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Fantasy vs. the Fantastic

July 8, 2018

I’m finally getting a chance to get back into a combination of gaming and catching up on media after a hectic beginning of the year and it’s helping me get back into a key concept for tabletop gaming settings:

What parts of your setting are mundane vs. fantastic to the characters? (as opposed to us, real people, who do not have to worry about dragons and cyborgs and such.)

And how do you get the group on the same page about it as well?

A simple example

So let’s say you’ve got a fantasy game, and there’s a spell to turn invisible.  As far as the society in this game, is this:

  • Completely unknown?
  • In legends/stories, and probably feared or considered child’s tales?
  • Rare but known to exist?
  • Uncommon but something people take some precautions against?
  • Completely known and has several common countermeasures to stop it from being abused?

Depending on the setting, this is either super powerful and scary, or it’s a minor advantage.  In some cases, the thing is just as fantastic to the characters, as it is to us, the people playing the game, and in other cases, it’s about as mundane to them as someone knowing out how bust open a lock on a car door.

Sense of Wonder vs. Genre Piece

As a group, are these things supposed to be a thing that’s a sense of wonder (or terror) or are they just another piece of genre trope that’s fun and not a big deal?  This covers a lot about how you narrate things, prepare things, etc.

Doing a favor for a fae being who grants you a miraculous healing point and their castle disappears after you walk out of it will have you considering that healing potion one way, while buying a dozen healing potions at the Temple after picking up supplies is a different thing.

Playing Your Character & Narration

If you know where these things stand in the game world, it also lets you know how to play your character, and to mesh well with the other players as well.   If magic is unknown, your wizard might be able to scare a king into submission with a few spooky tricks, while if it is well known, your character might be considered little better than a shoe cobbler.

Likewise, this affects how you narrate things.  “Spectral energy glows at his hands, before he chants the mantras of the divine archer, and a golden bow appears in his hands…firing forth arrows that blaze light from the mouth and eyes of his targets!” vs. “I scramble up the stairs while firing Magic Missle at the pursuing forces.”  Both the creative effort and time you spend, in part, depends on what fits for your game setting, and likewise, most people prefer description for the fantastic, brevity for the mundane.

Strategy in Play

Of course, if your game depends on strategic decisions, or choices that are well enforced by an internal logic to the game world, understanding where things sit in Mundane vs Fantastic is critical to both your planning and counter-strategies.  A good part of strategy is asymmetric information – who knows how things work and what options are available.

In our real world, an invisibility spell would let you get away with a LOT before people started floating the idea that maybe there’s an invisible person walking around (though, between the Predator movies, Ghost in the Shell, and real world experiments in optical camouflage, maybe quicker than you think).

Setting up for play!

I usually like to write up a 2-3 page document that hits what is expected of the game, including a bit on the setting and cultural expectations, especially if the game itself doesn’t include these things or I’m doing something different than what the book describes.

I look to see what things are different from our world, and I also look to see if there’s other popular media I can point to as a quick touch point.  If the game is set to existing fiction (movies, books, comics, videogames, etc.) – I try to find the quick short things I think people should refresh themselves with and also if we’re going to cherry pick specific parts of the larger work. (Which, you pretty much HAVE to do if a thing ends up going through multiple writers, has existed as a large franchise, etc.).

If players are building characters deep into an unusual thing, I try to give them more information or context about what that looks like and what expectations, challenges, and support are around their character.

Mind you, all of this is usually pretty short.  Since most of the games I run are something like 4-8 sessions these days, it doesn’t make sense to over invest in prep if the game isn’t going to be that long anyway.

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Game design: Siloing Resources

February 24, 2018

It’s a generally understood that you should design your game to reward the players to do the thing you want to see happen in play.  The important, but sometimes missed part, is that is that what you should want to see in play is the thing the players would also find fun, but maybe not realize on their own.

