31 May, 2010

Unexploited Resource #1: Dominos


They're symbolic of roleplaying games. Love it or hate it, even if you've played a dozen games that use other randomising mechanisms, everyone who is aware of the hobby associates it with colourful polyhedra.

Don't get me wrong, I like dice. They are a convenient form of number generation. Personally I like cards better, because there is more flexibility to them and you can create some more interesting effect with the art of drawing cards. But dice have been done to death...and cards have had their run in recent years as well.

Even miniature battlegames are starting to get some good card lovin'.

As an aside, someone suggested a roleplaying game based on the card driven miniatures skirmish game "Malifaux"...I wish I could find it, but there was also a post on the Malifaux forums where a gamers says that all RPGs "MUST" use dice, otherwise it's just not an RPG (I'm paraphrasing a bit here because I can't find that post).

So, besides dice and cards what other great resources can we use in our games?

I began my game mechanisms with the idea of tokens in a bag, Daniel Solis has apparently done something similar since then in his Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple game. It's certainly something that could be exploited further, but what else...??

My first proposal: Dominos.

I'm using dominos as the driving force for my current project "Bunraku Nights", and I've found Noumenon thanks to a thread on Story Games, but on the whole the domino concept seems really untapped.

Despite this, I can see some instant advantages...or at least some cool ways to exploit them as a resource.

  1. Dominos have two numbers on them. (I'm using them in Bunraku Nights with one number representing an active number determining your effect on others, while the other represents a passive number determining your ability to resist the effects others are inflicting on you.)
  2. You can form chains with them. This is a traditional play style with dominos, so most people understand the concept. You lay down a [5|4]...I have a [4\2], so I add it to your to make a new chain [5|4][4|2]. (I'm using this idea in Bunraku Nights too, you can modify your own strategy by adding to your own chain, or you can impact on someone else's strategy by adding to their chain.)
  3. Doubles traditionally create branches in a chain. (I played with this in Bunraku Nights, but it was just getting a bit too complicated...but I think Noumenon incorporates this somehow).
  4. Unlike dice which can be flipped over by unscrupulous players, a domino keeps the value etched into it's surface. Like cards it's harder to cheat with them.
  5. Dominos are a finite resource. A set of double 6 dominoes contains 28 tiles. You can play with them as a finite pool of resources for the purposes of timing effects or gathering from a zero-sum pool.
  6. You might choose to invoke effects that rely on the highest value of a domino randomly drawn. This skews the results in favour of certain values (7 chances of getting a 6, 6 chances of getting a five...etc...one chance of getting a zero). This could be useful when playing with variable randomness (one result is common, another is less common...the final result is exceedingly rare).
  7. The exact same could be applied to the low number on a randomly drawn domino.Or the deviation between the numbers displayed...
  8. In fact you could end up with two random events occurring simultaneously through the single draw of a random domino. Or apply two factors to a random event (Damage/Area of Effect, Magical Effect/Strain on the Magician, Hit Location/Armour Penetration, etc.)
  9. You can collect a pile of dominos and use them strategically when the right moment arises, rather than simply rolling an arbitrary die and getting a result that may not make sense (of course same games need this random element rather than a strategic form of play).
  10. Even the simple flexibility of having a variety of domino scales to choose from...from the double 6 sets (with 28 tiles) to the double 9 sets (with 55 tiles). You can scale them to have any set of maximum doubles...
I'm sure there are plenty more specific ways that dominoes could be used in play, these were just the first 10 to some to mind.

29 May, 2010


This would have to be a moment from the type of RPG I usually run...

28 May, 2010

Vector Theory #22: Call of Cthulhu's Sanity System

There are things man was not meant to know.

Unless you know these things, you'll never be able to confront the eldritch horrors of the unknown.

The more you know of them, the more distant you become from the rest of humanity.

The more distant you become from the rest of humanity, the more chance you'll get locked up as a lunatic, or simply break down in a heap of anguish.

There it is, the basic premise behind the works of HP Lovecraft, and the core ideas behind the mechanisms of Sanity in Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu.

Onto this raw driving force was tacked a percentile skill system and a bunch of subsystems that I've rarely seen in use. But the core is what drives a game of Call of Cthulhu, whether it's a single session witch hunt, or a growing symphony of horror.

The Sanity system integrates into the percentile skill system, I wouldn't say that it dovetails into it (it seems a little clunky after 30 years), but it still works.

Like most games of the era, it used 3d6 to generate most statistics, then derived some values using other means to get the figures actually used in play...

Your Sanity starts at a certain level (five times you POW score), but if your combined Sanity and Cthulhu Mythos score ever exceeds 100, you're sanity drops until the total is 100 points.

Sanity is a very valuable trait as it lets you fend off horrors by not believing in them, Cthulhu Mythos is a very valuable skill because it teaches you how to fight off monsters that you can't disbelieve.

The whole game is about confronting horrors, so the core mechanism reflects this.

