Things I’ve Learned from… Fallout New Vegas

Guidance is not railroading in an Open World

There is a lot of things written about what is allowed in open world sandbox rpgs. But if a Fallout game doesn’t know how to make a sandbox I don’t who can. Infinite choices open up as you wake up in the Mojave. You are pushed out of the Doctor’s comfortable home with a mission, get to New Vegas, learn who shot you and why. Throughout the game you can see the shining light of Vegas over the mountains.

It struck me like a recent moment in one of campaigns. Many of the players had met people who were meeting at a specific cafe. The character were dubious about the cafe because they knew at least one of these people was connected to a criminal organization. But the constant stream of people mentioning it began to turn into a joke to the players. “Haha Nick, you want us to go that cafe don’t you?” There are warnings with this sort of gaming that it becomes a railroad.

Everyone in the Mojave mentions the lights of Vegas, quests to discover your past point to Vegas, the lights are there on the horizon. Aren’t you being railroaded to go to Vegas? Of course not. You make your own path. Guiding players down one path and not another is not railroading. Fallout even discourages you from taking the quick route to Vegas. You can just head North past a quarry and go East a little and its a minutes walk, not the trek across the map Fallout seems to want of you. But there are Deathclaws, lots of them.

But following the guidance to Vegas is still a choice. Not traveling through Deathclaw territory at first level is a choice. What sets this guidance apart from iron clad tracks is that it is giving you information to make a choice. Fallout New Vegas constantly excels at these choices, it hints over and over so that you know what you are choosing. Sometimes you have to search for those hints, but those hints are never forcing you to do one thing or another.

Little Stories can add up to Big Stories

I screwed up Veronica’s quest. I don’t remember the exact decision I made, but I screwed up big. Veronica went to talk to the Follower’s of the Apocalypse, people who want to help humanity with old world tech. But jealous Brotherhood soldiers turned up and killed the followers. Veronica was exiled. It was bad. And I didn’t have the saves to fix it.

So I had to live with that. A little personal problem with Veronica that I screwed up. And when I had to make other decisions later it was there to think about. Later when I had to choose who to bring ED-E to, or how to help Arcade Gannon, or whether to ask the Brotherhood to help the NCR that personal story between me and my punch happy companion mattered.

I also helped Boone, and god damn did I want to help the NCR more for it.

You don’t need Dice Rolls

As a table top gamer dice might seem like the be all and end all of gaming. But Fallout has a nice crips system for skill checks, do you have the high enough number?

Dialogue options are often opened up if you have 30 or 40 in whatever relevant skill. Some things are opened up by having the right perk, the most memorable were my uses of the Black Widow perk. No dice rolls, no random chance used at all.

Because failing a dialogue option would have been miserable. Instead I was rewarded for investing in skills. But since I could chose to use them I could chose how my character  approached problems. I might know that a high GUNS skill would get information, but so does high SURVIVAL, or SPEECH.

To top it off the game gave you magazines so you could temporarily up your skill, when you really wanted to talk someone down, or earn their respect but had just a little less than what was needed.

Often these sorts of tests were also just an expression of how much more information I might get. Without every test being at the expense of progressing they were easy to forgive if I couldn’t make it.

Game’s Cheat, and it’s Okay

Fallout New Vegas is an old game with an older engine. It cheats a lot. In a game about your impact on a huge landscape it has to cheat to trick you into thinking there is real change. But the game can’t have two or three versions of every location, instead it can use simple tricks to make you think there are.

The obvious example is the Battle of the Dam, the end of the game. And spoilers to anyone like me who has waited a long time to play this game. Unless you are evil enough to join Cesar, any of the other three choices lead you to the same side of the dam.

In other places the game tricks you into thinking things have changed by allowing you or stopping you from entering certain places. Blow something up and the door is now locked. Stop a bomb on a train and now guards are posted who refuse to let you pass because they’re still investigating. It might be a trick, but in the end its easy to believe.

