peeking in the toolbox

This article is written as some kind of followup of a post written by my favourite bat, but as my average article gestation time is measurable in months, well, it kinda spun off in its own direction.
Here’s the content of my toolbox: what I use when I need some help during improvisation:
  • AEG Toolbox. Toolbox is a thick book chock full of tables: the original book is quite d20 oriented but the stats can be disregarded as needed. Back in the day my toolbox was literally just this handbook (and the d20 core books). AEG put out also Ultimate Toolbox (excerpts available), which is TONS of new material and not a reprint of the old stuff in a posher book, this time in system neutral format. I’d get it but as I have the first one I’m not willing to spend money for it. I always find a bit hard to find stuff in this kind of book.
  • Monsterless Manual from Beyond The Black Gate, because at times you need to have stats for a wench or a sergeant, or you want to insert an interesting dramatis persona but don’t know who (the same way we crack open the monster manual looking for an interesting encounter). Dragon Lords of Melnibone (d20 version) has an equivalent section, but with more fluff: the Monsterless Manual has justs stats and a random personality table. Hiring tariffs would have been a nice addition (how much is a wench? and a soldier? and a doctor? for a month? or an hour?), as well as “meaningful names” for characters, such as… ok, can’t come up with anything in English but a wench called “Darla Presti” sounds totally right in Italian; about that, see here for the concept, here for villains, and here in general, because nomen omen est.
  • Kellri’s netbooks. You know them already, or at least you should. As previously mentioned, my campaign without CDD#4 would have been much more boring, or hard work, but possibly both; being similar to AEG Toolbox, it suffer the same lookup-problem (but it’s cheap).
  • Roleplaying Tips’ Session Checklist (second part here). It’s the second most gaming-significant article I’ve ever read, the first page of my RPG ring-binder used to be the same handwritten checklist. I might as well put it back there or even better stick it to the binder cover. If you’re interested, the first one is here, but mostly concerned with other stuff.
  • my RPG ring-binder. Years of game writing and improvisation produce an amazing quantity of material, yet most of it it’s never recorded. And I don’t mean plots and bad acting, I mean NPC personas and stats, motivations, locations, stuff players really enjoy and so on. I understand that you might not want to break the game flux and rhythm taking notes, but GMs might be literally throwing away the best bits of their improv efforts. It’s like not taking notes while brainstorming: you might lose gems.
  • Everway decks and a tarot deck. I got Everway used for 5 quid but never played it (the full set of cards can be bought for cheap on ebay), and one of my best friends bought me a tarot deck. Both are tools used to build narratives around protagonists, and I used both for improv and adventure-writing. There are countless sources that teach tarot reading, I use Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot and Place’s The Tarot, and you can resort to automatic spreads if you have no decks around. There are also many versions of Ravenloft Tarokka decks you can use. Everway cards have questions on the back, which kinda handholds brainstorming but makes it way faster; overall better than a tarot deck as it’s not “polluted” with christian and jewitchery themes that might make it alien to your fantasy world.
  • For dungeons, I usually resort to geomorphs. Lately I printed and cut DysonLogos’s and Risus’s. If there’s the need to “save” the dungeon disposition, I can use a digital camera or a webcam.
  • Websites: Cartographers’ Guild and Google have nice maps/props, and I stop by Age of Fable and Chaotic Shiny when in need of generators.

a mind blank and improvisation

When I’m tired my language skills are terrible. I wrote this at 1:30 AM after a very long day. please forgive me.

It’s been a while since my last post here. About 10 days.

It also must be said that meanwhile I started about 10 drafts, but none of them seemed worthwhile enough. Possibly beause I’m very tired and feel very spent, possibly because (before sunday) I haven’t run a game since April 4th, when the party went TPK. I played Carlo’s GURPS fantasy sandbox a handful of times in the meanwhile, enjoyed a few games of Agricola, Sankt Petersburg, Carcassonne, San Juan. But no games run.

But Sunday players came over, rolled new PCs and decided to start over in a random campaign location. to pick the spot one literally closed his eyes and pointed at the map. Turned out the location was exactly one hex away from there the TPK happened. I could have had railroaded them back to the “main campaign” but they wanted something different, so I just came up with this village of hunters, loggers and shepherds, and unilaterally declared that their PCs are teenagers, a few months before their “coming of age” ritual.

I could have gone a bit further and, instead of let them pick a “normal” equipment, force them to look around and pick stuff up.

