2011-02-21 : Into the Unknown?

If you haven't, first go read David's comments about his game Into the Unknown / Pauper to Prince / Delve(?) here and here.

David, I have questions about your game. Coincidentally, I think they'll illustrate this thing I'm banging on about, so here goes.

Just to orient me, is it still called Delve, or did you change the name, or is this a new game?

In the "Pauper to Prince" section, you tell the reader that the GM must "prep an opportunity" for some something or other. This forms an essential link in the chain from "the player chooses weird stuff from prior play" to "solve weird problems"; without knowing how the GM preps an opportunity, I can't judge whether that link is sound. (In particular, my fear is that you haven't given the GM good support and if I'm the GM you're dropping the whole business into my lap, but we can come back to that later.)

So my question is: do you have guidelines for "GM, when you must prep an opportunity, here's what to do..."? If so, give us the one-paragraph summary?

Thanks, David!

1. On 2011-02-21, David Berg said:

Hi Vincent,

The real game that I am really working on is called Delve.  However, it lacks a pithy answer to "What's it about?"  It's about as many as four things, two of which could be called "Into the Unknown" and "Pauper to Prince".  Sorry if I led any readers astray with that!  If those two parts had worked on the linkage front, I was planning to rope in a third "Learn Magic" game, and then address the troubles of linking "right now" procedures to a fairly complicated "why we're playing this game".

I'd love to go into that "why we're playing" issue, but for now I'll just respond to your direct question:

Delve's guidelines for GM prep have gone through a million iterations.  A very old one is here, a potential chunk of a newer one is here.  So the one-paragraph summary will be a combination of tested methods, untested methods, and vague hopes.  Here I go:

"Assess what the players already know about the secret they're pursuing.  From either your Pyramid of Secrets or your broader understanding of how Delve magic works, pick or create a new object or piece of information that unlocks further utility of that secret.  If they have the unbreakable stone, choose the lens that focuses starlight into a beam that can break the stone.  Once chosen, plop this object into your next adventure scenario, generated using the worksheet provided.  The new utility should be an option to solve the scenario's Problem."

Is that sufficient without the scenario-generation details, or should I try to squeeze those in too?


2. On 2011-02-22, Vincent said:

Sufficient for now. I may come back to dig into it later. For now, it's obvious to me why you're having trouble designing the link and why your audience isn't seizing upon your game like you'd hope. Check this out:

[As player, you] solve weird problems...


[As GM, you should make] the new utility ... be an option to solve the scenario's Problem.

One of these is a lie! Do the players solve the problems, or does the GM?


3. On 2011-02-22, David Berg said:

"Audience isn't seizing?"  Should they, at this point?  I guess it'd make me feel good, but I certainly wasn't expecting it...  (Must... holster... marketing strategy questions...!)

As for designing the link, yes!  It is confounding me.  The techniques I'm familiar with to support "being there" play are to overwork the GM, and I refuse to do that.  Trying to iron out the most important GM tasks and make those as easy and fun as possible...  well, I've been slowly progressing on that in fits and starts for a long time now.

So, solving.  The short answer is that the players need to be involved in the solving process, but that they only rarely will invent a solution.  A common outcome is that the GM invents a solution, drops bits and pieces of it into the fiction, and the players assemble those bits and pieces.

There are other acceptable outcomes too.  The only two that aren't acceptable:

1) "Great, the GM just told us what to do, now we go through the motions."

2) "We have no basis for anything to even try.  We'll either give up or just try random stuff and cross our fingers."

As GM, I've managed to avoid these 99% of the time.  How I've done so is one of the things I'm trying to systematize.

I hope that answers your question.  At cons, I say, "This isn't a game where you have to be brilliant or you die.  But I try not to completely hand you everything in an obvious fashion either.  I customize this to taste, though.  So if y'all want me to really force you to earn it, let me know.  Or if you'd rather just follow my lead, let me know that too."  Thus far, no one's opted for either extreme.


4. On 2011-02-22, Vincent said:

Audience: Absolutely your audience should be seizing on Delve by now. I should be seizing on it, right now in this very thread, and I'm not. Brand should have seized on it, and he didn't. I'm pretty sure we're in your target audience, right? We're the most friendly-by-default audience the game is likely to have.

I mean, it's not really my business, and if you're happy, you're happy. We're indie! I don't get to tell you what's what. I just think that the search for outside playtesters is a game's first marketing test, so if you're hoping your game does well in publication, look for it to attract excited playtesters.

Design: So here's what we've got, then. We've got this:

Solve weird problems, learn weird secrets, and gain the leverage and connections to achieve your huge ambitions!

...But then when I look even a little bit into how I'm supposed to do it, I find that, well, no, I don't really get to do it at all. I get to be "involved in the solving process," I don't get to BE THE SOLVER. And I'm going, huh, that's not as cool. I bet it's the same for learning weird secrets: I bet I get to be involved in the learning process, I don't get to BE THE LEARNER. I bet the GM should make sure in prep that thing A will teach me secret B, just like the GM should make sure in prep that thing C will solve problem D. I bet I don't get to BE THE ACHIEVER, even, I bet that the GM's going to pave the way for me or some crap.

And my interest evaporates! Am I wrong? I hope I'm wrong.


5. On 2011-02-22, human said:

I am excited about Delve because of Dave's design journal. You will not find a more keen observer of what actually happened at the table.


6. On 2011-02-22, David Berg said:


Ack!  That sounds like no fun at all.  That sounds like the kind of railroady shit I played in high school.  Delve is part of my attempt to NOT do that!  It's been consistently fun, in a way that "follow the GM" wasn't.  So, uh, I assume that means you're wrong!

It's hard to know whether we're connecting on what it means to solve / learn / achieve.  If you mean it in a strictly Gamist context, then no, Delve players don't get to do that.  But if you're talking about what the experience feels like, then they absolutely do.

I am psyched to know that you might be part of my potential audience!  I honestly didn't expect my hardcore Right to Dream stuff to fly particularly well in most of the corners of the internet that I frequent.  I hang around here mostly so folks can poke holes in my ideas.

To that end, let me see if I can provide a better pitch.  "Solve weird problems, learn weird secrets, and gain the leverage and connections to achieve your huge ambitions!" is actually not it.

Super short blurb:
"Discover supernatural secrets as if you were really there!"

Convention blurb:
"Two children have gone missing in the last two weeks. A foul odor is rising from the village outskirts. Small patches of forest have been inexplicably destroyed. Using special perceptions and tools of augury, can your novice adventurers unravel Sprettadal's plight? What magics are at work here - and can you learn any of their powers for yourselves? Serious, immersive play style focused on character POV."

I'll now go and think hard about the optimal pitch for this thread.

(I have a billion other things I can say right now about why the game works, so if you'd like to know something in particular, please ask!)


7. On 2011-02-22, David Berg said:

Thanks for the kind words, human!  That link is a good example of floundering in a dysfunctional social context; for an example of the game working, check this.


8. On 2011-02-22, David Berg said:

Oh, two other pitches:

"Medieval X-Files."

From Jenskot: "Call of Cthulhu but instead of getting more insane you get more supernatural."


9. On 2011-02-22, Vincent said:

So wait, I'm confused.

Do I solve the weird problems in play, or does the GM solve them in prep?

Missing children, foul odor, destroyed forest, magics at work, I'm right with you. I've got my augury and my special perception and I'm psyched; bring it on. But is it my job, as player, to discover what's going on and then decide what to do about it, or to discover what's going on, discover what to do about it, and then do it?

"Can you learn any of their powers for yourselves?" You can bet I'm going to try! But is it really an open question? Doesn't the GM prep that if I do X and Y, I'll learn power Z?


10. On 2011-02-23, Vincent said:

No more pitches! Too many pitches top to bottom. We're talking about the link between what we do right now and what we're here to do, pure game design. THAT'S what you need to communicate to me.


11. On 2011-02-23, Brand Robins said:

V and D,

I get the "you don't really solve it, but neither does the GM" thing that David is talking about.

However, I get it because I already know how to do it, not because I caught the link in the text.

And, I think that part of the issue here is that while the point about the links not coming out of the text is true, its also possibly conflated with a point about this being a style of play some folks (Vincent) might not like.

If you can convey the points about how this very subtle process works in play, that's separate from if someone is going to find that process satisfying.

Which is another thing worth considering, I've often self-selected out of games and been grateful for them telling me early on "this is how this links in play, and Jesus Brand, it so isn't for you."


12. On 2011-02-23, Mendez said:

Vince, could you explain for us in greater detail the difference between "being involved in the _____ing process" and BEING THE _____ER?


13. On 2011-02-23, Deliverator said:

>>But is it my job, as player, to discover what's going on and then decide what to do about it, or to discover what's going on, discover what to do about it, and then do it?<<

More the former than the latter, based on my 3 experiences playing Delve.



14. On 2011-02-23, Bwian said:

I gather Vincent is interested in the links between the things that specific game procedures instruct players to do and a more general description of the players' roles in the game.

But some of David's examples are more like flavour text describing the kinds of activities/ questions characters are involved in.

If I understand it, there seems to be some ambiguity about the use of 'you' in David's various examples.

From Vincent's post at 9, Vincent is talking about Vincent's job 'as a player' (emphasis added).

If I am right, some of David's original lines about 'you' (e.g. in "Can you learn any of their powers for yourselves?") refer to what the characters do in the fictional world.

Replacing 'your character' with 'you' is fairly common in RPG writing.  It can easily get in the way when one is trying to explain game procedures.

It is quite possible for 'you' (character) to solve the problem which has been both posed and solved by 'that other person' (GM).

If I understand David, the game's overall framework includes an idea like the players portray the actions of adventurers working to discover secrets and solve problems in a fantastical world/ situation invented by the GM.  The specific play procedure examples include a planning activity that the GM undertakes: choosing relevant elements from his 'tree of mysteries' and weaving them into the fabric of the fictional situation, where the players' characters will (assuming the players follow various other game procedures) probably discover them.

This seems like a strong, practical link to me, even though the many other procedures the group will use are not included.

Vincent:  Can you clarify for me what your main interest is in this discussion?  Are you interested e.g. in the fitness of specific game procedures to general design goals?  Or clarity of expression in rules text?  Or what?




15. On 2011-02-23, Vincent said:

In this discussion, I care only about game design. This is about what a game promises, and whether and how well it delivers on its promises, by design. So, yes, the fitness of procedures to goals. The text will have to look out for itself, in its own time.

I think that David's communicating perfectly well. I think his game promises one thing - can you solve the problem? Can you learn the secrets? - and delivers something less good. I think his design's muddled.

David says that he's having serious trouble finishing it, which only makes sense to me, but I think I might be able to show him why, and where he can go forward if he wants to.


16. On 2011-02-23, Josh W said:

David I'm risking confusing things here with too many voices, but I think I might have an example of a situation that shows how your game does something in play you don't say it does:

You know those times when the players have grabbed a magical tool from their backpack that you forgot about and used it to defeat something, and you were expecting them to do it another way?

And then the between-games headache of having to account for those possible uses for items they have or magical principles they know? So you can set up situations that don't just reduce to previous solutions?

That seems like a big part of the fun of your game, and the prep for it respectively.

Vincent, is that the cool sort of thing your talking about?

In which case I'd say that part of the point of having a starting point towards a solution is to insure that the game "terminates", that there is at least one solution, preferably more than one.


