Valinard's Tower

“For this my lamp is lit, to the grief of the owls, and often burns till lark-song.”
—Lord Dunsany, The Charwoman's Shadow

Now it's time for me to tell you about Unweaver, someone who has changed the way I think about FRP forever. She's one of those legendary DMs beloved by their players for regularly reducing them to tears with extended campaigns telling epic stories.

Rainbow threads being woven on a loom.

Her philosophy of running games has four pillars:

1. Contemporary vs Classical storytelling

When we talk about Classical storytelling we mean stories driven by the plot; events happen to characters, often through no fault of their own. The challenges they face aren't born out of the mistakes of their past or the quirks of their personality.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” --The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

By contrast Contemporary stories are character-driven – events occur because of the characters' choices, the weight of their past, their shortcomings and desires. They have a personal arc beginning with a problem and ending when they overcome or are consumed by that problem.

“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” --The Princess Bride, William Goldman

To give a modern example, Captain America (2011) is classical and Iron Man (2008) is contemporary. Steve Rogers is just a great, plucky little guy out to do the right thing, and he finds himself granted incredible powers and thrust into a conflict where a great plucky guy is exactly what's needed.

Tony Stark, on the other hand, has a problem – he's a shallow jerk. His own greed created the bomb that mortally wounds him, leading to him having to confront his own mortality and take responsibility for his actions, so he can overcome his shallowness and greed and become a heroic vainglorious jerk instead.

The contemporary style lends itself well to an ongoing FRP campaign because every PC has one player who is uniquely invested in them and their story. If the world and story are driven by the PCs pasts and actions, the creative input of the players into the game is amplified and events are more likely to be relevant and interesting to them.

So the threats, plots, villains, dungeons, and NPCs in one of Unweaver's campaigns all arise directly from the PCs. The most important NPCs are invented by the players in extensive and mandatory background documents before being fleshed out by the DM. The fabric of the world itself is woven together from the threads of the PC backstories. PCs will complete their story arc one way or another and PC death only occurs as required by the story.

This places her style solidly within the OC/Neo-Trad school, despite its emphasis on DM authority.

2. Anticipate & Guide the Story

Her style embraces the treadmill with extensive preparation and planned out storylines. Where it differs from the 5e “the PCs will now befriend Lulu the Ollyphant whether they like it or not” is in the emphasis on knowing the characters and anticipating their actions through that knowledge.

In an extended session zero she interviews each player individually and grills them on their PC's attitudes, asking about both player goals (“I want him to be a tragic hero with a fall and a redemption arc”) and character goals (“she wants to avenge her clan”), as well as posing moral dilemmas to gauge how the PC will react when placed under duress. (And they will be put under duress – PCs always get put through the wringer emotionally in her games and have to make difficult, painful decisions.)

Armed with this knowledge she creates situations where PCs have agency and choices with serious consequences, but where going “off the rails” would be unthinkable for an invested player.

3. Story Above All

The story is the main thing – the purpose of playing is to create and experience a wonderful story. Therefore every player shares the roles involved in making a film or TV series:

  • As a producer they decide on a genre, tone and theme, and ensure that the story is congruent with those and with the desires and expectations of the audience.
  • As a writer they provide direction to their character, ideas about what should happen next, and dialogue and descriptions of their character's actions, appearance and so on.
  • As an actor they perform the role of a character (or characters) in the world.
  • And most importantly, as the audience they thrill and laugh and cheer and cry to the adventures of their protagonists.

The DM has an additional role, that of the director: Taking all the ideas and performances and themes and deciding what should happen in what order. This style emphasises the power of the DM, who bears final responsibility for weaving the story from the threads the other players provide, making sure everyone has a good time, and making sure everyone is fulfilling their responsibilities to the group.

This is also reflected in her approach to rules – social rules of any kind are anathema, because they trespass upon the territory of human storytelling – she refuses to have a d20 tell her or any of her players how to write.

In most of her games, all mechanics aside from combat and puzzles are jettisoned.

4. Bossfights & Cutscenes

Heavily influenced by JRPGs such as Final Fantasy and especially Xenosaga – a series known for consisting of TV episode length cutscenes alternating with challenging, clever boss fights – most of her campaigns utilise a system of alternating combat and freeform RP.

