Session Zero

Indie TTRPG, GMing, and the philosophy of play.

If you like quest stories like Gawain and the Green Knight or the Grail cycle, then you may want to check out the new tool I've published on my itch page. Follow the Bones is a set of supplementary rules and tables for generating weird and surprising quests in a medieval fantasy forest. It's suitable for group play, but also useful as a way of generating unexpected encounters and scenes in a solo game.

Some design notes: I've been kicking a prototype of Follow the Bones around the NSR Discord server for a few months now, where I hacked it together as a setting builder for Yochai Gal's Cairn. The current version of Cairn has a very lightly implied setting, and I cooked up Follow the Bones as a procedure for rounding out those suggestions, without being too definite about the greater world of the game. That said, the NPCs and items mentioned in the prompts are statless, so there's no reason you couldn't also use it to supplement other fantasy games, like Trophy or Dungeon World.

The idea was simply to use randomly combined impressions, selected by rolling several four-sided dice, to evoke scenes and situations. As the imagery accumulates, the outline of a plot may begin to take shape. That's strung together along a journey narrative — you've set out to find a specific cairn in the Wood — which gives the succession of scenes a loose kind of coherence. If you're acquainted with the weird literature of medieval fairy tales and legend, the way that these incidents compound upon one another and reflect back onto the significance of your character's quest should feel familiar.

The Forests of Another Name jam seemed like a good occasion to give the whole thing a final polish. A few other entries have already been submitted, and I know of at least a half-dozen other designers and artists who are working on more, so if you enjoy Cairn, be sure to check that out.

#FollowTheBones #Cairn #SymbolicCity #itch #Trophy #DungeonWorld #gamejam

Twice today, entirely by coincidence, I've run across different versions of a claim that might seem uncontroversial, but is worth questioning. The first version hails from a recently republished post from 2019, “On the Rules of the Game “, on Courtney Campbell's Hack & Slash blog.

A role-playing game is a game in which you play a role.

The second instance comes from an even older post, “Dissociated Mechanics – A Brief Primer”, on Justin Alexander's blog, The Alexandrian, which I've had open in my browser for a few days but hadn't gotten around to reading until tonight. Alexander states the claim a touch more strongly:

Roleplaying games are self-evidently about playing a role.

Are they, though? There's a case to be made that roles were genuinely central to early versions of D&D, but to understand what we mean by that, we would have to begin by clarifying what we mean by “role.” Alexander elaborates:

Playing a role is making choices as if you were the character. Therefore, in order for a game to be a roleplaying game (and not just a game where you happen to play a role), the mechanics of the game have to be about making and resolving choices as if you were the character.

So now we have, if not a definition, then a correlation, at least: a role is something you play by behaving like a character. Linguistically (which is, as far as I can tell, the way in which the initial claim is “self-evident”) you could tie this to the theatrical use of “role” to mean a character played by an actor. In the context of role-playing games, though, the association is perhaps less straightforward than it might seem. In practice, role and character end up being somewhat different, and those differences can add up to quite a lot, depending on the game.

Take, for example, Bilbo Baggins. Much of the dramatic tension of The Hobbit stems from the mismatch between his character (fussy, domestic, timid) and the role (burglar) that Gandalf has assigned him. Playing the burglar eventually reveals that Bilbo can also be resourceful, pioneering and brave, but those, too, are elements not of his role, but of his character, his personality. The role has merely revealed them.

As best I can tell, the roles in early role playing games were drawn along similar lines. They were, that is to say, behavioral expectations that relate people to one another in a particular social context — namely, the context of an adventuring party. Like The Hobbit's burglar, they were described in pseudo-occupational terms, or “classes.” Fighting-man, magic-user and cleric served to divvy up the tasks that make it possible to successfully undertake the sorts of adventures D&D presented. You could portray your character as a distinct personality, and I have little doubt that players did so from the very start, but the behaviors that moved the game along were those you performed by virtue of playing occupationally — by playing, that is, roles in the more or less plain sense of the term.

(Race and alignment complicate the picture a bit, and it could be argued that adding those to class results in a bundle of traits you could reasonably call a character. Cleric alone may be a role, but your character isn't just a cleric, she's a lawful halfling cleric. Does that dissolve the character–role distinction I've drawn? I don't think so, but even if it did, we may not be comfortable with the result. Part of the reason so many fantasy role playing games are open to accusations of biological determinism is that, in practice, implementations of race tend to play like a role. They set behavioral expectations; they reinforce those expectations with stats, abilities and special rules; they proscribe social relations. To see “halfling” as a major component of character invites a reductive view of personality, and to what end? On the whole, it may be better to see race and alignment as two ways early RPGs complicated the roles afforded by class. They meant that two players could choose to play as the same class without becoming utterly redundant thereby.)

