Monthly Archives: October 2014

Skills as Resources – the Genius of GUMSHOE

The GUMSHOE system, as designed by Robin D. Laws and used in a number of RPGs, Trail of Cthulhu and Mutant City Blues being but two, has been widely praised for turning the standard approach of how role-playing game systems dealt with the issue of clues and information on its head.

Traditional RPGs doled out clues and information to the players only if characters completed a successful action of some kind – did you notice the single blonde hair in the victim’s hand, did you find the relevant newspaper clipping in the library, do you know anything about ancient Aztec murder rituals? On the plus side, this gave players a sense of positive achievement if they managed to find a clue; on the flip side, a failed roll could stall the adventure and bring the entire story crashing to a halt. So GUMSHOE does what many GMs ended up doing anyway: if you have the necessary investigative skill, you get the clue. No roll necessary. You just get it. Simple and, in hindsight, so obvious.

But that’s not the genius of GUMSHOE. Well, ok, maybe it is. But it’s not the genius I want to talk about today.

Ingredients for dramatic tension
One of the challenges in RPGs is creating dramatic tension in an adventure. Certain types of scenes have dramatic tension in spades, typically those governed by detailed conflict resolution mechanics – such as combat. In large part, it’s because these scenes have six in-built mechanical elements:

  • Objective – the players must have some firm goal that they’re looking to achieve.
  • Challenge – a clear obstacle between the players and the objective.
  • Risk – the scene presents some sort of negative consequence for failure.
  • Reward – the scene presents some sort of positive consequence for success.
  • Choices – the players have to decide how best to overcome the challenge.
  • Resources – the players have limited resources that inform what Choices they can exercise.

The best, most dramatic or dramatic scenes have all six of these elements. For example, a good combat scene in an D&D-esque fantasy game might have:

  • Objective – the heroes want to save a Princess, locked up in a far-away tower.
  • Challenge – the tower is being guarded by a Dragon.
  • Risk – the dragon will eat you. Or maybe eat the Princess. Or both.
  • Reward – if you kill the dragon, rather than just avoid it, you get its huge pile of treasure.
  • Choices – you have potions, spells, different types of weapons and a range of combat maneuvers that you can exercise to take down this hideous monster.
  • Resources – you have a limited number of potions and spells. In addition, you have a finite number of Hit Points and when they have gone, you’re dead.

This example has all of the mechanical ingredients to be a great dramatic scene. To become the finished article, it probably needs one other thing, which is to be interesting, but it’s got all of the basics.

The Dramatic Rock
Other scenes frequently lack one of more of these ingredients, and the more of these that are missing, the more it is difficult to capture an appropriate level of drama. A classic one of these is the simple binary obstacle.

Take a rock in the path. You can move it, or you can go back and find another route, which will waste time. You have an objective. The rock is the challenge. The risk is losing time. There’s no clear reward. You may have multiple ways of dealing with the rock but nothing to stop you potentially trying all of them, so there’s limited decision-making. Resources may be used, but that depends on what Choices you exercise. In the absence of real pressure, its unlikely to be an issue.

In D&D, we could ask the players to make Strength rolls for their characters. They succeed or they fail. They could use a potion of Bull’s Strength, but it’s unlikely that any party would do so. So it becomes a straight roll. Succeed. Fail. Basically, it’s a rubbish obstacle. Unless your aim is just to annoy your players, you should just narrate your way through and let them get onto the next really dramatic challenge… which, knowing D&D, is probably another fight.

Resources require Decisions, so if all Skills are Resources…
However, this is another area where GUMSHOE really cleverly changes how we think about simple binary obstacles. In GUMSHOE, each skill has a numerical rating. If you want to use that skill, you have to spend one or more points, reducing its numerical rating in return for getting a bonus on your die roll. So having a high skill level doesn’t mean you’re always better at something, it means you have more opportunity to choose to be better at something. But once it’s gone it’s gone. All of a sudden, we’re embuing every single skill roll with the elements of Choice and Resources.

In GUMSHOE, we still have that rock. My character has the Athletics skill. I could spend some points to improve their chance of success, but how many should I spend? Spending 1 doesn’t improve chances that much, so I might have just wasted it. How important is this rock anyway? If I fail, is there someone else in the party who might be able to succeed after me? I only have 2 Athletics points left, what if I need some later on?

With GUMSHOE’s resource-based skills, every single skill-use is embued with inherent dramatic tension. It’s only modest, not over-whelming. It’s unlikely to lead to analysis-paralysis. But it does mean that the players are constantly thinking about what is important to them, trying to think ahead to future challenges, trying to juggle their choices and balance the limited resources available to them. Just as with how GUMSHOE handles clues, it’s a really simple mechanic that has a huge impact on game play.

