February 17, 2011

Hanging Up

So folks, it seems as the school got rolling, I began focusing elsewhere other than gaming. It's sad for me, because I enjoyed delivering stories, theories, and ideas to you guys and I enjoyed working on my designs.

Unfortunately for us, my degree needs to come first. So for the near future, Thunderstorm Game Design is going silent. All the content will stay, and I will try to build up some new content over time so I can eventually start back up and deliver to you guys.

In the mean time, keep gaming, keep trying your hand at new designs, and have fun!

February 7, 2011

Group Divided

Do you ever get frustrated by a seeming schism in your group? Do some of your players always give you a sideways glance when they declare actions? Do others bottle up during social encounters? Do some get bored after half a round of combat?

If more than one of these applies to your group, it sounds like you have a group of mixed play styles. A mixed group can be a good thing, but more often is just a source of friction and a headache for the GM.

This topic actually cropped up during a twitter conversation on the #rpg hash tag. R.A. Whipple was commenting that his group was playing highly adversarial even though everyone agreed to a politically based campaign. This is a terrible thing to happen, but during the conversation he revealed that he was only having problems with three players, one was helping him, and the other three were newbies without direction.

I suggested something radical: split the group. Find a GM willing to play the adversarial game with the more experienced players; take the newbies and the helpful member of the group and keep running the campaign.

We need to check our groups out regularly to know if they’re healthy as a group. The more in-fighting and bickering that comes of diverse play styles the less fun the group will have. By extension, the less time the group will last.

Some great place to look for the different player styles, and some excellent ways to deal with each, see Robin Laws’ Guide to Good Mastering (If you can find it) or the 4th Edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide 1 and 2.

February 4, 2011

Do RPGs Suck?

I read a post today over at Mob United about ‘why RPGs are failing’ and leveled some serious criticisms at the industry in general. Some of the ideas are most definitely founded on real events, with the OSR movement and Pathfinder both retreading old territory, and many of the indie publishers doing things related to one of the above or some other system.

But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. All things are built on history, and looking at the evolution of dungeon crawlers to produce a new dungeon crawler isn’t a bad thing. Examining social engines to design a better social engine helps in the long term.

In the end, Malcolm levels the criticism that rules systems aren’t going to do anything, that you have to offer something unique that another person couldn’t give. It seems he believes that the fiction, the stories are what players can’t do for themselves.

The problem is that’s false. As human beings, we gravitate to stories, and we create them out of our own lives. No memory is a perfect recollection of events, but those events and people are categorized to make recalls more simple. Malcolm even goes so far as to say why is dungeon crawling any different from the Hero’s Journey. In reality, what is remembered by the players, and is best applied in a game system, are the archetypes that make up things like the monomyth.

My honest conclusion is this:

This decade has seen the release of some very excellent RPGs, things I wish I had the time to play. Those games have been challenging the limits of RPG design space, story space, and even challenging what we call an RPG.

RPGs aren’t necessarily failing, though they are struggling. We, as designers, need to offer unique experiences without the effort demanded of older systems. The stories people want can come from many mediums, and they will choose the easiest or best value. Video games, movies, and books all demand less effort, and less time, than RPGs, and these things tell stories that are just as good as RPGs. We can take advantage of RPGs putting the player as the protagonist in ways none of these other mediums can, and that’s the place we can ply our strength.

What about you, readers, what are the unique strengths of RPGs?

February 2, 2011

Sitting On The Shelf: Game Book Covers

I’ve recently been reading a great book from a novelist, The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (Everything a Writer Needs to Know.) by J.A. Konrath.  In it, he has an article called “Rusty Nail, Street Dates, Jacket Copy & Book Covers”. Skipping the bits about his book, he makes a simple statement:

“Covers are important. Some booksellers believe they are the single most important element when it comes to book sales. I agree.”

So do I.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but, as I’m sure we all know, everyone does it. It’s not just books, though, we all judge products based on their packaging. Games are products. Yes, very blunt, ‘duh’ statement, but I want to make sure this concept comes through clear.

