All RPGs and Storygames by Tod Foley are now available at DrivethruRPG and RPGnow. Bring these games to your table!
Social interactions are what separate roleplaying games (rpg’s) from most other types of games. For example, how often do you talk in character in Monopoly or checkers? However, social interactions often have more gray area than other skill tests. For example, it’s easy to determine the results of a CLIMB roll. Either you make it, or you fall and take some damage. But even if you make your CHARISMA roll, that doesn’t mean that a non-player character (NPC) will tell you everything or obey your every command. The gamemaster (GM) has to make some decisions.
In this article, we’ll look at three approaches to resolving social interactions. We’ll look at their advantages and concerns without advocating for any one approach over the others.
In this approach, players may still talk a bit, but dice rolls ultimately determine the final outcome. If you need to know how much to tell players, consider a degree of success or failure chart. This method has several things to recommend it. Not everyone is comfortable with or skilled at roleplaying. This method allows those players to still have a role in negotiations and information gathering. It is also more generally consistent with how combat and physical challenges are resolved. Lastly, it prevents arguments. You either made the roll or you didn’t.
On the down side, this method does not encourage in-character conversation. It doesn’t matter whether you craft a clever story to fool the town guard, or simply say “I talk to him.” Some groups may be fine with that, but others may want more robust social encounters. With this method, there’s no reason to develop your character’s social approaches.
DICE PLUS BONUS
In this approach, the GM will give some mechanical bonus for good roleplaying. For example, she might give a +2 to your CHARISMA roll, or have the NPC give up more information than originally planned. This method encourages roleplaying while still allowing the dice to have some say. It can be a good compromise between DICE ALONE and ALL ROLEPLAYING.
One concern with this approach is that shy players may get sidelined. Also, the task resolution may be inconsistent with combat and other dice rolls. Usually you don’t get a bonus for well-described blows in combat (though nothing says you can’t do that as well). Lastly, there will be some GM fiat involved, as every scene will play out differently.
In this approach, you don’t roll dice at all. If you give the stormtrooper a convincing story, he may let you into the Imperial information vault. Player skill is more important than game mechanics. This method may be most appropriate with friendly NPC’s. Why roll dice when talking to your patron wizard or commanding officer? They plan on helping you anyway. Also, you may not want to roll for every little encounter. The town blacksmith is more concerned with your money than your charisma.
This method doesn’t encourage players to invest in social skill points. Why dump points into NEGOTIATE when the GM won’t call for that roll anyway? As with DICE PLUS BONUS, quiet players may get sidelined. Also, there can be accusations of unfairness. A player may feel that they roleplayed an encounter exceptionally well and weren’t adequately rewarded.
This article couldn’t cover EVERY possible social game mechanic. There are certainly games that have rules for social encounters that eliminate or minimize the need for GM interpretation. In most games, however, there will be some need for GM input in social situations. It’s the part of the hobby that most resembles improvisational acting, and the game is richer for it.
How about you? What approach do you use most often? What ideas did I miss in this article? Let us know below.
There are plenty of advice articles out there (much of it here on Gnome Stew) about how to learn a new system without having someone teach it to you. If you’re attempting a high level of system mastery from a book or box set, there are several things you can do.
- Skim the books, followed by a second pass of actually reading.
- Create some characters, preferably a variety of them to cover different rules and sub-systems.
- Have those characters fight each other. Roll all the dice yourself and push the rules.
- Get online and read forums and see what questions or issues others have encountered thus far.
- Create your own game master screen.
- Dive in and have fun with the game despite weird rulings or mistakes you may make.
- Adjust game play as you learn and grow with the system.
The area I’m going to focus on with this article is step #5 from the above list. I feel that creating your own GM screen can help improve your system mastery of a new RPG in a few different areas. Before I dive into these areas, I want to mention what you want to include on the GM screens.
You want to use all of that space to maximum effectiveness. The things you want to capture from the rulebook are things like charts, tables, lists that contain sequence of events, and handy page number references. Keep in mind that you’re going to have four panels of 8.5 inches by 11 inches to work with. You want to use all of that space to maximum effectiveness, but you don’t want to overload everything into the panels and be forced to use a six-point font to make it all fit. Another thing to consider is the player side of the screen. Will it be different or contain the same information as the GM side? I fall into the camp that the player and GM sides should be identical. This allows the players to have a quick reference as well. There are no reasons to hide the rules from the players, right? (I suppose there could be exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, you don’t want the players to be blind to their options and how they work.)
