Saturday, 14 December 2013

Thauma and Louise

Forget about  Louise, today's post is all about Thauma! A sense of wonder and marvel that can arise during gameplay. Thauma is largely engendered by the GM-player relationship and somehow exists in a niche from which it will only emerge if the right conditions are met.

Experiencing Thauma in play and the desire to experience it again is a potent motivator. A recent post on reddit asked what readers want in a RPG blog. A common reply was actual play reports, often specifying that they want the rules interactions minimised. Why? Readers want to share the experience of the gameplay, they want to harvest the Thauma.

Considering that Thauma emerges from the group experience of play, can a designer encourage or enable it in the game itself? I think that the answer is `yes'. I also think that the answer is more complicated than that. Follow the link above and read more about Thauma at What Games Are. Check out the crosslinks on the Thauma page. If you agree that the answer is yes, tell me why?

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Words that ward the paths we tread

Roleplaying is verbal communication. Sure, you can have your maps, minis, diaramas, your sketches, screen shares and printouts. These are all vehicles that can only be animated verbally and translated into the theatre of the mind, the arena and destination for role playing.
So words are important. The words you use when you play and the words you use when you think about how you play.
I bring to your attention; the Glossary You can use it as a guide to help you find your way to the arena. Gathered and corralled by Tadhg Kelly, legendary video game designer and writer. Check it out and learn from the best.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Decisions< Emotional Attachment< Fun.

Yesterday's blog was inspired by this article. The writer, David Hom, finds that mobile game designers expect analytics to explain how to successfully monetise their game. They think Player behaviour will tell them how to get player buy in. He goes on to endorse his theory of emotional monetisation.
The argument stands for tabletop RPGs too. If you are designing content, designing a game or running one as the GM, how do you achieve Player buy-in? 
To quote from the article:
"You need to establish an emotional connection with your players through engaging gameplay and amazing design. By definition, games are series of decisions, designed to create emotional attachment and be fun. Art and science become a game when a developer constructs game mechanics that allows gamers to make their own decisions with skill, strength or luck."
This quote sets the course for my design work on Bandit Country. I look forward to revealing how I have subverted David's advice to achieve my own goals.  

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Is D&D the language of emotion?

One of the spectacular things about D&D is that it shifts people into a kind of emotional super-cruise. There have been Edition Wars, OSR resurgence, the Splintering of the Base. D&D has become a thing that demands an opinion or at least a stance before you can even approach it. It fields a cluttered orbit of clones, heartbreakers and offshoots so dense they often obscure the original heartland from sight. 
All this anger and emulation, factionalism, jealousy, brilliant insight and recurring humour. It speaks one thing to me.
All those stat blocks, setting guides, conversion notes and rules tweaks out there are like screwed up love letters in the school yard. And we keep writing them.

Class + Reward = Fun?

I have said before that the most interesting things that I read that influence how I Design are being written about video games, thus the name of this Blog.
Classifying player types was all the rage a few years ago and usually creeps into the GM advice section of games that haven't realised that it is pointlessly academic.
Except in the case of video games where monetarisation is the wicked drug that is luring good designers from their safe cubes and out into Indi-armageddon.
This article on Gamasutra is worth a read if you are having a hard time linking Players and Rewards in a way that results in a fun game.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Bandit Country: Design Sources

I am currently pursuing two strains of research to realise my design for Bandit Country.
I read the Guardian and New York Times for all things Snowden. The recent big reveal on the scale of SigInt surveillance is one of the boundaries within Bandit Country that the player characters must contend with. A radar if you like that they will want to stay below. 
I read Foreign Affairs because it is a great 'big picture, little footprint' window into the world of nation states. It also has great interviews with interesting people who have stood in the spotlight (and those who more interestingly, avoided it) such as Stanley McChrystal.
I read AllAfrica and Council on Foreign Relations: Africa for setting information. I want to set the initial AEO of Bandit Country in West Africa, a region on the fringe of the next emerging proxy wars.
Finally, I am reading about Operational Risk Management and systems of Project Management. This is fairly dry going but it is helping me shape up the core mechanics of the game. 
If you know of any sources that could help, please comment.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Before the Flood

QTE is now on the RPG Blog Alliance! I  enthusiastically await the flood of new readers. But seriously, welcome.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Slaying the Demon, Fleeing before the Storm

Did I complete NaGaDeMon?
Yes and no.
I wrote a game and played it.
The game is Bandit Country and it is incomplete. It is also very promising so I will not be posting it at this time.
Bandit Country is shaping up to be something special. I look forward to posting more about it and sharing how the QTE ethic has influenced my design and writing.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Bandit Country: Components, Tools and Apps.

