Roleplaying Campaigns as Television Shows

Roleplaying games were my first introduction to the world of professional game design. Every RPG ever published assumes–if it doesn’t actively encourage–its players will create house rules, homebrew monsters, and custom worlds. This makes the RPG table a perfect place for aspiring writers, actors. and game designers.

I hung my dice up a few years ago. Our regular group dissolved as members moved out of state and we were unable to find dedicated players to fill their chairs. There was the occasional pickup game but board game design became my bailiwick.

The break between campaigns enabled me to find a new perspective. One year ago, I elected to climb behind the screen and form a new group for a new game. This campaign wrapped up recently so it seemed like a perfect time to share the experience.


RPGs as Serialized Epics

Twenty years ago, J. Michael Straczynski brought a television show that was completely new to us. Babylon 5 was scheduled tell an epic story over the course of five years. And then stop. Nobody was writing that kind of television at the time. Most shows were serialized and open-ended like a comic book.


Twenty-first century television has a number of great shows of this type. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones are all shows which tell epic stories over multiple episodes. And then stop.

These serialized epics are the new template for my campaigns.


Serialized Epic Advantage: Extended Stories

Any episode of a show from my childhood like Happy Days or Beverly Hills 90210 packed every story into a tidy three-act structure which fit nicely into a single episode.

That’s not how Breaking Bad works. Walter White doesn’t deal with threats to his business in a single episode. If a threat appears in one episode, his response will be revealed to us gradually. He may begin responding to this threat in the same episode but it is likely that multiple episodes will pass before he has completely dealt with the interlopers.

The stories in serialized epics stretch over multiple episodes.

When I began playing RPGs in 1980, each session was a single dungeon crawl. We grabbed our gear, girded our proverbials, and dove in. Once the dungeon was suitably stripped of treasure, the characters that climbed out were pretty much the same ones that dove in. We could enter the next dungeon pretty much the same way we entered this one.

In a serialized epic RPG, stories play out over multiple sessions. A party member may be attacked in one session, investigate the source of the attack in the second session, and act to neutralize this source in the third. Rumors discrediting party members may emerge, requiring a number of sessions of damage control all while the opposing faction keeps working to wreck the team’s rep.


Serialized Epic Advantage: Consequences

Not only did other shows pack their three-act structure into single episodes, they also tended to set everything back to normal by the end of that episode. No matter what else happened, we are going to see Bruce Banner hitchhiking down an anonymous strip of middle America by the end of each episode of The Incredible Hulk. Sure, we had the occasional To be continued… but these were rare exceptions.


Walter White’s actions reverberate through the series. Any time he puts on his Heisenberg hat and begins plotting, we know things are going to change for keepsies. His actions are consequential.

When our party finished a dungeon crawl, we were done with it. Apart from the stray magic item and a character level or two, that hole in the ground was any other hole in the ground. They held no further significance for us and their builders certainly weren’t going to come looking for us to punish us for destroying their creations. And what if we were to change up their order? So what? They had no effect on one another anyway. Our characters–and the world they lived in–were unchanged by their experiences.

Every major action by the player characters in a serialized RPG will revisit them later. Toppling the evil overlord leaves a power vacuum; if the PCs don’t find a way to fill this vacuum, they will have to deal with the new evil overlord who moves in to fill it.


Serialized Epic Advantage: Conclusions

Gilligan’s Island was the continuing story of a group of castaways on a tropical island trying to get rescued. Showrunners had only one goal; for the show to be popular enough to keep renewing it. With high enough ratings, it’s conceivable that Gilligan’s Island could still be on the air today.

Deliberate open-ended structures like this rob shows of dramatic opportunity. It puts them on a treadmill, always running but never moving forward. The castaways cannot be rescued or the show would be over. The castaways also cannot fail to survive or there would be nothing to watch.

Breaking Bad was conceived as the rise and fall of a drug lord. No matter how popular it may have been, it had to end. Walter White had to end.

Serialized Epics are created with an end in mind. Planning with a conclusion in mind is exactly why these shows can include extended stories plots with consequences

Running a serialized epic RPG frees the game master from mundane questions about how to keep the game plodding along from one session to the next. Instead, she can focus on building the game to its climax.

Running a serialized epic RPG also frees the game master from concerns of power creep. Certainly, the PCs are getting steadily more powerful. But the stakes they fight for are also rising, as is their competition. The PCs NEED a steady rise in power. Without it, they won’t be prepared to face her campaign’s conclusion.


A Serialized Epic Conclusion

The combined advantages of extended story, consequence, and conclusion led me to choose the serialized epic model for my RPG. It was the right decision.

My serialized epic campaign ran for just under a year. The heroes began with an investigation into a series of serial killings with implications of the supernatural. Their story went on to feature investigate hauntings in Hollywood, possessions among the New York elite, and a hunt for the Spear of Destiny. Through all these adventures, they were opposed by a supernatural horror fixated on fulfilling a dark prophecy. The campaign climaxed with a battle on the Siberian plains under the prophesized eclipse. And we had fun along the way. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?



What do you think of the serialized epic model for campaigns? Did I miss any features? Have you played in one? Have you run one? How did it turn out? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below. And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog. If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Dramatic Structure For The Modern Game Designer, Part 2

The Story So Far

The three act structure is fundamental to story creation and to game design.  In the first act, players look at their position and are compelled to to respond to the game or one another.  In the second act, players develop their game engine, finding new strength.  Players push for the endgame in the third act.

This time, we move closer.  Part 1 of this piece looked at the forest.  Now, we focus on trees.