But they decided to go hunting, to show off. And stumbled in tracks, that ended at a cavern, smoked out what was inside and killed a bear. In the bear cave they found a dungeon entrance as well. They went in and did neat old school stuff. As in having their gender changed by a magic fountain, set a tapestry afire, which in turn made angry an ogre, which later was dispatched as it charged the spear-set characters. Enough loot was had to max-out level 2, mostly jewels (which are extremely valuable in B/X and BECMI), plus a +1 long sword, light on command (but they don’t know the command, and it’s switched on). Nothing too complex, but good fun was had, and later feedback was good.

Same setup as last time (at the Glasgow University gaming club), except I didn’t chicken out. Because, despite not having prepared anything, I spent some time preparing myself to improvise; decent “fluff” comes easy, but decent “crunchy bits” are a way, way harder for me. My mind was blank, but I had tools.

A few notes from the session:

  • d6 as oracle: simply put, if something is in doubt, a x-in-6 change is determined and a dice is rolled.
  • Kellri’s Old School Reference manuals proved to be awesome again, specially volume 4.
  • Dungeon was built using geomorphic tiles from A Character for Every Game. If a dungeon is needed it can be uncomfortably hard to come up with one. In this case tiles were pulled out randomly from a stack. I expected to see a 8×8 pattern of content but a mix of transcription errors and a bit of fudging made it more organic (and made the tiles reusable). Sure, it can feel a bit randomish, but most probably it was built by a number of different cultures/people over the years and not just by the current inhabitants, so there is the increased verosimilitude of both adapting the inhabitant needs to the living space and the inhabitants adapting the living space. Kobolds burrowed and the ogre kept for himself the bigger room. The magic fountain makes water available (the magic wears off if water is taken away).
  • Moldway suggestion to stock the dungeon with a few selected monsters and fill the rest with the dungeon stock table. Jeff Rients, in a great article in Fight On! #6, advices to split the population in “main guys” (say, a tribe of kobolds), a “lone wolf” (say, OGRE) and random creeps (snakes, fungi, etc): coming up with interaction between these three groups is up to you and, while technically not needed, can add complexity and depth to the dungeon (the ogre is fed by the kobolds so to keep him from going “OGRE SMASH”). Sham wrote on the topic of empty rooms and dungeon stocking a lot (also in more meaningful posts that I can’t find at the moment) so if you want to know more just follow the link.
  • Rients suggests also to create a random encounter table specific for the location. The tables provided in B/X has entries that probably won’t fit with your dungeon. My suggestion is to start with an empty table and fill it with random results from other tables, replacing entries that don’t fit with handpicked ones or with monster from the above three groups.
  • my GM screen (AC7) doesn’t have any table that I use in game. I prepared a list with 22 items I needed to refer to (more or less) frequently that my stupid screen doesn’t make available. I might try to consult Dragonlance DM screen (my favourite from AD&D) to to see if it has any good bits I missed.
  • take notes on what you create, so you can refer to them later. Running a campaign like this is like a flyweight: if it’s not moving, it takes effort to move it, but as you fill in the blanks it will be easier and easier to create material. In this case coherency can be both a great help and a really powerful tool, because if something is “wrong” you have an “instant mistery” (as in “why the caravans that left the village last week never made it to the city?”).
  • the biggest asset tho was to have no idea whatsoever of what would happen next. I often riff off my player’s ideas because, well, if it’s fun to “say yes”, it’s even funnier to run away with them.

For me, improvisation is a skill that needs practice and can be helped a lot by the right tools. It requires confidence from the DM and willingness to risk (both to be wiped out and to have a bad game) from players. It’s definitely thepart of running games that I prefer, and with practice it gets more and more effective and easier. It’s just a matter of getting started.

Guest Post: The Rise and Fall of a Game Master

We were cooling off after one of our three-hours long gaming sessions and, as it often happens, we drifted to campaign building, sandboxes and all the usual topics.

Somehow I ended up retelling how campaign building, to me, was totally different when I was 16 years old. And yes, this assertion makes me sound like a wizened old moron.

When I was 16 I didn’t have to prepare anything before a session. In fact I could go on for hours, events and people would play around in my head and in my players’ eyes, all of it made up on the spot, coherent, a bounty of gaming opportunities.

In fact I recall starting one of our most tasty campaigns ever, one which my players still recall fondly even if it ended in a total party kill*, with just this thought floating in my head: the main character is a young noble coming back from the war, where he finds that his father has left, along with most of the cash and the entire family entourage, for a distant land.

