Archive for the ‘theoryforplay’ Category

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Variety in Monsters

August 4, 2017

With the broad number of tactical-fighty RPGs out there, and tons of monster books, you’d think there’d be a pretty good understanding of creating variety in monsters and combat, right?  Well… aside from a few status effects and a changes in turning a dial up or down in terms of numbers, it can get pretty repetitive, quickly.

Aside from breadth in strategic goals for combat to drive variety… a few categories to consider with your monsters:

Mentality

How well can the creature think in a broad sense, and what are it’s general goals around?  This is important because it determines a lot of how the encounter is shaped and the larger scale idea in play how these creatures shape the situation.

Predators – Animal level intelligence,  wants to hunt, or drive things away from it’s territory.

Mindless – Constructs, zombies, amoebas, some bugs.

Intelligent – Capable of thought, making plans, adapting said plans, etc.

Weird – Things from beyond space and time, abstractions given flesh, etc.

Intelligent Tactics

Some creatures use some or all of these tactics.  Understand that any/all of these can drastically change the power balance and threat level of a type of creature.  Also be aware one might have a relatively mindless creature that is adapted use one of these tactics.

Ambushing – Hiding, creating camouflage, waiting by watering holes, etc.

Trap Creating – making pitfalls, sandpits, etc.

Tool Using – capable of picking up, finding, or creating new tools to solve problems

Verbal Negotiation – capable of speech, might negotiate and/or lie.

Effects

Effects are the actual game mechanical things that shape how a combat feels and plays out.  Many of these also have to deal with the environment or area that a combat occurs, so definitely take that into account as well.

Special Movement – natural (flying, swimming, climbing, swinging, burrowing), unnatural (teleporting, phasing through objects, being liquid and oozing through cracks)

Environment Affecting – leaves a poisonous slime trail, large enough to knock down trees and small buildings, sets the area on fire, sprays a mist that makes it hard to see.

Resistances/Immunities – against poison, fear, types of elements, types of weapons (“The undead creature takes minimum damage from arrows.”), needs silver, blessed weapons, can only be injured in daylight, etc. 

Ranged – spitting caustic/poison saliva, choking spore cloud, throwing rocks, ranged weapons, magical effects – deadly gaze, etc.

Forced Movement/Immobilizing – charging/body slam, dragging with tentacles, pouncing and pinning, chomping on leg and clamping down.

Formation Effect – wolf pack getting bonuses for group attacks, herd animals stampeding, clay soldiers that fight with phalanx tactics, etc.

Set Up Attack/Action – takes 1-2 actions to “power up” or prepare a special action that is very powerful.  Coiling before constriction, chanting a spell, etc.

Lasting Damage – effects that last beyond the current encounter (a day, a month, until certain medicine/magic is used, etc.) – acidic attacks, poison, disease, lycanthropy, a curse/hex, etc.

Examples: Skeletons in different ways

Standard fantasy skeletons are like this: Mindless + Resistance/Immunities (poison, disease, fear, etc.)

Aren’t they tool users? They usually come with swords and spears, right? Not so much.  Consider the classic “We’re being chased by a horde of skeletons, and we hide out in a room with a really strong and large door that we shut behind us.”  Normal fantasy skeletons either a) stand around and don’t bother trying to get in, b) beat at the door, a while, but still can’t get in.   They have weapons, but they don’t really look for or utilize tools otherwise.

Tool Using Skeletons, however, will pick up that busted wooden ceiling beam that was laying around and use it as a battering ram.  (also, these are at least Predator mentality and intelligence at that point as well).

If they moan or simply repeat phrases, that’s not any extra sign of intelligence.  If they start whispering through the door that they’re tired, and just want to see the light of your torches, it’s been dark down here, so long, please don’t deny them this one thing… well, now they’re using Verbal Negotiation in an Intelligent, if evil fashion.

When the skeletons have figured out to cling to the ceiling with their untiring bony hands for uncountable years waiting for victims, you’ve got Ambushing skeletons.  When that ambush is also next to a ledge by water, and they roll you in, you find out Forced Movement is a bad feature for these guys.  The one that uses the magic staff of freezing to ice the water overhead so you can no longer break the surface for air is Environment Affecting.

