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Delve scenario-generator walk-through

Last night I got to bust out the "wheel" scenario sheet that Allison and I came up with last March. Sam and Joey acted as co-authors of the scenario, with me mainly introducing procedures, not offering much guidance. Here's what we did:

1) Create a Problem.

Pick two cards, look for how they connect in a bad way.

Wretch (16) plus Departing Kid (1) = someone left and now the fallen plague us. The imperials stopped killing zombies and now the zombies are multiplying!

My notes say that the next step is to pick two more cards and create an Evil Plot, but I forgot.  Whether that would have made the Steps of Doom easier or just added another step without adding value, I don't know.

2) Define the six Steps of Doom.

1. small recurrence: sparse roving zombie packs
2. large recurrence: zombies take a new piece of land
3. evolution: zombies communicate & organize ("more zombies" was first suggested, but then they saw Step 4, decided to save it, and had to think on this one for a sec)
4. gains strength/scope: sudden population increase -- ignorant visitors (circus?) zombified
5. scenario nears ruin: town quarantined and on fire (This is where the guys started to run out of steam; after Step 4, Sam said, "Not sure how much we can keep making this worse.")
6. slim hope remains: try to escape with a few refugees (They asked "Slim hope for who? The player characters?" I clarified that it was for the mission to save the village. So, basically, slim hope for the village. They then ran with this as, "Village is mostly destroyed, but is it completely destroyed?" Kinda cool, I think.)

I wonder if starting off smaller would have made the later steps less taxing?  Perhaps I should emphasize that (1) can be really no big deal, just any sign of something amiss.  "People see zombies!" would have qualified.  Then packs for (2), taking land for (3), and less to invent for 4-6.

3) Randomly pick Obstacles.

I explained that the first box would be linked to 3 of the other 8 boxes as freebies, but that we'd defined the 8 Obstacle boxes first.  The guys were eager to call it a night, so rather than coach them through inventing more stuff, I just pulled out my Town Crawler cards, spread them face down, and asked Sam to pick at random.

Each card is a type, and for each type, you roll a d6 to get a specific.  For NPCs, type = NPC description, and specific = Need. So these both went in the Obstacle box.  For the "monster" card, type = "monster", and specific = which monster, so only the latter went into the Obstacle box.

We wound up with Giant, Farmer who needs money, and Mercenary who needs to swindle the town.

Sam noticed the notes on +/- for talking/violence/magic.  That was for Town Crawler, not Delve, but I should ponder if there's some utility there.  I could replace those with F T Meters...

4) Characterize Connections between Obstacles.

After we wrote down 3 Obstacles, I pointed to the lines on the sheet, and said, "Now we need to establish relationships between these Obstacles.  Randomly pick cards and refer to this little chart at the right."

For the line between Giant and Farmer we got "commands", and for the line between Farmer and Merc we got "reveals".

5) Choose the direction of Connections.

I explained: "We draw arrows.  Each Obstacle needs at least one arrow pointing out, so you know as GM where beating that obstacle will point the players to."  I drew arrows going clockwise, from Giant to Mercenary to Farmer.  But then Joey said, "Wait, the Giant's not gonna be commanding the farmer, that arrow should go the other way."  Which is perfect!  Great sign that the random content can cohere to mean something.

6) Define solutions.

Back to the two-card combos, as with creating the Problem.  "How could these connect to solve the problem?"  Sam and Joey were very quick with these and seemed to enjoy them.  Inspired by The Drunk (10), and the Departing Kid (1) who they'd already equated with absent soldiers, they came up with "give zombies some potion" and "get the guards to return from their strike".  I can't remember whether the second card in each draw was incorporated, ignored, or whether we just do one card for speed's sake.

After adding these Solutions to the scenario sheet, Joey observed that it would be good to get Solutions down first, as they provide context for how overcoming any of the Obstacles might make progress in the mission.

Finally, I asked the guys if this seemed like a good way to churn out an adventure they could actually run.  Without knowing anything about Delve's resolution system, they gave a vague "yes".
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first test of new Delve social conflict system

I tried the F T Meter (see previous post) once myself. As I'm used to GMing this way, it was trivially easy for me. The upside was that the effort to communicate which box I'd checked via roleplay helped me up my rate of useful feedback. The downside was that my eyes were on the sheet a lot, putting a crimp in how I prefer to roleplay with all my acting tools (body language, eye contact, etc.).

First test with another GM

Last night my friend Joey offered to try it. I didn't give him much specific instruction, just the general philosophy behind the tool. For his NPC, he created a grouchy farmer in a zombie-infested town, looting the bodies for any gold he could use to pay a local mercenary for protection. Sam played an adventurer here to save the town from the zombie plague.

Sam started off with some pretty aimless chat. "Nice pick-axe there. You seem to be pretty good at chopping up zombies."

Joey glanced briefly at his sheet and then responded in-character without checking any boxes. Uh-oh.

"Well, I'm doin' what I have to do, that's all."

"Lotta zombies around here?"

"Same as everywhere, I expect."

Joey started scanning the sheet more, feeling like by now he ought to have checked off something.

I had to jump in, and remind them that Sam had come to the farmer for a specific reason. I should have established this before we began roleplaying. I said, "Sam, you've been led to believe that this guy has a lead on someone who knows where the zombies come from." Sam and Joey both seemed encouraged, and resumed playing.

For the GM

Joey found it difficult to form a mental response, then check a box, then narrate. So, instead, he roleplayed his response, then looked to classify it via the boxes. This did mean that boxes got checked off and the conversation eventually came to a conclusion, but it also meant that Joey's responses came without any intent to communicate evolving Flexibility or Transparency. From his character's gruff responses, I assumed he was racking up negatives. But then, at the end, he'd filled up the positive Flexibility boxes!

I asked what he had in mind, and he said, "The guy just wanted protection, but now he's scared and worn out by Sam's interrogation and is basically ready to help."

Unfortunately, Joey had no idea what "max Flexibility" was supposed to indicate. In this case, I described it as, "Now the farmer will accept whatever Sam offers. But Sam has only made vague offers, and the farmer hasn't indicated that he likes any of them. So, uh, I guess you'd say, 'I'll help, just please do whatever you can for me,' or something."