While you’re walking through the rulebook, keep the following topics in mind as you seek targets for capture.Learn the Rules
While skimming/reading through the book looking for items to capture for your custom GM screen, you’ll be immersing yourself into the rulebook. This will help you get a better mental grasp on the rules. I’ll point out that full immersion into running the game is always the best way to master a rule set, but you need the basics down before getting to that point. You should be looking for the higher level rules and sequences of play for inclusion on your custom GM screen.Find the Nuances and Exceptions
Of course, there are plenty of nuanced systems, sub-systems, and exceptions to the core rules. These are, quite honestly, the most painful parts of GMing a game. It’s near impossible to memorize the exceptions with 100% accuracy, and the more nuanced the rulings, the harder it is to get them right. If you can fit a summary of the rules on your GM screen, you’ll never have to wonder how grapple works again. (Yeah, you all know what I’m talking about.) You’ll have those grapple rules handy at your fingertips for quick reference.No Rote Memorization
If you run across a chart, table, or nice reference within the rulebooks that you just know you’ll never be able to pack into your headspace’s permanent memory, then you’ve found a wonderful item to pull into your custom GM screen.Less Book Searching
Obviously, if you’ve dropped an item onto your GM screen, you’ll never have to search for it in the rule book. If you’re not able to jam the whole rule, or even a summary, onto your GM screen, I highly recommend reserving a sidebar area on the screen for a custom index of things you’ll want quick access to. This index can be keywords or phrases and page numbers associated with those items. This will help you find things quickly, especially if you’re playing a game system in which the books don’t have great reference materials baked in.Nut and Bolts
Now that we have some ideas on what to put into the GM screen, let’s talk about the actual construction. I can’t recommend “The World’s Greatest Screen” by Hammerdog Games highly enough. There are a few options from their web site. I have about half a dozen of these for various games, and they’re wonderful, durable, reusable, and really easy to work with. If you’re strapped for cash, snag some cardstock or a cardboard box and some tape and build your own backing.
Do not scan, photocopy, or copy/paste the information into a document and use that as your base. Once you have the back to put things on, you need to build out the sheets of paper that’ll be taped to the screen (or slid into the sleeves if you go with the Hammerdog Games screen). This is probably the most important piece of advice I can give you. Do not scan, photocopy, or copy/paste the information into a document and use that as your base. I want you to develop some very minor layout skills by reproducing tables in a spreadsheet program and then printing those out. Likewise with the rules, drop the text from the book, through your brain, into your keyboard, and finally on a document that you can print. The act of reading, typing, proofing the typing for accuracy, and then printing it out and cutting the paper up to place onto your screen will really drill the information home.
A piece of advice: If you go with a “sleeved screen” like the Hammerdog Games screen, tape all of your little squares and rectangles of paper to a standard 8.5 by 11 inch sheet of paper, and then photocopy that assembled sheet. Drop the clean photocopy into the sleeve. The reason for this, is that you don’t want tape down in the sleeves. In a hot car or with the bump and bustle of moving gaming gear around, the tape will “bleed” some of its adhesive around the edges of the plastic backing on the tape. This could lead to a sheet of paper being permanently attached inside the sleeve. I’ve had this happen once, but I managed to rescue the paper, tape, and sleeve. It was a near thing, though.
Once you have your layout (digital and physical) done, it’s a matter of choosing which pages go where. Most screens have four panels. In this case, you want the most commonly referenced items in the middle two panels and the more rare items on the outer edges. This is simply for each of finding things visually. If you decide to drop the same information on the players’ side of the screen, I recommend putting the identical pages directly opposite the pages you have on your side, so that it’s kind of a mirror image. This way, if a player is having issues finding something on the screen and you know where it’s at, you can point out the appropriate panel for the player. This will help speed up the game, which is the whole point of the GM screen in the first place.
Here is a (slightly blurry) photo of a GM screen I made for TechNoir:
I hope my information here has helped you out with your GMing efforts. There are plenty of great GM screens out there on the market. I’m wondering which ones (from the past or present) have really helped you out with your gaming needs.
