Power Creep…and Things You Can Do About It

One problem some campaigns run into is Power Creep.  Whatever the power-level the PCs started out at, they have gained in capabilities until not only are the opponents they originally faced beneath them, but opponents that would challenge them strain the verisimilitude of the setting.  This dilemma is practically designed into D&D, but it can occur in nearly any system and setting…even ones that don’t allow PCs to personally advance in abilities or do so at a tiny rate will almost always allow PCs to advance in political and social power through their connections and influence on NPCs that they’ve befriended and aided over the course of the campaign.

Often the game is supposed to transform at that point.  In D&D, for instance, once the characters reached a certain level, it was expected that they would build a stronghold of an appropriate type for their class, and the game would then focus on them dealing with ruling and expanding their lands.  Even if there isn’t a set of explicit rules for it, the PCs may find that through roleplay they’ve climbed to the top of their hierarchy, and they’re now in charge.

Their personal level of power matters a whole lot less, and the problems that they face are a whole lot bigger and more diffuse.  But for a lot of players, that’s not what they signed on for.  Becoming the head of the thieves guild, or ruler of the kingdom, or whatever, was a good long-distance goal, but they what they want to play is a game where they’re James Bond, not a game where they’re M…  the fact that they could actually make progress towards the goal and eventually reach it was much appreciated as it was occurring–a distant goal that never gets closer is usually either forgotten or becomes frustrating–but actually playing it out isn’t of interest to them as an ongoing concern.

One approach is, of course, to retire that character and start with a new one.  That can actually be pretty neat, and can provide a lot of depth to the setting as you revisit it with a new character’s eyes.  But players might not be satisfied with starting over, particularly if the climb has been long and arduous.  They can feel like now that they’ve arrived, they should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Another approach is to increase the scope of the campaign. If they’re not interested in politics and being in charge, and want to keep things on the level of personal adventure, many settings are ripe for out-of-setting travel once you reach Epic levels.   Whether it’s extra-planar travel in D&D, or finally getting a working starship and getting off the backwater world you’ve been adventuring on,  you have a potentially limitless source of ever-increasing potential danger levels there, without ever having verisimilitude problems with those levels of power in the original setting.  Even in a more down-to-Earth setting, you can go from city-bound shamus to globe-trotting detective…if the players are willing to adapt to a slight shift in tone.

Otherwise, you can start to provide players with strategic instead of tactical challenges. Even if it’s a given that they can win any individual battle, there’s nothing at all bizarre or contrived with the notion that there may be multiple places where they want to intervene but they can’t be everywhere at once. Unless you’ve given them access to time-manipulation, time is a resource that constrains everyone.  In D&D or such a fantasy setting, the smaller estimates of the size of medieval battles would be 20,000 men on a side…on the high side it might be 70 to 120 thousand or more. Even if they can kill 100 hobgoblins without breaking a sweat, even if they could eventually take on the whole army, that’s more than enough opposition to justify them needing to be in two, three, dozens of places at once if they want to protect everything that’s important to them. In modern or futuristic settings, it’s even easier to justify them being opposed by organizations that have enough manpower and resources that simply winning every melee or firefight can never be sufficient.

The point isn’t to beat them up and take away everything they hold dear, but to force them to make choices and be clever about deploying their power to accomplish their strategic goals and not just think in terms of winning each skirmish they get involved in. Strategic goals don’t have to mean military ones, just that’s an easy example. What do the characters want to accomplish? What do they want to protect? Make them think about that instead of just defeating the monsters and mooks in front of them, and I think it would immediately become clear that they don’t have nearly enough power to make that trivial.  Not even Superman can be everywhere at once, so even in, or especially in, a super-hero game the GM isn’t stuck with ramping up the power of the bad-guys and piling on the world-shattering threats until the players wonder how there are any civilians left.

You can also introduce things that can’t be solved by combat or a couple of quick spells. Suppose you’re playing D&D and a plague or famine hits the kingdom…not one caused by a bad-guy who can be defeated, just a natural disaster. There’s not a lot that even a 5th or 6th level spell can do about that directly. Even a 14th Level Cleric can only create food for 96 people per casting of Create Food, 3 times a day…. The players would really have to think about whether there’s a way to use their great power to accomplish something, perhaps by bringing in food from elsewhere, or helping people emigrate. I think it’s helpful for this sort of thing not to have a solution in mind, so it doesn’t become a game of guess the GM’s clever way out. Pose a problem out of the myriad that have plagued mankind since the dawn of time, and if they can come up with a reasonable solution, or at least a way of mitigating it, great! If not, ah, well, hard luck, but it’ll eventually resolve itself one way or another…even if that means mass death or migration, and that can be a springboard for future problems.

