20 May, 2012

Feedback Loops in Game Design

Every now and then something comes along that makes you think.

And every now and then someone puts a idea into an elegant graphic that's easy to grasp.

Quite often it seems that Daniel Solis is involved in one of these two events.

(Click to Enlarge)

I've thought about similar things many times in the past, but this puts a whole heap of them into a single polished infographic. Seriously consider them in your next project.

Thanks Daniel (link to his original post here).

19 May, 2012

Walkabout Core Mechanism

Time do get a bit of work done on Walkabout, beyond merely drawing pictures for the setting.

The whole mechanism in Walkabout is based around the concept of drawing tokens from a bag. This is designed to be shamanistic in its feel. Not derived from any one particular culture, but more of a mechaphor(1) describing the way the characters pick and choose elements of the past to help forge the future. It feels wrong in this game to use dice or cards because they are such a part of gaming culture already; I want this game to feel different as it is played. It needs to be visceral, with the players immersing themselves in the culture of the wayfarers they are playing.

Unlike a lot of quirky game mechanisms, this needs to blend into the background, it needs to be intuitive and it needs to help drive story. I know that the FUBAR dice (derived from the ideas of Otherkind) work well in this regard. So they can serve as the rough basis of the token drawing mechanisms in Walkabout.

At the simplest level…

All characters have a pool of tokens. These include white tokens representing the worst possible scenario, black tokens representing the worst possible scenario, and coloured tokens that represent a variety of thing depending on their colour and the nature of the action being undertaken (red, green and blue).

Characters also have an assortment of traits defining their abilities to exceed in certain types of task, and the impairments that afflict them.

When a player describes a task being performed by their character, there is a chance that it will simply succeed. This is the case if the GM simply wants to progress the story along, and if the character has the requisite traits to justify such an action.

If the GM declares that a test is required for a certain task, the player must describe in a single sentence what their character is trying to do. This sentence must describe how the character is providing a benefit (for someone or something in the scene), a complication/penalty, or a transformation (with effects that are neither obviously positive nor negative to the target).

The player then determines what traits they might be able to apply to the situation to gain a benefit.

Any other players on the table may allocate traits possessed by the character that might cause complications or problems.

(1)    A Mechaphor is a metaphorical mechanism. In a roleplaying context it is where a player participates in some kind of action that mimics the task being performed by their character, or otherwise engages in ritual to get themselves into the mindset of the narrative.

17 May, 2012

Hell on Eight Wheels: Fourteen - Traits

In Magic: the Gathering, most of the creatures traditionally have a single trait defining their race (eg. Elf, Dwarf, Goblin, Merfolk, etc.), some of the more recent sets have creatures bearing two traits, one of which is the race while the other might be an occupation (eg. Elf Farmer, Dwarf Miner, etc). But then there are specific game effects that might target cards based on their name, not just their traits. It’s a simple system, and the forerunner for a lot of similar card systems.

I’m actually fonder of the trait system in the Asian inspired card game L5R. I think this will fit better as a template for the trait effects in Ho8W. In this game, all heroes and retainers have a clan (or function as ronin), they have an occupation (samurai, shugenja, courtier, ninja, etc.), and they often have a few more traits that really help define them as individuals (are they an “archer”, a secretive “kolat”, are they “tattooed”, “unique”, a “sailor”, are they tainted by the “shadowlands”  or are they a “clan daimyo”). There is no real limit to the number of traits a character might possess, with some unique and special characters having six or more traits helping to define their specific place in society.

“Unique” characters in L5R may only be included in your deck once. Ho8W gives each of its skaters unique names, and a team may not have two skaters sharing the same name, so the issue of having duplicate skaters generally won’t crop up. All skaters are “unique”.

Characters who gain popularity within the L5R game may see reincarnation as improved versions of themselves. This is implemented through the “experienced” trait. The typical version of a character does not possess an “experienced” trait, but if a new version is re-issued they gain this trait. An “Experienced” character typically has better stats than their regular version and either has a special ability, or has overcome a penalty found on the regular version of the card. If a character card is experienced and gains enough notoriety in the game, they may get a second experienced card form (designated with “Experienced 2”). Some of the most prominent figures within the game have seen five or more versions with varying degrees of experience.

