Those green arrows

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I just had another read through of Vincent Baker’s Dice and Clouds series of blog posts, which is very good. The basic idea is that Cloud represents fictional game state and dice represent prop game state, including sheets, tokens and dice. The arrows represent the players enacting changes on fiction and props, taking hints from either fiction or props. The examples are quite good for a general overview, but I wonder: What kind of arrows are there? How do we enact those changes?

On typical mode of changing the fiction, named explicitly in many Forge and post-Forge games, is narration. A player narrates an outcome. But that is only one kind of arrow. When I move my miniature three squares towards the zombie miniature, there is a change in the fiction. My dwarven princess has just engaged the vile zombie. But I haven’t narrated anything. In fact, I do not even have to say anything for this part.

Other kinds of arrows include:

  1. Speaking and acting as a character.
  2. Uttering certain keywords like “Charge!” or “That shall not come to pass.”
  3. Talking back and forth until we have a new shared understanding of the new fictional state.
  4. Taking notes and keeping list of fictional elements up to date.

Those are simple examples. Curiously, a rather complicated one is rolling dice. The most simple example might be a coin flip. Before we flip it, we a assign an outcome to each side. Those outcomes are in a way little clouds, little fictions and we can manipulate them in any way that we manipulate the big cloud, our shared fictional world. We can have a single player state them, we can talk back and forth, we can rely on certain keywords and other props, like spending tokens for a better result on heads. Once the coin has fallen, one of the little clouds is disappears, while the other is integrated with the main cloud, our shared fiction. That integration can involve some explicit cloud work (narrating, acting) or it might be just as automatic as the idea of my dwarven princess engaging the vile zombie.

This is only the most basic form a random result might be used. With a more advanced form of dice rolling. We might calculate a total from existing values, assign bonuses based on the fictional situation, spend resources. In the end, we might take notes based on the dice’ shown results or move the dice physically to some area of the gaming table.

But bur dice or coin choosing between (resolving?) mini clouds is just one way dice can be used. Consider rolling on a random table with 100 entries. We do not imagine a hundred situations here. In fact we do not have read through the table at all before consulting it. I’m sure that analyzing some of the examples I gave in my first post here with these concepts, will yield very different results.

Of course, analyzing rules in terms of arrows between fiction and props, that is the players making specific alterations to either domain, is a very low level approach, but that might in fact be useful to approach certain problems like players complaining that certain rules are too “meta” or “disassociated”. The problem with such complains usually is that the same players have no problems with things that are even more “meta”. I’m still looking for some explanations that holds waters. Maybe you have one.

A quick guide to demonic patrons

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This is taken from an ongoing campaign where mages pact with entities called demons to gain power. Thus creating Class Techniques or Powers magic users.

The first thing to remember is that a potential patron always an angle. Demons want something. So even if they give something for free, you can assume it will somehow further the demons agenda.

Because demons have wants and urges, we can classify them by what they want. The main groups are Collectors, Directors and Markers. Collectors want something. Their pacts usually involve some quota of that thing to be delivered and the magic they hand out makes retrieving those things easier. For example, the Reading Eye collects books. They have read a lot by now, so don’t think they are easy to satisfy. Mages of the Reading Eye have ways of locating and securing books.

Directors want people and especially their pacted mages to act in certain ways. The Lord of Drink would have everyone engage in a drunken orgy. Their mages can heighten intoxication and lower inhibitions. There is no particular price the Lord of Drink requires for lending their power, but their mages rejuvenate when they party and feel exhausted and restless when they can’t party for some time. The bigger the party the better.

The Ashen Lady is on the other hand transforms her adherents into something resembling her preferred form. They have to act the part, with black dress and white mask, act courteous and proper at all times, and in exchange become slow moving juggernauts. An Ashen one can casually walk through wall – leaving a whole -, and become pretty much immovable objects. Directors who have their adherents emulate them, are sometimes called choragetes and their adherents choirs.

Markers want their mark left on the world. As much as possible. The Breath of Winter would have it coated in ice. Abilities granted by markers are usually direct and transform the world as the demons wants to. Not all such transformations are always hostile to human life. For example the Greener promotes lush forests and parks. Although even their work can become problematic in excess.

