Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

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Archive for the ‘Artistry’ Category

End Of The Line

Posted by Nathan P. on August 21, 2010

As you may have been able to tell, this blog is pretty much defunct at this point. However, I’ve decided to start a new blog that hooks into my current branding, and will cover my experiences as a designer of physical things as well as games!

The last year has been a pretty fallow one for me, game-wise, but I’ve come out of GenCon 2010 with renewed energy, and I’m starting to feel like I have things to say again. So that will all be on the new blog.

I will also be talking about stuff rising out of my experience in my graduate program as I go through the second and final year. As I go through a formal design education, I make more and more connections between my “hobby” and my coursework, and I hope to talk about both of those things.

One thing I will still be using this space for is continuing the RPG Design Handbook. I’ll post to the other blog when it’s updated, but it will remain on this blog for the time being.

The new blog is simply the ndp design blog.

Thanks again for your attention, dear reader. Onwards!

Posted in Artistry, Mission, Personal, Promo, RPG Design Handbook | 1 Comment »


Posted by Nathan P. on March 13, 2009

There’s a substantial difference between gamers and designers, or at least designers who publish.

When you play, you’re making something for the consumption of the people who are playing. The whole audience/participant thing.

When you publish, you’re making something for an audience. Full stop.

The lines blur, because they are both acts of creation. But they are not the same.

(sorry Paul)

Posted in Artistry, Mission, Publishing | 4 Comments »

Note To Self

Posted by Nathan P. on January 29, 2009

wrt the not-so-secret project.

Weapons have three stats: Size, Reliability and Destruction. A starting weapon has one of these at 0, and you probably have some kind of points to spend between the other 2. Outside of fights, Size can apply to your skills that are of the Mind, Reliability can apply to your skills that are of the Heart, and Destruction can apply to your skills that are of the Flesh, if it’s an appropriate situation.

In a Duel, Reliability matters more than Size. In a Melee, Destruction matters more than Size. However, if you’re trying to disarm an opponent in either case, Size matters most.

You can use your Dust to bump any of the categories, with the usual caveat that once you start, it’s hard to stop. If you have a backlash from over-dusting, however, it only affects your weapon.

Weapons can have Weirds independent of you (making it a Weird Weapon), but you need to feed it Dust or Blood if the Weird is powered by either of those. Also, some Weirds require a weapon to be used, though it doesn’t matter which weapon in particular.

Posted in Artistry, Design Ideas | Leave a Comment »

Sense Of Wonder

Posted by Nathan P. on January 2, 2009

I have this thing where I’m really not into scifi games. I do enjoy scifi as a genre of fiction (though I have pretty specific tastes, and I’m not very well-read overall). But even the dystopia/cyberpunk/modern info-punk stuff that I love to read I have no interest in playing. How weird is that?

So I’m reading this SG thread What makes a good Scifi game? (starting near the end, cuz thats whats interesting to me). And they start talking about the Sense of Wonder, so I start thinking about my game experiences where I felt a sense of wonder. And all of those times, to my recollection, have to do with making myth.

Like, the time in Ganakagok when Gary’s old man spilled out all of his wolf teeth to keep the tribe from fracturing. Or in Polaris when my knight placed his severed heart into the chest of the one he loved. Or in Annalise when Can called the Vampire “Father.”

These were all times when my understanding of the fiction we were making totally spun around in my head and resettled, re-integrating all that had happened up to that point, but creating a new picture, with a new meaning.

I don’t think this is something that needs to happen all the time, but it’s pretty neat when it does happen. But my entryway to wonder seems to primarily be through mythic fiction (Annalise being an edge case), not scifi. Not that this matters. But it’s an interesting thing, no?

Where does your wonder come from?

Posted in Actual Play, Artistry | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Nathan P. on October 9, 2008

Witness the Murder of Your Father and Be Ashamed, Young Prince


A fiction game for 3-6 players.

The King has been murdered. The only witnesses, his sons, have gathered to determine what happened and declare an heir. There is not much time. If a successor is not named by sundown, the agreements that the King had struck with Crow, the demon-god of trickery, will be broken and the kingdom will perish in a tide of blood and fire.

The players of this game are various princes, the sons of the murdered King. It is an hour until dark, and if what happened to the King cannot be discovered and adjudicated in that hour, all is lost. All assembled know that Crow, the demon-god of tricks, darkness and ill tidings, had struck an agreement with the murdered King to the great benefit of the kingdom; what they do not know (except for one) is that one of the Kings sons was consecrated to Crow in secret, and ultimately this Ravenson serves the whims of his true master.

By the end of the hour, one of these things will come to pass:

  • There is no agreement as to what happened to the King. Thus, no heir can be declared, and the kingdom falls to Crow. The Ravenson wins as the princes will all fall to the bloody madness of Crow.
  • There is agreement as to what happens, and the declared heir is undisputed. The heir becomes King, and all the princes remain princes – unless one of them is the Ravenson, in which case he flees the kingdom, unable to bear the wrath that will be turned against him. If the declared King is the Ravenson, than the kingdom will be turned over to Crow, and it will be as if a King was not declared.
  • There is agreement as to what happens, and the declared heir is disputed. One of the disputing heirs gains enough prestige with his brothers to become the new King, and those princes that support him remain princes; all other prospective heirs are banished, and their supporters are stripped of prince-hood. If the Ravenson becomes King, he sacrifices those brothers who opposed him to Crow; if the Ravenson is banished, Crow’s power is diminished in the Kingdom; if the Ravenson is neither coronated nor banished, he keeps his nature hidden and bides his time.

To Begin

The princes sit in order of age. The youngest prince says “It is now <current time>. This matter must be resolved within the hour.” It is the youngest prince’s responsibility to track the passage of time.

The youngest son places one stone per prince in a bag, alternating between red and black stones. He then secretly chooses either 0, 1 or 2 stones, in any combination of black and red, and places them in the bag. Each prince after him in turn secretly places 0, 1 or 2 red or black stones in the bag. After the eldest son places his stones, he places a coin in the bag, then hands the bag back to the youngest prince.

The youngest prince takes one stone from the bag and says “I, <the princes name> am here. I am the youngest of my fathers sons.” He does not reveal the stone he has.

The next eldest prince takes two stones from the bag and says “I, <the princes name> am here. I am the <superlative> of my fathers sons.” The prince can declare himself anything, from bravest to strongest to wisest. Each prince, in turn of age, takes one more stone than the prince before him and declares which of his fathers sons he is, until the eldest son is reached. No prince reveals which stones he has drawn.

The eldest takes a number of stones equal to the number of princes and says “I, <the princes name> am here. I am the eldest of my fathers sons.”

If any of the princes reach into the bag and there are not enough stones, he keeps this matter to himself.

If any of the princes reach into the bag and feel they coin, they may choose to take it. If they take it, they are the son that was secretly consecrated to Crow. It is not required that the coin must be taken. If a prince chooses to be the Ravenson, he keeps this matter to himself. If a prince reaches into the bag and does not feel the coin, he keeps this matter to himself…for now.

The Murder

The eldest prince than says “While we mourn the passage of our father, we cannot yet take the time to grieve. My brothers, what has happened here this day?”

All of the princes may speak, telling what they saw, think or suspect happened to their father. The princes may speak in turn, talk over each other, interrupt each other, argue, or otherwise speak as they feel appropriate. Once the hubbub dies down, the eldest prince says “My brothers, we do not have much time! What does my youngest brother have to say?”

The youngest prince tells all gathered what he saw.

Once he has finished, the youngest prince says “Who stands with their brother? Who supports my tale?” Each prince extends his closed hand. His hand may contain a red stone, a black stone, or nothing at all. This stone may be taken from their initial draw of stones, or, once the first tale has been told, from the stones before them on the table. Once allĀ  hands have been extended, the princes open their hands simultaneously. If a prince wishes to support his brothers tale, there will be a red stone in his hand. If a prince wishes to challenge his brothers tale, there will be a black stone in his hand. If a prince does not care to support or challenge, or if he is unable to do so, his palm will be empty.

Each supporter places his red stone in front of the youngest prince. Each challenger then must describe what he is challenging about the tale told by the youngest. The youngest may admit that he was wrong, and accept that the challenger is right, in which case he takes the black stone and places it in front of him; alternately, he may restate his case, denying the challenger his tale. If he does this, he takes a red stone in his possession and gives it to the challenger, who also keeps his black stone. If the youngest prince does not have a red stone, he must admit the challenge.

Once the youngest prince has finished his tale, the next eldest prince says “That is as may be, but here is what I, the <superlative> of my fathers sons, saw.” He then tells his tale.

The process of tale-telling, challenging/supporting, and resolving the tale continues, with each prince from the youngest to the eldest telling what they saw when they witnesses the murder of their father.

Princely Authority

A prince may invoke his status as <youngest/eldest/superlative> in order to describe how he was present in the tale of one of his brothers. If the prince describes his presence in a manner that supports the account of his brother, he may take one red stone from in front of him and place it in front of his brother. If the prince describes his presence in a manner that casts doubt or aspersions upon the tale of his brother, he may take one black stone from in front of his brother and place it in front of himself.

If a prince involves one of his brothers in the story, and his brother disagrees with how he is represented, he may interrupt the tale-teller by saying “But, I am the <youngest/eldest/superlative>! That is not how it happened!” and describing his actions in his brothers tale how they really were, before letting his brother resume his tale. If the tale-teller wishes to impose his version of events over his brothers objection, he must give his brother one red and one black stone and say “Though it wounds me, I must tell the truth of what I saw.”

The Resolution

Once each prince has presented his tale, they look at the stones before them. If only one prince has at least one red stone and no black stones, then he is the undisputed heir to the kingdom. If multiple princes have at least one red stone and no black stones, there is a final dispute between those princes. If all princes have black stones, there is a final dispute between any princes who also have red stones.

In a final dispute, each disputing prince reiterates their tale of the murder of their father, with whatever embellishments, changes or revealing of facts they deem necessary to sway their brothers to their side. Then, each prince who is not disputing chooses who they wish to throw their weight behind; they then hand over all of their red stones to their favored brother. Whoever of the disputing princes has more red stones at the end of the final dispute is declared heir. If there is still a tie in red stones, then an heir cannot be decided, and the kingdom falls to Crow.

Time Of The Essence

If the hour runs out before a heir is decided, the youngest prince says “I am sad to see this day, when the sons of our father could not serve his wishes. The bargain is broken, and Crow comes to take our lands.”

The Ravenson

Chances are that the Ravenson, if there is one, will be revealed once an heir is declared; if the Ravenson is not discovered at this time, he is not required to come forth (though it is sporting). The bag may be checked to see if the coin was taken at all.

This is an entry for the Murderland game design challenge. Check that out here.

Posted in Artistry, Contests | 8 Comments »

Catching Up 1

Posted by Nathan P. on August 19, 2008

So, over Gen Con, an interview I did went out into the podcastosphere. I’m listening to it myself now, I hope I don’t sound like a schlub. Also, I rant about art! Check it out at Voice of Free Planet X here. Jared’s great, and a great host.

And you should add the podcast to yer feed, anyway.

Posted in Annalise, Artistry, carry. a game about war., Mission, Non-RPG Gaming, Personal, Promo, Timestream | 1 Comment »

My Thoughts on PDFs

Posted by Nathan P. on July 27, 2008

(context: here and here. Also, this turned into quite the ramble, so be warned)

PDFs are in interesting thing, aren’t they? I have very mixed feelings, as one may be able to extrapolate from my PDF versions of games that I’ve made available thus far. Also, I’ve had some very interesting conversations with people concerning both ends of the morality-vs-profit motive spectrum. My opinions on the matter gel along these lines:

First, sometimes a PDF isn’t appropriate to the artistic goal of a product. For example, there’s no PDF of carry because the physical, visceral experience of the book as an object is important to me. Now, I know for a fact that this is costing me sales. However, I am extremely sympathetic to those who would prefer the PDF, or who don’t have a good option for buying a physical book. I want to find some way to reconcile these two issues, and when I do I will make a PDF available, but until then, my artisticĀ  goals are outweighing my profit motive.

Second, what are you paying for when you buy a PDF? There’s an almost-zero amount of infrastructure, and the rest goes direct to the author, for what? A digital, reproducible file that has infinite shelf life. My friend Andrew Morris is of the opinion that what you’re actually paying for is ideas, and that its immoral to charge for ideas. Again, I’m sympathetic to this argument (witness the idea that PDF sales are “free money” to a publisher, which is basically true), but I think that the profit from PDF sales can certainly be seen as paying for enabling the author to continue making their work available. By the same token, why should books be sold for more than cost + cuts from the middleman? Same answer. (Incidentally, if you’re not up on Jonathan Walton’s new business model, you should be).

But, with that in mind, what is “right” to charge for a PDF? For Timestream, I have a PDF at $8 and a more full-featured PDF at $12, which are basically price points that “feel right” to me. I think it only makes sense that a PDF cost less than a book, because I don’t need to pay anything to get you your copy, and I get more money out of the deal. But, if it’s the same content, should I charge the retail minus the print costs? How does that effect the perception of value? Does it feel right? Or, on the other hand, should I pursue PDF sales as a core part of the business model (they generate more profit, after all)? This is a valid pusuit, I think (witness Ronin Arts).

Or, should I only charge for PDFs until all of my costs for the game are covered, and then make it free?

I think the one thing I feel pretty strongly about is that I don’t have the energy to waste trying to keep pirated PDFs from happening. I don’t like DRM, I don’t have the tech savvy to engage in locking wars, and I honestly just don’t care if people pirate my PDFs. Anyone who downloads a pirated PDF of my stuff will either like it so much they buy something legit anyway, or they would have never bought it in the first place.

These are all really sticky questions that I don’t have stock answers to (except the uselessness of DRM thing). I think the only way I can navigate this territory is make sets of decisions based on my artistic goals for each individual game, and hope for the best.

Posted in Artistry, Mission, Publishing | 3 Comments »

The Problem With Fanmail

Posted by Nathan P. on June 14, 2008

(Long one. Skip to the 4th paragraph for the meat.)

For those who may not be familiar, Fanmail is the “killer app” (thanks Eric) of Primetime Adventures. Simply put, there’s an amount of Fanmail tokens in the center of the table, and when someone does something in the game that you think is really neat, you can award them a point of Fanmail. Players can use Fanmail to help them out in conflicts, and over the course of play the amount of Fanmail in the budget has an interesting ebb and flow to it, based on spotlight scenes.

Anyway, Fanmail is great! It really blew people away when they started playing PTA, and it still holds up as one of the seminal touchstones of design in the circles I run in.

It’s pretty easy to see why it works. It really codifies celebrating each others contributions at the table. As embedded in the overall “this is a TV show” framework of play, it’s a natural process to recognize scenes, lines and actions that would be picked up as “fan favorites” and thus generate the “fan mail”. It’s also a good teaching tool for the Producer to use when teaching the game to new people. “Hey Jim, you just applauded Sarah’s contribution there, you should give her fanmail!” Finally, it has a subtle global effect in the game, whereby people who have high Screen Presence tend not to spend all their Fanmail in those sessions, and then when they have a low Screen Presence episode they have a stockpile of resources, keeping them roughly even in narrative-effecting power over the course of a season*.

So whats the problem? Well, it works really well – in the game its written for, and embedded in an environment of supportive mechanics. And the soul of the mechanic is totally sound. Rewarding each other at the table for behavior that you support is always solid, in my opinion. But the mechanization of that reward, thats the trouble. Where do you go over the line from rewarding behavior that you enjoy, and automatically handing out Fanmail because thats how you play PTA?

Here’s the secret about PTA – the game works just as well without ever handing out or using Fanmail. Or rather, it is elastic in that however much or little you use Fanmail, it won’t hurt the game or gameplay.

The danger here is twofold. One, that games are designed with fanmail mechanics that are central to play, and don’t work if fanmail isn’t given. (This will be a subject of another post, with myself as offender). The other is the conception that the only way to celebrate input at the table is by putting a mechanic around it. I think the connexion with my earlier post on the subject is obvious, right? It’s another layer in the idea that there’s only a very rigid way to induce behavior in play, ironically drawn from an extremely flexible and innovative mechanic that works just as much because of the stuff around it.

Why make this post? Because it’s a trap I fall into all the time, and I think writing it out will help me be more aware of it. It’s not a slam on Matt, or on PTA. It’s just….something to keep in mind.

*This last, I’ve observed a little in my multi-session play and in reading some APs. I dunno if it always happens, but it seems to be a pretty straightforward emergent property of the Fanmail/Screen Presence economy.

Posted in Artistry, Mission | 1 Comment »

No Game The Same

Posted by Nathan P. on May 27, 2008

I think there may be a fallacy in some of our conventional wisdom, fellow theory nerds.

So we’re all familiar with the idea that, the farther away a given group is from the designer along the personal-experience-with chain, the less likely it is that they will play a game in the way that the designer intended it. There’s a degradation of experience. And the response to this idea is that rules, if well-designed AND well-explained, will make this degradation less. If I play Burning Wheel with Luke, I’m getting the experience as he intends it; if I then go and play Burning Wheel with other people, they’re getting it “second-hand” through me, but the rules are good enough and the book is well-written enough that the experience should be pretty close; and so on.

However, as a subjective experience, no game is ever played the same twice by strict application of the rules. I mean, even when playing my own games, there’s some nights when some parts of the rules just aren’t emphasized, or don’t apply, or I forget them, or whatever. Rules application in play is subject to so many factors that I think many (not all, or even most, but many) games never see their rules applied consistently across groups and across time.

This train of thought leads me to two conclusions. First, the growth of this concept that you can play a roleplaying game simply by applying the mechanics. I’ve played in games like this, hell I’ve run games like this, particularly oneshots, where the game consists of make characters, set a scene, identify a conflict, resolve the conflict, repeat until mechanical triggers change your characters stats, and so on. I’ve left some of these games feeling unsatisfied, because I wasn’t doing any roleplaying. To be more specific, I was all the way out on one end of the participant-audience spectrum (either end, doesn’t matter).* I think this is a trend, like fortune-at-the-end stakes setting, that we’ll all get over soon enough, but I think the origin of the trend can be traced back to what I’m talking about in the first paragraph.

Anyway, the more interesting thought that I’m having is that a well-designed game isn’t aimed at enabling any group to apply the rules in the same way that the designer does. A well-designed game is aimed at enabling any group to share the experience that the designer wants the players of the game to share. But – and here’s the tricky bit – enabling an experience may require actually placing different and non-complimentary sets of procedures in your game, depending on how accessible you want the game to be to players of different playstyles and backgrounds. This is something that Jonathan Walton, among others, is aware of (whether he knows it or not). Read his blog with this in mind, and there’s some really exciting things that he’s doing.

So, in concrete terms, Annalise is being written with a guide to how different people should approach the book. I don’t care whether people apply the rules in exactly the right order, but I DO care about whether they have a rockin’ time making a gothic horror story with their friends. Cuz in the end, that’s what matters.

*This is referring to how I define roleplaying, way back in this post from the early days

Posted in Annalise, Artistry | 6 Comments »

Character Effectiveness

Posted by Nathan P. on April 4, 2008

This turned out longer than I thought. Skip to the end for the point.

Characters are (usually, not always, but the vast majority of the time) the interface that the players use to interface with the fiction.

Character “effectiveness” is a good (and commonly understood, I think) phrase for talking about the way in which that interface works. A characters effectiveness may be because of the stats that it has, or it may be measured by a metaresource that is used by the player in order to change the fiction in order to “help the character out,” or whatever else. But it’s a trivial point to say that a 10th level D&D character is more effective than a 1st level D&D character, right?

Well, I’m not sure that thats a trivial point at all. Because, yes, a 1st level D&D character in the same party as the 10th level one will be overwhelmed – they just won’t be able to effect the fiction in a meaningful way through the manipulation of mechanics. They will not be able to hit any of the monsters, for example. Now, the person playing that character may be able to make them effective in a “soft” fashion – for example, someone plays a 1st level noble in that 10th level game, and he has social authority in the fiction that the 10th level barbarian doesn’t have. But, as a general statement, most characters in a given game usually have about the same amount of effectiveness, right?

Let’s keep looking at D&D. Whats the other measure of character effectiveness? Your hit points. When your hit points hit 0, you are no longer effective, because your character is dead.

This is the big thing that lurks in the background of most games, right? That your character, at some point, could die, thereby severing the players ability to effect the fiction.

Man what?

The point of a roleplaying game is that you are playing, right? So what is up with the constant threat of you not getting to play anymore?

Anyway, thats not what I actually wanted to talk about. Got sidetracked, sorry.


So, for a certain style of play, player effectiveness = character effectiveness. My GURPS character that I just made has a 15 in the Occultism skill, so I the player have a chance north of 90% of successfully influencing the fiction whenever I use him to find something out thats related to Occultism.

For another certain style of play, player effectiveness is completely disassociated from character effectiveness. My last GURPS character died because I talked to the GM and said “hey, I’m not really interested in playing Reyes anymore, and I know you think it would be appropriate for a PC to die during this mission,” not because Reyes blew any rolls.

My question to you, gentle reader, is whether it’s ever more desirable for thematic or genre-celebratory play for player effectiveness to be curtailed because the character effectiveness has gone down. Easiest example, why should you have to stop effecting the fiction because your character dies?

The problem that I’m seeing in some of my play is that I don’t want characters to be injured, because it makes them less effective, which means that their players don’t have as much ability to have input into the game, which make it less fun for me.

This is a genuine question. Is mechanically determined lowering of character effectiveness useful? Why? When?

Posted in Actual Play, Artistry, D&D | 10 Comments »