Sorry about the week of no-posts: I'm hard at work on Gun Shy, five out of 7-9 levels complete...
A few posts ago I talked about what makes simple, fast, but deep combat. I'd like to take a moment to focus on one particular aspect: Objectives.
Objectives make any combat better, not just fast-paced ones. But the trick is actually getting them into your game.
Depending on whether it's a tabletop or a computer game, there's two problems. For computer games, the problem is creating an objective which doesn't make the player throw his monitor out the window in fury. "Protect the civilian" always does this, because the civilian's AI is almost always geared specifically to do something hugely incompetant without warning.
For a computer game, the key is to show what your objective is going to do several "turns" ahead of time, to give the player enough room to adapt his technique. Preferably, you let the player determine when the next phase begins. For example, the civvie says "I'm going to make a run for the gas canister!" and either counts down, or waits for you to give him the "go!" signal. The more the objective allows the player to make intelligent moves before doing something, the more the player will come to like it.
A tabletop game doesn't have that problem because the GM is a pretty good AI. A tabletop has something of the opposite problem: giving out objectives in the first place. (This is also a problem in tabletop emulations such as Baldur's Gate.)
Think about it. Your party enters a dungeon and stumbles across a troop of gnaws. You kill them, take their treasure, and repeat.
There's very little room for "battle our way over to the switch which closes the gate" in these kinds of situations. Even if such an option exists, how do you gracefully let the players know?
Enter the Johnson.
Shadowrun's most powerful feature is one which few people even really notice: the Johnson. The Johnson gives you the mission, the parameters, and the objectives. The GM can say, "your mission is to capture Yaugh Smockinov," and then the players will be in any given battle specifically to capture Yaugh, rather than to kill a million guards.
Sure, a GM can flub it, but the option for objectives is there. Honestly, I think that's just about the only thing Shadowrun does really well, and it's part of the setting rather than the system.
Any NPC can serve this purpose, which is sometimes called "the voice of the GM". The party's NPC cleric just happens to always notice the best way to do something, if the player's don't. And he offers "helpful suggestions" as to how to tackle any situation. IE, he provides objectives.
Here's the thing, though: there's a better way to do it.
Build interplayer objectives using radically different player capabilities.
Let's go back to Shadowrun, and show how you could turn it into an even more objective-driven game:
In Shadowrun, most GMs don't like to run with hackers, and scout mages are often just as irritating. However, these character types offer some very interesting possibilities. From their unique vantage point, they effectively navigate a different map than the normal players. That other map connects up to the "main" map in various ways - doors which can be hacked to open, security cams which can relay information, disks which need to be inserted into computers. This doesn't have to be so clear-cut, of course. Just having places where their abilities need to be used (powering down a summoner's circle, for example) is still quite solid.
The basic idea is that these players "echo" back and forth off the other players, giving and requiring objectives. For example, if the main party encounters a locked door, what do they do? Well, they can knock it down. Or the hacker can make some roll to unlock it.
Or the party could need to rewire the lock mechanism. This takes some time, varying depending on how well the hacker rolls while he's in the wires. In the meantime, the others have to defeat waves of enemies, or distract guards to keep them from coming down this way, or whatever else needs to be done.
They have an objective: protect the geek.
Let me clarify what I consider the options to be:
A multimap situation is where the characters exist largely or partially on alternative maps. They have objectives to trigger specific elements of the other maps (such as unlocking doors), and those other maps have triggers for their maps (such as hooking up a data relay on an unconnected system). They generally share a physical map with everyone, which is often a hook for objectives on its own: they enter other maps in specific ways and at specific points.
Multimaps are time-intensive, and it may be necessary to have a GM for each map, or heavy automation. Otherwise, the GM has to split his attention too far, explaining each situation on each map to each player.
However, this is a graceful way of creating objectives player-to-player, with completely minimal live-time GM intervention. Obviously, the GM needs to create the maps (at least in rough idea) beforehand.
This is not easy for a computer game unless it is multiplayer and high-bandwidth (IE, voice chat). However, it works good for tabletops, given a few assistant GMs. It can easily support group sizes of 9-15 players.
2) Uneven Maps
In this situation, all players share the same map, but there are "triggers" which require a given party member or members to do something. These are not simply empty skill rolls - in fact, it is almost certain the player will succeed. How well and taking how much time is the question. Also, the triggers can be passive, such as keycards on the other side of the hall, but you have to give the players enough info to know they need to get it.
The other half of the situation is for the rest of the party. They have to defend or massage the worker to allow him to succeed and move the whole party forward.
At first, it seems as if this would be pretty limited: someone is doing something and taking his sweet time, so you defend him. Woo.
There are other options, though. You can have a race condition: there's an enemy hacker. The players have to split their attention between screwing up the enemy hacker and defending their own hacker.
Or a magician needs souls, so the players collect the souls for their magician, and the more they collect, the faster he can accomplish his task.
The idea is that simple "defense" is rarely as interesting as something with some feedback. Let the rest of the party influence the situation clearly, directly helping or hindering the worker.
This is pretty easy for a computer game or a tabletop.
3) Exclusive Maps
This is like multimap, but taken to an extreme. In multimap the hacker is physically present, hooking into a system and accessing an alternative map at various physical points.
Exclusive maps mean that the hacker never even enters the building. There is no need to defend his ass or worry about getting him killed. (It could just as easily be two teams invading two related but physically seperated facilities.)
This means extremely simple and clear-cut communications, because there's no complex tactical dancing. Each team simply gives another team an objective, and they go out to accomplish it on their own.
This is a good thing for computer games, but not for tabletops. In a tabletop, each map would need its own GM, and they would need to be astonishingly synchronized. In a computer game, the computer handles that.
Furthermore, in a computer game it could be done multiplayer or single player with simulated teams on the other maps - an option not available with the two other basic options.
Anyhow, that's my summary on how to inject objectives. Of course, choosing which objectives... well, that's a whole other story.