Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Really Suck

I have a grudge against the d20 system. I hate it. I could complain about it all day. I hate it so much that I really can't base this article on it, because I would rant forever.

Restricting myself to one reason I hate it: because hundreds of books have come out for the d20 system. Nothing unifies these books. There is no underlying world, no underlying theme. They're just a bunch of books that have "d20" stamped on the corner.

Because of this, they are compromised. Their promise of a fun and interesting setting is stomped on because they are required to use specific stats, specific conflict resolution methods, specific skills, progressions, dice...

It doesn't make a lick of sense to have a wide range of numeric stats and skills in a game about myth. Fundamentally, mythic adventures are about heroes with superhuman capabilities and flaws. They don't get "12 HP" or a con of "10". They are "stronger than ten mortal men but a temper to match" or "the wisest woman in the land, beware her fell magic!"

The idea of carefully listing out stats and skills is a throwback to the era of wargaming. You can get plenty of complexity and simulationist satisfaction without such crap, and the fact that d20 is basically D&D with all the funny-shaped dice replaced with dodecahedrons makes it fundamentally unsuited for most kinds of adventures.

I see this problem with all "shared" systems, including things like GURPS, Hero, Rifts, D&D, and even the almost unknown ones like d6 and Silhouette. Not to mention the huge number of games which basically use the same system, but aren't affiliated. If it's got stats running from 1-20 and a hundred skills, it's really just D&D.

These systems are often good at a particular kind of story. But they do not limit themselves to that kind of adventure, and instead publish add-ons for adventures that make no sense at all. Like D&D's "legendary" level adventures. D&D's system is fundamentally unsuited for legendary-level characters. The GM basically has to work around the system and hope his players aren't smart enough to pry at the cracks.

This is why I'm pushing for people to create their own system when they create their own setting. You have a great idea about the players all playing clerics? Great! Just don't put it in D&D, because their rules are painfully shattered when it comes to that kind of focus. Build your own system, a system with rules that fundamentally support the various kinds of faiths and capabilities of clerics of various gods.

I realize that I'll probably catch some flak. Someone will probably say, "It's not D&D, it's AD&D 3rd ed, which is completely different". Actually, that's the point: an RPG system is not like Street Fighter. You shouldn't have D&D, AD&D, AD&D Alpha Turbo Edition, etc. You should make a game that does precisely what you want it to do.

If your system doesn't support eight clerics in the party, you shouldn't stretch the system. You should create a new system for an "eight clerics" adventure.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Fun With Basics

This is kind of part of the make your own guide to creating role playing systems. This also stands alone, however, and is interesting on its own.

A sure way to make games more fun is to have an underlying principle that drives the game. This will make the game's fiction more coherent, and the rules can often be part of that fiction.

As an easy example, here's a wacky "science" video. A game could be easily made with this as its underlying principle. This would allow for a "convincing" simulation of species, landmasses, etc. Also, as you start to think about what makes the planet grow, you'll have to come up with an interesting set of physical/metaphysical reasons that will drive the biology, technology, magic... whatever parts of the setting you want. The game would feel very cohesive, and a big part of it is incorporated into the rules - the rules for tech work the way they do not because of some arbitrary reasoning, but because it all fits into the underlying principle.

When you're designing any game of any type, above and beyond the rules you use is how coherent yet diverse the "pattern" of the game is. The easiest way to make a pattern coherent is to relate every bit of it to a specific theme. You don't even have to state the theme - actually, it's generally better not to state it, at first. The coherence will still be there, and players will still feel that the game is "well designed". Long experience has taught me that they can still tell that all the content is "pointing" towards something.

Obviously, the principles don't have to be something so dry as a scientific theory. You might explore an emotion, or the meaning of honor, or the fact that transforming robots are way cool, but the basic idea is that everything in that game is related to the principle. Every character, every piece of setting, every game rule... designed to explore the ramifications of the underlying principle.

I can't stress this enough. Even lighthearted games benefit from underlying principles. Even card games, Flash games, drinking games. The theme can be serious, it can be stupid, it can be funny, it can be scary. It's simply a magnet that draws all the pieces of the game together.

Do you know what I mean?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

We're Having a Party!

I was commenting on Matthew's comment that he would like to see more things like shared card resources in CRPGs. I started to answer when I realized that, as usual, I have a lot to say.

The big problem with CRPGs in my eyes is that individual characters do not feel like individuals. They're obviously cogs: a warrior is more applicable in some areas than a mage, and less in others, but that just means they're cogs with different teeth.

You could argue that this is because their personality doesn't show through into combat situations. The shy magician casts a fireball exactly the same as the gung-ho mad wizard. There are other arguments, but most of them are variations on this theme.

Sure, characters have stats and equipment, but those really don't have anything to do with their personality, and even when they do, it's boring. A personality really shouldn't be wholly about statistical difference, because that produces a wide range of extremely bland personalities. Characterizations are generally a better approach, and they don't have anything to do with statistical differences.

Some people have tried to make their characters more interesting in combat by adding social proximities and friendships and morale and so forth, but these are not usually very effective. If they were, we'd see them more often, because they're not hard to program.

I really like approaching this problem from a rules perspective. If each character had a bit more "memory", I think this problem could be solved adequately. By "memory" I don't mean actual memory, I mean a method of interacting with the rules of the game in a way that has more ramifications than how much damage you do next turn.

Specifically, let's imagine a Jedi game where your party consists of four or five Jedi. Now, if under the iron grip of the actual IP owners, each Jedi would have a few inapplicable statistics that determine how much ass they kick plus a "lightness" rating. In a more indie environment, your Jedi might have stats which are both personality and skill, such as a "foresight" stat or a "determination" stat.

But I've already waived stats, so let's instead go with decks of cards.

