Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen: Vol 2 – Over And Over And Over…

The last article ‘Never Repeat a Task’ promised a report of ideas and techniques to cut down on repetition I’ve encountered when running a game. Specifically I would be looking at:

• Assembling Dice Pools,
• Referencing Rules; and
• Combat

This article will address these repetitive tasks in the systems of Marvel Heroic RPG and Exalted 2nd Edition – the two games I’m running – and will suggest tools to curb the repetition in order to allow the GM to concentrate on other tasks.  But first…

It’s an act of serendipity that, on the day I published the previous article, inspired by the “Eben Upton’s This Is How I Work” article on Lifehacker that the very next article in that series provided some inspiration as to what I can do to counteract repetitiveness in gaming. This quote is from Phil Libin’s This Is How I Work. Phil Libin is CEO of Evernote and while I prefer Springpad for my collection of game-related web-clippings, I found what he had to say about human nature and tool use relevant to my challenge:

Of course I can’t imagine life without the fundamental tools of humanity: Google, Wikipedia, GPS, Fire, The Wheel. That’s the real magic of the human brain; how quickly it rewires itself around a fundamental new tool as soon as you really grok it. Think about it: at some point in your life you didn’t understand the concept of “hammer”, and then you understood it and the whole world changed in front of your eyes. Now, when you look at the world, you do it with the understanding that hammers exist. Same thing for the inclined plane. Same thing for Skype. One day you’re worrying about how you’ll pay for that call and the next day you just know that you can talk to anyone at any time. That’s what we aspire to build at Evernote. Something fundamentally tool.

This applies to gaming:  When a GM and player understand the mechanics of the game – the sequence and actions one must accomplish to determine the success and failure of an action – it broadens the amount of possible actions one could undertake, regardless of what the player throws at you by way of the outlandish and original.

Understand the rules – the tools of the game – and you can provide rulings and adapt those rules to anything in your imagination. And the speed of which you can provide a ruling will increase. But more importantly the faster you can provide the rule and the faster the process can be executed ensures that you have time to focus on the more important elements of running a game.

Eben Upton’s notion in the previous article was about automating a task. To automate a task there must be constants and rules that can be relied upon to produce an outcome. And while the free-form nature of collaborative storytelling ensures a virtually limitless number of possible scenarios these scenarios are funnelled through those constants and rules. And constants are what is responsible for creating a repetitive task as well as the governing factors that permit it to be automated!

Marvel Heroic RPG

Marvel Heroic RPG has a few moving parts but its core mechanic – the consistent sequence of actions one must perform – boils down to the assembly of dice and then choosing the result of the roll.  As follows:

• Choose dice from relevant statistics
• Choose two values that will give you the highest number needed to succeed and then;
• Choose one die type to represent effect.
• Compare to the opposing roll.

This sequence applies to super-powered combat, scholarly debate, disarming a bomb, dancing to impress a girl; pretty much anything representing conflict.

In the case of my Marvel Heroic RPG game, I had one repetitive task and that was to explain how to perform this process to my players each time they had to make a roll.

Whether the players didn’t understand the mechanic, or didn’t remember the sequence of actions, or have too much information to track with their own characters that they prefer to outsource rules details to their GM the fact remains is that most combat was spent repeating this rule or elements thereof to players that have been involved with this system for over a dozen sessions.

After explaining it several times, repeating the process throughout the game and providing examples of the sequence and numerous cheat-sheets, I came across the following tool.


Games Masters of Marvel Heroic RPG (Watchers, if you prefer) you should absolutely get a copy of this tool (click on the picture to download) and employ it at any game you’re running whether for old-hands or newcomers.  This was the Rosetta Stone for communicating the basic mechanic to the players and it was so effective that a player, both new to roleplaying in general and Marvel Heroic in particular, was able to understand how it worked just as well as the players who had been in a dozen sessions.

An additional use they found for it – and a further example of Phil Libin’s statement – was that the players used the boxes for Opponent’s Stress and Complications to keep track of damage inflicted upon the bad guys.  This saved me the trouble of recording damage myself, delegating another repeated task to the players.

