Simple games with simple rules are easier to grasp, easier to remember, generally use less paraphenalia and are easy to prep and improvise from. This is great, but it does come at a cost.
Simple games tend to lack depth. They find it harder to simulate complex or ongoing actions. They tend to lack the capacity for character improvement in a granular way, often lacking range in statistics, skills or powers, or not having enough different ways for you to advance. So they’re less suited to long term play, or rags to riches play.
Some players like all the fiddly bits to games, and so like games with more granularity, more depth, more expansive and granular opportunities to develop and change. Some Games Masters like it too, but the more fiddly and prep-heavy a game is the less easy it is to improvise, the more tempting it is to railroad.
The ideal game, perhaps, from both a player and GM perspective, would be one that’s simple enough in application that it’s low prep and easy to do thing, but which has enough granularity and system permutations to tackle a wide variety of situations.
Many games seem to make the mistake of an unsatisfyingly simple core mechanic, which they then fuck up the advantage of by layering hundreds of interwoven exceptions into (PbtA and Tri Stat, for example).
There are some basic foundations to good storytelling that apply across multiple media forms, and that includes games.
Having just gotten through with an enormous Twitter argument, in which many people – some of them, alas, employed by RPG companies – demonstrated a total lack of understanding of these basics, it seems wort quickly reiterating them.
The game world has to mae consistent, internal sense. The players don’t necessarily have to understand it, but if you know how things work you’ll be able to make rulings and create events that follow a pattern.
If magic works a certain way, then it should always work a certain way.
If you allow someone to pull off a stunt in one situation, then you sould let them do it again – unless there’s a really good reason not to.
The rules of the game world don’t have to match up to the real world, they just have to retain and maintain that internal consistency in and off themselves.
The People Stuff Must be Right
In the same way we can look at a CGI image of a person and be creeped out by the slightest flaw, despite being able to see a face in a couple of dots and lines 🙂 so unbelievable behaviour, social structures and so on will jangle our nerves.
Game of Thrones worked, in its early seasons, because it had a strong establishment and basis in real history (the War of the Roses) and thus in real societal structures, politics and interactions. Not ones we’d especially like today – and they got flak for that – but ones that make sense in context.
This is why it is jarring and detrimental when historical pieces, or historically derived pieces, engage in changes to sate the demands of Twitter activists, at the expense of story and verisimmilitude.
Dragons are an unknown quantity, they could act in almost any way, do almost anything, but you’d better get te people stuff to a good standard or it’ll trip you up.
Nothing is Arbitrary
The GM is ‘god’, of a sort, but he shouldn’t be a random and capricious god. You have dice to moderate those sorts of things, and rules. You set the likelihood, buit (most of the time) not the result. The rules model reality, or hyperreality, in a way that’s consistent, makes sense and reflects the character’s capabilities.
If it all possible you should avoid just making arbitrary decisions as much as possible. With the character’s fate in your hands you might well decide to be too vindictive or too forgiving, and there won’t be a consistent, removed, neutral way to determine what happens.
In books this follows the story logic and how you need the story to develop (without violating the character’s personality etc). In games this follows the game rules, and the character sheet as written, the strengths and weaknesses of that character play into it appropriately..
Pure simulation is all but impossible to create. Rather than aiming for a fully realistic simulation you just need to go with what’s plausible. What’s believable enough and consistent enough to make sense. It’s just believable enough to pass a sniff test, and that’s sufficient in most cases.
HERE is a HUGE fuck-off list of themes in literature, movies, poetry and other forms of creative endeavour.
Roleplaying games are their own art form however, and don’t quite fit into anything else. RPG story themes share most with literary themes and movie themes, but you’re going to have a mix and match of those themes from adventure to adventure, from the campaign, and from the player’s story arcs.
Common Adventure Themes
Uncover a mystery.
Eliminate a threat.
Look for treasure.
Find a clue.
A farcical heist.
Fuck that guy in particular.
Escape a threat.
Survive a disaster/the wilderness.
Leave the Shire.
Common Campaign Themes
Machinations around the throne.
An ancient evil threatens to rise.
Rags to riches.
Unraveling a conspiracy.
Overthrow that dick.
One of us is secretly really important.
Liberate the homeland.
Big damn heroes/villains.
Common Player Arc Themes
I am a frustrated novelist. Validate my ideas.
Become the best at what I do.
Become a ruler.
Avenge my mentor/family/etc.
Get fat, rich and old.
Earn the hand of the fair princess/prince.
I’ll show them, I’ll show them all. Muahahahaha!
Become a god.
Take up my rightful position.
Default Game Themes
Old School D&D: Rags to riches.
Cyberpunk 2020: Get rich enough to live above dystopia.
Twilight 2000: It’s a long way home.
Traveller: Explore strange new worlds, and sell them things.
5e D&D: Highschool drama and the occasional dungeon.
Call of Cthulhu: Accrue lore, delay going mad.