17. On 2011-02-24, David Berg said:

Vincent, here's my take:

Con players who listen to my intro spiel and form a vision of what "Can you solve the problem? Can you learn the secrets?" means in this context absolutely do get that from play.  (A few folks have offered to playtest further; I just haven't had a usable document for them.)  Bwian and Josh are both correct about vital parts of that—the emphasis on experience, the option to engineer solutions that surprise the GM.

But!  As you've said, this thread is about design!  Is all that good stuff actually designed into the game?  I think much of it is, but much of it is also my GMing.  So I've been trying to bake what I do as GM into new design features.  This is confounding me, because it's hard for me to identify, of all the things I do, which are the most crucial?  I don't want to give 100 pages of advice, I want to give 2 pages of bullet points!

Maybe even something like Apocalypse World's MC chapter, though I'm not sure.

So, can you show me a way forward in that direction?

More what we do right now:

"As GM, you'll see the players combine magical items and effects in ways that you've anticipated, and ways that you haven't.  As always, do 'what would happen', based on your knowledge of the magical principles* involved.  If the players honestly think a certain result is 'what would happen', unless you have conclusive knowledge otherwise, go with it.  For fuzzy cases, the rule of thumb is that magical items do interact; 'nothing happens' should only result when nothing else could make sense."

*some defined by the game

That's something I've always had in my head, but this is my first time writing it down.

Another what we do right now:

"When you (GM) go through the pre-game options with the players, clarify that favoring 'puzzles' will 'make them earn it' more (your character's only as smart as you are!), whereas favoring 'right place, right time' will mean the way forward is more obvious."

This is actually something I've done in every Delve con game I've run.


18. On 2011-02-24, David Berg said:

I'm sorry if belaboring the communication point is tiresome!  But "immersive, character POV" is a big part of what brings con players to the game, and a big part of what they get, and love.  I'm not sure the Problems and Secrets can be properly analyzed apart from that.  "You will solve the problem and learn the secrets—so what's that like?" is more accurate in some ways (though misleading in others).

If that makes sense to you, then I'll be confident that I am indeed communicating well enough.


19. On 2011-02-24, Vincent said:

Sure! I get that.

My point of view has it that "what's it like?" is perfectly compatible with "can you solve the problem? Can you learn the secrets?" AND with "you will solve the problem and learn the secrets!" - but that they're incompatible with one another. In the former, if I fail to solve the problem or learn the secrets, that's how it goes sometimes. It was always an open question. In the latter, if I fail, it's only because either I or the GM failed to follow the rules.

I just want to know which you're shooting for.


20. On 2011-02-24, David Berg said:


So, I've worked up brand new answers re: problems and secrets.

Solving problems:
"How many innocents will die, how much badness will be unleashed, how badly will you get hurt, and how many precious resources will you expend as you work to solve the problem?"

Those are the concerns based on what outcomes the game has actually produced to date.

The players coming to understand the problem is key.  Coming to believe in a way to stop it is also key.  I think these are crucial parts of the game, so maybe I should commit and call them design goals.

If the players know something would have worked, but somehow fail to implement it, that's fine with me, though that hasn't happened for various reasons.

Learning secrets:
"How often will you learn a new secret, and which will it be?"

The players' choices of what they care to pursue determine which of my many secrets they'll encounter.  Sometimes this is totally random.  At its best, though, they have some idea of what they might get when they go hunting for a new capability.

First design priority: produce a path of continuous learning, never going a full mission without discovering at least one new magical item or interaction.

Second design priority: help the players make informed choices about what to pursue.  (I have a Prophetic Dream system for this purpose, but it needs improving.)

Thanks, Vincent, this is helping me formulate some new ways to look at things!  Man, though, it's hard to separate "what the game must do" from "what I personally tend to like when I play it."


21. On 2011-02-24, David Berg said:

Must add another design priority; this one I'm 100% sure of:
Provide "Eureka!" moments, where it occurs to the players to combine two magical functions in a way that gets them something cool, and they're super stoked about that.

When this has happened, there's probably a 70/30 split between magical interactions I'd anticipated and ones I hadn't.  That last 30% is definitely what gets me most excited, though.

(Sorry to give you so much to read through.  Knowing what to focus on is tough!)


22. On 2011-02-25, Paul T. said:


Some good stuff here. Particularly this:

"As GM, you'll see the players combine magical items and effects in ways that you've anticipated, and ways that you haven't. As always, do 'what would happen', based on your knowledge of the magical principles* involved. If the players honestly think a certain result is 'what would happen', unless you have conclusive knowledge otherwise, go with it. For fuzzy cases, the rule of thumb is that magical items do interact; 'nothing happens' should only result when nothing else could make sense."

Your game gives somewhat the illusion of "the magic GM does everything because he's brilliant". In reality, you could say there's a certain set of rules and/or procedures, like the one I quoted here, which make that work consistently (or at least most of the time).

It's fun to see you undertaking your own Delve in unearthing all these different techniques, guidelines, and principles.

The one you just spelled out here is a great example of that.


23. On 2011-02-26, Joel said:

"As GM, you'll see the players combine magical items and effects in ways that you've anticipated, and ways that you haven't. As always, do 'what would happen', based on your knowledge of the magical principles* involved. If the players honestly think a certain result is 'what would happen', unless you have conclusive knowledge otherwise, go with it. For fuzzy cases, the rule of thumb is that magical items do interact; 'nothing happens' should only result when nothing else could make sense."

I'll second this being brilliant. I wish I could send this paragraph back in time to every Right to Dream GM I've ever played with.

Before I read this paragraph I was right along with Vincent going "Pssh. I don't REALLY solve problems, the GM solves it for me and I go along with it."


24. On 2011-02-28, Vincent said:

I'm still not 100% what we do in the game. Right when I thought you were telling me, David, instead you wrote "design priorities," and it got me all confused. So check me on this.

In Delve, the GM creates a weird problem, and the players undertake to solve it. As GM, when you create the problem, you're to create with it at least one valid solution that is within the players' grasp, and then in play you're to accept any valid solution that the players come up with.

Am I good?


25. On 2011-02-28, David Berg said:

Vincent, yes.  Well said!

I would like to change "solve it" to "maximize what they get out of solving it", but am happy to move forward if you'd rather not sweat that distinction at this point.


26. On 2011-02-28, David Berg said:

Clarification: by "sweat that" I meant "discuss at the length it may require", not simply "accept".  To me at least, the "solve"/"profit" distinction is a complicated one.


27. On 2011-03-01, Vincent said:

Hooray! I can keep "profit from solving it" in mind as we go. Just remind me if it becomes clear I've forgotten.

Okay! So that's what we're here to do, overall.

a) Is it fun enough? Does your audience WANT to do that?

Of course you can always say that your audience is people who want to do that, so yes, they do. Is that as big an audience as you hope for? Are you putting yourself in competition with games they already have? Will your game give it to them in a way, with a purity or clarity or beauty, that they can't already get elsewhere? I have no answers to these questions. Your guess is as good as mine, and if you've done any research or observation or analysis, way better than mine.

Me personally, since Brand mentions it, I'm not automatically attracted to this, the way I would be to "GM, you're to create a weird problem and not worry whether it has any solution at all, that's the players' business. If they can't come up with one, it goes unsolved, and no skin off YOUR nose." But I'm not hostile to it either, by any stretch, and there's plenty you could do to win me over.

b) Now we talk about what we do right now. There are two considerations: what's the distance, and what are the connections?

Distance: in Chess, I can't put your king in checkmate with my opening move. I can't drop my queen into a space next to him and announce that oh by the way she's unkillable. Things stand between me at my opening position and my victory (or my defeat): how the pieces move, how they capture, how we alternate turns, the rules for check and checkmate.

Connections: at the same time, it's obvious how the moves I make build, over the course of the game, INTO my victory or defeat. I can see that moving my pieces according to the rules, turn by turn, is how I move through the distance between my starting position and my goal. At every step, I can see my goal as a landmark, like, and judge (within my skill to judge) whether I'm moving toward it or away from it, and decide how to best pursue it right now.

Same thing in your game, and here's my proposal. If you want your game to catch on, what you want is a navigable, fathomable distance, and clear connections, like Chess has.

With me so far?


28. On 2011-03-02, David Berg said:

Re: audience, I'm setting my expectations low, but holding out a thin ray of hope that there's a generation of frustrated D&D2 players whose prayers I can answer.  I can't be the only one who yearned for an immersive sandbox of fantasy discovery without GM burnout, right?

Re: distance and connections, yes!  I'm struggling to apply it to the "just roleplaying" part of RPGs, but I'm with you so far!


29. On 2011-03-03, Gregor said:

Hey, Vincent, if you have time, I'd be very happy if you'd take a look at this:


30. On 2011-03-07, Vincent said:

David: I'm concerned about GM burnout too. It's on topic! It lives in the game's connections and barriers, but on the GM side. I'm sure we'll come to it.

For now, connections and barriers on the player side. In your con scenario intro, you tell me I'm playing to do this: "can your novice adventurers unravel Sprettadal's plight?" And that at my disposal I have these: "special perceptions and tools of augury."

Tell me the rules for using tools of augury! I hope they're kind of short. If they aren't, summarize as best you can?


31. On 2011-03-07, David Berg said:

Tools of augury:
When a supernatural problem is present, you can use your deck of cards to "read" the situation.  The GM arranges the deck, face down, and then the players draw from it.  Place the first card in position 1 on the spread board, the second card in position 2, etc.  Each position corresponds to a different facet of the scenario's problem.

The results are evocative hints of varying degrees of obviousness and literalness.  Leave the spread on the table, to look at as you move forward.  Ignoring it is fine (no need to "solve" it), but it's a good option whenever you'd like more inspiration for ways to proceed.

(There are also the specifics of the spread positions, plus rules about how the GM creates the spreads.  If you'd like to know that stuff, just ask!)


32. On 2011-03-07, David Berg said:

33. On 2011-03-07, Vincent said:

I'm looking at the rules here. Am I correct that the GM replicates the scenario's original draw and spread for the players to now see? That is, as GM, when the players augur, I don't choose how to order the cards, I reproduce the spread as I drew it?


34. On 2011-03-07, David Berg said:

Yes, at augury time the GM reproduces the spread he/she created earlier.  (Practically speaking, as GM, I arrange the deck after creating the scenario, and then bring it to the session in the proper order.)

The scenario-making process is currently undergoing heavy changes, so the page you linked is out of date, unfortunately.  I hope to have a better version quite soon.


35. On 2011-03-08, Vincent said:

I'm relieved to know it's out of date, since it so badly contradicts "when you create the problem, you're to create with it at least one valid solution that is within the players' grasp, and then in play you're to accept any valid solution that the players come up with." So, cool.

But onward with connections and barriers. So here's what I'm here to do: "Two children have gone missing in the last two weeks. A foul odor is rising from the village outskirts. Small patches of forest have been inexplicably destroyed... can your novice adventurers unravel Sprettadal's plight?"

Does looking at a reproduction of the card spread you used to create Sprettadal's plight help me unravel it? Does it tell me where the children are or what's their fate, or what the foul odor's source is, or who's destroying the forest?

I can't tell by looking at the rules or the cards whether it does, so I'm asking. It sounds like the connection is tenuous, that it depends upon my making the same leaps of invention that the GM made. In play, do players look at the spread and draw solid enough conclusions from it to confront somebody, or go to a certain named place, or break the bad news to the frightened mothers?


