Mar 17, 2019

The Rhythm of Procedure

I've been thinking about how to structure the rhythm and progression of the game lately, so my apologies for the scattered and incomplete character of some of these reflections. I think part of keeping a good pace going in the game involves careful management of the rhythm of procedures that constitute it.

There are, in my mind,  five basic types of procedures by which one can play the majority of any adventure game. These procedures are all loops - you iterate and reiterate them over and over again while the PCs do something, shifting between them based on which is the most appropriate for the PCs' current actions. I mainly want to talk about the first three in this post, since they're the ones that are the best defined and that vary the most from game to game.

Encounters (Combat, socialising, and some types of urgent problem solving)
Site Exploration (Marching around, mapping, searching areas, etc.)
Overland Travel (Travelling from hex to hex or landmark to landmark, searching hexes, etc.)
Recuperation (Spell recovery, healing, dealing with long term status effects, etc.)
Downtime / Projects (Pursuing personal projects, the domain game, creating magical items, etc.)

The turn, the round, and other abstract measures of time are all durations that exist to regulate the rhythm of the procedural loops that form gameplay. The actual time they measure (10 minutes, 6 seconds, whatever) is secondary to this more important function.

The value of rounds, turns, and watches is that each one allows you to synchronise all of the decisions, rolls, and consequences of a particular iteration of a procedure in a way that prevents the formation of a lot of asynchronous cycles that are demanding to track. I use the following rubric:

The round - One iteration of the encounter procedure
The turn - One iteration of the site exploration procedure
The watch - One iteration of the overland travel procedure

NB: The "watch" or "shift" is designed to serve the same function as the round and the turn do but for overland encounters. If you are running overland games, I suggest using it, pegged to either six or eight hours, depending on how often you want the PCs to have to make decisions while travelling.

The actual length of these units of time is strictly secondary to their value laying out the rhythm of play and its progression. That's why you can have a combat round be anywhere from six seconds to a minute without affecting play, but the moment one combat round doesn't represent a complete set of decisions, rolls and consequences, you get chaos.

For the purposes of game-play, the second, the minute and the hour as units of time are inferior to the round, turn, and watch because they lack any connection to a procedural loop. You can turn them into ersatz rounds and turns, pegging the durations of effects and procedures to them, but I think this tends to create procedural loops that are too short for the tasks we want them to handle - the second is too short for combat, the minute too short for dungeon exploration, the hour too short for wilderness exploration (or resting).

By too short, I mean that the ideal length of a loop is long enough to contain the decisions, the rolls, and the determination of their consequences within it. Having to remember decisions made more than one iteration of the loop previously tends to tax people's memories, and it destroys the effectiveness of the loop iterations as counters.

e.g In combat, you want to declare that you're going to hit someone, roll to hit, and then resolve the hit if it's successful. You don't want to declare one round that you're going to hit, wait another round to roll, and then a third round to resolve it.

People confuse having a common unit of time (an hour, say) with having a synchronised procedure, even though the opposite tends to be the case. Using this sort of actual time measurement (in particular, hours) encourages desynchronised cycles that test one's ability to keep track of them.

e.g I've played in many games where a task takes eight hours and another task takes six hours, and what ends up happening most of the time is that the referee just abstracts out to the scope of a full day, everyone counts up the rolls they need to make, and then they do them en masse (three for the first person, four for the second person, etc.).

If the rolls fail, then the referee has to back-calculate to when this failure occurred, and discuss what happens at that point with the player, and it just turns from a smooth forward progression of time into a more zig-zagging movement that jams up much more easily.

The more you can synchronise all of this procedurally, the easier it is to run. That synchronisation helps both you and the players keep track of the progress made during play.

Beyond this point, I have a few scattered reflections to tack on here at the end:

1) Historically, the turn as a unit of measurement has been deprecated as site exploration procedures have become less and less formalised, while the combat round, the clearest and most robust procedure in the game, tends to be the one people default to when the other procedures aren't as clearly laid out, both as designers and as players of the game. That's why when you're dungeon-crawling in lots of new school games, you do it round by round instead of turn by turn. The firmer your site exploration procedure is, the more you need something like the turn to handle it.

