Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Narrative Mechanics, Step On Up, Challenge-Based Play...and other stuff...

This is long. Bear with me. I think I eventually get to a point.

So…I’m currently designing a game centered on something I call Twists. These are the game’s term for a list of statements each player has access to that inject meta-narrative facts/outcomes into the story. They require a limited resource in order to use them. I created one Twist that would be given to all the “classes” (the rest of the Twists are unique to their class.)


The intent behind this Twist was to allow the characters the limited ability to create lore about the game world. Clever PCs could use it to suddenly remember, “Oh yeah! Dragons are known to be vulnerable to voidsteel! It’s one of the only things that can pierce their scales! I learned that from a book I read at Wizard College,” in a situation where they had earlier found a sword made of voidsteel. This was the intent. A cool tool (of limited usage) for players to world-build and perhaps give themselves an advantage in certain situations. The second clause about explaining how you learned it is to introduce more color into the world and serve as a soft restriction on what kinds of facts the player is allowed to introduce.

As I thought about it more, though, I realized this could be interpreted as some kind of uber-Twist. There is nothing in the descriptive text that forbids the following:

“I just so happen to have a healing potion on me. I learned that when I packed it back in town.”

“I’m not actually hurt. I learned that when the dagger bounced off my chainmail.”

“That ogre is dead. I learned that when I watched the spear I just threw pierce his cranium!”

My problem with the first example is only that it ends up subsuming a Twist I had just for the Rogue playbook that said you have “just the right object” with you. This isn’t a major problem, it just means I have to re-examine the Rogue Twist and its relation to this Twist…It’s not my main worry. I might even like that the TWIST everyone gets allows for this sort of thing…

Now, one could argue that the last two could be interpreted as “conflicting with the established fiction,” depending on how the GM presented the set up. If the DM said, “the dagger slams into, embedding itself into your chest and knocking you to the ground. Take damage,” then the player’s statement about the dagger bouncing off would be conflicting with the fiction established by the DM’s statement.

But this opens up space for a lot of debates during play. Imagine if the DM just says, “The dagger slams into you,” and pauses for a moment to think of a cool description. The player might be able to interpret this as a chance to speak and inject his twist into that space. This leads to the game rewarding constantly trying to interrupt other people’s descriptions, which I certainly don’t want. I could write a formal procedure to control when someone has the right to interject facts during the conversation and all, but one of my goals in my design is to simple and easy to pick up and this makes things way too complicated and strays too far from the normal rules of casual conversation. I don’t want that.

Same thing with the ogre example, but worse. In that case, I can see a hundred situations where the GM finishes his description and hands it over to the player-

“An ogre bursts into the room, carrying a spiked club the size of a hitching post. It growls and comes running at you. What do you?”

Which gives the player full permission to mark their Twist and declare the Ogre dead. Nobody has established that they didn’t throw a spear.

So I came up with this as an alternative:

YOU PROCLAIM A TRUE FACT ABOUT THE WORLD THAT YOU LEARNED BEFORE PLAY STARTED THAT DOESN’T CONFLICT WITH THE ESTABLISHED FICTION. TELL US HOW YOU LEARNED THAT.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
This stops people from being able to create facts about current situation (life and death of characters, the existence of physical objects in the room they’ve never entered before, etc.) while still giving characters limited power over the lore of the game world.

Now obviously, “Before Play Started” is a little nebulous, but in the rulebook I can expand on exactly what that means, and maybe even give the group the power to decide if that means “before tonight’s session started” or “before we began this campaign.” Or I can reword it so it’s clearer (once I decide exactly what I want “before play” to mean).

This is not my issue.       

I have to ask myself – Why do I have a problem with the first iteration of the twist?

I’m trying to design an improvisational narrative game where the goal is to tell a story together. Every single rule in the game is written with the goal of allowing characters to add and change the flow of the narrative. The rules are there to:

A.      Provide equity of narrative authority between players.

B.      Provide constraints over the players’ choices in order to inspire creativity. (I believe the best improvisation is produced by creating parameters to work within.)

