Threats and Promises

Remedy this situation, restore spice production, or you will live out your life in a pain amplifier.

Spacing Guild Representative to Emperor Shaddam IV

Conflict in RPGs is king, and identifying conflict is the keystone to successful implementation. Without conflict there is no challenge and no drama.

So of course there’s conflict in a roleplaying game. All of our game subsystems are geared to managing, measuring and resolving conflicts of one kind or another. This can be detailed or simplistic depending on tastes, system familiarity and priorities, but I think it’s fair to say that combat gets a disproportionate amount of attention in most games.

Furthermore, most complex combat systems focus on the minutiae of procedural combat skills — fine in a dungeon where everything you meet attacks on sight, not so interesting for any game with a bit of negotiation or social contact (i.e. most games). All the really interesting social stuff happens before it gets to a fight is usually muddled through with a mixture of freeform roleplaying and the odd charisma check.1

Outside the actual combat procedure, conflict includes:

  • Ideology (why two sides are at war)
  • Territory (what they’re fighting over)
  • Threat and Consequence — i.e. if you cross the line, what are the consequences
  • Target prioritisation
  • Escalation, as in what happens if the above threat and consequence isn’t enough to satisfy both sides.

All of these are decisions made by the monster (I’ll use that as a generic term for potentially threatening NPC). Some of these decisions will be obvious to the GM (who has decided what their ideologies and territories are beforehand) and some will even be obvious to the players. But these are not easy decisions to make, especially on the fly — and yet we rarely have any support for such a decision making process in games. Usually the best we have are essays about “making your villains real” and “making scenes dynamic” tacked onto the end of a 300 page manual that mostly concerns itself with combat procedure, spells, equipment and setting colour. Is it any wonder that the most common decision for a monster is to attack?

One of the goals of City and Square is to telegraph this decision making process for the benefit of both players and GM. CRPG’s use Aggro, something I have discussed before. I’m still refining the procedure, but for now I want to consider three things:

  1. Attributes in the domain of the player that influence the conflict
  2. Attributes in the monster’s domain (In City and Square this is provided by the location)
  3. Escalation Counting.

The PC domain attributes that may influence the conflict could be

  • status/notoriety (people know who you are and will either acquiesce or otherwise behave favourably)
  • a disguise or some other means of blending in to avoid attention
  • a contact who can vouch for you
  • history or background with the social group
  • something to offer or sell

Situation will determine the usefulness of each, and the strategy employed by the PCs. Clearly a situation that demands a disguise is not one where notoriety can be employed. These attributes are fairly passive and will tend to affect the base response of the environment to the PC’s presence. Collectively I’ll call them Belonging.

Once in the scene, as the tension begins to mount the PCs may be required to take active steps either to stop themselves accumulating aggro, or to draw the aggro away from other team members. Collectively I’ll call them Defending.

The attributes in the Monster’s domain will include

  • the scale of the threat
  • the type of threat (which will indicate what sort of Belonging is applicable)
  • escalation decisions for when a Threshold is crossed (questions, physical violence, threats, social humiliation, etc.)

Escalation Counting relates to both the Scale of the Threat, and the Decisions the monster will make if the PCs pass a Threshold.

Let’s say you have a scale of 1 to 9, with thresholds at 3, 6 and 9. When a PC accumulates enough aggro they trigger the Threshold. Such thresholds might be defined as

  • First Threshold (3 points): questions, verbal threats
  • Second Threshold (6 points): being ejected from the location, being followed
  • Final Threshold (9 points): violence, incarceration, damage to personal status


p>(Possibly three levels is too much; two levels may be enough to differentiate between awkward questions being asked and actual action being taken against the party.)

PCs can accumulate aggro individually, or the players may have a single aggro counter. I prefer the former, as it creates a need for team interaction to divert attention away from members (e.g. the classic tank soaking aggro from another party member).

Additionally since aggro is a game currency and is transferrable between party members one can imagine other means of transferring — for example if one character’s cover is blown, the immediately distribute their aggro points to the rest of the party, causing trouble for everyone.

Cross-posted to the Design Collective.