It gives a narrative choice and a mechanical choice, both of which mirror one another. Do you choose to have faith in humanity and the light (and thus pursue tactics relevant to this agenda), or do you choose the occult and darkness (and thus risk taint or ostracism from the mundane world).

From a perspective of Vector Theory, the wavelength and spectrum of the character retains a maximum intensity, but the colouring changes...as the Cthulhu mythos part of the spectrum increases, the sanity part of the spectrum decreases. The Cthulhu Mythos part of the spectrum is alluring because it offers power and new supernatural choices, but the sanity part of the spectrum is almost impossible to regain once it's lost. And it's Sanity that works as the best defence against the creatures of the night. Too little of it and you'll easily succumb to the horrors of the game.

The whole game has a general bias in this way.

Every choice you make has an easy option that brings you closer to temptation, and a hard option that might actually make a difference in the end.

Every filter passed, has a chance of reducing sanity further. But only a few rare filters offer the chance to regain it.

The polarisation of the game usually lends itself to dark and moody drama. If you're playing Call of Cthulhu, you know what to expect. If it doesn't have the darkness, the horror and the unknown, it just ain't CoC.

The game also has a gravity well. A fall to the unknown.

Narratons are drawn to a gravity well, like photons. It is a natural conclusion. In this game the characters often have to work hard to avoid succumbing to the unknown. Unless they make conscious decisions to avoid fate, they WILL be driven insane or they WILL die at the hands of eldritch beasts and dark gods. If they leave it too late to make a stand, they can only choose a method of demise, they can't avoid it completely.

But other tactics also become apparent when looking at the game in this way. They might be able to charge headlong into the finale, hoping to cause enough of a bang to pass through the other side, they might be able to deflect their trajectory enough to wrap around the gravity well sucking them in, catching a glimpse of the horror before hurtling back into safer territory.

There are always options, and a good GM will take these options for what they are...or will have considered contingency plans should they arise.

27 May, 2010

A Renaissance in Roleplaying Game Theory

For the last few years that I've been active on the independent gaming forums, I've seen a lot of people complaining about GNS and the Big Model, but no-one seemed to have a decent counter-proposal.

Just lots of sniping.

But happily, it looks like there now are a few people interested in taking the patterns of thought in new directions. There's a few interesting threads over on Story Games about dungeon design, the existence of Simulationism, even a Creative Agenda Mash-Up.

There's a lot of stuff to go through and most of it isn't for the faint-of-heart, or gaming illiterate. It will take a while to translate a lot of these ideas through my vector theory, but over the next few weeks I'll be giving it a try.

In general though, it's good to see people actually thinking about this stuff again.

20 May, 2010

Bunraku Nights

1km1kt is running a Cyberpunk Revival Contest.

And my entry for the contest is a deadly game of intrigue called Bunraku Nights.

Here's some images I've created for it.

Special thanks have to go to Crystal over at Cryoflesh for allowing me to use some of the photography on her site for the basis of a few pieces.

18 May, 2010

Vector Theory #21: An Alternative look at Task Resolution and Conflict Resolution

I was just driving home this morning and something struck me....not like the road rage incident I was involved in a couple of weeks ago, when an aggressive idiot got out of his car and broke my nose...I mean more of a metaphysical striking.

I previously referred to a definition of task resolution and conflict resolution by Eero T. According to my interpretation of this definition in the context of Vector Theory, a scene is a cluster of nodes (decision points). The narraton heads into this cluster like a ball being shot into a pinball machine. It passes through some obstacles, and it's deflects of others to twist the story in a new direction. Once the narraton emerges from the cluster, there are a variety of directions it could end up heading (depending on how the conflict was resolved and the outcome of that resolution).

The resolution of a task is reflected by the narraton interacting with a specific node. The resolution of a conflict is reflected by the narraton's overall interaction with the cluster. Many simplistic games resolve the entire cluster with a single node interaction (I'm not using simplistic in a derogatory fashion here, I'm merely using it to say these games aren't complicated and crunchy).

I've now thought of a different metaphor that might make more sense in Vector Theory.

Some parallel topics on a few forums at the moment are describing the differences between narrative play and simulationist play (here) and (here) while others are discussing the nature of task and conflict resolution (here) ... and a link to a related thread (here)

...And this has gotten me thinking.

A narrative basis for game play doesn't focus on the cluster of nodes, it focuses on the changes of direction of the narraton.It is focused on the way the story unfolds, where it is going and where it has been.

A simulationist basis for game play doesn't focus on the individual node, it focuses on the wavelength changes of the narraton. It is focused on the individual obstacles and how well a character (or group of characters) is able to confront the task at hand.

Individual nodes or cluster of nodes no longer become the basis for judging the difference between a task and a conflict. A task is purely an interaction that adjusts the capabilities of the narraton, a conflict is purely an interaction that adjust the narraton's trajectory.

Inappropriate task resolutions become sequences of events that don't change a characters capabilities. The character suffers no harm, and they gain no benefits. The story just keeps pumping along as it did before.

