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.
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.
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.
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.