Transparency in Games and the Torg Decision

October 9, 2020
One of the way Torg feels different than a lot of other RPGs is in its transparency. Simply put, mechanical information (such as the difficulty of a check) isn't secret. Here's how the game's rulebook puts it:

Transparency
Mechanical information isn't meant to be secret in Torg Eternity. How many Possibilities a foe currently has, what an enemy's various defenses are, and what modifiers apply any given DN [Difficulty Number] should all be apparent or freely shared if the players ask. All four steps of a Dramatic Skill Resolution should be clear as soon as the task begins.
Special occasions might require secrecy, but even then the fact that the characters aren't aware of a Difficulty Number is an obvious clue that something is up.
Information unrelated to tests or game mechanics doesn't need to be shared. A villain's plans or motivations, for example, may remain secret until discovered via roleplaying or through the clever use of skills and abilities. 

I think part of this is due to how Torg plays: you get resources that let you add to your checks or increase them in small ways (usually, in increments of +3), and spending those resources for no effect feels pretty cruddy as a player. That is, if you're 4 points away from hitting a difficulty number and you decide to play a card for +3 and still fail, you'll wish you wouldn't have played it at all. When the difficulty number is transparent, you know to just accept your failure and move on (or that you'll need to spend two +3 cards to obtain a success).

This goes for the game's principal luck-changing mechanic, Possibilities. You only get 3 of these each game session (they don't carry over from session to session), and the only way to get more is to actively and intentionally interfere with your successes (such as by inviting the gamemaster to insert a tough wandering monster). That is, you make the game harder for one or more characters to give everyone a couple more Possibilities. They're precious.

When you spend a Possibility to improve a d20 roll, you roll and add to your prior roll. You can't get any worse by spending these (unlike, say, Hero Points or similar re-roll mechanics in other games, which can give you a worse result--and everyone has stories of times when it has!). Torg goes one step further than that: if your Possibility would add less than 10 to your roll, add 10 instead. That's just about always enough to turn a failure into a success, or even a success into an outstanding success. Possibilities are the currency to say: "it's important to me to be better at this thing tonight, even at the expense of being better at other things I try tonight." You still might not ensure a fantastic success (or even a minimal success) when the odds are really long, because there's some degree of randomness, still, but you're very well informed.

So that brings us back to transparency. Torg is about making sure your choices to do better actually do better, and that means letting you judge whether or not you want to spend your resources for that. It's a concept that pervades the philosophy of the game's design, and I enjoy it.

In games like D&D and Pathfinder, transparency is often up to the individual gamemaster. Maybe the gamemaster will tell you the Armor Class you need to hit the goblin warchief; maybe she'll tell you the difficulty of the Reflex save to avoid damage from an acid-spraying trap. But most don't. Even if you have some kind of limited-use reroll, it's up to you to decide whether you want to use it, and you have to just hope it'll improve your situation. In fact, the rules usually say something like, "you have to choose to use this ability before you know whether you succeed or fail." That means rerolls are most useful when you get the worst possible outcome, because if you can't guarantee an improvement, you can at least guarantee that you can't get any worse. It's not about choosing whether you want to be better at This Thing Tonight, it's about mitigating abject failure.

But back to transparency: a lack of transparency forces decisions with imperfect information. Let's say you want to use your Perception to find a hidden sniper. The gamemaster, who rolled the sniper's Stealth in secret, knows that finding him is nearly impossible--you'll need a natural 20 to succeed because the gamemaster happened to roll really well, maybe. You roll a 10. You feel pretty confident in your Perception skill, and you decide to use a limited resource to reroll or add to that. It's a poor decision; you should accept the failure and conserve your resource until it matters. But you don't know that. So you spend your Hero Point or Perception Bonus Thing, or whatever, and you still fail, and you feel a little bad having wasted a thing. The same thing goes for whether you use a big, limited-use attack (like your highest-level spell) against a foe that's already so injured that a minor attack would be just as successful in earning victory. Lack of transparency means you just don't know, and you risk using disintegrate on a foe a magic missile would drop.

It's that bad feeling Torg avoids. It eliminates some of the randomness and risk, which might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I like it so much I've started to become consciously more transparent when I run any game. 

Player (to me): "How hurt does the frost giant look?"
Me (checking notes): "He looks like he's about 16 / 74ths of his full fighting effectiveness."
 

It's Rontober!

October 5, 2020
It's always a thrill when something I've been working on comes out to the public. It's even more thrilling when several things hit at once!

