måndag 6 januari 2020

you can use dnd to play anything

for reasons yet unknown, I will not capitalize the first letter in any of these sentences, unless I want to. calm down. have a snack. call a friend.

have you been on RPG social media for more than 3 hours? have you ever seen one of those hot-take thread wherein people list obvious truisms as if they were controversial? have you ever seen one of those people who will spend their days arguing against fictional people?

then you've probably heard some version of the following:
you don't HAVE to play dnd. there are OTHER games, that do what you want BETTER.
they're not really wrong. there isn't a sentiment there that we can make any normative claim against.

so what's the problem?

it follows a narrative we've discussed previously - the design centric perspective. It's follies are as follows:

1. it gives us a value judgement that tells us that specifically curated, "optimized" experiences, that carries with it the intentions of its authors, are superior to those that are discovered or carved out

2. it posits that "dnd" as a game should be confined to its commodity form - i.e that we should only interpret "dnd" as an intellectual property (Dungeon's and Dragon's 5th Edition) created and sold by a capitalist institution (Wizards of the Coast) who have the final say on what that product is.

the first one is of course, something we are allowed to disagree with (and we shall). that it is presented as a fact and not an opinion is another issue. it rubs me the wrong way, and reminds me of toothpaste commercials.

the second one is not only intellectually atrocious, it is contradicted by praxis. dnd not only means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, it also means different things for the same people.

it contends that "dnd" is a game about killing goblins for money at first, and eventually killing level 50th evil lich-kings for glory at last, which, as played, all around the world, it isn't.

is it what we want the game to be? maybe, but that is irrelevant.

is it what the game tells us to do? maybe, but that is irrelevant.

it is irrelevant because that is not how dnd is played and experienced.

it is literally IMPOSSIBLE to play not just dnd, but any roleplaying game "as intended", lest it has completely destroyed your capacity to imagine and tell stories independent of it. a dnd table doesn't have to "break" any rule in the PH or DMG to have a completely different experience than what any singular individual intended.

we play lower-case dnd. the uniquely transformative, live, decommodifiying act of playing a roleplaying game makes it ours, and not the property WOTC, i.e "Upper-Case DND".

the people insisting that Upper-Case DND should define what the act of playing dnd means and does are giving WOTC a power they don't have, and shouldn't have. the irony is that they do this in an attempt of robbing Upper-Case DND of that very same power.

the central reason to play this "lower-case dnd" is that it is a language familiar to most, and is thus more accessible. it also, importantly, lacks a core. it simulates, morphs and modulates based on the situation it faces. the very fact that there are so many different editions, hacks and homebrews also means that no single mechanic in any single book is "more" dnd than any else.

the fact that dnd also isn't "optimized" for any specific scenario means that you can take the fiction where it feels like it needs to go. if we find an aspect of the fiction that our Optimized Genre Narrrative Arc Random Screenplay Generator doesn't want to support, we cant go there.

with lower-case dnd, you can go there. maybe it won't represent every emotional high or low, or reward drama or tension, but it doesn't *need* to. that's why *you* are there. heroism means resisting your programming (in this case, 6 stats, hp and a d20).

and this makes dnd uniquely hackable, adaptable and modular. it means you can use dnd to play ANYTHING.

you can probably also use shadowrun to run anything, but i dont think people are ready for that idea just yet.

måndag 25 november 2019

A Conspiracy of Jesters

Privately, have been accussed of being too bleak - that's fine I guess, even though I see my stuff as an exercize in dark pulp comedy. The entire wholesome hopepunk movement strikes me as cynical corporate fanservice confused for pseudo-political empowerment, but to each their own.

I do however love a good Jest. A goof. A playful little trickster. A tricky little goofster. A jolly old knee-slapper. Did you hate reading that as much as I hated writing it? Well folks, I am but a slave to my impulses.

Here's a game about being a rebellious Jester, fighting the power with subversion and trickery. You are recently unemployed and since the monarchy is the only one interested in your distinguished and highly specialized talent, you are also unemployable. Your other Jester pals were also let go, and you've formed a Conspiracy. Go forth and cause chaos!

