Monday, August 14, 2017

This Is The Gen Con DIY D&D Post

At the merch store
Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Booth 2904. Hall F.
Ennie Awards at Union Station 8pm Friday August 18: This is mandatory. You have to go.  Like when they elect a new First Ranger on The Wall. We will sit in the front row. The OSR will be out in force, no publisher that counts is up for more awards than Lamentations Of The Flame Princess. Kiel's Blood in the Chocolate is up for awards as is Scrap Princess and False Patrick's Veins of the Earth. Patrick will be there. Patrick is a poet. If you don't go he will cry. Do you want to make a poet cry? No. This is the moment we take the crown--forever--and never give it back. It will be televised. You will want to tell your grandchildren you were there. Games will not ever be the same. Tickets are free but you need to get one.
bottom right--across Capital St from the Con Center


I will be selling a biggggg stack of Original Zak Game Art when I'm at the LotFP booth in the afternoons--first come first served yo. 

Other important things:

Generally: Do what you want in the morning.

In the afternoons, the cool place to hang out is the LotFP booth. I'll show up between noon and 2 until the Con closes at 6pm.

If you want something signed I'm there, but you will need Gen Con Brownie Points.

Gen Con Brownie Point Rewards:

Brownie points will be easy to get, the list of things that get you Brownie Points is here (you need to be in my RPG circles to see it)*.

1 Brownie point = I will sign one thing

3 Brownie points = I will be in a picture with you

10 Browne points = I promise to look at your game thing and read it all the way through

Most Brownie points each day Wed-Sat by 5:30 pm = Win an original Zak drawing from an extant or original game product. Once you have won on one day, the next day's prize will go to another Brownie Point Grabber.

Most Brownie points total by Saturday night = the highest grabber total (including people who've already won a daily prize) on Saturday 5:30pm will be given an original Zak painting from an extant or upcoming game product.

To get in touch, email zakzsmith AT hawtmayle dawt calm

On wednesday, Brownie Point Grabbers must email me (see below) at 5:30pm to collect their prize, on other days simply show up at the LotFP booth at 5:30pm.

My schedule, subject to change when people are like Hey Zak There's A Thing and I may head over to play with the Goodman Games crew at some point:

Schedule: I'm around morning, Wednesday the 16th--Evening Monday the 21st.

*If you are not in my RPG circles on Google+, email me at zakzsmith AT hawtmayle with a link to your google + page and ask to be added.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Relevant Retropost Saturday Night

I write about Nazis a lot for a guy with a D&D blog but tonight's Relevant Retropost was because I was reading an article about the Alt Right and it reminded me: the Alt Right are nerd trashbabies and all nerd trashbabies are, regardless of overt political philosophy, nerd trashbabies--and have a lot in common.

So when I read this...

The people you describe in the book, especially the younger, more online-oriented people, seem to be struggling with a contradiction: They want to be relevant in a culture they claim to hate. Or maybe they just read too much Nietzsche.

Yeah, definitely with those guys, I think they are both participants in and very disgusted by what they consider a degenerate culture. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that a political ideology that is so disgusted by modern libertinism and gender-bending sexuality and porn and everything would find a home in 4chan of all places, because these are people who spent years watching the most horrific and dehumanizing porn you can find on the web, and they all suddenly went right-wing reactionary.

What does that suggest to you about the psychology of the alt-right?

I think it says that their sense of the world gone to hell was actually influenced by their own immersion in the forms of culture that they eventually saw as degenerate and ruined. But if they spent more time in the mainstream culture and in society in general, perhaps they wouldn’t have this sense that everything is degenerate and Western civilization is in ruins.

...I remembered this (Original post with comments here )

Radical Game Critique Isn't

That fucking lone orc guarding that fucking chest in that fucking ten foot room.

Ever since I first started playing I knew exactly one thing about the much-maligned lone orc in the ten-foot room.

That is: if he's there it's because I put him there.

As I've said before, when it said right in the Dungeon Master's Guide that you could buy adventures or make up your own, it never occurred to me why anyone anywhere ever would buy one. I'm pretty much in the same boat still. Even the best modules in the world get rewritten snout-to-tail as soon as I get them.


When I first started reading RPG blogs and forums, I was struck by two things:

1. God DAMN these people are mad about games

2. God DAMN these people have bought a lot of game crap

It was a constant stream of B1 this and X1 that and WG4 Ripped My Flesh and 3.5 Makes Your Pee Green and 4E Makes You Turn Into A Beeswax Toucher and I just thought Who has time to read all these things? For me the hobby was about: You grab a game off the shelf, you rewrite half the rules (they were written by distant corporate overlords and so suck) and then you start making stuff up.

The level of investment people had in these rudimentary accessories baffled me--and baffled me even more when I got my hands on them--This is Caves of Chaos? A bunch of dudes in corridors? White Plume Mountain has a flying canoe? It was like visiting The Big City your friends have been talking about all your life and finding three matchbox cars and a cardboard box with windows draw on it.

