Monday, July 02, 2012

Tabletop Mass Effect

A fun challenge for any designer is to try to make a "paper" version of a game where it seems impossible. For example, a version of Dance Dance Revolution or Super Mario Bros that is played with cards or boards or dice.

Probably the hardest part of this is getting the same fundamental feel without the physical skill play. You can substitute in another kind of skill play (such as memory in place of timing), or you can try to come up with a mechanic that produces the same dynamic and feel as the skill play by other means.

For example, in first-person cover-based shooters such as Mass Effect, Halo, and every other FPS made in the past five years, there are a lot of highly polished game mechanics reused and recycled to produce the same dynamics. Fundamentally, we might consider firing (accuracy and DPS), exposure (timing and concealment), tactics (flanking, prioritizing targets, maneuver), and resource management (ammo, health, powers, squadmates, etc).

So you can start to break those four into basic relationships. If you want to fire on an enemy, you need to break cover. So you inflict a certain DPS at a certain accuracy, while paying in exposure. You will probably wait until fire dies down (enemy reload, for example) before popping up, to minimize the actual chance of getting hit.

Maybe you want to reduce exposure even more, so you maneuver to an area surrounded by pillars. Now you pop cover to fire on an enemy, but the pillars are still between you and the other enemies, meaning that your exposure is limited.

A rocket launcher has a long reload speed. It probably has roughly the same DPS as an assault rifle using naive calculations. But you can reload while in cover. So the rocket launcher fundamentally has a super-high DPS followed by a required reload phase - which is a different class of cost. So "DPS" must be calculated by "seconds exposed", not "seconds including reload time".

A psychic throwing magical balls of tracky force has a similar issue, where he may not even have to break cover to fire the magical balls, and then they home in or are piloted. Again, a very low level of exposure and, often, a very high effectiveness against targets who are hiding (goes above/around cover). Largely balanced by the low level of damage and the long recharge time, but it may be the reason why I feel that the most powerful class in Mass Effect was the pure biotic. Those long recharge rates don't matter much when you don't ever have to break cover.

That can backfire, though, if the enemy presses and you have no place to fall back into. Cover can be broken by an enemy simply flanking or even flat-out entering melee. A biotic has relatively poor direct survivability, so when they lose control of the tactical situation, it goes poorly for them.

I'm thinking it could be fun to theorize a simple tabletop game like this:

Cover is a resource. Fundamentally, it is shields - the more cover you have, the less the enemy will be able to damage you. However, you must reduce your cover to fire upon the enemy. You can gain cover by maneuvering or destroy the enemy's cover by maneuvering against them, but either way requires you to temporarily reduce your cover. This is called a "tactical maneuver".

Position is a resource. The better your position, the more effective tactical maneuvering is, and the less effective your enemy's tactical maneuvers are. Also, the better your position as compared to your target's, the less exposure you need to fire on them. Position can be gained by a different kind of maneuvering ("strategic maneuver"), but this is often limited by the realities of the terrain. If you're stuck on a veranda and there are airships firing on you, your position is not going to improve.

From those two resources spring the majority of the dynamics of our tabletop game. After that it's secondary resource definition. Here's a sample of how you might define a character:

Health vs speed. What is your bonus to maneuver vs your durability?

Size. Smaller means more effective cover, larger means more effective melee.


Rocket launcher. Upside: Low exposure, high damage. Downside: expensive, heavy (reduces speed).

Assault rifle. Upside: Reasonable DPS, variable exposure to fit your tactical situation. Downside: No exceptional stats.

Pistol. Upside: low weight (no speed penalty), low exposure. Downside: low damage.


Ghost. Can momentarily vanish, allowing for tactical maneuvers without exposure.

Psycher. Can lob energy balls which flush out the enemy, bypassing cover.

Traceur. Can make a tactical and strategic maneuver simultaneously, but only wears the lightest gear.

Commando. Can attack while making a tactical maneuver.

Cyborg. May fire two weapons at once at only the exposure cost of one.

Etc, etc, etc.

Could be fun.


Drew Hickcox said...

I got inspired and penned up something along these lines. Basically there are 2 rounds in a turn. Before each turn every character on the board writes down a square to either shoot at or move to. The first round is all the shooters having a square they are targeting and marking the squares in between as damage-inducing. Round 2, all moving characters use movement points to get from point to point hugging cover/rolling/hopping over things while trying to take as little damage as possible. It takes extra movement points to hop cover, roll (which grants cover but has limited range), and to get in to cover, but it sometimes takes less MP to slide along cover.

There's weapons that have different weights, have different range, damage, etc, as well as cover destruction, but the shooting/movement bit is more interesting.

Craig Perko said...

Hmmm, it's nothing like the rules I came up with, but that's fine. It could be an interesting board game!

Random_Phobosis said...

Did you see how cover was implemented in Gears of War boardgame?
You had a hand of cards, each card was an action, but each card also was a hitpoint. You discard some cards when monsters shoot you, and you draw cards when in cover - kind of "cover as a resource" too.

Personally, I'd go for something less abstract.
The mechanic I once came up with to emulate "clunky-horros" like Dead Space and Resident Evil 4+ was to mark each character's crosshair as a separate token on the map.
You could either move your character one hex (and your crosshair automatically repeats your movement), sprint and move your character a few hexes (but discard crosshair token), or move your crosshair token a few hexes (while standing still). Anyway you could only shoot enemies in the same hex as your crosshair. You could also place your crosshair in any hex (especially if you sprinted and had to discard crosshair token), but this leads to some aiming penalties. The prototype successfully invoked the feel of slo-o-ow protagonist and was moderately fun.

Cover would probably spice things a bit.
Let's say a character may take one action, but if there's enemy crosshair token on his hex, he'll take some damage. Or else the character may make multiple actions (moving, shooting, using powers, deploying engineering stuff), but after each action he takes the opponents may slide their crosshairs one hex towards his character (or shoot him if the crosshairs are already on his hex).
This means if you flank the enemy or at least distract him with other units, you can do lots of stuff in one turn, but if you're pinned down, you're basically limited to one action.

I've also stumled upon a Mass Effect hack for Diaspora rpg system
Aspects aren't bad at reflecting cover and power effects.

Craig Perko said...

I don't know if cover is something I'd add to the crosshair-shifting game you explored, I think it might weaken the core element.

I agree that aspects are okay, but I really like the tactical feel of cover. Things like "I'll get behind this particular pillar because when I break cover to fire at my target, the pillar will still be between me and his buddies.

Random_Phobosis said...

Oh, by the way, maybe the weakest link in tabletop firefight simulation is that the actions usually aren't simultaneous, and this hurts the logic of firing at each other, hilarious exploits, absurd loopholes and stuff. Solving that could make the task easier.

I like the idea Drew Hickcox proposed up here, reminds me of Frozen Synapse/Laser Squad Nemesis. It'd be cool to use mini-map and dry-erase markers to plot intended turns.

I'm also a fan of Chain Reaction wargame system. The system's main feature is that if you enter your opponent's line of sight, the turn is interrupted by reaction exchange: you fire, opponents fires back, then you fire again, maybe dive into cover, maybe reload your gun - anyway, the exchange will continue and is only ended after something meaningful happens (one of the opponents runs out of ammo, is shot down, hunkers down in cover, panics and so on). Pretty cool. Last time I checked the basic rules were free.

Craig Perko said...

The core of the rules I came up with is that firing reduces your cover until the beginning of your next turn, and also that faster characters can interrupt slower characters, firing on them after they have broken cover but before they have actually taken their shot.