Important disclaimer - I purposely avoided seeing the Joker movie, or reading anything about it. Any and all similarities are a product of the All-Consuming Void and should be immediately sealed into a vault and dropped to the bottom of the sea.

It's a hack of what I remember In The Light Of A Ghost Star to be (don't have a pdf handy at the moment, take that, Rules As Written).

Start with 5hp, 10 inventory slots and 20 shillings.
Assign a d4, d6, d8 among the following stats:

Performer: When you make use of the physical space around you, use a prop, set-piece or weapon. Also used for prancing, dancing and skipping. (STAND-IN FOR DEX, STR AND CON)
Trickster: When you use your unmatched mastery over the social sphere to manipulate, disguise and subvert. Also used for jokes, riddles and limericks. (STAND-IN FOR WIS, INT, CHA)
Svejk*: When you project so much sheer naive dumbassery that you that the world can't help but conform to the you chaotic energy vortex. You pratfall out of danger, confuse opponents into inaction, frustrate authorities into submission (STAND-IN FOR CHA, PROBABLY, BUT LIKE REVERSE)

When you don't know if what you're doing is successful, or whenever failure is meaningful, roll the appropriate dice, and try to get a 4 or higher. As play goes on, your character might do one more specific thing consistently well. If all at the table agree that you do it well, write it down, then you can roll the dice twice and pick the one that's nice-uh, the one with the better result. Rumours say that this is what we call "rolling with advantage."


If, for some strange reason, someone were to attack you, whoever attacks you rolls their weapons damage, and you narrate how you're trying to avoid it. You can use whatever stat matches your action, roll it, and if you get 4+ you avoid damage. If you fail, subtract the result from the total damage.

Your main enemies are Guards and Militias. They have spears that do 1d6 Damage, bows and arrows that do 2d4 damage, or truncheons that do 1d4 damage.

To regain health, you must tell your friends jokes during downtime. One joke is 1hp. They don't have to be good, in fact, I recommend using https://short-funny.com/ or some equivalent trash site so that you don't expend undue mental energy.


The game is played in REALTIME and DOWNTIME.

REALTIME is when you narrate the specific details of an events that you and your jester friends perform together. You play in turns. Each player gets to move 20 meters and perform 2 actions that don't last more than 20 seconds combined. If appropriate, dice are rolled, resources are spent, money is spent, and the consequences are decided.

DOWNTIME is where you do stuff that takes longer, and is more abstract, such as travel, resting, planning a larger project, managing health and networking, or dealing with whatever fallout happened in realtime. Dice and resources are still spent here, but they are more of an abstract measure of how well things generally go rather than a concrete narration of what happened. If needed, go back into REALTIME if acting things out is more fun.


Advancement is gained when you have obtained enough FOOD to last you a month (4 weeks).  You start at level one. (If you don't get any food for 4 weeks you die.)

Roll 1d4 when you level to see how much your health goes up.

Also when leveling, choose one stat to increase the size of according to the following progression: d4-d6-d8-d10-d12


Here's some stuff you might have, if you want. Only scum will sell to you. Everything is for free if you can steal it. 

  • JESTER'S STAFF, 5 shillings, 2 slots, one-handed, deals -1d4 hp damage
  • BAG OF MARBLES, 3 shillings, 1 slot, causes pratfalling
  • MAGICIANS TOOLKIT, 4 shilling, does no actual magic, but contains 1d4+1 common stage magician props
  • DANCING MONKEY, 10 shilling, no slot, 2 hp, a friend indeed 
  • MUSIC BOX, 2 shilling, 1 slot, loud and annoying, plays for 1d6 turns
  • SLEDGE-HAMMER, 7 shillings, 3 slots, two-handed, deals 1d8 hp damage
  • ROTTEN FRUIT, free, 1 slot per fruit, missile (range 10 meters), deals -1d4 hp damage
  • PLAGUE MASK, 3 shillings, 2 slots, in poor taste, probably illegal
  • DECLARATION OF ROYAL IMMUNITY,  8 shillings, 1 slot, forged document that will get royal guards and militias to stop harassing you - roll Trickery with Advantage.
  • FALSE TEETH, 1 shilling, 1 slot, useful for replacing real teeth. Can also do -1hp for free if employed as a sneak attack
  • A REAL NEAT STICK, 1 shilling, 3 slots, about a meter long,  just really neat 
  • HANGMAN'S ROPE, 4 shillings, 4 slots, 20 meters long. Only incidentally used for hanging - its just rope 
  • BUNDLE OF DARTS, 2 shilling, 1 slot, missile (range 30 meters), deals 1d6 damage. You have 1d6+2 darts to start with 
  • TICKLIN FEATHER, 1 shilling, 1 slot, can cause fits of laughter
  • FOOD, 100 shillings, 5 slots. Enough to last a week. Strangely more expensive than all this other bullshit, but you need it to live.... Guess you'll have to do something about it, then!