Lets deal each of your Jedi five Force cards. These cards are their cards, not some kind of pooled resource like you might normally see in a CRPG ("99 potions in inventory"). They can, however, give and trade cards, although with whom and what kinds of trades will vary based on their relationship. The cards they are dealt are not wholly random: they are heavily weighted, as I'll explain in a few paragraphs.

The idea here is that any Jedi can use any of the Jedi skills. Each Jedi is particularly good at one or two, but only if they play a particular suite of cards on it. Rylgo is an expert saber-fighter, exceptionally talented so long as he drops hearts. So Rylgo might always be hunting for hearts.

However, each Jedi's mood at any given moment is based on the suits of the cards they hold. And, of course, what cards they are dealt is based on their overall personality (when getting a new hand) or on their recent experiences (refilling a hand by drawing from the local Force).

Because this is a simulated card deck, we can add two categories of cards - "blue back" and "red back". They are the same in terms of skill use, but red backed cards are dark Force and twist your personality to the dark side of the suit. Worse, there's no hand limit for red backed cards. (Or something.)

The end result of this is that everything is linked together. When you try to manage your party, you're not just thinking of how to get a few extra strength points. You have to think about power, applicability, personality, and ethos simultaneously. And each character is an individual whose cards restock automatically based on their personality and mood rather than being wholly handled by you.

It has the potential to be irritating if they are given too much freedom in choosing and trading their own cards (damn it, P'le keeps getting dark side cards without me!), but handled correctly, this sort of thing offers a chance to give characters a distinct personality while amping the tension in combat experiences.

What do you think? Can you think of other methods of making a game where the rules and the character's personalities are deeply intertwined?

Oh, notice that this is not a very complex card system. It could be complexified, adding in poker hands or something, but when you have to manage multiple characters, that gets too complex. About as complex as I'd want to make it is to make their light saber or nonJedi skills especially amped if you play a particular card (IE a nine, or a queen). Any more complex, and trying to optimize four or five hands simultaneously will start to eat the player's brain.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Shared Resources

I'm always thinking about new mechanics to bond my players to each other. Most games rely on simple "safety in numbers" mechanics - if your cleric dies, you can't be healed. But that leads to very shallow relationships. "Working" relationships. Sure, players can exceed that, but it's kind of erratic when you have to fight the system.

Those aren't really what I like to see, so I try to use mechanics to make different kinds of relationships. Here are some of them.

Someone Else Narrates for You. I originally saw this method in a game that duplicates that Japanese movie about a high school class being shipped off to a deserted island and forced to kill each other. The idea is that you have to specify a best friend and a rival. If you succeed at something, your best friend narrates what happens. If you fail at something, your rival narrates what happens.

When I first saw it, I was rather taken with the idea, but in playtests it didn't work so well. With five players, a certain person ended up on every single other player's sheet as either rival or friend. They spent a considerable amount of time narrating. Awkward. Also, the position of "rival" is an unenviable one, and if done correctly, makes the players hate each other.

While there's something cool about this mechanic, I don't think it can be used like this.

Unique Card Requirements. In a Jedi game I ran, the Force was represented by cards - each player had a "hand" representing their access to the Force in any given location. Players were allowed to trade cards. At the beginning, trading cards was only done to "supercharge" a given Jedi: "Alex needs to stop the droid army! Everyone, give him all your face cards!" (There was also a noble sacrifice mechanic for Jedi who used more Force than they were supposed to, or used Force in a particular way.)

However, as the game went on, each character began to get specific card combinations that they could use more efficiently. One person would get double points if all the cards they played were hearts. Another needed straits, another needed face cards, another was good with deuces...

A chunk of our table time was therefore dedicated to swapping Force cards. While it sounds like this would break immersion, it really didn't. Perhaps because it made sense for Jedi to spend quite a bit of time communing with each other, perhaps just because of the peculiarities of our player base. But what ended up happening is that they all started to rely on each other far more than usually happens - far more than in other Jedi games I've run.

All Fall Down. I've seen a mechanic like this in many games, although I've never used it myself. Basically, the players have a shared set of... something. As they do cool stuff, they have to reduce that resource. At some point - exactly when is unknown - the resource will fall, and the player will die.

An example is using a Jenga tower: every time you need to succeed, you need to remove a piece. If it falls, you die. Another example is a simple card deck: draw two cards, put one back on top of the deck. If you keep a joker, you die.

These mechanics are interesting and work very well, so long as you're doing a relatively short narrative arc - one or two sessions. There's something about the randomness inherent in the system that makes it unsuitable for longer arcs, which generally have a stronger emotional investment on the player's part.

Source Control. In this kind of system, in order to do something, a player must use another character somehow. Generally, this is some kind of karmic link or psychic power source or something. However, it drains the second character somewhat.

This kind of system generally produces very political gameplay, because resources are limited and negotiation is king. When it actually harms you to help someone, players generally start bartering rather than simply being friends.

However, if the mechanic doesn't rely on limited resources, it can produce very interesting, deep relationships. For example, in order to use magic, you need to draw on your relationship to another character by partaking of that relationship. IE, friends have to banter, rivals have to try to out do each other, masters have to be obeyed, etc. If each kind of relationship can also only provide specific kinds of fuels, you can have characters who are actively searching for rivals, or masters, or lovers, or whatever. It's still very political, but in a very... narrativistic way, rather than a statistical way.


Can you think of any other methods of shared resources which get players to work together? Have you ever run a game with anything like this?

Actually, I don't think I have any GMs who read this blog. It's mostly computer gamers. I should probably stop posting this RP stuff.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

MYO: Building a Rule Chain

This is part of the make your own guide to creating role playing systems.

Every game has a rule chain. From the simplest game of Pac Man to the most complicated version of AD&D, it's all built around this same concept. I've gone and refined it a bit to be somewhat clearer.

