You Are The Hero

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion of the importance of having diverse characters in fiction, so that everyone has someone to identify with. It is possible, nay, easy, to make this discussion sound really, really stupid.

“I can identify with an immortal, magic-wielding elf in an entirely fictional world, but only if it shares my skin colour and genital configuration!”

Of course, the discussion is not stupid, and the fact that it can made to sound stupid really easily suggests that something important is being missed. In particular, it is not important that characters in fiction are “like you”, in general. What matters, I suggest, is that the characters share features that are central to your sense of your own identity. People have trouble identifying with a character who is not something that they take to be fundamental to their sense of self.

I’ll use myself as an example. When reading the Lord of the Rings, I do not identify with either Boromir or Aragorn, despite the fact that they are the only human beings in the Fellowship. This is because “human” is not a fundamental part of my sense of self; apart from anything else, I am never required to define myself against others who are not human. This seems to be quite general, in that there has been no call for a purge of non-human characters from genre fiction. There is, essentially, no-one who finds a lack of humanity to be an obstacle to identification.

On the other hand, when reading Harry Potter, I do not identify with Harry; I identify with Hermione. Hermione is, essentially, me. There is a scene in the first film, in the potions class, where she is exactly me. Yes, I am male, and not remotely as pretty as Emma Watson (although I can probably stand up to book-Hermione), but neither of those features is particularly important to my sense of identity. I am perfectly happy with being a man (I’m definitely cis), but I have no problem imagining being female. This is not true of all men, however, and it would appear that a lot of women cannot easily imagine themselves being male.

That is not to say that I can identify with anyone. I can’t identify with characters who solve problems through physical force rather than mental power. I identify with Gandalf and Hermione, I play elves but can’t imagine playing dwarves or half-orcs, and I was the Line Editor for Ars Magica, a game that sidelines physical force, for 14 years. The primacy of the mental is a central part of my self-conception, so give me a choice between a straight, white, male barbarian and a queer, black, female sorceress, and I’ll identify with the sorceress. She’s the character who is like me in the only sense that really matters to me.

If we rephrase the initial idea with this in mind, it does not sound stupid at all.

“I can identify with any character, as long as they share the features I regard as essential to my identity!”

This, incidentally, is why nobody gets annoyed about the absence of redheads in all the Star Wars films, as far as I can recall. It is not something that people tend to regard as central to their identity (and if they do, it isn’t something they mention). It’s also why “black Hermione” is a bigger issue than “blue-eyed Harry”; race is often regarded as central to someone’s identity, eye colour almost never.

This might lead us to ask why race, gender, and sexuality are so important to so many people, but only if we have been completely failing to pay any attention to modern Western (particularly US) society. However, they are not the only important features, as I noted in my case, and they are not always important. For example, take a look at Japanese anime. Look at Studio Ghibli films, and note the lack of any consistent differentiation between characters who are supposed to be Japanese, and characters who are supposed to be Western. The “Rose of Versailles”, a classic anime from 40 or so years ago that is currently being rebroadcast, has no Japanese characters at all, because it is set in 18th century France (and the main character is a woman who presents as male). “The Mysterious Cities of Gold”, another thirty-year-old anime, has European characters for the European audience, because it was a co-production, but no Japanese characters for the Japanese audience. As far as anime goes, it looks as though racial difference is no barrier at all to identification for most Japanese people.

When it comes to other important features, I suspect that my preference for intellectual characters is rather idiosyncratic, but there is another big category that is often central to people’s self-conception.


For a lot of people, their religion is central to their view of themselves and the world, and they cannot imagine themselves as having another religion, or even imagine a world where their religion, or an analogue, is not true. Again, I speak from personal experience here; back in my teens I had a problem with anything I couldn’t read as Christian or a Christian analogue. I’ve also seen it from the other side; there are people who have a deep problem with the fact that paganism is, in an important sense, fundamentally wrong in Ars Magica (but the Mythic Europe analogue of Christianity, called “Christianity”, is right). These people cannot get into something that violates their worldview.

This is not, I think, any kind of bigotry or narrow-mindedness, any more than women’s problems in sympathising with male characters, or my problems in sympathising with physical characters. It’s not even necessarily impossible for those people to play games without an analogue for their religion; it is just more effort. In fact, I still face a similar situation, in that I find it very difficult to get into worlds where, by design, the actions of my character cannot significantly improve the world. (Horror games, or anything with Cthulhu in it, basically.) I generally play them differently, or make changes. This is more fundamental than a simple preference. I can’t easily see myself in such a world. The idea that I can do something to make the world a better place is, it would seem, a fundamental part of my self-conception. (There is evidence that unjustified optimism makes people more successful, which is good, because I need all the help I can get.)

It seems obvious that we do not want to write games that some people cannot imagine playing, but there is also an obvious problem here. An individual story cannot have a main character that everyone can identify with. Even if we stick to the “standard” categories (male/female, asian/black/hispanic/native american/white, straight/gay/bi, cis/trans), there are 60 possible combinations. You really can’t have more than half-a-dozen central characters in one story, and even in RPGs, where you can have larger casts of NPCs, 60 is going to be more than you have in almost any book, and many entire game lines. And that only gives you one of each, of whom a fair number need to be antagonists, which means that a lot of people are only going to be offered villains to identify with. Even the ones who get a hero only get a single token character. If we add “intellectual/physical/social” as another axis, we need 180 characters, which may be beyond the realistic limits of any roleplaying game, especially as they all need to be central.

The problem is even worse for religions and world views, because it goes beyond issues of practicality. It is simply not possible to write a game of nihilistic horror that provides characters I can identify with. It is not possible to write a world in which Christianity has no true analogue and make it accessible to Christians for whom Christianity is central. On the other hand, if Christianity has a true analogue, then many forms of paganism do not, and some people strongly identify with those. Further, a game that conservative Muslims will find accessible and inclusive must not include positive portrayals of queer characters.

The idea that you can write an “inclusive” game, one that does not exclude anyone, is an illusion. It is not logically possible, and in purely practical terms it is difficult to even get close. When you design your world, or write your novel, you have to choose an audience. A conservative Muslim audience will want something very different from Seattle liberals. You could also choose yourself as the audience, and from a purely creative point of view, that choice has a lot going for it. People outside your audience might not like the game. They might find that the game excludes them. They might even complain about it. Conservative US Christians have a long tradition of complaining about games that did not adopt a Christian worldview. They claimed that they led to devil worship, and tried to get them banned.