You have to eat. You have to take revenge. You have to jest. So whatever shall you do?

  1. Kidnap the Scrub - When the Jester's Guild was striking, this two-faced faux-Jester was brought in to replace you, untrained and handsomely paid, to profit of your misery. Kidnap him and earn your wages back. 
  2. Paint the Wagon - the Wagons that supply the market with supple fruits and filling potatoes (2 weeks worth each) are in desperate need of a change in management - to you
  3. Pro Jestring Guerilla - in defiance of the treacherous Monarchy, you have decided that Jesting is for the people. Let the people experience your masterful craft - and hopefully pay you for it. Beware, as the militia HATES street performers!
  4. Comedic Con - impersonate the powerful, whom you know so well, and use your talents to re-enter your former domain- The Royal Court. If you succeed, all wealth- and revenge, will be yours.
But you should probably figure out what is to be done yourself.

Anything bad about the game you just read was a goof. And aren't you a sucker for falling for it!

*Svejk is the literary hero of Jaroslav Hašek. He is an enthusiastic soldier who manages to subvert authority by submitting so deeply to it, and taking it so literally, that authority becomes functionally useless. Play accordingly. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Good_Soldier_%C5%A0vejk

tisdag 19 november 2019

Addendum to "Table-Centric Design" - On Mattering

I am extremely pleased and humbled with how many people responded so charitably and kindly to the recent Table-Centric Design, were I outlined some recent ways I've been thinking about design. I did however, make a tactically beneficial mistake of referencing the recently dug-up corpse known as  "system matters." Tactically beneficial, because a lot of people responded to it, gave good feedback and better criticism, but a mistake since it might leave people with a distorted impression.

This could have made the impression like I don't believe system matters, which is not true. It could also make the impression that I believe the tangential opinion - that system doesn't matter as much as people think it does. I also don't believe this. I am not trying to be obtuse, I swear.

System does matter. If you've played games published by other people a lot, you just know it. The pain of a clunky rule that constantly needs to be looked up everytime it is triggered. Character advancement systems that lock us into a style of play. The unwieldy subsystem and the arbitrary micromanagement. The resolution mechanic that should've been there, but wasn't added.

We also know the positives of system. The rule that simplified and made clear what other games were trying to achieve. The clever solution to a common hang-up. The two-sentence principle that got your science-fiction game to be more Flash Gordon, less Star Trek.

There are systems that are better suited for playing a certain type of game, or catering to a certain play-style. There are poorly-designed games, and well-designed games.

These are undeniably things that make a difference at the Table.

What I am suggesting is that the Designer is the most easily dismissed person at the Table. They exist in a book that can be closed. They are always in subservience to whoever plays their game, and no amount of harsh words about cheating and intended experience can change that.

We can be upset about that, or we can design around that. This isn't a statement of "players don't care, do whatever", it is a statement of self-recognition - this is how I, as a table-top game designer, exist at the table. I will make that matter, instead getting bogged down with things that either won't matter or matter too much for me to get involved.

So, system does matter, as do the people who design them, but they are as determinant to how RPG's are played as the ancient Hebrew Texts are to contemporary mainstream Christianity. That is, not very determinant at all, but we do not decide for that reason, that the texts don't matter. Anyone who wants to make a new Bible, or game, might want to keep that in mind.

söndag 17 november 2019

Table-Centric Design

Recently, I've been questioning the primacy of "Design" within RPG products. There's a kind of determinism that is generally accepted among RPG folks that Design determines what Play looks like. Listening to some versions of what Game Design is, you'd get the sense that the job of a designer is to manipulate and mind-control the people who play it, and perhaps to teach lessons about some things. If they are correct, and game design truly is a form of Vault-Tec style behavioral control, we might have to ask ourselves if this is even desirable?