So part of that is “siloing” – some resources or rewards, are isolated in terms of how you can get them.  When you fail to silo things correctly, there may be glaring loopholes that make it easy, and even encouraging, for players to completely avoid the fun things that should be core to the game.

Monster Hunter World

I’ve been playing a lot of the Monster Hunter World videogame, and I’ve been a fan of the series for a long time.  Like many games, it has potions which you need to heal.  However, there’s no way to buy potions.   You have to go into the field and collect the materials.

This sets up a particular cycle: you need to heal, so you need to get materials.  If you want to gather a bunch at one go, you have to run to several points on a given map – which means you have to explore and know the map.  While you’re doing this, other monsters might attack you, so it’s a bit of turnaround from you hunting the monsters.  Bonus: knowing an area, gives you an advantage in the core gameplay loop of hunting, so that feeds right back in.

D&D and magic items for sale

Compare this to an often recurring issue for D&D games – the breakdown of magic item economy.   The core gameplay loop for D&D is dungeon crawling – either for treasure heists or as a tactical combat.   In both cases, however, the fastest way a single character gains ability is acquiring a magic item, which makes it a powerful resource in terms of game design.

In some forms of play, the only way to get magic items is to go on dungeon crawls and find them – so this means this feeds into the core game loop.  In others, though, you start ending up with options for magic items to be bought – in which case, it is far easier to find ways to get gold to buy the items, rather than try to deal fully with a dungeon crawl or have to figure out how to best use a random item you gained instead of buying 3 things that perfectly match your character’s role.  Once that happens, the reward no longer is tied to the core play activity.

Siloing – one path or a choice?

When you design a requirement for a resource or a reward, you can basically go about it in two ways.

First, give only one option to get the resource/reward.  This is a good choice for making core gameplay elements a requirement and unavoidable in play.  How much/how long/how often are parts to balance out to make sure it’s fun and not annoying, a chore, or so easy as to be meaningless.

Second, give two or more options to get the resource/reward.  Each one lays out a separate path, and, done correctly, might allow for a very meaningful choice, or at least, an expression of play.

In many games that use Flag mechanics, like Burning Wheel, you can choose which of your Beliefs you pursue, you don’t have to do all 3 equally, or even at all.  As long as you’re pursuing at least one of them, you get rewards.  In contrast, the earlier Riddle of Steel makes it so that early one, you can pursue just one or two of your flags, but if you want to improve high level abilities, you need to have nearly maxed out all of them.  Notice, however, that what this is, is that it’s several choices within the same category – “pursue this Flag” is still the underlying mechanic.

The danger in this second approach, however, is that many games have done things where the potential paths to reward/resources create contradictory styles of game.  If these contradictory things don’t fit well together, and different players in the group are playing along these paths, you get problems.   In this case, it’s important for the game designer to make clear that these things are exclusive options the group or the GM will have to pick BEFORE the game begins, and not find out after you start.

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The Reclaimers Roleplaying Stream

February 10, 2018

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be running a once a week RPG stream on Twitch with Quinn Murphy through CypherofTyr’s I Need Diverse Games Twitch Channel.

We’re doing Sundays, 6PST to 8PST.  Our first game is Tenra Bansho Zero!

Video link from the session is here.

Reclaimers Screen.jpg

 

 

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Stop genocidal white supremacy

August 12, 2017
If you are a person who is not targeted by white supremacists, I’d like you to consider what you will do to stop them in your country.

Will you organize a voting block, starting with your most local politicians and then go larger? Will you demand police target these murderous gangs of terrrorists and not innocent people?

Can you send material support, in the form of money to an organization? Will you donate to someone’s legal or medical fund?

Can you change any policy where you work to make sure hatemongers cannot thrive? Will you see that the people who are already harming others are stopped and addressed by HR or management? Will you follow it through when those groups probably choose to ignore the problem?

Will you stop and watch police interactions with people of color and step in, to make sure they’re not being harmed? Will you do a counterprotest against racists?

There’s a lot of ways to help.

