30 December, 2009

Putting together an index

It's the end of the year, my Game mechanism of the week project is winding down and I'm putting together an index for the assorted entries.

Looking back through them all, I see that I've repeated myself a couple of times with some mechanisms that are very similar (for example, my entry on Flow is very similar to my final entry, my karma resolution entry mentions GM fiat, even though that has it's own entry). At least these duplications tend to be more than 6 months apart, possibly allowing for a bit of evolution in my thought patterns.

It's also interesting to see which of the entries has developed the most number of comments. Ro-Sham-Bo drew far more attention than I had been expecting.

It's also somewhat depressing to look at entries where I've had ideas for Quincunx over the past year, and I've even playtested it multiple times (including at Gencon Oz), but it seems no closer to completion than it did at the start of the year.

Hopefully the index will be compiled and available on the Vulpinoid Studios site tonight.

29 December, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #52: No Mechanisms

The Senryaku, the Art of War, has 36 stratagems for mastering the ability to fight.

Stratagem 36...

Run Away.

Know when your battles are stacked against you and don't waste your resources in these foolhardy pursuits.

So I present that the last mechanism a gamer should have in their repertoire is no mechanism at all.

In my experience, some of the best moments in roleplaying occur when players and GM put aside the rules and let the intimacy of the moment take them. This could be allowing the story to take it's course, truly immersing in a situation and forgetting it's a game at all, or really becoming one with the character.

A good set of mechanisms facilitates this type of moment, a good GM recognises it and allows it to flourish, a good player allows others to have their moment in the spotlight without stealing their thunder and calling for a judgment according to page XX.

It's a lot harder to do than might be first thought, it's almost zen-like in it's attainment. Those players who are sometimes defined as "gamists" latch onto the rules and often find it hard to identify with their characters beyond a killer combo, or brilliant skill. Those players sometimes identified as "narritivists" become so obsessed with the story and their ability to manipulate it through the rules that they forget the notion of spontaneous story development. Those players sometimes referred to as simulationists become so hooked up on the way the rules should replicate the setting, that they forget to smell the roses or take in the nuanced details that might be present.

I'm not tarring all players with a brush of unenlightenment, but virtually every game I've played in has seen one or more players spoiling the moment because things weren't going their way, or because they didn't like the way things were heading from the perspective of story or situation. Even in games where I've written the rules and I'm running them as a demonstration of what can be achieved through those rules...there are still people who get hooked up on certain mechanisms and don't know when to let go...much to the detriment of the game and the other players.

I'm not immune to it either.

25 December, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #51: Changing the Mechanisms to Suit

As I wind down my game mechanisms for the year, I've had a few preconceived ways to finish off the series. I'll be using two of these, both of which are really meta-mechanisms.

The penultimate mechanism is the notion of changing a game's mechanisms to account for what is happening in the fiction. Changing the way characters are able to interact with the world depending on how they have done so in the fiction so far.

At a long term perspective, this can be accounted for through experience points, especially in games where these points are used to purchase character upgrades rather than simply advance through levels. It gives the players some way to inform the group as to how they'd like a story to progress.

John buys a whole heap more stealth for his character, so it's obvious he'd like a bunch of situations where hiding is important. Charlie buys up his character's piloting skill, so it's obvious he wants more chances to get some vehicle action happening.

Old-school traditional gaming doesn't seem to take this into account, but then again old-school traditional gaming tends to treat character development through classes and levels rather than point buy systems. In such games it doesn't really matter what the players want to do, it's only the whim of the GM that matters. See my comments on Heroes of Rokugan at GenCon Oz 2010.
It becomes more a matter of creating characters that meet the requirements of the scenario set by the GM, rather than developing a story to set the needs of the character.

But that's just a crude way of adjusting the systems to match the story.