I don't doubt that design to a certain extent shapes the behavioral patterns and the choices role-players make, but I find that designers more often than not overrate their own presence at the table in a rather self-aggrandizing way. There is a famous, perhaps dubious sentiment surrounding Vampire The Masquerade - that the games mechanics seemed so contrary to the intended playstyle of the game that it is a wonder anyone played it at all. You'd wonder if that would make these creators question the primacy of game design, or find a separate explanation for why thousands of people still play that game to this day? Instead, they conclude that it is the players who are wrong, and are merely ignorant of the fun they could be having.

When the theory of something and its practice differ, then we first question theory. Our first job as "theorists" is to interpret, and the Design-Centric view has failed to account for how RPGs are actually played at actual tables.

The truth is that our preconceived notions about what a specific RPG is will do more to form the actual play of the game than the rules. The entirety of DND5E is designed around this fact - entire swathes of what defines a DND adventure is left out or assumed to be understood. That has been rather successful for 5E, since it could use it to accommodate those who only know DND from pop culture, or who learned what DND is from different editions. 

Other games work like this too, except perhaps not intentionally. The reason why people play and played Vampire the Masquerade in-spite of its allegedly broken system is that its premise inspired play, its aesthetic sparked creativity and its rules could be easily ignored, and even more easily forgotten if you so wished. This is of course sacrilege to certain designers, but it is not really a problem. If playing at the aesthetics and framing of a game is not the real playing of the game, then I am here to inform you that the vast majority of people who say they have played DND, VtM or even Apocalypse World are liars!

And that's obviously not a workable position. So what is?

Centering the Table 

What if we designed with the knowledge that the table is in control? I know it hurts to think about, but what if our jobs aren't to treat players as lab mice, and instead as the primary creative force in games as a medium? What if we designed games with the premise that diverse people all around the world are going to make it their own inspite of our design?

It is clear to me that we've merely replaced "The Dungeon Master Is God" with "The Designer Is God". I propose a theological paradigm shift - the "Table Is God". I want to create design with the assumption that it is incomplete without the people actually making use of the design. This doesn't mean system-neutrality, or that the text and presentation lack a genre or reference to external media. It means that whatever happens after I've given (sold, most likely) my design to you, is out of my hands.

Such a design would : 
  • Leave spaces, not fill them in 
  • Enable fiction, not dictate it
  • Enable homebrew rulings, avoid standard actions
  • Multi-task, not uni-task
  • Be the spice, not the protein
  • Be the border of the game, not its end-goal
  • Create tools, not rules
I'll probably dedicate full blog posts for these, but to clarify:

Leaving spaces

If your system or setting is a complete ecosystem that needs no intrusion from players and GMs alike, there is no need for anyone to play it. Leave space for the table to play in, don't overdefine or map it all out.

Enabling fiction

A role-playing game has the ability to inspire and spark creativity, imagine different outcomes and undermine existing cliches. A role-playing game should help this by providing fictional material - game text, character/NPC creation procedures, cool and dynamic equipments or ways of navigating space, and tools for creating scenarios and adventures. It should not be canonical or rely on specific narrative structures to work. 

Enable homebrew rulings

Most games have standard actions. Your lock-picking, your have-sex moves, your hack-into-computer-whilst-in-a-moving-vehicle. Get rid of em, and just have intuitive descriptors (DnD Attributes, Blades Action ratings, "Skill" in Troika) and a way to develop whatever expertise characters have during play. This isn't to suggest that the skill-lists common in Percentile-based systems and post-AD&D fantasy gaming are mechanically useless, but rather that we don't know what the characters might attempt and what worlds the GM (if they exist) creates yet. There might not exist a lock to pick, nor might the players want to if they could. It is perfectly allowed to use a mechanical shorthand if certain skills and targets become generalized and repetitive during play, or to represent certain advances the character has made, but don't start there. Empower the players to interpret the world through a set of simple mechanisms, instead of providing that interpretation beforehand. This prevents us from presenting the world as a set of mechanical tasks and instead as a real, dynamic place.


