Embracing My Inner Ed Wood

Ed_Wood_photoI am the Ed Wood of game designers. I am fully aware that my passion often exceeds my talent. I know that I don’t have the budget to properly execute my vision, and that even if I did I still wouldn’t be the next Orson Wells (or Kenneth Hite, or fill in the name of the person you think sets the high bar for the industry). My production value isn’t very high. It is highly unlikely that I will ever win any awards for my work, let alone find a massive, mainstream audience for it.

And I’m okay with that.

Maybe I am tilting at windmills, but every day I get to do what I love. Most people, even other gamers, may not “get” what I’m doing, or trying to do, but those that do seem to embrace my work, and me, with appreciation, love, and support. I may not be one of the cool kids, but man, I wouldn’t trade my little circle of weirdos for anything. I have fun doing what I do, and I help other people to have fun too.

Sure, I’ve got a mission and vision statement that sets the bar pretty high, and proclaims my aspirations to create Art. That means that I’ll keep doing the best I can with the limited resources I’ve got, always trying to learn, always trying to do better. It doesn’t mean I’m delusional. It means that I’m lucky, even blessed. The goal is to entertain people, and eek out a living and a life doing it. And, hopefully, end up doing a little bit better than Ed Wood did.

Why Game Balance is an Illusion

campaign design logoGame balance is an illusion. No matter how clever you are in crafting your rules so that no one can exploit them, there will be players and gamemasters that are move clever than you. Not that this sort of creative sneakiness matters. Every game group operates on an agreement, and if that agreement includes the use of house rules, minor tweaks, or ignoring certain parts of your carefully crafted, “balanced” mechanics, well, then, your efforts in that direction have pretty much been for naught.

I’m not saying that rules don’t matter. I’m saying that they’re only part of the equation. They’re not the be-all, end-all of a tabletop roleplaying game. They’re guidelines. They reveal creative possibilities so that people can craft characters and tell stories and build worlds. They create some semblance of order so that disputes can be resolved regarding the degree of success or failure around any particular action. They’re the foundation, but they’re not the whole house.

Game balance comes from people and, more specifically, from the gamemaster. It’s not about making sure that no player character is objectively more powerful than any other character. It’s not about making sure that every single character, character class, character archetype has the exact same number of abilities so that no one can cry that one player character gets more toys than another. I’ve seen a lot of game design leaning in that direction lately, and I don’t agree with it, for a couple of reasons.

I grew up reading reprints of Doc Savage pulp novels. Clark Savage, Jr. was obviously the star of the series, and he was a physical and mental marvel, but he wasn’t the only character in the book. He had a supporting cast, and they were all interesting characters with their own special abilities. Were they his equal? No. Were they still interesting, and important? Yes. I also read superhero team books growing up. Is Hawkeye the equal of Thor, in terms of power? No. Is Aquaman playing on the same level as Superman, or even Batman? Of course not. Do they all still get to be in the “adventuring parties” of the Avengers and the Justice League, respectively? Yes, they do.

Allow me to keep hammering this point. I love ensemble television shows. On The West Wing, are Jed Bartlett and Charlie Young equal in power on any level? No. Could they be built on the same number of points, in a roleplaying game? Of course not. You can look at any ensemble cast in any television show or movie and virtually no arguments can be made that all regular characters, regardless of genre or setting, are equal in power, whether that’s measures as physical might, intellectual prowess, or influence.

What roleplaying games do, by their nature as “games”, is violate basic rules of fiction and storytelling. We justify this with the battle cry of “balance!” and it’s crap. Pure crap. Balance comes from being sure that every character has a role and a function in the story. Balance comes from giving each character something to do that plays to that function, their background. They need things designed to play to the strengths of their abilities, and challenges designed to draw out their flaws and weaknesses not to punish them for having drawbacks, but for the characterization and story possibilities.

I’ve have variations of this conversation dozens of times,, and I get a lot of the same questions and comments over and over. No, you don’t need to make sure you have a thief in the party to deal with the traps. You don’t need to make a player who wants a different type of character play something he’s not passionate about. How do you keep balance in the party, then? Well, how about having fewer locks and traps, and more of whatever highlights the abilities that do exist in the group? Oh, the group is “fighter-heavy”. Well, but the combat challenges. But there’s no cleric, so how do they get healing? Um, NPCs, potions, local temples, magic items?

People have told me that I’m not playing the game right — it never matters what game it is — because I don’t care about party balance, rules balance, power balance. I care about every character getting an adequate turn in the spotlight, every character having something to do, every character getting to live their story. If you think that the needs to the rules, the needs of the game designer, and the needs to the game’s fan base outweigh the needs of my players, at my table, in my campaign, well, I think you’re wrong.

“Balance” isn’t something that happens by rote because the rules say so. Balance is a creative challenge. Balance is something you have to work for. Balance is work, but balance is also the reward. Balance is something you earn. And this definition, my definition, of balance, is what has made tabletop roleplaying the incredibly rewarding experience that keeps me in the hobby and coming back for more week after week, year after year.

