Attempts at a FAQ

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John H Kim

Jul 31, 1996, 3:00:00 AM7/31/96

OK -- first of all, many kudos to Neel who has been maintaining his
own FAQ. However, based on several requests, I am making my own
stab at it. Unfortunately, I will be leaving for approximately a
week -- please send me comments, but don't expect any replies
before next Thursday.

PART I: The Purpose of the Group and actual FAQ's

0) What's this fack thing?
1) What is "on topic" for this newsgroup?
2) What's with all the acronyms?
3) What is diceless role-playing?
4) What do you mean by "plot" and "plotting"?
5) What about all these other terms?
6) What are these "narrative stances" that people refer to?
7) What are the campaign "axes"?
8) What is the point of all this abstract discussion?

(Part II of this FAQ will deal with "plot", and Part III will deal
with "diceless roleplaying")

0) What's this fack thing?

"FAQ" stands for "Frequently Asked Questions". This is a
regularly posted document intended to introduce newcomers to

1) What is "on topic" for this newsgroup?

This newsgroup is about comparative discussion of various
role-playing systems and styles -- their merits and flaws, how well
they work in different situations, etc.
Thus, GURPS versus HERO would technically be on-topic. However,
most of what has gone on is more detailed discussion of differing
styles and features of games. For example: "Do you prefer to have
rules and traits which govern a character's personality?" or
"What are the consequences of timelining a plot in advance?"

You should try to avoid asking or stating that a game or
technique is generically "better" or "worse". The one thing which
is strikingly clear from discussion here is that different people
prefer different things in their games. Try to keep this in mind.
The other thing is to be careful about is misunderstood
generalizations. Someone might say that "plotted" games are
restrictive, and you respond that he is wrong -- they are inherently
more flexible. Most likely, he is referring to a different type
of game when he says "plotted" than you think of when you say

2) What's with all the acronyms?

POV: "Point of View"
IC: "In-Character Stance", i.e. the state of thinking from your
character's POV
OOC: "Out Of Character"
SOD: "Suspension of Disbelief"
d-b: "Description-Based", i.e. using qualitative verbal description
rather than game mechanics
DIP: "Develop-In-Play", referring to players who only have a rough
character sketch which is only filled out during the campaign
DAS: "Develop-At-Start", i.e. players who write a detailed character
background/personality by the time the campaign begins

plus more general ones like-

CF: "Castle Falkenstein", a card-using Victorian fantasy game
OTE: "Over the Edge", a dice-using freeform conspiracy game
RM: "Rolemaster"
PC: "Player Character" - usually handled by a player
NPC: "Non-Player Character" - usually handled by the GM
YMMV: "your mileage may vary"
IMHO: "in my humble opinion"

3) What is diceless role-playing?

Technically, diceless role-playing is simply any RPG which
does not use numerical randomizers like dice, numbered cards, etc.
Currently, there are only two commercial diceless RPG's: _Amber_
(by Phage Press) and _Theatrix_ (by Backstage Press). However, you
should *not* assume that all diceless is like it is described in
these games.
"Diceless" encompasses a wide variety of playing styles, ranging
from interactive storytelling to competitive simulation-style games.
There are several means of dealing with the

For more information on this, see part III of this FAQ.

4) What do you mean by "plot" and "plotting"?

We don't. @-) By that, I mean that there are many different
meanings of the term "plot" floating around. You should *not*
assume that when someone says they are "plotting" that they
prepare a linear sequence of events which the PC's must go through.
While various people have their own consistent (or inconsistent)
uses for the terms "plot" and "plotting", I don't think that there
is a general consensus on an exact definition.

5) What about all these other terms?

"mechanic": A formal method of resolution, which need not be numerical
(i.e. Plot Points and Drama Deck cards are mechanics) but must be
specific. A statement like "low roll good, lower roll better" is
not considered a mechanic unless it is spelled out just how low
is good. On the other hand, a statement like "a 02 or less is a
critical" is a mechanic.