This could work well with the notion of skaters with different values; especially when they represent novice, regular and veterans on the track. Over the course of play, we could see expansion sets with three or four different cards bearing the same name, each of which reflects the skater’s progress from a lowly member of the rookies through to the heady heights of the all star league. Since a skater bearing this name may only occur in the team once, we won’t have the paradox where a skater is allied with an earlier version of themselves on the track.

(They may come into conflict with a skater on the opposing team who shares their name, but don’t let this bother you.)

There are probably other games that use this kind of system, but L5R is the one I know best.

For the moment I’m thinking of four general types of traits (the names are subject to change); social, physiological, attitude, and fashion.

Social traits relate to the skater’s upbringing (I guess it’s a bit like their “race”); they define who the skater’s family is, and the types of social morality that defines them.

Physiological traits relate to the skater’s appearance; they cover the surface features clearly visible on the skater, their physical size, and maybe their age.

Attitude traits relate to the skater’s mindset while they are on the track; such traits define whether the skater has any virtues or vices, if they are susceptible to any of the seven deadly sins, and possibly even their social ideology.

Fashion traits relate to the skater’s lifestyle beyond the track; they may define the type of music the skater listens to, the type of clothes they wear, whether they possess tattoos or piercings, or the colour and style of their hair.

Any of these things could be viable traits. One skater could have a hatred of another skater’s clothes, their tattoos, their youth, their social upbringing or their attitude; and this could inspire them beyond their normal limitations. A skater might feel an affinity with something physical or mental in their teammates…you can never tell what might be enough to push a skater that little bit further.

It also allows us good reasons (with mechanical advantages) to create rugged teams of all tattooed skaters, blonde bombshells, burlesque babes, or any of the other kitsch stereotypes associated with the roller derby track. After all, this game is all about having a bit of fun and not taking things too seriously. This would be a long term plan though; the kind of thing that becomes possible once there are hundreds of available skaters for players to choose their teams from.

16 May, 2012

Hell on Eight Wheels: Thirteen – Abilities

What is the point of a special ability if it isn’t special?

Abilities need to have some kind of significant impact, otherwise players won’t bother using them, and they might just forget to use them. If abilities aren’t used, there isn’t much point including them on the skater’s card. This is especially true when the abilities and traits are the key things that differentiate one skate from another.

The core system of the game works on playing cards that are as high as possible, but still under the skaters relevant statistic. A special ability needs to twist this in some way; there is no point creating an ability that states “This skater has +1 strength”, we might as well just increase the skater’s strength by 1. Abilities need to promote some kind of tactic, so they need to be effective in a specific situation or provide some kind of non-statistic advantage (like drawing extra cards). To maintain a degree of balance across the abilities, we need to ensure that the more specific the situation where the advantage may be accessed, the more powerful that advantage needs to be.

The tactics promoted by certain abilities can be anything; one ability might provide bonuses when a skater activates on the inner ring of the track (this promotes a tactic of sitting on the inside ring), another ability might provide a bonus if there is another skater on the track possessing a specific trait (this promotes the tactic of including a whole heap of skaters with this trait in your team), while another might provide a bonus if the skater has an injury (this might promote a tactic of recklessness as a skater tries to pick up penalties in order to offset them with special bonuses).

This can promote very different play styles.

Using the miniatures game Malifaux as an example. One team leader is known as Kirai, as a blood powered necromancer, she gain bonuses by inflicting wound on herself (these empower her necromantic spells). She plays very differently to Perdita, a gunslinger who gains her strongest advantages from strategic positioning. In this way, some teams are harder to play than others; but the reward for the more difficult play style is an opponent who is often caught off guard by the strange tactics and exotic bonuses.

I need to keep in mind that this needs to be a game that is easy to learn, but difficult to master. No single tactical strategy should be without its weaknesses.

