Librarian of Alexandria


I'm a strong proponent of designing tabletop games with mechanical rules for social interaction. This is something which is relatively loosely-defined in many existing tabletop games, so I think it's worth digging into what this can mean and why I think it's worthwhile, and in the process address a few of the common issues that people run into with social mechanics. In particular, I want to make it clear that social mechanics can have advantages, but not all social mechanics are good. This blog post is going to describe three properties that good social mechanics can bring to tabletop games, and contrast them to social mechanics that don't necessarily pull their weight.

What do we mean by “social mechanics”?

I think a reasonable definition of 'social mechanics' is, “Any kind of well-defined mechanical rule that dictates some aspect of social interaction.” To give an example of what a social rule looks like, I'm going to turn to Apocalypse World: Burned Over, which features this move:

When you charm or deceive someone, roll+Cool. On a 10+, they have to choose: set skepticism aside and go along with you, or else call you a fool or a liar to your face. On a 7–9, if they don't want to go along with you or call you out, they can choose to ask you for evidence, time, a compromise, or some concrete assurance; they must go along with you if you provide it. On a miss, be prepared for the worst.

Or an even more clear-cut example from Blades in the Dark, where one ability given to the Slide playbook is:

Like Looking into a Mirror: You can always tell when someone is lying to you.

Both of the above are mechanical rules that dictate aspects of social interaction. Beyond that, they're well-defined. If I'm playing Apocalypse World and I try to charm or deceive someone, then I may not know which outcome I'm going to get—I'm rolling dice, after all—but I know for sure what outcomes can result from that move. If I'm playing Blades and I have the ability described above, then I know for certain that no character can lie to me. (Or, at the very least, if someone does and I'm not aware of it, then we're not playing the game according to the rules!)

I also talk about “some aspect of social interaction” rather loosely because I want to make it clear that social mechanics can encompass a wide variety of goals and levels of abstraction. Both of the above moves deal with specific outcomes from either a single exchange or conversation, but social mechanics don't need to be related just to talking: a good example here is the Blades in the Dark system of Status, which uses numerical values to represent how friendly or unfriendly various other factions are towards your own faction. Yet again, these mechanics are social in that they provide mechanical basis for interactions with NPCs, and they are well-defined in the sense that, if I perform actions which lower my status with another faction to -3, that faction will go to war with my own faction, and that will have specific consequences for what we're allowed to do.

Finally, to motivate my requirement that social mechanics be well-defined, here's what the D&D 5E Dungeon Master's Guide says about “Social Interaction”:

During a social interaction, the adventurers usually have a goal. They want to extract information, secure aid, win someone's trust, escape punishment, avoid combat, negotiate a treaty, or achieve whatever other objective led to the interaction in the first place. The creatures they interact with also have agendas.

Some DMs prefer to run a social interaction as a free-form roleplaying exercise, where dice rarely come into play. Other DMs prefer to resolve the outcome of an interaction by having characters make Charisma checks. Either approach works, and most games fall somewhere in between, balancing player skill (roleplaying and persuading) with character skill (reflected by ability checks).

The phrasing here is why I specify that social mechanics should be well-defined, because D&D 5E's rules for social interaction are very much not well-defined. There are rules I can use which affect social interaction—for example, using skills like Deception or Intimidation—but not only is there no fixed outcome for what a “successful Deception roll” looks like, there's no guarantee that the GM would even want you to roll it in the first place, since a given GM might decide that either in general or in this specific circumstance they want you to roleplay the intimidation instead.

A very significant consequence here is that a player can't rely on social mechanics being present or effective, at least not without knowing a specific GM's preferences around how the game runs. If I start playing a fresh D&D character with a new GM, would it be worth putting some points into Charisma? Well, if the GM will call for or allow Charisma checks, then maybe, but if the GM prefers roleplaying these conversations out without letting dice influence the outcomes, then my Charisma is significantly less useful. The lack of definition in the game rules means that trying to engage with those mechanics is risky for players—if there's a chance that my hard-earned XP is going to go a mechanic that might not do a thing, why even spend it?

What do you get out of social mechanics?

One of the most common objections to social mechanics—especially in the context of D&D and closely related games—is that they're simply redundant when compared with role-playing. Imagine, for example, that a rampaging dragon is moving towards a town, and the players demand an audience with the local ruler to request the evacuation of the town. Why roll, when you can ask the players to make their demands as their characters would? If the players are convincing, the guard is convinced: why do you need anything more?

There's a common way that arguments about this usually happen: the person who likes social mechanics will say, “We don't usually ask players to pick up a sword to see if they succeed in combat, so why do we ask players to actually debate to see if they succeed in a debate? How do we account for players whose characters are mechanically charismatic but don't feel they can rely on that same level of charisma in real life?” while the person who dislikes social mechanics will respond, “We're already speaking in real life, so why abstract it out with mechanics? If you're not comfortable fully roleplaying the conversation, then you can describe what you'd want to say instead of saying it word-for-word. And anyway, if the players are convincing during role-play, it's not fair to them to deny them that success just because the dice rolled poorly.”

