Friday, December 31, 2010

A Question of Setting

I floated another question on twitter, since it tends to be an interesting sounding board for idea seeds, and this one's sticking. That this is profoundly connected to my previous thinking on structure will either be incredibly clear or incredibly oblique - not sure which yet.

I asked whether any RPG settings had revealed all their secrets in the initial book, and then used supplements to respond to those secrets and reveals (rather than introduce new ones). This is not quite the same thing as asking which games have no metaplot - rather, it's a structural question about how information is handled.

It is easy to find examples of RPGs that don't do this. 7th Sea, for example, has placeholders for secrets in the core book (The White Plague or Die Kreuzritter for example) which are explained in later supplements. It also has non-flagged secrets scattered across its books.

While I'm not fond of this model, I acknowledge it's practical advantages as a publisher. In short: it drives sales. People like being in the know, and this is a great way to tap that. But, thankfully, I see it a little bit less frequently these days. This is not to say we see no supplement cascades, but they're often structured a bit differently. The new World of Darkness stuff, for example, is still supplementastic, but it's more modular in its design. If you skip a book, you have a decent sense of what you're skipping.

But the question of games that have turned the model of secrets on its ear, elicited some interesting responses, as well as some surprises, and I want to flag a few that came up.

Torg - This one got mentioned a lot, and I'm going to have to ask Fred how much was revealed in the boxed set because I have no idea. I have a great conceptual love of Torg, but it's based entirely on people telling me about the game. I have never had a chance to play or read it.

Conspiracy X
- Another one I haven't read, so I have no idea. Any thoughts?

Feng Shui
- This is probably the single best example of what I was thinking of. The supplements for the factions introduce ideas and plot hooks, but nothing that essentially changes things as presented in the core game.[1] Some of this was enabled by the fantastic flexibility of the setting and the general tone of the game, but there was also a decision to go in this directions which deserves credit.

Vampire: The Masquerade
- My first response to this was surprise. Vampire is, after all, the poster child for the triumph of Metaplot. But thinking about it a bit, I realized that mostly came later. The core book is actually pretty open about things and there was no _necessity_ that things go in that direction. That they did was probably a good commercial decision, but it's an interesting illustration of where these things happen. To see why consider...

- This is pretty much a placeholder for most of the games out there which came in one book with no real expectation of supplements. The setting's meaty enough that there COULD be supplements, but everything's pretty much laid out on the table from square one.

Call of Cthulhu
- This is an interesting one for reasons that are very relevant to the Dresden Files - how does external source material work into the equation? CoC could be said to be complete because all the material is out there[2], but that might also be viewed as a bit of a cheat.

In the end, there were more good answers than I anticipated, and I'm going to have to keep them in mind as I consider how one produces a setting today.

1 - At least until Friends of the Dragon (EDIT: Whups, meant Golden Comeback), where the need to introduce cooler-than-thou NPCs started messing with things. RPG writers - your NPCs will never be cool for the things they did to the setting. You take opportunities and focus away from the people who are actually playing your game.

2 - And I never noticed this until now, but the Cthulhu crowd does not seem to vigorously reimagine cosmology the way the Amber crowd does. Curious.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Of Questions and Cooks

There are a few questions which are so useful to running games that they often go without saying. The pair I view at the heart of this are "What do you want?" and "What are you going to do?". These are questions too the player from the the GM, even if never explicitly asked, but they're also a challenge to the GM in that she must know these questions will be asked and must be answered. What response that demands depends upon the GM and the game, and that difference can be quite telling.

"What do you want?" is an interesting question, in large part because it is directed at that player. This may seem straightforward, but it gets interestingly muddled when one starts taking into account the reality of the character being played. Many gamers would choose to focus on what the character wants as the important thing, and they would sometimes be right to do so, but probably not for the reasons they think. In those cases, the thing the character wants is what the player wants, so everything's copacetic.

But it's important that the focus of the question stay on the player because those two things can occasionally diverge. The most obvious example of this is when the player wants to see the character fail, but that can be a rough distinction to make to a player unfamiliar with the idea. To clarify, it can be helpful to look at the discrepancy between the motives of the player and character, even if their goals are identical. While Bob the Barbarian might want to kill the dark overlord to avenge his family, Bob's player wants to do it because it will be an awesome fight (and there will also be fat loot and XP).

Of course, it's easy to say that at a remove, but the reality is always more muddled. Sometimes the divide is small enough to be near nonexistent. Bob may hate the Dark Lord for the things he's done, and Bob's player may also hate the Dark Lord because the GM has made sure he's hateable. The subtle distinction between these motives will get overwhelmed in the sheer enthusiasm to take the guy's head off. And that's a good thing.

From a player's perspective, this distinction is almost trivially unimportant. The player wants what he wants, and will generally pursue it rather than describe it. This can cause some confusion for others or frustration for the player, but that's a natural part of such things. And, barring a particular sort of approach, it's the GM's problem.[1]

For the GM, it's a fascinating problem. Sometimes you have clear pointers to what the player wants, either through long familiarity, clear communication or a game that includes clear flags in the system. But more often than not, you're left faking it as best you can, hunting for clues, reading responses, and going forward as best you can. And that's fine - it's what you signed up for. But there's one last twist of human nature to deal with: We don't always know what we want.

In many ways, the GM's role ends up being like that of a chef (and for purposes of argument, we will assume you are all _excellent_ chefs). Diners may order meals with varying degrees of specificity, from precisely detailed to open ended trust of what the chef recommends. A chef loves it when the trust is high, and tries to reward that with an amazing, unexpected experience of things you would never have thought to order for yourself. There are risks - sometimes the sweetbreads just don't work for you - but the rewards are equally fantastic. But sometimes you just want a burger. That's not always a bad thing. Sometimes a burger is what you want. Sometimes your tired and want comfort food.

But it's possible you're that guy who must have his order just a smidge over medium, with onion and two slices of tomato, mayo on the bun but mustard and ketchup on the side, no sesame seeds and can you substitute the fries with a side salad? With spinach or romaine, none of that iceberg crap. And of course, you'll salt it before you taste it, and send it back to the kitchen at least twice.

If you're that guy, it might be worth remembering that you can get away with that in a restaurant because you're paying for the privilege. If you think you are entitled to the same in your gaming,then I might ask you to reconsider the possibility that even though you know you really like your burger in exactly that way, that it's possible there are other good foods out in the world, waiting for you to try. Even if you don't want to go too far outside your comfort zone, consider the possibility that the chef might change something because he thinks you'll like the change, and he's making that decision based on experience and knowledge. You don't need to jump right to the sheep's eyeballs, but maybe you could consider the lamb burger.

Just a thought.

1 - When players embrace the distinction between what they want and what their character wants, they change the game up. Like any change, this can be for good or ill, and like many changes, responses to it are likely to be entirely visceral. To one group, this may mean embracing a stronger narrative, but to another it might appear to be shameless metagaming.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Quest Heresy

The inclusion of quests in D&D 4e was considered by some to be a nod to MMO design (one of many) but the reality has been far different. Quests tend to exist to provide alternate or extra rewards, but I have never seen them used the way they are in MMOs. That is to say, in the average MMO, a player has many quests going at once, perhaps dozens at a time, and they approach them in the order they see fit.

Historically, I haven't thought this to much of a bad thing because, frankly, most MMO quests were pretty lame. Pointless errands and requests to kill a dozen members of the monster species of the moment were the order of the day. But my thinking has been slowly changing, in large part as a result of how good a job Blizzard is doing with the role of quests in the recent Cataclysm expansion to World of Warcraft.

There is something really appealling to me in the bite-sized nature of MMO quests. Part of it is the player-directed element - you pursue the ones that interest you - but another part hinges on the size of it. You can knock out a bunch of these in a single "session", a prospect that's almost inconceivable in tabletop.

