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→
This section is basically about how we write up characters in RPGs, and how designers create processes for doing that. Some parts of this chapter aren’t quite there yet, but overall I think it’s coming together pretty well.
Given that the word “role” is in the name, we can assume that an RPG calls for having defined characters. The question is how we go about providing a way for players to effectively define their characters. It’s in the nature of RPGs that character creation is generally a combination of dreaming up a fictional character and assembling an abstract mechanical construct. These two aspects of RPG characters necessarily interrelate and have decidedly blurry edges.
Most RPGs give characters some kind of numerical values, variously called stats, attributes, ability scores, etc., to represent how effective they are in various areas. Some games make the actual numbers for characters’ stats substantially larger or smaller than others. In my mind this is another case where designers have been a little too willing to base things on tradition and the apparent feel of things rather than what function they serve at the game table. D&D traditionally had stats that ranged from 3 to 18 (coming from a 3d6 roll), but in earlier editions they didn’t distinguish characters mechanically all that much, and in later editions the ability score modifier mechanic meant that they were a step removed from the smaller numbers you actually used in play.
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. 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.
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.
This is kind of a weird chapter, directly inspired by a particular Adam Curtis documentary. If you’re not familiar with his work, I highly recommend checking out basically anything he’s done, though they’re one of those things (like Charlie Brooker’s various -Wipe shows) that the BBC doesn’t bother releasing outside the UK, so you may have to look for them on YouTube or whatever. I think the conclusion of this chapter is kind of weak, and it’s something I need to figure out how to develop better.
Games for the Human Animal
Adam Curtis is a brilliant British documentarian whose work is mainly about, as he puts it, “power and how it works in society.” A lot of his films are about things like the War on Terror and geopolitics, but in The Century of the Self he explores how Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays and others applied psychoanalysis to foster the consumer culture we have today and reshape modern politics, particularly in the US and UK. That’s some heady stuff. It’s well worth seeking out the documentary for purely educational reasons, but there are also ways in which it’s relevant to role-playing games.
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.
This chapter of Tools for Dreaming is an attempt at pushing a philosophy I call “conscious design,” in contrast to what I see as the problem of unthinking repetition of RPG design cliches. This is so, so not me lording over other people. There are so many design cliches that I struggle with all the time. The influence of Apocalypse World has helped me get better at realizing my RPG ideas, but I’m well aware that that comes with a set of deign cliches too.
“Engage in conscious design.” That’s my most important bit of design advice, not only for RPGs, but for anything. I put it on a T-shirt even.
When you design a game, you can do just about anything, but you need to do it consciously, and be aware of the effects things have on play. That’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s something that RPGs need to get better at. There are patterns that RPG design falls into, and while there’s merit in using methods you and your audience are familiar with, the unthinking repetition of well-worn conventions may have stunted the medium’s growth. That’s to be expected when such a large portion of this hobby is dedicated to relatively minor variations of D&D, but unless Wizards of the Coast or Paizo are seriously looking at your resume, you shouldn’t be beholden to Gary Gygax’s highly specific vision.
The first proper chapter after the introduction to Tools for Dreaming delves into the question of what the heck an RPG actually is. There were a few unfinished sections I cut out of this blog post version, most notable a piece about how whatever the designers might try to sell their games as, RPG play is often silly and violent.
What is an RPG?
No, seriously, what exactly is a role-playing game? If you’re reading this, chances are you already have your own answer, but I guarantee there are people out there who disagree with you. Luckily (sort of), there’s no single right answer to that question.
Having a clear definition of something is generally useful. If I use the word “ostensibly” in a sentence, it’s better for you to know that it basically means “apparently” or “outwardly.” On the other hand, there are cases where trying to come up with a definition becomes counterproductive. That’s especially true when the thing we’re trying to define has a lot of fuzzy edge cases, and even more so when the people writing definitions have an agenda. People who argue over the definition of “RPG” tend to be pushing for one that emphasizes their preferred kinds, and sometimes one that excludes other kinds. Ultimately, “RPGs” are “the sorts of things that people call RPGs,” but whether a work is compelling is much more important than whether it technically fits into a box.
A couple years ago I started writing a book on RPG design called “Tools for Dreaming.” It’s wound up being kind of a massive project–the manuscript is already 73,000 words and feels incomplete–and I’m trying to figure out what exactly to do with it. Finishing it the way I started it will require kind of a lot of research and work. I’m considering taking the various parts and turning them into one or more smaller, more focused books, but that’ll also take some time and thought. In the meantime, I’ve decided to start posting the more developed parts of it as a series of blog posts, in the hopes that it will be of use to someone, help me figure out where I’m going with this, and perhaps provoke some discussion and feedback.
