PDFs vs. Printed Versions

Over the past few years I’ve accumulated quite a few RPG pdfs thanks to places like RPGNow and IPR, not to mention directly from small press publishers and designers like Lumpley Games.  After some trial and error, I’ve finally settled upon a printing and binding method that yields good looking and durable printed versions of my pdfs.  Despite this, for the longest time I have considered the print outs from pdfs as second class versions of the professionally printed versions. After all, they don’t have the same glossy look, the spine label, the ability to stand up on a bookshelf on their own, the same paper quality.

After some reflection and more practical, hands on use though, I’ve decided that in most cases my version of the books are better for every day use.  Probably the biggest advantage they offer is that I can open them to any page and they will lie flat: This makes them a joy to use on the table, not to mention a lot easier to read. I also don’t have the same potential loss should one get lost, stolen, or have someone’s drink spilled on it. While printing the books aren’t exactly cheap, they can be reprinted while a lost real book is gone forever. Finally, the much lower cost for pdfs means I don’t have as much of an investment: Thus, I can buy a book to use as a resource even though I have no interest in the system it’s designed for, or I can take a risk on a new, unreviewed book.  A case in point are the two World of Darkness pdfs I recently bought during RPGNow’s Halloween sale: Urban Legends and Mysterious Places.  I have no real interest in the Storyteller system or the WoD in general, but the source material in the books is great inspiration for my Dark Matters campaign (which is sort of Hellboy meets the X-files meets Supernatural).

Aside from these advantages, pdfs also have the added advantage that the ones I don’t print out take up no shelf space (which nowadays is at a premium for me) and that I can take a version of my book with me on my laptop: That means I don’t need to carry every possible book with me when I travel.

Of course there are some books which a printed pdf just can’t do justice. For example, The Savage Wold of Solomon Kane by Pinnicle Entertainment Group is an absolutely gorgeous book that no printed out pdf can do justice. The cover alone is worth the added cost. However, for most books, especially those produced by indie and small press publishers, a printed pdf turns out nearly as good as the professionally printed version.

In a follow-up article to this one, I’ll demonstrate how I print and bind pdfs, economically, so stay tuned…

Hands off the wheel: Giving up Narrative Control in a RPG

Hands off the wheel: Giving up Narrative Control in a RPG

A post on one of the forums I frequent prompted me to write a rather long response in attempt to answer a question about the meaning of “collaborative gaming” and how a GM handles giving up control of the narrative of a RPG story. My answer prompted the lot of fruitful and interesting discussion, and so I thought I would reformat and tweak it a bit and post it here.

As a preface, there are a lot of great explanations of these out there already and I am no where close to an expert on these issues. Instead, I’m just trying to summarize my experiences and thoughts. So what follows is a mix of fact, opinion, and personal interpretation.

To begin, it’s important to realize that there is a continuum of “collaborative” games with different levels of player control involved.

At one end of the continuum you have games like Burning Wheel which uses “Beliefs” which help define what the game should involve or issues the player wants to explore. Essentially these are what are known as flags in the “theoretical” community) and “Instincts” which are automatic actions/reactions which the player predefines and which control the narrative in certain ways.

For example, an instinct might be “When threatened, I draw my sword.” This is an automatic, instantaneous reaction in mechanical terms which means when the PC is surprised by an enemy, he draws his sword and is essentially never caught flat-footed or unarmed in normal situations. Wow, that’s powerful! But wait…. what happens when the town mayor threatens to throw him in jail? Guess what, he draws his sword. In other words, the instinct predefines certain narrative bits and acts as an advantage in some situations and in others can act as a complication. In my opinion and experience, this is a very cool thing for me to have access to as a GM and I try to incorporate the concept in to a lot of my games, including games using Savage Worlds – I tend to sneak these in slowly on players new to the concept so that they don’t get too overwhelmed by a “non-rulebook rule”.

We can then move along on the continuum to games that involve shared narrative in which the lines between players & GM are blurred in that all share in narrating the outcomes of events. Cold City andDogs in the Vineyard would be an example of this type of game. The GM determines the plot and directs the action but when it comes to conflicts (which include physical, verbal, mental, etc.), the players have the opportunity to narrate the outcome of the conflict, including its consequences. The GM here gives up more control over the outcome of the individual situations, but does not give up control of the story. A good system (CC & DiTV are both good systems), has rule mechanics to control this exchange and guard against a rogue player from completely destroying the story.

For example, in CC the narrator must incorporate the actions and level of success/failure of each participant in to the narrative. Thus, if a player obtained a “mediocre” result when he attempted to shoot the monster, he can’t describe his character “blowing the creature’s head off, spraying its brains across the room.”. Ultimately the GM moderates this process but usually, once players understand and are comfortable with the system, you don’t really have major issues and at most you might have someone stretch things a bit too much in which case the group or the GM might step in. At other times, the narrative just fits despite the dice and so you go with it even if it’s not 100% true to the results of the conflict mechanics. If you have a jerk at the table who can’t or won’t follow the rules, there’s no system that can help you and I would argue that even with something as rigid as D20 he’ll be a problem (i.e., He’s probably the min/maxing, power gamer who works hard to derail the story any chance he gets).

Finally, there are the collaborative games in which the whole group works to create the plot, determine the antagonist, and then generate the story together. Primetime Adventures, InSpectres, and My Life with Master are examples of games where player involvement in the narrative and creation of the story is much heavier. On the far extreme of this type of game you have story games like Polaris and The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries where you do not even need a GM and where all the participants are on equal footing. Again, good mechanics are critical to the success of this endeavor.

So now that I’ve explained that there are different levels of narrative control, I’ll focus on a specific example of how one game (Cold City) handles it.

