Dread, Only Longer (part 1)

Most people seem to think of Dread as a one-shot-only game, but when we wrote it we intended to create a campaign-worthy game that created particularly intense individual sessions in that campaign. We wanted a game that gave a pay-off in a single session, but one that also worked for longer games.

In chapter 3 of Dread, there is a section about how characters change with the ongoing story. Elsewhere in the book, we talk about how to craft a setting and scenario that makes room for the loss of characters, which is far more common in Dread than in many other RPGs. But, based on the talk I see online, very few have even tried to run a Dread game longer than a couple of sessions.

I’ve even heard people assert that it’s not possible to play an ongoing Dread game. So clearly we didn’t share enough in the rulebook about how to create long-term play. We talked about choosing a sensible setting to justify bringing in new characters on a regular basis, but not enough about the details of how that works. The secret, as in so much of Dread, is in the questionnaires.

So this is the first of a series of posts, talking about some of the obstacles to ongoing games of Dread and sharing some tricks to address them. Let me set the parameters: I’m not talking about a single story that takes more than one session to complete, and may or may not be survived by all of the characters. I’m talking about “campaign-length” play of potentially dozens of sessions, or as long as you want to keep the game going (the Walking Dead tv show has made it to 9 seasons so far). But nothing I’m going to suggest will hurt a single-story game. At worst, doing these things will be extra effort that won’t pay off in a shorter game. And I’m going to assume you’ve read the rulebook, so I may reference things written there without going into detail about them.

Let’s start with the obvious: what do you do when a character is removed from the game, but the game goes on? We’ve already shared some short-term solutions (letting them play a while longer as a “dead person walking”, coming back temporarily as a ghost or similar), and you could even stretch them out over multiple sessions. But I’d advise against it. Having no agency in a game for an hour at the end of the night is one thing; having no agency for several sessions would be tedious at best. And eventually you’d simply run out of characters.

So what we need is to bring in new characters. There are several parts to this, but I’ll start with: why is this new character here? How do you explain new characters showing up, probably repeatedly, and getting involved with the established characters?

One way to do this is to hint at the new characters within the questionnaires of the old. When you’re planning an ongoing game, make sure that every character you create has a connection to at least one character who isn’t another player character but who would make a suitable player character. Then, if your character is removed from the game, you’ve already introduced a new character you can bring in, and who has a connection to the other characters and the story.

In other words, at least one question on every character questionnaire should be about someone else. Possible categories include:

  • family who would come looking for the character if they didn’t return
  • a protegé
  • a mentor
  • teammate
  • classmate
  • close friend
  • old college friend
  • the fellow members of your scouting troop
  • the person who first alerted the character to the existence of supernatural threats
  • a fellow captive
  • the character’s next vat-grown body, waiting to be activated
  • a squire
  • a sentient familiar
  • someone who owes your character their life
  • fellow cult members
  • members of the same knightly order

And there’s no requirement that you use the connection from your character if they leave the game. Since every character should have at least one connection like this, you could use each others’ connections.

If the setup of your story makes sense, some or all of these “backup characters” could be part of the story right from the start. The main characters could be just 4 or 5 of the students at camp, and as each one is eliminated, the player takes over another camper. This works particularly well with a situation where there is an isolated group that is larger than the player group.

But even when there aren’t other people around, there are usually ways to introduce them, maybe between sessions, maybe right away.

Which gets to the other part of replacing characters for long-term Dread play: there needs to be somewhere for those extra characters to come from. Because that’s the one kind of Dread scenario that doesn’t work for multi-session play: one where there’s no way to introduce new characters. If you want to have a longer game, don’t back yourself into a corner with no way to add new characters. For the rest, campaign length play is possible so long as you want it.

Niche vs Schtick

I’m going to run a supers RPG for one of my game groups, and one of the players has never played in that genre before, so before creating characters they had a question: do we need to create the characters as a party so that we make sure we have all the bases covered?