There is overlap between the three main categories of course. A typical mixture between the collector and director archetypes are Traders who want a certain thing, want it acquired through trade only. As with all collecting types, the thing they are after can get rather metaphorical.

Classifying magic systems: ICU/PT

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Magic systems have become a major part in fantasy worldbuilding. It is no longer enough to have a few mages in the world, how their magic works and how they interact with the world at large turned into one of the deciding questions. And of course, in such cases, we like to classify things.

First things first, the distinction between hard and soft magic, originated in this article by Brandon Sanderson, is not a classification of magic systems. The point is how magic is used in a story. Brandon’s first law states the reader has to understand enough about the magic in order for a character to use it to solve problems. Magic that is sufficiently discussed beforehand then is called hard. Magic that is more used to introduce mystery and conflict into the story, can remain unexplained and thus soft. Therefore hard and soft is not about how magic works in the fiction, how the characters think it works or what the author has planned beforehand. It’s how magic is presented in the narrative.

Here and now, I will present some observations about how different kinds magic can be distributed within the population of magic users within a setting and how that relates to different kinds of stories.

The first distinction is between powers and techniques. Techniques are magic that you can learn, teach, share, and invent. Powers are abilities you get and that’s pretty much it. You might make them bigger, more efficient or get a handle on them in the first place. But in powered systems gaining new powers is a rare event and something even most powered characters might never do. Whereas in technique based system new techniques might be invented left and right.

The other distinction is between individual, class or universal magic. These can be paired with both techniques and powers and I will therefore discuss the resulting combinations.

Individual Powers (Superheroes): In this scenario, a super acquires on power (or small set of powers) and that’s it. No two supers have exactly the same power. If groupings of powers exist those are usually made up by interested parties based on broad similarties, like Brutes or Fliers, not by any inherent mechanism. In fact there might not be any common denominator between superpowered individuals, though things like Power Nullification powers might exist.

Individual Techniques (Cultivators): In these stories, a cultivator might learn techniques from teachers, but at some point most cultivators will start inventing their own techniques and find their own paths. In fact, introspection and finding out what techniques you want for your personal style is very important in these stories, because once a character is on a path that usually precludes certain other techniques. If characters have very similar techniques this usually means that they have learned from the same teachers, hail from the same clan or sect.

Class Powers (Invested): This is what most of Sanderson’s magic is like, thus the name. Invested gain a each certain type of magic and certain abilities associated with it. There are different types, and while users of a type might differ in their skill level there is not much difference in what they can do in general. For example, if you are a Pewterarm from the Mistborn series, you can make your body tougher and stronger and that’s mostly it. If you are a Tineye you can sharpen your senses etc. If classes get several powers, there might characters who specialize, but each can access their whole class package.

Class Techniques (Attuned): Named for the magic tatoos in Andrew Rowe’s Sufficiently Advanced Magic, this category mostly pops up in stories related to the LitRPG genre, or RPGs in general. Going by the schema, an attuned belongs to a certain class and can learn techniques from it. They can devlop new techniques but only share them with other members of their class. Whereas the path of a cultivator can be lonely, attuned magic lends itself to mixed parties leveling up together. Benders from Avatar are somewhat on the edge between Attuned and Invested.

Universal Powers (Gifted): This setup is mostly is in rather low magic mystery or action stories. If you are gifted, you have one specific gift or set of gifts, and every gifted has essentially some one. A very common candidate is seeing monsters or ghosts, but Sense8 or Jumper also fall into this category.

Universal Techniques (Wizards): This is your typical Harry. Both Potter and Dresden. Wizards can theoretically use every spell there is and make new ones. Sure they might have favorite spells like Dresden is very Kaboom with his magic while his apprentice Carpenter specializes in illusions, she is both his apprentice and Dresden later learns better illusions partly from her. And likewise nothing but time and effort would stop Molly from learning Carlo’s disintegration ray.