36. On 2011-03-08, David Berg said:

Yes, the connections are usually tenuous.  The players don't draw confident conclusions; they get ideas and nudges.

Four common reactions:

"Well, we have a bunch of ideas for what we could do.  What now?  Hmm, this card makes me think that perhaps that one dude is important, maybe we should approach him next."

"How should we approach that dude?  Intimidate him?  Spy on him?  This card might mean "sharing knowledge"—we could try to be forthcoming and lure him into trusting us with our magic expertise!"

"We already know what we want to do, we don't need these cards."

"It's not obvious how these cards connect to what's going on, and I'd rather get back to the action instead of pondering them."

A less common reaction:

"Wow, I bet this card means this, and that card means that, and here are my five great theories for what's going on in this scenario, and each time we do anything I look back at the spread and, look, cool, we just did this card, which means this other card is actually about that other guy, awesome!!!"


37. On 2011-03-08, Vincent said:

Do you want the connection to be tenuous there?


38. On 2011-03-08, David Berg said:

Short answer:

Long answer:
What's most important to me about the auguries is how they encourage the players to hypothesize.  Comparing and collaborating on theories is a huge part of the social experience of play.

I'd be happy to make the auguries better at that!  I'm not inclined to think that dovetails with making them more concretely helpful, though.  But maybe I'm wrong.

I have a rant about the cards as an example of Delve's "toolkit" approach, but I'll holster that for now unless you think it's germane.


39. On 2011-03-09, Vincent said:

What do I do when I want to start testing and confirming or refuting my hypothesis? Is that where my special perceptions comes in?


40. On 2011-03-09, David Berg said:

Short answer:
Try it and see what happens!

Long answer:
"I think the manor steward is hiding a cursed item!"

"Makes sense, but I hope not.  I don't want to invade his home if we're wrong, or fight his guards if we don't have to.  Let's check out the cemetary first."


"Yeah, the steward theory is our best option.  The monster's killing more villagers, we can't wait any longer.  Let's raid the manor!"

Upon breaking in, you fight guards who are acting weird.  Your perception powers tell you they're possessed by something supernatural.  Now you're nearly certain your theory is right.  You plan and act accordingly.  The final proof comes when you find the steward and his twisted statue.


41. On 2011-03-09, Vincent said:

I'm trying to examine your game's design here, and you keep pitching it to me!

I'll try again. Augury is one of my capabilities. Its function is to get me forming hypotheses, not to help me draw conclusions. This is fine! I do need to form hypotheses if I want to understand what's going on. Ultimately, though, I'm here to draw conclusions and act upon them - to unravel their plight.

So. Augury is one of my capabilities. What capabilities do I have that DO help me draw conclusions?

You mention checking out a cemetery. What are the rules for that?


42. On 2011-03-09, David Berg said:

Sorry, I really couldn't think of a better answer!  The capabilities that let you prove your theories—they are the capabilities that allowed you to break into the manor and kill the possessed guards.  "Try it and see" is the only option.

Whatever would get you into the manor does get you into the manor (that's a rule), so your list of capabilities is extremely long:

Roof entry: grappling hook, lackey to hold the rope, Stealth and Climbing skills.  Convince manor guard to sneak you in: imperial writ of your deeds, group name/banner/tales, impressive armor, nobles to name-drop, trophies, magics that demonstrate your unique expertise.  Convince peasants to revolt and storm the manor: your reading of their state of mind in the current crisis, and cleverness in motivating them.  Full frontal assault: skills in Sword, Bow, Flanking, Agility, etc.  Exorcise the demon from afar: follow a found diagram, expend a rare magical power source, kill a prisoner, chant a found incantation.

Maybe I'm being stupid, but to me the most important rules here are about how the scenario is designed:
1) Every way forward comes with an obstacle.
2) Overcome the obstacle, and you get new info or capabilities that concretely point to another useful thing to do.

I'm not intending to pitch!  I'm simply fuzzy enough on this stuff that I have to look to what happens in play for my answers.  I'm sorry it's been so inefficient.  I appreciate you hanging with me.


43. On 2011-03-10, Vincent said:

No prob!

No sentimentality, now: is this a fair way to put it? Player, your job is to overcome the GM's prepped obstacles, one by one, to get the GM's prepped next way forward, until you solve the problem.


44. On 2011-03-10, David Berg said:

There's some linear progress through prepped material, but never a full adventure of nothing but that.  It'd be more comprehensive to say: Player, your job is to overcome the GM's prepped and ad-libbed obstacles (usually choosing between multiple ones), to either get the GM's prepped and ad-libbed next way(s) forward, or invent your own next way(s) forward, until you solve the problem.

As GM, the system I use to produce this is a combo of a few firm rules, a lot of general principles, and maybe some habits I haven't zeroed in on.  At this moment, I am doing my best to write this down.  Should I post what I've got so far?


45. On 2011-03-11, Vincent said:

I guess so!

Right now I'm only and exclusively interested in what the players do, not what the GM does.


46. On 2011-03-14, David Berg said:

Okay, I'll post what the GM does elsewhere and link it when it's complete.  As for what the players do, here's something concrete:

When you begin play and ask the villagers what's up, you'll be given three different ways forward: investigate the missing kids, the foul odor, or the torn-up forest.  Which way you choose will determine which obstacles you will face.  If at any point you run into an obstacle you're not eager to tackle, you can switch tracks.


47. On 2011-03-14, Vincent said:

David! I'm trying to get out of you what I do as a player, moment to moment, so that I can understand how it connects to what we're doing in the game overall. You're not being forthcoming about it! Either the rules just plain don't exist yet, or else I'm not asking my question in the way you need me to. One more try.

Let's say I'm investigating the missing kids, and for reasons of my own I decide that the father of one of the missing kids knows more than he's telling. As player, I don't know that he does, but I've become convinced that he must. "This guy knows more than he's telling," I say. "I get him alone and really browbeat him to get the truth out of him. If he denies it, yes, I WILL get rough with him."

Remember how you told me what the rules for augury are? The GM deals up the cards etc etc? What are the rules we follow now, in THIS circumstance?

I've declared my character's action, so what's the range of possible outcomes? What dice do I roll, if any? What calls does the GM have to make before and after I roll dice? If the guy DOES know more than he's telling, how do I get confirmation of the fact, and how do I get the whole truth out of him? If he DOESN'T, how do I come to know that instead?

DON'T MAKE UP NEW RULES. If you haven't already designed rules for this, or if the rules for this are in flux, please tell me!


48. On 2011-03-14, David Berg said:

I'm certainly not trying to be evasive!  I think perhaps we crossed some wires here.  I was all ready to zoom in on any of the capabilities I listed above (stealth, climbing, talking, sword, etc.) as "what players do", but then your proposal of "overcome GM's prepped obstacles" got me thinking broad-scale again.

My response to your dad-browbeating will cover multiple scales.  I apologize if some of them are irrelevant to the current analysis, but I think I'm proving to be a bad guesser at which those will be.

I've declared my character's action, so what's the range of possible outcomes?

Before we begin resolving, the GM determines whether Dad knows more than he's telling, and if so, what.  I can describe the GM's method for doing this if you'd like.  For now, let's say the GM determines that Dad killed his own kid while possessed by a demon, and is trying to block that out.

The range of outcomes is constrained by those fictional facts and the chosen Pace; see italics below.

What dice do I roll, if any?

Before determining that, we determine Pace.

The pacing rules:

1) In Delve's Real-Time (the default) or Slo-Mo paces, you use the mechanics for a given capability when you employ that capability.  In a Summary pace, you instead use the Summary mechanic.
2) Pace is determined by narration.  "I search the room" is Summary, "I peek around the corner" is Real-Time.  Real-Time means giving and receiving new information as your character does.
3) Try to agree as a group on Pace.  If you can't, the most bored / least patient person (i.e. fastest pace - usually a Summary) wins.
4) GM, if the players decide on a course of action that you know is a dead end, switch to Summary mode.  (First get all the info from them that you'll need for your summary.)

As per rule #2, the announcement "I browbeat him" doubles as a request for the Summary pace.

In Summary mode:

"What would happen?" is approximated from the few details communicated.  The GM simply decides what's most likely and announces that.  There is no range of outcomes.  No dice are rolled.

Example: "After you rough him up pretty badly, he breaks down, babbles for a bit, and eventually you piece together his story, which is..."

There's an alternate rule where the GM rolls 1d6, with a 6 requiring him to think of something better (for the player) than "what's most likely", and a 1 requiring him to think of something worse.  I use this during rare times when something is both dramatically important and needs to be sped through in Summary mode.

Now your range of outcomes is "best, middle, and worst of the outcomes the GM deems most likely".

Example of best: "Just before you're about to get rough, he breaks down, babbles for a bit, and then describes exactly what happened."

In Real-Time mode:

In Delve's default pace, which is used for just about everything the group deems interesting, you roleplay the browbeating in character.

Browbeating does not invoke dice. If you want the browbeating to succeed, you must use your judgment of what's going on and what would work, as well as your acting and narration chops, to help the fiction reach a point where the GM judges (based on his understanding of Dad as a person first and an Obstacle second) that Dad would spill his guts. The GM may be more or less helpful in this depending on various guidelines I use but have not codified as rules. If you want to hear 'em, just let me know.

Success might look like this:

Player: "Dark magics are afoot here!  Maybe no one else understands, but I do!  If you've encountered them, I can make sense of them for you!  And I promise, I will destroy them!"

GM: "It's true!  It was an evil power!  It... it made me..." (and then he tells what happened)

Using your Perception Power will give you info on what Dad wants, also without dice rolling.  "Pink aura—he's trying to manipulate us!"

If we say that the talking failed and you proceeded to get rough, the various physical actions you might try might invoke dice.  Striking Dad with your sword involves a 2d6 roll.  Wrestling him likewise.  Racing him to the door would require an opposed Agility pool roll (BW style).  If you decide to grab his arm, our group would discuss whether that's more a matter of Agility or of Wrestling, and then you'd roll accordingly.

Let's say that you physically outclass Dad and decide to kick him 17 times.  We'll only roll 17 times if you want to; if you'd rather use Summary mode for the kicks, you can do so, confident in what the GM's judgment of "most likely" will be.

As for range of outcomes, the overall possibilities for the scene are pretty endless, while the possibilities for each narrated action are:
1) yelling - the GM judges how much you intimidate Dad along the scale of what's plausible
2) slashing - the dice determine whether you cut Dad, where you cut him, how bad you cut him, and whether he passes out
3) wrestling - the dice determine whether you get ahold of Dad or not
4) racing - the dice determine who gets to the door first, you or Dad

What calls does the GM have to make before and after I roll dice?


The group judges whether the result is a given (no roll), the result will be clear (player rolls), or the result will be unclear (GM rolls in secret).

The group judges what character capabilities apply, and thus which mechanics to use.

The GM tends to be point man for these.

The GM also clarifies the fictional situation in any case where he thinks the acting player might not be choosing his action with all the information his character would have.


The GM judges how Dad reacts to taking a 3-point wound to his left arm, or being grappled, or losing the race to the door.

If the guy DOES know more than he's telling, how do I get confirmation of the fact, and how do I get the whole truth out of him?

Your Perception Power might tell you he wants to manipulate you, and your Social Perception skill might detect a mismatch between words and posture, but if the GM never thinks, "Okay, Dad would tell the truth now!" then Dad never tells the truth.

