28 February, 2018

Relics: What would I do differently?

+Steve Dee's game Relics is a curious beast. It straddles the line between a traditional game and a story game.

On the traditional side, there is a GM, an agenda for the characters for pursue, a skill system where a randomiser determines the outcome in a fairly traditional "Fail/Success-at-a-price/Success" pattern, then improves chances of success if an appropriate skill can be applied to the task at hand, and then it applies a system where characters improve over the course of playing ongoing sessions.

On the story game side, the skills used are generally freeform, the world develops organically through the interaction of the player group, and the characters are defined as much by their relationships with one another as they are by anything else.

There's a few games trying to unite this divide between traditional and story games, but so far I haven't seen many that do it well without a dedicated set of driving rules that hone in on a specific niche or genre. A game like Blades in the Dark come to mind, where the specific elements connect the fields of games only at the point of the heist genre. Relics could be about heists, but there's nothing specific in the rules that dedicate the game to that genre. It could just as easily be about political intrigue, adventuring archaeologists, occult conspiracies, or investigation. The openness of the game is both a blessing and a curse, it's like giving someone a blank sheet and telling the to draw a picture... some people will revel in the freedom, while others will suffer from option paralysis. It's one of those games where there needs to be a discussion up front to provide a couple of guard-rails to stop having four players all tugging at the potential narrative in four different directions.

The closest game I can think of as a comparison is Paul Tevis's A Penny for My Thoughts, which has a similar system of awakening a character through memories provided by other players, and a system of ensuring everyone gets a chance to awaken through limiting how far ahead certain players can get with their accumulation of memories. In that game, there are a variety of facts and reassurances, and a series of different questionnaires that guide the story in some way. If we go back to the blank page analogy, each of these play aids provides some lines on the page that can't be erased or manipulated, they prompt a specific genre of memory unfolding, where examples might include "Jason Bourne"-styled spy hinjix, Cthulhu mythos investigations, or simply limiting things to the mundane world. The same game is instantly flavoured according to that idea that restriction breeds creativity.

Since the inherent mechanisms of the game work with a Tarot deck, there is a lot of potential I can see in the game that hasn't so far been exploited. So one of the only other things I'd seriously consider with the game is modifying the use of the Major Arcana cards. At the moment, a Major Arcana requires a redraw, unless you have a skill, in which case it counts as a success. Personally, I'd go with the idea that every major arcana brings with it a redraw, where the next card determines success or failure (and if a following major arcana is drawn, it is ignored and drawn again). The Major Arcana flavours the outcome of the skill attempt in some way related to the card, upright for a success, reversed for a failure. Of course, this throws out the statistics when assessing rate of success and the difference made when a skill is possessed, so maybe I'd run with the idea that not possessing a skill offers a play a single card draw, while possessing a relevant skill offers two cards drawn (where the player can choose the better result, but any Arcana drawn as a part of the attempt still count toward flavouring the outcome).

As it stands, the game is fairly sturdy, and certainly more serviceable than a lot of games that have received praise an adoration from various circles in recent years. It really feels like it's almost there, and with the right group it could be great, but with a group that isn't quite right, it could do with a couple of extra guides and prompts to help them along, and make it more user friendly.

25 February, 2018

EttinCon Summer 2018

Another EttinCon has come and gone.

Every time it is run, it keeps getting bigger, but the rate of expansion seems to be slowing down a bit. I suspect it has now hit its peak size, it might grow or shrink a little next time.

Unlike previous occasions, this event was not held in Katoomba, it was instead held further up the Blue Mountains in Blackheath.

A bigger more open venue in the Community Centre up there, but whether this was a good thing, I'm undecided. It still felt like the organisers were trying to cram too much in with tightly packed tables, and the noisy echoes of the hall didn't make table-talk easy, especially when I'd normally walk around the table to more easily address players who were focal points of the game at any particular time.

Three sessions across one day, I ran in the morning, with a scheduled game of Steve Dee's Relics in the evening, and a free afternoon where I hoped I could slot into an empty spot of whatever caught my eye.