Other RPGs have suggested bringing tension into simple obstacles through the use of complications. This is basically a way of ensuring that even simple tests have a heightened Risk and/or Reward. So it’s not a question of whether you can move the rock – of course you can, given enough time. It’s a question of whether you can move the rock before the mob of ravenous ghouls descends upon you and feasts on your weak, scrawny, unable-to-shift-a-rock-fast-enough bodies. Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel puts this concept at the core of its conflict resolution mechanics, requiring that every action is framed in terms of not what you do but what you want to achieve: you don’t say “I try to move the rock”, you say “I move the rock before the ravenous ghouls can get to us”, placing the onus on the player to set up the consequences for failure.

So if you really want to make simple skill checks dramatic and exciting, go the full whammy. Combine the use of consequences with GUMSHOE’s inherent Choices/Resources aspect. Now you have the tools at your finger tips to turn every non-combat obstacle into a dramatic challenge that tests, excites and challenges your players.

NB: Just realised I should add a citation to the end of this. Main inspiration for this was listening to discussion on obstacles in RPGs in Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff podcast, episode 103. If you haven’t listened to it before, there’s no time like the present!

The Inevitability of Omnicidal Vagabonds

All across the dangerous and desolate hinterlands of Fantasaria, small bands of hardy adventurers seek their fortunes. Armed with their wits, an impressive collection of pseudo-medieval militaria and supernatural abilities beyond the ken of ordinary folk, they explore underground labyrinths and mountain-top temples with a single-minded purpose: kick down doors, kill things, take their stuff.

Have you ever wondered how these strange bands came together? What possible reason could there be for murderous itinerants wandering the land? How could a pseudo-medieval society support such unproductive workers? And more’s the point, why would they tolerate them? Well dear friends, today I will answer your query. Today I will explain once and for all why Omnicidal Vagabonds (the correct academic term for the apocryphal ‘murder hobos’) exist.


Medieval Earth vs. Fantasaria
It all comes down to the question of demographics.

In the realm of Earth, the medieval period was one of great poverty and high mortality. As many as 1-in-3 children died before they reached 1-year old and many more died before maturity. With these levels of mortality, women needed to have 4-6 children just to maintain a relatively stable population size: a tricky feat itself when perhaps 1 in 10 women died during or as a result of childbirth. When you add in frequent wars trimming down the productive male population and the constant threat of infection and disease (regular killers like dysentery, typhoid, tetanus, measles and pox as well as the infrequent but society-shattering plague pandemics), you can see why the population of medieval society was a very unstable thing indeed.

Contrast this with Fantasaria. Although in many ways alike to Earth, this realm has two major differences.

The first is the nature and extent of untamed wilderness. Although much of medieval Earth was ripe for colonising and civilising, this was largely left to later generations. The main reasons for this were the difficulty in accessing much of this land and little or no expansionary pressure from a population constantly being trimmed by natural and man-made disasters. Fantasaria, on the other hand, is directly bordered with a breadth of barrens, badlands and bush. However, Fantasaria has its own difficulty here, in that much of these wilderness lands are infected with a wide range of powerful and unpleasant denizens who have a real penchant for killing civilised peoples. More on that later.

The second, and most significant difference, is magic: specifically, healing magic. Fantasaria has access to supernatural abilities that allow gifted individuals to heal others in ways that would amaze medieval Earth. We have documentary records from the annals of the previously mentioned Omnicidal Vagabonds that the healing of near fatal wounds was a relatively trivial magical act, with negation of toxins and curing of disease only a little more complex. In some editions of these documents, a single gifted individual could heal minor wounds indefinitely, requiring only minimal rest for sleeping and eating. Given the particular needs of this subset of society, it is a logical presumption that specific magics were also available to deal with the most pressing of medieval society needs: pregnancy and childbirth. In addition, it’s also clear from records of specific Omnicidal Vagabond troupes that infection was virtually unheard of, despite sustaining frequent injuries from dirty weapons in unhygienic circumstances. It’s therefore fair to assume that even the minor healing magics carried a powerful antiseptic effect. Add to this specific magics that could purify food and water, eliminating a major source of disease and infection, and you can see a very different society to that of medieval Earth.


Too many babies, too little disease
The consequence of this magical healing to Fantasaria is a massive boost in life expectancy. Much of this is driven by massively decreased infant and female mortality, but a non-trivial contribution is made by the virtual elimination of everyday infection. This leads to a number of societal changes.

