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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.

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Mekton Hack: Follow Your Heart

June 12, 2016

I found an old copy of Mekton Zeta.  Mekton remains one of the best games for mecha-anime action, provided you’re looking mostly for simulationist play.  But I remembered that most of these old school games aren’t too hard to revamp if you throw a new reward system on top of them…  so, I figured I’d come up with some house rules to make Mekton more anime-like in play.

These rules replace the Improvement Point system in Mekton.  These are pretty close in function to how Spiritual Attributes work in Riddle of Steel or Blade of the Iron Throne.

Drives

Player characters and major NPCs get 3 Drives.  A Drive is a motivation which they are willing to risk and push for – protecting planet Earth, someone they’re in love with, revenge, finding out the truth about the Secret Government, whatever.  You can change these over play, but ultimately they’re Flag Mechanics for everyone to know what to angle your scenes around and where the fun conflicts are for you.

It’s probably a good idea to channel these Drives into general categories for your setting for your particular campaign – “Make a Drive about the Aliens and how you feel about them”, “Have a Drive about one of your team mates”, “Give a Drive about what you wanted to do with your life that got interrupted by the war…” etc.

Drives have a score from 0 to 3.  They start at 0, and every time you take a risk or major action for a Drive, it goes up a point, up to a maximum of 3.

Drives affect dice

When you take actions that are in line with one of your Drives, you can roll a number of extra D10s equal to the current Drive score that applies, and keep the highest die.  So if you have a Drive 2, you get to roll an extra 2D10 for a total of 3D10 and take the best of the bunch.

As you can see, high Drive can make a big difference in your rolls.

Criticals

Criticals are no longer infinitely exploding dice – you can’t just keep rolling 10’s and get some outrageous score.  You can explode the dice only when your action applies to one of your Drives AND only as many times as your Drive score.

So, if you’re fighting to Save the Earth (score 2) and you roll a 10, you can explode the die and roll again, and if you get another 10, you can explode it just one more time.

Drives and improvement

You can improve your skills by spending down your Drives.  Between your 3 Drives, spend down a number of points equal to the current rating of the skill to raise it one rank.  For example, if you had Melee 5, you’d need to spend 5 points from your Drives and the skill would go up to 6.

For stats, you have to do this twice – the first time put a check or a star by the stat.  The second time you spend down, the stat raises by 1.

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