26 May, 2011

Spicing Up Your Game #4: Getting Everyone on the Same Page

Another one of those common topics of discussion on independent gaming forums involves the concept of shared imagination space, or shared imagined space, or simply SIS. I’ve heard a dozen interpretation of what this actually is, but the concept I like the best is like a communal daydream where everyone adds something into it, and everyone else reacts to the addition. Three types of contributors add to the communal daydream, the GM who sets the stage, the players who act through their players within the setting and the game mechanisms which often impose a level of coherency or apply genre specific physics to the situation.

All of these forces are pulling at the SIS, the GM is often trying to pull the story toward a predetermined goal, the players are typically pulling the SIS in a way to highlight the advantages and strengths of their characters, the system often works to stop players or GM from gaining absolute control over events, thus turning the story into a game experience.

With these forces pulling in different ways, the SIS is pulled tight like the mat on a trampoline. It has a certain degree of give, but if things get too tense it becomes a fragile thing that can easily be broken. If you’ve been roleplaying long enough, you’ve probably seen this. One player pulls in a direction opposing another player, it starts with each believing a different version of a specific event, and as they are unwilling to back down, they continue to interpret new events in ways that reinforce their belief about the storyline…until eventually the two stories become incompatible and the SIS literally tears apart, destroying the game in the process.

In another situation, the players engage in an action that isn’t quite covered by the game’s rules, so a new rule is devised ad hoc (perhaps by the GM, perhaps by consensus of the group). With another situation and another ad hoc change of the rules the story drifts away from the rules as they are written in the book. Some players might realise this and simply think that this is just the GMs play style, perhaps they give it a name like “drift” because they are gradually drifting away from the rules as written and are developing their own evolution of the game more suited to their style of play. Eventually the players realise that they are actually playing a brand new game completely separate from the book where everything started.

Anything can cause a degree of tension that rends the SIS; at first it might be unnoticed, but eventually it becomes obvious and destroys a game. Not all games end this way, some games might walk a fine line, where nothing gains enough strength to cause this damage to the SIS, or maybe the storyline resolves and the game ends before things get too out of hand.

If you’re planning to run a long term game, it makes sense to give the SIS a bit more strength. Make it a bit more resistant to those pulling effects. If all the players and the GM are sharing the same ideas about where the story is going, what has happened and how the environment around them works, then there is a lower likelihood that they’ll pull in mutually incompatible directions. (Don’t get me wrong, there will still be friction between characters, that’s all a part of roleplaying, but now the players should be aware of what they are doing to the story rather than simply pulling at it without understanding the results of their actions.)

There are some easy ways to reinforce the SIS, but most involve a bit of preparation and some homework on the part of the players.

Find a movie that’s similar to the setting you’re trying to portray, or a TV series. If it’s something that most members of the group are already familiar with then you don’t need to sit and watch it again.

If your game idea sits somewhere between two or three movies, get everyone to sit and watch them all…taking notes along the way. Or even take the opportunity for everyone to pick a movie within a specific genre…action movies, sci-fi movies, road movies, post apocalypse…once everyone has picked a movie, everyone should write notes, picking half a dozen aspects from each movie, then discussing their choices during the credits, or before the next movie starts. Once all the movies have been watched, consider which elements are common to them. For example, if you’re going sci-fi and one person picks “Blade Runner” while someone else picks “Alien”, then there is a common thread of very human looking androids, and another common thread of crude space travel with an exodus from the earth. Choose a few of these common elements, and define them as immutable truths about the game setting. Choose a few of the characters as archetypes for NPCs. Limit the weaponry in the game to items that are specifically seen in the films. If you see an action occur in a few of the movies, then it should be pretty easy to accomplish in the game; conversely if you deviate beyond what you see in any of the movies then things would get more difficult.

In this way, everyone gets on the same page about what can be done easily, what should become harder in the game, and what just shouldn’t be possible at all.

You could do the same with books, but this would be a bit harder. It takes a lot longer and a bit more effort to read a book than watch a movie.

Once everyone has the same starting point for a game, and they understand where the boundaries of the imagined world exist, then they can explore the space within those boundaries instead of trying to test the edges and pull the game apart.

That’s the theory anyway.

Real Time Mob Warfare

(I apologize to the people who've been following the development of this game, those helpful people who've provided insight and encouragement as I've been plugging away at this project...but I've provided a deeper background for those people who aren't up to speed, or who just want to see where my current thoughts lie in context)

I’m stuck.

I’m trying to write a skirmish level wargame that plays out in real time.

