How To Learn Games
Part X: Reading Tea Leaves

I have this unformed notion in my head of eventually documenting all my various methods of learning RPGs. One of those steps, I think, will have to be how I deal with the fundamental incompleteness of RPG rules.

In my last Derpening of Mirkwood thread, there was a minor kerfuffle (which I really don’t feel like re-litigating so please don’t) regarding whether you can treat RPG rules like boardgame rules. So let me say a couple things about that:

1) Of course not, duh, they’re different things.

2) I don’t do that, and if you think I do, you’re misreading my approach.

It’s a truism that the basic transaction of roleplaying — folks talking about and agreeing to what is established truth within a collaborative fiction — makes it hard, maybe impossible, to write rules that cover every contingency.

One way this has been addressed — the most terrible way — is when you see traddy physics-type games that create tiny little special case rules for every tiny special-case thing: rules for being poisoned while on fire in zero gravity, rules for feeding your livestock during downtime broken down by seasons, whatever.

Another way it’s been addressed is through consistent approaches that treat all uncertainty as basically the same: Fate’s roll + aspects vs target, Burning Wheel’s versus tests.

And yet another way is by constraining the kinds of uncertainty that can exist in the game: Apocalypse World’s moves.

I mean, I think it’s great when a game solves the problem in a more consistently applied way! The downside is that it means the players need to use a lot of discretion in deciding just what is being rolled for and why. It also means, for some players, they have to stop being immersed in their characters and think more like an author, or an impartial observer.

I’m not actually advocating for any particular approach, just pointing out that it’s a standing challenge with many solutions. There are entirely legitimate and functional reasons why a game works how it does. There are also lots of unexamined assumptions, even by major writers, designers and developers.

So moving on to part two: Once you understand that rules are necessarily imperfect, how do you fill in the gaps?

1) Play lots of different games. Pay attention to the gaps that tend to repeat themselves: that’s where you know the designers are working with an unexploded view of game design. Common gaps: When to roll dice, how to interpret failure, explicit orders of operations. If you see those in your game, you’re dealing with designers with deep assumptions about how RPGs work. So the best you can do is roll with those assumptions.

2) Look for cues in the design as to what the intention of the design is. This one is tough! I’m the first to acknowledge that. And it requires you do lots of #1 up there above. And since everyone’s experiences will be different, that means everyone’s going to bring different interpretations. But for heaven’s sake, arm yourself with knowledge so you can make informed guesses.

I look for:
* The kinds of uncertainty the game wants to address (Will you succeed or fail? What does failure cost? How will the fiction change if you express this or that? Can you ensure success? Can you mitigate risk? Can you fail forward or be stopped?)

* Economies that encourage particular behavior cycles (do this > earn that > spend on blah)

* Assertions the designer has made about a game’s themes or source material. This one is huge! It also means you understand what a “theme” is, and how to critically evaluate source material. Is The Hobbit about sneaking past dragons, or is it about working through hardship with friends? Is Dogs in the Vineyard about smoking demons, or is it about dealing with the fallout from violence? And so on. You don’t even have to agree as to what any given “theme” is! But by golly you’d better acknowledge it exists at all. This gets you in the designer’s groove, hopefully.

2a) Ask the designers. Yay internet. But hey, be ready to deal with the fact that their intentions might not have been well expressed through their own rules. It happens.

3) Use whatever method has worked for you in the past. This is not my personal preferred method, because I think it’s really, really easy to trammel all over the designer’s intent, which very well may require you deal with uncomfortable stuff.

4) Be okay with the deliberate gaps (if your best informed guess is that a gap is deliberate). For example: All the rules dealing with social interactions in The One Ring are written with NPCs in mind — it’s not unusual. Mutant: Year Zero is another notable example. In fact it’s one of the great assumed gaps in trad design!

In the case of The One Ring, I settled on that being a deliberate gap. What I look at is the company rules (the company must agree to a goal every session) and the experience point rules (you only earn if the company is pursuing the agreed-upon goal). The game feels like it’s about cooperation, not personal striving. Compare to say Burning Wheel, which is very much about personal striving (as expressed through its advancement and Artha rules).

But in MYZ I decided it wasn’t at all deliberate (cues: relationship map questions during character creation aim adversity both outward and inward), and had to come up with ways for the system to work fairly with everyone.

The tl;dr of this whole ridiculous post probably comes down to this:

* Be sensitive to what the game is trying to accomplish
* Be educated as to the scope of things that RPGs generally have tried to accomplish
* Be open to what’s actually on the page and pay attention to what’s not on the page
* Always question what you’re bringing to your interpretation.