Within the existing structure of the game, there are a number of areas that are ripe for exploitation by special abilities:

·         Team Building (abilities that target specific traits promote the inclusion of skaters possessing those traits)
·         Bonus to stats only when the attacker or defender (abilities of this type promote offensive or defensive team tactics)
·         Hand Size (abilities providing bonus cards reflect a more tactical style of team, capable of reacting better to the situations around them)
·         Stress Effects (abilities that activate when penalties occur, or when the risk of penalties occur might promote specific tactics that are deemed too risky otherwise)
·         Threat Zone (an ability to expand a skater’s threat zone(or an ally’s), or it could allow a skater to lessen the impact from interacting with an enemy’s threat zone)
·         Fouls (some abilities may allow skaters to avoid fouls, or increase the chance of opponents scoring fouls…it’s playing dirty, but some teams are like that)
·         Speed Tokens (an ability could allow a skater to pick up two speed tokens, allowing for dramatic acceleration; or allow them to drop speed quickly to avoid spills. Such abilities could be overpowered, so they’d have to be restricted to activation is very specific circumstances)
·         Card Suits (some abilities might activate when a certain suit of card is played in a certain situation)
·         Track Location (abilities could activate in certain areas of the track; on the curve, on the straight, on the inside, on the outside, when in an ally’s/enemy’s threat zone…etc.)

Hell on Eight Wheels: Twelve – Teams

Getting back to work on Ho8W; it’s been a while since I’ve looked at this, so it’s probably good that I start on a completely different part of the rules.

I’ve been thinking about the ways in which skaters are differentiated. This seems to be the key method where this game will vary from the other roller derby games on the market, and I really love the idea of personality tension on the track, synergy within the team, and varying ways to play.

These are the things that keep a game evolving. Otherwise is becomes like monopoly, you know how the game will play out and the whole thing is basically just a sequence of die rolls, where luck is the only input toward victory.

If we can make the skaters different, and give them special abilities that play off one another then we bring another level of strategic play into the bout. This is another place where the “Magic: the Gathering” influence flows into the game. It might also help market the game toward the “Fantasy Sports League” crowd, which has certainly gained popularity in recent years in Australia (I’ve read two newspaper articles on them during the last week, and actually heard about a “Fantasy Netball League” while a game was being played on TV over the weekend). This gives players a bit more interaction with the game beyond the mere board play, perhaps allowing options for players to trade skaters within a closed league ecosystem…or maybe allowing them to

I realise that this is a true can of worms. There are so many options that could totally overwhelm a new player, so I know that I need to be careful here. I’ll be working through this side of the game a few times to get it right, stripping the customisation element bare for the basic play experience but providing a richer range of choices for experienced players. 

Inundating new players with complicated rules is not a way to endear them to a game. This is especially true with a game where one of the key target markets is more sport oriented rather than game oriented. I realise that this may sound like I’m stereotyping the girls who play roller derby, some of them are comic fans, some are roleplayers, some may be just as thrilled by the minutiae of game rules and mechanisms as the average old school grognard…but this is meant to be a game that will draw them all into a new world; a world familiar to them, but something that can be played without the need to get twenty people together and a track laid out.

For a player’s first game, I’ll be recommending a choice from a few sample teams. These choices will have a range of basic skaters, and either a coach or some other support staff member. After a couple of games, a player might choose to create a custom team and that will use a point-buy system.

I like point-buy systems, some people hate them. No system is perfect when players have the option of customising their capacity within a game, and it’s hard to get a perfectly balanced point buy system…but these work better than most of the other customisation options I’ve seen. They make sense to most people, they allow for more versatility within player choices, they ensure a semblance of balance between competing players and they reflect the notion of “salary caps” within organised sport.

Many miniature wargames use point buy systems where each side may have a few hundred points available, and they use these points to purchase dozens of figures. Or they might have a few thousand points available for purchasing a hundred figures in truly epic battles. Lots of points mean lots of time spent balancing the points out and finding the perfect team combination. Simpler games focusing on individuals rather than squads often have fewer points for players to spend.

But there is another fundamental difference between a bout of roller derby and a warzone. In a battlegame, you field everyone you can at the beginning and the whole scenario is a contest of attrition where each side wears away the other until an objective is completed or an enemy is decimated. In roller derby, most of the team sits on the sidelines; only five skaters at a time are on the track. This skews the values of the skaters; high value skaters need to have something special about them in order to be worth their cost.

To keep things simple, each skater (and support staff member) will be assigned a value from 1 to 10. Where 1-2 indicates a rookie, and 10 is one of the top stars of the sport. Most team members will possess a value of 4-5 (regular) to 6-7 (experienced). Novice skaters have basic stats and no special abilities; as skaters gain value and experience their stats increase, but more importantly they start to gain special abilities that change the tactics of the game and potentially alter way the game is played.

