Under the Hood – The Complete Picture

The Complete Picture
By The Warden

broken_chainsWhen I learned to drive oh those many years ago (24 years ago, to be exact), my dad taught me. He took me out to an unused country road, pulled over, and spoke the words that every teenager longs to hear. “OK, hop into the driver’s seat.” After fifteen minutes of seat and mirror adjusting, along with a lengthy lecture on responsibilities while driving and repercussions of failing to honour said responsibilities, the lessons began. When the time came to take my driver’s test, I was confident and ready to nail it on my first go.

So when I failed by a few points, it was a little heartbreaking. It wasn’t that I drove poorly, but that I missed a few tiny little details here and there. Not enough to cause an accident in the real world or result in a few horn-honkings from other drivers, just enough to dock me a few points and deny me a licence on my first go. How did this happen? It’s simple, really. Practicality does not translate to precise instruction. In other words, just because you’ve been driving for twenty years does not make you a driving instructor.

This lesson hit home the other week while reviewing yet another draft for ScreenPlay. (Now is the point when I shall address the obvious elephant in the room. It has certainly been a while since my last post here on RPC, long enough that it was safe to assume this column came to an end. Or that ScreenPlay went the way of the dodo. Not true and I’ll get into that at the end of this post.) Since our last time together, the game has undergone a shift in play. Instead of including the Director as another player waiting for his/her turn in the initiative order, their work is performed entirely as a reaction to the Writers’ choices and outcomes. Allow me to explain…


ScreenPlay is a story-based RPG and one of the fundamentals of this genre is allowing all players the opportunity to build onto the existing story, expand, and shape it during play. This provides plenty of room for players (known as Writers in the game) to stretch their wings, but it can also complicate matters for the Director (the GM). Not in a dire fashion, but one of the hurdles encountered during the initial playtests was confusion over what the Director could provide compared to the Writers. Plus there was a serious mechanical/balance concern with Director-controlled characters – by the time the Writers finish their turns, there’s little for the Director to offer by way of resistance or threats to the scene. It’s an issue in every game. The heroes stand united against an army of goblins, killer robots, or katana-wielding schoolgirls. When it’s the GM’s turn, she can only make 3 or 4 dice rolls in total compared to the 6 to 8 provided by the players. Nearly all games are lopsided (unless you want the GM to make 20+ dice rolls on their turn) and ScreenPlay was becoming a harsh example of that principle.

If I had the time and energy to tackle this matter through extensive redesigns and playtests (which is clearly not the case, since I’ve barely had time to write another edition of this column, let alone design the game for which I’m writing about), perhaps this could have smoothed itself out. But there was a faster and decisive way to handle this. Directors now react; they do not initiate actions during play. Whenever a Writer offers a description, the Director responds with an outcome. If that outcome stems from a failed dice roll, the Director can respond by providing a complication (her own description of how one of her characters responds in kind and places an effect – up to and including damage – against a Writer’s character). Whenever a particular event occurs in response to a Writer’s description, a trigger kicks into gear and cuts into the game for the Director to introduce a new element.

The key to pulling this off was through complications. See for yourself. (Warning: Unedited text ahead!)

Every Complication is a trigger intended to react to a failed dice roll in a conflict. These triggers always target the triggering cast member. They can allow your enemy to dodge an attack and retaliate back at a lead character with their own strike or suddenly find your cast hanging precariously from the torn rope of a rickety old bridge as she tried to race to the other side.

There are two types of Complications: Minor and Major. It is possible to have multiple Complications in the same scene.

Minor Complications: Whenever you fail on a dice roll with an even number, your cast triggers a Minor Complication, which allows the Director to have their triggering cast member provide a description in the round. If this description should target the Writer’s triggering cast member, there must be conflict. If the Director’s roll fails, nothing else happens. If it’s successful, one of the following can occur to the Writer’s cast member.

Minor Damage: This Complication can only cause damage equal to a resource’s damage bonus.

Temporarily Remove Resource: If the Director chooses to temporarily prohibit the use of a resource applied in the triggering description, it is unavailable until the Writer uses a following description within the same scene to return the resource to play and remove this Complication. You cannot resolve this as a detail in a description; it must use up the entire description. This type of Complication is never permanent and can be automatically removed at the end of the scene.

Major Complications: Whenever you fail a dice roll with an odd number, your cast triggers a Major Complication. This allows the Director to have their triggering cast member provide a description in the round, but no conflict is ever necessary – this Complication happens automatically. The effects of a Major Complication take precedence over a Minor Complication and cannot be resolved within the current scene. The afflicted cast must address it at a later time or simply accept it as a permanent event. One of the following occurs to the Writer’s triggering cast member.

