Thursday, December 24, 2015

Into the Badlands as Inspiration for Numenera

I just finished watching the recent AMC show Into the Badlands.  There is a lot in the show that could be inspirational for Numenera campaign design.  In particular, the show provides a useful view of the sort of social models that emerge in a fractured and depopulated world.  I will avoid spoilers of any of the plot twists in the series.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Information Theory and the Planetovores

I wanted to point everyone to a great introduction to how information theory is changing the way physicists think of the universe.  The post from PBS is available here.  After a brief recap, I will talk about how this approach works well with The Strange and informs my approach to planetovores.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Review of Strange Revelations

Monte Cook Games recently released Strange Revelations -- a set of small adventures for The Strange.   With this, there is only one book left for the kickstarter release schedule and we are starting to see what The Strange looks like as a complete line of products.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Numenera Card Game Update

Timing is everything.  Some new information came in today on the Numenera card game. reports that Lone Shark Games has registered the name The Ninth World: A Skill Building Game for Numenera.  This seems to be the final name for the game.

They have also confirmed that there will be a kickstarter (maybe as soon as next week) to support the development of the game.  I figure the name will be locked in as soon as the kickstarter actually launches.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Playtest Review of the Numenera Board Game

Last week, I was able to attend Boardgamegeek Con in Dallas.  I had the fortune to participate in a playtest of the upcoming Numenera Board Game from Loneshark Games.  I figured this audience might have some interests in the game given its roots in Monte Cook Games Numenera setting.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A short interlude

I apologize for taking so long for an update.  Between some work assignments and some health issues, the blog has simply slipped in the priorities.

Given the response to the previous posts and polls from around Gencon, I am going to focus on reviews and tips for developing campaign material.  The first up -- maybe as soon as tomorrow -- is a review of my experience play-testing the Numenera card game while I am at Boardgamegeek (BGG) Con.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review of: The Sun Below -- Sleeping Lady

I don't often do reviews on this blog but a recent product gave me an opportunity to promote what I think is an excellent Numenera adventure (not to get ahead of myself) and generally talk about the third-party environment for MCG systems.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Table Dynamics of A Halloween Horror Game in the Cypher System

It is the season for people to try to sneak a little horror into the RPG campaign.  Maybe this will be part of of the ongoing storyline, a one-off side story, or even a completely separate one-shot.  If you are thinking of having a horror-themed story, I want to offer some advice to help you get the most out of your session.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Strange vs. Weird

Inspired by the recent discussion of the terms "strange" and "weird" on the excellent Misdirected Mark podcast, I wanted to add how I see the distinction playing out in RPG (particularly adventure) design.  I will link this directly to some of the differences between Numenera and The Strange.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Upcoming Ennies 2016 Thunderdome

I was thinking about what the Ennies might look like next year.  It is a little over 6 months away from the submission deadline.  Already, it is clear that this year will be incredibly competitive.  There will be products that do not make the finals that would have competed to win just five years ago.  I don't know whether this is a kickstarter effect, piggy backing on the growing prominence of board games, or (most likely) some combination of these factors but it does look like a new golden age of RPG products.

I am guessing as to which of these products will be nominated for which category.  I am not sure in some cases whether the product is an adventure or a setting -- for example.  I am just guessing.  There are also some titles I include that look like they may miss the deadline for release - but I am going to be inclusive to illustrate the level of competition.  Of course, this only includes the books that I have been following.  I am sure there are many that I am missing.

Just consider these two categories:  best rules and best setting.

Best Rules

Call of Cthulhu 7th
Cypher System Rulebook
Delta Green RPG
Fantasy Age
Feng Shui 2
Heroquest Glorantha
Mutant Crawl Classics
No Thank You, Evil!
Paranoia RPG
Star Wars: Force and Destiny
Time Watch RPG

Best Setting

13th Age in Glorantha
Call of Cthulhu 7th
Delta Green RPG
Dracula Dossier
Dragon Age Core Rulebook
Heroquest Glorantha
The Fall of Delta Green
Lankhmar (Savage Worlds)
Last Parsec
No Thank You, Evil!
Mutant Crawl Classics
Time Watch
Vampire:  The Dark Ages 20th
Worlds Numberless and Strange

Even if many of the products slip past the deadline, this is going to be a crazy competition.

What have I missed?  I would like to know what else I should be paying attention to.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Investigation Skills for the Cypher System: Science Nerd

In this series of investigation/knowledge skills for the Cypher System, I have previously focused on what one can call procedural skills.  The previous skills (information systems and chatter) had involved general skills (to provide broad usefulness compared to other skill options) related to classes of actions one may take in a roleplaying game.

