Posts Tagged ‘game design’
Josh Roby & I have been tinkering with ideas for some time now, between exchanging notes about our work on the Smallville RPG he designed and the Leverage RPG I was editing, working on small-form games like our Vicious Crucible project (which sorely needs an update), and some other ambitious ideas we keep talking about (like the Atlantis Risen project I mentioned while at Gamex). As with any partnership, we’ve started talking in partner-speak and form partner-thoughts. One that drives our designs, individually and together, can be summed up as:
Role-playing games are driven by a die shtick and a coin trick.
This shouldn’t be taken as a universal, but it’s how we think about the games we design and the games we engage with. We look at where the die shticks are, where the coin tricks are, and how they intersect.
And when we see a game that doesn’t have one of those to, that also makes us think. (Like how A Penny For My Thoughts has no die shtick.)
The die shtick
The “die shtick” is about some sort of trick or gimmick used to make rolling dice interesting, compelling, desired, or something else beyond a passive throw.
- In Cortex Plus (Smallville, Leverage), there’s the gathering of polyhedrals based on what you’re doing, reinforcing your actions & the fiction. And 1s on rolls trigger interesting situations.
- In Fate, the number of shifts you get beyond the target needed can be spent to achieve other effects. Notably in combat, they do Stress, but you can also use them to make your task happen faster — I love the Time chart — or improve quality or in some cases create additional aspects.
- In Dragon Age Tabletop RPG, the Dragon Die can give you Stunt Points to do additional effects, if between the three dice you roll you get doubles. (I really dig on this mechanic. It’s like critical successes taken to a new level.)
- In In Nomine, getting triple 1s means a “Divine Intervention” and triple 6s means “Infernal Intervention.” A crit success/failure that depends on what you’re doing.
A “card shtick” can stand in for a “die shitck,” as with Primetime Adventures.
The coin trick
Sometimes this is a long-standing economy, and other times it’s a way of tracking state and flow. Whatever it is, the handing back and forth of a token for whatever reason (even if it’s not physically done, just on paper), is what Josh & I call a “coin trick.”
- Fate’s Fate Points & Cortex Plus’ Plot Points are about a currency gained from complicating your current situation, spent to be more badass or power special effects later on. (This is probably the most common form of coin trick I’ve seen, though there are many variations on the theme. I particularly like Smallville’s Earns in Distinctions.)
- A Penny For My Thoughts is built upon a coin trick. The coins you have determine the length of your story at the moment, and the handing of it says which direction it will go.
- Primetime Adventures’ fan mail, coins spent by the Producer to fuel a high challenge, rewarded to the players by each other for moments they enjoy in the show, is a pretty potent one. A small-form game I was tinkering with a bit ago, Five Furious Fists of Tiamat, used fan mail. I was happy with the result.
- I waffle on whether I’d count interesting XP gain systems as a coin trick. But games like The Shadow of Yesterday/Solar System or Apocalypse World do have some neat ways of gaining XP that might count. There’s much less of a flow there, and more simple pure-motivation, but it’s a far cry from nothing. Right now, I would count them.
Games without coin tricks feel pretty dated to me. New ones that lack it have that sense of “going back to old school.” It’s also helped me understand why certain games bore me–there’s no coin trick to help drive my interest.
[Edit] Which is, as I realize after reading Daniel’s comment below, is the point. The coin tricks I see are those that push character & player motivations. The die shticks that I see are those that give depth the a moment of randomness, so that it’s not just a binary pass/fail at once.
Now, this is not a universal, “have this or your game sucks” philosophy. But it’s what Josh & I look for in our own designs and when unpacking games we’ve played. What do you look for?
 Which until today we’ve called a “die trick,” but I feel “die shtick” fits better.
I’m loving Apocalypse World right now. I should just get that out of the way. I’ve played it a few times, sadly just as one-shots or really short games. I’ve run it once, as a con game. And I’m even now starting to make notes for a hack, where I marry AW’s play style with the sweet, sexy stylings of Unknown Armies. (Forum post about it on Story-Games, in one of the sections that for some reason requires you to have an account to view. Easily enough done, though.)
I was talking about AW with folks at PAX this past weekend, and one thing that came up was how I don’t like how History is explained — in that it’s poorly explained and confusing as hell. Things made more sense when John Harper talked about how that was Vincent’s intent, how he sees frustrations a group has to overcome as a bonding experience. (Hopefully someone on the Internet can point me to an actual discussion, as while I totally hear what John’s saying, I’m curious to read Vincent’s own words about it. Thus, the rest of this post is about what John said rather than anything else. EDIT: See the first comment for actual text.) I flippantly replied with something like “Yeah, and Stockholm Syndrome is a great way to meet women.”