I end up wondering how much of that is habit and how much is necessity. Certain things make for concrete limits. Many MMO quests would fail to pass the smell test at the table. A "Kill 10" quest would be basically dull and stupid in that context. Similarly, RPG combats tend to be harder and more involved, so quests that depend on too many encounters are going to slog a bit.

I think back sometimes to the adventure board. Some folks may remember this as a staple of campaigns, where there was a board in town where the wanted posters went up. The idea was that there were several threads that the players might pursue if they were so inclined, but the assumption was that each such thread was a full bore adventure, not a side task. But why not?

As I think about it, I think the biggest barrier is the idea that small tasks and small rewards are less "heroic" than big payouts, but that doesn't withstand much scrutiny. Lots of studies out there illustrate that we respond really, really well to small, regular rewards that are directly related to our activity rather than deferred rewards (which become emotionally disconnected) even if the deferred rewards are larger. Lots of RPGs support this, this with more immediate payouts (in XP, action points, fate points or the like) so is it too much o a stretch ot have the setting support it as well?

Maybe. I'm still thinking. But that's a big step up from "no chance in hell."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Structure Does Matter

I often wrestle with a very simple problem when thinking about running a game, one I boil down to "Why not just use Risus?" For those unfamiliar, Risus is one of the simplest RPGs out there, with rules that easily fit on a page, but with enough potential and extrapolated depth that hundreds of pages have been written about it. It's a good, solid little game, and if you want to go from zero to playing as fast as possible, it's a great tool to include in your toolbox.

For me, it's something I view as an 80% solution. For most games, Risus provides me rules enough to cover 80% of the situations that will come up in play, and the question is how important, interesting and fun the other 20% is. Surprisingly, that 20% is a big deal, since most of the differentiation between games can be found within it. It tends to cover things like magic and quirks of cosmology which are often the most noticeable differences, especially within a genre.

I often judge other RPGs by this yardstick, asking what they are offering me over just playing Risus and faking that last 20%, but that's slightly unfair. Faking that last 205 is easy to say, but the ability to do so is a skill, one that is a function of a lot of time and practice. It would be easy for me to _say_ that it should be easy to fake it, but that would be a load of crap.

Still, over time I've come to realize that's only part of the problem - risus is very easy to set up, so easy that it can sometimes be hard to play. That is, the structure of Risus mechanics don't provide any direction of play (whereas, in contrast, D&D's point towards a fight or pursuit of cool powers/loot) so they depend upon other structures. The problem is, however, that those other structures are often MORE work to build than the rules ones, which undercuts the whole idea of fast setup.

What do I mean by structure here? Some combination of system, situation and setting. Structure provides context, and context is a necessity for meaningful action. All of which is to say structure is a necessary part of a good RPG session, but it's an open question WHERE that structure comes from. It's rare (but possible) that it come from only one source, but even in a mix, one is usually more pronounced that the other.

And this, I think, is the heart of what I wrestle with when I think about the gap between games as written and games as played. All games need some sort of structure, but when it comes from different sources, it makes drastically different demands. Any two Burning Wheel games will have in common that they are Burning Wheel, but any two Amber games will have in common that they are Amber. Obvious when you say it, but the real truth is one revealed in play.

Consider the language people use to discuss games. When someone has a good Burning X game, I can tell because of how they talk about it, not by the setting elements they reference (which will probably be few and far between, outside those immediate to the characters). In contrast, two Amber games played with radically different systems will still be talked about similarly because the priority is the setting. When the streams cross it can be interesting, but that's somewhat tangential to my concern.

So now I'm wondering, how do you talk about that? I know how to present system in such a way as to provide structure, but setting and situation? I know some tricks (families, faces and dungeons) but they're crude stone tools compared to the shiny steel and silver of system design. But maybe I can use them to build some better ones.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Unscientific Sampling

Last week I asked a somewhat random question on Twitter, "GMs: If you strongly object to dice fudging, do you equally strongly support data transparency, such as visible enemy stats & Powers?" The answers I got were interesting and informative and have left me thinking.

So, to step back, the reason for my asking was this: I understand that dice fudging is a hot-button issue for many people, but one reason I don't assign much weight to it[1] is that there are so many other ways for the GM to cheat, (many of them good, desirable techniques) that focusing on dice fudging to the exclusion of these other methods is counterproductive at best, and deceptive at worst.

Of course, I say deceptive like it's a bad thing, but I don't actually mean it as such. As the purpose of non-jerkish fudging is to improve the game, part of that is that it can't be obvious and the GM can't get caught. To that end, almost every GM should say they're opposed to fudging, whether or not they really are, for the same reason magicians should espouse a belief in magic.

That's neither hear nor there though. To come back to the question, I saw a few broad trends in the answers: First off, some GMs fudge, and are ok with it. No shock there. More curious was the split between the non-fudgers. Some support "radical" transparency (something I took, probably inaccurately, as a shorthand for no cheating within mechanics). All well and good, but the other group was the one that really got me thinking: almost every "no fudge/no transparency" answer had some manner of qualifier in it.

Saying it that way makes it sound somewhat more defensive than it was, many of the qualifiers were useful insights, but by and large, I got a sense that responders realized there was a discrepancy. This impression was exacerbated by the fact that this group was also most likely to couch the issue in emotional terms (honesty and cheating most notably).

Now, I don't draw any conclusion about fudging itself from this. It's going to be a contentious issue pretty much forever, and it's a fool who thinks that making the argument for his position on it is going to sway people with its mighty logic. But it does leave me thinking about dice.

I don't think anyone would argue that dice aren't important to us, as a community. They're a central part of our identity, possibly more central than any other single idea I can think of. Even rpgs without dice define themselves by their absence. And I think that in turn informs on why this is such a charged issue. Discussions of dice fudging are rarely discussions of techniques and achieving particular ends[2]. I think it's hard to talk about fudging without talking about who we are.

1 - The other reason is that I spent many years playing dicelessly, mostly with the Amber Diceless RPG. That departure meant that when I returned to using dice, it was to serve specific needs, not because I needed them in general. That arc resulted in me viewing dice usage much like any other technique.

2 - Though one of the rare civil discussion sprung up at

Friday, December 24, 2010

Stress Example

Note: This week, I'm going to really drill down into one topic - stress tracks in Leverage and how I applied them - with two goals in mind. First, I want to talk through the application of the mechanic, and second because i want to showcase the thought process behind how I made certain decisions at the table in a way that will hopefully be informative.

I've been talking a lot about ways you can mechanically exploit an idea, in this case adding stress tracks to the Leverage system. Since I've been doing this all with an eye on the Leverage/Amber game I ran last week, that seems like the best thing to use to actually demonstrate how to apply some of these ideas.

I want to keep the core idea of a bloodline (heritage) and a gift (a power). The powers will dip a little too strongly into other mechanics, but I like the idea of tying the bloodlines into the stress tracks, so I'll use one of them to showcase the thought process.

We'll use House Karm as an example There's no real source material to base it on: the name is a throwaway from the novels with hardly a sliver of background. The Road to Amber MUSH has a more fleshed out background for them which I know pretty well, and which I tapped a little bit for the idea, though I also tempered it with knowledge of how the characters on the game have been played. The net result is a house whose bloodline is tied to gate magic, who are a bit confrontational and proud, and who are (perhaps contradictorily) defenders by nature. So how to reflect that?

