Archive for February, 2008

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Iron Heroes lives again!

February 29, 2008

At least, in the form of 4E, it sounds like:

During our first game, my intrepid game designer buddy decided to throw a monkey wrench into the works by having his character dive under a table and kick it out from under two guys fighting on top of it. He smiled devilishly, looked at me and asked “How are you gonna rule that…DM?” I glanced at the book for a moment and realized “Strength check against their reflexes.” Huh. He shook his head. Made sense. He made the attack, hit the numbers and all of a sudden he had two opponents prone on the floor. The rules are so straight forward now, on the fly decisions are total cake.

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The Gamer Hurdle

February 21, 2008

So we’ve got this hobby that’s been around 30 years, with a dedicated group of gamers, lots of advice, ranging from old gamer ‘zines in the 70’s, Dragon in the 80’s, advice in just about every game, and on the forums and online, right now…

Should be smooth sailing, right?

But, why are we still plagued by “How do I get a group together/keep a group together?”, “How do I deal with problem players?”, etc.?  Why is it easier to get together and play something just as crunchy or complex- World of Warcraft, Arkham Horror, Warhammer, etc, just not a roleplaying game?

Well, there’s one big difference between those other games and roleplaying games.   In those games, everyone knows that the game is where you’re meeting as a group of friends.  If we get together to play Monopoly, we’re going to play Monopoly, possibly with a couple of house rules, but for the most part, the game is pretty clear and decided.

If we get together to play a roleplaying game, suddenly it’s a completely different affair.  Unlike all those other games, every time you start a new campaign, try new rules, or form a new group, this strange thing happens that doesn’t happen in any other type of game:

The rules are completely renegotiated based on the individual desires of everyone playing.

In no other type of game does it work like this.  “Oh, you want to play Monopoly?  Well, you’re going to have to have pieces capture each other like in Chess, or Jim won’t play.  Mary doesn’t want to deal with the rules for rent too much, so try to limit how much that shows up in play.  Frank wants to use D8’s to roll, he hates D6’s” etc.

For most games, provided you know the rules, you get right to playing.   In roleplaying,  you can end up spending sessions working out what the rules really are, and then trying to figure out if those rules really work for you.   (You know when people complain, “Learning new rules is hard”, even when it’s 2 pages long?  It’s not the rules in the game that’s hard, it’s renegotiating and finding a happy spot amongst the group)

Ever notice how much of all that game advice deals with types of gamers, what kinds of play they like, and how to satisfy those needs and trying to find a happy middle ground?  It’s about trying to play the game of politics of the group and disparate goals to keep the group together.

No one does this shit when it comes to Chess, Uno, or any other kind of game, you don’t have to juggle the personalities of the people just to get the game off the ground.

Only in roleplaying is the culture built around the idea that each player has the right to insist, demand, that the entire rules structure, the style of play, change to meet their needs, instead of looking at the rules as the place where the group meets.   And that a functional game can be built out of such an attitude.

So yeah, gamers who get past that hurdle?  They have a good time.  Everyone else?  Keeps asking why they have “problem players” or why their games keep falling apart.

ETA: See the Same Page Tool as a possible solution.

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My First Podcast: Race & Rpgs

February 20, 2008

On Bear’s Grove.

I haven’t had a chance to listen to it, but I’m sure I speak waayyy too fast. I’m not normally Luke Crane hyper, except when you put a microphone in front of me.

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The Unillusionist

February 18, 2008

This year has been all about intention- about dropping things that don’t pay me back in terms of energy or time, for things that do.  I’ve had a couple great discussions in the last couple of days, which cleared up a lot for me.

1.  Kuei Con

Odds are good that KueiCon is going to get rolled into a larger, broader geek convention for it to be what I want it to be.  It has to meet the three requirements of a) sane space, one in which deeply problematic behavior is not “accepted as part of the scene” b) mixing of new blood, not pulling from the same people c) a culture where critical analysis is expected as part of the geekery, not anathema to it.  Since a bunch of friends are looking for the same (underserved) things out of their related geek hobbies, we’re talking about doing our own convention.

