Thursday, April 28, 2016


Having gone over the concept of MICE earlier in the Blog of Doom, I wanted to talk a little bit more about the role of MICE in RPGs. 

On one hand, this is not what I meant. On the other hand, this is COMPLETELY AWESOME.

Someday I will run out of mouse jokes. Today is not that day.

With apologies to the superlatively excellent Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game - which seriously, it's lovely, go play that - I want to dig a bit deeper into the relationship between Milieu, Idea, Character and Event in the context of RPGs.

To wit, much like Ron Edward's GNS theory, it's worth remembering that this model is still a model. Even empirically verified, methodologically robust communication models have plenty of caveats attached, and this one is basically "some stuff that Orson Scott Card thought was relevant." Any model has its own set of limitations. To wit:
  • Models provide a specific lens. If I'm looking at communication through the EPPM 1 - a fear appeal model - then I'm going to think in terms of scaring the poop out of people.
  • That model also obviates other viewpoints - if I'm using the EPPM, I'm going to be less likely to consider answers that don't involve scaring the poop out of people.
  • This can set up a false dichotomy, where it seems like factors are in conflict, even though they're really not. Someone may be persuaded by a rational argument, regardless of whether or not the poop has been scared out of them.
So yeah, it's worth keeping in mind that these concepts have some overlap, that stories probably have a combination of the factors, and the model posits priority, not exclusivity - that is to say, that a given paradigm is likely to - and should be - dominant, even in the presence of others.

Cool? Cool.

Let's refresh our memory because i like to use bullet points

So to recap, the MICE quotient refers to elements of a story. Specifically,
  • Milieu, where the story is about the world, the setting, and exploration thereof
  • Idea, where the story is about something that happens - like a murder mystery - and the resolution thereof
  • Character, where the story is about a character's dissatisfaction with their role, and how that resolves
  • Event, where the story is about some "sickness" in the world - evil overlords, space meteors, what have you - and the application of the "remedy" - or perhaps the crushing failure thereof
From this point on, I'll refer to these as approaches for simplicity's sake.On the surface, applying these to RPGs is pretty simple - players, and the GM, have different things they'll be pursuing as their primary means of interaction, their dominant focus

Maybe Hideo is super into exploring the setting, and he wants to find out all the cool little details, like how the Tree Elves perform wedding ceremonies, and will happily detour from other concerns to explore this stuff.

Maybe Alex is here for the investigation; sie wants to know whodunnit, and will pursue answers over and above everything else.

Maybe Paulina is really here to explore her character, and is far more interested in their evolution as a person, and exploring that headspace, than most of what's going on around her.

Maybe Jo is Super Concerned about the Dark Lord of Ultimate Evil, and, thinks that, y'know, maybe it's best if they focus on averting the end of all life in the known universe. 

These ideas can express themselves in RPGs as well as other mediums, and since the audience and the actor are intertwined, this leads to some really great stuff. Also, problems.

RPGs can be more than one thing at a time, and often are

I know it's sort of implicitly stated above, but let's spell it out here: people can, and often will, be prioritizing different approaches at the same time, and sometimes that leads to conflict. And not the fun, necessary, Stories Are About Conflict sort, but the Hurt Feelings, Misunderstanding and Drama kind.

Also known as the crappy kind. We're gonna try to avoid that.

Pretty sound advice. 'Dat hair though!
In any RPG, you're going to run into different play styles, different approaches, different preferences in general. It's why we talk about things like MICE approaches, and GNS theory, and Robin Laws' player types. Because unlike film, the stage or the page (or monitor, I guess? E-reader screen?), RPGs are a collaborative storytelling medium by nature. Getting one person's cohesive vision through an RPG is really difficult, and frankly, undesirable. RPGs are special in large part because they're collaborative; it's that quality that leads to such investment from the creator/audience, and makes them so damn memorable and engaging.


Ask anyone who's been in a band how easy it is to get creative types on the same page. For that matter, anyone who's ever tried to get human beings to agree on where to go for lunch. Coordinating different agendas is tricky, and takes buy-in from everyone to make work; it's not just the GM's responsibility.

Once more, with feeling:

It's not just the GM's responsibility

The GM has the most capability to make this work, it's true. By setting scenes, moving the spotlight around, and keeping everybody's approaches in mind, they have the best seat to make this work. But without buy-in, active cooperation, and a heavy dose of mindfulness from the players, there's only so much to be done. Yes, the GM can - and should! - note their players' preferences, and keep moving things around so that everybody gets their particular itches scratched.

So with our example group above; if we've spent an hour of game time exploring Alien Tea Ceremonies (Hideo's thrilled), and we even managed to provide a moment of character reflection for Paulina, it's probably a good time to shift focus on to investigating the ambassador's murder, letting Alex sink hir teeth into the mystery, and giving Jo the satisfaction that no, nobody's forgotten about the impending end of the world.

And if the players are cognizant of this, then not only are they more patient when the focus isn't on their approach, there's more permission for everybody to engage with whatever's going on, because they know that they won't be forgotten about.

That takes mindfulness, and trust. But if you can get everyone on the same page, a game starts to really sing in ways it otherwise can't. If keeping these concepts in mind helps out with that, then this column has done its job.

If not, well, llamas and mice. Still pretty good times!


1 - Why yes, I did link the Wikipedia article. It's succinct. I had originally linked Witte's original EPPM paper, simply for the joy of doing so in an RPG blog. (Which, consequently, I have now done anyway), but I'd rather people get a quick, clean idea of what I mean. I love communication models, and given the chance, will gab about them incessantly.

2 - Pretty sure my old thesis committee doesn't read this blog. That's probably for the best ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

3 - Also for the sake of sparing y'all more Mouse Jokes. You're quite welcome.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Of MICE and Men...