A heavily modified 4e is the system of choice. Combats are big, elaborate, meticulously planned and balanced. PCs have unique special abilities. Bosses have multiple stages and MMO style telegraphed template attacks.

It's the most absolutely gamist approach possible, emphasising challenge, mastery, and balance.

But in between the combats, the game is pure freeform narrativism. If your character attempts to do something, and it seems reasonable in terms of the fiction that they could, they just succeed. If you get into a fight with some minor enemies, and it's not a planned combat, you can just say “I run the goblin through with my sword.” The only logic constraining the PCs is the logic of the story.

By combining these two modes Unweaver's style fulfils the promise of “Wargame + Wonderland” that made D&D a phenomenon, despite approaching the question from a completely different direction.

And despite the lack of sandbox mechanics, this approach is entirely structural – there isn't a resolution mechanic in sight, all resolution is based on the needs of the story. The game sections affect the course of the story, but the inputs of each into the other are carefully controlled by the guiding hand of the DM.

Writing the kind of puzzle fights this style demands requires a keen mind for game design. It was Unweaver who drummed into me to importance of basic concepts such as EV.

So this is not only an excellent, if demanding, style in which to run a campaign, but I think Unweaver's approach reveals a number of false dichotomies in how we tend to think about styles of FRP: There's no conflict between gamism and narrativism here; the DM's planning doesn't negate player agency; the supreme authority of the DM doesn't lessen the creative contribution of the players to the story; PCs having 'plot armour' against arbitrary death doesn't lessen the stakes or drama; the use of 4e doesn't imply a lack of roleplaying, and so on.

Which is not to say that there aren't incompatibilities between these disparate elements, either – but she has found ways to reconcile them. Planning and DM power work because the DM's energies are so focused on weaving story out of the ideas and direction provided by the players; crunchy gamist rules don't interfere with the story because of the strict delineation of combat & freeform. There is a lesson there for anyone seeking to develop and refine their own style of play.

In particular I think it illustrates the oft-atomised nature of FRP knowledge. The hobby by its nature is a private activity (Twitch streaming groups notwithstanding); great innovations can be made and nobody outside the group knows about it, for the simple reason that they weren't there.

I've talked about how games having rules to structure play fell out of fashion, and how a gameplay loop that consists of “referee makes things up – players respond – referee calls for rolls, then makes more up” emerged – often with a map or a timeline to aid the ref in framing scenes, but without clear mechanical procedures to determine what happens next.

And this has always seemed to me an exhausting treadmill. To see it as a treadmill is the other side of the coin to “railroading” – the referee tries to reduce the burden by planning out events in advance or buying a published module, those events are wasted if the players take their preferred path; either way, resentment ensues.

FRP has always been on a path of escalating commercialisation. What began as a collaborative hobby project arising spontaneously from midwestern wargaming clubs in the late 60s and 70s has become more slick and heavily marketed and less DIY and ad hoc with every iteration.

It is perhaps as an exception to this trend that the OSR was most interesting.

The linear story and the treadmill lend themselves well to commodification. A game where the narrative emerges organically from structural mechanics, from a sprawling network of relationships, factions, domains, some run by PCs, or a narrative created by the DM skilfully weaving together the threads of half a dozen lovingly written backstories doesn't require a lot of external content.

Rules which provide no structure and place the maximum burden on the DM to figure out what happens next are ideal if you want the DM to reach for a published module.

And the ideal commodity form of FRP is surely the modern 5e adventure: A glossy, linear, heavily padded module which presents a sequence of events adding up to a story – essentially a novel outline the players improv their way through, with their actions explicitly prescribed.

This creates a model of FRP play which relies less on individual imagination and more on Content, with players dependent on the company for Content which they dutifully purchase and consume on a regular basis, just like movies or novels or comic books.

In my previous post I talked about nested loops giving structure to the game, creating a series of interrelated contexts within which the players' decisions have meaning and consequences.

We can contrast structural mechanics with resolution mechanics. With resolution mechanics you have a specific, immediate question raised by the story and actions of the PCs (“can I pick this lock?”, “can Superman arm-wrestle The Hulk?”, “should the story go the way Jack thinks it should go, or the way Jill wants to see it unfold?”) and you turn to dice and numbers and formal procedures to give you an answer.

