30 September, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #38: Roll and Keep

Legend of the Five Rings has an interesting mechanism for resolving actions.

You basically roll a bunch of dice, keep some of them and sum up the face values of the dice you've kept.

In that specific game, the pool of dice rolled is equal to a total of attribute and skill, while you keep a number of dice equal to your attribute. In this way, attributes are more important because they both provide dice for the pool and provide the number of dice kept...skills are less significant because they only add dice to the pool.

In L5R, there is an added mechanism that natural 10's are rerolled, with the new value added to the previous result.

As an example, 7k4 (Roll 7 dice keep 4). [5],[7],[3],[6],[2],[8],[10+8]...keep the best 4 [18],[8],[7],[6]...for a total of 39.

During Gencon Oz we saw another version of this, flipping around the last game mechanism presented. Instead of rolling under but aiming for the highest score, we saw duels of precision which saw players trying to beat a target score, but choosing the dice sum that would beat it by the finest margin.

It worked well, providing drama and reflecting skill while minimising the risk to characters.

It's another one of those mechanisms where I can't think of an immediate use, but I'm sure the inspiration will hit me eventually.

Racism in Gaming

One of the inspiration words in the Stockade's game design challenge is "Gypsy".

I haven't really done a gypsy inspired game, but I've considered it a couple of times. I love the unusual cultures of the world and like the chance to do some good research in a field that I haven't explored too thoroughly.

Over the years I've had a couple of ideas for unusual mechanisms that might be used in a game and I thought I'd really like to tie the gypsy concept to the token bag.

I started with my usual method of opening up a word processor document and starting to type away with a stream of consciousness style of writing that often gives some great insight as I start digging through the words later.

Brigaki Djili is a romani/gypsy term meaning "Sorrow Songs".

I'm using it as a name for a new project in which players take on the role of Gypsy seers who reveal the past through communal storytelling.

Each player takes on the role of one of these gypsy seers, while the GM takes on the role of someone who has asked the seers to reveal a hidden story of the past. Each seer takes on the twin roles of narrating the story and playing out the actions of characters within the story, the GM purely acts as a prompt in case the narrative related by the players starts to slow down, or needs a new impetus.

The basic mechanism of the game involves something I've been toying with for a while, drawing beads from a bag.

Each player has a bag and a dozen or so tokens of a specific colour (each player's colour is different). There is also a pile of threat tokens representing the difficulty of different stories being pursued by the characters.

At the start of a session of storytelling, each player may place their tokens into their own bag, or into someone else's bag. They also apply threat tokens into their own bag. The more threat tokens, the more chance of failure, the bigger the risk for the character, but the bigger the pay-off if they succeed. The character who applies the most threat tokens to their own bag and who survives their story earns some kind of reward at the end of the round.

The play of storytelling follows the draw of tokens from the bag...

At the beginning of a story a single token is drawn to set the tone of the narrative.

Own Token followed by…
The player who controls the character begins by narrating how their character explores the world around them, using the skills at their character’s disposal to avoid problems or complications. Nothing beneficial or detrimental occurs to the character through the narrative. Before the next token is drawn, the character must be faced with some kind of a critical story point

Other’s Token followed by…
The player whose token is drawn begins the narrative, they may choose to describe events that occur in the character’s favour, or may describe events that cause problems for the character. explaining

Threat Token followed by…
The player who controls the character begins by narrating how their character has immediately encountered a problem, arriving at a situation where their skills weren’t appropriate or where they simply failed miserably. Nothing majorly wrong happens to the character, but from the outset they are on the back foot and must react defensively to the next token draw.

Once the initial scene has been set up, a second token is drawn. Further scenes are described through a combination of the last two tokens drawn.

Own Token followed by Own Token followed by…
The current narrator continues with their scene, showing how their character has successfully resolved the issue they have just faced. They show how the character gets another step closer to their goal, or how the character overcomes a setback they have suffered. The scene is concluded by setting up another issue where the character could face a turning point.

Own Token followed by Threat Token followed by...
The current narrator shows how their character has faced their issue unsuccessfully, and how things have put them on the defensive. They must now describe how the character faces up to the issues at hand and tries to get things moving forward again. They narrate a new turning point that might allow the character to take destiny back into their own hands.

