One of the things about designing a focused game is that everything needs to feed back in on itself...otherwise it starts to sprawl...and when it starts to sprawl, it starts to lose it's focus.
With the last few characters developed for Ghost City Raiders, I'm starting to see some of that sprawl creeping in.
Don't get me wrong, some games really benefit from a sprawling flow. It allows a variety of play styles, each bringing a depth and richness that a simple focused and streamlined mechanism can't.
I'll point to a couple of examples...
D&D (Sprawling) - There are numerous races and settings, dozens of subsystems that allow specific types of character to perform tasks that define their niche within the world. Many players consider D&D to be a tool-kit more than a game, taking the aspects they need for the stories they want to tell. The sprawl of D&D is a huge range of options, it takes a player to give those options focus...but the act of focusing D&D can be a mammoth undertaking. The first round of focus comes from the DM who narrows the options for their chronicle, the second round of focus is undertaken by the player, refining the options left into specific characters.
Lady Blackbird (Focused) - The game "Lady Blackbird" gives very few options to it's characters and tells stories starting with a single starting point. Players get to choose a specific character and develop them along specific lines of progress, the story may weave in a variety of directions based on play input, but the tone remains within a fairly narrow beam of creativity.
Malifaux (Sprawling) - As a miniatures game, Malifaux from Wyrd has character options including sorcerors, artificers, gunslingers, netherworld spirits, necromancers, bayou gremlins, lawmen, and all sorts of strange miscreants. The way these characters work together (both cooperatively and competitively) relies on factions, keywords, and a fairly simple set of rules that are tweaked in specific ways by each figure. The key to focusing this game along specific strategic lines comes through identifying which synergies work best between different rule tweaks from different characters. Some figure combinations share a symbiotic effect, creating positive feedback loops that give clever advantages (these are often discussed on fan forums), some figure combinations fall flat.
Warhammer 40K (Focused) - On the other hand, you get a miniatures game like those produced by Games Workshop, where you get specific lists of troops. Within these lists you have minimal ability to customise the play experience or develop specific strategic methods. Sure you can buy the White Dwarf magazine and find some variant lists in it's ages, but there still isn't much chance to develop something truly unique (beyond the paint scheme). Some editions of Warhammer Fantasy and 40K have allowed more customisation than others, but it seems more typical for Games Workshop to sacrifice customisation in favour of easy playability for new converts.
Magic the Gathering (Sprawling) - I remember back in the early 90s when Magic was a total of 300 cards or so. Even then it had so much diversity within it's deck building strategies. Some cards worked really well together, and you could even create entire decks along specifically focused and themed lines...goblin decks, flying creature decks, zombie decks...and then the sprawl became wider. So many options, so many ideas. It has ever verged toward the D&D extreme of anything being possible, and so many ways to modify the rules that it becomes a nightmare to keep track of them all.
The lesson to learn from these examples is the notion of keywords and synergies. Before things get too far out of hand, I've noticed that there are a few areas of creep that could easily be refocused with some simple keywords that are commonly referenced by various cards.
Fort example, the Artisan of Steel has an ability that lets them copy other people's items; but only certain types of items. When I wrote this character I had some specific items types in mind, then I developed the Mutagenic Spectre who instantly possessed items that didn't fit the scheme I had developed for the Artisan.
I've already devised seven general cultures for the Walkabout world (in which Ghost City Raiders is based), and there will be seven basic power types. I might sprawl a bit further later, but not just yet; there will be a dozen or so common characters for the game (once I write them up), and another twenty less common characters...but the seven cultures and the seven powers will be frequently visited among them all. Even among the rare character types later, they will probably share either a culture or a power type from the standard set.
Traits and keywords are also a part of the game with regard to action types, with each type of action specifically linked to an attribute or given the generic term "Standard Action". So it's not much of a stretch to incorporate them more heavily into the game mechanisms.
To do this, we need to categorise things in such a way that they cover wide chunks of the possibilities. Some things may fit two (or more) catgeories, it's always possible to apply multiple keywords to something...but nothing should slip through the cracks without a keyword.
I know that there will be people who complain that "labelling individuals is just a form of racism or prejudice, much like stereotyping", but honestly, this is just a game designed to fit in someone's pocket. We don't need a 1000 page tome on anthropology or cultural interactions to play a 15-minute pick up game.
Just as characters are defined by a cultural identity and a power focus, I'm thinking that the best keywords for items will be based on a technological manufacturing technique and a functionality (some items may may more than one manufacturing technique, others may have more than one functionality).
Manufacturing Keywords (10 should do, and note that these are general terms, not specific techniques):
Scavenged - made from assorted bits and pieces
Forged - subjected to heat and physical force
Grown - created by methods biological and organic
Crafted - built using trained methods of handicraft
Enchanted - created from mundane things with magical influence
Distilled - chemically modified from base fluids
Summoned - brought into existence by purely magical means
Replicated - manufactured by nanotechnology or other high-tech means
Ephemeral - object of spiritual manifestation or quantum causality
Antique - you can't make one of these, they're old...you've just got to be lucky and find one
Functionality Keywords (again, no more than 10 of these):
Weapon - Something designed to deal damage
Armour - Something designed to prevent damage (typically assigned a body part that it protects)
Tool - Something that assists with a specific action (typically assigned an action type or attribute)
Valuable - Beyond it's other purposes, this item can be used as a trade commodity
Mount - This item can be ridden
Electronic - This item generates low radio frequencies when used (and disturbs spirits)
Powered - This item needs an energy source to be used in a scenario
Ammo - This item needs ammunition to be used in a scenario
Reputation - The bearer of this item gains notoriety or honour
Skilled (X) - The bearer of this item needs ability "X" to use it properly
With these in place:
most knives and swords are "Forged", "Scavenged" or "Antique" (often a combination of these)
the Nomad Brave's motorcycle becomes "Scavenged", "Crafted", "Fueled" and a "Mount"
the Artisan of Steel can copy only items with the "Scavenged", "Crafted" or "Forged" traits
the Mutagenic Spectre's items are typically "Grown", "Distilled" and "Enchanted"; they may count as a "Weapon", "Armour" or "Tool"
These categories might end up getting tweaked as the final versions of the game develop, but the current keywords seem fairly encompassing for the game set-up as it currently stands.
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