25 August, 2010

Vector Theory #28: Australian Freeforms

FUBAR is my exercise in designing a game according to the principles of Vector Theory. Where-in players get the chance to manipulate the effectiveness of their characters, or manipulate the direction of the story. They must choose between these options when proving successful in their die rolls. Players also choose how well their character is able to resist negative effects imposed upon their characters, or choose to buffer the direction changes in the story (they are rarely able to do both). I'm not sure completely how successful the game is in that regard, but it has gotten me thinking about a lot of other games and gaming styles.

The American indie roleplaying community (with links to the English and the Norse) has recently had a fascination with the style of play known in Australia as "Freeforming"...it's an annoying name because freeform means completely different things in the roleplaying communities from other parts of the world. I'll try to ensure I refer to it by the complete name of "Australian Freeforming" (or AF for short).

Australian Freeform games run with a minimum of rules, I've commented about the subject before (but looking through my blog archives, it appears that I haven't really made blog posts about it). Players are given a series of objectives which typically intersect with the objectives offered to other players. Sometimes players will work together to achieve a goal, other times they'll come into conflict. The play is typically "real time", and the goals are typically set up in such a way that combat is not a viable option. These types of games draw people from theatre backgrounds and those who like to costume, they are often theatrical and dramatic. A good game will have an easily understood, or easily researched setting, then take a twist on it so that the obvious ending isn't necessarily the best path taken.

In most Australian Freeforms, there are no statistics for the characters, so players aren't skewed in their preferred path of action due to attributes or advantages in a particular area. The whole essence of these games is the story. That really seems like a conflict of terms when it comes to Vector Theory, because the theory states that story is a straight path, and game is a node where that trajectory deviates due to some interaction.

But Australian Freeforming does have rules...it follows the rules of social convention. If you want something to happen, you can't do it on your own, so you need to talk to someone and find an ally to complete your agenda. But there will be people out there who don't want your agenda fulfilled, and you can't tell who will be favourable or unfavourable until the issue is raised carefully in conversation.

It's a delicate art, just like workplace politics (or any other politics) in real life. Different people want different things, and different people will be willing to break their own moral codes to different degrees in order to achieve their objectives.

In some games you'd call this a fruitful void. It's an area where the rules explicitly don't apply, but it's where the meat of the story derives itself. Once you impose rules there, it starts to feel forced.

So let's look at each of the players in an Australian Freeform as a narraton. They all have the same wavelength, they interact with one another on an equal footing. None is better at combat, none is better at the arcane arts. But they do all have impetus and direction.

Each character steps into the scenario with a number of objectives, and the controlling player needs to prioritise those objectives in the aim to complete as many as possible in the allocated session time. Let's say that left is a peaceful outcome, and right is war. Up is a power shift toward the church, down is a power shift toward the state (this is a purely hypothetical scenario, and many games will have three or more axes of potential outcome). If one player is following a character priority that takes them to the left, they'll find allies among those other players following objective aiming leftward, and they'll come into conflict with characters heading to the right. Similarly for up and down.

If a player finds an ally heading in the same direction, suddenly there are two moving that way and their combined force will overwhelm a single opposing player. But that single opposing player might still provide enough of an obstacle to stop the momentum of the allied players. It might be enough to stop them obtaining their goal before the session time expires.

An Australian Freeform is set up with a web of these agendas, some players coming into conflict due to one objective may find that they have a common goal in another objective. Let;s consider a twenty player Australian Freeform using the axes of potential outcome described above.

Ben heads upward (church) and to the left (peace), but for the moment he's focused on the left.
Mark heads upward (church) and to the right (war), but for the moment he's focused on the right because he has an ally headed that way.
Sally is Mark's ally, she is headed purely to the right (war).

Ben and Mark come into conflict. Ben wants peace, and Mark is a warmonger...but in their discussion they realise that they both want more power for the church.

Sally doesn't care who comes out on top, church or state, but she wants war.

Ben and Mark decide to join forces. Ben decides it might be worth a bit of war after all if the church gets enough power in the end. They both head over to Sally and see if they can turn her warlike tendencies toward the church's goals.

In the end, Ben has had to make a moral decision regarding his character's choices. Sally has had to consider which side should benefit from her input, and Mark has come out generally on top, still heading towards war, and still improving the power of the church. The three of them make a powerful force...but they don't know what the other seventeen players in the room are up to.

