Combat Modifier Tracking App

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Part of my radio silence around here lately has been that I finally knuckled down and started taking evening programming classes. And I’ve gotten far enough to start making useful apps for gaming purposes.

I’ve been running a lot of Pathfinder over the past few years, and if you have too you might notice something that happens around the mid level and just gets worse and worse: the time overhead required in combat to add up the modifiers from a lot of small buffs and optional feats. This is particularly challenging for archers, power attackers, etc. It’s not uncommon for someone to have to figure out, say, the effects of Haste, Bless, Inspire Courage, Rapid Shot, Point Blank Shot, Deadly Aim, and Favored Enemy on each of his or her many attacks.

Some players just make jotted notes on blank paper. Some go the extra length to make flash cards. Both of those are better than trying to recalculate in your head each attack, but neither is particularly swift. A friend of mine was taking a programming class a few years ago and made himself a simple app to manage his attacks, and it proved extremely useful. It involved a lot of hard coding, though, so I’ve been badgering programmers at my table to make a more customizable version ever since. Now that I have just enough programming to be dangerous, it seemed like a fine time to go ahead and do it myself.

Combat Modifier Windows App

As noted in the link, this is currently only for Windows (Windows forms turn out to be remarkably easy to make). I’m hoping to get enough feedback on it from alpha testers to fix any problems before I start trying to figure out Visual Studios plugins to export to mobile (which would clearly be more useful). So if you’re willing to try it out and give feedback in the comments, I’d appreciate it very much. It is an .exe file, which I solemnly promise is not a virus, and its architecture seems simple enough that my copy of windows doesn’t even warn me about opening it (it’s only looking in its own directory, not trying to install anything).

What It Does

Enter your character’s base attack bonus and your persistent stats for armor class, attack bonus, and damage bonus (persistent in that they’re written on your character sheet and/or possibly include long-lasting buffs… basically, the totals that are easy for you to work out between combats and don’t expect to change much).

You can be on one of three tabs:

  • Single Attack takes an attack and damage bonus for a single weapon.
  • Two Weapons takes them for two weapons, and lets you set how good your two-weapon fighting feat is (basic, improved, or greater). This tab always assumes you’re making a full attack with both weapons, so if you need to make a single attack don’t forget to add back your +2. Using this tab includes all modifiers for two-weapon fighting (you don’t have to add a separate mod).
  • Flurry takes your unarmed attack and damage, your monk level, and your choice of a single attack or a flurry. Using this tab includes all modifiers for flurry of blows (you don’t have to add a separate mod).

You can add any modifier from the first combo box by selecting one and clicking Add. This adds it to the Frequent and Current Modifiers lists (subsequently, you can select it from the Frequent Mods combo box to find it more easily). You can select a mod you’ve added to Current and remove it by clicking the Remove button, or just click Clear All to empty the list of current modifiers (they’ll still be in the combo boxes).

The boxes at the bottom show you your iterative attack sequence, damage bonus, and AC as modified by the buffs (and the iterative sequence is automatically generated based on Base Attack and the rules for two-weapon fighting or flurry of blows).

Installing the App and Editing Modifiers

Extract the zip file into the directory of your choice. Run the .exe. It’s looking at CombatModifiers.txt in the same folder to get its list of combat modifiers.

If you want to add more combat modifiers or change their order, you can mess around in the text file (there’s also an option to add new mods from within the app). Be careful when doing so, as getting the syntax wrong can result in unpredictable errors (the app probably won’t crash, it’ll just have bad data for one or more modifiers):

  • The format for the file is: Modifier Name|Modifier Type|Attack Mod|Defense Mod|AC Mod
  • Modifier name is anything you want that makes it easy to remember what it is. It should be able to take any character other than a pipe, though quotation marks and backslashes may be risky given how C# handles strings.
  • Modifier type will be “Normal” for the vast majority of them. If you have something like Haste or Rapid Shot that grants an additional attack at your highest bonus, the type should be “BonusAttack”. If you have something like Power Attack or Combat Expertise that improves its bonus at every 4 points of Base Attack, the type should be “BaBScaling”. Let me know if you have any other ideas for types
  • Attack, Defense, and AC Mods should all be integers, with a – for negative and no + for positive. The app will probably sub in a 0 if it doesn’t understand what you want.
  • It should be safe to put spaces around the pipe separators if it makes it more readable.
  • You have to have a blank line at the end of the file (but only one), and can’t have any blank lines or comments/headings in the middle of the modifiers.

Known Limitations

I’m calling this known limitations rather than known issues, because issues implies that I hope to fix them. I’d seen apps available that did something similar, but usually as part of a much more vast set of options. I was trying to go for the minimum acceptable thing that did what I wanted, to make the UI and file format super easy to use (in addition to making the scope of the coding simpler). I quickly found out that 3.x is a huge and interlocking thing, where getting one rule working makes you want to get one more rule working to have the first rule be totally robust. For example:

  • The system doesn’t know anything about bonus type. It will happily let you add conflicting modifiers together (e.g., Bless and Heroism). You need to keep an eye on that yourself.
  • It doesn’t know your Strength or Dexterity, or how they affect anything. So you basically have to hand-tailor a modifier to your own scores if you want to include them. I worry about including Rage, since there are probably stat combinations where they’re not exactly correct (particularly for Greater Rage with a two-handed weapon). It’s probably often going to get strength-based damage modifiers wrong for off-hand attacks.
  • It doesn’t know how much of your AC is touch or flat-footed.
  • It doesn’t track size bonuses (or damage die type at all).
  • It doesn’t automatically sort any lists.
  • It doesn’t track how long buffs last.
  • It doesn’t know about caster levels or anything other than personal Base Attack that might make an effect scale, so you have to make separate normal modifiers for each variation of such things.
  • Two-Weapon Fighting doesn’t account for not using a light weapon in your off-hand (but you can probably fake that with an additional modifier).
  • Current Modifiers that scale don’t recalculate if you change your Base Attack after applying them (you have to remove them from current and add them again).
  • It’s mostly for Pathfinder right now (but probably works just as well for 3.5 if you ignore the flurry of blows tab and the modifiers that scale by BaB). You’d probably have to make your own modifier list, at a minimum, to use it for 4e or 5e.