1. A couple of notable games for their treatment of conflict:

  • Burning Wheel scripts both social and physical combat, although the latter is more complex with all of the medieval martial stuff.
  • Dogs in the Vineyard features escalation of conflict.
  • Hollowpoint abstracts conflict to include multiple different kinds of actions from different team members in the scope of one conflict.

Cut Up Sunday


The Cronenberg Project opens on November 1st of this year, celebrating “all things Cronenberg”. Unfortunately it’s in Toronto, but there’s a virtual exhibition.

Cronenberg donated several props to the Toronto Film Festival — including the Clark Nova from Naked Lunch, which opened the press conference.



The iconic Clark Nova writing on its own and then in full BugWriter mode. In real life it’s a Smith Corona Sterling. For yet more typewriter porn check this page on for some pics of authors and typewriters — including Burroughs with the Clark Nova.

Re-watching Naked Lunch I noticed Optimum’s little promotional booklet of their other films — and was surprised to find Malcolm Tucker:


Welcome to Annexia, Malcolm.

Like all Cronenberg films Naked Lunch was scored by Howard Shore — and I’m torn between it and his score for Crash as my all-time favourite.

I could talk about Burrough’s own recordings, which include Dead City Radio, his readings for  Giorno Poetry Systems and the fantastic Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy). But I just found this recording of Frank Zappa reading “The Talking Asshole”:

Since I’m on youtube and in a Burroughs mood, here’s Bomb the Bass’s Bug Power Dust:

Did you get all of it? The lyrics are easier to hear on the downtempo mix from the K&D Sessions.

Anyway. I also found this fantastic Beastiemix of Root Down. It’s something like mix number 3728:

And talking about the Beastie Boys:

…yeah. These must be the symptoms of withdrawal from a substance that doesn’t really exist.

Sorcerer’s Annotations, part two: Demons

Previously I covered annotations from Chapters one and two, so the next one up is:


The annotations begin:

This chapter concerns how players and GM talk while creating demons, whether during initial character creation or later in play.


p>That’s an interesting turn of phrase. Roleplaying is talking, naturally, but the framing here is both procedural and as a negotiation. It needs to be procedural because the GM should be playing the PC’s demon. Sorcerer differs from the superficially similar treatment of magic in Stormbringer, in that the powers of the demon are not within the players domain during play, even if the PC can call on them.

Edwards takes a moment to note how the rules effects of demons are not in-fiction; that is to say two different powers that have the same outcome outside the various cosmetic features of those powers are essentially the same power. I don’t think this is a new conceit anymore; take the Magic Missile description in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which says “each Magic-User’s [spell] is unique in appearance”. Edwards is however setting a precedent by partitioning fiction and underlying rules. Something that’s fairly obvious when you think about it.

The next passage mentions something similarly obvious but necessary — that a demon is essentially the same as a person for purposes of affecting the world (barring powers, of course). And it communicates — it always communicates.

I appreciated that part. I appreciated the following annotations less. There’s a lot of reiteration and little new insight. He does it for demon descriptions, he does it for powers. It’s handy to have a summary of the different demons but wouldn’t this be more useful in a worksheet, maybe following one of those workflow diagrams Edwards is so fond of (and good at)?

At the same time Edwards makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it comment on the different demons and how they behave re: intimacy and proactivity — helpful markers for the GM who plays them. It’s an insightful piece of commentary that isn’t in the original text, but it’s an annotation that’s worthy of its own annotation. Instead it’s presented in Edwards’ ubiquitous terse and intractable style. Still, I think I get it.

And then, suddenly, up pops a fairly coherent passage about Possessors. Why is no similar treatment given to the other Demon types? OK, Possessors need clarification on what happens to them when their host is killed or otherwise expels them. I don’t think this annotation makes the terse terminology on the opposite page (the original) any easier to grasp. I’m not even sure it’s directly relevant.

There are a few other comments popping up like “the requirements for Cloak and Cover are inelegantly designed”. Well, I’ll take your word for it; but if the annotation does nothing to revise that, what is the point?