"mechanics-light, mechanicless": Games which have very few to no
mechanics (sometimes known as "freeform", but this term is less
clear). _Over the Edge_ is mechanics-light, and

"metagame": dealing with concerns of the players and GM, as opposed to the
characters in the gameworld. Examples of metagame concerns could
include "spotlight time", plot scripting, and who brought the

"intra-game": dealing solely with matters within the gameworld - a
character's plans and actions, or the environment.

"simulationist": A game in which effort is made to not let meta-game
concerns during play affect in-game resolution.

"spotlight time": The amount of time a player/PC is the center of
attention in the group.

"group contract": The set of conventions the players and GM agree on --
including rule system, but also issues like "The GM will fudge
things so PCs won't die pointless deaths", or "Pulp genre
conventions take precedence over common sense", or even
"Don't let the cat in the room while we play -- she bites legs."

"assumption clash": When the GM's understanding of how the game-world
works conflicts with a player's assumptions. For example, as a
player you might think that your tough fighter can kill a charging
boar with his sword with little fear of injury, while your GM
thinks that a boar can easily ignore any sword swing and will
break both his legs. You say "I crouch and prepare to meet its
rush" and get severely mauled.
It doesn't matter who is *right* in this case -- the
problem is that their understanding differs. The player are not
privy to information her character would know, and thus she made
decisions which simply didn't make sense in the game world.

"interactive literature": a term for various forms of Live Action
Role-playing Games (LARP's), which involve the interactive creation
of a story. Not everything the characters do is neccessarily acted
out, but they share some qualities: There are almost never NPC's,
so both protagonists and antagonists are run by players. The players
generally wander around a large area -- a Judge/GM is not always on
hand, and bulky rule are rarely carried. Thus, the resolution
mechanics must be minimal.

6) What are these "narrative stances" that people refer to?

This was first formulated by Kevin Hardwick and Sarah Kahn, and was
so useful that it immediately became part of the jargon of the group.

This section was written by Sarah Kahn.

[A] Actor Stance
The position from which the game is viewed when the player makes
a meta-game decision to further his portrayal of his character by
consciously attempting to mimic the character's actions, tonal quality,
facial expressions, gestures, or other physical manifestations of
character. This is an important aspect of LARP, but even in table-top
gaming it often manifests: when, for example, a player stands up in a
sedentary table-top game, it is often an indication that he has
momentarily adopted the stance of Actor.
The Actor Stance is the one in which the player contemplates what
he can do to portray his character more effectively to the other
participants in the game. It is therefore by nature a meta-game stance,
removed from the internal reality of the game.

[B] Audience Stance
The position from which the player observes, enjoys, and evaluates
the game or aspects of it as himself, rather than as his character.
This is also a meta-game stance, as it refers to the *player's* viewing
and interpretation of the game, which may be very different from the
character's. This stance is the stance from which things like dramatic
irony or historical accuracy are judged. It is also the stance adopted
whenever the player witnesses an in-game event of which his character
is utterly unaware.

[C] Author Stance
The position from which the player evaluates the game with an eye
towards changing it or affecting its development. This is the stance
which must be adopted for any world-building to take place. It is also
the stance from which a GM might introduce plot elements to the game.
The entire process of character creation requires the adoption of the
stance of Author, as do the vast majority of meta-game decisions.
"What system shall we use?," "What is the reason for all these
characters to travel together?," and "What in-character reason can we
come up with for Bob's character to leave the game, now that Bob is
moving to Alaska?" are all questions which can only be answered through
the adoption of the Authorial stance.
Like the previous three stances, the Author Stance exists outside
of the in-game reality. It is an external position from which the game
is viewed for the purpose of making decisions about its progress and its

[D] In-Character Stance
The view of the game from within the inside of the game world and
its reality, usually from within the mind of a character living within
that reality. This is the stance of the *character,* not the player, and
it encompasses only those things seen from the character's point of view.
It is the stance commonly associated with "play itself," as opposed to
the meta-game, and is the position which the player adopts in order to
play his character believably and satisfyingly.