To make it really easy on you, I've broken it into steps. Basically, you follow these steps until you think your game world has enough complexity to keep your players interested.

This isn't about working out all the rules or the percentages. It's about having a guide that shows you how your game is played. Building a game with too much precision too early is a bad idea - that's how AD&D came into being, and that's why it's such a hodge-podge. This will help you lay the foundation for your game system.

When making a system, I suggest writing stuff down on a blank piece of paper "flowchart" style. I'll give instructions on how to do that, too.

1: The Primary Purpose of Conflicts
All games feature a central purpose - something that the players and GM try to accomplish. In D&D, it's reducing HP. In many more modern games, it's to tell a piece of story. There are thousands of possible purposes, choose one that suits you.

But remember, this is the primary conflict you're designing here, not the primary reason for playing. D&D's rules are built around reducing an enemy's HP, but the actual reason for playing is to have adventures. If "having adventures" is going to be the central conflict, then people would roll dice to have adventures rather than having adventures in which they roll dice.

I draw the purpose of a conflict in a triangle at the bottom of the page.

2: Basic Resolution
Now that you know the basic conflict, you need to know how it is usually resolved. For example, in D&D you roll dice to reduce HP, whereas in, say, FastLane, you bet chips on a roulette wheel for the right to tell a piece of the story. D&D's resolution is parallel - IE, enemies can reduce each other's HP simultaneously. FastLane, on the other hand, is perpendicular, in that if one person wins, another person (often the GM) loses.

This describes what kind of resolution systems you might choose, but anything will work, even rock paper scissors or making funny noises until someone laughs.

I draw resolution methods as circles above whatever they resolve, and connect them to their purposes with lines.

3: Add in a Modifier
A modifier is a method of giving a statistical benefit to one side or another. For example, a weapon in D&D allows players to reduce the HP of the enemy different amounts. In FastLane, having a chip pool allows you to bid various amounts of chips on the roulette wheel, allowing you to modulate your chances of victory and failure.

In D&D, rolling to hit is also a modifier. Instead of offering a sure but erratic bonus (2d6 vs 1d8 + 2 damage) it offers an erratic but sure bonus (you get to hit or not, period). This makes it more interesting than simply hitting, because now a beastie can have low HP but be hard to hit, whereas without this modifier all that mattered was the beastie's HP.

The basic rule is that a modifier lets a player express their intents and personalities more clearly. Having a chip pool lets a player be risky or safe, having a to-hit die allows players to specialize in damage or hits (or bypassing the need to roll hits).

I draw modifiers as boxes above whatever they modify, connected with a line.

4: Split the Approach
It's important to let players approach things in distinct ways by "going behind the back" of a modifier. This can be thought of as assigning modifiers to a modifier.

In D&D, the "weapons" modifier allows you to use different dice and bonuses to deal damage. However, having a weapon is not the only method of doing that. You can use techniques or be a mage. So, the "weapons" modifier has three "paths" - "weapons", "techniques", and "magic". Don't worry about the clumsy naming.

In FastLane, how you change the number of chips in your pool varies. The paths are "Betting/winning", "favor calling/granting", "Ability use", "statistic burn", "life risk", and so on. This is a lot of approaches, but you don't have to come up with thirty approaches at once. You can add more approaches at any time, and it's better to do it in small increments.

While a modifier allows a player to express themselves statistically, an approach allows players to express themselves categorically. They can choose to act like a monk, or a warrior, or a mage, or whatever. An approach can be semipermanent (such as choosing a class) but doesn't have to be.

I make approaches diamonds or rounded squares and put them near the things they modify, connected with a line.

5: Add in a New Conflict Type
Using any of the things you've created, add a new kind of goal it can resolve.

For example, in D&D you can use the "to hit" modifier to resolve noncombat challenges such as picking pockets or applying medicine. You can use the "weapon" modifier to do noncombat things such as healing, seeing in the dark, etc. Putting it under the "weapon" modifier rather than the "weapon" or "magic" approach means that any approach will have these noncombat methods, rather than only one of them. This allows for torches, spells of light, and light related techniques, for example.

In FastLane (or just about any game), the ability to improve your character by spending points is an end goal that gets added at this stage.

Be as specific or general as you like, and choose anything. Don't worry if the resolution method seems dodgy. That will all fall into place.

These give the players who choose different paths different capabilities, making them more unique. They are especially needed in places where you want the gameplay to be more complex than it already is.

I draw new conflicts as triangles beneath whatever controls them.

6: Clean Up
Look over your map. Does anything have an awful lot of connections to the same kind of shape? See if you can condense that into one or two much less specific shapes. An example of this would be the dozens of approaches to your chip pool in FastLane. they can be broken into two basic modifiers: adding chips to/from your pool and adding chips to your bet. Then those can have approaches.

Does anything seem awkward or lonely? See if you can move it to a more root branch. An example of this would be if you wrote "noncombat stuff" as a goal underneath "magic", and decided that it would make more sense if items could accomplish at least some noncombat stuff, such as nets, food, etc. So you roll the goal down to the "weapon modifier" rather than the "magic approach".

If something is misnamed, rename it. For example, the "weapon" approach and modifier allow you to address noncombat issues, so it's best to rename them "item".

This step is pretty important, as it will help you keep your game from getting too flabby and special-caseist.

7: Scrap it?
If what you see doesn't appeal or doesn't make sense, scrap it and start over. Seriously. It's no big loss.

8: Goto 2
Go back to step two and run through them again, but don't focus on whatever part you were focusing on before. Focus on whatever you want to have more depth.

For example, in D&D we can go back and focus on the "weapons" approach (now the "items" approach, since it's not all combat based any more). We don't want anyone to be able to get any weapon, so we add a resolution method: you can have weapons you buy or find. Then we can add modifiers to buying, so that we use gold pieces to try to buy stuff.