... and women, and gender-neutral pronouns, and folks who strongly self-identify as reincarnated Egyptian deities. Evetybody's welcome at The Blog of Doom, but the joke in the title demands alliteration.

With that understood, today I want to talk a bit about MICE.

okay but why are you shouting about mice

So, MICE is an acronym - Milieu, Idea, Character and Event - and the balance between these four factors determines what can, must or should be in the story. Coined by Orson Scott Card in his excellent book on characters, I've found it to be an incredibly useful tool when trying to ascertain, what, exactly, a story is about. The idea is simple; every fiction story contains elements of each, but only one will wind up being the focus. And it's important to know the kind of story you're working on, and then do that.

Let's walk through it.


Where does a story take place? In RPGs, we usually call this the setting, but the idea remains the same. The milieu includes not just the physical locations - one city, a sprawling wilderness, a series of curiously homogeneously-climated planets - with the associated sights, sounds and smells that come with the territory. It also includes the culture - social mores, laws and customs - the factors that shape how people think and react, and the choices they make.  

Lord of the Rings is a pretty good example of a Milieu story - the tale is really about Middle Earth, its people, their culture - and this informs what we do there. LotR starts way before the action, and only ends once Frodo and the Elves have departed Middle Earth forever - long after the climatic events have taken place.

The setting is the main character. We follow its journey, explore its depths, and we're not done until we've seen it all. 

Milieu stories are less common in fiction, but they actually show up a fair amount in video games and RPGs. A "discovery campaign" - where PCs plumb the secrets of a setting, learning cool new things at every turn - can be incredibly rewarding. "Sandbox"-style video games do this as well; Skyrim is a fine example of this, as while we've got two major plotlines in the civil war, and the rise of the dragons, those are things that are happening to the setting; the Dragonborn's just along for the ride.

Or not, if they don't feel like it.

And that gets to the heart of why milieu stories show up with more frequency in interactive media: if the player gets to decide what the story's about, then they'll go wherever they damn well please, and do as they wish. With less control over the other three factors, the milieu gets extra attention, and becomes the focus by default. 

Are you crafting a milieu story? If the setting is what really gets you exited, than probably. You still need strong characters, and something needs to happen to it all (unless you're writing a cultural "splatbook" for an RPG, in.  which case, you still need to provide idea seeds for GMs to make something happen in your beautiful setting), but if the focus is on the setting, then everything else can - and probably should - take a backseat to the milieu.


This is a classic structure; a problem or question is posed, and the story is concluded when we've answered the question, or solved the problem. Murder mysteries use this structure almost exclusively, as do heist/caper stories. Who killed this person? Once we know, we're done. How do we pull off this heist? The climactic scene is the heist itself, where we see how smoothly the protagonists' plan goes - usually not very - and then we call it a day.

Science fiction stories often use this structure too, but the title can be a bit deceiving. Technically, having some kind of "what if?" idea is a baseline requirement for something to be sci-fi in the first place, but that doesn't mean we're dealing with an idea story. 

If the idea is "what are the effects on society after a singularity?" that might be a milieu story.

If the idea is "How does Janice deal with the fact that her toaster's sentient and feels unloved?" that's probably a character piece. 

If the idea is "what happens when the singularity occurs?" it might be an event story.

But if the idea is "what happens to Dash Awesomelaser when all of his rad weapons gain sentience and become pacifists? How will he escape/triumph/not die horribly?"

A lot of RPG adventures follow this structure. Something has happened, and it's up to the PCs to get to the bottom of things/set it right/burn down the village because they're a bunch of amoral jerkwads/save the day. You get the picture.

Introduce problem. Story wraps when problem is solved. It goes without saying that an interesting idea is what's going to carry this kind of story.


Not to be confused with "a story that has interesting characters," a character story is about someone trying to change their role in life. It starts when they find their current situation untenable, and they try to change; it ends when they've either succeeded in finding a new role, or given up, and returned to the old one.

It's worth talking about role a little bit here. Not to be confused with somebody's role in the story, a character's role in life is about their relationships with other people, and with society. If someone is happy, well-adjusted to their role in life, we don't really have a character story in the making. 
Affleck's done many fine things. But the character work in Jersey Girl is not among them, and the movie falls apart because of it.
A good example of a bad example.
So if you're wondering why so many stories are about unhappy people, this is why. Without enough dissatisfaction to leave their situation, we don't have a story; their tale begins when their role becomes unbearable. This doesn't always mean in a physical sense - you can have a character story about people who try to change a relationship without cutting the person out of their lives. In fiction - as in real life - this is incredibly difficult to manage, but it can lead to incredibly nuanced stories if done well.

Without conflict, we have no story. With conflict, we have story. Yay story!

It goes without saying that your characterization needs to be strong for this type of story to work.


So, every story has events. Probably even a big, central conflict! But in an event story, the world is imbalanced somehow, and the story is about setting that right. It starts when the protagonists set out to heal the world from what ails it, and ends when they either succeed, or fail completely.

It's not hyperbole to suggest that the majority of stories are event-based. Evil forces what need stoppin' is a tale as old as history, and taps into some deep, primal stuff. The idea that the world should make sense, that there should be some kind of order, and that terrible things should be averted, or at least stopped? This is some fundamentally human stuff. 

So if you're wondering why we're always off to save the city/world/galaxy/space-time continuum from some Big Nasty, it's because the Big Event story is hardwired into our DNA. We've been telling these stories since we've been telling stories, and that's likely to continue.

