30 March, 2010

Closing "Creative Output of the Fox"

One of my side blogs was called "Creative Output of the Fox".

It didn't get a lot of love, from visitors or from me.

I made a couple of promises to get some images on it, but they never really went anywhere.

Instead, I've decided to make my deviantART account more active.

In a day of uploading a few images I've already been "favourited" by a few people, I'm being "watched" by a few people and I've been welcomed into a couple of groups for Australian artists and comic artists.

I knew that it was a thriving and active community and I've been meaning to increase my activity there for a while. It seems like I should have done this a while ago. DeviantART seems to be a far less insular community than The Forge or Storygames, with thousands of active members and hundreds of communal groups. It also looks like a better feeder for the Vulpinoid Studios website.

22 March, 2010

Games for Goblins Begins

I've added a new page to my website for the Games for Goblins project.

If you just want to look at the book, here's a link to the pdf

I've generated up a Google Group to serve as a focal point for the games designed, and an impromptu forum.

This has gone out to all the usual messageboards and forums, as well as here at the blog.

Hopefully, there will be some interesting ideas spawned from this.

17 March, 2010

A New Theory in Quincunx Storytelling

I'm hastily trying to get a decent revision of my current Quincunx thoughts together for Go Play Brisbane.

There have been some significant changes since Gencon Oz 2009.

I know that the core of the system works, because I've used it successfully for two dozen games of Guerrilla Television, and for almost a dozen games of Quincunx. But if the core of the system is a skeleton, I'm having trouble attaching the meat and the organs.

Guerrilla Television is designed to be a fun and light-hearted look at extravagant violence in the vein of Battle Royale, Gamer, The Running Man, and even real world concepts like Survivor or Big Brother. If you understand the tropes, you understand the game. There is little story, there is just carnage until one person is left standing...some people might try to escape, but it's so hard to do this that most would-be escapees die in the process. It's just a cathartic excuse to let out some narrative angst with a board and dice.

I've wanted something more from Quincunx. I want it to be a vehicle for telling the stories of people thrown into a world familiar yet far beyond their wildest dreams. I want it to reveal the thoughts that go through people's heads when they deal with issues of fame, fortune and the supernatural. But all this needs to be seen through the filter of investigation and bounty hunting.

I like the Go Play Brisbane description of "It’s Torchwood meets Channel 7’s The Force with corporate sponsorship and psychic powers. Don’t use your powers enough, and you’ll end up owing everyone favours. Use them too much, and your fans and sponsors will disown you."

So this means looking at scene framing, investigative play and really highlighting an operative's connections to the world around them.

So a revamp of the path system, and a revamp of the story system.

Earlier incarnations of the Path system have seen each path given a constraint, a basic benefit, an advanced benefit and a trait gained by it's followers. Under this system, an operative is defined by the collection of paths they follow. Balancing together the various constraints of their different paths and trying to apply the best benefit during a given situation. Other operatives and antagonists gain bonuses or penalties against one another based on the interplay of their traits. Each path is monitored and tracked separately.

If you think it sounds easy enough, so did I. If you think it sounds complicated, you are probably the kind of person who we spent half the game trying to explain things to multiple times. Honestly, I thought it was simple enough, but the system was just getting in the way of good storytelling and exploration of character...so it had to go.

Now, I'm streamlining the paths a bit. Every path feeds power into one of two resource pools; "influence" reflecting the mortal world, and "energy" reflecting the supernatural world. Each path then draws power from these pools via a series of benefits. The benefits all work much the same way, offering re-rolls at low levels, or multiple automatic successes at high levels. I figure that making all of the paths function in the same way makes the game a bit more approachable, and allows players to get into the grind.

The other problem that I was seeing is that the paths seemed to offer diversity, but were deceptively rigid. I want the game to produce a variety of character types. Guerrilla Television doesn't suffer from this because it's a light game with disposable characters, Quincunx is the current flagship of my TALES game engine, so I want to get the complexity right.

