24 February, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #9: Matrixed Experience

As a follow on to the 8th game mechanism, the following conceot expands the idea of an attribute matrix and gives it dynamic potential as an experience system.

These are all a part of the Quincunx RPG system that I'm currently working on.

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I've recently posted about my take on matrixed attributes on the forge.

While taking a walk today I considered an expansion on this concept, tying an experience system into the core matrix.

A hypothetical character begins with the matrix...

xAirEarthFireMetalWaterWood
Agenda--X-X-
ConnectionsX-X-X-
Face--X-X-
SkillsXXXXXXXX
Offences--X--
Defences--XX--


I've recently made posts about an experience system where characters accumulate enough failures with a skill to push them toward a new degree of proficiency. I've contemplated this from a dozen directions in the context of a matrix, but it kept feeling too contrived.

Today's thought pattern comes from an entirely new perspective, and I'd like to see if other people "get it".

To explain the experience system, I'll have to put the attribute matrix in context.

The game basically works off scenes, where each scene focuses on a specific character. During the scene, a challenge calls on a specific point on the matrix (a specific combination of element and manifestation), but a player may use another combination if they can justify it through the narrative. The only catch is that the character must use either the element or the manifestation in the new combination they are using (and the difficulty increases by a degree).

If a specific challenge calls for a combination of Metal and Face, the hypothetical character above doesn't have any points in this combo. But the character could use Metal and Skill as their combination because at least they know that they've got some points in that combination, it might be a bit harder than if they'd normally possessed the skill, but it's better than trying to use a skill they don't have. The player just has to narrate why their skill would be useful to the situation at hand.

In an unfocused scene, a character challenges with a single combination. In a focused scene, they might use two or three combinations of skills to accomplish a more detailed task (but they may never use the same combination more than once in a given scene).

That's the basics. It makes sense in my head because I've been working with the concept pretty carefully over the past couple of months, if it doesn't make sense to anyone who's reading, let me know...one of my aims in this game is to keep it simple and user friendly.

Now that a context has been set, on to the experience.

My simply theory is that over the course of a game, a player marks off on a dedicated experience sheet every time they use a specific element in a skill attempt, and similarly, they mark off ever time they use a specific manifestation. By the end of the game, we'll have a good idea of whether the character's actions have been more fire oriented, or water oriented, or whatever other element has dominated. Similarly, we'll see if they relied more on their own skills, on their appearances, on offensive deeds, etc.

At the end of a session, a player may add a point to any combination that includes the element that dominated their recent actions. If they've been more angry (using fire a lot), they get in increase something that draws on that anger, or makes a connection with other people who also share that anger. Similarly, a player may add a point to any combination that includes the manifestation that dominated their recent actions. If the character has been more defensive throughout their recent actions, they must add a point to one of their defensive combination points.

If the hypothetical character at the start of this post followed the actions just described, they could boost any fire and any defense, and might end up looking something like this...

xAirEarthFireMetalWaterWood
Agenda--X-X-
ConnectionsX-XX-X-
Face--X-X-
SkillsXXXXXXXX
Offences--X--
Defences-XXX--


Gaining a "Fire Connection" and an "Earth Defense".

Given the elemental context, I could ban someone from buying a combination involving "water" since this is the opposite of "fire".

But here's a second twist.

Experience is not just growth, it's an evolution. Evolving toward something, but away from something else.

At the end of a session, when a character adds two points to their matrix, they also remove one.

I'm in two minds about the point removed (some might say that this is because I'm a gemini).

My first thought is that once the elements and manifestations are tallied up at the end of the session, the character automatically loses a point in the combination of the lowest element and the lowest manifestation. But if the character doesn't have any points in this combination, what happens?

My second thought is that the character should lose a point from a combination of their choice as long as it involves the element they used least or a manifestation they used least.

Either way, this reflects that a side of the character is starting to atrophy from not being used.