Welcome to the Gnomecast, the Gnome Stew’s tabletop gaming advice podcast. Here we talk with the other gnomes about gaming things to avoid becoming part of the stew. So I guess we’d better be good. This episode we have Tracy & Ang talking about Camp Adventures.Making a Thing: Camp Adventures
The genius loci is a concept most people are familiar with from fiction: a spirit or intelligence of an area. It can be seen in enchanted forests, in haunted houses, in the rogue smart building. Putting a genius loci in a location in your game can be an interesting element to play with. In some settings it’s even assumed that most locations have their own genius loci even though most of the time they aren’t heard from or interacted with.
Adding a genius loci can be done for a host of reasons:
- Atmosphere: having a genius loci in a location in conjunction with some of the powers at their disposal can enhance the atmosphere of an area, for good or for ill.
- Extra variety: A genius loci is an extra source of challenges and encounters that can also be of a different nature than what is typical for the setting.
- Setting information: While “The spirit of the mountain did it” isn’t a huge step away from “It’s magic” it adds flavor to your setting and gives an additional way for characters to interact with your game.
- Big story goal: A genius loci of an important location can be a major NPC in your game. This means that contacting them, negotiating, appeasing, or even cowing them can be major goals for your campaign.
Often these being have a host of powers, at their disposal which can provide interesting challenges for characters:
- Awareness: Genius loci are usually aware of everything happening in the area they inhabit. They are conscious of the location of those inside and, if they share a language, can eavesdrop as well. It’s possible that this can be avoided by magic but some sources point to even this being imperfect as the genius loci may become aware of a break in its awareness.
- Change weather: depending on its power and nature a genius loci can control the weather in their area. Benign spirits may summon traveling weather or cool breezes, hostile powerful or angry ones may blot out the sun with endless rain or snow.
- Manipulate emotions: Many of these spirits can manipulate the emotions of those within their domain. This can take the form of calmness, euphoria, terror, despair, or other strong emotions depending on the nature of the spirit and the end it is trying to achieve.
- Influence locals: most creatures and NPCs who have lived under the influence of a genius loci for long times have become susceptible to its whims. The loci can command them to take actions or change their reactions to others at will. This can result in dangerous creatures giving visitors a wide berth or making a beeline for them. It can also mean that usually savage beings may become meek and complacent or that usually benign creatures become hostile or dangerous.
- Change hazards: Within the area they control genius loci can create or remove native hazards and difficult terrain. They can often do this suddenly and subtlety making hazards hard to spot and placing them on ground that was clear moments earlier. Smart genius loci can also use this ability to subtlety guide visitors towards or away from exits and larger hazards.
- Change terrain: More powerful spirits can outright change terrain, moving rivers creating and removing clearings or landmarks. No map is reliable in this sort of territory even ones made recently.
- Twist reality: truly powerful genius loci can even warp reality itself, making intruders climb up endless hills or down an infinite hallway, can exhaust them chasing mirages and them unceremoniously dump them outside when they tire of playing with them. Escaping these traps may require attention to even the smallest detail, luck, or even magic.
These beings can provide an interesting challenge for any power level or composition of party and can provide some interesting subtext for your world while doing so. Have you ever used one in a game? Tell us about it below.
Frequent guest poster Keith Garrett has been getting into Tales From The Loop recently, and he’s been writing about it on his blog. He decided to doff a red hat and swing over with some of his articles about this awesome looking game. Check out the first one below. – Nostalgic John
I’m hooked on a new roleplaying game called Tales from the Loop. It came out just a few months ago, and puts players in the role of kids dealing with strange things in an “80s that never was.” And I like it so much that I’ve been writing blog posts about it every day this month.
A Little Background
The game is inspired by the paintings of Simon Stålenhag, who depicted realistic scenes of an alternate Swedish suburbia in the 1980s. Stålenhag’s art featured robots, dinosaurs, giant floating vehicles, and other weirdness alongside Swedish scenery and curious kids. In 2014, Stålenhag’s art saw print in the Tales From the Loop art book (2015 for the English version). A second art book, Things from the Flood, followed in 2016.
In November 2016, the art books’ Swedish publisher, Fria Ligan (Free League), launched their Kickstarter project for the roleplaying game set in the world Stålenhag created. This is when I first found out about all this coolness, and jumped on board immediately. At the time, I thought it was inspired by Stranger Things, not realizing Tales From the Loop predated that show! But it IS certainly inspired by E.T., and Goonies, and similar 80s-era movies and shows featuring plucky kids.