The useful part of the annotations are for the abilities where Edwards to alludes to the actual utility of certain powers in play (I guess from his many play sessions). Now the penny drops.  Earlier Edwards mentioned the “what does it do?” dialogue in coaching a player to think of their demon (the example was reacting to an attack on the demon’s master); some actual play description of utility goes a long way.

I thought Edwards was going to go through each power in turn, offering comments. Which he does… right up until the letter H, where he suddenly stops, save for a throwaway comment about the Protection power.

Uh, great. I had to switch back to the cover to make sure I wasn’t reading the proof I got from the pre-release. No, this is the final version. Does he think all of the other powers are so transparent in their application and in-game use that they aren’t worthy of comment? Come on.

Oh… no… hang on. Edwards stops for some aside about the difference between two different powers (Cloak and Cover, which last time I checked should come between B and D in the alphabet) then rejoins the list halfway through S, before veering off the road at T and rejoining a little later. Overall I reckon Edwards has skipped over about half of the powers; and that’s fine, I trust that was a conscious decision. But I would really have loved to hear his take on the arcane description of the Mark power.

The annotations improve a bit from hereon. The next part is a bit Edwards is “[adding] to lay the foundation for the applied points in later chapters”. Er, OK. It’s good material, all about how abilities are activated and what they cost in terms of fatigue. But if it’s an annotation, shouldn’t it be annotating the later text where the mechanical procedure is discussed? What good is it doing here, forcing the user to remember the location of the passage? Annotations are metadata that enhance passages in a sequential text; they should have sequential context themselves, surely? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

Eh, never mind. Edwards tackles Desire and Need next, and this is one of the higher value passages — since the original treatment is very terse. Then we come to the bit that I think has the highest value: how to actually prepare to play your player’s demon. Not a very long passage, but it gets to the heart of playing the demon as a character rather than an object the PC can point and fire.

Edwards rounds everything out with closing remarks about how “demons don’t exist”, i.e. they violate the laws of the fictional world. They don’t come from “somewhere”, they don’t have a realm or classes (other than the categories that are useful to define how they relate to their summoner), and they are somehow less than human. I found this whole idea very appealing on my first read-through, and it’s still appealing.

And on the subject of “still appealing” I’d like to note that my feelings of this game haven’t changed. But the more I read of these annotations, the more I see a job half-done, like a special edition DVD with a lot of content that you have to dig through to find any real value. I don’t think the layout is that great, and I think the annotations are not consistent but more importantly out of place, making it a little difficult to spot what Edwards is annotating.

Maybe it will get better. 

RPG Third Look: Sorcerer’s Annotations (part 1)

Back in February I talked about the review copy of the Annotated Sorcerer I received for backing the Kickstarter.

The full versions, with completed art and supplements arrived in June. The covers look really rather fantastic.

Sorcerer Cover

I’ll set the supplements aside for another time and consider the annotations, which are presented as full page comments (as opposed to callouts or footnotes) that sit opposite the original printed page — so if you were holding the book the page on the right would always be the annotations. The annotations are even in a serif font to distinguish from the original sans serif.


First comment is to recap on something you probably know if you are familiar with The Big Model: Edwards likes diagrams. I like diagrams too, so I really appreciate the flowchart that the author has added to the Introduction, which ties in the order of reading to the procedural order of starting to play — two distinct phases of individual character prep followed by preparation to play as a group. Edwards is really saying his book is intended to be read in order, and you need to comprehend the previous chapter before going on to the next. To be honest this wasn’t much of a leap for me — the reliance on terminology in the latter parts of the book mean you have to read the early parts, and read carefully.

Edwards also lays down what the Heart of the Game is, including the two concepts you must decide upon (with examples of how groups have formed themselves in the past). I’m big into making cohesive statements about intent in games, but not so much from arty pretensions (well, maybe a bit) but more because roleplaying is a leadership exercise — and not just for the GM, but for all players. Leadership is key to effective interpersonal discussions, and having intents clearly stated helps all the players shape their conversations and creative intents.

The next portion of the Introduction is about dice. I found this less useful — it’s second nature to me that when you go to the dice, it’s for something that actually matters. I did appreciate the discussion on oppositional vs orthogonal dice rolls, though — the dice can be used to resolve not only an opposed act but also two different actions that happen at the same time.

