Categories
ttrpgs

shutting the office

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals IV A 164 (1843)

On March 31st last year, as part of his ongoing actual play series Far Verona, Adam Koebel roleplayed the unconsented sexual assault of one of his players. Despite some initial, considerable outrage, he continued to release content for his channel until the 4th April, with an apology on twitter that he posted the day before. On the 8th of June, in a blog post to his personal website, he says that he is moving on. A few blog posts here and a couple of tweets there, have been all the online activity I’ve seen. An announcement from July of that year, about his removal as a writer from the Dune RPG, is the last RPG post that I can see. For now, it does seem like Adam is “gone” in the online sense of the world.

I will lay my cards on the table. I was a huge fan of Adam’s show Office Hours where he took questions from listeners on TTRPGs. I sent two questions in, which Adam answered and was extremely nice towards. I never watched any of the actual play pieces he did; I’ve tried repeatedly to watch podcasts like Adventure Zone and Critical Role, but I invariably bounce off them after a time. I’ve come to accept that I just don’t like the format, and I’m going to stop forcing myself to like it despite the great popularity it has. I thought that Office Hours was an important series because the DM principles that Adam outlined seemed so essential. His views on the role of the DM resonated so profoundly with me that I would not be surprised if my style shifted overnight having watched his series. He captured nuances and talked in details that I didn’t think any other Youtuber was covering, and I ate it up.

I will joke about things that make me uncomfortable. It’s something I’ve always done, and it’s definitely gotten me into trouble before, and will get me into trouble again. It’s a coping mechanism for sure. There’s another element of this which is a very poor reaction to stress that I have. Stress causes me immediate and obvious pain, I’d describe it like painful pins and needles or a light burn that sort of throbs across my body. It’s very bizarre, but this also causes me to spasm, usually involving my hands. Uncomfortable situations cause me a great deal of stress, stress causes me pain and spasms, pretty simple – so I joke with people, I joke to make those uncomfortable situations go away. I’ll joke with people, and then go and privately spasm on my own time (as is my right). Maybe everyone does this and it’s not just me, I’ve not really asked.

Why am I talking about this? Because I joked at Adam’s expense about the events above. While I didn’t go onto twitter to send bile at him, I was incredibly bitter about the series of events with friends. For a moment, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I really did hate him. This was a heady mix of him violating the DMing principles that he espoused, with a subject (sexual assault) that someone operating in his political sphere (TTRPGs being a pretty left space) should know better about. I wanted to tear him out of my life, and so I did. I unsubbed (gasp!), removed any mention of him from my RPG discord, disconnected a bot that fed videos from his channel to it. I left his community discord, and went about my life. Maybe there’s a sense that, by doing this, I was somehow unburdening myself, but judging by the fact that I’m writing about it now, that clearly wasn’t the case.

I felt like I had been betrayed. I felt like someone who I looked up to, who I agreed with the principles of, had exposed what their real character was. Everything else was for show, everything else was a fraud. This feeling wasn’t borne from some sense of moral revulsion, it’s far more basic than that. I had been lied to, I felt like a sucker – and nobody likes feeling like a sucker. Here I’d been, sending questions into, following, and recommending the videos of someone who clearly didn’t believe what they were saying! Now everything he said was tainted, how much else had he lied about? There’s a sense that, in sharing these videos and taking pleasure in featuring in a couple of them, I was now partially responsible for what had taken place.


In his blog post titled ‘Moving On’ on June 8th 2020, Adam talks about the community reaction to what happened:

I continue to be the recipient of hate, vitriol and targeted abuse both in public and in private spaces. I’m being emailed anonymous threats of harm if I ever return to broadcasting or attend a convention, messages telling me I shouldn’t exist at all let alone be allowed to “come back” — voices shouting that nothing I had previously said or done or made mattered in the face of my mistake. People are telling me that redemption, for me, is impossible.

https://www.adam-koebel.com/blog/2020/5/18/moving-on

Whenever there’s a public figure who has committed some awful act, it seems fairly common that they bemoan the effect it has had on them. My mind goes back to the apology letter from a certain Dota 2 commentator, accused of sexual harrassment, who stepped away from the scene while simultaneously saying they did nothing wrong, and that the toxicity in response was impacting their family. There’s a gut response here of like, fuck you. Don’t act sorry and wounded because people are rightfully disgusted by what you did. Don’t play the victim when you were the perpetrator. Don’t talk about yourself when you should be talking about who you wronged. I feel no sympathy in the Dota 2 case, possibly because I wasn’t terribly attached to that person, and largely because I feel what they did precludes them from working in that industry ever again.

If you look at some of Adam’s tweets, you’ll see the responses he’s describing in the post. You’ll also see a lot of supportive comments, and a lot of “head in sand” comments from people who don’t think Adam did anything wrong. The line from the blog that resonates with me most is the “People are telling me that redemption, for me, is impossible”. Does that not terrify everyone? I feel like this idea of people just being “damaged goods” that cannot be fixed leads to so many terrible things, with the least bad of them being “them getting harassed on twitter”. But simultaneously, would I want that Dota 2 commentator back in the spotlight? Would I not be utterly outraged if they were given air time? Is this a question of ‘degrees of bad’, where what Adam did was awful, but not so awful as to knock him into the “you’re never allowed to make content again” world?

I don’t know. If Adam came back today and started making Office Hours again, I wouldn’t watch them. As much as I loved the series, and as much as I thought Adam’s advice in it was incredible, my trust has been broken. But there’s a part of me which feels like people should be able to look back on the series, watch, it and learn. There’s a part of me which feels that if he did come back, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who wanted to watch them – it just wouldn’t be for me. I’m not equipped to say how long Adam should be shunned for; I don’t think anyone is. I think it’s a personal decision for everyone who watched his content, or would come to watch it. I do think that people who sent Adam messages, saying he’s an awful human, threatening harm, whatever – those people need to take a look in the mirror. There isn’t a space in the TTRPG community for what Adam did, but there’s also not a space for that either.

In my day job, I try and find systematic reasons for why people have made mistakes. These aren’t mistakes in the Adam Koebel way, but mistakes in terms of programming and other worky-type things. It’s important for me to do this because I don’t think we get anything from blaming individuals in the workplace. I feel like it’s my responsibility to help create an environment where those mistakes aren’t so common, with a recognition that it could have been anyone who made it. I don’t buy the “personal responsibility” angle that basically defines the right wing, and enables people to hold some truly horrific views of other human beings. I want to do more to blame and hate broken and unfair systems, rather than the people that live in them. The question is how I can reconcile this with a belief that Adam screwed up, and that I won’t watch his content again? How can I reconcile this with a belief that I never want to see that Dota 2 commentator’s face ever again? What’s the system that led to them doing what they did? I don’t know.


The simple, systematic answer for the response harassment is that Twitter, Facebook, and other bits of social media are so bad. I feel like the lesson of the last 15 years, possibly the lesson of the 21st century, will be that these platforms were a mistake. I want to believe that, at some point in the far future, people will look back on this period in tech and think “what the hell were they thinking”. If that doesn’t happen, maybe the future is far bleaker than I want to believe. We’ve gained nothing from their existence. They’ve not promoted greater commonality of man, they’ve created factions and ingroups. They’ve not given us a venue to express our compassion, they’ve promoted hatred, publicized bile, and given a platform for ideologies that should have been destroyed long ago. Why should anyone be surprised that these awful comments are rife, when absolutely nothing about the platform inspires people to interact with any sort of candour or understanding. All of that UI design, that A/B testing, making it as easy and friction-free as possible to tell someone to kill themselves in 280 characters or less. Whatever we got out of this, it wasn’t worth it.

So what’s the summary of this blog post? Have I come to some eureka moment, where everything’s clear and delightful? No, not really. I’m still bitter about what Adam did. To my own chagrin, I cannot bring myself to watch the whole scene from Far Verona. I have tried on numerous occasions, but I just can’t stomach it – I close the video every time. Maybe there’s an element here that I don’t want to see someone who I looked up to, doing something so awful. There’s also the tiny fact that I don’t want to watch someone roleplaying sexual assault. I guess, if there was a summary of this it would be “how bloody awful this all was”. However, I am feeling better about having written it all down, so there’s that.

I won’t be posting about this again: despite the shortness of this post, I don’t think there’s anything more I want to say on it. What I will say, is that there’s still a void in my needs where Office Hours used to sit. I’ve tried getting into Matt Colville’s Running the Game series, and I do watch them from time to time, but I disagree with Matt on so many things, and dislike the lack of focus. It feels like the diet version of the series I loved. It’s like your favourite TV series getting cancelled, so now you have to watch the Netflix produced equivalent and it’s fine, but that’s all it’ll ever be. C’est la vie.

Categories
new melyne ttrpgs worldbuilding

the town of New Melyne (part two)

jobs, trades and industry

Today, as advertised, we’re going to be talking about the jobs and industries that are present in New Melyne. It’s quite rare in RPGs that players will actually work at their established occupation; most of the time it’s background material that explains “why they’re the way they are”, not expecting them to spend a session working as an Architect or Blacksmith. I do, however, think that it’s important for NPCs in a town to have established reasons for being where they are. In a dangerous place like New Melyne, we want our townies to have good cause for not catching the next iron caravan out of the place, and into a safer place to live. A lot of the time this might be family, or lack of money, but it’s equally likely to be their profession necessarily ties them to the land. So let’s give some colour to New Melyne and chat about what we expect folks to be doing on the day to day.

We have become a civilization based on work—not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself.

David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

Firstly, let’s use donjon’s Medieval Demographics generator as a solid foundation for us to start on:

You’ve got to have your Mercers. Society would truly fall without them.

This will be the canvas we work on. Thankfully, we’re not going to have to create twelve separate shoemakers as that’s not a typical RPG haunt, but it gives us a good expectation for what the general townie of New Melyne might look like. There are some trades that I would say are mandatory for a town if it is to be an effective setting for a traditional adventuring game:

This is not because the town could not function without them, because obviously there’s a lot of trades that the town wouldn’t function without. This is because these are trades that our players are likely to interact with at some point in their campaign. By setting this up now, we enable what I think is the “optimal play experience” for a player in a settlement; needing some form of trade, and knowing where to get it. It’s normally a pretty miserable experience for a DM when a player asks where they can buy something like a disguise kit, if you don’t already know where that might come from. It leads to something I’m going to call “pop up shopkeeping”, where no trade in the settlement feels permanent, they just manifest in reaction to the players needing them. While this is bound to happen at some point, by pre-planning what’s here, we can avoid having to do it quite so often.

Conversely, a player knowing where they’re able to get certain things means that they’re more likely to be immersed in that settlement. When you leave your house to pick up groceries, you probably don’t need to rediscover where you get them every time. Similarly, when a player knows details about a settlement (“Dontov’s Roasts is the place to go when our characters want to talk over food”), they’re more likely to form an emotional bond with it. If you ever want to do a campaign where a settlement is destroyed, make sure the players know the names of at least three places that are going up in smoke, otherwise it’s no different from when they torch a kobold nest or goblin encampment.