When I’m looking for a new game, which admittedly is not as often as I’d like, I don’t go into the store looking for a specific title, designer, or system. Sure, I know my preferences, and I hope I end up with something good, but sometimes the journey is the worthier part.

A good cover absolutely draws my eye. High contrast between title and cover helps it stand out. Professional looking images also helps. I’m sure I’ve passed on some acceptable or even good games over the years because the front cover is a mess. I also know I’ve saved myself a lot of hassle with terrible games following the same rules.

After a book has my attention, I hit the back cover (Or jacket if it’s one of the rare RPGs that has one.). I want to know, quickly:

  • What’s the conceit? What will I be playing?
  • What parts of the game does it consider important?
  • What system does it use?
  • Is it still as professional as the front cover?

The conceit, or theme, is important because in reality it’s what you’re asking your players to believe. If you’re trying to attract sci-fi gamers, discussing elves on the back isn’t likely to help you attract them. If you’re pushing fantasy, or emotional conflict, you need to make sure the players get that before buying the game.

What mechanics are you touting? What’s that thing that sets your game apart from all the other games on the shelf? You need to make a selling point on this, you need to get your prospective player to think they need your book and not have something they could do themselves. (The hobby has a history of do-it-yourselfers, don’t underestimate them.) If it’s your NPC write ups, let them know.  If it’s a new mechanical system, say so.

The system you use is important to state, depending on how you’ve designed it. Is it based on another system? If you have the license, use their marks.  If you don’t, you may want to consider some way to reference the source, but make sure to read up on trademark law so you know what’s fair and what’s trading on their mark. If you made your own system, now’s the time to brand it. Make a logo, make a name, and give people something to ask for if they want your game. It will help down the road if you ever make a new game with the same system.

Now, some of you might feel I’m being trite about professionalism, but it is absolutely critical, even for small timers, to be as professional as they know how to be. Your book should have a uniform appearance; it should be the same quality from cover to cover. This professionalism will let the purchaser know you took your time and aren’t wasting their time. It speaks well of everything you’ve done.

Now, if the inside doesn’t match that cover, you’ve got other problems, and I’ll touch on them in the future, but keeping in mind how people look at books will definitely help you sell some if you ever make it to print.

January 28, 2011

Video Inspirations

So, getting back into the swing of things at school, it’s affecting my schedule a bit. Of course, to top that off, Champions Online went Free-To-Play recently, and sucked me back in. The truth is, while a lot of the Champions formula is straight out of the standard MMO formula, it did some things I’d not seen before that I really enjoyed, and keeps me wanting to play the game.

One of the major things they did that I loved is the break down of enemies into Henchmen, Villains, Master Villains, Super Villains, and Legendary Villains. This breakdown lets players know about how many they can take on their own. For example, a group of 5 on level henchmen is a pretty fair fight in Champions. A Villain and a Henchman or two is also a fair fight. Once you get up into the super villain levels you want groups of people for a fair fight.

That is, of course, the theory and the math breaks down occasionally. The idea, though, is spectacular and was one of the changes made to 4th Edition D&D I absolutely loved with the addition of the Minion, Elite, and Solo entries in the Monster Manual. This makes it very easy to throw together mixed groups of various power levels against a group of heroes without guessing if you’re going to just obliterate them or have the group steamrolled.

The other thing I liked about Champions is the way energy works. Your energy has a point of equilibrium where you recharge to almost the moment you leave combat. You also have a base power that is your energy builder; attacking with it builds up your energy bar, which drains when you use your more powerful (and interesting) powers.

I like this system, and have seen various systems in games do something similar. Building up a resource to turn it into ‘cool shit’ is a pretty well tread territory for a reason, my only complaint about it in Champions is that the power builders are really boring. Some people have leveled the same exact complaint at At-Wills in 4th Edition, and not unfairly.
The last part of the Champions formula that I love is that (for Gold members) you can modify the color and point of origin for a number of powers which allows a creative player to make dozens of archetypes using only their basic chains of powers. My example is Necromancer, my first Champions character.