After Dice there’s Narration, which includes Bonus Dice. This part was the least compelling for me — it was useful to frame the narration by mentioning games where the order of speaking is controlled (InSpectres and The Pool, neither of which I’ve played) but it’s less useful to say “this game is basically neutral about that”. Well, yeah. Almost all games I have ever played are basically neutral about order of speaking; the fact that Sorcerer is designed so it can be neutral is hardly a lightbulb moment. Similarly the advice about making use of previous knowledge to provide the right narration (e.g. if there’s a gun, the gun features in the narration). Does that warrant a page of text? Maybe. Honestly I didn’t see a lot of value so went from reading carefully to scanning. Maybe that was wrong of me.

I did like the bibliography as a flow diagram (or C-Map).

The closing remarks are worth mentioning, though. The notion that plot cannot be prepped will always have counter-arguments, but the idea that nothing is sacred — not the character’s life, nor their value (don’t assume your PC gets to be significant in any way), nor the quality of the game is a very confrontational stance to take, and it’s a hard truth that most games — well, most fiction avoids. Some games and some characters are not special. It’s a kind of tough love approach to roleplaying, telling the players that they cannot be passive and expect to be coddled.

You can see how that might upset some people.

Creating Sorcerers

Edwards begins by saying “this… is about people talking in earnest [about making characters] to begin their Sorcerer play.” I don’t know if play is being used as a noun or verb here.

I’m going to skip ahead to the Diagram, which is some way down in the annotations. A lot of of the early comments about breaking out of comfort zones, focusing on the story about to happen over backstory (I totally agree, but this isn’t new for me), descriptors and numbers. The scope of numbers is tied to the scope presented in the previous chapter’s annotations — it’s important to decide how wide a net a single ability casts in terms of what a PC can do, but OTOH we’ve had broad-brush stats since Ghostbusters.

I complained that the Diagram was poorly utilised in the original book, and Edwards knows that because there’s a big section devoted to it in the notes. Actually I don’t know why it’s so far down the annotations — it’s such a high value passage that it should be one of the first things you read in the book. I like a lot of what Edwards writes here. I don’t much care for how it’s written — it’s retrospective, as if it’s an established tool whose function is obvious, and Edwards is simply reiterating. Well, he is reiterating to all of the hardcore Sorcerer fans, the ones who have contributed to Usenet and Storygames and other communities. If these annotations are the distilled wisdom of those years condensed for the newcomer they still read as a bit self-congratulatory, a bit “well, we had a special club back then, <wink>”.

That’s a minor complaint. Character establishment is at the heart of this game and the Diagram is a superb enabling tool, and the acid-test comments for character viability are also good. There’s a much needed section on what Edwards means by “kicker resolution”, and development too.

I very much liked the sections on NPC sorcerers (and mundanes), particularly the comments on why NPC sorcs mostly just get in the way of the character story (by upstaging player Kickers, establishing familiar tropes, etc).

Edwards closes this section with comments on an example of beginning actual play and creation. It was interesting (and helped reinforce some examples) but overall I was left with the same feeling I get from all actual play accounts which is “yeah… so?” I’m not big on other people’s game anecdotes, they read like third-hand stories, and rarely good ones. Glad they had a good time, though.

Next time, I’ll talk about the annotations in the Demons chapter.

Concrete Cow and Dicey Tales (Barbarians of Lemuria)

Yesterday I took a trip over to Milton Keynes to attend the morning slot of Concrete Cow in glorious Wolverton. It was pretty much what I expected — a bunch of ageing goths and rockers in a town hall fighting over the sign-up sheets and playing a mixture of traditional and indie games. Leisure Games had a stall (where I picked up a hard copy of A|State, woo!) and I was surprised to see all the traditional titles (Star Wars, Cthulhu) stacked in plastic crates while the main display was devoted to the indie darlings of the rpg world (Dogs in the Vineyard, Lacuna, etc). I don’t know whether there was a conscious push for indie published games (a good thing!) or if those are what con attendees want to buy these days. It makes sense that the indie scene would benefit from the RPG Con circuit as a distribution channel.