Own Token followed by Other’s Token followed by…
The narration duties pass to the player whose token has been drawn. This new player now describes a twist in the events, a way in which the scene has changed away from the current character’s intended plans. Not necessarily for the worse, but certainly deviating the characters path. The character’s player gets the chance to react to the changing circumstances, offering a course of action to be determined by the next drawn token.

Other’s Token followed by Own Token followed by...
The narration duties are resumed by the player who controls the character. The character doesn’t specifically get an advantage from the situation, but they are able to get things back onto the right track.

Other’s Token followed by Threat Token followed by...
The narration duties continue being held by the player whose token had been drawn last. The twist in the storyline has led the character into trouble. The character suffers a setback due to this unexpected change of circumstances, if they wish to continue a sacrifice will need to be made on the character’s part.

Other’s Token followed by Other’s Token followed by...
The narration duties continue being held by the same player. The character’s actions have in some way advanced the agenda of that player’s character (they may be present in the scene, or the actions may be helping in a more obscure fashion). The character may or may not realise what they are doing to further these goals.

Other’s Token followed by a different Other’s Token followed by...
The narration duties move from the former player to the new player whose token was drawn. Another new twist has developed, and the character’s path has turned in yet another new direction. Once again, the character doesn’t specifically suffer a setback due to their change of circumstances, but they do find things shifting around them in such a way that they probably haven’t anticipated.

Threat Token followed by Own Token followed by...
No matter who may have been narrating the events leading up to the drawing of the threat token, the character’s player resumes the narration duties and describes how the character has overcome the issues at hand and has resumed control of their destiny. They may now narrate a new critical point to drive the story forward.

Threat Token followed by Threat Token followed by...
Narration duties do not change, the same player continues to describe the events as they get worse. The setback previously suffered has escalated and has now dealt a permanent injury to the character involved. In most cases, the characters story draws to a temporary conclusion unless they are able to draw upon a specific strength or special ability which helps them in the immediate situation.

Threat Token followed by Other’s Token followed by...
The player whose token was drawn takes over the narrative and may describe how the character has failed in their attempt to overcome the threat, or they may describe a new complication that has the potential to make things even worse for the character.

I'm working on some ideas for incorporating character abilities into the system (if a character has a special ability the player gets to redraw certain tokens, upgrade threat tokens to other's tokens to own tokens, if they have a weakness then they might be forced to redraw successful tokens).

But first I'm just seeing that this core concept makes sense.

Ask as many questions as you want, I'm still trying to work through this in my mind and any queries that other people have might help me to really get it clear...


With my first set of thoughts out in the open and sorted into a rough semblance of sense, I posted these ideas to the Forge to see what ideas might strike a chord. There seem to be a few people around who are interested in my designs and ideas.

I didn't expect one of my bites to be a claim of racism on my part.

I never really thought of myself as a racist, and I know of many games that are actually far more ethnically stereotypical in their depiction of minority groups. Call of Cthulhu is based on the works of HP Lovecraft, and in many of his stories, the native Americans (and pretty much anyone of non-white/protestant background) tend to be worshippers of dark beings, deranged cultists (or at least sympathetic to them). What little I know of the indie game "Steal Away Jordan" indicates that it's about slavery, particularly the Negro populace of historical America. Other games play up manga stereotypes, which could easily be considered denigrating to certain minority groups...

...or how about treating every Nazi as an occultist?

It's got me thinking though.

A little bit of research indicates that the Rom have been the butt of racism for centuries. I know a Hungarian person who considers Gypsies to be the scum of the earth (and that's when he's putting it politely and not swearing about them). The way I understand it from him, his family and many of the Hungarians I've met through him, virtually all of the mainstream Hungarians think the same way.

Personally, I'm more interested in learning about them, and using this game as a possible touch-stone for other people to do some research into the subject matter. I'm probably a bit more inclined to make sure I get the game to work well, to do justice to my subject matter and to really get the immersion factors right.

I guess that means my game won't sell well in Eastern Europe, but that would only be an issue if my games were selling well in the first place.

28 September, 2009

Brigaki Djili: The Elevator Pitch

The light of truth is revealed in the shadows of gypsy firelight.