Now, not all players are going to like that, and some will down-right hate it. If that’s the case for your players, then I think opening the scope by providing a bigger pond for them to play in such as by planar travel is really the way to go.

One last piece of advice is that you probably shouldn’t try to deal with Power Creep by stripping the PCs of power without discussing it with the players first, no matter how well-justified the take-away is by the setting and system.  Hitting your D&D PCs with a bunch of level draining Vampires, or having their home base destroyed by some arch-rival while they were off on an expedition, even if it returns the game to the “sweet spot” of power levels where all the players were having fun, is the kind of thing that can end campaigns.  If you think that the PCs are too powerful for the setting and you want to depower them a bit or a lot, perhaps because you didn’t realize what a campaign changer it would be when you let them get the McGuffin of Magnificence or they hit a high enough level to cast that spell, ask them what they think.  Do they want to change the nature of the campaign, just the scope, retire the characters with a “job well done”, or will they go for a great dramatic reversal of fortune?  Only your players know what will please them best.

Just in Time for Valentine’s

Over at Exchange of Realities, Ravyn writes about the dangers of “Designated Love Interests”… that is, NPCs that are designed to become the love interest of one of the PCs.

    • People will do amazing things for the ones they love; as a result, such love can be a motivator for story characters and game characters alike. So it’s often tempting to create a character specifically for the purpose of creating a romantic attachment: a Designated Love Interest, or DLI.

      That’s when the trouble starts.

      Limyaael has a lot to say about the Designated Love Interest in novel format, mostly having to do with the fact that said DLI isn’t really human, strains internal consistency by how her romances begin, and is generally cliché and undercharacterized. And yet, despite these flaws, a story with a bad DLI can reach its predetermined end; it just requires the writer to completely overwrite the characters. (The fact that this is bad fictional practice is another matter entirely.)

The problem with a lot of advice along the lines of Limyaael’s is that people read fiction for a lot of different reasons, and I can point to a huge selection of literature that demonstrates that Limyaael’s preferences are not shared by readers looking for romance in their fiction in the first place.  Readers want what they want, and not what some PhD LitCrit candidate thinks they should want.  Contrariwise, PhD LitCrit candidates want what they want, and are under no obligation to enjoy pot-boiler romances just because the masses do.  But people looking for writing advice are well-advised to carefully consider which audience they’re writing for.  My sister Elizabeth is a published romance novelist, with a half-dozen novels to her credit, and one of the first things she had to learn was there really is a tight limit to how much tweaking the conventions readers will put up with before they’re dissatisfied by the fact that whatever its other merits, the book is no longer what they want when they pick up a romance.

What’s more, RPGs aren’t simply a form of fiction, and there are a lot of players who play so that they can revel in the cliches.   They want their good to be good, their bad to be bad, and their fated lovers to be damn well singled out by fate in no uncertain terms. You’re not doing those kind of players a favor by creating a subtle, nuanced portrayal of a realistic sort of person that their character plausibly might or might not  fall in love with if this were a work of fiction where the author controlled both sides of the interest as well as everything that happens to them.

The point is that you have to know your audience.  There isn’t a good way and a bad way to do romantic interests in a game; there are a bunch of ways, and different players may want different ones, or the same player may want different ones at different times depending on the genre or how they see their character.  The real danger in a Love Interest is not that the character won’t bite and that will spoil your plot, it’s that you’ll choose a way that isn’t what the player wants, and even if the plot moves along its rails the game time will be wasted if not spoiled.

Generally speaking, I think the best way to avoid that is to solicit player input.  You want a character that the player’s PC will fall in love with?  Have the player help design the character and the general outline of how they’ll interact.  One huge advantage to this is that if the player isn’t interested in having that sort of thing happen in game, for whatever reason, you find out then and there and can drop the whole matter.  You also get explicit guidance from the player on what the character will find attractive (which is by no means what the player personally would find attractive), as well as just how genre-iffic, and how detailed or abstract, the whole approach to romance should be.  I find that even players who care deeply about playing In-Character are really open to out-of-game discussions about how they as player would like the game to go and the psychology of their character.

The down-side to this approach is that you lose the spontaneity.  There is something particularly satisfying about relationships with NPCs, of any sort, that arise dynamically out of play and not because the GM or the GM and player together contrived it in advance.  After all it’s precisely the actual real-time play of the game that’s the reason we play out the game in the first place instead of sitting around the table collaborating on a novel or a play.  To the extent that important things are moved from game play and into game planning, we risk diminishing the game.