Each player takes on the role of a goblin in an ancient civilization that long ago conquered its entire world, laying a grand labyrinth across entire continents before opening chasms in time-space and spreading their labyrinth to new worlds. The goblins have such a huge empire that they have fractured as a people, fighting among themselves more often than they fight outsiders, they have mutated into dozens of subraces. The subraces commonly fight each other through political intrigue and occasionally by brawling in the streets. The great goblin empire has little control over its vast lands, local imperial barons wage war against guerrilla warlords and powerful crafting guilds. They fight with a teeming horde of youngsters ever eager to prove themselves in battle, with clockwork robots, with alchemical beasts and with trained animals. Occasionally one side might enslave or recruit outsiders who have been swept up in the eternal goblin struggle; humans lost in the labyrinth, giant trolls, or other strange beasts.

Typically, goblins have very short lifespans and a breeding cycle that would drive their numbers exponentially out of control if they weren’t always fighting. A goblin is hatched, becomes sexually active at the end of a month, reaches optimum maturity after a second month, retires by the time the third month has passed, and has died of old age by the end of the fourth month. But there are special potions, artefacts and places in the world that slow down a goblin’s rate of aging, turning weeks into years or even decades. Gaining control over these goblin treasures are the main source of conflict across the empire.

That’s where the wargame comes in.

The game is a massive skirmish level free-for-all. Each player controls a goblin hero, someone who has transcended the goblin masses and has obtained a method for enhancing their lifespan. As a hero, they have gathered an assortment of lesser goblins, sidekicks, pets and war machines to their side. So at this stage we’re looking at a hero with an assortment of skills and special abilities, and a half dozen or so lesser goblins and other fighting assistants each with an ability or two of their own.

…and this needs to play out in real time with more than twenty players playing at once, in a few factions with four or so hero members in each.

It’s a tough ask, but if it can be pulled off, it should be utterly spectacular.

I’m toying with two core ideas at this time.

The first employs the goblin tarot deck I’m working on.

The second employs rolling heaps of dice.

The goblin tarot deck idea is more mystical, the dice rolling idea is more chaotic…but both are quite potentially goblinesque.

Idea 1: Goblin Tarot Combat

There are a range of major arcana, each describing a battle tactic. Different characters will have access to different tactics.

Members of a squad (the hero and their companions) are represented by cards. At the start of a round, a player sorts these cards into an activation order. When they come into conflict with one another squad, they reveal the top card of their deck with the squad they are fighting against. Minor arcana are drawn, the face value of these arcana are added to relevant skills on the squad cards before comparing to opponents. Players may activate a single ability for each squad member as they activate, they might be able to activate a second ability or gain some kind of bonus if the minor arcana has the right suit. In this way an exchange should only take a couple of seconds, and once one exchange is dealt, a second exchange begins. This continues until all troops have activated once (some may have the ability to be re-added back into the activation pile). Once a new round begins, surviving squad members are sorted into a new activation pile; with the next round, follow up actions are made.

Using this type of system all of the members of a squad can be provided with different abilities that might prove useful (or might be completely ineffective if certain opponents are flipped not.

The system can also be used for resource gathering (which will also be an important part of the game), scavenging for scrap in junk heaps to build contraptions to wage more war, or trade to wanna-be warlords. Perhaps different troops types are more effective at gathering different types of resources in different areas.

The whole idea still needs work, but that’s the basic system. The reason I’m liking this system is that it’s hard to cheat when you’re drawing cards from a deck, and a goblin game of this magnitude will keep the GMs on their toes as it is; the game needs a system that is easy enough to regulate between payers so that the GMs can be . .

Idea 2: Handfuls of Dice

The goblin tarot idea activates a single character at a time, handfuls of dice are a free for all.

Under this concept, all roll one or more dice…one die for basic inexperienced goblins, two dice for veterans (a month or two old), and three for the hero. All the dice are rolled at once, then allocated to squad members as they activate.

If a 1 is allocated to a goblin, the opponent gets a free attack on them.

If a 2-3 is allocated, the goblin is distracted and doesn’t act except to defend themselves.

If a 4-5 is allocated, the goblin acts normally.

If a 6 is allocated to a goblin, they get the chance to activate a special ability.

Experienced goblins and heroes with multiple dice may combine their successful dice for spectacular actions against individuals, or may split their successes against multiple enemies.

It would still work off the idea of activating squad members, but I’m not sure how a fast activation mechanism would work under a dice related system.

This type of system matches more of the existing wargames, so it might be easier to pick up. But I think I’m tending toward the first idea at this stage.

I’m open to ideas.

Spicing Up Your Game #3: Making Player Decisions Matter

I’m one of those GMs who runs a reactionary game. I ask every player to devise some kind of goal before trying to determine a story outline. I’ll develop a game plan for a session once the first scene has played out and I’ve got an idea of where the group would like to take things.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to organise things. I’ll prepare a setting, with an assortment of locations ready action, a rogues gallery of NPCs ready to throw into scenes and a few potential treasures or maguffins. In some circles, I think my GMing style is called “playing unsafe” but I prefer to think of it as allowing players to actually make decisions for their characters, providing the opportunity to explore the setting and explore the characters within that setting.

