Decision Analysis and RPGs

Last week I went oop north to discuss decision making with people. We talked about Bayesian decision analysis too. And as is my wont, I thought “can this apply to RPGs?”

Because RPGs involve constant decision making as individuals and groups. That’s often the point, it’s where conflict arises, and the decision-action-feedback cycle is where a lot of the satisfaction comes from participating in a RPG.


Take the principle that internal decision making is at base perfect and entirely internal, uncoloured by analysis or communication. But it’s also based on individual rational belief.

Then you move into the realm of the irrational. Heuristics and biases. System 1 thinking is fast and intuitive and how many people make decisions, System 2 is slow and formalised. And analysts (psychoanalysts, or GMs) help the individual formalise System 1 to System 2, making internal decisions explicit in the context of system.

But at this stage we’re talking about a 1-2-1 relationship between GM and player. More often than not the GM acts as interpreter for the internal decisions of the player on behalf of their PC. The ideal state for a gaming group is a group discussion and group decision making, but frequently it devolves into many player-GM conversations. Some GMs actively encourage this behaviour (secret side meetings, passing notes, etc.) and some players lap this up and deviate from the group arc into their own. This goes hand-in-hand with My Guy Syndrome:

you disclaim decision-making power and responsibility by acting like “what my character would do” is inevitable and inviolable, even if it gets in the way of actually having fun in the game or being able to play the game at all.

My Guy Syndrome is the killer of fun; players who engage in that behaviour are rightly shunned.

But, maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh because the reason they’re disclaiming decision-making power is precisely because group decision-making is hard, and furthermore there is no rational model of group decision making. OTOH My Guy is making perfectly rational, internal decisions.

And the way to overcome this — surprise, surprise — is changing the GM from a rational analyst role into a social facilitator role. Treat group decision making like a social problem rather than a rational problem to navigate around individual biases, etc. There are still issues of governance and process (e.g. do you have permission to make that move at this time) and values and uncertainty (when I make that move, what outcome is reasonable to expect — and will an unreasonable outcome spoil the game?)

This will be all very obvious to anyone who has GM’d a game. But these are my points:

One: “How To GM” is tacit knowledge

People learn how to do the social facilitation by doing, despite the glut of advice on how to interact socially. GMing arises from contextual experience. Also GMing is like any other skill — you need 10,000 hours of experience to call yourself an “expert”.

Two: The GM is a decision-maker

Simply this: the GM doesn’t just facilitate a conversation, they also make decisions (on behalf of the game world) and react to player action. So the GM is also bound by System 1 and System 2 thinking. In this context:

  • System 1 (intuitive) thinking is GM gut feel and calls based on experience and observation on how the game is going and what fits the situation. E.g. player voices action, GM asks for an attribute check and interprets the results (as yes/no/maybe).
  • System 2 (formalised) thinking is the GM interpreting the game in the context of a rules framework, and basing a response on the rules. E.g. player voices action, GM places that in a system context with pass/fail thresholds and consequences, player rolls, GM enforces outcome.


Now, going back to point 1: when people learn to GM they frequently learn to take those decisions intuitively, developing their intuitive sense of how to run games. Learning the explicit, rules-laden aspects of GMing anything crunchy is almost a separate skill.

Three: Apocalypse World makes everything System 2 Thinking

The difference between Apocalypse World and Everway is that AW forces both players and GM into System 2 decision making all the time (or forces the GM to force the players into System 2) by forcing all consequential actions to be codified as moves. It gets away with this because the number of choices is relatively small and the moves have consequences baked in, so the decisions for the GM are simpler to make — but still, the GM’s response will always be in the context of the Moves’ outcome or as one of the codified MC Moves.

Compare that with Everway and other fairly minimalist or freeform games: Everway’s Karma, Drama and even Fortune resolutions are pretty much intuitive, based on principles and value expectations.

Four: Is “Social Contract” enough?

I’m a fan of the concept of Social Contract in the Big Model.

But the problem with the social contract is the assumption of consensus. We’ve already said that group decision making is non-trivial and rational group decision making doesn’t exist. This means that the Social Contract, Creative Agenda and other items are already facilitated objects, reliant on the facilitator to reach group consensus.

This formalising and externalising of system is common to a lot of storygames. But in this case it often works because:

  • scenes are between two players, both with their perfect internal decision-making, and all that matters is the conflict between their decisions, not the decision process
  • also, scenes are often about vocalising options and getting consensus between two characters; the process of translating your System 1 thoughts to System 2 is part of the game
  • Character biases are… sort of the whole point of storygame interactions.

Whew, that’s probably enough academic noodling for one post. TTFN.


An addendum of sorts — see here and here (this blog) and here (black armada)

Point one: Baz reckons that “Indie” games are entirely a subset of “Trad” games, and that it’s possible for a “Trad” game to emulate “Indie” but not the other way around (at least, not with the same flexibility — you can certainly write a storygame as a pastiche on some specific part of trad gaming).

Point two: Josh’s taxonomy of Indie games has three degrees of freedom:

  1. How the game distributes / subverts the GM role (no GM, shared GM duties, GM authority subordinate to players, etc.)
  2. Similarly distributing / subverting the player role (less than or more than one PC per player)
  3. Story output by design (Story Games)

Point three: the player and GM roles discussion also calls to mind the different stances of GNS theory — a game that alters the relationship between GM, players and characters must influence those somehow.

