ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Steal This Game

The other day I get an email that says (basically) “Hey, your ideas are great. I’m writing an adventure that I’m going to publish, and I’m imitating a lot of your stuff like Revelations and Action Shticks. Is that okay?”

Okay? Not only is it okay, I absolutely encourage it.

If I’ve come up with an innovation that you like, don’t reinvent the wheel, use it! Outline your adventures using the anatomy of an action scene. Write out important Revelations. Plan interesting Action Shticks. I think everyone should use these ideas (where appropriate) because I think they lead to better game design, which means better games at the table.

Are these ideas perfect? Probably not. So take them out and use them, and when you find ways to improve them, tell the world. Evolution ensues. The art of adventure design has come a long way since the 70′s but in a lot of ways it has not come nearly far enough. Nothing sadder than an unpushed envelope.

“Does that mean I can just copy parts of your adventures and use them in my own publications?” Heh heh. No. Not if it isn’t Open Game Content. Nor should you want to. Make up your own stuff. What I’m saying is use the structure and techniques to build your own material. Use the design concepts, not the content.

Open Game Content

Revelations and Action Shticks are described in all of my adventures, but those definitions are Product Identity, so by the Open Game License other adventure designers can’t use that text. To fix that, here’s an Open Game Content version so you can include these definitions when creating your own Revelations and Action Shticks.

The following is Open Game Content in accordance with the Open Game License:


A revelation is a critical point in the game, changing how players see the situation and possibly how they react. A revelation is something the players need to know to understand what is going on or how to deal with the situation.

Having a list of revelations helps you keep track of what the players need to find out to advance the plot, making it easier for you to emphasize those points during play.

Action Shticks

Action Shticks are classic challenges or situations that go with a particular environment or situation. They are dramatic moments or events that work regardless of the specific plot. Another way to look at an Action Shtick is as a mini-encounter within the main encounter, a smaller challenge for the heroes to overcome before they tackle the main challenge.

Action Shticks are interactive situations, not just combat maneuvers, and should give the heroes a chance to make choices. A good Action Shtick reinforces the genre and lets the heroes really act like heroes from a comic book.

All Action Shticks are optional and can be used in particular scenes as you see fit. Because Action Shticks are intentionally generic, you can easily transplant them to other adventures, or use them time and again: even if the heroes don’t have to rescue an airplane in distress in one game, you can use that same Action Shtick to spice up some other adventure.

[Open Game License]

Now have at it.

Playtesting Your Own Games

If you are going to publish an adventure (or whole game system), playtesting is critical. Working out kinks or conceptual flaws during playtesting means that allllll those gaming groups that run it later will have more fun at the table.

It takes effort, but it's a huge multiplier of work vs fun: a single hour of playtesting means a better hour of play for every group that runs the final game. If 100 groups play your adventure, your one hour of playtesting impacts 100 hours (or more) of actual play time. You're making a big investment in all those gaming groups having a good time.

If you do the opposite and not playtest properly, you are basically wasting all those gamers' time. Game nights are rare and precious: as a game designer, take an oath to do your best to protect them!

So you know you should playtest. No problem, you say. You ran the game yourself and it went great. Time to release!

Running your own game is not playtesting. You already know what you are trying to say in the text, so you are not really running the game from the document you wrote, you are running the game from the ideal document in your head. You will never notice if you left something out, or explained something badly.

An ideal playtest GM has no idea what you have in mind, has no past exposure to your concept. The playtest GM just receives the document cold, reads it and eventually tries to run it, because that's how every GM who gets the adventure later is going to have to do with it.

Yes, running your own game is a helpful part of the process, but it's really pre-playtest testing. I run a game before even deciding whether to write the full draft that will go to playtesters. Running your own game to work out kinks is certainly better than having no one run the game at all, but it is far less effective then seeing what happens when someone else tries to interpret your words and turn them into a game.

And if you write an adventure but never run it, never playtest it, and then just publish and release it upon the world… well you really should put some kind of disclaimer on it. It should be an apology, because you need to admit that you didn't hold up your end of the bargain.

Art is Powerful

I'm not exactly breaking new ground when I say art is powerful.

Sight is the king of the senses in humans (er, “us humans” I mean), usually riding roughshod over weaklings like touch and hearing — we don't have both eyes on the front of our head for nothing. Unlike text, which requires an intermediate “translation” before it gets turned into a picture in our head, pictures go straight to the source. Which is why we say things like a word is only worth 1/1000th of a picture. This whole post is only worth about half a picture.

Now I'm not an artist, I'm a writer. Well actually I'm a GM, which isn't even the same thing because a GM uses the written word as a launching point for what is basically performance improv, the final product being the game not the page… but I digress.