I think there are some very good reasons to include social mechanics that aren't addressed by the arguments above. One of the first ones, for me, is social mechanics can produce interesting unplanned outcomes, which is something I personally find deeply valuable in tabletop games.

Consider applying the rule from Apocalypse World: Burned Over that I described above to the scenario with the guard blocking access to the town's ruler. The players can roll and succeed, in which case the guard can either agree to let them see the ruler, or explicitly and loudly call them out as liars. Or, the players can roll and partially succeed, in which case the guard might ask for evidence—some proof that a beast is indeed approaching—or a compromise—such as allowing them access to a lower-level functionary rather than the ruler, or demanding some manner of bribe.

When I described the scenario to begin with, I may have had two broad potential outcomes in mind: either the guard agrees and allows the party to see the ruler, or the guard rejects the party is kept outside. I may not have had other outcomes in mind, but having mechanics around social interactions can produce those outcomes. These outcomes can move games into very different directions, which can be a lot of fun and produce amazing stories afterwards.

Another reason I find social mechanics valuable is that social mechanics provide player affordances. Here I'm using the word “affordance” specifically in the way it's deployed by designer Donald Norman, who uses it to refer to the possibilities of action that are suggested by an object: objects with handles might suggest being held, objects with feet might suggest being placed, objects with upward-facing padded surfaces might suggest being sat on. Interface designers and human-computer interaction researchers are interested in affordances because they can help make objects usable without specific training: an object with the right affordances (and the right cultural context for those affordances) can by its very design suggest how to use it.

It's worthwhile to think of tabletop games as providing affordances, which are the actions it suggests are available to players. In theory, a player could come up with any course of action—indeed, this freedom is something that makes tabletop games special relative to, say, board games or video games—but in practice there are specific actions which the game suggests strongly by virtue of how it provides mechanical support for them.

For example: I can flip through the D&D rulebook and see extensive rules about how to engage in various kinds of combat, and indeed, most of a player's abilities are combat-related. On the other hand, there's no reason I couldn't have a D&D character who is strongly invested, say, in state-building and creating governments, but there's nothing in D&D's rules that imply that this is a course of action that you're likely to take. Looking at my player sheet, it's clear the game has affordances, actions which it suggests—there's even a list of skills right there!—and by and large players will embrace the affordances of the game most of the time.

I think that many tabletop players share the common experience of coming across a problem and starting to look through their character sheet to see if they've got a specific way of addressing that problem: a relevant piece of equipiment, a proficiency or ability that addresses it, anything which can give a bit of an edge. It's not uncommon to jog your mind in doing so. I might not have considered trying to blast my way through the door instead of picking the lock, but I perused my character sheet and found that I still had dynamite: why not?

So if you check your character sheet and you see skills related to interacting with people—bonuses to specific interactions, conversational stratagems, specific NPC contacts—then social actions become part of the set of affordances provided by the game. A good example I've experienced many times is having a list of contacts in Blades in the Dark: a player is confronted with a problem, checks their sheet, and notices an NPC whose role might give them special insight into the problem at hand. This little affordance helps push that player into a social situation when they might otherwise have picked up a weapon.

It's also worth noting that, in many games, becoming better at combat is a big enticement to, well, doing more combat. In games where advancement can provide bonuses or the ability to exercise social mechanics, this becomes an enticement to engage in social activites more. Yet again, Blades in the Dark provides some good examples, as many playbooks have specific social moves which they can take as upgrades, and that in turn makes certain kinds of social interactions more appealing as players have advantages in those interactions.

Yet another reason is that some social mechanics can situate players into the world more explicitly. Not every kind of social mechanic does this, but an appropriately-designed one can.

One way this might happen is by providing social mechanics around information-gathering. Consider another move from Apocalypse World: Burned Over:

When you read someone in a charged interaction, roll+Sharp. On a 10+, hold 3 against them. On a 7–9, hold 2 against them. During your interaction, spend your hold 1 for 1 to ask the MC or their player questions. They have to answer frankly, from their character's point of view. – Are you telling the truth? – What are you feeling? – What are you thinking of doing? – What do you hope I'll do? – How could I get you to do [x]? On a miss, the MC might have you ask 1 anyway, but be prepared for the worst.

This move is designed to give players access to social information and cues which might be hard to convey through just dialogue. After all, even with the most descriptive prose possible, we're still dealing with an entire world conveyed through a stream of dialogue from one person, and that's significantly less information than we'd get if we could somehow immerse ourselves in a full simulation of that world: a mechanic like this helps players get reliable access to specific social information that might otherwise get lost.

For example, if we apply the above move to the scenario with the guard, we might imagine a player trying to read this person to figure out: what's important to them? Can we deduce anything about the guard's emotional state? What other cues can we read from the guard?

Another way that social mechanics can situate players in the world is by subjecting their players to mechanized versions of social pressures. Consider, for example, augmenting D&D 5E with a factional reputation system: perhaps players who help out specific factions might get extra points which can translate to bonuses on social rolls, but interfering with factions or causing trouble for their members can translate to negative modifiers on those rolls.

How might this affect our guard? Well, if the players are well-respected in that community, the faction modifier means the guard is mechanically more inclined to trust the party: they've helped out the town, after all. On the contrary, if the players had previously caused trouble in the town, now the guard is mechanically less-inclined to help them.

