Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Myth of the Myth of Play Balance

TLDR:  play balance in roleplaying games is possible, and desirable.  But the definition of play balance is different in roleplaying games and in competitive games.


The topic of game balance in roleplaying has been a hot and sometimes contentious one.  I thought I would give my views on the matter.


It is important in any sort of competitive game that there be some sort of game balance.  By “competitive game” I mean any game where there is a winner and a loser – chess, Advanced Squad Leader, Magic: the Gathering, Rails Across America, and Quelf are all competitive games, and even cooperative games such as Pandemic and Sentinels of the Multiverse qualify here, because even though players are working together against the game system, they can still either win or lose.  “Game Balance” encompasses two qualities – 1) there is a reasonable chance that any side can win at the beginning of the game, and 2) that skill is a factor in determining who wins.

It is very difficult to make a game perfectly balanced.  Even the venerable chess is biased in favor of the player who moves first.  It is even more difficult to balance a game that contains random elements such as dice rolls or card draws.  So the important thing here is “reasonable”.  It is rare to find a player who likes to lose, so finding players to participate in a competitive game with a great deal of bias  is less likely to be successful.

Roleplaying Group by JustaBlink


Roleplaying games are different from competitive games because in roleplaying games there is no winner*.  Competitive games typically have some sort of victory conditions that dictate how and when the game ends – take Bastogne, accumulate X points, eliminate all the opponents, drop the ring in the volcano.  Once the conditions for victory are met, the game is over, the participants shake hands around the table, and the game goes back in the box.

In roleplaying games, there are usually no victory conditions that end the game because the objective of the game is not to win, but to tell a good story.  Once Bastogne is taken, once the opponents are eliminated, once the ring is dropped in the volcano the game doesn’t end, but instead simply moves on to another plot or storyline.


Broadly speaking, roleplaying games and competitive games are the same in two ways.  First, as recreational activities one of the big incentives for anyone to play them is having fun.  People play both competitive games and roleplaying games in order to enjoy themselves and have a good time that they share with friends.  While the definition of what constitutes fun varies considerably – hence the wide variety of both competitive and roleplaying games available – people play board games in order to have fun and people play roleplaying games for the same reason.

Second, both rely on rules to define the framework of the activity.  These rules act as a boilerplate contract between the participants defining what they can and cannot do within the game environment.  They serve to focus and guide the participants in how they have fun within the context of the game.  The definitions of “fun” are different in competitive games and roleplaying games so the framework of rules will be different and have differing goals, but in the end “having fun” is what it is all about in both cases.


If the purpose of roleplaying games is to tell good stories, then “balance” in roleplaying games has, like competitive games, two components – 1) to give all the participants a reasonable chance of telling good stories, and 2) that skill is a factor in determining the quality of the stories told.

Because roleplaying games are about telling stories, because players play roleplaying games in order to tell good stories and gamemasters oversee roleplaying games in order to facilitate good storytelling, at the very core of any roleplaying game there should be an assumption that every participant in the game should have a reasonable chance of telling good stories.  In fact, participants should have a reasonable chance of telling not one but three good stories simultaneously –

1)  The story of their character

2)  The story of the interactions between some or all of the other player-characters

3)  The story of the overarching plot which concerns all the characters

These three types of stories, interwoven with each other and with the stories of the other player-characters, form the narrative element that makes roleplaying different than competitive gaming.  A game without stories is not a roleplaying game.  Conversely, a game WITH stories is a roleplaying game, even if the narrative element is grafted onto a game that normally doesn’t have one.  Want to play “Chutes and Ladders” as a narrative campaign?  It’s possible if the players agree to add narrative elements.

Being successful at it, however, requires that the players agree what narrative elements to add and how to add them.  And that is precisely where game balance comes in.


In roleplaying games, game balance is a far more nebulous concept than in competitive games because the objective is less defined.  If friends sit down to play Virgin Queen, a brief glance at the back of the game box should be enough to give everyone a good idea what they are doing, if not precisely how.  On the other hand, if friends sit down to play the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, they will initially have considerably less idea of what they will be doing within the game, aside from playing characters in a quasi-oriental(ish) setting.  The game “world” of Virgin Queen is relatively small and defined; the world of “Legend of the Five Rings” is large and nebulous.  This is because “Legend of the Five Rings” is designed to be a game for telling stories, and the authors made a design choice to allow for a rich and broad “sandbox” for play groups to use.  Most roleplaying games take this approach to their setting (though see “The Mountain Witch” for a counter-example of a very defined setting) because the designers want the eventual participants to have a wide range of choices  within their game for what sort of stories they tell.

Large “sandbox” game settings provide ample opportunity to tell many types of story successfully, but at a cost in terms of play balance.  Because the variety of stories that can be told within the setting is so broad, and the types of character available are consequently so varied, greater effort is required on the part of the participants to tell provide an environment in which they can all tell good stories about and with their characters.  As an example, it is more difficult to tell interesting stories about a Nezumi (“ratling”) warrior if the game is set in the Imperial Court and all the other characters are courtiers, and more difficult to tell stories involving an effete Crane courtier if the game is set on the Kaiu Wall and all the other characters are Nezumi warriors.  I don’t mean to imply that such stories are impossible, but they will take additional effort on the part of all the participants to pull off, and have a greater risk of stretching an individual character concept past the breaking point at which it becomes more trouble and effort for participants to tell good stories involving that character than the amount of fun derived from the experience.

Game balance in a roleplaying game is also dynamic, unlike game balance in competitive games which is largely static.  In competitive games the game balance elements are built in – in the “Game of Thrones” board game you have a number of factions representing the various Houses, all of them trying to achieve a specific objective in order to win.  Within the game environment each faction has a reasonable chance of winning, and the skill of each player is an important component in deciding who wins.  All this is set out in the rulebook and the participants need give it little thought.  In the “A Song of Ice and Fire” rpg, however, many of the factors which will make for a balanced game (and remember, “balanced” in this context means “game in which the participants can tell good stories” ) are left up to the participants to decide for themselves.