It's dramatic, it's challenging and there are no dice (or other randomisers) to fall back on. It's all about who you talk to and how you handle yourself.

Factions ally players at the start of play, and these are often used as a convenient method of determining who is aimed in what direction when the scenario begins, but by the end of a session, the directions can have shifted radically. A GM can't predict the outcome of a scenario with 100% certainty, they basically sit back and facilitate the actions of the players. Nothing more.

As I look at the computer encoding of Otherkind Dice for my FUBAR based browser game, I can see that there is something similar here. In an MMORPG, there is no specific storyline. There may be quests and general intentions of levelling up, but these styles of games become even more open in their storytelling opportunities. Players come in with their own ideas of what their characters should accomplish, GMs are merely administrators of the world and the best they might be able to impact the overall storyline is to introduce global effects (everyone bearing trait X suffers a point of damage...) then hope that one or more players might look for an in game reason for why this is happening. Or they might specifically take on an avatar in the game world to personally present quests to promising players. Beyond that they have to work on the background mechanics of the game in order to intiate the kinds of storytelling we often see in roleplaying games, and this gets really fiddly and temperamental when dealing with a server handling hundreds (if not thousands) of players.

Thus, in the online game, I'll be incorporating the idea of "faction heads" as sub GMs. Those who ascend to lead factions will gain a responsibility of giving quests to those who belong to their faction. They will gain a heightened ability to influence stories and create storylines of their own.

Encoding Otherkind

I’ve blogged about Otherkind dice a few times. Once describingthem as a game mechanism of the week, once describing how I’ve incorporated them into other projects (such as FUBAR), I’ve described them with respect to Vector Theory.

But there is really a lot more complexity in them than there first appears. Not so much the complexity of rolling three dice then allocating them to three categories, but the ideas of rolling extra dice to get a better chance of placing a single high die in a “success” category, while making extra sacrifices with extra dice placed in another category. There’s a lot of intuition happening here, and while it plays out simply and elegantly with a focus toward telling a good story, it’s a nightmare to program into a computer game.

My current interpretation of Otherkind Dice “FUBAR” can be translated into a 2 page document wityh details on character generation and some GMing notes thrown in for good measure.

But here is a link to a pdf flowchart I’ve generated for my browser based game.

It uses the same basic patterns as FUBAR, but with a minor difference due to the lack of a GM, and the open-ended nature of the stories.

Characters have traits, oppositions have traits (oppositions may be specific situations to overcome, or they may be other characters). A character chooses traits to bear on a situation, the opposition does likewise. If the character has more traits in the situation, then they gain extra dice that are automatically allocated to the success category (the character has a better chance of getting a more successful result because they are simply more proficient in this area). If the opposition has more traits in the situation, then the character gains extra dice that are automatically added to the sacrifice category (the character needs to spend more of their resources to get the same level of impact).

Sounds simple? Yes?

But how do we determine which traits are useful in a situation? On the tabletop, a quick sentence of justification might suffice. But this reminds me of the anecdote I heard on a forum a few months back…

A group are playing a dark gritty game set in a world like Games Workshop’s Necromunda, they are playing a group like Inquisitors usijng a set of rules like “Dogs in the Vineyard”. A girl new to roleplaying joins the group, the boys go easy on her and they think it’s cute when she buys the trait “My Daddy is Bobba Fett” with some ludicrously high value associated with it. If it gets her to fit in with the setting, they figure she might grow out of it and pick up some more mature traits as play establishes itself. But they’re wrong. At first she uses it every now and then as a “get-out-of-jail-free card”…the guys get into trouble and a masked bounty hunter saves them, they need extra firepower and he shows up again. She notices that the high dice associated with this trait give spectacular effects and rarely fail. So she starts using it more often…events that were once every couple of session now crop up in almost every scene. Bobba Fett dominates the game even though he is neither a player character nor a major antagonist. And he shouldn’t even be in the setting to begin with.

[Note: I’ve paraphrased this description quite a bit.]

So how do I make sure a single trait doesn’t destroy the game. I could program the game so that a trait may only be used once every 24 hours. But that really doesn’t mesh with the way “FUBAR” has been written. I’m trying to make this game match FUBAR as closely as possible so that it can be used as an advertisement for the pen-and-paper version of the game.

That leaves me with the situation/short-term/long-term/permanent split, linked with two levels of traits (one of which provides a single bonus die while the other provides a pair of bonus dice).