As a player, I’ve participated in sessions run by similar GMs and have thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve also played in sessions run by GMs who prefer to simply run things according to a set scenario with no allowance for player decisions to really affect the story flow. Sure, the players can stop, go, speed up or slow down the course of action; but with no chance of taking side routes or simply dismissing anything not related to the GMs story at hand, it’s all just railroading. I’ve delved into a bit of this with my various posts on Vector Theory.

So, there’s nothing really special about this particular method of spicing up your game. If you’re a GM, just allow your players to make decisions, don’t be afraid to follow where those decisions might lead the story. If they lead to new and interesting places, keep notes. If they peter out, go back to the planned story you had, and incorporate some of the exploration that the players took you on while they were leading things.

Spicing Up Your Game #2: Danger Dice

In the independent game design crowd, there are plenty of discussions and arguments about what makes a next generation roleplaying game and how this compares to the old generation of games (and their legacy). One of the common things brought up is the ability for players to take more control into their own hands. Taking risks for added chances to achieve important goals, being able to accept responsibility for your actions by deliberately imposing complications to your own character. Instead of accepting the railroading or deprotagonising effects from the GM, you step up and become a true protagonist again. Destiny is back in the hands of the players and the story becomes a collaborative effort once again.

It sounds a bit over the top. A lot of us got into roleplaying because that’s the kind of thing that our game books promised us, quite a few people never experience this and they either become jaded and leave the hobby, or they change their expectations of the hobby and become content to let a GM tell the story while they just follow aong for the ride through their characters.

This idea is pretty simple, but it pulls the players back into the storytelling process without pushing the intimidating step of “full GMing” on them.

At the start of every campaign, a character should have three or four things that might be useful, depending on your game system, these might be piece of equipment in the inventory, they might be specific traits, relatives, merits, or they might be simple keywords if your game system doesn’t normally keep track of things like equipment. At the start of each new session, a character might gain a single new item, or maybe they’ get refreshed back up to the starting number…

During the course of play, every time a skill check is made, roll an extra die of the type appropriate for your system.

If you are rolling d20s, roll an extra d20; if you’re rolling percentiles, roll an extra pair of d10s.

If you are rolling 2d6 and adding the results together, roll an extra d6.

If you are paying a game with a step die mechanism, roll another die equal to your highest die type (or your lowest die type...whatever you choose, be consistent through the whole game).

Before a skill check is made, the player should describe one of the objects/items/keywords important to their character. This important thing needs to be related to the events at hand, something that can be risked to improve chances of success. If the character doesn’t have something suitable, they still roll the extra die but risk something nasty happening to themselves (perhaps they’ll risk taking some damage in the skill attempt, or some kind of other penalty or flaw).

When the skill check is made, one die is allocated to the actual skill attempt, while the other die is applied to the risk.

The risk die has three levels of effect:

If it rolls really badly (like a natural 1 on a d6, or a 1-2 on a d10) the risked item is lost for good.

If it rolls fairly badly (less than half of its maximum value; eg. up to 3 on a d6, up to 5 on a d10), the risked item is lost temporarily. Perhaps it is gone until the next period of rest, or until the end of the session.

If it rolls relatively well (more than half of its maximum value; eg. 4 or more on a d6, 6 or more on a d10), the item survives unscathed.

As an example…John is playing one of the newer editions of D&D, he is playing a ranger and has chosen a family heirloom and a few pets as his key bonuses. Skills in this version of D&D use a d20, where a die roll plus a skill level must meet a target number in order for the skill attempt to succeed. Normally, if the Dungeon Master wants something to happen, they’ll offer a low target number before getting the player to roll…if they don’t want it to happen, they’ll offer a high target number.

This time, since the Dungeon Master has decided to turn the focus back onto the players. John attempts to get some information and he chooses to risk one of his pet ferrets. The Dungeon Master declares a target number of 20. John’s Ranger has +8 on his rolls when attempting to find information in this way. John rolls 2 dice, 7 and 14. If he allocates the 7 to the skill attempt, he won’t find the needed information (7+8=15), but the ferret will survive intact. If he allocates the 14 to the skill attempt he will prove successful (14+8=22), but something nasty might happen to the ferret until the end of the session. John has to make a choice that is important to him, the story or the ferret.

A similar effect could be applied to almost any game, this is basically adding the concept of “Otherkind Dice” onto the system.

23 May, 2011

Spicing Up Your Game #1: "...as played by..."

I've had an idea for a series of posts about ways to spice up your roleplaying games.

Just some simple things that can be applied to just about any system or genre.

A lot of these things are probably ideas that you already incorporate into your games (especially if you are a story-gamer or a "non-traditional" gamer), but I know that there are quite a few groups who will find these ideas new.