So, if you're telling an event story, you need a compelling and credible threat, and addressing it should provide a palpable sense of relief. You also need to convey that the problem is actually a problem, and the world is genuinely better off without it

This is not to say that there haven't been very successful event stories that posit key societal values as The Problem - any tale about the evils of capitalism being told to a capitalist society qualifies - but if you want your story to work, the character's viewpoint needs to seem reasonable. Otherwise, they're the problem, because they're the ones looking to destroy society. 

They're the villain.

And you can have incredible stories about villains! Just recognize what you're doing, and do it on purpose. Which segues nicely into our conclusion:

A conclusion

Anytime you're telling a story, you're making an implicit contract with the audience. Whether your writing a song, GMing an RPG, whatever - you're implicitly telling your audience the kind of story you're going to tell them. And if they like what you're doing, they'll stick around to the conclusion of your story. Which is why it's so important to know what kind of story you're telling.

So if you begin with a murder, and focus on some characters who are interested in solving said murder, people can reasonably expect that, y'know, you will address that at some point. You've told them that the murder is important - you've told them that you're telling an idea story - and they'll hold you accountable to that.

If, on the other hand, the murder sets off a series of political maneuvering - and you focus on that in great detail - then you're communicating that this might be a milieu piece. Or maybe you focus on the murder victim's teenage child, struggling to cope with this massive change in their life, and how this has massively disrupted their life; in which case, people will expect you to resolve this character drama.

This doesn't mean you can't do both - but inexorably, one of these is going to be a subplot. We'll gladly follow the political fallout, and the child's search for identity - but you told us that this story was about solving a murder, so, y'know, you'll want to address that. Because you told your audience what this story was about. If you never resolve that, they'll feel betrayed - and not even in a fun, "George R.R. Martin, how could you?" kind of way - they'll feel like you lied to them. 

Don't do that.

Since I opened with a bit from Card's book, it seems like a good idea to wrap up with another:
"(Your audience) will expect the story to end when the first major source of structural tension is resolved."
Beginning a story is like throwing something out a window. No matter what happens before the end of the story, we're not done until that's resolved. Maybe it hits the ground. Maybe someone catches it. Maybe it develops self-awareness, and flies off into the sunset. 

But the story's not over until we know.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

On unorthodox inspiration, and the creative process

Inspiration comes in many forms. A good creator -- or at least, one who intends to ever make a deadline -- is constantly soaking up inspiration from their surroundings. The quirks of the retiree in line at the grocer could be fascinating in your next villain. The flickering street lights and rain-filled potholes could provide the mood for your next composition. The filth and bile spewed in YouTube comments inspires dialog and life choices for your army of evil super mutants.

In fiction, I hope. If you happen to have an army of Super Mutants in real life, hit me up: I'll happily run PR for your Evil

Anyway. The creative process is a lot easier when you keep your eyes and ears open.
Normally, I give image attributions. I feel like, if Banksy wants to send me a DMCA takedown notice, that's a piece of performance art I *need* to enable.
Street Art is often crazy evocative. I got seeds for at least two Urban Fantasy stories just placing this image.

Okay cool I got it but why are we talking about this here lol

First of all, punctuation marks. They're important! 

Secondly, there's a big difference between creating on a deadline, and spitballing ideas at your leisure. If you've got a novel you're working on when inspiration strikes, that's one thing. But deadlines are a constant reality - and not just when dealing with a publisher. Sure, if I've got to come up with x different rifle scopes for an RPG by Friday, and a local Taco shop's new logo by Monday, I've got to crank something out quickly, so that I can get to the revision stage; you know, where content blossoms into something it's reasonable to expose other humans to1.

But it's not just publishers -- and professors, represent! -- who introduce deadlines to our lives. If you want your blues band to consider playing an original composition, you need to have something to bring to rehearsal. If you want your RPG campaign to really sing, it's good to have some idea what you're doing before the players show up2.

When pressed for time, coming up with something from scratch can prove difficult. Luckily, you don't have to, because you've been soaking up inspiration from your surroundings, like some kind of insatiable Art Vampire, taking snippets from every facet of life, and wrapping them up to store for later, like some kind of Dream Spider, ever wakeful, every hungry.

Unless that's creepy! In which case, maybe don't think of yourself as a weird vampiric dream spider. Maybe be a pony, galloping through fields of inspiration? You do you, mate - I'm not here to tell you what to do with your life.

Anyway! You've got your web, or your net, or whatever set up, and you're constantly supplied by the ideas you've taken from it. Cool! And this is good, because:

Ideas are cheap

While in graduate school, I had the opportunity (along with some students, fellow graduate students, and my mentor, the incomparable late Dr. Paul Skalski) to speak with the Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theaters, and all-around smart, funny guy. 

I thought heyhere's the guy who basically birthed the video game industry. I bet he's got some interesting ideas on where things are going. And he did!But more to the point, we were talking about the kinds of ideas that would make good games in the modern era, and beyond.

He made his incredulous face, and simply replied, "good ones." And then proceeded to lay some knowledge on us, advice for which I remain grateful to this day. He said, and I quote paraphrase, that ideas are cheap, good ideas are everywhere, and what really mattered was execution

He then went on to prove it. 

"Let's make a game, " he said. Well gee, guy who more or less invented video games, I dunno. We, of course, jumped on the idea. "This room, though you don't know it, is full of evil monkeys. And they've just gotta go." We agreed - evil monkeys were a problem no one wanted to ignore - so we acquiesced to his plan. 

Augmented Reality games had been a topic of discussion, so we bounced around ideas in rapid-fire, a smartphone app to see the monkeys, cooperation with other players to deal with them, geotagging different locations on social media - everybody was inspired. We spent a grand total of five minutes or so bouncing ideas off of one another, and we had a little pitch that sounded genuinely fun. 
If you look at images of Bushnell online, you might think
that he's got two facial expressions: smug, and incredulous.
Speaking with him, I can assure you; he's got a couple more,
but those two seem to get him through 90% of the day.
Bushnell smirked.