The next dilemma comes in the form of Scenes, Acts, Sessions and ongoing stories, especially when determining how certain traits expire.

That one’s pretty easy. The game will still use self contained scenes; where a character may perform an action to accomplish a specific deed, or may engage in a confrontation with a beast or another character. Situational traits will last as long as this scene is being engaged.

More long term traits are trickier. I could make an act equal to a complete period between log-on and log-off. Once a player logs out of the game, their short term traits are negated. But I think there needs to be something more to it than this…it’s easily capable of being abused with players racking up huge levels of short term traits then simply logging off then on again to start their campaign of activity again. I think I’ll have to add in a timing function here. A player will have to be logged out for at least an hour (maybe more) before their character’s short term traits reset.

Long tern traits are trickier still. Do I make them last a full day? A week? Month? This time period needs to be short enough that new players don’t get put off…but long enough that seasoned veterans still find them meaningful.

Then, to overcome the “Bobba Fett” syndrome, I need to make sure that players can’t always use the same trait non-stop. This is covered a bit by using situational/short-term/long-term, but there are always situations where carrying a big sword isn’t going to be an advantage even if you have such a trait available.

So I’m trying to pull in a bit of my Quincunx work here (but not the elements); there will be six stances the character can follow (just like Bunraku Nights). These are basically a combination of attribute and action methodology, the ways that a person gets things done: Advantages, Allies, Combat, Face, Knowledge, Talent.

Each trait thus becomes linked to a specific stance, but there are different ways that these stances can activate traits. Most commonly, a character’s stance will activate a range of traits (if your stance is combat, you gain access to a range of fighting traits…while if it’s face, you gain access to a range of courtier-subterfuge type traits). But to shake things up a bit, and to add some variety to scenes, some traits will become activated when an opponent is showing a particular stance (you only gain access to a counterattack trait if they are ready to fight, but you get access to this trait no matter what stance you might be in).

Similarly, there are some traits linked to specific environments (you gain access the to “dune-master” trait while you are on a beach or desert, but not while you are in the jungle or on an icy plateau).

This is stuff that’s common sense around a table, but in a computer game there is no GM, so the programming has to police the available traits.

And there are so many more issues that I haven’t even touched on yet.

Such as:

When do you apply negative traits?

What happens to characters who are taken out of action?

If a character is gaining a trait from a piece of equipment, what happens to the trait when they give away the equipment?

What about buffs from other players?

Can you gang up in a scene?

What about other common features in games like this (such as online chat functions, creating an avatar by buying equipment and clothes, factions)?

But enough blogging for the moment…back to the grindstone…

16 August, 2010

Brief Hiatus

I'm just temporarily logging in while I'm having lunch somewhere.

I've lost my internet connection at home, and it's probably going to be pretty erratic over the next few weeks. Between paying more important bills (such as food and electricity), and then moving house at some random time over the next couple of weeks, I can't be sure when I'll get the chance to post anything. I might have to make use of the free wi-fi internet at coffee shops or McDonald's fast food restaurants if the withdrawal symptoms get too bad.

I'll still be plugging away at various projects, and hopefully when things settle down, there will be some great new things to reveal to the world.

07 August, 2010


I've just added Naked FUBAR to my site.

A microlite version of FUBAR on two sides of an A4 page.

I'll be generating a better pdf for it shortly as I seem to have lost my good pdf conversion tool with the decent compression rate.

Here's the link.

Major College Project

I've gone back to study for this semester.

I'm upgrading a qualification in Web Design and I'm adding a qualification in Multimedia.

All in the hopes that:

A) I might become more employable...


B) My own business ventures will rely less on the fickleness of third parties.

As a result I'll have a couple of major projects for the semester. One of which will be a website driven by a database, andother of which will be an interactive flash project.

So I'm wondering about the options of combining these two projects into a single entity...a flash driven web-browser game.

I know that there are already plenty of these around, but on the whole most of them aren't that great. I'm thinking that there might be a chance to get some fun interactive storytelling happening in a game like this, to really push the envelop beyond a simple point and click adventure. In mush the same way that storygames are pushing the envelop with roleplaying.

Let's look at some of the first ideas for the project.

1) It needs to draw players back time and again...as a result there should regularly be new challenges and new rewards. Some existing browser based games already do this, by providing "festive encounters"...Santa only shows up in the week leading up to Christmas, the Easter Bunny only shows up around April, Halloween treasures appear for a week or so...you get the idea. I'd also like to make sure that players are enticed to come back by allowing their characters to develop, perhaps offering tougher opponents or quests that only become accessible once key character development aspects are met.

