Archive for December, 2007


Death, Tactics, Design

December 26, 2007

A while back, Troy asked:

In fighty games like RuneQuest, DnD, and Rolemaster, what are some GMing techniques that one could use to incorperate PC defeat without a total party wipe? What are some design tools a game designer could create that allow PCs to lose a fight, not die, and return later with a better plan? How can one incentivize retreat?

Let’s answer in reverse order, since that’ll be easier.

If you’re designing a game, it’s super easy to not have defeat equal death.  I mean, look at Agon, Dogs in the Vineyard, Trollbabe, Primetime Adventures, Hero Wars/Quest or even the old TSR boardgame- Dungeon.   Either make death not a mechanical possibility (PTA), one which you can easily avoid or has low probabilities (DitV/Dungeon), or part of a larger cycle that makes it very, very rare and something you see coming (Agon).

Like designing anything, you can build what can and can’t happen, under what conditions and how often into your game.

The problem with the games you’ve mentioned, is that for the most part, the window between things turning sour and the time you can make a retreat is too narrow to be useful.  For example, Runequest and Rolemaster literally every combat roll can be deadly.  There is no decision space between “I’m ok” and “I’m dead”.  This is the same problem for low level D&D play- each roll can spell death,  and for beginning players (or even players getting used to a new character build, a new team mix, and possibly new players, and thus, new team dynamics)  this is really brutal for the learning curve.

And, pretty much the “solution” most people have come up with is to fudge or fiat away the results.   My suggestion is pretty much similar though formal- hack the rules so character death is less common and that players can make informed decisions and strategize how they want to come at a given encounter.

For example, my D&D pulp death game hack still makes death possible, just that it adds a buffer zone between defeat and death.  Your character is unconscious between 0 to -10 hp, without losing more hp each round. Beyond -10, you’re dead.  And, while some grizzled grognards might think that to be “weak play”, the fact is, the higher level you are, the worse defeat becomes- you can lose magic items, which are a crucial part of character effectiveness.

Now, as far as incentives for retreat- it’s easy.

First, as above, players need a decent decision window to decide to retreat.  Dogs in the Vineyard does this with the Fallout dice that build up, Trollbabe has it’s injury flowchart.  Burning Wheel makes it easy to get injured, but tough to get outright killed.  Players need to see that the tide is against them, and still have the option to opt out.

Second, the cost of losing has to be high enough to make it outweigh winning -this- conflict, here.  You see this in some D&D play where players are holding tight to avoid losing their hard earned xps with character death.  (“some” because raise dead, the instant healing spells, getting xp ONLY for success, and fudging GMs which protect the players from their own mistakes often mitigates this)

Third, retreat has to be a viable option.  If you’re really hurt and retreating gives the opponent a big free attack on you, that’s not good.  If the enemies are faster than you can ever hope to be, there’s no point in running.  The easiest way is to simply make it automatic- like giving in Dogs or conceding defeat in Trollbabe.  But you could easily set up something like Burning Wheel’s positioning tests and make it it’s own subgame.

In other words, the only reason high lethality has been a problem in roleplaying games is simply that it’s been a sacred cow that has been kept around and often getting in the way of what most people want from their games.  Few people want realism, most people want heroic, cinematic stuff that involves heroes who overcome adversity but don’t die like dogs.


Excited for Quest Cards

December 25, 2007

Finally getting a chance to catch up on the D&D 4E hype.  Biggest thing I’m excited for?  Quest Cards.

So what’s the deal behind them?  Basically the idea is that when you have a “mission” based thing to do- “Find the magic ring”, “Kill the Lich Lord”, “Rescue the town”, you scrawl it down on an index card and get xp when it gets resolved.

Though this doesn’t sound much different than stuff introduced in 2E, the fact is that it is an incredibly useful communication tool between the players and the GM- everyone at the table can know what play is focused on.  And it works both ways- not only can the GM suggest them, so can the players, so it’s like a contract and a reminder in play.   “Dude, I’m still trying to find out about my half-elven heritage and you ain’t given me jack…”

This was also what really impressed me with Capes- simply by writing down the conflicts at hand, it’s so much easier to focus play.  And like most Flag mechanics, it’s a useful way to communicate without having to switch focus from the characters and the fiction.


Games I’ve played- AD&D

December 22, 2007

This is the first in a series of posts which I will do now and again, just talking about various campaigns I’ve played in, and talking generally about the play overall.

It was 1997, I had moved to Vancouver BC and gotten into a longstanding AD&D2E game.  Pretty much everyone was in their early to mid 20’s, with something like 5-8 rotating players.  The GM had the classic 3 ring binder with the hexmap of the world, including close up maps of various areas and fat pages of town descriptions, NPCs, etc.

The group naturally suffered from rifts in what everyone wanted out of the game…

The GM was pretty heavily into Sim playing his world, which he was really good at- he was excellent at playing a wide range of NPCs, describing thing and adding color.  The setting he had built up was full of interesting locations and NPCs and history.  He also had a funny way of tying the fantastic to real life.   He’d do stuff like show off his construction hammer and point out, “-This- hammer, is exactly the weight of a real warhammer, here, imagine getting hit upside the head with this!”

One player was not so much a gamist, as much as a guy with power issues.  He’d always find some way to argue about the rules, but not consistently- it wasn’t that he was trying to follow the rules in the book, it’s that he’d argue to get them selectively used, always in his favor.  The GM was solid about following the rules, but this guy would eat up about 45 minutes to an hour and half of play with looking up rules because he was always finding something to argue about.

Pretty much the rest of the players were there either on the same Sim play goal or for the simple purpose of hanging out with friends.

The big thing I walked away from the game with was a strong appreciation for the GM’s descriptive techniques and roleplaying characters.  He really did a great job painting the world and making it feel wonderous.

Second, he also had consistent rules within his setting about how money got spent.  From a game design standpoint it worked well because our party was never overloaded with goods, there was always a reason to go treasure hunting, whether we wanted to up a mage’s spellbook or get more level training, or simply afford passage to the next island.

This was probably the only Sim game I got into, and mostly because it was pretty much built like a “Sandbox” game.


The Emperor’s Heart update

December 22, 2007

I’ve finally updated the playtest documents for The Emperor’s Heart.

I still have a fat stack of feedback notes sitting at home I need to incorporate, but honestly, I’m just happy to clean it up from it’s initial mindspew stage. I think the rules part is actually readable at this point. I will forewarn you though, I did this all on my friend’s outdated PC, so I had to save the rules themselves as a Word document instead of my usual PDF methods.

The big changes instituted thus far include an “icebreaker” technique to help tie together the Heroes with each others’ Drama cards, more fiddling the numbers to make better opposition on the part of Villains and Supporting characters, advice on conflicts with more than 2 sides, more setting bits, and hopefully just clear writing all around.

I’d love for folks to play it and give feedback.

The Emperor’s Heart playtest rules (12.20.07)

Drama Cards, set 1

Drama Cards, set 2

Outlaw Faction Cards

Hero Archetype Cards

Scenario Cards

Villain Cards

Things still on the to-do list: Examples, a name list, and updated cards. Hopefully this upcoming year I won’t be scrambling as much and have a little more time to set that all up.


Setting – Canon & Evocative

December 15, 2007

Over here at Story Games Christian is beginning a discussion of Canonical settings vs. Evocative Settings and Shreyas asked me what I think is good design for both. Since this ties right into what I’ve been intending to write about setting, I thought I’d just add it here.

Following the definitions from the thread- canonical settings have specifics, details about the game world while evocative setting leaves it to the group to make most of those up. (yes I think it’s a spectrum, but we’ll talk about both ends for the sake of contrast and approach). As I said before, a good setting gets everyone on the same creative page, a bad setting does the opposite.

Canonical Setting

A good canonical setting is loaded with juicy themes the players can buy into. You don’t need hundreds, you just need something like three- or perhaps stuff that can be interpreted multiple ways. For example, oWoD Mage is about self-development & enlightenment, about playing with dangerous power, or freeing the world from binding thought. Or maybe you interpret it differently, but basically the point is there’s enough there that many people can find a reason to care and want to get involved in the going-on’s of the game setting.

A good canonical setting has what I call “Context Touchpoints”. Bits of information the group can latch onto and it becomes shorthand to make for neat stuff together. “I’m a survivor of the Battle at Reflex Point”- and suddenly everyone at the table stops and looks, shocked… because it means something to them. The problem a lot of settings have is that they load up on mindless info – 20,000 years of history, the exact details of the astronomy of the fantasy world, or population numbers of cities, but not the stuff that builds stories.

Remember, history as numbers is boring- history as people, as causes, as cultures, that’s interesting. Same thing applies to setting. Details only matter as much as they make people care. While there may be a tiny subset of players out there who play roleplaying games for “realism” and care that your book has mapped the land taking into account how silt deposits on river banks- most everyone else doesn’t care- we’re playing these games to have elves, magic, spaceships and worlds where the good can triumph, or at least the invidual be empowered.

Second, a good canonical setting avoids bloat- having too much information. How much is too much? Well, some groups will tell you that they’ve all memorized most of Tolkien’s writings. Some groups read half of the classes/splats in Character generation and that’s what they got. But for the most part, I’d argue that the right amount of information is enough that a casual reader, someone who is going to put no more than 2 hours into reading your game/book, will be able to grasp the major points of the game and the setting. Maybe you can get away with more if you have outside canon like books, comics or movies which the person has already consumed and absorbed. But the main thing is not having so much that the casual folks in your group and the hardcore folks in your group start to pull away from each other in understanding the game and working together.

Third, a canonical setting needs to be clear if it has any sacred cows that the group is expected not to touch. This is moreso if the game is built on a licensed setting- “No, you can’t take over Helm’s Deep as your personal fiefdom”, etc. In general, though, I find it is best if the sacred cows are few and far between. The point of the setting is to provide something to play with, not a wall of things you can’t touch.

Ultimately, you can consider good canon info to be like different colored paints and a good game to give advice or system choices to help the group figure out how to handle those colors, which ones to focus on, which ones to drop, etc. A million colors, or bits of information mean nothing if you don’t know what to do with it.

Evocative Setting

Good evocative settings require something different than canonical settings- instead of trying to navigate and build on what is there, you need players to build from scratch a lot of things and for it to matter specifically to them. Again, you have juicy themes, but instead of the players pulling it from specific bits of context (“I was there… at Omaha Beach.”), they’re having to take those themes and build something concrete around it. It could easily be argued that an evocative setting rides on how well the group can build it- supported by good advice and/or mechanics. This is tricky- when it works right, the players get the cool stuff they want and laser precision focus on it. When it doesn’t work- no one gels into caring about the game at all.

A good evocative setting paints exciting things, that the group wants to explore and play with, just as much as the details of a canonical setting does. The evocative setting requires more economy, because you are working with less words, they have to be more efficient at getting the ideas across. Colorful bits and good artwork helps. (I’ve also noticed that good evocative settings tend to work well when the characters are well defined- there was a discussion a couple years back about how much you have to nail down to actually play- Setting, character, situation, I think it was like 2 of 3 or something?)

An easy trick that works for a lot of evocative settings is to pull from outside genre knowledge. You mention “Cowboys” and it paints pictures without you having to explain everything. Inspectres and Dust Devils are two games that work this way. This trick backfires when people aren’t familar with the genre or the source material- if you’re talking about Conan, people could be thinking of anything from R.E. Howard to Governor Arnold.

Now here’s something interesting I’ve noticed in terms of system support for evocative settings- they usually allow a lot of direct player input- Polaris, Inspectres, Stranger Things, 1001 Nights, etc. – they all provide tools for the players to build immediately on the themes and fill out the details. While you can do the same with a lot of games, the trick with these systems is that they often make it a core part of play- there’s not a lot of meandering to find meaningful stuff- players take the clay and shape it into what they want and keep reshaping it as part of play. The group has to be able to make their own context touchpoints.

The easier and more intuitive this is for players, the more consistently rewarding play. The more challenging or complicated the system is for building what you want out of the evocative setting, the harder it is for players to create and latch on to specific, interesting details and build the fiction they want. Whereas the worst canonical setting leaves you with thousands of pages of useless information and no tools to sort it or find a focus, the worst evocative setting leaves you with nothing to latch on to, and no support to build it.

Though I’ve been speaking about this from the standpoint of a designer, it also follows from the place of your everyday gamer or GM- whether you’re navigating a pre-existing setting or making one of your own, you have to figure out how to make it work with your group and pull them together, not apart. What are context touchpoints that your group buys into- what matters to them and gets them excited for play? How can you focus on those and drop the arguments about whether it makes sense for Magic City of Ozymadius to export healing potions? How can you take the map with a half note scribbled on it and have the group build a lost civilization of wonder?

Setting sells because it’s exciting and sexy, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to build.