I think I've got it working, but let's see how the current incarnation works in a blind playtest.

My first thoughts of Quincunx looked at the concept in the light of "Dog the Bounty Hunter" meets "Cops" in a struggle against the supernatural. But now I'm thinking a bit more about an episode from a typical investigative drama perspective; NCIS, CSI, Law & Order.

The narrative builds through a series of escalating scenes, events that seem disconnected at first all start to tie together until the primary antagonist is faced.

With that in mind I'm try a new narrative tool; a scene pyramid.

This pyramid reflects the power structure of an episode's main antagonist, it has a nice illuminati feel to it as well.

The idea is that the players can start by choosing any of the scenes that aren't covered by other cards. The base difficulty they face is equal to the cards height on the pyramid. This means that all cards accessible at the start of the game have a difficulty of 1. The players don't know what they are in for, they just have to approach a scene and flip the card to see what they must face.

Once a player reveals a card, they must attempt to face it. Different cards portray different types of scene, one could be a bar-room brawl, one could be a confrontation with a drug dealer in a dark alley, another could be high tea with a fey courtier. Certain operatives will be better at some scenes than others, but this is designed to give everyone the chance to shine.

If an operative fails their scene, another operative may flip an alternative card, then choose whether they want to engage in the first card flipped or the new card they have flipped.

Once a scene has been resolved, it opens up the pyramid and opens up the options. The new cards accessible on level 2, have a base difficulty of 2. But since they are still partially covered, the difficulty for these scenes is higher. The second accessible scene from the left is partially obscured by an unflipped card, so it's difficulty is increased by 2 up to 4. The third accessible scene from the left is partially obscured by a revealed card, so it's difficulty is increased by 1 up to 3. The remainder of the accessible scenes are all one the first row and aren't obscured by any cards, so their difficulty is still only 1.

Let's move onward to a later stage of the game...

There are now a few open options to choose from. If a card is obscured by another card that is obscured, the difficulty increase is cumulative. Some of the scenes on the first level are still left untouched because the players either didn't think they were interesting or didn't think their operatives were able to handle them. There's certainly a range of difficulties to choose from.

Every card removed gets the operatives a step closer to accessing that final card at the top. And the aim is to remove as many of these cards as is feasible in the time limit provided. Operatives could take their time eliminating every card on the way to the top of the pyramid, but they should run out of time before this theory works.

To cut corners, I'm thinking that if an operative eliminates a scene card that disconnects others from the pyramid, those cards are eliminated without confrontation. For example, if the second card from the left, or the second card from the right were removed, the linked cards on the bottom row drop off entirely. If the third card from the right were removed, then the two rightmost cards would drop off the pyramid. Players just need to decide whether the extra speed is worth the extra difficulty to their operatives.

Once all the cards on the bottom row have been eliminated, the base difficulties shift up by 1. Overlaps still cause difficulty increases, and chains of overlapped cards can cause some incredibly high difficulties. This is the kind of thing that the main antagonists have been building up and hiding behind.

Eventually, the main antagonists scene will become visible. Do the characters directly go for the jugular? Or do they dismantle the last of the power structure?

The game still leads to the conclusion that the scenario designer intends, but there are plenty of choices along the way (and each of those choices is actually significant within the both the narrative and the game mechanisms).

I hope the idea makes sense.

15 March, 2010

Quincunx Resumes

Special thanks at this point have to go to Peter Blake.

I'm still enthusiastic about the potential for the Quincunx project, but I've run into a couple of obstacles about where I really want the game to go.

But with Go Play Brisbane on it's way, and Peter promising to run a scenario of the game for me during the con, I've really got to pull my finger out and consolidate some of the ideas I've had for improving the game.

The good news is that I've got time to work on the game over the next week or so.

I'm impressed that this little project is getting a bit of airplay beyond my own play sessions.

13 March, 2010

Vector Theory #10: The Balanced Binary Decision

Left, or Right.

Take the moral high ground, or play dirty.