Let me know if any of these limitations are a dealbreaker for you and why, and I’ll think about how to implement them. Also let me know any problems that I didn’t notice.

Finally, I’m not totally clear on whether this is at the point that it’s specific enough that I need to put the OGL disclaimer in the application anywhere. Does anyone with more experience making d20 stuff know?

Designers and the Desirability of Dogfooding

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For those not familiar with the term, “dogfooding” is the idea that when you produce a product you should “eat your own dogfood” and use the product you make. It appears to have originated in software development, and is a particularly common exhortation in the video game industry. Companies frequently ask their employees to play their games regularly, even when not on the clock, and a lot of companies with live games make significant play of that game a major factor in hiring decisions (some go so far as to tell applicants that don’t play the game to not even apply).

I had recently wondered whether this was only common in the world of core games: I asked friends whether they thought that developers of Barbie games, for example, were expected to dogfood. When you provide the universe with a question like that, it seeks to provide an answer, and within a week I’d met someone who had been a designer on a Barbie game. Yes, they were expected to dogfood. The entire team was exhorted to “be Barbie” in all of their design decisions.

The idea seems to be pretty obviously good, on the surface, particularly in the applications-development world in which it originated. If developers on Microsoft Word are secretly using WordPerfect at home, that says something pretty problematic about the utility of the software. But I’m not convinced it’s as universally laudable a goal in game development. Before I go into my reservations, I’ll list a few areas where it is a great idea, if used for a particular purpose:

  • Decision makers (producers, leads, and anyone else that can allocate development resources) should play the game at least casually, particularly during betas and major feature pushes. They should attempt to see the game as a player would, and also try out anything that’s suggested to them internally as worthy of their attention. They’re not necessarily playing the game to get ideas for things that should change, so much as to experience pain points that their employees have been trying to get resources to fix. Often, bugs and feature requests that seem low priority when you’re not playing the game escalate precipitously when you are. Playing the game can serve to align the expectations of players, designers, and decision makers.
  • Anyone at the company should play parts of the game relevant to a feature/content he or she is working on. When a task in on your plate, it’s often been flensed of context to make it easier to implement. But that context is still important in how the addition is going to be perceived in the game, and may control how you configure the feature for future expansion. For example, if you’re adding a new creature and thinking about whether to give it a bunch of knockback abilities, it might be important to know how common pits and cliffs are in the areas that creature will appear.
  • Everyone should obviously play their content to make sure it’s free of obvious bugs before turning it over to QA to look for the subtle ones.
  • When players are complaining about something, it’s worth trying to get as many internal eyes on it as possible to see for sure whether the players are right (or are just squeaky wheels; I’ll talk more about this in a later post).

But, all those in mind, I’m not so certain about the general idea of dogfooding, insofar as you should be playing your game all the time, even with no specific ends in mind. There are a few really obvious reasons, mostly related to how video games are not the same as software applications:

  • Games don’t have a clear competitor in most cases, and definitely don’t have a clear use case. It’s embarrassing if the MS Word developer prefers WordPerfect, and it’s strange if he does all of his writing in Wordpad, but, meanwhile, it’s less embarrassing if the Smite designer players a lot of League of Legends (he may prefer the setting/fiction) and not even all that odd if he doesn’t feel up to playing MOBAs in his spare time.
  • Games can require a lot of time, and are ostensibly entertainment. Particularly when someone is off the clock, it’s a little peculiar to expect them to relax by playing the game they’ve been working on for at least 40 hours a week (usually lots more). They probably do not ask the NCIS cast and crew to spend an additional dozen plus hours a week watching reruns of the show as their leisure activity. If you produced a product of a type that your employees were going to use anyway, you could expect dogfooding. But in the games industry it tends to feel a lot like assigning your employees lots of extra work for which they are not being paid. (If you expect them to play the game during a set number of hours in the week for which they are being paid, great! That’s actually a fine way to do dogfooding.)
  • Game developers are not typical users, and it can be dangerous for them to play the game pretending that they are. This last point is obviously my central one, and I’ll unpack it more for the rest of the article.

I know very few game developers that play games like a normal user, particularly on games they’re working on. Everyone that does the job for a living has some level of running commentary when playing a game about things they would have done differently, and this can be very difficult to turn off to just enjoy the game. Artists are constantly critiquing the game’s art, people who work on missions and story are always second guessing the unfolding of plots, those that work on systems are often offended by “choices” that are just exercises in finding the one correct option, and don’t even get me started on UI designers confronted with someone else’s UI.

And this is just the kind of thing that happens to you when you’ve been doing it as a job; just like people that work on films watch them much differently than normal viewers, the process of working on games changes your priorities and makes you hyperaware of the craft that went into the art. But on top of that, many developers are unusual even before adding in the years of behind-the-scenes knowledge. These are people that were so passionate about games that they decided to make them a career instead of the many more lucrative things they could be doing. They are very likely to have stronger opinions about things than a normal player.

There’s some good argument that you should make a game for one person, so at least you know that someone will find it fun (and hopefully more people like that person will also find it fun). But, importantly, that one person shouldn’t always (possibly ever) be you. If games were only made for game developers, there would be a lot of audiences (largely composed of the world’s less obsessive people) left without games. And when your company forces you to play your own game, ostensibly for fun, it provides a subtle pressure for you to figure out how to make the game fun for you (to preserve your own sanity), and you could easily lose sight of the fact that things you change to improve your own enjoyment might make it less entertaining for your actual audience.