Inappropriate conflict resolutions become sequences of events that make no dramatic difference to the story. The story doesn't twist in a new direction, no new tensions pull at the narraton.

Inappropriate scenes combining inappropriate task and conflict resolution are basically just expositions from the narrator/GM. The players don't do anything meaningful, they don't gain any way to change the direction of the story or their capacity within it. You might as well be watching a movie.

Just some thoughts...

Do they make sense?

15 May, 2010

When do you roll the dice?

Interesting Blog Post from John Harper.

This is exactly the point that I'm trying to rationalise now regarding Vector Theory.

The AGE Model

In the interests of presenting other theories regarding game design.

Here is the AGE Model.

There are a few similar notions to where I was heading with the meta-level of Vector Theory, and it would be easy to pigeonhole Vector Theory as a method of analysing the Art-Game axis within the AGE Model.

But I think there are a couple of key points of contention between the two methods of analysis.

Still, it's a well worded paper. Certainly something I'll be referring to as Vector Theory needs to be refined further. It's probably a decent example of a working release PDF, the kind of thing that I'll be using for Vector theory once the discussions and blog posts have worked their way to a natural conclusion.

New Movie Software/App

I have no idea how long it's been around, but I've just been alerted to this.

XTRA Normal

I'm thinking of using it as a method for generating some "examples of play" for different games.

Maybe even as a way of explaining a few key concepts in Vector Theory rather than just throwing huge blocks of text at anyone who might be passing by.

(Now if only I could get it to embed movies into the blog)

12 May, 2010

Other Theories

My Vector Theory isn't the only thing happening in the theoretical areas of roleplaying. I've been alerted in the last day or so to the Cubism Theory of roleplaying game design. It seems to be taking things from a completely different perspective to my own work or GNS, which is great...it allows another perspective for potential analysis.

I'm hoping that a good theoretical community can develop around roleplaying, and this might be another step towards it. It's also my hope that new designers might pick from the range of design theories available and create better games in the future.

Vector Theory #20: Metagame Layers

I'm paraphrasing a bit here, but the Big Model states...

Let's deconstruct this a bit, by starting at the centre.
Ephemera consist of talking, rolling the dice, the reaction of players to one another's actions, and the "meat" of a roleplaying session. The Ephemera are typically considered to be "what happens at the table".

Techniques are the way play is engaged. These provide meaning to an event within the ephemera. Examples include the methods of generating a character or event within the ephemera, ways to determine the outcome of events. The Techniques are typically considered to be "what's written in the rulebook".

Exploration is the shared imagination of the roleplaying experience. This is the part that everyone's singular imagination taps into; and where the singular imaginations overlap, you get a shared imagination space. Exploration is divided into five areas:
  • Character, a fictional person
  • Color, details that provide atmosphere
  • Setting, location (in space and time)
  • Situation, the dilemma
  • System, determines how in-game events unfold
Encompassing them all is Social Contract. While typically unwritten, this determines the interactions between players in a game...purely outside the setting of the story/game. Some groups like White Wolf's Camarilla have elaborate handbooks stretching to 100 pages or more purely for the purposes of defining a social contract in which play can occur.

Creative Agenda permeates all of these layers and works as a driving force to attain a certain style of play. This is defined by the GNS theory.
  • Simulationism - The Right to Dream focuses on the elements of exploration as things unto themselves. This creative agenda emphasizes appreciation for nuanced development of character, setting, and color to no other end than creating a holistically consistent experience. While one simulationist creative agenda may emphasize realism, another may attempt to emulate "four-color" superhero action. Whatever the target, the goal is to create an experience that neatly fits its parameters.

  • Gamism - By contrast, Step on Up considers the elements of exploration as an arena for proving the abilities of the players. This creative agenda emphasizes clever use of tactics, resource management, and character victory.

  • Narrativism - Lastly, Story Now attempts to use the elements of exploration to create an engaging story that addresses a "premise" to produce theme. Premise here is defined in accordance with Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing and is usually framed as a statement (Friends are worth dying for) or a question (Are friends worth dying for?). In narrativist play, most or all of the decisions made by the players will reflect on the premise, proposing answers to the question.

A lot of criticism has been directed at the Big Model, and far more has been directed at the GNS Theory. One of the core reasons for developing Vector theory was to sidestep a lot of the controversial issues in GNS (including the reported tendency for the theory to dismiss a lot of the work done in the gaming world since its development, and the issues with semantics and ill-defined terms that cause arguments on a regular basis across the roleplaying forums of the internet).

Personally, I think there is some awkward overlap between areas of the Big Model and the layers encompassing one another aren't as cut and dried as it would imply. Social contract deals with the real world issues of players interacting with each other, Exploration deals with the interface between the real world and the fiction, Technique deals with the interface between the game system and the fiction, Ephemera deals with the interface between players and the system. Creative Agenda has links to many things, but adherents to the Big Model have a nasty tendency to claim it is the be all and end all of roleplaying. I know I thought this initially until I started opening my perceptions to the critiques of the theory (informed or otherwise).