And the weirdest thing was: the more pointed, aggressive and would-be-radical the Internet dork's critique of D&D and its supposed impact on society was, the more accessories they'd paid for. Ron Edwards' critique of D&D as a cargo cult is clearly informed by having swallowed year after year of TSR product and there are angry 4vengers with pixel icons on Something Awful who could drown you in their Old School game collection.

And their message was: These modules taught us! And they taught us wrong!!!!!

This isn't actually a real article. Thank god.

And I just thought: what rich kid buys modules? You draw a maze and put cute stuff in it, you make up some voices and attach people to them--how hard is that? I know 5 year olds who can do that. They were critiquing a consumption-based culture they'd created and I'd never seen or cared about--and that none of the people I played with saw or cared about, like basing their ideas about the game off the quality of a buttskin dicebag they'd bought. Sure there was some inane Vietnam vet behind the register at the game store--but he's as ignorable as the pamphlet-sized pap he was selling. And conventions? Come on. You buy your dice and run--that DIY is the soul of the game.

The fact is, the modern wannabe progressive critique is a middlebrow apologia for having bought the thing in the first place.

It is an uncritical adoption of certain tropes of criticism as penitence for having uncritically adopted the previous tropes offered by the game product.

It is exchanging one failure of skepticism for another.

It happens like this:

You're on the Forge or Story-Games where there's supposed to be a hip and radical dedication to independent game making and publishing,

...or you're on RPGnet where there's supposed to be a hip and radical dedication to remaking games as a safe space for marginalized people,

...or you're on Something Awful where there's supposed to be a hip and radical dedication to joking everything terrible about modern culture to death...

...and you're hanging out and looking for something to talk about with hundreds of internet strangers. So what do you have in common? Well, not much--you live thousands of miles from each other--but there's probably some game product you've all read. So you start talking about it.

And then you remember why you're here--you can't just say you like Shadowrun or even "Meh, Shadowrun, too much like real life"--you are supposed to make a show of being hip and radical (or as much as you can sitting alone at your computer in your nerdforum). So you embed all your ideas about the world into a critique of Shadowrun. Or a Shadowrun module. Or the Shadowrun module after that.

Of course what this critique obscures is: you once thought you needed to buy a lot of Shadowrun modules. I mean, if there's some consumer out there whose mind has been damaged by too much near-future fantasy technoir it's the kind of consumer so used to buying RPG crap they think it's the reason for everything they've ever seen happen at an RPG table.

The radical Hot Take is the tax you pay for having bought and read and maybe even used the module in the first place--a tax which hides an important fact: the more radical thing to have done would be to do the thing every RPG has urged you to do since the mimeographed OD&D first appeared and write your own adventure. Most of these critiques read like screeds on the evils of nightlife by people in AA.

The postcolonial critique of Caves of Chaos is less radical than just not using Caves of Chaos in the first place 'cause its kinda fucking basic.

Perhaps this is the reason for the vociferousness of the accusations laid at the door of RPG products and RPG norms--the people making them are gnawingly aware that the only reason they even have enough familiarity with these norms to make those critiques is their own embrace of them and total failure to innovate or think for themselves.

The Drama Club dedication to picking apart each new piece of nerd media, from Batgirl to Orphan Black, as soon as it hits the ground belies an even greater truth: you'd have to worry a lot less about these things and the supposed messages they send if you weren't so intent on watching them all right away.

The Angry Consumerist Critic is not a radical and the only behavior they're critiquing is that of their own former self. And rather than this having taught them to think for themselves, it has cause them to exchange one bill of goods for another.

Independent thought is so not part of their daily lives, that they actually think games for adults should reflect their values. As if adults should be forgiven for being unskeptical enough that they're learning values from a game.
I grew up with a blanket punk rock/marxist critique: all mainstream media is sick shit trying to sell you something, handle it with kid gloves if at all. It's all racist and sexist and classist--it's made by moneypeople to make more money. The obsession with divvying every game and TV show into ones Doing It Right and Doing It Wrong has a fundamental philosophical flaw: that the milk from the corporate nipple is ever "right". Nothing Disney does with its princesses or Marvel does with its Thors is going to show up without blood on its hands.

When I critiqued mainstream modules on this blog, the attitude was always:

1. Find out if there are dysfunctional or weird parts of this that aren't part and parcel of what you'd expect from any suck-by-committee corporate design process.
2. There might might be some genuine human gold under the weight of that totally presumed and pointless low-hanging fruit. Occasionally there is.

Indie stuff is worth your scrutiny inasmuch it claims to represent an actual human or group thereof chasing something other than the most money possible. That's a situation where you might expect to see someone Doing It Right. No matter how much your favorite mainstream superhero comic is doing right, the entire background of its production is fundamentally wrong.

If you bought a product by a company that doesn't even care enough about you to put the name of the monster on the map in the place where the monster lives, being shocked that you found a bit of unexamined paleothought in it is like being shocked your McNugget wasn't free-range. Demanding the majors think better is a noble goal, but claiming to have just now discovered the lazy thinking in them shows that you were expecting otherwise.  And expecting otherwise means you are and have always been exactly that most-gullible-kind-of-person who lets that message slip into their unconscious.

