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Lenny Balsera–His Design Does Not Dictate Your Conversation

*Author’s note: A draft version of this article was accidentally published on 12/08/2011. That version did not accurately convey Lenny’s ideas and thoughts and was quickly removed. This version is the approved final draft.*

A fairly common discussion, or argument in some cases, that I have observed gamers having is whether or not a GM should run a game exactly as the rules are written, or if it is better to use house rules or even hand wave certain rules instead. I have my own opinion on this matter, but why not get the opinion of a game designer instead?

A few miles from the glitz and glam of the Las Vegas strip I had the chance to talk with Leonard “Lenny” Balsera who is the ENnie award winning author and lead system developer [1] of Evil Hat Productions’ The Dresden Files RPG books Your Story and Our World [2]. I was attending a conference for work, and Lenny agreed to meet with me while I was in town since he was living in Las Vegas at that time. Unlike the façade of glamour and riches that Sin City is famous for Lenny is anything but a phony. He speaks his mind, is vulgar when civility would be insincere, and listens to a person’s opposing view while defending his own beliefs graciously. I instantly liked him from the moment that I met him.


Lenny holding his ENnie award winning creations. This image swiped from Big Bad Con's web site. Clicky the pic to see the original and to check out Big Bad Con's site!

Between a fine dinner at Yayo Taco [4] and drinks at the Freakin’ Frog [5] I asked Lenny for his thoughts on being a GM versus being a game designer. What did he think about people changing his work in order to run their games?

“You do not need my permission to change it.” Says Lenny. “It exists the way that it is precisely for you to make those decisions.”

Lenny then provided me with some insight into his design process.

“When I work on a game system I need to think of how the design speaks to the people at the table. I follow Vincent Baker’s [6] and Ben Lehman’s [7] premises that RPGs are a conversation. The rules explain how each role engages in that conversation. The purpose of game mechanics is to change our habits of communication.”

And this is where Lenny makes it clear what the distinction between being the game designer and a member of the group is. The rules present expectations and guidelines in order to help facilitate the conversation, but it is the GM and the players who do the actual work of facilitating that conversation.

“As a member of the group you need to give the maximum dramatic interest that you can to the players, not the characters. You are dealing with the people, and not the rules.”

According to Lenny’s approach it is the unique combination of the people playing the game reacting to the conflict presented by that game that matters the most if you want to run a successful RPG. A game designer cannot foresee how every type of player is going to react to every kind of situation. If a GM needs to alter or ignore a set of rules in order to facilitate the conversation taking place at the game table so be it.

In fact, Lenny has a great respect for rules that are designed to seamlessly aid in the facilitation of a game’s conversation. He cited the telegraph rule from Margaret Weis Productions’ Smallville Roleplaying Game [8] as an example, because it requires the players of the game to state their intents to each other before engaging in certain types of conflicts, such as trying to deceive or convince other characters to behave differently.

“So many miscommunications at the table come down to a question of intent. By having people explicitly state what their intentions are the game plays much more smoothly, yet some rules fail to encourage that. Some rules even discourage it, whether intentionally or not.”

Lenny believes that rules like the telegraph rule are less likely to be changed or modified by a group, because these are the types of rules that facilitate the conversation taking place. Yet even if a rule was designed to be seamless and to improve communication at the table, it is still fine for a GM to ignore or change such a rule if that is not the experience that a group is having at the table. Every group is different, and a GM always knows the group better than any game designer can ever hope to.

“I’m very much against compromising a game’s design while working on it, but that is a publishing matter. A GM is not compromising by changing or ignoring the rules. The GM is accommodating the group’s needs, and only the GM can do that. Not me as the game designer. My work is done. If I did a good job, then the GM’s job should be easier.”

What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you agree or disagree with Lenny’s approach? Leave a comment below, and let everyone know how you feel.

Want to provide anonymous feedback to me with the option to have me respond? Visit my SayAt.Me [9] page and have at it!

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Lenny Balsera–His Design Does Not Dictate Your Conversation"

#1 Comment By danroth On January 13, 2012 @ 7:54 am

I wholeheartedly agree, but as a DM and a hobby designer. There are some rules that people just don’t want to deal with and aren’t essential to the game. And sometimes people will feel that a specific mechanic is poorly done so they tweak it or get rid of it outright. That’s fine, everybody has different views on things.

The important bit is that the DM (and the whole group, really) uses the system they chose as a framework, or a springboard, for what they want. If the system works perfectly for them, then great! But that is rarely the case, because nothing is perfect for everybody.

#2 Comment By danroth On January 13, 2012 @ 7:55 am

*that first line should say “…both as a DM and hobby designer.”


