For the record

Over at the Everwayan, John has been doing occasional updates on our Blade & Crown game. He gave a very nice illustration of Eric Stoltz as his character Red. For the record, here’s Meg Ryan as my character, Sirene:

Meg Ryan as Sirene the crusader

Meg Ryan as Sirene the crusader

Add medieval travelers’ clothes and a warhammer and that’s pretty much what she looks like.

Luck point economies: the lesson from money

I like games that use hero/fate/plot/benny/luck points. These points work differently in different games, of course, but they generally tend towards giving the players small amounts of narrative control as a reward for doing cool things. In some game sessions, though, hardly any players get or use luck points (I’ll generically call them luck points from here). Why does that happen?

There’s a very useful parallel with economics here. Luck points act like money in a game where they’re exchanged between players and GM. Money is ideally supposed to accrue to people who do things that society deems beneficial to society as a whole. And, much like luck points, money can distort the system and malfunction in a number of ways.

Photo of coins sitting in and next to a metal cupThere’s currently about US$829 billion in circulation. What if, though, the government reduced the currency supply to 829 single-dollar bills? What would happen? The bills would skyrocket in value — it’d be foolhardy to use one in a vending machine, for example — and people would quickly shift to other currencies for most exchanges. Maybe we’d all be doing our daily commerce using bottlecaps, for example, or barter. And if the money all accumulates in one place (banks, or people’s mattresses, or wherever) and doesn’t flow easily through the economy, then the money isn’t really doing much good. If everyone acts like the money is too precious to actually use, then it’s not doing what it should. So, first point: currency needs to be in large enough supply for it to be of any use.

Second point: the value of the currency needs to map ‘correctly’ to the items it describes. When the government pays its workers 100,000 lupins a year, but a cup of coffee costs 1 million lupins, then the currency isn’t very useful and again people will probably turn to some other means of exchange.

What lessons are there here for luck point economies? First, there have to be enough luck points in circulation. If an entire game session only includes (say) one opportunity to use a luck point, or one opportunity to get a luck point, then players won’t use them. Luck points will have failed in their mission of encouraging certain kinds of behavior, because no one feels encouraged to do anything by a currency that doesn’t get used.

Second, luck points need to map accurately to what they do. If, for example, getting a luck point requires rolling a perfect `100′ in a D100-based game, or requires making everyone at the table fall out of their chairs laughing, but the only benefit it gives you is a +1 on the D100, then no one’s going to bother.

How do we encourage more active exchange and accurate mapping of luck points? I’ll explore that more in a later post.

Worldbuilding ain’t bad

3D rendering of Petit-Terre

A built world.

Every time I’ve been to WisCon, I think, I’ve been to the “Let’s Build a World” panel. In it, the panel and the audience build a very well-functioning and detailed world from first principles, all within an hour. (Those first principles might be “cephalopods are the dominant species”, “cats as money” or “floating islands”.) It’s always very entertaining, seeing where all the different requirements and assumptions lead. My favorite part is when, about 45 minutes in, everyone in the room realizes that we’ve created a pretty dang well-rounded world, complete with internal logic, mysteries, schisms, happy coincidences and bizarre yet believable ways of being. But almost every time, towards the end of the hour, someone will say, “Now we need some characters and a plot.” For me, that almost ruins it.

There’s an attitude that worldbuilding is only a worthwhile goal if it serves plot. I have heard this argument, or variants on it, so many times that I can’t even pin down all the examples. At Convergence 2012, a panelist in the “Maps & Literature” panel said, “Don’t waste brain space on things that you don’t need for the plot”, for example. At Minicon that same year, I was on the “Building a World with History” panel and some of my fellow panelists gave the warning not to descend too far into worldbuilding at the expense of plot, which caused me to give a mini-version of this rant that you’re reading. It’s common to get advice on RPG forums that the only worldbuilding a GM should do is what gets used in the game, and that anything more is pointless. A search for “too much worldbuilding” will turn up dozens of examples, most stating that there is such a thing as too much.

The argument seems to go that the only purpose of worldbuilding must be to serve plot (whether prose fiction, RPG adventures, or whatever). Any part of worldbuilding that doesn’t directly contribute to plot is wasted effort, and we can’t have any wasted effort. Anything that is fun in and of itself, without producing real work, is frivolous.