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Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #8: The Character Matrix

It's been over a week since I last posted, in fact it's almost been a fortnight.

I know that I was ahead when I last posted, but now I'm pretty sure I'm behind. So I'll be posting two consecutive game mechanisms, both stolen from recent posts I've made to the Forge.

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I've also been toying with matrices for characters, but I'm using a 6x6 matrix at the moment, using columns and rows to define everything about the character, not just the attributes.

The columns represent elemental essences, while the rows represent methods of manifestation [agenda, connections, skills, face, offences, defences].

Characters basically fill a single column with a point in each...

xAirEarthFireMetalWaterWood
Agenda--X---
Connections--X---
Face--X---
Skills--X---
Offences--X---
Defences--X---


...and a single row with a point in each (yes, where the two cross over, the character ends up with 2 points)...

xAirEarthFireMetalWaterWood
Agenda--X---
Connections--X---
Face--X---
SkillsXXXXXXX
Offences--X---
Defences--X---


...then they can distribute 6 more points anywhere across the grid that they see fit.

xAirEarthFireMetalWaterWood
Agenda--X-X-
ConnectionsX-X-X-
Face--X-X-
SkillsXXXXXXXX
Offences--X---
Defences--XX--


Each of the grid positions actually has it's own name, for example the crossover point between Fire and Agenda is "Valour", while the crossover point of Earth and Offence is "Unrelenting". Characters get an improved degree of success where their benefits apply.

The matrix defines almost everything about the character, except for a few supernatural abilities (which also link back to the matrix in some way), and ways that the character links into the community around them (every communal link gives the character access to something they can't do themselves, in exchange for a taboo associated with the group).

Different tasks in the game will require specific manifestations, and if the player can narrate a way that their character's specialty elemental field applies to the situation, then they can get the bonus. Beyond these 36 combinations, there are further subspecialties where character gain truly exceptional bonuses (but it becomes ever more difficult to find uses for these narrow specialty fields during the course of play).

Despite having 36 core attributes and potentially 150 or more sub attributes, the game is designed to be rules light.

One of the key themes in the game is that a certain elemental context permeates all parts of a character's being, meaning that people with a fiery temperament will tend to possess the same types of skills and associate with the same types of people...so the matrixed character description was done on purpose.

But that's just my current take on the theme...

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11 February, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #7: Supernatural Powers

One of the things that I've found frustrating about many games is the idea of Supernatural Powers within the context of the setting and the context of the existing game mechanisms.

Some games get the setting right, although this is most commonly the case when games are using supernatural powers adopted from a setting somewhere else. Perhaps seeking to simulate a particular run of comics, a successful movie or a series of popular novels. It's a no-brainer when you attempt to get something right, then simply copy another source verbatim...(don't ask me why Hollywood can't get it right when they try to cash in on the success of popular comics or award winning graphic novels...that's another tirade altogether.)

Getting the mechanisms right is another matter entirely. But the mechanisms depend on what the game is trying to achieve, and the achievements with the system are critically linked in with the agendas of the theme and style of play being sought.

This is purely my own opinion (based on what I've read over the years)...DC comics are about powers, Marvel Comics are about the flaws, many independent comics mix the two to varying degrees of success.

Translating this back into game terms, we need to consider how much of a game is going to be dedicated to the special abilities and cool tricks that the characters can perform. How much of the world can be transformed when these effects come into play?

Many games over the years have simply presented a series of powers, ranging from a dozen or so, through to the hundreds of powers available in a game like Heroes Unlimited and its numerous accompanying sourcebooks. This method isn't so much a mechanism as it is a smorgasboard of choices, some of which are far more lucrative than others (simply inviting certain competitive types of player to mass produce a series of clones with the same ultimate combination of game manipulating effects).

Cetainly not what I'm after. It doesn't engender creativity, and it doesn't maximise the potential enjoyment for the widest number of people. In a competitive atmosphere, all players end up with vague copies of one another; while in a narrative environment, one player gets the limelight while others are often relegated to sidekicks. That would be looking at things from the power perspective.

