Saturday, June 03, 2006

Yeaaaaaarrgggggh! Story time!

I just wrote a ten page essay. I won't torture you, but I think I can see now why people write books.

Instead of giving you a nice nap, I decided to cut out all of it except a challenge.

Of course, to get to the challenge, you have to sit through a page of detail...

My long-time readers might remember Livewire and Kung-Fu the Card Game the Role Playing Game (KFtCGtRPG). The challenge is to design a core mechanic which does what these games didn't quite manage. This is not an easy challenge. Here's more information.

KFtCGtRPG was a game based on kung-fu movies. You played with cards, a bit like Magic: the Gathering but more like Lunch Money. A fast-paced, light-hearted combat game where you gained experience to buy more stuff. It had a faulty negative feedback loop and no organization behind the plot/NPCs, but it was still a literal runaway success - the players started plotting against me to keep the game going.

The driving force in KFtCGtRPG was plot cards. I created a totally stereotypical kung-fu plot line, and made some 30 cards with snippets on them. Snippets like "The Iron Master uses only his legs" and "The Temple of the Unforgiven was raided four months ago".

The way I set it up, once you got a number of cards it started to all make sense. The plot was big enough that you had to have several of these "oh, I get it!" moments in order to really see what was going on.

I'm not just babbling, but now I'm going to go on another seeming tangent before bringing this whole thing together.

The other game, Livewire, was a vaguely similar game designed to run without a GM. It went exactly as I thought it would (meaning it died), but I gathered data from its death: it did not die in vain.

In this game, instead of having a master list of cards and a GM-built plot, the players got to make their own cards and plots.

The mechanic was fairly simple: every time you wanted to make a card, you had to have help from other players. The idea was to force players to get together and twist them into plots of their own devising.

I learned three very important things, which I'll just list quickly so that you can lust after an imaginary book. Or, I guess, I can lust after the book, and you can think I'm a shmuck.

1) Players need to be pulled into gamespace, and if it is multiplayer, they all need to be pulled into the gamespace.

2) Normally, history is lost as players leave the game, because most game histories are vocal. In a high-churn situation, this is unacceptable.

3) Very few players (<5%) have the capability to actively sustain a fantasy world. Most players will participate in a fantasy world, but not actively seek to produce or sustain a world. Most players who can sustain a fantasy world are control freaks and not suitable for sustaining a fantasy world heavily influenced by other players.

The last is what I'm going to limit myself to, even though the first two are equally interesting.

Almost all players are happy to participate in a fantasy universe, but there is a natural tendency for player-created universes to become either PvP or tightly controlled, depending on how much power the creator is given. Either way is unsuitable for most players, who want to be involved with other players but not in a way which risks anything.

Livewire actually did pretty well on that front, using a system of voluntary inclusions and requiring the use of other players in cooperative ventures.

However, Livewire's universe was... fragmented. There was no driving force, no overarching plot. This was mostly because plot couldn't be distributed: the networking was enough to make you touch a dozen other characters to get what you wanted done, but each of those other characters was only exposed to the tiny fragment of plot that you are working on them with (which was usually something on a lark, anyway).

On the other hand, KFtCGtRPG was exceedingly cohesive. This let the players (forced the players) to work together to conquer the universe or be defeated. It also allowed players to do whatever they wanted with their own characters - some had very nice plot arcs, and most had interesting moments, at least.

But, like Livewire, these were nearly impossible to share on a useful scale, and couldn't be interacted with by other players in any useful manner. They contributed to one player's enjoyment - and any nearby players who happened to be involved - but they didn't echo throughout the universe.

They should have.

How would you solve this problem?

Don't simply answer off the top of your head, please. This is an exceptionally complex issue. You have to make sure that a player's story can't be hijacked and, similarly, another player can't be forced into an irritating situation by that plot. But, the plot does need to be distributed. Not all players will actually see it, but they should all have the potential to see it, especially in parts of the game where they are not being exposed to much plot.