We subsequently agreed that it would have been helpful for Joey to have the 4 conversational outcomes labeled on the sheet, to orient him with what to play towards. Rather than just smiley and frowny faces, I could include, "receptive to whatever's offered", "sees no benefit", "reveals Need", and "fears discovery". Or whatever better phrasings I can concoct.

Perhaps some sort of key, like a graphic in each box, to show what each box represents, would help to cut down on the "So which box is that?" decision time.

I don't think it's necessary to check a box before beginning to talk, but it is necessary to check a box before finishing talking. For those who want to talk first, perhaps an initial response, followed by a checked box, followed by elaboration to communicate the info represented by the box, could work.

For the Player

Sam's approach of asking a lot of non-pointed questions, rather than trying to convince or make offers, was a surprise to me.  If I'd been GMing, I'd have deemed that it wasn't working, and given NPC feedback accordingly, like, "You're wasting my time, get to the point."  If Sam hadn't switched tactics fast, the conflict would have ended in failure.  Which I'm cool with as long as there's a learning curve.  

That said, I do wonder about clearly establishing the border between "this is a social conflict" and "we're just enjoying roleplaying a chat".  I think the solution is that, if the GM has an NPC marked as an Obstacle, then the conflict rules are in effect.  Everything the player says still produces a mark, and playing out each mark will signal to the player what effect their chatter is having.  
  • If they hit a negative outcome, then the NPC can't simply say, "Well, got things to do, nice chatting with you but I must be off," because that would seem to leave the fiction at square one, ready for a second conflict from scratch.  It seems vital to signal some degree of building animosity, so the players can back off before reaching a negative outcome.  Or, if they persist and do reach a negative outcome, it'll make fictional sense later when they come back seeking the Reward and the NPC won't talk to them.
  • If they hit a positive outcome, the NPC can say, "Well, if you need anything, just come let me know!"  Then, later, when the players come seeking the Reward, they'll simply be given it with no challenge.
  • If a chat is ended before hitting any outcome, then that NPC's F T Meter stays where it is, for future interactions.
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draft of new Delve social conflict system

I've gotten very used to roleplaying my uncooperative Delve NPCs in a useful way. By "useful", I mean giving players constant feedback to inform their choice of approach. Each time they say something to the NPC, I have the NPC respond in a way that gives them new information. (More on this here.)

To help other GMs do this, I can certainly write out some instructions and advice. "Here's what you must do. Here are some tips on how to make it easiest on yourself, and get the best results."

However, I'd rather give GMs an interactive game bit. Something immediate and easy to use. A few nights ago, I came up with this:

The F T Meter

In addition to defining your NPC's Need, and the Reward they'll give the PCs if that Need is met, also rate the NPC/Need's Transparency and Flexibility.

Flexibility: how difficult it is to get the Reward by doing something for the NPC other than satisfying their Need.

Transparency: how difficult it is to get the NPC to tell you what their Need is.

Assigning these ratings should include fleshing out your concept of why the NPC isn't simply cooperating. For example, here's a paranoid opportunist:

The positive check in F means this NPC starts off fairly open to incentives other than money. The two negative checks in T mean this NPC does not want to reveal that they're motivated by greed.

How to use this in play:

The GM doesn't let the players see the meter. Each time a player character speaks to the NPC, the GM goes with their gut on how the NPC would react to that, then quickly checks off whichever box is most appropriate. There are four options. The NPC is either:
  a) buying the PCs' arguments and accepting whatever the PCs offer
  b) trusting the PCs more and getting closer to revealing their Need
  c) giving up on getting their Need or anything else out of this
  d) giving up on feeling safe enough to reveal their Need

The GM then roleplays the NPC's response, incorporating the box they just checked off.

1) GM thinks, "Oh, the NPC would like that!"
2) GM checks off a positive F box.
3) GM says, as NPC, "Ooh, very nice. Well, yes, I may have some interest in that..."

In this example, there are still positive F boxes unchecked, so the conflict isn't over; the PCs could still screw it up. But they're probably in good shape if they can find any sort of decent way to continue from the last thing they said.

It's through this back and forth that the players investigate the NPC, testing out different approaches, seeing what is and isn't working, and revising their strategy accordingly.

The conflict ends when any segment of 4 boxes have all been checked off. If it's a set of negative boxes (frowny face), the NPC is unwilling to continue the conversation. If it's a set of positive boxes, the NPC gives the PCs their Reward.

Here's how the paranoid opportunist encounter could play out:

This NPC got nervous over the PCs' do-gooder appearance, then responded well to their offers of sharing the fruits of their adventure, then disliked their specific offer to introduce him to the powerful friends they'd make, then went for their promise of loot, then bought in whole-heartedly when they speculated on what sort of loot they might find.

The GM roleplayed each of these reactions, the players paid attention and came up with some clever responses, and they achieved the Reward: the NPC tells them where the secret door is, and now they can enter the underground complex.

Note: every obstacle in Delve could be conceived of this way. A dungeon room has its way out, and it's level of difficulty in finding that way out, and it's level of flexibility on improvised other ways out.
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Support for GMs looking to Plan Right?

Vincent Baker recently shared an annecdote about how designers from different corners of RPG-land publicly advocated against GMs planning outcomes in their games.

Commenter CC (I don't know his name) replied with an excellent example of a planned outcome that paid off, with the PCs deceived a second time by their hated arch-nemesis.

Here's my take on the issue:

  • Some GMs want to plan and guarantee outcomes because they're control freaks or idiots or dicks who don't care what their players want. They pursue such guarantees whenever they feel like it.

  • Other GMs want to plan and guarantee outcomes because they know their groups will love 'em. They pursue such guarantees only when an inspiration meets that criteria.

  • Still other (most?) GMs are in-between. A little team spirit, a little selfishness.

GMs from all three camps have historically wound up using costly approaches to guarantee their outcomes. Disempowering players is the most common cost, but there are others, like rendering the fiction implausible.

  • Some GMs who've seen, heard of, or experienced these costs have sworn off guarantees altogether, preferring to play games where outcomes aren't planned.

  • Other GMs have kept the guarantees but worked on minimizing the costs. It hasn't been easy. I'm not aware of any published designs that achieve this.