The first idea was something that I picked up in a forum a few weeks ago, I don't remember which forum it was in, or what game it was suggested for, but I was really tempted to throw it into my rewrite of FUBAR. I didn't, and instead I'll be incorporating it into one of the genre expansions for the game (maybe one focused around action movies)...

...anyway, enough with the background for this post...on to the meat...

A few of the old games I remember playing had a distinct problem with characters, it might have been something to do with the players (we were teenagers with few social outlets other than our gaming), but then again it might have been something to do with the fact that none of our games provided explicit instructions on how to "play" a character.

I think it was when I engaged in live roleplaying that I really picked up the idea of personifying a character by indulging in stereotypes, or really playing up certain character aspects. Before that, the games were all about numbers on a page, rolling dice and determining who'd end up with the biggest share of XP or treasure.

Going back to tabletop play, I saw a lot of players who still thought in this mind set, but who thought they were missing out on something.

This idea doesn't really push a traditional gamer into exotic territory like "shared narrative" or "GM-less play", it's more like an expansion of the concept of alignment.

When a player devises their character, they should add a single extra step into the process...simply identify which actor you could see playing the character you have in mind. Then play the character with the mannerisms and stereotypes common to that actor...

How would this character be played by Arnold Swarzenegger? John Cusack? Edward Norton? Keanu Reeves? Jack Black? What about applying the exact same set of attributes and skils to a character being portrayed by Angelina Jolie? Judy Dench?

It's just an interesting idea for getting into a mind-set.

It's worked for me in live games, and I've brought it to the table successfully on many occasions.

18 May, 2011

The Goblin Tarot

Here is one of those many backburner projects that I've been working on for quite some time.

I've just been waiting for the right moment of inspiration to hit, and over the last few days it has.

Over the course of two days, I've drawn up a dozen or so images for a deck of cards based on Goblins; the kind of goblins you see in the movie "Labyrinth", also known as Froud Goblins. But these goblins are my own variation on them.

The suits for the deck are "Bugs", "Bones", "Cogs" and "Tools". I'm not sure if these preliminary suit images will act as the background for the numbered cards or if they will simply end up as atmospheric pieces to inspire creativity for the deck.

I have also generated the "Ladies" for each deck (roughly equivalent to the Queens in a standard deck of playing cards).

More details and images to come.

12 May, 2011

FUBAR Director's Cut Now Available

FUBAR has been doing pretty well.

Over 1000 downloads from the various sites where it is available, and most of the feedback I've had from it has been pretty positive.

The game has appeared on a Russian game related database, as well as appearing on a few English speaking databases (where I wasn't the one to add the game)...it seems that people are taking notice of it, and I've got to be happy about that.

With this in mind, I've taken on board some of the feedback I've received and have expanded the game from 30 pages to 50...thus making the FUBAR Director's Cut.

To make this version of the game even more open, I've specifically released it under a Creative Commons license. I'd love to see a few people pick up the mechanisms, and run with them in entirely new directions

The new version is currently only on the Vulpinoid Studios RPGNow store.

10 May, 2011

Kickstarter and Other Options

Daniel Solis is releasing Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple via Kickstarter.

And the success of this project has basically gone viral for the purposes of indie games. It even got a shout out on Wired.

It looks like it's going to be a great game, and Kickstarter looks like an awesome way to fund a project.

...but it can't be used to fund projects outside the USA.

I've been looking for similar funding forums that do work outside the US. My searches probably haven't been as thorough as they could have been, since I've always come away with a generally negative response.

But now I've found IndieGoGo, and I might be able to put together a project of my own.

I'm thinking about putting together a physical copy of FUBAR, now that I've written up a second edition of the game...maybe putting out a proper version of Walkabout...or something new.

I haven't decided, but they'll probably all get a run at some stage.

07 May, 2011

Background Work

For the past 12 months I've been working on a number of projects, some of which I've publicised, others of which I've kept very quiet about.

There have been stints in hospital, moving of house, looking for work...but on the more creative side, I've probably been generating more artwork than I have in over a decade. Some of this can be found on my deviantart profile, a great deal more is found on scraps of paper, cardboard and scattered computer files.

A lot of this work has been an attempt to get my head straight about future projects, I've built up a catalogue of inspiration images, atmospheric photography, sketches and diagrams.

...which means I've basically put the Game Mechanism of the week project on sabbatical. At this stage I'd have fifteen weeks or so to catch up on, and I'd rather be designing than theorising about design.

Over the next few weeks I'd like to reveal some of the design ideas I've been working on, to see if there is any interest. I'll also be looking at a redesign of the Vulpinoid Studios website, but no more on that for the moment...I don't want to release too many spoilers.

03 May, 2011

Font For Sale

With some interest being generated in my online store over at RPGNow, I've just put up my first font for sale.

If this generates a few sales, I might consider adding a few more.