Observing the distinction between role and character allows us to see two things more clearly. The first is how character-playing arose largely as an additive layer that players brought to bear on games that, at the textual level, structured play around roles. Much could be said about this — much has been said, though in different terms, perhaps — but for now suffice it to point out that this shadow game is almost as important to our conception of role-playing as nearly anything else in the hobby, and it grew so rapidly in parallel with the written rules as to be practically coeval.

The other point is that, in some ways, the situation has changed. There are still many, many games where “character generation” is a process of building a role. The tradition of defining a character according to class persists, as do the complications of race and alignment (though often in altered form), both explicitly in games with direct ties to D&D, as well as in modified form, as with the playbooks of the Apocalypse World lineage. But other games have de-emphasized role construction altogether. There are “classless games,” where the features that distinguish characters are the result of possessions or behaviors made during the course of play. The backgrounds of games like Troika often split the difference between role and character prompt. Other games have devised rule-based procedures for encouraging and guiding the expression of character. One might even suppose that the impulse to distinguish “story games” from traditional role-playing arose in part from a desire to foreground character-play by embedding it at the level of design. If the various renaissances and revolutions that make up the current era in role-playing are characterized by explorations of form, then character-play should be recognized as one of its frontiers.

I've posted a new adventure over on my itch page. The Stone Beast's Crown is a supplement for momatoes' excellent ARC RPG. Your heroes arrive in the walled town of New Bast just in time for the Festival of King Gneiss. When the guest of honor's crown is stolen overnight, the town goes into lock down to recover it. Find the culprit before the beast awakes, or New Bast is doomed!

This is the first full adventure I've published. It was conceived as an entry for Chris Bisette's Random Adventure Jam, starting with a title from his Adventure Title Generator). I struck early on the idea of structuring it as an investigation, but had initially planned to write it for a different system. Two features convinced me to switch to ARC. The first was the Doomsday Clock, which solved the problem of how to exert time as a pressure. The second was the division of conflict counters into Blood and Guts (as opposed to, say, Hit Points). Targeting Guts made sense as a way of measuring progress in the social disputes that form such a big part of the adventure's investigatory procedure.

Because the game in its current form is untested, it's currently pay-what-you-want. If you give it a shot, please circle back to the itch page and leave some feedback.

#arc #SymbolicCity #itch

Back in October, I suggested to my table that we put our UVG campaign on hiatus for a week to throw in a special horror-themed one-shot for Halloween. I had a specific one-shot in mind, and it wasn't until after excitement began to build around the idea that I decided there were too many ways for that one to go wrong.

The replacement I landed on was Liminal Horror, a modern-day urban/cosmic horror game in the Cairn lineage. Which is to say: a streamlined NSR game with a stress mechanic for simulating the psychological effects of supernatural horror.

How simple? Most moves are resolved via discussion. Rolls come into play only when there's some specific and immanent risk, and even then only in the form of saves. Roll under one of three ability scores in order to avoid some specific consequence. Damage is automatic, factoring in the character's Hit Protection, and subtracted from either Strength or Control. Damage to Control eventually causes Fallout, resulting in weird side effects from the characters' encounters with the supernatural.

Comparatively simple, but sometimes simplicity creates more opportunities for things to go wrong. My big concern, going in, was that the modern-day setting made movement less structured than you might find in a medieval fantasy or sci-fi game. Those tend to have a well-defined division between wilderness and settlement, and a built-in excuse for dropping players into closed labyrinths. The urban milieu, by contrast, threatened to be messier, more abstract, less compartmentalized.

No doubt, some of the locales we ended up playing did feel flimsy. Solid prep feels more essential to Liminal Horror than in some of the other games I dealt with recently, but it's difficult to anticipate where players will want to take their characters when your milieu is a modern city. Nevertheless, we wound up having effective scenes against a variety of backdrops: conversations in diners, some low-speed vehicular cat-and-mouse, a tense rescue on a fire-escape, a heart-to-heart in a skate park, a nearly disastrous stake-out in a morgue.

Also surprising, given our constraints, was how much the players managed to flesh out their characters. In the interest of expediency, we used Liminal Horror's quick character creation method, and I warned everyone that the game was structured to play rough with their characters. If anyone died, we'd roll a new character for the bereaved player and leave the body where it lay. Yet, almost immediately, backstories began to percolate around each character.