The game started shipping in April 2017. My copy arrived on April 24th. I was only a few pages in when I fell in love with the book, and realized I needed to tell the world about it, whether they wanted to hear it or not!
What’s the Game Like?
Remember all that cool stuff I said is in the art books? Robots, technology, dinosaurs, weirdness? The RPG features all that cool stuff too!
In Tales from the Loop, players take the roles of Kids aged 10-15, living in a town that contains a giant underground particle accelerator. The default setting of the game is the Swedish Mälaren Islands, but the book also details an alternate American setting, Boulder City, Nevada.
The game’s rule system is a simple one, based on another Free League game called Mutant: Year Zero. Players roll a number of 6-sided dice equal to the value of an attribute plus a skill that are appropriate to what they’re attempting, and any 6 rolled counts as a success. (Usually only one success is needed.) The game also includes ways to re-roll failures in interesting ways.
When creating your Kid, you’ll start with an archetype (such as Bookworm or Weirdo) and customize it. Some of the ways you’ll make your Kid unique are your Iconic Item (such as a boom box), your Problem (e.g. unrequited love), your Drive (e.g. motivated by thrills), your Pride (e.g. I’m the smartest kid in school), your relationships to other Kids and NPCs, and your Anchor (such as your parents or science teacher).
In addition to the rules and setting info, the book has tips on creating Mysteries (the game’s name for adventures), four complete Mystery Stories, and a Mystery Landscape—a mini-setting useful for sandbox play without a predefined plot. Also, on page 185, you’ll find my name as a backer. (If you meet me at a con or something I’ll autograph that page for you.)
When I first started showing this game to my friends (and extended friends on social media), I was surprised at how quickly it inspired rabid interest. In addition to interest among other gamers, I also saw enthusiasm from people who said that although they weren’t roleplayers, this would be their first roleplaying game. The first time I ran the game, one player (of six) had never played an RPG and another had only played once. I was also happy that 4 out of 6 of the players were women.
The game even has one of my die-hard players saying she prefers Tales from the Loop over my favorite game, Ghostbusters. (Heresy, I know.)
Since I’m certain part of the appeal of this game is the similarity to Stranger Things (and 80s nostalgia in general), I decided to capitalize on this and decorate the play area for our Tales from the Loop game. It went so well, and was so much fun, that I wanted to share our ideas with you. Use them for the premiere of your own Tales from the Loop game, or (with minor modifications) for any game set in the 80s.
The first thing I knew we needed to evoke Stranger Things was a set of Christmas lights draped across the alphabet. My decorating genius (and former Ghostbusters loyalist, may her fandom rest in peace) Jenny achieved this by writing the letters on the window using a washable window marker and then stringing lights back and forth across the window. (The result is in the image at the top of this article.)
Another way you can evoke Stranger Things at your gaming table is to print signage using a Stranger Things type generator, such as the one at MakeItStranger.com. Use this to print out signs, character tents, or other handouts.
One last Strange Thing you might do is show your connection with the character Eleven by serving frozen waffles before or during the game. I think they make great finger food snacks when paired with fruit, peanut butter, jelly, chocolate, whipped cream, or hazelnut spread.
Since Tales from the Loop’s primary setting (and its publisher) are in Sweden, I also wanted to represent the country in some way. Since I live near an IKEA store (and I’m too cheap to fly to Sweden for a blog post), I raided it for Swedish decorating inspiration.
Mostly in the form of edibles.
Our Swedish food centerpiece was a large bag of mixed candies (or Lördagsgodis). In addition to this we I can recommend Swedish chips, cookies, crackers, and jelly. (The latter went well with the waffles.) If the event hadn’t been at a vegetarian’s house, I’d have brought Swedish meatballs.
Hey, Remember the 80s?
Now let’s talk about the real star of the show: the 80s. Even non-gamers have 80s-themed parties, so finding decorations—or even costumes—to represent the decade shouldn’t be difficult.
My prize item of 80s nostalgia was a genuine Trapper Keeper that survived its journey through time in excellent condition. Since I didn’t have the official GM’s screen for the game, I improvised! The Trapper Keeper did a great job of keeping those meddling kids’ eyes off my notes.