Since I'm not an artist, when I make material for publication I have to hire artists to turn my words into pictures. If the artists I hire are any good (and I try to ensure they are) this can be a very dangerous process — dangerous because if an artist produces something that looks great but doesn't match what I had in mind, I have to resist that change and stay true to my original concept.

Once something is drawn (and drawn well), that image becomes very compelling. It can be very tempting to let an image I see replace the idea I have in my mind. Holding true to the original concept, resisting the power of art, can be very difficult.

Perfect Preconceptions

Usually a character has existed in my mind long, long before I see an artist's interpretation. A character could be in play for years before it is put into a draft for publication and an art spec is sent out — Dreadnaut was first used in-game three and half years before the description was sent to an artist.

That's a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, you have a strong mental image of the character, so you have a little more strength to resist a “wrong” image.

On the downside, you have a strong mental image of the character, which can lead to excessive perfectionism (“but it doesn't look like I imagined! Wah!”).

Accidental Details

Sometimes there are details that are critical to me because they imply something that will actually make a difference in play. An early sketch of Scorpio showed barbs/harpoon tips at the end of her whips. It looked good, but to me it was critical they were removed. Why? Because even if the text says nothing about it, players and GMs looking at that picture will think “ah, we can ruin her whips if we cut off the ends” which went entirely against the concept of her powers: she is supposed to be able to reel out as much cable as she wants, and even leave behind severed sections to tie people up.

These unintentional implications can easily overwhelm the text. Draw a sad person, and it doesn't matter if the text says he's happy. The memorable impression will be that he's sad, and that's how he'll be played and reacted to in the game.

Unknown Parties

When you're preparing a game for your own group, you know who the characters are: Fred is playing the druid with the dire sloth, and Charley still has that annoying ring of invisibility. You know what kind of challenges would suit them and what wouldn't.

But when you're designing adventures for publication, you don't have that luxury — you never know who the player characters are going to be.

Unfortunately this encourages publishing very middle-of-the-road adventures. It makes sense: you want to write adventures that the most people will be able to use. The more exotic the requirements, the less likely the average group will have any use for your scenario. You might come up with a very cool plot idea that requires one of the player characters to have a familiar (bats and black cats gone wild!), but since you can't assume anyone will have one that idea gets put on the back burner.

You can assume the heroes can fight, because combat is a mandatory element in just about every mainstream roleplaying game, so include all the fighting you want. But any section that requires special abilities or traits may not work for some groups. Want a prolonged sneak past guards and wards to get to the inner sanctum? Sorry, nothing but platemail in this party. Want a horse racing sequence? Dwarves don't horse race.

Unknown Superheroes

Preparing a game for unknown characters is tricky in any game system, but it's doubly true in a superhero game, because superhero characters can turn out to be just about anything. One might be a flying strong guy (easy), one might be an electrical zapper (easy), and one might be an incorporeal alien thought-form who can walk thru walls and read minds (not so easy).

Partially it's because most supers games are point-buy rather than class-based games — except for equipment and a limited choice of spells, you can predict what a bunch of 10th level D&D characters will look like. There's just not that much latitude. Not so in a game where you can buy whatever you want from the ground up.

Mostly it's a matter of genre. Even if you run a point-buy modern spy game, the genre doesn't allow you to make a guy that can walk through walls or read minds, no matter how many points you get. In superhero games, almost any concept fits in somewhere. Cowboys, aliens, teleporters and ghosts: they all happily co-exist in superhero games.

Check and check again

Of course there's the flip side, and that's when the published adventure does require certain types of player characters to work, but fails to recognize it or warn the GM.

Sometimes its obvious, and the GM can spot it before the game starts. Other times it can be far more subtle: an adventure might not _require_ a bunch of diplomatic characters, but it will work much better the more there are. Note, it's not just “the party will have an easier time” if they have more X, but “the game will play better/be more interesting/etc” if they have more X. Big difference.

Writing Game Material: The Audience of My Audience

A published adventure scenario (or “module” as we used to call it in the old days) is not a game. It's a Do-It-Yourself kit the GM will use to run a game.

The players will never read the text of the adventure. At most they might listen to canned sections read out loud by the GM (the infamous room description or the villain's ultimatum broadcast to the world).

So if you are writing gaming material and you are trying to make it entertaining to the reader (the GM) you're only doing part of the job. Inspiring the GM and getting him or her motivated is great, but that alone doesn't translate to a good game.

Your direct audience is the GM, but the GM's audience is the players. If you really want your material to be useful, it has to prepare the GM to run a fun game. It's a tool, a kit, not an end product. The game is the end product.

Fancy formatting, same deal. It makes the scenario look like a professional product and that might impress the GM who buys it and improve your sales but it will not impress the players who play the game.

So think again: are you writing material just to be read, destined for the bookshelf, or do you expect a GM to actually run a game?