18 April, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #15: Disposability

I've got to that point where I'm starting to notice some rather annoying habits in my game mechanisms.

A lot of them are simply new ways to roll the same dice, new ways to play the same cards.

Time for a bit more innovation.

I saw the notion of disposability in the recent Little Game Chef contest.

I can't remember which particular entry made use of this function, but when I saw it I was instantly intrigued and wanted to investigate the phenomenon in a game.

The character sheet was literally burnt away during play with a match.

It would make a far more visceral visualisation for sanity checks in games like Call of Cthulhu, especially when a game like that allows players to degenerate into insanity but doesn't allow them to regain their senses. Once you've become aware of the truth in the universe there is no way to go back to a narrow world view, and once you've lost contact with humanity, there is no way you can ever relate to them again.

I'm trying to think of other ways that this type of mechanism could be used, but if anyone's got suggestions I'd be more than happy to discuss them.

16 April, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #14: Gathering the Party

It's been a while since my last game mechanism, I think I'm actually missing two weeks worth after a few incidents have taken my attention (Little Game Chef, EyeCon).

So I'll try to make this up with a couple of mechanisms in quick succession. I can't guaranetee that...I only said I'd try.

This week I want to look at an interesting phenomenon I encountered during my run of Guerilla Television over the weekend, especially in the later sessions.

Keeping the party together without forcing it upon them.

Now that I think about it, the concept of "not splitting the party" has long been an established gaming trope. Back in the days of the early editions of D&D, character type were deliberately specialised, compartmentalised...a warrior was great in a fight but he couldn't pick locks, a cleric could heal and do a bit of combat but mostly on the defense. There was a bit of leeway between the roles, but not enough for players to really step on each others toes. A good adventure would utilise the skills of everyone in the party, and for this reason you'd never know when the thief might be useful, or when you'd need a levitation spell cast. You'd keep the party together just in case one half of the party needed skills that were currently locked away in the other half on the other side of the dungeon.

Under that sort of system (even in D&D's modern incarnations), you also had challenges based on the strength of the whole party. So characters who wandered off would often encounter beings far stronger than they were capable of matching on their own.

A lot of newer systems have allowed players to create characters who are jack's-of-all-trades. I'm not going to say if this is more realistic or better for a game, but it seems like a much harder task to keep a group together when everyone is capable of doing everything (even if none of them individually do anything very well).

Some games bring a sense of unity back into the group dynamic by providing bonuses when characters assist one another. Other game designers believe that forcing characters to share agendas and goals will drive them to work with one another. But I've found many of these systems seem quite contrived. It might be good for the narrative to keep character's together, but what keeps two characters together when they are at odds with one another?

Do you need a third party to continually smooth out the differences?

What if none of the players want to take on the role of mediator?

Will the players simply see it as railroading if the GM introduces a character pure for the purposes of group harmony?

Every group is different, but I think a good game mechanism can be set up that will keep a character group together even if they do keep arguing.

The "Blood Brothers" from the Sabbat in White Wolf's original World of Darkness come to mind. They would wander around in identical packs, with flesh sculpted to look like exact duplicates of on another. It was in the flavour text that they wandered in groups (called "circles"), and it could be argued that they were just following orders, but there was something else insidious about them. Their flaw as a group meant that any time a member of a Blood Brother's circle suffered an injury penalty, all members of the group shared that penalty. If two had penalties, then the highest penalty applied.

It doesn't seem like much, but when you think about it, it really makes a player want to defend the other members of their circle. Why allow a weak spot in the circle when everyone will suffer the damage if it get's through? Why allow a team-mate to wander off into the night alone, when they might get damaged and therefore weaken everyone else? In every other way, these creatures of the night had virtually the same range of abilities and potential powers at their disposal, but this one additional factor gave them a coherence as a group that would hold together the most argumentative group.

Communal access to a limited resource can do a very similar thing.

Fan points in Guerrilla Television become available if a character succeeds in a scene that ends up being screened on TV. Fan points are a limited resource in the game which are used to manipulate die rolls and calculate a winner at the end. Everyone wants the fame associated with the fans but there's only so much to go around.