However, while a simple tool for a simple system makes for a quick win, the need for tools to avoid task repetition has been for a game I’ve been running using a complex system for combat for sessions that have a maximum play-time of 3 to 3.5 hours.  I speak of Exalted.


While it could be argued that Exalted, not unlike Marvel, uses a core mechanic for arbitration – the value of two statistics represented in number of ten-sided dice that are rolled, with weight of dice that generated a value of seven or higher determining success – this rule becomes time-consuming when combat is involved.  Exalted Combat is a seven-to-ten step process with checks and calculations at each step to determine whether or not attacks or defences are successful.  To give you an idea, and to demonstrate one of the tools we’ve relied upon to follow the process of combat, here is an excerpt of the combat cheat sheet designed by Democritus.


It’s a lot of hoops to jump through in a game that is time-poor and in a combat situation where life and death matter but while the players’ knowledge of the sequence has improved, resulting in faster combat, the longest time in the game is when I have to follow these sequences for multiple non-player characters.

If I’ve got five regular soldiers attacking the players then I’m undertaking this process five times.  If they are launching a coordinated attack or the soldiers go on the same initiative turn, then that’s a long time spent on me rolling dice and performing math to determine how successful they are.  And it gets worse if the players are facing enemies more puissant than regular soldiers as they have their own charms and abilities that can add extra steps.

…Just assembling the number of dice to roll and sort into successes and failures is time-consuming in and of itself.

To minimise repetition of assembling dice, asking players for defence values, and applying modifiers before and after rolling, I have turned to my tool of choice for gaming:  Excel.


Astute readers will notice Steps 4, 6 and 8 are missing.  This is because mortals don’t normally enjoy the opportunity to reroll defence and rarely are equipped with armour powerful enough to have a hardness rating.  Nevertheless, the sequence is followed and repetition is avoided by using this tool:

  1. Non-Player Characters are entered into a separate worksheet that contains various statistics derived from the Exalted core rule book and various supplements.  I can also add statistics of custom enemies.
  2. The spreadsheet pictured pulls the statistics into the table courtesy of a drop-down list and I add the defence value of the player being attacked along with modifiers due to wound penalties, multiple attacks, terrain or other factors.
    • If these factors change I can update the spreadsheet but otherwise they remain as-is and ensure I don’t forget to add or subtract something that might affect the outcome of the combat.
  3. I click on the ‘Attack’ button and a dice roller on a separate worksheet provides the outcome.

Ten steps down to three and I don’t have to pick up, roll and sort dice throughout the process!  Though I admit there is room for improvement.

Players and GMs of Exalted will ask how it handles more powerful combatants where they can add bonus dice or bonus successes to attacks or how it handles the “Tens count as two successes” rule.  Basically it’s handled with a separate worksheet of stats and a separate spreadsheet to generate a result.


Again there are some rules that will call for further modification and further improvements that can be made but at its current version, the spreadsheet shaves essential time and avoids repetition of tasks very well.  Though I will confess I’ll need to work out how to shorten the length of the spreadsheet or invest in a wider monitor.

The point is this:  If you can identify the repetitive tasks they can be rules that form the program or tool that turns time-sinks to time-savings.

Other Examples

Leverage is an RPG that we sometimes use for pick-up games.  It has a useful mechanic to quickly generate an adventure just by rolling dice.  Again, there is repetition of rolling dice to generate the adventure and, again, the repetition can be eliminated with the judicious use of Excel’s RANDBETWEEN and CHOOSE functions.


Instant adventure, just add details!

Cthulhu For President is a game I plan on running in a couple of week’s time and one of its mechanics is the ability to sacrifice other player-characters for rewards.  That sounds like fun except for the person who then has to roll up a new character.  Expecting issues I’m wrapping up a spreadsheet to randomly generate characters (again some visual polish required).


The time and effort saved by automating tasks means that its time and effort you can invest in crafting your story through narration and collaboration.  Identify the repetitive tasks; understand the rules and the time spent creating a spreadsheet will save so much more time when you play the game.


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