Player Actions and Desires versus The Art of the Story

Many players and gamemasters seem to think that everything isn’t perfect if the adventure doesn’t run exactly as planned. This is what I like to think of as the mimetic fallacy of game design. Really, when you drop that situation down in front of your players, you don’t have any idea what they’re going to do with it. Issues of this sort abound. The philosophy of gaming that many people hold to is that the game is best when it stays carefully on the rails, that the best story is always told when all of the plot elements carefully fall into place.

This isn’t really rewarding for many gamers. Sometimes, the game stays on the rails perfectly and everything is just fine. Sometimes, it won’t, and that’s when you tend to get conflicts in gaming philosophy. Some people believe that it’s their responsibility to play their character at any cost, regardless of the cost to the group as a whole or the friendships you build. Others believe that it’s their responsibility to stay on the rails, no matter what their character might actually do. Still others want what’s dramatically appropriate, regardless of the situation. What I’ve learned over time, and how I’ve learned it, is through experience with players who have these differing philosophies and feel very strongly about them all at the same table.

The secret to making this work, and I assure you my success rate is NOT one hundred percent here, is immersion. No one has a one hundred percent success rate. When the people feel that their characters are part of a world, that their actions and beliefs matter somewhat, regardless of power level, abilities, or how combats work out, that’s when role playing is at it’s most powerful. The problem here is often, in the case of superhero games, what kind of world they think it is and how that player views the world.

Some people ask questions about whether certain real-world people exist in my games, and more often than not, I’ve replaced them with an equivalent. The reasons for this are many. For one thing, I’m a published author. Putting a very public celebrity or person in government into a game can lead to an encounter with their rich and very powerful attorneys. For another, I want my superhero game to feel different, and not beholden to real world events. Superheroes have a tendency to throw off the curve of events and results, so many things in my game world don’t match the real world. Character realism before real-world realism. An example is below.

It’s more about events that didn’t happen than did. In my game, 9-11 never happened. I can’t realistically expect a group of terrorists to fly over the base of the most powerful team of superheroes in the world, go unnoticed, and crash two airplanes into a building 100 yards from their base. “Who’s on monitor duty?” would be the first question, followed by “Can’t Magus teleport us 10 miles in two seconds and get on board these things?”

The answer to both of these questions is, of course, that it’s up to the GM on how he wants to handle it. But for me, the issue of fairness to my players was firmly in my mind. That failure would loom large in their minds, and it would seem arbitrary, and crass, in a superhero game, to tell people “We’re sorry. You screwed up. There’s nothing you can do. It’s gone.” Especially when it would take more than those twenty men had to convince Millennium Guard to not yank them off the planes and pull the planes out of the way. Plus, planning around that particular group of superheroes, especially with the ability to sense a significant amount of far off danger would require more superbeings than those guys would logically have given in character events.

Roleplaying is not a zero-sum game. We all want something out of it. But you have to follow the world you create, and not the one in front of your face.


Luck of the Dice vs. The Art of the Story

In the old days, when you rolled a critical failure, that was it. If you failed enough saving throws or didn’t make it through the barrier of fire, your character died.

Now, things are a lot different. We have a tendency to praise systems now that have “Action Points” and “Hero Points” and other things that make the game more “fun” at the expense of making everything seem easy. I actually don’t like these systems except when simulating a specific campaign tone and/or feel.

In uncertain order, here are my reasons.

1) It takes the creativity out of the game. Who cares how many times I screw up or how many stupid things I do when a little forethought and planning will easily substitute for my heroic action point, action point, or luck point?

2) There’s no reward for not using them. That means that the desperation of their use either needs to be hardwired into the system, which they don’t seem to be in any of the systems in which they are used, or there needs to be some reward system for surviving the required amount of time without using them.

3) It takes away as many cool stories as it produces. A good friend of mine (Who now runs the Gamers Gambit) once rolled six natural twenties in a row. The odds of this happening are slightly less than the Mayflower traveling to the moon and the pilgrims settling there. Now, stories like this one are far more common, because heroic action systems like this have thrown the balance of results a little off kilter. Truly incredible things, more common? That takes the incredible out of the incredible.

4) In the old days of gaming, when we rolled badly and/or died, we were sad. But we never complained about it. Now, we’ve all become slaves to our action points, hero points, and luck points and thinking “If only I had more.” Instead of thinking situations through, we now trust in our action points to help us overcome situations that we previously would take the time to think through.

I know that people want to have fun gaming. But for me, the teaching experience and learning experience were always a part of the gaming experience. Don’t be afraid to think things through. You’ll spend less action/hero/luck points. And then when you really need them, and you’re rolling dice like a hard-luck Harry, they’ll be there.

The Dice/Damage/Power Creep Kludge

When I was a young gamer, and Champions was a young game, characters were built on about 225-250 points. A character threw between 8-10d6, had maybe three attacks total, and a speed between 4 and 5. Special defenses were rare. Heck, even Mechanon only did 12d6, and he had two attacks.

A 10th level character in Dungeons and Dragons was very powerful, and a really tough character would have about 80-90 hit points and about 3-4 magic items. It took years to reach that lofty goal, too.

Now, characters in Champions start at 400 points, have between 3 and 6 attacks total, a speed between 5 and 6, and at least one special defense is usually present. A starting character throws 12d6, literally throwing around 16x the weight that they threw around 25 years ago. Mechanon pretty much does whatever he wants to your starting character, and he has more attacks than most GMs will ever use. In Dungeons and Dragons, people have more hit points, less attacks, and now THEY have super powers instead of ordinary swords and sorcery (As if this was somehow not extraordinary enough in a fantasy game). Combat takes longer. You reach 10th level in about 4 months.