(It's worth noting that this is interesting even if the modifiers don't cause the rolls to swing in the expected direction: if the players have a high reputation but still fail the roll, then it's interesting story-wise that the guard won't let the party see the ruler despite their high status: why might that be? Or if the players have a low reputation but still succeed: why did the guard agree to let this known band of brigands in to the ruler in this case?)

There are other kinds of social mechanics which help here: for example, mechanized relationships or contacts with NPCs help cement PCs as inhabitants in a world, or mechanization of various kinds of group status can help situate players in a world by opening or closing avenues of action to them.

What makes a good social mechanic?

I think one of the biggest objections to social mechanics in practice isn't actually a mark against the idea of social mechanics in general: rather, it's because many people have had exposure to bad or pooly-thought-out social mechanics.

Consider, for example, the not uncommon story of a player who has managed to maximize their character's abilities around social interaction, resulting in a character who can steamroll any conversation and make any NPC agree with them. At some point, this level of forced interaction with NPCs feels less like a reflection of a character with high charisma and more like some kind of mind control or other coercion, and it can remove stakes or drama from the story being told.

This isn't because the idea of a social mechanic is flawed: it's because this social mechanic has a flawed implementation! There's an implicit understanding of how a social mechanic in something like D&D might work. This isn't present in any source book (and consequently the problems with this rule shouldn't be considered a knock against D&D here) but people might imagine D&D's social rolls as working like this:

When you use deception, trickery, or lies to get an NPC to believe or do something specific, make a Charisma (Deception) check against a DM-specified target number. If this succeeds, the NPC will believe you or do what you want. If it fails, then the NPC will not believe you and will not do what you want.

This is actually in some ways more well-defined than the actual D&D 5E rule for deception, which does not specify any specific outcomes for success or failure, only the situation in which it can be used. Unfortunately, though it's a very flawed implementation of that mechanic: once a character has high enough Charisma and if the GM has this understanding of social mechanics, it's difficult not to get NPCs to do what you want all the time.

Contrast the above example with the Apocalypse World: Burned Over example from above. Here's the success case from that roll:

On a 10+, they have to choose: set skepticism aside and go along with you, or else call you a fool or a liar to your face.

There are two things I'd call out here. One of them is that a success on this roll doesn't mean the NPC believes you: they might still reject what you're telling them, but they'll reject it loudly and bring that conversation to a head. That means even with tons of modifiers and a high number in the relevant stat, there's no guarantee that a player using this move will be able to bring every NPC they come across to their side, but it does allow them to move the interaction along by at the very least getting the disagreement to come out in the open.

There's another important detail I'd call out about this rule, as well: even if the NPC doesn't call you out directly, they still don't necessarily believe you, since the rule specifies that they will “…set skepticism aside and go along with you.” This means that, even if the NPC is doing what you want, they might only be doing so provisionally: you haven't convinced them that you're right, you've just given them enough reason that they're just willing to go along with you.

These differences aren't trivial: they're very important both to balancing the mechanic in question and to making sure it doesn't take over the narrative. Making sure that outcomes are well-defined but not unilateral is a key part of making social mechanics which people can rely on but which don't end up amounting to players dominating all social exchanges.

This isn't unique to social mechanics, after all: all parts of a game need playtesting and balancing and so forth. A combat mechanic which allows a player to one-shot every enemy would likely be considered incredibly overpowered and in need of balancing: a social mechanic which allows a player to get what they want out of every conversation should be treated the same way. (If you want to get a good look at what this process might look like, I'd recommend this blog post by Jeremy Strandberg which talks extensively about the revisions to Parley, the primary social move in Dungeon World, and how he revised it for his derived games Homebrew World and Stonetop. It's a long process, and very subtle parts of the wording can have a big effect on how that social move plays!)

Finally, I think it's worth noting that mechanizing social mechanics doesn't mean that all social interaction should turn into a mechanical back-and-forth. I think there's a fear that social mechanics, taken too far, could result in all conversations becoming a sequence of players invoking the mechanics—”I use witty jab! I use clever repartée! I use sardonic gesture!“—instead of actually getting into character and having dialogue. I don't think this is necessarily an unfounded fear, but I don't think it's the end-goal of adding social mechanics to a game. In fact, it runs contrary to one of the advantages of well-designed social mechanics that I describe above: this doesn't help situate players in the social realities of the world, it divorces them from it!

I think the advantages I've described to social mechanics can be used in an inverse way, to evaluate whether a social mechanic is pulling its weight. You can look at a mechanic and ask, “Is this helping me get to outcomes that we might not have come to?” If not, maybe it's not adding much value that wouldn't get from just role-playing those conversations. “Is it giving players social affordances that let them tackle problems via social means?” If not, maybe it's not pulling its weight in complexity, or maybe it's either too broad or too narrow and needs adjusting. “Is it helping situate player characters in the world socially in a way that players understand and react to?” If not, maybe think about how the mechanic might be relaxed, reworked, or refocused to help underscore and mechanically reinforce the social structures of the game world.