I also recommend turning your game room into a museum of 80s culture for the game, using whatever items you can find. Display old electronics, such as the Commodore 64, Atari console, or Walkman in your attic. Set out other artifacts from the period like a Rubik’s Cube or Magic 8-Ball. Serve retro snacks like candy cigarettes, Big League Chew, and Pop Rocks. You might even leave a trail of Reese’s Pieces to help lure in any visiting extraterrestrials.
For background entertainment as the players arrive, you might play music videos from YouTube. If you don’t have an actual running computer or console from the period, you could run emulator software on a computer and have a game of Pac-Man or Frogger on display.
Make a Bitchin’ Mix Tape
Once the game begins, you’ll probably want to switch from music videos and electronic games to a playlist that will serve to complement tabletop play. In my game, I did this in three different ways.
For general background music, I created an instrumental playlist consisting of thematically appropriate 80s movie soundtracks. I like these instrumentals as my default because sometimes songs with lyrics can be distracting during play.
Then I made a playlist containing popular songs from the 80s. (This was pretty easy for me, because that’s pretty much how I describe my music library anyway.) I like having these songs on hand to remind the players of the game’s setting in a non-visual way. It’s a handy playlist for when the PCs are at a dance, or playing out a montage scene, or one of them feels the sudden impulse to breakdance.
One last thing I did was to create a playlist for each player character. One of the entries on the Tales from the Loop character sheet is “Favorite Song.” After everyone at the table finished telling the group about their main character details, I quickly downloaded all the songs they mentioned—the few I didn’t have, anyway—and used them to start a playlist for each Kid. I plan to add to each of these over time and use these playlists when we switch to the occasional solo scenes the game suggests. This will serve as an extra cue to the players as to which Kid is in the spotlight, and perhaps give these scenes a different feel.
That’s it for my ideas. If you enjoy decorating your gaming area to match the theme of your game, I’d love to hear about how you do it in the comments!
NPCs are a GM’s best friend (as far as I’m concerned.) It’s one thing to describe the world to your players. It’s an entirely different thing to show them the world through the varied eyes of the people who call it home. Camp Adventure is no different. The NPCs of the setting are what bring it to life, both the counselors and the other campers.
Today, we’re going to take a look at some of the counselors and how I like to set up NPCs.Think Anawanna-wanna…
Here’s a section from the text about the counselors:
At Camp Adventure, we believe in real inclusion. It’s possible that campers will encounter people of races and backgrounds of whom they had only previously heard stories. The goal of Camp Adventure is to prepare would-be adventurers for the world. Our world, especially below The Line, is a diverse, complicated place. Camp Adventure reflects that diversity as actively as possible.
This is brochure-style speak, but I wanted to make sure to have it in the text. This diversity is important to me, in a lot of ways. To that end, the counselors I’ve written so far are a varied lot. Let’s meet them!
Dolruum (Head of the Camp) – Minotaur Bard
- More voice than horns
- Doesn’t take any guff
- Always wants to see people do their best
Gorrat Mountainbreaker – Ogre Fighter/Rogue
- Friendly to a fault
- Patient and kind
- Loves all reptiles
Senda Slepshir – Elven Wizard
- Proudly reckless
- Happiest when teaching others
- Fond of shenanigans
Bolbat – Hobgoblin Barbarian
- No tomfoolery
- Proud of the accomplishments of those he trains
- Loves romance novels
Gulplood – Bullywug Cleric of Light
- Pays attention to everything
- Devout but kind
- Gambles and games
This lot of folks is the first batch of NPCs I created, and they’re there because I needed them for the playtests I’ve run.
For me, for those purposes, an NPC needs to have a few things:
- A name. Always a name.
- A role. This is their class, or in the case of Dolruum, his role at the Camp itself.
- Some Background-type information, so I can roleplay them.
Like I said, this was for playtests. The actual stats behind these folks were largely unimportant. I have enough knowledge of where the numbers need to fall if I have to add bonuses to any of their die rolls. And for the spellcasters, I can skim the book really quickly if I need a spell. The information above is enough for me for one session of play. In those moments I need to make them memorable to the players, not worry about the crunch behind them.
