Karma Points, or Payback is a Botch

There’s a discussion over at Robertson Games about using Luck points or the like to reduce the impact of a series of bad rolls resulting in character death.  I’m not a big fan of them, preferring explicit script immunity if the game isn’t going to just let the dice fall where they may.  I totally get why not every game needs to challenge the players and have character death or significant defeat be a live option, or at least give the players veto power to avoid stupid or anticlimactic deaths, but I think that Luck Points in the sense of a small finite resource than can be spent to reroll or force a roll to a certain outcome aren’t an adequate response.  On the one hand, they’re too little: they don’t actually guarantee that unacceptable outcomes never occur.  Eventually the party runs out of do-overs, and then they’re stuck even if another unacceptable outcome occurs.   On the other hand, they do too much, since the players will almost certainly come to consider their presence (or absence if they’re running low) when evaluating their options.  If you don’t want a TPK when the party foolishly attacks a sleeping dragon they happen across while on some unrelated quest, giving them Luck Points may actually encourage them to attack it; in effect Luck Points subsidize them making game-mechanically foolish choices.

Generally I prefer that the GM and players either agree in advance that they have script immunity, or they take up situations where a run of bad luck has derailed the game or killed a character on a case-by-case basis, deciding whether to live with the outcome or retcon it as an extraordinary measure.   I’ve long felt it to be a mistake to roll for something if you’re not willing to abide by the roll; if I really don’t want characters to die as a result of bad rolls in combat, I take the option off the table, for instance by making less than 0 HP mean incapacitated, fate to be determined.   It occurs to me, though, that it might be possible to craft a mechanic that answers my objections.

Suppose instead of a pre-figured supply of Luck Points which could be used to overrule or reroll a bad situation, you had an unlimited supply…but each time you invoked the rule you gained one Karma Point.  The GM could then spend one Karma Point to overrule or force a reroll some time down the line, negating some good result you had rolled.  That clearly solves the problem of a finite supply just kicking the can of reckoning down the road, giving the players a form of script immunity when it was just notably bad luck that screwed them over.  It might also address the problem of the players counting on their immunity to let them try dumb things, since they would know it would cause them potentially serious trouble down the line.  Yes, they could know in advance that whatever happens they can survive the dragon’s first breath attack…but at the risk of turning an otherwise easy situation later on into a fiasco.  It wouldn’t anwer for players who really need script immunity so their fun isn’t all bashed out of shape by random die rolls, but it might do for players who were generally interested/willing to subject their character’s fate to the dice but wanted some measure of veto power over extremely inopportune rolls.

What is Role-playing?

The Fine Art of the TPK asks
A short question, but by no means easy…

Instead, I have a question. An open call, if you will. Can somebody PLEASE define role-playing? Somebody will be a wise-ass and link the wiki stub, so I’ll just get it out of the way.


Specifically, I’d like to know how or why one game would have it in any more or less abundance than any other. You folks are incredibly bright, but you bicker over minor details WAAAAAAAAY too much.

Role-playing is playing a role. It is the player getting to make in-character decisions, and making those decisions for the character as if the character’s motivations, personality, goals, and such make a difference, so the character is being driven by their inner mental life. For instance, in role-playing, you try to maintain a distinction between what the player knows and what the character knows. (That’s not completely dispositive, since some hard-core wargames with fog-of-war rules also try to impose that distinction–though most of the time they will try to conceal certain knowledge from the player, such as by having chits upside-down until revealed, rather than asking the player to simply act as if he didn’t know what was there.)

It can be done from various stances, such as trying to imagine what it might be like to be that character, or by trying to construct a story so that the character seems psychologically plausible the way characters in good (or even not-so-good) fiction are.  The goal is to make it so that explanations of the character’s actions refer to the character’s role, and involve things like knowledge, beliefs, and desires, and to avoid making it so that the actions can only be explained by referring to things outside the role such as the actions of certain rules (“My character hates to see animals abused and goes berserk, so I held my action until the evil guy kicked the puppy because I wanted to trigger his Rage ability for the upcoming fight”)  or meta-game situations (“Carla has to leave in 20 minutes, so I attack the guy with the flag of truce.  We might as well get one combat in this session”).  Even worse is when rules or meta-game considerations prompt actions that are contrary to the role:  “My saintly pacifist attacks, because we might as well get one combat in this session.”