Creating Subcycles

John Howard Larson in Theory and Technique of Playwriting (1936) noticed that within each play were even smaller cycles of tension and release. “…the principle which underlies the pattern is basic, and can be applied in all cases. The material arranges itself in certain cycles. If we examine each of the cycles, we find that each one is a small replica of the construction of a play, involving exposition, rising action, clash, and climax.”

An overarching three-act structure is not enough.  Not by itself, it isn’t.  A game needs cycles of tension and release within its main arch.  Placing these cycles well will maximize the quality of playtime in your games.


Pivotal Moments

In my design work, I try to build sharp peaks into these cycles.  These are the pivotal moments of the game. This is when things happen; big bonuses are scored, territory is seized, major auctions are won, and underdogs rise.

Pivotal moments are not just about making something big happen.  They are about the opportunity to make something big happen.  You may take a big risk for a big reward, only to have that golden reward turn to ashes.  Making that moment approach and resolve is nonetheless dramatic.

Think about the last time you called Grand Tichu.  That play was increasingly dramatic up to the point you laid your final card.

Think about your last bidding war in Modern Art.  You and your opponent stared each other down, waiting to see who would blink.

Think about that bank shot in 9-ball pool.  If you succeeded, the win was yours but if you failed, you would be handing your opponent an easy layup.

Think about the big engine you packed into your deck in Dominion.  Now remember the look your opponents had when they realized you’d be buying two provinces each turn for the rest of the game.

These are the essential qualities of a pivotal moment–the release of the build, packed into one sharp moment.

Michael Hauge: Pivotal Moments as Turning Points

Michael Hauge refers to pivotal moments as turning points.  Notice how he inserts five turning points into the broad three-act structure.  By including these turning, he is able to keep each act active and engaging.



Robin Laws: Pivotal Moments as Beats

Robin Laws refers to each small pivotal moment as a beat.  In his text Hamlet’s Hit Points, he identifies 115 such beats in Hamlet, 215 beats in Dr. No, and 175 in Casablanca.  In his analysis, Laws describes each beat by its type and by whether the beat points up, down, or laterally.  Laws makes a particularly insightful point here–he asserts that not only must bring heroes toward their goals while others must push them away.  

Why is this?  Why should pivotal moments make players lose as well as win?  the answer is subtle but important.

Games are generally two-sided.  When I (or my team) advances, you and yours tend to fall behind. For a game to flow well, each player must have an opportunity to experience success.  And as each player experiences success, their opponents experience loss (or at least jealousy over a potential loss).  Now think of pivotal moments as opportunities for gains and losses.  By including plenty of pivotal moments, each player can be kept engaged.  In a Eurogame, you might be falling behind in camels but ahead in trade goods. In a wargame, I might be winning all of the skirmishes but failing to capture any of your cities.

Pivotal moments are the key to giving your game life.

What do you think of pivotal moments in game design?  Did I miss any features?  How do you use them?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Pandemic: The Roleplaying Game

The Story So Far

Since there aren’t many examples of roleplaying games based on board games,  I set out to create one.  It’s been an interesting design exercise. If you are interested in RPG design, definitely give it a try.

Staring at my shelves, mulling board games over took some time.  Which one has the best potential?  Which one has an engaging setting?  Which one has a large scale and would still be interesting at an intimate scale?  Abstract games are too–abstract.  There will be no Chess: the Roleplaying Game.  Battle games would be too easy.  That rules out Earth Reborn, Mythic Battles, Mage Knight, and their pugalistic cousins.  Economics make fun boardgames but lack that personal touch I’m seeking.  So long, Web of Power, Acquire, and Rolling Freight.  How about Monopoly: the Roleplaying Game?  Please no.

I finally chose Matt Leacock’s excellent Pandemic.  Pandemic has all the elements any roleplayer could want.  It features high stakes–virulent diseases have simultaneously broken out all across the world.  It features epic characters–each player takes the role of a world class disease fighter.  Characters naturally form into diverse parties–each utilizing their talents to treat hot spots, prevent outbreaks, and research cures.


The Game Engine

I favor highly narrative games with quick task-resolution systems.  The clever Strike! RPG (Get it here) achieved this goal far better than most.  I used its concepts as a starting point for my game engine. This game will feature no attributes in the normal RPG sense of the word.  Instead, characters will use skills to differentiate them from one another.

Gameplay will be focused on the high drama of working to cure fatal diseases.  Interpersonal conflict and social strife are likely to feature in the game so the system needs to handle these situations smoothly.  Combat won’t happen often and when it does, it will be deadly.

When a character attempts a task, the player will describe what they are trying to achieve and which skill they intend to use.  Under the GM’s judgment, one or more standard six-sided dice are rolled.  If the character does not have an appropriate skill, roll one die.  If the character is skilled, roll two.  If the task matches the character’s type, roll three dice.   After rolling, take the highest among them.  The GM then describes the result of this action by using this narrative chart.

Highest die Narrated Result
7 Amazing success
6 Success with a major bonus
5 Success with a minor bonus
4 Simple no frills success
3 Success but with a cost
2 Simple failure
1 Abject failure.  Opposite result achieved.

Why is 7 on this chart?  Good question.  If two or more of your dice roll 6, the result is treated as 7 and your character gets an amazing, perhaps even unprecedented success!



This game will not need a formal skill list.  Instead, each player gets to create six skills for his or her character during creation. These skills represent the talents and abilities each character has beyond his or her primary career.  Because this game is narrative rather than exhaustive, players are encouraged to create narrative skills.  To help inspire you, here are a few:

Accountant Bus Driver Camper Chef
Diver Geology Mechanic Programmer
Runner Sewing Woodcrafts


Character Types

A character’s type is his or her primary career.  These types were drawn directly from the Pandemic board game.  Each type lays out an area of specialization for your character.  In game terms, this means you roll 3 dice on any task related to your character type.  Each type also brings extra advantages and challenges.