After a little discussion, it became clear that they were thinking of, say, D&D, where your game might not go well if you don’t have a cleric or don’t have a thief. Not that you can’t have a D&D party without one of those roles, but that it significantly changes how the game plays. Or any number of other mission-driven genres where specific skills are expected—like Cyberpunk 2020 without a netrunner.

It seems to me that there are two distinct things going on here. I’m going to call them character niche and character schtick, slightly abusing the terminology to label the distinction I’m talking about:

  • character niche: a niche is a particular story-important mechanical capability of a character
  • character schtick: a schtick is a—or the—core reason that you want to play that character

Rules Define Niches

A niche is a part of the character mechanics that is significant in the play of the game. In some RPGs, niche diversity is important. The game assumes that certain niches will be filled, and if they aren’t, the game won’t play in the usual manner. For example, D&D assumes niche diversity. If you don’t have all the major niches filled (fighter, trap-finder, healer, spellcaster), the game will play very differently. Niche diversity tends to be important in team-based, mission-based genres, like dungeon-delving, espionage, military, and cyberpunk.

In other RPGs, niche protection is important: Having multiple characters in the same niche risks making it un-fun for one or more players as their character gets overshadowed. Being the second-best tracker tends to mean that you don’t get to track (unless there’s a need for multiple people to be tracked at once, or the game has a mechanical way for multiple trackers to work together). Most RPGs at least make the niches obvious, and provide enough of them that you don’t need to overlap. Powered by the Apocalypse games make niche protection explicit by requiring each playbook be unique and building each playbook around unique mechanical capabilities.

OTOH, some games are remarkably tolerant of niche overlap. For example, in D&D you can easily have three fighters in a game and everyone still have fun. Two clerics can work great. Even the trap-finder, probably the D&D niche most susceptible to getting their toes stepped on, doesn’t have to be unique, so long as the GM takes that into account. D&D even works fine with a single-class party.

Don’t Step on My Schtick!

Not every RPG has meaningful niches. But schticks apply in almost every RPG. When you sum up your character, say as “a drunkard dwarven warrior”, you’re describing their schtick or schticks—the core elements that matter to you about your character. Your character’s schtick might include significant mechanical elements of the character, or it might not. Schtick protection is almost always valuable in RPGs—without schtick uniqueness, you end up with Boromir and two hobbits you can’t tell apart. Or two characters riding a skeleton horse of fire. Which can be great fun if it’s intentional, but ruin someone’s fun if it’s not.

In some games, particularly those with classes or other strong categories as part of character creation, niche and schtick tend to overlap heavily. And I don’t think they’re ever completely distinct—they’re very close concepts, so it’s pretty easy for a character’s niche to also be their schtick, or for their schtick to completely subsume their niche.

In fact, in Powered by the Apocalypse games arguably the uniqueness of playbooks is more about protecting those schticks than it is about niche protection. After all, probably everyone in your Dungeon World game is pretty good in a fight, and there are even multiple characters who all fill the same niche—fighter, barbarian, and paladin all fill the “tough guy, able to dish it out and take it” niche, and there are multiple playbooks that fill the “casts spells” niche. But each has a distinct schtick encoded in the rules (like the fighter’s weapon).

My Schtick is “Superhero”

In superhero stories, there are a relatively small number of niches—look at the list of character types in Champions or the classes in Mutants & Masterminds—but an infinitude of schticks. While niche protection isn’t particularly important in superhero stories, schtick protection is. Let me explain with some examples.

A common superhero niche is “superstrength”. Sometimes a character filling that niche also has roughly that as their schtick—like Hercules or the Thing or maybe Colossus. But lots of superstrong characters—characters that fill that niche—have something else as their schtick—their core aspect. Superman, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman are a great example of how you can put 3 superstrong characters on a team and, for the most part, not have them step on each others’ toes narratively.