From this point of view, it’s obvious that some games are better or worse for role-playing. Despite the fact that you are assigned identities in Clue, it’s not a role-playing game. It doesn’t matter for game-play whether you’re Colonel Mustard or Miss Scarlet, and you would be considered strange or playing a prank if you insisted on trying to play it as if Colonel Mustard and the other characters had a distinct personality and approach. “Col. M wouldn’t think that Miss Scarlet was capable of the murder, because he’s a chauvinist, and a rope is not a woman’s weapon.” Even if the other players humored you and let you play that way (or you concealed the reasons for your decisions), the game doesn’t support role-playing and you’d be at a distinct disadvantage compared to playing it as intended, where the piece is just a token to push around the board.

Games that are intended as role-playing games can have features that aid or hinder players in making in-character decisions. In some cases, they might even make it impossible to make in-character decisions for certain situations; if those situations come up frequently in the game, the game is objectively worse for role-playing than the same game without those features.  For instance, games with lots of coercive personality mechanics can be hell on role-playing.  Even though they’re often built so that you can make a narrative that sounds as if it’s talking about mental state, the actual facts are it’s a narrative about game state that’s out of the player’s hands.  The character did what he did because the rules and dice said he had to, not because the player played it that way.  “I say my character is brave, the stats on his character sheet say he should be brave, but every combat we’ve had so far the unlucky die rolls say that he’s run away.”  Or, in My Life With Master, you’re not making character decisions, you’re rolling to see what the character decides and narrating around that.  The game rules reach in and flip the character’s mental state, and the player carries it out.

Games can also make it difficult to role-play by putting too much knowledge or narrative power in the player’s hands.  Just as it can be a lot to ask of a war-gamer that he move his units as if he couldn’t plainly see that cavalry screened by the woods, ready to charge his flank, it can be a lot to ask of a role-player to separate what the character would want to have happen from what would make the most sense in the game world, or what would make the most interesting story in retrospect.

Games can also fall down by making the player have to care about things that the character cannot in principle know.  I’ve gone on at length before about how 4e’s Skill Challenge system falls into this category, so I won’t repeat it here.

Are there things that games can do to actually enhance role-playing, and make it easier?  Sure.  The very fact that games can be separated into role-playing games and non-roleplaying games shows that there are.  The major thing is to make it as much as possible so that character reasoning and game-rule reasoning are congruent, and that the game is responsive to logical actions of the characters. The biggest thing that RPGs can do to emphasize the RP part is get out of the way.  Every time you tell the players that even though it would make sense for the characters to try X, they can’t because there’s no rule for it, you kill role-playing a little.  Every time you invoke a rule that changes the state of the game world in a way the characters can see and react to, but you can’t actually explain what it was that they saw happen (Own the Battlefield, I’m looking at you!) you kill role-playing a little.  If it’s not possible to eliminate some arbitrary construct in the rules, it can often at least be made real in the game-world so that the characters can think about it.  E.g. if there are things in the game that depend on level, such as spells that won’t effect people of certain level, or have a duration based on level, it can be a big help to role-playing to have level be something that the characters can know and talk about.  Russell does this in his Hero Cults D&D setting, where levels are actual ranks in a quasi-religious hierarchy.  The rules should emphasize giving information at the character level, and explicable in terms of things the characters understand, and game-play should emphasize overriding the rules whenever they give a result that forces the players out of playing the role and just into accepting that’s how things are because the rules say so.

RPG Systems and Granularity

Dr. Checkmate, guest blogging over at Uncle Bears, writes:

    • On a related note, d4 to d12 (or d4-2 to d12+2) doesn’t allow for a whole lot of granularity. You’re basically talking about all traits being on a scale of 1 to 5. Even some how making it a scale of 1 to 10 would be an improvement.