Dispatchers coordinate movement.  Dispatchers get people and supplies where they need to be when they need to be there.  As an extra advantage, a dispatcher may announce once per session where an item or person is without rolling dice.  If this advantage is used, then later in the same session, the GM may announce that a different item or person is unavailable.

Medics cure people.  Medics are the people who live on the front lines of infection.  As an extra advantage, a medic may gain entry into a restricted area once per session without rolling dice.  If this advantage is used, then later in the same session, the GM may announce that a quarantined area has suffered a breakout and the disease has spread.

Researchers collect the pieces.  Researchers collate data and identify how disease is spread.  As an extra advantage, a researcher may ask the GM for a clue once per session without rolling dice.  If this advantage is used, then later in the same session, the GM may evolve the disease to spread in a new way (bloodborne evolves into fluidborne, for example).

Scientists put the pieces together.  Scientists explore treatments and discover cures for the deadliest diseases in the world.  As an extra advantage, a scientist may find a cure once per session without rolling dice.  If this advantage is used, then later in the same session, the GM may introduce a resistant substrain which spreads less easily but is immune to this cure.

Operations Experts build facilities.  Operations Experts make the field hospitals, research stations, and fabrication laboratories the other characters use.  Dispatchers may stock the shelves but without Operations Experts, there would be no shelves to stock.  As an extra advantage, an operations expert may declare the presence of a supply depot once per session without rolling dice.  If this advantage is used, then later in the same session, the GM may cause an equipment malfunction.

GMing the Pandemic RPG

It’s hard to roleplay a virus.  They’re pernicious but also rather mindless.  This will be your biggest challenge as a GM for this game.  People, however are rather more familiar ground.  If I were to run this game, that’s where my stories would start.  

Story Seed: There’s an immunodeficiency outbreak in central Africa.  The warlord controlling the region doesn’t want the “corrupt influences” of the CDC in the area.  Before the team can treat the sick or find a cure, they must find a way to get in.

Story Seed: Several cases of Cholera have appeared in the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico.  Diplomatic tension between the two nations makes it difficult to coordinate efforts.  The team may need to navigate international relations before they can get at the real problem.

Story Seed: Several atypical cases of pneumonia have appeared in East Asia.  This may be a new strain of SARS.  A member of Doctors Without Borders is related to one of the team and may have already become infected.  Can the team find an adequate treatment in time to save his life?

Final Thoughts

So that’s the Pandemic RPG I would write if I were writing a Pandemic RPG.  Since roleplaying games are the best for exploring personal experience and emotion, I took the global setting of Pandemic and personalized it.  Overall, I’m pretty happy with the results.

What do you think of the Pandemic RPG? What did you find most interesting?  What would you have done differently?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Cross-Platform Game Design, Part 4

The Story So Far

Luther and I were recently approached to design a boardgame to enhance an existing RPG product line.  This project got me started thinking about cross-platform game design.

This series concludes today with conversions between board games and roleplaying games.


Roleplaying Games and Their Connection to Legacy Games

RPGs share a striking connection with their tabletop brethren; RPGs are the original Legacy games.

“Legacy games” according to Boardgamegeek “are board games that change over time based on the outcome of each game and the various choices made by players. … The changes made in a Legacy game are always permanent, so what is done can not be undone.”  

In an RPG, the actions your character takes have similarly lasting effects on the game world.   Your character–and therefore your starting position in the game–changes regularly each time you play the game.  

If your character saves a town from a dragon, your character has earned a lasting reputation in that game.  If your character fails to prevent the assassination of the star emperor, that character is dead in every future session of that game.  Knights of the Dinner Table is one of the great gamer comics, centered on the the ongoing chaos of the eponymous group and their beleaguered DM.  Throughout the comic, we see the game world this group plays evolving in response to their actions.  When Knuckles the Thief–of the Knights–murdered a beggar, he was sentenced having his leg hacked off at the knee.  Another lasting (if not permanent) effect on the game.


When you design a conversion between board game and roleplaying game, consider ways to include legacy in the game.

Converting a Roleplaying Game Into a Board Game

Converting in this direction might require zooming out to let each player control a group of characters.  Lords of Waterdeep takes this approach by having players control both a lord and his agents rather than a single character in D&D.

Lords of Waterdeep Set

RPG to boardgame conversion cold also be a lateral move as in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game which keeps players focused on a single character just as in its parent game.

Manage the perspective of your game to make a successful boardgame conversion of a roleplaying game.

Consider using your game to expose players to their game world in a new way.  Zoom out to condense epic sequences to a scale players can take in.  Embed players in a world in motion to give them a broader perspective than they could ever get by playing as a single character.  

Or keep the scale personal but cast them as villains rather than the heroes.  Or change their perspective again by casting them not as the heroes who rescue the town but instead as town elders who must recruit heroes.

computer-hacker-alertBoardgames are also good at moving sequences from the RPG’s metaspace into literal space.  Imagine a cyberpunk RPG which includes rules for hacking a company’s datafortress.  The rules of the RPG might have the player make a sequence of skill checks and have the referee use these results to arbitrate the hack.  Your board game might replace these simple skill checks with elaborated card play and introduce a game board to represent the company’s network map.  Your game has taken metaspace–a few die rolls simulating the hack–and made it literal–getting the hacker’s pawn to the key data packet and back out undetected.

