Thursday, 28 August 2014

[Tabletop Musings] The Proteus Effect Part 1

Hello World,

When playing a tabletop game we more often than not don the mask or persona of a fictional character. For the duration of the session we determine the actions and decisions of this character, so it is pretty apparent that the player has a great effect on who that character is.  But what if that’s a two way street? What if the characters we play have a direct effect on the decisions we make in game? How about out of game?

Nick Yee, Author of the book “The Proteus Paradox” has done numerous studies over the years all focusing on how avatars influence how we act in video game. Yee’s most notable experiment had participants play a game in they controlled an avatar with the goal of communicating with a test administrator (who they thought was another participant). There were two categories of avatars that were given to the players. The first category gave players an ugly or attractive avatar. The test found that players given the attractive avatar were much more social and intimate in the conversation than those given the ugly avatar. The other test performed gave players a tall or a short avatar. It was seen that the participants given the taller avatar on average acted much more confidently and dominant in the conversation.

Yee’s experiment shows that the avatar we control in a virtual space directly effects the decisions we make in that space, whether we are conscious of it or not. But what does all this have to do with tabletop games. Well rather than donning a virtual avatar like in traditional video games, tabletop games have you donning an imaginary avatar. This imaginary avatar is unconstrained by the limits of a graphical engine or in some they don’t have any constraints at all. It can even be argued that tabletop games promote creating characters who are more than just numbers, but an imagined person. It is often encouraged that players create back stories and personalities for these characters to really make them feel real and interesting. In doing so we are essentially crafting a mask for ourselves to wear while we play. The better we know the mask, the more in line with the character our decisions are. I believe that this makes the impact of the imaginary avatar even greater than a digital one.
Picture of Colter
Recently I was playing a campaign in which my character got into a fight with an NPC because of my character’s race. My character beat up this aggressor, to which his friends scooped him up and were dragging him away. But being a hot headed lout, my character was not going to let the aggressor get off so easily. He pulled out his pistol and shot the racist punk square in the back, killing him. This ultimately got my character into a whole heap of trouble.  So why did I do it? I had already won the fight, and killing the guy only made my situation worse. It’s because I got immersed in the character and made the decision the character would have made. If it were me in the situation I would have handled it completely differently – I also wouldn’t have won the fight. But for that moment I wasn’t me, I was Colter Snead, an undead hoodlum with a chip on his shoulder.

Most people won’t intentionally get the party into trouble to stay in character, or make the decision I made in the previous paragraph. That is a rather extreme example, but more than likely you have experienced that’s same form of drive in one form or another. It doesn’t need to be big or grand, it can be almost unnoticeable. If you are playing a cocky and overconfident character, you may make more reckless choices without even noticing it.

As we play we have this clear image of who this character is, right down to their relationships and mannerisms.  Whether consciously or not, this image is going to affect our play in some way or another. This influence can even drive us to make suboptimal decisions, or even get the rest of the players into trouble.

Next week I will continue my analysis of the Proteus effect and look into how the characters we play at the table can influence the decisions we make in our day to day lives.

Thanks for reading,


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Sunday, 24 August 2014

[Design Talk] What Does an RPG Need?

Hello World,

I have been doing a lot of research lately, reading as many systems as I possibly can. In doing so I have learned so much about what an RPG needs to be an RPG. Depending on your background in tabletop you may have very different thoughts on this, but here is a pretty standard list of what the average player thinks needs to be in an RPG.

-A GM who creates the story and the world
- A group of players each controlling one character
-Levels and experience
-A detailed combat system

Those all seem pretty important and appear in one form or another in most common RPGs on today’s market. But RPGs don’t need any of these to be considered good or functioning. Many systems may only have one or two of these traits, forgoing the rest.

Let’s take a look a Fiasco for example,

Fiasco is a game about collaborative story telling in which there is no DM. Each player has equal bearing on the world and how the story plays out. As such players may be responsible for roleplaying multiple characters. Due to the disastrous nature of Fiasco plots, games generally don’t last more than one session, thus forgoing the need for Levels, Classes, and a Combat system.  Although Fiasco uses dice it isn’t in the method we are used to seeing. Dice are used to determine what fiasco befalls the plot, only being rolled only a few times a session.

If you are interested in learning about fiasco, Tabletop did an episode on it :

You may be thinking that while Fiasco breaks a lot of the traits it is not the type of game you think of when you talk about a conventional tabletop RPG. But that’s just the problem, so many of the novice designers I see and meet only have experience with a handful of similar systems.  How can you gain a full understanding of something if you don’t look at all it has to offer? The tabletop industry is huge and diverse, with new systems being released every week. But the majority of players only play a small handful of these systems.  It’s like only eating vanilla ice cream, yes you can put chocolate chips in it, or nuts and make a different dish, but at its core it’s still the same flavour. You may like vanilla ice cream, but you are missing out on a whole world of flavours if you don’t at least try the others.