In CC, when you resolve any conflict the participant who “wins” gets to narrate the results of the outcome. In other words, they describe what happens during the conflict and what the results are. The winner is determined by the dice and are not simply arbitrarily determined: The opponents roll the dice and the person (typically player vs GM but not always) that wins the conflict gets to perform the narration: They have the right to narrate what happened in the scene, with certain limits, as determined by the degree of success determined by the mechanics of the game.

Narration is guided by several rules: They must incorporate all the traits and issues that have been used to add to the dice pools. They must also take into account the the level of success they achieved on the dice. The CC rules give some rough guidelines for these but there’s nothing elaborate because ultimately it’s up to the GM, and I would argue the group as a whole in most cases. It might be obvious but just in case it isn’t: If the GM wins a conflict, he narrates the outcome. Thus, the GM is still part of the narrative process too during conflicts.

Ok, so to get to the heart of the question: How do you keep players from derailing your story (or plot)?

  1. In systems like CC they can’t: The mechanics apply to conflicts only, not the overall story. They could shape the story, but they can’t really alter it in any significant way. Instead you just give players some control over the narrative of what happens in individual scenes and let them shape the nature of the outcomes. IMO, as a GM this is awesome because it lets the players take a little more ownership in the game, takes some work off your shoulders, and continuously gives you feedback/hints on what the players want. One of the laws of good GMing (it’s probably in Robin Laws book) is “Give the players the game they want.”
  2. Maybe you shouldn’t worry about it: If the ultimate story is good and everyone has fun, who cares if they derailed your master plot? In fact, I would argue that if it bothers a GM, he is not ultimately interested in what the players do but instead just seeing his home brewed version of the “Lord of the Rings” play out like he planned. This leads to all kinds of malpractice including fudging rolls, railroading, dead ending player choices, and use of deus ex machina maneuvers.

The notion/model where the GM generates the story/plot and the players just play bit parts is flawed in my opinion and often leads to railroading, whether it is overt or covert. Many GMs think they’re giving players a choice but ultimately they are just playing their own little egocentric story and pretending the players are actually shaping the story. I realize this is going against the established canon of the typical model of how a GM functions, but if you give the “throw the predetermined storyline out the window” approach a real try you’ll find it very liberating.

This does not mean your games are plot or story-less: That would be a disaster. What I’m saying is that you come up with an overall theme or idea and then let the game’s developments, the player’s wants, the character’s flags, and the thrill of the moment to shape the story so that it develops organically rather than having a rigid, predetermined story that must be adhered to.Ok, so I’ve pontificated long enough. If anyone wants me to write more on this subject, let me know and I’ll try to explain some of the concepts and ideas in more detail.

Kidz concept art sketches

I got a chance to visit the friend who’s been acting as an adviser on the art and he showed me some sketches he’s made of some of the ideas he has come up with.  Wow!  All are various “mysterious” scenes (complete with dialog or captions) and they capture the spirit of the game perfectly. I can’t wait to see how the girls turn these into real illustrations.

Confessions of an Indie RPG Junkie

I’m an indie & story game RPG junkie – the past year I’ve purchased nearly two dozen games which I’ve been slowly incorporating in to both my face-to-face and online games.  Unfortunately it’ll probably take me a decade to get through the games I’ve purchased and yet…I still want more.

Why do I love indie and story games? Several reasons:

  1. They’re different – the mechanics are inspiring and thought provoking, the background and setting are  interesting and fun, and the games are something one step beyond the normal stuff out there. Cold City is an amazing setting and idea.
  2. They make me a better GM and player –  Dogs in the Vineyard changed the way I approach RPGs, not to mention what I want out of a game. It also completely sold me on the idea that a social conflict mechanic could be as much fun as a physical combat one.  Primetime Adventures changed how I framed scenes and paced my games.  The Shadows of Yesterday and Burning Wheel changed the way I put together a campaign and got me into tailoring it to what the players want rather than what I want.
  3. They’re fun –Spirit of the CenturyInspectres, and The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries are just plain fun. If you haven’t tried them you’re really missing out on a great time. There are too many other examples to list here….
  4. A connection to the author/creator – Indie publishers are much more connected to their creations and that leads to posts like this where the author takes the time out to thank you for a brief review posted on a personal blog. When I picked up the pdf version of Zorcerer of Zo and its format made it difficult to print, I contacted the author and he sent me an alternative version, no questions asked. Try doing that with White Wolf or Wizards of the Coast.

In short, I just plain enjoy playing and sharing these games – I’ve taught them to friends, kids, and even strangers online and I’ve never had a bad game.  I just wish I had more time to play all of the stuff I own.

PDQ Licensing – Kidz

As if working on one new RPG wasn’t enough, I’ve actually kicked off work on a second game, currently code named Kidz (formerly known as Providence), and have already secured the licensing rights to use Chad Underkoffler’s PDQ system to use with the game. What’s Kidz about? It’s a game about kids growing up in a small town who investigate crimes, solve mysteries, and (maybe) fight supernatural beings. It’s inspired by things like the cartoon Scooby Doo, where are you!, as well as books like Stephen King’s It, and the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery series. Stay tuned for further developments.

Narrative Control in RPGs

I’ve recently been playing several games which put a great deal of narrative control in the hands of the players, something that’s relatively new to me. While I have allowed my players to help contribute to the overall story for quite a while, I’ve never actually used a RPG system that actually formally empowers players to narrate the outcome of conflicts. I had some reservations at first (it’ll lead to chaos!) but it turns out that it’s a lot of fun and makes GMing a lot more interesting.

Some games (albeit hardly an exhaustive list) where players have a lot of narrative control:

  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Cold City
  • Dunjon
  • InSpectres
  • Spirit of the Century