The Map is Not the Territory

Someone asked me about my Unreview rules recently:

  • I have to pay for it,
  • I have to like it,
  • I do my best to use E-Prime.

Well, here’s why.


Imagine someone who reviews movies after only seeing the trailer. Or reviews books after reading the back cover. Or reviews games after only reading the rules.

I know what you’re thinking. Nobody does that. Those people don’t exist. Well, you’d only be partly right. The first two don’t exist. But the last one is actually commonplace. I see it all over the internet.

The fact of the matter is, reviewing a game after only reading the rules is exactly like reviewing a restaurant after only reading the menu. One of my favorite little lessons I learned from studying Zen (stolen from Alan Watts) goes like this:


I can give you the recipe for baking the cake.

I can give you the ingredients.

But I can’t tell you good it will smell when it comes out of the oven,

Or how it will taste.


Let me give you a couple of examples.

In many editions of the World’s Most Popular RPG, rolling a 20 gives you a critical hit. It’s also an automatic success. That’s a rule. There it is. Look at it.


Of course, that doesn’t tell you at all about the emotions rolling around the table when the DM says, “You have to roll a 20 to succeed.”

It doesn’t show you the tense moment before someone rolls that d20.

And it doesn’t show you the cheer that rises from a table when it happens.


Those moments cannot be written down in rules. They’re what James Joyce called “sublime moments.” A short period of time that words could only fail to describe. Even now, writing it down, have I really captured that cheer? Has anyone? I can tell you about it. I can even try to show you that moment with lyrical prose, invoking your own memories of that one time you needed to roll a 20 and you did it and saved everyone’s lives.

But does it really capture that moment?

Gaming moments are sublime. That’s why gaming stories are so boring. Okay, for one, they’re usually told by people who don’t know how to tell a good story, but the other part is the moment was so magical…you just had to be there.

I’ll use a video game as an example. I used to play a lot of Left 4 Dead 2. That’s two teams competing for survival. Each round, they take turns playing the survivors and the zombies. The heroes want to move from one safe house to another and the zombies want to stop them from doing it. Pretty simple, right?

Except in the world of L4D, nobody is Master Chief. You need a team of four to make it, all working together, fighting for every damn step you take. It is an intense, brutal and merciless game. And there’s one mechanic that makes it all sing.

When you get knocked down, you need someone else to get you up.

Now, I know this mechanic has been lifted in other games—I’ll talk about one of them in a moment—but this is the point. When you go down in that game, you know there’s a good chance you’ll be…left for dead. Because going back in a game that’s all about going forward means you’re losing. When you play the game as the zombies, the whole point is to keep them from moving forward and pulling people back. So, when you go down, the whole team has to stop and get you back up.

As zombies, whenever you get one of the survivors down, it’s progress. Getting two down…oh, buddy. That’s the end.

So, here’s the situation. I’m playing online with strangers. Just two of us have made our way across the map, fighting for every step, like I said above. There’s just two of us left. The safe house is in sight. We get to the door and…my buddy gets pounced. I have a choice. I could stay in the safe house and score points, or I could go back and get him, and thus, score more points. But if I go back outside, there’s a whole host of baddies waiting to jump me. So, the obvious choice is staying inside.

I don’t take the obvious choice. I use a med pack and heal myself up. I take a shot of adrenaline so all my actions are fast-fast-fast. I grab the grenade launcher.

All the while, I’m saying over the mic to my buddy, “I’m coming back for you.” And my buddy is shouting, “Don’t you come outside! Don’t you come outside!”

I just tell him, “I’m coming back for you.”

I open the door. Fire the grenade launcher to kill the zombie that’s on him. (For fans of the game, it was a hunter.) Then, fast-fast-fast­, I get him back up and fire the grenade launcher again, just in case. And together, we shut the door.

“Holy shit!” the other guy shouts. “You come back outside whenever you goddamn want!”

Another story. I’m currently playing Mass Effect: Andromeda multi-player. Similar deal. Four players against waves of baddies. We have to work together to win. And, like in Left 4 Dead, if you go down, someone else has to get you up.

When you’re playing with friends, chances are, folks will run to pick you up. But when you’re playing with strangers, your odds are 50/50%. So, when you go down and you see someone running across the map to get you…there is nothing in the world like it.

I can show you the mechanic, I cannot tell you how the cake will taste.

Anyone who reviews a game without playing it is missing 90% of the game. And that 90% only happens at the table. I’m not talking about player banter, I’m talking about seeing a mechanic in play and how it affects the table. You can’t tell those kinds of things by only looking at the rules. You have to see them in play.

And until you do that, you’re just reviewing the movie after reading the script. Sure, you may get to see the best lines, but you’ll never see the actors or the special effects or the editing choices.

Or, you’re reviewing the album after looking at the sheet music. I’m sure Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah looks pretty boring on the page. But hearing it…now that’s something else.

I’m going to Italy later this year. I plan on seeing Michelangelo’s David. Because seeing the pictures doesn’t do it justice.

When I went to Scotland, the thing I wanted to see most was Rosslyn Chapel. Why? Because I had seen pictures and I wanted to see the real thing. Watching your favorite band in concert on video is not the same as being there, watching them live, surrounded by a few thousand other fans who are just as excited to see them as you were.

And saying that someone who saw a concert on video is the same as seeing a band live, well, that’s as silly as…oh, I don’t know… maybe…

…reading the rules and thinking you’d played the game.

[REDACTED] Died For Your Sins: A Reflection on Avengers Endgame


I was at a game convention somewhere and a young lady was talking to me about Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea. Specifically, she was telling me about characters she loved and how her GM put those characters in their game so she could interact with them. She not only got to do that, but she got to save one of her favorite characters from danger. “That was amazing!” she told me.

“That was the point,” I said. “Make players fall in love with the setting, then put it in jeopardy.”

“But how do you make characters you know the players will fall in love with?” she asked.

I smiled and told her, “Because I fall in love with them.”

It’s a lesson I learned a very long time ago. Way back in the ’70’s when I was still in single digits, my father started watching the Wonder Woman TV show. And that’s when I fell in love for the first time. I didn’t fall in love with Lynda Carter—I have no idea who she is. I’ve never met her. But I did fall in love with Wonder Woman. Like I said, it was 1975 and I was only seven years old, so it wasn’t the fact that she was in that costume or that they put her in slow motion when she ran. I fell in love with Wonder Woman because she cared about people and put herself in danger to protect others. She was fair and just and, most importantly I think, merciful. Just one hour of watching Diana accomplished what my parents had failed to do with Jesus.

What Would Diana Do?

She got me into comic books, and from there, I discovered Spider-Man and Batman and Superman and the X-Men and…man, that’s a lot of men. And over the years, I’ve remained a Wonder Woman fan. I’ve always collected her comics, even when they stink. Fortunately, these days, they don’t stink. Since the movie busted box office records, they’ve put some money behind Diana with talented writers and artists telling her story. And to this day, I’m still a fan. I’m still in love.