But if you will do nothing, please unfollow my blog and any other place you might know me.  It’ll be easier for you to not have me around now, rather than feel sad after they get to me and the people around me.

If you cannot be a decent human, you can, at least, be honest with yourself.

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Variety in Monsters

August 4, 2017

With the broad number of tactical-fighty RPGs out there, and tons of monster books, you’d think there’d be a pretty good understanding of creating variety in monsters and combat, right?  Well… aside from a few status effects and a changes in turning a dial up or down in terms of numbers, it can get pretty repetitive, quickly.

Aside from breadth in strategic goals for combat to drive variety… a few categories to consider with your monsters:

Mentality

How well can the creature think in a broad sense, and what are it’s general goals around?  This is important because it determines a lot of how the encounter is shaped and the larger scale idea in play how these creatures shape the situation.

Predators – Animal level intelligence,  wants to hunt, or drive things away from it’s territory.

Mindless – Constructs, zombies, amoebas, some bugs.

Intelligent – Capable of thought, making plans, adapting said plans, etc.

Weird – Things from beyond space and time, abstractions given flesh, etc.

Intelligent Tactics

Some creatures use some or all of these tactics.  Understand that any/all of these can drastically change the power balance and threat level of a type of creature.  Also be aware one might have a relatively mindless creature that is adapted use one of these tactics.

Ambushing – Hiding, creating camouflage, waiting by watering holes, etc.

Trap Creating – making pitfalls, sandpits, etc.

Tool Using – capable of picking up, finding, or creating new tools to solve problems

Verbal Negotiation – capable of speech, might negotiate and/or lie.

Effects

Effects are the actual game mechanical things that shape how a combat feels and plays out.  Many of these also have to deal with the environment or area that a combat occurs, so definitely take that into account as well.

Special Movement – natural (flying, swimming, climbing, swinging, burrowing), unnatural (teleporting, phasing through objects, being liquid and oozing through cracks)

Environment Affecting – leaves a poisonous slime trail, large enough to knock down trees and small buildings, sets the area on fire, sprays a mist that makes it hard to see.

Resistances/Immunities – against poison, fear, types of elements, types of weapons (“The undead creature takes minimum damage from arrows.”), needs silver, blessed weapons, can only be injured in daylight, etc. 

Ranged – spitting caustic/poison saliva, choking spore cloud, throwing rocks, ranged weapons, magical effects – deadly gaze, etc.

Forced Movement/Immobilizing – charging/body slam, dragging with tentacles, pouncing and pinning, chomping on leg and clamping down.

Formation Effect – wolf pack getting bonuses for group attacks, herd animals stampeding, clay soldiers that fight with phalanx tactics, etc.

Set Up Attack/Action – takes 1-2 actions to “power up” or prepare a special action that is very powerful.  Coiling before constriction, chanting a spell, etc.

Lasting Damage – effects that last beyond the current encounter (a day, a month, until certain medicine/magic is used, etc.) – acidic attacks, poison, disease, lycanthropy, a curse/hex, etc.

Examples: Skeletons in different ways

Standard fantasy skeletons are like this: Mindless + Resistance/Immunities (poison, disease, fear, etc.)

Aren’t they tool users? They usually come with swords and spears, right? Not so much.  Consider the classic “We’re being chased by a horde of skeletons, and we hide out in a room with a really strong and large door that we shut behind us.”  Normal fantasy skeletons either a) stand around and don’t bother trying to get in, b) beat at the door, a while, but still can’t get in.   They have weapons, but they don’t really look for or utilize tools otherwise.

Tool Using Skeletons, however, will pick up that busted wooden ceiling beam that was laying around and use it as a battering ram.  (also, these are at least Predator mentality and intelligence at that point as well).

If they moan or simply repeat phrases, that’s not any extra sign of intelligence.  If they start whispering through the door that they’re tired, and just want to see the light of your torches, it’s been dark down here, so long, please don’t deny them this one thing… well, now they’re using Verbal Negotiation in an Intelligent, if evil fashion.