These tricks are harder to use in table top games, but you should remember that it’s okay to cheat. When I’m struggling to generate new stats for a new boss or a new monster I often just use the stats of something different and rename the powers. What’s the real difference between a troll without its regeneration and an ogre? (I don’t need real answers to that, thanks.)

The simple change of where the players are allowed to go can often be an easy way to show that things have changed without needing a whole new description.

And a branching choice laden game might all boil down to one battle where the only difference is what allies the players have while they storm the same enemy fort.


Thing’s I’ve Learned From… Left 4 Dead 2

Monsters Affect The Team

Left 4 Dead 2 is famous for its clever four person party mechanics. You don’t hoard med kits or pills from your friends, you help them, because in the end it will be them saving your butts. It’s this principle, stick close to your friends and they stick close to you, that powers Left 4 Dead and its sequel.

Besides snappy and clear dialogue the game pushes you to rely on your friends by designing the “special” zombies to hit you in the team work. Several of the specials like the hunter or the smoker will incapacitate a team member completely necessitating a team member stopping the attacker or at least scarring it off.

Tanks and spitters do this work by simply being very dangerous, covering a large area of the ground with a line of acid, potentially cutting you off from your friends, or just bashing team members away from you before crushing you into pulp.

Boomers are one of the most interesting, if not killed at a distance (don’t forget L4D2 was the entry that introduced melee combat) it will spit up boomer bile onto whatever unlucky team members are around. The spit instantly attracts a hoard of zombies, ignoring all else including other non spat on team members. This not only creates a strategic decision in combat – when to kill the boomer – if the bile comes out you’ll have to scramble to defend a team mate.

Variety is the Spice of Life

I said this in the Dark Souls II post, but it bares repeating because L4D2 does it just as well. Challenge is increased through variety and numbers. While a Tank is scary, the lumbering hulk like zombie can take out a team easily, there’s something more challenging about a jockey and a spitter at the same time. The spitter covers the ground with acid while the jockey drags a team mate into it taking them down. Likewise a boomer and a pretty much any other zombie can be a TPK very quickly if things go sideways.

Line of Sight is Important

Now I don’t mean this as a “be persnickety about what a player’s character see and can’t see. Don’t worry about screwing rangers over. Instead L4D2 uses line of site to create distinct encounters. If you like dungeon crawl style encounters with distinct rooms line of site can create more natural divisions that door like openings every 60feet or so. It can also be used to create fun surprises. A fight on a ledge might be easy, but introduce several more enemies below the ledge that the players don’t see at first might spice things up.

Free Adventure: The Old House

The Old House

I have a new book coming out just in time for Halloween! The Old House is a tale of horror set in the corn fields of Iowa in 1975. Players take on the roles of children from a tiny town called Ocean Shore, when a strange house appears.

As summer boredom sets in will they explore the house?

The game can be played with simple rules included in the book, or with your favorite percentile horror system.

Pay what you want at: Drive Thru RPG.


Try Something New: Hacking

Try Something New is an occasional series of articles about new things… to try! New game mechanics, play styles, or food! 
In my recent CoC game I wanted players to be able to hack into websites and technology. To do so I hit upon a novel way to handle this. This mechanic is explained below:


  1. A skill in your game that can be used for using computers. In my game this is Computer Use, and being Call of Cthulhu this has a percentile number.
  2. A jenga Tower
  3. Cover three jenga blocks with a sticker of some kind, then separate the blocks.
  4. Choose a low number of blocks and write “Virus” on them.

Determine if hacking is possible:

If you are offering a game where a character can be a hacker consider that this will change how you need to play. Anything that is electronic might be hacked. Think about the consequences when you design locations and information. But keep in mind that you are promising at least one player the ability to hack into things and be useful while doing so. Don’t make every important location unhackable.

Break electronic devices into groups.

  1. Unconnected devices.
  2. Connected devices that do not have security.
  3. Connected devices that have static security.
  4. Connected devices that have active security. (ie. someone else is watching the network and protecting it.)

2-4 should all be hackable, and if possible connecting unconnected devices can be something a hacker might try to do.