The basic model I'm going for is that the heritage offers three "tricks". These can take a number of forms, and in this case at least one will probably reflect gate magic (and, like most such things, will probably cost a plot point). The confrontational, proud and defender element are more interesting. Given all this, I'm going to shoot for something like this:
  • None Shall Bar My Passage: Spend a plot point to forcefully open any door.
  • Aggravating: When you inflict UPSET stress, increase the stress die by one step.
  • Hold the Line: When fighting a defensive action, you can set aside a die from your pool rather than rolling it. If you lose, but the stress you take is equal to or less than the die you set aside, reduce the stress die by one step.

Breaking these down, None Shall Bar... is pretty straightforward - a plot point for a specific effect. The other two are much more clear as examples of ways to leverage stress tracks. Aggravating is a simple example of extra hurt, and a decent way to capture the ability to get under someone's skin. I could potentially have represented that with an exploitation (treating UPSET dice as one step bigger), but I thought of doing it the other way first. That is, perhaps, not the most analytical of reasons, but you'd be amazed how often it ends up being the reason anyway.

Hold the Line is a little fiddly, but that was kind of the point. The ideal envisioned is the guy standing in the doorway, holding off the tide. I ran through some options, but most of them ended up fairly generic. To try to capture the specifics of this, I tried something more complicated. It's a combination of the called shot idea with a limits sort of armor. It would be easy to design this one to be more potent (such as making the set-aside dice into resistance), but that would probably demand the expenditure of a plot point. That said, since conflicts only hurt the loser, there's a bit of leeway in the creation of defensive powers, since they don't allow turtling. That is, because the defensive power only kicks in on a loss anyway, there's no way to hide behind a defense while whittling down an opponent. This is not an excuse to use them freely though: they tend to slow things down, which can be a pain.

So, there it is: The idea from end to end. It's a bit more thought out and refined than the ad hoc version I pulled out at the table, but I hope it was informative.

As an aside, let me know how you liked this "deep dive" approach. If it's something people dig, I may try it again in the future, but if it was just hopelessly self-indulgent, better to know it now.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Stress Gimmicks, Part 2

Note: This week, I'm going to really drill down into one topic - stress tracks in Leverage and how I applied them - with two goals in mind. First, I want to talk through the application of the mechanic, and second because i want to showcase the thought process behind how I made certain decisions at the table in a way that will hopefully be informative.

Picking up from yesterday, here are some more mechanical gimmicks you can hook into using the stress tracks with the Leverage system.

EXPLOITATION: Rather than inflict more stress, it's possible for a character to be better at taking advantage of the stress of others, which is to say that if they get to roll a stress die of a particular type against someone, they make it bigger. As such, if someone with a barbed tongue is talking and you're already UPSET d6, they might get to roll a d8 rather than the usual d6.

RESILIENCE: The flip side of exploitation, some people can shoulder their burdens more effectively, and when one of their stress dice is use against them, it's reduced by a step. So someone with a high pain threshold might get injured as easily as anyone else, but it slows him down less. If he's HURT d6, the other guy only gets to roll a d4.

SACRIFICE: The ability to inflict stress on yourself for an effect is an incredibly rich opportunity. At its simplest, you might allow someone to "draw on their reserves" for an effect. The simplest example of this might be a character who can add a die to any given physical roll, but after the roll takes TIRED stress equal to the bonus die rolled. There are any number of combinations for this based on what effect is generated, what stress it "costs" and things like certainty. For example, if you want to make things a bit more of a gamble, use the "draw on reserves" ability, but have it inflict stress only if the player rolls a 1.

Recovery from stress is a potentially fiddly area, especially because different kinds of stress recover in different ways. A good nights sleep might fix most stress, but high HURT stress might take longer. Now, one could easily get very detailed in this, and assign each level of stress a recovery time under optimal and non-optimal circumstances (So, for example, a D6 hurt takes two days to recover on its own, but only a few hours under medical care). There may be some desire to make such tables "realistic", but the truth is that injury and recovery are a messy, imprecise business, so any set of numbers is probably as good as any other.

If, on the other hand, you want to just key it off scenes, you could have stress get reduced by "recovery scenes" by one step per scene. What constitutes a recovery scene may depend on the type and severity of the stress, and the scene need not be *only* about recovery. I mean, if the character is HURT d10 then, yes, the scene will probably be one in a hospital room (though, heck, it might be dramatically bandaging himself and stitching his own wound shut, in fine action-movie tradition), but if he's merely UPSET d8, then going out drinking to relax (and also have conversations, mingle and so on) might be enough to drop it to a d6.

For more cinematic healing, you might allow players to turn stress into injuries, represented by d4s. Thus, If I end a scene HURT d8, the GM might say "OK, now that the adrenaline has worn off, what's the lingering effect?" and I coudl decide I have a Sprained Ankle d4. This could be automatic, or it could be a roll (stress vs. appropriate stat) or stat based (Only becomes an injury if stress is greater than the appropriate stat) - there are lots of options, and the big question is what people getting hurt looks like in your game.

Whatever the default recovery model, it's entirely possible that there might be alternatives. Magical healing is one possibility of course, but even personality traits might be appropriate to increase Stress recovery on some tracks. A character with a "Second Wind" ability might recover two steps of TIRED stress with each recovery scene (or time increment). Another one with some kind of Zen stuff might treat every scene as a recovery scene for UPSET (or he might recover twice as fast).

I haven't hit on every possible permutation to put on these rules, but hopefully this spread is enough to make it clear that there's a lot that can be done with this relatively simple mechanic.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stress Gimmicks, Part 1

Note: This week, I'm going to really drill down into one topic - stress tracks in Leverage and how I applied them - with two goals in mind. First, I want to talk through the application of the mechanic, and second because i want to showcase the thought process behind how I made certain decisions at the table in a way that will hopefully be informative.

While the multiple stress pools offer on axis to expand the system on, there are also fiddly bits which go in the other direction, offering specific mechanical hooks for generating certain effects. While these may not be explicit rules to this system, they're ideas that mechanically dovetail with it, which is handy for house rules or custom talents.

CALLED SHOTS: Want to guarantee a certain level of damage? Easy - set aside one of your dice before the roll. If you win the roll, that's the die that sets the inflicted stress, not the third highest as usual. Simple enough as is, but if you want to enhance those rules, you can add talents like, say, Sniper, which lets you increase the size of your called-shot die by one step so long as you're taking a long shot with proper aim.

ARMOR: It's pretty easy to handle armor under a system like this: reduce the size of any damage die by one step. Done. It mitigates things a little, but doesn't really make for a true barrier. This can be a great thing for non-HURT stress tracks, as it's a good way to express someone being unflappable or the like.

More powerful armor might reduce things more than one step, and I would generally rule that reduction past zero dice should negate the stress entirely. Be careful though, this is very potent, and if you opt for it, make sure to include some sort of mitigation.

RESISTANCE: For those situations where you really and truly want to stop stress, resistance provides a different approach: it has a die value (like anything else in Cortex) and any stress equal to or less than the die value is ignored. So even if you're HURT d6, and you take a d8 hit, if you have resistance to harm at d8, you shrug it off. This is pretty potent, so it's good to mix with some mitigating factors (like you lose a step of it every time its used). Practically, I would usually tie this to some other value, so that the Dragon d8 implicitly has resistance to fire at d8.

EXTRA HURT: The flipside of armor is the ability to increase the damage die by a step (or more, though again, that can be quite potent). This is a pretty simple thing to imagine for weapons, but it can be even better for other stress tracks. A particularly sharp tongue might make someone more UPSET, while a talent for sales goes a long way towards helping people be UNCERTAIN.