Once you do get info out of Dad, you will only know what your character knows.  "It sure seems like that was the whole truth, but you never really know for sure."

If he DOESN'T, how do I come to know that instead?

"Could he possibly still be holding out on us after all that?  It seems really unlikely."  You never know beyond that.

Note on Pacing rule #4 above: "Dead end" can mean either "Dad knows nothing" or "no amount of browbeating and roughing up will get Dad's secret out of him".  The players don't get to know which was the case.

Final note: Though many of the phrasings in this post are new, none of the rules and procedures are.


49. On 2011-03-14, Vincent said:

Hooray! That's exactly what I was hoping for. Perfect. Thank you.

Having the GM withhold crucial information from the players (is dad telling everything he knows, or is he just super good at holding out?) breaks connection between I browbeat the dad and I'm playing the game to take on and sort out weird problems, pushing play instead toward I'm playing the game to follow the GM's prepped clues. Is there some mechanism elsewhere in the rules to reestablish that connection?

It super-duper breaks connection between I browbeat the dad and I'm playing the game to pursue my character's ambitions and curiosity, pushing play instead toward I'm playing the game to second-guess, withhold investment, and be tractable to the GM. Is there some mechanism elsewhere in the rules that allows the characters' ambitions to drive play?

Putting burdensome judgment calls on the GM (dad knows more than he's telling; have the player characters done the right things to him to get him to spill?) breaks connection between a PC is browbeating the dad and accept any valid solution the players come up with, pushing play instead toward when you create the scenario, plan out thoroughly how the PCs can overcome the obstacles. For instance, what the PCs can say to dad to get him to spill. Is there some mechanism elsewhere in the rules that makes the GMs' judgment calls non-burdensome?

You're right to worry about GM burnout. I get GM burnout just reading these rules.

Matt says up above that in play, he DOES get to solve weird problems himself, you AREN'T just walking his character through your premade solutions. Someone at the con on Saturday told me the same, I think it was Todd L. I believe them! What's going on? ARE there mechanisms elsewhere in the game that reestablish these broken connections?


50. On 2011-03-15, Julius said:

Err, so Dave asked me (as a long-term play-tester of said Delve) to contribute something to this thread. I am not going to pretend to have actually read the whole thing, and even less to have followed all the points, but I get the gist -

so a few comments of dubious coherence and value:

I think that dave has failed to emphasize the time-scale of some of the problem solving involved here,  which I think shifts the balance in the GM prep/player control scenario. In the sense that the pieces are all there, I am sure dave has a pretty detailed magic system worked out and sitting in his notebook, but working out how things function and piecing it together for different effects has been really and truly left to us - I mean we found the "rosetta stone" for runes about two years back (real life time) and we have yet to figure out more than a handful of functions for the runes, a miniscule amount of grammar and a couple of ways of activating them - all with ingredients in short supply. The result of this is that we are constantly experimenting - with new runes, new materials, trying to apply the few shreds of information we have to new challenges.... these fail the vast majority of the time, so when we actually work something out, it feels very much like OUR accomplishment. ALso so when we finally got to a challenge where we actually NEEDED to use the rune language to win - an instance where there was a clear GM prepped problem with a relatively limited number of ways to solve it, it didn't feel like "oh, that is what the GM wanted us to do" because we had invested so much thought into just getting the basic tools to accomplish it.

I also feel like the degree of ignorance on the players of what really "works" also becomes a powerful tool for the GM to respond - and that leads to the sort of collaborative, player empowering moments Vincent is getting at. So at one point there was a stream that dave off-handedly mentioned was holy to the visitors, and one of our players decided this was "holy water". Now, I recall Dave poo-pooing that at the time, but the player carried it around and kept trying to use it on things- which for the longest, longest time didn't do anything. After a while, we finally got to a situation where bam, the holy water did do something unusual - now if I am right, I am pretty sure that Dave never intended that to be "holy water", but our stubborness gave us a tool, that let us (and him) improvise a solution to a problem. So it wasn't just about the GM saying - to stop the ghosts they have to find the holy water, it was about us making a decision on something, and then much later him making a call that that would bea valid solution.

Similarly, with the deck of cards - which is a great mood builder and definitely has pushed us into experimenting with different things. That said, I mostly have NO idea what the "correct" interpretation of the cards was even after we "solve" the problem. Perhaps Dave does have a crystal clear idea of what all of the cards means, but half the time I am clueless of whether our interpretation of the cards, even when it ends up being succesful, was the "intended" one. That is empowering actually, because it never feels like we were being rail-roaded or guided.

Now, how this is reflected in the mechanics of the game, is a great question as with Dave's style of GM I never know what is planned and what is improvised. But I think the conceptual key to what Dave is getting at is the concept of "immersion" and the related fact of how limited the information the players have about the world around them. That is why the perception powers work so well - because any knowledge we get feels precious and valuable, even if there is no immediate pay-off.

I am going to stop there for a while in my ramblings and see what bounces back....


51. On 2011-03-15, David Berg said:

Those "X pushes play toward Y" dynamics don't ring true to me at all, Vincent.  As for the broken conenctions themselves, I'm trying to understand, and I'd like to discuss further, if you're game.  I have a Chess analogy to try out.

If you'd prefer I start by answering your questions about connection-fixing mechanisms, it'll be mostly GM principles that I haven't formalized till now.

Whaddaya think?


52. On 2011-03-16, David Berg said:

Good news!  Matt and Mendez explained to me the basics of "How interrogating an NPC without formal rules can suck for players and GM."  Which in turn helps me see how those breaks and dynamics you described could occur.

What they described largely comes down to "GM lacks grounding for decisions of what would work" and "players pursue a course of action beyond it being fun".  Delve definitely has some procedures which address this (though I'll readily admit they ain't foolproof).  I'll see if I can formulate how they address your specific questions and then post 'em.


53. On 2011-03-17, David Berg said:

Long-ass post describing the below in more detail is here.  Vincent, below I use the term "rules" for anything that:
a) I've been telling players they must do
b) I've been telling myself I must do, and remembering the majority of the time
c) I've been doing without needing any reminders, but wouldn't ever consider not doing, or want anyone else to not do
And then I use the term "guidelines" for stuff I present as optional, or don't bother to mention, or forget.  "ORDs" is a new phrase, but the prep procedures below describe a thing I've done almost consistently for the last several con games.

So, on to my best guesses as to which rules and guidelines are preventing or reestablishing the broken connections!

1) The connection between I browbeat the dad and I'm playing the game to take on and sort out weird problems.

Rule: GM, never say "nothing happens" when the players try something new.  Always give new feedback.  Expected outcomes that change nothing don't count as "new feedback".

Guideline: GM, all your problems want to be solved. They want to help the players solve them.  Something is preventing them from doing this.  Have them indicate what's blocking them, and suggest ways around it.

Guideline: GM, drop hints and clues like crazy.  Basically a different phrasing of the above.

Example: the greedy NPC.  "Gee, I want to help you guys, but I need to look for another odd job because money's tight right now."  He's telling the players the obstacle to his cooperation (priority is money) and suggesting a way around it (get him money).  It should now be on the PCs' radar that they could either bribe this guy or use their clout to get him work.  Of course, they might rather admonish him for being greedy and pull out their swords.  That would be a judgment that a few pence isn't worth getting hurt over, and the GM ought to agree unless there's a specific reason otherwise.

Guideline: GM, in play, improv more Directions onto your ORDs.  If you feel the urge to reward the players for something other than overcoming an Obstacle, improv a "freebie" Direction.  I'll often do this for good teamwork on engaging, colorful character portrayals that, while not plausibly addressing an NPC's Obstacle, seem like they ought to get some compliance.

Guideline: players, if a first attempt fails, try something new.  If you can, base it on the new info you just received.

Rule: if you split the party, go into Summary mode.  Don't split the party to do anything you want to play through in Real-Time.  If it's important, it's worth having all the players' brains in on it.

2) The connection between I browbeat the dad and I'm playing the game to pursue my character's ambitions and curiosity.

From the char-gen rules: choose a Path (Power, Plenty, Humanity, or Renown), then define a Life Goal.  Then define what you wish to get out of supernatural secrets, relating that to your Path and Life Goal. So the characters pursue social and magical rewards. Saving villages from supernatural problems gets them social rewards. Discovering, analyzing, and looting the supernatural features of the problems gets them magical rewards.  So, basically, progress in the mission doubles as progress toward character ambitions.  Beyond that, I can assure you that once the PCs win Dad's cooperation, they'll try to use him as an experimental tool to study how demonic possession works.  Which leads us to:

Guideline: GM, when the players initiate something that looks like an ORD, make it one.  That is, if they're trying to discover new information or gain access to a new capability, but doing so isn't obvious, define the Obstacle, Reward and Direction (if they haven't already been defined for you!).

As for withholding investment, Vincent, that sounds to me like a symptom of scarred players who've had too many such scenes end in frustration.  Here's part of how I avoid such scarring:

Rule: if you ever get bored, grab the pacing dial and speed up. You are responsible for not letting yourself get bored.

Rule: if you ever get truly stuck on something, give up and try something else. Vow to come back later if that helps.

Rule: if you ever see another player get truly stuck on something, either go to Summary mode or interrupt them with new information.

Rule: GM, prep 5 Steps of Doom which escalate the scenario's problem. Drop these in whenever the characters do something time-consuming, or at any time when the drama and excitement could use a kick.

3) The connection between a PC is browbeating the dad and accept any valid solution the players come up with.

First of all, "accept any valid solution" is a rule, so I assume the problem we're talking about is how to implement it.  So here's how:

Rule: GM, don't waste time on accuracy; plausibility is enough. Precision is great, but it's not worth stalling the game or stressing out over.  Remember, the whole group is looking out for the gameworld's integrity, and you're not expected to be perfect.  Being corrected is fine.

Rule: before you decide what to do, get all the information you need from the fiction to make that decision. For the GM, this means forming an understanding of the feature of the world you are playing, whether it's an NPC, a magic item, or a creaky manor.  You can do this in prep or as ad-lib right before you narrate, depending on what works best for you.  If you need a moment to ad-lib, you can stall by taking a bathroom break, flipping through your notes, asking questions, etc.

Rules: As part of your adventure scenario prep, define 7 ORDs.  Define the Obstacle to the players getting the reward; the Reward itself, even if that's just the form the directions are delivered in; and one or more Directions, reasons for the players to go encounter other ORDs.

Develop each ORD's identity to the point where you know it well enough to play it naturally—your NPCs' names, wants, demeanors; your puzzles' pieces and properties; your forts' entrances, guards and traps.

Write down at least one way to overcome each obstacle.

Record your ORDs on the scenario flow chart. Imagine this is a game that has already been played.  Your goal is not to reproduce that game, but to use it as inspiration to jointly craft a new game with the players.  In play, don't even look at your flow chart unless you have to.

That's all I can think of just now.  If there's other stuff I'm doing to make play succeed on these fronts, I may need some help unearthing it.


54. On 2011-03-17, David Berg said:

Ack!  Failed HTML parsing!  Ignore all those question marks!

Those were supposed to be non-breaking spaces; they showed up just fine in the Preview.  Vincent, is there any way to fix 'em?  I've got my comment saved in a text file, so I could re-post...


55. On 2011-03-17, Vincent said:

Got 'em.