But you didn’t come here for her. You want to know what that title is all about. All right, but from here on out, THERE BE SPOILERS. I mean it. I’m going to talk about the movie as if both of us have seen it, so if you haven’t, you’d better beat it. Scram. Get lost. Because I’m talking about the movie in 3…








… and before we get there, let me say this: just because I didn’t like something doesn’t mean you’re wrong for liking it. It doesn’t make me a better person than you, it doesn’t make you a worse person than me. I don’t like asparagus. I know they’re good for me and I know people love them, but I don’t. Doesn’t make me anything other than a person who has different tastes than you. So before you go off on me for not liking something you did, just remember, there’s probably something I adore (Big Trouble in Little China is the Greatest Movie Ever Made) that you think is cheap rubbish. And that’s okay. That’s why there’s 31 flavors of ice cream. This essay is about my feelings, not yours. I’m not telling you whether or not the movie was good or bad or whether you should like it or hate it. That’s up to you. I’m not trying to convince you of anything. This is how feel. Keep that in mind over the next few paragraphs, okay?

Resuming countdown.









…and fuck you, Marvel.

I was having a great goddamn time watching your movie. I mean, a great goddamn time. I did not like Infinity War. Just did not like it. Mainly because I walked out of the theater saying, “Well, the rest of the world is about to discover what comic book fans have known for decades: death means nothing in the Mighty Marvel Universe.”

Quick joke. Jason Todd, the second Robin, dies at the hands of the Joker and heads off to Heaven. There, in front of the pearly gates is St. Peter with his fiery sword and St. Peter says to Jason, “You lived a hero’s life and you died a hero’s death. Welcome, and be at rest.”

And just before Jason walks through, he looks to the side and sees a revolving door. You know, the kind that’s in front of hotels and stores. Jason looks at St. Peter and says, “Hey, what’s that?”

St. Peter sighs. “Oh. That’s for the X-Men.”

(Joke addendum: So Jason Todd goes through the revolving door instead.)

Lots of laughs, the room booms, I take a bow. Tip your waitress.

And in the meantime, fuck you, Marvel.

Another joke.

Hawkeye and Black Widow are on the cliff and the Red Skull says, “You have to make a sacrifice.”

“What kind of sacrifice?” the Widow says.

Red Skull tells her, “You have to sacrifice the token woman in your Marvel franchise.”

Crowd boos. Aw, was that too soon? Yeah, it’s too fucking soon for me, too.

I fell in love with Black Widow back when she was showing up in Daredevil comics, so don’t you fucking tell me “too soon.”

How about this. How about the fact that I was really enjoying the movie. It seemed like a celebration of everything the MCU had accomplished so far. I was loving it. And I mean loving it. I was laughing. I got choked up a couple times. They had me, right there, in the palm of their hand. An incredible job of storytelling. I’m having a blast.

And then, Hawkeye and Widow go looking for the soul stone. And I’m thinking, “Maybe this is where they save Gamora.” And I was excited.

And then, everything stopped. All that celebration and fun just stopped fucking dead in its tracks. Hawkeye and Widow spend a minute or so fighting about who gets to throw themselves off the cliff, making the sacrifice.

And right then and there, I think:

Oh…one of them sacrifices themselves to get the stone! And the Red Skull says, “Nobody’s ever done that before! Here’s the stone and you both get to live!

This is going to be awesome! Because love saves them both! That’s gonna be—

Wanna hear a joke?

That’s not what happens. Widow sacrifices herself while Hawkeye is crying, trying to hold on to her. And she pushes herself off the cliff, and she falls, and there’s a glory shot of her being dead at the bottom of the cliff and Hawkeye wakes up with the soul stone and cries.

That’s the joke. And I’m the butt of it.

Crowd is dead silent. No sound. I’m standing on the stage, looking like an idiot.

From that moment on, it didn’t matter what Marvel did. I hated this movie. Sure, I loved the first act and the first part of the second act, but they fucking killed Natasha when they didn’t have to. When they had an out. A simple, easy out that follows Storytelling 101: Heroes break the rules and that’s how they win.

Let me say that again:


“Dormammu…I’ve come to bargain.”

Remember that? Remember how awesome that was?

Remember Captain America believing his friendship with Bucky was stronger than Hydra brainwashing?

Remember Star Lord’s dance off?

Heroes break the rules. That’s how they win.

Marvel could have done it. They didn’t. Nope.

And it got worse from there.

Quick story. I was with a party when I saw Captain Marvel. Three women in the party all came out of the movie with the same thought: “I can’t wait to see her kick Thanos’ ass.”

Well, sorry to disappoint you, but that doesn’t happen. In fact, he swats her away like a bug.

Like a bug.

So, that cathartic moment? You don’t get it. Hahah. Neener, neener. I can just imagine all the internet trolls laughing about that moment right there. They’ve probably got it on slow mo, watching it with one hand on the mouse, hitting “rewind.” Assholes.

And don’t get me started on killing Tony Stark. Because that just means I’ll have to come to your house, Marvel, and burn it to the fucking ground.

(Not literally. That’s a metaphor. Or maybe just hyperbole. A hyperbolic metaphor. Yeah. Something like that.)

Tony Stark dying doesn’t mean anything to Tony Stark. He’s dead. It’s his wife and daughter who have to live with that. So, fuck you Marvel for making that little girl who was so awesome an orphan. Because you couldn’t write an ending where Thor and Scarlet Witch and Captain Marvel and Spider-Man and everyone else Thanos killed hold him down, beat the shit out of him, cage him, then make him watch as you return the stones back to their proper time lines while he sits in prison for the rest of his…oh, yeah, immortal life. Can’t have that ending. Instead, we’ll have Tony murder a few thousand people.

And hey, Tony didn’t know that Gamora has a good heart, did he? She’s on Thanos’ side, and he murdered everyone on Thanos’ side, which means TONY STARK MURDERED GAMORA, DIDN’T HE?

Didn’t think about that, didya?

Mass murder isn’t what heroes do. It’s what villains do. And maybe that’s why he had to die. Because in the end, Tony Stark chose murder to solve their problem. Fuck you Marvel.

I loved-loved-loved the first half of this movie. And I hated-hated-hated every bit of the second half.

So, fuck you Marvel. Fuck you for giving me a character to fall in love with, then fuck you for giving her a stupid death that doesn’t make sense with the rules you created.

Presuppositional Apologetics: An Apology



“So, those with depression and schizophrenia can just choose to not be depressed and schizophrenic?”

— Me, debating freewill


I suffer from depression. All my life. Actually, it’s more than depression. Recently, I was re-diagnosed with bipolar disorder because the older you get, the faster your body breaks down. And that means there are times I’m not completely in charge of my brain. (Actually, nobody is really in charge of their brain, but I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole. Let’s just say that once you discover you have something wrong in your head, you start studying how the brain actually works, and you never like what you find out.) When a bout of depression hits, it doesn’t wear boxing gloves. Or, maybe it does, because you can actually hit people harder with boxing gloves, you know. Which is one of the reasons why MMA is safer than boxing. And…

…yeah. Brains. Funny things.