Just my take. YMMV, the artist is dead, etc etc.

There Was Never A Frontier

So this is what I mean by “there was never a frontier.”

First off, it’s deliberately provocative. The entire premise of Misfortune rests on understanding the American West as it actually was, not as it was mythologized. I’m deeply interested in the challenges of the actual time and place, and the tension between the history and the stories we have invented.

It also relies on a particular definition of frontier. Most people probably think of the (I know!) definition, something along the lines of “the process of settlement of new lands in the West.” But new to whom? Europeans? By the time the major settlement push started in the early 1800s, Europeans — specifically the French and the Spanish — had family and trade ties throughout the area for literally centuries. Centuries. European traders necessarily intermarried with local tribes, raised families, built communities, fucked and fucked up, everything. Go all the way out to California and you find not only Spanish history that’s centuries old, but you find Russian trading posts and, again, intermarrying with the local tribes.

And let’s not forget that prior to the Europeans and Russians pushing their way into North America, the tribes had been there for many, many thousands of years.

So that’s why I say there was never a frontier. Calling the American West a frontier is absurd unless you very narrowly understand the period as American-born settlers loading up wagons and heading west on the Oregon Trail into a completely empty country filled with inhuman savages to be tamed.

No. Terrible. I mean truly terrible. And that shit was baked into the Doctrine of Discovery (1500ish on), that explicitly privileged Christian Europeans over all the rest of the world.

So let’s talk instead about a West that’s full of very old families intermarried across racial and cultural lines, often against the wishes of the governments and churches and various other cultural worry-warts back in their homelands. Let’s talk instead about tribes who came into the 1800s with strong trade and family ties and no idea they were about to face genocide.

Let’s talk about the history, because I promise it’s so much more interesting than shootouts.

I’ve been sitting about halfway into the design on Misfortune for about a year now. I’m going to use this collection to start spooling out my ideas, getting feedback, hopefully prodding myself into being a little more productive on it. Because I really do want to get it out there, but I’m feeling intimidated both by the scale of the work and the ugly politics. I’m already thinking about the folks who are going to haaaate that they can’t get a Tombstone or Deadwood type game out of my game, that it looks like it’s for Westerns but has very little to do with the Western fictional genre.

Anyway. More soon.

Man, I love speculating about all the shit that went down at a convention I couldn’t attend but everyone’s talking about. Was there ever a more navel-gazey hobby? Says the guy who writes this collection.

Derpening of Mirkwood 10
The One Ring
Social Contract and Practical Play

I think we’ve reached the point in our campaign where there’s really nothing new about the system or the game itself that’s that interesting to talk about. Now it’s just the game we play on Tuesday evenings, aimed into the indefinite future.

I think one thing that has interfered with my ability to run games for a very long time (I know, 10 sessions isn’t that long) is kind of a new development in my gaming life: I run out of things to talk about online! Ridiculous but I’m thinking about it.

Stuff does in fact come to mind, though, after our last session:

* It was a pure sandbox session. Lots of threads to pick up and run with, nothing really special happening in Darkening of Mirkwood year 2954. They could have helped the Woodmen open a safe passage through The Narrows between East Bight and the Black Tarn, but three of the four company members are now new characters, with just the hobbit remaining of the old crew. He’s the “old man” now, eight years a committed wandering adventurer far from home. He’s also got his first Shadow trait — Idle — and has taken to drinking and lazing about Woodland Hall. A minor local celebrity gone to seed.

I like that! I also like the shift in generations. Is the company really the same company? Clearly it isn’t. And the memories of past characters really does add a nice texture to everything. The dwarf who went mad with jealousy and tried to kill the hobbit over imagined slights, well, his replacement (the player was unavailable for three weeks so three years have gone by since anyone’s heard from the dwarf) is a Woodman, Woodwoman?, who’s been told how terrible the hobbit is the whole time by her mentor. But she’s here anyway largely because of shit that went down years ago between strangers.

The other newb is here on orders from the elf who went power-mad and raised an army of vigilantes to “patrol” southern Mirkwood and deliver rough justice: she knows she can’t really live with people any more but she’s still sincerely concerned for the hobbit’s well-being, so she’s sent a trusted Woodman to track down her old friend. It’s really quite lovely.

