Posts Tagged ‘design’


Arkham Horror vs. Call of Cthulhu

October 27, 2007

For the last year and a half or so, I’ve watched about 5 or 6 pretty heavy CoC players I know migrate from roleplaying CoC, to playing Arkham Horror.

It’s been a pretty fascinating change.  They’re all folks who are reaching/in their thirties, going deep into the career/children route, and their CoC play has fallen to quarterly or bi-annual events.  (mind you, they typically still found time for D&D, though they all griped about that being the only game they could consistently get play from… more on that later).   All of them hardcore immersionists and illusionists, who ultimately play in a social circle that effectively is about 3-4 different gaming groups.

So, Arkham Horror, the CoC boardgame comes out, and within 2 months regular play is happening.  In fact, weekly or bi-weekly games.  Mind you, Arkham Horror is about 3-6 hours of play by itself, so it’s not like its much shorter of a game.   Having played with them a few times, they’ve managed to pull consistently 4-8 players every time (most, as far as I can tell, also CoC rpg heads who’ve made the switch).

So is the issue time?  Not really.  Maybe commitment?  Well, given that enough people are consistently showing, I don’t think that’s the issue either.

If anything, I think it’s because, whether they’d admit it or not, Arkham Horror does CoC better than the rpg.  You work as a team of investigators, you research clues, you jump into strange places Man was Not Meant to Go, you go insane, fight/run from monsters, and either save the world from Ancient Evil or it gets destroyed.

You get the whole Lovecraftian experience, every time, every game.  Period.

Funny enough, they’ve never complained about the pre-generated characters, the set scenarios, lack of immersion, or the crunchiness of the mechanics (though, if it were an rpg, they’d cry blood over such things).  And while the argument can easily be made we’re comparing apples and oranges, the fact is they’ll consistantly choose Arkham Horror over playing CoC every time.  Clearly apples lose.

All of this points to the other beast which eats away at the general rpg gamer base- consistency.  People naturally gravitate towards entertainment which consistently hits their buttons.   If another game or type of game delivers more, more often, you’re going to see people go for it.

This isn’t a death knell for roleplaying, as much as yet another clarion call for simply better design and a wider view of the larger context of the culture and the hobby.


Closed vs. Evolving rulesets

October 10, 2007

RPGs have a pretty fascinating history of design – until CCGs, this is the only hobby where many/most of the games have the expectation that further rules will be added to change the game in the future.

Most games you might play, of any type, are closed rulesets- the rules are designed and that’s the game.  Even if you add houserules, that’s your personal choice and not a design choice.  Chess is chess- you don’t get a yearly or quarterly “update” to supplement chess.

Most people expect the rules to a game to be the same and the idea of evolving or open rules that will see regular updates or have so many optional rules that they outnumber the basic rules is pretty foreign.

Not only that, but it’s a thousand times easier to build a workable set of rules that are closed than it is to build a set of rules that are modular and open enough to accept future designs.

From a gamist standpoint, it generally holds true that a successful game should be able to work as a fun core design, a closed one, if it’s also going to work as a fun evolving rule set.  That is, Magic the Gathering works well as a basic game, before you even add the millions of extra sets.  If the closed game is not fun, and you -have- to turn to the supplemental material for the fun part, you’ve got a fundamentally flawed design.

Another major point is that the difficulty is not just in the core game, but in making sure that the supplemental rules do not displace the core rules.  Many games suffer from “power creep”, in which new rules displace previous rules, often times rendering them completely ineffective or useless.   For CCGs, this isn’t -as bad-, since part of the game is building decks to meet these strategies.

For RPGs, though, it can be completely disasterous as a) players have to completely relearn new mechanics, b) long term strategic commitments (such as a character build) become useless and need to be replaced.  It’s not as easy as swapping some cards for a 30 minute game.

Historically though, few rpgs have been designed with explicit gamism in mind.  Most have a mixture of other goals in mind, which tends to lead to a mish-mash of rules that do not necesesarily balance from a gamist standpoint.   This is the area where you find communities of gamers sharply divided over what rules they will or will not use, seeing how some completely kick out other rules as viable options.

The onus falls upon each group to play the role of the designer by picking and choosing what rules actually function for their game goals.  This often involves weeks, months, or even years of playtime to hone this to a set they find fun.  Much of this becomes unspoken lessons picked up by the players, about which character builds to avoid, which play strategies work or don’t work, etc.

And then they get to do this over again when they choose to add a new set of rules…

At this point, though, this kind of design is legacy as opposed to well thought out.  Great strides have been made in design in the last few years, and I’m looking forward to seeing how evolving rule sets improve in the future, especially between the amount of play experiences we can pull from CCGs, MMO’s alone.


No optimal choices

August 27, 2007

So I’ve been playing lots of Memoir 44, and really enjoying the simple elegance of the design.

One of the biggest pitfalls for gamist design is when folks develop optimal solutions for a game’s strategy.  Instead of being forced to rethink how to deal with each situation, the game becomes simply a puzzle- how long will it take for you to find the 1-3 optimal ways to play and then you can just go on autopilot.

This is a big problem for games that focus heavily on character building skills above in play tactical choices.  Find the optimal builds, then let odds work for you and sleep your way through.

Likewise, for position based strategic  games, you can often work out ideal positions or manuevers to employ (see opening moves in Chess, for example).

The interesting thing that Memoir does is that it randomizes the set of choices you have- you might know what would be an optimal move, but lack the cards to power it.  So you often end up choosing between a lot of not so great choices.

So far, I haven’t seen a lot of rpgs really utilize this, though some of the card based ones do, and the whole tree of design that grew out of Otherkind as well.  On the other hand, no one’s really used them for gamism, so it’s a field waiting to be explored.


Play, then theory

August 6, 2007

There is a crashcourse of games I recommend to just about anyone really interested in the roleplaying hobby.  It’s Inspectres, 1001 Nights, Primetime Adventures, Riddle of Steel (or The Shadow of Yesterday), and Dogs in the Vineyard.  In that order.  (there’s more, but those games I find are both easy to get into and easy to digest)

Each of these games pushes and breaks traditional assumptions and boundaries and shows you a different way to play as well as some great design decisions.  If you want to know a broad range of ways to play, and ways to design, those games will show it to you, usually in the span of a single game.

A variety of play, this becomes paramount to both play theory and design theory.  If you’ve only played games that fall into a narrow range of play, it’s rather like trying to talk about music theory having only heard/played one kind of instrument- you’re not  going to do so well, even if you’ve spent 20 years mastering the clarinet.

I thought I’d just repeat this idea, especially while helping out at the First Thoughts forum at the Forge and watching yet another round of folks agonize over whether they should use 4 dice or 5 dice in their game, or whether their elves’ ears should be 2.5 inches or 2.75 inches long, all the while imagining they’re breaking boundaries.  I don’t think these guys aren’t intelligent, they just need to play some more games is all.

Because I really look forward to seeing anyone break boundaries in rpg design & theory.

That’s when the real fun starts.