Here is an appropriate quote from Martin Yan

“People who don’t travel cannot have a global view, all they see is what’s in front of them. Those people cannot accept new things because all they know is where they live”

I encourage all players and potential designers to try systems that do things a bit differently. Some good examples are as follows.

Ars Magica – A Fantasy RPG focused on creating a wizarding community. Each player controls a Magus, their lieutenant, and their henchman. It also has a great freeform magic system which puts shame to spell lists
My Life With Master – Winner of the Diana Jones Award in 2004. This game lets players assume the role of Igor like minions working under a tyrannical Leader. This game does a fantastic job handling dark and horrific tones.

The Valedictorian’s Death – A great and creative system in which players use an old high school yearbook to create a setting and assume the identities of senior class members , in the weeks leading to the valedictorian’s death. Also its free and under 2000 worlds, so give it a read.

Buring Wheel – A more traditional Tolkien style RPG but with heavy focus on character growth and limited use of dice rolls. A good transitional system if you are coming from a purely DnD/Pathfinder background.

Dogs in the Vineyard – An RPG in which players take the role of “Gods watchdogs” travelling from town to town freeing it of sin and vice.  This uses a great free form conflict resolution which uses dice in a poker style bid system.

I could go on and on listing systems which incorporate interesting Ideas or mechanics but I am going to cut it off at these five. Between the games I just listed and Fiasco it is clear to see how different tabletop RPGs can be.  At the start of this post I purposed the question, what does an RPG need to be an RPG, the answer is nothing. There is no set formula or outline that one has to follow in order to make an RPG. If you are making one of your own you have to have a clear understanding of what is at the heart of your game. Why do people want to play it? Once you know that you can begin to expand upon the game and add mechanics that deliver upon that core.

As an example my last post I discussed how I had run into problems with my RPG, and that it was becoming a fantasy heart breaker. After talking with Fred Hicks and some other professionals in the industry I decided to take a step back and look at what my system was trying to deliver. At its core fellowship is the aesthetic I am trying to resonate with. I had to look at how to best invoke that aesthetic in my players. It was at that point I realized that a system in which one person is the DM is not the way to go. By creating that separation, it already makes it harder for all of the players (including the DM) to work together. By switching to a game with rotating GM responsibilities, it allows all the players to have their hands in the world and the story. This along with many other changes has helped me change my game from a heartbreaker to something I am proud of and can’t wait to play.

Hopefully In the next couple weeks I will have a playtest document up for players to enjoy.  If you wish to receive playtest document as they are released feel free to sign up as a playtester on the right hand side. You can also stay up to date on blog posts by following my on Google+.

Thanks for reading,


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

My Fantasy Heartbreak

Hello World,

Fantasy Heartbreaker. A term you may or may not have heard in tabletop RPG design. This term often refers to a system in which the author draws heavy influence from an already established RPG, most notably dungeons & dragons or Pathfinder. While as a concept it isn't necessarily bad, it is often loathed by the designer community as a whole. This is because designers see a nugget of innovation and new ideas at the center of these systems, but they are hidden behind walls of unnecessary or inappropriate rules. These additional layers convolute the game and draw focus away from what the game does really well. Designers and gamers see the great potential that the system had, but through poor execution and lack of diverse playtesting the game comes off as a cheap knock off.  This is why it is referred to as a heartbreaker, because it breaks the hearts of those who read it.

You may be thinking to yourself that if these rules and mechanics only hinder the game, why would any designer put them in their game to begin with? Well the answer is simple, because the design hasn’t played enough. They have this preconceived notion that in order for an RPG to be an RPG its needs all the standard things we see in games like DnD. Weapon and armor tables, fall damage, lists of traps and monsters, levels, attack and damage bonuses, ect. When in actuality a game requires none of these to be a game. If you’re making a game that tries to capture the tension and intensity of a courtroom, then a system in which you roll 1d20+skill may not be the best way to go. In this courtroom system it may be better to make the major modifiers the actual arguments and evidence that the players bring forward. Or possibly have no rolls at all, as players debate their case, have the GM keep track of the jury’s stance. Every time a compelling piece of evidence comes up, have 1 jury member sway in favor of the players. I could go on all day like this, but rather than bore you with this fictional court room system I will get to my point. There is no one way to make a game work.  There are many different ways to tackle the same problem in any design scenario. I encourage designers to go out there and play, read and learn as many systems as they can get their hands on. The larger the breadth of knowledge you have and the more resources you have to draw from. The better off your game will be.