I know what he means about granularity, but my experience is that more than about five doesn’t actually make much of a psychological impact.  Too fine a gradation, even if statistically significant, tends to get lost in people’s mental model of how things work.  Despite D&D 3+ grading attributes on a 3-18 scale, what actually matters is the -2 to +4 that usable characters tend to end up with.  Similarly, even though each Skill rank in D&D “matters”, the difference between 7 or 8 ranks in a Skill tends not to get noticed.  Even in systems like Hero and GURPS, which have you rolling 3d6 against a stat, the bell-shaped curve means that some points are more equal than others.   In my own home-brew before I switched to Savage Worlds I used a 1 to 10 scale for both Attributes and Skills, but realistically PCs had about 3-8 in anything the actually did (except for some combat monsters that I actually kind of wish weren’t so crocked).  Having a smaller spread in the general stuff but extra Disadvantages/Advantages actually seems to help players think of the characters as having distinct strengths and weaknesses, as well as opening up more actually playable characters. E.g. middling Dexterity stat but Fumble-Fingers Disad giving a minus to fine manipulation is more memorable and easier to work with than an rock-bottom Dexterity score, which in many systems is a death-sentence.

I sometimes wonder if something like the seven-plus-or-minus-two rule is at work here.  If a player can’t distinctly visualize all the steps at once, do they just chunk it until they can?

Not Everything Can Be Near

…because where would you put it?

In the previous post, I talked about Near and Far thinking in RPGs, and recommended that the GM try to make as much as possible in the game amenable to Near thinking.  As much as possible doesn’t mean everything, though; there are situations where it’s either not possible, or not desirable.

  • If the GM and the players don’t know (and can’t be expected to learn) enough details.  E.g. open-heart surgery, or starship hyperdrive repair.  In the former case it’s conceivable (barely) that in a game that’s about being a surgeon it would be worthwhile to learn enough about surgery to not only provide accurate description, but enough real choices of the sort that surgeons face to make Near thinking possible; in the latter, the details just don’t exist, and while the GM could certainly make them up and try to teach them to the players, the amount of effort involved to get the kind of free-wheeling thinking of fully grasping the problem-space as when a player thinks about searching an ordinary desk doesn’t seem like it would pay off, even in a campaign about starship engineers.
  • If the situation is about performance, not decisions.  When the task at hand is something like playing the cello, it doesn’t really matter exactly what the GM or the player knows about cellos, or even music in general, because it’s the character’s physical skill that’s called on.  Now, if you were to search a cello…  Note that this is often going to be true of the physical activity of combat.  The strategy and tactics are decisions that can be carried out by the player, the physical activity of shooting the bow or swinging the sword is all the performance of the character.
  • If it’s about the character’s skill at making certain kinds of decisions.  Even if the GM and the player both understand what’s involved enough that they could go into detail, sometimes it’s about what the character can think or understand, not the player.  It’s often the case that the character is supposed to be better at thinking about certain situations than the player (sometimes the other way around).  In these cases it’s possible to use a skill roll to backstop or supplement the decisions that the player makes, but much of the time you should just substitute Far thinking.  Even if the GM and the player both know how to play chess, actually playing out the match between the character and Death isn’t likely to be a satisfying way of resolving it.
  • For pacing reasons.  There’s only so much time in a session, so sometimes even if the characters would have time to go through all the gory details the game is better off if you hand-wave it.  You don’t want to do too much of this, though.  It’s easy to imagine that you’re getting more done in the game when you fly by everything at 30,000 feet, using Far thinking all the way, when actually you’re just leeching out all the color and vibrancy and eliminating potential decision points.   You should only use this as an excuse when spending the time in Near mode is going to freeze out the other players for too long, or you know that they find that particular activity boring to think about in detail, or it lets you get to a different and more interesting Near mode episode immediately.

Near vs. Far Thinking in RPGs

    • The latest Science has a psych article saying we think of distant stuff more abstractly, and vice versa.  “The brain is hierarchically organized with higher points in the cortical hierarchy representing increasingly more abstract aspects of stimuli”; activating a region makes nearby activations more likely.  This has stunning implications for our biases about the future.

      All of these bring each other more to mind: here, now, me, us; trend-deviating likely real local events; concrete, context-dependent, unstructured, detailed, goal-irrelevant incidental features; feasible safe acts; secondary local concerns; socially close folks with unstable traits.

      Conversely, all these bring each other more to mind: there, then, them; trend-following unlikely hypothetical global events; abstract, schematic, context-freer, core, coarse, goal-related features; desirable risk-taking acts, central global symbolic concerns, confident predictions, polarized evaluations, socially distant people with stable traits.

