Author: horizoncarlo

My flaws as Gamemaster

I organized and ran my first game when I was 10 years old. Since then I’m tended to be the person in my group of friends who buys games. I inevitably learn the rules best, and end up shoehorned into being a Gamemaster (GM). The term varies: Dungeonmaster (DM) for Dungeons & Dragons, Storyteller for my own Fickle RPG, etc. But the concept is the same. The GM runs the game. They make the story and campaign, play NPCs, balance encounters, figure out plot twists and guide character development. Depending on the system being a GM can be exhausting. When I ran D&D 4th edition for 6 months I was basically putting in 4-8 hours a week in prep work, between drawing maps to choosing miniatures to calculating encounters. Thankfully with Fickle RPG my prep work is almost nil as I just show up with my binder of rules/dice/sheets/notes and play a story with the group.

(And no, that isn’t me in the picture above, that’s from an enjoyable episode of Freaks and Geeks)

Anyway for all my experience and breadth of games I’ve run, I still have plenty of flaws as GM. I thought I’d list a few here as a bit of an introspective look, and also to help other GMs who might struggle with the same.

1. Exposition Dump

I generally like to create a somewhat mysterious and somewhat interesting plot, but then instead of slowly leaking the info out to the players so they can start to see the big picture, I inevitably end up with a scene with a pivotal, know-it-all character, with plenty of time and no pressure, where they unfold the whole thing, and the players have ample opportunity to ask questions or get any clarification. Then after this they sort of know the whole story, so we more or less go through the rest of the story with no more mystery. This is called an Exposition Dump. I’ve done this for an embarrassing number of campaigns.

Literally happened last week with my alien Fickle RPG where the characters got to talk to one of the big cheese know-it-alls to the point of him literally saying “Anymore questions?” I didn’t like the situation as it was happening and I knew I had failed at slowly showing the plot.

The ideal would instead be revealing enough information through dialogue, scenes, atmospheric descriptions, etc. that the players could get the jist without needing an “exposition dump”.
Basically the opposite of William Gibson.

Some interesting articles on the idea:

NOTE: Just an aside on the last link. One of the people involved with Extra Credits is James Portnow. In my honest opinion the guys a bit of a fake who talks a lot, but hasn’t actually designed anything. Trying to find proof of any actual work results in a ghost town. Some funny forum posts on the topic (#1 #2)

2. Memorable/Unique Characters

Part of this weakness comes from my improvisational style and freeform campaigns where I don’t like to plan too much in advance or railroad the players. So we end up in unexpected situations every single session.

As a result when I make an NPC or character for the players to interact with I generally slap a name on a vaguely defined outline of a person. They’ll likely have a gender. Maybe a binary age of “old” or “normal”. And that’s about it.

I’ve improved a bit by always keeping a list of random names (pulled from census data) so at least I don’t have a legion of “Bob” and “Jill”.

What I need to do is figure out a rough GM system that I run/use behind the scenes to make better characters. Sort of like “choose name/race/gender/age, choose 1 defining physical feature, choose 1 motive/attitude”.

My other problem with characters is I have trouble roleplaying them. Part of this is because the character’s aren’t well defined in my mind or those of my players. So I don’t know what kind of voice they’d use, or speech pattern, or slang. Honestly a lot of the characters end up just talking pretty much like me.

I have a lot of motivation to improve here. Whenever I HAVE made a memorable character (normally by a simple change to my routine like HAVING a specific speech pattern) the players have brought that person up months later.

3. Environmental Descriptions

I think I’m alright at scene descriptions, especially depending on the genre. Depending on the game I might have a map to help me. Or if the scene is based in the real world I can fallback to common tropes or basic descriptors that paint the scene (like saying “a convenience store”).

What I am rather bad at is incorporating weather (lots of unspoken sunny days), time of day (normally I don’t get more granular than day/night), or environmental differences like fog, slick ground, etc.

Some of this flaw stems from improvising. And as with characters I think the solution is similar: a better GM system on my end of the table. Even just another step or reminder to myself when describing a scene. Physical features, time of day, but then remember to say the weather and anything different/unique to the area.