So, when accomplished designers tell an audience of 250 GMs, "Don't plan," they have a point. It's an admonition to the control freaks and dicks and idiots, an alert to the in-betweeners, and a reality check for anyone who thinks minimizing the costs of planning will be quick and easy.

But it's not the end of the conversation. The right outcomes, carefully conceived and brought to fruition, can add great things to play. The costs can in fact be minimized to some degree. How much? Enough? Are there solutions other than years of GM training? System-based solutions, perhaps?

I'm glad the "don't plan" call and efforts are out there. Now let's have some equal passion and effort for "plan right".

Update, Dec. 5 -- I've begun working on ways to support this in the Forge forums. One thread about the general topic, another about resolution, more to come.
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trying new design approaches (from Vincent Baker)

Vincent Baker has designed a bunch of RPGs, including two I quite like in Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World.  Currently, the amount of money he's making off selling his RPGs would be enough for me to live on.  So I'm extremely interested to find out how he's achieved what he has.  One part of that is understanding how he thinks about what he does as a designer.  He explains such things from time to time on his blog, and recently he filled me in on some of the game design ingredients and requirements that are most crucial to him.

The way he sees it, to truly offer value to players, a game must offer unique insights, establish a clear relationship between momentary actions and overall play goals, and create outcomes that the players would not have created on their own.  I can be a bit more specific.  The insights cover three bases: subject matter, roleplay, and real life.  The game-specific outcomes need to include a range that is compelling by virtue of some feature of play and would otherwise be unwelcome.  Further, outcomes that are in fact genuinely unwelcome need to at least be on the table.

My reactions to these principles are all over the map, but a good number of them are things I've never focused on in design before, so I'd like to give Vincent's approach a spin and see how it works for me.

The Basics

Let's start with a game idea.  I like the show Fringe.  The main characters spend most of their time looking at weird disasters, speculating on causes and connections, testing extreme theories with weird, cutting-edge supplies and equipment, inventing solutions, implementing them under time pressure to stop and catch badguys and avert disasters. Occasionally they get shot at, and very occasionally they shoot back.  Most of that sounds pretty fun to play.  So let's say this game is about doing that in some fashion.  We'll call the game FringePlay.

So, what's the point of play?  I like playing creative games with small groups of friends for fun, so I'll start with that. Beyond that, I'll say that play is not primarily about employing some player skill (e.g. strategic logic, system mastery) to avoid losing the game. Instead, it will be mostly about the fiction, with some combo of strategy, creativity, and luck determining whether the characters succeed and what the whole adventure looks like.  Hopefully that's enough grounding to get us to a more specific and compelling statement about why to play this game:

FringePlay is about innovating solutions to unique threats, using super-science to defeat super-science.

It's about other stuff too, but I think that line will serve me well for this exercise.

So, how is this game going to fit into players' lives?  I'll just go with my first instinct and say it's a 4-hour one-shot that can be fit into a campaign if players want.

Now, any group could simply say, "Okay, let's emulate Fringe," and do some improv. So if I'm going to deliver value to players, I need to give them more than that.  I need to take some further stances about how the game should go and what it should produce.  Sounds like a good time to address Vincent's three designer insights.  To cover the totality of FringePlay, my answers to each insight question would go on and on.  So, for this exercise I'll restrict myself to one part of the game: understanding a threat well enough to solve it.

The Insights

My take on the subject matter, in this case super-science-flavored action/investigation fiction:
The race to find a solution never completely fails, it's just a matter of what complications the eventual solution entails. 

I'm not sure how insightful that is, but we'll call it close enough for now.

My take on roleplaying, in this case coming up with colorful solutions to each other's colorful problems:
Riffing off each other's ideas is most fun when you understand what the other player thinks is cool about their contribution, and can respond in a way that explores, celebrates, or otherwise responds to that.

My take on real life, in this case problems with no established way to solve them: 
Breakthroughs come from shifting paradigms.  Zooming in or out (spatially or chronologically), looking through someone else's eyes, using analogy, employing the tools of another scientific discipline, etc.  This was heavily inspired by the show, but rings true to me.

These three stances are what I'll try to apply to play through the rules of the game.  When the characters shift paradigms, they achieve breakthroughs.  When they don't achieve breakthroughs, they still come up with a solution, but it's flawed.  To play the game and pursue their goals, the players will necessarily share and respond to what's cool about each other's ideas.

The Players' Natural Best Interests

How far is that from what players would normally do?  How great a span do the rules need to bridge?  My best guesses:

As it's fun to play the characters going, "Oh god, we have to find a solution!" players will tend to assume that they might actually fail to find a solution.  This will cause them to focus on determining success/failure rather than on the costs of success.

Players will naturally riff off what they think is cool about what you said, not what you think is cool about what you said.  Going with your first inspiration tends to be faster and easier than forming an understanding of someone else's take.

Real life:
Players who already like shifting paradigms would do it, others wouldn't.  Other approaches would seem just as viable and likely to succeed.

The Rules

I'll try to start with a ruleset that's easy and gives people what they want:

There's a Villains Player who makes up the threats, the people behind the threats, and the evidence left by these people.  For each piece of evidence the VP introduces, they secretly write down what's most cool about it, and then also write down at least two other features

When the Fringe Unit Players encounter the evidence, they examine it, ask each other questions, and form theories.  Whenever their attention lingers on the facet the VP deemed most cool, the VP yells, "Cutaway!" and narrates a brief separate scene that gives more information on that facet.  The FUPs now know what the VP thinks is cool, and what's important to this episode, and what they should address when they attempt a solution.  If they do in fact do this, the VP hands them a bonus die.

Let's add a little drama to the evidence-pondering.  When the FUPs' attention lingers on one of the not-the-coolest labeled features, the VP puts a die in his Attack pool

Real life:
Each FUP picks a few fields of science for their character, no overlaps.  Each character who can pull in one or more of these fields to explain a theory of the evidence adds a bonus die to the group pool.

At any time, the FUPs can roll their pool of dice.  Each die is a success if it comes up greater than the number of FUPs.  The target number is 2 successes, which gives you a Solution with two Advantages of your choice.  For every number under 2, turn one Advantage into a Complication.  For every number over 2, add an Advantage.

When it's time to employ a Solution, the VP plays Complications from both their Threat and the Solution (if applicable).  The FUPs can counter Complications with applicable Advantages.