2) The reason "the encounter" as a duration in some new school games confuses lots of people is that it's neither a real unit of time nor a single loop of a procedure. Instead, it's the worst of both options - a unit of time without clear boundaries, both within the fictive world and within the procedures of the game itself. This illustrates for me what happens when you screw up the rhythm of the game (thinking of it as a series of encounters and rests suspended in a non-time of exploration or travel like lumps of marshmallow suspended in jello).

I would just allow a "per encounter" power to continuously remain in effect until the procedure type you're playing changes. So a power invoked during site exploration remains in effect until you shift to overland travel or dealing with some encounter, and so on. This sounds weird, but works well in my experience. I mostly avoid this problem by changing "per encounter" powers and the like to some other duration.

3) The recuperation procedure tends to iterate each day. You might want to append "The day - One iteration of the recuperation procedure" as a fourth statement above. I didn't because I have recuperation as an option during the overland travel procedure so it occurs each watch, but I think for most people it's a daily procedure.

Good questions for a referee to get straight in their own head are:

a) When in the day the recuperation happens (Do healing and spell recovery happen at dawn, midnight, etc.)?

b) When the wandering monster or other interruptions occur, do those happen before or after the recuperation?

One nice effect of linking it to watches was to eliminate the 15 minute adventuring day. Once you pick the watch action of "searching a site" you're committed for the next six hours and can't invoke the recuperation procedure until the next watch. Blame it on adrenaline, paranoia, and traumatic flashbacks - you're too keyed up to rest until enough time has gone by.

4) I think downtime's ideal unit is either the week, the month, or the season, and have seen all three used successfully. Seasons are good in games where the main downtime activity is domain management, months work well in games focused on expeditions or that require training to improve characters' powers, and weeks work well in games mostly driven by narrative urgency, where the PCs will almost never have a month or three in between the villains coming up with some plot.

Mar 5, 2019

Summarising Key Elements

One of the skills I have that makes me a good referee is a particular style in my games whereby I summarise and restate the most salient and relevant aspects of a problem or situation immediately before asking players to figure out a solution, and then I do this again several times throughout the problem-solving process that they engage in.

It's not particularly difficult or challenging or insightful to do so - as the referee I can reference, remember, generate, and / or adjudicate which elements or aspects of the problem are the ones that must be overcome in order for a solution to be acceptable. But it's also surprisingly uncommon for referees to do this. I don't think there's any good reason not to, so I assume it's mainly due to referees either forgetting about doing this or never having learnt this for some reason. Therefore, this post is a simple exhortation to remember to do this.

There are three additional techniques of restatement that I think can improve one's practice of doing this even if one already is. The first is simply to pair proposed solutions with the aspect of the problem they purport to resolve during the restatement. This demonstrates progression and prevents constant relitigation of things which the players have already developed a successful solution for. It also highlights when a purported solution is inadequate to the task.

I often grade these slightly, mentioning whether a proposed solution completely trivialises the aspect such that no roll or expenditure is required, or if it merely allows a roll or expenditure that would otherwise be impossible, or if it represents an opportunity for an ordinary roll or resource use.

The second is to prefer to present the aspects in a flat and clear way. Sometimes referees want to keep some aspects of the problem hidden until the player characters are part-way through the task. This can be done, but it has to be done accepting that it will cause the player characters to pause and deliberate mid-task, and it must be done in a way where there is one cannot simply stop the solution, return to the initial state, and then start over from scratch. If the latter is possible, then the referee has simply wasted everyone's time through their lack of foresight.

By contrast, presenting all obvious and even some inobvious elements of the problem during the initial framing of the problem, and then including them in restatements and summaries of the problem allows the players to accommodate them meaningfully in their planning. It also encourages avoiding wasting time where the players ask questions the referee knows are meaningless and irrelevant. These aren't always bad, but en masse across the course of a session, they represent lots of wasted time, indecision, and inaction.

The basis of the game is making decisions, and while being tricked and fooled can be interesting for players, a referee should employ them sparingly in ways that emphasise the quality of surprise instead of merely keeping them as a tedious valence of ordinary moments of play.

The third technique is to use the question answer-question pattern with summaries and restatements. Once again, this helps deliberation progress, by providing a way of refocusing consideration on remaining elements of the problem. Using questions like "What information do you need to make the decision here?" helps avoid players getting bogged down in irrelevant side-issues.