Another type of Fantasy heartbreak, comes from one of the biggest traps new game designers fall into. Improving an already existing game. A lot of people who try their hand at game design start with the lofty goal of trying to improve upon their favorite system. I am sure you have seen this type of system before with promises of “Pathfinder with a more diverse and flexible magic system” or “D&D without being bogged down with all the number crunching”. At their heart these designs may have good ideas, but by being grounded in an already existing system it doesn't play at its best and feels like a Frankenstein of mechanics. If the designer instead chose to grow their system around its core concept the system could have been designed to deliver that experience in the best possible way.

Truth be told this is a subject that is very personal to me as I am currently struggling with it for my own system. I have a core concept which I think is very interesting and novel, but because of my inexperience I am unable to find the best way to execute it. Rather than going further and releasing a system that I am unhappy with, I have decided to take a good hard look at what I have and understand how every mechanic helps deliver the game that I want people to play. By taking this step back and looking at how to best deliver on my core aesthetic I was able to cut away rules which were only in the game because I had seen them in other systems. This has caused me to cut a chunk of the mechanics from my game. Now missing some key components I look to play, read as many systems as possible. Hunting for that spark of inspiration that will make me think about my problems from a different perspective.

Edit: Troy Costisick wrote a great article on what to do if you game is becoming a Fantasy Heart Breaker. If you are interested you can find that article HERE

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Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

[Design Talk] Know your Audience

Hello World,

One thing that I have found to really help focus my project and get a good understanding of what I want to deliver is knowing your audience. There are all kinds of players out there and if you try to design a game that pleases all of them you will end up pleasing no one.

Throughout my research I have seen numerous theories about this topic and I would like to discuss two of them here.

1.)    Ron Edwards GNS Theory

2.)    8 Types of Fun

Both theories have their merits and uses and I believe knowing both can aid you in creating a better game.

Let’s first take at a look at the GNS Theory. GNS stands for Gamist, Narativist and Simulationist and it states that all tabletop gamers fall into 1 or 2 of these categories.

Gamists are players who enjoy the aspects of a tabletop rpg that are similar to video games. Things like leveling up, gritty combat, skill checks. These players often focus on power gaming and making their character as effective as possible.  In short these players look for something they can “Win”

Narativists are players who hold story above all else. They often create characters with rich back stories and are happy if at the end of the session some good story has progressed. Although these players enjoy roleplaying, their main focus is on an overarching plot opposed to the day to day.

Simulationists are interested in games that allow them to escape to another world. These players look for games where the world is vibrantly flushed out and as “real” as possible. These are often the types of players who like to roleplay out the mundane events like setting up camp or shopping.

The GNS Theory states that these player outlooks are in opposition and that no system can please all three. This is because at their fundamental level they are coming to rpgs for different reasons.  A mechanic that works for one outlook will most likely not work for another. This is why it’s important to know which type of gamer you are appealing to before figuring out all of your mechanics.

If you wish to learn more about the GNS Theory, Ron Edwards wrote a great essay about the topic which you can find HERE.

The other theory I would like to talk about are the 8 types of fun. This theory states that there are 8 types of fun that can be conveyed through games. Although the theory was originally established for video games I find that it is very transferable to tabletop design. These 8 types of fun are as follows.

1.      Sensation
-        The games ability to stimulate our physical senses. This accounts for the books art and layout

2.      Fantasy
-        A Games ability to immerse us in its setting and lore.

3.      Narrative
-        The games ability to convey an unfolding story

4.      Challenge
-        The games ability to generate difficult encounters

5.      Fellowship
-        The games ability to encourage camaraderie and teamwork

6.      Discovery
-        The games ability to reward players for thinking outside the box.

7.      Expression
-        The games ability to allow players to self express

8.      Submission
-        The games ability to allow for passive play.

In contrast to the GNS theory, the Types of Fun theory states that everyone can enjoy all of these categories, but each person has a different hierarchy of which ones they prefer. In order to effectively focus your system design I have found it to be helpful to choose 1-3 of these types of fun to have as your core aesthetics, the reasons you want players to play your game. By knowing what kind of fun you want your players to have you can construct the system to be as good at delivering them as possible. I am not saying ignore the other types of fun, as having more types of fun will expand your audience. But do not let them take away from your core aesthetic.

If you wish to learn more about the types of fun theory, you can watch the extra credits video HERE.

In Summary, if you are looking to design a game, know your audience. Once you have your rough concept/mechanics ironed out look at who you think would enjoy playing it. Does the core concept work best for a Gamist, Narrativist, or Simulationist. Once you have that established look at what types of fun you can best deliver with the core mechanics. With these two concepts figured out you can now begin to elaborate on this system, adding fluff and surface mechanics. With every mechanic you add look at how it enhances the experience for you core audience.