When the skeletons have figured out to cling to the ceiling with their untiring bony hands for uncountable years waiting for victims, you’ve got Ambushing skeletons.  When that ambush is also next to a ledge by water, and they roll you in, you find out Forced Movement is a bad feature for these guys.  The one that uses the magic staff of freezing to ice the water overhead so you can no longer break the surface for air is Environment Affecting.

As you can see, until we get to the magic staff, pretty much anything here can be done with the normal stats for most skeletons in many games and can make them much, much worse than what you normally get.   However, the point is not to simply throw twists on existing ideas, but to give you a better way to organize your tactical focused gamism as a whole.

The Big Picture

What you should be looking for is variety in those categories.  Make sure you have a mix of different Mentalities, of creatures using different Intelligent tactics as well as Effects.  By doing all of this, the players will have to use different tactics and strategies as well- which makes for better tactical play.  Strategies that work against one thing will not work against others, and this makes for more interesting situations than simply throwing bigger numbers at everyone.

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Threat vs. Cost in Combat

July 16, 2017

If you’re playing a gamist tactical game, there’s often a problem when it comes to balancing combat and making it challenging…. and it has everything to do with how you make things “more difficult”.

I want to lay out a few dials/tools I feel get underutilized in a lot of these kinds of games.

Cost

Cost is easy to understand – this are the things that actually negatively impact your character and have consequences going forward into future encounters.  For most games this is hitpoints, injuries, broken/lost equipment, and some status effects.

The problem is that many systems tend to treat this in a crude and simplistic way; when you want to make something more challenging, simply raise how much cost it can inflict overall (the extreme example is the classic “Save or Die” effect in D&D).  The problem here is that it doesn’t necessarily make for better tactical play when applied generally, and mostly is controlled by luck – which makes things very swingy.  A bad encounter early, can make every encounter after much, much more difficult.

So let’s talk about other things you can tweak to make for more interesting combat effects in these kinds of games…

Limitations

Limitations restrict what actions a character can undertake (or, at least, bump the odds or costs of doing the action such that some are more favored than others heavily).   Limitations change how a player has to approach a situation DURING a combat, so these things can be a source of interesting play…. if done correctly.

The key to GOOD use of limitations is variety – you want to change up what kinds of limitations the players face all the time – environment, enemy type, weapons/gear the enemy use, etc.  Being forced to change your tactics and consider your options is more challenging than simply doing the same thing over and over.

Lesser Limitation

Lesser limitations affect secondary actions the character could undertake during an encounter – being unable to get to an item in your backpack, being slowed in movement, not being able to yell information to a team mate, and so on.

  • Getting slammed, pushed, or dragged from where you were
  • Slowed in movement (but not halted completely)
  • Being limited in what you can see, and ultimately who you can choose as a target
  • A normal action requires a roll/check or it takes twice as long (“You want to close the door, but you have to rush in without getting stabbed… so it’s tricky.”)

Greater Limitation

Greater limitations effectively stop the character from their primary mode of interaction in a combat – warriors can’t attack, mages can’t cast, etc.   Greater limitations need to be used sparingly, and for very short duration.  Remember: “Playing the game is fun, NOT playing the game is NOT fun.” – don’t force your players to NOT play.

  • Weapon is pinned, stuck in something, knocked away
  • Restrained or silenced from using magic
  • Unable to move from location
  • Temporarily Blinded
  • Stunned, paralyzed, etc – anything that costs your actions (also, if this would last the whole fight, it is effectively identical to being dead for this encounter, as far as gameplay experience is concerned)

Threat AKA “Virtual” Cost

So here’s a mechanic: “Whenever a Dusk Ghoul hits you, take 1D4 damage AND get 1 Hex Point.  If you are Prone while hit by a Dusk Ghoul, take 1D6 damage per Hex point you have.  Hex Points disappear after 10 minutes.”