Converting a Board Game Into a Roleplaying Game

There aren’t many conversion from board game to roleplaying but one stole many hours which might have spent better outside in the sun. The 1997 title Sid Meier’s Magic: the Gathering shows us many ways this game expanded on its tabletop source material.  The game casts you as a planeswalker–the metagame identity of every player in the M:tG card game–with a starting deck of game cards.  Game world terrain comes in five types, representing the five colors of magic in the game.  Cities in the game world also appear in these colors.  Monsters in the game come from monsters in the card game and each monster’s deck will be built around that monster’s color.  Battle is handled by playing of the card game.  Your life total begins lower than the 20 you may be accustomed to, but rises as your character levels up.  Battles are played for ante–a random card is drawn from each deck, set aside, and the winner keeps both cards.  As you gain levels and build increasingly stronger decks, you can take on stronger monsters until finally defeating the game’s boss for victory.  The game certainly had a number of shortcomings and wasn’t loved by most fans but still gives a look into how we might convert a board game into a roleplaying game.

SId Meier MtG

One More Example

Since there aren’t many examples of roleplaying games based on board games, I’m going create one.  Stop by next time to see which game I would choose and how I would approach it.

Final Thoughts

To write a good conversion, understand the strengths of the original medium and the new.  Understand the best complexity for each medium and its best scope. Among the three, miniatures games are the best for modeling action and combat, roleplaying games are the best for exploring personal experience and emotion, board games are best if you want to simulate a grand scope.  

Choose wisely and give your players a great gaming experience.


What do you think of boardgame: roleplaying game conversions?  Did I miss any features?  Have you written any yourself?  How did you approach it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


BGG.FAM After Report

BGG.FAM 2016 was last weekend.  Since Comicpalooza is in June this year, we had a chance to slip out of Houston, escape the deluge, see some old friends, and to make new ones.

Here are some of the highlights from Dallas.


The convention library had a sizable stack of family games up front and after looking through them, I settled on Spinderella from Zoch Verlag.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this spatial reasoning race game won the 2015 nod from the SdJ committee for best children’s game “Kinderspiel des Jahres.”  It certainly earned it.

Each player has a set of three ants who are racing from the base of one tree to the base of another tree on the opposite corner of the game box.  Using the game box to create the play space for a game is always a nice touch and doubly so in the case of a game meant for children.  Eager to dine on our delicate ants is the eponymous Spinderella who is suspended by a thread to two other spiders above.

On your turn, roll three dice.  The first die determines whether you will move an ant, the tree stump, or Spinderella herself.  Moving an ant is just as you would in any Pachisi type game–pick an ant and move it the number of spaces shown on the die.  Moving the stump covers or uncovers ants which either protects them (when covering) or frees them up to move (when uncovering).  Moving Spinderella is the hook of the game.  She is not moved directly.  Instead, you move the spiders holding her aloft.  As these two spiders near one another, she descends, as they move laterally, so does she.  It’s a bit like having a claw crane on the tabletop.  And when Spinderella descends but refuses to latch on to your opponent’s ant, it’s every bit as frustrating.

Track Spinderella down and check it out.  You’ll be glad you did.

Epic PvP: Fantasy

World famous game developer Brent Lloyd and I hit the Saturday morning flea market together.  This was a bad decision on both our parts since it turned out we were looking for the same kinds of games. Epic PvP was an impulse buy which the two of us quickly tried out.  Brent beat me 2-0 but let’s not hold that against the game.

If you think of this game as a two-player version of Smash-Up, you’re halfway there.  Each player chooses a race and a class, then shuffles the two decks together.  This gets you classic fantasy gaming combinations like Dwarf Paladin or Human Druid.  In addition to this deck, you get two additional powers from your race/class combination. 

Epic PvP Setup

Deck Setup

The game has a simple back-and-forth at its core.  This is an asset to the design.  It takes only a few minutes to understand the basic game which frees your brain to focus on squeezing advantage from every card.  The game also features a constant dimension between energy–called “aggression” in this game–and hand size.

Epic PvP offers plenty of replay at a small price.  I’m confident that I’ll be playing this one for a while.

Roller Derby Final Jams

Four years ago, Kevin Brusky hosted a company party for APE Games at a roller derby.  We had a great time and I’ve appreciated the sport ever since.  Two years later, Ref Tom Green, a roller derby referee himself, first showed me his prototype.  Rather than trying to carry you through an entire game, Roller Derby Final Jams covers only the final 6 minutes of play.  This enabled him to zoom in and pack the game with detail while still keeping the play time tight.

Roller Derby Final Jam

Even celebrities like a good roller derby!

The game has been tightened up since I first saw it and he was running demonstrations throughout the weekend.  Featuring simultaneous action selection, token drafting, simultaneous die rolling, and press your luck die rolling, this game looks like it would be a hodgepodge of unrelated bits but each mechanism does a respectable job of simulating its part of live roller derby.  For original theme and clever use of familiar game mechanics, Roller Derby Final Jams deserves to find a publisher and will hopefully find its audience as well.

Simon’s Cat and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Boardgame

I’ve known designer Randy Scheunemann for several years now.  I do not know collaborator design partner Samuel Mitschke as well but it looks as if both of these are going to be popular with their intended audiences.  

Simons CatSimon’s Cat is in the Crazy Eights  family of card games except that the deck is dealt out every hand.  When you cannot play to a pile, take the pile in front of you as a penalty and lead a new card.  The player with the most piles before them at the end of the hand loses the hand.

