Posts tagged ‘Apocalypse World’

March 2, 2017

The Nightmares Underneath Powered by the Apocalypse

tnu_pbta_picI wrote a short supplement for The Nightmares Underneath that has Powered by the Apocalypse rules for players to use, for those of you who prefer that style over the old school D&D-ish rules. It is called A World Full of Nightmares, and it includes:

  • a set of basic moves;
  • new rules for harm and disposition, experience, and money that are more like Apocalypse World;
  • simple character classes with simple special abilities (but you can add special moves from Dungeon World or Class Warfare if you like);
  • conversion rules for the nightmares curses;
  • a simple GM section;
  • a new more-narrative-y system for creating incursions that you need a deck of cards for.

A World Full of Nightmares is now included in the full pdf version of The Nightmares Underneath. If you have already purchased it, simply download the new updated zip file. A staple-bound print version of A World Full of Nightmares is available from Lulu for US$10.

December 22, 2014

Debtrunner (second draft)

DR_cover_19_SMALLSo here’s another unfinished game I’ve been working on. This is the second playtest draft of Debtrunner, a science fiction rpg about a small group of operators driving their starship around in the slowly-recovering ruins of an interstellar, post-capitalist command economy empire. They work in the nascent private sector, made possible by a lack of FTL communications, the precarious nature of space-based civilization, and rampant political factionism. So, it’s basically a mash-up of Apocalypse World and Traveller, set in the Dune universe, kind of.

What sets Debtrunner apart from other space opera Apocalypse World hacks is pretty simple: it’s inspired by the random sector generation rules and the speculative trading rules in the three original Traveller booklets. You can still use these rules for covert missions and spaceship battles, but trading is the default activity. Oppressive political entities are more important than transhumanist ideas, and there are no aliens or robots whatsoever. Adventuring takes a back seat to class struggle.

The first version got some playtesting, so I revised it based on that, and this is the result. It’s not done by any means, and it wouldn’t be too hard to play except you have to generate a sector map first, which can be rather time-consuming. Anyway, it’s here if you want it.


Note: The basic rules are pretty similar to Evil of the Stars, and intentionally so. I still have to update the rules in Black Seas of Infinity so they match, but I haven’t done that yet. I should probably just stick to one game at a time, but it’s hard, y’know…

Edit: I made a character sheet for the ship, because the hit location aspect of it is actually pretty important. It’s more functional than pretty, though, don’t get too excited.

December 18, 2014

An Overview of Social Mechanics in Apocalypse World Games

Part 1: Basic Moves
My aim in writing this is two-fold: One, to share some ideas, because a lot of great conversations about the AW format have gotten buried in various places all over the interwebs and aren’t easily to look up for people new to it. Two, maybe to start some conversation up again, because I’m not finished writing rules in this vein and new ideas are always good to see.

So anyway, back at the dawn of time, Apocalypse World had the move “when you seduce or manipulate someone, roll+hot” in it. And that was your move for doing the social stuff and then rolling dice for it.

Asymmetrical Effects
Right, so the move works differently on PCs and NPCs. Your influence over NPCs depends on your hot stat and your rolls, not so much on the individual NPC (barring custom moves). Your influence over PCs isn’t absolute, though. You can’t make another PC do something, you can only put pressure on the player through rules-based incentives that model the character’s experience of being socially pressured. This is good if you want to really highlight the fact that PCs and NPCs use different rules, but isn’t particularly elegant. It looks more like two moves than only one.

However, the versions of this move in Dungeon World and Monsterhearts only work on NPCs, because Monsterhearts has other ways to pressure PCs (strings and conditions), and Dungeon World simply isn’t about using the rules to persuade the other PCs.

Monsterhearts actually paves the way for unifying both PC and NPC versions into one move, with advantage and disadvantage. If the move works the same, but you can offer advantage or impose disadvantage, PCs are free to make their choices and the rules for NPC might allow them to refuse in a few, limited circumstances, but overall mandates they behave as expected. The problem here is to work out how the concrete assurances of the 7-9 result play out when PCs ask for them. How much can a PC ask for, anyway?

Wording and Leverage
The versions in both AW and DW both require an explanation of leverage, which (in my opinion) fights with the actual trigger wording, and perhaps makes it redundant and unnecessary except for purposes of a style and consistency (in that every move should have a similarly-worded trigger). Certainly “manipulate someone” is terribly vague and even though “use your leverage over someone to make them do what you want” is long and cumbersome, it does a much better job at explaining what is really happening. It leaves out seduce, however, and that’s an important part of AW, so you can sort of see why it’s that way.