Fate + Fiction: Black Dreams and Other Bad Juju

ff anthology1Our original plan was to release this, our first full Fate+Fiction anthology, last Friday. Unfortunately, we bumped up against the Tabletop Day Sale at DriveThruRPG, which was so wildly successful that intermittently took their servers down! Since we were unable to upload the files, we decided to wait until after Tabletop Day weekend and release it today!

Black Dreams and Other Bad Juju contains five short stories by Gary E. Weller. There are elements of horror, fantasy, and cyberpunk in them, but some aren’t “genre fiction” at all. That’s art of the point. Each story is then deconstructed, with gameable elements called out and translated into Situation Aspects, Character Aspects, Consquences, and Boosts. You can use those elements in your on characters, and in your own game. Fate+Fiction will also help you see how you can analyse stories for yourself, to find ideas for your own characters and campaigns.

Black Dream and Other Bad Juju is a Pay What You Want release at DriveThruRPG and RPGNow. As with all Asparagus Jumpsuit releases, all proceed go to No Sleep ‘Til Finland.

Revised Character Workbooks, Wave 2

CW BARBARIANThe second wave of Revised Character Workbooks for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game are now available at Paizo. Barring a sharknado or a croctapus attack, Wave 3 should be out April 11th. At that point all of the Core Classes will be done, and those 11 revised workbooks will be available at d20pfsrd, RPGNow, and DriveThruRPG. If you’ve previously purchased a Core Class Character Workbook from those sites, you’ll be sent a link to download the new versions for free.

Gamemastering Across 3 Timelines

campaign design logoIn the last column I talked a little bit about timelines of events versus timelines of discovery. Basically, characters will figure things out in an order different from the way things happened. They have to not only find the clues, but discover the context of the clues, in order to solve the puzzle, unravel the mystery, or fix the problem.

Today I want to muddy the waters a bit, and give you something else to think about. I’m not trying to make your life as a gamemaster harder, but I want to give you a a perspective that can make your stories more interesting and your adventures more challenging. I want to do it without creating more work for you, or confusing your players. Ready? Here we go:

All stories have 3 timelines.

The Player Character Timeline: This is reality as seen from the players and their characters. This is what’s happening at the tabletop during the game session. The characters do this, then they do that, then they move on to the other things It is the narrative, the game as it is happening.

The Contingent Timeline: These are things that only happen after other things happen. The villain can only build the Penultimate Doomsday Machine after he’s stolen the rare Handwavium-238 Isotope. The protagonists can only question the femme fatale at the nightclub after they’ve discovered the matchbook cover at the scene of the crime. In the latter case, it might be a timeline of one event; when they figure out to go to the nightclub, the femme fatale will be there whether it’s 10am or 2am. Her role in the story is to dispense a piece of information, and she’s done.

In the case of the villain constructing his weapon of mass destruction, it may be a true contingent timeline. These have an order, but don’t adhere to an act structure. If you’re using a 4 act structure as discussed in previous columns, in Act 1 the villain may attempt to steal the handwavium. If he succeeds, he moved on to the next step. If he fails, in Act 2 he’s going to make another attempt to acquire handwavium. His plan, his plot, his personal story cannot move forward until something else happens.

The way I handle this is to label contingent timelines as Act A, Act B, Act C, and so on. In the Player Character Timeline thing progress through Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, and Act 4, but a supporting character might spend all 4 segments in his own Act A. You may decide to put a restriction on this; if you’re still in Act A by Act 3, you automatically move into Act B, for example.

The Non-Contingent Timeline: These are things that are going to happen no matter what the player characters do, and no matter what else happens in the story. Going back to the example of The Hangover in the previous column, there is a wedding scheduled on a set date, at a set time, in a set place, and all of the other guests are going to show up there whether the protagonists make it or not. These can also be stand-alone events, or the first act of a contingent timeline. In Act 1, the dragon is going to attempt to kidnap the princess, no matter what else is going on or what may happen afterward. In Act 3, the mobsters are going to rob the bank. These events don’t hinge on something else happening, and go off whether the players and their characters are ready for them or in a position to do something about it or not.

During my game prep, I write these various timelines down as simple lists. For contingent timelines, I write out what happens if or when something else I foresee occurring happens. I just write a couple of sentences for Act A, Act B, and so on. For non-contingent timelines, usually just place the events in with my notes for that act. I let the players do what they want, then inform them at the end of the act. “As you’re walking back down the mountain and out of the woods following your epic wrestling match with bigfoot, your cell phone goes off. Apprently, you have reception again. It’s the admiral, and he tells you that Snakey Jake and his gang have just robbed the Savings & Loan…”

As with every other piece of gamemastering advice I dole out, you’re free to take it, leave it, or adapt it to your own use. It’s a tool and a technique, not the One True Way set in stone. I’ve found that it instills a sense of reality to my games, as it drives home the point that the entire world doesn’t revolve around the player characters, that there is a larger world out there with things going on. With a little practice it’s not that hard to implement, but it yields great results.