In any RPG, the participants will leap back and forth between
these four stances so quickly and intuitively that they are likely to be
unaware that they are doing so at all. The player who omits description
of his character's trip to the bathroom, to use a well-worn example, must
by necessity have adopted the stance of Author momentarily in order to
make this decision. The decision having been made, he is then likely to
jump back into the IC Stance. In many cases, these jumps in perspective
are made so instinctively and rapidly that they go unnoticed on any
conscious level. In other cases, the jumps from one stance to another
may be quite obvious, as when players are forced to spend a long period
of time in the Audience stance when they would far rather be spending
more time viewing the game from the IC position.

7) What are the campaign "Axes"? (as submitted by Rodney Payne)

This is a concept for "campaign classification" developed initially
by Leon von Stauber. He had created a large number of axes on which
campaigns could be classified -- Plot, World, Drama, Realism,
Romanticism, Conflict, Authorship, Direction, Mechanism. His
original article is on the web at:

However, two of these "axes" have apparently stuck more strongly than
the others, and are worth going into more detail...


The *dramatic* GM deliberately includes, within the setting, people,
places, and events which are particularly relevant to the backgrounds
and motivations of the player characters. In the strongest form, she
might fudge things so that they fit better with the PC's -- varying
down to the weak form where she simply focusses creative efforts on
those things she thinks will engage the PC's.

The *simulationist* GM designs the setting independently of the PC's
and their motivations. The strongest form of this would be a GM who
creates a very detailed, fleshed out setting prior to even meeting
the players or character creation. After this, he simply develops
how things change...


A *directed* GM is one who makes a conscious effort during game play
to guide the campaign development. This doesn't mean that she has a
fixed plot which she is sticking to, however. There is also purely
off-the-cuff directing: guiding the campaign towards higher drama
on the spur of the moment, or perhaps just keeping the action moving.

A *natural* GM is one who simply responds to players actions in a
manner most consistent with his conception of the world, and perhaps
his understanding of the group contract. He leaves dealing with
meta-game issues like drama or pacing up to the group, rather than
taking a leadership role.

8) What is the point of all this abstract discussion?

Many times the discussion in .advocacy seems purely academic,
unrelated to any practical issues of actually running or playing in
a game. However, some of us feel that by some analysis of the techniques
and styles which occur in RPG's, we can help improve actual game play.
Some possibilities:

-> Creating tools - like the questionaire in Part II of the FAQ -
to help GM's and player's figure out their style differences
and reach a compromise (or simply avoid playing together if
their styles are too different)
-> Give GM's and player's new ideas for methods and style of
play, which may help them to stretch out to different and
interesting variations.
-> Analyze what techniques work best with what styles -- i.e.
pro's and con's based on classification. (i.e. If you have
Develop-In-Play players, then explicitly announced campaign
themes might not be that useful).
-> Allow for easier discussion when different GM's or players
are comparing notes, by creating a common vocabulary of how
to refer to certain features
-> Keep up interest level in games

John Kim | "Faith - Faith is an island in the setting sun. | But Proof - Proof is the bottom line for everyone."
Columbia University | - Paul Simon, _Proof_

John H Kim

Jul 31, 1996, 3:00:00 AM7/31/96

OK -- here is my attempt at Part II. Again, please send comments.

PART II: Plotting Distinctions

1) What kinds of questions come up in deciding on plotting style?
( by Mary Kuhner <> )
2) How do interesting things which engage the motivations of the
PC's become a part of the setting? (by John Kim <>)
3) What techniques do GM's actually use in preparing for games?
(by John Kim <>)

1) What kinds of questions come up in deciding on plotting style?
( by Mary Kuhner <> )

The following questionnaire is an aid in helping the GM communicate
to his/her players what type of game will be played.

1. When you are setting up a campaign or scenario, do you attempt to
provide a plot for the PCs to follow?
(a) Will you design elements of the background to fit with this
***I need an organization on about the same power level as the
PCs to act as a recurring antagonist, so let's design one and
place it in the setting.***

(b) Will you change the world background in play to keep the plot on
***The PCs unwittingly destroyed the clue in location A, so I
will provide a similar clue in location B.***

(c) Will you adjucate the results of PC actions in such a way as to
further the plot?
***If a PC doesn't notice this clue the group will go off in a
totally nonproductive direction, so I will insure that he does
notice it, rather than leaving it up to chance/dice/probability.***

2. Do you deliberately attempt to engage the motivations and inner
conflicts of the PCs?
(a) Will you design elements of the world background to do so?