Looking at the flaws and weaknesses definitely brings more humanity to the story, and personally I think that's a far more interesting way to focus a game. Look at what the powers can't do, rather than looking at what they can. A good GM will design their game to ensure certain players can't always succeed and will give the less obvious characters a moment to shine.

But how do we develop a game mechanism that brings this about?

For this I propose a system where characters need to engage in their flaws before they can access their powers in a way that is meaningful for the progression of the game. (Note that I chose the grammatical construction of that sentence carefully).

I haven't said that players only get access to their character's powers if they use their flaws...a character with super strength will always have super strength, but they won't always find the right opportunity to use it, especially not when the situation calls for subtle diplomacy.

In certain styles of game, it might be hugely advantageous to possess mind control compared to possessing an ability to turn into a gerbil, but if you watch the movies "Sky High" or "Mystery Men", you'll see how under-rated powers can really be used to save the day if they are applied at the right time and place.

Consider every other medium where supernatural powers are used and you'll find that the better examples show the abilities in a context. Everyone takes for granted the fact that Superman can fly, has amazing strength and has an array of powers that would just seem cheesy if he were produced today...it's the times when those powers are of little use to him that the memorable storyline develop (or the times when he has to combine various powers and push them to new limits). A vampire may be known for its suave and sophisticated attitude, its ability to read minds and manipulate the emotions of its victims, but it's the vulnerability to sunlight that defines the race.

It sorts of brings me back to an earlier mechanism, where experience is only gained through failure. But I'm looking at it from a different light here; in this exploration I'm more interested in how players can advance the story through the strengths and weaknesses of their characters, rather than considering how the players can advanced their characters through the successes and failures within the story. Almost like two sides of the same coin, but not quite.

You can probably infer from my comments so far, that I'm not going to generate a list of powers for this game mechanism, I'm going to keep the specific powers fairly abstract and focus on how the powers could manipulate the world within the game.

For this I like games where degrees of success are measured; one success being a minor success or a partial success, two being a full success, three or more adding degrees of "awesomeness" to the final result. On the negative side, there needs to be at least two degrees of failure; one where the character has simply failed to make significant headway in their task, and another where the character fails catastrophically.

There are plenty of systems in the gaming comminuty where this scale of results can occur.

We also need some kind of mechanism where the scenes are generated at least partially on-the-fly, because we can never tell how characters will use their powers or what weaknesses might become significant.

Basically, I'd look at a series of counters to reflect a karmic balance. Every time a player accepts a penalty, they get the opportunity of unleashing one of the strengths later on. But there would have to be some kind of cap on this.

Let's look at this from a communal story situation. Scene is vaguely set by the GM, any of the players may introduce into the scene some kind of issue that has to be resolved in addition to the premise currently laid out. A player may introduce situations that make it harder for their own character, In exchange, their degree of success is reduced by one level (marginal successes become marginal failures, and marginal failures become catastrophic failures). For confronting an obstacle, the player now gets a token that may be used to fuel their character's power later on. When they later use their power, they may narrate a part of the scene to show how their power will be of use (The GM narrates that a crash victim needs to be rescued...the player spends their point then describes that a half-crushed car pins the leg of the occupant, the character's super strength can be used to rip the vehicle apart and release the victim).

As long as the GM is fairly loose with their needs from the scene, they can keep the narrative open and can allow new elements to be added by the players.

If we look at it from a competitive perspective, then players might be able to add elements to the scene that will hinder one another. To keep things simple, the same meta-game currency would be used. A player can use one of their earned tokens to apply a bonus to themselves, or can introduce an element into the scene that will hinder one of their fellow players. In this set-up, a central pool of tokens is absorbed by the players as they write their own weaknesses into the storyline, and if players declare situations where their strength would be an advantage then they put the tokens back in the central pool...but the twist is that a player can give a token to someone else. Effectively adding it to the central pool, then forcing another player to take it by introducing their weakness. The combo move is less effective than the combined sum of transferring the token to bring a power into play, then transferring the token in exchange for a weakness, but it makes the players more wary of one another. This element of paranoia can really give a game a darker vibe.

