When it rains, it pours.
I often quote this saying: Before people take backing up their data seriously, they need to get bit by data loss first.
Oh, everyone knows you should have a backup plan. It’s obvious, amirite? I mean, there’s no debate.
And yet, despite the fact that we all know this, we all generally do one of the following things:
1) Have a manual backup system that we swear we will faithfully run every week… and then realize we have been putting it off for nine months when we have the inevitable crash. D’oh!
2) Don’t even have a backup system in place at all because although we know we need one, we’ve been meaning to get around to setting one up for years now – and crash!!
3) Don’t even stress about backups – admit they are a great idea and that only dumb people don’t have one, but utterly forget to apply that thought to one’s own data.
I picked choice number 3, the dumb one. And crash!!
My hard drive went kerplunk this past Thursday – that’s why I missed Friday’s blog post. What was on this drive you ask?
- My latest notes for Dream Factory II.
- All my Outlook email, correspondence, and calendaring,
- And a host of irreplaceable things
I was perturbed, even crazed – most of all because this was my own damn fault! Not the crash of course, but the aftermath. However, I did have some saving graces – some partial safety nets that saved my ass.
First, I had a lot of sideloaded data. You see, my 4 year old laptop died a few months ago, so I bought a new Dell and went on. At the time, though the laptop had died, the hard drive was still functional, so I offloaded the data for reinstallation into the new machine. So I still have the offloaded data from two months ago, because though I didn’t do backups, I was (and still am) a packrat when it comes to data, saving every version and use of data as I go. So at worst I was losing two or three months’ worth of data – which sucked, but might be manageable.
Second, I had other places I could do some data scavenging. I synchronize my Outlook Calendar with Gmail’s calendar in order to have it on my Android phone, so I wasn’t going to actually lose my calendar data. I also keep 2 weeks’ worth of inbox emails on the server, so I could save that. I also could request people to whom I had emailed certain documents to send them back to me. But I really got lucky with the next thing:
I was, out of sheer dumb luck, able to get the crashed hard drive mounted long enough to save ALL my important data.
You see, when I plugged the drive in (an SSD, not a platter drive, if you care about such things) I got it to read once, but then after a minute it stopped. I tried another twenty times and no luck – but the twenty-first time it again came back, but again, just for a minute.
So I lined up all the factors as best I could. I mounted it to a live Ubuntu DVD to bypass security checking that would waste precious time. And I spent hour after hour, day after day trying again and again to make it work.
I got lucky. I made it work.
My next action: purchasing and installing the online backup service Mozy (mozy.com). Done and done.
So that’s why no blog post on Friday, and why no progress on DF2.
I am now putting my data back together. Do not expect a blog post on Wednesday (although it may happen anyways) but do expect both a post on Friday and a Get It Done post in a week with hopefully some significant progress on DF2.
Entropy willing, an’ the crick don’ rise.
Last week I wrote of how I would be reporting in on my progress on the journey of bringing DF2 into existence here.
It is still my intention to do so however, unfortunately (very unfortunately) I am undergoing some personal tragedy right now.
In my last post I spoke of how I love cats. As of July 9th I and my life partner (female) owned seven cats – or perhaps it is more accurate to say that seven cats owned us. We’ve been having some escalating issues with cat’s spraying and peeing – Tucker had been doing some marking, as had Digger (Diggory), and another cat Smudger was flat out urinating (not marking) outside of the box in different places. While I am blessed with a nose that can barely smell the most obvious of odors, my partner has the nose of a bloodhound, and this peeing issue, which had been going on for the better part of a year and ramping up as it went, was utterly overwhelming and traumatizing her.
I should also probably say at this point that she and I have opposite views on the subject of cats and whether or not they get to go outside. I live in a small town that’s the suburb of a small city – so we do not have very much wilderness. We do have a large front lawn (2 acres?) and there is small wooded area behind our house, as well as a large public field. Apart from that it’s houses, streets, and cars.
But it wouldn’t matter where we live, I am not at all happy with cats going outside. Either they can be killed by wild animals or run over by cars, depending if one lives in the country or in a more urban area, not to mention a host of other potential threats, some I can imagine and some I guess would surprise me. My partner feels that there isn’t that much risk in having the cats go out, and keeps telling me how much the cats want to go out, as if that had bearing. However, she holds the keys to my happiness – or, to be more honest, the keys to my unhappiness if necessary, so in this game of mutually assured destruction we have forged an unhappy compromise.