Necromancer uses the Telepathic power set, which is a series of powers using telepathy for various effects, shielding, stuns, basic crowd control effects. By modifying the colors and origins, telepathy looks a lot like dark sorcery. Basically, it openly encourages reskinning which is at the heart of great role playing in most systems.

What about you guys, what video games inspire your mechanical design?

January 26, 2011

Making It Easy

What’s the most surefire way to scare away a player base? I’m sure you’ve got ideas, but there’s one I think is much higher on the list that you’re not considering.

Barriers to entry.

RPGs in general seem to have this thought that they are for intelligent folks, and so they can get away with being a bit complex. For some games, this is true, but if you want more than the twenty people you’ve personally sold your game to interested, you will want to cut back on as much complexity as possible.

The Product
As an indie developer, I have less worry about this, as it’s pretty obvious if you’re looking at ExoSquad, there’s only going to be one rulebook, so starting point is very obvious. Those with larger games, or larger ideas, may have this issue.

Look at the latest edition of D&D. On the shelf you have two products and a product line that call newbie attention. Should a newbie grab the Player’s Handbook? What about the red box ‘Starter Set’? Or maybe it’s one of these ‘D&D Essentials’ books?

Don’t get me wrong, I like the new edition, and even like a number of the Essentials books. For someone who’s never played before, these products are instant complexity. Making a ‘first sale’ is all about making the purchase easy, and complex game lines don’t do this. (Side note: as an indie developer, you’re going to need to be a creator, developer, accountant, manager, sales person, PR agent and a number of other roles or have the money to cover people who can do these things. Sweating yet?)

The Rules
Rules complexity can create a huge barrier to entry, especially if the prospective player has no point of reference on when various rules matter. Modern games are getting better about their book layouts as experienced developers realize how the books are used. Even so, I still occasionally open an RPG and find related information in completely separate chapters! Word processors are powerful tools, people, you have no reason not to change your layout to help your customer.

Guide your new players into the game. Show them what’s important, and in what order. Convert one person, and you have the opportunity to convert their friends, and like books, RPGs spread by word-of-mouth.

Character Creation
I separate this from the rules because this one point is enough to run some players away before they even see the rules. This is less about your first sell and more about your subsequent sales. If someone is teaching your game to another player, they have the helping hand through the book, but they still need to make a character they want to play. How easy do you make it?

This is where point buy systems fall flat most of the time. Try to get a newbie to make a GURPS or HERO System character without getting frustrated in some degree. It might happen, but not quickly.

So make your system intuitive. Make it easy to grasp and easy to use. You want people sharing it, and you want those receiving it to pick it up and love it. Don’t make them wait for pay out, we live in a time where entertainment is available now so you have to deliver if you want to keep them interested.

As for me, I intend to make ExoSquad remarkably easy in regards to character creation. Pick a weapon, pick some tactics and gear, GO! Once you’re in game, the complexity should come from choice on the battlefield or in conversation, not from reading the rules. You’ve all seen FRE’s design, simplicity is one of it’s core values.

Your turn, readers:

Are barriers to entry the biggest enemy of RPGs?

Also, great article on teaching kids to play D&D on the main Wizards website. A few comments in this article sparked this blog post, I’ll let you see if you can guess which ones.

January 24, 2011


Today I want to talk about something that came up in a game a friend of mine was running. The summary is a player went up against a foe that was a magnitude or two of power above his character. In an attempt to keep failure interesting my friend had the foe beat the character back, but not deal any long term harm. The player turned around returned to the fight immediately. When he inevitably lost this time the character lost a hand.

Now, I don’t think that permanent harm is untoward in the right system, and in this case, they were playing a World of Darkness game with mortals, so permanent afflictions are a core idea of the system. The problem is, the character in question was built as a two weapon fighter. A large amount of this character’s experience was sunk into two weapon fighting merits and specialties.

This kind of thing is when I start wondering about the intent of the consequence. Yes, the player knowingly fought an enemy out of his league. He went back in after being soundly beaten. And lost. An in game consequence is entirely justified in my opinion. But the consequence chosen in this case is a bit extreme. Instead of hampering the character it has literally removed the intent of the character.