"See? That's a good idea. And that's the easy part. If somebody makes that game, the idea isn't going to be what makes it fun. 

It's the execution of that idea that's going to actually matter."

I had to admit that he had a point. Pong, the game that put his company on the map, is quite frankly, a boring concept: hit a ball back and forth. For that matter, the idea behind ping-pong, or tennis proper, is pretty boring too; hit a ball over a net, keep it in a demarcated zone. The concept isn't setting the world on fire.

But man. all of those games are fun as hell. 

Tennis (and its cousins, volleyball, squash, you name it) succeed because they're focused on the fun part of the game, and they allow players to make it their own. Hell, the Mona Lisa is just a painting of some lady. human beings have been painting other human beings since they figured out how to paint; one more is hardly something to get excited about in itself.


Now, it's important to note that Bushnell -- and by extension, your humble author -- never said that ideas don't matter. Great ideas are great! Innovative concepts can bring real power with them. Look at the works of Escher - innovative, original, fresh. If he'd used his geometric precision to paint bowls of fruit, it likely wouldn't have had the same impact on the world. But conversely, if he'd painted his mathematically-infused landscapes without that same precision, his ideas wouldn't have mattered.

Original, innovative ideas can be crazy awesome.

But they're not enough by themselves.

There's a lot to unpack here, and this entry is already a tad long-winded, so I think that another series of posts is in store. There's a lot of insight to be gained by learning from the tools of a different discipline and applying them to your own, and we're going to dive into some of them. But before we get into the particular insights of making characters from metal lyrics, or the essential principles of managing RPGs that can be taken from professional wrestling, we do well to remember that inspiration is everywhere, and ideas are abundant.

So long as we remember to put them to work.

1 - Note to self; edit blog before posting. Ah, crap.

2 - Dear players; I am so, so sorry.

3 - Bushnell, for his part, saw a lot of potential in Augmented Reality games, and mobile games in general. Which makes a lot of sense, given Atari's history; arcade machines were inherently social installations at their inception. Bars, pizza parlors, and eventually institutes dedicated entirely to them all had one thing in common - they were social spaces. Video games had an inherent social component at their inception. Now, with the advent of mobile smartphones, AR games have the potential to fill a similar role. 

It's a great idea. 

But I feel that the execution's been lacking so far.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Role of self in RPGS, part 2: Players

Part of a series. See the intro here, part 1 (on songwriting) here, 2 (on fiction) here, and part 3a (on GMing, or otherwise creating scenarios) here

And we're back! After a brief aside for some art, it's back to the salt mines, wherein salt is a metaphor for delightful insights for your RPG experience, and mines are understood to mean my laptop, Kaiju. 

Yes, I name my laptops.

Yes, I named this one Kaiju. 

It might not look like much, but it guarantees your defeat in pretty much any online gaming contest.1
Still Wheaton's Law
It's important! (Image courtesy

Regardless, we're here to talk about The Role of Self in RPGs, and in particular, in playing them. The internet is awash in advice for GMs, but when it comes to players, there's not actually a ton there. The beginning of most RPG books has something akin to a "how to do this roleplaying thing" section, that mentions that you control your character's actions (like in a video game) and act out their interactions (like in a film).

Some even go the extra mile, and invoke Wheaton's Law.

But that's usually it. Grant Howitt wrote a highly amusing blog about it a few years back, and while I strongly disagree with some of his pointsit's an incredibly entertaining and informative read, and one of the few such articles aimed at players, and not GMs. I think it's quite lovely; just remember to take it with your Daily Recommended Serving of Salt, and all should be well.

Still, it seems that there's a relative dearth of content for players, doesn't it? And considering that in the aggregate, players likely outnumber GMs by at least a 3/1 ratio in any given game, that seems like an odd distribution of resources. Sure, GMing is a pretty resources-intensive activity, and the demand for GM advice is likely to remain strong because of it. But that doesn't mean that the art of playing an RPG is simple, easily ignored, or unworthy of further discourse.

So. Discourse!

Discourse Into the Night, 1891.
I like to think that they were discussing movement bonuses to AC, or somesuch.
In an RPG, players portray a single Player Character, or PC (troupe-style games are A Whole Thing, with their own challenges, but even then, a lot of the same techniques still apply.) This gives us one of the unique things about RPGs as an art form, in that the audience and the performers are the same group. I'mma say that again, in a different font:

The Audience and the Performers are the same group.

Other than perhaps at a Radiohead concert3, this phenomena is unique to our hobby. That means unique challenges, but also unique opportunities. It's the thrill of performing improv onstage, combined with the joy of being in a jam band, merged with the intimacy and immediate feedback of telling a well-crafted joke to your mates.

When it's going well, there is truly no other experience quite like it.

So how do we get at those moments? Well, there are a lot of things that go into portraying a PC:

  • Improv/acting skills. Players must be able to respond to stimuli in real-time; if somebody asks a question, they're expected to be able to answer.
  • Tactical/strategic skills, or the "game" part of a roleplaying game. Most games -- and indeed, most stories -- revolve around protagonists overcoming challenges, and RPGs thrive on this.
  • Group skills. RPGs are, by nature, collaborative endeavors, and they don't happen in a vacuum; whether face-to-face, or via telecommunications, you're part of an ensemble. 
  • Technical skills. Whether the game is rules-light or crunchier than a bag of rocks, players need to be familiar with what their character is capable of, and how to go about realizing that in play
  • Concentration skills. Yeah, I consider focus a skill. Having attended -- and later taught -- college courses, I get that this is difficult! But unfocused players = no game.