Out of the jobs we have here, players are most likely to interact with Blacksmiths, Carpenters, Inns, Taverns and Doctors. These fulfill the very basic adventuring needs1 of “Somewhere to buy things that kill, somewhere to rest after they have killed, and somewhere to feel better if they have been (nearly) killed”. For this reason, we’ll focus on flushing them out first. From the donjon list, we’ve got one blacksmith, five carpenters, one inn, three taverns and zero doctors. This is problematic; we already established that New Melyne is a town with fantastic access to iron, so having a single blacksmith feels like a missed opportunity. We don’t have a doctor, and we have five carpenters, which feels extremely excessive. So we’re going to adjust those values a bit: we’ll have three blacksmiths, two carpenters, one doctor. Let’s just say that two of those carpenters decided to pick up the hammer and tongs, and one of them decided that medicine was the life for them (maybe after some horrendous, saw based accident).

the blacksmiths

Let’s talk about these three blacksmiths. Three is a good number, because it allows us to inject some character into each one, distinguishing them from the rest, while not being too odeous a task to plan. I always like the idea of shops having specialisations, because they become an easy shorthand for the players to remember them by. Similar to real life, we understand that certain supermarkets are better at certain things (stocking that flavour of crisp you like) versus others, even though they’re all supermarkets. Blacksmithing has some fairly obvious “specialisations” to me – weapons, armour, household and industrial. Weapons and armour are self explanatory, household would be anything that you could imagine in a normal house, utensils, pots, pans, and locks for instance. Industrial would be things like picks, nails, cart braces, anvils2, horseshoes etc.

We don’t necessarily need to limit a blacksmith to doing only one of those specialisations, as they might be of differing size. For instance, one of the three might be the best for weapons and industrial blacksmithing because they’re larger and older than the other two. In fact, why don’t we make that the case?

Huxler’s Arms

Specialization: Weapons, Industry

Description

Huxler's Arms is the first and oldest blacksmith in New Melyne. Owned and operated by Wallace Huxler, one of the original setters of the town and close friend of the Founder, the smithery is home to some ten to fifteen employees, apprentices and smithery aids.

A small front building with a shop, primarily selling arms, backs onto a large courtyard where the sounds of blacksmithing and forging ring out. A medium-sized workshop building contains most of the smithing equipment, and a large water tank holds water used for the quenching of metals.

New Melyne Armour

Specialization: Armour

Description

While New Melyne Armour is the most recent blacksmith to appear in New Melyne, it has landed with some recognition and quickly established itself as the premiere smith for anyone looking for protection. The owner, Kios, became famous when she challenged one of the townfolk to stab her through new halfplate. The event ended with a broken blade, and an injured hand.

The building is too small to have a shop area, and Kios prefers to conduct business on the workshop floor. There are no display racks of armour here, everything is made to order and made to last. Though, there is a small outside area where the handful of employees may catch a breath of fresh air away from the soot and smoke of the forges.

The Blessed Machine

Specialization: Household, Industrial

Description

Situated just off the main road, the business has been a fundamental part of New Melyne for almost ten years, selling industrial materials and household items through to the various shops and merchants in the town and beyond. Jointly owned by sister and brother Rivia and Marcos Zhorest, their business has gone from strength to strength as components created in their smithery are nationally known for their machined precision. 

One might be forgiven for thinking that the building was never used due to its cleanliness and relative quiet, but the Zhorest siblings value tidiness and organisation over all else. Employees of The Blessed Machine can often be seen leaving the shop with soot-covered overalls and faces, but return pristine the next day. As a result, the building housing the smithery is deceptively small, with space utilised efficiently. A small office is where most business is done.

So now New Melyne has three blacksmiths, with plenty of opportunity for us to flush them out later, and lots of potential starts for quests. Perhaps the Zhorest twins have discovered a small fire elemental in one of their forges, and have requested the players to remove it? Perhaps Kios charges the players with looking into a potential conspiracy, where a trader has claimed that her armour fell to pieces and killed a client? It might also be the case that the players simply interact with them to sort out their weapons and armour, but with the little detail we’ve included above, those interactions become flavourful and meaningful.

the hospitality

Now, it’s time to do what might be the most important aspect of the town’s trade, the inn.

The Unturned Stone

Description

The Unturned Stone sits in the very centre of the town, and is one of the largest buildings in all of New Melyne. Primarily of wood and stone construction, a great deal of care and attention has been involved in its architecture. Its walls are thick, and while there are wooden slatted windows, they are small to avoid loss of heat. There are two entrances, a large set of thick, wooden doors that act as the main entryway, and a second, smaller entrance at the back of the building for intake of stock. Curiously, the main entranceway boasts a set of iron braces for a barricade, that can be dropped into place via a lever and chain. This was a specific request from the Founder.

The ground floor is a large, open plan tavern area with enough seating for fifty tavern-goers at a time. The first floor hosts a collection of sleeping quarters, with enough beds to support twenty people. These are a mix of dormitories, with basic floor space for bedrolls and beds, to private rooms with animal pelt rugs and hearthplaces. There is a public washroom where warm water is brought up and decanted into baths - a common haunt for miners when the grime and dirt becomes too hard to shift through rags and scrubbing.

The owner of The Unturned Stone is a woman by the name of Bogod Harrien. She is renowned for her fiery temperament, and willingness to throw ne'er-do-wells out of her establishment. Privately, she was a good friend of the Founder, who mostly paid for its construction at the very beginning of New Melyne's history. She is protective of her employees, and couldn't be forced to part with the inn at spearpoint. She has a deep and profound adoration of New Melyne, and if she thinks something is amiss, will not hesitate to act. 

We now have our very first inn! Innkeepers are normally important characters, especially in small towns/villages, so with Bogod, we have great opportunities to introduce potential quests and politics into a session. It could be the case that the players enter the inn, Bogod sees that they’re capable of handling themselves, and asks them if they’re interested in work. Given that this is the only inn in the town, if the players aren’t roughing it out at night on their bedrolls, they’re going to cross paths with this place.

We can always add more detail to these places, but I’m a firm-believer that more detail will come in play. Maybe Bogod’s history was being a Captain of the Guard, or a mercenary, and she has a selection of weapons mounted on the walls as fond memories of that time. (and to have them available in a pinch…) But with a firm foundation, we have enough to give to the players on that first glance. However, The Unturned Stone is not the only establishment in New Melyne; we need a selection of taverns as well. With taverns, I find it’s important to have a spectrum of places: one that is fancy enough to act as a ‘victory lap’ for the players after coming by a hefty chunk of gold, one that is shady enough for them to conduct or disrupt illegal business, and one that can act as a catch-all for anything else.

The King’s Riddle

Description

The King's Riddle (referred to as just "The Riddle") is a small, hole-in-the-wall tavern, constructed about fifteen years ago, it has served as the quiet drinking location of a select few. Its small size (only allowing for a maximum of twenty drinkers) has created something of a tight-knit community. Everybody knows everybody, and while the tavern is open to everyone on paper, the reality is that strangers are regarded with a degree of hostility. It's not impossible to become a member of this community, but it will be through invitation if at all. The low ceilings and generally low light makes it a perfect spot for one to conduct more unscrupulous business - but only with the consent or involvement of the owner.

The King's Riddle is owned by Mandos the Old, an old smuggler who hasn't quite managed to shift his desire for illicit activity despite his old age. He did not know the Founder, and largely kept out of his way, however with the Founder's disappearance, Mandos has somewhat expanded his reach. There are rumours that he is attempting to form some sort of syndicate, but rumours are just rumours...

Quentin’s Magnificent Chalice

Description

Strange aromas, wistful stringed instruments and the meaningless conversation of those who just like to talk. These are all things one would find on a nightly basis at Quentin's. Secluded down a pathway between two buildings in the center of New Melyne, one must knock and check their weapons at the door to gain entry. While Quentin's is available to anyone who wants to wet their whistle, the prices are the primary barrier to letting just anyone walk through the door. Ergo, Quentin's is the primary locale for traders, property owners and visiting nobility: who might be inclined to drop a hefty sum of money on something as ephemeral as a shot of liquid claiming origin from a thousand miles away.

The business is owned by the eponymous Quentin, who made their riches selling armaments and magical artifacts to the highest bidders. While they might describe their escapades in more fruity language, it is fairly clear that Quentin is a war profiteer with little to no regard for the consequences of their actions. To Quentin, life is temporary, and those who have lost at the game of life are just that: losers. While this latest business is in Quentin's own words, their retirement, it's a possibility that they will just up sticks and leave if the desire takes them.

The Silver Boar

Description

Located in the industrial district of the town, The Silver Boar is a miner-owned and miner-run establishment. A squat building with a single floor, rough furnishings, and a utilitarian look, The Silver Boar offers a perfectly acceptable drink at a more than reasonable price. What makes its location inconvenient or even unpleasant for a regular townie, makes it perfectly well suited to those working in the more industrial part of the town.

What started as a break area or resting room for miners finishing their shift has ended up as a fully functional tavern. With the disappearance of the Founder, and the emergence of the town council, the miners promptly unionized to avoid exploitation. The tavern is, legally speaking, owned, operated and subsidized by every miner in the union. It might not be the place for a quiet drink, but if you're looking for somewhere to forget the day's toil, it's the place to go. 

Well, we’ve added some flavour to the town from these, especially from The Silver Boar, where we’re beginning to talk about the actual forces and powers at play. With them in place, we shouldn’t be lacking a locale for our players to undertake most activites that one would in a tavern.

the carpenters

While carpenters aren’t likely to see as much activity as Blacksmiths, it’s worth having them planned out to enable those who might not use metal (druids) or prefer bows and such.

Melyne Carpentry

Specialization: Furniture, Construction

Description

Melyne Carpentry was one of the first businesses to appear in New Melyne, created by some of the workers that performed initial construction on the mine and camp. Situated on the north side of the town, close to the treeline, is a large warehouse for storing planks and lumber. Accompanying this is a sawmill for the processing of wood provided by the local lumberjacks.

While the carpenters was started by a collection of workers, the de-facto leaders are considered to be Mary Sawtooth and Gregory Radler, who were largely responsible for the carpentry needs of the town during its founding. They're a bit longer in the tooth than many of the new carpenters, but their knowledge is without match.

Three Tree Bowyers

Specialisation: Bows
Three Tree Bowyers is a relatively new business, started six years ago by Kheri Strangeblood. Despite the dangers involved, the Bowyery is set outside the boundaries of the town, in the forest. While not being so far away from the town as to be without protection, the building is more akin to a small fort than a normal carpenter's building. The walls are made of stone, the doors are thick and heavy-set. All work takes place inside, apart from the testing of bows, which happens on a small firing range outside.

Kheri Strangeblood firmly believes that the finest bows can only be made in the shadows of trees. She chases the platonic ideal of a bow, with her designs becoming more and more simple as time goes on. Despite their simplicity, their deadliness is without question - the only challenge that Kios of New Melyne Armour has refused is one where the weapon was a Strangeblood bow.

Phew, that’s quite a few locations. We haven’t done the Doctor yet, but I have a plan for them, which we may cover in the “Powers” post which I will be doing next! What does that leave New Melyne looking like?

Still a bit bare! We’ll need some houses and markets in there, but we can cover that later. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and I’ll catch you next time for “Power and Power Brokers” section of our journey here.