Still, with all the ways that in-game romances are fraught with peril–not just for your preferred plot, but for the cohesion of the game group as a whole–I think the wisest course is not by creating a really attractive character and crossing your fingers and hoping, but by knowing your audience, which includes knowing whether they want in-game romance at all.  And the best, quickest, and most reliable way to know your audience is to openly ask them.

Keep Your Filthy Narrative Out of My Roleplaying

My friend Russell writes

I think this is exactly right, at least as far as my tastes go.  Broadly speaking, there are three commonly found attitudes towards what you’re trying to accomplish when you play a roleplaying game.  I don’t want to resurrect the taxonomy wars, so I won’t label them, but the basic breakdown is:

  • Roleplaying games are about experiencing what it’s like to X
  • Roleplaying  games are about constructing stories that are like X
  • Roleplaying games are about playing a game (often a war-game) that draws elements from X

The problem is that these modes are largely incompatible.  If you’re trying to experience what it might be like to be faced with situations and making decisions in the game world, the last thing you want is to have narrative control over the game that the character doesn’t have; how can you face any uncertainty over whether your arrow will strike true when you can just declare that it does?  If you’re trying to play a game to exercise your tactical judgment and formulate clever strategies, it’s damn well cheating when the referee just overrules them in the name of plot.  If you are collaboratively writing a story in your favorite genre, it’s madness to allow that story to be warped or even ended prematurely by something as arbitrary as a bad die-roll.

This isn’t just idle speculation or caricature, these are genuine and deeply felt objections by people who are looking for a certain kind of entertainment from RPGs.  Take this guy gal, for example:

    • In addition, I challenge the entire premise [that “Character death should be a normal part of a well balanced but challenging adventure with natural consequences for poor choices.”]. Books and movies are excellent examples of my point of view. The main character isn’t going to die and you know it the entire time. No matter how steep the cliff, how deadly the bullets, how invasive the poison, the hero lives and we still have engaging blockbuster films and New York Times Bestseller novels. Why? Because the Story is Just That Good.

Leaving aside  the question of whether blockbuster films and bestselling novels really are Just That Good, or whether they’d be even better if there was some actual uncertainty as to the outcome, this is clearly a guy gal who is not only looking for a way to construct stories, but doesn’t even have a glimmer that there might be people looking for other things, people who would therefor find the justification that something happens in films and novels to be unpersuasive, if not a complete non sequitur. (Or maybe I’m just reading to much into his her “challenging” the premise rather than simply disagreeing with it.)

What bothers me is not that the folks who are primarily about constructing narratives exist (de gustibus),  but the blithe assumption that everybody else who plays RPGs shares their tastes, even if they don’t know it yet. (BTW, I don’t intend to single out Viriatha above as an example of that.  I’m talking more about an attitude I perceive all over the place in posts on how to structure your roleplaying session as if it were scenes from a movie, how to design your villains to play up the themes of the story, how to drop detail and consistency from the setting if it doesn’t feed into the main narrative, and so on.) What I miss is any sense that “Your mileage may vary.”  It’s not that I want to see every blog post or forum comment come with a disclaimer “only suitable for certain tastes in roleplaying”, but that I think the advice would be sharper and more on-point if the authors kept in mind that they’re talking about a specific approach to RPGs.  For one thing, they’d spend less time running down the alleged flaws in other styles of RPGing, which should give them more time to devote to their particular style.  More than that, though, I think that the recognition that they are aiming to accomplish one particular kind of thing by playing RPGs would help them separate the wheat from the chaff for their approach; there are a lot of things that are carried over from game system to game system in our hobby because that’s what people are used to, but are irrelevant if not counter-productive for certain styles of gaming.  The result, it seems to me, is a lot of patching of things that get in the way when they should be jettisoned instead.

Take, for instance, Fate or Hero Points.  Such things are often added to systems that have important things, like character life or death, decided by a random die roll, to give players a measure of narrative control; the justification is almost always along the lines offered above, to make the game more like a blockbuster movie or bestselling novel.  The problem is that this is a band-aid.  If what you’re aiming for is a properly-constructed, satisfying story, having a limited number of times you can overrule a story-killing die roll makes no sense.  An unsatisfying end to the story doesn’t become more satisfying because at least you managed to avoid derailing it the first three times it happened before you ran out of Fate points.  You shouldn’t be rolling dice if you don’t want a random outcome.