In fact, D&D is full of iteration. Range vs melee, saving throws, skills, stats - all of them are these same chains applied in slightly different ways.

This will also happen in game. For example, in the first tests of the first D&D, I'm sure there was no such thing as poisoned weapons. But then someone said, "I should be able to poison my weapon!" and hence poison was introduced. You can go in and add a poison modifier whereever it should be added, then run through the steps to make sure to balance it with approaches and limitations and so forth.

Here's a demo picture because everyone likes demo pictures.

Please notice that "favors" is an approach to the pool, but in the actual game, it's also fed by the pool. It's an approach and a goal simultaneously. To keep things clean, I just leave it as an approach. If you feel the urge, you can make the line a double-headed arrow.

This is mostly for YOUR use, so it only has to make sense to you.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tabletop Review: The Princes' Kingdom

I think my new favorite tabletop RPG designer is a man with the unlikely name of "Clinton R Nixon".

On a recent excursion to the local geek shop, I picked up half a dozen indie RPGs, and the one I left until last was a thin little number obviously geared towards children.

A thin little children's game with a level of clarity and grace and depth of play that I haven't seen much!

It's a game that's a bit like Narnia: the players all play children between 6 and 12 years old, princes of their island chain. The game revolves around them visiting various islands you invent and solving problems like good little princes should.

By page 15, I was pretty uninterested. Premise, premise, premise, all told as if to children. Expected, but still boring. On page 16, I began to get interested.

See, the age of your prince really matters. Young princes get to specify a lot more cool powers than older princes, and older princes get more flat dice. I don't know how intentional the choice was, but it fits beautifully into what a child at a given age is likely to be able to do: at a young age, using whatever's handy as a hammer. At an older age, having to struggle to apply what few tools you have while working out the numbers and tactics of the dice. Essentially, gaining responsibility and the need to look forward as you get older.

In theory, adults who choose a given age of prince can be lured into the same mindset by this, although I can't say for sure.

The laws of the land and the island creation routine are deceptively simple but offer an astonishingly good framework for creating adventures with nuggets of hard choice at their core.

Now, I do think there are too many pieces to everything. It's a slightly flabby design: a bit too structured for my taste. But that's personal opinion. I like my clean simplicity, and I don't see any rules reason that a relationship, a thing, and a capability should be treated differently. They all offer the same die-related effects.

But structure is important to newbies, especially children, so I can see the value in doing it that way. It just... rakes on my nerves a little. My instinct would either be to make them fundamentally different rule-side, or to combine them.

Ha, such a tiny complaint. That's how good the game design is.

So I just went and bought his other two games. On PDF. I almost never buy on PDF.

Mysterious Mysteries: Using Imperfect Information

In games, it's not all what actions your players can take. Just as important is what makes them take those actions.

Some games are built around the idea of perfect information, but the vast majority of games use imperfect information. By revealing specific bits of information at the right times, the games can make the player try to guess what is really backing that up, and respond appropriately.

For example, a first person game is inherently about restricting information to what you can "see". Sure, there's a whole level programmed into the system, but you can only see bits of it at a time. You don't know for sure whether there's going to be a monster around the corner, or even what kind of room will be through the door. But you can make predictions and prep accordingly: if you're expecting tight little corridors, you equip the shotgun. Large rooms? Equip the sniper rifle.

Your memory of the places you've already been usually plays a big role in helping you navigate. Constructing this internal map is often a big part of these games, because the amount of information they show you at any given time is so restricted.

Of course, depending on how predictable the developers are, you can learn to predict the level better than they intend. For example, in Doom III I could predict where the monsters were going to teleport in so accurately that I would literally be looking at them when they teleported in, even though the level designers obviously (too obviously) intended them to pop in behind you.

This is true in almost every game. An RPG with random encounters quickly trains you to predict what kind of creatures you can expect to run into and equip yourself accordingly. Even though you have no warning as to exactly when you'll be attacked, you're still ready for it.

Building these contextual maps - whether they are what monsters to expect or where your enemy is likely to be or the layout of the level - is a big part of playing games and an integral part of what makes a game fun. Even games with perfect information such as chess or go still revolve around building context maps of the kinds of maneuvers that work best in various situations and what your enemy is likely to do.

To that end, when you're designing a game, think hard about what you're going to hide and what you'll reveal, and when. "Juicy" gameplay is more than just showing an animation whenever the player clicks a button: it's about revealing something in response to the player's action. That reveal might be a feedback loop's response: shoot the bad guy, he dies. That reveal could also just be to reveal another piece of the world: the next little part of the plot, or a temporarily enlarged view radius, or a trajectory prediction.

This facet of game design is too often overlooked in favor of trying to come up with fantastic new game play. But, frankly, you can use stale game play and, if you make the reveals juicy enough, nobody will even think to complain. They'll just call it "the best of its genre."

Good examples of this technique can be found in Psychonauts, Beyond Good and Evil, Halo, Baldur's Gate, Prince of Persia, Civilization... basically any really good game will have a very polished pace that revolves largely around knowing when to reveal new bits of plot, map, gameplay elements, and/or fun side stuff.

How do your favorite games use the reveal?

Friday, July 13, 2007

MYO: Choose a Challenge Dynamic

This is part of the make your own guide to creating role playing systems.

Generally, the first thing I think of when they think of a role playing system is how the challenges are resolved. D&D is just about synonymous with a d20, for example. Other games use Nd10, rock-paper-scissors, decks of cards - just about any method you can think of.

