Monday, May 6, 2013
Ok, Loki has a magic stick. If he touches your heart with it, you serve him loyally. Late in the game, Loki and Tony Stark have a fantastic scene which culminates in Loki attempting to use the stick on Stark. This is a good plan on Loki’s part, but it fails because Stark has the arc reactor gizmo over his heart. This isn’t really explained within The Avengers, but anyone who’s seen Iron Man knows this.
In many senses of narrative, this is a HUGE cheat. If this had worked, Loki’s plan would have almost certainly succeeded, and it was dumb luck that it didn’t work.
Success through dumb luck makes for pretty lame narrative, and this bit bugged me at first, but I realized something - it wasn’t about the narrative. That was a moment of satisfaction for the audience. From the very start of that scene, many nerds were already wondering about the interaction of stick and reactor, and even if you weren’t, when it failed, it was a moment that let you, as a member of the audience, get it, and that’s a pretty powerful reward.
This is on my mind because in RPGs, players have elements of both protagonist and audience, but it’s very easy to focus purely on their role as protagonist when thinking about narrative and fiction. Doing so can be very rewarding, but it’s easy to forget that you may get more punch from crossing the fourth wall (so to speak) and violating the rules of narrative in order to deliver a reward directly to your players. Help them feel smart or awesome.
And yes, there are ways to do this within the narrative, but they strain things. Avengers suggests to me that it might sometimes be worth cutting out the middleman and jumping right to your players.
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Random thought while on the treadmill today that entails a drastic change in how aspects work in Fate, but which reflects a slightly different emphasis. Breaks down as follows:
- There are only scene aspects. Yes, you have aspects on your character sheet, and those matter (more on that in a second) but you can’t use them the same way. Basically, an aspect must be on the scene to be useful.
- There is a limit to how many aspects can be on a scene, possibly as low as three. If the scene is full up, then you must remove an aspect to open it up. Removing an aspect is mechanically similar to adding one (and with s sufficient success, you can replace it).
- You can make a personal aspect into a scene aspect (effectively copying it onto the scene), and if you do, take a +2 bonus to place it AND the difficulty of removing it is +2. However, there are three limits on this. First, each “side” of a conflict can only have one personal aspect in play, and second, this speaks directly to the stakes of the conflict. By bringing in a personal aspect, you are making a statement regarding what the fight is about to you. Third, the bonus applies only the first time you bring an aspect into play.
- The fight may start with anywhere between 0 and 3 aspects in place. For a duel, this will often be one aspect from each combatant, plus one for the environment or situation.
- Boosts still work normally, but need to be used by the next time you act, or they go away. No boost stockpiling.
This totally needs testing, but the potential I see in it is that it could drive more back and forth in the fiction centered around changing the factors in play to things that the player can take better advantage of. If the other guy has brought his “strong” aspect to play, then the fact that you can potentially take it off the table (rather than just let him hit it for as long as he has FP) totally intrigues me.
This is even more drastic than it seems, and it reflects a certain sort of cinematic sensibility that only so many factors are in play at any given time, but those factors really, really matter. ↩
This works particularly well with Marvel Heroic style initiative, since it provides a real setup for teamwork, with one player creating an opening for the next. ↩
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
I try to maintain a decent level of productivity discipline. I use Getting Things Done as a baseline of operations, but like most every GTD user, I have shamelessly bastardized it to my specific needs, pulling in other ideas from sources ranging from agile to energy mapping to child management to god knows what.
It largely works well. It’s still a bit weak on the self-directed writing projects, where I can’t break it down into word count goals the same way I can with contracted work, but other than that, it generally keeps me moving, with a few caveats.
I tend to suffer from an accumulation of cruft. Tasks that I really intend to do but never get around to. Emails I need to keep track of. Just a backlog of stuff that slows down the system and makes me feel less on top of things.
In the past, I’ve dealt with the the cruft through bankruptcy. I archive all my mail, delete all my outstanding tasks, and restart with a fresh capture of what I need to do. This works ok, but it has obvious risks - it’s very easy to drop something on the floor if you haven’t been diligent, and the very nature of the problem makes diligence difficult.
This week I found myself in a similar situation, but I have approached it differently with two tricks.
The first is that I finally broke down and tried the mailbox app. This has been a big help for me, but it’s not necessarily going to be a similar help to everyone. It’s an ok email client for gmail, lacking in a number of features (robust tag support, search and the ability to mark as spam are the big ones) and if it was judged solely by that it would be a real dud. However, while it’s only so good at handling email, it excels at managing email. It uses really clever gestures, but just saying that helps no one, so let me describe it.
When mail arrives, swipe right to archive it, swipe all the way right to delete it. Good start, yes, but the killer app happens when you sweep left - a choice of times pops up (like, later today, this evening, tomorrow morning and so on). You tap one, and the mail message vanishes until the time you selected.