The mechanism could even be combined with other mechanisms suggested so far to give some really thought provoking concepts.

Combined with the first mechanism, the conscience bag, players could be forced to consider whether they really want to use their powers or not. Draw a white bead and you decide that the use of powers in this situation would be extravagant and you would be better off saving them as an ace up your sleeve later in the story, draw a black bead and you say "damn the consequences" and go all out with whatever you have at your disposal. Perhaps if you draw black beads from the bag, you'd have to use as many of your accumulated power tokens as the number of beads drawn. The darker your urges, the more incline you are to use the power to its fullest extent.

That helps to combine a suitable capping option with the mechanism, but having more than one type of token floating around can confuse players who aren't used to the concept of meta-game currencies...trust me, I've now run enough games of The 8th Sea to see the confusion on people's faces.

If degrees of success are added by the judicious application of powers to a suitable situation, then another method for capping the degree of power could simply be a degree of mastery in the power being used. One player might have a clairvoyance of 2, another might have a clairvoyance of 7. The first player can only spend two of their accumulated power tokens on a task where their clairvoyance skill is useful, while the other player might be able to spend seven tokens on the same feat. Presumably the character with only 2 levels, would have a variety of other powers through which their tokens could be used, and this would be tied in with the experience systems of the game.

I guess the idea presented here could easily be used to add unconventional powers into any type of game, giving them a different feel to any existing abilities. Maybe psychic powers into a modern day spy genre, or freeform magic into a structured world of super-heroics.

08 February, 2009

Theme vs Mechanics

I guess my weekly endeavour here has touched on concepts that people have been investigating for a while.

In some web surfing I found this monologue on the topic of game themes and mechanisms. It's more focused on the world of board games and collectable card games, and I guess that this is because the author doesn't want to open up the roleplaying can of worms...hell, he even states that most games would be better off without following a narrative (I'm paraphrasing here, but that's what I get from certain remarks he makes).

Have a look for yourself.

Theme vs Mechanics

I might get around to writing up something of my own on one of these days.

[Edit: No, actually, I've misrepresented the author. I had also been reading a second article on game concepts where the author seems to believe that narrative doesn't have a part to play in gaming.]

07 February, 2009

AGON

On Thursday the 5th of February Andrew Smith came down from Brisbane and ran a game of AGON for us.

I've gotta say, there's only so far that you can get with theorising; actually playing a game gives it more of a visceral feel and you can really get into the mechanisms at work.

I guess it's just like drawing, sculpture, or even motorcycle maintenance in this regard.

After reading through forums and piecing together what I could from the rules I could find online, it looked like a nice system, but there were certain subtleties in the game that didn't really manifest until the dice actually hit the table.

One of the ideas in the game that I really liked was the concept of interludes.

You have scenes of dramatic action or intense narrative, where different players get the chance to compete for glory, but once players start getting injured or lose their confidence through failures, they can take a break and engage in some down time to rest. But this also gives the enemy forces in the game a bit more chance to recover their strength as well.

While you will probably gain some kind of benefit from an interlude, it really makes you think about whether resting is a good thing or not.

(I'm definitely thinking of stealing this concept for Quincunx).

Another concept is the idea of playing for the team or trying to get glory for yourself. Throughout the game a couple of times I tried to turn a few sequences into contests for the chance to win a bit more glory, it seemed in the spirit of the genre. Some I did well in, others I failed miserably (the dice gods weren't with me for a lot of my rolls that night). But it gave the game a bit more tension and I liked it.