As written, stress is a single progression, which is to say you're only rolling the highest value. Bu tif you want a bit more of a brutal feel, you could treat each step as a box, checking them off as they get filled in, and using all dice. THat is to say, if I'm HURT d8, and I get HURT again for d6, rather than bumping up to HURT d10, I fill in my HURT d6 box, and I'm now HURT d6, d8. If I get hit for another d6, that will 'roll up' to the next available slot, and I'll end up HURT d6, d8, d10. This approach makes the death spiral a bit more pronounced (since you can end up granting a fistful of extra dice) but it also opens the door to things like more 'boxes' at each level if you want a more varied wound track. Since it also makes each wound distinct, it can have an interesting impact on recovery (see below).

Not done yet. More gimmicks to come tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Other Stress Tracks

Note: This week, I'm going to really drill down into one topic - stress tracks in Leverage and how I applied them - with two goals in mind. First, I want to talk through the application of the mechanic, and second because i want to showcase the thought process behind how I made certain decisions at the table in a way that will hopefully be informative.

Once you have the basic idea of a stress track, there's a lot of potential for interesting mechanics.

The first item of note is that there is room for other tracks beyond HURT. Exactly what they should be depends a lot on the tone and nature of the game. For example, a TIRED track might be a useful way to handle fatigue, while an UPSET track might be a useful way to handle social "damage". For purposes of my Leverage-esque play, I use the following pools: HURT, TIRED, UPSET and UNCERTAIN[1].

HURT and TIRED are both, hopefully, fairly self explanatory. UPSET may take a little more explanation, but I think it's pretty basic - at its heart, it's the result of all the emotional things that muddy our judgement - anger, hurt, fear, embarrassment and so on. UNCERTAIN, in many games, would probably be folded into UPSET, but for Leverage play (or other intrigue based games) it's a bit more important. It's a result of everything that takes a person's feet out form under them, from a clever deceit to a bit too much liquor.

Other games may use different stress tracks: Smallville, for example, AFRAID, ANGRY, EXHAUSTED, INSECURE and INJURED. Mouseguard's conditions, which are similar, include HUNGRY/THIRSTY, ANGRY, TIRED, INJURED and SICK. Even knowing nothing else about those two games, the comparison of those lists can tell you worlds about the differences between them.

For many game, the simple addition of, effectively, social and mental (and other) "hit points" makes the solution to a great many issues apparent. By offering a path to an outcome (which is what any damage system really is) you are offering support of that particular path.

That said, one clever element of handling stress this way is that in building up from zero, the track doesn't need to exist until you use it. Contrast this to, say, hit points: your hit point value is always on your sheet, a subtle signal that play is going down that particular path. Since stress tracks start from zero, they could just as easily not be on your sheet at all. That means that if you want to experiment with them, it's easy to add or subtract them as needed. Perhaps you have a table that's only comfortable with tracking injury - if you opt to experiment with adding fatigue, it's a non-disruptive addition. Similarly, if you have something you want to track for a single adventure arc, you can add a temporary stress track, like "Enemy Alertness"[2] or "Insanity" to pick two strongly themed options.

Now, themes are all well and good, but the real question any system must face is how useful this mechanic is as a component for constructing rules, systems and other elements of play. Stress tracks are, I think, pretty robust, and we'll delve into some of the things you can do tomorrow.

1 - I had previously called this CONFUSED, but UNCERTAIN seems to get the point across much more clearly.

2 - That would be a great one for the whole group to contribute to over the course of a very precise break in.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Stress Tracks in Leverage

Note: This week, I'm going to really drill down into one topic - stress tracks in Leverage and how I applied them - with two goals in mind. First, I want to talk through the application of the mechanic, and second because i want to showcase the thought process behind how I made certain decisions at the table in a way that will hopefully be informative.

Leverage uses a fairly quick, escalation driven conflict resolution system. It works and works pretty well, but I found myself looking at how Smallville does that same, and being impressed. While i might not want to go all the way as to duplicate Smallville's model, I'm definitely happy to steal a few ideas from it. I did so for last weeks Leverage-Amber and it worked out well enough that I'll definitely do it again, and I figured it merited a writeup.

The first idea (and the big lift from Smallville - and by extension Mouseguard and some other games) is that of stress tracks. Stress tracks represent a number of different conditions. The most obvious, and the first most people think of, is the HURT track, which is a gauge of how hurt the character is. There are other stress tracks, but we'll worry about them later - for now we'll use HURT to illustrate.

This idea is pretty intuitive to most people who've gamed: the more hurt you get, the higher the stress track goes. In this model, the HURT is represented by a die value (d4, d6 and so on). The size of the die represents the severity of the injury, with d4 representing barely a scratch and a d12 representing something that would drop a horse.

The value of your HURT track ends up working against you any time you take an action where being hurt would cause problems (which is to say, most physical actions). In this situations, the GM (or your opponent) picks up a die equal to your HURT value to add to the roll.[1] If the value of your HURT die is ever higher than your highest die, you get taken out (in a manner determined by your adversary).

Stress is inflicted as follows: Before a roll, the GM lets the player know that stress is a possible outcome - since we're talking about HURT, we probably mean a fight or something else physically threatening (and, implicitly, the threat probably exists for the opponent as well, as appropriate). Both sides roll as normal, and once the roll is complete, the victor looks at his third highest die showing, choosing one in the case of a tie. The level of HURT inflicted is equal to the size of that die.

For example, if the winner of a roll has the dice come up 6(d8), 6(d6), 7(d10), 8(d8) and 4(d4), he's rolled a 15 (7+8). The next highest roll is a 6, which showed up on two dice (a d6 and a d8) so the player gets to choose which to use, and will probably pick the d8. As a result, his opponent's HURT stress track is now at d8.

If the target is already hurt, then there are two possibilities. First, if the new HURT value is higher than the old one, replace the current value with the new one. If the current value is equal to or higher than the new result, then increase it by one step. This last rule also governs what happens if there are no dice left in the pool - it's effectively a zero sided die, which means it will just increase the current stress level by 1 step.

Continuing the previous example: If the target had already been HURT d4, then at the end of the roll the d8 would replace the d4, and the opponent would now be HURT d8.
If the target had already been HURT d8, then the tie means it gets bumped up a step, and ends at HURT d10.

If the target was already at HURT d12, then the lesser value means it bumps up a step, which probably means immediately going down.

Ok, so that's the basic mechanic. Tomorrow we'll see about fleshing it out in other ways.

1 - This does create a small "death spiral", but it's quite mild, especially since exchanges of rolls are not common.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Amber in Chains

So, based on a convergence of guests and available free time, I ran a game last night. I had done very little prep to begin with, but I ended up improvising madly as the number of expected players jumped from 3 to 6. With 3 players I had been considering just trying some 2 Guys with Swords, modified for 3, but for 6 that wasn't practical, but I also didn't want to run straight Leverage - I had gotten a request for some supers elements, and what's more I'm not entirely sure how it shakes out with 6 players. So, looking at the potential spread of players, their overlapping familiarities and my needs, I very hastily threw together a Leverage hack, bolting on many pieces from Smallville, to run an Amber game. Sort of.

The premise of this particular Amber filed the serial numbers off, both in and out of game. At a high level, one of the princes had won, and ruled Amber as the Sun King with an army of elementals at his beck and call. More problematically, he had also wiped the names and much knowledge of his siblings from the universe with his destruction of the pattern and assertion of the new order. Players represented the underground, those with enough knowledge to know there's been a usurpation, looking to find and restore the nameless. One of them was said to be held by one of the lords of Amber, and the players took advantage of the wedding being arranged in the manor to try to find it.

I won't delve too much into what happened, but it went spectacularly, with one player taking advantage of a recent widow to get an invite (all the while being urged by her husband's ghost to kill her) , and with complications that spiraled out of control, including one dramatic romantic proposal accompanied by peacocks resulting in roast peacock getting added to the menu. Things culminated with the discovery that the whole manor rested on the shoulder of the Titan, his release and the subsequent destruction of, well, the whole building. I got at least one request to return to the setting at some point, and with a bit of polishing to the system, I think I'm inclined to do so.