First of all, here's the October product announcement for Paizo. I worked on the first book listed (Lost Omens Pathfinder Society Guide), and I wrote BOTH of the adventures premiering this month: Dominion's End for Starfinder, and Assault on Hunting Lodge Seven for Pathfinder. Both are great adventures, but they're very different. One is an ultra-high-leve...
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Number 14

September 30, 2020
Well, after an exhausting push through this weekend and into this week, I've completed and turned in my Starfinder Adventure Path volume kicking off an as-yet-unannounced Adventure Path. I think it's among the best Starfinder AP volumes I've written; it had the potential for being really scattered and disjointed, but I had a few overall framing things and interconnections that I think tie it all together well. My developer will be the first judge of that, and the players will be the second.

I ...
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Where New Monsters Come From

September 24, 2020
The Pathfinder Bestiary and Pathfinder Bestiary 2 have a ton of great monsters in them. There are old standbys, like giants and golems and froghemoths and stuff, and there are Paizo creations like goblin dogs, reefclaws, and sinspawn. But there are also plenty of brand-new critters in there as well, like the ostrich-like cauthooj and the limb-ripping mukradi. Where do these monsters come from? 

The alphabet.

I'm not just being glib. If you look at the placement of these new monsters--all of whi...
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The Bland Background Makes the Heroes Shine

September 21, 2020
I was talking to another freelancer recently. She was populating a settlement in something she's writing and was asking how two unusual ancestries might interact with each other. I didn't know, but I saw a larger issue and asked how many of the NPCs were human. She said not many, because there are so many interesting ancestries available, and asked how many should be human.

My answer? Just about all of the NPCs should be human. Definitely at least 50 percent. Maybe more like 90 percent. This h...
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Will of PCs

September 15, 2020
I talked recently about removing "the" from your writing to avoid "othering" certain groups, but this is only one of several words I search for when tightening up some text. Here are three more:

Will: RPG writing is in present tense. You don't say, "the count will reveal his plan to the party," or "if the party stops fighting, the ogres will listen to what they have to say." Put these in present tense: "the count reveals his plan to the party," "if the party stops fighting, the ogres listen to...
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The Bricks You Need

September 10, 2020
I'm writing another Starfinder Adventure Path adventure. It's not announced yet, but I don't think I'm doing the company any harm by saying I'm writing for them again. I don't think anyone is betting that Starfinder is going to quit doing Adventure Paths, or that they're going to quit arranging for and assigning them behind the scenes, before a public announcement. So I can't yet say what it is, I can say I'm writing a Starfinder adventure.

I just turned in my milestone--about half my total wo...
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More CUP Updates

September 2, 2020
I wrote recently, right here, about Paizo updating its Community Use Policy (or CUP). This is the policy that lets fans use their rules and their intellectual property, so long as the end user isn't charged for them. Functionally, it's about giving guidelines and comfort to creators of fan-made websites and videos (and other content, but this seems to be their new thrust).

They've made some further changes to it, although the specifics are tucked into a forum post. I want to walk through these...
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Avoid the "The"

August 27, 2020
Here's a quick tip today: I've been learning a lot recently about the phenomenon of "othering," which is setting a specific group apart because of its differences, almost always to treat them badly or dismiss their opinions or values. This is particularly damaging when applied to real-world people, because it's been used to justify all kinds of odious abuses (to ethnic minorities, to the physically or mentally disabled, and so on). Language that "others" is subtle but pervasive.

Here's a trick...
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The Opposite of Balanced Isn't Balanced

August 25, 2020
I'm doing some freelance writing for an upcoming Pathfinder Second Edition book that is going to have lots and lots of spells in it. My assignment is to write lots and lots of spells.

Although I have plenty of neat and thematic new spell ideas, I like to look over existing spells not only to make sure I'm not reinventing the wheel, but to see whether any of them spark any further ideas. I thought I had found a particularly good design space in creating an aggressive opposite of the longstandin...
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Paizo Updates the CUP

August 12, 2020
Paizo has two overall licenses for people to use:

The Compatibility License allows you to make products that use their rules and charge money for them; you can't generally use their intellectual property (proper names, etc.). Those of us producing 3PP (Third-Party Press) materials, like Run Amok Games, use this license. 

The Community Use Policy (or CUP) outlines how you can use their rules and their intellectual property for fan-made stuff. You get to use their intellectual property and even s...
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Six Sentence NPCs

August 7, 2020
Including NPCs in a game seems easy: you just slap a name on a stat block and you're done. This is Gobgor the goblin, who fights the heroes. This is Shopkor the shopkeeper, who sells stuff to the heroes.