In part, that was simply a side effect of thinking aloud about how the characters might respond to each obstacle. How often implies why. Why sent them brainstorming for biographical details. One character, they decided, was a single father, worried that his teenage daughter had fallen in with a cult. Another was the social worker he called in for help. Together, they enlisted the third, an archivist, who we positioned as a researcher specializing in cults. Almost out of nowhere, the party had a raison d'être — an uncommonly solid one in a hobby that often contents itself with treasure hunters and murder hobos.

The daughter complicated things, though. My prep did, in fact, contain a secret society you could reasonably call a cult, but she didn't really fit the profile I had worked out for recruitment. As long as she was pure background, that hardly mattered. When the heroes went back and check in on her, though, I had to make a choice. Changing the profile was one option, and in all honestly, I'd likely have been the only one to notice the change. Instead, I declared that she had fallen in with the school misfits, one of whom had recently dropped out of the secret society. Normally, I hold with the idea that you should be willing to part with your prep the moment player interest points down a different path, but in this case, trying to salvage the prep paid off. The daughter's friend quickly turned into a compelling character in his own right. The party took under their wing, which allowed for a narrative turn my players likely would not have accepted had it occurred to the daughter they had created.

Steadily, things fell together. I fumbled a bit on one of the combat rules, but everyone rolled with the correction, and anyway, they seemed intent on avoiding combat right up until the crisis point. The scenario ran longer than I had intended, but wound up describing a complete narrative arc. Its conclusion managed to both maintain thematic consistency as well as afford the characters agency. The results seemed to satisfy everyone at the table, even as it sealed their doom.

#LiminalHorror #Cairn

Several times now, I've come across GM advice on the importance of leading questions. The problem such questions aren't meant to address is that we sometimes want players to contribute to the fiction, and they’re not always sure how to do that. The solution some GMs have struck upon is to ask questions that guide their players toward a playable response. So instead of asking a player how the NPC bartender feels about their character, the GM asks something more pointed: “What happened in your past to make the bartender hate your guts.”

“Leading question,” in that sense, has become a veritable term of art in GMing, but what we’re looking for generally aren’t leading questions in the popular sense. Leading questions are what lawyers ask witnesses when they already know the answer and want it entered into the record. Sometimes, they're used to surreptitiously suggest what the witness ought to say, as opposed to what they would say on their own, much to the judge's ire.

Hopefully, that's not what most GMs are after. We may have an idea of what a player could answer, and their actual answer may even match that expectation. But if the questions we're asking are genuinely leading, then the GM is still dictating the fiction, just behind the guise of involving the players. In such cases, everyone's better off dispensing with the pretense that the broader fiction is, in any meaningful sense, collaborative.

Nevertheless, asking well-calibrated questions can be a good strategy for nudging players to shape the world beyond their characters. Understanding why is essential for figuring out how to.

Why are some players reluctant to contribute ideas about the world of the game? The range of possible reasons is broad, but often it’s simply that they’re not sure about the state of the fiction they’re being asked to shape. The GM is given general charge over worldbuilding, and will typically have a more substantial — and often underplayed — conception of the setting. As a result, players aren’t always sure what additions would makes sense. The question cedes some of the GM's authority to the player, but they don't necessarily feel competent to exercise that authority. What we need, then, is a question that nudges them not toward any particular answer, but into a position where they feel competent to give a good answer.

The NPC bartender for whom they're being asked to improvise a backstory was introduced only moments ago and is still just an abstraction to them. “Why does the bartender hate you?” is a stronger prompt than “Tell me about the bartender” precisely because it adds to their information about the state of the fiction. That, in turn, gives the player a bit more expertise about the world, which is something they can build on. They can build on it not only because it gives them a better command of the state of the fiction, but also because it relates the fiction back to their characters, which is the part of the game over which the rules give them the most authority.

#worldbuilding #GMing

An addendum to my previous post on the ascendancy of system in role-playing games, inspired by Travis Miller's recent explanation of the evolution of the genre:

Miller sees the emergence of the RPG format as the creative addition of open system world building to the closed systems of hobbyist wargaming. Role playing proper appeared when wargamers started using the relatively inflexible rule sets of wargames as the basis for collaboratively imagining adventures in fantasy settings.