So let’s get this whole thing started with the introduction, which is kind of a long, flailing attempt to lay out a bunch of preliminaries and disclaimers.
Role-playing games are in an odd place today. There’s no denying that the entire medium isn’t nearly as popular as it once was. On a purely commercial level, the entire industry has shrunk since the heyday of the 80s and 90s, and game stores make more money from other types of tabletop games. On the other hand, in terms of the variety and quality of games that are coming out, the medium is the best it’s ever been. It may not be a great time to start an RPG publishing business, but it’s a great time to be a fan of new and interesting games, and a fascinating time to be a game designer.
I first encountered d66 tables in Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, but I first started taking them seriously because of Maid: The Role-Playing Game. While working on The Dungeon Zone, I started writing a section on creating new moves, which naturally led to a section on creating d66 tables, which didn’t quite fit in TDZ and could be helpful to people working on other sorts of projects anyway. So, these are some tips for assembling good tables, drawing on my fairly unique experience of making literally hundreds of them across various games and even just making tables for their own sake.
“d66” is the term used in the Japanese TRPG scene for a tens-and-ones roll with two six-sided dice. It’s very much like how you can do a percentile roll with two d10s, and each roll gives you one of 36 possible results numbered 11 to 66. I kinda hope that the d66 terminology catches on so that it becomes easier to explain to people, but anyway.
I mainly work in Microsoft Word (I really need to learn InDesign one of these days), and in Word I typically write things up as a numbered list (so that I know when I’ve gotten to 36), and then apply the Normal style to it, and then copy and paste it into a table. (I also like to use the Sort function to alphabetize them, but I’m weird that way.) Word has table styles (in the Design tab of the Table Tools that come up when you’re editing a table), and I like to make them with alternating shaded rows and no borders, but of course you can do what you like. Once you type up 11 to 66 once, you can copy it to future tables you make.
To get started, you basically just have to sit down and pick a topic for your table, then start typing up a list of things to populate it with until you have enough. Chances are you don’t have enough things for the table just off the top of your head, so it helps to look at relevant books, Wikipedia articles, or other websites. If you want to make a random spell table, a Players Handbook or a wiki of spells would be a good place to turn for ideas.
I find it’s not unlike other creative endeavors in that sometimes I need to step away from a project for a bit, or look for sources of inspiration, or just get out a notebook and jot things down as they come to me. Sometimes–especially for stuff like random events–I’ll end up just plain sitting down and watching a TV series with a notebook on hand.
The Right Size
The amount of elements available within the table’s topic will determine the actual size of the table. A basic d66 table has 36 entries, which I find to be just right for most things, but you can vary it a bit:
x2 Numbering: By numbering the table index 11-12, 13-14, and so on, you can make a table with 18 entries instead of 36. For some topics I’ve found that a full 36 entries is just too many.
x3 Numbering: You can go one further by numbering the table index in increments of 3 (11-13, 14-16, etc.) to make a table with only 12 entries. You can do it with other multiples (like 4, giving you a table of 9 possible results) or stagger the numbers by uneven amounts, but doing so tends to make the table less readable.
d6 Table: The very simplest thing you can do is just make a table based on rolling a single die. For some things there are so few possibilities that it makes sense to have a table of only 6 results, or possible even fewer.
Sub-Tables: The Special Qualities table in Maid RPG makes use of “sub-tables.” If you roll any of the SQs numbered 41 or higher, you then make a 1d6 roll on a secondary table to get a more specific SQ. That gives that particular table 126 possible results, with several being six times more likely to come up. They can be a handy way to drill down and explore a branch of your table in more depth without having to go for a full-on d666 table.
d666 Table: Adding a hundreds digit to your d66 roll gives you a d666 roll, affording you a grand total of 216 possibilities. This mainly works for topics where you have a fairly large number of small things. You can get more ambitious and have a d666 table with longer individual entries (check out the Morning Announcements table in Kagegami High pp. 136-150), but it’s going to be time-consuming and painful, even if you do end up satisfied with the result.
Number of Columns
One important consideration is the number of columns. Here I’m not talking about how you lay out the table on the page, but the number of things you roll for to use the table in its entirety. Multi-column tables are harder to make, but the random combinations mean literally exponentially more possibilities. A single-column d66 table has 36 possible results, but a double-column one has 1,296 possible results, and if you manage a three-column one it jumps up to 46,646.
