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Social Leverage Games

August 29, 2016

There’s a type of game I call “social leverage” games – these are games where the primary fulcrum of power is social leverage between people.  Mafia, Werewolf, and Diplomacy are classic games of this type.

I just watched this GDC talk about a prototype tank game that turned toxic and had to be banned within the studio testing it.  What the speaker misses out on, is that the core of the game he’s set up, was social leverage.

In all of these games, the primary way to win is to convince people to trust you, to believe you, and to choose good times to betray people.  These games depend on building trust then breaking it.  Bluffing games like Poker aren’t about building alliances – you aren’t expected to trust the other players.  Games where there are other methods to win, rather than just manipulating trust, also don’t suffer this problem.

The reason these games turn toxic is simple – it’s not about lying about numbers, resources, or in-game factors – it’s about lying between the real people about real people relationships – “You can trust me”.    Players who do best at these games often leverage what they know about the other players’ personalities… so the expertise at the game is how well you manipulate your friends.

 

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Tactical games, stats, and balancing

July 13, 2016

This is a pretty excellent video explaining the issues around balancing with attributes and stats, and the issues of things like dump stats and so on.  Since the videogame in questions is directly descending from D&D, and the speaker is also a tabletop gamer, the information is very directly applicable to tabletop games and design.

What I think is really interesting is that he highlights the difference between characters being “viable” vs. “optimized” and that the greater the difference between the two within your given game, the harder it becomes to balance encounters.  He also points out that if something is basically required for viable play, it shouldn’t be optional, as there’s no real play value gained by hiding “gotchas” or traps in character creation, which is a pretty common problem for tabletop games.

 

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Preparing to Prepare

July 11, 2016

As I get older, and it gets harder to coordinate time to game, I find myself spending more time doing some things which save a lot of time in the long run, but are things I would never have thought about when I was younger and less experienced at seeing how campaigns work, or don’t work.

First off, I like a lot of different kinds of games and a few different kinds of genres.  So, what I’m in the mood for changes every few months.  When I get an idea in my head, I now start here with these factors:

Feasibility

How much time does this game require to get a good play cycle from it?  One session? 10? What will I need to run it? A map & minis? Tokens? Etc.   Most of my players are split up around the country, so we play online, and the electronic versions of some of these things is a giant pain the ass, especially since we may be on all kinds of platforms or working from secondary computers or devices.   My in-person games tend to be pick-up games or on short notice, which also precludes many games.

These issues determine whether it’s even reasonable to suggest some games or not, knowing who I have available and our time/logistics constraints.  I think about all this even before I pitch a game.

Teaching

What do I need the players to know to play the game?  Can I make a 1-2 page summary of the most important rules and best practices?  Do they need to read pages upon pages of setting? (alternatively, do I need to find a way to focus whatever setting/background they may have in their heads to a common vision, especially if it’s something like a movie/comic/book series that has multiple interpretations?)

How long will all of this take?  Are the players into this level of detail, or tracking?  How much can I teach in play? How much is the gameplay experience negatively impacted if you don’t know the rules well?

This is actually the first level of “prep” I do – I look at making quicksheets of rules and setting, each being a page (front and back) at most.  This not only works for teaching the players, but also helps me have my reference materials and brush up on rules I may not have seen for years.

This also tends to be the point when I maybe junk some ideas because I realize the logistics of play is much higher than what I remember.

Buy-In

Assuming I clear those two hurdles, then it’s about a pitch to the players.  If I don’t have an enthusiastic push, I junk it as well, now.

For me, pitches are easier face to face – you can flip open a book, share related material, and communication is quick.  You can read body language easier and everyone can get into a flow of conversation that makes it easier to pick out what kinds of games are going to work for everyone.

The enthusiasm level has to be much higher for online play.  The overall communication process is slower, and when you play online, you are competing every moment of play with the players’ focus against emails, chat windows, cat videos, etc., and it becomes easy to lose your momentum.  (this is also why I try to keep sessions online short).

I’ve seen and been part of too many “Well I guess I’ll play…” campaigns and they just kind of hobble along, and nothing particularly great comes out of them.  It’s a lot of effort for so-so enjoyment.

And then I finally prepare…

If I can clear those hurdles THEN I finally start thinking about what I need to prep in terms of stats, notes, etc.  It seems like a lot of work, but it ends up saving me a lot of time and headache these days.

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Found Loot – an initiative to help game creators

July 7, 2016

I Need Diverse Games is starting a great initiative to help diverse game creators:

Found Loot is an initiative inspired by and modeled after Fund Club (created by Ashe Dryden ofAlterConf and Shanley of Model View Culture) to help fund gaming & gaming related projects by diverse creators. Funding is provided by members who agree to a $50 per month donation directly to the organization or group that we pick each month.

Found Loot is needed among a lot of other initiatives to fund gaming projects, diverse work and creators. There’s a lot of diverse, game related projects that don’t quite fit into a Kick Starter, IndieGoGo or Go Fund Me campaign.

Sometimes creators need a little extra to cross the line from idea to fruition, to make the difference between a prototype and a finished product coming to the masses. What we want to do is help those folks who need that lift to continue their work.

If you wish to donate, you can join here.

If you’d like to apply for funding, you can fill out the forms here.

 

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Set Piece Battle Design – example

July 2, 2016

I’m going through old files and I found a half-written document for a D&D set piece battle designed to get that fun sort of Jackie Chan mayhem in the fight.  (This was written before the year I fought cancer so my memory is completely shot around then).

Although it’s lacking a map and monsters, there’s a few things I think it highlights really well:

Teach the Players

This was something I learned a lot from running old Iron Heroes – you need to highlight what are opportunities or options, at least early on, so players can know that these are in fact options.  Pointing it out on the map helps too.

Although telling the players EXACTLY what mechanical effects are in play seems a bit much, it allows them to properly gauge threats – a lot of players may be used to games where drowning is an extremely likely situation or that a fall will kill you instantly, and such, be unable to prioritize their risks and choices.  I assume that the characters are competent and this helps players make informed choices – just as much as a trained acrobat can estimate what kind of jumps they can make, the players use the mechanics in the same way.

Bumping the focus of rules

The special rules around falling and swimming are both designed at emulating the genre, where these things are penalties but rarely “finishers” in and of themselves.

Guiding the GM

Notice it’s entirely a walkthrough for the GM on how to teach and share this, but also advice on how to manage all the characters and environmental bits through play in a step by step process.

Obviously, your own notes can be as sketchy and light as will work for you – however, here I am, 4 years later, reading something I don’t remember writing (thanks chemo!), and going “Oh, yeah, this makes sense” because I was smart enough to write it for others.  Always assume you will be tired, half fried from work, and perhaps stressed by the time game night rolls around – so you might as well put in the work now to make it easy for future-you to be able to play the game as easily as possible.

 

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Genre Scaffolding

June 18, 2016

I’m slowing forming a Mekton campaign in my head.  Between the busy season at work and less brainpower for thinking (age, post-chemo, whatever), I’m realizing how much harder it is to set up games with older, traditional games that are set up to do “broad genre” ideas instead of more specific ones.

For example, while Lord of the Rings, Journey to the West, The Mahabharata, and The 1001 Nights are all “fantasy” which you could theoretically play using D&D rules, capturing the correct feel and pacing depends on:

  • The GM knowing the genre and setting scenes & NPC actions around it
  • The Players knowing the genre and setting characters and action around it
  • Constant selective use/disuse of mechanics to appropriately model the specific feel
  • and/or house rules specifically set to bend the game towards that end

…compared to a focused, well designed game which sets everyone towards the same goal and understanding from the start, with rules to back it up – which is a lot less work to play and keep going.

For the Mekton game, I’m having to dissect the specific things I want from a mecha story to even get to framing the situation to sell to players.  While I could easily point-build a billion and one robots, or stat up characters upon characters, the part I’m not supported in, is navigating what conflicts, cast design, etc. tends to make the juicy parts of the specific things I’m looking for.

I have no Genre Scaffolding upon which to build, so I have to make my own.

Once I have that skeleton in place, then the ideas about what kinds of conflicts or characters make sense, and only then can I pitch it to players AND give them some guidelines of what kinds of characters to make.

I’m guessing once that’s nailed down, the rest is easy, but I’m also comparing this to other games where this isn’t a struggle – for example, Dogs in the Vineyard you already know what kinds of conflicts to expect and what kinds of characters fit the bill – the only point you have then is filling in the specifics.

(Mind you, this isn’t a dig at Mekton, the whole Interlock system really does represent some of the best of the 80’s RPG design – which we’d see again in D20 over a decade later, however, it does highlight a massive missing piece in most of the design at the time.)

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Too close to home, too far from safety

June 14, 2016

A few years ago, groups of people organized harassment campaigns aimed at trans game designers.

Long before bullets go flying like the horrific tragedy in Florida, the intent and dehumanization is built up over time by people “just saying words”, over and over.

You don’t have to step up and catch a bullet, but you can stand up and push out the hatemongers and bigotry and not let it flourish in your hobby.

Or, if you can’t do that, don’t be surprised that the seeds of hate eventually bear fruit, while you stand by and do nothing.