Thursday, 25 December 2014

Rolling with Impact

Hello world,

It’s the Christmas season, the time for ugly sweaters, creamy desserts and curling up next to the fire. This year I have chosen to catch up on my reading, and in doing so I stumbled upon a blog post titled “How Not to Notice Things” that caught my attention. Within this article the author talks about his opinion on perception checks. If you haven’t seen the article I strongly recommend it raises some excellent points and the examples  given are spot on. For those who haven’t read it, the focal argument of the piece is that a skill check outcome of “Nothing Happens” has no redeeming value within the game.

I agree with this completely, not only that but I believe  an outcome of “Nothing Happens” even take away from the game. If a player is making any form of check within the game, they are trying to influence the fiction in one form or another.

If the character succeeds and gets what they want, they feel powerful. Their character shaped the fiction to the their desire.

If the character fails, and the situation is escalated, the player is engaged. Their failure has either made things worse or raised the tension within the game. The player now wants to correct this mistake and is a lot more invested in the fiction.

If the character fails and nothing happens, the player is bored. They have tried to interact with the game, but were ultimately denied access because their character isn’t good enough. In this scenario, skill checks are solely a gating mechanic.  Meaning your character needs to be ‘this’ powerful or your rolls ‘this’ good if you want to play the game. This is a really bad practice as it completely disengages the player. Saying “Nothing Happens” is equivalent to telling the player their actions don’t matter and in a medium which is built upon expression, that is a huge problem. Every roll and action should try to get the player more invested and involved in the game. The best way I have seen to do this is by ensuring that every roll has a notable impact on the game, no matter the outcome. This doesn’t even have to be a mechanical impact it can purely be narrative.

The author of the article has a couple of really good examples in this regard. In their scenario ‘Steve’ is have a drink at a bar waiting to meet up with ‘Lacey’. During this time a rival enters the bar. The GM then requests the player to make a perception check to see if they notice the rival:

GM: “Steve, give me a Perception check.”
STEVE: “I rolled a five.”
GM: “Out of the corner of your eye, you see a guy walk in.  He looks familiar, but you don’t get a good look.”  (Steve can then act on this information.)

GM: “Steve, give me a Perception check.”
STEVE: “I rolled a five.”
“As you’re waiting on Lacey, a suspicious character walks in, heads to the back booth.  Before you do anything else, though, Lacey walks in and sits down next to you.”

The brilliance in both of these resolutions is that even though Steve fails, the game still progresses. In fact I believe the second example yields a more result than if Steve were to succeed. In the future when you are planning encounters or designing mechanics, think about how to engage the player through failure.  Because at the end of the day,  we are still playing role playing games, and as such we should aim to engage our players as much as possible.

Thank you so much for reading, and enjoy your holidays!

-Patrick Lapienis

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Experiential Goals Within Role-playing Games

Hello World,

There is an old adage with tabletop games called the ’20:4 Ratio’ that states within a 4 hour RPG session, the average player only experiences 20 minutes of fun.  While the ratio poses a rather unfair and generalized opinion, it wouldn’t exist if it didn’t hold some truth.  While there is a plethora of factors that limits the amount of fun to one tenth of a game, I believe it is most severely caused by a lack of coherence within the game.

Coherence is built when the players, system and surroundings all promote the same experiential goals. These experiential goals, often called a creative agenda, are the embodiment of what a player wants to achieve within the game. This agenda is different from person to person, and can fluctuate over time. One day you may really want to play through a challenging dungeon crawl, while another night you are craving a comedic adventure. The more the game you are playing aligns with your experiential goal, the more ‘fun’ you will have.

Thinking about it, I have never heard of something like the 20:4 Ratio occurring in video games. At least not to the same extent it has for tabletop RPGs. I think this is primarily due to how focused and concise video games generally are. When you start up a video game you know exactly what you are getting into.  Start up a game of Super Mario 3D World with some friends and all the players expect the same thing. They experiential goals align with that of the current game.

