Author Archives: thehydradm

Discourses on GMing Series 1 Post 1

Welcome to the first content post in the series! As a reminder, I will be discussing Brian Jamison’s Gamemastering, which you can get for free in .PDF at that link. Let’s get started.

Introduction & Summary Part 1

I want to write today specifically about the introductory note on page 1. Now, this is a lot of writing about a small part of the book. However, I think it’s important to pay the lion’s share of our attention to the author’s stated goals and methods. This book is a rare thing: a complete set of procedures for preparing and running ALL RPGs, from before you even have a group to the end of your campaign. Therefore, the author’s mission and beliefs are going to be crucially important to understanding why this book is written to be the way it is.

Fundamentally, I believe this text is primarily about Jamison’s methods for doing work as the gamemaster before and after sessions and secondarily about how to employ those preparations at the table (with a few additional miscellaneous tips and tricks along the way). I say that because the book is broken into thirds, two-thirds of which are preparatory work related. It is meant to be a complete system for preparing and running any RPG in his given style, which emphasizes a small group of consistent protagonists who pursue individual and group goals by overcoming interesting obstacles. I like this concept for a few reasons.

Focusing on the Right Elements

With few notable exceptions like Waiting for Godot, basically all stories are about somebody who wants something but can’t just have it. In other words, they are about characters who pursue goals by attempting to overcome obstacles. If the character doesn’t want anything then they won’t do anything period, and if there aren’t any obstacles to them getting what they want (such as a glass of milk out of their fridge) then they won’t do anything interesting. For example, Kurt Vonnegut phrased this in terms of two of his fiction writing tips: all characters should want something, and make awful things happen to your leading character.

I have written previously that we should not be too quick to adopt writing principles for our roleplaying games (and Jamison agrees, saying “Tools like The 37 [Dramatic Situations] exist to help fiction writers over creative blocks. They’re as much help to Gamemasters (GMs) as a butcher’s knife is to a surgeon …”). However, I think these particular ideas are useful for gaming purposes. It seems to me like people probably get their kicks in RPGs mostly out of some combination of two things: overcoming obstacles (“winning”) or creating a good story. Both of those need characters overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of goals, so these are natural things to focus on preparing.

Preparation: The Middle Path

It is very in vogue these days to just say “improvise your whole everything!”, but I think that is a bit hasty. Consider what Roger Sorolla said on the matter: improvisation alone is often inferior to at least some measure of preparation in terms of the resulting quality of the game. The reason I see his opinion as supported is based on the preponderance of evidence in the creative endeavors of society: the balance of traditional acting versus improvisational acting, traditional music vs. improv music, or even teaching with vs. without a lesson plan. The wisdom of society seems to be that there is something helpful in preparing.

It is true that no plan survives contact with the enemy. I sympathize with the improv crowd for that reason. But Eisenhower once said that although he found plans useless he also found planning indispensable. Jamison acknowledges this when he says “many GMs spend too much time plotting out a complete adventure in advance”. There are certain things that are fruitful to think about in advance while others are mostly wasteful. Discarding the waste does not necessitate also discarding the fruit!

In my own experience doing things I have prepared, whether that is teaching a class or running a game, I find that the most effective sort of plan is one that prepares the things that are hard to improvise in the moment, and that specifically leave gaps for you to improvise things that are suitable. For example, I am very bad at conjuring names from the ether for NPCs so I prepare lists of names in advance. But no matter how bad I am at dialogue I do not prepare dialogue because it would be wasteful. Games just aren’t scripted enough to make that worth doing. In other words, the best kind of preparation is preparing to improvise. Jamison’s system embraces this philosophy: to prepare only what is guaranteed to get a lot of mileage at the table and no further.

A Complete Set of Procedures

In practice, nobody is going to prepare and run games exactly like Jamison does – this book is a description of his personal method. But regardless of how much of his method you agree with, the fact remains that he has done a lot of the heavy lifting for us in assembling his book. It tells you specifically what to do in what order from before the game begins until after it ends in a lot of concrete detail. His book reminds me a lot of the aesthetic of Holmes Basic that Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra famously copied in creating Dungeon World: rules for running the game rather than advice. You can agree with the rules or disagree with them, but at least they are specific and comprehensive. I think that kind of completeness has its own value.

In Summary

I really appreciate the project Jamison undertakes here. It is fundamentally about presenting a complete system for running RPGs that emphasizes efficient preparations meant to make an optimal blend of game quality and time spent. I think it is smart that it does not throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to preparing material in advance of a session. It also does not fall prey to merely mimicking advice from related fields like creative writing exclusively – it claims to do what works specifically for RPGs-as-RPGs. The reason this is so great is that it really lets us consider if we want to meet the goal the author sets (a character-driven game about overcoming obstacles to meet individual and group goals), and it also lets us consider if the methods proposed are actually the most effective for reaching such a goal if we choose to embrace it. Jamison is up-front about this all just being his “opinion,” and that we are free to cast “an eye towards adopting whatever makes sense for [us]” while jettisoning the rest.

I think, in general, that the best sorts of books are ones like this. They have a clear mission – the author believes something and wants you to believe it, too. But they aren’t dogmatic about it, and they acknowledge that they could have made mistakes. Or that – maybe – their goals and yours just don’t quite line up. So, let’s start exploring those goals and methods and see where we end up.

Coming Up Next…

The rest of the book’s introductory section, which contains all of the definitions and assumptions Jamison has made while preparing his method.

Discourses on Gamemastering

The Introduction

The origins of the term “lecture” are actually more interesting than you may think. While getting my education degree I decided to do some research into that topic, and it turns out that they are named after the eponymous piece of furniture from which they are delivered: the lectern.

But the etymology of the term pales in significance to how and why they were once delivered in the medieval university system. Books, it seems, were once in very short supply. “Stop the presses,” you say sarcastically. “Exactly,” I reply. We laugh. (At least that’s how it went in my head.)

The Point

More pertinently, a lecture was originally what a professor did when they read a book aloud to the class standing at their lectern (which held the book), inserting their own commentary into the textual flow as they went. This had three practical purposes. The first, and least useful today, is that the students could create their own copies of the texts by writing along with the professor’s lecture. The second is, of course, that it exposed students to the ideas in the book that were so important they had to be written out by hand to preserve them. But the third is the most interesting, I think. It was a method for the lecturer to provide a set of marginalia, commentaries, and glosses on the text to amend and improve its subsequent copies.

In other words, just as Machiavelli had his Discourses on Livy – a commentary on the writings of Livy – so too the typical university lecture may as well have been titled “Discourses on [Book]”.

So, I got the idea in my head to write my own series of commentaries on various roleplaying texts. Being the digital age, luckily, I can dispense with reading the book to you – you can follow along at home and post your own discourses (on the book or on my own thoughts) in the comments section.

The First Series

I have selected for my first entry in this series of commentaries the e-book Gamemastering by Brian Jamison. You can get your own copy in .PDF for free at that link. I selected this text for three reasons.

First, it is a complete, personal, and specific method of running tabletop RPGs. In this age of the “grab bag of tricks” – specific techniques to make a combat run faster or improvise NPC names – something professing to be a complete explanation of just plain gamemastering is actually fairly rare.

Second, it is system neutral. This makes the entire body of the text relevant to all published tabletop roleplaying games, whereas – say – the experience point rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide probably are not.

Third, I use a lot of it and also disagree with a fair chunk of it. I find this is in virtue of it being very concrete. I am the first one who will say it is easy to get lost, adrift in the land of abstraction. But people naturally prefer concrete specifics because that is how the real world works, and that is generally how this book works, too. That makes it easy to agree with it – and use what it suggests immediately – or to disagree with it because the examples provided do not match our experience. In other words, it is ripe both for practical use and for analytical commentary.

