This post was written by Alexander Williams (@squidlord).
An Exchange of Tweets
Last week this question was floated on Twitter.
David Onion Ball (@ongoingworlds)
If you allow characters in your RP to cast magic, do you always make sure there’s a penalty for using it? – Mar 18
To put it mildly, “a conversation ensued.” You can go to the linked Twitter procession if you want to read it in full, but the core conflict is that David espouses a position in which the actions of a character have a “price,” and I believe if you charge a character – or their player – for engaging with the story, you get what you reward: less engagement with the story.
I think that’s bad. Your opinion may differ.
Here, as I see it, is the core of the issue:
Saying No to Saying No
There’s a Penalty For That
A character exists to act. A character is the player’s quanta of agency in the world, in the context of most traditionally designed RPG’s. (We’ll get to talking about nontraditional RPG’s shortly, I promise.) The character is catspaw, the character is prime mover, the character is the API for the universe for the player. It is only through the actions of the character that the player actually gets to play.
Getting to play the game is why everyone shows up at the table. Not playing the game is why people don’t show up at the table – or change games. I think all of us has seen it a dozen times if you’ve been playing RPG’s with any group for longer than a couple of months, a player with a really cool character idea which plays to a specific niche starts out enthusiastically but eventually stops showing up to the game because the niche that they play in just doesn’t show up in actual play very often, leaving them to spend most of their time doing stuff that they really didn’t want to do in the first place.
Any time the phrase “there’s a penalty for using it” comes into your mind in the course of putting together mechanics, the first thing you need to consider is whether or not the thing you’re limiting is the thing that makes playing a character which does that interesting – or possible. If it is, and that type of character is something you want to see played in the game, reconsider the idea of penalizing them for doing what they do.
Magus: the Ur-Example
Let’s tackle the ur-example, the mage in traditional D&D (that is say, the ones limited by a tiny number of spells “per day” and ridiculous material components; obviously, mages as defined in D&D 4th Edition are not included in this cluster quite so tightly). The mage/wizard/spellcaster has become a mainstay of Tolkien-esque fantasy, because the character role, what they do, is empowering and fun and often unique in the party. That is what they do. That is what they are. And perhaps as importantly, that is what a player who wants to play a mage/wizard/spellcaster wants to do as part of playing with everyone else. That is how they want to engage with the story, and by choosing a spellcaster, the player has raised the flag over that portion of interaction and said, “hey, this is stuff I want to be involved with.”
The traditional response to that is to say, “that’s great; I need you to read my mind and predict what two things, two ways of interacting with a story, you’re going to need to do in this next session in the ‘next day,’ write those down, and that’s all you’re going to get.” The next scene rolls around, it’s a fight in a dungeon with a dragon (a very small dragon) – because how often does that happen in a game called Dungeons & Dragons? – and our low-level wizard is told, upfront and in no uncertain terms, “okay, you can interact meaningfully with this scene twice, but then you have to stop doing the stuff you came to the table to do.”
That’s bad. That’s bad for the story, because the player has no choice in whether or not to engage with the scene. That’s bad for the players, because they have unequal access to engagement with the story. It’s just bad.
Swinging a sword and engaging with the API of the story via direct action doesn’t get that kind of limitation, mechanically or theoretically. Talking to people and engaging with the API of the story via communication and persuasion doesn’t get that kind of limitation, mechanically or theoretically. Instead, engaging with the environment using those methods, it’s considered to be sufficient to model the idea of “too much” (which we’ll get to here shortly) via the straightforward mechanics of failure that apply to everyone.
It’s All Too Much
You might be concerned that a character does what they do “too much.” What is “too much”? Seriously – stop and think for a moment, what is “too much”? Is it really even possible? A warrior wields a weapon and solves his problems through direct action. When does he do that “too much”? The literature we take as their inspiration is full of warriors who swing a sword for 12 hours straight, from sunup to sundown, who tear through a legion supported only by their best friends, shoulder to shoulder. Is that “too much”? The literature we take his inspiration is full of warriors who think of life as a nail and their favorite weapon as a hammer – and they have one hammer, which they use to solve as many of their problems as possible (which can lead to complications, but that’s a different part of this article). Is that “too much”? Our inspirations include characters with silver tongues who can talk trolls into staying out past sunrise, Queens into bed, sometimes heroes into letting them go. When is that “too much”?