I think this would benefit a lot of encounters because weather can have such a cool impact on an otherwise run-of-the-mill scene. Chasing a thief through the streets is a lot more interesting if there’s a howling snow storm at the time, reducing vision and numbing fingers.

First pass of White Line Fever rules

Bit of a departure from my recent Fickle RPG work, but the recent “alien campaign” will likely come to an end before April. So I wanted to change gears a bit, and decided to revisit my White Line Fever car game. I had put together brainstorm notes, then playtested a couple of times, then touched up my notes. You might remember the game is meant to be heavier than my Flickin’ Cars With Guns, but lighter than the classic Car Wars from Steve Jackson Games. Mainly with simplifying the turning template, and having some varying severity to shooting instead of an ablative armor system.

Now I’ve sat down and done a first pass at a formatted, styled, cool looking rulebook. You can get the PDF right here: White Line Fever (first draft PDF)

And here’s an easy glance at the formatting:

I’m quite happy with how the rules look so far, from the subtle background picture to the car showdown. Just needs pictures throughout.

Soon enough I’ll print them out and try to get a few games, just to polish up and finalize the mechanics. Then I might do an “Advanced” section with driver traits, different weapons, light campaign system, etc. I’ve always wanted to have a game where you could simulate a road trip (kind of given it’d be post apocalyptic) using real-world roadmaps.


I’m absolutely in love with the title font. Some of the other formatting and effects were achieved with other cool fonts.

First of all “Road Rage”, the title font:

Then the headers are “Highway Gothic”, which is used throughout the USA on official road signs, so fit very well:

Then I used two wingding fonts for the header car silhouettes (I’m such a silhouette fan in for my rulebooks), as well as the small yield/warning signs before each header: and

Very handy website, and fun to find that perfect font.

What designers wish they knew before starting

Found an interesting article a few days ago asking various professional game designers a simple question: What’s one thing you wish you had known before starting as a game designer?

You can see the full article here:

And my two favorite quotes are duplicated below:

“Playing with the same group can become rote and leave you trying add more depth and flavor than you need to get them engaged. This leads to over-complicating things that should have been left simpler and more new player friendly.”
– Adam Rehberg

This strikes a chord with me from my Dinosaur Cowboys work, where I was tempted to add more mechanics, equipment, skills, etc. to satisfy the growing understanding and playtime of my friends. When realistically the game is fairly well tuned for new and experienced players. Just need to take a step back sometimes and really consider why you’re adding a rule/new system, and if it fits into your original vision.
Which leads nicely into the next quote…

“Always look for better ways to do each individual game mechanic but never lose track of the big picture or the scope of the game in general.”
– Larry Harris

Very, very true and important to keep a clear picture of what you are trying to achieve with your game. In fact even having a well defined big picture view in the first place helps a ton. Because then when you’re going to add a new mechanic you can ask yourself: does this fit my game concept? Basically test yourself each time you want to change or add something.
From my experience my Life of a Dinosaur Cowboy RPG had the problem of a lot of cool mechanics that led to a not very cool or fun game. Very easy to lose sight of the forest through the trees.

And this is why you check your probabilities…

A bit more testing for the Fickle RPG idea of rolling Triples being a critical success, and all the other allocated Fickle dice counting as successes. I looked up some odds online, but sat down today and wrote a quick program to do 30 million rolls and check for sure.

Unfortunately the idea falls apart at around 7 dice, and is way too likely to happen. Which means play would devolve into everyone rolling their entire dice pool as Fickle, hoping for triples, and most likely tying and having the acting player winning.

Which is too bad because I had just thought up the cool nickname of “going for the Trinity”.

Chance of Triples
 3D6 = 2.8%
 4D6 = 9.7%
 5D6 = 21.3%
 6D6 = 36.7%
 7D6 = 54.1%
 8D6 = 70.7%
 9D6 = 84.2%
10D6 = 93.2%

“Quads” of 4 matches suffers the same fate, just at a later point with bigger dice pool sizes.

So back to the drawing board.

More Fickle: “Lucky 17” and defeated players

So far the alien campaign for Fickle RPG is going well. The plot is advancing, perhaps not as quickly as I’d like, but it’s been tough to maintain enough steady players from the pool of drop-ins. I’m not sure when I’ll end the campaign – originally the plan was early March, but that’s coming up fast. Maybe I’ll just play it out until people want a change. I’ve actually been considering trying Fickle RPG for a non-real-world based campaign, likely Star Wars.

