Archive for January, 2010

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Go read the Borderhouse Blog

January 28, 2010

The Borderhouse Blog is a strong attempt at creating a space looking at videogames and making awesome posts like this:

We have designed our games to be so inherently fit, muscular, white American, that it’s now an exception and a social point to include people outside our comfort zone. We’re also so comfortable in this privilege that most people don’t even recognize the lack of accurate representation as a problem. Something has to change there.

The comments section is currently a clueless and derail hate magnet, so read those at your own risk. I’m hoping they’ll either tighten moderation or more sane people can tip the ratio.

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The Value of Endgame

January 27, 2010

Ben and Jono have been talking a bit recently about endgame issues in boardgames – the issues of design where you end up with Kingmaker positions, or the possibility of never-ending play because everyone teams up on the lead.

For gamist design, being able to reach win conditions is crucial – at the point when the issue of winning or losing is already decided, there’s no point in playing anymore. At the same point, if winning is nearly impossible because everyone can successfully sabotage win conditions too easily, then it’s like playing an indefinitely long game of tied tic-tac-toe.

For other types of games, where winning is not a priority, there’s still a strong value in endgame mechanics. A good story has a satisfying ending – which can also mean satisfying ambiguous endings or unresolved ones, but endings nonetheless. In terms of rpgs, it lets a group unify on pacing and puts creative pressure on the players to influence the story under a time limit.

Sometimes, this is very mechanical, like a countdown clock, usually disguised under a stat or score which changes under certain conditions or die rolls. But it can equally be, “…and this player decides it ends, now.” ala Drifter’s Escape or Dogs in the Vineyard.

Most roleplaying games have avoided this stuff completely, mostly having been built on the assumption of indefinite length play – even still, “Endgame” doesn’t have to be an end to a campaign- it can be a “level”, a “zone”, a “Chapter” or a reasonable section of play to accomplish in a night.

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The DM’s Dilemma

January 23, 2010

Playing to win vs. playing to almost win

One of the big problems of D&D is that it’s a game built on the assumption that a) you have a continuous story, b) long term development, and c) constant hazards and combat that can remove characters from the story.

If you are constantly gambling the characters, at some point, you lose.

So the question is, what constitutes an appropriate challenge for your game? Does the DM play all-out, come what may? Do you play the monsters “realistically” to their tactical ability? Do you ramp them up or down based on the players’ ability? Are combats just for show and you fudge the dice whenever character death might come in?

See, these are very, very different games.

Old school D&D had no problem giving players big parties of NPCs, hirelings, or multiple PCs, so if you lost a character or two, you could still play.

And that players would use player knowledge to clear the dungeon- sure, your last character fell in the pit and died, but this character avoids it. This made it a lot like a videogame- the real contest is between the players and the level, not the characters.

Videogames also lack the requirement of a continuous story- if the character(s) die, you just go back to the last save, and as far as the plot is concerned, they never died.

Assuming you DO want a continuous story, and not having PCs magically learning everything their predecessors knew, you have two options. Either making character death impossible (by fudging, etc., at which point, combats are a show, and not really a challenge) or by decreasing the odds through tactics.

That is, you don’t try to win, you try to almost win.

Hitpoint Theory

At it’s most abstract, hitpoint based games are effectively a race- a race to reduce the opposition to 0 and reduce their damage output to 0 before they do the same to you.

All tactics, powers, abilities, and map movements are building blocks for setting up combinations to maximize your own damage output and minimize your opponents’ – and you also attempt to break their combinations at the same time.

The interesting thing is, what actually IS the most effective strategy and what APPEARS to be a threat, may not be the same thing in your players’ eyes. Sometimes the sub-optimal strategies work far better at giving the -feeling- of challenge than the actual best choices.

That said, let’s look at what the 3 main activities in tactical combat are:

Eliminating Units

A unit down is a unit not delivering damage. The optimal thing to do is to focus on putting down units by concentrating attacks on a single target, doing as much damage as possible, as quickly as possible, to the weakest available target – often either one that does a lot of damage or one that is capable of healing units.

While concentrating attacks is an optimal path for winning (in the broadest sense), it’s rarely the best thing to do in an encounter as the GM.

First, when a player sits out most of the action, helpless, it’s not fun for them. Second, usually only the player who is currently targeted really understands how nasty the concentrated damage is- everyone else often assumes they’ll be able to win the encounter, even if they lose one or two allies- forgetting that they’re losing on damage dealing and healing with each loss.