With these in mind I’ve been thinking of games I’ve played that were entirely traditional, but still subverted those roles. These examples spring to mind:

Ars Magica’s (and Vampire’s?) Troupe-Style Play

I never properly played Ars Magica, but I played a lot of Vampire and I believe the suggestion for playing Troupe Style is in one of of the 1e books.

There are two modes here: the Troupe System involves different GMs having a domain and taking responsibility when the game enters that domain. For this domain-based play you need to identify the boundaries you’ve crossed, and you need to negotiate between players to stop and start as the GM hat is passed around (social contract). The Troupe Style Play is much simpler with just multiple PCs per player (in Ars Magica that would be one adventuring wizard at a time with a mundane retinue).

Wraith’s Shadow players

Wraith involves another player (or the GM) playing the “Shadow” of each PC’s Wraith. I think the rulebook recommends that players pair up so John plays Anna’s PC’s Shadow, etc. and really gets to know their dark side. I’ve also seen this done with a dedicated GM for each Shadow (the GM in question walked around the table and whispered the shadow’s insecurities in each players ear throughout the game), which will work in bringing players into a game of Wraith and avoid having to grok the role of shadow players — but I think getting players to play shadows sounds a lot more fun.

Rotating GM for the Eternal Champion; Alas Vegas

I played a game based on the meeting of four Moorcockian Eternal Champion types where the GM role was rotated through four sessions; it worked extremely well as each GM’s session took on the personality of their (absent) character. It was still very traditional — we used GURPS to run it.

This is also how Alas Vegas should work (cough when I get my copy cough). Each player takes the GM mantle for one act; and the other players aren’t supposed to know the contents of the act you’re running. It will be interesting to see what replay value Alas Vegas has; unlike other Kickstarters I’ve backed the pre-read really is half finished and I suspect no functional game can be had until the finished product is in my hands. That game relies on keeping all players ignorant of some of the text. It’s the antithesis of Fiasco (and other story games) where the story progression is entirely transparent.

So the interesting comparison between Alas Vegas and our Eternal Champions game is that the former worked because we assumed a level of trust between the players and GM. Does James Wallis assume the same level of trust? Once again this isn’t a stance issue, it’s a social contract issue. In fact, for all three of these examples I’m wondering if the issue of stance really matters.

Trendie Trindie

Indie music started out with independent labels. But then it became the indie music scene, a broad outsider genre that included a range of styles (Britpop, alt. rock, shoegaze, baroque pop, etc.). And by the time fans started picking sides between Blur and Oasis, “indie music” was clearly commercial and getting radio airplay.

Similarly, Indie RPGs are creator owned and independent; but the Indie RPG Scene is generally what people mean by an indie game — particularly the us-centric movement that gravitated around the Forge. Josh lists a bunch of very different games that fall under that moniker, partly in response to my trindie triangle post.

Some of the differences of opinion are semantic — in particular freeform which he’s taken to mean live action (or at least real-time, improv-style) play, but in my case I meant a negotiated rather than rules-bound system of adjudication. Both Ribbon Drive and Everway are negotiated — in the former you’re negotiating scene elements with the other players without any real weighting other than the precedent set by the fiction (and the music, yeah). In the latter you’re basically negotiating with the GM for advantage, with a side-order of random from the Fortune Deck draws.

And let’s not forget — this negotiating with the GM is a time-honoured practice that pervades nearly all RPGs where the central tenet is “if there’s no rule that applies, make something up” (with the exception of many self-identified indie games where the dogma is “if it’s not in the rules, it’s not in the game”). Negotiating is a cornerstone of OSR play, and it’s really the only way you can play Vampire and not get frustrated by the godawful d10 system. I’ve heard several people refer to Over The Edge as “the original indie game”, probably because so much of it is freeform, based only on a few character traits and one-line qualitative sentences. Though I have to say those people should seek out Ghostbusters International for its Tags and Goals — it beat OTE by 6 years.

“Trad” and “Indie” are terms of convenience for two very rough groups of products. Indie games largely define themselves as not Trad — not mainstream in marketing, not reliant on the tacit procedures that most mainstream games expect the players to know in order to play, but also not based on a supplement-driven publishing model that delivers metaplot and downstream rules fixes as long as the consumer subscribes to the game line.

Now, the “Trindie” moniker (as applied to FATE and Cortex) is being used not for marketing, but by players and fans (the same ones calling OTE “indie”). So while some might object that the mechanics in these games are only superficially “indie” and just don’t go far enough, this is largely an ideological divide between purists and people who have identified and are attracted to certain features. It’s a bit like people saying Suede aren’t Indie because they appeared on Top of the Pops. I had hoped we were over this kind of thing, with all the past accusations of gatekeeping and elitism. The fact that FATE is identified as like some indie games is overall good for indie games — well, except for those people who want to keep mainstream players out.

I have deep love for indie games, but the Indie movement means nothing to me; I do not identify with that culture. I was never there. And that’s cool: I can discuss games with other people and as long as I know what they mean by trad and indie and the bits in between.

