elephants and rooms

Okay it’s time to talk about D&D.

Yesterday I wrote about what I want. In that essay I took a stab at a few mechanizable points by identifying who or what is best positioned in a (fairly trad) game to provide the sauce. The purpose of this, obviously perhaps, is to both start thinking about mechanism (here are starting points) and start thinking about alternatives (here are things we could subvert). I use this method a lot, where I identify norms in order to find things to question and subvert. I am certain that it’s pretty annoying in a lot of circumstances but I find it fruitful for myself.

So in terms of market share, if you round off at, say, three significant figures, there’s really only one role-playing game. D&D. Its dominance in the market is so thorough that it needs to be examined. However, most attempts to understand this take the obvious approach of wondering why this is the case. I think this has yielded little actionable result and is also pretty old hat — you’ve seen it before. You might have done it before.

So instead of wondering why D&D is so huge, let’s ignore that. It’s not actually interesting any more (partially because it’s old ground but partially because it’s not something you can reproduce even if you figure it out). Instead let’s look at the fact of it. D&D is huge. That’s just true. So given that fact, what opportunities does it present? What is true about it that you can subvert to make your own work at least distinctive, given that you can’t reliably produce a genuine competitor without becoming equally dull (a thesis I’ll explore another time but let’s just pretend you agree with that)? You can’t compete, so what else can you be?

The obvious thing to subvert, the thing you can change that D&D can’t, a simple axis of rotation that D&D is fixed on, is the genre. The Euro-fantasy melting pot that has become self-defining. Wizards and dragons, good and evil, fabricating motivation that is best solved by beating things dead and taking their possessions. Yes I know you can do different things with the game (of course you can — the act of play is so very close to the act of game design hinging mostly on what you choose to write down after a session) but there are selling points to the game that are fixed by the text and those are magic, moral disambiguation, and combat scenes. Those are knobs you can twirl that D&D can’t. Again, you can in your D&D game; please don’t come at me with “D&D can do everything” — that’s really just an assertion of your own free will and that’s a different discussion (hint: I largely disagree that we have any).

Knobs so far:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery

The social design of D&D is also very rigid: it cannot easily deviate from a strict ref/player boundary where the ref holds many secrets (sometimes even keeping the rules secret which is super weird the more you think about it). The “players” (that is, not the ref) are largely homogenous socially though the usual leader/support/asleep sub-categories inevitably arise. But the ref is saddled with the job of establishing the atmosphere, establishing (somehow; this is never clear but it’s usually just based on hope and not mechanism) character motivations, and preparing all of the supporting material to allow play. Maps, stat blocks, and so on. This is of course marketing genius since the ref’s job is so onerous that you can sell them support tools like adventure books. Lots and lots of them!

You can subvert these too. So far then:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery
  • ref/player role distinction
  • 1:many ref:player ratio
  • motivation in ref’s creative space
  • mood in ref’s creative space
  • play material (maps &c.) in ref’s creative space

Lots of great games subvert many or even all of these. That last in particular tends to generate a lot of pats on the back when it’s upended well because it’s really a frustrating thing to get stuck with: collaborative world building is one way to do it. Creating the map as part of the main phase of play is another. This knob is particularly fun to fiddle with. If D&D is missing a major gimmick that could vastly improve it, I think this is it.

Mechanically D&D has some basics that often go unquestioned. “Stats” that define innate ability. Some mechanism of defining trained ability (D&D is weirdly incoherent here having and connecting “skills” and “levels”). A measure of how dead you’re not (so death is on the table as a failure result: we can tinker with that too). Some moderately rich simulation tools to resolve combat (how fast you are, how hard you are to hit, how easy it is for you to hit others, a list of super powers). It also insists on a fairly finely granular simulation of money (counting actual coins) and it treats equipment as part of the way you improve your character (especially their ability to murder efficiently). An awful lot of games adopt these unquestioningly and I think they merit much more serious attention. Plenty of games do without or radically change some or all to great effect.

And of course we have the progression system which is maybe the most often unexamined component when people start to design new games. The idea of progression is very infrequently examined and toyed with. Progression is a very weird one for me because it very unsatisfying: when you peek through the curtain you notice that the environment is constantly scaling with your progression meaning the numbers all get higher but little fundamentally changes. The only disparity that stays constant is that your character constantly becomes more powerful with respect to commoners. I find that disparity as a goal somewhere between weird and deeply disturbing. That is, the biggest reward to levelling up is becoming even more powerful than the vast majority of the people in the world.