Structural mechanics are more pro-active. They tell you what to do next. They establish certain facts about the world. Random encounter checks, downtimes, and reaction rolls are all structural. They raise questions, and mostly resolve only the questions they introduced.

Combat mechanics are structural. They tell you when it's your turn, enumerate certain standardized or special case options, and provide detailed outcomes.

During the 90s there arose an apparent aversion to structure. There's a section in the AD&D 2E DMG which weighs up the argument that having random encounters at all is “foolish” and the DM should be in direct control of every aspect of the game. While the section comes down in favour of the “judicious” use of random encounters, it does suggest a trend toward the DM simply unfolding the world before the players as they move through it, without much more than perhaps a map and some boxed text to fall back on.

The World of Darkness games are an instructive example. The only structure they have outside of combat is the division between Prelude, Scene, Chapter, Story and Chronicle -and these aren't really mechanical categories, just subheadings marking time in the story.

Even combat had an optional rule to reduce it to a skill challenge. Structure is a chore, why not just skip straight to resolution?

And yet, the WoD – a place where there's always a bigger fish, and there are grand objectives to work toward under the noses of powerful forces who rule the world from the shadows – cries out for structure. Take Mage: The Ascension. The Traditions are fighting for their vision(s) of how the cosmos should operate. They seem serious about this – it's described as a war. The Technocracy, which runs the world and imposes scientific laws on everyone, regards them as criminals and will kill them or worse if it can.

If you were designing this from scratch, would it not make sense to have an extensive domain game with mechanics for tracking how successful the PCs have been at pushing their view of reality to the masses? How much work does it take to give the city a neighbourhood of artists and dreamers where little bits of magic work? What does it take to force an invention into the public eye that doesn't fit with the Technocracy's timetable?

What resources does the local Technocracy branch have to bring to bear against you? How much damage do you have to do to render them ineffective? Conversely, how much heat do you have to draw to make the regional branch send in reinforcements? At what point do the really big guns get called in?

Interestingly the LARP version, the Mind's Eye Theatre books, did have much of this structure: The live action Vampire game has downtime rules allowing PCs to struggle for dominance over such institutions as the local press, government, and police force – because of course, they had to: Thirty people are going to show up to play vampires from a secret society who run the world from the shadows, and they're going to want to run the world from the shadows!

Nobody is going to tell them they can't take over the local paper, there's a good chance more than one of them is going to try it, so there has to be a consistent mechanic for it. But if you're a lone Storyteller trying to figure out the tabletop version of the game? Fuck you!

Like most games from the 90s onward, the WoD series also relied on a core resolution mechanic, consisting of rolling a skill plus an attribute against one (sometimes two) difficulty numbers, often described by vague unquantified adjectives like “routine” (what, like opening a door?) or “difficult” (yes but how difficult?)

A montage of photographs of RPG rules pages showing tables for task resolution, commonly with difficulties associated with target numbers such as 'routine' or 'challenging'.

You can probably tell I'm not a fan of this. It's not interesting – not in the way a puzzle or a combat or a conversation is interesting – and since the referee knows the player's stats, setting the difficulty is no different from setting a percentage chance of success – so why not just describe the character in general terms and let the GM base the odds on that? Why spend all that time on character creation, if the odds come down in the end to “pick a number”?

D&D has always had a core resolution mechanic, of course. Two, in fact: The x-in-six chance, and the ability check. Roll d20 under an ability with a modifier for very easy or difficult challenges. Both have advantages over the above, only requiring one die, one number, and being easy to eyeball percentages. (Average ability + no modifier = 50-55%)

But in D&D the ability check was there as something to fall back on when making rulings. It wasn't used for most common actions like picking locks, swinging swords, or casting spells. In D&D it was the cart; later games made it the horse.

While a core resolution mechanic is not interesting, as a safety net to catch things that aren't covered by other systems it doesn't need to be. Nested loops of different mechanics that operate in different ways for different reasons make for a fun game to engage with, you explore the mechanics just as you explore the imaginary space of the game world.