But really I’d like a more functional taxonomy: if indie games really as functionally diverse as Josh points out, then clearly there is no specification for them and therefore no technical argument you can apply to what is indie or not (and to rag on people for calling a game trindie just makes you a hipster).

FU, Empiricism

In light of the declaration that the Big Model Is Dead, here are some parallel thoughts I’ve been having on Empiricism and Fundamental Understanding and also Knowledge Management.

These two terms are a big deal in my industry (corporate science). The issue is that we’ve seen a slide towards empiricism for years now, in that projects are pretty much based on brute-force experimentations and by comparison with previous successes. We know that X works, our new thing is Y, let’s try a bunch of things and get Y to work a bit better than X. This works in design and it works in engineering and in operations, and it’s all based on observations that if we do a thing, we can be sure of a certain response — but we often don’t know precisely why that is.

The antidote to this empirical approach is fundamental understanding, which is all about getting to the root cause. It involves modelling, basic science, appreciation of causes of variation and what gives rise to good and bad results.

It sounds like FU is highly desirable, and the empirical approach is outdated and doomed to waste time with repeated experimental cycles — right?

So, one group in the wider RPG community has used the Big Model as a tool for Fundamental Understanding, a sort of Rosetta Stone for the mysteries of game design. That’s a good effort, it’s highly desirable to lay down the fundamentals with such precision so everyone works from a common basis.

Another group is entrenched in old-school design. It has no real fundamental model, but it has a lot of tacit understanding of how to play within individuals that goes back to how the game was handed down from the previous generation. It might be considered empirical in its approach, making very small functional changes to achieve specific aims. And phrased like that, it sounds like I’m suggesting that approach is inferior to the Big Model, etc.

BUT it misses one vital point: the empirical approach frequently outperforms a fundamental approach in terms of sheer output. This is for a few organisational reasons, and not all of them are good — for example, the “we’ve always done it that way” is cited as a reason not to change the scientific method. But “we’ve always done it that way” also removes any need for retraining or reorienting workers, designers and players. You can ignore that chunk of effort and get straight to designing environments, plots and ephemera that, while “colour” are really the things that attract and satisfy players.

Furthermore, an outside observer might assume empiricism requires scientists and designers to start from a position of complete ignorance every time, and reinvent the wheel. They don’t. Those people using an iterative approach base there design partly on feel and their own tacit experience. They do have expertise, a lot of it; it’s just not articulated into a written model. Many probably feel there is no need to write that model down, because they view it as common knowledge (and so obvious that writing it down is a waste of time).

I’m a strong believer in Fundamental Understanding, but the times when FU runs into problems are when it lacks connection with common practices. For FU to work, it’s not enough for the theory to be tested; it has to engage with the tacit practices of people, somehow extract their feedback (e.g. via Cognitive Task Analysis) and then reincorporate it in a satisfying way. Part of the success of any model has to be how it engages with and listens to a community, incorporates ideas and above all reflects feelings. Marketing is probably the biggest challenge in any Knowledge Management effort, and that’s exactly what a written model is. And Knowledge Management doesn’t just need a place to store stuff, it needs active curation and challenge for the written content to keep it up to date.

I sincerely hope that the Big Model (or its successor) persists, because the alternative is that it simply dies out, beyond even the ability of the Wayback machine to resurrect. At the moment I’m wary that the Big Model that’s being declared “dead” by that community isn’t the one that’s written down, at least not in its entirety. The community has a tacit, collective idea of what the Big Model is, and that only exists in the community’s collective head, and if that’s now consigned to that head’s waste bin it may as well be that the Big Model never existed. That would be sad.

Mecha equals Werewolf

So, Beyond the Wall

with Mecha.

Years ago I ran this short campaign over a holiday (as is our wont to go on hols to play games) that started out in a village out on its own in the middle of nowhere. Colour-wise I was going for a fantasy post-apoc Laputa/Nausicaa (Studio Ghibli) vibe.

To the East there was a very distant Empire, and to the West there was the scary forbidden lands ™ where once there had been the ancient race ™ that no-one really believed in or had seen for centuries, and in between there was farmland as far as the eye could see with only a few of the ancients’ ruined buildings here and there. The farmers used the ancient monuments as winter shelter for their sheep. It was pretty much the setup of Beyond the Wall and the party did much the same things and were much the same ages as BtW‘s protagonists — get hooked into exploring forbidden and dangerous places, mapping out the area, growing in physical and magical ability. And also, piloting mecha for the Imperial army.


Tuning BtW to that campaign would need a minor tweak (rebadging magic as psionics) and a major one, some mecha rules. These are those. So, some basics:

One: mecha equals werewolf

Mecha look like machines, and most games handle them like machines. But really they’re a lot more like werewolves. More often than not they’re a kind of living extension of the pilot, having the pilot’s agility and senses. So what mecha really do is elevate and transform the pilots physically (and maybe spiritually, too). Mecha bring their pilots closer to god, and take them further from humanity.

More superficially, the precocious teen is the mainstay of the mecha pilot archetype (sometimes, the only viable pilot). They’re a character with hardly any life experience thrust into dangerous and stressful situations (often by adults who aren’t giving them one percent of the truth). Sometimes they don’t even know their own limits, or the capabilities of their mecha. The hormonal coming-of-age werewolf analogy works.