What keeps players together is the fact that if a scene is viewed in prime time, all characters present in the scene gain a fan point regardless of whether they are assisting the current action or acting against it. Merely being a part of the controversy adds a degree of fame to the character.

This only started to become important as other parts of the game were refined and clarified (it came most notably into focus when Fan Points were reduced to a limited resource).

Unlike the weakness of the Blood Brothers which nudges the characters to work together, the fan points in Guerrilla Television simply nudge them into proximity with one another. They can come together for co-operation or conflict, it doesn't matter, just as long as they are together.

A mechanism like this could easily be converted to spiritual energy points for magicians (if one magician is in close proximity to another when a power fluctuation occurs, then both gain a fragment of mystical energy). This could easily describe why many users of magic like to work their effects in mystical groups, even thought the members of the groups hate one another. It certainly provides different connotations to the typical stereotype of magic users being hated by the religious establishment and banding together to avoid destruction from roving inquisitors and angry mobs.

I'll have to consider this further.

12 April, 2009

EyeCon: Mid Con Report

Much to my relief, Guerilla Television works.

After four games with wildly different groups, the game had a couple of consistent problems (which I can now clearly identify as a symptom of the system, rather than a symptom of the player set).

I've also rediscovered that I have a nasty habit when it comes to game design.

I design games one way, then run then a different way and wonder what's wrong.

Guerilla Television was designed to be a simple 1 page RPG (All the rules on the front and back of an A4 page). It's a pretty dense read, but for general play purposes, everything you need is there. Scene framing, character interactions, crisis development, conflict resolution. Many thrown together with interesting twists that make the game a bit different. It uses less tokens and counters than the Eighth Sea, and those tokens often perform double duties.

Have a read of it here and the rest of the post will probably make more sense.

On the whole it works, a bell curve might show it to work between the 10th and 90th percentile, with irregularities showing up at the 5th to 10th band and the 90th to 95th band. While the game just doesn't handle the outer limits at all. Not bad for a one page game that allows a lot of creative freedom. I've certainly encountered tomes of 200 pages or more that have been less successful in handling a diversity of situations.

Like most games, I tend to have a few people at the end of each session telling me that the session was good. I indicated in my post on the cult of fame that people often say this stuff just to be polite, but if they care enough to be polite, then there is obviously something positive in the experience they've just had. I certainly haven't had anyone walk out...but then again this hasn't happened since the mid 90's, and that particular player walked out on at least half a dozen games over the course of two years (so I hold that as a player problem rather than a GM problem...another rant entirely).

What's more interesting though is that most of my sessions have had some experienced gamers of a few different types stay back to discuss the game mechanisms with me.
Each offering suggestions for how they might be improved.

The core mechanism of the game starts each player with a single die from a collective pool equal to four times the number of players, the GM/Story gets a number of dice equal to the number of players, leaving a pool of dice equal to twice the number of players. Players try to claim dice from this pool by rolling 6's.

Success is achieved in the game by rolling a die and scoring a face value of 4 or better. If a player rolls 2 or more dice for their character and achieves more than one "4" then they accumulate higher degrees of success.

Players also score an automatic success from possessing skills relevant to the situation at hand.

Where we've found problems in the mechanism is the requirement to roll 6's to accumulate new dice. This has a very nice effect, of increasing game speed exponentially, but with low numbers of players it can start too slowly. Not really giving the game a dramatic thrust.

I tried to overcome this in one session, by simply allowing successes to claim dice from the communal pool, while 6's are necessary to pull dice from opponents (or from the story). But this drained the pool of dice too quickly (though other factors may have been at work in this game). Mid way through the second cycle of scenes, all of the dice were gone and the infighting began.

I pulled it back to allowing only 6's to accumulate dice in the most recent session, but with only three players things built up too slowly (this might also be due to another change I made though).

Given the balances of results, I think the accumulation of dice on a 6 works well. But I still need to fine tune the mechanisms around this.

Fan points are the next issue. And I've started to see how arbitrarily they are handed out. This really reflects the medium of Reality TV, and for the genre they work well. 2 dice, if 1 rolls 4 or better the scene is viewed on TV, if both roll 4 or better it is seen on prime time.

Basic probability: 25% chance of a scene not being viewed, 50% chance of it being on TV, 25% chance of prime time.

If a scene is viewed on TV, the active character gains a point of fame per unopposed success they rolled. If it's on prime time, they automatically get a point and two extra for every unopposed success.

If characters haven't completely killed each other off at the end of the session, the final round of scenes is played out and the player with the most fan points wins. It can make things cut-throat, but on a couple of occasions it hasn't been vicious enough.

Fans points have a follow on effect. Player may spend them to increase their die rolls on a one-for-one basis. They may also use these dice to make it more likely that their scenes will be viewed on TV.

During certain games it became a dilemma for the player to pay a bit of fame for the immediate advantage or hold onto it for the chance of winning the show. During other games it became quite dramatic to see two different players wielding their fame to modify as many dice as possible in climactic battles.

A few issues came up regarding fame though.

Firstly, the fame accumulated far more quickly than the dice. With a 1 in four chance early on of getting a successful die in a viewed scene (plus the characters automatic success for a skill earns them 3 pts), and a 1 in eight chance of being seen in prime time (thus accumulating 1 automatic and four extra points).

One of our sessions saw players earning in excess of 20 fame points toward the end of the session, while other players in the same session were struggling along with one or two. This really made the game unbalanced when these "famous" characters could use their fame to increase every die into a success, then guarantee their scene was viewed on TV (pretty much refreshing their pool every time). The less famous characters just acted as pawns in the struggles between two really powerful characters. Realistic, maybe.
Fitting in with the genre of reality TV, definitely. Fun, I'm not so sure.

I've toyed with the notion of limiting the number of possible fans in the show. In the last session I actually did this, but I think I went too far. I started with a number of fans equal to the number of players, then added the same amount each turn.

The problem here lay with the ratio of fan uptake by the characters compared to the amount of fans being added to the pool. Within two or three scenes, the fans were all gone, and the remaining characters each turn had no chance to gain fans. Earlier sessions had allowed expended fans points straight back into the pool, but this game I removed the spent fans, only adding the set value each turn. This had the benefit of restricting the final fan points to more manageable levels, but really hindered the visceral feel of having fans rooting for the characters from their home TVs.

Pulling everyone back to a more even playing field meant that co-operation was less necessary to get an advantage, Pushing the playing field to extremes meant that even with careful player co-operation, two players at the weakest end of the table were unable to successfully confront one of the more powerful players (in a game of five or more players).

How do I get a balance where two weak characters can make a meaningful attack on a powerful character?

Do I even need this? After all, if a weak player launches an attack on a strong player, this means the stronger player has to use some of their available resources to defend... and this might leave them vulnerable to the attack of another strong character.

Thus the weaker characters still have the ability to tip the balance between two stronger characters, but I'm still worried about what might happen when a single character becomes too powerful. It hasn't happened yet, and I'm hoping that as soon as one player starts taking the obvious lead, the other players will try to reign them in through a series of in character attacks. I'm hoping it will be self regulating, and making an assumption about human nature to this effect.

There's another aspect that I got wrong initially in such a simple RPG, but that's now been corrected with a few successful runs.

Initial versions of the rules allowed players to pick 3 skills for their characters, any 3 skills they thought might make it easier for them in an elimination gameshow environment.

I ran this way during the first game, and there was an immediate disparity between the players who wanted to make the game competitive and the players who were present for a bit of fun. The first category of players choosing things like “Possesses a spell for every situation”, “Perfect shot with throwing knives”, or “Invisibility” while the second group of players chose things like “Swedish Cooking”, “Tightrope walking” or “Square Dancing”. The second group of things were far more interesting to work into reality TV situations.

During later games I had players generate characters for each other, randomly distributed after character generation. This meant that most players took the skill sequence at a more “tongue-in-cheek” level, hoping that they’d get the chance to inflict bizarre and unusual skills on their companions (knowing full well that the other players would do the same for them).

There are a few other comments I’d like to make about how the game is evolving, but I’ll get to them once the convention is over.

09 April, 2009

Eye Con

This Easter long weekend (starting tomorrow), I'm heading to EyeCon.

This will be the first hard road-test for the core of my Quincunx System, the single page RPG I designed called Guerrilla Television.

I know that half of my sessions for the convention are already booked up, and that's pretty good for an independent game when the majority of gamers are coming along for D&D.

I'll probably get my regular crowd of players...some folks just enjoy the way I run games. I guess that's one of the reasons I like to run stuff at conventions, it's a tiny bit of my own cult of fame (nothing compared to some of the other stuff I've seen this week, but ego stroking none-the-less).

The Cult of Fame

Yesterday I had one of those moments that teenagers and twenty-somethings might call a life defining event. Personally I thought that I was too jaded to really feel this way before such an event occurred, but now I've had 24 hours to look back on it and reflect, it was pretty cool. Certainly not life-defining, earth-shattering or paradigm shifting (well actually, maybe the last one isn't too far out, my cynicism has definitely wavered...)

I won tickets to an exclusive preview screening of excerpts from the movie "X-Men origins: Wolverine", it was a part of a radio promotion.

I got to see the breakfast radio team "Merrick and Rosso and Kate Richie", and given that I've been a fan of Merrick and Rosso for a few years this was a bit of a treat. It was an early start, waking up at 4.30am to get into the city by 5.30am for a trip across Sydney Harbour to Cockatoo Island (where a few key sequences of the Wolverine movie were shot).

The radio crew were pretty laid back, some of them allowing photos to be taken with audience members, and despite the relaxed attitude and comedic atmosphere you'd get from listening on air, they seemed very professional. It almost reinforced my cynicism that "it's all just an act". They spoke via phone to our prime minister Kevin Rudd, and a few audience members were allowed to briefly speak to him also (I couldn't think of anything witty or insightful at that hour of the morning, so I didn't chat with the PM.)

Then Hugh Jackman arrived, hanging from a helicopter, then swooping down to the crowd on a flying fox (a zipline for my American readers). If that wasn't just an act and publicity stunt, then I don't know what is...

Cynicism still intact, I saw the swarming crowds of teenage and twenty-something girls flocking to the front of the public area, screaming and swooning.

This was followed by another hour of radio interview. But what struck me is that Hugh was more than happy to work the crowd. (It feels a bit too formal to call him Mr. Jackman...but more about that later.)

During every ad break that he could get away from the podium where the show was being broadcast, he was pushing away from the security minders and really getting close to his fans. Getting photos with the girls, chatting with the guys about the movies he's done, flirting, joking...

...I sound like I've got a man crush, but I actually started to develop a bit of respect for him.

He wasn't putting himself on a pedestal, he was literally doing the opposite by getting down off the podium and making himself comfortable with the crowd.

By the end of the interview, he just seemed like a regular guy. Like an old friend of the family, a world-renowned friend of the family who has just hosted the Oscars and has starred in several blockbuster movies...but he really felt approachable.

I didn't get close enough to actually chat to him at this time, because the crowd was so fanatical to get close to him. I think I got to a point where there were two people between me and him. I had some stuff I wanted signed, and I really didn't want them ruined, so that was close enough. I took plenty of photos and waited for the crowds to subside.

I basically thought I'd lost my chance at an autograph.

With the Radio Show over, everyone started heading over to the area where the screening would occur. I held back and tried to get a picture of the radio team signed. They weren't signing anything, but when they saw my picture I was told by Merrick, "That's bloody awesome". He signed it, and it was only a matter of time before Rosso did likewise.

I guess I'm a victim to the cult of fame as much as anyone else, I just express it a bit differently. I draw pictures of the people I admire, then I get those people to sign their images. I figure it's a bit more personal than just coming up to someone and saying "I love you...you're the best."

I'd have been happy walking away with a pair of autographs.

Then came the preview screening. Like millions of other people, a friend had shown me parts of the leaked version, so I knew most of what I'd be seeing. Security to get into the screening was tight, with all bags, cameras and phones requiring cloaking before entry into the screening hall. I took in my picture to be signed, just in case.

The hall was an old factory set up with a screen at one end, really industrial and grungy. Awesome. A barricade five metres from the screen, a raised platform between the screen and barricade. It seemed odd that the closest that people were standing to the barricade was about ten metres away. It was a decent distance to get a good full view of the screen, but I had expected people to be cramming in.

A few people started carefully weaving forward, sitting on the floor in front of those who had been standing first. I followed. Moving across to one side, I'd seen most of the shots that would be on display (albeit without special effects), so that wasn't my point of interest. I just wanted to get up close to the barricade, in the hope that I might possibly get a picture signed. There was a seat on the other side of the barricade, but this didn't mean much to me at the time.

Hugh gave an opening spiel about the movie then moved across to where I was waiting, he sat in the seat no more than a metre from me. Sitting on the edge of the seat as he anticipated the audiences responses to the comedic lines and the the adrenaline packed action scenes.

He really cared about this film and the response it generated from it's audience. He is a fan, and he really wants to make sure the film does justice to the characters portrayed.

That's when it struck me. There are people out there who really do want to make a difference and bring something artistic and positive into the world through the mainstream.

You don't have to be indie to have passion, and you don't have to be a completely mindless drone if you're going to work within the corporate system. I went into the event thinking that everything I'd heard about Hugh Jackman was probably a load of crap. I'd heard numerous stories about him being "a nice guy", "really down to earth", "a great Aussie"...but my time in the corporate world had made me really jaded to this type of talk. I figured that maybe he was just a little bit nicer than a lot of other corporate types, and in the narrow perspective of the corporate world this made him seem great. But it honestly surprised me to find out, he really was a friendly person.

There were a few scenes shown from the movie and between a pair of scenes Hugh would stand up and talk a bit about the issues in the filming of the previous scene, and what the following scene meant to him. As he came down from one speech, I asked if he would sign my picture.

He said no.

But he followed this up by saying that if he signed one thing for me while the scenes were still being screened, then everyone would rush for autographs rather than focusing on the movie. This had been his labour of love for the past few months. He wanted to make sure that the attention was focused there. But he did promise me that I'd be the first person to get an autograph at the end of the presentation.

It was a reasonable request, and a good rationale. I had to respect that.

At the end of the presentation he followed through. He even asked what I thought of the scenes I had just viewed, and started chatting to the immediate group about their reactions and who they were.

Maybe he's just really good at what he does. Maybe it was just an act, but isn't that what friendliness often is...putting on a show of affection for someone because that's what a friendly person is meant to do. If you care enough to put on the show, then it actually shows that you care enough about the person you're showing it to.

Maybe I'm reading too much into it.

Either way, it was a really great day. and I now have a new found respect for someone who is admired and adored by millions.

It's really depressing to have your cynicism shattered in that way.

03 April, 2009

I'm developing a new website for my Quincunx concept.

There is still a lot of work to do on it, but for one particular aspect of the site I need IP hits from a variety of locations.

For anyone who reads this, could they please visit the link:


In theory, every person who visits the link will add a dot to the map, and if enough people from a given location visit the map a given point will grow larger and become more significant.

In game this will represent supernatural hotspots, out of game it will represent where people interested in the system live. In theory the symbiosis should draw new people to the game. That's my theory anyway.

For the moment I just need a few site hits from people other than myself.

02 April, 2009

Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies

Swashbucklers of the Seven Seas

Being an avid fan of independent roleplaying games and trying to take a look at everything that I can in this field is an endless task.

I've just come across a game about to be released called Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies, and they're running a design contest. Since it combines indie gaming and design, I naturally thought that I'd have a go.

EDIT: I've had another go at manipulation of the logo. This time I've put it on a coin.