In addition, the plot has to allow for a high level of complexity. "Steve killed Bob" is not a plot. It's a blurb. The plot needs to be something that can be explored. "You discover a shattered sword. It has a red dragon on the hilt." Later, "Oh, Bob's symbol is a red dragon..." A slow unfolding of the plot is necessary to keep players emotionally interested.

Ha! And it has to be easy enough to do that more than 5% of the players will participate. Whether this is by automating it or simply making it extremely beneficial...

I have some ideas, but I'd like to hear yours.


Patrick Dugan said...

First, on your closing note about plot, I agree that little sentence snippets ala Storytron (I killed Bob) is sufficient to engender participatory play, you need more local agency to effect that.

Now to the big question: I generally see each addition player in a narrative system as increasing the complexity demands of that system exponentially, so supporting four or more player is probably going to involve a level of complexity that requires automation in order to sustain the fiction, and digital drama engines are still trying to get single player interaction right.

A worth design goal for a narrative-oriented table-top game would be to support three players, and make the intransitive relationship between them the primary focus of play.

As for the digital space, a worth design goal that I'm considering is supporting two-player co-operative storyplay. My aim is to anchor this in the same way that I would for the table-top, but with the third character being system and content driven, and having a certian pull of mystery, as well as an active feedback loop, that lends gravity to the play. The idea is that the user doesn't have to think at a high level about the narrative, but is encouraged to make inferences as part of accomplishing things locally. If the players want to PvP, that becomes part of the story, and the find themselves role-playing the breakdown of the group whether they know it before or after. Either way it makes a cool experience, making a pre-planned decision about implementing a global intent, or reacting to local situations and realizing its dramatic significance after the fact.

Craig Perko said...

Hmmm, there are some good things about that approach, but I think I'm going to stick to infinite scalability. :)

GregT said...

I've been slowly coming to two interesting theories as far as tabletop roleplaying goes that I'm eager to try, that might help in a tangential fashion.

1) Most RPGs tend to start with the assumption that all the players other than the storyteller are in some way equal, in power and/or significance to the plot, coming from some egalitarian notion that all players should have the chance to be the main hero. Clearly that doesn't actually make sense. You already have one player with more power and importance (the GM/storyteller), and not all players are suited to carry the story either in acting skill, personality type, ability to lead the group, or storytelling style. I'm thinking there's nothing inherently wrong in picking a player, saying, "This story is the story of this player's character", and consciously and openly making every other player a supporting character.

2) The other thing I want to try is that the GM does not have to be the same player as the storyteller. What if we have a system where the GM doesn't have a character, and controls rules mechanics, disputes, and generic NPC action and dialogue, but the story is actually created and driven through a player actually playing a character? My only concern is that the GM might not be a fun role to play in that system.

As far as story automation, I'd have a system of randomly introduced snippets, a la your shattered sword, that enter the story either through random card play or code or whatever you're using. Then players have an opportunity to interact with the snippets that intrigue them, possibly by playing further cards on them or spending tokens on them, so that you have some player input/feedback as to what is "good plot" - they effectively weight the developments that make sense through normal play. Then further snippets get added to the weighted snippets, and so forth. Clearly there'd need to be a good snippet system but player feedback and weighting could go a long way.

Craig Perko said...

That's close to what I'm thinking, Greg. I'll make a post once I've finalized my thoughts on the matter.

BTW, if you haven't, go buy Primetime Adventures. I think you will be very impressed by how they have tackled those very topics.

Actually, it's just about the coolest game system I've ever seen.

GregT said...

Primetime Adventures looks so awesome I've gone and bought myself a PDF copy (not optimal, but they're all out of hardcopy). Thanks for the tip-off!

Craig Perko said...

Yeah. I haven't had a chance to drive it yet: I'm just getting in and making "vroom" noises and it's still a better system than most others.

GregT said...

Am immersing myself in Primetime Adventures - my first (excited) thoughts are over at my blog, if you're interested. Thanks again for the reference.