And since we’re talking about the pilots, let’s consider two other archetypes that are important. The first is the best friend: someone who will never pilot a mecha of their own, someone who represents the “common people” the mecha pilot is fighting for and yet becoming more and more distanced from as they do terrible things and ascend closer to godhood. The best friend grounds the pilot, teaches them humility, etcetera.


The other archetype is the priest commander. They send the pilots on their missions and expect them to do terrible things. But also they understand things about the mecha and the external threat that the best friend cannot. They’re a separate priest caste, distinct from the “common people”, guiding the pilot through a physical and spiritual transformation… erm…


…warm in here?

Two: mecha are all about scale

A mecha that isn’t opposed by something equally big but instead just stamps on inferior forces isn’t really a mecha, it’s just some wanker in a robot suit.


Mecha solve a problem of scale. The invading force is physically dominant, bigger and more powerful; so the warriors transform into something of equal size to take them on.

And that’s pretty much it. Size varies from slightly larger than human (Ellen Ripley in her exoskeleton, Appleseed’s Landmates) to skyscrapers and beyond (Evangelion) but in each case, the protagonist answers a threat of similar size. But also because the fight is on a different scale it separates the arena from the human scale (how much depends on relative size).

Of the two mecha games I’ve owned Mekton does the scaling thing pretty well between mechs and roadstrikers. Palladium’s Robotech is generally awful, with no consistency between supplements.

Three: mecha have personality

So obviously if the mecha are extensions of the pilot, they are often owned by (or adapted to) their pilot, etc. Doesn’t always happen in the fiction or in games. Sometimes the mecha are just lined up in the garage and the pilot takes one. But Nagate Tanikaze is great at piloting the Mark 17 Garde, so the Tsugumori becomes synonymous with him as a pilot.

Four: you can’t wear the suit to breakfast

We know that fighters would wear their plate mail all the time if they could. But mecha, like werewolves, involve taking the suit off from time to time. This happens in one of two scenarios:

  • Back home, no-one walks around in their suits, and the pilots engage with the other characters (best friends, commanders, etc.) on human scale.
  • Out in the field the pilot might be separated from their armour because it’s destroyed, or they might peel their armour for diplomatic reasons, or because the suit is too large, they need dexterity, etc.

So basically, your mecha campaign will involve domestic phases and adventure phases. Domestic phases are explicitly out-of-suit, adventure phases are in-suit.

Five: a home to go to

Last, all this human vs. god scale matters because the PCs are usually defending something — a village, a colony, a superdimensional fortress, etc. Not much more to say apart from the obvious fit with Beyond the Wall.

Some Mecha Rules

First a shout out for Wrath of Zombie’s rules for the White Star game. I’m not going to use them, because they’re a bit too much mecha-as-vehicle and crunchy for me. But someone else might want to see them. I’m also not using the mecha rules in Stars Without Number, but that’s another option.

Here’s the approach for BtW. In the regular game PCs are differentiated by playbooks (for fiction) and 3 classes (for function). So

  1. The character class is the class of mech the pilot uses. Combat, scouting, specialist (magic/psionics/special technology etc.).
  2. Optionally characters are capable of the same things outside their mech as inside, it’s just the scale that changes. Magic/psionics could work via psionic lenses. Fighting scales, and a lot of physical activity is equivalent — it’s just the scale of the obstacle that changes.
  3. Monsters scale, too.
  4. Playbooks cover both the character and their mech.
  5. The game focuses even more between domestic parts (in the village, without suits) and adventure parts.
  6. May need to design a leadership structure within the “village” that directs where the characters go. Or maybe there is no such structure. See not bowing to authority.
  7. Consider the needs of a military campaign vs. a “village defense” campaign / scenario.

Concerning relative scale

In the alt main damage rules (inspired by Scarlet Heroes) damage is figured as one point per 3 points on the die.

All damage is relative: that is to say, a 3 point wound on a mecha isn’t objectively the same as a 3 point wound on a human, but it’s the same amount of inconvenience.

So, when mecha fight mecha, use exactly the same damage system.

When mecha fight something bigger or smaller, adjust the scale. There are two ways to do this. One is to just add or subtract a modifier to shift the roll up or down. The other is to change the stepping, e.g. a smaller target will take 1 point for every 2 on the dice, and a larger one will will take 1 point for every 4, etc.


The only slight issue is armour with the modified rules — because that would mean that a small target’s armour gets more effective at dropping damage. You can counter this by either having the mecha roll bigger dice, or some fiddle factor applied to armour (e.g. if the opponent’s bigger, armour is half as effective). I still need to work on armour scaling anyway, so something for part 2.

Rationalising Damage

Need to consider what damage to the mech actually means. Is the pilot damaged? I’d like to think yes. Suggestions:

  1. Treat the pilot + mech as one organism; apply damage per the alt. damage rules. Both pilot and mech can heal minor damage, but when it gets bad, a repair is needed.
  2. Healing “spells” heal/repair the mechs
  3. Consider a threshold where the damage passes through to the pilot. If the mech has armour, all wounds the mech suffers over its armour rating are actually received by the pilot (so minor scrapes don’t do anything to the pilot; but a major 5-pointer is actually a hit on the pilot as well as the mech).