It's like a war reporter who lands in Afghanistan and goes "Holy fuck, one of those guys has a gun!". Critique yourself first.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Who You Want In Your House: A Guide To Player Skill And Ability Scores

Whatever else your players are, they're people in your house.

Who is welcome in my house? While I don't turn away the sickly, the weak, or the clumsy, I don't want anyone over unless they're charming, intelligent, wise, or all three. I don't think I'm remotely alone in this: people like people they find likeable, and, really, who does suffer fools gladly?

Not only that, but in any conversation, I would hope everyone present was trying to be the most charming, intelligent, wise person they could be--whereas if they're holding a refrigerator up or have their legs behind their head that's purely bonus points.

So: if, in D&D, I devised a test that relied not on the character's Constitution, Strength or Dexterity but on the player's Constitution, Strength or Dexterity (catch the ball--kill the goblin,  etc) I'd be privileging athletic players over others. That, as my aunt used to say, is a job for games played outdoors or in the dark.

However, if, in a game, I devise a test that relies on the players' Charisma, Intelligence or Wisdom, I am judging them on precisely the qualities that got them into my house in the first place. And which, basically, all social life is a competition about anyway. The less-clever player may well do worse, but they will (if the test is fair) blame themselves and become thirsty to be better--which is the best kind of competitiveness. I know that's how I felt when I was dumb enough to stand right in front of that door that got opened in the Dark Tower. Then we fucking killed that lich.


Dex, Str, and Con are off the table for Player Skill in D&D at my house. What can we do with the rest if we're determined to test as much player skill as possible?


A player, by talking alone, can describe:

  • What a PC says
  • How they say it (depending on acting skill)
  • What logic they use
  • What they offer in exchange
  • etc.

So, being way into Player-Skill-Based-Challenges I'm going to always at the very least give a bonus (or minus) to a roll based on this stuff and possibly even award an autosuccess if the offer is such the NPC could not possibly refuse or an autofail if they say something the NPC is primed to see as an insult.

A player cannot accurately and totally describe:

  • Whether that appeal does or does not match the PC's appearance (some comedians can get away with some jokes because of their appearance that aren't funny coming out of older, younger, fatter, skinnier people etc) since the appearance only "appears" to fictional characters.
  • Whatever a "Charisma save" is supposed to represent in 5e--strength of personality?
  • Whether the NPC are in a mood to listen or have hidden factors that make them less or more inclined to suspicion

So the Charisma stat needs to exist to represent the PC's appearance and how their manner matches it, and the die represents the randomness of these last 3 factors (at the least) but can be modified by the other factors that the player can describe.


Wisdom is well-known to be goofy, encompassing willpower, perception, judgment, how much god likes you, etc.

A player can be reasonably tested on:

  • Noticing things the GM slipped into their description (verbal or in a picture)
  • Noticing their significance
  • Where a PC looks for stuff
  • Resisting temptations that would give the player something they'd like to see in the game (gold, a magic weapon, a plot twist the PC loves)
  • Deciding whether to follow the more shrewd course of action
  • etc.
(In the "perception" area these kinds of layer-skill challenges require a lot of prep from the GM.)

A player could not (without excessive use of special effects) use their owns skill to model:

  • Noticing hidden things that are, nonetheless, technically in plain sight (like if there's an arrow from a culture that doesn't belong lying on the orc vs elf battlefield)
  • Hearing things--or noticing any sensory information the GM cannot bury- or has not taken the time to bury-, in a verbal description
  • Resisting temptations the character feels but not the player (too easy: "I don't fuck the succubus")
  • Resisting magical powers that chip away at the will
  • Successfully sensing things despite some physical difficulty (smoke, distracting sounds, etc)
  • Sensing anomalies in how something moves--or otherwise in how they present physically in a way the GM cannot verbally describe without giving away the game.
  • etc


A player's intelligence could be tested about:

  • Applying real-world physics, chemistry, tactics, etc to analogous situations (like: use missile weapons against the dangerous, slow, melee-only opponent, etc)
  • Remembering lore the GM gave them earlier
  • Drawing inferences and deductions from facts discovered
  • Solving puzzles whose parameters are fully described by the GM
  • Etc

Again (without extensive use of props) player could not use their own skill, and would need to rely on their PC to model:

  • Knowing stuff about the setting an inhabitant would but that hasn't come up in the game
  • Casting spells via remembering and casting magical formulae 
  • Successfully completing tests of knowledge and reasoning that take a lot of in-game time (crafting a magic item, for instance)
  • Research
  • Interacting technically with objects that don't exist in real life (tinkering with golems, for instance) or which, again, would take a long time to verbally walk through ("put the third cog on the right strut" etc)
  • Deciding how quickly the PC picks up a new skill (a language, for instance) the player does not have
  • etc

So...yeah, there's that. PCs, viewed this way, are hybrid beings: they physical stats are theirs alone, but their mental ones are half theirs and half their makers.

I haven't really talked about how players can or can't model other things that define characters on paper: experience, class, skills, maybe we'll get to that later.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

StoryGame Design is (Often) The Opposite of OSR Design

(This could also be titled
"Modern" Design is the Opposite of Challenge-based Design
Narrative Design is the Opposite of DIY RPG Design
etc etc)

This post is not about what kinds of games are good or bad.

