Thursday, April 25, 2013

War Stories and Power Rangers

A while back, I read something about the new XCom game. The guy (I don't remember who) said that, regardless of the mechanical changes, the new XCom game was great because it still allowed you to build emergent stories with your characters. The way that your characters operated in combat was easy to turn into stories in your head, as your badass Rambo held off half a dozen monsters against all odds before dying to a brain-eater. War stories.

At the time, I thought to myself "oh, I geuss I can see that." It's been bouncing around in my skull for a few months, though, and now I'm really starting to explore it.

It started with my exploration of the Power-Rangers-Spoof RPG that I created but never polished or finished. I came up with some mechanics for creating a unique fusion of teamwork and independence, and it seemed like it'd be fun. So I made a prototype, as you do. In the process, I learned way too much about Power Rangers. I'm not really a fan, so I didn't really know anything about them aside from the very basics. But it turns out that there's a lot of character development packed into the various seasons, at least if Linkara's summaries can be trusted. It's shaky and bumpy, but the character growth definitely adds to the show... even though some of it seems to be post-hoc rationalization.

I started thinking to myself about that XCom game that let you build your own stories out of the battlefield circumstances. I started thinking about how Power Rangers does something similar off the battlefield. You can't do the XCom thing in Power Rangers, because Power Rangers is a TV show, not a video game. Tactical complexity is sharp and easy in a video game, but on TV it's heavy and opaque. On the other hand, it's not so easy to do the out-of-combat narratives in a video game, because there's not really any mechanics that communicate it.

Fundamentally, it felt similar. The way a ranger will show up, drop out, get injured, recover, save everyone, fail miserably, be in the right place, be in the wrong place, pull out a can of whoop-ass... it's identical to the pattern you get when you reassemble the war stories from an XCom battle.

You can split both things up into the same basic kinds of progression made out of the same kinds of elements. Let's go ahead and explore them.

There seem to be two fundamental kinds of element: engagement elements and maneuvering elements. In XCOM, moving your characters is the maneuver element - and the enemies also move. In Power Rangers, the maneuver element is story beats. As you would move a soldier into position behind cover, in Power Rangers they would have a ranger go spying for monsters in the Abandoned Warehouse District. In the same way that you might open a door and find an enemy waiting for you, the ranger might find himself ambushed. In the same way that you might have a medic rush over to heal a soldier, a ranger might be encouraged and focused by a pep talk.

Of course, then you have the engagements, where the soldiers and rangers are actually in direct danger. In both cases, this is always strongly tied to the maneuvering that surrounds it. Both sides maneuver to keep conflicts weighted in their favor, delaying or accelerating them, gathering allies or obstructing enemies, moving out of sight, moving to see if there are enemies hiding, creating cover and safety, flanking to eliminate cover and safety. On the other hand, this isn't strictly one-way. There are many different kinds of engagements, and you may simply choose to use a different engagement if maneuvering seems difficult. The enemy is behind cover? Blow away the cover, or throw a grenade in behind.

The same kind of philosophy can be applied to Power Rangers. The different kinds of engagement don't map one-to-one with machine guns, sniper rifles, grenades, rocket launchers, etc, but they do have similar depth. Civilian fighting, basic suit fighting, enhanced suit fighting, mecha fighting, combined mecha fighting... while it's true that each ranger has a specialty, in most cases the engagement type is determined by how the group chooses to fight, rather than by which of the group steps forward. I think that's interesting.

The maneuvering is also very diverse. Since it's actually written rather than algorithmic, it probably doesn't fit as neatly into the kind of topological jockeying you get with XCom soldiers. What are the story-beat maneuvers which match "move agent 1 up to the trash can for cover. Agent 2 should angle for a look in through the window at range. Agent 3 should close and look through the window close-up"... it'd be a stretch to try and make the story beats mimic that precisely. But, on the other hand, they don't have to. Like engagement types, it's more important that the depth and connectivity to the engagements be maintained, not the precise methods.

One advantage we have when we're doing team-based engagement determination rather than unit-based engagement determination is that we can lose members of the team without losing any options. Aside from special cases, it doesn't matter whether we have all 5 team members or only 2: we can still fight as civilians, power suits, upgraded suits, or mecha. Sure, we'll have less power, but we'll have the same options. This means that members of the team can be tokens traded in maneuvering, which seems to be the core idea in story-beat maneuvers.

Rather than being concerned with topology, story-beat maneuvers are about who is with who. You don't creep up and look through a window: you send off a member to spy. You don't step on a trap and take damage: you get ambushed and captured. You don't take cover behind a trashcan: you stand your ground so that the other rangers have more time.

Without trying to clone the exact situations that the Power Rangers find themselves in, it's possible to create a maneuvering system which is still flexible. It needs to be unit-centric rather than team-centric, though, because stories mean more when they are about people. Even though engagements are about how the team decides to recombine and spend their shared energy, maneuvers still need to be individual.

The easiest solution is probably just to use the new XCom solution. Each team member's turn is maneuver-act, with some acts being engagements and some not. Similarly, as you level up you might find the actual mechanics slowly shifting. However, in essence, the idea of maneuver-act is a good one, sharp and clean.

Because maneuvering doesn't happen on actual space, it might be best to use "tagging" instead of "walking". So instead of telling a unit to walk X steps, you would tell a unit to tag another unit. Tag an ally to stay close to them, to engage when they engage. Tag an enemy to chase them, unlocking advanced attacks when you engage them. Every unit has two (or three, for tactical classes) tags, and they cycle. So you could tag an ally, and then tag an enemy on the next turn. You'd still be tagged to your ally, so if you then engaged the enemy, both of you would attack and be able to use advanced modes and techniques. Of course, if the enemy had double-tagged your ally, the enemy would have an even more significant bonus...

This is a simple method to create interconnectivity and topology from nothing. Moreover, your action phase after your maneuver phase offers a lot more options than simply "fiiiight!" You could shed an enemy's tag against you, for example. Or give an ally a pep-talk. Or scout. Or work on community awareness. Or pin an enemy down in a drawn-out fight that prevents them from tagging next round. Whatever.

The enemies have more or less the same rules, although they also have a bunch of other abilities. For example, some monsters might be able to kidnap a ranger in certain circumstances, or hold hostages, or depower rangers. These are usually related to acquiring a certain number of tags against noncombat targets, but in many cases the player can't even see those targets... or maybe even the monsters that did the tagging. So if a monster gets a turn and didn't seem to tag anything, maybe you ought to tag that monster and go a-spying before he digs up the depowering candle or whatever.

Other units and targets also exist - military bases, vulnerable townsfolk, suddenly-appearing secret labs full of magic crystals, ominous portals in the sky... the same tag-and-act method applies to them as well. In many cases you'll want to tag defensively so that you can defend them if the enemy attacks. This is where tactical classes are useful, because of their extra tag token. Of course, tags cycle, so you may end up holding off on tagging on round 4 so you don't lose that important defensive tag you put up on round 1...

In the end, the emergent topology and complex "who is teamed up at the moment" mechanics should result in the same kind of stories that emerge from games like X-Com.

This allows us to create stories in the same tense way that XCom combats do by using noncombat maneuvers as part of the overarching story.

... Now, what if you replaced the engagement conflict with a noncombat conflict?

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