The three big factors involved with balancing an RPG game are 1) agreement by the participants about the stories they want to tell, 2) the rules system being used, 3) the setting.  I’ll discuss them in reverse order


The setting in a roleplaying game is the most basic, boilerplate frame on which to build good stories.  It provides a the answers to a large number of important questions such as “what genre are we playing?”, “what does the world look like?” and often “what sort of characters can we play?” (and related to that, “what sort of stories can we tell most easily?”).  If a game group is using “7th Sea” as a setting, all the participants know from the beginning that they are telling swashbuckling stories in a quasi-European setting and that they have options for telling stories in one or more of the various nations of the setting but they will not be telling stories about Space Marines or sentient mice.

Deciding on the game setting is extremely important for any roleplaying group – far more-so than for competitive gaming, and especially for on-going campaigns.  If one participant is less than thrilled with the setting of a given competitive game then they can lobby for something different the next time the group meets, but in roleplaying agreeing to a particular setting may constrain a participant to stories they aren’t terribly interested in for months or years.


Rules provide for a second level framework on which to hang stories.  They are important for two reasons.  First is that they help further define which stories are easy to tell and which stories are hard to tell.  Dungeons and Dragons is a good game system for telling stories about characters who grow from relative obscurity to great power, and Champions is a good system for telling stories about superheroes.  Spycraft is a good game for telling spy stories in which equipment matters, and Wilderness of Mirrors is a good game for telling spy stories where it doesn’t.  Rules systems help refine the choices in storytelling opportunities and technique.

Second, and related somewhat, rules help define how conflicts are resolved, and how randomness and uncertainty are added into the game.  A characteristic of the roleplaying experience is that there is an element of uncertainty in the storytelling which allows the participants to be surprised about the outcome, and particularly the outcome of a conflict.  Different rules systems allow for varying amounts of randomness in the storytelling and emphasize or deemphasize certain types of conflict.  Pathfinder, for example, has a large number of rules for controlling the random elements of combat and magic use, and relatively few for controlling the random element of social interactions.  Because of this, the stories told in Pathfinder will likely spend more time with fighting than social interaction.


I saved this one for last because it is the most important, but many roleplaying games don’t put it enough emphasis on it.  Roleplaying is inherently cooperative, unlike most competitive games (cooperative games being an exception – and yes I know the nomenclature is confusing.  Just remember that a competitive game is one where the goal is to have fun by winning, whether against the other players or the game system).  Because of this, it is important for all participants in a roleplaying game to decide for themselves what makes for the best storytelling experience for everyone.  My feeling is that this is the single biggest factor in deciding whether a given roleplaying game succeeds or fails in providing fun for the participants, and also one of the areas that participants are most likely to gloss over or rush through.

Older roleplaying games had a focused and similar approach to game balance and the participants.  One participant was assigned to be the primary storyteller and given primary responsibility for all the story elements that did not involve the direct actions of the other participants characters.  Other participants built characters using specific packages for their character’s race, character class, etc. to define the character.  The types of stories that each individual participant wanted to tell were implicit in the type of character they designed – fighter characters were all about telling stories of fighting, wizard characters were all about telling stories of magic, etc.

Newer roleplaying games have shifted away from this focused approach and give participants more freedom to focus on the telling of stories.  Often they involve taking some of the responsibilities away from the primary storyteller and making them a group responsibility or having multiple participants serve as the primary storyteller in rotation.

Often the primary storyteller is given considerably greater power to add or subtract story elements or decide on the direction of the story.  This is fine so long as everyone agrees to it, as attested by the success of games like D&D and Pathfinder.  But it is important to point out here that roleplaying has moved far, far away from the days and the rules systems that require this to be the case, and that participants now have a wide variety of options in terms of what stories to tell and how to tell them.



Balancing a roleplaying game is a multi-stage, iterative process.  For game designers, who get first crack at it, it involves looking at the setting, the rules generally, and the types of characters that can be created, and asking “Do all the types of characters allowed in this game have a reasonable chance of having good stories told about them somewhere in the setting?”  This doesn’t mean that every single character type necessarily has to have a reasonable chance of generating good stories in every single corner of the game setting.  But it DOES mean that character types should have rough equivalency.  There should not be character types that are blatantly more powerful than others to the point that the overshadow the stories that other characters can tell.  The more randomness there is in character creation, the more likely this is to happen, so there needs to be balance not only between character types and within character types to make certain that the fighter who rolls poorly for stats has as much of a chance of telling good stories as the fighter who rolls really well.  Even within games that use a point-buy system, there needs to be some sort of rough equivalence in the power of build point spent on X vs Y.  So, for example, in a spy game if the skill “Shooting” costs one point per level and the skill “Play Piano” costs three points per level, warning bells should go off.  Shooting is a much more versatile and useful skill in most spy games than playing a piano, and that should be reflected in the relative costs.  If the game system charges more for “Play Piano” than “Shooting” most participants will get the message that the game system is actively discouraging stories in which people spend a lot of time playing the piano.  And if that’s the case, why put it in at all?  In the original Pendragon there was no stealth skill for the simple reason that knights don’t sneak.  Did that limit the sorts of stories that could be told?  Yes.  But placing a framework on the sorts of stories that can be told is part of what a system and setting are all about.

The next step comes when the game is purchased and gets floated as an idea within a particular roleplaying group.  At this point everything is up to the participants.  As individuals and as a group they need to look over the game – the rules, the setting, the sorts of characters that can be created, the sorts of characters that they are inspired to create both individually and as a group, and decide if the game works for everyone.  Not just the majority of the participants – everyone.  If there is even one person that the game doesn’t work well for, that person shouldn’t play.  And since most roleplaying groups consist of friends, making the decision to put a game ahead of social interaction with a friend is almost invariably a bad idea.

By the time the system and setting have been decided on, there are probably already some ideas about stories percolating within the group of participants and these should be scrutinized to make certain that they make for good stories that are exciting for at least a couple of the participants and not squicky to anyone.  If the participants include one who is going to take on primary storytelling duties, that participant should ideally be enthusiastic about all the story ideas, because stories that the storyteller is not excited about are unlikely to be good stories.  WRITE DOWN GOOD STORY IDEAS!  Make sure they are preserved.