Lucky 17 – Testing

critical-hitAnyway last week I tested the “Lucky 17” mechanism. Let me describe how it works. If the total amount on the dice you allocated as Fickle is exactly 17 you get a “Lucky 17” (basically a critical hit / critical success). When that happens every Fickle dice you rolled counts as a success. The odds of this are around 8% on 4D6, and 10% on 5D6.

The intent was to provide an alternative to going for the Underdog Bonus (where the lowest allocated Fickle dice means they can Explode). So another player choice.

But after testing, I’m not going to use the Lucky 17 mechanic. Maybe I’ll add it as a Variant (a bit more discussion about that below). There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Additional Math – Adding up dice is tedious and reduces the speed of resolution, and also is harder as players get tired and the night draws on. It’s also one of the only times you need to do addition in Fickle RPG.
  2. Bait and Switch – You can easily see your successes before you can calculate if you totalled 17. Which means a player might end with 5 successes and feel pretty comfortable because they see the Storyteller only has 3, except then everyone finishes adding up/doing math and sees the Storyteller got a Lucky 17 and won after all. Kind of a disappointing feeling.
  3. No Immediate Gratification – I think the best part of a Critical Hit in other games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, is how immediate the feedback is. You roll a 20 on a D20, see that, and get excited. It’s even bled into mainstream culture. But the Lucky 17 mechanic wasn’t immediately obvious when you rolled 17, so the excitement wasn’t there.
  4. Gimmicky – Lucky 17 felt a bit gimmicky in the sense that it didn’t fit very well into the current resolution “flow”. Just seemed like a corner case that wouldn’t be used much, and didn’t add much. Whereas Underdog Bonus comes up almost every resolution, and is something players actively choose to try for or not.

So Lucky 17 is put to rest for now.
I still like the idea of an “anti-Underdog Bonus” to provide more reasons to allocate more dice to roll. Something like “if you roll triples” is easier to see at a glance and stands out. Works out to around 3% on 3D6, 10% on 4D6, and 15% on 5D6, so even slightly better than Lucky 17.
In the end there are only so many ways to manipulate a pool of D6s though.

Defeated Players

downed-warriorKnow what isn’t that much fun as a player? Getting Defeated. From the rules:

If Stamina for any Category reaches 0 or less
that entity is Defeated and loses the scene. They
cannot participate anymore, unless Stamina is
restored by an ally or situation.

The bolded part is the problem. We had an intense scene where a player was Defeated in the opening attack, and basically had to twiddle their thumbs for a good 30-45 minutes (and that’s a gentle estimate). Was it fun for them? Not in the least.
The hope is other players would help the dude out and restore some Stamina. But normally if a scene is challenging enough for players to get Defeated, it’s challenging enough that every action is precious and they can’t take a moment to heal instead of go on the offensive. And as much as I enjoy playing a support/healer/medic in games, very few other people do, so the incoming Stamina loss (say from 7 successes) is normally more than the Stamina restored by an untrained character (say from 4 successes).

D&D gets around this by having a “Death Saving Throw” so that you’re at least doing something on your turn.

I think it’s time I revisit the entire concept in Fickle RPG and look for alternatives.

  • My first instinct is simple and copycat-ish: add a “Recovery Roll” of an attribute chosen by the player against a flat pool of 4D6, with successes being Stamina recovered. So they’re still allocating and doing something. Downside is failing doesn’t really have a penalty, I mean you can’t get much worse off than Defeated.
  • Along the same line, I could see the Recovery Roll being a mirrored roll, wherein the player is “rolling against themselves”. Basically like they’re internally overcoming whatever Defeated them. So if they choose 6 Might to try to take a breather, they roll against 6 Might. You’d have to choose the attribute in the category you lost all Stamina in, of course.
  • To take the idea even further, instead of recovering Stamina the player could transfer Stamina from another category. This means their overall total is still low, and means they could get whittled down over time. Downside is that’s a drastically different resolution than the standard “success = Stamina”. I think to remedy this successes could be a cap of how much Stamina you could transfer. However in a way this just delays the player elimination, but doesn’t remove it.