“Too much” is the wrong question. “Too much” means that the character needs to be stopped. But we know the character does not need to be stopped; we have endless examples of characters who are not stopped because that’s how the story happens! Stopping the characters from doing what they do is the last thing we want to do – if we care about having a story at all.
When it comes to games which are intended to tell a story – and I don’t mean railroading, I don’t mean a GM who is guiding a group of players through their own personal travelogue or fantasy novel heartbreaker, I mean games which are intended to create a series of experiences which, when recounted and retold, constitute a story – creating an architecture in which you explicitly tell players that they can’t engage with scenes is a great way to end up with players who don’t care about scenes, who aren’t invested in scenes, who aren’t having fun in scenes. That inevitably ends poorly for the game.
So it’s inevitable that the next question arises:
Where’s the Drama? (It’s in the beef!)
“So if the characters can do whatever they want with no penalty or consequence, where’s the drama?”
You’ll notice I said nothing about consequence. I said nothing about outcome. I said nothing about effectiveness. What I’m talking about is the ability to act, to engage, to do what the player came to the table to do in the first place, via a particular means. If you’re going to keep them from doing that, you’re keeping them from playing the game. You want to encourage them to do that. You want to encourage them to do what they came to do – but consequences are the result only of action and choice. Drama arises from the tension between expectation and result. Every time that you remove the ability of a character to act within the context of the scene, you remove drama. You kill drama. There’s no opportunity for drama.
Let’s go back to our ur-example, the wizard in a traditional low-level D&D campaign. The party enters the first room, the thief checks for traps and disables a blow dart, the door at the end of the room is kicked open and in charge six orks. The ranger lets fly with a bolt, taking one in the shoulder as he starts to reload. The thief ducks behind a convenient pillar and catches one square in the back with one of his daggers as it moves past, readying his next strike. The warrior and the cleric stride forward, swinging sword and mace in deadly concert to rain death on the enemy. The wizard looses a blast of arcane fire from his fingertips, once – twice – and then gets to hear…
“All right, that’s your two spells… Looks like you’ll be sitting out the rest of the scene. You might want to hide behind the cleric.”
That’s bad game design. I’ll go a step further and be quite honest: that’s terrible game design. But that’s become the standard by which RPG’s have been judged for quite a long time, completely ignoring the original architecture of the party as conceived, which in Chainmail (the predecessor to D&D) was a squad level, skirmish wargame. You didn’t have a single character, you commanded a squad – of which one or two might be mages, and once they had expended their ammo it was no big deal that they weren’t still involved because you still had to command the rest of the squad.
But that’s not the only way to do things. That’s never, really, been the only way to do things but in the last couple of decades, game design has come a long way. The differentiation of limits and penalties, something that you would think would be very elemental, has come a long way.
Interesting Things to Do Are Interesting
I’ve said it before, and I will no doubt say it again, “you don’t get interesting stories by not letting characters do things. You get interesting stories by giving them interesting things to do.”
In a way, a goes back to looking at the words that people have chosen to use versus the words that they should have chosen to use. “Limits and penalties” are negative. Limits keep you from doing something, they stop you, they impede you. Penalties punish you for doing something, as if it were wrong, as if you violated the rules for doing it. If you are thinking of applying limits and penalties to characters in your game, you’ve decided to punish them by stopping them from play. That’s the words. That is how you have described it.
Complication and Stories
There’s a much better word for people who are seeking interesting stories: “complication.” Complications happen as a result of actually doing something. Complications come as a result of empowerment. Sometimes they are failures which make the situation more interesting. Sometimes they are successes which have unexpected ramifications. Sometimes they’re just the results of others who have seen what we can do and are acting in their own interests, either to oppose or aid. There are lots of ways to induce complications, many of them rooted in the mechanics of whatever your choice of system is. If you’re designing a new system, you need to think about complication at a far more prominent place than limits and penalties if you’re interested in people becoming engaged and continuing to be engaged with the games that are being played.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to “too much.” Once you give up the idea that limits and penalties are the way to keep characters from doing “too much,” once you accept that character action is what leads to consequence and complication, the actual mainstays of what we recall as stories, “too much” stops being a problem and starts being an opportunity. It starts being a necessary opportunity. It starts being an encouraged opportunity. This is the point at which players stop worrying about whether their characters failed at a specific task and start worrying and thinking about how not only their successes but their failures can make things more interesting, for themselves and everyone else. That’s not to say they stop being advocates for their characters but they do start thinking of ways that the inevitable mechanical systems that keep them from getting a specific outcome can be used to get them interesting outcomes, which increases their investment in the game, which increases their investment in the story, which makes everyone happier, everywhere.
