Category Archives: musings

D&D is Weird, and That’s Fine

Even though back in my Yaruki Zero book I had an entire section about D&D, I’m still grappling with it. There are a lot of reasons for that, the biggest being that it continues to dominate RPGs, even as there are new developments in how people relate to RPGs. Podcasts and other online media have given us actual play shows with a heightened level of polish, to the point where they can develop their own fandoms, but I still find myself feeling the need to remind people that RPGs other than D&D do in fact exist. D&D is also genuinely a very deep an interesting topic though, and we’re belatedly starting to get a clearer picture of its history.

Despite its position of dominance and its massive cultural reach, D&D is a very strange game, even within the weird niche that is tabletop RPGs. It’s not a bad game, but it is an incredibly specific one, in countless ways. It’s situated in a “dungeon fantasy” subgenre that it created, and despite its massive popularity, in many ways it sits outside the mainstream of tabletop RPG design.

Wargame Origins

D&D evolved out of wargames, and there were more transitional forms than people realize. Wargames are roughly divided into miniatures and board wargames. Board wargames typically come complete in a box, with maps and cardboard chits, whereas miniatures wargames were a surprisingly informal and creative hobby, even though in the 60s and 70s they’d attracted a fanbase that looked down on anything not based in historical warfare. The vagueness of miniatures wargames caused a lot of disputes during play, which led to experiments with having a human referee. The referee role existing led to the referee making rulings on the fly, so that players could conceivably try things that weren’t in the rules. The rulebook might not have anything to say about whether units can ford a river, but a referee can make a ruling and the game can roll on. I think that’s a really interesting development for wargames, and in general it’s rare to see anything remotely like it in tabletop games other than RPGs. These days, while wargame rules aren’t always as clear as would be ideal, they’re closer to board games in that they generally allow for straightforward play without recourse to a referee. (And the most played wargames today are ones with copious fantastical elements.) While this was of course before the internet, the wargames scene communicated more broadly through zines, letting these gamers communicate these ideas around the country and beyond.

white box
…And Some Friends and Polyhedral Dice Even Though They (The Dice) Are Hard To Find Because It Is 1974

Continue reading D&D is Weird, and That’s Fine


Tools for Dreaming: Publishing

Apart from some appendices that aren’t really ready, this is the last chapter of Tools for Dreaming, which is advice on how to go about getting your game out to the world, with an emphasis on self-publishing (since that’s by far the most practical way to go about it these days). Much like with the previous chapter, it’s basically stuff I’ve figured out through trial and error, and I’m sure someone with more experience could fill in some stuff.

There was a time when publishing an RPG meant you had to either find an existing publisher or take out a second mortgage. Nowadays publishing is vastly easier, and can range anywhere from putting a PDF up on a website for free to running a Kickstarter and doing a traditional print run.[1] Turning a game into a fully realized book can be really satisfying (though a lot of work), but don’t feel obligated to go that far. I’m generally of the opinion that (almost) anything worth making is worth sharing, but you don’t even have to do that if you don’t want to. If you do want to share it, you can do any number of things less involved than a fully-illustrated book.

One of my self-published games is called Raspberry Heaven. It’s the result of a decade of off and on struggle to figure out how to make an RPG for charming slice of life stories about schoolgirls in the style of manga like Azumanga Daioh and Hidamari Sketch. I went through three radically different versions of it before Jonathan Walton’s game Restless game me the inspiration I needed to finish it. The result is a game that comes as a set of 6”x6” cards, and it’s a weird story game with no GM or stats involved. It hasn’t sold a lot, but it’s more important that I achieved something as a game designer, and now I have a fun game I can play with friends. Continue reading Tools for Dreaming: Publishing

Tools for Dreaming: Games Given Form

This chapter is my attempt at providing advice on stuff like layout. It’s something I’m still working on myself, but I’ve at least distilled what I’ve learned (with a lot of trial and error) here.

The next chapter gets into the details of publishing per se. This chapter is about how to take an RPG you’ve created and make it into something you can show to the world.