My session of The Law ran as well as I expected. Neither mutants nor psychic powers throw out the balance of the game. I didn't have any "named" antagonists during the setting, which basically meant that I didn't roll a die at any stage during the three-hour session. All pacing came through the manipulation of tokens in the investigation pool and the sector status pool. This included a couple of failed rolls that led to the pools increasing, despite a general trend of working through the pools over the game.

It was an interesting mix of players, including an old acquaintance from con days long past (Benj Davis), a couple of players who've participated in recent EttinCon games that I've run, and initially two new players, but one guy was watching, thpught it looked like fun and asked if he could come in partway through the game as the team's "backup".

I'll give a full critique of this session in my next post. Generally it went smoothly, except for the earlier mentioned noise in the hall and inability to walk around the table.

Next, food break before trying to pick up a spare game.

Looking at the schedule, there was a Fiasco game called "Holy Uncontrollable Chaos, Batman!" which had no players. I asked around to see if it would be running, because a Batman Fiasco game would have been right up my alley. I found a con organiser, he didn't know, but rang the GM on his mobile. The GM was at his table waiting for players, in full Joker make-up. I spent half an hour waiting with him and trying to round up some players. Eventually we decided to call it off, and I started looking for something else to do...

...ten minutes later I see that the GM has picked up a bunch of players amd has started without me. That was disappointing. Especially since most other game sessions had begun more than half an hour earlier.

Instead I did a round of speed painting. A basic range of paints, a Reaper Bones figure, an hour to do what you can...

...here's my result.

I'm happy with her.

There was still more time before the night session, so I painted a second figure.

Then dinner.

The night session of Relics was something I'd been looking forward to. I've been following the project for a year or so, and have spoken with Steve about the game's art. Naturally I wanted to see how the game actually ran. I knew all of the other players on the table, one I had good experiences with (David Jacobs), one was my wife Leah, and the other two were a couple I had known from conventions many years ago (but whose names I've forgotten). This latter pair were remembered because she is the only person I have ever had walk out on a convention game I've run. She was one of those players who couldn't handle being out of the spotlight for very long, unless the current spotlight player was setting something up for her. I knew this wouldn't be a fair appraisal of Steve's game, and Leah and I nearly walked away there and then. But I really wanted to see how it went.

Character veneration during a session is always a risk. Sometimes it pays off, when you've got someone on the table who needs to be the centre of attention it's much harder to see that pay off. I can understand why we wemt through the process, it's a part of the collaborative world-building of the game, but it all felt a bit long as a percentage of the session length. At the end of the character creation I had a vague idea of my character, but still not really a good idea of what they could do, or where to take them. It all felt a bit like a slightly more structured version of "A Penny for my Thoughts" with characters created by each other as much as they're defined by the player, then the story tales this further. Flashbacks and memories provided by other playerx build the characters as the narrative unfolds.

I like the idea in Relics that all characters need to be within two flashback scenes of each other, but with each character only beginning with two flashback/skills, a few of us felt a bit adrift...trying to either find a purpose or work out a way to gain agency for ourselves within the story. For a demo game, I'd have produced characters at least partly built, and offer a range of memory prompts with linked skills that will be useful in the scenario. These can still be applied by the players to each other's characters, but it might give a bit more drive to the characters in the right direction. It felt like it was almost there, and it might have just been a loaded situation with the other players, but it wasn't quite right yet.

After the con, a few of us walked to the pub to do "post con drinks". The aim here was to get the people who design games together to discuss how we can help each other, provide feedback, or generally offer support. We need more of these.   

23 February, 2018

On the Publishing of Rules

You walk into your friendly local gaming store (FLGS) and look at the new expansion book(s) for your game of choice... or maybe you're a story gamer and you heard great things about this new game, that does "this awesome thing"... or maybe you're an OSR type and you decide to look at a product that does one thong a bit differently to everything else, or introduces a new character type...