Once you have determined how secure a device is make the player pull from the jenga tower. For no security devices you may want to simply ask them to roll Computer Use, or if the information is useful and necessary simply let them describe the brilliant way they break in.

For static security ask the player to pull 1 jenga block.

For active security ask the player to pull 2-3 jenga blocks.

If a rival hacker or security expert is working to block a hacker from accessing a device you can take turns pulling pieces. But note that unless the tower is near collapse the player will likely always win. Instead ask for a harder number of pulls and make them roll as if they got a virus block.


Viruses: The first danger while hacking is viruses. Data can pick up computer viruses and deposit them into the hackers own system.

When a random virus block is pulled the player can roll their Computer Use skill. If they succeed they can do what they want with the virus. They may remove the virus, store it, or even let it run. If they fail describe a potentially harmful virus for them. If the player has pulled more than one virus blocks make the virus more harmful.

Crashing: Most dangerous is a full crash. When the hacker pulls from the tower and the tower collapses their system has crashed. This means the system they were entering will be warned of the hack, and the computer of the hacker has been flagged and attacked by the hostile systems security. This might mean the hacker’s real world location is at risk, or that their own data has been stolen. This should reflect the danger and technological ability of whatever organization or person they are attacking.


Data: Whenever the hacker successfully hacks something they should be able to see its data and potentially control the device. A computer or a network might contain emails, phone records, or a video feed. Whatever the hacker’s goal is should be completed.

Data Blocks: Furthermore there are three “data blocks” in the tower marked with a sticker. Let the players keep these blocks between sessions. Once they have found all three, they gain a great deal of important information. This should be a big reveal moment in the game, letting the hacker take the spot light as they discover the dirt on who ever they are attacking.


Try Something New: A Really Depressing Game?

Excavated Dungeon.png

Try Something New is an occasional series of articles about new things… to try! New game mechanics, play styles, or food! 

Last night I finally ran Epic Adventure Tours III, which you can read for free. What I was not prepared for is the extreme existential questions the game poses and the problem that would pose. So… with out further ado, here’s my thoughts on the game.

Spoilers for EAT III ahead:

Epic Adventure Tours is my comedic take on a classic fantasy setting that has been connected to the real world by portals. The real world has quickly monopolized on this connection and commercialized it, using the fantasy races for tourism. However our real world has a lot of preconceptions about fantasy races and demanded it fit their vision. Dwarves and elves weren’t allowed to live with each other, orks, goblins, and other humanoids were deemed “evil” and are often killed during tours.

EAT III specifically deals with a small town and its neighboring dungeon. The village has been suffering without the influx of cash that the tours generate to other towns.  When illegal portal travelers appeared and offered money the villagers were quick to accept a deal. Desperate they turned to the near by Elven tomb. Breaking in they slaughtered the goblins who lived there and began excavating the tombs, stealing magic items and selling to the gun toting “Buyers.”

The death of the goblins quickly threw the dungeon’s environment into chaos, the mushrooms that the goblins ate began to grow at a rapid rate, filling many chambers with poisonous gas lethal to humans, and ogres living in the caverns near by couldn’t feed on goblins and began attacking the human village instead.

As the game begins the players come across a small remnant of the goblin tribe attacking a human, and here the existential problems began. After killing all but one goblin, my group realized they had just committed genocide on these poor creatures. As their captive sunk into a deep depression the band began to worry about what they would do. Next when they captured some of the human looters and heard that they were simply trying to feed their families, it got worse.

The table descended into discussing how to overcome the institutionalized colonialism and racism of the world. Suddenly it became apparent that the game was a no win scenario. They discussed whether they could train the ogres to herd sheep, whether giving the humans a legitimate license for excavating the tomb would help them work out a long term solution, or whether at this point it was better to just give up and not change things further.

As a game writer who often writes horror scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, this is perhaps the most horrific game I’ve ever written. The players truly felt the existential dread and helplessness of their position, trapped in their own preconceptions and overcome with an inability to help.