Connecting roleplay rules & real-life rules:
The VP can roll an Attack die at any time to neutralize one or more fields of a given character.  (1-2=no effect, 3-5=can't use one field, 6=can't use any fields)

I just made all those rules up on the spot.  It took me a few hours and I can't immediately tell if they're any good.  I have no idea how Vincent approaches that stage of the design process.  I'm ready for the next step, though: introducing the unwelcome.

The Unwelcome

Time to look again at what the players will naturally want out of this.  I'll concentrate on the FUPs for now.  They'll want to (a) guess correctly which aspect of each evidence will get them a die from the VP, (b) think up ways to apply their fields to get dice too, (c) get lucky on the roll to minimize the Complications when they implement their solution.  Failing at any of these is somewhat unwelcomeHow unwelcome?

A. Guessing wrong on evidence:
Gets you Attacked, which may then limit your creative options the next time you're charged with inventing a solution. 

How could I make that worse?  I could have an Attack remove a character from play entirely.  Removing a player from play sucks, though.  Is there some way I can make character-removal palatable? 

They could always become a second Villain Player.  But I don't know that there's enough for multiple VPs to do.

They could miss out on a given solution-pondering, but have something else to do.  I hate making people wait with nothing to do until their turn, though.  So the "something else" has to be in the solution-pondering scene itself.

I can come up with all sorts of things, but mere time-filler isn't enough.  It needs to be something with a clear connection to the point of play: innovating solutions to unique threats.

How can you effect the solution-forming if you don't control the evidence and have no character? Well, you could help the other characters, but that isn't very unwelcome.  So maybe you should interfere with the other characters.  Nix one field use after it's narrated and explain the interference by way of your character's absence.  If you haven't spent your veto by the final player's narration, you have to use it on them.

That's workable. And pretty clearly more unwelcome than just not getting to use some of your own fields.

So, how much does that cut my audience, and am I comfortable with that?

Well, it cuts the people who want every opportunity to engage in the point of play (innovate solutions) directly.  It cuts the people who like the basic concept the most.  Fuck that.  I'm sticking with losing fields.

B. Failing to think up ways to apply your fields:
This can't really be on the table without further rules arbitrating how long you have to think of something to say and how to qualify it as applicable or not.  So I'll make a new rule.  The VP judges the FUPs' field-applied theories, picks the one they like best, and narrates in a development that compels the characters to pursue that theory.  The author of the chosen theory gets a Shield, which can be spent to dismiss an Attack die before it is rolled.

Let's try again.  The dice are guaranteed, but the Shields are not.  So now:

B. Failing to think up the coolest way to apply your fields:
Leaves you vulnerable to Attacks.  Which I already tried and failed to make more unwelcome.

C. Rolling badly:
Sticks you with way more Complications than Advantages.  Some stuff's going to go horribly wrong when you apply your solution to stop the threat.  You'll find out what when the VP reveals the Complications in play.  The way to make this as unwelcome as possible is to come up with some really nasty Complications.

What's the worst possible thing that could happen when you take your cool serums or magnets and dash with them into some terrorist operation?  I guess... you all die, and so do all the intended victims, and the badguys are gone without a trace.

That sounds like a perfect thing to scare people with.  But can the odds of it happening ever get high?  If you enter the finale in the worst possible position, and utter failure is guaranteed, and you just listen to the VP narrate how it goes down...  How much am I cutting my audience then?

I guess I'd be cutting people who don't want to have the emotional climax of the game before the characters do the dramatic action finale.

But maybe I could solve that by rolling the dice that determine Advantage vs Complication one by one instead of all at once.  So the emotional climax lasts until the final die.  Which probably means you've already had 4 or 5 rolls worth of action in the fiction.  So now how much am I cutting my audience?

I guess I'd only be cutting people who (a) don't want to die, (b) don't want to fail, and (c) don't want to remain ignorant.  On that last point, I don't want to penalize players for caring about the badguys, so new rule: VP gets an epilogue.  That leaves death and failure.  Hmm.  I feel fine about saying, "If you can't handle failure, go play something else."  Same with death in a one-shot.

The Takeaways

Well, that was interesting.  Not too different than my usual process of thinking about "what do I want to get players to do", "how can I get players to do that" and "how will players respond to this rule".  I feel it's possible that I haven't tapped this approach for all it's worth, though:

  • identify more insights?

  • stick more closely to the insights I did write?

  • make complete, playable game?

  • don't base primary action and rewards on something you can't fail at unless you feel like admitting failure so as to avoid being a drag?

All of these are obviously good for the game.  I'm not sure which are crucial for getting the most out of Vincent's specific tools.

One thing I can definitely say is that this approach allowed me to start typing with much less of an idea for a game than usual.  So if churning out many games quickly was a goal, this methodology might be a good way to get started on new ones.

It was also fun to note that I'm cool with killing protagonists, even though that doesn't happen on Fringe.  

Vincent, I'd love to hear how this exercise is similar to and different from what you actually do when designing games.


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playtest session 46 -- scenario M5m1 kills rats

4/26/11 -- me GMing for John, Dan and Merlin at John's place

John and Merlin both showed up saying, "We wanna kill the fuck out of something." I obliged with a swarm of giant rats, dredged up from the subterranean sludge by the thrashing tentacles of the ziggurat monster. They knew they were getting close to the monster, and this was the final room to overcome.

Hard hint, easy hint

The room included two tablets with Orc runes containing instructions for feeding the monster. "Feed it the dead or the healthy; if it swallows someone while they die, that will put it to sleep." This is the same info I earlier tried to impart in less clear fashion to Merlin through the vial of memories.

This is definitely a pattern for me when I have a solution in mind and the players haven't yet come up with another one to supplant it:

First, give really obscure data that only reveals the solution with some deduction and insight. Never enough to prove the right approach, but enough that, if the players do put it together, it's coherent enough to be remembered and pursued. When the players latch onto these, they feel smart and clever. It's my ideal, but it would cease to be as fun if it happened every time.

Second, back up the first data with something similar but more direct. Remind the players of what they might have deduced earlier. Take a detail that was uncertain and make it definite. If they figure it out at this point, they usually still feel pretty clever, and a little more confident that they're correct. (Although that varies among players! John's more likely to think he's got it right away, for sure; Dan's more likely to say "close enough to pursue"; and Merlin's more likely to remain cautious and demand more certainty.)

