Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Thing Where Gods Meet

I was thinking about drama games. That is, games which are about personality and life and negotiation and friends and enemies. They're really quite rare.

I was thinking about the mechanics of such games. They usually end up very shallow, and I've talked a lot about why that is. But as I was writing a book-length treatise on self-constructing narratives in games, I realized there are a lot of potential mechanics that go unused. So this is going to be a design post about a theoretical game called "A Thing Where Gods Meet" (AKA Thing).

In this game, you create a god or goddess. They are associated with certain kinds of powers - for example, the sea, or the hearth, or poetry. You can gain more as time goes on and become quite an eclectic god. Your god also has a physical region they are associated with. This doesn't change, and is a very strong anchor.

The game takes place entirely in "things" - somewhat informal meetups between arbitrary batches of gods, usually either based on place, kinship, or power. For example, a thing might have 5 different gods of the sea from various parts of the world and 8 or so peripheral gods invited because they were guests or are gods of fish or something. The things are not specifically business affairs. They're more about drinking and shooting the breeze. Still, there are favors to be earned and lost, power to be siphoned, and even whole domains to be granted in these rather pell-mell little parties.

The actual play of the game takes place in "the social realm". While all the gods and goddesses are sitting around a shared table eating stuff, the conversations take place in a visualization of the social environment. This visualization has more in common with a squad-based tactical game like XCOM than with what you might consider a social gameplay style. As you might expect, while you do have a main character god, you'll also have a pantheon of allied gods - some you create, some you adopt, and perhaps some that are your friends in the real world. In general, you'll have 2-5 gods on the field. Each god would also have a level of social endurance which would reflect how many turns they can stay active in the thing before getting too tired and burned-out to continue.

Combat happens on a hex grid, but softened so it isn't quite so chunky-chunk. Again, like XCOM's more recent fare. Each god occupies one hex, as you might expect. However, each god has a certain combination of walls and open spots. It's a hex grid, so each god has 6 possible locations for different kinds of shields and openings. These follow the facing of your god, and reflect different kinds of characteristics. A thunder god like Thor might have an open front, two walls to each side of that, and then a completely exposed rear. On the other hand, a canny god like Loki might only have an open spot in front and then 5 walls all around other than that.

The game features extensive use of fog of war, but in an unusual way. When you start the thing, you can see pretty clearly all over. However, as the game progresses, conversation will actually create the terrain of the battlefield, and this will create areas where sight is difficult.

For example, lets say you're Anna, goddess of storms. You're talking to Barry, god of poetry. The actual mechanism of this would be to face Barry and "open fire" in a manner similar to a ranged tactical game. But this wouldn't simply hit or miss. Instead, your conversation would create a "tunnel" leading from you to Barry. If the conversation was about how cats are cute, the tunnel might only reach for two tiles, and then peter out without accomplishing anything. On the other hand, if the conversation is about how he killed his brother to steal his wife, the tunnel would easily reach across the length of the battlefield and not just create a spotty little conduit tunnel, but a massive double-walled bulwark. And, of course, it would reach him.

The charming little cute-cat tunnel would be full of holes and probably count as cover rather than proper barriers. But the massive bulwark would cut off a lot of other conversations and massively obscure the battlefield, making it difficult for others to continue their own conversations unless they happen to be off in a corner somewhere together.

Assuming your conversational gambit is strong enough to reach the target (they have a max range, as mentioned), what happens when it does will vary depending on the nature of the angle you hit them at.

If Barry is a Thor-style character with an unarmored backside, you will probably hit him. On the other hand, if he's a canny trickster like Loki, you'll probably hit a wall. Hitting a wall isn't completely useless: it deals some damage to the wall and can also pin the enemy in place depending on the nature of the conversation. If you wanted to hit Loki-style enemies without a wall, you'd have to strike at them from the direction they're facing.

Because the walls all exist as opaque barriers, your team can coordinate to cover each other's weaknesses. Having Loki standing behind Thor isn't just flavor: Loki's shields protect Thor's unarmored areas. The conversation doesn't necessarily follow orthogonal lines, so Loki can sometimes cover two of Thor's weaknesses by standing in a good place, and more by erecting barriers with conversation. Moreover, Loki could bolster Thor by targeting him: those unarmored zones aren't simply openings for the enemies to use, they're also opportunities for allies to help you.