So, if you’re like me, and your email box is full of implicit to dos, you can get them off your immediate radar to come back when convenient. Yes, this totally lets you keep kicking things forward (which I do), but it clears your mind while you do it. I love this function, and it’s pretty much the sole reason I’m excited to use this app. I really hope that other apps (including maybe to do apps) start adopting this technique.
So, that cleaned out my inbox in short order, but that left my to do list, which had gotten pretty sprawly. So I took a tip from a Marc Andreessen post where he suggested maintaining only 3 to do lists, one of things you need to do now (DO), one of things you need to do at some point (REVIEW) and one of things that can wait (HOLD). This simplicity was pretty much exactly what I needed, and I ran through my tasks, dumped them in the right buckets, and carried on quite successfully.
Curiously, the only speed bump was when I chose software. This method seemed simple enough that I figured I’d just use OSX Reminders, since it has iCloud sync to my iDevices. Sadly, iCloud proved frustrating and unreliable, so I tried other things. Lots of good todo apps out there (and I own many of them) but surpisingly few of them worked well for this particular system. I needed syncing and the ability to easily move items from one list to another, and finding that combination was surprisingly elusive. The best match actually looked to be the things app (which I had on my phone), but if I wanted sync, it would have been pretty expensive to get it on desktop and iPad. Given that I had already shelled out for the full Omnifocus suite, I couldn’t really justify that.
Thankfully, I found a solution using Omnifocus (thouse three lists are now my working contexts) and I’ve since been very happy with it. I dunno how long it wil be before complexity creeps back in, but in the short term, this has allowed me to simplify my system without the kind of interruption that bankruptcy tends to entail. That’s a big win. It’s also useful to boil the system down to the smallest possible set from time to time, so that I can be thoughtful about what I add back in.
In any case, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, and your system is offering you no relief, you might want to consider a similar paring down to essenetials. It might be just the thing to break th elogjam without sacrificing your work.
And yes, I know, if I were a better disciplined GTD’er, the weekly review would address a lot of these things, but I’m not. I’m working on it, but I wouldn’t hold your breath ↩
If you live out of email, the Mailbox is not going to be an all in one solution for you. But it might be an effective doorman for when you’re managing your mail on the road. ↩
No link because the service it’s hosted on disapears in about a day. ↩
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Dr. Who is has a Cybermen story in the pipe, and I guess maybe Neil Gaiman is behind it or something. I honestly have no idea. It's not that I dislike Dr. Who, but I tend to be about a year behind whatever current is. Just one of those things.
That said, I saw an image for the cybermen, and it's very nice and polished, with a few Iron Man notes, and it got me thinking about fast cybermen (in the same spirit as fast zombies). For the unfamiliar, cybermen are a villain cut from the very Dr. Who cloth of "Very terrifying, unless you do something radical, like run away".
It's easy to joke about this (insert a Dalek/stairs reference here) but it gets a little interesting when you think about what drives it. Basically, this is something that allows for protagonists to not be combat monsters - having enemies who can't practically be fought but can be escaped opens up a lot of leeway for character backgrounds. For a less violent show like Dr. Who, that's very important. Similarly, when a zombie story is really about a mismatched collection of normal folks, it's kind of silly to make them all ex military. And in both cases, it promotes problem solving outside of combat.
Translated over to an RPG, this is pretty easy to model with high defense, low attack enemies. Build them in such a way that the best a fight can do is break even, and you disincentivize fighting. Note, that this is very different from making high defense/High offense enemies - in that case, fighting is not only a bad plan, but it's also pretty lethal. The trick with slow enemies is not that they'll kill you in a round, but rather that if you continue to engage them, it will sooner or later go against you.
Now, is this something that's actually desirable in a game? Sure, at least sometimes. Slow menaces are really just disguised pacing and tension engines. Because they are relentless but escapable, they can be brought to bear any time things slow down without the risk of ending play. They drive hard choices through their presence, because "not running away" is always a possible downside. If you think of the menace as a meter that slowly fills, it's easy to see the pacing laid bare.
That is, suppose the zombies have a 3 box meter. When they show up, check the first box. You can fight them, and if successful, the box doesn't fill any further, but if you fail (or if you are trying to do something else at the same time), the second box fills. Run the cycle again, and if box #3 is filled, then someone is grabbed and taken down, simple as that.
Now, the advantage of abstracting that is that it suddenly becomes a great way to handle any threat that can be escaped, but not vanquished. It would, for example, be a great model for being on the receiving end of a manhunt, but it can be more abstract than that too, especially if you substitute in something other than running away as the deferral mechanism. For example, if you eat, rather than run, then it's a model for starvation.
In a round about way, I think this may be coming back towards Skill Challenges and the way very old Fate handled long challenges. Which mostly suggests I may need to dust off some of that thinking.
