The Von Show #15 – The Non Show

Nobody wants to see my hangover face, do they? No? Good.

This week, I want to talk about hacking.


 No, not like that, you nar-nar. I mean hacking games.


Closer… warmer… but not quite cooking yet. Let me back up and explain a bit.

Ben’s had custody of my Dark Ages Vampire rulebook for a week, and the other day, he said:

Like I said though, I was mainly after fluff… and from the couple of bits of rules I DID glance over… you ARE running it differently, ain’t you?  🙂

Guilty as charged. I never met an RPG I didn’t want to hack the guts out of.

In my earliest days as a GM, I was running good old Warhammer Fantasy Role Play at high school – but I only had an hour a day to run it in (hello, lunchtime!) and so sessions had to move fast, and couldn’t afford to be bogged down in the minutiae of manoeuvre according to the strict letter of the rulebook. Looking things up meant we got bored and had arguments and wasted time, and so I’d just knock up a spot rule for charging across a narrow bridge and trying to sweep one’s foes’ feet out from under them, rather than looking up exactly how far the character could charge and what skills and talents had bearing on it and YAWN. The circumstances dictated not so much what I changed about the rules, but the extent to which I was willing to apply them.

This sort of thing only intensified when I started running RPGs for people who were (mostly) not gamers, and actively turned off by dice and sums and random elements, but who had a very nuanced sense of drama and understood that not everything COULD go their way, but that on balance things mostly SHOULD go their way or the story wouldn’t move or develop. The kind of people that C- is talking about here – for them, understanding how the game works isn’t a process of understanding what all the numbers mean and how to bring them to bear on other numbers (well, two of us COULD do that, but we weren’t very good at it – ’twas me and Shiny, two lads utterly incapable of winning at wargames until we started playing each other and one of us had to lose harder). Instead, it’s a process of understanding what kind of story you’re in and what’s supposed to happen. In our case, it was a probably-excessively-inspired-by-Anne-Rice vampire story. People could die, but they’d often come back from it. If people did die, it resounded and reverberated, and they’d stay dead if it happened at the right moment.


The characters did not have plot armour. There was a body count; two player characters died within five sessions of being introduced. It’s more that characters had minor incident insurance. Nobody was going to die in a random skirmish with a couple of London bobbies, but they WOULD die if they burned down a building they happened to be standing in and couldn’t think of/hadn’t ensured an escape route. The hack here was removing the random element, which disrupted those players’ sense of emerging story, and putting the focus entirely on player skill in environmental and narrative manipulation. If they set things up to have a particular shape, that’s the shape they would have. Of course, sometimes things wouldn’t come out QUITE as anticipated, because of some other factor that they hadn’t known about, or sometimes their success would have unforeseen consequences. It’d be a bloody boring story if the characters knew exactly how it was going to end, now wouldn’t it?

In the past I’ve mentioned that reintroducing the random element to my games gave me problems, but I hadn’t quite been able to articulate why until along comes C- again, who does it for me. The big difference that I’d run into here was the difference between ‘fortune in the middle’ and ‘fortune at the end’ gameplay, and it was highlighted by a little chat I had to have with Squirrel when I ran Advanced Fighting Fantasy for him last year.

Squirrel has this habit of describing the outcome of his actions as he declares them, before the roll to see if that outcome is successful is being made. Now, I’d automatically locked into a ‘fortune in the middle’ style, where you say what you want to do, and then try to do it, and then we can get all descriptive and narratorial once we know what’s happened. Squirrel had loaded up ‘fortune at the end’, where he can say exactly what happens and the dice can say “no it doesn’t” and the rewind/reset/redescribe factor isn’t an issue for him, because he was declaring an intent, not narrating an actual happening. From my point of view, he was narrating, and now I had to make his narration un-happen and make something else happen, and I felt like a goit for doing that, an agency thief.

There’s another interesting side-effect to this, which I hadn’t spotted until re-reading C-‘s post to find the right lines for this one. Here’s the bit that’s just BLOWN MY MIND:

If you say “I swing my sword” [fortune at the end] you then have to check to see what happens. If you say “I fight the monster” and you fail, you can narrate 100 swings but the outcome of the overall fight is the same without having to check for success or failure of each one.

. . .You can do disparate things, because you’re not punishing the rest of the group by having them be bored. Doing something away from the group frequently takes no more time than an action in a round would in a trad game.

A couple of Dark Ages sessions ago, two of the characters – Niko and Ranulf – were trying to sneak past some guards into a tunnel entrance. They were outnumbered seven to two, and the terrain was against them.

I had their players rolling pretty much everything. Throwing a stone to distract a guard? That needs its own roll. Shouting obscenities from the rooftops in order to distract more guards? That needs its own roll. Jumping off a roof and pelting it across the square? Its own roll. And if any guards try to stop you, you’re into Vampire combat, which tends to involve a roll to hit, a roll to damage, a roll to soak…

And there’s nothing explicitly wrong with that, except that there’s another player sitting over there not doing anything, and the longer all this rolling takes, the more bored they’re getting, because I’m rolling a bit trad, and making things take time as I resolve them in a very granular, fortune-at-the-end kind of way. It occurs to me that what I could be doing, for things that don’t have the entire group involved, is going for a much more abstract one-or-two-rolls describe-what-happens approach, having that whole scene of distract-escape take place in the same amount of table time as one punch might do in a combat. Or even going back to my Old Ways and thinking “failure here would stall the emergent drama, so let’s run this in such a way that they can’t fail randomly, only through their own ineptitude in decision-making.” In effect, I’d be hacking my own playstyle to provide more versatility and fast-forward through granular events that don’t involve the whole group. We’d certainly have fewer nights of in-game time that take two or three game sessions to resolve…

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