games they’re running; but from what I’ve seen, this is not very systematized, and doesn’t work very well. Trying to get pick-up games started at most cons is an annoying process at best.

Alternatives

So, okay, the paper ticket system has problems. It’s got strong points, but are there better alternatives?

Specifically for pick-up games, I’ve long thought that there should be a portable system by which players can signal to other players that they’d like to join a particular game. Some kind of flag that players can set up to let others know that they have a space open, and some kind of flag that players can display to let others know that they’re interested in a given game. (Kind of a hankie system for games, I guess; but I won’t go further into that.)

I recently heard that some cons have implemented this, in a way. Rather than flags, they use balloons: if a table has a balloon floating above it, that group is looking for additional players. Maybe even multiple balloons for multiple players. I can’t imagine there are enough kinds of balloons to allow designating what system the table is playing — even if it’s a giant-size game of Catan, it may not be obvious what system the group is playing if you’re seeing the balloon(s) from across a crowded gaming hall. And while I suppose it might be possible to make a Blade & Crown balloon animal, it’s going to be hard to get across something like “GURPS 3rd edition” in that medium. So I think balloons are a great idea, and pretty easy to implement; but they still leave some problems unresolved.

I think what I’ve seen at Convergence in recent years might be a good alternative to work toward. They use Sched, which is a for-profit event planning software package. There are tons of other kinds of convention planning software out there, too, some open source and free of charge. Minicon has recently started using ProgDB for programming (brainstorming, schedule, etc.), and we used the Mnstf wiki for the same functions earlier. (I wouldn’t recommend Mediawiki for actual registration — I don’t even see how it could work — but it works great for keeping track of a long list of discrete data, such as a selection of programming items for an SF con or a listing of games for a gaming con.)

The Convergence system is pretty well integrated with smartphones. That means that — if you have a working smartphone with a working data connection — you can register for games on the fly. Heck, you can probably start games on the fly. It’s certainly easier to imagine success getting together that midnight game of El Grande or Risus via a registration website than via a physical bulletin board located in just one spot. And, from what I understand, with these kinds of computerized registration systems, you can quickly find out how many people are registered for a given game, and even find specific information about them. (“Available from 1am to 6am, really want to play an Ao-Ryuu game, but really, any Ryuutama is okay”). I think people can even leave private messages to explain why they’ve registered for a game, or left, or inquire about specifics.

The assumption that everyone has a cellphone that can interact with a registration system is of course problematic — for starters, not everyone can afford a smartphone. The assumption that everyone’s cellphone can currently interact with it is even more precarious (batteries fail, and so do websites). But maybe it’s getting to the point where computer access is widespread enough that the convenience of using an online registration system outweighs its inconveniences. Not having to run back and forth from a central registration site may make the con more accessible, for example.

I don’t know if computerized registration systems allow it, but clearly, it should be possible for them to allow freeform game descriptions. Not just what the content of the scenario will be — stuff like trigger warnings, system descriptions (“We will be using Blade & Crown with the optional healing rules” or “A homebrew I’ve been playtesting for a few years that uses Fate mechanics for aspects added to basic 4th edition GURPS Traveller for skills and equipment, with original Newtonian space combat rules” or whatever), specific parts of the social contract (“will use X-cards”, “must be comfortable with Monty Python jokes”), level of maturity required, etc. could all be given much fuller treatment if the games don’t have to fit within a tight character limit.

Of course, this could be abused, and excessive verbosity can be a problem in game descriptions as bad as excessive brevity. And it could be problematic if there’s no ongoing editing to check for unclear descriptions, incorrect locations, etc. It’s good to have some things standardized, when possible. But allowing for more freeform descriptions of games would overall be a good thing, I think.

Whatever system a con uses to organize games, it’s pretty clear that there are always going to be trade-offs. And for a con that’s just getting started, I bet that investing in some plywood and pegs and the time to put them together, and maybe buying some balloons, would be a lot more affordable than finding, installing and implementing a well-designed computerized registration system. Still, it’s good to be aware of what’s out there. It’s good to think of the con’s goals and how best to attain them within the resources at hand.

