Thursday, April 15, 2021

Sex & Romance in Role-Playing Games

PCs should be getting laid. If fiction is any guide, the three universal motivators are love/lust, greed, and revenge. They are human urges so basic that when presented in fiction they need no further justification. This is what people do and have been doing at least as long as we’ve been writing about it. Sex and violence are just good story-fodder.

The thing is, this tends not to be the case in RPGs. Yeah, we get plenty of money and violence, but where’s the sex? Where’s the romance? I’ve always wanted to find a way to encourage fictional romance at the table, but the problem seems three-fold. The first issue is that games very rarely touch the subject. When it does come up, it’s often in some form of generational play, concerning the joining of families or creation of offspring. This is more logistics management than romance. PbtA games buck this trend slightly, with Apocalypse World having moves based on sex: “When you sleep with someone, take +1hx with them”etc. This at least brings the thing into active play, rather than a background strategic element. Still, it’s... lacking. In my experience, even the sex Moves aren’t enough to pique a player’s interest unless it offers some kind of strong strategic advantage.

The second problem is that players, out of character, do not care if their PC gets laid. Players are goal-driven creatures. They want to win. They want to earn points, they want to beat the mission, they want to accomplish their goals. For the player, there is no real temptation to divert time and energy into a romantic interest that does not bring them closer to said goals. Compounding this, we’ve sort of trained players to want the exact opposite. If you do get romantically involved with an NPC, you’re just asking the GM to take it as leverage to use against you. Combine all this with the lack of mechanical attention paid to the topic and even those players who might be interested in romantic story elements may not be aware it’s even a valid option. After all, games communicate what they are interested in by the rules they choose to include.

So what do we do with this?

Sex and romance are a pretty hardcore set of biological drives for most humans, at least at some point in their lives. They are a unique area of focus that is difficult to sublimate just by focusing on other areas of development. They are such powerful drivers that we often do very dumb things in the pursuit thereof, eschewing our more rational priorities for even a fleeting glimpse of that rush (or release.) This is such a powerful factor in most of our lives  that as an audience, we don’t even balk when fictional characters risk upending their entire lives because they were lonely or the bartender was cute. Many of us have been there, man. 

In general, the way you get PCs to act like real people is by making the mechanical incentives of the game mirror the physical or psychological incentives the PC would have in-character. You are never going to get a player to really care about their PCs level of comfort or discomfort, or worry about the quality of their sleep. However, if you mechanically reward them for being exceptionally well-rested or start punishing them for getting shitty sleep on a bad mattress, the interests of player and PC align. Suddenly, the PC will be very concerned about the quality of their mattress and a good night’s sleep.

If we want players to be tempted to actively court romance or be tempted to make dumb decisions concerning their gender of choice, then we need to creative incentives for the players to do so. Getting this right, however, requires a few things:

  • It needs to be a discrete subsystem, the very existence thereof drawing attention to the fact that this is a valid thing to explore in play.
  • It needs to be built in such a way that it can be accessed or ignored at the player’s preference, without having to specifically build your character around taking advantage of it. This is ultimately why relegating the concept to a drive or trait doesn’t quite work. It’s fine for the P/PC who is specifically set out to do that thing, But for anyone else it may as well not exist.
  • The rewards must be unique enough that you can’t get them from other systems in the game and compelling enough to tempt goal-oriented players into making trouble for themselves to do so. This is even more important when you remember the liability potential of tying yourself to an NPC.
  • And ideally, we’d want it to (wherever possible) integrate into other areas of the game and plug into/make use of the existing mechanics so that it feels a natural extension of play. Accessibility is key.

You may have noticed above that I said three-fold problem and only listed two. The third and perhaps largest issue comes from the topic itself. Simply put, people have baggage. For a lot of people, sex is a significantly greater taboo than violence. The same group that will happily engage in fictional sword-fights and describe a disebowelment in gratuitous detail will get squirmy at even vague descriptions of physical intimacy. Even someone who is otherwise very comfortable with the topic of sex and their own sexuality may not be terribly interested in role-playing the details thereof with and in front of their friends at the table or watching said friends do the same. Unless, you know, you’re into that.