These procedural skills focused on information collecting rather than a specific knowledge base.  However, some players may want to play characters with an actual knowledge base.  This calls for a skill in a substantive knowledge area.  One possibility is "science nerd".

Friday, September 11, 2015

Investigation Skills for the Cypher System: Information Systems

In this series of posts, I am proposing some general knowledge/investigation skills for Cypher System games.  Previous posts included a justification for the need of more general investigation skills and provided one detailed example:  chatter.  In this post, I will propose a second skill -- information systems.  The goal is to define a skill that is useful in a broad range of contexts (that is, able to compete with skills like perception for player attention) and will help define aspects of a character for purposes of role playing.  

The essence of the information system skill is aptitude at finding information in organized systems ranging from ancient libraries to advanced electronic databases.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Investigation Skills for the Cypher System: Chatter

The response to my post on knowledge/investigation skills in the Cypher System got quite a response.  In that spirit, I will spend a few post elaborating on options for investigation/knowledge skills for Cypher system games (with special attention to The Strange -- since, well, that is what I want to focus on).  Today, I will present an example of a broad investigation skill -- chatter.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Investigative/Exploratory Skills for The Strange and Numenera

Skills are some of the least discussed aspects of character generation in the cypher system.  There is some attention to issues of combat-relevant skills (defense or attack skills) but little discussion of knowledge skills.  With the release of the Cypher System rulebook and the coverage of horror/suspense games within the system, knowledge and investigation skills warrant some additional discussion.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Workshop on Fronts for The Strange Part III -- The Ontovores

Welcome to the last in my series of three fronts I am developing for my home campaign.  In my previous segments, I discussed how I am using the Provost's Council from Holstenwall and the OSR as two opponent groups for my PCs.  The PCs will have some freedom in how they follow leads to confront these groups but evidence of ignored group will start appearing in the world around them.  I want them to have choices -- but choices have consequences.

This post will provide a brief introduction to the third front:  the ontovores.

Buckle Up.   This will be a strange one.

Shoggoth -- Anna (Flikr)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Gencon 2015 Review

I just made it back from Gencon.  It took awhile to recover, to be honest.  I spent a day wondering if I caught the infamous "con crud."  It turned out to just be the half-week spent getting around four hours of sleep a night.  After a day of rest, I could start catching up on for-really-real work and only now can catch up on the great fun of last week.  I wanted to take some time to consider the highlights of my trip.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Polling Results

Based on the poll on the Strange G+ community, I have a better idea of how to target content for future posts on the blog.  The two most popular options were campaign planning examples and adaptations of material from other games/material.

This is probably for the best.  I am about out of mechanics to adapt from other systems -- though I may do more of that occasionally as I run across interesting ideas.

I will write up a plan for future content while I work my way through the crazy pre-Gencon rush of product releases.  I have received all of the following in about the last week:  Cypher System Rulebook, Worlds Numberless and Strange, Dracula Dossier/Dracula Unredacted, the Gencon module (Mastadon), and Southlands (the PF/4E setting based from Kobold Quarterly).  Just before the rush I grabbed some of the recent Strange supplements by Ryan Chaddock Games (Translation Codex and Broken Immersion).  I have a lot of reading to do.

I may even post some reviews.

If you are coming to Gencon, be sure to say hello.  I will be the middle aged, balding, white guy with a beard.  You are probably better off just looking for my badge at the MCG events (I think I will be at all of them).

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Perils of Scaling

I am back with another contribution to the GMs' Roundtable of Doom.

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of +John Marvin:

How do you scale encounters for a smaller or larger group than you had planned on. Or than the published adventure planned on? What works, and what does not? Do different systems affect how you scale? And what about fish? They have scales.

Scaling encounters can be tricky.  In some systems, it is of vital importance.  The presumption of careful balancing of each encounter to be challenging, but not overpowering, requires careful rules for scaling with party size.  In Pathfinder and DnD 4e, for example, the strong presumption of encounter balance requires that DMs pay careful attention to the match between party power and encounter power.  Narrative systems are less careful about balance but careless encounter design can push the game into the lethal territory discussed in a previous GMs' Roundtable series.

So what does one do to scale encounters for different party sizes.  The answer depends, rather critically, on the specific system you use.  However, there are some general consideration to keep in mind across various systems.

1]  Small parties are not just short of hit points and damage output.  

Many systems for scaling are based on linear or nearly linear models of damage output and a party's capacity to absorb damage (often using consumables like potions or limited use healing spells, etc.).  In such a system, scaling involves providing enough monsters to challenge the damage output and hit point absorption of the party.