System wise, I stole the four stats from Road to Amber (Force, Wits, Grace and Resolve) and a new set of roles: Soldier, Scholar, Tinker, Priest (which should have been Courtier), Ruffian and Hunter. Straightforward enough, but Priest ended up doing more heavy-lifting for rolls than anything else, perhaps a bit too much. Something I need to keep an eye on.

I let the characters take five distinctions. In retrospect it was too many. I think that many distinctions works with no stats, but in conjunction with the stats they just made for a little bit too much, especially for freshly created characters. It wasn't a huge problem, but it's something I'm going to note.

I also tapped into Smallville, loosely, and had each character pick a bloodline (effectively a heritage) and a gift (effectively a superpower). The two could be related, but did not need to be. These were pretty much entirely created on the spot, and they were structured after powers: three special things you could do with a plot point. As such we had:
  • A scion of the house of the moon, who could turn into a shadow
  • A Scion of the Titan, who was a badly trained mage
  • A Scion of Mandrake with an entourage
  • A Scion of Karm who could read thoughts
  • A Scion of The Hanged Man who had Major Arcana related tricks
  • A Scion of Feldane who mastered ghosts

Mechanically (and time-wise) this was the hardest part because I pulled these out of the air. For some of the poweres I just riffed off Smallville, but for the bloodlines, i was totally making things up. Worse, because I was working fast, I forgot to include any abilities based on exploiting opportunities (what you can do when the GM rolls a 1). If I take the time to go back and retune this system, most of the effort is going to go into making the bloodlines and gifts cleaner and easier to use.

Lastly, I hybridized Smallville conflict resolution by adding stress pools for Hurt, Tired, Confused and Upset. They worked like Smallville (opponents can roll them against you, the value gets too high, you're taken out) but I skipped Smallville's 'damage' roll and used this rule: Look at the third highest die you rolled - you inflict stress equal to that die size or increase the stress pool by one step, whichever is higher.

With that out of the way, I'll say this - All the good things about running Leverage very easily transitioned over to this. Chargen was a bit rougher than Leverage, taking most of an hour, but that was a function of the new system and the necessity of me making stuff up. Play was full of subplots and complications, but was still all wrapped up in about 2.5 hours of actual play. With 6 players and the amount that got done, I was pretty darn pleased. What's more, it was very low stress for me as a GM. I went in with a few ideas, but by and large I just let the complications do the work for me (which they did, with extreme prejudice).

I did use the "Complications start at d8" rule, allowing myself a free budget of d6s, and I think that worked out very well for one specific reason: When players wanted to use distinctions that seemed a little dodgy, I asked them to justify it, and often used those justifications to add some assets or descriptors to the table.

I also used a slightly different method of creating assets, where I let players create "permanent" assets - ones that last the whole game - for one plot point, but only if they went on the table, rather than remaining under the player's control. That let the players use these assets, but also let me turn them around to use later to complicate things (which I, of course) did. as a technique, I really liked this as a very organic way to handle players stretching their distinctions.

The bottom line of this for me is that I need to work a bit on my Leverage hacks to help make sure I have more of a toolkit on hand to draw from rather than need to totally make stuff up, but with that done, man, Leverage remains a super-potent go-to for a fast, engaging game.

The one tip that I'll add is this: While the system can support open-ended play, you're only going to get the speed benefits by having a clear goal in play. In leverage, that's baked in. For this, I needed to make sure it was inserted (recover the nameless). In the absence of that, we could probably have played all night, and that would have been fun, but it wouldn't have had anything like this kind of finish. The goal drives play, but it also gives you a stopping point - that's incredibly potent and important.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Father's Sword

I was pretty young when I started playing D&D, and lacking people to play it with, I spent a lot of time making characters. I don't think this was too uncommon a practice, but it still sticks with me a little bit. Part of the fun of it was the mechanical element: rolling up stats, picking equipment and so on, but part of it was the fictional element. I'd come up with names, backstories, stuff like that. Never too much - I think I lacked the attention span for more - but enough to make this ranger different than that ranger.

These distinctions and histories did not matter much when I actually got around to playing. They mattered to ME, certainly, as they influenced how I played the character, but no one else was particularly interested, which was fine, because I was fairly disinterested in their stuff too. The adventure we were playing was the adventure we were playing, and we all might die anyway, so what did I need beyond some insight into playing my character?

Things have changed quite drastically for me since then, and the single biggest change has been that those ideas which matter to the individual player have become ideas that matter to the entire game. It wasn't an overnight change, and it's been such a large one that it's almost been difficult to see. To illustrate, let's use a very simple example: a player comes to the table and notes that he's armed with his father's sword. This is going to elicit one of three responses: disinterest, acknowledgment, incorporation.

Disinterest is the classic response. A nod and a shrug, and sooner or later the game going to have a +1 sword in a treasure pile and if you want to pass it up for your roleplay priorities, you're welcome to, but that's your problem.

Acknowledgment is a step up from disinterest in that the GM (and possibly other players) actually try to at least take some steps to not completely screw you over for your bit of history. The GM might, for example, come up with a way for your sword to gain or reveal new enchantments in lieu of gaining a new treasure. No one goes out of their way to bring it up, but they at least try to be considerate.

Incorporation is when the game takes it a step further and makes the idea matter within the context of your game. Perhaps the GM does it directly, by making the sword significant, or indirectly, by making your Father's history with the sword part of the driving story behind the campaign. This is the step when things really round a corner, primarily because response demands that the GM actually be willing to put in some work to support the player's ideas. There won't be much help for this in has no place in published adventures or settings, so it's all on the GM's head.

Note that none of these have spoken to game mechanics in all but the most tangential of ways. This is because there's some correlation between responses and methods of support, there's no clear oneto one mapping.

Now, disinterest clearly doesn't particularly match with any mechanical support, and that's fine, but Acknowledgment actually has some interesting options. D&D 4e mechanically supports acknowledgment, for example, by making magic item enchantments fungible. If it matters to you that you keep using the same sword, the game will support it. Earthdawn had an even more elegant model that let your magic items grow with you, an idea that has seen use in other places.

This is fine as far as items in specific go, but how about for broader ideas like backgrounds or allies? Still plenty of support in the form of games that allow players a certain amount of authorial control as part of chargen. That sounds like a very abstract idea, but it's actually something you'll find in almost any point-based game, as well as many with advantages and disadvantages. By buying allies and enemies or otherwise paying points for character elements that are important to you, you are gaining acknowledgment from the system. Similarly, fuzzier systems (like FATE) may allow you to use existing mechanics (like aspects) to 'plug in' those ideas that are most important to you.

Mechanical support for incorporation is a trickier matter. The rub is that no matter how well supported the idea might be, even if it's utterly essential to the game design (like the city in the DFRPG or the relationship map in Smallville), nothing can force a GM to acknowledge it if she doesn't want to. Where mechanical support for acknowledgment allows the player to force the GM to acknowledge his thing (so long as the GM follows the rules), when it comes to incorporation, nothing can force the GM to _care_. As such, mechanical support for incorporation is all about making it easier to use the player's ideas than it is to ignore them.

Now, I realize that in stating something like this as a progression might suggest that, since disinterest (and the implicit lack of support) is the least desirable arrangement, the best arrangement is incorporation with full mechanical support. The reality is not that simple. While I'll argue long and hard for incorporation as making for more enjoyable play, the question of how much mechanical support it requires is much fuzzier. You can have powerful, playable incorporation without a lick of mechanical support if the GM is so inclined. Assuming that one demands the other is a bad idea - it focuses on the tools rather than the ends, and it can paint other GMs with exactly the wrong brush.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Foray into Comics

I do not usually dabble in fiction, but I think about it in very nerdy ways. This one is SUPER nerdy, and not really RPG related. You have been warned.