It's a game that stands-alone quite well, but it's begging for fusions with new genres. I've heard that there is a Norse version doing the rounds, and I've seen some interesting discussions of modifying the setting to the Shadowrun universe (presumably using corporations to follow instead of Gods). Andrew suggested the Mayan pantheon as a possibility, but totems from native North American myth or other shamanic cultures would work just as well. The world that Leah has been working on was originally based off the D&D rules, but there were certain things about it that just never really felt right...I could easily see that setting being a good mesh with the AGON rules set.

As soon as I get the chance I'm going to have to get my hands on a copy to really delve into the mysteries and the full potential of the system.

01 February, 2009

Game Mechani(sm) of the Week #6: Pigeonholing.

The concept of keywords has come up in a few discussions lately, so I thought I'd make sure to add this into a game mechani(sm).

A few games seem to use this idea to varying degrees of success.

I think the first time I saw it used effectively was in the classic R. Talsorian game "Castle Falkenstein". In which a player would write down a half a page describing their character's current appearance and mannerisms, along with a bit of history. After writing this down, they'd underline key words and the phrases which meant something in the context of the game.

Henry joined the royal navy when he was 16 and it was in his years of service there that he became a master seaman and a gained some knowledge with how to fire a pistol.

In that game, the keywords used in the description of the character were simply ways to get the character sheet drawn up in a new and interesting way. Instead of tables and numbers, the player got in the feel of the game by starting to write a journal of their past exploits, hopefully continuing this journal through the course of play.

Other games have incorporated the concept, from the Nature and Demeanor system of White Wolf's Old World of Darkness, even to my own game "The Eighth Sea".

Some games even go so far as to define a character purely by one or more of these keywords, each providing specific in game effects (or even just as narrative cues for storytelling).

But I'm not just trying to use this game mechani(sm) series as a way to archive existing systems, I'm more interested in what new ways the mechanisms can be used.

In that light, I'm more interested in an example I remember from the card game "Illuminati: New World Order", in which there are a number of defining keywords that not only define a character, but define potential alliances, enmities and agendas.

In that game, there are 8 keywords that describe a faction, and each keyword has an opposing keyword, for example: liberal vs conservative.

Thisserves a two-fold purpose in the game, firstly it gives factions a specific feeling, it gives you an idea of the kinds of agendas the group might pursue (and as a follow on from this it makes certain other effects easier to produce in a game if the keyword is present). Secondly, if factions have the same keywords, there is a better likelihood of them working together, conversely if they have opposing keywords then they have a better chance of fighting when they meet one another.

I'd like to see the same sort of thing from an individual perspective. I haven't seen this in a game yet (it might exist, but I haven't seen it). It would only take three keywords assigned to each character.

A character's keywords are quickly cross referenced to an NPC's keywords, and if the number of similar keywords is dominant then the character has a better chance of finding similar points of view with the NPC. If there are a higher number of opposing keywords, then the characters will have a better chance of arguing or fighting.

If the character matches all three keywords with the NPC to whom they are talking, then the pair mesh on such an intrinsic level that it would count as an automatic success...conversely, three opposing terms would lead to instant bloodshed.

If I were incorporating this concept into a game, I'd pick a dozen or so terms related to the setting in six pairs (or anywhere up to 20 words grouped in ten pairs). Then throw in a word like fanatical which always ups the ante in a negative way unless the two other keywords are shared.

A decent number of keywords helps ensure the diversity of possible belief systems and agendas that could be present in a population.

As a simple example, the seven deadly sins could be used as keywords, each opposed by the seven cardinal virtues.

The traditional/hermetic elements each have opposing elemental forces also.

Supernatural creatures and cultural groups have their traditional enemies in many settings. (Elves vs Dwarves, Vampires vs Werewolves, Unionists vs Confederates)

Throwing in three key words gives characters a chance to see the similarities with their enemies if they have a single keyword in opposition while two keywords are shared.

It helps give players some food for thought as their characters engage in interactions.

Isn't that what roleplaying is all about?