I want to brainstorm a bit more on the above ideas and see if I can come up with something streamlined. The best approach so far is the “mirrored Recovery Roll” concept.

But I also want to take a step back and ask myself if I’m just re-using the oldest RPG trope of all: player elimination as a consequence.

What about if instead being Defeated doesn’t stop you from acting. Instead it’s just a “state” you’re in. You could even be “triple Defeated” by having 0 or less Stamina in every Category. Then if the entire group is Defeated, they lose the scene. Perhaps being marked as Defeated gives a penalty (like -1 dice per Defeated), but I want to avoid a death spiral (where a Defeated player becomes more likely to stay/keep being Defeated).
Perhaps I’d change the wording, so that Stamina becomes Morale, and Defeated becomes Broken.

A more drastic approach would even be a binary state of “Okay” vs “Defeated”, with no middle ground. Upon further consideration I tossed that idea out though, as I like the idea of someone being able to specialize into a “tough guy”, which wouldn’t work if everyone was either Okay or Defeated. So pass on that.

Anyway to adjust for the “Defeated but Active” concept described above I think I’d lower overall Stamina. I’ve never hugely liked the math for it (of [Attribute + Attribute – 2]). I’ve considered just adjusting the minus number to -3 or -4. But I innately like the idea of [Stamina = Highest Attribute of Category +2] instead. Or even just your highest Attribute in each Category being the Stamina, without any additional math.

Now for upside/downside time.
Upside is players are always active and engaged. Another upside is I could see the tension building as players do an ad-hoc check of who’s Defeated, and the number of players grows as the situation becomes more dire.
Downside is consequences feel less “real” (thus the likely need for some kind of penalty – just not sold on a flat dice reduction). Another downside is opponents probably wouldn’t work the same, and would still be “out” of the scene when 0 Stamina as they are now.

Regardless I think I’m going to try the “Defeated but Active” approach with some playtesting very soon. I could also try the simpler/copycat approaches, but they don’t wow me as much, and seem like a bit of a bandaid.

Include Variant Rules or Not?

My final talking point today is Variant Rules. Now in my previous game Dinosaur Cowboys I included a section of them. But I’ve always been on the fence, mainly because any major variants can make a game feel a bit fragmented or…indecisive? Like the designer couldn’t decide what was best so they just put everything in and said “choose what you think”.
In Dinosaur Cowboys I didn’t put any developer comments or reasoning, but for Fickle RPG I think I would, so that players know what to expect, and the thought process behind why the rule isn’t “core”, so that they don’t have to come to the same conclusions through slow trial and error.

In terms of Fickle RPG I could see “hot potato” turns being a variant (where there is just a “player turn” and the group can choose amidst themselves who goes). I could see Lucky 17 being a variant as well. And “bonus dice” (either from a shared pool or per-player).

Not much else to say on the topic. Definitely on the fence either way.

Fickle v0.4, and a new campaign


Well now that the Christmas season has quieted down I’m back to weekly games. Specifically playtesting a few Fickle changes in a brand new campaign.

Instead of the previous post apocalyptic zombie campaign we’ve moved onto alien invasion. Pretty fun so far! This time everyone is playing themselves, in the sense of that is their character (compared to some random person they make up). We started on a normal work day, then had an alien ship land over a central city landmark, put down a shield covering the city, and start attacking/stealing people. So a bit less grounded, but I’m trying to keep the alien technology consistent (and mysterious, as the players fight an unknown foe). My hope is they’ll eventually wage a guerrilla style war against the aliens to drive them out.

Otherwise most of the playtesting worked well, and I’m down to only one last mechanic to refine. So in the mean time here are the v0.4 Fickle RPG rules.