The population starts to boom. With no adjustments in birth rate, a modest reduction in infant mortality combined with fewer adults dying of infection and food-related diseases will double the population in a couple of generations.

The magic that is prevalent across Fantasaria helps improve agricultural productivity. The primary impact of this is that the middle classes – tradesmen, merchants, entertainers and innkeepers – are much more numerous than in medieval Earth. Nonetheless, even with this magically-enhanced farming, population growth will soon lead to land pressure: more mouths to feed, more homes for shelter. The burgeoning population starts to spread into Fantasaria’s aforementioned wilderness lands. Although the taming of the wilderness and turning it into productive agricultural land is a labour-intensive task, this can be accomplished within a few seasons. More significant is the need to displace the indigenous peoples: more easily said than done when those peoples are militaristic Hobgoblins, savage Orcs and other such foul denizens of evil.

(A quick aside: it is quite clear from Fantasarian records that the native inhabitants of the wilderness were definitely, irredeemably and existentially evil, their moral choices restricted by the Gods before any individual was even born. The moral impact of this purely demographic argument would be very different if there was any evidence that these were intelligent, morally dynamic societies as were the indigenous peoples of medieval Earth)

Initially, Fantasarian society responds in a similar way to medieval Earth. Militias are formed, land-linked military service creates a ruling-class of warriors, the myriad churches sponsor their own military orders. In addition, the over-sized middle class allows for large professional armies and mercenary bands while the magically-enhanced agriculture that supports the enlarged middle class also allows for armies to be gathered in greater number and for a longer period of time than those of medieval Earth. Bloody wars are waged against these indigenous peoples. There is a huge cost to this, in terms of both casualties and resources. As well as being horrid and evil, the indigenous peoples of Fantasaria are like-to-like superior warriors to the civilised peoples and tens of thousands are slain. However, demographics are on their side and eventually Fantasarian society triumphs.


Fantasarian Tunnel Fighters
Or so they think. Rather than being utterly defeated, the wily denizens of the Fantasarian wilds simply retreat and regroup. Hiding in underground complexes, licking their wounds in jungle fortresses, planning their revenge from cave networks deep in the hills. These locations favour the denizen’s greater individual strength, whereas the open battlefields favoured the superior numbers of the Fantasarian army. Early expeditionary missions against these hold-outs result in 90%+ casualty rates. The Fantasarian army simply cannot compete.

The magically-boosted demographic explosion continues apace and it’s not long before the newly conquered lands are full to bursting with civilised people. More land is needed, more food production is required to support this burgeoning society. Once more, Fantasarian society finds itself clashing over territory with the indigenous races. Now, however, the battlefield has changed. The denizens of the wild have learned from their earlier defeats. They fight a guerrilla war from a position of strength, using their tremendous individual potency to sow fear and death throughout the frontiers.

This is an issue of scarce resources, of supply and demand of land: in other words, an economic opportunity. And where there is an economic opportunity, the burgeoning middle class created by Fantasaria’s unique demographic circumstances responds. The Workers are busy keeping society fed and watered, albeit greatly helped by the ministrations of priestly magic. The Ruling classes maintain an ordered society and protect the borders, whilst enjoying the trappings of wealth. The bourgeois middle is free from the responsibilities of the Working class and aspire to the affluence of the Ruling class. They are the ones who exercise whatever means they can to earn a living, taking their cut by providing services to those above or below as they see fit. Creative, opportunistic, driven by market forces they little understand, inevitably the first Omnicidal Vagabond troupe is formed.


First Glimpse of an Omnicidal Future
The first troupe was almost certainly made up of former members of the Fantasaria armed forces. They would need to be skilled veterans to survive any period of time in the wild. However, they would also need a very different set up to the massed ranks of the Fantasarian army: able to move quickly and, when necessary, stealthily. They would need direct access to the very healing magic that underpins the society that created them. The numerous faiths would encourage this, as taking a leading role in taming the wilds increased both their temporal and spiritual power. The first troupe may have been a specific unit within the armed forces, but high mortality rates and the sight of the potential wealth flowing straight into the officers of the Ruling class meant there was little incentive to serve. Instead, they went freelance. An entirely new subset of the middle classes arose: the Adventuring class.

The Adventuring Class was typified with higher than average skill levels, usually in specialist areas. It also had incredibly high mortality, far higher even than might be seen back in medieval Earth. However, the risks were commensurate with the rewards, the most successful few of the adventuring class able to establish themselves among the elite of the Ruling classes. Even when, after a few generations, birth rates began to level off to a new equilibrium, there was still plenty of excess capacity in the population. In turn, this ensured there was a steady flow of middle-class, displaced working class and landless ruling class to form into troupes of Omnicidal Vagabonds.