***This PC needs recurring threats to protect the common folk
from in order to develop her view of herself as heroine, so I'd
better provide them in my world design.***

(b) Will you change the world background in play to do so?

***This character would react much more strongly to the situation
if the attackers were of his own religion, not (as I originally
thought) a different one.***

(c) Will you adjucate the results of player actions in such a way as
to further engagement of PC motivations?

***If the PC doesn't manage to save this NPC's life she won't be
as emotionally engaged with the situation, so I will arrange for
her to succeed.***

3. Do the PCs have special advantages, or disadvantages, relative to
NPCs of the same ability?
(a) Do you design the world background to specifically advantage
(disadvantage) the PCs?
***I'd better set up some challenges which these PCs are
specifically able to tackle, such as ones slanted at their
particular powers.***

(b) Will you change the world background in play to do so?
***With the kinds of abilities these PCs have they'll have trouble
escaping from captivity, so I'd better add a traitor among the
enemy to make it possible.***

(c) Will you adjucate the results of PC actions to do so?
***An NPC who took that damage would be killed, but for a PC
we'll allow medical intervention to save her life.***


2) How do interesting things which engage the motivations of the
PC's become a part of the setting? (by John Kim <>)

A) "GM Hooks": The players create their characters, and then the GM
comes up with a limited number of interesting "plot hooks" which
the PC's may or may not choose to commit to.

B) "Connected PC's": The GM builds various interesting things to do
into his setting, and the players then create characters who are
motivated towards and around those interesting things.

C) "Conflicted PC's": The players build their characters so that
they create interesting things to do -- either by conflict within
and between themselves, or by their very nature.

Let me give three contrasting examples:

A) A pulp action campaign -- the players create various daredevils who
are generically interested in fighting crime. The GM comes up with
a semi-scripted introductory adventure designed to pull them together
into a team. He them creates various villians with schemes for
world domination -- and each week drops out various clues for these
schemes which the PC's then follow up on.

B) A fantasy game, where the GM already has a detailed world designed
which includes (among various other things) an evil empire ruled over
by a sorceror-king. The players look over the source material and
tell the GM -- "Hey, why don't we play rebels in the capital city
who are trying to overthrow the king?" The GM and the players
work up more details on the capital and the palace defenses, etc.
Each week, the PC's outline for the GM their upcoming plans -- and
the GM dutifully fills in details on where they plan to strike next.

C) A modern-world game where the PC's are the majority of a handful
of people who simultaneously and inexplicably gain godlike paranormal
powers. Now their rivalries, aspirations, and other conflict are
what draw out the game. For example, one character is a communist
sympathizer who tries out various political machinations which the
others become concerned about. (Hi, Craig!)

Like in a fractious _Amber_ game, the PC's are by and large their
own enemies. Naturally, one of the obvious themes is their slide
from a "mortal" POV to a "god" POV. Absolute power corrupts
absolutely and all that.

3) What techniques do GM's actually use in preparing for games?
( by John Kim <> )

As I see it, the most common elements of GM planning might be something
like: Locations/NPC's , Timetables, Contingent Scenes/Events, and
Consequence sequences or flowcharts.

I) *Preparation of Locations and NPC's* -- which is fairly universal
regardless of planning/plotting style. However, there are some
distinctions of *why* that gets detailed:

A] The group has agreed that certain things will be important
(as in my game where they are fighting the
B] The players predict, based on their knowledge, that things
will be important and inform the GM (i.e. "We plan on going
to Botswana tomorrow.").
C] The GM predicts, based on his knowledge, that the PC's will
run into certain things.
D] The GM thinks that certain locations/characters would be
interesting if the players ran into them, and details them
for possible inclusion if the opportunity presents itself.
E] The GM thinks that certain locations/characters are interesting
in-and-of themselves and works them out regardless of how
they intersect with the PC's.
F] The GM has certain locations/characters detailed

II) *Locational Time-table* of things which will happen due to
interactions which do not involve the PC's.