Robin Hanson wasn’t thinking about roleplaying games when he wrote this, of course, but if he and the Science article are right about how minds work–and I think they are–then it has implications for how we play these games.  For one thing, it means that providing detail and concreteness isn’t just a matter of atmosphere and aesthetics, it literally changes the way we think about events in the game.

Take an example near and dear to my heart, the act of searching in-game:


The GM determines there is a desk with three side drawers and a middle drawer, and taped to the underside of the middle drawer is a key.  The desk otherwise contains papers from old cases, none of them relevant, a gun in the top right-hand drawer and a bottle of rye in the bottom right hand drawer.
: I search the desk.
: How?
: I look in all the drawers.
GM: You find a gun in the top right hand drawer, a bottle of Rye in the bottom right hand drawer, and a bunch of papers.  They seem to be old case files.
: I flip through them and see if any seem relevant.
: Based on a casual flip through, none seem particularly interesting.
Because the player didn’t specify any action that would have uncovered the key, it’s not discovered.


GM: How?
Player: I look in all the drawers, then I take them out one by one.  I check the bottoms, and I look for false bottoms, and I check the holes, reaching around if necessary.
GM: That will take about fifteen minutes.
Player: I’ve got time.
GM: Ok, taped to the bottom of the middle drawer you find a key.  You also find a gun in the top right-hand drawer, and a bottle of rye in the bottom right-hand drawer.  There’s also a bunch of papers, that seem to be old case files, none particularly relevant.

Not as Near

GM determines the same set-up as before.
: I search the desk, looking in all the drawers.
Because the player didn’t specify actions that would uncover the key, the GM rolls the Player’s Search skill as a “save”, and gets a success.
GM: You find a gun, and a bottle of rye, plus some old case files.  On an impulse, you check under the drawers, and find a key taped to the bottom of the middle drawer.

Even Less Near

Same set up as before.
Player: I search the desk.
GM rolls vs the character’s Search Skill, and succeeds.
GM: You find a key taped to the bottom of the middle drawer, a gun in the top right-hand drawer, a bottle of rye in the bottom right-hand drawer, and some old case files.
If he had rolled a failure, the Player would still have found the gun, the files, and the booze, but not the key.


The GM determines that the desk contains a gun, and a hidden key.  He doesn’t bother to think about where.
Player: I search the desk.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
: You find a the gun, but nothing else of interest.

Even Farther

The GM determines that the desk contains a gun, and a key.  He doesn’t bother to think about what the desk looks like, where the items are or whether they’re hidden.
: I search the desk.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
GM: You find nothing.

Really Far

The GM doesn’t bother to determine anything about the desk.
: I search the desk.
GM rolls, and the character succeeds.
GM: You’ve got 1 success.  You need 2 more before you get 1 failure.

Just Plain Wrong

The GM determines the details as in the near cases.
Player: I look in all the drawers, then I take them out one by one.  I check the bottoms, and I look for false bottoms, and I check the holes, reaching around if necessary.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
GM: You find nothing.

Also Wrong

The GM doesn’t determine any details, but does determine the desk contains a gun and a key.
: I look in all the drawers, then I take them out one by one.  I check the bottoms, and I look for false bottoms, and I check the holes, reaching around if necessary.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
GM: You find nothing.

The thing about Near vs. Far is that it’s (probably) not a continuum, where you gradually lose detail and concreteness as you dial up the abstraction: at some point there is a modal shift in the kind of cognition you do.  I think that wherever possible, you want to keep things in the game world as Near as possible, so that the players remain grounded in the situation. This lets them reason about the game world, and not just about the rules.  It also provides more specific details to make the story more vivid, because it’s more like what we do when we’re faced with such situations in the real world.  Using Far abstractions is like having a scene cut to a placard that says “They search the room” and then cut back to show what they discovered.   If the GM doesn’t provide enough details that they could reason concretely (even if he backstops them with abstract game mechanics), then the players just move through a sort of fog of abstraction.  Everything their characters do seems to them to be more distant in space and time, and they’re more likely to group things mentally into larger, coarser categories, which can make it harder to keep their interest and attention since more stuff will be regarded as “the same old same old.”