There are tales that have changed our society; while the repercussions have been felt far and wide, the details of these stories have been deliberately hidden. Those outside our society have a unique perspective of our history; gypsies, vagabonds, nomads. Their insight and communion with arcane forces allows them to penetrate the fa├žade and reveal the truth. The elders of the kampanya, gather after a feast; a solitary visitor has asked them to reveal a hidden story of the past.

Thus Brigaki Djili begins…

27 September, 2009

Brigaki Djili (Sorrow Songs)

To maintain a tradition of unpronounceable game names, I'll be working on a project called "Brigaki Djili" for my entry into the Stockade's game design contest.

Brigaki Djili is actually a term from a Romani dialect, which is fitting for a game about gypsies. It's direct translation is "sorrow songs", so the game will be about revealing the past. Sort of like gypsy fortune tellers who reveal the hidden past instead of looking into the future.

At this stage, the very raw basics of the game follow the notion of a group who commune with one another through dance, ritual and sacred herbs. Each tapping into an all knowing communal conscious to reveal the actions of a single individual in the context of a forgotten story. The role of the GM is that of a lone traveller who has asked the group to reveal a story lost to the mists of time (or deliberately hidden by the "powers that be".) The group weave together their narrative, and the GM asks occasional question to prompt the story into specific directions.

I guess I'm trying to develop a focused version of "A Penny for My Thoughts" with some heavy input from "Baron Munchausen", a dash of influence from storytelling games such as "Everway" but with the flavouring of a tarot deck to reinforce the gypsy feel. The aim is something very immersive, where the players take on the role of communal storytellers who are in turn trying to reveal the past through their communion with ancestral spirits.

I'm worried that this step of removal from the actual story might be a break in the immersion for some players, but I'm hoping that the mechanisms of the game will be subtle enough and elegant enough that the flow of storytelling will be magnified rather than impeded.

I've really been inspired by Baron Munchausen, Penny and games like Chronica Fuedalis where the game is written as an in-game artifact. So that where I'll be aiming with the text.

According to the challenge specifications.

The inspirations I'm using are:
"Gipsy/Gypsy" - The core context of the game.
"Yarn" - In the form of spinning a yarn or telling a story.
"Ball" - In the form of a dance, because I see the game as being focused on movement and cycles. Almost like the way a game of Uno moves around a loop, but incorporates reverses, skips and other conventions that toy with player placement and interplayer interaction.

I tried to work in the inspiration "Chromosome" by applying benefits to specific gypsy families, or allowing character to channel specific ancestors through affinities of blood, but I think this might be pushing the envelope a bit far.

The game stars I'm aiming for are:
"Iron" - I want the character sheets to be something simple, no real attributes because gypsy storytellers wouldn't care about "strength", "dexterity" or things like that. Instead, The character sheet will be like the handkerchiefs used in gypsy dances, carefully folded at the start of play, gradually unfolded to reveal their complexity and to reveal tarot card symbolism hidden within. This would represent through play the characters within the narrative revealing who they are. I'm still trying to work out a good way to accomplish this.
"Hat" - The wearing of metaphorical hats could be applied to many roleplaying games, and as a big fan of props in my games I could easily incorporate them into this game. But most of my games tend to require a lot of accessories before they are playable and I'm trying to break out of that pattern. I think that if
"Boot" - The way I'm using the movement of players with respect to the storytelling circle intricately links to the concept of the "ball" and dance.
"Wheelbarrow" - Unsure at this stage how much resource management will play a role in this game. It's certainly an aspect that has played fairly heavily in previous designs I've developed.

So I'm looking at about 7 stars at the moment.

As for Bonus Stars...

If I get my wife Leah involved in the design process, I can probably claim a "Cobber" bonus star, or maybe get her to proofread and edit the text for an "Opal" star. Then, hopefully over the course of 12 months I can drum up enough support for the game that I might get an outside blind playtest (thus earning a "Boomerang" star), and I'll definitely make sure that I get the game to Every Gamer's Guild and Eyecon (for the "Digger" star). I don't know if I can get someone else to post about my game so I can't be sure about the "Cooee" star, but I'm using at least one inspiration, so "Ned Kelly" is in the bag...