A better tactic is to concentrate fire on one target to seriously injure, but not down them, leaving the player fully aware of how bad it could get- and then switching targets. This often causes a lot of panic amongst the players while not being the most effective tactic to actually win.

Stealing Actions

Stealing Actions are anything that either completely stops a unit from acting for a round or more, or requires they waste an action fixing their condition(s). So stunning a target is a form of stealing actions, and so is throwing a net over them.

These are useful because they stop the target from doing damage, and probably from being able to heal damage- they get you ahead on the race to winning. Ideally, you want to lock down the opposition that does the most damage and/or heals damage – constantly.

This tends to slow combat, but is useful for raising player frustration and tension (overused, it locks players out of acting, and that’s no good).

Mitigating Abilities

Finally, if you can’t do direct damage or stop actions completely, you can add penalties or otherwise make certain actions less effective. This is stuff that reduces the abilities of the players to act effectively- whether it reduces damage outright (standing in a river vs. fire attacks) or in a more tactical sense (hiding in a narrow hall to avoid dealing with multiple opponents).

This is a great way to put pressure on the players to use secondary or alternate tactics and abilities to push them out of using the same old-same old methods.

Meeting the Players

All that said, you need to be clear with the players about what style of game you’re playing. Do you have a set difficulty and are going to play all-out? Will the players just have to rise to meet the occasion? Or will you set it to meet them and just challenge them at their level?

The hardest part is starting the game. A group of players can swing drastically in their ability, based on their individual strategic skills, their ability to coordinate, etc. An uncoordinated group is far less effective than a coordinated one.

Usually, I recommend starting with easy fights, which, you can ramp up the tactics as necessary. If you have 2 or 3 waves, or a vanguard and a reserve, you can play the first wave stupid, and improve the tactics with the remaining opposition. This is less about the actual fight itself and more about getting a feel for how good the players are going to work as a group.

Usually by the 3rd or 4th session, you’ll see what kind of teamwork you can expect. They’ve had enough time to familiarize themselves with the rules, their characters’ abilities and working with each other. At this point, any changes in player ability will be very long term.

Look for common strategies or tactics they fall into- simply creating encounters that push them out of being able to fall into that is challenging and interesting for the players- it forces them to have to actually think and not just go on autopilot.

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Designing Choices

January 22, 2010

Per Vincent Baker, rpgs have two things bouncing back and forth to organize play- cues, and fiction. Cues are all the things which you could count, or physically track in some fashion (mini’s, maps, character sheets, scores, etc.). Fiction is all the imaginary stuff- the fiction, the characters as exist in your heads, the context of meaning between the players about all the imaginary elements.

An Example

Here’s this imaginary game about Sarah and Kristen who are in love. Who they are to each other, how they feel, and what that means for the players is fiction. Their “Love Points” is a cue- it’s a score that can be tracked, counted, measured.

Let’s say in this game, there’s two features about Love Points- if you run out, the relationship is irrevocably broken, and, under certain conditions, another player can force your character to do something unless you spend a Love Point.

The first rule sets up a path from the cues to the fiction- when you hit 0 Love Points, this condition occurs in the fiction. The second rule sets up a choice- either to accept something of the fiction (“This is what your character does”) or get closer to the irrevocably broken relationship.

What you’re really choosing

Superficially you’re choosing between points vs. fiction (“Damn, do I let Sarah give Kristen the silent treatment, or do I preserve my last 2 Love Points?!?”), what you’re really doing is choosing between an immediate fictional result or a possible future fictional result- weighed by risk, personal value, etc.

You’re choosing between fictions and in that process, you’re making an interesting statement about how you feel about Sarah as a character, how you feel about Kristen as a character, and their relationship… about what you value.

Notice the other thing happening- as your Love Points get lower, you’re forced to accept more and more input from others about your character. Vice versa- other players are probably able to make more daring demands.

Mismatched Cues aren’t choices- they’re just ignored

If the cue resources don’t match up or affect what the players care about in terms of fictional resources then the cues become superfluous, and groups either see them as a chore or drop them altogether. Note that this applies equally whether you design a game claiming to be about one thing with mechanics and cue resources that don’t match or if the group simply decides they want to play a game different than what your mechanics are doing.

Transparency

The ability for people to understand what a mechanic is doing- as in, what they want it to do, what choices are offered, what they want to avoid, often depends on how many steps removed the cue resources are from interacting with the fiction.

Love Points 0 = Ruined relationship is pretty direct: Cue to Fiction, one step.

Use Experience Points to Buy Powers to Do Stuff is two steps, a little more abstract.

Earn Merit Points to Get Promotions that also increases the Hazard Rating which triggers dangerous things in play is 3 steps. Really abstracted.

Though having mechanics that hand cue resources to fictional results in one step is direct and most easily understood, having multiple steps can have some value- it’s a great way to put a larger pacing or reward cycle into play and making it “invisible” to most players. (Mind you, the process of handling it should be easy at each step, the process of what it does to the whole game need not be explained.)

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From Geekdom to Freedom

January 18, 2010

NK Jemisin writes about the positive fallout of Racefail – that hashing through those discussions began change in the larger community of sci-fi and fantasy.

I mean, it’s impressive we’ve reached the point where we can have mainstream discussions about the White Savior Trope (mind you, it required magical blue people and not real Indians to spark that… hmm. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, anyone?).

Or that an author might actually get the book cover to reflect the ethnicity of their character – when even literary greats like Ursula Le Guin haven’t been able to for decades upon decades. (Of course, the more money people see in your books, the more they’re eager to control it.)

When the average book sale (in the US, anyway) is 500 or so, maybe realizing that even a fraction of a subgroup (English speaking POC on LJ who heard about the rollcall and participated) is over 1000 potential readers, maybe that whole “assuming only one demographic matters” method isn’t the way to go anymore.

The sentiment I heard, over and over, during all these discussions was, “Why should we care about you people? PROVE that you are worth caring about!”

The ludicrous part of it all is that the onus should be the other way around- “What makes you so special, high and mighty, that you get to NOT care about the rest of the world?”

As much as I’d like to simply attribute the changes to the discussions getting through to people, I think there’s a second, more powerful force at hand. That during these discussions, there’s been a lot of networking among POC – developing groups, organizing, and even publishing houses.

The changes aren’t about a post-racial enlightenment- the changes are that publishing companies, writers, editors, are realizing they’re no longer competing against others just like them, but folks who have a clue, in fact, are light years ahead on this. That screaming, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?!? Go make your own!” was a great way to force others to organize and simply build alternate channels.

The changes we’re seeing, are concessions in the light that, yes, there is a market, and yes, they will leave, just like you asked, and go take their money (which is just as green as the white man’s) elsewhere.

Whereas many of the Failers fear that there’s some kind of boycott at hand, it’s actually much simpler than that – we’re networking and sharing lists of books and authors to support – great stories, great writers, and just don’t have the time or money to waste on second-rate stories, from folks who said they didn’t care about us anyway.

It’s 2010. See you in the future.

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Haiti Relief via Tao Games

January 15, 2010

My good friend Ben Lehman is donating profits from PDF sales of his rpgs to Haiti relief. Also note that if you’ve already donated, he’ll send you a free PDF!:

Hi everyone.

From now until Sunday midnight, I’ll donate all profits from PDF sales on my website (which is basically the amount you paid) to Haitian earthquake recovery organizations. Additionally, I will donate $5 from each copy of Drifter’s Escape. So if you’ve been thinking about buying Polaris or Bliss Stage, now’s a great time. For this to work, you have to buy directly from my website not from IPR.

If you have already donated $10 or more, send me a receipt and I’ll send you a free PDF.

A short summary of the games he has:

Bliss Stage: The Evangelion mecha game where your relationships power your mechs- and your mech’s damage damages your relationships. Angst! Trauma! Fun!

Polaris: The fantasy game of knights trying to defend the doomed society before time in face of the first Dawn. GM-less. Awesome. Tragic.

Drifter’s Escape: The Americana game about a person travelling into town, just trying to get by, while The Man and the Devil both try to con him or her out of her soul.

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4E Stunting and Fight Sets

January 12, 2010

My good friend Les just DM’d his first game of 4E and had a good time with it. He was pretty impressed with how easily he could mod monsters and put together encounters. I figured I’d share the fun stuff I learned from Iron Heroes about putting together good fight sets, stuntable objects and hazards.

Stunt Zones

Anything in the encounter space, the fight set, which can be used, by action, to create a tactical advantage or harm the opposition is a Stunt Zone.

This means the bonfire you can shove an enemy into and a bookcase you can topple on foes are equally “Stunt Zones”. A chandelier to swing from, a tapestry to pull over heads, a set of winding stairs to kick someone down, a rope bridge to fall from.

Obviously, while you can think up a ton of stunt zones, your players will probably turn something you thought merely decorative into a stunt zone. That’s good, that’s exactly what you want – that’s creativity.

Balancing Encounters

You can use Stunt Zones to make an encounter that is too strong, merely tough, or one that is weak, into something challenging.

Old school DMs would do stuff like have a Wand of Fireballs in an encounter with 2 charges for the players to pick up, capture, use IN the encounter- to balance things out- it’s enough to swing the tide, but not enough to ruin later or future encounters, particularly if it’s an item above and beyond the normal power level.

You can think of Stunt Zones in the same way- they’re limited or one-shot powers or items that are tied to the location- therefore, if they’re “too powerful” you can easily avoid having the same stunt zone in later encounters without borking up your whole campaign.

This also means players can break out of the limited specialized tactical roles of their character classes- you don’t have to be a wizard for an area attack when anyone can knock over a vat of molten iron. Not only does this give players a chance to play with things they might not normally have access to, it also lets them be useful if their character is suboptimal for the situation – if my character has a ton of fire based attacks, and the target has fire resistance, maybe I’m better off toppling a statue on top of it…

Location

A good stunt zone has to be somewhere, where it can actually get used in play. If you have an awesome thing way off in the corner, it may never get used in an encounter. Think of where the heroes start, where the monsters start, whether one side is trying to hold a position or take it, whether one side is just trying to go from point A to point B, and where they’re likely to have fighting.

That’s where you want to put your Stunt Zones.

If you want to be more advanced, consider having Stunt Zones that affect other areas- if you have a fight on a steep incline with several trails- a duel near the top might be right next to a pile of logs to roll down on the path (and combatants) below- you can set up a lot of interesting teamwork situations for players this way.

Usefulness

The number one thing is that Stunt Zones need to be useful.

I remember running a module where there’s a magic circle that gives a dinky +1 bonus to people standing in it. Everytime we’ve played the module, it gets ignored- because there’s so much more important tactical elements to do deal with.

If you’re going to include a Stunt Zone, it should be useful enough that people would consider fighting for it. (To use it, to not be in it’s damage zone, etc.)

In 4E, damage is useful, but more useful than damage? Conditions. Just about anything worth Stunting should attach a Condition to it. Pg. 277 of the Player’s Handbook gives you a lot of Conditions, Blinded, Dazed, Deafened, Immobilized, Prone, Restrained, Slowed, Stunned, Surprised, Weakened, are all pretty easy to do with common mundane objects.

Attaching Conditions makes Stunt Zones useful against anything, even if they do low damage- a monster that can’t see you, or can’t cast a spell… that’s like buying you and your friends a free round to heal, to run, or to set up the next attack.

Consider whether the encounter is going to include a lot of opponents, and whether area effects would be interesting. Consider whether a Stunt might change the area altogether (“Toppling the Alchemist’s shelf leaves these squares hissing and bubbling with alchemical reactions – 1 pt of damage for anyone who ends their turn in these squares, 1D8 pts of damage per turn for anyone knocked prone here…”)

Easy to Do

Why easy to do? Because odds are most of the Stunt Zones you create will be one-use things- something to knock over, throw, knock someone into, set on fire, whatever, and if these things whiff all the time, players will just stop bothering. The players just tried to creatively engage with the game world, and just got negatively rewarded… how much easier to sit back and drone out, “I do my Basic Attack, again.”

Generally, easy to do means that these things should hit pretty often- the player is giving up a whole set of actions to do this, instead of an attack. Have Stunt Zones attack monsters on their weak defenses- Fortitude, Reflexes, Will – instead of raw AC attacks.

If players come up with a Stunt you didn’t consider, you should -generally- favor them, but if it seems very difficult, go ahead and make it very difficult (“I’m toppling this stone pillar!” “It’s huge! It’s going to be really tough…”) But for anything you design into the fight set? Make it easy to do.

No Double Jeopardy

Never make players have to take two rolls to do one attack. This is where Page 42 on the DM sucks- the example demands both a Skill Check AND a Strength Attack… Don’t do that. It makes failure that much more likely, makes it more work, and doesn’t help play. Don’t punish players for being creative!

Re-using ideas

Write down your Stunt Zones on index cards. Re-use them. Change the imagery a bit – getting buried under a toppled bookshelf, getting hit with a case of statuettes, having a rack of armor fall on you, these are pretty close in results.

Watch action movies- look for awesome fight scenes in dangerous places- rope bridges, construction sites, the gear room of a clock tower, etc. Jackie Chan’s movies from the 80’s and early 90’s are pretty solid. Swashbuckling movies, videogames… there’s lots of things you can pull from.

It’s in the Basic Rules

Remember- you can have players attack with any attribute, against Armor Class, Fortitude, Reflexes, or Will- there’s lots of ways to play around with stunting. Pick the method used, the type of defense that works, a condition or two, and some damage.

There you go…

Fun!