Vampire the Masquerade: Accrue the power of an elder without becoming an asshole.
Degenesis: Survive and thrive on a dying planet.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: Heroic failure.
Eclipse Phase: Find out what it means to be human while trying to prevent (another) hard singularity.
Since I’m working on a project (Wightchester, back it now) it seems like a good time to give a quick summary of how I go about breaking down my writing while I’m working on it, to create a workflow that goes well with my brain issues. The way I do it I can manage a decent word count, whenever the brain worms give me even a small amount of energy to expend on a project.
Assuming you’ve already figured out what system you’re using, what your game is about and so on, it breaks down like this (but on a larger scale).
You’re basically creating a ‘skeleton’ of your whole project, and then proceeding to add the ‘meat’ to those bones until you end up with a fully formed monstrosity of a lumbering, malformed first draft.
So I will go through the prospective book, page by page, section by section, laying out the titles of the sections and making bullet-points of the things I need to cover in each section.
The advantage here is that you can add things as you think of them, easily reference things (by heading) when you want to change them, and that you can pick and choose what bit you want to write, without having to write it out in order.
You can bounce around the text, nibbling away at the overall wordcount, avoiding writer’s block by shifting topics.
Not in the mood to finesse the system? Work on the lore, and vice versa.
Breaking it down into smaller chunks also gives you a real sense of progress as you can complete a paragraph, two, three, four and feel that you’re making headway because you’ve completed a few sections.
If you have trouble concentrating, feel like you can’t make any headway on a project or feel intimated by the size, this really can make a difference in terms of motivation and those little hits of happy brain juices you get for hitting accomplishment goals.
Traps in dungeons and tombs can be a bit hackneyed, but it’s just one of those things that people expect. Did these things really exist? Sure, but the traps in the real world can take forms we never thought of when it comes to our games.
Haematite powder was spread around in some tombs and chambers. This fine powder is jagged at a very small level and can be intensely irritating to the skin. If inhaled it can do permanent damage to someone’s lungs in much the same way as asbestos or coal dust. Not immediately deadly, but pretty vindictive.
Cinnabar is a bright scarlet form of mercury-sulphide, the mercury (absorbed in fumes or from the dye) causing itching, impaired senses, swelling, peeling skin, discolouration, sweating, heart problems, high blood pressure and death. Ritualistic burials sometimes coloured the bodies and their grave goods with cinnabar.
A popular trap in many tombs, though the water might evaporate or run away from its holding tanks if far from replenishment sources. Typically a false wall or carefully balanced support will give way, allowing the water to flood out. In cold climates it may be salt water, to prevent freezing and to it any thieves with much colder water.
Some real world ancient tombs have had sand hidden in much the same way as flooding traps above. The weight of sand is obviously much higher, and you cannot swim through it.
The old classic. Pit traps found in many ancient tombs are 20 feet deep, or more, so as to preclude easily climbing out witout assistance.
Liquid mercury may be used decoratively, as is rumoured to have been the case in some ancient Chinese tombs. The presence of the toxic metal liquid in such large quantities could be even more affecting than Cinnabar.
Another rumoured ancient Chinese trap, mechanical crossbows might stay functional for longer if they – and their strings and bolts – were made of metal. These are likely to be triggered by simple mechanisms such as doors, plates and switches.
While they might not mean anything to us today, in fantasy worlds curses may well have a genuine effect. Just something to consider.
An corridor angled upwards, a false flagstone. One false step and a great stone block crases down, squishing whoever set it off, then grinding down the hall under the force of gravity to lodge at the end, cutting off the corridor and the poor saps it has run over.
In more modern times punji stakes in pits have been ‘primed’ with faeces, and there’s no reason to think older spikes might be covered in similar nastiness. Disease spores can also last a long time, smallpox almost came back once because of a couple of scabs in an old book. Why not prime your tomb with disease?
Let’s assume you want to replicate medieval travel in your fantasy world.
How fast can people move and how do people typically move?
Most people walk, and most people don’t ever stray more than five to ten miles from their home at any point in their lives, save maybe for a pilgrimmage. Serfs have to ask permission from their lords to travel outside their Lord’s territory, so a lot will depend on them.
Your average peasant, out walking, can cover perhaps 3 miles an hour or 20 miles in day, barring interruptions.
Professional couriers could move more swiftly, as much 30-40 miles in a day.
An ox cart could carry a lot, but slowly, only make 10 miles in a day.
A horse cart might make 20 miles in a day.
Purely on horseback, you might make 40-60 miles in a day, but for most, horse travel was limited to nobility and knights.
Soldiers (closest to adventurers perhaps) might march 20 miles in a day, in full gear with a pack, and still have the energy to fight at the end of it.
A carriage drawn by a team of horses might be able to make as much as 50-75 miles in a day, more and faster if there are changes of horses available.
