21 September, 2016

Rationales behind Design Decisions

(This post discusses the game design released in alpha format in my last post)

In Tales, and in "The Eighth Sea", I made a deliberate design decision to involve other players in the process of judging whether actions succeed or fail.

I warn you, there will be some Forge terminology in this post. As a linguist, and more specifically a sociolinguist, I'm at odds with certain elements of Forge terminology, but then again I'm at odds with a lot of the terminology across sociological fields and academia where a specific term is given a specific definition in a specific context, then other people use the same term in a slightly different context only to find that the meaning doesn't quite hold the same definitive meaning when used elsewhere. It's always been one of the thorns in the side of Forge theory, and one of those places where other people seem to hate it because the terminology is used in different ways by different people. Where I'm using those terms in this post, I'm trying to use them in a regular/commonsense usage, and clarifying with specific definitions where I feel necessary.

In a lot of games, the chances of success in a task are determined purely by the roll of dice or the play of cards. This is sometimes referred to as "fortune at the end", you declare your intentions, you apply modifiers based on the specific situation in which the task is occurring, then you call into effect the randomiser (cards/dice/coin-flip/dice then table consulting, etc.) and the outcome is defined purely by the output of that randomiser. The notion of "fortune in the middle" plays with this a bit by providing some mechanisms that play with the outcome, throwing a bit more control into the hands of the players... do they choose to accept a bit of sacrifice to push the result from a failure to a success. This is solidly in the zone of the "Powered by the Apocalypse" games, it's also the location where FUBAR was playing.

The other thing to be considered is the DFK model ('D'rama, 'F'ortune, 'K'arma). Where Drama resolution generally relies on resolving an action in a way that makes most sense in the context of the events that have happened before, Fortune resolution is purely random, and Karma resolution sees the agent with the most effectiveness winning the contest of action resolution in every case. Personally I see most games as having a weighted combination of the three resolution forms in their mechanisms. Commonly, we see a game where skills (Karma) are added to a die roll (Fortune)...where the size of the skill modifiers and the size of the dice show where the tendency lies between these two points. Lately we've seen a lot more games where results of actions provide traits or modifiers that directly feed back into the story, and the story feeds back into future die rolls through those modifiers (thus adding more Drama to the mix).

What I'm looking at with Tales is certainly more of a "Fortune at the End" type of mechanism, but it's specifically designed to be more interactive across the whole table when resolution of an action occurs. Instead of one person interacting with the rules, and possibly with the GM, everyone has their say in what happens. The degree of Fortune in this game has actually been stripped back even further. Other players specifically choose whether they want actions to succeed by playing cards from their hands. The only real Fortune element, comes from the random replacement of cards in a players hand once they have manipulated the outcome of someone else's action. If there's any fortune at work in an action, it's "Fortune at the Beginning" because all the players have had their hands randomised before the action is even declared.

More importantly, the resolution of actions is a social activity that occurs outside the narrative. If one player decides to be an ass (either by constantly hogging the spotlight, or just doing stupid stuff), other players will be inclined to offload their bad cards on that player, so they have good hands when it comes to resolving their own goals and storylines towards the end of the tale. Similarly, if one player wants to take a sacrifice for the team, everyone else will have the opportunity to give that player their bad cards for the same reason. This system also basically stops a player from getting a consistently bad run, either the other players will feel pity on them and offer better cards in later actions, or they might end up finding that this lagging character impacts the entire team and making it impossible for them to succeed as a group. It's a game about teamwork, it's not deliberately posed that way in the rules, but after a game or two this should become apparent...actually, I'd like to hope that a lot of players pick this up during the course of their first session using these rules. It's certainly how things worked out in the numerous games of "The Eighth Sea", it may have also helped that those games were run at conventions and between sessions people would talk about the game experience.

It's probably also worth noting that this game has a deliberate end game structure. Players can engage the personal goals of their own characters, or may engage in the general scenario goals. There are always decisions to make...do the desires of the one trump the desires of the group? Can personal goals be completed before the end game kicks in? Can scenario goals be completed before the scenario ends? Are you willing to help someone else achieve their personal goals so that the group as a whole has a better chance of resolving the scenario goals?  

So there's nothing here about "how much damage does Weapon Q do a point blank range?", or "what psychological effects might befall someone who has just seen their closest friend eaten by a monster?", those are the things other games seem to obsess over. This game is all about providing the framework to tell stories, and slot goals and objectives into those stories. The fiddly bits might be provided in the scenario books and setting books...but don't count on it, they'll probably be more about ways to modify the general framework of the rules to reflect the storytelling conventions associated with different genres. These are the kinds of things that most traditional games ignore, or take for granted.

So our rules touch on the social contract, maintaining active concentration on the developing story is important, even if your character isn't currently the focus of attention. All the players are expected to follow the story, to pick up on loose threads, and even contribute their own. They engage the situation in a meta-context through the system, and in an immersive sense through their characters. The ephemera is kept to a minimum, in an attempt to maintain the focus of the session on the story. Generally, a lot of the conventions in this game have been deliberately kept traditional, such as the notion of a single game master (in this case referred to as the 'Narrator' to maintain the context of storytelling and tales).

I could probably write a whole lot more about reasons why I've done certain things in certain ways, but I'm probably boring you as it is...

Now I just need to work out and illustrate some of my own pictures for the game.

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