Playing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Boardgame is like playing duck! duck! GO! with two bird dogs and variable hand size.  And that’s a good thing.  Play two cards each turn to program your movement for the turn.  Carry them out in numeric order.  Pick up objective tokens.  Each objective token adds to the beginning of your programmed movement for all subsequent rounds.  Two characters hunt you across space and time–the sheriff and the knight.  Each of these moves right after you do, using the same program you did, depending on the cards you played.  If you hit one of these nemeses or they hit you, drop an objective token on the map where your pawn stands.  The player with the most objective tokens at the end of the game wins.  Fun Fact: if you put the cards in order, their art tells the entire story of the movie!

A group of us played one hand of Simon’s Cat and found the notes of hand management and card counting enjoyable.

A different group of us tried Bill & Ted’s with designer Scheunemann.  Apparently, we were much more aggressive that most, seldom allowing a player to hold more than two objective tokens at a time.

Both of these games are, as they say, the sort of thing you like if you like that sort of thing.  I enjoyed both.  Perhaps I enjoyed Simon’s Cat a little bit more.  Their intended audiences will love them.

My Village

My VillageConsidering the big hit that was Village, it is only natural that there be a sequel.  My Village takes a stab at using dice as an action selection mechanism.  The result is a pastoral experience.  My Village is a game to enjoy on a quiet afternoon.  The difference between a weak turn and a strong one is pretty small and it will take careful consideration to make the right turn.  Find players who naturally ponder the implications of each decision.  Brew a pot of tea.  Relax and enjoy.


Those were my highlights from BGG.FAM 2016.  How about you?  Were you at the con this year?  What stood out for you?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress  and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Cross-Platform Game Design, Part 3

The Story So Far

Luther and I were recently approached to design a boardgame to enhance an existing RPG product line.  This project got me started thinking about cross-platform game design.

To engage players in your crossover, it must give players new experiences while staying true to the parent game.

I’m heading up to Dallas for BGG.FAM for the weekend–and my 48th birthday–but first, let’s talk conversions.  This time, we move between miniatures games and roleplaying games.


Converting a Minis Game Into a Roleplaying Game

Well this is where roleplaying games started, isn’t it?  Gary Gygax was a fan of Jeff Perren’s minis rules and together, they created Chainmail.  Gygax and Dave Arneson decided to personalize this experience by playing the same character over multiple sessions rather than simply deploying nameless figurines each play.  The rest–as they say…

MechwarriorMany RPG conversions from minis games fall short of the potential of that medium.  My college gaming group of the late 1980s played tons of Battletech.  It was only natural that they would try out the official Battletech roleplaying game, Mechwarrior.  Although I wasn’t an active member of the group, I did sit in on a few sessions.  The campaign was all about a loose group of mercenaries and their attempts to get by without signing on to one of the clans.  Unfortunately, roleplay consisted of “I climb into my mech,” *spend two hours playing the minis game* “I climb out of my mech.”  They had boiled their RPG down into miniatures game in which you play the same mini repeatedly.  The RPG was quickly abandoned and the group returned to straight-up Battletech skirmishes.  They missed the opportunity to do anything deeper.

Converting from miniatures game to roleplaying game gives you, the designer, a chance to zoom in.  Your players no longer look at the coordinated force of a squad, division, or army.  Instead, they get to focus on a single character.  Play in an RPG is about the internal motivations and external achievements of that character and any RPG design should highlight them.

Converting from minis to RPG lets you take the game new places.   Using minis rules to govern the negotiations between two rival nations would probably be pretty dull but roleplaying is the perfect medium for such diplomatic drama.  Roleplaying games generally better at staging any dramatic scene–business aspirations, interpersonal romance, personal tragedy, visceral horror–than are minis games.


Converting a Roleplaying Game Into a Minis Game

OD&DMinis games are a solid compliment to many roleplaying games.  Original Dungeons & Dragons recognized this; the Men & Magic rule booklet advised players to use Chainmail to handle combat.

Minis games are better at clarifying combat.  They are better at giving each player an immediate  sense of their character and its surroundings.  They are also better at handling large groups of units.  Have negotiations broken down?  Must you lead your battalion to war?  Did you trip a trap and release twenty-eight massive, red, poisonous spiders on your team?  Have you found your way into the vampire den and must stake all of them before their numbers overwhelm you?  Break out the maps and the minis!

Rules and Complexity

There is no particular trend in complexity between these two game types.  There are simple and complex roleplaying games.  There are simple and complex miniatures games.  In general, try to keep the complexity close.  If the minis game is rules-light, create a rules-light RPG.  If the RPG is complex or nuanced, make a meaty minis game.

Malifaux 2EIt is ideal to carry core mechanisms from the parent game to its conversion.  If the roleplaying game uses a D20 system, so should the minis game.  If armies in the minis game roll buckets of dice as in Warhammer 40K, use a buckets of dice system in your RPG.  If the minis game uses cards as in Malifaux, bring that card play mechanism over.  If the RPG is dice-light like Fiasco, employ a similar dice light engine.  Keeping core mechanisms similar keeps the feel of your game familiar to players coming over from the original property.


Closing Thoughts

Roleplaying games tend to have smaller greater scope than minis games.  Any conversion from one to the other should align its complexity with the parent game.

Each can give a great gaming experience to our players.

In the next column, we will tackle board game/roleplaying games conversions.  Until then, keep on designing!


What do you think of roleplaying: minis game conversions?  Did I miss any features?  Have you written any yourself?  How did you approach it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Cross-Platform Game Design, Part 2

The Story So Far

Luther and I were recently approached to design a boardgame to enhance an existing RPG product line.  This project got me started thinking about cross-platform game design.

To engage players in your crossover, it must give players new experiences while staying true to the parent game.

Today, we take on the main traits of conversions between board games and minis games. There will be exceptions to every case I present but we are going to focus on the broad trends.