56. On 2011-03-17, David Berg said:

Thank you!


57. On 2011-03-21, Vincent said:

Okay! So that's exactly what I was looking for. Thank you!


From the player's point of view, there's absolutely no connection between I browbeat the dad and I'm trying to sort this problem out EXCEPT through faith in the GM.

I browbeat the NPC...
...and the GM makes decisions I can't see and have no access to... I hope it helps me sort this problem out!

The connection exists in the rules, but the players have no access to it. You can tell that this is so because in your section 1, all the rules and guidelines except "keep trying!" are addressd to the GM.

This isn't a strong connection for the player, which means that some prospective players who're excited by your game's promises are going to go blank when they learn how your game goes about fulfilling them.

This following is more complicated, so ask questions!

For the GM, you create the connection between a PC browbeats the dad and the PCs sort out this problem by instruction, not by game design. You only tell the GM what to do, you don't make it natural - or better, inevitable - for the GM to do it.

You can tell that this is so because you call "accept any valid solution" a rule, not a goal.

This isn't a strong connection for the GM, which means again that you're going to lose prospective GMs who're otherwise excited about what your game promises.

Have you considered making the connection on the players' side more concrete? Have you considered designing a way to GM, rather than just instructing us to do what you've trained yourself to do?


You know my three insights? Tell me about your insight into real live human beings.

This is like, in Dogs in the Vineyard, the person who's losing the argument is the one who throws the first punch. That's something I think about real people, and Dogs is designed to treat its characters as real people in that way.

What about in your game? What's your insight into real people in real situations that underlies how your game's rules treat its characters?


58. On 2011-03-22, David Berg said:

Ah!  Great stuff, man.

Have you considered making the connection on the players' side more concrete?

Oh yeah.  For years.  Unfortunately, I've given myself a major hurdle for that.  Delve is intended for players who prioritize "experience what it's like" over "solve the mystery".  So all my attempts to optimize the latter have had to work within the constraints of the former.

I'd like to think that in interrogating Dad, "play through a back-and-forth with the GM" does have a strong connection to "experience what it's like".  Do you agree?

I'd love to discuss the trade-offs here!  I'm just limiting myself for now because that could be a long chat!

Have you considered designing a way to GM, rather than just instructing us to do what you've trained yourself to do?

That would be fantastic!  Um, I have no idea what that would look like, though.  Maybe give the GM his own game, where he's using mechanics to try to win something behind the scenes?  Award himself 2 points when players invent an unexpected solution; 1 point when they get the info he's left for them; dock himself 2 points when an attempt gets them nowhere.  And then spend the points on... uh... I dunno what mechanical rewards best dovetail with the social rewards of "the players dig this stuff that I'm coming up with!"

Can you think of any applicable examples of RPGs where you GM by design, not instruction?  All I'm coming up with are games where the players roll dice and then the GM's obligated to respond in a certain way.

What's your insight into real people in real situations that underlies how your game's rules treat its characters?

I'm not sure.  I'll offer three different answers (insights in quotes), in the hope that at least one of them will lead us somewhere productive:

1) Delve's rules are pretty agnostic about human behavior, leaving it up to the play group to produce behavior that seems real to them.  "Everyone sees people differently."

2) The setting backdrop manifests "incentives matter" via politics, govt, military, trade, geography, etc.  The way I roleplay nobles expresses "trust who you know", and the way I roleplay villagers expresses "people come together against common adversity".

3) I think that "getting hit with a sword tends not to kill people instantly" (as per Combat Damage rules).  I think "it's possible, with practice, to read another person's body language for clues that you don't get from their speech alone" (as per Social Perception skill rules).


59. On 2011-03-22, Vincent said:

Designing a way to GM
In every game I can think of, the GM-side game design is integrated into the player-side game design. In Apocalypse World, for instance, the GM-side game design isn't in the "how to MC" instructions - they're orientation, not mechanics - it's in the moves, starting right with the basic moves. Read them with attention to it and you'll see that THEY make it natural for the GM to look at NPCs through crosshairs, be a fan of the characters, respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards, etc.

The GM vs player split you're working with means that you're trying to design two games that work together without interacting, which is nuts. It might just be really hard, I don't know, but it might well be plain impossible.

Experiencing what it's like
No, I don't think that "play through a back and forth with the GM" is especially strong. My detective-monk is there in the hovel with the dude, dirt floor and animal smells, there's no GM to intermediate. I'm sitting at a table with some diet Dr. Pepper. When he wants to take the dude by the shoulders and shake sense into him, he does it, he doesn't lean forward at the table and say "I take him by the shoulders and shake him."

I think you'd be better off figuring out what it's like - taking a stand, yourself, on what it's really like to interrogate a recalcitrant father - and designing rules to give the players that experience instead.

Which brings me to:

Insights into human nature & experience
David, man, those are the most boring, obvious insights I've ever heard. I'm never going to love a game if the best it can offer me is "people trust who they know" and "body language is a thing."

You have lots and lots of insights into roleplaying as a practice. Seriously! I admire your work in that area, your little comics especially. To design a game, you need more.

Maybe something about ambitious people, at least? Or curiosity?


60. On 2011-03-22, David Berg said:

Yeah, fair enough, 2 games may be a bad idea.  It's just frustrating to take the limits I've imposed on the player-side design and let those restrict the GM side too.  But maybe there are options I haven't considered.  An example might help.  After GMing Apocalypse World for 3 sessions, I do not see how the Basic Moves get me to look at NPCs through crosshairs; could you explain that one?

As for "what it's like", dude, I'm writing in the rules right now, "No diet Dr. Pepper!"  More seriously, this isn't a LARP, so I think "what it's like" is best understood via choices, not sensory input.  Making decisions based on what your character knows has a unique feel to it when the knowledge gap between you and your character is as small as possible.  That's something I'm sticking with.  I'd like to explore your suggestion of designing to produce outcomes that match with my insights, but I'll be doing it within those limitations.

That said, if you catch me over-limiting myself, please call me on it!

I gave you the boring ones because those are the only ones that underlie the game's current rules.  The menu of what could underlie new rules is certainly more interesting.

As for RPG practice, I think I've been expressing how I think Delve should be played plenty already in this thread, so let me instead try for a real-life dynamic that gets explored in play.

Analogous to how "argument loser tends to throw first punch" in Dogs serves as a way to ask, "So, this time, will you?", Delve has:

When a technology is immediately useful, people tend to employ it regardless of long-term risks or moral dubiousness.

It's always fun to see where my players draw the line on wielding cursed items, chugging monster secretions, ritually sacrificing bandits, etc.  I don't want the whole game to revolve around that, though...

As for our recalcitrant Dad example, I guess I could say, "Trauma victims will block out the trauma until promised a way to deal with its source," but (a) research could probably tell me whether that's true or not, and I haven't done any, and (b) that "insight" seems highly specific to this particular example, and I'd need another insight to cover the corrupt imperial lieutenant who's starting to question whether he's in over his head doing deals with a sinister cult.

Finally, on curiosity, I agree with Made to Stick: "Broken expectations and small, identifiable gaps in knowledge are the best incentives to become curious."


61. On 2011-03-23, Vincent said:

Right! What are the 4 (or 3 or 7 or whatever) things that player characters mainly do? Those are the things you're sharing your insights about, and those are the insights that had better be worth your audience's attention.

Without going back and looking, you've mentioned:
using augury;
using special perception;
storming the manor;
checking out the graveyard.

Are those all things that PCs often do? Is there anything else that PCs usually do?

(In Apocalypse World, look how going aggro, reading a person, reading a situation, and seducing or manipulating treat your NPCs. The game's rules look at them through crosshairs already. "Look at your NPCs through crosshairs," thus, orients you to the rules, it's not plain instruction.)


62. On 2011-03-23, David Berg said:

Gotcha!  I'll have to think on my most relevant-to-Delve-play insights a bit before replying.  While I ponder, can we dig into GMing by design a bit more?

Would you mind elaborating on your AW explanation?  I'm not sure if I'm missing your point or just confused by your wording.  Lemme see: Over the course of play, as GM, several Basic Moves repeatedly make me determine "what could happen to this NPC", so then it becomes natural to think that way all the time, and "maybe kill them" is a subset of that.  Is that what you're saying?

If so, it seems to me that the connection between the game's design and the way to GM it is largely one of perspective.  Concrete things you must do orient you toward the fiction in a way that informs your choices about what you can or want to do.  And then of course the MC instructions make that orientation explicit.

Would it be fair to say that in Dogs and AW, the things you must do to create Towns and Fronts are a big part of giving the GM the proper perspective?  I feel like that is something that's present for me when I prep scenarios in Delve; I'm just not sure whether that's capable of being sufficient orientation by itself.


63. On 2011-03-23, Alex D. said:

I just had a thought. If ya'll wanna keep his two-way, tell me to butt out and I will.

"Try it and see what happens!" is a recurring thing here, right, David?

So the insight I'm seeing is, maybe, "The only way to progress in the world and learn how things work is to ask questions and attempt the unknown."? Or maybe "Persistence pays off more often than not.".

Are these at all accurate, David?
Vincent, would you call these "boring, obvious insights"?


64. On 2011-03-24, David Berg said:

The first one (attempt unknowns to progress & learn) is dead on, Alex!  I just can't yet tell if that's the sort of thing I could design from in the way Vincent's talking about.


65. On 2011-03-24, Vincent said:

Thanks, Alex!

David, I think you could. I think that at some point you're going to come up against this thing where you're trying to design two isolated-but-coactive games, though.

I can tell you how I'd design to that insight, if you want.

Let me tell you something! Over the years, I've lost three games, and watched my friends lose more games than three, and played innumerable miserable playtest sessions, because of one distinct rpg design phenomenon. It's where a designer commits to a goal or set of goals for a game, and commits to a technical approach or set of technical constraints for the same game, and they don't work together, and the designer can't manage to drop either to move forward with the other. That's what happened to The Dragon Killer, to Making a Tree, to Second Chance Plus Expenses, and I only pray it's not now happening to Storming the Wizard's Tower. Those are just my own games; I could easily name half a dozen others'.


66. On 2011-03-24, Vincent said:

...So I told you that, but on reflection, I guess it's just so you'll expect it. I think it may be a fact of our game designing lives, better to accept it than fight. Or at least, anyway, if you escape it, you've done something I haven't!


67. On 2011-03-25, Deliverator said:

Vincent, has Dave told you my idea for how to implement a solid mechanical framework in Delve?  It's to use AW's mechanics (or at least use them as a framework), but hide them from the players?the GM does all the rolling, keeps track of all non-in-world stats, etc.  It's simple, reliable, gives plausible outcomes in a nice trinary range.  The players will be able to tell when the GM is rolling dice but not what precisely he's rolling them for.

It does require more GM judgment (than core AW) about when a character is doing a Move (in that in AW the group occasionally discusses a bit if what the character did was really "doing it," at least IME), but the Moves are concrete enough that I don't think that'll be a problem.

Reading this thread, I'm even more convinced it's a good idea.  Specifically, AW does that thing where you're always getting new feedback for stuff that you try.



68. On 2011-03-25, David Berg said:

Buncha stuff here!


After wracking my brain on this, I think the vast majority of my insights into the activities the characters do are of the "this is a fun way to play it" variety.  Insights into real people are hard for me to pin down apart from the character activities that deal with people.  I'm sure I could manufacture some insights about real people gearing up and creeping into monster caves, but I'll skip that for now unless you think it's key.