2) It needs to be self sustaining. There are some great browser based games that have developed dedicated online communities, hundreds of players who interact over forums and wikis centred on the game.

3) I don't want to run the type of game where money will buy you a better character and the richest kid on the block will automatically buy up the best character. But the problem with this type of game is that a lot of people don't have the dedicated time to develop a character the slow way. Providing a "premium membership" for a monetary value would help offset any server costs.

4) Maybe a real world reward cycle, earn points in the game, and those points may be used to get discounts on game related products. This is sort of related to number 3.

Let's look at the power-19 questions in relation to a game of this type. I'd be very surprised if other web-browser game designers went through this kind of process for their game, after all this style of play is only a few years old, still equivalent to the early boxes of D&D. A lot of the browser games on the market are very cookie-cutter in their approach.

1. What is your game about?
This will be a browser game set in the endless labyrinth setting that I've mentioned a few times in my "Games for Goblins" projects. It is a game about little creatures struggling to survive in a nightmarish world, these creatures survive by scavenging, trickery, occasional trade and generally by avoiding conflict when possible.

2. What do the characters do?
The characters begin in small towns scattered across the labyrinth, towns are always under threat from marauding monsters, lost adventurers from the mortal world, and celestial beings who wiped them out on a whim if they become too noticeable. All characters start as a lowly brood member, and only once they've proven themselves through a series of lesser quests do they become capable of exploring the lands beyond their township. Over the course of their lives, they scavenge parts, build contraptions, learn secretive magics and may eventually get the opportunity to join the goblin king's royal army.

3. What do the players do?
The players connect to the game when the opportunity presents itself. They move their characters around the labyrinth, with a random chance of encountering savage and dangerous opponents, or possibly finding useful "stuff". When a player logs out of a session, they may set their character to "search the area" for more stuff, "defend the area" from possible threats, "tinker" with their stuff to build contraptions, "meditate" on the mysteries of the universe, "hide" or a range of other possible options. I'd like players in local taverns to be able to talk to one another via a chat function, to help develop a community aspect, and there should be some kind of noticeboard system for long term messages or important news.

4. How does your setting (or lack thereof) reinforce what the game is about?
The game is about the chance of a little guy becoming a hero. Everyone starts little, and everyone has the chance to succeed. You can succeed by doing more than just fighting; talk, tinkering, study and trade are just as useful for developing experience. All it takes is perseverance and a bit of luck.

5. How does character creation reinforce what the game is about?
The game is designed to be simple. Characters are quick and dirty, they are expected to die, because there are so many goblins. As a result, a character needs to be quick to build. But once they've passed through the first couple of quests they'll start to develop a bit more personality. While most starting characters will start off fairly generic, the actual development of the character will occur through the first couple of quests. If you do a combat related quest you'll pick up combat traits...if you do a trade quest, you'll pick up trade traits. Once you've done two of these starting quests, you'll be ready to proceed to the "Halls of Honour" to become a fully fledged member of society. The starting quests teach you how to use the traits that you possess...unlike a of of games where you are given a complex character generation system then thrown in the deep end.

6. What types of behaviour/styles of play does your game reward (and punish if necessary)?
The game rewards each type of activity with it's own traits and special bonuses. If you fight all the time, you'll get fighting abilities...if you talk and negotiate all the time, you'll get better at these skills. At a deeper level, the actions of a character will be reflected in their bearing and their aura. Someone who is always using magic might have a crackling aura...someone who is always negotiating and being friendly might have an entourage following them or might just seem pleasant to talk to.

7. How are behaviours and styles of play rewarded or punished in your game?
Games like this often need to be competitive to keep players playing, but the flip-side of this is that if you allow players to kill one another you'll get competitive players who drive others away with their antagonism. The game will apply a "bad aura" or bounty system on those players who kill other players.

General rewards are basically that if you keep doing the same type of task over and over, you'll get good at it, but at the expense of other characteristics fading away. Players need to keep a balance about their characters for maximum survivability, but will often develop the best reputation and usefulness to the community if they develop a single skill to higher levels. This isn't a point and click game, it's a game where players need to think a bit.