Open the door, or head elsewhere.

To be, or not to be.

Decisions are one of the aspects of a roleplaying game that really make it interesting as a pastime. Everyone will have different reasons for wanting a specific path followed, and they will all have a different response once the path is taken.

There are a few types of decision points; there may be two possible outcomes or more, there may be specific outcomes that seem favourable in the context of the game mechanisms, the simulation or the narrative. For the moment I'll focus on a couple of simply balanced binary decisions. These have two possible outcomes and each is just as likely to occur.

Like a Perfect Mirror, a purely balanced binary decision point is virtually impossible to achieve. Players will always have a bias for one particular option (conscious or unconscious), and there will always be the possibility of other decisions which hadn't been considered.

In game design, a balanced decision point typically comes into play when dealing with something arbitrary; skill factors don't play a role, player's intentions don't factor into the situation. An example might be a simplistic random encounter chance. Flip a coin, on a head something bad happens, on a tales then the scene is unaffected by external threats.

In scenario design, a balanced decision point is much the same. Two chests are offered, in a situation where it is impossible to tell the difference between them. One is trapped and will kill the whole room, the other holds treasure. Which one do you open??...no, actually like most dilemmas, that ends up being a trinary decision point (left chest, right chest, move along opening neither of them). Truly picking a well balanced binary decision point is hard. In my years of gaming, I've read a lot of old scenario designs where two choices are offered, and if players try to choose a third option, their story path is diverted back to one of these two options by use of mirrors (often imperfect ones). Perhaps the module sets up so that the players are faced with making a decision between two outcomes, and if they choose a third option the whole scenario will be derailed. It's a rookie mistake, and most GMs only make it once or twice before they learn to allow for expanded possibilities.

You also need to consider the loading on the decision. By their nature, people don't like making decisions blind. They like to gather a bit of information before they make their call. Jurors are expected to weigh up the evidence and the testimonials before they make their call for innocence or guilt. Soldiers like to know their ropes are sturdy enough before rappelling down a cliff-face. Gamblers consider the form of sportsmen or animals before wagering their money. Even in something as purely arbitrary and random as a lottery, people will have a prejudice toward certain numbers for emotional reasons. To keep a decision point balanced, every "pro" needs to be balanced by a "con". It's not a good way to set up a dramatic decision point because the answer will always be a 50/50 decision. I've always thought that 70/30 decision points are better, and 90/10 decision points are better still, because there's always that chance for the minority to win (which makes for much better drama).

In many games, I've seen GMs introduce the concepts of a binary balanced decision, and in many cases the players accept this and run with it.

The GM grabs a die. "If it rolls odd, this happens; but if it rolls even, that happens."

This is something out of the players control, so they fell a bit more comfortable with the fact that they can't play with the probability of the situation. They simply hope that the can maximise the benefits if a good event occurs, and pray that they can avoid the worst if a bad event occurs.

It's a valid GM technique, and it allows a bit more spontaneity in a situation than you might find in a rigidly designed scenario. It certainly isn't perfect, and as long as the playing group all agrees that they aren't aiming for "realism" with a mechanism like this, it can blend into the background as a game tool.

I would never use it to determine an outcome when something as dramatic as a character death is at stake.

I've also seen players introduce this type of mechanism into play through their characters. Such events typically occur when playing someone who has lost their ability to think rationally, and they have a pair of immediately obvious choices (eg. Fight or Flight). The character can't think straight and is unable to use their skills or established thought patterns to their advantage. It doesn't matter too much whether this disrupts the storyline (especially if this method of play is being employed by everyone at the table), a good GM will be able to run with it...and it tells us a bit more about the character. Once rational thought takes over, the player an help to consider the events that might have gone through the character's mind (and in turn, complex game mechanisms take control of the system again).

Recent thoughts about game design have even pushed the concept of the binary decision to a metagame level..."Say YES, or Roll the Dice". I'm not saying to flip a coin to determine whether you say "YES" or whether the dice come out; I'm simply saying that there is a decision point within a GMs mind. This is a point where they consider what tactics might be better used to push the game play onward.

