Friday, October 10, 2014

Mechanics as Self-Expression

For the past week I've alternated between talking about mods and talking about collaborative content, but today I'd like to combine the two.

One of the things I like about Kerbal is that everyone has such different priorities, and installs a completely different set of mods. I think most moddable games are like this, but in Kerbal it's really really clear because the majority of mods are visible the majority of the time.

In the end, every high-level Kerbal player has very strong opinions on which mods are the most fun. In turn they have a game that plays completely differently, with very different mission objectives or methods.

Then I started to think about collaboration.

Most of the time, when I think of collaboration I think of players expressing themselves artistically.

When I think of mechanics, I think of cooperation. People working together to get a good statistical result. But that's not really the kind of collaboration I'm talking about, because it's normally just players trying to implement an ideal solution, not players expressing themselves.

But if we make the mechanics of the game part of their self-expression, that suddenly changes.

Previously, creating something in the game world was mostly about either expressing yourself OR accomplishing objectives. But if the players can choose the mechanics they include, now creating things is both at the same time, because your mechanical options are a result of your self-expression.

Collaborations can arise within this space. For example, in a fictional version of Kerbal, one player has the faster-than-light mod installed, and another has the karbonite resource-mining mod installed.

The two players can collaborate. Use FTL ships to move mined materials between distant planets. Restock your long-range transports at colonies that produce life support resources.

If the mods are created with the intent to help collaborate with people who aren't using the mods, there would also be additional parts. Set up an FTL beacon so ships without FTL-mod drives can travel faster than light. Set up an automatic waystation that can hurl goods into space without needing direct docking or control, to allow the other player to get resources from you even if your mods are incompatible...

Even in a game with no mods, this sort of collaboration is possible. However, it requires a certain approach.

Let's consider a tabletop RPG.

The issue with this kind of collaboration is that it requires the creation of long-term content. Classically, most of the collaboration in a tabletop game comes from social collaboration - telling stories together, acting out something together, choosing a path together. These don't require a long-term record of your choices, although you can certainly have one.

But with mechanical collaboration, I can't see any way aside from using a long-term record.

With that in mind, this is a tabletop RPG where the players do a lot of creating. You actually create a lot in every tabletop RPG - your avatar is a bundle of creative choices. However, you rarely collaborate with others regarding the specifics of your character sheet. Instead, it makes more sense to move those choices somewhere more convenient and shareable.

My thought is that the game could be about makers of some kind. Perhaps it's about mecha, or pokemon, or it's a hacker game, or maybe it takes place in dreams, or it's a Harry Potter game where you get to invent spells and enchantments...

The "classes" wouldn't be about the role these people play in combat. Instead, you would choose a few classes, and each class would contain an entirely different kind of infrastructure you would build with.

For example, if it was a Harry Potterlike, you might choose "potions". This would allow you to brew up potions, which in turn means you'll need to keep a stock of various potions. But you don't choose potions alone: you also have another class. Say, "botany", the study of plants. These get along well together, since plants provide many ingredients for potions... and there are potions that enhance plants. So as you build up your infrastructure for each class, you get synergy and they build each other up.

Potions and botany seem like they go particularly well together due to the fact that plants make good ingredients, but there's nothing mechanically linking them aside from the output of one going into the input of another. Which means that the two don't actually mix very well and aren't very interesting to combine. You have a garden, you have an alchemy lab, and never the twain shall meet.

To fix that, we use a "Kerbalish" system, where all our classes invest in shared infrastructure. In this case, you are allowed a certain amount of space in an environment of your choice. Like a Kerbal rocket launch, you design your rocket around all your mods. So our space would naturally try to combine botany and alchemy in one space when possible.

Each comes seeded with concepts that can help the other. The tools you would use for the extensive and prolonged brewing processes are also valuable in gardening: drip-feeding plants, hydroponics, delivering magical fertilizer, and so on. Gardening concepts are valuable in your alchemy lab: leeching from still-growing plants, using gentle sunlight, soil-filtered modules, fermentation, mold - all of these can be used in an alchemical setup. And, in any given setup, it might be difficult to see where one kind of lab ends and another begins.

It's not that botany and alchemy have a particularly deep bond, either. All the classes support each other in this way, and most players will choose, say, three.

The key to this is that the player has to build medium-duration constructs as part of their play. The player doesn't get a mortar and pestle and mix up whatever potion she needs today. Instead, if she wants to brew healing potions, she'll make that a dedicated part of her next setup. If she wants to grow pixieleaf, she'll have part of her next setup dedicated to that. And then, a month later, she'll get another chance to build something. And, during that month, who knows what resources she'll find on her adventures to help her build her next setup?

This seems quite complex, dumping all this interactive machinery on the players, but it is a gentle learning curve. When you start, it's all very basic space management - how much stuff can you fit on a tabletop, a windowsill?

Complications are gradually introduced in the same way as any RPG.

The whole thing needs to synergizes with the adventure phase. There needs to be a nice resonance. To that end, the adventures have to be carefully constructed to allow you to benefit from your setups, and also to gain new resources/information that will help you in your following setups.

We also have to allow players to collaborate with each other. That's pretty easy, it's just a matter of how far we want to take it. The more freely players can add to each other's setups, the more each class needs to diverge as you level up.

If only you can add alchemical stuff to your garden, then the alchemy class can be pretty linear. But if anyone with the alchemy class can add stuff to your garden, then each person needs their own, very different concept of how alchemy should work. Otherwise there's no advantage to having multiple alchemists.

Well, anyway, that's just a quick example, half of a Harry-Potterlike. You can do the same kind of thing with any setting. Just make sure that the classes build with each other on a shared framework, and resonate well with the more active play sections.

There are also other options, such as having these things be part of the active play session... I've barely scratched the surface of the possibilities here.

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