The ideal gaming con I: Size

The call for submissions to Con of the North has come and gone. For a long time, it has been my main gaming con. I like most things about it, but it has its little problems. And now it’s kind of a moot point, because it looks almost certain at this point that I’ll be on the other side of the planet when Con of the North happens. For that and other reasons, I’ve been thinking recently about starting a gaming con from scratch.

That naturally prompts the thought, what would I want such a con to be like? A realistic goal, of course, might just be “a bunch of people in a room for an afternoon or day, having fun gaming with each other”. But it’s also interesting to think about loftier goals. If I could organize an ideal gaming con, what would it be like?

So what is the right size?

The more I think about this, the more thoughts I have, and the longer this article gets. So I should break these up into chunks that are a better size. And that’s the first topic to talk about with gaming cons: size.

Convergence 2013 registration line

Luckily, Con of the North is not like this.

This is one thing I like a lot about Con of the North. The con gets a few hundred people every year, which feels just right. In the past few years, the hotel has also felt just about the right size.

I feel like there’s something of a minimum critical mass for a gaming con; smaller than that, and it can be hard to get a good variety of games going. (Small cons, like relaxacons or even just big game parties, can be great; but a big part of why I want to go to a con is to play things I ordinarily don’t get to, and if it’s just me and my friends playing the same games we usually play, it doesn’t feel like a gaming con per se.) Con of the North is comfortably above that minimum. The variety of games isn’t always perfect for my tastes, but I don’t think any con can offer everyone precisely the games they want. At a huge con that has everything,

Wait, there are five different HârnMaster games on Saturday night alone?

it always seems like there are other problems that get in the way.

Yes, but three of them are overlapping, they’re in four different hotels, and they all finish after the shuttle buses stop.

Importantly, Con of the North is also not too big. It fits very comfortably into one hotel, for example. Some games are a little hard to find, and some of the the current hotel fittings seem to be designed for summoning hounds of Tindalos. However, it’s all one complex. There’s no need to trek outdoors to get from one game to the next — an important consideration, in frigid February Minnesota conditions, but also just nice any time of year, anywhere. Everything is close enough together that you can peek into the LAN room on your way to the dealers’ room, or check out the minis on display while heading to your group’s theme room. Some cons in the Twin Cities are near to bursting their buildings. Luckily, Con of the North is not one of those.

It seems that an assumption for attending a lot of the big gaming and other conventions is that either a) getting from one activity to the next will require sweating and walking long distances, or b) you will basically just camp out in one area (dealers, restaurant, the Settlers of Catan suite, whatever) and not leave it for most of a day. Not only for GMs or minis gamers or completists or whoever else with a lot of stuff to schlep, but also for people with mobility difficulties, and just tight schedules, having a con spread out across a huge complex makes big parts of it un-fun or downright inaccessible.

There are a lot of other considerations about the venue, but I’ll leave that for a later post.

Social combat and Cartesian dualism

I’ve only played a few games that included dedicated social combat mechanics. And I’ve played even fewer that had social combat mechanics that actually seemed to work in play. Even when the mechanics made sense in themselves, the actual play irked me somehow.

There’s been a lot of theorizing about why social combat mechanisms just don’t work for some people. I think I’ve had a small insight into the underlying problem with social combat for a lot of people.

Many of us tend to view our existence as people as being a mental force enshrouded in a material body. There are, of course, many different ideas (philosophical, religious or both) about what exactly that mental force is, what the material body consists of, and what the relationship between the two is. Whether that mental force is something ultimately above the physical realm, or dragged down by it, or simply an emergent state of that physicality, a lot of us have a tendency to our bodies and our minds as very separate things. Cartesian dualism, in other words.

I know I certainly have that tendency. If you have this view of existence, it’s easy to tend towards viewing your body as just something you’re in, while your mind is who you are.