But what about the companies with live games that only hire existing fans? Surely that solves the issue, since you’re getting an employee that is already part of your audience? Not necessarily. Remember, developers are obsessively passionate. Even if they love your game, they probably love it for a different reason than your average player. If their fannishness is manageable, expect some ramp up time where you have to explain to them why parts of the game they dislike and never use are worthy of development time. Worst case, they could quietly and unintentionally work to bend the game to favor the niche they were part of, reducing the fun for the majority of your players.

Ultimately, my worry about dogfooding in the game industry is that it sets up an expectation that you should only work on games you find fun, and you should work to make your game as fun as possible for you. But games, particularly large games, are targeted at an audience wider than yourself, and I feel like a fundamental skill as a developer is to be able to make things that aren’t for you, but you can still understand how to make them for someone else. I’d much rather work with someone that can make a good case for doing something based on metrics, comparison of multiple sources of user feedback, and established best practices than someone who plays the game regularly and is really passionate about his or her own experience.

There are lots of good reasons to play your own game. And if you’re lucky, it’s even a game that you, yourself, find fun to play. But there shouldn’t be shame if it isn’t, and narrowing down your staff as policy to those that love to play the game or can fake loving to play the game has a lot of potential pitfalls. As an art, you should absolutely make games you’re passionate about and love. But, as a profession, I object to the stigma that if you don’t love what you’re making you can’t work on it. Sometimes a game job is just a paycheck, but that doesn’t mean you won’t use your skills to make it the best game for someone else that you can.

Pathways World Creation

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A friend asked:

I wonder how hard it would be to manufacture a character-first campaign. Like “Write up whatever kind of character you want to play, with whatever tropes or abilities or background you like. I’ll design a world and classes for it when you are done” sort of thing.

And I replied:

Probably implausibly hard unless everyone happens to be on a wavelength you’re into, though it might be workable with some kind of hybrid between Microscope and the group pathways thing I do, such that the players are setting rules for each other to conform to as they go by detailing out the setting.

And this is a lightweight suggestion for how to do exactly that. (If it wasn’t obvious from the quotes and the tags, this is borrowed heavily from both Microscope and the Smallville pathways creation).

Big Picture

All players settle on an overall idea for the campaign space. This can be as specific as everyone is comfortable with, and might include a Microscope-style bounding timeline (e.g., from “Fantasy” to “Heroic Fantasy” to “Mercedes-Lackey-Style Heroic Fantasy” to “The Saga of the Bard-Mages of the Court of Light” to “The Canticle of the Time of Long Shadows and the Birth of the Star Prince”). It can also include space for intentions to mash things up (e.g., “Phase-Style Sci-Fi/Fantasy Dimensional Crossover” or “Modern Occult with Cyborgs” or “Dieselpunk Sailor Scouts vs. Cthulu” or I don’t know what you’re into, okay?).

If everyone can nail down a fairly specific framework here, great. If all you can agree on is the broadest strokes, that’s fine too (you’ll nail it down further with the palette). The important thing is to rein in the possibility space to give you some initial tropes to consider/delete and have some limitations to push off of with your characters.

The GM, despite the insanity of trying this experiment in the first place, does have veto power here if the suggestion is absolutely not in her wheelhouse as a storyteller. (“I don’t care how funny you think it sounds, I’m not running Anthropomorphic Animal Sex-Mages.”)

Palette and Pathways

Each player goes around the table in the following rounds (do each substep of the round for everyone before moving onto the next; e.g., everyone puts down an Add before connecting their character to an Add). This is done on a big blank sheet of paper (click the Smallville tag above to see more explanation about this if you haven’t read my other posts on the subject).

Round 0

  • Place your Player Character (inside a double circle). You just need a name or general concept at this point (e.g., “Liam of the Red Branch”, “Midnight Jenny,” “Song Mage,” and “Ambassador from a Foreign Court”).

Round 1

  • Place an Add (inside a star). This is a trope that isn’t excluded by the Big Picture, but isn’t outright guaranteed by it either. For example, if your Big Picture is Heroic Fantasy, then your Adds might be “The Monarchy is Generally Good and Just,” “Some Magic is Corrupting by Its Nature,” “Song Magic is Non-Corrupting,” and “There are Anthropomorphic Races” (there’s always one guy). Anyone’s Add can be vetoed by a unanimous vote and the player has to pick one that doesn’t annoy the rest of the table.
  • Draw a line from your Player Character to any Add except your own. Define how something about your character supports this trope. For example, (in the same order as the Adds above) “Loyal Bodyguard of the Princess,” “Witch Hunter,” “Court Bard,” and “Homonid Wolf.”

Round 2

  • Place a Ban (inside an octogon). This is a trope that might be implied by the Big Picture, but isn’t guaranteed by it, and you want to make sure it doesn’t show up in the campaign. For example (continuing the same example), your Bans might be “No Proof of the Divine,” “No Races that are Always Evil,” “No Meddling Old Mages Distributing Quests,” and “No Magical Technology.” Like Adds, Bans can be vetoed by a unanimous vote.
  • Draw a line from your Player Character to any Ban except your own. Define how something about your character subverts this trope. For example, “Recent Convert to the Cult of the Dawn,” “Donates to the Goblin Orphanage,” “Spymaster Gathering the Latest Threats,” and “Fears Magic, Uses Guns.”

If all the players still have ideas to Add and Ban, you can repeat rounds 1 and 2 again. You probably shouldn’t repeat them a third time unless you want players with very busy character concepts.