What I'm actually thinking here is a game that literally changes gears on-the-fly. An example of this can be found in Rackham's Cadwallon (fansite here), most play occurs in a traditional format with players describing the actions of their characters, occasionally rolling dice if there is a chance of failure or some chance that an interesting twist in events might occur...but as soon as a moment of drama occurs, the game completely shifts gear to a miniatures game with a second set of rules. It might be a bit too much of a jump for some people and there can be a disjoint in the narrative when the first couple of games are played, but it freely admits that the basic system is a poor match for resolving combat, and the combat system is a poor match for developing story. It tries to claim the best of both worlds by using two completely different systems that are each specialised in producing a specific play experience. If you want more combat play, resolve the potential story conflicts in this manner...if you want more narrative play then avoid the conflicts through conversation and diplomacy. Two groups could play the same scenario in very different ways and under very different rules, each perfectly viable.

Another example is typically found in gaming accessories and scenarios rather than the main rulebooks. A certain scenario might have the characters facing off against a scary monster, so it introduces a fear mechanism when confronting the unknown. In regular play, a mechanism like this might not be necessary, but it really becomes significant when dealing with the specific situations in the scenario provided. You add the subsystems when you need them, you ignore them altogether when they are no longer relevant. A good supplemental mechanism is one of the few lures that will prompt me to buy a game scenario or gaming supplement.

I'm told that D&D4 has taken steps in light of this revelation, but many reports have indicated a slightly different tack. It also takes heavily to the miniatures route for conflict resolution, but has basically eliminated the narrative side completely except for some very limited die rolling.

The new edition of Warhammer also seems to have taken some steps in this direction...it's one of those games I'd love to get a good look at one of these days.

19 December, 2009

A New Gaming Theory and Lexicon

I've been a member of The Forge for a few years now. One of the things that took me a while to adjust to in that gropup was the usage of specific terms that describe elements of gaming theory. The problem is that many of these existing terms have a different usage in common language, or they are used to describe something in a way that just doesn't quite give a good mesh between the actual word and the element being described.

Story Games is always quick to shoot down someone when they mention Gamism, Narritivism or Simulationism...and whether the motives are honourable or not, I think it's good that they do this, because the words in themselves are poorly defined (or hold different definitions to different people). Confucius began one of his books by saying that much conflict in the world derived simply from a lack of shared definitions, that a common language would prevent many of the world's wars.

I've hinted that I'm working on a new theorum of game design. Not quite ignoring the "Big Model" or continued work of Ron Edwards, I'm trying to dig at the methods of play, the interaction of mechanisms, the structure of story and the reflection of what people put into a game compared to what they expect in return for their investment (and conversely what they actually get for their return).

Andrew Smith has pointed out that the work of Ron Edwards comes from an anthropological viewpoint. This seems a fair comment, and is certainly an appropriate manner by which a social pastime ould be analysed. But anthropology has a nasty tendency to pigeonhole people and when people don't fully understand the nature of the labels being applied to them, they can react badly to the description. The "Big Model" and it's subtheories tend

I'm more interested in the work of John Kirk, and his Design Patterns of Successful Role Playing Games, which has been circulating the game design community for a few years now. I've mentioned it a couple of times in this blog and it';s been a really influential part of my own game design techniques over the past two years since I've been made aware of it. An updated second edition of the book was also made available this year.

I'm not sure if I'm just going to be treading the same ground with my own work, or if I'll develop an interesting fusion with a fresh perspective. I'm hoping that I strike something revolutionary and special in my approach, something that might inspire a new generation of designers...but that would just be a welcome side effect. The theory is intrinsically a method to clarify the process of assorted roleplaying games, to analyse what goes well and what goes wrong within a variety of game types and play styles.

It's not going to be easy, and I'm sure there will be discussions and arguments along the way, but that's going to be my project for 2010.

18 December, 2009

Game Mechanism of the Week #50: GM Fiat

You could call it Deus Ex Machina, the hand of god, or if you are really against the concept you might even call it "railroading". I've wondered many times over the course of the past year whether it even constitutes a mechanism.