This approach has a serious limitation.  The capacity of the party to handle opposition is strongly non-linear.  Depending on the system, there is a threshold beneath which the party can not offer the breadth of abilities needed to put them on the track of the typical party power curve that serves as a basis of the scaling systems.  A small party may lack healing or only have a hybrid healer.  This party may lack a dedicated damage dealer (like a glass cannon spell caster or some other character type balanced with heavy damage dealing and personal vulnerability -- with the vulnerability often offset by a party tank).  The tendency for characters in small parties to cover multiple roles often leaves the the party behind the assumed power curve based on a balanced (larger) party.

Scaling for small parties involves targeting the encounters for the abilities that the party does have -- not what a balanced party is presumed to have.  At the logical extreme, scaling for a single player involves providing challenges for what the player can do.  If the player does not have trap-finding abilities, you would not want to send that player into a trap-filled tomb.  With a small party, the same rule applies.  While you can provide some challenges that require novel strategies or highlight the limitations of the party, you should stay away from generic challenges that serve only to frustrate the party or risk a total party kill (TPK).

2]  Large parties are not just full of hit points and damage output

The scaling power curve also confronts problems with larger parties.  Frankly, scaling systems have never worked very well.  There are well-known problems with the DnD 3/3.5 CR system.  I have not played a lot of Pathfinder, but I suspect there are similar limitations.  The DnD 4E scaling system was more robust but not perfect.  In fact, the robustness of the scaling system (and the ability to predict the lethality of an encounter) was a common source of complaints.  The predictability that supports the scaling system also requires very strict balancing across character abilities -- leading many to complain about the similarity of the character options.

Even in these systems that have emphasized balance and scaling systems, the models break down with large parties and high level parties (sometimes even moderate level parties).   There is a discussion thread through recent episodes of The Tome Show podcast's coverage of recent DnD 5e releases have involved the frailty of the encounter design math.  Prepared parties are often defeating threats well past what they are supposed to.  This is often a product of specific interactions of powers the players or sets of players have.  In DnD 4e, this was often a product of stun lock.  In other systems, this can be complex interactions of accuracy improving powers, critical hit range increases, etc.

The complication become a big problem with high level parties.  The complications are present, though, in large parties as well.  As you increase the size of the party, you increase the number of abilities and the potential for these complex interactions.  This is what a lot of players are looking for in games.  It is not necessarily a sign of a broken or weak system.  However, the presence of complex interactions and strategies implies that any system to describe the typical power scale based on party size will be limited.

3]  Scaling in different game types

The issue of scaling depends a lot on the game.  I don't mean this only based on the abilities of characters in the game (such as stuns, critical hit systems, etc.).  More critically, different systems place different importance on combat encounter balance at all.  In a system where combat encounter balance is critical, the issue of scaling is important.  In a system where combat encounter balance is less critical, scaling is less of an issue.

Consider DnD 4E.  This was a system built with character and party balance as a fundamental design element.  There were strong statements about the necessary size of parties and the roles that the party members filled.  If you had a party without a leader or a striker, you had a series balance problem for encounters.  Even with this focus, the scaling system had many problems (solo bosses, stun lock, etc.).

Compare this to a narrative-based system.  In some of these systems, notably those based on the Apocalypse World system, the threats to the party scale almost exactly with the party size.  The fewer actions the party has, the fewer the opportunities for the opposition to act.  In other systems, like the Cypher System games, the system is not based on strict balance but expects players to use the flexibility in the system to handle a variety of encounters with powerful one-shot items (like cyphers).  These systems focus more on stories that transcend specific encounters and thus worry less about the balance of these encounters.  A single powerful cypher can render most encounters moot.  You can constantly try to frustrate the use of powerful, encounter-ending cyphers or you can write stories that don't rely on any single encounter.

This means that your efforts to scale encounters will depend on the nature of the system.  If you are in a combat encounter intensive system, you will need to work careful to modify the hit thresholds (like armor class) and party resources (hit points, healing, etc.) to ensure that parties are not more frail or more powerful than you want for the encounter.  If you are running a more narrative system, you may want to embrace the lack of balance and just let that single crazy item abruptly end an encounter now and then.  This is certainly a common approach in film, television, and novels.

Of course, this flexibility comes at a price.  As discussed previously in this GMs' Roundtable series, some people want a game wherein they can compare their experiences with other players in other groups.  People want to say they beat the Tomb of Horrors or escaped the Ghost Tower of Inverness and have other people know, exactly, what sort of challenge that entailed.  Scaling adventures may change the challenge associated with any adventure.  It renders such comparisons invalid -- which is not a problem for me, but may be for some people.  This is why classic published DnD adventures provided a party size and a level range.  Playing with scaling is, and always has been, an inexact science.