On the other hand, and this gets back to my original point and the title of this post, if having a limited pot of Fate Points is insufficient to satisfy the legitimate desires of those who are playing for narrative, the existence of such things in the system screws up the legitimate desire of those who are playing for the experience of it to not be forced to confront profound game decisions that can’t be made in character.  I don’t want narrative control when I’m trying to imagine the experience of the character, because it screws it all up; if the character actually had that control, the story would turn into simple wish-fulfillment, if not an outright Mary Sue (as well as breaking a lot of settings where there’s no conceivable reason that a character would have that kind of power).  The more important and the more fraught with consequence the moment is, the less I want to be jerked out of it by meta-game considerations.

Similarly, from the other direction, there are those who think that “something must be done” to prevent the horrifying possibility that some logical, perfectly consistent feature of the game world (such as encountering something unexpected when crossing the dangerous wilderness) could screw up the game balance, so that the set-piece encounter at the end of the journey is no longer a fair contest or the wealth-per-level guidelines get thrown out of whack.  Again, it’s not that they’re wrong to want the game the way they want it, but a greater recognition of what their particular desires are would probably help them narrow the focus of the game to what they actually enjoy.  If you’re going to remove the random encounters as being a pointless and potentially unbalancing distraction from the encounters in the dungeon, you should probably go ahead and remove the travel to the dungeon as well.  Why should there even be a situation “The PC’s are heading to the dungeon and will eventually get to the dungeon, but not this session, and they need a combat to get them moving.”  Just wave your hands and say “Three weeks later you arrive at the dungeon.”

You want a laser-like focus on what you and your players actually find fun, and you want to ruthlessly trim the things that get in the way of that.  But to do that, you need to understand what it is that your players actually want to accomplish by playing RPGs, and to do that you have to keep in mind that what they’re after might not be the “obvious” point of roleplaying to you.  Otherwise you might find that you’re trimming the reason that they enjoy playing, and focusing straight on what they are trying to ignore.

The Rule of Goofy

Actually, I think there is a Rule of Goofy, and it goes something like this:

The ability of an element to shatter the Suspension of Disbelief is directly proportional to how goofy it is. Reality is no excuse for fiction.  If the audience finds something so goofy that they are thrown out of the moment in order to analyze or scoff at it, it doesn’t matter how realistic it actually is or how well-documented it is that such things occur either in the real world or in the genre.  Presenting evidence might get them to move past it, but the damage is done and the momentum is lost.

For RPGs one might add that the element might be a result coughed out by the game system that, while 100% accurate to the rules, is goofy in context.

While Dr. Checkmate is correct that one man’s cool is another man’s goofy, that doesn’t mean that the rules can’t be usefully applied, only that you have to know your audience.

The Rule of Cool: A Useful Tool

The Geek, at Geek Related, writes:

    • I’ve been following the debate about the so-called “Rule of Cool.”  It’s a “TV Tropes” concept extended to RPGs by  the Chatty DM, (original post “The Rule of Cool” here, and clarification “The Rule of Cool Takes Flak” here).  A number of people gave it drive-by disses, but I think the most on topic one is from 6d6 Fireball, with Rule of Cool – Only for Idiots and Of Coolness and Idiocy.

      In short, the Rule of Cool states “The limit of the Willing Suspension Of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to its degree of coolness. Stated another way, all but the most pedantic of viewers will forgive liberties with reality so long as the result is wicked sweet and/or awesome. This applies to the audience in general, as there will naturally be a different threshold for each individual in the group.”

      If you interpret it very loosely as “Hey, toss in some cool stuff to spice up your game” it’s fine.  But the way it’s stated is setting up “cool” as being carte blanche to roll over realism/suspension of disbelief.  “If it’s cool enough, it can be incoherent and it’s all good.”

First off, as a psychological observation, The Rule of Cool is simply true.  This is a form of “Confirmation Bias“: people find it very difficult to notice discrepancies and logical errors in things that they are favorably disposed towards.  Contrariwise, they’ll nitpick to death something that they find disagreeable, boring, or challenging to their preconceptions.  Indeed, I’d say several of the bloggers who strongly object to Chatty DM’s post are displaying that very behavior.

