29 June, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #25: The Sweet Spot

About 18 months ago, I was given a copy of the preview developer notes for the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. The friend who gave me the copy was really upset for two distinct reasons; first, he was upset that the bard wasn't a standard class in the regular Player's Guide, second, he was upset that neither gnome's nor halflings were considered a part of the basic set of standard races.

I found quite a few things interesting in the document, even if I didn't like the idea that they were turning the game away from characterization and roles, and back to statistics and rolls...back to it's one-on-one wargaming roots.

I've just tried to find the booklet, but couldn't...I was planning to quote something that struck me when I first read it. I'll just have to paraphrase.

I read something about a sweet spot in D&D 3.5. If I remember correctly, the basic idea was that many players found the third edition of D&D to really hit it stride at levels 4-10, considered the game's "sweet spot". At the lower levels, the characters can't compete with monsters very well and they have to take things really carefully. At the higher levels, characters overcome things too easily and the game loses it's risk.

The 4th edition of D&D was specifically designed to eliminate this "sweet spot", and it was basically done by dividing the game into three tiers. I haven't played the new game at all, but the way I understand it, this effectively gives three "sweet spots". Each tier caters to a different style of play by modifying the rules within each tier system.

It seems a bit of an ad hoc solution to me, but I've seen it before.

It reminds me of my days in the Camarilla, White Wolf's live global game. But instead of specific rule changes, the differences in the game levels were more organic. When you start the game, it's more important to do things for the local authorities, complete small tasks and become valuable to the local communiy. As you become more valuable, you ascend to the regional game; perhaps picking up a local title (prince, primogen, sheriff, pack alpha, sept alpha, fey noble...etc.). Once you move up to this game, you can give orders to the new players and characters, but your own agendas have to move to a grander scale because none of the locals are worth fighting any more.

Here's a table that might give an idea [Giving fun scales of 1-10].
Game LevelNewYoungDevelopingMatureElderLeaderTrue Master
Local scene81086420
Regional scene46810864
National scene02468108
Global scene01357910

(Yes, I know that this table is very subjective...I'm just trying to get a point across).

The sweet spot for the local game matches characters with a bit of experience under their belt. The sweet spot for the regional game suits characters who have been in play for a moderate length of time. The sweet spot for the national game suits older characters who have developed quite a bit. The sweet spot for the global game suits only the oldest and most powerful characters.

It doesn't force play styles, but players naturally congregate at the levels matching their characters...players attempting higher levels are asking for suicide, players focusing on lower levels are ridiculed by their equals or simply find the challenges boring.

But do games really need sweet spots?

I'm a bit undecided on the issue.

How do you define sweet spots?

That's difficult. Certain game mechanisms combine with other game mechanisms, for example hit points combining with other combat values in D&D provided it's supposed sweet spot in the third edition. Different levels of emphasis on different game mechanisms provide the sweet spots as indicated in the Camarilla.

I don't think you can specifically design a sweet spot, because everyone will play a game differently and place their own influences and spin on situations. That's one of the reasons why I think the specific attempt to design this into 4th edition D&D isn't relly the right direction for the future of gaming...but allowing the levels to naturally develop (a la Camarilla) is actually a step in the right direction. Then actually evolving the game based on the interactions of the players.

(Which is another bone of contention with White Wolf...why destroy the old world of darkness just when things were getting interesting?...but that's another rant entirely).

21 June, 2009

Rajah Spiny Rat

A few days ago, I finished a game for the Random Cover RPG challenge. This game was Rajah Spiny Rat.

Like Guerilla Television before it, the game was another step in the evolution of Quincunx.

Guerilla Television was a good testing ground for a number of concepts and it taught me a few good lessons. I'm actually hoping that Rajah Spiny Rat will teach a few more things before I assemble Quincunx for GenCon Oz.