 

As players find their characters getting more and more Hex points, they’re worried in combat.  And anytime they get knocked prone, they’re very worried about getting back up and keeping the Dusk Ghouls away.

High stakes, tension, a bit of strategy around avoiding certain situations.    But, if the extra damage doesn’t trigger?  Then it disappears – no healing needed.

If you want to make it even less likely to kick off, just make the trigger condition more narrow and harder to set up – “Cultists must surround a target on 4 sides before casting the Fire Pillar spell”, “After the wizard successfully hits the target, then he must change for 3 turns uninterrupted…”  etc.  This gives players more ways to disrupt a threat before it finalizes into real costs and damage.

Of course, for any of this to work, in creating tension, the players have to know what the possible/probable consequences will be.  This might be the classic, if foolish, point of villains speaking their plans before doing it – “Surround him! When the 4 of you work together, he will burn to a crisp!” or it might be a bit of internal character knowledge – “You’re not sure what they’re up to, but they’re clearly trying to get a formation where they can box in you in on every side.  You probably want to stop that.”   And of course, there’s always the classic prone on the ground when the giant is about to stomp you where the “second shoe to drop” is literal and obvious.

Flipping It – Stunts

So… I’ve laid out a lot of things to make a combat situation more challenging and perceptually dangerous without necessarily requiring as hard hit on the rules for balance in many games… but what about the players, what balances out stuff for them?

Well, stunts in combat are effectively either throwing on limitations or more damage (current or future) or a combination in some fashion.

Smart players should be looking for ways to stunt and gain advantage in a fight – reward them by applying the same logic of limitations and costs to the NPC/monsters as well.  Unlike the player characters, you can certainly rob these characters of their ability to take actions without much worry  – you’ll never be shut out of play, as the GM.  What you DO need to keep an eye on, is to make sure that you don’t end up with a go-to-method stunt that is too easy/powerful and gets used all the time.

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Parallel vs. Isolated System Mastery

June 23, 2017

System mastery is your ability to expertly play the system to achieve your goals in play*.

Now, different systems require different skills as a player, to achieve mastery, just as much as Chess requires different skills than Poker**.   What I want to focus on, is thinking about how games are designed and how skills outside of game might directly help you with system mastery, vs. games where the road to mastery is only through knowing the game itself.

Parallel System Mastery

When skills outside of the game can be well applied in play and help you do better at the game.  Conversely, when the skills that develop system mastery also develop a skill set outside of play as well.

The easiest and most obvious example is the origins of war games – people developed wargames to teach and practice tactics and strategy.  In this case, you want to have it to where whatever strategies work in war, work in the game, and whatever strategies work in the game, should also work in war.

Obviously, tabletop RPGs have moved pretty far from that as a primary motivating factor.  Other parallel skill arenas usually are more popular:

  • Storytelling (pacing, characterization, improvisation, suspense)
  • Social Pressure/Manipulation (Teamwork, deception, alliance making, status-seeking)
  • Genre familiarity (Superheroes, Tolkien lore, etc.)

And of course, you can build games to be even more specific – for example, Riddle of Steel’s combat system is designed to mirror strategies used in historical European martial arts, or Drifter’s Escape focuses highly on the skills of poker bluffing/reading bluffs, or the chat-IRC game Code of Unaris requires your ability to use quick word play and editing to much effect.

Parallel System Mastery design might be completely intentional, like the war game example, or it might be unintentional – like how most “systemless” games usually end up with a mix of storytelling and social pressure***.

Isolated System Mastery

 

When the primary method for system mastery in a game is knowledge of the system itself.****

The easiest example, is probably most forms of D&D combat.  The things that make you good at D&D combat are very far removed from the things that work in the real world, without, say, the DM using lots and lots of modifiers, house rules, and judgment calls.*****

Now mind you, Isolated System Mastery is neither good nor bad as far as game design is concerned – you want to design rules that are fun to play, in whatever fashion you’re looking for fun.  It is certainly more fun in Tenra Bansho Zero for injuries to make my character better at fighting, because it’s cinematically appropriate.  In Primetime Adventures, it’s more fun to sometimes have the cards and raw luck set up other players to narrate the outcome of something you’ve done.