Two of our cats – Smudger and Face – have been going out during the day on their own recognizance for years. Four others – Digger, Tucker, Harper, and Figment – have been going out on hour long supervised “outings” with Jenn, once or twice a day. We started out with all four being taken on harnesses, but graduated (with much debate and arguing) to having only Tucker on a harness, as he is of all of them the one I simply and absolutely have given every piece of my heart to.
About a month ago, we started letting Digger go out unsupervised, whenever he wanted, to try to curb the in-house marking and peeing. It was a risk, but between the fact that Digger had always been a cowardly cat that stuck close to home when out, and my partners growing desperation due to the peeing, we had to try something – and both of us refuse to consider putting cats to sleep – er, I mean killing them.
Two weeks when Digger went out, we forgot to invite him back in at the end of the night. In the morning he wasn’t there. And he has been gone since.
That was bad enough – that we lost Digger (although we put up lost cat posters *everywhere* to no avail, sadly) – but then two days ago, I heard a horrible cat fight upstairs, and ran up to find Smudger trying to kill Tucker. I grabbed Smudger, yelled at him, and slapped him a few times – no one, but no one messes with my Tucker. For my trouble I got some nice gashes sliced into my arm. Worse than that is the new worry about leaving the two of them in the house alone together.
That night (two days ago) Face did not come back at the end of the day – and we were starting to think that she too had disappeared, just like Digger – until she showed up at 10pm. We brought her in and she seemed absolutely fine.
We let her back out the next day (for one thing, when she can’t go out she just wails and wails – she’s used to going out for the last ten years.) and again she did not come back at the end of the say – but this time, she also wasn’t there when we went to bed. Nor was she there when we checked for her in the middle of the night.
It is now morning and she still hasn’t shown up. So to recap:
- We lost Digger
- One of my cats want’s to kill my favorite cat, Tucker. Tucker, the one I love more than any other being ever.
- And now Face has disappeared.
- And to top it all off, I feel like if I had just told my partner to shove it, perhaps Digger and Face would be here right now.
Long story short, I’m in no mood to work on DF2 or report on working on it. I have wasted much time not working on DF2 over the last six weeks, that has zero to do with whether or not I am taking some time off to deal with this stuff. I can tell you that I hope to only take a week off from working on DF2, or less, unless the world keeps killing my cats.
Wish for me the best, and hopefully next week I will have a Get It Done report – as well as something to report.
Update: Face is back, she appeared just a few minutes ago. She’s not going out again soon – if ever. The problem remains of how do deal with her new tendencies.
Most RPG theory wonks are well aware of the implied social contract that coalesces around any social activity. With role-playing games, that unspoken agreement to abide by certain rules of conduct becomes even more necessary – after all, in a story-based game, any scenario could arise, limited only by imagination, unlike, say, in a game of badminton where all you have to worry about is a lack of sportsmanship.
I’ll give you a personal example. I love cats. Love ‘em. I don’t feel that way about most animals, to which I am fairly neutral, but there’s no neutrality in me when it comes to cats. To my way of thinking, they are animal perfection.
So I cannot abide experiencing feline distress, even fictional. I am quite clear about that. Not so much an issue in a game of badminton, cats being actually rather good at staying out from underfoot. But in an RPG, I have to be cautious that some GM doesn’t just sacrifice the fictional family’s feline for dramatic effect.
The problem is that the aforementioned social contract is a vague, undefined thing. It relies on participants to not only know what bothers me, but where the line is. It likewise relies on me assuming that not only is the GM aware of this stuff, but that they have committed to respect those limits of mine – although they have made no such overt declaration.
This is where things can and usually do go south for gaming groups. It is utterly unsurprising that most people don’t know each other as well as they hoped or expected, and it’s likely that while one player was counting on avoiding certain story experiences, the GM may have decided in his heart that “that’s just where the story needs to go.” So it seems quite unreliable to assume this stuff will take care of itself. And that’s why I included in Dream Factory the idea of explicit Safeties, written into the Game Plan.
I could write a whole series of posts on the Game Plan itself (and perhaps will sooner or later) but suffice it to say that the Game Plan is the character sheet for the game. And written into it in black and white are the game’s Safeties.
Coming up with the Game Plan is the first thing you do in a Dream Factory game, and part of that is for the players and the GM to have an explicit and direct conversation of what constitutes for each of them the limits that they don’t want to endure – anything from unacceptable outcomes like the loss of innocent lives or the loss of their own characters’ lives, to antipathies like stories in which the villain always gets away, to squick factors such as adult themes, the sufferings of innocents – or cats.