And of course, I think it's worth noting that none of these should replace role-playing. Let's go back once more to the example with the guard: if I were running this in a game with social mechanics, I wouldn't simply ask the players to roll: I'd first roleplay out the scene, and ask the players to roleplay out their attempt to convince the guard, and then bring the mechanics down in order to figure out how the scene ends. The social mechanics should inform the narrative, not replace it.

So hopefully this provides a case for why I believe social mechanics are worthwhile to implement, and give some advice in terms of how to implement them in a way that plays towards their strengths!


This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A tabletop game about fast cars, furious action, and family values.

This is of course inspired by that one series of films. Indeed, the original design goal was to build a game where every player had three core stats: Fast, Furious, and Family.

It's expanded and gone through a number of revisions, including a few that I still think are fascinating, but it's ended up being more or less an adaptation of Danger Patrol. Danger Patrol features an idea called the Action Area, which I like a lot: it's an explicit index-card based representation of the goals and major features of a session. For a lot of games, I think this might be overly restrictive and maybe even a little bland, but for broad-strokes genre storytelling—including both the 50's pulp adventure that Danger Patrol is drawing on and the modern action movies that Guns & Gasoline is drawing on—it feels kind of perfect.

I also put a lot of thought into the right way of representing vehicle chases and races, which are integral to the genre. Making sure that races aren't simply “who can roll the highest number first” but actually feel like moment-to-moment interesting things are happening is integral to the game I want to make. The system I'd been working with most recently involved a three-way distinction where you're always Leading, Tied, or Trailing, and those positions open up different options for actions you can take, including attempting to change your position to one or the other: sometimes that means accelerating to try to take the lead, but sometimes it also makes sense to deliberately let yourself trail behind because that's going to let you address the race in different ways.

Overall, it's not a game designed for long campaigns: it's for one-shots or maybe two or three session campaigns. It should be quick and exciting and ideally have lots of corny one-liners and over-the-top action beats. One guiding principle behind the game is that it should be true to the way a friend of mine once described the Fast & Furious movies: “Imagine a superhero movie, except everyone's superpower is 'car'.”

Why write it? Okay, this is a silly one, and one where I've actually struggled throughout several drafts to actually hit the tone and level of complexity I want: I keep coming up with interesting ideas and then realizing that they're far too elaborate for the goal here.

For example, one draft was a by-the-numbers Powered-by-the-Apocalypse game. I had a set of fighting moves that I liked a lot, including a distinction between Fight Hard (which you rolled with Furious) and Fight Smart (which you rolled with Fast) that not only had their own distinct effects but would interact with each other in a satisfying way. That was a fun idea, but the draft was too complicated.

Later on, I worked on a variation where, instead of using Powered-by-the-Apocalypse-style moves with three possible outcomes, I instead turned every move into a lits of “good outcomes” and “bad outcomes”, and dice rolls would give you points to either prevent bad outcomes or buy good outcomes: in effect, turning every move into a PbtA-style “choose things from a list” move. Because in this system dice would also explode—that is to say, if you rolled their maximum value, you'd keep that but also re-roll the die, possibly multiple times if you got the maximum value again—you could theoretically but rarely get a large number of points to buy outcomes, which could translate into e.g. a single roll letting you take down large numbers of opponents, acquire intelligence, and find useful objects, all at once. This was a fun system that was also far too finicky for the simple game I was trying to jam it into.

There's still a lot I like about the current draft, but I still struggle to make it a game suitable for one-shots. This is one project I deliberately left to the side for a while, because I wanted to come back to it with fresh eyes and figure out what I could cut down on.

Why the name? The working title was The Rapid & The Rageful, which was funny for about fifteen minutes before I found it tedious. Given that there's nice alliteration in both the movie that this game is inspired by and also in the name of the most famous tabletop role-playing game, it felt appropriate to choose an alliterative, so: Guns & Gasoline.

#backburner #tabletop

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A map-drawing game about a village.

That is to say: it's a game for several players where you begin with a near-blank map. Over time, you take turns, where each turn involves developing the story of the place, filling in details, deciding on events that move the place forward. The place in particular is a rural village being rebuilt by a small community, and the game is otherwise neutral with respect to setting: maybe it's a little ancient village in the desert, or maybe it's a village in the snows of another planet in the far future, or maybe something else entirely!

There are many of these kinds of games now—something which I'll discuss in a bit—but the specific thing I want to do with Yan Tan Tethera is build a tiny, manageable-but-still-important resource economy into the game. Actions in the game will have two aspects: they move the story forward narratively but they also spend and gain resources, and losing too many resources will damage the village. I'm still torn on whether it's possible to straight-up lose, but I'm not taking it off the table. If losing is possible, then it should be unusual and difficult, but one reason I'm still open to losing is because it gives some weight and some bite to the resource economy.

Each player's turn is composed of two halves: one that's a random event, one that's an explicit action by the player. Random events might be windfalls, they might be problems, or they might be simply new things that add detail and color to the world. Actions can involve constructing buildings, making tools or resources, undertaking projects or journeys… they're somewhat free-form in terms of their effect on the story, but their effects are specified and play into the resource economy, helping you gather resources. And they can fail! There's an element of randomness, and players can help reinforce projects if they're important, but the randomness means that things might simply not go the way you want. Your village is growing, but it should regularly feel like it's growing against the odds.