Providing enough detail to make Near thinking possible in an RPG is more work for a GM, but I think it’s really important work, and pays off in making the experience much richer for everyone concerned.  When budgeting your effort in preparation, try to spend it on the details that the players will actually interact with to make the setting more concrete, and less on figuring out the broad strokes of distant event and times that shaped the game world.  A list of ten things that they can find in the desk beats 10,000 words on the lost empires of the Hyperborean Age.

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.

Fluid Combat Rounds Rules

  • Szilard posted an insanely complicated set of D&D 3.0 rules for a less turn-based approach to combat.

I can’t imagine actually using those rules (even if they weren’t D&D 3.0 oriented), but it did make me ponder whether there was some way to do the bookkeeping for them that would make it less cumbersome.  The answer is not that I could see (too many fiddly bits), but it gave me an idea so cunning you could put whiskers on it and call it a weasel…

Countless Moments

Each action is represented by a tile (a piece of cardboard or similar) that is 1 unit wide and a number of units long = how many moments the action takes up.  E.g.

  • Take a 5′ step forward or to the side: 1 unit.
  • Do nothing: 1 unit
  • Strike: 3 units
  • Cast a Spell: 5 units
  • Dive For Cover: 2 units
  • Step Back: 2 Units
  • Drop Prone: 1 unit
  • Stand from Prone: 1 unit
  • Run at double-pace: 5 units
  • Effects with duration (e.g. spells): N units (e.g. number of units determined by duration and scale, e.g.  a spell that lasted 3 turns would be 18 units if the scale was 6 moments to the turn).  These get their own tracks (one per effect), since they run in parallel with any other actions the characters take.
  • Bookkeeping (anything that the game rules require checking at the end of a “turn”, such as bleeding out, recovering endurance): N units, where N is the number of moments determined by the scale.  Again, this gets its own track (hopefully there’s only one…)

and so forth.  The GM would have a supply of 1 unit tiles to mark off moments.  Each player plays their intended actions by stacking their tiles one after another; they may be placed at any time at the end of the player’s current series of tiles.

Each moment the GM plays another 1 unit tile next to the players lines of tiles, and the actions that end in that moment are resolved.  Ties are resolved in initiative order (however that’s decided for the game…by Dex, by Init Bonus, by rolling). Past tiles are removed for recycling and the whole series can be slid backwards to make more room at the end.  There is no demarcation of turns, you just keep adding tiles to the end of the sequence and advancing until the combat is resolved.


Any time before the action a tile represents is resolved, you may remove that tile (and any following tiles) and replace it with a new one, but the new one begins no earlier than the current moment–not when the original tile began.  Fill with Do Nothing actions if needed to keep the sequence in sync.  Since the point of  continuous action resolution instead of turn-based is to allow the players to react to events as they unfold, the GM should generally let the players fiddle with their upcoming actions freely; still, if it threatens to bog down the game (particularly if the players start getting involved in lengthy discussions of optimal sequencing) the GM should feel free to move things along by playing new moment tiles and resolving actions–if they player doesn’t currently have an action in the sequence treat that as Do Nothing, representing the player dithering.  You might also experiment with allowing the players to play as many new tiles as they want at the start of combat and when one of their actions has just completed, but only play a single tile followed by a mandatory Do Nothing tile after an Abort to represent the cost of changing your mind all the time.


For converting durations, you have to pick a scale.  Generally you should make it so that a series of steps adds up to a normal move, e.g. 12 moments = 1 turn if characters can normally move 60′ a turn.  If you can usually move 1/2 move and attack, then an attack would be 6 units instead of 3, etc.

I don’t think I’m actually going to try this with any of our current games; it doesn’t really fit with Savage Worlds’ initiative and multi-action rules that well, and I don’t have any strong objections to the way turns play out in SW, but if anyone wants to give it a try I’d love to hear about it.

In Praise of Randomization

Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action. – Ian Fleming

Here’s two things about human beings:

  1. They are incredibly bad at randomizing
  2. They are incredibly good at recognizing patterns

The implication of the combination of these facts is that if you’re GMing a game and you think you’re introducing something that has no correlation with what’s gone before you’re probably wrong, and your players will probably notice.  In fact, even if you’re right, your players may well think there’s a correlation.