Playbooks and Building Mecha

Playbooks need to incorporate the hero and their mech, and they need to provide the fictional back story.

If we’re treating mecha as a set of powers that the character puts on (instead of a machine they pilot), expressing the mecha is pretty simple:

  • enhanced attributes (for to-hit, damage, and saves)
  • armour, weapons and defence
  • knacks
  • skills
  • spells

And as far as the playbooks go, just pick some of the tables to describe the suit, and the bonuses that the suit provides. Simples.

For hacking playbooks, some of the existing ones will lend themselves more easily than others — “type A” playbooks like the Heir to a Legend may translate better, because they’re obviously going to be front-and-centre for a military style campaign. Other more passive or less sociable characters may need a bit more tweaking.

Magic and Ritual

Re-skinning magic needs some thought. Spells work as one-shot resources in the mech (maybe drawing from a battery that needs to recharge). But what about rituals?

Here’s the suggestion: they’re not something the individual character can do, they’re a strategic resource that can be deployed with time. Maybe the mage acts as some kind of artillery observer or officer.

OK, that’s all for now. I have other things going on so I don’t know when I’ll finish this off, but this was an itch I needed to scratch.


Don’t go hand to hand with the blue bastard.

Beyond The Wall: Alternative Armour

More mopping up of Beyond the Wall rules.

I’m fine with AC for monsters, it makes sense. When it comes to PCs I’d prefer to split out passive defence, and worn armour. But rolling to-hit against a static defence is nice and simple; I don’t want to muck about with active parries and dodges.

The problem with unarmoured fighters is the system doesn’t support them getting better at dodging except by bettering Dex, which anyone can do. So, here’s how I intend to do Armour and Defence.

  1. PCs don’t get AC, they get Defence (in the spelling of your choice). It works exactly like ascending AC for purposes of monsters hitting PCs.
  2. Defence starts at 10, modified by Dex and proficiency in Defensive Fighting — a proficiency that both Fighters and Rogues get (minor). So, unarmoured a Fighter gets a Defence equal to their minor Proficiency Bonus, as discussed earlier
  3. Armour actually encumbers and makes Defence worse. Armour is encumbering and gives a negative to all physical actions based on its rating — including Dex saves, climbing, swimming, etc.
  4. But training mitigates Armour encumbrance. Fighters get a minor Proficiency in wearing all kinds of armour, and their proficiency bonus mitigates against encumbrance penalties (so at 4th level they can soak 3 points of encumbrance). Rogues probably get a Proficiency in light armour only.
  5. Armour rating is just applied to the damage dice roll. Even 1 point of armour is nice to have, and 3 points is guaranteed to reduce a wound by 1.

This means that

  • Fighters get better and better at wearing armour as they level up
  • Rogues will hit the limits of their light armour options in a few levels
  • Mages can wear what they want, but it will interfere with everything they physically do (including defending themselves).

There was something else… oh yeah, shields. Until I do something more complicated just use them as always i.e. modify Defence/AC. I’ll work on that, along with armour tables, etc. TTFN.

Great Clomping Feet, part 2

Cutting Up Museums is the latest Smart Party podcast.

Creating your own setting at the table through play might be all the rage, but nothing beats a good published setting.

According to Baz and Gaz there hasn’t been a decent setting this side of the millennium (discuss); so by “setting” we presumably mean the monolithic, supplement-driven mid-90s titles — in this case Earthdawn, Shadowrun, Deadlands, and Over The Edge. Although they do pay lip-service to Apocalypse World and at least mention Shadows of Esteren. I’ll get to those later. First I’ll get my personal prejudices out of the way:

  1. Worldbuilding is the great clomping foot of nerdism. The fictional power of a setting is diminished by definition. Other people’s settings are boring.
  2. More to the point, other people’s settings are overwhelming. If you’re a fanfic type (and one of those great clomping nerds) that’s not a problem — you’ll probably welcome the crush of the canon. But being a reader of Moorcock has meant that I could never really bring myself to run Stormbringer, at least not without seriously dicking with the setting to make it my own.
  3. In order for a setting to be good, the group has to own it. And the gents do say that the very best examples of setting are ones where they engage the world but make the campaign their own — which is surely the aim of all groups using published settings, but clearly doesn’t always come off. So here’s my main point: Having the group own the setting should be a design goal.

It’s interesting that Baz (I think) mentions Apocalypse World as having a “setting”. With respect, I don’t think that’s a setting. It has a premise, it has a genre, it has a theme. But nothing approaching a good old spoon-fed 90s setting. What it does have are mechanisms for both the players to own their characters (thanks to playbooks, the decisive nature of moves, etc.) and for the GM (sorry, MC) to own the environment via Fronts and Threats.

Similarly (and I know I keep going on about it) Beyond the Wall embraces the ownership principle — IMHO even better than Apocalypse World and its children thanks to the focus on genre, the cohesive way the Village is built from the ground up, and the support for campaigns in Further Afield. Recently the question “should I run with the playbooks at a convention, or start with pre-gens?” was asked on the BtW community and the overwhelming response was playbooks, for one reason — the amount of buy-in you get from starting the players off with the playbooks is huge.