Once these story ideas are preserved, the participants should create characters.  As with system and setting, this should be a collaborative effort among all the participants, and everyone should be sensitive to what makes for good stories about the other participants characters, and what good stories can be told about their interaction.  In many, but not all systems there are clues about what sort of stories a particular participant is interested in buried in the character creation process (flaws and virtues, character class, race, and choice of skills are all good indicators) but again participants must be on board with these stories for everyone to have a reasonable chance of good storytelling.  Again, write down the story ideas in order to make sure they are preserved.

At the end of character creation, the group should have a big list of stories that they want to tell.  Make up a sheet for each participant who has a character, and list stories under the following three headers

1)  The story of a participant’s character

2)  The story, or stories of the interactions between the participant’s character and the characters of other participants

3)  The story of how the participant’s character interacts with the metaplot, if any.

If there are story ideas left over, put them on a separate sheet.  Make copies for each participant, make another copy to stick in a binder, and last but not least make a copy and put it online.  THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE GROUP’S CAMPAIGN BIBLE.  It serves the same general purpose as the rules booklet of a competitive game – to define how the participants are going to play the game in order to have fun.  In a competitive game the rules define how to win.  In the Campaign Bible the rules define what sort of stories the participants consider to be the best, so that the group as a whole can work towards telling them.

The final step in play balancing involves coming to a different understanding of what system rules and setting are in a roleplaying game as compared to a competitive game.  In a competitive game, it is common for the participants to add their own minor variations of the rules – “house rules” to the game in order to make the game more interesting or balanced.  Such rules are often even added in by the original designers (though they are usually referred to as “optional rules”).  If the participants feel that the 20th Maine needs to arrive a turn earlier or the Starks need and extra infantry unit or that White needs to give up a Knight in order for the game to be more fun, then typically they just go ahead and make the change.  Roleplaying games have, or should have, the same sort of within-group balancing mechanism that the participants can use to help improve the fun of the game.  Any time that the written rules or setting of a roleplaying game interfere with the stories listed in the campaign bible, THE RULES AND/OR SETTING SHOULD GIVE WAY TO THE STORY.  The Campaign Bible should always be considered primary, the rules and even the setting secondary.


Roleplaying games, like competitive games, can be balanced, but it is a differing, more dynamic sort of balance.  It comes from the freedom of the participants to tell stories that interest them through the medium of roleplaying, and it is balanced by making sure that everyone has a reasonable chance to tell interesting stories involving their character, interactions with the characters of the other participants, and interaction with the metaplot.  Factors such as the relative power level of characters and bias in favor of certain types of stories by rules systems and settings can make the job of the participants easier, and thus contribute to play balance, but should always, always be of less importance than the stories themselves.  Stories, as a collaborative effort by the participants, should always be the primary focus, and all other factors should be subservient to them.


*This observation is written at the beginning of 99% of roleplaying games, usually under a heading like “What is a roleplaying game?”  Someday really soon I am going to have a rant on why game writers should STOP PUTTING THIS IN THEIR GAMES but for now if you really need a basic explanation of what “no winner” means, open any RPG.

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BIG BAD CON 2014 – PART III (Sunday)

When I woke up, I was pretty sure I was dead.  After all the energy of all the games in the last two days, and after not getting to sleep until something like 3:00 am, all I really wanted to do was just snuggle back under the covers and go back to sleep, preferably with a nice, warm wife.

But the nice, warm wife had a Firefly game to run, so I staggered and crashed around the room, managed to make coffee, managed to get something to eat, and once again toddled off – this time bleary and barely sentient – to go to another game.


I was crashing Sophie’s game again, so again I sat politely and waited for other players to make their choices before I made mine, though I was secretly hoping to play Mal (to the point that I seriously considered giving my my scruples and calling dibs).  Sometimes virtue can in fact be rewarded, because when the others had chosen, there was Mal, still on the table, just looking up at me all manly and Captainy!

I confess I had some misgivings about the Cortex system.  The original “Serenity” put out by Margaret Weiss Productions had been a dim and dismal affair IMHO, and though I had liked Marvel Superheroes I had also found it a tough game to understand.  Grabbing Mal was therefor something of an act of faith – I knew that if I was playing Mal I was going to be in a leadership role, and that was going to put some requirements on me to care for the ship and crew.  One of the things I noticed right off on the character sheet was that one of Mal’s big abilities was to give another character an extra d10 if that character was following his orders by spending a Plot Point.  “Aha!” I thought to myself and suddenly knew my role in the game.

I was going to be the party cleric, making other people look good by boosting their dice pools.  This was quite successful and really funny too!

Early on in the game, Kaylee accidentally managed to jam her parasol point-first into the shoulder of a thug.  From then on when Kaylee got into combat I always tried to give her an extra d10.  I also played up Kaylee’s ferocity to our opposition – the “you think I’m trouble?  You don’t want to get HER riled!” sort of thing.  It was really fun, and Kaylee actually managed to lay out a couple of thugs this way, which made it even more fun.

Everyone did a fantastic job playing their characters and it was clear that everyone was a big fan of the show.  The person playing Jayne was in particularly fine form, and I don’t think I will ever be able to go into someplace posh without thinking “Hey, free mints” again.

An important lesson that was reinforced for me in this game – be a fan of the players, not only when you are the GM but when you are a player.  It is easy to get so focused on the character that you are playing that you forget about the other characters (and that’s OK to a certain extent – as a player your primary task is to play your character, not someone else’s).  But if you can get past that, and look for opportunities for your character to help other characters look cool, man you will set yourself up for some incredible roleplaying!

SUNDAY LUNCH – limited selection

There was a schawarma and falafel truck in the parking lot for lunch, but by the time we got there it was out of almost everything (though not schawarma, which was what I wanted).  During the afternoon I overheard several other attendees talking about how the truck ran out of almost everything, and the wait was very long (40 minutes in some cases).  Not sure exactly what the problem was with this particular vendor but it was disappointing to hear after the good service of the previous days.


Cunning Cat Caper2Sophie had been planning on attending my Cat game in the afternoon, but while we were waiting for food Karen Twelves persuaded her to join a different game instead.  I was disappointed, but it turned out to be for the best because honestly I was running out of steam by the time I sat down to game.  Fortunately for me, my players were not.

I think the most enthusiastic bunch of players I had for the entire convention were the players for my Cat game.  They were full of cat stories and were totally in the cat mindset.  One player actually had a drawing she had made of the cat she wanted to play.  I had pregens, each with their own picture, but how could I say “no” to that?  My only regret now is that I didn’t give her a Fate Point for it, but as I said I was running low on steam.