By having that face-to-face conversation directly and on point the players can let the GM know what really won’t work for them – and the GM can let the players know if they have any limits that don’t work for the GM. It’s possible that a Safety a player needs is one that for whatever reason a GM cannot offer – but at least everyone knows that going into it, and the player is free to choose to sit this game out, or find a gaming group more sensitive to their needs.
Usually, however, the GM won’t really mind coloring within the limits the players’ need as Safeties, so long as the GM knows them ahead of time. And having this discussion before the game even starts and then writing the Safeties down in the Game Plan for all to see fixes all these problems before they start. I don’t know why more RPGs don’t handle this more explicitly, but I am pleased and proud that Dream Factory does.
I’m going to admit it – the last six weeks I have gotten very little done on getting DF2 prepped. Oh, I have the mechanics, the rule changes all worked out, but I got that done by the beginning of June, and now it’s almost August. And while the world won’t end if DF2 comes out later (or never), it is my personal goal to have DF2 orderable, both in electronic and print form, by the unveiling at Carnage Con on November 3rd.
It seems far away – but it’s very much not. Consider, one should always plan to have some leeway – three to four weeks of padding seems decent, so I want to plan to have DF2 finished for Oct 1st. But it can take a month of shipping print proofs back and forth to finalize the printed version, so that backs us up to September 1st. And September 1st is now only a little over a month away.
So I need to buckle the frack down and Get. It. Done. Well, that’s a great slogan (actually, it’s a mediocre slogan) but what can I change about my approach to make this happen?
Actually, I have two ideas.
The first is I need to change my process. I had been planning to read through DF1 from start to finish, noting needed changes as I go. Then I would open up the DF1 text and edit it in place. Turns out that is a herculean task, too abstract and too many steps away from the actual goal. Talking to a writer friend of mine gave me an idea for a better work flow.
Instead of the slow vague approach, I need to get right into it, directly and immediately. I need to start a blank document and type DF2 in chapter by chapter. Oh, I am not saying I am going to rewrite the game text from scratch, far from it. I will be copying over lots that still works from the DF1 text – but not by copy and paste, but by eye – which will free me to tweak and shape as I go. By creating a stream of typed text going into a blank bucket called the DF2 text, I can merge the streams of the old text, the new changes, the new rules, etc. (Luckily in this case, this merging the streams isn’t “bad”, and we aren’t facing Gozer the Gozerian.) This gives me a specific action to do – and also a specific granularity. Since I am creating a text from blank, I can have itemized chapter goals.
Which brings us to the second idea. I tend to accomplish goals more reliably when I am working to deliver results to someone else by an expected date and time. When I can simply put off or move my ETAs, I bump them for whatever thing happens to be in my face demanding present attention – clients, relationship stuff, chores, life stuff. But if someone is depending on me to get something done by a specific date, I tend to not let it slide to a lower priority.
So that’s what I will do. Starting early next week I will include a post which will occur weekly, my “Get It Done” post. In it, I will tell you what I have accomplished for DF2 since the last GID post, and also, what to expect me to accomplish by the next one.
So let’s start now. Expect me to accomplish at least having the Introduction redrafted and in the DF2 bucket of text, and Chapter 1 well begun as well. Let’s see if these combined techniques get me off my duff and on the path. Oh, I don’t expect not to have setbacks – but I hope this combined approach keeps me returning to focusing on this endeavor regularly and to good effect.
Time is short. We don’t have an abundance of it, and life will conspire to steal every moment we have. Let’s see if I can still Get It Done.
I wasn’t going to write about this today, but an RPG mailing list I’m on kind of took over my morning. A couple of fellows were talking about (I’m paraphrasing) the idea that after playing RPGs for a while it’s only natural that one’s play would evolve and one would seek better mechanics that rewarded one for more specific tactics, like having one’s PC target an enemy’s kneecap. I kid you not.
Of course, what I really should have done is put quote marks around “evolve” and “better” above, because to my way of thinking, this is all hogwash. I’m all for people following their bliss – if someone wants to play Risk (the boardgame), Call of Duty (on the Computer), or FATAL (a, er, unique RPG – which is not a recommendation!) and if that same person and their friends have fun, great. Don’t change a thing. But around these parts, we aim for roleplaying not as a game of tactics – certainly not the in-game tactics of the PCs, but roleplaying as a game of stories.