When I get hit with a bout of depression, I stop doing the things I love. I stop eating. I stop showering. I stop getting out of bed. I stop reading. I stop writing. And I become fixated on stupid things. I start to clean. A lot. I re-organize my comic collection. I move around the book shelves and the books on them. Then, I do those things all over again. You just can’t tell what I’ll obsess over when depression comes a’calling with its haunting siren song.

This time, it was weird. This time, it was presuppositional apologetics. From Wikipedia:


Presuppositionalism is a school of Christian apologetics that believes the Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought. It presupposes that the Bible is divine revelation and attempts to expose flaws in other worldviews. It claims that apart from presuppositions, one could not make sense of any human experience, and there can be no set of neutral assumptions from which to reason with a non-Christian.[1] Presuppositionalists claim that a Christian cannot consistently declare his belief in the necessary existence of the God of the Bible and simultaneously argue on the basis of a different set of assumptions that God may not exist and Biblical revelation may not be true.


So yeah. I got caught up in that. In fact, I watched hours of Youtube videos. And a couple people really caught my attention. Caught it and wouldn’t let go.

Matt Slick

I watched people like Matt Slick go on and on about his version of the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God and watched even more hours of people dissecting it and demonstrating its mistakes. And it has huge mistakes. Like, right in the first premise argument killing mistakes. As someone who studied philosophy in college, declared philosophy as a major, tutored philosophy and did student teaching, I took one look at Slick’s TAG and shook my head. If he had turned it in while I was a student teacher, I would have returned it with an “Incomplete” grade. It’s so wrong, it isn’t even wrong. It demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how to build a disjunctive syllogism. What is a disjunctive syllogism, you may ask? I’m happy to answer!

A disjunctive syllogism (modus tollendo ponens) is a valid argument form which is a syllogism having a disjunctive statement for one of its premises. It usually looks like this:

{\displaystyle {\frac {P\lor Q,\neg P}{\therefore Q}}}


P versus Q.
Not P
Therefore, Q.

A real example for illustration:

This die either has 10 sides or 20 sides
The die has 10 sides
Therefore, it does not have 20 sides

In other words, by affirming the P, you disconfirm the Q.

However, Matt’s lists his syllogism like this:


Either God, or not-God.

Not-God cannot account for the laws of logic.

Therefore God can account for the laws of logic.


Now, there are so many problems with this that I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start by stripping away the text and go for the way he structures the argument, which may help us see the most basic problem.

In short, Slick’s argument attempts to use the following form:


P or —P

Not —P

Therefore, P


The basic problem here is Slick’s formulation is essentially just begging the question. And no, “begging the question” doesn’t mean “raising the question.” It means that you include your conclusion in one of your premises.

He’s also created a false dichotomy, which undermines his disjunctive syllogism. (He also likes to move away from evaluating the form of his argument and get to “the facts,” which demonstrates he knows there’s a problem here.) When I say “This die has 10 sides or 20 sides,” I offer two choices. There are no other choices available in the argument. But by presenting “God” and “not God,” he has not presented a dichotomy. (He likes to say “true dichotomy,” which is a lot like saying “code of bushido” or “ATM machine” or “PIN number.”) He also ignores the fact that “not-God” (which he calls atheism) also includes all world views that do not include the Christian God. That includes Buddism, Hinduism, Platonism, and any other world views we haven’t discovered yet. It also makes a category error of defining “atheism” as a world view, which it clearly is not.

This brief video covers some of the basics here as well as some other really fun objections. There are other videos, but because Rationality Rules invokes Odin and Valhalla, it’s my favorite. Take a peek.



Darth Dawkins

Darth Dawkins, aka Darwin’s Deity, aka Evolution False, aka a dozen other pseudonyms is the presupper that I could not stop watching. Not because I found any of his arguments intriguing or compelling, but because he really is a train wreck. I mean, a train wreck of highly combustable, radioactive material. Watching a video with “DD” is like watching Godzilla plow his way through a city. And not fun, cool, anti-hero Godzilla…wait. No, not like Godzilla at all. Godzilla is fun. Comparing this guy to Godzilla is an insult to Godzilla, and I must now apologize.

DD’s chief argument works like this:


Because atheists cannot justify their presuppositions, their entire world view is irrational. Therefore, they can’t even justify they exist.


This is the kind of shit philosophy professors pull on freshmen. It’s invoking the problem of hard solipsism, that nobody can be sure that anything outside their own mind is real. It’s something you learn in Philosophy 101, it freaks you out, you try to find ways around it, discover you can’t, and then, you either live with it and get on with your life, or you have an emotional breakdown and turn to magical thinking to save you. DD believes this little problem—which has been around for centuries—is “news to atheists.” The problem of solipsism has been around since before Socrates and Plato and has been addressed by philosophers ever since. Renee Decarte’s famous “I think therefore I am” directly addresses it. But for some reason, DD thinks it’s some kind of magic trick to convince people to turn to his god.

If you’re really curious, I can explain the problem. If you’re not, skip this paragraph and move on. See, when you ask someone, “How do you know that?” and keep asking them, eventually, they have to say, “That’s what I see and what I think.” Eventually, everyone hits epistemological bottom. You can’t prove Aristotle’s three logical principles (presups like to call these “logical absolutes,” but in no Philosophy class in the world will you hear a professor use this term): the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, and the law of the excluded middle. We cannot prove these to be true other than experiencing them, and since our senses can deceive us, being 100% certain about anything is impossible. That’s the problem.

Presups like DD like to use the solipsism problem in extremis. In other words, if you can’t be 100% certain about something, YOU CAN’T KNOW ANYTHING!!!11!!!!!! Which is false. While our senses can fool us, that doesn’t mean they always fool us. In fact, we can attribute degrees of certainty to propositions. If I take my glasses off, is my eyesight better or worse? Clearly it is worse, therefore, my eyesight has degrees of certainty. I can still see the eye chart, but not the lower letters. DD also uses the old Sye Ten Bruggencate trick of asking, “How do you know you’re not a brain in a vat?” Well, to begin with, proving a negative is almost impossible, and it’s shifting the burden of proof. It’s also a disingenuous question. That is, asking someone to prove something that you don’t believe. Do you believe we’re all brains in vats? No? Then don’t ask me to prove something neither of us believes. And until you can prove I’m a brain in a vat, I’ll keep believing I’m not.

Presuppositions cannot be proven. They’re an accepted part of philosophy. If you walk into any philosophy department in the world and start making claims such as “You can’t know you’re a brain in a vat!” and “You can’t justify your presuppositions!”, you’ll get laughed out of the building. In philosophy, we all agree presuppositions cannot be justified. That’s what makes them presuppositions.

And so, with that in mind, if a presuppositional apologist uses God as a presupposition, doesn’t that mean they can’t justify the existence of G—





And yes, that’s the typical rhetoric tactic of presups. Screaming insults at anyone who tries to ask them questions. But there’s another tactic presups use. And it’s essentially asking you the question, “When did you stop beating your wife?”