Why write it? You've might have noticed that this description is heavily, heavily indebted to another game: Avery Alder's The Quiet Year, a game that I cannot understate my love for. The Quiet Year is a vaguely post-apocalyptic game, in that it specifies that the focus is a place being rebuilt after some kind of terrible catastrophe, but it's not well-specified what the apocalypse was or, indeed, any of the setting details. In the game, you draw cards to find out an event, and then you have various actions you can take.

I love The Quiet Year, but I'll also admit that I've had some weirdly directionless games of it in the past. A big part of it is that the game asks a lot of players. If the players are in the right mindset and have the right experience with improvisation, it can be supremely rewarding, because a player really has carte blanche to do just about anything they want. For example, they can start projects, which can be anything, and they can take about any amount of time and have any effects! They can discover anything! It's supremely flexible, but I've played games with players who have really struggled when given a full blank page. I distinctly remember one game of The Quiet Year where a friend of mine drew a card that told them to make up a second project, and they immediately became upset, because they were struggling to imagine up just one project, and now they had to imagine two.

So what I want is a game which tries to facilitate some of the tone and style of The Quiet Year but builds in a bit more restriction, which on one hand will limit the possibilities of the game, but on the other hand will provide more guidance and affordances to players. The biggest thing is that, instead of projects being free-form, I want projects to address specific resource problems and use specific resources, so that a player should never arrive at their turn and be unsure of what to do: there are problems, and they should be solving them! In this, it ends up borrowing from some of the other map-drawing games I've played, like Martin Nerurkar and Konstantinos Dimopoulos' Ex Novo and Everest Pipkin's The Ground Itself but also from more resource-management-focused games like Cecil Howe's Do Not Let Us Die In The Cold Night Of This Dark Winder. (Perhaps surprisingly, another game that's on my mind as an inspiration here is Matt Leacock's collaborative board game Pandemic, which is another resource-management board game in which you constantly feel like you're on the razor's edge!)

I also should be clear that this project is not a criticism of The Quiet Year. I'm not trying to “fix” it in any way, and I still love it dearly and encourage people to play it! It's especially worth noting that the game I'm describing here, in trying to address one specific design point, loses out on so much of what makes The Quiet Year such an effective and poignant game: in particular, you'll notice that I've glossed over the mechanics around community dynamics which make up such a central part of The Quiet Year, and that's because I legitimately am not sure how to build the game I want to build while preserving those. I'm playing around in the design space, but making something which tackles the issues I want to tackle ends up being a very different kind of game.

Why the name? The original name was Those Who Return, and it was part of a conscious (if somewhat lazy) attempt to avoid imbuing the game with difficult-to-avoid imperialist themes by reinforcing the idea that the protagonists of the game are native to the region and consequently not engaging in imperialism. In retrospect, I believe this was very naïve: after all, there' no shortage of imperialist projects—including ongoing ones—that use the idea of an “ancestral homeland” as an excuse to violently evict current inhabitants. It's an effort, but it's by no means sufficient.

The newer name, Yan Tan Tethera, comes from a system of sheep-counting in the northern parts of England: those three words specifically are the numbers “one, two, three” in the variation used in Lincolnshire. Many areas in Northern England once used a separate set of number words which were used by shepherds for counting sheep: these words were originally descended from the Celtic languages once spoken in those areas. There are some wildly different variants, as well, although it's pretty apparent that they all share a common root! I liked this name because it emphasized a kind of historical and agrarian tone to the game.

#backburner #tabletop

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A space opera tabletop game.

The setting was loosely-specified: galaxy-spanning civilizations, faster-than-light travel, somewhere between science fiction and science fantasy. One stipulated constant, though, was the existence of the tentatively-named Emissaries of Guenashk: a sort of philosophical order of politically powerful warrior-monks whose job was to go out into the galaxy and be useful to the people. Crucially (and unlike the fictional pseudo-religious order that forms part of their obvious inspiration) they don't actually have any jursdiction to make sweeping judgments or pursue criminals of their own volition, but rather must be specifically asked to intercede in affairs and given explicit limits to how they can do so: if not asked, they must otherwise limit themselves to talking. Emissaries are often well-trained and have a wealth of knowledge and expertise, so in practice they often are asked to help in various situations, but their role can differ wildly, and overstepping their bounds is considered a major violation and grounds for expulsion from the order.

The players are therefore a group of Emissaries, with all that entails. That's why the events of a session are usually a situation where Emissaries are asked to intercede. Importantly, the design of both characters and situations means that non-violent techniques and situations are given just as much narrative weight and mechanical import as violent ones: a given player might stick entirely to the negotiating table, doing as much as they can to avoid pulling out the weapons, and a frank heart-to-heart with a character might be as powerful as a violent conflict with weapons drawn.