So, the major character activities in Delve are gathering info, running experiments, finding ways to work with NPCs, discussing ideas with each other, prepping for danger, solving puzzles, and facing danger.

Here are my varyingly insightful insights on those:

Gathering info: forming an expectation of what you might find, and deciding on the best way(s) to pursue that, makes for better play than "looking around".

Running experiments: same deal.  Also, what Alex said.

NPCs: mutual benefit overcomes many social barriers.  (This tends to come up a lot, and is the key to the characters advancing their place in the world.)

Discussion and decision: picking the first decent option or strategy makes for better play than straining to conceive the perfect one.  Also: it's better to extrapolate too much than too little.

Preparing: worry about problems you can solve.  Also: incorporate lessons learned in prior play.

Solving puzzles: risk or sacrifice should turn hard puzzles into easy ones.

Facing danger: physical positioning is huge.  Also: the more you can turn a novel combat into an experiment, the better.

I'd be happy to hear how you'd design to any or all of these!  But yeah, "The only way to progress in the world and learn how things work is to ask questions and attempt the unknown" is particularly important.

GMing by design

Did I read you right re: AW?  Obligations -> orientation -> certain types of play decisions?

Can prep obligations (e.g. Dogs town creation) do much or most of that work?

Game goals and technical constraints that don't mesh

Such clashes seem inevitable to me too!  I blame the fact that my inspirations come in both "experience of play" and "neato technique" forms.  Delve is definitely the former; any techniques I've become wedded to are simply the best ways I've found to create certain facets of the desired experience.

Such misalignments are frustrating, but it's all progress in the long run, right?  That spiffy mechanic that didn't work in the kids' game might be just what's needed 3 years later in the party game!  At least, that's what I like to tell myself...


69. On 2011-03-25, David Berg said:

Matt, yeah, despite some doubts, I remain enthused about giving that a shot!


70. On 2011-03-25, Vincent said:


I know you have insights into roleplaying as a practice. You need more than that to make a game.

In the real world, what do you think makes one person better at gathering information (more information, more complete information, more quickly, with more confidence) than another? What makes a person better at it one time than they are another time? Luck? Instinct? Trained skill? An open mind? What's most important? What are the most important barriers to it? In the real world, what are the benefits of gathering good information quickly, and what are the consequences of acting on bad or insufficient information?

In the real world, how do you think a person identifies mutual benefit, builds mutual benefit or the illusion of it, and then acts on it to overcome social barriers? What makes one person good at doing those things and another person bad at it? When, why and how does it fail? Are there any social barriers that mutual benefit won't overcome?

In the real world, what do you think makes one person better at identifying a decent option or strategy than another? What makes one person able to act with confidence on their initial choices, when another dithers and second-guesses? Some people have blind spots, topics on which they're simply bad decision-makers - how come some people do and some don't, and what can a person do about it? And then, what makes one person better than another at convincing others to give her preferred option or strategy a try? In the real world, what are the benefits of working together? Does it matter whether the group is truly convinced, or has just agreed to go along with the leader's plan?

And so on.

Don't answer these to me here! You answer these by designing your game. You reconcile your insights into how things work for real people in the real world with your insights into roleplaying as a practice and your insights into your subject matter, and your game is that reconciliation.

Attempting the unknown

If I were to design from "the only way to progress in the world and learn how things work is to ask questions and attempt the unknown," here's what I'd do.

When a person asks questions and attempts the unknown, what are the possible outcomes? I'm brainstorming.
- She discovers a hole in her understanding.
- She fills a hole in her understanding.
- She exhausts her resources.
- Something interrupts her.
- She learns that there are more variables than she knew.
- She nails one of the variables down.
- She discovers something about another topic altogether.
- She confirms her working theory.
- She learns what she should try next to learn more.

What circumstances matter?
- Downtime! Insights come after (1) rigorous study, then (2) sleeping on it. Let her subconscious brain work on it too.
- The more topics she's studying, the better opportunities for cross-insights and drawing surprising connections.
- Time and other resources matter a lot. It'll be especially hard for her to focus when she's hungry. Interruptions, too - she should be able to limit, but not outright control, what interrupts her.

How does learning how things work let a person progress in the world?
- It means that she can recognize opportunities and then take them. Recognizing opportunities is every bit as important as taking them.

That's a solid start. Now I take these insights into the real world and reconcile them with my insights into roleplaying as a practice and my subject matter, and see if rules come out the other end. If I'm adding this stuff to Apocalypse World, for instance - for a science-minded playbook, maybe - it's all just details. I'll decide whether I can express it in one character move, or will I need several, or should it be some crap instead like a savvyhead's workspace or a quarantine's stasis. Do I create a custom stat like for operators, "thorough" or "curious" or something else, or can it work just with sharp or weird, and maybe barter spent? Then I'll decide how to handle decision-making in the moment, per feature: hold & spend? ask from a list? mix & match partial outcomes? +1forward, -1forward, mark experience? you ask the MC vs the MC asks you?

GMing by design

I wouldn't boil it down to obligations. A game's rules give permission and create expectations - they tell you what you can do and what you should do. They do this mechanically, by creating the unnatural, abnormal dynamics, relationships and considerations you act within when you play.

A complicated game like Apocalypse World needs a chapter orienting you to its unnatural dynamics and your position within them. (Maybe all games do, but complicated games surely do.) It can't fairly ask you to intuit them just by reading and enacting the rules and then feeling them out in play.

Telling someone what to do without creating the unnatural dynamics that make it the right thing to do isn't game design, it's wishful thinking.

You can make prep a central focus of your design if you want to, of course. But there, again, just telling people what to prep isn't the same as making it the right thing to prep.


71. On 2011-03-25, Paul T. said:


Your "insights" are a great list: they show what you expect the players to do in play, and how it will benefit them. The list you made describes a roleplaying experience that sounds like fun to me in a way that some/many of your pitches do not. May be good material to work with!


Your last few posts were very thought-provoking: I can now understand better what you've been talking about when you mention these "insights" and the design process.

However, I have a follow-up question:

Can you give some description or some examples of how such insights are expressed within game design that's more freeform? We have lots of games that describe, say, human frailty by saying, "All you get is 1d4 hit points." How are such things expressed in more freeform play?

Dave's game, as far as I can see, is very, very heavily principled freeform.

(OK, ducking out of the conversation now.)


72. On 2011-03-28, David Berg said:

Paul, good to know.  Thanks!

Vincent, thanks for the examples, they helped a lot!

Attempting the unknown

I think there's something interesting going on here about the criteria for resolution.  All of the outcomes on your "attempt the unknown" list look interesting and fun and clearly relevant to the purpose of progressing in the mystery.  Thus, if the list is known to the players, engaging the mechanic that produces those outcomes provides the kind of strong, clear connection that we've been getting at, right?  Between what we do right now and what we're here to do.

Relevant to Delve specifically, I must ask, how strong and clear do you think that connection remains if:

  • a) the outcome list is known to the players, but the probabilities governing which outcome occurs are completely unfathomable?
  • b) the outcome list is unknown to the players?
  • c) the outcome list is expanded to include "nothing happens" (i.e., something not clearly fun/interesting/relevant), with odds that it comes up once per session?

There may be times when one of these (or a combo of these) may (1) best model the certainty a character takes into an attempt, and thus, (2) best provide the experience of deciding to try it and see what happens.


I'm used to thinking about factors, barriers, benefits, consequences, etc. in terms of "how do I think this works?" but not in terms of "how do I think this works in a way that's unique in RPGs, where I can really provide value to players on a moment by moment basis?"  So, thanks for digging into that; point taken!

Would you agree that, as long as Delve interrogations are uniquely Delve-y in some valuable way, and my insight into real-life interrogations fits within that, that it doesn't matter whether that particular insight is brilliant?

GMing by design

I think I get your general point about unnatural dynamics, but I'd love to get into some specific examples from AW to solidify it.  Whaddaya think?  Probe deeper, or leave it for now?


73. On 2011-03-28, valamir said:

Much like the list of Hard Moves in AW, I'd be hard put to imagine any example of attempting the Unknown where "nothing happens" doesn't already better fit into one of the listed options.


74. On 2011-03-28, Vincent said:

Paul: That's an astute question.

The answer is probably "they aren't." It seems to me that principled freeform admits only the designer's insights into roleplaying as a practice - that is, the principles, whatever they happen to be. "Your right to say what your character does ends at my character's skin," for instance.

But what's interesting is that if David is, indeed, making a principled freeform game, that casts the design questions in a whole new light. It's not "how do I design my game?", which is what I've been answering. Instead it's "given that I'm not designing a game, how do I communicate to my audience what to do? How do I inspire them to want to do it? How do I give them something reliable, instead of just telling them to practice and keep trying and work it out for themselves?"

Is there a market for a well-presented principled freeform game? Principled freeform is such an easy, natural thing to fall into - just leave the character sheets in the drawer - that I wonder how many people out there would like it but haven't already figured it out. "How do I inspire them to want to do it?" becomes the crucial question. "Hey Vincent, given that I'm not designing a game and not going to, how do I inspire YOU to want to do this?"

Interesting stuff! An interesting tension. I may do a front-pager about principled- vs structured freeform vs non-freeform rpgs.

David, Valamir: I'm with Valamir. When nothing happens, I'm pretty sure it'll either confirm my working theory or point out a hole in it, or maybe suggest a new direction, or at least use up some of my resources. Won't it?

I think that the least important thing is what the probabilities are and who knows them. Take a look at the savvyhead's workspace in Apocalypse World. Say that you want to reverse-engineer a pair of deep ear plugs. I have NO IDEA what the probabilities are for the various possible outcomes. Nobody does! Nobody needs to.

The savvyhead's workspace, since we're here, is Apocalypse World's take on how you learn how things work. You can see that I wouldn't handle it the same way I handle reading body language, for instance - no roll+sharp & choose 3 or whatever. I do call much more directly on the GM's judgment.

And finally, about the player knowing the range of possible outcomes: we all already know the range of possible outcomes. The question is, does the game give them to us? We need it to. How does the game assure us that it will?

Here's a story. Joshua, Soren and I were playing my game Mechaton. Soren had never played before. In turn 1, he was like, "okay, guys, it seems to me that the best thing for me to do is to move this mech over here and attack this other mech. Is it? Is there some disconnect between what should be a good idea and what the rules make a good idea?"

And we were like, "no such disconnect! You win Mechaton by making a good plan and following through as hard as you can, not by knowing the rules better than the other players. If it looks like a good move to you, then yes, do it like crazy."

He took our word for it. He played very well, and at every turn the game's rules were right there for him. At no point did they undercut his tactical play or steer him false. I don't remember whether he won or J did, but I do remember that I lost, and that his read of the game's evolving tactical situation was always very sharp. He was just learning the rules, but he still solidly outplayed me.



75. On 2011-03-28, Paul T. said:

Thanks, Vincent! I'm glad you responded to that.

I'm quite certain that Dave's vision (and many/most? other game designers) is looking for precisely that feeling you're describing:

"THIS GAME IS GREAT!" he said [...]