Next Time On…

To paraphrase Adam West, tune in next time – same bat time, same bat channel – to read the first entry in my commentary on Brian Jamison’s Gamemastering. I intend to post a chunk of commentary at least once a week from here on out, starting at the latest on Monday the 21st. If you don’t want to check back every day with ‘bated breath in the interim then I will also tweet out when I post each section on my twitter account @TheHydraDM.

Quod Volare Porcos,
The Hydra DM

Grand Experiments: A Matter of Honor

First up, I’d like to immediately link away from my content (marketing, what’s that?) so I can give credit where it’s due for the title: Ars Ludi’s Grand Experiments series. I’ve toyed with ideas I’ve considered experimental before, but this is one that really deserves the title, I think. Thanks for the inspiration, Ben.

The Eponymous Baron

This idea arose while re-reading a game I had meant to play for a long time but had never gotten around to: The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It’s named after the eponymous baron Munchausen, who was renowned for telling outrageously exaggerated tales of his adventures abroad near the end of the 18th century. In the game, you take on the role of a noble much like Munchausen, and tell similarly outrageous stories of your own adventures in the same time period, with the goal of the game being to tell the best (most entertaining) story possible each round.

The relevant feature here is that, per the rules, you can offer corrections to other players’ stories in order to complicate them at the cost of one of your limited number of coins (coins are otherwise used to vote for the winner of the round). The player being corrected can offer a coin – and an insult – back, upon which the initial player might insist that he is correct and return with two coins (and, of course, another insult). This can, of course, lead to a betting war (and a lot of language cribbed from the Shakespeare Insult Kit). If a player runs out of coins yet refuses to yield in the betting war, or if the insults get a little too saucy, a duel can be called by either participant to resolve the matter of honor.

Duels, of course, require proper accoutrements.

Proper Accoutrements

As says the Baron regarding dueling –

I  am advised that it is the fashion to name this part of the rules the ‘Combat System’. That is an ugly phrase which stumbles off the tongue, and sounds like a Prussian manual on methods of elementary sabre-play. I disdain it. Should its coiner take exception to my contempt for him and his phrase, let him challenge me and we will see if he knows aught of real systems of combat, while I reduce his britches to lace.

As I have observed earlier in this volume, if in the matter of an objection or a wager a player should insult another’s veracity, title or pedigree, then the injured party has the right——nay, the obligation——to challenge his insulter to a duel. Such a trial by combat may also come about if during the course of a wager one party finds his purse exhausted but does not have the grace or good sense to withdraw, in which case he may demand that the other stand down his claim, or face him on the field of honour.

The calling of a duel will cause an unfortunate interruption in the flow of the game’s stories, but so be it : where the honour of a nobleman is concerned, everything else must stand aside while he defends himself. Fighting over matters of honour is a dangerous business which may bring poverty, injury, death or——a worse horror——ridicule to the participants, but it is as necessary as beefsteak to an Englishman, gold to a Swiss, or avoiding baths to a Frenchman.

The system for fighting a duel is simplicity itself. Once the injured party has issued the challenge, the two duellists must choose friends or companions to be their seconds, agree on a weapon——rapiers are traditional and come easily to hand at most parties or places where the genteel and well-educated gather——and then go outside …

… If you are weak of blood, soft of flesh or lilied of the liver, or——by way of furnishing you with a convenient excuse——you are in a hurry to finish the game, or there are ladies present who would be shocked at the sight of blood, or you are unable to retain the rôle you are playing at the thought of noble combat, and find yourself reduced to a common peasant once more, or if you are Welsh ; if any of these things be true then you may avoid the physical combat of a duel. Instead, just as you are playing at being a nobleman in my game, you may play at fighting a duel with a set of rules I have devis’d for that very purpose.

The alternate system he proposes is, what else, best 2 out of 3 rock-paper-scissors (a game invented by the Baron himself, of course).

This assumption that one does not have the proper accoutrements for dueling – the swords or other weapons, the exterior space, and the willingness to potentially be injured, among other things – is well-founded. Indeed, most people do not have such accoutrements, and even if they did have them would probably be unwilling or unable to use them.

I am not one of those people.

My membership in an excellent historical fencing club makes me uniquely qualified to, in fact, duel with swords. Or at least training swords, which, lacking points and edges, are relatively safe when used in conjunction with modern sport fencing masks and other basic safety gear.

I hope it is needless to say but I will say it regardless: do not try this at home. I am in many ways a very poor fencer, but I have also been instructed on the rigors of safety in real sparring with realistic weapon simulators by a qualified martial arts instructor. Unless you can say the same, you should not attempt this. Ignore this warning at your own risk.

You want immersion? I got your immersion right here…

This experiment, in effect, accidentally re-invented stat-less LARPing, which I’m told already exists. Whoops.

Anyway, there’s a whole can of worms to discuss regarding player skill and character skill, but I want to set that discussion aside to instead talk about immersion. One of the things a lot of people talk about in RPGs is about feeling lost in a fantastic world that is not our own, playing a role that is not theirs. Referencing frameworks like MDA we can see that this notion (“immersion”) has a category in their rigorous list of aesthetics: Fantasy.

Well, I can tell you now, having done it: actually dueling (with minor concessions for safety) is a lot more immersive than pretending to duel using rock-paper-scissors.

Before I move on from immersion, since Baron Munchausen is a game that advertises itself as one involving drinks of some kind, I’d like to take a second to advise against mixing the immersion of real drinks with the immersion of real sword fighting. The reasoning behind that, I hope, is obvious.

What did we learn from all this, anyway?

While the original conception I had was of swords because that’s literally what the text playfully suggested and it leapt immediately (…after over a year of re-reading the game…) to mind, it turns out that any “weapon” works really well here. Nerf guns are the next obvious candidates (“nerf guns at 10 paces”), but a foot race, single-life super smash brothers game, and so on serve pretty well, too. As long as it’s a skill-based activity it works to what I’d call some degree of excellence.

The key to why this is the case is simple: you’re replacing what is effectively a random chance of victory (rock paper scissors can be played against the player if the player is bad, but rock paper scissors is optimally played by acting randomly) with a chance of victory that depends on the actions of the player such that the player can actually affect the outcome in a knowing way. It’s effectively the difference between resolving a dispute by flipping a coin or resolving a dispute by playing a game of chess: the latter is rich with agency (the ability to make informed decisions, translated into actions, that causally determine the outcome of events) while the former is… not.

This is a really extreme example of a simple principle: give players more agency. It makes them feel more in control of the game experience, and it certainly makes them feel more engaged and immersed since their decisions have direct causal consequences. If we return to the aesthetics from earlier, we could probably call player agency principally Expression.

Plus, honestly, sword fighting kicks ass. I mean, come on.

However, I can only sidebar player skill vs. character skill for so long, and like all principles this one doesn’t always apply. There’s of course the problem that if you’re meant to be playing a great duelist but you get romped by the other players’ superior athleticism it takes you right out of the Fantasy on account of the disagreement between the gameplay and the narrative (this is academically referred to as “ludo-narrative dissonance”). Furthermore, the sort of competitive gameplay on display here isn’t a good fit for every game, and Baron Munchausen just happened to click. Lastly, giving the player more control isn’t always correct: sometimes you want to disempower the player, or else you want to generate outcomes that players rarely create themselves. This last set, of course, is dangerous, since player agency is what makes games unique as a medium, but they can’t be discounted entirely.

So, ultimately, what happens when you substitute the actual task being resolved as the resolution mechanic in a game? A lot of interesting stuff.

That’s long enough about what I think, though. What do you think about this crazy idea I had? How has it changed your view of immersion, player agency, or even of the player vs. character skill debate?

’till next time,
The Hydra DM

Play More, Seriously.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. So goes the joke most often attributed to Mischa Elman, and I think it has a lot to teach us. I started this blog as a way to give back, based on my own experiences, some of the great advice that I had taken to heart to help me on my own journey. And, sometimes, the best advice is also the simplest. You don’t need to be destined for Carnegie Hall to take advantage of Mischa’s advice: practice is how you get good at anything (running, playing, and writing RPGs included).