I like to think about comic books, especially because a lot of the things that make good stories hard with certain comics are the same things that make certain games hard. The easiest example of this is what it takes to tell a good Superman story – Superman is so powerful that it’s hard to introduce any legitimate external threats (even ignoring the reader’s meta-knowledge that the character won’t permanently change) without making the world silly. Anyone who can fight Superman toe-to-toe is a world-shaking bad guy, and to treat them otherwise is to cheapen the character.

Mediocre writers tend to address this by approaching his angles of weakness – introducing kryptonite, magic or other things outside his sphere into the story. This can work to a point, as it can introduce a legitimate challenge, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying. Outright bad authors occasionally handle it by undermining the character, rendering him some sort of idiot or caricature, but that’s even worse. Good writers find the meatier stuff, questions of who the character is, what he means, and how he connects to the world and make good stories out of it. Sometimes great stories. Between Superman and Batman, there is a vast swath of human stories.

The problem is that it’s sometimes a little too vast. In figuring out how to write a good Superman story, we are left with a bit of a gap when it comes to writing other characters in a similar niche. Most notably, I end up thinking about Aquaman and Wonder Woman. An author can look at them will ask “do their powers or situation allow me to write stories that are unique to these characters?” and often come up with a depressing answer[1]. Aquaman has tried to break out of this rut several times, usually by fleshing out his unique schtick (Atlantis) but it’s hard to get people to care. Tellingly, the most popular interpretation of Aquaman I’ve seen of late (from the Brave and the Bold cartoon) is distinctive for his characterization FAR more than his powers.

Wonder Woman has a rougher time of it. There may have been a time when the sheer novelty of a woman as an a-list super hero might have been enough to hang your hat on, but it’s not really enough anymore. In fact, it’s become a drawback as authors feel that Wonder Woman must represent some manner of feminine ideal (whatever that is) rather than be an interesting character. This has lead to a lot of uncertainty regarding the character as she goes from writer to writer, uncertainty that has kept her from ever crystallizing the way that Superman and Batman have. Her latest saga (where the character’s entire history and costume have been –temporarily one hopes – redone) is kind of icing on the cake for this.

It makes me crazy, because I know the answer I want. I look at Wonder Woman and her origin, steeped in myth and legend, and then I look at the DC universe, which has the most interesting and well done mystical underground of any comics company out there, and I wonder why those two things don’t come together. Every now and again a character in a Vertigo comic will mention Superman, and it’s always interesting because it’s usually with a sense of awe and distance, as if the two worlds never overlap. But it’s always Superman because, hey, he’s iconic.

All of which is to say, I would love to see Wonder Woman as the Superman of that part of the universe. That is to say, in a position of sufficient power that external threats are less interesting than going to actual storytelling.

Historically, she’s been on the receiving end of magic as often as Superman (maybe more often), even though it is nominally his weakness. This is, I think, mostly because writers get the idea that WW exists in the magical world, but they can’t quite round the corner on empowering her within it. And that last is the trick. To my mind, Wonder Woman has been steeped in magic since her birth and rubs elbows with the gods. Magic should not be something she’s ignorant of – it should be something that she is potently aware of, for good and ill. Part of the heart of magic in DC is that it comes with a price, and giving her the knowledge of that price, as well as reason not to pay it? That alone has huge mileage. All of which is to say nothing of the pure comic-book-y potential of facing mystical menaces of the interesting kind rather than the nth iteration of fighting something out of greek mythology. And, hell, stepping from the pure greek into the broader mythos of DC also does a nice job of putting the gods in context, shedding another sometimes super-lame element of play.

This is, by the way, a total pipe dream. I expect the character to continue to stagger along indefinitely, occasionally resetting to something akin to what you can find on a notebook or lunchbox. She’ll have bursts of excellent characterization in other people’s books (She had a page in an old issue of Birds of Prey that made the character 9 times more interesting than any recent issue) but really interesting stuff will be reserved to characters who can fly far enough below the radar to avoid uproars yet still make sales.

Anyway, back to games tomorrow. That one’s just been bugging me for a while.

1 – In contrast, Green lantern doesn’t have this problem. Not just because his power is so different, but also because his context is very different – he’s a space cop among other space cops. That’s potent.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Two Guys With Swords

My friend Clark was contemplating a one shot, but was hesitant to use Leverage because he knows it well (Clark wrote a big chunk of it). That got me thinking about how to do speedy starts for other Leverage-derived games, which in turn lead to some thoughts on the "Two Guys With Swords" game, which is intensely derivative in a way that is goofy and fun. Guys, in this case, is intended as gender neutral, as it encompasses both men and women, but certainly not gentlemen or ladies.

Chargen for a 2 player game
  • Both Guys get Hitter d10
  • Hacker is now Tinkerer. It covers gadgets, alchemy and locks.
  • Each player picks one more d10 role for himself
  • Each player picks on d4 role for the other guy
  • Each player then assigns a d6 and a d8 to the remaining roles
  • No stats.
  • Characters get 6 distinctions, at least 3 of which must be chosen now, others can be chosen in play.
  • Swords are d6 assets, unless they have names, in which case they are d8s. A named sword does not always need to be the same sword. All that matters is the name.
  • Pick 2 talents for your guy, one talent for the other guy.

Next, Get Into Trouble
Where you Are Now
  1. A caravan camp at an oasis
  2. At a crossroads far from civilization
  3. Atop an icy mountain peak
  4. Strapped to the altar of something best unnamed
  5. Wretched hive of scum and villainy (small)
  6. Wretched hive of scum and villainy (large)
  7. At sea, in a lifeboat
  8. Miles underground
  9. Falling from an unreasonable height
  10. Surrounded by fire on three sides

What Brought You to This
  1. The alternative was getting married
  2. Treasure turns out to have been fake
  3. The guild's assassin's are in pursuit
  4. Angry husbands are entirely unreasonable
  5. A terrible curse haunts you
  6. The gods demanded, wheedled and pushed
  7. Swore an oath while drunk
  8. Temple apparently objected to you doing that with their matriarch
  9. Still hungover, the rest is a blur
  10. Snakes

How It Is About To Get Worse
  1. Woke something that should stay slumbering
  2. Reasonably sure those men with curved swords have taken offense
  3. Wizard who, for no apparent reason, lives in that tower
  4. Gods are miffed
  5. Assassins have found you
  6. Currently naked
  7. These people aren't speaking any kind of recognizable language. And may not be people.
  8. You're bait
  9. Someone has just been scorned.
  10. Tremendous success attracts unwanted attention.

Ok, yes, this is kind of minimalistic, but I admit, I have a strong temptation to take it for a spin.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Leverage Magic; What Not To Do

As noted, I've been thinking about ways to add magic to the Leverage system. It's actually quite easy, especially if you're going to be adding it from scratch. It's a bit rougher when you are trying to emulate a specific magic system, but that's always the way of it.

This has lead to a bit of mechanical experimentation, and one particular bit of sausage-making struck me as something useful to talk about. There's a particular approach to fiddling around with Cortex Plus that is intellectually very appealing, but which produces the kind of results that look cool on paper, but end up leaden at the table.

Consider, if you would, Button Men. For the unfamiliar, button men is a simple dice fighting game from Cheapass games. The basic mechanics are very simple and easily adaptable to many situations (I've run entire wargames using them), and at their heart they boil down to "Each side rolls a bunch of dice. On your turn, you can remove another players dice if one of yours shows a higher value, or if you can add up dice to equal a value they show. After a 'capture', reroll any dice involved in the capture" Dice are scored based on their size, so you run the gamut from d4 to d30, and you can really throw down with almost any 5 dice. As time went on, special dice were introduced into the mix, with extra rules, and that's where things get curious.