Round 3

  • Add an Element: an NPC (inside a circle), a location (inside a square), or a McGuffin (inside a pentagon).
  • Connect the Element you just created to any of the Tropes (Add or Ban) and define how it supports the Add or subverts the Ban.
  • Connect your PC to one of the Elements someone else created and define the relationship.
  • Connect an Element that you didn’t create to any other Element or Trope and define the relationship.

Repeat round 3 until you feel you have enough campaign background and character concept and connections.

The GM then goes away to pick a system and write the campaign, hopefully happy at the inspiration that has been gained rather than terrified at the prospect of turning all of that into a game. Players try to realize their characters (as defined on the map) as completely as possible within the system selected (and can hopefully argue politely with the GM if the system or character creation method chosen doesn’t make it possible to create the concept to the player’s satisfaction).

GM Tricks: Short Session vs. Long Session

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A friend who’d primarily played in and run long-session games found herself about to run a weekly game on work nights, and asked for my advice on how short sessions differ from long. Here it is, repackaged and with advice from the other side (for those who’ve done short games but are intimidated by the longer form).


As a meta-consideration, how often you’re going to run the game can make a big difference. In general, the less often you can play, the longer you’ll want to play when you do get to play. The longer you go between sessions, the more your players will forget, and the less inertia you’ll have at the start of a session (which lets you get even less done, as your players try to rediscover their characters and remember their goals).

  • If you’re playing monthly or less frequently, you generally want to get enough done in a session to reach a solid stopping point, where time can pass in play as well as out of play; if you leave your players in the middle of a mission or dungeon and they don’t play for a month, it’s going to take forever to get them back up to speed.
  • Conversely, if you’re playing weekly (or more frequently!?), you can often leave off at the closest break that makes sense as soon as you’re ready to quit for the night, and trust your players to remember what’s going on when you resume.
  • When you’re playing every other week, you’re in a weird spot where you don’t really want to leave too many irons in the fire, but you also don’t have to end on too much of a solid note. Your players will forget minor things, but probably not major things.

All of these issues can be mitigated by having someone at the table that takes copious notes and can recap the events of the last session at the start of the new one. It’s a really big help to have someone like that, and if one of your players is a natural game journalist, encourage it.

Short Sessions

For a short session, I’m generally assuming that this is a weeknight at or after dinner for 3-4 hours. Some of this might not apply if you’re squeezing in gaming at an odd time, and your session length restriction is not because you’re playing after work/school. Some of this may apply even more seriously if you’re only playing for an hour or two during a mealtime. The three big limitations of a short session are side chatter, spotlight time, and combat time.

If possible, establish a set schedule of when you’re focusing on the game and how much table chatter is too much, and make sure everyone sticks to it. Nothing kills your time worse than people gabbing about what they’ve been up to all week and otherwise chatting about meaningful but non-game things. Your biggest issues are how long it takes to actually get started and how often people get sidetracked once you start playing.

The first is a function largely of when people show up and when they’ve eaten. I tend to not even try to get people in game until everyone’s there and done eating; if you try to start and someone shows up later and/or someone’s still eating, it can be really hard to make the game go because they’re a distraction. Conversely, you want to make sure people aren’t showing up super late or taking forever to eat. It also really helps if your players see each other more often than game night, particularly if they’re good friends: if your game time is the only time good friends are going to see each other face-to-face this week, it becomes much harder to get them to focus on the game instead of catching up.

The second you have more control over, but you may have to be more draconian than you’d like. Small jokes are fine if they don’t derail focus on the game: it’s when someone tells a joke and someone else uses that as a “that reminds me…” to talk about something else that causes a problem. You basically have to yank those back to the game if they go on for more than a few seconds, and start to determine which people can safely quip without breaking focus, and which people can’t even be trusted with one-liners. If you’ve got a cut-up that’s causing problems, you have to school yourself and the other players to not reward the behavior; people that are constantly trying for a laugh to the detriment of the focus on the game will (generally) eventually pick up that people aren’t that amused at the distraction and pull back, as long as they’re getting tolerant annoyance off the others rather than laughs.

Player spotlight time is best kept small in short sessions. If a player is off doing something that takes a while and is doing it solo, that can potentially eat up a huge chunk of your playtime so the rest of the players don’t get similar focus for the evening. If a player wants to go off and accomplish something alone, try to narrate it down and err on the side of just letting her accomplish it (particularly if it doesn’t have a major impact on the main plot). If you want there to be a chance of failure, try to sum everything up to a few quick dice rolls, with varying degrees of accomplishment depending on how many rolls are a success.

In general, try to just err on the side of giving players what they want if it won’t make a big impact on the story. Time spent on them convincing you that they can do something and then having to improvise challenges for it, when you’re pretty sure it’s going to be a success, can be wasted time. You can just as easily offer them a devil’s bargain of something like, “Okay, you can do that, but it’ll result in the town guard being pissed at you.” The caveat is that you can absolutely play out unplanned side-excursions if everyone at the table seems super into it. It’s not about using narration to gloss over everything outside of the main plot, so much as not wasting time that could be more productively spent.

Combat time can be a huge pain for shorter games, particularly in D&D and other heavily tactical games with mapping and miniatures for fights. Particularly for games with slower combat, but possibly for any game where fights can eat up too much time: try to figure out if there’s a reasonable game resource you can use as a “narrated success” tax. For example, in D&D 4e and 5e, if there’s a fight that the PCs will get to take a short rest after, you can just ask them to use up a couple of healing surges/hit dice and maybe a daily resource. Then just describe the gist of the fight with a total success. Essentially, if you think there’s no chance of anyone getting seriously injured, using permanent resources, or being that engaged in the fight, it’s perfectly fine to just describe how flawlessly they party wiped out the minor threat and move on so there’s more table time for more interesting fights.