To allow a progression of complexity from simple games for new players, through to complicated games with nuanced rule interactions for experienced players, something more than a simple point buy system might help…just a few minor restrictions to keep new players from biting off more than they can chew.

The first thing to do when choosing a team is to decide what level of game is being played. The basic games restrict the number of high powered skaters, and this allows the players to focus on the basic rules without getting caught up in the intricate details of specific skater abilities.

Minimum of 10 skaters (maximum of 15 skaters and up to 2 support staff)
40 points to spend on team members (no veterans or stars)
[or choose from a range of pre-constructed training teams]

Local Derby
Minimum of 12 skaters (maximum of 20 skaters and up to 2 support staff)
60 points to spend on team members (no more than 2 veterans, no stars)
[or choose from a range of pre-constructed local derby teams]

Regional Derby
Minimum of 15 skaters (maximum of 20 skaters and up to 3 support staff)
90 points to spend on team members (no more than 6 veterans, no more than 2 stars)

National League
Minimum of 15 skaters (maximum of 20 skaters and up to 5 support staff)
120 points to spend on team members (no more than 6 stars)

Rookie Skater – 1-2pts (Average stat = 5, No special abilities, 2 traits)
Regular Skater – 3-4pts (Average stat = 6-7, 1 basic special ability, 2 traits)
Experienced Skater – 5-6pts (Average stat = 8, 2 basic special abilities, 3 traits)
Veteran Skater – 7-8pts (Average stat = 9-10, 1 basic and 1 advanced special ability, 3 traits)
Star Skater – 9-10pts (Average stat = 11, 2 basic and 1 advanced special ability, 4 traits)
Trainee Coach – 1-2pts (2 tactics, 1 basic special ability, 1 trait)
Team Coach – 3-4pts (3 tactics, 2 basic special ability, 2 traits)
Experienced Coach – 5-6pts (4 tactics, 1 basic and 1 advanced special ability, 2 traits)
Veteran Coach – 7-8pts (5 tactics, 2 basic and 1 advanced special ability, 3 traits)
Track Medic – 2pt (1 basic special ability, 1 trait)
Track Physio – 4pts (1 advanced special ability, 2 traits)
Cheerleader  – 1pt (1 basic special ability, 1 trait)
Refreshments/Waterboy  – 1pt (1 basic special ability, 1 trait)
Maintenance/Skate Technician  – 1pt (1 basic special ability, 1 trait)
Corrupt Umpire – 2-4 pts (not sure about this one but it could be fun)

I’m trying to work out a few more interesting types of support staff

I should also explain the notion of the Traits. These derive from collectible card games and some wargames, where they are used to sort troop types along thematic lines. One card in Magic might be classified as a “Dwarf” while another might be classified as a “Goblin”, they might have the same cost and they might have the same basic stats, but there are other cards in the game that might specifically target goblins, and thus they two cards have different significances depending on the context of the cards organised with them. As an example, a specific troop might give a bonus to all goblins, and thus it makes sense to include it if you are playing with a lot of goblins in your deck. On the other hand, a specific card might eliminate all goblins in play and it would make sense to include such a card if your opponent tends to use goblins a lot. This gives the game an evolving quality where one player can maximise their strategies against a specific type of opponent, but this might leave them open to other specific play styles.

I’ll be trying to link certain traits to certain types of abilities. As an example, skaters with abilities that make them better blockers might have a tendency to share the “Brick House” trait. This way, if we find that the block bonus is too powerful, we can provide a few new skaters in later supplements who gain an advantage when facing opponents with the “Brick House” trait. It means we don’t have to issue as many erratas or changes to the rules of the game once the core rules have been laid out.

Abilities are tricky; basic abilities tending to provide a simple bonus in certain circumstances, and advanced abilities tending to alter something specific about the way the game is played (maybe allowing extra cards to be played, cards to be redrawn, changing threat zones, or providing bonuses to teammates). In a lot of cases, where an ability affect someone else, it will provide benefits based on traits possessed by the recipient (eg. As long as they activate in your threat zone, a team mate gains +2 to their Speed or +2 to all stats if they possess the “X” trait. ). I’m trying to think of more eloquent ways to write this.