Looking back in retrospect, The Eighth Sea was a rushed game. It could have done with a lot more playtesting before it was exposed to the public, I'm going to ensure it gets a decent amount of further playtesting and revision before I put up a new version for publication. It will certainly get that revision before I make the game available on the assorted roleplaying web stores.

I honestly don't think Quincunx will be fully ready for release at GenCon, but I'll make some ashcans available at that time.

For the moment though...Rajah Spiny Rat.

A game about civilised animals embracing their respective paths of dharma to gain power within their society, while facing off against villains and antagonists drawing energy from their own dharmic paths.

In case you hadn't guessed, it is based heavily on concepts of Hindu mythology, which is quite a bit different to my usual Japanese concepts.

That's one of the reasons why I enter contests like this, they help me to break out of established patterns.

So with two months of fairly intense development, including a couple of playtest sessions, too much art direction and layout work...and getting a new job thrown into the mix. I've emerged with a new game. It's 88 pages long (plus a front and back cover), but a third of each page is filled with Sanskrit style epic poetry, there are a decent number of images and there is flavour text outlining a strange world. Actual rules and play examples probably account for 30 pages or so.

I'm hoping that it's playable, I'll post it up on a couple of forums and game archives (eg. Storygames, The Forge, 1km1kt, etc.) to see how many hits it gets and see if I can get any useful feedback from external sources.

Not sure what more to write at this stage...so I'll leave it there.

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #24: Inter-Related Values

I hadn't really thought about the way that inter-related values really say something in a game, but a few instances have come up in recent exploration of the internet.

One of the more interesting versions that has seen it's fair share of discussion is the concept of insanity and knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos in the game Call of Cthulhu. Basically everything in this games works of a percentile system. There are a few ways that a character can be removed from play, but these predominantly fall into the categories of "Death and Injury", or "Going Insane".

Characters start with hit points that measure their physical injury, these can be rapidly depleted through conflict, but they can be healed. Sanity is a slow loss, but it can't be healed (except in a few variants in specific sourcebooks and home rules).

One of the major destroyers of sanity is knowledge of the dark, macabre and malevolent spirits that exists on the edge of reality. Once you know that humanity is essentially damned and insignificant compared to these powerful creatures, you lose all hope...

You start with a cap of 100% in your sanity score, but this cap is reduced by an amount equal to the character's knowledge score in the cthulhu mythos. 60% Cthulhu Mythos means a maximum of 40% sanity.

I've only ever played a couple of games of Call of Cthulhu, but I have been a long-time fan of the works of HP Lovecraft. The few games I've played, have come closer to embracing the spirit of the stories and novels of the mythos, so I guess this system is successful in this regard.

A flip side to this relation mechanic is something that you find in many of the White Wolf games, for example the generation/blood potency mechanism which is used to control the maximum level of discipline powers which can be obtained by a vampire.

In this sort of system you have to improve one value before another can be improved.

Both of these have merit, but I'm actually more interested in the two types of value that impede one another. These mechanisms force players to make choices about their characters rather than simply providing methods to channel experience point expenditure along specific lines.

I'll follow the previous line of thought with white wolf's Vampire line; a few home-brew impedance variants I've enocuntered for Vampire games relate to the humanity mechanism.

In one variant, the maximum degree of power that may be learnt by a character (on a scale of 1 to 10) is restricted by the character's humanity score (also on a scale of 1 to 10). This is applied on top of the existing mechanisms; meaning that characters must decide whether to degenerate into inhumanity if they wish to claim the most powerful levels of mystical mastery, or they can maintain their control and humanity in exchange for only ever learning the smallest levels of mystical chicanery.

Strangely, this fits better with the World of Darkness mythology than the basic game seems to... so it's hardly surprising that I've seen variants like this implemented.

Other variants get a bit more complicated, by using formulae incorporating "blood potency"/generation, humanity scales and possibly even ther factors to determine the maximum potency of the mysteries that may be learned. But once you start getting complicated, you move away from the things that I find interesting, the moral choices.

When it gets too complicated to calculate quickly, it get's too complicated to reflect the gut instincts and subconscious thought patterns of a character. Conscious thought precludes subconscious thought.

Another interesting variant on the inter-related values idea can be found in the Palladium game Nightbane. (I figure that I had better include a positive critique on a Palladium game, after all the bashing I gave them last week).

The inter-relation here is that characters have a maximum energy capacity to fuel their powers. They can either learn a basic number of abilities and have their full fuel capacity to use their powers quite often. Or they can sacrifice their total fuel capacity in exchange for the ability to learn more powers.

Do you become a one trick pony able to use your power quite often? Do you have a diversity of powers available which can be used only every now and then? Or do you try to balance between these extremes.

It makes players think, and that's the whole point of roleplaying isn't it?

14 June, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #23: Mega Damage

It's about time I added a game mechanism I HATE.

This series of entries isn't just meant to be about things for groups to introduce into their games, it should probably act as a beacon of things to avoid. But in the interests of constructive criticism, I'll add a few alternatives that I find far more palatable.

The system I hate is "Mega Damage" from Palladium Books.

It had it's place in the game where it was first introduced, but it's application to other parts of their game line was stupid in my opinion.

There is plenty of dialogue on assorted forums and blogs about the origins of the Palladium gaming system as a mutant offshoot of early AD&D, then a series of hodge-podge additions to that core systems in an attempt to create something rivaling "GURPS" and other generic systems in development at around the same time. Some would claim that Palladium did the "generic" thing before GURPS, other would say that GURPS did it better and then forced Palladium to play catch-up....that's all histrionics and beside the point.

Mega-Damage was an interesting addition to the Palladium system which appeared in the licensed Robotech series of games.

In essence, characters have hit points (typically 10 to 50 or more as they gain experience). In the palladium system they also have Structural Damage Capacity (SDC). Objects also have SDC, and whenever someone attempts to harm a person or an object, damage is dealt to the SDC to relfect flesh wounds and bruises before serious effects occurs with a wounding of Hit Points. I've gone on previously about how I feel hit points are an inferior system...

Mega Damage takes this to a grander level. 1 point of mega damage capacity (MDC) is equal to 100 hit points or SDC.

In a world with giant robots it makes sense to have vastly powerful weapons capable of obliterating small humans while the same weapon only deals a minor scratch to the battle juggernaut.

But RIFTS applied the same system to human sized beings and supernatural creatures. I guess it's a bit reminiscent of the robots in the Terminator movies, suffering vast amounts of damage without slowing down, using incredible strength to throw mere mortals around.

But there are some interesting scaling dilemmas that appear, along with serious engineering issues such as hardness and malleability of protective plating. A physical impact enough to punch through a human might not be able to punch through a sheet of 1 inch steel, but the same inertial impact is felt. It seems stupid that a human could be thrown back by the impact, while a supernatural being of the same height and weight doesn't even get knocked down.

There is also the anomaly of mere mortals becoming vastly powerful through their improvement in play, such mortals may gain more than 100 combined hit points and SDC and are suddenly able to withstand the impact of these weapons that would normally blow a hole through any regular joe.

Palladium gives two standard options when it comes to Mega Damage. Either use it, or don't. If you don't use it, the MDC ratings are simply changed to SDC ratings...no change of numbers, no conversion factors, simply pretend the "M" is printed as an "S"then the powerful technologies simply become regular toys.

I've managed to successfully overcome some of this and bring the "Mega Damage" system into a more 'realistic' paradigm, by using MDC but scaling it down somewhat. Reducing 1 MDC to equal 10 SDC or Hit Points. Not a great solution, but it has improved things vastly in the games where I've implemented it.

11 June, 2009

The Pervasiveness of Gamer Culture

Last nigh, Leah and I went to see the absurdist, beatboxing, comedic showman Reggie Watts at the Sydney Opera House.

Awesome show.

Well worth the ticket price, I'd probably see him again (if it weren't the last show of his current season).

The only thing that bugged me is that there was no merchandise for sale after the show. I'd love to have bought a CD or something...

...actually a CD would be great because he threw a real curve ball during the show.

I expected to hear profanity, especially given one of his notorious songs. I expected to hear references to marijuana given his recent album title "Pot Cookies". I even expected to hear numerous character voices, strange accents, non-sequitur humour and wide variety of pop culture references.

I was not disappointed, all of those appeared.

In fact, with a wide assortment of character voices I'd wondered what he'd be like to roleplay with...or even if he was familiar with the concept (beyond the token "I've heard of D&D...isn't it about monsters and fighting and shit?").

But one of the songs he sang was a pseudo fantasy ballad in the vein of spinal tap, or the darkness. A bit more soul and funk, a bit less metal, but you get the idea. Halfway through one of his songs, comes a bunch of lines describing character classes such as fighter, magic user, cleric and ranger, and in case it wasn't obvious enough by then more roleplaying references show up...even a line about "rolling for initiative".

Too much detailed knowledge for someone to just be taking the piss out of gamers...he's obviously done it!!

And the audience were in hysterics as the realised what he was singing about.

More than just a small handful of chuckles here and there...it's like the 1000 odd people in the theater were all gamers (or at least a critical mass of them).

It just made me wonder how deeply rooted is gaming in the culture of "Generation X" (the dominant demographic of the audience, and given his chats about growing up in the 80's, it's obvious Reggie is a Gen-Xer as well).

A lot of indie gamers I've dialoguied with are always saying..."Roleplaying is a niche hobby, and indie gaming is a tiny corner within that niche...how can we ever hope to make an impact??" or other such rubbish.

I'm starting to come to the conclusion that maybe gaming is a lot more developed in our culture than people admit. Sure it's kept in the closet, and few people admit to it beyond their immediate circle of friends...even fewer go to conventions or show any fanaticism to it...such as writing a blog. But I contend that it's a deep rooted part of the Gen-X psyche, and will probably cascade through a few more generations before it either fades away, or finally comes into the open.

I can dream can't I??

07 June, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #22: Items of Power

I had an idea a while back for developing items of power within a game.

These items could be artifacts that have shaped the course of a culture, relics that hear the power of the divine within them, they could be strange technologies, sacred bones of martyrs...it really doesn't matter.

What matters is that these items have some kind of special effect, and while there may be a few of them present within a setting, they more powerful items of power become exponentially less likely to appear in a game.

The first thing that you need to consider is what type of effect these items might have. Do they allow a character to advance one of their abilities beyond "regular human limits"? Do they provide access to an ability to most characters would not be able to possess normally? Do they impair the people around them, while keeping the wielder at full strength?

Each of these options tells something very different about the item of power.

The second thing to consider is how far the exponential scale should work for these items. If the characters have attributes rated from 3 to 18 (a la D&D), and an item allows them to add a single point to their existing attribute how much does this mean...it certainly means much less than adding a single point in a game where the attributes are rated from 1 to 5 (a la White Wolf).

With this in mind, how many scales of power apply to items of this type? Are there only three levels (weak, moderate, powerful, each adding an additional +1 to a attribute or skill, or providing 1 extra cumulative ability), or are there twenty levels of artifact carefully catagorised by scholars and mystics...

Personally, I'd recommend the number of levels in the scale to match the skill or attribute range for the characters.

Die step systems (d2, d4, d6, d8, etc) would count each step as a single level of attribute, where the item might allow an additional roll to be made. This could be used instead of a character's normal die roll, combined with the die roll or perhaps some other option depending on the games existing mechanisms.

Lets run for the moment with 3 hypothetical level systems.

  • 3 Level (weak/common, moderate/uncommon, powerful/rare) - Probably used is a system based on d6's, where a +1 bonus can be very beneficial. Or could be used in a system where unusual mechanisms and modifiers aren't commonly a part of the system, even the small bonuses provided by such items a highly sought commodities.  
  • 5 Level (negligible/very common, weak/common, moderate/uncommon, powerful/rare, legendary/very-rare) - Probably used in a system with dice pools, where a +1 could represent extra dice to roll, or could allow bonuses to the roll of a d10. In such a system, the lowest level items would be finely crafted tools and it is only when reaching into the higher level items that mystical phenomena might become clearly involved.
  • 10 Level (1st degree, 2nd degree...10th degree) - Probably used in a system incorporating d20 mechanisms or even percentile dice. Each degree adds a point of bonus, which isn't much, and doesn't distinguish a lot between the different levels of power within the items. 
Now that we know the levels and the benefits that each level applies, we can start looking at the factors which make and item powerful.

I like using exponential scales, because they mean the more powerful items become harder to find. There are half as many uncommon items as there are common items, and half as many rare items as uncommons. The specific setting could tweak this even further...1 in 10, 1 in 100.

Naturally, the more levels in the scale, the less difference there will be in the scarcity of item availability. For example, if there are 10 levels at ascending degrees that halve the availability, there will be 1 "level 10" item for every 1024 "level 1" items. Once you start dividing the numbers by 3 or 4, the rarity really increases for those high level items. Personally I think that's a good thing...especially after too many monty hall campaigns.

But what imbues the items with power? How is their level determined? 

The following is just a suggestion for some tables that could be used to calculate different aspects of item power. A GM could use any one of these, or they could add together a couple of aspects then divide by a regular amount to generate an items power level with respect to the campaign setting. Each of these could be weighted differently depending on the settings specific attitude to items of power. you might want to double the amount of energy gained from an item's age, or maybe divide it's fame factor by 5. They're just ideas.

This could be the physical age of the item, it could be the time an item has spent in a sacred grove absorbing mystical energies, or turn the timeframe into days or weeks and it could be the time spent crafting the item.
1 yr = 1pt, 3 yrs = 2 pts, 10 yrs = 3 pts, 30 yrs = 4 pts, 100 yrs = 5 pts, 300 yrs = 6 pts, 1000 yrs = 7 pts, 3000 yrs = 8 pts, 10000 yrs = 9 pts, etc...

Mystical items could gain power from the desire of the people around them, the more people want an item, the more powerful it becomes; the more they are willing to do to get hold of it, the more powerful still.
1 pt per 10,000 people who would like to get he chance to see or touch the item.
1 pt per 1,000 people who would like to add the item to their collection.
1 pt per 100 people who would hurt someone to get hold of the item.
1 pt per 10 people who would kill for the item.
Any of these people in the immediate vicinity, would have their desire value magnified. This would come from a metagame effect because people nearby are more likely to cause narrative conflict for the owner of the item. It also has the in game effect that the desire of a supernatural connection that will probably link between the item and people's souls...they are more likely to take risks when the item is nearby...and the more risks they are willing to take, the more energy the item can draw from them.

How well is the item known?    
1 pt = Known by local scholars and occultists.
2 pts = Known by most locals and throughout the regions by scholars and occultists.
3 pts = Well known in local area, known as an article of trivia by people across the country.
4 pts = Known across the state or province, occasionally mentioned nationally, some global impact.
5 pts = Household term throughout state or province, well known across the nation.
6 pts = Well known globally.

Other factors might include...use in key historical events (1 pt for involvement in a local event, 3 pts for use in a famous assassination, etc.), number of generations held by the same family (1 pt per generation), monetary value (1 pt per digit in the price tag...$1 = 1pt, $1,000,000 = 7pts).

I'd recommend using at least two of the different tables, adding together the factors, then dividing by a suitable figure to get a scale from 0 to the upper artifact limit. Because the higher point value aspects are so much harder to achieve, the rarity of items and comparitive power benefit make a fairly natural exponential curve...and this can be linked pretty nicely to the narrative.

I've got a few more ideas along these lines, but that's enough for the moment.