Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Jumping on Tabletops

Brian Shurtleff has posted about an assignment, and about how I affected his thinking on the matter. But he says, "how can a tabletop RPG make movement interesting and deep?"

He linked to a post that's not really very good: I prefer this followed by this.

But that's video games. Over the past few years, I've run a few tabletop games (and semi-LARPs) with the same ideas in mind, and I've learned some things. I'll tell you about them here.

(I'll be using "you" a lot, but I'm not talking about Brian. I don't know him or his work. I'm just... "you"ing in general. It's a writer's conceit.)

I don't like doing this, but first you have to define "movement".

In most video games, movement is actually movement. There's a world, you're moving through it. It's the first line of design, the thing that the players will interact with most, and the first thing they'll see after your painfully dull ten-minute opening cut-scene.

But the first line of play in a tabletop game is not necessarily the same kind of thing. It certainly can be, if you're running a game with miniatures, but in general that's not so popular these days.

What is the first line of play in your tabletop?

It depends on both the system and the GM. Some systems make the first line of play combat. Literally, the whole world of the game is combat and preparing for combat. Some GMs (even GMs that use these kinds of systems) will make the first line of play some kind of puzzle-navigating or socializing-with-NPC challenges.

The first is easy: if you have rules for your first line of play, you can make those rules deep and interesting using the exact same ideals that you use on movement. I'll talk about that shortly.

But when a GM takes over for the first line of play, you're faced with a bit of difficulty. You can't really sweeten your rules, because the GM is not using them at the moment. You certainly don't want to come up with deep rules for every conceivable thing the GM might make the first line of play! At best, the rule sets would diminish each other. At worst, your brain would explode.

In that kind of situation, you can't write rules. But you can write guidelines or meta-rules. On the other hand, I wouldn't suggest it unless those guidelines and/or meta-rules are the focus of your game. They tend to confuse and detract as side dishes.

You can, of course, simply point GMs to this post and say, "like that, except you're on your own in regards to rules."

In regards to rules, building a ruleset for fun, deep movement follows some basic guidelines. Please remember we're not aiming for rules. Rules are not our goal. The joy of movement is our goal. Rules are just a way (one way) to get there. Guidelines, suggestions, maps, and content are all other perfectly viable ways. Even scripted plot.

But let's just talk rules.

There are several factors that make movement more fun. Commitment, diversity, feedback, and integration are the four biggest factors.

Commitment is important because a player's biggest rush comes from when it's too late to turn back. There's a lot of different ways to do commitment, but since there is no computer to track velocity, acceleration, and so forth, the best way to do commitment in a tabletop game is to do it in increments.

Nothing says this better than leveling up. At each level, you choose your exact upgrade. Each choice refines and alters your future path, but no choice feels excessive or blind. However, this kind of system is difficult to expand into a more lively, turn-to-turn encounter.

On maps, the way to implement this is to have the players move fairly slowly. On any given turn they can go in any direction, but once they've been going in a direction for three or four turns, going back where they came will be tough. Of course, this only matters if the map has significant effect on the play.

On something like combat, commitment is, perhaps, the hardest thing. It's easy to say that swinging your sword can't be taken back, but it's not really a commitment: next round, you're free to change tactics or whatever as you see fit.

There are a huge number of ways to approach this, but my favorite is to have "stances" or some similar mechanic. The player spends a turn to enter a stance, and then he can only use techniques from that stance. He can change stances, but he has to spend a turn to do so. However, for this to work, each stance needs to be quite distinct. Otherwise, there's no real reason to worry about which stance you're in.

Diversity is important mostly for pacing reasons. If players always move the same way, it's going to get fairly boring... especially if all the players move the same way. So there needs to be diversity both within characters and between characters.

Having different "modes" of movement is fairly common in good movement video games. Even Katamari Damacy has different modes of movement, although they are so seamlessly integrated you probably didn't notice that "sideways", "forward", "up a slope" and "down a slope" are all distinct movement types...