8. How are the responsibilities of narration and credibility divided in your game?
A series of hidden algorithms will drive the game, offering random encounters and random descriptive elements in conjunction with fixed details about various locations. Players will be able to modify the environment to some extent by writing on walls, placing specific pieces of equipment around (eg. traps), or making other modifications to the environment based on their skills/traits. Players will also be able to chat to one another and hopefully develop up a mythology beyond what is merely presented as images and text from the game interface. I'd like to think that this is where the fruitful void and the "roleplaying" will come from in the game.

9. What does your game do to command the player's attention, engagement and participation?
In percentages:
I'm expecting about 60% of people to look at the site maybe play a couple of times then lose interest. Nice graphics, an intuitive interface and an interesting setting will hopefully lure a few of these players to stay around.
Another 30% will probably play until they "level up" once or twice, then get drawn in by the next big thing...or go back to playing their "regular game of choice". They might play daily for a while, then play weekly for a bit longer when they remember about it. They should be lured further by the reward cycle of added skills/traits and added complexity in the tougher missions.
6% might really get involved in the game, playing it daily for weeks on end. These would be the players who really start to get ahead in the game. The built in reward cycle would cater to these players by rewarding daily returns to the game.
3% would end up truly getting ahead, logging on multiple times a day to gain an edge over their competitors. These players would gain the opportunity to become faction heads, and thus give them the chance to reward lesser players by offering them quests.
The final 1% might be fanatical enough to earn administrator privileges, allowing them near magical abilities to change the labyrinth and the over-arcing storylines within the game.

10. What are the resolution mechanics for your game like?
I'm actually thinking of using an Otherkind dice system for this game. The computer rolls 3 dice, +1 if you've got a special trait in an area. Extra dice will be gained or lost depending on the area you are in...(a "Jungle Specialist" gains an extra die in "Jungle" locations...a "Dishonoured" character loses a die if they are engaging in social interactivity). The basic system would follow FUBAR. With a scene being an hour or a movement between locations (situational traits vanish once a character moves or after an hour, whichever comes first), an act lasts half a day (short term traits vanish after 12 hours have passed), a story lasts a week (long term traits vanish after 7 full days have passed), etc.

Dice are rolled by the computer, the player gets to allocate them into "Degree of Success", "Degree of Sacrifice" and "Degree of Fallout". The computer then translates these values into a resultant animation or short randomized story text.

When players decide to log out and engage in a task during their down-time, their character remains locked into this task non stop. If they dedicate an hour to a task, they gain a free extra bonus die, if they dedicate 6 hours they gain 2 bonus dice, a day earns them 3 bonus dice.

11. How do the resolution mechanics reinforce what your game is about?
This is very different to the existing browser based games, and since the game is more about the stories of young goblins who are struggling to grow up as heroes, it makes a better storytelling method.

There will probably be an ongoing chronicle about characters (in their history), showing a goblin's rise through the ranks. Maybe they'll need to visit the "Hall of Honour" to update their tales.

12. Do characters in your game advance? If so, how?
This has already been described. The characters advance by performing actions suitable to earn them traits. Characters may turn these traits permanent once they have proven competent in the related skill.

13. How does character advancement reinforce what the game is about?
See above

14. What sort of product or effect do you want your game to produce in or for the players?
I want to create a mystical world that lures players back time and again. Something a bit different, whether this is through good graphical interface, good story, or good gameplay. I want the players to feel a part of this world through their characters.

15. What areas of your game receive extra attention and colour? Why?
The goblins themselves are the heroes of this game, and as they develop they will gain more colour and emphasis. Only those characters who have proven themselves an ongoing oart of the environment will gain the benefits of this added colour though. The majority of the goblins will simply be unnamed hordes.

16. Which part of your game are you most excited about or interested in? Why?
Using Otherkind Dice in a browser game seems awesome. It's going to take a bit of work to get it right, but I'd like to think that this will make a great interface between the table-top story-games which are always looking for new markets, and the browser game community who are getting sick of the same old thing being rehashed.

17. Where does your game take the players that other games can’t, don’t, or won’t?
As I've said many times, most games of this nature are simply point and click, and most of them are really combat intensive rather than political or social. Some have a bit of detail in these regards, but I haven't seen any that really fulfil this niche.

18. What are your publishing goals for your game?
I'd be happy enough to get 100 regular players by the end of the year, I'd love to get 1000 players for the game. If I could use this game as a vehicle toward luring players into the other products of Vulpinoid Studios (or other forms of indie gaming), that would be awesome.