...but then you look at your book of choice, and the bit that interests you is a single page, maybe two or three...half a dozen if you're lucky. In standard publishing, the book has a page count with a multiple of 16 pages, so your typical story-game or OSR supplement might be 32, 64, or 96 pages, and your typical mainstream supplement might be 160 or 240 pages. In some instances there might be an additional rule idea hidden in the pages that proves valuable, and maybe a decent chunk of the book is dedicated to a scenario that you might play once, only to find that your players go off the rails, and suddenly half of the scenario is useless. Perhaps you'll cannibalize elements of the scenario, feeding it into sessions over the next six months. Maybe there's evocative artwork scattered through it (or maybe the artwork is rubbish, and if you dare to post that in forums you get an "Emperor's New Clothes" effect where people just tell you that you're not edgy enough to get it). Either way, you have to consider whether you'll buy the whole book for the fraction you'll end up using, read the bit you need and try to remember it for later (then put the book back on the shelf), find a pdf torrent of the book, or just ignore it completely.

While I don't have a computer remotely adequate for page layout work, I've been thinking about the structure for any rule supplements for The Law. The original book was meant to be published like a comic book, with stapled pages, but at 32 pages most POD companies produce perfect bound booklets. So, my 32 page plans have dropped to 24. I've been thinking over the last few weeks that this is problematic because I've been writing chunks of rules that will be laid out with images into 14-18 pages (some of the smaller ones were 8-12 pages). The intention was to add two big ideas or three small ideas relating to a specific theme, then pad out any difference with new NPCs or story hooks that used these concepts.

..Pretty standard fare for an RPG supplement.

Then, this morning, I started thinking about my original idea for supplements for The Eighth Sea, over a decade ago. A single new rule, a single new environment where that rule is embedded, a couple of NPCs, and a story hook. The Law could easily follow a similar structure. Instead of 2 or 3 new rules, these supplements are deliberately focused on one...maybe for those 8-10 page elements we can squeeze in two, if they are specifically interconnected.

The whole idea is that someone only buys the rules they want and need. A bit like buying single songs rather than a whole album. I'm sure other people have had this idea in the past, but it just felt like a good way to move forward with this project.

22 February, 2018

Mutants and Mayhem

Playtesting elements of a game system at a convention can be a risk.

If you run a game with the regular crowd, they know what to expect, they play the way you expect them to play, you facilitate the play experience the way you'd normally facilitate the play experience... it a low risk environment, ot's almost a control group wnere you know how most of the variables will play out before the session has even started. 

Running a game at a convention has the added wildcard of random players (or at least players who you don't meet up with very often). Often if there are players you know, there might be a couple of subgroups, and there will be an added dynamic temsion between them. This ramps up the chaos, it's probably not as good for testing the fundamental concepts of a game because if things go wrong, you'll never know if it was the underlying system at fault, explanations of the system, uncooperative players, or simply a nexus of negatives. On the other hand, if it works in that kind of situation, then it's so much more satisfying to know that the game can handle these variables.

Years ago, when testing games, I'd love to run them at one of the mid-sized conventions with a couple of hundred players, where I'd often be able to run the same game half a dozen times or more with different ranges of players. That way I could test the same systems under a variety of conditions, and could then account for "player variation" as I analyse the outcome.

Alas, at EttinCon I only run a single session each time, and that's been my main source of external playtesting in recent years. So I need to make sure that single session counts.

6 months ago, when I launched the game, I had two players... so I know it works in that minimalist format, which is great. This time around, we'll have a few more players. But I haven't really tested some of the newer ideas for situation and equipment dice, so those will get a thorough critique over the weekend, along with some of the more esoteric and mystical ideas in the game that will lead back into game designs like Familiar and Walkabout (both of which I'm hoping to get some progress on this year).

Today's work was rebuilding the centrepiece for The Law which seemed to generate a lot of interest for the game last time around.


The Alpha Test works


Still a lot more work to do on the Can of Beans website, but it's first encounters with people other than myself have generally proven successful.

Give me a few more days (maybe a week or two while my attention is currently focused on EttinCon), and I'll be ready for a beta release of the site via this blog.