As you can see, until we get to the magic staff, pretty much anything here can be done with the normal stats for most skeletons in many games and can make them much, much worse than what you normally get.   However, the point is not to simply throw twists on existing ideas, but to give you a better way to organize your tactical focused gamism as a whole.

The Big Picture

What you should be looking for is variety in those categories.  Make sure you have a mix of different Mentalities, of creatures using different Intelligent tactics as well as Effects.  By doing all of this, the players will have to use different tactics and strategies as well- which makes for better tactical play.  Strategies that work against one thing will not work against others, and this makes for more interesting situations than simply throwing bigger numbers at everyone.

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Threat vs. Cost in Combat

July 16, 2017

If you’re playing a gamist tactical game, there’s often a problem when it comes to balancing combat and making it challenging…. and it has everything to do with how you make things “more difficult”.

I want to lay out a few dials/tools I feel get underutilized in a lot of these kinds of games.

Cost

Cost is easy to understand – this are the things that actually negatively impact your character and have consequences going forward into future encounters.  For most games this is hitpoints, injuries, broken/lost equipment, and some status effects.

The problem is that many systems tend to treat this in a crude and simplistic way; when you want to make something more challenging, simply raise how much cost it can inflict overall (the extreme example is the classic “Save or Die” effect in D&D).  The problem here is that it doesn’t necessarily make for better tactical play when applied generally, and mostly is controlled by luck – which makes things very swingy.  A bad encounter early, can make every encounter after much, much more difficult.

So let’s talk about other things you can tweak to make for more interesting combat effects in these kinds of games…

Limitations

Limitations restrict what actions a character can undertake (or, at least, bump the odds or costs of doing the action such that some are more favored than others heavily).   Limitations change how a player has to approach a situation DURING a combat, so these things can be a source of interesting play…. if done correctly.

The key to GOOD use of limitations is variety – you want to change up what kinds of limitations the players face all the time – environment, enemy type, weapons/gear the enemy use, etc.  Being forced to change your tactics and consider your options is more challenging than simply doing the same thing over and over.

Lesser Limitation

Lesser limitations affect secondary actions the character could undertake during an encounter – being unable to get to an item in your backpack, being slowed in movement, not being able to yell information to a team mate, and so on.

  • Getting slammed, pushed, or dragged from where you were
  • Slowed in movement (but not halted completely)
  • Being limited in what you can see, and ultimately who you can choose as a target
  • A normal action requires a roll/check or it takes twice as long (“You want to close the door, but you have to rush in without getting stabbed… so it’s tricky.”)

Greater Limitation

Greater limitations effectively stop the character from their primary mode of interaction in a combat – warriors can’t attack, mages can’t cast, etc.   Greater limitations need to be used sparingly, and for very short duration.  Remember: “Playing the game is fun, NOT playing the game is NOT fun.” – don’t force your players to NOT play.

  • Weapon is pinned, stuck in something, knocked away
  • Restrained or silenced from using magic
  • Unable to move from location
  • Temporarily Blinded
  • Stunned, paralyzed, etc – anything that costs your actions (also, if this would last the whole fight, it is effectively identical to being dead for this encounter, as far as gameplay experience is concerned)

Threat AKA “Virtual” Cost

So here’s a mechanic: “Whenever a Dusk Ghoul hits you, take 1D4 damage AND get 1 Hex Point.  If you are Prone while hit by a Dusk Ghoul, take 1D6 damage per Hex point you have.  Hex Points disappear after 10 minutes.”

 

As players find their characters getting more and more Hex points, they’re worried in combat.  And anytime they get knocked prone, they’re very worried about getting back up and keeping the Dusk Ghouls away.

High stakes, tension, a bit of strategy around avoiding certain situations.    But, if the extra damage doesn’t trigger?  Then it disappears – no healing needed.

If you want to make it even less likely to kick off, just make the trigger condition more narrow and harder to set up – “Cultists must surround a target on 4 sides before casting the Fire Pillar spell”, “After the wizard successfully hits the target, then he must change for 3 turns uninterrupted…”  etc.  This gives players more ways to disrupt a threat before it finalizes into real costs and damage.