I could only play one game, and missed the free slots for Ribbon Drive — so I settled on Barbarians of Lemuria1, specifically its Dicey Tales (1930’s pulp) incarnation.


BoL occupies the same territory as Savage Worlds, and not only for the pulp connotations2. BoL has relatively few very broad skills for both combat and non-combat, and tuning character generally comes by way of Boons (and Flaws) — much in the way that SW uses Special Abilities. I feel BoL is easier to learn, however. It operates much more like a true light RPG than a skirmish wargame.

Task resolution is the ubiquitous Stat + Skill + Dice Roll, a disease the RPG world caught from Storyteller and hasn’t really shaken yet. Still, it’s intuitive and at least the dice roll is easy to grok — 2d6, with crits on double six and fumbles on snake eyes. The system is designed for pulp action with a critical success taking out a number of “rabble” (i.e. mooks) equal to the damage roll. There are Hero Points providing re-rolls and “twists of fate” (a la Cinematic Unisystem).

The target number in BoL is 9, which means you need a +2 advantage to break the 50% barrier for success.3 I made the mistake of running a balanced character instead of min/maxing, and failed quite a few routine tasks. In fact this is a game that benefits from both min/maxing and stat and boon synergy — and woe betide anyone who gets it wrong. Boons and Flaws don’t always give linear bonuses or penalties, they may also invoke an additional rolled die — for a Boon you get to keep the highest two of the three dice, for a Flaw you must discard the highest die rolled. Owing to the pass threshold of 9 a flaw will more often than not cripple an attempt to use a skill, even if the user is otherwise very capable. Boons and Flaws that work this way will tend to trump all but the most aggressively munchkin’d builds.

The other notable thing about BoL is the Careers system — unlike WFRP’s careers which are just a permissions system for skill acquisition, BoL’s Careers are broad-based skills in themselves, to be applied in non-combat situations — and the applicability of the career comes down to negotiation with the GM.

However a lot of basic tasks (e.g. sneaking) are so generic that they fall under a wide range of careers anyway. The careers system is more about giving the player an in-character perspective to hang their negotiation on than the usual description of permissions we’re used to from GURPS and the like. This obviates the need to have a list of skills, though — which is a good thing.

Careers also don’t apply to combat — no matter how good a gladiator you are, you don’t get a bonus to actual fighting based on your career. I have no issue with this as a game rule, but it’s not intuitive and tripped the players up a couple of times. Generally

  • where every skill roll involves looking up and summing two different attributes with a die roll, that’s a speed bump
  • if the players have to negotiate with the GM, that’s another speed bump
  • and if the GM has to explain again why your Gladiator career has no bearing on your ability to swing a sword, that’s another speed bump.

Still, it’s the summing two attributes that I object to most and if I’m going to complain about BoL it can get in line behind Storyteller, ORE, Unisystem and the others.

Would I buy BoL? Maybe, when the Mythic version appears. It would probably do a better job of one-shot fantasy than D&D, or BRP, or any of the other heavyweights like GURPS. It probably even has an edge over Cinematic Unisystem with the relatively small number of stats, careers and boons while retaining the former’s Drama Points. Combat was extremely quick to run. Still if I were playing long term and wanted something with hero/drama/poker chips and negotiated skills, I might choose something a little more abstract like FATE Core. As it is BoL fills its niche nicely.

  1. I keep getting BoL mixed up Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. The latter is yet another OSR clone of the “worlds most popular roleplaying game”.

  2. I remember reading a forum post that posited Savage Worlds could be run gritty or pulpy; the number of bennies you let the players have set the position on the grit/pulp axis. Certainly not all SW games are pulp — Interface Zero is (I believe) notoriously gritty.

3. I had the same problem I sometimes have with Apocalypse World — due to the 2d6 probability curve to reliably succeed you need a high investment in your stat. OTOH the AW credo is it’s good to fail, because the GM then makes his or her own move. In BoL a failure is usually you just don’t get what you want, and the GM needs to interpret the consequences.