I think there are two main observations I can make. First, tactical gaming is about the player’s victories and defeats using the story as a backdrop. It’s about if the player be clever (and/or lucky) enough to “win” the victory of their PC. Story gaming is about the victories and defeats of the protagonists (not players) – more to the point, it’s about experiencing that story. That’s why it doesn’t always matter that we know the hero will probably wind up saving the day – we want to experience how that manifests.
So with tactical gaming, the player gets to point at their game session and say, “Look what I did!”. With story gaming, the player gets to point at the game session and say, “Look what I made.” – as in, story experiences.
The other observation is this: all games that have stories need to have mechanics for resolving outcome of scenes, tasks, attempt and doing stuff, etc. Tactical games are best served by employing a mechanically complex structure withf each action and circumstance having benefits and hindrances – a +1 bonus for having the sun at your back, a -1 penalty for hand to hand combat over uneven terrain, etc.
Story games still need mechanics to figure out if the protagonist can successfully do stuff – but instead of basing it on simulating the actual chances, some other measure is used instead, usually relating to what the players think *ought* to happen for dramatic and narrative purposes. Therefore, story games tend to use mechanics in the metagame, that (for example) gives a player a better chance at getting their way later by letting the GM have his way now.
Talk to some people, they would tell you that story games aren’t “real” RPGs. Talk to others (like me) you might hear tactical gaming being compared to little more than chess or Risk with story trappings.
I’m all about the story gaming. I have little interest in competition or proving myself to anyone (including myself) at this stage of my life – nor did I ever. No, for me, it’s all about the revelatory moments of drama, in television, cinema, and if done “right”, even in RPGs. It’s about fostering experiences of wonder and gripping drama – when we care more about the “why” than the “how”.
And that’s what made me create Dream Factory.
Second editions are hard.
Something I didn’t realize until I had to do it is that writing the second edition of an RPG is hard. The first edition was shiny and new – I wrote that thing by working for a month straight, nearly every day. One of the reasons I was able to is I had no idea that the work I thought I had to do was only ten percent of the work I really had to do: typography, pdf work, Index and ToC, headers and footers, manual pagination, and much, much more.
This time around it isn’t a new game system, but a (much-needed) update of an existing one. This time around I know what I am getting into. This time I have existing text to edit instead of blank pages to fill – which you would think would make it easier, but somehow it doesn’t.
This time around my actual income-producing job is much more active compared to last time – a good thing, I suppose from the standpoint of my bills (and my significant other), but a devil of an energy sapper. It’s an observed irony to me that I have all the mechanics of DF2 worked out and pretty much solid – and it works very well, much better I feel than DF1 – but the nasty work of writing (actually, rewriting), composing, editing, type-setting – all that is daunting me. And of course I have a deadline, so each week that passes without results haunts me.
You would think that would light a fire under my ass. *Sigh*
I’ll get it done. I still have several demons haunting me that won’t let me not get it done:
- I have a con coming up by which this edition needs to be done
- I feel it’s unacceptable to have improved DF1 so much and yet not have those improvements in the hands of the gamers and the world at large
- I need to finish what I started, and DF2 is, I think, the conclusion of the Dream Factory journey
- And the big one: I have a really really interesting idea for the next RPG system I will be developing – and I can’t move forward on that until I get this done
So fret not, DF2 is coming – and soon – months, not years. But <grin>, lord is it not easy.
OK, truth is, I don’t really know if this is the first part of an ongoing series or the only part, but let’s skip that question and get right to it:
As a GM and story-crafter, sometimes it’s fun to hide the truth in plain sight.
Case in point: in the Wild West game I was running yesterday (in DF2, naturally), the characters met a wise old Indian (as settlers called them then), who dispensed sage and though-provoking advice. He said he was named by his tribe for his technique of helping them dig burrows and hide underneath a bed of sticks and leaves when the Cavalry came by – his tribe called him “Anathana”, or “clever mole”.
And he turned out later to be an imposter – from the future just like them, only there to nudge the characters along a path of character growth. He was indeed a “clever mole”! When the players saw that he had been foreshadowed, the reveal was exquisite and memorable.
Then there was another occasion in a game I ran 20 years ago – and the fact that I still recall it well can attest to how memorable that one was. An NPC ally that was ‘helping’ the PCs was named ‘Enoli Ve’. If it’s not immediately obvious, spell it backwards (without the space).