Generally, the types of movement you make the player switch between offer different levels and "directions" of commitment. You might have the mode where the player doesn't commit much at all, but has limited power. You might have the mode where the player must really commit, but has a lot of power. You can have the mode where the player doesn't commit much, has more power, but is making his commitments mostly blind...

Allowing the player to switch up movement types isn't that easy, though: a player will tend to pick a movement type and stick with it forever. So, generally, you'll want to integrate your movement variety into your challenges, so that any given situation will have a different kind of movement as a winner.

The stances example I gave before is an example of commitment, but it's also an example of diversity. Which is why I like it so much. I use this system a lot, and I like to split my "stances" into "chase" (running away or towards), "team strike", "lone wolf", "one against many", and "the boss killer" modes, although there are a lot of other options. Also remember that your players are interacting, and there can certainly be modes of movement that rely on other players.

Ideally, each mode would hopefully change the turn structure and gross strategic setting itself, rather than simply giving the player a new set of powers. It's the difference between having a sword, having a bow, and launching fireballs from your fingertips, not the difference between launching fireballs vs lightning vs ice cloud.

Feedback is important because a player must always have enough information to (A) appreciate his commitment and (B) make the next commitment. Therefore, you need to be careful not to hide the effects of any commitment he makes.

In this case, playtesting will clear up any horrible problems on this front... but you also need to make sure to be juicy enough in the game itself. Don't make your different movement styles all just numerical variations. Give each a feeling of style and an interesting flair.

I mean, you're writing a tabletop RPG. That's pretty much The Thing To Do, right?

Integration is the big one that everyone misses out on. If you can't do any of the others, do integration.

Integration is the art of making your movement play bits merge painlessly with all your other play bits. This means that movement should change all other play loops a bit, and visa-versa.

The biggest example of this is not getting to move further or getting to attack an extra time each round as you level up. No!

The biggest example of this is cooperating with other players.

Other players are the biggest, most powerful, most efficient asset in the game. Allowing for some kind of combining forces is The Best Way.

I'm not talking about one player being a warrior, one player being a mage, one player being a cleric. That's not cooperation, that's everyone sucking except whichever role happens to be needed right now.

If you're thinking about separation of player abilities, think Shadowrun. Decker, rigger, street sam... are all very different. But they can operate simultaneously, together, each at full capacity nearly all the time.

This level of separation is very difficult for a GM, because the players are operating in such dramatically different arenas that while a GM resolves one player's actions, the others are sitting on their thumbs. Metaphorically.

Unless you're making the turn system so complex for the players that they have to think hard for the entire time you're dealing with other players, that's probably not the best choice. Instead, I prefer a more classic "dual tech" system.

Allow players to gain abilities or bonuses by interacting with other players. Not "I feed you my power!" because spending all your time feeding someone power is about as much fun as watching a decker when you're a street sam. Instead, something like "if both players are in Ice Emblem Stance, then..." or "if players fight back to back, then..." or "if a player is trying to rescue another player, then..."

Getting the players to interact is vital! In my opinion, if the rest of your game is shit but you do that right, you've done a good job.

An Example

As an example, one of my favorite recent games was a Star Wars game I've mentioned a few times. The primary mechanic was Force powers (and sabering, which is really a Force power).

Ditching the way these things are represented in most Star Wars games, I went with a card system. Each player received a pool of Force cards.

They chose a variety of skills, and each skill was a boost. You could do anything, just spend cards flat, but you'd get nowhere fast. Instead, you took a skill, which would require you to play certain cards and give you lots of added effectiveness.

For example, maybe you have a Force Lightning skill. It takes pairs. Or maybe it takes runs. Or maybe you must play kings. Maybe you can only use it if someone else has played a king.

Players were allowed encouraged to trade cards with each other.

There were a bunch of other rules involving dark Force, Force overloads, burnouts, washouts, emotions, stats... but the core was those cards.