19 February, 2018

Equipment Packages

I'm pretty sure I discussed this earlier, but the new LARP uses bullets as the dominant currency (along with unopened cans which could contain any foodstuff and have a random chance of being off, and rolls of toilet paper). Everyone starts with 60 bullets worth of equipment, 30 bullets worth are defined by a range of starting equipment packs, and 30 bullets worth are freely chosen.

There's a massive range of NERF guns, foam/latex "LARP-safe" weaponry available, so we could specifically give prices for everything, and generate a huge list of costs that will need to be constantly updated when new ranges are released, but this feels like a sisyphean task. Instead, I'm running with something procedural.

The cost of a gun comes out of a characters bullet reserve, so the better guns have a higher cost. But what factors should be considered when determining such a system.

  • Having more bullets ready to fire (without needing to reload) is certainly an advantage.
  • Having a higher rate of fire is advantageous
  • Some weapons need two hands to operate
  • Some fire multiple bullets at once, or differemt types of ammo
  • Ranges vary too

These are the sorts of things I was testing on the weekend. I understand that any "point system" will have flaws, but it can generally be good enough.

Generally I'm looking at 5 bullets as a standard NERF weapon cost, plus 1 per bullet (or clip) it can take. Those weapons using clips need to have them purchased separately.

We paced out a sampling of three bullets fired from each gun to get an average range. Most weapons fired 8-10 paces, so that becomes the benchmark. Where those weapons firing less than 8 paces have low range, and are discounted by one bullet, while those firing 11 or more paces have a one bullet premium added to their price. Originally, I had rifles with a base cost of 7 and pistols 5, assuming rifles would fire further, but thankfully with testing it was discovered that this assumption was erroneous.

Similarly, different LARP-safe weapons have different lengths, and a longer weapon certainly has an advantage when there isn't much weight difference between them.

Armour in the game is bought piecemeal, with arms, legs, torso and head bought separately, and all elements adding resilience points to the wearer (along woth any natural resilience they might have). Once certain resilience thresholds are passed, a character gains extra hit points.

So starting equipment packages will have a range of standard armour pieces and other equipment in them, but since weapons will be costed on a case by case basis, they'll be purchased from the remaining 30 bullets.

Apparently, this whole concept is getting a bit of interest from local NERF enthusiasts, who have generally been finding that the player with the most money tends to win the most games. The idea of balancing the games is apparently quite novel.

17 February, 2018

LARP Game Balance

LARP groups are tricky, moderating LARPs is trickier. Especially boffer LARPs, or those where real-world physical representation of character statistics exists.

In a tabletop situation, there's an automatic degree of separation. One character might be more brawny than another, ons character might have more knowledge of certain obscure subject areas...and this can all be governed (to varying degrees of success) by rules and dice rolls. It gets murkier when statistics governing charisma or social interaction are considered, when one introverted gamer is trying to portray an outgping character with massive charisma, but even then the player can take on an authorial stance (describing what the character does), rather than an actor stance (and actually role-playing the sitiation by saying the lines and fully engaging the dialogue).

It gets harder to do this in boffer-style LARP, not only because it is expected for players to embody their characters from a social standpoint, but because a part of the whole experience involves players doing the fighting for their characters, as well as the solving of puzzles and engagement of other elements of play.

For a character to be an expert fighter, you've got two options, and both have their detractors. First, you can train the players to be better fighters. I know a number of LARPs that run weekly, or even twice weekly swordplay sessions and martial arts classes to increase the fitness, strategy, and combat prowess of their members. This is great for immersion, players know how to hit safely, effectively, cinematically. It's not so good for players with busy lives who should be progressing their characters at the same rate as those other characters with players who do have time to attend those regular training sessions. In some cases it's all or nothing, either you attend the regular training sessions or your character (and every other character you'll ever play) falls behind those who dedicate their time/lives/money to the game.

Second, we can't grant super powers, but we can introduce rules to the game that hamper one group of players to effectively give advantages to others. This might include allowing a player to make a call like "disarm", "shield-break", or "sniper", which then has to be acted out by the target of the call. It stretches immersion a bit, and even breaks it for those who have trouble with imagination in games (such as those who call it re-enactment rather than LARP). Here's where rule systems come in, giving different characters different ways to manipulate one another according to the elements of the in-game narrative. Even something as simple as "hit points" can be looked at in this way, one player gets to keep swinging while another has to mimic being knocked out or killed.