19. Who is your target audience?
Players looking for a bit of escapism, but who don't have the time to dedicate hours and hours to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. With a lack of combat focus in the game, I'd like to think the game might be more accessible to a female audience as well.

06 August, 2010

Microlite Storyteller

Back to another Microlite.

This one I don't have as high praise for.

Maybe Microlite d20 falls into some of the same traps, but this one does it more blatantly. Maybe it's just my critical eye for game mechanisms that has lead me to the issues I have with this incarnation of the Microlite genre.

The Author's original post about it is here on ENWorld, while Stargazer's World mentions it here.

The author readily admits that the game is a very, very, VERY alpha document; but it's been around for a while and it's seen a few comments here and there. If the author has done anything new to it, I'd love to see it.

I'll also hasten to comment that I make these reviews and remarks if I think there is a certain potential in an idea. I'm an old fan of the old World of darkness, I had the old quickstart booklet (I think it might even be in my book boxes which are packed for an impending house move).

So there is a germ of coolness in this game concept, but there's some chaff that I'd seriously dispose of.

First, it strips the nine attributes down to 6, it seems to do this by pulling out the social attributes. No, a second reading of the rules shows that this isn't the case, but the storyteller focus on a complicated combat system compared to other actions is still apparent. This might be a comment on the way the author plays the game (or sees the game being played), because one of the key virtues of the Microlite system is pulling out the stuff you don't use.

Next, when I read through the entire rules it becomes eminently clear how to min-max the system. That's something a lot of seasoned players do with the full scale World of Darkness rules, so maybe it's praise that the author has retained this aspect of the game, maybe it's an oversight (he didn't see the trap and thus fell in). If I were to create a character in this system I'd start by giving them 4 dots of strength. It's obvious that social scenes aren't expected, and the hit points, close combat hit chance and even the effective hit points are derived from strength.

Personally, I would have stripped it down to the 3 categories "Physical", "Social" and "Mental". Assigned a single dot to each and then five extra dots (because this is in the middle of the 7/5/3 spread that most supernaturals get to allocate across their statistics).

I would have then made sure that various subsystems described throughout the game used each of the three attributes fairly equally. Offer an investigation subsystem based on the "social" and "mental" attributes, a dominance subsystem based on the "physical" and "social" attributes and a combat/tactical subsystem based on the "physical" and "mental" attributes.

The stripped back aesthetic of Microlite is apparent in the skills. I can't complain there.

I like the way the breeds and factions are basically reduced to a simple attribute or skill bonus to reflect the stereotypes. This is probably one of the few things I like about the new World of Darkness. The simplified use of Morality and Supernatural is also nice, and from what I know of the new World of Darkness it seems to be a reasonable facsimile of the more complex rules.

All in all, except for the obvious ability to abuse the system during character generation it doesn't seem too bad. I think the simple change I offered would make it more palatable (it would for me, I don't know how much better it would be for other people).

An advantage I see for this Microlite game over the Microlite d20 is that it fits on a single side of a page. The second side could then be used for the specific genre conventions of certain races within the World of Darkness...front-side: rules/back-side: vampires...front-side: rules/back-side: werewolves...etc.

It's still got that enticement factor about it...I want to change it, advance it, modify it. But maybe not so much as microlite d20.

Seven Deadly Sins of Game Design

Over on RPGnet there has been a great discussion on game design from a meta perspective. It started as a list of things that a prospective indie/small-press game designer should avoid if they want to write a passable game. Like most threads, the first few ideas were solid; then later ideas started to waver between sheer brilliance and rubbish. But one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

Like many threads, it also degenerates into trash talk for a while before getting focused again.

I made the comment:

“And that's why a listing like this one is really good.

Once you know where the lines are drawn in the sand, that's when you know where to cross them and the effects to worry about when you do cross them.

A lot of inexperienced designers don’t know the traps and they don’t understand why their games are falling into them.

Occasionally they'll hit upon a stroke of genius, but more often than not the resultant output will be utter crap.”

So, for posterity, here’s the complete listing so far.

1. Creating a game that is “D&D but better”

2. Using my own campaign background as the game background

3. Overdeveloping creation myths

4. Allowing players to be anything, be anyone!

5. Designing without premise, theme or focus

6. Developing a game with lack of a fruitful void

7. Designing with assumptions about what games “should be like”

8. Forgetting that you are designing a social activity

9. Holding onto your darlings too hard.

10. Lack of blind playtesting

11. Writing a set of rules when a supplement would have sufficed

12. Being different just to be different

13. Forgetting the Human factor

14. Deep customisation…how much detail is too much?

15. Assuming the way you play is how others will play, building something that works great only if done the way you would do it, but falls apart if done with even minor change.