Footnotes

1 Unless you’re playing a very survival focused game, food and water are unlikely to be mechanised, and we normally expect players to receive them from inns and taverns; if I was to add another trade here, it’d be some sort of food market stall.

2 Somebody has to have made the first anvil. Right? …Right?

Categories
ttrpgs

rulebooks

Arguably, the rulebook is the most important part of a system. I’m not just talking about the rules (which define the system), but I’m talking about the actual artefact that is the rulebook. An incredible system that has a terrible rulebook is a game that people aren’t going to play, because they’ll never get at that incredible system. Conversely, a fairly average system that has a well laid out rulebook is something that will likely do very well.

In this post, we’re going to talk about things that rulebooks consistently get wrong, get right, and some other stuff.


pdf – “pretty damned frugal”

This is tangentially related, but I don’t think it’s right to talk about rulebooks without bringing this up. This is something Wizards of the Coast with 5e had previously been very bad for, but have somewhat improved of late. Stop charging nonsense prices for PDFs/virtual copies of your game material. If I want to get Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus on DnDBeyond, it costs me $29.99, which is roughly £22. If I want to get a physical copy of it from Blackwells, it’s £26.34 with free shipping. Now admittedly they’ve got it on sale, but most retailers have it floating around at £31. You’re telling me that the difference between the physical printed book, and the virtual version (locked to the DnDBeyond platform iirc) is between 4 to 9 pounds? That’s nonsense, unless those online transactions are being carved onto gold bullion.

Paizo (publisher of Pathfinder, Starfinder) has a far more reasonable pricing scheme. If you want a hardcover copy of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, you’re looking at about £36-40. If you want to get the PDF off Paizo (with no strings attached, just a normal, searchable PDF), it’s 14.99$, which is £11, a full £25 cheaper than the cheapest physical printed copy, and a full $45 cheaper than on Paizo’s own store.

(Note that the physical rulebook cost here is much pricier than from UK retailers)

If Paizo, a far smaller company, can sell a much larger product (the core rulebook for Pathfinder Second Edition has a lot more content compared to the Player’s Handbook for D&D5e which is also $30), then Wizards of the Coast can do the same. There’s no reason that physical copies should be even remotely competitive with PDF pricing, so something has gone very wrong here. What’s even more frustrating is that publishers have a far better revenue stream in all of the other game-adjacent shite they can sell you. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love game-adjacent shite.

fig 1. Game-Adjacent Shite. Please ignore the dust, I’ve not played 5e in quite some time.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I will buy game-adjacent shite till the cows come home. The key thing is, I think G.A.S is a critical element in a fair and successful TTRPG business. Saps like me, with disposal income, will buy crap like spellbook cards for £25 a pop, despite the fact that they’re literally plastic with text written on, and probably cost less than half a micropenny to make (something that Wizards of the Coast has plenty of experience with). As they’re overcharging on these unnecessary pieces, this should mean that they’re able to offer fire-sale prices for the rulebook, even selling it at a loss if they need to. The videogames industry has been doing this for yonks with consoles, selling consoles at a loss to get people into the ecosystem, enabling them to buy overpriced games1.

So people who don’t have the disposable income can afford to buy the rulebooks, (hardcover and PDF), subsidized by the rich shmucks who’ll buy the crap like spellcards, battle maps, miniatures and coasters. Everyone gets access to the rules, the system creator makes plenty of money, the shmucks get to stare at their G.A.S. To go even further, you can make the lions share of the rules free online, without all of the lovely art and stories of the rulebook, and make buying the PDF/hardcover a luxury option as well. This is what Paizo have done with Pathfinder, so if we were being very snarky, I’d say that this is purely a problem for Wizards of the Coast2, with their incredibly meagre offerings in the 5e SRD. By making your rules free, and your PDFs cheap, you get people into the game and more likely to buy stuff like adventures. If you don’t do this, people just pirate the PDFs, and then you get nothing.

lore of the land

Rulebooks are for rules first, everything else second. It doesn’t matter if it’s not strictly called a rulebook: whether it’s a Player’s Handbook, Agent’s Handbook, Investigator’s Handbook, its purpose is to explain how the game is played above all else. If it contains incredible prose, fantastic artwork, phenomenal worldbuilding, but you don’t come out the other side with a good understanding of the game system, then it’s a bad rulebook. Do not get me wrong, I love a fat 600 page rulebook. I’m an absolute sucker for those double page spread full artworks. I delight in the short stories, or the world maps that I’ll never play on. But the rules have got to be there, crystal clear, first.

I might appreciate all that art when I’m sitting in bed, reading it on my free time – but will I appreciate it when I’m flipping through in the moment, trying to find a rule that a player has just inquired about? A great example of the “style over readability” problem is the Shadowrun Fifth Edition rulebook, which is full of instances where rules text has been squashed to accomodate pieces of lore or art. Where they’ve done a great job of making it look like it’s some sort of futuristic computer, but a less good job of making it nice to read.

Yes, the artwork of the troll is lovely, but the fact that it’s the largest element of the page, squashing everything else, is terrible.

I’m not sure if this is something that has been improved in the sixth edition – I hope so. For a rulebook that I think gets this just right, I’d look to the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Fourth Edition core rules, which comes in at a lighter 350 pages, but is packed with lore (which almost entirely sits at the front of the book). The artwork is fantastic, but also used sparingly – I never feel like a part of the rules are far harder to read as a result of the formatting. The lines are nicely spaced, the font is appropriately fantasy-ish but legible.

An example career from WHFRP4e. There’s far fewer rules compared to the Shadowrun character, but what’s here is formatted in a lovely way.

I’m sure someone will be tempted to say “but Oli, it has far fewer rules compared to Shadowrun! They can afford to have space and nicer formatting”.

The fact that Shadowrun is a much denser, more rules-heavy game is exactly a reason that it should have better formatting. Games that are very rules-lite can afford to be wistful, with plenty of art and blank space. Games that you’re going to need to flick through quickly to reference certain sections need to be far more concise and diligent.

Dense and messy, versus well-spaced and clean.

No matter how you cut the cheese on this, it is a decision to have a dense book; nobody is forced to make it that way. If Shadowrun 5e’s rulebase was so large that it demanded this formatting, then the lore and world aspects should not be in the same book – they should be in a separate book or resource. D&D 5e has nailed this by having the Player’s Handbook be a short (~300 page) book with only what the players need, with the setting, worldbuilding and GM elements moved into the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG). I’m much happier to swap books occasionally, than I am having to fight my way through a gigantic tome full of information that isn’t useful in the moment. Bad formatting like this is a choice, and one that shouldn’t be taken.

lead by example

Give me examples of play you bastards. Not just one at the start of the book that shows how much fun and excitement one can have while playing, but one for every single major rule or section in the game. Examples of play are so good for learning how a particular set of rules work, that I will frequently read the example first and then the rules after. Even the most complicated of rules, when expressed through a near-life example can become far more comprehendible and appreciable. The stand out example of this for me is in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition’s (CoC7e) Keeper Rulebook, where we are essentially following the adventures of a character called Harvey Walters.

In this snippet, we’re shown how Stealth can be used, how pushed rolls work, and the general flow of the game

CoC7e has some fairly complicated rules in it, and it would be easy to get lost in situations such as “lifting a heavy object as a group” or the general framework for Chases/Pursuits if there weren’t great examples of how those rules are used in these little snippets. Monster of the Week has only a couple, but those examples give us a great window into how the creator intended the game to be run. This is another big benefit of them – often, unless you run a prewritten adventure or scenario, examples of play give you the firmest picture of how the game creators intended the game to be…played. Not just demonstrating specific rules and their usage, but giving us the tempo and temperature. It really shocks me that more games don’t have them throughout their rulebooks, as there are definitely instances of rules in CoC7e that I would have just bounced off without them.

non-starter

Dark Pursuits, a prewritten adventure for the Dark Heresy 2nd Edition RPG, is one of the worst prewritten campaigns that I have ever run. It is extremely detail-light in parts, expecting the DM to do an extreme amount of work outside of the text to keep things going. It feels extremely rushed, where players and DM are whirled through a series of encounters at breakneck speed. It is also set in one of the densest, most complex entities in the Warhammer 40k universe: a ‘Hive City’. As a DM, cities are one of the hardest parts of any RPG; requiring you to manage a lot of (most likely sentient) characters, goods, government and services – all of which are contained within the same space3 with many potential interactions. Hive Cities are like this, but on space-meth. They are astronomically large, containing innumerable souls, and are socially complex, where all the various elements that make up the Imperium of Man interact with one another.

The Dark Heresy ruleset is a fairly dense one at that, boasting more complex rules than an entry level RPGer might come to expect. So we have a fairly complicated system with an adventure set in one of the most complicated settings that a campaign can reasonably be set in. I’ve missed one detail. This is the starter campaign for the game. Oh yes.

I’m not an expert, but perhaps you shouldn’t have a complex web of trade in the same campaign billed as ‘introductory’

I’m absolutely in the target audience for Dark Heresy. I have a decent knowledge of the 40k universe, having played the tabletop game as a kid, and having played most of the videogames that are set in it. I’m an absolute sucker for dark, investigatory style games with terrors from beyond. A diverse party of strange, biomechanical humans wielding a collection of arcane and futuristic weaponry to solve mysteries and banish evil in a morally grey universe? Sign me the warp up. However, I bounced so horribly off this starter campaign that I’m not sure I’ll ever touch the system again. Having read stories online from other people running it, while they might not describe it as negatively as I do, there is a lot of “we went completely off the rails”, or “oh just make that detail up”. I do not want to “make it up”, that’s the whole point of a prewritten campaign4.

The starter campaign for your system cannot be “budget”. This might be a player/DM’s first experience of your system, so it has to land. If it doesn’t, they might (like me), never play it again. When I say budget, I don’t mean that it can’t be short – in fact, starter campaigns should always be short because folks will often play them to get a sense of a system before delving into it more. I mean that it can’t be low effort, something stuffed at the back of your Core Rulebook with a few pages dedicated to it and a little bit of artwork. It has to be low friction, smooth learning curve, with a lot of material to ease players into it. Contrast this with the Starter Campaigns for D&D5e (Lost Mines of Phandelver) and WFRP4e (Wacky Slip on a Pie Time), which are both complete products with prewritten character sheets and plenty of G.A.S to make the experience as smooth as possible.

They also, critically, contain cut-down versions of the rules that give a beginner an easy window into the system for the purposes of the campaign.

On The Tabletop - Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set | TechRaptor
The box lid even doubles as a GM screen. Image sourced from techraptor as I couldn’t be bothered to get my own copy out and photograph it. #higheffortblogging

Full disclosure, I have not finished running the WFRP4e starter campaign, due to a couple of Real Life Things getting in the way (along with a global pandemic), but it already feels like a more complete experience than what Dark Heresy offers. It’s clear that a lot of effort and thought went into it. “But Oli, those starter sets are paid for, whereas the Dark Heresy campaign came free with the rulebook”. Ignoring the “it’s free” argument5 for a moment, the Dark Heresy 2e rulebook would have been better if those pages were used for nearly anything else. A separate product (that they could have charged for) with the same care and intention that Cubicle7 and Wizards of the Coast gave theirs, would have been a vast improvement. There’s a parallel world in which they did that, and I’m still playing the system.