I’ve Seen A Version Of Bladerunner You People Wouldn’t Believe

I watched the Bladerunner Workprint last weekend. I was expecting something pretty rough and forgettable which I could have on in the background while I did other stuff, but it turned out to be engrossing.


p>Of course, it helps if you think Blade Runner is one of the greatest films ever made. The Workprint has

  • no happy ending
  • no Harrison Ford voiceover (except during the Tears in Rain scene)
  • no unicorn dream (which I have mixed feelings about)
  • the length of cuts differs
  • more violent
  • the language differs (fun fact: Batty calls Tyrell “father” in this version, but the word was changed to “fucker” for all releases until it was changed back in the Final Cut)
  • no end credits
  • the music is different — the final scenes with the extended Deckard/Batty chase don’t use Vangelis’ score, presumably because it hadn’t been finished. Instead there’s stock dramatic music. It changes the tone quite a bit:


(Theatrical release)

Clearly for enthusiasts only, but I felt this version captures Scott’s original intent and the replicant’s emotions very well, and without the unicorn or the happy ending it’s the most ambiguous, and I like that. The workprint appears in the 5-disc “ultimate collectors edition”.

Live Games and Immersion

RPG theorists like to tell us that gaming isn’t one homogeneous activity but is shaded by various styles and expectations, roughly expressed via threefold models, drama vs simulation vs game, &c.

One of those expectations is “immersion”, that ill-defined grail of gaming. The pursuit of immersion leads to all kinds of decisions and behaviour, like keeping knowledge from some players because their characters would not have that knowledge.

Live Action RP games are as diverse as tabletop games, but because they’re a bit of a niche in an already small hobby, they’re usually lumped into one mass. They do have one important thing in common, though — generally it’s easier to achieve immersion and partitioning of knowledge in a live game than a tabletop game. A lot of this is down to the relative autonomy characters must have in order to function with a very high player to GM ratio.

Let’s consider three sub-categories of LARP:

FLRP (Fantasy Live Role Play)1 is the traditional rubber swords, players vs monsters game usually with a single ref. The default mode is to go from encounter to encounter, have fights, and battleboard after, and organisation tends to be “bus a load of people to some woods and run around”.

Freeform is an indoor, players-as-actors type game which typically happens in a single big room but could be spread over several locations. Vampire (Mind’s Eye Theatre) fits into this category. The organisation is usually around meetings (of your secret society / mage cabal / vampire coterie etc.). There is (usually) no encounter structure.

Murder Mystery is like Freeform but with tighter control over the play area and what players can and can’t do, and more repeatable results (desirable for a commercial game).

All LARP games need a defined play area, and they need the players to know when they’re timed in and timed out. Aside from that they’re very different animals — even when they look like they’re doing the same walking-and-talking-in-character thing. Let’s specifically compare the first two:



  • Outdoors
  • Combat is high priority
  • Rubber swords
  • Encounter-by-encounter structure
  • Party focused
  • Monsters (players playing antagonists) outnumber party
  • Indoors
  • Verbal discussion is high priority
  • Fangs, capes and eyeliner
  • Meeting structure, with in-character recess but continuous time-in
  • Individual focused
  • GMs usually outnumbered (severely) by the players

A couple of comments:

  1. FLRP prioritises combat which is a measurable, game activity. Freeform prioritises verbal interaction, but more importantly de-prioritises the combat stuff (which can’t be done indoors anyway). A lot of Freeform conflict resolution comes down to negotiation, description, and who shoots first.
  2. FLRP’s encounter structure provides the same scene focus that indie games love. Freeform’s meeting structure can involve a lot of dead air as people wait for things to happen to them.
  3. FLRP’s party focus means they have a party-to-GM relationship. Freeform’s individual focus (with the incumbent secrets etc.) means the GM has not one relationship to maintain but many 1-2-1 relationships with each player as individual. And since there are usually fewer GMs in Freeforms (owing to the fallacy that these games “just run themselves”), the GM cannot possibly maintain all those relationships at once.