Some further observation:

  • Universal types, both wizard and gifted stories, often involve some conflict between mages and non-mages. Whereas other types might not have non-magic people at all.
  • Class types, both attuned and invested, lend themselves to exploring how characters with these powers might fit into society.
  • Indiviual types, both superheroes and cultivators, often revolve around conflicts between mages, while non-magic individuals are mostly on the sidelines.
  • If the story is about an ensemble or party of characters and the magic is technique based, most if not all of those characters will be techique users. On the other hand there are stories set in worlds with technique magic, but none of the protagonists uses it.
  • The split between universal and class can shift with the focus of the story. Like we might see certain Gifted characters in season 1 and then in season 2 a new kind of magic user shows up and we get more of a class scenario.

Player tips

One question I encounter frequently is “tips for players”, instead of tips for GMs. Typical answers then include appearing on time and knowing the rules. That’s not a high bar. That is kind of the minimal effort one would expect in a team activity. Also for any team activity, not specifically for RPGs. So if your answer is: “Come on time and do some minimal personal upkeep before”, you really are not answering the question.

In a typical RPG, if you are not the GM, you will play a PC. And you job is giving everyone else at the table a good time doing so. You read me right: You are doing a show for them, and they are your audience. Everything else follows from that.

Play a character they might like

There are some questions here. What are the other characters like, if they already exist? How can I complement that? What can I play? It doesn’t help when I pick a character I know I cannot protray or would struggle with their special rules. The more you know about what everyone else is up to, the easier this will be. So ask them.

Communicate how your character feels

I like to tell an anecdote here. I once played with a friend and she was very quiet the whole evening. That was unusual for her, so I asked her, if she was alright. She explained that she was, her character were just a rather quiet guy. To be fair, to convey that right without speaking would have required some great acting skills that most people, me included, lack. Instead you are allowed so things like: “I look at you sceptically.”

Engage the other PCs

That is, talk to them. If everyone is only talking with the GM, but the PCs are not talking to one another, the game feels flat. If improvising is hard for you, you can prepare things your character would talk about. Or you can imagine how you character would react to certain things, then do so when the time is right.

Show that you care about their contributions

You are doing your best to make their play better. Show that you appreciate their efforts too. Listen to them. Give them thumbsup. Show what you like.

The Tinkers’ Tower

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I usually run people based adventures. People making requests, people having needs, people interfering and messing things up. For a game oneshot some time ago I wanted something different. A dungeon. Someone had requested Changeling: The Dreaming for our meetup (twas long ago afore the rona), so I thought about doing a dungeon crawl in Changeling 20. Of course, doing combat is painful under the WoD system, you really only want to it once per session max. My conclusion was that I want a puzzle dungeon. This is what we did.

The Pitch

The Tinkers’ Tower was well known in the land, appearing here and there and offering their business. Until one day, about 20 years ago, it disappeared. Now it has reappeared in that closed-down amusement park. The local monarch has assembled a team of adventurous changelings to find their parent’s crown which was given to the tower as collateral. Each of you is looking for some item or other in the tower.

OK, basic motivations and how the group comes together all done. I will not go over every event. After all I made several parts of the based on the items the players had requested. I want to discuss the principles I used in designing the tower as well as the general outline:

  • Each room contains one interesting or useful item.
  • There is no living soul left at the place.
  • For most of the skills and knowledges (char sheet), include a place where they might be used.
  • Include some things that can be done with Changeling magic.
  • For all problems, include at least one key in another place that can be used Point-and-Click style, when skills or magic fail.

We started right at the gates of the amusement park. One player opted to make their own character, the for the other three I built theirs to order. They first encountered a giant chimerarical snake from mechancial parts. They opted to approach it politely and after an Etiquette check, they learned that there is “Small Hunter” stalking the place.

The Hunter is a small mechanical T-Rex the tinkers build for a mostly human customer (probably a sorcerer), used as a hunting dog. I introduced it as potential endboss, that waited at the top of the tower. I decided that it hat 10% chance of investigating when the PCs made loud noises in the tower. It didn’t happen.