I had a scenario planned out, but with Sophie not attending I was able to borrow some set locations and villain stats from a previous game I had run, which was nice.  The cats had an epic adventure finding out who had stolen Mr. Stinky’s smell, and thwarting a rat bane spirit who was attempting to destroy the neighborhood cats.  Players did awesome stuff and were extremely cattish, which added to the fun.  Another great game, and a wonderful conclusion to Big Bad Con.


No, not the game.

We hit the road pretty quickly after the Cat game broke up.  Sophie and I were both tired and we were a bit worried that if we took the time to circle the convention saying goodbye to everyone we would be another hour getting out of the convention.  So if we missed you, or didn’t say goodbye to you – to everyone who was in a game with me, as well as those of you from previous years, thank you for another great Big Bad Con.  It was memorable and fun and uplifting.  See you next year!





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BIG BAD CON 2014 – Part II (Saturday)

Woke up this morning to a living nightmare – we (meaning “I”) had forgotten the French press!  NO!  DEAR SWEET LORD NO!

As a slight mitigation, we (meaning “I”) had remembered the milk, the cocoa, and the whipped cream, and as the room had one of those dinky little coffee making machines, we were able to adulterate the rather dismal dinky-little-coffee-making-machine coffee to something resembling potability.

By the time I was up and moving around, Sophie had already been to a seminar on the state of the gaming industry, hobnobbed with game designer deities, and put Luke Crane in his place during the question-and-answer period.  I made sure to give her extra cream and cocoa.

Sophie had an Improv workshop to go to in the morning, and I had more GoD duty, so after our coffee and some blueberry bread and fruit, off we went.


Things started slowly in the GoD room Saturday morning, as they often do.  Players trickled in, bleary-eyed but eager.  The first couple of players at the table decided to play Omega Zone and so we got down to character creation.

Normally I prefer to run convention games with pregenerated characters, but Omega Zone is an exception.  Since the game has a card-based character generation system, I can just flip a few cards at players and bang!  Instant characters.  I do wish that the game had listed the approaches in the same order they are listed in FAE so players wouldn’t have to transpose, but that isn’t a fatal flaw.  But I digress.

The party kicked ass in this game.  Everyone was good, everyone understood the importance of “Create Advantage” and everyone chipped in and had their moment.  I generated a scenario more or less at random from the plot cards, and handed out random pieces of gear and sub-plots, and everyone had a heck of a time.  I even mutated the characters once just to show off that aspect of the card deck (everyone seemed pleased except the player who had his talking cat turn into a talking lobster – but he got better).

It’s really fun to see players cut loose in a big game sandbox, which is what these players did.  With the semi-random sub-plot cards popping up to keep things interesting, it was a lively, inventive, and fun adventure .


Lunch today came from a food truck.

One of the only difficulties with the location of Big Bad Con is that food is a bit far and inconvenient.  The solution:  food trucks!  Today’s food truck offered thai food, which I am not precisely enthusiastic about – but I got a couple of spring rolls and Sophie got some curry, and we both enjoyed our meals.

Food trucks = good idea.  More conventions should have them (though I would guess that hotels will be understandably reluctant to have gamers avoiding their $20.00 hamburgers).

SATURDAY AFTERNOON:  Tien Xia – Never Pick the Ranger!

Saturday afternoon I played in Sophie’s Tien Xia game, which is a setting for FATE Core.  I was a party crasher for this one, taking one of the secret spots that Sophie doesn’t put up for prereg (yes, I do the same for her), so I sat back and let others choose between the various pregens and took what was left.  What was left was a fighter and a ranger (or more accurately a noble warrior and a wild woman of the forest).

Normally I would have taken the fighter in a heartbeat, and after the Pathfinder game of a couple of weeks back I had severe reservations about taking the ranger.  “Never take the ranger” has always seemed prudent for one-shots because the wildernessy ranger skills are so often wasted on dungeon crawls and in cities.  Nevertheless I took the ranger because, well, sometimes you just have to stretch.

In terms of my theory, the character was exactly the way I thought it would be – loaded down with aspects, stunts, and techniques that were completely useless in the city where the adventure took place (they all had provisos like “When in the wilderness….”).  I was briefly miffed and briefly kicked myself for not following my own guidelines.  But then I settled in and just had some plain, old-fashioned fun.  The players I was playing with were top notch (as always), and the plot elements flowed smoothly from start to finish.  There was much Wuxizing and leaping and punching and kicking and such.  I got to play a fate point to look exactly like the Princess of the Moon Faire in order to impersonate her (leading to lots of hilarious scenes where other PCs dressed up the wild woman and did her hair – WORST.  MOON PRINCESS.  EVER!) and got to do some cool martial arts maneuvers with my Forest Snake technique, including blowing a whole bunch of Fate points and advantages on a strike that drained the tainted black blood from the Moon Champion and disrupted the spell holding her captive.  I highly recommend Tien Xia as a supplement, and Sophie as a GM for it!

SATURDAY EVENING:  Bulldogs! – Saying “Yes”

There was a last minute cancellation the week before the convention, and Sean Nittner put out a call for GMs to fill in.  Like a crazy man, I volunteered, and so found myself running Bulldogs!.  Bulldogs! is a science fiction setting for FATE Core.  It’s a bit over the top and not meant to be taken too seriously.  Because time was short, I grabbed a whole bunch of pregen scenarios and decided “well, I’ll just run one, and if there is time I will run a second, and then a third.”

My players, it turned out, focused on one idea above all others – “Deliver the cargo, get paid.”  Many of the published scenarios have various plot hooks designed to lead players further into the scenario, past the “sign here – thank you!”.  No.  Once we got to that stage the scenario was OVER!

It was absolutely hilarious.

Now it is time for my one amusing anecdote of the convention.  Bear with me.