This post is not about one kind of game vs another.

This post is not about dividing all games into one of two types (there are lots of kinds of RPGs).

This post is about confusing and bad game design advice given by some gamers.

If you read about RPGs online, you notice two things: First, gamers frequently go "Hey those StoryGames designers and the DIY RPG/OSR/Old School Renaissance/Trad RPG scene should learn so much from each other but, tragically, they do not" and second, you notice these two groups of independent game designers and players have a rough time communicating about even the simplest ideas.

There are many good reasons for this, but right now I'm going to zoom in on one:

What people online (but not most people in actual academic game design) call "modern" game design--that is, "Focused Design" derived largely from cliques who met on websites like The Forge,, RPGnet etc. is largely centered on dedication to a design principle that points in the complete opposite direction from a design principle near and dear to the heart of the kinds of games we like here at D&D With Porn Stars.

A Note On Terms

There is no non-confusing name for anything in this fallen world--as all "John"s who are neither bathrooms nor patrons of prostitutes will tell you. For those not up on all this inside-gamer baseball--

I'm going to use "Narrative games" to mean tabletop RPGs that Indie/Storygamey/Narrativist/Hippiegamer people themselves call Narrativist Games (Dread, Apocalypse World, The Clay That Woke, etc),  even though all RPGs produce narratives. Why do I call Apocalypse World a Narrativist game? The designer does.

It's also worth noting many games (like Dungeon World) are undeniably hybrids of Challenge-based and Narrative-based design and many players are invested in both goals or go back and forth or have other goals entirely. Goals in conflict are no new thing in game design (or anything design--lots of folks need a lightweight chair that can hold a heavy person).

(Some parts of this post will be extra big and/or red because this post has been Reddited and a lot of readers there aren't the best at reading comp.)

I'm going to use "Challenge" to denote the kinds of challenges where a player has to solve a problem in-world the way their character would--especially the way the OSR does it, described below. It's important to note that all RPGs have challenges--anyone playing a Narrative game has lots of creative challenges to solve, like a screenwriter or sometimes an actor does. There are also system-mastery-based challenges (knowing the rules and how to use them better than the enemy) like Magic: The Gathering and some of the crunchier Story Games, but these aren't really what I'm talking about here.

I'm going to use "OSR" to mean games produced by people in a certain blogging and game-writing clique called "Old School Renaissance" even though imitating some way that games were played in the past is often the very last thing on their minds and they're more concerned with using discarded chassis to make new things (like in the actual art historical Renaissance). This is a post about how some people who are alive now think of games, if you want historical research on D&D, go see Jon Peterson. I would use "DIY RPG" instead of "OSR" but this term, like "Indie" is even more confusing in this context where everyone involved is both independent and doing it themselves.

If you're confused about the term "Focused Design"--the Forge-derived term for a certain kind of modern RPG ideas--see my response to Stereotypical Strider near the top of the comments below.

Early RPG theory had many terms I won't use much here--dramatism, simulationism, gamism--for two reasons: first, because they aren't relevant to the split I'm describing and second, because they are basically just misnomers people made up for games they didn't understand. That's a whole other post, and one even more about RPG inside baseball.

Most gamers are motivated by lots of things, this isn't to say someone can't be into both Challenge and Narrative--but the point of this post is merely to say a rule well-designed to go in one direction often is 180 degrees away from a rule designed to go in the other, and people don't realize how many rules that encompasses.


All of the the most popular examples of Narrative design and their derivatives (Fate, pbta, Burning Wheel, Gumshoe, etc) have the following primary goal: to create rule structures that help groups create stories that follow the structure and themes of genre entertainment (usually genre movies and tv shows based on a 3-act drama design or parts of them that are based on 3-act dramas) without relying on pre-written plots.

The last phrase is important: these games generally are deeply invested in the tropes and unwritten rules of the genres they inhabit and most of the rules are about creating incentive structures that make people reproduce these genre tics without any external pre-written plot demanding it.

(Other RPGs put people in genres but don't rely on rules to make the story follow the themes and arcs characteristic of those genres, or at least not in the same way. In the typical 3-act dramas Narrativist games emulate, fate is tied to the protagonist's basic personality and flaws in ways it is not in more picaresque and serial fiction. The games themselves don't necessarily have 3 acts, but the dramatic imperatives work in the way 3 act drama does--Hamlet's adventures relates tightly to Hamlet's essential problem as defined early on unlike, say, a serial hero like Captain Kirk who is designed to address a wide variety of problems. Anyway, if this confuses you: read this.)

As Vincent Baker put it when talking about his wild west game Dogs In The Vineyard, most western RPGs produced shoot-outs (tactically complex things where multiple bullets ping off pianos and spin chandeliers) and he wanted to make a game that was about gunfights (two men with 2 hours of built-up tension squaring off on a dusty street). To this end, he created a game about moral judgments and slowly raising stakes until violence seems like it might be the only option.