There are times when you can take advantage of this, and bask in the appreciation of your players who think you planned something diabolically intricate sessions in advance when actually they just constructed the pattern on the fly, but a lot of the time it can be a problem.  For one thing, it can make the players suspicious and paranoid.  Since a significant part of the game world always is out to get them, there’s usually plenty of fodder for this.  Paranoid players can turtle, or turn away (or turn on) NPCs that would otherwise be able to offer them resources and support that they’re going to need against the real threats, and they can slow the game to a crawl (such as when they examine and re-examine every ten feet of a corridor).  Unintended or spurious patterns can also lead the players on wild goose chases, pursuing lines of enquiry that you know are a dead end but are hard to block off without going meta–especially since it can be impossible for the players to distinguish between the world not containing the clues they’re looking for and an in-game adversary covering his tracks.  Sometimes the dog doesn’t bark in the night because there is no dog.

That’s where using genuine sources of randomness such dice come in.  E.g., if you have and regularly use random encounter tables to make your world seem alive and bustling, then you have much less risk that the players will conclude they’re being spied on by beggars just because beggars are a bit of local color that always seems to pop into your mind when you’re improvising.  They might still be inclined that way because of a series of unfortunate dice rolls…but if the players know you’re rolling randomly on tables, they’re much more likely to take it the way a real inhabitant of the world would: coincidence, not enemy action.  The tables are important so that you’re just using the randomizer to pick from a distribution that makes sense for the setting; you’re not trying to thwart all pattern in the setting, you’re trying to emphasize the true patterns and mitigate the purely coincidental ones.  The key to remember is that the players have hardly any interactions with the world (including simple descriptions of what they perceive) compared to the characters, so they tend to grossly overestimate the representativeness of the interactions they do have.

Finally, no discussion of randomization in RPGs would be complete without touching on random character generation.  While it’s probably obvious that random character generation, just like randomizing on encounter tables, increases the representativeness of the characters as part of the population, it’s not as clear that’s desirable.  After all, a character picked at random from the population of the setting may not have a single adventure during his or her entire life (and probably likes it that way).  For a long time I was strongly against random character generation.  Not only should players be able to play what they want, but the very fact that they’re expected to go on an adventure (barring certain kinds of everyday-people-thrust-into-peril scenarios where I tended to hand out pregens anyway) ought to be a strong enough filter to justify deterministic character generation.

I’m much less dogmatic about it now, in part because I’ve been a player for the past seven years in a campaign where the GM insists on rolling the six D&D stats in order 3d6 each, no swapping or adjusting (not even racial adjustments or 2-for-1 prime requisite adjustments, so actually more strict than Basic D&D), and I’ve come to appreciate two features of random chargen even without the fun and complication of a lifepath system.  First of all, it really does make you play characters that you wouldn’t consider otherwise and that can make things fresher and present an added challenge.  You might not want to get too attached to that 5 Dex fighter, but while he lasts it really can be fun trying to make the most of him.  Second, it makes being particularly good at something rare, worth treasuring, and a genuine stand-out in the setting.  Mechanically, an 18 STR is the same in a 3d6 in order as in a 4d6 drop low and arrange, but in one you really are the strongest person you are likely to meet in the campaign, in the other you’re maybe one-in-ten Fighters (unless they’ve gone the Dex route), one-in-three who’s 17+.  Random chargen is still not my default preference, but it definitely has its plusses.

Desirable Generic RPG Qualities

Here’s a blast from the past, something I wrote ten years ago on what I was looking for in a generic RPG system.  I still agree with a good bit of it, though some of it I’m less certain about, and about one particular issue I think I was just wrong.

Subject: Desirable Generic RPG Qualities

Date: 1998/09/22

Based on some of the recent discussion, here are some of my thoughts on qualities that I would like in generic RPG rules, broken down into the categories:

  • Character Generation
  • Character Advancement
  • Task Resolution

Desirable Qualities by Category

Character Generation


It should be possible to go from a description of what the character is capable of to a codification of the character in game terms, without the system requiring modifications to the character to fit certain genres, power levels or preconceptions of the game designer as to what combinations/levels of ability/backgrounds are permissible. It should be possible to describe the character as it is now, without having to reconstruct the development or career path of the character up to this point (if you want to that’s a different story entirely).


Should have few, if any, subtle emergent properties. The obvious way to build a character should be just as useful/efficient as a more complex way. Character building expertise, rather than character description, shouldn’t be rewarded.