This player, without meeting him, obviously wanted to play a two-weapon fighter, and spent many of his finite resources on that goal. To take that goal from the player in a way that forces the player to continue playing the character without the abilities that obviously drew the player to the character is actually worse than just killing the character in this case.

This is the kind of event that sparks my often referenced opinion that you should be talking to your players. These kinds of consequences are the top level of drastic and can really create some bad blood between GMs and players. If the players know that a whim is all it takes for them to lose their favorite abilities, they’ll play differently than if they can feel safe in their favorite abilities, but know they can lose other things.

How about you, readers, do you think this kind of consequence is suitable, too much, too little?

January 21, 2011

Book Review: Irregular Creatures

So, my last week has been interesting. Semester has started, so I’m back in the homework grind, enjoying it. I got a Kindle, so I’ve been reading more.  Of course, this is on top of my regular life, and you wonderful people.

So this week, I want to talk about one of the books I read this week. (Yes, ‘one of,’ I love the written word, more than is probably healthy.) I picked up a copy of Chuck Wendig’s Irregular Creatures. It’s a short story collection available for download on his website or Amazon.

Now, you know what it is, let me talk about why it was amazing.


Cat-bird is a unique feline who chooses a dog-man and his family. Why is the big kicker of the story, and I’m going to avoid giving away too much. Chuck Wendig did a great job with this story and it took every spare moment I had until I finished it. The main character, the ‘dog-man’ is an artist, sculptor, specifically, and the mindset of an artist is one almost everyone can understand to some degree. Chuck nails it. The character is believable, and the story ffers some excellent lines of humor, a really well paced suspense, and a little bit of fright. The entire collection was worth it for this story alone.

The great part is Cat-Bird isn’t the end of the collection. The stories range from weird (A Radioactive Monkey) to deeply unsettling (Mister Mhu’s Pussy Show), with humor thrown in at various points.

Definitely pick it up for Cat-Bird, but stay for The Auction, Beware of Owner, and Do-Overs and Take-Backs.

Oh, and just to make sure it's clear. No, that's not an affiliate link. No, I'm not making money doing this, I honestly think you guys will enjoy this book.

January 19, 2011

Setting The Tone

As a designer, you should have some core idea of what your game should be. I touched on that briefly in ‘What is Your Game About?’. The question today is if your core idea is based on a mood or tone, how, exactly, do you set it up to encourage that tone?

The first place to help set the tone is the voice in which you write the rules. How you present your game to the players is going to get their mind set on that tone you expect in the game. A great example is certain selections from the World of Darkness line. They set the tone for a very dark game where truth is definitely a subjective thing.

The fiction isn’t the only place your writing voice can help. How you name your mechanics, the headlines, and even how you describe your mechanics will effect your players mindset while playing.

The next major place to set the tone is in your mechanics. This is probably far and away the more important element of setting the tone in a fairly universal manner. For example, Dungeons and Dragons definitely makes your characters feel like big damn heroes, where as Dread lets its mechanics work over time to bring that overbearing emotion upon a group.

But how do you do it?

Start with the piece of paper every player has in front of them. Character sheets let you know in real terms the kinds of things you’ll be doing. World of Darkness makes it clear that social situations will and should happen by devoting an entire third of its character sheet to social abilities.

The next place is the resolution mechanic. This is harder to use, but can be done spectacularly. Using multiple dice to get totals creates a bell curve that makes everyone feel a bit more average, and those who consistently do things at the high end of the bell seem very much cut above the rest. A single die allows more luck into it, and combined with a strong voice, this randomness could become a core feature of your game.

Less mainstream options include changing up the mechanics completely. Cards, Jenga, whatever. If it helps encourage mood, go for it.

The other area you can play with your resolution mechanic is the math behind it. How easy is it to succeed or fail? Does it get harder as time goes on? Easier? Each of these choices will reinforce a certain tone of play.