Rule Changes

What has changed? Well…

  • Reactions have been added, codified, and balanced. They use the same base difficulty of Normal, and allow entities to perform meaningful (ie: Stamina damage) actions in response
  • Moved to round-robin 1-turn-per-player structure instead of a global “player turn”
  • Switched from D12 “Fate Dice” to a 50/50 “Fate Coin”, which either wins or loses
  • Split resolution into Check (player vs environment) and Competing (player vs player)
  • Added a “Notes” page to the back of character sheets
  • Cleaned up formatting in the rulebook, including adding “Storyteller tips” for the game master

The two biggest changes are Reactions (described at length in previous posts) and the change to round-robin style turns. Previously the idea was 1 Storyteller turn, then 1 generic player turn. The players decided amongst themselves who acted in that window. I’ve learned this is sometimes called “Hot Potato Initiative” as the players pass the initiative freely among themselves. The problem was this sometimes (…more often than I’d like!) kept the spotlight on one player, and left the others kind of twiddling their thumbs. Reactions helped a bit with this (since enemies could focus on the uninvolved players) but that was a bit of an artificial band aid fix.

So instead the game has moved to a traditional round-robin style turn structure. The “first turn” still belongs to whoever makes sense, then play rotates left from there, with the Storyteller getting a turn after each player turn.

Fate Coin Ideas

Now for the Fate Coin. Like I mentioned the idea is a 50/50 chance of some crazy, impossible, likely overpowered idea working. On failure everyone in the group loses 1 Stamina from all Categories.

Currently the players get 1 Fate Coin per 2 players (rounded up). Which feels a bit awkward to calculate and track.

So what I’m seriously considering, and will be playtesting this week, is changing to a more “push your luck” mechanic with the Fate Coin. With this new approach the players would get only 1 Fate Coin. BUT that coin isn’t “used” or discarded on success/fail. Instead they can keep using the coin, but the Stamina loss on failure goes up by 1 each time. So the second use has a potential 2 Stamina loss, third is 3 Stamina, and so on.

Really makes for a thematic feel to Tempt Fate, and I do like the push your luck approach (and felt the game needed a tiny bit of it).

Critical Success – Tiny Other Idea

A tiny other idea I had, but likely won’t end up doing, is Critical Success. The idea is if the total of your rolled Fickle dice is X, you win! X could be a set number, like “lucky number 7”, or chosen on a per-character basis. This rule would apply for the players only (not the Storyteller).
Upside is the excitement and surprise of winning when you think you are gonna lose, or when you’re drastically outmatched, as well as yet another decision point in resolution (in terms of balancing underdog vs lucky 7). Downside is you can’t just quickly figure out your total successes, and also need to do math to total the roll.

Topics of interest: world cities, cyborgs, genetics, cloning

cyborgDigging through my old Fallen City rules from 20+ years ago makes me want to revisit the genre and theme described in that game. The concept of a massive world city that is churning with overpopulation and crime. Judge Dredd is similar with their “megacities”, especially the recent Karl Urban movie Dredd (2012) which opens with:

America is an irradiated wasteland. Within it lies a city. Outside the boundary walls, a desert. A cursed earth. Inside the walls, a cursed city, stretching from Boston to Washington D.C. An unbroken concrete landscape. 800 million people living in the ruin of the old world and the mega structures of the new one. Mega blocks. Mega highways. Mega City One. Convulsing. Choking. Breaking under its own weight. Citizens in fear of the street. The gun. The gang. Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos: the men and women of the Hall of Justice. Juries. Executioners. Judges.

In addition to that element I really want to explore the trio of transhumanism paths: cyborgs, genetics, and cloning. I remember finding a rulebook about 3 or 4 years ago called Transhuman Space that dealt with some of those topics, and I found it fascinating. So maybe throw in a bit of Bladerunner and the recent Westworld TV show.

Now I have a few options for this. I’d like to try Fickle RPG to see how truly flexible the rules are. So instead of my current/default theme of parasitic zombies, I’d go to a sci-fi theme.

The other option of course is to make a completely new RPG game. Or maybe not even an RPG. Because what I think my focus and main interest would be asymmetrical rules, specifically having cyborgs, genetics, and clones play and function differently. All three are a path for human improvement, and have a lot of depth and brain bending concepts associated.

I could see Clones as being cannon fodder, with a numbers advantage but less skill and personality. Cyborgs would be the opposite: powerful, expensive, and outnumbered. Genetics would likely fall in the middle, and be more about modifying existing humans.

I have no idea how I’d make each type (faction?) feel different, or if a skirmish game, RPG, boardgame, or other rules approach would work best. I honestly just like the idea overall, and thought I’d write it down here to collect my thoughts.