Of course the Hunter was also the reason that the tower disappeared. Upon demonstration to the client, the Hunter killed most of the people present. The clients body as well as the bodies of most of the tinker is still present. The Boggans housekeeper was not been found, I decided later. Mostly as a potential open end, in case there is a continuation.

Some rooms:

  • A tailor’s shop. Several rolls of textiles, a sewing a machine. A manniquin with a pumpkin head that wore a very beautiful ball dress. The investigating Pooka just had to try it on without checking it in any way, and was promptly turned into a Sidhe. (“But Sidhe abilities are totally useless in a dungeon!”) They didn’t manage to overcome the Cinderella dress’ magic. It would come off after the adventure on its own.
  • A room with banged in door and mostly broken chess pieces of various sizes. Looking through it, might have gotten them an undamaged black rook, about knee high, that would have been a good boy on an Animal Ken check and some resuscitation via Glamour. Looking at the heap and recognizing it didn’t contain the items they had come for, they left it alone.
  • An office. The desk, shelves and pretty much everything in it was barring the door. The characters manged to get through. On the far end one of the tinkers was apparently dead. They didn’t investigate the body, no one knowing much Medicine. They were very much interested in the documents that were all over the place, deducing there should be an inventory for the things they wanted. They got quite a few hints on fabulous Academics check. The dead could have provided an experimental magic glove they used to shift all the furniture in front of the door.
  • Most of the dead were in a small theater like hall. They were apparently attacked. One had taken a trident from a weapons wrack, including various items and used it freeze himself, the trident and weapons rack in ice. The apparent intent from his posture was that he wanted to ice something else, but it apparently backfired. The trident was what our Merman looked for, so they got to work with magic. I would have expected to use some fire to melt the ice, but they rather just teleported the trident out and let the ice melt on its own. We haven’t found out whether the frozen witness could have been resuscitated.
  • One of the searched items was in a library. A salamander chimera acting as librarian informed the PCs that books could only be taken out with a writ by the towers owner. I would have expected them to come back later, having forged a writ the owners magic pen, which was located in his private bedroom / study. Instead they just ignored the obnoxious chimera at first and tried to walk out with the book. Good thing it was the Troll, because that did hurt. Then they grilled the salamander and found that he could take out books for himself. He thus got taken out with the book.
  • The central elevator platform in the tower was held by a giant metal hand with a ring with a big ruby on a finger. Towards the end of our session, after they had a proper tea party with a porcellaine doll, having used that elevator all the time, they finally realized the giant ring was in the fact the crown the queen sent them for.

In the end, they went to the top of the tower and did beat the Hunter, mainly becasue the picked up the icy trident before. In the end, they did use the magic pen to draw a flag and planting it, the highest ranking PC unleashing Souvereign to claim the tower for queen and country, which I never had expected.

Things that didn’t work:

  • I couldn’t properly convey that the raspy voice speaking over the intercom was the dead customers ghost who would have liked a burial.
  • I totally forgot that Changelings, too, would like a bathroom from time to time. But that’s a problem of dungeons everywhere I guess.
  • I should have put in places where the Changelings could have engaged in their Reveries. A new rule in C20 to regain glamour based on kith.

In the end, I found the game a surprisingly good fit for this kind of adventure. The dreaming reality allowed me to just throw stuff in without much regard for background consistency. I don’t think I ever used quite so many varied skills in a WoD scenario, too. Changeling magic proved very colorful allowed for some creative applications.

Compared to 2nd edition, Changeling 20 has quite a few improvements, including more flexible rules for age, more foregiving rules for Banality, and a more narrative approach to many Kith abilities. Also the Unleashing of Arts also proved nice in the end.

Making moves

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Today I want to talk about designing moves for PbtA games. The originator himself has a very insightful series really showing what is possible under the move format. Today I will stick to the most common implementations, learning to warp before you gate and all that.

I assume you know the general setup and what a trigger is. Triggers are very useful to communicate the theme and mood of your game. When you go in guns blazing… is very different from When the bullets start flying… after all. I will mostly look at the rest, the move’s body today. So the first rule of thumb is:

Do not spell out the miss on basic moves.