So it’s important to recognize whether something is your superhero’s niche or their schtick. Is it a thing they’re really good at, or is it the reason you want to play that character? If your character’s schtick is “super strong guy” and you decide the reason they’re strong is because they grew up under the ocean, you’re going to be frustrated if there are two other characters on the team stronger than yours—you’ll rarely get a chance to be in the spotlight as “the strong guy”. But if your character’s schtick is “king of Atlantis”, with command of everything under the waves and even the water itself, then the fact that the “good-hearted savior from another world” and “divine champion of the Amazons” are both stronger doesn’t really matter. Your character’s superstrength is useful, but it’s not the core element that makes your character special to you.

Similarly, Beast’s schtick isn’t “best fighter in the room” or “strongest guy on the team”, so the fact that, while superstrong and a terror in a fight, he has teammates who are stronger and better in a fight isn’t a problem. Because his schtick is “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide, at the same time”, and nobody else on the team does that better. Your schtick is what excites you about that character. Having two characters with the same schtick usually means at least one of the players isn’t getting to shine. If you’re not sure, ask! Find out what the other player thinks is important about their character—how they want to stand out in the game. And then do something else. If two of you come up with really similar schticks, maybe a small tweak can make sure you’re both unique. Maybe in talking it out you’ll realize that the part that excites you about your character isn’t the part that overlaps another’s schtick, so you can change that overlapping part and still have the character you want.

Necessary Superhero Niches?

Oh, and related to this: superhero stories are about unusual solutions to problems, moreso than most other genres. Characters are all about breaking the rules, even of the universes they exist within. So niche diversity isn’t particularly important. That is, there are no “necessary” niches. You can have a superhero team without a brick or without a speedster or without a blaster or without a flying character. Some of these would be unusual, but probably any superhero niche you can think of, there’s a story out there of a team without one.

So, to sum up:

  • Know whether you’re talking about your character’s niche—what parts of the game they’re good at—or their schtick—what’s important to you about playing that character.
  • Know whether the game you’re playing has required niches.
  • Know whether the game you’re playing works will with niche overlap, or is better if niches are unique.
  • Schtick protection is always important. Don’t use the same schtick as another character unless you’ve talked to the other player about it and you both want to do that.
  • In the case of supers, there are no required niches and niche protection isn’t particularly important.
  • In the case of supers, schtick protection is especially important. Don’t step on someone else’s schtick!

And due to the diversity of character options in superhero games, communication during character generation is extra-important. Talk to the other players. Make sure you know whether a core part of a character is their niche, and overlap will be fine, or their schtick, and you should steer clear.

Four Colors al Fresco: 20th Anniversary Edition

We’re creeping up on Four Colors al Fresco being 20 years old. I released the beta (what I’d now call an ashcan) in 2001, and it was already a largely complete game, mostly lacking in examples and setting details. But the game’s design dates back to the winter of ’99-’00, so I’m thinking it’s about time I produce the “finished” version of the game. So this blog post is the first in a series, serving two purposes: to show you snippets of the finished game, and to publicly announce a deadline in order to help me get it done.

The latter purpose needs a little explanation. I’m a one-person shop, here, and gaming time hasn’t been as abundant as I’d like of late. And without gaming, for me, game design and game writing tend not to happen, either. I was frustrated with Four Colors al Fresco’s not-done-ness. Plus, I was in grad school for several years there, earning my MLIS, while still working full-time, which pretty much ate up my free time. Those are reasons, but they’re also maybe excuses. I work well with deadlines, but find it easy to leave things 80%-finished if there isn’t pressure to finish. I’m hoping there’s still some interest in Four Colors al Fresco, and I want to get it done, so by making a public announcement, I’m putting myself on notice so that my friends and the game’s fans (if it has any) will help me get this done. Is this going to be the first RPG whose 1st edition is also it’s 20th-anniversary edition?

The former purpose, you’ve seen before. I’m excited about this game, but it’s a little unusual in setting and mechanics, so I want to share it with you.  There’ve been lots of little (and one big) changes to the rules since the 2001 ashcan. I’ve refined how I explain some of the mechanics. At some point, I’ll probably get over my fear of the camera and put up some short (<5 minute) videos showing some of the mechanics in action. I’ve clarified how the various genres interact in Four Colors al Fresco and how you can lean into them in your play. I’m hoping I can make you as excited about Renaissance superheroes as I am, and make you want to play Four Colors al Fresco to satiate that excitement.

