Talking Heads at the Tabletop

What can tabletop designers learn from cRPGs?

I'm always apprehensive about doing tabletop design rants.

Firstly, because there’s always that tiny fear that everything you have to say about tabletop design was posted on the blogosphere ten years ago, or currently lies buried in an utterly impenetrable twenty-eight page thread on The Forge that only gets dug up when an OSR creator wants to make a hitpiece on bad Ron Edwards takes from 2008 to prove that Apocalypse World is an evil game that mind controls you or something. (Okay, I promised I wouldn’t write a piece about the Root RPG video so I’m going to relegate this to a quick aside: that PbtA video essay was three hours long and aside from all the personal attacks against named designers contained therein, which is gross and fucking sucks, my main critique was that if you want to talk about the influence of behavioural psychology on twentieth century tabletop design: where was the discussion on Cyberpunk 2020 and all its descendants????? Mike Pondsmith was very vocal and open about his design philosophy being influenced by his background in training to be a psychologist for at-risk youths & endorsed ABA as a design tool in the past. If you think this is a problem (it’s largely not, psychology just poorly understood by people outside that field (myself included & im very glad to have spoken to really talented professionals in the field to educate myself) & why tabletop design needs more input from actual psychologists if we want to get into anything like “designing games for Good Play”) Why are you pretending this is a PbtA-exclusive phenomenon? You’re an OSR designer. You’re literally both just exploring different ways of ‘recapturing’ the feeling and form of ‘trad’ tabletop design from an era next to nobody currently working on these games was actually playing in. Anyway.)

Secondly, I try to avoid these types of tabletop rants because I am at best an enthusiastic amateur in the field of making tabletop games, so I always feel uncomfortable trying to talk authoritatively about them outside of my own experiences with tabletop design, in which I have largely explored my personal fumbles through replicating the same kind of design problems that were solved years ago, entirely because I wasn’t around for those The Forge-era discussions and am now piecing together scattered fragments of a once-vibrant tabletop blogging ecosystem like they’re Dark Souls item descriptions.

I also occasionally write essays lamenting the loss of that ecosystem.

With that disclaimer out of the way: it’s time to talk authoritatively on the subject of tabletop design.

Game Master Prep is a difficult topic to broach in tabletop design. It’s subjective, for one thing, revolving almost entirely around an individual GM’s system mastery, capacity for improvisation, and knowledge of the players. It’s also usually made worse by the fact that we (GMs) are creatures of fear and self-doubt and so trend naturally towards either no-prep improvisation because no plan survives first contact with the players or habitual over-preparing for any situation The Players might throw at us.

The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast, and all that.

I play a lot of Vampire (both Requiem and Masquerade flavour), which means I’ve fallen afoul of the two major problems GMs always face when trying to run Vampire, which are over-prep and scope creep.

Overprep is an easy problem to fall into and, seemingly, a hard one to solve. Both iterations of Vampire deal with the political struggles of a vampire feudal system based around territory, factional conflicts, and feeding rights, so the temptation is always there for novice and experienced GMs to map out domains for every inch of the city with detailed political structures, a casts of vibrant NPCs for every aspect of the city’s power structure with intricate relationships and rivalries with each other, references to the elaborate metaplot of the settings and all the canon NPCs in that city, and presents dozens of meaningful choices and consequences for players who side with one or all of the movers and shakers in the danse macabre.

And then the Storyteller promptly flips the fuck out or burns the fuck out when they can’t actually do anything with their diverse casts of NPCs because they failed to account for the agency of the players. Tale as old as Before Breakfast.

It’s the grave of empires for every auteur Storyteller GM, and what I like to call the “showroom furniture” problem. Players can look at the vast and intricate web the GM has woven, but they cannot meaningfully interact with it, because the web will shatter if it’s pushed in any singular direction.

Classic VTM gives a storyteller all kinds of mechanical carrots and sticks to ‘nudge’ players in the Right Direction, like Generation and the Dominate discipline, and when those break the game famously just tells you to fudge rolls until the players do what the GM wants. Requiem stripped some out, left others, and it largely doesn’t matter because the crunchier and more standardised responses of that game let everything feel a bit more ‘fair’ in how it corrals you. V5 smushes both approaches together and learns the right lessons from neither. That’s a story for another day.

The thing is, I don’t really think you have to do all that much to solve the Showroom Furniture problem. In fact, I think Vampire: the Masquerade’s own video game adaptation Bloodlines quietly solved it in a way that’s applicable to any kind of political intrigue campaign:

You only need like, three NPCs to get your point across?

Video game adaptations of tabletop games can be great inspiration for how to design your own tabletop campaigns in some ways, and absolutely fuck up your ability to craft a good campaign if you hew too closely to How Bioware/Larian/Obsidian Does It in others, and the trick of it lies in figuring out which is which. For me, the biggest takeaway a GM can take from a CRPG tabletop adaptation is how to do more with less.

CRPGs, specifically those in the fully-voiced Biowarian mold, need to express big ideas with relatively few characters, which means those characters need to express a broad spread of opinions and go relatively in depth with them.