Here there's very little to explore. Which is also a problem if you want to sell a big thick glossy book: So having made these rather dull, streamlined, one-size-fits all mechanics, developers had to overcomplicate them or include long page-filling lists of abilities providing exceptions to them to make their page count – which might go some way toward explaining why character creation became more and more complicated.

(You could also put this down to a more mature, story-heavy style of play that demanding more character background, but we are precisely not talking about backgrounds here, but rather mechanics. I have beloved NPCs whose backstories are well-known but whose only stats are HD/AC/Dmg.)

Structure makes the game easier to run and more fun to play. It gives the players more understanding, and therefore more control over the world. It leaves room for storytelling and drama, but also the option to just do some dungeon crawling or island hopping this week, depending on mood and whether the DM has had any sleep. It can give the game world a solidity and a sense of progress (yes, the evil empire is more powerful than you, but how much more powerful than you? How long until you can challenge them? And how much of a threat do they see you as?)

Speaking for myself, I'm extremely jealous of my attention when running a game. There is never enough of it to go around. Anything I can do to reduce the cognitive load leads to a better game. With enough structure the game almost runs itself – which gives me more time to think of story beats and novel events. For my purposes, a naked resolution mechanic, even with a big list of special abilities, isn't really a game.

Which is precisely the opposite conclusion to the 90s conclusion that structure means rules and therefore work and complication and is best minimized. Badly designed structure can be all of those things, of course, but the fact remains that if something needs doing, and needs doing frequently, and the structure of the game doesn't do it for you, then you're going to have to do it – and that most certainly is work.

Over the past two years I've been running the most successful FRP campaign I've ever been lucky enough to be a part of, and I want to think about why. Why were previous games so unsatisfying? What makes this one so good?

Critiquing FRP design is difficult, because existing as it does at the intersection of formal contest and make-believe, our natural ability to tell stories and have fun imagining things with our friends tends to compensate for deficiencies in the rules. And indeed, much of what makes my campaign work is the players, a mix of enthusiastic D&D neophytes and helpful, responsible old hands.

But I think one of the most useful things has been that the OSR style gives structure to the game in the form of nested gameplay loops. The combat round is a loop; the combat itself is a loop; dungeon turns are loops; each expedition into a dungeon, hexmap or pointcrawl is a loop; repeatedly returning to down to level up and build institutions and relationships is a loop.

The smallest loops tell you whether you've been stabbed by a goblin; their results feed into bigger loops, like whether you survived the fight, how much treasure you bring home, until the biggest loops tell you how you made your mark on the world.

Adventurers emerge from a wood to approach statues looming out of the mist.

My campaign is a combination of OSR & OC/Neo-Trad styles – it began as a drop-in game with 30 or so people invited to play, minimal character backgrounds, and a single dungeon. When I realised I had five players showing up religiously we looked into character backgrounds in more detail and each PC found an epic arc within the story, avenging murders, reclaiming lost homelands, and discovering terrible secrets.

One thing that worked about this combination of what some might consider opposing styles is that it saved me from any pressure to think up an epic story arc to a schedule or before we got to know the characters. The players were perfectly happy just exploring dungeons and gaining experience. At the time I phrased this as the mechanics “giving you something to do while you wait for the cool stuff to show up.”

And any great D&D campaign needs 'cool stuff'; something beyond engaging with the mechanics, killing bad guys, and recovering treasure. We all want something hilarious or terrible or sublime to emerge from the process of play. I started to think of rules as providing a baseline activity, a kind of foundation on which the novel and interesting parts of the campaign could be built.

Adventurers enter a room with a great stone pillar.

When I consider the question of why we play RPGs – and why moreover they have maintained such a hold upon my imagination throughout the years – my thoughts inevitably return to childhood. Learning to read was a wonder – a skill which, once learned, unlocked narratives from pages of symbols and allowed them to unfold in the mind's eye. I think we forget, from daily use, just how wonderful it is.

But when I first encountered CYOA books, which allowed one to not only experience the story, but also guide it, they seemed to my young mind as big an innovation as reading itself.

And then I discovered that Gamebook series like Fighting Fantasy and Grailquest gamified these stories with elements of chance and even some tactical choices.

For a long time, D&D was a mysterious hinterland beyond gamebooks – I was aware of it, and knew that it was like gamebooks but still more interactive, but had no idea how to get into it.