Damn Dirty Hippy Game Design
Now we’re back around to thinking about more modern game design. And yes, I’m going to talk about dirty hippy indie game design. Out of the fringes of what’s considered the usual and the traditional, you can find systems – whole systems – which have thrown out portions of what is expected to be the case in RPG’s and allowed for things which are unimaginable to people who haven’t ventured out of the “safe harbor” of the traditional Dungeons & Dragons-like/OSR wading pool.
Let’s go straight to one of my favorite ones, and the one that I find works for everyone, in every genre, all the time. It’s mechanics-minimalist, meaning that understanding the outcome of any given conflict is possible. It’s GM-full, which is actually not my general preference but might be the most traditional thing about the design; a GM guides the players through a series of encounters and is responsible for pacing.
Here’s the point of departure: any action a player describes as being taken – happens, exactly as they describe it. There’s no question of whether a specific task fails or succeeds. It happens. There’s really no question of how much you can achieve in a given exchange. If you can describe it, it happens. For extra excitement, I’ll point out that it really doesn’t matter if you describe yourself succeeding or failing; in both cases you contribute just as much to the resolution of a given scene in favor of the players.
That last part probably baked your noodle.
The game I’m talking about here is Wushu: the Ancient Art of Action Role-Playing, by Daniel Bayn, and amazingly the latest addition is free.
Remember when I talked about complication as the driver of story? Wushu is all about complication. Characters have Traits which define how good they are at certain broad areas. When they act, they get one D6 for every descriptive aspect that they bring into their description. “I stride into the room like I own the place (+1), leap up on the table as my robes flare like the wings of a giant crimson bird (+1), then weave an orb of fire between my outstretched palms (+1), raising it high overhead before sending it crashing into the middle of the table where the hooded assassins are sitting (+1), sending them scattering, thrown against the walls like so many rag dolls (+1).” That’s a perfectly reasonable action in Wushu. It’s also worth 5d6, which the player splits into a pool for defense and a pool for result, rolls and compares to the Trait being used (probably “Badass Fire Elementalist”). Dice of value under the Trait are successes, and successes on the result pool reduce the amount of Threat that the GM has left in this scene. Reduce the amount of Threat to nothing, and the players achieve their characters’ aims. Reduce the amount of Chi that the players have to zero, and they don’t get what they wanted in that scene.
(I’m fond of what I refer to as the “Bruce Willis method” which goes something like this: “I burst into the room with an SMG in each hand (+1), but a goon clocks me across the back of the head with a baseball bat (+1), throwing me across the floor (+1), where his buddy gives me a brutal kick to the ribs (+1). I look up, smile with bloody teeth (+1) and say, ‘I didn’t know it was leg day!’ (+1).” I get six dice for describing how I get the crap kicked out of me and having a witticism at hand. In my mind, that’s awesome.)
Where are the limits and penalties in Wushu? Mechanically, it’s not built on them. Instead of the question “did you do what you wanted?” the question is “did you achieve what you wanted?” It’s inherently a far more interesting question. From a story sense, it gives the GM a lot more flexibility in what they can direct at the players. In my mind, that’s a great thing.
But we can go further. Much further.
What if we go into a world in which there are no GMs? How about abandoning the idea of possessing a character at all in any meaningful sense of possession?
There are games that do that, too.
Universalis was one of the first to really completely abandon the idea of a GM as the sole creator and sole resolver of an RPG. It committed to sharing the act of creation for the game at a ridiculously unprecedented level, while providing architecture within which players could compete for control in the shared creation of the world. If you haven’t read it and you think you’re ready for game design, you’re wrong. Go read Universalis. Think about the mechanics and the systems which it puts into place. Realize that you have at least another six months before you’re ready.