This is something that creators should recognise, and actively oppose. If a particular game excludes you, find one that doesn’t. Write your own, if necessary. (This is entirely practical for RPGs, unlike Hollywood movies.) The hobby as a whole should have games for everyone, so it is a problem if no games include women, people of colour, or queer characters. However, no individual game needs to do so. Someone may take the commercial decision to try to appeal to as many people as possible, and offend as few people as possible, but that approach has rarely been consistent with the creation of art worth the effort. (Also, I would note that the so-called SJWs are not doing that; they are creating games in full knowledge that they offend and alienate substantial groups of people, and doing so because they have an artistic and ethical vision that demands it. That approach has a track record of producing great art.)

Once again, this comes down to the need for more diversity among the creators of RPGs, novels, and films. That will naturally lead to diverse games, books, and movies, even though individual works might draw from a limited palette. I really should write something about how I think we can go about increasing that diversity.

“Diversity” and American Dominance in RPGs

The US dominance of both the pen-and-paper RPG industry and the diversity debate is a real problem, one that, I think, is actively hindering attempts to address the problems created by a lack of diversity.

Let’s take an example I’m intimately familiar with: Japan. (For people who don’t know, I’ve lived here for 12 years, my wife is Japanese, and I’m in the process of naturalising.)

The important “racial” minority groups are the Koreans, the Chinese, the Okinawans, the Filipinas, and the Burakumin. All of these groups are “East Asian”. They disappear when “racial diversity” is being considered for an RPG. “Racial diversity” is used to mean “people from lots of different categories that are important in the USA, completely ignoring distinctions that are important elsewhere”. To expand, when was the last time you saw a game being careful to represent both Hutu and Tutsi accurately, or Serb and Croat, or Ukrainian and Russian? Or even Sunni and Shia? These are all groups that have had wars over the distinction in the recent past, or are fighting them right now, so large numbers of people thought the distinction was worth killing for. But all of those distinctions are invisible to “diversity”.

On the other hand, in Japan, in Noh theatre and Kabuki theatre, the female parts are played by men, and both of these are revered national art forms, and UNESCO World Heritage traditions. In Takarazuka theatre, the male parts are played by women, and that has 100 years of history and a large contemporary following (overwhelmingly female). This is mainstream. Emoji were designed in Japan, with same-sex couple icons, to absolutely no outrage at all. The government approach to transgender children is to issue guidance to schools on how to deal with it appropriately, including allowing the child to wear the right uniform, and provide counselling and medical treatment as necessary. This is not an issue; I only know about it because NHK did a special on it a few months ago. Aya Ueto, who is a still a pretty big female star, played a transgender boy in her breakthrough role, and that was about 13 years ago. Manga depicting gay romances between young men and between male high school students is a large genre, overwhelmingly read by women. (It is, as far as I can see, much, much larger than the genre of lesbian romances between schoolgirls.) US assumptions about gender/sexuality diversity and context are just wrong in Japan.

The same, incidentally, is true of assumptions about racial relations, as I wrote here last month.

(Also, the Japanese language is gender neutral by default, and a fairly high proportion of names are gender ambiguous, but women’s rights are a considerable distance behind the west. Thus, I am not optimistic about the effect of “more inclusive language”.)

I am sure that there are similar differences between the USA and other countries with which I am less familiar.

So, if you are trying to increase the diversity of your authors, artists, and editors, your first rule should be “no more Americans”. That will help you break out of the assumption that the American way of dividing up the world is the only appropriate way, and help you introduce some real diversity into your game settings and characters.

Inclusivity in Roleplaying Games

Recently (over the last year or so) there has been a lot of talk in gaming of the need to make products more inclusive, to provide options who are not straight white cis-men. This campaign seems to have started in computer gaming, where my limited experience suggests that it is really needed, but it has also spread to tabletop gaming.

Is this really a problem that tabletop gaming needs to address now? To be absolutely clear, I am talking about the inclusion of a variety of characters in products, not the diversity of authors or players. In addition, I think that diversity of characters is a good thing, and important. My question is over whether this is something that tabletop RPGs need to address now.

I’ll readily grant that it was a problem 30 years ago. The only non-white Companion of the Lance is metallic copper. However, even 25 years ago, companies were starting to address it. Early Forgotten Realms novels include a black protagonist in a series of novels in which racism is a recurring theme, and female protagonists. In the early nineties, White Wolf put a black man on the cover of Mage:the Ascension. He was the only character on the cover, and the iconic symbol of the whole game. In 1998, Fading Suns included non-binary-gender characters as an important option for a race that was primarily binary (the Ur-Obun). In 2000, D&D 3.0 had iconic characters who were deliberately designed to be diverse in terms of race and gender. Steve Kenson put an openly gay superhero in Freedom City in 2003, and in 2005 Blue Rose presented a fantasy society in which homosexual and polyamorous marriage were both normal. Games set in Japan go back to the earliest days of the hobby, and Nyambe, in a fantasy version of sub-Saharan Africa, was released in 2002. Disabilities have been standard character options in all games that have an Advantange/Disadvantage system since those systems were invented. Today, D&D 5e explicitly raises race, non-binary-gender, and multiple sexualities as choices you should think about in the free introductory set.

In short, I think the “inclusivity problem” was solved in roleplaying ten years ago. “Inclusivity” is the default position for tabletop gaming, and has been for a long time. Of course tabletop games should continue to be inclusive, but this isn’t something that needs campaigning for. There may turn out to be some groups who have not been included, and people will want to see more inclusion of particular groups, but the battle for inclusivity in general was won years ago.

There is a different problem, which is sometimes confused with the need for inclusivity. This is that the portrayal of some cultures in roleplaying games is not particularly good. To take an example I’m familiar with, Shadowrun 4e illustrated Shinto with a picture of a BDSM prostitute in Street Magic, and the Shinto pantheon in Scion 1e is really, really badly researched. (Although you can, at least, tell that they did a bit of research.)

First, I want to stress that this really is a completely different problem. This problem only arises because tabletop roleplaying games assume that you have to be inclusive. If Scion had only included white European pantheons, they would not have had a badly research Shinto pantheon to get bothered about in the first place.