You get one shot with this. It doesn’t matter if the first published Dark Heresy campaign after the rulebook is an absolute corker, because the well has been poisoned for me. I would also say it’s quite rare for someone to go and buy a full campaign for a system that they’ve not played before. It’d be a hard sell for someone new to 5e to immediately buy Out of the Abyss (and also a poor intro to the system), and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect beginners to do that. So, don’t throw in a “gratis” starter campaign as an afterthought into your rulebook – either dedicate time and material to it, or don’t and look to creating a separate product. Full-arse it.

use your noggin

The Pathfinder Second Edition rulebook has a lovely little feature. On every other page, there’s a bar that tells you where in the book you’re currently reading.

The aforementioned bar.

A lot of rulebooks have this in the header, rather than on the side, telling you what section you’re in. Here’s it in the CoC7e rulebook.

Chapter 4: Skills, Chapter 5: working out how to run a game where nobody has Spot Hidden above 25%

Is this a big thing? No. Is the PF2e bar probably a whiff too large? Yep. Is this something that every book should have in it? Absolutely. My preference would be for a full bar, but some indication where you’re reading is great, especially given you might be in a section covering a large body of rules (like Combat). Here’s the LANCER one:

Like everything else in the rulebook, it’s absolutely beautiful. Do you want to see the 5e one? Of course you do, you cheeky little scamp, but you have to be careful or you’ll scare it off.

A whisper in the night, found only at the very bottom of the page. I love little stuff like this because it isn’t much, but it makes for a much more readable rulebook, and they’re all generally getting it right. I’d like for rulebooks to trend towards what PF2e has done, but with more restraint.

back against the wall

I have given you a selection of three rulebooks to peruse. Which one do you like the most? Alright, I’m cheating slightly because the one on the right is from the Collector’s Edition of 5e. They’re also being crunched slightly by my bad lighting and phone camera, but we work with what we’ve got. Let’s break this down in an analytical manner, that only the backs of rulebooks could deserve.

Dungeons & Dragons 5e

The Collector’s Edition cover is a feast for the eyes. No text, because if you’re buying the CE, you probably know what it is. The symmetry is awesome, the colours are fantastic (I heartily recommend looking at the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which is my favourite of the CE versions), and it features the prominent iconography of the D20, and the ampersand which has become the logo of the Dungeons and Dragons series. Top shelf stuff. However, this is cheating, as the CE version is much more expensive and rare, so here’s the normal one.

5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Archive
I have to say, looking at this is vaguely nostalgic even though it’s a relatively recent game. Nostalgia for in-person, outside activities, perhaps?

Arm Yourself For Adventure. A solid tagline, and especially fitting given this is the book where players will be creating, customising and quite literally arming their characters for adventure. The content in the body text below is, sure enough, an honest representation of the game. In fact, I would say that this blurb has a better idea of the strengths and focuses of the D&D5e system than most of the people playing it; but that’s a post for another time. The font is luxurious, as with all the fonts chosen in the book, and the colouring is solid as a rock. White text on a blackground is a personal favourite, and contrasted with the red of the angry fire pup on the right hand side, it practically jumps off the page at you. Lovely use of blank space, clear and concise, with a great summary of the book contents and game. Top marks.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e

No, the book isn’t dirty, it just looks like this I swear.

A Grim World of Perilous Adventure. Oh yes indeed, life in the Old World of Warhammer is cheap and bleak. Gone is the mystique and majesty of the firey pup, and instead we have a bleak, smoggy scene from what is most likely Ubersreik, one of the major cities in the universe. This back cover says to you “your foe will most likely not be some mythical, majestic beast of flame, instead, it’ll be typhus. Or dysentry, whatever gets you first”. The little blurb on the back promises not a clean adventure of heroism and righteousness, but instead, boldly states that you’re going to be a scumbag who probably kills for coin. And it’s right.

Stated entirely in character, it fits in well with the rest of the book where you get the feeling that you’re reading the musings of some unreliable narrator, rather than some lofty god giving you the objective truth of the world. All is shades of grey (like the cover), all is relative. I do like the fact they’ve listed a time of “1-4 hours” like it’s some sort of board game, feels oddly quaint. The fonts are good, while sacrificing a slice of legibility for that Warhammer feel, and the logos along the bottom are clean and nicely pushed out of the way. Watch out for that barcode, though – it’s so large that I dare say that Ubersreik is thoroughly imperiled.

Pathfinder Second Edition

GOBLIN

Admit it, you knew this was coming. When I showed you the gallery, you knew there was an ugly duckling in there, and it is a very ugly duckling. Advance Your Game. What game? The game of Pathfinder that I have yet to start, as I am an earnest rookie RPGer, holding the book in their hands for the first time? Perhaps, the game of life? Have I picked up the right book? Thank goodness they included the tiny “rulebook” indicator at the top, as they’ve made it as hard as possible to determine that from anything else. The centrepiece of the cover is the most bizarre part for me. The artwork is very good, apparently they knew this because the art is used again in the Alchemist class pages. But why the Goblin Alchemist? My suspicion is that they wanted to make a big deal out of the playable Goblin ancestry, and the core alchemist class, but would you care about either of these things if you weren’t already a Pathfinder player?

The summary of the game given by the text is justified in my experience of playing it, however the justification of the text is wack as all hell. They’re trying to form it around the Goblin art, but almost any other layout would have been better. It really does feel like somebody had five minutes to put some text on the back, and the clock was ticking. The strangest part is, the front cover art is actually extremely good.

Pathfinder Core Rulebook (P2): Amazon.co.uk: Bulmahn, Jason, Bonner, Logan,  Radney-MacFarland, Stephen, Seifter, Mark: 9781640781689: Books
This was originally a party of seven, pour one out for all the heroes stood behind them.

This just makes the contrast between the two even worse. On one face, an epic battle depicting beloved Pathfinder characters engaging in combat with a beast that many will recognise, looming over a delightful pile of gold! On the other, a…goblin…looking at us. Why? I’ll stick by my “they wanted to sell the goblin and alchemist stuff”, but what a baffling decision that is.

Something I will chuckle about for a while, is that the logo for the Pathfinder series is just the word “Pathfinder”. Which means, on the back of the book, in the logos…

This is the same logo used on the front cover. If you don’t know you’re playing Pathfinder, then forget about finding paths, you’ve got bigger fish to fry. For full equivalence, here’s a picture of the Special Edition.

Pathfinder Core Rulebook (Special Edition) (P2): Amazon.co.uk: Bulmahn,  Jason, Bonner, Logan, Radney-MacFarland, Stephen, Seifter, Mark:  9781640781696: Books

It’s…fine? I actually prefer the normal rulebook despite being a big fan of minimalism with these things. I’d take the back from that one though.

Anyway, that’s enough ranting about the backs of rulebooks. Maybe I’ll do another post about the fronts of them too, who knows. 2021 is a year of possibility.

Footnotes

1 I’ve been ranting about this with friends for a considerable amount of time, but the price rises in console and PC games are utterly ridiculous, and I’m stunned more people aren’t up in arms about it. £70 is not a reasonable price for a game, and if everything else inflated at the same rate that games have (despite making MORE money through additional revenue streams), we’d all be living in boxes.

2 Though Chaosium seems to think ~£21 is an acceptable price for a book that retails at around £32 in hardcover. Not quite as bad as Wizards, but still.

3 Hive Desoleum (the hive that the campaign is set in) is described as “taking several days of weeks to cross”. Do you have a map for this? No, or at least, not one that I’ve found.

4 I do not like prewritten campaigns, but I normally run them the first time that I’m playing a system if they’re easily available and not gigantic. Expect a blog post on this.

5 If I came up to your birthday cake with a grater and an onion, and began shaving the onion onto the cake, the fact that the onion was free doesn’t seem very relevant.

Categories
ttrpgs

on fudging (part 4)

being honest

Nicht dass du mich belogst, sondern dass ich dir nicht mehr glaube, hat mich erschüttert.1

Friedrich Nietzsche, #183 Beyond Good and Evil

It occured to me that people might think I was finished with the fudging series after the last post, but I think there’s more to unpack. That was specifically an attack on the idea of fudging rolls to preserve a story, but we’ve got a few more left that we need to drag down and beat into submission. Once again, as clarification, these posts are about people who fudge without their players realising.

Transparency at the table is only a good thing, and if your players are happy with that, play on maestro.


sniffing the dice

When it comes to using dice as an object for generating tension, there’s a lot about the argument I do not disagree with. There’s certain “ceremonies” that occur when we play a lot of RPGs, the sound of dice rolling for an unknown cause, the players looking at the DM’s face to discern whether the value they rolled beat the threshold they needed, the pivotal moment where the rolling of a dice will dictate the campaign’s course for sessions to come. These are powerful moments, and it is not surprising that they’ve become memes, jokes and often referenced elements of the D&D culture. The rolling of dice taps into some primal part of the human brain, where the brakes are off and there’s nothing to it but what Lady Luck gives to you. This is, more depressingly, one of the reasons why gambling is so addictive, and such a problem.

There’s no greater evidence for the importance of dice in mainstream RPGs than the fact that even the most die-hard (hehe) of fudgers will struggle to remove the dice altogether. People argue whether or not DMs should fudge, but they’re very rarely for removing the dice altogether, even when they’re throwing gigantic cubic spanners in their much-beloved stories. They know the clacking sound of the dice is important, they know that the players feeling the element of fate in their interactions is valuable – so we keep the doors, we’ll keep the steps to the temple, even when the alter within has been desecrated2.

There’s a couple of pragmatic arguments that I can make here, which I’ll make first, and then there’s a more wistful, philosophical one. My first point, is that it only takes one realisation, and someone will realise. Whilst I think that people are normally bad at identifying instances where Things Aren’t Statistically How They Should Be, I believe that people have a sense that they develop over the course of regular play. If you’re fudging in favour of characters surviving encounters, it only takes a few strangely knife-edge combats before people start smelling that something’s off. As a player who has played in campaigns where people have secretly fudged dice, there is nothing worse than that moment of “was that really the roll?”. You begin to question every roll, not just the ones that are being fudged, because the players don’t have access to that information.

The moment that someone realises this is happening, the curtain is pulled up. The emperor has no clothes. The doubt has been seeded. Instead of a monster landing a critical hit being a tense moment where the hand of fate has tipped against the players, it’s a “uh-huh, sure” moment. Previously, you had the excuse of randomness to explain why certain rolls didn’t go the player’s way, but now, you’re the reason they didn’t. The terrible part of being the master of everything, is that you’re also on the hook for it. One of the greatest gifts of the dice roll is that it gives us distance: those moments of despair are directed at Lady Luck. Players curse their dice, claim they’re discharged and swear to not use them again in the session. Now that misfortune has a human face, and it’s yours.

the weapon of the enemy

It is of great importance to set a resolution, never not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual, he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s beleiving [sic] him. This falshood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all it’s good dispositions.

Extract from Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, Paris Aug. 19. 1785.

It would be remiss here to quote Jefferson being good and honest without also pointing out his slave ownership and moral repugnancy. However, it’s a great quote, and I also agree with it.