The first iteration doesn’t really conflict with either of these two goals. It’s a power that requires a resource to use (a constraint) and since all the players have access to it, all the PCs have equal narrative authority.

So why not use the first iteration of the Twist?

Am I just so conditioned by years of traditional RPGs that I’m subconsciously inclined to judge rules by whether they’re “over-powered” and I’m just falling victim to old-school metrics that shouldn’t apply to my game?


Am I just concerned that the first iteration of the Twist basically subsumes every single other Twist in my game, and my original idea of “everyone gets a different list of cool stuff they can do” becomes obsolete, making it more coherent and efficient to give everyone only that one same twist that they can use over and over again? Is my problem one-part stubbornness to keep my original design and another part desire for character niche-protection/mechanical diversity? Should I amend my original goals to make niche-protection and mechanical diversity part of my design goals?


Or am I, at heart, not actually trying to create a Narrative game? Is my reaction to the first iteration as, “No, you can’t do that! It makes everything too easy!” a sign of the fact that I’m actually designing for challenge-based play?

Have I been falsely labeling the game’s goal as “To Spin a Yarn Together,” when in fact, the actual goal I’m working towards is, “See if you can get your character to “win” (see: create a positive outcome for themselves or complete a in-story goal) while working in the restraints of the narrative powers given to them?

Is what I’m working towards no different than a game where you are using character-design expertise, or tactical ability, or in-fiction problem solving (puzzles and such) in order to overcome a challenge? Except in this case the challenge is “Can you use the meta-narrative Director-stance tools given to you to affect the narrative in a way that leads to a desired outcome for your character?”

Is that just a description of all traditional challenge-based play? Or is there a difference?

I’m certainly seem to be using “Traditional Techniques” for what I was thinking of as a “Hippy” game.

Information separation – maybe not this one? Mostly because it’s a No-Myth game and so there is no information that exists outside of the shared fiction. Or maybe everyone has access to information about the GameState others don’t because each player has the ability to introduce setting elements and automatic resolution to situations. So either there’s no information separation or everyone holds information about the setting that others don’t have.

Resolution mechanics – Yup. Definitely there. Dice-based general risk resolution and the Twist mechanic in itself is a resolution mechanic.

Each player character is only being run by one player each – Yes.

Identifying stance – Yes? Sometimes?

GM plays world - Yes, but this can be superseded by players marking Twists that gives players limited ability to have control over the world outside their character’s actions.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
But the goal is not to “experience” the world, nor is it to “solve a mystery” or use the facts about the fictional environment to allow one’s character to succeed. It instead relies on the PCs using their personal cleverness and mastery of the rules to achieve a goal (whatever ends up becoming the goal of the characters within the narrative).

So the point is to both “win” and create a dramatically satisfying narrative about how the characters “win”. The general post-Forge consensus is that it’s not possible. Even if one disregards GNS theory and goes with something more modern, like RISS, is this Impronitfol or Skillfrotz?

Is the idea behind this design incoherent? Can you be both trying to tell a story (and using narrative tools to do so?) and seek to “win” for your character?

Is it revolutionary? (probably not)

Is the idea that a game based on creating dramatically-satisfying story requires the players to sometimes consciously decide to make suboptimal choices for their character a hard truth? Can you instead hard-bake techniques into the rules in order to produce guaranteed dramatic conflict, beyond the carrot-technique found in Fudge and others (i.e. do something that’s bad for your character and I’ll give you a point!)

Does it have any bearing on the thread about Narrativism vs. Trad Techniques debate currently raging at Storygames? Are traditional techniques able to produce a challenge-based game that still assumes a No-Myth stance on the GameState and relies on Director Stance-based mechanics?

Is this post trying too hard to answer too many questions at once? Is it even coherent, or have I had too much coffee?                

Sunday, May 19, 2019


One of the things I’ve realized after playtesting Tales of the Obsidian Idol is that I’m not happy with the BE AGGRESSIVE move, and the way that combat flowed in general. Even doing my best to keep combat dynamic and shifting from my end, I still ended up with many exchanges of PCs just trying to hit the monster with their weapon.