In choosing your own challenge resolution system, you'll need to decide what kind of feel you want the game to have. Here are some common fragments you can consider when designing your own fundamental resolution system:

Basic Styles

Flat Opposition. A lot of games use flat opposition which must be exceeded, especially on non-combat situations. Flat opposition is when the quantity you need to exceed is known. For example, "you need a 17 to hit" or "you need 4 dice of at least 5 to hack the mainframe". This is useful when you're playing a beer-and-pretzels game where the players don't want to think real hard.

Decaying Flat. This is the same as flat opposition except that if you don't reach it, the opposition drops some. Hit points are an obvious example of this: you need to do 150 HP of damage, and if you do 75 for two rounds, it counts. Obviously, you can mess with these numbers - include regeneration, thresholds, maximum damage levels, powers that unlock at high levels of damage... This is a bit more number-crunchy for the GM, so this is generally kept to a minimum in most games.

Opposed Simple. An opposed simple is when all the sides contribute numbers (usually die rolls) and add their bonuses to them. The highest wins. This has a much larger element of chance than a flat opposition, which is usually best to reign in by minimizing the randomness - making the die roll roughly equivalent to the highest bonus, or letting people play a card out of their hand.

Recursive Flat. This is when the success of one side's flat opposed roll becomes the flat target for the next side. For example, "Dave got 5 successes, so in order to defend himself, Jed has to get 5 successes, too." It contains less randomness than opposed simple, so it is suitable to dice of any size, but it can make turns take a long time. It's good for games where you want the players to always feel that they have the power to change things, no matter how late in the game things get.

Recursive Opposed. This is when players repeatedly bid. For example, each player can play any number of cards from his hand, then his opponent can, and so forth. This can be done with hidden data (cards face down) or with revealed data (die rolls/cards up/tokens). However, if it is with revealed data, there should be multiple simultaneous challenges or long-term bid conservation to prevent everyone from bidding until exhausted.


Single Die. Generally a d10 or a d20, the single-die method is fast and easy, and usually combined with flat or decaying flat opposition because of its high randomness. Also, most games allow for the maximum and minimum rolls to be considered critical, to punch up the variability. Generally, single-die methods do NOT allow for exploding dice. This is most useful for beer & pretzel games.

Multi-Die. Can be any die, but usually d10s or d6s. How many dice you roll is usually related to your skill level. Multi-die specifically refers to dice where each die can individually succeed or fail, rather than summed dice. The number of successes (and often failures) is usually a part of the final resolution. Generally, if the type of the die is d10 or higher, it uses critical successes/failures, whereas if the type of the die is a d6, it uses exploding die (ie, every max roll allows for another roll that adds on). This is simply because of the frequency of exploding dice. These are usually used by moderate games where the players are fine with thinking, but not too hard.

Variable Dice. Many games use dice that vary based on the character's capabilities. For example: damage is a d6+1, or 3d8+9, or whatever. Unlike multi-die, they are added together rather than independently counted. There were a few old systems which used a variable die method that was always the same (IE 3d6 for everything), but this has gone out of vogue. This is most useful for a system where you want a huge difference between people who are good at something and people who are bad at something.

Uneven Dice. Uneven dice is a type of multi-die where dice rolled have different rules applied to them. For example, you might roll two white dice and a blue die, with the blue die meaning something specific. Or you might roll 2d10 and 3d6... this kind of system can produce very interesting side effects, such as allowing players to choose which dice to roll.

Random Card. Using a deck of playing cards allows players to get a very different kind of randomization. Playing cards are easy to assign unusual values to - for example, "the joker is a botch" or "the king is +10 and draw another card" or "hearts restore a hit point". While theoretically cards can be counted, in practice this is too difficult for 99% of players. Cards can be either played face up in turns, or face down simultaneously. These systems are useful for games where you want lady luck to play a more entertaining part than simple criticals and botches.

Hand of Cards. Similar to above, except that players are given a hand of cards to play from. This allows players to spend or save their "good" "rolls" as they choose, and adds a whole new element to the game. In addition, if players are allowed to trade cards and see each other's hands, they start using dramatically more team work and will have a better chance of estimating which cards remain in the deck. Very much a thinking player's method.

Multi-Card. Some games allow players to play multiple cards and gives the players bonuses for the relationships between the cards. IE, poker hands are worth more. This does slow the game down, but allows players to control their gameplay exactly. Also, it allows specific characters to have specific abilities: IE, "the sword of Bronenogry deals double damage if all cards played are hearts." This is the ultimate thinking player's method.

Tokens. One of the fastest ways to play if you're playing a more iterative model (IE, each player can respond to what other players do) is to use tokens, with each character have a certain number of specific kinds of tokens - replenishing a certain amount each round. Tokens can represent "a point", but they more often represent an unknown number of points to be resolved at the end of round. Typically either a D6 or a 50% chance of being a point (red/black cards). This does well for minmaxers and wargame fanatics.


One of the basics I didn't mention but you might have picked up on is how much control a player has over what they put forth. For example, if all players roll 1d20 to hit, then they have relatively little control outside of trying to get their character stats to have bigger bonuses.

On the other hand, if they can play one of the cards from their hand, they can choose how "lucky" they want to be at any given time, using up "luck" as they proceed. Because this is a known quantity, these should always be actively opposed so that the player cannot flatly calculate the minimum play required for success.

And at the top of the player control system is tokens, where a player will be able to bid specific amounts of his resources on offense, defense, movement, damage, whatever. This allows a player to specifically determine exactly how his character should play in excruciating detail - something that some players love and some players hate.

There are other methods I didn't cover here, such as rock-paper-scissors. These kinds of methods are generally more suited to LARPs and are usually a simplified version of one of the above or a basic guessing game of some variety.

Also notice that I didn't cover things like whether you're using miniatures and maps or not, or what kinds of challenges you allow, etc, etc. Those are important considerations, but this is unrelated.