The Presup Red Herring

See, when I was in college, in debate club, we had a rule: no red herrings. A red herring is “a seemingly plausible, though ultimately irrelevant, diversionary tactic” (wikipedia) designed to avoid answering questions. It goes like this:

Me: “If God is one of your presuppositions, how do justify it?”
Presup: “How do you know you’re not a brain in a vat?”
Me: “Sorry, that doesn’t answer my question.”
Presup: “I asked you a question. How do you know you’re not a brain in a vat?”
Me: “Excuse me, I…”
Presup: “If you’re not going to answer my question, we can just stop talking. See, this is a typical tactic for atheists. They refuse to answer questions.”


If you think I’m making this shit up, just watch the following video. I assure you, I am not making this shit up.



Standard tactic. Institute a tone of interrogation with you asking all the questions. Then, when someone asks you a question, ask them a diversionary question in return and get upset when they don’t answer. There are hundreds of hours of this.

And I’ve. Watched. All of it.


This morning, an old friend of mine posted something on Facebook. And like an incantation, it broke my spell.


“The primary problem faced by those attempting civil debate is that moral, rational, and scientific arguments don’t work on those with immoral, irrational, and unscientific mindsets.”
— my friend Greg

I sincerely believe both Matt Slick and DD are trolls. They’re not trolls like my friend Ken—who may be a curmudgeon, but he’s a sweet and generous curmudgeon who looks out for other people—but people who aren’t interested in having honest debate.

I debate to learn. Slick and DD debate to win. They aren’t interested in truth or convincing others. They just want to score points.

For those two weeks of depression, I wanted to find out how to contact these people and engage with them. But engaging with them won’t do anyone any good. And if I ever did engage them, I wouldn’t engage their arguments. Instead, I ask the following questions:


  1. Can you please show me a Youtube video or podcast where these arguments convinced someone to give up atheism and begin believing in your God?
  2. Have you ever submitted your arguments to a logic or philosophy journal?
  3. Do you agree using rhetorical techniques such as red herrings and other distractions do not benefit a discussion but only cause confusion and frustration?


That’s how I’d engage with them. Fortunately, I don’t have to because I don’t want to. Not anymore. Greg’s words lifted the haze off my head. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. A friend giving you a smack in the face (metaphorically, of course) that wakes you up.

And if you ever wanted to know how far my head can go down a rabbit hole, now you know. Sorry about that.

My Wonder Woman



JESSIE WILKINS, a professional ambush reporter, approaches DIANA after she stops a bank robbery. He rushes up, putting the microphone directly in her face. DIANA looks confused.

Wonder Woman! Can you answer a few questions for me! Why are you dressed this way? Do you think it’s a good example for young girls?

Excuse me?


WILKINS pushes closer, pressing on the advantage of confusion.

Do you think you’re a good example for young girls running around dressed in your underwear?


Close up of DIANA as glares at WILKINS, not saying a word.


Same shot. DIANA responds.

Where I come from, we celebrate the human body as beautiful and we do not shame our children into believing they must cover themselves.

So you…

On your way to speak to me, you rushed by a man sitting on the corner with a sign that says, “Will work for food.” And you did it without any pause or hesitation.


So you believe you are a positive influence—

That is a man who is literally begging for the right to live. Begging for the right to survive another day. And you did it without thinking. Because you have seen it a thousand times a day and it means nothing to you. A man who is literally begging for the right to live. And you are not disgusted by it. Or disgraced by it. Or dishonored by it.


DIANA begins flying away, holding the homeless man. WILKINS holding up the microphone. She looks down at him.

—a positive influence on young girls?

And yet you persist. You are a pathetic creature. Go home and apologize to your mother that you have dishonored her so miserably. She deserves better than the likes of you.


No Dice

Sitting next to James Ernest during a game design panel. Earlier in the weekend, I played one of his newer games. I paused, looked at him across the board and said, “James, your game is smarter than me.”

He chuckled and made some comment about how I just hadn’t figured it out yet. “You’ll figure it out,” he said.

But here I am, sitting next to James Ernest on a game design panel. Sure, I’ve worked on collectible card games and board games, but always as “the flavor guy.” Game designers a lot smarter than me—like David Williams and Dan Verssen—were always in charge, making the big decisions. I’m an RPG guy. And there’s a lot of hand-waving in RPGs. A lot. More than you can do in a board or card game.

Someone asks a question and James does what he always does: he answers the question he wants to answer rather than the question that gets asked. Mostly because, I think, he’s bored of the standard questions you hear at game design seminars.

“There are really two kinds of games,” he says. “Move and roll,” he pauses for effect, “and roll and move.”

I immediately understand what he’s saying. That’s because James is really good at explaining this stuff.

Warhammer is move and roll,” I say, trying to jump in on the action. “You make your choices, move your dudes, then roll dice and pray your plan worked.”

James nods and stays silent. He’s letting me explain.

“Roll and move is like Clue. You roll dice, look at what you’ve got, then use them as resources.”

Recently, I’ve discovered Dead of Winter, which is also a “roll and move” game. You roll dice, then use them as actions for your zombie apocalypse survivors. The game does a very good job of giving you the chance to use all the dice you roll… but not always in the way you wanted.

This little conversation stuck with me for a long time. James and I talked about it a little while after the seminar when I told him I wanted to design a “roll and move” strategic miniatures game. I expressed how frustrating most miniatures games are for me. “You know me,” I told him. “I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe in ghosts or faeries or even gods.”

James nodded sagely.

“However,” I told him, “I’m certain that dice hate me. They hate me. That’s why I want to make a roll and move miniatures game. It just seems like if I have choices, my rolls aren’t so… traitorous.”

“Why don’t you?” he asked. “Make a roll and move miniatures game.”

I gave him the “flavor guy” talk I just gave you and we chatted about something else.

Many months later, I’m designing a system for an upcoming project and I stumble on a realization.

The typical RPG is “move and roll.”

You tell the GM what you want to do, roll dice and pray your plan works.

I’ve been playing RPGs since 1981 and this never occurred to me. Not until a few weeks ago. No wonder I fell in love with Jared Sorensen’s octaNe and Inspectres. So much love that I stole the core idea for the mechanic for Houses of the Blooded.

Roll high: the player gets to say what happens. Roll low: the GM says what happens.

Success and failure don’t even enter into it. The dice determine who narrates the outcome. That’s it. Players can narrate their characters’ failures and GMs can narrate their successes.

Narration rights. That’s all the dice determine in those games. Success and failure are up to the players and the GM.

And, let’s face it, if we’re honest… they always were.

Say “Yes” or I Call Bullshit

Say “Yes” or Roll Dice.

I’ve always had a problem with this. I mean, I really liked the sentiment, but something stuck in my craw. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

But then, it occurred to me. What that phrase is really saying: “Say ‘Yes’ or tell the players to roll dice so you dodge the blame of saying ‘No.’”

In other words, tell the players “Yes.” And when you want to tell them “No,” have them roll dice. You can set the TN really high and when they fail, you can just point at the dice, blame them, and get to say “No” without really saying it.