About halfway through the game a woman stopped by the table – a friend of one of the other players.  I still had a spot left, so I asked if she wanted to play.  She told me that she didn’t because she didn’t like FATE, but I gave her the spiel about Bulldogs!, her friend encouraged her to try it again, and everyone else at the table was welcoming so she sat down.  The character she got was a big, honkin’ Dolome roustabout with high Physique.  A little while later the party was involved in a firefight on the ground with a bunch of Templars, who started launching anti-ship missiles at the ship.  I rolled really well for one hit and declared that one of the missiles was sailing directly into the cargo bay where several members of the party, including the Dolome, were standing.  The woman looked at her character sheet and saw that she had a stunt called “Take the Hit” and announced “I’m going to use that to take the hit from the missile.”

What to do?

I knew full well that the missile, scaled up to do damage to vehicles instead of characters, would be doing enough damage to the character to impose some massive consequences – the kind that would carry through the rest of the evening.  I ALSO knew that this was a seriously cool moment for the character.

So I let it happen AND I scaled the damage down a bit so the character wasn’t crippled for the rest of the game.

What did I get for this?  An entire table full of people waving their arms and yelling “WOO HOO!” and “YEAH!” and a singed Dolome.

Say “Yes” to the players.  I’m telling you.

Anecdote over.

The party wound up not touching the “Help the slave revolt” plotline, stealing the combat robot instead of delivering it, never even bothering to check the cargo crate containing the kidnapped little girl, and turning the noble who tried to bribe them to help his escape in to the Barracado Pirates.  But everyone had FUN!  The Urseminite fell in love with the combat bot and wound up having tea parties for it.  The cargo officer was stealing everything not nailed down.  It was classic Bulldogs!

By the end of the game my sides hurt I had been laughing so much.  It was a really great experience.  The best moment came when the woman who played the Dolome said to me “You have redeemed FATE for me!”  I was so proud.

Fred Hicks – I did you a solid, man.  ^_^

SATURDAY NIGHT – Sleepless in Oakland

Despite the fact that the bed was nice and comfortable, and I was dead tired, I COULD NOT GET TO SLEEP.  It took me until after 3:00 am to finally fall asleep.  I worried (during that time I wasn’t sleeping) how that was going to affect me tomorrow.


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BIG BAD CON 2014 – Part I (Friday)

Once again this year Sophie and I attended Big Bad Con, and I thought I would give a brief recap (in three parts)

FRIDAY AFTERNOON GoD DUTY:  Puppetland and Fiasco.

I love Games on Demand.  It is a far, far better concept than plain old vanilla open gaming, and one that I think every gaming convention in the known universe should adapt because it just bloody well works.  Particularly for conventions like BBC, where regular game registration is done ahead of time via the internet, and the whole schedule is filled up within 5 minutes of registration opening, assuring that there are plenty of games available for people who didn’t happen to have that particular 5-minute time slot in their lives empty enough to spend it hitting “refresh” 10,000 times.  Games are ready in advance, there are signs up, and people just need to walk into the room and take a quick glance at what’s available.


I have this strange proclivity for wanting to run little-known, unusual, or out-of-print game systems at conventions.  Part of this is contrariness, and part of it I attribute to seeing endless lists of D&D games at previous conventions and wanting to give convention goers a choice.  So for Games on Demand I brought four games – Puppetland, Omega Zone, my own Brotherhood of the Rail, and a couple of Fiasco playsets as a safety net.

I’ll be mentioning this a lot during the next few posts, but I have to say that BBC players are fantastic!  I love them!  I sat at the table, some players sat down, and away we went like a whirlwind.  My group of players decided to tackle Puppetland, and they were good!  I had one player who had only been roleplaying a few months, but it didn’t matter – the enthusiasm and creativity bubbling around the table took on a life of its own immediately.  I was riding a tiger, hanging on for dear life just to keep the plot up to the characters and having the time of my life!

For those of you who don’t know it, Puppetland is a purely narrative game – what you say is what you say.  Players speak in the first person (“I throw the candy at the nutcracker!”) and the GM in the third person (“Huggins flung the hard candy at the Nutcracker, smashing it’s wooden jaw!”)  It took a little practice, but everyone picked up their narrative manner quickly and in short order the group had crossed the Lake of Milk and Cookies, rescued an endangered puppet from the Nutcrackers, been betrayed by the pirate Captain Ruddypants, defeated him and convinced him to help them, snuck into Puppetown, defeated two of Punch’s boys, and rescued the pirate puppet crew of the Good Ship Rootbeer Float!  Wowee!

After that breathtaking game we tackled the “Dragonslayers”.  I only had one player who had ever played Fiasco before, so the game followed the predictable “new player” trajectory, with players being a bit tentative at first while they tried to figure the system out in the first act, and then – having figured it out the second round of Act I – going at the game premise like bloodthirsty cannibals during Act II.  We had brilliant scenes like one character running off with the treasure, pursued by one of the dwarves, and dropping coins behind him that the miserly dwarf was compelled to stop and pick up…  followed closely by the scene in which a party of low level adventurers intercepted the trail of coins and began following, increasing in level every time they picked up some more money.  The game ended in the predictable way – with one character being eaten by the cannibalistic purple lizard men, another one being mugged by the party of adventurerers with a wand of level draining and being reduced to first level again, one character retiring from adventuring as a drunken, broken husk, and the “quiet” player making off with the vast majority of the gold and success.  Win once again!

During this time Sophie was off running a game of Atomic Robo.  I’ll link to that once she has her tale written up.

FRIDAY EVENING:  Everway, the game I was afraid of

I was apprehensive about my Everway game, that I was running on Friday evening.  Not sure exactly why it was Everway that I chose to be fretful about, but it appears to be in my nature to have to fret about something, and I suppose it was better that I fretted about Everway than the game I was going to run on Sunday afternoon, so at least I could get the fretting out of the way early.

Everway is another one of those very narrative games, and I had planned on making it super narrative by limiting the use of card deck resolution to times that seemed highly dramatically appropriate.  I also decided to go more sandboxy than I usually do in a convention game, so instead of writing a bunch of notes up, I pulled some cards that I liked out of the deck, strung a few of them together into the idea for a plot (along with a quick draw from the tarot deck), put some others aside for visuals and for some minor encounters to throw in if the pace of the game dragged and I needed to throw in something exciting, and just trusted to my players to do the rest

And they did.  And it was glorious to watch. to facilitate, to be a part of.