Image of Golden Boddhisattva characterEspecially if you’re playing a character who’s physically very different from you, then it’s easy to feel a huge amount of distance between your in-character body and your actual mind. Put another way, it’s very easy to play a character with a body completely different from your real body. But, on the other hand, playing a character with a completely different mentality from your own can be difficult or impossible. As the authors of Hârnmaster once noted, it’s very difficult to play someone who is fundamentally smarter or less intelligent than you are. The body of my PC may be incredibly different from my own real body — heck, I once played a character whose body was a bunch of tiny, separately-propelled metal spheres, like a wandering pile of ball bearings — but the minds of my PCs are rarely so different from my own. While I may try to model a different personality somewhat, the possibilities of modeling a different body are vastly greater.

This seems intimately tied in with the tendency of so many RPG gamers to reject social combat mechanics. Physical combat is basically physical action — actions that are not only easier for some to envision than all the subtle nuances of social conflict, and also somehow easier to accept. Suffering a physical wound to a body that isn’t actually mine seems somehow not that hard to accept. The damage is to a body that isn’t actually mine.

But accepting damage to my character’s mind — whether in the form of suffering humiliation, or of being convinced of something against my will or better judgment — is that much closer to hurting my actual mind. I think much the way my character does, therefore I am hurt when my character’s mind is.

There are a lot of other issues involved with the ill-acceptance of social combat mechanics among so many gamers, certainly. Closely related to the mind-body dualism I’ve noted above is deprotagonization. Really, deprotagonization and mind-body dualism problems may just be two sides of the same coin. If the GM throws my character in a cell, that’s only physical danger; but if they start dictating to me how my character’s imprisonment has changed my thought patterns, the seat of control for my character is no longer my own.

Another big problem for social combat mechanics is the social contract. If we play a game with social combat mechanics, we have to agree, rather explicitly, that we’re going to allow our PCs’ heads to be messed with. And because the damage seems that much more real, and that much more personal, the damage our characters suffer from social combat has to feel equal, or at least fair, much more than it does with physical combat. If we all agree that our PCs can be (for example) gaslit, and then somehow only I suffer gaslighting, then it feels like I’ve been doubly gaslit. If we all agree that our characters can be enticed to fall in love with each other, but then only your character actually gets charmed to do so and I just wave it away as ‘well, my character would never do that’ — then the social contract has, I think, been quietly but deeply broken, and in a way that hurts more deeply than in my character just suffered more damage in physical combat.

There are also the ways that social combat in games doesn’t model actual social conflict well… Physical combat, for all its feints and tumbles and jabs, contains only a fraction of the back-stabbing, frenemy action, curiosity probes and wheels within wheels that true social conflict can have. It’s all too easy for an RPG’s social combat system to ring hollow. And for many of us nerdy folks, social interactions can be not just a minefield, but a multi-dimensional, constantly-evolving mine-nebula, that makes social combat mechanics seem like too complex a thing to ever try modeling in a game save by a roll or

So there are a lot of factors that contribute to many folks’ hostility to social combat mechanics. I’m sure there are others I haven’t listed here. But I think it’s a useful insight that a big chunk of it may be due to Cartesian dualism.

Pre-gen PCs 2: Kathalla the Theologian

This is another of the pre-gen characters from my Medieval Mountain Monastery Mystery scenario.

Kathalla is not from Morensia, the main culture where the adventure is set; instead, she’s from a nearby kingdom that is, arguably, more advanced than the main culture. However, she practices the religion of the main culture, so she’s a sort of minority within a minority within a minority. Like a lot of religious practicioners from enclaves, she knows the religion better than those who practice the religion in the comfort of a majority setting. The combination of being more religiously knowledgeable and in some ways more culturally sophisticated than the people she lives among, yet inextricably linked to their culture, has given her a wry sense of humor and a critical eye. People have had a great amount of fun with this character.

Kathalla the Theologian

Wringing more from rumors

One thing I’ve noticed from using rumors: players never want to treat them as just rumors. Instead, it feels like every scrap of information, no matter how small or large, demands immediate follow-up questions. Players often want to question whoever gave them the rumor for further information. That’s reasonable, really. If someone mentions to you in passing that they heard there’s going to be an attack on the town tonight, you don’t just wish them a good day and take your leave!