Table-Centric Designs have no core-loop or universal mechanic. They are not what Alton Brown would call a "uni-tasker" - they should provide tools, rules and language that can be approached from several angles. Consider the ole DnD "6 attributes between 1-20 and derived modifiers from -3 to +3" - you can use those as follows:

  1. Roll 1d20 and add the modifier to beat a target number 
  2. Roll  1d20 at or below the target attribute (alternatively, roll above)
  3. Roll a number of d6 at or below the target attribute (alternatively, above)
  4. Use the modifier to add or subtract another roll - e.g adding the Charisma modifier on a reaction table 
These different ways of mechanically engaging with the same information also enables the table to make their own decisions about how to create fiction. A Table-Centric design doesn't tell you exactly when and how to use them, but provides them as suggestions, and a way to navigate the space. 

Be the Spice 

With such a hands-off approach to gaming, it can become rather boring for the designer. After all, if the role of design is minimized, then what is the fun in it? Well, even in minimalist design, the text and the presentation is incredibly important for the table. Remember what we said about aesthetics and framing being a determining factor to play? Do that. That's the spice. 

Be the Border 

The end-goal of a Table-Centric RPG isn't to randomly generate a piece of fiction, nor is it to engage with a core mechanic. You haven't failed to play the game if you never triggered any dice-rolls, you've just played in the spaces between. Now, rolling the dice (or whatever) is fun, and more often than not you will do that, but the mechanic is there to simulate uncertainty, represent complexity or impose difficulty, and none of those are necessarily a given part of every game-session. This is not a failure to play the game - players and GMs are aware of the rules, but because of the Tables decisions, they have chosen to stay within its borders. These borders define play just as much when they are not crossed as when they are. 

Creating Tools

As a Table-Centric Designer, you do not know what your players will do with your work, and you are discouraged from telling them what to do. This shouldn't meant that you under-define what can be done. Create a diverse set of tools or templates that help the table make sense of and resolve things. Make random-table style prompts and imply world-building. An NPC reaction table is not a rule, it doesn't need to be used if other things make more sense, and nothing breaks if you don't use it - but it can add something if it is applied. These are tools for generating fictional materials, not laws of physics or statements of legality, and they help the table rather than constrain it.

Possible Shortcomings

First, lets imagine a possible, surface level objection to this:

Isn't this just a restatement of the same old OSR-philosophy? Do we really need another word?

Not really, since I think it has applications beyond it. I think a "story"-game like Fiasco falls under these definitions. I've talked to several people who've successfully played the game Fiasco, while having no idea what the rules actually intended. There are passages in the original edition that are quite muddled. And I shared that assessment - we all, however, played Fiasco, based on our assumptions of what a game of Fiasco would be. It gave us fictional material and a way of framing play (being the border!) that we were able to navigate in a fairly simple way. Sure, it is sold as a game that emulates a specific narrative - the Coenesque dark comedy, but the stories of the Coens are in themselves multilayered and ambiguous. The meta-narrative of Fiasco isn't singular and intrusive, but multifaceted and dependent on who plays it. There are a thousand ways to make things go to hell.

It doesn't really matter if your game tools imply High Romance or Grognardy Meat Grinders, what matters is how the game presents itself to its players, and how much it forces players to align to a singular meta-narrative structure, or how much it ties actions to an unavoidable monolithic "core loop".

So, on to some actual problems, as we are in the business of honesty.

Lack of Depth

The strength of rules-heavy, core-loopy games that center around advancement, character builds and tactical actions is that they are rewarding in the same way most computer and board games are. The designers can put more time into a specific, long-term play experience and predict some sort of outcome. You invest into a strategy and you are able to see it pan out. This is part of why those games are so popular. When it comes to the Table-Centric vision, where rules are assumed to emerge out of the basic framework of play, some players might find this aspect lacking. When the table are already the "Masters" of their play, the act of "mastering" something external to them becomes less exciting. If you want the feeling of being the person who knows what all the Spells in DnD does, this is not for you.