#3 Comment By Norcross On January 13, 2012 @ 8:45 am

I have to admit, it would be very hard for me to run any RPG without changing anything. Maybe it’s just part of my nature, but I always find something, even if it is something small, that “needs changing”. I suspect a lot of us – and especially GMs! – have that in us.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On January 13, 2012 @ 9:01 am

Change what you don’t like? Yes, but that has also been the direct cause of the most widely-held misconceptions about one specific (non FATE) game system, namely that D20 inevitably results in God-Like unkillable characters. It does that when you turn off the Massive Damage rule, which was purpose-written to prevent the issue. Turn it back on and the “problem” goes away.

The game group needs to understand the “why” of a rule before they consider getting rid of it.

Which is why although my group absolutely could not engage the FATE point thing properly, I resisted their suggestions to turn Dresden Files into a more “traditional” RPG experience.

I myself could never get to grips with certain issues arising out of the usage of Fate points and the way the damage system works in DFRPG (in fact a serious issue can and would arise in one of the “canonical history” examples given in the “Your Story” book), though I tried heroically. It consumed me for the six months we were playing it and no-one I spoke to seemed to understand the issue any better than I did – DFRPG GMs all seemed to be fudging an ad-hoc answer. I wanted to understand what the designer was saying.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On January 13, 2012 @ 10:30 am

I’d agree entirely. All of my cars have been slightly modified. I understand the design decisions, but I wanted something slightly different, and I’m glad I could customize it to fit me.

Some of my player characters are in Masks. I don’t care if you turn them into bad guys or comic relief; they’re yours to play with.

#6 Comment By John Arcadian On January 13, 2012 @ 11:33 am

This just makes me want to get the DFRPG even more. I love design theory that takes into account the fact that players will change things to fit their play style.

#7 Comment By Spideydave On January 13, 2012 @ 11:57 am


I am cureently running a fate game and living it.
Can you please enligthen me issue your were having with the system that bothered you?

I am not asking to be able to answer or solve your problem I am simply curious.

#8 Comment By Spideydave On January 13, 2012 @ 11:59 am

Wow typos and english fail me sometimes the above should read

I am cureently running a fate game and loving it.
Can you please enligthen me on the issue your were having with the system that was bothering you?

I am not asking to be able to answer or solve your problem I am simply curious.

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 13, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

Thanks all for the comments! Good stuff as always from our readers.

[14] – Have you contacted the folks at Evil Hat with your questions? Fred Hicks is a very nice person IMO. I’m sure that he would be happy to help you find the answers that you are looking for.

#10 Comment By Tamerlin On January 14, 2012 @ 7:02 am

I agree on all points and I really like the “conversation” theory.

When I see the multiple FATE iterations, the free versions available on the Internet and how I have myself adapted FATE to my needs, I can only say that mister Balsera succeeded with me in his attempt to design a game that is facilitating “conversation”. He succeeded to the point that I don’t want to use another language these days.

As it is pointed at by mister Balsera, a designer is just developing his vision of the conversation, the game system and his various sub-systems could thus be seen as the vocabulary. When a GM is adding or substracting rules he is just adapting the vocabulary of the conversation to come at his table.

In the same spirit, rejection of a game system could come from a rejection of the conversational assumptions a game is based on. As far as I am concerned, D&D and Pathfinder would thus use a vocabulary that does not suit me.

From my experience though, even if the GM is not modding the original rules, the rules are almost never used 100% as they are supposed to. The players and the GMs are just implementing the rules as they remember them from what they have read and understood… which is often very far from the rules as written in the book.

#11 Comment By Roxysteve On January 15, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

[15] – Fred did write a reply to a question I posted on a forum, and I greatly appreciated his time.

However, understandably I was directed to the DF forum for more specific help, which for some reason I could never get a sign-up confirmation e-mail from so I was unable to participate (I couldn’t sign up to ask why my sign-up was being silently rejected).

Then the game fizzled-out and I moved on.

Understand that I put the misunderstandings entirely down to my inadequate grasp of the principles, not to poor design.

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On January 15, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

[16] – The situation needs some setting up:

Harry Dresden has fought through a vampire nest to confront the black court nasty, and launches an awsome fire attack that puts so much damage on it it has to take a severe consequence EXTRA CRISPY.

Now the players can tag this Aspect for free the first round to gain advantage and make Mr Vampire limp about the place, but in the following rounds they will need to compel it.

But reflect that the players have fought into the heart of the lair. It is reasonable to expect that in a real game the players will have been spending like mad to just get here. What if they have no more FATE points?

By the rules, without a compel the vampire can stride about the place unhindered. There are no automatic bad effects as there are in more traditional game systems.