And just last year I had a PC looking for a high-ranking demon – he knew it was one of a handful of suspects, but couldn’t figure out which one. One of his suspects was a Mr. Lyle. A Mr. Bartholomew Everett Lyle – or as he liked to be called, B.E. Lyle.
Sure I called this post “messing with players” but that’s not really the goal here. The point of this is not to make the players feel dumb. It’s to accomplish two things: to give clever and alert players the opportunity to get ahead of the curve, and if they don’t, the fact that the information was in front of the players all along certainly makes for a memorable reveal – and each of my players who have experienced this haven’t been embarrassed or upset with me. No, it’s more of a “Wow. It was there all the time” factor.
It can be a challenge to put the information in front of the players without it being so obvious it is immediately discovered – but that’s the point, isn’t it?
I have been running and playing roleplaying games (RPGs) for over thirty years now (I’m old! Mid forties! Argh!) and I have seen my fair share of stories come to an end. Sometimes it’s because the story is done – like a TV show, the players, after several season’s worth of story-telling may decide to conclude the story and move on to a new one. However, much of the time it’s not a planned end – instead it’s cancelled or goes on indefinite hiatus, usually never to return.
Sadly, this happens all too often to these games – even when the story is amazing, the players are invested, and no one really wants to stop. There are several factors. Let’s look at what it takes to keep a good game running.
Story games aren’t at all like most common board games in quite a lot of ways. You might be able to play a game of checkers in under an hour, or chess in under two. Even more involved board games like Monopoly or Risk usually come in under three hours.
Most RPGs require an hour or so per scene, with four to seven scenes per episode! And with most RPGs, while gaming is the meat of what you do in a game session, it’s not all. In my experience, most gaming sessions go something like this:
- People trickle in – and quite often the last stragglers can arrive a little late.
- People kibbitz about chatting about their week, before we get down to business
- The GMs checks in with the group to see if anyone has any issues or concerns to be taken care of before the game begins.
- Then the GM hands out awards for any homework, along with an explanation for the level of the award given. (John, your essay on the town of Volken was so thorough!)
- Playing yet? Nope. The GM asks the group to give a short summary of what happened last episode, to bring all the details back into everyone’s mind and get the juices flowing. If people get into this, it can take a half hour easily.
- Now we play!
- BUT, we have to stop playing all the time when:
- Someone has to go to the bathroom and we need to pause the scene
- Someone makes a joke or some other non-relevant observation, and the group takes a few minutes on that tangent – pausing the game in the meanwhile. (Oh, john – did you get my email on Duke Nukem forever? Fred:You play that game too? It’s so cool!)
- Ding! Time for food. Game goes on a long pause while people order pizza, nuke microwavable food, etc. Then back to gaming.
- The episode’s over for the day? Great, you guys still can’t go home yet, we have to hand out the episode awards – which I am sure you all want, right?
- We also have to ask about who wants homework for more awards next time?
- Finally we have to make sure that everyone is one the same page about the next time, day, and location for the next episode – which may require some negotiation.
- Now go home!
When it takes so much time to run all the scenes, and then you get all that in between stuff as well, it should come as no surprise that a solid gaming session can easily take five or six hours, no problem. And that’s a long time.
Now a solid gaming group works best in my experience with four total people – three players and a GM. (Although you can fit one or two more in if needed, or run with fewer if you have to.) So that’s four people that have to find a minimum five hour block that they can all regularly (usually weekly) meet for.
Supposing we are able to do that – for example, I have a gaming group that meets every Sunday from around noon to five or six – then next question is with four people involved, how often will one of them have to be unavailable, because his father’s birthday is that day, or because it’s some religious holiday, or because his girlfriend wants him to go with her to her parents that weekend, or whatever!
Even if each gamer can commit to attend at least three out of four sessions, that means that each gamer is missing one out of four – and with four gamers, that gives you less than a one in three chance that someone won’t be missing each game.
So, from time to time, game sessions will be missed, skipped, etc. And when that happens, especially if it happens several times in a row, the inertia moving the game forward begins to drain, and the game starts to fade…
When the group finally does get back together, they may find that the excitement, the drive to play that story may have vanished, replaced with a vague lethargy instead. And before you know it, the cry to play a new story begins, and the old story, which was firing on all cylinders and had lots of play left in it, is abandoned because we let it lie fallow for too long.