Don't get me wrong, the GNS Theory and the Big Model can teach us about roleplaying; but like any theory, you need to understand where it's coming from and you need to weigh it in comparison with the other theories and the practices of the real world.

Another theory about roleplaying was developed by Vincent Baker 5 years ago (at the time of writing this blog entry). This is probably more of a precursor to Vector Theory because it divides the forces in a game into three groups...the players, the system mechanisms and the ongoing narrative.

Vincent divides the three groups into a line...

...then he draws arrows between them to explain how certain things occur within the game.

When do the players take control? At this moment, do they take control of the narrative or the mechanisms?

When do the mechanisms take control? Do these mechanisms have an impact on the narrative? Do they impact the way players make decisions in the session?

When does the narrative take control? Does the narrative make an impact on the players (emotionally or intellectually)? Or does it make an impact on the way the mechanisms work in this part of the session?

Each of these questions is really important. And for that reason I'd actually change Vincent's diagram from a line to a triangle, with each of the ideograms on a single corner.

But how does this apply to Vector Theory?

At it's simplest level, I realised that Vector Theory creates a series of tools to analyse how a roleplaying session plays out...the choices that have been made, the choices that might yet come, and the way those choices are made at the moment of decision. This can be applied to the creation of scenarios by examining the choices provided by the GM. It can be applied to the development of a roleplaying game by examining the choices provided by the system. It can be applied to the way the story impacts the narrative and vice versa.

What it doesn't handle very well is the psychological ramifications of play (Even though it makes sense in the story, and everyone else wants me to do it...If I kill Fiona's character, she probably won't talk to me for a week). This is a function of social contract, something that exists around the outer shell of the Big Model, and something that I might need to consider for Vector Theory.

We know that many systems allow a player to place a mirror, filter or other component in a Narraton's path, by why do they do it?

The best I can offer at this stage is to look at why a designer might have added this option for the player. That's where the metagame layer the Vector Theory will function; On observance of the options for how and why components might be placed in the way of a Narraton.

Still needs a lot of thought...

11 May, 2010

RIP Frank Frazetta 1928-2010

Almost always found among the top ten lists for the greatest fantasy artists of all time, and certainly one of the finest artisans of the latter 20th Century, Frank Frazetta's name is synonymous with sword-and-sorcery paintings and illustrations of fantastic fiction.

I've been aware f him ever since I was given a book of fantasy illustrations as a young boy in the early 1980's. My love of the fantasy genre can be attributed to Frazetta and other luminaries such as Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, Keith Parkinson and later H.R. Giger (but that was when I got into my dark phase).

Recently, my fondness for Frazetta has increased as I've been collecting the Death Dealer series of comics from image and the assorted comics that tell a back-story to each of his paintings.

He is one of those great artists I'd love to have met, but now that opportunity has passed.

I was alerted to this news through several of the groups and contacts I've made on deviantArt, and the news seems to have hit a lot of people pretty hard. I've started a thread on Story Games to see what influence he has had on members of the gaming community.

Eurovision Time of Year Again

It's that ritual time of year...when I immerse myself in the insanity of the Eurovision Song Contest.

I've started looking through some of the entries, but most of them seem to be slow sappy ballads. Nothing tongue-in-cheek (I'm tempted to blame the Norwegians who are running it this year...), it all seems too serious.

Eurovision isn't meant to be serious...is it?

At least the Lithuanians are holding up the fun side of the contest, "Eastern European Funk"...how can you go wrong?

Time to start looking through the other entries for some kitsch and chaos.

10 May, 2010

Vector Theory #19: Components of Path Design

There's an old school of game module design which incorporates flowcharts.

Each scene or critical decision point in a story is a flowchart junction box, with arrows leading to one or more other junction boxes until a terminus point is reached ("Choose Your Own Adventure" books can be plotted in much the same way).

While roleplaying games allow far more diversity of choices for their participants, this remains a valid method to construct games in the traditional way.

You fight the dragon. Generally, there are three possible outcomes:
1. You beat the dragon. Go straight through to the next encounter/scene.
2. You are beaten by the dragon. Maybe your story ends here, or maybe you are at the mercy of the dragon and must face an alternate conflict before you can continue the story.
3. You run away. You must find an alternative path around the dragon, this might require going back to pick up items/clues that you didn't possess the first time.

That in essence is the conflict, and that's how it can be resolved.

This can be broken down into discrete tasks...

You attempt to hit the dragon.
1. You hit it and deal damage to it. If you have done enough damage to it, the dragon is vanquished.
2. You hit the dragon but deal no damage. Depending on the system (and the GM, this might make the dragon mad and thus present new mechanical or story opportunities).
3. You miss the dragon completely. The dragon now has a turn, unless you're really quick and you might get a second strike.