It is interesting to see this debate (or related debates) evolve over the past couple of decades.  DnD 3E was praised, and then criticized (not always by the same people, admittedly), for being very specific and carefully balanced to make encounter difficulty predictable with the CR system.  In previous versions, encounter balance was highly subjective and depended on DMs having some experience with encounter design.  3E provided a more formal system for balancing encounters -- though for a specific range of party sizes.  Pretty quickly, people realized that the system was only an approximation.  4E tried harder to make scaling predictable.  This was, in part, to make encounter design easier and faster for DMs and less dependent on DM experience.  This led to criticism that the system was too predictable, powers were too similar, and the balance came at the price of diversity in creature and player design.  5E moved back to a system where encounter design require more work and thought from the DM and party balance was de-emphasized -- explicitly by the designers.  The result is a system that requires more careful design by DM, putting more emphasis on the expertise of the DM.

DnD (and system design generally) may become something like the choosing a pope.  A common idiom about papal selection is that a fat pope follows a skinny pope.  Maybe a carefully balanced system that makes encounter design easy for GMs will be followed by a system that leans more on GM judgment.

You can submit a question for a future roundtable to

See other responses to the questions at

John Clayton -- Files and Records
Evan Franke -- A Sage among His Book
John Marvin -- Dread Unicorn Games
Marc Plourde -- Inspiration Strike
Peter Smits -- Planeatery Express
Lex Starwalker -- Starwalker Studios
Burn Everything Gaming
Allan Kellogg -- Mythus
Tom Harrison -- Brace of Pistols

Monday, July 6, 2015

Derk's Lessons from Mad Max: Fury Road... for your RPG

Our RPGs can be improved by importing techniques from a wide variety of media.  Often I talk about borrowing mechanics of techniques from other RPGs.  We don't need to limit our view in this way.

The breakout success of Mad Max: Fury Road (MMFR) presents a wonderful opportunity to consider how to improve how we tell our own RPG stories by looking at a story from a movie well-told.  I will use as a starting point Peter Derk's excellent essay on the lessons of the Fury Road screenplay.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Enjoying Gencon as a Cypher System Fan

Strange Encounters is approaching a major milestone (5000 visits) and I am traveling.  This will delay a more detailed post about my home campaign or system tinkering.  However, I was struck with how quickly Gencon 2015 is coming up.  I thought I would provide some practical advice for fans of the Cypher System if they have the opportunity to attend Gencon.

I want to note that this will note be a post about how to prepare for Gencon as a practical matter.  Hydrate well.  Eat properly.  Prepare for lots of walking.  By all means, please shower every day.  Also, google advice for first time Gencon attendees.  There are some excellent blog posts out there on the subject.  

Instead, I want to talk about how someone who is a fan of the Cypher System can get a lot out of Gencon.  The short version is:  attend Monte Cook Games events -- but not only those events.  

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Workshop on Fronts for The Strange, Part II -- The OSR

Welcome back to the workshop on Fronts for The Strange.  As a reminder, this is just a space in which I work out how I am designing fronts for my home campaign.  The general discussion of fronts is found HERE and serves as a useful starting point.  The first post in this series included a discussion of the first front for my campaign -- the Provost's Council.

In this post, I will discuss the second of my fronts: the OSR.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Realism and Challenge

I am back with another contribution to the GM's Roundtable of Doom.

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker:

Many of us probably remember the AD&D days when the DM could roll a black dragon on the random encounter table and end a low-level party’s career. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game led some newer players to believe that every encounter should be defeatable and appropriate to their level and capabilities. However, 5th edition has moved away from this structure. 

We see this mirrored in other games as well. At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be “appropriate”. On the other end of the spectrum is the syle and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn’t be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.

Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Workshop on Fronts for The Strange part I

I previously wrote about the notion of developing "fronts" as a way to plan out a dynamic campaign.  I am now in the process of planning out my actual campaign for my Wednesday night Roll20 game.  As a result, I am returning to my previous discussion of fronts to help guide the development.  I won't go into great detail on the nature of fronts (that is what the previous post did).  Instead, I use this space to work out how I plan to use several fronts for my upcoming campaign.

It should go without saying that if you happen to be playing in my games, you probably should not read this.