Thanks for Reading,


Sunday, 10 August 2014

[Design Talk] Play Testing

Hello World,

As I discussed in my previous post, play testing is an important part of any games development. It is one of the largest factors that determine whether a game is good or not. Although this sounds simple on paper it is a lot harder to pull off successfully than one may think.

The first challenge is the fact of showing and displaying your creation out for others, which can be very tough. It’s hard to put our work out there for other to critique, we have put so much of ourselves into the project that any criticism others have about it feels like criticism about us as a person. But as I stated in the last post you can’t let your ego get in the way, otherwise you are only holding your project back. By letting as many different people critique your work you can understand what works and what doesn’t allowing you to adjust your game for the better.

The second challenge comes from listening. Advice does you no good if you do not heed it. This is a much tougher challenge then one might initially think. I found this missed information to take two forms, defensive refusal and subtle thoughts.

Let’s take a look at the defensive refusal. This occurs when you ignore information stated by your playtester. This can happen for a number of reasons, a couple examples being, thinking the player is talking about an issue you already know about, thinking your player is just being a jerk/troll, or thinking your player just doesn’t understand what the game is about. This is bad, and is a habit that you should be trying to break as soon as possible. No playtest information is inherently bad or useless. As a designer you have to take in as much as you can, even if  you don’t think the players point is valid or useful,  write it down anyway and thank the player for the information. Who knows maybe later down the line you may look at that point and finally see what they were talking about.

This leads to the second form of missed information, the subtle thoughts. These are little tidbits of information that are easily missed by the designer during a playtest. Because of their indirect nature it is easy for them to fly under the radar during a play test. Examples of this are, when do your players ask you/the DM questions, looking at the word choice your players use for questions and looking at how the mechanics influence the choices players make in game. I am going to be the first to say that these are hard to catch, especially when you are trying to manage a campaign while you playtest. A good way to miss as little as possible is to keep your playtest campaigns simple, a one or two shot at most. The more characters and story arcs you try to fit in the less you are focused on the mechanics themselves. It is also very import to dig deep down into where the players suggestions/questions come from. For example if a player says “There should be more spells” It could just be that they feel their magic isn’t powerful or versatile enough and that’s a whole different problem all together.

Neil Gaiman (Author of Coraline) once said…

When people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

In closing, all information stated by your players during a test is useful and you need to make sure that you try to soak up as much as possible. Try not to let the plot distract from the mechanics, keep it as simple and cliché as possible. It is also important to test as often as possible. The more you playtest the more you can see whether the changes you made in the last pass made the game better. Because in the end we are just trying to direct are game to be the best that it can be.

Thanks for reading

Friday, 1 August 2014

[Design Talk] Fail Faster

Hello World,

I was very lucky to learn about the first rule of design before I even started work on my game. This mantra if you will  is something I hold at the center of my project and I try to remind myself of it every day. This rule is as follows.

"Fail Faster"

Two very simple words, but can be the biggest difference between the next big game and an unplayable romp. As new developers we are bound to come up with an idea or two that we think is revolutionary. Something that you look at and see nothing but potential. You aren't wrong, there is endless possibility in that idea. You may be tempted to just focus on this idea and expand upon it in your mind, polishing the concept to something you think will be great. But even if you spend the next few months ironing it out it will still be just as flawed as any other idea you came up with. Ideas are inherently worthless. You need to get a prototype up of this idea as quickly as possible. Only by putting what we have created on display for others, and letting them tear it to bits can we see its faults.

As a designer it isn't possible to see it from all the angles, there will always be flaws that you are to close to see. The best way to get over this is to get it in front of others as quickly as possible. From there we can correct our mistakes and hope to get it better next time. Ideally you would like to go through as many playtests as possible, with as many different eyes as you can. The more people review your product and the more you pay attention to what they say, the better your game will be for it. Designing a product is a path towards perfection, although we wont always be pointed in the right direction, by understanding where we are at we can adjust our course towards where we want to be.

I understand that this can be hard and difficult, I really do as I am going through it myself. It can be brutal to see your creation, your baby, get redlined and torn apart. But such comes with being a designer. Extra Credits did a video on this topic a while back and while it is more aimed at video games, its very transferable to tabletop design. To pull a quote from that video...

Your ideas can't be precious, your ego can't need protecting. You have to understand that the only thing that matters is  the game you ship, not any of the steps along the way.

If you are so inclined you can find the whole video HERE

Next Week I will post another Design Talk about the actual process of Playtesting, and methods I have found to work and not work. So look forward to that, For now though

Thanks for reading