Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Designing for Players

This is a technical game design post about live games (tabletop RPGs, LARPs, etc).

Someone from a long time ago is thinking about one of the games I ran back in 2006, thinking about running a version with different mechanics but the same dynamics. I figured, now's a good time to talk about it. Long story short: you can't just switch out the mechanics and expect the same dynamics. Long story long:

When you're doing a live game, there's the matter of GM time management.

There are more players than there are GMs. Sometimes ten times more. Therefore, you can't allow the players to eat an equal amount of GM time. If five players each want to spend five hours playing your game, you can't allow that to cost 25 hours of GM time.

The basic way to control this is to turn the players into a single unit. A "party". So the five players all occupy the same physical space (or digital space, whatever). Five players spending five hours on your game only costs you five hours instead of 25. Well, 5 + whatever it took to develop the content for those hours. This is the typical tabletop RPG model.

But this doesn't scale very well for two reasons. First is that parties have a maximum size. Past about six people, it's wayyyy too chaotic. The other problem is that some players will spend six hours a day on your game. Even if every other player is loaded into that one player's time, that's still six hours a day! Wayyyy too much.

So the next step is to develop games which make the players play with each other. IE, either without a GM or with only a portion of the GM's attention. So if a party of players spends five hours playing, maybe the GM only spends half an hour at it. Or maybe he still has to spend five hours, but he can spend it running lightly between half a dozen parties also spending five hours.

These were the sorts of games I began to develop. Plenty of experiments and missteps followed, but I learned a lot. Here are some of the things I learned:

Mechanics & Dynamics
If there is some special feel you get from a specific kind of play, it's not uncommon to approach game design from an angle of "I want the players to do this, so I'll run the game and make them do this". For example, in a game called "inhabitants", the players formed into cooperative subgroups that worked semi-independently to help the home base and survive. But that was achieved by having the right mechanics, not by simply saying "that's what I want everyone to do".

So, if you're designing your game, the first thing you should ask is "what do I want the players to do? How do I want them to behave?"

In the case of Inhabitants, I wanted the players to form into task forces and figure out the details of what they wanted to accomplish, how. With 12+ players, it was necessary that their time was not spent 1 to 1 with me. In addition, I wanted the players to think about the game over the course of the week: I wanted the game to be meaty enough that they would be able to discuss it amongst themselves with little to no interaction from me.

Later, with Kung Fu the Card Game the RPG, I polished this a lot more, so let's talk details about both games and the mechanics I used.

Both the in-game mechanics and out-of-game mechanics require attention. Not simply which dice you roll for what, but also how the players get together, the physical layout of the meeting areas, and the amount the players are likely to meet over the course of the week in person or over email.

Taking these into account, I decided that in order for the players to want to play largely independently of me, there were a few factors required.

1) GM-free rules are obviously a requirement. If the players have to go through you in order to do anything, then you have to be available all the time. Especially in a LARP, this is not a good situation. Therefore, design your rules so that the players can resolve most conflicts themselves, and only have to come fetch you if they want to do something outside of the common rules.

In Inhabitants, I did this by making most of the gameplay about simply choosing between options. How do you lay out your base? How do you fill out everyone's schedule? There are no die rolls, no randomness: this is up to you. Write down the result, and then we'll grind through it all. Choices which are difficult or cumbersome to make but easy to understand when written down were ideal, so deciding schedules for characters played a huge role.

In the card game, I did this by making most of the gameplay about dueling. Basically, like Magic the Gathering, you don't need a referee to play the game, even though everyone's decks are so different and may contain cards you've never seen before. The rest of the rules I built to work asynchronously: submit a quest request by email, I'll get back to you. This works well.

2) Small groups - average of three players per group. I didn't need to aim for the maximum size of 6, because I am not managing the groups 1 to 1, just circulating and touching bases. In Inhabitants, I pushed to keep groups small by scaling the number of things that required attention to always be about 1 per 3 players. In the card game, I did it by making the rules support mostly 1-on-1 battles.

3) A central information system for the world state. In Inhabitants, I used a white board and a table covered in sheets of paper. In the card game, I used everyone's decks of cards, and encouraged them to make custom cards with beautiful images if they wanted to. Clarity is important, but so is detail. You could do this using a computer program, but flexibility is very important: this is where the players will express themselves.

4) An extended information system for players who want to explore.