Let’s take another OSR example, Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions. Here you have a mechanism by which the GM can design and own not only the mythos, the locations and the plot hooks, but the dynamic workings of the antagonists as well. They call this a sandbox but that’s a disservice — a sandbox would be static, waiting to be discovered (like so many other hexcrawl staples of the OSR scene). This thing moves and breathes and reacts. It’s Apocalypse World’s Fronts in a more traditional (and IMHO, functional) package.

It’s not all new-school games, either. Everway is contemporary of those 90s titles but it’s a game with a premise rather than a setting — one of many reasons why it turns up over and again in later RPG theory. It’s a toolkit game that guides both players and GM through owning the game they play together.

This ownership, like much of the “good GMing” craft and knowledge that we like to waffle about (on blogs and in podcasts, natch) is always implied as a good set of principles in the 90s-era games. 50% of White Wolf’s stock in trade was essays about how to engage with players, and pretentious as that was/is it did suck some people in, myself included. Despite owning a silly number of oWoD supplements I never ran with anything other than the rulebook, and (thanks to the system being made of cheese) most of that was hand-waving anyway. But those essays were at least an attempt to get the GM to own and lead the game.

So here’s the thing that we should take away from M. John Harrison’s Great Clomping Feet. Settings need to start small, and grow. This is a principle of decent fiction, and decent campaigns. GMs who embrace a vast published campaign setting still know this; they know full well to drip, drip, drip the setting onto the party and otherwise, let the party get on with their thing and react. That’s a time-honoured method, with the GM as the gatekeeper of information, for better or worse. (Although harking back to the chaps’ podcast on problem players, be wary of the players who know the campaign world better than you.)

But even though it’s a method, there’s precious little support for GMs to start small and grow their world other than doggedly following published material. Instead these huge settings rely on the GM first digesting and then filtering the bits they don’t want the players to see just yet. To me, this is a colossal waste of time. Why not instead start from a really strong beginning, and give the GM the tools to expand where the party goes?

Growth can be outward (beyond the village, exploring new lands) or it can be inward (confining the characters to a city, and building layer and layer upon that closed environment — the next game I’m working on). But either way, since it’s a game the absolute best practice must be for the GM to grow only slightly ahead of the players. Why buy into a whole world you’ll use only 1 percent of? And why needlessly constrain yourself?

That’s it from me. The gin has helped. Thanks to Gaz and Baz for another great podcast. But also I recommend this Canon Puncture “Game Advocates” podcast that also covers Earthdawn — because as monolithic as the setting is, Earthdawn really is a thing of beauty. I think Baz got that right.

Beyond the Wall: Borrowing from 5e

Just mopping up some stray rules for Death comes to Wyverley in preparation for compiling the lot into one document. This one borrows a few things from D&D Fifth Edition and applies them to Beyond the Wall.

Mainstream D&D has never been my thing, but I really admire 5e’s efforts to streamline the system. The elements I’d would import into BtW are

  • Saving throws
  • One-size-fits-all proficiency bonus

Before I get into this, I’ll just say I don’t own the final 5e product so I may well have missed some nuances of how 5e does it — so if anyone reading this would like to set me straight, I’d appreciate it. Now, onward.


There are alt. rules in BtW to simplify saves D&D3e-style saves. One table for all classes, with Rogues getting better Reflex saves, Fighters getting the advantage with Fortitude and Mages with Will saves.

5e simplifies saves by tying to attributes (both in name and value). That’s good for players without much background in D&D (i.e. most of the people I play with) who would reasonably ask why a Fortitude save isn’t the same thing as a CON check.

(The downside is this takes away some of the evocative weirdness of having dedicated saves against Breath Weapon, Polymorph, etc. — but I’d make the change for simplicity)

For BtW it’s pretty straightforward to give each class advantage in two out of the six rather than one out of the three to emulate 5e’s “saving throw proficiencies” e.g.

  • Fighters get Strength and Constitution
  • Rogues get Dexterity and Charisma
  • Mages get Intelligence and Wisdom

But actually, just mix and match two attributes that make sense for your given playbook (e.g. Novice Templar gets Strength and Wisdom). This should make figuring saving throws for new cross-class playbooks (e.g. demihumans) simpler too — no need to audit the save lists.

I don’t know the official canon regarding what attribute saves as what, but this is my list:

  • Strength: being pushed, restrained, paralysed, bound or denied entry
  • Constitution: poison, hunger and thirst, exhaustion, sickness and death
  • Dexterity: anything that can be dodged, ducked, or leapt away from; alternatively anything that can be snatched, grabbed.
  • Intelligence: resists illusions, trickery and concealment, noticing details
  • Wisdom: magical domination, enchantment, or shapechanging. Represents personal confidence, objectivity, etc.
  • Charisma: maintaining a lie, maintaining (or justifying) alignment, a convincing argument, avoiding social embarassment etc. Ego, force of personality, outward confidence.

To make this work in BtW there’s no need to import the Proficiency Bonus mechanics — you could just use the “Good Save/Poor Save” table in the optional rules. In which case just use the target number in that table, modified by the attribute bonus.