If I were writing these NPCs just for my own purposes, this is where I’d stop. I might flesh them out a bit more, but the counselors aren’t the focus of the action in Camp Adventure. They’re not the ones in combat, or facing challenges; that’s the players and the kid NPCs. The role of the counselors in Camp Adventure is to be the larger-than-life badass mentors and instructors that the campers need to have an awesome summer and leave the camp as adventurers.
I am working on making this something that gets published, so these NPCs need more than that. Those descriptions above are a good start, but they’re just that: a start. If people who aren’t me are going to use these folks, we’ll need something more solid.
Let’s start with Gulplood.Gulplood
Class and Level: Cleric 6
STR: 11 (+0)
DEX: 13 (+1)
CON: 9 (-1)
INT: 15 (+2)
WIS: 20 (+5)
CHA: 12 (+1)
Speed: 20ft., Swim 40
Racial Abilities: As Bullywug Entry in the Monster Manual
Light and Medium Armor, Shields
All Simple Weapons
Saving Throws – Wisdom (+8), Charisma (+4)
Skills: Religion (+11), Persuasion (+4), History (+7), Nature (+8)
Languages: Common, Bullywug, Amphibians, Celestial, Abyssal, Elven, Minotaur
Background: Seeker of the Truth
Devout, but Kind
Pays Attention to Everything
The Truth May Never Be Found, but I Will Never Stop Seeking
I Hold to the Faith and Will be a Light to Others
I Can’t Say No to a Deck of Cards
Spells and Abilities
0 Level: Light, Sacred Flame, Mending, Thaumaturgy
1st Level: Cure Wounds, Purify Food and Drink, Sanctuary, Shield of Faith, Identify*
2nd Level: Aid, Calm Emotions, Silence
3rd Level: Dispel Magic, Remove Curse, Sending, Suggestion*
* Domain Spells
Channel Divinity: 2/rest
– Turn Undead
– Knowledge of the Ages
– Read Thoughts
Blessings of Knowledge
Details: Though they are newcomers onto the the national stage in the 12 Marches, Bullywugs have become indispensable to many local economies. A number of different races who are unable to speak common share amphibious backgrounds, and Bullywugs are able to communicate with them. This is how Gulplood came to leave his family’s pod and venture out into the world. It wasn’t long before he was consumed by both a lust for knowledge and for the Ultimate Truth. His journeys have taken him far and wide across the 12 Marches, and down below the Line on more than one occasion.
Now, in his capacity as a counselor at Camp Adventure, Gulplood seeks the truths that can be found through teaching. He views every camper as an opportunity to enrich his view of the world, and he voraciously collects as much information about a camper’s views and options as he is able. The quests he gives are almost experiment-like, in that he varies them little from group to group; he wants to see how different groups react to the same situations, thus expanding his knowledge, albeit within a limited sphere.
So, there’s your fleshed-out version of Gulplood. Obviously, this is still a draft, and there’s a lot more that could be done here. The point of this was to make sure that the most important things were down here. From that perspective, it doesn’t matter what gear he has or how much gold is in his purse. With the stats and information above, most GMs could pick up Gulplood and run him without much issue.
That, to me, is the heart of writing an NPC: you have to give the GM what they need to make the character come to life. That’s priority number 1. Without that, the NPC is just a bunch of stats on a page and you might as well just lift a monster from the Monster Manual and re-skin it. The details of Gulplood’s Background (there will eventually be a fleshed-out version of a bunch of different Backgrounds) are what can bring him to life.
There are other details in his character that point to how to roleplay him as well. His spell selection is designed for what he sees on a daily basis. Calm Emotions for a group of rowdy campers? Silence? Yes, please. All of those choices speak to who this character is and can inform a GM of how to approach playing this NPC.Awful Waffle, Awful Waffle
(I’m in a Salute Your Shorts mood. What can I say?)
For the first time in this series of articles, I think I’ve found a vein I want to keep digging up. In the next article or two, I’ll show you sketches of more NPCs, as well as some fleshed-out versions that you could pick up and use in your games right now. In the meantime, if you’ve got thoughts about NPC presentation in game supplements, or want to share how you NPC when you’re GMing, drop that stuff in the comments.
Until next time!