Second, this is a real problem. It is also a really difficult problem, because researching something well enough to present it sensitively and in a way that is suitable for gaming takes a very long time. To get to that point for Shinto required learning Japanese, living in Japan, and spending about five years studying Shinto, including taking classes at the largest Shinto university (in Japanese). I can do the same for medieval western Europe, and that took several years with borrowing privileges at Cambridge University Library.

If you take the research requirement seriously, then a single author cannot write a diverse and inclusive book. A single human being cannot know enough about enough cultures to do it. A team of half a dozen authors is going to be really pushed to do it, particularly if they all have to be native speakers of English, familiar with the game, and willing to write for what tabletop roleplaying pays.

Now, I think that the research requirement should be taken seriously. If you are purporting to write about a real culture, you should know that culture very well. For a contemporary culture, you really need to have lived in it while fluent in the local language. For a historical culture, you need at least a couple of years of reading around it, including primary literature. For a prehistoric culture, you get to make a whole bunch of stuff up, because we just don’t know enough to be accurate in the first place, but you need to be very familiar with what we do know.

On the other hand, if you are writing a fantasy culture inspired by a real culture, you should be granted a lot more leeway. Rokugan is not Japan. It should be exotic, in a way that a portrayal of real Japan should not. The Southlands does not have to be an accurate portrayal of North Africa and the Levant, and indeed it should not be. I think fantasy games (including far-future science fiction games) should be allowed to pick elements from non-Western cultures and use them to make fictional cultures that acknowledge the existence of people and cultures that are not straight white cis-male, without being required to accurately reflect the cultures they are borrowing from. I think this is the only way to make broadly inclusive games and settings feasible in tabletop gaming.

I also think that there is an important role for a diverse range of games that are not individually diverse, where the authors know enough about one culture to present it accurately and sensitively.

I don’t expect many people, certainly not many people who produce tabletop roleplaying games, to disagree with what I’ve written here. That’s because I believe that virtually everyone in this business agrees that inclusivity and research are necessary, and regrets the times when they mess up one or the other.

Persistence Ain’t All That

This post may come across as something of a rant, and possibly also as a humble brag. I have to concede that I’m ranting a bit, but I would like to emphasise that there is nothing humble about the bragging parts, and that I am entirely serious about the humble parts.

This rant was inspired by my misreading* of a guest post on Chuck Wendig’s blog by a (different) successful author. In it, she repeats the claim that persistence is essential, even the only essential thing, and illustrates it with her life story. It is true that persistence appears to have led her to success. There are a number of other famous examples of this available.

The overwhelming level of sample bias here robs the evidence of all meaning. What about all the persistent people who haven’t succeeded? Nobody listens to their stories, because they are nobodies. Why would you take life lessons from someone who has failed? Well, because if you only listen to people who have succeeded, you get a seriously distorted picture.

So, in full awareness that essentially no-one is going to read this, because I’m not famous enough, I’m going to tell the echoing ether that persistence isn’t enough, and isn’t even necessary.

Let’s take “not enough” first. I write and develop roleplaying games. I need to say that because hardly anybody has heard of me. I’ve been doing it professionally for 20 years; longer than Chris Pramas at Green Ronin, and a lot more people have heard of him. He even has a Wikipedia page.

I’ve not had a rejection letter for roleplaying games since I returned to them after deciding that they were not Satanic, around the age of 18. So, that thing about everyone having to collect piles of rejection letters? Not true. I’ve won an Origins Award and a gold ENnie award, helped out by the name recognition of Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein•Hagen, but for a product, Ars Magica Fifth Edition, that was essentially my work. The previous four editions, which were not my work, did not win. I’ve been developing Ars Magica for longer than anyone else, and I’m getting close to having done it for longer than everyone else who has had the job put together. John Nephew has not fired me. He’s even given me pay rises and bonuses from time to time.

I do not suck, at least not as a roleplaying game author and developer. Because I am not depressed, I know that I do not suck. I do not suck, and I have kept this up for 20 years. Talent and persistence, getting published, I must have succeeded, right?

Wrong. Obviously, I don’t make a decent amount of money from roleplaying. Nobody makes a decent amount of money from roleplaying (except Robin Laws). But further than that, I have almost no name recognition. I’m working on a new roleplaying game, Kannagara, but does the fact that I am working on a new roleplaying game create any buzz anywhere? No. Now, we aren’t talking about fame. While people in the industry will recognise the names I’ve been dropping, I suspect that only the most dedicated roleplaying fans would do so in general. That’s the level I’m aiming at, and haven’t reached.

So yeah, persistence doesn’t always work.

I’ve also written a novel, and tried the online crowdfunding model. That was Tamao. That didn’t work, either. People I didn’t know did send me money. One guy even sent me $25 a couple of years after I’d finished, when it was obvious he wasn’t going to get any more story out of it. So, it doesn’t suck. Strangers don’t send you money because you wrote something that sucked. And I finished it. Wrote the whole thing in a year. That’s persistence.

No success yet.

Then there’s my blog. Not this one. I’m not so brazen as to claim persistence here, but my Japanese one. Every day, for nearly eight years. Recently, at least 1,000 characters (roughly 500 words equivalent) every day. Frequent and regular updates with new material, sustained over a long period of time. That’s how you make a successful blog, right? I’m averaging about 100 views per day, and no comments. That’s not a successful blog.

But I’ve not given up. I still do it every day. It has been great Japanese practice. Lots of persistence here.

No success, though.

On the other hand, let’s consider an area where I wasn’t persistent. Philosophy. I got a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge 15 years ago. So, yes, I was persistent enough to finish a dissertation. I then spent five years trying to get a job in philosophy. Failed.

So I chucked it in and came to Japan.

A couple of years ago, I was offered a job, which I’m still doing, based on having that PhD. The content of my work has steadily got closer to the content of my dissertation, to the point that, this year, I will be directly applying my PhD to my work, in the private sector. The job doesn’t currently pay brilliantly (start up), but it pays a lot more than minimum wage. And a lot more than roleplaying games, novels, or blogs — at least for me.

This means that the area where I wasn’t persistent, the area that I abandoned pretty much completely for eight years, is the area where I currently seem to have the most success. It has at least as much promise for future success as any of the others as well.