These games can incorporate a wide variety of other design goals but this organic emulation of genre is the most important one in developing these Narrative RPG rulesets.

(Note that there are Narrative games that create different incentive structures to, for example, teach you about the evils of colonialism or make fun of people the designer doesn't like. Narrativism as a concept doesn't demand the emulation of specific genres--but the most popular Narrative games do it, and the mainstream games that have learned from them have usually learned about genre emulation from them more than learning anything else.)

OSR design has the following primary goal: to give the players interesting in-world problems that they need to use their brains to solve, where solving them has interesting consequences (a prime example being Get The Gold Out Of The Dungeon Without Dying) which themselves create new problems (and fwiw these consequences and solutions, being sequential events, inevitably produce a story--heist movies, for instance, lean heavily on this fact). Like Narrative games, the idea is also to avoid a pre-written plot and, like Narrative games, these games can incorporate a wide variety of other design goals, but this thing of problems and solutions is the most important one in developing OSR-specific rulesets.

(The fact both of these trends in independent games, Narrativist and OSR,  are all about avoiding pre-written plots is not a coincidence. Pre-written plots are easy to write, easy to sell, and easy to insert your themes into, and so are the bread-and-butter of mainstream gaming, so that base is covered.)

The OSR game assumes (correctly in every OSR game I've ever seen) character, meaning, funny voices, themes etc will largely take care of themselves, but challenges need to be carefully structured. A monster is, in these game design terms, a carefully-designed challenge, or element thereof.

OSR challenges also have a lot of specific qualities, the most important of which is that (unlike Magic: the Gathering challenges) they are not usually meant to be solvable merely by mastery of a specific game system--a knight who can get past a pit of alligators in Labyrinth Lord should, in theory, be able to apply a similar solution in Runequest or Warhammer even though these use different rules.

Goblin Arnold has more on specifically what "OSR Challenges" are here if you need it.

Basically an ideal outcome in a purely Narrative game is either the hero kills the dragon or fails to for really interesting reasons, an ideal outcome in a Challenge-oriented game is the hero is exactly as likely to kill the dragon as the player is good at playing. Either way that should be an interesting story.


There's a (slowly) budding field called RPG Theory and it has been dominated by Narrativists--mostly because they got on the internet and found each other first.

One consequence of this is these folks said many clever things that get repeated, like Paul Czege who said "If the same person who invented a problem also invents the solution, that's boring" but they also said a lot of things about RPGs that seem really clever if the only kind of game you're interested in are Narrative games but which totally fall apart when applied to other kinds of games. The Forge and its proselytizers for Focused Design are like pastors whose Rules For A Happy Marriage are perfectly sound if your primary goal is to prevent cheating but who are just now in 2017 finding out about open relationships.

These ideas have passed into internet and boardroom RPG culture (yes I've seen, first-hand, corporate mainstream RPG company lackeys uncritically use Forgie theory terms in their internal documents) without much examination.

The main way this expresses itself is Narrativist or just sort of casually theory-aware mainstream gamers who are into Focused Design lingo getting ahold of an OSR game or an old game or even just a mainstream game with some old school elements, assuming things could only possibly have been designed this way by accident or inertia, and proceeding to try to "educate" the fans of that game by "Forgesplaining"--telling them to read theory posts they've read long ago and play games they've already played and got bored by- and going on about how ever since the dawn of time cavemen have gathered around fires and told stories. It's embarrassing to such Forgesplainers that are capable of being embarrassed, tedious for everyone involved, and impedes the progress of the human race to the degree that progress expresses itself through having fun playing pen-and-paper role-playing games, so it's probably good to round up all the major points here so it happens less. Share it widely.

Not all of these ideas are held by all Narrative designers, gamers, or theorists, but they are things that get repeated because they make more sense in a Narrative context than in many others. We're going to look at them now:

"The game's about what the rules are about--the more rules a given subject takes up, the more the game is going to be about that, the less space a subject takes up in the rules, the less it'll be about that" 

Now, anyone in academic game design can rattle off 100 ways this is wrong: poker has no rules for bluffing, a video game where sound is essential to the gameplay often has no more rules for sound than ones where it's just decorative, many LARPs are about mostly talking and diplomacy even though they have almost no rules for these things but have (for good reasons) very specific rules mostly for things that only come up once in a while (like flying or turning into a bat), imagery and illustration often provide cues that rules don't, the line between "rules" and "setting" is very thin in some places, language is unevenly compressible (like if I say "you're underwater" I've essentially listed dozens of new rules restricting you by using one word) etc. 

But let's give it the benefit of the doubt look at it just in the tabletop context:

The first time I came across this it was from Narrativist big-daddy Ron Edwards and was phrased in some way I'm finding impossible to Google without finding some very scary websites but was basically something like "You can say your game is about the struggle to maintain humanity in the face of loss but if 60% of your rules are about how to make a hole in someone and fuck the wound that's what your game's about".

This made sense to me at the time--and I'm sure it continues to make sense to people who primarily play games where the rules are procedural guidelines explicitly designed to push you into behaviors characteristic of certain genres.