Converting a Board Game Into a Minis Game

Board games tend to be more abstract than their pewter and plastic counterparts.  Thus, when you make this type of conversion, plan to make the play experience more concrete.


Sentinel Tactics-mainCombat in the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game contains no information of location, no concept of maneuver apart from hand management.  Location is the foremost way in which the the board game made these super-powered battles more concrete.  Information of location let us highlight the kinds of details we don’t fret over in the card game.  Line of Sight could now become important, as could range.

Minis games tend to have more variability than board games.  Consider adding subsystems where the parent board game had fixed outcomes.

ST_Battle_ChessMy high school gamer buddies loved adding subsystems to board games.  When we tried Battle Chess on our PCs, several of us were keen to bring that experience to the tabletop.  For those of you who may not be familiar with Battle Chess, its claim to fame was the animations it added.  Digital wizards and soldiers bashed one another across our 8×8 battlefield.  It preserved 100% of the rules of traditional chess, however.  In came our version.  We preserved all movement rules but also gave each unit its own combat ratings.  When a piece moved into an enemy space, a quick die roll determined who captured whom.  Because our delicate Kings could now defend themselves–however meekly–checkmate was removed in favor of a rule requiring capture.  A fixed outcome–piece entering the space captures the defending piece–was replaced with the variable outcome of a die roll.

Adding detail and variability comes with a price, of course.  They tend to add complexity and with complexity comes increased play time.  There are a couple of ways you can address this issue.  The first is to simply acknowledge that your game will take longer to play than the original, to tell your players that longer play time is part of the price of entry to a richer game experience.  Another way is to reduce the scope of your game.  Where the original board game might cover the globe, your minis game might focus on a single battle.

Converting a Minis Game Into a Board Game

So what about the inverse conversion?  Should play become more expansive, more abstract, and faster?  Yes.

Chaos in the Old WorldWarhammer is probably the best known miniatures battlefield game in the world.  Eric M. Lang’s  adaptation Warhammer: Chaos in the Old World abstracted individual battles, making Chaos closer to an area control game.  Play time remained close at two hours but the feel of the game is much more epic.  Lang also gives each player a checklist of objectives.  Satisfy these objectives to win the game; a nice way to round out this board game conversion.

Vlaada Chvátil’s sprawling Mage Knight Board Game takes the battle maps of the eponymous game out of the dungeon and into the wilderness.  Rather than controlling a team, each player controls a single hero who explores the map, defeats interesting monsters, and takes their stuff.  Combat is similarly condensed down; it has multiple phases but damage is streamlined and defeated enemies are immediately removed.
Mage Knight Board Game

A Bit of Both: Board/Minis Hybrids

Titan BoardsMy friends and I were conceiving our version of Battle Chess in the late 1980s.  We did not know it at the time, but Jason B. McAllister and David A. Trampier had already taken our idea the rest of the way in the Fantasy Monster Slug-a-thon Titan.  Titan plays very much like a board game and minis game in one package.  Armies recruit units by travelling across the main map.  This part echoes resource gathering in your favorite eurogame.  When two armies encounter one another, they jump over to a tactical battle map.  You maneuver and sling dice on the battle map as you might in any other minis game.  If you’re interested studying in the strengths of each design type, Titan is a good place to start.

This crossover approach is not uncommon in the historical minis community.  Two players might be using the main map and rule set from We the People or Axis & Allies to govern global actions but disregarding the enclosed combat system in favor of a richer battle with their favorite minis ruleset.

Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit is another interesting hybrid.  The battle on the Naboo Plains and the battle inside the castle are both wargames but Anakin’s flight and the Jedi battle are much closer to timers in a boardgame.  Supporting the boardgame side are the game cards.  Each one can be played two different ways.  Supporting the wargame side are the dice, or rather that buckets of ‘em players get to roll in the battles.Star Wars Queen's Gambit


Closing Thoughts

Boardgames tend to have greater scope but less crunch than minis games.  Minis games tend to have heavier rulesets but smaller scope than board games.  Each can give a great gaming experience to our players.

In the next column, we will tackle minis game/roleplaying games conversions.  Until then, keep on designing!


What do you think of boardgame: minis game conversions?  Did I miss any features?  Have you written any yourself?  How did you approach it?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Cross-Platform Game Design, Part 1

ADnD Players HandbookYou know Dungeons & Dragons.  You probably encountered it first in school.  Perhaps you played.  Perhaps a boyfriend/girlfriend played.  My first exposure to was in the fall of 1980.  Attending a new school and knowing no one, a classmate and I became fast friends over classic dungeon crawls and the occasional wild west shootout.  Roleplaying games are still a geeky passion.

Luther and I were recently approached to design a boardgame to enhance an existing RPG product line.  We are not currently free to discuss this specific project.  However, it got me started thinking about cross-platform gaming.  

We’ve seen a few board game tie-ins to RPGs like
Dungeon!  and card game ties-ins like Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.  We’ve seen tabletop tie-ins to Minis Games like Chaos in the Old World. We’ve even got a fair number of RPG tie-ins to minis games like Mechwarrior or GURPS Autoduel.  Making these conversions must have been challenging.  Changing game platform tends to hit you with a shift of pace or tone. Fans of the original game are likely to judge every element–how well does your design measure up to their precious? You can be certain that they’ll tell you.

Why go to the trouble?  Why work on a conversion when you know your work will be judged as much by its faithfulness to the original game as by your own work?  Why work so hard when you know you’ll be scrutinized for your efforts?