I recall, during the middle of the first session, that I told myself: “Sure this father of his was mighty crazy to leave land and title behind for a random exploration, what sort of family would follow him?”. The abandoned castle exploration turned into a tour of the family’s follies, from the weird underground theatre where ogres were showcased and trained to perform circus exibitions, to the endless labyrinth of tunnels that Aunt Greta had magically dug to loose herself, finally succeeding, never to be seen again. The exploration went on and on for multiple six-hours long sessions, all of it was entirely made up on the spot, without effort and without worry.

I wonder if the style of that campaign, and others, could be defined as being a sandbox. There surely was no story arc for the players to follow, at first, then all of my ravings started to be pushed consistently in one direction by the players together. It somehow climaxed multiple times before, at last, the aforementioned showdown on the flying steps, versus a dozen Balrogs.

After that golden period though, I entered a dark age, from 17 up to 20 and maybe a bit beyond, everything changed.

My mind was empty, I felt a kind of suffocation, no matter how powerful was the initial idea for the campaign, after a few minutes into the first session I was lost into a bleak landscape and my players began to watch tv in the meanwhile.

I must have aborted a dozen campaigns after a couple hours of struggling, painful “play”.

At first, of course, I blamed the players, who would loose interest before I could enter “the flow”, which, I told myself, would certainly happen after a session or two. But, while it was true that I was never allowed more than one session to prove the worth of the campaign, the whole concept of just needing a couple sessions to start properly GMing was bullshit. I am now sure that, even if we had endured dozen of hours of the gray void I was evoking at each attempt, nothing good would have come of it.

Like the efficient customers of a product marketing simulation, my players killed my campaigns just in time, as I was starting to truly feel the pain. I guess that their perfect timing was due to the fact that they were feeling the same pain.

Witnessing the abortion of so many campaigns I started to put in more and more time in preparation, something which I never had to do before. Yet, all of the preparation in the world did not let me run a successful campaign; and, towards the end of the dark ages, I tried hard enough to know.

How did I leave the dark ages? In my humble opinion I never fully left them, or, better, I never could return to the golden age. Maybe that’s because we are unable to meet for whole afternoons thrice a week, but it’s also because I now only partially manage to enter the flow.

I start with a fine scenario, but it must be fairly detailed. I must have a good idea of all the entities involved in the core of the scenario and what are their goals and personalities. Then I fill in the rest during the game, and it works. I tend to begin with no more than a couple “forced” adventures to warm up the group and to provide ways for them to show interest in one or more of the seeds. The introductions are definitely part of the scenario preparation and I prepare them to introduce as many seeds as possible without messing everything up.

Unsurprisingly, this structure is pretty much the same that popped up in the golden age. During the dark ages, starting from this very same structure (albeit unconscious), I made a full circle, from totally unstructured “The characters are crazy deamons” campaigns, to meticulous “On the 6th of Larane the Agrikan knights leave Dirisa” epics, and finally back. All equally unsuccessful.

One very telling detail of the good campaigns is that, for all the preparation, almost nothing which actually proved memorable to me and my players was prepared. Most of the stuff that was really great, we invented on the spot, just like in the old days of yore. The difference now is that the great stuff is not present in such quantity as to be self-sustaining, I need solid, reliable, pre-produced mortar to support and breed the rest.

A few examples of the stuff that really worked great :

  • The merchant Galibaf, who will cater only the best stuff to the best adventurers, but who always leaves the PCs feeling like they have been duped, because, you know, Galibaf always wins a bargain, hands down.
  • The welcoming folks of the city of steel and coal, Volkgrendel, who speak like operetta nazi yet always gawk at the players and ask why THEY speak with “So veird an achzent!”.
  • The goddess Berella, who switched sides from being a dark and evil goddess into a purported goddes of light, thanks to her timely bedding with the head of the light pantheon, just as the fortunes of her previous partner, the god of violence, were waning. The switch meant that the PC who was worshipping her, as a professional assassin, found himself a paladin one week later. Yet, at crucial moments, he manifested peculiarly sinister powers, which hinted at the true nature of his Lady. He unofficially began to hail her as “The whore of heavens”, as she was often too busy “working” up the hierarchy of light, to answer his calls.

The stuff that I prepare, instead, even that which I consider to be top notch, which I often expect to astonish and gratify the players, the Blunderbuss, Dago and other cool stuff which does not belong to this post, is rarely a huge success. Sometimes it’s memorable, but it is not such a force in the campaign as I would have expected. I finally came to the conclusion that I must strive to prepare the best, most interesting stuff without hoping that it will guide the campaign. No matter how central I may believe a prepared piece of stuff to be, the central NPC in the main campaign seed, it will always be just context for the players, it’s the stuff I make up on the spot to react to the players actions in that context that becomes central and truly drives the campaign.