There's a middle road, but that requires balancing lots of different factors. Many LARPs might have statistically identical characters, but if one player has a sword that's 15cm longer, that could lead to a reach advantage that unfairly gives one player's character the edge. 

That leads me to what I was doing today, trying to find a middle road when incorporating NERF equipment into a post apocalyptic LARP with foam weapons and LARP archery gear.

Different guns have different rates of fire, ranges, accuracy, and ammo capacity. Many LARPs would reduce them to two or three categories and assign a common price to each, some might even ignore costs or categories and simply call them "firearms" which anyone can own or fire if they possess the right proficiency, but today's testing showed some massive differences between weapons which I might have otherwise considered similar in effectiveness before that testing occurred.

There's still a lot to think about on this, but important steps were taken today and it feels like they were in the right direction.

05 February, 2018

A Game in a Dream

Many years ago I had a dream where I was playing a clever little game where you explored a setting created on-the-fly by laying out cards. Each game there would be a general scenario where different cards would mean different things. I wrote down as much of that dream as I could remember the next day, and over the course of a few weeks, Ghost City Raiders took form.

I've had another of those dreams, this time it could easily be linked to the Goblin Labyrinth setting that I developed a few years ago, but might go an entirely different direction... either the dream was a bit vague on the specifics, or I've just forgotten those bits already.

Play involves a deck of specific cards, a pair of dice, and some tokens.

The game is fairly simple...it plays out like a street fight between two gangs. Each player has a small deck of cards representing their gang, there might be a dozen cards in this deck. Six of their cards are laid out in two rows of three cards each. The row of cards closest to the opponent are the first rank of fighters, the next row of cards are their support, and the rest of the deck are reinforcements.

Decks are shuffled before placement, players draw their first six cards and may look at them as they place the two rows, but they are placed face down so the opponent can't see which cards are where. (This is the general rule, exceptions may occur).

Play commences with each side rolling the pair of dice (actually, there must have been a pair of dice for each player). One die was allocated to speed, the other die to strategy. Each player gained a number of tokens equal to the strategy die result, and the player with the higher speed result went first.

Each player flipped over their starting rank of fighters, these were laid out in such a way that the first rank of one side matched up against the first rank of the other. The player going first would activate one of these pairings of fighters, the attack of each side was compared to the defence of their opponent to determine tbe outcome of the melee. Before the resolution is determined, the faster player may spend a strategy token to increase attack or defense by a single point, or may spend one (or more) strategy tokens to activate a special power on the fighter card. The slower player may then do likewise. Players alternate like this until no-one wants to spend further strategy tokens. If the final modified attack score is greater than or equal to the opponent's final modified defence score, the opponent is removed from the fight. If not, they remain... one fighter card could be eliminated this way, or both...or neither.

It could theoretically be possible to line up three fights where neither side is eliminated, thus leading to a stale-mate... my dream never saw this happen, so I'll have to consider a contingency plan for that.

When a fighter from the front rank is eliminated, a support fighter from the second rank steps forward to fill their place, and is turned face up. From the three cards immediately behind, a card could be shifted straight forward to fill the gap, or could be moved diagonally forward. This leaves a gap in the support rank, and that gap is filled by the next random card in the deck. This seemed to reflect the idea that battles can often start with elaborate and carefully planned strategies, but things get more chaotic as time goes by.

Many fighter cards had one or two traits on them, some cards gained automatic bonuses or penalties (to attack or defense) when confronting opposing figjters with specified traits. Some strategy effects were modified in the presence of traits too... that's where the clever deckbuilding elements came in. 

An exception to the "face down" rule was the hero card. Heroes have power and notoriety, so even when in the support rank, heroes were placed face up.

A game ended once one player had lost all of their hero cards, or half of their total fighters (whichever came first).

I think there's some potential here, it probably needs a bit of work to get it running smoothly, but I just thought I'd get it out there while the dream ideas were still fresh in my mind.