And that’s the real secret about any RPG with a GM. The Game Master is the real author of success and failure. I’ve known this for years. Espoused it in Play Dirty.

The GM makes every NPC, fills out the character sheet, gives him stats and skills, motivations and weaknesses. Designs the NPC specifically for the players.

He narrates the outcome of every roll (in most games), pushing the players in a specific direction. He may be subtle about it, use a bit of nuance, or just be a big, heavy plot hammer and “Choo! Choo! Everyone on the Plot Train!”

But in the end, it’s the GM who decides.

The GM decides when to fudge dice.

The GM decides when the villain uses his Death Spell when he knows the PCs won’t make the saving throw.

The GM decides how many shots the villain has left in his pistol when he puts it up against the fallen hero’s head and squeezes the trigger.

The GM decides every tactic, every strategy, every decision villains make. Are they merciful? The GM decides. Are they clever enough to see through the hero’ ruse? The GM decides. Do they spare the pretty elf maiden because they’ve fallen in love with her? The GM decides.

In every RPG…

… wait, I’m going to put this in big bold letters so you don’t miss the point.

In every RPG that has a GM, the GM is in complete control of whether or not the PCs live or die.


Some GMs are good at hiding this fact. Others are not. Like magicians, we try our best to conceal our tricks, but the fact of the matter is, there are some really bad magicians out there.

Many RPGs create mechanics to “protect” the players from the GM’s whims. They’re so cute. And so utterly full of shit.

When you sit down at the table, the GM can kill your character at will. At any time. (Unless, of course, the game specifically states the GM cannot kill characters, and in that situation, I can just make your character wish she was dead.)

No system can protect you from me. None of them. Don’t believe me? You haven’t read Play Dirty.

The Illusion of Peril

So, this is where I’m getting to. The illusion of peril.

Many players think dice create a sense of danger, dread and excitement. Rolling dice at a stressful moment, unsure if your character will live or die… you roll the dice and… !

Let me tell you the truth. The reason you’re in that situation in the first place is because I (the GM) put you there.

The dice don’t even enter into it. My choices. My direction. And, yeah, your choices too, but the biggest factor in why your character is in such a screwed up situation in the first place is because I put you there.

Slight tangent.

When I hear criticisms of diceless RPGs, they’re always the same. “There’s no drama without rolling dice.”

Son, you’re forgetting something. Dice can damn you, sure. But dice can also save you. And when you don’t have any dice to save you… yeah. Think about that for a second. Twist that catchy little phrase around and think about it.

Say “No” or Roll Dice.

Try that one on for size. In a diceless game, you don’t have random chance at your side. You can’t pick up a d20 and know that if you roll 10 or better, your character gets out of the fire. Nope.

In a diceless game, the dice don’t damn you, nor do they save you. It’s all narration. That’s it. And if you aren’t clever enough to get out on your wits alone… you’re screwed.

And people tell me there’s no danger without dice. Puh-shaw.

Anyway, let’s get back to the subject at hand.

I put you there.

And once I’ve got you in the trap, I can make it so you can’t get out. I can kill your character whenever I want, regardless of what kind of stats or skills or spells or dice you’ve got.

“Okay,” you’re saying. “That’s fine, John. But… what’s the point?”

The point, Dear Friends, is that dice don’t create drama. The GM creates drama. Whether you roll well or roll poorly, it’s still up to the GM (or another player or even yourself) to interpret that roll. And I can screw you over with a success just as easily as I can save you with a failure. Just one Improv 101 class will show you how.

Why do you feel like the roll is important? Because I created NPCs and situations that make the roll feel important. Ever been in an RPG where the GM made you roll for everything? And after a while, you were so sick of rolling dice because the rolls you made really didn’t feel important?

Yeah. Right there.

It isn’t Say “Yes” or Roll Dice, it’s Why are we rolling in the first place?

The Whiff Factor

I am no longer interested in exploring the idea of random failure as a dramatic element in an RPG.

I first heard Jared Sorensen use the term “the Whiff Factor” to describe that moment in an RPG when you make a roll your character is supposed to succeed and you fail instead. You roll a “1,” you botch, you fumble, you critically fail, whatever. And when I heard it, I finally had a name for the one thing in RPGs I hate the most.

Random failure—as dictated by arbitrary pieces of plastic—is something I’m honestly done with. No interest. I also have no interest in a game that perpetuates it.

Second tangent.

I’m not fond of the “Powered by the Apocalypse” engine. I don’t like how dice rolls amount to, “You suck” or “You suck, but not as much,” and “You’re adequate.”

At a recent convention, I told Mark Diaz Truman about a plan for an Apocalypse World hack.

“You roll 2-6, you’re awesome,” I said. “You roll 7-9, you’re even more awesome.”

He started laughing.

I said, “You roll 10-12, you’re the most awesomest!”

Mark laughed and told me, “I want to see that game.”

When a game tells me, “You’re awesome at this!” I don’t want the dice disagreeing with the game. Remember, dice hate me. And if you talk to anyone who’s played with me, they’ll concur. So, it doesn’t matter how I build my character. I could be playing any iteration of d20, have a character who has +234 in my chosen skill, and that d20 will still roll a “1” every time. And then, it doesn’t matter what my Dex is or my Reflex Save or my hit points or armor class or anything else. I fail. I botch. I die. Doing the thing I’m supposed to be the best at.

Whiff Factor.

And so, I’m finished with random failure in games. Instead, I’ll be designing games that only measure how much the character succeeded.

“You’re awesome.” “You’re awesomer.” “You’re the awesomest.”

“But John!” I hear you shouting. “What about failure! Characters don’t succeed all the time!”

They also don’t fail at random intervals determined by arbitrary pieces of plastic.

No, in literature—something we’re supposed to be emulating with these games, remember?—our heroes fail for a reason. And usually, that reason pays off later in the story.

That’s why I’m writing in mechanics that reward players for failing.

Indiana Jones hesitates as he switches the idol for the bag of sand… he makes his move with perfect skill… and…

Indy’s player says, “Yeah, I misjudged it. And the temple begins to shake as I activate every single trap in the place.”

And when Indy’s player says that, I throw him a Hero Point. Or whatever.

Your character succeeds until you decide he fails.

Or, he succeeds until I provide a sufficient reason/bribe for her to fail. “You want two or three Hero Points to fail that roll?”

And Finally, Tynes’ Law

John Tynes said it. I heard him say it. That’s why I call it Tynes’ Law. You’ll see it when it comes by. Trust me.

Now, there are some of you out there who disagree with me. Wholeheartedly disagree with me. I hear you. You’re saying that you like the uncertainty of dice rolling.

That’s fine. There are about ten thousand games out there that do exactly what you want.

I think there’s room in this industry for a game that just assumes your hero succeeds until you choose she doesn’t.

Back at the game design seminar, I finish off by giving people this advice.

“Make the game you want to play and @#$% everything else.”

