Archive for January, 2008

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Interesting shift (Star Wars Saga)

January 31, 2008

Whereas D&D 3.X had feat trees that had requirements that forced you to plan out the trees very early in, so that you could actually have useful feat action- SW saga has very little requirements for their feats- I think the “deepest” tree was 3 steps.

Instead of planning how to get all the feats, the trick becomes figuring out -at what level- a given feat or set of feats will be the most useful to you.

It’s more forgiving, but still probably asks a fair amount in terms of system mastery to utilize properly.

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Resources

January 29, 2008

And, in the completely opposite corner from my last post, some ways of looking at resources as a designer, in a very analytical, crunchy way.  (I’m sure some economics majors or game theory folks probably have developed all of these ideas somewhere, and I’m just reinventing the wheel.  Still, worth thinking about if you design games).

The Big Picture

Resources in games boil down to two questions- “What do they do?” and “How do I get them?”  (This includes negative resources, such as “Points of DOOM!”, and the questions are interpreted into why you don’t want them, and what you need to do to avoid getting them).

Between these two questions, every resource has a value – some resources are more valuable than others.  Every min-maxing, munchkin, system monkey, tweaker has a skill for figuring out values of resources, often better than the designers when they put them together.

Looking at those two questions, and figuring out the value for any resource, will help you shape your game.  This is both carrot and stick, and the hard rules that dictate how things can and can’t get spent/earned whatever are the walls to the maze you’re building for play to happen in, systemically.

Expendability

Is the resource usable or reusable?  For example if many games, if your character has a sword- it’s a reusable resource- you can fight with it all day, it won’t get used up.  Spells, gold, hitpoints?  Those are expendable, they can disappear.

Global amount

How much of it exists, or could exist in the game?

Unlimited- there is no hard limit to how much can exist in the game.  For example- in most games- experience points – you could play forever, the game will never “run out”.

Limited- there are X number that can exist in the game.  “You get 10 scenes and then the game is over”.  Or, “There is one Eye of Vecna” or whatever.

Local Amount

What’s the maximum a player/character/pool whatever can hold?  What’s the minimum?   How does this interact with the global amount?

Type

Accumulative – It can only go up.  (For most games, that might be experience points)

Diminishing- It can only go down.  (The number of players in a rock-paper-scissors contest)

Variable- It can go up or go down.  (hitpoints, gold, etc.)

Rate

How fast can you gain it?  How fast can you lose it?  How fast can you spend it?

Economy

Parallel Resources are seperate- they do not directly affect each other.  For example, in many games, getting more skill points in Painting doesn’t give me more hit points or life points.

Intersecting Resources affect each other- maybe one produces another, limits another, or can be traded for another.  For example- gold can buy healing potions in D&D, therefore, gold can be equated to healing spells.  (or really, with magic items, gold can be equated to a LOT of abilities, which leapfrogs the whole slow cycle of XP gain to gain abilities).

1001 Nights- an example

So looking at a game with a simple economy, 1001 Nights works like this:

Dice are the primary resource- they are used to keep your character in play, to achieve your ambition (one win condition) or win your freedom (another win condition) or to counteract other players’ achieving the win conditions.  They work mostly by helping you accumulate the positive win condition resources, or avoid gaining the lose condition resource.  There is no way to diminish these resources, so there is always a spiral towards endplay.

Asking questions puts dice on the table.  Answering questions causes them to be rewarded (randomly- sometimes to the storyteller of the round, sometimes to the question asker).

Therefore, it’s in everyone’s best interest to ask questions, and most importantly, ask questions that are likely to get answered.  When a player gets a certain number of dice, the round ends (maximum limit, as a timing device).

It’s in the storyteller’s best interest to answer as many questions as possible, but to spread it out so that the end condition for a round is acheived- when they, themselves, have gotten the most dice out of it, and everyone else has less.

That’s the brutal numbers game of 1001 Nights, and encourages a basic style of play that works for its goals.  (and trust me, even knowing this, I’m terrible at the level of creative, social angling necessary to really succeed at this game.)

It also has an intense layered creative aspect of the content of the questions and answers, and a social aspect in how players gang up on each other or form alliances, but that’s all rolling on the wheels of the resource system.  Which I guess makes it a lot like poker- the harsh social reading/bluffing etc. rides on the basic mechanics of cards and probabilities.

As you can see- knowing the resources is super useful- though by no means does it give you the “one way to play the game”.  As a designer, it’s useful because it helps you figure out the “How does your game do it’s thing?” question.

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The “non”gamer hurdle

January 27, 2008

So I ‘ve been playtesting The Emperor’s Heart with a bunch of folks who have never played roleplaying games before.   It’s unfair to call them “non-gamers”, because they play videogames, cards, or boardgames, rather, it’s easy to say that they’re just non-roleplayers.

Well, why is that?