Starship Tyche Release Date

TYCHE LOGOStarship Tyche: Frontiers+Fate is penciled on my calendar for a June release. For the moment, I’ll commit to “before the end of the month”; I’ll nail down an exact date as the time approaches. I’m being overly cautious because this is the largest project Asparagus Jumpsuit will release to date. I want it to do nothing less than knock your socks off. The variables in release date have to do with our upcoming move from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Jyväskylä, Finland. If things go awry there, it may shift things around a little.


Another Great Review for Fate+Fiction: Semper Fidelis

FF-SEMPERFIDELIS“To sum up, this is a good, first, free sample. You can’t go wrong for nothin’. I’d like to see future products have longer fiction. I’d like them to ask more questions with bite. I’d like them to offer more tie-ins with potential PCs. But if this is a preview of what’s to come, I’ll gladly get on board. I could use more of this. And I think other people could as well. ” – Thanks, Seth Clayton!

P.S. This one as short because it’s a freebie. All future F&F stories are longer, as will the analysis and commentary.

5 Star Review for Fate+Fiction: Semper Fidelis

FF-SEMPERFIDELIS“This is extremely thought provoking… and what really makes you think is not the overt concept of a piece of fiction and the role-playing snippets you can extract from it, but the underlying thought-processes of how to look at something you read and glean it clean for role-playing ideas.

“I’d recommend you to buy this, but it’s free! No reason at all not to pick it up and read it through. ” – Thanks, Megan R.!

Revised Character Workbooks (PFRPG)

CW FIGHTERThe first four revised Character Workbooks, for Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard, are now available at Paizo. I’ve released them there first because they’ve never been available there before, so I can roll them out in waves. Once the other 7 core classes are done, I will release them to other sales venues individually and as bundles. I think releasing them to existing stores in waves would create confusion over some classes being in the old version and some in the new. Everyone who has previously purchased a Character Workbook will be pushed a link where they can download the new version for free from the store where they purchased it, when it becomes available at that store.

Shuffle the File Cards

campaign design logoIn my last column I discussed the 4 Noble Truths of Storytelling as applied to outlining  roleplaying game adventures. To recap:

  1. There’s a problem to be solved,
  2. The reason the problem exists can be discovered,
  3. A solution to the problem can be found, and
  4. The characters can solve it.

This is admittedly simplistic and linear, but it gets the job done. From this basic framework you can add layers of complexity and tweak things to make each story feel less formulaic. Today I want to talk about one technique that can be used to build out from the four-act structure.

Anyone who has ever read a mystery knows that answers don’t automatically follow questions. Anyone who has lived any sort of a life knows that things don’t unfold in the order you’d like them to. Clues are found and information presents itself, but make no sense until a context is discovered. The challenge is determine what information has meaning, what’s a piece of the puzzle and what’s a read herring, and then solve that puzzle.

Look at the movie The Hangover. I’m going to use that as an example specifically because it’s not a traditional mystery or a “genre” work. After establishing the characters and setting up the context for the upcoming problem in the first minutes of the film, the movie flows according to the 4 Noble Truths. The characters wake up and discover that things have happened but, most importantly that their friend has gone missing. They set out to discover what happened to him, using the context-less clues they have. They reassemble the information they gain in the following scenes into an order that makes sense and answers questions. Then they fix the various other problems that arise and eventually rescue their friend.

None of this happens in linear order. If it did, it would be quite boring. Most of the humor in the movie arises from the fact that the characters are as lost as the audience; it allows us to share in their discomfort, join in their surprise, and revel in their victories. The confusion creates the emotional connection. Like the relationship btween players characters and players, the guys in The Hangover are the audience.

So how do you plot this out in a roleplaying game? It’s easy, actually. Figure out the timeline of events, both before the characters become involved and parallel to what they’re doing in-game. Write each chronological event on an index card. Then shuffle the cards. The new order of the cards is the order in which the characters will discover the information. Now write scenes and encounters to support that story flow.

In The Hangover, the cards would contain encounters like “Where did the tiger come from”, “How did we end up with a police car”, “Why is my tooth missing”, and “The crazy Chinese man shows up looking for his money”. There are clues without context for some of these, and the players can pursue those clues sandbox-style, in any order and in any fashion they see fit. Some encounters, like the Chinese guy’s first appearance or discovering the tiger, can show up pretty much randomly at any point. As player characters, they have room to wander about and set their own agenda.

There’s a railroad element in there too, as per The Middle Path. There is a deadline, They have to find their friend and get him to the church on time for the wedding. So they can wander in the sandbox, but they have to move quickly and not waste time because the main plot is firmly on rails and moves on without them. If they fai to stick to the timeline, there are unpleasant consequences that they will have to face.

In the next installment, I’ll talk more about how timelines are a matter of perspective. 

Creating Better Worlds

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