I've already seen some pushback to Miller's account, and honestly, I'm not versed enough in the history of the scene to adjudicate, but I find it striking that the theoretical division he presents — open vs. closed — maps pretty well to the way system and setting are discussed in the OSR scene. Miller writes:

I can throw down the GURPS, D6 System, Savage Worlds or any other generic system and that will be inadequate. Without the setting in which the game takes place, it’s just rules and die rolls.

But we need not think purely in terms of generic systems. Discussion about taking the system from one game and applying it to the setting from another is common. Free Kriegsspiel Revolution goes a step further, demonstrating to what extent the open system component of Miller's equation can be made to stand on its own.

The implication, whether we like it or not, is that the units we think of as role playing games are chimera, patched together from parts which, more often than not, have no integral connection to one another. The phenomenon we called a role playing game may, in fact, be something occurring at the intersection of other games.

Maybe Miller's account is wrong. I've already seen it argued that early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons hewed close to a simulationist model — wargaming with goblins, in effect — and that may be so. At the very least, it's possible to imagine a fantasy dungeon crawl game constrained by a much more tightly closed system than those used in modern OSR/NSR games, and I'm sure some people would both play and enjoy that. But would we call it a role playing game? If not, then we may still have to reckon with the hybrid nature of the beast.

#system #rules #OSR #NSR #freekriegspiel #FKR #DND

Bloodheist, recently published by Vaults of Vaarn creator Leo Hunt and illustrated by Lewis Garvey, does that thing I wrote about in my previous post — namely, leverage bespoke rules in the service of building a particular world and type of play. In some ways, it resembles Blades In the Dark: both games deal with fantasy-horror themes in a gothic-industrial setting, revolve around criminal heists, and are structured for episodic play. But where Blades is comparatively maximalist, Bloodheist deploys only a handful of rules and mechanics to foster a more free-wheeling style of play.

The underlying design is clever, though. Risky actions are resolved using a dice pool and a version of the familiar “d6 with complications” model. In part, that pool is assembled by counting character advantages (e.g. skills, the right tool, assistance), but its further expanded by the addition of “doom dice.” Doom dice can contribute to a successful roll, but they also represent the increasingly mortal risk player characters take in pursuit of each heist's prize. Collect enough doom dice, and succeeding on one will eventually kill you.

Doom dice are an elegant illustration of how a rule can hone the theme of the game while staying close to the core of play. As a replacement for hit points, they fold one RPG trope into another. Doing so, they link character death to success in a way that's narratively compensatory. Sure, your character was killed, but they went out in a blaze of glory. Death in Bloodheist ends up being a function not only of risk, but also of success, rather than failure.

Another rule — presented as optional, but why deprive yourself? — encourages tension among protagonists by issuing each player a secret motive. For example, a character may be under strict orders by a shadowy council to ensure that a given NPC, or even another player character, meets an untimely end during the course of the heist. Not every secret is so confrontational, but they're all designed to complicate the collaborate nature of typical role-play by putting the individual at cross purposes with the crew as a whole. That sort of player-vs.-player undercurrent can be risky in a RPG — nerve-wracking, even — but it also makes the theme of treachery more than just an narrative conceit. At the same time, the rule softens the antagonism by portioning out secrets by the draw of a card. Nothing personal, just playing the hand I was dealt.

Lastly, the game is deliberately thin on combat. Weapons have no damage stat, which would avail you little anyway, since characters have no HP — or, for that matter, any other numerical stats beyond a score to determine how many doom dice they roll. Combat is handled, like any other action, by preparing an action roll and narrating consequences based on its result. No initiative, no turns, no enemy skill checks. The result, per one of the design notes threaded throughout, is meant to be quick and decisive. That set up is, in other words, a decision about the sort of action the game affords. Bloodheist doesn't abjure interpersonal violence altogether, but by refusing to simulate it in fine-grained detail, it refuses to privilege it above other types of play.

#Bloodheist #BladesInTheDark

The more time I spend in OSR/NSR conversations on the internet, the more I'm struck by the quietly contested state of system in those communities. On the one hand, there is an absolute welter of rulesets out there, ranging from relatively true-to-model adaptations of various editions of D&D, to radical reinventions of the form. But at the same time, there seems to be a broad consensus that none of these systems are essential to actual play. They're taken more in the spirit of suggestions. At best, each is a tool shed that may be ransacked for parts.

There appears to be a general aversion to playing games “as written.” GMs certainly haven't stopped bringing new games and supplements to the table, but to hear them speak of it, many run those materials using not the printed rules, but rather bespoke systems, hacked together out of elements from here and there. One designer of a well-known horror/sci-fi game is even said to have admitted he doesn't run his own game as written.