Choose a method that suits you and your players.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Expressive Rules in Social Simulations

In Halo, one of the biggest ways you determine what kind of player you are is by what kind of weapons you use, since you can only carry two. Your fire patterns and method of movement are closely related to the weapons you carry.

The choice of weapons is not a complex, high-grain choice with a thousand details. If you want the weapon, you drop the old one and pick up the new one. No "adverbs", no place on a slider, no skill challenge.

Furthermore, you can see the choice transparently long before you make it. In fact, you usually don't bother making the choice at all unless you see it is a choice worth making. Furtherurthermore, you can always come back and make the choice again, or reverse your choice.

There's no stress, no tension, no confusion, no cleverness, no secrets.

But it is one of the most important parts of the game, letting a player choose how they will play. It allows the player to express themselves in the simplest way: picking their favorite of two choices.

The rest of the game is like that, too: if you move right, you can almost always undo it by moving left. If you fire, you can usually adjust your aim and fire again. But firing and strafing and turning and walking are all excruciatingly simple choices. There is no complexity to them individually. It is only when you make a large number of them that the personality of the player begins to come through. And that's only because each choice slightly changes the context of the game - including relative to other kinds of choices.

Most of the "social simulation" systems out there - storyworlds and so on and so forth - rely almost exclusively on the idea that a few very precise choices is the best approach. "If we can give the player enough precision..." they guess, "if we give the player the ability to express himself exactly..."

That's like playing Pac-Man by letting players put the Pacmeister anywhere on the board whenever they want. "It'll give the players the freedom to tell the story of Pac-Man in any way they find interesting..." It will also be boring and pointless and completely futile because it short circuits the feedback loops. What little play remains may contain feedback loops, but only the most simplistic, useless kind.

Instead, a few different kinds of interaction should be given which allow the player to make a large number of small choices to subtly change the context of the world. Instead of the player performing a big action like giving roses to Sue, the player would perform a larger number of small actions. Perhaps managing poise, personal space, facial expression, and gaze target. Obviously, these choices would have to be more clearly represented, so the player can really get a feel for them.

But the same four basic kinds of action could also be used in bar-room standoffs, talking to the cops, preaching to a room full of southern Baptists, playing with children - any kind of social action you can imagine. Instead of fifty different kinds of "social action", have four smaller kinds of interaction and let them "load up" on any equipment they might feel they need. (Roses, spiky collars, brightly colored plush toys...) This would be the equivalent of picking a weapon in Halo: a choice made rarely that changes the way you "move" in your more common interactions.

I'm not saying that those four are the best four, or that this approach is the best approach. I'm saying that a few very exacting choices are vastly inferior to a large number of tiny choices.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Put In Another Gun: It'll Add Gameplay!

Edit: Recently, someone called this "ranty". I'm a pretty ranty kind of guy, but I'm not trying to rant, here. I'm trying to explain using some specific examples, but it doesn't mean I think more or less highly of those examples than others not mentioned.

Last post, Chill made the following innocuous comment: "Meaning that there may be a few stats, but the important thing is that there a lot of places on that scale that one could be... Point is, the more actually different ways one can affect a system and get meaningful feedback, the better."

I think he was trying to agree with me, but this is a chance to spring some fundamental design principles on both of my readers, so that's what I'ma gonna do. Chill's comment provides a useful springboard.

I no longer believe anything I quoted above is correct.

It hasn't been long since I changed my mind, though. Less than a month.

I think that the key to good gameplay is a few simple rules that produce complex results. But... I don't think that's clear enough. Let's give a surprising example:

In a shmup, you have a spaceship. The interaction is simple: you can move, you can shoot, you can use the bomb. Pretty simple? You know what I think when I look at that?

"What's with the bomb special case?"

The bomb isn't a deep rule. It just rescues your ass when you prove to be too inept. It serves the same basic purpose as a life. Why does it exist?

Some shmups have a really nifty bomb. For example, it switches what enemies you're immune to, or it sucks in bullets and turns them into a super-shot. You know what I say then?

"What's with the bomb special case?"

The core of the game is moving and shooting. You already have moving and shooting. If you need to add a bomb mechanic, don't. Change your shooting or moving mechanics to be deeper. Or make something automatic - either the bomb or the shooting - so that it isn't an interaction rule any more. Having duplicate attack mechanics is just saying "our design-fu is too weak to make any of our stuff actually good, so we give you more rules and hope you don't notice."


"Did he just say that shmups are too complicated? Shmups, the simplest game outside of match three?"

Not exactly. I'm saying that shmups have too many ways of meaningfully interacting with the same system. Modulating your movement, shooting, and how you die... if you can't make deep gameplay out of that, you're just screwed as a designer. As a designer, you should be able to make deep gameplay out of any one of those.

There are games with "complex rules". For example, action RPGs. Let's say: combat movement, world map movement, combat moves, items, equipment, money, leveling... tack on optionals like managing team-mates, social management, plot trees, TACOs, skill challenges...

I'm not saying those are bad. The rules in good games are chosen so that they feed each other but don't step on each other. While you can slice with a sword or cast magic fire or throw a grenade, those are actually just one rule: attacking. You modulate the cost and effectiveness of attacking, allowing the player to express himself within the rule.

The problem with phrases like "places on the scale" and "lots of ways to get meaningful feedback" is that they do not actually encourage good rules. They simply encourage rules.

Being at a point on a scale is not a very good way of expressing yourself: it's too one-dimensional. The good news is that in a game like Magic the Gathering, you're not just expressing yourself one-dimensionally. Sure, you show a preference for a particular mana cost, but you also pick a particular color and, hell, particular cards. It's one of the most expressive games out there. While the actual combat has a lot of dumb rules that aren't deep, the actual game of Magic the Gathering lies in creating and using decks of cards... a simple but very expressive set of rules.