Second, the Rule of Cool is part of the basis of the hobby.  Practically every RPG relies on the Rule of Cool to excuse inconsistencies and absurdities in the setting.  If your players see a dragon and don’t immediately start in on how such a creature violates the square-cube law and should barely be able to walk when not buoyed up in a swamp, let alone fly, and breathing fire is absurd, why the caloric requirements alone…that’s because they think it’s cool and are willing to suspend their disbelief to that extent.  Magic, psionics, Cthulhoid horrors, vampires, sexy secret agents licensed to kill, giant mecha, Wild West zombies, super heroes, intelligent bunnies, faster-than-light travel, net-running deckers, swashbuckling pirates, private detectives solving murders, artificially intelligent robots, aliens…if it’s fodder for RPGs, it requires a large dollop of willing suspension of disbelief, and that disbelief will only be provided by people who think those things are cool enough to be worth pretending to believe.  Geek culture has become so entwined with pop culture in the past few years that fans of fantastic literature (which is most RPGers) can lose sight of the fact that not everybody really thinks this kind of stuff is cool; there are still plenty of people who think it’s all dumb and puerile, absurd escapist crap that doesn’t deserve any suspension of disbelief.  There are people who look at Spider-Man or The Dark Knight with the same visceral revulsion for the CGI and melodrama being offered as “cool” that others do for Michael Bay or Uwe Boll movies.

Third, as a piece of advice Chatty’s take on the Rule of Cool provides a useful approach to what to spend your limited time and effort as a GM to prepare and convey during a session.  You are better served spending your time making sure that your game is going to be enjoyable to your players so that they’ll want to overlook the inevitable holes than trying to make sure there are no holes to be found without regard to whether it satisfies the players.  It’s an RPG, it’s going to have holes–you can’t present an entire world, even a perfectly mundane world, in its entirety, in the form of a game without gaps or errors–if the players are in the mood to, they’re going to be able to quibble over events and raise objections even if you’re doing nothing more than reprising your day at the office in a session of “Papers & Paychecks.”  No matter what you and your players think of as cool, there is a hurdle to overcome in RPGs that isn’t there in more passive consumption of media in getting the players to engage the world…they can’t let it just wash over them and still be playing, so you have to make them want to play.  And to do that, you’re going to have to grapple with what it is that they think is cool enough to be worth it.

Finally, it’s completely irrelevant whether you happen to be tickled by Chatty’s particular examples; if you don’t think that stuff is “cool,” substitute what you do think of as cool.  And you can’t weasel out of it by claiming that cool by definition means CGI explosions and running up streams of bullets to kick somebody in the face…that’s a straw man.  If you and the players actually think that’s cool, then it wouldn’t be an objection; it’s only when you believe that it’s over-the-top and uncool that you re-engage your critical faculties, and the whole point of the Rule of Cool is to provide what the audience/players actually think is cool.  The TV Tropes site that it’s taken from is absolutely explicit:

Note that you only get to invoke the Rule of Cool if the end product is, in fact, cool. Note also that different opinions on what is “cool” create the most arguments over this.

Instead of trying to come up with an uncharitable reading of the Rule of Cool to make it self-evidentally stupid (If you add enough CGI explosions you can hide any ludicrous inconsistency or plot-hole! Not being obsessed with consistency is the same thing as not caring about it at all!), detractors ought to think about what it is they find cool about the settings they enjoy playing…and then try to think about what somebody with a more jaundiced eye would find absurd and disbelief-destroying about that setting.  Then they might begin to apprehend both what the Rule of Cool is really about, and how to use it to improve their games by emphasizing what the setting provides in preference to all other settings (what they really do find cool about it) to help the players enjoy the setting for what it is and ignore the inevitable gaps and debatable points. It’s not carte blanche to roll over suspension of disbelief, it’s an encouragement to analyze what it is that causes people to engage their suspension of disbelief and provide more of whatever that is.

Bait and Switch

This month, the RPG Blog Carnival topic is “Transitions and Transformations,” so I’d like to talk a little about Baiting and Switching campaign premises in RPGs.  The basic idea, seductive in its simplicity, is that you emulate a common staple of fantastic fiction where the protagonists find themselves in a setting or situation that is a radical change from their everyday lives and for which they are unprepared (as when a group of children find a strange world in the back of the wardrobe in the house they’re staying in, or a dying prospector is astrally transported to Mars) by having the players prepare characters as if they were going to play in a particular setting (e.g. the Old West), and part-way through the first session plop them in a new one (Barsoom).  In one swell foop you short-circuit any temptation to meta-gaming in the character build process, eliminating any difficulty over professors, reporters and nurses curiously well-versed in the handling of shotguns and dynamite in your Call of Cthulhu game, and you present the players with the exact psychological experience that the characters have of being gobsmacked when their plans for their lives are turned upside-down.  That’s a pretty rare thing to be able to accomplish in an RPG, so it’s quite tempting.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking that I’m going to warn you against doing it, because the risks are too great.  The players might not like the new premise that they didn’t buy into; they may have built characters that have rich connections with the original premise and are reduced to hollow shells in the new one or may have an obsessive motivation to return to the original; if the characters aren’t built with the setting in mind they may be ineffective to the point of not being fun to play; if any characters are lost the switch in premise might make it impossible to neatly add new ones, etc.  In essence you’re playing a trick on the players, and what they might have cheerfully agreed to if you’d presented it openly they may end up resenting when it’s forced upon them, ruining a perfectly good campaign for a brief moment of epiphany when they realize what the game is really about.