But we’re going to talk about a game that goes beyond Universalis in the flexibility to create worlds and to create settings which contain characters but which are not limited to assigning characters to individuals – and that game is Microscope by Ben Robbins. In Microscope, players are effectively authors, looking at a timeline and deciding what to create and what to explore. The timeline consists of Periods, which are broad, wide temporal expanses, Events, which focus more on specific areas, dynasties, things that happened, that sort of thing, and Scenes, which involve specific characters with a specific question to be resolved. There are no randomizers, no dice, no cards, with conflict over any particular item being generally resolved by a vote of those at the table (and the assumption being that things generally won’t even get that far – if it’s spoken, and isn’t contradicted by something that’s gone before, it’s assumed to happen). Characters aren’t owned by any particular person, they can be played by anyone at the table in any scene that they occur in, and are sometimes lucky to get a name (and sometimes that name comes several scenes after they’ve been introduced, and somebody is excited by the idea, and they spur off an entire series of Scenes and sometimes Periods).
Microscope is well outside the realm in which “too much” is meaningful – but not outside the place where consequence and complication are meaningful. In fact the whole game is built on the idea that people, players, will engage in order to create complication and consequence for each other. In my experience, some of which is archived forever on YouTube, that might actually understate the case. People get engaged and stay engaged in things which are interesting to them, and the fact that they can continue to intertwine all of these events and things that are important to people at the table gives rise to meaningful consequence. If we’re starting the game and I create the Period “Rise of the House of Usher” with an Event inside of “The City of Ur-Usher Is Built in a Single Day”, you’re up next and you create a Event inside the same Period of “The City of Ur-Usher Collapses into the Swamp” – that can happen. Maybe on the next time around, I want to create a Scene inside your Event which asks the question, “How did the supports of the city come to be so rotted?” and has in the character list the mayor, Roderick Usher, his sister Elizabeth, and the city engineer who doesn’t have a name. Maybe even later you introduce a Scene which occurs during the Period that I introduced originally, with Roderick, Elizabeth, and the city engineer who is now revealed to be the illegitimate brother of the Ushers which illuminates things that happen down the timeline in a way that was wholly unexpected.
Consequence. Complication. Neither of these things grow out of limitation or penalty. They’re strangled by them.
Maybe going all the way to the abdication of character ownership is too far for you, but you want to get a little further out than the traditional GM/player dichotomy. You want to explore complication and consequence, but with a little more rigor than Microscope provides.
Ben Robbins has your hookup again: Kingdom.
A Kingdom is a community or organization in which the players play characters who are elements in determining factors in the outcome of that Kingdom. The can be a town, they can be the crew of a spaceship, they could be the teachers at an elementary school, but they must be members of a group which extends beyond themselves and in the outcome of which they are invested. (To be fair, this is probably not the best game to run a very traditional adventuring party in – unless you want to play the results of a successful adventuring party which is largely settled down and now has significant ties to their community, dealing with the threats and opportunities which come along with that. Popping down into a dungeon can absolutely happen – it’s just not going to be the focus of a session.)
Like Microscope, Kingdom is diceless and GM-less. Unlike Microscope, the game starts with character generation, where you put together a character who is part of this community, writing down what they hope for or fear for the community at large, what important locations there are around the area, what their big problem is, and a connection to at least one other person at the table. But the most important thing to determine at the start is what their Role is: Power, Perspective, or Touchstone.
The Power has the ability to make decisions over what the kingdom does and doesn’t do. The Perspective understands the kingdom and can make predictions of the consequences of decisions that the kingdom makes. The Touchstone reflects the beliefs and desires of the people in the kingdom itself, and how they react is how the populace reacts.
It all sounds very static, right up until the point in which you realize that the game provides the mechanics and the systems for people to challenge the actions of another’s Role and even try to depose them and take it for themselves, changing the dynamic of the entirety of the kingdom in so doing.
No randomizers. No question of “can you achieve this task?” Everything in Kingdom flows from decisions and actions that the players make. They introduce complications and consequences in support of and opposed to other players as part of advocating for their own character, and as part of advocating for the kingdom. But sometimes that advocacy turns into opposition because of the things that their character cares about which opposes those that another character cares about – or fears. This is where things get good. This is where things get interesting. This is, specifically, where complication and consequence are created.
