23 October, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #42: Escalation

I've just read through Elizabeth Shoemaker's Mist Robed Gate.

You've got to love a game where over a third of the text is a filmography of great martial arts movies, recipes for Asian cuisine to eat during play, and a quick guide to tea.

But those aren't mechanisms.

The game has at it's core, a sequence referred to as "the knife ritual". It's dramatic, evocative and a little dangerous...It uses a real knife.

The knife can be in a range of states, it begins sheathed and covered by a cloth when the tension is low. It becomes uncovered when things get a little tense. It becomes unsheathed when things are drawing to a head. It is stabbed into someone's character sheet when the edge of danger has been crossed and something nasty occurs. Character successes can increase or decrease the escalation of the knife, depending on their actions in game.

It's symbolic, but that symbolism is pretty clear and obvious.

I tried to do the same with Quincunx, using a series of scene types "vague", "unfocused", "focused" and "visceral". But my own effort to achieve this sort of tension lost something in the translation during my Gencon playtests.

A lot of people have raved about Mist Robed Gate, so I'm going to have to go back to re-reading it. There seems to be an elegance to the knife ritual that needs more exploration.

11 October, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #41: Making Player's Decisions Matter

At Gencon Oz, I was reminded why I have a dislike of many traditional roleplaying games. I have to admit here that it's probably not the game that's at fault, it's probably badly written adventures or modules, and bad GMs.

I really enjoy the L5R setting. I've got a thing for Japanese culture after studying martial arts for a few years and over-indulging in manga/anime and other forms of Japanese culture. Last year (2008) we played in a game called Heroes of Rokugan twice, once as a tabletop and once as a freeform. Leah and I didn't get much of a say in how the adventures went, we were just two lowly ranked characters amongst a group who were all willing to take things as they came. We came to the table with no preconcieved notions, and were willing to take a back seat to enjoy the narrative developed by the group.

During a couple of occasions we knew that our characters had abilities that might have been useful to push the narrative in the direction that it wanted to flow. We gained a bit of table respect for succeeding in certain rolls, or assisting in others.

But toward the end of the session we decided to start pushing boundaries. There were rumours of a troll nearby, but the game was designed to allow players to chase down such a monster. I was playing a character naturally inclined to research, and a few of the players had more combat ready characters and wanted to get their teeth stuck into something that wasn't political.

This wasn't the way the story was meant to go, but the GM was willing to allow us to indulge this for a while as the game was running fauirly quickly and a nice detour might help pad things out a bit.

The GM had to look up a troll from the rulebooks, and while she didn't make it far tougher than it needed to be, the monster could have made a quick breakfast from us.

Some incredibly lucky rolls meant that we actually made mincemeat from the troll...at which point the GM panicked. That wasn't supposed to happen.

Quickly some "more influential characters" come by and claim the kill as their own. Under the L5R system, we hadn't followed the intended story, so we weren't awarded any experience for killing the Troll. Neither did we get any renown/glory/honour for disposing of a nasty creature because someone else took the credit for the kill.

It felt like half an hour wasted. Nice story, but it made no impact on the in-game world, and it didn't benefit our characters at all either.

We figured that this might just have been because we were low ranked characters, perhaps after a year of play, we might be able to show up with more experienced characters and might be able to claim a bit more of that glory for ourselves.

Alas we were wrong, 2009 was even worse.

We were playing the same characters under a new GM. This time the module/scenario required investigation and the use of specific skills that few people on the table seemed to possess. It was a game also involving some combat, but we were all magic-users bar one.

The spells of my character involved talking to animals, and while it might make logical sense to progress a story vioa any means available to the table, the story hadn't been written with this as an option. Only talking to specific people would get the story progressing, and those people often seemed to be connected to the criminal underworld (and thus we would lose honour for talking to them), or they were highly rabnked in society (and thus they would lose honour for talking to us).

A catch-22, and we while we exhausted all of our options to get the narrative moving forward, we were blocked with simple comments of "No, you can't do that", or target numbers that were ludicrously high. On the occasions when we actually managed to meet these ludicrous target numbers our successes were dismissive anyway..."Yeah, you succeeded in getting them to talk to you, but they don't tell you anything useful).

Blocked at every avenue because the module/scenario hadn't been written to allow experimentation or thinking outside the square.

Eventually, "hand of god" kicks in. An NPC shows up right before the climax to reveal everything necessary to get a battle scene happening.

Leah and I knew that battle commonly occurs in L5R games, so we've set ourselves up as archers. As magic users, the archery seemed a good way to keep us out of the thick of things.