This type of simple task flow allowed roleplaying games to become prevalent on early non-graphical servers. I remember playing MUDs in the early 1990s. You could hit things, manipulate objects, pose to one another...not much has really changed in the computer roleplaying scene since then, except a gradual improvement in graphical interface.

But tabletop pen and paper gaming has so much more potential.

Each of the components capable of interacting with a vector may be introduced to a story by several means. Traditionally, the GM would write up a predetermined series of mirrors to weave the characters through a specific tale, they could set up filters to accelerate the characters toward their finale.

A second option introduces elements through procedures of the rules. Good examples of these include the way many combat procedures instantly follows up a roll to hit with a roll for damage. That's just the way the rules work. Some games have other trigger conditions, perhaps a humanity test once a certain type of action is performed, or a fatigue check when a spell is cast. These rules set the tone for the gaming system being played. They might introduce reactive mirrors to affect the ongoing storyline, filters to affect the mechanisms, or maybe both.

A third option to appear in recent games is where players take control of their character's destinies through mechanisms such as Otherkind Dice, Keys (from The Shadow of Yesterday) and various "Step On Up" rules. We even saw this in a crude form through the "nature and demeanor" rules of White Wolf's old World of Darkness storyteller system. Bonuses are gained for following your own agenda, if you are willing to take a stand for it, or play it out in character. Similarly, there are a few games starting to appear where players police one another (introducing mechanical or narrative effects to make things more dramatic/interesting for their companions). In these games, story is generated on the fly, and no-one can be sure of the path it might take until it has already made it's journey.

Unless there's any more feedback about the general structure of the theory, I think it's time to start grounding the theory back into reality by looking at specific gaming mechanisms and how they work within the context of Vector Theory.

09 May, 2010

Vector Theory #18: Filters, Mirrors and Otherkind Dice

Also, are you familiar with otherkind dice? I've been reading about them recently, and they seem flippin sweet, but I'm having trouble fitting an otherkind dice conflict into your theory. Or are they just a way of producing mirrors on the fly?

I've been thinking about using Otherkind dice as one of my Vector Theory examples for a while. But if you've been following the blog, you'll see that I've only just refined things enough to start talking about specific game mechanisms through the analogy.

If you look through the comments on Neutral Filters, you'll see that I recanted the idea of "A Penny for My Thoughts" being a system of neutral filters...

The new paradigm for the analogy states that filters adjust the mechanisms used to confront obstacles within a story, while mirrors adjust the direction in which a story flows.

These two need not be mutually exclusive.

Otherkind Dice are special, I looked at them last year in my Game Mechani(sm) Series. They can literally be used both ways, depending on how they've been set up by the game designer. This is one of those points where system really does matter.

Ghost/Echo uses a form of Otherkind dice. A minimum of 2 dice are rolled, 1 for the action's goal and 1 per danger associated with the action (a minimum of 1 danger, but there could be more).

The dice in Ghost/Echo are reflective surfaces (which I was going to get to later).

I'll explain my thinking here...

A Reflective surface isn't quite a mirror, think of it more like a transition between mediums...air to glass, air to water...some photons reflect off the interface between mediums, no changes to their spectrum or intensity, they just head in a new direction. Some pass through the interface into the new medium where filter changes might occur.

For Otherkind dice, you roll the dice then assign the results...

Goal Die
A high result (5-6) sends the story in a direction chosen by the successful player. This might immediately channel the story through an additive filter (providing a bonus to a character), it might direct the story toward an even better series of choices, or it might simply provide insight regarding the wider picture.
If the assigned die has a moderate result (3-4), the issue is unresolved, there is still a chance for things to go into the hands of the players or against them.
If the assigned goal die has a low result (1-2), this sends the story in an unanticipated direction, the characters are on the back foot.

Danger Dice
If the assigned die is moderate (3-4), the danger associated with the die becomes an ongoing stigma for the character. It applies a permanent change to their capabilities, an ongoing risk that will have to be resolved through later actions before it causes a permanent change in the storyline's direction.
If the die roll is low (1-2), a complication comes to pass, this immediately impacts the story in a negative manner. The specific danger associated with this die stops being a mechanical effect (potentially able to modify the story) and shifts to a narrative effect.
If the assigned die is high (5-6), the danger doesn't come to pass. It has no further impact on the story, either mechanically or narratively.

To complicate things further, there are a few methods for using Otherkind Dice in a game. This is just an example of them in the context of Vector Theory, but I hope it makes sense.

08 May, 2010

Font Progress

Just a note to let people know how the RPG font project is proceeding.
Here's my blank dice glyphs...

...and here's a few examples with numbers added to them...

...and a few other ideas such as target numbers...

...explosive damage...

...defensive scores...

It's still a long way from completion, but it's starting to come together. Fudge dice will be easy to implement by simply keeping the positive and negative signs and overlapping them over the dice in the same way that the numbers currently are. I could even generate specific dice for "Happy Birthday Robot" in the same manner.