It just wouldn’t be me if I left well enough alone, though. I’ve learned a lot about what makes for effective practice, and I think that there’s not enough material out there that explains how to practice effectively.

Not All Practice is Created Equal

You can play a game for a thousand hours or more and never wind up even remotely near the top. If you don’t believe me, check out any competitive game with a leaderboard and look at the hours or games played of people in the middle and bottom of the pack: lots of them have played thousands of matches, often amounting to a thousand hours or more of what might widely be considered “practice”. RPGs don’t (generally) have leaderboards, but the principle is the same. You can play a lot and still be bad. I won’t have any of that “you can’t be bad at RPGs” nonsense, either, because I’ve seen enough threads about “that guy” and “railroading GMs” and “chaotic stupid players who kill every NPC on sight” to know not only that it’s a lie, but that everyone ought to know it’s a lie already.

The takeaway? Getting your hours in is necessary, but not sufficient, to become better.

To get better you need not just to play, but to play seriously. You need targeted practice, with a set of good rules and (dare I say it) practices (argh puns) behind it.

Sidebar: Why Serious Play?

You, the rhetorical reader, may attempt setting my premise up for failure right off the bat here by simply asking me “I play to have fun. Why should I need to practice?” The short answer is: if you think playing with Chris Perkins, or Ed Greenwood, or the designer of your favorite game system or setting would be better than playing with your own group, do I have a deal for you! You too can be Chris Perkins et al. through the power of serious play.

These giants of gaming did not become great through natural talent alone. The best RPG players – like the greatest Olympian athletes, Chess or StarCraft champions, or our friend Mischa – are not born (though natural disposition certainly helps), they are made. The tool of that making? Serious play. Practicing your RPG skills is no less fun than simply playing RPGs – in fact it consists largely of doing just that – so there’s no reason to fear improving your game playing and running skills when the cost is so low and the benefits so high.

The Seven Tenets of Serious Play

1. Hours are Necessary, not Sufficient.

You can’t do the rest of these if you aren’t playing in the first place. Some studies have shown that intense visualization is sufficient to mimic an activity as practice, but that still involves seriously devoting your time to doing that thing and that thing only. You can’t play candy crush and seriously play an RPG at the same time. If you don’t put serious hours in, you won’t get anything serious out. If you don’t put ANY hours in, you won’t get ANYTHING out. It’s that simple.

2. Have a Specific Goal.

Trying to get better at everything is a recipe for getting better at nothing. Paying particular attention to a certain skill that needs improving (for instance, speaking character dialog in first person, something I’m working on right now myself) means you’ll be sure to specifically expose yourself to situations in which you can practice that skill. It’ll also mean that you have a target for your performance reviews (see the next point). Finally, it’ll mean that you can have a sense of accomplishment by reaching the goal – nothing feels more ambiguous and more difficult than trying to “just get better in general,” since you won’t know when you’re finished or where you’re going in particular.

Be careful not to overdo this step, however. Tunnel vision is harmful – make sure to recognize opportunities to improve as they arise, make a note of them, and only then feel free to dismiss them for later if they aren’t within your current goal. And, of course, nobody likes a game heavily railroaded towards that thing you really want to improve to the detriment of everything else unless that’s the game they know they signed up for. Having a practice partner or two or three who are all trying to dedicate themselves to improving at RPGs can help here, since you can all set up contrived scenarios with each other in order to focus on your improvement goals specifically.

3. Use multiple kinds of performance reviews, and use them consistently.

A pre-emptive note about reviews of your performance: try to get one done as soon as you can after the game, then wait a while (days, or even weeks or months) and do another one. Your perspective will shift over time, and what remains memorable is an important clue in and of itself about what really mattered in a given game session or campaign. Stuff that still matters a year after a campaign ends is the stuff you’re going to be very concerned about regardless of whether they’re remembered fondly or with dismay. Each of these three kinds of evaluations can benefit from both short and long perspectives. Each of them can also be tailored to fit your specific goal (for instance, in my case I might ask about my best and worst performances in first person dialog in particular).

Self review. Ask yourself what went well, what went poorly, how you might improve what went poorly, how you might make the stuff you thought you did well even better than it already was, and what you should focus on next time.

Peer review. Try to get these individually if you can (the wisdom of crowds relies on independent data – review by a committee of four is a lot less powerful than review by four individuals). I like to ask what people liked most and what they liked least, since that’s only two items (it’s fast, and players hate nothing more than doing work between games – that’s the GM’s job :p) and clearly subjective (what they liked most or least, in opposition to what was done best and worst) so you avoid the risk of a social catastrophe.

Replay review. If you possibly can, it is critically helpful to record yourself. Your memory can clue you in to what you think was important during the game, but there’s going to be a lot of things you simply end up missing in the heat of the game, or don’t remember (or remember differently) afterwards. The sound of your own voice is a grating price to pay, I admit, but the dividends are huge. This also has the advantage of being able to be paused, re-winded, and re-watched at your leisure.

4. Always Have a Reason.

If you don’t know why you did something, you cannot improve at that thing except by luck or natural ability – and chances are your natural aptitude is as good as it’s going to get, while luck is notoriously unreliable (remember those people who played thousands of games and never got much better? They relied on luck). Reasoning precedes action, and understanding your own reasoning means you will understand your own action. Even if the reasoning is “it’s the first thing that came to mind and I didn’t want to disrupt the game to stop and think,” it’s super important to have that reasoning on hand so you can examine whether it was good or bad in retrospect.

Feel free to openly admit when you aren’t sure whether your reasoning is good or not, or even when you aren’t sure what your reasoning at the time was. In fact, don’t just feel free, it’s super important. That’s the first step in improving your thinking.

5. Everything is Your Fault. 

Ask a room full of people who do a certain activity (for instance, driving) whether they think they are above average at that activity. Turns out, most people think they’re above average. It doesn’t take a statistician to point out that this is, obviously, a problem.

This attitude – that you are already good at something – is toxic to improving yourself. If you think you’re good already, you have no reason to improve. You can make a good counterweight to this tendency for yourself by adopting a tweaked Socratic ignorance as your mantra: you are bad, and everything that happens is completely 100% your fault and in no way the fault of any other player at the table.

That may sound harsh, but now you’ve got your motivation (you are bad), and you’ve got an automatic insight into which problems to fix (anything that goes wrong is on you, so you are going to try to fix all of them – just remember to Have a Specific Goal and tackle them one at a time). Just remember to lighten up once in a while – and don’t be afraid of thinking you did something well so long as you recognize it’s still imperfect – so you don’t drive yourself crazy and you’re all set.

6. Adjust Incrementally

When something doesn’t work very well, people have a tendency to throw everything out and start fresh or to make other wide, sweeping changes. This is a mistake, generally speaking. There’s often something good hidden in the bad that you can safely extract for re-use later, and it’s very important that you find it. In my case, while I may have failed at first person dialog once or twice, it would be a huge mistake to throw it away as a concept and just use 3rd person narration from this point on.

Just as important as not throwing overboard an entire premise just because it seems flawed is to only change one variable at a time if you can help it. This is a normal process of scientific experimentation – by only changing a single variable at a time you can determine the effect that variable has on your experiment. While it’s basically impossible to modify only a single variable at a time in a social situation like tabletop RPGs, you can still do your best to minimize your own multi-variable changes so that you can get a clearer picture of how your latest changes performed.

7. Be Very Specific and Aim for Perfect.

As you use these other principles to ascend out of the realm of mediocrity, there’s a problem you’re going to run into. When you actually, really, truly are above-average – you’ve got all the normal stuff covered, and even a few of the corner cases to boot – you’re going to hit diminishing returns. Going from bad to OK is fast, going from OK to great is slow. This is why Everything is Your Fault is so important: it’s easy to give up once you reach “OK” status and just float along. You shouldn’t, because you can still improve, and here’s how.