Existing RPGs haven't done themselves many favors. When people think of the topic, they often think about things like FATAL where the its inclusion is about simulating the act itself. Add to this the above issues of social-squick and potential prior bad experiences due to either group immaturity or deliberate bad actors and it's easy to see where this can lead to uncomfortable territory. Further add in the lack of representation of the topic in RPGs and it creates a culture where sex and romance are neither a normal part of expected RP experience, no one people know how to explore in a safe, productive fashion. No one wants to end up on r/rpghorrorstories.

The thing is, all of this latter point is a red herring. Most of the discomfort (and prior bad experience) comes from the idea of playing out sex-scenes at the table.  As ludicrously amusing as it might be to develop a God of War-style sex mini-game out of Full Contest (how else would you know who won?), that's not only unnecessary, it misses the point. The reason that sex and romance are valuable as a story element is through the exploration of character motivations and the relationship dynamics it creates. While the gratuitous nudity is good for HBO's ratings, the physical act of sex is not where the drama lies. From a dramatic standpoint, it's all about the lead up and the consequences to the relationships involved.

From a game standpoint, the purpose of such a system would be both to demonstrate sex and romance as a legitimate are of play and encourage PCs to behave in ways that feel more natural to reality and fiction. In so doing, it helps close the gap between the kinds of stories that S&S generates and the kinds of stories S&S seeks to emulate. 

Creating such a system would be a delicate balance. To feel legitimate, the system would require enough structure and guidance that it was teaching players the right way to use these elements in a story and explore them safely through play. That will include a necessary emphasis on the relationships themselves, in and out of character, and handling the subject matter in a way that's comfortable for everyone involved. Such as keeping the actual climactic details safely veiled and off-screen.

I don’t have more specifics, yet, but it does occur to me that this is a very close cousin to the social conflict topics I’m currently developing. One could easily plug into or effect the other. It’s thus worth a bit of consideration, as I’m solidifying the latter. It’s also a very, very big element in the kind of fiction that S&S seeks to emulate. How many Scoundrel-esq characters practically live out of a brothel?

At this stage, I’m seeking input. Any thoughts, questions, ideas, or suggestions? Have you seen sex/romance used as a part of play at the table? How did it go? How do you feel about the topic and its inclusion? Is this an area of development that interests you, or something you’d prefer left to HBO?

Monday, February 1, 2021

Once More, With Feeling

It’s been nearly nine years since Ze Frank posted that video and I still find myself drifting back to it when I need inspiration. Or consolation. Or moral support. It’s been years since I’ve kept up on this blog, though it’s always remained on my to-do list. I’ve even occasionally written some post proclaiming that I would return to it with similar results. Gods willing, this will not be one of them. 

I had almost given up on the blog. A big source of the traffic back in the day was shameless shilling on google plus. There had been a robust community there of people in the RPG space. With that gone, I’m not sure what is left. Facebook, maybe. Twitter. Reddit. All terrible, to one degree or another. I probably would have given up on the blog — after all, I have grandheresy, and now a patreon — but for the folks at Knock! messaging me out of the blue to ask about using a couple of my posts in their first issue. 

I was terribly flattered, particularly given that the articles they asked to use where two of my more whingy, philosophical ones rather than the fun game mechanics ones — precisely the sort of material that I assume no one reads. Naturally, I agreed. I even rewrote both articles to be more presentable and professional pieces, rather than stream-of-consciousness blog posts. I was even more flattered when one of those pieces ended up as the first article in the magazine, effectively the intro to the entire publication. What hit me, though, was when a couple of the people involved made it a point to tell me how much they loved my blog and that one of my articles was part of what inspired them to make the magazine in the first place. 

Well. Shucks.

I’ve never been good at taking a compliment. My natural inclination is to deflect with a joke or redirect the compliment to someone else. In truth, despite spending most of my life playing these games and fully half my life now dabbling in the writing of them, I still have some pretty major imposter syndrome. It never would have occurred to me that anyone even noticed my silly little blog, let alone that it made an impression on them. There definitely are big, popular names in the RPG blog space. Even in the OSR blog space. I am not and never have been one of them. 

But it made an impression on someone. 