This might get a little bumpy -- it is basically a set of working notes -- but I think it could be useful to see one person's attempts to implement some of the key ideas from fronts for campaign planning in The Strange.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Alignment Workshop: WoD Path/Road in the Cypher System

In the previous post, I discussed the use of "drives" from the Night's Black Agents RPG.  It served some of the purposes of an alignment system in an RPG while avoiding some of the awkwardness of classical systems.  In this post, I will review another alternative system that can fill the role of the alignment system:  the path/road system from various versions of the World of Darkness / Vampire RPG.  Specifically, I am drawing from the soon to be released Vampire: The Dark Ages 20th Anniversary Editions explanation of the road system.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Alignment Workshop: Adapting Drives from Nights Black Agents

As I have been threatening to do, I am starting a series of blog posts on alternatives to the traditional DnD alignment system.  As I reviewed earlier, there have been several criticisms of the traditional alignment system.  That being said, I see an important role played by alignment systems.  When playing DnD, the party's range of alignment give you some sense of how the party will deal with prisoners, respond to offers of dark bargains, etc.  Alignment can also help provide a reason for characters to act.  In the absence of such a system can leave players wondering what their character will do.  The background system can help but I have found that Cypher System characters sometimes need a little more of a push and some signposts for the behavior for their characters.

In this post, I want to discuss you the use character "drives" from Nights Black Agents for characters in The Strange.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Encoding Improvisation

Welcome to my contribution to the GM's Roundtable of Doom.  

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Marc Plourde:

There are many different skills that come together to make up a GM. The ability to think on the fly, knowledge of the rules, plotting, etc. What skill do you think is your weakest? What have you done to try and improve that skill? What advice do you have to offer others trying to improve that skill set?


I have to admit I struggled with this one.  There are so many areas where I am trying to improve that it is hard to narrow it down to one.  I can definitely use more work on narrative improvisation and balancing attention across players during sessions.  I have more or less given up on developing voices.  What I am working on most, though, is documenting improvised components to create a consistent and reliable world.

"Random Interesting Stuff" by Joe Hackman (flikr)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

No-longer Secret Project -- and Why It Has Been Slow

You may have been wondering why posts on Strange Encounters have been slowing down.  Some has been a rush at work - to be honest.  The largest cause, though, has been a project that has been under wraps until this week.  I can now explain an exciting new direction for my efforts related to the Cypher System.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Lethality and the RPG as a Relativistic Game

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker.

 This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker, who poses the following question:

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How lethal are your games and why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?

[The above text is directly from Lex Starwalker's blog - linked at the end of this post]

My feelings on lethality in RPGs have evolved along much the same lines as my general approach to being a GM (reviewed in last month's post).  Through high school, my gaming (mostly DnD -- some other systems like Marvel Super Heroes, TMNT, Rifts, etc.) took the game as a challenge.  The experience was largely one that pitted the players against the DM and the game itself.  I guess we all wanted to brag about surviving the Lost Tower on Inverness or escaping the shackles of the slavers from the classic A series.  We could brag about surviving the Tomb of Horrors but no one would believe us.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

What I Have Learned from the Thunder Plains Controversy... So Far

Though this is not entirely a new controversy, there has been considerable attention this weekend to the depiction of the Thunder Plains controversy in The Strange.  I have literally lost sleep trying to figure out how to respond to this controversy; so, I thought I would use the blog as a way to work out how I feel about this controversy and my reactions to it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Evolution of My GM-style -- or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb(ast)

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. Every GM has his or her favorite system, but in these articles we endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you are a blogger, and you’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at and supply the URL of your blog.

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Scott Robinson, who asks, "How has your gaming and/or GMing changed over time?"


Back to the first person :).

I recommended this topic because I have been thinking a lot about how my approach to gaming (as a player and a GM) has changed considerably over my the decades.  I will provide an (I hope mercifully) short biography to set up what I see are the largest changes in my play style.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Improvisation Campaign Design for The Strange -- based on The Armitage Files

Some ideas make me angry -- not because they are bad, but because they are so elegant and so strong that I am angry I never thought of them myself.  The design of Robin Laws' The Armitage Files for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG is one of those examples.  Robin Laws provides a novel method for designing a campaign in a more improvisational way.  In this, he provides an easily portable structure to facilitate a more open, player-directed style of RPG.  It is the basis for the forthcoming Dracula Dossier and can be adapted to The Strange campaign design with little difficulty because it is essentially system agnostic.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Strange Inspiration: Atrocity Archives

The Strange core rulebook includes a set of readings that can serve as inspiration for games.  Some of the readings are inspirational for specific recursions.  A rare set are inspirational for the nature of the recursions and the game as a whole.  I ran across a book that serves just that role.

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross tells a story mixing elements of office politics and Lovecraftian horror.  Most surprisingly, the emphasis is squarely on the former.  You can think of it as Office Space (in a government setting) meets Hellboy.