Anyhow, if you already do all of this regularly, know that as a player I appreciate it greatly when referees do it, and if you don't, I would suggest experimenting with these techniques and adopting them if you find them successful.

Feb 22, 2019

Overland Travel in Mythras

So I've been running overland travel in Mythras since back when it was still Mongoose Runequest II. I used to use a convoluted hexcrawling system that I ran off a cheat sheet I put together, but these days I've come around to running most overland travel in Mythras as pointcrawls.

In the Dawnlands, I use a songline system for pointcrawling, partially to show some love for the much-neglected Sing skill, but the system I'm going to lay out here is probably more useful to people using generic settings without songlines. The system I'm outlining is really a variation on the system for extended tasks laid out in this (free to download) expansion of the Mythras task rules, which I think is good enough that if there's ever a second edition of Mythras should become part of the core rules.

Basically, I think you should set up Mythras overland travel as an extended task where each extended task covers travelling from landmark to landmark. One PC should be appointed the expedition leader who makes the rolls (which are team rolls, effectively), but other PCs should be able to assist the expedition leader using teamwork to augment their skill rolls (Conveniently, I wrote some teamwork rules for Mythras a while ago).

The base difficulty of the rolls should be based on how easy to traverse and straightforward the path is. A road leading from one landmark to another should set base difficulty of easy while navigating trackless wastes from the peak of one massive sand dune to the peak of another sounds like herculean difficulty.

I also think that the extended task system for overland travel works best with a slight variation. Instead or rolling the same skill four times and determining the outcome based on that, breaking it up into four different skill rolls will make other PCs feel like they are meaningfully contributing, and encourage them to mix-up who is the expedition leader from time to time, instead of always relying on the one guy with Navigate 90% to lead them everywhere.

In particular, when no better ideas suggest themselves, I would recommend Navigate, Bureaucracy, Endurance, and Survival. Streetwise, Track, Seamanship, Boating, Ride, Stealth, or others might be appropriate as well depending on circumstances. Basically, think of the four biggest obstacles to overcome, find the appropriate skill for dealing with those obstacles, and make those the skills that are checked. The good thing about doing this is that whenever the PCs fail a roll, you'll know exactly what obstacle is slowing their progress down, instead of having to make stuff up off the cuff. Are they failing their Bureaucracy checks? Clearly, their camp is disorganised, and packing things away, getting everyone ready to go, making sure all the chores have been done properly, etc. takes forever.

The final result of the test tells you the pace of travel - 150% means you travel 150% your normal speed (The base for travel per page 69 of Mythras is 3 km/h for a normal marching pace or 5 km/h while riding horses). 25% means it takes you four times as long to get there. Survival rules in case you run out of food or encounter bad weather are on page 82.

I roll for random encounters on each leg (landmark to landmark) of the journey using an encounter grid, and I use my reaction roll system for weather for each leg as well (weather effects are on pg. 85 of Mythras). If these are too D&D-esque for you, in the past I have used a die drop map and you might prefer something like that to determine random encounters and terrain the PCs see around them.

I haven't playtested this system yet, but it's cobbled together out of bits that I have playtested previously, and I'm curious to see it at work in the Dawnlands campaign I hope to run later this year. If you give it a try before then, let me know how it goes for you.

Feb 5, 2019

Adventure Games: What I Meant When I Coined the Term

I coined using the term "adventure game" for roleplaying games in February 2012, and I've been using it since then consistently instead of "roleplaying game". There's been a recent discussion around the term started by Ben Milton, so I thought I might as well explain why I started using it in the first place.

I've summarised bits and pieces of my philosophy before on my blog. One doesn't have to read all of these, but they show variations and developments in my thought over the past seven years.

The Long Narrative
Roleplaying: Beyond Talking
The Basis of the Game Is Making Decisions
Anti-Narrativism
Running Technical Plots
Layers of the Sandbox
Low Concept Campaigns
Crappy Plotting

 I would say I first began thinking along these lines in 2008, when 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons came out and there was a sprawling online kerfuffle over "dissociated mechanics" at the same time as a concept known as "bleed" began to sweep LARPing circles. There was also a lot of debate around how "collaborative world building" and "collaborative storytelling" could be used to help referees give up the idea that they were writing an epic fantasy novel with the players as the railroaded protagonists. I don't know how successful this actually was (I still see questions regularly on Reddit about how to get the players to follow the amazing story the referee has come up with), but it was the context around when I began to think about what I used to call "anti-narrativism".