The important thing to do, in this, is make sure people know what actually helps them succeed, and what skills (or way of thinking) doesn’t matter at all.   The more options and complicated links between subsystems, the slower and more difficult it usually is to gain System Mastery in general – when these are counter intuitive or simply without any other parallel in real life, it can be hard to develop this skill, and sometimes quite frustrating to get there.  (A lot of Burning Wheel’s game systems run into this particular hurdle.)

Different Masteries for Different Folks

One of the most useful things to consider in all of this is that this folds under what we used to call “Technical Agenda” – or, what you, as a group, wanted to experience of the game from the technical side.  Often people muddle around in talking about “crunch vs. light”, “game balance”, etc. and don’t have a good set of terms to identify what skills they’re having FUN exercising in a game vs. not having fun in doing so.

I had a vague idea about this years ago when every so often someone would complain that it “wasn’t fair” to have a game that focused on storytelling elements in improvisation because “some players aren’t good at that”… (unlike, presumably, the ability to quickly calculate encumbrance and speed movements and supplies, which I guess everyone can do in their head? Oh wait.)

Anyway, I think this is important for both designers and people committed towards finding more games that fit whatever their particular niche is.  Or avoiding things they dislike.

For example, bluffing games that revolve around a real resource cue (cards, liar’s dice, etc.) are fine by me, games that involve player-to-player social manipulation are games I absolutely despise.  I know this, and that helps me choose what games I’d rather play.  When it comes to tactical type games, I like there to be enough Parallel System Mastery that things that generally work in real life, generally work in the game (or, if not real life, whatever genre it’s emulating).

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(Wow, a fuckton of footnotes today.  Well, I’ve been writing less often, so I guess I’m making up with divergent side thoughts and context.)

*  “Goals” are not synonymous with winning.  For example, there’s a few Narrativist games that focus on tragedy – so maybe having terrible things happen to your character in a way that is dramatically appropriate, is your goal as a player.  Having specific things happen, or happen in a specific way, might be part of it, and your mastery is utilizing the system to make that occur.

** You might realize that if you play a given game with different GMs or different groups, the set of skills that are exercised and necessary to do well in the game might be completely different.  This would be the part that old Forge Theory pointed out that the rules as written were one thing, but the actual game in play, is where you see the System emerge- and that this means even if you’re playing “Vampire” using the same books, you might have completely different Systems in actual play.  Designers should be giving people good tools to match up these things, and because this is historically been shitty, the reason why I wrote out the Same Page Tool.

*** An example I love to come back to, often enough, is a phrase that appeared in Exalted 1E’s introduction: “Rules exist to prevent bitterness between friends.”  There’s so much to unpack there, but in this case, you can tell someone apparently suffered greatly at the hands of unintentional and terrible social pressure design, which honestly, has to be one of the worst things that’s happened to the hobby in so many games.

**** Although I say “isolated”, a) there’s a lot of groups that tend to fall into the same system pattern regardless of what rules they’re playing by, so naturally they have a System Mastery that carries over game to game, b) there’s a lot of games that are functionally built on the same premises and core ideas to other games, and so, again, learning one helps you with those others, and c) of course, there’s baseline skills like your ability to communicate clearly or do basic math, that contribute to your quality of play, but are low-line enough that by themselves do not constitute System Mastery.

***** Underlying at least some of the conflict in “edition wars” is people realizing their carefully cultivated System Mastery under one edition doesn’t hold up under another edition.  To be fair, these differences can be marked enough to scratch entirely different itches and desires, but when you see how many folks brag about what you have to do to be a “real gamer”, you can see a lot of that is about pride in their Isolated System Mastery.