07 May, 2010

Vector Theory #17: Neutral Filters

A bit of extra thought has reminded me of filters that don't necessarily change things for the better or worse.

In a game like A Penny for my Thoughts, filters play a fascinating role.

At first, all Narratons are in complete flux. Nothing is known about their path, their wavelength or their polarity. But this resolves quickly.

The polarity is quickly set by the "Facts and Reassurances" sheet; this quickly defines the type of story that can be expected in the session. The general path of the game is also known at the start of play, when everyone is handed their questionnaire sheets.

We don't have predefined mirrors to deflect the paths in any specific direction, but these may arise in the course of play (as shown later).

The first part of the game applies the first batch of filters to set the initial wavelength through their memory fragments.

With this basic structure in place, players move into the next phase of the game where they face the questions of the questionnaire.

At each question, a scene is set, and player face a series of choices that build up toward an answer to the question. These choices provide players with a pair of options for their character's story. These options are provided by the other players in the group, and when a player is confronted by such, they MUST follow a story path through one of these options. They must pass their Narraton through a filter produced by another player, and these filters don't make things better or worse they simply change the story.

No loss of hit points, no bonus equipment, just a simple choice that makes better narrative sense in the mind of the player.

05 May, 2010

Vector Theory #16: Stripping Back Filters

I probably got a bit too deep too quickly with my previous filter post.

Let's look at some simpler options...

An adventurer is exploring ruins. She has a range of tools at her disposal.

In traditional games, the GM sets filters for the adventurer, then (depending on the game and the specific scenario) the player choose which of these filters they want to push their character's story through.

The GM has set an additive filter and a subtractive filter for this encounter.

If a Narraton passes through an additive filter, there is a chance its power is increased. Aspects of it's wavelength are enhanced if the filter is negotiated successfully...or nothing happens if the filter is negotiated unsuccessfully.

If a Narraton passes through a subtractive filter, there is a chance its power is decreased. Nothing happens if the filter is negotiated successfully...or aspects of it's wavelength are diminished if the filter is negotiated unsuccessfully.

Example Subtractive Filter 1: Punji Trap
The GM basically springs this one on the character. This may occur when the character moves over a specific part of the map, or it may occur at the whim of the GM.

Success: The adventurer spots the punji trap and makes their way around it.
Failure: The Adventurer falls into the punji trap and suffers damage. This impedes her ability to go further in her quest (her health is reduced), and in turn her overall drive in the story is set back.

Example Additive Filter 1: Hidden Ruby
The GM can invoke this filter without conscious effort on the part of the player as well. Again, this may occurs when the character passes the ruby's hiding place on the map, or it may happen at the whim of the GM.

Success: The adventurer finds the ruby. This may prove to be a valuable tool for negotiating an obstacle later in the game, or it may be a trade item for when she returns to town. Either way, her ability to traverse future filters in enhanced through this new addition.

Some of the more recent games allow players to set their filters. Perhaps the adventurer goes out of her way to look for antiquities while she is in the chamber with the ruby, Thus she sets a new additive filter for herself (with a success threshold determined by the GM or by some mechanism within the rules).

At a later point, the adventurer may declare a new challenge for herself by playing on one of her weaknesses, or choosing to explore something about her inner self (like activating a "key" in The Shadow of Yesterday), if she fails then something bad happens, but if she passes, she might earn experience points for facing that demon within.

There is nothing to stop a filter being both additive and subtractive at the same time (gain a bonus if you pass, suffer a penalty if you fail).

Otherkind dice really reflect this idea well. In most instances of their use, you get at least two dice, one is assigned a potential positive outcome for the situation (an additive filter). Another is assigned a potential negative outcome for the situation (a subtractive filter). These filters are passed simultaneously, and the narraton emerges on the other side with varying states of change.

yes +ve / yes -ve
yes +ve / no -ve
no +ve / yes -ve
no +ve / no -ve

Some variants of Otherkind dice then allow extra stakes to be added into the matrix, providing additional simultaneous filters to traverse.

For every additive filter passed successfully, something is changed within the story to benefit the character. For every subtractive filter that is not passed successfully, something changes with the story to the detriment of the character.

With this in mind, the traditional method of scenario design becomes pretty simple as well.

1. Create a scene.
2. Apply one or more additive filters to the scene (with relevant success thresholds).
3. Apply one or more subtractive filters to the scene (with relevant success thresholds).
4. Start again (but this time increase the thresholds a bit).

With a string of scenes (and filters within those scenes), we can see how a narraton should pass through the entire scenario.

A character is expected to pick up the magic sword along the way because they'll need it to slay the monster at the end. The act of picking up the sword within the story is reflected by an increased ability to fight within the game mechanisms. Without the sword at the end, the threshold of confronting the monster might be too high to pass, with the sword it becomes a real possibility.