What Worked

This game hit upon the perfect moment where players genuinely care about something. I have to be honest, I think it’s this particular group of players and not any trick or technique of mine. But while the players left rather intrigued if a little depressed, the game was fun and they want to get back and try to see if they can solve this one way or another.

What Didn’t Work

Like I said above the game was pretty depressing. And in the end I wonder if there will be a good solution. It feels like this could be a game where the players have a very legitimate reason to give up.

It also meant that my pitch was… dishonest. I pitched the game as comedic and a dungeon crawl. But immediately after the goblin fight everyone wished they had made charismatic characters instead of fighters. I don’t know if I would change my description of the game, since telling players to focus on talking and persuasion would give it away a little, I could see the group might get frustrated if they fail to convince people because of a few rubbish CHA rolls. While the game was… funny, in that dark way where you have to laugh at this sort of thing, it was still not really “comedic” and next time I might not mention that.

Next Time

I can only hope that next time there is a happy solution. I think I know how I would like to see this solved, but the players have so far come up with several ingenious fixes and I’m sure they’ll land on a combination that will surprise me.

In future perhaps I’ll try to adapt some of this game’s conflicts to appropriately horrific stories, while keeping my fantasy games light and fluffy. But you never know!



Breaking Down Abilities

The Angry GM just posted this interesting article about the problems with ability scores in D&D 5e:

With Angry’s usual antagonistic and “I told you so” manner he made some great points that made me think I should explain a little about my “Thing I Learned From…” series.

As Angry puts better than I can the idea of D&D’s abilities are pretty well baked into all modern RPGs, which… isn’t necessarily the best thing. Which brings me to video games and why you should learn from them.

Video games have a different set of challenges from table top games, namely they can’t tell you how it works in person. A good video game has to make what you do obvious. They show you a challenge and you need to learn what you use to overcome it.

TV shows also deal with this. With recurring characters they need to define the strengths and skills each person has so when a challenge pops up the audience can know how hard to easy it will be for that character.

Since I’ve recently been re-watching Doctor Who this is very evident. Doctor Who had a secondary problem that they need to define different versions of the same character. Tennant’s doctor is very smart and knowledgeable while his reluctance to be violent and his compassion for the human race gets him through problems while Matt Smith instead has his comedy, brilliance, and extreme care for his companions.

Angry does a good job describing this process in RPGs: the GM must constantly be making action resolution decisions. How is a problem broken down and what can the players do to over come it?

So with this in mind I try to use these ideas to build RPGs. As an example let me talk about some of my upcoming projects.

Ever Green is a game about magicians in the Pacific Northwest. It’s supposed to be non-violent, whimsical, and based around mystery. Currently the attributes (or abilities whatever you want to call them) are: Survival, Agility, Strength, Intelligence, and Magical Power.

But when I got thinking about how I want people to play Ever Green I started to wonder if this was right. They might fit into the rough RPG ability list of everything post D&D, (or at least in my case post CoC) but did it convey what players should be using to overcome problems in Ever Green?

The answer is probably no. Survival was included with this already in mind. Ever Green players are meant to explore and travel around the Pacific Northwest and that includes a fair bit of camping, long drives, and staying in flea bitten motels. Survival is important to keeping players interested in doing that and reflecting how good or bad a character is at that type of challenge. Magic Power also folds into the main mechanic of the game. But here I have to stop myself. Is strength and agility things that should matter to quirky magicians trying to work out other people’s emotional problems? Should Intelligence be the only mental stat?

So here’s some alternatives I’m considering:

  • Empathy – how well do you read other’s emotions.
  • Intuition – how likely are you to notice stuff.
  • Know-how – mechanical, technical, just gets stuff done ability.
  • Inspiration – how well you get ideas.

Or how about?

  • Comedy – how easy it is for you to laugh about something.
  • Romance – can you solve things with flirting?
  • Notoriety – how obvious your quirkiness is to everyone else.

For another example I began thinking about how problem resolution should work in a fantasy system I’ve wanted to design. Based on a friend’s game I really enjoyed being able to make really tactical decisions based on my feats in combat. So in my own version I would want each ability to represent how much of something you can do and then work out based on more modular mechanics exactly what I do with that.