Let me tell you, though, that when it works, it’s beautiful, and can cause great awe and glee around the table.  To me, that’s worth the risk.

That’s not to say that there aren’t things you can do to minimize the risk.  Take, for example, the Escape From Tartarus game I ran.  You might want to read the recaps of Part 1 and Part 2 before going further.

I knew going into it that the bait and switch I was planning was tricky, so there were some things that I did  specifically to address that:

  • The game was planned as a one-shot, instead of a full campaign.  If things had gone badly the number of sessions ruined would be minimal (it ended up taking two sessions, but it was also apparent by the end of the first session that it was going to work).
  • The players were all given pre-gens.  This reduced their investment in the initial character concept (nobody spent two weeks working on a back-story that would be completely discarded), and allowed me to make sure that everybody had something they could do once the switch occurred.
  • Because I know my players well, I was able to tailor the pre-gens to their preferences, to the extent of having them be reminiscent of characters that they’d already played and enjoyed.
  • It was presented as “Here’s what I’m running this week.”  Slightly high-handed, but again reduced the players investment in the initial premise and eliminated any hint of breaking a promise to deliver them a game based on what had been previously agreed to.
  • The switch granted the characters a step up (in this case a big one) in importance and ability to exert an influence on the course of events.  It’s much better for player buy-in for the alleged madman to find out he’s Corwin, Prince of Amber than for Corwin, Prince of Amber to find out he’s actually a madman hallucinating in the loony-bin.
  • The shift left a goodly amount of continuity between pre and post.  In this case, the literal setting remained the same, while the power-level and style underwent a radical change (from gritty prison drama to super-agent adventure).  I think continuity helps: change the setting, keep the style; change the style, keep the setting; change both, at least keep the themes.  If you change everything, the players may feel that you’ve just switched games in the middle.

The Escape From Tartarus was one of the most succesful games I’ve run, and everybody had a really good time.  In fact, it’s one of the settings my players have indicated an interest in returning to some day.

I’ve run other Bait and Switch games, some wildly successful (The Midnight Special), some failures (The Irvine Effect) and I think the above hits upon the key points to make it work:  Minimize the Bait, by not letting the players get too invested in or put too much work into the initial set-up, and carefully target the switch so that the players can experience some sense of continuity and the switch leaves them in their comfort zone as to the kind of characters and situations they like to play, or places them there if that’s not where they started.  Done right, and it’ll be a game to remember.

Fluffy Crunch and Crunchy Fluff

Matthew Conway recently wrote Fluff and Crunch Are Dead To Me, about how he’s grown to hate the terms, but I see them as getting at something.  To me, anyway, Crunch is all the mechanics of the game: you roll this, and subtract that number from this other thing, if the result is 0 or less, the creature is dead, and so forth.  Fluff is all the stuff that doesn’t touch the mechanics at all, and could be freely swapped with any other fluff without changing the in-game result.  To take a concrete example, if you know the HERO game system:  that an attack is 6d6 Energy Blast, Armor-Piercing, 1/2 End Cost, Activate 14- is all Crunch.  It tells you everything mechanical you need to know to resolve the attack, and absolutely nothing at all about what the attack is or how it appears to the characters.   The fact that it’s a bolt of flame, or darting daggers of ice, or even a pack of pink bunnies that materialize, savage the target, and disappear is pure Fluff, flavor without any substance.

Now, neatly separating things into Crunch and Fluff is a huge convenience to the game designers, who can on the one hand say “Hey, I don’t need to write any special rules for Ice Daggers versus Fireballs, an Energy Blast is an Energy Blast is an Energy Blast…take some advantages or limitations if you want it to have a different mechanical effect”  and on the other can say “Here’s an adventure you can use for any system whatsoever, just plug in your favorite mechanics and go.” It’s also a convenience for the player and GM insofar as it makes the rules streamlined and elegant and lets them use this or that material with their favorite system.