And that's before we get into things that players maybe should be doing. That's a lot! It certainly requires more effort than watching a TV show, or even video games or novels. But that's a huge part of what makes it work so well. This ties in a little bit with equity theory -- the idea that people get motivated when they feel that what they're getting is at least commensurate with what they're putting in -- but without going into theoretical underpinnings, people tend to feel invested when they have input.

That feeling of investment is huge in storytelling. A dramatic death sequence is only dramatic if you care about the person dying, yes? RPGs get at that feeling of investment largely via collaboration. It's one of the (many) reasons why games like Fate and Apocalypse World are so successful at getting people invested in the game world; everybody's had a hand in building it.

As a player, whether you're playing in a shared-narrative game or not, you've already got a head start, an overwhelming advantage in getting invested in the game. Your character. You'll be portraying them, walking in their shoes. Unless it's a one-shot, you've probably written them, and even if you are using a pre-generated character, you'll still be providing your unique interpretation of the character, just like actors have been doing for thousands of years.

You'll make it yours.

Ok, but I thought we were going to talk about the role of self here? 

We are! (Nobody buries the lede like tBoD.) So all this leads up to your portrayal of the character, which is both like and unlike acting in other media. Actors have been handling the issue of how much of themselves goes into a given character, so the question isn't anything new. And yes, a player has a lot of stuff to juggle, but so does an actor on screen or stage. But at the end of the day, they've really got two big jobs:
  1. They need to portray a character who is interesting, and furthers the story.
  2. They need to portray the truth and meaning of the fiction honestly and relatably
It's worth noting that many film directors would rank point #2 as being far more important. Think about it; for every awesome character actor who can portray a wide array of individuals, there appear to be a dozen actors who seem to essentially be playing themselves. What's up with that? Why don't those roles go to good actors?

Because, those people are good actors, at least by the standards of point #2. 

James Devereaux talks about this in "The Great Acting Blog," where he posits that 
We express our art most powerfully then, when we accentuate our individuality.
People would disagree, sure. But for our purposes, it's worth noting that not everybody's going to be a great character actor, and that's ok! That doesn't mean that you shouldn't try playing characters who are different -- sometimes quite different -- from you in outlook, mannerisms, speech cadence, etc. You absolutely should! But if you don't have a voice actor's knack for accents, or find that your range of characters seems pretty narrow, that doesn't necessarily mean you're bad at the acting portion of RPGs.

You might not be a great character actor, sure. Congrats, you have that in common with a lot of Hollywoods top-billed stars. More importantly, can you contribute to the moment-by-moment storytelling of your game? Can you enable incredibly intense scenes, both agonizing and triumphant, simply by being "in the moment?" Can you elevate everyone's experience by making the world seem real, by virtue of your presence?

Hell yeah you can.

And you can do that pretty easily by keeping one principle in mind.

If we did Clickbait at the Blog of Doom, this article might have been called "Supercharge your RPG with this One Weird Trick!"

You ready for it? 

Don't drop the ball.

What do I mean by that? Well, in improv, the one thing, really the only thing, that absolutely has to happen for it to work, is for the participants to keep it moving. 

Think of improv like a tennis game; ping-pong or volleyball if you prefer. Side A sends the ball over the net. Side B needs to react to that, and send it back over the net. Keep that going, and you've got a match. Fail to do so, and we're not really playing.

Improv works the same way.

If someone asks a question in improv, there are a lot of ways to respond, but the thing they all have in common is that they keep the ball moving. There's a lot here -- and it's probably worth doing a deep dive on Improv for RPGs at some point -- but the basic idea is simple.

Keep the ball moving.

This keeps you present, in the moment, and enables story to happen. Sure, there might be times where somebody at the table is uncomfortable with what's happening in a scene - that's a different situation, and it's 100% ok to stop if people aren't comfortable with the subject matter. But aside from that, this is possibly the single strongest move in a player's arsenal; the ability to keep things moving.

Some players are super-comfortable with improv, and this just comes naturally to them. Others feel mortified at the thought of having to create details about their characters on the fly, and create extensive backstories as a foundation. Most players wind up somewhere in-between. But the point being, if presented with a situation in-game, acting as the character is almost never the wrong answer.

Your character might not be the most clever, witty, or memorable. That's ok. What you can do, what you can always do, is make the world seem real, simply by being there. Not only will this do wonders for your own investment in the game, but you'll be facilitating investment for everyone else at the table by the simple act of your attention, your focus. Your presence. 

You will be a goddamn hero. Welcome at tables across the land. And you've already got the skills necessary to pull it off.

Listening is hard. But it's freaking magic at the game table.4


1 - assuming you're on my team. I'm the only one who uses this thing, and I am pretty sure a grilled avocado sandwich would fare better in most video games than I. Note it!

2 - Howitt clearly feels pretty strongly about the shared storytelling aspect of RPGs - he advocate for what you might call a Narrativist paraidgm if you apply the Gamist/Simulationist/Narrativist typology - and kind of marginalizes people who are more invested in a single-point, immersive perspective. 

Which is fine, and good. He has an opinion, and his advice is both entertaining and useful! 

But he kind of violates Wheaton's Law, insofar as he pretty much implies that if you prefer a simulationist style, then you are  Doing It Wrong, and Might Be A Jerk. This is further complicated, as he posits his views in a fairly absolutist style, and when called out for stating opinions as though they were facts, proceeds to employ the "obviously the things I say are my opinion, I shouldn't have to spell it out for you" defense.

Seriously. That is -- in my opinion, ha -- such a lame defense. Don't state absolutes and then act as though you're not doing so, and I'd bet you could avoid about half of all flame wars. It's ok to not like things! It's ok to like different things!

3 - the Blog of Doom's got Jokes! Also, seriously Radiohead? I love you guys, but could you at least turn to face us once or twice?