So you might only have four stats, Talking, Fighting, Thinking and Exploring. (Hmm, I stopped after the first three… I like the idea of exploring or surviving in the wild being an actual stat thing. Maybe Surviving would be better?)

Then whenever the character wants to do something the GM can go: how good are you at Talking? Then the player will test their ability with a dice roll and that will dictate how much Talking she gets to do. Then the player can look at the feats she’s got and decide how to use that amount of talking.

A feat called Convincing Argument might push the negotiations her way, but it takes a lot of Talking to do. Instead she could use the feat Little Smile and Sudden Show of Force and do a lot more by combining them. The simplicity at first leads into more interesting tactical decisions. And those tactics are what I want out of this game.

Meanwhile to look at this from the opposite direction I’ve also been re-watching Durarara!!! Which is an amazing anime that any one interested in large scale RPG story telling should probably watch.

Durarara has a huge host of characters each with very different and quirky personalities, stories, and skills. Somehow it manages to keep these things straight even as every story is told and retold from different perspectives and the whole world opens like an onion.

To build a Durarara RPG I would have to create a system where every character has their one and only skill that is special to them. Sonohara would have parasitic magical sword. Izaya has incredible manipulation. Even characters that are more normal have basic character traits that keep them apart. Kida has optimism and jokes. Then on top of that uniqueness you’d pile a couple more skills and a dramatic backstory for why they have that one unique trait.

Each detail of any given character is eventually explained, down to why one character always dresses like a bar tender.

Then the players and GM would know that when a challenge came up for that character that trait was what they would face it with.

Which come to think of it is a little bit like how Fate works. But add to that an element of knowledge. The way Durarara creates stories and challenges is by determining what information each character knows, one person going into a fight might not understand what the other person is even fighting for. Discovering that fact later might throw the fight into a completely different light.

You can do this easily for most TV, books, and movies. Most video games already do this for you. Watch Doctor Who and try to come up with completely different attributes that describes each character: maybe compassion, knowledge, empathy, will power, and love? Watch any show and try to figure out what abilities are being tested, what is being skipped over, (like gun fights in Doctor Who, or even war fare in Game of Thrones) and what actually informs the story. Then use that practice to do the same for your games.

12 Buildings built in the ruins of the past.

  1. A small clump of buildings have grown up like weeds up the marble steps of a theater. The ancient steps wind up to the semicircular top where a few buildings overlook the town below. The stage vanished long ago.
  2. The remaining vaults of a temple serve as the roof of a tavern, golden light shining out onto the street between the bottom halves of tall pillars.
  3. A pier built upon the sunken pillars of an old church, its spire makes a fine watchtower at the end of the planks.
  4. The portico of some long gone courtyard makes up the wall of a garden, pillars standing free of roof serve to lead vines upward.
  5. The exposed tiers of an old cistern have filled up with new life as merchants put up their stands. The tall vaulted ceiling is perfect for hanging tapestries.
  6. Inner chambers of a palace, covered in new soil, has become the hidden vault of a prince. It’s marble decorations and painted frescos now only shine when lanterns pass to add to his hoard.
  7. The foundations of houses upon a hill became perfect garden walls and benches for the garden-loving noble women. Their villas open onto the remains of a dead city.
  8. An ancient prison oubliette appeared holy to those who worshipped the chthonic gods. A descending ladder reaches the inverted altar.
  9. The peasant squats lean up on splendor they could never imagine, a marble facade faded and softened yet taller than all around it. The poor pry some loose to burn in their kilns to make lime.
  10. The curving walls of a church still stand long after the altar is pillaged and the roof torn down. Now it stands tall enough to make a perfect orchard. It’s wide door now a simple wooden gate. The farmer’s house shares a wall with the edifice.
  11. An ancient bridge once crossed the valley. Now the thick, yet porous, supports serve as perfect bolt holes. A stack of shanties climb the sides.
  12. The long tall buildings of a ship yard once served long galleys. Now in times of war their walls are perfect for filled barracks.