I do not believe people who say that they only fudge “a little”. Let’s define some terms – if “a little” here refers only to the quantity of rolls, then it’s fairly meaningless. If you only fudged once in a session, but that fudge altered the direction of the campaign for the sessions to come, then you did not fudge a little, you fudged a whole lot of the game there. If “a little” means that the fudges were of little consequence…then why did you fudge at all? Things that are insignificant are excellent candidates for deciding through randomness, because then we don’t have to think about them, and can think about more important things.

In addition to the mostly semantic argument above, I see fudging as infectious. There’s a glib comparison to power I could make here – it’s hard to give up power and control; that applies to life, and dice rolls. What starts out as “fudging only to prevent TPKs or complete disasters” slowly takes hold in other areas. Now it’s fudging to push them towards content you think is cool, or fudging to stop them from killing a boss too quickly. That control starts to feel comfortable – the dice can no longer surprise you. Content you’ve planned will be reached, fights will continue until you’ve had your fill. You can tell how a session will go from start to finish, and it will go in the way you think is cool and good. Thank goodness, because you’ve got an awesome boat encounter planned for next session that you need them to get to.

How do I know this? I used to fudge. When I started DMing, I saw it in the same way that a lot of people do; a tool in a toolbox. I’d fudge to stop people from dying in a way I didn’t want, or to push them towards the stuff I spent a lot of time writing. It was only when I started to think about RPGs more abstractly, with prodding and influence from friends, did I realise what was happening. Fudging is the One Ring – I get that you want to use it to save Gondor, but soon you’ll be keeping it on your finger because it’s so damn comfy3. To disappear even further up my own arse, there’s a hope that these series of posts might do for others, what other videos and content about fudging did for me. If you do fudge, I’d suggest recording instances when you do, and looking at what sort of impact the ignored roll had. Seeing how far you’ve adjusted the game, even if you think you only fudge a little.

cogito

Let us assume you are the master manipulator. You have 100 Speech, you have natural 20’d your deception checks (you’re making the values up, but hey). You are the Werewolf of Wall Street. No matter how subtle your adjustments, there is one person at the table who will always know that you lied about the result of the dice.

You.

That time they managed to bring down the fiercest White Dragon, but only with a Hold Monster result that you fudged for them?

You know you did that.

That moment the party managed to perform a action-packed smash-and-grab, getting out of the building with their wits, intelligence, and because you fudged the sniper damage that would have killed one of them?

You know that it shouldn’t have happened that way.

That session which ended with one of the players exhaling and saying “I can’t believe that happened!” after they narrowly avoided a TPK, and you can’t either, because you lied about the dice roll that would have caused it.

You’re going to be thinking about that when they talk about how absurdly lucky they were.

I could go on, very dramatic. In all seriousness, one of the biggest problems with fudging for tension is that you know it isn’t real. You are robbing yourself of the experience that the players at the table are partaking in. Those moments above, which have players yelling and pounding the table? You can be there with them. You can celebrate when the white dragon falls because you didn’t guarantee it. Some of the greatest, most emotional moments I’ve had at the table have been when I’ve DMing, and things have come down to a final roll. In person, I come out from behind the screen, I throw the dice where all can see, and I get to react with the players. I revel in the glory of the roll going their way, I share in the despair of the worm turning. They know that, for that moment, we’re all a captive audience, we’re all sitting in the same stands.

That’s an experience I would never give up. No amount of control or power over the game is worth losing those moments of spectacle and bonding. In addition to this, fudging the rolls is a burden. For each roll, you’re thinking about whether you should, or shouldn’t let it pass. “Is that outcome fun enough?”, “Should I do something else?”. It’s fatiguing. There’s nothing I find more refreshing and liberating as a DM than just letting the dice do the talking. There’s enough to worry about in a game than needing to decide if an event needs your illicit intervention; sure that might lead to some sticky situations where the dice have driven the campaign in a particularly bizarre direction, but that’s when the players know that this shit is real. When they look in your eyes and see that what’s happening is not “all according to plan”, that we’re outside the city limits with our foot on the gas – that’s when they know they’ve found their game.

Don’t do yourself dirty like this. Bask in that tension, bask in the results. Let the game surprise you, like it surprises everyone else at the table. I don’t hate fudging out of some moral superiority – it’s a TTRPG question for goodness’ sake. I hate fudging because it makes the experience worse and robs the DM of the ability to enjoy it in the same way as their players. I hate it because it’s a crutch that you don’t need, one that’s giving you a limp.

I hate it because you can do better.


This might be the last post in the series, but I think it’ll be a living thing that I add to whenever I come across a disagreement, or a new argument for fudging. I’ve covered the arguments I put in part 2 with broad strokes, even if I didn’t call them out by name. I think the last thing for me to talk about is the DM as an agent of “fairness” against the unfair dice, and the DM as the arbiter of fun. That post might come a bit later as I’ve got other stuff that I want to write about first.

Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Footnotes

1 “Not that you have lied to me, but that I no longer believe you, has shaken me”. I included the original German just in case I translated it poorly, or the other translations online didn’t properly capture it.

2 Somebody stop me.

3 Despite me talking about LOTR a fair amount in these posts, I’m not a mega-LOTR fan. I do really like it, but it’s not my be-all and end-all.

Categories
new melyne worldbuilding

the town of New Melyne (part one)

the basics

I wanted to do a category of blog posts where we do some normal DM planning activity, and I explain some of the decisions and ideas that go into it. This is the start of that series, and we’re starting with the creation of a town called New Melyne (pronounced malign). I love creating locations in RPGs more than anything else, possibly because I like creating maps, possibly because I’m terrible at creating characters. Who’s to say. The image I’ve used for the post is from Richard Benning, and I think it’s awesome.

I’m imagining this town as being the location of a fantasy one-shot, or a series of one-shots, so we’re going to put more detail into this than we would for every town that the players might visit. We need enough content for the players to feel like there’s more to explore, even after a couple of sessions into it. It also means we need a problem for the adventurers to solve. Something for them to uncover. With a name like “Melyne”, I’m thinking that this is a town with two faces – one side which presents itself as an average, respectable settlement with opportunities for those willing to seek them. The other side is the real face of New Melyne, a shadowy place where people are strange and inscrutable. Where everyone has an agenda, everyone has a play for power, and even the dullest scraps of it are jealously hoarded.

I’m getting ahead of myself. In this post, I’m going to talk about why New Melyne exists. When doing worldbuilding, I think it’s always worth asking “why is this here?”. In answering this question, we might discover that there’s no reason for it to exist, and that we need to give it one. Last thing here, the world at large:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe

Carl Sagan, The Lives of the Stars

In this instance, I actually disagree. We’re not trying to recreate The Silmarillion here, we’re trying to create a town. We might have a detail in the town that requires elaboration about the outside world, but it’s often easier to start from a single place and then build the world around that, instead of attempting the reverse. New Melyne can be a microcosm of the world around it.

why does New Melyne exist

If there’s a settlement somewhere, there’s normally a very good reason it’s there and not somewhere else. That reason could be a resource (the sea/a river for fishing and trade), it could be religious (set at the site of some religious event or tradition), it could be military (set in a location to allow for defence/mobilisation) – in New Melyne’s case, it’s going to be next to iron. There’s something inherently tone-setting about a town being next to a mine; if I was going to go full literary analysis on it, I’d give a few reasons.

  1. “Confrontational” relationship with nature. We take what we want with violent tools like picks and drills, as though we’re fighting against the land for control of those resources.
  2. Darkness and depth. The idea that the town might be a small piece compared to a vast network of shadowy tunnels that lie just below the surface.
  3. Hardiness and grit. Mining is traditionally very dangerous, attracting those who are either brave enough, or have no choice.
  4. Mine entrances as portals to the unknown. Normally we build walls and defences, but the mine entrance is a yawning gateway to whatever lurks beneath.

We’ve immediately said a few things about the world in general – that iron is a valuable resource worth extracting, that people are capable of creating settlements for purposes like iron (over reasons like basic needs, water, food), and that the iron is probably going somewhere (as you don’t need a big mine to support the iron needs of a single small town). Despite the iron needing to go somewhere, I want New Melyne to feel like a frontier town – I don’t want it to be some boring subsidiary of a big, cumbersome nation-state. I want it to be independent, with no greater authority than itself. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves; we’ll cover the authority/government piece in a post on its own.

There’s three more immediate requirements that come from New Melyne being next to iron. Firstly, that the terrain around New Melyne is quite rugged, with hills and valleys (because it’s far easier to mine into hills and valleys, rather than mining straight down). Secondly, that New Melyne is relatively far away from other settlements (otherwise it wouldn’t be a town, it’d just be a mine). Thirdly, that despite the rugged terrain, New Melyne must be reachable by road (otherwise it’d be horribly slow to transport any iron from it, and it wouldn’t be used).

This is all very useful information for our RPG! We have a route for our adventuring party to arrive in the town (the road and trade), and we have a reason why they wouldn’t immediately leave (the remoteness). Possibly most importantly for an adventuring RPG, we have a source of danger and mystery in the terrain and the mine1.

food for thought

People don’t eat rock. New Melyne might be where it is for the iron, but it must also have access to food and water. You never want to have that awkward moment where a player asks just how exactly your settlement survives, despite the fact they’ve yet to see a single source of nourishment. In line with the theming that the mine brings, I think New Melyne is going to primarily survive off hunting. It ticks all the boxes of hardiness and grit, it enforces the dangers of the nature around the town (as they don’t keep livestock), and it gives us a reason for weapons to be more commonplace (useful later…). I think access to water is going to be via a nearby stream, as that gives us a reason why more regular folk (not hunters) venture outside the town’s walls (meaning that they built the town closer to the iron source than they did the water, showing you the priorities of the town founders!).

The fact that the primary food source is going to be via hunting, also gives us an insight into the sort of clothes and armour people wear, and some jobs/industries that might exist other than pulling rocks out of the ground. It also suggests that the area around New Melyne must be somewhat plentiful with game animals – presumably if the hills were full of seventeen feet wide hyperpredators, they’d live off cave fungus or something equally miserable (or not have gone there at all). In terms of clothes and armour, it’s probably going to be a lot of leather, iron and pelts, with items made from resources sourced via agriculture being rarer (and mostly imported). I’m imagining a street of the town containing tanneries, blacksmiths and smokers – with all the foul smells that those industries bring.

origin story

Now that we have some semblance of a ‘why’, we can start thinking about a ‘how’ for New Melyne. We don’t need to detail this all now, but it’s good to quickly think about how it came to be. Keeping in step with the idea of New Melyne being an independent settlement, I like the idea of the town being some sort of venture by a semi-wealthy individual with limited/no existing ties to the greater world. I also like the idea of the town being around 22 years old, because we don’t have to write an extensive history, and it allows for a generation of working age people who were born in the first few years of the town. The benefit of it being a very young town, is that it makes sense for the surrounding area to remain somewhat of a mystery.

By having the town be a business venture started by an individual very recently, we’ve squashed down the possible hierarchy quite flat. Almost everyone in the town would have a personal connection to the founder, especially seeing as they’re likely to have some business connection. Right now, the town’s growth looks something like: (in order of arrival)

  • The Founder (as of yet unnamed)
  • Employees/associates of the founder (most likely miners/involved in mining)
  • Family of the employees/associates, immediate friends. Hunters, architects, etc. Jobs required for the town’s long term survival.
  • People seeking business opportunities from the newly growing town. Shopkeepers, traders, the wealthy.
  • Children of the first arrivals.

