Category Archives: Level One Wonk

noun
: a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field
broadly : NERD
: a TTRPG wonk
: a game design wonk

The Five Mechanic Game

There’s a wide world of games out there, but the ones that get played and talked about the most are more similar than you may think. In the realm of traditional games, most games have their rules structured the same way, at the same level of detail, to accomplish roughly the same goal. It means many of us that grew up among the bursting libraries of games in the 80s and 90s thought we were well-read, only to be waylaid by some markedly different ideas when the games of the Forge era like Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World started becoming popular.

Last week, I talked a bit about the idea of complexity, and grounded it to the idea of how many mechanics a game has interacting at once. This makes a game like Blades in the Dark, with many overlapping systems, more complex, while a game like Dread, where there is only one mechanic and it’s essentially ‘Jenga Or Die’, is less complex. What’s more interesting, though, is what it says about the middle. Basically every traditional game, from the real bloats like Exalted all the way down to little digest editions like Savage Worlds, have roughly the same type and number of mechanics. That number is five: character creation, task resolution, combat, game mastering, and at least one subsystem of note.

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On Complexity

Games are complex systems, and as such gamers have incredibly eclectic relationships with complexity. This is true across the ecosystem; tabletop RPGs might have Honey Heist and GURPS while digital gamers have Candy Crush and Dwarf Fortress. Gaming has always had room for one-pagers to sit alongside clockwork behemoths and all coexist. Unfortunately, as is wont to occur, someone mistakes a preference for a judgment, and then we just have Twitter, where GURPS is the butt of a joke but somehow all indie games are just make-believe story circles.

The problem with trying to have a real discussion about preferences for complexity in games as well as rules density in games is twofold. First, complexity and rules density aren’t related. Second, and perhaps equally important, is that a game’s tendency towards having either physical rules or narrative rules is also not related to either complexity or rules density. Because the world likes making things difficult, though, there are confounding factors that do make these elements correlate. This muddies the waters because many associate a complex game with a game that has a lot of rules, and many also associate indie, narrative games with low complexity. These assumptions are both wrong, or at least flawed.

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When The Game Blows Up

You have a great idea for a new campaign. You explain it to your group, and everyone’s on board. Session Zero goes great, it seems like everyone has made interesting characters and is totally bought in to the premise. Then you start playing. For whatever reason, things just aren’t hitting the same way that everyone thought. Then comes the big inciting action. This will drive everyone to really dive in, right? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe everyone’s looking across the table awkwardly. Maybe someone gets upset, maybe not. Whatever happened, the game blew up, and now it’s time to pick up the pieces.

When most of the hobby assumes that you’ll pick one game and play it forever, there’s not a lot said about the risks of trying something new. Even among those inveterate RPG collectors with four dozen different systems in their bookshelf, there were never that many games that were really *out there* until recently…and even now, the vast majority of games sold hew to a common template. So, when the range of experiences and expectations is fairly narrow, you have to be prepared for what happens when you step outside of those experiences and expectations and something unpleasant happens.

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Pacing Problems

How fast do you burn through a storyline? If you’re like me, sometimes that core conflict is approaching a climax halfway through what you thought was your campaign. Or, if you’re like me at a different point in time, you find your players have cracked the advancement mechanics on the cool new system you wanted to try and now the power curve is shooting upwards, taking the storyline in places you weren’t ready for it to go. Whether it’s from game mechanics or your own writing, it’s easy for a GM to find themselves with a pacing problem.

There are a few issues with figuring out how to pace a role-playing campaign that don’t appear in other media. The first one is simply that other media have it way easier. It might be challenging to write a novel or direct a movie, but that author or director has complete control over how fast or slow events progress. When you’re GMing a game, with players staring back at you and wondering what’s going to happen next, that control is illusory. The second is that many of the tricks we’re taught in interactive media, like video games, either don’t translate or translate poorly back to the tabletop. Once again, a lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s more than one person playing and setting the clock.