So, bookmark this blog or set notifications, and you can look forward to lots of talk about the writing of Four Colors al Fresco. Plus, there may be ideas for characters and adventures and snippets of setting that won’t make it into the final game, but I feel are worth sharing.

Why do RPGs have Attributes?

OK, first of all, I know that not all RPGs do. This is only talking about the sort of RPG that tries to model characters with some combination of “attributes” and “skills”. For purposes of this discussion, “attributes” are character stats that are defined by the game as being more-or-less inherent, and either they don’t change or they don’t change easily. They’re meant to capture how we think about intelligence or healthiness in the real world—we don’t usually think of someone as becoming more intelligent or less prone to illness. “Skills” are defined by the game as learnable, or at least explicitly improveable.

So I was just thinking about what purpose do attributes serve in this model? Mechanically, (1) they often provide a baseline or fall-back for skills. If your character doesn’t have the history skill, they can make an intelligence check to see if they know who was regent in 1237; if they don’t have the athletics skill, they can make a strength check to climb a tree.

(2) Attributes often mechanically reinforce the notion that people have inherent aptitudes. Skills will be cheaper with a high attribute, or attributes are added to skills so you get to a higher effectiveness with fewer points spent on skills. There are other methods, of course, but the point is that usually skills are either coupled to attributes or stacked with them in play.

But then I was thinking about research questioning the notion of intelligence as an inherent quality, and how a person could seem to get colds easily but be physically resilient, or smart about math but poor with language, or agile but have butterfingers. Obviously, one solution to this is to have more, narrower attributes. But at some point, you get into the same problem that dis/advantage systems sometimes create, of encouraging excessive specialization that creates characters that aren’t believable.

But maybe we could capture the verisimilitude that attributes provide without needing attributes? Part 1 is completely solvable: you just need to have something to roll if your character doesn’t have a skill. You could define all skills as starting at 1 instead of 0, or have a dice mechanic that works without a skill input. Or say that without points in a relevant skill, you can’t attempt that action. You have to make some design decisions to go along with whichever one it is, but it’s a problem that has been solved multiple times in multiple ways.

But it’s particularly part 2 that got me thinking, because I’m not sure it’s been solved in without attributes (please, comment if you know of a system that has done something to reflect natural aptitudes without using attributes). Back to actual research: we’re increasingly finding that things we think of as inherent aren’t, and things that we think of as connected aren’t (and, meanwhile, other things turn out to be (maybe) connected). On top of that, some things that are typically treated as skills in RPGs may be more inherent than learned. But even then, obviously all the aptitude in the world doesn’t help if you are never exposed to something.

So, the split between learning and aptitude is probably artificial, and the grouping of “related” aptitudes is at least somewhat arbitrary. My thought experiment is: instead of trying to reflect these with attributes, lets just work directly with the skills.

The core of my idea is: the more skills you have in a given area, the cheaper it is to improve them or to learn new, related skills. If you want to make an athletic character, you don’t put a bunch of points into “strength” and “agility”, which then make it easier to get higher scores in the various athletic skills. Instead, the formula for cost of skills takes into account related skills, and costs fall as you acquire more related skills.

You’d have to define the skill groups, of course. For a rough version of this, you could start with a system that has attributes, and use the attributes that skills are based on/linked to define the groups. But the next level would be to have finer control over the skill groups—having 15 attributes gets unwieldy, but grouping skills into 15 categories shouldn’t be too much of a problem. And if you felt it improved verisimilitude, there’s no need for all skill relationships to be reciprocal: music skill and physics skill could both benefit from math skill, but music skill doesn’t benefit from physics skill, say. (n.b.: not making any claims about real-world accuracy here; just inventing an example.)

The cost to raise a skill might be something like ({new skill value}×3)−{number of related skills}. So putting a point into a skill makes every skill it is related to a point cheaper for every increment—a very similar result to putting a point into an attribute in many systems. But without having a separate attribute to track, and without having to decide what is “inherent” and what is “learned”—if it’s a thing you want characters to be able to roll dice to do, make a skill for it.