You can’t make games for other people. That’s stupid. Not only that, it’s impossible. You don’t have a mind reading machine. You can’t design a game from marketing. People say they want one thing then demand the exact opposite.

And when I give them Tynes’ Law, the audience generally nods, smiles and writes it down. They take it to heart. Then, they go home and make a game that looks a whole lot like Dungeons & Dragons or Cyberpunk or Shadowrun or octaNe. You can’t win ‘em all.

Well, the game I want to play assumes my character succeeds until I decide she fails. That’s the game I want to play. So, I’m making it.

And @#$% everything else.



The Stainless Banner

I spent an hour wondering if I should post this. Finally, I came to the conclusion I would but only if I said something right up front.

I support removing the Stainless Banner (otherwise known as “the Stars and Bars”) from flying over state capitals because the people flying it intend it to be a symbol of racism.


Now, with that out of the way, and with your permission, I’d like to add some nuance to that sentence. It may get tough from time to time, but remember that sentence I wrote above.

You ready? Okay, let’s go.

* * *

I grew up with a father who was fascinated by the American Civil War. That usually means a person like myself grows up fascinated by it as well.

The Civil War was a tragedy. And I don’t mean it was “something bad that happened.” No, I mean it was a real tragedy: we were the authors of our own demise. What caused the Civil War?

We did.

I spent five years in the South (in Georgia) and while my time there was akin to a nightmare from which I could not awaken, it also taught me a bit about the Southern point-of-view of that event. I spent my Freshman and Sophomore high school years in the South and I learned about the Civil War there. Then, I moved to Minnesota and learned about the Civil War again. Those two points of view drove me to discover my own facts about the event—perhaps the most important in American history. And what I learned was, “The Civil War is Complicated.”

My friend Mark​ says that I “romanticize the South” when I talk about the Civil War. I replied that I felt most people romanticize the North’s role. I like to think I’m pretty objective about both. I like to think that… but I’m willing to see evidence to the contrary.

I’m not a “Southern apologist” by any means. It’s a good thing the North won that War. I’ll say it again: I think we’re a better country because the North won that War. But, at the same time, I’m awfully fond of the Shelby Foote quote:

“Americans like to think we never lost a war. That’s not true.
We lost the Civil War.”



Not “them.”


And painting the entire South as “the baddies” is… well… let’s just say that it’s just as wrong as those who paint the North with the same brush.

The Civil War freed the slaves, but it wasn’t entirely about slavery.

Saying the Civil War was entirely about slavery is the same as saying that America’s war in Iraq was entirely about “terrorism.” 

If you ask many people—including family members of mine—that’s exactly why we went to Iraq. When I asked my father why we were sending troops to Iraq, he shouted at me, “WE CAN’T LET THOSE BASTARDS GET AWAY WITH WHAT THEY DID!” No kidding. No joke. Even a decade later, that’s still the opinion of most Americans: we went into Iraq because of 9/11.

And the Civil War was all about ending slavery. Not about tariffs, not about the railroads, not about a lingering distrust between northerners and southerners that had been festering for over a century. Nope. Just slavery. The people who fought in the Civil War did it for many reasons, not just to uphold the ugly tradition of slavery. Some of them were political, some of them were personal. And if you read the letters of the men who fought in that War, you’d know that. But that would require the effort of looking outside your own political spectrum… something most Americans don’t have the energy or inclination to do.

Again: the American Civil War was complicated. More importantly, it means different things to different people, depending on where you ask. In other words, the Civil War is complicated.

Now, at this point, someone may be thinking like my friend Mark: that I’m trying to white wash what the war was about. I’m not. Slavery was our country’s original sin. It was awful. It was a nightmare. And if I was living in the US in 1861, I would have been one of those militant, outspoken athei—I mean, abolitionists. And I would have been one of the first to be wearing yankee blue.

But when we white wash history into easy-to-digest nuggets, we do a disservice to ourselves. World War I didn’t have a single cause. It may have had a single trigger, but it didn’t have a single cause. It was the final result of over a century of building tensions.

Other American Wars. We don’t try to simplify those. Korea. Viet Nam. The Revolutionary War wasn’t simple. And as much as we’d like to blame WWII on “the Nazis,” any cursory look at history will tell you the actual events were not as clean cut as we’d like to believe.

Yeah, got bad news for ya. Indiana Jones didn’t win World War II.

But if we recognize that our other wars had complicated causes… why do we feel the need to make the Civil War’s cause so simple?

Because if it was only about slavery, that makes the side that won the good guys and the side that lost the bad guys.

Yeah, that’s awful. I know it. Trust me, I know it. But it’s the truth.

If we believe that, we can go on believing that the North had no ulterior motives for invading the South. It was all slavery and only slavery. Nobody in the North had any financial gain from the War. No, it was all altruism.

And Bush’s Iraq invasion was all about terrorism.

* * *

Right now, you have the wrong impression about me. I know, it’s okay. Before you go on that little road, let me tell you a couple of stories.

I lived as a yankee in the deep south for five years. And I’m not exaggerating when I say I was beaten almost every single day I went to school. Not just bullied, but beaten. I was told, nearly every single day, that the only thing worse than a nigger was a nigger lover. Yeah, I’m using the word. It’s an ugly, awful word. A hateful, despicable, ignorant word. And I’m using it because I want you to feel how I felt when those kids beat me. They were as ugly, awful, hateful, despicable and ignorant as the words they used.

One of my dad’s co-workers used that word all the time. He refused to allow anything from “those people” in his house. No Michael Jackson, no Cosby, none of it. “Those people” were dirty and he didn’t want his children to get dirty. I learned this after going to dinner at his house with my family.

We never went back to his house for dinner.

My folks lived in one of the nicer neighborhoods in our town. Big houses. Long driveways. Lots of very nice lawns and cars. My dad was making a lot of money for the area and being from Minnesota, we saved all of it. I mean all of it.

I tell you about the neighborhood because it’s important to what happens next. A married couple moved in next door to us. The black MD with his white wife and their beautiful daughter. They moved in to the huge three story house right next door. They lived next to us for less than a year, and then I woke up one night hearing sounds from next door, looked out my window and saw that big, burning cross on their front lawn. They were gone the next day. Moved out. Paid movers to come get their stuff. They were gone.

But I had friends, too. Friends who put up with a neurotic, terrified kid who was too smart for his own good. Patient, loving, tolerant friends. Friends with names like Aaron, Dan, Rob, Susan and Victor. I have no idea why they stood by me. I really don’t. I was such a pathetic mess. But they loved me. Or they pitied me. Or something. Whatever. They were my friends. And they didn’t give a shit that I came from (and went back to) Minnesota. They spent time with me, played RPGs with me…

… fuck, I’m getting choked up just thinking about them.

The point here is that I don’t just think of the terror I underwent when I was in the South. I also remember the friends I had.

In other words, it’s complicated.

* * *


“The South.” Like that one phase sums up every single person who lives below the Mason-Dixon line.

Saying “the South is full of bigots” is just as wrong as saying “the Northeast is full of overly-educated intellectuals who don’t know how the world really works.” Or saying, “California is nothing but vapid, vacant-eyed pretty people who think physical appearance is a virtue.”