This is largely an NPC philosophy I have puzzled through with trial and error across my home campaigns through rapid iteration after noticing this pattern across multiple classic and modern cRPGs, and I’m writing it out down here to get this theory in writing on something that’s a bit less ephemeral than Mastodon posts (knock on wood that neocities proves as long-lived as blogspot), but I’ve termed these “Three Talking Heads” the Dogmatic faction member, the Pragmatic faction member, and the Opportunist Faction member. Sketch them broadly, and figure out what the core ideology of your faction is, whether it’s the Anarch movement or the Brotherhood of Steel.

The Dogmatic faction member is the true believer. They steadfastly want to uphold the values of the faction and defend it from external threats.

The Pragmatic factional leader is probably a believer, but they’re smart about how they get things done.

The Opportunist faction member wants comfort, security, or self-ideation that comes with membership in the faction, even if they don’t agree with all the tenets of the organisation.

Our case study for this is the Anarchs of The Last Round, a dive bar in VtM: Bloodlines’s LA Hub. People have gone into depth on how the level design, sound design, and writing of this location works well as a source of exposition within Bloodlines, and it has the reputation of being one of the best lore dumps in CRPG History, because the way the lore is delivered feels natural for the characters and the player’s role as a new initiate in vampiric society. It has four fully-voiced and hand-animated NPCs, the most of any interior area in the game, despite being a wholly optional area outside of one late-story moment. You don’t have to hear the Anarchs of the Last Round out, which makes it even better when you do.

So let’s apply the Three Talking Heads model to the crew of the Last Round:

Damsel, our Communist riot grrl queen, represents the Dogmatic faction member. She believes wholeheartedly in the Anarch ideal (even if her grasp on mortal politics is… tenuous) and is the most ‘boots-on-the-ground’ of the Anarchs we see in Downtown LA, dealing directly with the street-level response to an epidemic in their part of the city. She’s the least amenable to compromise with the Establishment, and will absolutely rip your face off if you say bootlicker shit in dialogue options to her, which stunts her ability to solve the vampire plague affecting her community since she blames the local Camarilla for causing it. Until the player character comes in to act as a neutral party.

Nines Rodriguez represents our Pragmatic faction member, the last man standing of an old guard of Anarchs who considers himself the most senior soldier left in the war against the Camarilla. He’s so good at being a reasonable authority figure for the Anarchs that I’m sure some fans of the game would quibble with me for calling him pragmatic, but from moment one of the game he’s playing the political games of the kindred and playing to win, saving the player character’s life from execution and being the smiling face of the Anarch movement. He wants something from the player character, obviously, but he knows that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar and gives you a lot of slack if you don’t piss him off on purpose. At the same time, he’s amenable to compromise. He makes choices, like agreeing to ally with the Camarilla Prince LaCroix against the Sabbat, that other Anarchs would probably balk at-- but it’s all for the long game of freeing the city from Camarilla control. By the end of an Anarch play through, he’s the leader-in-exile, telling you where you need to be to have the most impact in his battle plans.

Skelter is our Opportunist, a Vietnam veteran who acts as a gatekeeper for anyone trying to talk to Damsel or Nines. Skelter is with the Anarchs to fight a war, clashing with Nines and Damsel on their politics, but respecting both for being on the right side of the war. Against the Camarilla? For now, but after that is when the real war begins: Skelter is a Cainite, a believer in an obscure heretical understanding of the vampiric condition as a curse passed down by ancient blood gods that will awaken and kill their descendants that is both secretive and literally true in the lore, and tells the player a lot more about that (though advises they keep it down) than he does Anarch politics. He’s not quite at the apocalyptic fervour of the Sabbat, the medieval death cult formed out of a previous Anarch movement turned eternal warriors against the ancient blood gods, about it-- but he will tell you that the curse doesn’t stop at the Camarilla elders you interact with, it goes all the way back to Caine, the cab driver first vampire. For Skelter, the Anarchs are his best chance at fighting that war with his humanity intact. Including using the player to do his dirty work to get rid of local nuisances.

But… there are four vampires in the Last Round, right? And to that I just shrug and, like Damsel, say “Jack is Jack.”

Smiling Jack, the 400 year old anarchist pirate smoking cigars in the corner of the Last Round, is our Bridge. He encapsulates the attitudes of the Anarchs and explains how they tie back to the main themes of Bloodlines. He’s been everywhere and done everything, believes in the Anarch dream but has no taste for the history or the politics, and pretends that all he cares about is kicking the teeth in of anyone who tells him he’s living his life wrong. As the main plot progresses, every facet of the deception he presents to you in the Last Round gets ripped away, looping back around to the real truth of Bloodlines: the game was rigged from the start, and there’s always an older vampire pulling the strings. Don’t open it.

So there you go! Take three NPCs and give each a role to play in explaining differing perspectives on a faction’s ideology. If you have an overarching theme or message for your campaign, add an NPC to act as the Bridge between your faction and the broader narrative. It’s easy to remember, quick to prep, and gives you vastly more flexibility than a huge cast of NPCs all bumping into each other does. For added spice, put one of the Talking Heads in power, and make the other two have a problem to it. Maybe the Dogmatic member bristles at seeing the Pragmatic member make compromises that go against their moral or ethical code. Maybe an Opportunist wants to scheme their way to the top. Maybe the Opportunist is at the top, and realised that the power isn't worth all their newfound responsibility. It's a powder keg the players can, ideally, push in any direction and see what happens.

Try it out! Then go to the sidebar and let me know on Fedi or Bluesky how it goes; I love hearing people’s tabletop stories.