At range we fire into the melee, I can't remember if either of us hit...at this stage, the game had run over time and I was late for starting my own game session. The next thing I know, an opponent in the thick of battle (on the other side of the conflict), has traversed the gap between us and gets his full actions dice to make an attack against me.

My decision to engage in ranged attacks beyond the immediately melee was rendered null and void because the GM simply said so.

I took it, because I didn't want to start an argument.

A player on the table had specifically cdesigned his character to make use of a vicious spell combination that would augment a single warrior to superhuman capacities. The final produict basically allowed this augmented warrior to wipe out a person with each strike, and take four or five complete actions during the turn (while others have to be content with taking two or three strikes over consecutive turns to take out a single opponent).

The GMs face was aghast. L5R is often about the choice between what is honourable and right, or what is acceptable to the status quo and easy. Running with our tails between our legs would have been easy, taking the fight was the right and honourable thing to do, but it could have gotten us killed. The GM thought that he'd be able to simply wipe us all out with this combat.

Out come the rulebooks, the errata sheets from the publisher, the errata sheets for the Heroes of Rokugan campaign...

...I walked off. I had a game to run and I was already running late for it, my players had actually abandoned me as a no show and were getting their refunds by this stage.

By the time I'd managed to track down my lost players and sorted out the mess, the conflict on the table between GM and players (and between sides within the story) was drawing to a close.

Since he was a "by the book" GM, he had to live by the sword and die by the sword. Nothing prevented the combo from going off and the super augmented warrior sliced and diced the corrupt samurai who were under investigation. Their deaths proved their dishonour according to the module.

Any previous investigation would have been rendered useless anyway, because life and death comes first, while the word of those bearing the highest status comes second.

While I love the setting, from the card games to the miniatures. This really didn't gel with the way the game made it's reputation.

L5R became big because it evolved according to the decisions made by the players. If a certain clan wins a whole heap of card tournaments, it gains an advantage in the global storyline. If a common tactic involves two clans working together, then this will be written into the setting. If a certain combination proves to be broken, then a storyline event will cause it to become unusable.

For over a decade, the players have helped to shape the L5R world of Rokugan.

It's be nice if the writers of Heroes of Rokugan modules took this into consideration. Or at least if the GMs allowed the spirit of experimentation and free thought that has helped make the game thrive.

I don't think I'll be playing again next year.

10 October, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #40: Wide Games

Again, not really a mechanism, but more a style of game that has some distinct differences to tabletop roleplaying.

Wide games are fairly simple and most kids instinctively play this style of game..."Hide and Seek" is an example, as is "Cops and Robbers". But wide games tend to apply a type of ruling mechanism into the game, rather than just having them degenerate into arguments. The game of "Murder" commonly played on university campuses is another form of wide game.

There are some distinct similarities between wide gaming and live roleplaying, and I understand a bit of historical precedent between the two. But I think that the field of roleplaying can probably learn a bit more from this distinct evolutionary gaming path.

If you're still not sure what I mean by wide gaming... here's an excerpt from a website.

'Wide Games' include any game requiring or making use of any large area of land. Provided you stick to a few simple rules they are very easy to set up, very popular and can take advantage of any suitable area. Areas that are particularly good are where it is easy to hide such as woodland or heath, but they can be played in large open fields, its just not so much fun!

If you are familiar with organizing this style of game then feel free to carry onto the index of ideas. But if you are not then there are a few points you need to know

All wide games need you and all players to be aware of the size and type of playing area. This is mainly from the point of view of safety particularly if you are playing in area open to the general public, as the playing areas used can be anything from a small field to several Km2 or more of woodland or forest. It helps when setting boundaries to take advantage of natural ones like paths, streams, edges of woods or fields. If necessary walk everybody around the boundary and/or spend a little time placing boundary markers that are within sight of each other (this could be anything from strips of bright cloth tied to a tree to custom made posts and lights) boundary markers are only really necessary if is difficult to determine a boundary.

Depending on the age of the players, size and openness of the playing area it may be worth while having several marshals patrolling the area to make sure boundaries and rules are being adhered to and you may even want to consider using mobile phones or short range radios.

The website can be found here.

I remember particularly fondly playing wide games in my childhood and early teens.

There would be entire suburbs marked as the boundaries and anything up to 200 players involved in a complicated game that might last a full day from 9am to sundown.

It was the attempt to capture this type of interactive environment that first lured me into live roleplaying, but I was never able to capture the thrill that wide games provided in my nostalgia.

