Session Zero

Indie TTRPG, GMing, and the philosophy of play.

This is a familiar pattern to me: Some community catches my attention because indie creators are bringing in fresh, interesting ideas. Months after I get involved, reactionaries come crawling out of the woodwork because those ideas also challenge the politics implicitly endorsed by the old guard. So I'm not really surprised to see it happening with tabletop RPGs.

I won't link to it (because why send them traffic?), but some self-appointed gatekeeper on one of the popular RPG forums has posted a traffic signal-coded list of RPG publishers, sorted by the “wokeness” of their politics. Publishers who are outspoken in pushing back against chauvinism end up on the red list, meaning: Avoid. And, of course, the red-list includes some publishers putting out the games that drew me back to RPGs in the first place.

In some ways, the revanchists have already lost. The innovations left-leaning indie designers are bringing to the community are compelling enough that the old guard is already incorporating them into their games. They're generally not some ideological Trojan Horse for converting players into leftists, but many of them do encourage inclusion and cooperation as modes of play, which serves to make tabletop role-playing more inviting to a broader range of both persons and politics. The audiences they've brought into the fold are large and vocal enough that they're already tilting the demographic balance of the hobby for the better. The biggest name in the business, Wizards of the Coast, has clearly taken notice, and made it onto the red list as a result. As Cat Elm points out, the very existence of a woke list is likely to make some publishers rethink their prima facie apolitical status.

Games using the Wretched & Alone ruleset typically call for a block tower as a kind of probabilistic counter for determining when play ends. If a block tower is not readily available, or if it's impractical or inconvenient to use one, the following dice rules work as an alternative method. It requires:

  • Two (2) six-sided dice;
  • Some means of tracking points, e.g. pencil and paper, an abacus, etc.

Method

At the beginning of the game, assign a total of 100 points to a countdown tracker. Any time the game directs you to draw a block from the tower, roll two dice.

  • If you roll double threes, combine the results, subtract the total from the countdown tracker, then roll again.
  • If the prompt instructs you to remove the piece from the game, subtract both results from the countdown tracker.
  • If your countdown total is 51 or higher, subtract the lower result from the countdown tracker. (This is rolling with advantage.)
  • If your countdown total is 50 or lower, subtract the higher result from the countdown tracker. (This is rolling with disadvantage.)

Reaching zero is equivalent to knocking over the block tower — typically, the end of the game under Wretched & Alone rules.

Examples

  1. The game instructs you to pull a block from the tower. You roll a three and a five. Since your countdown is currently at 92, you subtract the lower number (92 – 3) for a new total of 89.
  2. The game instructs you to pull a block from the tower and remove it from play. You roll a one and a four, and subtract both results from your current countdown score of 62 for a new total of 57.
  3. The game instructs you to pull a block from the tower. Your countdown is currently at 75, but you roll double threes. You subtract six from your countdown and roll again. This time, you roll a two and five. Since you're rolling with advantage, you subtract the two from the countdown, bringing your countdown total to 67.
  4. The game instructs you to pull a block from the tower. Your countdown is at 14, which means you roll at disadvantage. You roll double threes, subtract six from your countdown, then roll again. Improbably, your second roll also comes up double threes, too! You subtract another six from your countdown, and roll again. This time, the dice come up one and five, and since you're rolling with disadvantage, you're stuck with the five. Subtracting that from your countdown total brings you to zero, ending the game.

Notes

  • Pencil and paper may the easiest tools for tracking the countdown. One relatively clear approach is to create a sort of analog gauge. Draw off ten rows, label them from 100% to 0% counting down by tens, then mark off the points deducted from the countdown time using tick marks.
  • If you use some sort of counter (e.g. pennies, poker chips, go stones) be sure to begin the game by dividing them into two piles of 50 pieces each. That will make it easier to know when to switch from using the lower result to using the higher result of each roll.
  • Other methods for emulating the tower method were discussed during the Wretched & Alone Jam in 2020.

Explanation

The block tower game is played by means of a physical system progressing toward collapse by degrees that are difficult, if not impossible, to estimate. Pulling and restacking blocks can be understood as a way of increasing the entropy of that system. Games built on the Wretched & Alone ruleset use that erratic progression toward collapse to load an element of unpredictability into their condition for failure. Pulling and stacking blocks nudges the game closer toward catastrophe, but by irregular and unpredictable steps.

The dice tower emulates that function by combining two methods familiar from traditional role-playing games: rolling with dis/advantage and exploding dice. Both are used here to approximate the entropy of a block tower over the course of the game. Rolling the dice works approximates something like the normal scale of difficulties involved in choosing and pulling a block where different pressures impact how snug each fits into the stack. A strategic player will always look for blocks that fit relatively loosely in the stack, since those are the easiest to pull without increasing the tower's overall entropy. That's comparatively easy early on, but grows more difficult as the weight of the tower shifts. We simulate that strategy here using advantage, tossing out the higher scores at first, then shifting from advantage to disadvantage midway through the countdown to emulate that increase of difficulty. Subtracting both results reflects the curtailment of a later opportunity to pull a block. Exploding the dice on double threes simulates the occasional outlier move that increases the total entropy of the system by a disastrous or nearly disastrous amount.

One-hundred is a nice, round number, and convenient for presenting the countdown tracker as a percentage, but that's not why it was chosen. It was deduced, rather, by calculating the maximum number of moves possible in a standard block tower game consisting of 54 pieces. By concentrating exclusively on the corner blocks it's possible to pull a maximum of 36 blocks (in 36 turns) from the initial pool of 18 levels. Stacked atop the 18th, those 36 blocks furnish twelve new levels to draw from, for a maximum of 24 additional pulls (bringing the total number of turns to 60), which can, in turn, be stacked into eight new levels. The process can be repeated until the 99th pull, resulting in a stack 54 levels high, each constructed of a single block, at which point it becomes physically impossible to pull from a lower level without toppling everything above it. The 100th move, then, is the point at which the stability of the system necessarily reaches zero.

Levels Pullable bricks New levels Pulls
18 36 12 36
30 24 8 60
38 16 5+1 76
43.3 10 3+2 86
46.6 6 2+2 92
48.6 4 2 96
50 2 +2 98

In simulations of the method, the average number of pulls per game was approximately thirty. Generally speaking, you can expect a lower bound of about 18 pulls and an upper bound of around 42. I haven't been able to find confirmation of Chris Bisette's claim that there are 30 pulls in an average game of Jenga, but the accord between those numbers shows that the dice tower method will generally adhere to typical game length envisioned by the ruleset's creator.

Theoretically, exploding dice make is possible to roll a 100 on a single turn — even your first turn. That makes sense from a simulationist point of view — it is possible to flub your first pull from a block tower so badly that the whole tower collapses right away. If that's less satisfying from the perspective of someone using the dice tower to play a journaling game, the odds against it are so astronomical that you really shouldn't feel cheated if it ever happens to you. After all, what you're witnessing is much, much rarer than a successful game.

#TheWretched #WretchedandAlone #gamemechanics

Reading through Perilous Wilds and Slumbering Ursine Dunes, I've started to form some ideas for how to address my frustrations with Dungeon World. One way role-playing games express the character of their respective worlds is through encounters. The party is given an opportunity to engage with some other person or creature. Sometimes, the subject of the encounter is a proper noun, like the principle antagonist of a written adventure. Others times, we're dealing with common nouns, the conventional fodder of the setting or scenario, usually summoned up by rolling a die and consulting a table.

It's the potential of those tables that I find interesting. As noted previously, my goal is to inject more specificity into the game world. The proper nouns might seems like the most obvious vehicle for that. They talk. They recur. They follow their own agendas and have names that conjure fictitious languages. They're better developed qua character — or, at least, they should be. But it occurs to me that you can do just as much worldbuilding by designing thoughtful tables for random encounters. Indeed, table design may even be better for worldbuilding.

For my purposes, what's left off is almost as important as what's included. The DW rulebook includes a catalog of monsters. A GM could very easily number the entries and use the section as a table for rolling random encounters. It's even sorted by environment. But the list is a hodgepodge of elements, compiled mostly from the greatest hits of other RPG settings. Each on its own may deliver that small jolt of enthusiasm we demand from genre adventures, but all thrown together they're a hodgepodge. Rather than a thematically cohesive world, what they suggest is, well, Dungeons & Dragons, and since this is not D&D, it often feels generic. Throwing in bespoke creatures is one way to assert an identity, but unless it's accompanied by a process of winnowing away the vestiges of other games, that identity is apt to get lost.

Just as importantly, building the world this way goes a long way toward preserving the flexibility of a game like DW. Yes, I'm talking about prepping stock creatures for encounters, but because they're the common nouns of the game world, they can be deployed randomly, as part of the process where you “play to find out what happens.”

#DungeonWorld #worldbuilding

My group has recently wrapped up a high fantasy campaign, our first time using Dungeon World. It was rocky in most of the ways that the first time using an unfamiliar system will tend to be rocky. Those hitches get ironed out with practice. But there were also dissatisfactions that have more to do, I reckon, with Dungeon World itself. Now that we've moved on to a different game for a while, I'm actively looking for ways to address them the next time we circle back to DW.

The tricky part, I realize, is that I want two things that, though not quite diametrically opposed, tend to pull in different directions. One is flexibility. The other is specificity.

A major strength of DW is the way it fosters improvisation. A GM is free, of course, to prep as much material as they'd like ahead of time, and in our initial campaign I spent an appreciable amount of time each week doing just that. But the core rules are distinctly tooled for building out a world through play. Why would I eschew that? High fantasy games are numerous enough that there's little point in sticking to one if you're not going to lean into the features that distinguish it. So choosing a different game the next time we want to play high fantasy is an option, but I enjoy the way DW plays. Part of that is its flexibility, and I want to preserve that quality.

The specificity I want has to do with setting. As I understand it, DW was designed to make the conventions of old-school high fantasy games playable in the newer style ushered in by Apocalypse World. The game's setting is generic out of fidelity to those conventions. It defines some character classes and includes a bestiary, but to the degree that DW presents a broader world, it does so mostly by gesturing toward the familiar. All of which is fine, but lends itself very easily to a generality that, by tasting a bit like everything, ends up having no distinct flavor of which to speak. Maybe I've been spoiled by Ultraviolet Grasslands, but what I'd like is for DW to present a world that asserts some identity of its own.

The major options offered by the game for fleshing out its setting are to either “convert” material from other games, or elaborate your own. The first has limited appeal. Converting D&D modules wouldn't really address my complaint, of course. Converting a more idiosyncratic setting might, but at least for comparison's sake, I'd rather run the more specific setting by its own ruleset at least once or twice.

So that leaves devising a completely new setting and gearing it to work with DW. The trick is to get it to do that without undermining the strength of either.

#DungeonWorld

Let's draw another distinction. Rules, let's say, are imperatives. Roll the dice, and abide by the results: that's a rule, one basic to most tabletop role-playing. When they're well-designed, rules give a game the internal coherence that makes it a game.

Not everything you do to make a game work well is necessarily a rule, though. The looser a game is — by which I mean, the less it uses rules to proscribe play — the more inclined we are to lean on methods. By methods, I mean all of those repeatable but optional behaviors that fill the gaps left by the rules. Opting to roll the dice from a cup is a method. So is using a table to generate unplanned elements of the narrative or world.

I'd go so far as to suggest that most of what we find in the guides and rule books are better understood as methods. In practice, role-playing games tend to need fewer hard-and-fast rules than we imagine them having — particularly if we prefer to run our games like a monk. So-called “rules-lite” games demonstrate just how little is truly imperative, but much of what gets carved away the pursuit of lite-ness are the methods that keep play from bogging down in indecision.

Even games that don't present themselves as rules-lite tend to lavish more attention on some methods than others. Most games leave very little to the imagination when it comes to combat. Head into town, though, and it's easy to find yourselves staring at your character sheets while you try to figure out what's worth doing and how to make it not just playable but also interesting. Those lacunae pose less of a problem for long-time GMs than it does for a late bloomer like myself. The long-timers have a stock of methods to draw on, many of them adopted from more elaborately designed games. Me? I'm just trying to keep things from grinding to a halt.

#rules #methods #ruleslite #GMing

I've started to think of approaches to running an RPG in terms of two GM styles: the monastic and the skaldic.

For the monastic GM, you can find the correct answer to any question — or, at least, should be able to find it — in the game's guides and supplements. For the GM, then, resolving problems at the table is mostly a matter of finding and implementing the proper citation or reference. Like the scholars of medieval monasteries, the monastic GM is beholden to the established authorities, and innovation is largely a matter of applying their wisdom creatively as demanded by the situation.

Other GMs, by contrast, are guided more by narrative and audience. Skalds were the extemporaneous poets of Old Norse society, composing, reciting and (more importantly, for our purpose) improvising heroic verse for their audiences. When a question about how to proceed arises at the table, the skaldic GM may draw in a general way on the rules, conventions or background material, much as skalds fell back on legends, stock phrases, and metrical form, but their answer will ultimately be shaped by the GM's own assessment of what's most likely to move the players.

These archetypes are idealized, of course. Few GMs operate entirely at one pole or the other. But the distinction can also help us understand the contrast between different titles and rule systems. The old school, driven in no small part by a business model that thrives on selling supplements, is built on a publishing cycle that fosters and caters to the monastic impulse. Much (though by no means all) of the indie market has grown around a more skaldic play-style that relies on the GM and players' familiarity with the generic conventions of one or another setting to supplement a “rules-lite” base.

#GMing

My first tabletop role-playing game was an AD&D starter set that I bought from a Waldenbooks when I was still in high school. This would have been the 2nd Edition, years after the heyday of the satanic panic, but moral panics cast long shadows in small towns, and my parents threw it out before I managed to find anyone interested in playing. No hard feelings.

I only came back around to tabletop role-playing last year, when a global pandemic forced much of the world into lockdown. Having grown up using online forums to fill social voids, my immediate response was to host a Slack so that my circle of friends could continue to socialize, even as circumstances kept us away from our usual haunts. As the pandemic dragged on, I cast about for activities we could engage in virtually, to break up the fugue state of messages sent and received at odd intervals throughout the day, the week, the month, the year. We watched bad movies remotely, discussed books, and eventually some of us retreated to a side-channel to play RPGs.

Zero is the session before play proper begins. It's when players first shape their characters, the GM explains the game, and the world begins to emerge. I've since lost interest in the D&D behemoth, so what you'll read about here will mostly be games arising out of the indie scene: Dungeon World, Ultraviolet Grasslands, Mothership, and so on. More recently, I've begun to explore solo RPGs, so expect detours there, as well.