I won't provide serious spoilers -- but it is hard to provide a compelling review (even one, like this, intended solely to connect the book to a game setting) without out revealing a little about the setting and plot.  Consider this a soft spoiler warning.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Yay! 2000 views.

I just wanted to post to celebrate crossing over 2000 page views.  Thank you for all of your support.  I will keep using this outlet to talk about various game mechanics, material for The Strange, and general reactions to current topics in RPGs.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Upcoming Changes for Strange Encounters

With the change in format for GM Intrusions (into GM's Journey), there will be some minor changes to Strange Encounters.  For the near future, the focus will move to this blog rather than audio segments.  The topical coverage here will likely stay the same but may increase in frequency.  I may also use this as an excuse to broaden the discussion of RPG mechanics -- rather than solely looking at mechanics in relation to The Strange and the Cypher System.

All of this is to say that despite what is the end of the audio segments (for the near future, at least), the blog will continue and may accelerate.

Aspects as a (near) Universal Design Approach for RPGs

We have a new prompt for the  GM (blog) Roundtable.

What is a favorite mechanic or idea you've encountered in an RPG that you think would work well in other games? Please explain the mechanic/idea, tell us a bit about the game it comes from, and give some ideas of how it could be used in other games. You can discuss more than one mechanic or idea if you like.

This challenge is one that is close to my heart.  As you can tell, given the focus of my blog and audio segments on the podcast formerly known as GM Intrusions,  I have a passion for reading various RPGs and adapting their mechanics to improve my games.  In the recent past, I have focused on the Cypher System.  It has proven to be a readily adaptable system that lets me combine the strengths of several systems -- as well as being quite strong to begin with.

Much of what I write about is applicable beyond the Cypher System, though.  I like to think that some of the systems I talk about could also be adapted into other systems.  For example, the discussion of fronts is something that can help in preparing a 5E DnD game.  In taking up the topic for this month's GM Roundtable, I wanted to discuss a mechanic that I think is useful in just about any system -- including the Cypher System.  I have chosen to discuss how the notion of scene or location aspects  from the FATE system will change the way I will design encounters in just about all of my games, in all gaming systems, moving forward.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

An Alignment System for the Cypher System?

In my early experiences with RPGs (mostly ADnD), alignment was a central part of the character creation.  Getting parties together often involved discussion of how the mix of alignments could co-exist.  Players would point out that one character or another was acting inconsistently with their environment, etc.

Peer Lawther (flikr)

Alignment was even used as a balance element.  Paladins were simply more powerful than their fighter counterparts but this was justified because of the higher ability requirements (which really just made the balance issues worse) and a strict code of conduct related to the alignment system.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Precision and Balance in Narrative Skill Systems

One of the biggest transitions I have faced moving from DnD to the Cypher System was in implementing the skill system.  I was accustomed to fairly detailed skill systems like that in DnD 3e/Pathfinder or DnD 4E.  My prior experience with other systems (Vampire, Wraith, Rifts, etc.) had involved similar skills systems.  When you invested in (or selected) a skill, you became better at a fairly specific set of actions.  Sometimes the specificity was the result of strong genre definitions of the capabilities of characters.  Sometimes the specificity was just a result of the presumption of some other parts of the system that implied that all that was not stated to be allowed was presumed to be forbidden.  The result of these systems was a fairly narrow range of application of skills -- and an exhaustive list of skill options.

In the Cypher system approach to skills, skills do not represent a specific set of player capabilities.  Instead, the skills assist in all relevant cases -- with relevance defined by the group and the context. If a character has a skill in bluffing, all tasks that involve bluffing become a little easier.  There is not a specific set of moves or actions linked to the specific skill.  Instead, the player needs to assert that her skill at bluffing will help her in a specific context.  The skill will clearly apply in a situation where the character is pretending to have an asset that she does not actually have (possibly as part of a hostage stand-off - or simply poker).  Does it apply to all situations where a players is pretending to have different credentials than they have?  Does it apply when a player wants to exaggerate his strength to intimidate an opponent?

This approach to skills has become increasingly popular.  In a previous post, I noted the similarity between the Cypher System approach to skills and 13th Age backgrounds.  One can see similar parallels with Fate System aspects.  In each case, the game includes a great deal of ambiguity and flexibility to allow players to participate actively in the game and its narrative.

 The result is a system in which the influence of any individual skill can range in its coverage.  Some skills may have relatively narrow ranges of application.  Some question whether the result is an unbalanced skill system.

Is Balance a Problem for Narrative Skill Systems?