Third, hand them the answer, but make their characters earn that discovery with guts, sweat and blood. That's what the rats were for. Interestingly, the guys decided, "Orc writing! Must be bad news!" and smashed the tablets to bits. Fortunately, since their characters couldn't read Orcish anyway, I had another delivery method in mind for the info (shrieking processed by Dan's "protection from sonic attacks" ward), and I just ruled that this would still work with the tablets smashed.

When is it cool to dissolve our fingers with acid?

There was an odd exchange that I managed poorly but it worked out fine because of shared expectations.

Early in the game, Dan was extremely cautious while crawling through a tunnel toward a foul-smelling vent. He pushed a torch along in front of him, always careful not to get too close to the vent. This was fun for me, as I'd created this vent as filled with an acid mist that would dissolve anything. I got to describe a little torch sputtering and hissing, and coming back a little weird-looking.

Later, after killing the rats and approaching a doorway clearly connected to the same smelly vent, Dan just said, "I tie a rope to my torch and lower the torch down the vent." My brain went, "The acid mist melts you! The final door to the great beast is guarded, foolish mortal!" I needed to say something quickly, but I didn't want to do that classic GM obnoxious move of assuming a player character is stupid. SO I imagined him approaching it slowly and being able to react quickly when the acid mist hit the first part of his body. Envision the torch-holding posture, I said, "There's a sizzle and you lose feeling in your thumb and index finger."

He quickly pulled back, and asked me to describe what it looked like. I narrated that his gauntlet had crumpled in a bit, and the rope and torch were fine. It was basically an "oh shit" moment on my part. I'd intended for the mist to disintegrate anything that touched it. But now, having already melted off Dan's fingers, I wasn't sure whether it was plausible to say, "The torch melted too, but you didn't have time to react." I couldn't tell whether the torch would have melted before his fingers, or what kind of warning it might have given him. So I changed the effect to dissolving living tissue; and then I decided that his armor responded to the melting hand by crumpling in, which probably doesn't make sense when you think about it.

Wrangling the fiction to remove a character's digits? Nightmare, right? Nope. Dan's response was, "Fuck! Well, fair enough, I'd stopped being cautious." We both took his change in approach from tunnel to doorway the same way.

I don't really have a conclusion about how to reconcile careful arbitration of actions that might or might not maim characters with the needs of dramatic narration. But I can say that a good understanding about who's responsible for establishing expectations for character behavior gives you a lot more leeway.

What have we been maneuvering around all this time?

We played through the characters descending a staircase into the tablet room, and the room filling with rats, and the characters moving toward the stairway so they could retreat up it. Only at this point did anyone discuss whether the stairs were surrounded by walls or not, which was vital to how defensible they'd be (rats climbing up the sides is bad news!). Dan had assumed the stairs were walled while John had assumed they weren't.

I hadn't thought about it, but the plan to bottleneck the rats on the stairs sounded good to me, so I said they were walled. This is not at all how I'd instruct a new GM to run Delve; winging stuff this way can violate the players' trust in the GM's impartiality. But once everyone in the group does trust each other to value fictional consistency and plausibility over personal agendas, then winging it is much safer.

That said, the ideal solution remains for the players to ask for more info when entering a new space, or for anyone at the table to anticipate a relevant factor and ask about it before the action's fully underway.

Formalize environmental questions?

I've written down, "I survey the area," "I look for _," and, "I try to judge _," as reminders for players to seek info about their characters' surroundings. I've never tried to enforce use of these specific phrases, though, responding equally well (as GM) to questions about "what's there?" or "are there rocks?" etc.

After playing Puppetland and Kagematsu at Camp Nerdly, and getting great atmospheric mileage out of very strict narration constraints, now I'm re-thinking this. Mandatory use of these key phrases could better force players to view the fiction through their characters' eyes. From that perspective, I find that color and details become more interesting, and forgetting to ask what kind of staircase you're on is rare.

Table of fallback options

I wrote up a list of common things the characters do, and jotted down constructive options for each. That way, if the players got stumped on, say, making a plan, they could look at the Making a Plan options and say, "Oh, hey, Pick a Top Priority might be a good call here!"

No one looked at the sheet all session. But this was a high-action session. A session with some non-urgent moments and decisions to be made might be a better test.
delve, glyph

Delve design challenge: non-mechanical interrogations

Fictional example of play, drawn from friends' accounts, vague memories of years past, and stuff that's occasionally come up in less egregious fashion in Delve:

The village elder says old man Donald's been acting strange.  PCs Vandr, Mar and Mengot seek out Donald and have a quick conversation with him where he claims he knows nothing, but is shifty-eyed and suspicious.  The PCs go one to do other stuff, and Donald's name repeatedly comes up.  The players have various theories on what Donald's role could be, but they all agree he's important, and they should question him harder.  Vandr in particular thinks Donald is up to no good, and declares he'll yell at him and even deliver a beating if he has to.

Mengot offers to guard the door.  Mar doesn't want to be part of beating up an old man, so he waits with Mengot.  Vandr goes in and yells at Donald menacingly.  Donald seems scared but repeats his earlier claim that he knows nothing.  Vandr yells some more.  Donald repeats himself some more.  Vandr resorts to his plan of a beating.  Donald takes the beating and cries. 

Vandr's player is at his wits' end.  He's sure Donald has info, but doesn't know what else to try to get it out of him.  Torture would go against his character vision, plus likely erode the goodwill of the villagers, and he has no particular reason to think it would work.

The GM is also at his wits' end.  He knows Donald will cooperate if offered a chance to avenge his daughter, but he didn't plan any other options, and has no idea if any of the chatting, yelling, and beating that's been roleplayed thus far ought to work.

Here are the only good parts:
1) The first paragraph.  Get info -> form theory -> form plan = perfect.
2) Vandr goes in and yells at Donald menacingly.  Following the plan = perfect.
3) Torture would go against his character vision, plus likely erode the goodwill of the villagers.  At least Vandr's player is playing Delve in the proper spirit!  Playing a fairly regular person means having fairly normal morals and empathizing with other regular people.  Treating the world as a real place means thinking about consequences beyond the immediate.
4) He knows Donald will cooperate if offered a chance to avenge his daughter.  Good option to have.

