My Wonder Woman

EXT. DAY – TWO DAYS AFTER DIANA’S FIRST APPEARANCE AS WW IN NY

PANEL ONE

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.

WILKINS
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?

DIANA
Excuse me?

PANEL TWO

WILKINS pushes closer, pressing on the advantage of confusion.

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

PANEL THREE

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

PANEL FOUR

Same shot. DIANA responds.

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

WILKINS
So you…

DIANA
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.

PANEL FIVE

WILKINS
So you believe you are a positive influence—

DIANA
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.

PANEL SIX

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

WILKINS
—a positive influence on young girls?

DIANA
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.”

 

We.

Not “them.”

We.

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.

No.

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.