The only character without a through-line to the first generation is also the one with the most tenuous connection to the Company, and it’s so obvious. Everything going on with him, a Beorning, is cut whole-cloth from the established backstory, and the handwaviest of handwaves between a trusted NPC (Bofri, the dwarf who wants to reopen the Old Forest Road) and the hobbit PC. It’s weak. And in this case, I think it’s actually okay — although he’s kind of a pariah. Hard to be a company with an untrustworthy outsider.

Oh, anyway, since everyone’s new that means nobody but the hobbit really has the Wisdom to tolerate Mirkwood shenanigans. They’ve seen just how fast the Shadow can tear someone’s soul down, so they’re pretty resistant to going in unless they have to. Now they’re finding things to do outside the forest, and that’s cool.

* A really interesting and semi-uncomfortable power struggle cropped up during play between me and, quelle surprise, the Beorning outsider’s player. I’m not even sure “power” is the right qualifier.

The basic situation: we’re in an Encounter with Beorn hissownself. The Beorning PC has Awed his way into an audience, so he’s the only talker. They’re talking about this asshole NPC, Viglund, who has his own little parallel kingdom to the north and has been raiding and enslaving Beornings. Well, the PC thinks he’s gonna single-handedly walk into Viglund’s territory, call the guy out in single combat, and put an end to it. Beorn, who’s been fighting these assholes for years now, is more temperate — he wants the kid (he’s 19!) to gather intelligence.

Anyway, details aren’t important. In the course of the Encounter the player says he wants to talk Beorn into lending him some men. That’s what he says: “Okay, I want to talk him into lending me some guys.” To which I say “Well yeah, but he’s skeptical of striking Viglund anyway so this is gonna be hard. Let’s say TN 18.” And the player pushes the dice away and says “nope, never mind.”

Well…okay so now we’re in uncharted waters. Is TOR a “if you do it you’ve done it” kind of game? Not explicitly, no. Is TOR a “negotiate between players at the table until we settle on something” kind of game? Mmmm no, not explicitly. But Burning Wheel damage has been done with these folks! There is, I think, a constant implication that negotiating is a thing you can do.

Yesssss that’s fine BUT! But but but the cat-and-mouse of the Encounter rules is an important source of tension! Me telling you the TN is an 18 isn’t an offer to negotiate, it’s a courtesy so you can just tell me if you’ve succeeded. But he knows he’s up against the edge of the Tolerance of the whole encounter and doesn’t want to deal with large-scale failure. And so he just doesn’t touch the dice. Pushes them away. Says “no” in a beat of play where “no,” to my mind, doesn’t belong.

It’s weird, right! In one version of the world I suppose I could, you know, just stare him down. Or say he fails, whatever, rocks fall everyone dies. Or I can go along with it, which to my mind sets an unhealthy precedent. I went along with it, but now I’m thinking about precedent. Oh god, the accumulated common law of the game table.

Now, in the future, I won’t announce TNs. But then that raises the specter of “you’re just making up TNs so I fail when you want me to!” To which I then say “Okay then you can make an Insight roll and I can tell you something about the conflict, like what the TN would be for this or say how close to Tolerance you are.” Which is just injecting more rolls, creating more chances to roll Eyes and run up the Mordor track (although they’re negotiating in a sanctuary, so that’s actually a non-issue in this particular case).

But you can see the lawyerly head space this whole thing moves me into. And I kind of hate it. It’s one reason, I think, why the explicit procedures of Burning Wheel have worked so very well with some players in my group: they’re predicated on negotiating, on openness. And that’s hard to set aside even in a purposeful design.

The Encounter rules in The One Ring are specifically built to incorporate gambling, to get them to push their luck. But gambling requires hidden information. It has to be there. It’s fundamentally incompatible with radical transparency.

It’s a problem with few good solutions within the rules themselves. I even brought it up afterward but maybe I need to reframe the conversation a little.

* Hmhmhm nothing else of real interest this session. Just kind of, you know, the shit that’s happening. But if gameplay is going to drift down this path much further — some basic rejection of GM authority — we might have to take a break for a while. Can’t really play a game if you don’t all agree to the rules.


So I’m doing some radical reorganizing of my RPG shelves and came across this old beauty, a fuck-you blast from the bad old 1990s. When Kult was the satanic game that everyone thought D&D was.

Those pages, right? The whole book is printed in tiny black type on splashy red pattern. Because if you’re not tough enough to read it, you don’t deserve it. Small press games took 20 more years to (re) discover that aesthetic. Old is new etc etc.

I think Mikael Andersson​ will get a kick out of this! Although he probably already has it poked away somewhere safe.