A problem I’ve seen here is that people write special moves referencing leverage, like “you can always use the threat of being beaten up by you as leverage.” This means either that even NPCs who cannot feel fear and ghosts that the character cannot even touch are always afraid of being beaten up by him (unless perhaps the player rolls a 6 or less), or that it’s just a suggestion to the GM to include NPCs that are afraid of being beaten up by this character. If it’s just a suggestion, it should be worded that way, and not as an absolute rule; and as an absolute rule, it has the potential to make absolutely no sense. Not that it’s exactly easy to write a good, snappy alternative (aside from just limiting those affected), and I haven’t seen one yet.

It’s possible for vagueness like that to work in your favour, though. In some cases, it’s quite alright to simply let the people playing the game interpret the trigger wording. Monsterhearts, for example, doesn’t define what manipulating an NPC actually is, it just says you have to actually want something from them. In Throne of Dooms, I went with the trigger “when you try to talk someone into something.” Although there’s some explanation, the move assumes the conversation has already started and the PC’s desired outcome might actually happen, there’s just no certainty. But that game’s a work in progress—the move has changed before and it might change again. In both cases, a sense of the game’s genre is pretty crucial to understanding the move’s trigger. This is true of most Monsterhearts moves—run away works as a basic move, but would seem both oddly specific and opposed to the genre in a game like Dungeon World.

Information-Gathering Social Moves
In the Seclusium of Orphone and Apocalypse World: Dark Ages, there are social moves that let you collect information by asking questions, the same as when you read a sitch or discern realities. John Harper distilled these down to a question-less move in a recent g+ post:

When you manipulate someone to get what you want, roll+[stat] and they’ll name the price. On a 10+, they name the absolute minimum price they’d possibly accept. On a 7-9, they name a price they could live with. On a 6-, they name any price they want.

Essentially, where the AW manipulate moves and those like it allow you to make demands of the fiction, these moves allow you to interrogate it in order to find out what you need to do in the fiction to make something happen. One advantage is that this works equally well on both PCs and NPCs, but it can feel strange right next to more typical perception moves, if players perceive social influence as an active force more than a matter of reading people. I used a hybrid version in Evil of the Stars, stealing the move trigger from AW:DA to finally finish he interview move that’s been kicking around the development of my sci-fi games for several years now:

When you draw someone out in conversation, roll+hot. On a 12+, both. On a 10-11, choose 1:
· Ask 2 questions from the list below.
· Say how you make them feel.
On a 7-9, ask 1:
· How could I get your character to _____?
· Is your character being truthful?
· What does your character intend to do?
· What does your character want or expect from me?
· What is your character really feeling?
On a miss, ask 1 anyway, but they can also ask 2 of you.

Wording Again
It’s good to mess around with the wording of move triggers so they fit the game, the genre, and also your own play style. “Manipulate” isn’t quite the same as “talk someone into something,” and “draw someone out in conversation” is something else again. You want to push the players towards behaviours that support the genre and the style of play the game is supposed to be about, so put that in the move triggers. Here’s a different version of John’s questionless information-gathering move from above:

When you do someone a favour, then make a request of them, roll+stat. On a 10+, they must tell you the easiest way to get them to fulfill the request, or the lowest price they will accept in exchange. On a 7-9, they must name a price they are willing to live with. On a 6 or less, they can name any price they desire, or none, and the GM tells you the consequences.

So instead of manipulating people to get what you want, getting people to do things in this game is about reaching out to them first, building connections, and finding out what it would take to convince them. You bring the king some tribute first, and then you ask about redrawing the borders between your estates and the evil duke’s estates. Or you give the guards cigarettes, and then ask them to let you see the prisoner. You buy someone a drink, then see if they are willing to go home with you.

One of the social moves in Night Witches takes a cue from DW’s Defy Danger, and allows you to modify the dice using different stats based on how you Act Up:

When you try to get your way…
…by acting like a hooligan, roll+luck.
…by acting like a lady, roll+guts.
…by acting like a natural-born Soviet airwoman, roll+medals.

In most other AW hacks, using a different stat has been a matter of having a special stat-substitution move.