This is possibly more relevant to running modules (where there are often a bunch of filler encounters that don’t affect the plot or really challenge the players), but even when you’re planning your own stuff, be ready to throw out your babies if you realize you’ve put in a combat encounter that won’t actually raise the tension much but will eat up a lot of time to play out. You could even do this on purpose: plan out fights where all you have is a description of what’s in the room but you haven’t bothered to organize the stats, and they’re essentially just opportunities to make the players feel awesome and to let you burn off some of their daily resources before a real fight. Conversely, if players are clever enough to get around them or roleplay through, then they save the resources, but if they totally mess something up you can add a couple of speedbump fights together into a real threat.

Long Sessions

I consider a long session to be over four hours (often six or more hours). You’ll generally get to have these on weekends and holidays unless you’re still young enough to manage an after-dinner-until-after-midnight session without everyone falling asleep before the end. They often overlap at least one mealtime (unless you have an early lunch and a late dinner with a session in between), so the biggest considerations for long sessions are blood-sugar and attention-span related.

For short sessions, particularly those that start with or right after dinner, table snacks are fun but rarely required. For long sessions, they’re more or less essential. You should absolutely get in the habit of either rotating snack duty or getting everyone used to bringing a little something to the table such that there’s a bounty of available foods. You should also work out the healthiest assortment of foods that the group will eat and can afford: cheesy poofs and candy are fine when you’re still in college, but nuts, veggies, and fine cheeses are better for the over-thirties to not wreck their increasingly delicate internal mechanisms. All of these things are to keep hunger from being a distraction.

Unless you truly bring copious snacks or lay out a buffet, a mealtime is probably going to hit mid-session and will require a pause (to consume the food, even if you can get it to the table quickly, but usually to make, order, or go get the food as well). But that’s fine, because one of the problems with long sessions anyway is the mid-session lull. After three or four hours, it’s hard to maintain tension and attention spans start to wander. So even if you don’t have a meal break, plan your game as if you did. Try to have a major story beat, cliffhanger, accomplishment, or other stopping point happen close to the middle of your session time. Then break for food (or just take a general purpose stretch, conversation, and smoke break if you aren’t breaking for food). Ramp back up slowly after the break so you can end the session on another high point (i.e., it’s very much like stapling two short sessions together around a meal break). The break and ability to ramp up again gradually helps with fraying attention spans in the middle of the session.

Straight-Up Premise Theft: Haven

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The Elevator Pitch

Audrey Parker is an FBI special agent sent to a small Maine town after a fugitive, but the simple assignment is much less straightforward than it seemed. Immediately, the manhunt is complicated by the insular community reticent to give up one of their own, even a criminal, and veiled allusions to “the Troubles” from a generation ago. She quickly begins to realize that this is a community covering up a history of strange supernatural events, which are now beginning to recur with life-threatening consequences.

Perhaps more importantly to Audrey, a poorly-explained newspaper picture from the last troubling time displays a woman that looks just like her, who was apparently instrumental in saving the town. Could this be the mother that gave her up for adoption, or something even stranger? Regardless of the cause, it’s clear that she’s been maneuvered into this town for reasons other than a fugitive, and she has a vital role to play in its unfolding supernatural drama.

This becomes all too clear when more and more powers break out and she appears to be largely immune to their most destructive effects: is she, herself, troubled in a way that makes her the perfect foil for other citizens of Haven that are unable to control their powers?

(This show is currently available for streaming on Netflix.)

The Premise

The nature of the setting can vary from a straight lift of the Stephen King-style small town supernatural mystery, to any kind of urban or traditional fantasy, to straight up sci-fi (nanotech gone wrong?). What’s important is that there are dangerous powers in play that need to be controlled, and what the PCs have going for them is that they’re more or less immune (probably due to some mysterious past).

This immunity is selectively total, but not a guarantee, as it only protects the body and mind of the PC, not the environment or allies. A pyrokinetic can’t set the PC on fire, but he can burn down the house she’s in. A kid that causes everyone to see their worst nightmares looks perfectly normal to the PC, but that won’t help her control the panicking bystanders. A Groundhog Day-esque encounter with a time rewinder leaves the PC able to try to end this unending day, but good luck trying to convince everyone else that she’s stuck in a time loop and not just insane.

In a setting full of things that break all the rules of the mundane world, the PCs’ advantage is that they can generally assume that these rules will at least keep applying to them. It’s an edge against powered threats, but they’ll often find themselves wishing for powers of their very own; powers that are fundamentally denied them by their own gift.

The Rationale

There are few things more empowering to players than explaining that everything is awful, all the NPCs are afflicted and terrified, but their PCs are so awesome that they’re perfectly fine and can act unimpeded by the crisis. This premise takes the standard intention of players to have their characters stay in control and unhindered by the unfolding chaos and makes it into their core PC benefit.

You don’t have to meet in a tavern, you don’t have to be gathered by a mysterious elderly person, and you don’t have to figure out how you’re friends from childhood. Unexplained and dangerous things are happening and you’re the only ones that seem to be mostly unaffected; everyone’s counting on you to save them. Go be heroes.

Player Tricks: Solving RPG Mysteries

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A lot of RPGs, particularly your more skill-based, modern, and/or horror games, tend to feature frequent mysteries. The mystery might be a straight up “who/what killed this person and why?” or it might be something more abstract like “what is the villain’s plan and how do we stop it?” Basically, when the game moves beyond an up front info dump where your choices are strategic (how do we get into the encounter area and what do we use against the opponents there?), you’re often looking at a mystery.