 Asking “what exactly are you trying to accomplish with this attack?” was always answered with “I’m trying to kill it.” On misses and partials I would have my monsters/enemies pushing the characters around, fleeing to higher ground, etc. but it still ended up reverting to the traditional RPG “hit it until it’s dead” situation at some point.

Going forward these are my goals when creating the combat system for my game:


Avoid grind - players should not be just hacking away at an enemy’s hits. The question “what do you do?” shouldn’t be able to be answered with “I guess I stab it again.”

Completely get rid of the DM having to keep track of the damage an enemy has taken. Especially with multiple foes, I don’t want that paper work. I found even just using my HITS mechanic where every enemy and PC just takes the same non-variable damage per successful attack, that still resulted in my having to stop narrating and erase/scratch out a number and write a new one every time. I’m trying to avoid that like the plague.

Make every move made in combat automatically change the situation. I want to hardcode this into the move to encourage players to do this as the most optimal choice mechanically rather than just flavor being added to the actual goal of whittling down the enemy’s hits.

Keep combat more cinematic/dramatic. In movies, usually the characters fighting don’t take any major physical damage with each exchange. It’s mostly about positioning until someone gets the final strike that kills their enemy. Even with mooks, they usually go down with one hit.

So, this is the version of the move as it currently stands in the game:


When you unleash a dangerous attack against a threatening foe in mortal combat, describe how and roll +HARD. On an 11+, you HIT them. On a 7-10, you HIT them, but you or an ally suffer the foe’s counterattack. When you HIT them, you may spend one DANGER (or suffer their attack on an 11+) to:
  • Put them right where you want them (or keep them where they are)
  • Make them release something they hold (You may have to DEFY DANGER to grab it.)
  • Distract them long enough for your allies to get away clean
  • Create an opening so that an ally can act with ADVANTAGE

A couple of rules explanations for those not intimately versed in the game:

HITS are how much damage a character can take. A successful attack always inflicts one HIT. PCs have 3-5 HITS, while monsters have 1-10. (More than 5 is quite rare - Ancient Dragons and th like). At zero HITS, you’re defeated.

DANGER is a metacurrency earned by rolling misses or giving into a character’s flaws that can be used for different powers. For those familiar with Fate, they’re basically Fate Points.

The dice mechanic is slightly different, which is why partial successes are from 7-10, and a full success is 11+. That’s all one needs to know for the purposes of this discussion.

So, a few notes about the current move:


 One thing I wanted to make sure the move specified was that the attack being used had to be able to damage the foe, thus “dangerous attack”.

I wanted the move to only trigger when at least one of the players were in a position to take a HIT, thus “threatening enemy”. This was to assure that the move would trigger when a character made a ranged attack against a foe that was currently threatening an ally. Thus the later “your or an ally suffer the foe’s counterattack” as the result of a partial success.

“Mortal combat” was there to make sure that this move only triggered when at least one of the parties was trying to kill the other. I guess I included this to justify that each exchange was going to result in the taking of a HIT by at least one of the parties involved, but in retrospect I don’t see that as being important. I want my move to trigger anytime a PC is using force directly against an enemy in combat, even if it’s just to run them off or capture them.


I’m pretty happy with the options listed in the move currently. They’re the kind of things I want to see the PCs trying to accomplish in combat, and for the time being I’m pretty happy with the broad wording of each move. For instance, “Make them release something they hold” could be the hostage they’re using as a shield, the weapon they’re wielding, or the edge of the cliff they’re hanging from.

The problem is that I ended up making these options...optional. And expensive. They cost DANGER, which the PCs will want to hoard for their powers and such. Why am I making more difficult for players to do the sort of things I want them to be attempting while encouraging them to focus on just whittling down hits, which is exactly what I don’t want them to be doing?

Oh yeah...30 years of playing games that do that. That’s why.


So here’s what I’m thinking of changing:

NPCs will no longer have HITS. They will have, instead, just have DANGER COST (DC). This will just be an abstract notion of how dangerous they are, not just as combatants, but as a force in the world against the PCs. Very meta.

(I might change the name...any ideas are welcome.)