If you're not familiar with the concept of GM fiat it works pretty simply like this.

The GM simply decides whether your idea will work, the motivation between this choice is usually based on where the action will take the game or story. It can be done well, but it often gets a bad rap because the concept is usually associated with GMs who do it poorly.

In traditional rolplaying games, a group of players gathers to play through a story. There is a subtle difference; they don't gather to communally tell a story, they gather to put a group of characters through a series of set pieces pre-defined by the GM. When a GM uses GM fiat as one of the mechanisms for their game, they simply allow characters to take the actions that will logically lead the story from one set piece to the next, while they make any other actions difficult for the characters to engage.

Difficulty can be defined a few ways; psychologically (it is implied that really bad things will happen if the characters choose to follow the specified course of action), mechanically (any action that takes the characters beyond the predefined scenario faces a target number or difficulty much higher than it really should be), interpretively (any successful actions that push beyond the scope of the pre-defined story seem to have less effect than they should) or even blatantly ("No, it doesn't work!"). It's this last case that really makes a GM stand out as a user of fiat. The first few cases, if used carefully and subtlely, might fly completely below a playing group's collective radar.

Like tables in an earlier mechanism, I've had my attitude to GM fiat change over the years. I once thought that te idea was simply the hallmark of a bad GM...that a good GM could craft a decent story from the actions of their players rather than forcing their players down specific storylines. I looked at the hundreds of modules on a gaming store shelf, never thinking that I'd play straight through them because this type of pre-defined linear narrative belonged in novels, not in games.

I've played in live games where the GM fiat became noticeable, and then blatantly obvious to me...only to end up frustrating me out of the game. Yet other players have really loved these games. I thought it was perhaps naivety on their part, but came to realise that it all links into the concept of illusionism within a game, and determining how much of my creative voice I was willing to give over to a core visionary.

If the core visionary is telling a story that makes sense in my eyes, or is weaving a tale that I'm finding interesting, I'm happy to sit back and take the ride. Engaging enough to keep my interest levels active, but not trying to rock the boat too much.

Looking back on GM fiat in that light, it is actually a useful tool for driving a story forward, especially where more modern games might get mired in a bog as multiple players pull against one another with the actions of their characters. So GM fiat can include the introduction of any element that drives a plot toward a predefined goal. This interpretation means that I'm as guilty of GM fiat as the next GM, I just hide my efforts in the colour of the setting, and the flavour of the actions, trying to subtly use psychological, mechanical and interpretive means to push a story to an outcome I'd like to see.

I have been developing an idea of game analysis through vectors over the past couple of days, defining game concepts through vectors passing from, to and through specific scene nodes. The place of GM fiat pushes a vector in a specific direction, or places boundaries on there a story vector might head...more of this should hopefully start making sense next year, as the gaming vector model is explored, detailed and discussed through this blog.

12 December, 2009

Game Mechanism of the Week #49: Saving Throws

The bane of a high speed gamer.

This bugbear of gaming appeared early. I pull out my tattered old D&D Red Box...Save vs Rods or Breath, Save vs Poison or Death Ray, Save vs Staves or Spells.

We move through several generations of games..

I move on to a generic product from the Palladium lineage, Heroes Unlimited...Save vs Coma/Death, Save vs Magic...my favourite nonsensical saving throw...Pull/Roll with Punch/Fall/Impact, and dozens of others to cover resisting any type of effect that could possibly hinder a character.

Lets move onward to advanced games where storytelling is more important than mechanics (or so was the claim)...I'll pull out the more socially oriented of White Wolfs original World of Darkness, Vampire the Masquerade (I could have pulled out the more combat focused Werewolf, but we expect more detail in its combat resolution mechanisms)...even in this combat is divided into a roll for attack, a roll for damage, then a roll to soak (and hopefully avoid a chunk of that damage). Most actions in the game series follow a similar procedure...aggressor rolls a bunch of dice to claim successes (often with a difficulty based on the situation at hand), while the defendant rolls a bunch of dice to negate those successes.

