On the Virtual Matrix of the Demon of Design

I am doing something different then you are when I run a game.

In fact, the way I approach tabletop play is so fundamentally different then how you run your games, that it renders some unable to understand the following statement.

I am not interested in simulating reality.

Anyone who conjures to their mind a tired argument containing the words versilimitude, realism, or questioning how players can make choices if they don't have a frame of reference has just given themselves proof that they are unable to understand the statement.

Reality, Choice, and the Design

Agency is informed choice.

Games are collections of interesting choices.

If you're rolling dice, you're not making a choice. You're calculating and adding. Dice rolled by the player are not used to create choices, but to calculate the effects of choices.

Role playing games adventures are designed

Designed does not mean "pre-determined". It means like a painter chooses what to paint and a writer chooses which words to use, a Dungeon Master presents what he chooses to present.

This means if your players find verbal exploration tedious, then you have designed an encounter without choices that matter. You are rolling to search because you wish to skip your own failure of design.

The virtual matrix of the demon of design

I am not a demon, taking over all of your senses, recreating a new reality. I am a person, playing a game with friends. My friends are what is important.

I don't ever do anything "because it's what would happen". I don't make players sit out because "your character wouldn't be there yet". I don't make people tediously search empty buildings. I don't make them look for the fun, pixel bitch, play mother may I or suffer from Dungeon Master fiat.  I certainly don't make them endlessly and mind-numbingly roll dice to "search for traps" so that they "won't know when one is there." And it certainly doesn't mean they succeed at anything they attempt.

If you think this means that I don't have empty rooms, mysteries, or traps, you're wrong.

I'm just not an asshole about it.

Containing the Demon of Design

Reality is not being simulated. The players do that themselves in their imagination. If you choose to take the responsibility of being Dungeon Master, the goal is to create situations that are ripe with opportunities for players to make choices that matter, that have interesting consequences, not to enforce ridiculous restrictions on your friends.


  1. Thanks. I will be expanding on this post on Monday, giving specific, clear, literal examples.

  2. While I understand and applaud that style of play, I don't feel as though there is anything inherently wrong with the so-called demoniacal approach either. I know most of the people I play with would rather have a balance between a verisimilistic and playable game experience.

    1. I would say that nothing about what I say above would affect verisimilitude at all.

      That is sort of the point I am attempting to make. Stay tuned for more clarification.

  3. "Games are collections of interesting choices."

    Hear hear! I would add that games are collections of interesting choices AND the results of those choices, which lead to more and more choices, and more and more results, etc. It's an "explosion" of cause and effect. The creative, imaginative interplay between players and GM. This is the reason we gamers keep coming back, instead of just sitting isolated playing computer RPGs.

    And to hell with simulation! If I want realism, well, I just live my real life! I go to work, do things with my family, do chores around the house, etc. That's realism. I don't do laundry in-character during a game session, folks.

  4. "It is your job ..."

    It's not my job to do a damn thing except enjoy myself along with the players. My job is at work, and at home to take care of my responsibilities. If I game, I do it to have fun and enjoy what I do. That doesn't make it a job. It might be my role to present the world, but rest assured, I'm playing alongside those players who have different roles.

    As well, if I enjoy myself doing XYZ and my players do as well, then who the fuck is anyone else to tell me I'm doing it wrong? Whether it includes realism, storyboarding or gonzo gaming? I may have my preferences and beliefs in what makes a better game for me, but that's where it ends.

    And yea, damnkidsmylawngetthefuckoffit :)

    1. Of course you are correct about the job verbiage. Words have meaning. I have corrected the text above to state, if you choose to take the responsibility. . .

      I would say that not one thing I've discussed above is incompatible with realism, storyboarding, or gonzo gaming.

      What this is about is how to create situations that don't generate boredom, frustration, or wasted time in the design phase.

  5. So my question is how to reconcile the two statements:

    "I don't make people tediously search empty buildings."
    "If you think this means that I don't have empty rooms, mysteries, or traps, you're wrong."

    So if the characters are in an empty room and start to search by asking questions about features (if no features, at least the characteristics of the walls/floor/ceiling) you do what exactly? Would there be any features in the empty room if it is merely an empty room?

    I would give my players a quick description ("the walls are similar to the rest in this area, very exactly carved bricks of stone, fitted without mortar", "white plaster covers the walls, with abstract patterns fresco using the Pholtan disc as a central motif") and then ask if they were to spend a full turn searching. They know the "full turn" question must be answered in the positive to get results and that means a turn off of their torch and a random encounter check.

    If it's empty, I then tell them so. But they have to spend a turn.

    If it isn't empty, I then ask them how they are searching. They're more engrained to this style now, so I often don't have to ask. They're already telling me that they're holding the torch close to the cracks in the bricks to look for evidence of a draft, or tapping on the plaster to listen for changes in tone and all that.

    When I began trying to get back to old school, I was poor on descriptions of the rooms which gave players little to work with. I also didn't cut short the room searching game if the room was empty. All around are glad I'm over that.

    1. Your procedure sounds pretty reasonable to me. The only thing I do differently is that I never tell players that rooms are totally empty. If they want to keep searching, they can keep spending turns. I imagine spending a turn to learn finally that a room is really and totally empty would work too, it just changes the time dynamics slightly, rather than totally undermining time dynamics like some styles do.

    2. Yes, this is addressed when I say adventures are designed.

      Red, the method you describe is very similar to my final suggestion for how to handle things in play, however this is primary focused on a mental stance on how to design adventures so that you aren't using that to resolve an empty room, but rather using as part of a cohesive whole.

      I imagine the way you use it now works similarly, but the approach I'm describing can reveal hidden peaks.

  6. Mechanics:
    In the system we play, most action resolution is skill-based, number tracked and it's easy for the players leverage their knowledge of their own skill into knowledge about how difficult things may or may not have been or whether something is there or not. Some of the GMs have tried to mask that by using hidden die rolls, one tried the 'roll for everything', one tried to minimize the die roll in favour of more pure roleplay which the players ultimately found dissatisfying because it heavily favoured those who could BS their way through encounters.
    My solution is to have each player pre-roll the dice 20 time and record the results in 2 columns. Those are their die-rolls, and I track the player's "Vital Stats" during the game (hits, levels, combat vitals, trap detection skill, etc). When I need a trap detection from a player, I roll a d20 and choose the resultant number from the list of pre-rolled numbers, bump it up against the player's trap detection skill, modify it by how hard the trap is to detect, and just give the player the result.
    If the player chooses to look for traps and needs to make a trap detection roll, I have them roll a d10 while I roll d10. My die roll determines which column is chosen (they have no idea), their d10 selects the die roll. Modifiers applied and I give the player the result. They have no clue about what the actual rolled number is, but they feel comfortable that it was *their* die roll that determined the success (or not).
    "I'm not an asshole to my friends"
    Bingo. I wish more people would 'get' this. We're a group of friends who gather around the table for a few hours and we want to have FUN. A lot of things are NOT FUN, and as the Game Master, I see it as part of my job to eliminate those things. I could go on and on about this and all the things I do to keep things on the fun side, but the bottom line is that if all you needed was a 'referee' to run the game, get one of those 'Adventure-by-Page-Number' books

  7. Weirdly, I think much the same way about TRPGs (at least since I started watching Extra Credits and thinking about game design). The big difference I think that thinking about how things "would really happen" is important, because that's how (my) players tend to think. At the very least, I need to try to anticipate their plans and figure out what to do if they try X.
    (Also, I like thinking about how things would really happen.)


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