A character succumbs to too many traps along the way and the more injured they become, the harder it is to pass subsequent filter thresholds. Eventually one will stop the character's story permanently (unless they take a rest break...which in effect is an additive filter, providing refreshment to the health part of the character's spectrum, allowing new spells to be memorised, or equipment to be fixed).

At a larger scale like campaign design, character progression sees a Narraton intensify as the character becomes more capable. At low levels they are hindered by weak filters, while at high levels they simply pass through these filters like x-rays through paper. Every additive filter providing a new tool to overcome story adversity, every subtractive filter adding depth to a character by revealing their flaws.

I'm starting to rant again...so I'll stop here.

Vector Theory #15: A Better Look at Filters

Even with some new definitions in place, concepts like perfect and imperfect mirrors hold their own. A perfect mirror deflects a Narraton without announcing it;s presence to the particle, an imperfect mirror is seen for what it is and an appreciative audience will allow the Narraton to continue on it's deflected path while an unappreciative audience will look for justifications in the story twist or may even seek to resume their original path. Mirrors purely deflect a Narraton, taking the story toward a different potential set of scenes and conclusions.

But with our shiny new definitions, we can really start to look at other ways the story changes. Starting with filters (which we touched on earlier), these change the wavelength of the Narraton.

I'll pull an example from typical play.

A warrior strides into a fight. To overcome this fight and progress to the next scene, he has a range of tools at his disposal. To get through the scene, he needs to maintain his health (to resist his narraton ending it's journey here), and he needs to use one or more of his other tools to get past the scene.

Let's arbitrarily assign seven aspects to the fighter and give them some colour values.

Red = Weaponry

High score in this indicates a capacity to deal extra damage to an enemy, low score in this indicates a capacity to do minor damage to an enemy, no score in this indicates that damage can't be done to enemy.

Orange = Combat Prowess
High Score in this indicates good chance of striking enemy, low score indicates a poor chance of striking enemy, no score indicates inability to strike at enemy.

Yellow = Athletic Ability

High Score in this indicates good manoeuvrability and potential to get into positions of strategic advantage, low score might indicates slowness, no score indicates a complete inability to move.

Green = Health
High Score in this indicates a healthy physique, low score indicates frailness or heavy damage, no score indicates an inability to take any more damage at all.

Blue = Willpower

High score in this indicates a strong resolve and ability to overcome psychological threats, low score indicates fear or lack of morale, no score indicates no ability to go on at all.

Indigo = Mental Skill
High score in this indicates an ability to think around the situation and use unexpected advantages, low score indicates an inability to think straight, no score indicates a complete seizure of mind functions.

Violet = Trade Tools

High score in this indicates a range of useful equipment at your disposal, low score indicates a range of not-so-useful tools at your disposal, no score indicates that you are relying on your hands alone.

(I've basically tried to create a spectrum of aspects that might be useful in a fight, linking their adjacent colours to similar aspects).

Some game resolve combat very quickly, some resolve it step by step. Let's look at the ways filters apply in both examples.

Abstract Combat
When dealing with conflict resolution, it really doesn't matter if an individual task has been successful or not, al that really matters is which party achieved their goal, and how much did each party sacrifice in their attempts to achieve it. From the player character's perspective, they choose a part of their spectrum to work with and a part of their spectrum to resist with (some games allow more choice in this regard than others). Typically, each party declares how their attacks will work before the defending party chooses an appropriate means of avoiding the incoming effect.

Example 1
I attack with my masterful skill in fencing (combat prowess/orange).
I defend by getting out of the way (athletic ability/yellow).

Example 2
I shoot you in the f%^kin' kneecaps (weaponry-combat prowess/red-orange).
I'll take the hit, coz' you'll probably miss, you mother-f^*$er! (health/green).

Example 3
I'm playing mind games with you (mental skill/indigo).
You don't scare me! (willpower/blue).

Each player pushes their story through a filter. If they are successful, their story becomes enriched by that filter. If they are unsuccessful, their story is diminished by the filter.

Does my weapon break? If so, the red part of my spectrum is weakened. If all of my weapons are broken, then this cascades across to the orange part of the spectrum as my ability to fight becomes diminished as well.

Do I get a flash of insight? If so, the indigo part of my spectrum becomes intensified. If my flash is great enough I might even improve my resolve in the face of the current uncertainty (thus improving the blue part of my spectrum), or I might devise an ad-hoc tool that will help me (increasing my violet).

Do I trip and fall? Yes...my athletic ability (yellow) drops...and if it's bad enough, my ability to fight (orange) might be hampered and so might my general health (green).

I'm sure everyone reading has encountered games where modifiers start cascading across a character sheet. A good example is the synergies of 3rd Edition D&D (or even Rifts), to provide benefits across a spectrum.

Do I want to push myself beyond my limits...risk burning out my combat skills on this single fight? (Intensify my yellow now, but suffer a loss for it until I get the chance to recover).

Games like Amber include ideas like this.