DC is not HITS. You cannot whittle it down. It is the DANGER you must spend in order to slay or defeat a foe. This means I (the DM) don’t have to do any math or write anything during combat. All effects of combat that doesn’t result in the PC not spending DANGER are entirely about positioning, gaining advantage, etc.

So here’s the new version of the move (subject to extensive change):


When you attack a threatening foe in combat, choose what you’re trying to accomplish from the list below and describe how your actions will make it possible. Roll +HARD. On a 7+, you accomplish the goal, but you or a threatened ally suffers the foe’s counterattack. On an 11+, the foe’s counterattack is avoided. 

  • Put them right where you want them (or keep them where they are) 

  • Make them release something they hold (You may have to DEFY DANGER to grab it.)

  • Distract them long enough for your allies to get away clean 

  • Create an opening so that an ally can act with ADVANTAGE 

  • Pay their DC to slay or otherwise defeat them.


“Slay or otherwise defeat them” leaves a lot of room for different interpretations of what that means, but it definitely means the foe is no longer a threat for the time being - killed, knocked out, surrendered, sent back to the Void Dimension, etc.

Note that there will be foes with a DC of zero for when you just want to wade through mooks.


There. That’s what I’m looking at right now. As far as whether PCs will continue to have HITS or something more fiction-based is a discussion for another time. Right now I’m leaving the “counterattack” nebulous so that I have more leeway in that department.

Looking forward to other people’s opinions!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Back from Comicpalooza 2019

So this weekend I ran a couple of sessions of TALES OFTHE OBSIDIAN IDOL at Houston’s annual Comicpalooza. I was really happy with how it went, and got a lot of positive feedback. I lucked out and got some really great, proactive players. I also have a lot to think about as I play around with ideas for TALES OF THE OBSIDIAN IDOL: EXPANDED & REVISED…or whatever I’m going to call that.

There’s a lot to unpack and I’m going to be putting my thoughts down intermittently, but one thing the experience definitely made me consider was the sheer number of basic moves. Dungeon World and a lot of its hacks tend to have 15-20 Basic and Special moves, which is great if you’re running a long-running campaign and have a while to learn the system.

Since my hack is specifically about doing short, one-shot sessions, I realized that looking at the 13 basic moves I had might be a bit overwhelming. Moves like SPOT CHECK and TRAVEL MONTAGE are really there as DM advice more than anything the players are going to directly engage in.

Other moves like LEGWORK and REST & RELAXATION just don’t come up enough in one session to be moves. Those can really be handled with DM reactions and just asking questions.

I’m also thinking about messing with how combat works – Monster Level, BE AGGRESSIVE, etc, so that might end up changing or alleviating the need for things like LOOT THE FALLEN.

I’m thinking I might be able to cut things down to one side of one half-sheet insert. That should be a lot less intimidating for new players (there was a lot of flipping and getting confused where to find the moves during play) and simplify the game, while still showing off the PbtA framework to new players, which is one of my primary goals.

As I have more time to think and make decisions, I’ll be posting more of my ideas for improving Obsidian Idol, and maybe looking at some mistakes I made running the sessions this weekend. There’s always room for improvement in that department.

Ta-ta for now.

Monday, April 29, 2019


Another old post:

There was a question on about the rules of Barbarians of Academia and the calling of outside people (security, Bill's Ex-Wife, etc.)

Here are the rules I made up for that.

Calling a person on the phone is an automatic ACTION and starts a countdown timer. For campus security, they get there 2 rounds later - so if you call someone on your turn during the 9:00 round, the GM will start a countdown on the Round Tracker and security will get there (place tokens in the entrance hall) at the beginning of the GM's turn of the 9:30 round.

If someone calls Bill's Ex-Wife for some reason, she will arrive 4 rounds later. (So if she's called at 10:00, she'll arrive at the beginning of 11:00)

Both members of Campus Security and Bill's Ex-Wife have one HIT each.
Both members of Campus Security and Bill's Ex-Wife roll all skills at 25%
Both members of Campus Security and Bill's Ex-Wife are carrying a handgun (one HIT per successful attack)

The personalities of Campus Security #1 and #2 are to be based on your favorite comedy duo (Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Allen, Garfunkel and Oates, etc.)