One of the questions I’ve struggled with, and which Harbinger gives some good advice on, is what to do as a GM if your mysteries are too hard and your players can’t solve them. Sure, there are things you can do to make it easier on players, but there are also things the players can do to become better at solving mysteries, allowing the GM to step up rather than simplify her game. That is to say, I think most times that a mystery is “too hard” it’s either a failure of GMing of another type (e.g., the GM is not playing fairly with information access, is putting in too much time pressure, and/or is trying to lock the PCs into only one avenue of investigation; see this post of mine and this from The Alexandrian for ideas on how to break those habits), or it’s just that the players don’t realize the supreme power available to them in an RPG.

Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I’m notoriously good at solving mysteries in RPGs. I will routinely smash open secrets the GM thought would take all session to figure out, forcing inventive scrambling to move on to the next bit. I get pulled onto staff for live action games because I figure out the major game secrets that the plot committee thought they weren’t going to reveal for months. I really enjoy solving mysteries in RPGs.

But I’m not a mystery fiction fan, in any real sense. I don’t read many crime novels, and those I do (like Dresden Files), I don’t figure out the mystery much before the reveal. I watch a fair number of TV procedurals, but when I figure out whodunnit it’s mostly because I recognize that they cast a recognizable actor for what seems like a bit part, which probably means he or she is going to be important later. Which is to say, I’m not great at solving scripted mysteries.

What makes RPGs different? Agency.

When you’re passively consuming media, you’re limited to the information the protagonist thinks to uncover. Since the author is usually going out of the way to make sure the mystery isn’t obvious early, the protagonist will often miss opportunities to uncover information that would be very helpful to the case (or will notice it, and not remark on it until later). But when you’re playing the protagonist, you get to do things that will generate more information; you don’t have to patiently wait for the GM to dole clues out to you.

Here are some techniques for getting at that information:

Abduction, Induction, and Deduction

If you haven’t read through my article on mysteries I linked earlier, read it now, particularly the section on “-uctions.” (There’s even better explanations of them at the Forge thread I was summarizing.)

Essentially, there are three ways you can work toward solving a mystery in an RPG:

  • Deduction is the one most players are familiar with, particularly from published scenarios, where the players assemble so many clues that there is legitimately only one conclusion that can be drawn from them. The GM doles out unmissable clues as the game progresses (faster or slower depending on how aggressive you are, how your skill checks go, and whether you make bad decisions), and eventually you have enough puzzle pieces that the missing one is completely obvious. Even at its fastest, waiting for clues until you can work up a deduction tends to be really slow.
  • Induction is most useful at the mid-ranges of an investigation, because you take incomplete evidence and try to extrapolate something that explains it (but which might not be the only thing that explains it). Often, it’s the trick you use for figuring out if there are any other things you need to check before deciding you’ve got it all figured out. It’s your main way to generate falsifiable theories: we know a bunch of things, and it seems likely that X would explain them, but something else could explain them. Let’s figure out how we can prove and disprove X; if we disprove it, we need to think about these other clues in a different way.
  • Abduction in this context really means brainstorming to come up with logical explanations for clues based on known rules, which give you immediate things to check (such as whether those known rules don’t apply in this case). This is the thing you do when you don’t know much at all yet to try to figure out more things. Abduction is where RPG mysteries really diverge from scripted ones: you can jump the clue sequence pretty much whenever you want by working backwards along what seems like the simplest explanation. “The murderer got into the house somehow. One of the ways he could have gotten into the house was the nearby window. Thus, we can check to see if that’s how he got in!” Hopefully your GM has prepared enough for a lot of this tactic, because it basically means trying to skip straight to the solution using common sense and hoping proving or disproving your theories will at least narrow down the idea space you should be looking at.

I’ll drill down some more on those techniques and their corollaries.

Abduce and Accuse

While abduction is the weakest technique for proving anything at all, it’s the most powerful technique for hitting the ground running in an investigation. It means coming up with presumptive ideas, stomping around in places your character has no justification going, and being rude to NPCs by accusing them of lying and collusion. You know, the stuff you were probably going to do as PCs anyway.

This technique often benefits from avoiding a skill check. What you want here is a “yes” or “no” answer: “Is anything under the window disturbed?” “Was the butler lying about not being here last night?” “Is there anyone in town that could have befriended a unicorn or summoned a nightmare, or can we take for granted that these are actually horse hoofprints?” If the GM requires you to make a roll to see if you’d know, and you fail, then you haven’t really learned anything at all; only outright denial with a success or no roll required should be enough to dissuade you. What you’re trying to do here is not annoy the GM with fanciful ideas, but to figure out the possibility space of the investigation. Which ideas are plausible within the game world, but irrelevant to this case, and which ones actually have merit for further investigation?

Honestly, there’s a bit of metagaming involved in this technique: you can watch the GM’s face when she answers to see if it’s surprise that you’ve hit so close to the mark so fast or blankness that you’re asking about something that clearly makes no sense and was never meant to be included (GMs that really know their worlds, have prepared extensively, and/or have really good poker faces are harder to use this particular trick against).

But even beyond hopefully scoring a palpable hit on the GM, the information you get should push you closer to the right ideas. If your GM tells you “they’re definitely mundane horse hoofprints” and then later reveals that it really was a nightmare, then your GM is not playing fair; assuming your GM can be trusted to not subvert your character’s perceptions to delay a reveal, you now know not to waste more time on investigating magical horses. (This is why you want to avoid a skill check; if you fail a roll and your GM tells you something, it’s obviously a suspect answer that can’t bias your reasoning, but you’ll feel like a metagamer if you don’t let it bias you, so its best to try to avoid the risk of failure altogether. Game systems like Gumshoe move clue-finding to automatic purchases for precisely this reason; it’s generally no fun for anyone to give players the wrong information because of a failure, unless that misconception is easily corrected. Possibly with ninjas.)

