Archive for April, 2010


Matt Leacock on game design

April 27, 2010

Much late, but I’ve finally picked up a copy of Pandemic, and saw a link on the webpage to the designer, Matt Leacock talking about game design on at Google talks.

The two things that stood out to me were:

Designing Challenge

He mentions the curve of challenge to skill ratio, and that, if you’re going to be off, being under and having the option to ramp up is better than being over.

For players, if it’s a little weak, you can tell yourself it’s a tutorial and then see how you feel with higher difficulty. If it’s hard, you get the initial rush of anxiety and frustration associated with the game, which makes it even harder to learn.

For RPGs, the most common routes of setting challenge are to provide pregenerated challenges (modules, dungeons, encounters), randomized charts (random map/encounter generators), forms of point-buy balancing systems (points, Challenge Ratings, etc.), or most commonly, leaving it completely unstructured.

There’s a certain advantage to having someone dedicated in play towards designing challenge to meet your group, on the other hand, that means someone has to be dedicated in play towards designing challenge… Aside from the many other issues, you can probably point to a good amount of GM advice being just this- advice on designing challenge, mostly specialized to a specific game.

Even still, it seems like there’s a lot we could learn from both videogames and boardgames for self-regulating challenge without leaving it to the GM to design on the fly for it.

Setup Investment

Towards the end, there’s an interesting bit about learning curve, and initial investment to play- whether “Hey, it’ll take 15 minutes to learn the rules” or a party-game, “Hey, it’ll take 1 minute to start playing.”

This is something I think more and more about. I just had a 2 hour setup session to play PTA with friends. I’m coming closer to the idea of having pregenerated situations ready to pull out, with punchy conflicts, something you can literally pick up and play without a ton of prep.

Instead of saying, “Hey, let’s play Shock, it’s sci-fi about tech and ideas changing society, etc. etc.”, being like, “Hey, here’s Shock. The scenario is all about self aware computer viruses, living in people’s heads. And you’re the Special Electronic Taskforce, a special police squad to track them down…”

Color and situation to jump into, instead of produced in play. It’s a quicker sell, more visceral, and gives the impetus to jump that “learning curve hurdle” depending on the investment based on the idea. (Lady Blackbird would be a good example of this.)


Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Darre

April 21, 2010

Nora K. Jemisin has been putting up posts on the characters and backstory bits to her novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. She just put up some info on Darre, which is an interesting look at a matriarchy.

She remarked awhile ago, how many readers bought into enslaving gods without a problem, but the idea of a matriarchial society was “fantasy” to them.

Anyway, it’s got a lot of interesting ideas if you’re looking at including a women-warrior society in your gaming (Artesia, Reign, for example).

I could totally see some fun Burning Wheel games working that way, especially since motherhood gives you a higher status as a warrior in Darre culture- (+10 Resources, maybe? Definitely a +1D Affiliation with Mother-warriors). Not only that, motherhood in Burning Wheel earns you an extra point of Steel, which is damn useful for warriors!

I could see a bunch of interesting scenarios built around clans doing raids and counter-raids for husbands, folks who’ve mis-used runes and left themselves sterile, and general bad ass clan warfare.


The Riddle of Steel

April 18, 2010

Riddle of Steel is still one of my favorite games that simply never got enough love.

It came out in 2002, right around when Burning Wheel “Classic”, aka the first, unrevised version dropped. In many ways, the two games are siblings-independently developed fantasy rpgs built with an eye towards historical research, tactical combat, and reward mechanics for pursuing beliefs and passions. Burning Wheel got revised to polish out it’s rough edges, while Riddle of Steel ended up getting more supplements with more options, which I feel hurt it in terms of accessibility.

Spiritual Attributes

The Spiritual Attributes mechanics in Riddle of Steel were one of the first, and finest, bits of design that began the idea of giving advancement points AND bonuses for a character pursuing abstracted motivations – “Loyalty to the King”, “In love with the Countess”, “I must keep the Church from falling to the Heresy” etc.

Most games now that use a similar mechanic usually offer either a bonus to rolls OR a form of reward points, but not both together. By making these things do both, Riddle of Steel tightly wound play all around the pursuit of Spiritual Attributes.

The second slick thing about the SA mechanics was they set up a pacing/climax cycle to the game.

Each SA could go from 0-5, and would give bonus dice equal to it’s current rating. In order to increase stats, you’d have to spend down your SAs, often from 2-3 different ones at the same time. If an SA was at 5, you got no more points, even if you would normally be eligible for more.

What this meant was, a) you had to pursue several SAs to improve your character, b) you had to strategically choose WHEN to spend out points, since you’d lose your bonus dice afterwards, giving rise to a very cinematic build up of tension and ability, followed by a lull in ability, c) holding onto the bonuses for it’s own sake would cost you in the long run, as you’d be missing out on points you could be using for improvement.

Tactical Combat

Riddle of Steel has one of the fastest and elegant systems for combat. If you look at the book, you wouldn’t figure it right away- it’s got charts in the back for hit location, which look like Rolemaster critical charts, but all of that is extra on top of the core mechanics.

At the heart of the combat mechanics, you have a dice pool (“The Combat Pool”) which must be budgeted over two exchanges before it refreshes. Deciding how much to commit to the first Exchange vs. the second one is crucial to play. Over-commitment leaves you open to getting whomped in the second exchange, and since wounds in Riddle of Steel are brutal, most folks play for caution.

The second aspect which is brilliant is it’s handling of terrain. You don’t have maps or tons of modifiers- Terrain is a difficulty to beat each round. You only need one success, but you’re pulling the dice from your Combat Pool- so it becomes a matter of gambling how many dice do you want to commit? Failing the roll costs you 1/2 your Combat Pool, which is a brutal price. Likewise, if you’re facing multiple opponents and want to maneuver to only face one at a time, it’s done with this same mechanic.

It’s quick, elegant and fun.

All Said

I wish it gotten cleaned up and was still in print. It’s a game I think is great for exposing folks who only really know the mainstream rpgs to some smart and innovative game design.


GMing: Broad Authority + Clear Directives

April 11, 2010

I’ve been reading a lot of stuff lately that has the “Less rules free your imagination!” kind of thinking to it. It seems to basically be a shorthand phrase for the philosophy of preferring broad authority over formalized rules to resolve a major part of action in play.

Where a lot of this stuff goes wrong is in thinking that broad authority alone “naturally” produces functional play with it. Stuff like The Primer for Old School Gaming exist as ways to fill in the missing parts which have been oral tradition, learned through play, because it doesn’t exist in a lot of the game texts which assume it’s use.

It’s not enough to just give authority and responsibility to someone to resolve action in play- you need to give a direction of how they should be using it.

Vincent had this nice post about rules in the book vs. “principled decisions” – that is, things the rules didn’t cover, but the group makes choices that fit in with the spirit of the rules, that follow the same principles of the rules. When you decide to grant broad authority as a major part of play, you need to also make sure you’re communicating the principles of how this authority should be used.

The three things that make broad authority work well in a game:

1. A Directive

Is the point of the authority to pressure and challenge the players? To herd them into a specific choice? To force them to choose between a few things? A lot of games use this very well. Vincent’s thoughts on authority and judgment are worth considering.

Primetime Adventures tells the GM to challenge characters’ Issues, Burning Wheel does the same with Beliefs. Sorcerer tells GMs to constantly put characters into situations to force them to make choices about Humanity. The Drifter’s Escape has two GMs; one’s goal is to get the Drifter to commit antisocial acts of violence, corruption and evil, the other’s goal is to get the Drifter to commit socially enforced acts of violence, corruption and evil (and, at least obedience and submission).

2. How to think about it

HOW should a GM use their authority? What kinds of process should they use in applying broad authority? When you lack this, you end up with stuff like “Roll the dice to see if you can walk down this empty, totally safe hall – oops, looks like you fall on your face!” etc.

This is where things like the Old School Primer really stand out- it provides examples, a bit of the thinking behind the choices, and even some alternative ways things could have gone. Showing the thought process gives some kind of direction to work with broad authority instead of letting it be a guess in the dark, or falling back to whatever familiar methods the player has.

3. How should the other players interact with the authority?

Is a tough challenge merely a tough challenge, or is it a clue that you’re going the wrong way? Part of giving the directive and a methodology to using authority- it not only tells the person who has it how to use it, it tells the rest of the group playing how they should be working with it as well.

For example, My Life with Master tells the GM to be generous in rewarding bonus dice for Intimacy, Desperation and Sincerity. If you’re a player and you’re not getting a reward for these, you know either a) you’re being really weaksauce with it, b) you’re not communicating clearly enough, or c) the group needs to remind the GM about the rules.

Even though this isn’t a step-by-step process as most people consider rules, it’s absolutely crucial in terms of system.


Strategic Writing

April 9, 2010

A couple of years back, I was asked about techniques for clear writing on gaming.

Roleplaying is a weird thing to write about – you have to write some things like a technical manual, as a lot of rules or techniques are procedure based, and you also have to write some things as a primer to recognizing abstractions- how to identify forming story structures, seeing social interactions, etc.

That said, I usually focus on three things when I want to write clearly:

Short Attention Spans

A lot of ideas only work when you have the full picture of how they fit together. Which is hard when you’re talking about abstract stuff like playing in a different style, or seeing a large behavior pattern. You need to be able to introduce A and still have it in mind when you get to Z.

I usually break things up into sections. Bold, Italics, or numbering them to make it simple and digestible.

I keep ideas in short paragraphs. 1-3 sentences, usually. Mostly because I’m writing online, and large text is more intimidating on the screen than on paper, but still, short, easy to read sections.

I use reminders. If it’s a complicated process, I’ll introduce the ideas at the beginning, and give each it’s own section. I might have a summary of steps at the end. Having clear titles to sections serve as reminders.

Avoid Over-explanation

Clear, strong basic ideas, give people the basics to run with.

You can deal with edge cases later or in sub-sections. If you spiral off into special cases before people have grasped the basic picture, they’re likely to get lost and confused.

Sadly, it’s really easy to get caught in the details.

A lot of traditional texts tend to be chock-full of weird rambles in unexpected places. We’re also used to having to defend what game we’re playing, so overall, the culture is built around not just explaining how, but also having to explain “why” against hypothetical detractors. Which leads to having to write for, and defend against, every possible edge case.

Instead, cover the core concepts. Consider tacking on edge cases in sub-sections or later on in your article or game.

Don’t write for Morons

You’ll discover that, even when you make things abundantly clear, there’s a great number of people who are impatient and poor readers – from their initial responses, you very often see they didn’t read to begin with.

If someone doesn’t grasp the basics, there’s no point in trying to answer advanced questions. I’ll often only address a single question or point, even if someone has several, if it seems that they have yet to get the core concept. (IF you can’t deal with one idea, giving you three more, is really not going to help)

There’s also a number of people who simply want attention and make endless demands for handholding or people who only know how to argue for arguing sake.

The common factor between these folks is that they’re not actually interested in playing or designing games- so anything you’re writing about either topic isn’t actually of value to them, except in that it gives them an excuse to engage in the thing they’re already determined to do.

Once you stop giving them space and opportunity, they leave.

Aside from not wanting to waste your own time on them, they also confuse the issue for other people. The initial writing, and the subsequent petty derails, become mixed in folks’ head.