1 - Hell, if you ant to do a Talislanta/Apocalypse World hack, it's easy to add "the menace arrives" as an extra option to all success-with-consequences outcomes.
2 - Yes, technically, that's an insta-kill, but note that that it can be *deferred* by fighting, so the badass can protect the technician's back while he plants the bomb or whatnot. It changes the role of the fighting dude, but not necessarily in a bad way.
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
I'm not talking about merely dangerous settings, like the classic Dark Sun. I completely understand the appeal of that (dangerous environments are an escalation on existing tensions). Similarly, I don't mean frequent threats, like radiation in Gamma World. Those have their place, and it's obvious to me.
Rather, I'm thinking about ambient, ever-present dooms, like in the Red Steel setting, or some of the later (or maybe middle) Thoma Covenant books. The details don't matter a lot, as the underlying idea is the same. Something inescapable (like sunset or the air) will DO SOMETHING HORRIBLE to you unless you [MACGUFFIN].
The exact details of the macguffin don't really matter. It might be behavioral (like, you must stay out of the light, or must stand on rocks when the sun rises) or a resource (you must carry a piece of magic rock with you), but whatever the deal, if you break the taboo, the price is basically death. And, importantly, the macguffin is the only option - there is no way for a character to be clever or tough enough to get around this threat.
I can sort of faintly see why a setting designer might structure things this way. It provides a constant threat, if a bad one and it nominally introduces another thing to track and threaten (like fuel in a spaceship game), so you can introduce race the clock elements into play by occasionally taking away the macguffin and forcing players to run for it.
That's all well and good, but what I'm missing is the fun.
I don't ask this in a snarky way - this idea is not a rare one by any stretch, so there's something that that clearly resonates with some people, and I'm curious to know what it is. Any thoughts?
1 - It's a bad threat the same way the threat of an instakill is bad. Threatening player fun is a poor way to enforce fiction. Plus, any constant threat gets dull with repetition, and such threats are predicated on their predictability.
Friday, April 5, 2013
There are a category of questions in RPGS which are both tremendously potent and tremendously annoying to me. I refer to them as "crutch" questions because they are incredibly useful if you haven't considered them before, but are potentially banal and technical if you already have.
A great example might be something about a character's essential nature, such as "What would you kill for?". If you don't have a solid purchase on the character, then that can be a really interesting question to chew on to help you understand your character.
However, once you know the character, the question changes a bit. It's still interesting, but because you know the character well enough that the answers come easily, but the answer will also probably be more nuanced than it would have been previously. The better you know your character, the more aware you are of the things that make them human, the things that make it very hard for a real question to have a single, simple answer.
And that's where the problem comes in - when the question is used initially then they idea is to get a clear answer which you can draw conclusions from. When creating from nothing, it's useful, but once you're past it, it's reductive.
This would not be too big deal, except that newer games often hang mechanics off these questions and ideas. And they're right to do so - starting from a blank piece of paper, it's a fast way to get you to something meaningful and toothy, and though it may offer no route any deeper, that's still not a bad bar to hit.
Which is why this is far from a clear cut issue. Crutch questions are absolutely a useful tool in the right situation, and if your in the position where they're unwelcome, then you're probably already doing ok, so it's hardly a world-ender of a problem.
It's something I have to admit bothers me disproportionately, largely because that space where they're impediments is my *personal* sweet spot, so I can end up chafing in the face of them.
Anyway, I made a passing comment about this on Twitter, and realized it really wouldn't make any sense without a longer explanation,
1 - Unless you really prefer that kind of clarity in a character.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
A similar triangle presents itself when it comes time to present players with a choice. There is a great fondness in game design these days for "hard choices". This is one of those ideas that people instinctively understand, to a point. The problem is that a lot of things can make a choice hard, but hitting any one of them too hard produces something that's out of skew.
The three points on our choice triangle are meaning, clarity and urgency. As with the project management triangle, we are usually forced by necessity to only hit two of these points, but by understanding these tradeoffs, we can avoid hitting only one of them to our own detriment.
Sidebar: Player Vs Character - One important thing about these three points is that they matter both in and out of fiction, though sometimes in slightly different ways. Thus, when I speak about the player and the character, I'm not using them interchangeably here.
Meaning is the first thing that people think about when they consider hard choices, as it is both obvious and ephemeral. That is, the idea that a choice carries a lot of weight is one we gravitate to, but it can take many many forms. The weight may be emotional or practical, and it most often demands an apples vs oranges kind of comparison. There's a purity to Sophie's choice (You must sacrifice one child, which will it be?) that we dig, but more often these choices are between two different values. "What would you do for a million dollars?" is a choice between values and need. "Do you save the king or your lover?" is a choice between love and duty. Examples abound.