The healing magic and infection control that led to the initial population pressures had one more significant part to play. Death came to the majority of those pursuing this most high risk of occupations, but unlike medieval Earth the most puissant warriors don’t perish to infected crossbow wounds, as befell King Richard the Lionheart, or falling from a horse, as did Genghis Khan. Magic minimises deaths by accidents and misfortune and battlefield injuries, reinforcing the natural evolutionary pressure for the most fit to survive, gain more skill and in so doing further increase their ability to prosper in the wilderness. In turn, they become an example for others, a vision of what is possible for those brave enough and skilled enough.

Through an inevitable combination of demographics and economics, the omnicidal vagabonds arose.


Author’s notes: I did a little digging on the internet to find the data on medieval birth rates, mortality and such and will share the links in a later post. I have also begun to create a fairly basic (and yet still very complex!) population model in Excel (I’ll post this too once I get it to a suitable state). The lack of detailed data means many of my assumptions are guess work, but what it does show is how infant survival is probably the one most significant factor in determining the size and make up of a pseudo-medieval population. Change that and you change everything!

The Sanctity of Genre

I’m going to take a quick diversion away from mechanical aspects of role-playing games to talk about something else very close to my heart: Genre.

Apologies. This is a long post. I’m afraid I got on my ranting horse and took it for a bit of a ride…

I’m not going to go into detailed dictionary definitions or analysis of the origins of the word. Nor am I going to dwell on the distinction between Genre and Setting, other than to acknowledge that “Fantasy” isn’t so much a genre as a broader label in which a wide range of genres can exist. No, what I want to talk about is the apparently inexorable descent to a single unifying genre and how this is damaging to story-telling and the bounds of imagination.

The Assassin of Middle Earth
What has sparked this off for me is the new console game, Middle Earth: Shadows over Mordor.

Now, to check my prejudice from the start, I’m what could be described as a soft-core gamer. I’m usually a few years behind the latest thing and prefer to play slower-paced games that I can engage with on the sofa on my laptop, such as CRPGs or Civilisation, rather than shooters and action games. I am also a big Tolkien fan, a long way short of the buffs of the Tolkien society for sure, but nonetheless a keen reader of his works.

By all accounts, Shadows over Mordor is a pretty good game. Maybe even excellent. For the reasons I’ve said above, I’m unlikely to play it myself, but it sounds like it could be a lot of fun. Except that it has no place in Middle Earth. For me, this is a big thing.

Don’t let facts get in the way of story
No place in Middle Earth? That’s a bold statement! I have two main issues. The first, judging from the game synopsis (thank you Wikipedia), is that the premise of the game itself is something that makes no sense based on the setting and cosmology that Tolkien created. This includes, amongst many others:

  • The game’s protagonist is a Ranger stationed at the Black Gate. The story is set between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, c. TA2941 and TA3017, but the Black Gate was reclaimed by Sauron’s forces some time before TA2002, at least nine-hundred years before the timeframe of the game.
  • Mordor is not yet a barren wasteland in the game, which may conceivably have been true before the War of the Last Alliance (Second Age 3434), but certainly not true at any point in the Third Age.
  • The main character comes back to life to seek revenge, despite Tolkien explicitly stating that Beren was the only human ever to return from death. He is revived by the wraith of Celebrimbor, one of the Noldor Elves. But Elves cannot be wraiths – after death, their souls return to Valinor, either dwelling with Mandos or re-embodied if they choose (see here and here)

OK, the reality is that these factual changes don’t really matter that much, other than one thing: if you need to change the facts to tell your story, why set it in a world that has such a strong predefined history? Just create a new world in which to tell your story: it certainly didn’t harm the sales of the Dragon Age games.

What is the “Middle Earth” Genre?
More significant to me than the factual questions around the setting is the question of genre. In any creative work of fiction, the writing doesn’t just describe a place, it also provides a description for how that world operates, how characters behave and interact. In other words, what sort of stories can and do take place. Nothing in Tolkien’s writings suggest that Middle Earth is a world where protagonists sneak around Mordor slaughtering and torturing Orcs to avenge their families. On the contrary, Middle Earth is a world where great power almost inevitably corrupts and where the exercise of strength can never do more than merely delay the ultimate victory of evil over good. In the end, Evil is only defeated because the humble (Hobbits) exercise mercy (both Bilbo and Frodo staying their hands when they had the opportunity to slay Gollum). These fundamental tenets are the genre of Middle Earth and for any creative work to be consistent with Tolkien’s creation, they need to reflect this. It’s why the Numenoreans could never destroy Sauron; it’s why Aragorn or Gandalf could never wield the One Ring; it’s why a flight of eagles would never be able to lead a commando raid to drop the Ring into Mount Doom: the exercise of strength alone cannot win. This, more than anything, is Tolkien.