4 - maybe you don't use a table? That's ok - Killstring tends to prefer couches whenever possible, so there isn't always a table proper to be had. It's a handy way to refer to a given play space though!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Spaced Out Today

Here at the Blog of Doom, We've Got Puns.

Some folks have asked about the background image here; specifically, what the heck it is, Good question!

What indeed.
Since I'm feeling a little spacey today, here's the image. It's a combination of a couple hubble images from NASA, and some photos of dice, minis, guitar strings, keyboard keys, and other stuff I figured I'd talk about in the blog.

Hooray for Photoshop!

Anyway, if you want to download a full-size version (1800 x 1600), you can do so here. If there's any interest in more wallpaper-appropriate sizes, let me know and I'll try and cook something up.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The role of self in RPGs, part 1: GMs and writers

Part of a series. See the intro here, part 1 (on songwriting) here, and part 2 (on fiction) here.

So as it turns out, RPGs are a thing that I think about quite a lot. I took a bit longer between posts than I was intending; ironically, because I was trying to hit a deadline for an RPG. It was during this that I realized what I wanted to talk about should probably be split up into two sections - GMs and writers/designers (for the purposes of this series, those roles are actually pretty similar) and players. Would you forgive me if part 3 of this series itself had a part 1 and 2? Let's find out.

Things are about to get fractal up in here.
To anyone who feels that math cannot be beautiful, I direct you to this Mandelbrot fractal.

Why I Think GMs and Writers Go Together In This Case

The internet is full of GMing advice, and roughly fifty-large percent* of it makes some version of the following point**:

RPGs are an interactive medium. If you want to determine how things go, go write a novel.
Which, sure. That's a good observation. It's worth noting, however that writing for an RPG and GMing an RPG for your friends have a lot in common.


Specifically, the roles of a GM are many and diverse. But fundamentally, they both set out to create something that can be interacted with by players, they both work to create an enjoyable experience for others, and they both need to consider outside perspectives when making plans. The primary difference, at least from this perspective, is who's on the receiving end of their efforts.

The GM creates for specific people. The writer creates for an audience.

But in both cases, they need to allow for the possibilities inherent in diverse perspectives.

Let's create a hypothetical gaming group. For reasons.

This is a wikimedia image for role playing gamers, and happens to match my hypothetical group pretty well!
 Thanks, Wikimedia Foundation!

Samah GMs for Paul, Leslie and Jamal. She's run for this group of friends for a while now, so she knows a thing or two about their preferences:

  • Paul loves it when a plan comes together. More specifically, he tends to enjoy taking a strategic approach to problem-solving, and is pretty engaged when faced with challenges
  • Leslie, quite frankly, is here to wreck shit and have adventures. Bar brawls, car chases - she really enjoys exciting, dangerous scenes. She also has a soft spot for hijinx. 
  • Jamal really enjoys exploring a setting, and meeting interesting NPCs. The more time he spends having conversations in-character, the happier he tends to be
Samah herself gets her primary slice of glee from designing a cool chunk of world -- sometimes down to little details -- and seeing people run around in it. With all this in mind, when she's preparing for her new game, she knows she'll want to have:
  • Both tactical and strategic challenges for Paul
  • Exciting, eventful encounters for Leslie
  • And plenty of interesting characters for Jamal to roleplay with
Now plenty of GM advice stops at around this point - after all, Samah's got everything she needs, right? -- and proceeds to talk details. And while this isn't exactly what I mean when I talk about "the role of self," I feel it bears mentioning in heading text.

The GM enjoying themselves is important too!

Critically so. If the GM is slogging through a bunch of stuff they don't enjoy, the game will suffer, the players will know, and everybody will be better off if they keep that in mind. GMing shouldn't be some faux-noble personal sacrifice for others' enjoyment. Not only because that is silly, but it makes for terrible games, so it's really not worth the effort.***

Back on task.

So Samah is crafting her next game. She's decided to go with a magepunk-ish corsets and airships setting -- kind of like Jim Butcher's The Areonaut's Windlass -- and focus on some political upheaval. This should give her plenty of tactical challenges for Paul, both in an immediate sense, and also as larger plots unfold. There should be plenty of galas, providing both political intrigue for Jamal, and abundant chandeliers for Leslie to swing on, and duels on airship decks should be plenty exciting for her.

Samah is pumped. (And I'm pumped too, as this game sounds freaking amazing to me, so somebody run this for me please.)


That's our overall structure, and it's a good one. What we don't know at this point, is if it's exciting to the players or not. Samah is hyped for this world, and has absolutely done well by shaping things toward her player's interests. 

And now we get to the promised point of the article, as mentioned in the title. Nobody buries the lede like I do; note it.)

The role of self in planning for players

Maybe everything is fine and great with Samah's game. But for the sake of discussion, we'll say it's not. What could be causing problems? A lot of things, but we're going to say it's how Samah planned things out. 

RPG parties can be pretty diverse.
As it turns out, Paul really doesn't dig political machinations, or maybe he's just burnt out from the upcoming election cycle. Either way, he'd much rather solve a Sphinx's riddle than try to figure out who's going to be the next Duchess of Everblossom. 

Given the high-society element -- corsets and noble titles everywhere -- Leslie doesn't really feel comfortable engaging in the kind of antics she'd usually enjoy. It just feels wrong to her to pick a fight at a debutante ball, so she's mostly sitting on her hands while boorish nobles insult her.

And Jamal isn't really engaging with any of the major NPCs - as it turns out, he feels like big social events are pretty fake, and he prefers more intimate, personal interactions. 

So how did we get here?

It's not that Samah didn't plan for the things her players like. But in doing so, she made assumptions based on how she would approach things. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing that, and oftentimes, it's great. But it can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that others will approach a situation the same way that you will.