Persistence: not needed, and not enough. Rather overrated, all round.

When you are struggling with something you want to do, but are not succeeding at, the big question can be framed as “Which story am I starring in?”. Are you starring in a story of someone who holds on to their dream, struggles through the difficult years of no recognition and piles of rejection slips, before finally succeeding? Or are you starring in a story of someone who wastes his life producing things that no-one wants to read, dying with piles of manuscripts that do not become interesting even posthumously?

Obviously, if you’re in the first story, you should not give up. Keep pushing! Keep writing! Persistence!

If you’re in the second story, you should quit now. Do something more productive with your life. Everyone has something to offer to the world. In your case, this isn’t it. Abandon the illusion that is holding you back, and find your calling!

So, which story are you in? It’s really, really hard to tell. In fact, I suspect it’s impossible to tell. That makes it unfortunate that the two stories recommend diametrically opposed courses of action.

This is why living a good life is hard. The decisions are not easy. There are no universal prescriptions that will always lead you to the right decision. Sometimes, you should give up. Sometimes, giving up will actually lead to success in the area where you gave up. And sometimes you shouldn’t. Sometimes you should be persistent.

Sometimes you should do what you love. Sometimes you should recognise reality and do what is necessary to live. Sometimes your family should come first, and sometimes you should prioritise work for a while to make sure that your family has a home and food. Sometimes you should stand up for what you believe, and sometimes you should keep your head down and wait for the persecution to pass.

There are no easy answers, and most people never get to know whether they made the right decisions. So, if you are a struggling writer, you have to decide for yourself whether you should give up. I’m not going to recommend either option. Giving up worked for me; persisting worked for other people.

I’m afraid you have to run your own life.

* The original post was by Kameron Hurley, and it turns out that her point was that she had redefined “success” in terms of persisting, so that the lack of other kinds of success wouldn’t put her off. Since that is what I have done for my Japanese blog, I think it’s perfectly reasonable. The post above still stands, however. Back

Choosing the World

Although I will, of course, develop the detailed design of the game world while I’m working on the game, I do need to choose the basic type of world I want to create. Since we are focusing on things I’m personally interested in, there are four options: “classic” fantasy, modern fantasy, science fiction, and historical.

By “classic” fantasy I mean, essentially, the sort of fantasy world popularised by Tolkien and his imitators. Elves, dwarfs, orcs, swords and sorcery. That sort of thing. Yes, a lot of role-playing games have used this background, most famously Dungeons & Dragons. However, the basic aim of my game is sufficiently different from that of D&D that using a familiar background might actually be a good thing, if I’m aiming at an audience of role-players. If the background is classic fantasy, the players’ assumptions about the general ways in which the background works will be correct, which will help them get into the game, and make sensible choices from the background options available. As the basic goals of the characters are very different from those in other role-playing games, a bit of familiarity could be a big help. In addition, this is something I keep coming back to when I look at classic fantasy worlds; I really like them, no doubt in part because they were an important element in my formative years, but the games set there do not support the sorts of characters I actually want to play.

What about the other sort of fantasy, modern fantasy? If I wrote a modern fantasy game, I would probably set it in Japan. It would be something like Tamao: The RPG. Of course, that would make the background very unfamiliar to the players, apart from the handful of English-speaking role-players who live in Japan, unless I wrote it in Japanese and targeted the Japanese market. However, I suspect that’s a bit too ambitious for the moment. I could set it in the UK or the USA, but that removes one of the big advantages of putting it in Japan: I can’t use information and images that I can gather just by walking around the area where I live.

Moving away from fantasy, if I created a science fiction world it would be fairly hard science fiction, not space opera. However, since the things that characters would create would include new scientific theories, it couldn’t be hard science fiction according to the strict definition, because the characters would discover things that broke the currently-established laws of nature. (This is, however, a fundamental problem for hard science fiction; new scientific laws will be discovered in the future, so if you set something far enough in the future it’s not hard science fiction if you don’t make something up, but also not if you do. Obviously, there are ways round this, but it does make the standard definition less applicable than it might be.) I’d probably set it in a somewhat transhumanist setting, like those used in Transhuman Space and Eclipse Phase, because those settings provide a lot of space for engineering creations as well as for fundamental scientific discoveries, and thus make it easier to create a setting that supports a long-running campaign. It’s a bit hard to maintain continuity, and interest, if you completely restructure the world every week.

Finally, a historical setting would probably start with a straight historical setting, without fantasy, but the actions of the player characters would quickly turn it into an alternate history setting. They might make scientific discoveries and change the technological background, or create important new works of art, or change the political structure. In any case, the aim of the game would be to enable the player characters to change history, in deep and fundamental ways. However, the first changes might be quite minor, so this would also have an educational aspect, as the players would naturally learn about the historical period while playing.

The downside of both a hard scientific setting and a historical setting is that a large amount of research would be needed to do them properly. I could probably do a historical game set in medieval England based on the research I’ve already done, and I have enough scientific background to be able to make a stab at the science fiction, but in either case I’d have to do even more research. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, because I like research, but it is another barrier to getting started on writing the actual game. I probably don’t need any other preparatory projects to waste my time on.

To a lesser extent, the same can be said of the modern fantasy setting. While I only need to go outside and walk around for some things, for others I really would need to find out how Japanese society works in that respect, and that might not be at all easy. Again, it’s something I want to know, but research takes me even longer in Japanese than in English (my Japanese reading speed is still not the same as my English reading speed), so it would, again, significantly delay the creation of the actual game.

Looking at all of these issues, it rather looks as though the classic fantasy setting is the best choice to start with. I can just make the background up to fit the structure of the game, which is likely to be helpful while I am still trying to get things working. More generally, I can just make bits of background up as I need them, and, as long as I keep track of them, they can’t be wrong. I might decide I want to make revisions later, and there will be time for that, but I can’t make actual, unambiguous mistakes.

The next step, then, is to start actually writing the game. This process, however, will not lend itself to regular blog posts, and virtually nobody is reading these posts anyway, so while I think I will post about it from time to time, when there is something significant to say, this will be the last of this semi-regular series.