Lack of Incentive

Authority and responsibility is a daunting thing. When there's nothing to tell you exactly what to do and how to make people do it, there is a risk that they won't do anything at all. But we shouldn't let the lack of an intended playstyle and meta-narrative be confused with a laziness regarding presentation and set-up. You should still tell players about the Magic Spire of Immortality hidden in the Volcano Of Sorrow, but what the players do with that information is up to them. You have to be more of a Poet than a Warrior, is what I guess I am saying.

Lack of Objectivity

For some players, the existence of a canonical rule-book external to the GM or other players is a necessity. There is sometimes a legitimate worry that loose structures and vague frameworks can be abused and unbalanced. Having a tome of rules can be a huge comfort. While this is sometimes a more personal or inter-personal issue, I think it is at least useful to consider adding tools for the social aspects of play, the generation of a social contract and the establishment of who has the authority to do what and when. 



I had started writing this before the entire twitter discourse around just this topic broke out. A lot of things have been said that summarize my position, and a lot of valid criticism of the position has come up as well. 

The most common objection is that the intrusion of Design is necessary to keep players from merely replaying the same story, and challenging them to imagine something different. There is a simple distrust of player intuition on display here, or perhaps, a distrust of ones own intuition. I could add that anecdotally, some of these attempts to "force players out of a narrative" have made the entire experience stale and frustrating, playing me more than I played it. But I see the concern.  

Let me provide a solution: add a rule that the GM, or whoever has narrative control at the moment, has to test every 30 minutes of play. Roll any even-sided die. On uneven numbers, a Monkey God emerges from a dimensional portal, begging to have his belly scratched. Upon belly-scratch, banana-peels begin randomly appearing on surface of the earth, making any number of people trip on it like a skit in an old silent film. You try telling inherited, rehashed, cliched narratives with that possibility constantly looming over your tables fictional world.

If only I was joking. 

To the objection that people do feel like changing system has changed their play-style and outcome, more power to you. I don't deny that different design-choices can have different outcomes, or I wouldn't have written an entirely list about how to approach design. 

What I am advocating for is a broader understanding of why tables don't behave in ways that designers intend them to, why that's probably fine, and a generous, comradely attitude toward the people we are designing for.

If I'm successful, I will create or inspire systems that can be engaged with in many different ways, by many different people, for many different reasons. 

And above all else: Role-playing game design, as discussed on the internet, has no semblance of actual academic work or epistemological attempts at reaching a truth. Let us be clear that we are all making assertions, based heavily on personal experience, biased toward the things we already like, and the people we surround ourselves with. Be excellent to each-other.  

fredag 15 november 2019

The Generic Science Fantasy Character Personality and Presentation Generator (GeSciFaChaPerPreGen)

Take the following statement as true:

"Level 1 Characters should not have a backstory. The game is their backstory."

If this is true, what do we then do to generate interest and investment in the character? I recently made this personality generator for a campaign of ASE that you can use to flesh out exactly how to roleplay them and instruct GMs in how the world might react to them. 

Roll 1d6 per table, and intepret as you wish. 


  1. Cocky
  2. Unpleasant
  3. Charming
  4. Hyper
  5. Cowardly
  6. Morose


  1. ... slide the whole meal right down my throat
  2. ... take tiny little bird bites
  3. ... separate all the different food stuffs into different piles
  4. ... I mix it all together into a single sludge
  5. ... I chew loudly with an open mouth
  6. ... I hide my mouth with my hand


  1. Forward-tilting
  2. Crooked
  3. Straight-shouldered
  4. Stiff-necked
  5. Hunched
  6. Backward-tilting


  1. Ugh!
  2. Waaaait a minute....
  3. Feck off!!
  4. Toodeloo!
  5. Me first!
  6. Well now the gronk is truly flonked....


  1. Beautiful clothing...
  2. A good fight...
  3. An enticing mystery...
  4. Shiny things...
  5. Cute animals...
  6. Strange artefacts...


  1. Darkness...
  2. Large monsters...
  3. Machinery or robots...
  4. Failure...
  5. Heights...
  6. Cramped spaces...