This was my one “serious” game of the weekend, and took the form of an investigation.  And investigations always get a bit pokey at some point or another.  But it was Friday – everyone was enthusiastic enough and had sufficiently high energy to carry the game over the less dramatically thrilling part.  The players gave good thought to problems, worked through some ethical dilemmas, rescued a child, assisted the Unity Mages, defeated the Thieves of Essence, won the Unity Rose, and were off to defeat Alurax (well, that last is definitely a story for another day).

FRIDAY NIGHT:  The Hotel Room

We had a hotel room at the convention for the first time this year, and it was quite nice – large, comfy bed, little tiny refrigerator, and most importantly it was not a 40 minute drive away in the middle of the night.  Convention experience – plus 1,000 points!

FRIDAY:  Lessons Learned

Once again I learned the lesson of really being a fan of your players, and saying “yes” to them.  I’m going to save my prime example of this until tomorrow so I don’t beat on it endlessly, but there were a couple of times that I had a choice between saying “no” to a player and sticking with the system and rules, or saying “yes” and letting the player do something kickass, and I was well served by saying “yes.”

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Big Bad Con 2014 – the short form

I got 28 hours of gaming out of this year’s Big Bad Con.  I’ll discuss it more later but here is the brief rundown –


Friday afternoon – ran Puppetland and Fiasco.  Puppetland was hilarious and Fiasco was, well, Fiasco (we used “Dragonslayers”)

Friday evening – ram Everway.  Great players, fun game.

Saturday morning – ran Omega Zone.  Hilarity ensued.

Saturday afternoon – played in Sophie’s game of Tien Xia.  Kicked ass.

Saturday evening – ran Bulldogs.  Laughed so hard my sides ached.

Sunday morning – played in Sophie’s Firefly game as Mal.  Did Captainy stuff.

Sunday evening – ran Cat for Fate Accelerated.  Rodents suffered.

All in all – ran 20 hours of games, and played in 8.  I know of no other convention where you can pack that much gaming into so short a period.

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Fed Up With Gamergate



OK, I have had it with Gamergate discussions.

I understand that you may not like Anita Sarkeesian. You may think that some of Zoe Quinn’s personal choices were not to your liking.




Tell it to the effing hand.

This stopped being about any of that stuff, or about pro and con arguments about feminism in gaming, when critics began THREATENING TO RAPE AND MURDER PEOPLE AND BLOW UP AUDITORIUMS. That argument is done. Over. Finis. The period has been added to the discussion and it is full stop, move along to the next paragraph. The end.

In the future I am not going to put up with any sort of wishy washy “This is terrible and no one should have to have this happen, BUT….” I don’t care what the “but” is. There’s no equivocating on this issue. There’s no justifying, explaining, or rationalizing. People who threaten the lives of Anita Sarkeesian, who post private photos of Zoe Quinn, who for-the-love-of-god threaten massacres rather than let them speak are WRONG. They are scum, dirtbags, terrorists, vile and hateful individuals. And if you can’t say that without also feeling the need to post your critique of Sarkeesian or Quinn or the others – SHOVE THE FUCK OFF.

You aren’t a supporter.

You aren’t a sympathizer.

You aren’t helping.

You’re just a sleazy little dirtbag trying to slip a dagger into these women on the sly by flying a false flag.

Piss off.

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Because of a last-minute cancellation, I volunteered to run “Bulldogs” at BigBadCon this weekend, in addition to my other games.  I just finished making up the character pregens and thought I would put them up.


Candy Razzle, Ship’s Attorney

Gun, Ship’s Security Consultant

Hamilcar Prioc, Ship’s Roustabout

Gearhead, Ship’s Maintenance Droid

Splurb – Loss Mitigation Consultant

Wilhelmina Pax – Executive Officer

The ship

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PFS Redeemed (mostly)


Yesterday I went to a Pathfinder Society event at Endgame.  Those of you who follow this blog know that I have been having a love-hate relationship with Pathfinder Society since Pacificon.  I had a terrible time at all the PFS games I played there, witnessed some very bad GMing, and the aftermath has been reverberating through my gamer psyche ever since.  But throughout it all the nagging thought has been in my head “A lot of people do this regularly.  It’s popular enough that there are multiple weekly events at not one but several FLGS.  At Pacificon there were more PFS events than the entire rest of the roleplaying track combined!  I have GOT to be missing something!”

So I decided to give it another try.  I can’t get to the weekday events due to travel conflicts with Sophie, but this week there was a Sunday event.  I signed up for it and off I went.

I arrived half an hour early and found a few people already waiting for the doors to open.  It was clear that a lot of these people knew one another, as there were numerous ongoing conversations – mostly having to do with feat combos, published campaigns, and PFS modules that people had run/played in.  No big surprise there.  Folks seemed polite but a bit distant and I spent a lot more time just listening to the conversations of others than I did participating, but it was clear that these people were really into Pathfinder.  I overheard at least one say that he played in three campaigns a week and regularly attended the PFS events at both FLGS and (other) FLGS.  They knew the game backwards and forwards it seemed, and mysterious acronyms like BAB and CMD  were peppered throughout the conversation.

At 10:00 am the doors opened and we all went in.  Immediately I noticed a change in attitude towards me.  As soon as I was in the gaming area and it was clear that I was here to play, people became more outgoing.  I was suddenly not a random dude standing outside a game store, I was a Pathfinder player.  I was in their world.  Again, people seemed to know one another and there was lots of friendly chatting and joking around.  It was a really good, friendly, cooperative vibe.

FijitMy first game (“Trial by Machine”) I was able to play my PFS character, Fijit the gnome sorcerer illusionist.  Unlike “Legacy of the Stone Lords” I went into this game with enough gold to get some decent gear and a couple of wands using prestige points.  Also, this time I knew what I was getting into – I was taking a gnome illusionist into an adventure that would be chock full of things that were totally immune to illusions.  But I had my wand of Magic Missiles and a wand of Cure Light so I figured I could still be useful.

And I was.