You need to be super specific, super nitpicky, and aim to be perfect. You won’t actually become perfect, but actual perfection isn’t the point – recognizing what perfect would be, and then heading in that direction with a purpose, is the point.

As you get better, the obvious holes in your skill will start to close. You’ll gain mastery of the system rules (no more accidental total party kills, hooray) and speed in administration, for instance. You won’t be at a total loss for what to do with a newly introduced NPC, or how to structure a dungeon, or what stats baddies should have. You won’t actually be bad anymore (though, remember, Everything is Your Fault – your attitude shouldn’t change). From here, you need to start nailing down corner cases and turning “good” to “better”. This is going to involve a lot of “I liked it, but was it as good as it could be?” and dealing with things that come up rarely so that you won’t be tripped up when they actually do arise (*cough 3rd edition grappling rules cough cough*).

It’s a slow road from “the good” to “the best”, but don’t give up on it. You’ll be better for it, and – to repurpose a quote famously put in Socrates’ mouth by Plato – your game, the examined game, will be worth playing.

Get out there and Play More, Seriously.

A New Year’s resolution – or a resolution at any time really – to play more games is one I can get behind. But remember this: Hours are Necessary, not Sufficient. I hope you’ll remember to take the time to advance your gamecraft if you haven’t been already, and if you have been I hope you’ve found some helpful ideas to take things a step further still.

Get out there and become the best you can be – your game will thank you for it.

Post-Script: Annotated Further Reading

I’d be remiss not to include some of the foundational works that inform my current method of targeted practice. I’ll give two specifics, and a general one for brevity (brevity? Hah, too late…).

Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning.

This text is probably among the most instructive I’ve read about how to learn well from practice. The author is an eight time youth National Chess Champion and a master and world champion of Tai Chi Chuan.

Sean “Day[9]” Plott, The Day[9] Daily Webseries.

While I had always been naturally good at games, and naturally drawn to improving myself, this series was my first exposure with serious competitive gaming. I loved it from moment one. Earlier episodes focus more on education, while later episodes focus more on entertainment, but I recommend it regardless of period. The author of this series is a winner of the Brood War WCG USA championship, WCG Pan-American Championship, and top-16 player in the Brood War WCG Grand Finals. He’s since gone on to become a professional eSports shoutcaster and runs his own eSports company and brand centered around the Daily web-show.

I also recommend becoming engaged with various works of philosophy, since the type of thinking employed in that field is the exact sort of thinking you must employ in order to practice most effectively. The branches of science, with their equal appeal to logic, are similarly helpful. The recommendations that may be made within such large and diverse fields are too numerous to do justice in such a brief post-script.

Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM

Writing vs. Roleplaying

Lots of people compare being an author and being a GM. The comparison, on the surface, appears apt. Both create characters, write (or perform) dialog and descriptive narrative, and craft a story in general.

However, I’m willing to wager the two skill-sets don’t have as much overlap as many people suggest that they do.

The GM-Turned-Author

This revelation came to me when, for the first time in many years, I decided to try my hand at creative writing. In the meantime I had been a prolifically active GM, running dozens of sessions for dozens of players in real time text, real time voice, and play by post formats.

I quickly thought up what I figured was a pretty good story seed that I should expand upon, and so I sat down and started writing. I also quickly came to a realization: I had no idea how to do middles or ends (and especially not in a sustained or preparatory fashion), only premises and beginnings. The writing got to about a paragraph and stopped cold with no clue what should even happen next. Just totally brickwalled.

Why was this the case? I’ll let Brian Jamison speak for me on this one: “The more the Gamemaster plots, the less the players will follow the plot.”

He terms that quote his “only absolute Law … in gamemastering,” and for what it’s worth I think he’s more or less got it right. Look in just about any given thread on the topic, and you’re going to find a well-received post that details how you should determine as little of the plot in advance as possible because it’s simply not practical (and usually not very fun, either) to do more than that.

I had taken this advice so close to heart that it actually made true, solitary, authorship impossible for me. It’s not that I can’t write fiction – I can and have – it’s that I was trying to apply the wrong set of skills to my project. It was at this point that I realized at least one critical difference between a great GM and a great writer. Put simply, an author dictates whereas a GM collaborates.

The Author-Turned-GM

As tends to be the case, there’s a problem that is the tails to my writing dilemma’s heads. Just as trying to apply GMing principles (collaborative improvisational story generation) to writing a short story (solitary edited story generation) gets you stuck, the opposite is also the case.

Trying to apply the author’s principles to GMing leads to a lot of wasted effort at best, and what has come to be termed “railroading” – of the most awful sort – at worst. Being unable to cope with characters who literally have a mind of their own and are actually not under your control (as opposed to metaphorical “characters with minds of their own” that many authors talk about, which literally are actually under their control) is a real problem in a roleplaying game that simply doesn’t exist in a novel. Even in a play-by-post RPG, which has a form that is apparently very similar to that of a novel, there are still several “authors” all with different levels of creative control over different portions of the world capable of conflicting each others’ intentions.

Advice Reconsidered?

I think that the above is a pretty compelling explanation of at least one of the critical differences between the storytelling skillsets of an author and a GM, and I think we should all be just a bit more careful when we read advice – or try to give advice – that borrows ideas from conventions that originate with works traditionally associated with what might be termed “writers” (edited scripts or novels, which are in opposition to the real-time nature of most RPGs, or the complete creative control of an author that is in opposition to the distributed creative control of an RPG).

Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM

Dark Souls: The D&D Video Game that Isn’t Actually D&D

If somebody asked me “what video game today best represents old school D&D,” Legend of Grimrock comes to mind, but ultimately I think Dark Souls would be a more interesting and equally qualified answer. Given the raft of actual D&D games, branded with D&D on the box and everything, why on Earth would I think this? Hopefully I’m convincing.

Megadungeon Format

Dark Souls very much takes place in a megadungeon, and a well-made one at that. If you strip away the visual properties and various idiosyncrasies of the game and focus only on the fundamental design tropes of megadungeons you’ll find this to be the case.

Branching, Looping, Linear Pathways

Megadungeons consist of corridors with walls, meaning you are generally on a linear pathway. Sometimes these are broken into larger areas (rooms) filled with content, but the rooms only have a low number of exits (usually no more than 4 and often as few as 1 or 2). Dark Souls, perhaps simply because games are limited in this way but also probably due to design intention, is similarly made up of linear pathways punctuated by expansive “rooms” or, more video-game-appropriately, “arenas”, in the parlance of the Half Life 2 developers at Valve.

At the same time, though, these linear pathways tend to branch and loop. For more analysis of the types of exploratory pathways in games you can see this post on ENWorld. Further writing on the merits of designing good layouts of linear pathways is this piece by The Alexandrian. These are together probably two of the best examples of analyses on how to design combinations of arenas and linear pathways as far as it concerns roleplaying games, so they make good reading and say basically everything I ever could regarding background.

In summary, Dark Souls doesn’t offer an open world like Skyrim – you don’t have 360 degrees of motion between most locations – but it does offer multiple paths, shortcuts, secret passages, and the like. In Dark Souls, like in most good megadungeons, arenas are connected to each other in multiple discrete linear ways, and those connecting paths themselves are often interconnected.