Of course, for any of this to work, in creating tension, the players have to know what the possible/probable consequences will be.  This might be the classic, if foolish, point of villains speaking their plans before doing it – “Surround him! When the 4 of you work together, he will burn to a crisp!” or it might be a bit of internal character knowledge – “You’re not sure what they’re up to, but they’re clearly trying to get a formation where they can box in you in on every side.  You probably want to stop that.”   And of course, there’s always the classic prone on the ground when the giant is about to stomp you where the “second shoe to drop” is literal and obvious.

Flipping It – Stunts

So… I’ve laid out a lot of things to make a combat situation more challenging and perceptually dangerous without necessarily requiring as hard hit on the rules for balance in many games… but what about the players, what balances out stuff for them?

Well, stunts in combat are effectively either throwing on limitations or more damage (current or future) or a combination in some fashion.

Smart players should be looking for ways to stunt and gain advantage in a fight – reward them by applying the same logic of limitations and costs to the NPC/monsters as well.  Unlike the player characters, you can certainly rob these characters of their ability to take actions without much worry  – you’ll never be shut out of play, as the GM.  What you DO need to keep an eye on, is to make sure that you don’t end up with a go-to-method stunt that is too easy/powerful and gets used all the time.

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Parallel vs. Isolated System Mastery

June 23, 2017

System mastery is your ability to expertly play the system to achieve your goals in play*.

Now, different systems require different skills as a player, to achieve mastery, just as much as Chess requires different skills than Poker**.   What I want to focus on, is thinking about how games are designed and how skills outside of game might directly help you with system mastery, vs. games where the road to mastery is only through knowing the game itself.

Parallel System Mastery

When skills outside of the game can be well applied in play and help you do better at the game.  Conversely, when the skills that develop system mastery also develop a skill set outside of play as well.

The easiest and most obvious example is the origins of war games – people developed wargames to teach and practice tactics and strategy.  In this case, you want to have it to where whatever strategies work in war, work in the game, and whatever strategies work in the game, should also work in war.

Obviously, tabletop RPGs have moved pretty far from that as a primary motivating factor.  Other parallel skill arenas usually are more popular:

  • Storytelling (pacing, characterization, improvisation, suspense)
  • Social Pressure/Manipulation (Teamwork, deception, alliance making, status-seeking)
  • Genre familiarity (Superheroes, Tolkien lore, etc.)

And of course, you can build games to be even more specific – for example, Riddle of Steel’s combat system is designed to mirror strategies used in historical European martial arts, or Drifter’s Escape focuses highly on the skills of poker bluffing/reading bluffs, or the chat-IRC game Code of Unaris requires your ability to use quick word play and editing to much effect.

Parallel System Mastery design might be completely intentional, like the war game example, or it might be unintentional – like how most “systemless” games usually end up with a mix of storytelling and social pressure***.

Isolated System Mastery

 

When the primary method for system mastery in a game is knowledge of the system itself.****

The easiest example, is probably most forms of D&D combat.  The things that make you good at D&D combat are very far removed from the things that work in the real world, without, say, the DM using lots and lots of modifiers, house rules, and judgment calls.*****

Now mind you, Isolated System Mastery is neither good nor bad as far as game design is concerned – you want to design rules that are fun to play, in whatever fashion you’re looking for fun.  It is certainly more fun in Tenra Bansho Zero for injuries to make my character better at fighting, because it’s cinematically appropriate.  In Primetime Adventures, it’s more fun to sometimes have the cards and raw luck set up other players to narrate the outcome of something you’ve done.

The important thing to do, in this, is make sure people know what actually helps them succeed, and what skills (or way of thinking) doesn’t matter at all.   The more options and complicated links between subsystems, the slower and more difficult it usually is to gain System Mastery in general – when these are counter intuitive or simply without any other parallel in real life, it can be hard to develop this skill, and sometimes quite frustrating to get there.  (A lot of Burning Wheel’s game systems run into this particular hurdle.)

Different Masteries for Different Folks

One of the most useful things to consider in all of this is that this folds under what we used to call “Technical Agenda” – or, what you, as a group, wanted to experience of the game from the technical side.  Often people muddle around in talking about “crunch vs. light”, “game balance”, etc. and don’t have a good set of terms to identify what skills they’re having FUN exercising in a game vs. not having fun in doing so.

I had a vague idea about this years ago when every so often someone would complain that it “wasn’t fair” to have a game that focused on storytelling elements in improvisation because “some players aren’t good at that”… (unlike, presumably, the ability to quickly calculate encumbrance and speed movements and supplies, which I guess everyone can do in their head? Oh wait.)

Anyway, I think this is important for both designers and people committed towards finding more games that fit whatever their particular niche is.  Or avoiding things they dislike.

For example, bluffing games that revolve around a real resource cue (cards, liar’s dice, etc.) are fine by me, games that involve player-to-player social manipulation are games I absolutely despise.  I know this, and that helps me choose what games I’d rather play.  When it comes to tactical type games, I like there to be enough Parallel System Mastery that things that generally work in real life, generally work in the game (or, if not real life, whatever genre it’s emulating).

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(Wow, a fuckton of footnotes today.  Well, I’ve been writing less often, so I guess I’m making up with divergent side thoughts and context.)

*  “Goals” are not synonymous with winning.  For example, there’s a few Narrativist games that focus on tragedy – so maybe having terrible things happen to your character in a way that is dramatically appropriate, is your goal as a player.  Having specific things happen, or happen in a specific way, might be part of it, and your mastery is utilizing the system to make that occur.

** You might realize that if you play a given game with different GMs or different groups, the set of skills that are exercised and necessary to do well in the game might be completely different.  This would be the part that old Forge Theory pointed out that the rules as written were one thing, but the actual game in play, is where you see the System emerge- and that this means even if you’re playing “Vampire” using the same books, you might have completely different Systems in actual play.  Designers should be giving people good tools to match up these things, and because this is historically been shitty, the reason why I wrote out the Same Page Tool.

*** An example I love to come back to, often enough, is a phrase that appeared in Exalted 1E’s introduction: “Rules exist to prevent bitterness between friends.”  There’s so much to unpack there, but in this case, you can tell someone apparently suffered greatly at the hands of unintentional and terrible social pressure design, which honestly, has to be one of the worst things that’s happened to the hobby in so many games.

**** Although I say “isolated”, a) there’s a lot of groups that tend to fall into the same system pattern regardless of what rules they’re playing by, so naturally they have a System Mastery that carries over game to game, b) there’s a lot of games that are functionally built on the same premises and core ideas to other games, and so, again, learning one helps you with those others, and c) of course, there’s baseline skills like your ability to communicate clearly or do basic math, that contribute to your quality of play, but are low-line enough that by themselves do not constitute System Mastery.

***** Underlying at least some of the conflict in “edition wars” is people realizing their carefully cultivated System Mastery under one edition doesn’t hold up under another edition.  To be fair, these differences can be marked enough to scratch entirely different itches and desires, but when you see how many folks brag about what you have to do to be a “real gamer”, you can see a lot of that is about pride in their Isolated System Mastery.

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Apocalypse World vs. Sandbox Games

May 8, 2017

Apocalypse World has a neat trick in how GM’s prep material for play which is really interesting to contrast to the classic sandbox game prep.

The Sandbox Method

In a sandbox game, the GM preps a lot of situations and things going on, on a map, and as the player characters wander around and go places, they get caught up in the situations there.  This gives players a lot of freedom and choice, as they can basically go where ever they please, and get into things as they see fit.

For the GM, this might entail quite a bit of work, depending on the game’s requirements for prep, the area you are covering and so on – and then, the players may never actually engage with many chunks of the stuff you’ve prepped, which is an amount of effort with little payoff.  It’s no wonder why this kind of prep works best with a long term campaign – because players need many sessions to check everything out and basically run through the content you’ve prepared (and continue to prepare, as play goes on).

Apocalypse World: the world doesn’t revolve around you, but it spills out ONTO you

The trick to AW’s design is that it asks that you prep threats – things which either are problems or soon will, as the focus point of GM prep.   The idea of putting “clocks” on the various threats, and having them advance, is a way of forcing you to bring them into play, sooner and inexorably.   At the same time, it’s not even like the problems have to directly target the player characters, they just need to be headed toward their vicinity… Kinda like how a flood isn’t after you personally, but you personally are going to have problems if a flood comes your way.

So you don’t tend to have a lot of wasted prep – the problems come to the players, whether the players go out and find the problems or not.   What also keeps this from feeling like a big “gotcha!” is that a key procedure for the GM is to foreshadow these problems (“Announce Future Badness”), which allows players to decide if they want to take on problems early and possibly head them off.

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Bad Deal, Great Characters

October 6, 2016

I’ve been a bit of sci-fi from author Yoon Ha Lee – Conservation of Shadows is an excellent set of short stories.  He has a penchant for characters in the trope of making the best of shitty deals – under pressure, forced to work for untrustworthy authorities, in treacherous situations.  It’s great in fiction, movies, comics, tv shows, etc.

I’ve seen this trope attempted many times in tabletop games, and rarely well.  I think it comes to two common pitfalls.

1. Real Protagonism vs. Illusionism

In fiction, these stories work best if it feels like the protagonist could go either way, all the way through the story.  If it’s too loaded in one direction, or the twists and turns don’t feel authentic, then you lose a bunch of the audience early on.

There’s effectively four outcomes:

  • True victory – the protagonist gets it all, and their freedom to boot
  • Costly victory – the protagonist gets the ONE thing that matters, but loses all else
  • Empty victory – the protagonist “wins” but loses the essential part of themselves along the way
  • Crushing failure – the protagonist loses everything of importance and they know they lost

So here’s the thing: in fiction we see the character try their best and depending on the craft of the storyteller to make the contrived feel natural, or not, we buy into the protagonism of the character.  The odds are up in the air – if they win, we don’t forget how close they were to losing, if they lose, we don’t forget how close they were to winning.  It could have gone the other way.

However, if you’re playing some form of Illusionism, you have two points where this falls down.  First, players can feel the rails locking them into limited directions, even if there’s “multiple outcomes” the players know it can’t have gone “any direction” because the constant pressure towards rails, even if it’s branching.  You don’t get to feel your character did it themselves if it’s success, and you wonder if there was ever a chance to win, if it’s failure.

Second, and deeper, is that the outcomes the GM or pre-generated adventure presents may or may not match up to the players’ ideas of what matters or counts as a success or a loss.  The players may be operating on one metric of values, and the presented outcomes are completely different.

2. Player Buy in and commitment

Usually these stories involve threatening something a character cares about – their status, their loved ones, their future opportunities, etc.   When you watch a movie and see that this is “the one chance” the protagonist will have to enter the world of magic, you care because you see how much the character cares and what it means to them.

However, if the game involves pressure and treachery that threatens things the players don’t care about (and also, the characters don’t care about), then you don’t have that tension at all.  This is the fundamental failure point in the classic “meet the stranger in the bar who offers you 50 gold to go into the dungeon” as a useful leverage point.  (This is also where the “I am a dark sorcerer who has made dark pacts, and have a dark fate, but none of that really impacts what I do in play” thing fails as well.)

The players have to agree to push their characters to fight for, to protect, and care about certain things, and the GM has to agree to base conflicts around those things.

Making it work

However, these kinds of stories work well when you have the right approach.  Notably if you have a way to coordinate as a group what values matter for the characters and to build conflicts around it, and allow play to produce spontaneous outcomes around those situations, those 4 outcomes are certainly possible.

This focus can be created in a few ways:

  • Situation – Set up the fictional situation and keep your conflicts and spotlight focused on those things (Sorcerer, Burning Wheel, most flag-based games)
  • Resolution Mechanics – the mechanics are set up to threaten the characters’ values as part of play (Polaris, Drifter’s Escape, With Great Power, Trollbabe)
  • Larger Pacing Mechanics – the mechanics serve as a countdown for a larger finale of the story (Primetime Adventures, Thou Art But a Warrior, Tenra Bansho Zero)
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Preparing to Prepare

July 11, 2016

As I get older, and it gets harder to coordinate time to game, I find myself spending more time doing some things which save a lot of time in the long run, but are things I would never have thought about when I was younger and less experienced at seeing how campaigns work, or don’t work.

First off, I like a lot of different kinds of games and a few different kinds of genres.  So, what I’m in the mood for changes every few months.  When I get an idea in my head, I now start here with these factors:

Feasibility

How much time does this game require to get a good play cycle from it?  One session? 10? What will I need to run it? A map & minis? Tokens? Etc.   Most of my players are split up around the country, so we play online, and the electronic versions of some of these things is a giant pain the ass, especially since we may be on all kinds of platforms or working from secondary computers or devices.   My in-person games tend to be pick-up games or on short notice, which also precludes many games.

These issues determine whether it’s even reasonable to suggest some games or not, knowing who I have available and our time/logistics constraints.  I think about all this even before I pitch a game.

Teaching

What do I need the players to know to play the game?  Can I make a 1-2 page summary of the most important rules and best practices?  Do they need to read pages upon pages of setting? (alternatively, do I need to find a way to focus whatever setting/background they may have in their heads to a common vision, especially if it’s something like a movie/comic/book series that has multiple interpretations?)

How long will all of this take?  Are the players into this level of detail, or tracking?  How much can I teach in play? How much is the gameplay experience negatively impacted if you don’t know the rules well?

This is actually the first level of “prep” I do – I look at making quicksheets of rules and setting, each being a page (front and back) at most.  This not only works for teaching the players, but also helps me have my reference materials and brush up on rules I may not have seen for years.

This also tends to be the point when I maybe junk some ideas because I realize the logistics of play is much higher than what I remember.

Buy-In

Assuming I clear those two hurdles, then it’s about a pitch to the players.  If I don’t have an enthusiastic push, I junk it as well, now.

For me, pitches are easier face to face – you can flip open a book, share related material, and communication is quick.  You can read body language easier and everyone can get into a flow of conversation that makes it easier to pick out what kinds of games are going to work for everyone.

The enthusiasm level has to be much higher for online play.  The overall communication process is slower, and when you play online, you are competing every moment of play with the players’ focus against emails, chat windows, cat videos, etc., and it becomes easy to lose your momentum.  (this is also why I try to keep sessions online short).

I’ve seen and been part of too many “Well I guess I’ll play…” campaigns and they just kind of hobble along, and nothing particularly great comes out of them.  It’s a lot of effort for so-so enjoyment.

And then I finally prepare…

If I can clear those hurdles THEN I finally start thinking about what I need to prep in terms of stats, notes, etc.  It seems like a lot of work, but it ends up saving me a lot of time and headache these days.

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Set Piece Battle Design – example

July 2, 2016

I’m going through old files and I found a half-written document for a D&D set piece battle designed to get that fun sort of Jackie Chan mayhem in the fight.  (This was written before the year I fought cancer so my memory is completely shot around then).

Although it’s lacking a map and monsters, there’s a few things I think it highlights really well:

Teach the Players

This was something I learned a lot from running old Iron Heroes – you need to highlight what are opportunities or options, at least early on, so players can know that these are in fact options.  Pointing it out on the map helps too.

Although telling the players EXACTLY what mechanical effects are in play seems a bit much, it allows them to properly gauge threats – a lot of players may be used to games where drowning is an extremely likely situation or that a fall will kill you instantly, and such, be unable to prioritize their risks and choices.  I assume that the characters are competent and this helps players make informed choices – just as much as a trained acrobat can estimate what kind of jumps they can make, the players use the mechanics in the same way.

Bumping the focus of rules

The special rules around falling and swimming are both designed at emulating the genre, where these things are penalties but rarely “finishers” in and of themselves.

Guiding the GM

Notice it’s entirely a walkthrough for the GM on how to teach and share this, but also advice on how to manage all the characters and environmental bits through play in a step by step process.

Obviously, your own notes can be as sketchy and light as will work for you – however, here I am, 4 years later, reading something I don’t remember writing (thanks chemo!), and going “Oh, yeah, this makes sense” because I was smart enough to write it for others.  Always assume you will be tired, half fried from work, and perhaps stressed by the time game night rolls around – so you might as well put in the work now to make it easy for future-you to be able to play the game as easily as possible.