You can start to see how the geography of the battleground starts to evolve. Clusters of characters support each other, which creates a lot of low-lying cover in their area. Long-range attacks can be quite devastating, but you could fire short-range conversations at those long-range targets to create cover between you and them. Of course, the whole battlefield can become cluttered with massive barriers if a proper fight erupts.

Most conversation isn't simply a one-off shot. Usually, a one-off means you didn't actually hit the enemy. For example, if you talk about cute cats to someone far away on the social battleground, that's a one-off that just creates a little bit of clutter between you and them, rather than actually engaging them.

But if Barry reassures Anna, that's an ongoing channel. The talk may not be continuous, but the feel is. As long as the line between Anna and Barry remains unbroken, Anna will continue to benefit from the reassurance. Barry can even reassure other characters, and Anna will still continue to be reassured by his initial assurance. However, if Anna turns and one of her walls gets in the way, or if Barry moves and a bit of scenery gets in the way, the bond is severed.

The "weak" armor of a Thor-type god is therefore not really a weakness, but an opportunity. It allows him wide latitude in how he can move and turn without losing support.

Less supportive conversations are also ongoing and, in many cases, opportunistic. For example, if Anna yells at someone else, this establishes a malevolent conversation thread running from her to them. On his turn, he might move or rotate to cut that thread off. However, as long as Anna can maneuver to get a clear attack with her next round (or has a friend act before her to demolish that god's facing wall), she can re-establish that thread as if it never faded, hounding him. This gets harder the more clutter is between you, so in most cases this is an "infighting" technique.

Clearing clutter is also a kind of conversational gambit: you don't always have to target a specific person or create clutter. Intellectual or opaquely poetic gods tend to be primarily clutter-reducers rather than clutter-creators.

Although you can "attack" by insulting or shaming the enemy to reduce their social endurance, in most cases you're going to want to get resources from targets instead of drive them away. This is why ongoing conversations are frequently encouraged.

For example, Anna might talk to Barry about getting Barry's support. Each round this continues, Barry would give a little more favor than the amount he gave last round, so it escalates steadily. There's not any advantage to Barry in this, but it's also not actually harming him, so the threat is only modest. He could maneuver to cut it off if he felt it was worth it, although that might expose him to worse conditions if he's not careful. Instead, however, Barry might simply turn to face Anna and open up his own, identical conversation back. Now Anna is getting Barry's support and Barry is getting Anna's support. They are getting chummy together.

There is not any particular reason why they couldn't do this until their social endurance expires. If that's what both want, it may end up being just that. That would be pretty uncommon, though: in most cases you only want so much favor from any given god, at which point you would either step up to a deeper social relationship or move on to another god. Vast amounts of favor are not really as useful as modest amounts of favor with a lot of gods.

And, of course, you could be distracted if things get too complex and risky outside of your little conversation in the corner. If someone starts targeting Anna with harassment, she might have no choice but to break off the conversation with Barry or have her social endurance eaten away by insults.

On the other hand, if Anna and Barry are on the same team and winnowing out favor from another god, Anna might be accruing the favor, while Barry might be using his domain of poetry to support her, steadily restoring her social endurance. Or perhaps bringing her wine - which restores social endurance but also makes you drunker.

There may also be another class of conversation - the paralytic lead. If this connects, you have the target's attention, and they can't move as long as nobody else hits them. The idea is that you have to spend each round convincing them that whatever line you're feeding them is true, whether the topic is that you are descended from the fire giants of Ymir or whether the topic is that you own a cat. If it IS true, it just keeps them still while everyone else maneuvers. If it isn't true, you actually get energy from them - counting coup in trickster god fashion.

Another option is the physical lead, where a conversation reflects you actually doing physical things with them, like dancing or hitting them on the head or serving them beer. This class of effect is useful because it has some kind of cover bypass system, either just passing through it (but not through the enemy's personal shields), or by being lobbed over it and "exploding" in a position of your choice.

Anyway, this whole concept, on paper, seems like it'd actually be an interesting "combat" engine, and the "color" of the dialogs happening on top of it grow very naturally and rarely seem too out-of-place for a party environment. I also like how conversations can be "cut apart" by other conversations, sudden barriers popping up as someone says something too obnoxious or important to ignore. You can't keep talking about cute cats if someone fires a "you killed and ate your brother" across your bow. At least, not without awkwardly closing the distance between the two of you, pushing aside that matter and the walls it created, and saying "ANYWAY, cute cats!"

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