Now, this particular example could be easily solved with some discussion before the game got running. But what if you're writing an adventure, or GMing for strangers, like at a convention? You can't tailor your game for players you don't know, right?

Well, not exactly. But what you can do, is consider things from a number of viewpoints.****

This is where a lot of prep work winds up missing the mark. Not just GMs planning, oh no; plenty of published adventures fall completely apart when players take perfectly reasonable actions that the GM hadn't thought of. Or really, do things that don't fit on the author's railroad tracks.

If you're writing one of those, then yeah, maybe see the advice at the top of this post. Novels do not react to what the audience wants in real-time. RPG adventures do, because the audience is also the main characters. This is not to knock fiction writing -- which would be extremely silly, given the prior post in this series -- fiction writing is great. RPG writing, also great! Just know what you're writing, and then maybe do that thing.

So when you're prepping a new RPG, talk with your players and make sure you're on the same page. When you're prepping an adventure for a publishing, or just something fun for a con, playtesters are your friend. Multiple people approaching a problem from different perspectives will think of things that a single person might not. And if you've created something with plot holes, gaps in logic, or just hadn't considered what certain types of players might do, this is a great way to find those things out.

Gaming is not a solitary pursuit. As such, it's understandable that one person isn't always going to catch everything. 

Fortunately, gaming is not a solitary pursuit. One person doesn't have to.

* - fifty-large percent is a pretty good approximation of my confidence in this matter. That is to say, I do not have any confidence in this number. To the best of my knowledge, nobody's done a comprehensive content analysis of RPG blogs. Though I have to say, that would be pretty rad.

** - it's worth noting that I feel like this is a pretty good point, though it's occasionally phrased too confrontationally for my tastes. Still! RPGs are inherently a collaborative medium; that's part of the joy of the art form. It's also delightfully self-serving; it's rare that the line between content creator and audience member is so incredibly wispy. 

*** - if you are wondering who this advice is targeted at, let me save you the trouble: it's me. I have a real problem with this in social situations generally, so it's no surprise that it rears its head in this context as well. If you find yourself with similar tendencies, maybe don't do that so much? Let's all try to be happy together, shall we?

Sounds corny. But it is my ACTUAL PLAN.

**** - useful in a variety of circumstances, not jut gaming. There's your Life Pro Tip for the day. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

The role of self in writing fiction

Part of a series. See the intro here, and part 1 (on songwriting) here.

So today, we're going to talk about what to do with yourself when writing fiction. Specifically, let's talk about mimesis a bit -- the idea that Art imitates Life -- and how that inevitably shows up in our writing.

Not to be confused with "Mime-Sis," which is what happens when your sister becomes a mime.
Which, now that I think about it, is pretty rad in its own right! (Image courtesy 
Remember that Orson Scott Card quote from the intro?
"Every story choice you make arises out of who you are"
This gets at one of the key ideas on display here. The question is not "is there any room for me in my writing?" but rather, "what role does my identity play in the process of writing?

It's worth noting that Card's book, Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters and Viewpoint -- which is like $3.50 on Kindle -- is entirely on-point in regards to this issue. In it, Card essentially posits that yes, you should absolutely be pulling from your life to create fiction, so long as you remain mindful of a couple things.

Rather than go through his points blow-by-blow, risking a DMCA takedown notice, and alienating all of you poor souls who mistakenly believe I have an original thought in my head fine folks who are good enough to read my blog, let's talk about some things that come up when drawing on your own life in creative writing.

Thing #1: I shouldn't write anything from my life, because my life is BORING AS HELL.

Slow down there, partner; you're going to ride that self-doubt train right past Productive Thoughts Station into Self-Defeating Junction faster than you realize what an objectively rubbish metaphor that was. 
This is what came up when I googled "Productive Thoughts Junction."
Apparently, it's on the ISS, near the S1 Pump module. Thanks, NASA! 

This gets into questions of what is "normal," and what's "exotic." Rather than dive into the abyss of philosophy that awaits anyone trying to define what normal is, I'm going to roll with the following quick-and-dirty working definition:

Normal is what somebody's used to. Exotic is what they're not.

This can be anything from linguistic quirks (you say "soda" instead of "pop?" How very exotic,) to the role of familial ties (it's normal to visit your family on Thanksgivng and Christmas,) all the way to troublesome societal issues (it never occurred to me that [behavior x] was offensive - it was so normal where I grew up) and so on. And while it's certainly worth checking to see if you're engaging in nasty stereotyping -- protip: if you paint every member of a group with a broadly demeaning brush, maybe ask why? -- we're going to focus on a different value of "normal."

Mainly, as a synonym for bland.

So, maybe you grew up in a rural area, with a big family that was highly involved in your life. That stuff might seem pretty boring to you. It's not exciting, it's not interesting, it's, well, it's just so normal. It's not an exciting setting. It's dull. Wouldn't it be better to write about a bold, single woman, all by herself in the big city, with absentee parents?

Well, maybe. Depends on what you want to write about. But the idea that the things you know about aren't interesting is just silly.

In this case, our hypothetical writer should ask themselves why they want to put their character in the city. Is it because that's what the story needs, or is it because that makes it feel fresher to them, more exotic? 

Because frankly, it's not going to seem all that exotic to someone who lives by themselves in an urban environment, communicating rarely -- if at all -- with their family. If you do well, your setting won't necessarily be a problem, just kind of there. If you do it poorly, making mistakes that show you don't really understand your source material, you might lose people who find their believability stretched thin. 