Re-Stocking Enemies and Re-Treading Terrain

Megadungeons do it every time you leave (or in some cases even when you roll a random encounter, to some extent), while Dark Souls does it every time you rest at a bonfire (or die). While Dark Souls’ enemies don’t change the way a megadungeon’s might, they do still come back, and that means that just like a D&D megadungeon the megadungeon of Dark Souls is designed to not be permanently “clearable”. In Dark Souls, just like in megadungeons like the labyrinth under Castle Greyhawk, you also unlock shortcuts between areas (mentioned above) meaning what begins as re-treading dangerous ground over and over eventually becomes a much more streamlined adventure, much like higher level PCs skip straight to the lower levels of a megadungeon via some shortcut or direct access they have found, thereby reducing the amount of time the players spend re-treading familiar terrain and dealing with re-stocking enemies. Additionally, in both cases, as you level up you will find re-treading the same ground to be much easier than it originally was, but also providing much less reward. These two factors combine to encourage you to push forward outside of any story motivation – mechanically you are drawn to areas that are of appropriate difficulty, since these areas will provide reward commensurate with your out-of-game skill and in-game power level.

Subtle Narrative

There are a few ways that narrative happens in a megadungeon, and most of them aren’t what we think of when we think about exposition in modern RPGs. In a D&D megadungeon you can only reliably get information in a few ways. You can ask NPCs (most creatures wouldn’t be willing to help, though) if you manage to find any (or rarely you can ask NPCs outside of the megadungeon, but their chances of possessing significant knowledge is much less), you can look around for messages, writings, maps, and that sort of thing left behind by some precursor to yourself, you can learn by personal experience (you walk in the room and there are orcs? You know there are orcs in the room now, congratulations), or you can learn by some method of divination of non-language artifacts (either literally by using magic or more like an archaeologist by piecing together what you find laying around into a coherent story).

Dark Souls does all of these things in a very similar framework. You learn about the lore of the Dark Souls world in a few ways –

  • A short introductory cut-scene.
  • Rare, stilted, dialog with non-hostile NPCs.
  • Messages left by other players that fit a purposefully limited format (“[thing] ahead”, or “beware of trap”, for instance).
  • Non-contextual item descriptions of loot you find (you’ll get the story of the item in a few sentences, but no explanation of how it fits into the larger picture).
  • Seeing something for yourself (“oh, shit, there’s a hydra in the lake!”)

All of these are distinctly limited and present to you sufficiently less than the whole picture (and, often, aren’t even entirely accurate, as in the case of player messages). They’re generally lacking in overall context, and have a direct 1 for 1 with how you learn things in a traditional D&D megadungeon. Messages on walls, messages attached to items, observation of the environment… all of these are regular elements of what modern D&D designers term the “exploratory pillar” of D&D – finding out new stuff without it all being dumped on you at once by McLecturePants the Plot-Giving Elf.

People have eventually compiled histories of Dark Souls’ lore, just like players can eventually piece together the history of a megadungeon, but it took significant effort and there are still gaps that need the interpretation of these game-world historians, just as in a megadungeon environment.

A Land Where Stuff Is Weird

As one would be informed by the entry under W in The Dungeon Alphabet, megadungeons are all about being weird. They often (though not always) represent a mythic underworld (see page 22), where things have a sort of internal sense that defies complete scientific classification no matter how hard you try. It’s a brutal landscape for no apparent reason. In OD&D monsters can pass through doors without a care in the world but those same doors are stuck for the players a full third of the time, and even if the players get them open they have a habit of closing themselves and becoming stuck again unless spiked. In OD&D monsters can see in pitch black, unless they’re in the PCs’ service, and then they miraculously lose this method of vision. It’s designed to make the game challenging, sure, but the realistic repercussions of these game design decisions is that the world is seriously weird and seriously hostile in the narrative as well.

Dark Souls is no exception here, either. It’s designed to be difficult compared to most modern games. This game design decision (difficulty) needs justification in the world’s fiction, however, and so by playing as an undead monstrosity yourself you can’t truly die permanently no matter how many times you get sent back to the last checkpoint. The brilliance of this associated mechanic that explains “restart at checkpoint” in game-world terms aside, when’s the last time you played as an undead monster in a game? Probably never if you’re most people. When’s the last time you fought a huge wolf with a sword in its mouth or a giant magic butterfly or a flaming spider-centaur with a pyromancer witch as the torso? This kind of unique strangeness, generated partially by strictly game-centric design decisions being reflected in the narrative, is paramount to enhancing the feeling of exploration made possible by the previous section.

Level & Sublevel Theming

A common thing to find in most megadungeons are highly thematic “sub-levels” (smaller areas bound within a close proximity), or slightly less thematic (but still differently themed) whole levels. Put at its simplest, Dark Souls does the same, and is even kind enough to label them for you (Valley of Drakes, Blight Town, Sen’s Fortress, Anor Londo, and so on and so forth). At its most basic, this is just about creating differently themed “zones” so that things don’t become monotonous.

Under a Big Tent

The concept of the “big tent” campaign comes from the very early days of D&D with Gygax at the helm. Since he knew many people interested in playing games of this sort, they invariably all hounded him to run them – and the games grew truly to unwieldy proportions. Perhaps some 20-odd players inhabited his home campaign, even sometimes sitting at the same table! But, more generally, they drifted in and out as the mood suited them, and the more prolific players whose characters’ names live on in infamy were just the ones who played more often and were thus more successful.

This drifting in and out of players, and the discussions the players would’ve had about what they found in the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk, mimics the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls (or perhaps I should say Dark Souls mimics it, chronologically speaking) almost perfectly. The fact that Dark Souls encourages you to come together to solve the problems of a shared environment (via cooperative summoning or messages, or in the meta aspect by simply talking to other people who play the game on regular internet message boards or otherwise) is extraordinarily similar in concept to how a giant rotating cast D&D game worked back then. Some days some people went into the dungeon, other days different people went in, and sometimes they compared notes, and mixed and matched companionship of their characters as the situation warranted.

This sort of individual shared experience (you were never guaranteed to play with the same people consistently, but you all played in the same world) is a quirky similarity, but one nonetheless.

A Land Where Danger is Everywhere

The final point here is that megadungeons are not amusement park rides with fake scares and cheap thrills – they’re designed in large part to be a game and therefore a test of skill. Not only this, but their early-D&D rulesets were pretty unforgiving of mistakes or even of bad luck. Dark Souls is no exception here, either: it is to most games what gutter bowling is to bumper bowling – in some cases literally, as bottomless pits with no safety rail will regularly attest; it’s a fair, but punishing, alternative. It embraces the war-game-like feel of early megadungeon play, where the trick is for the players to outsmart the environment and progress towards a distant point of actual distinct victory (name level and making a fortress in the wilderness, enabled by their earlier successes in the megadungeon).


As I’ve demonstrated here, Dark Souls is simply the video game that gets megadungeons, and by getting megadungeons it is probably the best representation of “old school” D&D that I can think of in video game format. It has some other elements that it shares with D&D, like leveling up and weapons and armor with plusses on them, but those aren’t what makes it like D&D; they’re just superficial similarities. It has things like PvP combat, too, and that makes it no less D&D all the same. The trappings – the PvP additions of Dark Souls or the weapons with plusses – aren’t what makes the games what they are. I think that reasoning belongs to the framework of play itself: the environment.

If you care about seeing and experiencing a representation of the design aesthetics all those OSR(Old School Renaissance)-types are constantly going on about, therefore, Dark Souls is probably just about the best and clearest alternate version of that experience (complete with moving pictures and sound effects) available in a box, period.

Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM

Changing Things is Easy, Changing People is Hard

Full disclosure: this will be a very high-falutin’ theory post. It will not give you actionable material for Saturday’s game, but it may prompt in you some thoughts of your own that may yield results many weeks down the line. Your mileage may vary.

One of the reasons I originally followed @TheIdDM on Twitter (and one of the reasons I regularly took the premises of some of his posts on his blog and ran with them on my own) was not only the fact that he did for a living some of what I found very interesting as a hobby (behavioral psychology), but also that he tends to prompt some very interesting questions. One such question he prompted on Twitter went as follows (hashtag included for completeness’ sake):

It’s interesting that so many people have replied “the people make the #rpg” and yet so much time is spent discussing systems. Unbalanced?