I thought of the wide game concept yesterday at work, just out of the blue. I guess I'd been thinking in the back of my mind about the "LIVE 3:16" I've now [promised to run at Gencon Oz next year, and the LARPs I've recently participated in. It got me thinking that maybe Widegames were a dying pastime, I had only remembered them from my youth and from what I remembered about them, they involved organised groups of people running around over wide areas, planning attacks, setting up defences and generally engaging in activities that a post-911 world would deem suspicious and dangerous.

But a quick google search has shown a thriving wide game community. It seems to be focused on the boy scouts, but that's hardly surprising given the fact that you typically need 20+ players to get a good critical mass for this style of play. Somewhat more surprising (but logical now I think about it), wide games have been adopted as corporate tools for teaching teamwork and reliance on others.

If you're interested in some of the links I've found about this style of game play...

84 Wide Games

Girl Guide Wide Games

Wikipedia Article

08 October, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #39: Card Suits

One of the quickest and easiest methods I've encountered for integrating a mechanism with a setting is through the use of card suits.

I've encountered this a couple of times over the last week, so it struck me as a good idea for this week's mechanism.

I'll illustrate the mechanism through a number of examples...

First, I used the mechanism myself when I wrote The Eighth Sea. In this case I paired the suits to different types of actions that can be taken by the characters. If a character manages to draw a card with a suit matching the action type, they gain an advantage when performing that type of action. It's a pirate oriented game so I gave the actions piratey names: Thumpin', Talkin', Thinkin' and Feelin'.

A few players have instantly gotten the right vibe from the game just by seeing these terms on the character sheet.

Second, I saw the mechanism used in the seminar/panel feedback that I posted in my last blog entry. The game discussed focuses on the mental processes and tactics employed on a baseball field, and the mechanism is highlighted through with the idea that hearts might be used to represent off-field dramas playing psychological havoc in a competitors mind.

Other suits aren't really elaborated, but presumably each would apply to a different style of pitching (fastballs, curveballs or slowballs), or different styles of batting (bunts, drives, or whatever else is used in baseball)...being an Aussie, baseball doesn't mean a whole lot to me, but I can instantly get a feel for the tactica play when the suits are applied.

Third, a new miniatures game that I've picked up called Malifaux. Spellcasters require specific suits of cards in their hands to reflect their attunement with different primordial forces when calling on their spells. Coincidentally (or maybe not), each of the four factions in the game so far focus on one of these energy types.

I've seen it used in a few other games (notably Castle Falkenstein, where I first saw it...and if I remember correctly, it corresponded suits roughly to attribute types.) It's simple, and it makes use of a major feature found in cards that can't really be replicated in dice. I'd like to make use of it a bit more in future games.

Perhaps if I do end up using Tarot cards in Brigaki Djili, then this will be a method of pulling story narrative with game mechanisms.

Game Design Panels

One of my regrets about Gencon Oz 2009, was the fact that I didn't get to participate in any of the seminars or panels...that was actually one of the things I enjoyed about Gencon Oz 2008.

Still it's good to see that there are panels and seminars dedicated to game design running at conventions elsewhere in the world.

V-Con Design Panel

Now I'm just waiting to see (or hear) some of the information from those Gencon Oz panels that I missed.

Hint. Hint. (for those who might be reading...)

04 October, 2009

The heady days of the Mid 1990s, Ukiyo Zoshi and a rant

I think the mid 1990s will always be my golden age.

I had just left high school and was starting to truly forge an identity of my own.

I had gotten a job and was earning my own keep for the first time.

The cold war was ending and the feeling of hope in the world was echoing my own feeling of freedom and the chance for a better life.

Nirvana was showing the world that you didn't need make-up and big hair to play good rock music. And you didn't need to spend far too much money on film clips to get into the top 40.

White Wolf's Storyteller system was showing the roleplaying community that games could focus on story rather than a quirky set of skills and abilities (but it still included these anyway).

I had a good core group of friends, and it felt like we'd all stay friends forever...

I could go on...but that's not the point of my post.

Around this time, a friend and I developed a game called Ukiyo Zoshi (translated from Japanese it roughly means "Tales of the Floating World).

We ran this game at conventions in and around Sydney, and developed a cult following, with all of our games fully booked out (often forcing us to accommodate for more players at the last minute). It was a fun game, but it never really eventuate into anything.

Every now and then I check on the site I developed for Ukiyo Zoshi. You can tell it was written just after the first Matrix movie came out, and you can tell it was something I had grand plans for which never came to fruition.