Now, I’ll admit that there is such a thing as too much worldbuilding. If you have a novel due to the publisher in two days and you’re still working out religious conflicts that occurred 300 years before your novel is set, that’s probably a time when worldbuilding should stop. If you’re in the middle of an RPG combat, you probably shouldn’t be detailing architectural styles for a country the PCs have never been near. There certainly are times and places for worldbuilding, and when you’re on a schedule, it’s something that has to be balanced against the other demands on your time. Like anything, there can be too much of a good thing with worldbuilding.

But too many people take the argument to the extreme, making the argument that a world cannot be enjoyable by itself, if it doesn’t get used in some form of plot (prose fiction, gaming or whatever). Some people in the “Let’s Build a World” panels at WisCon, for example, seemed to indicate that if there’s no plot, all the worldbuilding we’d done was pointless time-wasting. That it’s impossible, or worthy of ridicule, to enjoy worldbuilding on its own. This, in a panel explicitly about worldbuilding, and equally explicitly not requiring any particular plot to come out of it. The panels were supposed to be about the pure pleasure of worldbuilding, with no intention of making something that would even last beyond the panel, yet people still felt the need to assert the primacy of plot. And gamers often argue the same with RPGs, namely, that any time the GM spends on worldbuilding is only useful if the players benefit from it; any time beyond that is wasted effort, or worse, self-indulgent frippery.

In case it’s not obvious, I believe that worldbuilding in itself is worthy. If you enjoy worldbuilding, and there are no requirements that your worldbuilding serve plot any time soon, why not just enjoy it? There are, in fact, plenty of examples of very successful pure worldbuilding out there: Karen Wynn Fonstad’s books, SimCity, the Encyclopedia of Dune, the Dictionary of Imaginary Places and many more. Heck, most RPG setting materials count as pure exposition without plot, and as I will explore in later posts, I find reading setting materials to be fun in itself, even if you’re never going to use those materials directly in play. RPG setting materials sell well in part because people enjoy pure worldbuilding without plot. (The hard part is admitting that we enjoy it, and accepting that that’s okay. Again, that’s a topic for a later post.)

There is also no reason a created world has to be for the consumption of others. It’s perfectly fine to create a world that resides on your computer, or in piles of notebooks, or whatever, and never gets viewed by another person. If it’s fun for you, why not do it? As long as you aren’t sinking so much time and money into it that it’s hurting your life, there’s nothing wrong with it. Heck, if building a world just takes a bunch of notebooks and a library card, it can be one of the cheapest and most stimulating hobbies around!

There are lots of exceptions. If the goal of your worldbuilding is to make money, of course, then that’s different. If you need to come up with a publishable picture book, wiki, RPG manual or whatever, then it needs to be comprehensible and presentable. And if it serves a particular plot (novel, narrative computer game, etc.), then yes, it needs to bend to those needs. And, of course, if you don’t actually enjoy worldbuilding, there’s no reason to do more than the minimum required. And if it’s background to an RPG, then it needs to take a form that your players can get use out of.

How well you present your worldbuilding is naturally an important factor here. Too many GMs subject their players to vast tracts of boring prose; and page after page of exposition, while the protagonist is hanging from a cliff, can ruin any novel. There are good ways of presenting worldbuilding, and there are bad ways, that is certainly true; and good exposition is a skill that can be developed. And, naturally, your audience will come to it with their own prejudices, so it’s important to know what methods of exposition work for the people you’re presenting to.

But the real stumbling block, I think, is exposition for reasons that are wrong in the first place. Too often, GMs force their players to wrestle with paragraph after paragraph of narration that is not only bland, but wholly irrelevant to the PCs. This goes wrong in two ways, as I see it: a) the GM has guilt that, if they don’t jam all the material down the players’ throats, then their development effort has been a dissipatory waste; and b) the GM assuming that the players’ enjoyment of all this material will equal their own. It’s the GM equivalent of “let me show you my character”.

If, instead, GMs understood that a) it’s okay to have setting material that the players never encounter, and that b) it’s okay to enjoy the worldbuilding in and of itself, without having to tell all of it to the players, I think players would get exposed to a lot less unnecessary exposition. And we could all get a lot more guilt-free enjoyment out of worldbuilding.