That decision to inject frustration there for the point of the experience sort of bothers the fuck out of me, and sort of doesn’t in the least. Yay for ambivalence. I wanted to take a moment to unpack my thoughts on that.
How it doesn’t:
- Shared experience is the heart and soul of RPGs, both in the direct sense (my group did this thing, and we can keep talking about it) and the indirect (my group did the same scenario your group did, and it’s neat to compare/contrast).
- We should admit that game design is mind control. There are tools and techniques at our disposal, and as game designers we play the role of amateur practical psychologists. We already do it with reward mechanics, so why should this feel different?
How it does:
- You can come off looking fucking incompetent — either as a designer or as a writer. Remember, those are different skills. And if you don’t communicate your intent to frustrate in even a roundabout way, well, it just looks like shitty text. I personally give Vincent credit in this arena, but if some designer I was completely unaware of pulled the same trick, I would throw the book across the room and use impolite terms to refer to his or her parentage. So one really only gets a pass if their readers know you enough to, well, give you a pass. (Edit: I should also note that I didn’t realize it was intentional until John said something.)
- It might not work. I’m frequently in unequal states of mastery at a table, and AW is no different. When I ran a con game last month, I walked them through Hx saying “Yeah, it’s confusing. Here’s what you do.” I overcame the frustration for them, because I didn’t have the time to deal with it nor the desire to make my players hostile against the game.
- I see little benefit in turning the players against me and questioning the confidence in my text. Especially as early as character creation. If they get past this frustration without realizing that was the point of the exercise, any later legitimate frustrations they’ll have will be colored by that earlier experience, and could lead to judgement calls that go against the game and break it.
I’m not trying to say that Vincent’s call is bad. Really. It is fucking interesting. And as I always do, I applaud those who try interesting shit because it gives the community more data and more thinking points. Of course, AW is working for a shitton of people, including me and the folks I’m going to keep running it with. But contact with this idea makes me better understand where my own lines as a designer & writer are.
And I’m not against frustration in games per se. Overcoming adversity, including in frustration, is the hallmark of adventure design. Keep on the Borderlands, man. Shoot, it’s a hallmark of much of computer gaming. So I’m not at all knocking that as an idea. But I better understand now why it’s a writing choice that’s alien to me.
Still, I’m glad Vincent did it. I learn more from people who present very different experiences and viewpoints than when I live in a damned echo chamber. And now I’m left wondering how to achieve that effect while minimizing those issues of mine mentioned above.
(Now let’s see how flamey the responses get as people assume the tone of voice I’m using is harsh. Yay for inflectionless text!)
 Those who know me know the highest praise I can give a game is “I think I want to use this to play Unknown Armies.”
 Doing posts of PAX recaps seem to be all the rage. Perhaps I will as well.
 Responses that don’t get this will be deleted. Fair warning.
 My lines as an editor are, funnily enough, somewhat different.
[Yesterday, Josh Rensch and I were talking about this idea. He wants me to expand on it, and I figured it's blog material.]
Don’t Rest Your Head was one of those games that blew my mind. Anyone who’s known me for any length of time lately knows this. Fred & I have geeked about its Point of Tension concept in Master Plan #33 . I’ve been intrigued with the elegance of that design and what it does for years. I’ll break down where it’s hot for me:
- When you roll dice to determine how you impact the story, you get to choose whether you want to better your chances by risking your sanity and/or risking further fatigue.
- Success or failure on the roll is separate from whether what you risk is affected.
To take the idea out of DRYH a bit and put it in an adventure gaming context, imagine this mechanic for the fictional game OMG SWARDS!!!1:
So you want to hit an orge in the face with your sward?
Fuck yeah you do! Grab two white d6s, roll them, and add them together. If it meets or beats the monster’s Armor number, you hit!
But Armor numbers are at least 9 or higher. So you’re probably screwed normally. But you can risk your equipment to give yourself bonus dice. Any piece of equipment you have can be worked into your action, granting one or more red bonus dice. Add those dice to the result of your white dice.
If any of those red dice come up a 6, you’ll lose that piece of equipment temporarily, and will need to spend an action to regain it.