A quick detour over to wargames...the common conflict pattern in these games follows the same structure...roll to see if it happens, roll to see how bad it is, then roll to see how much of it you can avoid.

Attack, Damage, Armour Save.

As originally intended, saving throws were designed to allow characters a chance of avoiding things that might otherwise simply happen automatically. In old D&D, spells just happen; without saving throws, there would be no way to avoid the incoming sleep spell or magic missile.

...but rolling to prevent the impact of something that you've already rolled to avoid...I think that's taking two bites of the cherry and really just slows the game play down. I prefer to think of the outcome in two simple terms, either a person is hindered or they aren't...a situation is defused or it isn't...the specific details of the event can be narrated through the story.

He shoots me but I take no damage.
a) He missed
b) He hit, but my armour deflected the shot
c) He hit, but my armour deflected the worst of it, I suffered a flesh wound and now I'm frakkin' MAD!!! The adrenaline surging through my veins prevents me from suffering ill effects at the moment.

Each would be a different outcome according to dice with saving throws. Using said dice would take some of the narrative control out of the hands of the players, and deprive them of the chance of portraying their characters as they envision them. But then again, some people don't like to work their imagination overtime while playing, and they like following the whim of the dice.

Another reason I'm not a big fan of saving throws is that they are effectively story buffers in another sense. A GM can craft an elaborate trap, and a player can successfully make their save, effectively eliminating that part of the story. A player can be an absolute idiot through the course of a session, knowing that they have a saving throw that will probably negate the effects that other players can throw at them. With this in mind through, I guess that saving throws are a great tool for gamist play, they allow a player to step on up while reducing the chances of detrimental backlash.

Still, I'm not a big fan. Unless someone can really show me an elegant way of incorporating them into a story game.

09 December, 2009

Game Mechanism of the Week #48: Tables

I'm surprised I haven't really delved into the topic of tables earlier. I know I've thought of the idea a couple of times over the past year, but usually in context with some other mechanism.

Love them or hate them, tables are a part of many games.

The random monster and treasure tables in many early RPGs.

The devilishly elaborate tables that refer you to other tables when engaging the combat sequence in Rolemaster.

Tables designed for rapid generation of cities, regions and worlds in a variety of Game Master guides.

The curious tables scattered through the sourcebooks of RIFTS and GURPS.

Even the "modern" indie games fascination with oracles, due in no small part to the game "In a Wicked Age", are really just a new form of random data table accessed through the draw of cards rather than the rolling of dice.

I used to love tables, because you could introduce all sorts of elements into a game at random times, or when specific triggers were met. My early games (written in my high school years of the late 1980's/early 90's) seem to have a table on every page now that I look back on them. But this was an era when "realism" was sought in a game, and the quickest way to get "realistic" descriptions was to create a few cool effects then determine the likelihood of them happening and array them into a table of some sort.

Then I went through a phase where I hated them. They epitomised a lack of imagination and a constraint on the ability to tell a good story.

I've verged back to the concept of tables, as long as they are used sparingly and used with a specific purpose.

Like most mechanisms, if tables are used well they can really enhance a game, but if used poorly they just become dry collections of data stored in a randomly accessible format.

Good uses for tables include the ability to inject some thematic detail into an otherwise dry system. Good descriptors can help to provide an effective way of grounding a system into the "reality" of the game world. They can also be used to streamline certain effects, by offering a quick die roll that can then be referenced once for an immediate outcome (as long as they don't simply refer you to other tables....which might be good during character generation or story development, but can be incredibly frustrating in a high tension moment like combat).