My original draft was more or less a science fiction rework of Dogs in the Vineyard, using a similar system of raises and sees to handle conflict resolution. Unlike Dogs, it had rather more guided character creation: each character was built of two halves (using a system inspired by Danger Patrol) where one half represented the character's origin and the other half represented their role: each half contributed skills and objects and relationships that could be drawn on later. That means that instead of simply choosing a class or playbook, you would always play a combination of two things, both equally important to you: you could be a Scientist who hails from a Lunar Base or an Ambassador from a Core World, but you could also swap those things and be a Scientist from a Core World or an Ambassador from a Lunar Base.

I've gradually moved away from the Dogs heritage over time, but there are some features of it I want to make sure I retain for this sort of game. In particular, the way that the Dogs conflict resolution encourages you to stick to less extreme conflicts until absolutely necessary, mechanically encouraging that reaching for the guns is usually the last resort, is integral to the kind of game I wanted to build. I was also working on mechanics that handled both organizations and ships in a more nuanced way, treating them as entities that can bring dice to bear in conflicts but also can take fallout themselves if things go poorly, and I had been moving towards a little bit more guidance than you usually get with a Dogs fight (which can be wonderfully flexible, but also daunting if you don't have ideas) but I'm going to have to do a careful reconsideration of the rules once I return to this project.

Why write it? I don't actually know if there's a game that I think is a perfect fit for the kind of space opera I was going for! In particular, I want to capture the kind of slower political scifi that you might find in 90's-era Star Trek or Babylon 5. I want players to be able to do elaborate political maneuvers as readily as sneaking or fighting. While there are definite Jedi similarities to the titular Guenashki order, the differences are just as important: they don't get powers or special supernatural guidance or even any specific authority, which means trying to rush in with heroic violence will often put them at odds with their very order. (Perhaps the role of the Guenashki becomes clearer if you think of their strict rules of engagement as closer to a kind of Prime Directive than anything in the Jedi code.)

Some of the various existing space opera games on my radar are Ironsworn Starforged, Scum and Villainy, and of course Lasers & Feelings. While I like all of these, none of them are quite suitable for the kind of political scifi I wanted: Ironsworn and Scum & Villainy, despite the more Star Wars set dressing, tend to lean towards Firefly or Cowboy Bebop in terms of what you actually do, and Lasers & Feelings is rather minimalist and ends up (at least in my experience) being a little bit slapstick. You could play a political maneuvering game in Lasers & Feelings, but none of the rules guide you to do so.

(There are also scifi games like Starfinder or the officially-licensed Star Wars RPGs, but I'm also omitting them here because they're so overtly combat-focused. Trying to play a political game using Starfinder is like trying to run a rom-com game in Monopoly: I suppose you could, but the rules wouldn't have your back at all.)

So Guenashk was my attempt at trying to build a game where you could play as TNG-era Picard. I didn't want it to prevent people from reaching towards aggressive negotiations, but my primary goal was that people should be able to create a character who never once uses a gun and that's fine. I still think that's a valuable sort of game.

Why the name? This was actually a name I used for an early draft of notes about Tales, but I decided it was a better fit for this project. The word Guenashk—which I originally wrote as /ɣʷeˈnašk/ in my notes—is nonsense.

#backburner #tabletop

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A “tabletop” game designed to be played asynchronously and slowly.

The premise is this: as a player, your focus is on a single military unit in a vast and probably doomed war. Within that unit, you have a secondary even smaller focus: a single person, perhaps a soldier, perhaps a medic, perhaps a strategist, perhaps a random civilian who happened to tag along. As you play, you sometimes make decisions for the military unit: where to move, whether to retreat, when to find supplies, when to tough it out. You also make decisions and tell stories from the point of view of your focus: as the unit toughs it out, how does the focus feel about it?

Each player in a game of The Last Alliance of Men and Elves has their own distinct military unit and their own focus character within it, and as the game progresses, the unit-level actions affect one another, helping to shape the trajectory of the overall war before the final showdown.

There's a catch, though, that distinguishes it from many other tabletop games: it's designed to be played slowly, asynchronously, over a chat system like Discord. The intention is that each player would take only one turn every day or so—maybe more or maybe less, depending on the group's desire for the cadence of the game—and there's no specific requirement that players take turns in order.

One design goal was for this to be playable by people with busy lives who are rarely able to get to one place—physical or otherwise—to play tabletop games together. People whose schedules differ wildly could still contribute to a game of Last Alliance. This enforced a lot of interesting consequences to the design. I also planned to write a Discord bot to help facilitate games, a bot which could help remember details (e.g. current amounts of resources) and also do prompting (e.g. telling you when you last checked in and suggesting that you take another turn.)

Why write it? I've actually talked about this one before in more depth!. The COVID-19 pandemic definitely brought it into focus as an interesting idea, and if I were good at prioritizing projects I would have completed it in early 2020 so we could playtest it throughout the early days of the pandemic. That said, it predated the pandemic by quite a while: the post linked to is from January 2020, and I had been considering some of the related ideas back in 2019 even.

I think the ideas are interesting! I like the idea of asychronous play in general, even in video games, and I think several of the ideas pitched by Ian Bogost in his 2004 paper Asynchronous Multiplay are still compelling even when they have been implemented in the most heinous possible way by games like Farmville. One design goal of The Last Alliance of Men and Elves was to backport ideas from asynchronous multiplay in a video game context into a tabletop context, faciliated by chat systems.