The rest is awful.  Here are the fixes:

Mengot offers to guard the door.  Mar doesn't want to be part of beating up an old man, so he waits with Mengot.

No no no.  Limiting the characters present means limiting the players who can contribute means limiting your resources to interpret Donald and try new strategies.  As with every challenge in Delve, three heads are better than one.  Guard the door from inside the damn cabin.

Rule: if you split the party, go into Summary mode.  Don't split the party to do anything you want to play through in Real-Time.  If it's important, it's worth having all the players' brains in on it.  The one allowed Real-Time split is if the characters are synchronizing time-pressured, challenging tasks.

Donald seems scared but repeats his earlier claim that he knows nothing.

There's no new information there!  That's a "nothing happens" result!  Bad bad bad!  Give the players something!  Further, give them something that matters!  "Donald stares you down; this old guy is tougher than he looks," would be okay.  "Donald clenches his fist and snarls, 'After what I've been through, you can't scare me'," is better.  They both give new data to inform new strategies, but the latter is a hint toward something the GM has already determined would work (angry + torn up over daughter = revenge!).

Rule: never say "nothing happens" when the players try something new.  Always give new feedback.  The one exception is if the players try random stuff with no goal in mind -- in that case, don't give feedback, just demand that they pick a purpose or do Summary mode.

Guideline: GM, all your problems want to be solved.  They want to help the players solve them.  Something is preventing them from doing this.  Have them indicate what's blocking them, and suggest ways around it.

Guideline: GM, drop hints and clues like crazy.  Basically a different phrasing of the above.

Example: the greedy NPC.  "Gee, I want to help you guys, but I need to look for another odd job because money's tight right now."  He's telling the players the obstacle to his cooperation (priority is money) and suggesting a way around it (get him money).  It should now be on the PCs' radar that they could either bribe this guy or use their clout to get him work.  Of course, they might rather admonish him for being greedy and pull out their swords.  That would be a judgment that a few pence isn't worth getting hurt over, and the GM ought to agree unless there's a specific reason otherwise.

Vandr yells some more.

Now the player is being as dumb as the GM.  Try something new.  This is also easier and more fun with the whole party.

Guideline: players, if a first attempt fails, try something new.  If you can, base it on the new info you just received.  If you have an idea, communicate it in character, even if another character is taking point on this task.

Vandr resorts to his plan of a beating.

This could be good or bad depending on whether it follows or ignores the previous guideline.

Donald takes the beating and cries.

This is technically new, but it's exactly what would be expected of a normal person in this circumstance; thus the "newness" fails to qualify as new information.  And, of course, there isn't any useful, actionable info here either.

Guideline: expected outcomes that change nothing don't count as "new feedback".

Vandr's player is at his wits' end.  He's sure Donald has info, but doesn't know what else to try to get it out of him.

If this ever comes up, the first person who notices it needs to grab the pacing dial instantly.  "Okay, guys, we're not gonna waste play time spinning our wheels.  Declare what Vandr does until he gives up, so we can go deal with one of our other leads instead.  Maybe we'll learn something elsewhere that'll help us with Donald.  In fact, I'd say that Vandr should leave Donald in a shape where we could try again later."

If the experience is simply boring, Vandr's player should be the first to notice, "Hey, I'm bored," and grab the dial.  Waiting for someone else to notice he's bored is a punk move.

If the experience is frustrating, and Vandr's player is focused on the info he's not getting, someone else will probably notice first.  If all the players are in the same boat, that leaves the GM.  So, GM, when the players are spinning their wheels, and not latching onto what you give them, and you don't have any more hints you can instantly drop -- end the damn scene!  Either crank the dial to Summary or interrupt the characters with the next of your Steps of Doom.

Rule: if you ever get bored, grab the pacing dial and speed up.  You are responsible for not letting yourself get bored.

Rule: if you ever get truly stuck on something, give up and try something else.  Vow to come back later if that helps.

Rule: if you ever see another player get truly stuck on something, either go to Summary mode or interrupt them with new information.

Torture would go against his character vision . . . and he has no particular reason to think it would work.

Would torture work?  You'd have to discuss it as a group to establish the characters' best guess.  The answer might turn out to be, "You have no idea," but don't assume that prematurely if it's something you're really interested in (not that this example qualifies).

Guideline: when you don't know something, but your character might, ask!

The GM is also at his wits' end.  He knows Donald will cooperate if offered a chance to avenge his daughter, but he didn't plan any other options, and has no idea if any of the chatting, yelling, and beating that's been roleplayed thus far ought to work.

Not planning other options is fine.  Not having other options is generally not -- it means you're insufficiently prepared to improv.

Also, sweating whether a given technique "ought" to work is the wrong mindset.  You should go with what feels right to you, both socially and in the fiction, erring on the side of giving the players what they want, limited only by what's plausible.

There's no formula for "what feels right".  It's a product of taste in sights, sounds, characters and stories; it's a response to which of your friends seem to be digging what, right now; it's an instinct about where we are in the adventure, near the slow beginning or the frantic climax; it's a nod to whether you need to break or wrap up soon.  So don't over-analyze, don't try to be perfect; just try to have fun.

Rule: before you decide what to do, get all the information you need from the fiction to make that decision.  For players, this means asking what your character sees, hears, or (occasionally) knows.  For the GM, this means forming an understanding of the feature of the world you are playing, whether it's an NPC, a magic item, or a creaky manor.  You can do this in prep or as ad-lib right before you narrate, depending on what works best for you.  If you need a moment to ad-lib, you can stall by taking a bathroom break, flipping through your notes, or asking the players questions about their current position and direction ("You moving more quickly or quietly?  You think you'd be able to hold onto that torch while using your shield in combat?").  You can even ask them questions about their expectations for the feature you're conceiving!  "This guy just lost his daughter; you really think he'll be in the mood to help?"

Rule: GM, don't waste time on accuracy; plausibility is enough.  Precision is great, but it's not worth stalling the game or stressing out over.  Remember, the whole group is looking out for the gameworld's integrity, and you're not expected to be perfect.  Being corrected is fine.

Rules: As part of your adventure scenario prep, define 7 ORDs.  Define the Obstacle to the players getting the reward; the Reward itself, even if that's just the form the directions are delivered in; and one or more Directions, reasons for the players to go encounter other ORDs. 