Proficiency by Level

In 5e the same bonus applies for all classes at a given level. What matters is whether you’ve got the proficiency or not. The number varies from +2 to +6 with ascending levels. That would fit nicely with the 10 levels in BtW with a +1 jump every odd level. In terms of BtW the “proficiency” could be

  • saves
  • skills
  • class abilities like casting magic, or even combat

In principle I like this approach — it means players will actively negotiate to get the bonus, and maybe reduces any confusion of which skills apply to which attribute (the answer is “all of them”, i.e. the GM calls the attribute, the player negotiates for the bonus).

There’s a risk of devaluing Rogue characters though. In BtW they get middling combat ability, some nice saves, skills, and Fortune points. But we’ve already simplified saves; now if you say any to-hit bonus is contingent on proficiency, either (a) the Rogue doesn’t have it, and cannot be a useful second-line fighter, or (b) they do have some weapon proficiency, in which case they may devalue the Fighter.

Not that I’m particularly bothered about balancing out the characters (I also have no problem with a game where only fighters get better at fighting i.e. the way LotFP does it). But it does highlight an important difference in expectations between 5e and OSR:

  1. 5e is a point-buy system that assumes players will min-max to get favourable stats for their core activity (e.g. decent Str effectively doubles the Fighter’s attack bonus).
  2. BtW however is random — there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a perfectly average “prime attribute”, e.g. it’s possible to run through the Village Hero playbook and completely dodge all the STR advances (and that’s not a bug, it’s a feature).

(For the record I don’t think the solution is to tweak BtW’s playbooks to provide more advances in “prime attributes”. That would spoil a lot of what is great about the playbooks, producing unexpected features in the characters.)

Anyway, maybe to soften this polarising “all or nothing” approach that the single proficiency bonus will cause, all you need is two bonuses — a major one and a minor one:

Level Major Minor
1 +2 +1
2 +3 +2
3 +4 +2
4 +5 +3
5 +6 +3
6 +7 +4
7 +8 +4
8 +9 +5
9 +10 +5
10 +11 +6

So then all you need to do is decide which skills/talents/class abilities etc. are Major and which are Minor. Suggestions:

  • Combat: major for Fighters and minor for Rogues, nothing for Mages
  • Spells: Mages are Major
  • Skills: everyone starts out as Minor. “Doubling up” on your skill promotes it to Major. Optionally, Rogues start with one of their four skills as Major.

A fighter’s Knacks are separate; however Weapon Specialisation could be required for using unusual weapons (e.g. the way WFRP did specialist weapons vs. common weapons). Or you could limit the Rogue to only using a subset of weapons with their bonus.

Level Caps and Level Drain

Some comments on levels. First, I never got into the zero-to-hero kind of game where we’d play long enough to grow a character from 1st to very high level. A level range of 1-5 is enough for me (and Level 5 was god-like proficiency for the LARP we played years ago, and it was more than enough granularity). So the concept of “level cap” is not something I ever needed to address, and in the table above by 5th level the major and minor bonuses will make the PCs pretty pokey.

Second, I quite like the concept of level drain, and simplifying the per-level bonus makes that easier to book-keep (though still a bit complicated with specific gains at higher levels). Nb. in the alternative healing rules HP are figured as (class base + Con bonus + level), so also easy to figure out.

Some Ambient Music For Games

Prompted by several recent discussions on music for rpgs, here’s some ambient music that I especially like that may work. This was originally just a few random notes but then started growing, so I’ve roughly grouped them into five sections.

1: Dark Ambient

A lot of Dark Ambient does the same thing — sounds of wind running through vast forgotten passages, distant bells, low drones, chanting, machine sounds. That being the case, just owing one or two albums is probably enough.

Atrium Carceri

Atrium Carceri is from Sweden. Is Nordic Dark Ambient a thing? Probably should be. This is a good start if you want moody atmospheric stuff. For example:

The Untold

From The Untold (2013).


Industrial and claustrophobic — from the first album Cellblock

The Old City

A bit more restrained — the soundtrack to The Old City: Leviathan.

Good For: being stalked by something impossibly large while exploring a vast forgotten city of giants full of strange machinery

Also see: Cold Meat Industry and Cyclic Law are labels to look out for.


My favourite band, with a very wide range of styles from industrial dance through to completely ambient and neoclassical by way of television commercials.

Dismal Orb

How To Destroy Angels is early Coil, very dark and deep ambient.


Black Light District and Time Machines were aliases for Coil in the 90s.

Good For: an alternate history Dungeness where sentries staff a coastal sound mirror outpost waiting for the Belgian zeppelins to attack.

Also see: Music to Play in the Dark I and II are brilliant — though maybe less useful for games.

Controlled Bleeding: The Poisoner

The Poisoner

Good For: adding layer upon layer of tension

I don’t think Controlled Bleeding did other albums as purely ambient as this, though they recorded the gothic-sounding Songs from the Ashes, and Songs from the Shadows (as “In Blind Embrace”)



Like A Slow River by Lull a.k.a. ex Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. For sparse environments (and games moving at a glacial pace?).

2: New Age Ambient

A lot of crossover and structural similarity with Dark Ambient, though it can be a bit more melodic (decide whether that’s a good thing)

Brian Eno: On Land

Lizard Point

Eno’s Music for Airports is better known but On Land is my favourite of the Ambient series. For solving horrific murders while on holiday in rural East Anglia.


Apollo soundtrack, stargazing music.

Music for Films

Music for Films (and its sequel album) are small set pieces.