The main downside with meaning is that it's rich fare - it is easy to become overwhelmed or desensitized to it when it comes up too often. A game where every choice is meaningful is going to get melodramatic very quickly. Of course, if you remove meaning entirely, then choices get hollow.
Ideally, meaning applies equally well to the players as to the character, but that's not always guaranteed. If a choice is meaningful to the player but not the character then you're probably fine, but if it's meaningful to the character but not the player then the disconnect can be rough. At best, the player goes along with it, using sympathy or habit to substitute for genuine investment. At worse, it feels like a hollow exercise.
Clarity means having an understanding and the consequences and outcomes of each possible choice. It can come from knowledge of setting and fiction, but it will often come from mechanics, which give clarity to potentially muddy situations. Clarity is especially important in tactical situations, so much so that it's absence has its own terminology (the "fog of war") but that doesn't mean it's not important elsewhere. While clarity is important to the specific choice, it's also important to a player's perspective on the choice - clarity grants confidence.
All the strengths of clarity can become weaknesses with excess, reducing choices to mechanical exercises. If you've ever read a choose your own adventure with your thumb saving the tough choices, then you'll understand this - you have sacrificed other elements of the choice (excitement, fear and risk - the angels of uncertainty) in favor of a certain understanding. Implicit in this is one of the real tricks of clarity - there is an idea that if you grasp all the variables, then the best choice will make itself clear. And if that's true, then choice becomes an exercise in research, which is great in some situations, but not so much for play. But without clarity, choices become muddled, players grow suspicious and play grinds.
Clarity is most important to the player - it's not really possible for something to be clear to a player and not to a character, unless the GM has failed in her duties to communicate. If something is clear to the player but not the character, this may create some friction, but it's largely a roleplaying opportunity, as it's up to the player to choose how strongly to engage this division.
Urgency depends upon the immediacy of the situation, but can also speak to the immediacy of consequences. That is, the urgency of a ticking time bomb may be obvious, but if forced to choose between trouble now or trouble later, that is also a matter of urgency.
Urgency is the most dependent upon player engagement. One strength and weakness of RPGs is that they offer few tools to guarantee pacing - there may be only 3 seconds left on the timer for that bomb, but those three seconds may take an hour to pass, especially if someone is hungry or needs to go to the bathroom. As such, it's hard to create urgency from scratch. However, urgency builds on itself, and once you get it started it can be a lot easier to maintain - this is at the heart of most good fight scenes. Juggling this is a table skill plain and simple, and that makes it very hard to plan for. Still, without urgency, every choice can become a debate, which is not a prospect I look forward to.
Urgency of consequences are a lot easier to plan for, but they help less. It's just something you need to be aware of - if players are under constant threat anyway, faraway consequences
Sidebar: The Right Choice - Implicit in all of this is the idea that whatever choice the players are being presented with is genuinely open ended. This is not always the case - there are times when there is (at least according to the GM) a right and wrong choice. This is not automatically bad, but it does mean that you as the GM need to take some extra steps to make sure you're not being a jerk. It is very easy fro your idea of the right or obvious choice to differ greatly from player experience, and when you punish players for that disconnect, you're killing everyone's fun on principle.
Consider that each point on this triangle also reveals a reason why someone might make a "wrong" choice. Their values might demand that they make a sub-optimal meaningful choice. A lack of clarity may result in a mistake. Urgency may keep someone from making the choice they would if they had time to think about it. These are great things - they make these fictional choices feel human to us, because they're the same reasons we make bad choices in real life.
This is not to say the choices should not have consequences. But there should not be punishments for a choice being wrong. Wrong decisions are the fuel of play. Treasure them.
Meaning + Clarity - A choice that is clear and meaningful tends to be one of those big, emotional choices that characters chew on and stress about in fiction. Because it lacks urgency, it can just hang over a situation, coloring things and providing a powerful backdrop.
Meaning + Urgency - On the other hand, a choice that is urgent and meaningful tends to be very life or death. Urgency underscores the lack of a clean conversion rate between values, and also prevents compromise, making sure the choice has teeth.
Clarity + Urgency - Many tactical choices are clear and urgent, since you need to do something to keep that guy from bashing in your face. Despite the lack of meaning, there are usually consequences to these sort of choices, but they're usually abstract or resource based. Needing to take action because someone is going to cut your throat is urgent and meaningful, needing to take action because a dagger is about to do 1d4 damage to you is urgent and clear.
Anyway, there's a whole art to offering good, hard choices without being a tool, but hopefully this helps a little.
1 - There are games that depend on this, at least for short term play, and for players who can generate that sympathetic buy in, they can be very satisfying, but that's not a universal state.
2 - Though you need to be wary of that in Gygaxian play - plenty of adventures will kill you with things that would be obvious to your character but which you overlooked as a player.