The secret of abduction is that there are any number of facts about the environment that mystery fiction writers can assume their protagonists are investigating and discarding or storing away for later, but not bothering the audience with the minutia of, but as a player in a mystery game you need to make sure you have a firm “yes” or “no” on. You are probably not a skilled investigator in real life (and if you are, thanks for reading, please include your thoughts on this article and additional techniques in the comments), and even if you are, your only access to your character’s senses is what the GM describes. You can’t do the hard work of being your PC’s brain without substituting additional factual information for all the sensory information that’s not actually going from the game world to you.

Good GMs will let you make a roll to realize something your PC could have seen earlier was relevant once new information is introduced. Good players will have uncovered that information back in the original scene, written it down, and connect the dots without GM prompting.

On Avoiding Red Herrings

Proposing theories that might fit what few facts you have is a great way to generate falsifiable leads that can put you on the right track once disproven. But sometimes the GM won’t have prepared enough to make it easy to falsify them, or the existing prep will support a wild-ass theory longer than it ought to (“Yes there is an elven paladin with a unicorn for a mount in town. She’s probably not a suspect.” “Paladin, huh? What an excellent cover… for murder. Let’s go stake out her house!”).

Especially in the early stages of an investigation, you’re in danger of abducing too far. This technique should really be coming up with things for the GM to shoot down, not coming up with crazy theories and then haring off at them (unless you’re really, really good at figuring out the crazy mysteries your GM comes up with by guessing). Keep an eye out for if your GM looks uncomfortable with a theory you want to investigate; maybe she’s just mad you’re skipping ahead in the adventure further than expected, but you’re probably seeing annoyance at having to improvise something for a red herring.

There’s a school of GMing advice that supports perfect illusionism for players: if they wander off after a red herring, you try to lay things out in front of them that are interesting wherever they go, and they either eventually find their way back to the plot or they enjoy the weird ride they’re on now. (I totally discount the idea of “you move the answer so their red herring is retroactively correct” unless you’re playing InSpectres, Technoir, or otherwise have that as part of the contract; in a normal mystery game, part of the fun is trusting the GM to have an unchanging answer behind everything that’s going on that you can figure out.) In the real world of GMing, you often don’t get enough time to game in the first place, and/or not all of us are master improvisers, so the players going haring off after something false in a way that will take a lot of time and description is not always fun.

I’ll often just tell my players when they have a red herring that they won’t let go of (if subtle hints didn’t work and I’m not feeling up to playing out slack on an ultimately useless tangent). Your GM might be less lazy than me and not feel comfortable outright stopping you from wasting time for worries about metagaming or illusionism. So when you have a wild idea for a solution early in an investigation that your GM seems lukewarm or worse about, try to figure out a much simpler way of falsifying the idea before spending a lot of table time on the guaranteed test of the theory (“Before we go bother the paladin and leave the house, our ranger has really high Nature; can he tell the difference between horse and unicorn hoofprints?”)

On Shaking the Tree

If you feel stuck at any point in a mystery, and your GM doesn’t seem to be following the pulp tropes of having a man with a gun burst in on you (or ninjas attacking), it’s up to you to enact another pulp trope: go shake the tree.

This means being proactive and figuring out something you could do to try to turn up new leads, oftentimes by pissing off the mysterious villain in a way that causes her to try to kill you. The clever pulp detective knows that, if he had a day that seemed unproductive to him, but then in the evening someone tries to kill him, that probably means that the seemingly innocuous conversations of the day may have made the villain think that he was closer to her than he actually was, and they deserve further examination.

This does not mean badgering recurring and powerful setting NPCs (particularly mentors) for ideas, because usually your GM is just going to feel like you’re begging a mouthpiece for the solution. (Again, Technoir is an exception because the recurring NPCs are often also the villains and the system requires you to bother them for information.) Instead, it means revisiting NPCs and locations that have been pertinent to the case to see if a repeated examination turns up something new. In particular, if your GM has crafted a particularly hard mystery, this gives her a chance to tell you something that’s changed since the last time (e.g., an NPC that was previously being watched by an authority or didn’t take a shine to the PCs can be convinced to reveal something he didn’t before, the PCs notice something/someone at the location that could have been there by chance once but being there twice is unusual, etc.).

Even if you don’t get any new information, if you tell your GM that you’re shaking the tree, particularly if you talk to the NPCs on followup like you know more than you do, that should encourage your GM to throw some hitters at you who you can then interrogate after the fight (or search their bodies for clues, if you aren’t good at prisoners).

Induce and Improve

Abduction is good for extending the reach of individual clues, but your real meat of getting good at these mysteries is induction. This is generally the point at which you have multiple clues from multiple locations/NPCs and they don’t really speak to anything obvious yet. Induction is, in puzzle terms, like laying your pieces out on a whiteboard even though none of them connect yet, but seeing if you can arrange them in such a way that you can draw pieces that would connect them (and once you know what that piece looks like, you can go try to find it).

This is the point where it’s important to write down things you know, make sure that your PCs are not hiding vital clues from each other (deliberately or just because only one of you saw something and didn’t realize it was important), and keep an open mind. You will likely come up with a bunch of things that you think are related to the mystery, but which don’t have anything obvious to do with each other or seem to contradict. Start pitching the rest of the group ideas for things that are plausible within the setting that could explain two or more of these disparate clues (particularly things that could resolve a seeming conflict between clues).

“Alright, we know there are hoofprints outside the house that are part of our window of opportunity. We know there are really only a half dozen horses in this one-inn town, and we’ve accounted for all of them. Either someone is lying to us about where their horse was last night, or we need to try to figure out if anyone’s seen a strange horse that they didn’t think was relevant. We find the strange horse, we find the culprit, or at least someone that saw the crime.”