So let’s summarize again. Now we have:

  • magical setting
  • moral disambiguation
  • elaborate combat mechanism
  • adventure as armed robbery
  • ref/player role distinction
  • 1:many ref:player ratio
  • motivation in ref’s creative space
  • mood in ref’s creative space
  • play material (maps &c.) in ref’s creative space
  • separation of innate and trained capability
  • hit points
  • combat simulation tools (armor, speed, &c.)
  • lists of super powers
  • lists of equipment
  • shopping as a scene
  • literal money simulation system (you count your money and buy things with it)
  • equipment as progression
  • power progression
  • antagonists keep pace with power progression
  • common folk do not keep pace with power progression

These are all ways you can deviate (sometimes dramatically) from D&D. There are many more, but I’ve tried to find categories where I can rather than deep dive on details (I also think that encourages people to think that they have turned a knob from 4 to 11 by renaming “hit points” — we need categories to understand the possible scope of change). I will emphasize again that I think you should because competing meaningfully with D&D is a bullshit goal. I don’t think you can achieve it by aiming at it. The next big thing, if there ever is one, will be a big thing because of two things: a boatload of accidents no one controls and a significant deviation from the status quo. Focus on the thing you control. You might even accidentally create some art along the way.

what do i want?

So I was trying today to distill what I want from a role-playing game in the hopes that by digging down to really basic principles I could get a better understanding for what the rules need to do to suit my needs. This is a little thought-on-the-fly and a little planned, so bear with me as I both derive and discover this.


One of the things I most want to experience while playing (and deliver if I’m running a game) is awe. I want there to be something that makes you gasp even if it’s just in your head. Now this seems to be something that is in principle in the hands of the ref or the setting material. Let’s note that:

  • delivered by the ref
  • delivered by the setting material

But what is it that delivers awe? My gut instinct is that it has to do with outrageous magnitude. The impossibly huge inspires awe. Niven’s Ringworld inspires awe, for example. In this novel Niven posits a place where at the orbital radius of a world like earth is not a planet but rather a ring surrounds the sun at that distance. It contains millions of worlds of space. It’s terrifyingly huge and the size of it is apparent from inside it, where the world forms an arch over your head. Even Iain Banks’ comparatively small orbitals, space stations that contain only a few planets worth of surface area, are big enough to make you draw a breath. Things that are too big to contain in your head give you inexpensive awe.

Age gives you awe. Things that are immensely old, like the sleeping hegemonic swarm in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep or even Pham Nuwen himself in Vinge’s A Deepness In The Sky (and fractionally in ‘Deep too) inspire awe. The fact that Pham is a “normal” human who has spent a lot of time at relativistic speeds means he’s physically not all that old but he’s seen tens or even hundreds of thousands of years pass on the worlds he’s visited.

I have in my notes that improbability gives you awe but now I don’t think that’s right. Or maybe it’s another layer deeper — the really huge is partially awe-creating because it’s improbable. Same with the really old. It doesn’t have to actually be improbable, it just have to seem like it. So since I can’t think of any independent examples of this let’s throw it away. Maybe you have some insight.

Power also gives you awe but power is a tricky one, especially in games. First it’s kind of cheap and leads to escalating power struggles that swiftly become ridiculous. I used to use this a lot but it’s a dangerous game. D&D nicely codifies it with levels, handing out the toys in a regulated manner and escalating the opposition in order to create awe. But your power is mostly what’s awesome since everything else is scaling to your needs — it’s weirdly awesome to you the player, though for your character it might be commonplace. I guess my real issue with power as an awe-source is the way the whole story has to cope with it by trivializing things that are too far below the power scale — which frequently leaves things behind that I don’t want to lose. What I mean is, if you’re a 20th level wizard fighting giant astral demon fetuses (a real monster in D&D 3e, the last revision I really played out) then the every day conflicts of city life become eroded in importance. Zero level barkeeps pretty much to whatever you tell them to do. Power as a knob to turn is transformative: it changes the whole game. It’s useful for awe but it’s a spice you want to be very careful with. It changes the whole dish.