[And now, for something completely different: you would not believe it, but I just witnessed a snow avalanche while typing this. I’m on a train and while exiting the Gotthard tunnel I glanced out to see a previously green valley being engulfed by tons of snow sliding from mountaintops]

Finally, to wrap up this endless jaculatory with an endless closing, here follows my take on my shifting and ebbing performances in game mastering, and read carefully, because this is going to be utterly simplistic and obvious, proving that if there was any entertainment to grasp from this post, it was certainly located upflow from here:

Since the same campaign structure has both succeeded and utterly failed, which is the difference between the golden age, with its effortless and huge success, the dark age, with its serial failures, the silver age with much more technique and fair results?

A child’s unrestrained imagination, finally replaced by technique and experience?

Imagination, yes, but I think it has but a weak relation to brain age. The fact is that between 13 and 16 I was living and breathing my games. I didn’t invent all of that stuff on the spot without preparation, that’s nonsense. The preparation was there, it was pervasive, entertaining and completely unstructured. It took up most of my free time, even if I was apparently doing something else.

Lots of what I happened to see would push me to broad fantastications. Not plain stuff, as one might expect when picturing the way a child’s mind works, no, I was never inspired by a bus or by the bleak church standing beside my flat. It was the clouds, the mountains encircling Turin (which I could see once a week when pollution and fog were lifted by the odd windy day, thanks to the city’s marvelous weather), roman ruins, castles, NASA images, the Silmarillion (never a book was more boring, but such style!), maps, ancient pieces of furniture, game books, avalanches…

The good news is that this kind of stuff still has the same effect on me, it sparks my imagination. I just became good at focusing on “important stuff” and I didn’t let the multitude of inspirations around me run their full length in my head.

That’s what killed my games when I was a teen. I suddenly became focused on mundane stuff : school, technology, girls, friends, parties and the time my brain spent on thinking crazy was reduced to near-zero. What a waste!

Dedicated, time-boxed efforts to prepare the campaign resulted in a drift towards rigid adventures which killed the campaign even sooner than usual.

The first fine campaign I was able to run after the dark ages (the one which in fact marked the end of it) was run during a very peaceful period of my life, with little or no worries. Then I noticed that I had switched back to fantasticating and understood its relationship with the quality of my gaming sessions.

I’ve come to value my absent-mindedness, it’s what keeps me out of the dark ages. I’ve begun to breed it rather than the campaign itself and I’ve found that things have started to work, a bit, once more.

In one line: to me, the most valuable preparation is preparing a state of mind.

[*] : but it was a full-party kill set on the flying steps leading to the altar holding the ultimate sword of power, the only one capable of stopping the war between two races by proving that none was superior, but both were inferior to the now extinct smiths of said sword.

I asked Carlo, my GM to write a guest post, after the discussion mentioned at the beginning of the post. He runs a GURPS 4th edition campaign. It’s a rules-heavy sandbox and my character is a monk, whose order I shall label “celtic shaolin” for lack of better words. Anyway, he mostly does software engineering, not RPGs, so don’t expect to find about dragons & daemons in his blog. Yet.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 2: your players are unique snowflakes a.k.a. psychographics are lame

All the posts in the serie here.

Picking up where I left last time

This post was supposed to be about players psychographics and what drives them and how to deal with that but the topic has been discussed, dissected & bled dry so many times I don’t feel the need to even go near it.

Instead I’d like to go meta on that and spend a couple of words on the relationship between your players and your game. If this sounds like utter poppycock to you, leave a comment:

  • they’re all different: different people means different needs means different things they get out of playing, and different ways of moving in social spaces. If you’re friends with them, cherish the thought that you know how to handle them in meatspace and realize that it takes great people to completely separate what happen in game and what happens around the table, because by its own nature of gamespace is subversive and used to behave in ways not possible in real life. Don’t pidgeonhole players in the usual G/N/S or whichever taxonomy they invented this month: as you have 5-10 people and not 5-10 hundred thousand, you can afford to treat them as unique snowflakes. This allows you to put treats and challenges in your game for all of them. It’s not so much work…
  • on a more general level, in all games, but in RPGs evermore so, every participant is perfectly able to spoil the fun of everyone else, so partially responsible for everyone else’s fun. Don’t play with dicks, and don’t be a dick yourself. This applies even more in sandboxes as there’s no shame involved with derailing the plot, killing important NPCs or torching villages.
  • ask them for feedback: what makes them tick and what ticks them off about how you and other players play. There are some games I’ve run lately which seemed totally lame to me but, after soliciting feedback from my players, were great fun. To get better you need to learn from your errors and your successes, but to tell them apart you need feedback. Also, when things happen at the table take a note (mental or otherwise) of how people react: feedback asked might be not totally genuine for a number of reasons, so understanding how they react to events is very important. Think ethnographer.
  • you’ll see patterns of behaviour: for example, my group never scouts any location. Never ever, and their retinue has a number of rogues. Yours might always scrutinize every corner of every room for treasure, or they might always play wiseguy with all NPCs. If and how you want to use this knowledge as DM is up to you: plot is a metagame element usually absent from sandboxes (at least in its traditional sense of “predetermined string of events that are the focus of the attention”) but you can always metagame in other directions.
  • knowing what they want is easy: ask them! They probably don’t need exactly what they want, but it can be a nudge in the right direction. In general in a sandbox they’ll pursue activities they like (think Pavlov’s dog) and avoid what they don’t, so if they never scout it might be because they don’t like it or because they don’t like falling back or running away (also known as: I’m insecure and I don’t want to fail also in gamespace).

So, yes, you created your world and it’s a shining and beautiful gem but to remember to think of how your end users will interact with it.

How I learnt not to suck at running games

I remember my first RPG session: I ran S. Andre’s Amulet of the Salkti for a bunch of classmates in primary school. It tanked: as I was basically the only one that was up for running games I didn’t have much to learn from so I kept on tanking for years, improving slowly. After a while I learnt that with what we would now call hexcrawls peppered with published adventures players enjoyed more (and allowed me to sneak in locations and plots if I felt inspired or simply rolled up something myself).

Fast forward a few years, there’s a single piece of writing that changed the way I run games: Roleplaying Tips’ Session Checklist (second part here).

Go. Read both parts. Come back.

Ok, it’s not that mind shattering. But I realized three things:

First: I had a list I just needed to fill in to have enjoyable sessions.The first adventure I ran with this was a campaign reboot (why the campaign needed a reboot is a nice topic for another post) and the players were glowing. It almost never happened before. The following adventures were the same. Maybe it works for me because I just needed a “metagaming crutch” to make my games better: perhaps with more significant encounters, maybe because it’s focused towards the game user model.

Second: my left-sided brain realized that a GM is at the same time a content creator, an entertainer and an MC. GMs have to put adventure materials together, make a nice session out of them and keep the evening enjoyable and with a nice rhythm. Players have great responsibilities and RPGs are no democracy, but instant recall is always an option.

Third: you can’t get better than content created specifically for players. Sure, engaging all the PCs is good (I see it as a failure if it doesn’t happen) but I feel that engaging  and entertaining all the players is the holy grail of RPGs (and downright impossible with a new group). Forget about deep plots, coherent settings, verosimile NPCs if players want gonzo sandboxes filled with ducks and flumph civilizations.

User Experience is King.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 1

I’m going to deconstruct a bit the process I use to build a sandbox, starting from last session. It will take a number of posts because there are plenty of things to write about.

All the posts in the serie here.

This is what happened last session, in about four-five hours:

  • after meeting a basilisk last session, they’re left with a couple of statues of people from their huge menagerie of henchmen, followers and fanboys.
  • so they decide to go and get some trees up the mountains (they’re in a rocky desert/badland type area by some less desertic mountains where actually trees happen to grow).
  • they go up and they kinda totally stumble in a giant rattlesnake. Ms Wyslosky, the badassest fighting-person of the party (follower of one of the two wizards) gets bitten three times before dispatching the reptile. Then fails three saves out of three and die horribly.
  • they manage to make a raft to bring the statues (and themselves) to the nearest city. I forgot to mention to you, reader, that there is a canyon in the desert with a river at the bottom. I also forgot to mention that they’ve never seen any boat on it. On the way some of them fall off the raft (rapids, aha) but they manage not to die or to lose anything except a copied spellbook due to water damage.
  • then they meet a bunch of naiads. Somehow the reaction roll is stupidly high so the nixies are friendly and don’t enslave all of them, instead the leader (Lily) introduces them to their which-queen, which returns the statues to meatyness. Since they can’t pay the queen asks somebody to be left there in slavery: they talk one of their henchmen (an ex-petrified halfling) to hang out with tens of hot water-nymphs. I foresee death by snu-snu for chubby here. Party begs the queen for informations about who could resurrect their friend, which tells them about someone in the desert, the entrance of his place sealed by a stone slab with complex engravings in some forgotten language, and another guy living way upstream by the river, up in the mountains, guarding a mausoleum all by itself by a ruined tower (the word “mausoleum” evokes bad memories to my players). They decide for the latter as the which mention the former is way more inhospitable, but she still thinks that they will get no help.
  • they get back to the Unís, the big merchant city, and don’t find anybody to raise their companion. Duh, magic is banned there, unless you’re a Templar. Templars are a cross between civil servants, secret services and commando troops rolled into one badass corp that hang out in a castle on top of a craig by the city harbour, and they bow just to the Queen. The Queen of Unís has been on the throne for hundreds of years and doesn’t really appear in public. None of the PCs are templars (in this campaign), so no special ju-ju fo them, but they find an experienced mercenary that accepts to go with them (for twice the normal pay).
  • They start walking upstream and meet a flying wizard. After another awesome reaction roll it turns out that, yes, the wizard is actually looking for apprentices and tells the pc the location of his tower before flying away.
  • going upstream they reach a waterfall, try to give a look behind it but don’t manage to due to the strength of the river.
  • they are ambushed by a bunch of grunge elves. No, not those from HackMaster, just grungy elves. Fight is hard but the party overcome the challenge and manage to find their treehouse due to a lucky charme person. And Loot was had.

All of this hauling around the body of the fallen in a barrel full of brine.

Now, 10 encounters in 5 hours. None of this was planned. They all enjoyed. Most things were rolled on the fly using the expert box or Kellri’s netbook or based upon existing knowledge.

I have to go and continue the session now. Next post will be about expectations.

custom tailored challenges: a case of nested social contracts

Oddysey at How to Start a Revolution in 21 Days or Less goes over a number of interesting points about combat. She made me think much about the aesthetic of RPG combat aspects and why we still have the “problem” of uninteresting fights (more about this later).

One of her conclusions, that in some games players like fights because that’s where “the fun” is, strikes true on a group recovering from years of d20 campaigns. ECLs and CRs are there to hint at what a “bespoke challenge” for players is, in a way justifying the inclusion of the fight in the adventure as some kind of social pact: players know that the DM will have put in the adventure plot/locales fights that the group can actually not just overcome “somehow”, with tricks and smarts, but also with the use of violence.

Players will hopefully be in “flux zone”, struggling and ultimately succeeding (winning) their fights, while the GM will have satisfied players: a clear win-win situation. This is possible because RPGs support well the use of violence, with clear rules, but the same could apply to any reliable system to handle challenge. Reliable game mechanics support entwines with reliable custom-made content to ensure that all challenges are approachable by the party.

I’d go further on and say that this kind of gaming leads to different options like retreating, parlay and outsmarting the opponent stopping being meaningful because they’re more complex, more unpredictable, more like hard work than simply doing it the “right” way. More like “The game master prepared us a nice (and safe) way to handle the situation, why bother looking for something risky?”.

This is pure railroading: not in the plot-space but in the ludeme-space (as in “the base elements constituting a game”). But the usual culprit, the Demiurge-GM, this time is not entirely at fault (as if we are entitled to speak of fault) as the players want to win he (mostly) wants to create interesting worlds full of interesting people to kill and plots for players to follow.

How did I ever manage to end up in this situation? How did we?

For years, my problem has been perceived lack of player goodwill. I didn’t feel I could afford to disappoint them and to make them feel insecure that we would have a good time playing together. So I created a safe environment for them to play in.

Safety is, for me, a defining element in games. I roughly define games as some kind of “magic circle” where a social contract is in effect: players can behave in given ways and, if they do, their actions bear no consequence whatsoever on the outside of our little “magic circle”.

Inside the game there is no need for a safe environment as the game itself is already a safe environment.

Do we really need that? Do we really need assurance that our PCs will not horribly die? Do we really need a special world within a special world to ensure that the players won’t wreck the campaign world?

What are we going to lose? Security and reliability.

And what are we renouncing to? We’re limiting ourselves to the known and the acceptable. We’re renouncing emergency. Emergent campaign plots in game worlds filled with unknowns, there just to be explored. Not just unknown settings, but also unknown ways of playing.

The Holy Grail of RPGs or, if you want, how they came to be. Braunstein, Blackmoor and Greyhawk are results of broken social contracts.