2.  Community?

On that note, nor do the gaming communities I operate in serve what I’m looking for.  I could keep hoping that changes will happen, or that, given the same people, the results will change, or I can stop being a fool and stop fishing in the desert.  I’m going to think of it as starting fresh.

3.  Writing

This blog is going to change from mostly musings, sometimes articles, to just articles.  That also means posting will drop a lot, since, well, I have a lot more half-formed ideas than full ideas, and, full ideas I can articulate clearly, and in the space of a readable article.

4.  Games

A couple of the fun discussions online has totally led me to reevaluate how I was coming at the idea of publishing, and, most importantly, who I’d be publishing for.

Part of contributing online was the idea of keeping up a presence, of “proving” some kind of worth or value to the community with vague sense that it would pay back in terms of sales or at least design input.  But then again, if these communities aren’t my markets, and deep commericial success is not primary, what is the value in investing time or energy towards them?

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Making the best of what? Why are we playing like this?

February 15, 2008

Frank’s experience here is something I remember, and have seen, in far too many games:

Get some sort of task for some weak reason and then solve that task without too much trouble, get your fun from “character scenes”. It did not make that much sense but we made the best of it.

I’m actually thinking of the last couple of Call of Chthulu and Unknown Army games I’ve played, where the standard for the groups were:

a) bumble around to clues indicated by GM
b) GM provides clues at arbitrary rate:
– If the players are too eager, give meager clues or dead-ends
– If the players are losing focus, give tantalizing or semi-meangingful clue, or add danger
– When GM gets bored with above, slam major exposition/breakthrough onto group, which may or may not explain the whole situation, but has nothing to do with how the group investigated clues or approached the problem
c) And, while that crap is going on, enjoy character development scenes, which are completely incongrous with the above.

I don’t know if there’s a better, more exciting way to an illusionist game, except, perhaps with more interesting clue/storybits/combat distraction on the part of the GM.

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Resources, pt.2- What it do

February 7, 2008

So why have numbers and tokens and points and powers and items anyway? What does any of the crunch do for a game?

Resources exist to set up choices and/or pace play.

Pacing

Pacing is actually the easiest part to see.  Pacing resources are used to limit how often something can happen or when a specific event/condition to play occurs/ends.

You can see resources pacing play everywhere- “Initiative determines turn order in combat”, “Hitpoints determine when a combat is over”, “Fate determines when a character’s story is over”, “Experience points determine when a character gets access to more power or options”, etc.

Figure out how often you want something to happen in play, and build your resource economy around that.

The two key phrases you want to start with are “Always” and “Never”. If you want something always to happen, or never to happen, try to make sure the rules account for it.  Pacing mechanics are based on “Always”- you want something to always happen, the only reason to throw numbers/tokens on it is to ask, “When will it happen?”, not “If it will happen?”

The next two key phrases are “Often” and “Rarely”.  This is where you’ll use resources and build economies- you’re looking at making something common or scarce depending on that “Often/Rarely” scale.  That’s where you’ll want to look closely at the maximums, minimums, rate of expenditure, rate of replenishment, etc.

Choices

If you have to choose between having more sword fighting or more magic, you’re choosing between two resources. If you’re debating whether to spend dice to achieve your ambition, keep in the good graces of the Sultan, or get freedom, you’re making risk assessment based choices.

If there are two or more resources worth pursuing in a given choice, you create a point of interesting tension.  Anytime some behaviors are encouraged over others, based on resources, you create a form of reward mechanic.  Maybe it’s “Get more XP by fighting monsters” or “Avoid these conditions which raise my Fate score”.

The interesting thing about these kinds of resources is that they can be used to promote any kind of playstyle- you can limit choices by genre appropriate things, you can limit choices in such a way to produce tough personal choices, you can reward people finding combat strategies that use the least resources for the greatest gain, etc.

Often you will find many games layer resources in a fairly obscure and complex manner- the skill then becomes trying to navigate the economy of the game and figure out the optimal resource choices, or at least, the optimal ones for the moment.

Dead Resources as non-choices

Dead resource choices are those that never affect game play.  Or ones that people would never choose.

Dead resources are what I’ve called in the past, “Bunk Choices”.  They’re dead end choices that work like dead ends in a maze. While that is the point of a maze, it’s crappy rpg design, because they appear to be legit choices and you don’t realize they’re dead end usually until you’ve played a bit, or a lot.  It’s often a terrible pitfall for new players, and always for people who aren’t inclined to navigating abstract economies and building strategies around them.

Real choices involve trying to figure out between two or more legitimate options, while dead choices are basically trick questions, there’s often not a point in asking the question in the first place, except to exist as a “gotcha!”.

Value based economy

So it’s easy enough to set up “If/then” based economies of resources- “If hit by sword, subtract 1D8 hitpoints, if 0 or less hitpoints, then dead”.   In this case, resources have a hard, and definite value- each resource produces a definite effect, each time for a specific behavior.

But what happens when you say, “When player A chooses between Loyalty or Love in the judgment of player B then B awards Pathos Dice”?  Now resources are exchanged based on value judgments made by the players to each other.  You create an economy of resources that function on player interaction, and reward players for paying attention to each other, and meeting the values of each other.

This is a powerful tool for helping a group of players reach better play- you’re having them use the resources as a means of communication in order to optimize play towards what they, themselves think is fun.

For your own design

Here’s my basic rule of thumb- whenever I’m thinking about something I always/never/often/rarely want to have in a game, I look for another game that has something always/never/often rarely happen and look at it’s resources to see if there’s something to steal.

For example, in Polaris, the knights always end in corruption or death- it does this by advancing a resource (Zeal/Weariness) until it hits the end.   In Primetime Adventures, characters can never die without the player wanting it so- there are no rules for death and no resources around it.  In Riddle of Steel, you often pursue your Spiritual Attributes, because they often come into play as rewards and bonuses.  In Burning Wheel, you rarely spend your Artha, because it often is difficult to acquire.

I look at how things are set up, rewarded, discouraged, spent and then ask if I can make a parallel with whatever game idea I have.

For example, the Emperor’s Heart owes a bit of it’s Trait economy to Trollbabe and Stranger Things- their color lists work well because you can only spend each item once- it causes players to have to find ways to bring in the other bits of color, to be creative.  I did the same thing with Traits- you have to show off more than one aspect of your character to get full access to your resources.

Remember, resources are a powerful tool towards building choices and pacing.  They are not the end-all, be-all of either field, but they do serve as an excellent framework or engine on which to build to consistently get certain effects in both choices and pacing for your game.

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Theory: The Big Model

February 3, 2008

Over on knife-fight, Judd asked for folks to break down the Big Model theory of roleplaying as developed at the Forge. Here’s a big picture sort of introduction going over the major features.

What it looks at

The Big Model looks at how we play games.

You look at the big picture- not just how this game went, or the decisions made, or even what rules you’re playing by- you have to look all the way to “Who are the people playing and what are the relationships amongst them?” You don’t need to catalogue each detail- you’re sifting and looking for things that flag you as the most important features in shaping this specific group’s aspects of play.

Sense of Scale

In order to look at all these things, it breaks things down by scale. At the largest scale you’re looking at the Social Contract, at the smallest, Ephemera.

You can think of these scales the same way you might political geography – we have a country, which is made up of states, which is made up of counties, inside that we have cities, inside that, neighborhoods, etc. If something affects the whole country- it by nature, affects the states, counties, cities, etc. within. If something affects one county, it doesn’t necessarily ripple outward on the other hand. Forest for the trees, etc.

As we talk about the different scales, keep that in mind.

Social Contract

Social Contract- it sounds so clean, neat, and concrete, yes? Drop that notion. It’s human interaction, which is messy, ugly, and changing. Friends grow closer or apart, people have romance, people have drama, people have stress and things change. This is big picture here. And, for the most part- it’s unstated.

With all this in mind, the bottom line way of looking at Social Contract is this: Are people treating each other well enough to keep playing? (or, flip side, are people being asses to each other enough to stop playing?) Obviously, on this scale, we’d rather go all the way to “playing nice” rather than ride the edge of jerk-iness for play, but as I said, it’s a messy affair and not ideal.

When a group of folks come together to play a game, they all are operating with all the usual monkey stuff we do as humans. This stuff sometimes helps our games, or hurts our games, but it affects everything about the game happening. If a couple is having a spat and then they come to the game, you’ll see the issues start to spill into play. Social Contract is the “country” of the whole affair- it affects all the smaller parts.

So Social Contract is looking at who is in the group, how they feel about each other, and how they treat each other and how that colors play. For groups trying to improve play, often making certain aspects of Social Contract explicit tends to help create boundaries and improve communication. It could be simple game related stuff like when you meet up and not being late, but it could also be talking out concerns as people so you don’t have drama at the table.

The Big Model recognizes the need for this, but doesn’t go over it in detail, because, well, this is large scale human level skills that go beyond just talking about gaming.

Exploration

What’s Exploration? Exploration is playing the game. If you are imagining stuff, rolling dice, talking in character, or paying attention to someone else’s scene in the game- you’re playing and you’re Exploring. If you’re busy playing videogames on your DS and not paying attention, if you’re on your cell phone, reading comics, or otherwise in any common sense way not playing the game, you’re not Exploring.

When people think about the cool stuff they’re imagining, they’re usually thinking on the Exploration level. Exploration is made up of a lot of sub parts (Color, System, Setting, Character, Situation) which play a big part in the experience of play.

As players, or a designer, there’s big questions being asked here. What is the setting like? What kinds of stories or play do we want? Who can say what and how does that affect the fiction? How much input does anyone get? etc.

If you’re playing, all of these things are being answered, even if you don’t state them or think about them. Just like Social Contract, it’ll happen whether you think about it or not, which means even freeform play addresses the logistics of system at this level.

Techniques

This is the usual level people think at when they think of System. What are the numbers being thrown about? How do we resolve conflicts? Where do stats come from? etc.

Techniques are the specific procedures we use to coordinate play and Exploration. This is where you usually see the most design or houserules kick in, because it is the supporting structure that helps provide consistency to play- for better or worse. When the group’s goals for Exploration and the Techniques don’t match up, you find folks ignoring the rules a lot, or drastically overhauling them.

Ephemera

Ephemera are the bits that make up Techniques. So if D&D’s Combat system is a technique, rolling initiative is Ephermera. Though “Ephemera” makes it sound like they don’t matter, the fact is that they are the parts that players are dealing with moment-to-moment in play, and can greatly contribute to how play feels for them.

If you love rolling dice, a dice pool based game might give you some tactile pleasure- toy quality, as Ben Lehman calls it. If you hate doing lots of math, you’ll want to avoid a game that has it, etc.

How it gets used

The Big Model is an observational model- it provides this way of slicing up play along these many scales in order to make observations about how and why play is turning out the way it is.

Maybe you had a great time because the rules work in this certain way that consistently produces this effect, or maybe you had a great time because the rules work in the opposite way and your group ignored the rules every time that happened. Or conversely, if you had a bad time.

Knowing the difference is really useful for having more fun (or generally the same fun) in the future. Obviously, if you’re a designer, knowing the difference is pretty crucial to building your game.

Creative Agenda

When we get together to play a game, very often we come to it with an idea of what kinds of things we enjoy and what we’re looking for out of a game. That’s Creative Agenda.

Creative Agenda is how all of the above works together to get the experience the group wants out of play- if they know how. Or, looking at the Model, what is gumming up the group from getting what they want.

Creative Agenda asks, “What do we think is fun?” (or, perhaps better, “What do we think is the point of playing this game?”) and the Model’s scales provide close up looks at how that fun is had, and what contributes to it, or gets in the way of it.

Also worth seeing:

Ben Lehman’s Introduction to Forge Theory articles he wrote a few years back.
Ron Edward’s post on looking at Actual Play through the Big Model lens,
Emily Care Boss’ interview w/Elizabeth on Forge Theory.