Anyhow, the four years from 2008-2012 not only had me reading a lot about these controversies, but it also saw the end of my then-regular gaming group (in late 2009, when the referee moved out of town) and my first foray into OSR-style games (Swords and Wizardry Complete, in particular). I engaged in a process of reflection about what I was trying to do with and in "roleplaying games" as I still mostly referred to them at the time.

The answer to what I concluded isn't simple or easy to sum up, but one element was that I realised that my prior conception of "roleplaying games" was not that different from the "immersion" crowd, and while not wrong, it was simply insufficiently broad to encompass all the things I liked about games, and also, from the perspective of producing enjoyable games, it misled me about how to do that by encouraging an emphasis on dramatic elements like acting out characters and vividly narrating a story.

Instead of skill of the portrayal of the character, it was the agency (and on the level of the party and group, the deliberation that fed into that agency) that I particularly prized as a player, and that I realised formed a set of key skills that players needed to develop even before they built up their acting chops.

To provide the stable and intelligible foundation for the shared world the player-characters move through, I needed to structure the decisions and consequences of those decisions, and to constantly communicate them clearly back to the players.

A player might talk in the third-person about their character or not, they might use a funny voice or not, their character might not have any family or background or whatever, but if we could make the choices that character made interesting and evocative and varied and relevant, the rest fell into place.

I chose "adventure game" to represent that refocusing (I also chose to begin referring to the "dungeon master" or "games master" as a "referee" most of the time). For me, the core of gameplay is not narrative (not a series of rising actions that develop to a climax and then resolve in a denouement), but iterative, and the things being iterated and reiterated are procedures, little list of instructions that govern how and when to apply or not apply the various rules.

The classic example in most adventure games is the combat procedure, which tells you how to set up combat encounters, determine in what order players proceed, how and what they can do, and then delivers some set of consequences based on their decisions and various randomising factors. Once you complete a loop of this procedure, you reiterate it for the next combat round until some end condition is met.

My preference is to be continuously enacting one procedure or another, or when not possible, to provide a set of structured steps that lead the players through deliberations with one another that resolve into decisions they make and consequences they bear for them. Oddly, this often ends up resembling a traditional story (and I have no objection to its mere appearance as such), but I treasure the times where it doesn't in particular, as these are the moments where the adventure game medium generates something new and unexpected.

The "adventure" then is not the narrative the player-characters flow through towards an inevitable climax and resolution, but the procession of problems, challenges, etc. they face; the decisions and deliberations they make about what to do about each problem or challenge; and the procedures they enact as part of those decisions, and the consequences of all the above interacting with one another.

Many people have been calling this sort of playstyle "OSR-style", though that to me associates it too closely with a particular subset of games (mostly rules-light D&D variants) and subculture of product design, and loses the idea that it is a playstyle that can be applied to almost any "roleplaying game" (Some with more easily than others, admittedly).

Recently, as people have begun wanting to move away from calling themselves "OSR" for political reasons and to characterise their playstyle using a different term, I've repeatedly suggested "adventure games" as an alternative. I think of the OSR as a particular subculture, with a particular attitude towards independent publishing, the history of gaming, etc., but I think the playstyle characterised by "adventure games" is one that is not specific to it, and that this playstyle should be developed and shared more widely so that even people who are not part of that subculture can learn it and adopt whatever practices from it they find most useful, in the same way people think of "storygaming" or "trad roleplaying games" as distinct playstyles to be developed and studied.

In that sense, I don't see "adventure game" as a replacement for the "OSR" concept itself (referring to the subculture), but only for the "OSR-style" or "OSR playstyle" terms. And obviously, I encourage you to use it as such.

Jan 30, 2019

Building my Own Referee Screen

I'm building myself a new referee screen out of four 11 x 14" mounted artist panels (pre-gessoed) that are being bolted together with hinges and held together by magnetic tape. The large size and the hinges mean that it'll fold up into two boxes each with an internal cavity big enough to hold 8 1/2 x 11" pages without folding. The outer surface will be covered with chalkboard paint so I can write on it easily (using erasable chalk markers).