Or saying that the Civil War was all about slavery.

And I’m saying this as someone who knew he couldn’t leave. Who was so driven by despair, he chose the most pathetic and desperate solution. Twice.

When I see people flying the Stars and Bars… I know those people don’t understand history. They don’t know the history of that flag, where it came from, who designed it and why. Some of them think it is a simple symbol of the Confederacy’s fight against the tyranny of Big Government. Yes, they’re wrong. Some of them think it’s a symbol of white superiority over the blacks. They’re more right, but still wrong.

And for some, the flag represents their past. It says, “This is who we were and who we are.” And it includes that awful part. Yes, we’re ashamed of it, but we’re not going to ignore it. We’re not going to pretend it didn’t happen.

I mean, we’re all proud of the American flag, right? That doesn’t mean that we’re proud of slavery. It doesn’t mean we’re proud we put American citizens in camps. It doesn’t mean we’re proud of mercilessly butchering every Cherokee, Navajo and all the other Tribes who were here before we were, right? When we raise the American flag, we’re not saying, “Hey, we’re right proud of the way we slaughtered the Native Tribes!” That’s not what we mean, is it?

Raising the American flag doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the ugly things we did. At least, I hope it doesn’t. But raising the flag, to me, is a recognition of all the things we’ve done. Even the awful ones. We got some things right, but we sure fucked up other things right good. Raising the American flag means all those things, right? Of course it does…

Because a symbol can mean more than one thing at a time.


When Obama said the flag belongs in a museum (implying it belongs nowhere else) that says to me that he doesn’t understand how symbols work. Now, don’t get me wrong, I completely understand his reaction to that symbol and I would never argue that his reaction is unjustified. Never. But saying “Let’s put that symbol away” tells me that he only sees one meaning of it.

Like believing the Civil War was entirely about slavery.

And to make sure you don’t think I’m being a Southern apologist (again), let me say that the same goes the other way. Saying the flag only represents “southern pride” and nothing else is just as short-sighted.

Of course it symbolizes slavery.

Of course it symbolizes men killing other men to protect slavery.

Of course it means those things.

But it means other things as well.

People may think of “the Stainless Banner” as a symbol of defiance, but that’s not all it means. For you, the flag could symbolize raising the middle finger at the national government, but for a whole lot of people—a metric shit ton of people—it symbolizes a time when this country tolerated slavery. Ignoring that is dishonest and disrespectful. And, I’d suggest a more appropriate flag for you to fly if that’s your intent. This one.

You want a flag that represents a historical “Up Yours” to a tyrannical government? This one works just fine. Of course, it still represents a number of colonies who employed slaves so… well, sometimes, you can’t win for losing.

The reason we should take the banner down from statehouses isn’t the symbol itself: it’s the intention behind the symbol.


When people fly the Stars and Bars with the message, “White Power, White Pride,” it doesn’t belong flying over state capitals.

When people fly the Stars and Bars with the message, “Fuck You, You Fucking Ignorant Yankee Fuck,” it doesn’t belong flying over state capitals.

When people fly the Stars and Bars with the message, “We’re remembering a horrible time in American history when Americans killed Americans because our system of communication failed,” then maybe—and only maybe—can we start thinking about flying it over state capitals. As a memorial to people who died fighting for what they thought was right. Even if we think they were wrong, they stood on a battlefield and in harm’s way. That deserves something. Dammit, that deserves something.

* * *

When I remember my time in the South, it’s mostly awful. But not entirely. And when I see the Stars and Bars, my emotions are just as mixed.

For me, it represents a terrible time when I felt so hopeless and alone, I tried to commit suicide twice. It’s also a symbol of the friends I met there and how those friendships carried me through some of the darkest years of my life. Maybe they’re the stars. Maybe.

For me, it’s also a symbol that represents a time in our country when people stopped listening and chose violence over dialogue.

And, in a strange way, looking around at our country, it’s entirely appropriate that people are choosing to fly it. Because that meaning hasn’t changed. And they’re flying the right banner to communicate their intent.

The flag in question is called “The Stainless Banner.” The racist overtones should be clear. But let’s not lose sight of the bigger truth.

No nation’s flag is unstained. Not even ours.


Chess is not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance

Update: I wrote a quick follow up that can be seen here: Chess is Not an RPG: A Quick Follow Up

Hi there. My name is John and I design games. Lots of them. Over twenty years, I’ve designed over twenty roleplaying games. I’ve had a hand in card games and board games, too, but the thing I’m best known for is roleplaying game design.

Now, this isn’t an article about game design, but rather, an article about being a game master. But, in order to get to that advice, I need to spend a little bit of time talking about game design. Trust me, it matters.

So, I’d like to begin by asking you a question. You’re playing a science fiction roleplaying game and your character is about to face Vin Diesel’s character, Riddick, in a fight and you get to choose which weapon he uses.

Do you pick sword, gun, hammer…

How about “tea cup?”

A follow up question. Same situation. Except this time, you’re facing Sean Connery’s character from The Presidio, Lieutenant Colonel Alan Caldwell. You get to choose which weapon he uses, but he says, “I don’t need a weapon, I’m only going to use my thumb…”

How much damage does Sean Connery’s thumb do? What’s the save vs. Sean Connery’s thumb? Does it have an initiative bonus? Can it block or parry? Does it do Megadamage?

When I first started designing roleplaying games, they appealed to me because they were kind of like writing a philosophy: “this is how I think the world works.” Games like Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon were great examples of this. The systems were tailored for the setting. And in the world of Riddick and Lieutenant Colonel Alan Caldwell, a tea cup and a thumb can do a whole helluva lot of damage.

One of the most common features of roleplaying games are weapon lists. Especially guns. You could tell a gun porn enthusiast just by looking at his stats for guns. Different damages for different calibers, range variants, range modifiers, rate of fire, burst fire, on and on and on.

Same thing with sword porn. Reach modifiers and different die types based on the target’s size and bashing or slashing or piercing and… gulp… speed factor.

And yet, here’s Riddick killing guys with a tea cup.

And so, again, I ask you, what weapon do you choose for Riddick?

It’s a trick question, of course. It doesn’t matter what weapon you give Riddick, he’s going to kick your ass with it.

Does the tea cup have a speed factor? How about Sean Connery’s thumb?

More important question. In fact, perhaps the most important question: how do any of those things–range modifiers, rate of fire, rburst fire, slashing, piercing, etc.–help you tell stories?

Just a moment ago, I called weapon lists one of the most common features in roleplaying games. These things are not features. They’re bugs. And it’s time to get rid of them.

Why? Because they’re screwing up your game. They’re distracting you from the focus of the game.

Because the focus of an RPG is to tell stories. Let me explain.

Chess is not a roleplaying game. Yes, you can turn it into a roleplaying game, but it was not designed to be a roleplaying game. If you give your King, Queen, Rooks, Knights and even your pawns names and make decisions based on their motivations–instead of the best strategic move possible–you’ve turned chess into a roleplaying game.