Things That Fit
Especially for multi-column tables, you need to look at each entry and think about whether it really fits together with the rest of the table. In the case of a single-column table, that’s just a matter of making sure every entry is an appropriate example of what the table is supposed to be about. For the Pole Arm table in TDZ, I just had to come up with a suitable list of 36 pole arms, and while I nearly exhausted what Wikipedia had to offer on the subject, it was pretty straightforward. The Gamer Additional Languages table was a little trickier, because I had to actually think about and research what kinds of other languages nerds might know. I’m inordinately pleased with myself for having “High School Spanish” be an entry distinct from “Spanish,” and looking over lists of constructed languages yielded Klingon and Dothraki. But given that RPG players are primarily white guys (though I count some very good friends among the exceptions), other real-life languages are trickier. Still, given the range of nerds I’ve met here in California, it felt reasonable to include languages like Vietnamese and Tagalog. The creative challenge of figuring out enough suitable things to reach the right number of elements can force you to come up with some interesting stuff, but sometimes it turns out that you need to make a smaller table or just abandon that particular table altogether.
Things get significantly more complicated when you have multiple columns, because you have to think about how they fit together. That was something I first started to encounter when I decided to try my hand at making my own Cards Against Humanity cards. I haven’t been able to figure out the proper grammatical term, but the white cards in CAH are normally either a noun or an -ing verb, either of which can have various adjectives, adverbs, etc. attached. When I tried to make a black card playing off of that one song from Macross, having it be “My boyfriend’s a _____________ now.” didn’t work with a lot of the white cards because the “a” screwed up the grammar. When you make a multi-column table, even if you don’t have the formal grammatical terminology, you need to figure out what things fit and what don’t.
This is at its easiest when each column has a very simple and clear grammatical form you can follow. Personal names are one of the simplest in this regard, since you can just have columns for first and last names (and possibly split the first names into male and female). I once made a table of monster names, where the first column was all adjectives (Dire, Three-Eyed, Water, Lesser, etc.) and the second was all nouns for monster types (Beast, Golem, Slime, Spawn, etc.). One setup that I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of for fantasy/pulp sounding names is “The X of Y,” which worked nicely for things like grimoires (“The Codex of Ineffable Magics”) or pulp titles (“The Tomb of the Golden Masks”).
One little workaround that I’ve developed is to include parentheticals that make let a given element click together with multiple types of elements. For example, my Martial Arts Movie Titles table has “Fist of (the)” in the first column, so that it can fit with other entries in the second column to form titles like “Fist of Blood” as well as “Fist of the White Lotus.” Of course, in that respect titles of things like anime and Japanese video games are especially fun to work with, since they largely ignore rules of grammar in both English and Japanese, so that most anything can go with most anything else. (On the other hand, I found it basically impossible to make tables for light novel titles, which are known for being long, baroque, and ridiculous, with no two quite the same.)
Proofing and Testing
Once you have things written up, you need to of course proofread and test the resulting table. Making these tables is partly a writing exercise, so of course you need to do proofing more or less like you would with any other piece of writing.
The single most common issue I run into is simply having duplicate entries. Particularly when I’m having trouble coming up with elements to go into a table, I can end up putting the same thing in twice. Aside from how it satisfies my desire to organize things, one of the benefits of sorting table entries is that it makes duplicate entries much easier to catch. (It also has the benefit of putting the table entries into a new order and forcing you to look at them from a different perspective.)
While the aforementioned exponential nature of multi-column tables makes it totally unreasonable to expect anyone to look at every single possible combination, you should play with the table a bit to see if it’s really producing the right kinds of results (whatever that means for the purpose you have in mind). Eyeball some different possible combinations and do some rolling as well to see if you’re getting results that are sufficiently cool/funny/whatever for your purpose, and try to look at each individual element and see if it generally works. You may need to weed some out and figure out replacements, which may be difficult if you were already straining to get up to the requisite number of elements.
Anyway, that’s what I have to say about making d66 tables, though you can apply these general techniques to other things, like text that goes on cards or other configurations of tables (like I made tables for use with playing card draws in Melancholy Kaiju)–basically anything with discrete elements that you assemble randomly and let people recontextualize and reinterpret.
I’ve found d66 tables to be an incredibly useful tool in RPG design, and through my Ewen’s Tables stuff I’ve ended up turning using them as a sort of metafictional poetic form, most often for humor, and occasionally for satire as well (as in the case of the “Workshop Games” table I made that lampoons the goofy names of units in Games Workshop’s wargames). The major thing I’ve developed that keeps me coming back to using them in so many of my games is marrying various “soft” character traits similar to the questions in Don’t Rest Your Head with optional random tables similar to the ones in Maid RPG. It’s a useful way to package those kinds of things with a set of examples as well as to give players the (very popular!) option to just generate a character randomly. They’re also just a great way to give GMs tools to turn to when they need ideas for basically anything, which is a concept I took to its furthest extreme in Kagegami High, where the majority of the 168-page book has d66 numbering so that you can use a ton of things in a randomized fashion.