Button Men is interestingly informative for Cortex Plus design because the dice tricks it includes are designed for a range of die values rolling against a competing pool. It seems very natural to bring those ideas over into a Cortex Plus roll by introducing ideas like "Knock a die out of the opposing pool", "Force an opponent to reroll a die" or "Reroll one of your dice". You can build some pretty cool stuff with this, stuff that allows for some sophisticated interplay between opposing rolls.

But whatever you do, don't.

This is one of those cases where the fact that you can do something doesn't mean you should. At present, resolving Cortex rolls is pretty quick - determining success is very fast, and spotting any complications or opportunities is only slightly slower. There may be some delay _before_ the roll, as decisions get made regarding what dice get brought in, but by and large that is a fun kind of delay because, to sound a little wonky, players are usually engaging the fiction (which is in turn represented by dice). The inertia of play keeps moving (or can keep moving - it's possible to bog down if people get too bonus-obsessed, but Leverage doesn't particularly reward that).

In contrast, playing dice games after the roll is a total show stopper. Yes, some players can glance at the dice and near-instantly make all the decisions necessary to move forward, but they are very much the exception. Play is more likely to stop as players consider the smartest option. This speaks directly to Linneaus's first principle of dice game design: Downtime is the enemy. No one want sot be left sitting there at the table while a player decides which of two options is marginally superior.

In broad game terms, this is something you avoid by making choices simple or obvious. This seems counter-intuitive, at least in part because we don't want to neuter the player's choices, so let me unpack this a bit. When we're talking pure game decisions, we want to minimize uncertainty. To use 4e as an example, players have a lot of tactical choices, but the only real uncertainty is whether they'll hit or not, and that applies equally to all options. A player may need to make a decision between burning a daily or encounter power in a given attack, and while this may lead to some indecision, that indecision is not rooted the player not understanding the outcome.

In contrast, let's imagine a Leverage rule that let's you force a reroll in an opposing die. If that die came up showing it's max, then it's no real choice, but what if it just rolled ok? What if forcing this reroll means you also reroll one of your dice? On a close roll (especially if there is other uncertainty, such as what tricks the GM might pull[1]) you can utterly freeze up.

Anyway, the bottom line here is that it is possible to introduce all sorts of dice tricks into Cortex Plus, specifically Leverage, but it's not a good match.

1 - This, right here, is one reason I prefer GM transparency. When the GM has mystery powers to throw into the mix in response to player actions, it invites paralysis and paranoia.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Roundup

It's been a bit of a rough week - I've spent much of it trying to shake off some sort of bug and trying to not to completely lose my schedule to Wow, two distinct challenges. Still, good things are floating around at large.

  • If you haven't already heard it, I was recently on The Game's The Thing with Cam Banks talking about Leverage. It was fun, and I don't think I sound like too much of a mouth-breather, so score one in the victory column. And in an unprecedented media blitz (at least for me) I was also on Narrative Control, talking about Apocalypse world with Sean Nittner and Judd Karlmam. I just listened to that one this morning, and it also went pretty well.[1]

  • I admit that the two podcasts have left me tempted to show up at Fred's with an Ipad and just record _something_ while we both play with our kids. It might be the first gaming podcast to include phrase such as "when the dice hit the what the heck is oh no honey don't east that don't oh man!",(a sentence which I suspect can only be parsed in parentese).

  • A new and, by all reports, very cool game shop has opened down in DC, Labyrinth Games. This is a fantastic thing since the DC are has a real shortage of game stores relative to its population, and most of them aren't accessible via the metro. Fred wrote about it more extensively and I'm envious since I have yet to actually make it into town to see.

  • Fred's also taking advantage of the new space to take a page from the Endgame playbook and organize a Taste of Gamma World event, running a couple of tables of Gamma World on the 18th. I'll be missing it, but it looks like it should be a great time. The funny thing is that this is not even a faintly sponsored event. Fred just likes Gamma World, and things like this happen when he gets enthusiastic.

  • A fantastic new blog has started up called Beyond the Golem. It's pitch:

    This blog is not about the Golem. It’s about the underdogs. Over millennia, Jewish writers created a vast, imaginary world filled with demons, fabulous beasts and demi-human monstrosities, a world where vast deserts cover the open gates of Hell, and where singular individuals can traverse planes of existence and wield awesome powers. Compared to all this, the Golem is just a clumsy block of clay.

    Two posts so far, and they've both been great. This one very quickly ended up on my feed reader.

  • Someone was smart enough to publish Chuck Wendig's 'Double Dead', so keep an eye out for that showing up sometime down the line. Chuck's a non-stop font of talent who's put in the time and effort to really pursue what he loves, and between this and Sundance, I'm super happy to see it bearing fruit.
  • Peter Bregman talked about not letting the package distract from the message. Not much pithy to say here, except that it was a useful read to me.

  • Speaking of useful reads, I have just finished my unprecedented second read-through of Influencer, by Paterson, Grenny et al. This was one of those books that was so good that I own it in three formats (print, kindle & Audio), but reading it twice, back to back, is something I can't remember having done with anything else in a while. I've been recommending this one right and left, and I think it's been making an impression.

    Basically, it's a book about changing behaviors, and how it's accomplished. In material, it has a lot in common with the remarkable Switch. However, since the authors are, ultimately, writing for a business audience, the net result is somewhat more practical while still being profoundly potent.Changing behavior is one of those things that matters on things as personal as me trying to lose weight to as large as solving serious business (or world) problems, and the book runs up and down that scope effortlessly and usefully.

    What's crazy is that this book has lots of things that I really don't like, stylistically. It's got a business-y, sometimes jargon-y tone that can really grate. I hate stuff like that, especially when they make mention of their other book (Crucial Conversations) but the material is so useful that I could just ignore it.

    The book really ended up getting into circulation after a Gamma World game. A friend was having trouble with carnies in the kitchen (code for problems you know you should avoid, yet don't.) and upon hearing him talk, I reached into my bck to pull out my copy of the book, complete with highlights and numerous little post-it flags sticking out. I hadn't even finished it yet at that point, but I handed it over right then and there for him to read. I finished it on the Kindle, and I'm glad I did, since I think it ended up being the right book t the right time. Fred was there for the exchange too, and I hadn't even realized it was on his radar, but somewhere in there it must have caught his interest too, because next thing I know he's thrown quotes from it up on his tumblr.

    I think Fred ended up summing it up best with the observation that it was hard to figure out what not to be highlighting in the book.

Anyway, I hadn't mean to talk to much about Influencer, but I guess it's self-evident how good a book I think it is. Beyond that, lots of good stuff out there in the world something worth rememberingon a cold, blustery Friday.

1 - I'm a sucker for the Narrative Control guys because they read my blog. I means, sure, they're smart, insightful and talented, but that's purely secondary!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Leverage in the Shadows

Wrangling Leverage hack ideas has put me smack up against my old nemesis - magic. Magic systems hold endless fascination for me because they are so easy to come up with, but so easy to do poorly. It's not a problem with an easy solution - it's not even a problem with a single solution. There's a reason that Fate core had something like 8 different magic systems, each to capture some specific idea, yet SOTC and the Dresden Files use entirely different systems.