It is fair to ask whether having balance across skills is even an issue.  The Cypher System does not emphasize traditional sorts of balance across players.  In some systems, it is important for each character to have a similar power level.  In these systems, it would be a major problem if one character was able to deal out a great deal more damage than the others.

The narrative skills system may have similar problems.  If a skill in bluff can cover all of the situations in which intimidation would be useful, why would you ever choose intimidation?  Does it render character creation options that include intimidate "less powerful" than options that include bluff.

In the playtest for The Strange, my players ran into this problem several times.  Even focusing on the recommended skills (while lacking an exhaustive list, the game does provide several examples and recommendations), imbalances became obvious.  Training in "all positive social interaction" is a fairly broad ability.  Boundaries between "persuasion" and "bluff" are blurry.  This frustrated some of my more rules-oriented players.

The clearest example is in the lore/knowledge skills.  One could be skilled "medicine" or "biology."  The biologist in my group was fairly adamant that medicine is a subset of biology.  This raised a question of whether anyone would ever choose medicine over biology.  Similarly, my would one focus on "high energy physics" or "astronomy" rather than "physics?"  Could one simply be skilled in "science?"

There are some other potential problems of balance unrelated to one skills subsuming another.  The primary problem is the differential utility of some skills.  It seems clear that MCG saw this problem for weapon and attack skills.  Putting some skills off-limits or behind gates indicates a sense that these skills are more important than others (and should be taken at the first opportunity).  I have seen few people pass up "perception" or "speed defense" for similar reasons.  In combat oriented sessions, these skills are simply more valuable than just about any other skills.

Is this a problem?  It could be.  If players face an incentive to choose some skills rather than others, the game will track players towards the specifically valuable skills.  The result is reduced player choice and increased character homogeneity.  I am reminded of the talent system in a alot of MMORPGs.  With every release, World of Warcraft designers have said they want there to be diverse builds (skill choices) for characters.  Every time, players do the math to identify the one or two optimal builds for each class.  While it is entirely possible to deviate from these builds, it typically comes at the cost of top raiding guilds not allowing you to participate in the cutting edge content.  If some choices are clearly superior to others, players will gravitate to them.

A Possible Solution to Balance Issues in Narrative Skill Systems

There are ways to address this balance issue.

Of course, you could simply ignore the problem.  Narrative skill systems are not built to be balanced.  It should not be a surprise that such problem arise.  If the players accept that some skills are more valuable than others, then this is not a problem.

One could also generate a set of house rules that empower some skills while disempowering others.  An example of this is in my previous post on how to make perception a little less unique by adding a perception component to all lore/knowledge skills.  Following MCGs lead, you could also gateway some skills by making them only available at specific tiers or with specific foci options.

I prefer a less elaborate or formal solution.  Skill choices, especially in such an open ended system as the Cypher System, are expressions of players' desires about their characters.  If a player chooses a skill in "biology," it is because he wants stories that involve biology.  This is less obvious in some combat skills -- but a choice to focus on combat skills is suggesting that the player wants to focus on combat.  Each choice is an expression of the sorts of stories that player wants to experience.

You can take an inventory of these skills.  List all of the skills that your players have chosen.  Try to include opportunities to use all of the skills.  If the players are choosing mostly combat-oriented skills, then make more encounters combat-oriented.  If a player chooses a skill in "music history," think of ways to make music history a part of the story.  The skills are exactly as useful as you let them be in designing challenges and stories.  If you wanted to make combat skills completely useless, don't have combat (not something I am recommending -- just pointing out the possibility).  Similarly, if players have ignored social skills they may be telling you that they do not want social encounters.

As usual, this is best handled through communication with your players.  Building on Lex's recent discussion of character preludes, let your players tell you what sort of stories they want to participate in.  Skills can act in a very similar way.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Quick Assessment of Community Interest

I wanted to update you on the direction of the blog.  I have been experimenting with different types of content to see what got the best response.  The response seems pretty clear.

The best response has come from the articles that adapt material from other games and discuss issues at a meta-system level.  Some of this is to be expected.  Discussing the Dracula Dossier while there is an ongoing kickstarter campaign was pretty well assured to generate some attention -- though that was not the primary motivation for me to do it.  Discussing other systems brings in people from other game communities.

Content that was specific to the Cypher System (like reactions to the Eschatology Code, NPCs, etc.) was less popular.  While there may have been a few dozen views of this content, there were 100+ views of the cross-over and meta-system discussions.

I am taking this as a reason to focus on the meta-system discussions.  This is not entirely unexpected.  After all, the Strange Encounters segments started with just this sort of meta-system content.