In the case of Inhabitants, I used a flash program containing all the still-frozen inhabitants who could be woken up from sleep. There were around five hundred, if I remember correctly, with dossiers and stats and such. Exploring them kept the players who wanted to do that sort of thing busy, but instead of them pulling ahead, the busy players simply came in with ready-made lists of who to wake up, why - facilitating the less active players' experiences. Also, there were loads of quiet details hidden in: the military uses this particular catchphrase to mean this particular kind of thing, they are trying to keep particular events quiet, but you can figure them out by the patterns of who was transferred when, and what their specialties were...

In the card game, I used "snippets", which is a simple technique that pays off beautifully. With snippets, you write down the whole plot, but scatter it such that a player can't tell what's going on from just the bits he has. Players gathered snippets from each other by winning duels, and were only allowed to discuss snippets with each other when they both had the snippets in question. Snippets is ablative armor: the players will burn through them. Creating tension between the players (setting them up as competition for a limited pool of winners) extends how long that ablative armor will last, as does confounding rules (not allowed to discuss snippets), although the rules and tension will both be ignored in the fullness of time.

5) Amount of tension - I've run games with players at each other's throats, and games where everyone was clearly on the same team all the time, and everything between. You need to choose how much tension to create. The more tension there is, the less the players will work together. This can be very valuable if your game could be solved by everyone working together.

In Inhabitants, all the players were flatly on the same team. This was insured by having an inclusive end condition (everyone can survive) and by widespread amnesia (nobody starts with conflicting or tangential goals). A strong amount of continuous pressure from the game world also kept them from developing many internal tensions, even though some of the players really didn't like each other in real life.

In Bastard Jedi, the players were always at odds with each other. This was accomplished both by giving the players backstories that set them slightly at odds, and by making the fundamental rules of the game such that different character builds wouldn't get along very well. This is an extremely effective technique, to the point where I felt confident that the players wouldn't get together and talk about their backstories. If they had, they could have solved the game right from the start - but they didn't. It was a long, long time before they started to realize that their backstories and private experiences were actually pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

In Kung Fu the Card Game the RPG, the players were set at odds by the rules (combat-based resource collection, limited number of winners) but were actively brought together by the other mechanics of the game (dissecting the rules, discussing the plot, the fact that none of them had a strong stake in the plot). This is a good combination, because the players will feel that they are "beating the GM" when they collude on the sly. This worked really, really well: the players actually banded together and secretly created a task force to protect a midboss so that nobody would win the game before they figured the plot out.

6) Reactive touches are important. While the game can unfold largely on its own, nothing ever behaves exactly like clockwork. The most common application of reactive touching is giving your most excessive players more content to keep them fed and involved, while at the same time helping them to enhance everyone else's play experience. Basically, the idea is to give them stuff to do that, if they finish it, will allow them to help other players. Do not give them content which just flat-out makes them stronger or changes the game world, because then the less aggressive players will get left behind.

In Inhabitants, I did a lot of this explicitly. Individuals and small task forces would be given a variety of options and clues which they could grind through to figure out a good arrangement for the base as a whole. Math and pattern recognition challenges are a good choice. This was supported by having the huge list of "everyone still frozen" - combining data from different sources is always fun.

In the card game, I built this capability right into the game with the snippet mechanic. I knew that some players would drop out, so I gave their snippets to the most aggressive players (via email). Since everyone was really working towards the same end (despite the smokescreen of fights and limited victory slots) I didn't have to worry that they would make the other players miserable. I also insured that the most aggressive players were also going to be the ones that were interacting the most with other players, so you couldn't have someone soloing the game.

This mechanic still needs some polish, because there were a few shortcomings. One shortcoming was that party formation was too strong: several players would form a solid party and there would be a social barrier between them and the less aggressive players or players from other parties. Another shortcoming is that the character advancement system was somewhat faulty, and allowed for aggressive players to alienate less aggressive players in the endgame.

7) Interplayer effects are also valuable. Allowing players to make contributions to the experiences of other players is always going to take a load off your shoulders. Still, this is a delicate and difficult thing to build. I don't really have any advice as to what mechanics you should use.

One thing to be careful of is player obsession. Obsession is a major driving factor, and it's largely fueled by the amount of stuff the player can do when he gets obsessed. Which is typically when he's in his bedroom, alone. So focusing on interplayer effects can really raise the barrier if he has to talk to other players. On the other hand, content such as character sheets, flash programs, diagrams, and snippets of text are all available at such times, and are great at validating a player's obsession.

8) Enough space to physically split into groups, as being too close would produce too much crosstalk. In Inhabitants, this was a large room. In the card game, this was "all of campus".

I hope this has been an interesting article. There's more to say, but that's plenty for now.

1 comment:

Random_Phobosis said...

Great article!
Hope to read more about you larp projects.