This makes conversation tricky. To what extent are we talking about the same activity when we discuss a game we've both modified, each to our own tastes? I'm reminded of the comment sections underneath recipes on food blogs: “Loved this dish, made it with turkey instead of beef, added oregano, and used a different cooking method.” Serve whatever you enjoy at your own table, but those changes complicate how we talk about what the recipe does or does not achieve.

The attitude shapes design as well. New games are routinely presented as hacks, by which I take them to mean a formalization of their own approach to running some other system. Some are written on the assumption that players will pick-and-choose which rules they'll implement. Maybe that's merely realism about the state of the hobby. In some cases, it's almost reads like a moral imperative. For people just cutting their teeth in the hobby, it can pose challenges.

There are, of course, historical reasons for these tensions. GURPS, heartbreakers, the Arneson–Gygax rift, D&D's release of a SRD. Ours is a haunted hobby. Cumulatively, these points along the last half-century of its development have contributed to a conception of system that suggests some underlying game we're all playing, an unattained object toward which this endless proliferation of rules is aimed.

Many paths, one destination. For me, that premise locked into focus a while back when someone on Twitter (I don't recall who) alluded to the “one perfect system” every GM is seeking — a semi-mythical ruleset particular enough to suit your own personal play-style, but flexible enough to accommodate any setting or story you might want to explore.

Deliberately or not, that trope correlates to a certain diminution of the rules. What function does a rule serve if you can change it out for another and ostensibly arrive at the same game? Are they even rules once they've been made interchangeable? At the far end of that trajectory is free kriegspiel, which dispenses with most rules in favor of judgments. All well and good. Your table, your rules. Or no rules, as the case may be. In the middle ground, though? The territory between D&D and FKR? Rules appear to have been replaced by system.

Would it be uncharitable to characterize the OSR as a movement built on devising new systems for playing old games? Perhaps; but it's also true that one standard by which OSR systems are judged is their compatibility with existing modules. That, in itself, exerts a formative pressure on design. It favors rules — or are they methods? — that do what has already been done, or which, at the very least, ensure that past modules, some of them nearly half a century old, don't break at the table.

Which is not to deny that there are innovations in the ever-growing catalog of new games and systems. There are substantive differences between them, even if the changes are sometimes incremental. But the demands of adaptability and modularity ensure that many of them are disposable. New games are made to be functional without any given rule or method because the odds of the system making it to the table intact are low.

I'm painting with a broad brush, but only to highlight a general trend. There are, of course, a great many games that take seriously the constructive power of a clever rule. There are games that daisy-chain a slew of well-crafted rules to foster novel modes of play at the table. There are games with rulesets so carefully calibrated that removing any one rule would undermine how the game as a whole plays. These games sacrifice the ideal of a universal system that can be used to role-play in any world, but in doing so, they make it possible to role-play some worlds and some stories better.

#system #rules #OSR #NSR #GMing

Take 'em, or leave 'em.

  1. Materially different media make different emotional, psychological and semiotic effects possible.

  2. It is possible to simulate the effects of one medium in another, e.g. to create a “cinematic” effect in a novel or tabletop game.

  3. But the effects that have the greatest impact will tend to be those most characteristic of the media in which a given work was produced.

  4. The modern conception of heroic action has been so thoroughly shaped by movies and novels that we tend to imagine heroism in the idioms of those media.

  5. The conventions most characteristic of any game media will be those constructed around play.

  6. Thus, when designing games, err on the side of features that emphasize play, over those that simulate cinematic or literary effects.

#design #theory #cinema #literature

A few things have changed since my previous post. The most obvious is likely the domain change. Session Zero now resides at blog.symbolic.city. The RSS feed is here, and the site federates to @symboliccity@blog.symbolic.city.

The reason for the change is that I've recently started producing RPG materials, and wanted an imprint under which to gather those projects. For various reasons — not least of all, that I already owned the domain — I settled on Symbolic City. It's not much to look at yet, but the top-level domain will function as the central hub for everything I do in the TTRPG space.

Over the last several weeks, I've participated in several jams. You can see the results on my itch page, and follow me there. I have a project in the works for at least one other jam, and a handful of independent projects in mind for the future.

Finally, I've set up a few accounts for discussing RPGs on social media. You can find me on Twitter @symboliccity, and on Discord under the name Symbolic City#5590.