Like a lot of things in most any creative endeavor, there’s not really any single way to decide on a title. It depends a lot on your particular project and the audience you’re going after. For a retroclone intended to evoke old-school D&D, an alliterative title with an ampersand in the middle could be a good way to communicate what you’re about. Titles like Dogs in the Vineyard or Thou Art But a Warrior may not grab your average geek, but that’s totally fine if you’re going for a different crowd.

While keyword optimization can be kind of obnoxious, it pays to google potential titles to see if there’s anything else out there already, and generally if it’s possible to find your game online. Even if you’re unlikely to get into legal trouble, a name that resembles something else makes it harder for people to find your game even if they do know the name. I like the title of my card game Channel A overall, but it’s also the name of a Korean TV channel, so to find it online you have to search for something like “channel a card game” unless you really want to dig through posts about Korean pop stars.

In the 1980s Steve Jackson Games developed a multi-genre RPG—not the first of its kind, but one of the most notable—and in 1986 they published it under what had been a placeholder title, “GURPS,” short for “Generic Universal RolePlaying System.”        That in turn made acronym titles kind of a running gag in the RPG world, with the likes of FUDGE (Freeform Universal Donated Game Engine),[1] TWERPS (The World’s Easiest Role-Playing System), CORPS (Complete Omniversal Role Playing System), SLUG (Simple Laid-back Universal Game), and there are more but we don’t have all day. Some are old favorites, some are well-supported small press games, and a lot are joke games. I won’t say you should never go for a title like that, but I wouldn’t personally unless it was a particular kind of satire or I had devised an agonizingly clever pun. Continue reading Tools for Dreaming: Games Given Form

Tools for Dreaming: Combat and Conflict

This is my attempt at exploring different issues relating to combat in RPGs, with an emphasis on alternatives to the traditional methods of handling it. Some parts are more developed than others. The “Shared Narration” bit is something I want to experiment with in a game (I’m working on a short RPG called “Zero Breakers” that’s basically a proof of concept for that), and I feel like tactical combat merits a longer and more sophisticated discussion, perhaps moreso than I’m really equipped to provide.

Perhaps because they grew out of wargames, combat has always been an important part of most RPGs. In actual play, they’re often not as combat-centric as the considerable page count devoted to combat rules might suggest, but RPGs that don’t make violent action a key component of gameplay are still the exception to the rule. Violence is so prevalent in the medium that it’s hard to remove or even alter the amount of violent content in a game without it feeling at least a little bit like a political statement.

Geek culture in general tends to have a disproportionate number of narratives that involve a great deal of violence, as well as games where it’s the most developed and enjoyable part of gameplay. It’s hard to pinpoint where that came from. A lot of the early greats of science fiction like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke didn’t have much violence in their stories, but then they were more on the intellectual end of SF, and the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek were what became iconic franchises. I’m not going to advocate for eliminating violence from pop culture or geek culture, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to look at it with a more critical eye.

In real life, violence is chaotic, intense, and too often horrifying. Primal instincts sear it into your memory. Sometimes it arguably can serve a righteous purpose, but in violent conflicts between human beings, at least one side is doing something immoral. Fantasy violence is nothing like that. It’s often an exhilarating clash, as much about the stories and principles at play as the details of attacks and defenses. Continue reading Tools for Dreaming: Combat and Conflict

Tools for Dreaming: Randomness

This is the all-important chapter on randomness. I feel like it needs more detail and rigor about statistics, but that’ll require me learning more about statistics and probabilities. Right now this chapter is a lot about how randomness fits into the overall experience. There’s a short section I want to do but haven’t yet on “other uses for dice,” with things like using them as counters, stacking, roll-and-spend (a la Dogs in the Vineyard), etc.

The vast majority of RPGs make extensive use of randomness, and most of those use dice to achieve that randomness. Randomness isn’t a necessity, but it’s deeply ingrained and legitimately useful. It introduces a level of controlled unpredictability that can keep gameplay popping. However, it’s important to also think about where the randomness slots into the overall experience, and be aware of what the actual odds are.