Now I freely admit that Freeform games are not my favourite — it’s not that they’re all bad, but they have a lot of potential to go wrong and not be much fun for the majority of the players. It usually follows the pattern:

  1. The Freeform game follows a regular meeting structure. However…
  2. The people who are actually interested in the formal meeting are in the minority (for example a Vampire game that includes a wide spread of status will usually involve the high-rank PCs grandstanding all evening while everyone else looks on)
  3. To keep the majority interested the GMs have to have exciting things happen outside the meeting, and go outside the game boundaries. In the past this would be contained in PBM-style turnsheets. However…
  4. …pretty quickly people stop respecting the in-game boundary (i.e. the physical room) and start with the secret meetings and players with their fingers in the air going off in breakout sessions.
  5. GM time is quickly consumed by having to be outside the room with a minority of players, leaving the majority of players inside with no GM. How long those players keep roleplaying small talk depends on their stamina and motivation.

Freeforms are set up to provide immersive roleplaying, but nothing breaks immersion like seeing another player standing in the room, going over to their character to talk, and being told “I’m not actually here, I’m off doing something else”. If the game is going to be split into multiple tabletops, you may as well not define the play boundary at all.

But all of this can be avoided. The Murder Mystery is a subset of Freeform games that can be commercially successful with repeatable results among players who aren’t familiar with roleplaying. How does it achieve this?

Most importantly this genre obviates need for nearly all GM-player interactions. The GM may be called on to be arbitrator, but not to invent situations on the spot where players transition from live roleplaying in the shared space to a pseudo tabletop outside the shared space. This is achieved by having game elements that can be played out between players without need for arbitration (e.g. what Minds Eye Theatre is supposed to do).

These games usually have one location or play area, and assume the real physicality of the location will be used by the players (rather than forcing the players to imagine a fictional landscape). A lot of MM games take place in big houses because… it’s easy to find a big house. The players are rarely permitted outside the play area, due to some constraint being baked into the setting (e.g. you’re on an island).

The third element is preparation to ensure balance and equal participation and unambiguity of backstory elements. A number of Freeform games fall down when there’s a large character briefing tailored to individuals, which place an expectation of action on those characters. MM games manage to state the premise and pertinent facts in a way that feeds the shared imagined space — in doing so the space is reinforced by what the group agrees it should look like. 


p>Those elements together make for a better (more coherent) game, the question is, does it hurt immersion? Do these play elements get in the way because they remind players they’re playing with limited degrees of freedom? The expectation to be able to leave the play area and still be in the game (going off to do secret stuff) seems to be a big part of Freeforms, and therefore individual character immersion.

Since the methods used by MM games to transform Freeforms are formulaic and goal-oriented, and an immersion goal is often seen to be at odds with goal-oriented RPG theories, there’s an argument that yes — MM games are not immersive. But then there are arguments that immersion doesn’t exist, because every game-related action — reaching for dice, describing action, &c — breaks immersion. Clearly there’s scope to take some of the elements of Freeforms that people really like, such as the “always in character” and apply MM structures. The most obvious is to make the real world the play space and disallow players from being “not there” if they’re actually there — an approach taken in some long-term immersive games (usually modern fantasy).

Playtest Metrics

There doesn’t seem to be much advice — that’s discoverable advice from a few Google searches — on how to run a playtest of your shiny new RPG. As an outsider1 to this process, the prevailing attitudes seem to be

  • play it until it breaks, and
  • if you’re having fun, you’re not playtesting. Playtesting should feel like work, not fun.

The first is good advice but rather broad, and the second stems to the same school-of-hard-knocks mentality that pervades some professions — that you do not learn your job from a book, you learn from doing, being knocked back a few times, and getting stronger. And I’ve been there and done that with a lot of things, both work-wise and hobby-wise, so I’m sympathetic to this view.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to organise my thoughts — and in doing so, maybe I can avoid at least some iterative navel-gazing that arises from the “just see what works” approach. So this post is about me thinking about what I want from the game in a fairly high-level conceptual sense, and how to gauge the response of the players.

I’ve picked four (fairly obvious) axes for the performance metrics. These are

  1. Character
  2. World
  3. System
  4. Change

The axes are approximately in order of presentation — players will see character first, then world (at least, the bits they influence), then system and finally longer-term change.