But… it’s not a pure win… at least for players who are interested in having the rules closely track the game description and story.  See, unless you’re approaching it as a board-game, almost everything that actually interests the players is at the level of description.  What they want to do is toss their Fireball at the bad-guy and see the fur fly (or singe); rolling the 6d6 and subtracting the target’s Energy Defense divided by 2 while ticking off 3 endurance spent is just a means to the end, and the end is telling them what happens next when they throw that fireball.  But when the game designer has severed the link between mechanics and description, which is what designating them as crunch and fluff is mostly about, that can make the interface…mushy and undefined.  In extreme cases (cough 4e cough) the player can lose the sense that they know what’s actually happening in the game world to cause the mechanical effect, or worse know that the description is just “flavor text” and ought to be ignored lest it give you the wrong impression of what ought to be possible in the game world.  A clean separation of crunch and fluff makes it impossible to reason from the level of description.

So what players often would prefer…you’re way ahead of me here, I’m sure…is a less clean separation, what I call “fluffy crunch” and “crunchy fluff.”   Fluffy Crunch would consist of making every bit of crunch have a visible, comprehensible description-level corresponding bit of fluff.  You don’t just Soak a wound, you desperately twist out of the way so that it just grazes you.

Crunchy Fluff is making sure all the description-level stuff gets reflected appropriately in the mechanics:  If your super-power lets you created Ice Daggers out of nothing, you darned well should be able to create one and use it to cool your drink, or ice-down a twisted ankle.   No saying the rules don’t support that that just because the crunch description doesn’t allocate a +1/256th advantage “Can be used to cool physical objects in a non-violent fashion.”  Your ice daggers might get a bonus (or a minus) versus fiery creatures, or be easier to generate in artic conditions and harder in the middle of the Sahara, but in any case shouldn’t be indistinguishable from your companion’s Laser Pistol.

Crunchy Fluff also comes about from making the mechanics support the details of the setting.  If vampires in your setting are unable to enter a dwelling without an invitation, it helps to support that with actual mechanics: is it an absolute prohibition?  Can a sufficiently powerful vampire overcome it?  If so, how?  A Will roll?  Or is it something that the vampire can do, but it will have consequences.  Will it take damage for every turn it remains uninvited?  Can an invitation be revoked?  If it can, can the occupant just say the words, or does the occupant have to engage in some kind of test of wills?  This kind of tuning the rules to reinforce the description of the setting is an important way of making it feel like the setting has “heft”…that the adventure that the players are on couldn’t just be “re-skinned” (to use a computer gaming phrase) with the vampires being replaced with killer androids or cattle rustlers and nothing else but the fluff changing.

If you try to write something as pure Fluff, that can be applied to any setting, those are the kinds of things that can come back to bite you, no pun intended.  If the adventure assumes that vampires can’t enter a dwelling without an invitation period, but the system mechanics say that any sufficiently powerful vampire can…and the adventure has a vampire that’s supposed to be one of the most powerful in the world….

In any case the rules should be used to support the description that’s the heart of play.  Fluffy Crunch is there to give the mechanics a reason and a description; a neat mechanic is not self-justifying, even if it does give the player something extra to think about in terms of winning the board game.  Crunchy Fluff makes the descriptive level of play have consequences as well as consistency.  Both are important to a satisfying RPG, and IMO both are preferable to designs where one is divorced from the other.

How to Railroad Your Players


Figure out some other way of advancing the scenario, or at least what path it will take if the players succeed instead of failing.

If you absolutely feel that you have to, then:

For my money, the best way of handling this is openly telling the players that the outcome of the scene is required by the plot.  If you’re going to railroad the players then telling them about it will usually defuse any resentment and may even get their active cooperation. You may even be able to give them a free hand to describe how they fail.

Second best is to present them with overwhelming force.  Yes, the rails will be visible, and you won’t get their buy-in, but you won’t waste their time lying to them about whether they’re really playing a scene where they can have an effect on the outcome, and they won’t waste any rare resources they might have in game trying to escape their fate.  You’ll also avoid poisoning the game further down the road, where they’ll wonder (with good reason) whether every failure or setback they experience–or even every success–was manipulated by the GM.  It’s not even like encountering overwhelming force is likely to be immersion-breaking, unless your PCs are nearly the most powerful entities in the setting; it’s common enough both in real life and fiction.  It’s only in games (and in my opinion not very good ones) where everything is automatically scaled to your abilities and every obstacle can be overcome.