Derpening of Mirkwood 9
The One Ring

I confess, last night happening at all was a coin toss.

I think it’s the slow accumulation of this thing that’s been happening since the first session: I’m hitting all the campaign marks that are in Darkening of Mirkwood but I’m doing them out of sequence, because I’m only reading a year or two ahead. Folks mentioned spoiler problems in a previous post so I won’t talk specifics, but the redacted that they were supposed to face in 2952 last night was something they’d already defeated previously. Not a deal breaker! There are reasons why redacted might have come back. But it means the freshness and surprise isn’t there.

So I sat there transcribing the year, like I always do, and I’m thinking “do I even care about this game now?” I decided to just let it play out, see how I felt afterward.

In any case, it didn’t matter because after I laid out the “so this is how the year has shaped up so far” stuff — it takes about 30 minutes at the top of each session — they decided not to engage with redacted at all and go do another thing. Which is great. The constrained sandbox is working well for this, and it feels a bit more open even than The Great Pendragon Campaign because they don’t have patrons sending the company off on mandatory errands.

Observations in bullet form:

* The elf had her third and fourth bouts of madness, and her player decided it was time to retire her. She ended out Tyrannical, which was badass and terrifying. But retiring as someone with tyrannical urges makes for an interesting NPC opportunity in the future: not necessarily a villain, but not necessarily trustworthy either.

* Instead of heading into the Mountains of Mirkwood to deal with redacted, the company had an opportunity to stay out of the forest and visit Beorn’s people finally. There have been raids and stories of slavery coming out from up there (nice work in Darkening moving folks around to different areas of the map). And that let me finally, finally get into the Kinstrife storyline out of Tales from Wilderland.

What’s neat about the Tales things is that they get enormously more interesting once the characters are a ways down the Shadow track and you’ve turned on the Eye of Mordor rules from Rivendell. They tend to be pretty programmatic, so adding more random inputs helps make the scenarios feel more dynamic. IMO running them straight, without Darkening as maybe a one-shot or whatever, would be pretty boring.

* So we had an amazing little chain of events add up to some difficult shenanigans. The hobbit, who has avoided being miserable for eight sessions, finally slipped over into it as he was pursuing this suspected murderer through the woods (it’s a Kinstrife thing, no real spoilers here). Aaaaand the Eye of Mordor counter had ticked over the area’s chase number (because the elf decided to use her elf-light spell to help set the trap). Aaaaaand the hobbit rolled an Eye in the course of capturing the suspect. So he experiences his first bout of madness just as Mordor decides to pay attention. It was pretty great.

* On that note, I feel like we’re hitting a pretty good balance on working out really interesting bouts of madness and Mordor chases. Sometimes the players have ideas, sometimes I do, and we collaborate nicely on the outcome. Where one player will happily chew the scenery with the bout, another might not have a good head for (melo)drama.

In the case of the hobbit’s break/chase scene, he picked up Idle as his first shadow trait. So he knocks the guy to the ground, looks at the suspect, looks at his sword, looks at the ground, and just plops down. Just…gives up. Fugues out. And because the chase is active, the outlaws with whom the suspect has taken up show up in force and collect the hobbit, bundling him up for a juicy payoff from Beorn or the Woodmen or whomever. He’s known to be a Hero of the Woodmen after all!

In the case of the elf’s Tyrannical break, she’d just wounded/defeated the outlaw bandit in a big battle scene. So we escalated that: she’d beheaded the guy, grabbed the head, and rallied a bunch of misfits and easily-led to her side — Beorn himself losing followers, some outlaws falling into line, Woodmen involved in the battle coming to her side. Then she marched her sudden makeshift army into south Mirkwood to begin inflicting rough justice on anyone she feels deserves it. She’s retired into this sort of pseudo-Mogdred role, but instead of throwing in with the Shadow she’s an aggressive, unreasonable anti-Shadow crusader. Better hope you don’t have any permanent Shadow, or you might get a visit.

* At this point, yeah, at the end of the session I once again felt pretty renewed and excited to play. I kind of wish I could suss out what was interfering with my interest beforehand. Some of it I know is the turnover in the company: now that the elf has retired, that leaves just the hobbit as the original company member. Are they still a company? I love the pseudodynastic quality of retirement, passing along XPs, and having a new character in line. But the game doesn’t really discuss much of what happens beyond that. I’m not even sure what it’d say, honestly.

The first time we replaced a hero, the new character had no direct line back. That may have been a mistake because now we need to start cooking up entirely new storyline for the replacement. The replacement is a Beorning, and this last year was Beorning-intensive (the company received titles, land and standing from Beorn as reward for their help), so that’s already moving forward well.