09 March, 2010

Vector Theory #9: The Imperfect Mirror

It's a natural follow-up to the last post, and on the surface it's very similar.

Imperfect mirrors work very similar to perfect mirrors but their presence is blatantly obvious.

It could be so blatant that a GM simply states that they don't want a game to head in one direction, so they actively deny the input from their players.

It could be more subtle, with a game system providing certain options to the players, with the GM using the rules as a method to justify their denials.

At it's simplest level, an imperfect mirror is a change in the story without illusionism. The players see it for what it is (whether the GM wants this or not). It is the opposite of "Say Yes, or roll the dice...", in fact it is basically "Say No, Don't bother to roll the dice, and now the story goes this way".

Don't get me wrong, not all imperfect mirrors are bad. Players could choose to accept the change in the story's path, following the leadership of their GM...but the GM needs to have earned their players respect, and every time they employ an imperfect mirror, their respect and credibility is put in jeopardy.

I've mentioned a GM named Frank a couple of times in my blog. Frank is known for GM a strict and streamlined game where he puts his players through all kinds of psychological mind-screws. He doesn't hide the fact that he's screwing his players and their characters, but he tells a good story.

I've seen other GMs try to do the same thing, and fail miserably. They either haven't earned the respect of their players, or they've lost it through abusing the power of the imperfect mirror.

Then there are GMs who don't realise they are doing it. Many inexperienced GMs don't understand the concept of player driven stories; as a result they try to lead their players by the nose through a story (or a dungeon) they've created. They don't know how to react to players taking steps off their established path, so they actively block paths leading into the unknown.

Traditionally strict scenario design can be like this as well. Scene 1 leads to scene 2 regardless of it's outcome, which in turn always leads to scene 3, and so on until the predetermined climax is reached.

If a player knows up front that this is the way the game is going to play out, then they can work within this framework. Maybe choosing to explore within, when they know the outside journey has already been established.

Every time I run a game of the Eighth Sea with new players, I tell them that the game follows a strict five act structure. Act 1 will be an introduction, Act 2 will set the journey, Act 3 will consist of overcoming the obstacles of the journey, Act 4 will reach a climax, and Act 5 will deal with the ramifications of that climax. The players know from the start that they will follow this progression within their session. So certain obvious imperfect mirrors are placed in their path, but outside of this act structure the game should be incredibly fluid and character driven. Within that game, I try to ONLY use mirrors as narrative structure.

07 March, 2010

Progress at Iron Man Central

In case anyone's wondering what I do in my spare time when I'm not designing or running games, have a look over at my other blog, Making Iron Man.

I've finally started posting some progress images.

04 March, 2010

Comments Now Moderated

After receiving a couple of spam comments, I've decided to moderate the comments that people add to my blog entries...it's not that I don't want the feedback. It's just that I want feedback to actually be meaningful.

Vector Theory #8: The Perfect Mirror

OK, the grand picture has been framed, the analogies have been made...it's time to focus.

Let's look at the first specific aspect of Vector Theory; the Perfect Mirror.

A perfect mirror reflects a ray of light effortlessly, the ray doesn't even notice the presence of the mirror. It simply diverts the path in a new direction.

A good GM is like a perfect mirror. The flow of the story continues in a straight line, the good GM introduces something that initially seems subtle, it might even be ignored. But that little introduction shifts the course of the story forever.

Under the influence of a good GM, the players might think that their story hasn't even diverted, and that things were always heading in the final direction. The player's don't feel that their actions have been "railroaded", they feel as though they have followed their own destiny.

A good mechanism within the rules is like a perfect mirror. The mechanism flows seamlessly as a part of the experience, it doesn't get in the way of the story flow, it doesn't cause a jarring disconnect with the established reality, and it integrates so well with the other mechanisms of the game that it feels instinctive.