One thing about PFS games is that in terms of characters you take what you get.  None of this “balanced party” nonsense.  For this game we had (as best I can remember) – three fighter types (a fighter, a barbarian, and a gunslinger) and two sorcerers.  With the exception of the gunslinger, we all proved to be woefully inadequate to deal with the stuff we were encountering – nobody spoke goblin, nobody had disable device.  I’m not sure whether the other sorcerer was as gimped as Fijit, but I don’t think he cast anything but cantrips the entire session.  Luckily for us our gunslinger was able to do absolutely ridiculous damage with his musket and bailed us out of some otherwise difficult fights (more about this later).  Our half-orc and barbarian had INTs of 7 and were happy to bumble into traps, pull levers, and absorb damage.  Everyone was jocular and high energy and just a little crazy in that good, happy gamer way.  I was amused to find my sorcerer in the role of party healer, basically reduced to a transportation platform for a wand of “cure light wounds”.

I will say it once again – “Year of the Sky Key” is going to be a rough one for gnomes.  Of all the encounters that we had to actually fight, every single one of them was at least partially resistant to my “Color Spray”.  None of the fighters in the party was any good at “Bluff” so “Dazzling Blade” also turned out to be pretty useless.  Of my six spell slots, I wound up casting only two during the course of the game.

But that was secondary.  Everyone was nice to me, everyone helped me when I wasn’t sure about the system, and everyone was sufficiently at ease to crack jokes and engage in the occasional table talk – which the GM did not discourage, frown upon, or lecture us about.  We were congenial, we had fun, we beat up some monsters, and we got some treasure.

After a break for lunch, we all came back and I got into a second game.  This game was too high level for Fijit, so I had to play a pregen.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t given the matter much thought – I figured that I would tale a pregen based on what the party needed, but didn’t count on the GM not having copies of the pregens.  In the end I only had two pregens to choose from – a wizard or a ranger.  I picked the ranger thinking it would be easier to play and wouldn’t step on the toes of another player who had a wizard.

This.  Was.  A.  Mistake.

I had the same player with the same gunslinger in my party for the second game (he went up a level as a result of the previous game) along with a cleric/priest of some type, a fighter/bard who had a STR of 21, and the aforementioned wizard.  The GM, it turned out, was running on about 3 hours of sleep, and started running out of energy in the afternoon warmth of the game store.

At first glance my character seemed kind of awesome.  Dwarf, heavy crossbow, able to shoot into melee, did extra damage on crits, could reload as a move action, 1d10+1 damage, badger companion.  This turned out to be deceptive however, because…  robots!  Yes, we were once again facing off against constructs.  We encountered two right off, and I dutifully set about filling them full of holes with my heavy crossbow.  My badger charged, flanked one of the robots, and lasted about 1/2 a round before being pummeled into the floor.  Once again, the gunslinger did massive damage (I think his base damage in this game was d12+4).  When the fight was over, the GM informed us that the robots had 10 points of hardness, so any damage roll doing 10 points or less did nothing.  My heavy crossbow suddenly looked a whole lot smaller.

Again the group was quite congenial and funny.  The fighter/bard in particular was one of those “Hey, ho – let’s go!” types not at all afraid to just blunder straight ahead in order to keep things moving.  But the game experience suffered a bit from lack of energy – both the wizard and I were unfamiliar with our characters and took extra time figuring out what we wanted to do.  The GM was tired and couldn’t keep up the pace and energy of the game.  And there was the gunslinger.  On the one hand he was probably the savior of the game – he did so much damage that encounters were shortened considerably, so without him we probably wouldn’t have made it to the end of the encounter.  On the other hand – um – talk about making other people’s characters feel irrelevant!  The guy with the 21 strength swinging a polearm was outclassed by this character.  He generated a 66 point critical hit.  He then topped that by generating a 78 point critical hit.  There was at least one fight where, by the time I moved into position, the fight was over.  I’ll talk about this more in a future post though.  For now, let me just say that once again people were helpful, friendly, and funny, and I felt like I was an accepted part of the group from the beginning.  In the end we triumphed over our foes and got our XP and gold.

As the event broke up, there was plenty of discussion of upcoming games, various people’s campaigns, convention events, offers of rides home or loans of books, and people pitched in to help straighten up the FLGS before leaving.  Everyone was well-behaved and polite. and the whole event closed with a sort of “club” atmosphere that was convivial and made me want to participate again.

Judd Apatow, Freaks & Geeks, 2000The one real negative I noticed was the gender imbalance.  So far as I could tell there was only one woman at the event, and she only attended the afternoon session I believe.  Things were very much a guy’s club, and I missed the feminine perspective that a mixed game has.  It didn’t spoil the experience, but I did wish for more.

In any event, I believe that PFS has redeemed itself in my eyes through this event.  While Pathfinder will never be my go-to game, I found out that I can in fact go to PFS events and have a good time, enjoy hanging out with a bunch of other gamers for several hours, and rolling dice in order to kill monsters and get treasure.  And that’s fine.

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TLDR:  don’t say “no” to your players unless there is no way around it.  And there is almost always a way around it.

Recently, as you all know, I have had some positively terrible luck in my roleplaying games.  Right now I am one for seven – one good experience out of seven games. Although all the games have been D20 based, in the end I have concluded that the horrible result has not been because of the system, but characteristics of how the various GMs ran their games.

Since the last game, I have been thinking about what went wrong with the various games, and although I can critique the various GMs on a number of issues, the most serious comes down to one little word:  no.

I’ve been GMing a long time.  And I have committed just about every mistake that it is possible for a GM to make at one point or another.  So when I criticize other games and other GMs, I don’t want anyone (especially any of the GMs who might find this site and recognize themselves as one of the GMs I am talking about) to feel as if I am trying to be superior.  Believe me, everything I talk about here, I have done myself in games.  But the problem of “no” appeared in every one of the games that I had problems with recently, and in addition was conspicuously absent from the one game that I didn’t, so it seems to me that it must be a common problem, and one that is worth addressing.



adverb \ˈnō\

—used to give a negative answer or reply to a question, request, or offer


As a GM, it is your job to make your players feel supercool.  The axis of your imaginary world revolves around them, or it should.  Nothing happens in the world that doesn’t affect them in some way.  Sure, for purposes of verisimilitude there are farmers farming and laborers laboring and conjurers conjuring and space pirates pirating – but until any of these intersect with the characters that the players are playing, they’re just window dressing or, at best, foreshadowing of something coming up that will make the players feel supercool.