And he’s right. What is the deal with that? For my own part, by far the majority of the content on this blog is about systems and not about people even though the people are the most important part of RPGs. Well, turns out 140 characters (or even several 140 character chunks) simply can’t be enough to express my thoughts here, so let’s begin… and hopefully by reading this you can begin to think about it, too, whether you agree with my thoughts or not.

Systems and People

Perhaps separating these two things into their own categories is something of a misnomer. After all, if we come to the logical (though disconcerting) conclusion supported by causal determinism, we can figure that a person is actually just a system with a lot of imperfect information involved. That thought is perhaps worthy of its own post, but probably on a philosophy blog and not a gaming one, so I’ll move on and leave the thought at that. For our purposes, we’re going to assume that, at the very least, the difference in degree of complexity of a human system and a tabletop RPG system turns into a difference in kind, and we’ll treat them as separate.

The first thing we need to realize here is that the tool (the RPG system) and the tool user (the person) are actually relatively inseparable, even if we don’t consider them both to be systems of simply different complexity but instead as distinct entities. Consider for a moment the martial artist wielding a sword. The sword is his tool, and if he sets it down it remains a tool but it performs no useful action. For sake of defining terms let’s consider tools that perform actions when left alone to broadly be considered automated tools (and, while we’re provoking thoughts about tools that only do things when they are used let me point you, dear reader, towards the delightful problem of the prime mover; tangential, but lots of fun to think about). In contrast, we are going to be interested in tools like the sword rather than the high-frequency stock trading machine, in that our tool of choice – the tabletop RPG – is largely non-automated.

The fact that the sword does nothing without the input of the martial artist is very much like the fact that the tabletop RPG does nothing without the input of the player(s). If nobody is there to try to take and resolve fictitious actions then the system is nothing but a pile of symbols printed on paper gathering dust in your garage (or, for the more digitally-inclined among us, a set of bits gathering e-dust on your digital storage device of choice).

There is another fact that this analogy illuminates: the martial artist can fight both with and without the sword, and while many principles are the same, the specifics of execution are generally very different. This points out that we can use many different systems, and while each of them will give us something different and worth having, at the same time the ability to play an RPG (or defend yourself) lives entirely within the player (or martial artist). Put more simply: a sword and your hand (and D&D and Call of Cthulhu) are different means to the same ends, and the skilled user can use both. Confused yet? Sorry.

Basically, the fact that you can do something different with D&D than with Call of Cthulhu is no different than being able to do something different with a rubber mallet than a steel clawhammer, or a sword than a spear. Using this knowledge, then, let’s try to look at things from a simpler perspective.

Systems as Tools

Let’s change our analogy for a minute and discuss firearms, a topic hot in the mind of the United States and around the world. If you go to a forum for firearm enthusiasts, and you say “I want a firearm to shoot at things”, the very first question you’ll probably be asked before anyone helps you decide what to buy is “what things are you going to be shooting at?” If the answer is “people breaking into my house” the gun you want is different than if the answer is “a deer in the woods”. Why? Because different guns make certain gun-centric tasks easier than others. This is the principle behind specialization: a specialist tool will beat a generalist tool at the specialist task.

The same is true of tabletop RPGs. Running a game set in the Cthulhu mythos is probably easier with Call of Cthulhu than it is with GURPS: specialist vs. generalist. Given that running an RPG at all is generally a specialist task (given how niche the hobby is, and how fragmented it is), it is probably no surprise that discussion about what system to use is the first thing that comes up. Just like the gun enthusiasts, the RPG enthusiasts assume that you are a constant and the tool is the variable. What’s up with that?

Systems as Variables and Affecting People

The answer is in the title, really: people are harder to change than systems (or at least they are systems that are harder to change than other systems). What is quicker, generally: establishing a new habit or making 30 dollars to pick up a new RPG book? Usually effectively making habits takes about a month of performing a task routinely (I speak anecdotally, but I think it’s pretty typical that it takes a few weeks before you can truly begin to do tasks on autopilot). Meanwhile making 30 dollars to get a new RPG book takes, in the US, at most a fair chunk of a day of work. If it’s 30 times faster to get a new RPG book than it is to make new habits, is it any wonder we’re obsessed with the quick fix? And really, shouldn’t we be? Why do things the hard way? More on that in a minute.

The difference between learning to shoot accurately with iron sights on a rifle at 400 meters and putting a telescopic sight on your rifle is the exact same difference between learning to use D&D in the horror genre and buying Call of Cthulhu. This is because, as I’ve established, it’s a lot faster to spend the cash and get the specialized tool for the job that makes your life easier. But… why does it make your life easier? What’s going on?

As it turns out, just as much as the person affects the tool (that is, without the person the tool will not function), the tool also affects the person. If you are using a certain tool, you will be doing a certain thing. Ever hear the saying “if all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail”? This is what that’s talking about. If you have a pistol you really shouldn’t be shooting at targets 400 meters away, and if you have a sniper rifle you’re really better not walking inside a house and shooting somebody right in their face from 10 feet away. By simple virtue of having a specialist tool you are going to use that specialist tool for its specialist task. If you have Call of Cthulhu out on the table, chances are strong that you’re going to run a horror game. If you have Ars Magica, chances are you’re going to be running a game about wizards in the late middle ages. And on and on.

What that means is something I picked up on as soon as I first played Spirit of the Century after only having played D&D: a good system is going to manipulate you into doing things, even things you ordinarily wouldn’t think to do, that fit the experience the game is trying to help generate. At the time I referred to its character generation method and use of Fate points, compels, invokes, and aspects as “tricking you into roleplaying well”. It felt very clever, that a game through clever use of incentives and the rules can make you do something well even if you suck at it to begin with.

This means, in fact, that we come around full circle. If you want to hit distant targets, and you’re bad at shooting at distant targets, you may want to invest in a telescopic sight. But once you get used to hitting targets at a far distance, you’ll find hitting them without the sight much easier than it used to be. If you can’t fight at all, learning to fight with a sword is going to make you suck less at fighting unarmed too (although perhaps not to a great degree). And so, with RPGs, if you can’t do horror games at all, Call of Cthulhu is there to instruct you, consciously or not, on how to do horror games.


So, at the end of that 1500 words, here’s what I’ve concluded. People are more important than the tools they use. But, despite this, the people and the tools are inextricably linked. There’s a reason forums across the internet discuss the best gun, or the best hammer, or the best RPG system: the tool is incredibly important, and it is also the easiest thing to change. And, by changing your tool, you can also change yourself. Slowly. Two birds, one much easier stone.

Post-Script –

There is one thing I noticed that didn’t really fit with the flow of this post, and that’s how damn easy it is to change the tool of a tabletop RPG. Just about anybody who’s played one for a couple of hours can start changing the rules willy-nilly and at no real cost to themselves. Consider audiophiles, or car enthusiasts or any other hardcore fandom of tools, who spend thousands and thousands of dollars to acquire the perfect tools. Now consider how much gamers spend on dice and minis – again, thousands for tools in many cases. But now consider that the most critical tool to the tabletop RPG gamer – the game system – is exceedingly inexpensive. There is no real barrier to entry to start talking about how to improve an RPG system, and indeed by their very nature RPGs require their users to tweak the rules in at least very small ways (custom monsters, traps, whatever). Compare this to, say, firearms, where only licensed professionals are even allowed to make most of the changes to those tools (while they may not apply the telescopic sight, they made it, and they made the gun it’s on, too), and you have a serious recipe for endless discussions on the system rather than the people since basically anyone can contribute (though not always well). Just something to think about, I guess.

Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #5: All About Initiative

This is the fifth of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find the first part here.

Initiative: What is it? And what are the different ways to do it?