Bandit Country includes four Components, the sections that encompass the rules of the game:
  • Character
  • Activity
  • Recruiting
  • Exposure
The Players and GM use two Tools, really just functions of a clock, for resolution, tension and plot development:
  • Stopwatch
  • Timer
The Players and GM can play Bandit Country with the following smartphone / tablet Apps:
  • Notepad
  • Clock
  • Maps
  • Search 

Monday, 18 November 2013

What is Bandit Country?

Bandit Country is the RPG of espionage and covert action for-hire. Players adopt the role of contractors in the shady world of freelance intelligence and special activities. Private enterprise, individuals and governments all have conflicting objectives and sometimes they need things done quickly, quietly and with minimal overhead. These stakeholders often operate complex systems of surveillance and digital intrusion but lack the `soft assets’, the human networks that are the ultimate enabler if the agency ever needs to directly interact `in country’. Your job is to identify a need and set up these networks and franchise them off or better yet, find a commission or patron who will provide tasking and a budget to match.

  • TIME. Time is always counting up and down. Everything that matters is measured by time. Stopwatch and countdown are important tools for resolution and plot progression.
  • REAL. These Stories could be real. A Risk economy will be a key component of play.
  • MOBILE. The game can be played using the apps on a smartphone. Maps, clock, search. The game will be easily played online so no `components’ required. How does this affect character representation?
  • HUMAN. BC is about the human angle. The big players have the sophisticated tools. The contractors have locality, the willingness to adopt risk and specific skill sets.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Busy Times

No posts over the previous few months but some significant successes to make up for it.
The Drakkeil campaign is going really well and I am learning (and remembering) more about the art of moderating and writing content for a game. You have to be your own editor and that is a difficult task if you don't want to slink about on trope crutches. Jeff has continued to refine 5x5 and it remains my goto game for genre emulation.
I decided to get serious about writing and sent in a sample to a line developer of a new game when I discovered an open call for submissions on This lead to a request to submit an idea for an adventure which I did and was then asked to write it up. I did that and after going through several lengthy iterations it is now with the editor. It has been a great learning opportunity and I look forward to being able to blog further about it.
After reading blogs for a long time I decided to actually look around the web and find roleplaying communities beyond the safe and familiar boundaries of I discovered /r/rpg  and shortly thereafter they hosted their inaugural Weekend RPG Jam competition which I am honored to say I won. I worked hard on my game Flower, I encourage you to check it out and let me know what you think. Over December I am going to teach myself Scribus or some similar layout alchemy and I will prettify and update Flower and release it to the wild. 
And my daughter just turned 8 weeks old.
Today I discovered National Game Design Month. Only 14 days to go but hey, I'm gonna economize, I'm gonna rework a game I have been romancing for years but never really wrote in any coherent form. In less than 2 weeks you will locate my secrets, turn my people and evade my security and while the big Agencies are feeling the political leash in this post Snowden age, the contractors are running wild in Bandit Country.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The scintillating gait of the Unicorn

I have been playing Robot Unicorn Attack 2. This game got me thinking about Drakkeil and 5x5 because it has a unique way of reinvigorating repetitive play. 
Every time you die you go back to the beginning and play through the same level. The kicker is that you are given challenges. Collect so many tears or dash so many stars to get points towards levelling up. Playing the same terrain feels different with new and evolving goals...
RPGs often reward the player for what they have done. By providing goals that give the player levelling agency (more hp, skills or whatever) the enticement becomes a goal in itself rather than a means to an end.
More on this soon.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013


My goal for this blog is to use it as a personal springboard for strip mining the smart thinking out of videogame design and cramming it wherever it will fit into tabletop RPGs. This kinda goes against the grain because most of the the blogging that I read about RPGs places little or no value on what video games can teach them.
This has escalated in recent times with my acceptance into the grand and hallowed profession of RPG freelancing and the unexpected start and success of my new campaign. 
The freelancing is something that I hope to write more about in the future. Suffice to say that it came to me largely due to the spontaneous intersection of dumb luck and stupendous bravery. Nonetheless, like a petty thief who finds himself running down a back-alley from the sound of whistles, grasping a gaudy and fragile jewell, I intend to keep running. 
My new Campaign is coming together so well it is writing itself. To this purpose I am going to start posting using it as the testbed and proving range for my video game thoughts. 