Detailed Combat
In more detailed task resolution systems, the essence is much the same, but every action passes through a filter. One filter to move, one to attack, one to defend, one to resist the damage, maybe one to see if any psychological effects play out...then the next player pushes their Narraton through a series of filters.

Neither is more right.

Less filters might mean that game heads along with more predictability, but this might be compensated by having stronger filters. More filters slow the game down, but we really get to examine carefully the changes that happen along the way.

I may expand his idea further in my next post.

01 May, 2010

Vector Theory #14: Definitions

"Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous."

"The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools. "

-Two quotes from Confucius

"The more you know the less you understand."

"The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao." (although a more correct interpretation is "The Tao that can be Tao'd is not the true Tao.")

-Two quotes from Lao Tzu

"Kabbalah seeks to define the nature of the universe and the human being, the nature and purpose of existence, and various other ontological questions."


"From the year 1540 and onward, the basic levels of Kabbalah must be taught publicly to everyone, young and old. Only through Kabbalah will we forever eliminate war, destruction, and man's inhumanity to his fellow man."

-Rabbi Avraham Azulai

(Also have a look at this web page.)

Definitions are hugely important. They have been so since the founding of society, in fact society can only survive through a common sharing of defined terms. "The Law" is a strict definitions of what should and should not occur, with accompanying definitions of what ramifications will arise when those actions are violated. Language is a set of definitions used to convey ideas between minds. Science is a growing set of definitions attempting to categorise and understand the universe.

Definitions are the founding of the Tao, the essence of Confucianism, the core of Zen and the embodiment of the Kaballah. Kabbalah has become a very tempting jump for the blog, for two reasons. Firstly, it uses analogies at many levels to reveal knowledge, in much the same way that I'm using an analogy between the telling of a story and the path of a beam of light. Secondly, light is a fundamental piece of imagery in all kabbalistic teachings. But let's not turn this into a pseudo-religious discourse, it is after all a blog about roleplaying.

I considered changing the name of this blog series to "Zen and the Art of Game Design", "The Tao of Game Design" or "A Kabbalists guide to Game Design", but for the moment I'll leave it as "Vector Theory".

Let's look at the story vector as a mysterious wave/particle hybrid called a Narraton. It shares virtually everything in common with our current understanding of a photon (a light particle), the is only one fundamental difference between the two.l

It can be defined in many ways.

Photons: Simply where the light is coming from and where it is going. This is manifest in our perception as the side of an object illuminated when a stream of photons interacts with a physical object (the photon has come from a direction opposite the illuminated side).
Narratons: Where a story is coming from and where it is heading. This is manifest in our perception through the way scenes are opened to our awareness. Scenes appear based on where the story has been, even if they are constructed in a path to lead the story to a specific end point).

Photons: The strength of the illumination. This could be measured in candela, lux or phots; but is generally the amount of luminous potential provided by a light source. The more light present, the more particles are heading toward an object; which in turn provides greater illumination of the object and more potential to penetrate any obstacles. At the outer ends of the electromagnetic spectrum (such as X-Rays), Photons can pass through many types of objects, but they may be impeded, deflected or even stopped by certain dense particles.
Narratons: The capacity to reveal subjects and objects within scenes along the story path, and the ability to pass through them to the next scene. Narratons interact with different types of game element in much the same way that photons interact with different atomic and subatomic particles.

Photons: The oscillations of photons over the course of its travels. If a photon oscillates and returns to it's original state between 400 and 700 nanometres along it's path, it is considered in the visible spectrum. If it takes less space to do so, it tends toward x-rays and gamma rays; if it takes longer it tends toward radio waves. Wavelength doesn't change in general travel, until a photon interacts with a particle and conducts some form of energy exchange. A beam of light tends to be made up of different photons of different wavelengths. Purely white light is an even balance of all light in the visible spectrum.
Narratons: Narratons travel through story space with a specific theme, and the componentry that makes up the agendas and tools. In much the same way that a light beam is made up of many photons each with their own wavelength, a story path is made up of many narratons each with their own agendas and tools. Certain Narraton wavelengths may be blocked by certain types of obstacles in its path, while others suffer minor deflections, and others still pass through unharmed.

Photons: The direction a wave oscillates. There are a number of types of oscillation, but for electromagnetic particles they tend to be perpendicular to the path of travel. The actual direction of the oscillation can be controlled by a series of filters. These filters are effectively clusters of particles forcing an interaction with the photons, the result of which is to eliminate erratic vibrations/oscillations and enforce a degree of conformity on the light wave. Multiple polarisation filters can have dramatic effects on a stream of photons.
Narratons: Here's where some of the definitions have started to fall down. From this point onward, the analogy of Polarisation will reflect the notion of theme, mood and flavour within a story. Certain events will alter these aspects of the story, and they can easily disrupt the flow of a story to the point where it simply cannot continue.

I haven't quite worked this one out in the context of Narratons, and I don't want to force a definition purely for the sake of completing the analogy.

That's enough for today.