Major Damage: Whatever the difference between the dice result and the Difficulty is converted into damage plus any applicable resource’s damage bonus.

Step Penalty: A -1 step penalty is applied to any Potential used by the triggering cast member. You can recover no more than 1 step penalty at the start of the next scene.

Eliminate Resource: Using this option completely removes the use of a single resource related to the triggering conflict. Its permanency is determined by the Director based on the triggering description.


On paper, it was awesome. The answer to my prayers and a way to provide something a little more mechanically original. Until I discovered a major snag last weekend. See if you can spot it. Here’s a snippet of the previous draft for ScreenPlay (known as Version 1.04):

Once details have been provided and all Potentials and Difficulties are set, roll dice. There are four possibilities you can face when you roll dice for a conflict.

Success with an Even Number: The outcome for your description will be positive and in your cast’s favour. You gain a bonus description to your turn; you cannot hold onto the description for later. There is no limit to how many bonus descriptions a cast member can have in one turn.

Success with an Odd Number: The outcome for your description will be positive and in your cast’s favour. Your turn is over and you cannot provide a description for that cast member until the next round.

Failure with an Even Number: The outcome for your description will work against your cast member. Your cast member takes a Minor Complication.

Failure with an Odd Number: The outcome for your description will work against your cast member. Your cast member takes a Major Complication.

Did you catch it? If complications work as the effect/damage component of the game, when do the players get to use them? Based on what was written in Version 1.04… NEVER!! In my mind, Writers would clearly be able to create effects and/or cause damage on their turns, but you wouldn’t have known it from what I wrote down, would you? Had this been published, there would have been major errata issued within 24 hours.

Once I caught this, there was much self-kicking going on at and around my desk. How did I allow this to happen? It seemed like such a rookie mistake and that’s when the memory of my dad teaching me to drive came to mind. Sometimes you take things for granted when you’ve been doing it for 20+ years, just as was the case for driving. It wasn’t that Dad didn’t know I was supposed to hug the right side of the street when making a right turn, simply that it was so basic to be beyond cognition. Same thing applied here. Of course a Writer can cause damage on their turn, it’s a roleplaying game, dammit! Yet by not expressly stating so, I caused the game to fail.

Roleplaying games are incredibly complicated systems. Even the most basic ones require some level of complexity because the very nature of these games is to provide near-absolute freedom of creativity within the confines of a unique or mimicked ruleset. It’s why successful games eventually release new editions, optional rules, splatbooks, and more over their lifetime – it can be impossible to cover every possible situation. With every new edition that hits shelves, clarity is provided. You see it in games where there are new mechanics for drowning, restricted movement, weapon speed, etc. It’s not that these games never intended for your character to drown, face difficulty climbing up the side of a building, or counter the hefty weight of a broadsword, but that these aspects would demand as much relevance in so many games. This doesn’t make it the designers fault, it’s simply due to good old fashioned taking things for granted.

As I work on Version 1.05, I’ve gone in with a bass-ackwards mindset in the sense that it may seem like I’m talking down to my potential customers and players, yet the lessons of Version 1.04 seem to offer merit to this tactic. Assume your readers have never played a roleplaying game. Ever. Your success may thank you for it later.


Now, as promised, a little explanation as to why it’s been so long since the last post. Some of you may say that no explanation is due, others may be shouting out loud at their screen. (If you’re the latter, now’s the time when you look around at the strangers staring at you, point at the screen, and say, “No ticket!”) Am I returning to this column as a regular feature? Or will it be another few months before there’s another post?

The answer is complicated. I don’t have one. I have not given up on my design work, that is for certain, but keeping up with reality and fantasy’s two-headed Cerberus – writing and promoting – became a bit much. It happens to everyone and there are truly few who can handle it to any degree. When I last made my 104th post to this column, promoting upcoming work was nearly the only work getting done. I needed a little time away to sort out life and it was a much needed time away. Priorities have been ranked and those things not required have either been tossed aside or rests comfortably on a shelf. To date, more work goes into crafting games than talking about them and I haven’t been this happy in a while. Oh, and I have a new car.

There’s a lot more I could get into, but I’m not. Nothing personal, fair reader, but don’t let these 2000+ words fool you into believing I’m a big sharer. Suffice it to say if you find yourself able to contribute to organizations helping those dealing with mental health issue such as depression, personality disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder, please take a moment this holiday season to consider making a donation in someone’s name.

Until next time…

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