Getting meaningful feedback isn't important, either. Again, a rule should allow the game's characters (or other challenges) to express themselves as well. It's not about feedback: it's about establishing a distinct feeling that this part of the game has a personality and something resembling a will.

The rules for combat are relatively simple, but by giving monsters different combat stats and capabilities, the ice caves of Hrraaaalg play very differently from the soldier's barracks...

So don't think of rules as being deep or wide or good or bad. Think of rules as tools for expression, and if you can't think of a way to express a wide range of intents and personalities in the rule, don't put it in.

And, of course, if there's another rule that lets you express yourself in the same way, but not as well, kill it. It's just extra fat.


That would have been a good place to end it, but I have to say this:

Adding more guns isn't adding more rules. It's simply adding another permutation to an existing interaction (in this case, the "attack" interaction). This can be good or bad, but it's an entirely separate question.

Advanced Personality Simulation

When you're trying to create a "next generation" NPC, usually the method is to make it so that the NPC thinks about relationships in a more complicated way than "I like you X amount", and can therefore respond in a way more complicated than "I'll give you the quest".

I've discussed a lot of difficulties with this, ranging from a need for a wide variety of actions with nuance to the need for a detailed world to offer fodder for interaction. Today I'd like to assume those and talk a little bit about an easy way to do the actual personality calculations.

The problem with the majority of "advanced personality models" is that they still default to flat numbers. For example, they have a stat as to how much they like you. The urge most designers feel is to simply add more flat numbers: this is how much they like you, that's how much they trust you, that's how attracted they are too you, that's how much they respect or fear you...

I think it's more important to have fewer, deeper numbers rather than more, shallow numbers. The basics of deep gameplay are to have a few rules that produce complex situations, not to have a lot of rules that produce complex situations. The latter is inherently limited, inefficient, and flat-out inferior.

So let's say we've got only one number: how much they like you.

The way to make it more interesting and realistic is to also have the derivatives and integrals of that number. Basically, we turn that number into:

Their long-term relationship with you. (area)
How much they like you. (position)
How respectable/fun you've been recently. (velocity)
How charming you're being. (acceleration)

All of these numbers change with everything the character does, but they are all deeply intertangled. Each character can then have a personality designed to weight those factors differently.

For example, a suspicious aristocrat might have a low maximum acceleration threshold, and therefore innately distrust anyone being especially charming. This doesn't affect the end result in terms of how the acceleration changes the velocity changes the position: it just changes how they act towards you right now.

On the other hand, an honorable knight might weight almost all his interactions based on area rather than position. How charming you're being right now won't affect his decisions much.

You can also split up their actions into action and demeanor, or even into long-term, short-term, and demeanor. For example, the aristocrat will be charming right back to anyone who's being charming, but he won't believe a word of it when they say that they'll pay you back next Friday.

A knight, on the other hand, might have a demeanor based almost entirely on charm and fun (acceleration and velocity) but make his long-term decisions based entirely on area (long-term relationship). IE, "You're an ass, but you're my brother, so I'll do it."

It's not so complex. Easy, in fact. And more realistic than trying to decide on what four or five kinds of relationships a person can have. Instead, a given NPC will interpret their emotions into whatever makes sense for their personality, and the "kinds of relationships" will emerge naturally.

For extra fun, let players define their character's personality. :D

Friday, July 06, 2007

Drop it! Bad dog!

Back when I first started running games, I was a bit of a control freak. I think most GMs start that way, especially if they're still in their mid teens when they start.

But it didn't take me too long (half a decade? Gah...) before I realized the joys of not being a control freak.

As time progressed, I began to define my own ideas more and more loosely, then just adapting to whatever the players put into the game. If you've done this, you've probably found the same thing I did: more cannibals make better soup. Or something.

Basically, it just comes down to time. The more freedom you give them, the more time they spend. I feel vaguely guilty when I find out that some of my players spent literally thirty hours each in one week on one game, when I spent about ten on the game in total... but guilty or not, the end result speaks for itself: the story is more detailed, more varied, more interesting, and more personalized than I could have possibly created even spending thirty hours a week on it.

There's something about people creating stories together. Maybe it's just that everyone has different areas they're good at, and by combining you can pick the best talent at the best moment for a more universally good story. Maybe it's sheer dint of time and effort. Maybe it's the way that players will feed off each other more and more excitedly the more time you give them together.

Likely, it's all of those factors and others combined.

But the end result is simple:

Stop writing your games!

All o' you combined are more talented than you are alone, and players like having some measure of control over the story. Most of them might feel nervous ("I can't tell a good story!"), but once they've gotten past stage one they contribute some of the most astonishing gems. Something to do with the fact that they don't look at storytelling the same way, I think.

I'm not saying you can't have a story. Hell, every game I run is seeded with plot elements and metaphysics, and even if I waltz away for a month and let it run itself, I find that the players pretty much act out the story I had planned. Except with a level of detail and breadth of quality that astound.

Now, you can try to do this kind of thing with D&D. Except you'll find that the only way to control the story in D&D is by the PCs having huge amounts of power, which basically turns the whole thing into a terrible wish-fulfillment thing that leaves all the players glaring at each other.

Like any kind of play, if the play isn't deep, the play doesn't entertain. You've got to have some method of controlling story elements. Something the players can sink their teeth into while they work with the story. Something that doesn't scare newbies, but is deep enough to entertain the experts. Simultaneously.

Most GMs don't have a clue what I'm talking about. Some of them - probably many of the people who read this post - are thinking in terms of Nobilis or hazily-remembered reviews of "Life with Master" or PrimeTime. A few may have actually played one of these games, or at least seen a rule book.

Well, I'm'a gonna write up a big "playing narrative" guide, because I'm sitting on all of those and a dozen more. And because I'm completely exhausted and burned out. Obviously, what I need to do is write up a post on how to do interactive narratives.