A medieval sailing ship might cover an average of 5 miles per hour (120 miles in a day), though in fantasy games ship technology is typically more advanced and akin to Renaissance technology, though the speed isn’t that different, perhaps 8 mph. With fair wind and conditions, a ship could travel twice as fast. Sea turtles can swim at up to 10mph, for comparison.
This likely makes very clear just how disruptive and special magical transportation can be.
Figuring out what to publish as a supplement is always a bit of a puzzler. You see, what sells are corebooks, which was the philosophy at WOTC during the 4th Edition days, and which has bled over somewhat into 5th Edition publication. They say they’re moving away, a bit, from the heavy hardback tomes for everything, but it remains to be seen.
Why have these big tomes become the norm?
Well, supplementary material can be a hard sell. Let’s say you have a GM’s book and a Player’s book.
In practice you’re going to sell one GM book per group (typically 4-6 players) and maybe slightly more Player’s books. That’s still only about one sixth your potential audience, and that’s the most you’re going to sell of just about anything.
Once you get into supplementary material, class books, race books and so on, you’re carving that fraction down more and more. Even the best possible market is only a fraction of the number of players.
What has traditionally sold worst of all (apart from during the early days of gaming when people were starved for material) has always been adventures.
Because adventures tend to be one-and-done. You can’t very easily play through the same adventure again, especially not with the same players. Reusable materials might be a couple of interesting traps, some monsters and some magical treasure, but it’s not convenient to flip through dozens of adventure books to find the material you want to re-use.
If you want to sell supplements they need to have a purpose and some longevity.
You are always safe when you’re playing RPGs. At any time you can get up and leave, log off of Roll20, or whatever else you need to do. The only thing that is a threat to you, is the prospect of stepping on a dropped d4.
Jesus H Tapdancing Christ on a two-stroke moped, gaming is an opportunity to experience things you normally wouldn’t. Adventure, excitement and really wild things, all in a completely safe environment. Learn some anti-fragility, for the love of Klono’s Iron Balls.
Setting a game against the backdrop of natural disaster can add flavour and drama to an otherwise mundane scenario.
To take just one example, flooding.
An underground dungeon is inherently dangerous during flooding as the rooms fill with water, necessitating water breathing, even far inland, and giving normally sea-bourne races a chance to shine.
Flooding can also act as a natural timer, the longer you wait, the more the dungeon fills with water and the more creatures and monsters are forced to head towards the surface, while you’re trying to get down. Much of this can also apply to modern or sci-fi urban games, or post-apocalyptic games.
Flooding can also have deleterious long term effects on areas in a game, leading to plot points and stories related to te natural disaster.
Floods can wash away topsoil (though they can also refill groundwater reserves and aquifers) and crops.
Crops that survive a flood can be stricken by mould.
Animals can be washed away or drowned.
They can cause migrations and emergence of monsters and creatures.
They can make people homeless or destroy their communities.
They can taint drinking water and flood sewage into living areas.
They can spread disease.
They can wash away roads and bridges, making travel difficult.
They can turn solid land into muddy swamp, making even everyday movement harder.
They can wash away woodland, orchards of forests.
The aftermath of truly terrible natural disasters can cause people to turn to banditry in desperation, can leave communities cut off and leave them to self govern. They can lead people into cultish behaviour, milleniallism, human sacrifice, zealotry and other dangerous mindsets – even foment revolt if their ruler doesn’t help them.
There are always second and third order effects to anything, it’s just down to you to think of them.
How the very devil do you play a superintelligent villain (or other magnificently intelligent NPC) with only your own pedestrian intellect to go on?
Well, there’s two or three things you can do to simulate someone smarter than yourself.
The Wisdom of Crowds
If you have some other friends who don’t play in your games (or at least aren’t playing in this one), you can get in touch with them and lay out the situation. You can then get their input on what’s going on and their suggestions for diabolical schemes and contingencies.
Unfortunately, groups of advisors also tend to ‘go off on one’, in much the same way that players do when coming up with their own plans. It can get wild, crazy and amusing, but isn’t necessarily useful exactly.
Include the Big Bad Evil Guy’s sceheming in your prep time for the game. Take the time to consider how they might set things up to favour themselves, what sort of fallbacks and escape plans they might have. Try and anticipate the players, their spells and powers, what they’re likely to do and what precautions the BBEG is likely to take. Right down to the choice of henchmen to pair off against each adventurer to the best effect (EG: Spell resistant creatures to attack spellcasters).
Make a note of the plans and the triggers that will set off the BBEG’s adaptation and keep them in mind. BBEGs don’t fight fair, and just that outlook can make a big different to an encounter.
There’s no way you can prepare for everything, but a superintelligent BBEG certainly can. So what you can do is wait for the players to enact their scheme, and then have the villain have the perfect counter because they anticipated that.
To give it a little structure and to make it a little more fair, give the BBEG the opportunity to make an Intelligence Save (in D&D terms) to have a contingency you didn’t think of, but the villain did. Each time they make the save to counter something, increase the DC by 5. When they fail they’re out of plans.