The subpoint to mechanics is more than just resolution, what about resources? How important are they? How common are they? How powerful are they? One common resource is hit points. When they’re gone, you’re dead. Each system has their own math behind this mechanic, and that math gives you an idea of how lethal the system is.

Some systems offer the players the ability to do something completely impossible once in a while, but dole it out as a resource. Things like Action and Drama points are a solid resource that encourage a certain style of play.

Desperate games, like low levels in the newest version of Dark Sun, have a resource that you need just to stay at full effectiveness. Survival Days and Sun Sickness help reinforce the idea that you’re in a world where survival is hard on everyone.

I know this post is vague in its approach, and that’s because the choices you make are going to depend on the mood you want to create. If any of my readers would like me to examine creating a specific tone in more detail, let me know in the comments!

January 17, 2011


It’s a commonly offered piece of advice to GMs: Say ‘yes.’ Say yes to every crazy idea, say yes to every character concept, say yes to every behavior and desire. And if you don’t say yes, throw the dice.

Other people tell you to NEVER say yes. Leave it up to the dice, or tell the players it’s impossible.

Really, neither way is right.

As I’ve mentioned before, talking to your players is the first thing you need to do. Expectations, both theirs and yours, need to be addressed so that the game can operate on some accepted terms. If you’re expecting a gritty ‘realistic’ game with long lasting wounds and heavy consequences, your players need to know this before you drop that first broken limb on a character.

Talking with your players also lets you know what kinds of crazy things they’re going to want to do. If they want to take down the local/world government, you know ahead of time and can find a way to make it happen and be interesting for both parties.

At this scale, the campaign design, it is generally a good idea to compromise. Sometimes, the appropriate answer is yes.  Sometimes, it’s no. If you’re running a high fantasy romp featuring a band of royalty taking a McGuffin to be destroyed, and they suggest a fairly boring creature with almost no personality and no skills, you might need to reconsider how that story takes place. Of course, if all of your players suggest such characters, maybe your entire campaign needs to be refocused?

Lower down the scale, at adventure design, you will usually be saying no to new adventures while they’re in one, but after the climax, you want to say yes. If they think it’s not pertinent to continue the current story line, and move on to an interesting tidbit that was mostly a side concept, let them follow it. You as a GM should be flexible enough to play anywhere.

On the encounter scale, absolutely say ‘yes.’ ‘Yes and . . .,’ ‘Yes, but. . .,’ ‘Yes, if. . .’ Any one of these allows the player to do what they asked for, and continues to keep the game interesting. The players decide to complete a ritual sacrifice because it was an enemy on the altar? Yes, and a dark god now has its eye on these apparently fallible heroes. They want to pull of a crazy stunt to get the drop on an enemy? Yes, but if they fail the roll, the enemies see them and get the surprise instead. They want to create a large explosive with a stick of gum, a computer and a paperclip? Yes, if they can make the necessary rolls.

Now, I used to use ‘No’ to stop my players from wasting time on things that weren’t going to help them. I wish, now, that I’d caught the hint, and used those preventative measures to make the story more interesting. A personal failing, but one you can learn from: if the players focus on some shiny thing, make something up for them, it’ll be better than you think.

So, GMs, any time you can think of in which saying yes, or no, made your game more interesting?

January 14, 2011

In Which I Talk About Games I Play

I talk about games quite a bit but I realized that I don’t talk about the games I like much. So this is going to be my day to ramble on about the games I’ve played lately and in the past that have had an effect on how I think about game design.

Board Games
I love board games, and love trying new ones. I grew up playing Risk and Monopoly like everyone else I know. I loved Risk as a kid, it was long, and our house rules made it longer. Obviously, eventually I experienced other board games

My latest board game fixation is Small World. I got to try it for the first time a few weeks ago and love it. Most of the tactics are pure skill and decision-making, the race and power combinations are fun and provide a cool depth to the game. Even the reinforcement die is a neat piece that allows some luck to exist in the game for those willing to gamble a bit.

I tried Sid Meier’s Civilization last weekend, and have to say, for a Fantasy Flight Games work, I was highly impressed. Still way more tokens than I normally like, but very nice quality, and an interesting set of mechanics. Definitely one I suggest trying out.