Develop each ORD's identity to the point where you know it well enough to play it naturally -- your NPCs' names, wants, demeanors; your puzzles' pieces and properties; your forts' entrances, guards and traps. 

Write down at least one way to overcome each obstacle. 

Record your ORDs on the scenario flow chart. 
Imagine this is a game that has already been played.  Your goal is not to reproduce that game, but to use it as inspiration to jointly craft a new game with the players.  In play, don't even look at your flow chart unless you have to.

Guideline: in play, improv more Directions onto your ORDs.  Do this most early in play; late in an adventure, when the players have already parsed a lot of info and formed some plans, singular Directions are fine.  When you do improv new Directions, they can point to other prepped ORDs or to new ones you invent on the fly.  Don't invent more than you can handle playing, though!  If you feel the urge to reward the players for something other than overcoming an Obstacle, improv a "freebie" Direction.  I'll often do this for good teamwork on engaging, colorful character portrayals that, while not plausibly addressing an NPC's Obstacle, seem like they ought to get some compliance.

Guideline: vary your NPCs.  See the templates for inspiration.
delve, glyph

making convention players care about character profit?

I've tried to throw in bits of extensible knowledge in my con games, to give the players a sense of the arc of discovery that's a huge part of campaign play.  And occasionally some player has volunteered a brief in-character reaction of, "Oh, hey, that's cool to know/have."  But the players don't have an actual reason to care, and that's a mismatch for one of the strongest dynamics in campaign play.

So maybe I should give them a reason.

My first thought is to label their progress on the character sheet, but tracking non-mechanical assets like "this earl likes me" has never worked as a reward (as opposed to, say, erasing your Sword skill of "4" and writing in "5" -- folks love that).
My second thought is to pause play for a "what have y'all learned?" chat right before the game's climactic scene, with the understanding that everything you've learned is a potential asset for that scene.  But (a) I'm not sure how I'd represent those assets mechanically, so the chat would just be a review and reminder, and (b) historically, some of the most fun moments of creating an asset out of learned stuff have come during climactic scenes.
My third thought is to make up some convention-only abstract mechanic.  Maybe at the end of the game, you list all the things you learned, roll that many dice, and then level up or something depending on the result.  But dammit, I can't have people leave the table thinking that's how the game actually works...
delve, glyph

Delve playtest at Dreamation 2011

2/26/11 -- me GMing for Mark S., Kathleen S., Phil W. and Mendez at gaming convention in Morristown, NJ

Weird session. There were no "We don't have any ideas for what to do!" moments, but there were plenty of the opposite, where one course of action seemed obvious to the players, so they did that without any fun discussion or great investment in the decision.

There also wasn't much theorizing.

I'm not sure whether the sense of obviousness meant that no one felt the need to theorize, or whether a disinclination to theorize led the players to jump at whatever suggestion was made first.  My best guess is the latter.  The augury cards tend to help (though they didn't in this game), so maybe in the future I should push for that early if there's not much theorizing going around.

Everyone did seem genuinely interested in my NPC portrayals, and learning what each NPC had to tell. But these scenes were followed by, "okay, we go to the next place" instead of any group conversation. The players also did the bare minimum to get the bare minimum info out of each NPC, and didn't push for more. I guess perhaps I made it too easy to get something. If any of the NPCs had been completely unwilling to help no matter the PCs' verbal assurances (and exhortations to help save the village), then maybe the players would have been forced to explore some more dramatically interesting options. Coercion and deception don't need to happen, but it's fun if they're at least considered.

Character portrayal

There also wasn't a ton of character-personality color injected into the fiction. Mendez showed his character's soft spot for kids in one scene, Mark showed his character's polite beneficence in another, and that was about it. Perhaps the above-mentioned smooth NPC interactions are to blame -- those scenes are usually where the personalities shine.

I wonder if perhaps I should target PC issues more specifically via NPCs? Tempt them with fame, power, etc., but at a cost? That didn't seem to be the issue here, though, as Phil's ostensibly power-hungry character didn't even ponder grabbing the crazy wisewoman's magic loot. Weird.

The relative lack of character expression also makes me wonder whether my convention character customization process is worth the time it takes. Some players have had great success with it, but is it possible that those folks just came ready to bring the portrayal on their own? So for them the customization is unnecessary, and for others it's insufficient? For now, my best guess is that yeah, the players have to want to do it, but my system does help them to do it more easily. Something to keep an eye on, though.

Is there any way to encourage portrayal in players who aren't initially interested in that? I can't think of a way to reward that via the fiction, and metagame rewards haven't fit into the game in the past. I'm inclined to say "no" to targeting portrayal directly, and focus instead on character-situation interactions that elicit value statements. I wonder how much discovery-style play can also accommodate Dogs in the Vineyard-style morality-test encounters.

I think such encounters should probably fill the same niche as combat: excellent for spice, but not to be overused.

I think personal values are less than half of the usual character-portrayal equation anyway. The rest is largely about the methods used to pursue goals (especially interpersonal ones) and the style with which they're carried out. The intimidating warrior, the suggestive know-it-all, the forthcoming pillar of righteousness, etc.

This is something a lot of games would incentivize by rolling stats in Gruff, Savvy, Noble, etc. But I need to keep that fiction-first. Hmm. Maybe let players define what they're good at, and then list a non-roleplayed feature that aids in that? So the Gruff character is "big and dark-eyed", so when the player roleplays their speech, I factor that look into the NPC's response.


Speaking of spice, perhaps one reason for the low energy in this game was the lack of danger and pressure. There were many conversation scenes before the monster cave, and zero combats. I also never kicked in my Steps of Doom, for two reasons:

1) My usual cue for when to implement a Step is when the players discuss for too long without acting. That never came up, so I never thought of the Steps.

2) I didn't write down the Steps before play, relying instead on my memory of previous sessions of this scenario. So I didn't have them in front of me as a reminder. Nor did I easily remember them in the midst of playing. Oops.

I built this scenario out of bits of three other scenarios with three different Steps of Doom: worsening elemental drain, more monster victims, and a combo of maniac murders and cursed artifact activations. The last time I ran this, at Ubercon, I didn't need any of those. The group latched onto the dates I'd given them, decided that the climax was in 36 hours, and applied the pressure themselves.