Many of the features once found in tables are now handled behind the scenes in many computer roleplaying games, crunching numbers and generating outcomes based on random events are a forte of computers, so it makes sense to handle these things out of a player's sight. This is probably one of the many reasons why tables have gone out of fashion in many of the current crop of games.

...it's probably also a reason why tables often feature so heavily in the genre of game called the "heartbreaker", a longing to return to the old days of roleplaying before computer games became so prominent.

06 December, 2009

Game Mechanism of the Week #47: Outsiders

I hate it when I'm at work and I can write a bunch of notes on a scrap of paper, each of those notes forming the trigger for a great blog entry about game mechanisms...only to lose those scraps of paper when I sit down at the computer. It's happened quite a few times over the course of the past year.

...and it's happened again now.

Since a new idea has come to mind, I'll consider it as something worthy to write about.

Player characters are all outsiders. This is a part of the quintessential hero myth, if the hero was like everyone else, they wouldn't be interesting to tell stories about. If a group of player characters were doing the same stuff that everyone else is doing, then it probably wouldn't be worthy for us to dedicate our imaginative efforts toward them.

A lot of early games played of this specifically. You are an adventurer who travels from town to town, ridding the local dungeons of their unsavoury inhabitants, and trading unearthed treasures for tools that will continue to help you explore new towns and dungeons.

Why don't the townsfolk go and rid the dungeons of evil?

Because they are either too weak, too frightened, or prevented from doing so by the local authorities (and this is where the extent of politics came into old school gaming).

More recent games have often sought to bring the player characters in contact with the world around them, integrating them into societies or factions (as I've described in previous mechanisms), byut it's still a case that the only independant thought in a game world typically comes from the player characters. Everyone else is going abut their daily duties, following their masters, reacting to the actions of the player characters, or engaging in their own grand plans that have taken weeks/months/years to set into fruition.

The players characters come in to upset the status quo, and for this reason they are treated differently by the people of the game world. They may be feared, hated, or sought for their skill and abilities.

Of course this is a bit of an over-generalisation. Villains are also removed from the population, and they may be feared, hated or adored just as much as the player characters.

A few games have mechanisms that show how much the key characters are separated from the rest of the world. Consider the class levels in early D&D...most regular folks are considered level 0, maybe level 1 if they've got a bit of experience, possibly level 2 or 3 if they are a part of the local militia or have marked themselves as prominent from some reason. The key characters in the world can quickly ascend to levels 10 or higher, and at this point they are truly removed from the regular folks.

Later editions of the game have allowed regular townsfolk to ascend through "NPC" classes, but these classes provide far less benefits at each level, and a plyer character at level 10 (in anything) far surpasses the abilities of a townsfolk at level 10 (in any NPC class). Those who choose to think for themselves and push against the world around them are both rewarded and cursed.

Another system to look at in this way is the Storyteller games of White Wolf. Vampiric Generation describes how far a character can transcend mortal bounds, but it also bring new levels of danger with every step removed from humanity. Magical Arete shows a persons ability to percieve the true nature of the universe, but with that knowledge comes susceptibility to the forces of paradox.

Many games play on this notion in other ways.

A character might possess a reputation trait that grows as they perform specific deeds. Gradually notifying to the outside world that this is someone to be noticed/feared/adored.

Looking back on my game "The Eighth Sea", I incorporated this concept into character's coherency ratings. Those characters who sought to make changes to the timestream based on their inner desires found their place in the timstream strengthened and their distance from the regular masses enhanced. Unlike some games though, I decided that if a character chose to give up their swashbuckling ways and fall back into the ebb and flow of the continuum, their coherency would gradually drop them back to normal levels.

I can't think of too many other games that reflect this side of the heroes path on a deeper level...the journey back to the mundane world. Sure, an adventurer returning to town after a dungeon is bringing back their find, but can an epic level hero settle down to a family life after years of adventuring? In most games it seems unlikely...but maybe that's just the crowds I've been playing with.

Once a hero transcend the world, there often seems no turning back.