My question was “what is my motivation to play the obviously crippled vampire as crippled when the players cannot afford the cost of making it so?”

I know I’m not getting it, but simply telling me I don’t understand the FATE point economy or suggesting I find more reasons to dole out FATE points isn’t helpful.

#13 Comment By Tsenn On January 17, 2012 @ 4:52 am

My phone ate my previous attempt at a reply, so apologies if this is a little messy.

Fate systems blur the line between narrative flavour and mechanical fact. I love that I can make anything a thing by declaring it as an Aspect, but I too am confounded by said Aspect needing to be ‘live’ via tag or fate point use to have an impact. If the place is ‘Dark & Shadowed’ wouldn’t that affect everyone, all the time?

By the rules as I see them, Mr Crispy should be described appropriately. He may limp, and clutch his arms close to his chest, or he may spring at his full movement rate with a hiss. I would maybe give away a free tag if he exerted himself, given his condition.

The one major thing I would focus on would be how the Consequence affects the story. He’s a movie monster, hurt, but far from dead. How will it affect his tactics and priorities? Would the injury compromise what he might normally do, and make him vulnerable to more free tags?

In this way, I would try to do narrative justice to the players efforts without needing to fudge the mechanisms already in place.

#14 Comment By Roxysteve On January 17, 2012 @ 9:17 am

[17] – Yes, I did all that. My point isn’t that I couldn’t figure out a way around the situation, it is that the game rules specified the damage be handled in a certain way and I don’t understand an outlier consequence of that system within that context.

I can “wing it” with the best of them, but rules, even RPG rules, are about getting predictability and repeatability into what is essentially a “let’s pretend” game. If under circumstance x someone does y, z has a good chance of happening. If they do it again four weeks later and not-z is the optimum outcome, there will be arguments and tears and quite rightly so, even in a storyteller game framework. To *make* things happen differently is why FATE points exists at all. A player spends them to take control of the narrative for a bit.

And I for one do not believe that one puts together a rather expensive* 400 page rulebook and expects people to “make it up” rather than try and understand what those 400 pages are trying to tell them. I see that much effort, I sit up and take notice.

* in an absolute sense – YS sold for about 30-50% more than other game-in-a-book productions at the time I picked it up

#15 Comment By Tamerlin On January 18, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

On many points FATE is not that different from many other games. The beauty of the thing, IMO, is that you have the best of both worlds: A solid game system with a narrativist boost… and adjectives replacing numbers. My “Rosetta’s stone”…

If we consider skills, difficulties are rated according to the perceived difficulty of a task. In a forest with the Aspect “THICK, DAMP AND DARK”, it is obvious that the light is weak during the day. If a Character wants to hide himself, the difficulty will certainly be rather low, say Mediocre. On the other hand, though hiding oneself isn’t a problem, moving silently can be a problem in a THICK, DAMP AND DARK forest, the difficulty is thus higher.
There is no need to invoke the Aspect THICK, DAMP AND DARK to benefit fromp the obscurity ot to Compel it to hinder the characters.

If, later in the game, the characters want to spot something, the darkness of the place will raise the Difficulty of the roll.
Once again, there is no need to use the Aspect.

Aspect will be used when things get tougher, when you want to raise the stakes or when a character wants to surprise a guard, for example, and needs a +2 bonus, or when another character wants to impress the audience with a very high result (look at the smile of the player when he announces the final rank).

By invoking an Aspect, a player also gives away a lot of narrative elements that can be used by the GM. When Aspects are tagged, invoked or compelled something significative is happening or about to happen.

Rate Difficulty as you have always done with most of the games you have played so far and use Aspects when that matters or for the great deeds that will be sung by bards all over the world.

And if you don’t have enough FATE points to stop that vampire… “c’est la vie!”. Perhaps the vampire died in the next room, the one you can’t reach because of the flames. Perhaps did he survive, a stunted horridly disfigured vengeful vampire would be a decent villain after all.

I don’t know if I am right, and if it helps, but this is the FATE I speak with my friends.

#16 Comment By Roxysteve On January 19, 2012 @ 8:58 am

[18] – And I think you have a great way of playing it, though for what it’s worth the Dresden Files rulebook does indicate that if you want to slow the players down using scenic aspects you must indeed hand them FATE points to do so.

Forget the casual encounter with a vampire – what if what is at stake is the serious incapacitation – or not – of the big recurring villain in the campaign? What if it is someone like Marcone?

Suppose the players have somehow finessed a great blow to the baddie due to chance and unforeseen circumstances (like a couple of extra players joining the game), but have failed to properly hoard or re-stock their FATE points.