Right now I am sitting here, not wanting to write an article. Not that I don’t love writing to you all, but rather this article is between me and further game design work I am doing, and I have fallen into the design rabbit hole; a place where nothing matters other than designing—not eating, not sleep, not anyone else, just a burst of ideas on a page as you try to make a thing. Today’s article is not about the rabbit hole, rather it’s why I am in the hole. That starts last week at Origins . . .When A Playtest Goes Bad
So I was at Origins, and I was running a playtest of Hydro Hacker Operatives for a group of close friends that I only see at conventions. I was very excited to show off the game to them, as I have run it a number of times now, and I am pretty proud of the Hydro Hacking mechanics. The mechanics are a push your luck card based (was token based) game that simulates the flow of water.
During the playtest, I began to notice something. The Hydro Hacking mechanic was working (it has its own way of building tension), but what I realized was that no one was role-playing—their tension was from the players engaging the mechanic, which is something you see more in boardgames. Truth be told, the Hydro Hacking mechanic is very boardgame-like, and it was something of a sticking point for me.
You see, as a boardgame mechanic it works great. People who get to the hack have this fantastic time of turning cards and seeing if they can get the water they need before the hack comes crashing down. But as part of a role-playing game, I was noticing that there was not a lot of role-playing happening at the table, and that upset me. This was a group of people who represented my test audience for the game—and the game was not doing what it needed to.
As the playtest wrapped, I realized that I was going to have to do the hardest thing a designer has to do . . . Kill My Darling.Killing Your Darlings
The phrase originally comes from William Faulkner, who said:
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
Not to get too scholarly today, but what I got from Faulkner’s quote was: don’t hold onto anything in your writing; that the story is the most important thing. Do what the story demands. Holding onto a character, location—even an idea—can prevent you from making the best possible story.No matter how awesome you think a mechanic or a chunk of setting is, if it isn’t working it’s got to go.
That same thing holds true in game design. No matter how awesome you think a mechanic or a chunk of setting is, if it isn’t working it’s got to go.
And that was where I was. The Hydro Hack mechanic, by itself, works great; players love it. As part of a role-playing game, it was not working. In fact, it was not only not working, but it was impeding actual role-playing. There it was—my darling, the first mechanic I designed for the game. It was lying on the altar, helpless. I was standing over it, knowing there was only one thing I could do—so with a silent prayer to Faulkner, I raised the editorial blade and in one downward stroke, I cut the mechanic from the game.There Is Always Another Solution
With the resignation to remove the Hydro Hack mechanic, it created a space to come at the idea fresh. With six different playtests under my belt, I had a much better feeling for what needed to take its space. So I got some paper and a pencil and went to work. I sat with my fellow designers and hashed out my ideas, got input, and kept iterating.
I got home from Origins with a sheaf of pencil scribbled paper. I wanted to start designing right away, but first—Con Drop. I spent three days exhausted and emotionally drained as my body acclimated back to the world.
Then I got in front of a keyboard and started to design. Using the notes as a guide and keeping an eye on the target of a more role-play-centric mechanic, I went to work. The initial design came quickly, in about 2000 words; I needed to pause and make the Hacking Sheet, in Illustrator, that would be the focus of play; I needed to update the six playbooks with Moves to work with the new system; I needed to finish the remainder of the rules, with another 2000 words; I found a problem with part of the rules and brainstormed some ideas on how to fix it. That was two days of work. In between, I watched some Steven Universe, watched some Young Justice, and read a bit of Blades in the Dark.
Honestly, the new system looks pretty good. It’s a much better fit for the game than the original system. I am going to be playtesting it soon so that we can start working out the kinks.Not All That Is Killed Is Dead
So that board game mechanic that worked so well? It’s not dead. I took all the materials and put them on the side. With a little work, that is totally going to be a board game. I just need to remove a few of the role playing parts from it, and it will be set.
See, the thing about your Darlings is that you may need to kill them from your current project, but that does not mean they are bad or broken. Sometimes they are, but other times they are just not the right fit for the project you are working on. So you keep them, you put them in a folder, and you dig them out later to repurpose them.
That deck building, push your luck game of hacking water—that board game is coming. It’s coming after I finish the role-playing game. For now, that darling will sit in a folder until I have some time to get back to it.
Now, I need to climb back into the rabbit hole and get to work. This is the first time in months I have been truly inspired to work, and when you have momentum, you take it. So until next time, love your darlings, but never be afraid to kill them when you need to.