Setting the Scene

Introducing the game world is, like character creation, a major problem for role-playing games. Most games end up with several volumes of world information, running to thousands of pages; Ars Magica is certainly no exception to that. Reading this information and discovering the game world is part of the fun for a lot of people. However, feeling that you need to read several thousand pages before you can play a game does tend to discourage casual players, and make it hard to try new games. It’s even more of a problem for my design, where I want people to be able to start playing within fifteen minutes, and to do so without a gamemaster, and thus without someone assumed to know what is going on in the game world.

A bad approach to this problem would be to provide lots of material to be read out by the players. Reading is fun, but it isn’t playing, so this also delays people getting into the game. In addition, the players are not going to remember everything that is read out to them, particularly if it’s about an entirely fictional world, or something historical or from a remote culture. Boredom and confusion are the likely result, and neither of those is fun.

On the other hand, the information does need to be contained in the scenario, because there’s nowhere else to put it. However, it is better if the information is supplied as needed, rather than in large chunks, and if the information supplied is closely involved in the action being taken. This is the “show, don’t tell” rule for writing fiction, transferred to a role-playing context.

The concrete application of this is to the description of the actions the characters take, and to the description of the characters themselves. Each individual problem needs to be described, and that description should introduce part of the world. Further, each action that the characters take should be described, and further the world’s description. Describing the problem is relatively easy; this can be a bit of text that one player reads out. It can be kept short, and it’s immediately relevant to play, so boredom and confusion can be avoided.

Character actions are a bit more difficult, because the players should have control, but don’t have the necessary knowledge. I think the best approach may be to provide two or three options for actions in each situation, with a description, and then let the player choose which one the character does.

Character features, which grant additional dice to roll, should also describe part of the background. They won’t go into detail, but they’ll start to reveal something of what the game world is like. And, if they’re chosen, they’ll be linked to the character, and thus easy to remember and important. Of course, they should continue to be important in later parts of the scenario, but that’s just a matter of careful design.

Finally, there’s the background itself. What is the world like beyond the immediate concerns of the characters? Here, I would like to introduce elements that characterise the world, and the particular location where the characters are working. One possibility is to make two elements available at each action, with a brief description of each one. Then, the player can choose to incorporate one of the available elements into the description of her character’s action. If she does so, she gets an extra die to roll, and that element is confirmed as being present in the immediate environment.

A possible development of this is to have more detailed descriptions of certain elements, which become available when a basic element is in play. Later players can choose to involve them, making the description richer, and getting extra dice for their characters’ actions.

However, there’s going to be a lot to keep track of here, and scratch paper may not be the best way to do it. Instead, I think it might be a good idea to print the descriptions on cards, around business-card size. The cards can then be placed between the players, so that they can see what elements there are in the environment, and how they are built up. The cards could also have pictures on, although, as I can’t draw, that is unlikely to happen in the first stages of development. Actually, the whole thing could be made multimedia, with images and sounds, even animations, and then run on a laptop, tablet computer, or smartphone. However, I’d have to learn to program to do that, as well as get the multimedia from somewhere, so that’s also not going to be the immediate form this takes.

Another advantage of using relatively small cards is that it limits the length of the descriptions, which is an important consideration. The elements might build up into a lengthy, detailed description, but they start small. Since adding detail means going back to an element that has already been added, that will remind the players of what is around them, and, again, makes it important that the individual elements are short. Reading over a lot of long descriptions repeatedly risks creating boredom again.

This is going to require quite a lot of work from the author of the scenario. He will have to make sure that the elements work together well, support the story of the scenario, and let the players generate interesting characters. They will also need to be structured so that it is very difficult to produce something that doesn’t make sense. Thus, each background element card will need instructions for what replaces it in the pool of available elements if it is used, or, for incompatible detailed descriptions, what has to be taken out. For character elements and elements of the thing being created, the scenario needs to specify what is available at each point, possibly depending on what was chosen earlier.

However, it is important to avoid closing off options. We must remember that the players do not know what they are doing; they should not be allowed to make choices that mean they cannot do, or be, something significant in the game world, at least not early on. For example, in a classic fantasy game, players should not be able to exclude the possibility that their character belongs to a particular race until they know enough about the races to make that choice sensibly.

Again, looking away from the scenarios, this information can also be gathered into books about the game world, so that they are available for people who like to read that sort of thing. A player could learn about the background from books, which would just mean that he knew more about how the elements introduced in a scenario connected to the rest of the world. That wouldn’t, normally, be an advantage, since the characters would be assumed to know even if the players didn’t. It would also be possible to produce packs of background elements, for use with any scenario, that introduced new features of the game world.

I’ve been very vague in this as to the nature of the background, because that’s the next thing I have to decide. In broad terms, what is going to be the setting of my game?

Revising Creation

My suggestion in the last post that we could generate characters during play created the problem that it would work better if the basic rules relied on simply beating a difficulty, not on the amount by which you beat it. However, the rules I designed for creating something relied on the final total. Can I redesign them to use fixed difficulties?

We can start with the simplest level again. To make the creation “work” in a certain way, you need to beat a certain difficulty. If we keep the pattern of having about three aspects to a creation, which seems reasonable, that would require about three rolls for a whole project, which is obviously insufficient.

So, we start adding complications. If you try and fail, the resistance of that aspect increases by a certain amount, the same no matter what the failing total is, adding to the difficulty of future attempts. If you try and succeed, the resistance of the other aspects increases by a certain amount, again the same no matter what the succeeding total is, meaning that the order in which you approach things matters.

We can then add rolls to reduce the resistance, giving them fixed difficulties again, in return for a fixed reduction in the resistance. The rolls to get additional dice for your pool work perfectly well as they are, as long as we only include one level of success. That’s fine; more complex things can be introduced later in the game, when scores have been fixed and people are more confident about their characters.

So, will this work? We want the characters to succeed at just about everything, because a failure fixes features of their character, and we want to avoid fixing things this early. So, if there are three qualities in an encounter, that’s three rolls, one for each quality, to start with. If each success adds the same amount of resistance to the other qualities, and we are going to recommend reducing the difficulty to the base level, that’s another three rolls; one to reduce the resistance of the second quality, and two to reduce that of the third. Six rolls is, at least, enough for one each in any practical group, but it’s still a bit low.

We can also introduce rolls to get additional dice to roll, or give the option to purchase character features that grant additional dice in a limited context. This would help to keep the level of commitment to talents down, by allowing the characters to explain some of their pool dice through a feature instead.