My favorite board game, though, is Go. I love strategy games, and Go is pretty much exactly the perfect game to scratch that itch. I don’t even have much more to say about it except for those who haven’t played, you need to at least try it out.

Card Games
In the card game department I have mixed feelings. I’m not really into collectible games anymore, their unknown potential costs really get to me. I do like a few boxed card games, and I still have one CCG I love.

The latest boxed card game I’ve picked up is Rowboat. It’s a Spades variant that is actually quite fun to play. There isn’t much more to say about it except the art is pretty good and if you like traditional card games you’ll find this one quite easy to pick up.

My CCG of choice is The Spoils put out by Arcane Tinmen. I could go on for hours about this one, but to make it brief: this game is everything I love in CCGs. Very tight mechanics, a beautifully concise rulebook, plenty of player interaction, and better in draft and sealed than constructed.

Miniatures Games
I like miniature war games, and typically buy on quality of models, but my choice for play is definitely Monsterpocalypse. Great flavor, great game play, and an excellent community.

Other than that, I own some Warhammer 40,000, some Warmachine, and I am currently looking into Infinity.

Role Playing Games
Considering this is a role  playing blog, this is definitely the key category of today’s post, since my views on RPGs definitely matter in the long run for the blog itself.

D&D is of course the hot button in the market right now, and my particular flavor is 4th edition. Unlike some developers, I absolutely believe in game balance and niche protection, and while 4th isn’t perfect in those senses, it’s far ahead of OGL games. I’m also big on suggesting the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 since it has some excellent lessons on running games, some of which have been around a long while and I include similar suggestions in my Monday posts.

I’m a fan of World of Darkness on some levels. I love the flavor, and big fan of the baseline mechanics even if they need plenty of work. I don’t agree with the way most groups play the game, so I don’t get in many groups locally. If I’m going to be an asshole GM, this is the game I’d do it in, being a stickler for the personal horror elements of the game.

One of my loose and fast rules I really like is Dread. Those who haven’t gotten a copy should absolutely consider it if you can find it. When it comes to top down mechanics, Dread does it absolutely right. Using the tower produces a wonderful ramp into that titular emotion. The questionnaire character sheet makes it much easier to get into a character and generally I wish I would have thought of it.

This post is running long, so I’m going to end with those and touch on other influences to my games later. Well, readers, any games of any type I absolutely should try, let me know in the comments below!

January 12, 2011

Complexity Cakes

It seems the conversation that’s buzzing through the forums and blogs this week is options and their relationship to complexity. The conversations are often long, with detailed posts, and generally complex. There’s some good points all around, and I’d like to weigh in on the topic myself, and give you guys some tools with which to evaluate the complexity of your own games.

Types of Complexity
In general, I recognize three types of complexity to a rules system, and they happen at different levels and different areas of the game. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, but there’s an amount of personal taste to each of them and so you’re going to need to decide on how much of each your game will include based on your expected audience.

Mechanical Complexity

Mechanical complexity is directly related to how much you have to do to resolve a single part of the game. A highly complex mechanic is the D&D 3.5 grapple rules. You need to make a roll, consult the result, make another roll, consult its result, and then maybe, in three or four steps, you do what you wanted. A simple mechanic is like Monopoly’s turn structure: roll dice, buy property or pay rent.

In general, I’m an opponent of overly complex mechanics. A good game is one that I can teach the base mechanics in a few minutes (15 minutes is too long). That simplicity opens the game to the most people which in turn allows the most new ideas to enter the game. All of that is a good thing.

Complex Options

Being able to pick at cost what you can and can’t do sounds great on paper. I can choose both an A/C and a radio in my car, or one or the other if I so desire. Options are GREAT in real life. But they’re generally harmful to interesting game play. If you could buy any property on the board in Monopoly, you might feel better and more in control, but the game would devolve into an initial dice off, people buying as many properties as possible followed by turned of destitute land barons trying to bankrupt each other (Which I must admit doesn’t sound much different from a typical game of Monopoly!).