Thursday, 27 June 2013

There is no Quicksave for D&D next.

I had the recent great and unexpected fortune of having a friend ask me to run a game for him and his housemate. He had never roleplayed and the housemate had a long time ago. He wanted D&D so I grabbed the D&D NEXT playtest packet. I followed my own advice (or Bungie's to be more accurate) and worked up a quick setting with some interesting options. 
Come game day I had everything ready to go.
Then we sat down and it took over 2 hours to make characters. This was a really interesting experience because despite playing lots of MMORPGS and video games, neither of them had played D&D. I felt the horror mounting as we followed the printed instructions and trudged through the leviathan task of choosing and then creating a character for both of them. A process that might take 5 to 10 minutes with kewl music and graphics in a video game. Hours of page turning, chart referencing, figuring out the compromises resulting from earlier decisions and contextualizing all of this in terms of the game world I had created for them.
This was no fault of theirs, they are smart guys who happen to not know the rules for Dungeons and Dragons. I don't take any responsibility either, I read through the play package several times and made notes about the stuff that I expected to get caught up on. The real challenge is that there is a whole language of jargon associated with D&D and a massive base of assumed knowledge that you don't realize you require until you have two players who don't have access to either of these things. Sure, there are trainer wheels like using pregen characters and linear plots to get them on-track. But these guys are Adults and I didn't want to game down to them. I wanted to show them how cool D&D is for people who's common experience of gaming is in front of a monitor. 
Watching and trying to help these guys get a grasp of the game taught me a valuable lesson: D&D has completely failed new gamers. It is a relic of an age when there was no such thing as disposable multiplayer entertainment. The upfront time and knowledge investment is bizarre to the uninitiated. 
Finally we were done and went on to have a great time. As we played I found myself having to search up specific rules frequently and soon decided on the 10 second rule. If I couldn't locate a rule in short order I just made it up. And this had absolutely no impact on their expectations because they didn't know the rules either. The natural conclusion to that line of reasoning was: why bother using these rules at all? Do I need to be an educator, on sabbatical from D&D University to teach these new students? I didn't sign up for that, I want to have fun.
The game that we played that night used a d20 and hitpoints but it wasn't really D&D. And it was the most fun game of D&D I have ever played. My nostalgia for the D&D, massive rulebook, style of play foundered on the rocks of now. A now in which I am smarter, better educated and far busier and a now that is informed by a lifetime of gaming. Video and computer games have taught players that games do not need to be ponderous and that fun resides somewhere in the shadowed intersection of shared interaction, imagination and common tools. The complexity of the tools does not determine the quantity of fun.
So I sent them both an email today asking if they are willing to change over to Five by Five. Thankfully the answer was `we're both in it for the experience and not the mechanics' and that was endgame for D&D next.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Why? Because it's your...

Recently at GDC  the writer and art director for Destiny, the next big thing from Bungie, spoke about their approach to building the world, characters and opponents.

I have quite a library of RPG world building guides. In 50 minutes (forget the q&a at the end) this video rocketed to the most useful resource to date.

Breaking it Down
So you don't have a spare 50 minutes.

Start with a lofty, inclusive and ambitious GOAL
"Let's build a world where we can tell any great story we want. A place millions of people will want to visit again and again, for the next 10 years - and more."

Establish the PILLARS that will support this goal
  1. The world needs to be Hopeful and Inviting. Players have to want to spend time there.
  2. Idealised Reality. Grounded in the familiar but capable of accommodating any crazy / genre bending ideas that the devs want to include.
  3. Filled with mystery and adventure.Reasons to keep coming back.
  4. Players can become legends. The players can leave a mark.

Use images to develop and define your Pillars. Build a portfolio of images until you have an image or group of images that define each Pillar. These are your Postcards. Think of them as photographs taken within your world.
"They are rare and powerful because they set fire to your imagination. They ask a ton of important questions."
If your world is a collaborative effort or will be published, your Postcards are the most effective way of communicating the essential elements to your collaborators / artists.