Scene Resolution
But the real innovation I saw in this Night Witches move was when the wording in an earlier draft including the words “cause a scene.” In a game with heavy, and especially regimented, scene-framing rules, this can encourage players to frame a scene already in the process of making this move. Because the results of Act Up are broader than simply influencing a single person, the way moves derived from seduce or manipulate are, it can function as either resolution for a single action in a larger scene, or for a whole scene itself.

On a 10+, choose two. On a 7-9, choose one:
· Make someone do what you want.
· Ensure that there are no consequences for Acting Up.
· Add one to the Mission Pool.

Imagine a Monsterhearts style game with a similar move, where Marcia the scheming vampire throws a birthday party for Clarice (“when you do something nice for someone, roll+hot”), rolls well for the move, and chooses two options. Marcia seduces Keith (Clarice’s boyfriend) as one, and puts the condition “Owes Marcia” on Clarice as the other. As you can see, she didn’t even use the move against Keith, but since he was there in the scene, fair is fair. Not every genre can use this, but for a lot that can, it’s basically half-way there already.

And Now For Something Completely Different
Or if you like the idea of a game that runs entirely on the workspace rules, instead of rolling 2d6 all the time, you can have information-gathering moves without the dice:

When you try to manipulate someone in order to get your way, the GM will tell you what it will take (1 to 4 of the following):
· First you must __________.
· It’ll take (hours/days/weeks) to convince them.
· They want to get paid.
· They’ll only do part of what you want, if someone else does the rest.
· You must keep __________ out of it.
· You’ll need help to convince them, from __________.

So that’s a bunch of stuff, but it doesn’t cover things like Hx, bonds, aid and interfere, and currencies like hold, strings, and debts. Maybe I’ll cover that in Part 2 and maybe I’ll just slack off and not.


Additional Commentary:

Rob Brennan pointed out the interplay between social influence and the perception moves. In AW, you don’t usually go looking to seduce or manipulate without knowing you have leverage—either you know they want something, because it’s clear in the fiction, or you use the read a person move to find out.

In cases where you ask questions, the general idea is that this occurs between players, and that the information is conveyed to the PC through any and all means available, which can include the characters talking exactly like the players, or can be (in the fiction) entirely non-verbal. This can be expressed in phrasing the questions to the player (“What is your character really feeling”), but could also maybe be explained in a paragraph somewhere if the game you are writing is marketed towards people who aren’t AW vets.

I thought about playing around with triggers to achieve a completely different effect and came up with this one:

When you pretend you’re something you’re not, in order to deceive an enemy, roll+[stat]. On a 10+, they take you at your word. On a 7-9, they require concrete proof before they believe your lies.

Here’s a test for you: Why is there a second clause (“in order to deceive an enemy”) in that trigger?

November 29, 2013

Dungeon Planet in the Bundle of Holding!

The current Bundle of Holding features Adventures on Dungeon Planet!

The Bundle of Holding is a limited-time offer that lets you buy a collection of different rpg pdfs for cheap. This Thanksgiving Holiday bundle lets you buy Apocalypse World, Sagas of the Icelanders, and Perfect: Unrevised for just US$6.95. These are all good games and well worth that price! I bought all of them new and paid a lot more and I still don’t regret it.

You can always pay more money than that if you want, and you probably should because 10% of the total profits goes to charity: Doctors Without Borders and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Also, if you pay more you can get a bunch of extra games, like Adventures on Dungeon Planet and Dungeon World. If you read this blog, you probably already have those. But you get more: Durance, Nova Praxis, and Becoming.

Durance is a GM-less sci-fi game about life on a prison planet. I think this is probably my go-to game for GM-less play. Also, the planet creation rules are an excellent source of inspiration for any sci-fi game.

Nova Praxis is a transhumanist sci-fi Fate game. It’s also the best-constructed pdf in rpgs at the moment. Most people just give you the files they make the print version from, these guys made a thing that works super-well on your devices.

Becoming has just been added to the bonus games. It is really new, and has an interesting setup. One player is The Hero, everybody else plays Fates that try to oppose the Hero. Sort of a “one player, many GMs” type setup. It does multiple genres, too.

Right now (Friday morning), you can get all these pdfs for $19. The amount it takes to get the bonus stuff too will slowly increase over time, though, until the deal ends on Wednesday. If you have to wait till payday, though, the good news is you’ll still be getting a hella good deal.

March 29, 2013

Adventures on Dungeon Planet


I have a new book out: Adventures on Dungeon Planet.

This is what the softcover looks like!