That said, options get complex when there are too many of them, and multiple ways to get some of them. See Item of Power in the 2nd Edition of Big Eyes, Small Mouth. It allowed you to get double the character point investment but conditional on having the item of power. So you could buy a weapon attack for 4 points, or buy an item of power for 2 and buy the same attack for half cost. This doesn’t improve the game, giving the option to take twice as many powers.

Complex Choices

Complex choices are deciding between two similar things: two places to move, two attacks to use, two possible powers, two possible spells, et cetera. Each choice loses you something, but gains you in other areas. A great example is the game of Go. Each piece has exactly the same amount of power in theory, but where you choose to play those pieces affects the game in far reaching ways. The choice of playing in one place over another is very complex, with years needed to master the ‘optimal’ moves.

In general, I feel that choices are what should be complex in a game. The more interesting the choices, the more satisfying the game. Too few choices and the game isn’t even worth playing.

Those three types of complexity cover just about anything you’ll find in a game.

I gave my opinions above on what I feel is most important to a game, but in the end, like so many things, there are a range of tastes out there and you can’t please them all. As such, you need to pick a value for each of these that appeals to the players who are likely to play your game. If you’re selling a product, you have to keep the audience in mind.

And how about you, readers, what forms of complexity do you prefer in your systems?

January 10, 2011

Do Your Players' Characters Care?

You’ve read about setting stakes, and about making sure you have robust quest hooks, but how do you do these things if your players aren’t invested in the game world? It should be obvious if they players treat NPCs as props they’re not likely to be invested in them, so you need to give them a reason to care about what goes on by making it personal.

This starts in character creation. No matter what diverse group of abilities the character has, they had to learn it somewhere. Extrapolate what type of training a particular character would have needed to become what he was. A wizard was probably taught some of what he knows. A warrior had training. A jack-of-all-trades drifter has a street he still thinks of as home. Think about these things, and make the player aware of them.

From there, approach backgrounds. Some systems have mechanical benefits for fleshing out character backgrounds, and if you’re using one of those systems, awesome, use them. By offering the proverbial carrot you get information out of your players that they have some investment in, because it made their character’s numbers better. But don’t stop there.

Ask where the characters are from, who their families are, where those families live. Why is the soldier loyal to his country? What place of the game world did they always want to visit? Each question you ask makes your players think about the world as a place, and not just a sandbox, investing them in the answers they give because they took the time to put it together.

Use those answers to build your world. If your player mentions a mountain range they call home, erase a label on your world map, or add a mountain range where there didn’t use to be one. Any organizations that your players give you incorporate into the world building; they have to exist somewhere and using them rewards your player for having come up with them.

The other option is to not to develop your world without your players. Don’t change details, let your players create them. This is the same as changing your world, except you save yourself effort. It does take some planning, and you need to write off your first session for character creation (Aren’t you doing that already?).

After that, all you can do is make the world care. Change details if you have to. Don’t do nameless damsels in distress, pick someone related to the party. The evil organization has someone involved the players know. The army isn’t bearing down on a random town, it’s coming straight for one of the party’s home. The important thing to remember is not to take it away arbitrarily, threaten it so they move to protect it.

To make it clear, if you destroy things and take things on a whim, with little plot reasoning and no ability for the players to stop it. Threaten what they love, but don't take it unless they fail a reasonable challenge or choose to let it go.

My last piece of advice is pretty basic, but basics are important. If your players go after an NPC, they probably are interested, it’s now your job to flesh the NPC out even if it was a throw away built off a random table of personality traits. Their interest is good, and everyone has more fun when everyone is interested.

Alright, readers, your turn, any ways to catch your players’ interest I didn’t put here?

Great post on collaborative world building at This Is My Game.

January 9, 2011

Interesting Idea

Yup, it's Sunday. I don't normally post on Sundays anymore, but I felt like giving a designer and student a hand.

Through one of the webcomics I read, I was linked to an interesting Masters Thesis project attempting to meld comic books and video games. The game itself is in a rough state, but it is a theoretical project. Go, try it out, take the survey, give this guy a hand.