The classic example of this is a literal time-table of NPC
interactions like the Duke's Grand Ball -- where you work out in
advance what the NPC's will do if the PC's don't interfere.
Similarly, this would include working out an enemy's plan assuming
only In-Character knowledge for the enemy NPC.

This may be "unplotted" (i.e. the GM isn't planning on an
expected sequence of events), but it can also be "plotted" if the
GM arranges the events of the timetable with the PC's in mind.

III) *Contingent Events* are things which are intentionally left
indeterminate in space, time, or agent so that they can be made to
intersect better with the PC's.

For example, the GM might decide that at some point along their
travel, an Ogre is summoned by a curse in the middle of a group of
nearby soldiers. The summoning of the Ogre is contingent on the
PC's passing by -- whenever they pass by that spot, that is when
the ogre appears.

"Schroedinger's NPC" would also fall into this category --
i.e. the PC's run into someone with a piece of information for them:
If they leave by the city's West Gate, then a beggar comes up to them.
If they leave by another way, then they run into a wandering juggler
on the road who tells them the same thing.

This is "plotted" almost by definition. It is often used to
set up pivotal "plot hooks" -- but can also be used for just some
atmospheric touches or such (i.e. whenever the players pass by the
rear of the church, they will see a huge raven flutter away from a
particular grave).

IV) *Consequence sequences* (or flowcharts) are planned results of
certain actions if the PC's try them -- this is a short-cut to working
out logical consequences during the game (in case they are complicated).

For example, let's say that there is an NPC book-seller who the
GM thinks might be hired to find certain rare books. Rather than
working it out on the spot, the GM decides in advance *if* he is hired
to find certain books how long he will take and what steps he will go
through to do so.

In the above case, this is a fairly "non-plotted" (in that the
sequence is not particularly geared to engage the PC's). However,
like Locational Time-tabling, these consequences can be tailored to
fit with an intended plot.

John H Kim

Jul 31, 1996, 3:00:00 AM7/31/96

OK -- here is the more controversial portion of my infant FAQ. Once
again, please send comments.

PART III: Diceless Roleplaying

1) What is Diceless role-playing?
2) Does it work?
3) How does the GM make decisions?
4) Is it fair to the players?
5) Can it simulate "realistic" randomness?
6) What difference does it make in practice?

1) What is Diceless role-playing?

Technically, diceless gaming would simply be a game that doesn't
use dice (for example, _Castle Falkenstein_ uses cards).

In terms of this FAQ, however, "diceless" role-playing refers
to generally minimalist systems where the GM decides on the results
of actions without the help of randomizers, tables, or explicit
quantified mechanics. There are currently two published diceless
RPG "systems": the _Amber_ role-playing game, by Phage Press -
and _Theatrix_, by Backstage Press.

2) Does it work?

Yes. There are plenty of people who have been playing without
dice even long before the above systems were published. At least for
these people, it can be just as exciting as diced gaming, and at least
competitive in realism with many diced games. It generally results in
much more emphasis on player and GM descriptions, and much less emphasis
on rules.

3) How does the GM make decisions?

That varies with the system, the GM, the group contract, and
so forth. In general, action resolution can be based on a great variety
of input factors. What follows is an outline of some of the factors which
can go into action resolution -

[A] Reality/Genre: This is just the GM's judgement of what is the most
reasonable outcome given the understood "reality" of the situation -
including genre and setting-specific laws (like magic). This is actually
the most common form of resolution in any game - if a character tries
to walk through the woods, the GM just says it happens.

[B] Mechanics: This is game-mechanical constructs (which may represent the
genre-reality, but which are more than just a general understanding).
Note that this does *not* have to involve dice. CORPS and _Vampire_
both use some diceless, mechanical action resolution. Spending Plot
Points (or Hero Points, Willpower, etc.) is also a mechanic.