It’s not because “rpgs have story” is a big jump- these folks are writers, folks in theater, people who have no problem either “getting into a character’s head” or looking at the larger concerns of plot, pacing, tension, conflict, climax, etc.

It’s not because of geek factor-they’re all into stuff like comic books, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. and can tell me detailed accounts of book or tv series.

Between talking to them, and then looking at what games I think I could introduce to them, I get it.  Every mainstream, big name game still has fat wargame aspects all over it.   There’s a certain mentality necessary for wargames- for balancing points, for figuring odds, parsing through crunchy rules and figuring what’s most advantageous.  And it’s definitely more layered than most videogames, boardgames, or card games ever get.

It’s easy to see in games where you track position and range, but it’s also there in games where you build your character with a “deck” of powers.  It’s there where you keep track of actions and initiative.  It’s there where you have a list of weapons and armor to choose from.  It’s there where there’s a fat list of types of characters or splats to pick.

That mentality?  It’s not a big thing in the larger population.

I’m looking at Star Wars Saga Edition.  My friends love Star Wars, and arguably, it’s probably the easiest license to pull people into roleplaying with, because literally generations love the movies, comics, books, videogames, etc.

And I’m looking at Attacks of Opportunity.

When people think of Star Wars, they think of light saber fights, epic battles, and dogfights in space.  They don’t at all think about positioning, power lists, equipment stats, etc. as what it means to be a Jedi.  My friends will think of character, of plot, of geek things, but they will not want to think about attribute modifiers, squares of movement, or any of that.

And I get why many people either fudge, fiat, or freeform their way past all of those rules.  If all roleplaying rules are synonymous with “wargame” for you, naturally rules are useless if you don’t want to wargame or apply wargame logic to whatever game you’re really trying to play.

And it makes me a little sad.  As cool as the Star Wars Saga rules are, all they would do is turn my friends off from gaming, so instead I’m looking at a bunch of games that none of my friends would pick up and think, “Hey, I could do Star Wars with this!”, and will be using one of those instead.

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Steal Away Jordan

January 19, 2008

So I finally picked up a copy of Steal Away Jordan.

Wow. This game elegantly and perfectly breaks down the whole system of slavery, in such an elegant and honest manner.

Most games I could imagine, would spend about 200 pages trying to convey the issues and the history, and probably doing it from a white point of view. SAJ instead starts by talking about the slave experiences from kidnapping to arrival, to those born into slavery, and puts most of the focus into the system to deliver the issues of play.

The rules set up a simple and abstract way of talking about power: Worth. Each character is rated by their Worth, which is their social power, with white folks getting more, men getting more, and skilled, healthy, obedient folks getting more. Worth fluctuates during play, and obviously, it’s a loaded game in that regard.

Two things add a pretty big twist to play. First, the game makes a point of calling in alliances and other characters as help- they can loan half their Worth to any conflict you’re in. This sets up all kinds of room for seeking white allies, gatekeepers, allying with the oppressor and all kinds of various politics that have, and do play out. The second thing, is that you can choose to press your luck using the “Skull die”, which risks your character’s life for a second chance to win a conflict.

In itself, the Skull die really highlights a point of power inequality alone. Though slaves and slaveowners could both use the Skull die, the first issue is that slaveowners having way more worth are less likely to lose conflicts to begin with, and second, that if a slaver owner were to die in a conflict with a slave… what do you think the consequences would be?

The game is just loaded with really subtle mechanics that highlight the whole power imbalance without robbing play of value.

So what makes this not completely horribly depressing? The game focuses on your character’s personal Goals, which can include things as simple as seeing your wife on a distant plantation to full blown rebellion or escape. An interesting twist to this, is that the players decide and talk about these Goals, but the GM is kept in the dark about them, allowing for room for deception and trickery on the part of the players as well. SAJ is a deeply layered and well designed game.

From a political standpoint, this game is amazing. From a game design standpoint, it kicks the ass of every other role-playing game that has ever tried to do social politicking and alliances as the core of play.

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Grey Straits

January 19, 2008

(inspired by the 4E Shadowfell idea in the Worlds & Monsters preview book)

Grey Straits

Down, down in the darks of the Shadowfell, there is a city, a town, a place, properly known as Grey Straits.   By a cold ocean of swift currents, and often beset by fog, is a place for the living.   Well, at least some.

No one quite knows how Grey Straights came to be.  See, most of the inhabitants were either born there or wandered in with no idea of their past.   And, most who stay, simply forget why they should even care.

A town of Gothic and Victorian architecture, even lit by gaslight and primitive electricity (no one knows who built these things, or how they are maintained, though certainly some do not work, or flicker out at the most inopportune times).  At night, a dim moon can be seen through the clouds and the stars only appear in the smallest fraction of the sky (they call it the Fissure).  Trade comes in the form of the carters- merchants pushing carts, who speak of nothing beyond haggling, and who leave town and disappear the second you turn your head.