That's it from me!

January 7, 2011

Rambling, RPG Prices, and Tag Team Powers

Friday means Free-For-All, which basically means I could talk about anything. Today, it’s going to be me rambling about various topics.

First of all, my process. When I write my Free-For-All post, I rarely go in with a plan. I surf my Twitter feed, check Facebook, and Feedly, my RSS reader, looking for something to write about. Sometimes I see a great blog post and I use that, other times, I’m forced to come up with something, like my designer’s notes for FRE.

The first thing I found this week is an email from Steve Wieck of DriveThruRPG. He talks a little about Price Anchoring and a few of the downfalls of extremely low prices on DriveThruRPG. The price he calls out specifically is $1, I assume in reference to Adamant’s somewhat regular sale. The quick version is that at $1, it costs DriveThruRPG one cent after only paying for Paypal and the Publisher of the work. Not including other costs they incur transmitting the work to the purchaser, or even having the website up. Obviously, this would not be sustainable over a long period.

The problem is, if people all wait around for things like Adamant’s sale, the ‘value’ of RPGs would eventually drop, leaving us with almost nothing in way of potential dollars. As a developer, and eventual self publisher of RPGs, this is a problem, and something I wrestle with internally an awful lot. I know pricing is going to affect sales. I also know that lower price sells more. But how low? Obviously, one dollar is too low if I plan on using DriveThruRPG exclusively (I haven’t decided on my distribution model yet.), as I don’t want my distribution channel to fail. I also feel that fifteen dollars for an e-book is way too much.

One of the other things I study as a hobby is fiction writing, and recently, publishing as a whole. One guy I’ve found who likes sharing his views and experience is J.A. Konrath. His experience on the Kindle has led him to believe that the ‘sweet spot’ for ebooks is $2.99. I’ve discussed the idea with a few people, and I’d venture to say it’s likely between that price and $3.99. That’s fiction, though, something we buy in physical form between $6 and $13 in softcover, and upwards of $25 in hard cover.

So what’s the sweet spot for RPGs? I honestly don’t know. I can make an educated guess. We know that the price anchor for RPGs is between $15 and $30 for physical product. If I keep the assumption that ebooks are not as ‘valuable’ as hard copies, what would I aim for? I think somewhere between $5 and $15 is going to end up being ‘the right price’ for electronic products. You can bet I’ll be trying different price models with my games, so hopefully sometime in the future I’ll be able to tell you exactly what price is ‘right’ for RPG products.

The next thing I want to talk about is a post over on Nevermeet Press by shinobicow about ‘tag team powers’ in 4th Edition D&D. His idea was feat bought powers that required the teammates to act on the same initiative count. I like the core idea, but hate the concept of forcing players to delay to do something awesome. 4th Edition is definitely the ‘be awesome, all the time’ edition, and delaying is decidedly not awesome.

So, how do I counter his design? Simple: Look at Arena Fighting. Arena Fighting feats offer you a bonus to specific powers for a feat. Why not make tag teams like this? The first idea was one of the iconic attacks from the X-Men: The Fastball Special. Thinking about it, I realized we already had a power that represents the throw, and the attack could be just about anything, really.

The Warlord’s Knight’s Move lets an ally Move their speed. Perhaps, the feat changes Knight’s Move to a shift with a bonus equal to the Warlord’s Strength, and a fellow party member with Fastball Special gets to make an attack with a specific Exploit before they move before the end of the next turn. That would of course need an additional benefit, perhaps treat the attack as if they had charged, or lay in some extra damage for the Special.

Obviously, a very rough idea, and I plan on writing up a few of these and trying them in a one shot game to see how they fair. After I’ve got some balance, I’ll see what I can do to make them available to you guys!

So, RPG pricing, what do you guys think?

How about team up attacks in any RPG?

Update 2011-01-09: Chuck Wendig, freelance penmonkey, covered the topic of e-book pricing on his blog on Friday. Some interesting insights and Gareth from Adamant made a comment as well.