Maybe that one impression is enough.

So I’m going to try to come back to this. Try to get back in the habit of writing and creating and getting inspired. I don’t yet know what I’m going to say. I don’t yet know how I’m even going to get the information out there, with G+ gone. But I know enough that I’m going to try, because if it reaches someone, someone is enough.

Thanks to everyone who has been paying attention to anything I’ve done over the years. A very special thanks to the Merry Mushmen, who are mostly responsible for my writing this. Check out Knock! It’s a quality product. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

OSR Project #3 - Vision

The new year is upon us, and I have decided to give myself a bit of a break. Sword & Scoundrel is chugging along nicely, but writing the GM section has been a headache. Thus, I long to unwind with more pleasant game design tasks.

I started the OSR Project series of posts in October 2017. I sidelined it not long thereafter to force myself to concentrate on S&S work, but I never gave up on the idea. After a good year or so of stewing on the thing, I know exactly what I want to do with it. That brings us to this post: my vision for the OSR Project.

I'm fascinated by the early days of the hobby. OD&D and the way people ran it. The original role of Chainmail in the game. The more I dig into things written in this era, the more I can make sense of later eccentricities of the D&D canon. Things that seemed broken and bizarre in later D&D makes perfect sense when you find the roots of it. Even more bizarre is that certain flaws of the later game only crept in after it abandoned elements from the original game.

I want to write a game that is equal parts alternate history and experimental archeology. I want to write a game with the following ideas at its core:
  • The Alternate Combat System was never adopted. While it was still listed in the LBBs as an option, no one bothered with it. Instead, chainmail remained the core of the D&D combat system and evolved with it over time
  • Tolkien never became the dominant influence. While somewhere out there people still enjoy their hobbits and dwarves, that's not what D&D was about. D&D stuck to its roots in mythology, folklore, and the path trod by sandaled feet of early pulp Sword & Sorcery fiction
  • The game went through similar transitions as the actual game. WotC eventually buys the game, 3.X happens. 4e happens. People go back to figure out what was lost. The OSR is born.

The game I want to write is what comes out of the OSR in this alternate time line. I'll try to keep you up to date.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Sword & Scoundrel: Now on DTRPG (and I couldn't be more thrilled)

This has been a long, long road traveled. Now it feels like it's starting to pay off. On Wednesday the 0.2.1 release of the S&S pdf was approved on drivethrurpg. That is a pretty major milestone for me, as it marks the first time something Ive designed is really out there. I've released pdfs on my own before, but it's different when the thing is actually swimming in the waters of actual games. As someone who struggles with recognizing the worth of their own work, it was a major feeling of accomplishment — even if I still have so much work to do.

Meanwhile, I've begun the (somewhat painful) process of trying to actually get the work seen. I've been blessed with a small but fairly devoted community throughout this journey. We've picked them up in ones and twos over the years by internet searches alone and they've sort of stuck with us ever since. Now I'm at the point in the development cycle where I need fresh eyes to look at the thing and that's a more difficult task. This is even worse when it comes to my personal dislike of marketing and pathological discomfort with self-promotion.

Still, I recognize that it has to be done. It's not enough to write and design if you can't get people to look at the thing. Ugh.

I've been going with the following pitch:
Sword & Scoundrel is a player-driven tabletop role-playing game of passion, violence, and general skullduggery. Set against a gritty renaissance backdrop, Sword & Scoundrel is a morality play presented as an HBO character drama, where players declare what is most important to their character and see it challenged through play. It's a blood opera of intrigue and swordplay, exploring how far you will go, what lines you will cross, and what — or who — you are willing to sacrifice for what you hold most dear.

The beta document is available at drivethrurpg, where it is and will remain free of charge.

It currently contains everything you need for core game-play: the core mechanics, character creation, combat, and the weapon/armor customization rules. The GM material is being worked on as we speak, but if you have any familiarity with The Burning Wheel, The Riddle of Steel, or Apocalypse World, you can run this without missing a beat.

As the beta progresses, we also have plans on a fully-developed sorcery system, social combat, faction support, and a few other goodies.

Which seems to summarize things well enough. We won't talk about how many times I rewrote that first paragraph.