I also just want to see what it's like to play this kind of game! I like the idea of playing a game I check in on every day or so, where the game itself is built around that level of interaction.

On a side-note, I also want to mention that the fantasy writing system I created here was originally intended as a way of creating interesting-looking backgrounds and design details for a draft of this game.

Why the name? The default milieu was intended to be loosely inspired by both stories from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion as well as Glen Cook's The Black Company, and so the name was taken from Tolkien's narration. It was very much a working title, but I do like long and elaborate names for games and fiction, so I'll probably try to come up with a similar but more distinctive title whenever I return to the project.

#backburner #tabletop

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A grid-maps-and-tactics tabletop game, designed for one-offs and short campaigns and optimized for getting players sat down and into the game as quickly as possible.

The core of the rules is derived from Hero Kids, a simple but surprisingly robust tabletop game designed for children. One feature borrowed from Hero Kids is that all character-specific abilities (which by and large are represented as equipment: weapons, staffs, and so forth) are little cards which describe the ability in its entirety. That means that character creation amounts to doing rudimentary skill point allocation and then choosing some cards. If you wanted to get going immediately, you could even pick cards randomly and then allocate your points based on whatever you picked.

There are also features cribbed from 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, specifically many of the monsters. D&D 4E distinguishes itself from other editions by building the game with a laser focus on tactical combat, and one great result of this is that monsters in 4E have meaningfully different ways they behave in fights. Encounters in 4E tend to be dynamic with lots of careful movement and positioning in order to gain advantages, and going up against a band of goblins is mechanically and tactically distinct from going up against a band of orcs or a pack of wolves or whatnot. I used those as a jumping-off point to try to build tactically distinct monsters and villains for this game, as well.

The end result is a game that can be picked up by players quickly, but can still support the kind of dungeon hijinks that games like D&D are known for.

Why write it? This game actually goes against my usual predilections in tabletop role-playing games. My personal tastes tend away from dungeon-crawling and tactical combat: I usually prefer games where combat is much more zoomed out (e.g. rolling a die to resolve an whole bout of combat or even an entire encounter, rather than tracking a whole fight blow-by-blow) and where the focus is broader than simply traversing dungeons.

But even though it's not always my favorite kind of RPG, I still sometimes want to sit down with some friends, trawl through a maze, sneak past some traps, and fight some monsters. When I first found Hero Kids, I realized that I found a game which would facilitate that but without the depth of rules that a D&D game offers: no flipping back and forth between four parts of a $45 book to build a character, no obscure rule interactions across three optional books, no hour-long character creation session. Not that I never want those things, but I also don't always want those things.

In a way, my goal was to build a game that sat between a board game and a tabletop RPG. The rules don't necessarily encourage you to role-play all that much or provide much support for doing anything that's not trawling through a dungeon (although you can still roll persuasion checks and there's some support for stuff to do in town.) Instead, the game puts a sword in your hand and tosses you into a dungeon filled with monsters and treasure. With a small dungeon prepared, you could run a session, complete with character creation, entirely during an hour-long lunch break. I think that's a worthy design goal.

Also, I love things that use little cards and slips of paper, and have kinda wanted to write a game around them for ages.

Why the name? I actually want to change this name—in part because there's already a spectacular RPG product out there called Delve—but I originally wanted to call it Delve partly for the typical fantasy-dungeon-crawling meaning, and partly because it meant I could quote Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead on the back cover.

I was waiting for you to delve. “When is he going to start delving?” I asked myself.

#backburner #tabletop

A few months ago, I was listening to an episode of Tips at the Table, the tabletop advice show from the cast of the actual play podcast Friends at the Table. One discussed topic was tabletop podcast episode length, and the hosts had a number of interesting things to say about it, but two things in particular struck me. One of them: the idea that the game they played would dictate ideal episode length (e.g. talking about how Powered by the Apocalypse games need a little bit longer in order to really let the “moves snowball” develop.) The other: an off-hand suggestion that you might create an actual play podcast with much shorter episodes by playing something like The Quiet Year, devoting a single episode (of maybe five minutes) to each individual turn.

This was a fascinating idea to me, and I immediately started wondering what other games might lend themselves to this kind of treatment. For a game to work when “broken apart” like this, I think it needs to have a relatively rigid turn structure: while I can imagine taking a game like Apocalypse World and cutting it into short chunks, you're going to run against the narrative flow of the game either for the listener (as the buildup of consequences from past actions is split across episodes) or, worse, for the player (as you artificially enforce an episodic structure during play that unnaturally interferes with the narrative flow from action to action.) Instead, you want a game that builds small episodes into play naturally, which probably means some kind of turn structure: The Quiet Year of course works here, but I can also imagine other games designed around “scenes” doing this well, including Fiasco and Microscope.

My other thought was: what would it be like to design a game with this cadence in mind? That is to say, how would you build a game from the ground up to facilitate short-episode storytelling?