While this could be fine, having such a dense web of relationships will make things challenging. So for this reason, I think the founder of New Melyne disappeared five years ago. We’ll talk about the reasons why that happened in a later post, but it means we are going to need some small government structure when we come to that. In terms of the number of people living in the town, I’m hovering from anywhere between a five hundred to a thousand people. This definitely puts on the small scale for a town, but we can start to play with this number later if the number of jobs starts looking weird.

what we have so far

  • New Melyne is a very young mining town, built next to a source of iron to mine and trade with the wider world.
  • It’s set in an area of rugged landscape that has largely been unexplored.
  • It primarily survives on hunting as a source of food and clothing, but does trade for other goods outside of that.
  • It’s independent from the world around it – a law unto itself, for now!
  • It’s an industrial town, due to having dirty industries like tanneries, blacksmiths, and charcoal burners.
  • It started out as a commercial venture, but has evolved past that with the disappearance of the owner five years ago.
  • The current “government” must be quite young and inexperienced, as that disappearance was unlikely to have been expected.
  • There’s something very, very wrong with New Melyne.

Come back next time when we’re going to talk specifically about what sort of jobs and industries exist in New Melyne, and the beginnings of a map.

Footnotes

  1. I find it’s pretty common to forget to introduce an easy source of danger. If you don’t have this, then the source of danger becomes the settlement, and most of the foes the players will face will be humanoids. While this might be fine for the session you’re running, if you were looking to add more variety, it might not be what you want.

Categories
tools ttrpgs

rpg tools and tech

There’s not an awful lot of writing out there on what you should use to help run or play RPGs. Most of the time, you’ll search for something specific (“mapmaking software”, “NPC generator PF2e”), and you will end up building up a toolbox of things that you find useful. This is me writing down everything I’ve found in the years that I’ve been playing. Some of it is free, some of it is paid for – I’ll include which ones are which. (Asterisk means it’s free)

There’s a rule that I’ve run into in my job as a Data Engineer/ML Engineer, which is that if a tool says it does everything, it probably doesn’t, or it just does it poorly. At time of writing, there is no magic bullet software that gives you everything out of the box for RPGs – I’d much rather use eight tools that do what they do very well, than one platform that does it all but badly.

This isn’t a top 10 list, or something where I’m throwing in everything and the kitchen sink: this is stuff that I actively use when running RPGs. If there’s a problem I have with it, I’ll tell you.


Game Engine

FoundryVTT

I’ve been using Roll20 since 2014. I cut my teeth playing RPGs in person, so it might have even been the first time that I played an RPG online. At that time, it was a relatively new (launched in 2012) service, which offered something that I don’t know existed before then: a sound platform to play RPGs on which was free. It was easy to use, and while it was somewhat lacking in functions, it was extremely easy to sling a roll20 link at my friends to get a game going. It had a wide selection of game systems supported, with the list being constantly added to by the community, meaning it only lacked the more niche games.

This is perhaps a bit disingenuous, but I’d say that it hasn’t really changed since then. I’m sure someone can come out and mention a raft of features that it has gotten since launch, but to me, it has all the problems that it did when I started using it.

  • A website design that was fine in 2014 but is now very outdated by modern standards.
  • A lack of responsiveness – everything feels delayed and painful.
  • Pretty woeful asset management, in terms of finding images that you’ve uploaded, and other data.
  • Playing audio is a chore, sometimes working, sometimes not.
  • It’s a centralised service, with all the problems that being dependent on a central service brings (downtime, security, closed source)
  • This is not from my personal experience as I haven’t tried, but I’ve heard making sheets for systems is a pretty awful time.
  • Limited and stilted GM tools (copying a token doesn’t copy rotation, a r g h, journal/notetaking has the absolute bearest of functionality)

This is ignoring all the nonsense that seems to follow Roll20, but I could keep going.

Release Notes for the Foundry Virtual Tabletop 0.7.9 update version
FVTT’s 0.7.9 release (latest at time of writing)

Bluntly, FoundryVTT is just a better piece of software. In my eight months of using it every week, I’ve never had a moment of “gosh this was better in Roll20”. Everything I said above as a negative for Roll20, is a strength for FoundryVTT. However, there’s two big hurdles for it:

  1. The price. (50 dollars plus VAT where applicable)
  2. The learning curve and setup.

If you’re expecting it to be a similar amount of effort to setup as Roll20, you’re going to be disappointed. There’s a bit of work to be done, depending on what solution you’re going for (self-hosted, managed service, dedicated server), but it’s definitely surmountable. Generally speaking, if there’s a problem, you can google it and get a solution. If you’re completely tech-averse, it might be worth looking at the managed solution/partner hosting options where they handle that for you.

As for the price, I’d much more in favour of paying a larger sum once, than a small sum until the end of time, especially if I’ve made content dependent on “premium features”. Obviously it’s an immense privilege of mine to be able to drop 50+ bucks on RPG software, but I do not regret it one bit.

There’s too much to talk about with FoundryVTT, I’ll do another post on it at some point in the future. I’m not intentionally trying to be pithy when I say that it’s changed the way I run games for the better, and I’ve never had a complaint from one of my players about it. Everyone prefers it to Roll20. It’s a smoother experience, more feature rich, powered by open source contributions from a big community. It does everything that I want for a game engine, and I can’t see myself not using it anytime soon.

Watch this space for another, in-detail post.

Map-making

Wonderdraft

I love making maps. I’ve been making maps since I was a kid, and I make maps as an adult. For me, there’s a few things that a piece of mapmaking software needs to have.

  • A reliable, modern, low-learning curve UI.
  • A solid selection of drawing tools. It doesn’t need to be photoshop, but it needs to have firm fundamentals.
  • A sizable selection of high quality pre-drawn assets that share an art style.
  • Support for additional, imported assets
  • Preferably non web-based. Yes, I know this makes me sound like a luddite, but for drawing tools, I’ll always take a dedicated application on my PC over the hassle of a browser in the way.
  • A reasonable pricing structure.

Wonderdraft ticks all of these boxes. It’s cheap, purchasable through a trustworthy mechanism (Humble Bundle), and does everything I want from a global mapping tool. Where it begins to fall down is in the regional mapping scale (city details, county-level stuff) – I primarily use it for worlds and continents, and avoid doing things like city design in it. Here’s some stuff I’ve made in it:

A region I very imaginatively named “The Kingdom” before being told that was ridiculous, and renamed to “The Kingdom of Meridian” – far more reasonable.
Wizards and Druids who hate each other and fight over islands, mapped.

For the scale of map that I want to draw, it suits it perfectly. Naturally, it’s going to run into an issue (if you can call it that) of “same-face”, where you’ll realise that a lot of maps made in the software look similar. This is an advantage for maps made for the same world, but might be a bit weird if you’re trying to do a campaign with a very different vibe.

Dungeondraft

It’s Wonderdraft but for battle/dungeon scale maps. The UI is very similar (unsurprisingly), the layout/tech underlying it is very similar. It’s much more unstable than Wonderdraft, and much rougher around the edges – this is because it’s a much younger product. All of the requirements I listed above apply here, but there’s one incredible thing about Dungeondraft that puts it above other software I’ve used in the past.

It integrates beautifully with FoundryVTT due to the genius module of Dungeondraft Importer. This turns the normally annoying task of aligning a grid with a background PNG, sorting out lighting, line of sight things like walls and doors into a literal three-click job. Click Dungeondraft Import, select the .ddvtt exported format file, import as scene, done. This is so fast that I’ve actually managed to cook up maps in the software as my players were travelling to a location.

Are you going to get professional artist quality battlemaps? No. Are you going to get extremely servicable maps that don’t take hours to make? Yes. Here’s some examples:

Mushroomy, leafy cavern thing.
An entrance to a tomb, imaginatively named “The Tomb Entrance”. Ignore the white space, as the players can’t see that.

I think if you wanted to get more stylised maps, or more dramatic maps, you’re going to need to pick up a pen/paper/copy of illustrator. As I said, the only thing holding it back right now is the instability and bugs, which it has a few of. Save often.

Worldographer

https://i2.wp.com/worldographer.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/screenshot.jpg
“What the”

I know what you’re thinking. “That looks horrendous”. “Wait, between Dungeondraft and Wonderdraft, what’s this meant to do?”. Like many DMs, I am sometimes possessed by a powerful, destructive craving to do a hexcrawl campaign. This is a mapmaking tool that enables specifically that. I can sense your next question – “can’t you just create a map in Wonderdraft and put a hex overlay on it?”. Yes, and Wonderdraft actually includes that as a function. Note that I didn’t say this was a tool to enable hex-based maps, I said this was a tool to enable hexdrawl campaigns.

The reason you want to use this, is because you do not want to be thinking to yourself “is this beautifully rendered hex a marsh, or is it a swamp?”. You want that distinction to be clear, so that you can spend less time thinking about what a hex is meant to be, and more time thinking about what that hex, and the other four hundred million hexes on the map contain. Worldographer makes that distinction clear, painfully so, and gives you a load of other functions related to world-generation and notekeeping. There IS a free version of the software with some functionality removed (like notekeeping), so I’m not sure I’d suggest using the free version other than to test it out.

A map of mine, ignore the scrawling.

Misc

TokenTool*

This piece of software is just perfect. You know how I said that I’d much rather have eight tools that do their specific functions well? TokenTool is that, personified. What does TokenTool do? It puts borders on images. Does it do anything else? Not really. It can put backgrounds on them as well, solid colours, gradients or other images.

What makes it amazing? It behaves exactly as you would expect it would. Can you drag images into it? Yes. Can you copy and paste images into it? Yes. Can you copy and paste out of it? Yes (uh, at least, I think so). Do you have to download images to put them into it? No.

I use it to put specific backgrounds and borders on my tokens, and that’s all I use it for. Best of all, it’s completely free. Amazing.

yEd*

yEd - Graph Editor

Keeping on the theme of “incredibly specific software”, yEd is a graph editor. It allows you to create flowgraphs, which is incredibly useful for the more involved campaigns where you need to keep track of relationships, clues, whatever. I’ve used it for Call of Cthulhu, Dogs in the Vineyard, Monster of the Week and more. It’s a bit rough around the edges at times, and it’s not as shiny and friendly as something like Microsoft Visio (paid for) – but at least I don’t feel like I’m at work using it.

Is the UI really that old? Yes. It’s no frills, but often that’s what you want in something like a graph editor. It is considerably better than something like Google Drawings for this, and it’s free.

donjon.bin.sh*

Medieval Demographics and Tavern Generator

There should be some law akin to Godwin’s Law but for donjon. Something like, the longer a discussion of tools for TTRPGs continues, the likelihood of someone mentioning a donjon tool approaches one. Well, here we are, it’s done now.