Along with that, I've been appending all of the follow-up links so that people can actually give feedback. The website, our forums, our surprisingly active discord server. The latter has been growing at a slow but steady rate, of late. I must be doing something right...ish.

To others out there in the design/writing space: how do you deal with all of this? Self-promotion, outreach, whatever. Is it like pulling teeth for anyone else?

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Sword & Scoundrel -- Finally, a Release

Only the gods know how many hours, words, and bottles of whiskey went into this project. What I can tell you is that a 77,000 words, 250 pages, and 379 days later, I have a solid draft available for playtesting. It will almost certainly have mistakes, typos, and broken bits inside.. but it's the single largest and most complete thing I've ever released and that's a personal milestone.

Check it out here:

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition

As a game concept, ammunition sucks. There's an argument for tracking ammunition. It's realistic. It costs money. It takes up space. In the context of OD&D it makes sense to track ammunition because resource management is an explicit part of the game. The more gear you take, the more room it takes up in your pack, the slower you go. The slower you go, the more monsters and things you run into. The less room you have in your pack, the less loot you can take back. It's an intrinsic part of the risk/reward.

On the other hand, that is not something Scoundrel really cares about. Encumbrance in our game doesn't care about weight, money is mostly abstract, and even the buying of ammunition is sort of an odd proposition because it's mostly an r1 expense.

So is there any real need to track ammunition?

The only circumstance I can think of in which th game would actively care about ammunition is in the circumstance where running out of ammunition would be narratively interesting and even that doesn't necessarily require marking off each arrow loosed.

In the OSR world, some people have adopted an interesting piece of gaming praxis called a "usage die." You might have d8 worth of arrows. After every fight, roll the d8. If it comes up as a 1, it shrinks to a d6. Repeat until you either buy more arrows (increasing your die size) or you get down to a d4 and roll a 1 -- indicating that you are now out.

The main benefit of this setup is that you aren't erasing and rewriting a total every time you make a ranged attack. You're still doing some accounting, but it's something you do post-combat, rather than during.

It makes me wonder first if such an idea could be adapted to Sword & Scoundrel (there are ways, I'm sure) and then second if that would actually be desirable in a game where we have taken a substantially more simulationist approach with so many other aspects of weapons and combat.
Floating ideas. Feel free to toss in feedback.

Almost a Year to the Day

That's how long I've gone between posts. It's an impressive feat, really. Then again, that's how I've always dealt with this poor blog. I will go through active bursts of content and then get out of the habit for an age.

I won't bore you with the details of the last year. Personal stuff, health stuff. Some ups. Some down. Life goes on. Very little of it would be of interest to anyone who wasn't part of it, and none of it is relevant to this blog's stated purpose. Instead, I'll update you on the one thing that is:

What began as an attempt to make a streamlined "quick play" style rules set for NaGaDeMon last year turned into an overhaul of the system itself. Seventy-three thousand words later, Sword & Scoundrel is preparing for its most complete release to date. Higgins is off doing bigger and better things, but I've wrangled a couple volunteer editors to pour over prose on my behalf. With luck, they will have that back to me in relatively short order and  I can get the layout done.

This is the first version of the game that is "complete." All of the absolute core material is there. The core mechanic, character creation, combat, social stuff, gear and equipment. You can make characters and play the game. It's shocking that it's taken me years to have all of that together in a single document, but it's unbelievably relieving to have the bulk of it behind me.

The only parts of the game now missing from the original vision are the GM section and magic. Both of these are fairly massive things in their own right, but neither are absolute requirements for using the core material. The GM section is my next project, but anyone with significant GM experience can likely run the game as-is. This is doubly true if you've been a Burning Wheel, Riddle of Steel, or Apocalypse World GM in the past.

The magic system isn't strictly necessary at all (the very first version of the game in ye ancient Song of Steel days didn't intend to have one). It's useful for a lot of fantasy stuff, but you can play without it. Much of the Sword & Sorcery genre sort of works on the premise that sorcery is for the antagonists, not the heroes. I'll get to work on that after the core system and GM stuff is all settled. My ambitions for it are as such that it isn't something I would want to rush.

In the meantime, I'll keep you posted.