Initiative is the general term used first by D&D (and probably taken from earlier wargames) to describe what thing (individual, team, army, whatever) acts first in a turn based game that involves action resolution. Because it’s difficult to do real time systems without some kind of computational engine to handle abstract task resolution, turn based is basically how we have to do it.

There are several categories of initiative for action decision, and they don’t always pertain exclusively to combat. Here are the ones I’ve heard of –

  1. Individual determined – through some statistical (i.e. mechanical) method you determine which singular entity will go at what times in the turn order.
  2. Group determined – through some statistical method you determine which group of entities will go at what times in the turn order.
  3. Individual/group non-determined – through some arbitrary non-statistical method it is determined who goes when.

The first one we are probably mostly familiar with from modern (3e, 4e) D&D. You roll your individual roll, and you go when it says you go. The second comes in a few distinct flavors, such as “side” initiative, or “chunked” initiative. This was the original category under which 1st edition AD&D operated, whereby each side (the heroes and their retinue vs. the monsters as a team) either went first or not as an entire group. The third kind of initiative we should all be familiar with if we’ve played RPGs before from the times when we weren’t fighting anything. You just kind of determined who did what on an ad hoc basis without much of a resolution system in place until it seemed important that speed was a real factor, and that’s what this category represents.

In addition to these categories, there’s also something inherent to initiative systems, which is their flexibility. Systems that let you act later than the system says you should on purpose, or that let you interrupt the order due to some special clause in the rules, or that recalculate initiative each round (as 1st edition D&D did, for instance), all have some measure of flexibility. Having the right kind and amount of flexibility is important if you’re concerned with making what is a turn based system resemble more closely the reality of simultaneous resolution.

Speaking of simultaneous resolution, that’s the final part of initiative systems. While what I’ve described up until this point is the system under which you determine who decides what to do first, also part of initiative systems is deciding who acts on their decisions first. In individual initiative systems this is generally the same order as the decision-making, while in group initiative systems it’s usually left to be murkier about who acts when. Some systems explicitly try to replicate simultaneous resolution (war gaming is especially a place where you might find this) to some degree, and others don’t.

Different kinds of initiative: why should you use them?

This is a question to which you can probably already begin to guess the answer, given just about every RPG ever published has a different take on initiative, both in and out of combat, from every other RPG ever published. Basically, the way initiative works determines at the absolute most basic level how players interface with the game in different situations. And, if everything you do is filtered through some kind of initiative system, it’s probably a good idea to think about that system!

Some historically important initiative systems follow –

1st edition Advanced D&D

The critical elements of 1e AD&D’s combat initiative system is that in combat it is side based (though it says it could be individual based it specifically mentions that often that would be too cumbersome), is resolved at the beginning of each round (so the order of combatants who go first can regularly change), and has a system whereby spell-casting is basically decoupled from normal initiative (declare spell prior to initiative resolution, then see how long it takes and if you’re interrupted while you do it via normal initiative actions).

You can read more here about why this system might be interesting.

3e+ D&D

Critical elements here are that surprise is no longer resolved statistically, while initiative is by default individual based and resolved only once. You can, however, shift the order of the combatants by passing on your normal turn in order to act later, or in some cases (particularly in 4th edition) break into the initiative order through various rules-exceptional actions that can trigger based on certain conditions being met. This is probably what we mostly think of when we hear “initiative”.

5th edition Ars Magica

Acts mostly like the above later editions of D&D, except you can also designate several characters as a “party” (often composed of hirelings or their equivalent, rather than the powerful mages around which the game revolves), and they can determine their initiative as a group in what is otherwise a (relatively) permanent determined-once-at-the-start and individual combat initiative system.


Notable in that, like Ars Magica, it can determine initiative both individually and as a group, but also that over its course of versions has waffled between using a roll + stat for initiative order, or just using the stat.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Notable as an example of not only a GMless RPG, but also an RPG that uses a non-statistical initiative system that is still determinant, like so –

“The player to start is the member of the company with the highest rank in society. Standard rules of etiquette apply : religious titles are always deemed greater than hereditary titles, and those higher than military titles ; if of similar rank then compare subsidiary titles, number of estates or centuries that the title has been in the family ; youth defers to age ; when in doubt the highest military decoration takes seniority ; and for the rest I refer you to the works of Messrs Debrett or Collins.

If by some mischance of birth or the poor organisation of your host you are all commoners then the first player shall be he who was wise enough to purchase the most recent edition of my game. If several have, then I thank them all ; if none have then I worry if you possess sufficient understanding the nature and responsibilities of nobility to play a game such as this, relying as it does on good judgement, generosity of spirit, proper understanding of the necessity of the patronage of worthy artists, writers and publishers, and not being a pinch-penny. If this manner of beginning is not agreeable, then the player to start should be he who was last to refill the company’s glasses.”

Dungeon World

No list of notable initiative systems would be complete without Dungeon World for a very simple reason: it uses the same initiative system both in combat and out of combat, which is something most fantasy RPGs don’t do. And, what’s more, it is a non-statistical system based on the whim of the group or orchestrated by the GM’s whim, which most RPG players would be familiar with as to how you handle initiative outside of combat in most games.

So what are these all good for?

Each of these systems of determining who acts when and in what capacity gives a slightly different spin on the way you interact with the world. I could go on and on listing more and more systems you could rip off and steal, but these should suffice in terms of training you, the reader, to recognize what an initiative system does for you given each of the different methods. Acting strictly individually tends to have the benefits of somewhat modeling the confusion of fast-paced action – you don’t really get a few minutes to discuss what you plan to do if bullets are flying by your head right this very instant (and it also tends to speed up play by focusing more on the doing and less on the planning). It can also lead to bigger surprises the less input others have into each others’ actions (which you can see at work in GMless games for the most part, like Microscope). Acting in larger groups, with more opportunity for discussion, tends to slow the game down, but also make it more engaging as you solve problems as a social unit.

These are especially true if individual initiative has congruous action decision and action resolution, and if group initiative has diverged action decision and action resolution as discussed above in the previous section.

Some initiative systems are more realistic, allowing constant interruptions and simultaneous action resolution, but they tend to suffer in terms of pacing what they gain in terms of verisimilitude.

Having initiative systems determined by whim rather than statistics is another road, usually less travelled as far as RPG combat is concerned, but it can bring with it a strong sense of natural flow and momentum when the group is well-coordinated or well-conducted by a game-master.

The House Rule Test

  1. Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
  2. Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
  3. Is this rule as simple as possible?

Like in the last entry, these questions are best answered by you, not by me. The initiative systems I’ve presented here are but a small sampling of the kinds that exist, with what I hope was a pretty comprehensive overview of the different categories and what they’re good for. If your game isn’t in danger of going too slowly but is way too rigid feeling and needs some more player engagement and social focus? Go ahead and get some group initiative going and decouple action decision and resolution. If your game is going way too slowly? Maybe focus on individual initiative with closely coupled action decision and action resolution, verisimilitude and social problem solving be damned. Try using mechanical initiative where normally you use fiat initiative, or try using fiat initiative where normally you use mechanical initiative. Try recalculating initiative each round when normally you don’t, or try not doing it when normally you do. This is one of those things where you’re probably going to want to experiment, and all the while ask the three house rule test questions – they work just as well in retrospect as in prospect!

Ultimately, of course, you can probably subscribe to the simple notion “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If you and your group don’t think you need to make a change then don’t! But if you feel like, hey, yeah, maybe the way we do initiative could use some work? Hopefully this has been a help.


You can find further entries in this series as follows:
#2: Drawbacks
#3: Skilled Backstories
#4: Abstract Inventories

Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #4: Abstract Inventories

This is the fourth of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find the first part here.

Abstract Inventories: What are they?

Abstract inventories are essentially ways to reduce what your character carries to something that is more manageable than planning a real backpacking trip. This is a very diverse field, but some examples include the slot-based systems of Torchbearer and Dungeon World, or the “just use what seems reasonable” system of Fate. Many people already usurp the latter for use in their D&D games, but I’d like to talk about the former methods in particular.