I’m going to call out two of the tools that I use the most frequently, though in reality there’s probably something in there for everybody. The Tavern Generator is extremely good for when your players want to know about the other tavern in the town. You know the one. It’s not the one with your interesting NPCs, with your story hooks, with a bar brawl just waiting to burst out – because they didn’t like the name of the place (calling it the Gilded Goose? What were you thinking). It’s that other tavern, the one you’re furiously trying to will into existence with every neuron in your brain.

The Tavern Generator gives you that. Sometimes it goes a bit extra:

“Okay”

Otherwise, it gives you a perfectly sensible base with which you can offload some of that mental processing. Speaking of offloading mental processing: do you know how many buckle makers your town needs? No? Neither do I, but the Medieval Demographics Tool does. Is that going to be an important demographic for your town? Probably not, but it’s very useful for sanity checking what you’ve done already. If you’ve got a village of 500 people, having thirty guards is probably unreasonable. I wouldn’t suggest ever trying a campaign where you attempt to fit every single job that the tool suggests into a town, but it helps keep us on the straight and narrow.

In-Person

I usually consider myself a split 50:50 online vs in-person DM. I think there’s advantages and disadvantages to both, and hold them in different places in my heart. However, in-person right now has the disadvantage of “we’re in a global pandemic”, so this is a section for after that whole thing’s cleared up. A lot of this stuff is going to be so egregious that you might roll your eyes, but hey, people have the fancy silverware for when people come round for dinner, I have the fancy…orc…tokens.

Elgato Stream Deck

Marketing image of the stream deck buttons ascending into space.

I’m a huge fan of audio in my games. While people might wrinkle their noses at the idea of introducing “impure, physical things” into their astonishingly cerebral game, I am not above playing spooky background music when something spooky is happening. Previously when I DM’d in person, I would walk over to my PC, put on a youtube video of some music, then walk back. Yes, I bought this device to not have to do that. Please, give me a chance to redeem myself in your eyes.

There’s two things that the Stream Deck has, that make it perfect for me.

  • Programmable physical buttons to play/stop certain sounds.
  • The ability to add background images to those buttons.

This means that I can have a button on the deck that says “Carriage Noise” with a little icon of a carriage behind it. I press that button, and a looping sound file of carriage wheels on a road begin to play out of my speakers. The stream deck is small enough to fit behind my GM screen, which means that I can now play a sound as I describe something spooky happening! No longer is there an awkward pause as I stand up, walk over to my PC and play some music!

OK, sure, there’s more reasonable soundboard software that enables this if you’ve got a smartphone or a tablet. But I enjoy the physicality of the stream deck, and the simplicity of the setup (no internet connection required, among other things). This is so far down the “must have” list that it’s almost invisible, but don’t knock it.

Campaign Coins…Coins

Big Bag Ol Coins

I bought a bag of Trade Bars from this website a long time ago, and they’ve been a staple of my RPG cupboard ever since. Real metal, really lovely quality, great art. Have they been extremely useful? Not really, but they (like many of the other things I use) add a level of physicality that I adore. Nothing says “lecherous public official” like handing a player a bag of coins and asking them to do something unspeakable.

Bear in mind that these are coming all the way from Australia, so don’t expect speedy shipping.


That’s it for now. I also make extensive use of Google Docs and Sheets, but I imagine most people are capable of finding a word processor/note taking application that suits them, so I didn’t include it here. I also haven’t included anything to do with figures or miniatures – which probably requires a post on its own.

This is obviously going to be a living list, so I’m going to revisit it occasionally with minor additions. Otherwise, there you go.

Categories
ttrpgs

on fudging (part 3)

the storyteller

Literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.

Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

We’re now entering the part of the posts where you’re talking to me, talking about stuff I actually believe. I’m going to put a golden caveat here, the most golden caveat of all. If your players know that you’re fudging, and you have told them so, then that’s absolutely fine. I’m not so much of an asshole as to tell you that the fun you’re having, with the consent of everyone at the table, is illegitimate. These posts are for the would-be DM who’s wondering if they should, or the DM that currently is and hasn’t told their players.

This is about why you shouldn’t do it.


dice as a partner

Allow me to make the first hot take of the blog. You and the dice will tell a better story than just you. You should not see the randomness introduced by dice rolling as an obstacle to the story you want to tell – you should see it as a force that gives you fresh and exciting perspective on what would have otherwise been a duller experience. Let’s go back to our example of the Mines of Moria.

Would you have let Gandalf fall?

This is a serious question. What if we didn’t? What if Gandalf never left the party, never had a climactic battle with the Balrog, never succumbed to his wounds and died, never returned as Gandalf the White? I think we can all agree that the series of events that come from Gandalf falling from the bridge are compelling, exciting, and make Gandalf a richer character. In this instance, Gandalf’s “failure” did not diminish the story, but immensely enhanced it. In this way, the rolling of a dice gives us an opportunity to create something we otherwise wouldn’t – it challenges us to think of possibilities that were otherwise unthinkable. It makes us ask questions of things we previously thought unquestionable. What if the players don’t work with the town guard, and instead, they attack them? What if their attempt to argue their case in court does not lead to freedom, and instead leads to a death sentence?

I feel that where this can cause problems is where people have overplanned. In a game where the DM has taken it upon themselves to pre-plan every possible encounter, every possible branch in the road, the dice can feel like an obstacle. Now, where the dice should allow for interesting developments in the story being told, it becomes an odious task; another path that needs lampposts, houses, trees and names. But players do not play your DM notes. They do not play your A4 pages filled with characters, timelines and locations. They play what happens in the game, which happens one moment at a time. By reacting to the players, instead of attempting to control them, we can have Gandalf fall and create a deeper, richer world by opening up your space of possibilities.

When you do this, you’ll see a significant change in how you DM. You’ll notice that your thinking shifts away from attempting to control the player’s journey through a world, and instead to how that world actually is. What’s the punishment for attacking a town guard? What’s below that bridge for when they fail an acrobatics check? How do the bad guys actually operate? Your world begins to develop actual depth: not illusory depth, a charade that allows the players to do anything as long as it’s what you planned, but a world that is logically consistent, and reacts in sensible ways. Armed with a world that acts in these ways, we enable coherent ad libbing.1

Another good thing about telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you say.

August 1922, Tampa (FL) Morning Tribune, pg. 4, col. 6

this is not your story

This is the most obvious response to the argument. It’s a cold one, but it’s true nonetheless. RPGs are not the medium for you to tell a predefined story, and it isn’t a coincidence that many of the frequent concepts that come with an RPG (uncertainty/variance, players, rerolling characters) are antithetical to traditional linear storytelling. Your players are not an audience. There was not a chance for the reader to enter the Mines of Moria and lend Gandalf a hand, there was not an opportunity for the audience to climb the barricades and warn the students in Les Misérables, and there was not a moment that the viewer could get in on the action in The Big Short.

RPGs are a game. Games are interactive2. The interactive element in role-playing games is (commonly) in the control of characters by players of that game. Sorry if this sounds obnoxious, I am almost telling you how to suck eggs, but when framed in this language it becomes clearer to me why fudging for the sake of storytelling is so misguided. The “problem” that fudging is trying to solve here is that your story may be misaligned with the dice rolls you’re receiving, but do you know what else might be misaligned? The players! We reserve our hatred of uncertainty for the dice, confident that everyone at the table will play their part as we intended. We’ll erect as many invisible walls as needed to make sure they’re funneled down the route we’ve chosen, for our world is a maze of glass, with innumerable visible opportunities, but only one possible path.

Alright, I’ll dial it back.

RPGs does not have a “author” role, because everyone at the table is a author. We have our different domains, our different regions of the story. The players are responsible for their characters, and usually their character-adjacent bits and pieces (NPCs, property, backstory), and the DM is (usually) responsible for the gaps around them. One of the more frequent additions to RPGs is the ability for the players to add their own detail to the world, given mechanically via a dice roll. (Wrath and Glory is a recent RPG that does this explicitly3) When we say that we want to tell “our story”, this necessarily comes at the expense of the other players at the table, who might disagree on what that story should be (and have control as to where that story goes). You cannot tell a story that your players do not want to tell, you can only tell the story that you create, together.

god of the gaps

For me, the most tragic thing about fudging is that it’s unimaginative, and unnecessary. Changing the result of a dice roll is like a god changing the colour on a traffic light so they can go through it – the DM ultimately controls the game world, and thus, ultimately controls the circumstances by which the dice rolls arrive. If we look at D&D 5e again, the rules might stipulate that the goblin gets to roll a d20 to attempt to hit an adventurer, but you put the goblin there, you put the cave there, you gave the ability for the adventurers to enter that cave. There are systems where these things might be generated by dice roll, but in most mainstream systems they fit within the DM’s control.

If you didn’t want the adventurers to fall when crossing the bridge, or convincing the guard to let them into the bank, why did you set up circumstances such that they could? You could have made the bridge sturdier, you could have described how the guard is drunk, and how they have the appearances of a wild night before. Changing just the result of the dice is lazy, and if you’re someone who considers themselves an adept writer or storyteller, you should be able to come up with narratively satisfying solutions to these prolems without fudging. The main answer to why you’re doing it, despite having this level of control, is that you’re actually using dice as a source of tension. While you could have made the bridge sturdier, you wanted the tension of the dice, so you asked them to roll for it. That isn’t a “satisfying story” concern, and it’s something we will get onto in a later post.

Just one last note on this. On the “falling off a bridge” example, there’s absolutely nowhere in the rules of a system that state a player character falling off a bridge has ONE attempt to prevent their death. Most systems give you absolutely immense scope to avoid this stuff, and very few rolls (if any) are truly save-or-die. If a character fails the acrobatics roll to cross the gap, maybe they fall just short and end up dangling from a plank, requiring another roll to pull them up. Maybe they fall into a spider’s web, and are now imperiled by the spiders therein. It’s usually extremely bad practice anyway to hinge life and death on a single dice roll, and by setting up situations where a single success averts death, we avoid characters dying out of the blue in situations that might actually frustrate the player.

die hard

Character death is a major area where fudging occurs. You’ll frequently see this in “actual play” podcasts, where characters have been written, merchandise has been created, and a repartie has been established. To have a character die an ignoble death would be problematic for telling a serialised story. If a fan just bought a t-shirt with “Hoblas the Fighter Rules!” written on it, how do you think they’ll feel when Hoblas takes a javelin to the throat, thrown by the grottiest and most insignificant of goblins. I have seen a word-for-word defence of fudging this with “I would be a bad storyteller if I let a character die in this way”. Ignoring the “storytelling” part of that, which we’ve covered above, the ease at which characters die is controlled by two things.

  1. The DM, who determines the circumstances by which lethality arrived.
  2. The system rules, that determine the procedure by which a character can die.

Both of these things are within our control. You chose the system, you chose the ruleset to follow. You weren’t prevented from reading the rules for dying ahead of time, left with a sealed envelope that contained the precious two pages explaining the brutal effortlessness with which characters can lose their lives. If you’re playing D&D5e, you know that a character hitting zero HP goes unconscious, and starts to make dying checks. You and your players agreed that these are the rules by which a character can die – if it was too easy, then you can agree with your players to adjust them. In fact, many systems include optional rules to adjust the ease of character death4. The only reason you wouldn’t do this if you had a story that you wanted to tell, is if you wanted to create artificial tension.