Sentinel Tactics-main
The biggest and best reason to cross platforms is brand recognition.  Would the same number of people look at
Chaos in the Old World without its tie-in to 40K?  Would we be playing 1977’s Dungeon! were it not tied to the biggest Fantasy RPG of all time?  It was certainly a big part of the plan that Sentinel Tactics bring fans of the original SotM card game to our table.

Another good reason reason to cross platforms is to expand player experience.  Autoduel enabled Car Wars players to expand their relationship with SJG’s setting.  Chaos in the Old World  shows players the world of Warhammer from the perspective of a god.  Sentinel Tactics let Sentinels of the Multiverse fans see their battles play out across the spires of Megalopolis.


Considering Player Types

To make a cross-platform successful, it helps to think about what brought players to the original game.  Most gamer folk have experimented with board, minis, and roleplaying games.  Many gamer folk define themselves by their favorite category.  This is interesting when we consider that the mechanical distance between them is pretty small.  Each allows players to choose from a set of available actions and include rules for interpreting the results of those actions.  Want to build a University in Puerto Rico?  Want to lob a grenade at those MERCS?  Want to trick the super villain into monologuing in Mutants & Masterminds?  Each game has rules to cover its actions.

What separates players?  Why does one gamer identify as wargamer, another as boardgamer, and another as roleplayer?  As with many areas of design, it all comes down to core experience.  Roleplaying games are best at providing engaging social experiences and engaging settings.  Minis games are best at offering engaging tactics and engaging strategy.  Boardgames can expediently show off engaging mechanisms.

Preference in core experience motivates choice of game type.  Does this make writing a cross-platform game a fool’s errand?  Not so!  Plenty of minis games have an engaging setting.  Roleplaying games often draw on engaging knowledge.  Cross-platform boardgames simply require cross-platform engagement.

Player Engagement

Earning player engagement requires that the game highlight elements common to its counterpart.


Order of the Stick is a webcomic about a meta-aware D&D party.  Most of its humor comes from references to its genre conventions.  When Kevin Brusky developed the OotS board game, he mirrored the first story arc–an extended dungeon crawl–and included lots of original humorous art from the comic’s creator.

Sentinels of the Multiverse is a game of collaboration.  When we developed the board game, we made sure that characters were complementary.  Each character had particular strengths and weaknesses.  Success in the SotM game would then require players to collaborate and cover each other.Star Wars Epic Duels


Star Wars Epic Duels proclaims its appeal on the the box.  “Did You Ever Wonder…” Yes I did, Mr. Daviau.  Yes I did, Mr. Van Ness.  And thank you for helping us all find out.


Closing Thoughts

In future columns, I will take on the main traits of conversions between board, minis, and roleplaying games.  Until then, keep the main points in mind.

Taking a property across platforms can be difficult.  Changes of tone and player expectations are both traps any designer could slip into.  But if you identify our target players and we find opportunities to give players a new experience, you will write a great cross-platform games, perhaps even exceeding its parent.
What genre or setting would you try in any game type?  How would you write any such a game?  What did you learn from the experience?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Dramatic Structure For The Modern Game Designer, Part 1

Good writers know that stories need good pacing.  They also understand that there is no one correct pace. Each story requires its own pace.  Think about the best movies you’ve seen, the best television shows you’ve watched, the best music concerts you’ve attended, the best standup comedy you’ve heard, the best meal you’ve eaten.  Each of them has a pace which maximized your experience.

Good game designer is the same.

A Brief Overview

Our understanding of dramatic structure begins with Aristotle’s observations in his text Poetics.  It was here that he asserted tragedy must have a beginning, a middle and an end.  The beginning–prologue and parados–is for exposition, to introduce the major players and their interrelationships.  The middle was filled by alternating short scenes–episodes–and songs–stasimon.  The end–exodus–brings resolution to the story.

A modern view of the three-act structure uses the first act not only for exposition and introductions but also to confront the protagonist(s) with a major event.  The protagonist is now moved (or even forced) to respond.  Big Jake’s grandson has been kidnapped.  Walter White has cancer and no way to pay for his treatment.  Alex Parrish has been framed for a terrorist attack.

Three act

Image from Lydia Kang

The second act is filled with rising action.  Will Luke rescue princess Leia?  Will Ellen kill Herod and thereby avenge her murdered father?  Will Inigo find and defeat the six-fingered man?  Will Simon steal the statue or will Nicole’s father’s forgery be detected?  The protagonist usually begins the second act unable to resolve this issue.  She must learn new skills, build new alliances, or find new strength within herself.

Resolution arrives in the third act.  All forces are brought together into a focal point.  The protagonist faces her greatest challenges.  Dramatic questions from the second act are answered.  The protagonist achieves a new sense of her abilities and her identity.  Cage has defeated the alien invasion by becoming the hero the world needed him to be.  Rocky Balboa has lasted 15 rounds with Apollo Creed and embraces his beloved Adrian.  Batman defeats his surrogate father Ducard and rescues Gotham City.

Kenneth Thorpe Rowe justifies the three act structure beautifully in Write That Play (1939) by asserting that it is “clearly more basic to the fundamental structure of a dramatic action than Horace’s five. There is an attack, a crisis, and a resolution. . . . There is a natural symmetry and balance with adequate flexibility inherent in the three-act form, with the first act introductory and springing the attack, the second act developing the action to the crisis, and the third act for the resolution.

Extending the Three-Act Structure to a Game

In a game, the player is the protagonist.  This makes every part personal.  It is you who is confronted with challenges.  It is you who must learn new (in-game) skills and build new (in-game) alliances.  It is you who must overcome your greatest challenges (often in the form of the other players).  

Is a three-act structure a useful model for games?  I believe that it is.