You can successfully play chess without roleplaying. In fact, roleplaying can sabotage the game. Now, the definition of a roleplaying game is fuzzy at best, but I think you can I can at least agree that if you can successfully play a game without roleplaying, it can’t be a roleplaying game.

Video games like World of Warcraft call themselves roleplaying games, but are they? Can you successfully play WoW without roleplaying? In fact, you can. Can roleplaying sabotage your enjoyment of the game? In fact, it can. My friend Jessie tells the story of being kicked off a roleplaying server because he was talking in character. Another friend of mine tells the story of how she was wearing “substandard” armor and equipment because “my character liked it.”

Choices such as “How do I level up my fighter?” do not make a game a roleplaying game. In that case, games such as Dungeon and Descent are roleplaying games, and even their designers would probably tell you, these are board games.

World of Warcraft is a very sophisticated board game. The goal of WoW is not to tell stories but to level up your character.

Remember the Three Questions:

  • What is your game about? Leveling up your character.
  • How does your game do that? Loot drops for killing monsters and completing quests.
  • What behaviors does my game reward? Bigger loot to kill bigger monsters and complete more difficult quests.

Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro asked their community, “If you’ve stopped playing D&D and switched to WoW, why?” Their answer? “Because I get the same experience from WoW I got from D&D.”

Listen to that answer again. “I get the same experience from WoW I get from D&D.”

You know why they get the same experience? Because World of Warcraft and Dungeons & Dragons have the same design goals.

When 4th Edition came out, there was an almost universal negative reaction. Why? Because the designers had given up the ghost. D&D was not a roleplaying game. It was a very sophisticated, intricate and complicated combat simulation board game.

A very sophisticated, intricate and complicated combat simulation board game that people were turning into a roleplaying game. Just like giving your rook a motive, players used a board game to play a roleplaying game.

Can you successfully play D&D 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th edition without roleplaying? Yes, you can. Notice I didn’t mention 5th edition. That’s a different kettle of fish that I’ll have to talk about at another time.

The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games. You can successfully play them without roleplaying. Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, is a game you cannot successfully play without roleplaying. If you try it, you get… well, you actually violate the basic tenant of the game: to make yourself scared through your character’s choices.

You can play board games such as Rex and Battlestar Galactica and even Settlers of Catan without roleplaying… but roleplaying seems to make them more enjoyable. Talking in character, making (apparent) choices based on character motives… but if you go too far in that direction, you’ll lose. And the goal of those games is to win. Roleplaying, in the end, sabotages the goal of the game.

But if you try playing games such as Vampire or Pendragon or Our Last Best Hope or World of Dew or Deadlands without roleplaying, you’re missing the entire point of the game. In fact, I can’t even imagine what those games would look like without roleplaying.

I’ve been trying for many years to come up with a satisfactory definition for “roleplaying game” and while I’m not entirely happy with it, this is what I’ve got so far:


roleplaying game: a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices
that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.


Like I said, I’m not entirely happy with it. It’s a working definition and far from complete, but I think it’s a good working definition.

Now, with all of that said, you’re probably wondering, “John, what does this have to do with game mastering?”

My friend, it has everything to do with game mastering.

Because if the most important part of your game is balancing the damage, rate-of-fire, range modifiers, damage dice, ablative armor, dodge modifiers and speed factors, you aren’t playing a roleplaying game. You’re playing a board game.

And you need to stop it. Because all that crap is getting in the way of telling a good story.

As a GM, your job is to help the players tell the stories of their characters. “Game balance” has nothing at all to do with telling good stories. It’s an archaic hold over from a time when RPGs were little more than just really sophisticated board games. Or, as someone once told me, “An RPG is a strategy game in which you play one hero rather than a unit of heroes.”

If that’s the case, HeroClix is a roleplaying game. And I think that all of us can agree that HeroClix is not a roleplaying game. Why?

Because I can play it successfully without roleplaying.

“Game balance” is important in board games. It means one player does not have an advantage over another.

In a roleplaying game, game balance does not matter.

Let me say that again:


In a roleplaying game,
game balance does not matter.


What matters is spotlight. Making sure each player feels their character had a significant role in the story. They had their moment in the spotlight. Or, they helped someone else have their significant moment in the spotlight.

Whether the fighter is balanced with the wizard is balanced with the thief is balanced with the cleric demonstrates a mentality that still thinks roleplaying games are tactical combat simulators with Monty Python jokes thrown in for fun.


The reason roleplaying games are a unique art form is because they are the only literary genre where we walk in the hero’s shoes. We are not following the hero, we are not watching her from afar, we are not being told the story. As Robin Laws now famously said, “A roleplaying game is the only genre where the audience and the author are the same person.”

I think it’s even more than that. In his classic game, Runequest, Greg Stafford created a world where mortals go on vision quests into the spirit realm where heroes and gods live, become one with the hero, and live out one of that hero’s stories. He comes back to the mortal realm transformed by the experience.

That’s the genius of Greg Stafford. He made the very act of playing a roleplaying game a mechanic in his roleplaying game. You step into the hero realm as your character who then steps into the hero realm to become transformed by the experience of becoming a hero and by doing so, you are transformed by the experience of becoming a hero.

And what exactly does speed factor have to do with this? Or ablative armor? Or rate of fire? None of it.

These days, as a GM, as I’m reading through a game or as a game designer, making my own games, whenever I encounter a new mechanic, I ask myself, “How does this help me tell stories?”

If it doesn’t, I throw it out.

When I run Vampire, I keep the Humanity rules and throw out the initiative rules.

When I run Call of Cthulhu, I keep the Sanity rules and throw out the gun chart.

I don’t want you to think I just get rid of combat mechanics. On the contrary, for Vampire, I usually get rid of that whole Social trait thing entirely. Why? Because this is a roleplaying game, and that means you roleplay. You don’t get to say, “I have a high charisma because I’m not very good at roleplaying.”

My response to that is, “Then, you should get better at it. And you won’t get any better by just rolling dice. You’ll only get better by roleplaying.”

If you want to get good at playing chess, you play chess.

If you want to get good at first-person-shooters, you play first-person-shooters.

If you want to get good at roleplaying, guess what?, you roleplay.

And if that’s too much of me to ask, you can go right across the room to the RPGA where they let you make as many charisma rolls as you want because the game they’re playing is not a roleplaying game.

So, GM’s… I now ask you… I urge you… I beg you… go through your favorite game. Right now. Get it off your shelf, pull it out of your back pack, and open it up. Get yourself a big, fat sharpie. And go through each page and ask yourself this question.

“How does this rule help me tell stories?”

If you can’t get an answer in ten seconds or less, get rid of it. Because all it’s doing is getting in your way. It’s another hurdle you have to overcome. It’s another minute of wasted time while you or another player look it up to make sure you got the rule right because that’s what’s important… getting the rules right. Game balance. We must make sure our game is balanced.

No. You are not playing a board game. You’re playing a roleplaying game.

Start acting like it.