I want things to be difficult in my game. One of the songs that used to really inspire me to craft situations in games when I was a kid was Yes’ song South Side of the Sky from Fragile. Look at these lyrics:

Move forward was my friend's only cry
In deeper to somewhere we could lie
And rest for the the day with cold in the way
Were we ever colder on that day
A million miles away
It seemed from all eternity

Winter winds, desperately moving forwards hoping for safety, enduring the impossible. This is something that games generally do really badly. I would love to find a game that made you feel this kind of desperation without simply ticking off hit points. I want a narrative solution that I feel in my guts. This is a bit of a grail for me; I don’t have a solution. I think I caught a piece of it with the RESCUE method in The King Machine just because it makes the scenario happen where people need to be saved, and makes it immediate and risky. I think that’s a space I want to explore more. I think RESCUE is a flash of genius even if I say so myself and I regret removing it from the current Diaspora work.

It’s funny that this one has been so boiled away in gaming, abstracting it to, say, how many hit points you have left. Or whether you make a saving throw. It’s essential if not the whole point of most fiction. It’s usually replaced with endless fights. That doesn’t interest me as a solution though I get why it is: it’s an easy replacement. But it’s far too specific for my taste. Almost nothing in real life is a fist fight. And only slightly more is even credibly analogous to one. A fight is a very small and unusual case of the superset of hardship.

Hardship has to be delivered by the ref and by the mechanism I think.

  • delivered by the ref
  • delivered by mechanism


We need a purpose. As the actor famously demands, “What’s my motivation?!” As a player I am not content to be handed missions; this is too mechanical now and I always imagine a giant yellow exclamation point over and NPC’s head. It can be a mission, but not in a sprawling sandbox game. A game that’s about missions, that uses the mission as an episodic structure to tell tales, well I am onboard for that. That’s Hollowpoint. And it’s an elegant but somewhat specific solution.

But where else can purpose come from? The mechanism can supply it as we’ve seen. The ref can supply it via NPCs. But real motivation, real purpose, is not actually in the ref’s hands. It’s in the players’ because they need to buy in. I think the first time I realized this was when I first read a copy of Burning Wheel. In this game character creation demands that each character have a few BELIEFS — statements about the things that will motivate the character to act (and mechanically will pay the player for doing so). If you have a belief like “Arthur is the true and righteous king of the land” then you are motivated to act on anything that threatens that. It sells itself.

The problem with doing it from any other angle is that the player needs to buy in, and that’s why it generally only works when it’s the core premise (you are secret agents on a mission and here’s your mission) or when everyone’s happy with a more contrived quest-giving landscape of NPCs. It’s got to come from the player, supported by mechanism (a way to declare your motivations) and an observant ref (pressing the buttons the player laid out clearly on the character sheet).

  • delivered by the player
  • supported by the mechanism
  • supported by the ref


This is something I only recently realized how badly I want in a game. I want to feel for everyone. I want to care what happens in the world around me and not just to my character or my compatriots. Again, swinging back to The King Machine, this is why the SPILLOVER risk is important: it pushes the ref to threaten the well-being of innocents when player characters act, and therefore make a conscious decision about how much they care. It creates an active, mechanical opportunity to find compassion in play.

I think compassion is really important because it can be absent in games without anyone deliberately removing it. Back to our poor barkeep being pushed around by the 20th level wizard, we generally don’t care that she has a family to feed. These things are either beneath us or so far outside the scope of our motivations that we don’t address them since we have bigger fish (giant demon babies) to fry. But I want to care when I play. I want all of the people to have a potential story — not necessarily to tell it, but to be impacted in a way I am forced to feel.

I think compassion is very much a shared burden. The ref has to deliver it. The mechanism should support it in same way, giving it focus, making it an issue. And the players have to buy in — they have to care what happens to the barkeep.

  • delivered by the ref
  • supported by mechanism
  • supported by the player

testing the new editor

Caption test. I am captioning now.

Hmm, well here we go. I only ever type and then add an image, so let’s see if that does what I want.

Hmm. Seems okay. More steps to do what I want and more noise in front of me as I type, but okay.

It does ignore my style’s captioning option so that sucks.