Trying to slip one past them so they think that they’ve actually played the game and made important decisions when you’ve secretly removed any possibility of that is, ime, the number one thing that players hate, and yet GMs keep coming back to it.  Railroading is reviled by players, everybody knows that it’s reviled by players, everybody gives lip-service to the idea that you don’t want to be doing that to your players….but people still come up with scenarios that won’t work without it and try to devise cunning ways to hide it so the players won’t realize they’re being railroaded.  Because, you know, the resulting story would be so much cooler if it came out the way the GM envisioned it without any player input but with the players unwittingly playing their parts.

If you actually think the players will believe the story is cooler too, then put it to them openly.  If they think the point of the game is to make a satisfying and dramatic recap, they’ll be happy to cooperate.  If they disagree, then you’re doing them no service by lying to them to get the story you want.  And on the off chance they actually do think that it would be good if you sometimes disregarded their input to force the story in one direction or another, but they don’t want to know about it when it happens, then you can go back to worrying about how to camoflage your rails.

When Failure Is Not An Option

Don’t make it an option.


Wandering the RPG blogosphere and forums, I’ve seen a lot of advice for GMs along the lines of “What to do when the party fails?”  The advice goes on to detail some clever or not so clever ways of preventing the module or entire campaign from going down in flames, but it’s almost always from the point of view of picking up the pieces once the party has failed to notice the clue, bypassed the room with the key, alienated the noble who’s the only one with the information they need, and so on.  Conspicuously absent, from my point of view, is a discussion of how the GM got the party in that pickle in the first place.  And it is the GM that got the party to the point where everything hinged on a single action, make no mistake.

You don’t want a single point of failure in your business processes, and you don’t want it in your RPG scenarios.  Unless, that is, you and your players are perfectly happy to fail (a possibility in some challenge-based games).

I’ve talked about “Scenario Breaker Rolls” in the past, so I won’t go into that again, but a botched die-roll isn’t the only way that the party can reach an impasse.

Take NPC interactions.  Too many GMs (and I’ve been guilty of this myself) make NPCs basically inert in social situations until the PCs prod them, and then decide how the NPCs react based on the PCs’ approach (plus or minus a die-roll).  Then they let the whole game get derailed when the PCs fumble the role-playing part of the interaction, perhaps by offering less deference to the King than the GM thinks the situation warrants.  That’s fine if there’s no problem for your game if the NPC declines to offer the quest after the PCs have insulted him and/or stolen from him, or you regard them ending up in the King’s dungeon as a good adventure hook.  If failure is going to be a big issue, then, as GM you should be taking charge and making sure that failure doesn’t occur.  Don’t make the NPC a surly and suspicious bugger if you need him to trust the PCs, no matter how neat you think it would be if the PCs were able to jolly him around through brilliant roleplaying.  Don’t put on your GM stone-face and wait for the PCs to start talking; have the NPC greet them with open arms and move the conversation along to where you need it to be (e.g. at least the announcement of the quest) before they open their mouths.  Yes, this steps on the role-playing opportunities of the situation, but you know what?  That’s what you get when you make an NPC a plot device.  You can have all the other NPCs interact in a more naturalistic fashion, or even that NPC in other situations, but during the portion of the adventure where you need that NPC to convey certain information or offer a particular deal to keep the PCs from hitting a brick wall, it’s a mistake to leave it up to the RP of the players if you think there’s any chance that they’ll screw it up.

Again, let me emphasize that “screw it up” means ruin everybody’s enjoyment with a failure to get the information/come to terms…whenever “failure” can be just as fun and interesting for everybody as success, I strongly encourage GMs to let things fall out however the players direct it.  But even GMs who are strongly committed to open-ended games without any rails can reach a point where the decisions of the players to that point have committed them to a course of action, at which point game-breaking opportunity for failures can crop up.  My feeling is that unless you and your players are equally committed to challenge-based games,  even in an open-ended sandbox campaign it’s the GM’s responsibility to minimize the single-points of failure.  If the players have decided to solve a mystery, and successfully uncover the murderer, it’s a mistake to make it so the fact that they’ve antagonized the Chief of Police along the way turns the whole adventure into a failure; you either have to make the Chief honorable enough that given proof he’ll make the arrest anway, or there has to be somebody else they can turn the culprit over to and see justice done.

To sum up, fixing game-breaking errors is no substitute for not making them in the first place.  There are all kinds of techniques you can use to recover from error, and it’s good to have some of them in reserve, but your first line of defense should be designing your scenarios so that there just aren’t any places where the PCs could fail unless you are willing for them to fail.  You can’t generally make players happy to fail, and you can’t (IMO) make success inevitable without cheapening it, but I think you can and should make every effort so that even if they fail, the players regard it as time well spent; failures should never result in them saying “That was stupid. What a waste of time.” if you can possibly help it.