I'm not going to get into naming NPCs well; I'm actually not very good at it. But there are easy steps to make any NPC evocative and useful at the table. This is particularly important when you're writing adventures, because the NPCs need to be simple (because some GMs and players will blithel...
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Paizo Licenses, Very Quickly

July 28, 2020
I was explaining the differences between the two licenses Paizo offers to a friend of mine the other day, and I thought a quick summary of them would be helpful.

The Compatibility License is for professional publishers who want to make money from their products. This lets you use the Pathfinder (or Starfinder, which has its own similar license) rules and claim compatibility with the game. You don't get to use any intellectual property (or, properly, "Product Identity") in them. So you can writ...
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Sandbox Adventures in Pathfinder 2E and D&D 5E

July 21, 2020
There are not a lot of rules similarities between Pathfinder Second Edition and Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, but I've recently noticed one very significant similarity when designing adventures for each system.

They both usually handle sandbox adventures very well--with certain limits.

I've talked about sandbox adventures before; they're the kind of adventures where the heroes can go anywhere they want in a large area and follow up on whichever leads strike their fancy. It's a lot of choice...
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How the Adventure Went Down

July 14, 2020
I posted last Friday about how I was going to write a 5,000-word adventure over the weekend. How did it go? Somewhere right between "okay" and "good." Here's the rundown.

As I mentioned, I knew that the introduction would be about 500 words (it's 430) and the final ambush encounter would be about 1,000 words (it's 1,130). On Saturday, I wrote all of that, then I started writing in more detail about the ogre keep. (Remember, the middle part of my adventure was divided up into "ogre keep" and "s...
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A 5,000 Word Adventure This Weekend

July 10, 2020
Happy Friday! This weekend, I'm writing a 5,000-word adventure. It's for a really neat project, and I'm collaborating with some fun people. I thought it might be helpful to let you know my process. Rather than, "eh, it'll get done this weekend," I'm being quite rigorous about preparation and planning the execution. Here's how I'll do it.

Understand the Parameters. I already know the adventure is for 5,000 words, is for Pathfinder Second Edition, and is fundamentally about attacking a caravan o...
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Podcasting Your Games, Legally Speaking

July 8, 2020
Here's a slight deviation from my standard "so you're an RPG writer" advice, but it touches on the two pillars of my professional life: gaming and the law.

There's been a big push in actual-play podcasting in the last few years. I'm even part of one myself (it's an awesome Starfinder campaign, and you can find our episodes here). With more people meeting virtually, I've heard more people considering recording and uploading their games as actual-play podcasts. This is fun, and the tech availabl...
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Another Adventure Path Kicks Off!

June 27, 2020
I've just finished an important work project, although it's something I can't talk much about just yet. We've announced our upcoming three-part Adventure Paths: the dungeon-themed Abomination Vaults Adventure Path, which I'm developing, and the martial-arts-tournament-themed Fists of the Ruby Phoenix Adventure Path, which my friend and coworker Patrick is developing. As will surprise no one, I've been hard at work putting together the outline for the Adventure Path after that one, which we ha...
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Into the Dungeon!

June 24, 2020
I recently contributed to an awesome project that is Kickstarting now. The Book of Dungeon Encounters is a collection of system-neutral dungeon encounters you can drop into any dungeon setting. If you like creepy, cool, fun, puzzling, or challenging dungeon encounters, don't miss out on this! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/philipreed/the-book-of-dungeon-encounters-for-use-with-fantasy-rpgs/
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Stumbling Blocks for New Adventure Authors

June 22, 2020
An online-only PaizoCon had a few wrinkles, but one of the best parts was being able to set up an "Ask Me Anything" thread for anyone to drop in and ask me questions about what I do. One question I received from Andrew Mullen strikes me as a great question a lot of people probably have:

What's the biggest—or what're the co-biggest—stumbling blocks you see from new adventure authors?

And here's my (mostly unedited) response to that:

Erratic party assumptions! Too many new writers assume all p...

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How I Develop, 3 of 3: What I Do to Your Words

June 9, 2020

Professionally, I’m a game developer. I focus on developing adventures. That means outlining adventures and assigning writing to freelancers, checking freelancers’ milestones, and developing the freelancer’s text before sending it to the editors. Let’s break those three things down! Finally, the development.