Again, if you’re interested in Kingdom, I have several series of play on my YouTube channel. Go watch and see how things are dynamically driven against one another.
The Empowerment is Good, The Gun is Also Good
The key to creating and maintaining good story is not to limit characters mechanically. It’s not to penalize them for seeking to do things which are interesting and revelatory about the character. All you get from limiting and penalizing characters are players who actively choose not to do things. When players are actively choosing not to do things, story is the last thing that happens. At that point, you’re lucky if you have a game happening – and if a game is not happening, you’re not doing what you came to do. You’re not doing what you want to do.
The key to creating and maintaining good story and, more broadly, good experience is to empower characters and to empower players to use those characters to engage with one another and realize and embrace consequence and complication. I’m not saying that you have to drop whatever system that you’re using and go pick up one of these hippy indie games that I’ve been talking about. You don’t have to do that. It would probably be instructive if you did, and you would certainly learn more than continuing to play the same old games in the same old ways that people have for the last four decades – but you don’t have to.
What you have to do is to sit down and look at the gameplay that you’re getting from you and your group, and ask yourself if it is designed to help drive story, to help make interesting things happen, to help the players make interesting things happen for each other, or is it geared to punish the players for playing the game? Is the game you’re playing making it easier and better to play your game? Can you imagine that there are better ways to play your game?
Doctor, It Hurts When You Do That
Don’t get caught up in the illusion that to have a “good game”, you have to oppose the other people at the table doing things. That’s not to say that you cannot oppose their ends, that you can’t oppose their means, because all of those interactions occur within the context of the story and make things more interesting. I’m specifically speaking about keeping characters from doing things at a meta-textual level. Are you trying to keep the wizard from casting spells? Are you trying to keep the warrior from hitting things with his sword? Are you trying to keep the rogue from sneaking around? Are you trying to keep the starship pilot from piloting starships? Are you trying to keep the Space Marine from shooting people? Are you trying to keep the group of sneaky, backstabbing bastards from sneaking around, stabbing people in the back, and bastardry? Are you trying to keep the character conceived as a bastion of moral strength from being a bastion of moral strength?
Don’t do that. I could phrase it more gently; I could say, “you shouldn’t do that,” but the truth is – don’t do that. It’s wrong. It’s bad. It has bad side effects and repercussions. It will not end up where you want it to be. No amount of softer wording will change the truth.
Challenge characters, certainly. The wizard is in a city that’s banned magic; can he make contact with the warlock undercover and get out again without attracting attention to himself? The warrior is facing heavily armored opponents with shields; can he work out new tactics which will allow him to prevail, or will he surprise them by changing weapons altogether and demonstrating his mastery of the battlefield? The rogue has to penetrate a brightly lit cult temple in the middle of the day; will his understanding of the comings and goings of the cultists and experience with second-story theft be enough to help him to eavesdrop on their sinister plan? The starship pilot’s personal ride is in the shop; when the aliens attack, does he take it out damaged and show off his superior skill even in a ship not it’s best, or does he steal someone else’s and make them look good without their knowledge? The Space Marine gets dropped on a colony world and instructed to root out the drug smugglers who been passing tainted goods; what’s the best mix of enhanced interrogation and full on violence to use in this situation? The Paladin goes into the cultists’ temple with the rogue to discover that it’s a true den of iniquity within; he can beg off from engagement easily enough, but is there anything sufficient to tempt him and make him think about his devotion to righteousness, the presence of one of his superiors in the cult temple itself, perhaps?
No Is Boring
As improv players can tell you, saying “no” is boring. Keeping characters from doing things is boring. Keeping characters from doing what they are supposed to be doing is worse than boring. Giving players choices and decisions that allow them to illuminate the character by doing what they do and being who they are – that creates and drives interesting story. That’s what will be the most rewarding for everybody involved. That’s what we should be working for.
Everyone wants the best story in the best experience that they can have when we get together to game. It’s a social experience. It’s intended to be fun and interesting. Let it be. Help it to be.
I think, in the end, that’s what’s best for everybody, no matter what game you play, no matter what system you do it under, or no system at all. The play’s the thing.