You may know me from my previous work, which includes: The Metamorphica, Heralds of Hell, World of Algol, Sexy Deadly, the tables on page 14 of Dark Heart of the Dreamer, and a few other things, like my semi-regular gaming group Red Box Vancouver. But never mind that stuff right now.

Adventures on Dungeon Planet is a science fantasy supplement for the award-winning role-playing game Dungeon World. It has all sorts of cool stuff in it:
* Four new character classes: the Earthling, the Engine of Destruction, the Mutant, and the Technician.
* Three new PC races: aliens, androids, and white apes.
* Four new compendium classes: the Alien, the Scientist, the Sniper, and the Visitor.
* Futuristic gadgets, special equipment, and robots.
* New rules for spaceships.
* New dangers and two example fronts that use them.
* Procedures for creating alien planets and cultures.
* More than 30 new science fantasy monsters.

It is also full of really old pulp science fiction art from the early part of the 20th century!
And a few pieces from the Prismatic Art Collection.


Adventures on Dungeon Planet is now available from DriveThruRPG. The pdf is still $8 and the print+pdf is still $20, but now the pdf comes with the character sheets so you don’t need to come here to get them. DriveThruRPG prints on white pages and does not have full bleed, so there may be a thin white border on some of the pages with illustrations. The Lulu print version is still available, but the pdf is no longer available through them. It has creme pages that are slightly thicker and the copies I receive are slightly better quality, in my opinion.

If you have any questions, please ask.

If you have any problems purchasing Adventures on Dungeon Planet, contact me at johnstone (dot) metzger (at) the gmail address.

Some more pictures:

Spaceships and Robots!

The Scientist Compendium Class!

Giant alien minds travel through time and space!

Also, please note:
If you buy just the pdf and later on you want to get yourself a print copy because you like it so much, but you don’t want to pay for the pdf twice, get in touch with me at johnstone (dot) metzger at the gmail thing and I will set you up with a discounted version of the softcover that doesn’t come with a pdf, so you can have them both for the same price as everybody else.

January 7, 2012

Revenge of Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown

I received the actual physical books in the mail not too long ago. Aside from a few typos here and there, the art and layout is quite pleasing, but you have likely seen other peoples’ pictures of them already.

A couple of observations:

Isle of the Unknown isn’t a fully-conceptualized setting, but Carcosa is. However, it’s a minimalist setting, with a fairly tight, singular premise around which the whole book revolves. And while I admire that, artistically, I actually prefer maximalism, when it’s done right (i.e. integrated maximalism, not pastiche overcrowdingism). Not that I think either book should be less minimalist and more maximalist, it’s just a personal preference I’ve noticed. Luckily for me, I don’t think either product is too weird to be easily incorporated as one layer of a maximalist setting.

In the poster map, the races of men are colour-coded, which is interesting because there are three fictional colours on Carcosa.* While this adds to the book’s tone of otherworldly strangeness, it is also somewhat difficult to actually imagine and picture mentally. To take a couple examples from other sources, when I imagine garrow, I think it looks like both black and yellow simultaneously (not mixed together), and I think of Terry Pratchett’s octarine as looking similar, but with blue and orange, also simultaneously.

(*Never mind that adding one new primary colour actually results in at least five new colours, that’s something to take up with David Lindsay.)

On the Carcosa poster, Dolm Men are colour-coded with light blue and cream, Jale Men are coded with dark blue and red, and Ulfire Men are coded with cream and deep purple. But when I think of ulfire, I think of red, green, and white at the same time (this might be partly due to some bird that was covered in ulfire-coloured flames in one of Blair’s early Planet Algol reports). Jale and dolm, though… I’m not entirely sure. Sometimes I imagine dolm being a bit like olive green, and other times I can’t imagine what either of them looks like. Maybe jale is similar to yellow and pink and neon colours. I mean, sure, it’s “dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous,” but so is purple.

If there is just one fictional colour, then it’s easy to imagine, because every person’s different interpretation can stand without interfering with each other, as long as they imagine some kind of fictional, hitherto-unimagined colour. When you have to differentiate between fictional colours, that can start to get weird.

That’s not a criticism, just an observation. What do you imagine dolm, ulfire, and jale look like?

I do have some actual criticisms of the two books, though. There are a few things that could have made the books easier to use, at least for me.

I think both maps could have benefited greatly from the addition of roads being marked. Even without them, Isle of the Unknown’s keyed map is pretty good, but Carcosa’s is slightly less so. The poster has a map keyed with the locations of rituals and Great Old Ones, but there is no map with settlements or the colours of the men that live in them. When the locations of certain colours of settlements—such as we find around the other lake (the one that isn’t Hali)—are mentioned as plot points in the hex descriptions, it would help to have this information in map format. Likewise, there is a mention of a trade route road winding around the icy wastes, but no indication of where this road is coming from or where it is going.

The political situation isn’t the most useful aspect of this information, however. Terrain, and especially roads, determines how fast characters can move across the map, and how fast characters can move across the map determines how much the DM has to prep between sessions in order to respond to the players’ choices. If there is a road that stretches across three hexes, on either Carcosa or the Isle, it’s entirely possible that the PCs could travel the whole way in a single day, walking from dawn to dusk. Without having roads on the map, the DM basically needs to prep three hexes away from the PC’s present location in every direction, in order to get an idea of where to even place roads. It seems to me that adding even just major roads is not much additional work when all major settlements are already plotted out, which is the case for both books, and some hex descriptions even mention roads, which is at least the case for Carcosa.

Being able to see the roads helps to envision the possibilities of PC movement, which makes the DM’s job easier.

Any hint of motivation or personality is missing from most of the magic-users and clerics in Isle of the Unknown. They are treated simply like monsters—if you want to kill them, all the problems you’ll face and the lack of rewards you’ll receive (in most cases) are listed, but not much else. It makes me wonder why anybody would want to interact with these characters in the first place. Even a little bit of information would have been useful, evocative, and inspirational—the way threats are summarized in Apocalypse World, for example. Describing a warlord’s personality with “Dictator (impulse: to control)” or the character of a landscape with “Maze (impulse: to trap, to frustrate passage)” goes a long way with a short amount of text.

While Carcosa has numerous settlements with motivation-less leaders and populations listed, there are also many characters who do have goals, connections to other parts of the map, and even some small semblance of personality. It would have been nice to have a little bit of that in Isle of the Unknown as well, though it’s by no means a dealbreaker. And while I think including something like the Carcosan Ethnography supplemental material in the book itself would have been fantastic, so that DMs can just randomly generate genre-appropriate population details and character motivations, it’s good enough without it that I’m not really upset.

Similarly, there are a few occasions in both books where the material is essentially a tableau to be presented to the players, with little opportunity for them to interact successfully with it, or to use it in combination with other setting elements. When the text describes something the PCs can see but never do anything with, when some magical effect can only happen once in one location by accident, or when the benefits of braving obscene risks turns out to be a measly +1, I’m a little underwhelmed. I much prefer the part of Carcosa’s premise that includes finding a giant laser cannon and deciding to kill Cthulhu with it. Especially if it doesn’t work because you used up all the charges destroying castles and fortresses that asked you to pay tithes for safe passage, and now you’re facing Cthulhu with no ammo and no castles or fortresses to hide in. There’s slightly less of that in Isle of the Unknown, but both books should have had a little more, in my opinion.

Those are all relatively minor concerns, though. Overall, I think the good things everybody says about these two books are pretty accurate.

July 4, 2011

World of Algol pdf

The people who I’ve run Planet Algol for have all got copies of the World of Algol booklet, but now there’s a pdf available for everybody else.

World of Algol 1: The Iridium Plateau

What is this?

This document gives you some new playbooks, races, and spells so you can make Planet Algol characters with the Apocalypse World rules. It gives the MC some new tags, a new type of harm called contamination, and some advice on using the existing Apocalypse World rules to run Planet Algol. It’s fairly modest, really, and you’ll need to be familiar with both Apocalypse World and Planet Algol to get full use out of it.

What is Apocalypse World?

Apocalypse World is a post-apocalyptic role-playing game written by D. Vincent Baker. It’s written in the Story Now style, so you can start playing with as little prep as possible (though it still requires some between sessions). You can find it here.

Please note that, even with the Apocalypse World rules, you’ll still need to prepare unexplored locations if you are going to run a game in the Planet Algol setting.

What is Planet Algol?

Planet Algol is a weird post-apocalyptic science fantasy setting for old-school D&D that Blair Fitzpatrick started running in 2009. Think of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa, M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne, and David A. Hargrave’s Arduin, then throw in some Heavy Metal magazine, some Gamma World, and as much pulp sci-fi as you can. He’s used 1st edition AD&D and the deluxe edition of Lamentations of the Flame Princess to run it. You can find the Planet Algol blog here.

I hope you like it.


EDIT: Now with character sheets! They are double-sided, you can fold them in half, and the instructions are on the inside.

May 31, 2011

Now Playing: Planet Algol setting, Apocalypse World rules

Red Box Vancouver has been branching out from classic old-school D&D lately. This is what we’re playing now:

World of Algol cover

The centerfold is hyper-sexy

I’m running a game set on Planet Algol, but instead of using the AD&D or Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules, I’m using the rules from Vincent Baker’s latest game: Apocalypse World. Most of the conversion work consisted of writing up a spell list and writing new character classes, instead of using the ones in AW. Here’s part of The Robot, although you probably can’t read it:


Of course, the AW rules aren’t specifically optimized for dungeoncrawls or wilderness adventures. Still, I’m using them instead of B/X D&D for a number of reasons.

1. Even though I’ve run more games of D&D, I’m more familiar with AW. I’ve gotten a better handle on the dangerousness of various monsters in D&D, but the ratios between danger, treasures awarded, and character advancement is something that still eludes me. With AW, I don’t have to worry about gp numbers, instead I have more room to get descriptive with loot, both treasure and magical (or technological) devices. My only worry with AW is that characters may advance too fast, in which case I can easily slow that down. I really like the basic resolution system, too, and how it encourages mixed results instead of indicating only pass or fail.

2. AW is more cinematic and free-wheeling. The fragility of characters in Basic D&D encourages caution, careful planning, and a tendency to avoid risky-looking situations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! However, we’re working with a fairly episodic format with uncertain attendance week-to-week and less than four hours per game. A whole evening spent in careful exploration and positioning for further exploration can be disappointing, especially when you miss a game and don’t get to cash in on that groundwork. Also, me and at least some of the other players are the kind of people who like to wreak havoc on a setting, blowing shit up and tearing shit down, which is exactly the kind of play AW encourages, and which never makes for a dull evening. Characters that are tougher and more “heroic” encourage players to explore the content I’ve prepared and to get into risky situations, reasonably assured their characters won’t get killed for taking a wrong turn or something.

Even though I had booklets made up, the rules are still a work-in-progress, as I see how my various choices work out in play. Each time I run it I make little tweaks, and I imagine this will continue especially with regards to spells and magic, which aren’t present in AW. I’ve imported the Vancian magic of D&D, and I’m still testing out the best way to integrate it.

So far, so good. We’re playing again tonight.


September 8, 2010

The Game that Builds Character

There’s this thing that role-playing games have done, over the past three-and-a-half decades, that I think players want, but games haven’t been particularly good at supplying. As I explained in the last post, the original role-playing game places little or no importance on a character’s unique identity, and greatly privileges the fictional world created by the DM/GM/Referee/et al (I’m ‘a use all these terms and more, throughout).

Problem is, people like their characters! From the elaborate lifepath systems of Traveller and Cyberpunk 2020 to the point-buy character creation systems of Champions and GURPS, games that provide players with a way to carefully sculpt a more complete (more complete than Basic D&D) character have proved highly popular.

This game of character-building can take many forms. It can be completely free-form, in the case of page after page of intricate back-story. It can be completely random, Paul Jaquays’ system-agnostic Central Casting books, for example. And it can be a series of choices provided by the game for the player to make, as any point-buy or resource-allocation system is, be it Shadowrun, Hero system, D&D 3.x, or even Call of Cthulhu. Whatever form it takes, this game rejects the faceless ciphers that are beginning characters in Basic D&D, and allows the player to express his or her creativity, system mastery, or simple desire to discover more about the fiction.

Even in an old-school D&D game, you’re going to get some kind of character building. By the time characters gain a few levels, they will have created a pretty elaborate history of dungeons looted, magical items recovered, and quests completed. Even if they started as faceless nobodies looting the nearest dungeon at hand, at some point players will find their own drives and motivations, and begin to direct the story based on the motivations and desires of their characters, instead of simply accepting whatever dungeon the DM has prepared. It’s just that later games began to include this as part of character generation, not just as part of play.

I think this game is great. I like finding the optimal way to make a certain type of character with a given system—the combination that gives me the most bad-ass fighter, or the most gear and stuff, or the craziest background. I like taking my character through a complete dramatic arc, and seeing how he is changed by his adventures. I like deciding how he makes sense of everything, session after session.

What I don’t like is how DMing/GMing/Refereeing styles evolved (or didn’t evolve) to fit this desire. If the traditional approach is used, the DM prepares a dungeon beforehand, without reference to the player characters. This means there’s no guarantee that any of a given character’s abilities will be useful, and almost no chance that a character will be able to pursue his own personal goals, or explore his own relationships. And yet, it’s inevitable that when people are building their own elaborate characters, they’re going to build characters that aren’t interested in raiding dungeons or exploring the DM’s fantastic setting. They make characters that are all about their own goals, their own specific problems, and their relationships with other people. And not with the dungeon.

Instead of running a loose collection of situations (and when I say “situations” I mean “rooms with traps, monsters, or treasures in them”), the GM is instructed to run a linked series of encounters, which are more pre-planned than semi-random. And then this leads to the dreaded railroading. Outside the constraints of the dungeon, where players have unlimited choice, the GM has to anticipate their choices so he can prepare—which means limiting their choices! The GM may even be using a module, which has a whole series of scenes planned out, which have nothing to do with the characters. And so, players are told that their characters matter, and that the game will address their drives, goals, and relationships (because why would you spend time deciding on them or crating them?) and yet the GM is told to keep a strict reign on the plot, and not let the players deviate too much from it.

Even in a game like Call of Cthulhu, which is pretty close to old-school D&D, I’m still annoyed by the skill selection. I have a limited amount of points, and no idea which skills will actually be useful in the adventure or not. If only I’d put those fifty points in shotgun instead of photography, I wouldn’t have been killed twenty minutes into the game! Expand that out into more elaborate point-buy systems, where I’ve got all sorts of characteristics and relationships, how pissed off am I going to be when none of that comes up in play? Even in White Wolf games, which are pretty explicitly about relationships and conflicts, the Storyteller is still told how to create “your story,” and “the story you want to tell.”

Dirty little secret here, people: The story isn’t produced by the DM, the GM, or the Storyteller. Everybody produces the story. The GM’s job is to introduce situation, and to adjudicate the rules as that situation turns into story. When players describe what their characters do, they are either trying to enter a situation, deal with a situation, or get out of a situation. And when they do that, you say what the situation they enter is like, how the situation evolves when they deal with it, what happens to the situation when they don’t, and what new situation they enter when they leave the old one.

Basic D&D does a good job of telling the DM how to create situation. It just tells you how to make a dungeon. But most games where the characters are important don’t do a good job of telling the DM how to create situation, because the dungeon creation rules in Basic D&D don’t work for that kind of game. When you get past Basic and into Expert, your D&D game is probably going to turn into that kind of game, and you deserve the best of tools for running it when it does.

So I’ve done a lot of complaining here, just setting up this thing that annoys me. I should probably start proposing solutions, yeah? Okay. Here are some games that do a good job of making that game of building a character actually meaningful in play:

Apocalypse World:

This game concentrates on cool, competent people in a post-apocalyptic setting. The game stays focused on the player characters first and foremost by directing the MC (the GM) to build the setting and the situations around the player characters. When you’re the MC, you ask questions, present situations, and react to what the player characters do. Instead of pre-planning locations or storylines, you prepare fronts, which are essentially countdowns. This is an old trick (and one used fairly well in Call of Cthulhu), but the game gives you solid rules to help you. Create a problem, and if it’s not addressed by the players, just make it worse when you re-introduce it later. Every situation is a question. Either the players will answer it, or you will, but you’ll answer it during play, not when you write the question.

Burning Wheel:

This game is almost the exact opposite of Basic D&D. Instead of focusing on the dungeon, BW privileges the characters completely. The GM introduces setting, situation, and secondary characters in order to challenge a character’s Beliefs, which are written from the character’s point of view, but function as cues from the players to the GM. It’s the Beliefs of all the characters put together that determine what happens in the game, with the GM reacting to what the players want, and exploring the characters through their deeds, instead of the players exploring the GM’s fictional setting.

D&D 4E:

The main criticism of 4E I hear is that it’s too focused on tactical minis combat, but this is what makes the character building game work, in my opinion. Because all your character building is expressed through tactical combat effects, every choice you make when you’re creating your character has a concrete and observable impact on game play. Unlike Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel, you can play the game without worrying too much about the fiction, although you still can’t create a character without creating fiction.

Yeah, I know, that’s pretty short. Will I explain how to use techniques from all three of these games in higher-level old-school D&D games in greater detail in later posts? Of course I will!