Sometimes the source has faded away...Also, those scraps of information are an example of things that get reified. Whatever gets mentioned in the game is what becomes important for that game, so it’s natural that an important-seeming sliver of information would be something the players would seize on as an opportunity, or at least as worth following up on.

But the thing is, information is often fragmentary. Sometimes, there really isn’t any more to a rumor. Sometimes, there are no leads to follow. Is it possible to make those interesting alleys meet satisfying dead ends? Here are some possibilities:

  1. “I was drunk when I heard it. Sorry.”
  2. “Oh, crap, I shouldn’t even have said that much. The boss has been on my case for talking too much to the customers. Sorry.”
  3. “I overheard it from someone else in the marketplace. They were a merchant with a funny accent. I think they’ve left town now, sorry.”
  4. “I think I heard it from my cousin. Or was it my aunt’s awful neighbor? I always get them confused. They’re both really quite horrible people. Let me tell you all the ways they’ve ignored my advice over the years…”
  5. “I heard it in the temple. You know, the one that echoes? I was trying to chant my prayers, so I didn’t pay attention to who said it or where.”
  6. “Yeah, I thought it was an odd thing for a thief to say, too. But I couldn’t argue, considering they were holding a knife on me at the time. I just glad I survived.”
  7. “No, no, Zadras has said enough. Zadras always bores everyone around with this nonsense. Zadras has gone too long without a good silence. Zadras will now be silent for a nice long time. Yes, silence. Silence is good for Zadras.”
  8. “Details? You want details? Everyone knows this. And no one knows any more. You might as well ask me why cats don’t bark, or why trees grow up instead of down.”
  9. “Someone whispered it to me while I was half-asleep. I’m pretty sure I heard them right, anyway.”
  10. “Sorry, I don’t even remember who I heard it from.”
  11. You didn’t actually hear the rumor — it was sloppily written on a scrap of parchment that you found on the street.
  12. The person you thought you heard say it has already vanished into the crowd.

Some of those, in and of themselves, suggest adventurous possibilities… Even if the rumor can’t be followed up on, maybe the reasons why it can’t be can lead in interesting directions.

New Traits for Blade & Crown: Happy

Another classic personality trait that makes a good Trait:

long-sword_1f300

You are generally happy. Most of the time, you enjoy yourself. You usually seem to have a smile on your face, and your expression matches your feelings.

Other people might take you less seriously, or believe you to be a fool. (People who are Sardonic or Serious, especially, might be prone to this.) You might respond inappropriately to distressing news or serious counsel.

But your bubbly demeanor can help forge deeper bonds of friendship, and help buoy yourself and others in times of crisis. It may make you hard to perturb, or to sadden.

Clickable Hârn map

Columbia Games, one of the two publishers of Hârn materials, has uploaded a clickable, Google Maps-style map of the island of Hârn. It includes a huge amount of information as pop-ups on the map.

I once got to see one of the amazing multi-layered PDFs of the island that they sell, with layers for languages, wind currents, historical borders, etc. This is not that. But that PDF was a thing they sold, and this link contains a really remarkable amount of information — nearly everything that’s in the original gazetteer, I think. Very worth checking out.

Reviewing campaign notes

Since the last time I collected my current Blade & Crown campaign notes into a PDF, they have (of course) only grown. I recently completed a re-read of them. It was very instructive, as well as fun.

Illustration of a bookThis time, I didn’t bother to reformat or typeset the document, so the PDF was 82 pages long. 82 pages! And that’s with very terse text. Again, it’s easy to imagine that writing it out in more descriptive prose could be a full novel, or series of novels.

As I was going, I kept another document of notes on it. I ended up creating a high-level summary of the general course of things. Which NPCs are doing what? What’s been happening off-stage as the PCs have been having all their adventures?

The summary document ended up being three pages long, again with pretty dense text. I feel like I need a summary of the summary!