This question dovetails nicely with some other recent thoughts. Like many people who have a tabletop hobby, I don't play nearly as often as I'd like, in part because of real-world schedules, making times when we're all free and ready to play relatively rare. We've tried addressing this by doing more online play, but because life is complicated and busy, even online play can have a surprising amount of slippage and skipped games, so I was thinking about games that can be easily played online via text, without having to coordinate specific session times. This isn't a new idea—for example, Vincent Baker's The Sundered Land: A Doomed Pilgrim in the Ruins of the Future is a game designed for explicitly online play on a forum—but it was still one that was interesting to me.

The conjunction of these two ideas led me to sketch out some game design ideas: in particular, design ideas for a game which can be played in person or asynchronously via the internet, and either way will have a natural “short-episode” structure to the narrative flow of the game. I'm developing a more specific game that has these features which I won't get into here, but in broad strokes:

  1. The game should be asynchronous. Each player might in theory be participating in their “turn” at a different time of day when the other players are not present at all, and yet should still to be able to complete their “turn” in its entirety. That doesn't mean that you can't play synchronously, or that you can't include back-and-forth between players, just that the rules can't assume that all the players are present for a turn. (This rules our things like The Quiet Year's “Hold A Discussion” action, for example.) This restriction leads naturally to a few other restrictions. For one…
  2. The game should be GM-less, because each player needs to be able to engage with the rules on their own without (necessarily) waiting for another player's input. Any guidance that a GM would provide needs to be baked into the rules or mechanics in some way. Additionally, the asynchronous nature of the game means that…
  3. Each turn should be a satisfying narrative unit. A given turn should meaningfully advance the story in some way: it should be 'large enough' that interesting events can occur, complication can arise, narrative threads can finish and start, and generally each turn should on its own be interesting. Some games definitely have turns where you don't feel like you're making gambits or advancing plans, but rather treading water until you can: this design should as much as is possible advance the story even if some narrative threads aren't resolving yet. Finally, because of my own personal design-sensibilities, I resolved that it should have:
  4. The game should have separate by interacting resource economies for individuals and the whole group. The individual resource economy is so that each player can advance their own strategic, game-mechanical goals: perhaps cultivating more resources to be used later or making a decision to expend resources for some other purpose. Meanwhile, the shared resource economy should be present to provide a sense of not just narrative but mechanical cohesion to the players: you may be taking your turn in isolation (because maybe the other players aren't even present in the chat channel where you're taking your turn!) but that doesn't mean that your turn and story aren't tied in with the story of the rest of the group!

I made brief reference to a chat channel, because my mental image of how this would be played is that it would take place in something like a Discord channel. This would let the full history of the game be present in textual form to every player, allowing a player to go back and review the past events at any time, retracing the narrative of the game from the very beginning. Once you've committed to Discord (or something similar, like Slack or IRC or Matrix) then you also have a natural way to express and engage with the game's mechanical side: you can use a chatbot. You could in theory use a simple dice-rolling card-drawing bot, but if you don't mind the programming involved, why not got a step further and build a bot with in-built knowledge of all the mechanics of the game: a bot which can prompt players to take their turn and keep track of the state of the game resources and turn structure in addition to providing things like card draws?

At that point, what you'd have is a game whose rules, in addition to being able to be played in person around a traditional game table, could also be facilitated by something like a narrative-focused Pokécord, a (honestly very simple) digital GM that moves your game along in the background. Which I think could have some fascinating implementations!

Finally, while already considering these ideas, I happened across the Ironsworn RPG (specifically via Adam Koebel's First Look video and subsequent solo play videos), which is a game designed to flexibly accommodate GM-guided play, GM-less co-operative play, and solo play. One way it does this is by replacing aspects of the GM role with an “oracle”, a set of random tables and mechanics around when and how to use them, enabling narrative turns and complications even when no human is guiding them.

Which gave me yet another idea: what would a solo game using this bot-facilitated play look like, using the bot as “oracle” in this way? The way I imagine it, it might be something like a fusion of a game and a guided writing exercise, coming together as a facilitated fictional journal. To give an off-the-cuff example: imagine a game of this sort that depicts a nautical journey, moving from island to island. You could use specific commands to make mechanical choices: perhaps upgrading and repairing your ship, hiring crew, making rough navigational decisions. At the same time, the bot would ask for your input: when a new crew member appears, for example, the bot might use random tables to decide on some details, but ask you to supply the person's appearance, and give a short vignette of your first meeting with the crew-member. When you come to an island, it might tell you the lay of the land and the complication you experience there, but ask for your narrative input along the way.

If you abandoned my previous principle that these games should be playable on their own, you could start fusing them with the more complicated features of things like Twitter bots. Imagine, that the previous nautical-journey bot, for example, was also programmed with scenarios resembling the a strange journey Twitter bot, turning that set of fragments into a personalized story where your input shapes events mechanically, aesthetically, and narratively, but still spaced asynchronously over days, allowing you to return every once in a while to a story in progress to learn but also decide what happens next.

Would any of the ideas described above work well? What level of interaction and resource-manipulation would be appropriate for this kind of game? What are the best ways of incorporating the player's feedback into this kind of game while keeping it satisfying and interesting? Would these be fun to do, or would they devolve into a chore? I have no idea, but I think these ideas are promising enough to find out!

#ideas #tabletop