 “Complete the level with the most points”

It’s when the goals of the group don’t align that the experience stops being fun. For example, if one player in the above group wants to instead focus on collecting all the secret stars in each level while the others compete for points, the experience becomes a lot less enjoyable. However, if all of the players are make it their goal to collect the secret stars, the experience becomes fun again.

This is an area that I feel tabletop RPGs really struggle in. Within the same campaign each player can have drastically different experiential goals. This is due in part to a lack of communication within the group as to what game is going to be played. If the game master says he wants to run a cliché swords and sorcery themed game, different players get different ideas in their mind. One player thinks the game will be about traversing dangerous caverns to reclaim magical artifacts. While another wants the game to be about political intrigue in a mystical setting. The GM however may be prepping for an epic quest for revenge. All three of these players might as well be preparing for three different games. Within this campaign it is likely that the second player will only have 20 minutes of social intrigue in a 4 hour session. The game only aligns with his experiential goal one tenth of the time, giving him only 20 minutes of fun.

That premise of cliché swords and sorcery does not help the group focus on the games’ creative agenda.  What is more important is to determine the game’s aesthetic. If the game is going to revolve around gritty and challenging dungeon crawling, make sure everyone knows and is on board for that. Once the aesthetic is figured out, make everything build upon it.

- Have a setting that has danger around every corner and resources are sparse

- Pick a system that emphasises that style of play [Dungeons & Dragons / Pathfinder]

- Set up you play environment to echo the game, dim lighting [candle even],  dark and ominous/epic music playing or even some dungeon ambient noises.

Art Can be another good way to convey aesthetic

If all of the stimuli  within the game points towards the same aesthetic, the experiential goals of the players are more likely to align, leading to a much more enjoyable game. While this is a very extreme case the point still remains, try to make everything about the game consistent. More consistency means a higher likelihood that experiential goals will align.

If you are interest in learning more about this topic you can check out:


For now though, Thanks for Reading

- Patrick Lapienis

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Road to Kickstarter

Hello World,

With National Game Design Month over and Trials of the Magi released it is time to look at the path going forward, and what a path it is.

As I discussed in my previous postTrials of the Magi was developed under a time restraint and in my opinion has a lot of room to grow. At its core the game is unique and entertaining but some of it’s execution doesn’t convey the theme as well as it should. With that in mind I have been looking to grow TotM into the game I know it can be. Though play sessions reviews and comments I am refining the mechanics and polishing the text.  All to create a game that I can be proud to put my name on.

With this improvement I want to take the game to print, with an improved layout, more art and a small print run. But with my current budget as a designer this isn’t possible. This is why I am going to be taking Trials of the Magi to Kickstarter in the upcoming year. This leaves me with a lot to get done between now and the launch of the kickstarter, and I will be working tireless to deliver the best product possible.

In other news I am currently finishing up the paper work to licences my own game development studio, Sproutli Games. I look forward to delivering countless quality games to you all in the future under the Sproulti moniker. But this new name isn’t the only big development at Sproutli, we have been working hard to create a developer website. This website hopes to allow you to stay up to date on the company’s latest projects, communicate with other players and act as a centralized location for all of our products. You can expect this site to be up by mid-January so look forward to that!

The road ahead will he arduous, but with your support I know that we will take Trials of the Magi to heights that I couldn’t even Imagine!


Thursday, 4 December 2014

Game Design Month - What I Learned

Hello World,

As some of you may know, over the past thirty days I have challenged myself to enter National Game Design Month (NaGaDeMon). It was a brutal and grueling month but I managed to pull through it and I am so happy I did. Not only did I develop my skills and endurance as a designer I also now have another game under my belt which I am proud to put my name on.  In today’s post I would like to share some of my experience with you.

So without further ado, here is what I learned from developing Trials of the Magi.

The idea for Trials of the Magi started with one simple word, a word that sent me down a thirty day rabbit hole.