16. Being different for the sake of being different, in the belief that it makes the game "better"

17. Writing a RPG that is too closely based on a book/Film/comic, that only works when you've immersed yourself in the source material.

18. Writing something that has a wonderful setting, but there's nothing for player characters to do.

19. Writing something that requires several separate, pricey books before you can even start to play - and I mean beyond a player's book and a GM's book.

20. Failing to be aware of the common traps and pitfalls of game design!

By the time you’re reading this, there might be more traps to avoid on the thread. But at this stage I’m starting to see that a lot of the traps are doubling up, or simply being reworded from new perspectives. So I’m going to limit the variety of traps and consolidate them into groups. Let’s call them, the Seven Deadly Sins of game design.

1. Lack of Focus (Traps 4, 5 with a touch of 18)

2. Not Designing the Actual Play (Traps 6, 8, 9 with a touch of 13 and 19)

3. Not designing for others (Traps 2, 7, 9, 10, 15 with a touch of 13)

4. Excessive Detail (Traps 3, 14, 19 with a touch of 17)

5. Trying to Improve on the Successful (Traps 1, 12 with a touch of 11)

6. Not doing your research (Traps 15, 20 with a touch of 16)

7. Overdoing it (Traps 3, 11 with a touch of 5)

I've shuffled the traps around a few times to fit in with the traditional seven deadly sins, but so far nothing much has proven successful. Some of the traps that I've seen really kill a game just don;t fit into the nice patterns I keep trying to generate. Maybe I'll look at the Buddhist precepts, or just end up writing a list of 10 commandments for game design.

It's interesting that the issues I was internalising a few days ago on the blog (about gaming success and failure) have been echoed in other parts of the design community. I still stand by my comment that these traps can be used by a good game developer as long as they know them, consider them like a map to a minefield. Sometimes you want to get close to the mines so that you can draw your enemies in, or simply perform amazing stunts with your ideas.

05 August, 2010


Looks like I've got to stop editorializing and start doing some actual research before making blog posts....before I really start embarrassing myself. Especially now that I'm actually developing a readership.

As I start to embark on a review and analysis of Microlite20, I have the overwhelming feeling that my review will end up longer than the game itself. Is this good or bad?

I can look at a lot of the existing reviews and comments about Microlite 20...

or this interview on Stargazer's Blog

Between these and the dozens of other comments scattered across the web, it's great to see a little project that really seems to have hit home with a wide spectrum of gamers. Old school renaissance gamers have taken it as a symbol of the way things used to be before they got all complicated. Story Gamers have praised its ideals of minimal system interference. Numerous gamers have added a page to twist the basics and hack the rule-set to match their favourite settings. I've seen most of the old D&D settings and some of the new D&D or other d20 settings given the Microlite 20 treatment...Dark Sun, Eberron, Spycraft...and addenda to cover things like Psionics.

It's elegant. It's the kind of thing lots of designers are aspiring to create, but without a lot of the pretense. It doesn't claim to be anything it isn't, it's just a stripped down d20 system...the barest of what is necessary to run a game.

I'm not going to say it's perfect, but what game is?

The game by itself is a rough skeleton, a bit like Ghost/Echo. there are some ligaments and sinews connecting the skeleton and giving it an implied range of movement, but a familiarity with the tropes and rituals of roleplaying makes it a complete game. An experienced player can use it as a tool to teach a newcomer, but I think a group of newcomers wouldn't be able to make head-or-tail of it.

It might be simple, but is it too simple? Has it stripped away too much of the meat to really be a complete system? I like it, but I know gaming and know how to fill in the blanks (and this seems to be the caes with most of the people who are playing it).

One of the things I do admire about Microlite 20 is the same kind of spirit that infused the first printings of Big Eyes Small Mouth. The game's simplicity cries out for someone to jury rig some new rules. There's a do-it-yourself attitude that entices a prospective designer to get off their arse and actually do some designing. It makes you feel like you don't need a team or artists, proofreaders, editors and researchers to write a game. Just get a pen, some paper, dice and some friends. The essence of old-school gaming that we remember when we first played all those years ago. If we didn't know the rules, or didn't understand bits of them we either ignored them or made them up on the fly.