Oh, and Bill's Ex-Wife is named Doreen.


ISo on, the actual probabilities of success in my game Barbarians of Academia have finally been plotted out. (Thanks to Naeddyr for the code and Ficino for actually bringing up the question)

It looks like this:

(click to expand)

Note: I rounded the numbers to get rid of decimals, as it makes it easier for me to compare. The dark bar across for the 10 row is because of a weird quirk in the rules that makes it literally impossible to roll under an 11 once you've had three or more drinks. All the other 0% squares are actually numbers that are just below 0.5%. It's still possible to roll successfully, just very unlikely.


The 11% Thing
I don't actually have a problem with this. If you've put 10% in a skill, you weren't planning on using it much anyway.

You're Better With Two Drinks Than One
Tenure is on the line. You're nervous. Of course after a couple of drinks you can relax and focus. Two-drinks-in is always the best way to approach a problem.

The Incompetence Thing
So this overall number pattern was exactly what I was going for - skills would go down as you drank more, and the chance of passing out would go up. However, I'm a little surprised by exactly how fast a score goes from good to completely abysmal.

The more I look at it though, the more I don't mind how quickly things go to hell. It kinda reinforces the overall absurdity of the premise. It's interesting to see what strategies will come out of this...

Maybe these?


You max out BRUTAL VIOLENCE at 99 and leave WITTY BANTER at 1.
You'll never convince the the T.A. or the Wealthy Alumnus to do anything, but the other Barbarians can't either, if you've already killed them.

"Kill who?" you may ask, "The NPCs or the other Barbarians?"
If you didn't realize the answer was "ALL OF THEM!" maybe this strategy isn't for you.

Remember, you don't have to convince the Dean's Wife to sleep with you, and you don't have to convince the Performance Artist to let you chop his arm off, you just spend actions. And with 99%, even with a bunch of drinks in you, you'll be a pretty well-off when it comes time to slay Yog Sothoth. Just don't kill the Dean, and don't let him see you hurt anyone. There's going to be a lot of body-hiding with this strategy.


There's a lot you can accomplish with the peaceful approach. You can talk your way into and out of a lot of stuff, just don't let the other Barbarians kill you. Stay around the Dean and you'll probably be safe until Yog Sothoth shows up. Do the rules say you can't just CONVINCE Yog Sothoth to go away? Nope. You can't change the Sorceress's mind, but it's up to your GM whether or not you can argue a pan-dimensional entity out of bringing about Armageddon.

I'd let my players try it.


Both Scores 50%, or maybe 60/40
Try to hit every goal, using both scores. You won't want to exceed 4 drinks or drop below 2. Maybe the most difficult method, but you'll have the highest number of goals you could actually achieve. I'd love to see how this strategy works out when other players are using one of the first two.


Maybe tenure isn't all it's cracked up to be. March up to the Dean and decapitate him. Fight wave after wave of Campus Security. Join up with the Sorceress - they say Yog Sothoth grants his followers powers and pleasure beyond their wildest dreams!

Is this how the game was intended to be played? Well, it wasn't not how the game was intended to be played. It's a role-playing game. Your imagination is the only limit!


You could, were you the GM, give the players more points to start out. Having the players start with 120 or 140 points to distribute at character creation would lead to a lot less whiffing once the drinks started pouring.

You could instead (or also) institute a character advancement mechanic: After a Barbarian successfully completes a goal, roll 1d10 and add that to one of their scores. Or have them add 1d10 points to a score whenever they fail a roll with it.

All of these alternatives and strategies will be included in UNEARTHED ACADEMIA: Alternative Rules For Barbarians of Academia. 



When I first released Tales of the Obsidian Idol in the distant past of three weeks ago, I started a blog to document the release and its "premiere" at Houston's upcoming Comicpalooza.

Since then, I ended up designing Barbarians of Academia and "founding" Iron Hero Games for my future RPG releases.

So welcome to the new and improved Ironic Hero Games blog!