DOOM consumed many hours of my college life.  Its play was more compelling than any action game I’d seen before.  And its play follows the three-act structure fairly closely.

DOOM Act 1 (exposition and introductions, you are forced to respond): What is that? Hey–it wants to kill me!  Hey–everything wants to kill me!  Hey–even the green water wants to kill me!

DOOM Act 2 (learn new skills, finds new strength within yourself):  I see better and better weapons.  I’m learning to strafe.   I’m pushing forward and defeating all of these nasty and disagreeable creatures!

DOOM Act 3 (final conflict and resolution):  That is one nasty level boss!  This is the moment I’ve been playing for.  I have bigger guns.  I have sharper skills.  Either I will destroy that monster or it will destroy me!
Zong Shi is a worker placement game I began developing in 2004.  My design skills were less sophisticated than they are today but I happened to stumble my way to a three-act structure.

Zong Shi Act 1 (exposition and introductions, you are forced to respond): Players draft starting material and event cards. Players decide which projects to build first.

Zong Shi Act 2 (learn new skills, finds new strength within yourself): Completed projects give each player special powers.  Secrets of alchemy enable players to trade one material type for another.

Zong Shi Act 3 (final conflict and resolution):  Players push for endgame.  Any player with a sixth project completed triggers the endgame but final victory is in the point value of those projects.
So some games do exhibit a three-act structure.  And as time goes by, I find it increasingly useful to look at each design from this point of view.  Must every game fit this structure?  I don’t think that’s necessarily the case but if a game does deviate from this structure, it should do so deliberately and thoughtfully.

In part 2 of this article, we look at how to maximize the impact of your game by mapping its tension.  We will also look carefully at maximizing the quality of playtime in games.

What do you think of the three-act structure in games?  Would you pace games differently?  Did I miss a step?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Great References

This series been one of the most effort-intensive articles I’ve yet written.  Three sources were particularly valuable.  Jennine Lanouette wrote an excellent summary of the history of the three-act form for a post on Screentakes, her defense of the form in this later post, and Wikipedia’s article on the three-act structure was also a valuable resource.

Taking It Further

Valley of the Kings AfterlifeTodd Rowland of AEG did a video at Gen Con 2015 with W. Eric Martin, showing off  Valley of the Kings: Afterlife. In describing the game, he called it an “expandalone.” This term was entirely new to me but what a delightful compound word it is–a perfect description for game expansions which can also be played without its core set.

Ava Jarvis and I begin discussing this concept and through this discussion, we came upon a range of ways to build upon an existing game.  In the industry, we generally lump all of these ways under the generic term “expansion” but palpable differences exist between the types. Today’s article is an attempt to begin codifying those differences and to assign a term to each.

Caylus Premium EditionReskins

Because they involve no rule changes or new components, reskins are the lightest type.  Most reskins are fan projects and there are some great ones out there such as the 8-Bit Mario version of That’s Life. Some are official versions, as in the case of Mike Doyle’s gorgeous Caylus Premium Edition.


What about the case in which a designer revisits an earlier work, changes the theme, and also introduces new components or rules?  These are the rethemes.  

A retheme is more than a reskin because it offers new play through new rules or new components. Rethemes are not extensions because they are ready to play out of the box.  Rethemes are not expandalones either; they are not cross-compatible with their forebears.

Let’s take Reiner Knizia’s Schotten Totten as an an example.  In 2008 he rethemed Schotten Totten into a movie tie-in for Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.  Each game stands alone.  Each is clearly built on the same engine but they are not cross-compatible.

Michael Schacht’s China is similarly a retheme for Schacht’s earlier Web of Power.

Another good example of retheming is in the many licensed versions of Risk.  Its core mechanism has proven flexible enough to support Star Wars, Doctor Who, and even Plants vs. Zombies.


Extensions are small additions to an existing game.  This could be a couple of new cards to play, a new character to play, a new treasure to collect, but no fundamentally new ways to play. A single booster pack in a Magic: the Gathering set would be an extension for that set since it extends that set without introducing introducing any mechanisms unique to it.  The expansions section of the BGG Store is filled with further examples of extensions.


For me to be willing to call something an expansion, it’s got to offer a new way to play the game.  There don’t have to be a large number of bits but there needs to be a great deal of play.   It is weight of play caused by these changes which makes them expansions, not the weight of the box in which they arrive.

vEXATION eXPANSIONThe Vexation expansion for Transamerica/Transeuropa consisted solely of 18 wooden links in player colors and a small set of directions–but what a difference this modest addition made!

The first expansion maps for Rolling Freight introduced multiple new mechanisms–canals, caravan routes, and dropping prices.  If these were new maps without correspondingly new rules, they would be extensions.


And now we return to the beginning of this piece, the awesome expandalone. Like the pop idol on any teenager’s wall, expandalones are what all designers dream of creating. And why not? It is at the same time an expansion of gameplay for experienced players and an introduction for new ones, marketable to fan and neophyte alike.

Valley of the Kings Afterlife
coined the term for me but other expandalones immediately come to mind; Dominion: Intrigue, Ascension: Heroscape MarvelDawn of Champions, and any preconstructed theme deck for Magic: the Gathering.  Card games utilizing deck construction clearly lend themselves to to the creation of expandalones but the list needn’t end there.  The Heroscape Marvel tie-in is a wargame expandalone, for instance.

It’s a big world of boardgames.  that world is multiplicatively bigger when designers and publishers expand, extend, recycle, and repurpose their games.  And this was an attempt to codify these works.

What do you think of this spectrum?  Would you classify game expansions differently?  Did I miss a category?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress ( and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.