For this reason, the Microlite concept is a good metagame, perhaps even moreso than it is a good game. This is evidenced by the dedicate following of designers creating new hacks for it, and the numerous appearances it is making across the web.

Certainly far more has been written about Microlite20 than the actual word count of the rules themselves.

That's enough of my perspective for the moment. Perhaps some more later.

Microlite Games

I've just started looking at the Microlite concept again.

There's some interesting ideas tied up in that school of thought, and it almost links in with the single page games that I've toyed with over the past couple of years.

The way I understand it, Greywulf (AKA Seth Drebitko) started the whole thing with Microlite d20, a rebellion against what was happening to D&D. Others have started to take their own favourite game systems and have stripped away the superfluous crap to give some really tight games.

Do the games benefit from this?

I'm not sure. They certainly give control back to the GM and player, rather than absorbing all the responsibility through copious pages of rulebooks. But they leave a lot of work for the participants. A minimum of fluff/colour/flavour-text means that players don't argue over what it says on a certain page, instead they have the chance to argue about different interpretations at a much wider and more fundamental level.

On the other hand, a good strong GM with a very specific game idea in mind could easily pick up one of the Microlite games most suited to the style of play she is going for, and could dominate the game to their will without having players fall back on rule books to defend themselves...so in this style of play the lack of pages is great.

I'll be making a few posts about some of the microlite games I've seen recently, notably Microlite d20 and Microlite WoD. Then looking at how some of my other ideas fit around them (eg. Vector Theory).

04 August, 2010

Middle Management

Desperately trying to get out of the depressive spiral, I've been looking for sources of inspiration.

Cthulhu probably isn't the best place to look for a way to restore a bit of sanity, especially when I'm already caught up in patterns of shadowy conspiracies, futility and general self-doubt.

Hang on....How does Cthulhu link to middle management? WTF?

I'm rhetorically glad you asked.

I had a crazy idea for a game a few months ago, and my recent activities have reminded me of it.

The game has a working title of "Middle Management", it's about spiritual beings caught working for impossibly powerful malevolent forces (the senior management....AKA the elder gods), they are forced to enact the secretive conspiracies of the world through their low ranking peons.

The players are free to roam between the physical realm and the great abyss beyond time and space.

Here's the basic working notes.

Middle Management

In which the players take on the roles of various races subjugated by the deities of the cthulhu mythos, and in turn enslave mortals.

Game should use d12s due to the pentagons on each side (the dice represent elder stones, which are always referred to as five-sided.). Perhaps a range of d4s d8s and d12s, or maybe cards.

Players have a rating from 1 to 12. Where 1 is a full connection to the physical plane, and 12 is no connection at all.

1-2Fully MaterialAges Quickly4 Senses
3-4Quasi-MaterialAges Normally5 Senses
5-6Ephemeral/AstralLong LivedExtrasensory Perception
7-8Outer RealmsDemigodTemporal Perception
9-10Abyssal ThresholdVirtually ImmortalExtra-planar Perception

The true masters are caught in an abyssal realm, ageless and eternal, the players shift between the abyss and the mundane world. They need agents in the mundane world to achieve the goals of the beings trapped in the abyss. The more removed the players are from the abyss, the weaker they become; the more they use agents from the mortal world, the more insane or degenerate those agents become.

Mechanism Ideas

Players roll 2d12 for their actions (or draw 2 cards). They use the lower result if they are interacting with mortals in the physical world, and the higher result if they are interacting with elder gods in the abyss.

Basically, the difference determines the success level.

Affecting the physical world has a target value of 1. Affecting the abyssal realm has a target value of 12. Affecting a figure caught somewhere between the physical world and the abyss has a target value equal to their planar rating.

Every time a mortal is affected, their target value increases by 1 as they lose their connection to the mortal world. This might be manifested through loss of sanity or physical degeneration.

Every time an abyssal creature is affected, their target value decreases by 1 as their bonds of extra-planar imprisonment are weakened.

It's just something that's been rattling around for a while, I haven't really known where to proceed with it. Every now and then the basic concepts raise their heads again and I rehash them.

If it gives you any ideas, or if you have any ideas on where I could proceed, I'd be glad to hear them.

At this stage I'm thinking of linking the structure to one of my other games, perhaps Bunraku Nights, or maybe even FUBAR.

At this stage it's probably just going to end up in the library of lost ideas.