This is the bulk of my job. I’m taking turnover text that you, the freelancer, give to me, and I’m giving it a thorough edit, called a development edit (to distinguish it from ...


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How I Develop, Part 2 of 3: Your Milestone

May 28, 2020

Professionally, I’m a game developer. I focus on developing adventures. That means outlining adventures and assigning writing to freelancers, checking freelancers’ milestones, and developing the freelancer’s text before sending it to the editors. Let’s break those three things down! Second, the milestone.

What A Milestone Is. A milestone is a check-in point where I’ve asked you, the freelancer, to turn in about half your word count. This is to make sure you’re on track, and to make...


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How I Develop, Part 1 of 3: Forging the Outline

May 25, 2020

Professionally, I’m a game developer. I focus on developing adventures. That means outlining adventures and assigning writing to freelancers, checking freelancers’ milestones, and developing the freelancer’s text before sending it to the editors. Let’s break those three things down! First, the outline. 

I work with a lot of internal stakeholders to come up with a project outline that I give to my freelancers. Because I work on the Pathfinder Adventure Path line, the projects I’m outl...


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What Actual Feedback Looks Like

May 22, 2020
So, I wanted to talk about how feedback a developer gives you as a freelancer is going to range from the exceptionally specific to the exceptionally general. I know when I give feedback, this is nearly always the case. And I thought an example would be helpful, but I don't feel comfortable sharing the feedback I've given to others. Instead, here's some feedback I got myself!

Back in 2013 / 2014, I wrote The Choking Tower, the third adventure in the Iron Gods Adventure Path. James Jacobs gave m...
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What Makes a Good Milestone

May 19, 2020
If you're writing for RPGs, it's pretty likely you'll get asked to turn over a "milestone" about halfway through the process. This is basically a midpoint check-in, where you show you've got about half the word count completed. But a milestone can and should be a greater opportunity for that for you, the freelancer, to interface with your developer. What makes a good milestone?

* Word Count. What is "about half" of your word count? Anywhere near 50 percent is fine, so long as it's showing good...
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That's So Platinum

May 14, 2020
I was looking over a conversation about the "metal levels" on DriveThruRPG, the most significant site for digital RPG sales. These levels (Copper, Silver, Gold, and so on) correspond with sales: higher sales get rarer metals.

I've felt lucky if some of my third party press products even get Copper rated, but I was surprised to find that I actually have three Platinum products! All three adventures I wrote for the D&D Adventurer's League campaign (Beneath the Fetid Chelimber, The Seer, and Quel...
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Another Solo Adventure!

May 13, 2020
I've released my next solo adventure, a conversion to my popular Night of the Skulltaker for solo play. You can get it right here!
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Bells and Whistles

May 12, 2020
As an adventure writer, I like to think that the story comes first, and is the most vital thing I'm providing. Sure, there are monsters, but you can go get those stats in a monster book (whether a Monster Manual, a Bestiary, or an Alien Archive). The same with traps; something in the core rulebook is something you can look up yourself. Maps are often really important to tell the story, but you can draw those out yourself, or print the ones I include in the adventure. You've got all the tokens...
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When Results By 10 Aren't Enough

May 6, 2020
In Pathfinder First Edition, it was pretty common to see results broken up by 5s. Failed to climb that wall? If you failed by 5 or more, you'll fall. Failed to disable a trap? If you failed by 5 or more, you accidentally set it off. I saw plenty of tables, such as for information gathered while investigating something, that came in units of 5: If you got a result of 15 or higher on your Perception/Diplomacy/whatever, you learned X. If you got a 20 or higher, you also learned Y. If you got a 2...
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The Duskwalker's Gift, by Ken Melvoin-Berg

May 5, 2020
In what might be the first piece of fan fiction my works have ever received, here's a short story about Tarklo Dirge, the protagonist of The Duskwalker's Due, the solo adventure you can get right here. It's by my good friend Ken Melvoin-Berg and it's a lot of fun!

The Duskwalker’s Gift by Ken Melvoin-Berg


Hunting is what I was born for, literally. I was born again in this body of Tarklo Dirge and given a mission: hunt the undead to restore the balance of life and death. I was getting a smile ...


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About Me


I'm Ron Lundeen, development manager for Paizo, Inc., active gamer, and RPG freelancer. I've recently had products in print for Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, Petersen Games, and Ulisses Spiele. I'm still taking freelance writing assignments, but also focusing on products for Run Amok Games.


 

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