I see this on many first drafts and my only reply is: Don’t do that. You see when you miss a roll and there is no specific miss entry, the GM is allowed to get creative on you. That’s good for evoking that feel of loss. You just lost your control of the situation whatever the outcome. Explicit miss entries are a good idea if you do not want to bother the GM with this thing. So mostly on supportive or setup moves that will be followed by something else or those that happen at the beginning or end of session.

So what happens on the 7-9 and 10+? First of all, moves are not necessarily success checks. Even a 10+ can be rather bad, if say your game is about kid detectives and the move is about facing monsters like the Demogorgon. The best we would expect here is damage mitigation. But that doesn’t mean it has to feel like a loss to the players. Unlike the the 6- the players should have some say about the bad things that happen on a hit.

Success at a cost

The minimal input you could have is, having the GM name a cost and condition and the player can accept it or not. This would be like Dungeon World’s Defy Danger. So there, you get what you want on 10+, but on a 7-9 the GM will throw in something. You take it or leave it. One thing you should be aware of is that you make the GM work. Just like on a miss the GM now has to come up with stuff with little guidance right now. Be sure you want to burden your GMs so.

You can of course give the player some option about the cost they want to incur. Either because you explicitely give several choices or word things so that the players can at least suggest the downsides. The moves quoted are all from my current project:

When you encourage, help or show kindness, roll +Heart. On a hit, choose 1.

  • They take +1 on their roll.
  • You ease their suffering.
  • You guide them through a spell you have mastered. They can use it right now.

On a 7-9, also choose one of these.

  • It costs you something.
  • You expose yourself to a problem or danger.
  • You reveal something you wish you hadn’t.

Of the potential downsides one is totally the players job. They should know what they might inadvertendly show. The problem or danger is mostly GM’s job, while the cost can be shared brainstorming. You can also defer problem to a later point. This can prevent a situation from escalating when you don’t want it so.

When you sneak after someone or go where you are not supposed to, roll +Ambition. On a hit, you learn or find something valuable. On a 10+, there are no complications on the way back.

The complications happen definitely after the juicy secrets have come out. The GM is of course tasked with coming up with those juicy things but those will hopefully be part of their preparation and do not have to be made up on the fly. Of course “success at a cost” is only one of the options to structure the 7-9 and 10+ parts. For even greater player choice you want to give them…

More or less choices

This includes the the “ask X question” types of moves as well as typically the most action oriented moves in the game, like fighting. In the latter case, often there is some good options and the option to avoid some bad thing, like not getting hurt. You can of course tailor the number of good and bad options to show how dangerous the thing is. Here are two more from my game to show the difference:

When you face an opponent, roll +Virtue. On a 7-9 choose 2, on a 10+ choose 3:

  • The GM will tell you something about either your or their abilities. Take +1 forward.
  • They concede something of your choice or suffer.
  • You impress someone else.
  • You come away clean.

When you address a problem with magic you have not mastered, make the necessary preparations and roll +Learning. On a hit, you can do it. On a 10+, choose 2. On a 7-9, choose 1.

  • You don’t have to break any rules.
  • There are no side-effects.
  • Gain Training with this spell.

Special: If you have Training with this trick, take +1. If you do break rules, remember to raise your Scrutiny.

Comparing the 4 moves shown, the help move has the most open ended downsides, on a hit. This is intentional, because it can be used in a variety of situations and it is optional. If the players want to provide that +1 bonus or whatever, they may well pay for that. Next in line is Magic You Have Not Mastered, because, well, magic is risky. Whereas Face An Opponent is comparably predictable.

There are some other common patterns and we haven’t even touched on typical ways to make playbook moves, but I think this should serve as a baseline.

Loosing them in translation

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One topic challenge for the smart guy in stories is that the party finds some texts in an ancient or otherwise rare language and need a translation. Now, you could just have them roll and give them the translation on a hit. If you want to make it a bit more complex, these are some ideas.