But then I did something Ron didn't: I looked at actual games as we played them. The vast majority of Call of Cthulhu is details of 1920's stuff and stats for gods, spells, and monsters that never appear in most game sessions. The thematic lynchpin of the game--the insanity rules--takes up half a page.

There's a reason for this and it's not that CoC is poorly-designed. While in a Narrativist game the rules are primarily there to push you into a certain kind of story, in a Challenge-based game the rules are primarily there to establish the most important hard parameters within which problems will be solved. "A barrel works like this, a fireball works like that, flaming oil is this hard to acquire and is this flammable, you will become more powerful if you do this much problem-solving, you will die if you fail to solve the following problems this many times: now here's a dragon, figure it out."

The rules of a Narrative game are a guide suggesting how you get to fun--the rules of a Challenge-based game are a riddle and solving that riddle is itself fun.

In chess (a challenge-based game), the rules say your rook always moves in straight lines. In D&D, the rules say magic missile always hits. Neither game's rules give you any idea how best to use a rook or a magic missile to make a satisfying story not because nobody wants them, but because that's not the reason rules are being provided. In D&D that would be the province of "tips"--often included in the core books.

As Natalie long ago explained here, D&D has lots of rules for combat not because players are expected to do combat exclusively or necessarily even mostly--but to establish clear consequences (and in old versions, a terrible and exciting consequence) for only thinking about situations in way the rules suggest

Narrative games often have very little library content--if the group can agree a spell or superpower is in-genre, why not use it?--there's not always a reason to give the players lists of things that might be in the setting. Challenge-based games often need lots of library content--tons of lists of spells, items, powers--not because the players can't think up "Magic Mirror" on their own, but because the rules are there to provide the limits of the Magic Mirror (and the Lightning Bolt and the Invisibility Ring and the Pig Mask) as a problem-solving tool in a way that everyone present can share and agree on and so move on with what they think is fun by building challenges and solutions with these blocks. 

In a Narrative game, if you're thinking outside the rules, then you are ignoring the sherpa who you hired, in Challenge-based games, if you're thinking outside the rules then you are outwitting the trickster who thinks you only know the common solutions.

"Games Teach Appropriate Normative Behavior So Their Content Should Be Considered To Have Great Moral Meaning"

Well, again, if you're playing a Narrativist and the game is a sherpa telling you how best to be like a County Sheriff or a Knight  in stories where these are sympathetic protagonists then it is pretty easy to see how many Narr gamers see a games' genre conventions as a guide to some version of real-life morality, or at least the expression of the author's sincere beliefs about what constitutes The Good.

If, on the other hand, you're Challenge-based and start with the assumption that the game rules are a minigolf-esque set of limitations you are constantly trying to get around to avoid death then it's pretty easy to see how doing What Crom Wants is considered pretty optional by most OSR gamers and not a thing anyone smart would treat as a wokeness guide.

"If you want personality, emotions, romance, you need rules for that"

If the rules are (Narrativist) there to help you get in genre, then why wouldn't these genre staples be in there?

If, the rules are (Challenge-based) simply lists of which things a normal human can do to solve problems that you can't (like buy a gun in D&D) or that a normal human can't that you can (like cast a spell) then why would there be any rules about feelings? From a challenge pov that makes no more sense than a rule about what your name can be--once you say "and the rest is like a normal person" then you've said all the things you need to enable emotions.

If emotions can be used to solve a problem (seduction for instance) then players are clever for thinking of using them, and if they're not then there is no need to make a rule about it unless players want it and aren't getting it--and even then you would default to giving GM advice about it, so as not to restrict the options players have unnecessarily.

"Violating genre expectations is bad"

Well, it definitely is if the whole reason you bought the game was to be your sherpa to help you get to a story in a given genre.

On the other hand, if the point is outside-the-box problem solving, your clever solutions (ie the ones you want to incentivize) are often going to be outside the genre. In fact, the cleverest solutions are often the ones that most violate expectations. Creative problem solving is largely about thinking past expectations, whereas keeping in genre is thinking of ways to take the random plasm of human interaction and shove it back inside expectations.

In a pure Narrativist game, a monk inventing gunpowder to kill the dragon is bad. In a challenge-based game, it's genius. At least until you've heard the story of the D&D guy who invented gunpowder in-game, in which case it's just a hack move where you're copying someone else.

"RPG Rules Should Guarantee A Predictable Experience!"
"I Want To Play The Game, Not The GM!"

Again, this is one few academic game designers would go near with a ten foot pole (lots of games are expected to change based on the personnel)--but then they didn't experience what Focused Design fans did...

Many Narrativists developed their games because they hated, on one hand the swinginess and GM-dependent quality of old games but also the restrictedness of pre-written modules. A cowboy game, with the wrong GM, might end up being about dynamite instead of guns--and that sucks if you wanna stay on-genre, but on the other hand, a GM telling you the dynamite store keeps being closed smacks of railroading.

In reality, they (the kinds of  Narrativists who had this specific experience I describe in the paragraph above) had terrible GMs or were terrible players.