So, let me take, for example, Shadowrun. It's a well known game that makes for a good conceptual match with Leverage. It is mostly a one for one port. Even cyberware is fairly easily wrapped up into the asset rules[1], perhaps requiring a few more signature assets. But magic, well, magic is an oddball. Unlike other settings where we might swap magic into the mix by removing something else (probably hacker), magic layers itself on top of the rest of the game as something else that needs to be added on. Shadowrun magic also has some fairly well-established and concrete rules. Broadly speaking, mages come in two stripes - full mages and adepts, with adepts having some specific subset of magical ability. Within that, there are also other distinctions hermetic vs shamanic traditions, and the oddball case of physical adepts. T here are a lot of rules for how the physics of magic work, though a lot of them are weird fiddly bits that exist to prevent player abuses. The key ones are that magic tires you out (measured as 'drain'), and that summoning stuff is part of what magic can do, but everything else is just fairly vanilla spell lists.

In pulling this over to Leverage, I am willingly shedding a lot of detail. In Shadowrun, there are very important differences between a fire blast and a mana blast, much as there are very important differences between a revolver and an automatic pistol. It's pretty clear to me that the transition will make for a fuzzier system, but the question is always what gets lost and what gets kept. For starters, I'll keep the idea of drain, the basic split (between mages and adepts) and the system idea that you pay for magic by being less good in other key areas.

A lot of this is mechanically easy. Being a mage is this easy: Add a 6th role - Mage (or Shaman). For most people, it's zero. To make your character a mage, distribute your role dice as normal, then reduce them to buy up your mage die. A one step reduction (dropping a die size) in a role increases the mage die by one step (Increasing a size, with the first step being from 0 to d4). Right off the bat, i dig this, because a d4 mage is a magnet for trouble, and does a wonderful job of modeling one of my favorite Shadowrun concepts that never worked mechanically - the burnt out mage.

Adepts work on a similar principle - reduce one of your role dice by a step and add a specialization to the role of your choice, based on the role (only one per character). They're structured a little different than classic adepts, but the underlying principal is the same.

Hitter: Combat Magic or Physical Adept or Bear
Hacker: Technomage or Metamage or Raccoon
Grifter: Enchanter or Coyote
Thief: Illusionist or Physical Adept or Raven
Mastermind: Mind Magic or Summoner or Spider

Mechanically, it's a piece of cake. But now comes the tough part - what are those dice going to do? I can see some rough shapes: Summoning creates assets of the appropriate die size. Complications on magic dice tie to drain or other interesting problems. But that's all fuzzy. I could easily come up with some rule of thumb stuff, especially for adepts, enough to fake it at the table, but that's not a solution. I'll be chewing on this for a bit, and write up what I figure out.

1 - A fiddlier system could be arranged, but tabling that for the moment.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

But the Crack Came Back...

So, Cataclysm dropped yesterday. For those unaware, this is the latest expansion for World of Warcraft, and it has successfully drawn me back in. I lost interest a little while after the last expansion (Wrath of the Lich King) and turned my account off for a while, but I turned it back on just before Thanksgiving in anticipation of Cataclysm.

In fairness, most of what I wanted out of the game came in the pre-release patch they issued in November that updated the world and introduced everything but the new content (The ability to level up to 85, opening new zones and so on). That may not seem like much, but it was actually quite huge. Basically, they rewrote the whole setting from the ground up.

In game, they have effectively moved the clock forward. How much is a bit of a question, as I have so far seen indications of it being anything from five to twelve years, but the net result is that the world has changed in ways that are _intensely_ satisfying to someone who paid attention to the lore. Important NPCs have died, boundaries have shifted, and as a result of the eponymous cataclysm, geography has been drastically altered in places.

At the same time, Blizzard has taken the opportunity to fix...well...everything. Virtually every zone has been scrubbed and rebuilt according to the lessons they've learned from running the game for six years. They've made travel easier, clustered quests more intelligently and removed a lot of the busywork of play without removing all of it. That last is perhaps the most brilliant of them - some busywork is necessary to help maintain the addictive nature of play, but striking just the right balance with it is essential. As an example, I will point to mining.

In play, there are little nodes of metal deposits scattered throughout the world. If your character is a miner, you can click on one of these and, after a few seconds of animation, you'll get some metal. Originally, you did this once, got one piece of metal, and the node disappeared. The result was that metal was fairly scarce, and at some point Blizzard patched it so you could do this several times per node (usually 3) before it disappeared. This was better, but you had to do the click and wait 3 times. Now, you click and wait, and you get several pieces of metal - the same reward as doing it several times, but without the extended wait. It's a small fix to a small minigame element, but it's the kind of attention to detail that makes a game work.

Even if you never play WoW, there are lesson in Cataclysm that you can probably take back to your game. To my mind, the big three are:

Make Fun Easier With the Right Kind of Challenge - Cataclysm does this by restructuring quests by putting the guy who gives you a quest much closer to where you need to do the quest. Similarly, the game makes it easy for you to find where you need to go to do it. Now, this is not to say that you should start saying that your game should start collecting 10 wolf ears to give to Hornswaggle Beltbuckle, but you should look at the structure of it. Challenges which are difficult, but which have a clear course of action are FAR more satisfying than challenges which are frustrating because the course of action is unclear.

For example, if you are given a quest to kill goblins until you find 10 goblin beads, then bring those back, there are two ways you might be stymied (beyond the goblins' objections): The goblins aren't dropping[1] the beads fast enough, or you can't find the goblins. In the first case, you might be annoyed, but you know what to do: just keep killing goblins. In the second case, you will quickly end up frustrated, maybe check an offline resource or otherwise completely break your flow (there's an even worse version of this where you're killing the _wrong_ goblins, but that's a whole other thing). WoW has minimized the likelihood of this second kind of problem, which means that most problems that remains are ones you address by playing the game. Presuming the game is fun, that's as it should be.

Immediate Feedback is Powerful - Feedback is a curious two-way street in MMOs, because it applies to both play and design. Blizzard mines data on play like mad so that they can judge the impact of changes they make, and while GMs might take a general lesson from this (pay attention!) we tend to lack the tools and sample set to apply that sort of rigor to our games. However, we can take a lesson from how WoW handles feedback to the players.

Characters in WoW level as you would normally expect in an RPG, but they also are progressing in dozens of other ways at the same time, between their faction with other groups, their profession skills and the assorted accomplishments and awards one can get throughout the game (such as for exploring a zone completely). Because there are so many of these in play, if you don't pay attention to them, then the rewards they give when you achieve something come as pleasant, semi-random surprises that occour with fair frequency (more often early in play than later). That's powerful by itself because it hits the same part of the brain that wants to give slot machines money. But what makes it more subtly potent is that if you _do_ pay attention to one or more of these, there are concrete actions you can take which will improve the one you pay attention to. It can take work and time, but the ability to generate immediate, measurable improvement triggers a feedback cycle that does not limit itself to paying out once per session or once per level, but rather, rewards the activity. So given that, how often does your game give rewards?

A Changed World is a Richer World - Bumping the timeline forward is incredibly rewarding both to players (who can appreciate the changes) and to GMs (who benefit from re-purposing old materials), and even if not done as a dramatic jump, it is incredibly cool to come back to the town outside the dungeon you cleaned out a few years back and see how its changed (for better or worse), especially when those changes tie directly back to the PCs an their actions. If you look at a lot of published adventures, they often depend on the backstories of the people involved which do not touch up on the PCs at all. Being able to make the PCs part of that backstory? Priceless.

As a bonus, this is a great way to take ownership of a published setting. Even if you started in Eberron as published, Eberron five years later is much more clearly YOUR Eberron. It's perhaps not as dramatic a statement as killing Elminster, but it is more widespread.

Anyway, enough of that. I have goblins to kill.

1 - For the MMO ignorant, "drops" are loot. You kill something, loot the body, and find what it's carrying, usually some coins and junk. If it has a bead, it is said to have dropped the bead.