Is this actually reducing complexity over a typical attributes/skills system? I’m not sure. It would depend largely on how complex the math ended up being and how hard it was to create skills to fill in any gaps that attributes were handling. And even in the real world we often think of some abilities as being inherent and others learned, so would this be too jarring, and make verisimilitude harder? I don’t know without trying it. Let me know if you try something like this out.

#RPGaDay2015: 26 – The “Wrong” Genre

Everything is an inspiration for my games—but I can’t think of any one thing that’s particularly noteworthy or recurrent. Mostly TV shows and books—the usual suspects. I suppose the one thing that might be a bit odd is that I usually am more inspired by other genres. That is, when I’m running a supers game, I tend to look to every genre except supers for inspiration. When I’m running a space opera game, I’m likely to lift ideas from detective shows or fantasy novels. And so on.

I’m a huge fan of genre mash-ups, crossovers, and genre deconstructions, so I generally try to create something similar when I’m creating a game, running a game, or even, to the degree that I have the input, playing in a game. Looking to a genre other than the one I’m currently running (when I’m running a single-genre game) thus gives me inspiration.

Smallville via Lost Girl

For our latest weekly game, it was my turn to run, so I pitched some games that I thought would be interesting and engaging for our group. Mechanically, Smallville was one of the favorites, but 3 people vetoed supers, and the other 1 was only indifferent to the genre, so we decided to tweak it a bit for a different flavor setting. After some discussion, modern fantasy, somewhat in the vein of Lost Girl with a dash of X-Men: Evolution (we’re actively working to not echo Harry Potter, on several levels).

So that meant we needed magic, and probably some other changes. I immediately decided that the Stresses would need changing, and the others insisted that we change up the Values. So far, some of these changes have been more successful than others.

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Game Chef 2014 Design Notes

“A game of alienation and romance.”

The tagline I should’ve included in my Game Chef submission this year.


Last week was Game Chef 2014. My semester had just finished the week before, and I hadn’t been watching so I missed the announcements. The initial design period is Saturday to Sunday, 9-ish days, and it was already Monday when a friend asked me about it. I’d already missed an entire weekend, Monday night is booked, and I knew I was going to be busy all of Saturday. I looked at the theme (“there is no book”) and the ingredients (absorb, wild, glitter, sickle), and basically threw my hands up. I had no idea what to do with this. I figured I was going to be taking a pass this year. 

Then Caitlin looked at the ingredients, and had an idea, I think mostly triggered by “absorb”. At first I rejected it, but it grew on me—and grew and morphed and evolved over the next couple days, until it took hold and I had to write something. The core of it was “aliens come to Earth and need to absorb the roles/auras/presence/charisma of famous actors in order to stay here”. 

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Success? Failure? Take Your Pick!

I was digging through some old notes I’d made to myself, and came upon this snippet.

What if you could always choose whether your character succeeded or failed at any given thing in your RPG?

And I’m not just talking about when you have narrative authority, or shifting the game mechanics to the level of gaining/losing that narrative authority. This idea doesn’t really make sense in games where character success isn’t a goal or currency–this is not for games like Fiasco (and Fiasco already does something a lot like this–but, even then, it’s tied up with narrative authority, so you only sometimes get to decide whether your character succeeds or fails).

No, this idea is very much for games that are about character skill and competence and success. Games in the vein of D&D or Fate Core.

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What Are the Odds?

Probably the central conceit of the dice part of the rules in Four Colors al Fresco is that it’s the step size between the dice, not the actual sizes of the dice, that matters. But is this true?


Four Colors al Fresco isn’t a number-cruncher’s dream system, but I still want the rules to actually do what they supposedly do and thus stay out of the way. I’ve played some “story-oriented” RPGs (and even some that were actually concerned with the math) which didn’t stand up to scrutiny, so I don’t expect you to just take my word for it. So here is where I show my work. 

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