The philosophy of gaming has changed, and I don’t necessarily feel it’s for the better. Do we really need to roll more dice than we did 20-25 years ago? It’s my contention that people wanted to roll more dice than we did 20-25 years ago, and that has somehow factored in to the mentality of game designers around the world. It used to be that when someone had a 10th level character, we all stood and stared in awe. Now we just pooh-pooh and go on about our business, as if the person was chewing gum in the middle of a gum chewing contest, and it had only started 3 minutes ago. Power creep used to be a complaint. Now it’s a reality. And many game designers seem to be trying to find ways to out-power creep each other, as if the goal of gaming itself were to have that power creep built into the system.

I don’t feel this is emotionally positive for role playing games. I’ll be completely honest. The “bigger, better, faster, more powerful” mentality has taken over the industry, and not necessarily in a good way. MMO’s have created a situation where characters can be 80th-85th level in just a matter of weeks. I feel that people don’t want to work hard for their victories anymore. Instead of trying to figure out a way to out-smart the bad guy, or out-think the bad guy, the players think “This isn’t balanced. If only I had two more levels, this would be easy.” or “If only my character had another fifty experience points.”

My philosophy of gaming states that working for your victories still matters. If they are rarer, they are sweeter, and you feel like you earned them. A good victory is like a badge of pride. You carry it with you for the rest of your life. They tell the best stories that gamers still talk about, and that’s what makes gaming fun, the memories of those great victories and losses.

Lately, I’m hearing less of them.

My philosophy of gaming: And why it’s different from everyone else’s.

A lot of people think that gaming and role playing in general is about wish fulfillment. This is all well and good in most situations, but the problem is this. What if player A’s wish conflicts with player B’s wish? That’s why I don’t share this philosophy of gaming. I think it’s a dreadful mistake. I was in a situation once where a good friend of mine thought he was doing a character of mine a favor by removing the source of the character’s angst and replacing it with a carefully manipulated happiness. He was totally unprepared for how upset I was. It wasn’t the character’s sudden happy ending that bothered me. It was that I felt cheated by the loss of the ability to overcome that problem in a manner that I saw as more appropriate.

Roleplaying is about characters sharing a world and participating in the vision of the game master. It’s not just up to the GM to create a world that’s fun to play in and allow the players to make whatever they want in his sandbox. It’s also up to the players to ask good questions, and work WITH the GM to create characters that fit the world. All too often, I’ve encountered situations where someone said “That’s not how I thought it worked.” To which my response was “You didn’t ask” or “You didn’t write me a background that made that clear.” Always try to find out what themes and tones the GM is trying to explore before putting your character to paper. Players have a responsibility, too, and it’s not just to create a character that they find interesting. It’s to create a character that everyone else in the group will want to spend some time around.

I guess I’m a blogger now.

Let me tell you what’s in store for you as a result of what’s in store for me.

Coming up at Origins is an adventure called Unkindness. This is not so much about supervillains, although it is an awesome adventure in that regard. This is an adventure about the evil that men do, with a nasty moral dilemma at the end of it. It’s also dedicated to my friend Bill Molendyk, who passed away last year. Expect the unexpected, but the adventure is terrific. I’d like to offer special thanks to Sharon Packer M.D. (Author of Superheroes and Supereoges, Analyzing the Minds Behind the Masks) and Sabine Himmelfarb, M.D. an expert in a very specific field of analysis, for their help in designing this adventure.

Coming up at Gencon is an adventure called Pretty Hate Machines. This is dedicated to my friend Bruce Huffman, who passed away this year. It’s been a tough couple of years in my gaming group. In Pretty Hate Machines, Mr. Hideous, the ugliest man in the world, comes to the campaign city to wreak havoc and make everyone else as ugly as he is. There are a lot of cool maps in this adventure, but more importantly than that, I’m trying to establish a tradition with my superhero adventures to give people a chance to be heroes themselves, and donate to worthy causes that are somehow related to the adventure. Unkindness is the first in that line.

Coming up for me on Thursday is a meeting with my copy editor. I’m working on two novels: The first is called Hellbow Rhune: A Novel of Dark Fantasy (Although it’s more of a really evil fairy tale/bildungsroman), and the second is an urban fantasy novel called Alison L. (This is an Alice in Wonderland modern urban fantasy. I’m hoping to get takers just on that alone.)

Special Thanks to all my playtesters for getting me this far, and to Dave Mattingly for being daring enough to publish my gaming things for many years.


This is the web page of game designer and Hero System gadfly Michael Satran.  Expect posts talking about upcoming projects – games and novels.  I also plan to discuss my theories of how to run and design games, a lot of which – at least when talking about the Hero System – will disagree with some of the conventional wisdom and make people angry.

But that’s why it’s theory.

  • Upcoming Appearances

    Heroicon, Decatur, Illinois, May 15-17

    Michael will be appearing at Heroicon as a Special Guest, where he will run games and appear on panels. All proceeds from this convention go to benefit troops overseas with games, both donated and purchased, sponsored by a group called Games for Troops. I know it's a trek. Come join me anyway.

    Nexus Game Fair, Milwaukee, WI, June 25-28

    Michael will be appearing at Nexus Game Fair as a Special Guest, where he will run games and appear on Panels.

    Gencon, Indianapolis, IN, July 29-August 2.

    Michael will be attending Gencon and representing Blackwyrm Games, where his latest products will be playtested and he will have at least one signing.