It’s a very common tale. It happens again and again. What can be done about it? Well, you have two options, and you can use one or the other, or even both.
Option one: Demand that all the gamers take committing to this endeavor, to gaming seriously – seriously enough to show up most every time. Ask that game time be treated as an appointment just like any other – like a wedding or a doctor’s appointment that you just don’t skip out on if your favorite band happens to come to town or if your partner wants you to mow the lawn. Sure, there will still be emergencies – health issues, broken down cars, etc – but by making sure that when gamers make plans to game they actually live up to those commitments, not only will you be gaming more often and losing inertia far less, you will also be gaming with a more dependable class of people.
Not that anyone whose life is too chaotic to ever be reliable is a bad person per se – it’s just a person that you may not want to have in your gaming group until they solve that issue.
Option two: Try not to hold so tightly to these games and stories. If you lose inertia on a story and it seems too hard to pick back up, be happy about the fun you had with it, but move on to the next. If you feel that you have to get back to that story, ask for your fellow gamers’ help to reinvest energy into it for a restart. But keep in mind, there are always tons of new stories waiting to be told – I don’t think we will ever run out.
Now, option two works from time to time, but sometimes you are going to need to use option one, confront someone who’s unreliability is harming the game group, and ask them to make a change or leave the group until they can be more available or reliable – preferably both. But that’s your call.
There’s no magic bullet. Getting a reliable gaming group together and keeping everyone going so that you can have not only weeks, but months and maybe even years of developing a single story is hard – maybe the toughest challenge in gaming in general – but it’s so worth it!
The base mechanic in Dream Factory is the Outcome Check(OC), which you use for, well, determining outcomes – whether it’s the player or the GM that gets to decide how something turns out. In order to win an OC, the player needs to get a higher total than the GM – so the more dice they can roll, the better a chance the player has to do that.
Players get extra dice by invoking Traits. Each character sheet has four listed, descriptors of the player’s character’s four most dramatically central aspects, invented by the players and approved by the GM when the character was made. Traits can be anything that meets the following criteria:
- Not so broad it would always apply. Example: “Powerful”
- Not so narrow you wouldn’t get much use out of it. Example: “Nice Shoes”
- Something that the audience would want to see the player invoke a lot. Example: the character of Spiderman being “Quippy.”
Of course, the GM has the final approval.
The basic idea is that when an OC is needed, the player decides which of his four Traits he wants to invoke – and asks the GM if that use is appropriate. (If the character is trying to bust down a door, perhaps the GM will approve invoking “Athletic” and “Special Forces Training”, but not so much with “Alert” or “Charming”.) Once the dice have been rolled, if the player does not win – no harm, no foul, the invoked Traits get returned to their normal, unused state. If the player *did* win, the Traits they invoked are not returned to fresh, but are instead considered Burnt – at least until such time as a different mechanic in DF is used to refresh them.
Therefore, each Trait can be in one of three states: Fresh, if unused; Burnt, if used-up; and Risked, if currently invoked in the middle of an Outcome Check. But how do we track that, the current state of Traits for each player?
The boring though easy way is on a piece of paper. Every time the player invokes a Trait, put a small line next to it – as if you were underlining a space. That denotes a Risked Trait. If the player wins, add in two vertical lines and a line at the top to convert the original underline to a small empty box. This denotes a Burnt Trait. And when the player refreshes that Trait, fill in the empty box – that denotes it is fresh again, and you can start the process over again. (If the player invokes a Trait and doesn’t win, just scribble out the underline or turn it into a completely filled box.)
That method works fine – and I have used it to great effect when gaming by telephone, but there is another much faster, much more obvious, and much more visceral way to track Traits when gaming face-to-face – using Totems.
In Dream Factory, Totems are sets of physical objects, each one representing a different Trait. You want each player to have four Totems, the set of four sharing an obvious characteristic, but the four Totems should also be differentiated from each other as well.
For example, one player may use a set of Koosh balls of four different colors. Another might use a set of small bean bag animals, four different animals. Another may use small nerf replicas of balls used in games – a mini-football, mini-baseball, mini-soccer ball, and a mini-basketball. Players have used all of the above in games I have run.
The key is the Totems should be at least as big as a golf ball, but not so big that the player can’t keep and manage four near them. The Totem should preferably also be soft-ish and not too heavy.