Notice that I am talking about your players, not their characters.  Characters are a tool, a fiction, a bunch of words and numbers scrawled on a piece of paper.  They are a device by which players access fun.  Ultimately, as a GM, it’s all about the players and not the characters.  Characters should be seen for what they are – a collection of information that tells you how the player wants to have fun and look supercool.  If your player has a wizard, then they are telling you “I want to have fun and look supercool by being Gandalf – casting spells and exploring old tomes and being really, really smart!”  If your player has a monk, then they are telling you “I want to have fun and look supercool by being Bruce Lee – getting all badass with my bare hands or some exotic weapon!”  Players come to games to have fun and to feel supercool.

There is very little in roleplaying that makes a player feel less supercool than telling them ‘no”.

Why is that?  Because usually what you say “no” to is some idea that the player has had that they think is brilliant and awesome and will let their character do something badass and supercool.  It’s seldom statements like “I hit the ork with my sword” that GMs say “no” to – it’s usually clever ideas like “I use the magical glue to attach the bead of fireballs to an arrow, then shoot it over the liche’s shoulder and past his army of undead to blow up his phylactery!”

Why would anyone say “no” to this idea?  Well, there are several reasons, including, but not limited to

  1. It’s a hassle to figure it out and rule on it.  Is there a “to hit” modifier for gluing the bead on the arrow?  What’s the AC of the phylactery?
  2. It could make the climactic combat less climactic.  If the player succeeds on turn 1, your big combat is over and the other players are left with little to do
  3. You need the liche to escape for a later scene.
  4. You spent HOURS on that liche, making him cool and interesting and evil and impressive, and by God he is NOT going to go down in one round from an arrow.
  5. The scenario doesn’t mention anything about taking out the liche with a bead of fireballs and some glue.

Some of these reasons are better than others.  But in my opinion, NONE of them are worth saying “no” to the player.  Because this is exactly the sort of ingenious, clever idea that is going to make that player feel supercool.  The player will likely talk for years about nailing the liche with a bead of fireballs and some glue – KABLAM!  WOOT!  Eat that, you bag of bones!  Its the sort of impressive in-game moment that should have everyone at the table high-fiving.  In other words it is exactly the sort of moment that everyone games for.

Do not shut this moment down by saying “no”.

This is your moment as GM – this is what you are at the table for.  This is what separates your game from one of those numbered “pick your own adventure” books.  This is where you need to shine, to improvise, to make sure both that the awesome moment HAPPENS and to see to it that the other players have fun too.  But saying “no” is not shining – saying “no” is an example of GM failure, not GM creativity or GM inspiration.

Another thing that I saw commonly in many of the games that I considered poor was GMs saying “no” to players a) before the player had a chance to finish explaining what they were trying to do, or b) without  understanding of what the player was trying to accomplish.  DO NOT DO THIS.  This is not just blocking a character from a fun, supercool moment – it’s a dick move.  It is disrespectful.  It is rude.  Nothing says to a player “I really don’t care” more than interrupting them or saying “no” to them when it is clear that you haven’t taken the time or made the effort to understand what they are trying to do.  Even if what the player is trying to do is blatantly against the rules/isn’t going to work/totally screws with another player in a way that isn’t agreed upon you should at the very least do the player the courtesy of listening to what they have to say before saying “no”.  If you take the time to listen and understand what the player is trying to accomplish, then you might be able to suggest alternatives to get them what they want, without having to say “no”.  And if you DO have to say “no” in the end at least the player will feel that you heard them out, which feels much better than being dismissed.

Which brings me to the worst reason to tell your players “no”.  Several of the games I was involved in were published scenarios, and I observed GMs consistently shooting down any idea or proposed plan that moved the characters off the plot of the scenario.  Worse yet, I saw GMs shooting down any idea or proposal that moved the characters off of how the GM thought they should play the scenario.  My fellow GMs, for the love of all that is holy DO NOT DO THIS!  It reduces the players from vicarious protagonists of the story to mere dice rolling machines to generate some random results for your story.  Yes, it’s hard to see the players going wrong in a scenario – wandering the forest and not getting to your dungeon, spending time interrogating someone who doesn’t know anything, blundering into the ogre den, flying to the wrong planet.  But all these things are fundamentally necessary for players to have fun, because they allow the players to feel that their decisions matter within the framework of the game.  Most of us are not J.R.R. Tolkien.  And I’ll let you in on a secret – even the writers of published game supplements aren’t J.R.R. Tolkien – if they were they would be writing best-selling novels, not game supplements.  I bring this up to emphasize that however good you may think the storyline of your adventure is, players are not playing it to listen to your adventure short story.  They are playing to interact with the story that you have written up, to make their mark on it, and to use it as a foundation to have fun and be supercool.  It is not just desirable for players to be able to go off the rails of a given adventure, it is a necessary requirement for a good game.  Player decisions have to matter, and that means that they have to have the potential to make both correct and incorrect decisions – to be really supercool or to fail badly.  If your story calls for the characters to travel through a forest to get to the ogre den, and halfway through the forest they decide that they want to chop down trees, start a lumber business, and use that to finance some magical item they feel that they need before taking on the ogres – GOOD FOR THEM!  As long as the players are having fun then what they are doing is good.

So when SHOULD you say “no” to players?  There are a few instances where it is appropriate.  But I would argue that even in these instances it is better to find an alternative solution if possible, and say “no” only as a last resort.

  • When a player is actively disrupting another player’s agency in the game or somehow making the game less fun for another player, it is totally OK – and even required – that you tell them “no” if you can’t find some alternative course of action that satisfies them.  This is another part of your job as GM – to make sure that all the players are having fun and that nobody is spoiling the fun of anyone else.
  • When a player is attempting an action that simply is not allowed by the rules (for example a fighter in D&D trying to cast a spell from a wizard’s spellbook) it is OK to tell them that no, that doesn’t work.
  • When a player is attempting to do something that flagrantly violates genre or otherwise wrecks the setting/mood.
  • When the player asks a question for which the answer is “no” (for example, “Is there any Mountain Dew left?”)

In conclusion – saying “no” to players  should be avoided as much as possible.  It robs players of agency, shoots them down when they are at their most creative, and often imposes the GM’s narrative on the players rather than allowing them to form their own narrative within a framework set up by the GM.

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