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Level One Wonk Holiday Special: 2021

Welcome to the Level One Wonk Holiday Special for 2021! My traditional retrospective for the year in gaming, this Holiday Special has some extra meaning for me because of the time. Cannibal Halfling Gaming kicked off in December of 2016, making this my fifth year here out in the internet. Five years of ups and downs have seen this site go from me and Seamus writing about whatever RPG topics came off the tops of our heads to…well, me and Seamus writing about whatever RPG topics come off the tops of our heads. Though now there’s a podcast. And people send us review copies. And some even pay us!

Though we’ve been having a wild ride behind the scenes of the site, most everyone has been having a wild ride with world events as well. While we had a bit of the ‘hot pandemic summer’ I alluded to in one of our podcast episodes, much of the hope did not last, and we’re now back again in our houses and apartments, hoping more of our fellow humans get the message. But while we can’t control human nature and we certainly can’t control COVID, we can at least get some writing and gaming done.

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Who Is Your Game Designed For?

Role-playing games are a complicated medium. The act of reading a game is not the same as the act of playing it, which is not the same as the act of running it. This was not in fact acknowledged in the first role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons; almost nobody understood how to play after reading, and the designers were pretty much just hoping that wargamers would buy their standalone rules rather than doing anything in particular to make it so. As such, for decades, enthusiastic role-players have grabbed their books, put their heads together, and puzzled it out.

The market of enthusiastic role-players is saturated. More and more games are coming out and fewer and fewer of them are gaining the sort of traction which actually pays their designers. The centerpiece to this is the explosion of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition, which grew significantly faster and larger than any previous edition despite not being designed any better than any of them. So why is that? And how do other games do better?

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The Trouble With Ecosystems

How many RPGs do you know which consist of a single book? There are definitely some, plenty of indie games especially are singular works. When it comes to the games most people play, though, you can expect that the core rules are joined by supplements, additional books which expand the game through either deepening existing elements or adding new ones. Beyond that, you may have secondary accessories, things like dice, card decks, and maps which add to the physical experience of the game. Taken together these elements create a product line. When you add additional material made by players and designers other than the original authors, then now you have an ecosystem.

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The Curse of the Wandering Eyes

It’s happened to all of us. You spend weeks, maybe even months, convincing your friends to try a new game that you’ve discovered. It takes some effort, but eventually everyone buys in and you start a new campaign. Things are going well, people are getting into it! And then…Another new game is in your sights. All of a sudden, the thing you were most excited about for weeks and weeks is now a frustrating roadblock. You are a victim of the Curse of the Wandering Eyes.

While the Curse of the Wandering Eyes can strike any gamer, it’s the GMs of the world who are most acutely afflicted, and for whom the affliction can have the most dire consequences. It’s not only the GMs who actually drop games at the blink of an eye who can create group discord, any GM who looks longingly at a game other than the one they’re playing can often let those thoughts and frustrations seep into their current game, making it less fun and possibly cutting it short. What’s worse, though, is that although the grass often looks greener on the other side, when this frustrated GM starts up their next game, often it isn’t any better, and the process repeats anew.

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Deviant: the Renegades Review

Role-playing games are like most media in that they tend to resonate with the largest audience when peddling a blend of novelty and comfort. That said, the hobby has a history of lashing out when too much novelty is introduced. Consider Fourth Edition D&D. Or Traveller:The New Era. Or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Third Edition. I could go on, but the point is fairly clear: Gamers like new things, as long as they aren’t actually that different from the old things they already have.

Say, what’s been going on in the World of Darkness recently?

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A Novice’s Guide to Reading New Games

It’s a wide world of games out there, and it’s nearly impossible to truly experience the richness of the RPG hobby if you only play one. Even if your group is set in their ways, or deep into a multi-year campaign, you can still take a look across the hobby and see what new ideas are cropping up (and have been cropping up for the last four decades). Reading some games can seem daunting, and certain incumbents in the industry benefit by making the whole process of reading in the hobby seem more difficult than it actually is (you know, the incumbents that make you buy three books to run their game). That said, role-playing games are not as difficult as some would make it seem, and 400 page books need not scare you away.

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