Utility priced

In a point-build system, prices should be based on relative utility of a power/level of skill/attribute, not based on rarity. Thus total points should represent how effective the character will be in the setting, not how unusual (although it’s reasonable to increase the price if rarity itself increases the utility, e.g. possession of psychic powers in a setting where nobody else knows they exist).


Levels of ability should have specific measures, so that it is possible to work backwards from real-world descriptions to ability levels. E.g. if you know that you want the character to be as strong as a weightlifter, and that a weightlifter can lift 1000 lbs, then it should be possible to work out in game terms what STR is required to lift 1000 lbs.


The system should be capable of making fine distinctions between similar skills/attributes/powers, without requiring them where unnecessary. E.g. it should be possible to build a character who is particularly good at endurance sports, without being particularly resistant to disease, without requiring every character to separately determine how good they are at endurance tasks and disease resistance.

Wide Ranged

The system should be able to handle a wide range of power levels and genres without breaking, even when the power levels are mixed in a single setting, and without rendering characters’ abilities at one end of the scale indistinguishable from each other or irrelevant.


(possibly w/optional random generation, but if so random generation should only come up with characters that are legal under deterministic generation)


The process of building a basic character should be short enough that you don’t have to cut corners to create an average (or even skilled) NPC, and require little math or extensive consultations of the rules. A spread-sheet or character generation program should be sheer overkill.

Character advancement


There should be a way to improve characters over the course of play

Preservative of niches

The system should preserve the relative rank order of specific abilities among characters, presuming equal initial talent and equal attention to advancement. I.e. if one character starts out more stealthy than another, or a better shot, it shouldn’t be possible for the less skilled character to overtake the more skilled one by accumulating equal experience, unless the more skilled one neglects to advance that skill, or was deliberately bought as less naturally talented at it.

Insensitive to timing

The system shouldn’t distinguish between character that have advanced through experience and characters that are simply created as being more experienced. Order that abilities are acquired/improved shouldn’t make a difference to outcome (possible exeption: abilities that improve the learning of new abilities).

Equivalent to training

Although for some fields, experience attainable through the school of hard knocks ought to translate to experience from adventuring, for many abilities non-adventuring time spent training or on the job ought to be treated equivalently, and the system should provide for it. E.g. it should be perfectly possible to design a bright NPC high-school student, calculate how much experience she would get from attending college, entering graduate school, completing her PhD, and spending twenty years as a professor, apply it to the character, and arrive at an expert in the field. (It should also be possible to simply buy an NPC as that in the first place, but that’s an issue for character generation.)

Task Resolution

Adjustable level of detail

Ideally it should be possible to fill out interpretations of rules results to as much detail as is desirable, while not requiring that you generate more detail than you want at the moment. For instance, when determining hit location the rules should allow for anywhere from straight success/failure down to “you hit his left index finger” depending upon circumstances.


Gives results that can be interpreted in quantitative game-world terms. E.g. an attempt to throw an object as far as you can should return results that can be interpreted as a specific distance (whether it’s 1 meter, 1 kilometer, or 1 light-year), not “that was really far, but just short of extremely far”.


gives reasonable results at all power levels and combinations of power levels handles unlikely cases as well as likely ones.

Easy to extrapolate

‘Nuff said


It should be easy to intuit the probabilities of any simple course of action, given familiarity with the game system. (I.e. the player shouldn’t have to be an expert mathematician, or perform an elaborate calculation, in order to get a good sense of the chances of success that a character ought to be able to tell at a glance, such as whether a particular ditch can be easily jumped.) The system should have few, if any, strongly counter-intuitive properties (such as novices being just as good at defense as experts), and any such should be clearly labeled and justified.


Shouldn’t involve more math than the players can easily do in their heads, shouldn’t involve looking up rules except for the occasional truly obscure case (which ought to be easily interpolated from known cases anyway), shouldn’t take a long time even when doing simple math (e.g. adding 20d6 is, to my taste, too much)

Unified mechanic

To such an extent as is possible. Since different types of tasks sometimes require different levels of detail (even if the requirement is merely the desire of the players to have more detail), there may well be a limit to just how unified the mechanics can be and still satisfy.

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.