The NerdNYC game, on the other hand, had a very nice sequence of toxins and monsters encircling the town, plus a mid-game zombie fight. Probably a better model overall.

In general, it seems to me that urgency leads to more adrenaline, which leads to more participation. Not sure if that was an issue in this session or not.

GM checklist

Before play, I wrote a few notes down. They were intended as ways for me to know what to aim toward in the fiction at a given stage of the scenario, with a few example methods of how. It was not usable at a glance. Some of that was due to my bunched-up writing. Some of it was the fact that "what to aim toward" didn't seem to follow the straight 1-2-3-done progression I'd anticipated; rather, something like 1-2-1-2-1-1-3-1 might be more realistic (and thus harder). But it might be worth another try with a better and more readable reference. Here's what I wrote:

aim toward:
1) PCs eager to do next interaction
2) PCs have a theory to test
3) PCs have a plan to fix the problem


add a supernatural sign, a weird manifestation of some aprt of the problem in action

reveal part of the truth about a person, place, object or event (PPOE)
1) NPCs
- idle mention: fact without obvious relevance; PC questions then reveal relevance
- suspicion or accusation
- defense of some behavior or person
2) locations
- signs of use: when, what, by whom (tracks, broken branches, hot/cold, odors, flora, fauna)
- repeat a signature (e.g. a supernatural sign) already connected to a PPOE


I had a lot of energy, and Mendez was all about creative problem-solving, so the overall game wasn't bad. I got the impression that Mark and Kathleen, while clearly not having a fantastic time, also weren't disappointed. I felt a little bad for Phil, who probably would have had more fun playing one of the many story games going on at the con instead. Still, he was a good sport, and gave me some nice post-game feedback. I think the most disappointed person was me, because I know how much better the game can be. Still, there were some highlights:

The scenario included a big monster that hopelessly outclassed the PCs. Mendez created an infinite loop to trap it, by drawing a teleport rune right under its own target location.

The group decided that the manor lord was responsible. My plan had been that he was actually just another victim of the curse, but their theory was just as plausible and would make for a nice climactic combat. "So be it!" I said in my head. Unfortunately, convention security told us to hurry up and finish the game so poker players could take over the room, so I had to ditch the combat. I was worried that it'd be lame to have them merely slice the demonic tapestry with a sword to save the day; fortunately, Kathleen remembered her horn of acid (which I'd forgotten about) and dissolved it.

There was also a cool moment where Mendez used his crystal rod to hit a mysterious blank spot on a magical device with a sunbeam. In an ongoing campaign, I probably would have had to nix "sunlight = detector", but for a one-shot it seemed harmless, so I went with a faint image (of the correct number to write into the blank space) appearing in the glare.

Difficulty chart

The new chart of "what you need to roll on 2d6 to succeed on which narrated difficulty level (e.g. "slightly tricky", "extremely hard") had mixed results.

On the plus side, it was satisfying for everyone to know instantly, as the dice rolled to a stop, what happened in the fiction.

On the downside, after one use, Mark made a later attempt by asking me, "What's the difficulty?" instead of via the fiction (e.g. "How hard does it seem like it'd be?"). This also prompted me to give him an answer, instead of saying, "You have no idea," which might have been more appropriate given his task (brew a potion to bring clarity and tranquility to a crazy woman). Then he rolled for the brewing, meaning we knew he'd failed before the fictional narration of the woman sipping the potion and nothing happening. I should have narrated, "She sips it... you wait for a few minutes..." and then called for the roll -- something I almost always do when someone isn't grabbing dice and asking me for difficulty levels.

No part of this is impossible to overcome. I can encode key phrases to request difficulty levels, I can write GM instructions to think about moments of revelation, etc. But man, why make the first priority (focus on fiction, not system) take more work to accommodate the second priority (instant clarity on what a roll signifies)? If I do use this system, with key phrases and GM instructions etc., it'll be because I don't trust other GMs to do what I usually do by default. Which is valid in a lot of cases; I'll have to think more about whether this is one of them.


1) talk 1st farmer
2) talk pacing priest
3) talk vanished kid's mom
4) talk scared kid
5) talk crazy woman
6) FFW get directions to sane priest
7) talk sane priest (wanted proof of trustworthiness, but I told them of imperial writ & that sufficed)
8) talk crazy woman & sane priest
9) approach secret clearing, study glyph 2
10) talk cultist
11) study glyph 1 / talk cultist
12) solve wizard door
13) explore cave
14) retrieve goop, experiment with runes, set trap, trap monster
15) study magic altar
16) talk guards
17) study lord, destroy tapestry
delve, glyph

Delve combat demos with a friend

1/25/11 -- me and Matt W. at Matt's place

Tentacle fight, take 1, me GMing for Matt using Delve rules:

Too many whiffs. Tentacle missed him, he missed the tentacle or only scratched it. Why doesn't this happen in my home game? Is it because, with 3 PCs, something will inevitably go wrong for one of them, forcing the others to react?

An edge case also came up, where I tried to introduce O/D fighting while Matt was trying to dodge and slash at tentacles. He chose to fight defensively, but I wasn't sure how that'd help his maneuver checks. This also hasn't come up! I think my regular players, used to O/D not affecting maneuvers, would probably have just gone offensive in that situation, the better to land nasty hits.

Tentacle fight, take 2, Matt GMing for me using Apocalypse World rules:

I made a roll, rolled poorly, and the tentacle grabbed me. I then made another roll, rolled well, and killed it. Done. There was no suspense, no evolving encounter with learning and re-strategizing. I complained of this to Matt, and he said that plenty of times in our game we've done tons of positioning to avoid fights, and "roll to win" is NOT always an option. Which is true.

But something still feels weird to me, as if the die roll creates the world. I think "you try, and you don't know why you failed, but you did," is a key experience to make the world feel real. If I know for a fact that (a) I only roll for stuff I have a chance at, and (b) any time I roll, a high roll will in fact achieve my aim, then the world is the machanics' bitch. The GM can tell me, "You can't do that," but can't tell me "Try it and find out if it's possible." The rules of when to roll and how to resolve give me information my character wouldn't have. (I actually had a chat here with Apocalypse World's creator which touched on some of these issues.)