Wrangling those cards was commitment, because once a card was used, it was gone. (Oh, and I used stances for saber combat for double the commitment.) It was diverse, because every player had completely unique powers and sets of cards required to fuel his powers (and emotional content). It was full of feedback, because the calculations were entirely transparent and the enemy used the same knacks. And it was integrated - both through stat change over time and through interplayer trade.

The stat layer was just as deep...

Trading cards ended up getting a little too complex from time to time, but other than that, it seemed to work great.

So, concentrate on "movement", whatever that "movement" really is, and you'll be able to build quite a game. Regardless as to whether it's a video game or a tabletop.


At least, that's my opinion. Let me know if you agree.


Patrick said...

You know, this might be relevant to multiplayer games that involve movements with the Wii controller...

Craig Perko said...

That's irrelevant. Not only are we not talking video games, we're not talking specialty interfaces.

Patrick said...

Yeah you're talking about fundamentals in game design via the examples of tabletop design, but it could apply to that. It's not expressedly relevant to the principles you're discussing.

I'll post on this as applied to Cooking Mama.

Brian Shurtleff said...

Thanks for addressing my question! That's a lot of food for thought for me to munch on.

Also, sorry about the link: I had remembered reading several entries of yours on movement, but in my haste to post I only managed to find the one you had actually tagged with a label about movement.

Olick said...

I would like to ask you about a specific paragraph (er set of paragraphs) in this post. You said that cleric, mage, fighter, are not cooperative roles, its everyone sucking individually.

You used Shadowrun roles, which are more complexly defined, as an example for positive cooperation, and I was wondering (having precious little experience in tabletop gaming, most of my cooperative play gleaned from online gaming) how the roles of the more 'classic' character types well.. failed at this.

Craig Perko said...

It's a matter of how much the capabilities of each role diverge.

A cleric, fighter, and mage are all operating on the same "field of combat": they all deal damage, in various ways, to various things. There are, in fact, dozens of these kinds of roles in D&D, and each has various tradeoffs in terms of durability, reach, damage capability, support capability, and so forth.

This means that in any given situation, some roles will be well suited to the situation and some roles will have to try to apply their capabilities in a very sub-optimal fashion.

A classic example is a "fighting ten goblins" encounter. A warrior fighting ten goblins is not in his element: it will take him ten rounds to kill ten goblins, at best (using very simple rules). A wizard, on the other hand, can probably kill most of the goblins in one round with a single spell.

The situation is often reversed: the wizard's limited ammunition tends to make him completely unsuited for drawn-out adventures, whereas the warrior handles that fairly well and the cleric handles it best of all.

What this means is that, basically, when one role is operating "at capacity" - operating as it is intended to operate - the other roles are operating at maybe half effectiveness, if that.

That's not really teamwork, as such. It's more a feeling of swapping out point men.

On the other hand, in Shadowrun, a decker isn't involved in firefights, PERIOD. If he is, something has gone horribly wrong.

While the street sam is running around stabbing people, the decker is simultaneously running around in an entirely different virtual environment doing his decker thing.

Both are operating at full capacity. Both are in their element.

The problem is that their elements are so far apart that the GM can't really do the normal way of handling turns.

A GM would normally say something like "The troll throws a tree! Everyone roll to dodge!"

But in the case of widely diverse characters, the tree would only affect the street sam. It would have absolutely no innate effect on the decker, unless the GM specifically narrated something.

This means that while the decker's world is being described and updated, the street sam is being bored. And while the street sam's world is being described and updated, the decker is being bored.

Jeff said...

Hello, I found your blog through Brian's and I'm glad I did. This gave me some much needed food for thought as I work on a design that involves primarily movement, but also the manipulation of the environment to achieve goals. I haven't played many table-top RPGs in my day, but what little I have played I've enjoyed quite a lot. There's something about a table-top game that really let's a design shine, or alternately fall and break into a thousand pieces. It's when it shines that I love it, and it's where it breaks that I'm inspired and challenged to do better.

Anyway, great post, I look forward to reading more.