I’ve published this article elsewhere in slightly different form.

Encounters: The Tea-Seller

In the marketplace, or sometimes in other areas of town, there’s a man of indeterminate age who carries a great wooden box on his back. When someone asks him what he sells, he will take the box down off his shoulders. Through a remarkable series of contortions, the box becomes a portable tea brewing stand. That’s what he sells: fresh, hot tea.

The box contains a small jar of hot coals, a few simple tea cups, a tea pot, a larger pot of cool, clear water, tea tools and a paper packet of tea. With the contents of the box, he makes a tea that tastes clean and light. Anyone who drinks it immediately feels refreshed.

The man sometimes has a few tea cakes. The cakes are also very light in taste; in fact, the taste is hard to describe. Different people will alternately describe it as sour or sweet, like flowers or like honey.

The man doesn’t always have tea cakes, and he sometimes refuses to sell them to particular people. In fact, it sometimes seems that the cakes are for specific people; he will almost forcefully offer one person a given cake, while giving another person no cakes at all.

The man himself has short, thinning hair, a scraggly beard and teeth that are slightly yellowed (no doubt from drinking so much tea). He is wiry and muscled and dresses plainly, or perhaps he is just poor. He usually speaks in short sentences, if at all. His prices are very reasonable. If someone is clearly in need of refreshment, he will charge nothing at all.


  1. The tea has almost magical properties. Anyone who drinks it experiences a rush of old, happy memories, then feels the energy of their youth. (In Blade & Crown terms, let any player whose character drinks the tea describe one of their PC’s happy memories; they may then refresh a Trait related to that memory.)
  2. As one PC drinks some of his tea, the man says something wistful: “Yes, the tea’s almost as good as I could make it.” If the PCs inquire, he’ll mutter something about perfectly pure water that he got in the mountains, and a water spirit who no longer loves him.
  3. Today’s tea is a strangely weak brew. If someone asks, the man just lowers his head and shakes it slowly: “Sorry.” If someone asks further, he’ll explain that his tea won’t work if people are angry. He will not elaborate.
  4. When someone asks for his magical tea, he replies “No, no tea today. You don’t need tea. You only need here, and now.” He then packs up his box and sits in silent contemplation of passerby.
  5. “My tea is good, yes. But no one can match the tea of the Old Mountain Woman…” He then relates the story of a woman who lived above a tea plantation for many years. She came to know every tea plant by name, and would not pluck leaves; instead, once a year, she asked each plant to give her its single best leaf, and because she asked so nicely, they gave it to her. Until an evil man learned of her powers. He took her to each plant and ordered her to collect the best tea, which he sold to buy himself a palace. Next, he forced her to give him the second-best leaves, which he sold and used to buy himself an army. Eventually, he had conquered most of the world, and each plant had only a single leaf left. He ordered her to collect the remaining leaves; as she did so, with each leaf, one of his prized possessions was destroyed. Eventually, as she plucked the last leaf, she died and he was left with nothing more than a bit of moderately good tea. Tea almost exactly like the tea-seller sells, in fact.
  6. After the PCs drink some of his delicious tea, a well-dressed person comes up and accuses the tea-seller of peddling illegal, noxious beverages, and of making the tea wrong, to boot.
  7. The PCs notice that the tea cups nest perfectly within each other, and when you do so, a strange concentric pattern becomes visible. The outlines remind one PC of a shape their mother would sometimes draw in the air when they were little.
  8. After making a last pot of tea, the old man takes out a handful of tea and sprinkles it over himself with a grave look on his face. “For protection,” he says.
  9. The man gives one PC a tea cake, saying “Don’t eat it now. Wait til later.” When the PC later bites into it (it has a light citrus taste), they discover a note baked into the cake.
  10. Only a great prestidigitator can even begin to understand the permutations of his tea box. It always seems to open a different way, even when he’s removing the same objects from it. Perhaps he has a secret compartment or two that contain his stash of really good tea.
  11. He is able to tell fortunes with the tea, but strangely, he says almost nothing when he does so. Instead, the person drinking the tea will suddenly feel the urge to say something; if they say it, it will come true.
  12. The tea seller is usually somewhere in the marketplace, but not always. A mage believes he is slowly tracing a mystic figure across the city. To what purpose?