Here's a work-in-progress photo from last night, after the main panels had been painted (I did the sides after taking this photo). It took about four coats of the chalkboard paint (I used the Rustoleum one) to get a nice thick coating, and it'll take three days to fully cure. I'm going smooth it out with a fine-grain sandpaper on Friday, check if I need to reapply another coat anywhere, and season the chalkboard paint (You rub chalk all over it to block up some of the pores in the paint) if it's totally cured.


Really looking forward to trying this out at the table. Depending on how it works, I might try a second version using the rest of the paint and magnets that's made of unmounted wooden panels with glass cabinet hinges (no-screw clamping hinges) holding it together. Wish me luck!

Jan 29, 2019

Combat Style Traits in Mythras

If it's never come up, I'm not a huge fan of the default combat style traits in Mythras, since the effect of most of them is to make you ignore a cap on your combat style in some situation. e.g. When you're riding a horse in combat, your Ride skill "caps" (determines the maximum percentile value of) your combat style - unless you have Mounted Combat, in which case you get to use your full combat style.

Rules-as-written, a combat style trait only grants one benefit, and you can only have one trait per combat style, but this seems to be something honoured in its breach in fan-made material (Shout out to the Notes on Pavis guy for running a great blog). My assumption is that this represents running up against the limits of how this works in actual play, since it's something I've run into as well.

To recap the situation with combat styles in Mythras: The average Mythras character has 1 or 2 combat styles to start, and perhaps learns 3-4 total over the course of a long career. These combat styles form the primary skills characters use in combat for both attack and defense, and thus are a priority for most characters to boost. Those 1-2 additional combat styles will primarily be driven by either the traits of a new combat style, or the need to shift the weapons they use (or some combination of these two).

With the typical split between combat and non-combat characters in the parties I've seen (about half of all characters being combat-focused, meaning they get two styles), assume a starting party has about 1.5 combat styles per party member, except these aren't unique styles - most characters have a single cultural style common to all of members of that culture, and most Mythras parties are from a common cultural background. So only the 0.5 extra combat styles per PC are actually unusual or unique ones. In a party of four characters of shared background, that means you'll have one common style, and two unusual ones, each accessed by only a single PC.

How many combat styles there are in a particular setting varies widely, but typically you have between 3-6 per culture, depending a lot on military specialisations available within that culture. Most Mythras settings only use a small subset of the giant list of weapons included in the Mythras corebook - between 6-10 is typical, with 3-4 weapons per combat style, and in practice, you see a lot of repetition of the best weapons in different styles (Hello shortspear my old friend).

What this means in practice is that a lot of the odder combat style traits tend not to appear - they're either not attached to the main 3-6 options available, or they're just not present among the 3 different combat styles in a 4-person party (if you run with six PCs, you'll end up with 4 different combat styles on average). Also, some of the traits are far better than others because the combat situations they apply to are far more common, and these traits tend to be the most common, repeating across combat styles.

One of the outcomes of all of this is that combat style traits are not actually a very good method to ensure PC combat styles aren't capped. I'd rather just not have the caps in the first place, since they tend to take exciting action combats where the PCs are doing things like chasing people around on horses or climbing the rigging of a ship or storming a castle's walls and turn them into frustrating whiff-fests. Realism be damned, this is a game where you can play a cat-man wizard, and that cat-man wizard should be able to stab a guy while swinging from the rafters.

In place of the current combat style traits then, I propose that caps should be abolished in most cases, and combat style traits should not be the mechanism by which they are nullified. Instead, combat traits should focus on empowering characters with options or intensifying their combat advantages.

Here are some proposed new combat style traits. Each one has several abilities it grants to someone trained in a combat style, and most a couple of regular combat style traits cobbled together.

Berserker
Allows the use of the Flurry special effect so long as the character is wielding two weapons and the extra attack uses the second weapon.
If a character's damage modifier is two steps higher than an opponent's, their weapon size is considered one step larger for the purposes of bypassing parries.
Any psychological resistance rolls by an opponent are one step harder.

Duelist
May use Evade to dodge attacks in melee combat without going prone.
Allows use of the Flurry special effect so long as all extra attacks are made with a single weapon.
Can use the Change Range action to automatically withdraw from combat without a roll.

Lancer
Making a mounted charge with this style does not incur the one-step penalty to hit.
A character may spend action points to defend against attacks targeting their mount.
A character's damage modifier counts as one step higher for the purposes of calculating knockback.