Also see: Eno’s catalog varies a lot. Late 90s he did the Shutov Assembly for an installation, and Neroli as “thinking music”, and more recently he released Lux. But though I like them I don’t think they’re as atmospheric as the three I’ve picked above which are absolutely must-listen. His work with Cluster and possibly Harmonia are fairly similar to to the above.

Harold Budd

Abandoned Cities

Of the two Harold Budd albums here Abandoned Cities is probably more suitable for a game being less distracting.

The Gunfighter

Lovely Thunder is my favourite album, and this is probably my favourite track. For announcing future badness.

Also see his collaborations with Brian Eno including The Pearl and The Plateaux of Mirror.

Tom Heasley: Where The Earth Meets The Sky

Ground Zero

Ambient tuba! Seriously.

On the Sensations of Tone and The Joshua Tree are also worth a listen.

Robert Rich

Below Zero

This is Below Zero. Good for contemplating the vast and empty cosmos, watching stars being born and feelings of awe and despair.


Stalker is Robert Rich with Lustmord (contemporary of members of Throbbing Gristle, pioneer of dark ambient) and crosses well over into dark ambient. Music for picking your way between pools of liquid helium on barren moons.


Outpost is a the collaboration with Ian Boddy. Several of Ian Boddy’s albums have a space exploration theme (e.g. Aurora). For responding to a distress call from a powerless ship at L3.

Also see: Humidity and Somnium are both live performances (Somnium is one of Rich’s “sleep concerts”).

Other artists to check out are Klaus Schulze are Steve Roach.

Alio Die

Otter Songs

Alio Die has collaborated with other ambient artists (including Robert Rich). Music tends to be on the spiritual side of New Age. For temple rituals.

3: Ambient Techno

Tends to be heavy on samples (film and especially SF references) as well as beat oriented, so not always suitable.


Biosphere would be my first choice for electronic ambient on the dance side, and is probably good for a range of games (whereas others will only suit SF/Cyberpunk).

Sphere of No Form

Substrata is full of sounds of wind, creaking wood and melting ice; perfect for polar expeditions under a perpetual sun (but also see Lull’s Like A Slow River, above). Polar Sequences (with HIA) is more of the same.

If you can find Substrata 2 you’ll get the remastered Substrata plus “Man with a Movie Camera”.

I have a deep love for Patashnik, but that’s a bit too ambient house. Still, samples from Cronenberg’s Scanners.


Hybrid’s music crosses over between breaks, ambient and orchestral soundtrack styles.

In Good We Trust

Cinematic Soundscapes

Soundsystem 01

Soundsystem 01 is also worth checking out, though it’s a mix album by Hybrid rather than their material.

Break My Soul

City of Prague Orchestra recording From the “widescreen edition” of Disappear Here.

Future Sound of London

Point of Departure

From Environment 5

Vertial Pigs

From Lifeforms

everyone is doing something without me

From Dead Cities

Future sound of London indeed. Also FSOL have recorded more psychedelic stuff as Amorphous Androgynous including The Cartel (fantasy 60s spy themes).

Solar Fields

Mmm, back to Sweden. Solar Fields gets an honourable mention: the music varies between ambient and dance (like Hybrid) so some may only be suitable for action scenes, if you don’t find that distracting. These two pretty much cover the spectrum:

Until We Meet The Sky

Until We Meet The Sky is ambient throughout.



Both tracks from the soundtrack to Mirror’s Edge. However annoyingly the action portions seem to be often mixed in with the slower bits, so buying the album isn’t terribly useful (maybe it’s possible to extract the individual tracks if you have the game?).

4: Nature Sounds

Pond by Tod Dockstader and David Lee Myers


For trudging through poisoned swamps on the edge of a rotting empire.

Also see Bijou, also by Dockstader and Myers; Aerial trilogy of albums (very drone-y and dark).

Fernand Deroussen


Just a quick mention of Fernand Deroussen — basically ambient nature sounds, and very nice recordings. Maybe not useful for games, but very handy for surviving the open-plan office. Here’s why:

Julian Treasure

5: Classical, Neoclassical

Dead Can Dance: Spleen And Ideal

DCD is right at the “neoclassical dark wave” end, but this particular album sits between their first (which was pretty much goth/post-punk) and later (which are more folk/traditional).


Good For: scenes with breathtaking sights of pre-human architecture.

Also see: Within the Realm of a Dying Sun and The Serpent’s Egg are also fantastic and chronologically the closest to this album (DCD starting to move in the folk/world music direction).

Max Richter


On the edge between soundtracks and minimalist classical music. Good for gloomy journeys by train and wrestling with crippling cases of ennui. Also see The Blue Notebooks and 24 Postcards which are similar. Infra is slightly more electronic. Also worth looking at are his scores for film and TV (e.g. Perfect Sense, The Leftovers).

Philip Glass

Pruit Igoe

Glass’ Koyaaniquatsi has three recorded versions, and I’m missing the third version. Classical minimalism, serving a similar duty to Max Richter but on a grander scale, this is music to watch civilisations rise and fall.

I’ve played in a game where Solo Piano was used throughout, which was great. Worked well for high fantasy campaigns. Also like the Low and Heroes symphonies (with Bowie/Eno).