The most fascinating things in childhood are those with an aura of mystique, of arcane or hidden knowledge. Star Wars presented a varied line of figures, some of whom were familiar and recognisable, others – the bit-part aliens, the minor droids – became the subject of playground speculation and dubious lore. (This might explain my disdain for the Expanded Universe of the franchise – the original movies left many voids inviting such fan speculation, and those voids are precious to me.)

Britains Space figures had a certain amount of implied setting, but was an 80s toy line with no entertainment franchise behind it, again leaving room for speculation.

Box with plastic miniatures and toy flying saucer on it with 80s rainbow corners and the legend BRITAINS ALIENS.

When Citadel miniatures began to show up in my school, they were unpackaged, unpainted, pre-slotta. Children moved lead dwarves and elves from iron square to iron square atop the manhole covers at the bottom of the playing field, seemingly understanding that these were pieces in a game, an intricate, arcane one, and that they demanded precise and arcane play.

The children understood these demands on some instinctive level, but accustomed to action figures, were unable to fulfil them. Combat was resolved by trying to knock one model over with another, like lead conkers. It was a crude cargo cult version of Warhammer or D&D, and to me it was magical and absolutely fascinating.

D&D itself – with its arcane schemes of different editions, module numbers, supplements, demon types, fantastical and historical pantheons – always retained a degree of that same mystery. It was forever incomplete; or at least, as a child in the 1980s, your understanding of it was eternally incomplete; a divine mystery for nerds.

(And its occult nature made it easy for people of the time to believe tales that its tables and charts concealed secrets that were occult in an entirely more sensational sense.)

The classic red box BECMI cover.

To step into the story, to conjure it, to control it, to master it; the appeal of the mysterious and the arcane, then: These were the discoveries of childhood that drew me inexorably toward FRP gaming. Another element required no discovery: Simple make-believe.

As a child I could just go up to a stranger or a sibling or a cousin and say “let's play X”; and if they were amenable, and they often were, I could describe a fantastical situation (“we're Ghostbusters”, “we've found a flying saucer”, “I'm a dragon and you're trying to hide from me”) and we would commence acting out roles in it. It was universally understood and the most natural thing in the world: Simply to play.

Our games were typically a wild melange of the pop culture we were all consuming. In one I recall playing an android who could transform into the 'Force' orb from the arcade game R-Type – his body partly machinery and partly glowing fields of force, it was typical of the ideas we came up with as kids, simultaneously imaginative and derivative.

And is this not the defining feature that makes D&D and the games that followed it unique? Games with mechanical elements of board games, wargames, video games and so on, mixed with, and often embedded within, the type of open-ended imaginative play that we enjoyed instinctively as children.

A D&D dungeon crawl without make-believe and the free imagining of situations and responses to them is just Descent. It's a board game, and a fine one, of grand scope, but it's not really D&D.

Nor were the games we played as children FRPGs, though they were fantasies, in which we played roles, and often argued bitterly over who got the most exciting role. They lacked the formalism and mechanisation and other elements of more concrete games which ground D&D's make-believe and whimsy in rules and numbers.

Why is it so compelling to combine the two? I think one answer is simply that both types of play are fun, and getting both kinds of fun together is more fun. Each shores up the weaknesses of the other – the solidity of rules makes the make-believe feel more real; the make-believe gives mastering the rules to attain a desired outcome feel meaningful. Fighting your way through a dungeon for points is less compelling than fighting your way through a dungeon to rescue a beloved NPC.

A more melancholy answer is that, as we grow up, we lose that instinctive sense of play. It's not that you couldn't say to a stranger “let's play X”; but they'd assume you had a formal sport, board game, or a videogame, or some other discrete and tangible product in mind. The idea that simply conjuring something from our shared imagination is a worthwhile and obvious pastime would seem foreign.

Stock photo of children playing pirates in a cardboard boat.

But FRP allows adults to re-enter that imaginative space. I think that part of the reason so many systems are fiddly and heavy with numbers and options isn't only because nerds love numbers; administrative overcomplication and form-filling may also serve as a “fun tax”, a ludic eating of one's vegetables; a kind of penance served to earn the right to dream again.