Line Infantry
If three or more characters with this trait are in close order with one another, then:
Any enemy who engages them has their action points reduced by one.
They automatically get the benefits of using the Brace action against Knockback, Leap Attacks and Bash attacks.
Each character can ward an additional location using a shield or secondary weapon.

Marksman
A character may make ranged attacks while running (but not sprinting).
When using a ranged weapon, the hit location of a successful attack may be shifted to an adjacent location.
If three characters with the Marksman trait attack a single target or group of targets in close order, the targets are automatically Pinned Down (per the special effect).

Mounted Archer
A character may make ranged attacks while their mount is running (but not galloping).
When using a ranged weapon, the hit location of a successful attack may be shifted to an adjacent location.
A character can evade attacks without going prone while mounted, using their Ride skill in place of Evade.

Self-Defense
Can use the Change Range action to automatically withdraw from combat without a roll.
A character increase the size of your weapon by one step while parrying so long as they don't attack that round.
Outmaneuver rolls are one step easier.

Stalker
Can use the Kill Silently special effect.
When using a ranged weapon, the hit location of a successful attack may be shifted to an adjacent location.
Opponent's rolls to outmaneuver an attacker using a combat style with Stalker are one step harder.

Wrestler
Can use Grip as a defensive special effect
Opponent's rolls to evade, break free of, or resist immobilisation in a grapple are one step harder.
Unarmed blocks and parries count as "medium" sized.

Because the average character has only 1-2 combat styles, adding a couple of extra conditions or abilities onto each combat style trait doesn't increase the complexity very much for any given player. Monsters and most opponents don't even have combat style traits, so while the occasional custom-built major villain will have a touch more complexity due to this, most opponents won't be any harder to run for the referee.

You can make combat style traits that require 3 or more characters to get their full benefits available as cultural styles, so that most of the party will end up with them.

If you don't want to get rid of caps, then I would suggest at the very least combining a no-cap combat style trait with at least one other combat style trait that does something interesting.

I haven't play-tested these yet, but I'm hoping to later this year when I start up a Dawnlands campaign.

Jan 14, 2019

The Basis of the Game is Making Decisions

Some people are going to find what I'm talking about in this post so obvious they won't understand why I feel the need to mention it. To those people, I offer my apologies, but I have realised from discussion with a broad spectrum of roleplayers over the years that it is not so obvious as it seems.

The core activity of roleplaying games is making decisions. Every other activity feeds back into this core in one way or another. Rules are there to control and shape the field of possible decisions, determine the likelihood of particular outcomes of those decisions, and to structure who makes which decision. Characterisation, party dynamics and the world exist to shape the style of decision-making and the values and tools brought to it; to establish decision procedures; and to provide stakes and consequences for decisions.

I would contrast this understanding with the one that superficially claims that a roleplaying game is like a television show, novel or movie that is focused on telling a captivating narrative for an audience. This kind of understanding, taken to its extreme limit, leads to railroading, which I understand as the negation of player characters' ability to make meaningful decisions, combined with the players' knowledge that this is the case.

I think a decision-based understanding of gameplay is superior to this narrative understanding for two reasons. The first reason is paedogogical, and the second is schematic.

When explaining to a new player or potential player what the game is and how it is played, people often repeat some line like "You're like the star of a TV show going on an adventure" or "You're a character in a fictional world who lives out a story". This implies that the most important activity or skill is acting, and the structure of play will follow the scene-framing and development of other narratives. It is therefore, a rude shock when they start playing a game and they are not very good at acting out their character and the flow of a session does not follow the narrative progression of other media.

This shock is now sometimes called the "Matt Mercer effect" after players who got into D&D from watching Critical Role, but who are displeased to find out that they can't plunge immediately into a complicated and immersive narrative. I don't blame these people for this shock. They were led to believe one thing, and rudely surprised when it turns out that belief was just propaganda. On top of that, they don't necessarily know how to improve the situation they find themselves in and move to the sort of immersive game they were lured in with - witness the endless threads on Reddit and rpg.net and other forums on this very topic.

Paedogogically, I think focusing on decision-making instead is probably more useful for that new player. The new player begins by making and justifying decisions with the character as a pawn (on the character's behalf), then learns how to make decisions based on the character's subjectivity (as the character). Similarly, they learn to justify their decisions to the referee or other PCs on behalf of their character (or out of character), and then how to justify them as the character to the other character in world.