I don't think the game really unites two or more inspirations in an unexpected way, and I certainly don't use all six inspirations (I think the core vision would actually suffer if I did try to incorporate more at this point.)

Still, as long as the project is finished in the way I hope, there will be at least 10 stars and the final result will be in line for the "Tall Poppy".

Now I've just got to wait for it to be cut down.

So my game has been revealed, now to start the hard work of making it a reality.

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #37: Intercharacter Connections

I've seen this used in a few games previously, I've touched on it in a few of my Game Mechani(sm) posts, and I've toyed with it in a few ways within the games I've been designing.

The ways characters relate to one another is a fundamental part of the roleplaying experience in my mind, at least as important as a character's relation to the world around them.

But there are a few schools of thought about character's relations to one another. Should you apply specific formulae to the dynamic of players interacting with one another through their characters? Should you let players evolve the dynamic for themselves?

It's like a lot of things, different groups will work better with different answers to the question.

At one end of the spectrum there is the tradition of Australian Freeforming, purely about intercharacter connections. At the other end of the spectrum you get traditional tabletop play, where characters are defined by what they can do to the world around them (and anything else is purely resolved by unwritten social interactions and negotiation between the players).

I'll go through the spectrum the way I understand it...

Purely driven by interactions between characters (Australian Freeforming)
Predominantly driven by interactions between characters with some story impetus (Jeepform, Nicotine Girls (from what I understand about it)...)
Driven by a balance of character interactions and story impetus (Many current Indy Games, Panty Explosion, Dogs in the Vineyard, White Wolf's Minds Eye Theater...)
Predominantly driven by story impetus with some focus on character abilities (Many early Indy Games, 3:16, Zero, ...)
Predominantly driven by individual abilities with some focus on story impetus (White Wolf Storyteller System, Spycraft/Modern d20 System...)
Purely driven by individual character abilities reacting to the outside world (D&D, Palladium Games, most other "mainstream" games...)

There are plenty of games I haven't mentioned above, I've specifically only included the big names that are easily recognizable, or ones with which I'm really quite familiar. The games above can vary their place on the scale up or down by a point depending on the GM and group playing, but the placement given is according to the way I understand them to have been designed.

But how do these games achieve their character interaction?

Looking at a simple version, I'll pick White Wolf's Storyteller system: "Werewolf" characters are typically grouped into a pack, one player takes the role of the pack alpha and other characters take on specific roles to define their place in the scheme of things compared to one another. "Sabbat Vampire" or "Kindred of the East" are perhaps the most advanced level of character interaction where specific degrees of bond between characters are monitored on the character sheet. Such a bond fluctuates through play as characters share blood, or spiritual energies with one another. In some ways these games may seem a bit contrived or forced, but this has been written into the source material as an instinctive aspect of the characters that the higher mind might rebel against (but has to accept none-the-less).

Moving up the scale, Minds Eye Theater (MET) plays up the aspect of social interplay with boons and oaths offered between players and major social ramifications applied for the breaking of these oaths. Each of the sub-games within the MET series has players who specifically take on the role of monitoring the flow of social interaction. Naturally, such a game requires a high number of players for these roles to become effective. The social interaction bestows an order on the group within the context of the game, and provides additional roles for players to take on when they aren't specifically excited by the role of "combat monster", "mystic" or "scholar". It could even be argued that these games are more easily reigned in and even self regulated, because there are players within the setting who aim to keep the peace rather than just GMs who try to railroad events.

At the highest levels, social interaction is applied in the manner of the Australian Freeform. Players are nothing beyond their connections to one another. Everyone wants at least one thing from the situation, and everyone wants at least one other person not to achieve their goals. Players don't necessarily know who to trust (because some people will be able to help their agendas, others will be actively hindering them, and many will be too busy pursuing their own unrelated goals). Players don't know the best way to achieve their goals, but they know that they'll have to keep things on the lowdown, in case their enemies gather in opposition. Some games apply basic rules for working together, others apply basic attributes to their characters for "just in case" players want their characters to go head to head. But the whole aim of these games is to get players to talk to one another, plot and scheme. It's what the set up does well, and for twenty years the formula hasn't changed much.