I believe this is also what a lot of people mean when they say, "the rules get out of the way": their predictions of what they should do and how they should do it, what "should" happen, are supported by the rules of play, no hiccups. It's that mental process where you can think about what you want to do in the fiction, or what you think should happen, and the rules give it to you, without you having to consciously consider them. The mechanics fade into the background not because they're not being used but because they don't intrude on the player's decision-making process, as you describe happened in your Mechaton game.

I'll be curious to hear from Dave, but my personal perception his game is that, yes, it's 90-something percent principled freeform (even though he doesn't like that term).

There may be some nugget of wisdom in this line of thought.

Let'say you're seeking to create an experience for the player where any plan s/he considers logical and clever *should* work, unless the player can see that there are considerations they didn't know about or didn't take into account.

How does a principled GM give that experience? Is mind-reading necessary?

Here's one of Dave's earlier "principles" for this style of play:

"If the players honestly think a certain result is 'what would happen', unless you have conclusive knowledge otherwise, go with it. For fuzzy cases, the rule of thumb is that magical items do interact; 'nothing happens' should only result when nothing else could make sense."

That seems like a functional way of helping this kind of thing along, if I'm at all on the right track in talking about this. What are others? How far can this kind of principled design go?


76. On 2011-03-28, Paul T. said:

Also, just to test whether we're on the same page:

The savvyhead workspace rules from Apocalypse World... that subsystem, if you want to think of it that way, that's precisely the kind of "principled freeform" or "structured freeform" we're talking about, isn't it? If not, why not?


77. On 2011-03-29, David Berg said:

Vincent, if forming a clear connection isn't about giving players extra certainty on odds and outcomes, and it isn't about ensuring that every outcome is fun/interesting/relevant, then what is it about?

As a player, if I'm gonna roll a die with unknown odds and then have the GM pick from a list that includes "nothing happens", I'd just as soon let the GM wing it.

I feel like I must be misreading your last post.  Can you help me out here?

Is Delve "freeform"?
I have negative associations with the term, and have seen its definition vary wildly.  All I can say is that, if Delve (a) communicates what to do, (b) inspires people to do it, and (c) provides a reliable play experience of the type I'm going for, then I'll consider it a success.  I can't think of a way not to call creating (c) game design, though.


78. On 2011-03-29, Vincent said:

David: Yep, you misread me. That's okay, I'll just go forward: it's about making every possible outcome relevant, and giving the players concrete assurance that every possible outcome will be relevant.

Imagine that you're playing draw poker and you don't know it but mixed into the deck are some Pit cards. You're like "give me 3" and you get the 6 of hearts, the king of clubs, and a barley. You'd be like "WHAT THE HELL I'M TAKING MY MONEY BACK OUT OF THE POT."

"The GM will make every possible outcome relevant, except rarely" is not concrete assurance.

Listing the possible outcomes and giving them odds is one way to give the players concrete assurance, but it's not the only way.

Have you seen my game Rock of Tahamaat? It's very good in this regard. Look at it for what we're doing in the game overall and then look at the resolution rules for characters who aren't Rock of Tahamaat. The rules provide only hunch-quality odds and intuitive outcomes, but the connection from "I hide under a tarp in the space shipyard" to "we're here to see what happens when someone defies Rock of Tahamaat's rule" is nevertheless perfectly clear.

About freeform later.


79. On 2011-03-29, David Berg said:

Okay, cool, we're on the same page about concrete assurance being key to a clear connection.  What I'm trying to identify is where to draw the line between concrete and not.  I hear ya on lists not being the only option; I'm just trying to hone in on what criteria separate the good options from the bad.  To that end, let me see where irrelevant outcomes pop up in GM ad-lib, and how those are addressed by your example:

Relevance envisioned but not communicated
Perhaps the outcome list serves as a reminder to the GM to keep talking until the relevance of the outcome has been communicated to the players?  It's entirely on the GM to make that happen; but with the relevance written out in front of him, perhaps it's less likely that he'll just narrate what happens, receive blank stares, and clam up?

Relevance delayed without notice
Or perhaps the key is that the players see the GM looking at a list, and can correlate their actions with that, in a way that they can't with just talking?  I'm thinking specifically of situations when the GM is thinking, "Okay, you haven't done enough yet to get a relevant outcome; what next?"  Refusing to look at a sheet might communicate that better than roleplaying an NPC who just says "Oh"?

Or do you think neither case is sufficient without a formal cue on the player side, i.e., a die to roll or key phrase to utter, that says, "I want a relevant outcome now?"

I like it.  The stuff you have to roll for (e.g. overcome cowardice to enter a conflict) is nicely specific to the fictional reality of life under a space tyrant.


80. On 2011-03-30, Josh W said:

Even if you don't select between them with dice or something, outcome lists do one big change in terms of GM thinking:
Instead of going "what do I think should happen now", they go "what is most plausable to follow on out of these possibilities".

In other words, the GM adds a step in his head where he selects a certain type of responce, and then follows logic within that. Rather than treating them as scene finishing conditions, you use them to pace and condition all your responces:

"This guy is standing off and is unmoved by their offer because he doesn't actually want what they were told he wants, a [reveal character is not involved in the supernatural events] outcome, so now the players can look at who else could be a suspect"

The advantage of this kind of system is the way that carefully picking those means that GMs can make fruitful and futureproof decisions; you know generally the sort of things he's going to be doing during design and can play off that. The disadvantage comes when a GM can't really sit himself within that structure, and keeps bumping into the walls between categories, or when he stays within them and misses out on doing what would otherwise be very fun.

But resolving that is a design problem; building categories to fit "what GMs should be wanting to do", and it can be enhanced in playtesting by keeping track of all the stuff you wanted to do but couldn't, and seeing how it can be fitted into the existing structures.

Basically you would end up foliating that flow chart of yours, with those arrows turning into multiple channels containing different kinds of GM action, then you'd focus in the rules on those actions and how they'd actually be done in the game, rather than giving them the flow chart.

Actually using that as a workflow might have some unintended consequenses of course, as your putting more weight on that flow chart, upgrading it from illustrative to an actual full spec for the game.

There's also the danger of missing how you could tweak existing systems to provide similar dynamics.


81. On 2011-03-31, Vincent said:

I think I follow you, Josh, but confirm for me - in paragraph 6, what flowchart are you talking about? The "desired experience" one that David linked to way up in #68? The implicit flowchart of mine in Rock of Tahamaat? Another that I haven't seen?


82. On 2011-03-31, Josh W said:

No, I think Dave put a flowchart link in this thread? Yeah he did, search for "desired experience".

I was responding directly to the "GM ad-lib comment", because I think that they involve too quite different thought processes:

Rather than the GM add libbing in responce to the players until he ends up with one of the outcomes, based on what responce he feels is plausible, it seems to me that kind of outcomes system jumps between the player and the GM, so the GM receives the players contribution and reacts to it in terms of those possible responces.

That's as opposed to eventually finding a way to stitch the appropriate consequence onto the end of his responce to the players: Treating them as a target goal for the scene rather than a guide for your responce right now. Didn't actually mention that cos I'm not sure that's what Dave is suggesting!

I've still got a feeling there's still stuff wrong with my flowchart idea:

Leans to much on GM taking the game from each step to each other step, not really what I meant. So how would you get the right back and forth, but stick with that principle?

It seems like you'd have to have both player and GM channels, something like your moves basically! Or some much broader version, and all piped into each other.

But I feel like that is coming from the wrong angle, because I can't see a way to express one of the things I find really good about Delve, the whole "what could happen" "start with a picture of the world" "crazy magic tool use" stuff, in that framework.


83. On 2011-03-31, Josh W said:

Aha misread you, yeah, the #68 one.


84. On 2011-03-31, David Berg said:

Josh, your assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of list-picking rings true to me.  I'm still curious about which advantages (the ones I list, the ones you list, or others) are most crucial in forging a strong, clear connection to what we're here to do.

As for the flow chart, it's meant as descriptive, highlighting only which moments of play are preconditions for other, desired (the boxes with the thick borders) moments of play.  It was developed as a communication tool to talk about design goals.


85. On 2011-04-02, Josh W said:

Dave, I've been wondering about something;

Does the structure of the conversation change when PCs talk to npcs?

Like, do people shift the third person-ness of what they do? Do they check less?

My gut impression suggests that in physical or usual social situations, group plausability reigns, and people ask lots of questions and then challenge or question stuff you say.

But in magical or personal situations, the information assymetry will put people into cagey-try mode. You'll be acting on information just not accesible to their characters, and quite likely different from the norms they expect.

If so you have an interesting split; a game about exploring unknowns, but probably not about deep character study, even though the nature of humans means that they will be at least as mysterious as your magic stuff!

In other words, the collaborative elements + hidden GM information might, with a bit of tweaking, naturally flag up the unknown/weird, but you might need some way to blur over human unknowns, because neither you nor the players are into plumbing out characters in the same way.

To put it in some bizare analogies, it's like you've set up a gallery in a room with printed wallpaper, or made a golf course out of a mesh that happens to already have holes in it.

Murder mystery novels often have red herrings that are where something weird happens because people are weird and have secrets, not because of the mystery people are supposed to be solving. And because the investigigators go round poking at weird things, they uncover them. It's one of the more humane ways those novels talk about "the human condition".

So maybe I'm wrong, and the way that your groups deal with social situations and magic is totally different, but if there is commonality. You might be able to:

Veil certain personal things like people do with sex scenes; tick the pacing dial up to scene summary, saving everyone the work of gaining a deep and complex character understanding.

At the same time, you could rework the scene summary stuff, so that the list stuff Vincent talked about appears;
"better than average/worse than average" may not actually be the best way to summarise such a scene, and it might be better to do add mechanics that tint it in terms of the effect that scene has on broader play.

And then get on with making the main meat of the game work better! You can always come back and work out a way to do those scenes at a finer detail grain.


86. On 2011-04-03, David Berg said:

Cool thought about coding more takeaways into Summary resolution!  I'll ponder that.

Players only challenge stuff the GM says when it's implausible to them.  This is rare.  As such, the character of play is usually the same for efforts with both perfect info (climb a building) and imperfect info (question an NPC with hidden motives).  Probing for more info happens equally frequently in both cases, though certain questions about NPCs could be obviated by expressive GM portrayal.

As for humans & magic both being mysterious, I've recently been thinking that a system for Attempting the Unknown that generated useful feedback for puzzling out how to use a magic item could do the same for puzzling out how to persuade an NPC.

How deeply to examine NPCs as people?  I'm happy to leave that optional.  The pros (making the world more vivid and real, exploring the ethics of persuasion, forging connections, letting the GM talk IC) tend to outweigh the cons (spending more play time than needed to move forward), IMO.  That said, if the group feels otherwise, or if time is short, then Summary mode it is!


87. On 2011-04-04, Vincent said:

I'm ready to wrap this conversation up! I think it's time for you to make a full playtest document, David. I've said everything I can about connecting what we're doing now to what we're doing overall, I think, and we've done awfully well for a game that doesn't quite exist yet.

I may have missed a few questions. If I've missed something that you (any of you) would really like an answer to, repeat it for me and I'll do what I can.



88. On 2011-04-04, Josh W said:

Yes actually, held back on it in case you were saving up some gameplan/info splurge:

In Rock of Tahamaat, you distinguish between mechanics and free play. What I'm wondering about is the interface between those two; I'm guessing from your other games that you've played like this before, and I'm wondering if you set the specific mechanics up to answer those questions free play wouldn't, or in some other way set them up so play would flow towards them.