The Wakers

Only the Wakers- those who have come from the normal world, mostly those who delved deep into the secrets of magic and death, those are the ones who still ask questions, still pry at the mysteries of the town.   Some guess it was a god or mage of incredible power who hid in the Shadowfell, surrounding his or her dwelling with the far mist so that it might avoid most dangers.  Others believe the place is a natural emanation- as much as many things are in the Shadowfell, and that the inhabitants are the poor unfortunates of resurrection spells gone awry.   The Wakers often form scholarly societies and debate these things, sharing as much as they hide- because each in their heart believes that if they find the truth, they will become the ruler of the city, as well as break open the secrets of life and death.

Flickering in the wind

Why are the inhabitants so apathetic, so content?  In Grey Straits, the nature of things is like a flickering flame in a strong wind- expose and it will be blown out, cover it, hide it in a lantern, and it may hold on.   The most passionate things disappear the quickest.   Only passion kept in secret, whether the feverish research of a single mage or a pair of lovers hiding their affair, those flourish.  Everything else extinguishes.

Adventures in Grey Straits

Sort of the classic “town” to stop off in, in the Shadowfell, dark and moody with a definite touch of Ravenloft.  But rather than being uber dangerous and dark like Ravenloft, think less deadly and more… creepy.  There’s lots of secrets to be discovered, but the town itself is not a threat.

In terms of social interactions- you have the droll inhabitants and then the Wakers- people who probably serve as great sources of exposition and quest ideas.  I’m thinking a lot of the mad scientist who rides the edge where you don’t know if you should accept their ideas or stop them now.  Then imagine a erudite scholarly society of these guys.

There’s room for the occassional classic stalker monster- a vampire or werewolf in the fog, or even a serial killer, but the town itself shouldn’t be  full of death around each corner.  Danger within the town might be an abandoned laboratory or closed orphanage where “bad things happened”, but not in the main residential zone.

But most importantly, it’s a place to rest and restock between journeys to the strange places of the Shadowfell.

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“Not enough I say!”

January 14, 2008

This thread right here is a pretty good example of half of the worst in gamerdom.

Personally, I’m all for WOTC cleaning up D&D’s ugly bits. The 3rd edition Unearthed Arcana? Had a whole chapter on bloodlines in which I must applaud(?) the writer for finding so many ways to allude to rape without actually saying it.

But why the hell is it in D&D in the first place? Though I could play an ultragrim setting, for the most part, I play D&D when I want the worst possible threat to be a lich, or a dragon, not to be reminded of real life evil that, much like the thread, far too many people are willing to turn the other way and even defend (“I’m not defending rape, I’m just saying you’re over sensitive!” man what?) .

Just ugly.

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Buy In, Direction, Design

January 4, 2008

Player Buy In: When one player likes, appreciates, “buys into” the play contribution of another player – dialogue, choices, narration, etc.

In general, when we talk about fun, we talk about how much we can make play we like, the group likes, and how much we see others making play we like. It doesn’t work if you do stuff you don’t like just to satisfy others, and it doesn’t work if everyone only does stuff they, themselves like. In both cases, you get unsatifying play.

With that in mind- group cohesion and fun play are tied into how well we can hit our own and each other’s buttons in the good way.

Most older games have no mechanical support to help facilitate player buy-in- it came mostly in the form of “Hey Joe, good roleplaying!”.

The one traditional way of mechanically supporting it was in the form of the GM handing out extra xp. The problem with this is that since it usually happens at the end of the game, the GM isn’t reminded to give positive social cues along the way, nor necessarily the rest of the group.

Not only that, but players are then mechanically encouraged to direct their efforts towards the GM alone. Hence, “All that matters is your GM” because if you can’t directly reward to get what you want, you try to get a GM who encourages the same kind of play out of all of the players, that you’re looking for.

For many people, GM-less freeform was the immediate alternative- without mechanical basis of reward, everything becomes about the direct social reward amongst the group.

In terms of mechanical design, Primetime Adventures’ Fan Mail changed things significantly in terms of talking about buy-in. Like freeform anyone could reward anyone else for any appreciated contribution in the form of handing over chips during play- meaning you can reward someone right while they’re narrating without disrupting play. Also having the bowl of chips right in front of you serves as a physical reminder to let other folks know when you buy-in to what they’re doing.

In the long run, as a player, you start figuring out how to play to the desires of the group and it forms a means of the group providing play tailored to it’s members. This is where we see rpgs reach their ideal state- a game tailored in content and experience to the individual group.

So the role of a designer is not just providing an experience by rules, but also designing rules that help the group self direct for their ideal experience. The basic group economy is trading entertaining play for reward (mechanical or social) and it works well. I just wonder what kinds of neat games we’ll be seeing with more complex variations on that…

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