I hope you'll read and enjoy it. Expect it before Monday.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

More Rail Shooters!

So, I've been getting a fair amount of experience with first person shooters and the wiimote. Plus, I've gotten to see a lot of other people play and so forth and so on.

And my opinion is that the Wii needs more rail shooters.

The wiimote is a great pointer, but there's a reason people don't shoot from the hip. It's not just that we can target down the sights: it's that we have better control when our gun is held at distance, linked to our eyeballs.

We'll put aside the fact that not being able to think of strafing in terms of a strict 90 degrees complicates things. As far as I can see, people get the hang of strafing pretty easy. No, it's the "shooting from the hip".

Most FPS games use a simulated set of gun sights. When you move the mouse or the thumb stick, your guy moves his gun, which is DIRECTLY LINKED TO YOUR LINE OF SIGHT, like guns really are.

So, what do wiimote games do? Instead of becoming more closely linked to the way that things actually work, they decided to add another layer of separation. Argh!

Normally, I would be open to arguments that we just have to get used to it. After all, we got used to using two thumbsticks to control our FPS action, we can get used to this, right?

Well, I've watched people who literally play Wii FPS games for hours a day. They are still clumsy at the controls. The moving isn't the problem: they figure that out pretty quick. It's the aiming. The shoot-from-the-hip aiming system. It doesn't work.

No, I think this is an inherently poor interface choice.

If you want the wiimote to be a gun, make it a gun.

Give me rail shooters!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Rock Around the Clock!

This is part of the make your own guide to creating role playing systems.

One of the things that most people don't understand is the sheer number of ways to play games. Most GMs are stuck in a mindset: "Six guys sitting around a table, marking papers and rolling dice, once per week."

Well, that's certainly not the only way to play. In fact, it isn't even the best.

What sitting at a table together on a schedule gives you, primarily, is focus. It's really easy to play the game if everyone gets together on a specific night, at a specific time. And if Jimmy doesn't show, play without him. Even then, however, there are other methods. :P

How you want your game to run is a big choice. Most GMs will probably think in terms of "once per week" or some such. If that's your first instinct, then you can't pick that. It's much better to run anything else - one-shots, if your time is strict. There's nothing inherently wrong with once-a-week (or twice-a-month) games, but there's also nothing inherently wrong with sauerkraut. We still eat other things.

Here are some of my favorite schedules (This doesn't even take into account how the game is played, which is really important, too. So many factors!):

Once a week.
Super common. Generally about how often people think they want to play. Not long enough to completely forget about how much fun you had (or didn't have), although a lot of the vigor will wear off, especially among players who don't work 40 hours a week.

Once per (two weeks/one month).
A lot of people that have lives prefer this length of time. "I can make it every other Saturday..."

This won't be often enough to keep up with students or the unemployed, but for people who work too hard, it's probably ideal. However, I would suggest that you limit yourself to only people who work too hard if you choose this method: the odd one out tends to be really the odd one out.

Two+ per week.
It's very uncommon for one team to run the same game twice per week. I guess there's a feeling that you're basically spending your life on this game. The upside is that the energy level will remain high (presuming it's a fun game). The downside is that nobody will want to sign up. The only time I've been able to run like this is with my room-mates back in college.

This is, however, a really great way to level up your GMing skills. It's like weight-training for geeks.

The One-Shot.
Specifically, the one-shot that lasts as long as one session normally would.

One-shots are occasionally perfect for what you need. However, many games (and systems) are rigged for long-term fun rather than short-term fun, and you'll never feel that pull with one-shots.

Still, it's really easy to get people signed up for one-shots. :)

At some point or another, every GM dreams of running two parties in the same universe, typically each party running once per week. You might have even heard stories. I'm here to tell you: Don't do it!

The only way to successfully run a multi-party game is to be an expert at front-loading your metagames. Yeah, didn't think so. Try some other situations with heavy metagaming, work your way up to this.

Long-Ass One-Shot.
A one-shot which lasts eight or more hours, often stretching into days. This isn't actually as uncommon as it sounds: Diplomacy is a long-ass one-shot, and people play that basically every weekend.

A LAOS isn't really suitable for sit-in-a-circle-and-roll-dice games. There needs to be a structure that allows players to sift in and out as food, bathroom, and sleep beckon. And showers. So, typically, these games are LARPs.

The upside to these is that immersion is fantastically strong, which is more important than you might think. The downside is that you have to be completely insane to sign up for such a game. To say nothing of how much pain it inflicts on the GMs.

The churner is a game which operates on the player's time. An example would be assassins.

Churners are difficult to balance, because players all have radically different amounts of time to throw at playing the game. This is a very difficult kind of game to run properly, although everyone should try to run one.

This is a reoccurring game, typically a tabletop or LARP, in which the time between sessions still has game-related stuff in it. An example would be a tabletop with individual mini-sessions. Another example would be a game where you throw so much information at the players that they have to spend all week trying to sift through it.

These games tend to be very big on the metagaming, so if you want to hone your meta-skills, this would be a good way to run. Remember, though: "normal" systems aren't suited. They're all designed for simultaneous play rather than asynchronous play. You see the tear lines pretty quick.

Done right, however, this completely negates the way that players lose interest between sessions. Used correctly, players will come into the room half an hour early, waving papers at you and yelling over each other.

At the Con.
Some games you'll want to run at a weekend-long convention of some sort. Typically a 4-6 hour block of time. Something to keep in mind, regardless of what kind of game it is, is that all your players will be tired. Yeah, best to take that under consideration.

Also take into consideration who your competitors are. In the beginning, I screwed up by running opposite the Big Bad Game. As time went on, I watched other people make the same mistake. Just because Saturday at 7 PM is best for you doesn't mean it's the best time to run your game.

After all, I might be running my game then... ;D