See for me, free play has it's own currents and dynamics, ever play a skydiving game? You know how you can miss some rings or bananas or targets or whatever as your going down, or you can pull right at the last minute to get into them?

For me some games are like that, where the free play just starts missing mechanics, and you have this choice to distort what your doing and hop into the mechanic that interests you (usually combat or magic), or to carry on.

I'm wondering if you've got some principles or semi-conscious defaults your using that say "I need to shift this mechanic a bit, because I can't imagine them actually starting there" or "this bit needs a mechanic".

Also I'm wondering what you see when you say "free play", whether it's a single thing or a family etc, but that's a bigger question!

Also, this stuff about connections is basically about hope right? People will persevere at something to get a payoff, but they need to have some kind of confidence and hope that this payoff will actually arrive?

So if your mechanics for whatever reason put a gap between now and the coolness people want, then you have to remove ambiguity sufficiently that people can chart a potential path through to it. If you don't, then some other player with unusual farsight or previous experience needs to encourage the other players all the time, keep their hopes up. That might happen anyway, but you need to minimise that so everyone can play out of their own motivation.

Is that the basic jist? Is there some big important bit I'm missing?


89. On 2011-04-07, Vincent said:

I haven't forgotten this, Josh! Just busy.


90. On 2011-04-08, David Berg said:

Hi Vincent,

Yeah, it's been a great discussion!  Thanks again.  At this point, I think I have a pretty good understanding of what you mean by connections, and by the 3 insights.  I'll definitely keep those in mind for future design work (already did for my Ronnies entry, actually!).

I have two main questions lingering.  My first question is freeform or not?, from your response to Paul in post #74 (he also asked some relevant follow-ups in the next post).  Given that you see the design goals as very different for freeform vs games, I'm wondering how you'd tell one from the other.  I don't know which side Delve is on, as I see it as a spectrum.  Thus I'm attempting a combo of "design a game's input-output mechanisms" and "communicate principles and inspire play based on them".  Maybe that's counter-productive.  So: How would you assess a game's place on the freeformy scale, and how would you design for something in Delve's in-between position?

My second question is the one from my post #79, about the type of guarantee needed for a strong connection.  I'm not sure whether your position is that (a) players just need their attempts to always produce interesting results, even if the processes producing them are hidden, or (b) players need to engage with the process, to observe it in action, in order to apprehend the connection to what we're here to do.

If (b) is more a point of marketing than of producing good play ("I always have fun with this game, but don't know why" is a weak fan endorsement, to be sure!), then I'm content to have Delve reach fewer players in exchange for it better achieving its goals.

But if hidden-from-players processes are going to produce "how to play" confusion that no amount of orientation, inspiration and instruction can fix (or some other big problem), then yikes, I'll need a very different approach!

I know you said you'd like to wrap up, so I promise not to greet your answers with nit-pickery!  I feel like we're almost there on the second one already.


91. On 2011-04-08, Vincent said:

About freeform: I've written a piece about freeform now, here. Does it make some sense of my take on Delve?


92. On 2011-04-11, David Berg said:

It's a step!  As per my response, I think Delve needs to be functional in both principled freeform and dice-resolve-the-fiction modes.  What's your take on that?


93. On 2011-04-11, Vincent said:

Josh, about free play: Free play and freeform are the same thing. In Rock of Tahamaat, during free play, I expect to change the players' normal social interactions just by using the game's content and their natural reactions to it. When I judge that people won't naturally make the leap to the social interactions I WANT them to have, THAT'S when I design mechanics.

As far as the interface between them goes: you could play Rock of Tahamaat but ignore the part where it says "when a character does something that would bring her into conflict with someone else, or expose her to danger, stop and use the resolution rules." I don't know why you would, but I also don't know how I could make you use them if you didn't happen to.

When my 11th-grade English class read The Grapes of Wrath, our teacher had us read only every other chapter, skipping the symbolic ones. I don't know what that was about, but she did it. I also don't know what Steinbeck could have done about it, though. It's not HIS fault.

So maybe I'm missing your question! If I am, try again?


94. On 2011-04-11, David Berg said:

Hey, that kinda answers my question, depending on how the issue of connections relates to freeform play.  Are the right freeform principles ever sufficient to connect what we do right now to what we're here to do?  Perhaps procedural cues can do this (even absent mediating cues), but principles alone cannot?

Perhaps a ruleset of principles-only could be seen as saying, "Here's what we're here to do, here's some logic for how the content of play can connect to that, now go forth, players, and create some things to do right now that accord with that"?


95. On 2011-04-11, Vincent said:

A principles-only ruleset would depend upon content, principles, and our natural responses to the two together, only, to change our normal social system into the social system that Delve requires. If that's what will do it best, then that's what you'd best create.

I don't think it is, but whatever. We're indie! You answer to Delve, not to me.


96. On 2011-04-12, David Berg said:

Right.  I was just trying to get more into why you don't think it is; specifically, the limitations of freeform design.  If there's some reason why freeform is really ill-suited to something Delve needs, then I'd love to pin that down and leave it behind, as opposed to wondering, "Maybe if I just turned my principles into a catchy acronym or eye-popping chart..."

I get your point about a broken connection at Dad-interrogating!  I'm just trying to refine the range of solutions I'm considering.

If that's a whole new long discussion, I can understand if you don't wanna go there!  I just thought perhaps this was clearer in your head than it is in mine ("freeform = unclear connections" or some such).


97. On 2011-04-12, Vincent said:

Naked principles = unclear connections, yes.

Naked principles mean that we, the players, have to draw those connections anew for ourselves at every moment. And not each of us for our own personal selves, either! The connections are social, remember, so that drawing them anew means constantly negotiating and renegotiating them with the other players.

This is why, in Rock of Tahamaat and all of my games, the mechanics kick in precisely when there might come to be strains and competing interests between the players. When there aren't, negotiating and renegotiating the connections directly is easy. When there are, they aren't.

Anyway, it IS a whole big conversation. I hate to be all "I'll talk to you about it after you've read these one million billion words we've already written on the subject," but at least there's dragon-slaying, corpse-fucking, salamander egg addicts, frickin' fairy effluvia, and giant magic swords in it. It's fun reading.


98. On 2011-04-12, Josh W said:

Ok, an example.

What I was going for was, in rock of tahamaat, you basically set things up so that the characters will go after the space tyrant, or at least try to make a stand against him. Then you give them opportunities to do so.

Say one of the characters is an engineer who goes 50% dead space guy, 50% mission impossible guy, all mag-teathers, jury rigging and paranoia. After his attempts at sobotage get outed and lead to his family being killed, he's suited up on the outside of the habitat that used to be his home, and all the players are rooting for him. But at the same time we're a little protective, we basically want to see him do well, after all he's lost, and he's cagey enough that we feel that suggesting potential problems is enough.

This guy starts building himself a ship out of wreckage to go after Rock, and it's cool, but it's a bubble of rules avoidance. He's not getting into "right now!" danger, he's not confronting society directly.

If that game were real, I'd probably start trying to build some stealth/scavenger game subsystem in, all for him! It would help us keep thinking of the dangers of living outside the system in a hard-edged airless moonbelt.

Still fits a lot of the game, because everything still orbits and draws towards Rock himself; you've drawn enough of a trajectory for rebellion and given clear requirements to reinforce it over time. There's just not as much focus on producing intermediate conflict.

So that's an example of sailing in zero g past rules structures, but it's contrived, because you've got a big fat inlet on your rules, that will catch any of the normal kinds of actions you expect from that kind of activity; of course they are going to be aiming towards getting into conflicts, and into danger, so the rules will come up!

But aren't I putting the causality of design backwards there? When designing it, didn't you start with the IIEE spec and work backwards to situations that would lead into it?

I'm wondering how you set intial conditions and stuff so that characters fire into the sort of conflicts (or generally interactions involving player creativity) you want. Do you just sort of go at it intuitively, when a world picture and character arc seems to have slots to fit a mechanical thing your playing with?

In the context of Dave's game, I'm wondering about how to condition character creation (becase that seems the biggest influence on player style of any rule element, given the high immersion way it works) and/or local people creation, so that things shift away from browbeating and torture (things the game engine is likely to be crap at, and I reckon you don't really want to play David!) and more towards detective anthropology and working with people's best interests.


99. On 2011-04-13, Josh W said:

^Cross posted with 95-97.


100. On 2011-04-13, David Berg said:

Josh, yeah, Delve gives the characters a niche in the gameworld society that's good for working with NPCs.  Adventurers are uniquely capable, uniquely socially mobile, and also here to save the NPCs' home.

Aggression and torture are extremely rare, but there's always the possibility of a case where you think some NPC is a traitor to humanity and in league with supernatural evil.


101. On 2011-04-13, David Berg said:

Vincent, cool.

1) "Strains and competing player interests" = "good place for mechanics" makes sense to me.

I guess we're all applying our own judgments of what's likely to be a strain.

I'd like Delve play to spend as little time interacting with formal cues (e.g. rolling dice) as possible.  For that reason, I've been reluctant to create mechanics for principles that I know players can learn through practice.  After a few sessions of being told "once you stop making progress, try something else" my players got used to it and now it's second nature and our play is way better.

But, for sharing Delve with a wider audience, that may not be feasible.  "We beat our heads against a wall and it wasn't fun; we should stop that" is probably less functional feedback than "I didn't earn any Artha; I should try to write better Beliefs."

2) I am a slow reader, but will start digging through those old Forge threads.  If I can think of anything useful to say on that front, I'll chime in on the Background in Principled Freeform thread.

3) The one question from this thread that remains half-answered in my mind is the "type of guarantee" issue from post #90.  After that, I expect I'll be ready to call this discussion a wrap!


102. On 2011-04-18, Vincent said:

On question 2 from post 90: My position is that players need to see that what they're doing now and what they're doing overall are the same thing. Showing them the mechanisms by which what they're doing now become what they're here to do - showing them the rules by which moving their pieces becomes checkmating their opponent's king, for instance - is a good way to give them what they need. There may be others. But telling them to just keep trying things and trust the GM, who will usually make it work out for them, is a weak way.

Weak connections don't give you "I always have fun with this game, but don't know why," they give you "I sometimes have fun with this game, and sometimes really don't, and I don't know why." Or, much more commonly, they give you people who're excited by what your game promises but then lose interest when they start to learn how it works.


103. On 2011-04-18, David Berg said:

I moved past "just keep trying things and trust the GM, who will usually make it work out" a while back in this discussion.  What I meant was more "keep trying things and trust the system the GM is using, which always makes it work out".

That said, I hear you about the value of transparency.  It's much faster to form a mental connection if you see the whole thing in action, hows and whys included, than if you just have inputs, outcomes, and principles to assess from.  I do think it would be interesting to see how far the disclaimer, "The GM is rolling on tables / picking from lists, which are designed to fit what you do in Delve," would go.

Matt and I are going to try an experiment, where we use Apocalypse World's basic moves, but rolled in secret by the GM whenever he judges a player has made a Move.  We're going to try this on players who've never played AW before.  Hopefully that will provide useful data about whether the positives of good system outcomes can trump the negatives of partial system invisibility.

Whaddaya think, shall we call this a wrap?  I really appreciate you taking this much time to communicate your thoughts to me!  This thread has given me a long, long list of ideas for how I might make Delve better, and some key additions to my mental checklist for game design concerns going forward.  Good stuff!


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