Gaming on the cheap?

Fairly often, people will complain that RPGs are getting more expensive. That it’s impossible to keep up. That we can no longer afford this hobby.

It’s certainly possible to spend a lot on RPGs. If you buy all the new hardcover books, it’s easy to spend thousands of dollars a month. Even if you only collect a few game lines, it’s easy to spend a bundle. If you consider it a prerequisite to own a sizeable portion of the published material for D&D, GURPS, HârnMaster or whatever else before you consider them useful, that’s going to be a huge expense. And it’s easy to spend huge sums on dice, miniatures, battlemats, laptops, projectors, etc.

But then, there are hobbies that are much more expensive. I’m also into astronomy, and while it’s possible to do a lot with just your naked eyes and free star charts, doing much serious observing quickly requires hundreds of dollars’ expense at a minimum. Want to do really nice astrophotos? Expect to spend probably at least US$10,000, if not US$100,000.

Costs in RPGs don’t ramp up that quickly, and it’s possible to do a lot without spending anything at all. There are some really terrific, completely free games out there, like Risus, Danger Patrol and Old School Hack. Even if you want to stick with D&D, there are lots of retroclones that are free, such as Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardy and Dark Dungeons. Many of these and other free games can easily be run with materials you already have lying around the house: the dice from that Yahtzee game you’ve never used, scratch paper, your computer that you’d already use, three-ring binders you get for free from work, free internet resources, etc. And of course it’s possible to create our own games for nothing, and to create our own adventures for nothing, just the time invested. It’s possible to spend almost nothing and have hundreds of hours of fun.

Most people know all this, right? So where does the complaining come from? I can see several sources:

  • Comparing costs now to costs decades ago, without adjusting for inflation. Yes, in 1980 a boxed set of D&D may have only cost around US$10, but in 1980, the median income in the US was also only around US$20,000. Now, that basic set costs around US$20, and median income is around US$50,000. These days, a can of pop in the FLGS costs at least US$1.00; I remember it costing only US$0.50 when I was a teenager. Though the absolute numbers have gone up significantly, the relative costs of RPG products have generally kept pace with incomes.
  • Print quality has gone up, generally speaking: lots of RPGs are published now with full-color printing, glorious art and glossy pages. As quality has gone up, though, gamers’ expectations have gone up considerably. I think we’re demanding more from our games, these days, and as a result publishers are having to set prices for deluxe versions higher. Some aspects of printing quality have gone down (cracked bindings seem a lot more common now than they did two decades ago, for example), which I think has led people to complain more than they used to about value for money. How many of us would really accept B&W-only games in exchange for never again having a book with a broken spine? I’m guessing the number is rather low.
  • The poor economy has reduced almost everyone’s discretionary spending. It also seems (from purely anecdotal experience) that gamers skew less wealthy than (say)people who are into astrophotography, so as income distribution has gotten worse, we’ve also felt the pinch more.
  • As we’re all getting busier and busier (or at least it seems we are), we have less time for developing our own gaming materials. As a result, I think, gamers are buying more and more pre-packaged setting and adventure materials, and that requires more money.
  • Another effect of people being busier is that, I think, more and more people have no time to actually game. I think a significant portion of the people who buy games do so without much hope or intent of actually playing them; a lot of us seem resigned to never getting a group together again, and we console ourselves with ‘merely’ reading RPG materials. (I’ll discuss why I think reading RPG materials is nothing to be ashamed of in a later post.) And if RPGs can only give you enjoyment when you can buy more of them, that’s going to be a net increase in the cost of RPGs for you.

What other reasons can you think of?

So I guess I’ve convinced myself (and perhaps you) that there are some really good reasons to complain about the price of RPGs. But it’s still equally possible to enjoy them with nearly no expense.

Con of the North event registration open

Con of the North is the Twin Cities’ biggest, best gaming convention. Next year’s CotN will be Presidents’ Day Weekend, Feb. 15-17, 2013.

Event registration has recently gone live. I just sent in mine.