They're not rigidly locked into any one of these four options, of course, and further learning would be how and when to deploy each. This helps new players to feel like they're increasing their agency over time, rather than constantly failing. In my experience, this is both an easier course of development for new players to grasp, as well as being more likely to retain them as players than frustration and failure are.

Schematically, I've written about this before in my long post on "anti-narrativism" in constructing D&D stories. A distillation of the basic point is: Rather than structuring the progression of a campaign as a series of dramatic scenes with the PCs flowing from one to the other, I think games should be structured as a set of situations where PCs must make decisions. The occasional montage or descriptive flourish isn't awful, but thinking of the development of the story in terms of decisions actually provides a clearer and more effective plan than trying to think of the next "chapter".

As a bonus, the superficial sensual effect of a decision-based structure is that it actually seems more like a traditional narrative than trying to plot out a story as if it were a novel, television show, or movie, because making decisions and dealing with the consequences of them is what happens to characters in a well-written story.

I think many people will claim that they already accommodate the idea of decision-based adventure gaming in their planning, and I'm sure many do, but I am 100% certain that there are many more people who could improve their games by shifting their mindset over to this, or increasing its prominence and salience within the mix of ideas they have about planning. I especially encourage new players and new referees who are having trouble creating the kind of richly immersive world and story they admire in other people's games to try adopting this mindset.

Jan 3, 2019

Improving Descriptions Using the Gricean Maxims

I rarely make absolute statements rather than propositions or suggestions, but I can't think of a countervailing example to the statement that good descriptions improve roleplaying games. That is, the better the descriptive powers of the referee and players, the better the game. I don't necessarily mean complex, verbose descriptions (some people like them, some people don't), nor do I idolise the modern imitators of Hemingwayesque concision.

Rather, I want to talk at the level below that aesthetic level, at the level of the cooperative principle and its derivations, the Gricean maxims. For people who've never heard of them, here's a brief explanation in text, and one in video. The basic idea is that Gricean maxims are the principles that an audience uses to evaluate a speaker's utterances in a cooperative exchange. One can not only apply them, but also flout them (and opt-out of them under certain circumstances, and just straight up lie, of course).

The Gricean maxims are the root understanding behind the old roleplaying joke where a referee describes a throw-away NPC and the mere act of describing them causes the players to want to interact with them or suspect them of being involved in the plot somehow: the joke is just that they incorrectly apply the maxim of relation beyond a reasonable level.

Anyhow, weird as it may be to say about something this basic, I'm amazed at the number of games I've played in where the referee flouted or failed to wield the Gricean maxims fluidly when describing the world to the players.

Sometimes this is because they don't frame the utterances well. They fail to establish that this bit of scene-setting is just a bit of evocative description like an establishing shot in a movie, there to create a picture in the players' heads, instead of a sequence they're expected to execute decisions in relation to. (Secret bonus referee tip: I tend to gesture more dramatically than usual while doing these so that people understand I'm just describing things)

Sometimes this is just because they describe a ton of irrelevant crap in a manner that disguises instead of distinguishing what is relevant. Sometimes it's because they withhold essential information, often because they mistakenly think they're in a competitive exchange: Waiting for the PCs to ask about it or to figure out that they need to use a skill or power to discover it.

Sometimes this is because they're working from a module that was written by someone who didn't follow the Gricean maxims in its composition, or that was just otherwise written in an unclear way that buries the relevant, truthful information the players need in a place where it can't be easily reviewed.

All of those are bad situations to be in, both as a player and as a referee. They could all be improved by following the Gricean maxims. In fact, if you robotically follow the Gricean maxims for any situation the players are in, while merely speaking concisely and using prosaic terminology, you'd be surprised at how players will compliment your descriptive powers (I know this because I do it all the time). Add in the occasional evocative or captivating flourish, and they'll rave.

Individual referees have their own unique styles, and the members of any given group will be happier or not with a given referee's style. I don't think aesthetics are purely arbitrary and individual, but I also don't think it's worth trying to denounce or bolster a particular aesthetic style or taste outside of a concrete instance. But with the Gricean maxims, we are sub-taste, at the level of the pragmatics of speech and conversation, and mastering the pragmatics will only improve things for everyone involved.