Example: Hrorthgarr totally wants to stab a Medusa in the face, but her Armor number is way high! Like, 11! Dude! So he works in his SWARD OF AWESUM, which gives him a bonus die. He rolls a 4 and 3 on his white dice, and a 6 on his red. The totally is 13, enough to hit the Medusa! But he also loses his sward in the process. The Cockbite narrates Hrorthgarr’s sword getting stuck in her head and she screams and rears up. Now if he wants that sward back, he’ll have to make a Recovery action.
(Okay, writing that was just way, way too much fun. And calling the GM “The Cockbite” made me giggle.)
The point is, you get a matrix of four outcomes:
- The character wins and keeps what’s risked — Hrorthgarr hits the Medusa and keeps his sword
- The character wins but loses what’s risked– Hrorthgarr hits the Medusa but loses his sword
- The character loses but keeps what’s risked– Hrorthgarr misses the Medusa but keeps his sword
- The character loses and loses what’s risked– Hrorthgarr misses the Medusa and loses his sword
Of course, if doesn’t have to be that simple. From here, any number of exceptions can be added. For instance, losing what’s risked could be very different between outcomes 2 & 4, rather than just being the same sort of loss. In #2, Hrorthgarr could have the sword stuck in, and thus needs to make a Strength-based Recovery action. But in #4, the sword is knocked out of his hand, and needs to make a Dexterity-based Recovery action.
Now, to bring this back to hippie indie land, instead of an item to risk, we can look at emotion and hit-point mechanics. And that’s where DRYH comes in. With you risk Madness, you risk one of your few Flight or Fight reactions, and if you’re out and lose, you get closer to permanent Madness. But, you’re also coloring what you’re willing to role-play at that time. If I don’t feel like I want to risk losing my shit against a nightmare right now, I don’t add those dice. I might lose the challenge, but I’ll keep my sanity.
And that’s where we get to the point of this mechanic. Yes, I could always risk everything and be awesome and successful. But because losing what I risk isn’t related to my overall success or failure, I’m going to screw myself. So, at a given moment, I the player am telling the GM what I’m interested in and what I want on the line. I’m not just risking what I roll, but by choosing what I’m rolling, I’m choosing my risks. And I’m having to make hard choices about whether the risk is worth the reward — whether losing what I risk is an acceptable price for gaining my success.
Story juice there, yo. And that’s why I keep coming back to DRYH as an RPG paradigm. It is constantly successful on that front.
 It’s been six months since I put out an episode of the ‘Plan. That’s podfading territory. Damn it.
In my previous post, Marhault asked:
Howcome they get charged +3, +2, +1 and not +1, +2, +3? The latter would seem to incent the player to hold off for longer when charging. Is that not desirable in this case?
That is, in fact, a fantastic question.
The reason I went the way I did (and, incidently, you’re free to charge in any order) is because I think this presents more choices than the 1-2-3 method. With that method, you have to check the +1 box of one of your traits on the first turn, so that’s prescribed. On your next turn, you have the following choices:
- Discharge your +1 box to roll four Storm dice rather than three.
- Charge your +2 box and roll three Storm dice this turn.
- Charge another trait’s +1 box.
- The game-breaking move called “Grandstanding,” which doesn’t affect your charging at all (and can potentially kill you if its too early in the game, should you not have enough dice and roll poorly).
In many ways, there’s really only one option: Charge your +2 box on the same trait. After all, you can either roll 4 dice right now, 3 next turn, and then 5…or you can check and roll 6 on the following turn. You get the most bang for your buck that way. Of course, from there it might have an interesting choice between “Do I check the +3, or do I cash out now?” Something certainly answered by tempo.
In the current setup, with the diminishing returns, the choice is initially more interesting: on the second turn, you could:
- Discharge that +3 for 6 Storm dice.
- Charge your +2 box, so you can roll 8 next turn.
- Charge another +3 trait, so you can have two 6-dice turns in a row.
- And, of course, Grandstanding.
Much, much more interesting to start, and with enough little options the game will sing. But, in thinking about your question, I did have to wonder about the value of the +1 box. Sure, it’s tempting to go from the +3 box to the +2 box so you have one turn with a lot of dice, but checking the +1 is silly — you might as well charge your other trait or something like that. So, I revised the +1 box rule — if you charge the +1 box, when you discharge it you also get a sweet, sweet point of Mythic Power. So, really, it’s: [+3], [+2], [+1/1MP], chargeable in whatever order you desire.
So, thank you Marhault for questioning me on this. I hope this new idea will pan out.