To measure along these axes I’m going to ask different questions of the players, and try to get a sense of their satisfaction in the different areas. It’s not going to be easy and will probably be even harder if I try to turn those responses into measures on an objective scale. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself. Let’s just ask the questions and see what happens.

Character Questions

Is your character’s Origin (childhood, motivations, skills and experience) expressed?

Are the character’s Power Levels expressed? These include

  • Explicit powers (i.e. written down)
  • Implicit powers (i.e. inferred by writing, character, mannerism)

Is there anything which is implied about your character that should be explicit?

Is there a direct path from what the character can do as written, to what the character wants to achieve in the world?

Is the character adequately tied to the game in play?

World Questions

Do the players understand where the game is?

Do they get the Scope2 of play?

Is it clear to them what will happen if they go Outside the Boundary?2

System Questions

Do the players know what is a pass, and what is a fail?

Do they have a sense of relative ability and relative success?

Rate the system for

  • Seek time (that is how long it takes to read the dice)
  • Transparency of Results (how easy it is to translate the reading to a success or failure)
  • Malleability or Agency (how easy it is for the players to make tactical dice rolling decisions)

Change Questions

Do the players get a sense of change in the game world?

Do they feel able to affect the world and achieve change themselves? Perhaps not immediately, but could they make a change through executing a longer term plan?


Cross posted to the UK RolePlayers Design Collective blog.



p>1. I say “outsider” in the terms of designing something experimental, then trying to turn it into something actually functional long-term rather than just mucking about for a session and discarding it. Done plenty of the latter.

  1. The terms Scope, Boundary and Outside are specific to my game, but I guess they could apply to any game.

Scope is the field of operations for the game to be played — for example the PC are occult investigators looking into a bizarre murder, or pirates after plunder, or modern magicians fleeing an oppressive regime.

Outside is the stuff outside the game “world”, which in my case is a city. It’s the place people don’t go, or there will be consequences. The Boundary is simply the line someone would cross to go to the Outside — it may be just a line in the dirt or it could be an obstacle.

Ink Review: Diamine Oxblood



Why I like Oxblood:

  • The sheer depth of bloody colour when laid on thick
  • A dark red that works for markup but also notes and is fairly easy on the eye (if you can stand the sight of blood)
  • Clean up isn’t too onerous, unlike a lot of red ink
  • Another ink that flows and lubricates well



Lamy Safari and Vista with OM, OB and 1.5mm italic nibs.
Sheaffer 300 medium.
The OM and OB were used in my Evergreen review. The Vista is relatively wet and the Sheaffer is probably the wettest pen I own.


Rhodia Bloc No. 16, 5×5 grid. Also a scrap of generic copier paper for showing bleed through.

Like any ink the wetness of a pen will affect how this ink looks; unlike Evergreen I don’t really like the product of a dry writer. The line from the OM nib is an insipid pink rust colour. It really needs a wet nib to do the ink justice.

Feathering and Bleeding

It more or less holds itself together even from a wet pen on copier paper, and doesn’t bleed through badly.

Flow and Lubrication

Superb, with lubrication just a hair less than Evergreen. Very nice.

Water Resistance


Oxblood rinse1

Oxblood rinse2

Oxblood water

Only the wettest lines have any residue. This was after about a minute of running water. Dry lines stand no chance…


Despite the poor water resistance the ink took a while to flush out completely, but it didn’t stain. Generally OK.


Everyone seems to love Oxblood. I think it’s a great colour but it’s not as versatile as Evergreen owing to the performance in dry nibs. For a drier pen I’d choose Red Dragon which is similarly dark but has more character when thinly laid on. But that’s just my preference.

As Evergreen is my benchmark, here’s how Oxblood compares:

  • Flow and Lubrication: as good
  • Versatility: slightly less due to unremarkable colour in dry pens
  • Clean up: slightly harder to remove, but not bad
  • Water Resistance: slightly improved, but still very poor

Verdict: a very appealing colour that will get regular use in a limited number of pens.