Your Postcards will be an anchor for the themes / tropes you will express in your work. You can take enormous advantage of this. In the video they talk about Palette, it is a video game existing in the visual realm. Palette informs the player, preloading the essential consistencies of the world into their brains. Tabletop games inhabit the theater of the mind but Palette is still an effective device for building a style guide to your world. Even better, you can build regional style guides to differentiate your locations.
See these timestamps in the video for more:- 21:05 Palette and 30:55 for the Opponent Mood Board.

FOCUS - Shifting to Production
At this point you have defined your Goal and supported it via your Pillars and based it on a unifying Palette / regional style guide. You have a series of Postcards that communicate all of the above. This is your core World Bible.
If the words you write are a love letter to your world, these words are written on the back of your Postcards and sent to your audience.

33:00 "When you are building a new world you do not want to put arbitrary genre rules around what is possible and what is not possible. For a long time you need to make everything possible."
As you build this world, whether you use a  Big to Small or Small to Big methodology,   your Postcards and Style Guide will direct you. The above quote recedes in value as you proceed. You will have ideas that don't fit. Either trust that and save them for your next project or reconsider your Postcards.

My key goal in this post was to establish that video game development media has value for the tabletop roleplaying game writer/ user. I also felt compelled to use this video as a starter because it slammed some serious gold into my game development brain. Hopefully, while watching it, you heard the same `kachings' as I did.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

*R1* Pulsating

You are a slab of Northern Muscle.
Unrelenting like the glacier that grinds the mountain, Defiant like the mountain facing the gale, Merciless like the gale blasting the glacier.
You have carved your way through the cultists of Thoom, taking first those who invaded your village. You gained achievements. You crafted ever fiercer weapons. You liberated mountains of gold from cult vaults. Now you scale the basalt battlements of the Grand Temple of Thoom. Soon you will meet their Laughing God and hear their lament as you cast it down. Suddenly a hand darts out to grasp your wrist. Through the hidden port looms Jugular Dhoom, High Priest of Thoom. Laughing madly he shakes you loose from the dripping rock face. Dancing before your eyes; PRESS R1. Then, as you fumble to respond, he casts you loose. “NOOOOO” you bellow as you plummet to the hungry rocks. “I died to a QTE.”

A Quick Time Event is a scripted event in a digital game that requires a response from the player to progress and often results in character death if it is not completed. In my experience they are generally disliked. Despite this they are now a common tool in the digital adventure / action game design set. So what can a tabletop GM learn from QTEs?

QTEs are a really interesting point of differentiation between digital and tabletop games, which is why I named this blog after them. They are a triggered event, perfectly expressing the degree to which a digital game can railroad the player. While often used to draw the player back into the core plot, QTEs occupy the broadest divide between game mechanics and game immersion. They speak to the player, not the character, bravely shattering the fourth wall by telling the player what buttons to press, reminding them that they are sitting on a couch with a controller in their hand and it is 3am. A poorly executed QTE can be very jarring. It can interrupt your sense of fairness and disconnect your understanding of how your character is meshed into the game mechanics. It can also drive home the difference between the character that the game has written for you and the one you want to play.

We are on the verge of significant changes in the video game industry, the console cycle has lagged and while the big players have squeezed the final drops of performance out of the current hardware the smaller operators have gone mobile and spearheaded digital distribution. At the same time we are on the verge of significant changes in the tabletop roleplaying game industry, the traditional printing and distribution networks are evaporating. At the same time the smaller operators are moving into digital and print on demand distribution. There is an interesting tipping point or relocation of mass on the horizon.  

So why do I love the QTE? It highlights the difference between core assumptions made by digital and tabletop Game designers and by the folks who use their games. These games, the way we play them and how we access them and critically assess them is in a state of profound change.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Tap to START

So this is the Plan.
I think that console / mobile / PC games have a whole lot to teach tabletop roleplayers. I think that the typical approach stating that digital games are inherently inferior to tabletop games because they are by design content and context limited ignores all the other aspects that they share.
And if you are a person who is interested in improving how you tell stories / challenge your players / build or convey the elements of an epic and memorable campaign, here is the cherry: The digital gaming industry invests millions of dollars per year into researching the critical elements of player investment.
Why does a player buy a game? Why do they keep playing it? Why did they buy the DLC (Downloadable Content)? Why didn’t they buy the sequel game? A great deal of this reporting ends up online.
So this is the Plan. I am going to Mine through the reams of online media re: digital gaming to improve my pen and paper RPG Craft.
So what are you waiting for? Tap to Start.