I was surprised by the number of indie RPGs being run, and not just by the House of Indie Games (which I help with). There are some pretty nifty games on offer. If you’re going to be in the area, consider registering; CotN is a huge amount of fun in a 60-hour package. And if you’re going to go, what are you registering for?

In praise of Patrons

Supplement 6: 76 Patrons

Traveller RPG Supplement 6:
76 Patrons

One of my favorite GM aids is from the black book version of the Traveller RPG. It is Supplement 6: 76 Patrons.

It presents 76 different patron encounters, each with a variety of different possible twists. The patrons are organized by number of players — there’s even a section for single-player scenarios — and many assume that the PCs have a starship.

Each patron is essentially an adventure seed, with minimal background or direction given to the GM. Some imply a fair amount of additional work: maps, NPC stats, detailing further webs of relationships, etc. But others could probably be dropped into any appropriate session with no prep by the GM, especially if you’re good at improvising details.

17. Merchant

The players are contacted by Tristam Shabie, a merchant who seeks a group of trustworthy people to act as a bodyguard while he makes a tour of the subsector…

76 Patrons, p. 17

The supplement isn’t without problems. Most seem to assume that the PCs are of the amoral wandering thug type. (In fantasy, this is sometimes termed the “murderhobo”; the equivalent for SF settings, as I’ve heard it, is the “space asshole”.) That’s clearly not suited to every group; if your group isn’t going to be up for random jobs from mysterious strangers in a starport, you’re not going to get much out of this supplement. And too many of the missions are of the “break into X and steal Y” type. There isn’t very much variety there.

Also, the ratio of men patrons to women patrons is annoyingly high. On a quick count, I found only 10 patrons who are women, vs. about 36 that are identified as men (with the rest either being groups or ambiguous). And one man is described as “effete”. I prefer more gender equality in my games.

Each patron is presented with a matrix of possible complications. It’s intended that the GM will roll for complications on 1D6. Most of the time, a result of 1 means that all is as presented: the patron has told the truth, the reward is as promised, the mission goes as planned. Other rolls will give different results: the patron has lied about who they really are, or the opposition is stronger than expected, or the stakes are generally higher than planned, or whatever.

These complications are where the supplement’s real promise shows through, I think. The idea that a single encounter could turn out in such radically different ways was pretty mind-blowing for me when I first read it, in the early 80s. The idea of having a branching tree of semi-planned, interesting complications for each encounter was a big deal. I’ve tended to plan that way ever since: every encounter I present my players with can go different ways, depending on what hooks they bite on and what they leave by the wayside.

A problem for the 76 Patrons complications is that they tend towards two extremes: either everything is as the patron said, and the mission goes by the numbers, or the patron has screwed the PCs over and the mission is far harder than they bargained for. While those two possibilities can be fun occasionally, I tend to think that encounters should each have a wide variety of possible complications, each of which is an interesting twist. And only a few should ever result in bland, by-the-book resolution or impossible odds.

But the overall concept of complications and patrons and encounter seeds is a good one. I love how each kernel of an idea can blossom into so many interesting paths. 76 Patrons is still a great inspiration to me.

With those considerations in mind, I plan to start an occasional series of encounters suitable for different genres, and with a variety of branching possibilities for each. Watch this space.

Ikea worldbuilding

At last WisCon, there were several great panels about worldbuilding. One, in particular, brought up the concept of using different standard blocks, like “elves who are immortal and hate dwarves”, “the monotheistic religion is on a crusade to destroy the other monotheistic religion”, or “space travel is through jump gates”. There are a lot of setting elements that we all recognize pretty quickly; they’re the elements where you can say “You know Babylon 5? Jump gates are like that” or “they’re pretty much the standard Tolkien elves” or “it’s kinda like medieval Christianity”.

Someone on the panel, I’m not sure who, termed this “Ikea worldbuilding”. I really like that turn of phrase. Like shopping at Ikea, there are a bunch of pretty standard furnishings that are available to everyone. Like Ikea furniture, it’s so common that you’re likely to see it in many different settings. “Oh, yeah, I recognize those elves, they’re the same ones as in the Forgotten Realms”, you might say.