One word per success

This requires that you actually have a translated text in another language and show it to the players. They can try to figure it out by themselves. On a successful roll, they may ask for one word, per degree of success. If you use this method, you should have some idea what languages your group speaks. I once sat in a Cthulhu oneshot with a friend and the GM produced some Latin text. Little did he know, that we both studied Classics so could just read it. (Also if you need anything translated into Latin, just ask. By now, I’ve taught at university level for several years.)

If you want to pretty sure your players have no capabilities with the language you can grab some constructed language or do some conlanging on your own. If you want some intro, I recommend David Peterson’s youtube. He’s the guy who worked on Game of Throne and Defiance TV series.

Making translation real-ish

If you do not want to fiddle with a foreign language (or ask someone to it for you), you can exploit the truism that tranlation is hell. Something that works of fiction get wrong on in most cases. Even ad hoc translations are usually depicted as perfect in the target language, and often include knowledge someone just reading the text just cannot have.

Anyway, one constant pain is dates and measurements. They still are nowadays because some refuse to use the metric system, which kills mars probes, but that problem is much worse with olden texts. So on a hit, you could give them the translation, on a good hit, the conversions.

Similar problems occur with plants and small animals. We know that some “Blue-Fish” was pretty tasty in one Italian town, but we have know idea what species of fish they are talking about. In some cases those species might also have gone extinct, which could be a further problem for magic ingredients in RPGs.

There might also be technicalities that were clear to informed people the time, so no one spelled it out, for example rituals performed in a Greek manner. I guess some specialists may have gathered clues what that means, but I haven’t looked it up, so would probably fail that roll as an RPG character. Of course such things might be good opportunities to fail forward. If the magic circle is to be drawn in “the manner of the Lizardfolk”, you can ask a Lizardfolk mage, find some other expert or try to wing it.

Magic Magic Items

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Magic item creation rules are a pain. Except for Shadowrun. Although most runners will probably just buy their magic items. Why do they work in SR? Because they are just another kind of equipment. And making them yourself is basically just negotiating a discount using the Enchantment skill instead of whatever social skill would be relevant otherwise. They also do just three things:

  • Add bonuses to magic rolls
  • Add bonus to melee weapon attack rolls (only relevant for ki-Adepts, who can’t use cyberware)
  • Keep up one of your spells without concentration

In short they are just specialized equipment for certain kinds of characters. Magic items in games like D&D are different. They are meant to be interesting loot. You can have one or the other, but not both at the same time. So great loot should be like:

  • It’s unexpected. Whereas skill and powers are something players actively choose, this is usually not the case the with loot.
  • It’s tied to the shared fiction. The thing came from somewhere, even if it’s only “found in that dragon hoard back then”.
  • Looted magic items can have character. Not necessarily in that they are intelligent, although that is common too, but a certain idiosyncratic behavior.
  • They can be gamechangers under the right conditions.

As a GM you can put loot in your adventure and have it do whatever. There is little reason to limit them or make them balanced in terms of the rules, as long as the GM is handing them out one by one.

If you want to be extra careful, make sure loot never flat out increases your game’s attributes or whatever you call the most basic stats. Bonuses tend to be comparably boring in general, and bonuses to base stats even more so. Instead you can have it do interesting things in absolute terms. It let’s you can fly. It lets you see in the dark. Ever comfortable shoes. A bag which is bigger on the inside. A sword that stops the beating heart of any creature it cuts. Effects can be big, as long as they are clearly delineated. That sword does not do anything against plant monsters, undead and robots for example.

If you need some additional limits for individual items, here are some ideas:

  • It can only be used x times.
  • It can only be used once a day / week / month / year / decade.
  • It’s unwieldy. You need a bag / suit case / carriage to move it.
  • It consumes some kind of fuel, which is expensive / rare / grisly.
  • It has some side effects on the environment.
  • Is has some side effects on the user.
  • It requires certain skills or knowledge to use correctly.
  • It only works on certain targets / under certain conditions.
  • It is overkill for most use cases.
  • Using the thing is blatant in terms of sound, light or more metaphysical qualities.