[C] Description: In this case, _how_ the player describes his character's
action has a big effect on the outcome. This involves the player
heavily in the action -- but it also tends to emphasize player skill
rather than character skill (i.e. if a given player is very good at
describing combat tactics, then his character is better at combat).

[D] Plot: As _Theatrix_ describes it, "Does the plot require a given
outcome?" The GM sets up a plot beforehand, and if a given result is
required for the plot to work, he chooses that result. This is the
factor most often associated with "railroading".

[E] Drama: This is a free-wheeling sense of drama or comedy/fun, as
mediated by the GM. For example, a chandelier swing in a swashbuckling
game may naturally succeed because it is dramatically appropriate. It
has nothing to do with the written plot, but it fits.

[F] Meta-game: This is a catch-all category for concerns of the GM and
players. A gamble may succeed because it is getting late in the
evening and people want to go home. Certain issues may be avoided
because some players find them offensive. A PC may disappear
because the player can't show Etcetera.

[G] Group Consensus (from Sarah Kahn): This is a sort of combination
of Reality and Description resolution, in which the entire group
combines efforts to determine what the "expert swordsman's" best
strategy really would BE when the player of the swordsman knows
nothing of combat. It is often use to counteract the problems of
"description" resolution. It often takes the form of "he who knows
the subject best is empowered to define the reality."

[H] Dice: Technically dice will not be used in a "diceless" game, but
I included them to be completist, and to show how they are just one
among a large number of factors. Dice can be used as additional
input into any number of resolutions. Mechanics often call for die
rolls, but a mechanicless game can also use dice to represent random
factors (The rule being, say, "High good, low bad").

Besides the variety of input, action resolution can be different in
method or style of handling -- like how the results are presented. For
example, even if two GM's use the same mechanics and die rolls: one might
describe to players using only descriptive terms, and he keeps the
character sheet and die rolls to himself.

4) Is this fair to the players?

Well, that depends. The advantage of diceless role-playing
on this front is that it encourages greater feedback and communication
with the GM. Yes, technically, a diceless can shoot down whatever
player plans he doesn't like by ruling that they fail. However, the
idea is that it will be very clear to the players that he is doing
this -- since the GM decides everything, he also takes all the blame.

Diceless play requires a large amount of trust in the GM -- but
the theory is that it also makes it more clear when the GM has broken
that trust.

5) Can it simulate "realistic" randomness?

Well, that depends on the GM and the situation. Theoretically,
a die-roll can certainly provide a more statistically random sequence
than GM whim. However, within the context of the game, there are
very few runs of statistically-analyzable events.

The GM can take into account a wide variety of in-game factors
for each individual decision which will differentiate them. Of course,
unless he is a skilled expert in that field, common sense only carries
you so far -- some of the choices will either be arbitrary, or be based
on meta-game factors like Drama...

As an example: the PC's fire a volley of arrows at a distant
enemy. The GM has to decide if they hit any vital spots, taking out
some of the enemy. The result is cannot humanly be determined
exactly -- but the GM can make sure that the result is reasonable,
and fair, and appropriate to the situation.

6) What difference does it make?

Well, that is different for everyone -- it will probably have
different effects for every group. For a personal observation, I'll
defer at this point to Alain Lapalme, who described in an article what
he considered to be the diceless "paradigm shift" for him...

> It is clear to me that I don't understand the dice/diceless
> paradigm shift (I used tothink I did, but I'm no longer so sure).
> To summarize my views on the diceless shift:
> 1) explicit trust in the GM
> 2) can't hide behind bad/good rolls
> 3) forces players to take responsability for their actions
> 4) changes the player/gm communication style from mechanistic
> to more descriptive
> 5) increases subjectivity
> 6) changes the whole nature of combat

Paul Andrew King

Aug 1, 1996, 3:00:00 AM8/1/96

In article <4tolrl$>, (John H Kim) wrote:

>OK -- here is the more controversial portion of my infant FAQ. Once
>again, please send comments.

One thing that I think should be mentioned - perhaps in the form "some
people believe that..." - is that diceless games are almost entirely of the
"mechanics-light" variety and that this accounts for most of the
differences between diceless games and most diced games.

Paul K.

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