And like Ikea furniture, this kind of worldbuilding can have a bad reputation. If your entire world is assembled out of Ikea world-blocks, more snobbish worldbuilders might look at it and say “Wow, how unoriginal”. And indeed, some of it will be unoriginal — but originality is not the be-all, end-all of worldbuilding.

In fact, like Ikea furniture, an important part of worldbuilding is allowing your audience (who, in an RPG, are most often your players) to come to grips with the setting quickly. If it takes active pondering before they can operate your fancy new chair, it’s arguable that the chair is a failure from a design standpoint. If everything is beautifully designed, totally original and yet thoroughly impossible to come to grips with, it’s not very useful as a world for gaming in. (Though it’s fine to appreciate it as a world in itself.)

A lot of people look down on Ikea furniture, but it’s successful for a reason. It’s cheap, it’s easy to assemble and it’s (mostly) achieved popularity because it works. It’s quickly understood and it’s pretty likely to work with the other elements you already have. When you’re building a world for RPGs, those are all useful elements to have. You don’t always have time to come up with completely new architectural styles, for example; it can be a lot easier to say “See these Moroccan houses? They look like that”. Ikea worldbuilding has its drawbacks, but it has some real advantages, too.

Miniatures and the Three-Body Problem

Keeping combat straight can be tricky. When everyone at the table agrees to keep things loose, it’s possible to forego maps and rely on oral description of what’s going on. And, of course, the system can help this; I can hardly imagine running a Ghostbusters combat using minis, for example. It would destroy the flavor of the game. If the game and the social contract allow for it, abstract combat can be much less of a headache.

In a more simulationist game, it can be more difficult, but still possible, to play without minis. My most recent session of Blade & Crown was a fight with a dozen or so combatants, PCs vs. bandits. We managed to run the whole thing abstractly, without resorting to a map. There were several moments where we nearly decided that abstract wasn’t working, but in the end, we managed to keep it fairly clear in all our heads.

The biggest need for minis, I think, comes from disagreements about who is where, and what they can do. And disagreements almost always seem to come from different people at the table having different conceptions of the topography. Not to say that anyone is willfully misconstruing anything; I think I’ve only encountered that a few times in my gaming. But when the GM says “There’s a lantern in the middle of the room”, some of the players may be thinking of a standing candelabra, while others may be thinking of a chandelier suitable for swinging from. Drawing a map can sort those kinds of problems out instantly.

They can also serve to muddle things further, but maps usually do more good than harm, in my experience. An important consideration is that different people process information differently. For some people, a map makes everything clear; for others, a purely oral description is best. But by relying on purely oral description, you’re limiting the modes of communication to just one, and whichever of the players process information visually are then likely to lose out on something.

Another reason for minis is what I’ve dubbed the Three-Body Problem of RPG combat. The original Three-Body Problem, of course, describes the difficulty of predicting the positions of three bodies acting on each other through gravity. In RPG combat, we’re talking about the problem of showing how three (or more) combatants change in relative position to each other.

Many games keep combat mapping abstract by using a linear graph. Agon, for example, and 3:16: Carnage amongst the Stars both do this, with variations. The trick is, though, what if someone wants to move perpendicular to the axis between other combatants? If, that is, Alice wants to move away from both Bob and Chris? A linear system can fall down when trying to represent this. And trying to represent sneaking around someone in a linear graph system can be a headache in itself. That’s the Three-Body Problem of RPGs.

The system used by Warhammer 3E is a nifty blend of abstract linear and explicit mapping. In it, you place counters for combatants on the table, and then place range markers between them. So, for example, if Alice wants to move away from both Bob and Chris, you place extra range markers between Alice and Bob, and between Alice and Chris. It seems to work well (though I haven’t had a chance to actually play it yet).

There’s a way to do this without buying Warhammer, of course; just use glass beads for range markers. Or, if you prefer, use dice. A D20 works nicely for this, as long as ranges aren’t too high. If the D20 sitting between Alice and Chris says “17”, then they’re 17 hexes apart. (Or feet. Or whatever.) And you could even use different-colored dice to indicate especially large ranges: “Red D20 = tens of yards, blue D20 = single yards”, for example.

The thing is, of course, once you get dozens of range markers or dice on the table, along with markers for all the combatants, it can almost be easier to just break out a map and minis. And then, the GM is more likely to describe that lantern clearly.