The goal is to come up with answers that seem to make sense and explain all the clues (or at least explain some of them and don’t contradict the others) and are falsifiable (e.g., “Maybe our villain is a crazy person and just did crazy things to throw us off” is not a valid induction unless you’re solving hard mysteries easily and your GM is now throwing you curveballs, because that’s not an induction that’s easy to prove false). You should now have some things that are either potential solutions to the whole mystery or will get you very close to the solution, and your goal is to go check them out thoroughly to try to disprove them.

You still should make a strong attempt to keep your solutions reasonable; overly fanciful solutions could still lead to red herrings, so err on the side of answers that are quickest to prove false. If your GM created a mystery where the actual explanation turns out to come down on the wrong side of Occam’s Razor (i.e., your explanation for the clues is more elegant and straightforward than the real answer), it’s now on her to figure out how to get you additional clues that lead you to the weirder solution.

Generally, if you make a reasonable attempt at inducing an answer, and your investigations prove false, the GM should try to reward you with additional information that makes subsequent inductions more robust (e.g., you shouldn’t just wind up with “Nope, nobody knows whether there was another horse in town.” but something like “I didn’t see no strangers, mister, but I do see Sir Oxney riding out to visit his mistress sometimes when his wife is out of town; he probably would’ve told you he was in bed. Don’t tell ‘im I told you.”).

Overall, while solving a mystery, you should start trying to induce early and repeat often. The group’s refrain should be, “What do we know, what does that make us suspect might also be true, and how to we confirm or deny those suspicions?”

Deduce and Destroy

If you get good enough at the other two -uctions, deduction is just a formality. It’s the way of checking your math before you go storming the prime suspect’s lair, to make absolutely sure you aren’t taking out an innocent (or someone guilty of something else). It’s a way of telling the story of what happened and seeing if it makes sense.

You need to write everything down and/or have a really good memory for clues, even more than you did during the induction phase. You’re going to lay out everything that you can prove with everything that you suspect and haven’t had disproven and try to weave a tale that explains the mystery. This is the point where you list out in exhaustive detail the five Ws and an H, and it would be the thing you accused the killer of in the sitting room in front of all the suspects if this were a murder mystery. You’ll probably just be listing it out for the other players to make sure nobody can poke any holes in the logic.

When you’re deducing, keep an eye out for discrepancies. Do you have any clues that don’t seem to fit anywhere in the narrative, or a missing W or H? It might be fine to have one thing go missing, for the final confrontation (“…and as you ran into the hills, Sir Oxley quietly assumed that it wasn’t his business what you were doing leaving the house as long as you didn’t ask him why he wasn’t at home. The only thing I can’t figure out is what kind of weapon left that hole in the victim.” “Perhaps… because you didn’t know about my trip to Numeria last year! Have you seen one of these before? They call it… a laser pistol!”). But if they seem to cause major problems with your story, you’re probably ahead of yourself and need to go shake the tree some more to get answers that lead you to a more complete narrative.

If you get it right (particularly if it was complicated) you’ll probably see a warm glow coming from the GM because you were actually paying attention and reassembled the backstory she worked so hard on.

Dresden Files: Alternate Lawbreaker Rules

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I’m thinking about running a warden-focused Dresden Files game in the not-too-distant future, and I was thinking about adding a simple change to the way the Lawbreaker stunt works. For those unfamiliar with the universe of the game, there are seven laws of magic (don’t kill with magic, don’t mind control, etc.) that are formalized by the wizards’ ruling body but enforced somewhat by reality: since you have to believe fully in your magic to get it to work, doing terrible things with it (even for initially noble ends) warps you. You gradually become the kind of person that does those horrible things as a matter of habit, which is why the council generally has a zero-tolerance stance on breaking the laws. It’s a lot like going to the dark side.

The game rules model this descent as a power you have to buy the first time you break a law, and you have to buy it to a second rank if you keep breaking the law. If you break the law even further, it begins changing your Aspects to twisted versions that mention the lawbreaking. The power gives you a +1 (+2 at rank two) to any further magic rolls to create effects that break the law.

The problem I’ve found with the standard implementation is that my players are outright allergic to suboptimal character build choices. They’ll refuse to break magical laws not because they’re not tempted, or because they’re worried about the wardens, but because that +1 for a power isn’t mechanically optimal. Particularly for wizard characters, who are pretty strapped for powers after buying their standard package, there’s practically zero temptation to do anything that will force them to spend character build currency on a power they don’t want (and which is mechanically very weak, compared to the other power and stunt options).

So the tweak is simply to make the power “free” up front, but, when the character is compelled to break a law, the cost to buy out of the compel is increased by the rank of the power. For example, if you have rank two of Lawbreaker: First (i.e., don’t murder with magic), when the GM offers a fate point to murder someone with magic, it costs three fate points to choose not to. And, if you continue to sin and sin, those twists to your aspects will make you much easier to compel in a variety of circumstances.

(A slightly less downward spirally version of this change suggests that players cannot be compelled to break laws until they have Lawbreaker rank one and that doesn’t change the cost to buy out, and rank one just increases the cost to two fate points. This would prevent the GM from straight up engineering falls: you have to make that first choice yourself.)

A character trying to redeem him or herself could reverse the process, cleansing aspects and eventually removing rank two with an unbroken sequence of buy outs of the compel to sin further (up to the GM how many buy outs in a row are required to recover). But you can’t ever get rid of rank one; per the source material, once you’ve broken a law, it changes you, and you have to resist the urge to keep doing it for the rest of your life.

I think this tweak should preserve the intent of the system, while making it much more attractive to character optimizers.

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