I know for sure that this week’s orgy of violence in Orlando has made me feel really reluctant to celebrate or fetishize violence.

The One Ring
Derpening of Mirkwood 8

I went to bed thinking it was just the worst session ever, but woke up thinking the game is stronger than ever. Weird!

It’s been maybe 3 weeks since we played. One missed week is usually enough to let the fizz out of the bottle, and more than half the time it’s me having spotted something shiny on the ground (hello Undying). Less than half the time it’s because nobody’s really paying much attention to the storylines, and they’ve got a game-fiction memory the size of a tiny commemorative thimble.

Last night we were down a player, and will be next week as well. We agreed we’d continue, especially since the missing player is also the one who took his Dwarf into retirement after his fourth bout of madness. There’s another character, a Barding, who’s also at his fourth bout of madness and decided to not retire him. Which is great! But on his very first roll, he rolled an Eye and that was that.

Thoughts in bullet form for your bathroom reading pleasure:

* When the Barding player hit his fourth bout of madness, I had an idea about how it would play out so, per RAW, I took over the scene. But just previously, when the Dwarf experienced his fourth bout, I let him choose. And I felt weird about that. Lots of conflicting agendas happening: my desire for that scene to play out the way I wanted it to, not super-trusting the player to take the reins and really chew the scenery with his villainy.

Well I was stupid as hell, because that dude chewed the scenery on his fifth and final break! Having smothered a grievously wounded Ceawin in his sleep, the Barding had expected to take over the woodmen of East Bight (because he’s treacherous and scheming and all that). Well, the East Bight families decided instead to have a folk moot and decide among the families who would lead them. So the Barding stands up to make his case and eyeballs the roll. This time I let him play out his final break, and it was fabulous: he made a marvelous villain speech (who else do I have to kill to take the crown? Wasn’t killing Ceawin enough? You fools! etc.), tried to murder the crowd’s favored candidate on the spot, and fluttered away to the woods to continue scheming.

tl;dr let your players do their bouts of madness and give them total license to chew the scenery. It plays out just as well as Darkest Self in Monsterhearts, and if your players aren’t feeling it — you know, they want to mitigate and finesse and edge-case it — this is not the game for them.

* Having to create a new character on the spot and shoehorn him into the company, we only had a couple hours to play out 2952. Which turns out to be fine, because it’s a pretty short year: march down the Old Forest Road to help an NPC on a fetch-quest. The fact the game survived a 50% turnover in the company and we had to do chargen on the spot should have been the death blow, but it was not. So yay us/them.

* The Eye of Mordor rules + everything is blighted = wow, hard game. Mirkwood is just the worst fucking place. We started with a completely fresh character and he’s already had his first bout of madness, having spent three weeks stumbling around in the forest. They had the pursuit run up three times in the forest, which I used to juice up otherwise normal Hazards into full-blown terrifying scenes. My favorite: I drew the Hidden Lair card from Hobbit Tales and it became a freakshow temple built out of Dwarven paving stones in the middle of the Old Forest Road, a honeypot trap laid by the Ghost of the Forest (a nazgul). Nazguls are way bad news one at a time.

* On the other hand, lengthy trips into the forest are starting to feel a teeny bit procedural, especially when it’s a roll-rich environment. There’s a lot of math setting up the Journey: 18 days in the Heart of Mirkwood in the summer means 3x TN18 Travel rolls and daily Corruption tests. Combined with Eye of Mordor, you do not go into the forest without the Enemy knowing you’re there. You just don’t. But it’s also a fairly heavy improvisational load for me to come up with stuff that frequently. It’s not terrible! But I think I need to brainstorm Mordor pursuit scenes in advance and keep them in my pocket.

* Last night, I walked away thinking I’d just call this game and start something fresh. I’m so pleased that we’re not, though: we’ve lost two excellent character threads but gained an amazing villain (the treacherous Barding!) and injected some fresh new ideas into the company.


The very best part of being a finalist in last year’s Game Chef was discovering, once and for all, that Game Chef is totally not the right event for me.

I love that so many people love it! I wish I knew your secret.


Reading an exceptionally weird rule set on a Kindle is an exceptionally weird experience. I’ve never tried reading rules in this format before, and this was probably not the right first attempt.

Has anyone had luck reading/learning rules from a Kindle?

Meanwhile: forming many, many Opinions about this game. But I can’t tell how much of that is coming from this weird format.