Tracking Totem Traits is easy. Write down on the character sheet which Totem goes with which Trait. For example, the Koosh ball player might make the red one his first Trait of “Athletic”, the blue one his second Trait of “Special Forces Training”, and so on.
Then whenever a player invokes a Trait, they take the related Totem and put it in a separate area in front of them – like how poker players push the poker chips they are betting forward. If the Totem gets Burnt, the player hands (or more likely tosses gently and underhand – which is why soft and light Totems are preferred) the Totem to the GM. When the Totem gets refreshed, the GM simply tosses it back, to go back with that player’s other unused Totems.
That’s why it’s important the each player’s Totem set is unique – the GM and players need to be able to see at a glance (looking at the currently Burnt Totem pile in front of the GM) which of the Totems belong to which player. So if one player uses a particular Totem set, every other player’s Totems should be visually distinct. Luckily, you go to any toy store or hobby shop, they have tons of low-cost knick-knacks, ideal for this purpose. Just make sure that two players don’t show up with the same idea and the same (or overlapping) sets of Totems.
The fact is, using Totems is fast and easy. Trait tracking with paper and pencil is quite doable – but if you can opt for Totem use, it will really speed up your game. Plus, it adds to the viscerality factor – it’s fun to chuck them to (not at, now – behave! <grin>) the GM, and its equally fun to get them tossed back when regaining them. Plus it gives all players something to fiddle with as they think and game.
After playing with Totems for a few years now, I can definitively say, use them. Your game will thank you for it.
Carrying on from the previous post, I spoke about not needing character advancement in a role-playing game – but does not having advancement mean not having ways to award players? Hardly.
Take my game for example. In Dream Factory there are two kinds of awards, point based and plot based. You get a Karma point each episode for embracing your character’s personal struggle – whatever that is, whether you succeed or fail – so long as your success or failure is dramatically interesting. You also also are given a Karma point for each Lynchpin that the GM thinks you embraced well in the episode.
(Lynchpins are group-created principles of the story your group is telling – for example, if you were trying to promote a light-hearted wise-cracking kind of atmosphere, you could have a lynchpin that “People tend to be quippy and crack wise.” Players that steer the story to those truths get rewarded, thus incentivizing the game the group wants to have.)
You also get awarded Karma points for bringing value to the game apart from your gameplay for the gaming group, anything from volunteering to write an essay about a new town for the GM, to bringing snacks for all to enjoy. And in Dream Factory(DF), having Karma is good – one of the most popular uses is in boosting your chances to win Outcome Checks, and therefore having the story in the moment go your (the players’) way.
Additionally there are plot awards, given at the end of every season ( a group of connected episodes, like a TV show.) You might, for example, rescue a princess and defeat a villain during the season, and perhaps request a plot award that the villain is defeated so thoroughly that they don’t come back next season. Or maybe you would rather keep the princess around as a love interest for the character, so you ask for that.
These awards are worth pursuing, but they have nothing to do with advancement or leveling up – instead, they’re all about the story – which in my mind, is how it should be!
On the other open question, it’s fair to ask if removing advancement in some way hinders us from telling stories we want to tell. For example, what if we want to tell the story of an adventurer who starts off weak and somewhat ineffectual, but by the end of the tale has become a mighty hero? How can we accomplish that without character advancement?
As it turns out, even more easily than we could have done before! Now, instead of some prewritten mechanics telling what we have to do and how many goblins we have to kill before we can be a better fighter, the GM and the players can decide that for themselves. Now it’s about the hero’s journey more than ever, not following some pre-laid-out mechanical path.
As always, it’s all about the story – it always was. Now that the mechanics are out of our way, we can tell precisely the story we always wanted to tell, whatever that may be!
And isn’t that the whole point?
You don’t need character advancement to tell any story – for an ultimately simple reason. Mechanical advancement is never the story, even if the hero’s journey is.
And people can tell that tale far better than any chart of levels and abilities.
So, in conclusion, while it is important to always have challenges that never become too easy, we can have that without advancement – in fact, if anything, advancement makes it more complicated to keep the amount of challenge relatively the same. And while sometimes we do want to tell the tale of a character that grows in ability, sometimes we don’t – and either way, game mechanics are not the only way, nor are they the the best way to tell these tales.
We don’t need Ding in our RPGs. If you like your Ding – that’s fine. But of all the things necessary for great story experience – creativity, ingenuity, imagination, good friends to share the ride with – Ding is not necessary.
So leave it behind, sit back, and enjoy the ride. 🙂