Players are divided into small groups with a common background or a common goal. Each individual within the group has a second goal that links them with members of other subgroups. Each individual is aware of one or more enemies existing in other groups, and they are aware of shadowy events that they must try to stop. Over the course of the freeform, events will be set into motion through the common will of the players, or at specifically designated periods by the GMs if things don't seem to be moving well otherwise. Gradually the players gather interest in one or two core storylines, and once one of these reaches critical mass, the freeform accelerates toward it's conclusion.

The biggest problem here is that the intercharacter connections of an Australian Freeform really need twenty or more players before the critical mass can be attained. I've seen it work with as low as 15, but the success rate is far lower. I'd love to work a way of getting this style of play to work in a tabletop game of five players, perhaps the Jeepform collective requires some more exploration in this regard.

Design Patterns of Successful Roleplaying Games

One of the people I respect in the field of independent roleplaying is John Kirk, who has written a great textbook on games and the mechanisms contained therein.

It can be found at the following link...

It was actually a source of inspiration for my current series of Game Mechani(sm)s, but I've made a distinct effort not to reference it in my blog so far, for fear of simply copying what has been written previously. Despite this I'm sure I've probably echoed a lot of what John has written, but with my own bias heavily applied to the subject matter. But then against, what blog exists without personal bias.

I look forward to reading through this updated version of the text.

Relational charts of Roleplaying Systems

[EDIT: Here's an old pair of links that I had intended to add to the blog, but never got around to. I had hoped to write something useful at the time, but now I've just decided to simply share the links. EDITED 14th NOV 2009]

Indie Game Design Relational Chart

Relational Chart Main Hubs

25 September, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #36: Roll High but Under.

Back to the grindstone of writing about Game Mechani(sm)s.

I've found another one that I like, not so much for any specific effect it produces within play, but for it's versatility.

3:16 is a pretty simple game on the surface, it uses a basic mechanism where you roll a 10 sided die and aim to roll under your designated skill level. The higher your skill level, the better your chance to roll under it.

But the instant advantage that a system like this provides is that it allows a method of comparing two opponents without resorting to additions, subtractions or other modifiers. As long as both participants succeed in their roll, simply compare the numbers. Higher value wins.

It's elegant because it combines two effects into a single die roll.

I'd like to find a good use for this in a game, but at the moment I've got too many other ideas circulting in my mind.

The Stockade

Just thought that I'd share with everyone that I've joined a community of Australian game designers called "The Stockade". There are already a few talented and respectable designers who have gathered in this group, so hopefully I won't be letting the team down.

The first official project of the Stockade is a 12 month contest, launched at Gencon Oz 2009 with the aim to produce a playtested and fully playable game by Gencon Oz 2010.

As a contest junkie and a forum junkie, its hardly surprising that I've already thrown my hat into the ring on this one.

I'm thinking of combining aspects of "A Penny for my Thoughts", "Baron Munchausen" and parts of my existing design concepts to create an immersive experience using the "tokens in a bag" mechanism and elaborately folded character sheets. I think it will involve Gypsies.

15 September, 2009

Gencon Oz

Haven't been posting much lately because I've been preparing for Gencon Oz.

Writing games, writing characters, preparing to GM sessions while wearing batman armour...it's a lot of work.

I'll try to start something more regular shortly.

07 September, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #35: THAC0

Let's look at a traditional game mechanism.

THAC0, as found in D&D, AD&D, AD&D 2nd edition and thankfully gotten ridden of in later editions of the rules.

Why do I say that? Did I hate it that much?

It's not just that THAC0 is confusing (well maybe it's a bit confusing, especially for new players), it's just not that you need to reference a bunch of character class specific tables to calculate it's values, nor is it just the fact that THAC0 involves addition and subtraction to derive, it's all that and more.

I don't think I get many readers from the old school rennaisance of gaming, most of the people I relate with online belong to the indie camp of game design so it's probably safe to criticise one of the holy symbols of early gaming (there's probably not a lot of difference between the two groups, but I'll get into that later).

Don't get me wrong, I know where the concept came from, but I've been hearing a lot of people lately who've been lamenting the demise of the old style of gaming, and just as many who have chosen to forsake the new version of D&D to return to the old styles of games they remember from years past.

Personally, I'd rather move forward than try to relive old systems that never felt right (even when they were state of the art)...