Thinking about the big picture, shorter encounters might actually be better in this situation. We do want to finish creating the character, or at least the relevant aspects of the character, by the end of the scenario, so we probably want a relatively large number of short encounters, to give the players a good idea of what the various talents and abilities do. In these encounters, the difficulties should be set to encourage easy success, so that the characters who do act only have very low minimum scores in the relevant statistics. A difficulty of 4, requiring a 5 or higher to succeed, might be reasonable. Success while keeping a single die is certainly possible, but players are likely to need to roll more than one, which provides space to introduce features. A difficulty of 3 might even be usable, because there’s still a 50% chance that players will need to roll more than one die.

Let’s look at a semi-concrete example. Suppose there are three tasks, each of which has a difficulty of 3. Failing at a task adds 3 to its resistance, but failing is strongly discouraged. Succeeding at a task adds 3 to the resistance of the other tasks, but there are things you can do to reduce those resistances. These tasks also have difficulties of 3, and reduce the resistance by 3. For each task, there is a character feature available that adds one die to roll, and an action that another character can take, with a difficulty of 3, to similarly add a die. We’re going to need features available to make more dice available for the rolls for assistance, as well, because we don’t want them to push the defined statistics up too high. However, support tasks for the support tasks are a bad idea in general; things will get rather recursive.

So, once we have gone through the bits of the setting and rules that are relevant, we can move on to more difficult tasks, where players can choose what they want their characters to be good at, and start to define them. The short encounters would naturally be part of a larger problem, but it’s probably best not to provide any major choices at this point, as the players don’t know what they’re doing. However, the more difficult tasks in the second part should allow for real decisions about strategy, and the first part of the adventure should have provided enough information for the players to make such decisions sensibly.

The biggest remaining question is how to justify the fixed difficulties within the game. It doesn’t make much sense for there to be thresholds of success in writing a novel, for example. You can write a readable and entertaining novel, and still have plenty of room for improvement. (Been there, done that.) However, it does make sense in what might be called engineering problems. For certain problems, you can solve the problem, and it really makes no difference how much extra brilliance you put into it; the solution won’t be any better. Obviously, there are exceptions, and the game should cover them, because they are the great technological breakthroughs that revolutionise society, but the more mundane problems do exist, and so they can be used in an introductory game.

Of course, this means throwing away my example pretty much in its entirety, but that’s OK. The example was just to help with clarifying the basic structure, rather than a serious suggestion for what I was going to use.

At the end of the introductory scenario, the players will have spent a certain number of points, and defined a number of aspects of their characters. Note, however, that you could also create a character just by spending the points, and such a character would be perfectly balanced with one created in play. This means that I can also produce a big book full of character creation options with point costs, for people who like doing that sort of thing, without biasing things in favour of people with the book. People who create a character in play are, after all, guaranteed to have lots of statistics that are useful in play, because something is only defined when it is useful in play.

In addition, this change to the basic rules still doesn’t require a gamemaster. The scenario needs to define the difficulties, but the players and characters are supposed to be aware of them, so there’s no problem with defining them out in the open. However, there is a problem for the introductory scenario. Someone needs to describe the world, but there might be no-one at the table who knows much about it. How can we approach that problem? That will be the topic of the next post.

Creating Characters

Character creation is an essential part of any role-playing game, even if it just consists of choosing a character from a list. Indeed, it’s a part that a lot of role-players really enjoy, including me; I’ve created quite a lot of characters that I’ve never played, and knew I never had any chance of playing. However, it takes time. For a lot of role-playing games, it takes over an hour, and that’s after you’ve read and understood a rulebook over 200 pages long. This is a major barrier to getting people involved in the games, and to trying new ones.

On the other hand, there are games with really, really simple character creation. The problem with that is that the games don’t support much differentiation between characters, or, indeed, the fun of designing a character. (It is a mistake to assume that the only fun part of role-playing games is actually playing them.) Thus, people tend to become unhappy with simple character generation systems after a while; witness the tendency for games to include more character creation options in later supplements.

Since I like creating characters, I want to make a system that permits that. However, I also want people to be able to start playing within fifteen minutes of sitting down with the game. I don’t think this is actually impossible.

My proposed solution is to have the characters created in play. That is, you start playing without a character sheet. You might start with a name, but you might not. You certainly don’t start with anything as definite as a concept, because with only fifteen minutes of preparation time you don’t know enough about the game setting to be able to come up with a concrete idea as to the sort of character you want to play. Instead, you start knowing that you are working with the other player characters on this project, but you don’t know why. That’s something you’ll develop during the game.

So, how is this going to work? Let’s look at talents and abilities first.

First, the scenario presents a problem, which can be addressed with a particular talent and ability combination. One of players decides that she would like her character to tackle that problem, and rolls a single die. If she likes that result, she stops. On the other hand, she might well want to go for a better result, in which case she rolls additional dice, one at a time, until she gets a result she is happy with. Once she is happy with the result, she gives her character the talent and ability required by the final result. The talent will be equal to the number of dice rolled, while the ability can be varied, depending on how many dice she keeps.

Of course, there needs to be a mechanism to stop players just rolling and keeping a hundred dice for everything. So, we’ll give each player a pool of points she can use to buy talents and abilities. I suspect that talents should be more expensive than abilities, because they will be more widely applicable, so let’s say 2 points for 1 point of talent, and 1 point for 1 point of ability. This might turn out to be wrong; in the example developed earlier, abilities were more useful than talents, because there were about the same number of both, and dice kept improve your results more than dice rolled.

For example, suppose that our example player is trying to come up with an original idea for a novel. The scenario tells her that she needs to roll her Creativity and keep either knowledge of the subject matter or knowledge of a related genre. Of course, she doesn’t have either of those yet. The scenario also tells her that higher is better, and that she wants a result of at least 9. She decides to go for knowledge of the subject matter as her ability, and makes a note. She rolls her first die, and gets a 1. Not a great start. The second die comes up with a 2, so she keeps going and gets a 4. That’s still not enough, so she rolls a fourth die, and gets a 6. Stopping is an option now, because she can get over 9. She rolled four dice, so she must have a Creativity of 4. That costs 8 points. She could choose to keep just two dice, for a total of 10, and a total cost of 10 points, but she could also choose to keep all four dice, for a total of 13, and a total cost of 12 points.