Doing the Math

If you’re going to make a game where probability plays a role, you need to understand the math involved and make it work as well as you can before you even begin playtesting. Games tend to have enough moving parts that it’s hard to anticipate everything, but that’s all the more reason to begin with a sound theory. My own preferred approach is to keep the math simple and the numbers low. That’s partly because I don’t have that much of a head for numbers, and partly because it makes it that much easier to figure out what’s going on and fix things that aren’t working right.

A traditional RPG has an action resolution system, which is to say a set of rules to determine whether a given discrete action succeeds. From 3rd Edition onward, D&D’s action resolution system has had you roll a 20-sided die and add whatever applicable modifiers you have, and you succeed if your total matches or exceeds a target number. In the case of an attack, you add your attack bonus, and you hit if you can reach the target’s Armor Class, while for skills you add your skill bonus and need to reach a Difficulty Class. That mechanic itself is simple enough, but the things that go into it get a bit complicated, since a character’s attack bonus comes from a mathematical formula involving around 2 to 6 different numbers. Thus, the designers at Wizards of the Coast have the rather complex task of making sure that the bonuses that characters get add up to something that leads them to have a suitable ratio of success to failure.

There are many different types of dice (and other randomizers) that RPG designers have used over the years. The most important distinction is between flat and curved probabilities. If you roll a single die, each possible result has an equal chance of coming up. On a d20, the numbers 1 through 20 each have a 5% chance of coming up on any given roll.[1] On the other hand, if you roll two or more dice, it creates a probability curve, and results in the middle are more likely to show up because there are more combinations that can produce them. If you roll two six-sided dice, you only have a 1 in 36 chance of rolling a 2, but a 1 in 6 (or 6 in 36) chance of rolling a 7. This is because there’s only one combination of two dice that can add up to 2, whereas there are six different combinations that can add up to 7.

Continue reading Tools for Dreaming: Randomness

Tools for Dreaming: Structures of Play

This is probably the most important chapter of Tools for Dreaming, as it delves directly into the core structures of RPGs and role-play. Particularly in some of the later parts it still feels underdeveloped, but I feel like I’m definitely on the right track in terms of what ideas it is that I’m grappling with.

Role-playing is an activity that you can do without rules. A group of people can decide what characters they’re going to play and in what situation, and just start role-playing. There are a lot of areas where people do just that. In terms of the sizes of their followings, freeform fandom RP, therapeutic role-playing, educational role-playing, and improv each dwarf tabletop RPGs. Saying that these activities lack rules is misleading, but what “rules” they do have are structures and parameters rather than the kind that involve numbers or dice. We’re now seeing a flowering of a niche of RPGs that are closer to these other forms of RP, but these forms are also a useful tool for better understanding how things work even in traditional RPGs.

One non-definitive way to look at RPG rules is as a labor-saving device, a means to shape role-playing to achieve a specific type of play more easily. Freeform role-play forms a baseline, and an RPG is in a sense a set of modifications to that. From that point of view, the question of RPG design then becomes “What modifications do I need to make to help achieve the kind of experience I want?” You might be surprised just how minimal an RPG’s rules can be and still foster compelling and flavorful play, though of course more complex rules have their own merits, provided the complexity is purposeful. While the die rolls are important to how an RPG works, the broader structures of play are vital.

Continue reading Tools for Dreaming: Structures of Play

Tools for Dreaming: Walking the Path

This chapter isn’t really done, but I’m pretty happy with the parts that are finished. It’s sort of a catch-all for different things about what being a game designer entails.

Walking the Path

Playing RPGs is already a niche hobby that requires effort and creativity, and while making them doesn’t have to be as daunting as it might sound, it’s a strange and wonderful niche within a niche. I’ve tried my hand at several other creative pursuits, and while RPG design has some distinct quirks, it’s still fundamentally a creative outlet. That means that there are distinct parallels between the emotional life of an RPG designer and a novelist or graphic artist. It requires constant striving, always working to improve your craft. This chapter has some thoughts on the creative life of an RPG designer.

Just Make Something

Continue reading Tools for Dreaming: Walking the Path