I'm surprised that it still comes up on the front page of a google search under the terms "Ukiyo Zoshi", especially when the term is actually a form of traditional Japanese literature with dozens of texts written in it's style.

It's one of those projects that's been 15 years in the making, and it will always be a work in progress. I haven't updated the Ukiyo Zoshi website in quie some time because I don't remember it's passwords and I don't even rememebr the email accounts I was using at the time to reclaim, the passwords.

I've just thought of it now because I've started looking into a new miniatures game called Malifaux from Wyrd Games. It's just reminded me of a plan to create a nice generic set of miniatures rules that can be used with ANY figures. I'm getting a little sick of obscure manufacturers producing great figures then linking them to a specific game that is good, but not great....then specifically naming their characters and preventing you from using the nice figures from other manufacturers in their game.

Just a personal pet peeve.

What would I be doing if I didn't roleplay? (Pt 1)

Rollerblading down rollercosters.

02 October, 2009

Brigaki Djili: The Big Three (or six or more)...

I've commented on the Power 19.

I'm deliberately not going to generate one for Brigaki Djili at this stage.

But I will look at the Big Three...three questions that help to focus a game design. The problem is, that I've encountered at least two different versions of "The Big Three".

  • What is your game about?
  • How does your game do this?
  • How does your game encourage / reward this?
I'm told that respected game designer John Wick likes to add..
  • How does you game make this fun?
Another version of "The Big Three" uses the first three questions of the Power 19, and often implies that these are the most valuable responses for the 19 questions.
  • What is your game about?
  • What do the characters do?
  • What does the GM do (if there is one)?
So that makes six different questions for "The Big Three", each of them reflects something distinctly different about the game without delving to deep into specifics. Probably a good series of points to start. It's also useful to remember from my engineering days that it takes 6 references to specifically identify a point in space (notably used in the Stargate movie and TV show to explain the need for 6 locking chevrons around the ring...even though their illustrations of this point weren't mathematically accurate).

So with 6 questions, here's an outline of where I'm heading with Brigaki Djili.

What is your game about?

At a deep level, it’s about weaving together tales through tapping into a communal subconscious; using this method to unveil stories that may have been hidden by the civilised and educated/indoctrinated conscious mind. Perhaps even exposing the arcane truths of the hidden world through apocrypha, allegory, ad-lib and Dadaist absurdity.

At a shallow and more immediate level it’s about having fun with friends, telling stories where no-one is sure what the outcome may be, how it may be reached or what might be revealed along the way.

How does your game do this?

The game is specifically designed so that no single person dominates the entire narrative. One player may take centre stage for a while, but there is no telling when another person might get the chance to integrate a twist into the tale being told. Players take on the role of storytellers, while also taking on the role of avatars within the story. Events are continually narrated and players are continually encouraged to react to these events as they unfold. The story need not always make sense, but then again neither does life. Those players who engage the complexity of the tale or who take more risks through their avatars gradually gain more control over their destiny and have more power over shaping future chapters of the story.

How does your game reward this?

Players are encouraged to take risks. This may be done by deliberately choosing to face more threats within their own stories, or by attempting to place their own narrative voice within the stories of the other players/storytellers. Those who face more risk give greater power to their avatars within the story; those who narrate within other stories may find that they can turn the perspectives of other avatars to their own advantage.

How do you make this fun?

The game is specifically divided into discreet chapters focused on one or two characters at a time. These chapters a divided into tableaux punctuated by moments of tension; a tableaux begins with the resolution of a tension, the reaction and movement to a new event and the movement to a new tension moment. After a moment of tension, the narrator may change depending on the luck of the draw; this means that a narrator has to make the most of their time in the spotlight. Anyone could be the next narrator (given that they showed an interest in this avatar’s story, and offered their tokens accordingly.)

What do the players do?

The players take on the role of a group of storytellers, the default archetype is a circle of old gypsy raconteurs, but they could just as easily be oracles (of the type encountered by Greek heroes), totem animals (sought by native shamans), or a cabal of intelligence operatives (in a modern or sci-fi setting). The players take turns narrating aspects of the story and guiding characters through the situations encountered.

What does the GM do?

There is a GM in this game, but the person taking on this role does not tell the stories, they merely ask questions to help pace the stories told by the other players. The GM represents a person who has come to the circle of players for their advice, wisdom and insight. The GM may interrupt each player once with a piece of evidence that may confirm or contradict a specific story element being narrated. Once used, these pieces of evidence become indelible facts that may not be removed from the story.