A similar mechanism can be used for items or features that grant additional dice. The scenario can make them available as an option, with a cost attached, and players who want them can buy them for their characters, and then use them. This can be used to introduce significant elements of character background in play, and thus flesh out the characters. If things like sex, race, and age are going to be significant, the scenario should introduce them early on, because it’s hard to play for long without knowing even that about your own character.

What happens when more than one player wants to take an action? One possibility is just to agree on who will do it. However, it’s best to have a mechanism for when people can’t agree. So, I think that each player will start with a pool of points, about six, with which they can bid for actions. If a player chooses not to take an action, the pool grows by one. Players who want to take the action, or acquire a characteristic, can bid against each other. Only the winner has to spend the points from her pool, but if you chose to bid you don’t get an extra point.

For things that won’t come up again later, such as background features, it would be a good idea to have a mechanism that allows players to insist on having that feature for their character. Thus, even if you lose the auction, you can have a feature by paying an additional point for it. The other player still gets to take this action, however.

This structure will encourage turn-taking, while still allowing some flexibility.

However, there is a problem with this structure. A player has to decide on how good the character’s talents and abilities are very early in the game, before she really knows which are most important, or what she wants her character to be. Recall that the player sets the character’s talent and ability by deciding how many dice to roll and keep; there is no ambiguity about the actual level of the scores. Something a bit more flexible would be better.

This can be done if the rolls result in simple success or failure. If it doesn’t matter by how much a roll beats the difficulty, then you can say that your successful character has at least a certain level in the talent and ability, but may be better. If we look at the example again, this character would have at least 4 in Creativity and at least 2 in knowledge of the genre, but might have higher scores in both; that’s something that the player could decide later, when she knew more about the game, and her character.

However, in order to make that possible, we need to seriously revise the mechanics for creation. Can we do that? I’ll look at that in the next post.

Creating Projects

So, how do we stitch creative actions together into a story? Here, I think I do want to model things on the classic RPG pattern. It’s classic for a reason, after all. The pattern is to have a number of encounters, which go together to form an adventure. Adventures are then strung together into campaigns. Now, in a classic RPG, one encounter is a fight. In this RPG, however, one encounter is either coming up with an idea, or realising the idea in concrete form. Thus, we can’t use the classic RPG adventure structure, of fighting your way through the underlings until you hit the big boss.

Instead, I’m going to suggest that the equivalent of an adventure is a single creative project. Of course, you could do a project in two encounters: one to come up with the idea, and one to realise it. However, that wouldn’t be interesting enough, or long enough. The number of encounters necessary will depend on how long an encounter takes, but between four and twelve strikes me as a reasonable range. So, how do we get that many?

This is where I want to use something that Jeff mentioned in a comment on an earlier post: problem decomposition. Each project should be split into a number of sub-projects. These might be obvious “parts”: for example, the beginning, middle, and end of a novel. They could, however, also be things that can’t be separated out so easily. Thus, a novel might be separated into its protagonist, antagonist, setting, and plot. In order to create the novel, you have to create all the bits. The overall goal of the adventure should be a product with a quality over a certain standard, which will then achieve a goal set at the beginning of the adventure. The description of the adventure is, obviously, an important part of making the players care about achieving this, just as it is in any other RPG.

Another lesson that we should learn from classic RPG adventures is that railroading is bad design. This is the application to adventure design of one of our fundamental rules: the players and characters should make decisions that have an impact on the course of the game. Thus, the players and characters should be able to choose how to approach the central problem of the adventure, and it shouldn’t just be a choice between doing it the way the designer wanted, and failing.

Problem decomposition gives us a way to address this. First, once a problem has been split into sub-problems, those sub-problems can be tackled in various orders. There will, most likely, be some orders you can’t choose; if one of the sub-problems is “integrate all your creations”, for example, that really has to come last. However, complete freedom is not a necessary feature of an adventure, and not, in fact, a positive one; the paradox of choice, where having too many options paralyses people, comes into play. As long as there are multiple sensible options, even just two or three, the players are in control.

The order in which sub-problems are tackled needs to have an impact on the final result, probably by having the results of one sub-creation affect future encounters. The most obvious way to do this is to have it make the future creations either easier or harder. In addition, it’s probably best if each choice of sub-project makes some later projects easier and others harder, so that there isn’t an obvious best choice. If one choice is obviously better than the others, it’s arguable that there’s no real choice at all.

One potential problem to look out for here is the risk of cycles of improvement, where you do something that makes another step easier, then do that step, then use the benefit from that step to improve the first step, repeating until both are infinitely good. The rules must be set up to block this, but you also need an in-game justification. Fortunately, that is fairly easy to provide. Going back to redo the first sub-problem would normally require redoing the whole project, since you would lose things that you had depended on in the later creations. Rules to block these sorts of cycle should, therefore, not break suspension of disbelief.

There is a second way that problem decomposition can help us to avoid railroading. It might be possible to split an overall project into sub-projects in different ways. This needs to have an effect on the final project, in order to be meaningful, but as long as the final quality of the project is complex, this is easy to manage. Different decompositions can make different aspects of the final project easy or difficult to improve.

How much decomposition are we talking about? Let’s say that a project needs an idea for the whole project, and then integrating to produce a concrete result at the end. That’s two encounters. To have four to twelve encounters for the whole adventure, we’re looking at one to five sub-sections. One doesn’t make any sense, but we could have a very simple case where the idea for the whole project is trivial, as is integration, and the project itself splits into two parts, each of which requires two encounters. Otherwise, three to five subsections sounds reasonable. If you have three, A, B, and C, doing A first could make B harder and C easier, doing B first could make A easier and C harder, while doing C first could make A harder and B easier. There’s no obviously superior choice here, so that works for avoiding railroading.

If multiple decompositions are possible, we could also have decompositions with different numbers of elements. This might affect the time necessary to complete the project, which would be important if there was a time limit on the whole scenario. In this case, the method that takes more time could be easier overall. It might work better, if you can just get it all finished by the deadline.