(Proof? Luke Crane, designer of Burning Wheel:

"All of the games talk about fun and fairness, enjoyment and entertainment, but then they break that cycle by granting one member of the group power over all of the other members of the group. It's classic power dynamics. Once you have roles of power and powerless, even the most reasonable and compassionate people slide into abuse."

Luke Crane just said all GMs are abusive.)

Being, very often, nonconfrontational souls who were afraid of telling other players to leave--they blamed the game designs rather than the people and made new games where it was hard to not have the intrigue game be about intrigue or the shooting game be about shooting. The game mimicked the genre even if Timmy was trying to be a jerk and buy dynamite. As Vincent Baker used to say before he decided he was wrong "Play is good to the degree it is thematic".


"I have no clue why my friends stuck with my through the bad years. We had plenty of screaming matches, quittings and walkouts. I imagine that they'd give the reasons that you proposed and that they'd also say that in between the bouts of bad, there was a whole lot of good. Which there was.

A main goal in the rules design was to smooth over those rough patches so we got more good stuff in a shorter time. It worked."

Luke Crane just said his games descended into screaming matches and he designed his game around fixing that.)

Meanwhile people who didn't have this problem and played with people they liked embraced the unpredictability, variety, personalizability and complexity of games that changed with their players. None of it got in the way of Challenge,'s not really a problem.

(The irony is most Focused Games are so niche the only people who want to play them are people who are into the same game-goals, so even though they are designed to be personnel-independent, in practice you can only play them with fairly homogenous groups because everyone else will be like "Dude can I just talk to the troll without saying which die pool I want to draw from?". In the end these folks end up doing what they always could have done: play with people who all like the same things. If you can't handle Timmy and his dynamite fetish, just don't invite him.)

"The Game Should Teach You The Best Ways To Play Them"

Again, another Forgie saw that was long ago demolished by academic game design (Hacky Sack, The Floor Is Lava, Soccer, and 20 Questions do nothing to teach you how to play except punish your failure to follow the rules or to use the best tactics or reward your use of the best tactics)--still, it makes sense in Narrativist design.

In Narrativist design, there is no reason to withold the information that "This is how you make a story about space ships". In Challenge-based design there is every reason to withhold the solution to how you get off this fucking planet. The whole point is players enjoy the puzzle of figuring it out themselves.

"It's Escapism! Make Players Feel Powerful And Competent"

Basketball has no rule to make you feel powerful and competent. This is because the game is meant to be exactly a test of how competent you are--at least at the tasks basketball is made up of. It's not escapism, it's just a fun activity you may or may not suck at. (Here's Ninja from Die Antwoord talking about playing basketball and sucking at it and wishing he had practiced more.)

In Narrative design you're trying to create rules that imitate specific types of genre fiction and in those genres the protagonists are generally hypercompetent. In Challenge-based design, the gravity of the game is toward making the characters about as competent at their in-game tasks as you are at playing them out of game. ie: They test player-skill on purpose. Chess is not a test of whether you're good at being a bishop, but it is a test of whether you're good at chess.

A Challenge-based design is testing how thoroughly a player can imagine, and imagine-with, another person in another world. If they suck, it is because they wanted to take on a challenge and they knew sucking was an option.

If you suck at a Narrative game on the other hand, you need a new game that brings your creativity and collaborative drive more to the fore. You sucking at making up a story doesn't make it more fun or exciting for anyone.

The classic Narrativist-advice-passed-off-as-general-RPG-advice in this sphere is the game Trail of Cthulhu using the Gumshoe system.

"The players aren't Sherlock Holmes," the logic goes "if they miss the clues, you've stopped emulating the genre and also stopped the game, so we wrote a game where you never miss clues, you only have the problem of deciding what to do with them." Well that makes sense if you've decided to mix the Challenge of your sleuth game with some genre-supporting Narrativism.

In a Challenge-based game you'd go "You're not Sherlock Holmes? Well fucking work harder until you are." That's the fun part. And if they fail, don't force them to succeed--make failing interesting.

On the other hand, there's...

"Failing Forward is Always Good And There Are More Interesting Consequences Than Death"

In a Narrative game where the point is to keep the story going as an art-object to be admired in itself then, yes, there are lots of examples of death being a lazy way to punish someone.

In Challenge-based games, you need stakes. And death is a very interesting stake precisely because it is a very boring outcome.

Super Mario tries to dodge the turtle--if he doesn't, he dies and you have to play the level over. So when the turtle appears, it's exciting and there's stakes.

Anything less than death either does one of two things:

a) It's so fucked up it makes the character into somebody you don't want to play (like they're transformed into a limbless pelican that smells like bread mold and is despised by polite society)--in which case it might as well be death because you're going to start over with a new PC and it is, effectively in game terms, death. 


b) It isn't--and the story is going to continue.

If the story's going to continue, you've effectively lost nothing: you were going to face unknown-but-designed-to-be-exciting plot twists and trouble before the consequence and you're going to face them after the consequence.

If you're a Narrative gamer, there's a big difference, you were presumably invested in a certain kind of story and it isn't going the way you wanted--so nondeath can have a real consequence. If you're motivated solely by the next challenge and that there's a story at all--well, you're still going to get more stories of some kind (if it's D&D: lose a finger you're still playing D&D) and more challenges, too. So: no biggie. No stakes.