What is also important to recognise here is that Middle Earth is more than just a setting or a place. Middle Earth was designed in a specific way, with a specific cosmology, with unique mythological metaphysics that support certain kinds of stories. In the case of Tolkien, Middle Earth is integrated with the genre in a way that isn’t true with stories set in modern day Earth. The use of stealth, murder and torture to extract revenge can never lead to a positive ending within Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as Turin Turambar can attest.

The Action Movie Genre
For me, this comes on to a wider problem of Genre recognition across mass media and consumer culture. Increasingly, it feels to me that public criticism is dominated by a single genre that perhaps can be best described as Action Movie. We don’t question when a hero leaps from a burning helicopter onto the back of a moving car, taking a couple of gun shot wounds as he goes, punching through the rear windscreen of the vehicle to drag his opponent out. The impossibility of the human form to withstand this sort of punishment is an inconvenience.

However, just because most Action Movies are set in something approaching the real world, doesn’t mean that the genre is any more real. In the Action Movie genre, people can accomplish acts of impossible stealth, kill without guilt or hesitation and torture with impunity because the end justifies the means. However, that doesn’t justify bringing those tropes into other genres on the basis that although equally impossible, they are somehow more “realistic”. This is like mathematicians talking about different sized infinities – the infinity of odd numbers is bigger than the infinity of prime numbers, but both are still infinite. Instead of using different genres to tell different stories, we risk retelling the same stories but simply in different settings.

Genre rules are fundamental to telling certain types of stories. The horror genre require protagonists to act in ways that are distinctly illogical, yet the power of those stories relies on that. Noir has its own distinct set of bleak narrative rules that allow us to create dramatic stories. Romance requires impossible coincidences and a sense of optimism to bring about powerful positive emotional states. The Superhero genre has been particularly targeted by this genre normalising, as if somehow Superman killing General Zod is a better story than a near omnipotent having to work twice as hard to find solutions consistent with his commitment to the sanctity of life.

Genres in Gaming
I suspect there is something fundamental about the human imagination that makes it easy to accept impossible individuals, but harder to imagine that the rules of the world around us can be different. Bringing this back to RPGs, one of my favourite games of all time is Torg. This classic 1990s game not only brought together individuals from different settings, but had rules to embody different genres within the one game world. Some gamers couldn’t handle it. They had no problem with the idea that Wizards, Pulp Heroes, Cyber-warriors and Victorian Occultists could co-exist with their incumbent physics-breaking powers. But they struggled to understand why, in the Fantasy world, guns didn’t work. It’s a relatively simple chemical reaction, and the game rules were explicit that the laws of physics weren’t any different, so why wouldn’t the bullet fire? Because Genre. Genre trumps the laws of physics every time. If it didn’t, John McClane and James Bond would both be long in the grave. You believe a character can heal from critical injuries over-night, why can’t you believe a gun won’t fire?!

The idea of using rules to emulate different genres is something that is now widely accepted in table top roleplaying, from Ron Edward’s System Does Matter through to myriad indie rule sets that support very specific types of stories.

We can burn down the Haunted House at the first sign of something eerie.
We can strangle the Bandito in his sleep before the high noon showdown.
We can give Batman a sniper rifle and watch Gotham’s crime rate plummet.

But how do any of these things enhance the stories we’re telling? By trying to apply a single genre to different settings, all we’re doing is telling the same unimaginative story, using the same unimaginative solutions to different problems. I’m also reminded of Robin D. Laws “something he always says”, regarding the drive in modern mass media to turn Iconic Heroes into Dramatic Heroes and by doing so changing the very nature of the stories that they tell.

It’s by accepting differences not only in the characters, but the world in which they exist, that we can tell different, exciting, creative, challenging stories. As the author Saladin Ahmed said on Twitter, not using violent solutions is the essence of heroism in the Lord of the Rings. Finding a way to make that into a core mechanic, now that would be creative. That’s a game I’d definitely play.

D&D Starter Set – Pregens in Excel

Even before the D&D Starter Set first came out, I knew I wanted to give it a try with my gaming group. Sadly, running it remotely was the only way I would be able to play it this year. And so, with no PDFs of the Pregens forthcoming, I typed them all up into nice neat Excel character sheets.

The next day, Wizards of the Coast released the Pregens in PDF. The next day.

Still, might as well share in case they’re useful to anyone: