It's time, once again, for some game design theory.
|Nov 7||Public post|| 5|
Hello to all the new readers who are here because of Greg Olear's essay. In addition to political commentary, I also do tabletop game design. One of the ongoing features of my newsletter is a set of development diaries where I mix descriptions of rules for my current RPG project, Interrobang, with more discursive writing about my process and reasoning. Explaining why the rules are helps me figure out how to explain what the rules are.
Some of the entries are heavier on philosophy and theory, some are closer to actual finished game writing. You can find previous entries by looking for mentions of Interrobang in the title. One of these days I'll make an index of them I can update and link to, in lieu of Substack having a tag system.
I thought about holding off on this entry for a few more days to note shift gears so quickly after the Giuliani piece, but I've been holding off on it since before Halloween already. So, here it is... enjoy, be mystified, or skip it entirely, as you prefer.
Some Words on Dice
Since the readership for this publication is mixed in terms of interests, I will go over basic dice notation, for those following at home who are new to this world.
When describing a particular throw of dice, they are referred to with the abbreviation "d" followed by the number of sides. When you roll to move in Monopoly, you're rolling 2d6... 2 six-sided dice. When you roll to hit a dragon in a dungeon, you roll 1d20, or 1 twenty-sided die. As in Monopoly, your actual roll is the total of all the dice described (though some games do things differently, we do not.) Any number that is added to or subtracted from the final total, so 2d6+3 would mean you roll those two dice and add 3 to it.
Interrobang as it is currently conceived only uses one type of die, the d6. This is the standard, familiar, cubical dice you can pillage from any Yahtzee set, and you can often find available for sale in dollar stores or drug stores. This is for reasons of both accessibility and simplicity. Six-sided dice are easy to find, easy to recognize, easy to use and easy to read. Many of them are textured in a way that makes it possible to count the dots without disturbing the roll even if you can't read them visually, though casino-style dice have the pips filled in to make each side equally weighted.
Physical dice can also be replaced with an electronic die roller, many examples of which can be found online.
Almost every die roll in Interrobang is a 2d6 roll, though special circumstances may cause additional dice to be added to the roll. Other circumstances may manipulate the roll in some fashion (like allowing you to re-roll a die.) In all cases, we use the word "result" to refer to the final, total number, after any dice and numbers have been added or subtracted. High rolls are better, so things that allow you to add to the die roll are good and things that subtract from it are bad.
When and why do you roll dice, and what do they mean? We'll get to that in a bit.
Let's talk about how the game is played.
Telling A Story Around A Table
Interrobang relies heavily on a concept called narrative negotiation. All tabletop roleplaying games do, to some extent. They're not always as explicit about it, but it's always there.
Narrative negotiation is simply the process of figuring out if something makes sense, in-story. That is, if you imagine a world and a character who exists in it , can you tell a particular story in a way that makes sense? If we imagine an adult human being in "the real world" -- or rather, an imaginary world that is basically ours -- who has a car and works in an office building, we don't need to have special rules to answer the question "Can this person get into their car and drive to work?" If we tried to simulate that with dice, and required you to make a "drive in to work roll", any chance of failure that's worth rolling for would probably be too high to be either realistic or fun.
So we just say... yeah, this character lives in a world where people with cars drive them all the time. Doing normal, everyday car stuff makes sense for a character with a car.
There's not much negotiation in that example because it's so simple and straightforward that if there's any doubt, it could probably be resolved with a single sentence and some head-nods around the table. But it illustrates the basic principle: what makes sense for this character?
Where things get a little more complicated is when we move away from realistic people in realistic settings. What could a character in an action movie do with a car? What could a character in a zany slapstick cartoon do with a car? What could a character in an action-adventure cartoon do with a car? What if the character is a stunt diver? What if the character is a cyborg who can interface with technology? What if the character has some kind of technomagic or a psychic ability to bond with machines?
The answers to all of these questions will be different, and open to interpretation because they all deal with concepts that don't exist in real life, and many versions of them exist in fiction. We call it narrative negotiation because the ideal is that even if everyone at the table may start with different ideas, when questions arise, a consensus should ideally emerge.
Everyone can have input, but it's not necessary for everyone at the table to weigh in, and usually not desirable, either. Players should remember that it's a game, not a debate club, and no one's job is to play devil's advocate or shoot down other players who see their own characters a certain way. They should also remember that a roleplaying game is typically an ensemble story. If one player is constantly interpreting their character in ways that basically make them good at everything to the point that the rest of the group is redundant, that's a problem.
The real key to avoiding the kinds of conflicts that harm friendships and end games is to thresh things out in advance. Make sure everybody is on the same page about the genre and style of game that's being played, and the kinds of characters the PCs will represent. If everybody hears that it's a supernatural horror game and one person shows up thinking Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another person is expecting The Dunwich Horror, and another is expecting Courage the Cowardly Dog... okay, well, in all honesty that kind of anything goes, "kitchen sink" (as in "everything but..") game can be fun, too.
But not if the person who was expecting serious, deadly cosmic horror was unprepared for comic hijinks or teenage superheroics from their castmates.
If you're playing a specific game built on the skeleton of the Interrobang system, or adapting a specific fictional work that everyone in the group is familiar with, you might already have an easier time answering the big questions.
Agreeing that something makes sense for a character, in the situation, in the setting, isn't the same as saying that it's automatic or easy, especially when we leave behind questions of what a real person could do with a car in their day-to-day life and get into the territory of things that a stunt driver in an action movie might do. But you can at least use it to establish the parameters of what is possible.
Storytelling as Gameplay
So the basic rhythm of the game is that the game runner -- whom we will term the Storyweaver -- provides a prompt, and the players respond. The initial prompt that starts a game will involve setting the stage: describing the world, if it's different than the one the players know, and the overall situation, and then laying a scene.
The other people playing the game with the Storyweaver are referred to as the players. Each of them will usually control one character, usually a character they created themselves. These are called player characters (PCs).
The scenario may already be well-known to players. It might be adapted from a story they know and love. It might be something they all brainstormed together. It might also be a total surprise. There are times and places for every approach. The Storyweaver might have a story to tell, or the whole group might be bringing a story to life. Either way, once it's begun, the story is in everyone's hands. The Storyweaver is called the Storyweaver because their role is to take everybody's contributions and make it into a mostly unified whole.
How much input the players have in the story once it's begun will depend on the game. In some games, they'll control their own character's thoughts and actions and not much beyond that. That's the model used in traditional adventure games like Dungeons & Dragons. Other games take a more collaborative model, where the players can add things to the world of the story as they go, narrating the results of their own successes and failures in ways that fundamentally change the story. Interrobang as a system is agnostic about this; it plays fine either way.
Once the scene has been described and the players know where their characters are in the world and what's going on, they can act. The "rules" for this are very loose. Until something happens with real stakes -- meaning, a chance for failure and some kind of consequences -- you're just telling each other a story. What your character can or can't do within this story is limited by what makes sense for the character and the story. Characters are defined in terms of their character concept to help provide players with ideas about what sorts of things their character might be able to do in a given situation.
Can you go to a window and open it up? Makes sense, if nothing prevents you. We don't need rules for moving down the street, browsing a store, opening or closing a door, and so on, and there's no reason to break out the dice when there aren't stakes to it. A lack of stakes in this sense doesn't mean it doesn't matter. If the game begins with the player characters in the foyer of a haunted house, it matters where they go and which doors they open and what things they disturb in terms of determining what happens next, but unless someone tries something difficult, the back and forth of storytelling works fine.
When things aren't happening at a rapid clip, it's not necessary to take turns in a formal sense, though if more than one player wants to act, it behooves the Storyweaver to make sure that no one's hogging the limelight. On the other hand, if one player is in their element and the others are for the moment following along, that's fine, too. The key is to make sure no one feels left out. If the story is that one character is a psychic who has sensed a cry for help from somewhere in the old abandoned house and the other characters are friends who have come along to back them up, it's not necessary to go around the table and make everyone say "Yes, I follow the psychic up the stairs."
But say one player is a detective who wants to search the room for clues. The Storyweaver might well feel that some of these clues would be obvious to a trained detective and simply reveal what they find, but there might be other tidbits that are harder to detect. This would be a good time to call for a roll!
Gambits: Break Out The Dice!
When you attempt something that has a chance of failure and some consequences for success and/or failure, it's called making a gambit. A failed gambit doesn't always result in something bad happening immediately. In the example of searching for clues, you might just miss out on information that could be useful. Failure to break down a door might just mean you can't get through it. The circumstances might make that dangerous, if for instance, the noise of the attempt is going to bring unwanted attention and the door is your escape route, or the room's on fire, but simply failing to get through a given door doesn't necessarily mean you've injured yourself or lost something.
This Is How You Roll
A gambit is resolved by rolling 2d6.
You can potentially add a bonus to it if it's on-brand for you, meaning what you're attempting falls within the wheelhouse of your whole deal, meaning one aspect of your identity or one of your strengths applies to it. The same as with basic, no-stakes actions, this is mostly a function of what makes sense for your character and the story. If you're applying a strength or aspect, you should say so when you're rolling, as in, "I'm going to roll using [Witch]" or "Rolling on Perceptive."
The Storyweaver should be familiar with your character and can prompt you to roll a particular strength, but otherwise will just tell you that the task is Physical, Mental, Social, or Technical.
If the Storyweaver doesn't see how this applies, they can check you and ask you to explain. You can head this off by narrating what you're trying to do as you're rolling, but if you're not that creative on the spur of the moment, don't super sweat it. If you can make sense of your character being able to do this thing, it's the Storyweaver's job to weave the results into the story anyway.
When you're rolling on-brand, you add the score you have in the Physical. Mental, Social, or Technical spheres, as applies to the gambit. If you're using a strength, you must use one that belongs to that sphere, but aspects of identity are more fluid and can be used in any sphere. It's the task that determines the sphere - if you want to use a better sphere, you have to figure out how exactly you'd accomplish a Social task by Physical means, for example... like using brute force to intimidate someone makes more sense than using brute force to charm them.
(Unless you find out that the person has a weakness for bodybuilders, of course. Everything is situational.)
Technical strengths (which are also called skills) are generally assumed to be more flexible than other ones, allowing you to use your Technical score for gambits that would otherwise fit other categories. Someone skilled at climbing doesn't have to explain why they're using that strength to roll a technical gambit for what would obviously be a physical gambit to scale a cliff; it's using their skill. Storyweavers are encouraged to be flexible on this, as players are encouraged to keep their Technical strengths reasonably narrow in scope; you can't put three points into Technical and define your skills as "Physical Stuff, Mental Stuff, and Social Stuff" for obvious reasons.
If your score for the gambit's sphere is negative, the normal rule is inverted: you add that negative score to your result (lowering it) unless it's on-brand.
A gambit has a difficulty level, which is just a number you're trying to meet or beat with your result. The Storyweaver will usually tell you what the difficulty is, if it seems likely you'd have some idea from the outward appearance... or if it doesn't feel like giving a secret away too early by telling you. If the result of your roll is at least the difficulty level of the gambit, then you succeeded.
Sometimes -- and the example of searching for clues is a good example of this -- there may not be a number you're told, but instead a whole set of different outcomes tied to specific results. There may be some obvious clues that anyone can turn up just by looking, some indications that require a result of at least 7, and some more that require a result of 10 or higher, and one special really subtle detail that will be revealed to someone who gets a 13 or higher.
Really High Rolls: Pinning A Ribbon On It
There's assumed to be a correlation between how high you roll and how well you do, which may just mean the outcome is cooler sounding for a really high roll, but the Storyweaver is encouraged to add some side benefit to a roll that beats the difficulty by 3. We call this winning a ribbon. So if your'e trying to roll at least a 7 to pick the lock on a door and you get 10, the Storyweaver may say that instead of sitting and fumbling with it for a minute or so, you just flick it open with what seems like one fluid motion. It's a cool flourish if you're not pressed for time, but in a dangerous situation, it could make a huge difference!
This brings up a sort of "soft rule" of Interrobang, called the Rule of Stakes: things matter more when things matter more.
If you're doing acrobatic tricks during downtime just to show off, you're not going to learn the secrets of the universe just because you rolled really hard and the Storyweaver can't figure out a side benefit. But if you're doing a cool stunt to get across a pitched battlefield in the heat of the moment, your high roll should get you something extra. A ribbon matters more when there's more on the line.
The Storyweaver may decide what your ribbon is, or may invite you to pitch an idea for one or to choose between one of a few possible benefits for a high roll, depending on the level of narrative collaboration desired.
Double's Not Nothing
The other way to get a ribbon is to roll doubles on your dice. This is a little bit different in that it doesn't require success. Roll the proverbial snake eyes? Even with a result of 2, you still get a ribbon. Depending on the situation, this might be a partial success (if that makes sense for what you're trying to do), or it might be something that mitigates the failure. For instance, you try to kick down a door and fail... but maybe a crack of thunder happens at the same time and so the guards in the other room don't notice.
If you've got more than two dice as part of the gambit, "doubles" still means two. If any of the dice match any other die, it's a double.
You can't, however, get more than one ribbon on the same roll. It's an either/or thing.
A lot of gambits are pretty binary, so a partial success might not make sense until you consider the idea of "success, but at what cost?" Instead of cleanly sliding under the descending stone door, maybe you scrape your shin, or drop something on the other side. In these situations, the Storyweaver may offer you the choice: you can realize you're not going to make it and hold back, effectively canceling your gambit, or press on and pay the penalty.
Close But Not Quite
If you miss your difficulty by exactly 1, you get a consolation prize: a ribbon of the partial success/mitigated failure variety if that makes sense, or some small and unrelated side benefit if it doesn't.
For any failure that involves a ribbon or consolation prize, the Rule of Stakes applies. If the stakes are low, the benefit might just be that you don't look like you failed.
Improving Your Odds
You can improve your chances on a gambit by making the circumstances more advantageous. The game rules define two specific ways to do this, and others may occur to you depending on the situation.
The two canonical improvements you can add to a gambit are assistance or extra time. Each such improvement adds one advantage die to your gambit. When you have one or more advantage dice in the mix, you roll them as part of the gambit, and then take the highest two dice as your result. The other ones count only for purposes of scoring a double. They're not added to the result at all.
You can add a maximum of two advantage dice to a roll, which can be from two different people assisting you, or two levels of extra time, or from a mixture of sources.
Assistance means another character helps you. The assistance must in some way be on-brand for the character rendering the assistance, whether because they're qualified for what you're trying to do, or their player has figured out a way to help that is on-brand. For instance if a detective character is searching a missing person's office for clues, that's not exactly on-brand for an accountant, but the accountant could specifically go through the missing person's financials. That's an assist!
Taking extra time means exactly what it sounds like. We should mention that Interrobang doesn't have detailed rules for time and the passage thereof, so the consequences of taking extra time for a task are largely in the realm of story.
How much time is "extra time"? Again, we keep things loose, but assume most tasks fall into one of four categories:
Instant: It's over in a few moments to a few seconds. Sizing someone up by sight, trying to fool or persuade them with a clever line, attempting to recall a piece of useful lore, and so on, are instant.
Short: It takes about 1 to 10 minutes. Maybe a bit longer, but definitely not something that would round up to an hour. Trying to pick a lock, hot-wire a car, climb a short vertical surface, walk a tightrope over a chasm, etc., are all short gambits.
Long: These gambits are assumed to take around an hour or so. They may involve building something, researching information, performing laboratory experiments, conducting lengthy rituals, and things like that.
Slow: Gambits that take longer than an hour are all special cases. The Storyweaver decides how long they take. It might be measured in hours, work days, or even weeks. Note that slow gambits don't usually happen in the midst of an adventure, but may take place "off-screen" between them, or during a lull in the action.
For an instant or short gambit, taking extra time once boosts it up to the next category. So minutes instead of seconds, or an hour instead of minutes.
For a long gambit or slow gambit, each level of extra time means doubling the amount of time spent on it.
With no rules for the passage of time, this all matters only if the time matters in the story. (The Rule of Stakes!) If you've got all day to solve a puzzle that takes an hour to attempt, absolutely nothing prevents you from rolling with two advantage dice and saying you spent four hours on it. (A long gambit, doubled twice.)
Of course, if your odds are good and there's that little pressure, absolutely nothing prevents the Storyweaver from skipping the roll, saying that you solved it and it took you an hour or two. Who's counting? (The Rule of Stakes again!)
If At First You Don't Succeed...
...you can't just pick up the dice and roll again until you do, because then it wouldn't be much of a game.
First, we have to recognize that in some cases, the story will dictate that failure means you've missed your window. You can't keep trying to catch a football on the same throw, for instance, and trying to disarm a time bomb is a literal "ticking clock" scenario.
But for tasks that are not so time-limited and won't be adversely affected by failures, you can keep going past a failure.
The rules work under the assumption that you are making your best effort under the circumstances. Unless the circumstances improve, you're stuck with what you got.
But remember how you can improve your odds through advantage dice? Anything that add advantage dice counts as a positive change in circumstance. If you fail and then decide to take extra time or someone adds assistance, you can continue the gambit. Any immediate consequences of the initial failure still happen, which, again might render any continuation moot or impossible. But if nothing in-story would prevent you from making another try with an extra pair of hands or a little more time, you can do so. You keep the dice you've already rolled, and then roll the additional die or dice for the advantage(s).
If Circumstances Change Later...
If there's a break in the action and you come back to the situation later to try again with changed circumstances, it's up to the Storyweaver if you can continue where you left off or if it's effectively a fresh attempt. Sometimes one will make sense and sometimes the other will. Generally, if you've had a break from the action on par with a night's sleep, you would start over from scratch, coming back to the problem with fresh eyes.
Tapping Your Aspects
You can also tap into the various aspects your identity to do things that would otherwise be difficult or impossible.
Each individual aspect of your identity has a weight, a number that describes how central it is to your character's deal. Depending on the power level of the game and how many aspects you have, it's possible for that weight to be 0 for some of them. An aspect that doesn't have any weight can't be tapped.
Each time you tap an aspect, you mark an X above it on your character sheet. When you have as many Xs as you have points of weight in it, it is tapped out and cannot be tapped further. The aspect otherwise still functions normally; you don't lose access to it when it's tapped out.
When you make a gambit and you don't like the result, you can choose to flex an aspect. It must be the aspect you're using for the roll, though if you declared you were using a strength and you realize after the fact you have an aspect that applies to what you're doing, you are allowed to fudge that.
When you flex, you roll an extra d6 and add it to the roll. This is not an advantage die but is counted for the result.
If you also have advantage dice in the gambit, the extra d6 you get from flexing is added to the mix and when you've finished rolling, you can keep the highest three dice. It doesn't matter when in the process you decide to flex. A die that was set aside as low can be "brought back in" if it's no longer the lowest. So even if your flex only gives you a 1, it still might improve the roll overall by more. Advantage dice are powerful!
You can also flex an aspect when you're helping with someone else's gambit, with the same effect but on their roll. However, no matter how many people are flexing, the final result only uses 3 dice. Additional flexes are effectively giving extra advantage dice. The limit of only two characters assisting still applies.
We've mentioned a few times the concept of what makes sense for a story, and the Storyweaver checking in if it doesn't make sense to them. Ideally the players and the Storyweaver will have similar ideas of what makes sense for the characters and the story, but sometimes a player will see something that is outside their character's job description and the bounds of acceptable breaks from reality for the game as a whole, and yet... and yet... there's a really cool idea that is completely off the wall but you can still sort of see it, it's just a stretch.
In these situations, you can tap an aspect of your identity to do something that is clearly not on-brand as though it were on-brand. Rule-wise, there is no restriction except you have to tap the aspect. Story-wise... some narrative styles are more "rubber" than others, but when you expend the use of the aspect, well, you and the Storyweaver should work together to figure out a way to narrate what happens in a way that makes sense, to whatever extent the group cares about it making sense, but you satisfy the rules just by virtue of the tap. You should have a description of how you're applying this inapplicable thing. But you don't have to justify it.
As part of the stretch, you can completely change the sphere of the gambit to, for instance, move it from an area where you have -1 to one where you have +3. Again, from a point of the mechanics of the game, you earn this ability just by tapping your aspect for the stretch. It should fit the story of what you're doing, but it doesn't have to be a good story. Stretches will more often be awesome than good.
Aside from that, a stretch is treated the same as any other gambit. You don't get any extra dice. You don't do anything different on the role. It just lets you be bonkers and pull off something a little cheesy.
You can also flex when you're stretching, but that counts as two separate taps. Use with caution!
A stunt is similar to a stretch in that you're going beyond the scope of what you could normally do, but instead of subbing your statistics around, you're doing something that doesn't actually correspond to the game rules at all. It's purely in the realm of narrative negotiation. A stunt is something that is on-brand for your character, but something that goes beyond what you could normally achieve not in terms of dice and rolls, but in terms of story.
To speak bluntly, the stunt exists so the Storyweaver can say yes to ideas that are too rad to say no to, but possibly risk breaking the game a little bit if it were decided that a given PC can just sort of do this now whenever they want. The big difference between a stretch and a stunt is that stretches are used to change the nature of a gambit. Stunts are more like special abilities, extensions of a character's basic capabilities.
Some slightly generic examples of things that you can do with stunts:
Accomplish something faster than you could otherwise do (effectively moving it up one time category, the opposite of taking more time on a task).
Attack more than one target at the same time (or in very rapid succession) in a combat situation.
Briefly move in a way your character can't normally move (fly, propel through water) and/or adapt to an environment that would normally be inhospitable (creating an air supply underwater or insulation from extreme hot or cold)
Do something you'd need a tool or other special equipment for, without that equipment (whether by compensating for the lack somehow or finding a suspiciously suitable replacement at hand.)
Note that stunts not requiring rolls doesn't mean whatever you try to do with the stunt is an automatic success! Stunts let you do new things, but they won't necessarily be done well.
Stunts will be a bigger deal for some characters than others. They come up most often for characters who have some kind of extranormal capabilities, things like magical spells, superpowers, etc. Stunts are actually pretty integral to the rules for magic (described later) which can also be used with a few adaptations for things like mutant superpowers or futuristic supertech. For characters who don't have such superhuman capabilities, assets can be a source of stunts... a tool (including a weapon) is inherently something that gives you an extra capability to work with. Trick shots with an arrow or revolver, hacking a high-tech electronic device into a different sort of device, etc., can all be examples of stunts. Stunts can also make use of items you find in the environment.
It's okay to not have a clear idea of what counts as a stunt when you make your character or start playing. You might have some stunts in mind when you're creating your character or it might be something that only comes up in play. Specific games built on the Interrobang engine may have more specific rules for stunts, including selections of pre-defined "stock stunts" that players can choose from.
What if a stretch is also a stunt?
In the course of telling the story of how you use the wrong aspect for a gambit, it's easy to include elements that would be stunts if they were happening on their own. Don't sweat it, if that's the case. You don't have to "double tap" in order to pull it off. Unless you want to keep doing the cool thing that was part of a stretch outside that one gambit, it's still just a stretch.
Developer Note: Wait, Did I Name These Backwards?
I'm reading over this before posting and I think I might want to switch the terms "stretch" and "stunt" around. The word "stretch" arguably could be applied to either, but "stunt" fits the doing the probably improbable, transitory thing you're doing that is specifically described as being awesome even if it's not good, while "stretch" can work for the thing where you're extending your basic capabilities...
Yeah, I don't think I'm going to rewrite this entry to reflect it, but having written it, I think the nomenclature is backwards, and future entries (and the finished product) will reflect that.
This also helped clarify something I've been working on for when I get to character advancement for ongoing games, about permanently extending your abilities (so that your flame character who jets around through the air Once An Episode eventually can just fly without having to tap.)