As usual, an upgrade that seems to be aimed at fulfilling the need to apparently improve by changing things and adding options that are not especially valuable, while removing functionality in the original. Unimpressive, WordPress. But that’s the software development pattern: appear to be improving. Change as often as possible in order to sell assistance.

structure then content

When I design a game one of the things I want to pin down early is structure. A lot of people start with a story to tell and then attempt to realize it. I’m not that person. There might be a kernel of an idea or a theme (like, say, the theme of lost legitimacy in The King Machine) but the detail doesn’t come next. Structure does. The reason for this is that detail eventually demands structure but doesn’t easily imply it. Structure, however, demands and directs detail.

So let’s look at an example here. I started this morning thinking “what happens with occupations?” So you family are all fisherfolk (this is a common fantasy theme for me and I have no idea why — I don’t fish or row boats or make nets) but what does this tell us about you? How would this affect your character? And I don’t want to talk mechanism yet because I don’t know what’s happening with this at all. It could fit into something else, it could be its own game, it could be destined for the bin. Dunno yet.

So as with most things I start with a list. A few minutes and I have:

  • Fisherfolk
  • Merchants
  • Bandits
  • Warriors
  • Leaders
  • Famers
  • Herders
  • Wizards
  • Assassins
  • Entertainers
  • Harvesters
  • Beekeepers
  • Mystics
  • Sailors
  • Shippers
  • Dockworkers
  • Clerks
  • Sages
  • Bakers
  • Engineers

Not exhaustive, not even representative, but enough data to start thinking about structure. And bullets are good because they imply more bullets and indentation: we are already going to have a hierarchical structure and relationships. You could mind map this if you think that way. Same thing, different visuals.

So let’s grab fisherfolk. Since I’ve already decided on a hierarchical structure the question is how to subdivide fisherfolk? There are a million possibilities and each choice will take us in a different (maybe very different direction). I choose to break it down by types of water to fish in. Subdivide and detail:

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.

The little blurb of detail invites me to further subdivide but now I’m thinking about re-usability and regularity. While these subdivisions are dependent on the top level item (Fisherfolk) I think I want the next level to be the same for every occupation. I vaguely have fantasy in my head so I decide that each of these should be divided into a Supernatural power and an Expertise (natural but exceptional) power. This way a character can decide a path that’s magical or mundane but still awesome. I’m already wondering how to turn this into a life path system, maybe randomized, maybe point buy, maybe something else. Patterns from other games are intruding.

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
      • Supernatural: you can make nets that can catch other, more specialized things. Not necessarily fish.
      • Expertise: you can hold your breath for ridiculous amounts of time and dive very deep indeed.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
      • Supernatural: you can calm bad weather and control the direction of the wind.
      • Expertise: you have the equipment and skills to lure and catch and kill even the largest things in the ocean.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.
      • Supernatural: there is always a river path to wherever you want to go as long as you start at a river or lake. Or whenever.
      • Expertise: you can befriend any animal come to drink at the shores of lake or river.

I’m just riffing here but a world is emerging. Time travelling river folk. Spirit trappers. Geomancy.

This is the way I work: I invent tools through structure to order data which in turn inspires new data which in turn starts to define an imagined space. It’s not the only way I work and it’s not the best way to work but it does get words on the page.

Now there’s nothing new here — this is just outlining or mind-mapping or whatever the mot du jour is for hierarchical data presentation. But there’s a reason it works. Well, reasons. It organizes and constrains, which creates regularity. And it invites detail. For example, I never planned to have supernatural blacksmiths, but now when I get there I will be inventing them because I made a data structure decision that all of these things have a supernatural and and expertise element. Similarly I never thought about the mundane aspects of wizards, but now I need to.

As for the specifics, a lot of this comes back to world building we did many years ago (and played insufficiently in) with a lizard species that managed to defy their bloodlust (their uncontrollable animal nature to kill and eat mammals and sometimes each other) by taking up fishing. Their bloodlust was satisfied by fish and though they were sickly (fish being insufficient) and unhappy (fish tasting bad) they were able to coordinate with humans and each other long enough to stay literate and build a civilization that could be communicated and reproduced. And have a history. These fishing lizards and their sacrifice to their own future are always in my head.