In addition to this, if you’re playing a game system where death is commonplace and mechanically easy, you’re probably playing the wrong system. Old School Revival Systems (OSR/OSRS) where death can just be a case of hitting zero hitpoints, were not made to tell the story of a group of legendary characters and their epic journey (not immediately anyway). Similarly, Call of Cthulhu and similar cosmic horror investigation systems are not intending to give you a TV show, with a main character who’s nigh-on indestructible. Life is cheap, and characters are made to be created and killed. In these systems, the “story” is not about the characters, who are thrown into a meatgrinder and slain frequently, it is about the journey and experience of the players.

I’d note here that in D&D 5e, death is incredibly hard to come by. The mechanics of the three death saving throws, combined with the ability for healing magic to instantly revive characters, means that characters will only die when the party dies, most of the time. Aside from this, an unconscious character being hit which automatically causes two death throw failures, is the only other viable path5 which, you as a DM have control over. That doesn’t mean you have control over the roll of the dice, it means you had control over the goblin that stabbed them with a spear. If you didn’t want them to die, why did you hit them? Is it, perhaps, because you wanted the artificial tension of them thinking they could die?

tl;dr

If you’re not using the variety that dice rolls give you, you’re not being as creative as you could be. The randomness introduced by the dice gives us immense creative power and license, which we should be using. It also allows us to offload work onto the dice, using our brain for more important things.

If you’re coming into an RPG with a preconceived idea of where the story will go (not a general notion, but a ‘script’), then you shouldn’t be playing an RPG. You should be writing a book.

If you didn’t want the characters to be imperiled in a certain situation, then you shouldn’t have set up the circumstances by which they were imperiled. You control the world.

If you wanted death to be harder because your characters are important for the story, then you shouldn’t play a system where death is an eminent possibility. You should agree with your players that the rules for death will be changed, or play a different system.

The stories that you and your players tell will be better if you don’t fudge. That’s my firm belief, and I would really encourage you to try it if you don’t believe me. Do it. Play a campaign where you say to yourself that you’re going to do it without fudging, and see where that campaign goes. I guarantee you’ll look back on it fondly.

Footnotes

1. If you think of ad-libbing in the actual theatre sense, it (usually) begins with someone setting the scene. “You’re a doctor in an overbooked clinic” or “a waiter in a restaurant full of nuns”. When we start to think about how the world operates, we create the “scene” that the DM then performs in (which is then made much easier for that fact)

2. As someone who studied philosophy of language, the idea of trying to define anything about “games” is pretty painful, but I’m staking my flag here.

3. It also has the worst rulebook that I have ever read for a published game. I’m not sure if they’ve fixed it with the revised edition (created by a different team), but good lord it is a study in how not to lay out a rulebook.

4. D&D5e has an ‘Epic’ fantasy ruleset where short rests and long rests are more plentiful – typically, running out of resources like healing and magic is what kills a party, rather than instant death from a creature/trap.

5. This led to a rather awkward moment in one of the earlier episodes of Critical Role Season 2, where the DM was setting up a cone attack (with a dex saving throw) from one of the enemies, only to realise that the attack would hit an unconscious character (which automatically fail dex saving throws) and kill them instantly. Naturally, the attack was then adjusted in a nonsensical direction where that character was coincidentally avoided! Hooray.

Categories
ttrpgs

on fudging (part 2)

the pro-fudge position

Magicians are the most honest people in the world; they tell you they’re going to fool you, and then they do it.

James Randi

Now that we’ve been armed with a definition and example of fudging, let’s construct a steelman for why someone might want to do it. These are points that have been said time and time again whenever this subject comes up (anecdotally, users on r/dnd are more pro-fudge, whereas r/rpg tends to be more anti-fudge). Let it be said that I disagree with every single one of these arguments, but I’ll leave them out for now.


the “insurance DM”

As any insufferable stackoverflow user will tell you, randomness does not mean “fairly and evenly distributed”; it means “random”1. So, while it is less likely that you roll three natural 20s out of five dice (the expected value of a d20 being 10.5), it doesn’t mean it can’t happen, and won’t happen. In fact, because of the relatively low number of rolls that occur in the average TTRPG, you should expect that your rolls will be all over the place (or uh, not).

The DM’s job is to act as a “statistical moderator”. We can’t rely on the law of large numbers to help us with such a small number of rolls, but the DM is able to step in and turn that fourth natural 20 roll into something else, or allow that boss monster who’s missed two turns in a row to finally get a hit. Rolling below a target constantly isn’t fun, and a fight where the boss doesn’t do any damage isn’t tense and so, not fun.

The rolling of dice is just a shortcut, or a model. We don’t have the time to go and calculate all the relevant factors when a kobold thrusts a spear at a player. A TTRPG cannot be a complete simulation of the world (or even just physics), so we bundle all of it up into the dice, and we use that as a flawed representation. By fudging, we simply alleviate one of the gameplay problems with that flawed representation, through a person (the DM) with the power to do so.

the storyteller argument

Remember that scene in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, where the Fellowship flees across a thin bridge, chased by the mighty Balrog? Where Gandalf successfully casts a spell to destroy the bridge behind them, but tragically fails his saving throw to avoid being dragged into the abyss by the Balrog’s whip? Imagine if, instead, most of the party failed their acrobatics roll to cross the bridge, fell into the void, and died.

Wouldn’t that be crap? They were meant to go on and do great things! After all, there’s two more books of their adventures (RIP Boromir), there’s stuff that they need to be getting to. Set pieces that have been planned which will be extremely fun to play, which people will be talking about for the rest of their lives! I don’t want people’s characters to die in such a mundane and insignificant way; they were meant to be heroes, and heroes don’t die without at least a sad backing track.

Furthermore, what if my player hard an arc in mind for their character? What if they wanted to play a Boromir character, who spends a portion of the adventure being a questionable and fraught character, but comes to their crowning moment of redemption and self sacrifice? Are they going to be happy that they now need to spend the next 30 minutes to an hour looking at the rules for character creation? No way. They’ve even drawn a sketch of their character on the sheet.

The dice is useful until it gets in the way of telling my fun and compelling story. When that happens, we throw it to the back of the cupboard until we’re finished with the really important scene. You can’t have Lord of the Rings with the dice getting in the way.

dice as a tension device

I love the act of rolling the dice. I love the reaction of my players when they hear it behind the screen, because they know that something is about to happen. I love when they roll the dice on an important check, when they desperately need a success and the odds are against them. What gives me the tension and reaction I want is the act of rolling the dice – not using the result. So why should I use it? Similar to the storyteller, it gets in my way, but I still want the tension it gives the game.

If the player’s success was guaranteed, they wouldn’t feel like it was an adventure, it’d be boring! So I have to make it seem like there’s a chance of failure, because that’s how I get my tension. The players don’t need to know that they couldn’t fail to climb that building, they don’t need to know that they couldn’t successfully cast restraining magic on my bad guy before they teleport away. They just need to think that they could, and that’s done by me pretending.

If we can have the tension that a dice roll creates, without the unpleasant uncertainty or statistical obnoxiousness, why wouldn’t we do that?

the fairness argument

My players did ALL the right things. They’re robbing a bank, right, and they meticulously planned the whole thing. They got floor plans of the building for all the exits, entrances and vents. They paid off the head of the security company that provides the guards, so they’re short-staffing the bank today. They’ve worked out the rotation of the door key codes, so they’re able to painlessly access the employee areas of the bank, alongside the perfect forgeries for ID cards they had printed last week.

So how is it fair that they failed three rolls in a row to convince an employee that they’re meant to be there? They put in all that work, and now there’s a police squad coming in to arrest them. By fudging the roll, and allowing them to pass that employee, I’m being fair. They put in so much effort, so they deserve the good outcome, even when the dice roll disagrees.

If a player has done all the right things, then we should ignore the dice. I don’t railroad them, give them undeserved riches, or sadistically destroy them. I encourage fun and good roleplay while giving them lots of choices in what goes on. The dice can get in the way of all that. I let them roll so they have a feeling of control and I tailor the responses accordingly but a string of crits or failures is only going to affect them so much if they are making good role-playing choices.

If they’re punished, even when making the correct choices, then they’ll lose faith in the game and become jaded. I have to make sure that the game rewards their work with success, which is fun.

all fudge arguments

I don’t fudge to screw over my players, or to elevate them to gods. I fudge for them to have fun. Fudging is a tool for me to use as the DM – it’s another element of the toolbox, and it’s my job as the DM to use the toolbox to make sure that the players are having fun. When I fudge, it’s in favour of my players.


Footnotes

1. Responses to people complaining that their shuffling ipod played the same song 4 times with “that’s what randomness is” is the same as saying to a suffocating man that he shouldn’t be screaming for oxygen, because it’s only 20.95% of what we breathe.

Categories
ttrpgs

on fudging (part 1)

what is fudging

No. Don’t do it, don’t fucking do it.

Adam Koebel, Office Hours Episode 70

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have very strong opinions on the idea of fudging. I have spoken at great length with people on what I think about it, so I wanted to have something written down. Maybe in a few years I’ll look back on these posts and think “wow I was completely off the mark”, but until then; I’m setting sail for blissful confidence in the things I’m going to write. This is the first of probably many posts, so BuCkLe Up.


Imagine a scenario where you are playing a TTRPG, say D&D 5e, and a player is about to be struck by a kobold wielding a spear. This is the first session of your campaign, perhaps even the first encounter – your players are excited to start a new adventure, you are excited to be dungeon mastering (DMing) for them. All is well. As the campaign has just started, you’ve created a series of (what you believe to be) easy encounters; stuff for the players to ease into character, get used to the game mechanics, and socialise with the other players. All going well, by the end of the day, your players will have triumphed over some minor challenges, taken some XP and gold, and be thirsting for the next session.

The first encounter comes up, a trivial scenario with three spear wielding kobolds. You roll initiative, and two of the kobolds are going first. They move forwards and stab at the nearest player character (PC). The first, rolling a solid 16, scores a hit and a chunk of damage is done. You describe in visceral detail how the kobold surges forwards, finding a gap in the armour of the player to devastating effect. The second kobold now comes at them, and you roll for the hit.

A natural 20, a critical hit.

This attack is going to knock their character unconscious, and may even lead to their death. Is this a bad thing? Are they going to be disappointed that the very first thing that happens to their character is being knocked unconscious, possibly slain? Are they going to be leaving the session thinking “wow, loved how I got to lie on the floor for that first combat, great”. Will they even come back for a second one?

Two options immediately present themselves.

  1. You deliver the blow, explain to them that this “just happens sometimes”. You hope that they understand, with any dice based game, random chance can give you unpalatable situations. Maybe you go easy on the floored character for the remainder of the session, making the enemies attack other players unless there’s no way around it. This was meant to be easy! Now you might have to rethink the next scenario, you didn’t think they’d be so low on health! You move onto the next characters in the combat, and hope they fair better, while pretending that you’re not uncomfortable with this series of events.

2. You tell them that the kobold missed.

The second option here, is fudging. You have rolled the dice, seen the result, and decided that you are going to ignore the result on the dice in favour of a different outcome that you will choose.

This is what the series of posts will talk about, and why I think that it’s the worst thing a dungeon master, game master, or keeper of arcane lore can do.