But writing it up really got the creativity going. I easily came up with a list of a dozen ideas for future campaign events. Either threads that were already dangling and unresolved, or possible side-events that might find their way into the spotlight in interesting ways. Over the course of the campaign, I’ve often managed to find interesting third ways for events to go. These third ways often suggest interesting side-stories: “Wait, Baroness Sermae did it that way? When the obvious course of action would’ve been to do A, or at least B? She did C? Huh, there must be a story behind that…” Those back-stories automatically just naturally produce interesting game happenings.

A campaign that runs multiple years ends up laboring under a lot of history. But much of that labor is in the form of planting campaign seeds for future happenings.

A Hugo for Naomi!

I don’t talk too much about fiction here, and I don’t talk much about awards, either. But I have to mention this year’s Hugo for Best Short Story. The story that won was “Cat Pictures Please,” which might seem at first to be cute and light, but which is also about whether treating people according to the Golden Rule is possible, and several other quite deep ethical issues. It’s a great story. Go read it.

The author, Naomi Kritzer, is a friend of mine, and I’m incredibly happy that she is getting this much-deserved attention and praise. Check out her other short fiction, her novels, and her nonfiction writing.

Finding third ways

Joss Whedon has had a lot of influence on geeky storytelling, I think. Not just with his particular cleverness with dialogue, or in his original (though in their own way trope-laden) characterizations. The way I’m thinking of is in how he finds interesting, genuinely surprising, but yet somehow logical, directions for stories to go.

It’s hard to give a concise example of how he does this with plot, so I’m going to use this famous line of dialogue to illustrate it instead:

My days of taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle.Mal Reynolds, Firefly

The quotes illustrates nicely how Whedon finds original, surprising, yet logical ways of doing things. The first way this line could’ve gone — the obvious way — would be for Mal to say “…are coming to an end”. That is the standard way that the idiom runs, and you’ve probably heard close variations on it thousands of times.

A protractorA lot of writers would turn the idiom on its head, in an almost-predictably contradictory way, by having Mal instead say “…are just starting” or perhaps “…are coming to a beginning”. This kind of deliberate 180° contradiction is what I call the second way. For almost any situation, if there’s an obvious way it could go, there’s a directly contradictory way it could go. The PCs are expecting an ambush from the left-hand corridor, so the ambush comes from… the right-side corridor! Ha-hah! The players logically surmised that the monster was susceptible to fire, and the mage prepared Fireball, so it turns out to be a monster that’s immune to fire! Ha-hah!

The problem with the second way is that it often feels somewhat reactionary. The line of thought seems to be, ‘Whatever the players are expecting, give them the exact opposite!’ I think I’ve seen this happen in games, and while it can surprising in its way, it also seems to breed some resentment in the players. If you feel that, whatever you predict, you’ll get the opposite, then it’s easy to feel like your efforts to suss things out are not only wasted, but unfairly turned against you.

This is why it’s important to try instead for a third way. A third way should lie somewhere between the obvious and its exact opposite. It should pretty much make sense, but in a still surprising way.

It’s important that the third way is not something totally wacky or pointlessly bizarre. If Mal had said “…are coming to a very thin, flightless point”, no one would’ve found it clever; we’d have just found it uncomfortably weird or poorly written. (And indeed, many scriptwriters who try to imitate Whedon’s style end up coming off this way). Clever lines, and clever plots, find a way to almost reward the players for speculating on where things are, yet still finding a way to surprise and even delight them.

If the first way is 0° and the second is 180°, then the third way usually lies somewhere in between them on protractor. The ambush comes not from the left or right, but from above (“They’re in the ceiling!”). The monster is susceptible to fire, but only because it is riddled with a disease that relies on making its host die in flames to spread to its next host.

Of course, the trick with finding a third way is that it takes more thought than either the first way or the second. But once you get into practice, you can easily think of alternate, interesting-yet-logical ways of handling most situations. It’s not always easy to come up with third ways, and indeed getting good at it can just lead to falling into wholly different ruts. Nonetheless, aiming for a third way, in my experience, makes gaming richer and more fun for all concerned.