You can also combine different effects and add different limits. Like a base effect the is free, and some extra sweet stuff is limited. Here is an example from my last campaign:

Driver Puppets
These straw puppets are about 50cm in height and can expertly steer any cart or coach, when given the reins. They can find their way to any place they’ve been before. They were invented by the among the mainly goblin tribes of the Dry Lands, and appear to have some ritual value. As such they are usally not for sale. In one instance a puppet was overheard speaking with a creepy whispered voice, in what likely was some goblin dialect.

Content types

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Game design is making others play in ways they wouldn’t play on their own, without being present. The game then is your means of making others play in a certain way.

This concept is important for understanding the various types of content in an RPG book and their use. Those include:

  • Procedural rules: Do this…, then do that.
  • Advice, guidelines.
  • Choices for character traits, equipment, spells…
  • Character sheets and other fill in forms.
  • Tables, maps, flow charts and similar visualistion methods.
  • Pictures of characters and locations.
  • Maps of the game world / setting.
  • Tokens and other playing materials.
  • Ready made PCs, NPCs, monsters, locations, treasures, adventures.
  • Signature characters. Named and archetypal example characters, that may be used in…
  • Short stories, at the beginning of the book or chapters.
  • Quotes from other media, often at the beginning of chapters / paragraphs.
  • Lists of other works that inspired this game.
  • Fictional table dialogues: A written interaction that might happen at the gaming table.
  • Actual play videos.

Not all games use each method and there are probably some I forgot. The important thing is that each can contribute to have the players play in certain ways and you can use several of them in concert. For example if you want to make a game of hunting monsters, you will probably include some advice on making the monsters and some ready made monsters. But there are other still some other aspects. Is it a comedy something more gritty? What’s the tone? You can throw in some lists of inspirational works, pick proper pictures and throw in some media quotes. What is the typical structure of a monster hunt? You can use some procedural rules and a flow chart to symbolize it. Or rely on advice and an example scenario. Or you do both.

One very powerful tool is relying on other games your players have played. There are some very short RPGs, a page or two. Those cannot possibly work on their own. They work for people who have played other RPGs in the past and can provide all the missing pieces themselves. The more you deviate from what people likely know, the more work you have to put in to make that game work. And the more of the channels from the list above you likely want to use.

Genre, in general

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Last week I talked about setting. Let’s talk genre. The curious thing about the term in RPGs is that it is not actually used for RPGs. That’s actually weird. We would readily agree that Slasher Movies constitute a movie genre. But in RPGs we do not use the term for types RPGs but for types of settings which are part RPGs and the categories we use mimic what is used for genres in literature. Like Fantasy and Superheroes, instead of Adventuring Party RPGs something.

So let’s have a look at that. What is genre? How do we know whether a particular work belongs to a genre? How many genres are there? So, first of all, genre is part of the reception of creative works. People will find similarities between works and apply a label to it, when they talk about it. Once a genre is recognized, creators might actively try to put their works into a genre. Perhaps there will be even guides on how to that. In a next step, other creators might try to subvert the genre, playing with the elements. Then the cycle starts anew. That pattern is older than dirt, in TVTropes speak. Ovidius is already a master of subverting the classical genres of hellenistic literature, writing epics that are not epic in their subject matter and didactic poetry that give up on their own lessons. Genre therefore has a time and place in history. No one writes Augustean epics nowadays. Genres come and go.

Because genres are part of the reception, they do not have analytic definitions, but work on prototypes. A prototypical fantsy novel nowadays is quite long. They often come in trilogies. The often feature a hero’s journey. There are often takes on creatures from fairy tails or myths. There is usually some kind of magic. The setting is a not our world. Note that none of those rules is absolute. There can be a Fantasy Novel that is standalone, does not have fantastic creatures etc. As long as some points are met it can be sorted under Fantasy Novel. Of course an individual work can therefore show traits of various kinds of genre at the same time. Some of which might be child genres of one another.

Because genres are prototypcial they are multi-dimensional. They can be about typical plot, characters, location, but also length, format, medium, publication, style. Some genres that are currently active. Manga, fanfic, dark fantasy, progression fantasy, LitRPG. A creative work might theoretically belong to all of these at the same time. So genre and perception of genre is an interesting subject, but it is not a very good analytical tool.