If the mechanisms influencing a story purely consist of perfect mirrors, we consider the shifting narrative to be a carefully crafted piece of literature (or maybe just a rollicking good piece of pulp). A writer using perfect mirrors to alter the course of their story deliberately uses the tropes of their literary format, people expect certain twists to occur and it thus becomes inevitable that those twists appear. As a specific case in point, I went to see "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief" with Leah a couple of weeks ago. I knew the twists and turns that were coming, but even though I can be harsh in my criticism of some movies I couldn't be upset with the obvious twists in the narrative of Percy Jackson because I went to the movies to see a modern day retelling of the Hero's Journey. All the steps were followed, A call to adventure, a denial of the call, a meeting with a mentor, an escalation of events, allies and enemies met along the way, a journey to the underworld, great loss...pretty much everything you would expect, if you know the tropes of the journey. The only thing I found upsetting with the movie is that it probably could have gone a lot darker, but it was family entertainment, so it ticked those boxes as well.

If the mechanisms influencing a game purely consisted of perfect mirrors, there wouldn't be any point playing the game; the final destination of the experience is predetermined. The players aren't making choices, they are simply following the narrative path, bounced around by the whim of the GM. They might not realise it, because they don't even see the diversions thrust apon them, but even the most oblivious player will start to develop a nagging feeling that they have no control over the story's destiny. Andrew Smith made a great commentary on Monopoly a while back, and when you consider the overall context of the game there are a few subtle aspects behind the rules that push the game down the same negative spiral every time it is played. These mechanisms are perfect mirrors in the background, no-one really acknowledges that the game will always end up in a downward spiral with a majority of the players being losers, ironic given that this is directly in the title of the game. Instead people hope against the odds that they will be the one winner.

The ascending levels of responsibility in Gregor Hutton's 3:16 might be described in this way. Each one doesn't seem to make a lot of influence on game play, they are just little ideas that most people keep in the backs of their minds. But, one-by-one they work their way insidiously into the way the game is played, until it stops being a heroic game about humanity against the dreadful unknown, and it suddenly becomes very dark.

The entire game "Stoke-Birmingham 0-0" (p44, Norwegian Style) is easily filled with perfect mirrors. These mirrors are introduced by the players rather than the rules or a centralised GM, everyone simply introduces their elements into the scene through natural conversation. Once in play, an idea shifts the outcome of the scene. Anything said, is said in character. Anything done is done in character, there are no meta-rules to worry about, it's pure roleplaying. The narrative of the scene might simply flow in a straight line if no-one introduces anything, or it could end up incredibly twisted and complicated if everyone tries to introduce their own mirrors to further the narrative toward a specific end point. (I should styop now before my commentary on the game ends up more detailed than the game itself).

If someone isn't looking for the perfect mirror, they'll completely miss the influence it plays on a game or story. If someone does know where the perfect mirror should be, or if they know what it's intended effects should be, they can appreciate the perfect mirror for what it is.

The biggest problem with perfect mirrors is that they are incredibly hard to create. This applies in a literal as well as a figurative sense; a perfect mirror is a sign of an incredibly well crafted game, game-master or story.

More often than not, mirrors will be imperfect. Occasionally diverting the flow subtly, and sometimes blatantly.

03 March, 2010

Vector Theory Thoughts

When the comments go silent (except for spam), I can only assume that I'm shooting off on tangents that have lost relevance to anyone who might be reading. SO that means that people will stop reading, and that means that I won't get any feedback about my theories.

If I wanted to write theories without getting any feedback, I'd just use the traditional cathartic process of filling a notebook or journal with words, then filing it away on a bookshelf or in a drawer somewhere.

My bookshelves and drawers are getting pretty full...

...so it's time for me to start grounding my theories in some real world situations, in the hope that I might start luring a few comments back. I've been meaning to do this for a while, but I felt it more necessary to get some of the more abstract concepts out. Without the larger abstract context, a lot of the real world situations just look like the same stuff that everyone else is writing about in their roleplaying-game related blogs.