Traditionally, the calculation of a character’s encumbrance in an RPG relied on two major factors: weight (or mass, which on Earth or an Earth-like-planet means basically the same thing for our purposes) and volume (or size). If you look back as far as 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons you’ll find the former factor at work, while it takes only a few years more for 2nd edition AD&D to add the latter, with various bags being listed with given volumes and of course items being listed with weights in tenths of pounds, itself a practice dating back to 1e’s listing of weights in coins, which were themselves tenths of pounds.

While it is really interesting, as a sidebar, that a game primarily about thieving treasure out from under the guard of dangerous monsters would give you an item’s weight literally in gold coins so you could tell, indeed, if the item was “worth its weight in gold” or not, it is also problematic for the reasons I’ll give next.

This turned out to be a bit of a problem. Volume quickly became finicky and was for most people the first thing on the chopping block, as people hated doing Tetris in their heads. Soon afterward, weight followed, and for many it probably even went first during the time of 1st edition. The game of D&D quickly became about “just carrying what seems reasonable”, a house-rule adopted by nearly all players of D&D today and the beginnings of abstracted inventories.

However, as mentioned above, there are other ways to abstract an inventory out that are more than just based on the fiat of the game-master to say “you can/cannot carry that”, which I’d like to talk about more.

My own first encounter with abstract inventories was from The Alexandrian’s encumbrance by stone system (follow the link at the header of the article to the OD&D version to get the gist of what it’s all about, that’s a hub article), whereby you bundle items into ~10-20 lb blocks (in the case of OD&D, 15) and only ever interact with them via those blocks. Items that aren’t sufficient to warrant their own block are bundled together into a fifth of a stone, and from there you add them together into a full stone. Basically, while it ignores volume for the most part, it turns weights in tenths of pounds (meaning you’ll regularly carry around a 3 digit number, sometimes a 4 digit number if you’re rather encumbered) into weights in whole numbers that for the most part stay under 10. This is a pretty good way to do it, but I wasn’t convinced it was as good as it could be, and so I carried on looking (at the time I was in need of some encumbrance-based-gameplay for thematic reasons).

Later on I found Matt Rundle’s Anti-Hammerspace Item Tracker, which really opened my eyes to the problem of ignoring volume – you start cramming everything “in your bag”, even if it wouldn’t fit. One particularly poignant example was a story I once heard (fictitious or otherwise, you decide) of a DM who showed his player there was no way to carry 150+ arrows in his backpack by going out and renting/buying (I’m fuzzy on that detail at this point, I heard it long ago) that many arrows and dumping them on the game table. While encumbrance by fiat for volume while still using weight seems like it might be realistic enough for most purposes, in reality people make this kind of mistake all the time. Humans are generally poor at visualizing 3 dimensional space, which is why mechanical and civil engineers are put through training in that regard. The anti-hammerspace item tracker hopes to fix this by cementing items to a specific location. This means not only can you interact with them (“your backpack flies open and your rations fly into the gaping maw of the purple worm!”) better than by fiat, but you have a pretty clear limit on how much to carry. Its slot-based design is very visual. Speaking of slot-based design, that’s also what Dungeon World uses – turning weights and volumes into an arbitrary number of “slots”, which you may have X number of.

Finally, I came across Roles Rules and Rolls’ Putting Two Great Ideas Together and I was in love. It had abstracted weights and volumes into simple to use, low value, whole numbers, and it also had a sheet by which you could have definite interactions with those items. It was simple and easy to use as well as visual, and also about as realistic as one could hope for. It says a lot, of course, that a game specifically about dungeon crawling (Torchbearer) from those who gave us Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard uses a very similar system.

An addition I came up with for many of these systems is that it is very easy to use physical tokens, like poker chips or beads or whatnot, to track consumables. Having 30 poker chips in front of you makes it easy to simply discard as many as arrows you shoot – much easier and much more visceral than erasing a number on a piece of paper!

Abstract Inventories: Why should you use them?

Abstract inventories are all various ways in which you can simplify encumbrance from “pack a real backpack full of this stuff and carry it around” at one end towards “just carry what seems reasonable” at the other end. Along the way are varying levels of realism and detail, many of which I’ve discussed above, including what each of them are for. This is a more general list, which I’ll keep shorter since this article is getting quite long:

  • Reduce the complexity of tracking what you’re carrying so that you can maintain momentum when you bring it up in gameplay.
  • Find the right level of realism for the theme of the campaign you’re running. At one end are things often better suited to a more realistic simulation of travelling, while at the other end are things often better suited to improvisational games.
  • For some, simply get the concept of “you can’t carry that much” back on the table in the first place! Lots of people ignore encumbrance thoroughly in games where it might be fun, if only it wasn’t so complicated!

The House Rule Test

  1. Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
  2. Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
  3. Is this rule as simple as possible?

This is a hard one for me to do within the scope of the article because so much relies on picking the right version for the game you want to play in. Ask yourself these questions in regards to making each of the above methods fit your game if the game’s encumbrance system as written doesn’t seem to do as good a job as you would like. Make sure that it fits the theme of the game (detailed encumbrance by weight and volume in a superhero game probably isn’t going to go over very well, nor is fiat in a hexcrawl), make sure that it actually seems like it would make things better, and make sure that you’re picking the version that is as simple as possible that still does that job.

You can find further entries in this series as follows:
#2: Drawbacks
#3: Skilled Backstories
#5: All About Initiative

Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #3: Skilled Backstories

This is the third of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find the first part here.

Skilled Backstories: What are they?

Several games use this mechanism, including two I’ve already covered: STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game and the Fate system games like Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files, Fate Core, and more. What I refer to as a “skilled backstory” is the mechanical coupling of your character’s backstory with the skills that you use in some way (for Fate this is via Aspects, while for STALKER it’s via skills, for instance). Traditionally the association is a skill or two for early life, a skill or two for your teenage years, and a skill or two you’ve picked up since then, but the exact matching of time period to number of skills varies (and that’s a good thing for us!).

A Skilled Backstory mechanism creates a forced link between a character’s backstory and their skills – where did they learn to be a doctor? A priest? A martial arts expert?

Skilled Backstories: Why should you use them?

Often times in the modern conception of a narrative-based PC-centric RPG, the GM will lack the proper kind of entities to grab on to in order to create a dramatic situation that can spin you all off into hours of improvised fun. Traditionally this is solved by creating a backstory for the characters – a way to ground them in the reality of the world by giving them a past that can be called upon for adventure fodder. This particular method of creating a backstory based on the skills you want, or choosing skills based on the backstory you want, gives this kind of purchase for the GM to grab on to.

Furthermore, it also helps to resolve the “dropped into the world fully formed from the head of Zeus” problem that tends to afflict RPG characters. By showing how they arrived where they are today you have one of the more useful kinds of backstories – one that is relatively concise and to the point.

  • Grounds the characters in reality. You know how they got where they are.
  • Provides hooks for the GM to grab and use in crafting adventures. If you learn a skill chances are it was through contact with society in some way and not navel-gazing, which means whatever part of society the character contacted can show up for an encore performance.
  • Provides an opportunity for guest-starring or drawback implementation, as per the first two posts of this series.

The House Rule Test

  1. Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
  2. Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
  3. Is this rule as simple as possible?

This rule is pretty short and sweet – a couple of sentences saying where you got to be so darn proficient at something in trade for giving your character a history that the GM can use is the very definition of an affirmative to rules 2 and 3. In many cases, when running a PC-centric narrative RPG, this idea of locking the characters’ skills to their backstories works really well. I definitely recommend giving it a go if that’s the kind of game you want to run but the system you use doesn’t have an equivalent system available.

You can find further entries in this series as follows:
#2: Drawbacks
#4: Abstract Inventories
#5: All About Initiative