A simple word, but with a big goal, make and educational RPG in which players cast spells through the use of mathematics. It sounds cool on paper but the execution needed to be perfect if the game was to be fun and educational. I wracked my brain for days trying to execute this without being ham handed. After a lot of experimentation I couldn’t come up with anything I was happy with. However in this development period I did come up with the Magi Paradigm Matrix. This little chart was a clever way to track a character’s affinity to each of the eight standard schools of magic. Rather than beating my head against a proverbial wall with the mathemagician angle I decided to see where this arcane placement chart would take me. This is when TotM started to get the form you see today. I associated each of the axis on the graph with two polar attributes, both within the game and in real life. This connection to real mental traits allowed me to determine placement based on a personality test, opening the door for the game to travel into alternate reality game [ARG] territory.

I have always liked ARGs as the have this sense of immersive mystery within them that other genres seldom achieve. And with ARGs being such a good tool for education, it was something I wanted explore within my game. This exploration lead to the game’s central premise. TotM is an ARG, in which you play a tabletop RPG, in which you play yourself. It’s a crazy premise, and I was curious to see if it would work. So I did tons of research on both educational games and ARGs, This itself actually took a hand full of days to complete. (If you are interested I recommend Extra Creditz’s videos on the matter which can be found HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE)

With a good amount of ARG research done, I progressed forward, now looking to tie in an educational aspect to the game without being obtuse or ham handed.  After a number of failed ideas I came up with “Understandings”, which is one of the key tools within the game for character individuality. Because players would be playing themselves, Understandings could be used to shape their character around their own personal knowledge and experiences. This was great because it encouraged players to go and educate themselves about a topic without flat out saying ‘Go learn something’. The self-directed nature of the Understandings promoted learning without taking away from the fun of the game. I continued to develop this to the point where the game was ready for playtest.

My main playtest group for NaGaDeMon was comprised of players who had never met or played together before. After some minor introductions we got down to making characters and one thing immediately jumped out at me. Understandings were an amazing icebreaker. Getting each of these strangers to share interesting facts and trying to impress each other with what they know really got people open up to one another. This is something I didn’t even consider when designing Understandings, but it was such a great side effect, and I was so happy with its occurrence. Game mechanics can be surprising like that and this is another reminder of why playtesting is so important.

After a week or two more of typing up the rules and play testing, the system was beginning to develop into a full fledged game. It was at this point  I could pass around the game and get opinions on it. While I got a number or responses back, only a few people were able to give me a critical view on the games strengths and short comings. This was so important because it directed me to enhance aspects of the game that were weak, and drive focus to its strong points. While I wasn’t able to address all of the concerns before my deadline there were plenty I was able to get to.

During this review phase I also began editing my rules. oh my god, am I ever happy that I did. I went through 5  personal revisions and 2 external revisions in order to get out all of the spelling mistakes and to make the game make sense. The number one thing I learned here is that you never realize how important editing is until you start doing it. Through all of these edits, playtests and revisions the game became what you see before you today [and I am sure there are still things I missed].

While I have enjoyed playing the game and think that it is a fun and interesting system, I think that it can be so much more. The games shortcomings proved to be a valuable teaching tool, and in my opinion the greatest shortcoming the game has is its lack of focus. Throughout the design, there was a lot up in the air until the last minute, as a result the game wasn’t able to cater the full experience to its target audience. In future projects I would like to ensure that this catering happens better.

This also leads me to my final thought with the game. At its core, this game has some really interesting ideas and if I am able to polish the experience and really focus on my target audience I feel that it can become something great. That is why over the next several months I will be developing the system further and taking it to print. You can stay up to date on those updates by following  me on Twitter or by following this blog.

With developing the game further I would love to hear from everyone who reads/plays Trials of the Magi. Any thoughts, ideas or concerns you have about the game, I want to hear them. The more I get back from you the better the experience I can deliver in the future. Please contact me using the form on the right hand side of this blog or by email at

As always thank you for reading, without people to play the games and  read the blog posts I make, there would be no reason to create them. Thank you.

- Patrick