Archive for the ‘design’ Category

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Backporting design from FF6 to Tabletop

December 1, 2020

I’ve been saying for years that the design theory/analysis in videogames is light years ahead of tabletop RPGs and often when I post stuff here related to videogames, it’s because there’s good crossover to bring back to tabletop. In this case, I recently picked up Patrick Holleman’s Reverse Design: Final Fantasy 6 book, which goes over some rather useful stuff for folks into tactical combat RPGs.

First, all the caveats; the book is mostly useful for people doing videogames – only a couple of key points are good for bringing back, and I’ll summarize them below. The book is both short (64 pages) and pricey – it uses small font so it’s denser than it appears. Still, this is probably one of the best examples of game design analysis I’ve seen.

Fight Duration and Real Durability

One of the key points is the way in which combat is built over the course of the game; the expectation is that most combats go for a consistent amount of time for the player – that is, most will be about X number of rounds long. Which means, as the party gains levels, the current encounters should match in defensive/offensive ability to last a similar number of rounds. The average number of hits a monster can take is it’s “Real Durability” – regardless of the specific numbers on the stats. Whether this is exactly mapped out by most turn based JRPGs or not, it becomes a defacto design logic; you can see the same in many other games as well.

Now, in tabletop, as power levels advance, we tend to see combat tends to either drag out, or shorten drastically. For games like D&D, this is usually the double pitfall of hitpoint inflation and instant incapacitation, respectively. Likewise, another problem is that a lot of games choose to cause the gap in specialized strengths of a character/monster type vs. the type of resistance by a non-specialized type to grow so much that it becomes a game of who can fire off their their attack first. In all these cases, real durability isn’t really considered at all.

This is why you see stuff like people taking D&D and limiting it to “sweet spot” levels, like the E6 hack (PDF link) – the issue of keeping play within certain bounds can be done by simply excising the later levels where the issue becomes worse.

Now, to be fair, the way in which you apporach Real Durability in a tabletop must be considered a little different than a videogame; players come up with clever solutions, the math isn’t as complex as videogames to create the perfect bell curve that allows for more consistent calculations, the number of combats for a TTRPG is thousands which means averaging matters more, and Class/Role convergence (see below) typically has to be well dressed up for players to accept it (at least in mainstream TTRPG culture).

AI over number inflation

One of the things I found intersting to discover was that the endgame enemies in FF6 didn’t have a lot better stats than prior monsters, what they had was better AI that caused them to pull out better attacks earlier. I have found this is generally a true issue in games in terms of how dangerous you can make a monster with the same stats.

Now, of course this idea isn’t surprising to any long standing GM, but it’s worth considering how many TTRPGs rely on stat inflation as the default. And again, not just “numbers go up to stay in line with the PCs” but rather the numbers go up fast enough that fights suddenly start either dragging out or getting very swingy and short – Real Durability swings.

Usually when I see game advice about making combatants smarter in tactics, is either based in Simulationist “realism” or those old vindictive “how to be a killer GM” kind of books – not as a measured, considered set of advice for Gamist play based directly into the existing rules. Consider if your monster stat block had 3 challenges, and different tactical instructions, maybe an extra power or something, but mostly the same stats which played much differently based on the challenge level.

Class/Role Convergence

A key point for FF6 is that the large cast of PCs, and how often the game has you playing with a split up group, means that they had to try to bring more of the characters to a closer range of ability to keep encounter balance reasonable (and Real Durability similar). What this means is that as characters advance, they become more similar in damage output/defense so party makeup becomes less an issue.

In tabletop RPGs that use a “balanced party” design, the problem is that class role is often tightly silo’d by making those differences stronger, not weaker. In turn, this means fights tend to be more swingy depending on how well the optimal folks can do their thing (or not at all) and that the balance of encounters gets much worse once any character is incapacitated – often leading to the dreaded ‘death spiral’. This is also why the classic D&D rule is “never split the party”.

A secondary issue is that the expectation of a ‘balanced party’ means new players are expected to have enough system mastery to even know what that is supposed to be for the game to begin with. Ironically for all the complaints that D&D 4th edition “made the game like an MMO”, the fact that classes became more alike meant you didn’t have to lock in exact party compositions as tightly as other editions; that is, one of the big things you have to do in MMOs.

Game (re)design is hard

If you’re designing a new RPG that uses combat, these are things you can apply to build a more robust design that has less rough spots. Unlike a JRPG, you don’t have control over encounter composition and moment to moment experiences other groups have, but you CAN pull out the swinginess and build in more meaningful tactical changes.

If you’re playing an existing game, you probably can see how much of these issues tie down to a structural problem in the system. Upping opposition tactics for higher difficulty is probably the easiest one to bring in, but the other issues around role differentiation and combat consistency are deep system structures that effectively require a full redesign.

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Betrayal games and how to ruin friendships

August 8, 2020

I was initially going to write this up as a post as normal, but in working my thoughts out on Twitter, I pretty much said everything I wanted to say, so I’m just going to copy and paste the text here. Sorry that it’s going to be short and disjointed sentences due to that format.

There’s a dividing line between the games that involve bluffing and betrayal that are generally bad for friendships and ones that aren’t.

It depends on 3 things:

1) Opposition vs. false alliance

Poker everyone knows they’re against each other. So there’s no feeling of betrayal because there was no illusion of being allied to begin with.

2) Personal appeals as the means of bluffing

In Poker, the cards and chips serve as tools you can bluff with or deduce information from. Games like Mafia or Werewolf, the primary means of bluffing is how well you can manipulate your friends.

There’s a certain psychological trick in these games that amplify that feeling of betrayal.

As humans, we are generally understanding that lies scale to a situation and we accept how/why someone would lie depending on context.

“How are you doing?” / “I’m fine.” is a way to simply acknowledge each other & avoid deep/uncomfortable conversations for the situation. An appropriate scaled lie. If you’ve got serious lies that it turns out involve trauma in your life, people are more understanding. Same thing.

So let’s say we’re playing a game of Werewolf or Mafia and there’s no money on the table. There is effectively “no stakes” that are meaningful here. In order to lie successfully, “You gotta trust me” “Please don’t do this, we’re friends” puts the friendship as stakes in play.

So, our brain goes, “You wouldn’t put this high of stakes on the table for an empty game” and that’s how the feeling of betrayal creeps in on one side.

The other side is the person who IS telling the truth and not believed. “If you won’t believe me when there’s no stakes at hand, what will you do if it’s something important that affects my life? I thought we were friends.” is the feeling.

Then there’s a third strategy – sowing distrust away from oneself. That depends on playing up negative emotions between other people in the group. So… gossip to tear people down.

3) Time

Finally, here’s the one that I think amplifies the previous in a really bad way; time. A 20 minute game of lying to each other is a short, quick thing. A 2, 3, 8 hour game is not. That’s the timescale we start talking about interrogation & brainwashing sessions lasting.

Games where there’s an agreed time limit or mechanical limit (including “when you run out of money” in Poker), don’t have this as much, while open-ended games do. People are tired, irritable, but again, “you wouldn’t put this much in for a low stakes game, right?”

People break down over time, and thinking also chews up emotional resistance. It’s why interrogations and brainwashing work this way. But you’re doing it for a game. So the brain assumes this must be, for the only thing that matters; friendship & status of self.

You trigger physical survival mode responses, then play emotional manipulation for long periods of time. So yeah, if a friend betrays me in a 20 minute game, haha, that’s good fun. If a friend betrays me in a 7 hour game and I’m exhausted, that’s just inflicting bad brain stuff.

So basically…

So why are these games so popular? Well, strong emotional stimulus STICKS with people. I think, for some people, there’s a “gotta win” drive that might be normal competitiveness, or, the desire to win from losing previously, as a “redemption” model in their head.

That said, I’m all for betrayal games where there’s mechanical tools besides “know how to plead your friends into believing you” and “know how to read when your friends are turning on you” that don’t last more than 2-3 hours at most.

Just be aware when people say a game “ends friendships” it might not just be people being sore losers and immature, you might be playing a game that’s well engineered to create negative spaces in friendships and add a dose of torturous stress on top of it.

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Building Conflict from Start

July 21, 2020

A lot of games use smart design to create conflict and momentum early on in play and I want to talk about these a little.

Charged Character Roles

One of the easiest tools is to pick a specific role for characters as the concept to the game or campaign itself.

If the game is about spies, spies naturally have conflict built-in – they are trying to hide their identity and get information – they are already at risk. If the game is about demon hunters… well, you hunt demons.

Where games usually fall down is if they attempt to go too broad in types of character roles that can fit, without giving tools for helping a group align or choose a subset that will work well together.

Factions and Splats

Another old design trick is factions – each faction has history, an outlook or values they support, and goals. The factions might be totally at odds to “mostly allied but with strong rivalries and fractures along values”.

Again, this requires a clever bit of thought in setting-building to make sure the factions actually have enough reason to work together/not avoid each other. I’ve seen some games have the “mystic” faction which is described as reclusive and not interested in politics…. which inevitably creates characters who are not well “aimed” at the other factions and situations.

Obligations, Values, Goals

Some games set up either default obligations, values and goals or have a step where you answer questions to create them as part of play. Primarily the difficulty in creating this is making sure these are relevant in scope and immediacy.

Usually this works best if these things are tied to a reward mechanic around relationships or pursuing said things like many Flag mechanics tend to do. If not, there’s the risk that these things fall by the wayside in play.

Charged Starting Situation

Mostly the smaller indie games tend to use this tool, since it has a specific starting point, but it works amazing for getting play going right away.

You have stuff like Poison’d where the pirates find their captain has just been assassinated, they need a new captain and the Royal Navy will be showing up soon, or Lady Blackbird where the protagonists have to get out of their cell and escape.

These charged situations require immediate action and direction and give you conflict right away.

Baked into the game vs. homemade

Naturally, any GM or group can set up these ideas in a game, but the reason to have it in the game itself is that it lets the group focus on other things and gets play moving right away.

I tend to prefer running and playing in games where the characters have a role that includes a direct mission structure or goal; it means things get moving quickly and there’s a lot less “what should we do next?” time lost. Mind you, this is not to say the characters are bound to follow the mission goals alone; they might veer from it quite hard, but at least when you start with the idea they generally want to do them, you can get immediate direction and momentum in play.

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Keith Burgun’s Strategy Triangle

June 24, 2020

If you’re looking at doing gamist design, this is a pretty excellent framing for understanding the balance of strategies, which are usefully summed up as early/mid/late game wins.

This is a bit long of a video, and rambley, but you can check out the chart and a short PDF with the basic ideas from his itch.io site at the cost of “pay what you want”.

What I find particularly useful is that this sums up one of the key problems that often hits us in bad gamist mechanics for RPGS – where players are locked into a single strategy, there’s no meaningful choice in play.

D&D and many of it’s descendant games have this problem. In older D&D, when you move from having a group of characters per player, and a host of options on any given round, to only having one character, your options are rather thin. People have noted that “attack/heal/retreat” is not that interesting as an individual choice, but when you have 5-10 characters the question of how many do you pull back to heal, how many should be trying to get the damn door open and how many should watch the side corridor is much more interesting, even if each individual character has “one action” – the point is the player has many.

In the video, he talks about you don’t want to have a whole faction, or a character in a fighting game, locked into one strategy, though you might have a unit in a wargame do so (bc the faction provides other options). Again, the player has choice, even if a unit is narrow in capacity.

Feats and power-tree build games suffered from a different issue – you may have a few viable options, but the nature of the build locks you into doing one thing, almost all the time. So the amount of meaningful choice in play simply disappears.

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Gamist Design: Status Effects

May 29, 2020

I try not to do too many “here’s a video, watch this” posts, but this video covers a lot of ideas for gamist design – though it covers videogames, it’s not hard to see the overlap with tabletop games, especially when they talk about how many of the alternate mechanics are basically to create complexity beyond “I hit, you hit” gameplay.

The key issues about reward/payoff, and reliability, are huge. We used to see this kind of analysis in the old WOTC D&D forums, which, despite anything else, drastically improved the dialogue around gamist design in a general sense, from the prior fuzzy “If you don’t like it, just make up new rules” or “Well, just rule that it doesn’t work and then the players have to do something else” handwaving.

If you’re considering doing gamist design, do watch this video for a good summation of the usual sorts and what pitfalls to avoid.