Now, this is not to say you shouldn't write about things you haven't experienced first-hand; that's what research is for. Maybe you've never been a Maya Priestess from the post-classic era*, but if you want to write one, you'd better do your research. But even in that case, you have access to a wealth of information about life, people - everything, really. Our hypothetical rural author will have seen things that I haven't, and vice versa.

Exoticism is, quite honestly, not that big a deal. Even in science fiction and fantasy, simply dotting the landscape with weird crap isn't compelling world-building; the audience needs a reason to care. And more often than not, that comes from relatable characters, conflicts we care about, interesting dilemmas - all things that you, as a human being, know about from experience.

So don't sell yourself short.
Don't mind me, just here to help the heroes
whenever they're written into a corner.

Thing #2: I should insert myself or my friends into my stories, they'll be realistic and awesome.

I'll spare you the discussion on Mary Sues, and direct you to the TV Tropes article.

Authorial inserts can range from the aforementioned Sues, to walking Deus Ex Machina like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, to a mouthpiece for the author's thesis statement,à la Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park. These are often great, if handled mindfully.Honestly, I could probably build a comfortable house just using printouts of all the ink spilled on how not to mess this up. So I feel like we're probably good? Do I have to tell you not to write a character who is basically you, except poorly written? No?


So, let's talk about inserting people who aren't you into your fiction -- presumably with the serial numbers filed off, but recognizable nonetheless --  as that's:

  1. More likely to happen
  2. Less frequently discussed
  3. One of the few authorial techniques that can get you punched in the mouth

First off, if you flat-out put yourself, or someone you know, into your fiction, that's probably not ideal. Even if you change the names, people might recognize themselves -- or think they do -- and be unhappy with the results.

This can get really ugly. It's probably best to spare everyone the headache.

Another one of the dangers of pulling something straight out of your life, is that you lose all the context that informs it. An example:

Maybe you have a friend who calls you terrible names, always in private, and always incredibly foul. Maybe this started when you were kids, and the thrill of using such taboo words gave young you an incredible rush, and made these names feel unbearably hilarious.

Maybe as you grew older, you abandoned this practice, but your friend kept it up -- always in private, and with absolutely nothing but love in their heart, and nostalgia for your youthful adventures -- and it's an identifiable trait of someone who's a steadfast, loyal friend, with a great sense of humor.

So you put them in your novel. 

Specifically, you want your female lead to have a childhood friend who's got their back through thick and thin. Someone reliable, with a good sense of humor, to help her maintain perspective. Well, that pretty much describes the relationship you have with this friend, so you drop them in, more-or-less whole cloth, as your heroine's confidant.

Furthermore, while your heroine is attracted to men, you want to establish her as someone who's not defined by their sexuality. A steady friendship with a member of the opposite sex should do the trick nicely. So you write your friend in as a man, and true to real life, he gives the kind of support you've so often benefited from.

What your readers see, is someone who heaps verbal abuse on our heroine the second he gets her alone.

Worse still, she takes it all without so much as a second thought.

If you've made your lead at all sympathetic, your readers are far more likely to see an abusive boyfriend, rather than a beloved platonic ally. And even if you go out of your way to explain that no, he's done this since they were kids, and she likes it, many will simply see a lifetime of abuse.

Context is everything. More to the point the fact that something really happened is a terrible reason to put it in a story. In fact, I feel strongly enough about this to make it our next point:

Thing #3: But it really happened/it's like that in the real world!

Dude, no. Just no. Unless you're writing history -- and are quite confident in your sources -- this is not a great reason to include elements in your story. To quote Card once more:

"Remember that believability in fiction doesn't come from the facts -- what actually happened. It comes from the readers' sense of what is plausible -- what is likely to happen."
The farther you get from things that seem plausible, the more time you're going to want to spend providing context, justifying events, showing the process of how we got to point C from A via B.

If you put this guy in your story, he's going to come off as an unrealistic, moustache-twirling cartoon villain. And he's real!
Furthermore, you won't be there to tell your readers that it really did happen that way. And frankly, if you were, they'd be right to point out that truth is often stranger than -- and poor groundwork for -- fiction. As a journalist, you have a responsibility to get at the objective truth, as freaking impossible as that so often is.

As a storyteller, you have a responsibility to tell stories.

While working on my Equalibrium setting -- a near-future sci-fi espionage thingy -- I got to learn this lesson the hard way. I'd spent a lot of time researching about political tensions between the United States and various nations, and thought I had a pretty good idea of how things were going. (Disturbingly good, as it turned out; I really should have just published the novel when I was doing this, I could then claim to have predicted all kinds of stuff.)

Regardless, I felt like I had a pretty good idea on relations, policies, and especially ugly things that International Persons of Mystery might be wrapped up in. So imagine my surprise when -- adapting the material for a roleplaying game -- it seemed like I was portraying certain nations as, and I quote, "unrealistically cartoonish villains." 

I thought about explaining how I had actually toned down some of these things from their real-world counterparts, but what would be the point? Your audience sees what you put in front of them. I'mma say that again in a different font:

Your audience sees what you put in front of them.

Using real-world elements is fine -- in fact, it's where we'll get many of our ideas -- but be careful not to eschew the elements of storytelling, regardless of source. Your audience has what you give them; anything else is supplied by their imagination, and they'll apply cognitive shortcuts to fill in the gaps.

So, if you want to take elements from yourself, your friends, your surroundings, and stuff them in your fiction, that's probably fine. Just remember that your audience doesn't have access to context you don't provide them, and you should be just fine. But by all means; trust in your weird, beautiful, unique perspective. Use that. As Neil Gaiman put it in Make Good Art:
"The one thing you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that just possibly you are walking down the street naked…that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
So -- just like anything involving personal nudity -- be thoughtful and responsible, and you should be all right.

* - on the other hand, maybe you are! We should talk sometime. You know. About your immortality.