It should not be incumbent on me to constantly provide convenient compels when the tank runs low, though of course I do.

So if I’ve been very busy with making the magic happen and haven’t been running the characters’ fate-point numbers for the players, and the players have – as they will – forgotten that roleplaying their aspects is important in a mercenary sense as well as an aesthetic one in FATE, what is my motivation to give them the win?

It will make more work for me as a GM and the players won’t have increased their command of the idiom. In a very real way it is the players’ fault that they are now in a poorly-defined (or not, that is what I’m trying to figure out) area of the combat mechanics.

I want to understand when I am cheating the players of a fair victory or when I can legitimately save the rotten swine NPC because the PCs ran out of steam (ie FATE points). I’m not beyond Saving the Day or The Cheesy Escape, I just want those to be deliberate and well-understood actions on my part.

So I can savor my feelings of superiority and God-like stuffism post-game secure in the knowledge that I have indeed cheated the players once again and not accidentally thwarted their plans by fair means. Wait, did I say that out loud?

#17 Comment By Tamerlin On January 19, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

[19] – About your first paragraph, when I set the difficulty according to the overall situation, I am nor invoking an Aspect nor compelling an Aspect, there is no FATE point involved. I am just making a judgement call, as in any other game. I am just considering that the light is dim as the player are walking in a forest that has the Aspect THICK, DAMP AND DARK, hence the difficulty rating that would be low if one wants to hide and high if one tries to spot at something (unless it is a clue that the player has to find so that the scenario can go on, in this case the difficulty is either set low or there isn’t any difficulty at all and the players spot it). But the player is not entitled to receive a FATE point because the difficulty is high, it is a fact.

About the Marcone case, if I have understood it well, I would reply that the players don’t need a FATE point. If they have pulled the big blow, I suppose that Marcone is either Taken Out or has just suffered a Consequence. If he is Taken Out, the players decide what Marcone’s fate is… and it does not mean they have to kill him. On the other hand, if Marcone has suffered a Consequence, the players now have a free tag which means they can invoke or compel the new Aspect for free. And as no FP is spent (it is a free tag), Marcone receives no FP for the Compel.

Remember that you can also try to save Marcone’s dirty little skin by offering a Concession. If the players refuse, they should understand that their ennemies won’t accept any Concession from their part should they hear about Marcone’s fate thanks to a witness.

Many game systems are more straightforward and decide at the GM’s place on a lot of points. In many games, when a NPC has run out of hit points, it usually means that he is dead. This is not the case as far as FATE is concerned. FATE leaves a lot of things in the hands of the player and the GM. That means that with games like FATE you have, IMO, more things to handle, more things to decide on. IMO, this is the price of abstraction.

Sure, there is a game mechanic at work here, the players don’t have any FATE point left. Have they failed to hoard enough FATE points or did you fail to Compel them to provide the much needed FATE points? Whatever the reason it is too late to worry about that, you have a decision to make.

The players are lucky and kill Marcone and you need for the campaign to go on. Before he dies, he curses the players and later returns as a ghost… a very angry vengeful spirit. Somehow the players have won, Marcone’s return will take some time and their short term goals can be completed.

They don’t have enough FATE points and Marcone can escape. He will try to get a revenge but once again it will take some time, he has to recover, and the players should have the opportunity to fulfill a short term goal because of Marcone’s temporary absence. You should always have the narrative consequences of your decisions in mind and I admit that it is very difficult and certainly one of the most daunting thing we have to do as GMs.

If the players have the feeling they have accomplished something, that they have achieved something, Marcone can pull out from this mess. The players will certainly grumble for a time but they will love to hate him when they meet him again.

The problem is that it is easy for me to come up with a solution because I have the time to think about it and because I can rewrite my answer if I feel I am wrong. While playing, this is a lot more tricky because you only have a few seconds at your disposal and a bunch of players eagerly waiting for your call.

I have already ran FATE with players that weren’t interested in the FATE point economy. It plays like FUDGE with a better conflict system (IMO, of course), the FATE points were used differently here, a bit like the luck or hero points featured by many other games, slightly more powerful though. It was a good session and I handled a few FATE points only to the players when a character’s life was complicated because of his personnality traits, in other word his Aspects.

To conclude, I would like to apologize, english is not my native language. On top of the various mispelling mistakes, badly written sentences and other grammatical errors, it is very possible that I have missed some of your points and thus not really answered to your post. Tell me if this is the case.

#18 Comment By Roxysteve On January 23, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

[20] – A very detailed, understandable and workable solution, but I’m afraid it sidesteps my issue with DFRPG rather than answering it.

Thank you for participating in the discussion though. You made many good and valid suggestions.

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