For Challenge-motivated player the only consistently real stake is not getting to play the game with that character you've slowly decided you like. The rest is just more game played with that game piece--and that's what you signed up for.

(For the player in the middle, stakes in the middle really suck: many people who are invested in both Challenge and My Specific Narrative hate level-drain mechanics. They don't quite kill you but they make your PC just unlikeable enough that you still play them but kind of grudgingly. I'm not one of them, but these people exist.)

"The Rules Should Help You Get Story Moments"

This one goes like this:

"D&D doesn't do story"

"(Someone tells a great D&D story)"

"But that could've happened in any game, the rules didn't help!"

Yes--and from a Challenge point of view that's why it's a good story--because the rules didn't help, your dad didn't help, the milkman didn't help, nobody helped. Ray was given a challenge and solved it with quick thinking and no help, that's why it was an adventure, not a performance.

Narrativist games push characters to do interesting things by incentivizing them toward conflicts that force them to make interesting decisions.

Challenge-based games push players to think up interesting things for their characters to do by threatening them with complex challenges that will kill them if they don't solve them.

Both can produce interesting stories, but they do it in different ways.

"Focused Games Are Good Games"

This sounds so plausible--if you want intrigue, buy the intrigue game!

Well, again, it makes sense if you want, as a primary design goal, your game to help you invent a story according to a familiar narrative scheme.

But, also again, for a Challenge-based player, too tight a focus is just sweeping problem-solving options off the table. If the cowboy has to use a gun or a knife and can never kill the bad guy by, say, tricking him into getting hit by a train, then you've just narrowed the canvas on which to be creative.

Allowing this wide canvas for RPGs' tactical infinity means, yeah, even though most Lovecraft stories don't feature hand grenades, the only way to practically limit a Challenge-oriented Call of Cthulhu investigator to spookiness-approved weapons is to hand them a list of weapons that do appear in his stories and make them memorize it-which not only isn't most peoples' idea of fun, it forces reliance on pre-packaged solutions. Hand grenades are in Lovecraft's setting (1920's America) so they are likely to be playing pieces in a Challenge-based version of a Lovecraft game even if they don't match his themes.

Original tactics are a key thing in Challenge-based play--and so objects, processes, and ideas peripheral to the game's alleged focus are essential to enabling that.

While Luke Crane asserts D&D is about going into dungeons and is best for that and ceases to be D&D when you leave the dungeon (for real, he says that), a Challenge-based player knows that if the best plan is to lock the fast-breeding gas spores in the dungeon and kill the other monsters as they leave, that is the plan.

"Rules That Detail Random Aspects Of The World Are About 'Simulationism'--They're For People Whose Goal is To Immerse Themselves In The World" 

If you're a Narrativist, you may not get why I wrote down exactly how many liters of olive oil are on the goblin flagship--you may think it's because I want the goblin boat to feel real.

Not so much--many novels and stories feel as real as fiction can without such details--these kinds of rules are there because I know my players will try to weaponize them, or bribe warlords with them, or sell them for treasure maps--or otherwise take advantage of anything in their environment to build solutions to problems. A lot of rules that simulate are not there just for the joy of simulating, they are there because they give you more bubble gum and baling wire to Macgyver with.

"Unattached Murderhobo Players Are Bad"

"Murderhoboes" are parodies of typical D&D characters--marauders without backstory, roots, morals or homes who do nothing but kill and take stuff.

Well if the point is to replicate the structures of genre fiction, at the very least being a murderous hobo means a lot of other options are off the table.

However: if you expect stories to arise out of problems and solutions to them, constantly trying to kill people while penniless is an intriguingly complex and evolving problem. If someone spent 2 years homeless and killing people they'd have one hell of an autobiography.

The mere wrecca is only one of the million characters that you can play, so only having them is a limitation on the Narrative palette, but in Challenge driven play their utter lack of social structures and inhibitions to insulate them from problems the GM might invent is a positive asset. A killer on the run generates plot like no-one else.

"Hodge Podge Systems Are Bad, Everything Should Work On The Same Mechanic"

1. The complexity of a game system often depends in part on how often you interact with that system.

2. How often you interact with that system depends not just on the nature of the task, but on the genre of the game.

(For example: if you get ambushed by gunmen in a John Woo movie, you might end up fighting for half hour and live and then get in three more fights later, if you get ambushed in The Godfather you are going to die in the next minute, period, and it will probably be the only time you fight. If you get ambushed in a Lovecraft story you will probably not only die immediately but it's the only violence in the whole story.)

3. Therefore different genres may need subsystems of differing complexity.

4. Challenge-based games need to enable tactical infinity and since they resemble serial picaresque fiction rather than 3-act drama, they often stretch the boundaries of genre more than Narrative games in order to enable tactical infinity and keep changing during a long campaign.

5. Therefore different levels of detail for different levels of complexity can be desirable for these games. Sometimes the martial arts system needs to be more complicated than the car chase system and sometimes vice versa.