I will resume the podcast segments (the gap was just a short vacation on my part) soon and keep posting.  Some of the upcoming content may include:

  • Adapting elements of 5E DnD (bonds, ideals, inspiration, backgrounds)
  • Adapting paths/roads from World of Darkness RPGs as an alignment system
  • Planning skill balance in sessions (with a dash of Gumshoe)
  • Expanding research and discovery options
  • Adapting FATE-style environment descriptors as a planning approach  
  • Heck -- I may even pull some ideas in from boardgames :)
Of course, I will sprinkle in other types of material as it strikes me.  I will keep watching where the interest seems to be.  Feedback, as always, is appreciated.

Encouraging Role-playing at Your Table

We are in a golden age of gaming.  There are a lot of ways to scratch ones' gaming itch.  Superb new board games release every month.  Video games provide increasingly more immersive experiences.  But still, there is something special about tabletop RPGs (even across electronic communication).  The experience is truly and dramatically emergent.  There is some of that in each of the other examples -- but it happens more consistently and is more central to the experience of tabletop roleplaying games.  This leaves us wanting to encourage role-playing.

1202 Vul-Con [Adams] -- Devon Christopher Adams [flickr]

The challenge is, of course, that role-playing can be intimidating.  Some players may only have experience with video games where there are clear limits on character's actions and dialogue options may be limited.  Other players may have previous experience with RPGs but have used systems that more-or-less limit you to a specific list of options (particularly for non-social encounters).  

How do you encourage people to role-play?

I have a few suggestions based on my own experience as a reluctant role-player.  

[1]  Have modest expectations.  Fundamentally, role-playing is a lot like public speaking.  The fears that people have related to public speaking cross-over into reluctance to improvise in role-playing.  Those who are reluctant to role-play are likely to be confronting these sorts of anxieties.  Make the space safe for them to contribute (more on this in a bit) and let them reach out on their own time-table.  This means being encouraging and avoiding (as a group) anything that could make people feel self-conscious about their role-playing.  In a safe space, reluctant role-players may try (maybe only once in a session) to actually reach out.  See each attempt as a success, encourage it, and build on it.

[2] Allow people to choose their contribution.  Not all writers excel at different parts of fantasy narrative (just to take that as an example).  Some writers are excellent at narrating combat.  Others dive into the voice of their characters.  The same is true for role-players.  Some players are (and want to be) better at providing detailed descriptions of their combat actions.  Others will want to provide direct dialogue in social encounters.  Not all players will want to do both.  Allow your players to choose which part of the game they want to most actively role play in.  If someone wants to start with detailed combat narratives, allow them, encourage them, and don't push too hard for them to participate in other types of encounters.  Let people get comfortable with role-playing where they are most comfortable.

In my personal case, I am reluctant to do anything with voices.  I am just not that brave yet.  My contributions when I play (or GM for that matter) are focused on providing descriptions of environments and actions.

[3] Diversify encounter types

Part of allowing for diverse contributions is to create diverse encounter types.  If a session only includes direct social encounters, there is little room for a person who wants to focus on narrating combat.  Similarly, if a person wants to try social encounters then a series of strictly combat encounters will not give them the room to role-play.

The balance you strike between different types of encounters should depend on what your groups is looking for.  Your group may want to focus on combat with occasional forays into social encounters.  You may want an even balance between opportunities to narrate combat, narrate environments (with exploration and obstacle encounters), and directly interact with NPCs.  There is no wrong answer for this balance -- the only problems are when expectations for the balance differ across the group.  While there may be some variation session to session, players will not know what to expect (for role-play or for character creation -- for that matter -- if the balance is not well-understood).  

[4] Ensure that player choices are important

My last recommendation is to make choices within role-playing matter.  If you only allow players to choose the color of the robes the cultists where, they won't invest much in role-playing.  If social interaction seems pre-determined or irrelevant to the outcome of the session, there is no reason for the players to pay attention to this interaction.  If you want role-playing to occur, role-playing must matter.

Different types of rule-playing will require different types of consequences.  For social interactions, winning or losing favor must have consequences (access to resources, access to information, active opposition or support).  For exploration, pay attention to the choices players make in describing the environment.  Make sure those choices persist.  Vivid descriptions of the environment or combat should result in the ability to use skills to make particular actions easier.  This is made easy with assets in Cypher System.  By generous is allowing players to create assets through their descriptions.  Once they see that these descriptions can result in a 15% bonus, many players will work harder to describe the environment.

There is no formula for increasing role-playing.  You will find these little hints helpful, though.

What do you think?  Feel free to discuss on Google+ or in the comments.  This post is part of a broader discussion across several Cypher System blogs.  You can find the other contributions (when they are posted this week) at: