25 July, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #29: Democracy

Traditional Gaming is a dictatorship.

It could be a benevolent dictatorship with a GM sitting at the head of the table, carefully crafting a story by picking and choosing from the actions of the players who follow along blindly, rolling dice every now and again, but basically enjoying the story ride.

It could be a malevolent dictatorship where the GM still sits at the head of the table, but now exists in a more antagonistic role, hammering down any players who choose to step outside the bounds they have defined for their story.

I've played under both styles of GM. I'm sure that anyone who has played in more a couple of games (and who has had the opportunity to play under a couple of GMs) will instantly be able to think of games where these two cases have been applicable.

A lot of players like the idea that they can put a character into a world and have the GM work this avatar into a storyline. Many of these players quickly get bored.

When I created The Eighth Sea, I specifically didn't call the lead player the "GM" or anything similar. Pirates were one of the first social groups on the planet to institute the notion of democracy. If they didn't like their captain, a vote wold be called and a new captain would take command of the vessel.

My aim here was to create a system in which the storytelling role was a transient one. If the players didn't like the stories being told, they could simply vote out the current storyteller, and another of them would have to step up to the role.

This has a two-fold effect.

Firstly, the GM/Storyteller/Narrator/Captain has to keep on their game. They have to be consistently producing enjoyable storylines where everyone feels satisfied with the events, otherwise they could be put forward to a vote and could be ousted from their role.

Secondly, it stops players complaining about the GM/Storyteller/Narrator/Captain. Once they start complaining, then people ask if they are willing to step up and do a better job themselves. It seems to be human nature to complain, and then to back down when a person is called out on their beliefs. The complainers tend to shut up pretty quickly when they realise their own abilities might be critiqued in the next session.

I haven't managed to play a long term campaign under this style of "GM Democracy", so I'm not sure what effects it might have on a campaign in the long run, but I could easily see that if a player steps up to the role and makes the campaign take a sharp turn to the left, then the players will probably mutiny again at the end of the game (unless of course everyone felt the sharp twist in the storyline was necessary to inject some freshness into the tale).

The Eighth Sea actually takes the democracy aspect a step further, with all of the players getting the opportunity to add their own twists into the tale during the course of the crew's adventures, but that's a mechanism of it's own and will be expanded at a later time.

Intermission Apology

Sorry I haven't had the chance to post anything over the past fortnight.

I'll try to catch up with a few mechani(sm)s shortly.

For the moment though, I'm interested to see that I've been getting a few emails from people who've been following the blog.

Always good inspiration to keep me writing.


13 July, 2009

A new blog.

After my post a couple of days ago, I've started a second blog for my non-gaming/non-philosophical creative pursuits. It's called "Creative Output of the Fox".

12 July, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #28: Karma Resolution

On the surface karma resolution is a fairly boring mechanism.

Karma resolution relies on referring to listed attributes or quantitative elements without a random element.

The premise is simple. The side in a conflict with more force to exert automatically wins. If one character has a combat skill of 3 and another character has a combat skill of 5, the character with 5 will win the fight.

But most forms of karma resolution have some kind of twist in them. Naturally, it's these twists that get me interested.

Short Term effort versus Long Term endurance

In some systems a player can temporarily increase their ability to influence a situation in exchange for a later reduction. In our hypothetical earlier situation, the character with a combat skill of 3 might be able to temporarily add a couple of points to even the fight, but in exchange for this they might tire themselves out. Perhaps a character can temporarily add a number "X" to their value being compared, but for "X" scenes thereafter they will suffer a 1 point reduction indicating the degree to which this has tired them out.

If the same character needs to boost their value for a later comparison, they will need to increase it by "X+1"...the first point to get back to their initial score, and the remaining points provide an actual advantage...but the character might then suffer a 2 point reduction for a while.

Tiredness might apply across a range of numbers within a field. If you boost something requiring physical exertion, then all physical tasks get penalised for a while. If you boost something requiring mental, social, spiritual or some other field of endeavour, then everything else within this specific field also suffers from the exertion.

A war of attrition in this manner will really cause problems for the lower ranked character, especially if every other value is equal.

In a tabletop game, characters could gradually overcome this tiring factor on a scene by scene basis. In a live environment, an actual timer might be more suitable (overcoming such tiredness on a 15-minute basis).

Changing the Conflict

Another method of making things a bit more unpredictable is to allow players to change te nature of a conflict as it occurs. This is the method used in Amber but it seems to have some very erratic behaviour depending on the GM and the group playing the game. If a conflict initially seems to favour one participant, then the loser may make an effort to change the nature of the conflict. A fight scene could become a chase when the weaker participant decides to run away, the loser suffers a penalty for the initial conflict, but hopefully the new nature of the conflict will give them enough of an advantage to even the score (or maybe even get ahead).

It's not a bad system in that the victim player gains a narrative advantage even as their character suffer problems within the game.

Cumulative Advantage

Another great way to play with purely karma based resolution is to allow players to work together to achieve communal goals. Perhaps using the highest trait of the group and adding a bonus for each assisting participant.

The actual bonus provided by assistants would be dependant on the number of players in the game, the scale used for the values being compared, and the degree to which teamwork is valued in the setting.

More players = more potential for the group bonus to overshadow the individual's skill.

Wider range in the value being compared = more potential for fiddly details to be implemented.

If teamwork is well valued, then the system probably should provide a bigger bonus for assistance. If a setting wants to mimic the "stormtrooper effect", the advantage from groups would be reduced to a minimum.

Making use of the Environment

When a Karma based system is being used with a heavily story oriented game, it is usually a good idea to allow players to interact with the story as much as possible through their avatars in the game world. If a player is able to incorporate an element that has been previously described in a scene, they get to add a bonus to their comparison value. Once one player has claimed the scene aspect, it should be unavailable to their opponent. There should probably be enough elements to potentially balance out a conflict, but it is up to the imagination of the players to gain all of the potential bonuses on offer.

GM Fiat

Probably my least favoured method. The GM adds a value to each participant based on what they'd like to see happen in the conflict.

These systems are all options that completely eliminate the random element. There are far more combinations of mechanism available when the Drama, Fortune and Karma elements are mixed together.

A consideration of things now that the year is half over.

I have a few things on my plate at the moment, some of which will probably have to go on hold.

I've already missed the deadline to build a costume suit of "Iron Man" armour in time for Supanova. I had hoped to get this done by Gencon Oz at the latest, but that's not looking like a reasonable timeframe either unless I really focus on it as a priority.

But the Gencon priority was to get Quincunx working. At this stage I know that I have a functional system and setting, but there is still some playtesting to be accomplished, a decent amount of typing and some layout work to be achieved.

Thankfully, I've had a friendly email from someone who's interested in helping out with the Quincunx project. His name's Riley and he's one of the founders of Every Gamer's Guild in Newcastle. I really must get up there one of these months. Maybe next month for a preliminary run of Quincunx with enough time to make any drastic changes if they prove necessary.

In a similar topic, my Quincunx comic is taking more time than I've recently had available. I've managed to make some good contacts at Supanova, and a few other artists really thought the idea was cool. So I can't abandon this one, but if I want it done properly, I think it will just have to go on hiatus for a while.

The final project is my Game Mechani(sm) of the Week...and after last weeks decent response I really can't let it slide now. Researching and commentating on various mechanisms does take a chunk of my free time, but it's been a worthwhile endeavour so far.

...and I've just thrown my hand up for a new design contest, but I really don't think I'll have the time to get an decent entry prepared. So that'll be the first one to go.

I guess it's just a fact of life that when I had the time to do all this stuff, I didn't have the money to do it properly. And now that I have a full time job again, I have the money available but I don't have the time.

05 July, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #27: Ro-Sham-Bo





I've heard a few options recently for "Diceless" systems. Some of them are quite clever, and some of them seem overly simplistic.

But what is a diceless system and what ramifications does a diceless paradigm impose on a game. There are said to be three forms of resolution in roleplaying Fortune, Karma and Drama (with references here and here). Dice are a fortune method, so that leaves karma and drama as methiods to resolve actions.

I've already offered a concept for using beads as a method of randomisation. But hard-core diceless fanatics seek to create a game with no usage of randomisation what-so-ever.

Amber was the first game I encountered that claimed to be diceless. I played it a couple of times (the most notable of which was a home-brew based on a combination of Amber and Mage: the Ascension). This uses a karma system, where the player with the best score simply wins, with a bit of control from the game's GM to determine what that win means in the context of the story.

Many of the Australian Freeform games I've been a part of have used the drama system. This probably due to the inventors of this game style coming from a thetrical background. These have their merits as well, but force of personality plays a huge role in the game (often marking some characters as far more important than they should be dramatically, simply by virtue of a good player acting behind them).

I'll look at these two phenomena in future weeks.

But for the moment I've been toying with something else that's somewhere between a fortune based resolution mechanism and a karma based one.

Players use the numbers on their character sheets, then play a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors to modify the outcome in some way.

White Wolf's second incarnation of the Mind's Eye Theatre products uses this as a basis for game play. Play RPS, if it's a tie, compare character traits (if your character's traits outweigh your opponent's by at least 2-to-1, you can call for a rematch...and there are other complications that come in).

It's great as a quick system, until too many of those complications come into play from too many special powers.

But I'd like to see something that brings the character's traits into play from the beginning, adding a bit more complication up front to avoid a whole heap of excess complication at the end.

Consider this.

Two character declare their intentions, then reveal the relevant traits. Such traits could be attributes, skills, power levels, it doesn't really matter and could easily be defined based on the type of game being played. You might even get the chance to add two types of traits into a total for comparison. Then play RPS.

If you beat your opponent, you might get to double your respective traits. If you lose then your opponent get's to double theirs. If you tie, then traits are simply compared.

You could even play the five way version, where if you beat someone using an adjacent sign (eg. scissors-vs-paper, or rock-vs-lizard) you get to double your trait value...while if you beat them using an opposing sign (eg. paper-vs-spock, or rock-vs-scissors) you get to triple your trait value.

I haven't really thought of a good use for a mechanism like this except as an alternate fortune method of resolution that involves a bit of player-vs-player psychology.

If someone can think of a good use for a mechanism like this, let me know.

03 July, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #26: Flow

It's halfway through the year, and by my calculations I probably should have reached game mechanism number 27. So I guess I've got some catching up to do again.

But for the moment, I'm fascinated by the concept of "Flow" (especially as seen in a current thread at Story-Games).

There are numerous ways to look at the concept of "Flow", but I'm going to restrict myself to two.

Flow from the perspective of the characters within the game (which I will refer to as Game Flow).

Flow from the perspective of the players experiencing the game (which I will refer to as Metagame Flow).

Flow is described fairly well in the thread, so I won't go into too much detail here. Suffice to say, it seems to be very similar to the concept of Zen "no mind". Flow is the situation a person finds themself in when they become so absorbed in an activity that they start to lose a sense of themselves. Time starts to lose it's meaning, the action is all that's important, decisions take on an instinctive value.

Flow seems to require a wide variety of effects to combine at a single moment. It almosts seems to be an transcendental state of being, requiring enough skill to understand what is happening, enough awareness to fully sense the surroundings, and enough willpower to overcome possible distractions.

Game Flow

Flow manifests many ways. The swordplay of an expert duelist, the mastery of an expert blacksmith, the unerring eye for detail possessed by a master tracker, the union of man and machine in a high performance race-car, any activity can be subjected to flow.

A crude method of achieving flow within a game could be the phenomenon known as a "critical hit", or an "exceptional success". This is when a character within the game is the recipient of a naturally high die roll, or accumulates an unnaturally high degree of success through a highly lucky set of circumstances. But most games simply leave it at this.

Flow should be something more special, it should reflect the way a character truly transcends themselves, almost becoming one with their tools, their surroundings and the task at hand. Descriptions should become more vibrant, more dramatic, more intense. In a game without magic, flow should seem magical. In a game with magic, it will probably be even more mysterious an mystical.

Flow probably shouldn't happen very often, but when it does, it will leave a memorable effect. When playing a game such as D&D with distinct levels, experiencing flow might be a time when a character transcends from one degree of power to the next (perhaps characters specifically have to wait until they achieve a moment of Flow before they may progress in the game). In a game with skill improvement through expenditure of points, a moment of flow provides an appropriate justification to spend those points.

These are moments that change a person, and they remain a distinct part of a character's history.

Some character may try to achieve flow more regularly, but the exact method by which flow is achieved should remain mysterious.

Metagame Flow

Some players experience something akin to Flow when they forget that they are playing a game and they really think from the perspective of the character within the game world. Others experience it when they forget the mechanisms and the rules of the system and work toward the stories emotional or dramatic goals.

But all too often, roleplaying games are filled with distractions, and distractions are anathema to flow. Some people find visual ciues such as props or maps to aid their chances of achieving flow, others find these pieces of ephemera to be distractions. Some enjoy elaborate descriptions, others find these descriptions to simply be long-winded.

I can't write a catch-all method to achieve flow wthin a game, but I believe it's something we all try to attain.

A good GM will know the tyes of things to bring out the best potential for flow within their games. They'll play to the strengths of the players and their characters, and try to keep player tension to a minimum while character tension may be raging out of control.

Many people seem to agree that Flow seems easier to achieve in a live action roleplaying game, this may be due to the reduced illusiory barrier between characters and players. It's also interesting that the discussion of flow has passed through the context of computer games on the Story-Games thread. Is this something to consider about the difference between computer games and table-top pen and paper games? Computer games resolve the rules in the background, traditional pen and paper roleplaying games can be distracting with their rules. Many modern independent games walk a line between these extremes, trying to achieve specific styles of play with their streamlined sets of rules.

I haven't decided whether these modern independent games have honed in on the potential for flow, or if they've simply eliminated the number of ways that an individual might achieve Flow within a game.

Like most things, I guess that this question will be answered in different ways by different people.

Here Be Gamers

Never one to be afraid of jumping on a bandwagon, I've started listen to my local gaming podcast over the last couple of days.

It's a fun chat with a couple of guys who really love their games, and it's interesting to watch the professionalism of the podcast gradually increase.

I should have been heading up north to meet the guys behind the podcast this weekend, but an ongoing curse preventing me from getting to Newcastle has struck again (this time in the form of a car that has completely blown it's distributor).

Listening to the podcast reminds me that there are a lot of people out there who have a wide variety of interests within the field of gaming, and it reminds me of how diverse the hobby really is.

I guess I'll be spending the next few days listening to the rest of the podcasts currently released.