It should be obvious from this discussion that writing adventures for this game is going to be fairly hard work, but that’s no different from writing them for any other game. One thing that is a little surprising is that there is still no sign that a gamemaster is going to be necessary. There is no information that needs to be hidden from the players to make the adventure interesting. Indeed, the characters should also know most of the game information in advance. In a campaign, there might be unintended consequences of certain decisions, and it might be better for the players not to know about those when making the decisions in question, but even that can be got around. The characters might not know, and it might be impossible to solve one problem without creating the new one. In that case, the players will have no choice but to go ahead, and they can role-play being surprised.

Finally, I said that there was a reason why the classic model was classic. What is that reason, and does it still apply to this adventure model? The reason is that the classic model breaks an adventure down into units. When designing an adventure, you can treat each encounter as a black box, with inputs and outputs, and connect those boxes together. Then you can design each encounter without having to worry about the details of the other encounters. Of course, you can add details that link the various encounters if you want, but that’s optional, and you only need to worry about it to the extent you want to. In short, the classic model keeps the complexity of adventure design under control, while allowing the experience to feel complex. That is preserved in this adventure model. The individual creations can be treated as black boxes, as only their qualities are relevant to the way that the later sections, and the whole adventure, turn out.

I need to actually write an adventure to work this model out in detail, but before I do that I want to look at character creation. I’ll do that in the next post.

Executive Abilities

The abilities needed to execute an idea are very likely to be different from those needed to come up with it (a possible exception is knowledge of genres), but what about the talents? Do they have to be different as well? I think that we can have some overlap, which is a good thing; characters should not have too many talents. All characters will have all of them, so if there are dozens, the character sheet will get a little too crowded.

So far, Empathy and Analysis have both been used once, while Synthesis and Creativity have both been used twice. We have another six “slots” in these rules, so it would actually be possible to balance perfectly, at three uses each, but that might not make any sense. However, it would be a good idea to try to spread things out a bit. We want to avoid having a must-have stat, or a dump stat.

First, Empathy makes a lot of sense as the talent that goes with improving Accessibility. The better you understand how people think, the better able you will be to make your writing accessible to them. You will know what they won’t understand on first reading, and know how to rephrase it to make it easier to grasp.

Embedding would really have to be Synthesis or Creativity, if we used the existing talents. Synthesis makes sense; you are looking for patterns in your idea and the cultural elements you are drawing on.

What about Technique? I think I’d like to introduce another talent here: Concentration, the ability to focus on something, and to keep all the aspects of it in mind at once. This makes sense as the talent governing Technique, because if you slip up once, the technical aspects of your work will suffer.

So far, Synthesis has three uses, Empathy and Creativity have two each, and Analysis and Concentration have one each. I probably want to avoid using Synthesis in the rules for reducing the resistances of the execution, but we are not terribly unbalanced at the moment.

Before looking at reducing the resistances, however, we should think about the abilities for improving the qualities. We really need at least one ability that reflects the ability to compose prose, and that ability should affect Technique. However, since there need to be two abilities that can affect Technique, maybe there should be two abilities, each concerning a different aspect of prose composition. Actually, two sets may be best, because of the candidates that occur to me.

One of the two abilities must also be able to affect Accessibility. One aspect of accessibility is the way that the work is written, the word choice and sentence structure. This would naturally be affected by the ability to compose prose in a particular language. We could call this [Language] Prose Composition, substituting the name of the language.

The other ability must also affect Embedding, so a Prose Composition ability specific to the genre you are writing in makes sense. Part of knowing how to write a particular genre is knowing the conventions and references to make, and this is not necessarily the same as knowledge of the genre as such. If you know about the genre, you might be able to say who wrote something, but not necessarily reproduce it.

However, knowledge of the genre, or, more broadly, of the culture, is a good candidate for the third ability. It affects Embedding, obviously, but also Accessibility. If you are aiming at people within a given culture, it helps to know what sort of things they know, and thus what assumptions you can make. The precise ability used here is rather open: it could be knowledge of the genre you are writing in, or knowledge of another genre, or more general knowledge of a culture. However, you shouldn’t be allowed to mix and match, because that would just create a confusing book. Once you have chosen a context for a novel, you have to stick with it.

This choice of abilities means that someone with good [Genre] Prose Composition and [Genre] Knowledge can write good works in that genre in any language she can speak. On the other hand, someone with good [Language] Prose Composition can write good works in that language in any genre she knows. This is, I think, basically reasonable. I’ve obviously concentrated on English Prose Composition, because I can’t write stuff in Japanese…

So, what about reducing the resistances? [Language] Prose Composition has to affect Embedding, and [Genre] Prose Composition, Accessibility, while [Genre] Knowledge affects Technique.

The last one is very easy to justify: Analysis and [Genre] Knowledge lets you see where the structure of the work is letting you down, by comparing to other works that you know, and the problems that they have. This also gives Analysis two uses. Before assigning the second ability, however, I’d like to look at the other two statistics. That might affect which ability looks sensible here.

I think that Concentration and [Language] Prose Composition can be justified for Embedding. Concentrating on how the words are put together might reveal places where you can put in more references without it becoming awkward, or places where you are wasting words, and could rewrite them to draw in more references.

So, the last problem is how to link [Genre] Prose Composition to Accessibility. Looking at the balance, we should use Empathy or Creativity as the talent. Empathy is already used for improving Accessibility, so Creativity is a better choice. So, what’s going on? Maybe you’re finding a new way to write something that makes it easier to include explanation or introduction, or that takes the emphasis off technical points and moves it back towards the characters. This would open up space for improving Accessibility again.

So, looking at the choices for second ability, I think [Language] Prose Composition is best for Technique. In many ways, it’s the purest technical ability here, so it should help you to find the problems in what you’ve written. That means that Embedding goes with [Genre] Prose Composition, which can be defended in the same way as [Language] Prose Composition, while Accessibility goes with [Genre] Knowledge. Your knowledge of the genre allows you to see a way you could make it easier for people to get into the book.

I think this makes enough sense for an initial outline. The talents all have a similar level of usefulness, as do the abilities, although [Genre] Knowledge is noticeably more useful than the others. What’s more, we still don’t need a GM. Might that actually be sustainable? I’m going to have to think about that carefully as I continue the design.

So far, I’ve outlined the “combat system” of the game; the system central to resolving the main individual challenges. However, I still need to think about the game as a whole. Just creating one thing after another would be as boring as just fighting one monster after another. How do I tie the challenges into a story?